Thursday, August 27, 2015

Short Story: The Cattle Raid of Rio Cherche

Cattle die,
Kindred die,
We ourselves also die;
But the fair fame
Never dies
Of him who has earned it.

Cattle die,
Kindred die,
We ourselves also die;
But I know one thing
That never dies,
Judgment on each one dead.
--"Havamal," The Codex Regius

To my eyes the stranger didn’t look much like a gunslinger, but Pa seemed glad to have another hand. Guess it didn’t matter any, so long as I didn’t have to share my food. Beans and biscuits weren’t much but they were MY beans and biscuits. Manwel’d say nothing in life’s ours—it all belongs to Haysoos. He says it funny, Mexico-style. Manwel’s pa’s hired hand.

Pa and the stranger were riding point, with Manwel at t’back. I rode circuit, keeping the cattle from straying. Almost a hundred head, all dumb instinct and nerves. Riding circuit’s important, so Pa trusting me stiffened up my backbone with pride. This’d be my first cattle drive and I didn’t intend to let Pa down. He’d given me a rifle an’ everything. This trip meant a lot to him. Meant a lot to us all. We didn’t turn a profit, we lost the ranch. 
We’d picked up the stranger ten or twenty miles back, crossing the Rio Cherche. He’d rid up as Pa’d splashed across, asking if we’d mind company. Pa thanked him for the offer, said he couldn’t pay. Stranger laughed—sounded like a choking coyote, all yip and cough—and allowed he was a bounty hunter, after Red Cooley the rustler. 

Well, you’d think Jesus Christ himself had appeared to Pa, instead of some mangy cur with clothes full of old blood and bullet holes. So now him and Pa rode point together all friendly-like. Pa never chatted with me any. What made the gunslinger so special?

I swung around near them to get a closer look, maybe catch some of their talk. Up close, the gunslinger looked shriveled, like a dead snake. From how he hunched over in the saddle, all huddled in his duster, you’d have thought a blizzard was roaring. His horse jittered underneath him, gnawing its bit and rolling its eyes. 

Gunslinger or no, he carried some fine guns: Pistols with ivory butts, and a repeating rifle inlaid with ivory in some lacy pattern like a doily. He dressed like a dandy who’d been buried and dug up again—white duster caked with dirt and blood and patched all over; black Stetson patched like the duster; fine black trousers and boots; a shirt that might have been white once; neat bandana, bright red around his neck; and a fine black silk vest with dainty little patterns stitched in white thread. General store catalogs sold suits like his for thirty, forty dollars. Less the stains and dust and bullet holes, of course.

‘Fore I could get close enough to hear their conversation, Manwel hollered at me. A cow’d broken loose from the herd. I spurred Patch and rode to bring the critter back into line.

* * * * * * * * * *

We made camp that night in a little hollow about twenty miles north of Richmond’s Junction. A few trees cut down on wind, which we all appreciated. The gunslinger didn’t want none of our food. I wasn’t objecting. Manwel sat across the fire from the gunslinger, wolfed his food an’ kept glancing up like he expected the gunslinger to draw on him.

Pa noticed Manwel’s jitters. “What’s wrong, amigo? No bounties on your head, I hope. Wouldn’t want to lose my best hand, haha!” Pa laughed big, but his face seemed hollow. Something had him spooked. And if Pa and Manwel were scared? The hair on my neck started prickling. 

“No, no.” Manwel jumped a bit. “It’s fine. Fine. Cattle seem restless, that’s all. Si.” 

Pa let out a sigh. “They are shifting a fair bit. Suppose we’d better take watches. Nathaniel, you first.”

I nodded. “Yessir.”

“Let the boy sleep. I’ll take his watch.” The gunslinger hocked phlegm into the fire. Something sizzled wetly. I wasn’t about to object to the offer—after riding for days I was tired as a hog. 

Pa eyed the gunslinger. “Alright, mister. Wake us when you need rest.”

Straightaway Pa tucked himself up in a bedroll and dozed off. I followed suit right after. The last thing I remember seeing was Manwel hunched over, fingering his ros’ry beads and glaring at the gunslinger across a low-burning fire. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Manwel’s hollering woke me up. “Rustlers, señor! Rustlers!”

The only time I’ve bolted awake faster is when Ma’d cook flapjacks on a Sunday. Grabbed my rifle and scrambled out of the blankets, staring out into the dark. Manwel and Pa and the gunslinger were watching out for light, hands on their guns. You could hear the cattle lowing anxious-like, same as they would if a cougar or wolf were wandering about. 

“He’s gone. Cooley strikes fast and runs. Rode with the Bushwhackers during the war.” The gunslinger hocked and spat. 

Pa sighed. Already he’d be counting up losses, figuring out how many head needed to make San Antone. “Well, let’s mount up and count head.”

So we saddled our horses and rode out into the black, lanterns and reins in one hand, gun in the other. Weren’t no moon to guide us—how that rustler got around without a light stumped me. I won’t lie: My hands shook like a revivalist preacher. A rustler, a real mean one, out there in the inky black, watching our little bobbing points of yellow light. One time Manwel told me that every star in the sky is a saint holding up little candles for all us down below. I sure hoped the saints were keeping a weather eye out about now. 

Maybe Cooley wanted the whole herd. No way he’d get a hundred head away by himself. Not quick, at least. He’d have to kill us first. And Cooley, that sort of thing didn’t sit uneasy with him. ‘Fore he’d gone into rustling and outlawry, he’d been a quick-draw artist. 

Pa shouted sudden-like. “Gotcha, ya mangy varmint!”

I hope I never hear a gunshot on a clear night again. Might as well been me who ate lead. Pa screamed. I never heard him scream before. Seemed the world stopped. Real far away someone kept yelling “Pa! Pa!”

Then everything spun back to life. The gunslinger and Manwel were hauling Pa back to camp, barking at me to hold a lantern up, checking Pa all over. I tried shuffling around to get a better view an’ the gunslinger cussed at me for moving. Manwel was mumbling prayers and holding Pa down while the gunslinger dug in Pa’s shoulder with a buck knife. Blood kept rushing out—Pa thrashed and hollered. Manwel kept muttering prayers and the gunslinger kept on prying with that knife. “You’re lucky. Bullet didn’t fracture any bones. I got bone floatin’ in m’arm where it don’t belong. Fool of a doctor didn’t clean the wound proper.”

A squelch and Pa cussed real loud. The bullet popped out into the gunslinger’s palm—he brought it up to eye level. “Heh. Got ‘im now.”

Manwel was too busy bandaging Pa to pay the gunslinger no mind, and Pa was making like I seen most gunshot folk do: Helping himself to a bottle.

For a while I sat curled-up near the fire, shivering. Bullet could have hit a bit to the south and Pa’d be dead. Manwel and Ma and me couldn’t run the ranch. I might have cried a bit. I ain’t ashamed to say it.

The gunslinger spat toward the fire, missed, considered the glob of spittle, and ground his heel down hard. Before that I caught sight of something wiggling orange in the firelight. 

It took time, but eventually we all settled in to sleep. Well, all of us but the gunslinger. He just sat there, rifle in his lap, staring at the fire like most men stare at two-bit whores. I swear his lips kept moving. 

* * * * * * * * * * 

“Giddup.” Something pointy nudged my ribs. “Giddup, boy.”

The gunslinger loomed over me. With the sun at his back he looked like a vulture all hunched-up and bloodstained. 

“Get up, Nathaniel.” Pa coughed. “You and Manwel watch the herd.”

The gunslinger snorted back something moist. “Nah. Your shoulder’s busted pretty good. I want someone fit. The boy should come. You’ll want the mestizo for handlin’ the big herd.”

Once again the gunslinger spat and stomped but before his boot hit dirt I saw what was wriggling in his bloody phlegm—a maggot.

Pa looked from me to Manwel to the gunslinger, then nodded. “Alright. Mount up, Nathaniel.”

No sense in arguing with Pa once he set his mind to something. He’d cowhide me if I spoke back. So I saddled Patch and packed my bedroll. Manwel gave me a hand, but when we were bent over my blanket roll he whispered to me. “Be careful with that man, Señor Nathan. He is of the devil. Last night I saw him chanting over that bullet. Church words, but not good ones.” He meant Latin, I reckoned. Their padres prayed in Latin. “Be careful, and take this.”

Manwel shoved his ros’ry into my hands. Irregular wood beads rounded by hours of fingering and stained with dust and sweat. If anything out in this country were holy, it’d be them beads. I tucked them into my shirt pocket. The gunslinger weren’t a demon—no such thing as demons—but if it made Manwel happy…

Then we rode off, the gunslinger and me. If I’d been scared last night, with Pa and Manwel around, I was terrified now. Going off after a rustler with a loco gunslinger, leaving Pa behind, injured, with just Manwel for help. Manwel, he was a good hand, but one man isn’t much when it comes down to it.

For a couple hours we headed north. Dawn’s shadows washed away in the sun and the nice soft glow started glaring into my eyes. Not much changed around us. Scrub, grass, and the occasional tree weren’t much for pretty sights. Even the little dry creekbeds got to looking the same after a while.

Every now and then the gunslinger’d slow down a bit, poke about like he was hunting for something, but I never saw any tracks to follow. Weren’t my place to judge, but I reckoned ten cows ought to leave a bit more trail. Not that I’d be saying as much to the gunslinger. If he’d been a bit spooky before, out here alone he got downright terrifying. A man who hocked up maggots and chanted church talk over bullets, he wasn’t any sort of righteous companion. 

Years later I saw a corpse tied to a saddle and sent riding into Rattler Springs, all swaying and drooping. That’s how the gunslinger rode. Hardly looked he’d stay his seat, then he’d shift over the other direction, not just rolling with the horse but almost like he was a sack of potatoes in the saddle, sliding back and forth. When you’re riding with a man like that, and he’s all dressed in funeral finery that’s been shot up by a Gatling gun, you start to wonder just exactly how he’s stayed alive. And then you think about the maggots and you can’t help but think you might be riding with a dead man. And I’ll tell you, I wasn’t sure what I was more feared of—Cooley or the gunslinger. One was just a rustler, and the other clearly wasn’t a nat’ral man. 

Around midday the gunslinger broke silence to point and say, “Dead cow over this rise. Cooley got hungry.”

Never in my life before or since have I heard so many flies buzzing all together. Sounded like a windstorm slashing across the plains. The gunslinger dismounted atop the ridge. I followed him. Up close you could already smell decay roiling off the cow. I recognized her earmark. “Bonnibell. That’s forty dollars gone.”

The gunslinger grunted. “He eats ‘em raw. Judging by the flies, we’re closing in.” 

Now was good a time as any to ask. So I did. “Mister, why’d you bring me and not Manwel? I never shot anybody before.” Don’t know why I told him so. Maybe I hoped he’d tell me to skedaddle.

On his haunches, the gunslinger searched around poor Bonnibel. With his mouth hung open a bit like it was, he looked like a panting coyote, only mangier. “You scared of me, or of Cooley? What’d that mestizo tell ya? I’m el diablo, or something? I ain’t much next to Cooley, son. He’s a regular ol’ Devil-worshipping sinner. Not much in a fight, but he scares fools. And his den makes an abattoir look cozy. Your Mex’d probably try burning him or summat. Can’t get rewarded for ash and bone, now, can you? As for me, I ain’t gonna harm you, son. Got bigger skunks to skin.”

Had he heard Manwel’s muttered warning? How good were the gunslinger’s ears? I breathed out a cuss. Ma’d soap my mouth if she heard.

The gunslinger didn’t say more, and I didn’t feel up to asking him. We saddled up again and rode for another hour or so until finally we slowed up before Big Pine Crest and dismounted. Crawling low, we headed up the rise. Up across six hundred yards of open ground lay Buckle Ridge, all honeycombed with caverns. More than a few criminals refuged there one time or another. 

Now the gunslinger cussed. “Forgot Buckle Ridge. Old coot’s probably dug in like a miner in a good seam. Now we’ll have to go spooking him out.”

I nodded a bit and ungobbed my trap to ask what the plan was when he turned to me. “Your Pa sez you can read and write real fine.”

I nodded. Pa viewed my schoolin’ past the three R’s as unnecessary tomfoolery, but I still went as often as I could. I didn’t know Pa thought I had any skill for it though. Leastwise, he never said so. “Yessir. I can read and write better’n anyone I know.” 

“Good. When you’re older, write all this—all what’s gonna happen. Write it down. Send it to a dime novel company or some such. You tell ‘em bout whatever happens. Tell ‘em bout Ethan Walker. Can you do that?”

He stuck out his hand and we shook like men. His skin was clammy, but not from sweat. 

As he turned to his guns I heard him mutter. “I don’t aim to be forgot, nevermind what that old squaw said.”

Then he started walking for Buckle Ridge, slow and deliberate. “Stay behind me. Bullets are a mite unhealthy for a growing boy.”

It weren’t six hundred yards to lower Buckle Ridge but it felt like six miles over hot coals, nekkid, with Lou-Ellen Grimes watching me all the way and laughing at my pecker. At least that’s how it felt to me. The gunslinger didn’t show no sign of fright. Maybe he weren’t afraid.

We made a beeline for one particular cave about fifty feet up the ridge. It didn’t look deep, nor even used—all half-choked with fallen rock and only maybe four feet high. From where I stood you couldn’t reach it from anywhere but one skinny path up loose rock and through prickly sage. 

“How’d he get the cattle in?” My whisper came out like a shout—everything’d gone real quiet all of a sudden. 

A jerk of the head to the right. Further down the ridge lay a box canyon all hedged in by scrub brush. It didn’t strike me as any too stealthy. Course no one came to Buckle Ridge but loco Indians on spirit trips and outlaws, so there weren’t much reason to hide. 

We scrambled for a few minutes, up to the cave’s entrance. Even close it didn’t look like much, but it was deeper than it seemed before. My breath was short from pushing through scrub, but the gunslinger just spat once. We stood one on each side of that black chasm. My rifle weighed more than a yearling calf. The gunslinger bent and placed a hank of hair at the cave mouth. I eyeballed him and he shrugged. I told myself it was some Indian trick. Manwel’d call it magic.

Not even a jingling spur preceded the gunslinger’s entry into Cooley’s bolthole. My breath echoed loud in my ears. Manwel’s ros’ry weighed down my shirt pocket. 

It got black inside real fast, faster than my eyes could adjust. About fifty paces in the gunslinger stopped me—the cave twisted left and down. Something an old miner told Pa once drifted back to me—“There’s strange doings in the earth’s gut.”

I wisht I were home. But we were walking in the bowels of the ridge now. How the gunslinger could see stumped me. Black and more black crushed onto me now that we’d left sunlight behind. Once I lost balance and stumbled into the wall. I drew back a hand slick and tingling, like I’d touched a nettle underwater. About then I felt keener than ever before to cut and run, but Pa expected me to act a man, and men didn’t run. The gunslinger did this all the time. No wonder Pa wanted him along. Man must have had nerve’s like a cougar and coyote smarts.

Another two turns. It got hard to breathe, like the air went out of me but not back in. Then my boot hit something that rattled hollow. Down a bit and around a corner something scuttled. The gunslinger cussed me.

Something leathery hit my chest hard, beating up against me and scratching awful. I fell hard. Then bright light blazed up in the tunnel and I couldn’t see. Glass shattered and something boomed. Two men cussed and I heard the gunslinger hit dirt.

A pair of ragged brogans clomped past me double-time. There was fire in my veins now—Bonnibel wasn’t but a cow, but she was a forty dollar cow. And Pa needed that money. And Pa needed his arm.

To this day I don’t rightly know how I hit him, blind and woozy and on my back, but I hit him. Cooley went to his knees, a bullet in his hip. He cussed in languages I didn’t know, but a cuss is a cuss any which way. I scrambled to my feet and made to run. 

Then a shot roared over my shoulder—never could hear right in that ear afterwards—and Cooley toppled over. The gunslinger looked down at me. “Good shot.”

He picked up Cooley’s half-busted storm lantern and rolled Cooley over. I didn’t look for long. Even dead he scared me. All filed-down teeth and dried blood and fresh blood and bushy red beard. 

“Gotcha, Red Cooley.” The gunslinger strode round the corner. I followed, curiouser than a kitten and not wanting to be left in the dark with a dead man. 

God almighty, some nights I wish I’d have stayed in that tunnel with Cooley’s corpse. You never saw such scribblings in your life. “Lucifer infernis,” “damnatio memoria,” pentagrams all around, goat skulls and human skulls and strings of bone—I’d tripped over a man’s skull—“won’t let them eat me. Eat” “can’t take my soul.” Manwel hadn’t been far from the truth. I wondered just what had fluttered against my chest in the dark, and said a prayer to his saints for that ros’ry. All kinds of unholy scrawls all around. I wanted no truck with such things. 

But the gunslinger gruffed at me—“He had a book. Bout a foot square, red cover. Find it.”

We dug through the bed—the rotting hindparts of a heifer was in it—and rummaged in all the shadowy corners. It was me who found that book, half-buried in a pile of maggot-riddled hide. The gunslinger snatched it from me but I saw the title scrawled between the lines of a glued-on piece of newsprint: “Names of the principalities of Hell, wards against same, cantrips, findings, dirty pictures.” Somehow I didn’t suspect the gunslinger wanted that book for the dirty pictures.

“He always said a demon’d get him. Guess he was wrong.”

Or maybe whatever knocked me down…It didn’t bear thinking about. But if I’d been standing Cooley might have shot me.

With a grunt and a shrug, the gunslinger stuffed the book away. Together we hauled Cooley’s body into clean sunlight. “Reckon I’ll take him up to Armadillo. You think you can herd them cattle back to your pa?”

I nodded and helped pull Cooley’s arms and head over the gunslinger’s saddle. He mounted up. 

“Remember. Write about it, someday. You’ll know when.” He raised one hand and rode off. 

I collected them cattle and returned to Pa and Manwel. We finished the drive trouble-free and kept the ranch. Life moved on. There ain’t much more to the story. I married, had children, took over the ranch when Pa got old. Forgot all about the gunslinger and Red Cooley. Got old myself. My ticker’s failing now and my eyesight’s going. Then last night I dreamed a name I hadn’t heard in fifty years or more. Ethan Walker. And I knew it was time. 

So this is me keeping my word to a man I met long ago. And now I can die. All my debts are cleared now. The kids and grandkids are due back soon. And I can thank my wife and my Ma and Pa and my family for the good life I’ve had. But I can also thank a ros’ry, a little interfering bat, and a gunslinging man named Ethan Walker that together maybe saved my life.