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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCow-country - Chapter 2. The Trail Herd
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Cow-country - Chapter 2. The Trail Herd Post by :emb582 Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3419

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Cow-country - Chapter 2. The Trail Herd


Day after day the trail herd plodded slowly to the north, following the buffalo trails that would lead to water, and the crude map of one who had taken a herd north and had returned with a tale of vast plains and no rivals. Always through the day the dust cloud hung over the backs of the cattle, settled into the clothes of those who followed, grimed the pink aprons of Buddy and his small sister Dulcie so that they were no longer pink. Whenever a stream was reached, mother searched patiently for clear water and an untrampled bit of bank where she might do the family washing, leaving Ezra to mind the children. But even so the crust and the wear and tear of travel remained to harass her fastidious soul.

Buddy remembered that drive as he could not remember the comfortable ranch house of his earlier babyhood. To him afterward it seemed that life began with the great herd of cattle. He came to know just how low the sun must slide from the top of the sky before the "point" would spread out with noses to the ground, pausing wherever a mouthful of grass was to be found. When these leaders of the herd stopped, the cattle would scatter and begin feeding. If there was water they would crowd the banks of the stream or pool, pushing and prodding one another with their great, sharp horns. Later, when the sun was gone and dusk crept out of nowhere, the cowboys would ride slowly around the herd, pushing it quietly into a smaller compass. Then, if Buddy were not too sleepy, he would watch the cattle lie down to chew their cuds in deep, sighing content until they slept. It reminded Buddy vaguely of when mother popped corn in a wire popper, a long time ago-before they all lived in a wagon and went with the herd. First one and two-then there would be three, four, five, as many as Buddy could count-then the whole herd would be lying down.

Buddy loved the camp-fires. The cowboys would sit around the one where his father and mother sat--mother with Dulcie in her arms--and they would smoke and tell stories, until mother told him it was time little boys were in bed. Buddy always wanted to know what they said after he had climbed into the big wagon where mother had made a bed, but he never found out. He could remember lying there listening sometimes to the niggers singing at their own campfire within call, Ezra always singing the loudest,--just as a bull always could be heard above the bellowing of the herd.

All his life, Ezra's singing and the monotonous bellowing of a herd reminded Buddy of one mysteriously terrible time when there weren't any rivers or any ponds or anything along the trail, and they had to be careful of the water and save it, and he and Dulcie were not asked to wash their faces. I think that miracle helped to fix the incident indelibly in Buddy's mind; that, and the bellowing of the cattle. It seemed a month to Buddy, but as he grew older he learned that it was three days they went without water.

The first day he did not remember especially, except that mother had talked about clean aprons that night, and failed to produce any. The second he recalled quite clearly. Father came to the wagons sometime in the night to see if mother was asleep. Their murmured talk wakened Buddy and he heard father say:

"We'll hold 'em, all right, Lassie. And there's water ahead. It's marked on the trail map. Don't you worry--I'll stay up and help the boys. The cattle are uneasy--but we'll hold 'em."

The third day Buddy never forgot. That was the day when mother forgot that Q stands for Quagga, and permitted Buddy to call it P, just for fun, because it looked so much like P. And when he said "W is water ", mother made a funny sound and said right out loud, "Oh God, please!" and told Buddy to creep back and play with Sister--when Sister was asleep, and there were still x, y and z to say, let alone that mysterious And-so-forth which seemed to mean so much and so little and never was called upon to help spell a word. Never since he began to have lessons had mother omitted a single letter or cut the study hour down the teeniest little bit.

Buddy was afraid of something, but he could not think what it was that frightened him. He began to think seriously about water, and to listen uneasily to the constant lowing of the herd. The increased shouting of the niggers driving the lagging ones held a sudden significance. It occurred to him that the niggers had their hands full, and that they had never driven so big a "Drag." It was hotter than ever, too, and they had twice stopped to yoke in fresh oxen. Ezra had boasted all along that ole Bawley would keep his end up till they got clah to Wyoming. But ole Bawley had stopped, and stopped, and at last had to be taken out of the yoke. Buddy began to wish they would hurry up and find a river.

None of the cowboys would take him on the saddle and let him ride, that day. They looked harassed--Buddy called it cross--when they rode up to the wagon to give their horses a few mouthfuls of water from the barrel. Step-and-a-Half couldn't spare any more, they told mother. He had declared at noon that he needed every drop he had for the cooking, and there would be no washing of dishes whatever. Later, mother had studied a map and afterwards had sat for a long while staring out over the backs of the cattle, her face white. Buddy thought perhaps mother was sick.

That day lasted hours and hours longer than any other day that Buddy could remember. His father looked cross, too, when he rode back to them. Once it was to look at the map which mother had studied. They talked together afterwards, and Buddy heard his father say that she must not worry; the cattle had good bottom, and could stand thirst better than a poor herd, and another dry camp would not really hurt anyone.

He had uncovered the water barrel and looked in, and had ridden straight over to the chuck-wagon, his horse walking alongside the high seat where Step-and-a-Half sat perched listlessly with a long-lashed oxwhip in his hand. Father had talked for a few minutes, and had ridden back scowling.

"That old scoundrel has got two ten-gallon kegs that haven't been touched!" he told mother. "Yo' all mustn't water any more horses out of your barrel Send the boys to Step-and-a-Half. Yo' all keep what you've got. The horses have got to have water--to-night it's going to be hell to hold the herd, and if anybody goes thirsty it'll be the men, not the horses But yo' all send them to the other wagon, Lassie Mind, now! Not a drop to anyone."

After father rode away, Buddy crept up and put his two short arms around mother. "Don't cry. I don't have to drink any water," he soothed her. He waited a minute and added optimistically, "Dere's a BI--IG wiver comin' pitty soon. Oxes smells water a hunerd miles. Ezra says so. An' las' night Crumpy was snuffin' an' snuffin'. I saw 'im do it. He smelt a BIG wiver. THAT bi-ig!" He spread his short arms as wide apart as they would reach, and smiled tremulously.

Mother squeezed Buddy so hard that he grunted.

"Dear little man, of course there is. WE don't mind, do we? I-was feeling sorry for the poor cattle."

"De're firsty," Buddy stated solemnly, his eyes big. "De're bawlin' fer a drink of water. I guess de're AWFUL firsty. Dere's a big wiver comin' now Crumpy smelt a big wiver."

Buddy's mother stared across the arid plain parched into greater barrenness by the heat that had been unremitting for the past week. Buddy's faith in the big river she could not share. Somehow they had drifted off the trail marked on the map drawn by George Williams.

Williams had warned them to carry as much water as possible in barrels, as a precaution against suffering if they failed to strike water each night. He had told them that water was scarce, but that his cowboy scouts and the deep-worn buffalo trails had been able to bring him through with water at every camp save two or three. The Staked Plains, he said, would be the hardest drive. And this was the Staked Plains--and it was hard driving!

Buddy did not know all that until afterwards, when he heard father talk of the drive north. But he would have remembered that day and the night that followed, even though he had never heard a word about it. The bawling of the herd became a doleful chant of misery. Even the phlegmatic oxen that drew the wagons bawled and slavered while they strained forward, twisting their heads under the heavy yokes. They stopped oftener than usual to rest, and when Buddy was permitted to walk with the perspiring Ezra by the leaders, he wondered why the oxen's eyes were red, like Dulcie's when she had one of her crying spells.

At night the cowboys did not tie their horses and sit down while they ate, but stood by their mounts and bolted food hurriedly, one eye always on the restless cattle, that walked around and around, and would neither eat nor lie down, but lowed incessantly. Once a few animals came close enough to smell the water in a bucket where Frank Davis was watering his sweat-streaked horse, and Step-and-a-Half's wagon was almost upset before the maddened cattle could be driven back to the main herd.

"No use camping," Bob Birnie told the boys gathered around Step-and-a-Half's Dutch ovens. "The cattle won't stand. We'll wear ourselves and them out trying to hold 'em-they may as well be hunting water as running in circles. Step-and-a-Half, keep your cooked grub handy for the boys, and yo' all pack up and pull out. We'll turn the cattle loose and follow. If there's any water in this damned country they'll find it."

Years afterwards, Buddy learned that his father had sent men out to hunt water, and that they had not found any. He was ten when this was discussed around a spring roundup fire, and he had studied the matter for a few minutes and then had spoken boldly his mind.

"You oughta kept your horses as thirsty as the cattle was, and I bet they'd a' found that water," he criticized, and was sent to bed for his tactlessness. Bob Birnie himself had thought of that afterwards, and had excused the oversight by saying that he had depended on the map, and had not foreseen a three-day dry drive.

However that may be, that night was a night of panicky desperation. Ezra walked beside the oxen and shouted and swung his lash, and the oxen strained forward bellowing so that not even Dulcie could sleep, but whimpered fretfully in her mother's arms. Buddy sat up wide-eyed and watched for the big river, and tried not to be a 'fraid-cat and cry like Dulcie.

It was long past starry midnight when a little wind puffed out of the darkness and the oxen threw up their heads and sniffed, and put a new note into their "M-baw-aw-aw-mm!" They swung sharply so that the wind blew straight into the front of the wagon, which lurched forward with a new impetus.

"Glo-ory t' Gawd, Missy! dey smells watah, sho 's yo' bawn!" sobbed Ezra as he broke into a trot beside the wheelers. "'Tain't fur--lookit dat-ah huhd a-goin' it! No 'm, Missy, DEY ain't woah out--dey smellin' watah an' dey'm gittin' TO it! 'Tain't fur, Missy."

Buddy clung to the back of the seat and stared round-eyed into the gloom. He never forgot that lumpy shadow which was the herd, traveling fast in dust that obscured the nearest stars. The shadow humped here and there as the cattle crowded forward at a shuffling half trot, the click--awash of their shambling feet treading close on one another. The rapping tattoo of wide-spread horns clashing against wide-spread horns filled him with a formless terror, so that he let go the seat to clutch at mother's dress. He was not afraid of cattle-they were as much a part of his world as were Ezra and the wagon and the camp-fires-but he trembled with the dread which no man could name for him.

These were not the normal, everyday sounds of the herd. The herd had somehow changed from plodding animals to one overwhelming purpose that would sweep away anything that came in its path. Two thousand parched throats and dust-dry tongues-and suddenly the smell of water that would go gurgling down two thousand eager gullets, and every intervening second a cursed delay against which the cattle surged blindly. It was the mob spirit, when the mob was fighting for its very existence.

Over the bellowing of the cattle a yelling cowboy now and then made himself heard. The four oxen straining under their yokes broke into a lumbering gallop lest they be outdistanced by the herd, and Dulcie screamed when the wagon lurched across a dry wash and almost upset, while Ezra plied the ox-whip and yelled frantically at first one ox and then another, inventing names for the new ones. Buddy drew in his breath and held it until the wagon rolled on four wheels instead of two, but he did not scream.

Still the big river did not come. It seemed to Buddy that the cattle would never stop running. Tangled in the terror was Ezra's shouting as he ran alongside the wagon and called to Missy that it was "Dat ole Crumpy actin' the fool", and that the wagon wouldn't upset. "No'm, dey's jest in a hurry to git dere fool haids sunk to de eyes in dat watah. Dey ain't aimin' to run away--no'm, dish yer ain't no stampede!"

Perhaps Buddy dozed. The next thing he remembered, day was breaking, with the sun all red, seen through the dust. The herd was still going, but now it was running and somehow the yoked oxen were keeping close behind, lumbering along with heads held low and the sweat reeking from their spent bodies. Buddy heard dimly his mother's sharp command to Ezra:

"Stand back, Ezra! We're not going to be caught in that terrible trap. They're piling over the bank ahead of us. Get away from the leaders. I am going to shoot."

Buddy crawled up a little higher on the blankets behind the seat, and saw mother steady herself and aim the rifle straight at Crumpy. There was the familiar, deafening roar, the acrid smell of black powder smoke, and Crumpy went down loosely, his nose rooting the trampled ground for a space before the gun belched black smoke again and Crumpy's yoke-mate pitched forward. The wagon stopped so abruptly that Buddy sprawled helplessly on his back like an overturned beetle.

He saw mother stand looking down at the wheelers, that backed and twisted their necks under their yokes. Her lips were set firmly together, and her eyes were bright with purple hollows beneath. She held the rifle for a moment, then set the butt of it on the "jockey box" just in front of the dashboard. The wheelers, helpless between the weight of the wagon behind and the dead oxen in front, might twist their necks off but they could do no damage.

"Unyoke the wheelers, Ezra, and let the poor creatures have their chance at the water," she cried sharply, and Ezra, dodging the horns of the frantic brutes, made shift to obey.

Fairly on the bank of the sluggish stream with its flood-worn channel and its treacherous patches of quicksand, the wagon thus halted by the sheer nerve and quick-thinking of mother became a very small island in a troubled sea of weltering backs and tossing horns and staring eyeballs. Riders shouted and lashed unavailingly with their quirts, trying to hold back the full bulk of the herd until the foremost had slaked their thirst and gone on. But the herd was crazy for the water, and the foremost were plunged headlong into the soft mud where they mired, trampled under the hoofs of those who came crowding from behind.

Someone shouted, close to the wagon yet down the bank at the edge of the water. The words were indistinguishable, but a warning was in the voice. On the echo of that cry, a man screamed twice.

"Ezra!" cried mother fiercely. "It's Frank Davis--they've got him down, somehow. Climb over the backs of the cattle--There's no other way--and GET HIM!"

"Yas'm, Missy!" Ezra called back, and then Buddy saw him go over the herd, scrambling, jumping from back to back.

Buddy remembered that always, and the funeral they had later in the day, when the herd was again just trail-weary cattle feeding hungrily on the scanty grass. Down at the edge of the creek the carcasses of many dead animals lay half-buried in the mud. Up on a little knoll where a few stunted trees grew, the negroes dug a long, deep hole. Mother's eyes were often filled with tears that day, and the cowboys scarcely talked at all when they gathered at the chuckwagon.

After a while they all went to the hole which the negroes had dug, and there was a long Something wrapped up in canvas. Mother wore her best dress which was black, and father and all the boys had shaved their faces and looked very sober. The negroes stood back in a group by themselves, and every few minutes Buddy saw them draw their tattered shirtsleeves across their faces. And father--Buddy looked once and saw two tears running down father's cheeks. Buddy was shocked into a stony calm. He had never dreamed that fathers ever cried.

Mother read out of her Bible, and all the boys held their hats in front of them, with their hands clasped, and looked at the ground while she read. Then mother sang. She sang, "We shall meet beyond the river", which Buddy thought was a very queer song, because they were all there but Frank Davis; then she sang "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Buddy sang too, piping the notes accurately, with a vague pronunciation of the words and a feeling that somehow he was helping mother.

After that they put the long, canvas-wrapped Something down in the hole, and mother said "Our Father Who Art in Heaven ", with Buddy repeating it uncertainly after her and pausing to say "TRETHpatheth" very carefully. Then mother picked up Dulcie in her arms, took Buddy by the hand and walked slowly back to the wagon, and would not let him turn to see what the boys were doing.

It was from that day that Buddy missed Frank Davis, who had mysteriously gone to Heaven, according to mother. Buddy's interest in Heaven was extremely keen for a time, and he asked questions which not even mother could answer. Then his memory of Frank Davis blurred. But never his memory of that terrible time when the Tomahawk outfit lost five hundred cattle in the dry drive and the stampede for water.

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