Dynamite's Day Off

I

DYNAMITE had asked for Sunday off to go to the rodeo at Sacramento and been refused, and his wrath was greater than Achilles’. He had entered the bronc riding and steer decorating and hoped, for one afternoon, to forget he was married to a wife and four children and worked for three dollars a day, seven days a week, in a feed yard full of silly fat cattle. Instead he and I drove two cars of steers to the station, and I saw a spark kindling in his blue eyes that threatened to explode all twentysix years of his Utah brimstone and powder.

We put the steers in the loading corrals and got ready the first of two empty cattle cars that stood on the siding. Its sliding door stuck, as they always do, and Dynamite in wrenching at it crushed his hand against the side of the car and drew it out bleeding, with an oath. He unfastened the bull board and dropped the wooden apron and I pulled forward the sliding wings of the chute. We walked down the cleated ramp to where the steers stood in the crowding pen, staring at us like great fat dogs. We wanted twenty-seven in each car, one for Los Angeles, one for Denver. Dynamite counted them by. We crammed them in the car with terrible shouts. We climbed over the gray bleached fence and cut loose the car. I took the Johnson bar, which is a kind of pry that fits under the wheels and will move a train if your back is strong enough, and Dynamite pushed and we got her rolling.

When the second car was in place and ready to load we went down into the crowding pen and I counted the steers by. There were twenty-eight.

I said to Dynamite, ‘They’re only twenty-six steers in that first car.’

He ran up quickly—he hadn’t yet said a word to me — and counted my cattle again through the slats of the car. There were twenty-eight. Then he began to swear. He swung ape-fashion inside the car, hanging from the overhead beam, and kicked a big red steer in the face until its nose bled and it backed out into the ramp. I dropped the bull board and held the rest.

We got the Johnson bar again and went to work and by the time we had the first car back in place it felt as though we hud moved the whole Southern Pacific.

I made things ready at the door and Dynamite went for the steer. Now when an animal has once been loaded and come out, to get him in again is like getting a convict back to jail. Dynamite and that steer went round and round. The steer got mad. Dynamite got madder. The steer ran him up the fence. Dynamite got a post and hit the steer over the head, and he kept on till the animal ran up into the car.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s a good thing they don’t eat the head.’

Our horses were tied at the far end of the corrals. As we got on I saw a black pick-up truck drive alongside our cars of cattle and stop.

‘There’s the boss come to give you hell,’ I said.

We led the horses through a side gate and around toward the tracks. I saw somebody that wasn’t the boss at all get out of the pick-up, standing on one leg, and draw a crutch after him.

‘It’s that old man,’ said Dynamite, not to me but to the earth in general, as you would say a profane thing. From him this was a profanity. He and old Reuben Child, the lame cowboy, were great friends. Dynamite could admire any man who was a Texan and who, besides, had been a champion rider. Now Rube lived in a house the Company had given him, and like an old hunting dog never failed to know when cattle were on the move and hurry down in his pick-up to be there.

He waved the crutch at us and took a shovel from the bed of the truck with his other hand. I saw he had backed up to the low ridge of sand that collects along the tracks in front of the chute — bedding from the cars, kicked out by the cattle.

I got off and tied my pony and said, ‘You’d better hand me that shovel.’

I thought Dynamite had ridden on. I knew he was ready for one of his evenings at the village saloon with Pete, the bartender, the trustee of our misfortunes. I rather wished he had gone on, but he couldn’t — he couldn’t quite pass up old Rube. He got off sulkily and came to us.

‘Hello, Dynamite,’ said Rube, raising his Texan’s drawl till he sounded like a little girl.

‘Hi, Rube,’ said Dynamite.

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘there’s another shovel in the truck. Get busy.’

In five minutes we had the pick-up loaded.

‘That’s enough, fellers,’ said Rube. ‘I only want it for the path in my front yard. Here —’ he said, reaching into the compartment of the front seat, ‘here, this is Sunday. Have a drink on it.’

‘Naw,’ said Dynamite, ‘I gotta go.’

‘Have a drink,’ said Rube.

‘I gotta be going.’ He untied his brown nag from the fence.

‘Come on, have a drink,’ said Rube and held out the bottle.

Dynamite took it, holding the tie-rope with his other hand, and tilted down a good long shot. ‘That whiskey’s all right,’ he said.

The bottle went around and Rube gave it back to Dynamite for another shot. ‘ Say,’ said Rube, ‘ isn’t that saddle a Harney Lee?’

‘Yeah,’ Dynamite said, ‘one the Evans Company named after him.’

The saddle was older than Dynamite himself. The cover had peeled from the high flat horn and worn clear away from places on the stirrup leathers, so that you could see the latigo straps; its skirt had shriveled like the skin of a drying fruit, but in the centre of the tree, where a man did his riding, the leather had the color of dark mahogany shining in the sun, a deep red quality, and here was all the life of the saddle.

The wind blew the mane of the brown nag and made him put his ears up, so that he and the saddle were a picture for a book.

Dynamite looked at them proudly. ‘That’s a fine saddle, Rube,’ he said.

Rube sat down on the running board of the car, facing west, with the sun full on him, took a sack of Bull Durham from his pocket, and began to roll a cigarette. The wind bent the brim of his cattleman’s hat and slapped him in the face but he pushed the hat back with one hand and went on rolling the tobacco in his other, and never lost a grain.

‘Shore is a country to blow,’ he said.

II

Rube was a veteran of the range. His face, drawn by years of pain from the broken hip, had on it the indelible stain of Western sun. His large clear eyes seemed always to be searching some horizon; his ears were classic American, protruding just a little; and there was about him a peculiar decency and patience. When he smiled his face shone almost in a heavenly way, as Lincoln’s did.

‘You fellers ever hear the story of Harney Lee?’

‘I never did,’ said Dynamite.

Rube held the cigarette up to his mouth and licked the end of it affectionately. We knelt beside him, close to the track, and the cattle in the car above us stomped around and kicked out puffs of sand through the slats of the car. Rube smiled a little.

‘Makes me laugh to see cattle nowadays. Gracious, they ain’t cattle; they’s responsibility. Gotta be fed this, gotta be fed that, gotta be fed this every time o’ day. Why, where would them great outfits of old time have been — Turkey Track and Circle Dot — if they’d had to go out every day at half past two and feed their cattle? Those fellers depended on their cattle, not their cattle on them. And by cattle I mean longhorns. It was them built the West and don’t you never forget it.’ Rube stuck the cigarette in his mouth but it was not right and he spat it out and threw it away. ‘ My story is about the time when cattle still had horns — about the greatest rider that ever rode and the wind that made him great and the horse that killed him.

‘In the fall of ‘98 we was coming from Chihuahua toward the Rio Grande and, fellers, that’s a long country, long and dry, and when ye’ve been out sixteen weeks she’s uphill all the way. We counted two hundred horses and six thousand longhorned steers. Red Handle was our boss — finest ever that trailed a herd, and his top rider was Harney Lee. I think there was thirty-three of us all told. Men was cheap in them days; it was cattle cost the money.’

Dynamite interrupted, ‘This here Harney Lee — what did he look like?’

‘Oh, he was a Texas man,’ said Rube. ‘Looked like a giant but he weren’t so big. Had a mustache — eyes that got narrer at the outside. You can see his picture in the books.’ Rube left the idea and went on with his story. ‘We’d been out all summer with the wagon and was headed home with what we’d done, six thousand old mosshorns from ‘way back that, till we come along, had never seen a horse from the day they was born. Some had the Hourglass and Horseshoe brands; some was mavericks virgin pure. What I mean they was cattle! You got upon a high place and give a squall or two and all over the county puffs of dust went up and that meant cattle heading for the next state. But we rode with ‘em step for step, and by the time we started for the Rio Grande they knowed a cowboy.

‘One afternoon I seen ‘em acting queer. Five or six would stop together and raise their heads and sniff and stand awhile; and in a herd the better part of four mile long this slows you up considerable. Well, I was a youngster then and when I got in for supper I asked Red Handle what was the matter — he was eatin’ beans; never eat nothing but beans, old Red, but he sure was a boss. He could water six thousand head in a hole the size of a room and never get it muddy. “Dust,” he says; “they smell a dust somewheres.” And he went on eatin’ his beans.

‘Well, that put a wiggle in my spine but I never said so. I noticed the wind had come up a little, and when the cocktail riders got in and the nighthawkers was ready to start I saw Red go over and talk awhile to ‘em. There begun to be something in the air. Cookie gathered in his washing and his pots and pans like he’d seen the enemy already. At daylight we was on the move. We kept to the trail three hours but that daylight never growed. Then we knew it was dust. By noon she’d rose up there in the north big and blue, like night had got around that way and was coming down on us; and when she got closer she turned red around the edges as if fire was in her, and then yellow. We went slower and slower. By now them steers would stop every few feet and snort and sniff the air, and when two o’clock come they wasn’t moving at all. We’d had ‘em to water at a dry lake on a piece of country flat as your hand, and it was plain they’d go no farther. Pretty quick them as had laid down got up. It become terrible dark. Then altogether them cattle begun to move — south. They was like water after a rain, altogether — a-walkin’ just as steady, and when the first grains of sand hit ‘em they begun to trot, all six thousand. Then we rode.

‘Ever been in dust? Well, when you have, don’t never worry no more ‘bout going to hell ‘cause you’ve been there already. In a duster you burn just as slow. It’s like the devil come at you first with sandpaper, then with fire, and oh-mercy-me, how he does hurt! Seems he’s gonna skin the clothes right off you and eat out your eyes and nose and ears like fire eats out a holler tree. You see him hit them mesquite bushes — big spiny fellers thirty feet across — and shrink ‘em till they’re no bigger ‘n a porcupine. Behind every bush and rock he makes an eddy, as does a running stream, but don’t git in there or you will choke, ‘cause there the sand boils right straight up. You’ll smell the stink o’ creosote bushes being broke and chewed up; you’ll see chuckwallas, and such, run under foot till you think your pony’ll trip hisself— they can’t find no hole the dust don’t smoke ‘em out of. And maybe you’ll look around all of a sudden and find cattle on both sides, and then you won’t know what to do so you drift with ‘em. Don’t never try to head a herd; it can’t be done. Sometimes you can bend ‘em, but head ‘em — never. If you meet a rider you think it’s Billy the Kid out to rob a stage — face in a bandana, hat tied hard and fast, but some way the rheumatics has took him and he’s hunched like an ape in the saddle. One feller I saw lose his hat and that’s just barin’ your head for the execution. What I mean it’s a serious thing. He had a gunny sack tied behind his saddle, but before he could get to it I seen a blush start up his face that meant the skin was going.

‘Once I looked around and did see nothing but cattle on both sides and there was nothing I could do. I thought left was out and bore that way, edging mighty easy through them horns, and finally I run clear of cattle and found two other fellers and knowed then that I had the flank. We drifted quite a while, shaping the herd the best we could, feeling them steers more ‘n we saw ‘em, and after a long time Harney Lee come up behind us with five men. He’d been clear around the tail of that herd. Red Handle’d sent him with half the riders they could find and kept the other half, and now we was organized. Six of us strung along the flank and three went up with Harney on the point. He rode a little Steeldust horse, I remember, one of those Texas ponies just the color of dust, and it was hard to follow him. We found what we figured was the point and stayed there, bending it all we could, and that wasn’t much ‘cause cattle traveling that way don’t have much give in ‘em. Pretty quick it got dark. This here was night, gen-u-ine. Once the dust blew clean away over us like a rainstorm does and we could see a piece of the moon up there, brown and rotten as an apple. Then the dust come on again, and all night it kept after us and all next day, and it seemed we was a-goin’ backward where we’d been last summer — I mean the year itself was goin’ back. We’d pass a gully or a rock we knowed, and they’d rise up there to say we’d wasted our time and never would get home.

’That day four more fellers joined us but we didn’t eat and seen no sign of the remuda. I never cared; I had my best horse under me: a buckskin bronc named Anæsthetic and what I mean he’d put many a man to sleep. But when that kind tries you and sees you don’t fade they become good horsey. For a tough ride give me a buckskin every time; they can’t be beat.

‘Well, the second day got on — we couldn’t tell the time; it all run together and become evening. And now the steers was dryin’ up and gettin’ mad; sal-i-ver hung outer their mouths like spiders was inside a-spinnin’ threads, and you had to be chary ‘bout getting close or them big leaders would turn and root you one. But they kept right on; they was walkin’-mad.

‘Harney would look ‘em over and ride up and down the line. We got to calling him general and saluted as he come, and other things men does when they’re very tired. He was so all-over dust you couldn’t tell who it was coming ‘cept by how he set his horse, always for’rd thataway in the saddle, ready to make his ride. He’d laugh at us, blowing dust off his mustache, and call us chuckwallas so-and-so’s. He told me one thing: to keep my forty-five inside my pants or the sand would ruin it. He packed two guns hisself. I could see ‘em bulge under his chaps; and he rode a low-lyin’, double-rigged saddle with the short cantie and high horn — one they named after him.

‘Oh, he was a giant of a man, was Harney Lee, but he weren’t so big to look at. . . .

‘Now after quite a spell — might have been noon, might have been three o’clock — he comes to me and says, “Young Rube, we’re a-gonna bend this herd. I want you to ride and tell Red I need some men.” Reckon ray face showed what I felt: that bending the herd would be as easy as bending the storm; ‘cause he sobered clear up and says, “We got an alkali lake ahead of us and the water’s poison; we can’t let the cattle to it.” Well, then I rode. I got lost. I dried clear out. I couldn’t find the end of the herd. Once I passed an ocotillo — one o’ them cactus that’s all joints and fingers — and that was the only time I ever wanted to be a cactus, ‘cause them ocotillos can breathe through their stems. Then I found Red and he looked awful poor; he’d had a fall and sprained his arm. He took eight fellers and told ‘em what Harney wanted and all he said was, “All right, boys. I want to hear ye’ve made this ride.”

‘I led the way back and when we come again upon the left flank the sky got terrible dark and then all of a sudden she lighted up and there was the greatest sight ‘pon which my eyes ever laid. There was Harney Lee and seven men goin’ alone agin the point, and they had her bent! Seven of ‘em had her bent. They rode her down out of a per-pet-tual circle, riding close together, single file, with not enough room between for cattle to come through, and always the tightest part of that circle was agin the herd, and here the guns was flashing and the boys would make their ride — pressing in and in; and now a big steer would take to ‘em and run ‘em out of line, and they’d shy off and come round the loop and hit the herd again; and always Harney led ‘em pouring fire in the air from both his guns. We hurried and joined up with ‘em and made a bigger, heavier circle, with never room between us for a steer to pass; and we bent them critters clear around.

‘Them as was fighting mad and wouldn’t bend we shot and the rest kept on — but always to the right, just a little to the right. We hit a kind of water course that in such country was like a line on the palm of your hand, but it helped; and here we done what no men ever done — we milled that herd. Yep, milled her. Red shaped her from the other side but Harney Lee it was that milled her, tucked her in till she was running like a rattler on her own tail. Time and time again he led us in, flyin’ in the twilight like a man who rode the wind, ‘cause through the dust you couldn’t see his horse at all and it was like a man alone ridin’ the air. Slowly she wound up and run down, and some critters at the inside fell and was chewed like meat in a grinder; and then just as we thought we had ‘er the whole thing come undone, snapped open like a wilier branch that’s been rolled up, and away went them critters down the plain. Three times we rolled ‘em up and three times they come undone, but on the fourth they stayed. . . .

‘I never seen such a cattle to run; but now they was plumb tuckered and we backed off some and give ‘em slack. You could see those steers was done: they had heads down and for old-time cattle that’s a precious rare sight. They’d run themselves gant; they seemed to have nothing left but head and hind end. While we left ‘em to git reconciled the storm quit altogether and there wans the sun goin’ down over there behind some hills.

‘We held the herd all night, and next morning the day broke clear and we eased ‘em up this wash into a new country. By noon we’d found water, running water, and made camp. Toward evening here come Cookie and the remuda. They’d drifted with the storm the same as we. The wranglers said they’d gone ahead and the ponies had follered ‘em like they will a man in the dark — and in a way that’s the rest of my story. But anyhow, from this stream of running water Red got the idea for going home along the Coche Hills where there was more streams like it and a storm couldn’t git right at us if it come again. We laid over two days and within three more we’d hit a rimrock country with canyons and some timber.

‘We all stood turns nighthawking the ponies, three of us, usually, ‘cause there was Mexicans around and this far from home we couldn’t take no chances. There’s nobody loves good horseflesh as does a Mexican.

‘This particular night Harney Lee was on the shift from ten till two, him and a couple of fellers — one called Sleepy Head and another silly kind of feller we called Graveyard Jack, The herd was on a slope above a canyon, and when the next shift come it got to Jack first. He’d seen old Sleepy dozin’ over there and had an i-dee for some fun. He gave his horse to the others to hold and slipped over there with his quirt behind old Sleepy.

‘You know how horses are at night — up and down three or four times, and as long as some are up and feedin’ the rest won’t scare; but this particular night it happened all the horses was asleep, and when Jack smacked old Sleepy’s nag across the rump he jumped twenty feet down hill and bucked old Sleepy off and broke in two and went down through the herd just a-buckin’ and a-raisin’ hell; and them ponies was to their feet like one horse and away down the canyon.

‘Well, square in their way was Harney Lee. You boys never saw horses comin’ at you wild in the dark but it’s a terrible thing. They’ll run you down same as steers and twice as quick. Their shoes knockin’ the stones sends out all manner of sparks, red and yeller and blue. Harney see ‘em comin’ and could have got away, but instead of that he turned his pony and begun to ride — same little Texas pony he’d rode through all the dust. He knew horses will foller a man at night if you give ‘em just enough room, and he figured to wind ‘em up somewhere. And that’s what he did. We found the herd next day up agin the rimrock, and in the canyon by the trail lay Harney where he’d fell — a badger’d dug his hole right there.’

Old Rube stopped talking. The cold spring wind slapped through our clothes and made the wiry grasses sing in the ditch beside the track. ‘Pity—’ said Rube, ‘pity he couldn’t have died upon his greatest day; but all of us can’t, do that — we gotta die in beds or, if we’re lucky, just a-doin’ our job like Harney.’

Dynamite gave a wet sniff and tried to hide it in a sneeze, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve. There was a single poppy growing in the track between two ties and he picked it and mashed the petals through his fingers. ‘Well, by God, Rube,’ he said, ‘that was a good story.’