A story by John Sayles
Brian woke on the lee side of a hill with a buffalo licking his face. At first he was only aware of the tongue, sticky and thick as a baby’s arm, lapping down to sample his ears and cheeks. He had laid his sleeping bag out in the dark, snuggling it at the foot of what he took to be a drift fence, to have at least some shelter from the grit-blasting Wyoming wind. If it was still Wyoming; he hadn’t been awake enough during the last part of the ride to look out for signs.
As he squirmed away from whatever the big thing mopping at his face was he glimpsed through half-sleep that each of the posts in the fence was painted a different color. Cherry-red, lime-green, lemon-yellow. He was in a carny-colored corral with a live bull bison.
He tried to go back under, thinking it was only the effects of the three-day power-hitch across the country from New Jersey, all that coffee and all those miles talking with strangers. But then the rich brown smell dawned on him and he knew. He knew. He had never seen a live buffalo before but he was sure this was what they smelled like. It smelled like The West.
The buffalo retreated a few steps when Brian sat up, fixing him with swimming brown walleyes. There were bare patches worn in the wool of its flanks and hump, shiny black leather showing through. Its beard was sugared with dust and meal of some kind, and Brian could hear the flop of its tail chasing flies.
The animal snorted through its flat nose for an answer, made munching quivers with its jaw. Brian fingered matter from his eyes and peered out over the fence to where he remembered the road. There were cut-out letters hung from a crossbar like the ranches he’d seen in southern Wyoming had. Brian read them backward. CODY SPRAGUE’S WILD WEST BUCKIN’ BISON RIDE, it said, FOOD GAS-SOUVENIRS. Brian didn’t understand how he could have missed the sign and the flapping pennants strung from it, even in the dark. The buffalo licked its nose.
Brian pulled on his sweat-funky road clothes and packed his sleeping bag away. The buffalo had lowered its eyelids to half-mast, no longer interested. Brian stood and walked around it. A shifting cloud of tiny black flies shadowed its ass, an ass cracked and black as old inner-tube rubber. There was something not quite real about the thing, Brian felt as if stuffing or springs would pop out of the seams any moment. He eased his hands into the hump wool. Coarse and greasy, like a mat for scuffing your feet clean on. The buffalo didn’t move but for the twitching of its rump skin as insects lit on it. Brian gave it a couple of gentle, open-palmed thumps on the side, feeling the solid weight like a great warm tree stump.
“Reach for the sky!”
Brian nearly jumped on the animal’s back as a cold cylinder pressed the base of his neck.
“Take your mitts off my buffalo and turn around.”
Brian turned himself around slowly and there was a little chicken-necked man pointing an empty Coke bottle level with his heart. “One false move and Til fizz you to pieces.” The little man cackled, showing chipped brown teeth and goosing Brian with the bottle. “Scared the piss outa you, young fella. I seen you there this morning, laid out. Didn’t figure I should bother to wake you till you woke yourself, but Ishmael, he thought you was a bag a meal. He’s kind of slow, Ishmael.”
The buffalo swung its head around to give the man a tentative whiff, then swung back. The man was wearing a fringed buckskin jacket so stained it looked freshly ripped off the buck. He had a wrinkle-ring every other inch of his long neck, a crooked beak of a nose, and dirty white hair that shot out in little clumps. Of the three of them the buffalo seemed to have had the best sleep.
Brian introduced himself and stated his business, which was to make his way to whatever passed for a major highway out here on the lone prairie. Thumbing from East Orange to the West Coast. He had gotten a bum steer from a drunken oil-rigger the other night and was dumped out here.
“Cody Sprague,” said the little man, extending his hand. “I offer my condolences and the use of my privy. Usually don’t open till nine or ten.” he said, “but it don’t seem to make a difference either whichway.”
He led Brian across the road to where there was a metal outhouse and an orange-and-black painted shack about the size of a Tastee-Freeze.
“People don’t want to come,” he said, “they don’t want to come. Just blow by on that Interstate. That’s what you’ll be wantin to get to, isn’t but five miles or so down the way. They finished that last stretch a couple years back and made me obsolete. That’s what they want me. Obsolete.”
Sprague clucked away at Brian’s elbow, trotting a little to stay close as if his visitor would bolt for freedom any second. He called through the door of the little Sani-Port as Brian went in to wash and change to fresh clothes.
“You got any idee what it costs to keep a fullgrown American bison in top running condition? Not just a matter of set im loose to graze, oh no, not when you’ve got a herd of one. Got to protect your investment, the same with any small businessman. Dropping like flies they are. That’s an endangered species, the small businessman. Anyhow, you don’t let him out there to graze. Don’t know what he might pick up. You got five hundred head, you can afford to lose a few to poisnin, a few to varmint holes, a few to snakes and whatnot. Don’t make a dent. But me, I got everything I own riding on Ishmael. He don’t dine on nothin but the highest-protein feed. He’s eaten up all my savings and most of the last bank loan I’m likely to gel. You ever ridden a buffalo?”
“No,” said Brian over the running water inside, “I’ve never even been on a horse.”
“Then you got a treat coming, free a charge. You’ll be my icebreaker for the weekend, bring me luck. I’d offer you breakfast, but confidentially speakin, the grill over here is out of commission. They turned off my lectricity. You might of noticed the lamp in there don’t work. How they expect a buffalo to keep up its health without lectricity I’ll never understand. It’s that kind of thinking put the species on the brink of extinction.”
Brian came out with fresh clothes and his teeth finger-brushed, and Cody Sprague hustled him back into the corral with Ishmael.
“Is there a saddle or anything? Or do I just get on?”
“Well, I got a blanket I use for the little girls with bare legs if it makes them nervous, but no. you don’t need a thing. Like sitting on a rug. Just don’t climb up too high on the hump is all. kind of unsteady there. Attaboy, hop aboard.”
The buffalo didn’t seem to mind, didn’t seem to notice Brian crawling up on its back. Instead it lifted its head toward a bucket nailed to a post on the far side of the corral.
“How do I make him go?” asked Brian. There was no natural seat on a buffalo’s back, he dug his fingers deep in the wool and pressed his knees to its flanks.
“That’s my job, making him go, you just sit tight.” Sprague scooted out of the corral, then returned with a half-empty sack of meal. He poured some in the far bucket, then clanged it with a stone. Ishmael began to move. He was in no hurry. “Ridem cowboy!” yelled Sprague.
Brian felt some movement under him. distantly, a vague roll of muscle and bone. He tried to imagine himself as an eight-year-old kid instead of seventeen. and that helped a little. He tried to look pleased as the animal reached the bucket and buried its nose in the feed.
“This part of the ride.” said Cody apologetically, “is where I usually give them my little educational spiel about the history of the buffalo and how the Indians depended on it and all. Got it from the library up to Rapid. Got to have something to keep them entertained at the halfway point while he’s cleaning out that bucket. You know the Indian used every part of the beast. Meat for food, hide for clothes and blankets, bone for tools, even the waste product, dried into buffalo chips, they used that for fuel. There was a real —real affinity between the buffalo and the Plains Indian. Their souls were tied together.” He looked to Brian and waited.
“He sure is big.” Brian threw a little extra enthusiasm into it. “I didn’t realize they were this big.”
Sprague spat on the ground, sighing, then looked up to see what was left in the bucket. “Pretty sorry attraction, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say—”
“I mean An’t it? If he don’t eat he don’t move.” Cody shook his head. “The kids, well, they pick up on it right away. Least they used to before that Interstate swept them all off. What kind of ride is it where the animal stops and chows down for five minutes at a time? Got so bad he’d commence to drool every time he seen a human under twelve years of age. Feed, that’s all they understand. Won’t mind kindness and he won’t mind cruelty but you talk straight to his belly and oh Lord will he listen. That’s how they got extincted in the first place, they seen their colleagues droppin all around them but they were too involved with feeding their faces to put two and two together. They’d rather be shot and scalped than miss the next mouthful. Plain stupid is all.” He gave Ishmael a thump in the side. “You’d just as soon name a rock or a lump of clay as give a title to this old pile of gristle.” He squatted slightly to look the buffalo in the face. “A damn sorry attraction, aren’t you? A damn sorry fleabag of an attraction.”
He straightened and hefted the meal. “Might as well be stuffed, I figure. Put him on wheels. The few people I get anymore all want to snip a tuft of wool offen him for a souvenir. I had to put a stop to it, wouldn’t of been a thing left. Cody Sprague’s Bald Buckin’ Bison.”
Ishmael lifted his head and flapped his tongue in the air a couple of times.
“Got to fill the other bucket now. He expects it. Took me the longest time to figure the right distance, long enough so it’s two bits’ worth of ride but not so long that the thoroughbred here thinks it’s not worth the hike. The kids can tell though. I never been able to fool them. They feel left out of it, feel gypped. Um, if you don’t mind, would you stay on him for the rest of the ride?” Cody was hustling across the corral toward another hanging bucket, with Ishmael swinging a liquid eye after him. “He needs the exercise.”
Brian sat out the slow plod across the corral and slid off when it reached the bucket. He brushed his pants and got a stick to scrape his sneakers clean of the buffalo stool he’d stepped in. The rich brown smell was losing its charm.
“You’ll be going now. I suppose.” said Sprague coming up behind him.
“Uh, yeah. Guess so.” It was a little creepy, the multicolored corral in the middle of all that open range. “Thanks for the ride, though.”
“Nothing to keep you here. Lord knows.” He was forcing a smile. “S’almost nine now. business should pick up. Ought to build a fire, case anybody stops for a hot dog.” He gave a weak cackle. “I could use it for part of my pitch—frankfurters cowboy style. Call em prairie dogs.”
“You’ll be wantin that Interstate I suppose, get you out of here. Five miles or so north on the road and you’ll smack right into it.”
“Thanks.” Brian shouldered his duffel bag. “Hope the trade improves for you.”
“Oh, no worry, no worry. I’ll make out. Oh, and here, take one of these.” He fished an aluminum star from his pocket and presented it to Brian. “Souvenir for you and good advertising for me.”
“Deputy Sheriff.” said the badge, “Issued at Cody Sprague’s Wild West Buckin’ Bison Ride.” There was a picture of a cowboy tossed high off the back of an angrily kicking buffalo. Brian pinned it on his shirt and Cody brightened a bit.
“Who knows.” he said, “maybe today’s the day. Maybe we’ll get discovered by the tourist office today and be written up. You get your attraction in one of those guidebooks and you got a gold mine. Wall-to-wall customers, turn em away at the gate.
I could save up an maybe afford an opposite number for Ishmael. Don’t know if or what buffalo feel but I suppose everything gets lonely for its own kind, don’t you?”
“Say, I wasn’t kidding about that fire. If you’re hungry I could whip us up a late breakfast in no time. There’s stock I got to use before it goes bad so it’d be on the house.”
“I really got to get going. Sorry.”
“Well, maybe you brought me luck. Yessir, maybe today will be the day.”
Brian left him waving from the middle of the corral, buckskin fringes blowing in the quickening breeze. When he was out of sight around the bend he unpinned the aluminum star and tossed it away, it dug into his chest too much. Then the signs appeared, the backs of them first, then the messages as he passed by and looked behind. Every thousand yards there was another, starting with WHOA! HERE IT IS! and progressing to more distant warnings. When Brian got to FOR THE RIDE OF YOUR LIFE, STOP AT CODY SPRAGUE’S he couldn’t hold out anymore, he dropped his bag and trotted back to where he’d chucked the star. He found it without too much trouble and put it in his back pocket.
He went through the land of blue-green sage clumps, leaning into the wind whipping over low hills, walking alone. There weren’t any cars or people. More sage, more hills, more wind, but no human trace but the road beneath him like a main street of some vanished civilization. Open range, there were no fences or water tanks. He looked at his Road Atlas and guessed that he was a little ways up into South Dakota, a little below the Bear in the Lodge River with the Rosebud Indian Reservation to the east and the Pine Ridge to the north. He tried to remember who it was he’d seen in the same situation. Randolph Scott? Audie Murphy? Brian checked the sun’s position to reassure himself that he was heading in the right direction. There was nothing else to tell by. A patch of hill suddenly broke free into a butternut cluster of high-rumped antelope, springing away from him. He was in The West.
He had been walking on the road for over an hour when an old Ford pickup clattered to a halt next to him. A swarthy, smooth-faced man wearing a green John Deere cap stuck his head out.
“Who you work in for?” he called.
“Who you workin for? Whose place you headed?”
“I’m not working for anybody,” said Brian. “I’m trying to hitch west.”
“Oh. I thought you were a hand. S’gonna give you a ride over to whatever outfit you’re headed for.”
Brian tried not to look too pleased. Thought he was a hand. “No, I’m just hitching. I was walking up to the Interstate.”
“You got a hell of a walk. That’s twenty miles up.”
“But the guy said it was only five.”
“The old guy back there. He’s got a buffalo.”
“Sprague? You can’t listen to him, son. A nice fella, but he’s a little bit touched. Got a sign up on 90, says it’s only five miles to his place. Figured nobody’s gonna bother, they know the real story, and he’s right. Guess he’s started to believe his own publicity.”
“But you hop in anyway. I’m goin up that area in a while.” Brian tossed his duffel bag in the back and got in with the man. “J. C. Shangreau,” he said, offering his hand. “I’ll get you north surer than most anything else you’re likely to catch on this road. If you don’t mind a few side trips.”
Brian had to kick a shotgun wrapped in burlap under the seat to make room for his legs. “Don’t mind at all.”
“Got to pick up some hands to help me work my horses.” Shangreau had quite a few gold teeth in his mouth and very bloodshot eyes. “Got me a couple sections up there, I run seventy-five head. Gonna have ourselves a cuttin bee if I can roust out enough of these boys.”
They turned off left on one of the access roads and began to pass clusters of small trailer houses propped on cinder block. Shangreau stopped at one, went to the door and talked a bit, then came back alone.
“Hasn’t recovered from last night yet. Can’t say as I have either. There was nothin to celebrate, cept it being another Friday, but I did a job of it. You know when your teeth feel rubbery in the morning?”
Brian wasn’t used to adults asking him hangover questions. “Yeah.”
“That’s the kind of bag I got on. Rubber-toothed.”
He stopped at another trailer with no luck. This one hadn’t come home overnight.
“Hope he’s feelin good now, cause there’s an ambush waitin at home for him. I had a big one like that in the kitchen I’d think twice about carryin on. She’ll just squeeze all the good time right out of that man.”
“Many of these people around here Indian?” Brian asked it noncommittally, fishing. The drillrigger the night before had gone on and on about how the Indians and the coyotes should have been wiped out long ago.
“Oh sure,” said Shangreau, “most of em. Not many purebred though, things being what they are. Most of these boys I’m after is at least half or more Indian. You got your Ogalala around here, your Hunkpapa and the rest. I’m a good quarter Sioux myself. Old Jim Crow who we’re headin after now is maybe seven-eighths, fifteen-sixteenths, something like that. It’s hard to keep count. Jim has got three or four tribes to start with, his mother was part Flathead as I recall, and then he’s got white and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them buffalo soldiers didn’t slip in a little black blood way back when. But you won’t see too many purebred, less we catch Bad Heart at home, and he’s another story altogether. What are you?”
“Me too, a good quarter. Monaghans.”
They came to a pair of trailer houses that had been butted up together. A dozen fat little children wearing glasses ran barefoot out front. An older fat boy with extra-thick glasses and a silversprayed cowboy hat chased them, tossing a lasso at their legs. Brian got out of the pickup with Shangreau and a round, sad-looking man met them at the door to the first trailer.
“I see you’re bright-eyed an bushy-tailed as everone else is this mornin,” said J. C. “Them horses don’t have much competition today, it looks like. Jim Crow, this here’s Brian.”
Jim Crow nodded. He was wearing nothing but flannel pajama bottoms and his belly hung over. His slant eyes and mournful expression made him kind of Mongoloid-looking.
“You know anyone else could join us? Couple of my possibilities crapped out on me.”
“My brother-law’s here from over the Rosebud. Sam. I’ll ask him. And Raymond could come along. Raymond!”
The boy in the silver cowboy hat turned from where he had just cut a little sister out from the herd.
“You’re coming along with us to work J. C.’s horses. Go tell your ma.”
Raymond left the little sister to untie herself and ran off looking happy.
Sam was a little older and a little heavier than Jim Crow and had blue eyes. Brian sat in front between J. C. and Crow while Raymond and Sam were open in the back. Raymond’s hat blew off almost immediately and they had to stop for him to run get it. His father told him to sit on it till they got to J. C.’s.
They stopped next at a lone trailer still on its wheels to pick up a young man called Jackson Blackroot. All the men got out and went to the door to try and catch a glimpse of Blackroot’s new wife, who was supposed to be a looker. She obliged by coming out to say Hello boys and offer to make coffee. They turned it down, suddenly shy. She was dark and thin and reasonably pretty though Brian didn’t see anything outstanding. Jackson was a friendly young guy with a big white smile who looked like an Italian. He shook Brian’s hand and said he was pleased to meet him.
Bad Heart’s trailer was alone too, a little box of a thing sitting on a hill. J. C. stopped out front and honked once.
“Be surprised if he’s there,” whispered Crow.
“If he is I be surprised if he shows himself.”
They waited for a few minutes with the motor running and Shangreau had the pickup in gear when a short, pock-scarred man emerged from the trailer and hopped in the rear without a greeting.
It was a long bumpy way up to Shangreau’s ranch and he did most of what little talking went on. The other men seemed to know each other and about each other but weren’t particularly comfortable riding together.
“Brian,” asked J. C., “you in any big hurry to get up there?”
“I mean if you’re not you might’s well stop for lunch with us, look on when we work the horses. Hell, you can join the party if you’re careful, can always use an extra hand when we’re cutting.”
‟Sure.” Brian was willing to follow just about anything at this point if there was food in it. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. He wondered exactly what cutting was going to be.
The J. C. Ranch wasn’t much. A side-listing barn surrounded by a wood-and-wire corral and a medium-sized unpainted shack in a couple of thousand acres of dry-looking open range. The shack squatted on a wood platform, there was a gas tank and a hot water heater on the front porch. J. C. explained that this was the working house, they had another aluminum-sided place further west on the property. There were wide cracks in the floorboard inside, blankets hung to separate the rooms. Shangreau’s broad-faced wife grunted a hello and went back to pouring cornstarch into her stewpot. She had the biggest arms Brian had ever seen on a woman.
The men took turns washing their hands in a pail and sat around the kitchen table. Lunch was a tasteless boiled beef and potato stew that the men loaded with salt and shoveled down. There was little talk at the table.
“Well now,” said J. C., pushing back in his chair when everyone seemed finished, “let’s get at them horses.”
The men broke free into work. They readied their ropes and other gear while Brian and Raymond collected wood, old shack boards, and dead scrub for the branding fire. They built up the fire in a far corner of the corral, Jim Crow nursing it with a scuffed old hand bellows. When there were bright orange coals at the bottom and the irons were all laid out, the men spread with ropes in hand, forming a rough circle around the narrow chute that led into the corral from the barn, what Shangreau called the squeezer.
“And now, pilgrim,” he said waving Brian back a little, “you gonna see some masculatin.”
Raymond went up and started the first horse out through the squeezer and things began to happen fast, Brian struggling to keep up. The horse was not so huge, its back about chin-high to Brian, but it was thick and barrel-chested, its mottled gray sides working fast with suspicion. Raymond flapped his hat and clucked along the chute rail beside it till it was in the open and the men were swinging rope at its hooves, not picture-book lassoing but dropping open nooses on the ground and jerking up when it stepped in or near them. It took a while, plenty of near misses and times when the horse kicked free or the rope just slipped away, and Bad Heart was closest to Brian cursing a constant chant low on his breath, fuckin horse, goddamn horse, hold im, bust the fucker, and Raymond was in the corral trying to get his rope untangled and join the fun and Brian was hustling not to be trampled or roped.
“Bust im! Bust im!” J. C. was yelling and the stocky horse wheeled and crow-hopped but was met in every direction by another snapping rope. Finally Sam forefooted him cleanly and Jim jumped in quick to slip one over the head and jumped back to be clear as they hauled the animal crashing down onto its side.
“Choke im down! Choke im down!” yelled J. C. and they held its head into the ground with the rope while Bad Heart, cursing louder now and grimacing, wrestled its hind legs bent, one at a time, and strapped them back against its belly. They held it on its back now, writhing and lathered, eyes bugged hugely and nostrils wide, the men adding a rope here and there to help them muscle it still. Shangreau motioned Brian up with his head and handed him a rope end.
“Choke im,” he said, “don’t let him jerk. You let him jerk he’s gonna hurt himself.”
J. C. went to where the tools were laid out on a tarp and returned with a long, mean-looking jackknifey thing. The horse rested between spurts of resistance now, its huge chest heaving, playing out in flurries like a hooked fish. The men used the pauses to dig in their heels and get a stronger grip. J. C. waved the blade through the branding fire a few times, then knelt between the stallion’s pinioned legs.
“Hold him tight, boys, they’re comin off!”
The horse farted and screamed and shot a wad of snot into the blanket Bad Heart held its head with all at once, its spine arched clear off the ground and whumped back down, but J. C. had them in his fist and wouldn’t be shook. He aimed and he hacked and blood covered his wrists till they cut free in his hands, a loose, sticky mess that he heaved into the far corner of the corral. He wasn’t through. The horse rested quivering and Brian shifted the rope from where it had scored its image in his palms and J. C. brought what he had pointed out before as the masculator, a pair of hedge clippers that gripped at the end instead of cut.
“Ready?” he called, and when they were straining against the horse he worked the masculator inside and grabbed it onto what he wanted and yanked. There was blood spurting then, flecking the horse and the men and staining solid one leg of J. C.’s work pants. The rest was relatively easy. the branding and the tail-bobbing, the horse too drained to do much more than try to wave its head under Bad Heart’s knee. With the smell of burnt flesh and fear around them, the men shortened their holds, worked in toward the horse, quiet now, Bad Heart’s stream of abuse almost soothing. Each man grabbed a rope at some strategic point on the horse. J. C. taking over for Brian, and when each nodded that he was ready, they unlooped and jumped back in one quick motion. The horse lay still on its back for a moment, as if it had fallen asleep or died, then slowly rolled to its side and worked its legs underneath. It stood woozily at first, snorted and shook its head a few times, groin dripping thinly into the dirt, and then Raymond opened the corral gate to the range beyond and hat-flapped it out. It trotted a hundred yards off and began to graze.
“Forget he ever had em in a couple minutes,” said J. C. He thumped Brian on the back, his hand sticking for a moment. “Gonna make a cowboy out of you in no time.”
The men sat near each other, leaning on the corral slats, resting.
“What’s it for?” Brian decided there was no cause to try to seem to know any more than he did. “Why can’t you leave them like they are?”
“It’s a matter of breed.” J. C. was working a little piece of horse from the masculator jaws. “You leave them stallions be, they don’t want a thing but fight and fuck all day long. You don’t want your herd to inbreed. Let them inbreed and whatever it is strange in them comes to the surface, gets to be the rule rather than the exception.”
Bad Heart sat alone across the corral from them, over by where the genitals had been thrown. Raymond tried to do tricks with his rope.
“Don’t want em too wild.” said Jackson Blackroot.
“Or too stunted and mean,” said Sam. “Or too high-strung.”
“And you don’t want any candy-assed little lap ponies. Like I said, it’s a matter of breed. We keep one, maybe two stallions isolated, and trade them between outfits to crossbreed. You stud my herd. I’ll stud yours. What we want is what you call your hybrid vigor. Like all the different stock I’ve got in me. Irish and Indian and whatnot. Keeps one strain from takin over and going bad.”
‟But you do keep a stud horse?”
“Oh yeah. Now I know what you’re thinking, these sod-pounders up here haven’t heard of artificial insemination. We know all right, it’s a matter of choice. I been up to county fairs and whatnot, seen the machines they got. The mechanical jackoff machine and the dock syringe and all that. If that’s your modern rancher, well you can have him. If God meant beasts to fuck machines he would of given em batteries. It’s like that ASPCA bunch, always on our backs about the modern rancher and the proper way to masculate. Now there isn’t but one way to do it. Ours. Horses know they been cut.”
Cutting and branding and bobbing took about a half-hour per horse. It was tense, hard work and Brian got numbed to where only the burnt-hair smell when the brand was seared on bothered him. He liked the shouting and sweating and the physical pull against the animals, and supposed the rest, the cutting and all, was necessary. They didn’t seem to mind much after it was done.
The men seemed to loosen and touch more often as they got deeper into work, breaks between cuttings grew longer and more frequent. They sat on a little rise to the side of the corral passing dripping ice-chest beers and a bottle of Johnnie Walker J. C. had provided, gazing over at the string of fresh-cut geldings. Gimme a hit a that coffin varnish, they would say, and the bottle would be passed down, bloody hand to bloody hand, all of them half-shot with liquor but soon to work it off on the next horse.
“Must be some connection with their minds,” said Sam. “Once you lop their balls off, whatever part of their mind that takes care of thinkin on the fillies must turn off too. So they don’t even remember, don’t even think like a stallion anymore. They forget the old ways.”
“They turn into cows, is what. Just strong and dumb.”
“But you got to do it,” said J. C. “Otherwise you might’s well let them run wild, run and fuck whenever they want, tear down all the fences and keep territory all to themselves. Nosir. it’s got to be done.”
The afternoon wore on in tugs and whinnies. Raymond forefooted a big roan all by himself and Brian caught a stray hoof in his thigh that spun him around. One of the horses, a little scab-colored animal, turned out to be a real bad one, kicking all red-eyed and salty, running at the men instead of away until Bad Heart up with a branding iron, swinging at its head and spitting oaths but only managing to herd it right on out of the halfopen corral door. It scampered up the rise with the others, kicking its heels and snorting.
“Raymond, dammit!” yelled Jim Crow. “You sposed to latch that damn gate shut!”
“I did!” Raymond had the look of the falsely accused; he took his silver hat off to plead his innocence. “I closed it right after that last one.”
“ Then how’d it get open?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said J. C. “We’ll have to go catch him tomorra. He’s a tricky sumbitch to bring in. Just a wrong-headed animal, is all. That’s the one you give me.” he said to Bad Heart, “pay back that loan.”
Bad Heart grunted.
It was turning to evening when they finished. A cloud of fat black flies gloated over the heap of testicles in the corner. Brian had a charleyhorse limp where he’d been kicked. They sprawled on the rise and pulled their boots off, wiggled red. sick-looking toes in the air, and sucked down beer in gasping pulls. Still-warm sweat came tangy through their denim, they knocked shoulders and knees, compared injuries, and debated over who would be sorest in the morning. Bad Heart coiled the rope he had brought and lay down alone in the back of the pickup. They pondered on what they should do next.
“The way I see it,” said Jim Crow, “it’s a choice between more of Minnie’s cooking and goin out for some serious drinking.”
They were silent then, it was up to J. C. to pass the verdict on his wife’s cooking.
“Sheeit.” he said, “if that’s all that’s keepin us here let’s roll. What’s open?”
“Not much. Not much legal, anyways. There is that whatsisname’s place, up to Interior.”
“Then let’s get on the stick. Brian, you a drinkin man?”
“Well you will be after tonight, interior, what’s that, fifty mile or so? Should be able to get there afore dark and then it’s every man for himself. No need to change but we’ll have to go round and tell the women. Let’s ride, fellas.”
In the pickup they talked about horses and farm machinery and who used to be a bad hat when they were young and who was still capable of some orneriness on a full tank and about drunks they’d had and horses they’d owned and about poor old Roger DuPree whose woman had the roving eye. They passed liquor front seat to truck-bed. taking careful, fair pulls of the remaining Johnnie Walker and the half-bottle of Mogen David J. C. had stashed under the barn floor. Brian closed one eye the way he did when he drank so they wouldn’t cross and Bad Heart carefully wiped the neck when it was his turn. They banged over the yellow-brown land in the long plains twilight, holding the bottles below sight-line as they stopped at each trailer to say they wouldn’t be out too late. Raymond started to protest when it was time for him to be left off, but Jim Crow said a few growling words and his mournful face darkened even sadder; it would just kill him if he had to smack the boy. Raymond didn’t want a scene in front of the guys and scooted off flapping the rump of an imaginary mount with his silver hat. The liquor ran out and Sam’s belly began to rumble so they turned out of their way to hunt some food.
They reached a little kitchen emporium just before it closed up and J. C. sprang for a loaf of Wonder Bread and some deviled ham spread. The old woman in the store wore a crucifix nearly half her size and wouldn’t sell alcoholic beverages. FOR PEACE OF MIND, said a faded sign over the door. INVESTIGATE THE CATHOLIC FAITH.
“Sonsabitches damnwell ought to be investigated.” said Jim Crow. “Gotten so I can’t but give a little peep of colorful language around the house and she’s off in the bedroom on her knees mumbling an hour’s worth of nonsense to save my soul. What makes her think I’d trust that bunch with my soul escapes me.”
“Now they mean well enough, Jim, it’s just they don’t understand Indian ways. Think they dealin with a bunch of savages up here that haven’t ever heard of religion. Think that somebody’s got to get theirselves nailed to a tree before you got a religion.”
“Fuck religion!” shouted Bad Heart from the back, and that ended the conversation.
A sudden rain hit them with a loud furious slap, drenching the men in the back instantly and smearing the windshield so thick that J. C. lost sight and the pickup sloughed sideways into the shoulder ditch. It only added to their spirits, rain soothing them where the sweat had caked itchy, not cold enough to soak through their layer of alcohol. It gave them a chance to show they didn’t give a fart in a windstorm how the weather blew, to pile out and hunker down in the mud and slog and heave and be splattered by the tires when the pickup finally scrambled up onto the road. The flash downpour cut dead almost the moment the truck was free, just to make its point clear. J. C. spread a blanket over the hood and the men stood together at the side of the road waiting for Jackson Blackroot to slap them down a sandwich with his brand-new Bowie knife. The ham spread was a bit watery but nobody kicked, they hurried to stuff a little wadding down to soak up more liquor. They pulled wet jeans away from their skin and stomped their boots free of mud on the road pavement. J. C. came over to Brian.
“Don’t you worry about the delay, son. We’ll show you a real cowboy drunk soon enough.”
“Damn right there’s no rush. Got time to burn out here. Time grows on trees. Well, bushes anyway, we’re a little short on trees. There isn’t a picture show or a place with live music in some hundred miles, the Roman Church is about the only organization has regular meetings and you can have that. Isn’t much cause for people to get together. Workin horses like we done is something though. A little excitement, even if it is work. Hell, it’s better that it is work, you feel good about it even after it’s over, not like a drunk where it takes a couple years of selective memory to make it into something you like to talk about.”
“Doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Oh, there’s worse. I’m sure. But I see you’re passing through, not staying. Nobody lives here unless they were born here and can’t hack it anywhere else. It’s why most of the land around here was made into reservation, nobody else wanted it. Oh, the Badlands, up by Interior, they’re striking to look at so the Park Service took them for the tourists, but the rest—hell, even the migrating birds don’t come back anymore.”
“Where you traveling to, Brian?” It was old Sam that asked.
He frowned. “You best be careful. That California is wild. Had a brother was killed there.”
“I’ll watch myself.”
“I’d steer clear of it if it was me. They say it’s wild.”
J. C. laughed. “When was this brother killed. Sam?”
“Just around the start of the war. Got himself caught in something called the Zoot Suit Riots and that was all she wrote. Just plain wild.”
“You know where I found Brian?” said J. C. “He was walkin up Six-Hat Road there by Petrie’s, sayin he’s gonna walk to the Innerstate. Seems he got his directions from old Cody Sprague there.”
The men laughed. “Be better off gettin em from the buffalo,” said Jackson Blackroot, “at least he’s a native.”
“Sprague isn’t from around here?”
“He come out from some city back east, what was it. Philadelphia—?”
“Right. He come out from Pittsburgh on his vacation one summer and he sees all these roadside attractions up there on 90, the prairie dog village, reptile farms. Wall Drug Store, all that, and he thinks he’s found his calling. He worked in some factory all his life and always had something about bein his own boss, owning his own business. So he takes his savings, which couldn’t of been much, and buys himself two acres down on Six-Hat, the most worthless two acres in the whole state probly, and somewhere he gets ahold of that animal. Gonna build a dude ranch with the money he makes selling rides. Well it’s been six, seven years now and I don’t know how the hell he survives but he still hasn’t got but them two acres and that animal.”
“He’s a nice old guy though.” said J. C. “Talk your ear off, a little crazy, but a nice old guy.”
“He’s a character all right.” said Jackson.
‟He’s an asshole.” Bad Heart climbed into the rear of the pickup.
They had eaten all the bread and were talking about Sam’s brother getting killed in Los Angeles when Jackson remembered something.
‟Hey.” he said, “what we gonna do about that wake they’re having over there for Honda Joe? Suppose we ought to go?”
“Just slipped mv mind.” said J. C. “Live just five mile away from us, no way I can’t make an appearance, and it slipped my mind. Listen, as long as there’s all of us together and we got the truck—” “I suppose we ought to go.”
“Damn shame it is, young kid like that. Goes through all that Vietnam business with hardly a scratch, gets himself a Silver Star, then comes back to smash hisself up on a goddamn motorsickle. Young kids like that seem bent on it. I remember I couldn’t talk mv brother out of his plan for all the world, nosir, he had to have his California.”
“It wasn’t this it would have been some other.” said Jackson.
“If it wasn’t the bike maybe he would of drunk himself to death like some others around here.”
“No, I don’t think so. Honda Joe was always in a hurry to get there.”
“Well he got there all right. In a couple pieces maybe. but he got there.”
“We ought to go look in on him. for his mother’s sake. What say, fellas?”
“I never liked Honda Joe,” said Bad Heart.
“Well then, dammit, you can stay in the truck.” “If there’s one thing I can’t stand,” said Jim Crow very quietly when they were on their way to Honda Joe’s wake, “it’s a sulky Indian.”
It was still twilight when they passed by the access road to J. C.’s place again. He didn’t offer to drop Bad Heart home before they went on. They crossed Six-Hat Road, Brian was just able to make out one of Cody Sprague’s signs to the right, and then a half-mile further along they were stopped by a horse standing in the middle of the road, facing them.
J. C. turned on the headlights and they saw it was the scab-colored one that had escaped in the afternoon.
“The hell’s he doin out here?” said J. C. He turned the engine off and got out quietly. He left the door open and walked slowly toward the horse, talking soft. “Good horse.” he said, “nice horse. Come to papa. Attaboy.”
The horse stood for a moment, nostrils wide open, then bolted off the road and out of sight. J. C. slammed back into the truck. Only Bad Heart dared laugh.
The trailer was alone and far away from the blacktops, far even from the oiled road that serviced most of the other places around. It sat as if run aground next to the dry streambed that cut through a gently sloping basin. Young men’s cars. Pintos and Mavericks, Mustangs and Broncos, surrounded it, parked every whichway. To the rear was an orderly block where the family men had pulled in their Jeeps and pickups. J. C. slipped in among these and the men eased out. They had sobered, what with the food and the surprise rain and the knowledge of the work cut out ahead of them. They shuffled and stuffed their hands in their pockets, waiting for J. C. to lead. The mud and blood had stiffened again on their clothes, they tried to get all their scratching done before they had to go in. Bad Heart stretched out in the rear, glaring out into space. J. C. sighed and fished under the seat, behind the shotgun, and came out with a pint of gin. “I was saving this for an emergency,” he said, and tossed it to Bad Heart. “Entertain yourself.”
They were met at the door by two dark old Indians wearing VFW hats. Evening, gentlemen, glad you could come. There was a visitor’s book to sign and no place to sit, the trailer was crammed to its aluminum gills. There were nods and hullos from the men already inside, crop and stock and weather conversations to drift into, and womannoise coming from back in the bedrooms. Drink was offered and declined, for the moment anyway. A knot of angry-looking young men leaned together against one wall, planning to make yet another wine run up to Interior and back. Suspicious eyes lingered on Brian, coming hardest and hairiest from the young men. Brian felt extra uncomfortable in his sun-lightened hair and three-day road stubble in the midst of all the smooth, dark people. He was glad for the stains of horse-cutting left on him, as if having shared that gave him some right of entry.
Mrs. Pierce was on them before they could get their bearings. She smelled of tears and Four Roses and clutched at their elbows like she was drowning.
“J. C.,” she said, “you come. I knew you would. And Jim. Boys. I knew you’d all come, I knew everybody’d come for my Joey.”
She closed one eye when she had to focus on somebody. She squinted up to Brian. “Do I know you?”
“This is Brian. Mrs. Pierce,” said J. C. “He’s been workin horses over to my place.”
“Well Brian,” she said sober-faced, talking slow as if explaining house rules to a new kid in the neighborhood, “you just make yourself at home. Joey had him a lot of white friends, he was in the Army.”
The woman had straight black hair with streaks of iron-gray, she stood up to Brian’s shoulders, her face fiat and unwrinkled. She could have been anywhere from thirty-five to fifty. She was beautiful. Brian told her not to worry about him.
“You come to stay a while. J. C.? You have something to drink? We got plenty, everybody brang for my Joey. We’ll go right through the night into tomorrow with him. Will you stay. J. C.?”
“Well, now. Mrs. Pierce, we’d really like to, we all thought high of young Joseph there, but like I said we been workin horses all day and these boys are just all in. I promised their women I’d get them home early and in one piece. You know how it is.”
The woman gave a little laugh. “Oh, I do, I surely do. We’ll get him home in one piece, that’s what the recruiters said, come onto Rosebud when we were over there. Make a man of him and send him back in better shape than when he left. Well, he’s back. I suppose. Least I know where he is, not like some that are missing or buried over there. Don’t figure anyone’ll want to borrow him anymore.‟ She stopped a moment and turned something over in her mind with great effort, then looked to J. C. again. “We’re havin a service Tuesday over to the Roman. Appreciate it if you all could be there.”
“We’ll make every effort. Ma’am. And if there’s anything you need help with in the coming weeks-”
“Oh no, J. C„ save your help. Won’t need it. After the service I’ll just hitch up and drive on out of here. Go up north, I got people. I put two husbands and four sons in this country now and I’ll be damned if it gets a drop more outen me. No. I’m to go up north.”
“It’s hard livin up there, Mrs. Pierce.”
“Well it aint no bed a goddamn roses down here neither, is it?”
The men hung on in the main room a bit more for courtesy, swapping small talk and trying to remember which of the wild Pierce boys had been responsible for which piece of mischief, trying to keep out of the way of the women, who seemed to know what they were there for. Mrs. Pierce weaved her way through the somber crowd assuring and being assured that her poor Joey was a good boy and would be sorely missed by all. Brian noticed she was wearing the boy’s Silver Star on a chain around her neck.
It took a good hour to get through the crowd, the people didn’t seem to see much of each other and there was a lot of catching up to do, but they were herded steadily, inevitably, toward the bedroom where they knew Honda Joe would be laid out. They shied and shuffled at the doorway a little, but there was no avoiding it. A steady, humming moan came from within, surrounded by other, soothing sounds. J. C. took a deep breath and led the way.
Whoever did the postmortem on Honda Joe must have learned the trade by mail. The corpse, tucked to the chin under an American flag, looked more like it should have been leaning against a stuffed pony at the Wall Drug Store than like something that had lived and breathed. The skin had a thick look to it and a sheen like new leather, and even under the flag you could tell everything hadn’t been put back where it belonged. The men went past the Murphy bed on both sides, up on their toes as if someone was sleeping. They clasped their hands in front of them and tried to look properly mournful. Jackson Blackroot muttered a few words to the corpse. Brian took his turn and concentrated on a spot on the boy’s hairline till he felt he’d put in his time. He was moving away when he heard the whooping from outside.
“Yee-haaaaa!” somebody was yelling. “Yipyipyeeeeee!”
There was the sound of hooves then, and the whooping grew distant. The men emptied out into the night range to see what it was.
“Yeow! Yeow! Yeow!” called a voice over to the left. Someone was riding a horse out there in the pitch black, someone pretty loaded from the sound of him.
“Goddamn Indians,” grumbled one of the old men wearing a VFW hat. “Got no sense a dignity.”
“Yee-hahaaaaa!” called the rider as a gray shape galloped by on the right.
‟Sounds a bit like Bad Heart,” said J. C. “Sounds a whole lot like him.”
They went to J. C.’s pickup and Bad Heart was gone. There was some gear missing too, some rope, a bridle. They checked in the front. J. C.’s shotgun was still there but Jackson’s Bowie knife was gone.
“He loses it I’ll wring his goddamn neck,” said Jackson.
The men all got in their cars and pickups then and put their headlights on. The beams crisscrossed out across the little basin, making eerie pockets of dark and light.
A horse and rider appeared at the far edge of the light, disappeared into shadow, then came into view again. It was Bad Heart, bareback on the little scab-colored stallion. It strained forward as if it were trying to race right out from under him. There was something tied with rope to its tail, dragging and flopping behind, kicking up dust that hung in the headlights’ arc. Bad Heart whacked its ribs and kneed it straight for the dry streambed. It gathered and leaped, stretching out in the air. and landed in perfect stride on the far bank.
“Fucker can ride,” said Jim Crow.
“Fucker could always ride.” said J. C. “Nobody ever denied that. Like he’s born on horseback.”
Bad Heart lay close to the line of the stallion’s back, seemed to flow with its every muscle. With the day’s blood staining his old tan Levis and the scabby red-brown of the horse it was hard to tell where one began and the other left off.
“ Yee-yeeheeeeeeee! ”
Bad Heart circled the trailer a few more times before a couple of the young men commandeered Jeeps and lit out after him. It was a good chase for a white, the Jeeps having more speed but the little stallion being able to cut and turn quicker. They honked and flicked their lights and kept Bad Heart pinned in view of the trailer but couldn’t land him till he tried to make the horse jump the streambed one time too many. It just pulled up short and ducked its head, sending him flying over, tumbling through the air till he hit halfway up the opposite bank.
The horse trotted off out of all the lights and Bad Heart lay wailing.
He was pretty scraped up when they got to him. one side of his face all skinned and his left leg bent crooked from midway up the thigh. He cursed as they made a splint from a rake handle, cursed as they carried him in on a blanket, cursed when they laid him out on the Murphy bed next to Honda Joe.
“Wait’ll the fucker wakes up in the mornin,” he kept saying while they tried to calm him down. “Gonna have a big surprise. Wait’ll he wakes up. Big fuckin surprise.”
Jackson found his Bowie knife tucked in Bad Heart’s boot when they pulled it off. The knife was bloody up to the hilt.
Brian went out with J. C. and Jackson to see about the horse. Everyone had turned their headlights off so J. C. got his flashlight from the pickup. They walked out in the dark a bit and then they heard whuffing up ahead and J. C. shined at it.
The stallion held its head up high, eyes shining back amber in the beam, bridle dangling, chest and sides lathered and heaving. It stood and looked at them as Jackson whispered his way up and took the bridle.
J. C. came up and took the Bowie knife from Jackson. He cut the rope free from the stallion’s tail. Brian went back with him to see what had been dragging behind.
It was a blood-sticky hide. The hair coarse and greasy, like something you’d scuff your feet clean on. It had a sad, lonely smell. It smelled like The West.
J. C. played the light off away from it. “I suppose we best take this thing over, break the news to old Sprague. You wanna come along for the ride?”
“Spose we’ll call it a night after that. Get you up to 90 in the morning.” He turned the flashlight on the stallion, limping a bit as it followed Jackson toward the trailer. “There isn’t all that much to do in Interior anyways.”