Jones pulled the trigger and five hundred yards away, a half-ton buffalo groaned and thudded to the earth. Inconceivably, but as they always did, the rest of the herd froze, vainly trying to reckon from whence death had come, which way they should run next. As they scuffed the dirt and sniffed the wind, eyes wide in witless fear, he reloaded and fired again. Another buffalo fell. He kept this up until the Big 50’s barrel got too hot, whereupon the mute boy took it and handed him the fresh gun and Jones got shooting again. As each beast dropped, Jones added to his growing tally the price its hide would fetch him at the railhead in Dodge. Three dollars. Six dollars. Nine. Twelve. In less than an hour, he’d reached the happy sum of three hundred dollars and whole herd was dead. Jones handed the boy the buffalo gun and reflected as he often did that for all its strength and majesty, for all the reverence the wild savages placed upon it, the noble buffalo was really just a cow.
The skinners got to their work, tying one end of a rope to a spike driven through a dead bison’s snout and the other to the back of a wagon, which as it moved away slowly peeled the hides off the carcasses with a wet, ripping sound. Soon dozens of them were skinned, glistening pink and white like scalped skulls, their precious meat starting to rot in the afternoon sun.
Jones paced among them, rechecking his count. Then, suddenly, despite the torrid heat of the Plains, that clammy feeling at the back of his neck -- the blood-slick grass, the thick clouds of flies, the unspeakable stench – memories of the War stealing down from the attic again. The dead piled high like these dumb beasts due to some idiotic mass action or inaction…no, not now. Jones shook his head, and the memories’ fingers lost their grip on his throat. He spat in the dust and returned to his calculations.
The day’s haul alone would be enough to pay off half his outlay. By tomorrow, he’d be in the black. He’d sunk his savings and a goodly sum of borrowed capital into the wagons and their teamsters; the crew of skinners; two sullen cooks; the mute boy and a Mexican-Kiowa half-breed foreman named Santos whom Jones knew from previous expeditions and thought was alright as far as it went. And of course the two Sharps .50 -.90 rifles which made the whole undertaking possible. When the five wagons were full, he’d head to Dodge to sell the hides and collect his fortune. Then at last he could return home to Missouri and become respectable. The word nearly made him chuckle, surrounded as he was by this platoon of gore-slathered illiterates. But he’d been at the very tip of the spear thrusting westward his whole life, and by God, he would pull from the frontier’s bloody bosom his fair share of the rewards.
To find the herds, they’d pushed out past the Red River through endless fields of bleaching buffalo bones, into the Llano Estacado, the high, trackless grasslands of Comancheria where men were said to get lost in the oceanic emptiness and go mad before dying of thirst. White men, anyway.
Santos rode up, pointing to the west. “Indios,” he said. “Comanche.”
They had somehow appeared out of the flatness. Jones counted more than thirty, and even at this great distance, he could see their faces blackened for war, their glinting lances and Winchesters. The Comanche were known to raid clear down into Mexico, riding off with horses and captives, leaving behind them entire families scalped and disemboweled. And here they were, arrayed before him on their home range, wheeling and rearing on their fleet ponies. At the center of their ranks rode a brave painted entirely bright yellow save for the black war stripe across his eyes.
“Who’s he?” he asked Santos.
“Medicine man,” Santos answered, never taking his eyes off the Indians. “Very powerful, they say.”
The Comanches cantered back and forth on their horses, gesticulating at the slaughtered buffalo herd. The yellow one yelled at them, his brutish tongue faint on the weak breeze, as though he were already calling to them from the past.
“What’s he saying?”
Santos strained to hear. “He says, ’Why have you done this? Why have you committed this sin? You will pay for this sin.’”
The Indians charged all at once, their war-whoops faint but still fearsome, like the high-pitched yips of children gone insane. Some wore horned hats made from buffalo heads, as though the herd Jones had just killed had been reincarnated and come for revenge. If they fell upon his ragged line of frightened skinners and cooks, it would be a slaughter, or at the very least, a desperate flight back to the settlements, where his creditors would take whatever the savages hadn’t. Santos shouted for the men to make ready, and those who were armed fell behind buffalo carcasses, cocking their guns. Jones became aware of the boy nervously tugging at his shirtsleeves. He slapped the boy and considered the charging Indians. In a moment, a group would splinter off to flank his wagons.
“It don’t figure,” he said to Santos. “Why not wait till night? We’re out here hunting buffalo. They must know we’ve got the Big 50s.”
“They say his medicine makes him safe from the guns,” Santos answered. “Well, shit,” said Jones, lifting his rifle. He found the Ochre Indian, bright as a canary between the two vertical, black lines of the rifle’s sight, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The buffalo gun roared and a moment later, a red rose blossomed surprisingly from the medicine man’s yellow chest, a great unseen hand yanking him from his horse and flinging him broken to the dust. The mute boy gasped. Jones lowered the smoking Sharps. He’d been a skirmisher in the War and shooting officers had been his specialty. The rest of the Comanches pulled up their ponies, lamenting and cursing, their magic broken from a half-mile away.
One climbed down to pull the dead medicine man onto the back of his horse, but Jones reloaded and shot him too. He would not let them retrieve their dead. This was a message, else they return to further badger his enterprise: such was the power of the white man’s magic – the buffalo gun – that any future encounters would end in defeat in this life and ignominy in the next for the unclaimed dead.
As his crew whooped and hollered, Jones watched the fleeing Indians impassively. Their time had passed; they would be ground under the wheels of wagons and soon enough, the coming trains. He almost pitied them, the fearsome Mongol horde of the new world, reduced to coating themselves in stinking yellow paint made of horse- piss in the vain hope it could stop the future. But the future was a bullet. The future was no future. Those few Comanches not yet huddled and dying on the reservation in Oklahoma would soon be chased from their ranges by the Army or starved off by buffalo hunters such as himself. And with their passing so too would pass the last of the buffalo, the grizzly and the great packs of wolves, and the endless prairie upon which they all lived and died would become this fellow’s property or that. But there would always be a future for men like him, men willing to pull the trigger on man or beast if the price was right. And when enough killing had been done, he would return home and learn to wear a waistcoat and sip tea and the totems of his bloody-minded sonofabitchedness would hang like curios on the parlor’s papered walls.
The men, his men now, gazed at him at him in awe, waiting to be told what would happen next. “Get back to work,” he said.
Jones and the mute boy stood over the Ochre Indian’s body. He was squat and bow-legged, his teeth small and brown in his bloody mouth. His eyes gazed up to the heavens and their broken promises. Jones shook his head; this underfed harlequin had been their champion. The boy turned away and vomited.
“What’s the matter, ain’t you never seen a man kilt before?” The boy shook his head and wiped his mouth.
“Hell, these is probably the same that kilt your mama and papa.” The boy shook his head again.
“How would you know unless you saw it?”
The boy looked away. A preacher had foisted the boy on Jones, told him the woeful tale of his parents’ murder by marauding Comanches. The horror of discovering their mutilated bodies had apparently struck him dumb. But the preacher insisted that despite his affliction the boy was clever and strong for his age. Jones had considered the boy for a moment, then said, “Well, I ain’t much of a talker myself.”
Jones thought now that maybe the boy had witnessed the whole thing, his mother’s eyes imploring him to silence in his hiding spot as the savages fell upon her. Worst guilt of all, he thought. The unrepayable debt.
“Well, one dead Indian’s good as another. Don’t cry no tears for this sumbitch, ” he said to the boy. “Here.” He reached down to the Indian’s limp arm and pulled a bracelet from the corpse’s wrist. A silver snake eating its own tail, nicely wrought. Mexican, maybe Navajo. He offered it to the boy. The boy shook his head. “Take it,” Jones said. “Fetch you some money back in Dodge or wherever you go after that.”
The boy looked at him for a moment, then nodded, resigned. He took the bracelet and slipped it onto his wrist, where it coiled loosely at the base of his hand.
Dots of flames moved toward him across the plain. On unsteady legs, Jones rose from his blankets and went to them. Behind the Ochre Indian stood a score of figures, the small flames held in their cupped hands illuminating the black streaks across their eyes, the ghastly silver dollars that glimmered in the sockets. There stood a deserter Jones had put up against a willow tree and shot, there stood his wife, his darling Cora. And there, beside the Ochre Indian, stood the mute boy. Jones could scarcely bear to look him, at the coins where his eyes should be. In his hands, a small metal serpent glinted as it twisted and coiled.
“He comes to parley,” said the boy, and Jones quailed at the sound of his voice. What fell magic had unstuck his tongue? How had this deathly host been summoned, and why was the boy among them?
Jones struggled to speak. “What are his terms?”
No coins covered the Indian’s eyes. He stared at Jones stern and pitiless as a judge or a father.
“Go back,” said the mute boy. “Go back and live.”
Just as Jones set his jaw to refuse, he was awakened by the shouting.
Beside the coals of last night’s fire, the boy lay pale and dead, his right arm swollen from the snakebite at the wrist. The Indian’s bracelet was gone.
As he stared into the boy’s face, the sound of his imagined voice still so clear in his ears, Jones felt something in his mind threaten to unspool. Had he agreed to leave in the dream would the boy still be alive? Would the snake have remained a harmless silver bracelet? He feared the answer to both questions was yes, and therefore he was responsible somehow for this innocent boy’s terrible end. But if that were so, then Comancheria must be a land ruled by sorcery, where the horrors and phantasms of his own mind could somehow be made incarnate. The ghosts rattled in the attic again, clamoring to be set free…
He would not allow it. That sort of chatter caused men to fling down their arms and wander into the enemy’s guns. Men who survived cleaved to facts and to the human will and to nothing else. With these he would beat back the contagion of panic and unreason he could feel spreading in himself and among the assembled men. Back straight, he turned to them and said, “Extra whiskey rations for the two men who bury this boy.”
“This is the Indio’s medicine,” Santos said. “This is a curse.”
“This is a bite from a baby rattler, crawled up from a hole. Damn bad luck is what it is.”
Santos turned to him, lowered his voice so the others couldn’t hear. “Jones, we have been on many hunts together. We have seen many things. I am your friend,” he whispered, looking at Jones evenly. “This is bad medicine. We have three wagons. We have enough skins. We must go back.”
Santos was in Jones’ opinion one of the steadiest men in this whole gruesome business, and they’d always respected each other. But facts were facts. Jones knew the entire endeavor hung on what he said or did next. He dropped his hand to the Peacemaker at his waist. “I’ll say when we have enough,” he said, cool as you please. “And if you incite these men further any more bullshit medicine talk, I will shoot you where you fucking stand.”
He glared hard into Santos, his hand hovering just above the Colt. Santos was the toughest of the lot, but Jones was quicker on the draw and both men knew it. After a moment, Santos looked away. Jones took his hand away from the pistol. The rest of the men would go along now. But still, they were spooked and besides, a gesture had to be made.
He walked over to his own bedroll a few feet away and unwrapped one of the buffalo guns. He held it up for the men to see, let its long barrel glint in the dawn. “This gun is the only magic that counts out here. As long as you’re with me, and I got this gun,no Indian can get within fifteen hundred yards of you, unless I miss. And you all know, I don’t never miss.” He paused, letting them grasp a hold the fact of the gun and his mastery of it before adding, “Now, you want to make a run for it on your own…”
He trailed off with an ominous shrug, letting them imagine a death at Comanche hands: hacked to pieces, or worse, scalped alive, staked to the prairie and left for the wolves and buzzards.
But he went further, promised extra wages until the wagons were all full, a contingency for which he’d already budgeted but now made him appear reasonable. The men nodded, still uneasy, and began to get about their work.
Two skinners approached. “We’ll bury the boy,” said one. “For the whiskey,” said the other.
“You’ll get your goddamn whiskey,” said Jones.
“You gotta coupla coins for his eyes, send him on his journey?”
Jones willed the color not to drain from his face at the horrid thought of it. “No,” he said, turning away.
By nightfall, the wagons were full. A sense of relief was palpable among the men, a feeling Jones abetted by permitting them extra whiskey. Still playing the just patriarch, he took the first watch. He rested a tin cup of whiskey on the pommel of the buffalo gun and gazed out into the flat darkness.
A steady, hot wind had picked up from the West, making a shushing sound as it ruffled the tall, dry grass. They had only to make it through the night without incident, he thought, and then they’d be on a long, easy downhill slope back to civilization. Santos had not spoken since the morning. When he’d given them the whiskey, some men had raised their filthy cups to him, but Santos just stared into the fire. So he’d pay him extra when they got to Dodge, make things right insofar as possible. After that, adios, amigo. If it all went according to plan, he’d never see any of these degenerates again. Early in the watch, he thought he heard the men muttering about him by the fire, but when he turned, they were all sleeping, or pretending to. Probably plotting a mutiny or scheming to stick a knife in his ribs after he got paid in Dodge. Well, just let them try…
Jones willed himself to think of the house in Saint Louis. He would sit on its broad porch in the evening and smoke cigars with the other men of standing, men who might have looked down their noses at him unless he had a six-gun in his hand. Now he would invite them to his table and they would drink claret or port of whatever the fuck it was rich men drank…In the study, the boy might have worked at his talking with a kindly tutor…Jones pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to summon the house and crowd out the prophetic dream, the dead boy in the grass, and the Ochre Indian, whom he could swear he’d glimpsed earlier amidst the churning buffalo herd, riding a pale horse…
The faintest acrid tinge of it on the wind pulled him from his reverie. He sat up and saw the dots of flame off to the West. For a mad moment, he thought the legions of the dead from his dream were advancing toward him across the plain, carrying fire in their cupped hands. The truth was worse: behind each orange speck, he knew, were Comanche braves fanning the flames toward him with sheets of buffalo hide.
They were determined to drive him from their lands, even if it meant they’d starve for it later. Well, so be it, but he’d be good and goddamned if they were going to take his fortune with them.
The wind lifted little sparks and dropped them closer and closer to the camp. He fired the buffalo gun to rouse the men.
The flames towered tall as a barn barely two hundred yards behind the last wagon. The men on horseback charged headlong to the East, but the wagons could only crawl forward under the great weight of their cargo. Jones rode beside the last wagon, sudden shadows slashing across his face as he leveled his six-gun at the driver.
“Go faster, goddamn you!”
“I’m driving them as hard as I can, sir,” the driver begged. “They can’t go no faster! Please sir, lemme ride with you. For the love of God, Mr. Jones, I’m a family man!”
“I don’t give a shit about your family,” Jones said. “But if you ever want to see them again, you better start whipping those horses.” The terrified driver uselessly flogged his team harder and Jones holstered his pistol.
Three riders approached, Santos and two others, bandanas over their faces to protect against the smoke making them look like highwaymen. One man balanced a Winchester across his saddle.
“We have to leave the wagons,” Santos said, his hand already at his holster. “We’re not leaving the goddamn wagons.”
“We can’t outrun the fire. These men will die. We have to leave the wagons.”
The man with the Winchester – that shit-bird Harris, probably – had come around, just out of Jones’ peripheral vision.
“Jones,” Santos said evenly, “Last chance.”
The house in Saint Louis, the privations he’d endured, the blood on his hands…all gone, all for nothing? Never and never and never. It was obvious now to Jones that the half-breed Santos was in league with the painted savage and had been all along.
Jones reached for his Colt in the same instant Santos nodded to Harris. The butt of the Winchester smashed Jones hard just behind the ear, knocking him from his horse and into blackness.
When he awoke, the very ground was seething, singeing his hands and face. The horses and men were gone and the fire was very close. Through the smoke, he could make out the shapes of the wagons, flames already starting to catch on the piled, fatty hides.
As he rose to his knees, he glimpsed a figure in the looming inferno. He reached for the buffalo gun, but it was gone. They’d picked him clean, the thieves. So it was to be an up-close fight then. Shit, Jones thought as he staggered to his feet, I’ve killed plenty up close. Colt in one hand, Bowie in the other, he marched out into the molten air that preceded the consuming flame in the yellow and black heart of which the Ochre Indian danced a taunting war dance and beckoned with his knife.