© T.C. Spears
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Chapter One: Kenneth Murchison
*Hotel Del Monte Ca. 1909 (asterisk denotes italics)
Hotel Del Monte Ca. 1909
Miss Simmonds, I told Mr Harper that I aim to write one chapter every morning. Damned if I can figure out why he sent you right across the country with your type machine. Ain’t no reason I couldn’t make a packet of the papers and mail them to New York each week.
Anyway I ain’t going to argue since it’s his dollars that’s paying your wages. I told the desk clerk to give you a key for my day room so that you can collect the pages. On no account come in before noon. The other door (locked) leads to the room where I sleep. If you have any questions leave a note with your finished typed pages on my table by the window between six and seven in the evening.
That’s the right brand of lead pencils and a dozen should be enough for now. N.H.*
I skinned out my last buffalo well over thirty years ago on a fine spring day on the Plains somewhere north of Sheridan. I read in the newspaper today that there are just fifteen hundred left in the world. Back in that one season alone we killed around six hundred, and that was just Janzens’s outfit. I’m not proud of my small part in that slaughter but when you’re young you don’t think too deeply about such things. No, that ain’t quite true. The Scotchman, Murch, was ten years younger than me and he had plenty of ideas about what’s right and wrong but then he took too much account of what the hellfire preachers had put into his head before he crossed the ocean. I tried to educate some of that stuff out of him on our journey to California. Maybe I did some good, maybe not. I’ll leave you to decide.
Anyway this is what happened on that last afternoon before Janzen paid us off and Murch and I took to the trail together.
Janzen and the English lord were lying on the ridge looking down on the shallow valley when I crawled up the last fifty yards and put the Englishman's second rifle on the tarp beside him. He didn't look at me. Then I slid back to where I had left Janzen's spare Sharps and fetched it up beside them.
About forty buffalo were grazing into the wind within easy shot, cows and yearling calves, no bulls this early in the year.
"That one," said Janzen quietly, "She's stirrin' and lookin' around more'n I care for." Lord Warrington nodded and sighted on her. In a moment he fired and the cow's front legs buckled and she rolled forward, head held clear of the ground by one horn spiked into the turf. When the wind whipped the smoke away I could see the herd was spooked, bellowing and milling around looking for a leader to follow. One old cow broke away and made to bolt upwind and the rest spotted her and turned to follow.
"Quick now, she'll stampede the rest!" Janzen reached across and gently pushed the barrel of Warrington’s fancy piece to line up on the panicked beast. Warrington was still fumbling a cartridge into the lock. He'd just snapped it shut when Janzen fired and the cow went down clean as you like.
"Have to be quicker," said Janzen, "If they run the shootin's over for the day, like as not several days."
Warrington said nothing but you could see Janzen hadn't done himself no favors snapping off before the Englishman had got a bead on the buff. The herd was circled now into a tighter bunch, roaring and bawling and mothers trying to join up with their own particular calf, and none of them any idea what to do except not to stumble into the bodies twitching on the prairie.
"We got them now," said Janzen. "Them that breaks away, shoot first. Like I said before, no fancy head shots. Bring 'em down steady."
They began firing as quick as they could load and I wriggled back out of the smoke and off the ridge on my elbows. I didn't care to watch, reckoning I'd seen enough slaughter over the last few months. Once clear of the skyline I stood up and walked back to the wagons.
Lafeet was honing skinning knives on the little portable grindstone and Murch was winding the handle for him. Five long knives, edges already bright and sharp, were laid out on a piece of hide. They stopped and looked at me.
"Mebbe forty head. Cows and yearlings."
"Not good," said Lafeet, "Last spring better, by Christ." He felt the edge of a skinning knife and laid it beside the others on the hide. "Caring for a goddamn lord don't help none."
Murch gave the handle of the grinding stone an angry spin and stomped off towards the wagon.
"What's eatin' on him?"
"Your cussin'. You know he don't like it."
"He don't have to listen. Maybe I cuss in French next time, me."
"He's been listenin' to you cussin' since November. Could be he just had a belly full."
"Hopper you cuss and blaspheme plenty around him too, but he don't huff with you."
"He just huffs different, that's all." I placed each sharpened knife on the hide and folded it around them to keep the edges keen. "You got the ropes and levers?"
"On the wagon. I done all that, me, when you be steppin' and fetchin' for his Majesty."
The firing had slowed. Just two more reports and then I saw Janzen stand up and wave through the clearing smoke. I walked up to the ridge. Warrington handed me his hot rifle without a word and strode off down to the wagons. I rolled up the tarp he’d been layin’ on and picked up his other gun. Down on the flats the dead buffalo lay scattered over the new young grass. One or two still kicked a little and tried to raise up, and one yearling wandered in circles dragging a useless rear leg some ways beyond. I looked at Janzen.
He shook his head. "Out of range. Waste of powder and lead. Take Warrington's gear down to his wagon. Then you can start skinning out with Lafeet and Murch."
Warrington's servant, Evans, had a fire going now, feeding it with buffalo chips. The lord was sitting on a folding chair smoking a cigar, his big stupid English dog at his feet. I held up the guns. He pointed to his servant. I took them over to Evans and he propped them carefully against the Mitchell wagon. "They got bullets in still? He said I got to clean them."
I dropped the lock on each. One was empty, the other still held a cartridge. I took it out and gave it to him. "Safe now." I sniffed. "You makin' fancy coffee?"
"For Sir Edward. Any left I'll take it over to Wang. You can get some then."
"Too late then. We got to skin out while they're still warm."
Murch led our wagon out, Lafeet sitting on the backboard. I walked in front with Murch.
"You still of a mind to go west when we get through here Murch?"
"Your horse can make it?"
"I will not push him hard." Lafeet stopped the wagon in the killing ground. Around us humped carcasses dotted the thin grass. Lafeet slid off the wagon and unhitched a horse.
The injured yearling was now on his knees some way off. He raised his head and bawled. Murch shook his head, took a knife from the hide roll in the wagon and picked his way through the blood and dung on the prairie. He circled round and snuck up on the animal from behind and waited. When the the head stopped swaying and the horn scything the air he reached in under its horns and slashed twice with the knife. Lafeet was watching. Now he nodded and said, "Dangerous, by God, but he done that good and quick. Not right to leave beast like that." He spat on his hands and uncoiled the rope. "I done enough of this goddamn skinning, me. This my last season, sure thing."
I had started cutting the first beast when Murch returned. He knelt down and began to peel back the heavy skin. Lafeet backed up the horse. He fixed the rope on the loose edge of the hide and then walked the horse forward, peeling it away. We took wooden levers from the wagon and rolled the body over, re-fixed the rope on the other side and this time the hide came away clean. Lafeet and I heaved it into the wagon bed as Murch started running his knife along the belly of the second beast.
It was ugly dirty work. Even with the horse for the heavy pulling it was hell on the hands. None of us had any fingernails to speak of for they were worn down and broken with tugging and hauling at the slippery skins. The flies had already joined the fun, and they crawled on the fat and blood on our clothes. As the day warmed up and the breeze dropped, we tried to wipe sweat from our eyes with gory greasy hands and the flies found our faces too. We worked on without a break on account of it's considerably easier to skin when the beast is fresh killed, rather than waiting until you work up a notion to lay into it, which in my case would be never. I ain't ever tried cattle work, which they say is dirty and hard, but I swear it can't be worse than buffalo skinning.
Near the end of the afternoon we was on the last hide when Lafeet spotted riders on paint ponies to the north. We watched them, maybe a dozen, ride closer then stop and dismount around a quarter of a mile off.
"Them’s Osage,” said Lafeet. "They ain’t goin’ to cause trouble. Janzen told me the government troops have them pretty well corralled up in their territory. He said they usually mind their manners when they sneak off it. They'll just ride in when we go and cut themselves some meat."
"Better them than the flies and the vultures," said Murch.
Back at the camp the other team had just rolled in from our previous camp with a wagon half full of dried hides. We'd finished laying out the new hides to start drying when Janzen came up.
"Need to talk to you, boys. Come over to the big wagon."
I looked at Lafeet. He shrugged. "He ain't told me damn nothing."
Janzen had the supply wagon tailboard down and propped up like a table. Smith, Duvall and Tyler were already stood around smoking. Janzen was unlocking a wooden chest. He looked up. "Way I see it, fellas, is we're done for this season. Hides are losing condition, buffs are harder to find and I ain't of a mind to keep chasin' them north. Some of them'll be back next winter so we'll start after ‘em again in October. Lord Warrington's got his bull head trophy and he's getting tired of yer company, I reckon.” He looked up to see Warrington was still up at his own tent. “I'll wager the gentleman is looking forward to a city hotel with a bath and a high class whore."
Lafeet squirted tobacco juice in the direction of the small wagon. "Putain! Too soon. Wagons ain't full yet."
Janzen frowned. "You forgetting that Warrington ain't takin' his hides? Don’t forget you stand to gain a few dollars off him by stayin' friendly and polite till this outfit unyokes in Sheridan, Lafeet."
Lafeet said, "That it? You payin' us off?"
"Not you, Lafeet. I want you and Duvall's team to stay with the hides until they are dry enough to load. Then you haul the wagon loads back to Sheridan and I'll pay you there. Wang and this wagon and Warrington's rig will head off back with me tomorrow."
"Suits me," said Lafeet, "Long as them goddamn Kiowa sons of bitches don't come sneakin' in. The Osages are at the meat already. They ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ but maybe the Kiowa out there too somewhere."
"Four of you stayin'. I'll leave you a Sharps. That'll keep them at a distance if they get too bold. Two of you stay on watch at night and you'll be safe enough. Let the Osage haul away the meat and I reckon you'll not see them again." He looked at Murch and me. "Hopper, you said you were planning to head on west at the end of the season. Ain't that correct?"
I nodded. "Going to Nevada. Maybe try Tuscarora. They struck silver there."
"You too, Murch? Going to be a miner?"
"I am going to California, God willing, Mr. Janzen, "but I have no intention of becoming a miner."
"Well, see here. No point in you both trailin' back to Sheridan to get paid off. I don't need you, and you don't need to be riding extra miles in that direction. What do you say I pay you off right here and you head south west tomorrow?"
I looked at Murch. "Sounds to me like good thinking. You, Murch?"
"I'm quite agreeable to that."
"Just one little hitch." He took a pair of eyeglasses from the chest, put them on and peered closely at a notebook.
Lafeet let out a snort of laughter. "I ain't seen you with them fancy eye pieces before, boss. How come you shoot so damn good ifn you need goggles to do your figurin'?"
"I can see the flies landin’ on a buffalo's tail at a hundred yards, Lafeet. Long as I can see good enough to figure out what's owing to you when we get to Sheridan you don't need to worry none. Now you other girls, run along and get yer chow. I got some private business with these two gentlemen, who you may have noticed are too damned polite to pass comment on my eyesight."
The others walked away and Janzen consulted his notebook, nose almost on the paper, then he held it out for us to check his sums. "This here is what I owe you. Both the same. You agree with that figurin'?" He took a metal cash box from the chest and tipped out a pile of silver dollars and paper notes. "Problem is there ain't enough cash money to square you up. It's in the bank in Sheridan safe enough but I ain't got it right here. Now you don't want to ride back to town with me to fetch it out of the bank, and a promise note ain't no good to you where you plan on going. Since I'm breaking up this outfit for the season I propose I pay you this here sum in cash and we trade goods for the balance."
Neither Murch nor I had any objections to this idea so we got down to it.
Janzen went on, "Murch, that old horse of yours ain't going to sneeze his way to Nevada never mind California, not unless you aim to carry him. I'm goin' to let you pick a horse out of the remuda, any one but the black mare which I reckon is in foal. And you fellas is goin' to need firearms of some sort, if only to wave at the Kiowa. Ain't that the case?"
Murch said, "I traveled across America from Baltimore to this wilderness and did not once regret my lack of a weapon. Those who carry guns will always find a use for them."
Janzen stared at him for a second and turned to me. "What about you, Hopper? You a man of peace as well?"
"I got a weapon in my pack. Just don't believe in showin' it around. But I'd be happy to trade for some lead and powder. A couple of pounds of tobacco, a tin of salt, and maybe a good twist of peppercorns would not go amiss."
“A couple of pounds of coffee beans too, Mr. Janzen.”
“Wang ain’t got much left but we can spare you a pound. Now what about camp possibles?”
Well, you might think Murch was soft in some ways but he proved he could drive a bargain.At the end of half an hour we were better off by a pack saddle for Murch's old gelding, the chance to pick out another horse, two good canteens, coffee pot, a small iron dutch oven and a couple of weeks’ supply of pinto beans. Janzen finally persuaded Murch to accept an old Walker cap and ball revolver missing one wooden cheek plate on its handle. "Wear it while traveling'. Look on it as scalping deterrent." He said and Murch reluctantly put it with the rest of the gear.
All in all we was pretty content with the trades, particularly as when it balanced up so we had a good few dollars in silver money on top of the goods, so we shook hands all round. Then Janzen put his eyeglasses on again and set to work writing on a page of his notebook with a pencil.
"I'll be needing a receet, boys, to show that we are all square. This here is the goods and cash written out clear and my name. Down here you makes your mark." He looked up and noticed Murch had flushed. "Or signs your name as the case may be."
I didn't take no offense myself but signed pretty quick and clear. 'Nathan Hopper'. "Now you, Murch.
Murch took the pencil and in a second he had written his name and handed the notebook back. Janzen held it up to his eyeglasses and laughed. "By God, Murch, you're smarter than I thought. I didn't know you could write Chinese."
I managed to sneak a look at what he had written. It read something like Coinnach Macmurchaid." He took the pencil from Murch and wrote below Murch's signature, if that was what it was: "Known by me and others as Murch."
"That's the name I was christened, Mr. Janzen," said Murch, quite cool but polite as you like, "and as it was written into register book of the Free Church of Scotland in the parish of Inverbost. In English it would be Kenneth Murchison."
Janzen grinned. "Well, if the church of wherever reckons it’s a tolerable enough way to write down a moniker legal, guess it'll be good enough for an American bison killin' outfit. Now you boys go over to the remuda and pick out a decent mount for Murch."
We walked over to the hobbled horses. Nick, the horse I'd bought in Sheridan recognized me and tried to sidle away. He was getting lazy on account of three months of mostly idling around camp. Murch was running his hands over a gray gelding, maybe seven years old and about the same size as Snuff, his own tired old beast.
"Reckon your saddle would go on him, Murch?"
"I think it would." He was picking up the hooves and checking them. After three months none of the horses were shod but the prairie had been kind to them and the work had been light.
“I think this beast will serve me well enough.”
"What you going to call him, Murch? None of these horses have been christened yet, far as I know."
He frowned. "Not christened, Nathan. Named, I believe is the correct term for an animal. I'll call him Pegasus. That is a fine classical name for a horse."
"Maybe so, Murch, but remember he has to keep company with Snuff and Nick. A high falutin' name like that might just put their noses out of joint."
He allowed himself a smile. "What do you suggest then, Nat?"
"What about Peg?"
"Plain old Peg it is then." And he went back to camp to inform Jansen of his choice.
We ate early that evening and afterwards there was still a good hour of light left and the air still warm. Smith and Lafeet were up on the ridge watching the Osage lighting fires among the dead buffalo below. I went up to Tyler where he lay half propped up on his saddle. A good way off Warrington was sitting on a folding chair outside his tent smoking one of his Cuban cigars
Tyler sniffed the scent drifting down on the light breeze.
"Ain't that smell fine, Hopper. He given you one o' them fancy smokes yet?"
"Hell, no. He don't even speak to the hired help. Long as he gets put in easy shot of the buffs he's happy, far as I can tell."
"Can't see much sense in it myself, but then I ain't a lord. Janzen said he's been in Africa shootin' all kinds of beasts. Elephants and them striped horses too.
"Them the ones with the stripes? Or the long necked piebald ones? Saw them in a school picture book about old Noah. Never could recall which was which."
"Zebras has the stripes and necks like horses." I said.
Tyler scratched a match on his boot and relit his pipe. "What do you reckon he does with the skins?"
"Why, hangs them on his castle wall, I expect. Anyways he ain't but taking three of the best robes and the bull head he shot three days ago. The rest is for Janzen to sell."
"Reckon he's rich enough without selling buffalo hides. Me, I'd just buy a few cured robes off the Osages if I wanted them. Can't get better than what their women cure."
"You still got them scissors in your roll, Tyler?"
"Sure. You aimin' to do some tailorin'?"
"Feel like getting rid of this hair," I lifted my hat."
"Sit down. I kin shear you but it might not be too pretty."
He fetched his rusty old shears and set to work. Soon my heavy greasy locks were falling on to the prairie."Heard you're headin' out west with Murch tomorrow."
"Knowed him long?"
"No longer than you, I reckon. He signed on with Janzen same day as me."
"Close your eyes now. I'm goin’ to cut you off square round the front. You got a comb perhaps. Help to get it kind of even."
"Got one in my pack but it won't pass through my hair no more. It's gotten too darned tangled. Pay it no mind. Long as I kin see the trail ahead I'm not complainin'."
"That Murch speaks kinda funny. He from one o' them Union states up against Canada?"
"Could be. He never said."
"Never seen a religious fella so young."
"Guess it was the manner in which he was raised."
"Ain't no other explanation. Less'n he got a call direct from God." Tyler snipped away for a few more minutes. "Don't bother you none, keepin' company with preachy fella on the trail."
"He generally keeps his godfearin' notions to himself which suits me. You got to admit Murch is straight. Works hard, honest and clean in his habits. Things don't work out, we'll split the outfit and ride off separate. You got a mirror?"
"Broke. Trust me, Hopper, your head ain't pretty now that I can see it right but I ain't done scalped you neither."
"Ain't complainin'. Feels cooler now." I tugged at my whiskers. "I aim to take these off too, then get me a proper shave in Denver."
"Hold still and I'll trim yer phizzog. Then ye kin take the shears and scalp me. Lean back a bit."
He worked the shears round my face cutting as close as he could talking all the while. "Me, I'll be back in Sheridan on Monday, with my savins. Did I ever tell ye I'm planning to file for a homestead. I'm done with this buffalo huntin'. I been livin' half of every year in this stink since the war. Now I got a stake rolled up in the bank." He stepped back and examined me with one eye closed. "Reckon that'll do. Not bad for an old bison skinner, as never been trained in the barbering art. Maybe I should take it up professionally, say to hell with sodbustin'."
I ran my hands over my head, felt the coolness of the evening breeze around my ears and chin. "Thank you, Tyler. Can't say as I would be a regular customer on account of your scissors bein' somewhat in need of sharpenin'. Ifn I was you I be sure to get that homestead in case the barbering don't pay off. Course, you could always rear sheep and keep your hand in."
Tyler laughed and handed me the scissors. "They say there's a photo- graph -ic studio opened up in Sheridan. I aim to get me one of them daguerry types to send back to my cousins in Indiana. Maybe they can pass it around the county and rope me a farmer's daughter lookin' for a handsome hard workin' man with a hundred and sixty acres of Kansas."
He sat down on a feed sack and took off his hat."Better bait your hook with a picture of Murch then. I heard there's more than a few rascals doing tricks like that west of Sheridan."
"How come Murch keeps so handsome and clean faced?"
"He’s fussy is Murch. I seen Wang heating water for him to have a shave a few days ago."
"Don't seem worth it out here on the Plains."
"It's just Murch's way. Makes him feel better," I cut away at the thick gray hair. "Hold your head still now, Tyler! I damn near lopped an ear off you there. I'll allow you're sure not as pretty as Murch but you might do better at snaring a wife with two ears showing clear in the daguerreotype."
I snipped round Tyler’s skull while he puffed contentedly at his short clay pipe. After a minute he said, “Reckon Murch would have no trouble lurin’ a whole Pullman car of ladies out west if he was so inclined. Seems God don't mind waste, makin' such a preachy clean livin' fella so handsome"
"I don't know how this is goin' to come out Tyler. I never cut a body's hair before."
"Do your best, Hopper. I know I ain't no oil painting but a hundred and sixty prime acres near the railroad might swing the balance when it comes to attractin’' a woman."
"Well, Tyler, it's gettin' so dark I can't hardly see what I'm cuttin'. Best thing about this job is you'll have to wait till morning to see how you look and with luck I'll be well gone."
Chapter Two: The Devil’s Brew
*I got your note. No there ain't no pages missing. That's where I aimed to make the story begin and I ain't changing it. Mr. C. (who knows a good deal about book writing) said quite clear to write it the way it suits me and be sure to put in the things that will interest the folks that weren't around then, things like what we did to the buffaloes in them days.
If I feel like it I'll go back to all that being borned and growing up stuff later.
That is the way Lafeet spelled his name. I seen it written down in Janzen's book so you just change it back to how I had it written down in my pencil pages.
This is the way I like the table: new sheets of paper on the left (I'll pile them to the right as I write on them); previous day's pencil work to north of them with typing machine pages to east of that. And leave the window open.
The pistols are not loaded so you ain't going to shoot yourself by accident. I put them there to keep the draft from blowing the damn pages all over the room.
I woke up at first light and crawled from under the wagon and into the chill morning. Wang had the fire going and the smell of fried buffalo liver drew me towards it. I held my plate out for him to fill.
“Mr.Janzen say you and Mr.Murch go west today.”
“Goin’ to try silver mining, Wang. What about yourself?”
“Go also west. Building railway here finished. Many Chinese in California. He is washpanning gold.”
“No more cooking for you then, Wang?”
“Maybe wash pan gold, maybe cooking. Also maybe going San Francisco. Many Wang. Many cousin he look for cook.”
“Well, Wang, if I don’t make my fortune in Nevada maybe see you in California.”
Janzen came up to the fire with a heavy blanket over his shoulders. He speared a piece of liver from the skillet and picked it off the knife with his teeth.
"You girls know how to get to where you're going?"
I took the little brass compass from my coat pocket and held it out. Janzen took it and snapped it open. "Know how to use it, Hopper?"
"Tain't so difficult. Arrow points north, near as dammit. Other directions marked on the little disc." I helped myself to a plate of liver and potatoes.
"Now where would an ignorant buffalo skinner find a thing like that?"
He passed it back. "Well, you don’t need it. Just head south west until you come on the Kansas Pacific. Follow that along and you'd be a darned fool if you didn't hit Denver by and by."
Murch had come up to the fire. Wang gave him a tin plate and pointed at the skillet. Murch shook his head and opened the pot of leftover potatoes and beans that Wang had set to heat through next the fire. He spooned a heap on to his plate, went round behind the wagon and muttered a blessing over his food. Janzen looked at me with his eyebrows raised.
"That's his Scotch language," I said. “Ain’t you heard him prayin’ before?”
Murch came back to the fire and began to eat. "Mr. Janzen I have been thinking about the settlement we made yesterday. Is it not right that if we had been going back with you it would have been the case that you would have been providing us with victuals for two or maybe three days? I believe we are entitled to the supplies which we would have eaten.
Janzen stared at him for a second. "But you're leaving my employ today! It ain't my duty to feed you after ye quit."
"Our contract is terminating by mutual agreement, Mr. Janzen. You said yourself there was nothing for us to do on the trail back."
Janzen turned to me. "What do you think, Hopper?"
"I think he's got a fair point."
"Well, I sure don't accept your lawin', Murch, but I do admire yer fancy words. I can see you're cut out for bigger things than skinnin' buffs." He laughed, "Perhaps you could set yer hand at politicking if the Kiowas don't silence you first." He went over the wagon and disappeared under the cover.
I winked at Murch. "Old Janzen ain't so bad. He'll see us right. It was right smart of you to tackle him." It was true enough; Murch was an innocent sap on some matters, but when it got down to dickering about dollars he was as sharp as a rattlesnake's fang.
Janzen returned with a cotton bag. "There you go, girls, five pounds of corn grits and five pounds of bacon. I would say that's mighty generous."
Murch took it. "Thank you, Mr. Janzen; I believe it is a very fair settlement."
Janzen clapped him heartily on the back. "Murch, if you don't get made state governor in California and happen to find yourself back in Kansas in the fall, I'd be glad to take you on for the next season. You done good work, never bitched nor nothing, which is a sight more than I can say for some. Now I'm beginning to believe you've got brains as well."
"Thank you Mr. Janzen, but I have a good position to take up in California."
"Well, it's your business, I reckon. I wish you safe journey. Be sure you strap that old cannon on your saddle where the Kiowa can see it until you get to Denver, then hide it in your saddle bag lest they take you for one of the Farrington boys and string you up." He laughed, shook our hands and turned away to rouse out the rest of the men.
Within the hour we were riding along the ridge overlooking the plain where we had skinned the buffaloes the day before. Murch rode his new horse, Peg, and old Snuff trailed behind carrying most of our gear. We could see the Osage moving north dragging several pole travois loaded with the meat they had smoked overnight. Now crows pecked at the tons of flesh and bone still scattered rotting over the grass.
"If the people in my village could see the meat that we have wasted here they would weep," said Murch, "It is surely a terrible sin and it shames my soul that I played a part in it."
"If not you then someone else would have done it."
"In Genesis our Lord told us: 'Every living thing that moveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb I have given you all things.' This waste of his gift must surely anger Him."
"Janzen sends the hides east. They ain't wasted. And I heard tell that some homesteaders are collecting and freighting the bones east for fertilizer."
"And the good flesh is left to rot, Hopper."
"Ain't no way of preserving it. Less you smoke it or make pemmican like the tribes do and that ain't no occupation I aim to learn."
"If I were an Osage I would want fresh killed meat, not carrion that has lain in the sun all day."
"Maybe so. Could be they were trailing that herd but we got to it first."
Murch fell silent and we rode on and made good distance to the south west that day. Murch's new mount paced along well enough after he'd accepted he'd said goodbye to the remuda and Old Snuff followed on content enough on without a lead rope. I stopped sometimes for a bearing on some distant feature, not that there was an over supply of such a convenient commodity, but in truth there was little danger that we would lose ourselves. If we had been inclined to we could have ridden directly south, and picked up the Kansas Pacific to follow all the way to Denver, but I aimed to cut the journey shorter by following a generally southwestern heading.
We called a halt early by some low hack-berries beside a shallow creek. We hadn't seen any Kiowa all day but I hobbled the horses to graze near the camp lest a band snuck in and ran them off during the night. Murch got a buffalo chip fire going and boiled water for coffee. Then he set a pot of beans to soaking.
"You don't aim to eat them beans tonight, Murch?"
"I have no notion for meat."
"Wang lets them beans sit in water overnight and cooks them long the next day. They'll be hard as unshelled pecans."
"Is that so? I did not take note of how he prepared them."
"Leave 'em soak tonight. Chew down on this," I passed him a strip of dried buffalo and a chunk of Wang's sourdough. He muttered his little prayer and then set to it with little appetite.
I had to chaw pretty careful myself on account of a little devil who had been tapping away inside one of my back teeth with a ball peen hammer for nigh on a month. Lately he had changed it for a pickax and I was beginning to believe he might just break through into my skull pretty soon. Wang had said his people had a surefire cure for toothache and given me slices of ginseng to hold against it, but that didn't do nothing for my pain. Seemed like I was going to have to spend some of my dollars on a doc with a pair of pliers.
After we ate I fetched one of the bottles I had been keeping hidden in my blanket roll and poured some whiskey into my tin cup. Murch sniffed and looked mighty disapproving. I swilled the whiskey around and over the tooth before I swallowed and the little devil inside quit beating so hard.
"You have carried strong drink with us, Hopper? I had no intention in sharing the journey with a drunkard."
"Medicinal. Got a bad tooth." I took another good mouthful and lit my pipe.
"'Whoredom and wine take away the heart.' Hosea, chapter four, verse eleven."
"It ain't wine, Murch, so I reckon your God will have no objection." I held up the bottle "George Dickel, Tennessee whiskey, the best. Been savin' it for three months." The whiskey was warming my inside now and I couldn't resist prodding on old Murch a little. I pretended to look round our little camp. "And I don't see no whores within ropin' distance. Course, there may be a couple paintin' up and curlin' their hair behind them bushes and fixin' to come over and entertain a couple of lonesome buff skinners."
He hunched himself in bedroll and I heard him mutter. "The devil's brew that robs man of his reason."
"Reckon I'll get along just dandy without my reason tonight. Sleeping sound is my aim, but if one of them imaginary whores appears and starts makin' up to you just send her over and I'll change my plans to accommodate her."
Chapter Three: The Cramping Colic
* The lewd talk and blaspheming is the way I want the story told. Mr. Harper sent you and your typing machine to set the story down legible, not to be cutting bits of it out. Your opinion is of no account. Send him a telegraph if you want to quit and he can send out another typing machine wrangler.
And don't sharpen them lead pencils so pointy. I'm making holes in that damned cheap paper you got me. When they break I can't sharpen them one handed.
Also thank you for advice regarding cooking of beans, however I now take my meals in the hotel or Heller's Chophouse and Saloon. N.H.”
In the morning old Murch didn't say much; just rose and rolled up his bedding in his gum blanket and fetched water from the creek. When he saw I was awake he asked kindly after my troublesome tooth and told me not to stir while he gathered more buffalo flops and coaxed life into the fire. So I lay warm in my blanket and watched the sky lighten in the east as he worked. When the sun was up over the horizon and drying the dew from the grass I rose and walked off some way to do my business private. By the time I got back he was boiling up his beans on the fire beside the coffee pot.
My little tooth devil hadn't roused himself yet so I cut some strips of dried meat and chawed on them. Murch passed me a plate of his beans and a hard tack biscuit and started in on his own breakfast.
After a minute I put the plate down. "Murch, it ain't in my nature to be critical but I reckon them beans ain't cooked right yet. I surely hope you don't take offense if I put them back in the pot and we can cook 'em a bit more tonight."
Between spoonfuls he allowed that they were a bit tough, said that no offense was taken, but he believed if they were chawed thorough they was prime travelin' fodder. Of course, he didn't put it exactly in them words but, by friendly way he spoke, I got the notion that our little disagreement over the whiskey was to be forgotten.
After a couple of hours riding Murch dismounted carefully and said he would lead his horse and walk a little. I paid no mind to that because my own ass was a bit tender from yesterday's ride, probably on account of us spending so long laboring at skinning and doing other footwork with only short rides between camps. I slowed to accommodate him, but after maybe half an hour he stopped. I looked back and saw him bent over double with his fists pushed into his belly.
When I rode back to him I saw he was biting down on the leather rein of his horse. He took it from between his teeth. "Nathan, you must go on without me. I believe I have the cramping colic. It is the curse of my family and an uncle and my older sister died of it."
"Horsefeathers, Murch! Them beans you ate for breakfast are brewin' up in your bowels. You ain't goin’ to die of it." I gave him a boost back into his saddle, but I could see he took no account of my words. He loosed his belt and rubbed on his belly for a while, and then I started us off again. He followed but once or twice he cried out as Peg moved unexpectedly.
After an hour of this he stopped and said, "Help me down. I have to stretch out flat for a few moments." He lay on his back on the ground. His face was pale and there was sweat on his brow though the day was not yet warm. He began to draw his legs up, and roll to one side and then the other.