April faded into May. It was a lonesome country now, and Clay and Rod Anderson lived off the land and off the supplies they had loaded on their pack animals in Independence, Missouri. There Anderson had bought himself two mules, and the mules and the donkey packed his life behind him. As for Clay, his horses took turns carrying him and carrying his supplies. The tallgrass prairie waved belly-high around them, and there were times it was all they could see but for a myriad of wildflowers dotting the prairie in nearly every shade of color. Big, odd-looking deer with rope-like tails and huge ears sometimes bounded out away from them, then stopped to watch them pass. He had to go on his slim knowledge of the West, all gleaned through reading, to guess that these were the half-tame mule deer he had heard so much about. But they didn’t seem all that tame, just almighty curious. Flocks of ducks and geese sometimes blackened the sky with their numbers, heading for some lake or pond, and always and everywhere the songbirds trilled in the tall grass.
The pair had to be more careful now, for they rode in Indian country. Both of them had purchased revolvers in Independence, two pairs of Colt .44 Armies that rode in pommel scabbards hung from their saddles. Clay had also found himself a Colt Dragoon that now sat in a crossdraw holster on his left hip, its nearly five pounds, when fully loaded, comforting even though he had never had much cause to use pistols.
Neither Clay nor Anderson were men of the wide open spaces. Although neither had lived in villages, cities or towns, they both came from the civilized areas east of the Mississippi, where companionship or at least other human souls could almost always be found within five miles of any point on any road they chose to travel. So here in these vast, empty spaces, there was an eerie sense of aloneness, of desolation, that ate at them both, that made them shrink even in the face of its austere beauty. This loneliness made them grow closer, and although neither man talked much Clay began to think of Anderson as his best friend—perhaps his only friend.
They were lying in bed early one morning, the sun only a rosy light slashing the rim of the eastern horizon, when they heard the rumble of thunder. Since neither man had brought any kind of cover other than the tarpaulins in which they packed their supplies, they both moaned and pulled themselves deeper into their blankets.
The rumble continued on, deep-voiced and hollow but distant. After a moment, Anderson rolled over and sat up, his hair sticking in every direction. Clay, who had felt him move, pushed his blankets down and squinted up at him. “What?”
For a long moment, Anderson just sat there, unmoving. Finally, he said, “Well? Listen to that thunder. It ain’t stopped—has it? And it’s gettin’ louder.”
Clay took his attention from Anderson and listened, and then he lunged straight up. “What in the name of—”
The older man was scrambling up out of his blankets, and Clay did the same. Bewildered, they looked around and tried to place the sound. There were no thunderheads in the sky, no sign of lightning on the skyline all around their vast, unpeopled world.
“Better get the horses gathered,” Anderson warned. “Whatever this is it ain’t good.”
Clay was already moving. He chose the Morgan to throw his saddle on, and within half a minute the job was done. But now what? They couldn’t possibly make up their packsin seconds. If they had to run, they would have to leave all their belongings behind.
Suddenly, Anderson swore. “Which way’s the wind blowin’, Clay? Bring me some matches.”
Clay didn’t have time to answer the question. He just swept his hand down to his shirt pocket and came up with a packet of matches he kept there, running over to Anderson with them. “What are you doing?”
“Lightin’ the prairie on fire, boy. Them’s buffalo you hear!”
Buffalo! Of course. Even back in Ohio Clay had heard the stories. And in Harper’s Weekly, he had read one tale of the wildlife a returning traveler had seen “out there.” Buffalo, technically the American bison, used to wander even through his home state, long before his time. The man who wrote the Harper’s article claimed he and his company had made camp and watched one herd that took four days to cross before them—thousands of hairy, stinking beasts—tens of thousands.
Clay suddenly jerked the matches back out of Anderson’s reach. “How do you know where they’re comin’ from?”
“I don’t,” admitted the older man. “But we gotta do somethin’.”
Cocking his ear for a moment more, Clay looked at his partner. “I don’t think they’re running.”
“Of course they’re runnin’! Listen to that.”
“I don’t think it’s running,” Clay repeated. “It’s just a whole lot of animals. Makes ’em sound like they’re going fast.”
Achingly slow, the sun was sizzling away the darkness in the east, and now a pale blue-gray was flung far up into the night, hazed by violet and pink, chasing stars before it. Both men stood there for a long time, listening, watching their horses, smelling the breeze. It was ten or more minutes before Anderson finally turned to Clay.
“Reckon you’re right. They ain’t runnin’ at all.”
Almost at the same moment, there was a nearly imperceptible shift of the wind, and a powerful stench of warm, musky bodies, ground up manure and dust reached them, coming out of the west.
Without the man’s words registering on him, Clay began to pull his horse and walk toward the distant rumble and the smell. Leading his own mount, Anderson followed.
They came up onto a long ridge waving with tall prairie grama and there they started to sit down. But the grass came up over their heads. So they climbed onto their mounts, both of which were rolling their eyes back and forth and pivotingtheir ears. Long before Clay or Anderson could make out any shapes or movement on the prairie, both horses had fixed their ears straight forward and with their eyes opened huge they stared down below. It was another fifteen minutes before the gray light became strong enough for the men. Then Clay just about fell out of his saddle.
He had been straining his eyes, gazing over the miles of prairie below them, trying to spot movement. There were great dark masses of trees down there. But all of a sudden he began to sense the trees were moving. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth without looking at his partner.
“Those can’t be trees, can they? We haven’t seen a tree in fifty miles.”
Anderson squinted harder. “Damn, boy, I’m forty-five years old. I can’t see anything I could evenmistake for a tree.”
Clay had to laugh, and it lightened his heart a little. He didn’t remember laughing in many days.
Then he began to see what appeared to be a great, dark river that coursed away slowly from the rest of the bulkiness below. But then he began to make out fuzzy shapes within that river, and all of a sudden he knew: The river he could see was a tremendous stream of bison! And they were meandering away from not trees, but more bison. Just like in all the fanciful-sounding stories he had heard—bison, as far as the eye could see.
The light in the sky had grown brilliant yellow, with pink clouds strewn across it, when Clay heard Anderson swear in awe over the rumble of the herd. “I’ve never seen anything like that, boy. Never imagined anything like it.”
Now that they had both seen them, the animals below became more and more clear. They were even closer than Clay had imagined, some of them wandering to no more than two hundred yards away. There were gigantic bulls with heads covered as if in great black blankets, their horns visible even from this distance. There were red calves that ran to and fro, making wide circles and curling their tails up and away from their rumps as they ran and leaped, kicking their heels in the air.
Clay and Anderson ended up putting their horses back on the picket lines, and they came back and made their way down the grassy slope with handfuls of jerky and canteens to an eroded place where the gray earth was exposed from the grass. Here, the two men cleared grass away in a circle at the base of the eroded patch, then built a fire and hunkered down with their backs to the wall of dirt.
Below them the herd surged and wove, wandering as it grazed. The closest animals were now within a hundred yards, but the wind continued to blow from them to the men, and they were not alarmed. They seemed to take no heed of the tiny fire on the hillside. Stronger than ever, now that the partners were up against the slope with no way for the wind to rush past them, the breezes carried a musky odor of urine and hot bodies and excrement, of crushed grass and dust. That heavy, permeating dust filtered onto Clay’s and Anderson’s clothes and turned them the same gray as the dirt upon which they sat.
The rumble was unending. It still had the tonal quality of thunder, but somehow it was different, and it amazed Clay now that he had been so fooled. The herd had either been moving past for some time or else they had simply been bedded down there all night, not much farther away than they were now. They stretched from far off to the right, disappearing over that horizon, to as far as he could see to the left. There was no end to them.
It was two hours before either man thought to move, and then it was Anderson. He turned and went back up the hill behind him, moving slowly. When he came back he was carrying his .54 caliber Hawken rifle, and he crouched and laid it across his legs, gazing at the herd.
They could now see light shapes on the edge of the herd, small animals with white rumps and black, curving horns. These tiny, goat-like animals bounded alongside the herd, sometimes grazing, always stopping to survey their surroundings with huge black eyes. Both men guessed they were some of the antelope they had heard of that followed the buffalo herds, assumably for the protection offered by their numbers. After a while, one of them tucked its ears back, and they took off running with a speed almost unfathomable.
Soon, Clay and Anderson saw why. From off to the left they came, walking in the graceful way of cats, stopping, sniffing the air, surveying the herd. Their lengthy, grizzled bodies swept along the grass like earthbound clouds, but even though their legs seemed too long for them, if not for the elevation the two men might not have seen them misting through the tallgrass.
Wolves. The infamous buffalo wolves. There must have been twenty of them, strung out through the grass, some sitting, some walking, some standing and facing the herd. Their bright eyes darted this way and that, their ears and noses working incessantly as they stared, often with mouths open in an expression man would call grinning. They studied the herd for the old, the young, the weak, the unwary.
From his perch on the hill, Anderson sank to his rump and laid the long rifle across the top of his knee. He held high on the back of one of the young cows, and when she stopped and looked over at the wolves he squeezed off the shot. For a moment, time seemed to pause, and then dust kickedup off the animal’s side in a cloud, and she wheeled and ran a few steps back into the herd. Without warning, her front feet went out from under her, and she slumped to her side.
The closest herd members, made skittish, ran around a little or sidled out of the way. But when nothing more happened they went back to their grazing or lazy plodding. One older looking cow ambled over and nosed the dead one, then looked up and around her, appearing very sage for what Clay assumed was not an extremely bright animal. At last, she went on her way, and the dead cow lay there under the glare of the dusty sun.
It was half an hour before Clay turned to Anderson. “We’d better go get that before it spoils. It’s gettin’ warm out here.”
Anderson nodded. “Boy, I been studyin’ on that. Since I’m the one with the rifle, maybe you ought to go down there.”
Clay looked at his partner slant-ways. After a while, he said, “I reckon we’ll both go. Don’t expect to have the fun and make me do all the work.”
The other man grinned. “I guess not.”
He looked down at the fading specks that were the buffalo wolves. They had moved away when he fired. The wolves had not seemed to be much of a menace to him and Clay.
But that wasn’t how they wrote them up in the story books. “What about them wolves?”
Clay took a look in the direction they had gone. “They didn’t look much interested in us. They want buffalo meat—not man meat.”
“Exactly. And now we have some.”
Clay inclined his chin toward the now-distant wolves. “Like I said, they don’t look too interested. I’m more worried what the herd will do when we get closer. You stopped to figure how big those animals are? They could stomp us into the dirt if they had a mind to.”
“With your reputation?” mocked Anderson. “You must be jokin’, boy. They wouldn’t tackle a man like you. I thought you told me they called you the Prince of the Road!”
“All right—old man. When did you decide to start calling me boy?”
Anderson’s eye corners crinkled up when he smiled. “Bad habits die hard.”
Clay laughed and climbed the hill to his horse. He pulled the picket pin and coiled the rope, tying it to his saddle. Then he walked over and started to gather Anderson’s horse, but he stopped. He was thinking hard about what he had said about the bison. Just what would they do when he and Anderson went down that hill? Were they safe? Would the animals run, would they continue on grazing as if they didn’t have a care in the world, or would they turn on the men as enemies? He suddenly decided Anderson’s first idea was the best one, and with it in mind he rode his horse back down the slope, leaving Anderson’s animal picketed and grazing.
“All right—grandpa.” He grinned. “I changed my mind. If you promise to sit nice and ready with that rifle and watch my back I’ll go get us some meat. Just don’t let those animals anywhere near me. Is that a deal?”
“Naw,” said Anderson. “I decided I want to go down there too.”
Shaking his head, Clay said, “At least let me be the first to skin one out. You got to shoot it.”
Well, if skinnin’ a stinkin’ cow is your idea of fun, then far be it from me to argue,” Anderson replied with a laugh. He reached behind his waistband and threw Clay his sheathed skinning knife, its handle was worn and scarred. “At least use a real knife.”
Clay took it slow going down the hill, watching the herd closely, his rifle across his saddle. The sorrel was spooky, flashing his eyes and dodging his head around, his tail tucked. A couple of times Clay had to gouge him with his spurs to move him along. They finally reached the flat, and here he allowed the nervous horse to stop.
He cast a cautious glance over his shoulder at Anderson, who was watching the herd closely. The main mass of animals had started moving away now, but slowly. Perhaps if the wind shifted or curled toward them from him and the horse they would panic, but for now, they were still just as curious as the two-leggeds.
Far along the edge of the herd, the wolves, too, were curious. All of them had moved closer into the herd, where the grass had been trodden down, and they sat on their haunches staring toward the horsemen, obviously wondering what they were and what they were up to. Or perhaps the canines were habituated to eating well on the remains of the dead that men left behind.
It was just sinking into Clay what a monumental sea of bodies surged before him. These beasts must weigh twelve hundred, fifteen hundred, some of them maybe two thousand pounds. The nearest ones, not counting the dead cow, were fifty feet away, and in their nearness, they were gargantuan and thick and black. Their heads, beneath the masses of black fur, looked almost comically large for their bodies, and their hips seemed surprisingly compact when compared to their deep, heavy chests, and the mound of meat that rode over their shoulders like narrow barrels.
Up close, it was even more obvious which animals were the bulls and which were the cows. The cows, much smaller and with horns more twisted, were moving back into the herd, shoving their calves along with them. The bulls, in particular, the largest ones, had formed sort of a defensive front and were eyeballing the riders with small, reddish eyes. Some of them curled their tails up over their backs.
“You really want that cow?” Clay looked back to ask Anderson.
Anderson gritted his teeth and called, “Never was one to waste meat.”
Clay simply nodded. He had just lost his wife and his baby. He had lost his world. What was the worst thing that could happen to him if this went bad? Death? That was something he had begged for during some of the long, lonely nights he had spent over the last month.
Nudging the sorrel, he started forward.
But the partners never got to taste that buffalo meat.
Clay heard a whir behind him and a thunking sound, followed by the boom of Anderson’s Hawken.
The man cried out.
Nothing registered on Clay’s brain until he heard the cry. He was too intent on the expected danger before him.
Clay had always read that the sound of a shot did not generally cause buffalo to run. But this herd was already nervous because of his and the horse’s approach, so at the sound of the shot and the cry, they broke, and the thunder of their hooves was something Clay could never forget. A cloud of dust he couldn’t poke a knife through began to roil into the sky, and first dozens, then hundreds, of beasts were running in blind panic. The vast thunder and the shaking earth beneath him were the fodder of nightmares.
Clay whirled to see Rodney Anderson pitch out and away from the eroded outcrop, his eyes and mouth open wide in fear and shock. Clay started to rein back around, and it was then, as Anderson rolled over in the grass, that he saw the small protrusion from his friend’s back. At the same time, something struck Clay’s saddle horn, then bounced off and hit his forearm, causing a searing pain. He was already bleeding when he looked down, and he spun to look back up the hill the way he and his partner had come. There were four horsemen there, their heads shorn except for a streak of upright black sprouting up the middle. They were all dressed in leather and eagle feathers, with red and black paint on their faces. Even their horses bore paint. Clay had never seen a wild Indian, but he didn’t need any introductions.
Even as he looked, a cry rose up from the warriors, and they kicked their horses down the hill toward him. Clay wheeled the sorrel, sinking in his spurs. The Morgan was game, and he leaped into the curtain of dust left by the disappearing herd. They became a part of the earth-shattering thunder. Dust was everywhere around them, shrouding them like the pea soup fog banks of the Atlantic seaboard. Clay could hear the war cries behind him, but the Indians were already dropping back. The sorrel was fleet of foot, and even better at long distance than short. Clay lay low over the saddle horn, waiting for arrows to pierce his back.
The dust was choking him. He tried to breathe through his nose because his hands were too occupied to attempt drawing his scarf up over his face. He could still hear the braves, and they were trying to flank him. Their voices came from left and right, but still far to the rear. A dark shape appeared out of the dusty gloom, almost at the horse’s very feet. The fast-thinking sorrel made a leap into the air, sailing over a wounded bison that must have been knocked down and trampled in the stampede.
They were passing through what appeared to be a huge city of animal holes now, and Clay clung to the horse and prayed. These holes would undoubtedly be the work of the infamous “prairie dogs” and might have contributed to the bison’s fall. But he couldn’t let himself slow down, so he kept slapping the horse with his reins, and they pounded on, their lives in the hands of God—or of fate.
Soon, a wide gully yawned before them, with a way going down into it on his side but a very steep bank on the other. They had no choice but to take to it, and Clay jumped the sorrel down into it. Even after a violent and near-tragic stumble, he managed to keep him at a run. The gully continued to grow deeper. Clay started wondering if he would be able to get out. Would he have to turn back? Was this his death trap?
He gasped for air, getting nearly as much choking dust in his mouth as coveted oxygen. The billows of dust were brutal. It was so much like the heavy fog he recalled from childhood that he almost slammed into three bison rising out of the gray-brown mists. Somehow the sorrel veered around them.
A couple of whoops sounded from the bank above him, and he knew at least one of the braves had stuck to him, somehow, and was closing in. An arrow flew just in front of his horse’s nose.
Then, before another could come seeking, Clay felt the sorrel take off from the earth and fly. It was like the eagles he had always dreamed of soaring alongside. The sorrel pawed on nothing but air.