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Published on Friday, January 16, 2015

Hoofbeats Against the Earth

By Donald D. Shore

 

"You see 'em out there?"

"Yep. About a dozen of 'em I'd say."

Murphy and Buffalo Horace were holed up at Adobe Springs, an old Indian trader's campground situated on a little hillock that rose to overlook a vast prairie that stretched out for miles around. The spring from which Adobe Springs earned its name was little more than a mud hole. The crumbling adobe hut the two men had taken shelter in was nothing but an old adobe walled shack with two windows and an old wooden door. The shack had survived when the rest of the outpost had eroded and been blown away by the Texas winds. The two of them had been riding with John Tuttle's buffalo outfit, but when they discovered how thin the buffalo herds had become Buffalo Horace and Billy Murphy struck out on their own.

"Why split a scant profit ten ways when we could split it two?" was the older man's reasoning and Murphy, being new to the buffalo game, had to agree.

But now, as he peaked out of the slit window from inside the mud shack he could admit to the logic of staying in a big group. Against an early morning sky, with a new day's sun at their backs, an Indian war party sat their horses, feathered lances and bonnets swaying in the wind.

"Comanche, I reckon," said Buffalo Horace. "Maybe a couple of Kiowa."

   

"Why are they just sitting there?"

It was still cool in the shack but Murphy felt a sheen of sweat moisten his back.

"To get our attention, I reckon. Probably sent a couple of bucks around to snatch our horses."

At that moment Murphy heard the beat of horse hooves and wild cries that only warriors of the plains could utter. The buffalo hunters had posted their mounts in the rear of the shack and now Murphy crawled to the back window to get a look at the backsides of their mounts as they trailed dust down the hill. His prying eyes were answered with wild shots that cracked the dried mud of the window sill, sending sharp adobe splinters to scrape his cheek.

Murphy pulled down and set his back against the inside wall. He pulled his pistol from the holster and cocked the hammer but didn't raise up to the window again.

"They got 'em," he said to Buffalo Horace's backside.

The older man had his weapon ready, a long barreled fifty caliber buffalo rifle, but he too refrained from firing at the party below.

"I expected they would," said Buffalo Horace.

"Well, now what'll we do?"

Buffalo Horace cast a slow eye at the scared youth and then turned his attention back on the war party. He had the barrel of his rifle stretched out of the mud hut's portal.

"Well," he said, his jaw working the constant tobacco plug he always kept tucked in his cheek, "I 'spect we wait to see if that's all they want."

He spit a long stream of the brown juice out the window to land with a flatness against the ground.

"We might get lucky."

"But what if they come for us?"

"Then you might want to put that pea shooter away and get that long rifle ready. Sometimes if you get a few of 'em the rest will scatter."

Murphy considered this. He felt safer with the pistol in his hand. Shooting buffalo was one thing. They mostly just stood there a let you take your time. Shooting a screaming Indian who was riding down on you was another matter altogether.

"Save the pistol for when they get close up," said Buffalo Horace. "Won't do much good at this distance no way."

Murphy conceded to the older man's wisdom in the matter and holstered his pistol. He reached to the corner of the hut, keeping as low as possible, and pulled his own buffalo rifle towards him. He checked the load with sweaty palms and pulled the hammer back on the long gun.

"What do you see out there?" asked Murphy.

"Same thing I saw a few minutes ago. A dozen Indians."

"Why'd we have to skin out on old John Tuttle, anyway? Least we would've been safe in a big group."

"Safe and broke," interjected Buffalo Horace. He was tiring of the kid's whining. If he had known what sort of fella Murphy was he wouldn't have partnered up with him. Man's got to keep his wits in country like this, or he was liable to lose his scalp.

"I'd rather be broke than dead," said Murphy. "Can't spend no money if you're dead."

"Can't argue that," said Buffalo Horace.

There was another wild scream from outside, a high pitched cry to a heathen god Murphy couldn't even fathom.

"What's going on now?" he asked from the safety of the little cubbyhole he had found for himself.

"Fella's showing his beanpole out there," said Buffalo Horace.

"Aii-yiii-yi," came the call of the warriors from their place at the bottom of the hill. One of them had dismounted, plunged his spear into the ground, moved his breechclout to the side, and waved his manhood at the buffalo hunters in there perch upon the hill.

"What's that you say he's doin'?" Murphy asked.

"Waving his beanpole at us," said Buffalo Horace. "If you're so damn curious why don't you have a peak for yourself?"

Murphy slid over to where Buffalo Horace held his position at the front window and peaked out to the scene. The Indian had picked up his lance and had commenced a dance for them in which he made prominent use of his backside and what Buffalo Horace had termed his beanpole.

"What's he doin' that for?"

"Aii-yiii-yi," cried the warrior, the feathers in his headband trailing after him in his wild dance.

"Well, why do you reckon he's doin' that?" asked Buffalo Horace in return. He spit a long stream of tobacco juice and wondered what was more irritating, the Indian and his war dance or the kid and his questions.

"Get over there to that window," he told Murphy. "I'm going to show this buck how to dance."

Murphy scooted back to his cubbyhole beside the other window and Buffalo Horace pulled back the hammer on his long rifle.

"Might as well get the show started," he said.

Buffalo Horace drew a bead on the dancing warrior. The old buffalo hunter squeezed the trigger on the long rifle and the force of the shot shook dust from the ceiling and filled the small hut with black powder smoke.

The naked warrior fell to the ground, ending his profane dance, and his brethren, those warriors painted in blacks and yellows and reds, sent out a shrill war cry and raised their lances and feathered rifles to the heavens. They kicked their horses into a gallop and the beasts' cries mingled with their masters as they charged in a scattered group up the hill.

"Get your gun in that window," ordered Buffalo Horace. "They're coming up the hill mad as fire ants."

"Well, what'd you go and do that for?" demanded Murphy. But Buffalo Horace paid the kid no mind. He was busy loading his rifle for another shot to fend off the coming storm.

Rifles cracked thunder and arrows clattered against the mud hut as the Indians charged the hill. They were swift and natural and rode as if they and their horse were one. Buffalo Horace raised his rifle to the window just as one of the warriors, his face painted with thick red and black oil, charged towards the opening with a lance at the ready, its sharpened steel aimed for Buffalo Horace's face. The old buffalo hunter glared out through the window at his coming foe. He squeezed the great rifle's trigger and sent the warrior toppling from his mount in an angry cry of pain and spilt blood.

The warriors circled around to Murphy's side, firing rifles and arrows as they passed. Bullets and wooden shafts clattered against the adobe walls. The young buffalo hunter's hands shook so bad he could hardly hold his rifle steady. He fired a shot that flew over the heads of the screaming warriors and ducked back down in the mud hut to reload.

Buffalo Horace was quick to load and draw another bead. He spat a stream of brown juice through the window and fired. He had to admire the skill with which the warriors rode. No white man could ride like that. The warriors were all but invisible on their mounts. They leaned off the side and fired from beneath the horses' necks. The buffalo hunter's shot struck horse flesh and the creature crashed in a cloud of earth with a horrible cry. The warrior scurried away, his comrades shielding him with displays of their great horsemanship and courage.

And then, just as sudden as it had begun, the battle was over. The Indians disappeared down the hill behind a screen of dust their charge had sent up. Gun smoke wafted out of the mud hut's windows and door frame as silence once again settled over the plains.

"You get any of 'em?" asked Buffalo Horace.

Murphy shook his head and stared out the window. He had scarcely fired a shot let alone hit anything. His heart was racing and his mouth was too dry to answer the older man's question. After a few seconds, when the Indians didn't reappear over the hill, he slid back down to his cubby hole.

Buffalo Horace scanned the battlefield and noted the casualties. A horse, the warrior at the front window, and the one who had shown his beanpole. His creased eyes followed the rising dust and spied the war party once again gathered at the bottom of the hill. They raised their war cries and rifles and lances in defiance of the white men.

"Ay-yiii-yi," they screamed as they pranced back and forth on their horses, as if calling down a curse on them from the heavens.

"Why won't they shut up," hollered Murphy, his nerves frayed close to the breaking point.

"They're just tryin' to rattle us, boy. Don't let 'em spook you."

"Well, I'm spooked alright," answered Murphy. He couldn't help but remind himself this was all Buffalo Horace's fault. He wouldn't be in this situation if the old buffalo hunter hadn't talked him into striking out on their own. It was all he could do to keep from telling Buffalo Horace just that.

"Check your load in case they make another run for us."

The old buffalo hunter kept his eyes out the window to watch the war party's movements. He licked his lips and spat his tobacco juice out the window. He had been in scrapes before, but he had to admit, they were in a tight spot.

"They're just gonna wait out there, ain't they?" asked the kid. "All our food was on them horses' packs. And what we gonna do when we run out of water? Run over there to that spring? Lord Almighty, how'd we get into this scrape?"

"Hush up, boy," said Buffalo Horace. He was watching the war party spread out around the hill below. The boy was right. They were laying siege to the little mud hut. He knew he had to formulate a plan to get them out of there but no matter how sharp the old buffalo hunter's eyes were, he didn't see an opportunity for escape.

"You should be more worried about losing you scalp than going hungry," said the old buffalo hunter.

He slid down with his back against the crumbling wall and took a drink from his canteen. It wasn't dry yet, but he didn't figure it mattered too much. He never heard of a war party waiting too long before attacking or moving on to easier prey. This one hadn't moved on yet, so he figured they were planning another try at their scalps.

"You just sit over there and watch that window, boy," he said. "They ain't done yet."

The day dragged by, marked by the arc of the sun's rays shooting into the mud hut's windows with the rising heat, and the loud buzzing of flies and other insects that swarmed from out of the plains, eager to feast upon the blood of the dead Indian who lay outside of Buffalo Horace's window. The two buffalo hunters grew hot and miserable inside the small adobe hut and their canteens were drawing to a perilous level.

"I can't stand this," said Murphy. "Why don't they just finish us off?"

"You in a hurry to lose your scalp?" asked Buffalo Horace. "They'll make their move soon enough."

But the Indians made no move. Occasionally, as if to break their own monotony, one of the warriors would ride circles around the hill, whooping their war cry to the mud hut where the buffalo hunters waited, sweating their precious water reserves out through their pores. A few times the warriors rode so close the buffalo hunters could almost reach out the windows and touch them.

"They're just trying to get us to waste ammunition," said Buffalo Horace, "and show the other bucks how brave they are."

"My god," said Murphy after hours of this behavior. "Won't they come on?"

To this Buffalo Horace made no reply. He considered it a useless expenditure of energy to talk sense to the boy this late in the day. The sun had passed its zenith now and he knew the Indians would make their play soon.

"Just keep an eye on that window, boy," Buffalo Horace told the youth as the golden sun cast red light against flat clouds in the horizon. Some of the Indians had disappeared from his view and to Buffalo Horace that could mean only one thing. He took the last pull of water from his canteen and discarded the empty container to the packed dirt floor. He had no wish to die a thirsty man.

Suddenly, as if the sky opened up to pour loose a torrential rain, the warriors came on, whooping and yipping, their lungs full of rage and venom.

"Get to that window, boy," said Buffalo Horace. "They're comin'."

Once again the war party charged up the hill, screaming their war cries and firing their rifles and arrows at the mud hut. Buffalo Horace took aim with the fifty caliber and let loose a thunderous shot that sent one warrior flying from the back of his horse.

The war party rode in circles around the hut, slowly drawing around the two buffalo hunters like a red noose of death. The small hut quickly filled with black gun powder and adobe dust. Murphy could hardly see to draw a bead. He fired his rifle now with scarce an aim, the bullets flying harmlessly past the whooping warriors. The boy went to load a fresh cartridge and a red painted face of a fierce warrior sprang up outside of his window like a nightmare come to life.

The warrior screamed as he lunged through the opening only to be stopped halfway inside by a bullet to the head from Buffalo Horace's pistol. His body fell there, blood and gore dripping down the brown adobe wall, filling the window with his dead body.

"Cover the door with your pistol, boy." The old buffalo hunter had discarded the slow loading rifle and now wielded twin forty four Colts. His deep eyes searched for their next target. Murphy hardly recognized the old buffalo hunter now. His face enraged and fire in his eyes, he had his twin pistols aimed out the window firing shot after shot at the circling warriors.

"C'mon, boy," shouted Buffalo Horace and Murphy could deny the man's commands no longer. He drew his own pistol and crawled to the hut's wooden door. He peered through the wide spaces of the warped boards but could see only shadows and hints of horses and warriors though the wall of dust that had risen in the Indian's wake. He slid the barrel of his pistol through the cracks and fired into the cacophony, unsure if his own bullets swayed the battle one way or the other.

And then, as before, quick as the battle had started it was over. Nothing but echoes of yipping warriors and hoofbeats against the earth remained as the Indians retreated behind a wall of swirling dust and gun smoke.

All fell silent. For several moments the two buffalo hunters waited, their weapons ready for the onslaught that would finish them and when none came and the distant echoes of battle faded at last from atop the desperate hill, Buffalo Horace let out a "Hoorah,". Murphy was startled by its childlike quality, coming from the bearded face of an old buffalo hunter. The big man's exclamations were contagious and Murphy followed suit with his own "Hoorah".

"Call me a dingus," said Buffalo Horace. "I thought we were finished for sure."

"Me too," said Murphy, out of breath from the sudden rush that comes with finding yourself alive after death had come to collect.

The two men stepped out of the mud hut for the first time since the night before and surveyed the battlefield. Buffalo Horace put a hand above his eyes to block out the light of the setting sun and, far out on the plain, he could make out the rise of dust that marked the war party's retreat.

"Looks like we whipped 'em, boy. I'd say they was five miles gone now."

"Look at that, Horace," said Murphy. "That fella you shot down is gone. Reckon he crawled off somewhere?" Murphy cocked his pistol. His eyes scanned the hill, the fear of death returning to quicken his pulse.

Buffalo Horace looked around and examined the tracks for a minute.

"Naw," he said. "They must 'a carried him off during the fightin'. Hell, that one in the windows gone too."

"They're some sneaky rascals, ain't they, Horace?"

"That they are," said Buffalo Horace. "But we whipped 'em didn't we?"

"We sure did," agreed Murphy. "I can't believe it, but we whipped 'em."

That night the two buffalo hunters celebrated their victory atop Adobe Springs with the only food they had, the Indian's dead horse, and they took their fill of muddy water from the spring. The horse tasted like beefsteak and the water tasted like whiskey, as they spoke of their victory over the Indians and made plans for when they reached the next town. The buffalo hunters spoke as men speak when offered another chance at life, with optimism and revelry.

They woke to an early sunrise, anxious to be away from the scene of battle, lest the Indians return in greater numbers to finish them off and ruin the plans of the night before. The two men set out on foot, having lost their horses but kept their scalps, and headed for the nearest town.

"I reckon Abilene is about five days that a way," Buffalo Horace said to the boy. Murphy wasn't happy about walking but even he realized some things just had to be done.

The two of them walked on worn boot heels across the flat Texas plain, stopping once at a small stream to replenish their canteens, and then onward they went across fields of grass that never seemed to end.

"What do you reckon that is?" asked Murphy on the third day out, as the sun was high and swarms of black birds circled above in a sky whose expanse was matched only by that of the Texas plains. The old buffalo hunter shrugged as if it didn't matter and kept on walking, his great fifty caliber rifle slung across his shoulders.

The boy didn't have long to discover the subject of the birds' interest. Along a five mile stretch of rolling prairie lay nothing but the stripped carcasses of buffalo, their hides removed to reveal the dried black blood and muscles of their once proud backs, coves of carrion birds swarming amongst carcasses, feeding upon the slaughter.

"Reckon old Tuttle come through here," said Buffalo Horace. "That's his wagon tracks there."

The two men fell in along the wagon ruts and followed them through the field of slaughtered buffalo, the animals' great round bodies reduced to rotting mounds of flesh that dotted the plain.

"Dang all the luck," moaned Murphy. "While we was out fighting Indians, Tuttle's over here striking it rich."

Buffalo Horace had nothing to say and reverted to his creed of not expending energy to quell the temper of the boy. On Murphy's part, he could barely contain himself. Every dead buffalo meant missed money to him. It didn't seem fair. Gone was the gratitude he had felt with the warmth of his hair still on his head, replaced by a warmth of anger and frustration instead. He glared at the back of the old buffalo hunter as they made their way across the field and kicked at anything that got within range of his worn out boots.

Buffalo Horace paid no mind to the boy's mumblings. Instead, he kept his eyes down at the trail. He watched for sign other than wagon wheels and shod horses. They had survived one close scrap but he knew another war party could be lurking behind any little hillock, and this time they didn't have a mud hut to hide out in.

"You know, Horace," said Murphy. "I think once we reach Abilene maybe we should call our partnership quits."

"Hush, boy."

"I mean no offense to you, Horace, but you got to admit we ain't been nothin' but bad luck to one another since we hitched up. And this about beats all. Fighting for our scalps while Tuttle gets rich. And I don't mean to say it's all your fault, but you did talk me into it, Horace. You did."

Murphy had been looking down at the ground as he walked and didn't see the old buffalo hunter stop until he bumped into him. Buffalo Horace had taken his rifle down and readied it for use.

"Look over that way," he told Murphy.

The younger hunter followed Buffalo Horace's creased eyes across the grassland and what he saw made his blood turn ice cold. There on the prairie was John Tuttle's wagon full of buffalo hides, hitched to a team of mules that would move no more, their bodies bloated and punctured with arrows that covered them like quills. There were men, stripped and mutilated, pale skin burned beneath an unrelenting sun, spread out on the prairie. Buffalo Horace would put money down they were murdered by the very hands that had waged war upon them at Adobe Springs.

"My god," uttered Murphy, panicked eyes searching the prairie for sign of feathers and painted warriors.

"There's John Tuttle. You still reckon we should have stuck with him?"

Buffalo Horace started toward the carnage, his fifty caliber rifle held out before him, his eyes scanning the prairie for danger. Murphy stood alone for a moment, unsure of the older man's intelligence. It didn't make sense to him to go traipsing into a scene of such slaughter. But when he discovered standing alone out in the open didn't make him feel any safer, he scurried after the big man and stayed close to the old hunter's back.

"My god," said Murphy again as they came closer to the field of dead, where stiff mouths hung agape as if still screaming out in pain from the torture of their last moments of life.

"You reckon we should linger here to long?" asked Murphy. He felt a sickness in his stomach. A mixture of fear and revulsion at the scene around him.

"I reckon we can linger long enough to catch that horse over yonder," was Buffalo Horace's reply.

Murphy followed the old hunter's eyes to a spotted horse, like an apparition or some desert mirage that stood with its neck craned as it fed upon the wild grass of the prairie, its reigns loose and dragging and an arrow sticking out of its empty saddle.

"That there is Ranger. John Tuttle's horse. Recognize the spot on its hoof."

"I'll be," said Murphy, awed at their turn of luck.

"We get that horse, I reckon we can haul this wagon back to Abilene. How'd that suit you, Murphy?"

"Well, that'd suit me just fine, Horace," said Murphy, his strained face relaxing at the thought of riding into town atop a wagon full of hides.

"You go around that a way," said Horace. "I'll go around this a way and we'll corner it."

The hunters set their heavy rifles down for the first time in days and set about the task of corralling the horse. To the surprise of both men the horse was easily captured. As if the horse was tired of being alone, it walked right up to Buffalo Horace and let him take the reins.

"Would you look at that," said Murphy, smiling for the first time Buffalo Horace could remember.

"Just get him hitched up to the wagon and I'll start the celebratin'," said Buffalo Horace, handing over the bridle. Even he had to smile at their fortune.

Murphy had the horse hitched up to the wagon in no time at all and the old buffalo hunter gathered up their rifles from where they had stashed them on the prairie. He made a couple of passes around the field of slaughter and made sure they hadn't missed anything, short of pilfering through the dead bodies of his former comrades, but after finding the Indians had already taken anything of use he returned to the wagon. Murphy had taken a seat at the driving reigns and looked eager to be on his way.

"Find anything out there?" asked Murphy.

"Not a thing," said Buffalo Horace as he tossed the rifles on top of hides in the back of the wagon. "Figure we ought to bury Tuttle and the boys. Sure hate leaving them out here like this. That war party looks to be a few days ride out of here by now, if I read the sign right."

"That's good to know," said Murphy. The young buffalo hunter smiled, pistol in hand. "That gives me plenty of time to get back to Abilene."

"That's the way it's going to be, is it?" Buffalo Horace spit a stream of tobacco juice, the remnants dribbling down his beard.

"Like you said, Horace. Why split a scant profit?"

The old buffalo hunter threw himself down just as the shot went off. He rolled under the wagon, the earth erupting next to him where the bullet crashed. John Tuttle's horse, so recently exposed to the horrors of battle, panicked and reared, charging away with the wagon and throwing Murphy off his perch in the seat as it took off across the plain. The boy fell hard to the ground and was nocked senseless by the impact.

Murphy gathered his wits and came up again with his pistol but it was too late. Buffalo Horace had his Colt at the ready. He fanned the hammer back and put a bullet into the boy's chest. Murphy looked at the red stain spreading across his shirt and then looked up at Buffalo Horace one last time before dropping his pistol and falling face first to the ground, dead on the Texas plain.

Buffalo Horace reloaded the spent cartridge, shaking his head.

"Got to keep your senses in country like this, boy."

The old buffalo hunter holstered his Colt and recaptured the runaway wagon. It took him half a day to bury John Tuttle and the other massacred buffalo hunters, and when he was done, as the sun grew red in the west, he set himself on a course for Abilene, and left Billy Murphy's body to rot beneath the wide Texas sky.

THE END

 

Donald D. Shore lives in Los Angeles and makes a living in movie production. He studied Creative Writing under the poet Bonnie Roberts in Huntsville, Al.

 

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