For Gage Jameson, the summer of 1873 has been a poor hunt. A year ago he felled sixty-two buffalo in one stand, but now the great Arkansas River herd is gone, like the Republican herd before it.In Dodge City, old hide hunters speak is awe of a last great heard to the south--but no hunter who values his scalp dares ride south of the Cimarron and into Comanche territory. None but Gage Jameson.... At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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November 01, 1997
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Excerpt from Buffalo Wagons by Elmer Kelton
THE BUFFALO were gone.
Gage Jameson turned in his saddle atop a hill where the grass cured and curled an autumn brown. Squinting his blue eyes in the glare of the prairie sun, he frowned at the company hide train lumbering along far behind him, the six-yoke ox teams hardly straining at the double wagons.
Three months out, supplies about gone, and not enough hides to build a Sioux lodge.
Grimness touched Jameson's bearded, sun-darkened face as he stepped down from the big bay hunting horse and felt the drying grass crunch beneath his heavy boots. He was a man in his mid-thirties whose gray-touched hair and long growth of wiry black beard made him look far older. His wide-brimmed, grease-stained hat was pulled low to shade his eyes.
Last year, down in that valley yonder, his Sharps BigFifty rifle had felled sixty-two buffalo in one stand, so many that the Miles and Posey skinners had had to return the second day to finish taking the hides.
Now, with the first autumn weeks of 1873 slipping by, it had been ten days since he had sighted that last shaggy old bull. He had lifted his rifle for the kill, then had lowered it and ridden away, leaving the aged beast to graze alone on the short buffalo grass where once they had grazed in numbers so large that no man could count them.
What was one hide? One hide, when long stinking ricks of them piled up at Dodge City, awaiting shipment on the Santa Fe. No man could guess at the number. But this Jameson knew: the great Arkansas River herd was gone, like the Republican herd before it. Next spring the melting snows would bare carcasses by the hundreds of thousands scattered all over these Kansas plains.
A graveyard, it would be. A vast graveyard of gleaming white bones.
A blur of movement on another hill caused Jameson to jerk around, his hide-tough hand tightening instinctively on the sixteen-pound Sharps he carried.
He eased then, recognizing the sorrel horse Nathan Messick rode. Messick was his chief skinner and hide handler, and now and again he helped Jameson search out the buffalo. Rail-thin and gangling, Messick stood like a telegraph pole in his stirrups, waving his hat in long grand sweeps.
He's found buffalo, Jameson thought, a stir of excitement in him. There had been a time when it took a big herd to excite him. Of late, it was a great satisfaction to find fifteen or twenty head. He remounted and crossed the open, brushless valley in a long trot, the brown grass rustling underfoot. In places it reached to the bay horse's knees.
Climbing the hill, he found Messick still sitting there gravely waiting for him, his narrow shoulders slumped. An emptiness settled in Jameson as he read Messick's solemn eyes. "I thought you'd found buffalo."
Messick grunted. "Not exactly. I just wanted you to come look."
Messick reined his horse around and moved off the slope, his long shanks raised a little to heel the sorrel's ribs. Jameson trailed him, content in his weariness to move at a casual pace. Still young enough as years went, he no longer possessed the drive he used to have. Youth was slipping away from him, he knew. The frontier took it out of a man. The frontier and the war.
"There it is," Messick said somberly.
Scattered over several hundred yards of ground lay the bloated carcasses of some twenty skinned buffalo, now so rank that Jameson's horse snorted and shied away. Someone had shot them from running horses like a bunch of sport-crazy excursionists, instead of picking them off slow and easy from a quiet stand the way any sensible hide hunter would do.
"Tenderfeet," Jameson said harshly. "Even ruined half the hides, getting them off."
It had always bothered him, the awesome waste that attended the work of even the best hide hunters. Now he was galled at this senseless destruction which came at a time when the buffalo were getting to be so precious few.
"Hunters like that," Messick said slowly, "there ought to be a law against them. Spoil it for them that does know how."
Jameson shook his head. "Blame the money panic. They're hungry back East--no jobs, no food. And the railroad letting its construction crews go. They're swarming out here like flies. Anybody who can get his hands on a gun and a horse wants to hunt buffalo."
He saw something move, out by the most distant carcasses. His eyes cut questioningly to Messick's, and Messick said, "Buffalo cow. They shot her but let her get away."
"Why didn't you put her out of her misery?"
"I'll help you find them, and I'll skin them afterwards. But I ain't shootin' no buffalo."
Jameson rode to her. The gaunt cow moved painfully, dragging a shattered hind leg. Her bag was swollen and fevered with spoiled milk. One of those big bloated calves must have been hers. She was slowly dying on her feet, waiting for the gray wolves to come and drag her down.
Jameson stepped from the saddle and lifted the Big Fifty. Its octagonal barrel was thick and heavy and hard to hold true, but at this range it couldn't miss. The deep roar rolled back to him in the chill air. He ejected the hot cartridge case, let it lie on the ground a moment to cool, then shoved it back into his coat pocket to reload later. His nose pinched at the sharp smell of gunpowder.
"Tenderfeet," he said again, angrily.
He well remembered the awe which had held him spellbound years ago, when he had sighted his first herd of buffalo. He had been only a kid then, before the war. The buffalo had been one rippling blanket of black and brown, moving slowly across the land before him, the front of the herd lost in the dust of the northern horizon, the end of it still far out of sight to the south. The rumble of their tread, the rattle of dewclaws, had gone on and on for more than a day.
And he remembered how old Shad Blankenship had snorted at him in '68, when Jameson had asked how long it might take to kill out the buffalo.
"By Judas Priest, young'un, there'll always be buffalo. Ten thousand hunters and the U.S. Cavalry couldn't getmore than the natural increase, one year to the next. Kill all the buffalo? Boy, you're talkin' out of your head."
Now here it was--one old bull, one crippled cow, for ten days' ride. And these bloated, wasted carcasses.
Suddenly Jameson was weary of it, weary of the endless, hopeless hunt, weary of stench and sweat and caked dirt and disappointment, weary of scratching at the lice it seemed a man could never get rid of while he hunted the buffalo.
He drew the straight-edged ripping knife from his belt and knelt beside the cow, starting to slit the hide up the belly while fat ticks crawled for cover in the thick dirty hair.
"We'll salvage this one, at least," he said, his voice brittle. "Then we're going. I've had me a bellyful."
"Where to, Gage?"
"Back to Dodge City. The Arkansas herd is finished."