To Tame a Land

It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.

Me, I was pushing a tall twelve by then and could cuss `most as good as Pap, and we both done some cussin' then.

Bagley, the one Pap helped down to Ash Hollow that time, he got mighty red around the ears, but he kept his wagon rollin'.

Most folks, these days were mighty helpful, but this outfit sort of set their way by the captain. He was Big Jack McGarry.

Big Jack had no liking for Pap because Pap never took nothing off him, and because Pap had the first look-in with Mary Tatum, which Big Jack couldn't abide.

He swung that fine black horse of his back and he set there looking at us. We had turned to and were getting that wheel off, fixing to get it repaired if we could.

"Sorry, Tyler. You know what I said. This is Indian country. Goin' through here, we keep rollin' no matter what. We'll wait a spell at the springs though. You can catch us there." Then he turned his horse and rode off.

Pap, he didn't waste no more time. He looked after them, his face drawn down and gray like, and then he turned to me and he said, "Son, I don't mind for myself. It's you I'm thinkin' of. But maybe it'll be all right. You take that there gun, and you set up high and watch sharp."

He worked steady and I kept my eyes open, but there was mighty little to see. It was a long rolling grass plain wherever a body looked. Here and there was draws, but I couldn't see into them. Overhead the sky was wide and pale blue, with just a few lazy clouds drifting.

We had us a good Conestoga wagon and six head of cattle, good big oxen, to haul it. We had two horses and two saddles, and inside the wagon was Pap's tools, our grub, bedding, and a few odds and ends like Ma's picture, which Pap kept by him, nomatter what.

Pap had swapped for a couple of Joslyn breech-loading carbines before we left Kansas, and we each had us a handgun, Shawk & McLanahan six-shooters, caliber .36, and good guns too.

Like McGarry said this was Indian country. Ours was a big train, well armed and all, but Big Jack, I seen the look in his eyes when he sat there watching Pap aworking. He was just figuring to himself that he wouldn't have to worry any more about Pap, and by the time the wagons got to Californy he'd be married up with Mary Tatum. Her and all that silver her old man carried in the big box under his wagon.

When it was almost dark, Pap called to me. "Son, come on down. You ride your horse, scout around a little. If the wagons get to stop at the springs, we'll catch'em."

Night came, and we set a course by the stars, and we rolled on west all through the night. When the first gray light was in the sky, we saw the gleam on the water. I seen the water where the pool was, and the cottonwood leaves, but no white wagon covers, no horses and no breakfast fires acooking.

"Pap, they've gone on. They left us."

"Yes," he said. "I reckon that's so."

We both knew we had to stop. Cattle can stand so much, and these had a tough night and day behind them. "We'll water up, son," Pap said. "Then we'll pull into a draw and rest a while."

We watered up and then we pulled out. Maybe three miles further on we found a draw with some brush and we pulled into it for a rest. Pap unyoked the oxen and let them eat buffalo grass. He taken his Joslyn up on the ridge and bellied down in the grass.

Me, I went to sleep under the wagon, and maybe I'd been asleep an hour when I felt someone nudge me, and it was Pap.

"Here they come, boy. You get on your horse and take out."

"I ain't agoin' without you."

"Son, you go now. One can make it. Two can't. You take Old Blue. He's the fastest."

"You come with me."

"No, this here is all we got boy. I'll stay by it. Maybe they'll take what sugar we got, and go."

"I'll stay too."

"No!" Pap rarely spoke hard to me after Ma died, but he spoke sharp and stern now, and it wasn't in me to dispute him. So I loosened the reins and swung into the saddle.

Pap passed me up a sackful of cartridges and such, then caught my arm. There were tears in his eyes. "Luck, boy. Luck. Remember your ma."

Then he slapped Old Blue on the rump and Old Blue went off up the draw. Me, I was in no mind to leave him, so when we rounded a little bend I put Blue up the bank and circled back.

Tying Blue among some brush in a low place, I grabbed my Joslyn and went back, keeping low down.

Maybe a dozen Indians were out there. As I looked the Indians began to circle. Boy though I was, and Pap no Indian fighter, I knew what I had to do. There was a time for waiting and a time for shooting.

Pap was doing right good. He downed a horse and the Indians pulled off and away. I lay quiet, having a good view of the whole shindig, me being no more than a hundred and fifty yards off.

Sudden-like, I saw the grass move. They were crawling up. Did Pap see them?

Pap waited. I give him that. He was no Indian fighter, just a good wheelwright and cabinetmaker, but he was smart. Suddenly he came up with his carbine and fired quick. I saw an Indian jerk back with a busted shoulder. Then two of them ran forward. Pap fired and missed, and fired again and hit.

And then I heard a whisper in the grass and saw four Indians walking their horses careful behind him. Behind him and right below me. They weren't thirty yards off from me.

This here was what I'd waited for. My mouth so dry I couldn't spit or swallow, I ups with my Joslyn. I took steady aim the way I'd been taught, drew a deep breath and let it out easy, and then squeezed her off. The rifle jumped in my hands, and that first Indian let out a grunt and went off his horse and into the grass. I'd shot him right through the skull. My second shot took an Indian right through the spine, and the other two went to hellin' away from there.

Another shot, and I turned back.

Two Indians had rushed Pap and now they were fighting with him. At the same moment the two I'd run off circled back. I shot and missed, too excited, and then I saw Pap go down and saw a knife rise and fall, and I knew it was too late to do anything for Pap.

I hustled for Old Blue, jumped into the saddle, and rode out of there. But I didn't head for no settlement, or try to catch up with the train. That wagon was ours, and the stuff in it was ours. I circled around, walked my horse a couple of miles in a creek, then brought him out of the water onto rock and cut back over the hills.

When I got close I could smell the burned wood. The wagon had been set on fire, but it was still there. I crawled up closer, and I found Pap. He'd been shot through, then stabbed. And they'd scalped him.

Using a match, I hunted through the wagon. I knew where Pap had kept the forty dollars in gold he had, and with my knife point I dug it out of a crack in the wood Pap had puttied over.

There was a few cents in Pap's pocket, and I took it. He'd be wanting me to have it.

Then I got the shovel and dug out a grave for him on the hill, and there I toted his body and buried him, crying all the time like a durned girl-baby. Me, who bragged it up that I never shed no tears.

Then I rustled around amongst what was left to see what I could find. There was little enough, but I found Ma's picture. Miracle was, it hadn't burned. It was stuck down in the Bible and only the edges of the leaves had charred a mite, and the cover. I put Ma's picture in my pocket and went back to Old Blue.

The cattle were gone. They'd drove them off and somewhere now they were eating big. Eating.. eating too much and maybe sleeping. Eating too much and in their own country, and they wouldn't be keeping guard, maybe.

The nearest water was where they would head for, and the nearest water was the springs. I got up on Old Blue and started walking him back.

Maybe I was just a fool kid, but those Indians had killed Pap and stolen our cattle. I was going to get me an Indian.

One more, anyway.