Lonely on the Mountain

There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.

Pa said that when I was a boy. There was a hot, dry wind moaning through the hot, dry trees, and we were scared of fire in the woods, knowing that if fire came all we had would go.

We had crops in the ground, but there'd been no rain for weeks. We were scrapin' the bottom of the barrel for flour and drinkin' coffee made from ground-up beans. We'd had our best cow die, and the rest was ganted up, so's you could count every rib.

Two years before, pa had set us diggin' a well. "Pa?" I asked. "Why dig a well? We've got the creek yonder and three flowin' springs on the place. It's needless work."

He lifted his head and he looked me right in the eye and said, "Dig a well."

We dug a well.

And lucky it was too. For there came the time when the bed of the creek was dust and the springs that had always flowed weren't flowin'. We had water, though. We had water from a deep, cold well.

Now, years later and far out on the grass prairie, I was remembering and wondering what I could do that I hadn't done.

No matter which way you looked between you and anywhere else, there was a thousand miles of grass -- and the Sioux.

The Sioux hadn't come upon us yet, but they were about, and every man-jack of us knew it. We were seven men, including the Chinese cook, in no shape to fight off a bunch of Sioux warriors if they came upon us. Scattered around the cattle, we'd be in no shape at all.

The buffalo-chip fire had burned down to a sullen red glow by the time Tyrel rode back into camp. He took off his chaps, glancing over at me, knowing that I was awake.

"They're quiet, Tell" -- he spoke soft so's not to wake the others, who were needful of sleep -- "but every one of them is awake."

"There's something out there. Something or some-body."

I sat up. "It ain't Injuns," I said. "Least it doesn't feel like Injuns. This is something else. We've been followed, Tyrel. We've been been followed for the last three or four days."

"Tye? You recall the time pa wanted us to dig that well? He just wanted to be ready for whatever happened. For anything."

"That was him alright."

"Tyrel , something tells me I forgot to dig my well. There's something I should I should have done that I've missed.

Tyrel, he just sipped his coffee, squatting there in his sock feet, feeling good to have his boots off. "Don't know what it could be," Tyrel said. "We've got rifles all around and ammunition to fight a war."

"Don't make no difference, Tyrel. I forgotten something, or somebody."

"Wait'll we meet up with Orrin. When he joins us at Fort Garry, he'll know right away if anything's wrong."

"Tyrel. D'you figure there's more to this than Logan let on?"

"You know Logan better'n I do. There's mighty little in the way of trouble Logan can't handle all by himself."

"He never lied to us."

"He never lied to nobody."

Tyrel bedded down, but I lay awake, trying to think it out.

We were pushing eleven hundred head of fat steers across the Dakota plains, headed for the gold mines in far western Canada. Orrin was coming up by steamboat and was to meet us at Fort Garry for the long drive west.

Word came from Logan just after we'd sold nine hundred head of prime beef in Kansas. Cap Roundtree, Tyrel, and I were at a table in the Drover' Cottage when that man with the green eye-shade came up to me and said, "Mr. Sackett? This here message come for you a day or two back. I reckon it's important, and I just now heard you were in town."

"Shall I read it?" Tyrel asked me.

"You might," I said, and was glad for the offer. When it came to schoolin', I'd come up empty.

He opened up that message like he'd been gettin' `em every day. He looked over at me. "Listen to this," he said. William Tell Sackett Drover's Cottage Abilene, Kansas I taken money to deliver several hundred head of beef cattle before winter sets in. I got no cows. I got no money. I can't get away to help. Withouten they get them cows, folks will starve, and I'll be wearin' a rope necktie.

Logan P.S. You can expect Higginses.

"Higginses?" Cap said. "I thought you'd done rolled up their carpet?"

"By Higginses' he means we can expect trouble. For some reason he didn't want to say that, but he knew we'd understand."

"Those Higgins boys were rough," Tyrel said, "and we sure didn't dust off all of them. They were good folks, only we just didn't get along."

Cap, he was a-settin' there lookin' at me out of those wise old eyes. "He wants beef cattle, and we've just sold our stock. We got a piece of money, but we ain't got near enough to buy at these prices. so what do we do?"

"We've got to buy."

"We haven't got enough to buy, let alone feed ourselves from here to Canada."

Cap put down his cup. "Got me an idea," he said, and was gone from the table.

"This couldn't come at a worse time," Tyrel commented. "I need all I've got to pay debts back in Santa Fe."

"Me too," I said, "but Logan's in trouble."

"You believe he meant that about hanging?"

"Logan is a man who takes hanging right serious, and he wouldn't joke about it."

Cap was coming back into the room followed by a straw-hatted sod buster wearing shoes.

"Set, Bob, an' tell them what you told me," Cap said.

Bob had wrinkle from squinting at the sun and wrinkles around his eyes from laughing. "My cousin's come down from the north. Lives up on the Missouri near Yankton. He was telling me about some Indian cattle, and Cap here, he overheard us."

"Indian cattle?"

"Well, some of them. Quite a few years back, two brothers brought some cattle into the Missouri River country. One of the brothers was gored by a steer. He lasted a few weeks and then died.

The brother took the body back home for burial and when he came back, he was crossing at a stream when his horse fell with him. Both of them lost--horse and man.

"So those cattle run wild. The Injuns around there are mostly friendlies. I'd say if anybody has claim to them now, it's those Injuns."

"But would they sell them?"

"Right now they would. They'd sell, and quick. The Sioux have been raiding into their country some, and just now the Sioux learned about those cattle. They'll drive them off, leaving the friendlies with nothing. If you were to go in there and make `em a decent offer, you'd have yourself a herd."

"How many head, do you figure?"

Eight, nine hundred. Maybe more. There's good grass in those bottoms."

So that was how it began. We met the Injuns and sat down over a mess of bacon, bread, and beans, and we made our deal. We paid them well in blankets and things they were needing.

There was a star showing here and there when I rolled out of my blankets and shook out my boots. Lin, our Chinese cook, was squatting over the fire. He gestured to the pot. "All ready," he said.

My eyes swept the horizon. Far off to the west, I could see some black humps. "Buffalo," I commented.

He stood up to look. "I have never seen a buffalo. There will be more?"

"A plenty. More'n we want, I expect."

"You go to British Columbia? I have a relative there, and ships leave there for China. I had no money, and when I heard you were going to British Columbia, I wished to go with you."

"It'll be rough."

"It often is. He looked at me, not smiling. "It can be rough in China too." He paused. "My father was an offical in the western desert country. It is a land where all people ride, as they do here."

"Can you use a rifle?"

"Our compound was attacked several times by bandits," he said. "We had to shoot."

"Before this is over, you may have another chance," I said.