Published on Thursday, July 1, 2010
By Richard Prosch
An awkward leap brought him down on the hardpan, bones crunching, guts piling into his throat. He refused to give in, but John Coburn was wearing out fast. He hauled himself to his feet and, stifling the urge to curse, spit into the wind. "You want to try that again?" he said.
Coburn uncoiled in the air like a whip, both hands grasping wildly for purchase. This time he caught hold, and the bull calf bellowed with rage, his back hooves kicking wildly. With both hands clamped around its tail, Coburn growled, "You ain't going nowhere now!" But another kick made him a liar, and he hit the ground.
Lightning flashed. Ignoring the taste of blood on his lips, Coburn looked at a far distant tide of green and black flowing up from the horizon toward the evening sun. Some good-sized hailstones in them clouds, he thought. As the thunder rolled over him, Coburn stood and watched the calf lope away.
This time he cursed.
He was old and tired, he decided. And stupid. Working cattle for years, but chasing after a belligerent calf without a rope. What it came down to was this: he'd started to get the big head. A few years back the kind of folks who read dime novels had started calling him The Peregrine, and idiot stories were like cottonwood seed littering the northern high plains. The grim wandering gun man, the book-taught cowboy. Was there anything he couldn't do?
At seventeen John Coburn joined the Ponca on their forced march to Indian Territory. In the rain and mud and disease, he did what he could for Standing Bear's people. He carried them, and in sickness allowed himself to be carried. He was there when they buried White Buffalo Girl in Nebraska. At twenty-four he was the best ranch hand in Wyoming. Three years later he stopped a range war all by himself.
Now the Peregrine couldn't catch a four-month-old calf on a wide-open prairie.
A rope and a horse sure would've helped. What the hell was he thinking when he took off on foot? He could just make out the calf about a quarter mile down range when a cool breeze, faintly damp, arced down from the gathering storm. Dark thunderheads rose, the color of deep tissue bruises. Color of my ass tomorrow morning, thought Coburn, knocking dirt off his hat and trudging ahead.
He'd taken the job with Marv Shultz's outfit a week after passing through Red Horizon, the place where he'd grown up, a ghost town now, filled with broken buildings and death. He thought he knew what happened there during the years he was gone, thought he knew why everyone left, but lately he wasn't so sure. Shultz's ranch was less than a day's journey west of the town site, but the men he met were shut tight as a rattler's behind. No one would talk about the place, and when he asked they wouldn't meet his eyes. So he kept his questions to himself, working through the winter and calving season into spring.
But one thing still lived in Red Horizon: a burning, breathing secret.
A mile later when he topped a knobby hill, the calf was a dark speck leaving the prairie and moving down a dirt road edged with high grass and cedars. He walked a half mile in determined silence, dropped into a short crick bed and came up near a shelterbelt of tall pine trees that led to a grassy yard. Coburn loosened his collar by several buttons.
He walked on to the place, a simple farmstead with a two-story frame house. Under the cover of gently whispering shade trees, a few rickety sheds were slung in a close arc around the back. Under the biggest pin oak Coburn had ever seen, two other travelers sat at a wooden picnic table beside the lane. They were finishing up cornbread and beans, and the adjacent table was set up with fresh plates and ironware. It looked like the kitchen was open for business.
At a wooden trough Coburn drank beside a pair of roan geldings before wiping a grit stained arm across his face. The horses wore expensive saddles, and one had a leather boot with a rifle. He assumed they belonged to the men under the tree.
Before long, they wandered over. They both wore gun belts. One of them wore a cavalry hat. The other had tortoise shell glasses and could've been a college professor, but he was built wrong, too big and knobby and too much scar tissue around the eyes.
Both nodded and sipped coffee from tin cups. The professor gave him an odd, knowing smile.
"Long walk?" said the soldier, narrowing his eyes.
"Hunting a lost calf."
The man ignored the comment and continued to look.
After a minute, Coburn looked at the sky. "If you ain't seen my calf, I'd best move on."
"Whyn't you get a bite of that corn bread? Or them beans?" said the soldier.
"Get a bite," said the professor with a shrill laugh. "Damn right."
Again the soldier smiled, this time with a combination of open expectation and outright mockery Coburn didn't understand.
When the cook opened the screen door, Coburn saw he was iron gray, hard and muscular with only four or five teeth in his head.
"Come, sit down," he said with a thick Scandinavian accent. He crossed the lawn with a pot of steaming soup, scattering chickens and drawing a passel of cats in his wake.
"We'll just be on our way," said the soldier. As the two horsemen headed up the lane, Coburn saw the soldier move close to his companion and tilt his head back. He said something, and they both laughed long and loud, all the way to the main road.
Coburn adjusted his hat, intending to move on, wondering if it was worth it to continue the hunt or walk back home for a horse, when he saw the little Indian girl. Not more than seven years old, she carried a bread board with butter and preserves, her pace light and quick as she high-stepped through the moving maze of animals. Her long hair was combed and draped evenly across her shoulders, the sparkling lace of her white dress stiff and crystalline. The Swede chuffed like a steam engine, then let the big pot of bean and bacon stew drop. Coburn tried to picture the man laundering such a dress, or combing the girl's hair but his imagination failed. He sensed a woman's touch.
He looked around the farm place. No livestock other than the chickens. The squat sheds were closed up and silent.
"Come, eat," said the Swede. "Before it rains." The Indian girl turned, and Coburn now saw something more. Her eyes were dark and sparkling, and in them was the image of her fathers.
He moved to the picnic table and sat.
The sun was well behind the clouds now, and the quiet air was charged with the coming storm.
Inside the house, someone played a piano. There was the laughter of feminine voices, but there was harsh cursing too.
For the first time that day, Coburn wished for his gun. No rope, no horse, no gun; Christ he was naked. He lit a smoke, breathed in, and tried to relax.
"Gina! Set them things out," said the Swede. The girl did as she was told, delivering bowls, a loaf of fresh bread, crocks of butter, preserves and molasses along with a heavy wooden spoon.
Coburn ignored the food. "Gina? Is that your name?"
Quickly she shook her head. "Regina," she corrected him, pronouncing the "g" like an "h" as in the Spanish.
"Are you Ponca?" he asked, but bashful, she moved away a step. When he spoke again, this time in her language, her smile showed a mix of baby and permanent teeth behind interlaced fingers. She turned a half circle and laughed.
"Where are your people?" he said and named a few of the surrounding settlements. "Are you from Pischelville? Cypress? Red Horizon?" At the last, she stopped dancing and stood with sad eyes an arm's length away.
He named the town again, and Regina nodded. "What happened there?"
"You want coffee, you shout," said the Swede gruffly from the house. "Get on now with the rest of the girls!" he said to Regina, and her eyes held Coburn for an instant, and then she was gone, her bare feet a blur across the scrabble patch of lawn.
When he finished his smoke, Coburn stood and walked to the house.
The kitchen was pink wallpaper and rough-hewn furniture. In one corner a wood stove played host to bubbling pots, strips of shredded pork hanging limp on the rims. The stew smell stuck in his throat. A frayed quilt covered a door to the rest of the house. The Swede welcomed Coburn with a strong handshake. When he whistled, two girls padded out from behind the quilt, neither one old enough for what they were selling, and certainly not old enough to be Regina's mother.
One of the girls seemed drunk and half-starved, all angled planes and loose skin under sackcloth panties and a store bought slip. The second girl was heavy and round and looked like an upside down pear. A man's fancy shirt hung to her knees, and she kept her blonde hair short and combed to the side like a boy. The Swede leaned back against the table with expectation. Naturally Coburn knew about cathouses, places where grown-up women earned their living more honestly than most men.
Regina poked her head out from behind the curtain.
This wasn't that kind of place.
"What's your name?" said the fat girl.
"Reckon it don't matter too much," said Coburn, "I'll be moving on." Wind rushed into the kitchen, and a feed sack curtain billowed high. Outside, the clouds broke open and rain fell hard. No one moved to shut the window.
Coburn locked eyes with Regina, shifting his glance toward the door. The girl stepped through the quilt.
"The little one goes with me," he said so only she would understand.
"Good company here," the Swede said. He reached out, laying his fat hand on Coburn's shoulder. "Stay a while? Ride out the storm?" He laughed like he'd made a joke.
Coburn shrugged it off. "Don't touch me again."
Unnoticed, Regina edged along the wall.
"Listen, friend, I'll make you a fair deal." Quietly he added, "For a man like yourself. . . well," the Swede flashed a mischievous grin, "feel free to have all three."
The sweep of his arm included Regina.
Coburn picked up a rolling pin and hit him across the throat.
The Swede coughed and stumbled back. The blonde went to him immediately, and Coburn saw the family resemblance. "What did you do?" she shouted over her shoulder at him. "What did you do?"
"You're a dead man," croaked the Swede.
"Not likely," said Coburn.
Quicker than he could've guessed, the girl stood and hurled a pot of stew at him. The heavy kettle glanced against Coburn's shoulder. The hot soup burnt his arm.
He looked toward the quilt but the thin girl was staring vacantly at the scene, flaccid and detached. Regina bolted out into the rain.
Coburn turned around, and the Swede was on him, big and slow. Ignoring the pain in his arm, Coburn slammed an elbow into the toothless face, feeling the old nose give with a satisfying crunch, then the big man's feet hit the puddling soup and slid out from under him.
But Coburn went down too and as his head bounced on the pine floor, the fat girl jumped on top of him, straddling his legs at the knees. She brandished the rolling pin high above her head.
Then there was a sound of a shell jacked into a chamber, and everyone froze. Just inside the screen door, the soldier pointed a dripping shotgun at them. "Wondered if we could get a drib more coffee," he said.
The blonde dropped the rolling pin to the floor, and Coburn rolled to his knees.
The Swede leaned against the stove groaning, his hands to his face, blood everywhere.
"What is it?" said the professor, stepping into the house, brushing water from his sleeves.
Still on the floor and from the corner of his eye, Coburn watched the travelers.
"Mind the Swede," said the soldier and the professor moved to help the older man.
"You okay, Mr. Carlson?"
When Coburn stood, the soldier asked him his name. He told them.
"I heard of you," said the soldier.
Here it came, thought Coburn. Always the legend, the stories, his reputation with a gun preceding him.
"You're the new hand over at Schultz's. You looking for work?"
"You want me to give him a job?" rasped the Swede.
"I heard this guy works for next to nothing." The soldier chewed his bottom lip. "Also heard he needs some practice with the rope."
The Peregrine wondered if he should be insulted.
"Mr. Carlson is thinking about branching out the operation," the professor told him.
"Shut-up," said the Swede.
"I'm damn good with a rope," said Coburn.
"Weren't you hunting a lost calf?"
While the soldier held the shotgun over his shoulder like an infantryman, the Swede strode forward and pounded a fist into Coburn's chest. He fell and the old man kicked him in the side.
"He don't work for me," said Carlson. "Take him outside. Send him to home or to hell, I don't care which."
The soldier laughed.
When the professor started to laugh with him, Coburn rose deliberately and punched him square in the mouth. The professor went down like a bag of oats. Instead of pulling the trigger, the soldier swung his weapon like a baseball bat. Coburn ducked, feinted to the right and pulled the professor's Colt from its well-oiled holster. He fired a shot past the Swede into the ceiling and backed out the door as plaster came down on them.
Regina stood in the muddy lane waiting.
The soldier was the first one out, hands open and high. Coburn kept his gun trained on them.
"We don't want trouble here," said the soldier. "If we kill you, Schultz will come looking."
Coburn's employer was a powerful man with acres of fertile farm ground and vast tracks of grazing land. Might be why the soldier hadn't cut him in half when he had the chance.
Coburn glanced at the horses, again standing beside the water trough.
The hell of it was, they'd found his calf. The little bull was tied to one of the geldings, standing quiet.
"Lead that horse over here, Regina," he said. "The one with the rifle and the calf." To the men on the porch, "I'll send the ride back later."
The rain was letting up. While the little girl led the horse carefully down the lane, Coburn walked backwards through the sprinkles, a weapon in each hand. Watching the motionless men on the porch, he didn't so much as blink.
There was no way they were going to let him go. Men like these didn't let you just walk away after a fight; they sure as hell didn't let you walk away with a strong horse and a couple of fine weapons. They might even have ties to one of the old vigilance committees that once roamed these parts; before a week passed, Coburn would find himself at the business end of a noose, charged with horse stealing or, he looked down at Regina, kidnapping.
Coburn figured he had fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.
The roan was a good horse, and Coburn steered it carefully down the muddy, slick crick bed, Regina content to ride safely in front of him, the bull calf trotting reluctantly behind. The clouds parted in the west, and the sun dried them fast.
They were easy to track in the fresh mud; there'd be hell before dusk.
"How did you come to live with those people?" he asked Regina, but she cocked her head and shrugged. "Did you come with a man? One of the girls?" He knew she understood, but she didn't answer.
It didn't matter how she got there, he thought. It wasn't the place for her.
Where is the place for her? Wandering the rugged hills and river valleys with you?
One step at a time.
Reining to the right, they eventually made a circle and started back in the direction they'd come, though Coburn angled his approach to the north, hoping to loop around the Swede's place. Stopping the range war, he'd learned a few lessons. He would do what his enemy didn't expect.
Regina stole a glance up at him and back. This war was about her, and he didn't plan to lose.
At a shelter of cottonwoods, he tied the calf to a tree. Safe enough. He looked around and knew he could find the grove again.
Now they rode faster.
Coburn thought about the calf. The Swede's men surely hadn't brought the calf back out of the goodness of their hearts. What was all that talk about a job? Were they really hiring cowboys? Coburn recalled the quiet, empty farmstead. A lot could be hidden in thick cedar groves, or behind them.
Once he got the lay of the land, he was going to ask about that job.
In the slow fade of summer daylight, Coburn counted twenty-five cows, all different color and breeds, tucked in for the night in a peaceful valley of 80 acres. They were directly behind the Swede's farmhouse. Coburn recognized a black heifer, gone missing from Schultz's place a few weeks back. The Swede needed enforcers to protect the girls all right, but not the ones in the house.
Crouching low in the evergreen woods, Coburn pressed the Colt into Regina's hands. "If I am hurt," he told her in the Ponca language, "keep this hidden. Keep it with you even if they take you back to the house. It may be you'll need it someday." Her eyes were wide with terror, but she nodded and understood.
He pulled the rifle from its boot and moved quietly away through the trees.
Regina heard the men ride up before she saw them. There were four, and they couldn't see her, hidden behind a patch of thistles and stinging nettle. Their voices were rough and all of them carried guns. When they saw the abandoned horse, their approach was more cautious.
"Coburn?" Regina recognized the soldier's voice. "You're trespassing on private property."
The men were very still, listening to the late evening buzz of cicadas.
"Damn bugs," said another man, the one with the glasses, the professor. "Too early for 'em."
"Quiet," said the solider. He rode closer and from where she lay in the grass, flat and still, Regina could see him plain enough. She raised the Colt to her cheek.
"Coburn," he shouted again. "We need to talk." He slapped at his pants.
"Skeeters," said one of the strange men and the professor laughed.
Careful and slow, like she had seen men do, Regina pulled back the pistol's hammer with both thumbs. They were all still for a long time.
"Damn it," the soldier finally said into the coming night. He slapped at his shirt.
Regina held her breath.
Coburn walked in front of her and stepped with a yard of the four horses. He held the rifle at arm's length, aimed straight at the soldier.
"You fellas smell smoke?" he said.
"Son of a bitch," said the professor.
"It's the house," said the soldier.
Coburn stepped to the side, the rifle still held out. "Throw down them guns. You ain't gonna need 'em to fight fire."
"Dammit!" One of the men spun on his mount and galloped back the way they'd come, back toward the road and the acreage driveway. His partner threw down his gun and followed.
"This ain't over, Coburn," said the soldier.
Regina squeezed the trigger.
The man tumbled from his horse and lay in the wet grass coughing blood. Coburn swung the rifle around and the professor spun his horse, crouched low and rode fast away.
Coburn pulled the girl to her feet.
"What the hell did you do?" he said.
With two hands, she turned the gun and held it out to him butt first. He jammed the Colt into his boot. "Stay here. Don't move."
The soldier was stretched back in a final death spasm, his empty eyes bulging.
Coburn breathed deep and coughed. The smoke was thick, getting thicker. He looked down at the corpse.
Regina reached up and took his hand.
"What the hell did you do?" he said again.
"It was men like him," whispered the girl.
"What do you mean?"
"In Red Horizon. Men like him." She tossed her head back and her hair was a dark halo caught in the breeze, her eyes deliberate and firm.
"Men like him?" He glanced down at the blood stained cap.
"Soldiers?" said Coburn. "You're talking about soldiers?"
Regina nodded and her hard eyes started to soften. "They killed everybody," she said. "They killed them all."
As Coburn held her, the world twirled around him full of smoke and fire and screams from beyond the trees.
Richard Prosch has produced an extensive body of creative nonfiction for trade association Web sites and journals.
Alone and with his wife, Gina, he's written for creative projects with Tribune Media Services, Optimist International, and Las Vegas magician Mac King's Magic in a Minute.
A long time fan of genre fiction, Richard can be found writing about the west at MeridianBridge.com.