Set in 1874, it follows the adventures of a naive young man from Chicago as he comes into manhood in the company of a group of buffalo hunters plying their trade on the Texas Plains…
Here’s a brief rundown of the characters mentioned in this passage, for the sake of context –
Monday Loman – a religious minded mule driver from Kansas.
Fuke LaTouche – a brash young hunter from Baton Rogue.
Fat Jack McDade – a superstitious Missouri Ozark man and buffalo skinner. He keeps a three-legged cat named Whisper.
Frenchy – a somewhat sadistic French skinner and ex-sailor.
Roam Welty – an African American ex-Army scout.
War Bag Tyler – the grizzled old boss of the outfit.
The Weather Turned quite suddenly one morning.
It was fine climate for drying hides, but not for men. The summer heat panted on our backs like a tired dog. Fuke was of a sour disposition for a few days after losing Napoleon. He repeatedly offered to buy our horses from us, but nobody wanted to ride shotgun in the bull wagon with Jack anymore than he did.
Insects flitted through the dry grass and dropped dead when they got too close to the arsenic. This was an endless source of amusement for Frenchy, but did not prove very engaging for the rest of us. It seemed that the time to pack up camp and move on could not come fast enough.
A week passed and we saw no more buffalo, nor any sign that they had been south of the Wichita Forks. There had been talk of turning back north, or west. War Bag’s argument was that there was little sense in going over the same ground. Roam was for going back, but I think it had more to do with his chronic unease aboutTexasthan anything else.
We awoke one morning to find Jack unpacking his rain gear, though the sky was unclouded and bright.
“Whisper licked his fur agin the grain,” he explained. “So I ‘spect a gullywasher.”
“Redneck hocus-pocus,” Fuke told Jack sleepily. He rose and kicked at the three-legged cat out of spite.
But by noon clouds were drifting in from the northwest, and a cool wind ruffled the grass. It would be the first real rain we had seen all summer. There had been overcast days, but the heavy clouds had always passed over and dropped their burden elsewhere. This time it would be dead on.
It turned out to be a real frog-choker. The land and the sky went gray and old with it, and we were soaked to the toes of our boots before we could scurry for our rain gear. Roam found his tunic, Fuke his capote, and the rest of us donned buffalo coats (all save Fat Jack, who smiled and said nothing, the water running off his oil coat). It was a hard rain, and the sound of every drop striking the earth rolled over the land like an ovation. The ground turned to mud, and the going got slow and hard.
By three o’clock the tempest died down to a light sprinkle that would have been pleasing had we not already been drenched. There was a peaceful stillness over all the faded landscape. The animals shook the water from their bristling flanks. On days like these back home I would walk along the lake shore with the collar of my topcoat turned up, and watch the thousands of tiny drops erupt on the surface of the water.
“It’s proof of God,” Monday told us. His face was very white against the drab sky.
“What?” Roam asked.
“The Lord, renewin’ the land. If you’ve ever leaned in the doorway of a farmhouse and watched the rain turn the earth to chili….seen the leaves of the green beans dance, and smelled that….I don’t know…fertile smell in the air. It’s proof that He’s there, and that He cares.”
“For being such a pulpiteer, how’d you end up with that pagan name –Monday?” Fuke asked.
The muleskinner shrugged.
“My paw wasn’t very religious,” he said. “My maw told me she fought him tooth and nail. I was supposed to be named Michael, but paw said he knew too many Michaels of ill temperament.”
“Were you born on a Monday?” I asked.
Monday shook his head.
“It was a Sunday,” he answered.
“No doubt you were dropped in a pew and reached for the hymnal before the nip,” Fuke said, chuckling.
“My paw, he used to drop my maw and me off at church and then wait for us outside. I would always see him through the window, smoking and watching the road. He was a strange man. I used to think he was bad, or he had done something so bad he couldn’t go into church anymore. Like…maybe God had cursed him for something, and if he went in, he’d burn up. I remember asking him once when I was very small how come he didn’t come to church with maw and me.”
“What’d he say?”
“I don’t recall the answer. Just the asking.”
“Well what was your father’s name?”
I pulled a blanket from my saddlebags and wrapped myself in it. My nose was red and cold, and I shivered in the saddle. I found Stillman Cruther’s red wool muffler and tied it over my face. That helped some, but then my nose began to run.
Winter had given Fall a jump and our knuckles trembled as they gripped the wet reins. The wind picked up and whipped about our legs.
“Still think this is the good Lord’s work, Monday?” Fuke muttered. He had taken to riding with the muleskinner, saying Scripture talk was a sight better than listening to Jack go on about his queer superstitions.
Monday did not answer. His mules out front were troubled, braying and shaking their heads in the harness. They had not made a sound at the approach of the storm, yet now in this chill wind they seemed tense. He spoke to them, too low for anyone with short ears to hear.
I craned my neck up, feeling the rain on my face. A flock of geese were cutting madly across the murky sky, buffeted by the wind. Then I saw something odd that I never will forget. The entire sky lit up with a crazy, twisting chain of lightning. It flashed out like a bullwhip and in an instant struck in the midst of the flock. They were burned on my cornea, little white ‘ems’ silhouetted against a purple flash, as of a photographer’s powder. There was a weird honking cry and a tremendous crash of thunder. Then twelve or fifteen of them dropped lifeless and blackened from the sky into the wet grass all around us like great, feathered hailstones.
My mouth fell wide open.
“Great God! Did you see that?”
Fuke was the first to laugh.
He fairly leapt from the wagon seat and stumbled into the swampy grass where two dead geese lay smoking. The smell was an acrid mixture of rain, static, and burnt meat. Fuke gingerly reached out and grabbed them by the necks, withdrawing his hand quickly, unsure. Then he snatched them up with aplomb. He lifted one in each fist and stood smiling.
“There’s proof of God for you, Sin Buster! Manna from heaven!”
We all laughed, exhilarated by the unnatural occurrence and warm with the knowledge of a couple of cooked goose dinners for the coming week.
Jack did not seem so happy, though, and shook his head.
“Y’all ought t’leave them geese be.”
Fuke rolled his eyes as he returned to the mule wagon with the two dead geese.
“Oh come on, Fats! Don’t tell me your three tittied backwoods witches got anything to say about this?”
Jack scratched his head gravely.
Fuke cut him off.
“Well I’ll be damned rather than look this gift hoss in the mouth.” He plopped the two fat birds up into the wagon bed.
We paused and gathered up what geese were worth it into the camp wagon. Monday agreed to sit in the back and pluck them if Fuke would take the reins for awhile.
Fuke assented, but his command of Monday’s mules proved less than masterful, and they soon fell behind. We could hear him cursing the animals through the rain. Gradually he grew hoarse or tired. I fell back to keep an eye on them, and rode in their tracks. A little trail of blackened feathers began to flit from the back of the wagon and float between the ruts, as Monday went to work. I frowned at the sight of them, for I was reminded of the turkey feathers we’d seen outside the pumpkin rollers’ camp.
The chill wind died out. The rain continued on for another hour, and we dozed in our saddles. Jack sang a low song as he drove the bulls on, and the creaking of the wheels and the rocking motion of Othello grew hypnotic. I tried to make out Jack’s words, but the melody was inseparable from the lyrics. My eyes were as heavy and I flinched awake several times before giving up the battle and slouching in as comfortable a manner as I could muster. I slept. Jack’s wordless singing was the last thing I heard.
It was one of those naps that seem to take place in an instant. When I snapped awake, Jack’s singing had stopped. The rain was gone. Further, Othello had stopped to crop the wet grass. Shaking myself awake, I saw that there was no one in sight.
I had heard the phrase lost ‘without a trace,’ but never truly understood the meaning of the words. I thought it was reserved for the snowblind and those unfortunates who fell overboard at sea. Yet here I was, as lost without a trace as a man could be. I had fallen behind and no doubt my comrades had continued on unawares. I thought to resume my traveling with a nudge to Othello, but who knew if the horse had strayed from his course as I slept? There were no tracks to follow (not that I could follow them anyway), no easily spotted wagon ruts. All around me was the empty gray stillness of the rain-soaked prairie, a boundless, gate-less Purgatory.
I remembered Roam’s advice not to go looking, but I saw no evidence of the wagons. That terrified me. I turned in my saddle.
There in the grass were the almost imperceptible tracks of Othello. Would Roam be able to find them? Perhaps my absence had not even been noticed yet! How long had I been asleep? I could see mosquitos flitting up from their grassy shelters. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I couldn’t very well just sit here until night came.
I thought of Roam’s advice about firing a rifle into the air. I had my Volcanic pistol. In the storm I would have had no chance to be heard, but in this stillness, I found a hope and grabbed it. I fished under my coat and prayed that the powder wasn’t wet. I pulled back the hammer, pointed the pistol skyward, and squeezed the trigger.
I was almost startled by the ensuing shots. I had not truly believed until then that the gun would work. I lowered the pistol new with respect. It was a thing now alive in my hands, its acrid breath dissolving in the cool air. I waited.
I was ecstatic to hear in the distance (from which direction I could not readily ascertain), the reports of a rifle in answer. I had not slept so long nor strayed so far as I had feared! It seemed to me the shots had come from nearby.
I raised my Volcanic again and fired, unable to contain the smile on my face. In a few moments there was another answering shot, closer, and off to my left.
I turned Othello to face that direction and stood in the saddle to see. There was a low dip in the land about a hundred yards out. Then there was another shot, and I saw the smoke flitting in the air.
I put my gun away and pulled my muffler down around my neck. Cupping my wrinkled hands out over my mouth, I shouted;
“Hey! Over here!”
Roam came up over the rise. Though it was hard to make him out, I recognized his dark skin, his spotted piebald, and his union blue coat. As he appeared, he fired another shot.
I waved my arms happily at him, grateful to have been found. I was still advertising myself like a fool when a bullet creased my right cheek. It had sounded like a fly in my ear, and I had mistook the sharp pain for a mosquito bite. I slapped my hand to the cut, and when it came away, the palm was red with my own blood. As I pondered the significance of this, another bullet struck the earth beside Othello with a wet plop.
With a revelatory tremor, I realized that the black man on the piebald was not Roam Welty.
Buff Tea is up for preorder now from Texas Review Press and on Amazon. There will be a Kindle edition somewhere down the road.
You can pick it up here –