Western Wednesdays—OPEN RANGE by Lauran Paine

I have to admit, I saw the movie Open Range before I ever read the book by Lauran Paine. In my opinion, the film was successful in many ways in adapting the source material to the big screen. But, Lauran Paine is Lauran Paine. He’s a hell of a storyteller. His books have a rhythm all their own, and his words create a unique experience that film simply can’t replicate. I’m previewing two chapters of Open Range today because, well,  I’m of the opinion that the more time spent with Paine’s characters, the better.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

A Gray World

Everything had a uniform drabness: the sky, the earth, and everything in between was gray. Sudden downpours from squall winds added to the dreary sameness. Even glimpses of some distant mountains showed them also to be gray.

The old wagon blended into the gloominess. There was a waterproofed texas someone had made by raising a pole underneath the cloth, high in the center so water would run downward instead of accumulating in the center of the top, causing a hazardous sag. There was a shallow shovel-width trench completely around the wagon, which carried off most of the water. The ground beneath the texas was wet but not soggy.

Everything seasoned rangemen could do to mitigate wetness had been done, but after the second day of steady rainfall nothing could keep the moisture out completely. Even the air inside the wagon was damp.

There had been very little warning. One night when the men bedded down they saw a few fleecy clouds in the sky. The clouds looked soiled around the edges but they were not numerous. Sometime during the night the storm had arrived. Its intensity gradually built up from one of those customary summer showers that cattlemen welcomed until it became a genuine gully washer that had not slackened for two days and nights.

The cattle were out there, invisible to the range-men whenever the cattle were more than a hundred yards away. The same with the horses—two half-ton bay harness animals and eight saddle horses.

This kind of a storm, out in the middle of a thousand miles of rolling-to-flat grassland with a monotonous view in all directions, had an effect on men whose thoughts, habits, and customs had made them individuals who coveted wide open spaces. Suddenly the weather had forced their horizons to shrink way back to the perimeter of the old wagon, along with most of their activities. By the second day of the downpour they had gone from inhabitants of an almost limitless world to being prisoners of an area no more than sixty feet long by about twelve feet wide.

They played poker with a greasy and dog-eared deck of cards. They slept as often as they cared to. They talked about other times, other places, other people and events. Finally, they took to smoking beneath the texas, coat collars turned up, shirts closed all the way to the gullet, hat brims pulled in front and back so water could run off down the sides. The rangemen buckled their chaps into place, leaving the part below the knee swinging free, because leather kept water out, for a while anyway.

The eldest of them was Boss Spearman. Sixty-odd years earlier his mother had named her beautiful little chubby baby boy Bluebonnet because his eyes were the color of the flower, but no one had called him anything but Boss for about half a century.

His mother wouldn’t have recognized him now. Boss was a little under six feet tall, lean, scarred, lined, craggy with a shock of rarely combed iron-gray hair. Like all orphaned Texans left on their own in the wake of a ruinous war, Boss Spearman had reached manhood by clawing his way. Whatever was said about him, he was resourceful. He was taciturn among townfolks and strangers, and he was as shrewd as they came, tough and sinewy. His thoughts, movements, and actions were those of a much younger man.

The youngest of the rangemen was a waif called Button, which was a common name for youngsters. Boss and Charley Waite had rescued Button from an alley fight where townsmen in western New Mexico had pitted him against another boy and placed bets on the outcome. Button was getting whipped to a frazzle when Boss and Charley broke it up and took him out to the wagoncamp with them.

Now Button was sixteen, doing a man’s work in a man’s world, growing like a weed, thin as a rail, with hair the color of dirty straw.

Charley had trailed cattle west with Boss Spearman. He was a little less than average in height, had muscle packed inside a powerful frame, had dark hair and eyes, and could do something few other men ever learned. He could rope equally well with either hand. Charley’s full name was Charles Travis Postelwaite. Before he’d reached twenty he shortened it to Charley Waite. He looked to be about forty-five but in fact was thirty-five.

The last of them was well over six feet tall and weighed better than two hundred pounds. He had nondescript dark hair and deep-set gray eyes, a wide mouth, and scars. His name was Mosely Harrison. They called him Mose.

Big Mose, leaning against the tailgate beneath the canvas, was the first to see the rent in the sky far eastward and say, “It’s goin’ to break up. Look yonder.”

But the storm didn’t break up. Not for another twenty-four hours, and then it ended the same way it had arrived, silently in the soggy night. When they rolled out in the morning to get a cooking fire started with damp wood, there was only a misty dampness to the air. The downpour had stopped.

For another few days, though, the ground would be too treacherous underfoot to do much, and there were seepage springs everywhere that underlying layers of rock would not allow water to penetrate.

Charley was frying sidemeat. The old pot held the last of their coffee. When the others squatted to eat in silence, Charley rationed out soggy fried spuds, meat, and three baking-powder biscuits to each plate. He sat down with his tin dish. “Nice little rain,” he said. “Grass’ll be strong all the way into July maybe.”

No one else spoke. They chewed, swallowed, and raised more food to their mouths. They washed the food down with the coffee, then put the tin cups and plates aside to roll smokes. The smoking was a ritual. It signified something: the end of a meal, the end of a day, the spiritual or philosophical girding up for something ahead. Maybe a self-reward for having survived a particular event.

Boss tipped ash into the little fire. “My maw used to say don’t anything happen it don’t bring some good with it.” He pointed with his cigarette hand. They’d been having trouble with the wagon’s wheels through a month of hot weather. “Them tires and spokes and felloes is as tight as when they was new.”

The next morning the sun arrived, huge and orange-yellow with a single cloud in its path toward the meridian. An hour later the ground steamed; the men shed coats and still sweated. They loafed around the wagon doing minor chores until the kid found the horses. One horse anyway. He’d gone out on foot with a bridle draped from one shoulder and a lariat in his right hand.

Boss walked out a ways, remained out there for a while, then returned to lean on the tailgate, scraping mud off his boots as he said, “Not a sight of anything. I got a feeling we’re going to set right here for maybe a week before we find all those damned cattle.”

Mose Harrison was rubbing mold off a saddle fender. “If the ground was harder, we could take the wagon wherever the cattle are instead of was-tin’ days finding them and driving them back here.”

Boss gazed at the hulking man. “Yeah,” he said dryly. “If. All my life it’s been, If.”

Charley went up front where the wagon tongue was held off the ground by a little wooden horseshoe keg. He sat up there until he saw distant movement, then returned to the tailgate area. “He caught one.”

Boss finished cleaning off the mud and pitched the twig into the dying coals of their breakfast fire. “You want to find the other one, Charley?”

When Button finally got back, mud to the knees and leading a roman-nosed, rawboned big sorrel horse with feet the size of dinner plates, Charley went out with an old croaker sack to dry off the animal’s back before saddling up.

The heat had been steadily, muggily building up for over two hours. It would have helped if there had been a little air stirring, but the air was stone-still. Visibility, however, was excellent as Charley reined away heading on an angling northwesterly course. Because there were no tracks, finding any animals would be by sight alone.

They would eventually find them. They’d been through worse situations than this many times. Grazing cattle constantly moved, and this sooner or later brought rangemen face to face with just about every inconvenience or obstacle nature or man could devise.

It was simply a matter of finding which way the cattle had drifted, with their heads down and their rumps to the force of the storm.

What made it unlikely that Charley Waite would find the cattle soon was the duration of the storm. The cattle could drift one hell of a distance in two days.

The roman-nosed horse sweated even at a steady walk. Charley did too. So did the ground, but its sweat was a rising faint mist as hot sunlight cooked soggy earth.

There was a lot of territory on all sides. The only barrier was a range of haze-distanced mountains to the north. They seemed to form around the big prairie in a long-spending curve, like a huge horseshoe.

There were no signs of two-legged life, but there were plenty of pronghorns and deer. Charley came up over a landswell and startled a young, tawny yellow cougar eating a rabbit. They looked at each other in surprise for a couple of seconds before the cat broke away with his belly hairs scraping the ground as he fled eastward. Charley could have shot him. He had his saddlegun along. Instead he turned northward along the rise and stood in his stirrups seeking movement. A rising heat haze shortened visibility a little but he could still see for miles.

The land was empty.

He zigzagged over a mile or two looking for tracks. When he found them, finally, he was about ten miles from camp. From this point on he followed cow sign toward those distant mountains. The cattle would not have got that far, but he loped a little anyway. He needed reassurance that they hadn’t got up in there, because if they had, it was going to be hard work finding them and driving them back to open country.

The mountains did not seem to be getting any closer no matter how far he rode toward them. What he sought was a sighting or, failing that, the scent of cattle.

What he found was a big calf lying dead. Squawking buzzards surrounded the corpse, too engrossed in feeding to notice his approach until he was close enough to yell and startle them. Most of the birds ran along the ground to get airborne, but several ignored the proximity of the man to tear at the carcass, too hungry to depart immediately.

They finally left when Charley was about a hundred feet from the carcass. He rode closer, sat his saddle studying the dead calf, trying to figure out what had killed it. He gave up on that because the body had been torn and dragged until there was little semblance of its original self. Charley rode northward on the wide, perfectly visible trail of a lot of cattle.

He had not found the brand back there. If he’d cared to dismount and roll the carcass over to expose the right side, he probably could have found it. Boss Spearman, for some private reason, used one C-iron to make three letter Cs on the right rib cage of his cattle. Charley Waite had been with Spearman six years and still did not know what the three Cs stood for.

Some coyotes appeared through stirrup-high grass following the scent of blood. Charley saw them, then lost them, only to see them again in other places. He thought there were about fifteen of the varmints. There was no doubt about what they were seeking and would ultimately find. When that happened the buzzards would leave, and would stay away.

With the sun coming down the far side of heaven to make Charley tip down his hat to protect his eyes, he finally detected dark movement far ahead.

The cattle.

By count there were supposed to be four hundred cows, mostly wet ones with sassy-fat calves, along with about two hundred and fifty big marketable steers and something like fifteen bulls, a bigger ratio than most cattlemen used. But then, most cattlemen had particular ranges; their cows were not always moving.

Charley turned back, satisfied with this part of his mission. Now he concentrated on locating the horses. With them a man could never be as certain of eventual success. True, there had been no lightning and thunder to spook them out of the country, but they could still be a long way off.

Chapter Two

Getting Back to Normal

He found the horses by riding the course of a crooked creek that had the only tree shade for many miles. The horses were absorbing filtered sunshine while simultaneously stamping and flailing their tails at myriads of flying insects.

They were irritable from being bitten and stung, so when Charley came into sight from above them, they did exactly what he had hoped: they stuck their tails in the air like scorpions and ran southward beside the creek until they were tiring, then veered easterly until they were out of creek mud.

He loped in their wake, keeping them in sight. After they’d got their run out, he slackened down to a walk and eased them in the direction of the wagoncamp. It was shading toward dusk when he had the wagon in sight. Small figures up by the wagon tongue would be Boss, Button, and Mose, who had seen the horses coming.

Charley circled wide to reach camp without exciting the horses, who were perfectly willing to rest anyway. He rode in and swung off to peel the outfit from the roman-nosed gelding.

Boss and the kid went to work at the little cooking fire. Mose came over where Charley was upending his outfit to ask if he’d seen any cattle.

They sat on warm, moist earth beneath the canvas to eat while Charley related what he had found. The dead calf was accepted as one of the hazards of the business. Boss said they would head upcountry tomorrow after breakfast and bring the cattle down closer to camp.

He also grumbled because they were out of coffee, saying someone had ought to ride back to that town they’d passed a couple of days earlier for supplies. Button volunteered. The older men acted as though they had not heard him. Boss asked Mose to go, then heaved up to his feet to climb into the wagon in search of his little dented tin lockbox. When he returned he handed Mose several badly worn, greasy green-backs. Then they discussed what would be needed besides coffee, and when it was clear everything could be carried on a saddle horse, they hunted up their bedrolls and settled in for the night.

The moon, which they had been unable to see for the better part of a week, was full and brilliant. Some foraging wolves passed silently during the night, leaving large tracks in the soft ground. A pair of raccoons scouted the camp. Their boldness took them to the grub box, where their scratching awakened Button, the lightest sleeper among the men. He rolled out, pulled on his soggy boots, picked up a stick, and chased the coons away. He stood in the warm, brilliant night for a while, breathing deeply of air that smelled slightly of fermenting vegetation. Then he turned toward his bedroll at about the same time a dog-wolf sat back out yonder somewhere, pointed his muzzle at the moon, and let go with one of the most mournful calls Button had ever heard. It made the hair rise up along the back of his neck.

He dropped the stick and looked slowly in all directions. That wolf had sounded close, but of course he wasn’t. Wolves had learned before most animals had that the sour scent of humans meant guns.

“Hey,” a voice said from beneath the old wagon. “What’re you doing out there?”

Button twisted toward the voice but said nothing. He went back to his blankets, and in the morning no one mentioned having seen him standing there in the moonlight listening to a mournful wolf.

Before sunrise Mose left riding a large seal-brown horse and carrying two croaker sacks rolled and lashed behind his cantle. They figured he would be back tomorrow night; one day to reach the town and make the purchases, and one day getting back. When they had seen the town a week or so earlier, they were driving cattle, which moved much slower than horses.

Charley led the way up where he had seen the cattle. The sun was hot again, so after sighting the critters they hunted creek shade to tank up their horses and to rest for a while.

Boss was in a philosophical mood. Usually when he was like this he lectured Button. Today was no exception. He squinted in the direction of the herd and said, “Boy, when you’re on your own, get hired on in some town and learn a trade. Maybe like the mercantile business. Or the cafe business. Even blacksmithing is a good trade. There are lots of trades a feller can learn in a town.”

Button was chewing a grass stalk when he said, “I don’t like towns. I never liked them.”

Boss leaned with his back to a pair of creek willows. “Look at things like they are,” he said. “With a trade in a town you always got a roof over your head, a bed up off the ground to sleep in, food no farther away than a cafe, and whether it’s hot or cold, you can always stay dry.” Boss turned to see what impression his wisdom was having. It seemed to be having very little. Button was leaning on an elbow chewing the length of grass while gazing steadily far out.

Boss glanced at Charley, who simply shrugged and arose to snug up the cinch, remove the hobbles, and rebridle his horse.

They went more than a mile out of their way to get around the cattle, between them and the distant mountains. Boss stood in his stirrups to signal with an upraised arm for them to start down toward the herd.

The cattle were a mixture of slab-sided razorbacks with horns that tipped upward, and red grade animals with white faces, broad backs, and large hams.

Under different circumstances they would have bet that the razorbacks would run at the firstsight of mounted men, but these animals had not been without someone on horseback pushing them along since some were calves. They accepted mounted men with something like equal parts of resignation and annoyance.

The herd broke up a little, came together again with a rider on each wing, and finally settled in behind a mottled razorback steer nearly as tall as a saddle horse. He knew what he was supposed to do and where they were going, so he took the lead and plodded dutifully along.

Button brought up the drag of young calves and their anxious mothers, along with a scattering of lame animals, or just plain lazy ones. Button was always put in the drag. At least this time he needed no handkerchief to keep from being stifled by manure-scented dust.

Today the heat was a little drier, as was the ground. Because there was no hurry, the cattle were permitted to browse as they went along, something else they had become accustomed to.

Two events broke the sameness. The first was a prime young pronghorn who was slow getting out of his bed when the riders came along, perhaps because he thought only the cattle were out there with him.

His mistake. Boss shot him on the run. They had to halt and gut him for carrying. The cows got a mile ahead before the men were ready to ride again.

The second event occurred with the wagon in sight. A short-backed brindle cow who looked as though she was in the last stages of bloat left the drive. All Charley Waite’s swearing could not make her go back, so he drew off and watched as she went looking for something she never found: a hiding place amid trees or thick underbrush where she could have privacy while calving.

She didn’t have time enough for much of a search, so she settled for second best, a grassy high landswell that offered an unobstructed view in all directions. She stood skylined up there watching Charley, the nearest potential enemy, scored the ground with her left horn, then with her right, and pawed dirt. She was not challenging the horseman, nor threatening him; she was telling him very plainly to stay away and leave her alone.

He looped his reins and lit up a smoke. When Boss came along Charley said, “It’s not coming right. When she passed me, only one foot was out.”

They dismounted to wait. The herd went southward with only Button far back to keep it moving.

Deerflies came out of nowhere to pester the waiting men. They kept gloved hands moving; deerflies didn’t just bite, they stung.

The cow was up and down several times, lowing and looking back where her straining should have left a calf. Boss lifted his hat to scratch, dropped the hat back down, and smashed his quirley into the ground. Neither man said a word; they had to wait, whether they liked it or not. They could not approach her until she was wringing wet with sweat and too weak from straining to jump and charge them.

Finally, when they saw her beating her head on the ground, they arose, snugged up cinches, mounted, and rode at a walk toward the low top-out. When they were about seventy-five feet away, Boss unslung his lariat and rode with it loosely draped around the saddlehorn.

They widened the distance between them so as to approach the panting, wild-eyed cow from far out on both sides. They came together again behind the downed animal. Charley pointed. One jelly-like little hoof was out, along with half a leg. There was no sign of the other hoof.

They rode closer and sat a moment to see if the cow would try to stagger to her feet to charge them. She could not, because she was completely exhausted from straining. When they dismounted, the cow raised her head to try to see them over the enormously distended side of her body, then flung her head down hard against the ground, tongue lolling, eyes bloodshot and glazed.

Charley took the hondo end of Boss’s lariat, went up behind the cow, knelt, removed his gloves, and rolled up one sleeve. He probed for the hung-up hoof, found it, got the hoof out where it was supposed to be, looped the rope, and raised his hand.

Boss took one dally on his saddlehorn from the ground, kept the rope in his fist to pay out if he had to, and backed his horse.

Twice Charley signaled for slack; they let the cow pant and groan for a few moments each time, then started up again. The third time the calf came out like the seed being popped out of a grape. Charley freed the rope and flung it away, tailing the calf around in front of the cow, where she could see it and start the cleaning-up process without getting up. Then he quickly mounted his horse and turned away.

But this cow did not have even one charge left in her.

They watched her for a while, then turned to catch up with the drive, Boss coiling his rope as they moved along. He studied the drive up ahead, then looked around the empty countryside, and finally squinted skyward. “No more rain,” he said matter-of-factly.

Charley was squinting down where Button was sashaying to keep an old cutback with the herd, and grinned. “Another couple of years, Boss, an’ he’s going to make a pretty fair hand.”

Boss Spearman watched Button until he got the cutback turned into the herd, then looped his rope and said, “It’s no life for a kid, Charley. In fact, it’s no life for a man. He’d ought to get settled in somewhere. Learn that there’s more to life than lookin’ at the back end of cows. Maybe in a few years take a wife.”

Charley was silent for a while. They loped to catch up and when they hauled back down to a walk he said, “You can’t make up somebody else’s mind for him. He’s living better now than when we found him living out of scrap buckets behind cafes and such.”

“Yeah. But this ain’t what a young feller had ought to want to do. Charley, we’ve had trouble ever since we come into this country. Our kind of work is about done for. But even if it wasn’t, what do either one of us have to show for it?”

“Well, boss, I got a good saddle, two guns, and my blankets. You got a fortune in cattle. Neither one of us had them things when we was his age.”

“That’s my point, Charley. We got just about everything we’re ever goin’ to have in this damned lifetime. But Button, hell, he’s ripe for better things.”

“Such as?”

“Well, bein’ a doctor, or a harness maker. Maybe go to work clerkin’ in a big store and someday owning it.”

None of those sounded appealing to Charley Waite, so he put a screwed-up stare on the older man. If they hadn’t scuffed over a lot of campfires together, Charley might have held his tongue now. He said, “Too bad you never had a son.”

Spearman gazed dead ahead for a long while, then simply said, “Yeah. Maybe.”

They picked up the gait, fanned out to bunch up the herd where it was beginning to get too scattered, and kept their wing positions until they were close enough to camp to leave the cattle to themselves.

Button had been picking up twigs as he rode along and had a tidy little bundle when they reached the wagon, where he threw them down before riding over to off-saddle and hobble his horse.

Everyone was mostly silent through supper and afterward, when they eased back to smoke and let their thoughts wander. Boss went off to his blankets, leaving the kid and Charley near the dying fire. Button asked a question out of the blue that caught Waite unprepared. “If a man gets married an’ his wife gets heavy an’ it’s not coming right, what does a man do?”

Charley gained time by leaning with elaborate precision to flip the butt of his quirley squarely into the center of the dying fire. Then he settled back and removed his hat to study the inside of it before answering. “He fetches in a doctor.”

“If he’s out in a place like this?”

Charley put his hat back on. “A man had ought to know better’n have his woman fifty miles from a town if she’s calvy.”

Evidently these were not the answers Button had hoped for, so he simply grunted up to his feet and went off in the direction of his bedroll, leaving Charley sitting there stoically for another five minutes, before he rolled up his eyes, wagged his head, and went off to his own bedground.

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