Harry woke up wearing dirty long underwear, sleeping in wool blankets and surrounded by a small canvas tarp that came to just a couple feet off his head. His bones and muscles were creaky, and he wanted to close his eyes, except this time he were the Trail Boss, on the big cattle drive from Bandera Texas to the Railhead in Lousiana. If the job worked out this time, and all that he made weren’t lost afore he made it home, he’d get his family off to the West. He’d hang on with all fiersest tenacity of the best bull rider.
His own scent were strong and familiar, but he had a strange thought that he were standing in a big room with sun light streaming through large glass windows, and he wouldn’t be bothered that he couldn’t smell himself. Without his odor permeating his clothing and his bedding, it were hard to believe he’d know himself. Morning light hadn’t broken, but still it was in his bones to get up, even though he figured it was about four o’clock.
He’d relieve the last night watchman. It’d be Curly this time. With any luck the big young fellow with curly red hair framing his pale baby cheeks would’ve maintained the fire, but chances were Curly’d drifted off to the land of Nod. Harry shook his head, as he pulled himself out of his bedding. Curly’d be skinned and hung to dry if a stampede were to lose any cattle.
Harry figured, himself being the trail boss were why he tried and protect the young man, who didn’t belong among the drovers. Curly weren’t like any of his own children, but he had a strange feeling like the boy were his, and in his mind he could see a tousled headed child, with brown hair smiling one minute and sulking the next, like sunshine and clouds.
He put on his trousers, feeling another hole coming in the knee, that he’d darn in a bit. His cotton shirt and vest were like second skin to him, but he blinked, seeing in his mind, himself in front of a mirror in a the big fancy room with a bed large enough for all his family, putting on a shirt, white as snow and clean, like nothing on this earthy plain. He rolled up his bedding, wondering where those strange daydreams were coming from.
Harry’s boots clopped on the hard reddish earth and his chaps shifting weren’t quiet, but Curly weren’t stirring. The lad’s hat and chin were drooped to his chest, but he were still sitting, could be the fellow’d tried to stay awake. Lowering his voice, he called, “Curly,” and he reached out to the lad’s shoulder. He knew. Still his hand flinched away.
Curly were dead, throat slit, with his red curls wreathing those innocent cheeks.
A low gutteral cry welled up in him, and gushed out in a broken undertone, and he knelt down and cradled the dead young man in his arms and rocked, tears coming to his eyes. “Ah Curly, son, I should of taken better care of you.”
He sniffled and laid Curly’s body down on the blanket, knowing the Sheriff wouldn’t be happy, but he needed to give Curly the dignity he hadn’t had much of in his short life. Those blue eyes of Curly’s didn’t even look surprised, just calm and unseeing. Harry closed the eyes, and remembered doing the same for his Mama, when he was a boy, when his father had let her to die. He couldn’t go into that dark space inside himself, so he pulled his thoughts out of himself.
Whoever the intruder was, who’d come and done this, could still be in spitting distance. Tensing in the manner of stalking, he used all his senses to track for disturbance in the camp, but the night air felt as usual, and was still, listening back at him. All sixteen of his men were breathing, and the cattle too seemed settled, though the counting of more than two thousand cattle would have to wait.
He stirred the coals and watched them come red, and lick into flame, and then he added more wood, and let himself mumble, he knowed not what, just wanting to take his mind away. As the night sky were softening above a burnt orange band over the hill, he heard a phlemish cough he knew too well. Old Gunter, staggered to the fire, still finding his morning legs in slight and wiry frame.
“Ho, couldn’t Curly get…” but he didn’t finish the sentence. His brown eyes sought out Harry’s and then lowered in knowing. Gunter crossed himself and muttered a prayer under his breath, even as he became quiet and his eyes hardened, and searched around them.
Harry nodded. “ Every man, all accounted for, and all our cattle peaceful.”
Gunter’s brows locked over his eyes. “Which of us did it?”
Harry heard his sharp intake of breath. “What?” He shook his head, “No, no. Some don’t have the patience for Curly, but none would of done this.”
“Didn’t,” Gunter corrected, and ran his fingers through his salt and pepper beard. He took a drink from his burnished leather canteen. “I guess I be getting the sheriff.”
Coffee, Harry thought, feeling Gunter’s missing of it. He hadn’t started the coffee, but he couldn’t fix that, no more than he could fix poor Curly, lying at his feet dead and maimed.
Gunter coughed to get Harry’s attention. “I’ll get the priest on the way.”
Harry looked up to see the man checking his kit. Gunter was the only Roman Catholic amoung the group, the rest were Protestants, who would’ve killed Gunter for his religious differences if they knew Harry wouldn’t kill them for it. Curly had been a Protestant, but Harry figured Curly wouldn’t mind a little papist care, especially if it’d been a Protestant who’d killed him.
He watched Gunter ride off on his steed, and he felt more alone. Gunter was the man he trusted more than any of the others. Soon the rest’d all be up, and he didn’t want to think about it, but he’d be watching, not wanting to watch, but watching all the same. There had to be a hair of a chance, Curly’d been killed by an intruder from outside. The men were still in their sleep and he pushed away any thought of one of his own, cutting poor Curly.
There were worse ways to go in this wide world he knew, and Curly hadn’t been round long enough to feel the futility, of like being a Sysiphus, the mythical fellow carrying the heavy load to the top of the steep hill, only to have it roll back down, and having to go back and get it and carry it up again and again, and never once getting over the hilltop. This drive, he a hoped to God it’d be different.
He sat, thinking if Curly hadn’t been killed, and if he himself could overcome the Sisyphus curse, he would have had Curly come and stay with his family in their new Homestead out in the West. He stirred the red hot coals with a stick and put on another piece of firewood. Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, where’d he get that bit of learning. The milky yellow of the morning sun were now rising out of the orange over the hill. Curly’s pale alabaster cheeks were tinging with blue. Harry pulled the edge of the blanket up over Curly’s face.
Coffee, he still hadn’t gotten to it. Would one of his kill him for that, not brewing the damn coffee in time. He fussed and got the big brew pot going. The aroma would bring the men out. Who was on cooking duty. Darn, if it weren’t Gunther, and everyone liked his morning hash and he marinated the bit of dried cow meat, overnight afore he’d get up and cook. The men’d be disappointed, even if one of them done killed Curly.
Harry stared at the red flames licking the underside of the coffee pot and scrunched his eyes closed, against the strange visions he was seeing, of himself sitting at a desk with more books than he’d ever seen in his entire life, piled up on the table in front of him, like that were normal, and more books on shelves on the walls. To that man, the books were as important as cattle were now to him. All the books he knew of now, were the Holy Bible, and a couple of prayer books, his father had given his mother when Harry were a boy, and just as she’d started learning him a reading, she’d died. A couple of his men carried the Holy Bible, but he didn’t, but he could remember many of the passages. Damnation would be coming to the man who’d taken Curly’s life. That he knew. ‘Vengeance is mine,” sayeth the Lord. But he knew the Good Lord were sleeping more easily than poor Curly, when Curly were alive and doing his best.
In the flames he again saw his hands, paler than now, and with no callouses and the nails clean and trim, his fingers were all busy on a machine of buttons maybe like a telegraph machine, and tap, tap, tapping like he were doing something as important as the work Harry were doing, being the Trail Boss on a big Drive. Harry poured himself a cup of coffee and wafted the aroma under his nose with his hand before he sipped it.
That man in his visions, that were to be himself in the future, he felt connected with, because even with all that man’s white shirts and fancy rooms, he were still tapping with all his fingers, trying to climb some Sisyphus hill. Playing just behind that man, was a tousled haired boy with accepting blue eyes, and then Harry knew he didn’t mind so much about all the getting and climbing and losing and going back and climbing all over again, he’d be doing.