The copter chopped away over the ridge, whap, whap, whap sound of foils slapping air growing faint.
Diesel engine revved and the truck pulled the last trailer load of cattle away from the loading pens, rolling toward the highway. Running slow down the winding dirt road.
Horse and rider turned, climbed diagonally up the ridge, along it to the big ridge. They stopped there and listened to the diesel as it pulled onto the highway and geared up to speed.
Out of hearing. Jack eased in the saddle. Just him and the horse. And quiet.
He didn’t mind working with the chopper. It saved many a rough hour’s work for horses and men. But when it finished its rapid work and left, he relaxed again.
“Next,” he said to his horse, “they’ll have a mechanical horse. Lot of places right now, they use Jeeps and motorcycles. I’ve seen sheep drives, two men on Honda 90s, two dogs. But next is an articulated horse, legs, no wheels.”
He picked up the reins, and they started up the ridge. “A mechanical horse wouldn’t need a man to ride on it, of course. You could put the controls in the horse to handle all the decisions. Take it out, wind it up, turn it loose, and wait at the pens for the cows to show up.”
He pulled up the reins. Dust rising above the trees. Heavy rumble of hooved animals at gallop.
“Hup.” He kneed his horse and they headed up through trees. Out of the trees into meadows.
“Buffalo,” he shouted. “My God, it’s a whole herd of buffalo.” He urged his horse and galloped alongside the herd. He slapped his forehead to clear or strike away the image, but there was still a naked Indian riding crouched, bow ready, closing in on the herd. Then Jack remembered.
He screamed, “Stop. Stop.” But the Indian heard only buffalo-hoof thunder and rode into the barbed-wire fence at a full gallop. The buffalo slammed through another hundred yards of fence. One bull, skewered on a steel fence post, struggled to run and then died. Several of the animals milled about, stunned or injured. The buffalo closest to him snorted and trotted away toward the herd still galloping up the meadow. Jack rode to where the Indian had hit the fence.
The Indian was dead. A large bull lay near him, still alive, but bleeding in gushes where the tightly stretched barbed wire had slashed his nose and throat. His front legs were broken. He looked at Jack and snorted blood, tried to rise, but sank back to the ground mewing in pain.
Jack knelt by the Indian. He didn’t know what to do yet. He just waited to see if thoughts would come to him.
Two horses galloping. Two Indians hit the dirt running. Jack backed, showed his hands. They knelt by their dead companion.
One of them stood and walked toward Jack. Sorrow and anger lit his eyes as he motioned Jack to mount and ride.
Before he entered timber, he turned and looked back. The Indians walked to where the fence was still standing and looked at it.
Curt said, “Indians. Buffalo. Jack, I think you’d better stay in town a while, take a vacation. Loneliness can cause hallucinations, you know.”
“Have your fun. We got about a hundred yards of fence to rebuild, and while we’re checking that job out, you can have a look at a few interesting things in the area.”
The dead Indian was gone. Jack said, “They took him, of course.”
“Curt, look around. Can’t you see this busted down fence?”
“Where’s the dead buffalo? You said there was dead and dying buffalo all over.”
“Look at the tracks. Look at this. What’s this if it isn’t buffalo blood? They took them. They were hunting buffalo, so they took them.”
“Two Indians? Two Indians took what, twelve buffalo, a dead Indian, a dead horse? Buffalo? There’s private buffalo herds, and maybe some buffalo could show up, and something sure tore this fence up, but two bona fide wild, naked Indians?”
“Three. And they were just some of the hunters. They were out shooting buffalo for the whole tribe. Enough Indians to handle a dozen buffalo or more.”
“You’re living in the movies, Jack. Okay. I’ll be in the movies with you enough to check this rifle and say we’d better pick up a couple helpers before we start rebuilding fence.”
“They didn’t offer me any harm. They could have captured or killed me easy as not.”
“They’re busting up fences.”
Jack, Curt, Riley, and Earl rode through the trees and reined up, sat their mounts looking down into the meadows. Riley spat tobacco juice and said, “Buffalo. Double-damned and dirty if that ain’t buffalo. Sit easy. They ain’t winded us.”
They watched the herd graze a while. Earl said, “I haven’t seen any Indians yet, but I don’t feel like joking about it anymore.”
“There’s two for you.” Two hunters rode slowly along the opposite ridge, well down from the top.
“They’re flanking the herd. Gonna hit it high and try to split it.’’
Curt loosened his rifle in its scabbard. Jack said, “Don’t be too ready with rifles. Nobody’s offered us any harm.”
“They haven’t seen us yet either.”
Some of the buffalo shied from the approaching hunters, trotted away. The motion spread through the herd as more and more buffalo began to move.
“Hey, they’re coming this way.”
“They won’t run the trees. They’ll stay in the open.’’
“Here they come.” Hundreds of buffalo broke into a gallop. Hoof thunder rumbled up the mountain. The Indians were obscured by the sudden dust.
Riley’s horse bucked and tried to bolt. Riley rode him down, pulled him around, spurred him forward. “Buffalo hunt,” he yelled and rode at a gallop directly toward the herd, turned to flank it and pulled his rifle from its scabbard under his leg.
“Riley, you crazy. You crazy dumb idiot. You’re nuts,” Earl yelled and slapped his horse, kicking his ribs, galloped toward the dust-thundering, tightly packed herd. He pulled his carbine, leaned out of the saddle. His hat spun into the rising dust.
“Indians. You guys aren’t even thinking about Indians. Nuts. Slipped your gourds. Gone buffalo mad.” Curt cradled his rifle across his saddle. The rest of the herd galloped past, and Curt urged his horse to a gallop, up the meadow, aiming to cut across the curve the herd was taking along the timber.
Jack stayed where he was. If Riley was right and they wouldn’t run trees, the buffalo that went up would be back because they’d run out of meadow. In about a mile and a half. That would be the place for hunters, because the herd would be boxed by the dense forest there. He didn’t want to shoot any buffalo or any Indians.
Rifle fire. Evenly spaced. “That’s Riley. Gets a bead on a buffalo, drops it, picks another, steady for a good shot. Or Earl. Maybe both now. Don’t shoot any Indians. Don’t start any trouble.”
The herd rumbled toward him from up the meadow. Down the meadow, rapid gunfire. The distinctive bellow of Curt’s magnum. “Curt wouldn’t be shooting buffalo.” Rifle fire. Then no rifle fire.
The herd galloped down, and Jack saw one of the hunters drop a buffalo. The hunter didn’t see him.
He started down the way the herd had gone. He knew it was safer to head out, but he had to know what happened.
Dead buffalo lay here and there down through the meadows. Jack thought of keeping to timber, but he didn’t. He just rode down through the interconnected meadows counting dead buffalo.
Then the butchering party, men and women on foot, with pack animals, saw him. One of the men mounted a horse and rode away at a gallop. The rest of the Indians watched him with their weapons ready. He circled them widely and rode up toward the timber, and they set to butchering and skinning.
Then he saw more Indians than he could have imagined, mounted and riding toward him. He wanted to ride toward them, say, “I told them not to shoot. I haven’t fired on you, and I won’t.”
Thunder of Curt’s magnum. One of the Indians has it, and Jack is his target. He turned, urged his horse to a gallop. Headed toward timber. “You’re right though. What do you mean, we, white man?”
Full gallop, leaning low over his horse, diagonal to the Indian’s line of sight. The magnum thundered again and then again. “Takes a little practice to use a telescopic sight on a moving target.”
The wounded bull charged before he or his horse was aware of it. Jack kicked loose from the saddle as his horse went down. He tried to land rolling, but he was sure he broke his shoulder. Up, running, crouched. He gathered his injured arm to his chest. Timber close ahead. “Where’s the cavalry, where’s the cavalry? Where’s the double-damned chopper when I really need it?”
Run. Zigging. Zagging. Magnum thundering, sharp snap of bullets. Dust puffed ahead of him. Rifle fire again. Hooves thundered on the meadow dirt.