The Black Blizzard by JW Edwards

sand storm

 

July 10th, 1893 The storm hits.

Unable to wait patiently for his horse to come to a complete halt, Barnaul Caine hurriedly dismounted and made his way at a run out of the old corral towards the cabin. The hunted rider peeked through the single pane plate glass window that served to light the desert cabins interior. Seeing no sign of life within, he shouldered the handmade plank entrance door open and stepped inside. The coolness of the cabins interior surprised him as outside, the temperature had skyrocketed past one hundred and fifteen degrees. A quick look about told him the cabin had been abandoned to the elements some years ago. Not the cleanest of places he mused, yet it would still serve to give him the needed protection he’d been   hoping to find.

Stepping back outside, he glanced at the black horizon and knew he had maybe fifteen minutes at best before the monstrous mile high dust storm stuck. He wondered what would reach him first the storm or the group of men on his tail.

The discovery of a serviceable bucket at the cabins well told him folks found this a God send of a shelter from time to time. Hauling bucket after bucket of the cool well water inside he filled an old wash tub that had been hanging on the interiors back wall. Not that he had any intention of bathing mind you, instead he knew the dust storm could last for days and he’d need clean drinkable water for his horse as well as himself during that time.

Retrieving his horse he’d simply named Horse, he brought her to stand inside the cabin. The whites of her eyes told him all he needed to know. If his horse had such a fear of the coming storm, then he better prepare for the worst. Running outside again, he found an old outbuilding that had once served as a stall and blacksmith shop. “Must have been a farrier that lived here,” he absently thought.

Seeing no tools of the trade, he figured the Farrier must have left the place voluntarily for parts unknown. He knew that years back there had been a thriving silver mine in the nearby hills and when it closed, the lone farrier must have left too.

Stepping into the stall area, he was pleasantly surprised to find a partially filled sack of oats in a small alcove used for storing tack. At one time an old bed sheet curtain had hung from nails separating the alcove from the two stalls. He reached down and grabbing the old bed sheet, rolled it up and stuffed it inside the sack along with the oats. Time was of the essence so he abandoned the search for any more usable finds and ran back into safety of the cabin.

“Well Horse,” He said as he entered the cabin, “I found you some eats at least.” Laying the burlap sack down he scooped some into the empty water bucket and let her feed. After feeding, he brushed the horse down using an old moth eaten towel he’d found. Between the feeding and brushing the mare calmed down and began accepting her unusual situation.  Barnaul then began tearing the old bed sheet he’d found into hand width strips. These he would use to plug the gaps and holes of the cabin.

He knew when the dust storm hit, the choking dust would find it’s way into the building through even the smallest unattended crack.

Wiping the years of soil from the window pane, he glanced outside at the coming storm. He figured he was down to about five minutes now. Using his knife, he quickly began stuffing the torn bed sheet strips into as many cracks and crevices as he could find. All too soon the storm would strike and still the single window needed to be covered.

At one time, a wooden shutter had been secured with bent spikes pounded into the window’s frame to hold it in place. Over the years its leather hinges had dry rotted and the unsecured shutter had fallen to the ground. Retrieving the shutter he lifted it back into place and turned the bent spikes over the shutter to once again secure it.

Unlike a winter blow or a monsoon rain, the dust storm had its own way of announcing itself. Rising as high as the eye could see the mile high wall of howling blackness bore down on the cabin and its occupants. The desert sand outside began to blow across the ground, not away from the storm but towards it. This surprised him but he had no time to ponder this phenomenon as he secured the shutter in place. Moments later, the storm stuck.

Struck might be the wrong word, punched or kicked is closer but still even those words lacked in their description.

Heading back inside, Barnaul had just made it to the door when he was violently smashed against the cabins outside wall. With the breath knocked out of him, he gasped for air as he tried to open the door outward into the storm. He finally managed to open it enough to pry his boot into the opening. He could hear Horse clomping about and whinnying in renewed panic. He needed to get inside to calm the poor beast. Wedging his shoulder into the crack he managed to pry the door open enough to squeeze his body through the opening. The storm’s pressure on the door left bruises across his chest and back but it was far better being bruised than shredded like lettuce by the sand and small rocks being blown by the storm.

Once again he made his way around the cabin trying to minimize the incoming dust with the strips of bed sheet. Without warning, the old cast iron stove’s smoke pipe suddenly exploded from the stove. The fierce wind had tried to make its way down the pipe poking its way through the roof but was forced to stop when it reached the stoves firebox door. The resulting increase in pressure lifted the pipe clean from the stove. A six inch wide tunnel of dust blasted its way down into the cabin from the section of pipe left protruding from the ceiling. Blinded by the dust, Barnaul felt for the overhead pipe as he removed his vest. Finding the pipe he stuffed the vest into the hole and using his hands crimped the edge of the pipe closed. As the pipe filled with sand from above, it effectively sealed off the pipe.

The cabin was being rocked by the blasting storm.  Creaking and groaning, the cabin seemed to have been built with the fore knowledge that these storms come time and time again. It was the roof that worried Barnaul the most but after the first hour he began to relax a might more.

There wasn’t much he could do now but tend to his horse and wait the storm out. Those tracking him would have to do the same.

    Chewing on a piece of dried beef flank, Barnaul sat back against the wall for there were no chairs or tables. Time passed slowly as the moaning wind continued its assault on the land.

Alone and nearly exhausted, he thought of his recently deceased Coleen and what his own future now held without her. He’d purchased the ranch in full that the two had planned on operating so at least that much was settled. If he survived the next few days, he’d have a chance of still making a go of the place, although without a wife it had much less purpose. He was young and knew he’d end up remarrying someday. He just wasn’t going to look for it right away, that’s all. If it happened it happened. Things occurred in a man’s life that wasn’t always pleasant, death was all too common, especially in the west. The living grieved and then they continued on, if they didn’t they joined the dead.

Finishing his scant meal, he fed some of the discovered oats to his horse again and settled in as comfortable a position as could be expected. Someone before had made a rough bed using various grasses but Barnaul took one look at the critters seeking to escape his poking around the bed with his knife that he opted to sleep on the open dirt floor instead. Throughout the night the storm raged and found numerous new crevices to enter the cabin. By morning dust piles looking like small snow drifts had formed on every shelf, nook and cranny within the cabin. Barnaul himself looked like he had been dragged through the desert for all the dust in his hair and clothing.

Making his way to the old wash tub, he removed Horse’s saddle blanket that had been covering it throughout the night.  He scooped up enough water in the pail to wash his hair and face free of the dust. Taking a damp piece of the bed sheet he blew his nose into it… Mud. At least he could breathe easier now. Reaching behind his neck, he untied the bandana and retied it over his face covering his nose and mouth to prevent breathing any further dust.  Even so, each time his teeth came together it was like chewing on grit paper. He moved over to Horse and using the damp cloth cleaned the horse’s nostrils of as much dust as he could. Horse seemed to know and held still. Turning, he saw a small broken mirror hanging on the wall told him he still looked a sight. The one time handsome face cropped in soft brown hair and complimented by green eyes and a well grown mustache now resembled that of a wild miner that had been the loser in a saloon brawl. Blood shot eyes stared back and each blink felt as if he’d rubbed them with prickly pears. It had been only three weeks since he had been forced to take to the desert but being on the run and the dust storm seemed to have added ten years to his looks.

Dirty tears involuntarily slid down his dusty cheeks as he recalled the events of three weeks ago. While the storm continued its beating on mother earth, Barnaul beat himself with his own memories.

June 12th, 1893 Three weeks earlier

The two newlyweds, Barnaul and Coleen, had just returned to their Texas home from their week long honey moon when they announced they had purchased an existing working ranch in the Arizona Territory during their time away.

The owner of the ranch had died suddenly so his wife put the place up for sale and moved back east. In the sale agreement, the ranch’s foreman and staff were kept on and the cattle were purchased for only four cents on the dollar after they were driven to market.

The thought of losing his sister Coleen forever to the tall handsome cowboy was too much for the insane Tory McClandish. That night he set fire to their modest home in crazed anger hoping both would die. Only Coleen did. She was overcome by the smoke and as hard as he tried, Barnaul could not find her in all the dense smoke to save her.

After burying the feisty red haired beauty, he was coldly invited into the McClandish home. Once inside, he was confronted by the angry red faced Ian McClandish, his son Tory and a few of the ranch’s rougher hands.

Before any words of greeting were spoken, Barnaul was manhandled to the floor where Ian McClandish pounded him severely using his brass knobbed cane.

Through swollen eyes received from the beating, Barnaul Caine looked up at his father in law. He had tried in vain to explain it was not his fault Coleen did not survive but his father in law would hear no more of it.

“Stop your lies you coward! Not two weeks after you married her, my daughter lies burnt and buried in her grave and all because you did not have the guts to save her. Don’t tell me you tried! You stood there and watched her burn, I know.  My son Tory saw the whole thing and you have the gall to try and blame her death on him, her own brother! You sniveling coward!” Ian McClandish raised his cane to strike at Barnaul once again.

Barnaul’s mind raced even as his body was about to be broken. How could he convince his father in law that what he had discovered was the truth. That his wife Coleen had an insane brother who was in love with his own sister and if he could not have her, no one would, especially his new brother in law Barnaul.

Just as McClandish brought his cane down again, Barnaul twisted to the left causing the brass headed cane to violently strike the ornate wooden inlay floor of his father in laws sitting room. Three sets of arms instantly reached out for him but Barnaul skirted away on his hands and knees.

Having cleared the three sets of grabbing of hands, Barnaul lurched to his feet and made a dash for the door. Tory McClandish, the insane love struck brother, was right behind him. As he reached the door Barnaul spun around and kicked out with all his might. The tip of his boot buried itself deeply into Tory McClandish’s unprotected crotch stopping Tory in his tracks.

As Barnaul left the porch on the fly, he heard from behind him the shouts of the other two men mingling with the cursing groans of Tory. The old man continued to spew his hatred even as Barnaul made it to his horse and rode quickly off. With the old man’s promises of killing Barnaul for the death of his daughter still ringing in his ears he headed west to the Territory of Arizona and to his ranch. Everything he planned to take with him to Arizona was in Texas but if he returned to salvage anything from his home he’d surely be found and murdered.

July 11th, 1893 The second day of the storm.

Barnaul found no sleep that night. Between the memories of the last three weeks and the demonic howling of the dust storm sleep was the last thing accomplished.

The cabin continued to shake and groan and no matter how many rags were stuffed into the cracks, the dust was still choking him. He frequently wiped Horse’s nostrils clear and eventually removed his own shirt to tie around her head covering the end of her nose. The mare continued to show signs of distress so after washing out her eyes he tied the shirt arms in such a fashion as to cover her eyes. This seemed to finally calm the creature down enough that Barnaul no longer feared being stomped on.

July 12th the storm ends

The morning of the third day brought no relief. The past few days of arid heat pushed the thermometer past one hundred inside the cabin. The roof had begun to loosen in places causing some boards to rattle loudly. As each hour passed, more dust found its way inside. Having run out of rags Barnaul was forced to stuff his only blanket between the worst of two loose roof planks. His noonday meal dinner consisted of dried meat and dust.

He wondered about the McClandish’s and how far behind him they were when the storm struck. They were only a few miles behind him when he found the cabin and not fifteen minutes later all hell broke loose. He figured they must have hunkered down somewhere nearby to wait the storm out. He’d have to be prepared for their arrival the moment the dying storm permitted travel.

Actually, it wasn’t the cabin he found first but only the corral. The cabin was pretty well hid by overgrown brush and a large mesquite tree.

It wasn’t until he entered the corral that he spotted the small building a hundred feet off. Of all the bad episodes luck he’d had, finding the cabin wasn’t one of them.

Thinking about it, in a way he actually understood Ian McClandish’s reaction to his daughters death. The cards had been stacked against him from the moment he began courting the fiery red haired Coleen. Her father had been against the two becoming intimates as Barnaul Caine was from an English heritage. It made no difference that Barnaul’s great grandfather fought side by side Daniel Morgan as a sharpshooter in 1777 during the Revolutionary War against King George’s army.  To McClandish, once English, always English and the McClandish’s were Scotts and hated anything English.

Still, Coleen persisted in trying to convince her father who eventually agreed half heartedly to the pairs marriage.

The decision to begin ranching separate from the McClandish’s drove the wedge between Barnaul and Ian McClandish deeper. Tory McClandish had his father’s ear and he plied the old man with tales of Barnaul’s spousal abuse and marital indiscretions… none of which were true. Having lost his own wife in a strangely similar house fire only a year previous, Ian McClandish could not bear a repeat performance involving his only daughter. Tory began to spread the rumor that Barnaul had argued with Missus McClandish only hours before and had left the McClandish home that night in a fury. Tory had conveniently left out the fact that Barnaul was out on the range branding cattle some thirty miles east at the time.

Poor Coleen, Barnaul thought, she was so excited about starting their new ranch. The two had purchased the prosperous spread alongside the Cottonwood Creek in the high rolling plains area east of Holbrook. Coleen would never see it now. He doubted seriously now that he would either. With a family like the McClandish’s, there was no safe place to hide. They’d spend the rest of their days on his trail until the caught up with him. Though the McClandish group amounted to only five men, they were a most hell bent group when seeking revenge. Barnaul knew his death would not be a quick or painless one when they caught up to him.

Driven into a deep despair over his recent misfortunes, Barnaul cried out to the wife who could no longer possibly hear his voice. “Oh Coleen I’m missin’ you somethin’ fierce! I wish above all else that you was here with me right now to talk to. We never even got a chance to even say goodbye to each other honey an’ now I’m about to be kilt graveyard dead too. It ain’t fair! I know your crazy brother kilt you dead just like he kilt your Ma! Now your Pa’s blamin’ me for your death and even suspects I did the same to your Ma! I cain’t prove it, but I’m sure as hell believin’ that he did in your Ma in too! Why I wasn’t even in the same county when she died. Why would I kill her, I thought she was one of the finest women I knew. Besides, she was the only one in your family besides yourself who was truly happy over our bein’ married. In truth, she was the only one I was gonna’ miss after we moved on to Arizona. Dang it Coleen, you know I’da never kilt her! Now I’m a walkin’ dead man as ever was one!”

Self pity wouldn’t solve anything and Barnaul knew it. Raising himself from off the floor he decided to feed some of the oats to his horse. Brushing her down with the palm of his hand he spoke, “Listen up Horse, when this here storm cuts out you’re gonna’ be on your own. I’ll leave this here oat sack open on the floor for ya’ till you can find some graze somewhere. When I leave it’s gonna be on foot as I’m thinkin’ that I might make a smaller target that way.

If I can get to those hills yonder, I might even stand a chance of shakin’ them off my tail. I’ll be leavin this here door open so’s you can leave an’ not be trapped inside. I hate to tell you this girl, but I’m mighty convinced that once that door opens, it’ll be the last time we ever see each other agin.”

It was a change in sound that alerted him. The wind was dying down quick. Checking his revolver to make sure he had a full cylinder, he stepped near the door.

Taking one last glace about the small cabin, he realized he was about to abandon the only thing he owned besides his horse and the clothes on his back, his blanket. Chuckling quietly, he said, “It’s a sad day when the only thing a man owns is his blanket and he’s forced to abandon even that!”

As the wind abated further, an eerie stillness settled over the land. Easing the door wide open there was no other sound now than his own breathing. No birds, no rustling of small critters, nothing. He strained his ears in fear of hearing the McClandish’s. Nothing. Stepping cautiously into the open with gun drawn, he began stepping away from the cabin.

The land had the appearance of a tan winter landscape after a blizzard. Sand drifts were piled waist deep against anything that had not moved. Some of the corral post had completely disappeared under tons of dust. The smell of the alkali soil burnt his nose when he inhaled and the unfamiliar brightness of the sun hurt his eyes. Stepping towards the corral in his trek to reach the distant hills, he continued to be on alert for the McClandish’s dreaded arrival. Reaching the corral, he realized this section of the top rail was only two feet tall, the rest remained buried below in the drifted dust. Something moved away underfoot as he stepped over the rail. Unconcerned, he tried shoving it away with his foot. It moved but would not dislodge from where it lay. Glancing down, he did a double take and let out a yelp. “What in tarnation???”

It was a skull and it was attached to something much bigger… a body.

Whatever skin remained on the skull had the appearance of glued on flaps of dry rotted leather. In horror, Barnaul realized what he had just stepped on, Ian McClandish’s sand blasted head. Still leaning against the corral post half buried in the sand stood his brass knobbed cane.

Backing away from the grizzly sight, he noticed more forms in the drift, three in all. Holstering his revolver, and using his hands for a shovel, Barnaul cleared the remains of Tory and the ranch’s Segundo Javier.  Each body had been cleaned of skin where exposed to the wind. Tory’s head lay back, his gaping mouth and hollow eye sockets were filled with the storms dust. In a futile attempt to protect his face, the Segundo’s head still wore a tattered bandana around his neck . A large mound nearby turned out to be the wind buried carcasses of five very dead horses.

A sudden fear struck him as he realized two men were still not accounted for.  Redrawing his pistol, he knelt behind the corrals low top rail in an attempt to find cover. Nothing moved.

It was then that he realized there were two more forms half buried in the dust. One was less than thirty feet from the cabin and the other lay a good two hundred feet where the trail had been.  Making his way to each form, he verified the bodies were those of the ranch hands that had been riding for McClandish.

“Well I’ll be!” he mused, “They must never have realized how close to the cabin they was. I guess the dust storm prevented ‘em from seeing more’n a foot or two in front of ‘em.”

Barnaul decided not to bury the bodies as he had no shovel and in the after storms searing heat, the bodies had already begun to stink something awful. “They ain’t deservin’ no prayers from me, I’ll just let ‘em lie where they’s at. Besides, they’s half buried anyway”

Hearing a sound behind him, Barnaul spun around ready to pull the trigger. There in the doorway stood his horse as if waiting for his return. “OK,OK, I’m comin’ Horse, I guess you and I still got some trails to ride together after all. All these folks chasin’ us gave up their ghost an’ most of their skin too!” Barnaul began to laugh, whether from his attempt at the bad joke or out of pure relief from finding himself being counted in the living again he did not know, nor did he care. His life and future had been handed back to him. It was up to him to make whatever he wished of it.

Back inside the cabin again, he dusted off the saddle and the rest of his tack. Pulling the blanket from between the roof planks, he shook it out and rolled it up behind the saddle. Tying the feed sack, he stuffed it into one of the saddle bags. He was about to lead his horse out of the cabin when something caught his eye, something shiny on the floor.

Bending over, he gently picked up the object and cradled it in the palm of his hand. It was a locket, the very locket that Coleen wore every day since her mother’s death. Inside rested a small painting of her mother. Barnaul’s hand began to shake. The locket had been buried with Coleen! She was telling him she had been with him all along.

July 18th 1893 Home

He caught sight of his ranch while still some miles out. By the time he arrived at the gate a small party had assembled to greet him.

A tall glass of water of a man rode forward. He may have looked a bit on the thin and wimpy side but Barnaul saw the rippling wire tight muscles move under his long sleeved shirt and knew the man was no push over. Tipping his broad brimmed slouch hat, the thin cowboy rode forward to greet his new boss. “I’m Chet, the foreman here, I take it you’re Barnaul Caine? We saw you comin’ from some distance off. Excuse me for saying this Sir but you look a sight!”

Barnaul returned the gesture of friendship by extending his hand. Chuckling, he told him, “Trust me Chet, It’s worse than it looks.”

A quizzical look came over Chet’s face as he glanced past Barnaul and into the distance. “Uh, is the Misses lagging behind, ‘cause I don’t see her nor any wagons yet?”

Barnaul sat quiet for a moment then spoke up and explained the reason for Coleen’s absence and why he looked so tattered.  “It’s a long story that can be best told in full over a hot meal and a few gallons of coffee. Am I too late for dinner?”

Barely finished speaking, Barnaul heard the dinner bell being rung. “Well’” he said to himself smiling, “I guess I timed that one right.”

The group turned and rode on to the mess building where the dinner bell was being beaten like the place was on fire. As they got closer to where the mess, Barnaul gulped when he saw who was ringing the bell. A girl with fiery red hair wearing a calico dress and yelling at the top of her lungs stood calling the men to dinner.

Barnaul blinked at seeing the girl. His first thought was that it was his Coleen but as he got closer he saw there were plenty of subtle differences. Turning to Chet he asked, “Who is that?”

“You mean Sheila? She’s the ranch cook. She used to cook for the owners too, she’ll probably end up cooking yours meals also. She’s a wonder in the kitchen but let me warn you right now, she’s got as much spunk and spit in her as a She Badger with pups!” Laughing heartily, Chet continued on. “None of the hands cross her path for fear of losing their lives!”

“Is she married?”

Chet caught the look in Barnaul’s eyes and chuckled, “Ha! I’d give a hundred dollars to the man that’d attempt to tame that one! No Sir, She’s awful purty to look at but ya’ll soon learn discretion is the better part of valor!”

As they passed in front of the girl, Barnaul removed his hat and nodded smiling at the red haired girl. In return, Sheila angled her head and looked shyly up at her new boss. A faint smile worked its way past her defenses and a spark of wonder formed in her eyes.

Chet had not been made foreman because he was an unobservant fellow. He caught the message the two had just encrypted in their smiles to each other and chuckling to himself said, “Oh Lord, here we go, the She Badger just met her mate!”

Watching the group ride towards the mess, Sheila’s let go of the clapper rope silencing the bell. There she leaned against the porch roofs pillar and with pounding heart exhaled heavily. Breaking into a smile she thought to herself, “There rides my future man!”

JW Edwards 02/21/2013

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Wild fire on the Brazos!

Chapter 1

Texas long horn trail boss Dusty Plains, sat rabbit still in the saddle sniffing the air. The herd was only sixty miles east of Austin where they had moved out of four days earlier. His brain continued to flip through long ago scent memories like a clerk searching for a certain file among the thousands stored in a cabinet. Suddenly the file was found and pulled.

“Wild fire!” He shouted, South west of here!”

Spurring the Mare, he galloped forward trying to catch up to the lumbering chuck wagon miles ahead of the herd. It was the job of the Grease belly or camp cook to forage ahead of the herd in order to have each meal hot and waiting for the riders. The cook also spotted the trail ahead for Indians, rustlers and any problem that the trail boss should be aware of.

Reigning up alongside the chuck wagon’s driver, Dusty pointed and shouted over to him.  “Biscuit!  Point them cattle eastward to the Brazos River! We gotta’ get’m on the other side of the river, there’s a wildfire about a day’s ride behind us!”

“Hell boss!” Biscuit shouted back. “It’s gonna be cuttin’ it close fer sure. I figure the Brazos is a good ten miles off yet and we got less than four hours of daylight left. It’ll be a late meal and a cold one at that!”

“Just get across and put up some coffee pots, we’ll survive!”

Dusty turned the mare away from the wagon and galloped back to the herd. Reaching the lead or point riders, Dusty explained the situation to them. Immediately, they began to wheel the herd eastward toward the Brazos and safety.

From there he stopped down the line of trail riders, telling each group to keep the herd in a tight line. Stopping at the flank riders, he informed them the herd was turning and told one of the riders to split off and tell the remuda riders what’s going on while he’d let the tail end or drag riders know. Dusty kept his drive functioning like a well oiled machine. Having smelled water ahead and the transient waves of smoke from behind, the cattle quickened their pace and arrived at the river ahead of schedule.

The herd was driven across the Brazos River without incident as the depth was still shallow this time of year. A month from now the river would be a killer. High water not only drowned cattle and riders but brought out the snakes, something every cowboy feared.

Standing on the bank looking westward toward a growing darkness that was not from the setting sun, Dusty thanked the Good Lord for having given him a good nose.

“We’d be a hog on a spit if you hadn’t got us turned just then boss.” The voice behind him was that of his best friend and lead point man, Bob Fisher. “If you look up north a bit, you can see some smoke now, that’s right where we woulda been spending the night. I’m puzzled boss as to how you knew where the fire was at, we couldn’t even see the smoke at that time.”

“I smelled juniper and persimmon in the smoke. Both grow mainly to the southern plains but it was the burning pecan trees that settled it for me.”

“It’s dang fortunate you got the nose if you ask me.”

Throughout the night the night riders sang songs and circled the herd to keep them calm. The continued smell of smoke made the herd jittery and trail boss Dusty Plains feared if the smoke drifting up from the southwest got any thicker the herd would bolt. If they did bolt, he hoped they’d head north in the direction the wanted to travel and not due east.

Dusty doubled up on the crooning night riders and the result was a herd staying put. The chuck wagon had left before dawn to set up ten miles further up the trail for the noon meal. With little sleep under their belts, the riders slowly got the cattle moving again.

By noon, the heard was within sight of the wagon again. Gallons of Hot coffee, Cowboy beans with bacon and sour dough biscuits rounded out the meal. The drag riders showed up last as was about normal and a bucket of water was put out for them to wash the dust from their eyes. Each drag rider looked as if a dust storm had spun itself around them. In many ways it had.

The point riders were the most experienced cowboys and therefore had the best job. It was the point rider that turned the herd to the desired direction and being in the front had little problem with dust.  The flank riders behind them got some dust as they were spaced further back along the herd but it was the poor drag rider that got the worst of it. Having to trail behind the herd pushing lagers and catching strays, they were exposed to every particle of dust kicked up by the thousands of hooves in front of them. With their bandana’s over their nose and mouths to keep out as much dust as was possible, they looked more like a band of bank robbers than honest forty dollar a month cowpokes.

Dusty once again scanned the skies and sat smelling the air. Some of the cowboys stopped and stared intently at Dusty. The riders sitting fireside waited in anticipation for the word from their trail boss. In silence, they drank their after meal coffee waiting.  Finally Dusty turned to them and spoke.

“head ‘em up boys, that fires crossed the river somewhere south of us. This breeze is gonna’ bring it right up our butts! “

Again the well oiled machine had the herd moving. By now the rest of the riders and for sure the herd could smell the increase in smoke.

“ Biscuit, take the chuck wagon with all our belongings and set the wagon in the middle of the river at a wide point up ahead. It’s only a couple feet deep from here to Waco. Soak and wrap a wet blanket over each mules head. That’ll stop some of the smoke smell and that way they can’t see the fire as it passes ‘em. Whatever you do, don’t  leave the river!”

Riding back to the herd, Dusty continued yelling over the rumble of the herd at the point riders, “Push ‘em harder! Let’s try and put some miles between us and the fire. We may have to zig zag across the river more than a few times to keep that blaze from roasting our hides so be ready to turn ‘em across the river if and when  I say so!”

“You got it boss!” The point rider from the opposite side of Bob Fisher yelled. “We’ll follow your lead! That there smokes getting thicker by the mile!”

It was true. As fast as they drove the herd it seemed the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. Now everyone, not just those riding drag, had their bandana’s on. The cattle started their belly aching bawls and began a panicky run north.

By trailing the east bank of the Brazos, fresh water and grass for the cattle was no problem. Dusty wanted to stay as close to the river for as long as he could. If by chance the wildfire roared north ward up the east bank, they could cross the cattle over to the west side and vice versa.

He wondered how the small ranches and homesteads they had passed were fairing. Were they going to be burned out?  His thoughts drifted to Fayetteville thirty miles outside Austin where his wife’s grave was. He wondered if his old ranch had escaped the blaze or whether it, like any ranch caught in a wild fire, no longer existed. “Well, at least it can’t do no harm to Doris’s resting place, that’s for sure.”

Looking southward, the riders could plainly see the red glow spreading across the horizon now. As Dusty headed over to where the horse remuda was, he signaled Tom Beavers, who was in charge of the remuda, to meet  him. As he passed an older experienced flank rider, the rider asked worriedly if Dusty thought the herd should be headed north east to the high rocky ground where the brush and trees were thinned out.

“I would if it weren’t so far away but that bare high ground is still a good fifteen miles off. Some of the faster herd might make it but the cows with calves wouldn’t, they’re too slow.  It’s all the drag riders can do right now to keep ‘em paced with the herd.  Let’s stick to the river for now and hope the fire turns or burns itself out.”

“What about the remuda then? They’s fast”

Dusty contemplated a second then acknowledged the man that the remuda in fact could make the trip in time and rode off.

Chapter 2

Reaching the horse remuda, Tom rode up to Dusty and pulled down his bandana and yelled. “What’s up Dusty?”

Shouting over the din of the moving bawling cattle Dusty told Tom, “I need you and Ned to get the remuda up to the high ground there to the north east where they’ll be safe. The horses can make it within a couple of hours, easily outrunning the fire. I’d hate to lose forty good horses for no good reason. Take them over that saddle on the rise and head ‘em over the other side of it. I’m thinking the fire will burn till it reaches the base of the rise then starve itself out for lack of fuel! The rest of us will try and dodge the fire as best as we can by keeping the river between it and us!”

Tom tipped his hat in acknowledgement and raced over to Ned. Within a minute they had the horse remuda  racing  across the grassy plain to the bare ground fifteen miles to the north east.

Dusty breathed a little easier seeing the remuda heading safely away. He wished dearly that the cattle could move as fast.

They kept the herd minus the remuda now, heading northward along the eastern bank of the Brazos River as fast as the scared cattle herd would go. Smelling fire and knowing water was nearby, the reaction of the cattle was to continually head for the safety of the water. Dusty knew that if the fire came racing up both banks at the same time without the riders to keep them in control, the cattle could panic, and leave the water. They would then try to outrun the fire on land. Cattle were simple creatures, all they wanted in life was to have good grass and water, they didn’t do a lot of hard thinking. It was up to the riders to do the thinking for them because without the riders, the herd was going to be the main course at the world’s largest Ox roast.

Within another hour flames could plainly be seen on both sides of the Brazos five miles to the south.

“Charlie! I’m gonna’ divide the herd.  Grab a couple of the drag riders and separate the lead cattle and fastest cattle then head ‘em as quick as you can behind the remuda. I’ll stay here with the slower beeves. If you all whip the crap outa them they’ll pace out almost as fast as the remuda. I think you can just make it before the fire crawls up your butts! Do it, NOW!”

Charlie quickly grabbed a couple of the drag riders and started separating the faster animals in the herd. Normally the slowest were further towards the end of the line, those they just left alone. The flank riders assisted in the separation and within a few minutes a third of the herd was hoofing it’s way double timed behind the remuda. With two thirds of the herd still left behind, Dusty gathered the other riders for a quick pow wow.

“I sent the fastest of the herd on ahead behind the remuda. They should be alright! It lookin’ like we ain’t gonna’ be able to zig zag ‘em alongside the river after all. The fires racin’ up both sides about equal now. I want the rest of you to gather the remaining head and get’m maybe six to ten wide in the middle of the river. Keep ‘em away from the banks!  I know it’s going to be hard and we’ll lose some, but not doing anything will cost us near two thousand head.  Use your guns and lariats to keep ‘em in the river. That fires going to sound like a locomotive engine when it passes. Do whatever you think is right to keep ‘em in the river, even if you gotta shoot a few leaders trying to make a run for it.”

A chorus of agreements by the riders followed. “Alright then, let’s get them cattle into the river. I want you all ridin’ up and down  alongside the banks forcing  the cattle back into the water if they go to leave it, now move it!”

Moving the cattle into the river was fairly easy as their instinct told them being in the water was safe. Only two things now could make them leave the water. Panic was one, the other was snakes.

Dusty yelled over to a young Mexican vaquero riding flank. “Carlos! If you see snakes in the water, use that machete you got tied to your saddle on ‘em. Cut ‘em down so’s they don’t get to the cattle.” Then to all the other riders he yelled, “Pull iron and blast any snake you see entering the water from the bank. If you got a scatter gun in your saddle holster, pull it and use it! “

No sooner had he given the order when a cow went bawling and started hopping like a bucking bronco in the shallow water. Coming at the terrified animal were three deadly water moccasins not ten feet away. Immediately guns started spitting lead. To the cows good fortune, none made it to the panicked beast alive.  “Calm that cow down!” A rider shouted and ropes were thrown onto the terrified cow from opposite sides. Once finding itself movement restricted, it surrendered itself to the power of the ropes.

Dusty rode up. “Good job boys! Keep a sharp eye along the banks, there’s sure to be more comin’ once the fire chases them out of their holes. Let’s get these cattle moved to the middle of the river, no more than ten wide.”

If the fire and snakes weren’t bad enough, a gust of wind blew Dusty’s Stetson from off his head. Carlos galloped down steam, leaned over and grabbed it. On his return, Carlos noticed Dusty standing in the stirrups looking to the south. Turning, Carlos followed Dusty’s gaze to the south.

“Dios mio!”  Forgetting his English he yelled out in Spanish and pointed at the horizon, “Senior Dusty, una tormenta de polvo, el infierno!”

“What? Carlos, speak so I understand you dammitt!”

“I am sorry Senior Dusty, look, it is a dust storm straight from hell!”

Behind the angry orange flames and now mixing itself with the grey fire smoke was truly a beast from hell.

Looking heaven ward, Dusty threw both arms skyward. “Really? Wasn’t snakes an fire enough Lord?”

Taking into account all the unearthly going on’s, Dusty yelled to the others as they rode up and down in the shallow water keeping the herd in mid river. Every now and then a few shots were fired, sometimes to scare a cow back into the herd and sometimes to kill another snake. “Got another”, someone yelled, but Dusty had no time to congratulate whoever had made the shot.

“They’ll point upriver once the storm hits. They’ll wanna’ put their butts into the wind. That’s good! The cows won’t see the flames now until they are alongside ‘em! If we’re lucky, when they see the flames  the fire should keep ‘em scared away from the banks.”

Within minutes the hurricane force dust storm slammed into the herd. Horses reared and some of their frightened riders went down. Terrified of more water borne snakes, the thrown riders remounted in the blink of an eye.

The river began to churn with white capped waves heading upstream completely washing over the bawling cattle. Standing in the belly deep water, fighting wind and water, the cows did not see the fire as it tore up the river banks being pushed by seventy mile an hour winds.

Dusty hoped the remuda and the thousand head of cattle he had sent out earlier had made it to the rise.

If Dusty were a bird he could have looked down upon the lee side of the rise and seen the cows and remuda grazing calmly while the riders rode in a half circle oblivious to the oncoming fire and dust storm on the other side. When it did hit, the riders looked skyward seeing only the darkness of the dust storm in the sky. Where they had ended up was in a valley protected on three sides by an eroded cliff. This large natural amphitheater allowed the storm to pass harmlessly overhead.  The riders sat pointing upward wondering what was happening but were unwilling to cross over the ridge to investigate. Shrugging their shoulders and hoping the best for the rest of the herd, they went back to riding their own herd.

Chapter 3

Meanwhile, back at the river miles away, Dusty and the others were doing all they could just to stay in their saddles. The riders had all donned their dusters and pulling the collars up high, the hurt caused by the fires intense heat and the scouring sand was kept to a minimum. The cattle and horses had no such protection. With their rears facing the onslaught, it was a good thing that horses and cattle have no need to sit down.The chuck wagon soon had its canvas covering torn loose from the wooden bows stretching it over the wagon. It landed in the river and was soon lost to sight. Now exposed, Biscuit tucked himself down into the foot well of the driver’s seat and hid.

It had been a half hour since the storm had hit them. The wind driven dust had not abated in the least but Dusty noticed the fire, having consumed all the dry grass and trees along the river bank was no longer a threat. Black smoking earth replaced the tall grasses behind the fire wall.

While most fires would have driven hundreds of snakes into the safety of the water, the wind pushing this fire was causing such tall waves that the snakes were thrown bodily back onto the shore. Dusty would have marveled at this stroke of fortune, and would afterward, but for right now he sat white knuckled trying his best to keep his death grip on the saddle horn as the wind and dust did their best to unseat him.

Miles ahead upriver, the fire continued to race along the Brazos banks leaving a mile wide swath on the eastern side. To the west, the fire was much wider but would soon reach a sharp bend in the Brazos stopping the raging fire in its tracks.

Without warning, the wind began to suddenly abate. The head winds that were traveling at hurricane speed had passed now being replaced by a wind half its speed to that of a common dust storm.

Dusty lifted his head and turning it sideways into the wind, tried glimpsing downstream. What he saw was a blackened landscape that diffused itself into the mile high dust cloud. Understanding now came to him. If it were not for the savage blowing of the earlier wind, the slow moving fire would have taken hours rather than minutes to pass them by. While cursing the millions of needle pricks the blowing sand brought about on exposed skin, that very wind in a very strange way was their savior.

Still too soon to fully face into the wind, Dusty tucked his chin back onto his chest and thanked God for protecting the men and the herd.

Without the fierce wind, the river began to settle back down. Any snakes attempting to find their way into the water though were met by the still smoldering earth and retreated back into their bank side holes.

When the worst had passed, Dusty yelled for the riders to clear the river of cattle. Even with dust still swirling about, the snakes would soon venture back into the water.

With yips and howls the cowboys drove the cattle back onto the burnt landscape. Once again the thin line of cattle were making their way north.

Dusty rode over to each rider asking if any were hurt and in need of  any medical attention. Most shrugged off their minor burns and were just happy to have survived.  Fisher commented that from here on in the trail should be a cake walk seeing as to how “We been through wind, water and fire all in one day!”

Looking northeastward, through the abating dust storm , Dusty could now see the ridge where the remuda and cattle were ordered to be taken to. Taking a small spyglass from his saddlebag, Dusty scanned the ridge for any sign of man or beast. None were seen.

“I don’t see anybody this side of the ridge, let’s heads the herd to the back side of it by circling around the south eastern point. They’re probably holed up on the lee side of the ridge”

Within four hours the slow moving herd rounded the southern tip of the ridge. Dusty was pleased that only a few cattle had been lost and a couple of those had been put down by the riders themselves trying to keep the other cows from following any leader ashore.

By now the dust storm was a gritty memory. No one questioned the single day long dust storm but Carlos gave the storm the name ‘Tormenta Dios miragro’ or loosely translated, ‘The torment of Gods miracle’.

The riders quietly had driven the tired cattle over the scorched earth up to the foothills of the ridge. Once rounding the southern point, green grass once again greeted the hungry cattle. Picking up their pace, the cattle soon joined their grazing relatives within the protection of the valley’s amphitheatre carved into the mountain side.

Dusty stopped and took in the sight. “Well I’ll be doggoned. They’s all safe an’ sound!”

Biscuit and the chuck wagon, being faster than the herd, had already set itself up and had  two, two gallon coffee pots heating over a fire.  One of the flank riders rode up dragging the wagons canvas tarp behind him. “Brought you a present Biscuit”. Then dismounting, he untied the canvas from his rope and headed over to the boiling coffee pots where everyone had gathered.

“what’s sayin’ boss?” Charlie called over to Dusty. “

Dusty untying his Stetson told him, “I tell you this much. this has been one heck of a day! Snakes, fire, dust storm… I don’t know about you boys but to my way of thinking, any one of those things coulda’ put an end to any one of us.”

To a man, a word of Amen was sounded.

Dusty continued talking, “Let’s take another day to get some grass into the herd and give our own bones a well deserved rest. I don’t know about you fella’s but my old bones is beat an’ my muscles is worn to a frazzle.”

Once again a round of ‘amens’ was heard.

Two days later found the herd heading out to the north towards Waco. Once in Waco the herd caught the Chisholm trail and headed onto Wichita Kansas. During the drive into Kansas, Dusty thought things deep and hard and made the decision that this was to be the last cattle drive he’d head up. When he talked over his decision with his friend Fisher, he was surprised that Fisher didn’t fight him on it.

“Heck boss, I was thinking along the same lines myself. The rail road’s gonna’ be the way to transport large herds of cattle pretty soon. Where’s that gonna’ leave us then? I’d rather go out while I can still make a choice to be a cowboy or not to be a cowboy. I ain’t no cow poke boss, I can’t see myself proddin’ cows onto rail cars with sticks from a loading platform. No Sir, I might just follow your lead and find somethin’ else to do for a livin’. You have any idea what you’ll be doin’ and where?”

“I’ve been thinking of a small town near Denver Colorado called Castle Rock. I saved up some for the day I decided to quit. My knees ain’t what they used to be, maybe I’ll buy myself a mercantile or dry goods store.”

“You? A dry goods store? Ha! That’ll be the day, more like a bordello if you ask me!”

“Naw, no whorehouse. I been seein’ things a bit different since that day on the Brazos.  I ain’t gonna’ turn into no Preacher or anything but I’m thinkin’ I should clean up my act a bit. The good book talks about becoming a new man. Who knows, maybe I’m gonna’ try an’ teach this ol’ dog some new tricks.”

“Well boss, whatever you decide, I’m behind you on it. I might even look you up someday…see how you’re farin’ an’ all.”

Dusty reached out and he and Fisher shook hands over their friendship. “You look me up Fisher!”

“I will boss. That’s a promise.”

It would be a promise kept.

To read another story featuring Dusty and Fisher, click on the story called “Homer’s magic bullet”.  JW