When A Buffalo Falls
Rick Samuel followed the trail through the jagged rocks that reached silently up to the heavens like long ridged fingers, hooked and twisted. The evening had long passed, and now, the only sound that came through the darkness was the creaking of his leather saddle, the uneven klopping of hooves against the hard bed-rock and the occasional blow from his weary dapple-gray mare.
When Rick reached the outskirts of the small town, he rode the seventeen-and-a-half-hand mare parallel to the lights shining like little winking lanterns in the valley far below. However, when he came upon the town’s signpost, he nudged the gray to the west and headed directly down the mesa and into the valley.
Rick held the horse at a steady walk, beneath a cold and silky-wet sky, through the slosh of wagon-wheel-ruts traced on either side by dense entangled bush and trees, until he came to a shallow wash that passed through a little brook meandering its way through the valley. Rick reined in the gray to study the layout of the land. Bushbuck Ridge, like most small towns scattered across the western frontier, had no reason to exist unless owned or run by a wealthy man or kept afloat with the money spent by men and women hiding from the law.
The immediate brush and shrubs surrounding the town lay bare; burnt and cleared to a distance of one-hundred-yards, a custom of most small towns in the untamed west. The wars with the Indians continued, and the thoughts of a hostile band of renegade Apache attacking their homes rested heavily on the minds of the settlers.
Bushbuck Ridge lay on the opposite side of the brook, the dusky shadows of the wood and brick structures blended with the escarpment that towered beyond them bleak and rutted. Rick nudged the mare back to a walk and crossed through the wash to the open ground on the other side.
At the end of the main street, a solitary dog barked as the moon slipped out from behind a diminishing bank of dark sliding clouds, and Rick shared in its eagerness for the change in the weather.
There is a limit to the measure of time a man can spend talking to his horse and stay sane. For ten days, Rick had been in the saddle. Most of the time it had rained, and now tired, wet, and hungry, he thought only of a hot meal and a soft bed.
“Hungry, girl?” he said to the mare and leaned forward slapping her playfully on the neck. “Once I’ve found the livery, I’ll put you down for the night with some good dry fodder and a big scoop of grain.” To the sound of her master’s voice, the dapple-gray rocked its head and blew jadedly.
Two kerosene lanterns hung from beneath the balcony at the front of the saloon, the flicker of light reflected in the large murky puddles lying in the street. The main street showed little signs of life; a few horses and two pack–mules tied to the holding-rail outside the saloon. Three men sat on a weathered bench outside the saloon window watching him. Rick touched his hat in a manner of greeting as he stepped down at the front of the wooden building.
Four men seated at a table glanced up from their five-card-game when Rick swung open the batwings and stepped through into the saloon. They carried the look of hard, rough men, bent on trouble. An empty whiskey bottle stood on the tabletop, another on its side rolling this way and that with every excited thump of a fist. Half-filled whiskey glasses, partly obscured by the thick haze of static blue-gray tobacco smoke now stood ignored; each man with a face of steel with cards held tight to his chest, eager to outwit the other to claim the large pot of money set at the center of the table. Rick had seen men like these in every town and village along the trail. Strong-headed and fast with a gun – so most of them thought – needing little persuasion to get into a fight. Fists or guns. Rick smiled and dipped his head, avoiding direct eye contact with any of them, and headed straight for the long bar.
The saloon was dimly lit and grubby; dirty white walls, a hard-stamped-earth floor covered with sawdust and squared pine tables and chairs placed around the room. Men occupied most of the tables with women hovering close by eager to join in with lively conversation, and to help them spend their hard-earned wages. At the far corner of the saloon sat a tall man dressed in a black high-collar suit, with a stove-pipe hat perched on the crest of his bobbing head, tapping out a tune on an old and beaten upright Steinway & Sons piano.
Behind the counter slouched a barkeep with thick brown greasy hair. The buttons of his dirty white shirt pulled tightly apart by the large belly they supported. Rick flinched at the grubbiness of the portly man.
“Whiskey?” he grunted through a mouthful of broken and dirty teeth as Rick approached the counter.
“Your coldest beer, please,” said Rick. He removed his rain-drenched hat and placed it on the scuffed pine countertop, then flattened his long ash-blond hair with the palms of his hands. His wet clothing clung to his six-foot body sending a chill up his spine that rocked his shoulders. His discomfort showed clearly on his tired face.
Rick looked up into the mirror fixed on the wall behind the bar and smiled grimly. You look no better than the barkeep, he thought to himself and flattened his hair again. “Anything hot to eat?” he furthered to the barkeep.
“We only have warm beer, Mister,” the man mumbled throatily. “The kitchen dished up rabbit stew an’ beans earlier.” He gestured with a sway of his head towards an empty table. “Sit there. I’ll check if there’s any stew left.”
The portly man popped his head around the corner of the bar and called into the kitchen. Minutes later an old Chinese man appeared with a tray of hot food. The beer was warm as the barkeep had said, but it held a good head. Rick sipped at it as he ate the bowl of sloppy rabbit stew with soggy beans and dried crusty bread.
When he finished eating, Rick picked up what remained of his beer and moved back to the bar.
“Busy night,?” Rick remarked to the barkeep.
“Same as any, Mister.”
“Do you have a room?”
“How lon’ are ya’ in town for?”
“One night,” Rick answered. “I’m leaving in the morning, early.”
“Going anywhere special?”
“No,” Rick shrugged and shook his head. “I’m just drifting at the moment looking to buy myself a piece of land somewhere.”
“Sorry, Mister. There’s no land for sale around these parts.”
Rick took a swallow of his bear. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Looks like good cattle land. And not to mention the rich dark soil for crops to get a good root growth.” Rick took another mouthful of his beer, wiped the foam-head from his mouth and then stretched out his arm pensively towards the barkeep as he turned from Rick to attend to another customer. “Oh, by the way,” he said recapturing the portly man’s attention. "Is the US Cavalry site still in the same place?”
The barkeep half turned and raised his flabby, right arm to the south. “Two miles,” he said. “Ya’ can't-miss it. Do ya’ want another beer?”
“No thanks. All I need is a bed and the directions to the livery. I need to get my horse settled in for the night.”
“Let me finish with, Dickie over here, and I'll be back to tell ya'.”