By Stephen Thom
More shots. His eyes stung with dirt. He grasped the reins with his right hand and tried to tug his neckerchief up. The image of lumbering beasts came savage through the fog, and he saw riders thrown in the mix. Cattle charged over broken figures, and dust spumed around them. Horns impaled horses. Ghostly riders galloped ahead, but the herd would not turn in on itself. The slope levelled out and the line of the river shimmered in and out of the haze.
Emmett neckreined Buck towards the riders on the left of the column. The herd hit the river at full steam.
The banks were high. One of the wagons tipped; it overturned completely at the crest, and was smashed to pieces. Hundreds of cattle crashed straight into the water. The group to the left of the column hit a section that was fast-flowing and deep. The river broke the head of the stampede, and the dust cleared slowly. Emmett pulled up a hundred yards from the bank.
Men were scrambling and floundering in the rapids. Lots of cattle were floundering. All Emmett could see were their nostrils. Many were washed away in the current. Groups of lighter steers thrashed and swam for the far bank.
Abigail pointed and shouted. Emmett followed her direction and saw Alston charging across the far bank, further down the river. He gave Buck his head and they loped towards the main column. They passed several hundred yards, and he could see groups of cattle bogged on the banks. He felt Buck's front hooves sinking as they hit the verge and heaved on the reins, drawing him back up the embankment.
The line of the river was brown and shallower below. Groups of cattle plunged into the muddy water. Several heavy steers were sinking twenty feet from the wide slick. Many were trying to turn back.
Emmett nudged Buck back up to the crest of the bank. Riders streamed past him. By the time he turned back, there were around two hundred cattle sunk to the level of their bodies in the quicksand, hopelessly bogged. The cattle swept away in the faster currents were lost, and the men had turned their attention to the central group. It was chaos.
The horses appeared to cross the river with no issues, and Emmett could see Alston rallying his men and barking instructions. Many of the men dismounted and advanced across the banks bearing ropes. The bogged steers were not sinking further, they were just dumbly rooted. The pull was so strong that four men were unable to lift a single roped steer out. They tried to burrow around it, and became bogged themselves. They eventually got its legs and tail free, but the moment they stopped, the cow sunk right back.
Still the herd came pouring down the banks. Emmett backed Buck up further as cattle pounded past. Everything was a dark miasma of thundering hooves, rushing water, splattered mud, and screams.
On the far banks men were roping the cattle in the water. They roped their heads, rolled the steers over as far as they could, and burrowed around them with their bare hands. It was desperate work. They pulled hooves out, roped the front legs, tipped the beasts, and roped the hind legs and tails. They hurried out of the water. The shattered crew then wrapped the loose ends of the rope to their saddle horns, took a swinging start, and heaved the steers free. They landed the animals on the far bank and untied the hobbles. The unbogged steers were wild and thrashing; the men remounted and gave them space to charge about.
There were just too many bogged. It looked exhausting and impossible work. Observing the charging cattle, Emmett realised that the river bed appeared to be solid enough underfoot, as long as they kept moving. Groups still lost to the momentum of the stampede splashed headlong over to the far bank. The minute the cattle stopped, they started sinking.
The world several feet below the crest seemed of a thick and treacherous consistency, and the darkness made it hard to discern and prioritise between the numerous groups in difficulty. He saw Alston swigging from his jug on the far bank, and when he saw him next he was wading in the muck. He saw Miles leading his horse through the sludge. The boy splashed and stumbled across a large steer, and his horse reared and threw him. The horse's front feet sunk as it crashed back down and Miles sunk alongside it, brown gloop slicking over his face. Two men roped him and pulled him free.
The night wore on. Emmett left Abigail on the crest, and waded in to help with the effort. They roped more cattle and drew out what they could to solid ground. They tied rope to the chuckwagon and the schooner, and used the mules to pull more beeves out. There were not enough men to hold herds on both sides of the river. They rounded the cattle on the far bank into a compact body, and started back for the other side.
Cattle were milling uncertainly before their bogged brethren. The crew worked methodically, cutting off a hundred head at a time, and driving them quickly around the sunken cattle and across the shallow water. The work progressed quicker as they fell into the two separate systems; driving large groups over, and pulling loose what they could.
They gave the freed animals a clear start for the herd on the far bank each time. Most of the cattle were still frenzied when they were turned loose, and many charged blindly off into the horizon. They would have to be rounded up later.
By sunup Emmett was caked in mud, and had undertaken a crash-course in roping cattle. The majority of the herd were milling on the far bank, but there were still around three hundred head bogged in the river, and on both banks. About a hundred yards further downstream, a group of men were working on loosing a heavy steer. The animal was roped, and the lines were attached to the chuckwagon on the far bank.
Emmett felt Alston pulling him out of the sludge as the steer they were working on broke free. It struggled up the bank and bolted out into the plains. Alston watched it loping away, sighed, and drew a sleeve over his muddy face. Emmett squatted down on the bank. His arms were shaking with exhaustion. He checked for Buck's shape against the buttery yellow sky, high on the crest on the other side. He looked back at the men working on the steer downstream. There were logs floating around them. He frowned. Alston followed his gaze.
The brown water foamed. A man screamed, and Emmett saw red spray. Alston cursed and drew his pistol. They ran for the chuckwagon, and scrambled down the bank.
The bogged steer was bawling. Scaly dark skin slid beneath the slick around it. The men were hauling themselves out by the ropes. Emmett saw Cal sinking in the water. A long, leathery snout was clamped over his left arm.
Alston fired into the river, and the sludge seethed and frothed. Another tapered snout glided around Cal, and there was a flash of sharp teeth. Rows of teeth. Red circles fanned out in the mud, and the man went under. Alston fired again, and Emmett saw a ridge of scales further down the river. A dismembered arm surfaced temporarily. There was a glint of bone, and it disappeared back beneath the mire.
The men had retreated up the bank, and were cutting the ropes from the chuckwagon. Alston shot the panicking, sinking steer, and rattled off a few more shots at the froth around it. Emmett backed up and moved towards the wagon, his whole body trembling. The water below rippled, and an enormous black alligator slid onto the bank and scuttled towards him. It moved fast, and was at his feet when he palmed his belt and shot it between the eyes.
Two of the men broke away from the wagon and carried him up the slippery bank. His Colt dangled in his hands, and the morning sun baked the mud into his skin. The men lifted him onto the wagon, and Alston dragged himself up the high bank to join him. When they looked back down they saw Miles leading Buck and Abigail safely onto their side of the river. Alston flopped down between sacks of cornmeal.
'That boy ain't gettin' a pay rise no time soon,' he groaned.
Emmett sniffed and pulled his knees up against his chest. Someone hit the side of the chuckwagon, and the mules started out towards the scattered herd. Emmett stared down at the river. Dying, bogged cattle protruded from the brown rush. Muddy men moved over the banks, shooting them.