Time continues to pass. This chapter begins in the later winter of 1878. Born in 1833, the “kid” is 45. He’s in the north Texas plains. It’s cold and windy. He goes to set up camp for the night, and as soon as gets his fire going, he notices another fire across the way. Like his, it warmed one man alone.
The Buffalo Hunter
The man is a hunter, had been a buffalo hunter, and regales the kid with tales of one of the greatest tragedies in American history: the massive slaughter of these great noble beasts. While anyone with any familiarity with this time in American history knows generally about the mass killing of these buffalo, the stories the hunter tells give us a glimpse of the proportions at issue. They were killed by the thousands and tens of thousands, their hides pegged out to dry over actual square miles, skinners working around the clock, the hunters just shooting and shooting into the herds, all day and night. The meat was left to rot. The air whined with flies and buzzards and ravens, and at night came the wolves, “half crazed and wallowing in the carrion.” (p. 317). Can you imagine the smell? Wolves eat as much as they can when food is present because they don’t know when their next meal will be. This is the glut before the famine.
All told, the hunter says 8 million were killed. He tells of a last hunt where they scoured the country looking for more. They found one herd of 8, killed them all, and that’s it. “They’re gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they’d never been at all.” (p. 317). Horrible! Before going to sleep, the hunter asks “I wonder if there’s other worlds like this…Or if this is the only one.” (p. 317). An interesting philosophical inquiry at any time, but in the given context, you almost hope the answer is no. Could another planet be capable of such violence and inhumanity?
Three days later he comes upon the bonepickers. The groups of wagon trains are picking up the buffalo bones. There are ravens and “jackal wolves” (coyotes or some similar scavenging pack animal), but the buffalo are all dead. Oxen pull the wagons. Splatters of lead can be seen against some of the bones. The pickers kick and break down the bones with axes. They are filthy. This seems a dirty task. Even the oxen seem disgusted. No one speaks to him.
The groups of wagons go on for miles. He comes upon one cart with a kid driving the oxen and two other kids sitting on the bones. They leer at him. What evil is this? They are like little crazed undertakers. What work for a kid!
That night he camps, and can see the fires of the bonepickers across the plains. He hears the now starving wolves, their main source of sustenance gone. Lightning in the distance (isn’t there always?) The smell of sour bones all around.
Around midnight, a group comes to his fire. He calls them over. It’s all kids (the same ones he passed before?) They are dressed in hides, they are filthy, they have poor weapons except for one good buffalo rifle.
There are four of them, plus a “halfgrown” boy, who we later learn is about 12, and maybe a little bit slow.
He calls them up, and they begin a conversation, mostly amongst themselves. They ask if he has whiskey or tobacco, which he doesn’t. They ask if he’s going to Griffin, which sounded like a lively place at the time, but looks to be about halfway between Dallas and Lubbock: the middle of nowhere by today’s standards. Apparently, according to the boys, Griffin is full of whores. The boys seem to be doing a lot of posturing, pretending to know more than they do or to be older than they are. Typical teenage boy behavior.
This was funny, regarding the whores, “They say you can get clapped a day’s ride out when the wind is right.” (p. 319). Reading in context, I believe they are referring to “the clap,” i.e. gonorrhea. Hilarious, right?
They speak of the violence in Griffin. He asks them if they like “meanness.” One responds that they don’t hold with it. I don’t know if that means they don’t like it or they don’t put up with it.
Finally, one of them asks about the ears. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the ring of ears is often referred to as a scapular. One definition of a scapular has a religious connotation, a short monastic cloak covering the shoulders. What a juxtaposition, a priest’s raiment, made up of cut off indian ears.
So he tells them they are indian ears, and one of the kids, the one with the rifle, we find out is named Elrod, does not believe him. The ears are black, so they ask if they are from slaves, but he assures them that they are from indians.
There is some back and forth. Some of the boys guess that he was a scout on the prairie, which he was, in a sense. Elrod keeps talking trash. The others are worried. These are fighting words in these parts, and Elrod is clearly looking for trouble.
Elrod suggests the ears could be from anywhere or anyone. The kid tells him, no, he knew the guy who took them, and knew where they came from. Elrod continues to call him out. The kid asks if he’s calling him a liar.
The kid asks how old he is, and someone else tells him he’s 15. The kid informs them that he was 15 the first time he was shot. Elrod makes it clear that he thinks the kid is a coward and a liar. The kid tells the others to keep Elrod away from him or he will kill him.
Two more interesting points here. The youngest is described as “casting glances out at the dark sanctuary of the prairie night,” almost as if he knows that if they can just get away from the kid’s fire and stay away, they will be safe. (p. 322). Also the sentence: “This country was filled with violent children orphaned by war.” (Id.). Foreshadowing. The next generation is violent and angry like the last.
Bye, bye, Elrod
Expecting trouble, the kid builds up his fire, but then moves his horse and blanket and hides in the dark. Sure enough, before the sun is up, he wakes to see the shadow of Elrod standing over the remains of his fire. “I knowed you’d be hid out,” the boy calls out into the darkness. (p. 322). The Kid takes aim with his pistol at the shape of the boy. “I’m right here,” he calls out, maybe to give the boy some semblance of a fighting chance. The boy swings his rifle and fires wildly. “You wouldn’t of lived anyway,” the kid (here referred to as “the man”) says. Stone cold, or just survival? This would make a great Clint Eastwood line.
At dawn, the other boys come for the body. “I knowed we’d bury him on this prairie,” one kid offers. (p. 323). He had a violent streak, and it got him killed. We learn the boy is from Kentucky and the 12-year-old were brothers, that both their parents were dead, and that his grandfather “was killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog.” (p. 323). “He’s never knowed good fortune in his life and now he aint got a soul in this world.” (Id.). Here they must be talking about the younger boy, but there would be applications for both of them. Remember what the judge thinks of fortune and chance.
In reality, the Kid’s life has not been that different from these boys. What makes him different? Why is he still alive? Luck? Who knows?
They give the dead boy’s guns to his little brother, and he stands “inanely armed.” What is he going to do with all these guns besides probably get himself killed? They carry the dead boy off, his brother too small even to help. What will the rest of his life be like? Born into violence and born for violence. I found this site that has some other insights.
The kid carries on, presumably towards Griffin. There are still huge piles of bones everywhere, “colossal dikes composed of horned skulls and the crescent ribs like old ivory bows heaped in the aftermath of some legendary battle, great levees of them curving away over the plain into the night.” (p. 324).
The kid and his horse (referred to as “they”) enter town, and sure enough, they pass numerous brothels. There is music and noise and other indications of debauchery.
This is very interesting. He comes to a saloon at the end of town, ties up his horse, heads towards the door, but before entering “He looked back a last time at the street and at the random windowlights let into the darkness and at the last pale light in the west and the low dark hills around.” (p. 324). The “last”? Last look at the night, last look at the sunset. Is it his last sunset? We’ll see. He enters.
Inside, “[a] dimly seething rabble had coagulated within.” (p. 324). What coagulates? Blood. And what a group! Evil of all kinds, all collected as if drawn there. A man in costume goes from table to table with his hat out for change. A girl plays a barrel organ while a bear in a petticoat twirls on a makeshift stage. How surreal is this?
He makes his way to the bar, which is hopping. Many men are serving beer and whiskey, and behind them young boys work at fetching more and bringing clean glasses. He spins a silver coin on the bar and then slaps it flat. presumably to get the attention of a bartender. The barman says “Speak or forever,” an abbreviated reference to the wedding vow, or portion where the audience is invited to do so or forever hold their peace. Whiskey he wants, and whiskey he gets.
He drinks it deliberately. Sets his hat down on the bar. Turns to face the crowd. And “[w]atching him across the layered smoke in the yellow light was the judge.” (p. 325). Of course. Because where else would the judge be but at the center of this deranged bacchanal?
What is going to happen? Meeting up after all this time, what comes next? I can’t take the anticipation.
Don’t forget to tune back in for Part II.
tang- the projection on the blade of a tool such as a knife, by which the blade is held firmly in the handle
galena- a bluish, gray, or black mineral of metallic appearance, consisting of lead sulfide. It is the chief ore of lead.
sere- (especially of vegetation) dry or withered; threadbare
calcined- reduce, oxidize, or desiccate by roasting or strong heat
jerkline- A jerkline is/was a method of driving large hitches of mules/horses by means of a rein or line attached to the bridal of the lead animal which was trained to go to the left or to the right depending whether it receive one or two jerks on the jerkline.
jockeystick- a stick fastened to the hame of the near horse and the bit of the off horse for use in driving with a single rein to prevent crowding
hock– the joint in a quadruped’s hind leg between the knee and the fetlock, the angle of which points backward.
inane- silly; stupid.
hospice- archaic- a lodging for travelers, especially one run by a religious order.
ricks- a stack of hay, corn, straw, or similar material, especially one built into a regular shape and thatched.
bagnio- archaic- brothel
coagulate- (of a fluid, especially blood) change to a solid or semisolid state.
tyrolean-: of or relating to the Tirola; style originating in the Tirol and marked by soft often green felt, a narrow brim and pointed crown, and an ornamental feather
1.historicala stiffened or hooped petticoat worn to make a long skirt stand out.
2.a stiff fabric made of horsehair and cotton or linen thread, typically used for stiffening petticoats or as a lining.
gaitered- a cloth or leather covering worn over the lower part of the leg (here the sleeves of the shirt) especially to keep the legs and ankles (arms) dry when hiking (or serving large amounts of alcohol)
scullery- a small kitchen or room at the back of a house used for washing dishes and other dirty household work.
zinc- the chemical element of atomic number 30, a silvery-white metal that is a constituent of brass and is used for coating (galvanizing) iron and steel to protect against corrosion.
gill- unit of liquid capacity equal to a quarter of a pint (about 120 milliliters)