The Wolves of the Badlands
story by Kevin Rush
When a man feels desolate there’s nothing like the desert to prove himself right. Jeff Beauchamp blinked repeatedly, a vain attempt to moisten his eyes, before staring again into miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles of nothing.
“Cattle can’t eat dust, Jeff.”
“There’ll be grass in the foothills.”
“And if there’s not?”
“That’d simplify things.”
Jeff chuckled, fully aware that he laughed alone. Benny Durand might chew the inside of his cheek, but he’d hold silent, a habit of duty that extended from Civil War days as sergeant under a certain Major Beauchamp, through a decade as Beauchamp Ranch foreman, to his current occupation of nomadic saddle buddy. If life had afforded Jeff one consolation it was Benny’s steadfast loyalty. After a disastrous cavalry charge had decimated his battalion, Jeff sat in his saddle surveying the fallen and shaking his head at the senselessness of it. “Tomorrow,” he’d muttered to no one in particular, “I must demand the same from the survivors.” The fierce bantam had overheard his commanding officer’s lament. “So duty demands, Major,” he’d said.
And so they’d continued to prosecute a wasteful war for a doomed cause they didn’t fully understand. During each exacting battle, Jeff felt more of his humanity drain away, forfeited to some bestial instinct that gloried in the carnage. Then afterwards, he’d feel a curtain of shame descend, and all he could do to keep the darkness from enveloping him was turn survivor’s guilt to a survivor’s crusade, pledging with Benny at his side to conclude the war honorably, then to live honorably and thrive in peacetime with gratitude, all the time fearing that there would one day come a reckoning for all they’d destroyed.
For a time they’d made a good go of it, converting a portion of the Beauchamp sugar plantation to that which Benny knew best: breeding cattle. Benefiting from the short trip to the New Orleans market, the Beauchamp Ranch thrived, outgrowing its confines, and forcing a relocation to west Texas, where cattle proliferated, but the market unfortunately lagged. Still, the men had recognized the move as being “for the future” and were content with an accumulation of fine breeding stock they were able to sell to cattlemen pushing ever westward.
Then that idyllic life was shattered by a sequence of events more devastating than any battle the Major had faced. First, word came that his only child, a son, had died violently, burned alive when a steamboat boiler ruptured. The young man, with an interest in engineering, had been granted a tour of the engine room just minutes before the blast. That fact added an element of randomness to the loss that suggested a mystical conspiracy. Perhaps the sins of the father, visited upon the son. Madame Estelle Beauchamp, ever sensitive that she had not filled the Major’s house with offspring, was inconsolable, languishing in her chamber. When a doctor suggested hydrotherapy, Jeff put his men to work constructing a spa, but fever took her before they’d finished. Major Jefferson Beauchamp was a ruined man. The irony of breeding animals when his own lineage had turned to ash crushed him. Still, cattle had become his livelihood, and if he were to shake off his remorse and once again survive, cattle would be his instrument.
The Major sold off most of his herd, keeping the prime breeding stock, and decided to push west, either to New Mexico or Arizona, and start over with a few of his trusted hands. A decision had been made, due to the outbreak of The Lincoln County Wars, to keep south in New Mexico, a trail that had led to an arid range called Malpaís, Spanish for Badlands. Jeff strained to see faint mountains in the distance. Jeff suspected there would be water. Grass. Or not. At this point, he’d accept his fate.
When a rider came galloping from the head of the herd, announcing he’d found a moving stream and fair grazing, Benny released a shout. Jeff simply nodded his acknowledgement. The heads would revive in a couple of days. Then they’d make their push through the mountains. But first, they needed supplies, and something besides brackish water and charred coffee to drink.
A red sun was dipping behind the East Potrillo foothills, and a waxing three-quarter moon was rising in opposition, when Jeff and Benny left the herd and trotted towards a miniscule town a couple miles south that begged further investigation. They found a saloon, which was not alone in its need of paint; windswept dust had turned the whole town a dull grey. Swinging doors and floorboards creaked. Oil lamps with low wicks cast long shadows across the near empty room. Jeff nodded to the saloonkeeper and placed a silver dollar on the bar. “Two whiskeys.”
The saloonkeeper, a tall, dour slack-jaw with low muttonchops glowered.
“Pay in gold. We don’t take silver.” He held a bottle aloft, a testimony to his willingness to serve if his terms were met. “Got saddle tramps crawling over these hills. Silver, silver. They bring this grey dust into town. You can’t tell ‘em it’s worthless, they go loco. So we just say, no silver. Keeps things simple that way. Now, do you have gold?”
“I’ve got a gold piece,” Jeff answered, “but I wasn’t figuring on drinking ten dollars worth of whisky.”
“Can credit you. Been ridin’ some long way; must need dry goods. I’ll credit you to the dry goods store.”
Again the saloonkeeper tilted the bottle and paused, waiting for affirmation. But Jeff had been distracted, or entranced, by a figure at the end of the bar. Benny gestured to pour, as Jeff watched a saloon girl, her pale and unblemished shoulders reflecting the lamplight, place some used glasses on the bar. Her hair, wheat blond, was swept off her shoulders and caught with a rhinestone comb. Her eyes, mournful yet aglow, avoided the outsiders, but the quickening of her breath betrayed her. She wanted to be approached.
Benny slid a shot glass into Jeff’s hand. He considered it for a second, tossed it back, and knocked the bar again with his glass.
“Have the girl bring us another.”
Jeff turned and strode to the center of the room. A threesome hunched over a game of faro. Not his pastime. He and Benny sat apart from the few customers, and the girl brought the next round.
“Thank you. What’s your name, Miss?” Jeff asked.
“Shouldn’t I get yours first?”
“What would you do with it?”
“Check it against the Wanted posters. What would you do with mine?”
“Check it for poetry. Musicality.”
“I know what music interests a drifter. There’s more rhythm than melody. And the lyrics get repetitious.”
With that she was gone, back to the bar, leaving Jeff chuckling to himself as he had in the saddle, when he marveled at the desolation he felt. Only now he was certain he’d found someone like himself, whose loss had swallowed everything she’d had. Still he saw beauty in her, and wondered if the beauty could be salvaged.
The men finished their drinks and pushed back their chairs. Rising, Jeff called out to the saloonkeeper, “What about those dry goods?”
“Tomorrow morning. A little after sunrise.”
The girl came back to gather the glasses.
“You gents need a room for the night?” The saloonkeeper rolled his eyes toward the girl who withered under the implication. Jeff tightened upon a chivalrous impulse, but discretion caught his tongue. At any rate, a nervous voice over his shoulder interrupted.
“I’ll open the store.” A jittery man with wild eyes and a sweaty, bald pate rose from the faro table. He pocketed his chips, then mopped his brow with a tangled handkerchief. “Gentlemen.” He gestured toward the door.
“Nine dollars credit,” the saloonkeeper called, as the doors creaked closed and flapped behind them.
“Mitchum’s not the worst sort. Times being what they are.” The store clerk jiggled the key then forced it into the lock. “There are cruder men. Men of unrestrained violence. The frontier gives license to men’s worst impulses. Those who would become animals, do.” He laughed nervously, then pushed the door open, triggering the bell.
Jeff and Benny stepped into the dark General Store and waited as the clerk lit a lamp. “Coffee, I suppose. That’s a staple for most folks. Oats. Grits. Uh, sugar, of course. Soap.” The clerk continued to rattle off the items he felt no traveler could do without. Jeff and Benny simply nodded or shook their heads. Finally, with the goods piled high on the counter, the clerk assumed a somber tone.
“Do you have traps?”
“Animal traps. There’s coyotes. They’ll take a calf, you let ‘em. And… wolves.”
“Appreciate your concern, sir,” Jeff huffed. “I’m not sure traps will do anything eight men with rifles can’t.”
“Oh, no, no. You need traps.” And he pulled two huge bear traps from the under the counter. “When you hear the wolves, stop your drive, and set the traps immediately. Light some torches. Get low to the ground, so you’re not blinded by the light, but can see under it. Fire and force them to retreat toward the traps.”
Benny hefted one of the traps and chuckled. “You expecting grizzlies?”
“I think he’s expecting Hannibal’s elephants.”
The clerk smiled tightly at Jeff’s joke. But as he sacked the dry goods, he remained insistent. “As soon as you hear them. You may think they’re far off, and they are. But they travel fast. Like lightening.”
“You got a thing for these wolves, huh?” Benny mused. “What, you get bit?”
“No,” he gasped. “But folks have. Folks passing through have.”
The total exceeded their credit at the saloon, so Jeff fished through his purse for some coins.
“Silver, if you have it,” the Clerk nearly salivated. “I know, technically, there’s an ordinance against accepting it. But I like silver. Far more than gold. You might say it’s a fetish.”
Jeff dropped on the counter a few silver dollars, which the sniveling clerk scooped up and rubbed between his finger and thumb.
Benny eyed the traps, and after Jeff shrugged, hooked his arm inside to hoist them onto his shoulder.
“Oh, no,” the clerk moaned. “In the sack, please.” He offered a canvas sack for the traps. “Some in the town don’t approve. You wouldn’t know to look at them, but some are very tender-hearted. They find trapping cruel.”
The traps were placed in the sack and the men parted company. The fidgety clerk threw several bolts after the door slammed behind them. Benny chuckled, “That feller could use the hydrotherapy.” Then after a breath, he muttered, “Sorry, Major.”
They tied the dry goods sacks to their saddles and mounted their horses. Jeff gazed again at the light emanating from the saloon. He thought of the girl, a white moth at that flame, fixated, held by that which, entirely indifferent to her, could singe her in an instant. Then upon the instant of the thought, he dismounted, strode deliberately to the saloon door, and, peering in, beckoned her to the porch. They stepped away from the door to the rail. She wrapped her arms across her breasts against the cold, and eyed the waxing moon as Jeff spoke tenderly to her.
“I learned in the war that survivors have a duty. To embrace life for the sake of those who lost it. I’ve wavered in that resolve, but I’ve a handful of men. I’m starting over. There’d be room for you. You’d be treated with respect. You’d…”
“You’re an impulsive man.”
“Instinctive, I suppose. But not without reason.”
“Where instinct’s involved, men lose reason.”
“True enough,” Jeff conceded. Not just her cynicism but her intelligence caught him short. Had she been a schoolteacher? A nurse? “But, you’re still young. You can’t fill out your days in this godforsaken place.”
He regretted those words as soon as he’d said them. She was too smart to be bullied, and shaming her would not open her heart. Yet he felt such a yearning in that moment, not for anything physical, but a spiritual longing, as though his soul was crying for the expiation of his sins, and through this girl’s plight, he could earn was his absolution. Her moist eyes fixed on the moon, as if its growing to fullness across an expanse of night mocked the increasing emptiness of her desert life. She seemed to shiver, but finally remarked, “One finds contentment in odd places.”
“Tell me your name.”
She paused as if considering several possibilities. “Rebecca. And yours?”
She laughed. “How does a Beauchamp come to Malpaís?”
Jeff scratched the back of his head. “That’s a question worth studying. Why not reflect on it? If you find something fateful or poetic, you might consider my offer. We’ll graze our herd ‘til noon tomorrow, then push through the canyon west. Have you a horse? Or should I come for you?”
“I have a horse.”
Jeff nodded. He’d said his piece. He tipped his hat and stepped toward Benny, who jerked his horse into a trot in a not-so-subtle protest of the delay.
The ride back to camp was quiet. The men did not speak. The guard dogs greeted them with snarls, then yaps of recognition. As they bedded down by the fire, Jeff, as was his habit, opened the silver locket he kept on a chain around his neck, and gazed at the daguerreotype of his departed bride. Benny dropped his boots heavily into the dust, another signal, which Jeff read as a request for permission to speak.
“I know how loneliness can plague a man,” Benny whispered. “Most ain’t cut out to handle it, ‘specially for long stretches. But consider, the vast difference in quality from what you lost to what we happened across today.”
Jeff huffed. “From Olympus to Elysium.”
Jeff closed the locket. “A soiled dove is still a dove, Sergeant Durand. It belongs not among the vultures.”