Grassland

Issue #235, Ninth Anniversary Double-Issue

Sunset brings relief, whatever darkness hides, but cows, with the instincts of prey, prefer the measured suffering of the hottest afternoon to the sudden terrors of night. Marcus speed-mumbles a dusk prayer to the sun, a habit he’s trying to reacquire, and sings “The Gods of Texas,” not so much to soothe the cattle as to make familiar sounds and drown out noises that might set them off. Breed is the only one who can sing them calm when they’re already riled. Now a rumble from Breed calls halt in a spot like any other but past a small rise that may ease the wind. Patrick, with crooked shoulders from that time his horse stepped in a hole, complains about prairie dogs, but Patrick is a fool and this is not a dog town. Those are ground squirrels.

They forded the Cimarron this morning, into country where chollas grow taller to replace proper trees. They’ll cross the Arkansas tomorrow. Marcus has an errand tonight. A man needs a god, at least, if he doesn’t have a home.

Marcus has the last watch, beginning at three ante meridiem, and he hopes to return and sleep some before then. Still chewing pan bread and bacon, he transfers his saddle to Emma, who has the steadiest nerves of any horse in the remuda. Marcus has kept her fresh for this. He nods to Lonnie, the guard, and trots Emma east. He rides with one hand on his pistol, which, with one exception, has never killed anything larger than a rabbit. The hard butt is comforting, and creatures you can’t kill with a pistol still hesitate sometimes when you shoot them in the face.

Four days of this would take him from wheatgrass and little bluestem to Indian grass and turkey claw and the Flint Hills, also called Flint Islands, rising from a lake of deep prairie holding out against Deere’s steel plow. Cowpen herds disappear overnight there, and sodbusters don’t work alone, but Marcus isn’t going that far. When he hears Rattlesnake Creek, or imagines that he hears it, he begins to zigzag and circle, and soon finds the pile of rocks where Ajax is buried.

He doesn’t tether Emma. There’s nothing to tether her to but the cairn, and she’s too smart to wander off alone. After he moves the rocks, which makes him sweat though the air is now cool, Marcus fishes in his pocket for a leather pouch full of herbs. They cost him forty dollars and a detour to New Mexico, but they say in Fort Sumner that Señora Elena, the bruja, has lived twenty years or more in the same adobe east of the Pecos, on the edge of the llano. If the herbs don’t work, she knows Marcus will be back. He draws the bowie that belonged to Ajax, jabs himself in the wrist, drips blood into the pouch. Without the blood of a relative, Elena says, she couldn’t raise at all. He lights the herbs with a phosphorous match and sets them at the foot of the grave. “Well,” he says, “you rested enough?”

The ground heaves, feebly at first, then breaks apart, uprooting a scraggly lump of evening primrose, making way for Ajax’s skeleton. Ajax sort of twists himself and brings one shoulder out at a time, and his ribs seem to scrunch up easily enough, but he has to force a bigger opening for his hip bones. Finally, he crouches in the dirt like a monkey. Scraps of flesh hang from his ribs like a tattered Confederate flag. “You couldn’t dig me out a little?”

“Nothing to dig with. Used to be a little tree, a juniper. Broke off branches to dig your grave. Guess somebody fetched it for wood.”

“How long?”

“Almost a year,” Marcus lies.

“Feels longer.”

“Compared to what? You got a lot of experience being raised from the dead?”

Ajax glares as best he can with the eyes like shriveled apricots nested in his eye sockets. “I could kill you.”

“Maybe. Then I suppose you could pile those rocks on top of your own grave so your bones aren’t chewed by coyotes.” If she had a phoenix feather, Señora Elena told Marcus, she could raise him permanently. Ajax wouldn’t have to be back in his grave by sunrise. But Señora Elena didn’t have a phoenix feather, and Marcus didn’t ask where he could find one.

“What do you want?” Ajax says.

“Brought some whiskey. Store bought.”

Ajax doesn’t have much expression, but his back straightens, which could be eagerness. “Pour it in.”

Marcus takes the bottle from Emma’s saddle bag. “Pour it in—?”

“In my grave.” Ajax watches whiskey drain into the hole, or at least keeps his sockets tilted in that direction.

Marcus says, “Where’s Mithras?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“It’s the only way you’ll be climbing out of that grave again, much less getting any more whiskey. Unless you think Father will come out here and visit you.” Ajax still has part of one eyebrow; that helps Marcus tell when he’s glaring. Marcus waits him out. He doesn’t mention finally riding to Illinois last fall and finding his parents gone, half-forgotten by neighbors who couldn’t say whether they were alive. Ajax was never sentimental about things like that.

“In the Dakotas, where the Belle Fourche pours into the Cheyenne.”

“I know it.”

“A few miles north of that,” Ajax says. “A rock that looks like an owl, tilted across the end of a coulee. There’s a cave underneath. A den. Wasn’t anything living there in the fall of ’67.”

“What were you doing so far north?”

“Went to fight Indians, but Yankee troops don’t have much stomach for it. Or Indians don’t. Too much sitting around.”

“They fight Indians plenty up there, since you died. Don’t always win, either. You’re lucky to be out of it.”

“I feel lucky.”

Marcus says, “Mithras is just sitting in this cave?”

“Piled up some bones to hide him.”

“Bones, but nothing living there?”

“Nothing there when I went in.”

Emma nickers, wanting to leave. Waves of grass that look like the creation of the world at dawn are deep enough, at night, to hide end-of-the-world monsters.

Ajax says, “Forsaken place you buried me in.”

“A man could do plenty worse.” The wind smells of dung and chalk, and deceptively of water. Before humans, Breed says, these plains were a sea, and the ghosts of aquatic gods are embedded in limestone beneath the soil. “They took you in the Union Army?”

“It’s the United States Army again. And I’m from Illinois.”

“Born in Illinois. Loyal to no one. If Mithras isn’t there, I’m not coming back.”

“You won’t be back anyway.”

This is true, but Marcus says, “You should have more faith in me, big brother.”

Marcus supposes more of childhood than he remembers. He doesn’t remember looking up to Ajax, but he supposes that’s why he followed when his brother left Macomb, which he supposes must have had as many stars as Kansas, Colorado, or Nebraska, though he doesn’t remember them either. He remembers the mithraeum, with the mural of dog, snake, scorpion and bull, none of which can have been very accurate, since Marcus to this day cannot find them in the sky.

He also seems to remember things he only heard about, such as Henry and Ida Leeds’ arrival in Macomb with baby Ajax in the fall of ’43. Macomb is above the crease on a horizontally folded map of Illinois, but it’s in the southern portion of the Military Tract taken from Indians to reward the veterans of 1812, its population initially distrustful of Yankee Hellenism. That changed in ’44, when Henry single-handedly destroyed the vampire of Wigwam Cave. Parlaying local heroism into the first Mithraic Society in Illinois, he became Pater, and also a cabinetmaker, since frontier priests are paid more in prestige than coin.

Based on Father’s telling, Marcus used to think he remembered the Second Age of Revelations, after the Pagan Reformation, three centuries ago. Father described, as if he had been there, how Mithras and other gods returned to those who had forgotten them under Popish domination. Years later, Marcus recalled to Breed his father’s derision of the Jealous God who boasted of destroying rivals when gods live forever. Breed said never mind forever; if you say thousands of years, that should be impressive enough. Marcus is sometimes shocked at how irreligious Breed can be, for all his meticulous observance of range customs like respect for the lead bull.

Henry Leeds could cite proof texts on demand, but he needed no proof texts to know that Mithras, in declaring himself a soldier’s god, didn’t mean a god of war, as those fools in Carthage believed; he was a god of soldierly virtues: courage, loyalty and discipline. Father used to observe ruefully that, if he hadn’t first made Mithraism reputable in Macomb, his rival Walter Julian never could have rounded up heretics enough to make it disreputable in Carthage. Marcus supposes he was right, but Ajax had his own opinions.

Ajax was the wonder of Macomb’s Pankration Society, in which Raven-grade initiates learned the character of men, but he would rather destroy an opponent than collect the wreath and often forfeited, due to some prohibited move, a boxing or wrestling match he would otherwise have won. This brutality had admirers; Ajax, endorsing Pater Julian’s notion of raids to honor Mithras, contributed his own disciples to the more warlike faction. Henry Leeds countered with reason and remonstration until 1859, when Ajax planned to join the Carthage Congregation in crossing the Mississippi and marching up the Missouri, to root out remnant bands of defeated Indians. Then Father confronted Ajax at the edge of town, bearing the staff and ring of his authority, and forbade him to go. When Ajax rolled his eyes and moved to pass, his first wrestling teacher handed his staff to Marcus, threw his eldest son to the ground, clapped him in a simple butterfly lock, and held it, right there on the weedy bank of Crooked River, all the hot afternoon and all the damp night.

Marcus ran to the river first thing in the morning, in time to see Father release Ajax, who stood panting for a moment before felling his father with a blow to the face. Father climbed to his feet, not to strike back but to stand facing Ajax, close enough that blood from his nose pooled on Ajax’s boots, and say, “That, son, was a sign of weakness.” Three days later, the few survivors of the Carthage expedition straggled home to report that the Fox and Winnebago weren’t yet defeated enough to be exterminated by shopkeepers and hog farmers. Marcus supposes Father thought this would chasten Ajax. Instead, one year later, Ajax took his little brother and the temple statue of Mithras and set out for Texas, in the confused hope that someone was still fighting Mexicans, though that war ended before Marcus was born.

Near the edge of camp, Lonnie says, “Who’s there?”

Marcus says, “It’s me.”

Lonnie tosses him a pipe, and Marcus catches it without spilling. He lights and puffs, blowing ostentatious clouds of smoke. If it were some kind of fairy pretending to be Marcus, Lonnie’s herbs would break the illusion, probably. It’s a traditional precaution, and Breed runs a traditional crew.

One boss, two guards, one cook, eight hands. Marcus’ experience and skill earn him right point. Silas, who soldiered with Ajax, is left point. Six other hands ride swing, flank, and drag, each traveling with several Texas ponies or, like Marcus, two or three Texas ponies and a big Oregon horse for rivers.

Lonnie nods. “You owe me a dollar for the weeds. Little less than three hours till your watch.” Over six feet tall, over sixty years old, and hard as the old black walnut in Illinois that bent Father’s axe blade, Lonnie says he spent thirty years fighting Indians, Mexicans, and Yankees, and they all die too easy. He says guarding beef on the plains is a challenge. Lonnie’s sister Constance, the other guard, is a little smaller and younger, and was never a soldier, but she has a saddle and chamfron made from the hide and skull of a prairie dragon she killed with a spear. Along with the six-shooter every trail hand wears, a guard always packs a boar spear, a sword, and a rifle; Lonnie and Constance have had the 50-95 since Winchester came out with it. They never sleep on a drive, as far as anyone can tell, but they don’t handle cows. If something attacks the herd, they’ll kill it; but if the herd stampedes, guards don’t get involved.

Other standouts are Black Robert and Mexican Robert (also known as Roberto), riding right and left drag. Drag, a position that leaves a man coated with dust, is ordinarily reserved for the newest, least capable riders, and both of the Roberts are better than that. Black Robert was a cattle man in Louisiana when Texans, he says, thought longhorns were Mexican deer. He’s perpetually offended that Texas hands refuse to use cattle dogs, but he’s at least as good as Marcus. He and Mexican Robert take drag to keep their distance from the Anglos, mostly former Confederate soldiers who make Silas their role model and unofficial second-in-command.

Marcus doesn’t even think the Roberts are friends, particularly, any more than either one is really named Robert, but they share a separate fire, where Roberto prays to the Virgin and Black Robert offers birds to a god called the Baron. Something in Black Robert’s face makes Marcus think he has friendliness he isn’t using, and Marcus sometimes fetches him coffee, but Robert responds with impassive courtesy, carefully looking Marcus in the eye, as he does everyone, to distinguish politeness from servility. Every man has to be what life has made him.

The Roberts sleep like Indians, building a small fire and crowding close to it. The others build large fires, searching longer for wood these days, since the juniper, sumac, and redcedar, never very plentiful, were mostly burned on previous drives. None of the hands like burning cow patties, though they didn’t mind buffalo chips, before they became scarce as well. Marcus wraps himself in a blanket next to a fire of cholla and a small mesquite tree, roots and all.

Silas props up on one elbow. “Had an errand, Leeds?”

“I did.”

“This is pretty near where you buried Ajax, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Didn’t bury that Mithras idol with him, did you?”

“No.”

“Do you know where the idol is, Leeds?”

“No.”

“It’s pretty valuable, though, isn’t it?”

“Maybe in Macomb, Illinois, if they haven’t replaced it in near twenty years.”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Marcus.”

“Sorry, Silas, I prefer a man with a less weaselly face.”

“Like Breed?” Silas says, but Marcus has found a good position, matching the lumps on the ground to indentations in his body, and he falls asleep.

Marcus understood leaving Illinois had been a mistake when Ajax tried to pimp him at a seedy temple of Cupid in Alexandria, Missouri, an enterprise doomed by Marcus’ small size and bad attitude. The next night, Marcus denounced Ajax as a panderer to patrons of a rectitudinous Edina saloon, and the brothers had to flee when Ajax killed a man who overplayed his indignation. Not until the third night, in Macon, did Ajax find time to give Marcus the beating that clarified their evolving relationship.

Crossing Indian Territory, Ajax somehow managed not to bother the Cherokee and Choctaw, and no one bothered them, except one hairy, manlike creature that chased them in the dark, running as fast as their stolen horses. Ajax swore he’d kill it if the horses would stop running, but they bolted for that little cluster of burial mounds or altars north of old Fort Towson, and the creature wouldn’t go near them. Two days later, the brothers were in Texas, where Marcus learned to love willows as the only shrub without claws, and Ajax found no more warlike occupation than hunting down escaped slaves.

In ’61, before he took up soldiering, Ajax returned a last slave, Lucius, to the Salanav Ranch in Shelby County and sold Marcus as an octoroon. This was bearable. Old man Salanav, possibly not convinced Marcus was afrykanin, treated him less harshly than Ajax had. Marcus became a household servant and chief attendant to the god Volos, represented by a skinned log with a face carved at the top, to which Marcus made offerings of tobacco, bread, and salt. Of course, the family didn’t socialize with a suspected African, and the outside slaves, whether they thought him African or not, knew he wasn’t one of them. One man told him, not unkindly, “It doesn’t pay to associate with house negroes.” Marcus supposes he had his reasons.

The Nebraska sandhills are a hundred miles from the cave where Mithras is waiting, or not much more than that if Ajax told the truth. You see a long way here, but a lot is hidden by the dunes. The sand hides water, too, and the grass is probably not as dry as Marcus’ dinner. Some outfits, they give you beans to sop up with the bread, and it goes down easier, but Marcus isn’t the kind of fool who complains about the food right to the cook’s face.

Silas is, but he has other concerns. “Gone again, nobody knows where, leaving a white man to take care of business! I’m getting tired of running this outfit when he disappears!” Silas glares about, but none of his followers challenge this account. Silas decides to pull Marcus in. “You like to disappear too, don’t you Marcus? Care to tell us where you and Breed are always running off to?” Marcus shrugs, swallowing coffee as hot as he can stand it, to erode the bread lumped in his chest. “We want an explanation,” Silas says. “His job is to stay here and watch this herd.”

Marcus says, “Guess you went ahead and told Breed that, right Silas?” This gets a laugh from the smaller campfire, and Silas takes a step in that direction. He stops because Roberto is scratching his temple with his Johnson flintlock. He carries a modern revolver too, but the Johnson pistol fires a ball the size of a dog’s eye. Silas pivots on his hocks and reengages Marcus. His face darkens when he’s angry. It doesn’t get red, just dark, like he’s turning into an Apache but can’t get the cheekbones right. “Be careful, Leeds,” Silas says. “Breed’s not here to protect you.”

Marcus says, “Protect me from what? I don’t see anything dangerous.” The problem is, there’s no time to think. If there was time, he’d figure a way not to back down but not to push Silas too much, either. Silas rolls his shoulders as Patrick, Smith and Frederick line up behind him. Roberto has put away his pistol. This is not his concern.

The hands jump more than the cattle, for once, when Constance takes a shot at something, but the cattle jump enough. Most just toss their heads and complain at a noise they’ve heard before, but several hundred take off for Canada like they mean to get there tonight.

Marcus and Silas, the fastest riders, are soon in their usual positions. They should be talking or singing in the dark, but they’re both angry, so Marcus doesn’t always know exactly where Silas is, or even whether he’s still mounted. When he sees Silas crowding the leaders on the left, Marcus fades to the right, and they begin turning the runaways east to circle back to the main herd. It gets easier as they get closer, because Breed is back, lowing his magical bovine lullaby.

Patrick asks what Constance was shooting at, and Marcus says “prairie dogs” in a serious voice, and even Silas laughs. Later, Marcus asks Lonnie the same thing. “Well,” he says, “it was something that didn’t agitate the stock before she shot at it. Something Constance couldn’t hit. And something that didn’t take any steers when they were spread out halfway from here to Manitoba in the dark.” When he sees that Marcus understands, he says, “Might not work again, and she wouldn’t do it twice, anyhow. Constance ain’t your fucking babysitter, kid.”

Somewhere between twelve and thirteen, Marcus became a stable hand. Salanav had loosed his cattle at the start of the war, when northern markets closed and stockmen became soldiers, but he hung on to his horses. Marcus tended Salanav horses for two years, until Lucius decided he couldn’t wait for Yankees to set him free. Marcus was leaning on a fence listening to the night-calls of cricket frogs, which Salanav called “Jew frogs” because they sounded like clinking coins, when Lucius emerged from the slave quarters, carrying a small cloth bundle. Possibly, Marcus was considering a prayer to Volos, even if he was just a log; by that time he had begun to fear Mithras couldn’t hear him from Texas.

Marcus wouldn’t have hindered Lucius’ escape, but Lucius didn’t know that. He did know Marcus had been with the man who shot him in the leg and dragged him back the first time, a memory Marcus aggravated by growing to look so much like Ajax. People said Lucius was lucky to be whipped about to death instead of getting his foot chopped off, but a man could only lose a foot once, maybe twice; Salanav had him whipped every year on the anniversary. If Lucius had been impressed, on the way back to Shelby County, that Marcus gave him extra beans, it didn’t show as Lucius drew the knife from underneath his shirt.

Marcus kicked Lucius’ bad leg, tumbling him into the spines of a dwarf hawthorn by the fence. Marcus had three years in the Macomb Pankration Society, and another year of brutal tutoring from Ajax, and his opponent’s limp offset years without practice. By the time a whippoorwill caught the beetle Lucius flushed tearing himself from the hawthorn, Marcus had gashed and bloody forearms, but it was Lucius curled around the knife as though the blade was his last comfort, as though he feared someone might pull it from his body. Marcus did exactly that, cleaned the blade on Lucius’ pants, and used it to cut bandages from the back of Lucius’ shirt. Marcus wondered: if the Confederacy fell tomorrow, would he be punished as the killer of a free man? This being unlikely, it was probably the thought of facing Lucius’ mother, also owned by Salanav, that led to Marcus taking the bundle of cornpone and sweet potato and escaping in his place.

After that, Marcus was a meat hunter for close to a year, killing the half-wild, unbranded cattle that multiplied during the war. When a giant rider stopped to watch Marcus hack a dead steer, Marcus expected the man to criticize his technique or challenge his right to the cow. The rider had a broad forehead and small, calm eyes, and there were bits of dry grass in his hair and beard. His voice was predictably deep and unexpectedly nasal, an avalanche heard through a basset horn. He said to Marcus, “That’s how I’d like to go. Returning to the earth that fed you, like a buffalo. That’s better than a railcar to a butcher in Chicago.” He twitched his cheek and ear to dislodge a stable fly. “But it’s not the future.”

That was Breed. Cattle were becoming profitable again, and Breed was hiring a crew to round them up for the Walking X Ranch. After ascertaining that Marcus knew something about horses, he hired him with the warning that Marcus might be replaced as soldiers came home. He wasn’t. Over the next fourteen years, Breed worked as trail boss in four different outfits, but Marcus only worked for Breed.

Near the southernmost curve of the Cheyenne, Breed dismounts to scratch his back against a boulder he uses every year. It’s shaped like a big whitish head, or isn’t really but looks like a man’s head after his hat leaves his hair flatted down, because of a smooth stripe where Breed rubs against it. Breed didn’t do that alone; buffalo used to rub boulders this way, and they left smooth patches on rocks all over the plains. Marcus watches from horseback and says, “I was wrong about Silas.”

Breed doesn’t open his eyes. “He’s a good rider.”

“He’s looking for trouble.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“He’s stirring up other hands.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Breed” means what it sounds like, short for “half-breed.” Marcus has seen him pass as half Mexican with sheepherders in New Mexico, half black negotiating for water with black settlers in Kansas, half Chinese in a Chinatown in Colorado, half Indian on Blackfoot land, even half German with settlers bound for Oregon in new Studebaker wagons. Why not all German? Who could tell German stock from English or French or anyone else they took for a white man? But Breed never claims to be more than half.

Patrick, who rides right swing, tells a rumor that Breed once passed as half goblin and stayed three nights in a warren in Arkansas. Marcus has been with Breed the longest and never saw him venture as far east as Arkansas, but Patrick asked him who his people were and Breed said they were “people of the sun who lived underground,” and Patrick says that’s proof. Patrick says that’s where Breed disappears to some nights when they’re days from any town; he’s visiting Goblin warrens no one else knows about. Silas says Breed is too big to be a goblin, but whatever he is, he’s wrong in the head and he shouldn’t be trail boss.

Patrick and Silas weren’t around yet the time Arapaho hunters told Breed there were no buffalo left. After the Arapaho moved on, Breed mumbled a song that made two buffalo squeeze out of the earth, out of gopher holes it looked like. They were thin and unsteady on their feet, but they were live buffalo, swaying and gasping in the dust as Breed rode away. That seemed like an Indian thing, but Marcus didn’t ever remember hearing Indians could do that. That’s when Marcus asked Breed what the half was, and he said, “Feels like I must be half longhorn by now.”

Already, some northern cattle towns were banning longhorns on account of Spanish fever, and even Texas ranchers were turning to Herefords and Durhams. Marcus said, “Guess you belong to a vanishing people.”

It’s easy enough to find. The shadowed gully stands out in moon-pale needlegrass, and the rock covering one end is like a granite owl tipped on its side. The gully is choked with wild plum branches, dark and tangled, and something else. Marcus circles until moonlight hits it at a certain angle, revealing a web of viscous strands, like ropes of saliva. He’s seen it once before, just scraps, clinging to the entrance of Wigwam Cave. Kids thought it was jellied and sticky because it was old, but the fresh product is worse, as though a bilious cloud hawked and spit into the thicket. But it didn’t come from the sky.

They say it takes a soldier and a priest to kill one, which is why Marcus’ father was selected, since a priest of Mithras was assumed to be both. He killed his, according to the story, after days of prayer and preparation, but he made his assault on a bright afternoon. Marcus finds his packet of matches, strikes one, holding his breath against the fumes, and lights a dead branch plumed with dry leaves. He holds the branch near one translucent strand, hoping to see it burst into flame; instead, it sweats pearly phlegm that reaches for the torch as though drawn to heat, and the vampire scuttles from its hidden nest. Spindly limbs and fat belly gleam damply as a frog’s; protruding mandibles stretch its lips to the hinges of its jaw; but it still looks more human than anything else. It advances gracefully over the swaying web, crawling, crabwalking feet-first, crawling belly-down again, joints swiveling as it flips orientations without losing speed.

Marcus draws, fires, hits; drops of tarry liquid bead at the edges of the wound, not more than you would expect if you shot a pine tree. He remembers a guard from the Bar G outfit telling Constance and Lonnie a 45-70 had better penetration than their 50-95 rifles; Constance told him some creatures ignored penetration, and a 50-95 would knock them back a step while you drew your sword. Marcus shoots twice more with no better result, then he’s saved by a clatter of hoofbeats. He and the creature both look southwest, which is the direction of camp, and the creature prances back into the shadows. Marcus runs to the rock end of the gully, holds up his guttering torch to check for glistening strands, slides between coarse rock and scaly foliage, and finds himself crouching at the mouth of the promised cave. There’s more wood here, and he blocks the cave entrance with a respectable fire, more concerned about the vampire then the risk of igniting the thicket.

Inside, he finds gray and brown drifts of bone, and two desiccated mummies, male and female, dressed for temple or for courting. There are a dozen pistols, some rustier than others. If he makes it to Montana, Marcus is buying a sword in Miles City. Projecting from bones at the back of the cave, where they are piled about eighteen inches deep, he sees a bronze head. He hasn’t actually decided what he means to do with that.

Marcus clears bones away with his hands and feet until none touch the statue or the bowl-shaped base. The figure isn’t detailed. It’s probably wearing a helmet, and may be wearing breastplates. It definitely holds a sword, point-down, not brandishing it. There is something steadfast or indifferent in the featureless face and tilt of the head. Marcus polishes the statue as well as he can with his sleeve and some spit. He hears a wail outside, then shouts and gunshots. Silas must have seen him leave camp. Their excursions were equally ill-planned. What would Marcus do with the idol? A priest of Mithras, like his father, is not afraid of vampires. Marcus is no priest. Thanks to Ajax, Marcus never reached the Soldier grade, much less the mystery of death and rebirth as a full initiate. But he can’t just turn and go. He wishes he had brought a calf, though he knows he could not have dragged it into the cave.

Marcus kneels, rolls up his sleeve, picks a spot next to the scar from raising Ajax. He makes a point of pushing the blade in farther this time, making the new cut wider. Mithras deserves more than his brother. He grunts because the deeper wound pains more than he expects, an ache that flares briefly from elbow to wrist, and extends his arm, directing blood into the dish at Mithras’ feet. He recites the first sacrificial prayer he remembers, the prayer for a good harvest. He kicks dirt on the fire, enough to tilt the odds against a general conflagration, and scrambles up the embankment.

The vampire squats in the center of the web, with Patrick’s corpse, already deflating, hanging from mandibles clamped in his neck. It starts towards Marcus, but it holds on to Patrick, and he sticks to the web. Marcus, realizing the creature will likely defile his offering, stills his breathing and takes careful aim from six or eight yards away. When the bullet puts out an eye, the vampire drops Patrick and surges towards Marcus, who sprints to where he left Emma and keeps on running when Emma isn’t there. He’s still running when Emma appears beside him, and he drags himself into the saddle. Halfway back to camp, he hears something following and draws his pistol again, mentally counting shots expended, but he holds his fire long enough to recognize Patrick’s horse.

There are many cattle gods. They don’t always incarnate as cows, but no one wants to offend them when they do. Breed’s crew, like most, tries to identify the one most dominant bull, which is never to be sold, slaughtered, or insulted. Not many years ago, Heavy Red, lead bull of the Cabot herd, spoke up and told cowhands he was the god Apis. He said the herd should stop and rest for ten days, so they did. When they finally met the owner, who rode a train west from Boston to sell his stock, he had missed out on a good price. Cabot told the men from then on, they would only take orders from him, not from cattle, and every hand quit on the spot. Old Black, top bull of the Nelson herd, seems to be just a bull, but Breed shows him respect, even if cattle gods are losing power to gods of commerce like Mercury and Volos, whom Marcus never suspected of much ambition.

Incarnation used to be more common with buffalo. Jasper, who rides flank, grew up in Missouri, and his father or grandfather was half Osage. One year, when crops were bad, his father or grandfather—Marcus wasn’t in the conversation, and couldn’t ask for clarification—met a buffalo herd at the edge of his field and asked permission to kill some for food. The lead bull told him he could kill two buffalo to feed local settlers, but someday he might have to return the favor. Jasper’s father wasn’t sure what that meant, but he only killed one bull, an older animal, nearly blind.

Jasper wasn’t with Breed—none of them were but Marcus—on that Kansas drive in ’67 or ’68 when a man approached Toro Grande in Indian Territory with pretty much the same question. He said his family was hungry and he only wanted one cow. Toro bit carefully into a prickly pear and dribbled a little dung. Marcus called Breed over, and he said the man could kill the first cow that walked up to him, but he should always remember what he owed to Toro Grande’s herd. Marcus asked Breed later if the herd might eat a settler sometime when grass was scarce. He was kidding, though he once saw a cow eat a bird, a baby prairie chicken she found under a clump of rabbit brush. Breed said that was mostly just an Arikara story. Marcus thought too long about his next question, and never got around to asking.

Marcus does not consider himself a nostalgic person. He hasn’t been to Wichita since ’73, and hasn’t missed it; but he hasn’t forgotten it either. Wichita was built on the east bank of the Arkansas River, built with ash, elm, hackberry and cottonwood, and not all the trees went for lumber, but Marcus doesn’t remember much shade when he was there. You probably couldn’t drive a herd to Wichita now, surrounded by settlers as it is. The last few years, Breed has driven cattle to Montana, once all the way to the Blackfoot reservation. But the early ’70s were about Abilene and Wichita, and ’73 was the year they drove to Wichita with Ajax, hired partly to get Silas, who grew up on a Texas ranch, and partly because Marcus recommended him.

That was also the year of the cattle glut, when they waited weeks for the herd to sell, wasted days advising but never helping the men who unloaded trains, spent evenings attending to the ladies of the dance hall. Breed attached himself to a new woman every night, a liability for her, since he followed her around, chasing other men away, but might or might not escort her to the back rooms himself. If not, she had nothing to show for the evening, except the food and drinks he bought her. Men excused these faux pas in a man of Breed’s size, even if they didn’t work under him, until the night Ajax found no priestess of Aphrodite free to take his offering. Gopher Kate, who looked nothing like a gopher but kept one as a pet, was suffering Breed’s attention at the time. Ignoring Breed, Ajax told her, “Kate, you look like a woman who wants to dance.”

Breed stood up, expelling air through his nose, and Kate said, “Thank you Mr. Leeds, but I’m a little tired tonight. I’ll just sit here for a while.”

“You’re right,” Ajax said. “All this waiting around tires me out more than any day of work. Maybe I’ll sit with you.” Breed stepped toward him, very slowly, and the slowness itself was a threat. The way Breed nodded and bobbed his head also looked aggressive to Marcus; witnesses who didn’t know better thought he might be feebleminded. Breed wasn’t carrying a gun. As trail boss, he set an example by leaving it at the marshal’s office, as local ordinance required. Marcus knew Ajax would have one concealed on his person; maybe that was why he hung on to his own. His first shot caught Ajax in the side, with his gun half out of his pocket. Ajax turned toward Marcus, and Marcus shot him in the chest, causing him to drop the gun. The third and fourth shots were just because once Marcus finally started, it was hard to stop.

Marcus left town at a gallop, and a lot of hands said he’d been in the wrong, but none would help Kansas authorities track down a Texan, which they believed him to be. They nudged one another when Breed claimed the body on the grounds Ajax’s brother ought to bury him, but only Silas seemed put out about it. The next year, Breed convinced the owner to sell in Ellsworth, and in ’75, he and Marcus switched to the Nelson outfit, importing cattle to Montana. In ’76, Breed hired Silas again, and Marcus affected not to care.

One or two days south of Milk River, two or three days from Nelson Ranch, there’s an undersized bull pine, tilted by the wind and too far from water to thrive. Marcus pauses here before a brown slope speckled yellow with gumweed, goldenrod, and wallflowers. He sees little grass, just sage and greasewood and flowers that are mostly done blooming, and for a moment, he imagines a herd of buffalo has passed. Unlike cows, which Marcus accepts as the ponderous locusts they are, buffalo used to eat grass and move on, leaving forbs undisturbed; but Marcus’ mind soon catches up to his eyes, which have already seen that the ground is not hoof-churned and there are no buffalo droppings.

Ambrose, the new man hired in Miles City, reins in Patrick’s horse to see what Marcus is looking at. Ambrose is half Mexican and dark, but he doesn’t speak much Spanish. He sleeps by the white fire and says Roberto’s churro wool poncho was made from his grandmother’s beard. Ambrose ties his rope to his saddle horn, Oregon style, instead of wrapping it like a Texan, and the boys tease him about that, but it sounds like friendly teasing. Marcus ties his rope as well, always has, but no one ever mentioned it. Ambrose says to Marcus, “Listen, Marcus, I’m new to this outfit. I don’t know you, and I’ve got nothing against you. I’m giving you some friendly advice. You have to pick a side, Marcus. Pick a side, and if you’re with us, you should say so.”

Marcus says, “There are sides? What are we taking sides about?”

“Listen, I don’t pretend to know everything. I already said I don’t have history with this outfit.”

“Which side is Old Black on, have you asked?”

“You ought to take this seriously, Marcus. It’s a question of leadership. Of accountability.”

“Maybe it’s us against the gods?”

“Listen, we’d like to have you with us.”

“Think you speak for Silas, Ambrose?”

“I speak for myself.”

Marcus laughs. “You fucking sheep! You definitely don’t speak for yourself.”

Ambrose rides back to his position, to Patrick’s old position, his jaw set and his choice confirmed. Constance appears in his place. She rides a big black stallion, bareheaded because it shies from the dragon-skull helm, but an impressive animal. Constance is about Marcus’ height, and he knows she outweighs him, though she isn’t fat. Sometimes, when she’s not around, the hands like to ask each other who would share a bedroll with Constance. They don’t ask Marcus. Neither has she. “Nice sword,” Constance says.

“Thanks.” It’s not a heavy, two-handed monster slayer like Constance’s and Lonnie’s. Johansson Dry Goods had a few of those for sale, but Marcus settled on a well-kept cavalry saber, which is easier to manage. Ajax might approve, not that Marcus cares about that.

“Slow year.” Constance says. “Parade two-thousand cows past the Black Hills, you expect to attract at least one of the Old Creatures. This year, nothing. Never even saw a big footprint.” Constance is older than Marcus, and her eyes are crinkled at the corners, but vivid as an owl’s, gold-hazel, going from slits to improbable disks and back again as she talks. Constance and Lonnie both worship Marduk, but Constance is more religious; for her, monster-slaying is a sacred rite.

“Don’t give up,” Marcus says. “They have dire wolves up north that come down the Frenchman River sometimes as far as the Milk.”

“I’m not holding my breath. Closest thing to the Old Creatures we’ve seen this year is Breed.” She grins. “And we like Breed.” The smile goes, and shining eyes flicker. “Still. We’re here to protect the cattle. Maybe you boys, too, from something that attacks the herd, but mostly cattle. Not to protect the hands from each other. That’s not our business.”    She looks at Marcus like he should say something, so he says, “Okay.” When that’s not enough, he says, “If you want to hear a man scream, the new hand is afraid of snakes.” After Constance rides away, Marcus fingers the hilt of his sword, a wire-wrapped leather grip with a three-branch guard. In Marcus’ childhood, Suitor initiates practiced with blunted swords, but Marcus didn’t, much; he had scarcely advanced to Suitor when he left to follow his brother and his abducted god. He’s heard some Societies now have boys strip and reassemble Spencer rifles instead, as if that developed any of the classic virtues. Marcus draws the sword and slashes experimentally at the air. Three feet long and half the weight of his pistol, the sword gives him a feeling of deftness. A little stirred up, he menaces the stunted pine before resheathing his blade, but it pretends not to notice.

Sometimes, when things are calm, Marcus dismounts to watch the grass. Easterners think it’s just a tall tale, but on the plains, bunchgrass seeds search out the best spots and actively dig themselves in with wiry little tentacles. They’ll jump like fleas to escape from a sparrow or pipit, and Marcus once saw a seed defeat an ant in single combat, only to be carried away, exhausted, by one of her comrades. Marcus intervened to save it, but Breed said he was wasting his time. When a seed depletes its energy fighting off an insect or escaping a bird, Breed told him, it almost never has enough left to sprout. “Can’t blame the seeds for trying,” Breed said. “Be unnatural if they didn’t. But you might as well let creatures eat.”

Breed calls halt early, while the sun is still well up. He watches the strung-out herd bunch up some, checks on Old Black, and takes off on one of his mysterious overnight rides. He’ll be back tomorrow to trail the herd to Nelson Ranch. Approaching the wagon, Marcus sees only Jasper sitting on a rock to eat. Silas and a few others stand over him.

Jasper says, “I’m not against you boys, I’m just not going.” Marcus pretends not to hear, collects his bacon and bread, and walks away. He manages to eat most of it on his way to the remuda, and throws the rest into brush half hiding him from Silas’s group. He rides a mile west before circling the camp and pointing Emma northeast, which is the direction Breed went.

Even late in the summer, there’s color. Soapweed and other yuccas are green. Russian thistle, lately spread to Montana from Dakota, where it arrived in shipments of flaxseed, is green with purple streaks, weeks away from breaking loose and tumbling across the plains as aimlessly as any cowhand. Aster and late horsemint bloom lavender. Jutting rocks are pink or yellowed ivory. People in New England, maybe even in Illinois, think magic is everywhere the same, but on the range, you smell and taste the differences, and new powers born from mixing. Power of gods who came west with the Omaha or south with the Kiowa, gods who came with the Americans, gods the Pawnee left when they retreated to reservations, gods of older tribes the Pawnee drove out long ago. Magic that came with the Chinese, and magic smuggled here by slaves. Magic of Spanish and Mexican Catholics, which they say doesn’t mix, but it does at the edges, more than any. And magic that was always here, that you don’t always feel, but when you do your heart hunkers like a rabbit, because you’re alone between land and sky, and it’s still deciding about you. Even gods must feel that, Marcus is starting to think.

Pushing Emma a little bit, Marcus catches Breed when the shadows are just past medium-long. Time for the dusk prayer, almost, but prayers feel too much like apologies since he left his god with the vampire. He tells Breed, “I think Silas intends to find out where you’re going.”

Breed says, “It doesn’t concern him.”

Marcus says, “That’s what I figured.” They ride in silence to a hill surrounded and covered by white sage, and it’s not a hill but a solitary earthlodge, worn by years of wind and rain. Breed cuts an armload of sage branches, then leads Marcus in, or maybe he doesn’t, but Marcus follows. The floor is two or three feet below ground level, and an impressive quantity of split logs form the walls. After Breed lights the sage, Marcus sees a big buffalo skull on a rectangular earth platform. Four smaller platforms, in a semicircle behind it, are empty. Breed circles the lodge with burning sage, spreading smoke, which Marcus recognizes as a purification. That’s mostly an Indian thing, but other people do it too.

Breed squats in front of the skull and sings in a language Marcus doesn’t recognize, if it’s a language at all; there are only ten or twelve words, repeated in different combinations. The deerskin bundle Breed pulls from his shirt turns out to be full of grass. Marcus identifies grama, needlegrass, wheatgrass and bluestem; all appears to be chosen, maybe stalk by stalk, for greenness and perfection. Breed sets most of it on the platform with the skull, but keeps a substantial fistful, which he eats, half closing his eyes and sinking all of his attention into the circular grinding of his jaw. When he stands, Marcus asks if this is an Indian ritual. Breed says there are a lot of tribes on the plains, or there were, and all have their own ceremonies, but none do it just like this. If he has to bring his own offering, he says, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be what he likes. He sits on one of the empty platforms and looks toward the doorway before Marcus hears the horses.

Silas calls, “Come out, Breed! We’re fed up!”

Marcus says, “There should only be four of them.”

Frederick, probably, says, “Look at this thing. A hill with a door. He is a goblin. Or a troll.”

Ambrose says, “Shit. Listen, he’s just an Indian.”

“Maybe an Indian minotaur. I never saw an Indian that big or that hairy.”

Silas says, “Shut the hell up and drag him out.”

Marcus feels his pistol grip with his thumb, and it feels good, reassuring, but he draws his sword instead.

Breed tells him, “It doesn’t matter, Marcus. I’m tired.”

Marcus says, “Good thing I’m full of pep.” He looks at the buffalo skull, feeling he ought to make some kind of gesture, some kind of salute, whatever old-time knights did before a battle.

Breed says, “Marcus, this altar is used up. It doesn’t need new worshippers.”

Marcus feels his face warm, as though he’d been turned away by a dance hall girl. “Got an altar,” he says. “Private altar to Mithras in Dakota. He’s a god of loyalty.”

Marcus exits, sword-first, and they must be friends after all, because Breed gives him what he wants, bellows a challenge from lungs big as the room, a chest the size of the hill, with strong log ribs. Sound rolls across the prairie, silencing men and horses, nearby cicadas and distant coyotes. While it lasts, stars are legible and the ground beneath them is home. When it fades, and Breed with it somehow, killing Silas won’t bring it back, but every man seizes what purpose he can, and Marcus only hopes, punching the blade between Silas’s ribs, that the blood he spills is good for the grass.


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T. S. McAdams dropped out of an MFA program late in the 20th century and spent much of the 21st teaching high school. He lives with his wife, son, and bullmastiffs in the San Fernando Valley, where he is not working on a screenplay.

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1 Comment on “Grassland”

One Response to “Grassland”

  1. Jonathan Edelstein says:

    I can’t count the number of ways in which this is amazing. Well done.

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