15. June 2014 · Comments Off on New Chapter – The Golden Road · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book · Tags:

Chapter 3 – Dead Man Well

(This is the next book after Lone Star Sons – the picaresque adventures of young Fredi “Dutch” Steinmetz, on his way to California in 1855, seeking his fortune and adventure … and maybe some other stuff along the way. The first chapter is here.)

The Fabreaux herd set off on the long trail drive to California late in April; four hundred cattle, thirty drovers, twice that many horses and three wagons. The night before they left, Gil Fabreaux and his brothers hosted a fandango at the ranch house; they roasted a whole pig, and the local Mexican-made whiskey flowed fairly liberally among the hired drovers, the Fabreaux boys and their kin and neighbors. They ate, drank and danced with the few women among them, ate some more, boasted of their own prowess with knives, guns and women, drank a little more and told wild tales of the Indians and the deserts beyond Fort Thorn. O’Malley’s little dog, Nipper, capered on his hind legs, appearing to dance at the bidding of his master, who brought out a tin penny-whistle and played a merry Irish tune which Fredi did not recognize. At close to midnight, when two of the other hired hands challenged each other to a contest of marksmanship by shooting the flame from a lighted candle at forty paces, Fredi prudently withdrew to the bunkhouse. Gil Fabreaux had repeatedly said how they should get an early start – and he would be stubborn enough to insist on it, no matter how many aching heads there were.
O’Malley had already done so himself, but he was not asleep yet, lying on his bunk fully-dressed, but with his boots side-by side underneath, and Nipper curled into a tight brindle ball at his feet. “Freddy-boyo, are you out of humor with celebration so soon? It is not near eleven of the clock, now. You’re just a young sprout an’ likely this is the last bit of merriment until California – I thought you’d be up with the larks at dawn.”
“They are drinking,” Fredi answered, sitting down on his pallet to take off his own boots and work trousers. “And Eb and Zeke Satterwaite are contesting over who is a better shot … the others are merry … I do not care for the smell of bad whiskey, O’Malley. There is a man who works for my sister’s husband. Now and again, he drinks until he is sodden with it. The smell alone makes me sick. Don’t tell the other hands,” Fredi added, hastily. “I’m afraid that they will laugh at me and say that I have a stomach like a maiden girl. But it is true.”
“A great pity, boyo,” O’Malley remarked, as Fredi pulled the blankets over himself. “For good whiskey is the water of life and the lubrication of foine conversation and elegant philosophy – but the wise men of old advised temperance and moderation in all things. I do not imbibe any more than it takes to be cheerful and at one with the world. For I too saw what comes when a man drinks to excess … an’ Mister Gilbert Fabreaux, he will have no sympathy come morning.”
“That’s what I thought,” Fredi agreed, and promptly fell asleep, only a little disturbed by the sounds of merriment and pop of gunshots coming from the other side of the Fabreaux’ sprawling rancho.

Dawn had barely begun to lighten the eastern sky, when Fredi, O’Malley and the other hands were roused first by the distant ringing of the brass boat bell which hung from the eave of the kitchen building, and then by an offensively cheerful Gil flinging open the bunkhouse door with a forceful thrust that sent rebounding against the wall with a bang like a gunshot.
“It’s time, gents,” Gil sang, even at this hour, beaming like a man with a fortune waiting for him. “Drop your tackle and saddle up – the cows won’t get to California all by their lonesome selves, boys!”
Fredi himself felt pretty chipper, staggering out to the washhouse to dash a handful of water on his face and comb his hair. The road to California and a fortune in gold called to him – and so did the allure of adventure, of seeing new country – the very elephant itself! What wonderful tales he would have for Vati, for Johann and Magda and Carl upon his return. He fancied himself emptying out a bag of gold, their words of admiration … how the other young men would secretly envy him for his riches and many adventures! Lost in such pleasant and anticipatory imaginings, Fredi packed his few things, rolled up his blankets and cotton-stuffed pallet and stowed them in O’Malley’s wagon.
“Dutch, I want you and the Satterwaite boys and two-three others to go out to the lower pasture and bring up the herd from there,” Gil said over his shoulder as he finished one last consult with his brothers. “We’ll meet at the Cibolo crossing, and go on from there.”
“I don’t know why I gotta take orders from this wet-behind-the ears foreigner,” Zeke Satterwaite grumbled under his breath, just loud enough for Fredi to hear. Stung, Fredi opened his mouth to retort, but Gil – who had the ears of a fox – turned around and snapped,
“Because I told you to, Zeke and leastways, Dutch has worked cattle before. Now, get along – we’re burning daylight.”

The other hands took what Fredi said to heart, all but Zeke. Fredi wondered what was behind that animosity, and concluded it must be only that he was younger, and yet Gil reposed more trust in him than in the Satterwaite boys … which was only right. If it came down to it, the Satterwaite boys were more foreigners to Texas than he was, for they had only come to Texas a year or so ago from Georgia – and had not much to do with Texas cattle since or with book-learning either, although they could ride and shoot.
“Foreigner yourself,” Fredi said, sideways out of the corner of his mouth when they were out of Gil Fabreaux’ hearing. “When I came here, Texas was a nation of it’s own, still.”
“Snot-nosed abolitionist furriner!” Zeke replied. “If’n you weren’t such such a tattle-tale to ol’ Fabreaux, I’d take you out behind the woodshed and teach you proper manners.”
“Like you would know good manners if they bit you on the nose,” Fredi shot back. “But any time you wish to try – I’m ready.”
Zeke simmered, his face a mask of sullen resentment. He was a hulking boy a little older than Fredi, who had just begun to show a beard, and being rather proud of this feat, declined to use a razor on the few straggling hairs. Normally his older and more sensible brother Eb kept him more or less in line.
The eighty head of Fabreax-branded cattle had been pastured downstream from the ranch-house, where the Cibolo made a wide bend in the shape of a pouch set in banks too steep for the cattle to scramble down. The brothers had enclosed it handily with a zig-zagging rail fence across the neck of the pouch, so it was a fairly simple matter for Fredi and the hands with him to take down a stretch of rails and begin shepherding the cattle through it. They urged them on with shouts and waving hats and lariats aloft. The cattle were the same breed as those on the Becker ranch, away up on the upper Guadalupe, but slightly more accustomed to men and horses; tall and slab-sided beasts with horns that swept out and tilted forward or up. Fredi had heard tales of how in Mexico and in old Spain there were men who made a grand show in an arena of provoking the bulls by waving a cloak at them, and dodging the horns when the animal charged. He had never actually seen such a show and found it hard to imagine how any sensible man would do such a thing, willingly. Well, maybe if they paid him a lot of money, Fredi thought. He wondered if the Mexicans in California did any such thing. Vati had said that California once belonged to Mexico, just as Texas had. That was another thing to look forward to seeing.

The Fabreaux cattle herd moved as a stream did, following the easiest way over the beaten track towards Bexar and the west beyond. They plodded steadily on; brindle, brown and black, white and brown spotted, gray shading to blue, a river of backs and heads, punctuated with horns, while the dust of their passing boiled up like smoke. Away up ahead and almost out of sight in the rising dust, Fredi could see the pale canvas covers on the freight wagons, bobbing and bellying like a sail, this way and that as the great iron-shod wheels crossed over ruts and rises in the road. The drovers spaced themselves along either side of the cattle-stream, watchful for any rebellion, any cow who thought to turn aside to browse at a tempting patch of green grass – and for anything that might cause them to turn aside, out of a sudden fright. Any sudden motion – a flurry of birds starting up from a nearby thicket, a stray dog barking, white sheets pegged out on a clothesline, flapping in a sudden gust of wind – could set off a maddened stampede. Fredi had once been thrown from his pony and gotten a broken wrist out of it, when a young longhorn heifer brought into the close-in pasture at the Becker place had panicked at the sight of washing-day laundry blowing in the breeze. No buckaroo would ever go wrong in underestimating the facility for the near-wild cattle of Texas to panic and stampede in all directions. An ounce of vigilant care was more than worth a pound of effort to retrieve the stampeded strays.
Three days later, the massive herd passed through the dusty streets of Bexar; a river of cattle clogging the narrow street, pooling in the old military plaza under the squat grey dome and tower of San Fernando. Fredi felt rather as if they were part of a parade, for so many people watched from doorways and upper windows, watched with interest and no small amount of awe. All the way to California, ran the whispers and cheers from bystanders; from the front of the old commander’s house in the plaza, a pretty Mexican girl looked at him with an admiring smile, and blew him a kiss on her fingertips. Fredi gallantly tipped his hat to her and felt that life at that very moment had not much better to offer him.

The days slipped away, each one much like the one before, as they moved the slow-moving herd west and north, away from the oak-shadowed hills and wild-flower strewn meadows that Fredi knew best. Once they crossed that range, the rivers dwindled to streams, and then to bare trickles, guarded by stands of cotton-wood trees with their leaves trembling in the slightest breeze, rather than the tall grey stands of cypresses adorned with feathery leaves. Such hills as there were became scattered eminences clothed in drab green sage, sprinkled here and there with spike-leafed yucca plants; which sent up a single stem taller than a man from the center of a cluster of gray-green leaves, each as sharp as a bayonet. The tops of the newer plants were adorned with clusters of creamy flowers, the oldest as bare as a lance set on end.
“That’s why the Spanish called it the llano Estacada,” Gil Fabreaux explained one evening to O’Malley. “The staked plain – as it looked like that from a distance.”
The drovers, wranglers and teamsters had formed themselves into messes, for the evening meals, six or eight congenially-inclined, as if they were a military company on the march. Every evening when they made camp, Gil issued a slab of salt-junk or dried meat, and a measure of beans, cornmeal flour or dried tack biscuit, sugar and coffee to each mess, which they cooked over a communal fire. Gil made it his habit to dine with different messes. Tonight he sat with Fredi, O’Malley, the other two teamsters and their helpers. The sun had just slipped below the horizon in the west, leaving a pale yellow smear where it had been, and a few clouds whose colors were fading from dark red to purple in the twilight sky.
“A desert it is,” O’Malley shook his head in wry despair, and Gil laughed.
“You have not yet seen anything like a desert, yet, O’Malley. Just you wait.”
“Aye, I suppose I must.” O’Malley took off his battered top-hat and wiped the inside of it with a grubby handkerchief. They had set up evening camp at a place of Gil’s choosing, and set the cattle to graze on the sparse grass in the bottomlands between two ranges of low, gravelly hills. They had to dig for water that afternoon, setting several barrels with the tops and bottoms taken out into the resulting excavations to create small wells. Now O’Malley continued, “The good lord spare me, but I never thought since I left the dear home hearth in Ballymoney that I would see a place where water is rarer than whiskey.”
“I thought you came from Ballycastle in Antrim,” Fredi observed, with lazy curiosity, and he thought that O’Malley appeared briefly taken back.
“Did I, boyo? An easy mistake on my part – just down the road a little. I went to school in Ballymoney.”
Gil chuckled, “You know, O’Malley – I could have sworn that you told me once that it was Ballymena that you were from.”
“Well, they’re the three o’ them all wee small places and close together,” O’Malley said, sounding faintly aggrieved. “So many places that I have seen in my travels since then – they fair run together in my mind, y’see.”
“Then tell us of some of them,” one of the other teamsters drawled. He lounged on his elbow, a thread of smoke from his pipe rising in an aromatic cloud. “Did you ever see any o’ those nobility an’ crowned heads o’ Europe, an’ such? Or Jenny Lind singing … you must have heard of her, the Swedish nightingale?”
“Of course I do know of her,” O’Malley answered, but he shook his head sadly. “I did see that nightingale of a girl with these my very own eyes, three years ago it was – when she came to New York an’ I was there for reasons of my own, ye see. I saw her but no’ to sing, for her concerts were in such demand that only the rich could afford a ticket. “
“What did she look like?” Fredi asked, honestly interested. There had been the most astonishing stories about Jenny Lind in the German and American newspapers alike, and some sketches of her, in which she looked very much like any other young lady.
“A pretty little bit of a girl,” O’Malley replied, with the air of a man about to tell a good story. “She wore a blue mantel and a blue bonnet trimmed with light-blue ribbons and pink cabbage roses, an’ she smiled just the once at the crowd. There were two gentlemen with her – I was minded of the sight of a sweet little white kitten, guarded by a pair o’ gallant mastiffs. They say that at her first concert, the audience cheered for so long that she was quite taken back … so overwhelmed that she lost her voice for some minutes, never having sung in front of so large and enthused an audience … oh, she was received like royalty, so she was indade. More notice was taken of her than of real royalty, so I can swear.”
“Have you seen real royalty, too, Aloysius?” Gil asked, with a touch of skepticism in his voice, and O’Malley replied, the Irish in his voice coming out even more with indignation.
“So I have, sor – did I not say that I have looked on the crowned heads of Europe? Well, the Queen of England and her great Dutch princeling, too. It was in London, so it was – and I a lad just come over from Oireland – an’ niver ask me what my business for that journey was, for I do not wish to lie to me friends. There I was, enjoying the spring air in Green Park, when I should see a foine open carriage an’ four come bowlin’ along, and three-four outriders all before and behind. There were two ladies in the carriage – one with a parasol in her hand, sitting across from the other lady an’ the gentleman. There was a small crowd gathering – and I heard someone cry out, ‘God bless ‘er Majesty!’ and the one lady waved with her hand – just like this,” and O’Malley demonstrated, lifting his right hand and waggling it at the wrist. “And then the carriage was passed as close to me as … as near as I am to you, boyo.”
“The Queen of England herself?” Fredi asked, breathlessly entranced. “As near to you as across this fire?”
“Aye, so,” O’Malley answered, with triumphant relish. “I kissed my hand to her, and I swear that she waved to me. She was as pretty as Jenny Lind … anyway, from the chin down – a neat figure, as well as can be told. But otherwise, a round little face, with round big eyes, staring like an owl or a porcelain doll. And her husband, the Prince – he was a lanky man, with side-whiskers that looked like nothing so much as a lady’s muff glued on, along his jaw. If it were nae the Queen an’ her man, you’d have never looked at them for a moment.”
“What were you doing in London, then?” Fredi asked, most curious. It seemed sometimes as if O’Malley had been everywhere.
“This and that, boyo …for my own education,” O’Malley sounded evasive, and Gil chuckled.
“You’re full of stories, man. You talk as if you were a die-hard Fenian – you had a derringer in your pocket and were waiting for the Queen’s carriage to pass in front of you – and then you had to skip town just ahead of arrest for trying to assassinate the monarch.” Fredi was almost certain that Gil was making mild sport of O’Malley, so there would have been no real reason for a brief flicker of … something in O’Malley’s expression. Was it apprehension, or just a lightning-flash of terror, instantly gone and replaced so rapidly with O’Malley’s usual amiable humor that Fredi was not certain he had seen anything at all.
“I had reasons of me own, Mister Fabreaux,” O’Malley replied at last, and Gil laughed.
“I am certain of that, Aloysius – and besides, if you were a Fenian and meant to shoot at the Queen of England, it’s nothing to me. You’re in America now.” Gil looked very shrewdly at O’Malley and added. “Like I would give a good goddamn about your reason to leave Ireland. It’s no business of mine.”
“There was a man in Fredericksburg – one of Prince Solms’ trusty men, too – he had to leave Prussia for having killed a man in a duel for insulting Prince Frederick,” Fredi said. “No one thought any the less of him … although my father said it was all quite silly – duels over an insult to a prince.”
“Best keep the dueling personal, eh, Dutch?” Gil chuckled again. “There’s sense in that – my brothers have it that our father killed two men dueling, and it was better for his health to leave New Orleans for Texas. He always did say that you weren’t really a man until you had fought at least one duel.”
“We all have our reasons,” O’Malley answered, although his face in the firelight appeared oddly strained. For the first time, Fredi did wonder what had brought him to Texas besides wanderlust.

Summer came on, as they came out of the hills and moved slowly westward. The days became unbearably hot, dragging on like a season in Purgatory. Cattle and men parched alike, choking on the dust – a cloud that rose from their passing like the pillar of cloud that led the Jews out of Egypt. Fredi dreaded those days when he was took a turn at riding at the back of the herd. He and the other drovers tied their neckerchiefs high over nose and mouth, but dust still gritted between their teeth, and thickly powdered their hair and clothing. It flavored the food that they ate, their sweat made dirty rivulets down their faces and arms, and they blew dirt-colored snot from their noses. Fredi was certain that if he had taken off his trousers, they would be so thickly caked with dust and old sweat that he could have propped them in a corner, stiff as a board. The cattle bore it stoically … although the tended to wander at night, mooing querulously in constant complaint the next day when they were forced to move on.
At high mid-summer, they reached what Gil said would be the last water for many miles – a discouraged rivulet with muddy banks much churned by cattle on the trail ahead of them. It turned out that many another Texas cattle rancher looked to the rich takings in the California market and made plans accordingly, moving their herds along the established trail. The bare and dun-colored desert stretched out on either side, with a scattering of low and sunbaked hills on the distant horizon.
Gil held council that afternoon, grave and forthright as ever. “I didn’t think it might have to come to this,” he said. “But we’re still more than fifty miles from Hueco – that’s the next water in this godforsaken hell-hole … and the daytime heat will start killing the weakest cows very soon. We’ll rest them a while here, fix some good grub and start out after sundown.”
“On the trail in the dark?” Eb Satterwaite looked skeptical, and Gil replied, “Full moon, Eb – it’s near as bright as day. Nothing to worry about.”
“Hueco,” Fredi mused, “It’s ‘tanks’ in Spanish – does it mean there is plenty of water there, Gil?”
“Great pools of it, Dutch,” Gil answered. “Fresh and plenty, seeping out of the rocks and caves – then we’ll be close to the Rio Bravo … one or two more dry spells before we strike the Gila River, and then we just follow it most of the rest of the way.” He smiled at Fredi and at them all, the beard-grizzled and dirty boy-faces hanging on every word and hoping for reassurance. “Don’t worry, fellows – we’ll be in California by Christmas at the latest – my word on it.”

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