Butcher's Crossing

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams Page A

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Authors: John Williams
    By noon the horses’ hides were shining with sweat, and white flecks of foam covered their mouths and were sent flying into the air as they shook their heads against the bits. The heat throbbed against Andrews’s body, and his head pounded painfully with the beat of his pulse; already the flesh on his upper thighs was tender from rubbing against the saddle flaps, and his buttocks were numb on the hard leather of the seat. Never before had he ridden for more than a few hours at a time; he winced at the thought of the pain he would feel at the end of the day.
    Schneider’s voice broke upon him: “We ought to be getting to the river about this time. I don’t see no sign of it yet.”
    His voice was directed to no one in particular, but Miller turned and answered him shortly. “It ain’t far. The animals can hold out till we get there.”
    Hardly had he finished speaking when Charley Hoge, behind them in the wagon, perched higher on his wagon seat than they in their saddles, called in his high voice: “Look ahead! You can see the trees from here.”
    Andrews squinted and strained his eyes against the noon brightness. After a few moments he was able to make out a thin dark line that slashed up through the yellow field.
    Miller turned to Schneider. “Shouldn’t be more than ten minutes from here,” he said, and smiled a little. “Think you can hold out?”
    Schneider shrugged. “I ain’t in no hurry. I was just wondering if we was going to find it as easy as you thought.”
    Miller rapped his horse gently across the rump with one hand, and the horse went forward a bit more rapidly. Behind him Andrews heard the sharp crack of Charley Hoge’s whip, and heard his wordless cry to the oxen. He turned. The oxen lumbered forward more swiftly, as if they had been awakened from a reverie. A light breeze came toward them, ruffling the grass in a soft sweep. The horses’ ears pitched forward; beneath him Andrews felt a sudden stiffening and a surge of movement as his horse went ahead.
    Miller pulled back on his reins and called to Andrews: “Hold him hard. They smell water. If you ain’t careful, he’ll run away with you.”
    Andrews grasped the reins tightly and pulled hard against the forward movement of the horse; the horse’s head came back, the black eyes wide and the coarse black mane flying. He heard behind him the thin squeak of leather straining as Charley Hoge braked against the oxen, and heard the oxen lowing as if in agony at their restraint.
    By the time they got to the Smoky Hill, the animals were quieter, but tense and impatient. Andrews’s hands were sore from pulling against the reins. He dismounted; hardly had he got his feet on the ground when his horse sprang away from him and tore through the low underbrush that lined the river.
    His legs were weak. He took a few steps forward and sat shakily in the shade of a scrub oak; the branches scratched against his back, but he did not have the will to move. He watched dully as Charley Hoge set the brake on the wagon and unyoked the first team of oxen from the heavy singletree. With his one hand pulling hard against the yoke, his body slanted between the oxen, Charley Hoge let himself be pulled toward the stream. He returned in a few moments and led another pair to the stream, while the remaining oxen set up a deep and mindless lowing. Miller dropped upon the ground beside Andrews; Schneider sat across from them, his back to another tree, and looked about indifferently.
    “Charley has to lead them down two at a time, yoked together,” Miller said. “If he let them all go down together, they might trample each other. They ain’t got much more sense than buffalo.”
    By the time the last oxen were released from the wagon, the horses began to amble back from the river. The men removed the bits from their horses’ mouths and let them graze. Charley got some dried fruit and biscuits from the wagon, and the men munched on them.
    “Might as well take it

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