The Family in the Grass
Part 2 of The Family in the Grass. Desperate outlaws have taken shelter in an isolated telegraph station. The man who lives there insists that there are monsters hidden in the tall prairie grass.
The girl showed up after maybe an hour. They was all in and around the shack by then. I knew their names, what they had done, who they was running from. The girl didn’t talk and I didn’t ask, but I knew she’d just run into the grass a little and then come right back out.
“This here’s Rachel.” I said. “She don’t talk, as I said, but she’s just fine. Rachel, this is Gibs, Sam, and Mister Mickey Sawyer.” Sawyer tipped is broad black hat at her. “He’s a rebel outlaw. You might of heard of him.”
Sawyer looked halfway between giving an aw-shucks and puffing his chest out. “Pleased to meet, you, missy.” He smiled to her, the ends of his mouth traveling up towards the low sideburns he wore. Rachel didn’t smile back. I’d not seen her smile.
The others just nodded, and kept eating my beans up. The simple one, Gibs, might be a danger to her, I thought, but I also saw that Sawyer didn’t see just a girl when he looked to her. He saw something else — a fellow Southerner, one of the people he had promised to liberate and protect. I knew he’d shoot Gibs, if Gibs touched her.
“Where’s Frenchy?” the one called Sam asked. I haven’t said much about Sam. Sawyer was in charge of it all, and wanted to be bad and mean and probably was, but Sam, Sam was the real killer here. You could hear it in his silences; you could see it in the way he didn’t look away from something once his eyes fell on it. To Sam, the only difference between a live thing and a dead one is he ain’t shot it yet.
Rachel didn’t answer Sam’s question, of course. Sawyer spoke up for her. “He’s probably lost out there in the ripgut.” he said. “He’ll turn up soon enough. Too soon, if I know Frenchy.”
Sam didn’t like that answer, you could see. He’d like what I had to say still less.
“He won’t be coming back,” I corrected. The three of them switched some looks back and forth and Sam squinted at me.
Sawyer leaned in his chair and put his boot up on the table. “You want to let us in on where Frenchy’s gone?” he asked me. He was as calm, comfortable, and dangerous as a snake.
I had given this story to maybe a score of people in my time here. Some folks listened, and some folks stopped me talking. “There’s these things, out there, in the grass.” I said. “I don’t know what, exactly they are. They look like birds, mostly, because they have feathers and beaks. But they’re bigger than birds. They stand tall as a man, and they have long tails, like an alligator or a lizard. I think they have scales, too.”
Sam scoffed, his own lip curling up on one side. You could see he’d already written me off for crazy. Sawyer was having a hard time not laughing, like how a bully will hold his cruelty until a smaller boy has finished with his tale. Gibs was still listening, his face like a boy’s.
“They was already here when the telegraph station was put in.” I said. “The Indians say they’ve been here forever. Their medicine men used to come out here and sit. If the Family — that’s what I call them, ‘acause there’s four of them, two parents and two young — if the Family let the man live, he was a shaman forever after. The hill’s sacred because the grass won’t grow up here. There’s also water, and the family will bring the medicine man meat from what they kill. I guess there was an old Indian here when the army ran the cables through.”
“What happened to him?” Gibs asked.
“Army shot him, I suppose. He was just an Indian.” I suppose the Army could have. I really didn’t know. “It was supposed to be a place where the telegraph and the Pony Express could meet up, but the Army had a hard time keeping this place manned. The riders always went missing, the ponies were always killed, and you can’t keep the grass down. Everyone thought it was Indians, so we drove the Indians off. I was sent out here in ’60 with another man. He run off, after a while. I’ve been here alone ever since.” There were some lies in there. I had actually come here after the War, having served two years in the battle to restore the Union, but I didn’t want them thinking I’d shot any of their fellows or burned any of their cities. Curley hadn’t exactly run off, either. “The telegraph stopped working a while back, but it hardly ever did work right. I’ve been waiting for a man to come out and fix it.”
“Whater these birds look like?” Gibs asked.
I shrugged. “Tall, like I said. Big beaks. Big feet, with big claws, and a real big claw on one toe. They got arms instead of wings, but the arms have feathers on them, like wings. They got hands.”
Gibs looked doubtful. “That don’t sound like what I was thinking of.”
“These birds,” Sam said, drawing the word out so it was plain what he thought of me and my story, “Why do they let you stay up here?”
I shrugged. “They just do. The Indians always had one man living on this hill. I’m here now. I guess I’ll do for the Family.”
“But they got Frenchy.” Sawyer said.
“Oh yeah.” I said. “There’s no doubt of that. Up on the hill is bad enough but going into the grass, they won’t tolerate that. A horse makes it worse. They love to eat a horse.” Sawyer smiled and he kicked the table with his boot. His laugh was loud in the small shack.
Sam stood up and drew his pistol. He rocked it on his finger and put the muzzle near my face, hammer back and finger on the trigger. “I think this old man’s a deserter,” he said, talking to the others but looking me in the eye. “I think he hid out the war out here. Maybe he’s got some Indian friends in the grass, and they got Frenchy. Maybe he don’t know what happened to Frenchy at all, maybe nothing happened to Frenchy, maybe he’s just lost. But I heard all I’m going to about birds that eat horses.”
No one had pointed a gun at me for a good while. I wasn’t certain what might happen. “Rachel,” I said, talking slow so Sam wouldn’t get excited. “Bring those feather we collected here.” Sometimes, even a blessed man has to help himself.
She went across the shack and opened a long narrow box. Sam was still scowling, still holding the gun on me. She dipped her hand in and come up with some long feathers.
“Now see, that’s not what I thought they’d be at all.” Gibs said. Sawyer waved his fingers at the girl, and she crossed with the feather in her small hand.
They were long, as I said. The biggest was about three feet, wide as your palm at the end and blue, like jay feather. The quill was thick and black, not white, like on a natural bird. There were black and white stripes to it, and the whole thing kind of shone in that way feathers will. Some of the other feathers were red or pale yellow, but the all had those black quills and they all were bigger than any bird feather should be.
“I thought he was talking about ostriches.” Gibs said. “That dancer in Amarillo had these feathers that was as big as a horse’s head. She said they came from a bird called an ostrich. These look like pheasant feathers.”
“Mighty big pheasant.” Sawyer said.
“There’re tracks in the dooryard.” I said.
Sawyer looked at Rachel. “Do you know where those tracks are?” he asked, in that voice grown-ups use with simple children. She nodded her head and walked through the open front door. Gibs and Sawyer ran after her, Sam stood with the gun at my head. From outside we heard Gibs calling out, ‘Damn! Lookit the size of them,’ and ‘Here’s another.’ Sam rolled the gun back on his finger and eased the hammer back down over the cylinder. Then he spit on the floor and went out the door with the others.
They looked for a while, then Sawyer and Rachel come back in. There was a wonder in his eyes, a wonder and a thrill. He was one of these people that wanted to throw cartwheels when all hell gets loose. “Have you seen them?” he asked.
“I see them.” I said.
“And they’re birds?” he asked.
“Like birds.” I said. “Bigger than any bird I’ve heard of.
“But they’ll kill a horse,” he said. “Kill and eat an entire horse?”
“They’ll kill your horses, you stay here too long.”
“Guess they will.” Sawyer said. His eyes looked down, for a minute, like he was figuring something.
Sam filled the door. He was a complete difference from Sawyer, you could see that at once. He didn’t see any fun in this, nor any adventure is getting caught up in some old Indian magic, which is how I had come to think of the Family. The dog went and hid under a chair.
“I say we shoot them and pull out,” Sam said.
The girl went to Sawyer, and he put his arm around her. Gibs stuck his head in the door, trying to look in around Sam.
“Pull out where to?” Sawyer asked. “Do you think that McGullis won’t figure out that we crossed the river?” he took his arm from around the girl and stood in the center of the shack, looking Sam dead in the eye. “They’re animals, Sam.” He put that in a tone that said any other idea was a fool’s notion. “Are we going to run back to where a posse of men with rifles are looking for us, because of some animals?”
Sam’s teeth began to work against each other, and his fingers went white around the stock of his rifle. Sawyer saw he had the lead and he kept at it. “Gibs!” he called, putting his voice loud so it’d get past Sam in the doorway. Gib’s head, stuck in the door up near Sam’s shoulder, nodded. “Tie the horses up in back and get up on the roof.” Gibs nodded again and was gone in a flash. “Now when they come, IF they come, we’ll be ready for them,” Sawyer told Sam.
Sam looked at me, his eyes low under his hat. He didn’t want to ask, what he was about to ask. “Anyone ever shoot one of these things before.”
“All the time.” I said.
“Ever do any good?”
I shook my head.
Sawyer just grinned at both of us, his eyes bright, his arm around Rachel again. She kept her small head on his shoulder, and watched Sam, her eyes as hard as stones from the river.
They didn’t have any meat, so they butchered the dog, had the girl cook it, and ate it. All afternoon, they took turns on the roof, watching the grass and the road back to the river. After their meal, Sam stretched out on the small porch and napped. There were a few hours before sunset, and you could see he wanted to be awake all night.
The Family didn’t let people stay long, but we were already getting on too long with these three.
I say three, because Frenchy never came back out of the grass.
The prairie night can be almost as bright as day; with a moon full and close shining down like a pale white sun. I had sometimes thought how I could sit on the porch and read, on nights like that, if I ever had a thing to read.
This night wasn’t like that. There was no moon that I could see, but no clouds, either, and no stars. The sky was dark and clean, and what light there was, seemed to come from the grass itself. The blades shone in the dark, like fresh snow will, even on the darkest night.
I was out on the porch with Gibs. His turn on the roof was done but he wouldn’t go into the shack. They wouldn’t let me go in, either. Sawyer and the girl were on the roof, and Sam was walking the around the hill. He was a quiet man, even in boots. Waste of time, being quiet.
“Get dark like this all the time?” Gibs asked.
“Some.” I said.
“I’ve rode with cattle,” he said. “I’ve been out in the prairie many a night, and I’ve never seen it like this.”
“They do it.” I told him. “They make a magic with the night sky, when they’re hunting. They’re not natural animals.”
Gibs gave a small, choking laugh. I didn’t know Sam was so close as to hear me, but he came over the porch rail, and grabbed my shoulder. I’ve been out here too long, without the proper nourishment for a man, so I’m light. Sam threw me over the railing into the dooryard with one hand. I managed to catch myself up, but my nose was still bloodied, I could taste it.
Sam threw himself over the rail again, his bootheels hitting the dust together. “I’ve heard enough of your magic bird talk,” was all the reason Sam gave for lighting into me, and he wasn’t finished yet: I heard a knife come free of a leather sheath.
No one had tried to kill me in a time. It’s not supposed to be able to happen.
Sam grabbed my shirt and pulled me up from the hard mud. The bare steel of the knife looked green in the spooky light from the grass. I could see Rachel and Sawyer’s heads against the empty sky, looking down over the edge of the roof at me. From behind the shack, a horse screamed.
About damn time.
Sam dropped me. Gibs gave a yell of his own, startled, scared. I heard Sawyer’s boots on the roof.
The horse gave another cry, and the other horses began to whinny and wail in fear. That’s a sound you’ll carry with you. I’d heard horses scream before, in the War, but then there’s all sorts of other noises mixed up with it: cannon, rifles, men screaming, praying. But out here, in the prairie, where it’s all quiet, and a horse is giving its last yell because one of the Family has their claws into it? That’s another sound altogether.
Sam went around the right side of the shack, grabbing his rifle from where he’d leaned it near the porch. Gibe went the other way, around to the left where the pump stood. I stood and brushed myself off. I heard one of them get Gibs, just come out of the grass and took him. He hit the shack wall hard enough to knock the pronghorn antlers I keep up there to the floor. Towards the back of the shed, guns blazed, and people were yelling. Sawyer was still up the roof, telling Sam what to do, where they were, while he worked his own rifle. I heard him shout out, and his rifle fell silent.
I went into the cabin. Should be back to normal, tomorrow. Maybe I’d even get some horse out of this. It’s not my favorite thing, horse, but I hadn’t any meat in a few weeks. Couldn’t bring myself to eat the dog they offered.
But I was counting my chickens too soon.