phren-z header logo
SCW Logo

Alison Parham

Current Issue
Archived Issues
Peggy Townsend

The Big Dry

Excerpted from “Sunny Wildfoot’s Incredibly Long Walk”

       When the cattle driver Oliver Loving and the former Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight set off with 2,000 head of cattle in 1866, they knew hardship lay ahead.  What they didn’t know was that they would have to march the herd 80 waterless miles over the Llano Estacado and that, when they got to the Pecos River, a bunch of cattle would be so exhausted they couldn’t climb out of the water on the other side and would drown.
       I thought about that drive as the sun came up over the dry creek bed where I lay and knew the desperation those two cattlemen must have felt. My tongue was thick, my skin felt too tight and whatever energy I’d gotten from that can of creamed corn I’d eaten yesterday had fled into the night. I knew I should get up. I knew I should move on. But I was like those cattle that had been too tired to save themselves from the river. My body disobeyed every order I sent to it. I let my mind run loose.
       I watched a brown bird flutter onto a buckwheat branch, bobbing as the twig rose and fell. I heard a grasshopper buzz and the soft crunch of Louie chewing his cud. I turned my head and watched him wiggle his ears against the horn flies that had plagued cattle since time began and thought how noble he looked and then how his 1,278 pounds of pure Hereford heft had gotten us into the trouble we were in. I didn’t blame him. I blamed me.
       I’d set off from our ranch in Bishop after my dad, Digger, announced we’d be selling Louie so he could be turned into meat. I hadn’t considered the miles or the terrain or even how a girl of 13 could possibly support herself and a prize-winning steer on such a walk. I’d just thought of the animal rescue ranch near Hollywood I’d read about and set off.
       “Next time, think,” I muttered to myself although I knew what kind of girl I was and that my vow probably wouldn’t last more than a day, or maybe even the next few hours.
       I licked my chapped lips and touched the hot scrape on my leg where I’d slid on a rough patch of dirt and, for a minute, wondered if those two cowboys, Goodnight and Loving, had ever questioned the choice they’d made to head into the wilderness — even if it did result in a famous cattle trail that carried their name.
       I’d read the story of one of those drives, of how old Oliver Loving and one-armed Bill Wilson had set off on a scout trip and run into a passel of Comanche. The two men had to hide in the polecat brush in the sand dunes of the Pecos River, facing close to 100 Comanche with only five pistols, a six-shooter, a Henry rifle and a rattlesnake that frightened off one of the attackers as he crept near their hiding spot.
       Finally, Loving, who’d been shot in the side, figured he was a goner and begged Wilson to sneak off so he could inform Loving’s family about how he’d perished. After a few whispered arguments, the cool-headed Wilson reluctantly agreed, stripping to his underwear and hat, and floating downriver within a few feet of a Comanche scout. He climbed out a couple of miles later, wandering barefoot for three days through land filled with every sticking plant known to man until he was discovered by Charles Goodnight. By then, Bill Wilson’s feet had swollen to the size of melons.
       When Goodnight heard the news about his partner, he hurried to the spot where Loving was last seen, only to find Oliver gone. It turned out Loving had survived by drinking water out of his boots and then set off on the river himself.  He hid, starving, in a gully for five days until a group of Mexicans with a wagon happened by and he paid them to haul him to Fort Sumner. He died a couple of weeks later when mortification set into his wound but he’d been brave and tenacious right to the end.
       I wished Mexicans with a wagon would happen by. I wished there was a river so I could drink out of my boots. I wished I was more like Oliver Loving and could rouse myself but I couldn’t.
       “I’ll go later,” I said but even as I mumbled it, I wondered if it were true.
       I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of insects and the whisper of wind. I thought how blind people supposedly could hear better than regular people. How even though I could see, I had no more idea of how to get Louie and me to Hollywood than a blind girl would. I wondered if seeing-eye dogs ever wanted to run free. I heard a buzz of hornets and opened my eyes but there were no stinging insects, just a few circling flies.
       The buzz got louder and I sat up. It disappeared and then came back. This time the buzz was interrupted by high-pitched pops and burps.
       “It’s motorcycles, Louie,” I cried and jumped to my feet.
       I clambered across the rocky creek bed and scrambled up the rise on the other side. “Hey, hey,” I shouted and waved my arms. The drone of the engines on the brushy hillside above us got louder. From the flashes of red and yellow, it looked like there were two of them.  
       “We’re down here. We’re down here,” I screamed, as Louie hauled himself to his feet.
       But the same way one-armed Bill Wilson had escaped the Comanche only to find himself stranded in the desert on melon-sized feet, the engine noises got softer and not louder. It’s strange how silence gets even quieter once it’s been broken.
       “Can you hear them at all?” I asked Louie after a few minutes but he was nosing flies off his hide so I knew he’d lost the sound too. Cattle will not break their concentration once a noise rouses their curiosity.
       I looked down at Louie and then up the hill where the motorcyclists had been. The taste of hope, no matter how small, rouses determination in some people and that’s what it did in me.
       I thought of the animal rescue farm with its pepper trees and movie stars who came to visit. I thought of how far I’d walked to save Louie from the butcher’s knife. I thought of Oliver Loving deciding that if help wasn’t coming, he needed to jump in the river and help himself.  I knew our only hope of salvation was up a steep, moisture-sucking hill.
       I pointed upward. “That’s where we’re going, Louie,” I said.


Peggy Townsend is an award-winning journalist and writer who lives in Santa Cruz. Follower her on Twitter: @peggytownsend.

"The Group" Writers
Wallace Baine
Jessica Breheny
John Chandler
Richard Huffman
Elizabeth McKenzie
Peggy Townsend
Vito Victor

Featured Artist
Alison Parham

  Current Issue/Home || Archive || FloodLight || About || Submit || Contact
Copyright © 2011 Santa Cruz Writes - All Rights Reserved