Wheels Of Commerce

Late the next day he came into the breaks of the Canadian, a country of shallow, eroded gullies. He could see where the river curved east, across the plains. He saw a speck moving across the plains north, toward the river. His horse saw the speck too. Augustus drew his rifle in case the speck turned out to be hostile. He loped toward it only to discover an old man with a dirty white beard, pushing a wheelbarrow robacross the plains. The wheelbarrow contained buffalo bones. And as if that wasn’t unusual enough, Augustus found that he even knew the man.

His name was Aus Frank, and he had started as a mountain man, trapping beaver. He had once kept a store in Waco but for some reason got mad and robbed the bank next to the store—the bank had thought they were getting along with him fine until the day he walked in and robbed them. Augustus and Call were in Waco at the time, and though Call was reluctant to bother with bank robbers—he felt bankers were so stupid they deserved robbing—they were persuaded to go after him. They caught him right away, but not without a gun battle. The battle took place in a thicket on the Brazos, where Aus Frank had stopped to cook some venison. It went on for two hours and resulted in no injuries; then Aus Frank ran out of ammunition and had been easy enough to arrest. He cursed them all the way back to Waco and broke out of jail the day they left town. Augustus had not heard of him since—yet there he was wheeling a barrow full of buffalo bones across the high plains.

“Hello, Aus,” Augustus said, as he rode up. “Have you gone in the bone business, or what?”

The old man squinted at him for a moment, but made no reply. He kept on wheeling his barrow full of bones over the rough ground. Tobacco drippings had stained his beard until most of it was a deep brown.

“I guess you don’t remember me,” Augustus said, falling in beside him. “I’m Captain McCrae. We shot at one another all afternoon once, up on the Brazos. You was in one thicket and me and Captain Call was in the next one. We pruned the post oaks with all that shooting, and then we stuck you in jail and you crawled right out again.”

“I don’t like you much,” Aus Frank said, still trundling. “Put me in the goddam jail.”

“Well, why’d you rob that bank?” Augustus said. “It ain’t Christian to rob your neighbors. It ain’t Christian to hold a grudge, neither. Wasn’t you born into the Christian religion?”

“No,” Aus Frank said.

Aus Frank had always been an original. In Waco, as he remembered, he had caused controversy because he never seemed to sleep. The lantern in his store would be on at all hours of the night, and the man would often be seen roaming the streets at three in the morning. Nobody knew what he was looking for, or if he found it.

Aus Frank resumed his walk, and Augustus followed along, amused at the strange turns life took. Soon they came into the valley of the Canadian. Augustus was amazed to see an enormous pyramid of buffalo bones perhaps fifty yards from the water. The bones were piled so high, it storeseemed to him Aus Frank must have a ladder to use in his piling, though he saw no sign of one. Down the river a quarter of a mile there was another pyramid, just as large.

“Well, Aus, I see you’ve been busy,” Augustus said. “You’ll be so rich one of these days some bank will come along and rob you. Who do you sell these bones to?”

Aus Frank ignored the question. While Augustus watched, he pushed his wheelbarrow up to the bottom of the pyramid of bones and began to throw the bones as high as possible up the pyramid. Once or twice he got a leg bone or thigh bone all the way to the top, but most of the bones hit midway and stuck. In five minutes the big wheelbarrow was empty. Without a word Aus Frank took the wheelbarrow and started back across the prairie.

Augustus decided to rest while the old man worked. Such camp as there was was rudimentary. The main crossing was a mile downriver, and Augustus rode down to inspect it before unsaddling. He saw five pyramids of bones between the crossing and Aus Frank’s camp, each containing several tons of bones.

Back at the camp, Augustus rested in the shade of the little bluff. Aus Frank continued to haul in bones until sundown. After pitching his last load up on the pyramid, he wheeled the barrow to his camp, turned it over and sat on it. He looked at Augustus for two or three minutes without saying anything.

“Well, are you going to invite me for supper or not?” Augustus asked.

“Never should have arrested me,” Aus Frank said. “I don’t like that goddam bank.”

“You didn’t stay in jail but four hours,” Augustus reminded him. “Now that I’ve seen how hard you work, I’d say you probably needed the rest. “You could have studied English or something. I see you’ve learned it finally.”

“I don’t like the goddam bank,” Aus repeated.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Augustus suggested. “You’re just lucky you didn’t get shot on account of that bank. Me and Call were both fine shots in those days. The thicket was the only new worldthing that saved you.”

“They cheated me because I couldn’t talk good,” Aus Frank said.

“You got a one-track mind, Aus,” Augustus said. “You and half of mankind. How long you been up here on the Canadian River?”

“I come five years,” Aus said. “I want a store.”

“That’s fine, but you’ve outrun the people,” Augustus said. “They won’t be along for another ten years or so. I guess by then you’ll have a helluva stock of buffalo bones. I just hope there’s a demand for them.”

“I quit the mountains,” Aus said. “Don’t like snow.”

“I’ll pass on snow myself, when I have the option,” Augustus said. “This is a lonely place you’ve settled in, though. I bet you get a nice breeze in the winter, too.”

The old man didn’t answer. Darkness had fallen, and Augustus could barely see him sitting on his wheelbarrow.

“No beaver in this river,” Aus Frank said after several minutes.

“No, a beaver would be foolish to be in this river,” Augustus said. “There ain’t a tree within twenty miles, and beavers like to gnaw trees. You should have stayed up north if you like beavers.”

“I’d rather gather these bones,” the old man said. “You don’t have to get your feet wet.”

—Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove


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When I Worked

May 2013
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