“Wolfe” by Donald Mace Williams

Donald Mace Williams


Tha com of more   under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan,   Godes yrre bær.

When he arrived at the cave or den, the hunter took a short candle in one hand, his six-shooter in the other, wiggled into the den, and shot … by the reflection of the light in her eyes.
—J. Evetts Haley, The XIT Ranch of Texas

Fat Herefords grazed on rich brown grass.
Tom Rogers watched three winters pass,
Then, all his ranch paid off, designed
A bunkhouse, biggest of its kind
In that wide stretch of Caprock lands,
To house the army of top hands
That rising markets and good rain
Forced and allowed him to maintain.
At night sometimes a cowboy sang
Briefly to a guitar’s soft twang
While others talked, wrote letters home,
Or stared into brown-bottle foam.
Rogers, white-haired as washed gyp rock,
Stood winding Cyclops, the tall clock,
One night and heard the sleepy sound
Of song across the strip of ground
Between the bunkhouse and the house.
He smiled and dropped his hand. Near Taos,
At night, pensive and wandering out
From camp, a young surveyor-scout,
He had heard singing just that thin
Rise from the pueblo. Go on in,
A voice kept saying, but he stood,
One arm hooked round a cottonwood
For strength until, ashamed, he whirled
And strode back to the measured world.
Strange, how that wild sound in the night
Had drawn him, who was hired to sight
Down lines that tamed. So now, he thought,
Winding until the spring came taut,
This clock, this house, these wide fenced plains,
These little towns prove up our pains.
He went to bed, blew out the light
On the nightstand, said a good night
To Elsa, and dropped off to sleep
Hearing a last faint twang.  

From deep
In the fierce breaks came a reply,
A drawn-out keening, pitched as high
And savage as if cowboy songs,
To strange, sharp ears, summed up all wrongs
Done to the wilderness by men,
Fences, and cows. With bared teeth then,
Ears back, the apparition skulked
Across the ridges toward the bulked,
Repulsive forms of house and shed,
Till now not neared. The next dawn’s red
Revealed a redder scene. The pen
Where calving heifers were brought in
In case of need lay strewn and gory,
Each throat and belly slashed, a story
Of rage, not hunger; nothing gone
But one calf’s liver. His face drawn,
Rogers bent close to find a track
In the hard dirt. Then he drew back,
Aghast. Though it was mild and fair,
He would always thereafter swear
There hung above that broad paw print
With two deep claw holes a mere hint,
The sheerest wisp, of steam. He stood
Silent. When finally he could, 
He said, “Well, I guess we all know
What done this. No plain lobo, though.
I’ve seen a few. They never killed
More than to get their belly filled.
This one’s a devil. Look at that.” 
He toed a carcass. Where the fat
And lean had been flensed, red and white,
From a front leg, a second bite
Had crushed the bone above the knee.
By ones and twos men leaned to see   
With open mouths. A clean, dark hole
At one side punched clear through the bole.
“That’s no tooth, it’s a railroad spike,” 
One cowboy breathed. Or else it’s like,
Tom Rogers thought, a steel-tipped arrow
Such as once pierced him, bone and marrow,
Mid-calf when, riding in advance
Of wagons on the trail to Grants,
Attacked, he turned and in the mud
Escaped with one boot full of blood.
At least the Indians had a cause,
He thought. This thing came from the draws
To kill and waste, no more. He spat
And said, “I’ll get hitched up.” At that,
Two cowboys jumped to do the chore
While from the pile by the back door
Others, jaws set, began to carry
Cottonwood logs onto the prairie  
Where horses dragged the grim night’s dead
Like travois to their fiery bed.
Rogers, with hands in pockets, stood
And said, “That barbecue smells good.”
But the half-smile he struggled for
Turned on him like a scimitar
And cowboys, sensing, kept their eyes
Down and said nothing. By sunrise
Of the next day the word was out
By mouth and telegraph about
The beast that crept out of the dark
And slaughtered like a land-bound shark,  
Evil, bloodthirsty, monstrous. Soon
The story was that the full moon
Caused that four-legged beast to rise
On two feet and with bloodshot eyes
To roam the plains in search of prey
Like some cursed half-man. In one day
Three of Rogers’ good cowboys quit,
No cowards but not blessed with wit
To fathom the unknown, and more
Kept glancing at the bunkhouse door
At night as if, next time, the thing
Might burst inside. “Hey, man, don’t sing,”
One said as a guitar came out.
There did seem, thinking back, no doubt
That music must have been what stirred
The anger out there. Some had heard
The answer. They agreed the sound
Came after Ashley’s fingers found
The highest note of that night’s strumming.
“Play it again you know what’s coming,”
Said one named Humphrey. Ashley, who
Like Humphrey had seen Rogers through
The hard first years of ranching there,
Loyal and lean, kept guessing where
The thing would strike next. Every night
He rode out to some downwind site
Deep in the wildest breaks and waited.
Nothing. But then, as if so fated,
Homeward at dawn, on this high rim
Or in that gulch he found the grim
Fang-torn remains of cow or calf.
Before long Rogers’ herd was half
What it had been. If half his hands
Had not already found the bands
Of loyalty no longer served
And drawn their pay and left, unnerved
By these unholy deeds, their boss
Would have no choice, with nightly loss
Of his best stock, but cut his force
Like cutting calves out with a horse.
Ashley, of course, would always stay 
Though everything else went its way.
Those two had cowboyed in all weather
And for a while had fought together
Against the Indians’ dwindling ranks,
Ending between the steep red banks
Of Palo Duro, that brief fight
That put the tribes to final flight,
Horseless and foodless. The next day,
Colonel Mackenzie took the way
Surest to keep the foe from turning
Back to his killing, theft, and burning.
He gathered his captains about,
Said, “Take these Indian horses out
And shoot them.” Rogers was the head
Of Ashley’s squad. The soldiers led
Horse after snorting horse away,
A thousand head to kill. They say
The white bones made, in later years,
A heap like bent and bleaching spears.
They might as well have been spears. Shorn
Of their chief means of war, forlorn,
Hungry, and whipped, the sad tribes found
The long paths to that plotted ground
Decreed as home for them, no more
To hunt and plunder. From that store
Of battle memories, of thirst
And weariness they shared, of worst
And best, noncom and soldier grew
To boss and hand when they were through
Clearing the way for settlement,
Theirs and the thousands like them, bent
On owning, taming that wild land.
Now, one had grown a wise top hand
In middle years, tough, and yet given
To strumming music, sometimes driven
To ride out when the moon sat round
And dark on the far rim and sound
A sadness he could not explain,
As if pity and guilt had lain
Unknown through the long interval
Since the last moon had hung that full
Of melancholy, even fear.
But Rogers, finding year by year
That sitting on a horse straight-spined
Was harder, most days stayed behind
While cowboys went out riding fence
Or pulling calves. His recompense
For his lost saddle was a chair
On his long, screened-in back porch, where
He rocked and watched his herd on grass
That not long back felt no hooves pass
But buffaloes’, there where the brim
Of Palo Duro Canyon, dim
And distant, showed. He was content.
Then came the night marauding. Bent
Or not, he started work again,
Helping fill in for the lost men
Who left for where no ghostly thing  
Came from the jumbled breaks to bring
Slaughter and ruin. So it went,
The kills still coming, no trap meant
For wolf or bear seeming to draw
Even a glance. One cowboy saw
A skulking form outlined at dusk
Once, and he claimed the creature’s tusk
Far off flashed like a polished blade.
He left. A dozen, shaken, stayed.

Then one May morning, breakfast done,
Rogers sat rocking in the sun,
His back so bad for the first time
He knew he couldn’t make the climb
Into the saddle. Elsa said,
“Listen. Was that a horse?” Her head
Was tilted toward the lonely road,
And soon a knock came. Her face glowed.
Who could that be? It was a thrill
To have a visitor. “Sit still,”
She said, and put aside her sewing
To get the door. He watched her going,
Lightfoot, and smiled. Soon, down the hall,
Slow footsteps came. The man was tall
And younger than his voice had seemed,
A stripling almost, narrow-beamed
And -shouldered, while a high-bridged nose
Ground sharp enough to slice bread rose
Startling in features cut so thin
His smile seemed too broad for his chin. 
A boy. Still, Rogers thought, his gaze
Is sure and hard. He’s known the ways
Of mean men and wild storms. “Sit down,”
He said. “I can’t get up.” His brown,
Hard hand reached out, and when they shook, 
The young man’s grip confirmed his look.
He sat with scuffed boots and bared head.
“My name is Billy Wolfe,” he said.
“I hear you’ve got a problem here.”
Rogers smiled. “Well, your name comes near
To what it is. Can you ride? Rope?”
“Yes, sir, a little. But I’d hope
Mainly to help you folks get rid
Of your calf-killer.” Rogers slid
Wincing around to look head-on.
“The word about this must have gone
A long way, since I’ve never heard
Your name or seen your face.” “The word
Has got to Kansas, I know that
Because it’s where I hang my hat.”
He smiled again. “The paper claimed
It walked upright and its breath flamed.”
He stopped, for Elsa, slim and graceful, had stepped through
The door between the porch and kitchen with a blue-
Enameled coffee pot and china cup and saucer,
She straight-formed, blue-eyed, with a pink shawl thrown across her
Shoulders; and shaking neat white hair she said, “No, please
Don’t get up. Do you take cream? Sugar?” On his knees
He balanced cup and saucer as she poured. She filled
Her husband’s cup and went out, leaving all talk stilled
While both men angled their thoughts back
From Elsa to the thing whose track,
Rogers informed him, was so broad
It had to be a male’s, long-clawed,
Deep-sunken. “If you want to know,
It’s not your plain old mean lobo,”
Rogers went on. “It’s something strange.
My top hand thinks it hates the range
Itself, now that it’s fenced and stocked,
And men and houses.” Rogers rocked
And sipped his coffee. “It’s so strong,
It crushed a leg and left this long
A channel in the bone. No tooth
On any wolf does that.” The youth
Leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
“Sounds like a throwback, one of these
They dig up bones of now and then.
Or else …” He shrugged, sat back again,
And soon the two had made a deal,
So much a month. “But if you heal
Us of this plague,” said Rogers, “son,
Just name your price.” They shook hands: done.
When Wolfe had put his horse away
And stowed his things out back, the day
Was getting on toward noon. The men
Began to drift in, wash up, then
Sit waiting till the meal was ready,
The new man, too. They liked his steady
But modest gaze, though no one spoke
More than a few words. The mood broke,
Though, when the next man came and sat.
“So you’re a wolf’s bane.” Humphrey spat.
“Ever hear of the XIT?
They had some guys there, used to be,
That took a light and crawled up in
There where the mama had her den
And when her eyes shone back they aimed
Between and shot her. So they claimed.
I’m sure you’ve done that.” Billy said,
“A time or two,” his smile still spread
Across his narrow face and past,
His voice light, though his eyes held fast
Till Humphrey shrugged and turned his back.
Lunch done, the new man got his tack
And went out working with the others,
Helping to roust some calves and mothers
Out of the brush. “I’ll tell you, now,”
He said, “can we put every cow
And calf up in that one big pen
Tonight—well, not the whole bunch, then;
The newest ones will do—I think
He might just pay a call.” A wink.
Ashley, who rode beside him, thought,
All right, I guess it’s this that brought
This kid so far from home. Let’s try
Whatever notion happens by
And see our Billy Wolfe in action.
They rounded up some minor fraction
Of those few new calves still around.
They and their mothers soon were bound
For that one pen where something first
Had crept, fangs and eyes bright, and burst
Out of the dark with teeth like spears
To strike and kill. Then Wolfe said, “Here’s
My bed tonight.” “Here?” Ashley said,
Amazed. “Yes, and to make the bed
I need some fat and one fresh hide.”
“None here,” said Ashley. “You could ride
Along the road and ask the neighbor.”
He saw just what the new man’s labor
Was going to be, though the mere thought
Gave him the creeps. Wolfe rode and brought
The things he needed, given free
For what the neighbor hoped to see:
One sheepish tenderfoot at dawn
Washing off what had been smeared on,
No beast or slaughter to be found.
At dark, Wolfe curled up on the ground
Naked under the hide, hair, face,
And body fat-smeared to erase
The man-smell, knife and Colt close by,
A cowlike heap, he hoped, to lie
In ambush. Soon, at his request,
The sound of music drifted west,
Voice and guitar, high notes and all,
Ashley’s best songs. Wolfe heard the call,
High-pitched and savage, that replied,
And felt a shiver deep inside,
A thrill of wonder, not quite fear,
Of mystery soon to be clear.
And then, thus tensed to meet the threat
And covered with discomfort, yet
This was a man still of an age
When rest ruled other needs. The sage
Around him glimmered in the moon
And from the bunkhouse Ashley’s tune
Lulled strangely. Wolfe succumbed, and slept.
The moon climbed, shrinking. Now there crept
In from the wilds, his eyes aglow,
Tongue out at one side, belly low,
A monster of primeval dreams,
Of Folsom women’s moonrise screams.
Once through the fence and in the pen
He sprang without a pause. Till then
The cattle had stood still, asleep,
But now they heard him gather, leap,
And bring a month-old calf to earth.
The blood smell squeezed them like a girth
Against the far fence, snorting. Now
The predator raced toward the cow
He thought he saw sprawled in the dirt
Off to the side, sick, dead, or hurt.
Just then the hooves and snorting woke
The man who lay there. Billy broke
Out of his cover as the teeth
Slashed through the hide, and from beneath
Himself he pulled his hunting knife,
Knowing his gun could take a life
Other than what he in the dark
Had meant. Through arc on flashing arc
The long blade struck, as in surprise
The beast fought free, from his pale eyes
Moonlight reflecting fear and pain.
Limping, he fled onto the plain.
His pistol out now, Billy followed,
Firing, until the night had swallowed
The sounds of flight. Shortly the hush
Gave way to waking yells. A rush
Of booted feet came next, and then
Where Wolfe stood gun in hand, the men
Out of the bunkhouse stood around him
In the dark, peering. “So you found him,”
One youngster said. Wolfe, with a laugh,
Said, “Well, he found me. And one calf.
I got him some, though, with the knife.”
Here came—slowly, to guard the life
Of a cupped candle flame—the man
Who had scoffed, Humphrey. Where he ran,
The beast had left, the flame showed, red,
Deep pools of blood, and by the bed
Where Wolfe had slept, a patch, dark-haired, 
Which, he surmised, the knife had pared
In one slash from a shoulder, lay
Hair up, still bleeding, on the clay.
Silent, mouths open, cowboys stood
And stared. One said, “The thing done good
To walk away with that chunk gone.”
But Ashley knelt as somehow drawn
To what lay there, and dropped his head
To see. “Just like a scalp,” he said
Half to himself, time and again. 
Soon from the house to join his men
Rogers came hobbling. When he learned
What Wolfe had done for him, he turned
And by the dim light just descried 
Bare, shivering skin. “Son, get inside 
And have a hot bath—melt that grease
And warm your bones. You’ve brought us peace,
You know. Pneumonia’s no fair pay.”
By first gold light of the next day
Three men traced where the beast had bled
In flight and found the dried pools led
To just the sheerest, wildest drop
In the whole canyon. From the top,
Bending, Wolfe saw a claw-scuffed streak
Down the face halfway to the creek,
Vanishing where a ledge thrust out
Beneath an overhang. No doubt
The thing had crawled into its lair,
Wolfe said. “Likely it’s died in there.”
Caught out somehow without a rope,
No one would climb down that steep slope
To make sure, but the brightest joy
Filled Ashley, Humphrey, and “this boy,”
As Humphrey called him, now with pride,
On the ride home. They found, inside,
A festive breakfast waiting. Elsa, her slim legs
Gracefully rushing, brought hotcakes and syrup, eggs,
And homemade sausage for all hands. Tom Rogers spoke,
A rare occurrence at a meal. “The curse is broke,”
He said to all, “thanks be to God and this kid’s arm—
This man’s, I mean. Now I won’t have to make a farm,
God help us, of this spread. Billy, I hope you’ll stay
And help work calves. But when you do go on your way
I want you riding on that little sorrel mare
Of mine. The saddle, too, that’s studs were made down there
In Mexico.” He waved a hand
To stop Wolfe’s protest. Cowboys scanned
Their plates as if for something lost,
Not speaking. Still, somehow there crossed
The stretched-out table a faint glow,
An aura, serving well to show
Approval and acceptance. Then,
The special meal done, all the men,
The newest one among them, rode
Out where the late-spring sunlight showed
In crisp detail a threat-free range.
That night, nobody thought it strange
When in deep thought, with his guitar,
Ashley rode westward, out as far
As they could hear across the plains,
Singing his melancholy strains.
Nor were the sleeping men aware
Till morning that his bunk lay there
Unused. They checked. His horse was gone.
Wordlessly in the crimson dawn
Humphrey rode out. He came back pale,
Hitching his horse to the long rail
By the back porch where in his chair
Rogers was gazing at the fair,
Newly unburdened land he claimed,
Land he and now young Wolfe had tamed
And made safe grazing for his herd.
Then Humphrey stepped in with the word
That changed all back to a dark time.
Some of the men helped Rogers climb
Into the saddle. At the rim
They stopped and looked far down. “That’s him,”
Said Humphrey, “downslope from the horse.”
Dismounting, he worked out a course
And with five others picked his way
Steeply to where the body lay.
In peril, aided by a rope, 
They brought it up the wall-like slope,
The crushed guitar, too. Ashley’s throat
Was ripped wide, and his denim coat
Hung soaked in blood. “That was no fall,”
Said Rogers. “That thing did it all.
It got his throat and pulled him off
Over the rim and in the trough.”
Humphrey said, yes, the horse had been
Ripped the same way, and, falling then,
Had left a red trail down the wall.
He pointed. One more thing. The tall
Fretboard of the guitar showed, clean
And deep, toothmarks like that one seen
In a calf’s bone a few weeks back.
“Down there I saw a bloody track,”
Said Humphrey. “It was wide, this wide,
But wouldn’t look big put beside
That other one we saw. I’d say
This was the female. Stuck away
In that cliff where the first one crawled
She’ll have a half-grown litter.” Called
 Now from the back where he had hung
Unwilling to intrude, the young   
New hand moved forward, took his place
In front, saw how the canyon face
Was blood-streaked far down, and, himself
Clambering down, each inch-deep shelf
And narrow crack a handhold, studied
The track, the horse, the rocks still bloodied
That many hundred feet below.
On top again, he watched as, slow
And hushed, men lashed their foreman-friend
To two spliced planks and laid each end
Across a horse, then side by side,
Still wordless, set out on the ride
Back to the house. Wolfe stayed behind
And said to Rogers, “I’ll go find
That den and get her.” Rogers said,
“You know I’d love to have her dead.
It would be more for Ashley’s sake
Than for the ranch. Make no mistake,
It wasn’t any accident
He came out here last night. He meant
To make his peace somehow. I knew
That man a long time. We’ve been through
Battles that afterward he’d sit
Just like we’d lost. He never fit—
It’s hard to say—never approved
Of how we all came, fought, and moved
Onto the land. And still he fought
As hard as any. He was taught
That way. We all were.” Rogers turned
And looked down-canyon where sunburned
Red walls gave way to jumbled gloom.
“Son, look there. That’s the crack of doom.
I mean it. No one goes down there.
I tried. Something about the air
Made my horse snort and balk. Don’t go.
She may be satisfied. If so,
We’ll carry on and stay away
From cliffs at night. If not, the day
May come when I give up, sell out
For nothing, and go turnabout
Back to the city. Let her be.
I wouldn’t like to stand and see
Your body hauled up from the floor
Like that one.” Rogers said no more,
And on the ride back neither spoke.
But when the first red sunlight broke
Over the plains the morning past
The funeral, Wolfe and the last
Remaining hands—for three had gone,
Afraid, since slaughter had moved on
From calves to men—took matches, rope,
And one thick candle to the slope,
Rather, the cliff, in which, they knew,
Hid by a rock bulge from their view,
The den lay. Wolfe wore gloves, thick, tough,
And long. A pocket held enough
Forty-five rounds for one reload
Of his old pistol, and there glowed,
Stuck in his belt, a polished blade,
The one that some days past had made
A budding legend of the man
Who bore it. When the day began
Wolfe left his other things behind,
Few that they were, with a note signed
“Your loving son,” in Rogers’ care.
Rogers had chosen not to share
The vigil at the canyon wall.
“Good luck,” he said, and that was all—
Nothing like, “I’ll say you a prayer,”
Though that was what he, in his chair,
Did say that morning as the sun
Climbed and no word came. More than one
Of those who waited on the rim
Did likewise, silent, when from him
Who’d calmly slipped over the side
With one end of a long rope tied
Around an ankle so, in case,
He could be dragged from that dark place,
There came no tug, no sign, no shout,
No shot. “We’ll have to pull him out,”
One cowboy said. Minutes before,
Though it seemed hours, they had no more
Been able to observe him sliding
And squirming down, the rock face hiding
His form just where the den must be,
Below the overhang. A tree,
A cedar, seeming set in rock
With some great hammer, helped to block
The view from overhead. They stood
And waited. Wolfe, as best he could,
Bent over, standing on the ledge
Beneath the shelf and at the edge
Of what was still a steep descent,
And at the base saw what had meant
To slaughter him. Huge, fierce, he lay
Where he had dropped, dead, on the way
Back to his den. With awe and pride
Wolfe saw the wound in his great side.
That, Wolfe thought, is what I was meant
To do. And there was more. He bent
To see a dark hole in the cliff.
“So there you are,” he said. A sniff
Told him the den was occupied.
He struck a match and with the side
Of that great gulch to block the breeze
Lighted the wick, now on his knees,
Then lay out flat and, gun ahead
In one hand, candle flickering red
Inside the dark, stale tunnel, squirmed
Far in until his eyes confirmed
What he already knew was there.
Hate-reddened, piercing, a fixed glare
Answered his flame. Farther apart
Than any eyes known to his art,
Yet they stared at the alien light
Straight on, as if their focused might
Could burn it backward on their own.
Though unlike any Wolfe had known,
They were still eyes, still in a cave,
And thus familiar. Neither brave
Nor frightened, candle held out front
As on a many a routine hunt,
His pistol cocked, Wolfe aimed between
The eyes and squeezed. The gun had seen
Long years of use and never failed
Till now. In that dark shaft Wolfe paled
To hear the click. Four, five times more
He tried, then to the rocky floor
Let the gun drop. Twisting, his life
In peril now, he jerked the knife
Out of his belt. Too late. The stroke
Of hammer against steel pin broke
On wild ears in that deep home place
Like desecration and disgrace,
And with the violated rage
Of the last tenant of an age
When cornered and invaded there
The beast sprang. Wolfe could feel the air
Hot with its breath. Charging, it uttered 
A low growl. As the candle guttered
Wolfe let it drop. In darkness then
He felt the great strength once again
Of such a brute as neither he
Nor any man had thought to be
Alive, a hostile, stubborn force,
Hating man and man’s westward course.
The fierce jaws closed on Wolfe’s left wrist
And shook it. With a frantic twist
Wolfe freed himself before the ranks
Of spikes quite pierced his forearm, thanks
To those thick gauntlets, and he brought
The knife up, slashing where he thought
The neck would be, using his strength
The best he could while stretched full length
In the tight shaft. The beast retreated
Scarcely a foot and then repeated
Her charge. Heavy as any man
You would see on the street, she ran
Against his slashes with her own,
A massive thrust of tooth, fur, bone.
And this time, even as he fought
For life, Wolfe knew the damage wrought
By his long blade, for on his hand
He felt his foe’s blood like a brand,
Hotter than human blood or skin.
But weakened though she should have been,
The beast bore down on him with power
So great she arched his back. A shower
Of knife-blade sparks, struck from a rock,
Lit up the shaft. In the full lock
Of struggle, he yet, in that flash,
Saw the deep wound, and one more slash,
It seemed to him, struck home. A shove
And a last knife blow, from above,
Must surely snuff, at last, the glow
Of those red eyes. No. Wounded so,
Powered by hate, she managed yet
To spring just as Wolfe, weary, let
His knife hand drop. He took the weight
Head-on, defenseless, heard the great
Last sigh she gave, and felt her blood
In a full, seething, pulsing flood
Hot on his head and shoulders. Then
She lay still. From the waiting men
Above him, in the silenced cave
Wolfe heard calls. With his foot he gave
The rope a tug. There came a cheer
In answer. He pushed up to peer
Over the body by the light
Of the rekindled flame. The sight
He had expected was not there:
No eyes from deeper in the lair
Glowed back at him. So that was all.
No young ones, Wolfe saw. Since the wall
Squeezed him so close, he squirmed out then,
Untied the rope, waved at the men
On top, and crawled back in. He tied
The body up, and on its side,
Straining, dragged it into the light,
Then stood and marveled at the sight
Of such a creature, bulky, broad,
With fangs, exposed in death, that awed
Even him, and for just a breath
He felt a touch of pity at that great thing’s death,
Almost regretted having had to be the one
To bring it on, as if somehow what he had done
Had caused the end of more than just one life. He turned
Away then, shrugging. He had earned
Rogers his ranch back; he had won
Revenge for Ashley’s death; had done
His job well, and was being paid
Already in the loud cheers laid
All down the cliff from men who watched
As he came into view. Blood-splotched
He clambered. Men who felt unmanned
By show pushed now to shake his hand,
Not caring that theirs came back red.
“It’s mostly hers, not mine,” Wolfe said.
Three took the rope in hand and hauled
To no effect. A fourth. Enthralled
At last they laid the body out
And stood in awe. Then came a shout:
“Here comes the boss.” When he was there
They helped him down. In the clear air
Of triumph and new hope he stood
By what had killed and no more would,
And men, amazed, saw that his eyes
Were full of tears. “Everything dies,”
He said, half to himself, then turned,
Shaking it off. “Say, kid, you’ve earned
Your keep today,” he said, and shook Wolfe’s hand. They stacked
A pile of cedar brush, his men, and on it racked,
Six of them, grunting, the huge body. Then they rode
Back to the house, an hour away, and in the mode
Of Christmas or Thanksgiving all hands celebrated
That noon with Elsa’s festive best. When all were sated,
Rogers rapped on his iced-tea glass and made Wolfe stand.
“I want to say,” he said, “this man has saved the land
From going back to waste or else under the plow.
From what he tells me he’ll be moving onward now,
Looking for other wild beasts’ dens to crawl into. 
Well, just to make it easier the next time through,
Here’s a new Colt that’s almost guaranteed to shoot.
And here’s a check that might not bounce.” Billy stood mute,
Embarrassed, squeezing out at last a “Thank you, boss.”
There was no more to-do till sunset fell across
The flat west and all hands had had the evening meal.
With neighbors then they all rode westward. Spur on heel
For the occasion, all sat silent, looking on
While Rogers was helped down and stiffly, having drawn
A box of matches from his pocket, waited till
The mood of darkness, distance, and the evening chill
Seemed right, the body at the brink outlined in black
Against the canyon mysteries; and he thought back
To that alluring music from the pueblo. Glad
Not to have yielded, proud of everything he had,
And yet somehow unsure, he shook himself, then bent
And struck a match. Soon, bright and red as wild eyes, went
Out from the rim a signal that upon that pyre
Lay all that had fought settlers, cattle, and barbed wire.
And in the crowd, Wolfe, though impassive, knew the flame
Was justly wafting everywhere his early fame.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Tribute to Cowboy & Western Poetry
Pushcart Prize Nominee


Donald Mace Williams: “In the episodes of Beowulf on which I have modeled ‘Wolfe,’ Hrothgar, ruler of the Danes, builds a mighty beer hall. The sounds of revelry from the hall infuriate the monster Grendel, who raids the hall, carrying off thirty thanes. He continues the raids for years. Then Beowulf, a young Swedish warrior who has heard of the raids, arrives to help Hrothgar. He waits for Grendel at night, wrestles with him, and tears off the monster’s arm. Grendel flees, mortally wounded. Hrothgar rewards Beowulf richly. But then Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son and kills Aeschere, the close friend of Hrothgar. Beowulf seeks her out in her den under the sea, struggles with her, and, though his trusted sword fails him, eventually kills her. Honored as the deliverer of the Danes, he goes home to a life of fame. I have conceived of Tom Rogers as the ranchland equivalent of Hrothgar (the name Roger is derived from Hrothgar). Other more-or-less matched characters are Aeschere and Ashley, Wealtheow and Elsa, Unferth and Humphrey, and of course Beowulf and Billy Wolfe. The monsters, though I have refrained from identifying them too closely, have some similarities to the dire wolf, which became extinct at least ten thousand years ago. In keeping with my purpose of modernizing the Beowulf episodes, I have used rhymed couplets rather than the Old English alliterative verse forms. Most lines are tetrameter, but some passages are in hexameters, just as in Beowulf the four-stress lines occasionally give way to six-stress ones.”