March 6, 2015

Donald Mace Williams

from WOLFE

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

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.

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.”

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