Read The Big Hunt Online

Authors: J. T. Edson

The Big Hunt

BOOK: The Big Hunt
J.T. Edson
The Big Hunt


Chapter 1

A Man Tired of Killing

Chapter 2

A Day for Making Enemies

Chapter 3

A Mighty Unusual Freighter

Chapter 4

A Night for Making Decisions

Chapter 5

A Lady Forgets Her Refinement

Chapter 6

A Disturbed Night for Miss Canary

Chapter 7

A Night for Making Plans

Chapter 8

A Lady Takes to the Saddle

Chapter 9

A Nice Day for Killing

Chapter 10

A Time to Make Final Preparations

Chapter 11

A Trophy Well Earned

Chapter 12

A Bunch of Unwelcome Visitors

Chapter 13

A Riderless Horse Means Trouble

Chapter 14

A Pair of Desperate Women

Chapter 15

A Trick of the Skin Hunter's Trade

Chapter 16

A Satisfied Client

Chapter 1

cow from death.

Concealed in a clump of bushes not two hundred yards away, Kerry Barran lined his sights on her rib cage at the right spot to make a lung shot. Under his right forefinger the set trigger of the Sharps Old Reliable rifle awaited the light pressure needed to move it rearward, release the sear and propel the striker on to the primer of a cigar-long .45/120/550 bullet in the breech. In his hands he held the ultimate in mid-1870's rifle power and accuracy. Driven by exploding five hundred and fifty grains of best imported British Curtis and Harvey
black powder, the one hundred and fifty grains of lead—cast and patched by his own hands into the required shape—would rip into the cow's body, expanding and opening a large wound among the vital organs before coming to a halt against the hide opposite the point of entry.

With such a rifle, fired from a rest, a skilled man could not miss at short range. And Kerry Barran was skilled.

All his growing life he possessed the ability to hit a mark with a rifle. Even as a boy he carved his name as a deadly shot; not an easy thing to do when living among the accurate-shooting, rifle-wise men of Missouri. During the War between the States, he became a sharpshooter; the name given to special duty snipers assigned to pick off selected targets at long range. Since its end, he made his living with a rifle.

He might have lived out his life on the Missouri farm, doing no more than drop a buck, coon or turkey for the pot had it not been for the War; that terrible civil conflict of State against State which turned friends into bitter enemies and even set brother fighting brother.

At first the Barran family remained unaffected and unaligned. With the string of early victories to boost their morale, the Confederate supporters showed no concern or animosity over Pop Barran's
neutrality. Not so the Yankees. Lane's Red Legs, a force every bit as ruthless, unscrupulous and unprincipled, as Dixie's Quantril, Anderson and Todd's bands, struck at Kerry's home. They killed his father and two brothers, strapped the boy to a tree and gave him a whipping from which he still carried marks.

That ended Kerry's neutrality. At sixteen he wore cadet gray and carried a rifle in a Missouri Infantry Regiment—a hard, foot-sore job for a young man used to doing most of his travelling on the back of a horse. He soon found himself in the thick of the fighting and his deadly rifle skill brought him notice from higher authority. General Longstreet took the young man into his personal command, and Kerry learned a different kind of war. No longer did he stand or lie in line with other men and pour random shots at a number of enemies. Instead, he worked with an experienced sharpshooter as his tutor, then alone, not to fire indiscriminately into the massed Federal ranks but selecting a definite target, aiming at it and driving home lead with deadly precision.

Kerry's mentor died, victim of one of the Federal Army's sharpshooters, and the young man fought a long-range duel against the Yankee's superior Sharps Berdan rifle. Emerging victorious, Kerry took the Yankee's weapon as his prize. It served
him well until the meeting at the Appomattox Courthouse brought an end to military hostilities, if not peace.

Nothing remained of Kerry's old way of life. His home had gone, with Lane's Red Legs—now raised to the status of heroes—running Missouri, he turned West. The railroads pushed out across the start of the Great Plains and screamed for men to work on their construction gangs. Good pay and decent food being offered. Kerry took work as a gandy-dancer on one of the rail-laying crews. Having intelligence, a sense of command, the ability to handle men and a pair of hard fists to back up his play, he might have become a king-snipe, gang-pushing section boss with a future ahead of him in such work. Unfortunately, neither food nor pay came up to expectations. After a few meals of salt beef and weevil-infested biscuits, Kerry unpacked his Sharps Berdan and went out to shoot some fresh meat.

So able did he prove himself that he was taken from the construction crew and assigned to shoot camp-meat. At first that had not been too bad, for the hungry crews wasted none of the meat and even the hides found use. However, once they struck the great buffalo herds, things changed. With meat so easily obtained, the crews became fussy and wanted only the best cuts, leaving the rest to rot.

Kerry complained, but nobody listened. “Take a look, man,” he would be told. “What we shoot out of the herds won't be missed.”

And on the face of it, studying the mass of black, shaggy-humped bison, the theory appeared to be justified. Kerry could not accept it. Deciding he had come as far west as he wanted to, he quit the railroad and sought for a fresh start.

A homestead seemed to offer a decent way of making a living, and might have been, only a small herd of buffalo—not more than two or three thousand head—stamped the place flat in passing one day while he was visiting a near-by town.

Broke and hungry, Kerry accepted Cyrus Corben's offer to be a hunter, his work to shoot bison. Not until everything had been settled did Kerry discover that only the hides were needed. The rest, almost two thousand pounds of meat, was to be left where it fell, discarded as of no use. Back East, tanners discovered that the flints, dried buffalo hides, made good leather and paid well to obtain vast numbers. Corben needed to know only that. He did not care how much good meat went to waste as long as the flints came rolling in to Otley Creek, to be loaded on a train and shipped to the market in St. Louis.

Came to a point, smarting under the loss of his farm, Kerry did not greatly care either; at least not
on his first couple of trips. Only this would make his fifth time out.

Living in such large herds, the individual buffalo possessed little instinct for self-preservation. So a man could, if he knew what to do, shoot as many of the great animals as he wished once he found a herd. Kerry could not help noticing that finding herds grew harder with each trip. Gradually the ceaseless inroads caused by hunting cut down what seemed numberless herds and where once a man could see the earth black with buffalo, he now found only small bunches—comparatively speaking—but mounds of bleaching bones.

A deadly efficient method of hunting had been developed by hide-hunters. Finding a herd the hunter stalked to around a hundred and fifty yards from the nearest animal and made his stand. Setting out his ammunition to be easily reached, he used a forked stick to support the barrel of his heavy rifle, then sat, or lay, whichever he preferred, and began to shoot.

First a cow, through the lungs so that she staggered, then stood with blood drifting from her nostrils. Scenting the blood, the bulls gathered and looked at the suffering beast, ignoring the occasional crack and sight of first one, then another of their companions sinking to the ground.

Fifty bulls a day Kerry reckoned to kill, the max
imum number his skinning crew of four could handle. Often he took his entire quota from one stand. Even if the herd spooked and ran, the dull-witted beasts did not have sense enough to go far and soon halted. Then the hunter moved up, took a fresh stand and continued the slaughter. After which the skinners came, like turkey-buzzards swarming to a kill. Of all the grisly business, Kerry hated the skinning worse. Time did not permit for delicate work, nor would the sort of men who took on as buffalo hide-skinners be capable of it. Instead they ripped away the hides, using iron stakes to hold the carcass still, and dragging off the skin with horse-power.

Kerry looked down at the unsuspecting herd before his stand. In his mind's eye he saw the cow stagger when the bullet struck, then stand and bleed away its life. It seemed he could already smell the blood, mingled with the acrid bite of burning powder. Then he imagined the brain-shot bulls, one after another, go down; sinking hind-first, then flopping to their sides, kicking spasmodically and going still in seconds.

Slowly Kerry's finger relaxed and the trigger moved back into its original position. Working the rifle's loading lever, he opened the breech and slid
out the bullet. His eyes dropped to the wooden box at his side, built to hold six rows of ten bullets ready for easy removal and loading into the Sharps. One way and another, he did not expect to need the box's facilities again. Lifting the rifle from the Y-shaped rest, he let out his breath in a long sigh. Come what may, he had no intention of hunting for skins again. He placed the bullet in the box and closed down the lid with an almost symbolic gesture.

“Come on, Shaun,” he said, rising to his feet.

Six foot one he stood in his calf-high Pawnee moccasins; with wide shoulders and trimming down at the hips. Cat-agile and light on his feet, despite his size, he gave the impression of latent, controlled and deadly power. Rusty brown hair, cut shorter than most buffalo hunters sported, showed from under his battered Jeff Davis campaign hat. His face had a rugged charm, yet stern, unsmiling gravity, tanned oak-brown by the elements and bristle-stubbed. Clean new buckskins, shirt and pants had not yet picked up the signs of his trade and smelled fresh. Around his waist swung a belt with flat-nosed Winchester .44 rim-fire bullets in its loops and a razor-sharp steel fighting axe in Indian slings, but no revolver. All in all, he looked part of the Great Plains which gave him his new home.

Rising to his feet in a swift, fluid move more like that of a wild creature than a domesticated animal, Shaun, Kerry's Irish wolfhound, moved silently to his master's side.

No Irish wolfhound could be called small, and Shaun was big even for his breed. Full three foot high he stood, his hard-fleshed, steel-spring muscled body weighing over one hundred and fifty pounds; yet he moved with the ease of a much smaller dog. The dark brindle coat, hard and wiry to the touch, hid battle-scars and the left ear hung in tatters as mute testimony to the slashing sharpness of a cougar's claws—the mountain lion died soon after inflicting the wound.

Kerry came by the dog in the War and it had been his constant companion ever since. One day, ranging far ahead of his command, Kerry came upon a ruined Southern mansion. Its owner sprawled in death at the door, shot down as he fought to save his home. Standing over the body, gaunt with hunger and big even at so young an age, Shaun defied the sharpshooter to come closer. Not for an hour could Kerry approach the six month's old pup, and three more passed before he dare lay a hand on the lean, powerful jawed head.

Most likely Kerry would have taken the dog along only until he could find it a home, but for an incident that occurred soon after they left the
looted house. Shaun, walking placidly alongside Kerry's horse—a sharpshooter rated a mount to carry him on his assignments—suddenly threw back his head and sniffed the gentle breeze. Many a dog would have barked on catching the distinctive scent of a man hiding with evil intent. Not Shaun. Low in his throat, rumbled a snarl and he shot forward like an arrow from a bow, launching himself among the bushes and tackling a Yankee soldier who crouched in ambush. However, the pup could not handle a full-grown man in its hunger-weakened state, so Kerry's rifle ended the affair.

After that nothing would induce Kerry to part with the dog. From that day, if Shaun went hungry, it meant Kerry had not eaten himself. Not that they often went hungry. Once fed up on good red meat, the dog grew in size, strength and stamina until it could keep pace with any horse. Soon Shaun could catch up, after a long chase, any but the swiftest whitetail deer and drag the animal to the ground unaided; or reach and hold at bay a full-grown bull elk until his master came with the Sharps and finished the cornered animal off.

Coming from Ireland's finest blood-lines—although Kerry never knew that—Shaun had the hunting instincts of centuries to fit him to his way of life. All the greyhound-type breeds, Scottish
deerhound, saluki, borzoi, Irish wolfhound and the like tend to hunt by sight. Somewhere along his line, Shaun picked up a nose as keen as the red-bone hound's and the inborn knowledge of how to use it. How well he used it showed by twice more steering Kerry from well-laid ambush; and on three occasions locating a hidden Yankee camp that might have passed unseen and unheard.

Even after the War, Kerry found reason to be glad to have the big dog at his side. A Negro in a checkerboard rock-roller crew
got drunk one night and swore to take the life of some stinking rebel peckerwood.
He made the mistake of selecting Kerry Barran as his victim. Razor in hand, the Negro crept into Kerry's tent—and left a damned sight faster than he entered. Shaun jumped the man even as he raised his hand to strike. By that time the dog had reached his full height, while eating regularly and well enough to fill out his huge frame. Before Kerry, the only man capable of controlling Shaun, could leave the tent, blood spurted from the Negro's severed jugular vein.

The incident, along with his growing distaste for the waste involved in meat-hunting to feed railroad gandy gangs, caused Kerry to change employment.
He found himself working at something even more wasteful than shooting buffalo to take a few choice cuts of meat.

Turning away from the herd, he walked through the bushes to where, in a clearing some fifty yards from his deserted stand, he left his horse. The big iron gray gelding stood range-tied, with its reins dangling loose upon the ground but without its saddle. Should the buffalo chance to spook and run from before a stand, saddling up to follow gave them time to lose their fear and halt. Besides that, a horse left alone might take it into its head to lie down and roll; and would not allow the fact that it be saddled stop it. If around twelve hundred pounds of horse rolled on a saddle, it would not be the animal which came off second best.

Taking his saddle from where it lay concealed under a bush, Kerry walked over and caught hold of the gray's reins. He worked with easy precision, swinging the blanket into place and ensuring that it rode correctly, without wrinkles which might chafe the horse's back, and then dropping the range saddle on. A Winchester model '66 carbine sat in a boot on the left side of the saddle, its butt pointing up to the rear in a position for easy withdrawal. When skin-hunting in Indian country, a man needed something handier than the big, single-shot Sharps to defend himself against braves
who, not unnaturally, objected to the wasteful destruction of their main source of food and clothing. The Winchester carbine served that purpose admirably, with its thirteen-round capacity, light weight and, at short range, man-stopping power.

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