The Last Cattle Drive
"I hear they're takin' a hunnert dollars a head back East. A hunnert a head! Lord Jesus what I'd do with dat kind a money Lawrence!"
Lawrence shifted moodily in his seat, his knife taking another thin slice off the little log he was whittling. His cap was pulled low, keeping the Texas sun out of his eyes and conveniently shielding them from Saul's sorry visage. He lifted his head, squinting up at the fabulously ugly cowhand, and reflexively spit out of the side of his mouth.
Habit. There hadn't been tobacco for almost a month.
"I say we take the whole lot of em up St. Louis way. Whad'aya think Lawrence? We could do it, me and you. Maybe we can bring Sam an Karl if we need more hands, but more folks means more splitting the money."
It wasn't so much that Saul was ugly - certainly Lawrence had seen worse faces, the hideously burned, not to mention those poor bastards who survived a green gas attack back in Amarillo. In '98 he saw a man get dragged behind a horse, face down, and live. If you can call a life without a face a life. No, Saul wasn't that bad, just another poor soul struck with the ugly stick. That wasn't entirely right either. He wasn't that ugly. He just looked stupid. Patently, vacantly, stupid. Which was fitting, because he was stupid, intensely so in fact.
"St. Louis is burned to the ground, Saul. Just like Kansas City and all the rest."
"No it ain't. I heard all about it. We kicked them Martians sons-a-bitches back 'cross Ole' Miss is what we did. President went there and said so, that's what everyone said."
Lawrence let out a deep, slow sigh. He put down the log and wiped the knife on his denim pants.
"Saul, St. Louis is gone. There's no one that's going to buy our damned cows left in St. Louis or anywhere this side of the Mississippi. And there's no one on the other side of the damn river that's going to be fool enough to pay a hundred dollars for one head of cattle."
"Sure they are! I heard all about it. They ain't got no cows out East you know. There's Rockafellers an' Mr. Morgans that would buy 'em all up for them fancy dinners they have. We just gotta get 'em out there and we'd be rich boss!"
"They have cows back East. When the ranchers run low on stock, those Rockefellers will buy up the milk cows in Vermont. No one is paying a hundred dollars for a cow."
"Well, maybe not a hunnert then, maybe just like, what, eighty? Eighty dollars a head?"
"Thirty. Maybe forty. Fifty if the East coast farmers are having a bad foaling year."
"That's still a lotta dough, right? I mean, what, we got almost two hunnert head right now, that's..."
"Eight thousand dollars." Lawrence's slid the knife back into its sheath on his lower back and stood, eye to eye with his fellow cow hand and smiled. "Trouble is, ain't no way to get from here to there, not anymore."
"But St. Louis-"
"No more about St. Louis, Saul. I don't want to hear about St. Louis ever again."
Or Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake, Tulsa, and sure as hell not Shreveport...
"If we just could get them to a rail head, but there's nothing left this side of the Mississippi."
The sudden concussion of a distant gun stopped them for a moment. It was followed by a trio of others, with flashes on the horizon to accompany them. The newly coined "Army of Texas" fighting, and no doubt dying, twenty miles to the West. The Martian noose was tightening. Less and less of the Lone Star State remained in human hands every day. Every hour.
The Martians had destroyed Shreveport a month before, cutting Texas off from the rest of the Union. The newspaper said ten thousand people, their brains hi-jacked by Martian machines, marched into the American guns before the Tripods overwhelmed the fortress city. People from Kansas City, Omaha, others... people Lawrence might have even known in the old days.
Now Texas was on its own, and some people seemed to like it that way. But not Lawrence. He was a realist, and not a native Texan besides. Despite the native pluck of the people of Texas, and their declaration of semi-independence, Lawrence knew they were going to fall. It would be glorious, a thousand times more glorious than the Alamo, but it was going to be a glorious death, not a victory.
"Screw it," he said, spitting nothing satisfying into the dirt, "we'll make for St. Louis anyway. Maybe the fighting will give us an opening."
"Yee haw!" Saul said, beating his hat against his leg like an idiot, smashing it out of shape again.
"We'll have to ride like devils, Saul. I don't know if cows can graze on red weed or not, but we're gonna find out. Round up the boys. Tell 'em we're getting the hell outta dodge."
"Will do, boss," Saul said, grinning, "We're gonna be rich!"
The guns fell silent moments after Saul rode away from the ranch to fetch the others, and Lawrence instinctively turned to the now silent West. No more guns. Next would come dust from the tanks which made it out, going full steam East. Then the poor doughboys, covered in dust and ash like their namesakes were covered in sugar, so bone tired that even fear abandoned them. He'd seen it before. "The rout of civilization" the British newspaper man had called it, back when he first heard of the Martians, when he was not much more than a boy. Yes, that's what it was. A rout.
We're gonna be rich, Saul had said. Lawrence looked over the cattle in their pens and figured he could settle for staying alive. Chances were better for that back East. And if he could make a few bucks on the way, why the hell not?
And so the next day, at dawn, the last cattle drive set out across the burned plains, bound for the ruins of St. Louis and an uncertain fate.