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The Big Hunt
By J. Edson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 J. Edson
All right reserved.
A Man Tired of Killing
It seemed that nothing could save the buffalo 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 . . .
Excerpted from The Big Hunt by J. Edson Copyright © 2006 by J. Edson. Excerpted by permission.
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