Many "heroic lawmen" of the Wild West, familiar to us through television and film, were actually violent scoundrels and outlaws themselves. But of all the sheriffs of the frontier, one man stands out as a true hero: Bass Reeves.
He was the most successful Federal Marshal in the US in his day. True to the mythical code of the West, he never drew his gun first. He brought hundreds of fugitives to justice, was shot at countless times, and never hit.
Bass Reeves was a black man, born into slavery. And though the laws of his country enslaved him and his mother, when he became a free man he served the law, with such courage and honor that he became a legend.
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The Legend of Bass Reeves
By Gary Paulsen
Random HouseGary Paulsen
All right reserved.
The Witch Dog
The boy lay under a mesquite bush to get shade from the Texas sun and watched the cow intently.
She was a longhorn with horns a full five feet across. He'd seen horns that size cut men and kill horses, so he waited. She was about to go into labor, what he called getting calf sick, and when she was actually having the calf she couldn't attack him. Then he would run up, drop a noose around her head and dance back before one of those horns could catch him. The rope was twenty feet long and tied to a four-foot piece of log about five inches in diameter. When the cow tried to run, the log would tangle in the mesquite and rocks and stop her so she could be captured, branded and added to the mister's herd to sell and make him rich.
The cow moved and he studied her with a knowing eye. She was huge for a cow, with flat sides and many scars from running through brush and fighting other cows.
It would be another half hour, at least, before labor. She wasn't even hunched yet.
"You take the rope and the log," the mister had told him. The boy never thought of him as the master, though legally he was, like all white men who owned slaves. The boy's mammy had told him: "Your name is Bass, and ain't no man your master. Not now. Not ever. We got to do what we got to do'cause of the white man's law. But that don't make no man your master in God's eyes."
Bass studied the horns. They came around so fast, and sharp, sometimes you almost couldn't see them move. Once he moved in too close on an old brindle cow and just the tip of a horn caught his trousers. Cut them open like a knife.
"Zzzzzttt!" The cloth almost sang. They were no-'count pants anyway, handed down from the mister, all patches and held up with a piece of tow over his shoulder. He knew his mammy would sew them up, but he didn't like the feel of the horn swinging by that close.
Another inch and I'd have been looking at my guts, he thought, squinting in the sun. Pulled out on a horn like wet rope. He'd seen cow and pig guts when they slaughtered, horse guts once when a bull hooked a mare that wasn't paying attention. He did not want to see his own.
Now he heard movement in the mesquite off to the right and waited. Might be the mister sneaking to see if he was working. Make sure he was doing.
No need at all, he thought. I work all the time. Not for the mister. I work because it makes the time pass.
It was two coyotes, low on their bellies. They knew there would soon be afterbirth for them to eat.
Bass watched them. They did not know he was there, back in the shady hole where he'd had to scare out a rattlesnake. The snake had buzzed some and then left when he pushed it with a stick. He didn't like snakes. He wasn't afraid of them-how could you be scared of something that couldn't crawl faster than a slow walk?-but they were always mad. Seems like they bit just to be mean. His mammy told him of one that crawled in a cradle and bit a baby and killed it. Why? Baby wasn't doing a thing. Sometimes Bass killed snakes, especially around the house where they could get a dog or cat or baby pig or a chicken. But when he was out in the mesquite or down at the creek bottom, he let them be. If, he thought, they let me be. He didn't like killing things without a good reason.
The mister, now, would take his percussion pistol and shoot anything. Lizards off a rock, songbirds off a rail. Or try to. Whenever he got hold of a whiskey jug, he couldn't hit the ground, let alone a bird on a fence.
Now, it was something, how the coyotes knew when a cow was ready. Maybe the smell, Bass thought, or they might be witch dogs. His mammy told him that, back in New Orleans where she was from, there were witch dogs that could tell you things if you knew how to understand them. She didn't know how to talk to the dogs but her mammy could do it, could give a witch dog molasses, and when it wrinkled its lips to lick the molasses off its tongue, she could tell if someone was going to die or when they would have a baby, and was it a boy or a girl.
"Mammy said the power skips," Bass's mammy told him. "Didn't come to me, but maybe to you, to read the witch dogs. Mostly women have it, but I didn't have a girl and won't be no more chirrun. So if it happens, it will have to be you."
Bass was seven when his mammy told him that, better than three years ago come fall. He had lifted a jug of blackstrap molasses from the pump house and tried it on one of the mister's old tick hounds. He tried it so often the dog took a liking to it and followed him around all day, waiting to have his tongue wiped with molasses.
Problem was, Bass remembered now as he watched the coyotes move toward the cow, problem was it gave the hound the black skoots. Dog messed the yard and the pump house and all over the porch, and Bass had to quit because the mister said he was going to shoot the hound if he didn't stop messing.
Bass never learned anything from the hound but that it liked molasses and had a straight pipe for a gut. It was a good dog and Bass felt bad when one day a snake cooling itself by the pump house bit it between the eyes. Killed that hound. After that, whenever Bass saw a snake in the yard, he would get a hoe and chop it and feed it to the pigs.
There. The cow hunched. Her labor was starting. Bass gathered the rope and the log. The coyotes saw him and one looked straight into Bass's eyes and moved its lips.
At first he couldn't believe what he saw. The coyotes were thirty-five yards away, just past the head of the cow, but when Bass shook his head, the coyote was still looking at him, straight up into his eyes. And the animal's lips moved.
Things will change.
Bass wasn't sure if he heard it or felt it like a touch on his skin, but the phrase was there. In his head. As clear as if somebody had said it aloud. And it came from the coyote.
Things will change.
"What will change?"
He said it so loud that the coyotes both jumped and the cow started and turned to see him for the first time, though she didn't move, couldn't move now that her labor had begun.
The coyotes didn't answer him, either aloud or in his head, but they didn't run. Instead they stood, one looking at the cow, the other staring directly at Bass.
"Are you a witch dog?" Bass said.
Excerpted from The Legend of Bass Reeves by Gary Paulsen Excerpted by permission.
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