THE LAST HEARTBEAT
By John Thomas Tuft
Dyer climbed the steps into the train car with slow, measured taps of his boot heels on the iron grating. He missed the jangle of his old spurs, the tambourines of the prairie rider. His days of driving cattle from San Antonio to Abilene were long gone, distant memories chasing tumbleweeds across the loneliness of deserted history. Times and events move on to the next best thing; people always looking for more. He was heading to Fort Worth, though not to Hell’s Half Acre like he had done as a younger man. What the papers back East in the big cities called the Wild West was a fading myth of casual violence, heroic outlaws, towering barons who controlled production and commerce, and the independent spirit of the foolishness of the idea of manifest destiny. All of it served to keep people’s attention off of such things as the appallingly high rates of suicide here in the land of promise. (Rates 100 times higher than in the 21st century.) The last heartbeat of the century in the year 1899 found Dyer wondering as the train lurched forward under the Texas sky what Matilda would have thought of all this.
Dyer met Tilly when she first crossed the Brazos River from the east, heading for Shackleford County in north central Texas in 1875. She had great plans to be a missionary to the Comanche people who had been forced onto a reservation. Dyer was wrangling for a train of freight wagons and Miss Matilda asked for a ride. His heart skipped a beat at the sound of her laugh and the tilt of her head as she insisted, “Call me Tilly, cowboy. Unless that’s the name of your horse. Then you’d have to change the horse’s name.” He felt his cheeks grow hot as he spurred Buster into a canter, hoping she had not noticed his awkwardness. She had, but she never spoke of it and that’s when Dyer knew his heart might be riding a wild pony into a cyclone… Dyer heaved a great sigh and sat back in the rail car, letting these memories wash over him. Now the state and federal governments were using hook and crook to vanish the Comanche reservation. It was good land, and their constituents were clamoring for it. The handwriting was on the wall, Dyer knew, and shortly even this halfhearted nod to decency toward the original stewards of this land would be down to the last heartbeat.
The Double Z outfit that Dyer rode for when they needed to move the herd of longhorn into the highlands for summer feeding butted up against the land of the Comanche. It was a half day’s ride for him to get out to the reservation mission to “check on” Tilly, bring her supplies and hope for the chance to walk with her out among the mesquite, taking in the vast rolling plain stretching into neverland… Dyer closed his eyes at these visions in his mind, listening to the clacking of the train now taking him away from the land he called home. Fort Worth was more settled now, more civilized as the new century made its approach. Electricity, radio, newfangled moving pictures, the rise of women’s suffrage all combined to promise great things in the 20th century. He shook his head in wonder. Tilly even agreed to marry him. How lucky could one man get? He would take up ranching on his own, build them a place beside a creek. Then scarlet fever ran wild through the reservation. Hundreds died. Including Tilly. He held her hand as she had her last heartbeat. Then into the darkness of the prairie to weep in his own wretchedness.
Dyer gulped hard, looking around to see if any passengers had heard his cry of unameliorated grief. He stood up and made his way through the door to the small platform at the rear. The old cowboy let his body rock with the motion of the train as he slipped a flask out of his coat and took a long pull. What is a man to do when he feels left behind? No longer much use to anyone? In the middle of the darkness under the low ceiling of countless stars when he was riding herd, pushing toward Abilene, just him and his horse and the night–that was a different kind of lonely. That was awe. A fierce quiet that wrapped itself around his heart and threw off sparks like a good campfire. Now he felt closed in, closed up. No fire. Does a dream have a last heartbeat, he idly wondered.
Dyer watched sheets of heat lightning silhouette the distant hills. Old cowboys are supposed to ride into the sunset toward green pastures and clear water and sweet women, not cities. Singing to keep the cows contented until his last heartbeat. Something catches his eye. Movement on the horizon, a shadow of a man on a war pony. Perhaps it is the ghost of Ten Bears, the famous Comanche chief who spoke so eloquently to General Sherman. Maybe it is Quanah Parker, son of a kidnapped white woman settler and a Comanche chief who will be the last of the great chiefs. Dyer takes off his Stetson, worn and dusty, holds it high then places it over his heart. Respect. A cowboy always shows respect for the land and its Creator, for a woman, and for all those who know that time waits for no man, and no man waits for time. Dyer didn’t know who said it. Tilly would have known. He surely did not, but one thing was sure. He must have been a cowboy.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.