lj idol season nine | week 10 | ~1200 words
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time”
I believe my brother, Buford, is the most worthless creature ever visited upon this earth.
As boys, we got up to the usual antics. Misfortune and the swift justice of our daddy's belt should have taught us to do better, but I do not think those were lessons Buford ever learned.
He was smart enough, for all the good it did him. He had a head for numbers, and was a fine marksman with a pistol or rifle. His shooting provided enough meat to carry us through the winter. Still, Buford never had much in the way of sense.
At the age of five, he went down to the creek behind our house after supper, looking for tadpoles. He found something altogether different, which he took to be a black and white kitten in need of petting. You never heard such hollering as the racket Buford made while running back to the house—nor smelled anything quite so awful. Mama brought out soap and a bucket of water, and made him wash himself right there under the oak tree. I was conscripted to pump water to refill the bucket, and I do not lie when I say that seven buckets later, he smelled very much the same.
Buford slept out-of-doors for a week, and took his meals by the back gate. It fell to me to perform his indoor chores during that time, and you can well imagine how little I rejoiced at it.
Seven-year-old Buford welcomed a stray dog inside the back fence, and it killed Mama's laying hen before anyone realized what he'd done. Ten-year-old Buford would add wood to the potbellied stove and leave the door open. We lost half of the kitchen floor to a fire, and were lucky that the house itself was not destroyed.
I know Mama and Daddy despaired of his living long enough to reach manhood. I was made to promise I would look after him, in the event that the two of them might die.
Buford joined the United States Army at seventeen, a fine occupation for a marksman. I was quite relieved to have him grown and gone, particularly after our parents left this world a few years later. The Army could look after Buford, and I had only to look after myself.
I made for the Wyoming Territory, with a notion to strike out on my own. From a small dirt farm, I have built up a cattle ranch. It is hard, dusty work, but it is all mine, and I am well pleased with it. I am now seven years into this venture, and hope my fine prospects might soon help me find a wife.
I had tried to get word to Buford of my leaving Illinois. It now appears he received it and was driven to find me after his military service ended, because he surprises me by arriving at my property, high-spirited and looking well. We reminisce over our early years, and trade stories about homesteading, military life, and the local climate. Buford takes dinner with me at noon, and then offers to help me plow a stretch of field I've chosen for planting corn.
I can well see Buford plowing through the potatoes I planted just weeks ago, and kindly refuse his help.
Buford announces that he has taken a room at the boarding house in town, and hopes to find work hereabouts. I do not mention the possibility of his staying with me, although he likely anticipates it. The truth is that I do not know what kind of man Buford has become in the intervening years, and if he is no worse, he might also be no better. Mama used to say that his full name should have been, "Don't touch that, Buford!" He may have improved his knot-headed ways since boyhood, but I am not prepared to chance it.
Two days later, he rides up as I am rewiring part of the rear pasture fence. He gets off his horse, ties it up, and reaches for the barbed wire to help me before I scarcely realize he is there.
I make light of the project—even propose stopping to have a light meal up at the house—but he will have none of it. With his aid, the break in the fence is mended in an hour. I am quite surprised, but I gladly thank him and invite him to stay for supper.
The next morning, I release the cattle from the barn that they might graze freely. I water the crops and tend to the stable as the sun rises overhead, and am thinking about the coming midday meal when I notice that the pasture seems rather lightly occupied. Where have the cattle gone?
I mount my horse and ride toward the distant few members of my herd. There, I notice the downed wiring from the previous day's efforts. Most of the cattle have escaped, a peril feared by any rancher. Buford's luck, it appears, has not improved and by extension, neither has mine.
I round up the remaining cattle and guide them to the safety of the barn. It then remains to coax the rest of the herd home.
The horse and I have some skill at this. It is a slow enterprise, but not without results. Most of the herd is a couple of meadows over, and I take pains to circle around them and edge them along toward my property.
Whole hours pass, and then who should arrive but my brother, there to add to my misery? While I might wish him to witness the fruits of his handiwork, his capacity for continued misfortune is too great to risk.
I assure him that I am managing, and that there is no need for concern. My words seem to satisfy him, being that he rides off again, although he appears somewhat unsettled. Perhaps he is feeling remorse at having caused the situation.
It isn't ten minutes later that he returns with a dog, some cur of questionable merit. Buford sets the dog down, and it immediately runs into the center of my herd, barking fit to raise the dead.
"Buford, no!" I holler, but the dog is beyond his control. Its frantic agitations light a spark of fear in the cattle, and they begin stampeding away from him toward the cliff. The dog chases after them, deaf to my entreaties, and I am forced to counter the path of the stampede by riding in from the side and trying to drive them toward safety.
When at last the beasts cease their rampage, I have lost half my herd to the unmerciful geography.
All I have worked for in this hardscrabble land has scarcely withstood three days of Buford's influence—as much of an exaggeration as that may seem. I take stock of what is left, of how many years have been lost in the making, and wonder whether I will manage to rebuild what I once had or watch still more of it slip away.
My brother's foolishness will be the ruin of me, I am convinced of it.
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