Gino Moretto Drabblecast Cover for The Wichita DriveWeird things are afoot in the west this week on the Drabblecast!   Enjoy an original,  previously unpublished story about snails of the plains gone awry by Joshua Bush called “The Witchita Drive.”  Yeehaw!

They were down in a gully watering the cattle when Billy came thundering down the ridgeline on his sorrel mare, waving his hat and hollering like he just seen the whole Comanche nation bearing down on them.

“Mr. Lee!” he cried. “Mr. Lee!”

Harry Lee — the top hand on the drive — trotted up to meet him, keeping his palomino well in hand so as not to disturb the herd any further. The younger cowboy was good in the saddle, but he was greener than spring horse pucky, and had half as much sense…


The Wichita Drive

by Joshua Bush


They were down in a gully watering the cattle when Billy came thundering down the ridgeline on his sorrel mare, waving his hat and hollering like he just seen the whole Comanche nation bearing down on them.

“Mr. Lee!” he cried. “Mr. Lee!”

Harry Lee — the top hand on the drive — trotted up to meet him, keeping his palomino well in hand so as not to disturb the herd any further. The younger cowboy was good in the saddle, but he was greener than spring horse pucky, and had half as much sense.

“Mr. Lee!” Billy said, “Up on the ridgeline I seen—”

“Quiet down, boy,” Harry said.

“But I seen—”

“I said quiet down.”

By then Jack McNute had come up on his bay stallion. He was a strange man — cold as iron and twice as hard, but that wasn’t a bad sort of man to have at your back on the open range.

“Boy,” Harry went on. “Do you know how many head of cattle we have on this drive?”

Billy’s eyebrows screwed up in bewilderment.

“Of course, Mr. Lee,” he said. “Nine hundred head.”

“That’s right. And do you know how hard it is to wrangle nine hundred head of cattle when they get it into their head to stampede?”

“Shit,” said McNute. “I reckon—”

Harry held up a hand to quiet him.

“Well…” Billy said, somewhat abashed. “Pretty hard, I reckon.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “Now. Tell me what you seen up on that ridge. Quietly.”

Billy kept his voice level, but the fear spilled over into his eyes.

“Snails,” he said.

The word hung in the air like thunder from a coming storm.

“Shit,” said McNute.

Harry grimaced, but kept steady.

“What color was the slime?” he asked.

“The slime?” Billy said. “I dunno, I just—”

“Was it green or white?”

“I didn’t stop to— that is, I just—”

“Green or white, boy!”

“It was… green. Yeah, I reckon it was green.”

“Aw shit,” said McNute.


That night they bedded down on top of a tall bluff. Billy and McNute sat close to the fire while Harry leaned against a lone juniper tree, the flickering firelight casting his leathery skin like the bronze of a statue.

“Maybe we ought to turn back,” Billy said. “We don’t want our herd to get eaten by no snails.”

“We ain’t turning back,” Harry said. “I’ve been driving cattle for near on thirty-five years and I never lost one single head to no snail. You think that’s gonna change on my last drive?”

“This is your last drive, Mr. Lee?”

“Damn right it is. Got me a ranch up in Wyoming, already bought and paid for. One hundred acres of green grass and good earth. Even got a stream running through it so I can catch trout.”

“Shiiit,” said McNute.

“If it’s already bought and paid for, what are you doing here?” Billy wondered.

Harry produced a golden locket from his coat. He flipped it open and gazed inside a long time before answering.

“Made a promise a long time ago.” He snapped the locket shut and put it back in his pocket. “Mean to keep it.”


They awoke to the smell of slime.

“God a’mighty,” Billy said. “They’re all around us.”

“Shut yer trap,” said Harry, drawing his Winchester from its saddle holster.

From their high vantage they could see snails to the north and west. They were giant things, twice as tall as a longhorn with shells as hard as steel. They weren’t fast, but the green ones left slime trails that were toxic to cattle. By the looks of things, this pack had almost finished circling around to trap the herd.

Harry pulled out his golden locket, kissed it once, and hung it around his neck.

“I’m gonna draw ‘em off. McNute, you reckon you can hold the stragglers off the herd?”

“Shit,” McNute said. He pumped his Winchester, chambering the first cartridge. “Reckon I can.”

Harry nodded.

“Billy, you drive out of here when you see a gap. Make sure this herd makes it to Wichita, you hear me?”

“Mr. Lee, no!”

But Harry had already dug in his spurs, and the palomino was off like a bolt of lightning. His hollering was like the war cry of the wildest indian and his Winchester sang like a soprano at the opry. Bullets clanged harmlessly off the snail shells, but they followed him down into the gully, trailing vile ichor over the grass. That was the last anyone ever saw of Harry Frank Lee.

But that herd made it to Wichita.


Things change slowly out on the plains, but they do change. Billy hadn’t ever figured on the railroads crawling west to Dodge City, and when Dodge became the cattleman’s capital of the west, he hadn’t ever figured on coming back to Wichita. Somehow, ten years after that first Wichita drive, here he was again.

From his perch atop the McNute Livery and Trading Company wagon, Billy surveyed the crisscross smattering of ramshackle construction and pucky-strewn streets that made up Wichita. There was a time when you couldn’t hardly set foot in the city without some cocksure cow-hand eyeballing you, but that crowd had moseyed over to Dodge with the cattle. He didn’t rightly know why McNute wanted an armed escort on this shipment, but Billy wasn’t about to turn down honest work.

“That there’s the Arkansas River,” Billy said, elbowing his younger companion. “First time I ever laid eyes on it,

I was at the back of nine hundred head of cattle, and I couldn’t for the life of me figger how—”

“You already told me this story,” said Garret.

“You know, young fella—”

“I’m not that much younger than you.”

“You know, young fella, time was when a senior partner in a business engagement could tell a story without his junior partner interrupting him.”

‘“Was that back in the olden days, when herds of snails still roamed the plains and senior business partners could still remember how many times they’d told a story?”

Time was when I’d pop you in the jaw for that, Billy thought.

“Last I checked there were still a few snails around.”

“Whatever you say, Billy.”

If Harry Lee heard you mouthing off like this he’d’ve cleaned your clock.

He wondered if maybe old McNute had gone soft, hiring all these loose-lipped rascals, but the thought of the old cowboy’s steel eyes and handiness with a Winchester quickly dispelled the notion. There wasn’t nothin’ soft to Jack McNute — he just had a knack for hiring bums. Fortunately, Billy had developed a can’t-fail technique for dealing with miscreants like Garret: stick ‘em with the work.

“Say, deputy!” Billy called, flagging down a mustachioed lawman. “Where’s a man to find a good coffee in Wichita these days?”

“You could try the general store down on 2nd Street, but if you want the good stuff, you better call on Ms. Goodhope over by the Johnson property on the edge of town.”

Ms. Goodhope. Why did that name sound familiar?

Billy tipped his hat to the lawman and hopped down from the coach.

“You can handle the delivery, can’t you Garret? You don’t need an old fogey like me slowin’ you down.”

“I could use a hand with—”

“Good man. If you need me, I’ll be visiting with Ms. Goodhope over by the Johnson property.”

The lawman wasn’t kidding when he said the woman lived on the edge of town. The backyard of her little ranch house practically backed up into the mushroom fields, which offered the boon of keeping the snails away at the expense of some less than savory smells.

Billy removed his hat, knocked on the door, and just about fell over when it swung open and a handsome older lady flashed him a friendly smile. God a’mighty, she looked familiar.

“Can I help you, mister?”

“I heard tell this was the best place in Wichita a fella could go for coffee. I’m talking about the good stuff, ma’am.”

“And by that I take it you aren’t looking for any of that new bean coffee they sell down on 2nd street?”

“No ma’am. Only genuine Kansas mushroom coffee for me.”

She smiled again and waved him inside, gesturing toward a table. He fished a couple of coins out of his pocket and slapped them down, but she scowled as if he’d insulted her, and he sheepishly put them away.

“You’re liable to make a woman nervous, staring at her that way,” she said.

“I do apologize, ma’am. It’s just… I think we might have a mutual acquaintance.”

“Is that so?” she asked, measuring out a hearty portion of mushroom grounds into a pot of water.

“You ever lay eyes on a fella by the name of Harry Frank Lee?”

The lady made a sound that called to mind the particular snort a steer makes when it catches the scent of snail ichor. She lost her grip on the coffee sack and must have dumped three pots’ worth of grounds.

“I did more than lay eyes on him,” she said. “And I believe you mean to say we had a mutual acquaintance.”

“Yes ma’am. Sorry ma’am. And don’t worry about the coffee. I like it strong.”

“How did you know my Harry?”

Billy held his hat over his heart. He always got this way when he thought of Mr. Lee. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he could still hear the sound of his Winchester popping as he drew off those snails.

“I had the pleasure of working with him when I was just a little ankle-biter. I was with him on his last drive, as a matter of fact. Might have been the last man to lay eyes on him.”

There was a dab of moisture in the woman’s eyes as she turned to place the pot on the stove.

“Then you must share my dislike of snails.”

Billy paused before answering.

“Yes ma’am.”

“They say the snails are dying out now. All those big hunts, the shell harvests, the railroads cutting through their slime trails… I say good riddance.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Only thing is, they say when all the snails are gone, there won’t be any reason to grow mushrooms in Kansas anymore. Used to be that if you planted anything else, the snails would slime all over it and ruin your crop. Nowadays, there’s talk of people swapping out mushrooms for wheat. Can you imagine that? Wheat fields in Kansas?”

Billy smiled. “I’ll believe that when I see it, ma’am. Mushrooms and Kansas go together like… well, cattle and Kansas.”

“That’s what I thought too, but then you see people drinking that fancy bean coffee and it gets you thinking. Bean coffee and wheat fields. Weird things afoot in the west, Mister… heavens, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Billy McCoy. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Goodhope.”

“Always a pleasure to meet a friend of Harry’s.”

Friend of Harry’s. Now there was a handle Billy could get used to.

They waited in companionable silence while the coffee heated up. When the steam started to scream, Ms. Goodhope pinged Billy with a bullet from memory lane.

“Do you recall if Harry ever had a golden locket, out on the range?”

“Yes ma’am, he did. Seemed to mean a whole lot to him. I recall him giving that thing a kiss before he… well, before he drew off those snails.”

The lady smiled and her eyes went a million miles away.

“My stars,” she murmured. “That does me good to hear.”


“I gave him that locket. Made him promise to be the best cattleman on the plains. My daddy never liked him, you see. Said cattlemen were dishonest, ill-tempered folk and no way fit to marry his daughter. I got it into my head that if Harry could be the best cattleman, maybe my daddy would see he was worth something.”

She tossed her head like a nervous mare and gave Billy an almost apologetic look. “What a foolish little girl I was.”

“Not at all, ma’am. And I want you to know that as well as I can figure, Harry Frank Lee was the best cattleman that ever drove a herd over the Brazos.”

She poured his coffee into a little snail shell cup and handed it to him. He didn’t bother letting it cool before tipping it down the hatch. It tasted like good earth and gunshots.

“You’re a dying breed, Mr. McCoy. Just like my Harry.”

“I thank you kindly for saying that,” he said.

“And I thank you kindly for this coffee. It might just be the best ‘shroom brew I ever had.”

“Keep the cup,” she said.

He nodded his thanks and turned for the door.

“One more thing before you go.”

“Anything, ma’am.”

“I guess I’ve got myself a bad habit, asking cowboys for promises, but if you do see any snails out there — green or white, I don’t care — would you kill ‘em for me? For Harry?”

It was a hell of a thing to be asked by a lady, and for a time Billy didn’t know what to say. The easy thing, he supposed, woulda been a simple ‘yes’, but the word got caught on some kind of blockage in his throat. Killing wasn’t such a simple thing — even snails.

Then she hit him with those sad eyes and that sweet smile, and the blockage cleared.

“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I’ll do that.”


He was up on a ridge in the Dakota Territory playing wilderness guide for a couple of wide-eyed gold prospectors when it finally hit him that he was getting old. It had been near on fifteen years since he set out north from Wichita, which made more than twenty five years total out on the range. Wasn’t much that could rattle ol’ Billy McCoy these days, so when the prospectors came scrambling up the hill hootin’ and hollerin’ about some slime they seen down in the dried-up riverbed, Billy just let ‘em holler. Wasn’t like there were any cattle to spook.

“Mhm,” Billy said, when they’d just about shouted themselves hoarse. “Now what’s this you think you seen? Must have been the whole Lakota nation judging by the ruckus.”

“Slime!” said Curtis McBride, a young bachelor out of St. Louis who’d come to seek his fortune in the Black Hills. “I’m telling you, there must be snails about!”

“Well, we better tell the papers about your discovery,” Billy said. “The first snail ever found in the Dakotas. You ready to have your names in the science journals, boys?”

“You’re making fun of us,” said Benjamin Richardson, who was correct. “Just go down and take a look yourself. We’re paying you, aren’t we?”

“Yessir,” said Billy. “As long as your money spends, I’m your man.”

Time was when Billy didn’t have to babysit starry-eyed easterners to keep himself afloat. Time was when there were cattle to drive, horses to wrangle, and horse-thieves to shoot. But then the railroads came, and then the snail trophy hunters, the wheat planters, and all the rest. Time was when the west was wild enough for a man like Billy. Nowadays, it was just a playground for boys like Curtis and Ben.

So Billy sidled his trusty palomino down that bluff, shifting in the saddle to scan the horizon, making a show for the boys that he was taking their snail-fear seriously. He knew good and well all they seen was a little moisture in the dust of the riverbed, but he wouldn’t tell them that. He needed repeat clients, and making them feel foolish was no way to—


“Well, I’ll be a grizzly bear on a tightrope,” he said. “Look sharp, boys. There’s snails in these hills.”

It was a piddly little slime trail — uneven and goopy. Something wasn’t right with whatever mollusk left it, but even so, the slime was green.

This was a dangerous critter.

“Oh Lord,” said Curtis. “There can’t be just one, can there? What if we’re surrounded? What if they’re closing in on us, what if—”

“Quit that bellyaching,” Billy said. He swung off his palomino and slid his Winchester from the saddle holster. “You stay here and mind my steed. I’ll deal with the snail.”

“Alone?” said Benjamin. “But that’s suicide.”

“That’s between me and the snail,” Billy said. He smiled as he pumped his Winchester. “You’re paying me, aren’t you?”

He tracked the sludge-trudger down the riverbed half a mile before the smell hit him. It was like a cross between the shit-heaps of a cattle stockyard and the wafting fumes of a man wearing too much cologne. What in tarnation was this beast sucking up its gullet?

The ichor trailed off toward a rocky cave that raised concerns of mountain lions, but there wasn’t nothin’ for it. He pulled his bandana over his nose and crept toward the grotto, careful to avoid the toxic slime.

What he found was a monster from his nightmares.

He’d figured on finding a stunted, sickly thing to match the measly slime trail. He hadn’t figured on wandering into the lair of the biggest, nastiest mollusk he’d ever laid eyes on. He hadn’t figured on a beast with battle scars crisscrossing its face and one eye-tentacle sheared off at the stalk. And he sure as hell hadn’t figured on the golden locket dangling off of a crag in its shell.

Harry Frank Lee’s locket. This was Mr. Lee’s killer.

“You evil sumbitch.”

The snail gargled a challenge and Billy leveled his gun. Killing was no easy thing, but this was no ordinary creature — it had murdered Mr. Lee for chrissakes! And then there was the matter of the promise he’d made to Ms. Goodhope all those years ago. His finger curled around the trigger.

The snail gargled another challenge, its slimy mouth undulating and its whole body shivering. It spat its disgusting slime in the dirt between them, but the ichor was speckled with flecks of blue, and it was paler and thinner than a slime trail.

Understanding washed over Billy like a flash flood in the Mojave. It wasn’t slime. It was bloody snot. The snail wasn’t challenging him. The poor little monster was sick after all.

“Hard to get by when you’re the only one of your kind in the Dakotas, I reckon,” Billy said. “You probably have to settle for sucking grubs up from the mud and rocks. That ain’t no way for a snail to live.”

The snail coughed again and its eye-tentacle cast about in search of escape. Now that Billy wasn’t looking at him down the barrel of a gun, he reckoned he could read the whole history of the creature in the hurts of its body. There was a crack in his shell where snail hunters had tried and failed to pop him open like a walnut, and another where it looked like a locomotive had clipped him. Snails always had struggled with railroads.

“I got hurts too,” Billy said. He rolled up his pant leg and showed the burns where a forage harvester had spewed steam at him. “They just keep driving us on, don’t they?”

The snail made a noise that was either an acknowledgment or just the mangled cry of a struggling and confused animal.

“Aw shit,” Billy said. “I reckon I’m gonna have to disappoint that fine lady.”

Using his gun barrel as a billhook, he fished Mr. Lee’s locket off the notch in the snail’s shell. The creature shuddered as he removed it, finally free of a decades-long irritation. Billy flipped open the locket and found inside an image that stopped his crusty old heart from beating.

It was a young Harry Frank Lee, mustachioed and dashing, like one of them highway robbers out of the penny dreadfuls. And Ms. Goodhope… boy howdy was she a looker. And the way they gazed at each other… Billy hadn’t been one for crying, but dadgummit if there wasn’t just a little bit of wet seeping out the corner of his eyes.

He snapped the locket shut. He didn’t want to start a flood.

“Alright, old-timer,” Billy said to the snail.

“I’m gonna let you off with a warning this time. You steer clear of them prospectors and don’t cause too much ruckus and I figger you and me can come to some kind of understanding.”

The snail’s eye-tentacle bent towards its shell in what Billy chose to interpret as a sign of agreement. He returned the salute with a wave of his Winchester, then backed out of that grotto and made his way down the creek bed.

When he got back to the prospectors he waved off their questions. He swung up into the saddle, wheeled away downhill, and started his long drive. He didn’t have no promises to keep, but then he never had figured on living up to the legend of Harry Frank Lee. He was just little Billy McCoy, trying to make his way on the range.

He drove away south as the sun faded over the plains.

South, towards Wichita.