Okay, you get one snippet, then I have to get back on Rimworld…
The usual caveats, and as always, comments appreciated!
The east side of Horsehead Crossing was a mass of bawling cows, dust, flies, and tired cowboys and horses. The air stank of the smell of burned hair, wood fires, and unwashed cowboys under the cold late March sky. But Rio inhaled with a sense of pride, this was his first time as the trail boss on a drive. Just then a big old brindle bull decided to make a break for it, and he touched the spurs to the buckskin, wishing he was up on Red, his roan, “Come’on boy, let’s go get him!”
The buckskin took off from a standing start as Rio pulled his gloves tight, reaching for the lasso, he shook out a loop. “Oh no you don’t you miserable hunk of beef,” he mumbled as the brindle got within about twenty yards of the breaks on the east side of the Pecos. He threw the loop and caught the nose and one horn, dallied the rope on the horn of the saddle, and sat back as the buckskin planted all four hooves.
The brindle hit the end of the rope, spun, and Rio thought the buckskin was going to the ground, but it recovered its legs, just as the brindle turned and charged them. Rio mumbled a curse, “Aw, sumbitch, not now,” as the buckskin fought to stay out of the way of the brindle’s horns. Rio was trying to undo the dally and stay in the saddle at the same time, as the buckskin and brindle did their dance of death.
Rio finally managed to get the dally loose, but the brindle kept coming, Enough of this he thought as he fought to get the loop off the Colt on his belt. He finally got it loose, and drew the pistol, just as the brindle brushed his chaps with the tip of its horn. He drew and fired as fast as he could, and put one round through the brindle’s eye, dropping it in his tracks.
The buckskin crow hopped one more time, then backed away slowly, and Rio let him back up six or eight steps. He stepped out of the saddle, and almost fell, but caught himself on the stirrup and tied the buckskin to a mesquite bush. He pulled his gloves off, spat to try to get some of the dryness out of his mouth, and started coughing. He had just pulled his canteen off the saddle, as Quinn came riding up, rifle out.
He looked down at Rio, “You look like crap, and that poor buckskin is wore slap out. What the hell were you shooting at?”
“That damn brindle bull that’s been giving us trouble for two days. Sumbitch made a break for it, and I went after it. It turned on me, and I killed it, so I guess Cookie will have plenty of beef for a while.”
“How many times did you shoot? You were shooting real fast,” Quinn said with a grin.
“Twice I think, John.”
He laughed, “Better check, I think you emptied it.”
“Nah, I couldn’t,” he drew the pistol, opened the loading gate and went cylinder by cylinder, each one had been fired. “Damn if I didn’t. Didn’t realize it.” He quickly emptied the five cases, and reloaded one, skipped one, and loaded four more. That left an empty chamber under the firing pin, just the way he’d been taught.
“Get scared things happen. How many more are we going to kill or lose?”
After he took a drink, shaking the canteen ruefully, he said, “I don’t know. But all this,” he swung his arm, “Is money on the hoof! The tally is twenty-two hundred head, mixed stuff. We’re only supposed to deliver two thousand. Well, make that twenty-one hundred ninety-nine head,” he said, kicking the brindle’s carcass. “These were the last road brands, and we should be able to line them out in a couple of days.”
“Need a day to rest up the horses, get the last provisions for the chuck wagon, and we’re waiting on another thirty horses for the remuda.” He patted the buckskin’s neck as it stood legs apart and head down, “We need to let the crew get a rest day too. I think we’ve got three more riders coming, if Pa could find them. With only fifteen riders, we’re gonna be a little short before it’s over.”
Quinn nodded, “Probably. Gonna be a long drive to Wyoming, but doing the gather out here saves us a week or so.”
Rio shrugged, “Yep, no point in driving the cows east to turn around and drive ‘em back this way. More money this way than taking them up the Chisholm trail. Pa did this trail a couple of times with Goodnight, and I did one drive last year from Fort Belknap to Fort Laramie. We’re going to shade east, and not go over Raton pass. Costs too much. Not paying a dime a head.”
Quinn cocked a leg around the horn and spit, “What about Indians?”
“Comanche and Kiowas aren’t raiding yet. Maybe we can get a head start on them. The Arapaho have moved up into Wyoming and Montana after Red Cloud’s war and the treaty at Fort Laramie, and that’s as far north as we’re going. Old man Story is going to take delivery there, and have his hands drive the cows on up to the Story Ranch in Montana.”
“That’ll save us, what, a month?”
“Probably. I figure we should be back in Texas no later than September.” Rio groaned as he swung back into the saddle, “I’m too old for this.”
Morgan laughed, “You’re what, all of twenty? Hell, other than Pronto and Arthur, I’m the oldest one here, and I’m barely thirty-three. And I told your dad this is my last drive.”
Rio grinned through the dust, “You want to be the trail boss?”
“Oh no. That’s all on you. You’re young and stupid enough to take that on,” he said with a smile. “Honestly, Rio, I’m getting too broke down to do this every year. Lissy is turning five and keeps wanting daddy to come home on a regular basis. Your dad offered me a position as the ranch foreman, and I think I’m going to take it. Cattle drives are for you youngsters.”
Rio nodded, “I keep hearing that, but how do you explain Pronto?”
Quinn laughed, “Well, it’s simple. Pronto is crazy as hell. He thinks he’s around seventy, and all he talks about are those damn mountains. And bears, huge elks, all his buddies, and the rendezvous, but apparently he was never sober enough to remember all of the rendezvous. That’s what he blames for both his squaws he married. Personally, I think he wanted something to warm his tent in the winter.”
“You ever tell him that?”
“What do I look like? A fool? That old man is still snake quick with that hogleg he carries, and I’ve seen what he can do with that Bowie he carries.”
Rio sighed as the memory of the last drive, and Pronto’s slicing and dicing of the Comanche that thought he was easy prey played out in his mind. The sheer amount of blood that was everywhere by the time Pronto finished him off had made Rio puke, and a couple of the other drovers turn shades of green. Pronto? Well, Pronto didn’t even turn a hair, and as far as Rio knew, he hadn’t even given it a second thought. You hear about gunfighters, but I wonder how many people that old man has killed? He’s been out here since he was fourteen or so, which makes fifty years on or beyond the frontier. And we’re just now seeing law come this way.
The rattle of a wagon interrupted that chain of thought, as Pronto drove the chuck wagon over, “Just had to kill a tough bull, didn’t ya, boy? Couldn’t find me a nice tender heifer, could you?”
Rio glanced up at him, and saw that he was smiling. “A heifer I could have handled, that bull didn’t want to do anything but kill me.”
“Looks to me like you won.”
“Want some help skinning him out?”
Pronto spat, “Hell no, you yonkers waste too much meat. Got a couple o’ fires goin’. What I can’t cook ‘fore it spoils, I’ll turn into jerky. There’s chili and biscuits cookin’ over by the bedrolls. Go watch it and don’t let it burn. I’ll be a while over here.”
Rio shook his head, “I’m…”
Quinn laughed, “Pronto, you do know he’s supposed to be the trail boss, right?”
Pronto spat again, “Don’t care. He wants to be in charge, he’s in charge of the food. Now go ‘way.”
Noon the next day found Rio, up on Red, his favorite horse, out checking the herd and looking for any trouble. One of the things he was specifically looking for was any lame beeves, as they wouldn’t be able to keep up, and would be a waste of time. He was also checking counts with the various drovers as he worked his way around the herd. He found Arthur sitting quietly on his horse under a tree, just watching a couple of hundred cows browsing on the grass, “What is going on, Arthur?”
“See that piebald cow ‘bout half way to the river?” He pointed languidly to the right.
“The one with a little space around her?”
“I think she might be our bell cow. This bunch came from Cronin’s place, up by Pecos. Wherever she goes, this whole bunch follows her.”
He thought about it for a minute, “Joshua Cronin put what, five hundred head in?”
Arthur nodded, “Yep. Juan and I went up and got them last week, along with a dozen mustangs.”
“Well, we don’t have one, so it might be worth a try. You want to get a rope on her and bell her now?”
“Not yet. I’d give it a day or two once we get ‘em movin’. But I’d like to push this bunch to the front and see what happens. She don’t seem to spook, I rode within a rod of her and she just looked at me.”
“You’re not usually wrong, so let’s go with that idea. I’m guessing you already talked to Quinn?”
Arthur’s face split into a grin, “Why young Rio Hackett, what makes you think I, a poor black man, would go behind my bosses back?”
Rio laughed, “Because you two do that on a regular basis? Poor? Hell, you’re getting paid more than I am. So is Quinn! I think Pa is paying you two to babysit me.”
“No, suh. You’re a man growed. Been one since you were fourteen. John and I watched you grow up, especially after the war. You learned to ride young, and you know how to use that pistol, and your rifle.” We’ve taught you all we can, and I know John is quitting after this drive. I may too.” He glanced at his left hand, hidden in a glove, “You know I don’t carry a pistol, and you know why.” Patting the butt of the shotgun sticking up in front of the saddle, “Betsy and me, we do what is needful of doing.”
Arthur came to the ranch in late 1863, if I remember right. He was in grey, and came from Natchez. He’d been hurt, shot in the hand… wrist? And it hadn’t been treated. But he was a freeman. He’d been a farrier and owned a stable in Natchez before the war, but it got… taken away. Dad hired him to take care of the horses.
He nodded, “And you scare the hell out of people with that thing.”
“Most people tend to stop and think when they look down the barrels of Betsy. She don’t back up worth a damn,” Arthur glanced to the east, “And it looks like the remuda is here, along with your dad. I hope they all got shoes. Orlando was supposed to take care of that.”
Rio laughed, “You just want to do the shoeing and sit in your nice warm workshop, don’t you?”
“I’m getting old too. I’m almost forty. And I’m from Mississippi. I don’t like cold. And this is gonna be a long cold trip.”
“Let’s go see what dad brought, and what he has to say.”
“Lead on, boss.”
A half hour later, the wagon had been unloaded into the chuck wagon, the horses added to the remuda, and three new riders introduced themselves. John Hackett tied his horse to the rear of the now empty wagon, hopped up into the bed, waved his hat, and yelled, “Gather round!”
The cowboys not already standing around rode over, and he looked at each of them, “Men, I don’t have a lot to say. You’re going to be the first herd up the trail, as best we can tell. You’ve got a herd to deliver to Nathan Story at Fort Laramie. Rio is the trail boss, he’s been over the trail, and knows where he’s going. Some of you went up last year, and some are new. If you have questions, ask one of the old hands. As far as I know, there aren’t any Indians on the warpath yet. Regular cowhands get forty a month and found, you new guys prove out, you’ll get that also. Any questions?”
He looked around again, then said, “I want to see all of you back at the ranch in September.” He hopped down and motioned to Rio, who got down and followed him around the wagon. “The Peterson kid, Hoyt, is young, thirteen maybe fourteen, but they need help. His ma died a couple of months ago, and his da has two more kids at home. I’m going to pay him directly, so only give Hoyt five dollars a month. Pronto has seven hundred in gold in the chuck wagon, and you should still have the two hundred I gave you. That should allow you to pay any tolls that people throw up, or the Indians, and give you enough to buy supplies as necessary.”
“What about ammo? I didn’t…”
“Brought another thousand rounds of forty-four, and a hundred rounds for Arthur. Neither the Peterson kid or Cavanaugh kid had a pistol, so I gave them a couple of those Colt Army conversions we had at the ranch. I brought five hundred rounds of forty-five to feed them. I were you, I’d make Peterson the wrangler. He can ride, and he can shoot a little. Not sure how good he would be with the herd. Cavanaugh was punching cows for Gonzales, but wanted to make more money. Jesus Rodriquez is a cousin of Juan’s from across the river. He can ride, and he’s good with a riata.”
“We’ll fold them in. I plan on pushing across the river tomorrow, and getting them lined out. First couple of days will shake out both the cows and the crew, or so you taught me.”
John shook his head, “Smart-alecky kids. Your ma sends her love.” He reached out and hugged Rio, “Take care, son. We want you back safe.”
“I’ll do my best Pa,” he reached in his jacket, handing a folded piece of paper to his dad, “Oh, I wrote this for Uncle Ethan. I want to try to see him on the way back.”
“I’ll get it to Butterfield. It should be there in a month.” He shoved it in his pocket and climbed onto the wagon seat, picked up the reins, and headed east, as Rio stood watching.
Rio sighed, and thought, Well, what do I do now. I need to put a schedule together with a rotation, and scout, gotta put somebody out front… Rio swung back into the saddle, and turned toward the chuck wagon.