Well, once again the muse can’t make up her mind what I’m supposed to be working on…
So you get western… The usual caveats, and comments/corrections welcome. I promise I’ll get back on The Grey Man (as soon as the muse lets me)…
Rio smiled as Pronto drove the chuck wagon into the camp. “Bout time you got back! I thought we were going to have to send the crew in to search the bars for you,” he said with a laugh.
“Shaddap boy. Damn quartermaster was a real shit. He wanted to double and triple check everything. And he had to go to the colonel and get his permission to take gold in payment. I had to get some seasonings in town, and I got something to eat too. Took my time coming back, since I got three dozen eggs back there packed in straw, and a slab of bacon. Figured you boys might like to have bacon and eggs for breakfast for a change.”
“Bacon and eggs? You’re forgiven! Hell, why wait for breakfast?”
“Cause my ass is draggin’, and I ain’t gonna cook them with the beans tonight.”
Rio sighed. “Alright. I won’t say anything to the others. If I did, you’d be mobbed.”
Pronto spit. “I can take care of mobs,” he said with a grin. “They might not like how I take care of it, but I could.” Rio shivered, remembering that Pronto was not someone that you wanted to piss off. “You bedding them down here?”
“Yeah, today is a month on the trail, and I figured we needed a little bit of a break. Maybe let a few of the fellas go into town tonight. We’re a little ahead of where I thought we would be, and there’s good water and feed here.”
Pronto shrugged, “You’re the boss. You goin’ in?”
“Nah, I went in last year, and I didn’t care for it. How many of them do you think will want to go in?”
Pronto climbed down with a groan, putting his hands in the small of his back and stretching. He scratched his beard, then said, “Arthur won’t. Morgan probably won’t. Quinn,” he rocked his hand back and forth, “Maybe. McCormick will, Jesus will. Tobin will. The kids will want to go too. The others? No idea.”
“I figured we can let half the crew go tonight, or all of them, depending on how many want to go. Peterson can’t, he’s not got any money. Cavanaugh maybe, but he’s been pretty quiet.”
Pronto spit and nodded. “Both them kids are working out pretty well. I been working with Peterson on his gun handling. Cavanaugh’s been doing some of the huntin’, he’s a pretty good rifle shot, and he’s young enough to enjoy stalking the game.”
Rio was surprised, “You’ve been working with them?”
“If they’re going to be handling guns around me, I want to know I can trust them with ‘em. Peterson’s a little slow, but he’s accurate. He’s learning accuracy counts, and reloading those old conversions are a pain. I showed them some tricks, and they picked ‘em up quick. I got ‘em both carrying extra wedges in their pockets too,” he said with a cackle.
Rio remembered Pronto training him and grimaced. “Slapped the pistol, did you?”
Pronto just grinned as he turned away, starting to unhitch the mules. Rio rode away chuckling under his breath, and took a quick pass around the herd, letting the little gruella step out. I gotta remember this horse. She’s got some spunk. He rode north from the herd, topping out on a little rise, he looked north. Now it gets interesting. We’re getting into the breaks, and it’s going to slow us down some. I figure we’ve been making ten, maybe twelve miles a day… Even with the days getting longer, I hope we can make six, maybe eight miles a day through this stuff. At least we’re first, so there is plenty of grass, and thankfully it’s been a wet spring, so we haven’t had to do any long pushes for water. He inhaled deeply, sighed and turned the gruella back toward the herd, letting her have her head.
It turned out that only half the hands wanted to go into town, and Rio let all of them go, asking Quinn to go along and ride herd on them as necessary. “John, I know you didn’t particularly want to go, but they do need somebody to keep them from getting stupid.” He handed him a $20 gold piece. “At least get yourself a decent meal, and a bath if you want one.”
Quinn chuckled. “First time I’ve ever got paid to go to town.” He flipped the gold piece in the air, caught it, and slipped it into his vest pocket. “A warm bath would be good thing. Maybe soak these old bones for a while and I’ll be less grumpy. I’ll do my best to keep ‘em out of trouble.”
“Thanks, John. That’s all I ask.”
Pronto rang the triangle, “Supper’s up! Come and get it, fore I throw it out!”
Quinn laughed. “Enjoy the beans, Rio. We’ll be back by morning.”
Rio grinned and waved as he turned toward the chuck wagon. Getting a plate of beef and beans, he sat on the log near the fire and grimaced as he took the first bite. They’re gonna get a good meal, and I’m eating beef and beans. I hope this is end of that damn brindle’s meat. He was a chewy sumbitch. He ate the rest of the meal without comment as the crew rode off, heading for town and laughing and joking.
After he cleaned his plate, he looked around, “Arthur, you and I’ll take the next night herd turn.” He thought for a second, “Morgan, you and Peterson want to relieve us at midnight?”
Morgan got up slowly, heading for the chuck wagon. “Sure boss. Right, Hoyt?”
The young cowboy nodded. “I don’t have a watch.”
Morgan replied, “I do. I’ll make sure you’re up.”
Tobin groaned, “Guess that means I got the last guard, right boss?”
Rio nodded, “Sorry Tobin. I’ll go relieve…you get along with Gonzales better, right?”
“Okay, I’ll go relieve him now. I’ll tell Miller you’ll relieve him at eight, Arthur.”
Arthur shrugged. “I can go now, iffn you want.”
“No, Miller won’t be doubling back like Gonzales.”
Rio went over to the remuda, found the gruella and threw a lasso on her. He got her saddled up, coiled his lasso and hung it off the saddle horn, checked to make sure the strap was on his pistol and mounted up. The sun was just sinking in the west as he rode slowly out to the herd, scanning for either of the cowboys ridding around the herd. He finally saw a hat bobbing to the northwest, and turned in that direction. A couple of minutes later, he saw Gonzales, and waved his hat.
Gonzales pulled up and Rio rode over to him, “Raoul, I’m relieving you early. I need you to double back with Tobin at four AM.”
Gonzales shook his head. “Knew I should have gone to town, Boss,” he said jokingly.
Rio laughed, “You had your chance.”
“Jesus is young. He deserves the chance. Me, I’m saving to marry Lupe when we get back. I don’t need to spend the money.”
“Lupe? Lupe that came over from Reardon’s ranch? Really? Congratulations, Raoul!”
Gonzales smiled, “I knew her in old Mexico. We are from the same village. When Juan was killed by that bull last year, she didn’t want to stay on that ranch. Too many memories. Juanita is her cousin, and got her a job on your ranch.” He shrugged. “We have been talking. Neither of us is young, and we are comfortable with each other.”
Rio nodded. “Well, I hope you’re comfortable with beef and beans. That’s supper. I hope this is the last of that damn brindle steer.”
“It is food, boss. Better than nothing. Thank you for relieving me early.”
“De nada.” Gonzales rode off toward the chuck wagon as Rio looked around, Dammit, I didn’t ask him which way he was riding. But he’s right handed, so probably counter clockwise. Twenty minutes later, just as the sun set, he met Miller coming the other way. “Everything okay, Ethan?”
Miller pulled up. “So far, boss. Where’d Raoul go?”
“I relieve him early, he’s doubling back with Tobin at four.”
Miller chuckled. “Better him than me. Beef and beans again?”
“Yep. Pronto should have something different tomorrow, he brought supplies back.”
“Good! Your bell cow is bedded down.”
Rio smiled, “Good to know. This little gruella likes to step out, so I might be moving around a little faster than normal.”
Miller patted the neck of the dun he was riding, “This one’s a plodder. He ain’t fast, but he’s steady. Good night horse. See ya when I see ya, boss.”
Rio nodded and trotted toward the front of the herd, trying to keep the gruella from picking up speed, “Slow down, you. This ain’t a race, and you’re gonna be hauling me around for the next six hours.” She twitched her ears at him, but slowed as he pulled on the reins. He scanned the herd, looking for any problems and saw probably three quarters of the herd bedded down. The ones remaining up were cropping grass and lowing softly.
Five hours later, Rio’s butt was hurting and he was having trouble staying awake, he’d been humming The Little Log Cabin in the Lane, and starting singing it. The gruella humped her back a couple of times and laid her ears back, and Rio said, “Okay, okay, no singing. I’ll just sit up here and be quiet.”
A few minutes later, he and Arthur met, “Looks like things are quiet, but we’re losing the stars.”
Arthur replied, “Yep, getting a few puffs of wind too. Looks like most of the herd is down.”
Rio pulled out his watch and lit a match. “Another half hour to go.”
“Good. I’m tired.”
“Me too. It’s going to feel good to get off this horse.”
Arthur chuckled, “You relieved Juan early. It’s your own fault, Rio.”
“I know. But fair is fair.”
“And the men appreciate it. Including the fact that you take your turn at drag. Some of them figured your bossing the drive would go to your head.”
Rio shook his head, “No, daddy would have my ass if I tried that. I saw what Bolton did last year, and I vowed never to do those things if I ever got put in charge.”
Arthur laughed. “That’s why nobody hires him a second time. And he always has problems getting hands. Once is enough with him, even if he does bring the herds through.”
Rio asked curiously, “Then why does he keep getting hired?”
“He gets the herds through. One more round?”
“Yeah. Meet me at the southwest corner of the herd. That’s closest to the camp. That’ll make the turnover quicker.”
Rio laughed as he rode on, Arthur is something else. We’re lucky to have him, but sometimes I wonder about him. A half hour later, Morgan and Peterson cantered out of the camp as Rio pulled up where Arthur was waiting. “Josh, Hoyt, it’s quiet, but we’ve lost the stars. Wind’s been picking up a little then laying down. Most of the herd is down and don’t seem too restless.”
Morgan nodded. “Got it, boss. Which way you been riding?”
“Okay, I’ll take that. Hoyt, you take clockwise.”
Peterson replied, “Okay. Slow riding, right?”
Arthur said, “Slow and easy. Take your time, ain’t no rush.”
“There isn’t anybody out here but us, the only thing you might see or hear is our other hands coming back from town. Hopefully quietly, but I’m not betting on that.”
Everyone chuckled at that, and Morgan said, “Let’s go Hoyt.”
Rio and Arthur rode back to camp, each with their own thoughts. After turning the horses into the remuda, Rio said, “Pronto will have a surprise for breakfast, so you might want to get up in the morning.”
Arthur laughed. “With Pronto it’s always a surprise. ‘Night, boss.”
“Night.” Rio dropped his saddle and saddle blanket next to his bedroll and sat down with a thump. Pulling his boots off, he wiggled his toes and sighed, “Oh, that feels good!” Unbuckling his gun belt, he hung it on the wagon wheel next to him, and unrolled the bed roll, draping it over the saddle. He rolled onto it with a groan, and fell asleep in minutes.
A bright flash and a loud boom startled Rio out of a deep sleep, momentarily stunning him. As he fought to figure out what was going on, he heard a rumble and mooing cattle. He froze, Stampede… Oh… Bolting up, he stomped his feet into his boots, frantically slinging his gun belt around his hips and he heard Arthur yelling, “Stampede! Everybody up!”
Pronto rolled out of the back of the wagon with a grunt, hobbling toward the remuda cussing. Rio grabbed him, “No! Stay here and guard the wagon. If anybody comes in, get them on a fresh horse as soon as you can.”
Grabbing his saddle, bridle, and saddle blanket, he ran toward the remuda. Dropping them, he pulled the lasso loose, shook out a loop, and dropped over the first horse he saw close enough to him that he could make it out. The horse reared, and he hung on to the lasso, then pulled on the lasso, getting the horse to come to him. Taking a chance, he stood on the lasso, quickly throwing the saddle blanket on, smoothing it out, and swinging the saddle on. Buckling the girth, he pulled the bridle off his arm, quickly got the bit in the horse’s mouth, fastened the bridle, and slid the lasso off its neck.
He heard the cattle stampeding away from the camp, and he quickly swung into the saddle. As he did, he heard a single shot. Damn. That…isn’t good. I hope that was an accident. He lightly touched the spurs to the horse and it bucked a couple of times, then started away from all the noise. He reined it around, touched the spurs to it again, and it took off at a dead run.
A bolt of lightning, followed almost immediately by another clap of thunder startled both Rio and the horse, which shied and almost put Rio in the dirt. He continued to chase the herd, slowly catching up with it, and praying the horse didn’t step in any holes and break a leg.
What seemed like hours later, he could finally make out individual cows, and he realized they had managed to turn the herd back on itself. The herd had finally stopped running but continued milling and lowing. As the light grew brighter, he could see them still rolling their eyes and cattle scattered across a wide section of the plain. He reined the dun to halt, and it dropped its head, sides heaving, as foam flecked its muzzle. “Sorry horse, didn’t mean to ride you that hard.” He patted its shoulder, feeling the sweat and felt his legs start cramping. He groaned and swung down, going to his knees as his legs gave out.
The horse nuzzled his hair as he tried to get up, finally pulling himself up using the stirrup, he stood wavering and frantically undid his pants so he could void his bladder. He looked around, hoping no one saw him, then buttoned back up and started walking the horse back toward the herd. He saw Quinn riding around the herd, leading a horse and waved. Quinn rode over to him, “You alright, Rio?”
“I think so, but this dun is wore slap out. When did you get back?”
“We rode out as soon as we heard the thunder. Couple of the fellas are a little worse for wear.”
Bitterly, Rio looked around, “It’s going to take us days to round up all these critters.”
Quinn nodded. “Yep, but we’ll get it done. At least none of them ran off a cliff that we know of. I brought a spare for you.”
“Thanks, let me change my tack over, and I’ll get started.” Rio pulled his saddle and blanket off the dun and moved it to the pinto, then the bridle, replacing the hackamore. He put the hackamore on the dun and swung back into the saddle.
As he swung up, Quinn said, “No, you need to go back and get some coffee and food in you. We’re cycling people back now. You keep going, and you’re going to get hurt.”
Rio bristled, “John, we need—”
“Dammit, Rio, we need you thinking. Not just reacting. Nothing you do right now is going to be worth a shit. You’re in charge, so take charge.”
“Alright. Fine. Start trying to get the strays back to the herd. Get somebody up here to hold the front of the herd here. I’ll send the first two people I see up here to help you.”
Quinn nodded. “That’s more like it.”
Rio picked up the hackamore and rode slowly back south toward the camp. Looking up, he saw that the sky was clear overhead, and the heavy clouds had moved off to the east. He saw Tobin first and told him to head north, find Quinn and hold the herd. A mile or so later, he saw Morgan and told him the same thing. He’d ridden almost six miles before he saw the chuck wagon in the distance, and he shivered, It’s a miracle I didn’t kill myself last night. Five, six miles? Damn. He rode up to the remuda, took the hackamore off the dun and patted it on the neck, “You done good, horse.” Turning he rode over to the chuck wagon, swung out of the saddle and tied the pinto to the tailboard.
Pronto looked at him, relief in his eyes, as he handed Rio a plate of bacon and eggs, topped with a biscuit. “Glad to see you, boy.”
Rio slumped down on the log, balancing the plate on his knees, “Damn glad to be here, Pronto.” He ate quickly, then got up. “Have we accounted for everybody?”
Pronto glanced at him, then straightened up. “Everybody ‘cept the boy. Peterson. Ain’t seen him come in. You and him were the last two.”
Rio froze. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Pronto growled at him, “What good would it have done. You needed to eat. Now drink your damn coffee. Quinn and Arthur are out checking.”
Rio remembered, “I heard a shot last night…just after…the stampede started.”
Pronto nodded, “I remember that. Didn’t hear another one.”
“No. No I didn’t either. I shouldn’t have put him out there. He didn’t know—”
“Stop it, dammit. He was drawing a man’s pay, and doing a man’s job. He knew the risks. And we don’t know where he is. He may be chasing cows down in the breaks.”
Late that afternoon, Rio was riding back toward camp to change horses when he found what was left of Peterson and his horse. From the position, he must have been nearly dead center in front of the herd when they stampeded. After he threw up, he pulled his pistol and fired three rounds. Arthur was the first one there, and he took one look at Rio, looked at the mess on the ground, and took off his hat. “Lord, take this young man into your arms. He died trying to do the right thing.”
Quinn rode up next, took one look and said, “Not much we can do. I’d say we bury him right here.”
Rio replied, “There isn’t enough left to bury, John. It’s hard to separate what was Peterson and what was the horse.”
Arthur said, “At least he didn’t know what hit him. A thousand or more cows running over him—”
“He knew,” Rio said bitterly, “He knew. He got off one shot. I wonder if that was to kill the horse.”
“Might have been. Looks like he’s north of the horse, so that would make sense. He tried to make a bulwark, probably never had a chance to drop a cow.”
Pronto rode up on a mule, just as Cavanaugh and Gonzales came from the herd. Cavanaugh asked in horror, “Is that…” He turned away, throwing up violently.
Gonzales paled and took his hat off. “Madre dios.”
Pronto slid off the mule and Rio realized he’d ridden it bareback. He pulled his skinning knife out and poked around, “Looks like his gun was out of the holster. It’s either broke or buried somewhere around here.” He looked up at Rio, “We need to go get rocks and pile ‘em over them. Make a cairn right here. Ain’t enough left to bury. I’ll do a cross we can plant.” He got up, wiped the knife clean on his pants and swung back up on the mule, then turned back to camp.
Four hours later, all the remaining cowboys stood around an eight foot by six foot by three foot cairn of rocks as Pronto pounded the top of a wooden cross into the ground at the end of the cairn. The cross piece simply said Hoyt Peterson died here April 10, 1870. Rio took off his hat, “The only thing I can think of is the twenty-third Psalm. It ain’t the right one, but maybe he’ll understand.” Rio scrubbed his face, then repeated, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Lord, receive Hoyt into your house and give him peace. Amen.”
A chorus of amens followed, and Rio looked up at the sky, tears in his eyes. He stood for a moment, then put his hat back on, “Alright, let’s go to work. We got cows the gather up. I’m going to the fort to send a message to Pa that Hoyt’s been killed. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Quinn you’re in charge.”
He mounted Red, touched his heels to his flanks as he turned west toward the fort and let Red run, dreading the message he would have to send when he got there.