As usual, unedited stream of consciousness (or lack thereof)…
Comments/recommendations appreciated as always.
After almost a week of chasing cows, Rio finally decided to move the herd on up the trail. Two hundred fifty-four cows short, even after poking in damn near every draw in the area, and grousing from the hands, including the two new hands, Dan Henderson, another Texas cowboy, and Felix Estevez, up from Juarez. Pronto had made another run into the Fort for provisions and news that there was a herd about a week behind them. Quinn had pointed out that losses were going to happen, and they’d done all they could. Rio grumbled, but nodded and they lined the herd out the next morning.
Riding around the herd, he chanced on Arthur in the process of hazing a couple of mossyhorns back into the herd. Arthur said, “Glad you got us moving. Guys were getting down pretty bad, seeing Peterson’s cross ever time they rode out.”
Rio grimaced. “Yeah, but we’re down cows. And Quinn says we’ll lose more. Plus, we gotta eat. I know that’s why we kept a few mulies in the herd, but—”
Arthur laughed harshly. “Oh, don’t worry boss, we’ll probably pick up three, maybe four hunnert head between now an Laramie. Ever herd loses some, and the next herd picks up some. Alus happens that way. We’uns might get a few mavericks too, they be free for the branding.”
Rio nodded. “That’s right, we picked up around two hundred last year, noted their brands, and I think dad sent the owners the money for them. I don’t remember that many mavericks though.”
“Scouts find ‘em, they brand ‘em right there, and cut ‘em if they need it. You never got to scout last year did you?”
“Nah, dad was more interested in my learning how to run the herd. I haven’t scouted since the last trip up the Chisholm Trail in sixty-nine, and that wasn’t much more than route, crossings, and Indians.”
Juan came riding through the drifting dust and slid to a stop beside Rio. “Injuns ahead. The scouts said a bunch of them are on a ridge ahead and to the left of the herd. Pronto told me to find you and tell you to meet him at the chuckwagon. Oh, and scout said there was apparently a big chief and a medicine man with the injuns.”
Rio shook his head. “Dammit, that’s the last thing we needed right now. Hate to ask you, but can you take over for me back here?” When Juan nodded, Rio cantered into the dust with a wave of his hand. Fifteen minutes later, he reined up at the chuckwagon, seeing Cavanaugh driving he asked, “Where’s Pronto, Rene?”
Cavanaugh nodded toward the back of the chuckwagon, “He’s gettin’ some stuff he needs to meet with the injuns. He wanted you to rustle up a horse for him if you got here afore he’s ready.”
Rio nodded. “Yeah, I want to get up on Red, so I’ll go do that now. Tell Pronto I’ll be back in ten or so minutes.” He peeled off and headed toward the remuda where Jesus and one of the new hands, Estevez, was helping with the herd. He rode around the remuda until he spotted Red, then whistled. Red, ears pricked, saw him and pushed through the herd to him, nuzzling his hand as he climbed down from the grulla he was riding and stripped the tack from it. He quickly got the roan saddled and lassoed a piebald that was on the edge of the remuda and led it back to the chuckwagon.
He was surprised to see Pronto climb down from the chuckwagon in buckskins, but didn’t say anything as he pulled down a saddle blanket, saddle, and bridle. Pronto quickly saddled the piebald, then reached back into the wagon and pulled out a small sack that he looped around the saddle horn. “Tabaccy, injuns prize good stuff for their peace pipes. Bring money to pay the toll, too. This area, these are probably going to be Mescalaro Apache.” He flicked the reins and led off at a trot. A few minutes later, he said, “Tell the guys to cut out a few head, maybe three, four. Some of those mulies that aren’t going to make it.”
Rio saw Henderson, another one of the new hires, and Quinn off in the distance. He rode over to Henderson. “Dan, got get Quinn and tell him we need three or four mulies or whatever he can cut out quickly. Gonna do some trading with the Indians.”
Henderson nodded. “Will do, Boss.” He turned and high tailed it toward Quinn as Rio cantered to catch back up with Pronto.
Pretty soon they could see the Indians lining the ridge top and Pronto chuckled. “Games. They love to play games. Here’s how we’re going to play this. We’re going to ride up to the center of their group, but not try to climb the ridge. Make them come to us. Let me do the talking. When I give you the signal, you tell me real loud, two steers. That’s how many we’ll give them.”
Rio could only nod, as this was really the first time he’d be directly opposite Indians without backup. They rode out at angle, stopping about fifty yards from the ridge line, which had a number of trails down it. Pronto chuckled and said softly, “That is Santana. Guess old Barranquito either died or got too old to lead the tribe.” He squinted. “And that’s Gorgonia with him. He’s the old medicine man, so I guess Santana is the new chief.”
Quinn and Henderson stopped a hundred yards behind them with five cows and Pronto raised his arm and waved, the Indian waved back, and dozen of them started down the ridge. A few minutes later, they reined up twenty or so feet from Rio and Pronto. Pronto talked to them in their language, and Rio heard Santana and Gorgonia’s names, with both of them smiling. They went back and forth, and Pronto said, “They want to know why we don’t go over Raton Pass.”
Rio said, “Don’t want to pay the toll and there is plenty of graze out here. Also, less chance of cows getting borrowed on the way over the pass.”
Pronto coughed to cover a laugh and gave what Rio guessed was a long winded explanation. Rio thought to himself, I really need to learn some Indian talk. Spanish just isn’t enough. And it’s not like Pronto didn’t try to teach me… More back and forth occurred and Rio watched the Indians as Pronto talked. The one brave on the far end obviously didn’t like what was going on, alternately glaring and probably mumbling under his breath. His horse was also restive, picking up on his rider’s anger. Rio was relieved that they weren’t in warpaint and didn’t appear to be that heavily armed. He counted eight rifles among the dozen, with Gorgonia and the others armed only with bows and knives.
Pronto said, “They want a toll. They’ll take half what we would have paid for Raton.”
Rio nodded. “Okay. Hold your hand out and I’ll drop the five gold pieces into it in plain sight.” Pronto’s hand came up and Rio reached into his vest pocket, carefully grabbing five gold pieces, then dropping them one by one into his hand.
After another extended back and forth, Pronto moved his hand back and extended two fingers, so Rio took that as his cue and looked at Santana. “Give them two steers. We would not want them to starve, and we don’t want them to raid our cattle either. Especially after we paid the toll.’
Pronto nodded at him, then turned back and started another long winded explanation. As he did, the one brave Rio had been watching, pulled out a coup stick, yelled and kicked his horse into a gallop at Rio.
Without a thought, Rio drew and fired in one smooth motion, the end of the coup stick flew away, and the brave’s horse suddenly started bucking. Smoke curling from the pistol, Rio looked down the entire rank of Indians. Seeing no other reaction, he holstered his pistol and said, “Give them three steers, as an apology for pulling my gun on that brave. And please tell them that the next one that tries that will get shot in the head, not the coup stick.”
He turned his horse, leaving Pronto to talk to them and rode back to Quinn. “Cut out the two mulies and that grey sumbitch and head them toward Pronto.”
Quinn smiled. “Good! I’ll be glad to see that damn steer gone fore he kills somebody.” He and Henderson cut the two other cows, leaving them with Rio and headed the other three at the Indians, then rode back with Pronto to where Rio was sitting.
Rio asked, “So, what was that all about?”
Pronto glared at him. “Did you really have to shoot at that dumbass? He as just gonna count coup on you with his stick. That was a helluva chance you took trying to shoot the stick.”
Rio smiled. “I wasn’t shooting at the stick. I was shooting at his right ear. I was going to nick him to get his attention. That damn stick just happened to be in the way.”
Pronto’s eyes got big, “You what?”
“Wasn’t gonna give that sumbitch a chance at me. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do.”
“Well, you know you made an enemy for life, don’t you?”
Rio shrugged. “Not the first one I’ve made.” He gigged Red to a canter and rode back to the herd in silence.
They pushed hard for the next week, thankful for the good weather, finally coming to the Canadian River. Pronto had swum with wagon across at first light, after telling Rio he’d move a mile north and make camp just clear of the breaks. Rio nodded and swung back to the herd, finding Quinn and between them, they placed the cowboys to keep the herd moving and managing both sides of the river.
He helped Cavanaugh and Arthur get the remuda across, then turned back again as the first of the herd came into view. Rio cussed the cold water again as he rode into the river, driving the first of the cattle across it. It was only a little over girth deep on the chestnut, but he had to keep his feet in the stirrups since the horse knee reined. The bell cow bawled but kept on going, made it to the other bank and climbed slowly out, the other cattle lowing and bawling, but following along in a fairly compact group. He splashed on across, turning the bell cow and the first few cows north. Everything was going fairly well until he heard a cow bawling in terror and looked back to see the ornery steer than had been a right pain in the ass mired halfway across the river, thirty yards east of the rest of the herd.
Rio cussed again, got his lasso off the saddle and shook it out, shivered as the chestnut buck jumped down into the river and splashed him. Glad the saddlebags are waterproof. I’m about half tempted to let that sumbitch stay here and drown. He threw a loop and the damn steer managed to dodge it, apparently sinking deeper in the muck and bawling even louder. He’s… Ah damn… you sumbitch! He retrieved the loop and tried again, with no success and shook his head. He was not more than ten feet from the steer when the chestnut took a step, sank and jumped back, dumping Rio in the water. He came up spluttering, grabbed his hat, and cussed then let the current carry him to the steer, dropping the loop over its head, he yelled, “Back! Back!” The chestnut obediently backed up, the rope came taut and Rio pulled himself back to the horse, then climbed back into the saddle.
He patted the horse’s neck then said, “Okay boy, let’s drag his ass out. Back. Good boy! Back! Back!” The chestnut snorted as the steer came slowly out of the mud and scrambled to get its hooves under it. He turned the horse and dragged the steer all the way to the north side of the river before he shook the loop loose and smacked him on the ass, driving him toward the other cows.
He looked down at himself ruefully and mumbled, “Well, I needed a bath anyway. He reined up and rummaged around in the saddlebag until he found the piece of oilcloth, pulled it out. He pulled out his pistol, dumped the rounds out, shook them and sighed with relief when they all rattled. He wiped it down and dried it as well as he could, then wiped each round and slipped the rounds back in, holstered the pistol and slipped the thong back over the hammer.
By the time the last of the herd was across, more than five hours later, Rio’d been dumped in the water twice more and even Red was feeling the workout, but as far as he could tell, they hadn’t lost any steers. He rode up to the chuck wagon and slid from the saddle with a groan, prompting Pronto to look up at him with a laugh. “What’s your problem, boy?” The wind shifted slightly and he added, “Other than you stink! Get the bar soap and go wash off. There’s some soaproot in the side cabinet for your hair.”
Rio said, “I’ll do that, but I’m going to drink a cup of coffee first. How long has it been since you had a bath?”
Pronto laughed. “I had one afore we left. I might get one today, since I need to wash my clothes. Rene needs one too!”
Cavanaugh looked up. “A bath? Where?”
Rio poured a cup of coffee to hide his grin. “In the river. Just make sure it’s upriver of the crossing. And go in at least pairs. One bathes, one guards. And put on clean clothes. Otherwise you get stuff in your crotch that’s not good.”
Quinn trotted up with Gonzales and Estevez just as Rio finished his coffee and rinsed the cup out. He dug around in the side box and pulled out a sprig of soaproot and the bar of soap. “Get your clean clothes, Rene. Time for a bath.”
“Do I gotta?” Rene asked.
“Yep, you stink too.” He looked up, Raoul, you and Estevez want to guard for us, then we’ll do the same for you?”
A glance passed between them and Raoul said, “Sure, Boss. Lemme get some clean stuff out of the wagon.”
Fifteen minutes later, the four of them rode back to the river and down onto a sandbank. Tying the horses to a piece of driftwood, Rio hung his pistol and belt over the saddle horn, then stripped out of his clothes and splashed into the river, cussing. A morose Rene Cavanaugh followed him in as the two Mexicans stood guard.
Estevez glanced at Rio’s chest and saw three bullet scars, with another in his left bicep. He whistled softly and said, “Looks like the boy has seen some action.”
Raoul laughed. “Yeah, the Rio Kid has seen a bit.”
“Rio Kid? Him? I ain’t never seen any of his graveyards.”
Raoul said softly, “I have.” He looked around then continued, “Right after the war, Rio was…seventeen, maybe eighteen. The ranch was gettin’ started back up. He and his little brother were out checkin’ cows when they found a bunch had been run off. Rio sent Junior back to get help and he started following the trail. By the time we got lined out after him, he had a couple hour lead on us. We’d just topped the little ridge down at Lajitas, you know where that is?’
Estevez nodded. “Good place to cross the river.”
“It was almost dark. And Rio had caught up with five Mexes that had stolen about fifty head. He rode right up amongst ‘em and one of them cut down on him. By the time we could get down there, he’d been shot twice, but all five of them were dead from headshots. He was sittin’ on the ground trying to reload that old Remington Conversion with one hand and cussin’.”
“Five head shots?”
Raoul nodded. “Five head shots, in near darkness, from horseback. Took two days to get back, and the last day was in the back of a wagon. Didn’t think he was gonna live. Six months later, Quinn and a couple of other hands delivered some cows to Fort Bliss down there at Magoffinsville.” He looked around again then smiled. “Apparently some vaquero with a problem decided to try to pistol whip Rio. He got one swing in and Rio took the pistola away from him, slapped him with it, and dropped it in the dirt as he started to walk off. Another vaquero cursed at him and pulled his pistola, got off one round that hit Rio on the chest, and Rio drilled that one with another head shot just as the first one charged him with a knife. He put that one down with another headshot and that was it. Quinn said the whole thing didn’t last a minute.”
Estevez cocked his head, “Did you hear something?”
Raoul started to answer when his horse whinnied. “Rio,” he yelled as he reached for the pistol and belt hanging on Red’s saddle. Just as he did, five Mescalero Apaches came out of the breaks, breaking into ululating warcrys as they raced their horses toward the river. Rio turned and slogged toward the sandbank as Raoul slung the belt toward him, then slid his rifle from the scabbard. Estevez was cursing as he fought his horse while trying to get his rifle free.
Raoul came up with the Spencer as he heard the first shots from the Apaches and involuntarily ducked as a bullet whistled by his head. He heard the bang of Rio’s New Model Army in front of him as he brought his rifle up and knocked one Indian from his horse with his first round. By the time he levered a new round into the Spencer and lined up on a second Indian, just as he pulled the trigger, the Indian pitched off the back of his horse.
He looked over a Estevez and saw that he had at least gotten his rifle out, even as his horse was still buck jumping, when he heard Rio yell, “Where is Rene?”
Looking frantically around he didn’t see him until he noticed a head come up twenty yards down river. “Rene! Swim to shore! It’s all over!” He saw Rene wave and looked down at Rio, “He’s okay. He’s down river a bit. Are you hit?”
Disgusted, Rio said, “No, I’m fine. But I lost the damn soap and my good shirt.”
Raoul burst out laughing as Rio stomped up on the sand bar and started pulling his dry union suit. “We just got raided by Apaches and you’re worried about soap and your shirt?”
He heard Estevez mutter, “Un hombre muy malo. I will go get Cavanaugh and see if I can find the soap and shirt,” as a number of the cowboys rode up, rifles and pistols out, yelling questions.
Rio finished pulling on a shirt and put his belt and holster on as he stomped his feet into his boots. He looked around and yelled. “Shut up! We got attacked by five Apaches. Quinn, take a few of the boys across the river and back trail ‘em. Arthur, you, Henderson, and Juan go git them bodies and drag them back up here…well, over on that side of the river.” He took his wet pants and wrung them out as well as he could, then hung them over the saddle skirt just as Pronto rode up on a mule. “Apaches. I think one of them was the one I clipped the coup stick on.”
Pronto winced and mumbled something, then said, “I don’t think Santana woulda sent him. More like he and his buddies been trailing us, looking for a time to ambush us…or you.”
Estevez came back with a sopping wet, naked Cavanaugh riding behind him. Cavanaugh slid off the horse and said, “Found your shirt. And I saved the bar of soap,” holding out the wet shirt.
He took it. “Thanks.” Pointing to Raoul and Estevez he added, “Weren’t for these two, they woulda had us.”
Pronto smiled and said, “What you gonna do now?”
Rio thought for a second and grinned. “I think I’ll send them back tied to their horses with their weapons. That should send a message.” He mounted Red and trotted back across the river, meeting Arthur and the others on the far bank. Looking down, he nodded. “Yep, that’s the sumbitch.” Seeing Quinn and the others coming back with five Indian ponies, he laughed. “Soon as they get here with the horses, tie ‘em on a horse and lead ‘em back out of the breaks and turn ‘em loose.”