Stream of consciousness, 35K words now.
Days turned into weeks, into a month as they trailed the herd further and further north. They had been amazingly lucky, weather wise. They had seen two major storms form behind them, one that came thundering out of the Rockies just before dawn in late June. They’d let the herd run, since they stampeded north. Rio knew from last year, there wasn’t really anything to hurt them short of the Arkansas River, and they were still twenty miles south of there. By the time Pronto caught up to the herd, it was seven hours later, and he was still grumpy. When Rio asked him why, he pulled out a hailstone the size of his fist. “Damn thing almost brained me. It was nigh on to half again as big when I picked it up. Lucky I got the canvas down, otherwise it woulda been destroyed. And I got mules limping from getting hit by hailstones. Plus, I’m gettin’ low on supplies. I gotta go into the Pueblo afore we get to the river.”
Rio nodded and sighed. “That means the…men will want to go in.”
“Give ‘em five dollars. But make them take a bath first. Most of ‘em will eat and buy some possibles, I don’t see too many drinking.”
“We’ve been on the trail for…a little over three months. Another month to go, we’re supposed to deliver the cows…end of July. We might make it yet.”
“And Story’s got another month of driving them to get them to his range. A month to fatten them up and the weather will turn cold on him.”
“It didn’t seem this long last year,” Rio grumbled.
Pronto laughed. “You weren’t in charge last year. Big difference. I’ll also check if there are any messages for ya.”
The good news was that Henderson and Green had found another fifty head of longhorns during their scout that morning. Rio smiled as he rode up to them, “Jeb, where did you and Don find them?”
Green looked down at the ground for a minute, then mumbled, “They wuz up a box canyon off to the west. Don saw some tracks and we followed them. All of ‘em have brands, so we put the Rafter B on them so folks’d know they are part of this herd. We found seven Rafter B cows in that bunch.”
Henderson handed him a piece of paper torn from his tally book. “Here’s the brands we got.”
Rio nodded. “Thanks. That’s good work, gents!” He turned as Flynn and Arthur rode up. “Another fifty steers, John!”
Flynn nodded and Arthur laughed. “You happy now, Rio? That puts us back up over two thousand head, and we still got a month to go.”
“Arthur, you know why I was worried. So many things can still go wrong, and we got a long way to go yet.”
Arthur smiled as the two cowboys pushed the new steers into the herd. “Boss, I know’d that. Jus like you want everthing to go perfect. Ain’t gonna happen, we’ll do the best we can, we allus do. You done good so far.”
Rio dropped his head momentarily, then looked between the two of them. “There is so much I don’t know. If it wasn’t for y’all and Pronto—”
Flynn smiled as he interrupted. “Rio, you’re making it work. The cowboys respect you because there isn’t a job that you won’t do. Most trail bosses wouldn’t even think about riding drag once, much less taking a turn regularly. Just like the night herding, same thing. But…if we don’t find some water soon, they’re gonna run when they smell water. We ain’t had any good water since we crossed the Purgatory, and they’re gettin’ dry. I’m guessing they’ll probably run tomorrow, and we need to let ‘em run. They’ll stop when they hit the river, we just need to keep all of ‘em pointed in the same direction. It’s probably a good thing Pronto is breaking off tomorrow morning to go to Pueblo for supplies. That way we won’t have to worry about him being in the way.”
“We won’t have much in the way of food for two days until he gets back. And the men are going to want to go into Pueblo.”
Arthur took his hat off and wiped his balding skull. “Probably. And we’ll probably lose a cow or two in the run to the river. We will end up eating them til Pronto gets back. Allus do remember last year?”
Rio rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “Yeah, I remember. We lost, what, thirty head?”
Flynn added philosophically, “We’ll lose what we lose.”
“As long as it’s not any cowboys,” Rio snapped, and they both nodded. I don’t need to jump them. Hell, if it wasn’t for them, I…wouldn’t be here. He added, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap. It’s just that…I don’t want to lose anybody for a stupid reason.” Three of the steers Green and Henderson had brought back were trying to make a break back west, and Rio took off after them, Arthur riding to catch up as Flynn sat his horse, shaking his head and smiling.
They had done little more than start the herd moving before there was a loud bawling from the front of the herd as the bell cow and others started trotting. Rio, riding point, yelled to Juan, “They smell water, they’re gonna run! Get out!” Rio pulled the grulla around and put the spurs to her, breaking for the left side of the herd as he heard Juan whoop. He made it to the edge of the herd as more and more cows started trotting, then running flat out as he turned north, skirting the edge of the herd and pushing the ones that tried to bolt west.
Two hours later he found the remuda trailing the herd, trotting along nicely bunched, with Cavanaugh and Morgan hazing them north. “You need a horse, Mr. Bell,” Cavanaugh asked as they came within earshot.
“Yeah, this one is wore slap out.” Rio climbed down, stripped off the saddle, saddle blanket and bridle, then slapped the little grulla on the haunch. “Go on, girl, you deserve a break.” He dropped the bridle on the saddle blanket and walked in circles, trying to stretch his legs and get some feeling back in his feet.
Morgan had daubed a loop on a chestnut and led her over, handing the lasso to Rio. “Thanks! Hopefully, the river will stop ‘em. Henderson said the Arkansas is bank full, so we might get a break for a day or two.” He slipped his bridle on the fresh horse, then handed the lasso back to Morgan.
As he was coiling his lasso back up, Morgan asked, “We gonna get to go into Pueblo? What with no chuck wagon…”
Rio laughed. “I knew that was coming. Yes, if the river is up as much as I think, we’ll split the crew and let half go in one day and half the next. But you gotta take a bath first.”
Morgan replied, “I got no problem with that. You gonna give us a draw?”
“Five dollars. That’s plenty to get something to eat and some possibles. Don’t get drunk, Pueblo’s got a lot of miners there.”
“Oh, I ‘member last year. Sloan got stomped in that fight he got into. He ain’t been right since and can’t work no more. I gotta work. I got a wife and kid back home.”
Smiling, Rio said, “So you can be a good example.”
Cavanaugh rode up and said, “Good example of what, Mr. Bell?”
Tightening the cinch, Rio mounted with a groan. “Morgan’s a good example of what not to do in town. Ask him about Sloan.” With that, he turned and cantered back toward the herd. As he topped the little ridge and looked down on the Arkansas he whistled. Damn, we’re not crossing for two or three days. It’s not bank full, it’s out of the banks, and probably gonna be some cows bogged in. The cows spread out a half mile wide, some up to their quarters in the water, others up their hocks, but none trying the main current. He counted riders and was relieved that everyone was present and up on horses.
As he rode down toward the river, he glimpsed Flynn on the east side of the herd, pulling out his rifle and the crack as he fired, and a cow dropped. Riding over, he looked and saw the broken fetlock. “Only one?”
Flynn shoved the rifle back in the scabbard and shrugged. “One that we know of. Who knows how many got trampled getting here. At least this one is off to the side, and this little mound will do for a campsite, since Pronto isn’t here.”
Rio got down and shook his legs, then turned to Juan as he rode up. “Let’s gut her and skin her out. John, you want to get the crew sorted and get the night riders over here, I’ll tell them what the plan is.”
He nodded and rode off as Boyle rode up. “Rio, what you going to do about crossing?”
“We’re not, Shawn. River’s too high. You want to round up some wood while we get started butchering? Cavanaugh and Morgan should have the pans and beans with the remuda. When they get here, we’ll start supper.”
Boyle rode off grumbling, and Juan laughed as he wielded his Bowie knife. “He does not like getting wood, does he?”
Chuckling, Rio replied, “Shaun is Boston Irish. According to pa, they’re raised on mother’s milk to object to authority of any kind.”
“Ah, I wondered why he never would go to Spanish Town.”
He heaved on the cow’s leg, grunting, “Let’s flip this sumbitch over and get the rest of the hide off. We can stack the guts, tie the hide up, and somebody can drag it downwind from the camp.”
They finally got the herd bedded down and the cowboys ate the steaks and beans that Rio and Juan had cooked. As they ate, Rio laid out his plan for half the drovers to go to town at a time, reminding them it was a mining town and advising them to pair off. The night riders got the same word when they came in for their food, and Rio finally unrolled his bedroll and laid down as the fire guttered in the breeze. I hope Flynn can ride herd on everybody. It’s been a long time since they’ve been to town. I gotta let Cavanaugh go too. He never got to go in to Fort Sumner.
Rio rode slowly into Pueblo, conscious that he would have to send off another telegram to his pa. Why Shawn, why? You stupid… He rode slowly to the undertaker’s place, Flynn riding silently beside him. They reined up and got down, tied the horses to the hitching rail, and Rio stepped up on the boardwalk. Opening the door, he motioned Flynn through it and followed him in.
A door to the back of the building opened and a tall, skinny, balding man, dressed all in black, looked out. “What can I do for you?”
Rio swallowed the lump in his throat and replied, “You have one of my men here. I…need to make arrangements for his…burial.”
Rio snapped, “He has…had a name. Shawn Boyle!”
The man came all the way through the door. “I didn’t have a name. They just tole me to come get his body. He got kilt by some miners.”
Flynn interrupted, “Not killed, murdered. He was down and out, and they put the boots to him.”
The man shrugged. “Dead is dead. Twenty dollars for a coffin and burial on Boot Hill. Or do you want to take him with ya? Headboard is an extra five dollars. Good clothes is an extra three dollars.”
Rio said through gritted teeth, “I want to see him.”
The undertaker shrugged again. “He’s back here. ‘Taint purty.” He held the door open and Rio steeled himself as he looked, then walked through the door. Boyle lay on the sawn table in the back, already bloating. Shawn…Shawn, why couldn’t you leave the booze alone? Now you paid the price. I hope your soul finds some peace wherever you are now.
“I kin put his clothes back on him, iffen you want.”
“Where are his boots?”
“Dunno. He didn’t have any on when we went to git him.”
Rio turned to Flynn. “John?”
“I don’t know. I went for the sheriff as soon as I saw the body. Cavanaugh was there, but down on the floor. I think he’d been kicked or something.”
“Cavanaugh said he was…” Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a twenty dollar gold piece and counted out five silver dollars. “I want him buried today. We will watch to make sure you do it right.”
“Ain’t no call to—” the undertaker looked at Rio’s face, gulped and said, “I’ll get right on it. Gotta get a wagon to carry—”
“Just get it done. Let’s go see the sheriff, John.” They walked down the street to the small plaza and crossed it to the jail. Walking in, it surprised Rio to see three men sitting there. One heavyset older man with a star sat behind the desk, and two younger, fitter men sat one to each side of the desk, leaning back in their chairs. “Sheriff?”
“Cafaro. I’m the sheriff. This about your boy that got hisself killed?”
“I think the word is murdered, Sheriff.”
Cafaro shook his head. “Nope. Your dandy took on four miners. He was drunk as a lord. He wouldn’t stay down and they kept telling him to stay down.”
Flynn said very softly, “Is that why I heard one of them say to put the boots to him? He was already down and out when I got there.”
Cafaro looked up at Flynn. “You the one that pulled a gun and shot the ceiling?”
Flynn smiled. “Yeah, you want to arrest me?”
One of the deputies started to get up, “I’ll arr—”
Rio hooked his chair leg, dumping him on his ass. As the deputy reached clumsily for his gun, Rio said, “Go ahead. I’ll let you get it out before I kill you.” Watching the deputy, he said, “Sheriff, I want the men that murdered Boyle. A beating is one thing, murder is something else again.”
The deputy slumped back on the floor, his hands well clear of his gun as the sheriff said, “They’re gone. Ain’t seen them since that night. Dunno where they went.”
“Well, I guess we’ll handle it our way.”
“I’m ramrodding the first herd up the trail this year. We’ll put the word out with a description and a reward if we don’t get ‘em first. Oh, and we’ll pass the word back down the trail to avoid Pueblo.”
Cafaro laughed. “You?” He looked at Flynn, “You’re the trail boss, right? Not this…kid.”
Flynn’s grin showed teeth as he replied. “No, he’s in charge. And I ride for the brand. We’ve got two thousand head down in the flats right now. And the Rafter B takes care of its own. Boss, I think I’m gonna go prowl a bit. See if I can scare up some names for those four.”
Rio smiled as he turned. “Sounds good to me. I want at least two of them myself.” They walked out the sheriff’s office as if they didn’t have a care in the world about being back shot, but both watched the reflections in the windows until they were well down the street. “What now?”
Flynn chewed his lip. “I think go talk to the bartender and see if I can find anybody that was in the bar. You need to get a telegram off to your dad. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get something to eat.”
Behind them, Cafaro turned to the deputy and blew out a breath. “Kinda glad you didn’t try anything. Them two were primed to go.”
The deputy got slowly to his feet and shivered. “That…he’s a stone killer. His eyes…he…was looking through me. Damned cowboys.”
Cafaro licked his lips, but said nothing, just stared at the closed door.
Two hours later, Rio and Flynn watched the undertaker and two helpers lower Boyle’s coffin into the grave on boot hill, his headboard laid at the head of the grave. They got it down and stood back waiting. Flynn nudged Rio who started, looked around, and took his hat off. “Guess we don’t have a preacher. The only thing that comes to mind is Psalms twenty-three. 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 finished with “Amen,” then jammed his hat back on, turning away without another word.
Mounting up, they rode back through town as Rio asked, “Did you find out anything?”
Flynn grimaced. “Got two names. Rolly and Mac McClintock. They were the ones that apparently started the fight and put the boots to Boyle. The other two,” he shrugged, “Nobody seemed to know who they were, other than miners.”
“And are nowhere to be found, right?”
“Skipped town yesterday morning. Apparently on the railroad with tickets to Denver. They are known troublemakers, brothers from Cornish.”
“So hard rock miners?”
Flynn nodded. “And most seemed glad for them to go. This wasn’t the first time they killed somebody. Apparently killed another miner at a mine down here in an argument over a pick.”
“I want them. Somewhere, somehow, I want them,” Rio ground out. He turned Red toward the river and added, “Let’s go back to the herd. Nothing else we can do here. I want to talk to Cavanaugh again.”
Flynn nodded thoughtfully and followed him down the trail.