Just over half way done now! As usual, comments and recommendations appreciated!!!
The days ran together as they pushed the herd north, finding another fifty head, but the Texas cowboys got nervous with the Rockies rising to the west of them, cutting off their view of the sky and the land. The smell of pines drifted down on the winds that sometimes roared down the canyons and dumped out on the plains, scaring both the cowboys and the cattle.
Rains came in bands, sometimes for days on end as the cattle tore up the wet ground, causing Rio to wince at the damage they were doing, but Flynn reminded him this was normal for August in this part of the country. It had gotten colder too, some mornings there was even a light frost on the grass. Rio rode out to take his turn on the drag and relieve Igor Rogov, one of the cowboys that had caught on with the herd as they moved north. “I’ll take it, Igor. Anything I need to know?”
Rogov shook his head. “No, sir. All is quiet. As quiet as cows will be. I tink another veek ve be there. Rain mebbe snow before long.” He pointed to the tops of the mountains. “Snow already marches down!”
Rio shook his head. “You really like the cold, don’t you?”
Rogov laughed loudly. “Am Russian Cossack. All Russians love cold and snow! I go help Pronto now.” He turned his horse and trotted toward the side of the herd where Pronto would be setting up camp for the night.
“Crazy Russians,” Rio said sotto voce. But he can ride like few I have ever seen! I wonder how he came to be here?
He met Jeb Green as he crossed behind the herd chasing an older steer. “Head him off, will ya, Jeb,” he yelled. Green cut in front of the steer, causing him to turn back toward the herd and laughed as Rio rode up.
“You’re slowing down, Boss, you don’t normally let them get away from you.”
Disgusted, Rio grumbled, “I think this damn pinto is shying from the cows. She just ain’t willing to close on them. Gotta tell Rene and Arthur. Maybe she’s trying to throw a shoe, but…she ain’t getting the job done.”
That evening, Rio, Pronto, and Flynn sat around the campfire discussing the approach to Fort Laramie. Pronto said, “Need to swing a little east. Them little ridge lines are a pain. And we need to cross both the Laramie and North Platte to get to the holding grounds.”
Flynn nodded. “Yeah, I’d rather cross south of the Fort. Otherwise it’s another four, maybe five days up to Bennett’s Crossing. I’m pretty sure Nelson Story is going to push straight up the Bozeman Trail, since he’s got probably another fifty days on the trail to get to Paradise Valley.”
“Think Mr. Story himself will come down here?” Rio asked.
“Probably. I know I would if I was spending fifty thousand dollars!” They all laughed at that, and Flynn continued, “Story knows cows. He did this the first time in sixty-six. He knows what he wants, and they have to be able to survive the winter. He may not take them all, but I know the fort needs them to feed the Indians, so we’ll get a sale either way.”
Rio nodded. “Shit. I just thought of something.” He turned to Pronto. “What are we going to do with the chuck wagon?”
Pronto shook his head. “Boy, you need to use your head for somethin’ beside a hat rack. Little late to worry bout that ain’t it?” Flynn just smiled as Pronto added, “Gonna sell it to Story. They ain’t bringin’ one all that way. I’m keepin’ the mules though.”
Rio sighed. “Sorry. I just…” Flynn and Pronto laughed at him and Rio just shook his head.
A week later, Rio and Flynn sat in the Colonel’s office as they completed the sale. Story said, “I’m taking two thousand head for fifty thousand dollars.” He pushed a bank draft from the First National Bank of Denver across the table to Rio.
Colonel Grover, the fort commander nodded. “And I’m taking two hundred forty-nine cows for six thousand two hundred and twenty-five dollars.” He turned to the post supply officer. “Lieutenant, please go get the money from the safe.” The lieutenant nodded and left the room as he turned back to Rio and Flynn. “Do you need to use our spaces to pay off your cowboys?”
Rio glanced at Flynn and said, “Yes, sir, if you don’t mind.”
The colonel nodded. “Feel free to use the porch of my adjutant’s office to pay them. I’ll have the adjutant provide you a table and chairs. How long will you remain in the area?”
“Not long, sir. I think most of the cowboys want to head back home to Texas.”
Story laughed. “And you boys don’t like being cold, do ya? I figure we’ll move out tomorrow, as soon as we finish stocking the chuck wagon.”
Flynn grinned ruefully, “Not just the boys, us old guys don’t like it either.” That prompted a round of laughter, and he added, “Besides, there isn’t much to do here, compared to Fort Collins or Denver, and the boys haven’t seen a lot of whisky or women on this trip, so they want to blow off some steam.”
The lieutenant came back with a bag that clanked when he dropped it on the table. He started laboriously counting the twenty dollar gold pieces and putting them in stacks of twenty-five. Twelve stacks and ten extras, plus five silver dollars sat on the table when he was done. The colonel said, “Thank you, Lieutenant, you may leave the bag.” He turned to Rio. “This is the amount we agree upon, correct?”
Rio nodded. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Colonel Grover smiled. “Then I think we’re done, and your cowboys are probably waiting to get paid, are they not? Mr. Story, as always, a pleasure to see you, sir.”
Nelson Story stood and said, “Thank you for sharing your office, Colonel. I’m heading back to the herd, and I’ll keep my cowboys out of the fort tonight.”
Rio dug sixty dollars out of the stack of money and stood up, “Mr. Story, could you please give thirty dollars apiece to Igor Rogov and Will Samuels? They came up with us from Denver and I figure I owe them for the help.”
“Thank you. I’ll make sure they get it, and know that you remembered to pay them,” he said with a smile. “And tell your dad I said hello, and thanks for the timely delivery of the herd. You’re a credit to your family, Rio.”
Rio blushed at the words and Flynn laughed as Story walked to the door. Rio said, “Well, guess we better go pay our folks. John you want to round them up while I get with the adjutant?”
Flynn smiled. “I don’t think there will be much rounding up required. I think they’re all over at the sutler’s store now.” He went out as Rio was shoving the money into the bag, then pulled his shirt up and slipped the bank draft into the money belt he had around his waist.
An hour later, all of the cowboys had been paid, with some taking all of their pay, some only half their pay. Rio called Arthur and Cavanaugh off to the side as the other cowboys, laughing, and horsing around, headed for the small bar in the sutler’s store. “Arthur, Rene, you each have an additional one hundred dollars coming. These are the rewards for the guys each of you shot during the attempt to cut the herd. Rene, I know dad was giving your folks most of your paycheck, but if I were you, I wouldn’t tell them about this money.”
Cavanaugh gulped and turned pale, remembering what he’d done, but he put out his hand. Rio dropped five gold pieces in it and turned to Arthur, who grinned and said, “I ain’t proud, I’ll take it. Better him in the ground than me.”
Rio smiled. “If it hadn’t been for y’all, none of us might be here today. So I owe y’all a debt of thanks personally, too!”
Rene asked, “What am I supposed to do with all this money?”
“Whatever you want. But I’d suggest you hide most of it,” Arthur said. I can show you how to do that.”
Rio nodded. “Never let ‘em know how much money you really have. Somebody will try to rob you, or swindle you out of it, or borrow it and never pay it back.” Arthur led Cavanaugh away from the rest of the cowboys, talking quietly to him as Flynn stepped out of the adjutant’s office.
“What are you going to do with the draft and the gold, Rio?”
Chuckling, Rio said, “Well, I was hoping to talk you into taking the draft and a good bit of the gold with you, since I know you’re headed south tomorrow. I am planning to go see my Uncle Ethan down by Fort Collins, and I was going to meet up with Pronto in Denver in three weeks, then take the train and steamer back to Galveston.”
Flynn rolled his eyes. “You’re gonna dump that on me?” Then he smiled. “Your dad said you wanted to go see Ethan, and I wanted to come straight back, so John gave me a money belt to put the draft and any gold in. He told me to make sure you had enough money to bail out any of our cowboys and pay for the train and riverboat fares for anybody wanting to go back that way. I figure you probably need around two thousand dollars to do that.”
Rio bit his lip. “Yeah, I didn’t want to think about that, but it…makes sense. We made, now we…gotta get the cowboys back home, but I do want to see Uncle Ethan. I haven’t seen him in two years.”
“Yeah, tell him I said hello. He and I…well, he changed after the…what happened when he got back from the war.”
Rio shrugged. “I know the story. He came back and found that his wife and son had been killed in an Indian raid and nobody let him know.”
“Right or wrong, what could he have done? He left in sixty-nine, went up the trail with Goodnight, and fell in love with the mountains. I don’t blame him for wanting to get away, and John treated him right. He swore he’d never set foot back in Texas, basically cut off dealings with the family, other than you and John.”
“I know. I think…anyway, if you could take the money back, I’d appreciate it.” Rio grimaced and walked back into the adjutant’s office, Flynn following and slipped the draft out of his money belt, handed it to Flynn, and counted out one hundred twenty dollar gold pieces then started loading them into his money belt. He groaned as he finished. “Damn thing is bulky as hell. I look like I’ve got a belly now!”
Flynn laughed. “Go buy a couple of new shirts that are larger than you normally wear. I’m glad we only got what we did in gold. Last year, we had to carry half of it in gold to Denver and put it on deposit there.”
The adjutant came out of his office and asked, “Are you gentlemen finished? Can I have my troop move the table and chairs back in?”
Rio replied, “Yes, sir. Sorry about that, I should have let—”
Smiling the adjutant interrupted, “I just need to get my sergeant back to work. That was his desk, so he’s…somewhere on post now.”
Flynn added, “We do appreciate it, and I’m getting pretty dry, so I think it’s time to go to the Sutler’s store before the cowboys drink all his whisky.” Flynn opened the door and motioned Rio out. “Let’s get while the getting is good. And I do want a beer!”
They were walking across the fort when they saw Pronto staggering toward them, a group of decrepit characters staggering along with him as they sang something at the top of their lungs. “Oh shit. Pronto’s drunk as a lord. Who—”
Smiling, Flynn said, “Looks like Pronto found some friends of his. Those are some of the old mountain men. They come down out of the mountains in the fall and take jobs working for the Army. That way, they get to sleep inside and get fed during the winter.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Ethan doesn’t know half of them, located where he is. Pronto will sober up in a day or two…maybe…until then, just stay out of their way. They’re dying off in a hurry, and they all know it. I’ll bet there isn’t a single one of them under seventy. And don’t try to drink with them, whatever you do.”
“But Pronto…I’ve never seen him drunk. He doesn’t drink in Texas, does he?” Rio asked plaintively.
“Only once in a while, but he doesn’t get drunk. He…your mother would kick his ass if he did.” They watched the gaggle stagger toward the gate and went on to the Sutler’s store.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, Rio was just finishing saddling a fractious Red, both of their breaths streaming in the morning cold. Flynn and Cavanaugh walked over leading their horses and Rio asked, “You leaving now, Rene?”
Cavanaugh shrugged. “I don’t have any reason to stay, and I’d like to get home. ‘Sides, the money would be a help.” He glanced at Flynn. “And Mr. Flynn has offered me a job as a hoss wrangler for him.”
Rio nodded. “I’m not surprised. You’ve done a good job, Rene.” He swung up on Red. “Let’s make tracks. It’s two days to Cheyenne from here before we can get on the train.” The three of them trotted out of camp and headed south toward the ford of the North Platte river.
Ten hours later Flynn said, “That should be the breaks dropping down into Bear Creek. We can water there and either cross or camp by the creek.”
Rio stood up in the saddle and arched his back. “I think…I had my druthers, I’d like to be off the plain, but at the same time, I’d like to be able to see what’s coming at me.”
“Well, make up our minds, Rio.” Flynn was smiling when he said it, and Cavanaugh laughed.
Pursing his lips, he said, “Your call, Rene. Up or down?”
Startled, Cavanaugh looked between them as they continued riding. “Uh…down? If we can find someplace to…maybe fort up, if we need to?”
Flynn made a come on motion, and Cavanaugh added, “Umm… If we’re off the plain, then we’re not being sky lined.”
“Okay, you pick the camp then, Rene,” Rio said as they started looking for a way down the breaks to the creek itself. It was running fairly full, and maybe five yards wide from what they could see. They finally found a place where the rim had collapsed into a fairly shallow ramp, and rode slowly down to the creek. After the horses drank, they refilled their canteens upstream of the horses and started scouting for a place to cross. Rio had gone down stream and found what he thought was a shallow stretch, whistled, and waited for Flynn and Cavanaugh to ride back to him. He found a piece of driftwood, poked at the bottom as far out as he could reach, and it never got over two feet deep. “I think we can cross here and not get wet.”
Flynn motioned to him and said, “Lead on, Rio.”
Rio smiled and shook his head. “Don’t trust me, John?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
“Never mind.” He rode Red into the water and had to pull up his feet to keep them from getting wet, but it didn’t get any deeper. The others followed him across, and he was pretty sure he’d heard stifled laughter behind him.
Cavanaugh found a little cove on the south side that gave them a wall of the breaks behind them, and they made a cold camp there.
Late the next afternoon, they rode slowly into Cheyenne. Rio glanced around and said, “John, any idea where to stay?”
“After last year’s debacle, I’d rather go to the hotel. I think I remember where it is.”
“Lead on.” Cavanaugh was looking around, wide eyed at the hustle and bustle around them and Rio added, “Fort Russel is being expanded just west of town. I think this is the current territorial capital, and there are cattle ranchers settling in out here.”
Flynn groused, “And sheep. Remember seeing them?”
“Ain’t goin’ to end well, they eat the roots of the grass too.” Rio said.
Flynn nodded. “There’s the hotel.” They reined up in front of the Eagle Hotel and tied their horses to the hitching rail, then walked into the lobby. At the desk, Rio asked, “How much for a room?”
The pale, skinny man with the green eyeshade behind the counter said, “Seventy-five cents. Only got one room left,” without raising his head.
“We’ll take it,” Rio sighed and spun the book around, picked up the pen and dabbed it in the inkwell then scrawled his name.
The clerk looked up and said, “Ain’t room for three in there.”
Cavanaugh said, “Hell, I’ll sleep on the floor!”
“Be an extra quarter for him, then,” the clerk added.
Rio started to say something, and Flynn laid a hand on his arm, shaking his head. Rio handed over a silver dollar, then asked, “Baths?”
“Quarter apiece. Down the hall on the right. Best food is down the street at the café.”
The next morning, they mounted and rode to the train station. There was a train sitting in the station, huffing softly as they walked up to the ticket office. Rio scanned the train schedule and looked up at the clock in the back of the office, then asked, “Tickets for the eight o’clock train to Evans and Denver?”
The ticket agent picked up on Rio’s accent and look the three of the up and down. “Cowboys coming off a drive?” Rio nodded and he asked, “You got horses with you?”
“Yep, three horses. Two going to Denver, one to Evans.”
The ticket agent peered through his wire framed glasses, “Three dollars each to Denver. Dollar sixty to Evans. Includes the horses. You need to get the horses over to the tracks now if you want them loaded on this train. It leaves in thirty minutes.”
Rio dug out the money as Flynn and Cavanaugh hustled back out front and brought the horses around to the box car with the ramp up to it. Once Rio had the tickets in hand, he headed for the box car, knowing that getting Red on the train was going to be a battle. He finally blindfolded Red and led him, trembling, up the ramp and into the box car. Once he got a hackamore on him, he fed him a carrot, but left him blindfolded. They led the other two horses up, one on each side, and he seemed to calm down a little bit. Rio stroked him. “I know you don’t like being cooped up, boy, but it’s for your own good. Don’t need you kicking the side out of the boxcar or trying to jump off. The conductor wiped his brow and said, “Thanks, Gents. We’d a never got that red devil on without your help.” He pulled out his pocket watch and added, “Y’all better get aboard, we’re leaving in about five minutes.”