Incident of the Red Morning (by Jane)

Summary:
Category:  Rawhide
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:    16,151


 

Gunfire filled the air, followed in quick succession by the bawling of cattle and the pounding of hooves. Thousands of them. The horrendous sound rent the air and sent a camp full of men scrambling for their horses. Gil Favor was already in the saddle, his long legs having taken him out of his bedroll and onto his mount while the others were still rolling out of their blankets.

“Hold your fire! Just get those beeves rounded up.”

He was gone by the time his command reached their ears, but his drovers were right behind him. In a matter of seconds, the camp was empty, save Wishbone and Mushy.

“Get that fire goin’, ya darn fool kid. We’ll have tired men in here ‘afore ya know it. Maybe some hurt ones, too.” Wishbone finished, half under his breath.

Mushy hurried to add some wood to the fire, stopping only long enough to stare past the wagon towards where the herd used to be. The moon was up, but the light thin. For a moment, he wondered how any of the men would manage to round up the herd. But it had been done before, and with Mr. Favor as trail boss, it could be done again. “Think they’ll be all right, Mr. Wishbone?”

“Sure they will. Ain’t they always?” the older man muttered.

“If you’re so sure, how come you’re still standing there staring into the dark?”

“Why you . . .” Wishbone grabbed a stick and waved it in the air, but it was a half-hearted attempt at retribution. One look at the kid’s face was enough to turn him back towards the horizon. “Guess that bunch finally decided to move in. Boss said it wouldn’t be long, but I was hopin’ the boys’d get a little sleep first.”

“We’re all tired, Wishbone.””Well you got no call to be, boy. Standin’ around jawin’ half the time. Not like you’re in the saddle sixteen hours a day. Look at that fire! Didn’t I just tell you to build it up? Now quit dawdlin’ and do what I tell ya!” ‘No account kid, always havin’ to be told which foot to put in front of the other. Wonder he hasn’t tripped himself up and . . .’

Still muttering as Mushy hurried past him towards the pile of dried limbs, Wishbone turned back to his watch. Miles from nowhere, the drovers were nervous and tired. They’d been followed and watched for the better part of a week, but until tonight, there’d been no move. But Mr. Favor knew it was coming. He had kept extra men on the night watch; the others had horses saddled and ready just in case. He’d been right, of course, as he usually was.

“Well boss, you called it right on the money. Just wish you didn’t have to be so all-fired right all the time.”

*****

The herd was turning, sooner than Favor had any right to expect. He could see several riders ahead, working to keep the lead steers turning to the right and into the herd. It was working, as it usually did. The strange part was that the gunfire had died away. If the thieves were serious about their play, why were they backing off now? The trail boss kicked his mount into a gallop, intent on finding out.

The raid had come, as he’d known it would, but being right didn’t make him feel one bit better. They’d been watched for days, but nothing had happened, nothing except that the anticipation had left him with a camp full of jittery men. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Out here, miles from good water, supplies or any kind of law, this was the perfect opportunity for anyone intent on picking up some free beef. Whether they could keep it or not was another story. His men might be overworked and underfed, but they were one of the best crews he’d had the good fortune to ride with. Sure they’d hit some bad spots the past few weeks, but that was bound to happen on a drive this size. No one expected a picnic, and it was for damn sure they weren’t having one.

The cattle were slowing, and as he worked alongside his drovers, Favor could see that the herd was finally coming to a stop. For whatever reason, the raiders had given up. Not for good, he was certain. More likely they were taking a breather, maybe licking their wounds, reassessing their plan. They’d be back. And his men would be ready.

Pete suddenly emerged from the dust and darkness.

“Boss. Looks like we’re gettin’ ‘em turned. Quince was out front when the herd started movin’ . . . that’s why we got ‘em slowed down so quick.”

“Good work. Keep ‘em movin’ for awhile, Pete. Don’t want ‘em startin’ up again.”

“No we don’t. But there’s more. Quince was shot.”

“How bad?”

 “Flesh wound in the upper arm. He’ll be okay.”

 “Tell him to get back to the wagon and have Wishbone clean him up.”

 “Sure thing, Boss. What about the others?”

 “Let’s make sure everyone’s accounted for.” Favor turned slightly as he hollered out. “Joe! Hank! Spread out and move back towards camp. Rest of you keep the herd movin’ slow ‘til they’re tired out.”

 Pete rode back towards Quince, and minutes later the two of them were riding on the other side of the herd parallel to Favor. The three had only gone a few hundred yards when Hank Price pulled his horse to a stop next to his boss. Pete and Quince quickly joined them. Even in the dim light, they could tell that the man had news to share.

 “What is it?” Favor demanded.

 “It’s Willy, Mr. Favor. He’s dead. Bullet right between the eyes.”

 “Damn.” Pete cursed.

 “Where?”

 “Looks like he was on this side of the herd when they hit. We haven’t seen any of the others since the stampede.”

 Quince hung his head, while Pete stood in his stirrups as if he could look out through the night and locate the missing drovers.

 “Let’s keep moving.”

 Favor led his men, leaning forward in his own saddle as he peered into the night. It wasn’t a time to be hollering over the herd for fear they’d bust loose again, but with three men missing, it was the only way. “Rowdy! Ben! Walt!”

 Another chorus of low calls echoed behind him, but there was no answer.

 “Pete, let’s fan out. Hank, you move over towards Joe. Quince, get back to the wagon and get that arm looked at.”

 “Nah, Boss, it’s just a flesh wound. Nothin’ to worry about.”

 “I said get back to camp. Last thing I need is more drovers sittin’ around the campfire. Get that wound cleaned up so you’ll be of some use to me tomorrow.”

 “Yes, sir,” Quince grumbled. He was gone almost immediately, and Favor knew that the man would be back amongst them as soon as Wishbone finished tying the bandage. “Ben! Rowdy! Where…”

 “Boss, over here.”

 Joe’s voice was thin, almost an octave higher than usual. It only took one look, once the horses had slid to a stop, to realize the scene was a gruesome one.

 “Shot took him in the back, but he went down in the herd. Poor Ben, probably didn’t know what hit him.”

 “Hope he didn’t,” Pete mumbled.

 The three men shared their shock in silence, even as they were stepping back into their saddles. There were still two men to find.

 They’d come almost full circle back to the wagon when Favor spotted one of his missing drovers. With a sliding stop that threw dust into the air, he was out of the saddle and kneeling next to the lifeless form. “Rowdy?”

 Gently turning the man’s body towards him, Favor was at that moment more friend than trail boss. “Come on, boy. No skylarking when there’s cattle to move.”

 A low moan was his answer, a surprise almost . . . enough that it made him drop his head in relief.

 “Mr. Favor?”

 It was less than a whisper, but it could’ve been a shout for the attention it garnered.

 “Yeah, boy. Right here.”

 “Sorry . . . happened fast.”

 “No reason to apologize. Herd’s fine. Quince got ‘em turning.”

 “Good. Good. . . Boss . . . would you . . .”

 Any strength the voice had held was fading fast, and Favor clasped the man’s form a little tighter. “What’s that?”

 “My ma. Write my ma . . . please.”

 The words were so final, their purpose sat Favor back on his heels. “Now don’t you go talkin’ like that. Let’s let Wishbone get a look at you first before you go throwin’ up the sponge.”

 Blue eyes held him, the intensity of their gaze not lost on the trail boss. He couldn’t accept what he knew was before him. It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t let it. “No, Rowdy, no. You want to write your ma, you’re going to have to do it yourself.”

 “Boss . . . I want you . . . gotta know . . . ‘m sorry. Tell her . . . too . . . ‘m sorry.”

 Favor didn’t know for sure what his ramrod was sorry for. He could imagine a self-imposed guilt for the raid on the cattle, maybe regret for not getting back to Texas to see his mother. There could be a world of imagined wrongs he wanted to apologize for. The truth of it was . . . Rowdy was just a kid, just learning to live. It wasn’t time for him to check out. ‘Course, that didn’t mean much in a world where men died by the hundreds or even thousands each day. Early, needless deaths. . . But not today. Not here. Not Rowdy . . .

 Without realizing it, the strong leader had gently grasped the younger man’s hand in his. He still held that hand as the young body sagged and the blue eyes closed.

“No, son, I won’t tell her that. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

*****

Jim Quince guided his horse out of camp and back towards the herd. At the wagon, Wishbone didn’t acknowledge the man’s leaving, but watched as Mushy filled the metal pan with boiling water, holding back a growl of frustration when the kid spilled half of it on the ground. Instead he simply glared at the boy, who stumbled back to the fire with the cast-iron pot.

“Make sure you refill that now. We’re gonna be needin’ more, you just mark my words.”

Dropping several sharp instruments into the shallow container, Wishbone watched in fascination as the red blood tinted the water a pale pink. It wasn’t hard to see, even in the firelight. What he didn’t want to see again was the way those same instruments were used to pry a small piece of metal out of Quince’s arm. It hadn’t been deep, and the whole procedure only took a few minutes, but Wishbone was glad to have it behind him. Doctoring was his responsibility when they were out on the trail, and he was reasonably good at it, considering he wasn’t a sawbones, but it wasn’t something he enjoyed. Especially when it came to digging bullets out of flesh. That was something he never could get a grasp on — why men had to find new and faster ways to hurt each other. But as long as they kept doing it, he’d keep finding ways to fix ‘em up. The weary man just hoped he didn’t have to do any more of that tonight.

The sound of hoof beats warned him that his wishing wouldn’t make it so. There was a shout, then voices giving instructions. He waited for the deep commanding voice of his boss, but it never came. When the men finally came into view, it was Quince’s face he saw first. It was his voice that was issuing the orders. “Get some blankets laid out, Mushy, and get the lanterns lit. Wishbone’s gonna need it.”

“Who’re you there, hollerin’ orders like you’re in charge of this camp?” demanded Wishbone. “What’s goin’ on, Quince? What’re you doing back so quick? Where’s the boss?”

“He’s right behind me, Wishbone. He’s got Rowdy up with him, and the kid doesn’t look good.”

The muttering was unintelligible, but Wishbone’s purpose was clear. He was immediately digging through his box of medicines then plunging his hands into the steaming water to rinse the implements he knew would be needed. Before he’d dried them, there was a commotion at the edge of camp, then suddenly, two horses stood before him.

Gil Favor’s face told the story. One didn’t have to examine the patient in his arms to know that the prognosis wasn’t good. ”Let’s get him down.”

Rowdy was on Favor’s horse, his lean frame supported in the saddle by his boss who’d ridden behind him. Pete was on the other horse, his arm held out to support the man while their boss slid to the ground.

“Take it easy; he’s bleeding bad.”

There wasn’t much talk, other than a few grunts or muttered comments. They all worked together, grabbing an arm or a leg as they worked to move Rowdy from the horse to his bed. When they had him laid flat on the hastily made pallet, Wishbone immediately shooed the men away, only to have them form a half-circle two-steps behind him.

“Mushy, get that hot water over here. Pete, bring that light closer.”Both men moved to do his bidding. It wasn’t lost on anyone that Wishbone had lit numerous lamps. That was a luxury on the trail, and one that was horded for the most important event or the greatest emergency.

The man was all business as he used a knife to cut Rowdy’s shirt away. The drying blood was already stiffening the fabric, but next to the wound, it was soft and wet. “Yeah, still bleedin’ bad. Bullet’s in there, can’t tell how deep. Mushy, get outta the light.”

Leaning in closer, Wishbone peered at the wound then grabbed an instrument from the cloth laid beside him. “I’m gonna see how deep it is. Hold him down, boys.”

Wishbone glanced up only once at his boss, somewhat surprised to see the man still crouched near Rowdy’s head. He knew the boss had a special fondness for the boy, but it wasn’t like him to get quiet like this, or let go of the reins for even a minute. This was just another confirmation that their ramrod was in a bad way. “Okay, now, hold him tight.”

The patient didn’t move, not even a muscle as Wishbone probed with the metal utensil. It worried them all, but none more than Gil Favor. He watched impatiently as the steady hand worked slowly and carefully to remove the bullet, but in the end, Wishbone pulled the instrument away from the wound and sat back on his heels. “Can’t do it, Boss. It’s too deep, and in a bad place. Don’t know what I’m gonna hit in there if I keep diggin’ around.”

The man’s worried frown wasn’t lost on Favor, or any of the other drovers still gathered close.

“You can’t give up, Wishbone!” Pete urged for the rest of them. “You’re his only chance.”

“Don’t you understand? I can’t do it. I’m gonna kill him if I keep this up!”

“He’s gonna die anyway, Wish. You gotta try!” Favor finally spoke, his voice rough.

With an air of resignation, Wishbone bent again over the young man he’d come to regard so highly. He knew without saying that the others felt the same. There wasn’t one of them that wouldn’t go the extra mile to save this kid. Why couldn’t he do the same?

Sweat beaded on his forehead as Wishbone probed again for the bullet. The wound was raw and ugly, the blood bubbling up through the jagged edges. The wavering light from the lantern did little to illuminate the path he needed to see, that narrow uncharted course a small piece of steel had taken through Rowdy’s chest.

“I can’t do it! Damn it all, I’m not a doctor.” Wishbone’s voice was deep with the growl of bitterness and frustration, but there was a tinge of sadness there too. An acceptance that he wasn’t up to the task of saving Rowdy, no matter how much he wanted to.

Favor’s head dropped to his chest, his hands tightening their hold on Rowdy’s shoulders. He’d bent down to protect the young man from the assault of Wishbone’s surgery; now he couldn’t seem to let go, as if that act would instigate the end.

One by one the men in their half-circle broke away, some walking to the fire, others out into the darkness. Wishbone wiped his hands on a towel, then grabbed a thick cloth and folded it tightly over Rowdy’s wound. Favor gently released the shoulders then slowly stood up, his gaze sweeping the camp.

Pete walked toward him, his voice hesitant when he spoke. “Boss?”

Favor stared at the fire for several long minutes before responding. When he did, his voice was barely a hint of its usual cadence, but the orders issued were normal enough. “Pete, get that herd bedded down. And find Walt.”

“Joe already found him.”

“Dead?”

“Yeah.”

Favor hung his head for a moment, before looking up at Pete, his voice a notch lower. “Get ‘em buried.”

Nolan stared at the man before answering quietly. “Okay, Boss. What about the guard?”

“Same as we had before this started. Tell the men to keep their eyes open.”

Favor dropped his own eyes back to the young man on the ground, one hand covering his mouth as he seemed to be examining his next decision. When he spoke again, his command was forced. “Pete, pass the word . . . we’ll be moving out at first light.”

Another moment of silence passed before Pete nodded reluctantly, then mounted his horse and rode out to the herd. The few men still remaining in camp seemed to sense their leader’s mood, and after brief looks at the injured ramrod, they too mounted and rode out. Within a short time, the camp was quiet, save for the crackling fire and the sound of Mushy’s ax.

“Boss.”

Favor looked up then reached for the cup of steaming coffee. “Thanks, Wishbone.”

“You’re gonna kill that boy, puttin’ him in the wagon and jostlin’ him from here to God knows where,” the older man grumbled quietly.

“What choice have I got, Wish? Sit here and wait for him to die? And the others along with him? We’ve still got the same problem we’ve had the past week . . . we’ve already lost three men, maybe four. I don’t intend to let them have any more.”

“And what about Rowdy? You gonna give him up without a fight?”

Favor turned his gaze to the fire, as if to find his answer amongst the flickering flames. “No. But sitting here waiting isn’t going to save him. Maybe . . . maybe if we keep moving. . . There’s a town, about thirty miles north of here. Maybe . . .”

“Maybe what? Maybe if we jostle his bones thirty miles up that trail, he’d just have a better buryin’ place? You know that boy isn’t gonna last that far. Not with the way he’s losin’ blood. I’ve packed that wound down tight, but as long as that bullet’s still inside him, he’s gonna keep losin’ blood. And he’s gonna be fightin’ an infection before long, too. No sir, if you’re gonna save that boy, you’re gonna have to get a doctor down here to him. And soon.”

Favor stood abruptly, flinging his coffee in the fire before dropping the cup on the ground in front of him. Without a word, he turned and walked into the night. Behind him, Wishbone merely rubbed his chin. Not even a muttering comment was to be heard as he watched his boss disappear in the dark.

*****

Thin ribbons of sunlight peeked over the horizon, giving the gathering clouds a reddish-pink glow. There were several men who eyed the sunrise with skepticism, remembering the old mariner’s line “red in the morning, sailor’s take warning; red at night, sailor’s delight.” Wishbone watched the light display from the wagon, wondering if the same held true in the west.

Sitting in front of the fire, Favor didn’t bother to put that much thought into it. He just knew they were in for some bad weather. ‘Another thing to go sour on us.’ he muttered under his breath. Propping his elbows on his knees, the boss returned to his previous job of staring into the flames. There was no answer there either, but he continued to look. It seemed like he’d went over every possible option at least a dozen times, and still there was no good answer. No matter which path he chose, there were ten good reasons why he should choose another. There simply was no safe route for Rowdy. Their best bet at this point was to keep the herd moving. But should they keep Rowdy with them or leave him here with Wishbone? He’d already answered that question several hundred times in his mind. The problem was, the answer kept changing.

Across the fire, the kid slept fitfully. He’d never really come around, yet he wasn’t unconscious either. Wishbone said it was kinda like being stuck between the two. Whatever state Rowdy was in, it didn’t feel right to Favor. He wished the kid would just sit up and start talking back to him.

Several loud bangs from the wagon preceded Wishbone’s return to the fire. The man had spent the better part of the last three hours getting things organized and ready for the day. Inside his wagon, boxes, crates and bags full of provisions had been moved and rearranged several times until a decent area was left open. He’d even jettisoned several of the larger boxes, packing their contents into every nook and cranny he could find. After that, he’d gathered extra blankets or bedrolls from every drover until there was a bed of sorts, the padding mismatched and uneven, but enough to offer at least some protection from the rough ride.

“Wishbone? How’s it comin’?” Favor knew better than to question his cook, but their time was short, and both men knew it. “Think it’ll do?”

“It’s gonna have to, Mr. Favor. You’d better pray it’s enough, too.”

“Don’t ride me, Wishbone.”

The two men stared at each other, fully aware that the words just spoken would normally have come from a younger man.

“What’s the plan, Mr. Favor?” Wishbone asked in a much friendlier tone.

“Believe it or not, Wish, I don’t know.”

For the first time since the two men had met, there was uncertainty in the boss’ voice. It was enough to silence them both. The moment stretched between the two, Favor regretting that he’d admitted the doubt he’d been feeling, Wishbone simply trying to find the right words to say. Precluded by a slight “humph,” he found them. “Sure you do. You’re gonna get this kid some help.”

Favor’s head came up with a snap, and the uncertainty immediately disappeared. It was almost as if Wishbone’s simple declaration was the incentive the trail boss had been waiting for.

“Get the team hitched up. I want you ahead of the herd. You’re going to set the pace, instead of letting Rowdy eat dust. As soon as we get through the pass and up on the mesa, I’m going to send Pete for a doctor.”

“What if…”

“Don’t know, Wish, and don’t ask me. For now, that’s the plan, and we’ll just work with it as we go. Hitch up.”

*****

Gil Favor pulled his horse to a stop at the crest of a low rise, his gaze following the line of the herd from the slow moving wagon to the men riding drag. Everything looked good so far. The only thing marring the picture was that line of angry clouds that continued to grow from the southeast. It wasn’t the normal direction storms came from in this part of the country, and that simply added to his worry.

After a few minutes of watching the steers, Gil realized or rather admitted to himself, that he hadn’t allowed his gaze to move back towards the wagon. Pulling off his hat, he wiped his forehead with it, then leaned forward in the saddle, balancing his arm on the pommel. Then and only then did he permit his gaze to return to the wagon. Eyeing the white canvas cover for a moment, his mind seemed to move backwards to the night before . . . those few minutes with Rowdy in his grasp, when the blood was thick and the tension thicker. As far as he knew, those whispered words about being sorry were the last ones Rowdy had spoken. In the hours since Wishbone had tried to take out the bullet, the kid had moaned off and on, but there’d been no real awakening. It was worrisome to everyone, mute confirmation that time wasn’t on their side.

Favor jammed his hat back on his head, his frown dark enough to stop the bravest drover. He couldn’t get Rowdy’s words out of his head, or the memory of the kid lying next to the fire, blood oozing out of the open wound while Wishbone worked on him. There’d been lots of drovers injured and even killed during his years on the trail, and more than once he’d had to choose between one of his men and the herd. But this time . . . this time he wasn’t even being given a choice. And if he had? Which way would he float his stick? He knew without thinking that it would be for Rowdy. This kid had gotten to him. He wasn’t just a man earnin’ his pay, or even a ramrod learnin’ his job. Rowdy had become what few men had managed to do . . . he was Favor’s friend.

Shouts from below caught his attention, and Favor looked down to see Pete riding towards him.

“Boss! Wishbone said you’re needed at the wagon!”

Spurs to the side of his horse, Favor didn’t answer but headed down the slope towards the chuck wagon, followed closely by Pete. The wagon had come to a stop in the middle of the trail, its white canvas in stark contrast to the dark clouds beyond. Wishbone was nowhere to be seen, but Mushy was still on the seat, reins in hand. When the boss dismounted, he caught a glimpse of the young man’s face, and he almost ran to the back of the wagon. He was sure that this time he’d find Rowdy dead.

*****

Wishbone was tired, more tired than he could remember. It wasn’t just missing his sleep the night before, or even the long hours getting the wagon organized and ready to roll. It wasn’t the bouncing in the back of the chuck wagon, trying to keep his balance amongst the supplies arranged around the injured man. It wasn’t even the aggravating questions each drover seemed to plague him with every time they rode up to the back of the wagon to check on Rowdy. No, it was more than that. A bone-deep tired, like a man gets when things aren’t going his way and he’s lost sight of hope. It was the waiting and watching all morning as the kid squirmed in his makeshift bed. It was the worrying and wondering and second-guessing every move they were making. And most of all, it was the lack of hope that seemed to physically pull at his heart. The knowledge that nothing they were doing was going to help save this young man from an early grave.

And now . . .

Voices outside the canvas warned Wishbone that the boss had finally arrived. What the man would say once he pulled back the flap and got a good look, well, the cook could only guess. He knew it was going to be hard, but the man had a right to know.

“Wishbone? What . . .”

“Better climb on in, Mr. Favor.”

The boss did just that, tucking his long frame neatly through the canvas opening, and almost kneeling on the planks of the wagon floor.

“He. . . “

The question died on his lips, for it was obvious the answer was right before him. Rowdy lay motionless on the pallet, his skin flushed red and damp with sweat.

“Fever?”

“Yes, sir. Started in a couple hours ago, but it’s climbing fast now. Can’t seem to keep a handle on it, and don’t have enough water and rags to pull it down proper. Probably won’t be able to anyway, until that bullet’s out, but we gotta try. If we can keep him cool, we might just buy some time.”

Wishbone watched closely for Favor’s reaction, not surprised when the man simply raised a hand to his chin, rubbing it absently.

“Been awake at all?” Favor finally managed.

“No. He’s mumbled a few things off and on, but nothin’ that made any sense.”

As if in response to the men talking over him, Rowdy turned his head from side to side, a low groan escaping his lips. Favor’s scowl deepened, but you couldn’t tell it by the sound of his voice. Wishbone was surprised to hear the reassuring “easy boy, easy” as the boss laid his hand on Rowdy’s good shoulder.

“Boss?” The voice was faint, but clear.

“Yeah, Rowdy, I’m right here.”

“Why . . . why we . . . stopped? Where’s the . . . herd? We’re…“

“Sssh now, calm down. Everything’s fine. You’re ridin’ point today, boy. Just take it easy.”

The reassurance seemed to help, as Rowdy’s barely opened eyelids slid shut almost immediately. Wishbone was surprised again when he realized the boss was watching closely over the young man. This wasn’t a normal attitude for their leader. Sure, everyone knew he cared about his men, but they also knew that the herd came first. The cattle were his responsibility, his job to deliver them safe and sound, as many intact as possible. Drovers were expendable, but the cattle . . .well, the cattle were dollars in the bank, and their delivery a sure promise for more work in the future. He was a man who didn’t take his responsibilities lightly.

But here he was, big tough Gil Favor, hunched over one of his drovers and telling him to ssshh. Wishbone knew he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own two eyes. ‘Course he also knew that this was something he would never speak of either. It weren’t anybody’s business what a man’s true feelings were. If the boss wanted to look tough and unfeeling to his men, then that’s the way the boss would have it. In the meantime, Wishbone found himself grateful that he’d seen another side to the man. He’d always suspected there was a heart inside there somewhere.

“What’re ya gonna do, Mr. Favor?”

Without hesitation, the man in question rose from his knees and duck-walked back to the opening. ”Pete. Scarlett!”

“Yeah, Boss?”

“Pete, I was hoping to keep you with the herd ‘til we cleared that bluff. We’re going to need all the help we can get to move these beeves up that trail. But I want you to ride on ahead and find a doctor.”

“Rowdy’s gettin’ worse?”

”Fever.”

”Yes sir, I’ll ride fast.”

Pete was already mounting up when Favor addressed Scarlett.

“Tell Mushy we need another bucket of water in here, then he’s to get us movin’ again. We aren’t going to have much time before this storm hits, and I want those cattle out of this valley before it does. Scarlett, you’re in charge out there for now. I’ll be out in awhile, but first I’m gonna give Wishbone a hand. Keep ‘em movin’.”

“Yes sir.”

“And Joe?”

“Yeah. . .”

”Keep your eyes open.”

“Yes sir.”

Joe Scarlett remounted and moved to the front of the wagon, and then he was gone, the thud of his horse’s hooves barely heard over the noise of Mushy getting water from the rain barrel. Inside, Favor returned to Rowdy’s side where Wishbone was already pulling more rags from a box behind him.

“You expecting more trouble, Mr. Favor?”

“Aren’t you?” came the gruff reply.

“Yeah.”

“From the way they keep scoutin’ us, I think they’ll wait ‘til night. But with this storm movin’ in, they could make a move earlier.

Wishbone only nodded, his focus returning to the man on the pallet. The heat was rising, and the cool rags were warm within minutes. It was going to be a tough battle, and not for the first time, he acknowledged that it was probably a losing one.

Working together for the next half hour, the two men applied wet rags and towels to Rowdy’s face, chest and arms. Though the cool cloths seemed to calm the young man, the effort didn’t seem to be paying off. The fever was climbing.

“Ma? Ma, I’m sorry, Ma. I didn’t mean to. . .”

Wishbone frowned as Favor leaned forward to take hold of Rowdy’s arm.

“It’s late Billy. We gotta go back. Bill, hurry!” Rowdy’s head moved from side-to-side, his blue eyes searching. “No sir . . . I didn’t. . . I swear . . . you gotta believe me. . . please.”

“Sssh, take it easy, Rowdy.” Favor’s grasp tightened, but the young man seemed not to notice.

“Run, Shorty, run!”

Legs thrashed about beneath the thin blanket, as Wishbone did his best to hold them still.

“He’s outta his head, Mr. Favor. He’s gonna get that wound bleedin’ again!”

“I know, Wish.”

The two men tried to hold Rowdy in place as he kicked and struggled, but almost as quickly as it had begun, the fight seemed to disappear. Favor slowly released his hold as Wishbone freed the young man’s legs. For his part, Rowdy seemed oblivious to the scene he created. Eyes closed and breathing ragged, he was motionless on the makeshift bed.

“Everything all right, Mr. Wishbone?”

”Yeah, Mushy, we’re fine. Keep movin’.”

Wishbone stared at the trail boss as he silently dropped another cloth into the bucket, wrung it out then draped it carefully across his ramrod’s brow. There was no sound other than the creaking of the wagon as it slowly made its way along the trail.

*****

Pete kept a close eye on the horizon as he headed northeast of the herd. The storm was gathering strength, and even as he watched, there was a flicker of light high up in the clouds. Urging his horse into a ground-eating lope, he turned his focus from the storm to the terrain ahead. This area of the trail was new to him, a cut-off that had been recommended but one that he hadn’t personally scouted. The only map he’d seen of this area had been vague at best. Still, there had been several mentions of a small town in this vicinity. Whether there was a doctor living there, that was a question that would have to be answered in person.

As he rode, Pete allowed himself time to review all that had happened since they’d passed through the last town some two weeks earlier. Up to that point, the drive had been fairly uneventful. Favor had gathered a good group of drovers for this trip, ones who not only worked well together but also seemed to get along. The evening campfire had been a cheerful gathering place, with Hank playing guitar for some added enjoyment. There’d been card playing and story telling, most of the time ending in laughter amongst the men lucky enough to be lounging there instead of being on first watch.

It was after leaving Bentley that the drive seemed to go bad. First a windstorm had stampeded the cattle, giving the men a good run for their money. Then there had been several wet days, with cold suppers and extra men on night watch. Just as it’d seemed the weather was clearing and things were looking up, Quince had spotted one of the men following them. At first they’d hoped it was merely some friendly Indians, or maybe a prospector or two. Yet, after several days, and no contact, it was obvious that they were being watched, and everyone knew that meant rustlers. Mr. Favor had doubled the night watch, resulting in more long hours with little sleep. The men were tired and irritable. Still the group following them had kept their distance. Until last night . . .

Each and every one of the drovers had expected and been prepared for a fight. They just hadn’t expected to be picked off like sitting ducks on a still pond. Four men shot out of the saddle, three of them dead and the fourth . . . Pete wouldn’t let himself finish that line of thinking. It wouldn’t do any good to get morbid. Rowdy was still alive, still fighting. The least he could do was to stay positive and get the job done. Mr. Favor sent him for a doctor, a doctor who would save Rowdy’s life, and that’s exactly what he was going to do.

Pete slowed his horse to a walk. It could be a long way to that town, and he didn’t have an extra mount. Pulling the stopper from his canteen, he took a long drink. The air was still fairly warm, but the wind was shifting and there was hint of something cooler on the way. Returning the canteen to its place on his saddle, Pete took another look at the darkening sky, his thoughts returning to the previous night.

He’d seen Mr. Favor in a lot of situations, but last night with Rowdy had been different. In all the time he’d worked for the trail boss, he’d never seen the man as worried. Stampedes, floods, rustlers . . . none of those things had put that look in the Favor’s eyes.

Then there were the three graves they’d had to dig at first light. Pete hadn’t known any of the men before this drive, but he’d grown to like them in the past weeks. He’d especially miss Willy’s ready laugh. It had been a quiet group that laid the three men to rest. There was only time for a brief prayer before they’d all saddled up and headed out.

The herd had been restless all morning, making him respect Mr. Favor’s decision to keep him back. His first thought after the burial was to mount up and ride for the doctor, but Favor had insisted that he stay with the herd until they reached the mesa. Pete knew the boss was right, but it still rankled. It helped some, though, to know that it was just as hard on the boss. But things changed after Wishbone called him to the wagon. It had only been a matter of time. Favor had just been hedging his bet that they’d be able to get the herd up outta the valley before Rowdy got worse. He hadn’t won. Now Pete hoped that he wouldn’t be too late.

A faint rumble broke into his thoughts. Pete looked up at the sky, then spurred his horse to a gallop and headed into the storm.

*****

Favor could tell from the quick staccato of the horse’s hooves that someone was riding in fast, and that meant trouble. He scooted toward the canvas opening and looked out just as Quince pulled up short.

“Mr. Favor, they’re closin’ in.”

“All right, Quince. Get back to . . .” A quick glance at the bandage on the man’s arm changed Favor’s mind. “You stay here and give Wishbone a hand with Rowdy.”

“No sir.”

“What was that?” the trail boss fairly growled.

“No sir, Mr. Favor. We’re down five men already, and you need all the help you can get.”

“You’re right, I do, but I don’t need another man busted up either. One arm out of commission already, you won’t be much help to me with your neck broke ‘cause you can’t follow…”

“Don’t let the one arm fool ya. I can do my job.”

The two men stared hard at each other for only a moment before Favor grudgingly nodded his assent. ”All right, get back out there. Help Scarlet get them bunched and tell him to move on ahead. Last thing we need is another stampede.”

“Right, Boss.”

Quince spurred his horse into a gallop and disappeared behind the wagon. Favor twisted back to look at Rowdy, but found Wishbone in his way.

“You go on, Mr. Favor. Get that herd taken care of before the storm hits.”

“I wish there was someone to help you, Wish, but we’re too short-handed now.”

“We’ll do fine.”

Favor looked once more at the young man stretched out on the pallet before crawling out of the wagon. Within minutes, he too was riding towards the herd.

Scarlet and Quince were already directing the other drovers to the best advantage, but Favor knew it was going to be a tough job. Pete had scouted this area the day before, and from the information he’d brought back, they had their work cut out for them. This shortcut had some good possibilities, but it wasn’t without definite challenges. One of those challenges was to get two thousand cattle out of the valley and up on the mesa, using only a narrow cut between two bluffs. There was no other way around, and miles of backtracking to find a different route.

The long basin they’d been traveling through ended at the north with a series of rock formations. From one break, there flowed a shallow river, their source of water and good grazing for the past few weeks. The other opening was their only means of reaching a grassy plain above. Getting the herd through would’ve been work enough for their original crew; now it might prove to be impossible, especially with this storm about to break and rustlers closing in. Favor looked around as he rode, studying the terrain for any evidence of previous flooding. That had been Pete’s concern when they discussed their options over breakfast. Would they have enough time to funnel the herd through the cut before the storm hit? And if not, what were the chances that they’d be treading water if they didn’t.

As if in answer to his dark and brooding thoughts, the gloomy sky was suddenly awash with light. Favor calmed his skittish horse then kneed him forward. The first flash of lightening was followed almost instantly by a second, ending with an explosion of sound that made his ears ring. But when the echo died away, the world was quiet again. Dark, but quiet.

“Didn’t waste much time, did it?” Quince shouted from Favor’s left.

“No. It’s movin’ in fast.”

“Which way we gonna play it, Boss? Move ‘em up, or keep ‘em down here?”

The trail boss didn’t take time to scratch his chin, rub his neck, or light a cigar, any or all acts of which he’d normally indulge in. Instead, he turned first right then left, trying to assure himself that he wasn’t risking everything on one call.

“Bunch ‘em up, Quince. We don’t have time to move ‘em through, and even if we did, they’d most likely stampede once they got in the open. Down here we at least have a chance to hold ‘em. If they get out ahead of us, those jackals will have easy pickin’s.”

“What if we get a flash?”

Favor shook his head, even as he turned in the direction of the river. “It’s still wide enough out here; even if there is a run-off, I’m bettin’ it’ll spread out. Doesn’t look like the dry gulches down south, where the mountain storms send a wall of water through. Besides, we don’t have a lot of choices here, Quince.”

“Yeah, Boss, I know.”

There was another burst of light above, but this time no accompanying thunder. Jim Quince wasn’t a man to be easily spooked, but that’s exactly what it sounded like when he spoke again. “Don’t like it. This storm isn’t actin’ right.”

“Get ‘em bunched, Quince. And tell the men to keep each other in sight. We won’t have a chance if they split us up and start pickin’ us off one at a time.”

As the drover urged his horse forward, Favor turned back, riding directly to the wagon. Mushy had his hands full, the animals already spooked by the sight and sounds of the impending storm. The air was dry, but the wind had picked up, bringing an occasional blast of cold air.

“Keep movin’ Mushy. Get around the herd if you can, and move closer to the bluff. Stay clear of any trees, but see if you can spot a decent place to stop. Just don’t get too far ahead. We’re gonna have to wait it out down here.”

Favor realized he was almost shouting, his words being torn away by the rising wind. What he hadn’t realized was that two faces were peering down at him, and the second one was shouting back.

“What? What’d you say? What’re ya doin’, Wishbone?”

His words weren’t answered, but he could see that Wishbone had heard his orders. In fact, the older man was already scrambling through the canvas opening and onto the seat. No sooner had his hands grasped the reins in front of Mushy’s than the younger man was scuttling back into the wagon bed. When Wishbone hollered again, Favor caught enough to know that the cook would handle his wagon.

Turning back to the herd, Favor put his faith in the older man, and his own focus on the job ahead. The wind was fairly whistling through the valley now, the air no longer holding even a trace of warmth. Bright streaks of lightning seemed to chase each other from the sky, as the thunder gathered in power and duration. The steers were a mass of churning horns and hooves, their bawling providing a steady din to the intermittent blast of thunder. From some dark corner of his mind, the trail boss wondered where the rustlers were waiting. He wasn’t much of a religious man, but if he had been, this would be the perfect opportunity to drop to his knees for a prayer or two.

“Hank! Get in front of ‘em! Artie, get up front with Scarlet!”

The thunder rumbled again as the herd surged forward.

*****

Pete spotted the edge of town just as the first bolt of lightning split the sky. The white-hot spear seemed to reach down into the heart of the buildings, but almost the instant it appeared it was gone again, and all that was left was the drawn out rumble of its brother thunder. The wind seemed to gather strength with every passing minute, and by the time Pete had ridden down Main Street, it was howling. The town looked deserted, yet it was clear that the storm was the catalyst, for there were new signs over doors and bright red writing on the windows announcing every type of business from hardware to dress goods. The only sign that interested the scout, though, was the last one he located. The white painted board was decorated with simple black letters spelling out: “Dr. Owens, MD”

With practiced ease, Pete stepped from the saddle before his horse came to a complete stop. He did take an extra minute to make sure the reins were looped securely around the hitching post before taking the wooden steps two at a time. But even for all his hurrying, there was no answer to his pounding on the door. Anger borne of frustration made Pete pound harder, until he was sure that everyone in town could hear his angry thumping even over the sound of the wind. Still there was no answer. Turning back to the street, he looked frantically for any sign of life, relieved when he saw a door opening several stores down. Sprinting down the narrow board walkway, Pete found himself pushing the door open wider before the man on the other side could step out.

“Whoa there, young fellow. I know we have a storm coming, but where’s the fire?”

The good-natured man sported a full head of white hair, and his jolly face wore a broad smile, even in light of the raging storm. “You looking for something in particular, or just trying to find a safe place out of this weather?”

The air was so calm inside the store, compared to the fury outside, that he had a hard time catching his breath. By the time Pete managed to find his voice, he realized there were two other men waiting for him to speak. “I’m looking for the doctor.”

“Here, here. Sit down young man. Looks like you’ve had a hard ride.”

“Don’t have time. We need a doc.”

“Who’s we?”

“Sorry. My name’s Nolan. Pete Nolan. I’m with Gil Favor’s outfit on the Sedalia Trail.” Pete took a deep breath. “Our ramrod was shot last night, and needs a doctor bad.”

There was a brief pause as the men seemed to study him. It was the white-haired man that finally spoke, and when he did, his voice was calm and reassuring.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place, son. Dr. Owens is one of the best. A surgeon, too. He’s probably over at his house, getting ready for this storm, but I’ll be glad to walk you over there.”

“Much obliged.”

The jingling of the door opening caught the men’s attention. A puff of dry dust followed the deputy sheriff in the doorway, and he coughed several times as he slammed the door behind him. “Nothing but wind and lightning, but I know I shouldn’t tempt fate. Looks like we’ll be gettin’ a gully-washer out of this one. Who’s the new man, Bert?”

“This here’s Pete Nolan. He rode in from the Sedalia, looking for a doctor. Was just about to walk him over when you came in.”

“Pete.” The deputy held out his hand, and Pete took it gratefully.

“I think he’ll be wanting to talk to you, too, Harv,” the older man suggested.

“Oh, how’s that?”

“Seems like a friend of his was shot last night.”

Pete looked from one man to the other before nodding his head. “That’s true, we had some trouble on the trail. Our ramrod was shot by some rustlers and that’s why I’m looking for a doctor.”

“Well, how ‘bout I take you over to the doc’s, and you can tell me more about these rustlers. Besides, I’m sure Bert’s wanting to get home.”

”Yes, I would. Wife’s probably worked herself into a fit about now,” Bert agreed. “Good luck there, young fella. Hope the doc can fix your friend up.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Pete’s smile was thin, enough to be polite, but not enough to encourage any further conversation. The deputy seemed to understand as he moved back to the door. ”Hang on to your hat.”

They had to do just that, as the two men made their way to the boardwalk and headed across the street. It was hard to be heard over the wind, but Pete managed to shout loud enough for the deputy to hear him. “Any place I can put my horse ‘til this blows over?”

“Yeah, bring him along,” the lawman hollered back.

Stopping only long enough to untie the reins, Pete pulled his mount along, surprised at the stubbornness the cow pony was exhibiting. The horse’s attitude only confirmed Pete’s suspicions. This was no simple thunderstorm, and the animal sensed it.

Lightning and thunder were following each other in quick succession, with barely a pause in between. The wind brought with it a cloud of dust so thick that the row of buildings was barely visible on the other side of the street. By the time they’d walked the thirty feet to the walkway on the other side, Pete was winded. He could feel the grime of the dust in his hair, and his palm was wet with sweat, the reins slick in his hand. He almost bumped into the deputy who’d suddenly turned to follow the edge of the building, around the corner and into an alleyway. There was a small barn there, and when he spotted the dark shape of a buggy, Pete realized that it must belong to the doctor.

The deputy was pulling hard on the wide door, fighting the wind in order to get it open far enough for the horse to enter. Being a range horse meant that Pete’s mount wasn’t overly happy about being stabled during the storm, but there was little choice. At least in the barn, he would be close by when it was time to go. Finding an open stall, Pete made quick work of getting his horse settled. Then he followed the lawman back across the alley and up the steps to the doctor’s back door where he knocked and entered immediately. It was clear that the man felt comfortable entering the doctor’s house, and Pete hoped that the feeling was mutual.

“Doc?”

A faint answer from the front room prompted the sheriff to go through first the kitchen and then a hallway, which finally opened into a parlor towards the front of the house.

“Harv? I thought that might be you. Saw you coming across the street.”

“Yes sir, we got a big blow this time. Doc, this here’s Pete . . . “

“Nolan.”

“Yeah, Pete Nolan. He’s with a herd out on the Sedalia Trail, and he came looking for a doctor.”

“Mr. Nolan,” the doctor acknowledged.

“Doctor. I’m sure glad to meet you.”

“What seems to be the trouble?” The doctor motioned to a chair while the deputy studied Pete closely.

“I’ve been waiting to ask that very question,” the lawman advised.

Pete didn’t bother to take a seat, walking instead to the window where he could watch the fury of the storm. “We know there’s been rustlers following us for a while now. Last night they came in shootin’ . . . tried to stampede the herd. They almost succeeded too. We lost several men, but our ramrod is still hanging on. Was when I left camp, anyway.”

“How far away?”

“Mr. Favor was going to keep the herd moving, but I think he’ll hold up by the river. With this storm, he probably won’t chance taking the herd up in the open where they can really run. I figure it’s about twenty, maybe twenty five miles from here.”

Pete turned about to face the doctor. “Will you help us?”

“Yes, son.” Dr. Owens answered genially. “As soon as the storm clears, we’ll go over to my office and get my things. Hopefully we’ll get a clearing so we can see our way down the trail tonight.”

“Thank you, sir.” Pete said warmly.

“John?” called a woman’s voice.

“It’s alright Eloise. Come on down, we have company.”

The woman made her way down the front stairs, looking behind her as she stepped onto the main floor. “I’ve checked all the windows, but it sounds awful up there.”

The men followed her gaze to the ceiling, each listening and wondering at the power of the storm raging around them. It seemed to be gathering strength with every gust, and the sound had grown so loud as to make conversation unpleasant.

“Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen, while I get you some coffee,” offered the woman.

They did just that, each man settling into a chair, and eventually, their own thoughts.

Pete, especially, had plenty to ponder. How were the men doing back on the trail? And with the delay of this storm, would he be able to get the doctor back to Rowdy in time?

*****

Gil Favor dragged a tired hand across the back of his neck. It had been a hard fought battle, but his drovers had done him proud. Every head of cattle was bunched below the cut, milling in the storm, anxious and unsteady, but still bunched.

They hadn’t seen any sign of the rustlers, though that could change at any moment. But once they had the herd in hand, Gil felt better about the situation. At least for now, they had things under control. The strength of the storm had him worried, but they had one thing in their favor. The cattle were tired.

“Scarlett, keep an eye on things,” Favor yelled over the wind, while with his left hand he motioned toward the wagon. He knew that Joe understood from the quick nod, so with a spur to his mount’s side, Favor headed back to check on Rowdy.

Once he reached the wagon, it was a quick dismount directly onto the wooden ledge, then up and over the end. Inside, he found things to be much the same as they’d been an hour ago. The only real difference now was that there was no conversation under the cover. The wind was pulling on the canvas, the noise overwhelming to those inside.

Rowdy’s torso was uncovered, his chest heaving with the work of breathing. There was a new bandage in place, but the blood was seeping through. Wishbone met Gil’s stare with one of his own, then turned back to his patient. The bucket next to him was half-empty, but he dipped the warm rag into it and squeezed out the excess water before laying it back on Rowdy. Gil started to speak, but Wishbone must’ve guessed the question, ‘cause he shook his head before the trail boss had a chance. It didn’t take a lot of figurin’ to know that Rowdy was getting worse. Pulling another towel from the dwindling supply, Favor did his best to help get the young man’s fever under control.

Outside the wagon, the storm raged on. Though there were longer stretches between the claps of thunder, the wind still howled, while rain pounded the canvas top. There’d been no time to set-up a decent camp, but the drovers were needed amongst the herd anyway. As soon as the weather cleared, they’d see about settling the herd and putting together a proper camp. Maybe then they could get a fire built. More importantly, maybe by then, Pete would be back with a doctor.

*****

Pete made another trip to the window, the sound of his restless footsteps lost in the deep folds of the carpet, and the roaring of the storm. It did seem to be letting up, some, giving the drover more reason to keep his eye on the clouds. He knew he wasn’t the only one. The doctor had gathered his bag and some supplies from the kitchen, making it clear that he’d be ready to head out as soon as there was a break in the weather. As for the deputy, he shared the window space with Pete, obviously concerned about his town.

The doctor’s wife had gathered her mending, but it lay in her lap more often than not. Her hands were folded over a piece of cloth, and several times Pete thought he saw her lips move, as if she were murmuring a silent prayer. During one particularly bright burst of light, she’d stood up, wringing her hands as she looked about the room. After a moment, she settled back into her rocker, her hands tightly clasped together. Another time, when the wind seemed to howl through the chimney especially loud, she raised her voice above the noise.

“The stove?” she’d asked of no one in particular.

“It’s fine,” her husband answered, though a moment later he rose to make sure the drafts were closed against the wind. Even the smallest spark could spell disaster in the dry wood of their frame house.

Pete tucked his thumbs in his gun belt, and clenched the toothpick a little tighter between his teeth. He fought back the urge to roll a cigarette, for the same reason Mrs. Owens worried about her stove. Still, he longed for the soothing tobacco. It wouldn’t take the place of mounting up, but it would’ve helped pass the time.

The ornate grandfather clock chimed again, marking the end of the second hour the four people had shared the doctor’s quarters. Strangely, its final knell seemed to mark the lessening of the storm, for almost immediately, the wind dropped off, and the thunder subsided.

As if in silent agreement, the men moved in unison. Pete and the deputy donned their hats, while the doctor gave his wife a quick kiss goodbye. Within minutes, the three were headed out the back door. Pete was intent on getting his horse from the stable, while the deputy hurried toward Main Street. The doctor, for his part, hesitated briefly at the door, looking back at his wife before braving the weather. The slicker that he’d draped over his shoulders was wet, water dripping from the brim of his hat, but he forged ahead.

“If you’ll saddle that gelding in the end stall, Mr. Nolan, I’ll go over to my office. There’s a few other instruments and some medicine I might need for your friend.”

“Sure, Doc. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

The doctor hurried out to the street and disappeared around the corner, but Pete didn’t notice. He was too busy locating the tack needed for the doctor’s horse. With the job quickly accomplished, Pete led the mounts down the alley and into the muddy street. He wasn’t surprised to see the wind damage. They’d been watching that out the window for the past hour. Signs had been blown down, windows broken, and scrap boards scattered up and down the street. What did surprise him was the amount of water now filling every depression. The rain seemed to be gathering in strength, a common end to one of these fierce storms. It probably wouldn’t last long, but it sure could dump a lot of water before it was over.

It only took a moment to locate the doctor’s office, and after looping the reins over the hitching post, Pete hurried inside. He was surprised to find that the doctor wasn’t alone. The deputy he recognized, but the other two men were strangers. As he closed the door quietly behind him, the men looked up, and Pete was struck by the look of frustration on the doctor’s face. “Something wrong?”

“Yes son, there is.”

The doctor stepped over, and though it looked like he regretted having to convey the message, he did so anyway. “These men are from Mason, a little town about ten miles from here. Just before the storm hit here, they had a twister. Took out several buildings, and they have wounded, including several children.”

Dr. Owens stopped, but Pete didn’t really need to hear more. He knew what the problem was, what the doctor’s dilemma must be. And though Pete would normally be sympathetic, this time he couldn’t do it. There was too much at stake. Someone back in camp that needed the doctor more. Pete didn’t know how he was so sure, but he was. The people in Mason might need a doctor, but they didn’t need him as bad as Rowdy. The boy was already flirtin’ with death hours ago. No tellin’ how bad he was by now. Clenching his hands, Pete stared at the doctor, then the deputy and then at the doctor again. He did his level best to keep his voice calm and steady when he finally answered. “Don’t do it, Doc. I know you’re needed there, but you’re needed back at our camp, too. Rowdy’s a good kid, and he sure doesn’t deserve to die like this.”

The doctor shook his head, saddened that he was forced to make this decision. “I’ll get back as fast as I possibly can, son. I don’t want your friend to suffer, either, but the demand is greater in Mason. That’s just the way it is. Twenty lives versus one. You have to understand . . .”

“I understand, Doc. I just can’t let you do it.”

Pete’s tone was low but firm as he slowly pulled his gun from its holster. “I don’t want to do this, Doc. But I have to insist . . . Rowdy needs you worse. Come with me and help the kid out, then I’ll help you get back to Mason as quick as we can.”

Dr. Owens seemed frozen in place, while the deputy behind him shifted from one foot to the other, as if trying to figure out how to handle the situation. So focused on them, and the visitors from Mason, Pete didn’t hear the quiet footsteps come up behind him. He’d left the door open, and the remnants of the storm covered the sounds of the man’s approach.

“Walk out in front of me, Doc. You know I don’t want to hurt anybody. But I’m not leavin’ here without you.” Pete demanded.

Before Pete had a chance to turn towards the open door, the man waiting there raised his gun and brought it swiftly down on Pete’s skull. Soundlessly, the scout slid to the floor, his own gun clattering to the wooden planks beside him.

*****

The wind was a gentle breeze, but the rain still pounded on the canvas. Wishbone laid a hand on the injured man’s shoulder, dropping his head when he noticed the slow but steady rise and fall of the young man’s chest. During the worst of the thunder, and the pounding of the rain, he’d been hard-pressed to tell if Rowdy was still alive and breathing. Maybe it was the storm that had kept the young man quiet, holding his attention even in the depths of his pain. Wishbone wasn’t sure, but he was grateful for whatever kept the young man quiet, and helped preserve his strength.

“Wish?”

Poking his head out of the wagon, the grizzled cook frowned at the muddy chaos surrounding them.

“Wish? You ready?”

“Yeah, Boss, we’re ready. Not sure we should be movin’ this boy any further, though.”

“Won’t be far. Just need to get us up out of this low spot before it gets dark.”

“What about those rustlers, Mr. Favor? Gettin’ us up on the mesa is gonna make it easier for them to hit us.”

“Yeah, but stayin’ down in this draw could be dangerous. If there was enough rain up in those mountains, we could be underwater by mornin.’ We’ll have to take our chances with the rustlers.”

“Well, we’re ready then. Mushy! Get that rain barrel covered.”

Mushy appeared from the front of the wagon, putting the lid tightly over the barrel, and checking over the ropes and rigging. By the time he’d finished up, Wishbone had already gotten down from the back, and climbed up front in the driver’s seat.

“You get in the back with Rowdy, boy. It’s gonna be a rough climb through that cut, and I want you to keep a close eye on him.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Wishbone.”

Nodding at Mr. Favor, who was still watching the proceedings, Wish gathered up the reins and called out to the team. Only then did the trail boss move away, his tall figure held ramrod straight as he rode ahead of the wagon. Wish knew that the man was worried. Didn’t take no high-fallutin’ Philadelphia lawyer to figure that out. What he didn’t know was what anyone could do about it. Until that doctor got here, there wasn’t much more they could do for Rowdy.

It took careful maneuvering, but Wishbone successfully guided the chuck wagon up the slope. The rocky path had been cleared of anything loose, thanks to several worried drovers, making the trail at least passable for the wagon. The cows could make their way just fine, but this wagon was carrying something special. Or at least, that’s what most of ‘em thought. Sure, Rowdy was young. A little immature, and a lot impetuous. But he was a good kid. And he sure deserved better.

“Keep ‘em movin’, Wish!”

Favor was watching from the ledge above him, and even from this distance it was easy to see his worried frown. “Water’s rising!”

Wishbone managed a quick backwards glance, but there wasn’t much to see. Mostly he caught the sight of milling cows. But another shout from behind confirmed the warning.

“They’re gettin’ nervous, Mr. Favor!”

While slapping the reins across the back of his team, Wishbone hollered into the wagon. “Hang on, Mushy.”

He hoped the boy was listening as the wagon rattled up the trail. It was up to him to keep an eye on Rowdy until they were safe on the mesa.

*****

Pete opened his eyes, blinking once at the view before him. Instantly, the scout was on his feet, hands wrapped tightly around the steel bars of a jail cell. “Hey. What’s goin’ on here? Let me out!”

The resulting flash of pain drew Pete’s right hand away from the bars and to the back of his neck. “What’d they hit me with?”

His muttered question attained no answers. The building was quiet, save the whistle of the dying wind in the eaves, and it only took a few minutes of the oppressive silence before Pete made his way back to the iron cot. Hunched over, he continued to hold his neck, exploring carefully with his fingers the knot on the back of his head. There was swelling, and a little dried blood, but nothing that wouldn’t heal on its own. Relaxing into a more familiar slouch, the drover eyed his accommodations. His outside calm did not represent his inner anxiety, but with no one here to listen, he figured it wasn’t worth wasting the energy to complain. That would change as soon as someone showed up.

Luckily, Pete didn’t have long to wait. Barely ten minutes passed before the front door opened, closed quickly with a bang. On his feet and once again clutching the bars, Pete hollered for attention. “Let me outta here!”

“Now hold on there,” was the cool reply from the front office. “Just give me a minute to get the keys.”

Surprised at the ready compliance, Pete was still impatient as he waited through the jangle of keys and slow footsteps of his liberator. When the man finally came into view, Pete was disappointed that he didn’t recognize him. He did, however, recognize the star pinned to the deputy’s vest. “You in charge here?”

“For now,” drawled the lawman. “I was told to let you out, when you finally come to. Guess you’re as awake as you’ll ever be.”

Pete nodded slowly, careful not to aggravate his already pounding head. “You’re gonna let me go?”

“Yeah. My boss said you ain’t done anything against the law, other than bein’ stupid. But he also said that if he were in your spot, he might just’ve done the same thing.”

Unsure of how to respond, Pete kept silent as he bent to pick up his weathered hat. Placing it carefully on his head, the drover stepped out of the now open jail cell and into the front room. “Do I get my gun back?”

“Sure. But not until you’re ready to ride outta town. Boss doesn’t want you to make any more trouble.”

“Where is your boss?”

“He rode out with the doctor a couple hours ago.”

“A couple hours ago?”

Pete hurried to the window, disappointed to find that the sun was low in the sky. More than a few hours from the herd, a cloudy sky and no doctor, he was leading a poor rescue for Rowdy. Hanging his head, a few minutes of strained silence passed while he tried to decide what to do.

“There’s no other doctors in the area?” Pete finally asked.

“No. Not another one for at least a hundred miles.”

“Give me my gun.”

“You ain’t goin’ after the doc, are ya?”

“No. He’s got work to do. Tell him . . . will you just tell him I understand?”

Pulling open a desk drawer, the older man drew out Pete’s gun. He held onto it for a moment, as if studying Pete and the situation carefully. Finally, he answered quietly. “Doc felt bad. It was a hard choice for him, young man.”

Pete merely nodded as he reached for the gun being held out to him. Touching the brim of his hat, he pulled open the door, but before he stepped through, a voice stopped him.

“Are ya goin’ back?”

“Not much else I can do.”

Pete closed the door quietly behind him, not surprised to find his horse tied out front. Mounting up, he adjusted his hat low over his eyes, and rode slowly out of town.

 

*****

Gil Favor poured a cup of coffee then sank down on a log, stretching his long legs out in front of him. He held the cup between both hands, but failed to bring it to his lips, instead centering his attention on the small fire. The sunlight had been chased away by the night, but as the storm finally blew itself out, the sky slowly cleared, allowing thin rays of moonlight to shine through. The trail boss knew that the light would serve two purposes. On one hand, the moon would make things easier for the rustlers, if they chose to hit again tonight. But on the other, the added light would help Pete find his way to the herd. Bringing the doctor in far outweighed any threat the cattle thieves posed. That thought was a new one for Gil, but it was a sincere one. Right now, the most important thing was to save Rowdy.

“Here, Mr. Favor.”

Mushy was standing beside him, a plate of stew in hand. Although Favor’s first reaction was to turn down the offer, he also knew he needed eat. Keep doing the regular things, make an effort, set an example.

The trail boss didn’t say a word as he reached out to take his plate from Mushy. Slowly spooning up the stew, he took several bites, still watching the wagon intently. Wishbone had been inside for a while now, and Favor didn’t know if that was a good or bad sign. A man who rarely showed fear in any situation, Favor knew this was one time he’d be hard-pressed not to let on. He was scared. Scared clear to the bone. Scared that it would be too late to save his young friend, even if the doctor did get here.

Barely halfway through his dinner, Favor set his plate on the ground, exchanging it for his now-cold coffee. Holding the cup in front of him, he studied the flickering flames, wishing for a time when things weren’t so bad.

“Boss?”

Favor drew himself up, flinging the remnants of his cup into the fire as he turned to face Joe Scarlett.

“Herd’s getting’ restless.”

“Yeah, it’s that time of night. Take a few men out and keep an eye on things. I’ll join you after I’ve checked on Rowdy.”

Scarlett stood quietly for a moment, not in defiance, but rather like he had something he wanted to ask, but didn’t know how.

“What?

“Nothin’. It’s nothin’, Boss. Just wonderin’ about Pete, and what might be keepin’ him.”

“Yeah. I’ve been wondering about that, too. But you know Pete; he’ll be here as quick as he can.”

The drover nodded, but still hesitated. Favor didn’t think he could answer any more questions or offer any more reassurances. He didn’t have it in him. Not when he longed to have someone reassure him instead. “Head out, Joe. There’s nothing we can do for Rowdy now. Nothing except . . . well, except . . .”

“I know, Boss. It’s not something we do very much, but most of us know how.”

Neither man commented further, but Favor watched as Scarlett walked slowly over to his horse, mounted and rode out. Though nothing tangible had been offered, he did find himself oddly comforted. At least, in some small way, he’d been told that his men were doing the only thing they could for their comrade. It’s what he’d found himself doing several times over the course of the day. Praying wasn’t something he did with much regularity, other than an occasional few words over a drover’s grave. But sometimes, praying was all that was left a man. And Rowdy was worth a prayer or two.

“Mr. Favor.”

“Yeah, Wish. I’m comin’.”

Favor handed his cup to Mushy as he hurried over to the wagon.

“Wondered if you could sit with him for a bit while I get Mushy lined out on some chores that need doin’.”

“Sure, Wish.”

Climbing into the back of the wagon, the trail boss folded his frame into the narrow space next to Rowdy. The young man was quiet now, almost deathlike in his stillness and it gave Favor a start to realize how much had changed in only a few hours. Still hot with the fever, Rowdy no longer tossed and turned, nor called out to people long gone or far away.

He didn’t know how long he sat there watching his ramrod, but he almost jumped when Wishbone laid a hand on his shoulder.

“He’s worse,” advised Wishbone. “Didn’t think I’d be wishing for the delirium, but at least that told you he was still in there. This is . . . too quiet.”

“How long, Wish? How long can he last like this?”

“Don’t rightly know. He’s a fighter, Boss. Wouldn’t still be with us if he wasn’t. But I don’t know if he can make it through another night. He’s not breathin’ good. And he’s hot. Too hot.”

Favor raised his clenched fist to his mouth, holding it tight against his lips as he stared at the injured man. “Do what you can, Wish.”

Without another word, Gil Favor turned away from his young protégée. He didn’t want to admit to himself that it might be the last time he’d see the man alive. But in an unusual show of sentiment, he turned back before leaving the wagon and grasped his ramrod’s arm.

“You keep fightin’, Rowdy. I’m countin’ on you, boy. Keep fightin’.”

*****

Pete made good progress, but it was full dark when he caught up with the herd. He was relieved to see that they’d made it up on the mesa, especially after he’d rode past the rain-swollen stream below. From the look of things, the cattle had faired well. This time, that thought was small consolation.

In the moonlight, Pete could just make out the white top of the wagon, silhouetted by the flickering light of the campfire. What he couldn’t tell was if Rowdy was still inside that wagon. Without the doctor he’d been sent to get, he wasn’t sure it would make a lot of difference. As hard as it was to swallow, the guide knew that Rowdy was a dead man either way. That realization caused Pete to pull back on the reins, suddenly reluctant to ride in. He didn’t have much choice about the doctor, yet he’d never before felt like such a failure.

“Pete!”

With a start, the scout realized he’d been sitting quiet, his horse enjoying one of their few breaks since leaving town. But his reprieve was over. He’d been spotted, and within minutes, several riders joined him.

“Where is he? Where’s the doc?” Quince demanded.

“Isn’t coming.”

“Isn’t coming?” Quince exclaimed. “What the…”

“Let’s wait for the Boss. I only wanna have to tell this once.”

Pete was relieved when Quince held his questions. Reluctantly. As they headed toward the wagon, the other drover split off, and Pete knew he’d be back soon with Mr. Favor.

Mushy met the riders at the edge of camp, and like the others, he asked first about the doctor. Pete was relieved when his dark look stopped the questions. Instead, he asked his own. “Is he . . .”

“Mr. Wishbone says he’s fightin’ like a wildcat. But Rowdy’s awful quiet now. Don’t know how much fight he’s got left.”

Guilty for thinking it, Pete couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to find the young man already gone. In the next minute, he mentally kicked himself for such a selfish thought. Rubbing the back of his neck, Pete hated himself for all the mixed up things he was thinking. If only the doctor had come with him, or if there’d been another one . . . .

“Pete?”

Turning at the sound of Favor’s voice, Pete steeled himself for the explanation he would be forced to give.

“Ned said you didn’t have a doctor with you.”

“That’s right. That storm caused a lot of damage, and there were some people hurt. The doctor had to go there first.” Pete could barely look Favor in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Boss.”

Gil Favor didn’t reply, dropping his head to stare at his boots. Pete felt like seven kinds of a fool, but he couldn’t bear to see the trail boss like this. “There’s still a chance. Isn’t there?”

Silence stretched between them for several minutes, the other drovers quietly waiting to see what their leader would say. But his answer, when it came, didn’t reassure anyone.

“No, Pete. Without a doctor, he doesn’t stand a chance.”

Turning in unison, the two quietly headed toward the wagon. Only a few steps from the canvas opening, they were stopped by the sound of gunfire, followed by the sound of running beeves.

“Stampede! Jim, you head west and help Joe. Pete and I will head east. Turn ‘em if you can, but keep your head down. Don’t want anyone else stoppin’ a bullet.”

“Yes sir!”

The men were off and running, each fully aware of the dangers awaiting them. This was the third stampede in a little over a week, but the stakes were higher now than ever. More importantly, the men were angry. Shadowed, attacked, drovers killed . . . Favor’s men had made up their minds they wouldn’t be taken again.

Favor was already in the saddle, riding fast. Pete didn’t know what his boss had planned, but he’d worked with the man long enough to not only follow, but to trust his lead. There were more shots ahead, and for a moment, Pete cursed the moon. Sure, it gave them light to chase by, but it had given the rustlers the edge they needed. Right now he’d have wished for a dark quiet night.

“Boss, I’ll work around you to the right!”

There were several more shots off to the left, but shouts were coming from up ahead. By the time Pete heard Favor’s shout of approval, the herd was already starting to turn. Bawling cows were starting to slow, and as they circled in on themselves, the milling herd grew louder. Pete wondered what had happened to the rustlers. They wouldn’t have given up this easy. They must be waiting, maybe further out in the brush. Instead of riding ahead, Pete pulled up beside Favor, but even when they’d stopped, he had to shout to be heard. “What now?”

“Wait. Give ‘em a few minutes.”

Pete only managed a stare of incomprehension. Why would his boss be casually sitting here, as if the didn’t have a care in the world. Almost immediately he had is answer. A small group of riders drew close enough, and in the faint light, he could make out their drovers bringing in six unknown riders at gunpoint.

“We got ‘em, boss!”

Favor’s grin of approval was sincere but short lived. They all knew that the capture of the rustlers was small consolation to losing the friends that were already gone, and the one that might soon be. “Take ‘em back to camp. We’ll talk to ‘em there.”

It all seemed too easy but Pete knew there must’ve been some serious planning involved. He’d have to ask his boss about it sometime. After . . .

“Quince, anyone get hurt?”

“Not a scratch. Joe’s gonna get the herd settled. I told him we’d be out to help.”

“Good. As soon as we figure out what to do with these . . . men, the rest of you get back to the herd. After things quiet down, we’ll go to regular shifts.”

Riding into camp, Pete was struck by the fact that they’d finally captured the rustlers without taking one life. Why couldn’t it have been the other way around? He didn’t have time to pursue that line of thinking, not when there were questions being thrown around, some of them directed at him.

“We’ve got visitors, Boss!”

“Recognize the horses, Pete?”

“Wishbone, where are you?”

Mushy was the first one to run towards them. In his typical fashion, the cook’s louse tried to fill in the whole story at breakneck speed. Before he’d even got halfway through the first sentence, however, Pete had come to his own conclusions.

“The doctor’s here!”

Favor and Nolan were off their horses and running toward the wagon, each hoping that the medical man had really arrived, and in time.

*****

It was much later when Favor found himself staring in the fire again. He wondered how many times he’d been in this position the past few days, but was kind of glad he hadn’t kept track. It was probably too many

Pete had been right; they’d found the doctor already tending to Rowdy, and both had been firmly rejected entrance. With the doctor and Wishbone both in attendance, there wasn’t room for them anyway.

It had been a relief to find that the doctor hadn’t come alone. The deputy sheriff had ridden with him, and after an explanation of the numerous attacks on the herd, he’d taken charge of the rustlers. With the statement Gil had written up, including the names of each man buried along the trail, the lawman felt certain that the judge would throw the book at them. Prison or swinging from a rope, Favor found he didn’t much care what happened to the rustlers. He just hoped that he didn’t have to add Rowdy’s name to that sad list.

Several hours had already passed, but other than an occasional call for Mushy to bring water or run some other errand, there’d been no word from inside the wagon. Pete had ridden out to give Scarlett and the others a hand and Favor wished that he’d went along. It had to be better than just sitting here waiting. Somehow, though, the trail boss knew that this was where he needed to be. The others seemed to understand. Quince, his arm still in a sling, was keeping him company, if you could call sitting silently across the fire being company. At least he wasn’t alone.

More minutes ticked by, the time broken only by watching Quince add wood to the dying fire. Several of the drovers had come in, but they’d quickly wrapped themselves in their blankets in an effort to catch a little shut-eye. Gil suspected they weren’t having much luck, given the amount of tossing and turning he’d noticed from that side of camp. It appeared that he wasn’t the only one eyeing the back of the wagon.

Mushy had started the third pot of coffee before the doctor finally made his way out of the wagon and over to the fire. He wordlessly accepted a cup of the hot brew, taking a few sips then rolling his shoulders to relieve the kinks. Favor stood up to face him. He tried to allow the man a few minutes to unwind, but his patience was short lived. “Tell us, Doc. How is he?”

Dr. Owens stared into his cup, as if trying to find an answer there. Or maybe he was just stalling. Either way, Favor didn’t give him much time. “Is he gonna make it?”

The doctor’s voice, when he answered, was slow and steady. “I don’t know.”

The answer held none of the encouragement Favor had been searching for. The trail boss couldn’t find his own words to answer, but stared intently at the doctor instead. Waiting for better news he knew wouldn’t come.

“I got the bullet out, but he’s lost a lot of blood. He’s fighting shock and infection. It’s possible he could even develop pneumonia, considering where I found that bullet. That boy’s got a whole deck stacked against him.”

The doctor took another sip of coffee as if to let his words settle around his listeners. Though his prognosis had been given short and sweet, he’d tempered his words with caring and regret. It was obvious that he didn’t want to divulge the bad news. But there it was. The truth. “He’s a fighter, though. Wouldn’t have made it this far if he wasn’t.”

The doctor paused, studying his coffee again. He seemed to be searching again for the right words. “I don’t want to mislead any of you. If I had to lay odds, they wouldn’t be good ones. Yet, I’m not prepared to bet against him either. He’s got a chance. A slim one, yes, but a chance. Wishbone is working to get his temperature down, and I’ll do all I can . . . “

His feeble attempt to encourage them was met with the same silence that his previous prognosis was. Favor wanted to thank the man, but when he tried to speak, nothing came. Thankfully, the physician didn’t seem to notice.

“I’d better get back now. Just thought I should let you know how things stand.”

Favor nodded once before reaching out to shake the other’s hand. He was grateful when his voice returned for a faint “thanks, Doc.”

Left with nothing to do but wait, Favor spent his time watching the fire and the sky. Neither changed much as the night progressed. He might’ve dozed several times, but that was the extent of it. For the most part, Favor sat silently, joined off and on throughout the night by different drovers.

It was with a strange feeling of relief that he saw Pete finally come in before dawn. Watching his guide dismount and head straight for the fire, Favor quickly filled a cup of coffee and had it ready. Pete took the cup, but wasted no time getting his question asked. “How’s he doing?”

“Still fighting.”

“Have you talked to the Doc?”

“Few hours ago. He came out just long enough to tell us that he got the bullet out.” Favor didn’t offer any details. What was the use? Pete, like the others, knew it was bad. And talking about it didn’t help.

The two men settled back, staring silently at the fire. The trail boss liked all his men, got along well with most of them. But he felt most comfortable with Pete. Maybe it was the number of drives they’d shared, or the easy way they seemed to work together. Maybe it was simply that they had the same ideas, about men, cattle and working hard. Hell, maybe it was simply because they’d become friends. This time, they shared a concern for a young man that both felt held lots of promise. It was going to hurt to see him lose his chance.

*****

The sky was layered in waves of pink and gold. Though the sun was still hidden behind the horizon, the beauty of its coming was worth taking a few minutes to appreciate.

Pete was just glad to see there was none of that warning red they’d seen before. The last thing they needed right now was another storm. In fact, Pete figured it was time for some easy trails. He figured if anyone deserved it, this group of drovers did.

He’d watched Favor for several hours now, and it was clear that the man was past worried. ‘Course they all were, but the trail boss was taking it real hard. Most men knew there would be losses along the trail; most every drive experienced it. But this one had been, by far, the worst. The casualties were too high, and Favor was feeling the strain. That would’ve been bad enough. But to have Rowdy hit like this, and having to watch him suffer. It was taking its toll.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much any of them could do. Going about business as usual was the best thing, but after several stampedes in a row, the decision had been made to rest up for a few days, let the cattle graze. It wouldn’t hurt to give the men a little time to relax, either. They deserved it.

Wishbone poked his grizzled head out of the wagon, looking back and forth as if trying to decide which way to go. In the end, he lowered himself to the ground, then made his way to the fire.

“How is he, Wish?” Favor wasted no time in asking.

“Seems to be a mite cooler this morning. But he’s still too quiet. Thought I’d take a few minutes and see how Mushy’s makin’ out.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to get a little rest, either,” the boss suggested.

“Now, the time I need you tellin’ me when to rest or when to work, well, that’d be the time for me to pack up and move on.”

“Didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers. Just thinkin’ Rowdy might be needin’ your help later, that’s all.”

Wishbone seemed to be only slightly placated, as he headed off to get Mushy started on breakfast. Pete grinned at Favor, knowing that the old man wasn’t nearly as bad as he sounded.

“Pete! Mr. Favor!”

The two men jumped up and ran toward the wagon, Wishbone and half the crew behind them. Dr. Owens looked down at them, a faint smile on his face. “Only one or two of you, now. There’s not much room in here.”

Favor was the first one up and over the tailgate, followed closely by Pete. Wishbone must’ve figured the doc wasn’t talking to him, as he followed the first two, at least far enough so he could see what was going on.

“Quiet now. He’s just starting to wake up, and he’s weak as a kitten.”

Favor nodded at the doctor’s admonitions, but he didn’t waste any time moving a little closer. Pete watched as the trail boss balanced an elbow on his leg, left fist pressed tight to his lips as he watched the injured man closely.

Rowdy, for his part, was lying as still as Pete had ever seen him. He wasn’t sure what the doctor thought he’d seen, but from where he was perched at the end of the bedroll, the young man looked like he was on death’s door with only a half step to go.

Barely a moment later, a thin voice called out, its tone weak but recognizable.

“Mr. Favor? Why . . . why aren’t we movin’, Mr. Favor? Herd’s gotta keep movin’.”

Pete could see the boss’s eyes close and head drop even as his right hand snaked out to grasp Rowdy’s arm. It evidently took several minutes for Favor to find his voice, but when he did, the relief was evident.

“Herd needs to graze. Every good ramrod knows that. You rest up while they’re takin’ a breather, and we’ll be back on the trail before you know it.”

No one knew if Rowdy understood, or if he just trusted the boss’s voice. His eyes never opened, and the doctor quickly leaned over to check the young man.

“He’s sleeping easy, now.”

The doctor leaned back, taking a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow. “I don’t know how, gentlemen, but I think this young man has beaten Pete figured Favor’s grin must’ve matched his own. From behind them, Wishbone was already spreading the word to the men gathered around the wagon. A shout went up, followed by Wishbone’s scolding voice telling them to “quiet down.” But the jubilation was spreading from the sounds of things.

Inside the wagon, Rowdy slept on, oblivious to the excitement around him.

*****

Gil Favor looked over the herd, his eyes settling back on the wagon already moving away from camp. Inside, he knew Rowdy was probably still complaining about being stuck in the back of a slow moving wagon when he should be out doing his job. Favor just grinned wider.

Rowdy was getting stronger every day. Dr. Owens had been astounded at the young man’s quick recovery. At first, he’d argued that Rowdy should be resting easy, not being bounced around inside a wagon. But after the last few days of Rowdy’s cocky attitude, even the doctor was convinced that the young man could handle it.

“He’s got the constitution of a young bull,” the doctor moaned the evening before he headed back to town. “Don’t know how he’s done it, especially the way he looked that first day. But I’ll be hanged if he isn’t healing up faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

If possible, Favor smiled wider than ever. His crew was rested, the cattle ready to move. Rowdy was on the mend. It was time.

Turning halfway in the saddle, the trail boss raised his voice as he called out:

“Head ‘em up. Move ‘em out!”

***The End***

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