The Mysterious Drover (by PJ)

Summary:
Category:  Rawhide
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  35,300


Prologue:

McKenzie Donnelly stood up in her stirrups, shielded her eyes against the bright sun, and looked over the horizon, watching a huge cloud of dust. She knew that soon the dust cloud, consisting of an untold number of steers, would reach her father’s ranch by the next day. Here on the Donnelly property, the steers would have good graze and plenty of water. When the drovers left, they would be taking 750 head of Donnelly steers with them from Texas all the way to Sedalia, Missouri.

McKenzie sighed. She had been born and raised on her father’s ranch and had never had the opportunity to see any other part of the country. The only place she had been able to visit was the small town close by. Oh, the people were very friendly, and there were quite a few young men who had come to court her, but she longed for an adventure that would take her away from home, even if it were just for a while. She was 26 years old and had married two years before. It was Hank’s promise of traveling to faraway places that prompted the marriage; she knew she never loved him at all and that the marriage was a mistake. She was hard-headed and married him anyway. He never took her anywhere, despite his promises. And, within 3 months, he turned out to be a verbally abusive man (and a drunk and a liar to boot), so she couldn’t honestly say that she was at all unhappy when his horse tripped, fell on him and killed him.

The Donnelly ranch, owned by her parents, was not the biggest spread in the area, but the cattle were prime and would fetch a good price in Sedalia. With that money, Sean and Bonnie Donnelly could buy more seed bulls and cows and raise more cattle for the drives that would be coming again. Paying a trail boss to drive the current herd to market would make the Donnelly family low on money, but her father knew that the end result would be a large pay-off.

McKenzie had two constant companions: a dog (an Australian Shepherd named “Pete”) and a beautiful buckskin cutting horse named “Dusty.” Pete was invaluable and was one of the reasons that the Donnellys needed fewer working hands on the ranch because, even though he was bred to herd sheep, he had been trained to herd cattle. He was worth his weight in gold and could do the work of several ranch hands. Dusty was another great asset because of his spirit, his speed, his quickness, and his savvy at herding and cutting out cattle. McKenzie (who loved all animals) couldn’t imagine life without these four-legged creatures: they were her friends, her playmates, and her confidants. There was a genuine mutual love among these three.

Patting Dusty on the neck affectionately, McKenzie turned him around. She was devising a plan and was trying to figure out how to implement it. As Dusty began to trot away, Pete was close by, tongue lolling happily, as the three headed for home.

*****

Very seldom did Sean Donnelly shout at his daughter. But he did this day. He was second-generation Irish and hardly had an accent, but when he was angry (as he was now), he often lapsed into the “auld sod” brogue.

“Faith and begorra, bairn!” he ranted. “Believin’ my ears, I’m not!”

McKenzie stood her ground, glaring back into her father’s eyes. All Bonnie could do was to hope that the windows didn’t crack and that the mirrors didn’t fall off the wall. She was most superstitious, and the thought of mirrors breaking drove her to more distraction than the shouting did.

McKenzie wasn’t bothered by the shouting, but she WAS bothered by the fact that her plan wouldn’t work. So she presented it again, this time in a different manner. She spoke softly. “Now, don’t go getting all riled up. It makes perfect sense. If I go on this cattle drive, I can keep a good eye on our own beef. I can learn a lot about cattle from the drovers, maybe even some things that YOU don’t even know. I can look the buyers of our cattle in the eye and get the best price. Then I can come back here on the train. This is a good plan. It will work. I know it will.”

Sean paced and fumed. “I’ll not be havin’ me gurrl leavin’ with a gang of men for two months. ‘Tisn’t prroperr!” But in his mind, he knew she had made several good points. He just didn’t want to give in. Imagining his only daughter out on the range for such a long time with God-only-knew what kind of men gave him the willies.

“Listen to me, Da,” McKenzie began, using the endearing Irish word for “father.” But she never got to finish the sentence because Sean had stalked out the door.

Bonnie, seeing that the shouting was over, put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “Your father is right, you know. If anything happened to you, it would kill him.”

McKenzie patted her mother’s hand and, still plotting, peeked outside to see what her father was doing. He was still pacing but his face was less florid. Pacing is good; that means he’s thinking about what I said. She knew her father and his moods well. She was definitely her father’s child.

*****

Standing in front of the mirror, she took a good look at her reflection. She had always loved her long auburn hair. The thick tresses had natural curl and required very little care. Though she was not really short in stature, she was only moderately tall. That might present a problem. And, of course, there was her body. God had blessed her with the curves that a woman needs, but she already had a plan of how to solve THAT problem. Her voice was melodious but also was thankfully a wee bit low-pitched. I can work on that.

The first thing she did was to scrub her face completely clean. She was used to wearing powder and a light lipstick every day. That had to be erased from her face completely. Okay, that’s done.

Reaching into her closet, she found some of Hank’s old clothes. I knew he would be good for something one day. Stripping naked, she donned the faded jeans and then put on the plaid shirt. She looked in the mirror. The jeans are baggy enough to conceal the shape of my hips, but oh, dear. This won’t do. My breasts are too obvious. Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Pausing for only a moment, she tore an old sheet and, with one long strip, bound her breasts securely and then re-buttoned the shirt. Much better. With an old vest worn over the shirt, who’ll be looking?

Concentrating hard, she practiced dropping her voice into a much lower pitch and found that it wouldn’t be as difficult to change her voice as she had thought it would be. But my hair. My beautiful hair!

Before she could change her mind, she snatched up her sewing scissors and began hacking away at the beloved auburn locks. When she was finished, most of her hair was on the floor. Very little hair was on her head. It’s too late to turn back now. Putting Hank’s weathered cowboy hat on her head and pulling on her own boots, she looked into the mirror and scrutinized her image. She was pleased with the transformation. She was sure, if nobody looked too close, she could pass as a man. She would worry later about how she would explain not shaving if this plan actually worked.

Bonnie screamed when the strange “man” walked into the kitchen. Before McKenzie could say anything, Sean ran in the back door and grabbed his father’s old gnarled walking stick and began to swing it about. “Out with ye! Out with ye!” he shouted. “I’ll no be havin’ strange men muckin’ about me house!” McKenzie saw a mirror fall off the wall.

She couldn’t help it. She started to laugh and couldn’t stop. If her own family couldn’t recognize her, then the plan would be a success. “Da,” she hiccupped between giggles. “It’s me. It’s your daughter.”

Sean stopped brandishing the walking stick. Bonnie’s mouth dropped open. The only sounds in the kitchen were the echoes of McKenzie’s laughter.

“What’ve ye done, gurrl?” roared an incredulous Sean. He snatched the hat off her head and reeled in surprise at her new haircut. Bonnie, close to hysterics, began touching her daughter from head to foot. Only by touching her could she believe that this was her child. Not knowing what to say, she turned her attention to the broken mirror and had horrible thoughts about the old adage of “seven years of bad luck.”

Sean was, for the first time, absolutely speechless. Taking advantage of his silence, McKenzie spoke. “Da, I wouldn’t be able to go on the cattle drive as a girl, that’s true. But I CAN go if I look like a man.”

Sitting down heavily, Sean looked at his daughter. “’Tis true, bairn. Ye have the look of a man. But a man ye are not. Ye will be found out and only the Good Lord knows what’ll happen to ye then.”

Momentarily distracted by Bonnie’s wailing over the prospect of seven years of bad luck, Sean spoke harshly to his wife. “Hush, woman! The deed is done.” He, of course, was referring to what his daughter had done to her appearance, but Bonnie’s focus was on the broken mirror. She was a good wife and a wonderful mother, but both Sean and McKenzie often wondered if she might not be just a “wee bit dotty.”

Sean pursed his mouth and spoke softly, losing the brogue he had slipped into in anger. “It might work. It just might work.” His face brightened as the idea began appealing to him. “We could call you ‘Mac’.”

There was an audible sigh of relief from McKenzie. If her father thought it could work, then it could really work. She would have to be extremely careful on the trail.

“This is the deal,” said Sean. “If the trail boss can be tricked into hiring you, then you can go. But if he isn’t fooled and refuses to hire you, then you stay home where you belong.”

McKenzie threw her arms around her father’s neck. “It will work. I just know it will!”

Bonnie, shards of mirror in her hands, spoke words of doom. “We’re going to have bad luck. For seven years.”

Father and daughter looked first at Bonnie and then at each other. They rolled their eyes and smothered their laughter.

*****

Early the next morning, Gil Favor and Pete Nolan arrived at the Donnelly ranch. Though the two men declined the breakfast that Bonnie had been determined to cook for them, they did take some biscuits with them as Sean rode out with them to where McKenzie and only one other ranch hand were gathering the cattle.

“Seven hundred fifty head and only two hands herding them?” Mr. Favor asked, munching on a biscuit.

Mr. Nolan shook his head. “That’s a pretty daunting task.”

Sean beamed. “Two hands, one dog.”

“A dog?” choked Mr. Favor.

“You’ll see,” came Sean’s proud answer.

And it was true. As the three men looked into the valley, they could see two riders and one dog. And the herd was completely under control and coming their way. There was one rider on each side of the steers, and the dog took care of the rest, tirelessly keeping errant steers in line by nipping at their heels and running from side to side. There was the sound of annoyed mooing from the steers, and the sound of whistles could be heard frequently.

“Well, I’ve heard of sheep dogs,” began Mr. Favor. “But I’ve never known of a cattle dog.”

Sean leaned back in his saddle comfortably. “The dog belongs to my…ah…son, McKenzie. Mac trained him on his own. The whistles you hear are commands to the dog.” Calling his daughter “son” was difficult, and Sean secretly prayed he wouldn’t slip and let them know that “Mac” was a girl.

“Which one is your son?” asked Mr. Nolan, watching both riders and sizing them up. There were fewer drovers on this trail drive than usual, and Mr. Nolan was keeping an eye out for an experienced top hand. Sean had mentioned that he could spare only one ranch hand to go on the trail drive, and he wanted the trail boss to see Mac in action.

“Mac is over there on the far side,” answered Sean.

Three pairs of eyes focused on Mac. And she was impressive. She knew what she was doing and could sit a saddle easily, cutting and hazing grudging steers back into the group. No matter how sharp her horse turned, no matter how quickly the horse moved, Mac couldn’t be unseated. Horse and rider moved as one entity. Gil and Pete looked at each other and nodded a silent assent. Mac just might be the man to hire.

Sean sat back and let Mr. Favor and Mr. Nolan peruse the stock. The beef was prime, as Sean had said it would be. After looking over the whole herd, Mr. Favor suggested that they return to the ranch and get the paperwork done. And there was the matter of whether or not to hire Mac.

*****

While the paperwork for moving the cattle was being read, re-read, and signed, Mac waited outside nervously. Both Dusty and the dog could feel the anxiety and were restless. Finally Mac heard Sean call her name. Taking a deep breath, and trying to walk like a man instead of a woman, McKenzie entered the house, her dog at her side.

Sean made the introductions. “Mr. Favor, Mr. Nolan, this is my son Mac.” Sean again almost tripped over the word “son.” McKenzie shook hands with both men, making sure that her grip was a strong, firm one.

But she could see that she was being sized up. She was intimidated by Mr. Favor’s height and direct gaze and wondered if he and Mr. Nolan were scrutinizing HER in the same manner.

Both men were doing just that. Though this young man was slighter built in stature, and was small-boned to boot, it was obvious that he knew his way around horses and cattle. And it was a fact that another drover would be useful.

“Your father tells me that you want to hire on as a trail hand,” Mr. Favor said, still taking stock of the young man standing before him. There was something odd about the young man, but he just couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Yessir,” came the answer.

“You know it’s not an easy job,” Mr. Nolan announced. “The work is hard; sometimes we stay in the saddle all night and all day. The weather can be brutal: rainstorms, scorching days, dust storms, Indian raids….” He let his voice drift off. “And I see that you don’t carry a gun.”

McKenzie answered, making sure her voice was as deep as she could make it. “I herd cattle here almost every day. I can stay in the saddle just as long as anyone. The weather is bad here, just as it is on the trail. I don’t have a gun on today because I don’t need it. My father taught me how to use both a gun and a rifle, and I can assure you that there is no better teacher than he is.”

There was a silence in the room. Bonnie wrung her hands, torn between letting her daughter go and wanting her to stay home where she belonged. Sean’s heart was pounding.

Still looking Mac straight in the eyes, Mr. Favor recapped the situation. “You want to hire on as a drover, go to market with your cattle, and then bring the money home.”

Mac nodded and waited.

“Okay. Consider yourself hired,” Mr. Favor said as he began to write on the paper in front of him.

“Just one thing,” interjected Mac. “My dog and my horse go with me. For free.”

Both Mr. Favor and Mr. Nolan considered this for a moment. Then Mr. Nolan commented, “We’ve never had a working dog on a trail drive before. I’ve seen the dog work, and I’m impressed. I’ve seen you ride that horse, and I’m impressed with that too. But you will have to ride horses from the remuda also. Can you do that?”

Looking slightly insulted, Mac answered. “I can ride any horse you give me. And my dog is worth at least two men, if not more.”

Mr. Favor tried to hide a grin at the defiant jut of Mac’s chin. “Okay. You’re hired. And you can bring the horse and the dog. Just sign here.” He pointed to the contract in his hand.

Mac took the pencil and disguised her normal handwriting so it would tend to look like a man’s scrawl. She handed the paper back, breathing a sigh of relief. She had passed the test.

“By the way,” Mr. Nolan asked. “What’s the dog’s name?” He reached down to scratch the pet behind the ears.

“Pete,” came the answer.

Mr. Favor laughed out loud while Mr. Nolan groaned. Mac looked at them quizzically.

“That’s Mr. Nolan’s name,” laughed Mr. Favor. “Looks like we’re gonna have to have a ‘big Pete’ and a ‘little Pete’!” Mr. Nolan didn’t seem to find the humor in this but kept his mouth shut.

Mac went to her room to get her already-packed bedroll (and her husband’s gun and holster), took one look around the room and almost lost her nerve. She had plotted and planned for this adventure, but she hated to leave her “girl” things behind her: the cheerful wallpaper, the soft bed with the flowered quilt, and the dolls she no longer played with but was loathe to leave. Quickly, before she changed her mind, she spun and walked out of the doorway, closing the door softly behind her.

Mr. Favor and Mr. Nolan were already in their saddles when she walked out onto the front porch. McKenzie turned to her parents to tell them goodbye. “Don’t hug me,” she whispered. “I can’t blow my cover now!” So she shook her father’s hand and kissed her mother lightly on the cheek. With heartiness she didn’t feel, she swung up onto Dusty’s back and called back, “See ya in a couple of months!”

With that, two men, one woman, and one dog turned toward the waiting herd of cattle. The adventure was beginning.

*****

Getting the cattle to the main herd was no problem. Mr. Favor was deep in thought: Mac seemed to be well-experienced and had complete control over the dog’s movements by whistling and calling commands in a strange language (which was a cross between Irish and Scottish). But there was still daylight enough to do the branding to mark each steer with the trail drive’s insignia. Mac may have been hired to herd cattle, but could he handle the roping and branding that was to come?

Arriving at camp, Mac was introduced to Joe Scarlet, Jim Quince, Mushy, Wishbone, and Rowdy Yates. These were the same group that Mr. Favor had with him on every cattle drive; these were the ones he could count on always to know what to do. Then there were some new guys to meet. Mac felt overwhelmed with trying to keep track of names and faces and wondered if she would get along with such a large group of men. She took an instant liking to two men, also of Irish descent: Cahill and Plunket. Their ready smiles and genuine openness seemed to offer a “home away from home.” They also liked her dog, which was a big plus. The other hands didn’t quite know what to think of the dog and gave him a wide berth. Finding it quite humorous that the dog was named “Pete,” they teased Mr. Nolan unmercifully. Just as Mr. Favor had predicted, the dog became known as “Little Pete,” and Mr. Nolan was dubbed “Big Pete.” Mr. Nolan rolled his eyes skyward and went to get a cup of coffee.

“Mr. Favor,” whispered Wishbone, just loud enough for Mac to hear. “What’re we gonna feed that dog?”

Mac walked over with the solution. “He can eat scraps from left-over meals. He loves good food.”

This statement about the “good food” endeared Mac to Wishbone. His smile spread from ear to ear. Mushy tossed a leftover biscuit to Little Pete who caught the treat in mid-air and happily began to eat.

“See,” said Mac. “I told you. No problem here.”

Mr. Favor watched Mac walk away. There was still something “not right” about Mac. Maybe it was the way he moved, or maybe it was the fact that he spoke little, or maybe it was nothing. But he decided to keep an eye on “this one” to make sure there was no trouble.

“I want everybody to get ready for the branding,” ordered Mr. Favor. “In the saddles right now.” He needed to watch the “new” hands in particular because there was no use in keeping men who couldn’t handle any part of the work. They would be no help later on if there were a stampede or some other crisis.

Mac, Cahill, and Plunket were in their saddles in a flash. They knew they had much to prove and were eager to get started. Of course, Little Pete was ready; he was always ready to do the work that had been bred into him, even if it was taking care of cattle rather than sheep. By the time the other riders had climbed into their saddles, they had some fast catching up to do to reach the first three.

Mr. Favor mumbled to Mr. Nolan, “Well, one thing I can say: There are three eager hands. And one eager dog.”

Mr. Nolan nodded his head and then walked over to where the branding would take place. The irons needed to be hot and ready to use.

Mac, Cahill, and Plunket (as well as Little Pete) proved their worthiness immediately. They rode extremely well, roped accurately, brought in the steers to be branded, and then headed out for more steers. Little Pete kept the unbranded ones separate from the branded ones, and soon the work was done. Mr. Favor was impressed once again. In an aside to Mr. Nolan, he whispered, “Looks like we got some good hands here. But there are some that just won’t make the cut. Only time will tell.”

Hot, dusty, and weary, Mac tied Dusty up at the remuda and walked back to where Wishbone was handing out sandwiches. Being dusty was a good thing, Mac had decided, because it not only kept her from getting sunburned too quickly but also helped to disguise her face even more. She watched the other men as they approached, noting how they walked and making a mental note to imitate that walk. She knew she had a lot to learn if she were to keep her disguise until the end of the drive.

Some of the men grumbled at the sandwiches; they were hungry and wanted more. Wishbone looked angry when he heard their comments, so Mac was very careful to say, “Thank you, Mr. Wishbone. This looks delicious.” She had decided to win the drovers over to her side, one by one if necessary. Wishbone flashed her a smile. “It’s nice to hear something good for a change. Oh, by the way, here’s something for your dog.” He handed over a whole plateful of scraps. Mac knew she had scored a point with at least one man.

She decided she would have to work on the “older” hands first because they were the most important if she planned to keep this job. But she would have to be patient and wait for the right time. She would have to act like a man in thought, word, and deed every day and every night.

As with all drives, the newest hands would ride drag. This suited Mac just fine. She could get dusty and dirty, two things that would aid her disguise. But, as she was riding, the thoughts of bathing and shaving began to niggle at her. How would she accomplish these tasks without drawing attention to herself? It was time to make some more plans that she knew would have to be implemented soon.

*****

By the time darkness descended, several men had been cut from the job even though the extra hands were needed. Joyfully, she realized that she, Cahill, and Plunket still remained on the payroll. She felt dirty and gritty from the sand kicked up by the large herd but, as she looked at some of the other new guys, she realized that they were as dirty as she was. That was a comforting thought. She washed her hands and her face, taking enough time so that she would be close to the last in line as supper was being served. Approaching the chuck wagon, she was handed a plate full of stew. It looked awful. But she nodded at both Wishbone and Mushy and commented that she had not expected such a feast. Both Wishbone and Mushy gave her big smiles; they were not used to getting compliments, and their faces reflected their appreciation.

Mac took her place with some of the other newer hands and made sure she sat in the shadows. She also took notice of how the men ate and how they talked with their mouths full of food. She would have to imitate these actions if she was going to fit in. Secretly, some of their manners galled her, but she dared not call attention to herself. There were numerous belching noises, and she cringed. But, if she planned to be part of this bunch, she would have to laugh along with the rest of the men. So she did force a chuckle every now and then.

Supper being over, she returned her plate to Mushy and thanked him again for the “wonderful” meal. Mushy, whispering to Wishbone, passed on what Mac had said.

“Well,” said Wishbone proudly, “that young man has manners. Which is more than I can say for some of these men!” He glared as most of the plates were returned with not so much as a thank you. Little Pete ambled up, tail wagging and tongue lolling and, as a reward (and for some extra scraps), he was allowed to lick the plates before Mushy washed them in the nearby creek. “See, Mr. Wishbone?” said Mushy. “The dog even appreciates us.” Wishbone smiled broadly. “He has manners too.”

Mr. Favor now chose the groups who would be night herders, being careful to pair off more experienced hands with the newer hands for this first night. Mac and Little Pete were paired with Joe Scarlet and were to take the first watch. Mac was careful to ask good questions of Mr. Scarlet and was quick to act a little awed by his answers. Of course, Mac already knew her job, she knew to ride easy in the saddle, she knew to sing softly to the herd to keep them from becoming nervous, and she knew how to control her dog so that he would not frighten one single steer. But she pretended to take advice from Mr. Scarlet anyway. By the end of the watch, Mr. Scarlet was impressed with both Mac and the dog and felt proud that he could pass on important information about night herding. Mac knew that this information would be passed on to Mr. Favor. She scored Mr. Scarlet as another conquest.

Mr. Scarlet told her it was time to return to camp and awaken the next group of night herders. But Mac had other plans. Asking if it were okay for her to go back to the creek to water her horse and dog, Scarlet gave his okay. Mac sighed in relief and headed for the creek. Dusty drank the cold water noisily; Little Pete jumped in happily and was followed by a naked Mac who tried to quickly wash the dust and dirt and grit off her body. She washed the strip of sheet used to bind her breasts and hastily exited the water, rebinding the sheet. Returning to camp, she could see that most of the men were already asleep, so she sneaked over to where there was an old piece of burned wood, rubbed her hands across it, then smudged her cheeks lightly. If she made the mistake of oversleeping in the morning, then she would at least look like she had a slight stubble of beard. Slipping wearily into her bedroll, she prayed that her “bindings” would be dry by the morning. She had made it through the first day, and that was her last thought before sleep overtook her.

*****

It was the aroma of fresh coffee and the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan that woke Mac. Though the ground had been hard and rocky, apparently it wasn’t bad enough to wake her. Little Pete, her usual “alarm clock” at home, was obviously not going to be helpful out here, for he was standing next to Mushy and receiving bits of scraps as Wishbone cooked. Wishbone, of course, pretended not to notice; he had taken quite a liking to the dog (as had most of the hands).

Mac was careful not to grumble about having to get up at such an ungodly hour. She looked over the horizon and saw the sun just beginning to show itself. She carefully got her bedroll packed and, seeing that there was no one standing by the mirror on the back of the chuck wagon, she grabbed her husband’s razor and hurried over to beat anybody else wanting to shave. She was lucky and soaped her face and pretended to shave just before Jim Quince walked up behind her. She knew she would have to be more careful in the future, but she was gratified to know that her trick with the smudge of burned wood had looked realistic at this early hour.

Apparently, the protocol for breakfast was that the more experienced men got served first. She nodded at the other new men as she stood in line. She was famished! Looking around, she saw Mr. Favor and Mr. Yates already sitting down to eat. They were in deep conversation and never looked her way. That was good. She didn’t stand out like a sore thumb today; she looked just like the rest of the sleepy-eyed men who were grouping around the chuck wagon. Little Pete pranced back and forth from her to Mushy and then made the rounds of those who were already eating. If he couldn’t get someone’s attention, he would roll over and wave all his paws in the air until a tasty tidbit came his way. She had been worried that Little Pete would be a nuisance but this obviously was not the case judging by the smiles he got and the many pats on the head and scratches behind his ears.

Mac, her plate and cup full, sat down with the new guys. She looked around when she heard a burst of laughter coming from Mr. Favor’s direction and saw that the “older” guys were looking at the “new” guys with big grins.

“Wonder what’s so funny?’ Mac asked. “I’d like to be in on the laughter too.”

Plunket stretched his long legs and whispered to her and to Cahill. “They’re plotting against us.”

Mac rolled her eyes. “Plunket, I swear! You are just plain paranoid!”

“Nope. It’s tradition at the beginning of a drive. The older guys have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to pull on us new guys. This is my second trail drive, and I learned all about this on the first one. It’s all done in fun and shows how well we can handle things. It also shows if we can laugh at ourselves; it shows who gets mad and who doesn’t. It’s a kinda who-can-get-along-with-who situation.”

“What kind of tricks do they pull?” asked Cahill suspiciously. “And why are you whispering?”

“Keep your voice down. This is just our secret; it’s to keep us on our toes and be watchful. Let the other new guys fend for themselves. On my first drive, some guys had knots tied in their bedrolls, some had their feet tied to their saddles so when they tried to get up they fell on their faces, some had strange creatures in their blankets. Just be alert and aware.”

“Thanks for letting us know,” Mac whispered gratefully. “We better keep our eyes open.” She didn’t even want to consider what kinds of “strange creatures” she might find wrapped up in her blankets. She looked over and saw that Mr. Favor was staring at her and laughing. She knew from the grin on his face that she was in for some surprises. She hoped she could handle whatever they might be. Being the smallest “guy” in the group might make her a better target for practical jokes than some of the others; she had to prove herself worthy.

*****

The order was given to saddle up, so Mac grabbed her bedroll and threw it in the supply wagon. Then she hoisted her saddle and blanket to her shoulders and headed for the remuda. As she approached Dusty, Jim Quince told her that today would be Dusty’s “day of rest” and that she would be riding another horse. Mac was not immediately suspicious because she knew that horses were rotated often. Mr. Quince directed her to a big roan gelding that seemed gentle enough as she threw her blanket and saddle on him. She noticed that the “older” guys seemed to be watching her out of the corner of their eyes and immediately became suspicious. She noticed that Cahill and Plunket were directed to different horses also. Was this going to become a practical joke as predicted by Plunket?

She heard chuckles that were beginning to grow into outright laughter. Plunket had been thrown. Then Cahill got thrown. Gritting her teeth for what her gut told her was to come, Mac swung into her saddle; she felt the big horse tremble beneath her. Then the animal fairly exploded into a bucking episode, eventually throwing her to the ground. She was unhurt but was embarrassed, and she noticed that all eyes seemed to be on her. Only Little Pete came to her rescue, licking her face and wagging his tail. Taking a deep breath, Mac approached the horse that was eyeing her with great suspicion. Taking a good hold on his bit, she began talking to him in a voice so low that nobody could hear her. Then she swung into the saddle, gripped hard with her thighs, and waited to see what would happen. “Lightning” bucked twice before Mac reacted. Grabbing his right rein, she turned his head as close to her right leg as was possible, then dug her heels into his sides. Again and again, without a break, she forced him into running in tight circles. When she stopped that process, she repeated it but this time with a left neck-rein and tight left circles. By the time she let the animal come to a complete halt, both horse and rider were a little dizzy and quite worn out. But “Lightning” ceased his bucking, and Mac leaned forward and whispered something in his ear. Again, though her lips were moving, nobody heard exactly what she said. In reality, she had spoken to the horse and told him that she would continue the circling until he understood that she was in control; what he wanted to do from there was up to him. She walked him, urged him into a trot, then a canter; there were no problems. (She would never have any more trouble with him, and Lightning would become her second mount from that time on. Nobody else could ride him.)

Still astride the horse, she looked into the faces of Mr. Favor, Mr. Yates, and Mr. Nolan. Though they said nothing, their grins belied the fact that they were impressed. She had won the first round of practical jokes. But some of the other men had not fared so well. Cahill and Plunket had been thrown three times before they got their mounts under control. Frank’s horse had galloped out of site, and Frank was limping back to the remuda alone. There were loud guffaws from the onlookers, and nobody made a move to go look for the missing mount. Mac took this opportunity to show off a bit by goading Lightning from a standing start into a gallop to fetch the runaway horse. When she found him, grazing happily on a big patch of green grass less than a mile away, she explained to him that he had work to do and that this was no time for him to be so disagreeable. When she brought him back to the remuda, Frank climbed into the saddle and had no further trouble.

Mr. Quince and Mr. Scarlet approached the new guys. “Hey, this was all in fun, you know. Some of these horses are still a little green.”

Plunket winked at Mac who, in turn winked at Cahill. Frank was rubbing his shoulder and backside, and he was angry. “I might’ve been killed on that horse. Any one of us could have been seriously hurt.” And he stalked off.

Mr. Yates commented, “Some folks got no sense of humor. We’ve all been through this at one time or another. There’s no reason to get so mad.” Mr. Favor made a mental note to keep an eye on Frank. A long cattle drive was no place to have a hand who had a hair-trigger temper. He also noted that Mac had been the only one of the group who knew how to handle both the horse and the “joke.”

“Practical joke” time being over, it was time to get to work. Mac and Little Pete, Cahill, and Plunket (and an angry Frank) were riding drag again (and would be for the rest of the week), so the four of them headed off to the back of the herd. Frank was still complaining. And Mr. Favor heard him and shook his head.

*****

Riding drag was not fun for anybody. There were too many steers, too much dust, too much dirt, but Mac did her best to not complain, even to Cahill and Plunket. The main thorn in Mac’s side was Frank who continued to be angry and very difficult to get along with; he was not winning any popularity contests. Even at the lunch break, he remained in a bad mood, and the other hands kept a good distance away from him. Little Pete, who seemed to love everybody, never approached Frank. Mac, Cahill, and Plunket whispered among themselves and wondered why Mr. Favor let such a man remain on the drive when it was obvious that he wasn’t good with horses, steers, or people. The three decided to keep their mouths closed and make the best of a bad situation.

The day wore on without event. There was supper and then night herd duty. Mac was secretly glad to be riding night herd for it afforded her the opportunity to take a bath when it was dark and nobody could catch her. How she would manage to bathe when there was no water near by concerned her, but she decided she could figure it out when the time came. She was unaware that the “older” guys were favorably impressed by her good nature and her abilities and that her job was not in jeopardy.

After her bath, she returned to camp where only the light from the fire illuminated the sleeping men. Cahill and Plunket were whispering together when she approached them. More tricks had been played on the new guys: Cahill’s bedroll had been smeared with honey and there was an army of ants all over his blanket. Plunket, too, had found a horned toad stowed deep in his bedroll. Having already smeared her face with soot from a burned log, Mac approached her own roll with trepidation and let Little Pete precede her. He growled, and Mac could see several lumps under her blanket. The lumps, thankfully, weren’t moving, and she decided (correctly) to pretend she noticed nothing. Sliding under the blanket, she felt two long, thin bodies next to her legs. They had to be snakes! Oh, Lordy, she hated snakes. But she also knew that they were either dead poisonous ones (who would put a poisonous snake in her bedroll?) or that they were harmless snakes meant to scare her. Praying that it was the latter case, she put on her most innocent face and slid beneath the blanket. The snakes moved causing the hair on the back of her neck to stand up. But she gritted her teeth and commented, “It appears I have unwanted company in bed with me. It’s time for eviction!” With that, she threw back her blanket, grabbed the snakes, and tossed them into the brush. While she was shaking out her blanket, she could hear several chuckles, but she knew in her heart that she had passed yet another test. She let Little Pete sleep next to her for the rest of the night.

*****

Mac rose earlier this morning and pretended to shave before most of the men were up. But she spun around quickly when she heard shouting and cursing and realized that Frank was the cause of the uproar. Apparently he had put his boots on without remembering to shake them out upside down before putting his feet into them. He had jammed his boot on and encountered a pile of rocks. He swore and fell over, pulling off the offending boot and then realized that there was no scorpion, no snake, and no horned toad. There were just rocks. He screamed at the top of his lungs, “This is not funny! We’re supposed to be grown men instead of kids playing jokes. I want to know who did this!” Of course, there were innocent faces all around; nobody would admit to pulling this prank. Frank stalked off, not even bothering to eat breakfast, and (amid hearty laughter) headed for his horse at the remuda. Mac heard Mr. Yates’ comment of “some people just can’t take a joke.” And then he added, looking at Mac, “and some people can.”

*****

There were no more jokes played on the new guys after that. “Initiation” was over. But Mac had a plan of her own. Only Wishbone knew what the plan was and agreed to keep his mouth shut. That morning, he and Mac smiled slyly at each other. There was another uproar as the “older” guys spit out their coffee, coughing and choking. Only Mr. Favor drank his coffee black, and he had no idea what was wrong with his regular crew. Mac, standing nearby, tried desperately to hide her fit of the giggles as she sneakily edged backwards toward the fire and poured out the contents of a small bowl.

“Wish!” shouted Mr. Favor. “What in the world is wrong with this coffee?” Quince, Scarlet, and Big Pete were still coughing and choking.

Wish looked around and pointed out that nothing was wrong with the coffee. “Mr. Favor, your coffee is fine, isn’t it? You poured yours from the same pot that everybody else did.”

Mr. Favor had to agree. But he knew that something was amiss, so he poured out his cup and refilled it. It tasted, of course, like regular coffee.

“Salt!” gagged Mr. Yates. “There’s salt in my coffee!”

Mr. Favor and Mr. Yates each stuck a finger in the sugar bowl and found there was sugar in there. But where did the salt come from? They looked around at the newer guys and saw grins but there were no complaints forthcoming from any of them. Mr. Favor, being no fool, knew that a joke had been played on his regular crew, but he knew that fair was fair. Somebody had put salt in the sugar bowl.

“Wish, did you make a mistake and put salt where the sugar should’ve been?” he questioned.

Wishbone looked insulted. “’Course not. I would never do such a thing!” But there was a twinkle in his eyes that made Mr. Favor have a strong gut feeling that his cook wasn’t telling the truth. And, there was that same twinkle in Mac’s eyes, plus the dusting of something that looked suspiciously like salt clinging to one pant leg. Mr. Favor knew who the culprit was, and he knew the culprit had a partner, but he said nothing. Wiping a hand across his mouth to hide his smile, he sat down, ate his breakfast and wondered what would happen next.

It wasn’t until darkness fell, after the tired drovers had laid out their bedrolls and were sitting around the fire discussing how well things were going, that mischief began to occur behind their backs. Headless rattlesnakes, toads, and rocks were quickly hidden in bedrolls. The cover of night made this sneakiness a success. As the men slipped under their blankets, the air was filled with screeches of surprise, and more than a few oaths were uttered as each man discovered that his bedroll was not empty. Loud snickers were heard from the direction of the new guys; it was obvious that they had been quite busy earlier in the evening.

All Mr. Favor could do was to try to calm his men down and to repeat his thoughts of the morning that “fair is fair.” There was much grumbling as snakes, toads and rocks were thrown out; blankets were re-checked for any other strange things. What could they say? They had pulled the same stunts on the new guys.

Mac waited patiently behind some scrub brush. Soon Mr. Favor would be settling into his blankets for the night. When the time finally came and he had gotten comfortable, Mac slipped silently over and deposited a small, black and white animal onto his blanket.

“Um, Mr. Favor,” she said, clearing her throat.

“What?” came the answer.

“Um, I think you ought to hold real still. There seems to be something on your blanket.”

Mr. Favor’s eyes popped open, and he found he was staring straight into the eyes of a skunk. He dared not move, but he did manage a loud, “Skunk!”

He had never seen men move faster than these drovers did at that moment. They scattered everywhere: behind brush, behind the chuck wagon, behind big rocks. Some of the men ran as far away as the remuda. Never moving a muscle himself, Mr. Favor closed his eyes and contemplated on what to do. Being sprayed by a skunk would not be pleasant.

Mac spoke again and startled him. He thought the young man had fled along with the others. “Mr. Favor?”

“What?” he snapped.

“I think I can help you if you don’t move. I’m real good with animals.”

“I ain’t gonna move. If we scare this polecat, you know what’ll happen. He’ll move on when he gets ready.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’s ready. He looks pretty comfortable where he is. But I won’t scare him. I promise.” With that, Mac sat down slowly and began talking softly to the striped creature. Then she reached out her hand with a bit of meat held in her fingers. It seemed like a lifetime to the trapped Gil Favor before the skunk wandered over amiably to eat the meat and, as soon as it had left his blanket, Mr. Favor rolled over and over in the opposite direction. Startled by the sudden movement, the skunk took this opportunity to scurry off into the brush and disappeared from sight.

There was an explosion of loud guffaws from the entire camp then. Realizing that he had been the butt of a joke, and knowing that he shouldn’t show his anger, Mr. Favor stood up. Looking into Mac’s face, he knew beyond all doubt that somehow the young man had lured the skunk into camp. He just couldn’t prove it. But how in the world could a man get such a wild creature to act like that? Sighing, he knew he had to be a good sport, though the thought of throttling the new guy was very appealing at the moment.

“Okay, okay, the fun is over,” he said brusquely as he watched the men return to camp from their hiding places. “I suggest we call a truce and let bygones be bygones. From now on, we are one group of men working together for a common cause. No more snakes, no more toads, no more rocks, and no more skunks. No more ‘older’ guys versus the ‘new guys.’ Agreed?”

There was good-natured laughter then, and a lot of shaking of hands and promises of no more practical jokes. Mac was the first to shake Mr. Favor’s hand and she heard him whisper, “I know you got that skunk in here. I don’t know how you did it, but I do know you did it. Don’t do it again.” Mac just smiled innocently, shrugged her shoulders, and then headed for the remuda. She was riding early night herd again.

As Mr. Favor watched her go, he shook his head. What was it about this guy that just didn’t feel right? Was he the only one who felt that something was amiss?

*****

The next morning’s breakfast showed a new camaraderie. Gone were the cliques of the “old” and the “new.” Both groups mixed together in comfortable conversation, with the exception of Frank. Being his usual paranoid self, he was sure that he was the one being blamed for the “skunk incident” and he had a more sour approach than usual. As Little Pete approached the chuck wagon for a handout, he took his anger out on the dog by aiming a kick at the dog’s head. Fortunately, Little Pete was quick and avoided having his head bashed but he took a glancing blow to the ribs. He yelped in pain and surprise. Mac was so quick to get to her feet that nobody actually saw her stand up and, before anyone could make a move, Mac had knocked Frank to the ground and had a death grip around his windpipe. She knew she couldn’t beat him in a fight, so surprise was her only defense. Jamming the heel of her free hand under Frank’s nose, she spoke in such a guttural voice that it sent chills up several spines: Frank’s most of all. “You can have a choice, Frank,” she spat. “I can jam your nose up into your brain and make you a vegetable for the rest of your life, or I can just tear out your windpipe and kill you right here.” Frank could neither move nor speak, so overcome was he with fear. “What’s it gonna be, you miserable excuse for a man?”

Mac felt hands trying to pull her off Frank, but she wouldn’t release her hold. The harder she was pulled, the tighter her grip got. “How’s my dog?” was all she said. The answer came from Wishbone. “He’s okay, Mac. Bruised some, but he’s okay.”

Mac breathed a sigh of relief but didn’t loosen her grip or take her dark eyes from Frank’s terrified ones. She couldn’t know that Mr. Favor really did have a fondness for Little Pete and that he tolerated no cruelty to any animal. But he couldn’t allow one of his drovers to kill another one either.

Looking toward Mr. Favor, Frank could plainly see that he was not going to get help from the trail boss. Mr. Favor’s face was almost black with rage. “Mac, let Frank go,” he said tersely and put one hand on Mac’s shoulder. “I said to let him go.”

Slowly, very slowly, Mac removed one hand first from under Frank’s nose and then released her grip on his windpipe with the other hand. Frank’s neck was bloody from where her short fingernails had dug into his flesh.

Gasping for air, he got to his feet and was met by a solid punch to the jaw. “That,” growled Mr. Favor, “is for kicking the dog. Little Pete is worth two of you. Now, go draw your pay and get out of here.”

At that moment, Mac almost forgot she was supposed to be a man and had to remind herself of that fact pronto. Her initial reaction was to throw her arms gratefully around Mr. Favor, but she made herself settle for a quick nod of thanks before she went to Little Pete. Running her hands over her dog’s body, she could feel no broken bones. But the dog did flinch when she touched his ribs on one side. Mr. Favor and Wishbone both decided that, at least for the day, Little Pete should ride in the supply wagon; tomorrow they would check him to see if he felt better.

“Frank was the last hand we dare to lose on this drive, Boss,” interjected Mr. Yates.

“No loss there. He had a bad attitude. I’m sorry about the dog, but it was perfect timing to get rid of a bad trail hand,” came the answer. “Besides, I kinda liked giving him a good punch.”

Mac heard this exchange, and she began to see Mr. Favor in a new light. He was not so intimidating any more. He cared for his men, and he cared for Little Pete. He obviously had a soft spot that very few people were allowed to see. He was respected because he was a good man, an honest man, and a fair man. And he was handsome. And he had beautiful blue eyes. It was at this moment that Mac realized she was seeing her boss through the eyes of the woman that she was. She knew how physical attraction felt, and that was what she was feeling now. She would have to be extra careful to not let any of those feelings show or she would bungle her disguise. This was going to be harder than she had planned on.

*****

The days passed quickly, and it wasn’t long before all the drovers were rotating positions at riding drag, flank, swing, or point. Little Pete had long since healed from Frank’s kick, and Frank was all but forgotten. Sometimes tempers flared but those same tempers cooled quickly. The word “mister” never preceded a name (except for Mr. Favor); it wasn’t a planned thing but something that just happened quite naturally on its own. Genuine friendships began to form and nighttime discussions took place often. Tonight’s discussion was centered around the next night’s visit into a nearby town. Mac, having finished her usual quick bath, blundered into a large group of men graphically describing what they planned to do when they got into town. She could feel herself blushing and turned to make a discreet disappearance, but Scarlet saw her and motioned for her to come over and sit down.

What could she do? She was supposed to be a guy, and to not sit down and at least listen to what was being said would make her look snobby. She took a deep breath and sat on a log next to Rowdy and Pete and forced an interested look on her face.

Plunket was just finishing his story about one of the saloon girls he had met on the last trail drive. “She got me drunk, and I had just enough money to pay her when we went upstairs. Hell, it was over so quick that I wasn’t even sure we had done anything! I guess I had gotten too rough with her and torn her dress off or somethin’. Anyhow, she wanted more money to pay for the dress and the poke, and I didn’t have enough to give her extra. She took my britches and threw ‘em out the window and left me standing there nekkid!”

“Well,” laughed Rowdy, “what’d you do then?”

“I had to beg her to go downstairs and find one of my friends. She brought him upstairs and all he could do was laugh at me. I couldn’t go nowhere without my britches, and that redhead swore that she would march me down the street to the sheriff’s office and have me arrested for not paying for her services.”

“Did your friend come up with the money?” asked Quince, slapping his knee and laughing.

“Nope. He had done spent all his money on liquor and didn’t even have enough left for a girl. He had to go back downstairs and take up a collection for me. That seemed to satisfy that ole redhead, so she said that she wouldn’t take me to the sheriff after all.”

Big Pete, who was grinning from ear to ear, asked the question before anybody else could. “What happened to your britches?”

Plunket shook his head sorrowfully. “I guess somebody on the street took ‘em. I had to sneak out of the saloon and ride back to the herd with an old blanket wrapped around me.”

Mac had never heard such boisterous laughter, nor had she ever known that men talked of such things in such detail. She pretended to laugh along with the others, but she was horribly embarrassed as she realized that the stories were becoming more graphic as time went on.

When she could stand it no more, she finally spoke up. “You know what’s wrong with all of you? You just don’t know how to treat women. It doesn’t matter if she’s working in a saloon or if she’s the bank president’s wife!”

“Oh, and you do?” queried Rowdy.

Mac was in over her head; she would have to finesse herself out of this situation very carefully. She stretched her legs and answered, “As a matter of fact, I do.”

She had everyone’s attention. “A woman craves respect and dignity. No woman wants a man to get drunk and tear off her clothes and give her a poke that he won’t even remember the next day.” She was glad that the dying firelight hid the redness of her face.

“But that’s what she’s paid to do,” growled Cahill.

“True,” Mac answered. “But that’s not how she really wants it done. You have to pretend to be a gentleman, woo her a little, take some time, make her feel special.”

“Make a saloon tramp feel ‘special?’” came the answer from the far side of the fire.

Mac fidgeted. She could see Mr. Favor, leaning against the chuck wagon, and his eyes were on her. “A saloon ‘tramp,’ as you call it, is a woman first and foremost. Maybe she hates her job but it’s the only one she could get to put food on the table. Maybe she’s a homely girl who can get a man’s attention only by working in a saloon. But I can guarantee you that she has a heart, she has dreams, and she has feelings. You’ll get more for your money if you can at least pretend that you think she’s special.”

There was complete silence. Pete rubbed his jaw, deep in thought. Quince and Scarlet looked confused. Plunket’s mouth dropped open. And Mr. Favor was openly staring at her and began walking her way.

“You seem to know a lot about women and how they feel, what they think,” he said.

“I do,” she answered succinctly, “and so would all of you if you stopped to think about it.”

“Okay,” piped up Scarlet. “So what do you suggest we do?”

Mac, trying desperately to think like a man but having the true feelings of a woman, thought a minute and then answered. “Have a coupla drinks. If you see a gal you wanna poke, stop drinking and go poke her. Then you can come back to the bar and get roarin’ drunk if you feel like it. She’ll be happy, you’ll be satisfied, and you can come back to the herd with a big grin on your face. Try it and see if I’m not right.”

Mr. Favor’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He shrugged. “Try it. It seems to work for Mac.”

Before she could get into more discussion, Mac decided she’d better head for her bedroll. “I’m turnin’ in. Wake me when it’s my turn for night guard.” With that, she made a quick exit with the feeling that her face was beet red.

With Little Pete curled up beside her, she could still hear the men talking as she drifted off to sleep. If she had turned her face toward the fire, she would have seen the quizzical look on Mr. Favor’s face. But it would be quite a while before she knew that his gut feeling about her being “strange” would put her and her job in jeopardy.

*****

Mac chose not to go into town the next night, saying that she didn’t mind staying behind with some of the other guys and keeping an eye on the herd. (She didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke, and she really didn’t want to be put in the position of being in a saloon and sticking out like a sore thumb. What would she do if one of the saloon girls could see through her disguise?) But she did watch with delight the preparations being made for the guys who were going: bathing, shaving, much hair-combing, and picking out the right clothes to wear. Mac decided that men were basically like women in wanting to look nice, and she hid an understanding smile. She was certainly learning about men!

She waved a cheerful goodbye as Mr. Favor led half the drovers into town. The excitement had been contagious, and she was a little sad that she had made the decision to remain. However, staying with the herd gave her some extra time to slip off down to the creek bed with a bar of soap, some scissors, and another clean strip of sheet to bind her breasts with. Nobody asked where she was going; nobody ever asked about anybody’s whereabouts unless that person was gone too long. It was just an accepted fact that every man had to answer a “call of nature,” so short disappearances were taken as a matter of course.

Mac, for the first time, was able to take her time bathing in the cold creek water. She lathered herself from head to toe with soap, rinsed, and then lathered again. She washed a very dirty set of clothing as well. Feeling that she had finally gotten the dirt out of all her pores and out of her scalp, she climbed up on a rock to let herself dry off before putting on clean clothes. Little Pete had accompanied her, as usual, and she heard him give a low growl. Not far from where she was sitting, she saw Mushy as he began washing the supper dishes. Panicky, she quietly hushed the dog and scrambled into her clean clothes. And it wasn’t a moment too soon because, as she was pulling up her britches, Mushy spotted her and ambled over. Glancing around hurriedly, Mac realized that she had not yet bound her breasts, and the strips of sheet were both out in plain view. There was no time to hide them.

Mushy left the dirty dishes and pots and strolled over to greet Mac. Little Pete jumped up and ran over to see if Mushy had any tidbits and sat down dejectedly when he discovered there was no food to be had.

Mac had an idea but it had to be done in a big hurry. “Mushy, Little Pete could be a big help at cleaning those plates and pots. If you let him lick most of the food away, there’ll be less of a washing chore. All you have to do is take him over there (she pointed to the dishes) and tell him to help himself.”

Mushy was not the brightest fella in the world, but Mac was standing in profile to him, and the moonlight caused him to look at her twice. She did not have the same shape that she usually did. But he couldn’t quite figure out what was different. Knitting his brow, he was torn between finding out what was so “odd” about Mac and whether to let Little Pete help him with the dishes. Mac held her breath. Mushy decided on the dishes and turned to walk the dog back to where the pots were stacked. As quickly as she could, Mac snatched up the clean strip of sheet, took off her shirt, bound herself in a flash, put the shirt back on and then sat back down with the scissors in her hand. She tried to look nonchalant, but her heart was pounding. What would she have done if Mushy had come down to the creek earlier and caught her in the water naked? What would she have done if it had been one of the other drovers who wanted to take a bath at the same time as she did?

Leaving Little Pete to lick the plates and pots clean, Mushy returned. He still had a feeling that he had seen something strange about Mac and wanted to figure out what it was. But Mac looked like the same old Mac now; maybe the moonlight had just been playing tricks on him.

Mac was staring into the water and was busily trying to cut her hair by looking at her reflection. This was not working well. Mushy looked around and saw the freshly-washed strip of sheet and innocently asked what it was for. Mac laughed and grabbed up the wet cloth. “Usually when I cut my hair, I wear this around the neck of my shirt. Because it’s wet, it catches my hair better as I cut, then I can rinse it again in the water.

She sneaked a peek at Mushy’s face. This answer seemed to satisfy him. “I’m pretty good at cutting hair,” he said. “Do you want me to cut yours?”

“Mushy,” answered Mac, trying to not think about what Mushy might do to her short locks, “thank you so much. But this curly hair has to be cut a certain way or it just won’t look right.” She hurriedly snipped off some more locks and prayed that she would be done before Mushy got his feelings hurt. “It’s not like Scarlet or Quince’s hair that is very straight. I always cut my own hair.” Mac was buying time, and it was all the time she needed. Though her hair didn’t look as good as it should have, she had cut enough off so that it didn’t look too long.

“There,” she announced, standing up. “How does it look?”

Mushy shrugged. “It looks fine to me.”

After gathering up her freshly-washed clothes, the two walked to where Little Pete was finishing the last tidbits out of the cooking pot. When Mac asked if she could help Mushy wash everything, he declined politely. He knew Wishbone would not approve of any help and said so. Mac just laughed. “I sure don’t want you to get in trouble with Wish, so I’ll head back to camp and get a little sleep before it’s my turn for night guard.” She patted Mushy on the back and tried hard to stroll casually back to camp. But her mind was reeling. That whole incident was too close for comfort.

*****

She was almost through with her shift of what she referred to as “babysitting” the steers when she heard the sounds of several drunken drovers making their way back to camp. She was tired and had looked forward to climbing under her blankets and going to sleep but knew that this would not happen tonight. And she was right.

She put off returning to camp as long as she could, but she also was aware that it was another guy’s turn to watch the cattle. She walked Dusty slowly back to the remuda and tried her best to remain in the shadows hoping she wouldn’t be seen. Suddenly she felt a hand slap her hard on the back and, when she looked up, she saw Cahill’s drunken face.

“Hey, old buddy, old pal!” he managed to say. There were some more words that were too slurred to understand and she tried to pull away from the hand now rested on her shoulder. “Come sit and talk to us and we’ll tell you what a great time we had tonight!” Cahill added. He stumbled, and Mac literally had to help him walk over to the campfire where there were other drunken (but happy) faces.

“Siddown, siddown,” mumbled Plunket, who immediately fell backwards over the rock he was sitting on. Too drunk to be hurt, he just climbed back up and swayed precariously.

“Mac, ole boy,” began Quince, “you sure did give us some good advice last night.”

Mac made a face. “And what advice are you referring to?” She knew better than to ask, but she was dying of curiosity.

“How to treat the wimmin, of course!” exclaimed Plunket.

Several heads nodded in unison. “We did what you told us to do, and them wimmin really liked it! Never had me such a good time in my whole life.” This statement was from Scarlet who was looking decidedly green in the face. “I don’t think I feel very good.”

Wishbone, who couldn’t sleep because of the ruckus, trudged over and led Scarlet away just before he began to retch. Wishbone looked back at Mac sympathetically. “The next sick one is yours. This might be a long night.”

For an hour, Mac listened to stories of drinking, to comments of small fights that had broken out, and to the more graphic details of what the guys had done with the women – and how many times they had done it. Frankly, she was disgusted with the whole conversation, but she had to keep up her appearance of being “one of the guys” and just tried to shut her ears. Actually, she prayed to be struck deaf but God was not listening to that particular prayer.

One by one, the drunken drovers either fell asleep where they were sitting or they shuffled off to their bedrolls. Mac sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward. She rolled her eyes as Wishbone approached her and whispered that not all of the men were back yet. “Mr. Favor will be coming in with the rest of the men; when we see that everybody is here, then we can get some sleep.”

“Does this happen all the time when the men go to town?” asked Mac.

“Yep. Most always. Too many hot and dusty days get to ‘em and they need to blow off some steam. But they’re gonna be feelin’ pretty bad tomorrow when they have to saddle up and work. They’ll complain a lot, but they’ll do their jobs.”

The sound of approaching hooves heralded the arrival of Mr. Favor and the rest of the drovers. Mac knew that Mr. Favor had been drinking because she could smell the alcohol on his breath but, when he spoke, she could discern no sign of drunkenness. “Everybody here?” he asked. When Wishbone and Mac had literally counted the men, they nodded. Mr. Favor nodded, told them to get some shut-eye and then headed for his own bedroll.

Mac had to ask. “Wish, Mr. Favor has been drinking. But he’s not drunk, or at least he doesn’t appear to be drunk.”

“Mr. Favor never gets drunk. He looks like he’s drinkin’ as much as anybody, but he can actually make one drink last a long time. He just goes along to make sure there ain’t no trouble and that everybody gets back to camp okay. He lets them think he’s having a good time, but I don’t think he actually enjoys hisself. He just stands at the bar and pretends to be drinking and leaves the wimmin alone.”

Mac felt a wave of relief. Why in the world should she care what Mr. Favor did or didn’t do? So what if he got drunk and had several women? After all, he was a man, with a man’s needs, and he did deserve to blow off a little steam himself. Then why did she feel happy that he apparently stood by and did nothing? She was too tired to think about it and decided to get some sleep. Morning would arrive all too soon and she could think about it then.

*****

Wishbone was shaking his head as he handed out what the hung-over men wanted most that morning: coffee. “I don’t know why they get so drunk every time,” he mused to Mac. “They know how bad they’ll feel the next day, they know they’ll have to saddle up and work. But they hit the bottle hard every single time.”

Looking around at the bleary eyes and haggard faces, Mac agreed with Wishbone. “I guess men will be men.”

It wasn’t only what she said but the way that she said it that made Wishbone give her a long look. There was something very odd about this young man but he just couldn’t figure it out. Mac was well-mannered, almost too polite, and there was something “off” about the way he looked. A thought flickered through his mind too quickly to be grabbed on to, so he continued to pour coffee and serve breakfast to the men who could actually keep food down.

Mr. Favor strolled up and scratched Little Pete behind the ears. “Wish, what kinda supplies do we need? We might as well stock up while we can.”

While Wishbone was reciting what was needed, Mr. Favor looked at Mac. “You goin’ into town this afternoon with the other half of the crew?”

Trying to look nonchalant, Mac answered. “Nah, I think I’ll stay here. I don’t care much for standing around and getting drunk. I’d just as soon help out around here.”

But Mr. Favor wouldn’t let it go. “Well, you can help out by going into town with Wish and stocking up on supplies. You can meet us at the saloon when you’re done. A glass or two of beer won’t hurt you.”

Was Mr. Favor daring her to go? It seemed like he scrutinized her more and more each day, and she was distinctly uncomfortable. Or was he just trying to make sure that she didn’t feel left out? Finally she shrugged and answered, “Sounds good. But if it’s okay, I’ll ride Dusty into town in case I wanna leave and Wish isn’t ready.”

“Okay by me,” came Mr. Favor’s reply. Then he turned and walked away and ordered the men into their saddles. There was work to be done whether they felt like it or not.

*****

By late afternoon, Mac was ready to ride out with Wishbone. It was obvious that she had taken a bath, shaved, and had put on clean clothes, but Wishbone couldn’t figure out when or how she had done it. He pursed his lips and then climbed into the supply wagon.

Soon other men had gathered and were ready to go. And Mr. Favor was with them again. Wishbone thought that this was quite unusual, but who was he to try to figure it out? Along with the other riders, he turned the wagon in the direction of town.

At the very first saloon, everybody except Wishbone and Mac had stopped and practically run in through the swinging doors. The supply wagon moved on toward the General Store, and Mac sneakily looked at a place she would have loved to have stopped in had she not been in disguise: a dressmaker shop. What beautiful dresses there were in the store window! Oh, how she would have loved to try some of those dresses on, to twirl in them, to feel the fabrics against her skin! She felt a lump in her throat. This being a “man” was much harder than she had bargained for.

Helping Wishbone get the supplies was more demanding than she had thought also. Carrying sacks of flour and large bags of salt was physically tiring and, by the time the wagon was loaded, she was exhausted. She tried to tell Wishbone that she was ready to head back to camp, but Wishbone wouldn’t hear of it. “All you need is some cold beer and a little fun to loosen you up.”

She dared not think of what Wishbone’s idea of “a little fun” was, but she knew that Mr. Favor was here, so she headed miserably behind Wish in the direction of the saloon. Mushy was back at camp, probably cooking supper by now, and she longed to be there instead of here.

Entering the saloon, she noticed that several of the drovers were missing. But Mr. Favor was standing at the bar enjoying a cold beer; she and Wishbone headed over to talk to him.

“Where are the men?” Mac asked in true innocence.

Mr. Favor tilted his hat back on his head and jerked his head in the direction of the upstairs rooms. Mac could feel the blush going all the way from her forehead to her collarbone, and she chided herself for asking such a stupid question. Wishbone had already sat down at a table with a very buxom saloon girl, (well, actually a woman who was past her prime), and the two were drinking and laughing. Mac decided that she really needed a beer to get through this evening; her hand shook as she paid the bartender. The beer was bitter but it was cold and it felt good going down her parched throat. She watched a few men standing at the bar and saw that they had one leg propped up on the foot rail, so she did the same. She had to fit in.

She fit in so well that, when the men and the saloon girls came back downstairs, she felt an arm around her shoulders. Turning her head, she looked into the over-painted face of a girl who couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than Mac was. The girl spoke. “Hey, cowboy, you’re cute. Why don’t you come sit down at a table with me?” Mac’s answer was a curt, “No thanks. I’m fine where I am.” The girl snuggled up closer and Mac’s skin crawled. The girl, not to be deterred, whined, “Well, at least you could buy me a drink.” Mac was in a pickle and, judging from the slight grin on Mr. Favor’s face, she decided to buy the girl a drink – and have another beer herself. When the girl asked Mac to dance, that was the final straw. Mac tersely told the girl to go away and pick on somebody else.

When the girl moved away from Mac and toward Mr. Favor, Mac breathed a sigh of relief. But when she saw the girl snuggling with the tall trail boss, Mac wanted to punch the girl in the nose. So Mac drank beer number three as fast as she could. That was a bad move. Her voice began to sound far away, and her tongue didn’t want to work right. And her head was beginning to swim in dizzying circles. She felt her stomach begin to lurch and she staggered outside and into the alley where all three beers made their exit from her stomach. As she was beginning to sag to the ground, she felt a hand on the back of her belt and saw that, of all people, it was Mr. Favor holding her up. And he was chuckling. “You really don’t drink, do you?” Her answer was to retch again. She thought she heard him say, “Stay here.” He disappeared. She was too sick to be embarrassed and she was incapable of moving, so she stayed where she was. The next thing she knew, she was being loaded into the supply wagon by her boss and by Wishbone and was being taken back to camp. She didn’t even remember Dusty’s being tied to the back of the wagon or getting to her bedroll; she just quietly and without fanfare fell asleep.

*****

When she woke the next morning, the sun hurt her eyes, she felt like her mouth was full of sand, and she had a raging headache. Little Pete barked a “good morning” to her and the sound echoed painfully through her head. She smelled breakfast cooking, and her stomach rolled over. Now she understood why the men wanted only coffee, if that, in the morning. All she wanted to do was roll over and go back to sleep. Maybe even death would be preferable. Mr. Favor approached cheerfully. “Get up and get some coffee in you. Then saddle up.” His voice seemed so loud that she wanted to cover her ears with her hands.

Slowly she stood up, and then leaned over to gather up her bedroll. That was a mistake because her head pounded worse. She tasted bile in her throat. Why in the world had she had those beers? Shuffling over to the chuck wagon, Wishbone greeted her with a sympathetic face and, stretching out his hand, he gave her some powder to mix with her coffee. He wouldn’t tell her what it was; he said only that it would make her feel better. She doubted it and, when she took her first sip of coffee, the taste was bitter.

Pete walked by and grinned. “Heard you had one hell of a night last night.”

She considered slapping him and then realized she didn’t have the energy. The other drovers chuckled and made comments as they walked by on their way to the remuda. She held her head in her hands and took more sips of the bitter coffee.

“Eat this. You need something in your stomach,” came a voice next to her. It was Mr. Favor again, extending a dry piece of toast. She belched loudly and heard him laugh. “Eat it and then saddle up. We’ve got a herd to get movin’.” Tentatively, she took a bite of the toast and found that it wasn’t too bad. She ate about half of it, put the rest in her pocket and then moved miserably toward the remuda. Some kind soul had thrown her saddle on Lightning so all she had to do was climb aboard, thank God. She could still hear some chuckles but she felt too bad to give them a snappy comeback. It was all she could do just to sit upright in the saddle and head for the herd. Luckily, she was riding point today so she wouldn’t have to eat the dust and dirt kicked up by the steers. And Wishbone had been right: whatever that powder was that he gave her to put in her coffee really helped her throbbing head. She ate the rest of her toast and began to feel somewhat human again.

She wasn’t aware of it, but she had become the “pet” on this drive. She was well-liked by every single man, not only because she did her job without complaining, but she was always willing to help out where she could, and she always had an open ear if somebody needed to talk. There was something “special” about her. Even Mr. Favor kept a watchful eye on her. He felt an unusual protectiveness toward her but couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was because she was the smallest of the drovers. Maybe it was because she seemed to have a certain vulnerability about her. He felt the same emotional attachment to her that the other men did, but he couldn’t explain why that attachment was there. He shook his head, took off his hat, and waved the men forward.

Mac was tired of being a “man.” Learning to “walk the walk and talk the talk” was just too draining on her. And then there were the feelings she had toward Mr. Favor. She was a woman and had a woman’s feelings; she recognized the signs of getting emotionally attached to the trail boss. She had watched him for several weeks now and, as a matter of fact, she had a hard time taking her eyes off him. She loved his blue eyes, his tanned face, his lean body and his strength. She loved the easy way he swung up onto his horse and the way he was so comfortable in the saddle. His deep voice was infinitely attractive to her. When he smiled, she felt all mushy inside. Many nights, as she was drifting off to sleep, she wondered what it would be like to kiss him, to have him put those strong arms around her, but she knew that never would really happen. Or so she thought.

*****

The good green grass and fresh water were a thing of the past. The herd was being driven through dry country where the graze was bad and the water hard to find. The ground was hard as rock, and several horses from the remuda had stone bruises and couldn’t be ridden until their hooves healed. The drovers were dirty and smelly and longed for the time when they could find water enough to bathe in and replenish the dwindling stores in the water barrels. Mac had to continue to smudge soot on her face so that she would at least appear to have some growth of beard. Some of the other guys just didn’t bother to shave at all to conserve water, and she didn’t want to appear different. Thank goodness her face was well-tanned, and she seemed to be getting away with her disguise. But she hated the smell of sweat, hated the feeling of being dirty and hated her matted hair. The wind blew the odor of horses and steers her way, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

Mr. Favor rode up to her, as he did more and more often. Looking into his blue eyes gave her goosebumps. He tilted his hat back on his head and wiped his face with his bandana. “Looks like another scorcher,” he said as he looked at the blazing sun.

“I wish it would rain,” Mac answered as Rowdy rode up.

“Don’t wish for too much rain,” Rowdy interjected.

“But then we’d have water for the beeves and for us,” Mac answered, wiping the sweat off her own face (but being careful not to wipe off the soot).

“If it rained too hard, we’d have a flood. The ground’s too dry to soak up the water. Besides, out here, when it rains, there’s a lot of lightning. Makes the herd skittish and they tend to stampede,” Rowdy advised.

Mr. Favor stood up in his stirrups and looked ahead. “Pete should be back soon to tell us if there’s water close by. There’s usually a stream in this area – we can only hope that it ain’t run dry.”

“If we find a stream, I’m gonna jump in, clothes and all, and take a bath. I smell like a goat,” Mac answered.

“None of us smells good,” answered Mr. Favor with a grin. He turned and rode off.

Rowdy took a sip of water from his canteen and cautioned Mac to take sips only when necessary. “Who knows when we might find water.” He didn’t know that Mac had secretly been giving both Dusty and Little Pete sips out of her canteen and was drinking very little herself. She knew that the herd was thirsty; with the exception of a little dew on the sparse grass in the morning, they had no water at all, and she felt sorry for the poor critters.

Late that afternoon, Pete rode in with both bad and good news: the stream was dry, but he knew that the one they could reach in four days would still have water in it. It always did, even in the driest of times. And, because there was water, there would also be some decent grass for the herd to graze on. The question now was whether or not the men and the herd could last for four more days.

Mr. Favor spoke. “All right. This ain’t the first time we’ve run into this problem. Four days’ ride without much water won’t be easy, but it can be done. Wishbone will ration what water we have in the barrels and we’ll just have to make it last.” His words sounded optimistic but there was a big scowl on his face, so Mac was loathe to ask a question that she knew the others wanted to know the answer to. Taking a deep breath, she quietly asked about watering the horses. Mr. Favor rubbed his hand across the stubble of beard on his cheek. “You’ll have to share your ration with your horses. Without them, it’s a long way to herd steers on foot. It ain’t gonna be easy, but it can be done.” That being said, he and Pete walked off with Rowdy to discuss the situation.

Instead of stew for supper that night, Wishbone and Mushy handed out sandwiches. The water was used to make coffee. Tonight Mushy wouldn’t have to wash dishes – water was too precious. Camp was unusually quiet: there were no sounds from Quince’s harmonica, and Plunket wasn’t in the mood to play his fiddle. There were none of the songs usually sung around the fire. The only sounds that could be heard were the distant voices of the night herd crew singing softly to the steers.

Cahill nudged Mac and roused her from sleep – it was her turn at night herd. Her mouth was so dry, but she allowed herself only the smallest sip of water. She gave Little Pete more than she gave herself and, when she mounted Dusty, she gave him even more than she gave her beloved dog. It broke her heart to see how thirsty her animals were. But Mr. Favor was right: she had to be very careful to conserve what she had in this day’s canteen.

As she slowly circled the herd, she sang old Irish songs that her father had taught her. The melodies and words were haunting and sad and she longed to be back home with good food on the table and a hot bath waiting for her every day. She felt a big lump in her throat and was afraid she was on the verge of tears.

Hearing the sound of a horse approaching, she turned in her saddle to see who might be stopping to talk for a minute. It was Mr. Favor.

“Everything okay here?” he asked.

“Fine,” she answered.

“Thirsty?”

She shrugged. “Some. Not too bad.”

“I heard you singing. I’m familiar with ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’, but I don’t know the other one. Something about rivers?”

Mac smiled. “It’s called “Only Our Rivers Run Free’. It comes from when the Irish fought and lost battle after battle to gain their freedom and about their concern if they would ever know true freedom. They sang a song about how the only things that were truly free were the rivers.”

No answer from Mr. Favor. He was busy thinking that her singing voice sounded so different from her speaking voice. Again, he had a strange feeling about Mac but he couldn’t figure out what set this drover apart from the others.

They talked companionably about many things: about how Mac had once been married but that it “hadn’t worked out.” Mac had no children but wanted to settle down and raise a family on his own ranch. Mac was very close to his family and it was obvious that he missed them. Mac wanted to marry again and have kids and a ranch of his own.

Mac glanced over at the trail boss and asked if he had ever been married. “Yep,” came the answer. “My wife died, but I have two little girls back in Philadelphia who are living with their aunt while I’m herding cattle. I don’t get to see ‘em as much as I’d like, but I intend to have cattle of my own on a ranch of my own, have my children with me, and quit driving these dumb steers.” There was a catch in his voice, and Mac’s heart went out to him. Abruptly, Mr. Favor realized that he was talking too much and turned and rode off.

Mac watched him disappear into the darkness. For a moment there, she felt that they had bonded. She kept reminding herself that, to Mr. Favor, she was just another drover. Once again, she was tired of playing the part of a man – and there were still weeks to go before they reached Sedalia.

*****

Taking off her bandana and wetting it with a small bit of water from her canteen, Mac gently wiped both Dusty and Little Pete’s nostrils clean of dirt and grime; then she gave them each a small sip of water. God, she was thirsty! She took only the tiniest sip of water for herself. Swinging back up into her saddle, she looked backward trying to see how the other drovers were faring. The windstorm was so bad that she couldn’t even tell who was behind her, and she could barely hear their voices as they urged the thirsty, bawling steers through the dry streambed. The sand hitting her face stung like a thousand bees; she pulled her bandana over her nose and mouth and scrunched her hat lower over her face. She felt sorry for the men who had to ride drag – they were getting the brunt of the sand and dust and dirt. She was glad she was riding point.

Behind the tumbleweeds that were blowing in front of her, she saw a rider approaching. Judging by the way he rode, she knew it was Rowdy. She couldn’t see his face at all.

“Mr. Favor says to stop the herd here,” he shouted. “We can’t go on when we can’t see, and the wind is just drying us all out.”

Mac tried to yell back her acknowledgment, but the wind carried her voice away. She and Rowdy headed toward the lead steer and slowly turned him back into the herd, causing the rest of the steers to stop moving forward. She and Rowdy were joined by Quince, who handed them a sandwich apiece. They heard him shout Mr. Favor’s orders to stay with the herd and to keep watch for strays. Mac longed to go back to the chuck wagon and climb in it to get out of the wind and sand, but she also knew that she had a job to do. Many of the other men would have to eat lunch while still in the saddle just as she did.

The sandwich, of course, was full of sand, but she was hungry and ate most of it anyway. Then she took a big gulp of water from her canteen. She knew that Little Pete was hungry, so she threw pieces of meat his way. Poor Dusty would just have to persevere.

Toward twilight, the wind died down, but there was an eerie calmness. Cahill rode out to take her place and told her to go back and get something to eat. With a sigh of relief, she did as she was told. And she was relieved to see that Wishbone had made a stew for supper. When she told him how delicious it was, she wasn’t trying to get on his good side – she really meant it. As she leaned against the wagon and ate, she could hear Mushy and Plunket discussing how great it would be when they reached the water that was still three days in front of them. Her spirits rose. She could make it that far; she knew she could!

She heard rumbling in the distance and looked at the sky where dark clouds were beginning to form. Maybe they would get some blessed rain! Strolling over to where Mr. Favor and Pete were talking, she saw that they had worried looks on their faces.

“Why the long faces? Rain may be coming!” she said happily.

“Yep,” came Pete’s terse reply. “We need the rain, but…”

“The thunder and lightning that are coming with it are likely to be a problem,” finished Mr. Favor. “The beeves may handle the thunder okay, but if we have bad lightning there’s gonna be trouble.”

Trying to be cheerful, Mac looked up at Mr. Favor. “Maybe there won’t be any lightning. I think the herd is too tired to run anyway.”

Cheerfulness didn’t seem to help Mr. Favor’s mood any. He seemed to glare at her then walked off to talk to Rowdy.

She must have had a hurt look on her face because she heard Pete speaking to her. “Don’t take it personally; the boss is just worried. The good thing is that we’ve already crossed that creek bed and won’t have to worry about any flooding and not being able to get across it.” Then he too turned and walked away.

Mac took her plate back to the chuck wagon where Little Pete was gorging himself on scraps. Satisfied that he was going to have a full belly, she went to the remuda and took off Dusty’s saddle. He leaned heavily against her, almost knocking her off her feet, and she knew that he was as tired as she was. She stroked him and talked softly to him before she dragged her saddle back to the campfire. The sky was growing dark very quickly now, and the rumbling was getting closer. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up and was suddenly a wee bit scared. Her pace quickened as she got closer to the other men and the wagons; she felt more secure there. Unrolling her blankets, she felt a few raindrops begin to fall, so she spread her rain slicker over the blankets and tucked her head back under the rise of her saddle. It would be dry here, and she saw no lightning. She was asleep in seconds.

*****

It was the loud cracks of lightning that woke her, but it was the shout of “stampede!” that jerked her eyes open wide and caused her to leap from her bedroll, grab her hat, jam on her boots and race for the remuda. She had no trouble seeing in the dark of night because the night was no longer dark – the constant flashes of lightning made it appear as though it were daylight. Realizing that she had not thought of dragging her saddle with her, Mac was doubly thankful that Dusty still had on his bridle; bareback riding was nothing new to her, but the bridle was a necessity. Mr. Favor was hollering orders, men were shouting back, the thunder rolled, the lightning cracked, and the sound of the herd running in fright almost deafened her. Wiping her hand across her eyes, she silently berated herself for leaving her rain slicker back at camp; she was already soaked to the skin and had no time to go back to fetch it. Angry with herself for leaving her saddle and slicker behind, she kicked Dusty hard and he jumped from a dead standstill into a gallop, forcing her to grab a handful of mane in one hand to keep from falling off his back. Little Pete was at her side at a dead run as they headed for the stampeding herd. For the first time in her life, Mac was truly frightened.

She looked to her right and saw Pete, Quince, Cahill, and Plunket, all of them riding as fast as she was. They had to reach the front of the terrified steers and turn them around before the dumb creatures ran over each other and got killed or ran off into parts unknown, never to be found again. It seemed like forever before she reached the head steers, but it looked like they were actually turning. Little Pete was dodging kicks as he nipped at and then dodged flying hooves; he was doing a terrific job, bless his heart. Suddenly, Mac was filled with terror: her legs were losing their grip around Dusty’s sides and the rain made his back too slick for her to keep her seat. Desperately she grabbed his mane with both hands, but she felt herself falling…falling… She hit the ground hard, felt pain in her right side and at the back of her head. Then there was nothing but blackness.

*****

A major crisis having been averted, the drovers began showing up in camp; some stayed and some were sent out to keep a close watch on the herd. The incredible lightning had moved off into the distance and the rain had slowed down to just a sprinkle. Standing around what remained of the fire, the men took stock and found, to their great surprise that neither the chuck wagon nor the supply wagon had been damaged. Even as they stood there, Wishbone and Mushy started a roaring fire and soon had hot coffee ready to drink.

Mr. Favor cradled his cup of coffee wearily and looked around. “Everybody okay?” he asked, looking at Rowdy. As Rowdy started to answer, in came Little Pete. He usually ran to Mac for praise and a loving scratch behind the ears, but this time he headed straight for Mr. Favor, prompting him to ask, “Where’s Mac? Is he out with the herd?” The drovers looked at each other but none knew exactly where Mac was. Pete went to the remuda to look for Dusty and hurried back to report that the animal was missing. Plunket rode out to make a circle of the drovers who were watching the herd, and Mac was not among them.

While precious time was passing, Little Pete was making a nuisance of himself. Mr. Favor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the dog who barked, yelped, and ran back and forth. Finally, he grabbed one leg of Mr. Favor’s chaps and began to tug. When word came back to him that Mac was not with the herd, an idea formed in the trail boss’s mind, and it was not a happy thought. As Mr. Favor got to his feet, Little Pete ran ahead of him and then looked back nervously. Jumping to his feet, Mr. Favor grabbed his horse and commanded Little Pete to go find Mac. Quince and Scarlet, who had grown immensely fond of Mac, grabbed fresh horses from the remuda and followed Mr. Favor. The other drovers paced back and forth, knowing they could do nothing.

Little Pete, having Mr. Favor’s complete and undivided attention, took off like a shot and, minutes later, stood still and quiet next to Dusty. Lying face down in the mud was the body that Mr. Favor recognized as Mac’s! Jumping out of the saddle, Mr. Favor was turning Mac’s body over when he heard Quince and Scarlet ride up. He heard their saddles creak as they dismounted and ran over.

“Is he dead?” whispered Quince.

Mr. Favor checked for a pulse, felt one, and answered, “No. But he’s hurt pretty bad. Go back and tell Wishbone to make room in the supply wagon.”

Quince was back in the saddle and riding off at breakneck speed by the time Scarlet could kneel down next to his boss.

Little Pete whined pitifully and tried licking Mac’s face. Mac moaned. She felt hands on her arms and legs. She heard a man’s voice say, “Looks like a bad bump on the head.”

Hands were now on her ribs, and she moaned again, pushing the hands away. The same voice spoke, “Prob’ly got some broken ribs.”

She heard her own voice saying, “Stop groping me!” But the voice sounded far away. She hurt all over.

“Can you stand up?’ she heard Mr. Favor ask.

“Of course,” she croaked defiantly. But the hands under her armpits that were helping her get to her feet caused bolts of pain to run through her ribs and her head. She felt lightheaded and weak.

“Can you ride?” came another question from two Mr. Favors. She was seeing double.

There was the same defiance in her voice. “Of course.”

And then she fainted.

Mr. Favor looked at Scarlet. “Guess I’ll have to carry him on my horse with me.” He climbed into his saddle, and Scarlet half-carried and half-shoved Mac into Mr. Favor’s arms. The trail boss looked at Scarlet and said, “Bring Dusty with you.”

On the way back to camp, Mac regained consciousness. But she thought she was dreaming – dreaming the same things she did when she was back in her bedroll. She was in Mr. Favor’s arms with her head cradled against his strong chest. Since this was a dream, she could say anything she wanted to, so she smiled weakly and said, “You have the most beautiful blue eyes.”

She felt him jump slightly but, since she had closed her own eyes and was enjoying the dream, she didn’t see the peculiar look on his face. She didn’t know that he was trying to figure out why that statement had been made. He knew only that it was the oddest thing he had ever heard – except that his wife had told him the same thing many years before. He shook his head and figured that Mac had a serious concussion.

*****

By the time they reached camp, Wishbone had a place already prepared in the supply wagon; Quince ran up to lend a hand getting Mac into the makeshift bed. Mac moaned again, and her eyes fluttered open, but she was seeing double still and she was dizzy. Whoever was prodding the lump on her head only succeeded in making the pain worse, and she slapped at the hand. “Stop that! It hurts!”

Wishbone looked at Mr. Favor. “Feisty guy, ain’t he?” Then he commanded Mac to open her eyes, which she did and again saw two Wishbones. Her stomach cramped. “I can see you, Wish. But I see two of you and it’s making me sick.” She promptly shut her eyes, and the wagon stopped its infernal spinning.

Mac’s mind was finally beginning to clear, and she heard Mr. Favor mention that there might also be broken ribs. She felt hands begin to unbutton her shirt, and she panicked. “Nothing’s wrong with me except this headache. Leave my shirt alone!” She tried valiantly to fight off the offending hands but the pain in her ribs was too great and she was too weak. She knew the shirt was completely unbuttoned when she felt cool air against her belly. And there was dead silence.

Opening one eye cautiously, she saw two Wishbones and two Mr. Favors gawking in surprise: her binding had slipped and there was no way to hide the fact that she was definitely a woman. Two Wishbones covered their eyes, and two Mr. Favors said, “Damn!” Mac closed her eye and waited for a verbal explosion.

She didn’t have to wait long. The boss stuttered and stammered with “why’s” and “what’s” interspersed with “damn’s.” Wishbone’s answers could barely be heard.

Scarlet peeked into the wagon to see what all the commotion was about and was all but knocked off his feet when Mr. Favor shoved him away. “Cover that….that…up,” he growled to Wishbone. Red-faced, Wishbone did as he was told. There was no talking to the trail boss at that moment, so Wishbone did the only thing he knew to do: he put a cold rag around Mac’s head and stood back while Mr. Favor paced the small length of the supply wagon.

Except for the sounds of boots on the wagon floor, there was silence again. The coolness of the wet rag made Mac’s head feel better, so she tried opening one eye again. She saw only one Wishbone and one irate Mr. Favor. So she opened the other eye and found that the dizziness and double vision had passed.

Wishbone put a hand on his boss’s shoulder. “Now, boss, just calm down.”

“Calm down!” came the answer. “Do you realize what a problem we have on our hands here? Not only is Mac hurt, but she’s a woman to boot!” He continued his pacing and then finally sat down, rubbing his forehead and trying to think straight.

“Okay. First we have to check her ribs. If they’re broken, we have to bind them.” Then he looked at Mac and ordered her to sit up. Crossing her hands over her breasts, and gritting her teeth against the pain, she did as she was told. Running his big hands over her ribs, and none too gently either, he announced that he felt two that were broken for sure. “Just great,” he muttered.

“Bind her up,” he ordered Wishbone.

“Me?” Wishbone answered, his face turning beet red.

“Just do it.”

The binding hurt at first but then actually felt rather comfortable. Mac wanted to laugh at Wishbone’s face but, discretion being the better part of valor, she made the chuckle die in her throat. Wishbone put another cool rag on her head and let her lie back down.

“Do you realize what a position you’ve put me in?” the trail boss growled quietly. “You tricked me into thinking you were a man and I hired you under that premise. We can’t have a woman on this drive. We’re six days away from the nearest town – and a doctor. I can’t send you away alone, and I can’t spare the men – we have a flooded stream ahead of us and I need every able-bodied man to get the herd across. How am I gonna explain this to the men out there?”

Mac pulled herself into a sitting position and turned her brown eyes directly into Mr. Favor’s blue ones. She was angry, but she kept her voice controlled. “First, I never tricked you into hiring me. You never asked if I was a man. And you hired me because I’m good at what I do. As a matter of fact, I’m very good at what I do. You’ve had no complaints about me for all these weeks – none from you and none from the other drovers. Maybe I do have a bump on my head and a couple of broken ribs, but that could’ve happened to any man here. Would you send one of the men away or would you let them have a couple of days to heal and then get back in the saddle. I don’t want or expect any special treatment. You hired me and I’m here. We can keep this quiet; nobody needs to know.”

“She’s right, boss,” Wishbone added.

“Oh, shut up and let me think!” Mr. Favor was not in a good mood. “If you weren’t masquerading as a man, why did you choose the name ‘Mac’?”

“My given name is ‘McKenzie’,” came the answer. “Everybody calls me ‘Mac’.”

“Having a woman on a cattle drive ain’t a thing that I wanna be responsible for,” Mr. Favor countered.

“You are responsible for every person, every horse, and every steer. My being a woman does not make it more so. I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing it for this whole drive.” Then she added softly, “Nobody has to know that I’m a woman. As a matter of fact, I could have finished this whole drive and not even you knew that fact.”

“It could work, boss,” interjected Wishbone. “We can go on treating her like we always have. Who will know?”

The silence in the little wagon was deafening. Mr. Favor rubbed his forehead and his eyes and then ran his fingers through his still-wet hair. He was trying to figure out of this ploy would work and if it would be fair to the other drovers that he was keeping this a secret. With a tired voice, he conceded. “Okay. We’ll try it. But if anybody should find out, you’re fired. Got that?”

“It’s a deal,” answered Mac, extending her hand. Slowly Mr. Favor shook it. Wishbone grinned.

“Now, you stay in this wagon for a coupla days. I have some thinking to do.” He turned to leave the wagon and heard Mac say, “We have a deal, boss.” As he exited, Mac put her head back down. “Thank you, Wish, for standing up for me.” The whiskered cook smiled as he added another cool rag to her head.

Outside, Mr. Favor explained to the waiting group that Mac was gonna be okay – just a coupla ribs broken and a big bump on the head. There was a collective sigh of relief. “Now, get some sleep. It’s been a rough night and we still have water to cross in a few days.” The trail boss, however, got very little sleep that night. No wonder he had thought there was something odd about Mac. Mac was a woman and, now that he knew that fact, he admitted to himself that she was a pretty one. The fact that she was a woman also explained her comment about his blue eyes. Her being a woman explained a lot of things…

*****

Mr. Favor was distracted and moody the next morning. When it was reported to him that Mac’s saddle was still on the ground by the campfire, and when several drovers seemed to remember that Mac had been riding bareback the night before, the trail boss’s mood got even worse. He stalked off to the supply wagon where he found Wishbone preparing Mac a bowl of broth. Wishbone seemed to be delighted that Mac had turned out to be a woman, and that made Mr. Favor even angrier.

He exploded into the supply wagon in a rage. “You rode bareback last night? In the rain in the middle of a stampede? What in hell were you thinking?” His blue eyes were dark with fury.

Mac looked at him with a steady gaze. “And good morning to you. I feel much better; thank you for asking.”

The trail boss slammed his hat against the canvas of the wagon, just as Wishbone was bringing in the broth.

He handed over the bowl to Mac and then beat a hasty retreat knowing he could say nothing helpful.

“Explain to me why you did such an absolutely stupid thing!” demanded Mr. Favor.

Mac knew she had done wrong, and there was no way out of admitting it. “Everything was happening so fast that I just forgot. When I realized I had no saddle, it was too late.” Then she added, jutting out her chin, “Besides, I grew up riding bareback. I ride better that way than I do in a saddle.”

“It was stupid! Riding bareback in the rain in the middle of a stampede was a stupid, stupid mistake. You were just asking for trouble!” Too angry to sit down, he began pacing again.

“I really wish you would stop that stomping around,” Mac said evenly. “It jiggles the wagon and makes my head hurt.”

Mr. Favor began stammering. “It jiggles the…? I oughtta take you over my knee and give you a good whippin’!”

Mac was now angry herself. “Yeah? You and what man’s army are gonna do that?” Her eyes flashed and her muscles tensed. She had no doubt that he meant what he said and she was ready for a struggle, broken ribs or not. Little Pete, who had taken his place by Mac’s side, gave a low growl.

“I oughtta fire you right here and now!”

“But you won’t. We made a deal. Remember?”

Their eyes locked for a long time; neither one of them blinked. Mr. Favor had no idea what to do in this situation. Of all the things he had encountered, none of them involved a woman drover.

Mac spoke quietly. “I admit what I did was stupid, and it won’t happen again. I will always saddle up, no matter what the crisis. I apologize for my lack of judgment.”

Mr. Favor stopped pacing. How could he possibly counter her apology? His only answer was, “See to it that you use some common sense.” Then he made a quick exit from the wagon, almost colliding with Cahill and Plunkett.

“What’re you two standing around here for? Saddle up and let’s get movin’!”

Cahill and Plunket had only come to ask about Mac’s health, but seeing the anger on the boss’s face, they decided to head for the remuda. Along the way, they ran into Big Pete who was interested to know how Mac was. “How would we know?” asked Cahill. Mr. Favor wouldn’t even let us talk to him. He sure is in a black mood today.”

Back in the supply wagon, Wishbone appeared. “He don’t mean nothin’, Mac. He just ain’t been in this kind of a situation before.”

Having finished most of her broth, Mac let Little Pete lick the bowl. She smiled at Wishbone. “I owe you my thanks, Wish. You’re a good man, a good cook, and a good doctor. And, if it hadn’t been for you, I might’ve been fired on the spot.”

Wishbone ducked his head, embarrassed by the compliments. “Aw…” was all he could say. Then, “What about Little Pete? Is he gonna work or ride?”

“He’s gonna do his job, like usual.” Mac scratched Little Pete behind the ears for a minute, and then pointed outside. “Go to work, Pete!” The dog hesitated and then leaped out of the wagon, heading straight for the remuda – and for Mr. Favor.

Wishbone couldn’t conceal his grin. “That dog is smarter than a lot of people!” He left Mac in the wagon and prepared both the chuck wagon and the supply wagon to hit the trail. Life had to go on as usual.

*****

Little Pete had adopted Mr. Favor in lieu of Mac, but Mr. Favor had no idea what commands to give the dog. He never understood the language that Mac used to begin with. But Little Pete was smart in his own right, and he literally did the job of two men without being told what to do. Grudgingly, Mr. Favor was impressed, and his mood lightened as the day progressed. At lunch, he seemed more relaxed and even allowed some of the men to check in on Mac. By suppertime, he himself felt like going in to do some checking of his own.

Mac, who had no idea what to expect from her boss, was wary when he climbed into the wagon. She said nothing and waited for him to speak first.

“Little Pete really worked hard today. He knows his stuff.”

“Where is he? I haven’t seen him yet.”

“He’s standing in his usual place, close to Mushy, waiting for handouts and then supper of his own.” Pause. “How’re you feeling?”

“Sore,” came Mac’s answer. “But that will pass. At least I’m seeing only one of you instead of two.” And she laughed. It was a woman’s laugh, and something tugged at the boss’s heart.

“Shhh,” he cautioned. “The men think you are a man, and I don’t want anythin’ to change that.” But he did have a smile that played about his lips. “Have you eaten yet?”

“Wishbone is taking good care of me. I’ll be fat as a pig before too long. I should be ready to ride by tomorrow.”

Mr. Favor shook his head. “Nope. Not tomorrow. I wouldn’t even let one of the men saddle up that quick.”

“I don’t want special treatment because I’m a woman. I can ride.”

“You’ll ride when I tell you to. As far as everyone knows, you’re still a man. You’ll get no special treatment from me.”

“Good,” was all Mac said as she watched her boss exit the wagon. She couldn’t help thinking, though, as she watched him leave, that she was becoming very attracted to him.

*****

Because of the amount of rainfall, the water barrels were replenished and there was no hurry to get the beeves to the next stream. Even though the graze here was sparse, Pete had reported that the stream ahead was too swollen to cross and needed some time to soak into the parched land before the herd could be pushed across it. The steers were moved ahead at a slower pace; the drovers took a whole extra day in their forward progress.

Mac could stand the heat inside the supply wagon no more; she just had to get out – anywhere had to be cooler than where she was. Binding her breasts quickly, she gingerly climbed out of the wagon at the noon meal and was delighted to see the other men greeting her with such genuine pleasure.

It was Quince who first noticed something odd about her. “Don’t tell me that after two days you don’t need to shave!”

Mr. Favor, of course, heard this comment. His heart skipped a beat.

Thinking quickly, Mac answered, “Well, I didn’t want to come out looking like an old man so I shaved in the wagon. It’s bad enough that I smell like a goat without looking like one too.”

This answer seemed quite satisfactory to everybody and Mac heard several of the men laugh. She didn’t know that the trail boss was breathing a sigh of relief.

Though her head was still sore and her ribs ached, she never complained. Approaching the chuck wagon to get her lunch, she heard Wishbone whisper, “You ain’t supposed to be out here. The boss is gonna be mad as a hornet!” But he filled her plate anyway and then filled another one for Little Pete. Seeing the surprised look on Mac’s face, he added, “That dog has been working as hard as anybody. He deserves a plate of his own.”

Mac took both plates over to where Cahill and Plunket were sitting, Little Pete close by her heels. She put the plate down for the dog and sneaked a peak at Mr. Favor. His jaw muscles were working furiously, but he had no plate in front of him, so he wasn’t chewing food. He was just angry.

Plunket brought up the subject of Mac’s riding bareback during the stampede, and Mac decided to take this opportunity to try to make fun of her own stupidity. “I don’t know how I managed to pull such a dumb stunt like that. I have no idea where my mind was. Nobody rides bareback in the rain in the middle of a bunch of terrified steers.” She pretended to look embarrassed. “This was my first time being in the middle of such a crisis, and I was scared. I just didn’t think.” Her voice was loud enough for Mr. Favor to hear, and she noticed that his jaw muscles stopped their twitching. He had gotten his plate and was just starting to eat.

“Aw, you made a big mistake. Everybody makes mistakes; you managed to make the biggest one I’ve ever seen. Just learn from it and be glad that you’re okay,” said Rowdy. Mac flashed him a grateful grin. She felt even better when the conversation turned to other things and took the attention off her.

Having finished her lunch, Mac decided to go check on Dusty. Happily, he was none the worse for wear, and he greeted her with several happy snorts. She stroked his neck lovingly.

“You’re supposed to be in the supply wagon,” came a growl from behind her. The voice was unmistakable.

“I can’t stay cooped up in that wagon. It’s too hot,” she retorted as she looked into Mr. Favor’s eyes. “Besides, I need some exercise. And I was careful to… um…disguise myself.”

“Yeah,” he drawled. “You sure did come up with a good reason for not having a beard.” Was that a twinkle she saw in his eyes?

“I’m okay to ride the rest of the day. I can’t stand this sitting and doing nothing.”

“I told you before,” he answered, the twinkle leaving his eyes, “you’ll ride when I tell you to ride. And that don’t mean today.”

Mac looked truly crestfallen. “We’re pushing the herd slow. I won’t go racing off anywhere. I’ll ride drag if that’s what it takes.”

Mr. Favor eyed her and thought to himself that this girl had guts. But now that he knew she was a woman, he felt a certain protectiveness toward her. He shook his head and answered in one word: “Tomorrow.” He turned to walk away and added, “Maybe.”

Mac sighed. She didn’t know if she was being treated differently because she was a woman or if all the drovers would be treated the same way. But she couldn’t argue with the boss. Returning to camp, she helped Mushy and Wishbone stow things away in the chuck wagon and absolutely refused to get back into the supply wagon. Instead, she rode up front with Mushy as the herd began to move again. The constant jolting of the wagon caused her considerable pain, but she had no intention of letting it show.

Mr. Favor and Pete rode by, and she saw the trail boss look at her. He shook his head, thinking about how hard-headed and stubborn she was. Was it his imagination or did she seem prettier today than she did the day before?

*****

Pete, Rowdy, and Mr. Favor looked at the swollen stream and then rode up and down the banks looking for the best place to cross. Mac and the rest of the drovers were eating the noon meal, glad that they had reached water again. There wasn’t a single man who wasn’t complaining about being dirty and smelly, and they were all looking forward to taking a bath. Mac wondered how she was going to handle this: would she end up being the only drover to not take a bath when the rest did? How would she handle seeing twenty naked men splashing around in the water?

She had ridden drag the last day and a half and was actually thankful that Mr. Favor had ordered her to do so. The steers could smell the water ahead and kept up a brisk pace in the direction they were intended to go to begin with, so Mac’s work was minimal. Little Pete kept the strays with the rest of the herd; all Mac had to do was remain upright in the saddle and grit her teeth against the aching of her ribs. She smiled to herself when it occurred to her that Mr. Favor spent as much time checking up on her as he did riding at the front of the herd. The fact that she was a woman had obviously changed the dynamics between her and the boss, whether he would admit it or not.

She finished her meal, let Little Pete gobble up the scraps, then decided to ride with Scarlet to look at the stream. It was swollen, but that was no surprise because of the amount of rain that had fallen. But it was wider than what she would like to have seen, and the current in most places looked strong. From out of nowhere, Mr. Favor magically appeared.

“How’s it lookin’, boss?” inquired Scarlet.

“Some bad places, some not so bad,” came the answer. “We found a place that’s narrower and where the current ain’t so strong, but it’s gonna take every hand we got to get those beeves across. They ain’t gonna like what they see when they get here.” He shifted in his saddle and tilted his hat back on his head (a mannerism that Mac had grown quite fond of). “Scarlet, go tell the men to move the herd north about a quarter of a mile. We’ll cross there.”

When Scarlet was out of earshot, Mr. Favor spoke to Mac. “You’ll have to ride in one of the wagons. This is gonna be too rough a crossing for you. And Little Pete needs to be in the wagon too. He’s too good a dog to take a chance on losing.”

Mac snorted and glared at her boss. “Little Pete can ride in a wagon, but I most certainly will not!”

Steel blue eyes met fiery brown ones and, again, neither blinked.

Mac, quietly controlling her anger, spoke first. “If you are paying attention, you can see that I am sitting in my saddle, as promised. If, and that’s a big “if”, I should fall off, I can grab the saddle horn and let Dusty pull me out. If all else fails, I do know how to swim.”

The response came as a low growl. “You’ll ride in the wagon like I tell you.”

“Dammit!” she swore. Turning Dusty around quickly she galloped back to camp, her cheeks red with anger. She knew that if she had been a man, there would’ve been no question about whether she would drive the herd across to the other side. The galloping hurt her ribs, but she was too mad to pay much attention to the pain.

Mr. Favor pulled his hat back down low on his head and muttered to himself about being stuck with a woman disguised as a man, having to hide that fact from the other drovers, and having to fight the feelings that were beginning to grow in his heart. And now she was learning to cuss! Who knew what she might do next?

*****

By the time Pete, Rowdy, and Mr. Favor returned to camp, the drovers were in their saddles and in their assigned spots at each side of the herd. Mr. Favor stopped at Wishbone’s wagon to ask about Mac and Little Pete.

“Oh, I saw them getting into the supply wagon with Mushy. Good idea making them ride there,” reported a truly innocent Wishbone. Since the wagons would go first, Wishbone knew that Mr. Favor was right about making the woman and the dog ride through the water in relative safety.

And the wagons did make it through the churning water, although they swayed and rocked precariously. Every now and then, Mr. Favor could see Little Pete’s head peeking through the opening in the back canvas. Smiling to himself, he figured that Mac was sitting on the cot and probably pouting. “Ain’t that just like a woman,” he grinned to himself.

Turning his attention to the herd and the drovers, he shouted, “All right, let’s move ‘em across!”

Cattle like water. They like to drink it, and they like to stand in it if it’s calm, but they don’t like churning water and they don’t like to swim across a large expanse of it. They bellowed and milled around, muddying up the banks and expressing their displeasure at what they saw before them. It took Mr. Favor, Pete, Rowdy, and Quince to get the lead steer into the water and then to push others after it. Cattle are herd creatures; they like being together, so when the rest of the steers saw the lead steer reaching the other bank along with about twenty other steers, it wasn’t too hard to drive the remainder of the herd into the water.

But many hooves churning up the muddy bottom of the stream made the crossing tricky. The current was a problem, too, and there were some steers that floundered, found their footing, and half-walked, half-swam to the far bank. The drovers were having some trouble of their own just trying to stay in their saddles. To Mr. Favor’s surprise, Quince fell out of his saddle and ended up holding his horse’s tail to reach land safely. Cahill and Plunket slid around and emerged holding onto manes and saddle horns.

Finally the last of the herd was making the plunge. And there was Mac! Mr. Favor was helpless to do anything but let her and the others cross; he just had to hope for the best, but he never took his eyes off her. Dusty was not a big horse but he was all heart and plunged into the swirling water without hesitation. But Mr. Favor’s heart stopped when both Dusty and Mac completely disappeared from sight and didn’t come into view for too long. So many steers, water that was now too deep, a strong current, and a rider with broken ribs did not make for a pretty picture.

Spurring his horse into the water, Mr. Favor headed for the place he had last seen Mac. He looked around, desperately trying to find where the pair might have gone under. Then he heard a shout, a familiar voice, and he looked ahead of him on the other side of the swimming steers, and saw Dusty – with Mac firmly planted in the saddle and heading toward the far shore. “That’s the last of the herd, Mr. Favor! We’re all across!” Soaked from head to toe, she flashed him a smug smile.

*****

It wasn’t much later, when the herd had settled down, that Mr. Favor approached Mac. He was not a happy trail boss, and she knew she was in for trouble. Saying not a word, he motioned for her to follow him away from the other drovers and, when they were far enough away, he turned to face her, his face flushed with anger.

“Of all the hard-headed, stubborn things you could’ve done…,” he spluttered, his lips thin and tight. “I told you to ride in the wagon where you would be safe! Nope, you couldn’t do that. You had to disobey a direct order! I can’t boss this outfit if anybody decides they will do what they damn well please!”

Mac knew he was right; she knew that she was guilty. But she was not going to back down from him either. “All right, I admit that I didn’t do what you told me to do. But I knew you needed every drover to get that herd across. I knew that Dusty and I could do it so we just did it. Besides, I did let Little Pete ride in the wagon, so I only disobeyed half your order. I’m not frail or delicate. I can do the work and I proved it!”

Mr. Favor suddenly grabbed her arms. “Don’t you realize that I was worried about you?” He was as surprised at this statement as Mac was. It just slipped out and there was no taking it back.

Mac was silent for a moment, but the woman in her tried to push just a little further. “I heard that Quince fell in the water. Were you worried about him too?”

Still holding her arms in a vise-like grip, he answered. “Quince is different. I knew he could take care of himself.”

“Oh, so because I’m a woman, I’m supposed to be mollycoddled. Look at me! Do I look fragile? If I fall in the water, I have to be rescued even though Quince didn’t need any help? Think again, Mr. Favor.”

“No, I don’t think you’re frail. But a woman just ain’t got the physical strength that a man has. Do I have to keep my eyes on you all the time to make sure you don’t get hurt again?”

Mac had to smile in spite of herself. “Keep your eyes on me as much as you like. It’s kinda nice.”

Mr. Favor’s jaw dropped, he released her arms and, for a few seconds, he could think of nothing else to say. “And I don’t wanna hear you say ‘dammit’ again. It ain’t ladylike!”

He spun on his heels and stalked off. But he could hear her say softly, “Am I allowed to say ‘hell’?”

His response was a low growl, and then he was gone.

Mac returned to camp, feeling a small victory of sorts: Mr. Favor had a soft spot for her. She had felt it and heard it. Her heart gave an extra beat, and she had difficulty disguising her smile.

*****

A little way upstream, where the water wasn’t as muddy or as swift, the air was filled with the whoops and hollers of happy men in various stages of undress as they jumped into the water, bars of soap in hand. Mac had chosen to keep an eye on the beeves with a handful of other drovers so she wouldn’t have to be exposed to this, but she had no idea what she would do later when these men too would take their baths. She’d have to think of something. And, since nobody was really paying much attention to her, she wandered off from the herd and found a perfect spot: an eddy where the water was calm and relatively clean and there were some spindly trees by the stream bank. This information she kept to herself and hurriedly returned to the herd so she wouldn’t be missed. She didn’t want Mr. Favor to growl at her again.

*****

As the now-clean drovers finished their supper, they rode up to trade places with Mac’s group. Mac had to laugh at the happy and shining faces and clean clothes; the men looked like they were ready to go to church. She stopped to speak to Cahill and Plunket who were extolling the pleasures of getting an “all-over bath” and washing out their dirty clothes. Mac was anxious for her turn.

Returning to camp, she ate her supper quickly. She also noticed that Mr. Favor had not one word to say to her, so she steered clear of him. But she also knew his eyes didn’t miss much so she had to be extra careful when she returned her plate to Mushy and then quietly sneaked around to retrieve some clean clothes and the slivers of soap she had been saving.

Instead of riding Dusty to the spot she had found, she chose to walk. The sun was beginning to set and its rays lit up the few clouds with reds and pinks; she seldom had time to enjoy a sunset and wanted to just sit and look as it disappeared below the horizon, but she knew that if she took the time to dwell on the beauty of the sun dipping low she would have less time to bathe.

Reaching the eddy, she pulled off her smelly, dirty clothes and waded carefully into the water to measure its depth. It wasn’t deep and, as a matter of fact, she could actually sit down and the water came only to her shoulders. But it was cold, and her skin prickled as she began to work the soap into a good lather. By the time she had lathered her hair twice and rinsed it, she was beginning to feel like a new person. Keeping her eyes on the setting sun, she stood up to lather her body with her precious bits of soap. Completely free of dirt, sand, and grime, she took a few moments to lie in the water and enjoy the peacefulness, closing her eyes in complete bliss.

The mooing of a steer startled her out of her reverie and she silently cursed the animal for invading this one delicious moment of privacy. There was a crashing of hooves; she figured that the animal was startled by her presence and had gone back to join the herd. She stood up, naked from her knees to the top of her head. Again she heard crashing and decided that more than one steer had strayed. She laughed to herself that seeing a naked human would scare off a poor critter or two. She wasn’t worried – but she should have been…

Indeed, the first sound she had heard was a steer wandering down to the eddy for a drink of water. But the second sound that she heard was from a very startled Rowdy Yates who had been looking for wandering cattle. She had no idea that he had seen motion in the water as he approached the lone steer, and she had no idea that he had stopped to investigate, wondering if perhaps another steer had gotten stuck in some mud. His arrival coincided exactly with the time that Mac chose to stand up. And he knew that it was not one of the men drovers taking a private bath; he knew a naked woman when he saw one, and he knew that this one was Mac. Off to camp he rode at a gallop. Mr. Favor had to know about this.

Completely oblivious, Mac took her sweet time washing and rinsing her dirty clothes. And then she dawdled on the way back to camp. She took too much time and trouble was brewing.

Rowdy had gotten to camp and practically snatched Mr. Favor off the log he was sitting on. The trail boss found himself being dragged from the campfire and well away from the other drovers.

“Boss!” began Rowdy, quite out of breath.

“What is it, Rowdy? You look like you seen a ghost! Calm down!”

But Rowdy couldn’t calm down. “You won’t believe what I seen! I can’t believe it!”

Mr. Favor was losing patience. “Rowdy, just spit it out.”

“It’s Mac, boss,” said a hyperventilating Rowdy. He now had the boss’s full attention

“What about him?”

“He’s not a ‘he’… I mean….she’s a ‘she’…I mean he’s a ‘she!”

Hoping that Rowdy was just seeing things in the dimming light, Mr. Favor took a deep breath. “And you know this…how?”

“I saw him…er…her. Taking a bath.”

“Rowdy, all the drovers have been taking baths. Of course Mac would want to take one too.”

“Mr. Favor, you don’t understand! He…she…stood up out of the water! Completely out of the water! Nekkid! And Mac ain’t no man! Ain’t no man built like that.”

Mr. Favor made Rowdy tell the whole story from start to finish and, by the time the tale was told, Rowdy had calmed down. Now it was Mr. Favor’s turn to admit how he knew that Mac was a woman, why he had kept her on the payroll, and how it was now time to fire her as he had promised her that he would do. The two men stood in silence trying to decide how to proceed next.

Unbeknownst to either man, Cahill had been passing by and had overheard the entire conversation. He immediately went to tell Plunket, Plunket told Scarlet, Scarlet told Quince; it wasn’t long before the entire camp knew what was going on. There were many questions whispered amongst the men: How did Mac get hired in the first place? How could the disguise have fooled so many men? Did Rowdy really see her nekkid? Was she really a woman? Was Mr. Favor really going to fire her?

By the time Mac reached camp, carrying her wet clothing in a big bundle, she knew something was wrong. One by one, the men grew silent, and their stares made her feel creepy. She tried to make a joke: “What? Did I grow an extra head or something?” But nobody laughed. And at the snap of a branch, all eyes turned in the other direction where Mr. Favor and Rowdy were approaching. Wishbone hurried up to the trail boss and he spoke only two words: “They know.”

Mr. Favor, clearly angry, addressed Mac. “We made a deal. And you’re fired.”

Mac felt the air leave her lungs in a rush, but she knew she couldn’t argue. The deal had been made and somehow someone found out about her. She looked at Wishbone who shook his head “no” and she knew he hadn’t said a word. She looked around at the faces of all the men, then her gaze settled on Rowdy. His blush was evident even in the low light of the campfire. Quickly putting two and two together, Mac realized that the sounds she had heard while she was bathing had to have been made by Rowdy’s horse, and he probably was chasing an errant steer. Her face turned as red as Rowdy’s as she realized what he had seen.

“You’re right, Mr. Favor,” she said softly. “We made a deal. It’s been broken – though through no fault of my own – but it has been broken. If it’s all right with you, I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

All Mr. Favor could do was nod. Rowdy looked miserably unhappy. Mac turned and walked to the supply wagon to begin gathering her things and, as she passed Cahill and Plunket, she received sympathetic looks. She would miss those two – they had become good friends. Then she walked with Little Pete to the remuda so that the drovers, her friends, wouldn’t see her cry.

*****

As she disappeared into the darkness, Mr. Favor was bombarded with questions. He was forced to relate the whole story of how Mac came to be hired in the first place and why he had kept her on as a drover even though he knew she was a woman. He was clearly unhappy with this whole turn of events and didn’t want Mac to leave. “A trail drive just ain’t no place for a woman!” he finally exploded.

Plunket was the first to speak. “It’s a long way to the nearest town. She’ll have to ride all alone and something might happen to her.”

“Yeah,” piped up another voice. “There are wild animals out there. Maybe Indians. Or Comancheros.”

Scarlet added his opinion. “At least let her stay until we get to the next town. What could that hurt?”

“Let’s take a vote!” shouted Cahill.

The trail boss looked at his men, saw their earnest faces, and pondered what to do. He knew that Mac was well-liked by every single drover. She did her job well and never complained. She was fun and smart and was not afraid to ask questions if there was something she didn’t understand. It wasn’t her fault that Rowdy had happened upon her while she was taking a bath. He exhaled loudly. “Okay. Let’s take a vote. All in favor of letting Mac stay until we reach the next town, speak up.” A cacophony of voices rang out. “All in favor of letting her leave in the morning speak up.” There was absolute silence.

“Okay. She stays. But only til we reach the next town,” announced a relieved Mr. Favor. He didn’t know why he felt so relieved, but he didn’t question it.

“Uh, by the way, boss,” asked Rowdy, “what are we supposed to call her? I mean, is ‘Mac’ her real name or a made-up one?”

“Her name’s ‘McKenzie’. Call her anything you like.” And the boss stalked off to have a cigarette and to wonder if this was the right decision. “This ain’t no place for a woman,” he muttered to himself.

When Mac returned to camp, she found that her bedroll was laid out for her and that her wet clothes were hanging from the back of the supply wagon – even her strips of sheet that she had used for bindings. Looking around, she saw no sign of Mr. Favor, and all the men had gone to sleep early except for the ones who were riding night herd. She was confused; it was too early for the men to go to sleep.

“Psst!” whispered Cahill as she passed his bedroll. “We voted. You can stay until the next town. Now go to sleep. You have night herd in a few hours.”

Mac’s heart swelled as she looked around her. These men had voted to let her stay, at least until the next town which was a few days away. They had stood up for her, and she loved them all for that. But she was concerned as to how Mr. Favor was dealing with this. Too tired to worry, she put her head down, patted Little Pete, and fell asleep. She didn’t know that, not to far away, there was a man watching her. He lit another cigarette and a smile played about his lips.

*****

Riding in from night herd duty, Mac began to fret. She had no idea what the mood of the camp would be or how she would be treated. Loosening Dusty’s cinch, she decided to walk into camp with her head held high and her shoulders straight. To her utter amazement, she was greeted the same way as always – it was as though nothing had happened last night at all. Wishbone handed her a plate of eggs and a small strip of steak and then winked at her. Sitting down among the men, she realized that the morning’s discussion was relaxed and comfortable and centered around the day’s drive and who would be riding in what position. The only person absent from the group was Mr. Favor, and she decided not to ask his whereabouts. The less mentioned about the trail boss, the better.

After breakfast, it was back to the remuda with Little Pete and the drovers. She had three days left of riding with these men and decided that, if they didn’t bring up her having to leave the drive, neither would she. Tightening Dusty’s cinch, and with Little Pete at her side, she took her position at flank. She heard the trail boss’s usual “head ‘em up, move ‘em out” and so began another work day.

*****

Mr. Favor avoided her for two more days. He ceased coming to check on her and he ate at different times than she did. She knew he was a kind and fair man; she also felt that he was unhappy about having to fire her. But today was her last day before having to leave, and he did come to make sure she was packed and to give her the wages she had earned. His blue eyes were sad as he handed her the money; then he spurred his horse in the direction of the herd to make sure they had good graze and would be bedded down before most of the drovers headed for town that night. With a heavy heart, Mac began to gather her belongings together so she would be ready to go into town also. She would miss all these men terribly. But she would miss Mr. Favor most of all. She had grown to care deeply for her boss, not in her capacity as a drover, but strictly as a woman responds to a man. She sat in the shade of the supply wagon, slowly packing her bedroll. And she thought about Mr. Favor. Again she reminded herself about what a good trail boss he was; she felt that he was very sensitive and knew he was kind-hearted and fair. But, looking at him through the eyes of a woman, she saw things that the drovers were never aware of. She saw his blue eyes, his rugged face, the smile that often played about his lips, and the way he carried himself with a masculine grace. She would miss his deep voice and the infrequent sound of his laughter. And now it was time to leave.

She heard the sounds of men’s laughter as they bathed and donned clean clothes, excited to get to town and have cold beer and whiskey and maybe have a meeting with a saloon girl. She wished she could be a part of this fun – but without the beer this time. The memory of being drunk and sick was not a happy one. With great sadness, she tied her belongings behind her saddle and, when the time came, she accompanied the men into town.

*****

As it so happened, the town was having a big barn dance that night. Mac wanted to go, but she would go as a woman now. While the men scattered to the saloons, Mac had an idea. She took her money, made a few purchases, and then sneaked off to find a place to take a bath. She was lucky – she was the only person to want a bath at this hour. After scrubbing her hair and her body completely clean, she hurried down a back alley toward a shop she had spied nearby. To pull off her idea, she needed to have complete secrecy. And she found a willing smile and much-needed help when she entered the shop….

Twilight fell and she was ready. It was time for the barn dance – something that she knew all the drovers especially enjoyed. She had no doubt that most of them would be there. The music drifting out of the building buoyed her spirits and, taking a deep breath, she walked through the doorway.

She had been right: the drovers were there. Only Mr. Favor and Rowdy were missing. Exhibiting a confidence she didn’t really feel, she crossed the room and headed toward the punch bowl. To her delight, it wasn’t long before she found herself dancing to the “Virginia Reel.” She ended up dancing so much that she never even had time for that cup of punch she was after, and she was having a wonderful time being the “belle of the ball.”

The moment of truth arrived as she sneaked a peak and saw Plunket headed in her direction. She pretended not to notice until he actually touched her arm and asked her to dance. Looking into his eyes, she saw confusion there, and she had to laugh. “Plunket, it’s me! Mac!”

“Well, I’ll be!” he grinned. “I didn’t even recognize you! You look beautiful!”

And she did. The dress she had chosen was a shimmery copper color, fitted at the bodice and waist and then flaring into the soft folds of the skirt. The dress was made to show just enough of her shape without being too revealing. Her naturally-curly hair, which had grown out a bit, framed her face. She had on a dab of powder, just a slight bit of rouge, and a wee bit of lipstick. Plunket couldn’t stop staring at her as he swept her onto the floor.

And when the dance was over, he led her from one drover to another, happily watching their expressions as they either realized (or were told) that this was Mac. Wishbone’s jaw dropped open when he found out who this beauty was. He didn’t dance with her though, and she lost sight of him. He had disappeared. Mac supposed that he had headed for another saloon instead. And he had done just that, but he had an agenda of his own brewing in his brain.

He found Mr. Favor and Rowdy in a saloon several streets from the where the dance was. He flew in the door and hurried up to speak to Rowdy. The ramrod of the drive was very busy with a saloon girl, so Wishbone turned his attention to Mr. Favor.

“Boss, you gotta come to the barn dance!”

“Wish, I’m not in the mood. I’m fine right here,” came the answer.

“But, boss, you just gotta come. I have something special to show you. You won’t be sorry, I promise!”

Tiring of Wishbone’s constant begging and pleading, Mr. Favor finally agreed. He had never seen Wishbone so animated before and was truly curious as to what was affecting his cook in such a manner. On the way out of the saloon, Wishbone just grabbed Rowdy and dragged him away from his table. Rowdy grumbled all the way down several streets. Mr. Favor just shook his head and kept walking.

Entering the building, Wishbone looked over the crowd of people, his eyes searching. When he found what he was looking for, he tugged on Mr. Favor’s sleeve and grinned. “Look! See that woman?”

Both Mr. Favor and Rowdy looked, and they were both irritated at having been dragged to a place they had no desire to be.

“Yeah, we see her,” said Rowdy. “So what?”

Mr. Favor sized up the woman in question. There was no doubt that she was a beautiful woman and, judging by her shape, she was quite a woman at that. But the big trail boss wasn’t in the market for a few quick dances and a cup of punch.

“Okay. She’s a beauty. Now can we leave?”

Wishbone stuck out his chin. “Doesn’t she look familiar to you?”

Both Rowdy and Mr. Favor looked again. There was something familiar about her but neither man could quite figure out what it was.

Wishbone grinned sneakily. “That’s Mac!”

“Nah,” said Rowdy. “That can’t be her.”

Mr. Favor looked again, and he knew Wishbone was right. A butterfly had emerged from its cocoon, and the butterfly was Mac. The three men walked into the building and stood against a wall; Wishbone headed for the table of food, and Rowdy found himself dancing (though he never knew exactly how he ended up on the floor). Mr. Favor lit a cigarette and watched as Mac danced with one man after another, a happy smile on her face. And the trail boss was overcome with jealousy, a feeling that he was not used to at all.

And when Rowdy danced two times in a row with Mac, Mr. Favor could hold still no more. When the music began to change, he strode out onto the dance floor, pushed Rowdy out of the way gently, and then bowed slightly. “Miss Donnelly, may I have the pleasure of this dance?”

Startled, Mac took his outstretched hand, felt his other hand go around her waist, and felt him glide into a beautiful waltz. He was a strong leader, and she felt herself following him with ease. “I didn’t know you recognized me. I guess my “disguise” is not as good as I thought.” Her heart was beating triple-time, and she could barely feel her feet touch the floor. All she was really aware of was his hand around her waist, guiding her, leading her. It was like floating on a cloud and she never wanted the music to stop.

“Oh, your disguise is quite complete. I don’t know that I would’ve recognized you had it not been for Wishbone.” Mac felt his hand tighten around her waist, pulling her a little closer.

“Tattletale,” she muttered as she was spun around lightly. “I wanted to surprise you.”

“Oh, I’m surprised all right,” came the answer. But there was a smile on his face and a fire in his eyes. Mac was thrilled.

“Pleasantly surprised, I hope?”

“Quite,” came the succinct answer.

And he guided her into another dance and then another, never letting her go. Wishbone and the other drovers were watching this scene play out with great fascination. They had never realized that their boss was such a good dancer, and they had never seen such a blissful look on his face.

There was a tap on Mr. Favor’s shoulder. “C’mon, mister. You can’t monopolize the lady all night.”

Again, bowing slightly to Mac, the boss surrendered his hold on Mac’s hand and went out to have a cigarette. He needed to do some deep thinking about the elation and joy – and jealousy – that he had felt.

Fifteen minutes passed, and Mr. Favor was still trying to sort out his thoughts and feelings. Standing in the shadows, he was aware that a couple had come outside. The man’s voice was not familiar, but the woman’s voice struck a chord with him, and he watched the two, determined to mind his own business. The man’s arms went around the woman, but it was quite obvious that the woman was trying to get away. In just a few strides, Mr. Favor had grabbed the man, spun him around, and punched him squarely in the jaw. The man hit the side of the building and slid to the ground, knocked temporarily unconscious.

Mr. Favor then turned to a stunned Mac. “Girl, you cause trouble where ever you go! Get your gear and then sit in the supply wagon and wait for Wishbone. You’re gonna ride with us to Sedalia. I can’t trust you to get back home safely. Now do what I tell you!”

Mac looked up at him. And this time she knew she had better obey his orders. All she could do was nod her assent. By the time she had collected her gear and Dusty and Little Pete, Wishbone was waiting at the supply wagon. And he wore the biggest grin she had ever seen. Tying Dusty behind the wagon, she climbed onto the seat. Wishbone hoisted Little Pete up to her, and the group headed back to camp. Mac had no idea what would happen next, but she didn’t care. Mr. Favor wanted her back.

*****

At Wishbone’s suggestion, Mac slept in the supply wagon that night. Until further notice, this would be her “home” until reaching Sedalia. Very carefully, she folded her dress, camisole, pantalets and petticoat and put them out of harm’s way. She had bought some powder, rouge, and lipstick, and she put those in a safe place also. She might use a wee bit of lipstick to keep her lips from getting sunburned, but she’d have to make sure it was okay. She didn’t want to look like too much of a woman. She looked at the bindings she had used for her breasts and kept them out in case she needed to use those too. She had no idea what to expect from Mr. Favor, and she didn’t want to cause any more trouble.

She heard the men coming back from town but stayed in the supply wagon. How was Mr. Favor going to explain her presence? Well, she would leave that up to him. Tucking herself under a blanket to ward off the evening chill, she thought back to the dance, to how surprised the drovers were, and to the attention she received from the men in the town. But, most of all, she thought about Mr. Favor and how he had held her when they danced, how his eyes burned when he looked down and smiled at her, how he had protected her from the drunken cowboy. Her woman’s intuition was kicking in, and she knew in her heart that the trail boss was more than just physically attracted to her. There was something deeper going on and she was part frightened and part anticipatory. While she was listening for the sound of his voice, intending to talk to him if she could, she fell asleep. Little Pete curled up beside her, ever-watchful.

*****

Word of mouth spreads fast. By the time she dressed in her shirt and britches (no bindings) and crawled out of the supply wagon for breakfast, the men treated her as they had before – not a soul mentioned surprise at seeing her standing there. But, if she looked hard at their faces, she could discern a grin here and there, and she knew they were happy to see her still working. Spying Mr. Favor in deep discussion with Pete and Rowdy, she walked over and hoped she could talk to Mr. Favor privately. Sensing that Mac wanted to talk to the boss, Rowdy and Pete headed for the chuck wagon and left Mac and Mr. Favor to talk things out.

The boss’s blue eyes watched her as she approached. He remembered how she had looked last night, he couldn’t shake from his mind how beautiful she was, how well she danced, how wonderful it had been to put his arms around her. And who would’ve known what a gorgeous figure she had. Something stirred in him – something he hadn’t felt for a long time. In denial, he was unusually gruff with her as they spoke.

Mac spoke first. “Thank you for letting me stay on, Mr. Favor. I know that having a woman on a trail drive is not a good thing. But I promise you that I will stay out of trouble. I’ll sleep in the supply wagon and I’ll do my job, even if it means having to ride drag for the rest of the drive.”

“You get into trouble where ever you go. I can’t even trust you to get back home from here without your running into something you can’t handle. You’re my responsibility – but just til the end of the drive.”

“Where do you want me to sleep? Wishbone suggested the supply wagon.”

A nod was all she got.

“Um, can I do without my…er…bindings now?”

Knowing what she was referring to, Mr. Favor flushed slightly. “If your…um…body can stand the bouncing around, you can. Everybody knows that you’re a woman, so you need hide nothing. But don’t flaunt yourself.”

Mac’s eyes popped open. “Flaunt myself! What a ridiculous thing to say! I expect no concessions because I am a woman, and don’t expect me to start swinging my hips, batting my eyelashes, and trying to get the attention of every man here! All I want is to get to Sedalia, get the money for my part of the herd, and head back home.” She paused. “Oh, here are the rest of my wages that you gave me yesterday. I won’t be needing any money until the end of the drive.” With that, she flounced off. But she forgot to walk like a man, and she had forgotten to talk like a man, and there was no doubt that she was all woman.

Mr. Favor sat down and lit a cigarette. And he thought to himself that he was glad she was staying on. She may have been stubborn and hardheaded, but she was a good drover – even if she did have a fiery temper. Much to his dismay, his heart pounded a little faster. She had become quite special to him.

*****

There were subtle changes that took place after that. Whether it was due to the fact that she was a woman or whether it was because she could at last be herself, she didn’t know. When there was no water around to bathe in, she got to wash her face first from the bucket of water that Mushy put out each morning. If she “disappeared” for short times, nobody went searching for her. Nobody bothered her at bath time when there was enough water for her to clean both her clothes and her body. Occasionally, she would find that Dusty or Lightning would already be saddled for her, and her canteen was always full. She had no idea who to thank.

Also, the men came to her with questions that only a woman could answer. She never laughed at them; she made sure she always listened and gave them her best advice on what women like, how to treat them, how to act around them. She felt completely accepted; she was officially part of the “group”, woman or not.

*****

As the days passed, Mr. Favor began checking on Mac, no matter if she was riding drag, swing, flank or point. They would talk for a while before he rode away, and it was noticed that he always had a smile on his face. When Mac would sit down for a meal, often the boss would sit down with her group and have his meal with them. Women are the ones who are usually accused of gossiping, but a group of men out on the trail are just as bad. It was obvious that Mr. Favor smiled more, was less gruff, and was much easier to get along with. If he didn’t see Mac, he would casually ask where she was and what she was doing. Even if the boss and Mac didn’t realize it, romance was definitely in the air. Rowdy, Pete, and Wishbone kept their mouths shut (for once) and didn’t tease Mr. Favor; they respected and admired him and hoped that things would work out. Rowdy had mentioned to Pete that it was time for the boss to find a wife for himself, a mother for his two little girls, settle down and have a ranch of his own. Pete was in complete agreement, even if it meant not ever going on another trail drive with Mr. Favor again. Everybody hoped for the best.

*****

Mac wasn’t sleepy. She didn’t have to ride night herd tonight, and she was homesick for her family. That evening’s songfest had consisted of tunes that she always had sung with her parents. Deciding to take a walk, she wandered away from camp and saw a match flare in the darkness. She recognized it as a match; someone was lighting a cigarette.

“Can’t sleep?” asked a deep voice.

Mac jumped in surprise. “Mr. Favor, you scared the life outta me!”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to. Want some company?” And without waiting for an answer, he sat down next to her but didn’t look at her. Tilting his hat back, then lighting a cigarette, he looked up at the stars.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” Mac asked.

“Yep. When I feel like it.”

Somehow the two began talking, really talking. Mac discussed her marriage and how unhappy it had been, how she had wanted to travel and was promised that this would become a reality – a reality that never materialized, and why she wasn’t unhappy when her husband died. She spoke of her hopes and dreams for the future. Though she had said it before, she repeated that she wanted to get married, have children, have a ranch and raise horses and cattle. Mr. Favor opened up too. He talked about his late wife, his two little girls in Philadelphia, and about wanting to settle down on his own spread and about his desire to bring his daughters to live with him.

Mac spoke softly. “You must’ve loved your wife very much. I’m so sorry that she was gone way too soon.”

“Yep,” was the reply.

“Do you ever think about marrying again? Maybe finding a mother for your girls?”

Silence. Mac was afraid she had overstepped her bounds and tried to look nonchalant as she put her hands on the rock and leaned back. She felt a hand touch hers and expected it to be withdrawn quickly. But the hand stayed where it was, half-covering her own.

“I haven’t been lookin’,” came the belated answer. “But mebbe I don’t have to look. Maybe the right one will find me.” He looked into Mac’s eyes, a small smile playing about his lips.

What happened next astonished Mac. She leaned forward and kissed him, kissed the smile on his lips. And he kissed her back. It was a sweet kiss, very gentle, and without passion. Their bodies didn’t touch, but she felt his hand wrap around hers; she felt like a lightning bolt had shot up her arm. She was the one who ended the kiss, but their eyes locked and she felt something pass between them – something wonderful and tender. She moved her hand from his rather abruptly, said, “Oh…,” and then covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry. I was quite out of line,” she blushed.

“Nope,” came the answer with a chuckle.

“Are you laughing at me?” she asked, rather on the defensive.

“Nope.” There was another chuckle and a big smile.

“Well, there must be some rule about a hired hand kissing the boss!”

“Ain’t never had a female hired hand before. Don’t know of any rules.” Then he added, still grinning, “I think we make our own rules.”

Mac blinked. “Oh.” She had no idea what to say. She did know what she wanted to do, which was to kiss him again and feel his arms around her, but she did nothing. Finally, she rose. “Guess I’d better get some sleep.”

He looked like he wanted to say something then changed his mind. “Yep,” came his one-word reply. “Mornin’ comes early.”

As she turned to walk away, she heard the sound of his lighting another cigarette. “Sleep well, McKenzie,” he said softly, and she felt her heart skip a beat. It was the first time he had called her by her given name.

“You too,” she answered, and she headed back to camp, still feeling the warmth of his lips on hers.

He continued to sit where he was. His mind was telling him that there was no way things could work out between them, but his heart was telling him something different. Mac was a woman in every sense of the word. She was beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, and caring. She also could do a man’s work and do it well; she was brave and honest. And she had fire in her, too. He told himself to go slow, but he also knew he didn’t have all the time in the world to develop a relationship with this woman. Sedalia was not that far away and they would be going their separate ways.

*****

Mac relived that kiss over and over again. She felt embarrassed because she had made the first move and then felt thrilled that he had not pulled away from her. If she tried real hard, she could still feel the pressure of his hand around hers. But she also knew the next move would have to come from him, not from her. Would he make that move? Already she was being mildly teased by Cahill and Plunket about how many times the boss rode out to check up on her, how he always smiled at her, how he seemed to enjoy the quiet talks they shared. Mac knew what they said was true, but was it just physical attraction, or was there a deeper component there?

She was finishing her shift of riding night herd and was singing to the steers. They were already quiet to begin with, but singing kept her from feeling quite so lonely, so she segued from song to song. She could hear men’s voices coming from distant parts of the herd – some were singing, some were whistling, some were humming. Each drover had his own way of dealing with the herd at night. As she launched into her favorite Irish lullaby, she heard a deep, familiar voice blending with hers. Was Mr. Favor singing a lullaby? She reined Lightning in and heard that deep voice say, “Don’t stop. I’m just now getting the hang of the words.” Mr. Favor’s horse stopped next to Mac, and the horse sidled closer so that Mac’s leg bumped against the boss’s leg. Lightning instinctively stepped away, but the bumping continued. Mac made her horse stand still, and the bumping stopped. Now she and Mr. Favor were leg-to-leg and neither made any attempt to move away. The sexual tension was exquisite. Not wanting to break the spell, Mac continued with her lullaby and felt goosebumps crawl up and down her arm when Mr. Favor’s deep, rich voice combined with hers. When all the verses had been sung and then sung again, Mac stopped singing.

“Do you sing lullabies to your little girls?” she asked.

“Used to, when they were little. Don’t get much chance to do it any more,” came the usual laconic answer.

Mac turned sideways to look into his eyes. “You miss them a lot, don’t you?

“Yep. One day I’ll be able to have ‘em with me all the time. I can quit trail bossin’ and settle down and give ‘em a real home. Not that their Aunt Eleanor ain’t doin’ a good job of raisin’ ‘em. But I want ‘em to have a real home with a mommy and a daddy.”

“Will they be happy in your world? It’s so different from the big city.”

Mr. Favor stretched his long legs, rubbing one leg against Mac and nearly driving her crazy. “Gillian will love it anywhere. Maggie may have some adjustin’ to do, but she’s very adaptable.” He paused, then chuckled. “Getting them away from their aunt will be the hard part. She’s a good woman, and she loves those girls almost as much as I do.”

He was still looking into Mac’s eyes and saw a deep warmth and tenderness there. He couldn’t remember when he had been able to have such a conversation with a woman before. And he liked it. He liked Mac. A lot.

Reaching out, he gently took a curly tendril of her hair, felt its softness, and then tucked it back under her hat. His fingers tingled and the sensation spread all over his body. His hand dropped to the back of her neck and pulled her head gently towards him as he leaned over to meet her halfway. He felt her lips against his, and he kissed her hard and found he didn’t want to stop. Man and woman leaned into each other as much as their saddles would allow, the man’s hand around the woman’s neck, and the woman’s hand resting against the man’s face. Again, Mac was the one who broke the kiss; she was trying desperately to catch her breath. She saw the fire in the boss’s eyes, felt the fire in her own body, but she knew if she didn’t stop now, there would be no stopping.

Mr. Favor’s body reacted predictably to the intensity of the kiss, and he shifted his position in the saddle. But his eyes never left Mac’s, and she felt as though he were looking deep inside her, searching for something.

“You are one amazing woman, McKenzie Donnelly,” he said softly, reaching out to touch her cheek. Slowly he turned his horse away and, singing the Irish lullaby softly, he rode away to make his rounds of the rest of the herd.

Mac was bubbling over with joy. In that hard kiss, she had felt not only his physical desire but his emotional desire also. She finally admitted to herself that she was falling hopelessly and helplessly in love with this man. Was it actually possible that he was falling in love with her too? She spoke into the night, “Good night, Gil.” It was the first time she had said his first name aloud; would she have the courage to say it to his face one day?

*****

Only a skeleton crew was present when most of the drovers headed for town. The herd was bedded down in good graze with fresh water nearby, and Mr. Favor needed to send a telegram and collect mail. Rowdy and Quince had gone along also to have a cold beer and, as Wishbone said, “To look at the wimmin.” As was usual these days, Mac announced that she was headed for the creek bed, a statement which meant that she was going to take a bath and for everybody to stay away. Though there might have been some of the men who would have liked to sneak a peek, her wishes were always respected and she knew it. But she always took Little Pete with her, just to be on the safe side because he would be her warning signal if anything was amiss – from a man to a wild creature.

Mac sat down and began to pull off her boots; she was looking forward to her bath. Quite suddenly, she was startled by the sound of gunfire. She knew instinctively that the shots didn’t come from the drovers because of not wanting to start yet another stampede. The shooting continued, and she knew there was trouble. From talking to Pete, she had learned that Comancheros often frequented the area; though they would steal a few head of steers, they were mostly interested in taking the horses.

Mac had not been used to carrying her gun with her when she went to bathe, but Mr. Favor had strongly suggested that she carry it always. “Never know when you might need it,” he had drawled. Jamming her feet back into her boots, she raced toward the remuda with Little Pete at her side, his hackles standing straight up. Fear gripped Mac’s heart, but it was the adrenalin that propelled her ever forward.

This was not the night for a skeleton crew – the drovers were badly outnumbered by the Comancheros. Arriving on the scene, Mac had no time to think. There was time only to point her gun and shoot, and she saw a man drop to his knees. He didn’t get up. Scarlet was by her side quickly and demanded she head for the safety of the creek bed, and she gave a vigorous shake of her head “no” before she dove behind a rock and continued shooting. Little Pete ran into the fray, leaped for a man’s throat, and clamped down before the man even knew what had happened. He was dead on the spot. When the gunfire finally ceased, no drovers were injured; there were five Comancheros dead and there were twelve horses missing. Her beloved Dusty was one of the stolen animals.

Pete gathered the drovers together and said that it would be foolish to try to follow the Comancheros at night. Mac was furious and uncharacteristically stomped her foot. “They stole my horse!” she shouted. Pete nodded, “Dusty and eleven others. But we can’t leave the herd to go after them. There’ll be plenty of time to track them tomorrow.”

“They could be a million miles away by tomorrow,” wailed Mac. “Dammit!”

Pete was startled. He had never heard Mac swear before, and he could plainly see the fury in her face. Little Pete licked her hand in sympathy. All Big Pete could do was to repeat what he had said before – and that was no consolation. The only good thing was that the drovers were unhurt.

“Will they come back again tonight?” asked Cahill.

Pete shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s hope that Mr. Favor and the rest of the men get here soon. In the meantime, let’s watch the herd and the remuda and keep our eyes peeled.”

By sheer coincidence, it was less than thirty minutes later when Mr. Favor and the rest of the drovers rode up. By the time Pete had recapped the whole situation, Mr. Favor’s attitude had passed anger and fury. It was indescribable. He felt responsible for his men and it was he who left a skeleton crew to watch the herd. He was consoled somewhat in knowing that none of his men was hurt. Then a thought struck him, and he whirled to face Pete.

“What about Mac?” he demanded.

“She and Little Pete are fine. Scarlet tried to make her hide, but she practically spit in his eye. She did her share of the shootin’.” He paused and added, “and the killin’.”

Mr. Favor’s eyebrows shot up: Mac had actually killed a man? He doubted whether she had ever killed anything in her whole life, even a snake, and he fretted over how she must be feeling over killing a human being. Swinging back into the saddle, he decided to look for her first and make sure she was all right. Then he would check on the rest of the men.

“Everybody in the saddle! We may yet be attacked again!” he barked. “Wish, keep the coffee going. We’re gonna have to stay up all night.”

*****

He found Mac sitting quietly aboard Lightning as Little Pete sat on his haunches at her side. He knew she heard him ride up, but she didn’t turn to face him, even when he was right next to her.

“You all right?” he questioned.

She nodded her head.

“You sure? It was a bad night and having to kill someone ain’t easy. For anybody.”

The gentleness of his voice touched her and she turned to face him. He could see tears in her eyes. “They needed to be stopped. Killing was the only way. And they took Dusty,” was all she could manage to say. Then she clenched her jaw and said no more.

Mr. Favor reached out his hand and gently rubbed her shoulder, thinking that she would have a good cry now. But she didn’t. Not a tear spilled.

“They’d be fools to come back tonight. Too many men here now. Tomorrow we’ll find ‘em, and we’ll get Dusty back,” he said with an unusual tenderness. Releasing his hand from Mac’s shoulder, Mr. Favor turned and rode away to check on the other drovers.

*****

Obviously, the Comancheros lacked a good leader because they returned in the wee dark hours of the morning. Marcos, the leader, had told his men that the drovers would be asleep in their saddles and wouldn’t be expecting another attack. He was wrong.

It was Little Pete who gave the first warning. His hackles went up and he growled. Mac, who really was almost asleep in the saddle, as Marcos had predicted, sat up. She saw nothing, heard nothing, but tried to ride as casually as she could to the nearest man who happened to be Rowdy.

“Little Pete’s picked up on something,” she whispered. “I think those men are coming back.”

Rowdy had great respect for Little Pete. “Spread the word,” he whispered back.

By the time the attack came, every drover was ready. When the last shot had been fired, the living and wounded Comancheros were brought back to camp. What a surprise it was to find that they were riding the very horses they had stolen! Scarlet and Quince rode to town to get the sheriff.

Mac looked for Dusty but could find him nowhere. Her heart plunged. It had been a horrible night of guns, blood, and the moans of the wounded. The sheriff and his men would take the Comancheros away, but she probably would never find Dusty.

“Hey, Mac!” a voice called from the darkness. “I gotta surprise for you!”

She looked up dejectedly and saw Plunket riding into camp with Marcos. And Marcos was riding Dusty! Apparently, the leader of the Comancheros had decided the fight was too much for him and had abandoned his own men.

Mac was overjoyed, but then anger took over. She stood where she was and growled at Marcos. “Get off my horse!”

Marcos turned sideways slightly to indicate that his hands were tied and that he couldn’t comply.

Mac growled at Plunket, “Cut him loose.”

No drover had ever seen Mac angry, much less furious. They stood and watched her warily. Again she ordered Plunket to cut Marcos loose. At a nod from Mr. Favor, Marcos’ hands were freed.

“Now get off my horse,” Mac growled again. And this time she had her gun drawn. The drovers were curious and intensely nervous. This was a side of Mac they had never seen.

Marcos dismounted and took a few steps forward. He was receiving looks of hatred from his own captured men, but those looks couldn’t compare to the hatred on Mac’s face. Little Pete snarled and moved forward, but Mac muttered something and he sat down, teeth bared.

“Mr. Favor?” began Mac. “Isn’t there a law against horse stealing?”

The trail boss nodded.

“And isn’t horse stealing punishable by hanging?

Again, she got a nod. Mr. Favor had no idea what Mac was up to and walked toward her, hand outstretched. “Give me the gun, Mac.” Little Pete eyed him suspiciously but didn’t move.

The boss was absolutely astounded when she turned the gun on him and pulled back the hammer. “Stay where you are,” she hissed. He decided to wait a minute and let her cool down before walking any closer.

Mac glared at Marcos. He was trembling with fear as he saw the gun swing back in his direction. Mac spoke, almost cheerfully, “Well, we’re not gonna hang you. You’re not worth the trouble.”

As Mr. Favor and the drovers were breathing a sigh of relief, Mac pointed the gun quickly between Marcos’ legs and pulled the trigger. The cowardly Comanchero fell to the ground screaming in agony and bleeding copious amounts of blood.

Totally and absolutely astonished, Mr. Favor watched an angelic-faced Mac drop her gun to the ground, walk by the writhing Marcos and take Dusty’s reins. She pulled off the Comanchero’s saddle, dropped it on the ground and then swung easily onto her horse’s bare back, turning him in the direction of the remuda.

By the time the sheriff and his posse arrived with several horses that had been found running loose, Marcos had died a slow, painful death. The sheriff took one look at Marcos and then spoke to the drovers. “How did he get shot…there?” Twenty-two innocent faces looked back at him. Mr. Favor shrugged his shoulders indicating that he had no idea how it happened. The captive Comancheros said nothing: Marcos had been stupid and now they were going to jail and would probably hang. The sheriff shivered slightly. “That’s a hard way to leave this world.” The only other question he asked was which of the horses belonged to the remuda. Cahill took the reins of those that belonged to the drovers, with the exception of one horse – and Marcos’ body was slung over its back. Dawn was still two hours before breaking when the sheriff left with his prisoners.

*****

Mr. Favor looked everywhere for Mac before he found her, sitting with her feet in the creek, naked, scrubbing her skin with sand. He called to her but she didn’t answer. She seemed not to hear him, so he walked down to the water’s edge and called to her again.

She faced him, her eyes seeming not to focus. “I can’t get the blood off. I can’t get it off me!”

He knew by looking at her face that she was in shock. The night’s events had been too much for her. She was rubbing her skin raw where no blood had actually been. Little Pete whined at her side and then came to the trail boss, pulling gently on his hand. Slowly, Mr. Favor kneeled down by Mac’s side and spoke softly to her.

“There’s no blood on you, McKenzie. Let me help you get dressed; we can go back to camp and have some coffee.”

Mac drew back from him. “No! The blood is everywhere! Help me get it off!”

The trail boss had handled many a bad situation before, but he really had no idea what to do with a woman in shock, and a naked woman at that. Little Pete continued to whine pitifully and licked Mac’s face. Taking a moment to think what he should do, the boss made a decision. Pulling off his boots and removing his chaps and hat, he scooped Mac’s trembling body in his arms and waded into the water.

“Here now. We’re in the water. We can wash all the blood away,” he said softly. Standing her on her two feet with one arm around her waist, be began scooping handfuls of water over her body and rubbing her skin gently. With every scoop of water, he said, “See? The blood is gone from here. And here. And here.”

The gentleness of his voice began calming her violent shaking, but she still had a distant look in her eyes. “My hair. Blood is in my hair.”

Mr. Favor sat down in the shallow water, gently pulling Mac to a sitting position with her head in the crook of his arm. He scooped water over her head, massaged her curly locks with his fingertips. “All the blood is gone now. It’s time to get dressed and get some hot coffee in you.”

Helping her to stand, the two walked back to where Mac’s clothes were. But she made no move to pick up any of her garments. She stared up into his eyes and a single tear slid down her cheek. He wiped it away. There were more tears, and she began trembling again. Slowly, she reached up and put her arms around his neck, leaning into his body. Mr. Favor was a gentleman, but he was first and foremost a man, and his body reacted before his mind could stop him. He kissed the tears from her cheeks and then kissed her on the lips. Her answering kiss was passionate and the grip of her arms around his neck almost swept him into something that couldn’t be stopped. One of the hardest things he had ever had to do was to push Mac away, albeit gently. “Maybe sometime there’ll be a time and place for this, but it’s not gonna happen now.”

Embarrassed, Mac told him to turn his back while she dressed although he had seen everything that could be seen while he bathed her. Dutifully, he turned his back and he heard her whisper, “Gil, I’m sorry. I guess I just got carried away. It won’t happen again.” He said nothing but she knew he wasn’t angry.

Fully dressed now, Mac self-consciously moved toward the boss; he cupped her face and kissed her. “I like the way you say my name,” he smiled. “It’s only men who’ve called me ‘Gil’ for a long time.” His heart felt full.

“I may call you Gil again,” she smiled back. “But not in front of the drovers.” There was a promise behind those words.

As they walked back to camp, trying to look nonchalant, he asked, “Would you really have shot me if I had tried to take your gun away?”

Mac chuckled. “Prob’ly. But definitely not where Marcos got shot.” She chuckled again.

Reappearing from God-knows-where, Little Pete licked Mac’s hand, and she rubbed his head. Man, woman and dog headed for the chuck wagon.

*****

Mac, thinking over the early morning’s events, was mortified at what she had done. Every now and then she would sneak a peak at her boss and see him eyeing her, and her cheeks would burn. She worried about what he thought of her now. She was sorry only that she had made the first move; he had fantasized many a night that he would be the one to seduce her. He had been right, though, because the time was not right. Not this time.

She was tired, so very tired, and was having a horrible time keeping her eyes open. She crawled into the back of the supply wagon and stretched out on her cot. She had planned only to think some things through, but she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the small pillow. She never heard Wishbone and Mushy clean the dishes, re-pack the chuck wagon, or hitch the team. She never heard the men walking by and talking on their way to the remuda. She never heard Cahill call to the boss and ask where she was. But Plunket had seen her crawl into the wagon and informed Mr. Favor who said he would take care of this matter.

Poking his head into the wagon, he saw Mac deep in sleep. Her face was serene, and her hair (which had grown out quite a bit) framed her face like a halo. The big boss decided that a little sleep would be good for her. He stifled the urge to climb in the wagon to stroke her cheek or touch a ringlet that had fallen over her forehead. Instead, he made himself turn and head toward the remuda. When asked later about Mac, his only comment would be that she had earned a rest and for everybody to leave her be. There was a tenderness, a softness, on his rugged face and in his eyes, which didn’t escape notice from the men. And there was a feeling in his heart that he had thought would never be there again. Was it in her heart too? Did he really want to get involved with a woman at this point in his life? He had the money to start his own ranch, but did he want to give his heart away on the basis of one act of passion that was born from shock and adrenalin?

*****

Sedalia was only three days away and Mac was well aware that the boss was staying out of her way. He wasn’t exactly avoiding her, but he had little to say when they did speak – which was seldom. Sitting in the saddle and moving the cattle along, Mac decided that what had happened at the creek bed was a bad thing and that she had given herself too freely to a man who was her boss, for Heaven’s sake! But she couldn’t honestly say she was sorry for what had happened. Mr. Favor could never fall in love with her anyway; just because he was everything SHE wanted didn’t mean that she was everything that HE wanted. She sighed. Soon they would be in Sedalia, she would board the train heading home with Dusty and Little Pete, and she and Mr. Favor would go in different directions. She felt a lump in her throat.

That night, she deliberately headed for the lone figure sitting apart from the rest of the group. “Got a minute?” she asked.

“Sure,” came the answer.

“When we get to Sedalia, and when I talk to the buyers about the Donnelly part of the herd, how do I bargain with them?”

“I can do that for you if you’d like.”

“No,” she said. “I need to learn to do this myself.”

“Well,” he began, “your steers are in as good a shape as any I’ve seen. If I were you, I wouldn’t settle for anything less than twenty-five dollars a head.”

“What if I can’t get that much?”

“You will. Just gotta stand your ground and maybe talk to several buyers. Don’t settle for the first one you run into.” He exhaled cigarette smoke through his nose. “You’ll do just fine.”

Mac breathed a loud sigh and turned to walk away.

“McKenzie…” he began, looking her straight in the eyes. His voice was gentle, but she couldn’t understand what she saw in his eyes.

“Yes?” she answered.

There was a long pause while they held each other’s gaze.

“Nothin’,” he said and turned away from her.

“Dammit, Gil!” she growled.

“And stop cussin’. I told you it ain’t ladylike!” he retorted.

Anger flashing in her eyes, she hissed, “Maybe I’m not a lady.”

“Oh, you’re a lady all right.” And he favored her with a devilish grin.

Embarrassed and frustrated, she turned and walked back to the supply wagon. She thought about her mother and how that broken mirror had predicted seven years of bad luck. Maybe her mother had been right: Mac had been hired disguised as a man, had been revealed as a woman, had broken her ribs, had her horse stolen, had used her gun for killing, had tried to make love to her boss and then had fallen in love with him to boot. Now she would have to leave him and return home. Bad luck hadn’t taken seven years to rear its head – it had taken only a little over two months.

*****

Woman’s intuition told her that the big trail boss had feelings that went deeper than he let on. She saw it in the way he looked at her, felt it in his touch, heard it in his voice those last days before they reached Sedalia. Many times he would start to say something but would cut himself short. She told herself that she would find out what was in his heart when they reached the trail end; in fact, she was sure of it!

She had found an errant steer among some rocks and was hazing it back toward the herd when she felt Dusty’s limp. Dismounting, she investigated his hoof and pulled out a rock. “That oughtta make you feel better, boy,” she said as she walked him a few feet to make sure the limp was gone. It was then that she heard a loud rattle. A startled Dusty jumped and Mac lost her balance, falling to the ground and trying to draw her gun at the same time. Too late came the gunshot; the snake had already sunk its fangs into her arm. She managed to shoot the rattlesnake, but it was too late: the damage had been done. Firing one more shot into the air, signaling for help, she tried to remain quiet and still to slow down her pounding heart.

Cahill and Plunket were the closest ones to the sound of the gunshots, and they arrived first on the scene. They saw the snake and they saw Mac holding her arm tightly. Cahill applied a tourniquet with his bandana; Plunket opened the wound with his pocketknife and began trying to suck out the poison. But they had lost precious time.

When Rowdy rode up, he saw what had happened and ordered them to get Mac back to camp. He rode off at a gallop to find Mr. Favor. By the time Cahill and Plunket had gotten to camp, Mac’s arm was swollen and greatly discolored. Wishbone shook his head sorrowfully as he tried everything he knew to keep the poison from spreading.

Breaking his own rule about galloping into camp, Mr. Favor arrived; his tanned face went pale as he looked at Mac. He knew she was dying and there was nothing he could do. Kneeling by her side, he propped her head in the crook of his arm and held her. She was having trouble breathing and he kept trying to make her stop trying to talk.

But she talked anyway. Haltingly, she asked him to sell the Donnelly cattle and wire the money to her parents. She made him promise to see that Dusty and Little Pete got home safely. Then she touched his cheek with her hand. She felt so tired, and blackness was beginning to close in on her. Her voice was a whisper that only the boss heard. “I love you, Gil. I hoped that you would come to love me too.” Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she felt his face against hers. He whispered into her ear, “I love you, McKenzie Donnelly.” Lying to her, he added, “You’ll be just fine. We have a good life waiting for us.”

The last thing she felt was the brush of his lips against hers. And then she was still.

There wasn’t a dry eye in camp at that moment; word had traveled fast and the drovers stood helplessly by. Little Pete whined and sat at Mac’s side, nudging at her gently with his nose. Cahill walked up and took Little Pete away from Mac’s side as Mr. Favor rocked the lifeless body gently.

*****

“Mr. Favor,” spoke Rowdy with a tight voice, “what do you want us to do?”

The trail boss looked up at the ramrod and then looked around, his eyes falling on a grassy knoll not far away. In a gruff voice, he answered, “We got buryin’ to do. Over there.” And he pointed to the spot he had picked out.

The grave was dug, and Mac’s body was laid to rest. Little Pete, sensing the passing of his mistress’s life, threw back his head and howled. He wasn’t quiet until Mr. Favor kneeled down and put an arm gently on the dog’s back. Wishbone read some passages from the Bible and, one by one, the men walked away, giving their boss some privacy.

The man looked at the dog. “We did love her, didn’t we?” Little Pete whined and licked the tears from the man’s face. The drovers had never seen their boss cry – and they didn’t actually see it now – but they saw his shoulders heaving and they knew tears were being shed. Slowly, they drifted back to their horses and got back to their jobs. Cahill took Dusty’s saddle off and put it in the supply wagon. No man from this group would ride Dusty again. Animals sense things and, before Cahill could stop him, Dusty went up to the knoll and nudged the heartbroken trail boss. The man rubbed his velvety nose and the three lingered there until sunset.

When Mr. Favor returned to camp, his eyes were red. Wishbone, who really could be a comfort when he needed to be, made a suggestion. “Boss, this here’s a beautiful spot. It opens into that pass over yonder that will take us to Sedalia.”

He paused. “The men and I, well, we’d like to name this spot. We wanna call it McKenzie’s Pass.”

Gil Favor looked at the faces of his drovers and saw them nod their heads in agreement. Finding it hard to speak, he nodded his head. “I like that. She’d like that too. Thanks.” Turning, with shoulders slumped, he walked out into the darkness and lit a cigarette. Remembering the brightness of McKenzie’s smile, he looked skyward and asked quietly, “Do you know how much I love you?” With incredible brightness, a shooting star streaked across the sky. The man smiled. “I guess you do.”

***The End***

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