Word Count: 9550
The young cowboy nodded, half asleep, his head bobbing in time with the motion of his slow walking horse. The horse, knowing his job, continued around the herd of cattle without any guidance from the greenhorn boy on his back. He was a well-trained cowhorse, who had been on cattle drives before. Hay Soos had made sure the two new hands had horses that knew their jobs. The boys sure didn’t, but he figured they would learn. Learn or get fired, for that was what Gil Favor expected of his cowhands.
The ramrod eased his horse up beside the boy and shook his shoulder slightly to wake him up. “Hey, Kid. Fletcher, you better stay awake. The Boss don’t like to see none of us sleepin’ on watch. You never know when he might decide to saddle up and make a swing around the herd to check on things. Even in the middle of the night.”
The boy shook his head and wiped his hand across his face, trying to wake up. “S – Sorry, Rowdy. Guess I dozed off for a minute or so.”
“Yeah, you sure did. Well, try and stay awake. Our watch’ll be over soon.” The two riders pulled up and watched as one of the few steers that had been standing up decided to lay down. The large spotted animal dropped to its knees, the weight of its huge horns causing its nose to almost hit the ground. A second later its hind legs folded and the steer grunted softly as it made it to the ground.
“I expected trail drivin’ to be hard work but this is worse than anything I sure ever imagined,” said the boy.
Rowdy Yates nudged his horse and the pair continued their ride. “Yeah, this has been a rough one. It ain’t never easy, but this one sure has been worse than usual.”
“Rowdy, how long do you think it will take to reach Abilene?” the young drover couldn’t even imagine how far it was to the railhead town of Abilene, Kansas. The drive had started in the south Texas brush country and would end up in Abilene.
“Don’t know for sure. If it goes smooth and easy with no trouble on the trail it might only take ‘bout three months. If we have a whole lot a trouble, like stampedes, bad water, no graze, Indians and such, it will take longer. But it ain’t often a drive don’t have no trouble at all. Like this one with all the stampedes”
“Do you think they’ll run tonight?” It was the question Cameron Fletcher had been asking himself all evening. They had only been on the trail for a week and the herd had stampeded three times already. It hadn’t been real bad runs, or at least that was what the other hands said. But it has sure been enough to put a scare in Cam. Each time they had only gone a few miles and then one of the more experienced hands had been able to get the herd to milling in a circle and then stopped. But three times was enough. Cam sincerely hoped it wouldn’t happen again. He asked again. “Will they run tonight, do you think, Rowdy?”
“I sure can’t say. Mr. Favor says they won’t and the Boss savvies more ‘bout cow critters than the critters themselves do. But who knows. You make sure you keep awake now, ya hear?” Rowdy rode on, leaving the boy to his own thoughts, and his night herding.
Cameron Fletcher continued his circle of the herd, thinking about the trailboss, Gil Favor. He was supposed to be one of the best to work for according to the campfire gossip. Favor was tall, thin, and had a deep baritone voice that could be heard easily over the noise of 2000 head of longhorn cattle. He expected his hands to work hard at all times but he worked himself even harder. Never smiling, he had dark eyes that could drill holes through you and he always seemed to know when you had been slacking off your job.
A week ago, Cam Fletcher never would have imagined he would be part of a trail crew going from south Texas to Abilene, Kansas on part of the Chisholm Trail. Oh, he would have dreamed it in his wildest daydreams, but figured that would be as close as he would come to actually going on a cattle drive. Then his pa heard that the Favor crew was still shorthanded and told him and his brother to go sign up. The Fletchers had come west two years before but had found dirt farmin’ on the Texas plains as bad as their life in the Tennessee hills had been. Cam’s pa had told him how trail drovin’ would let him grow up, make a man out of him, and let him see more of the world. He figured that was all true but knew his pa had also been thinking of not having so many mouths to feed. If the truth be told his pa had probably wanted to come worse than Cam had, but had known that ma wouldn’t be able to hold onto the farm if he did.
When he and Davy, his brother, first got to where the herd was being held there was a dozen or so others already there trying to sign up for the drive. Jobs just weren’t all that plentiful, and Cam and Davy didn’t think they had a chance at all of getting hired. They had all waited for a while, watching as the trail hands came and went as they were eating their noon meal. All the men had wide-brimmed felt hats, heavy shirts and pants, leather vests, and rawhide leggin’s or chaps as some called them. Each and everyone had on well-made leather boots with pointed toes and high heals with silver spurs attached. And all seemed to be decked out with a good saddle, bridle, and rope on real cowhorses, not plowhorses like Cam was familiar with. It was his and Davy’s first time in a real cowcamp with real cowboys and they couldn’t believe all that they were seeing. Cam knew there was little chance that a poor farm boy like himself would be picked to go with the herd.
Finally a man rode up on a big bay horse. It was easy to tell he was the trailboss by the way the others acted and spoke to him. Dismounting he walked to the campfire and spoke quietly to the cook who had handed him a cup of black coffee. “That them, Wishbone?” Favor asked.
“Yeah, Boss, that’s them. Don’t look like much, do they?” the short, bowlegged cook had answered.
Favor sipped his coffee, his back to the gathering of men who wanted to join his traildrive. He had looked them over as he rode in. He signed and spoke softly to himself so that only his longtime friend, Wishbone, heard him. “They’re mostly little boys. Should be home bein’ rocked by their mamas.”
Wishbone corrected him. “They ain’t such little boys and it’s boys that turn into men.”
“Ye – ah.” Favor took one last swallow of coffee, tossed out the dregs and turned to the would-be drovers.
“All – right. I can use five more men for this drive.” He walked from one end of the line of men and boys to the other end. Cam had noticed most of the boys were like himself, from other small nearby farms. He knew some of them and knew they didn’t know much more than he did about cowboying.
Hands on his hips, just above the gunbelt, holster and pistol that hung there, Favor stared at them. Two men had stood off to one side and it was easy to see they were experienced cowmen. Favor pointed at them. “You and you. Ever been on a traildrive before?”
“Yeah,” they both said at once.
He gazed over the group of farm boys again. He knew they were all used to hard work but knew little of droving. He was sure it was like closing your eyes and reaching into a barrel of apples. Some would be good and some wouldn’t. He pointed at three that seemed to be big, strong, solid, and responsible. “You ——- you——–and you.” He had chosen two others and Cam. “Any of you got your own gear?” All three had shaken their heads ‘no’. Favor had looked down at his boots, frowning. “All right, see Wishbone for saddles and blankets, and Hay Soos will assign you your horses.” He shook his head as he walked back to the fire. “I should have my head examined for hiring babies,” he said.
All the others had already left, except Cam’s brother, Davy, who was upset at not being picked. “Why’d he pick you and not me?”
“ ‘Cause I’m the oldest.”
“Only by a year.”
“Well, anyway I think maybe he just picked. It was just dumb luck.” They had ridden double and bareback to the herd on one of the plowhorses. “You take the horse and ride on back home. Tell pa I got on and I’ll send some of my wages when I get paid.” He knew he would miss his family but he was excited at the idea of the cattle drive. “You take care, Davy. Maybe it will be your turn next year. Watch after the little ones now.” Davy swung up onto the broad back of the plowhorse. The brothers shook hand, said their goodbyes and parted. Davy riding home and Cam joining the other two boys as Wishbone dug out some old saddles that had seen better days and Mushy, the cooks’ helper, handed them some blankets for bedrolls.
“Grab a plate and get some grub,” Wishbone told them in his funny, always complaining voice. “Can’t work on an empty stomach. Get it for I throw it out. Hay Soos, these boys need horses. Give ‘em gentle ones. I don’t want to be doctorin’ ‘em more than they’re drivin’ cows.”
“Se, Senior Wishbone.” Even Hay Soos, the small Mexican horse wrangler had not been pleased with three boys who had never been drovers before.
Early the next morning the drive had started. It had taken most of the first day to convince the stubborn longhorn cows that they were all supposed to go in the same direction. Cam, and Bobby Martin, and Tom Sayler were put to ‘ridin’ drag’ as the other hands called it. They brought up the tail end of the drive, making sure that the stragglers kept moving, and that none of the steers were left behind, and many tried. In fact most of the critters were very persistent in trying to keep from going on the drive. By the end of the day Cam was sure he had never worked so hard in all his life. Nor had he ever eaten so much dust and dirt. Even plowing dry fields didn’t stir up this much dust.
And the next day was more of the same. All the excitement and adventure had gone up in that cloud of dust that followed those 2000 head of steers. When he wasn’t pushing cows, he was night herding and in between he was given chores to help Wishbone. Helping Mushy haul water, and chopping wood. And because wood was scarce, picking up dry cowchips left by other herds. The cowchips burned as well as any wood. The three green cowhands all said they could have stayed home and not had as much to do. Sleep was unheard of, almost. He had heard one older hand, Quince, say that sleep was done in the wintertime, now was the time to drive cattle.
Some of the adventure did come on the second night out. Cam had been asleep for only a few minutes when the yell “STAMPEDE” woke him. By the time he could pull his boots on and find his horse everyone else was gone after the cattle. It had all been over with by the time he caught up. As they had stood around at daybreak and drunk strong, hot coffee and chewed on warmed over beans and biscuits from the evening meal, Gil Favor rode in and asked. “Anyone get hurt?” All shook their heads. He turned to his ramrod, Rowdy Yates. “Anyone missing?”
“Yeah,” Rowdy said and when Favor stared at him, he explained. “That kid, Tom Sayler, was on watch when they ran. When we got back in he turned his horse loose, threw his saddle in the wagon, and took off walking back the way we came. I guess he quit.”
“Good riddance then – if he can’t do the job,” muttered Scarlet.
Favor had looked at the men, his scowl lingering on Martin and Fletcher as if he expected them to quit, also. Cam stared back as if to say ‘Not Me’, and then he thought he saw the trailboss nod slightly to him. All he had said was, “We got beeves to move. Get with it.”
As the drive progressed Cam and Bobby began to learn what was expected of them. They boys learned to keep their kerchiefs up over their nose and mouth to keep from choking so bad on the dust, and their muscles weren’t quite so sore from the long hours in the saddle. They learned how to spot a steer fixing to try to quit the herd almost before the steer knew it was going to try to quit. After the first few days the men had started rotating so that each got a turn in each of the different places on the drive. That way not every one had to ride drag everyday.
They would have eaten almost any kind of food but found that Wishbone was an excellent cook, even with all the complaining the hands did. The always grumbling, grouchy cook never stinted on supplies. There was always a big pot of coffee going from the time camp was first made each evening until it broke the next morning. There were big dutch ovens full of beans and stew and biscuits, and skillets with thick steaks or potatoes frying. Everything was well seasoned with pepper, salt, chili, and other spices depending on what Wishbone had decided to use that day.
Mushy, not much more than a boy himself, helped Wishbone and drove the supply wagon while Wishbone drove the chuckwagon. Both wagons usually lead out each day and stayed ahead of the drive to avoid the dust, and have camp ready for each meal. Mushy told Cam and Bobby that he had been on drives before. He never could get the hang of riding a horse very well but was determined to be as good a trail cook as Mr. Wishbone some day. He said that Mr. Wishbone was at his best now, but as the drive went on it would be beans, beans, and more beans.
By the next day Cam realized the steers were actually becoming a trailherd instead of a large group of cows. Most had settled down into the day-to-day grind of walking, constantly walking. On about the fifth day Cam had found himself riding by Quince, a hand who had been over the trial several times with Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates. Quince knew Cam was young and green but trying hard to learn and took the time to give some pointers to the boy. “You notice them two big steers in the lead?” he asked.
“Yeah, the black one and the lineback dun.”
“Yeah, that’s them,” said Quince as they continued to ride along. “Them two’s goin’ a be our leaders.”
“Leaders?” questioned Cam.
“Ever herd goes over the trail has its leaders. You never know which ones it’ll be. It’s always interestin’ to watch ‘em figure it out amongst themselves. Sometimes there’s some fightin’ over it but most times not much. You’ll find one or sometimes, two, like these, just naturally are the first ones to lead out ever mornin’ and the others just get to where they always foller ‘em. Looks as if it’ll be that big black and the dun this time.”
“How come they got such big horns anyway, Quince?”
“Don’t know, kid. I always wondered that, too. Heard tell they’re mostly descended from them Spanish bulls and cows brought over from Spain by them conquistadors. Them and a few other breeds thrown in. Now they’re just longhorns.”
Cam studied the herd. There were almost as many colors and horn sizes and shapes as there were steers. There were blacks, whites, duns, reds, browns, brindles, and everything in between and some with ever color on one animal. Many of them had horns, some curved, others twisted, or corkscrewed. They were lean, slab-sided critters, tough and mean as any animal could be. A man on horseback was usually ignored by the steers. When Cam or the other hands rode near they simply moved out of the way. But a man on foot was still considered fair game by the contrary, half-wild critters. Only a fool would have gone near the herd on foot.
Now, after a week, it was pretty much a trailherd. Every morning the black and the dun steers would head out when Rowdy, Quince and the other hands started pushing the herd off their bedground. All day they would follow the trail. They went slow enough to give the animals a chance to graze a little but the steady movement could cover a lot of miles depending on the terrain. Favor always seemed to know of one good place to water the steers each day. That in its self could take quite a while.
There had been only one major river crossing so far and it hadn’t presented any serious problems. In fact Cam had found it fun. The cows had been crowded into the wide river by the whooping, yelling, rope popping cowboys. From the drag, Cam had been able to look down from the riverbank and see the leaders come out of the water as the last cows were pushed in. The steers had seemed to disappear as they swam, with only the sun glistened horns showing above heads thrust out of the water just enough to keep their noses dry. Cam and Martin had laughed at the sight of so many sets of horns seeming to float across the river. After the crossing had been made the cowboys had taken time to wash their cloths and themselves, splashing, dunking, and playing like small boys.
Now here he was again riding night herd and his mind was back to the same question. “Will they run again tonight?” They had run last night and the night before. It had been a horrifying experience for the boy. It had seemed to Cam as if on some signal, known only to the steers, they had jumped up and run, all in the same direction. One second they had been sleeping, the next up and running.
It had been to dark to see that much. A flash of long white horn in the moonlight, a light colored cow running full out, a glimpse of the white of wide, rolling eyes. To Cam the noise had been the worse part. The rumble of 8000 hooves pounding the ground had been deafening. It had been louder than any thunder with the barely heard shouts and yells of the cowboys, and the occasional crack of horns banging together. Anything that was in front of them was destroyed. Bushes and small trees where pounded into the ground. The ground looked like it had been plowed over by some sort of strange plow afterward. The stampede stopped for nothing in its path.
Each time the stampede had been over almost before Cam could realize what was happening. The older cowboys were old hands at turning the herd back on itself and circling them until they came to a standstill.
On this night Cam sang to the cows as his horse kept to its route around the herd. “Ride ‘round the little doggies, O ride ‘round ‘em slow, for the fieries an’ snuffies are a rarin’ to go.” It was an old song he had heard the other cowboys singing. No telling what it really meant or who had first started singing it, but it was a favorite of all the hands.
When he was about to give up hope of ever being relived of his watch Bobby Martin rode up beside him. “Howdy, Cam. How’s it going?”
“Quiet, Bobby, real quiet.”
“You think they’ll run tonight?” asked Bobby.
“Rowdy says Mr. Favor knows what he’s talkin’ ‘bout with that troublemaker. He said if the boss says they won’t run, they won’t run.”
Both boys thought of the steer the trailboss had called a troublemaker. A smallish brindle steer no one had paid much attention to. The past evening after the herd had been well watered and allowed to eat their fill on a large, grassy plain, Gil Favor had ridden slowly around the herd, then had cut back and forth through the cows careful not to disturb them. Finally he called to a cowboy. “Quince, that brindle steer there,” he pointed at the cow, “put a rope on him and take him ‘bout a mile up that wash south of the herd and tie him up for the night. I’m pretty sure he’s our troublemaker. The one causin’ ‘em to run. It’s too dumb or stupid to sleep at night. Jumps at any little ‘ol thing. He can just spend the night away from the herd and we’ll see what happens.”
“Rise and Shine, you lazy, would-be waddies. Coffees hot and grubs on.” Wishbones’ wake up yell was followed by Mushy beating on a large metal pan with a wooden spoon. The sun was barely hinting at daylight over the eastern horizon. Both cook and his helper had been up for an hour already to get the fire going, coffee boiling, and biscuits baking.
Cam Fletcher could smell the savory biscuits and pungent coffee even before he could force his eyes open. He was sure he had only been asleep for a minute.
As he rolled up his blankets and threw them into the wagon Bobby Martin rode up to the camp. “I turned that brindle back into the herd, Mr. Favor,” he said to the trailboss who was pouring himself a cup of the hot, black brew.
“You pull him back out again tonight, kid,” said Favor as he blew on the enamel cup to cool his coffee enough to be able to drink it.
There had not been a stamped that night. Favor and all the hand had enjoyed a fairly calm night. Now it was time to start them moving again.
At about mid-morning Cam saw Rowdy suddenly ride at a full gallop to where Gil Favor sat watching the herd. They spoke for a moment then both of them rode toward the front of the herd. Cam thought there must be something important going on.
The steers slowed and spread out coming to a halt and beginning to graze. The cowboys gathered behind the trailboss and the ramrod, and all watched as four Indians broke off from the small group of about twenty that had appeared to the north of them. The four leaders came toward the herd as the drovers waited.
Cam and Bobby wondered if they should be afraid or not. Both wished they had guns incase a battle broke out with the Indians. Cam could see that although the Indians tried to look big and brave, holding lances, and old muzzleloader rifles. They, also, had bows and quivers of arrows on their backs. But in reality it was just two old men and two boys maybe even younger than Cam and Bobby were.
When they were about twenty feet from Mr. Favor they pulled up their scrawny-looking mustang ponies. They waited a moment. Finally Favor broke the silence and spoke, “Howdy. Nice day for palavering.”
The oldest Indian spoke. “Want four ‘Wo-haws’.” He held up four fingers. He had white hair in two long braids down his back. His face was a mass of wrinkles and a red scrap of cloth was tired around his head. The Indian boys looked as nervous as Cam and Bobby felt.
Favor seemed to consider the offer for a moment. Then he held up one finger. “One Wo-haw.”
“What’s a wo-haw?” whispered Bobby to Joe Scarlett.
“Wo-haws are what the Indians call a cow. Comes from hearing wagon drivers callin’ out Whoa and Haw and Gee to their oxen teams. Them Indians won’t be no trouble. Just some old men, women, and kids.”
The trail boss and the old Indian stared at each other. Favor spoke to Scarlett. “Get the brindle steer. He might be good for something yet.”
“Joe, he’s in the drag,” said Cam, “I just seen him.”
Scarlett took off and returned several minutes later with the brindle troublemaker in tow.
“One wo-haw,” Favor said to the Indians again.
The two older Indians discussed it, then the spokesman said with emphasis, “Little wo-haw, Not enough.”
Favor turned in the saddle and looked at the steer still tugging and pulling at the end of Scarlett’s rope. He nodded. “It’s small, all right,” he said in agreement to the Indians. “Fletcher,” he looked back at the herd, “Cut out that red steer over there.”
Cam took off and dropped his rope over the large, fat animal. He was pleased that he had been able to rope the animal on the first try. If he hadn’t, he would have been so embarrassed here in front of all the cowhands, Mr. Favor and the Indians he swore he would have fallen over dead. But he hadn’t. He had roped it just as Quince had taught him to. He dragged the steer behind his horse over to where everyone waited.
Favor spoke to the Indians again. “Two wo-haw. No more.” The Indians seemed to realize he meant it. They nodded in understanding. The two Indian boys each reached for a rope and began dragging the reluctant steers toward the waiting women and children. Cam thought they looked as if they hadn’t eaten in days. They seemed to get excited at the sight of the cows and started shouting and yelling.
About that time, Wishbone and Mushy pulled up in the wagons. They had come back to see what was going on.
“Wishbone, hand down a couple of sacks of flour, one of sugar, and a little coffee to go with them beeves.”
Wishbone grinned at his boss as he got the supplies out. Favor could be hard as nails when need be, but he could be a bit compassionate at times, too. Especially when it came to little kids.
“We got a herd to move.” The trail boss yelled at his hands, and the crew scattered out to their jobs. “I must be getting’ soft,” muttered Favor under his breath.
Cam had heard Favors comment to himself. He smiled. Yeah, he was learning a lot about life. Learning you had to be hard and tough but to keep a soft spot, too. He rode at a lope to his place in the drag.
Wishbone and Mushy started the wagons rolling. As the Indians watched the cowboys and the big bunch of steers, Favor took off his hat, waved it over his head in a signal and roared out to his men.
“Head ‘em up! Move ‘em out!”
With the brindle steer gone. there was no more threat of stampede at night from the huge herd of cattle. Each morning, the longhorns continued their march toward Abilene, Kansas with the big black steer and his dun sidekick leading the way. The trail drive had proceeded across Texas following the Chisholm Trail and was almost to the Red River where they would cross into Oklahoma Territory. Gil Favor watched from the sidelines as Cam Fletcher chased a red cow back to the herd that had tried to get away. He nodded his head in satisfaction. Moments later Rowdy Yates rode up beside him. Neither man spoke for a moment as they watched the stream of cows.
Favor shifted in his saddle and looked at his ramrod. “That Cam Fletcher, he’s getting’ the hang of bein’ a drover real quick, ain’t he?” For a moment he thought he could smell smoke. Maybe Wishbone had the noon fire going already. He would ride over in a minute and get a cup of coffee if it was ready.
“Yeah, Boss, he is, but I’m not so sure about his friend, Martin.”
“Oh, he’ll make it. He won’t never be as good as Fletcher, but he’ll be an all-right drover. The feller that worries me is that man, Ben Erwin, that hired on at the same time as the boys did. He’s a slacker. Seems to avoid pullin’ his share of the work.”
“Yeah, and he seems to disappear a lot every evening. Says he don’t like sleepin’ in the camp. Likes to be by himself.” Rowdy looked around him at the surrounding countryside of low rolling hills with lots of tall, dry plains grass and a few trees. “You smell smoke?”
“Wish probably has the noon fire goin’. I hope so, anyway. I’m getting’ hungry.” Favor took another look around him. “I’ve known a lot of men didn’t like sleepin’ in camp, and don’t have no problem with it as long as they do their job. But Erwin don’t. If we didn’t need him, I’d send him packin’.” Favor looked up at the sound of hoof beats coming toward him and Rowdy. Trail scout Pete Nolen was riding his big bay horse hard.
“Boss, we got trouble,” shouted Pete even before his horse came to a complete stop. “There’s a brush fire about two miles north of us, coming fast toward us.”
All three men looked toward the northern sky. Rowdy and the trailboss realized that what they had been smelling hadn’t been the smoke from Wishbone’s noon camp but from the brush fire that was now billowing up over a distance rise in front of them. They could see a long column of black smoke with bright orange flames streaking up into it. The men knew the danger and problems a prairie fire could cause. If the herd got caught up in the fire there could loose a lot of the animals, and maybe even men and horses. And prairie fires moved fast. Faster than a herd of cattle did.
Quickly Favor thought about the lay of the land and how it would be best to avoid the fire. “That fire is coming right at us. Right near that river crossing on the Red River that we usually use. Pete, can we swing southeast a bit and avoid the fire and still get across the river? The fire probably won’t jump the river and we’d be safe from it then.”
“Yeah, I guess we could. I know of another crossing place. I ain’t checked it out this time. But other times it wasn’t near as good. Usually a lot deeper and more current, with some rocks that made a little bit of a rapids above it. The trail into the river is a lot steeper, too, but I think we could make it.”
The smoke was advancing rapidly toward them. “Good,” said Favor. “From the looks of that smoke headed this way we’re going to have to make a run for it. Rowdy, you ride up to the lead, tell Scarlett, and start passing the word back. I want ‘em movin’ faster. Even if we got a run ‘em into a stampede. When you get to the drag, start pushing them hard with the men back there.” He looked at the trail scout’s tired, wore out horse. “Pete, go get a fresh horse from Hay Soos. Then head for that other crossing so you can help get the lead steers into the water at the right place. I’ll let Wishbone know and then I’m going to ride point with Scarlett.” The trailboss knew it would be a job to get the 2000 head of cows turned from the straight north direction they had been traveling into more of a southeast direction to come out at the crossing Pete was recommending.
Rowdy kicked his horse into a run as he headed for the rear of the traildrive. Gil Favor turned his horse for where he thought the chuckwagon was, and Pete Nolan went in search of the remuda to get another mount. They all knew it was going to be a long day.
Cam Fletcher and Bobby Martin had noticed the smoke drifting toward them from the north and that the cows were getting a bit restless from it, and then it seemed as if the cows in front of them were moving faster. The critters were used to the smoke from a campfire but this was a lot more. Just as they were thinking of asking someone what was going on Rowdy rode up at a run.
“Martin! Fletcher! We got a prairie fire ahead of us. Boss wants to swing ‘em southeast for the river. Wants ‘em movin’ fast!” Rowdy already had his rope loose and he popped a steer on the rump, and then another. “Where’s Erwin? Ain’t he back here with you?”
The two young punchers looked at each other briefly. “Ain’t seen him for a while,” said Cam. Bobby just shrugged his shoulders. Both did as Rowdy was doing and began to push the cows at a faster pace. They knew a prairie fire could mean lots of trouble.
Within a few miles of travel, the smoke was getting thicker and it became obvious that the fire was moving faster than the cattle, even though the herd was now moving at a fast trot. The drovers had all taken a moment to drench their bandanas in water from their canteens before tying them over their faces so they could breathe a bit easier. Suddenly Pete Nolen appeared out of the dust and smoke beside of the trailboss.
“Not far,” he said. “Just about a hundred yards, and there’s a drop off down to the river. But the water’s higher than I figured on.”
“Can we make it over?” asked Favor.
Pete hesitated. “I reckon. If we’re careful.”
“No time for careful. We got to get ‘em across. You and Scarlett. Each of you drop a rope on them lead steers and get ‘em in the water.”
Pete whirled his horse around and rode back to Joe Scarlett. They each shook out a loop of rope. Pete dropped his on the big black steer with the huge horns. Joe put his on the lineback dun. Smelling water and not liking the smoke and fire behind them the two steers were more than willing to follow the two cowboys down the riverbank and into the muddy, rolling water. Favor and another cowhand pushed the first group of cows after the leaders. At first they wouldn’t go and tried to turn, but by yelling, popping ropes and swinging rain slickers the men got about one hundred head into the water and swimming for the distant shore. By that time Nolen and Scarlett had the lead steers across and were releasing them.
Seeing the break in the cattle, Wishbone drove the chuckwagon down the bank and into the river with Mushy driving the supply wagon right behind him. He briefly thought about the fact that there could be rocks the wagons might hang up on, or quicksand to get bogged down into, or the water would flood the inside of the wagon ruining supplies. But the thought was brief as the fire behind them was even more of a problem than what they might find in the river. Their luck held and the two wagons went across with out any mishap and up the other bank to pull up, dripping wet, beside the cattle that had already made the crossing. Wishbone looked into the wagon to see how much water and got in. Not much, he though. He saw his rifle and gunbelt lying where they might get wet so pulled them right up behind his seat where they would be safer. Sure didn’t want to get his guns wet.
After watching to make sure the wagons made it across, Gil looked back for more cattle to drive into the river but there was a gap in the herd. Cursing he galloped back. “Quince! Get ‘em movin’! Don’t let ‘em stop!” He rode on for the rear of the herd. When he reached it, he rode along side of Rowdy. “Push ‘em harder! We ain’t got much time. Stampede ‘em if you have to.” He pulled his pistol and fired it into the air. The sound of the shot rolled over the excited cattle. Rowdy drew his gun and fired it at the smoke covered sky. They fired again. One cow let loose a very loud, terrified bawl and the herd was off at a dead run, with the drovers trying to keep them headed for the river.
Racing his horse along side the frightened cattle, Cam could only think that a few weeks back they had been trying to keep the cattle from stampeding and now they were doing it on purpose. But he wasn’t complaining. That brush fire was way to close for comfort. He yelled and snapped his rope. The smoke from the fire and dust from the dirt were so think you could cut it with a knife, he thought. His nose, throat and ears were clogged with it. His skin felt heavy with it. For one brief moment he thought he could see the river. Would they ever reach it? Bobby rode up beside him, yelled something he couldn’t understand and then went on. Seconds later the earth seemed to drop out from under the hooves of his horse and they were plunging over a steep, twenty foot bank down into the famous Red River.
The Red was roaring, and muddy, and swollen from recent thunderstorms to the north. The storms had raised the level of the river and the cows were swimming within a few steps after they hit the water. Cam’s horse sank into the dirty water and then its head came up and it started swimming for the distant shore. Cam could only hang on grimly to the pommel of his saddle, hoping his mount could pull him across the river and that his weight wouldn’t pull the animal down. Cam knew if he lost his grip that he would be swept under the raging current and wouldn’t have a chance of surviving. Several times water swamped over his head. Once he was bumped hard by the horns of a steer swimming beside him and his horse. Just as he was giving up hope of ever making land, his horse lunged upward and jerked Cam up the north bank of the mighty river.
Losing his grip on the saddle, Cam slipped in the red, slimy mud and fell down in front of several steers coming up the sloping bank. Instantly a strong arm snaked down to catch Cam around his waist and jerked him in a belly flop across the front of a saddle where it felt as if the saddlehorn would poke a hole in his ribs. Seconds later he slid off the saddle to stand on solid ground and look up into the face of Rowdy Yates.
“You all right, kid?” the ramrod asked.
Cam took a deep breath, rubbed his rib to ease the ache, and finally was able to answer. “Ya – yeah. Yeah, I think I am. Thanks, Rowdy.”
“Just get your horse and get back to work.” Yates wheeled his horse and headed back into the melee of cattle and riders coming out of the river.
Minutes later, the tired herd was scattering out on the prairie to rest and begin grazing, while the drovers were watching transfixed by the sight of the brush fire burning itself out on the south side of the river where they had been so recently.
Favor took his hat off, swiped at the water still running down his face and neck, gave up and put his hat back on. “All right, we still got cows to take care off. Move ‘em on north a half mile or so, let ‘em graze and then start movin’ ‘em in small groups back to the river so’s they can water.” He looked around for the chuck wagon. “Wishbone, make camp. We’ll stay here for the night.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Favor.”
“Yes, Sir-eee, Mr. Favor. I do think it’s a wise thing for you and your drovers to make camp right here and now.”
Favor whirled his horse around at the sound of the loud, rough, sarcastic voice behind him. In all the excitement, no one had noticed the group of nine riders that had quietly come up behind them as they stood watching the fire and the river. Riders that included Ben Erwin, the drover that had hired on with Cam and Bobby. “And just who might you be, to be tellin’ me and my men what we should do?” asked Favor. His hand as well as Rowdy’s and several of the other men’s hands had gone to their gun butts. “Erwin, what you doin’ with this bunch of cow thieves?”
“I wouldn’t pull none of them shootin’ irons, if I was you. They’re wet anyway,” said the man. He had a rifle pointed at the trailboss. Each of the group of men with him had a gun drawn. “I’m Zeke Abner. Ever hear of me?” He was a big man, with a huge stomach that overhung his belt. He wore a bearskin coat over ragged, dirty homespun clothes. He had brogans on his feet and an old ragged black bowler hat on his head. His men were a motley lot; each dressed different from the next, and different in size and stature. But each had a mean, hard look on his face and a gun in his hand. Erwin laughed at the surprise on the cowhands faces.
“Nope. Can’t say that I have,” Favor replied. With all the guns already pointed at him, Favor let his hand drift over to his saddlehorn. Besides, the man was right most of the guns were wet and might not shoot. “And you still ain’t told me why your pointin’ them guns at us and tellin’ us what we’re gonna do.”
“Why, yes I have, Mr. Trailboss. I said you’re gonna make camp here for the night. But me and my boys is gonna take them cows and push ‘em on down the trial.” The man grinned, showing dirty, chipped teeth.
At first, none of the cowboys were unable to comprehend that these men wanted to take his whole herd. Favor voiced the thoughts of all of the men. “The whole herd?” He shifted in his saddle again. “I don’t think so.” His face became almost livid at the thought.
“Yeah, trailboss. I do think so. The whole herd. And we ain’t gonna have no trouble from you or your men.” He looked to his right. “Handley, I want you and Forger to stay here and keep your guns on these men. Erwin, you and the rest of the boys get that bunch of critters movin’.”
Pete Nolen snorted in disgust. “Erwin, I might of known you was up to no good when I seen you headin’ out west this morning, early. You set that fire, didn’t ya? You set it so’s we would have to run the herd across at this point right to your friends.”
Ben Erwin laughed. “Lots like I won’t be havin’ to take no more orders from you bunch of dumb cowhands,” he said.
Favor shook his head dumbfounded at what was happening. “Damn,” he muttered. Then he let loose a string of curses. “What a damn fool I’ve been not to a seen it comin’.”
“You know, don’t ya,” said Rowdy causally, “that them beeves is tired and they ain’t gonna want a leave this good grass and the water.” His hand drifted toward the gun on his hip again.
Abner’s rifle swung to point at Rowdy. “Take that pistol out nice and slow, mister. And toss it on the ground. All you men. Take your guns out and drop ‘em.” He waited until Favor, Yates and the rest of the drovers dropped their guns on the ground. “They’ll move, cowboy. Don’t you go worrying none. We’ll see to that,” said Zeke.
Wishbone still sat on the seat of the chuckwagon. “Mr. Favor, you ain’t gonna let ‘em take the herd, are you?” Several other men echoed the cooks’ words. The men couldn’t believe that Gil Favor was just going to hand the herd over to the cattle thieves.
“Well-ll, I can’t see that there’s anything we can do about it. Not with all them guns pointin’ at us.” The trailboss seemed to slouch in his saddle in resignation.
“Now, that’s smart, trailboss. Real smart.” Zeke waved his hand in the direction of the herd. “You men get at it. Get that herd movin’.” Erwin and five others took off toward the herd, yelling and shouting. Reluctantly the first of the cows started slowly moving to the north. Zeke and the two men who had stayed behind seemed to relax. This had been easier than they had thought it would be.
“Maybe these cowhands ain’t as tough as I always heard,” said Handley to Zeke and Forger.
Forger agreed with him. “They sure ain’t.”
“Mr. Favor, you can’t let them just have the herd.” Rowdy was getting mad. He couldn’t believer that Favor was giving up so easily.
Favor looked at his ramrod. “And just whose herd is this anyway, Yates?” He raised his voice into a shout. “I’ll tell you whose herd it is. It’s my herd. And I can do anything I damn well please with it. If I want to give it away, I will.”
Rowdy didn’t know what to think of what his boss was saying. He couldn’t remember a time that Gil Favor hadn’t fought to keep his herd regardless of what the situation called for. He was starting to get really angry. In fact he was very angry at his friend and Zeke Abner. Now he was yelling, too. “I don’t understand, Mr. Favor. It don’t make no since. Why would you want to let this feller take the herd?”
“Ain’t nothin’ we can do ‘bout it now, Yates.” He dismounted from his horse and called out to the wrangler. “Hay Soos, you set up a picket line. Wishbone, get supper started. I could use a cup of coffee.” He led his horse over to the chuckwagon and tied it to the tailgate.
The cattle thieves relaxed a bit more as the trailboss gave his orders to his men to set up camp as if nothing was wrong. Deciding there was no point in continuing to sit there on his horse. Zeke got off with a groan. His rear end was sure tired of sitting on a horse anyway. He was already thinking of the fine time he could have this winter livin’ in a town with a woman to warm his bed when he sold the herd. He grinned his snaggle-toothed smile at Handley and Forger again. Everything had gone just as he had planned. Nothing could have been simpler. “Yeah, cookie, I could use some coffee.” With everything going his way, Zeke let his guard down and with it the muzzle of his rife. The weapon was now pointed at the ground.
It was the moment Gil Favor was waiting for. Knowing that Wishbone usually kept a rifle in the rear of the chuckwagon as well as one behind the seat, he lunged at the one behind the tailgate. He was able to grasp it on the first try. He had it out, cocked and throwing hot lead at the outlaw Zeke Abner before the cow thief could realize what was happening. The big outlaw went down with a thud when the first bullet drove into his belly. The second caught him his right shoulder.
Wishbone knew that the trailboss was waiting for the right moment and as soon as Favor fired his first shot he had his pistol out and he was shooting at Handley. The man grabbed his arm and screamed as a bullet plowed through it.
Knowing that Favor would never give up the herd that easy, Rowdy had been ready, too. As Abner went down, so did Rowdy in a dive for his six-guns. He hit the ground and rolled coming up with the pistol and sent a wild shot toward Forger. The man’s hat went flying and his horse reared and began bucking. Forger didn’t last two jumps before he came out of the saddle, hitting the ground and getting the breath knocked out of him. Instantly Quince jumped on him to keep him from getting up and Scarlett ran in with a rope to tie him up with.
Not bothering to do more than glance at Abner, Handley, and Forger, the trailboss leaped onto his horse, kicked it into a run and was gone after the other cattle thieves. Rowdy, Pete Nolen and several others were right behind him.
Quince and Scarlett made short work of tying up Handley, but didn’t bother with Zeke Abner. The man sat on the ground where he had fallen, gripping his belly with blood leaking between his fingers. He kept whimpering about being gut shot. Minutes later as Wishbone tried to see if he could help, the man’s eyes began to glaze over then he fell on his side and shuttered out his last breath.
Cam Fletcher and Bobby Martin didn’t know what to think or do as they watched from the edge of the group of men. They had never seen a man die from a bullet before and they both felt sick to their stomachs. But they didn’t have time to think about it for long.
Wishbone looked up at the drovers around him. “Quince, Scarlett, Fletcher, and you rest. Grab some rifles out of the wagon and go after Mr. Favor and Rowdy. Their goin’ to need help catchin’ them other cow thieves. Mushy and me can take care of these two.” He gestured at Forger and Handley lying trussed up on the ground nearby. The men jumped at Wishbones words. Scarlett handed out rifles from the bed of the supply wagon to those who didn’t have one.
Gunshots could be heard as the men rode at a hard gallop toward the herd. Cam had never fired a gun at a man, but he, too, took a rifle and went with the drovers to help their trailboss. But by the time he and Bobby got to the rear of the herd, everything was under control. They paused for a second when they saw one man lying dead by the trail, his horse standing nearby. Soon they saw another rolling in pain where he had fallen after being shot. Then they had caught up with Rowdy and Pete, who had their guns pointed at three of the would-be-thieves who sat their horses with hands raised. A drover began tying their hands to their saddlehorns.
They all looked toward the west where they could hear the crack of gunfire. “Quince, take care of these three,” yelled Rowdy as he kicked his horse into a run. Pete and Scarlett followed. After a second, Cam did, too.
Minutes later they drew up at the sight of Gil Favor riding toward them. He led a horse with a body draped across the saddle. As they got closer they could see it was Ben Erwin, and that the man was dead.
As the men rode up beside him, the trailboss pulled up. They all sat there a moment giving a brief thought to the ordeals they had survived that day. A prairie fire, a stampede across a rain-swollen river, the theft of the herd by outlaws and now the death of several men to get the herd back. “Everyone all right?” asked Favor as he eyed his wet, dusty, sweaty, and very tired crew.
Rowdy was the first to answer. “Far as I know, no one from the crew was hurt. Just,” he pointed at Erwin, “him and another one dead and one hurt, besides Abner and the other two at the wagons.”
All the men shook their heads and muttered agreement with the ramrod. Then Quince spoke up. “Boss, I saw one steer down from being shot and another with a busted leg.”
“Figures,” said Favor. “All right. Quince, you go find them steers again, and put ‘em out of their misery, if need be. Martin, Smith, you go with Quince and give him a hand. Butcher out the best meat and take it to Wishbone. Rest of you men get busy roundin’ up these beeves and getting’ ‘em to water and good graze. As I said we’ll make camp where the wagons are.” He clucked to his horse, pulled on the reins of the one carrying the body of Ben Erwin and headed for the camp. As he left they all heard him say, “Ain’t nobody takes my herd away from me.”
All the drovers, including Gil Favor, thought that the rest of the drive to Abilene, Kansas went off without a hitch. Oh, there were a few problems. Like when Rowdy got into a fight with two local men over a girl in a saloon one evening when the trailboss let some of the hands go into town for a night off. And there was the time that those five steers got struck by lightning in that heck of a thunderstorm just as they crossed over from Oklahoma Territory into Kansas. Of course there were the usual cuts, bruises and broken bones, and a few fistfights between grumpy cowhands. And then there were the three farmers in Kansas that wanted to charge them for crossing their farms until the trailboss gave them some cows that were about to have calves anytime. Wishbone had explained to Cam and Bobby that the calves wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the drive and that it would have been really hard to get the cows to leave their calves behind.
What a relief it was to finally be getting the herd all the way to Abilene. All the men were getting really excited. The thought of selling the herd and being paid was on the mind of each and every drover as they held the herd outside of town while Gil Favor went in to town to talk to the buyers and find out what the going price was. The men could tell he was happy when he came back. He had a buyer with him and they quickly made a deal. The next day the buyer sent his men out to count the herd and take over. By late afternoon, he had paid the trailboss and Favor was paying off his cowhands.
All the men made a mad dash for the nearest saloon for a drink and then to the closest store for new clothes. That was followed by a hot bath at a nearby bathhouse and barbershop. When each and everyone was cleaned up and dressed in their new clothes, they started at one end of Abilene and proceeded to the other end, with a stop in each saloon as they went.
It was the first time that Cam Fletcher or Bobby Martin had ever been in so many saloons all in one day. As Cam followed Rowdy and Pete into yet another saloon, he considered just how many firsts he had encountered in the three and a half months since he had left his home in Texas. Considering the several beers he had also had, he soon decided it wasn’t worth trying to count at this time. He did know that now he had without a doubt earned the name of trail drover and was considered just one of the men instead of that “greenhorn kid” as he had been called at first. Now Cam had all the trapping of a true cowboy from his hat all the way down to his boots and spurs. He grinned a big grin at the thought of being a cowboy and knew that he would make the trail drive again next year.
“Hey, Cam. Quit your daydreamin’ and come on.” Rowdy Yates had a saloon girl on each arm as he called out to the young cowboy. “Let’s see if we can find you a couple of girls, too.”