“You,” a voice called to me, “you ever been on a trail drive before?”
I whirred around to see who it was addressing me. A big dusty fellow advanced upon me, slapping the dirt from his thighs. He came up to the bar and stood beside me.
“Yeah, ever been on one? We could use some men. Beer,” he said, addressing the barkeep. As he drank, I wondered what made him proposition me. It may have been that he saw the shot of whiskey I just downed, and pure liquid fire it was, straight down the length of my gullet. Here I was, just despairing how the hell I’d pay my way back (back where, anyhow?) and fate walks right through the door. It’s a job, ‘aint it? And I sure needed one.
“Sure, mister, one or two I reckon,” I replied, casually.
“Oh yeah?” He raised an eyebrow a mite quizzical. Two was pushing it maybe. I was nearly eighteen, but didn’t look a day over thirteen. Us Williamsons aged something slow. He probably took me for some kind of greenhorn who’d come cheap. “Who with?”
Now, since I had spent sometime hanging around town, I heard some names bandied about, several being the names of trail bosses that had passed through. Of course, they were int’spersed with the names of many other men not related to the cattle business in any way, so I had to hope the one I plucked from my memory was one of the bosses.
“The Grainger outfit.”
“I heard he was a hard man to work for.”
“You can get used to anything, mister, is what I’ve found.”
“Ok,” he said banging his glass on the bar, sucking the foam from his mustache. “We’re heading out at 7 am tomorrow. We’ll feed ya, give ya a horse and saddle if’n you need one, that is. It’s a dollar a day for about five months work. You git yer pay at the end of it. Meet us out front there at the appointed hour if yer interested.” With that, he turned to leave. Once at the swinging doors, he stopped and turned. “Oh, and we don’t want no whiners.” he said, and took off.
So it looked like I had myself a job.
At 7 am, I was there, with twenty or so other fellas young and old, waiting to be assigned to positions on the drive.
“You’ll ride drag,” declared the trail boss.
“Yes, sir.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t hesitate to act like I did. Trying my best to blend in, I reared up my horse to follow a group of the men heading to the front of the enormous line of cattle.
“Hey, idiot! That means the back. You’re with us,” shouted one of the fellas holding up the rear, as he placed his kerchief over his nose and mouth.
“I knew that,” I stammered, doing the same with my own kerchief, never really stopping to think why in my haste to look natural. I found out just as soon as we started pushing the herd out. Those cows do kick up that dust something fierce! And the smell didn’t improve the situation much. It was starting to dawn on me why this job was so easy to obtain . . .
I decided I’d stick close to the old-timers, as they were a wealth of information. I was fortunate to get on well with the man riding point, known by the name of Jake. He was the fella that recruited me, and essentially the third in command of the drive. In spare moments, he took to teaching me how to rope the steers and ways to keep them calm. The other fellas mostly got a kick out of the power they could wield over a beeve. They weren’t smart animals. But Jake, he had a different approach. He got into their heads, almost. Like he was communicatin’ with ‘em.
When the weather was fine, and the beeves agreeable, you could just sit in your saddle and watch the landscape go by. It was mighty pretty country out here. Even if it was Indian territory. We didn’t get much trouble from them, though. On one occasion, one came right up to the herd, seeking to trade. We gave him a cow for few dollars. The trail boss could be compassionate that way. Not so much with us.
On good nights, you could see just about every star there ever was, and with our saddles as pillows, and saddle blankets as, well, blankets, cold, hard ground can seem mighty comfy.
Course, the weather wasn’t always so fine. The rain started comin’ down in buckets a few days into the drive. And then came the thunder. Just about anything could spook the herd, I learned, and stampedes were common and seemingly random. In the middle of a wet, windy night, we’d be tracking down beeves that gone done run off. We could barely see a foot in front of us, so you can imagine what a time we had finding the crazed beasts. By the morning, we were drenched and practically asleep in the saddle with no break, but to keep on pushin’ ‘em on north to Kansas. I think I mentioned how the boss man could be hard on us.
Chow time came usually at sundown, and was nothin’ to speak of, really. The biscuits were something wondrous, though. I’ll never know what our cook put in ‘em to make ‘em so tasty.
Time drags on when you’re riding so slow and for so long. The younger ones seemed to get more irritable than the old-timers as the drive wore on. I guess those old-timers were so used to it, they didn’t mind it much anymore. Fights were common as we neared the border, and could be over just about anything. You could always sense the moment it was to begin; the air grew tense, like the moment a twig snaps and a stroll through the woods suddenly becomes a pursuit.
One night it was between Jake and a smaller fellow, Elmer, squaring off. They circled round the way two animals might, sizing each other up before the lunge, fixing clearly for a fight. Finally, they started backing away from each other, hands lowered over their pistols. We all watched, breathless. All I could do was pray that Jake didn’t get himself killed.
We had come to know of Elmer’s quickness on the draw, possibly why he was so apt to settlin’ disputes in this way. Jake was takin’ an awful big risk, and he musta knowed it. He was riding point after all, and he had to show the men who was boss.
They stood there, tense, staring each other down for what seemed like an eternity. All was still; even the wind seemed to die down some. Nature itself had come to watch, for here was the eminent death of at least one man, no tellin’ who. As if Nature would care about one man. But at this particular moment, it seemed like it the only thing going on on this Earth, and nothing could continue, not even breathing, until it was all done and over with.
At last, a shot rang out, followed by another in quick succession. I can only recall that the first shot came from Elmer’s direction, but I couldn’t tell who drew first. It happened too fast.
I flew to Jake’s side; he was down on the ground, his chest was covered in blood. Elmer had won the draw. “He’s dead!” someone called out, but he was still moving, groaning, his eyes closed. “No, he’s still alive,” I exclaimed, but then I realized they were referring to Elmer. Most of the men had crowded over to his side and were standing around the body of the quickest draw on the drive. For Elmer had won the draw, but lost the duel.
Jake was fine, it turned out. Got it just in the arm. He had to wear a sling the rest of the way, which wasn’t much longer, by the merciful heavens. By the time we reached Abilene, Kansas to sell off the herd, I was trail-weary, and looking forward to some decent cooking and a soft bed.
Jake came up to me as the rest of the crew sped wildly off to spend their new wages.
“You done good, son. Can we count on you come next season?”
“You sure can, sir,” I replied, without having to think it through.
“Good. And call me Jake,” he said and rode off.