Authors: Dan Arnold
The Cross brothers rode off to set up camp.
“John I don’t want those men hanging around my daughters.” Ace said. “I’ve seen the way they look at em, especially Katie. If they start drinking…”
We’d returned to where his sons were holding our horses.
“Can’t be avoided, Ace. As long as your girls are here cooking and looking after our camp, they’ll be meeting and talking to every cowboy on the range. If it worries you, send them home. We’ll make do.”
“No, no. Most of the cowboys will treat the girls like the young ladies they are. When the roundup’s over, I expect more’n one will be showing up at my place to court Katie. But those Cross men are another story. I don’t trust em.”
“You don’t trust them, or you don’t trust your girls around them?”
Ace gave me a sharp look.
“Between the two of us and your sons, I reckon we can keep an eye on things. If it becomes a problem, we’ll deal with it.”
“I reckon so. It’ll be an interesting experience for the girls. I just don’t want no trouble comin’ from it.”
“You had to know bringing young ladies to a roundup would be cause for some excitement. One way or another, I figure we’ll have all the trouble we can handle. Listen, I’m going to ride out and have another word with Coltrane’s foreman. I want to learn what the plan is for tomorrow.”
“Should be the same way we always do. Tonight, after supper, there’ll be a meeting of the ranchers or the men representing the ranches. We’ll elect a range boss. He’ll tell us how he wants us to divide up the work. We’ll have a crew holding the herd, another crew to sort and separate the cows with calves. Some of the hands will do the roping. Others will do the branding and castrating. We generally start right after breakfast. Course we’ll need riders to take turns on night hawk. By supper time tonight, near every critter on the range will be here.”
“What do we do between now and then?”
“It’s more important than ever that we get an accurate nose count of your beef. I should say, the Rocking M cattle. Tomorrow there’ll be an official tally, but by supper time tonight, you need to know roughly how many head you have here. That way we can make a case against any funny counting tomorrow. I expect everybody’s doin’ the same.”
“Makes good sense to me, I’ll get started.” I said.
“Hold on, John. Can I make a suggestion?”
“Sure, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing, Ace. You know the way things work on this range.”
Ace crossed his arms.
“Here’s the thing. On this roundup, me, my boys, and the Cross brothers are riding for the Rocking M. That means we work for you.”
“Well, the Cross brothers don’t really ride for the Rocking M. They’ve just kind of thrown in with us. Besides, what am I supposed to do?”
“You’re the head man for the Rocking M. That makes you the foreman, John. You tell us what to do. I reckon you should send us to do the nose count and spell some of them holding the herd. This afternoon if you want to ride herd, you can. If you want to hang around here and meet the other outfits as they come in, do that. You’re the boss. It’s up to you.”
I thought it over. He was right and it was time I accepted the responsibility.
“OK. Here’s what we’ll do. As soon as lunch is ready, we’ll eat. Then, you and the others should figure on riding out to spell some of the drovers on the herd, so they can come in and eat. I’ll ride along so I can meet some of those men. We’ll get a nose count while we’re at it. Between now and then, send your boys out to tell those men we’ll be taking over for them in an hour or so. I want you with me when I talk to the Cross brothers. I mean to do that, right now.”
“That’s a good plan.” Ace said. He looked at his sons who were standing there watching us. “You heard the man. Mount up and get to work.”
As we walked toward the Cross camp, I glanced at Ace.
“You said something about the other outfits coming in. We know the Flying W is represented. So is the Bar C Bar, the Rocking M, Rafter J, and the Box Cross. I didn’t get to meet those two gentlemen who are following along in Coltrane’s shadow. Who are they?”
“I don’t know. I expect Kermit could tell us.”
“What other outfits are missing?”
“It ain’t that anybody’s missing, exactly. I think the ranches are all represented. Most of the owners are here, but a lot of the cattle are still being rounded up. There’ll be at least a couple hundred more head along with a bunch of horses coming in this afternoon, more cowboys, too.”
I had a thought, so I changed direction.
“Where we going?” Ace asked.
“I want to have a look at the remuda. There may be some Rocking M horses in the bunch.”
“Should be. We didn’t see any in our gather, but most of the Bar C Bar riders are already here. Except for the foals and young stock, all of Murphy’s horses were well broke. Not a bronc or jug head among um, and Murphy knew good horseflesh when he saw it. Those Bar C Bar waddies like Rocking M horses. I reckon Coltrane figures they’re his now. If you hadn’t shown up, I reckon he’d have changed the brands.”
“How many head did Murphy have?”
“At last count, four cow ponies, six brood mares, four two year olds, and five foals. Those were the saddle stock. He also had two big Belgians. Those were the work horses.”
“So, twenty one head. When was the last count?”
“The Spring roundup.”
Looking over the remuda, two of the fourteen horses in the rope corral wore the Rocking M brand, including one brown horse with a bald face. I wondered if his name might be Shongaloo. Only two Rocking M saddle horses present in the remuda suggested the other two cow ponies were probably under saddle somewhere. Maybe holding the herd, the rest were missing.
“Do they hold the range horses with the cattle during the roundup?”
“Not the breeding stock. They’d leave them on the range or corral um at home. ”
I gave that some thought as we walked over to the Cross camp.
When we reached the place in the trees where the Cross brothers had made their camp, we found all four of them standing together, talking. They gave us the stink eye as we walked up.
“Howdy, boys, I sure am glad you decided to join us.” I said, offering my hand to shake.
“Howdy, your own self. Who says we’re joining anybody?”
I was a little taken aback by their attitude.
“What John means is he was hoping you’d help us with the Rocking M herd. He’ll have about three hundred head. Me and mine are helping him out. What do you say?”
“Hell no. We just come to make sure nobody slapped the wrong brand on any of our cattle. I reckon we have a hundred head ourselves.” Curt said.
“Now, Curt, you boys know you didn’t have but about thirty head at the Spring roundup. Half of them were steers. Did you eat any of them? You may have another eight or ten calves on the ground now, so your count will be more like forty head, tops. Not a hundred.”
“We ain’t got much of a handle on numbers. We’ll take what’s ours. Aint nobody gonna stop us, neither.”
I watched this exchange and figured I knew what the problem was.
“I’ll tell you what. You help us with our herd and we’ll help you with yours. I figure you should get something for your troubles. How bout I let you have half a dozen of the Rocking M calves?”
“How many’s that?” Carl asked.
“Six, Carl. You can have three Rocking M heifers and three bull calves or steers. You put your brand on them and they’re yours.”
“They’d have to be weanlings. We ain’t got time to play nurse maid to no calves.” Curt said.
“Fair enough. Six weanlings, and you get to pick em.”
Ken was working it out on his fingers, as Curt and the others watched him. After a moment he nodded. “Damn, that’s a good deal.” he said.
“You bet. So, will you throw in with us?” Ace asked.
The four Cross brothers looked back and forth. After a moment Curt spoke for all of them.
“I reckon so.” he said.
“There’s something else that’ll sweeten the deal. You boys can come and eat at our fire.” Ace said.
“We brung our own grub.” Calvin said.
“That’s fine. I just want you to know you’re welcome to my daughter’s cooking.”
The bearded men’s faces were transformed by the thought.
“They’ll have lunch ready any time now, if you’re interested. Just one thing, I’ll expect you to mind your manners around my daughters.”
The Cross brothers stiffened a bit.
I decided to redirect the conversation.
“Here’s the thing, boys, Ace is worried some wild cowboy will take a notion to say or do something bad to one of those girls. I’d sure appreciate it if you boys would help Ace protect his daughters.
Ace understood my thinking.
“My oldest daughter Katie is only sixteen. The other two are younger. They haven’t been away from their momma’s apron strings much.”
The four men regarded him with somewhat less offended looks.
“Why sure, Ace. We’ll watch out for um. Only, we never did know much about manners and such.” Curt said.
“Do the best you can, then. Thank you. Mostly just try not to cuss in front of um.”
“Why hell, Ace, we wouldn’t do nothin’ like that.” Curt said.
Ace and I looked at each other for a moment, trying not to laugh.
“One other thing, boys. John is the foreman of the Rocking M. We take our orders from him. What he says goes. That OK with you?”
The brothers looked at each other, then back at me.
“Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll ride for the brand, but we ain’t much for taking orders.” Curt said.
“That’s capital, simply capital! As for taking orders, we’ll all work together. I don’t intend to boss you around.”
We shook hands on it.
Lunch passed without incident. The girls served up cold ham sandwiches and hot potato soup.
The Cross brothers tended to stare at Ace’s oldest daughter, Katie, a little more than might be considered proper, but she was shaping up to be a stunner. She just ignored their stares. Ace was watchful but otherwise seemed unconcerned.
We ate quickly, thanked the ladies and mounted up to tend the herd.
The Rocking M now boasted nine riders. This was an impressive number for the size of the ranch. Of course there were really three ranches represented, but in the ways that mattered we were one. The other ranches would see us as one outfit working the roundup. I was thankful to have these men with me. I was mindful that just a few days before, I’d ridden into this country all alone.
As we approached the edge of the herd, Ed Baxter trotted over to meet us.
“Here comes that bastard, Baxter,” Curt Cross said. “Coltrane’s lap dog.”
“Easy, Curt, I’m none too fond of him myself, but we all need to get along. At least till the roundup’s over.” Ace said.
“Then what? I reckon he’ll go back to tearin’ down your fences.” Ken Cross said
“There’s been no trouble, lately. Let’s keep it that way.” I said quietly.
I called out to the Bar C Bar rider, as he reined in. “Howdy, Ed. we’ve come out to help hold the herd. You and your boys can go on in and grab something to eat
Ed Baxter looked us over. Evidently, seeing the nine of us in a group puzzled him.
“Appreciate that. You men all riding together?”
“Yep, we ride for the Rocking M. You got a problem with that?” Curt asked.
“No problem. Who’s in charge?”
Ace glanced my way.
“I am.” I said.
Ed Baxter rubbed his face with a gloved hand. It was evident he was not happy with the news.
“OK, John. Have your men spread out and relieve one rider at a time. It doesn’t matter what outfit they’re with. Just hold your part of the herd, keep em bunched, but don’t rile em. They’re pretty quiet now, but there’ll be a few hundred head coming in. They’ll need to be eased in with the rest. Can you handle it?”
“We’ve got it.” I said.
“OK. We’ll meet up after supper to pick the range boss. I expect I’ll see you at supper time. By then, there’ll be some other riders to hold the herd.”
He raised a hand in farewell as he trotted off toward the camp.
“Well, boys, you heard the man. Spread out and relieve one man at a time. I’m going to hang back to meet the riders coming in. I’ll be around if you need me.” I said.
Without saying another word the Johnsons and the Cross brothers turned their horses and split up.
I rode a little way back toward the camp to a high spot where I could watch the herd and meet the riders coming in for lunch.
The third rider quitting the herd was mounted on a Rocking M horse. I’m in the habit of holding my reins in my left hand. He wasn’t. I stopped him and introduced myself.
“Howdy. My name’s John. I’m the foreman for the Rocking M. You’re sitting on one of our mounts. When you get to the camp, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d unsaddle him and turn him out in the remuda. You can pick a Bar C Bar horse to ride.”
“I don’t believe I will. I don’t take orders from strangers. Who the hell do you think you are?”
I swung Dusty in front of him.
“It doesn’t matter who I am. I asked you kindly. You seem to be on the prod. If you want to make a fight, do it now.”
He was thinking about it, but he was holding his reins in his right hand, his gun hand. When he started to change hands on the reins, I leveled my Colt at him. He was smart enough to freeze.
“What’s it going to be?” I asked.
“Mister, you swing a mighty wide loop. You don’t know what a shit storm you just started. When I come back out here, I’ll still be on this horse and I’ll have more men with me. Then we’ll see what’s what.”
“Nope. You won’t be on that horse, because you’re going to step off him, right now.” I cocked the Colt. I didn’t intend to shoot him, mostly because he was unarmed and he wouldn’t have a chance, even if he reached for his gun. Also, gunfire might spook the herd. But looking into the barrel of my Colt, he didn’t know my thoughts.
He looked a little pale, knowing he couldn’t win. He stepped down, taking care not to let his hand get near his gun.
“That’s good. Now drop the reins. While you’re dropping things, pull that pistol and drop it in the saddle bag there. Easy now, I’d hate to shoot you by accident.”
The man did as directed.
“Ok, start walking. I’ll follow along just to make sure you make it back safely.”
As he set off on foot, I eased Dusty up next to the Rocking M horse, scooped up the reins and followed the man back toward the camp. I almost felt sorry for him. A cowboy hates to be set afoot and this fellow would be walking into camp in disgrace.
I was worried about what kind of reception we’d get at the camp site, so I decided to try avoiding the drama.
“Hold up for a minute. I want a word with you.”
He stopped walking and turned around to look at me.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“You ride for the Bar C Bar?”
Well, Mr. Partridge, I ran into a couple of other Bar C Bar cowboys, riding Rocking M horses, a few days ago. I told them I wanted to see a bill of sale. Did you hear about that?”
“I’m not trying to pick a fight. This horse is a Rocking M mount. You don’t own it and neither does your boss. We’re going to need all our horses to work the roundup. I told you, I’m the foreman for the Rocking M. What would you do if you were me?”
He squinted for a moment and scuffed the ground with his right boot. He considered giving me a wise crack answer, but thought better of it.
“I reckon I’d do the same as you.”
“Well then, I’ll ask again, Gabe. Will you please take this horse and turn it out in the remuda? Put your tack on a Bar C Bar horse and we’ll be square. I’ve got no gripe with you.”
It only took him a moment to make up his mind.
“I reckon so.”
“I sure appreciate it. Here, take this horse to the remuda, then go get you some lunch.” I handed him the reins. “I expect I’ll see you around.”
He nodded a silent answer.
I turned Dusty and trotted back the way we’d come.