Authors: Dan Arnold
As the afternoon stretched out, other riders brought in large and small bunches of cattle. The herd now swelled to more than a thousand head. Some of the cowboys from the other ranches pitched in to help hold the herd while others went on to the camp site.
As supper time approached, I rode around to each of our men to get an idea of who wanted to stay with the herd and who wanted to go back to camp.
“I’ll ride in with you, if that’s OK? My boys can stay with the herd and eat later. I need to check on the girls and I want to be at the meeting after supper.” Ace said.
“Sure, Ace. I should go find the Cross brothers and ask them what they want to do.”
“You’re the boss. You tell them what you want.”
“I want them with us in camp.”
“Well then let’s go fetch um. I’m ready to eat a thing.”
A short while later as we turned our horses in with the remuda, we noticed two things; the light hearted atmosphere in the camp and the smell of pinõn smoke, mixed with the savory odors of multiple meals prepared over the coals of the cook fires. Men were eating at the tables under the canopy, laughing and cutting up. Several cowboys were lined up to get food from the Rafter J cook fire. By the way they were sweeping their hats off and generally acting gallant; it was pretty obvious the food wasn’t the biggest attraction.
“Looks like we’ll need to bust a few damned heads.” Calvin Cross said.
“Easy does it boys. There’s no problem here. It’s only natural. Bees are drawn to flowers and those girls are as pretty as daisies. Besides, they could cook a skunk and make it taste like doughnuts and honey. Those fellas are doing their best to be charming and princely.”
“I reckon, but if one of them damned waddies gets out of line, I’ll fetch him, for sure.” Carl Cross said.
Everybody in camp watched us walk in. The friendly banter stopped for a moment, then resumed anew.
A sandy haired young man, with a freckled face, grinned as we approached. He looked to be about twenty and he was all cowboy.
“Hey, Mr. Johnson. I reckon this is the best grub at the roundup. I don’t understand how you stay trim. You should be fat as a prize hog. Do you always eat like this at your place?”
“Howdy, Buster. Sure do. I stay fit by working my backside off. You might want to give it a try.”
“Naw, not me. I was born lazy and I’m too stupid to change.”
Everybody laughed, including Buster.
Katie was shyly looking at Buster with some curiosity.
Since this was our cook fire, we got our plates and the girls loaded us up, as the other cowboys waited for whatever was left over. They didn’t mind waiting, it gave them some time to admire the girls, under the watchful glare of Ace and the four Cross brothers.
Ace looked over the growing knot of riders assembling around us. He shook his head and spoke up.
“Say now, there’s not much left but gristle and gravy. My sons will need to eat what’s here. I reckon some of you boys will have to fetch your grub from your own cook fires.”
The assembled men looked abashed, then grinned at each other. A couple of them nodded and turned away. After that, most of the others drifted away, too. Buster stayed though, relaxed and casual, like he was used to standing while he ate. He was hovering around Katie.
“Buster, go get us some seats at the table.” Ace said.
After saying thank you to the girls, Buster did as he’d been told.
“That boy seems mighty interested in Katie. Who is he?”
“…Buford Cavender. He’s about the best young bronc fighter and all around horseman in these parts. That’s why everybody calls him ‘Buster’. He breaks horses for everybody and anybody…goes from ranch to ranch.”
“He seems like a decent sort.”
“Umm hmm. All kidding aside, that boy is one of the hardest working young men I ever saw. Hell of a hand.”
As we found our seats, there were various nods and casual greetings all around.
I scanned the crowd. I saw a couple of familiar faces. Coltrane wasn’t among them. I found a seat next to Kermit Wilson, the owner of the Flying W.
“Mr. Wilson, I was hoping you could tell me who those men were that left with Mr. Coltrane, earlier.
“…Cattle buyers from Denver. You can call me Kermit, John.”
“Thanks. Why would somebody from Denver come here to buy cattle?”
“Denver’s growing fast. The demand for beef is causing prices to go up. They don’t want to pay to have cattle shipped in from Texas or wherever. Local stock is plentiful, available and priced right. They could buy several hundred head here, and have them driven down to Denver in two days. They have a packing plant down there. It was Jud’s idea to invite em. I reckon it’s a good deal for everybody.”
I nodded. It really was a good idea. If the price was right, it would benefit the cattle brokers who could sell beef in Denver, all winter, without having to have any shipped in. The local ranchers would have some ready cash, no shipping charges and less cattle to feed through the winter.
“Jud can probably sell a couple hundred head of steers and a couple dozen culls, old cows poor calves and what not. If what you say about having three hundred head is true, the Rocking M probably has at least a hundred head you could sell.”
“Our estimated nose count today came to about three hundred and twelve.”
“There you go. I’m told the Flying W has about two hundred head. That’s comes to about a thousand head between just our three ranches. The rest are in smaller bunches. The buyers could probably have nearly five hundred head, if they want that many.”
“I expect Coltrane is handling the deal, right?”
Kermit gave me a sharp look’
“Sure. He made the arrangements and he’s wining and dining the buyers at his own expense. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Can you trust him?”
Kermit seemed irritated. He made a face confirming it
“You think he’s making a little extra on the side? So what if he is? He’s done the work to set up the deal. I’m OK with that, how about you?”
“Have you asked the other ranchers how they feel about it?”
Kermit stood up. He leaned over and spoke quietly but firmly to me.
“If you don’t like the offer, you don’t have to sell. Nobody does.” He looked around at the men within ear shot. “Listen up, everybody! We’ll meet right here in thirty minutes. We need to choose a range boss and make plans for tomorrow. Thirty minutes. That’s all.” He turned and walked away.
I felt bad about annoying Kermit. I needed to make friends, not enemies. What he hadn’t considered was, before I showed up, Coltrane had been planning to sell Rocking M cattle. He might’ve sold off the whole herd, at one hundred percent pure profit. Now that I was here, representing the Rocking M, it had cost Coltrane a few thousand dollars and would cause untold trouble. He wasn’t the kind of man to let anything slide. He’d been crossed and he would do something about it. Kermit Wilson didn’t know my riding for the brand had lit the fuse to a powder keg.
I couldn’t see the Cross brothers anywhere at the table. When I walked back to the wagon, I found Curt Cross sitting on a bucket watching the girls doing the cleanup chores.
“Where are your brothers?”
“We drew straws to see who’d look out for the girls, till their brothers come in, and I lost. It ain’t too bad though.”
It dawned on me the Cross brothers hadn’t had a drink all day.
“Are they over at your camp?”
“Thanks, Curt. I’ll head over there.”
“I’ll be along directly, myself. Save me a swig.” He winked.
I found the Cross brothers sitting around their fire, passing a bottle.
“Hello the camp, can I come in?”
“Hell yes, if’n you brought your own booze.” Carl sneered.
“Nope, I think I’ve taken the cure. I just wanted to know if y’all are going to come to the meeting.”
“We ain’t much for meetings. This here’s our meeting, but you’re welcome to join us.”
“They’re going to divvy up the chores. I just need to know what you boys want to do. If you’re good at roping, sorting, branding or whatever, What do you do best?”
The bearded men looked around at each other. Ken spoke up.
“We’re good at making shine.” He belched. They all laughed.
“I know that’s right. Seriously though, we’ve got a job of work to do over the next couple of days. Where do you want me to put you?”
Carl winked at his brothers.” I reckon the branding fire is good. We’re good with the irons.”
His comment suggested they had some experience altering brands with a running iron, a common practice among rustlers. I didn’t much like what he was suggesting, but it wasn’t my problem. Besides, maybe it was just the whisky talking.
“Figure on it then. We’ll get started at first light. We’ll need at least three fires-one for each of the bigger outfits. Some of the cowboys will rope the calves and mavericks and drag em to the edge, where you’ll slap iron to em, and somebody will cut the bull calves.”
“Damn. I’m sure looking forward to them oysters.” Ken said.
“Ken looked at me like I was crazy. “What, you never et no Rocky Mountain oysters?”
“Oh, sure, I get it. In Texas we called em calf fries.”
“Call em what you like, bull calves nuts is some damned good eating. Who’ll do the cutting?”
“I don’t have any idea. Somebody who’s good at, I expect. We can’t afford any greenhorn mistakes.”
“Yep, like accidently slapping the wrong brand on a critter.” They all laughed at that idea, as though it were a private joke.
“Whoever ropes the calf will bring it to the right fire, and tell you what outfit it belongs to.”
“And we’re just supposed to trust em?”
“We’re all working together on this. Each outfit is represented. We each have a tally, and the range boss will work to see everything gets done fairly. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Won’t be a problem, so long as we get all our stock counted right.” Calvin Cross said.
I could tell the liquor was having its intended effect. He was moody and slurring his words.
“I’ll make sure of it. If there’s a problem, you can take it up with me. I’ll see you boys at first light.”
I took the opportunity to walk away before the conversation turned ugly.
The assembled cowboys chose Ed Baxter as the range boss. It came as no surprise. All the locals knew him and he’d proven his ability in previous roundups, earning the trust of every man in attendance—except me. Still, I had no objection and I couldn’t think of anyone better qualified.
He first assigned the skilled jobs to men who had proven ability.
“Buster, you’re the wrangler in charge of the remuda. Hank, I reckon you, Luke, Jeff and Dennis are the best ropers among us. You boys’ll be busy. I’m told the branding will be handled by the Cross brothers. That’s fine with me. Anybody got an objection? Ace, you, Scott, and Glen will do the castrating. Justin, you have a fine cuttin’ horse. Pick two or three fellas with good horses to help you sort and move mamma cows and calves to where the ropers can do their work. John, I want you to help me manage the count. Right now, I need volunteers for nighthawks.”
Several cowboys raised their hands, including all three of Ace’s sons. Ace didn’t like it. I could tell by his frown when they volunteered, but he couldn’t interfere. It left just him and me to watch the girls at night.
“The rest of you will hold the herd and pitch in as needed. I want the youngsters to stay clear of the action. You older boys can help keep the branding fires hot, otherwise—stay out of the way. This work ain’t easy and it’s dangerous. If we all pitch in and stay alert, we won’t have any trouble we can’t handle. Any questions? No? Alright, that’s it then. We start at first light.”
As the meeting broke up I found Ed Baxter and asked if I could have a private word with him.
“…Something on your mind, John?”
“I was just surprised you asked me to help you with the tally.”
“Why, you can count, can’t you?”
“Sure, I just figured…”
“Everybody gets a fair count. Everybody. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Of course not.”
“Here, take this notebook and pencil. Write the name of the ranch or brand. Make a mark for every cow or steer we count with a particular brand. Do the same for the calves as they get branded. We’ll tally it all up at the end and compare notes. We should be pretty close—if not exactly the same.”
“Fair enough. I just wanted to say thanks for including me.”
“”We all do what we can. You do your job and I’ll do mine.” He turned and walked off into the night.
I scratched at my chin, feeling the beard stubble. Ed Baxter was as unknown and unpredictable as a wild range bull. He seemed honest and fair, but he worked for a man who was just the opposite. Where would Ed Baxter stand, when it came down to it?
Back at the cook fire, I discovered Ace and the girls had rolled out my bedroll, next to Ace’s, under the wagon. The girls had their bedrolls made up in the wagon under the cover of the tarp. It afforded them some privacy and if it rained we should all stay reasonably dry.
Ace and Buster were sitting by the fire with the girls, drinking coffee.
“You girls go on to bed, now. Dawn comes mighty early and we’ll want hot coffee with bacon and biscuits before we get to work. Give me a kiss and say good night to these gentlemen.” Ace said.
I couldn’t help noticing Buster and Katie had been showing signs of mutual attraction, smiling and exchanging glances and the occasional brief words. If Ace saw it, he made no comment.
As soon as the girls left us, I decided to mention the pending conflict with the horses.
“Buster, including my buckskin, the Rocking M has five horses in the remuda. The thing is; Bar C Bar cowboys rode four of them here. It seems Jud Coltrane figured on adding them to his cavvy. I expect to use our own stock without any interference from the Bar C Bar crowd. You being the wrangler, it might put you in a pickle. How do you want to handle it?”
In the warm light of the campfire the young man looked thoughtful for a moment.
“It won’t be a problem. I’m the wrangler. I tend the herd, doctor injuries, and make sure none of the horses gets overused. I assign horses as I see fit. If a horse carries a Rocking M brand, it goes to a Rocking M rider. I’ll see to it. End of story.”
“I hope it goes that smoothly.”
“Like I say, I’m the wrangler. It’s my saddle on this bronc, it’s mine to ride. I figure I’ll get it done. You folks have a good night. I’m gonna make sure none of the nighthawks gets the wrong mount. See you in the morning.”
Sipping his coffee, Ace watched this exchange without expression. When Buster was out of earshot, I turned to ask him a question.
“What do you think?”
Ace shrugged and stood up, brushing the dust off his clothes.
“I reckon I’m ready to get some shut eye,”
“Do you think Buster can handle it?”
Ace stared into the fire for a moment, a crooked smile forming on his face.
“I expect so. That boy has sand.”