Authors: Dan Arnold
Morning found us up and getting organized while the stars were still bright in the sky. I awakened feeling oddly refreshed and, though a bit stiff, well rested. There’s something about being exhausted that makes sleeping on the ground under a wagon downright enjoyable. I realized I hadn’t had a nightmare since I rode into this Buttercup country. I thanked God for that. I was missing Lora and the children something awful, but took comfort knowing I was doing what needed to be done.
As the eastern horizon started to grow lighter, the girls had hot coffee and victuals ready for us. It was especially nice, since there was a significant chill to the early morning air.
“Frosty this mornin’.” Ace said. “Glad we’ve about got all our hay put up. Be winter before you know it and there’s too many cattle on this range. It’s time to cull and sell off some of the stock.”
“You aren’t the only one thinking it. It just so happens, Jud Coltrane has a plan. Those two men who left with him are cattle buyers from Denver. He’s already made some sort of deal with them.” I said.
“Good. He’s the reason there’s too many cattle anyways. I reckon he’s smart enough to see that.”
“He’s smart, but he figured on selling off the Rocking M herd. His profit margin went up in smoke when I showed up.”
Ace gave me a concerned look and said, “That’s some serious money. He’s not a man who likes to be crossed. You’d better watch your back.”
I didn’t answer, because right then the Cross brothers showed up for breakfast. They were a pretty bedraggled looking bunch, but no worse than usual. They grunted in reply or ignored our early morning greetings, grabbing plates and loading up without so much as a thank you to the girls. They snatched up one of the coffee pots for their own personal use.
Right behind them, the boys who’d been riding nighthawk dragged in. They were clearly tired, but also held themselves with the kind of dignity that comes with having done a grown man’s work and done it well.
I saw some pride on Ace’s face as he greeted them.
“I reckon you boys’ll want to catch some shut eye, but we’ll need all hands if we want to get everything done today. You can sleep tonight.”
“Hey, Pa, is there gonna be a party tonight?” Jimmy Johnson asked.
“Not exactly, but if the weather holds, the women folk will come on out. We’ll have some music and what not.”
“So, we’ll be done this evening?” I asked.
“…Maybe before suppertime. There’s three or four hundred head to be branded and cut. Three branding fires slapping brands on three critters every few minutes, that’ll be fifty or sixty head per hour, between the three fires.” Ace said.
“That’s fast work, and some fancy calculating on your part.”
“Yep, and it includes cutting the bull calves and trading out tired horses. Won’t be no time for lolly gaggin’ or day dreamin’, though.” He directed that last comment at his boys. All three of them looked like they were ready to fall asleep on their feet.
“What happens to the herd after all the work is done?”
“Usually, we just let em go. Might be different this time on account of sortin’ out the cattle we’re gonna sell.”
“I’ll want to cut the Rocking M stock out of the bigger herd.” I said.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. We’re sorting and gathering a bunch for sale anyways. Work out the details with the range boss.”
I found Ed Baxter outside the makeshift horse pen. Buster was pointing out horses to riders from the various outfits, who would then throw a loop over the head of their first mount for the morning.
My conversation with the range boss was much easier than I’d expected. He listened to my plans and nodded.
“That’s fine. I’m figuring on holding the herd overnight. At the stockyard in Buttercup, there’s good pens that’ll hold three hundred head or more. Tomorrow morning, we’ll all pitch in to sort out the cattle we’re gonna sell, and then my outfit will drive the sale stock over to the holding pens. If you’re planning to separate your herd from the rest, that’ll be a good time to do it. Everybody will help you sort and gather your herd, and then you and your crew can drive them on to the Rocking M.” Ed Baxter said.
I was surprised he was so agreeable.
“Are you sure it’s not a problem? Your boss seems to think I’ve got no claim to the Rocking M stock.”
“That’s between you and him. I’m the range boss. I make the decisions about how we handle the roundup. That includes how the stock gets sorted.”
“He might not see it that way.”
“Then that’ll be between him and me.”
“I figured you wouldn’t want to get crossways with him.”
“I don’t and I won’t. Mr. Coltrane can tell me what he wants me to do with the Bar C Bar cattle, and I’ll do it. He doesn’t get to tell me what to do with the roundup.”
It seemed to me Ed Baxter was riding a mighty narrow and dangerous trail. I figured from his perspective it was the only way to manage the situation.
“Alright, it’s fine by me. I appreciate the help.” I said.
“It’s how we always do. It’s the same for everybody.”
“OK, thanks.” I said, starting to turn away.
“Just one thing, though.”
I turned back to face him.
“When the roundup’s over, I ride for the Bar C Bar.”
“And your point is…?”
“I do what Mr. Coltrane tells me. I expect he’s got plans for you. You know what I’m saying?”
I met his gaze.
“Like you said, that’s between him and me.”
“Just so you know. I ride for the brand.”
“Then, just so you know. When the roundup’s over, I’ve got plans of my own for him. You don’t want to get between us.”
“Don’t want to, but it might go that way.”
“It’s a free country. You do what you have to. I’ll do the same.”
“I reckon so.” He said, “Just so you know.”
I hadn’t seen Jud Coltrane since the first meeting at the start of the roundup. I hadn’t seen Snake or his big ugly partner either. It had me guessing. Why were they staying away from the roundup? Were they just waiting to catch me alone at the Rocking M? That would be the way Coltrane would want to do it. He liked to have other men do his fighting for him, and he was patient enough to wait till the circumstances favored him.
I was too busy to worry about it. The morning flew by. I’d counted four hundred and ninety eight head by eleven o’clock. Two hundred and seventeen of those were calves, roped and dragged away from their mamas, to be branded and returned. More than half of those were bull calves to be castrated at the branding fire. Many of the cattle to be sold now sported a big blob of white paint. That would make sorting them out much easier the next day. Things were going as smoothly as could be hoped.
When I’d stepped into the rope corral to get a horse, Buster told me my horse Dusty was too tired and a little bit saddle sore. He needed to rest up. Buster pointed to the brown horse with the white face and a Rocking M brand. I stepped up to him with my rope in hand and eased a loop over his head. He didn’t even flinch.
“Hello, Shangaloo,” I said. “You ready to go home to the Rocking M?”
The horse didn’t answer, but he seemed agreeable. In short order we came to be friends. He impressed me as being wholly reliable and very well broke. I’d been on him for about five hours, when Ed Baxter rode over and asked me what my count was.
I checked my figures in the notebook he’d given me.
“I show four hundred and ninety eight head, so far. Two hundred and seventy one Bar C Bar, one hundred and thirty two Rocking M, sixty seven Flying W, seventeen Corkscrew and 10 Box cross. What do you reckon?”
The range boss looked at his notebook, his lips moving as he counted silently. He looked up and nodded.
“I reckon that’s right. We’re making good time, too. ”
“That calf over there is still bleeding.”
“Not much we can do about it. If we lose him, we lose him.”
“He’s one of your steers, freshly branded.”
“Yep, we may all lose one or two before it’s over. Broken necks, legs or what not, goes with the territory. I hope we get finished before the storm hits.”
Clouds had been building and it was getting dark to the west, the mountains now hidden in the gathering gloom.
“I don’t think so. It looks like it’ll be here in an hour or so.”
Ed studied the signs for a moment, listening to the distant thunder.
“I expect you’re right, let’s take a quick lunch break. I want everyone mounted and ready to help hold the herd when the storm hits. If there aint too much lightning, we’ll be alright. We shouldn’t lose much time in the rain. I remember one spring it rained so hard it put out the branding fires. Let’s spread the word and get ready.”
When the storm did hit, it came with crackling lightening, strong howling winds and a wall of cold rain. The first of it was the worst of it. The herd became agitated and would have scattered if we weren’t all there to hold it. This was another example of why Ed Baxter was a good choice for range boss. He knew what needed to be done and made it happen. After about fifteen minutes, the lightening moved on and it settled into a steady rain.
“Alright, let’s get back to work. I sure hope those boys were feeding the fires.” Ed said.
It turned out they’d done their job. The branding fires were plenty hot. Within thirty minutes of the storm hitting, we were back in the rhythm of sorting, roping and branding. Although the muddy conditions made the work harder and more dangerous for both the horses and the men on the ground, the rain barely slowed us.
The storm ended a couple of hours later. As the sun broke through the clouds, we were treated to a double rainbow.
A sudden commotion on the far side, near the middle of the herd, drew everyone’s attention for a moment. I figured one of the sorters was having some problem with a mama cow or something. Some cows can be dangerously protective of their calves. Sometimes they have to be roped by two men so the calf can be roped and taken to the branding fires.
As a freshly branded calf scrambled up and ran back to his mama, I marked two more Rocking M cattle in the book.
A rider galloped toward us from the herd. As he slid to a stop, he called for Ace, who had just finished cutting a bull calf.
“What’s wrong, Gabe?” He asked, wiping his bloody hands on the calf’s flank.
“It’s Jimmy, Mr. Johnson. Here, take my horse. You’d better hurry.”
Ace took the reins from the rider’s outstretched hand and leaped into the saddle. As he galloped away from the branding fire, I fell in beside him on Shangaloo, looking toward the herd for the cause of the emergency.
On the other side of the herd a knot of riders was assembling, others were moving cattle away from the spot. We neared the edge of the herd, slowing to work our way through without creating any more disturbance than necessary.
We pulled up where the knot of mounted men sat with bowed heads.
“Oh God, Jimmy!” Ace cried, jumping off the horse.
Jimmy Johnsons’s broken and sodden body lay trampled into the mud and manure. Two men knelt beside him. One of the men was Ed Baxter. With his bandana, He was wiping the bloody mess away from Jimmy’s now ash-white freckled face. The other man was Jimmy’s older brother Henry.
“What happened here?” Ace moaned. He sat down in the filthy muck, pulling the boy’s lifeless body into his arms.
“He was half asleep, Pa, not paying attention to where he was or what he was doing. He was hazing some bunch quitters back in and rode up behind a range bull and smacked him with his rope. I yelled to warn him, but it was too late. That bull spun around and hit Jimmy’s horse like a freight train, knocked both of them over. His horse got away. Jimmy didn’t. By the time I got here, it was too late. I was too late.” Henry broke down, sobs wracking his body as he pounded his fists against his thighs.
The assembled cowboys watched in silence.
Standing, Ed Baxter looked around at the men on horseback. He took off his hat and slapped it against his leg, shaking his head. He turned back to where Ace sat in the reeking muck cradling his son’s mutilated body.
“Ace, you and your kids need to take Jimmy home. We’ll help the girls get packed up. You can put his body in your wagon and take him home for burial. We’ll finish up the day’s work.”
“No. It’s OK. He’s resting now. His mother will be along shortly. She was planning to come out for the end of the roundup, anyway. She and the girls can take him home and get him cleaned up. We’ll bury him tomorrow, when the work is done.”
“Ace, I’m so sorry about this. Please, take him home. Y’all need to be together.” I said.
“There’s work to be done. We didn’t sign on to run home at the first sign of trouble.
You’ll be short-handed as it is. Henry, ride out to find your mother. Bring her and the buckboard straight here. Where’s Thomas?”
“Here, sir.” Thomas Johnson had just ridden up and was standing directly behind Ace, holding his horse’s bridle reins. He put his hand on his dad’s shoulder.
“Thomas, go tell the girls what’s happened. Help them get packed up, and then drive them back to the ranch. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes sir.” Thomas Johnson stood staring at his father where he sat in the mud with his dead son in his lap. Thomas looked up at the sky, closing his eyes for a moment, and then he squared his young shoulders, looked at his brother Henry—who nodded, then they both mounted and rode away to complete their assignments.
“Some of you boys go with Thomas. Lend a hand. We’ll stay with Ace till Mrs. Johnson gets here. The rest of you, get back to work. There’re a couple of dozen more calves to brand and cut. Get it done.” Ed said.
Two mounted men stayed to help me move the edge of the herd farther away from the men on the ground. I left them to hold the line and rode back to where Ed Baxter was talking to Ace, who was still sitting in the mud, holding Jimmy.
“It’s my fault, you know? I pushed him too hard. I always do. I expect too much.” Ace was saying.
“No, Ace. Those boys love and admire you. They want to be just like you. You’ve raised fine sons. This was an accident that could’ve happened to any of us.” I said.
“I shouldn’t have let him ride nighthawk. Maybe if he’d had some sleep…”
“Stop right there, Ace. Jimmy was doing a man’s work. He wanted to do it and he did it well. It’s not your fault. I’m the range boss. I asked for volunteers. I knew he was the youngest. I could’ve told him no. I didn’t. This is something I have to live with. I hoped no one would get hurt, but this is dangerous work. I’m responsible for everyone and everything that happens on this roundup. If you want to blame someone, blame me.” Ed said.
After a moment Ace sighed and shook his head.
“No, it’s a hell of a thing, but it’s what happens when we get careless. You’re right, John. This could’ve been any of us. It only takes one mistake. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance. I just don’t know what I’m going to tell his mother.”
I hadn’t been completely honest with Ace. I blamed myself. Ace didn’t have a single cow on this range, but I’d drafted him and his sons to help me. Now, one of his sons was dead. How could I tell him that? Well, if I couldn’t tell Ace, I could and would tell his wife.
As the afternoon moved toward evening, we saw various wagons and people on horseback moving toward the campsite, then a buckboard with a lone rider alongside turned down a hillside directly toward the herd.
Ed had gone back to see to the last of the work, leaving me with Ace who still sat with Jimmy’s body in his lap.
“Help me up, John. I don’t want her to see me like this. I’m too stiff to get up by myself.”
“Too late, she’s here.”
Mrs. Johnson stopped the buckboard directly in front of us. I hurried to help her down.
“Oh, Horace, our sweet, sweet boy, Jimmy.” She said as she knelt beside Ace.
Ace couldn’t speak. He just shook his head, looking down at Jimmy.
“Are you alright? Are you hurt?” She asked, taking Ace’s face in her hands.
“No, I’m OK.”
“Well then, let’s put him in the buckboard.”
I helped Ace get to his feet. It wasn’t easy. He was nearly unable to stand.
“You’re all stove up. What happened?” Mrs. Johnson asked him.
“Hard work, I’ve been bent over cutting bull calves all day and I sat here too long. I’ll be alright in a minute.” He said, stretching out the kinks. “Here, John, you and Henry help me with Jimmy?”
We put the mangled, muddied and now stone cold body of Jimmy Johnson in the back of the buckboard. Mrs. Johnson gently covered him with a blanket, tucking the blanket around her son one last time.
“Mrs. Johnson, I’m John Everett Sage. I want you to know how sorry I am about this. Your son is dead because of me. If I hadn’t asked Ace for help, none of this would’ve happened.”
“Oh really, Mr. Sage, are you God? I don’t think so. The Lord gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. He alone knows what a day may bring forth. Jimmy died doing what he loved to do. He was young and strong and handsome, just coming into his prime. He was a gift from God, who called him home. I’m proud to have known him and been his mother. You don’t get to take that away from me, Mr. Sage.”
“Now, you men get on with your chores. You too, Henry, stay and help your father finish up. I’ll see our Jimmy gets home and cleaned up. I met Thomas and the girls on the trail. Thomas and the other boys will build his coffin. We’ll bury him when you all get home, tomorrow.”
“We’re moving the Rocking M herd onto the Murphy place first thing in the morning. It’ll take a few hours, but we’ll be home right after that.” Ace told her.
“That’s alright. It’ll give us time to dig the grave. It’s such rocky ground.” She said.
I helped her up into the driver’s seat.
She made eye contact with Ace, holding his hand for a moment and then without another word she slapped the lines and the chestnut horse trotted away.
The three of us stood watching as the buckboard disappeared over the top of the hill.