Josh lay on his bunk, his arms behind his head, and watched the men. He listened for a spoken name and tried to place the name with the face of the ones he’d missed while the big-eyed girl was looking at him. The Mexican was already in his bunk and sound asleep, giving off a rumble of soft snores. “Sugar’s sure out of it,“ one of the men had commented as
they came inside the bunkhouse. “We call him Sugar,” Charley Whitcomb told Josh, “because he’s got
a whale of a sweet tooth. The rest of us go to town, we head for the saloon for a cool drink, he goes to the mercantile and buys himself a sack full of
Jake, the tall, thin, dark haired man who had spoken up at supper about the herd being wild, said, “Some folks don’t cotton to Mexicans in the saloon, and give ’em trouble. We ’spect Sugar’d be okay ’cause he’s with us, but he don’t ask to stir up no trouble”
Josh felt his face flush. Did this man know he was half Mexican? Did it matter to him?
“Come on, Jake,” Charley said, “Let’s have a go round of poker ’fore sack time.”
Jake sat down at the small table that held a kerosene lamp and began to shuffle a deck of cards. “We playing for matchsticks or money?”
Charley laughed. “Matchsticks, I reckon. You’d take all my money.What little I’ve got.”
Jake grinned. “I’ve been thinking about getting out of this cow chasing job and getting me a gambling suit, grease back my hair real slick and start
using my real talent.”
“’Cepting you get downright nasty if you’re cooped up in a building too long,” Shorty Ellis said, holding his broken arm with his good one as he sat down on his bunk.
“Ain’t it the truth,“ Jake said, a mock frown on his face. “So I’ll just stay being a poor o’ cowhand.”
They bantered back and forth a few minutes more before they settled down to play cards. Two men came in who had sat outside smoking, their chairs tipped back against the bunkhouse wall, like he and Pete used to do in the evenings. Both tall men, they had to duck their heads to keep from scrapping their hats as they entered. Josh noticed they all kept their hats
on, even inside, except, of course, inside Mrs. Rawlins’ house. That was one thing Pete had sure drummed into his head. “You go into a house
where there’s ladies, you be sure to take off your hat. Ain’t nothing more impolite than keeping your hat on in the house with a woman present.”
Despite his certainty that he wouldn’t sleep a wink, Josh wasn’t even aware when the last man to crawl into bed blew out the lamp.
* * *
It was still dark when Charley’s “up and at ’em boys,” brought Josh and the others tumbling out of their bunks. Charley relit the kerosene lamp and Slim started a fire in the stove and set a bucket of water on to heat.
They took turns slopping water on their faces,tossing out the scant amount they’d used and handing the basin to the next man. Some of the men shaved, peering into a cracked mirror above the small washstand.
Watching them, Shorty fingered his growing beard. “Sure wish I could get rid of this itchy brush,” he moaned, “But I’m scared I’ll cut my throat,
using my left hand and I sure ain’t gonna trust one of you fella to do it for me.”
“I used to shave the man who raised me when he was sick,” Josh said. “You want me to do it?”
“Naw,” Shorty said. “Be different if you wasn’t going on the drive and could do the job real regular. I reckon ’til this arm gets mended, I’ll have
to grow me a bush.”
“Gives him something to gripe about,” Jake said, with a grin at Josh.
Josh had started growing a mustache shortly before Pete got sick, but he used the basin and his razor to scrape the light growth of whiskers from his cheeks and chin.
They all walked together up to the main house for a breakfast of stewed prunes, biscuits covered with gravy, and fried beefsteak. This time Mrs. Rawlins and the girls did not make an appearance, although Lee was there. They ate quickly, silently. Leaving their plates slicked clean, they pushed back their chairs, grabbed up their hats, and went back outside.
The horses, including Shadow, were in the corral.
“Our horse wrangler brought them in,” Lee explained seeing Josh’s look of surprise. The horse wrangler, Josh saw was Sugar the Mexican,who had been asleep by the time he got to the bunkhouse, but he realized
now, had not been there this morning when he woke. He was small and thin, his legs bowed as if he’d spent his lifetime on a horse. His black eyes,beneath a wide, high-topped sombero, gray and sweat stained, took note of Josh again, as they had at the supper table last night, and Josh wondered if he recognized the Mexican blood in him.
The men were picking their mounts, Sugar roping the ones they chose with a swift, deft sail of the rope that passed over the horses’ heads and settled around their necks. When he looked at him, Josh said, “The
buckskin’s mine. He’ll come to me.”
As they swung up on their horses, Jake’s, a blaze-faced black, suddenly ducked his head and humped his back. They reined out of the way to give Jake and his horse room as the black gelding leaped in the air and came down stiff-legged, his hooves raising a small dust cloud. With every jump,Jake slapped his gray hat from the horse’s rump to his neck. Josh marveled
at how easy the man sat his pitching horse, gloved hands tight on the reins.
Josh remembered Pete’s words from that day long ago about grabbing the saddle horn. “I’d of got me a snoot full of dirt, for I’d have shamed myself that-away.”
In a few minutes the horse had settled down and Jake spurred him into a lope out away from the corral and back again, pulling him up so tight he sat back a little on his haunches.
“’Bout like ridin’ a rockin’ chair, ain’t he?” Slim Rafters said, grinning at Jake from on top of the sorrel gelding he was riding.
“Sure is,” Jake answered flashing a grin at Slim. “Makes me homesick for my mama.”
Their faces creased with smiles, the men touched their heels to their horses and headed out to take their turn at watching the herd.
They heard the bawling of the cattle before they saw them. Josh was amazed at the size of the herd. Up off their bed ground, the long-horned cattle had spread out across the rangeland to graze, the night crew riding around them to herd back the strays.
“You go with Lee and take the first man’s place and Lee’ll take the other’s,” Charley said and turning his bay gelding around, headed toward the west end of the herd.
“You sure have a lot of cows,” Josh said, reining Shadow over to ride along side Lee on the black and white piebald he called Ace. “We only ran an average of twenty head.”
“We’ve been collecting for a year now for this drive. Some we already had, but we kept adding to them, popping them out of the brush and taming them down some. But like Jake said, last night at supper, they’re still wild as deer and can run like one, too. And mean. If you get one on the prod, why it’d be safer to be tossed into a sack full of wild cats. And
branding them? O’ boy, you turn one loose and you’d better scoot up on your horse right quick.”
Josh grinned. “I’ll remember,” he said.
“Jake’s the only one of us ever been on a trail drive,” Lee said. “He says we’ll have to watch to be sure they don’t get riled up or spooked. Says
they’ll run in the blink of an eye and before you know it the whole herd will be scattered to the four winds. He says, they tell him a herd can get
spoiled that way and want to run all the time.” He grinned. “Jake could be stretching the truth some. Listening to him, you’d think we’re going to be
riding in the most hellish rain and lightning storms old Ma Nature ever produced and we’ll be swimming rivers running bank full, the bottoms filled with quicksand that’ll grab our cows and suck them down faster than we can get a rope on them and drag them out.”
His face sobered. “Jake doesn’t think Mother and the girls ought to be going along, but Mother’s made up her mind and I think she and the girls will be safe enough in their wagon. “Of course,” he flashed a grin at Josh,“Belle’s not the type to stay wagon bound, but neither Charley nor Mother will let her anywhere close to the herd, much as she’d like to.”
“She rides?” Josh said.
“Like she’s trying to outrun the wind.”
Josh smiled and enjoyed the mental picture of the blue-eyed girl racing a horse, bent low in the saddle, her dark hair streaming behind her, as he
rode over to relieve a dark-haired, dark-eyed man with the look of an Indian about him.
“Name’s Josh Ryder,” he said as he rode up to the man who sat a tall,leggy dark bay with black mane and tail. “I’m to take your place for today.”
The solemn faced man acknowledged him with a small jerk of his chin. “Billy Redfeather,” he said and lifting the reins, clucked to his horse.“Let’s get us some grub and a bit of shut-eye, Kola.”
The herd moved as they grazed, so by evening they were several miles to the southwest. They would bed down as darkness fell, Josh had been told, a few rising at intervals to move around and graze some more before lying down again.
It proved to be a long day and Josh welcomed the few head who strayed from the herd, for it helped break the monotony. When he turned Shadow after the stray, he imagined Belle Rawlins watching, not only him,
but also his horse, quick and graceful on his feet, and in his imagination he’d carry out a larger sight for her to admire; the longhorn running flat out and he and Shadow after it, using all their skill to return it to the herd.
His daydreams also found him atop a bucking bronc, sitting easy in the saddle, his body swaying with the horse’s movements, his hat in his free hand fanning the horse from shoulder to haunches. He’d never ridden a bucking horse, but he hoped to get a chance one day soon. He grinned to himself remembering Pete’s words about grabbing on to the saddle horn, and knew he’d go flying off before he’d do that. He
pictured himself landing on the ground and getting up causal-like,locating his hat and dusting off his britches with it, before clapping it back
on his head. He’d look over at her and those big, blue eyes would be wide with admiration. He’d flash her a grin before he climbed back on again.
When the sun was straight up overhead, he untied the flour sack from the back of his saddle and ate the cold biscuits and beef jerky each had been given as they filed out of the house after breakfast. The food filled his stomach, but by the time evening came and Billy Redfeather rode out to relieve him, he was anticipating the platters of food that would soon be
on the Rawlins table and the blue-eyed girl who would be sitting across from him.
They talked of little else but the drive at supper that night. Again Mrs.Rawlins and her children ate with them. Josh tried to keep his eyes off
Belle, but it wasn’t easy. He was careful not to let her catch him looking and sometimes had to jerk his eyes away so fast he felt like he’d jarred them out of their sockets. It excited him to think about her going with them and that excitement kept his heart jumping like a scared jackrabbit.
He wondered if he hadn’t been wearing a loose shirt, if it could be seen thumping under his skin. He wondered how old she was. Maybe sixteen or seventeen, a year or two behind him. Lee had told him he was the oldest at eighteen, but he hadn’t mentioned his sisters’ ages and Josh would sure like to know, but he wasn’t going to ask and let Lee know he was already
about half gone on the girl. Gosh, but she was beautiful. He sure liked watching her. Her beautiful face had so many changes of expression and although it embarrassed him to think about her body, he sure liked how it looked, from the slender, graceful neck to the soft mound of breast that dipped down to a small waist. Her dresses could give him no hint of the
hips and legs down to the small feet, or at least he assumed they were small, he had seen nothing of them but a pointed toe encased in black leather.
Aware of his thoughts making his face flush with color, his palms sweat, and the pleasant tingle spread through his lower body, he pulled his thoughts away from the girl. He shifted in his chair and made himself listen to Charley Whitcomb who was talking about the trail drive. Something he should be paying attention to instead of getting all calf-eyed
over a blue-eyed, dark-haired girl.
They would be up before dawn, so that all hands would be in place by five o’clock to turn the herd north toward Kansas, Charley informed them. Each rider would have four extra horses in the remuda. Sugar
would take care of the horses and Swede Davidson an older, gray-haired man, would drive the wagon carrying Mrs. Rawlins and the two girls, their
bed rolls and other necessities.
Charley Whitcomb had assigned the men their places to ride along side the herd. Josh would be riding drag along with Jimmy Letts and Jed Motts. Joe Saunders and Jake Howell were the point men. They’d ride out after Charley, who as the trail boss would take the lead. The swingmen, Charley called them, would be Slim Rafters and Snort Beers, a red-headed man with a ready grin. Charley had assigned Billy Redfeather and Lee Rawlins at flank.
Hector came in from the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee and as he set the pot down at the end of the table, Charley said, “Well, Hector, you reckon you can keep this bunch of yahoos from straving to death before we get to Kansas?”
“Reckon I aim to try,” Hector said, a grin lighting his face. “Yes, sir, I sure do aim to try.”
After supper, Josh on Shadow and Lee riding Ace, his favorite, the spotted black and white piebald gelding with blue eyes, they rode out to see the horses that would make up the remuda on the trail drive. As they
sat in the saddle, watching the animals graze, Lee cocked his right leg over the saddle horn and rolled a smoke. He offered papers and tobacco to Josh who shook his head and said, “Never took it up.”
He knew it was probably because Pete didn’t smoke that he didn’t either. “To me it was too much trouble keeping track of the makings,” Pete said one day when he asked. “I’ve seen men cuss a blue streak when
they got their papers or tobacco wet and be grumpy as hell before they got ’em dried out enough for a smoke. Figured then, I’d save myself the aggravation.”
Lee pointed out each horse assigned to Josh. “The two sorrels there,one with the four white stockings and the other with the blaze face, the dark bay and that red roan. “Their names,” he said, “are Son of a Gun,
shortened to Son, Socks, Topper, shortened to Top, and Rip. They’re good horses,” he added.
“Son, Socks, Top, and Rip.” Josh repeated the names. “They ought to be easy to remember.” Thinking as always of the blue-eyed Belle, whose presence had shadowed him ever since he’d met her, Josh said in what he hoped was a matter of fact voice. “Will your mother and sisters be taking along saddle horses?”
“Mother and Kit won’t,” Lee answered. “Mother rides quite well and so does Kit, but they’re leaving their horses at home. Belle, now, that’s a horse of a different color as they say. She would no more leave her horse behind than she would think of trying to lasso the moon.” He grinned.
Josh had noticed that Lee had a lopsided grin, the right side of his mouth lifting a little more then the rest.
“Swede will probably have Mother and Kit for company most of the time, but Belle would just as soon be a horseback.”
Josh grinned at him. “I’m guessing your sister has an independent streak.”
“About a mile wide,” Lee answered.