RATING: Rated PG-13 for
DISCLAIMERS: The worlds of Lancer and Rawhide and their characters are not ours. The following is a work of fan fiction, not intended to infringe on any copyrights. The story is ours with a hearty tip of the hat to Jack Schaefer and Louis L’Amour, We wrote it for fun, not profit.
SUMMARY: Young Johnny’s first trip up the trail with a herd of Longhorns in 1861. A pre-Lancer, pre-Rawhide crossover.
HISTORICAL NOTES: This story remains true to the same errors in weaponry and historical events/characters so often seen in the original Lancer episodes—although the series was set in the early 1870s, the weaponry used and many other references were more appropriate for the mid-1880s. We acknowledge any historical inaccuracies and claim creative license.
notes: We did not have
the benefit of our betas for this story. All errors are ours.
The Ring-tailed tooter
This herd is gonna run.
Look at ‘em! At least half the herd on their feet, noses turned toward the approaching storm. See their eyes roll? When they roll their eyes that way and hook at nothing with their horns, it’s just a matter of time.
Listen! Hear the horns clacking together, the pawing, the heavy bodies bumping together? The restless bawling? The sound is building, gradually growing as loud as the singing of the men riding night herd.
I’ve been wondering what was in the wind. All afternoon the cattle have been jittery. And it’s been quiet – way too quiet. The kind of eerie, ominous hush that forces the hair on the back of your neck to stand straight up. You know trouble is stalking, you just can’t see where it’s coming from. Now I have my answer – the critters sensed this brewing storm hours ago.
My ramrod, Pete Nolan, gives a low-pitched, urgent call, but quiet, without edges so it won’t further spook the longhorns. He reins in beside me, one anxious eye on the massing clouds, stroking a hand down the neck of his savvy dun night herd pony.
“I sure don’t like the looks of this.” His voice resonates with the resignation of a seasoned cattleman who has seen his share of stampedes. “Guess we know now why they been actin’ so jumpy.”
“Yeah. They’re gonna run, sure as shootin’.” I turn my horse toward the distant fire marking the location of the camp and chuck wagon. “I’m headin’ to camp. I’ll turn out the rest of the crew. When they get here, send the night riders in for fresh horses. I’ll be back as soon as I get Wish started packin’ up.”
“We’ll hold ‘em as long as we can.”
I nod at him and tickle my big brown gelding’s sides with my spurs. He hightails it toward the camp and I feel the weight of responsibility like boulders on my shoulders.
A mixed herd of 2200 longhorns painstakingly gathered out of the Texas brush and wild as deer. They represent the hopes for the future for the fifteen families who hired me to round up the critters and get them to market. There’s a war on and the exorbitant prices these cattle will bring in California should be enough to keep the wives and kids going while the men are off fighting. But easier said than done.
California’s a hell of a long way from Texas. We’ve been on the move for weeks now, pushing ‘em steadily across west Texas and deep into the New Mexico territory. They’re trail broke and fairly easy to handle by now, but we face the constant threat of attack from Comanche and Apache hostiles, not to mention Mexican and gringo banditos. And the elements like the storm tonight. By the time we turn these beeves over to the vaqueros near Los Angeles, we’ll have traveled nearly 2000 long, dusty miles that set the cattle mad with thirst and draw horses and men to skin and bones. From end to end, a trail fraught with danger and uncertainties.
And who am I depending on to drive these ornery beeves down that perilous trail? A pathetic, scruffy mix of kids and old men with just four seasoned cowboys plus my ramrod. The able-bodied men are all fighting the war and most of the kids in this crew plan to run off and join up as soon as we’ve delivered the cattle and they bring the money back to their families. The old men’ll have to keep the home fires burning.
I’ll be joining up, too. I’ve got a captaincy of a cavalry unit waiting for me. But first, I’ve gotta get these cattle to the buyer in Los Angeles. The entire responsibility of delivering this herd rests on my shoulders.
Gil Favor’s the name – trail boss.
This is the third herd I’ve driven from Texas to California. I like this work and I’m good at it. When the war is over, I’m thinking there’ll be a big market for cattle in the Midwest. That means plenty of work for men like me who can boss a crew and get the beeves to market. We’ll be blazing trails up through Indian Territory and into Missouri, maybe even Kansas. It’s territory I’m familiar with and I’ve discussed the possibilities with Charles Goodnight. I really think we can make it work.
But I can’t think about that now. If we’re gonna get these beeves to California, we’ve gotta be ready to turn ‘em when they run tonight. That means getting the boys outta their blankets and around the herd.
I let my pony gallop almost into camp, stopping him in a showy slide that carries us into the circle of sleeping men and just short of the campfire. I whistle, loud, long, and sharp. All around me, heads pop up like jack-in-the-boxes. The crew knows the meaning of that whistle and rolls out of their blankets.
“Big blow comin’, boys. They’re likely to run. Get out to the herd and hold ‘em as long as you can. Stick with ‘em when they run and get ‘em turned.”
“Stampede comin’?” It’s Wishbone, the cook.
“Would a ten-foot chicken lay a big egg?” I give him a tight grin and turn in my saddle to watch the men tightening the cinches on their ready-saddled night ponies.
“Remember, boys, get to the front of the herd and turn ‘em in a circle. Keep ‘em circlin’ ‘til they run themselves out. And stay outta their way. If you go down, there won’t be enough left of you to bury.”
Their eyes are huge in their faces, but they grin as they leap astride their ponies and hustle for the herd. They’d whoop and holler, too, if the cattle weren’t so spooky. Good, game boys, every one. I wonder how many of them will still be alive come morning.
I dismount and gratefully accept the cup of hot coffee Wish presses into my hands. My eyes find those of the only other men left in camp. Men? I mean boys. Jesus is fifteen and has worked for me for three years. He’s a top hand with horses and I’m glad to have him as my head horse wrangler on this trip. I see the fear on his face, but Jesus stands unflinching. Good boy. He’ll do what needs doing.
“Get the remuda bunched so we don’t lose ‘em, Jesus. The night herders’ll be coming in for fresh mounts. And I’ll want Grasshopper.”
“Sí, Señor Favor. Your big bay can almost turn the herd on his own, yes?”
“He sure can! Smartest horse in the outfit. Just needs a rider to point him in the right direction. When they run, I’ll get ‘em turned with ol’ Grasshopper.” I watch the young man hurry to the picket line to carry out my orders. Whatever happens with the herd, Jesus will take care of the remuda.
I turn when I feel the intense gaze of the other boy on me. I meet his startlingly blue eyes and shake my head when I notice how they sparkle with excitement. The chance of a stampede is simply another adventure for him and he lives for adventure. No use preaching about being careful to a kid like him. “Trouble” is his middle name and taking chances is in his blood. His name is Johnny. He is ten years old going on forty.
Don’t get me started on how I feel about having a shave-tail on the trail with us. I’ve heard it all from Wish and Pete. Never mind that he’s pulled his weight every step of the way. I know he’s much too young to be on a drive like this. I know it’s my own fault that he’s with us. What can I say? I’m soft hearted and that boy’s mama can melt the hardest heart.
I met Maria in El Paso. A real beauty that gal, full to the brim with fire and passion. The boy’s father threw them out when the kid was just a toddler and she’s been fighting to make a life for herself and her son ever since. What kind of man gives such a gorgeous woman the boot? And turns his back on a fine son like that? I wouldn’t mind asking the fool those questions to his face.
Johnny’s a good kid – quick to learn, hard working, respectful, great with animals. Got uncanny hand-eye coordination. You ought to see how quick he learned to use a rope – and now he can handle one better than most top hands. He’s been earning money to help out his mama since he was five years old. But a little kid just can’t make a living for two people.
Maria works in cantinas and saloons to support them both. She can sing like a nightingale and I’ve never seen a better dancer. She dances that flamenco – the Spanish dances. She is some woman. But I suspect that there have been times Maria has taken money from men for… well, you know.
Don’t get me wrong, she’s not really like that. Not that I hold anything against what we call “soiled doves.” I’ve known plenty and most are good-hearted girls. It’s just that Maria’s no whore and it seems some folks think of her that way – Wish included. But they’re wrong. She’s only trying to take care of her son as best she can.
Wish just snorts when I say that. He claims that “doing it for the boy’s sake” is just a story she tells to put a better light on her actions. He’s not real fond of Maria. I don’t believe he trusts her at all, but that could be because I like her so much. He’s scared I’ll hang up my spurs and settle down with her by my side. He just might be right.
I like Maria. Well, maybe more than like. She’s plain intoxicating and I can’t stop thinking about her speaking eyes… enticing smile… throaty laugh. Whoa, don’t want to go there now! I’ll just say that no other woman ever made me feel the way Maria does when she’s in my arms. So I like her. And I like her son, too. Once I return to Texas and get the war behind me, I plan on spending plenty more time with them.
Anyhow, Maria begged me to take Johnny on this drive. Said they needed the wages and he needs the seasoning. Said the kid could parlay this experience into steady, good-paying vaquero work down Sonora way. She’s right, but I sure wouldn’t send any young son of mine off on a journey as dangerous as this one.
Maria knows I’ll keep an eagle eye on the boy, but the fact of the matter is that she’s risking his life. We’ll be gone for months and there’s no end to the hazards Johnny is exposed to on an hourly basis. He’s only ten years old for crying out loud!
And the danger aside, how can a mother stand to be separated from her son for so long? If Johnny were my boy, I wouldn’t want to miss one minute of seeing him grow up. I sure wouldn’t want to live without the sight of Johnny’s high-powered grin for months at a time. I reckon she believes this experience will be the best thing for him in the long run. As a devoted mother, she’s willing to make that sacrifice for her son’s benefit.
But I have to admit that attempting to understand why Maria pushed so hard for me to take her son on this trip leaves me uncomfortable. Makes me question her motives. Something about her replies doesn’t ring true.
I can’t put my finger on it, so I try not to think about it. But Wish won’t let me ignore it. He says there’s another side to Maria that I haven’t seen yet – a darker, self-centered side. A side that will say anything to get what she wants. He keeps asking those same questions – and he comes up with different answers than I do.
Wish swears Maria had plans to run off with a surly piece of border trash named Jeeter just as soon as we pulled out with the herd. That she needed the boy out of the way for a while. That she cares more about herself than about her son. That I’ll become so attached to Johnny that I won’t ever be able to tell her goodbye. But that’s just Wish blowing off. He’s dead wrong. Maria’s not like that – even if she did show poor judgment in sending that boy on this drive.
With likely hands so scarce, I really can use the kid’s way with horses to help Jesus. Jesus is good, but he’s young, too, and inexperienced. Between the two of them boys, they just about make one man. That’s why I hired Johnny. … Okay, okay, the truth is, I just can’t say “no” to Maria. And Wish won’t let me forget that, either.
But that boy has earned his pay. He’s got a real way with horses. And ride? Kid learned to ride from the Comanche and it shows. Seems Maria was right friendly with Cynthia Ann Parker. You know, the little gal taken captive by the Comanche about twenty years ago? Made all the papers. Seems Cynthia ended up married to Chief Peta Nocona who downright dotes on her. He’ll give her anything she wants and what she wants is to see her old friend. So Maria and her son regularly spend time with the Nocona band as Cynthia’s guests. Johnny is even blood brother to Cynthia’s oldest son, Quanah. Wild, huh?
Now your average Comanche knows as much about horses as anybody alive and likely them red devils spotted Johnny’s talent with the ponies right off. He’s just a natural on a horse and they all respond to him. It’s eerie the way he seems to know what they’re thinking.
Johnny may be a kid, but he works as hard as anyone else on the crew. He’s got a way with people, that boy. The whole crew treats him like a little brother. He’s especially close to Rowdy Yates and his younger brother Davey.
Rowdy’s eighteen and scared to death that the war’ll be over before we get back. He can’t wait to go shoot himself some Yankees. Fool kid don’t seem to realize they’ll be shooting back! Rowdy’s Pa and older brothers are already off fighting and his Pa charged him with bringing the cattle sale money home to his mother and sisters. His mind’s set on being a soldier, but he has the makings of a real top hand. Davey just turned sixteen. He’s a good boy, too, even if he don’t have the gumption or brains of his older brother.
But Wish and Pete are the worst of the lot. Pete’s always telling Johnny stories and my ramrod knows how to weave a tale, let me tell you. Johnny drinks in every word and danged if the kid don’t have a knack for spinning yarns himself. Pete shows the boy how to work cattle with a cowpony and different types of throws with his reata and such. His father was a sailor and taught Pete how to navigate by the stars. Pete’s a real stargazer and now he’s got Johnny hooked on star watching.
As for Wishbone, well Mr. George Washington Wishbone is always yammering on about his cousin, Jellifer B. Hoskins, and that man’s way with kids. Now, I never met this Jelly character, but I reckon he and Wish are like two peas in a pod. Leastways that’s the way it sounds from Wishbone’s stories. Wish always seems to instinctively know how to handle children and he just dotes on Johnny. Took that boy right under his wing and acts like he’s a mother hen and Johnny is his only chick.
Like last night. We sat around the fire discussing stampedes. With so many inexperienced drovers, Pete and I wanted to be clear about what to do when it happened. So we talked ‘em through it. Step by step so to speak. Looks like we timed it pretty damn good, don’t it?
None of them boys listened any closer than Johnny. He was the first one asking questions about how you know where to head to turn the herd and what to do to get ‘em circling. Kid has a real aptitude for getting to the heart of the matter. Anyhow, all that talk about the herd running got him really excited. You could tell he was just itching to be right smack in the middle of a stampede.
Ol’ Wish cuffed him a good one on the back of the head and told him if the herd ran, Johnny’d better be on the chuck wagon box next to him, else the kid’d have to walk for the next week ‘cause he wouldn’t be able to sit to ride! Johnny just grinned.
It always surprises me that he’s such a happy kid. His life hasn’t been too soft. Johnny and his Mama have gone hungry at times and I’m afraid that some of Maria’s men beat on the boy. Plus the kid is half white, half Mex. There’s a lot of hate in this part of the country for “breeds” and I’m sure Johnny’s seen it first hand. He don’t let it bother him, though. Just plasters that impish grin on his face. Like now.
From what I can see, that boy only has two big worries in this world. He frets about his mama – thinks he ought to earn enough money that she doesn’t have to work. He won’t talk much about it, but when he says “work”, I believe he’s thinking of her taking money from men. Wish agrees with me. He says Johnny feels like it’s his fault that his mother “sells herself.” I hope he’s wrong – that’s a terrible burden for a little boy to carry. I haven’t found the right opportunity to discuss it with Johnny, but I plan to make the time before this drive is over.
Johnny’s other big worry is his father. All Maria will tell him – or me, for that matter – is that his father is a gringo, a cattle rancher in California who threw them out. It’s eating the poor kid alive. He thinks he must’ve done something to make the man not want them anymore. He’s all ripped up inside between longing for his daddy’s love and the load of anger festering like an infected wound. He hates his father because the man doesn’t think Johnny is good enough. And because of what the bastard did to his mother.
I’m really worried about him. The kid needs to come to grips with that situation before it tears him apart. He won’t talk about it at all. Most times when he clams up you can push him a little. Not on this. His whole body goes rigid with tension and the expression on his face turns downright scary.
One evening about three weeks into the drive, the timing seemed right and Wish and I each took a shot at discussing his father with Johnny. He shut both of us down immediately. Later that night, I found him off a ways from camp in a grove of trees. He was huddled on his knees, hugging himself, and sobbing his heart out.
There he was, a tough-as-nails little boy with a broken heart. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him cry. It got to me. I wanted to hold him, but something told me he couldn’t bear it if I saw him that way. So I crept off before he realized I was there.
When I got back to camp and told Wish about it, he gave me such a look of disgust. He was furious that I’d left Johnny alone. He stomped off to comfort the boy, muttering about “chuckleheaded idiots.” He didn’t find him though. By the time he got to those trees, Johnny was gone. The next morning, the kid acted as though nothing had happened.
Johnny can’t go on hurting inside like that. Whatever his father’s reasons, it just ain’t right for that kid to think it was his fault, that he’s not good enough. There’s so much anger in the boy. He’s got to work it out before it turns him bitter and cynical.
Once we return from this drive, I’m going to talk to Maria about how we can help Johnny accept what his father did. Convincing her to open up won’t be easy. I’ve tried before to get more information about it out of her, but she just breaks down in tears and swears it’s too painful to discuss. I reckon what that bastard did tore her up inside even worse than Johnny. It’s too hard on her to press for the details and I don’t want to put her through that emotional wringer.
Wish claims she’s lying through her teeth, but he’s wrong. He doesn’t know Maria like I do. My stunning, lovely, laughing Maria. She’ll talk to me for Johnny’s sake. I know she will.
I stare at Johnny and can’t help but think how much he looks like his mother. I’ve seen that same painfully excited expression on her face, the exact twinkle in her eyes. And his beautiful smile is Maria’s, too. She’s counting on me to keep her son safe. I’d better make sure the kid knows what to do if the herd stampedes.
“Johnny, once the night herders have saddled up fresh mounts, you help Jesus get the remuda clear and hold the horses together while the cattle run.” I drop my hand to the top of his head. “No chasin’ off after any cows, now. Clear?”
His teeth flash in a quick, engaging smile. “I’ll rope Grasshopper for you, Mr. Favor.” He spins and races toward the remuda.
I watch him skipping and running and chuckle when Wish hollers after him, “I’m cuttin’ me a switch, boy. You stay outta that herd’s way or I’ll use it!”
My smile fades as I remember that Johnny never gave me any indication that he agreed to follow my orders. The kid has a thing about “orders.” Wants to be asked instead of told. Ornery as a blamed mule! I sure don’t need to worry about him on top of everything else. Maybe I’d better go after him…
As I turn, I feel Wishbone’s hand on my arm. “We’ll be just fine, Boss. You better get back to the herd.”
“On my way as soon as Johnny brings me that bay pony. Meanwhile, I’ll help you strike camp.”
The two of us work quickly, gathering the bedrolls and supplies and stowing them away on the chuck wagon. A scant handful of minutes later and we’re packed up. I hear hooves and look up to see the first group of night riders approaching camp. Jesus has the remuda bunched and ready for the men to rope fresh mounts. Johnny has a bridle on Grasshopper, leading him around the picket line.
The wind moans through the thick gramma grass. The first drops of rain, large and irregular, fall with tiny splats as they bounce off the ground. The topmost layer of clouds roil and mass, rolling forward to blot out the stars. The cattle are all up now, shifting restlessly with horns clacking and rattling as they push against each other.
A wall of rain swirls, sweeping over us in a determined, torrential sheet, and causing the cattle to shift and sway in frightened mass. They struggle to work downwind before the storm, individuals and small bunches making frantic dashes to break away. The trail crew presses close around them, holding them in a tight circle. The tough, hard-muscled cow ponies are as dedicated as their riders, leaping and dashing, shouldering and bullying the runaways back into the herd.
The abrupt cloudburst passes and the air comes alive, crackling with electricity. The lightning runs along the clacking horns, bolts of blue fire sizzling, leaping from steer to steer until it illuminates the entire herd in a ghostly, glowing halo. Fireballs hang from tossing tips, flaring blue and yellow in the night. St. Elmo’s fire dances across the cattle. It’s a sight you just can’t believe until you’ve seen it.
A streak of lightning explodes across the sky, turning night to day. It flashes for what seems like hours, stretching across the entire horizon and spawning numerous smaller bolts that crackle and blaze in their own dazzling display. A tremendous clap of thunder follows, reverberating like cannon fire.
I feel it then, the inevitability of it. The cattle bellow and mill. There’s no holding them now. I grab the trailing reins of my brown horse and leap to the saddle, spurring for the herd and hollering at the incoming night crew to turn back.
That brilliant lightning flash destroyed my night vision. But I don’t need to see to know what’s happening now. Out of the vicious void of darkness comes the rising roar of the herd in motion, a dark tide of panic-maddened beeves pouring downwind in a relentless rush. They’re off in a blind frenzy, an uncontrollable tidal wave of wild-eyed, stark-mad longhorns. It’s every trail boss’ nightmare. Stampede!
I’ve got to reach the front of the herd, get ‘em turning. They’ve run in an unexpected direction and only a few of the crew have the experience to figure it out. I bend forward over my horse’s neck, letting him feel the rowels of my spurs. I wish briefly for Grasshopper, but I don’t have him, so I fling Brownie full speed over the treacherous ground, aiming toward the head of the thundering mass of steers.
We careen through the darkness, the sure-footed pony swerving around brush and cactus, hurtling rocks. Even as he gallops over the rough country, I’m wriggling out of my slicker, waving it at the longhorns and shouting. But I’ve got to be at the front to have any hope of turning them.
I hear other shouts pitched sharper than the unceasing thunder of hooves. It’s a good crew and they’re doing their damnedest to get to the leaders and turn ‘em. The dark night and rain are working against us, though. The rain is pouring down again – a solid, fierce wall of water that drenches us to the skin. Reins, saddles, and the grass are slick now, treacherous. There’s no room for the slightest error from man or horse.
By the light of another fantastic lightning display, I see a rider galloping at an angle to intersect the herd. I can’t see who it is, but he’s a beautiful son-of-a-bitch! If he can just turn ‘em—
God, no! His pony stumbles and man and horse tumble end-over-end in a horrific fall. I spur toward him, but I can’t get to him. I ride hell-for-leather, but I can’t get there. The herd is on him, flowing over and around him, pounding, slashing him into the mud. I toss up a quick prayer, knowing we won’t find enough to bury and thinking that the spring flowers will be particularly pretty in that spot next year.
My brown horse is fast and he’s making up ground on the herd. I’m frantic to reach the leaders and start ‘em turning. The farther they run, the more we’ll lose and the more will split off into smaller groups. If that happens, we’ll be days rounding ‘em up. Gotta get to the front.
Brownie’s ears are pinned and I feel him straining beneath me, muscles bunching and thrusting. He’s giving me everything he has and we’re slowly pulling up on the leaders. I’ll need help, though. Is there no one else? Where the hell is Pete? Where the hell is everybody else? Brownie and I are alone in the world. Just us and the wild and wooly mass of stampeding longhorns.
The horse swerves sharply to the left and I grab the horn to keep from going over his shoulder. Another quick pivot to the left. They’re turning! By God, they’re turning! Pete must be out front.
Another lightning show and I can see the herd leaders about 150 yards ahead. The panicked beeves are running blindly, furiously. Their heads bob and sway, slamming their horns together, wiry bodies bouncing off each other. Hot moist eyes roll and froth and slobber stream from their nostrils and gaping mouths. Every time Brownie gets close to them, a steer hooks his horns at us. I still need help here.
And someone is already there at the head of the herd. I catch quick glimpses of him in the intermittent lightning. Damn, that horse reminds me of Grasshopper. Look at him work them steers. No, that ain’t Pete, but he sure can ride. Look at him galloping bravely, foolishly, splendidly at the plunging leaders.
Ride, you lovely bastard! Ride ‘em down! Oh, ride… That’s it! You’re doin’ it… C’mon, crowd ‘em. Yeah… Don’t mind them horns. Ouch. That one got you. Never mind. Stick with it. Ride!... Yeah. Yeah. That’s it. They’re turnin’… Keep pushin’. They’re turnin’, turnin’… I’m comin’ as fast as I can. Don’t back off… Yeah. They’re turnin’. Yeah. Yeah. YEAH!... You’ve done it! You’ve turned ‘em!... You crazy, brave, magnificent son-of-a-buck…
The leaders are swerving now, swinging to the left and the ones behind follow mindlessly, bending in a huge arc, tracking a broad u-shaped course. I pull my pistol and fire into the ground in front of them and they slow and swing still more. The lightning seems to be over and it’s pitch dark. The rain has slacked off to a gentle drizzle. I’ve lost track of the rider who turned the herd, but he must still be up here. The leaders keep turning.
Brownie and I stay with ‘em and then I see Pete on his handy little dun. Together we’re cursing and shooting and riding ‘em down and they’re swinging back into their own hoof prints, catching up to and mingling with the stragglers. At long, last, the jagged-edged, elongated circle closes.
The cattle mill around, gradually slowing, allowing themselves to be crowded ever inward. The minutes drag by as the crew works feverishly to regain control of the herd. Finally, they drop to a shuffling walk and then stumble to a weaving stop. Their sides heave and great, thick tongues hang from their foam-flecked mouths. I pat the lathered neck of my sure-footed brown pony and groan as I straighten in the saddle.
Rowdy Yates lopes up alongside me, slapping his coiled rope at an errant steer. He’s plastered with muck and there’s blood on his arm where he caught a horn, but his eyes gleam with enthusiasm through the grime and he’s grinning from ear to ear. He looks like he’s sorry the excitement is finished, ready to do it all over again. Was I ever that young?
“Whooie. That was some run, Mr. Favor. If you hadn’t headed ‘em and turned ‘em they’d still be runnin’, spread out over ten miles or more.”
“Me? I ain’t the one headed ‘em. But one of you mutts sure earned his pay this evenin’.” I rein Brownie away from the herd. Time to ride back. I need to find Wish and Pete, assess the damage. “Take over, Rowdy. Hold ‘em here.”
Brownie and I wend our way back along the perimeter of the milling herd. They’re under control now. The rain has stopped, too. We ran the rain right out of the sky!
I’m not trying to tally beeves just yet. It’s much too dark and too soon. But I am trying to count human heads, hoping against hope that we lost only the one man. I still don’t know who it was.
Dawn stains the sky before I finally spot Wishbone and his hastily pitched camp. The sky is lowering and gloomy with a heavy overcast, but the filtered sunlight makes everything seem more cheerful. Water drips from the branches of plants and brush and stands in puddles.
I’m soaked to the skin and shivering hard enough that my teeth are chattering. That roaring fire and the big coffee pot hanging over it are about the most cheerful sight I’ve ever seen. I check out the rest of the camp, noting that Jesus and Johnny have kept the remuda intact. Good boys. We’ll be able to get the crew fresh horses.
Wish is there when I swing down, pressing a hot cup of coffee into my hand. But I don’t like the look on his face. He ought to be blustering and plumb happy that the stampede is over so quickly. Something is wrong. He doesn’t make me ask what it is.
“We can’t find Johnny, Boss.”
“He’s not with Jesus?” I swallow a healthy swig of coffee strong enough to knock over a mule and hot enough to ignite dry leaves. Best stuff I’ve ever tasted and it chases the chill away.
“Nope. Last time I saw him, he was leadin’ Grasshopper over to you. Then all hell broke loose and I lost track of him.”
“He’ll turn up.” I only wish I was as confident as I sound. A sudden rush of fear squirts through me, bringing back the chill – what if that fool kid rode off after the herd? I ordered him not to, but the more I think about it, the more it sounds exactly like something that crazy kid would do. He could be lying in the mud somewhere behind us, pounded into an unrecognizable mound of jelly by the slashing hooves. I don’t even know where to start looking.
“Shuck them wet duds and change into some dry clothes. I got the boys’ gear all laid out for ‘em. Plenty of hot coffee, too.” Wish’s whiskers quiver with the effort of remaining cheerful in the face of his worry for the kid – and the other members of the crew. No telling how many we’ve lost.
Wish is a crotchety, cantankerous bear, but he’s the best trail cook I’ve ever seen. He gets away with his insults and saucy remarks because he cares about the crew so much. And they know it. And he cares about me. I know that, too.
Men began to trickle into camp. Jim Quince rides in and tells us that Pete is sending ‘em in to dry out, change, and get fresh horses. The herd is under control. Pete only wants the original night crew to return to the herd. Everyone else can stay in camp.
Wish, Jesus, and I are busier than a barefoot boy on a red ant bed what with getting the boys hot coffee, patching minor injuries, listening to their version of the night’s events, and helping them find their dry clothes and rope new mounts. The talk swirls around us. Hell, I’ll learn more about what happened tonight by letting Pete ramrod things at the herd while I stay here and help out in camp. I just hate waiting. I’d rather be doing something.
“We didn’t lose that many beeves. Reckon we got ‘em turned so quick they just didn’t have a chance to spread out all over kingdom come,” Quince fills me in as he changes into dry duds. “Only one small bunch – about thirty head – broke away from the main herd. Rowdy’s gone to drive ‘em back.”
There’s a sudden silence at the mention of Rowdy’s name. I’ve felt that kind of silence before. A chill works it way up my backbone as I realize just who went down under the herd’s murderous hooves.
Davey. Just sixteen. Tall and lanky with a Texas twang to his speech. Rather slow witted, but quick to laughter and a good hand. I sure dread telling his mama that her baby ain’t coming home again. But first, I have to break the news to his brother…
“Davey Yates’ horse fell. Threw him right into the herd.” I don’t know who spoke the words aloud, but there’s a chorus of “No,” “Damn hard luck,” and “Rowdy know yet?” Several of the muddy faces are suddenly streaked with tears.
I step forward, sensing that these youngsters need some help to come to terms with what happened. “That’s right. I saw it. The boy was ridin’ hard to get to the leaders. He died with his boots on doin’ a man’s job like a man.”
I look around at the youthful, strained faces – young men discovering for the first time that perhaps they are mortal after all. “I reckon in the end, that’s all any of us can hope for. We’ll speak a few words for Davey later this mornin’. Rowdy will want to put up a marker.”
“You gonna tell him, Boss?” Rowdy is one of Wish’s favorites.
“It’s my place to tell him. But he’ll hear about it before I get to him.” Wish nods, knowing the truth of my statement. News, especially bad news, seems to work its way through a trail crew by way of some mysterious sagebrush telegraph.
The talk continues around us as the crew accepts the loss of Davey and moves forward into a future without him.
Quince pipes up, “We wuz pure-D lucky. Pete says we only lost Davey and Mr. Favor got ‘em turned right quick and they didn’t travel so awful far. ”
I’m relieved to hear that no one else ended up like Davey, but Mr. Favor didn’t turn the herd. Somebody was there before me. If not for that unknown rider, we’d have traveled another five miles or so before I could’ve got close enough to turn those cattle. Probably would’ve lost more men. I can’t think who it might have been. Rowdy maybe? But Davey isn’t the only man we lost. Johnny still hasn’t showed up.
“Any of you yahoos seen Johnny?” Wish can’t keep the quaver out of his voice.
“The kid’s missin’?” Quince speaks for all of the men and his voice is sharp with anxiety.
Wish swallows and nods. The boys shake their heads and stare at their boots. They hurry to change and swallow the scalding coffee, promising Wish to look for the kid as they mount fresh ponies and head back to the herd. They’ll spread the word and if Johnny’s out there, we’ll find him. Or someone will tell us they saw him go down…
Hands keep drifting into camp in ones and twos. They share their news, change their clothes, gulp a cup of hot coffee, and ride out on a fresh horse. I’ve got most of the story now, but I still don’t know who turned the damn herd! I want to shake that fellow’s hand. That was some riding. And the horse was as slick as ol’ Grasshopper. Gonna put that pony in my string on the next trip.
But the identity of the man who turned the herd is just a point of curiosity with me. The most pressing matter is finding Johnny. And not one of the crew has seen him. Thoughts of the kid drive the smile from my face. I need to be here in camp where Pete and the men can reach me right away if need be. But I can’t stay here any longer without knowing what happened to that boy. I decide to look for some sign of him myself.
A sudden silence, as though a great hand slammed down from the heavens and covered everyone’s mouth, falls over the camp. We’re all standing by the fire staring as Pete rides in leading Grasshopper.
My bay pony is limping and dripping with lather. He carries his head lower than usual, bone weary. He’s still blowing hard through his flared nostrils. I shake my head at the bloody nicks and scrapes covering his body. He’s been near or in the herd - those wounds are from tossing horns. There’s an especially deep hole in his shoulder. I hope that’s the reason for the limp. At first I’m just checking out my horse, and then I see the small form collapsed over its withers. My breath catches in my throat.
It’s Johnny. His knuckles are white around the reins and his hands are hopelessly tangled in the thick mane. He is unconscious. Blood drenches his left side and still more is matted on his thigh. He’s riding without a saddle. Bareback like an Indian.
For the moment, I can’t do anything except stand there with my mouth open. Wish leaps to lay out dry blankets next to the fire and open his box of medical supplies. I watch in a bemused daze as Pete dismounts and stands at Grasshopper’s neck. He tugs the reins free, but can’t get Johnny untangled from his death grip on Hoppy’s mane. Quince picks up the reins of Pete’s dun. The other men seem to be as rooted to the ground as I am.
“Gimme yer knife.” Pete holds out a hand.
I just stand there staring stupidly. Quince slips his knife from his belt and hands it to Pete. My ramrod cuts great hanks of hair out of Grasshopper’s mane, freeing Johnny’s hands. Then he lifts the boy down and carries him to Wish’s hastily spread blankets. Jesus appears out of nowhere to take charge of the exhausted horse. My brain finally catches up with my eyes – Pete wasn’t carrying the boy before because Johnny was holding on so tightly he had to be cut loose. God, I hope that kid’s all right. I’m going to kill him!
I follow close behind Pete, holding the other men back to give him and Wishbone room to strip the soaked clothing from the boy and examine his wounds. A razor tipped horn has ripped a deep, bloody furrow the length of his side and another horn gouged a hunk out of his thigh. Wish shakes his head and clicks his tongue as he cleans up the injuries with hot water.
Johnny moans and I stare at his pale, mud-splattered face. Red hot rage engulfs me. When that kid comes around I’m going to wear him out for pulling such a crazy stunt. Riding off bareback after a stampede! After I told him not to. I clench my fists and growl through gritted teeth.
“That kid won’t sit down for a week when I’m through with him.”
“You’d better rethink that, Gil,” Pete looks up at me and frowns. “We owe him big.”
“If not for Johnny here, that herd’d still be runnin’.” The kid moans again and Pete pats his shoulder, making soothing noises to him.
“Just what are you sayin’?”
His eyes meet mine. “I’m sayin’ Johnny is the one who turned that herd.” He gestures in the direction of the cattle. “When they bolted, the kid hopped up on Grasshopper and pointed him toward the leaders. He and your bay pony made it to the head of the herd before anybody else and swung ‘em.”
I stare from Pete’s earnest face to the boy on the ground. I’m having trouble believing that a kid could actually turn such a large, fear-maddened bunch of beeves. Flashes of memory run through my mind. The horse with the speed and darting moves so like Grasshopper. The horse I saw tonight knew just where to crowd those leaders. He worked them with that rare cow savvy my bay pony has. Yep, could’ve been Hoppy.
I concentrate on remembering the rider. It’s hard. He was so much a part of the horse that my mind’s eye is having trouble focusing on him alone. I know I thought he was brave and not a little crazy. He showed such confidence in his horse and competence in his task. He took a horn, too. It’d be just about where Johnny’s side is torn open. But he didn’t quit. He kept at it and turned those beeves. I couldn’t have done it any better. And now that I think of it, that rider was pretty damn small…
I must be slipping, because that fact never registered when I first saw it. Guess I was too relieved that somebody had finally reached the leaders. Or maybe I was caught up in the simple admiration of one cowboy to another for a job well done. I just never imagined for an instant that it might have been Johnny on that horse. But it was Johnny and Grasshopper all right.
Johnny turned the herd. Bareback and riding to beat the devil. All of ten years old. Ten going on forty. That boy did one hell of a man-sized job tonight. Maria’s boy is some kid. A man could do a damn sight worse than to call Johnny “son.”
I drop to my knees at his head and brush the hair back from his face. I smile at Pete. “Well, seein’ as how Johnny turned ‘em, I’d better not kill him.”
Pete’s grin sprawls across his entire face. “I reckon not.”
“How could he possibly do it, Pete?” I bite my lower lip and shake my head. “I saw it and it’s still hard to believe. He’s just a little kid!”
Pete cocks his head, thinking on that. “Well, you’re always sayin’ that boy is ten goin’ on forty.” He scratches his cheek. “Reckon that’s a right shrewd observation, ‘cause one thing Johnny ain’t is a ‘little kid’.”
He lifts one of Johnny’s hands, spreading it out and running his forefinger across the palm and down the length of the boy’s fingers. The kid is small for his age and he’s in that growth stage youngsters go through where his hands appear too large for his body. Johnny’s hands are well-shaped with long, strong fingers.
Pete’s eyes lock with mine. “I can’t put it into words… Johnny has gifts, Gil. When you watch him work, you plumb forget how young he is. And then there’s something in his hands,” He gives the hand he’s holding a shake.
“It’s… it’s like…,” he catches his upper lip in his teeth. “dadgumit, it’s like he has some kind of magic in his hands. I see it whenever he touches a horse. But it’s more than that. I’ve never seen such quick fingers.” He stares at those slim brown fingers, rubbing them with his own. “Quick and knowin’. Think of how good he is with a rope – and how fast he got that way!”
Pete’s right. The kid is a real athlete, moving with grace and confidence. Smooth. That’s the word that comes to mind when you see him move. Fluid and easy and cocky – like he knows that his body can handle anything trouble throws his way. It’s the kind of confidence you expect to see in someone like Rowdy Yates, but it’s totally unexpected in a boy Johnny’s age. All the same, something about Johnny in action forces you to sit up straight and pay attention.
I’ve never seen anybody with the phenomenal reflexes, the cat-like hand-eye coordination of this kid. And the roping is a perfect example. You’ll never be worth a damn with a lariat if you don’t have nimble fingers.
When you’re making a throw, you’ve got to size your loop with just the throwing hand. It’s a real trick to make that loop bigger and smaller using only the fingers and thumb of the one hand. But the other hand is handling the reins and playing out the rope. All the while you’re galloping over rough country and your eye has to judge the distance between you and the steer and your hands have to adjust the length of rope and the diameter of the loop to fit the situation. You’ve got to make those adjustments without thinking about it – as naturally as breathing. Your top roper has the same kind of fast, smooth, strong, and supple fingers as your top guitar picker – or gunfighter.
“Good point.” I rub my chin. “He’s not a kid, he’s a young old man.” I wipe a daub of mud from Johnny’s face with my finger. “It’s still pretty hard to believe, though.”
Wish thrusts his whiskery chin between us. “If you two gents are done jawin’, I gotta sew this boy’s side back together.” A decidedly tender smile bursts through his whiskers. “He is a pretty unbelievable little cuss, ain’t he?”
His eyes darken as he glares at the sluggishly bleeding wound. “I sure hate givin’ a button like him laudanum. It’s liable to make him sick and I ain’t sure ‘bout how much is too much for him. But fixin’ him up’ll hurt till all hell won’t have it.”
“He’ll handle it, Wish. I don’t want him to have any opium either.” I settle myself beside Johnny and lift his head into my lap. “Pete, you’ll have to hold his legs still.”
As Pete moves to sit by his knees, Johnny stirs and his eyes blink open. “Mr. Favor?”
“Damn, if he ain’t alive. See, Wish? I told you we shouldn’t bury him just yet.” I’m trying to coax a smile, but the boy’s wide eyes make it clear that he doesn’t realize I’m joking. Before I can reassure him, Wish jumps in.
“Don’t you fret none, Johnny. Ol’ Wishbone ain’t gonna let that ham fisted clod near ya.” He bends close to Johnny’s injury, determining just what needs to be done. One hand pats the kid’s stomach in a comforting manner. “I’ll take good care of ya.”
“Pete?” Johnny’s eyes find the ramrod. He suddenly struggles to sit up. “The herd! Wha’ happened?”
All three of us push him down.
“Here now! Don’t go sittin’ up just yet.”
“The herd’s just fine.”
“Easy, kid. You did it. You got ‘em turned.” Johnny looks up at me and I smile, giving him every ounce of approval I have in me. “Good job, Johnny.”
He blushes and looks away. “Shucks, Mr. Favor. Ol’ Grasshopper did all the work. It was just like you said – just point him to the head of the herd and he’ll turn ‘em.”
Me and my big mouth. I did say that right before the cattle ran. How was I to know that he’d take me literally? Well, I’ve learned from experience that Johnny doesn’t forget anything he hears. I should have watched my tongue. But I’m thankful that he did what he did. Else I’d still be chasing that herd.
Johnny stares at the tufts of mane still clutched in his fists. He relaxes his left hand and rubs the hair back and forth between his fingers. “I ‘membered what you said ‘bout Grasshopper. When they ran, I could see right off that there wasn’t nobody close enough to head ‘em.” He drops the handful of hair and chews his bottom lip. The kid knows he disobeyed orders and danged if he ain’t kinda nervous about it!
He glances sideways at me, no doubt trying to gauge my reaction to his latest stunt. “So, I figured I’d better do it.” Those clever fingers fiddle with the button on the cuff of my shirt. “I didn’t really chase off after any cows. Honest. I headed straight across to the leaders.” He’s wheedling, but I catch the note of mischief lurking in his tone and words.
I rescue my button. Johnny is hell on buttons – just ask anyone who has spent any time with him. Wish claims he’s gone through three quarters of our supply of thread for the whole trip because of sewing ‘Johnny’d’ buttons back on. “No, I reckon you obeyed the letter – if not the spirit – of the law.”
His eyes find mine and the irresistible twinkle is there. “Sorry I worried ya.”
“Worried me?” I give him a stern glare. “Now why would I worry about a trouble-makin’ varmint like you? I was right worried about Grasshopper, though.”
“Is he all right?” Johnny opens his eyes wide and his hand finds mine. “When they got to slowin’ down, I took him into the herd to help that old red brindle cow’s calf. Poor little guy was tuckered out and I was scared he’d fall down.” His fingers head for the button again, but I pull it away in time. “We got the calf clear, but Grasshopper took a horn in his shoulder. Is he gonna be okay?”
Took the horse into a spooky herd to save a calf? That crazy kid! I ought to blister him from now ‘til next week. But he’s the damned hero of the night and I’m just plain grateful to him. He showed the instincts of a real stockman and the heart of a lion. How can I punish him for that? I can’t. I’m so proud of him I’m about to pop and I’m going to tell him so.
“I except he’ll be fine with some rest. Jesus is tendin’ him now.” I wipe another splotch of mud from his cheek. “Don’t you worry none about him.”
“He just needs some rest.” Pete backhands Johnny’s stomach. “Jesus’ll fix him up.”
Johnny heaves a sigh that sounds like relief. “Did I fall off?” He studies the hank of hair still clutched in his right hand.
“Fall off?” Pete laughs. “Hell, no! Johnny, if that horse was still runnin’, you’d still be ridin’ him.” He ruffles Johnny’s hair. “You done real good, boy.”
“Pete’s right, son. You did a man’s job tonight. You saved us a lot of time, effort, and beef. I’m real proud of you, Johnny.” I squeeze his shoulder and he turns his head away. His ears are scarlet. We’ve embarrassed him.
I point to his side. “We need to tend to you now. You need some stitches.” I grasp his chin and turn his head to face me. “I’m afraid a dose of laudanum will make you sick. Think you can stand it without any?”
He swallows hard and nods. Tough little cuss. “Just gimme a gulp of whiskey and somethin’ to bite on.” He’s watched Wish treat injuries before and knows what to expect.
The words are right, but he can’t disguise the apprehension in his voice. It quavers and there’s no denying that while the words are those of a man, it’s a child speaking them. He’s making a gallant effort, though, and I won’t disrespect him by treating him like the child he is. I won’t let anyone else do it, either.
“Good.” I squeeze his shoulder and nod at Wish.
Wish shakes his head, clearly disagreeing with me about the liquor, but he holds a flask of whiskey to Johnny’s lips. The kid takes a healthy swig – just like he’s watched other injured men do – and it nearly chokes him. He coughs and his eyes water like mad. We all have to bite our lips to keep from laughing at him. The whiskey might prove more trying than the stitches!
I hold a canteen to his lips and he swallows some water. It eases the coughing. Pete has a short round stick in his hand and he rips a piece off the tail of his shirt. He wraps it around the stick until the wood is cushioned by several layers of cloth. He holds it to the kid’s mouth and Johnny takes a deep breath and bites down on it.
I bend forward, cradling Johnny’s head protectively and blocking the boy’s vision of Wish. It’ll be better if the kid can’t see what’s going on. He’ll sure feel it plenty.
Johnny tries so hard to be still, but his body arches instinctively, uncontrollably when the needle probes deeply into his side. His head thrashes on my lap. Wish pushes him down with a firm hand to the stomach.
“Hold him still,” he barks at Pete and me, but his hands never falter as they drive that wicked needle in again and again. The stick snaps in half as Johnny bites down with all his strength. He manages to hold himself still and clenches his eyes shut, but a tear of deadly pain escapes and trickles down his cheek. I wish I could endure it for him, but I can’t.
I have my weight on his shoulders, keeping him still. Pete is at his hips, holding his lower body motionless. I place my mouth close to Johnny’s ear and soothe him. “Easy, Johnny. You’re doin’ fine. Wish is nearly finished.” Damn, I wish that was true. Hurry up, Wish!
“You’re all right. Just a little longer. You can hold on.” He can hold on. Stubborn, determined. This kid was at the head of the line when the Lord handed out guts – and he got somebody else’s share along with his own. “I’m real proud of you, boy.”
His body arches once more and goes limp. He’s passed out, thank God. It’ll be better this way. “Hurry up, Wish. Get it done before he comes around.”
“Oh, stop yer fussin’. I know what I’m doin’.” Wish’s experienced fingers never miss a beat and he’s soon got the wound stitched together. He cleans it good with carbolic and repeats the cleaning on the puncture in the boy’s thigh. He and Pete work efficiently to get the boy bandaged. Johnny’s breathing is ragged and he gives a small whimper, much like an injured puppy, when Wish gives a final tug on the bandage to secure it.
“Well?” I watch as Wish packs up his medical supplies.
“Reckon he’ll be okay. He’ll run a pretty high fever later this afternoon. Gonna take some nursin’.” Wish glares at me with raised eyebrows. “Hope you ain’t figurin’ on movin’ this herd out today.”
“Earliest we could even think about movin’ is tomorrow mornin’.” I can tell by the way his whiskers twitch that he isn’t happy with that answer.
Pete adds his two cents. “There’s good water and graze here.” He glances pointedly from the boy to me. “Layin’ over an extra day wouldn’t hurt none.”
The trail boss part of me balks at losing another day, but I must have some paternal feelings because I look at that wore-out, battered kid and hear myself agreeing. “Two nights here, then.”
Wish nods his approval and mixes two drops of laudanum into a cup of water. He sees the question on my face. “Hadn’t intended on givin’ him none of this, but I hadda stitch a lot deeper and take more than I thought. He’s gonna be hurtin’. This’ll take the edge off.” He adds a few drops from another bottle to the cup.
“Makes sense. What above the fever?”
“We’ll have to watch it close. If it gets very high, we’ll sponge him to bring it down.” He stirs the contents of the cup with his finger. “I added some cone flower tincture into this and I’ll brew up some willowbark tea. Both will help him fight the fever.”
He turns back to Johnny. “As long as he don’t pull these stitches out, he’s gonna be fine. Hold his head up, Boss.”
I support Johnny’s head against my body and Pete bathes the boy’s face with cool water. Wish presses the glass to Johnny’s lips. “C’mon, Johnny. Wake up now.”
The kid tries to move his head away, but Pete and Wish know what they’re doing and soon his eyes blink open again.
“That’s just fine, Johnny.” Wish coaxes the water down him. “Oh, don’t wrinkle yer nose thataway. It’s just a tech of laudanum to make ya feel better.” He holds the flask up, swirling it so that the contents make an inviting swishing sound. “You want another slug of whiskey?”
Johnny closes his eyes and turns his head away, lip curled in disgust. “Reckon not.”
“Ya stood that like man.” Wish strokes the boy’s cheek. “How’re ya doin’?”
Johnny’s whole body is quivering with the throbbing ache from that wound. I’ll bet he’d like nothing more than to curl up and bawl his eyes out. Instead, he gives Wish a crooked smile. “I’ll make it.” Damn, I like this kid.
The boy tries to sit up, but he can’t do it. He’s just too exhausted and sore. I cover his failure, making it look as though I’m holding him in place. “Easy, boy. Just lie still.”
He swallows and I can see the pain etched in every line of his face, read it in his eyes. Johnny’s trying so blamed hard to be brave and not cry. I’ve been sewed up before and I know just how much it hurts – while it’s happening and for a time after. Hell, grown men sometimes scream while it’s being done. This one’ll do to ride the river with.
I try to take his mind off of it. “We’re going to stay here today and tomorrow. If all is well, we’ll be movin’ out the next morning. How would you like to ride point with me and Pete for a while?”
“You mean it?” It’s a big honor and he knows it. “Ride up front with you and Pete?” His whole face lights up and his eyes dance. “Really?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Oh, boy!” The exclamation of a delighted ten-year old blurts out before he can stop it. He flushes at our knowing smiles and bites his lip, reining in his excitement. “I mean, I’d like that.”
“You earned it.”
“And can I say it, Mr. Favor?” His grin covers his entire face – hell, his entire body. “Can I start ‘em off?”
“You know.” He cocks his head and looks up at me through his lashes. “Head ‘em up. Moooove ‘em out.”
We all laugh at that. I shake my head at his audacity. Come to think of it, I’ve never delegated the authority to utter those words to anyone. But if Johnny wants to say them – and is fit to ride – day after tomorrow, then I’ll by God let him. “Sure. You can get them dogies rollin’, kid.”
He flashes me a jubilant grin, “Promise?”
His eyes turn glassy and lose focus before they drift shut. His body relaxes and he breathes in huge ragged sighs as the medication takes effect. Those impossibly long lashes flutter against his cheeks as Pete wipes the last of the mud from his vivid face.
“Here, Boss.” Jelly holds out a folded blanket. “Let’s put this under his head. He can stay right here by the fire. Poor little fella’s plumb tuckered out.”
We get Johnny situated with his head pillowed on a blanket and covered by still more blankets. Pete works him into a dry pair of longjohns. Kid wouldn’t be very happy if he woke up buck naked under the covers. The three of us climb to our feet, but we don’t leave. We just stand there staring down at him.
I’m struck by how small, how pathetically young he looks. He really is just a little boy, but you’d never know it to watch him. It’s strange how it just seems natural for Johnny to regularly accomplish feats it should take a man ten to fifteen years older than him to get done. But he does it daily and we’ve come to expect it of him.
I’m aware of the other men in camp crowding around us. They want to see for themselves that Johnny is okay. Quince kneels down and smoothes the blanket across his chest. The rest of the crew is content to watch him sleep, smiling, shoving and teasing one another.
The boy has a way of getting under folks’ skin. You can’t help but care about him. Just listen at the way they’re arguing with Wish about who is going to sit with the kid. They’re all practically asleep on their feet, but they’d rather stay beside Johnny than catch some shut eye.
There’s just something about him. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can read men better than most and this one is special. He frees one arm from the blanket and his restless fingers move across his chest. Long, knowing, clever fingers. ‘Some kind of magic in his hands’, Pete said. There’s a presence, a vibrancy inside him. The hairs on my arm stand up and I have the sudden thought that one day the world will know Johnny’s name.
Pete glances sideways at me. He must feel it, too. “That’s one hell of a kid, huh, Gil?”
“No, Pete. That boy’s one hell of a man. He’s got more sand than the Mojave desert.” I take a deep breath. Johnny’s in good hands and now I have to go tell another kid – make that ‘another man’ – with sand in him that his brother is dead.
Wish snorts and kneels beside Johnny again, elbowing Quince aside. He brushes back the unruly lock of hair that insists on falling forward over the boy’s forehead. He tugs his whiskers and nods wisely. “You ain’t kiddin’, Boss. Like Cousin Jelly would say, that Johnny boy’s a regular ring-tailed tooter.”
* Gil Favor (Eric Fleming), Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), George Washington Wishbone (Paul Brinegar, Lancer’s very own Jelly), Pete Nolan (Sheb Wooley), Jesus Patines (Robert Cabal, interesting note that his name is spelled Hey Soos in all of the credits…) and Jim Quince (Steve Raines) are all characters from the TV Western Rawhide. The series never mentioned a brother of Rowdy’s named Davey so we created him. This story takes place before the situations depicted in the TV show.
** Jeeter is the man who beats Maria to death and is in turn killed by Johnny in Karen and Nancy’s Lancer world. We introduced him as a character in Johnny’s nightmares in The Boy.
*** In the mid 1850s, thousands of head of Texas longhorns were driven from Texas to California. This influx of Texas beef became an important feature of both the Texas and California cattle business during that time. We moved the drives forward (this story is set in 1861) several years for purposes of this story.
**** The first trail herds from Texas to Missouri headed up the Goodnight/Loving trail in 1866. Goodnight and Loving became partners earlier that same year.
***** If you’ve never heard the story of Cynthia Ann Parker you might want to check it out. It’s a riveting story. On May 19, 1836, her family was murdered and she was taken captive by the Comanche. She was 9 years old. Although beaten and abused at first, she was adopted by a Comanche couple who raised her like their own daughter. Called Naudah (Someone Found) by the Comanche, she was trained in Native customs, loved her “parents”, and became an accepted member of the tribe. Her memories of life at Fort Parker faded and she refused all attempts to reunite her with her white relatives. She was happy living with the Comanche and never voluntarily returned to white society. She became the bride of Peta Nocona (He Who Travels Alone and Returns), chief of the Noconi (Wanderers) band. Peta loved his light-haired blue-eyed wife and remained monogamous – a rarity for a Comanche of his standing. Around 1847 (+ or – a couple of years in either direction!) Cynthia gave birth to Peta’s son, Quanah (Fragrant). Quanah Parker became the last great Comanche chief and played a crucial role in the history of the Southwest. Quanah was around 13 when Texas Rangers raided the band’s encampment on the Pease River. The raid resulted in the capture of Cynthia Ann and Quanah's young sister Topsannah (Prairie Flower) and decimated the Nocones. It forced Quanah, now an orphan, to take refuge with the Quahadi Comanches of the Llano Estacado where he became an accomplished horseman and gradually proved himself to be an able leader. The “liberated” Cynthia was returned to her uncle Isaac and other Parker relatives. She tried numerous times to return to her Comanche family, but was always taken back to the Parkers. Topsannah died of influenza and Cynthia never stopped grieving. She died soon after. We’ve moved her actual age/date of capture (and Quanah’s birthday) forward by roughly 5 years in order to fit our timeframe.
****** By the 1860s the Quahadis ("Antelopes") were known as the most aloof and warlike of the various Comanche bands. Quanah became chief of the Quahada band and proved to be a cunning, successful warrior who never lost a battle to the white man. His band’s raids were every bit as devastating as those of Cochise or Geronimo’s Apache. He was never captured by the Army, but decided to surrender and lead his tribe into the white man's culture when he realized that there was no alternative. He recognized that he had a choice as their leader: hold them to the old ways and watch them die or lead them down the road of acculturation and watch them have a chance at survival. He knew that with acculturation he might watch the culture die, but the people themselves would live. Once he made his decision, he fought for his people within the system as capably and fiercely as he had fought with them against the system. Biographer Bill Neeley writes: "Not only did Quanah pass within the span of a single lifetime from a Stone Age warrior to a statesman in the age of the Industrial Revolution, but he accepted the challenge and responsibility of leading the whole Comanche tribe on the difficult road toward their new existence."