The western sky was a moil of gaudy colors, a smear of softly blazing crimson, mingled with smudges of violet and purple, streaked with dazzling, vibrant gold bleeding through spatters of yellow and orange, as if some mad painter had squeezed tubes of oil paint on a palette and then tried to wipe it clean with a scarlet cloth.
The cattle, three hundred head of them, were strung out for a quarter of a mile or more under a faint pall of dust that seemed to follow them as if the grit were composed of lead filings and their backs were magnetized.
The dust spooled out from behind the herd, coating Jed Brand with dust, the fine grains seeping through the faded blue bandanna covering his nose and mouth, clinging to the sweat stains under his arms and on the front of his sun bleached chambray shirt. He had choked on that stinging, blasting dust for fifteen mile or more because it was his turn that day to ride drag while his brother Dan rode point. Silas Colter, the bastard, held the flanks with his cutting horse, well out of the dust and heat generated by the cattle. Colter rode well out so he could see both sides and if a cow strayed, he could be there with his horse under him and drive the cow back into the herd.
But by then, after weeks of being driven north, the herd was mite near trained. None of the longhorns strayed unless they were near water and hadn't drunk in a while, or if the leaders stirred up a sidewinder or two. Jed felt some pride about that. He and his brother had taken over as drovers in Waco after others had driven them up from deep in the Rio Grande Valley. That old mossy-horned cow in the lead, up there with Dan, had to break in two new drovers. She was as cranky as a Missouri mule until Jed and Dan had showed her who was boss. She kept wanting to turn around and head south, but now she had her wet nose to the wind and if she'd been bridled, she would have the bit in her teeth.
Behind him, a mile or so maybe, there was a youngster bringing up the remuda, a Mexican boy named Julio Cardoza whom Colter had picked up at Jed's suggestion. Julio knew horses and loved them so much he slept with them. Dan was always kidding Julio about being half horse, but Julio never minded that. It was as if he were proud to be joked about in that way.
"I am half horse," Julio always said. "But you do not say which half, the front or the back."
"Dan's the butt half," Jed told Julio.
And Cardoza always laughed at that.
He said he didn't really know how old he was, but thought he might have sixteen years. As he put it, "Creo que yo tengo diez y seis anos." Spanish is different than English. They say they have sixteen years. They have hunger. They have thirst. Jed spoke Spanish better than Dan did and he thought that was because he could think better in the language than his younger brother. It was a constant quarrel between them.
"What the hell do you want to speak Spanish for, Jed? You ain't no Mexican," Dan would say.
"Danny, you always think the Mexicans in Waco are talking about you behind your back. You always call what they say a lot of jabberin'. But if you understood their language, you'd know they weren't talking about you."
"What are they talking about?"
"Girls," Jed would say. "And money."
"Because they don't have neither."
"That's right, Danny. And, neither do we."ar
They would laugh after that, and the argument would be forgotten.
Cardoza was an orphan. Colter hadn't wanted to hire him on, but Jed convinced him that they'd wear out horses on such a long drive, from Waco up to Abilene in Kansas, and they needed a remuda and Julio was the best horse wrangler around those parts. After a few days on the trail, Colter stopped his grumbling about having a boy doing a man's work. He and Julio didn't get along, but as Jed said, "Ain't nobody can get along with Colter. The man's got a mean streak in him a mile wide and two miles deep," he told Dan.
"He may be plumb mean," Dan said, "but he ain't got a sense of humor."
Which was true, Jed thought, as he wondered when Colter was going to call a halt. They were at least another day's drive from Abilene and the prairie was going to be dark as a coal bin once that sun was down and they all had tired on them like a worn-out overcoat.
Jed motioned to Colter, beckoning him to ride over for a talk.
Colter turned his horse in a tight circle and gamboled back to the rear of the herd. He was a lean whip of a man with a sharp, chiseled face, pale blue eyes that were as vacant as the inside of a seashell and with that same hollow look to them. They were eyes a man couldn't read. Eyes most men wouldn't want to read. His white duster flapped behind him as he broke into a gallop and rode closer, giving him the look, through the dust, of a bony wraith risen from some long-forgotten boot hill.
"What you got in your craw, Brand?" Colter growled as he rode up alongside Jed. His duster collapsed like a sheet on a windless clothesline. Half of a cheroot sprouted from his mouth, the end of it unlit. Colter never smoked them, he just chewed them into pulp and spat out the last chunk like a prune pit.
"Ain't you goin' to bed this herd down, Colter, or are you aimin' to run us all by moonlight?"
"You just keep your pecker in your pants, Jed. They's a crick 'bout a mile ahead and it's got long grass on both sides. We ain't but another day's short ride from Abilene once we cross that little ol' crick."
"You know, Silas," Brand said, "there just might be a heart beating in that scrawny chest of yours, after all. I was beginning to give up all hope of ever stopping to rest."
"Son, I guarantee them cattle will know when to stop long before you do. Once we hit that crick, they'll line up like children at a candy store window and your day's work'll be almost done."
Jed laughed, despite his weariness and Colter's abrasive manner. The man was like a burr under the saddle blanket at times. Most of the time, Jed thought. There was just something not right about Colter, as if he were just a half inch off of plumb. Dan hadn't complained much because he was so easygoing, but Colter positively rubbed Jed the wrong way, always pushing, pushing, to get the cattle up and moving early every morning, and holding them to the trail way too long, until a man's muscles were kinked up like a sackful of rusted chains, and Jed's temper was as short as the stub of cigar in Colter's mouth at the end of every blamed day. Maybe the man was in a hurry, but it sure as hell wasn't doing the cattle any good. They were starting to lose pounds and who in hell wanted to buy a bunch of skinny cattle?
Colter kept his eye on the herd all the time he was talking and when one of the cows started breaking from the herd, he slapped leather reins across his horse's rump and put spurs to its flanks. He wheeled the horse in a tight turn and galloped off.
Brand thought Colter was ever quick to keep the herd together and he admired him for that. They hadn't lost but two head the whole drive. One steer broke its leg in a gopher hole and had to be shot. Dan dressed it out and they cooked the choice parts until the meat turned rancid, so it wasn't a total loss. The other cow had fallen into a ravine and broken its neck. That one, too, died from a merciful bullet to its heart and was left for the wolves and coyotes.
Colter's horse cut the stray cow back into the herd as neatly as a man might slip a deuce back into a deck of playing cards. It was something to watch and Jed gave the man credit as a horseman.
The cattle in the vanguard began bawling when they drew near the creek. Their cries wafted back to Jed's ears and perked him up. Seconds later, Colter rode up with his latest orders.
"Bunch 'em up," he said.
Brand and Colter took off their hats and began ragging the cattle at the rear of the herd. They both yelled and the cattle picked up speed, running into the animals ahead of them so that the line swelled and fattened, bulging out on both flanks. Soon the whole herd was running toward the creek and Jed hauled in on the reins, slowing his horse. Colter did the same.
Jed could smell the water, feel the subtle shift in temperature.
"That'll hold 'em for a while," Colter said, riding up alongside Brand. "When they're finished watering, we'll cross 'em over and bed 'em down. I'll ride herd the first shift. You and Dan can draw straws to divide up the rest of the night."
"Think you can nighthawk this herd all by yourself, Silas?" Jed never missed an opportunity to goad Colter, just to see what was under the man's hard skin.
"Sonny, I been singin' to beeves longer'n you been alive. And when I nighthawk, they sleep like babes in a manger."
"Silas, you're not that much older'n I am and I'm twenty-two. I cut my teeth on a cow's teat."
"Well, I cut mine on a bull's balls and I was born with bowed legs, Brand."
The banter stopped when they reached the creek as the far clouds in the western sky began to turn to ash, leaving a solemn dark bruise on the horizon. The cattle were lined up along the creek, some striking the water with their hooves to splash water into their mouths, others lapping up gouts of water with rapid flicks of their parched tongues.
Jed slid his hat back from his forehead and turned his horse upstream. It was thirsty, too, and he needed to drink and fill his canteen before morning.
He looked back over his shoulder and saw Cardoza and the remuda coming up fast, the horses, having smelled water, running at a weary gallop. Jed took off his hat and waved a greeting to Julio, then clucked to his horse and rode up to water that didn't have a cow slobbering in it.
Dan was already there, flat on his stomach, sucking water into his mouth. He looked up as his brother dismounted and walked toward him, leading his horse.
"Boy, oh boy, Abilene tomorrow, Jed. I can take me a bath and put on some flower water and find me a pretty girl."
"Don't count your chicks before they break the shells with their pippins, Danny. Colter will find fourteen reasons not to pay us when we deliver this herd, and he'll have another half dozen orders to give us before we can shuck out of these dust-infested duds. You mark my words."
"Aw, Jed, you spoil everything. Colter's all right. He'll do right by us."
Jed lay down beside his brother and put his canteen into the water. He heard it gurgle as water fought to flow into its spout.
"I'm not so sure, Danny. Like I said. I don't trust the man as far as I can throw my saddle bronc."
The sky turned dark and the night came on with the suddenness of a shroud thrown over a corpse.
Copyright © 2004 by Jory Sherman