My job on that cattle drive had been simple. I was the hired gun. Oh it wasn't as obvious as the times I had been hired on to kill specific people. Nonetheless it was my position. The scout was an Indian and damned good at his job. My job was to ride along with him and make sure nobody killed him. I was also expected to hunt down rustlers. It would be nice if i returned the cattle in addition to the bodies of the rustlers. I am not sure how many other drives had a man like me on the payroll but Big Ed Williford believed in preventing trouble by having he fastest gun on his payroll. If he couldn't prevent trouble, he wanted to have the winning hand. Since there were few real gun hands on a cattle drive or rustling cattle he had the best man for the job.
Gun hands were cheap that shortly after the war of Yankee aggression. Like a lot of other men when I returned from the war I found the family farm sold to carpet baggers. I drifted west along with many other former soldiers.
Unlike most of them I had been a sharpshooter during the war. I didn't fire my gun into the woods hoping to hit a target. I knew exactly when I had killed a man and there were many. My first year in the west I found that being willing to kill for money was about the only marketable skill I had.
"Pete, you and the Indian go on up ahead and try to find us some water. These cows are going to need water real bad soon." Big Ed gave the order over our morning oatmeal.
"Okay boss, you seen the Indian this morning?"
"He is over with the horses. He seems to prefer them to us." Big Ed was smiling.
"Can't say that I blame him. Most of the time we act worse." I didn't think Ed cared much for the remark. I had been traveling with the Indian for three weeks. During that time I had seen him insulted ten times or more. It had not come down to guns yet thank god. I knew it was only a matter of time though.
I walked to the rope line tied between two wagons. The Indian was working on a horse tied to the line. The horse appeared to have a hoof problem. The Indian was holding the hoof between his legs while he worked on it with a large pocket knife.
"Two, you about ready to go looking for water?" I asked it knowing he was still busy. I wanted to hurry him along. As usual he looked up to acknowledge my presence but did not speak. He simply returned to the hoof trimming.
I climbed down from my own horse. I wasn't sure how long Two was gonna be so I loosened the saddle cinch. With the horse about as comfortable as he was gonna be for a while, I made myself comfortable sitting on the ground leaned against the wagon's wheel. Whenever I had the opportunity I sat on the ground. I had always hated horses. Horses are stupid clumsy animals at best.
I knew there was no sense trying to hurry the Indian. He did things at his own pace. He and I worked out our differences the first day we met. I knew instantly it was useless to try to impose my will on him. He had absolutely no fear of me. Once that was established it was kill him or just go along with his ways. The drive needed him so no one was willing to pay me to kill him. That made going along the easiest thing to do. Over the weeks we had forged a kind of friendship. Not the kind where you talk about things because the Indian almost never spoke. Rather the kind that allowed us to ride for hours together without trying to kill each other.
The Indian finished his horse then took a look at my horses hooves. He made a single cut after checking all four. When he finished he walked to the chuck wagon for his grub. The cook put his meager rations into an empty flour sack. The Indian tied the sack securely with a single rawhide strip. He then tied the bag around his waist. He walked to his pony then looked over at me. I knew then, and only then, were we ready to go.
The Indian rode a small painted pony. It hardly seemed possible but the small pony was able to go longer than the old chestnut mare I rode. The mare was faster but the pony had more endurance. The Indian had signed onto the drive with two of the little beasts. The other was mixed in with the small heard of horses which followed along behind the cattle. Since horses were harder to control, the herd had it's own drover. Twenty men could not ride five hundred miles on twenty horses. Each man had at least two favorite horses he used. All the men except me. I hated all the ugly, stupid, smelly beast equally. I rode whatever horse was available. I didn't like one any better than another.
The Indian and I rode north all day. We rode at a pace about three times as fast as the slow moving cattle. With the Indian I had learned to eat in the saddle. If I stopped to take care of necessities, I had to ride harder to catch up with him. When he stopped which was seldom I waited. I did so since I had no idea where to go. If I had left him then went in the wrong direction, I might never see him again. The Indian would not come to find me. He was as stubborn as the horse I rode.
It was well after dark when we stopped for the night. There was no reason to start a fire. The food we carried would not be improved by heating it. Which is why we carried no cooking utensils at all. We went to sleep that night in a cold camp. There were so few people on the trail that it was not really for security reasons.
It took a second to realize what had woke me. It was the sound of a horse snorting. Hell horses do it all the time but sometimes it is for a reason. I looked over to find the Indian's blanket empty. I listened carefully to the sounds of the night. Even as I listened my hand moved closer to the Colt handgun. If it was to be close combat, the Colt was the weapon of choice. I could not imagine a situation in the dark calling for the long gun.
I spent several minutes trying to place the sound. I couldn't pull a similar sound from my memory. I knew it was buried somewhere in there but I had lost the key. The sound was far enough away so that I felt comfortable moving about in the dark. I found the Indian standing by our horses. From that vantage point I still could not see a thing, but the sounds seemed closer. The Indian made a walking motion with his fingers. I nodded my agreement that the sounds were close enough to walk toward.
The Indian and I tried to slip up on the sound. The sound was definitely man made. That being the case the only question was why the sound moved toward us so slowly. The other question was what the devil made the squeaking sound. There was a moon that night so we were able to make out the shape of a small one horse wagon from far away. I was about to suggest we return to camp and forget it. Obviously the Indian knew something I didn't. He didn't seem all that interested in the wagon. Still he moved forward.
After what seemed like a long time we drew near the wagon. The horse ambled along without any direction. On the carriage type seat, complete with springs, rested what at first appeared to be a bundle of rags. I didn't really need the closer examination to tell me it was a man. The man might have been sleeping in the awkward position. The Indian and I both knew better. I climbed onto the small step then pulled him over by his black suit jacket. He hadn't been dead long enough to stink but long enough to pass through the stiff as a board stage. I had seen enough death during the war to know how it went. After a few hours the body got stiff. After a few more it went limp again. The body was cold as a mountain stream so obviously he had passed through that stage.
"Tell you what Two, lets bury him then check his wagon out." He wasn't going to be needing anything in the wagon. If we ran across a family member's address we would have to consult our conscience.
Fortunately he had a shovel in the wagon. It was just about the only tool. Frankly I was a little surprised until I thought about the condition of the trails in that part of the country. A traveler in a wagon might well be called upon to dig his wheel free.
I stripped off his suit before I rolled him into the shallow grave. Having been raised as a good little Baptist child I knew a few words to say over the stranger. However, since he was a stranger they were few. After a couple of minutes the Indian and I began searching the wagon. The man carried little. Not only were his belonging spartan his pouch and wallet were almost empty. There was a box of letters but the moon was not bright enough to read. I didn't much like having a fire in a strange place so I decided to wait until morning to read the letters. The Indian and I split his cash. My share was less then two dollars. The money was hardly worth digging his grave.
The man had hardly carried enough food for a week. The distance between where he left and where he was going must have been small. In stark contrast he carried to water bladders. The Indian held them up for me to see. His point was the two bladders were full to the top. I took another look at the horse. The gelding did not look to be in great need of water. It appeared the preacher, as I begun to think of him because of the black suit and the small wagon, had filled up his water bladders recently. The Indian and I silently agreed to back track the wagon until we found water.
We unhooked the horse from its traces. The Indian examined the horse while I finished going through the wagon. The wagon was small enough so that going through it took only minutes. After we finished our tasks I took a good look at the color of the sky and position of the moon. It appeared we had a couple of more hours until sun up. Without a word the Indian and I returned to our blankets.
.... There is more of this story ...