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.
First light found me still in the blankets. The sky had lightened considerably before I awoke. The Indian had made some sort of noise. It surely had been to awaken me since he moved with the silence of death. That is unless he wanted to be heard. The dried beef and hard biscuits we had for breakfast were the same as the ones we had for dinner the night before. If we had lunch that day it to would be the same. After a couple of days of jerked beef and biscuits the beans or stew of the camp would be a welcome addition.
The Indian lingered in camp after the sparse breakfast. I sensed he was curious about our stranger. I found the small wooden box. It still bore the carvings of the cigar company whose products had once been packed inside it. Either the man or someone else had put a finish of some kind on the box to seal the wood. The wood fairly glowed in the early morning light.
I found the first letter to have been addressed to Deacon Burke. It was an approval for Deacon Burke to do missionary work in the west. The Indian did not seem to approve. Missionaries usually went among his people. The letter went on to instruct Deacon Burke to begin churches in the towns he passed through on his way to California. The Church in St. Louis did not care how long it took him to make his way to California. They even compared his trip to Moses' search for the promised land.
The other documents were just his letters of reference from different church elders. The religion was foreign to me. A good little Southern Baptist boy knew nothing of the smaller sects. The one thing that did interest me was the fact that Deacon Burke was from Virginia the same as me. There seemed to be a lot of us transplanted rebels around the fringes of the west.
I packed the small wooden box along with his suit into a carpet bag he had in the rear of the wagon. The few other belongings that might be of any value the Indian and I loaded onto the horse. The make shift pack arrangement would not be comfortable for the animal but it was a short distance before we would remove them. The wagon itself was the most valuable thing the Deacon owned. It was also the one thing we could not carry with us. On a cattle drive nothing could be taken along unless there was a specific use for it. The small wagon was of no use. It was even likely to be a problem for the camp crew. So it had to be left behind for some other traveler to find.
There was no way to tell how long the horse had wandered but it seemed a good bet that water was close. The Indian did not give his pony water that morning. He knew the horse could smell the water if he was thirsty. We back tracked the wagon even though it went in almost a circle. The Indian's pony began resisting his moves ever so slightly. The Indian gave the animal its head. Not fifteen minutes later we came to a river. At that place the river had high, steep banks. We traveled down it toward the herd looking for a place to water the thirsty animals. A few minutes later we came upon a fence which seemed to go on forever. At one point behind the fence we could see a wide shallow part of the river. It stood to reason it had been fenced off by the locals because it was the only watering spot around. I had no idea why but it appeared someone was trying to deny the water to outsiders.
I had no idea what Big Ed would do. I hardly knew the man at all. I knew what I would do though. I also expected it would be Ed's decision. We were just about to leave the fence to allow Ed to decide on the next move when they rode up. The three of them must have been watching us ride the fence for some time.
"Howdy stranger," a thin red headed man greeted me. He obviously planned to ignore the Indian.
"You own this land?" I asked it not being friendly at all. I didn't want to make friends with a man I might have to kill.
"No, but I work for him." His reply came in a rather thick voice. He sounded like a man with a hangover.
I nodded. "Could you tell me what the deal with the fence is?" I asked it trying to appear concerned. I really wasn't. It wasn't my herd.
"Sure, Mr. Evans put up that fence to keep the cattle drives from messin' up his water."
"I see then the water belongs to him. Is that how he sees it?" I was trying to find out what was going on not start a fight.
The man's eyes got hard. "Ain't no seeing to it. Mr. Evans has been on this land for thirty years and the water is his."
"I see. Guess me and my friend will be heading back to the drive." I said that as I watched his eyes.
"You do that friend. Tell your boss the water is not for sale or for the taking. We will fight to protect what is ours."
"I will tell him." I said it nice and friendly. "Nobody had paid me to kill him. In addition, if I did the war would start too soon. If Big Ed wanted to fight for the water fine. It was his decision to make not mine.
We arrived in camp after dark. The chuck wagon was still open. The stew pot would be on all night for those riding nighthawk. I hadn't been worried about the food.
"Cookie, I got a bag here I need to store, could you shove it in the wagon for me." Without a doubt at the beginning of the drive the answer would have been no. By the time I asked a lot of the items we had brought with us had been used up.
"Pete, I will if you don't mind it being tied on the side," It was his way of showing he had no fear of me. He was right not to fear me. He was a good cook. Even a gun hand would get strung up for killing a cattle drive cook. Hell, if I wanted to make friends protecting Cookie would be the way to do it.
"Pete did you find water?" The impatient voice behind me belonged to Big Ed.
"Yep, but we gonna have a problem getting it." I looked him in the eye daring him to comment on my delay in reporting to him.
"How so?" he asked.
"Water is in a small river. It is slow and deep with steep banks." I took a drink from the coffee cup Cookie handed me. Big Ed waited rather than ask any more questions. "Me and the Indian rode the river south till we came to some wire. Somebody fenced in the only shallow area. Couple of his riders said the water was not for sale or takin'."
"You mean they expect to keep us from God's own water?" His face had suddenly turned red. I had seen it do that a couple of times before. Big Ed did not hide his feelings well. "How many are there?"
"We only saw three but you can bet this time of the year there are more." I said that as I took a metal plate from the stack on the pull down shelf on the side of the chuck wagon.
"How far is the water?" Big Ed asked.
"For riders half a day northeast. For the herd a day and a half maybe two." I was in the middle of filling my plate with stew when he replied.
"Well, finish the grub then you and the Indian go back and find out how many we are going to have to fight for that water." He turned to walk away.
"Ed," When he turned back I began, "I signed on to fight these cowboys didn't. You gonna get some of them kilt."
"It will be their choice. Any man don't want to fight I will pay off and send on his way. On a cattle drive Pete you fight for the cattle."
"Sorry Ed, guess I ain't never gonna be a cowboy. I fight cause I am gettin' paid to fight. I sure wouldn't fight for no smelly cow. By the way Ed, me and the Indian brought a horse back. We would appreciate it if you took a look and see if you can buy him from us."
"Where is the owner?" Ed asked it with a very solemn expression on his face.
"Dead, we just took the horse so it wouldn't starve." I looked Ed in the eye. I figured he was smart enough to ask the Indian if he wanted to know how the man had died. I sure as hell didn't plan to tell him.
I had been saddle weary even before the ride back to the fence. The Indian said one of his very few words when we were about a hundred yards from the watering hole. "Wait," he said as he slipped down from his horse.
I could have insisted on going along. That most likely would have gotten us both killed. The Indian could slip into the camp count heads and get back safely. He would never be able to do it with me along. I would make enough noise to get us strung up as spies. I was perfectly happy to sit on the ground with my rifle in the moon light. The rifle would be totally useless since it was dark as hell. It just made me feel better.
The rifle was an army cavalry issue piece. It was their marksman rifle, a pretty good weapon in its own right. I had the piece redone for me by a gun smith in Saint Louis. He had re-chambered it by hand. The improved rifle would fire either the .44 caliber revolver round or the larger more powerful .44 rifle cartridge. The rifle had been milled to accept two different sights. The open sight standard to most any weapon and a special German made peep sight. That one I carried in a small wooden box in my saddlebag. It was used only when a long accurate shot was needed. That night accuracy was not going to be a factor. There was not enough light for the peep sight.
The single shot rolling block rifle had lost favor with soldiers because it was slow. Soldiers wanted rapid fire so the repeating rifle was all the craze. The new repeaters were still scarce so the rolling block had been issued to the troops in large numbers. They were also available and in use all over the west. Hell, even the indians were equipped with them. Those old Springfields passed through a lot of hands before they were finally broken or scraped.
That thought and a lot more ran through my mind before the Indian returned. When he did I saw his shadow moving along the ground only seconds before he was beside me. The Indian like all his people moved like the animals of the plains, graceful when in their stealth mode.
"How many," I whispered.
The Indian gestured thirteen.
"Damn," I said. I thought a lot more than a simple damn. Thirteen of them and only twenty of us. Some of our twenty would be left with the cattle. I could probably figure on a slight numerical superiority. It would be quickly lost to the enemy since they would be in fortified positions. If we attacked them we were going to be massacred.
The Indian and I pushed hard to get back to the herd. During that ride I fought hard to find a way to win while staying alive. Going to the gun had always been my stock and trade but this would be suicide. I had a feeling Ed was not going to sit back while his cattle died from lack of water.
"It is real bad Ed." I said those words when we were standing by the fire. I had a plate of stew in my hand. I knew even as I had dipped the stew that Ed wanted the word but I didn't much care I was hungry. If he didn't go along with my plan then we were going to die. I wanted to at least die with a full belly.
"They got thirteen men staying in the bunk house and they know we are coming. My guess is they are going to be on the ground in fighting positions. If we ride into them they will cut us to pieces. Man on a horse is a lousy shot." I thought I had made my case pretty well.
"The cattle have to have water and they have to have it today or tomorrow at the latest. We are going to have to water them, that is all there is to it." Ed was as adamant as I had expected he would be.
"I got an idea. It might work. If nothing else it will get them on the horses and us on the ground." I smiled when I said it. I spent the next ten minutes explaining it to him.
"That ain't got no chance of working, but then again you are right. We go in there guns blazing and a lot of my cowboys are gonna die. Take ten men and all the shovels we got. Make it look good."
I noted with a great deal of satisfaction Big Ed did not want to join us. It was why he paid me. It was clear he was a rancher not a warrior. It was the middle of the day when we arrived at the spot a half mile above the wire.
"I want a trench dug over here. Make it as deep as you need to so that you can feel safe if we start shooting these people. You might want to go ahead and dig it deep enough for a grave in case we don't talk them into giving us water." Everybody knew it was going to be water or lead. Those were the only possible outcomes. While they dug the trench I set the first charge off at the river bank. I had no idea what I was doing but it didn't matter. I just wanted to make some noise while I collapsed part of the river's bank.
I had set off three charges before they arrived. I had also made a pretty good sized little cove. Not enough to water almost a thousand head of cattle but enough to look like it might be possible given a day or two. I would have needed another couple of cases of dynamite at least to do the job.
"Hey, what the hell you doing to my river," the older man asked. I didn't recognize him but I did recognize the two with him. They had been two of the ones I had spoken with the day before. The man was thin in the way old men got on a ranch in those days. If Big Ed live to be the old man's age, he would lose most of his bulk. The man was small but by no means frail. He was small like dried rawhide, tough and stringy.
"Well Sir, I am making a watering spot for our cattle. I figure it will be done by tomorrow." I noted with satisfaction that he counted guns while I spoke. The man was no dummy.
"What do you plan to do make a shallow cove here for the cattle?" he asked it with real concern in his voice.
"Either that or divert the river over to that gully a couple of hundred yards away. Just depends on what I get done with four cases of dynamite." He didn't know or need to know that I was all but out of dynamite.
"You know I can't let you do that. It will take the water from my cattle." He looked nervous.
"Dead man, don't have to worry about cattle. Nothing else far as that goes. Best we can figure you got thirteen or so men. You come back with them and we gonna be in those holes. We are gonna kill ever damn one of them. Then I personally am gonna kill you. Sorry but that is the way it plays." I gave him my best evil look. I had just done as much as was possible to end the standoff without a fight.
"If I let you water at the shallows this stops?" He didn't look happy at all.
"Bring the cattle on down. We will take down the wire ourselves." He looked like he might have something in mind.
"Good, the Indian and I will make sure there are none of your men around. If there are we come back to this place. I will personally blow hell out of this river bank. So you best keep them away."
"You don't trust me?" He looked at me with a smile.
"Not a bit," I said with a grin.
"If you need a job after this, come see me." He turned his horse. The three of them rode away.
Everything else about watering the cattle was anticlimactic. Big Ed took the whole next day to make sure all the cattle got enough water to drink. He lost a few head because the watering was so chaotic. I sat in my saddle worrying what treachery the old man had in mind. It was a futile exercise. The old man stayed away. Moving the cattle in and out of the shallows was a miserable job. I was even pressed into service to help with it. The Indian stood guard over us.
Once the watering was complete we pushed north. A few miles up the trail the river turned east so we parted company with it. It had been a dry spring but enough rain had fallen on the plains so that the grass grew regardless of the drought. The search for water kept the Indian busy most of the time. I rode with him just to keep him out of trouble. Big Ed needed him alive and I liked the man. Still there were those who didn't. Some with good reason to hate all indians and some with no reason at all. Either way I tried to stay close.
After the water incident something gnawed at me. Big Ed avoiding the fight really effected me. I realized Ed was no coward. It had to do with his being able to hire men like me to go out and die for him. He could pay for men like me to defend his property. Like I said before, I had hired out my gun previously. I had just never realized that the money was the key. If you had it no matter its source you had to defend it. The man with the most money hired the most guns to defend what was his or to take what wasn't. That knowledge led me on in my planning for after the drive.
While the thoughts ran through my head the Indian alerted me to the rider coming up on our rear. We watched him change from a cloud of dust to a rider on horseback. Then finally to someone from the cattle drive. He was riding purposefully toward us. I figured it meant trouble for me. I couldn't think of any reason that the Indian would be needed badly enough to send a rider for him. I sensed the Indian knew it too.
When the rider got close I noted his red hair. He would obviously be called red or some variation of it. When he got close enough to speak the horse had been slowed then reined to a stop.
"So Red, what's got you all in a lather?" I asked it even though I could have just remained quiet like the Indian. Red was going to tell me regardless.
"Big Ed sent me to fetch you. He is all in a rage."
"Now what had got him all upset?" I asked it knowing whatever it was had to do with me and my gun.
"Rawhiders cut out ten head and rode west with them. Ed wants them back."
"How long ago?" I asked.
"Well I been riding all day so it was yesterday."
I turned my attention to the Indian. "You comin?"
He shook his head. Killing wasn't his job and I knew it. The Indian might kill to defend his own life but the cattle meant nothing to him. I headed southwest hoping to cut their trail. The redheaded cowboy rode along. I didn't bother to ask him why. He was obviously under orders from Ed.
I was moving too slowly for the cowboy. "We never gonna catch them at this rate."
"We are never going to catch them if we ride these horses to death. Yours is already spent. You should head back to the herd for a fresh mount."
"She will be fine," the cowboy said. Hell he was a drover and should know his horse's limits so I shut up. When night fell we hadn't cut their trail so I pulled up under the only tree I had seen in over an hour. He acted as though he wanted to build a fire. He didn't say anything just moved around like he was getting the makings ready.
"Forget the fire Red. We run a cold camp." I said it as I began rubbing down my horse. Red I noted began work on his animal even though his heart wasn't in it. I had a feeling his mind was on coffee.
"You don't mind if I roll one do you?" He asked it with the pouch of tobacco in his hand. I could have stopped him but I decided not to bother.
"Nope, they are not looking for us. We are looking for them.' I could tell he didn't understand. It didn't matter much.
The next morning before noon we cut their trail headed west. Red and I turned to follow. We had gotten lucky. If we had gone farther west we would have missed them all together. They pulled up not more than two hours after we cut the trail.
I wasn't the Indian but I knew there were three loaded down horses pushing ten or so head of cattle. It stood to reason that all three of them were hold up in the tiny shack. The shack was built by a wandering stream. It would have been ideal had there been a small rise with a stand of trees overlooking the cabin. No such luck, there was only the flat plains surrounding it. I was well within range of my rifle when I removed it from the scabbard. I also removed the peep sight from the saddlebag. Opening the wooden box without dropping it all was a trick on the slightly moving horse.
"What are you doing?" Red asked.
"Getting ready to take back the cattle," I replied.
"Well we are going to get closer aren't we?"
"Why, do you want to get shot at. There is a high probability you will get killed in a gun fight. Is that what you want Red. Do you want to die?"
"Hell no, but I ain't gonna be no good to you this far away."
"Don't worry Red. You don't have to be." By that time I had the rifle together. It took a couple of more minutes but the men in the cabin came outside. I was too far away to tell much but it was pretty clear they were armed to the teeth. Whether they were or not made no difference. I took aim at the one on my right side of the ragged line they formed. The horse stood perfectly still. I was sure it would be the last time he would do that so I took careful aim. When I pulled the trigger there was the blast of a controlled explosion from the shell. A second later the man fell. It took another second for the other two to react. Their reaction was first to fire several rounds at us. None of them came even close to where we sat.
Since my horse was fidgeting I climbed down. I dropped his reins since he was well enough trained not to run off on me. The men ran into the cabin when I climbed down. The were smart enough to know that the death of their friend had not been a lucky shot.
I wasted a shot into the cabin's walls just to get them returning the fire. I knew one was standing inside the door and the other by the left hole in the wall. Those holes were what they used for ventilation. There was no glass in them so you couldn't really call them windows.
I aimed the rifle at the spot where I thought the one in the door would be standing. I gently squeezed the trigger to send death over the hundred or so yards. The scream barely audible on the wind told me I had at least wounded him. Smoke poured from the window. Three clumps of dust rose in front of us. The Rawhiders were down to one shooter. I was about to put a couple of rounds through the window when he came out with his hands up.
I drew a careful bead on him. I was just about to pull the trigger when I was stopped by the voice of Red.
"You aren't going to shoot him with his hands in the air are you?"
"I was, but if you want to carry him back to Ed it makes no difference to me." I said that looking Red in the eye.
"Well I sure don't want to kill him in cold blood like you did the first one."
"Okay then you ride down there and bring him back here. After that we can go down and get the cattle." I said it looking at the cabin.
"Why ain't you comin with me?" he asked.
"Because Red odds are fifty fifty that man inside the cabin ain't dead. He is probably laying in there with his rifle. He could be just waitin' for us to ride down there so he can shoot us. Now you feel free to go on down there, if you want to take the chance. Me, I will just wait right here for you to come back or to kill them after you are dead. Don't make no difference to me."
I could see his mind working. "Hell, they are rawhiders."
"Good point, so I assume I have your permission to shoot the one in the yard?"
"Yeah," he said. I noted he looked away when I shot the man standing beside his dead friend. His body fell almost on top of the first one.
"Well we still got to go down there?" Red made it a question.
"Yep, but not right now. If he is hurt the longer we wait the better. Blood loss will get him soon enough. If he is dead don't make no difference how long we wait, he is still gonna be dead. The only bad thing about the three hour wait was that there was no shade. It was hot as blazes.
When we finally went down I chose to circle around. We came on him from a direction he could not see from the door. He could watch from some of the other holes in the shack but not the doorway. It might not help to come up from a different angel but it couldn't hurt either.
The two in the yard were very dead by the time we finally reached them. The one in the house was almost dead. Red was still outside when I shot him in the head. I walked outside to find the cowboy leaning against the shack. He looked as though his jerky and cold biscuit might just reappear.
"You all right?" I asked it from a few feet away.
"Yeah, I just never killed anybody before."
"You still ain't kid. I killed them." I watched him for a second. He needed something to do I decided. "Red, lets go saddle up their horses."
"What for?" he asked.
"We are going to take these three back to the drive to bury. I want Ed to see his rawhiders."
The return trip didn't take all that long. It was just one night on the trail. When it began getting dark I asked, "So Red you tired enough to sleep with the dead or do you want to push on?"
"If it is all the same to you Pete, I think I would just as soon keep moving." Red looked about to fall from his saddle. Even falling from his horse must have seemed preferable to sharing a cold camp with three stinking corpses.
"Suits me just fine," I said as I turned back to the trail. Just before dawn we cut the trail left by the cattle. We followed it till we found the wagon tracks then followed those. A short while after sun up we were within sight of the wagon.
"Red you want to ride ahead and find the boss, or do you want to stay with this lot?" I asked it raising the horse's reins.
"Just as soon ride ahead," he replied. I would have bet on that. After what seemed like a inordinately long time Big Ed returned with the kid.
"What the hell did you bring those bodies back here for?" Bid Ed asked.
"You paid for 'em, thought you might want to see em''." I looked him hard in the eye.
"If you had told me they were dead that would have been enough."
"If that had been enough you wouldn't have sent the pup with me," I was still looking hard at Ed. Since the water incident things had changed. Ed felt I no longer trusted him so I guess he felt he could no longer trust me.
Ed looked a bit uncomfortable when he spoke. "Well get them in the ground. Turn the horses into the herd they ain't worth much but we will settle up when we reach the railhead. I got no use for the guns though."
He had seen the rifles tied to the horse with the thinnest man draped over the saddle. The pistols were tied on the side away from where he sat. He could not have seen them.
"They ain't worth much but I will find someone who wants them." I watched as he turned away.
"Red," I said to the retreating cowboy. "Get us a couple of shovels and lets get these guys in the ground."
"You killed 'em', you bury 'em'," he said it as he rode away.
"Seems like your stomach has returned pup," I said it quietly. I looked around to see what was handy. I found a stand of trees about a hundred yards away. I rode slowly to it. When I arrived I found a low spot in the ground. I cut the ropes holding the bodies to the horses. When all three were in the depression I mounted my horse and rode away.
"Sorry guys you was worthless but you should have got a hole anyway. I just ain't up to the diggin' of it."
I rejoined the Indian as I was tired of the company of my fellow white men. From Big Ed to the cowboys every one of them made me want to kill somebody. We were almost at the rail head when one of the cowboys caught up with me and the Indian.
"Big Ed wants you killer." He said it with a smirk. I knew then that the pup Red had been talking.
"Tell you what cowboy. If you are ready to die, you talk to me like that one more damn time." I put my eyes on him as if he were already dead. I waited to see if he would break the gaze or go for a gun. Either way he was going to come off second best.
He spun his horse then rode away. I watched his back as he rode quickly toward the herd. "Smart ass is gonna get himself killed one day." I was talking to myself but he Indian heard. He didn't say a word just nodded.
For some reason the Indian knew something. He rode back with me to the herd something he had never done before. When we arrived Big Ed met us.
"Lost about ten head last night. The trail is over that way." With those words he turned then walked back to the chuck wagon. If there had ever been any regard between us it ended right there. If he had been anyone else, I might have killed him. I didn't only because there were twenty men he owed money. They would surely have killed me.
The Indian rode with me to find the trail. I am not a great scout but I can follow ten head of cattle without a tracker. I said nothing because the Indian always had a reason for anything he did. We found the spot where the stolen cows left the herd. It wasn't more than a few hundred yards before the Indian got down from his horse then walked about.
"Three men on horses with no iron on feet," he said it as he looked up at me.
"Indians?" It was a question which wasted my breath.
"Hunting party," was his answer.
"Why would they want beef. I thought indians hated the taste of beef?"
"Not as much as they hate to see their little ones starve." It was a speech of epic proportions for the Indian. And it was a different man who spoke.
"I never heard you speak so much. You sound awfully white." I was smiling.
"Missionary school," he replied.
"You sure we gonna find starving Indians when we find the cattle?" I asked it knowing better than to waste my breath. I trusted him completely.
"I am sure," he replied.