The sun was bright as brass, warm and golden in a cloudless sky. Colter squinted against the early-morning glare and shifted in his saddle. The day was scarcely begun and already his throat felt like a dust funnel. He hawked and spat, and took a swipe at the brushy mustache covering his upper lip. His mouth was dry and gritty, as if stuffed with wads of cotton, and it came to him that spitting only made it worse. Sometimes he wished he had a taste for chewing tobacco--just to keep the juices flowing--but that was a case of the cure being worse than the ailment. Right about then he would have traded his left nut for a steamy cup of coffee, something to sluice the grime out of his innards. Still, dinnertime was a good three hours off, and until then he might as well crap in one hand and wish in the other. Aboard the hurricane deck of a cow pony it was strictly grin and bear it--and try not to swallow too often.
Stretched out before him was the WesternTrail, a snaky ribbon of churned earth connecting Texas with the railhead at Dodge City. Every spring, after the flood waters of the Red had receded, the cattle herds were pointed north across the grassy plains. Throughout summer and early fall the trail was clogged with an unending stream of bawling, cantankerous longhorns. While the herds were small, rarely numbering more than a couple of thousand head, sometimes ten or twelve outfits passed Colter's cabin between dawn and dusk. After fording the Red at Doan's Store, they plodded northward in a steady rivulet of horns- and hooves and dust. Last year close to a quarter million beeves had shuffled past, and though spring had only recently transformed the tawny plains into an emerald sea of grass, herds were strung out as far as a man could see.
Colter and his partner, Emmet Hungate, rode for the XL, one of the largest spreads in No Man's Land. Their job was to inspect the passing herds and cut out any cows that belonged to the XL or its neighbors. It was a thankless task, long on sweat and short on sleep, but an accolade of sorts to their range savvy. While hardly more than full grown, they were old-timers in No Man's Land, and knew the brand of every outfit running cattle west of the line. The Trail crossed Beaver River where it flowed southeasterly into the Cherokee Strip, and it was here that they maintained a watch over the Texans. Cows that had drifted off home range and joined the trail herds were cut out and hazed back across the line. The Texans tolerated the practice, not outof honesty, or any sense of fair play, but because they couldn't afford trouble while trailing half6wild longhorns through a strange land.
The Cattlemen's Association had built a cabin along the trail, and from early spring to first frost Colter and Hungate called it home. Generally they were up at the crack of dawn, tending their small remuda and slapping together a hasty breakfast, and their day seldom ended much before the birds had gone to roost. But they were on their own for the most part--the XL foreman usually rode over once a week--and inspecting the Texas herds allowed them to escape the dubious joys of spring roundup. All things considered, it could have been a whole lot worse.
Especially for thirty a month and found.
That was a thought much on Buck Colter's mind these days. Thirty a month and found. A dollar a day, all the beans he could eat, and a sore butt to boot. It wasn't much of a bargain. Leastways not for a man who had notions of bettering himself. Most cowhands took to it like a pig in mud, and figured they had the world by the short hairs. But for him it was strictly a means to an end. A way station along the white man's road. The one he had chosen to follow for reasons all his own.
It was an old bone, yet one that Colter never tired of gnawing. He was just on the verge of working it over again when he spotted a Box T steer in among the herd. Straightening, he feathered his sorrel gelding lightly in the ribs and came down off a slight knoll. Emmet Hungate saw him coming but held his own position onthe opposite side of the trail, just in case the steer broke the wrong way. Colter signaled the Texan riding flank, indicating with arm motions that he meant to enter the herd. The Texan waved back, bobbing his head, and Colter slowed the sorrel to a walk. Matching pace with the herd, he came in somewhat behind the Box T steer and began threading his way in and out among the longhorns.
Moving through a trail herd was ticklish business, dangerous to both horse and rider. Longhorns were easily spooked, vicious as a tiger when aroused, and perhaps the most aptly named of all the earth's creatures. Their horns often exceeded six feet in length, long curving blades that tapered down to razor-tipped points. They had been known to kill wolves and catamounts, and, on occasion, even a full-grown bear. What they could do to a cow pony, or a man, made an ugly sight. One that left little to bury.
Colter maneuvered his horse slowly, gently touching the reins only when absolutely necessary. The gelding knew his business at least as well as the man, and, in some instinctive communion between horse and rider, he even knew which steer they were after. Picking his way through the herd, mixing caution with boldness, the sorrel came up on the steer's off side, and they paced along awhile flank to flank. Then, in a series of scarcely discernible moves, horse and rider patiently crowded their quarry to the edge of the herd. There Colter popped the brute across the rump with his lariat and choused him towarda low swale of grassland near the river. Already some twenty cows were grazing along the tree-fringed bottoms, mixed brands from every outfit in No Man's Land, and the steer joined them like a wanderer home from an arduous journey.
Colter reined back toward the trail, softly making horse talk, praising the gelding for his deft performance. Again, the sorrel seemed to understand, and he gave a barrel-chested snort, prancing sideways in an arrogant little strut. The man grinned, amused by the horse's cocky response, yet at the same time proud to be astride his back. It was good, this thing they shared. A touching of spirits that white men never fully understood.
Yet, considering it further, he found the thought hardly surprising. There were many things white men failed to grasp. Perhaps, the more obvious a truth, the more difficult it was for them to accept. Certainly he had discovered that to be true in his own case. They looked at his tawny skin and high cheekbones, tied it together with the raven's-wing hair, and, quick as scat, they were ready to paste a label on him. Then they were suddenly caught up short, nailed by the pale gray eyes and the brushy mustache. Somehow, at that point it always fell apart, became a puzzle they couldn't quite piece together. It provided him with a certain detached amusement, watching their uncertainty kindle and take hold.
Failing to grasp the essential truth, puzzled by contrasts which defied quick explanation, theytook the easy way out. Saw only what they wanted to see. Told themselves that their instincts were wrong and their judgments faultless. Not unlike a sleight-of-hand artist, he found it unnecessary to fool them, for they fooled themselves. It was simpler than he had suspected, this thing of the white man's road, and, in a queer sort of way, far more satisfying.
Colter grunted to himself, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Ai! It was a good game. One that few of the True People dared to play.
Suddenly he reined back sharply, setting the gelding on his haunches as Emmet Hungate loomed up before them. Lost in the shadows of his own thoughts, he hadn't been watching the herd. Even now the drag riders were hazing stragglers onward with curses and snapping quirts, and shortly the tail end of the herd would be across the Beaver. Clearly his talkative partner meant to make the most of the lull, before the next herd could arrive and block the trail.
Hungate slammed his pony to a halt in a flashy show of brute force. It was characteristic of him, something Colter had come to expect. He was a large man, heavy through the shoulders, and he liked big, mean horses that required rough handling. Yet he was a pleasant-looking fellow, with sandy hair and a square jaw, and the kind of wicked blue eyes that women found fascinating. They had partnered together for three years now, drifting into No Man's Land within days of each other. But Colter still found it puzzling that a man could understand women so well and horses so little. Gentleness was thesecret to any creature's heart, women and horses most especially, but for some men it remained a mystery only half revealed.
"That was pretty slick, sport, whatcha did with that steer." Hungate gave him a crooked grin. "Tryin' to show them Texicans what a real cuttin' pony looks like?"
Colter shook his head and smiled. "Nope. That'd be sort of like teachin' the lame to walk and the blind to see."
"Gawddamn, just listen to him crow, wouldya! Quotin' bassackwards scripture like a drunk preacher. And me thinkin' you was a good upstandin' heathen the same as the rest of us."
"Why hell's bells, Em, after all this time I just figured you knew. I'm the heathenest heathen there is. Only trouble is, folks keep tryin' to convert me into an angel."
"Damned if that ain't the truth," Hungate cackled. "'Specially a little towheaded filly with matrimony on her mind."
The big man's humor was infectious, and they both broke out laughing. But after a moment Colter's gaze drifted off to the distant herd, and a thoughtful frown came over his face. The drag riders were shouting and cursing stronger than ever, trying to force the stragglers into the river crossing. Hungate followed his eyes, then glanced back sharply.
"Buck, you got that look again. You ain't thinkin' what I think you're thinkin', are you?"
"Mebbe. Like the feller said, nothin' ventured, nothin' gained."
Colter gigged the sorrel and took off at a lope toward the river. Hungate watched after him in a quandary for just an instant, then shook his fist in the air and let go a throaty roar.
"You crazy gawddamned idjit! The Association's gonna skin your ass one of these days."
If Colter heard, he gave no indication, and moments later he pulled the gelding up alongside a Texan who seemed to be shouting louder than the others. He gave the man a businesslike nod and let a wooden expression creep over his face. The one he used for poker and horse trading.
"Howdy. You the ramrod of this outfit?"
"Most times." The Texan eyed him narrowly. "What can I do for you?"
"See you got some crips there." Colter jerked his thumb at a bunch of leppies and sore-footed yearlings that had shied off from entering the water. "Thought you might want to dicker on 'em."
Something changed about the Texan, and a crafty look came over his eyes. "Hadn't thought much about it one way or t'other. Why, you willin' to make an offer?"
"Likely they wouldn't make it to Dodge." Colter let his gaze drift over the bawling little knot of stragglers. "Fact is, they might not even make it over the river."
"Don't know as I'd say that," the Texan observed. "'Course, they are slowin' me down a little bit. You make me a decent price and I might be willin' to let 'em go."
"I was thinkin' along the lines of four bits a head."
"Shit! That's good stock you're lookin' at, mister. Worth five bucks a head if they're worth a nickel."
"Dollar tops. Take it or leave it."
"God A'mighty, you oughta be robbin' banks."
Colter gathered his reins. "Been nice talkin' with you."
"Hold on now." The Texan groaned and mopped his face with a filthy kerchief. "Dollar it is. But I still say you're in the wrong damn business."
"Just write out a bill of sale and you can call me anything you like."
After the money had exchanged hands, Colter tipped his hat to the Texan and waved Hungate forward. They circled the stragglers from opposite directions and began driving them toward the grasslands south of the river. Hungate swung his horse over beside Colter and shot him an owlish scowl.
"Lemme tell you something, sport. You keep diggin' that hole deep enough and somebody's gonna bury you in it."
Colter grunted and flashed him a wide smile. "Hell, that's what it's all about, Em. The little dog diggin' up the big dog's bone."
Copyright © 1976 by Matt Braun.