1VIRGINIA CITY, MONTANA TERRITORY.
MARCH 1, 1876
SNOW GLISTENED ON MOUNTAIN peaks to the west, and there were patches of it on the lee side of hills, where the sun shone briefly. More than five thousand head of unruly cattle were strung out, plodding eastward. The drag riders left no slack, for right on their heels were the two hundred horses intended for the army, as well as the outfit’s remuda. Mac, Arch, Hitch and Quickenpaugh kept the horses in line. Directly behind the horse herd came the chuck wagon, Jasmine at the reins. Lorna and Curley rode drag, in the company of Oscar Fentress and Smokey Ellison.
“I know Mr. Story’s been breedin’ these varmints for nine years,” Curley said, “but I can’t see they’re a damn bit smarter than those jugheaded longhorns we brought here from Texas.”
“I think there are some things that can’t be bred out of them,” said Lorna. “Have you ever noticed that when you want a cow or a group of cows to go one certain way, they’ll run themselves ragged going some other way?”
“I’ve noticed that,” Curley said, “but I’m not near as concerned with the ignorance of the cows as I am the condition of my backside. I’d have been spending more time in the saddle, if I’d known this drive was coming.”
“So would I,” said Lorna. “That’s why I offered to do the cooking. The seat on the wagon box is hard enough, but it won’t leave you with saddle sores. Tomorrow will be your turn with the chuck wagon.”
“No,” Curley said. “You take it tomorrow, and I’ll take it the third day. That’s the way Cal set it up. You don’t want him thinkin’ we can’t cut the mustard, do you?”
“My God, no,” said Lorna. “I brought three tins of sulfur salve. Until we toughen our hides, we can doctor our saddle sores at night.”
At that moment, three drag cows wheeled and, evading the drag riders, ran headlong toward the oncoming horse herd. Only the swiftness of Quickenpaugh prevented the horses from stampeding. The Comanche managed to get between the lead horses and the oncoming errant cows. Using his doubled lariat, he swatted the cows on their tender muzzles, and with the help of the drag riders, the troublesome trio again took their places within the herd.
“Lawd God,” said Oscar Fentress, wiping his ebony brow, “that be close. Cal think we all be sleeping.”
But Cal and his companions were having their own problems. Cal rode point, while Bill Petty, Tom Allen, Quanah Taylor and Bud McDaniels were the flank riders. Much of the longhorn temperament had been bred out of the cows, but they seemed to have retained all or most of the cussedness of their longhorn ancestors. Sundown only minutes away, they gave it up, bedding down the herd for the night. The wind, out of the northwest, had a frosty bite to it.
“I’m thinkin’ we should have delayed this drive at least until April first,” Tom Allen said. “If I’m any judge, there’s more snow on the way.”
“Nobody objected when I set the starting day,” said Cal with some irritation.
“Like it or not,” Bill Petty said, “we’re neck-deep in a trail drive. Whatever happens, I reckon we’ll have to make the best of it.”
“There be water,” said Oscar. “Was there shelter, this wouldn’t be so bad.”
“If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some eggs,” Smokey Ellison said. “We better get these varmints on the trail at daylight, and start lookin’ for an arroyo deep enough to keep the snow off of us.”
“The tents Mr. Story insisted we bring may be a great help,” said Lorna.
Supper was a mostly silent affair, each of them aware that if fate was unkind to them, they might be plagued by snow until April and beyond.
“We’ll go with two watches,” said Cal. “The first to midnight, and the second until first light. Arch, Hitch, Mac and Quickenpaugh, I want you on the first watch. The rest of us will relieve you at midnight.”
“You’re forgetting Curley, Jasmine and me,” said Lorna.
“Yes,” Curley said, “we have as much at stake as any of you.”
To the surprise of them all, Cal Snider didn’t lose his temper.
“Sorry,” said Cal, “it’s been a long day. Curley, you and Jasmine take the first watch with Arch, Hitch, Mac and Quickenpaugh. Lorna, you’ll take the second watch with me.”
“I ain’t sure I want my woman standin’ watch with a bunch of hombres,” Bud said.
“Bud,” said Curley, “these are the same hombres that came up the trail from Texas with us near ten years ago.”
“She’s right, Bud,” Jasmine said. “Now shut up.”
“When this herd’s sold,” said Bud, “I might just take my share and ride back to Texas, or at least far enough so’s my big sister can’t tell me to shut up.”
“You do,” Curley said, “and you’ll go by yourself. It’s not home to me anymore.”
“The order stands, then.” said Cal. “Jasmine and Curley, you’ll take the first watch, and Lorna, you’ll be part of the second.”
The three women worked together getting the supper ready and cleaning up afterward. When it was time for the first watch to begin circling the herd, Jasmine and Curley saddled their horses. Bud McDaniels said nothing.
Jasmine and Curley rode out together, and when they were far enough away, Curley had something to say.
“Bud and his damn pride. He’ll never outgrow it, will he?”
“I don’t know,” said Jasmine. “I have my doubts. But the last thing Cal needs on this drive is females that need or expect to be coddled.”
Curley laughed. “If anybody has a right to whine, it’s me. I have saddle sores as big as silver dollars on my behind, and here I am in the saddle for seven more hours.”
“I’m glad you didn’t say anything around Bud,” Jasmine said. “Once this watch is done, I’ll get some of Lorna’s sulfur salve and ease your pain. You may have to do the same for me.”
SOUTH-CENTRAL WYOMING TERRITORY.
MARCH 3, 1876
With Benton McCaleb as trail boss, the Lone Star herd moved north, along the Powder River. Brazos Gifford, Will Elliot, Monte Nance and Pen Rhodes were the flankers, while Jed and Stoney Vandiver—assisted by Penelope and Rebecca—rode drag. Goose, the Lipan Apache, was far ahead of the herd, scouting for possible Indian sign. It was Rosalie’s turn on the high box of the chuck wagon, and it trailed along behind the drag riders. The herd had been bedded down along the Powder when Goose rode in. McCaleb and his riders all gathered around to hear what the Indian had to report.
“No sign,” said Goose. “Snow come.”
“That’s what I been sayin’ all day,” Monte Nance said.
“We know,” said Brazos wearily. “We know.”
“It’s a risk we had to take,” McCaleb said. “We have no choice, unless we turn back to our home range. Does anybody favor that?”
“Hell, no,” said Will Elliot. “We’re Texans, and we don’t start anything we can’t finish.”
“Well, I favor goin’ back,” Monte Nance said. “We ain’t more than thirty miles out.”
“Little brother,” said Rebecca angrily, “if you don’t have the sand for this drive, saddle up and head for home. The rest of us are going to Deadwood.”
There were shouts of agreement from the rest of the outfit. Monte Nance curbed his angry response, bit his tongue and said nothing. Before it was time for the start of the first watch, the wind turned colder and changed direction, coming out of the northwest.
“It’ll be blowin’ like hell wouldn’t have it by morning,” Brazos predicted.
“I’m afraid you’re right,” said McCaleb. “We won’t have time to find shelter any better than we have right here, which is practically none. The best we can do is break out all the extra canvas and set up some windbreaks while it’s still light enough to see.”
“We’ll be needin’ firewood, and lots of it,” said Brazos. “Suppose I take Jed, Stoney and Will, and drag in some wood, while the rest of you put up the windbreaks?”
“Do that,” McCaleb said. “It’s gettin’ colder by the minute, and we’ll be needing a fire tonight.”
Instead of taking turns cooking, Rebecca, Rosalie and Susannah joined forces each day, making the cooking and the cleanup far easier than it might have been. Not to be outdone, Penelope had taken to helping them. Monte Nance eyed Penelope, and while she paid him no attention, Rosalie watched him warily. Monte was more than ten years older than Penelope, and while she showed no interest in him, Rosalie knew just how unpredictable her daughter was. Not until the first watch did she have a chance to talk to Brazos. The snow had not begun, and Brazos dismounted.
“This is the only time I can talk to you without the others hearing,” said Rosalie. “I’m worried about Penelope. Monte’s looking at her all the time, and I have a good idea as to what’s on his mind.”
“Penelope’s just as beautiful as her mama,” Brazos said, “and there’s no law against a man looking. I doubt she’s ever spoken a word to him. He’s Rebecca’s brother. Have you said anything to her?”
“No,” said Rosalie. “What can I say? Monte’s a man, if size means anything, and he’s forever on the outs with Rebecca as it is. Anything she might say will just go in one ear and out the other. Besides, I’m afraid Penelope will find out. Nothing makes a good-for-nothing man look better to a girl than having someone warn her to leave him alone.”
“Then I reckon we’ll have to trust Penelope’s judgment,” Brazos said. “Just don’t fret any more about it, until you’re sure there’s cause. Monte still has some growing up to do. Some hard months on the trail might be a start.”
Rosalie sighed. “I just don’t want him learning at Penelope’s expense.”
The dawn broke gray and dismal. There was no sun, for the mass of clouds that had blown in from the northwest seemed to rest on the very tops of the trees. The outfit was in the midst of breakfast when the sleet began. They sought cover behind their canvas windbreaks, but the wind’s icy fingers found them, rattling sleet off the brims of their hats and stinging their faces.
“The herd’s startin’ to drift with the storm,” Will shouted.
“Take Pen, Jed and Stoney and head them,” said McCaleb. “When you get ’em bunched, all of you circle them, just as we do at night.”
“We’ll have to watch them all the time,” Brazos said. “When cows get slapped in the face with sleet or snow, all they know is to turn their behinds to it and drift.”
The sleet soon diminished and the snow began in earnest. In the early afternoon, Bent McCaleb, Brazos, Monte and Goose took the second watch. Not to be outdone, Penelope saddled her horse and rode with them.
“Don’t forget Rosalie and me,” said Rebecca. “We’ve stood watch before.”
“You’ll likely have a turn at it, if this snow don’t let up,” Will said. “With no cover for the herd, we’ll have to circle them day and night or they’ll drift away.”
As the storm worsened, thunder rumbled, and the cattle bawled uneasily. The icy wind whipped out of the northwest, like a thing alive, and the thunder came closer. Most of the cattle had turned their backs to the storm, and they became more spooked with each clap of thunder.
“Watch them,” shouted McCaleb over the roar of the storm. “They’re gettin’ ready to run.”
The next clap of thunder seemed to shake the very earth, and the herd lit out eastward in a spooked, bawling frenzy. From his position, Monte Nance had the best opportunity to get ahead of the rampaging herd, and he did so. But his horse slipped in the deepening snow, throwing Monte to the ground. Before he could recover the reins, the animal had galloped away. On came the herd, more than twelve thousand thundering hooves. Frozen in his tracks, Monte Nance stood there, his arms flung toward the heavens as though pleading for salvation. Suddenly, darting in ahead of the lead steers came a horse and rider.
“No,” Brazos Gifford shouted. “Penelope, no!”
But with the roar of the storm, Penelope might not have heard. Leaning far out of the saddle, she extended her left hand. Desperately, Monte caught it and swung onto the horse behind her. Monte could hear the rumble of hooves over the roar of the storm, as the stampeding herd drew ever closer. Penelope’s horse stumbled once, and it seemed all was lost, but the animal recovered and ran on. Finally out of danger, Penelope reined up and slipped out of the saddle. When McCaleb, Brazos and Goose arrived, the girl had her arms around the neck of her faithful horse. Monte Nance stood beside the horse as though he needed support.
“Girl,” said McCaleb, throwing his arms around Penelope, “that’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. Without you, he’d have been trampled to a pulp.”
Even in the swirling snow, they could see the grin on the Indian’s face. Goose seldom showed any emotion, but he knew courage when he had witnessed it. Brazos dismounted, and Penelope turned to him.
“You brave, foolish girl,” Brazos said. “If your horse had fallen—if you hadn’t made it—how in tarnation would I have told your mama?”
Penelope laughed. “Don’t tell Mama anything. I told you I was going to be the best damn cowboy in the outfit. I only did what any one of the rest of you would have done, if you’d been close enough.”
“Far as I’m concerned, you’re a top hand,” said McCaleb. “There’s not a man among us who could have reacted more swiftly or done as well. Monte, you owe her.”
But Monte Nance said nothing. It seemed the praise heaped on Penelope only increased his humiliation. As though in search of his horse, he stumbled off into the snowy darkness.
“Damn him,” said McCaleb. “The ungrateful varmint.”
“Let it go,” Brazos said. “I can’t risk Rosalie hearing of it.”
“We might as well get back to camp and get some sleep,” said McCaleb. “We can’t do a damn thing toward gathering the herd until first light. I just hope the rest of the outfit managed to grab a horse from the remuda before it lit out after the herd.”
SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA TERRITORY.
MARCH 3, 1876
Lacking anything better, Cal Snider and his outfit had bedded down their herd along a river, leaving a tree-studded ridge between their camp and the oncoming storm. Story had supplied them with three tents, and the wild wind played havoc with them, ripping the tent pegs out of the half-frozen ground repeatedly.
“Let’s spread them out and use the canvas as windbreaks,” Cal Snider said. “They’ll do to keep the worst of the wind and snow off us and our cook fires.”
It was a workable idea, for the lee side of the ridge blunted the impact of the roaring storm. Before the storm had struck, they had dragged in all the windblown and lightning-struck trees they could find, knowing they’d need the wood.
“This may not turn out as bad as we expected,” said Bill Petty. “Maybe it’s just me, but it don’t seem like the wind’s as fierce as it was.”
“I hope you’re right,” Cal said. “I can’t tell that it’s let up at all.”
Arch Rainey, Hitch Gould, Mac Withers, Oscar Fentress and Quickenpaugh rode in to one of the fires. Dismounting, they moved as close to the fire as they could.
“Man and hoss can’t stand more than four hours in that,” said Mac, through chattering teeth. “Some of you take over the watch for a while, so’s we can get warm.”
“It be the God’s truth,” Oscar said. “I look down to be sure I still got feet.”
“Tom, Bill, Smokey, Quanah and Bud,” said Cal. “I’ll be joining you. Let’s saddle up and get started, before the herd decides to drift.”
The riders who had just returned to the fire hunkered around it, sipping from tin cups of scalding coffee. Quickenpaugh still wore buckskin leggings and moccasins, but he had adopted some of the more sensible ways of the white man. The Comanche wore a heavy, sheepskin-lined coat that reached almost to his knees. A similarly lined hood protected his ears, while on his hands were wool-lined leather gloves. The rest of the outfit was dressed in much the same manner, wearing their holstered guns beneath their heavy coats. But the Comanche’s Colt was on the outside of his coat, with his Bowie knife slipped in beneath the pistol belt.
“These brutes ain’t gonna stand here much longer, with no graze,” Tom Allen said.
“I know,” said Cal. “The horses, and even the chuck wagon mules, are pawing away the snow to get at the grass underneath. Why in thunder couldn’t cows have had the good sense to do that?”
Tom Allen laughed. “Maybe it’s the Almighty’s idea of a joke. It might be funny to us, if we wasn’t so close to it.”
Conversation ceased when Bud McDaniels joined them.
“Don’t make no sense, us out here freezin’ our bohunkers off,” said McDaniels. “If all these varmints decide to run, there ain’t no way we or a hundred like us can stop em.
“Damn it,” Cal said, “we’re here to change their minds before they start to run. If you ain’t up to it, then get on back to camp and tell Lorna she’s taking your place.”
Cal’s acid-tongued response had the desired effect.
“Ain’t no damn woman taking my place,” shouted Bud.
He turned away and was soon lost in the swirling snow. Tom Allen laughed. “It’s just as well Jasmine can’t hear you,” Cal said. “I know he’s an embarrassment to her, and there’s not a thing any of us can do about it.”
“I know,” said Tom soberly. “Jasmine had hoped gettin’ him out of Texas and having him marry Curley would settle him down, but I doubt it. I hate to say it, for Jasmine’s sake, but Bud McDaniels won’t change until he takes up playin’ the harp. That is, if the Almighty aims for him to have one.”
“Maybe things will be different when him and Curley has a youngun,” said Cal.
“I doubt that will happen,” Tom said. “From what Jasmine’s learned from Curley, she’s had Bud bunkin’ alone, hopin’ he’ll have enough pride to mend his ways.”
“It’s not working,” said Cal. “He’s getting worse. He’s taken to baiting Quickenpaugh for no good reason. I’ve warned him, and if he continues, I aim to let Quickenpaugh teach him a lesson.”
The storm continued, and after four hours, Cal and his companions were relieved by the rest of the outfit, with the exception of the women. Lorria, Jasmine and Curley were busily preparing supper.
“Supper’s smellin’ mighty good,” Arch Rainey said. “Don’t forget we’re out there.”
“We’ll relieve all of you so you can eat,” said Cal.
The storm continued through the night, but come the dawn, the snow had lessened. An hour later, it had stopped altogether. The wind eased up, and even without the sun, there was a marked difference. It seemed almost warm.
“Yeeehaaa,” Quanah Taylor shouted. “We made it.”
“Not yet,” said Cal. “We can’t move on with the chuck wagon hub-deep in mud. We’ll be here until the sun melts most of the snow and dries up some of the mud.”
Not until the eighth of March did Cal resume the trail drive. Even then, the women had trouble finding high ground. More than once, the chuck wagon became so bogged down that the mules couldn’t free it, and teams of horses had to be harnessed along with the mules.
“I’m sorry,” said Lorna, who had been driving the chuck wagon. “It just started sliding and a rear wheel dropped into a hole. There was nothing I could do.”
“That’s what comes of havin’ a female trying to do a man’s job,” Bud McDaniels said.
“Then you take over the chuck wagon,” said Jasmine angrily. “God knows, you’re not worth a damn at anything else.”
“Bud’s ridin’ drag, and he’ll stay there until I say otherwise,” Cal said. “I’d take it kindly if all of you will keep your opinions to yourselves. Once we get this horse herd and the cattle to Deadwood, those of you wantin’ to fight are welcome to have at it. Remember that until then, I’m trail boss, and anybody raisin’ any unnecessary hell will answer to me.”
The chuck wagon was again freed, and the drive continued. Not until they had bedded down the herd and the first watch had taken to their saddles did Lorna have a chance to talk to Cal.
“I hate Bud McDaniels,” said Lorna vehemently. “I’m not surprised Curley won’t let him into her bed. He can’t do anything right. If it wasn’t for Jasmine, I’d drive the toe of my boot into his carcass where it’d do the most good.”
“I think Jasmine may do that herself,” Cal said, “and I want you to stay out of it. If he bullyrags Quickenpaugh again, I’ll let the Indian make a believer of him.”
“Quickenpaugh will kill him.”
“I’ll see that he stops short of that,” said Cal. “By God, a man with a wife like Curley and a spread of his own has got to grow up.”
Jasmine had just had a bitter conversation along the same line with Tom Allen.
“Damn him,” Jasmine said, “Curley making him sleep alone is not enough. She ought to put him in the barn with the rest of the animals. After what he said today, Lorna should have clawed his eyes out.”
“I have an idea this drive will make or break him,” said Tom.
“I hope it does,” Jasmine said. “I’d as soon see him dead as have him drift on like he is, a disgrace to me and the outfit.”
Their first day on the trail after the storm was the most difficult, for the uneven land over which they traveled was deceptive. Four times the chuck wagon needed extra teams to free it from unseen mud.
“Tomorrow will be better,” Cal predicted. “The sun’s sucked up just enough water that you can’t really tell what’s solid ground and what’s mud.”
“We could have left the wagon behind and used pack mules,” said Bill Petty.
“Yeah,” Quanah Taylor said, “and we’d be half starved by now. The good grub’s worth wrasslin’ the wagon out of bog holes.”
With the exception of Bud McDaniels, the others quickly agreed. The passing of the storm had done much to restore their good humor. But during the night, when McDaniels was on watch, he got himself in trouble with the outfit in general, and Quickenpaugh in particular. It began with an angry shout from Curley.
“Leave me alone,” the girl cried.
Cal and Quickenpaugh reached her first. Her Levi’s were down around her ankles, and she tried vainly to hold her shirt together, for the buttons had been ripped off. McDaniels was crouched in the moonlight, looking for all the world like an animal at bay.
“I’m just takin’ what’s mine,” McDaniels snarled.
“I told you I don’t want you,” said Curley. “Not now, not ever.”
Before Cal could respond, Jasmine was there. She slapped Bud so hard, he rocked back on his heels. He responded with a vicious right that might have broken the girl’s neck, but it never landed, for Quickenpaugh was there. He caught McDaniels’s arm and flung him half a dozen feet into a patch of thorn bushes.
“You heathen bastard,” McDaniels said, “you’ll never get to Deadwood alive.”
“You fool,” said Jasmine. “Quickenpaugh’s more civilized than you’ll ever be. He’ll be there when we reach Deadwood, but I doubt you will be.”
With that, she turned away, Tom going with her. Realizing that Cal still had something to say, the rest of the outfit quickly left him alone with Bud McDaniels.
“McDaniels, you’ve done a lot of things that turned my stomach, but this ranks among the worst.”
“Don’t you go talkin’ down to me,” said McDaniels. “You wouldn’t be so damned high and mighty, if you was in double-harness with a female that won’t let you get close.”
“It’s a woman’s right to choose,” Cal said, “and I think she’d prefer no man at all to the hairy-legged coyote you’ve turned out to be. You were on first watch, and that don’t include romancin’ Curley, even if she’ll have you. Go after her again, and you’ll answer to me. Taunt Quickenpaugh into a fight, and I’ll let him just beat the hell out of you.”
“I got five hundred cows in this damn herd,” said McDaniels, “and that means I got some rights.”
“You have the right to drive your part of the herd to Deadwood and collect the money for them,” Cal said. “You have no right to cause trouble among the rest of the outfit, and Jasmine being your sister won’t matter from now on. Now get up and take your place on the first watch.”
Without a word, McDaniels got to his feet and was quickly swallowed by the darkness. Tom Allen, who would be on the second watch, tried to calm Jasmine.
“There shouldn’t be a law against gut-shootin’ your brother-in-law, when he’s a dyed-in-the-wool skunk,” said Tom. “After he swung at you, he’s lucky Quickenpaugh got to him before I did.”
“I don’t suppose I have the right to ask,” Jasmine said, “but try to avoid him until we reach Deadwood. Perhaps something will happen that will change him.”
“It all depends on whether or not he avoids you,” said Tom. “If I’m any judge, I look for him to go after Quickenpaugh, and that’ll be the biggest mistake he’s ever made.”
Curley got another shirt from the chuck wagon, and there was no further disturbance the rest of the night.
The day dawned clear and unseasonably warm. Well before noon, the riders and their horses were sweating. Curley drove the chuck wagon. Bill Petty, Bud McDaniels, Jasmine and Lorna rode drag. They all pointedly ignored McDaniels, and he began whistling, as though he couldn’t care less. The cattle had begun to settle down, allowing the drag riders some freedom. Jasmine purposely rode near enough so she and Lorna could talk.
“Bud’s watching you,” said Lorna.
“Let him,” Jasmine replied. “If he ever takes another swing at me, he’ll have more to reckon with than Quickenpaugh. Tom will stomp a mud hole in his carcass and walk it dry. I’d hoped, once he married Curley, that he’d settle down and think of someone other than himself.”
“I think we all had hopes of that,” said Lorna, “and now I’m feeling guilty, like maybe I had something to do with her getting together with Bud. Poor Curley must be feeling betrayed.”
“I couldn’t blame her, and I suppose we’ll all have to share the blame for that,” said Jasmine, “but I think some of the blame rests with Curley herself. Remember, on the drive from Texas to Virginia City, Curley was shot. Until then, none of us realized she was female. I don’t think she’s comfortable being a woman yet, and from that day, Bud’s been after her.”*
Lorna laughed. “I remember when we stripped Curley, not knowing she was a girl. Did you see Bud’s face? His eyes got as big as wagon wheels. Do you suppose he’d never seen a naked woman before?”
“It’s possible,” said Jasmine, blushing. “I never let him get close to me when I was indisposed.”
“Tonight,” Lorna said, “I think we need to spend some time with Curley. I don’t want her thinking she’s wrong in her refusal to accept Bud as he is.”
*The Virginia City Trail (Trail Drive #7)
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998.