Authors: Bill Dugan
TED COTTON SAT
under the only tree for miles around. His mouth tasted like dry grass, and he shook the canteen once before unscrewing the cap. It sounded about a third full, and he checked the sun, then tilted the gritty metal back and let a trickle of water wet his lips and tongue. The water was warm and tasted of metal. Swirling the water around with his tongue, he let it wash some of the dust away, then spat into the sand.
Ted swallowed the second mouthful, shuddering at the unpleasant taste. His brother watched him, sitting against a boulder, trying to keep out of the sun.
“You ought to be glad to have it,” Johnny said.
“Hell, sometimes I think I’d rather die of thirst. How come everything in Texas tastes like sand?”
“It ain’t Texas, Ted, it’s just this part of Texas.”
“Big enough part, it might as well be the whole damn state.”
“You got to get used to it all over again, that’s all.”
“I get used to this, I guess hell won’t be a problem.” Ted took another swig of the bitter water, tried to swallow it without tasting it, and screwed the cap back on the canteen. “I guess I forgot just how bad things were back home.”
Johnny ignored him, snatching a dry stalk of grass and scratching at the ground. He seemed lost in thought, and Ted let him alone. He knew his brother well enough to know when he didn’t feel like talking.
Getting to his feet, Ted leaned back against the twisted tree, rubbing his back on the rough bark. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he stared into the mouth of Breakneck Canyon. It was almost two o’clock, and the heat rising up off the canyon floor made everything shimmer. The thick, thorny leaves of the tree brushed against his hat, and he stepped away from the gnarled trunk.
“You sure them strays are in there?” Ted asked. He took a couple of steps toward the mouth of the canyon. “There’s Rafe,” he said, waving his hat.
“About time,” Johnny said, groaning as he stood up. “Be nothing but bones we don’t get a move on.”
“Those steers are too damn tough to die.”
“You’re probably right, but that meat’s tough
enough. Folks back east don’t want to cut their beef with a hacksaw.”
“Folks back east ought to come on out here and get their own damn cows.”
“You got a better way to make a living, I’d love to hear about it.”
Ted waved his hat again, and this time the approaching rider waved back. In the cloud of dust kicked up behind Rafe, Ted could make out four more riders.
“Seven,” he said. “That ought to about do it.”
Johnny stretched his arms over his head. “We can’t do it with seven, we ought to try another business.”
“Maybe we ought to do that anyway.”
“Damn it, Teddy, quit bellyaching. Bad enough being out here in the middle of nowhere, without you moaning every damn minute.”
Ted clapped the dust from the seat of his pants, but said nothing. He could feel his brother’s eyes boring into his back. He wanted to turn around, but knew they’d just have another argument. Johnny was right, anyway. He
complain too much. But there wasn’t a whole lot else to do.
He felt Johnny’s hand on his shoulder. He looked at it, but didn’t turn around. Johnny squeezed, and Ted nodded. He understood. They always understood each other. Two years wasn’t much of a difference.
Rafe was close enough to shout now, pulling
back a little on the reins and letting his horse slow to a fast walk. “You lazy bastards still waiting for me? I thought you’d have all them cows rounded up by now.”
Rafe grinned, letting his teeth show without moving his cheeks. It was the strangest smile Ted had ever seen. “You got to earn your pay, too, Rafe,” Ted said.
“Pay, is it? I thought this was my hobby. Haven’t had two dollars to rub together since before the war.”
“Hell, you never had two dollars even then,” Johnny said. “Not as long as whiskey was two bits.”
Rafe slid from the saddle, coiling the reins tightly in one gloved fist. “You saying I drink a bit, Johnny?” There was that strange grin again.
“A bit …”
“Man gets thirsty out here, case you haven’t noticed.”
Johnny ignored the bait and tugged his own horse toward him with a jerk of the reins. He swung into the saddle, looping one long leg up and over and letting his weight find a comfortable spot in the well-worn leather. Looking at his brother, he said, “You coming, Ted?”
“Ted’s no fool,” Rafe said “He knows what’s what.”
Johnny waved to the other hands, who were
hanging back a little and watching the exchange with amusement. “You boys all ready?”
Dan Harley shook his head. “I guess.”
Turning to his brother, Johnny said, “You coming, or not?”
Ted nodded, then climbed onto his mount. “I’m coming.”
Johnny wheeled his pony and nudged it toward the mouth of the canyon. Ted brought up the rear, as he always did. It was part reluctance and part habit. Either way, it was where he was most comfortable. Even before the war, Johnny started calling him Drag Rider, after the last man in a trail drive, and Ted had come to like the name, sometimes even going out of his way to provoke his brother by dragging his feet even more than usual.
As they pushed through the broad mouth of Breakneck Canyon, its layers of deep red stone bleached to a dull copper by the brilliant sun, Ted looked up at the rimrock. Huge slabs of red stone seemed to hang on either lip. If he stared at them too long, they wavered, as if the least breeze would send them over and crashing down into the rocky floor far below.
Narrowing his eyes to slits, Ted searched the rim. He felt as if he had missed something, as if there was something he should see up there, but the harder he stared, the more slippery everything became. In the shimmering currents rising off the canyon floor, everything looked as if it were melting,
like a candle too close to the fire. Rough edges were smoother, the crags on the canyon walls mortared over with a translucent glaze.
The men ahead of him started to fan out, spreading toward either wall. The canyon slimmed down to a bottleneck, then opened wide. Boulders and thorny brush littered the sandy floor. It was a toss-up which one was harder on the horses and men. The rocks made every step an adventure, but the chaparral and tornillo ripped at their chaps, gouging long furrows in the leather.
Ted knew four men who had lost an eye to the metal hard tornillo thorns, some of them three inches long and sharp as ice picks. Each man picked his own way, knowing the stray cattle could be anywhere, hiding among the boulders or at the end of long channels in the thick brush. The longhorns ate anything, including the thorns, and a spooked steer could send horse and man sprawling into the thicket. Getting out intact was out of the question. Getting out alive was a matter of luck and, to some, a favor from an indifferent God.
Johnny raised the first steer, a rangy bag of hide and bones. The animal raised its head, its nostrils twitching spasmodically. Whatever he was trying to scent, the steer made up his mind in a hurry. With a bellow, it charged out of the rocks, making straight for Johnny’s horse. The long horns swung from side to side, dipping like a seesaw, and Johnny narrowly avoided the attack. He spiked
himself on some tornillo, one thorn piercing his chaps and snapping off in his calf.
It was going to be a long day.
Four hours later, they had almost a hundred head, all milling in the makeshift corral, raising their heads every time another steer or cow was added. The cows were easier, two for one, because the calves followed wherever the mother went.
Rafe worked harder than the other hands, harder than anyone but Johnny, and Ted watched him wheeling his horse like a man possessed. The little pony looked too small for so big a man. But it was a chopper, used to turning on a dime, and knew the cattle business as well as any man Ted had ever seen. The sun was starting to slip when Rafe finally took off his hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
“Reckon you can talk that brother of yours into some chow, Ted?” he said.
“It’ll be the first time, if I can,” Ted said. He smiled, but Rafe knew he wasn’t kidding.
“Shouldn’t be so hard on him, son. He only does what your papa taught him to do.”
“Papa’s dead, Rafe.”
Rafe nodded. “I know that.”
Ted, feeling he’d made his point, didn’t say anything else. He kicked his mount, going easy on the spurs, and went off in search of Johnny. Five minutes later, he found him, tugging a reluctant cow behind him on a short rope. Johnny rode on past, nodding his head. “You lookin’ for me?”
“Rafe thinks we ought to knock off for a bit, get something to eat. Sun’ll be down soon, anyhow.”
“Rafe works for me.”
“That means no, I take it?”
“It means what it means.”
Ted watched him move away. Johnny’s shirt was dark from collar to tail with sweat, a film of sandy dust sticking to the damper places like a thin mud pack. Even the blood-stained right leg of his dungarees wasn’t enough to slow him down.
Ted started after his brother, and Tommy Dawson, one of the temporary hands, fell in beside him. “Hot,” Tommy said.
Ted nodded. Something, he wasn’t sure what, distracted him, and he turned in the saddle. Just off his left shoulder, up among the rocks, something had moved.
He slowed a bit, letting Tommy slide on past him, and stared at the steep face of the canyon wall. Standing in the stirrups, the horse shuffling restlessly under him, he probed the purple stains where shadows had already begun to soak into the rock. He was sure he’d seen something, but the wall was motionless. An eerie quiet filled the canyon.
Ted shook it off, dropping back to the saddle and clucking to the pony. Tommy Dawson was twenty yards ahead now, just a dusty black hat on a pair of broad shoulders. The thornbushes picked up a hint of red from the sun, etching the tan shirt with a lacy network. Then Tommy was gone.
Ted blinked, then he heard the shot. High up, somewhere behind him, it popped, almost like a loud handclap, then echoed off the wall. He spun in the saddle, instinctively searching for the spot where he’d seen the movement. Like before, he saw nothing. Pushing his pony, he charged after Dawson. As he rounded the clump of mesquite bushes, he saw the cowboy on the ground, curled in a ball.
Tommy’s horse was long gone. Dawson moaned as Ted jumped from the saddle. Something slammed into his saddle and he turned just as another shot echoed among the rocks.
“Tommy,” he shouted, dropping to his knees. Already, he could see the dark red stain high on Dawson’s left shoulder. A dark hole just off the shoulder blade seeped blood, and a trickle ran down into the dry sand.
He rolled Dawson over, and the cowboy groaned. One hand lay plastered to the front of his shoulder, and Ted could see the blood oozing between Dawson’s fingers, filling the cracks in his skin.
“Sonofabitch,” Dawson moaned. His clenched teeth almost obscured the words. Ted tugged a dusty handkerchief from his back pocket and stuffed it between Dawson’s fingers and the wound.
“Can you get up, Tommy?”
“Dunno.” He tried to sit, wincing as the shoulder moved, and Ted realized the bullet must have
broken some bone. “Hold your arm as still as you can.” He unknotted Dawson’s neckerchief and fashioned a rough sling, looping it under the forearm and reknotting it around Dawson’s neck.
“Who done it?” Dawson asked. “You see the bastard?”