April 29, 1879, twelve years earlier
AS THE SKY PALED OVER THE TEXAS PRAIRIE, JOE LAY IN HIS BEDROLL,
drifting in and out of sleep. His ears caught the rustle of quail foraging in the long grass. He could hear the faint lowing of cattle, the snort of a horse, and the snores of the men sleeping around him.
Ahead lay another day on the trail—one more day of dust, danger, and unending work from dawn until dark. But for Joe, it would also be a day of secret celebration. Today was his sixteenth birthday.
He had no calendar to remind him. But he’d kept a careful count of the days. No mistake. He was sixteen for sure now—not a boy anymore but a man, doing a man’s work.
Three weeks had passed since he’d left his family’s Texas farm to become a cowboy on a big cattle drive—a drive owned and bossed by Mr. Chase Benteen Calder, who usually went by his middle name, Benteen. The work was filthy and grueling, the dust and rain miserable at times. But Joe was used to hard work. And even through the worst of it, there was no place he would rather be—even if he was only the wrangler’s helper, the lowest job in the outfit. From the first taste of coffee in the morning to the soothing songs of the night watch as he sank into sleep, this was the life.
It was an exciting time to be a young man. The end of the Civil War, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the defeat of the native tribes had opened vast areas of the country to travel, commerce, farming, and ranching. The virgin prairies of the Northwest were ideal for grazing cattle, and Americans were quick to seize the advantage.
The Calder drive was one of many that moved Texas-born longhorn cattle along the trails leading north. Some herds went as far as the railroad towns in Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, where they were loaded onto trains, shipped east, and sold. Others, like this drive, would continue on to the untamed territories of Wyoming and Montana, where the cattle could graze on the lush, rich grasslands that were there for the taking—lands that, in their way, were more valuable than gold.
This was a time for conquest and adventure—and Joe was thrilled to be part of it.
Stealing a little more precious time, he lay in his bedroll, giving his lanky body a chance to come fully awake. In the gray light, he could see the dark outline of the chuckwagon and the sleeping forms of the men lying around it. Farther back, two covered wagons sat in the shadows. Benteen Calder and a man named Ely Stanton were moving their wives and possessions to new homes. The Calders would be starting a ranch with the cattle on their
Montana land claim. The Stantons would be leaving the drive in Dodge City and heading for Iowa, where Mrs. Stanton had family.
Joe stretched, preparing to get up. Only then did he feel an unaccustomed weight across his legs. He raised his head to see a fivefoot bull snake crawling across his bedroll.
With a startled yelp, Joe jerked upright. One hand fumbled for the pistol he kept under his pillow. Still groggy, he found it and might have blown the creature to kingdom come; but by the time he’d gathered his wits and cocked the gun, the snake had slithered off into the grass.
The cowboys bedded around him were awake and laughing.
“Hey, kid, you almost had yourself a bed partner there!” Shorty Niles said. “Another minute and he’d have crawled right into the sack with you.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t pull that trigger,” Jesse Trumbo teased. “You could’ve shot yourself in the foot.”
“You’re lucky it wasn’t a rattler,” Yates, the wrangler said. “That was a pretty good holler you let out. Were you scared?”
“Not scared. Just spooked.” Joe rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The cowboys enjoyed playing good-natured tricks on each other, and Joe, as the youngest man on the cattle drive, got more than his share. Had one of the men dropped the scary but harmless reptile on his bedroll? He’d bet against it this time. There were plenty of snakes around, and they were attracted by warmth. But he would never know.
Rusty, the grizzled cook, had risen early and was working between the chuckwagon and the campfire. The aroma of coffee mingled with the smell of bacon and sourdough biscuits cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven made Joe’s empty stomach rumble. There wasn’t much variety in trail food. But at least the old man was good at his job.
The clanging of a metal spoon on a skillet shattered the peace of the morning. “Come and git it,” Rusty yelled. “Git a move on, or I’ll feed it to the coyotes!”
Joe sat up and hurried to pull his clothes and boots over his long underwear. Around him, the other men were doing the same, some groaning and cursing. The two who’d ridden night watch over the herd had barely managed three hours of sleep. But that didn’t matter. It was time to start the long day.
Joe splashed his hands and face with a trickle of water from the barrel mounted on the chuckwagon, then hurried to get his breakfast. He knew better than to tell any of the crew about this being his birthday. The men would rib him unmercifully, and probably even play a few tricks, like throwing him in the Red River, which they’d be crossing with the herd this morning.
As he sat on the ground, wolfing down his beans, bacon, and biscuits, and gulping thick, black coffee from a tin mug, it struck him that he’d neglected to murmur a word of grace, something he’d promised his mother he would do before every meal. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d forgotten. But it was too late now. He would remind himself at noon and again at suppertime.
On the far side of the fire, through the rising smoke, he could see the boss, Mr. Benteen Calder, drinking his coffee on his feet. Soon he’d be riding out ahead of the herd to plot out the best route for the cattle, horses, and wagons and choose a spot for the chuckwagon to stop and prepare the noon meal.
Benteen Calder was a tall man, broad in the shoulders with a rugged face and a trail-hardened body. Joe admired him to the point of hero worship. He was bold but prudent, tough but fair—the kind of man Joe aimed to become with time and experience.
“Joe, come here.” Calder’s gaze pierced the smoke. “I want to talk to you.”
Joe had finished his plate and wiped it clean with the last bite of biscuit. As he rose, he slipped it into the wreck pan and strode around the fire. “Yes, Mr. Calder? What can I do for you?”
Calder finished his coffee. “This morning we’ll be crossing the Red River. With wagons and animals in moving water, anything can go wrong.”
“Yes, sir, I know. How can I help?” Joe could tell from the boss’s slight nod that he’d said the right thing.
“We’ll be taking the wagons across first,” Calder said. “My wife’s been driving our wagon and doing fine. But I’m not sure she’s up to handling it in the river. I want you to drive her across, trailing your horse. When you get the wagon to the other side, you can ride back and help with the remuda and the herd. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” It was a big responsibility, but Joe was thrilled to have been asked. “I’ll do my best.”
“I don’t have to tell you how important my wife’s safety is to me.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I won’t let anything happen to her.” Calder’s new bride, Lorna, was the prettiest woman Joe had ever seen. The job he’d been given would be like protecting a priceless porcelain doll.
He was still thinking about Lorna as he saddled his pony and rode out to help Yates, the bowlegged wrangler, round up the horses and herd them into the makeshift rope corral for the men to saddle and ride.
Lorna Calder was a true lady with sparkling brown eyes and a tumble of rich, dark mahogany hair. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen—barely older than Joe. But she was already a woman and a wife. Truth be told, Joe was more than a little sweet on her. She’d been friendly, letting him hitch her wagon team and saddle the buttermilk buckskin he’d chosen for her to ride; but he knew better than to act on his feelings. Benteen Calder was capable of killing any man who touched his bride.
After the first night on the trail, he’d made sure to lay his bedroll well away from their wagon. The faint sounds coming from under the canvas had roused forbidden images that would have shocked his God-fearing mother. As a farm boy, Joe was well acquainted with the basics of sex. But he was far from experienced. Last summer, down by the swimming hole, Betty Ann
Flinders had let him kiss her and touch her breasts. The moment had strained the buttons on his trousers. But a quality girl would never let a boy go that far. And that was the kind of woman he wanted at his side someday—a real lady like Lorna Calder.
The right woman wasn’t all he wanted. Someday, Joe vowed, he would have his own ranch with his own vast herds of cattle. He’d even thought of the brand he’d use—the outline of a cowhide with a dollar sign on it, for Dollarhide. This job was the first step toward making his dream come true.
He rode out to where the remuda was grazing and uncoiled his rope from the saddle horn. Yates was already gathering the horses. Without being told what to do, Joe made a wide circle, picking up any stragglers and heading them in with a flick of his lariat on their haunches. There were far more horses than men on the drive. Each of the hands had been assigned a string of several animals. When working cattle, they rotated their mounts every few hours to keep them rested and healthy on the long drive.
By now the horses were accustomed to the morning routine. It didn’t take long to get them headed for the rope corral. Joe arrived back at camp to find Benteen Calder already gone and Lorna behind the chuckwagon, washing the last of the dishes—a job that would have fallen to Joe if she hadn’t volunteered her help.
She gave him a smile as he passed her to stow his bedroll in the chuckwagon. “Good morning, Joe. My husband tells me you’ll be driving our wagon across the river.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Joe could feel his face warming. “I promised him I’d take good care of you.”
One delicate eyebrow arched slightly. “Oh, it won’t be me, just our wagon. I’ll be riding on the chuckwagon with Rusty.”
“Oh.” Joe felt the brightness drain from his special day. So Benteen Calder had changed his mind. It made sense that Calder would decide to put his wife in the safest possible place, with a driver who’d crossed more big rivers than Joe had years. Knowing the boss, it made even more sense that he would entrust her to the one male in the outfit who didn’t rouse his jealousy.
“That sounds like a good idea, ma’am.” Joe tipped his hat. “I’ll get your wagon hitched and make sure everything’s tied down tight. No need to worry about that.”
She gave him another melting smile. “Thanks, Joe. I can always count on you.”
“Thanks for trusting me, ma’am. It means a lot.” Joe tipped his hat again and strode across the camp to the wagon. The two draft horses were grazing nearby, tied to a picket.
Mary Stanton, a plain woman who looked and talked like a younger version of Joe’s mother, was hitching her team.
“Can I help you, Mrs. Stanton?” Joe asked, knowing her husband was busy with the cattle.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m almost done.” She tightened the last harness buckle. “Are you all right with driving the wagon across that river, Joe?” she asked.
“I reckon so. I’ve driven the wagon plenty and crossed rivers before.”
“Well, the Red’s a lot bigger than anything we’ve come to so far, and Ely says the water’s high. The important thing for you will be to stay right in line with the other wagons. Otherwise you could drift off and get mired in quicksand or get carried off by the current.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am.” Joe hurried to hitch the horses to the wagon tongue. Mary Stanton had given him sound advice but, truth be told, he was looking forward to the crossing. It was going to be a great adventure, and he would be a vital part of it—even without Lorna on board.
By the time the wagon was ready, with Joe’s saddled horse tied behind, it was time to pull out.
The chuckwagon went first, with Rusty and Lorna sharing the driver’s bench. Mary Stanton’s wagon pulled into second place, with Joe bringing up the rear. A few minutes later, they passed the herd. The cattle were on their feet, grazing at a distance from the water. When their time came to cross, the thirsty animals would be easy to drive into the river.
Joe could see the cowhands working the mixed herd of longhorns—steers, cows, and bulls. Rounded up wild over the winter in the thorny Texas brush, they were still apt to be skittish. Anything—a noise in the bushes, a clap of thunder, or even a rabbit bounding across the trail, might be enough to spook them into a stampede. It had happened before, but the quick work of the men had headed off the leaders, ending with the herd milling in a circle and finally slowing to a stop.
As the wagon passed the herd, one of the men waved to him. Joe recognized Jonesy, one of the younger hands. Over the past few weeks, Jonesy and another man, Andy Young, had become Joe’s friends—not close friends, because they were usually working the herd. But they sat with him at supper and shared songs and jokes. Joe looked up to them. They’d taught him a lot about being a real cowboy.
Joe liked the other men, too—Spanish Bill with his reckless, laughing ways, Wooly Willis, named for his curly blond hair, Zeke Taylor, who never seemed to stop talking, Shorty, whose mellow singing voice calmed the cattle at night, and the rest of them. They were all fine fellows. But they were seasoned cowhands, and they treated Joe like a kid. Jonesy and Andy treated him as an equal.
Joe returned Jonesy’s wave, then turned his attention back to guiding the team. As the wagon crested a low rise, he saw the river for the first time. It was even wider than he’d imagined, and full to the banks. The water, mud red with spring runoff, was fast-moving and treacherous. He remembered Mary’s warning. At the time, he’d dismissed it, figuring that she was being overly cautious. Now he understood.
Benteen Calder had already found the ford place and chosen the safest route across the river. Now the boss sat his horse on a high part of the bank, directing every step of the crossing. At his signal, Jesse Trumbo, the most experienced cowhand, moved ahead of the chuckwagon and rode into the water to show the way. One after another, the three wagons followed him. Joe gripped the reins as his team waded into the rushing current. The water rose around him, almost high enough to cover the horses’ backs. He hadn’t expected to be scared, but he was.
Clucking encouragement to the horses, he riveted his gaze on the back of Mary Stanton’s wagon and followed it, pushing through the strong current. An eternity seemed to pass before the chuckwagon, then the Stantons’ wagon, lurched onto the bank. Moments later, Joe, too, was out of the river, the horses dripping and snorting as water streamed off their hides. He began to breathe again.
The wagons rolled on, moving away from the river to leave plenty of room for the horses and cattle that would follow. When Rusty stopped at last, in a level clearing, Joe pulled the wagon to one side, jumped to the ground, and untied his horse from the back. As he swung into the saddle, he saw Lorna climbing down from the chuckwagon. She gave him a little wave, along with that smile of hers. He was tempted to ride over and tell her how careful he’d been, driving her wagon. But right now he needed to get back and help move the herd.
Trumbo had gone back to ride point on the herd. Joe reached the ford to find Yates bringing the remuda across. He pitched in to help. The horses were strong swimmers. They had no trouble with the deep water or the current. Within minutes they’d all made it to the far bank.
After helping Yates herd the remuda to a safe place near the wagons, Joe turned around and headed back to the river at a gallop. Already soaked to the skin, he plunged his horse into the swift-moving current and pushed for the other side.
Looking ahead, toward the far bank, he could see the cattle moving down the long slope to the ford. The riders, two on point, two on either side in flank and swing position, and three riding drag in the rear, had squeezed the herd into a ragged line, with a big brindle steer in the lead. As they reached the ford, Joe realized that the cattle would be coming straight toward him.
Spanish Bill, who was riding point with Trumbo, spotted Joe in the water. With frantic gestures, he motioned for Joe to go back. Joe got the message. With the herd surging into the river, he swung the horse around and rode back the way he’d come. Reaching the bank just in time, he reined his horse to a safe vantage point to watch the crossing.
The sight was one Joe would never forget. The first of the cattle had reached the river and stopped to drink. But more animals, with the cowboys pushing from the rear, moved in behind them, forcing them ahead. The point riders urged them forward, into the current. The flank riders, Andy and Jonesy, along with the swing riders, pressed them from the sides, keeping them to the solid bottom, away from the eddies and quicksand, while the drag riders picked up any stragglers and pressed the herd from behind.
For now, everything seemed to be going well. The cattle made a strange spectacle, with just their heads and their long horns bobbing above the muddy water. The sound of their bawling filled the air. By now, the leaders had made it across and were being herded to a safe spot half a mile beyond the river. More cattle followed behind them. On the far bank, the herd was still coming, pouring down to the water in a steady line.
The morning sun had risen and climbed the sky. Its rays danced on the water, the brightness dazzling Joe’s eyes. He reached up to pull down the brim of his hat.
His pulse jerked.
His hat was gone.
Shading his eyes with his hand, he scanned the riverbank. There was no sign of his father’s battered Texas-style Stetson, which he’d accepted as a parting gift when he’d left home. He must’ve been wearing it when he’d helped Yates with the horses. If not, he would surely have missed it sooner. But where was the hat now?
There was only one place it could be, Joe realized with a sinking heart—the river.
Still shading his eyes, he gazed out over the roiling red-brown water. There was the hat. Circling on a small eddy, it was drifting into the path of the oncoming cattle. Joe’s first thought was that the hat would be trampled into the mud and lost forever. Then, suddenly, he became aware of a much more dangerous situation.
Several cattle had spotted the hat, where it twirled and bobbed on the water like some living thing. With tossing horns and snorts of alarm, they turned aside and tried to head back the way the herd had come. Other cattle followed, plowing back into the animals that were moving forward, forcing them into the mass of moving bodies.
Sick with helpless dread, Joe watched from the bank as the herd began to mill—plunging and jamming into a solid, circling, bawling mass of confusion. It crossed his mind that maybe he should ride into the river and help. But without knowing what to do, he’d only be in the way.
Was that the truth, or was he just plain scared?
Benteen Calder spurred his horse into the river as his men fought to break up the melee, pushing, shoving with their horses, and flailing with their ropes. Some of the weaker animals were already going down, to be drowned and trampled.
A panic-stricken steer slammed into Andy’s horse, knocking the young cowboy out of the saddle. Seeing him go down, Jonesy charged in close to throw him a rope. An instant later, both of them were lost from sight.
Spanish Bill leaped from his horse onto the cattle. They were packed so closely that he was able to cross on their backs, beating at them with his fists as he moved toward the center to open up a wedge. A moment later, in the confusion, Joe lost track of him, as well.
Miraculously, or so it seemed, the knot of cattle began to separate. A few at first, then more and more allowed themselves to be herded the rest of the way across the river and up the bank. They left behind a mess of churned-up mud and carcasses that floated downriver on the fast-moving current.
Soaked and exhausted, the cowboys herded the last of the cattle to safety. Joe glimpsed Spanish Bill, back on his horse. The others looked to be all right, too—except for Andy and Jonesy. There was no sign of them.
Surely his two friends had made it out of the river, Joe told himself as he rode back to the wagons. Of course they had. They’d be showing up anytime, laughing and joking about their harrowing adventure.
Rusty had a fire going and hot coffee to warm the men. They drank in silence, pale and cold. Joe had set up a rope corral for the horses and was gathering dry wood for the chuckwagon when Benteen Calder rode in. His face was a granite mask.
“I need a couple of volunteers to ride downstream with me,” he said. “We’ll be looking for Andy and Jonesy and making a count of the lost stock. The rest of you, get those cattle ready to move out. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall.”
“I’ll go with you, Mr. Calder,” Joe said, stepping forward. Helping to find his friends was the least he could do.
Shorty offered to go as well. After saddling fresh horses, they fell in behind the boss and followed him back down to the ford.
With Joe bringing up the rear, they rode single file, saying little. Downriver, the buzzards were already flocking in to feed on the dead cattle. Calder had asked Joe and Shorty to keep their own count, to compare with his when there were no more to be found. Joe was already coming up on fifty—every one of them his fault for losing his hat in the river.
The sun beat like a hammer on his bare head. Nobody had said a word about his hat being gone, but surely the men had noticed. Some, at least, might’ve even guessed what had happened. Should he open his mouth and own up to it? The question clawed at his gut.
At the river’s edge, he noticed something brown caught on a snag. Pausing for a closer look, he recognized his waterlogged hat. The very sight of it made his stomach roil. But he couldn’t work without a hat, and there was no place to get another one. Reaching down from the saddle, he hooked it with a finger, squeezed out the worst of the muddy water, and tucked it under his vest before catching up with the others.
A mile downstream, where the river curved in its channel, they found Andy and Jonesy in a clump of flooded willows. Their bodies lay in shallow water, coated with mud and battered from tumbling in the swift current. Joe had fooled himself into believing his friends were safe. He should have known better.
He felt the soggy lump of his hat beneath his vest—the hat that in all likelihood had caused their deaths. It was his fault that two young lives were gone. And there was nothing he could do except try not to disgrace himself by being sick.
Calder’s jaw worked before he spoke. “Get them out of the water, boys, and lay them behind your saddles. I’ll ride back and let the others know. We’ll be moving out as soon as they’re in the ground. Never mind lunch—we’ll eat tonight.”
Andy and Jonesy were laid to rest on a nearby bluff. Once the graves were dug, the ceremony was brief. Ely Stanton fashioned two crude crosses to serve as markers. Benteen Calder offered a few words. Mary laid a sad little bouquet of wildflowers at the foot of each cross, and Lorna took two of the precious rose cuttings she’d brought and planted them in the fresh earth.
Then it was time to move the herd.
The chuckwagon was already heading out. Lorna and Mary followed, driving their wagons. With his wet, shapeless hat jammed onto his head, Joe took his place behind the remuda, keeping the horses together and making sure none were left behind.
Silence hung like a haze of dust over the drive. The cattle trailed along, kept in line by the mounted cowboys. Seventy animals had been lost in the river, along with two fine young men. But there was no point in mourning or counting the cost. There was nothing to do except keep moving.
As the sun dried his hat to the shape of his head, Joe struggled to clear his mind of the morning’s awful images. But the guilt that gnawed at his insides wouldn’t go away. His carelessness had triggered the disaster that left his two friends dead and cut deep into the value of Benteen Calder’s herd.
And he hadn’t said a word about it—not to anyone.
His mother had raised him to be honest. But would fessing up be honest or just plain stupid? What would the boss do to him if he confessed? Fire him and leave him alone on the prairie? Maybe take his earnings in payment toward the lost cattle? And what about the men? Surely they’d turn their backs on him, or do far worse, for what he’d caused to happen.
But how could anyone feel more contempt for him than he already felt for himself?
By the time the herd caught up with the chuckwagon, the sun had set. As the cattle bedded down, the savory aromas of beans, bacon, and fresh biscuits drifted on the air. The cowboys, who’d missed the noon meal, were ravenous. But the usual camaraderie around the fire was absent tonight. There were no tears and no mention of losses suffered, but gloom and grief hung over them all.
Joe had to force himself to swallow his beans and biscuits. By the time he’d finished the meal and returned his plate, his stomach was already churning. He fled to a thicket of bushes, a stone’s throw from camp, where he doubled over and lost everything he’d eaten.
Moving to another spot, he hunkered into a ball of misery. His shoulders shook with silent sobs. Tears he could no longer hold back squeezed from his eyes and trickled down his cheeks. This morning he’d congratulated himself on becoming a man. But he’d never felt less like a man than he did right now.
“Hey, amigo.” The voice, coming from behind him, was Spanish Bill’s. “What are you doing out here? Are you sick?”
Joe was too choked up to answer. He shook his head, but Bill wasn’t convinced. Dropping to a crouch, he laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I know those two boys were your friends.”
Joe shook his head, the words breaking loose and spilling out of him. “It’s not just that. What happened today—it was all my fault. My hat—”
“I know about your hat. I saw it in the water. I couldn’t reach it in time. But you don’t hear me saying it was my fault, do you?”
“That’s not the same.” Joe wiped his eyes on his sleeve, ashamed of his tears. “I was the one who dropped it. I killed them—Jonesy and Andy and all those cows. I killed them, as sure as if I’d took a gun and shot them.”
“No, muchacho.” Bill’s big hand squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “You didn’t mean for it to happen. You were only trying to get out of the way. And the hat . . . It could’ve floated anywhere—down the river or to the bank. But it went the wrong way. It was a terrible thing to happen. But it was an accident. I know that. All the boys know that. Even the boss knows it.”
“Even the boss?” Joe lifted his head and stared at the Mexican
“Sí, even the boss. So, will you now come back to the camp
Joe hesitated, thinking how his tear-streaked face would make
him appear to the men. “You go on,” he said. “I’ll come back in
Spanish Bill nodded and rose to his feet. “One more thing. When you’re a cowboy, you learn that bad things happen on the trail. If they do, you don’t judge and you don’t look back. You just move on. That, my young friend, is what these men have done for you today. Don’t forget.”
As he walked away, Joe settled back to wait for the darkness to deepen. A waning moon rose above the distant hills. The melancholy cry of a coyote echoed across the prairie.
Joe rubbed his tearstained face with his sleeve. Spanish Bill had delivered a message of acceptance and forgiveness. But Joe would never forgive himself for the careless mistake that had set off a tragedy.
Going forward, he vowed, he would do everything in his power to make up for what he’d done. He would be the first man on the job, first to help, first in the rush to head off a stampede. That was how you became a cowboy. That was how you became a man.
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