A Gray World
Everything had a uniform drabness: the sky, the earth, and everything in between was gray. Sudden downpours from squall winds added to the dreary sameness. Even glimpses of some distant mountains showed them also to be gray.
The old wagon blended into the gloominess. There was a waterproofed texas someone had made by raising a pole underneath the cloth, high in the center so water would run downward instead of accumulating in the center of the top, causing a hazardous sag. There was a shallow shovel-width trench completely around the wagon, which carried off most of the water. The ground beneath the texas was wet but not soggy.
Everything seasoned rangemen could do to mitigate wetness had been done, but after the second day of steady rainfall nothing could keep the moisture out completely. Even the air inside the wagon was damp.
There had been very little warning. One night when the men bedded down they saw a few ﬂeecy clouds in the sky. The clouds looked soiled around the edges but they were not numerous. Sometime during the night the storm had arrived. Its intensity gradually built up from one of those customary summer showers that cattlemen welcomed until it became a genuine gully washer that had not slackened for two days and nights.
The cattle were out there, invisible to the range-men whenever the cattle were more than a hundred yards away. The same with the horses—two half-ton bay harness animals and eight saddle horses.
This kind of a storm, out in the middle of a thousand miles of rolling-to-ﬂat grassland with a monotonous view in all directions, had an effect on men whose thoughts, habits, and customs had made them individuals who coveted wide open spaces. Suddenly the weather had forced their horizons to shrink way back to the perimeter of the old wagon, along with most of their activities. By the second day of the downpour they had gone from inhabitants of an almost limitless world to being prisoners of an area no more than sixty feet long by about twelve feet wide.
They played poker with a greasy and dog-eared deck of cards. They slept as often as they cared to. They talked about other times, other places, other people and events. Finally, they took to smoking beneath the texas, coat collars turned up, shirts closed all the way to the gullet, hat brims pulled in front and back so water could run off down the sides. The rangemen buckled their chaps into place, leaving the part below the knee swinging free, because leather kept water out, for a while anyway.
The eldest of them was Boss Spearman. Sixty-odd years earlier his mother had named her beautiful little chubby baby boy Bluebonnet because his eyes were the color of the ﬂower, but no one had called him anything but Boss for about half a century.
His mother wouldn’t have recognized him now. Boss was a little under six feet tall, lean, scarred, lined, craggy with a shock of rarely combed iron-gray hair. Like all orphaned Texans left on their own in the wake of a ruinous war, Boss Spearman had reached manhood by clawing his way. Whatever was said about him, he was resourceful. He was taciturn among townfolks and strangers, and he was as shrewd as they came, tough and sinewy. His thoughts, movements, and actions were those of a much younger man.
The youngest of the rangemen was a waif called Button, which was a common name for youngsters. Boss and Charley Waite had rescued Button from an alley ﬁght where townsmen in western New Mexico had pitted him against another boy and placed bets on the outcome. Button was getting whipped to a frazzle when Boss and Charley broke it up and took him out to the wagoncamp with them.
Now Button was sixteen, doing a man’s work in a man’s world, growing like a weed, thin as a rail, with hair the color of dirty straw.
Charley had trailed cattle west with Boss Spearman. He was a little less than average in height, had muscle packed inside a powerful frame, had dark hair and eyes, and could do something few other men ever learned. He could rope equally well with either hand. Charley’s full name was Charles Travis Postelwaite. Before he’d reached twenty he shortened it to Charley Waite. He looked to be about forty-ﬁve but in fact was thirty-ﬁve.
The last of them was well over six feet tall and weighed better than two hundred pounds. He had nondescript dark hair and deep-set gray eyes, a wide mouth, and scars. His name was Mosely Harrison. They called him Mose.
Big Mose, leaning against the tailgate beneath the canvas, was the ﬁrst to see the rent in the sky far eastward and say, “It’s goin’ to break up. Look yonder.”
But the storm didn’t break up. Not for another twenty-four hours, and then it ended the same way it had arrived, silently in the soggy night. When they rolled out in the morning to get a cooking ﬁre started with damp wood, there was only a misty dampness to the air. The downpour had stopped.
For another few days, though, the ground would be too treacherous underfoot to do much, and there were seepage springs everywhere that underlying layers of rock would not allow water to penetrate.
Charley was frying sidemeat. The old pot held the last of their coffee. When the others squatted to eat in silence, Charley rationed out soggy fried spuds, meat, and three baking-powder biscuits to each plate. He sat down with his tin dish. “Nice little rain,” he said. “Grass’ll be strong all the way into July maybe.”
No one else spoke. They chewed, swallowed, and raised more food to their mouths. They washed the food down with the coffee, then put the tin cups and plates aside to roll smokes. The smoking was a ritual. It signiﬁed something: the end of a meal, the end of a day, the spiritual or philosophical girding up for something ahead. Maybe a self-reward for having survived a particular event.
Boss tipped ash into the little ﬁre. “My maw used to say don’t anything happen it don’t bring some good with it.” He pointed with his cigarette hand. They’d been having trouble with the wagon’s wheels through a month of hot weather. “Them tires and spokes and felloes is as tight as when they was new.”
The next morning the sun arrived, huge and orange-yellow with a single cloud in its path toward the meridian. An hour later the ground steamed; the men shed coats and still sweated. They loafed around the wagon doing minor chores until the kid found the horses. One horse anyway. He’d gone out on foot with a bridle draped from one shoulder and a lariat in his right hand.
Boss walked out a ways, remained out there for a while, then returned to lean on the tailgate, scraping mud off his boots as he said, “Not a sight of anything. I got a feeling we’re going to set right here for maybe a week before we ﬁnd all those damned cattle.”
Mose Harrison was rubbing mold off a saddle fender. “If the ground was harder, we could take the wagon wherever the cattle are instead of was-tin’ days ﬁnding them and driving them back here.”
Boss gazed at the hulking man. “Yeah,” he said dryly. “If. All my life it’s been, If.”
Charley went up front where the wagon tongue was held off the ground by a little wooden horseshoe keg. He sat up there until he saw distant movement, then returned to the tailgate area. “He caught one.”
Boss ﬁnished cleaning off the mud and pitched the twig into the dying coals of their breakfast ﬁre. “You want to ﬁnd the other one, Charley?”
When Button ﬁnally got back, mud to the knees and leading a roman-nosed, rawboned big sorrel horse with feet the size of dinner plates, Charley went out with an old croaker sack to dry off the animal’s back before saddling up.
The heat had been steadily, muggily building up for over two hours. It would have helped if there had been a little air stirring, but the air was stone-still. Visibility, however, was excellent as Charley reined away heading on an angling northwesterly course. Because there were no tracks, ﬁnding any animals would be by sight alone.
They would eventually ﬁnd them. They’d been through worse situations than this many times. Grazing cattle constantly moved, and this sooner or later brought rangemen face to face with just about every inconvenience or obstacle nature or man could devise.
It was simply a matter of ﬁnding which way the cattle had drifted, with their heads down and their rumps to the force of the storm.
What made it unlikely that Charley Waite would ﬁnd the cattle soon was the duration of the storm. The cattle could drift one hell of a distance in two days.
The roman-nosed horse sweated even at a steady walk. Charley did too. So did the ground, but its sweat was a rising faint mist as hot sunlight cooked soggy earth.
There was a lot of territory on all sides. The only barrier was a range of haze-distanced mountains to the north. They seemed to form around the big prairie in a long-spending curve, like a huge horseshoe.
There were no signs of two-legged life, but there were plenty of pronghorns and deer. Charley came up over a landswell and startled a young, tawny yellow cougar eating a rabbit. They looked at each other in surprise for a couple of seconds before the cat broke away with his belly hairs scraping the ground as he ﬂed eastward. Charley could have shot him. He had his saddlegun along. Instead he turned northward along the rise and stood in his stirrups seeking movement. A rising heat haze shortened visibility a little but he could still see for miles.
The land was empty.
He zigzagged over a mile or two looking for tracks. When he found them, ﬁnally, he was about ten miles from camp. From this point on he followed cow sign toward those distant mountains. The cattle would not have got that far, but he loped a little anyway. He needed reassurance that they hadn’t got up in there, because if they had, it was going to be hard work ﬁnding them and driving them back to open country.
The mountains did not seem to be getting any closer no matter how far he rode toward them. What he sought was a sighting or, failing that, the scent of cattle.
What he found was a big calf lying dead. Squawking buzzards surrounded the corpse, too engrossed in feeding to notice his approach until he was close enough to yell and startle them. Most of the birds ran along the ground to get airborne, but several ignored the proximity of the man to tear at the carcass, too hungry to depart immediately.
They ﬁnally left when Charley was about a hundred feet from the carcass. He rode closer, sat his saddle studying the dead calf, trying to ﬁgure out what had killed it. He gave up on that because the body had been torn and dragged until there was little semblance of its original self. Charley rode northward on the wide, perfectly visible trail of a lot of cattle.
He had not found the brand back there. If he’d cared to dismount and roll the carcass over to expose the right side, he probably could have found it. Boss Spearman, for some private reason, used one C-iron to make three letter Cs on the right rib cage of his cattle. Charley Waite had been with Spearman six years and still did not know what the three Cs stood for.
Some coyotes appeared through stirrup-high grass following the scent of blood. Charley saw them, then lost them, only to see them again in other places. He thought there were about ﬁfteen of the varmints. There was no doubt about what they were seeking and would ultimately ﬁnd. When that happened the buzzards would leave, and would stay away.
With the sun coming down the far side of heaven to make Charley tip down his hat to protect his eyes, he ﬁnally detected dark movement far ahead.
By count there were supposed to be four hundred cows, mostly wet ones with sassy-fat calves, along with about two hundred and ﬁfty big marketable steers and something like ﬁfteen bulls, a bigger ratio than most cattlemen used. But then, most cattlemen had particular ranges; their cows were not always moving.
Charley turned back, satisﬁed with this part of his mission. Now he concentrated on locating the horses. With them a man could never be as certain of eventual success. True, there had been no lightning and thunder to spook them out of the country, but they could still be a long way off.
He found the horses by riding the course of a crooked creek that had the only tree shade for many miles. The horses were absorbing ﬁltered sunshine while simultaneously stamping and ﬂailing their tails at myriads of ﬂying insects.