Head ‘em Up, Move ‘em Out

by Hombre

Main character: Ezra

Notes: Always fancied writing about a trail drive and I have now finally gotten round to it. Thanks to all the J.T. Edson books that I have read on the subject. As well as that, I used a terrific little book from the library where I work – The American West 1840-1895. I also used the following website for information about the chuck wagon. Jeez, what a piece of equipment! (www.phudpucker.com.) Be careful how you say that! Could turn into something rude if you´re not careful where you place the ph. The webpage also teaches a lot about etiquette around camp during a trail drive and I found it invaluable. Also, rope twirling is not something that I´ve ever tried, so please excuse any mistakes in technique in my descriptions! I´ve really enjoyed writing this story, hope you enjoy reading it! If you do, then I would love to know.

Chris sat in the saloon quietly, smoking a cheroot and drinking whiskey. He was aware of footsteps coming up behind him but he didn´t think it would be anybody to see him. He was wrong. Three shadows fell across his table, so he frowned and looked up curiously. Three of the smaller ranchers from around the area near Four Corners were lined up in front of him.

The tallest of the trio seemed to be the group´s spokesman and he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Um………..Mr. Larabee? Could we join you?”

The black-clad man narrowed his eyes but nodded curtly in agreement. His three companions sat down but looked highly uncomfortable in his company. None of them would meet his gaze and they seemed to regret their decision to seek the blond out.

Chris sighed when no one spoke. “What can I do for you?” he asked resignedly, knowing that he probably wouldn´t like what the men had to tell him.

“We´ve gathered our herds together to drive to Casper, Wyoming, to stock a new ranch there, but Guy Royal has made several threats to disrupt our progress. We were wondering if we could have some protection from you and your men on the journey?” the group´s leader, Hooper, asked with a wince.

The blond looked at them silently for a while. He took a few puffs on his cheroot and then pursed his lips thoughtfully. “We ain´t trail hands,” he objected softly.

Hooper leaned forward and clasped his hands together as if praying. “No, but yer gunfighters. That´s what we need most of all.”

“Look, I can´t agree to anything without talking to the others and Judge Travis. We can´t leave this town unprotected if we go,” Chris said as he drummed his fingers on the table and then shrugged.

“All I ask is that you, at least, consider accompanying us,” Hooper pleaded.

Chris studied the tall man as he seriously thought about the man´s demands. “Fine. When do ya need an answer by?” he finally asked.

“As soon as possible because we´re setting off in the next coupla days.”

The black-clad man nodded in agreement. “Okay, I´ll speak to you soon, but I really can´t guarantee our participation.”

The three men nodded, stood up and shook Chris´s hand. They then left the saloon, still not quite sure how successful they´d been in their quest. Chris never gave much away facially.

The blond watched them leave as he drank down the last of his whiskey slowly. He really didn´t know what to do about Hooper´s request. He really wanted to help the ranchers out because their dilemma involved Guy Royal, but as he´d said, his men weren´t trail hands. He sighed and wandered out onto the boardwalk and flicked away the remnants of his cheroot as he saw a group of men seemingly arguing by the livery. Chris pursed his lips as he recognized four of Royal´s hired hands harassing his erstwhile companions. The black-clad gunfighter strode purposefully toward them as he fingered his gun in anticipation.

“What´s going on?” he barked as he drew up behind the aggressors.

“Just talking,” one of them snarled, as he whirled round to face the blond.

“What about?” Chris demanded as he eyed the man angrily.

“None of yer damned business.”

“It wasn´t a threat concerning Mr. Hooper´s trail-drive, was it?” Chris asked suspiciously, knowing that was exactly what the discussion had been about. He held the man´s gaze unblinkingly.

The leader of Royal´s men looked stunned and didn´t answer as he dropped his eyes to look at the ground instead.

Chris nodded at the confirmation of his thoughts. He then reached out a finger to prod the man´s chest to emphasize his words. “If it was, you can tell Royal that he´d better not be planning anything, because my men and I will be going along too. If he wants to cause trouble, he´ll have to go through me first,” the blond warned.

The troublemakers scowled and headed off toward their horses, not wanting to provoke the black-clad man into actual violence. Any more arguing on their part was bound to result in that happening. Chris was notorious for his short fuse.

“Mr. Larabee? Did you mean that?” Hooper asked once the men had gone.

“Yeah, I´ll sort something out with Travis, but we´ll be with you for protection as you asked. Come back to town tomorrow and we´ll go over things,” the blond said with a rueful smile.

“Thank you,” Hooper said as he shook Chris´s hand firmly in both of his. “Thank you so very much.”

Vin saw Chris talking to the three ranchers, so he ambled over to join his friend when the other men had moved away. “Hey, cowboy. Trouble?” he asked quietly as he studied the preoccupied blond.

Chris shrugged in seeming embarrassment. “Maybe. Get all the guys together in the saloon, will ya? I´ve kinda promised our help on a trail- drive.”

“What?” the tracker cried in amusement. “Ezra´s gonna kill ya slow and painful for agreeing to that!” Vin laughed as he slapped Chris´s back playfully.

Chris grinned, knowing what Ezra´s reaction would be to the news. “I know. Not sure what the others will say either. I´ll have to see what Travis thinks too, ‘cause he´ll need to arrange for someone to look after the town while we´re gone.”

The blond headed off to the telegraph office while Vin went to find his friends as the blond had asked. Once Chris had completed his own task, he wandered along to the saloon and looked each of his men over speculatively. He knew Vin hadn´t said a word to them about what he had agreed to. For once, he was quite nervous about speaking to his friends.

The black-clad man stayed on his feet and said, “Right, I´ve offered our services to get Hooper´s combined herds to Casper, Wyoming.” Chris could already see, as Vin had predicted, that Ezra was less than amused. He tried to justify his actions with a bit of explanation on the situation they faced. “It seems Guy Royal has been making threats to disrupt it, and I just caught a few of Royal´s men having words with the ranchers outside. I want your views, guys.”

Chris knew who was going to speak first, as did the rest of his men. The group turned as one to face Ezra expectantly as they calmly awaited his outburst.

The gambler obliged indignantly. “Well, I protest about my services being offered without my consent. I find the whole proposition appalling. I´m not a damned cow nurse.”

“Yeah, well, I kinda expected to hear that loada bull from you, Ez.” Chris grinned at the groans from his men at his play on words. “What about the rest of ya? Do ya wanna come, or am I goin´ alone?”

“Count me in, Chris. Always wanted to do a trail- drive,” JD said with boyish enthusiasm as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. All his dreams from his childhood were coming to fruition. This was part of the reason for him coming west: the adventure. So far, he´d been a sheriff, part of a group of peacekeepers, and now he was going to help out on a trail- drive.

“That means I´d better come and keep an eye on the kid, then,” Buck said wryly as he patted the youngster´s back indulgently. He really felt as excited as JD, though he wouldn´t admit it.

Chris turned his gaze on the preacher and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“I´m on the side of the smaller rancher where´s Royal´s concerned, so I´m willing to make some sacrifices in comfort to join you,” Josiah said with a broad grin.

Nathan sighed as he looked round the group. “S´pose I´ll have to come, ‘cause someone´s bound to get hurt, ain´t they?”

The blond turned to the tracker, although he already knew what the man´s answer would be. Vin was standing beside him and the black-clad man could almost hear him purring in pleasure. “Vin?”

The younger man looked at him with a quiet smile playing on his lips, confirming the blond´s guess. “I´m game. Royal and I don´t see eye- to-eye, as you know. Any chance to be a thorn in his side should be enjoyed, I reckon.”

“Enjoyed? Hah!” Ezra spluttered as he nearly choked on the beer that he was attempting to drink.

“Ez? You can always stay behind and guard the town on yer own while we´re gone, if you prefer,” Chris suggested as he winked at Vin and nudged his ribs gently in amusement.

Ezra grimaced; not knowing which was the worst option. He knew he´d be hard pressed to do the work needed to run the town alone, but then he didn´t really relish a long journey on horseback accompanying a herd of cattle either. “Dammit! I´ll come too,” he said, hoping he´d chosen correctly.

“Are we just going for protection, or are we expected to help with the herd?” Buck asked, now turning to the meatier issues of the proposition.

Chris puffed on his newly-lit cheroot and blew out a lazy cloud of smoke with a sigh. He watched it disperse and then shrugged. “I honestly don´t know, Bucklin, but I think we´d better prepare ourselves for trail work too. I don´t think Hooper has enough men to send along.”

“Oh, joy. I´d better not be assigned to do drag duty,” Ezra complained, talking about the hardest, dirtiest job there was on a trail drive. The thought of having to urge on the stragglers in the herd, in the clouds of dust left by the other cattle ahead of them, held little appeal for the con man.

“If we have to, we all take a turn with whatever we´re asked to do. I don´t want no skiving, Ezra. You come along and you damn well work, okay?”

Ezra flapped a dejected hand in the air. “Yes, yes, I understand, but I don´t have to be happy about it.”

“Are you ever happy?” the blond growled as he puffed angrily on his cheroot.

“For you, happiness is being horizontal, ain´t it, Ez?” Buck laughed, alluding to the amount of time that Ezra spent in bed.

“Damn right, Mr. Wilmington,” the gambler replied as he slapped the palm of his hand on the table to emphasize his comment. “I definitely worship Somnus, the God of sleep.”

“Well, you spend too much time in his company to my mind. You´ll sleep enough when yer dead, I reckon,” Chris grumbled.

“That´s not the same thing at all. When you´re dead, that´s it. You don´t have the pleasure of waking up and lying comfortably in bed until a reasonable hour. It´s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” Ezra said dreamily.

“Well, there won´t be no chance for getting up late, Ez. Up before dawn, bed at sundown, if yer lucky,” Chris pointed out truthfully.

“Oh, my enthusiasm is building with each passing moment,” Ezra moaned sarcastically as he screwed his face up in dissatisfaction.

Chris couldn´t help laughing. He knew Ezra would pull his weight when called upon, and who was he to deny the man his customary grumbles?

The blond looked at his second-in-command and asked, “Vin? Can you ride scout on the drive, anyway? If Royal´s gotten any tricks up his sleeve, I wanna be the first one to know about it. You´ll be my blue-tic hound on this trip.”

“Sure thing, cowboy. As long as you don´t expect me to bark too.”

Chris grinned in response to the comment. “Nah, just need yer tracking skills and suspicious nature, Vin.” The blond turned to face the rest of his men again. “I´ve arranged a meeting with the ranchers tomorrow, so I´ll meet you all here first thing. We´ll know what duties they expect us to do then. We´ll have to see if they can supply us with some spare horses, or, if not, Yosemite might have some that we can hire.”

“Do ya think I could help with the remuda?” JD asked excitedly.

“Maybe, kid. Let´s just wait and see, shall we?” Chris said, glad at least one of his men seemed to be looking forward to the task ahead.

+ + + + + + +

The seven peacekeepers and three ranchers met early the next day and sat down in the saloon to discuss tactics.

“Mr. Hooper? Why don´t you tell us exactly what you expect of us? Are we just there for protection, or do you need help with the drive itself?” Chris asked as he lit his first cheroot of the day and sat back expectantly.

The rancher nodded nervously and looked round the table at the seven tough peacekeepers. He wasn´t quite sure how they were going to react to what he wanted. “Well, first and foremost, we need your gunfighting skills, but as you must know we haven´t gotten enough men to deal with the herd on our own. Separately we´re only small outfits, but our combined herds number about 3000 head, so we´d appreciate you covering some trail hand duties, if at all possible.”

Chris nodded as he had his previous thoughts confirmed. He now just wanted to have a bit of control over his men´s activities. “Fine, but can I make some suggestions, so that we can cover the security of the herd, while at the same time helping yer men?”

“Sure,” Hooper said gratefully as he let out the breath that he hadn´t realized he´d been holding. He´d expected resistance to the acceptance of what, in effect, constituted two jobs.

Chris smiled in an attempt to put the man at ease. “Well, I´d like Vin to ride scout and be our eyes and ears. He can also pick out the safest trail for us to follow while he´s at it, which frees you up to help with the herd. Buck and I could handle point most of the time so that we´re up with the action. If JD could help with the remuda, he could watch for trouble from there.” The blond flicked a quick look at the youngster and winked at him. “I think we should take two wagons with us too ‘cause I expect casualties, or I wanna be prepared for them, anyway. We can use the spare one to carry extra equipment too.” Chris paused and then continued with his thoughts. “The rest of us can help out wherever you need us, but I´d rather have everyone on horseback so that we can act quickly if any trouble occurs. Don´t want anyone assigned to the chuck wagon or anything like that, okay? We need to be maneuverable if we´re gonna protect the herd properly. We can alternate duties between us to keep us fresh and alert. That also means that Ez don´t get buried in the dust at the back if I keep assigning him to drag. If he pisses me off, though, that´s exactly where he´ll spend the whole drive,” Chris said with an evil grin as he looked at the con man.

“So kind,” the gambler said wryly as he put a finger to his brow in acknowledgement of the threat.

Hooper nodded at the arrangements, happy that Chris seemed to have put some thought into the exercise. “Sure, sounds fine to me. I really appreciate yer help, but I´m afraid that we can´t pay you much,” he apologized.

“Don´t want payment,” Chris said simply with a firm shake of his head.

Mr. Larabee!” Ezra complained in distress, as he sat up straight at the unwelcome news. He was appalled that they would have to work without any reward.

The black-clad gunfighter wanted to put an end to Ezra´s continuing complaints once and for all. He pointed at the man with the hand that held his cheroot and used it to emphasize his point. Ezra watched the fiery stick almost hypnotically, as it waved around in front of him. His eyes followed the wispy trail of smoke that it left behind and he felt faintly dizzy as a result.

Chris scowled and said sternly, “Shut it, Ez. Travis is still gonna pay us what we usually get. You won´t lose out.”

“I was hoping to gain, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra grumbled, not placated by the fact that he would still be paid.

“No chance. Just keep yer lip buttoned, ‘cause you´ve heard what I´ll do if you annoy me. I ain´t standing for none of yer sass through this, you hear me?” Chris warned as he fixed the gambler with a furious stare.

Ezra grimaced in vexation, but mumbled, “Yes, I certainly do.” He knew he was going to have to tread carefully with the blond in the future.

“Can I ask how long the drive´s gonna take?” Josiah asked, once the two men had settled down.

“Well, it´s about two-hundred miles to cover, so I´d guess about a month. We can hopefully cover about twenty miles the first day but then we´ll average about twelve for the rest of the drive.”

Chris saw Ezra´s mouth open in dismay, but it only took one look from the blond to get the gambler´s lips slapping together without any sound escaping.

+ + + + + + +

Five of the men moved out to the ranch to help prepare for the coming drive. Hooper had wanted them to get used to using a rope, which wasn´t a piece of equipment that some of the men had ever used from the back of a running horse before. Buck and Vin had previously shown prowess with a rope so they agreed to stay behind in town until their relief arrived, while the others practiced their new skill.

The trail boss began teaching the youngest peacekeeper first while the rest of his friends took up position on the fence to watch.

“Right, JD. Yer gonna have to use a rope with the remuda, so let´s start with you. No horse work to start with. Need to get you working well on the ground first. Just practice throwing the loop over that tree stump.”

JD got hold of the rope that he was handed, thinking how easy the task would be. He shook out the loop until it was large enough, and then tried to swirl the rope over his head in preparation to throw at the target. He started off fine, but then the rope seemed to develop a life of its own. It was difficult to keep in the air, and JD only succeeded in roping himself when his arm got tired and stopped twirling. His friends laughed good- naturedly, knowing they would also have trouble when it was their turn to try.

“Okay, well that´s not bad for a first attempt. You caught something, even if it only turned out to be you.” Hooper smiled. “You´ve gotta learn to flick with yer wrist to keep the rope airborne. Just twirl the rope a few times over yer head and then send the loop at the target. If you twirl for too long yer gonna tire, as you just found out.”

JD arranged the rope comfortably in his hand and tried again. This time he twirled it four times and then made the rope head toward the stump. It fell short, but it was a vast improvement on his previous effort.

“Great, kid. You keep on there while I get the rest of yer friends sorted out.” Hooper turned to the others and gave them all targets to aim at. He moved round the group and gave tips on how to correct any problems that they encountered, and he was pleased at their progress.

“Okay, guys. You´ve gotten the general idea. Now, shall we try and rope a moving target? Chris? You try and rope Josiah while he´s walking about. Just don´t tighten the rope when you´ve looped him in case it lands round his neck.”

If he loops him,” Nathan said as he laughed.

Chris ignored the healer and moved into position as Josiah started walking briskly away from him. Chris shook out his loop and promptly dropped the rope at his feet without even managing to get it above head height. “Jeez, it´s years since I´ve done this.”

“There ya go, Josiah! Yer free. Run!” Nathan laughed as he shouted at the retreating preacher.

Hooper grinned. “Okay, well, yer cow´s heading fast to the horizon. Let´s try it again. Can you come back a bit closer, Josiah?”

The preacher turned and headed back while Chris got himself sorted. The black-clad gunfighter began to twirl and then sent out a perfect loop to land over the big man´s shoulders. He smiled in triumph and turned to bow at his friends, who obliged by applauding him mightily while whistling.

“Okay, everyone get a partner and go and perfect that, and then we´ll progress to rope throwing from horseback. JD? You can catch me for now, son,” Hooper said as he followed the youngster to an empty area of yard.

Hooper was very satisfied when, after another hour of swearing and laughing, each peacekeeper seemed to have mastered the skill of roping a friend. Now came the hard part.

The trail boss pointed to several horses tied to the nearby hitching rail. “Okay, use these cow ponies. They know their job inside out, so you can hopefully just concentrate on yer roping.”

The men mounted and awaited their orders. They juggled the rope and reins awkwardly while looking at each other to see how everyone else was coping with the double handful.

“Right, Nathan. I want you to get yer horse into a lope and try and snag the tree stump for me.”

Nathan kicked his horse forward but found steering the creature while attempting to twirl the rope over his head almost impossible. When he did send the rope at the target, he managed to throw his reins too.

“Shit,” he cursed, hoping the creature would stop.

The equine slowed amiably enough and came to a halt beside Hooper who grabbed hold of the split reins and passed them back up to Nathan.

The healer smiled sheepishly. “Jeez, they´re so agile. Not like our horses. It´s like learning to ride all over again, let alone roping at the same time.”

“Well, it was a good effort, Nathan, but just remember not to empty both hands when you throw yer rope, though,” Hooper said wryly. “Easier said than done, I know, but you´ll be in trouble if you do. Now, try again.”

It took six attempts, starting off at walk and progressing up to lope, before Nathan snagged his tree stump. “Yee-hah!” he yelled when he finally succeeded.

“Terrific. You´ve caught yerself a cow,” Hooper praised.

Each peacekeeper completed the same task and then Hooper made them try to catch a real-live cow. Now that they had had a bit of practice, they found it a lot easier than they had expected. They cheered each other on and within one hour, each of them had caught their steer and learnt how to secure it properly. Their arms ached after all their exercise, but they were immensely pleased at what they´d achieved during the day.

“You´ve worked real hard and it´s paid dividends, I think you´ll agree. You´ll all make good cowhands and I´d be proud to have any of you work for me, if you fancy a change of occupation,” Hooper said as he patted Chris´s back.

“Think I´ll stick to peacekeeping. It seems so much easier, somehow,” Josiah said as he shook his arms to try and stop them aching.

The men headed back to the ranch house and after a hearty meal, retired to bed early: tired but happy.

+ + + + + + +

The day for the start of the trail-drive dawned. The seven peacekeepers had regrouped at Hooper´s ranch where the combined herds were being held. There had been no trouble from Royal during the night, much to the blond´s relief. Chris had expected some, but that didn´t mean that they wouldn´t run into Royal´s men at some point in the future.

JD wandered round camp after eating his breakfast and getting his horse ready. He was hovering round the chuck wagon when the cook caught his eye. “Hey, kid. Anything I can help ya with?”

“Not really. Just admiring the wagon. Seems like you can pack yer whole life in it.”

The cook smiled indulgently. “Almost. Want a proper look?”

“Yes, please,” JD replied eagerly. He´d hardly slept because he was so excited about the coming adventure, and his pleasure was increasing minute-by-minute.

The cook started with a tour of the outside of the wagon. “Right, well, we´ve gotten water in these barrels, just in case we can´t find suitable supplies en route. On the other side of the wagon I´ve gotten a tool box.” The man made his way round to the back of the vehicle and pointed to a large sloping box that stretched the width of the vehicle. “In this box I´ve packed all the food and utensils that I´ll need; cutlery, crockery, you name it, I´ve got it. Gotten a drawer here for bandages, needles and stuff for shaving. Bedrolls can go in the back, if need be, and there´s my keg of sourdough in there too, as well as the Dutch oven to cook all the food in. Got spare saddles, bridles, horseshoes and other equipment as well. Everything you need to survive for a few months on the trail, kid.”

“Hey, Buck! Look at this wagon. It´s great. Could fit all my worldly goods in here and still have room for more.”

“Yeah, well you don´t possess a lot, so that ain´t saying much, kid,” Buck said as he wandered over and slapped the youngster´s back. The mustached peacekeeper studied the vehicle himself as he did a circuit of it. “It´d make a real nice private place to entertain a young lady, though,” he said thoughtfully as he scratched his chin.

“Over my dead body,” the cook growled indignantly, as he turned to face the man with hands on hips.

“Alright, Cookie, don´t get all hot and bothered. It was just a thought.”

“Yeah, well make sure it stays that way. Don´t even think about smuggling a woman along, ‘cause if I find one, I´ll take sole possession. Just remember that yer gonna be without female company for the next month, so keep a lid on any tendencies that you might start feeling.”

“Oh, now why did ya have to go and say a mean thing like that for? You just reminded me about the down-side to this trip,” Buck grumbled. “I can´t survive two days without a woman, let alone a month.”

The cook smiled and turned back to JD. “How ya feelin´ about handling all those horses, kid?”

“Bit worried really. It´s like handling a bunch of unruly kids. They´ve all gotten their own personalities and little traits, haven´t they? I´ve already seen a few that don´t get on, so God knows how they´re gonna behave being stuck together for a month.”

“You´ll manage ‘cause I saw how you dealt with the horses yesterday when the boys were selecting their mounts. You´ve gotten nothing to worry about,” the cook said as he patted the youngster´s back.

“Thanks, Cookie. Glad someone´s gotten some faith in me.”

Chris wandered over and joined the three men and cast his eye over the two wagons to make sure all the equipment had been delivered.

“Mr. Larabee?” Mr. Hooper called as he strode toward the gunfighter.

“Yeah?” Chris said as he turned to meet the man.

“Everything is ready. Are your men prepared? We´d like to get going as soon as possible now that the sun´s up.”

“Yeah, I´ll get them mounted.”

The cowhands and peacekeepers swung up onto their horses and moved to the positions that they had been assigned for that day. Chris and Buck moved to the head of the herd and waited to see which animal would take up the lead.

“Head ‘em up. Move ‘em out!” Hooper yelled, galvanizing the men into action.

If anyone was expecting instant action, they were going to be sorely disappointed. The animals milled about as they called to one another anxiously. They seemed to be heading in every other direction except where they were supposed to be going. Slowly, very slowly, the congregation of cattle was encouraged to move away from the ranch house. The cowhands moved more securely into position as the animals strung out between them. This day would be the hardest because the cows would be very reluctant to leave their home ground. Almost all the day would be spent running after escapees who tried to head back to familiarity. The air was full of shouts and curses as the men urged the beasts onwards.

Chris and Buck pulled in either side of the buckskin-colored beeve that appeared at the head of the herd and they steered it in the direction that Hooper had signaled. That animal would lead all the way to Wyoming, barring accidents. The rest of the herd followed slowly behind, creating a huge cloud of dirt as they went. There were many scuffles amongst the cows as they sorted themselves into some sort of order. Those that wanted to be up with the action pushed their way forward through the ones who preferred to trail behind.

Hooper seemed to be everywhere at once as he kept an eye on their progress. One minute he was at the head, and then the next, he was down the right flank going toward the drag.

The peacekeepers, meanwhile, worked as they´d never done before. Nathan set off after a small black cow who decided that it wanted to stay at home after all. The healer urged his mount after it and after quite a long chase steered it back to join its brethren once more. Josiah cursed as he went to sort out one animal that he thought was going to make a run for it. He discovered it was a creature who liked nothing better than to continually circle the herd. It made its way up to the head of the herd on one side and then slowed down to fall to the back down the other side before starting its trek again. Josiah had been caught out by the same animal before, but now he knew it intended no harm, he let it be.

There were lots of things that the men were going to learn about the life of a cowhand during the trail, and their respect for them would rise several notches before it was over.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode up late afternoon. “Hey, Mr. Hooper. There´s a good place to spend the night up ahead. There´s a river to water the cattle in first and then the camp is another mile further on.”

“Sounds perfect. Take the chuck wagon on with ya so that Cookie can get set up ready for when we come in.”

“Sure,” Vin agreed as he set off toward the rear of the herd to collect the chuck wagon.

Hooper then made the rounds of the trail hands and told them to expect a river crossing. Watering the herd would be one of the tasks that Ezra would continually take great pleasure in complaining about. It was a mammoth operation and took quite some time to achieve.

The cattle could already smell the water given their current reaction. They bellowed and quickened their pace, but the cowhands slowed them down as best they could, not wanting a mad rush by the animals. Once the water was in sight, the men stopped the herd and split the animals into groups. The first lot was taken to the bank and the lead cow headed down tentatively and sniffed the liquid suspiciously before plunging in up to knee height. The cowhands kept their positions on either side of the group of cows to keep them moving as they drank. Once they reached the other side, they were moved well away and held safely for their fellow beeves to catch up. The subsequent groups each entered the river upstream from the last group, so that they all got to drink fresh, clean water. One by one, the groups were urged over until the last animal had made the trip successfully.

Once the herd was regrouped, the men began to push them toward the bed-ground. The chuck wagon, as arranged, had already made camp nearby so that the cook had a meal ready for the hungry men when they turned up. This was when the cook really earned his wages. He worked miracles with a limited supply of food and never had any complaints about his cooking. Not that any of the men would dare say anything to his face for fear of a tongue- lashing from the man. A trail hand would be fired quicker than the cook ever would be, because a good cook was hard to find and even harder to keep.

The trail boss called out the names of the men that he wanted to stay with the herd for the first shift. He would send four men out at a time that first night, just in case the cattle proved to be troublesome. Once the herd was trail-broke, there would only be two men needed. The four summoned men, along with the remuda´s nighthawk, headed off to the camp with insults ringing in their ears. These men would eat first while the rest of the trail hands stayed behind to settle the herd on their bed-ground. Once the men returned to take up their duties, the others could go into camp. Before getting any food, though, the men would have to picket their night horses ready for when they took turns to watch the herd. They made sure they tied them up far enough from the camp so as not to cause problems. During a trail-drive, as in everyday life, the animals´ needs came first because the men´s lives depended on them. Only when they had been seen to could the men finally begin to think about themselves. At the end of every day, their bedrolls were piled up near the wagon and it was up to them to collect their own and set it up near the main campfire. Then, they would hopefully be able relax for a short while. In the mornings, it was up the trail hands to pack up their bedroll again and put it in the wagon. If they didn´t, the cook would do it once and give a warning that, next time, their possessions would be left behind. The men only ever needed one warning.

After the nighthawk arrived to see to the remuda, JD made his way toward camp but made the error of not approaching from downwind. The cook yelled at him for sending dust toward his carefully prepared food, and the youngster soon learnt never to do the same thing again. The peacekeepers watched their seasoned companions and learnt what was, and was not, acceptable behavior around the camp. For example: they learnt that they should never touch any of the cook´s utensils or help themselves to food without the man´s permission. If they went to get a drink for themselves, they should offer to get drinks for anyone else who wanted one at the same time. Most of the rules were common sense and courtesy, but it still took a while for the new-comers to get to know everything.

“Chuck away! Come and get it ‘afore I feed it to the hogs!” the cook yelled to the men who were hovering expectantly round the main campfire.

Ezra, though, headed straight to his bedroll rather than to get food.

“Ez? Ain´t ya eating?” Josiah called worriedly as he diverted to follow the smaller man.

The gambler shook his head. “Haven´t gotten the energy to masticate. I´ve been yelling at those damned beeves for the duration of the day and it had resulted in my mandible aching rather badly.”

“Can´t think why. Yer usually talking all day. Don´t see the difference now, myself,” Buck said as he patted the man´s back after hearing the comment.

“Oh, ha, ha,” Ezra said as he lay down and groaned as he rubbed his rump. “And as for my rear end,” he grumbled.

“Don´t go there, Ez. I sure as hell ain´t massaging it for ya,” Buck said as he strode away to get his own food. The ladies´ man tried not to show that he had also been affected by the hard riding that he had done that day. After what he´d just said to Ezra, he didn´t want the man to see him staggering about like a newborn calf. He didn´t quite walk with his usual swagger, but seeing as he felt like his legs had turned to water, he thought he´d done rather well, all things considered. His backside seemed to have lost all feeling and he stifled the urge to move a hand there to rub it back to life.

“Come on, son. Need to keep yer strength up,” Josiah said as he handed over a plate of newly-collected food for the tired man. He´d left the two men talking while he´d gone to the chuck wagon but he´d still been able to hear their continuing conversation. The preacher moved his eyes and watched in amusement as Buck walked away from him. The big man could tell that Buck was suffering from a myriad of aches and pains too, despite his comments to Ezra.

Ezra smiled, sat up and transferred his meal to his lap. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Sanchez.”

He picked up the spoon and somehow summoned the energy to lift the contents to his mouth. Josiah took up position beside him with his own meal and watched Ezra in silence. He could see how truly exhausted the man was. None of them had been in the least bit prepared for the physical nature of the job on a trail-drive. Ezra was fit, but his lazy lifestyle and well- known hatred of hard work meant that he found the current situation intolerable. Being out in the fresh air, working hard all day, was his worst nightmare. The con man really rather wished that he´d decided to stay in town after all. He´d never had so much trouble doing the supposedly simple task of eating before. Ezra managed to poke the last spoonful in his mouth and then sighed wearily as he chewed laboriously. Once he´d finished, he put the spoon down noisily as his eyes got too heavy to hold open any longer.

Josiah took Ezra´s plate and rested it on top of his own before putting them in the wreck pan provided. He wandered back to Ezra to find the man already asleep. Josiah looked at his pocket watch and smiled broadly. “This must be the earliest that Ezra´s ever been in bed. Now we know what to do in the future when we want him asleep at a reasonable hour,” he said to Buck.

“We ain´t ever gonna hear the end of this. You know that, don´t ya? This´ll keep him moaning for the next six months at least,” Buck replied with an indulgent grin.

JD wandered over toward his friends, having spent his mealtime talking to the cook.

“Hey, kid. How´d ya get on with the horses?” Buck asked as he turned to face his young friend.

“It was harder than I thought. There´s a real mean bay in amongst them. He sure caused some problems but I soon sorted him out.”

“Glad to hear it. Enjoyed the day though, did ya? Not regretting yer choice of job, are ya?”

“Nah, it´s great. I like having something that I´m in charge of. Rather handle horses than cows any day.” JD waved goodbye and went to find his bedroll. He couldn´t wait to get the weight off his feet because he was so tired. It was a contented tired, though, rather than exhaustion.

Josiah and Buck headed off to their own bedrolls too and took note of who they were next to and where everyone else was. They would sleep in the same order for the whole trail because that would mean that they would always know where their partner for night duties would be. It would save the embarrassment of waking the wrong person when they got up in the middle of the night.

“Well, none of us will be far behind Ezra in hitting the sack. I´ve never felt so sleepy,” Chris said from where he already lay. “Reckon we covered about sixteen miles today. Can slow the pace a bit from now on, seeing as we´re off their home range.”

“Yeah, the cattle should behave better from now on, I hope. Get a good night´s rest, fellas. You´ve done real well,” Hooper said as he drank the last of his coffee before heading off to the chuck wagon. The man helped the cook point the wagon´s tailgate at the North Star so that they would know which direction to head in the next day. The wagon made a very good compass.

+ + + + + + +

Cookie woke the crew at dawn and the men could already hear the cattle calling to each other in the distance. It seemed everyone, human and animal, was getting ready for the day ahead.

The men disappeared into the trees in ones and twos to see to nature´s needs before carrying on to the stream where they could wash and shave. They then ate breakfast before clearing up the camp and setting out to the herd. They moved into position and began to encourage the animals that were still lying down to get up and start moving. The herd slowly ambled forward and another hard day´s hard work began.

The sun beat down, creating clouds of dust. It became difficult for the drag riders at the back to even see where they were going. It was always hard riding in that position, but in conditions like this, the men cursed twice as much. All the men rode with neckerchiefs over faces, not just those riding at the back. The dust was so bad that the riders on swing couldn´t see the other side of the herd to check that their riding partner was safe. They just had to put their trust in God that they were.

Other than getting off their mounts to see to nature´s needs, the men rode non-stop all day. At noon, Cookie loomed out of the dirt to hand out food as the cowpunchers passed by. They would eat in the saddle and if they dropped their nourishment that was it.

“Jeez, there´s more dirt than food in this, Cookie,” Buck complained as he waved his meal around in the air.

“Well, I can´t help that. Eat it or starve,” the man snapped irritably.

“Jeez, he´s in a good mood,” Buck muttered as he pulled back into his position.

“Don´t get on the wrong side of him,” Mr. Hooper advised as he overhead Buck´s comment. “He´s the best boxer I´ve ever seen.”

“Thanks for the warning,” the ladies´ man said as he saluted and tried to wipe the dirt out of his food before eating it with a look of horror on his face. “God, might as well just have just gotten off my horse and eaten the ground. That crunched like damned eggshells,” he grumbled.

Everyone was mightily pleased to reach camp at the end of the day. They were all covered from top to toe in dust, and before eating, each man visited the nearby creek to wash. After a hearty meal, the men settled back for some rest and relaxation round the fire.

Ezra lay back with a contented sigh and looked up at the stars. “The stars are bright tonight, aren´t they? God must have been polishing them.”

“What a load of crap. You´ve eaten too many frijoles and they´re causin´ yer imagination to get the better of ya, I reckon,” Buck laughed.

JD grinned and said, “I thought beans caused something else: not imagination.”

“Know what ya mean, kid. I can feel their effects already,” Buck said as he wriggled and then laughed.

“Trust your mind to immediately head for the vulgar aspect of eating beans, Bucklin. While my mind is busy conjuring up beautiful images, yours is filled with farts and naked women.”

“Yeah, well, naked ladies are better than stars by my reckoning,” Buck replied as he reached out and thumped Ezra´s arm lightly.

“Guys? I´ll make ya both see stars in a minute,” Chris warned as he turned to face the two men with an angry stare. “I´ll knock yer heads together, if ya don´t shut up.”

“Jeez, what´s with you? Missing the delights of Mz. Traviz, pard?” the ladies´ man asked cheekily.

Bucklin? Yer treading on very thin ice already; one more step in the direction yer heading and you´ll regret it,” the blond said forcefully.

“Yeah, yeah,” the tall gunman said unperturbed as he settled down on his bedroll for the night.

+ + + + + + +

The third day proved to be a nightmare because of the weather again: although a very different type of weather this time. It was going from one extreme from the other. During the night it had started raining hard and the precipitation continued all day. The cook still managed to produce a hot breakfast for the men despite the rain´s best effort to put out his fire. The men all wore their slickers to try and keep themselves as dry as possible but the coats didn´t manage to keep out all the rain. The cowhands´ mood matched the sky: gray and angry. The weather even affected the cattle. Scuffles broke out between some of the animals and the men had their work cut out keeping them moving instead of fighting. Some of the cattle tried to head toward shelter or tried to put their rear-ends toward the wind to protect themselves from the pelting rain. In consequence, the pace of the drive slowed dramatically and Hooper knew they would not make much ground that day.

The visibility was bad so Vin didn´t scout too far ahead of the herd. He kept them in sight at all times and tried to pick the trail where the ground hadn´t become too wet and sticky.

After riding until just after lunch, Hooper decided to stop early, hoping the weather would improve the following day so that they could catch up a bit. It took twice as long to settle the cattle on their wet bed- ground, but eventually the animals quieted and began to lie down. Hooper arranged for four men to ride night herd again, in case there was a storm during the hours of darkness to upset the animals. The cattle were still fractious and it would only take a small sound to set them high-tailing it for the horizon.

The cook once again performed miracles by having a hot meal ready for the bedraggled men when they finally came to the campsite. Most of the men headed for bed early, not in the mood to trade stories or sing songs after the dreadful day that they´d had. At least their beds were dry, if nothing else was.

+ + + + + + +

They woke the next day and were pleased to see the sun just rising over the mountains.

“Thank Heavens for the prospect of a dry day,” Ezra grumbled as he stretched and scratched his ass.

“Come on, Ez. Yer enjoying yerself really, ain´t ya?” Buck asked with a laugh as he slapped the gambler´s back boisterously.

Ezra sighed in exasperation. “Not quite the words I would use, Bucklin. I´m enduring this torture rather than enjoying it.” The gambler bent down and rolled up his bedroll and headed toward the wagon to stow it safely away.

Buck kept pace with the man. “Well, I reckon yer sounding more and more like a cowhand every day, pard. Never heard such language from ya as I did yesterday.”

“Well, you´d develop a wide, foul-mouthed vocabulary if you kept getting assigned to the drag. Those cows only understand blasphemy. Talk to them nicely and they take no notice, but swear at them and they are galvanized into action,” Ezra complained as he moved to his horse and tightened the cinch.

Buck winked at the blond and asked, “Do ya think he was hinting that he´d like a change of duty, Chris? I don´t think I can bear to hear such disgusting language spewing from his mouth any more. It don´t seem right to my mind. Kinda like hearing an angel swear, I reckon.”

“Alright, he can do swing with you tomorrow but today he´s doing drag again,” Chris said sternly but with a twinkle in his eye.

“So kind.” Ezra looked down at his filthy clothes and tried to wipe some of the dirt off. “After yesterday´s fiasco, I do believe that I´ve acquired dirt in places on my body that I don´t want to contemplate. I was covered in mud from top to toe and the majority of it´s still on me, despite my best attempts at bathing. If I bake hard in the sun today as a result, you´ll have to come and chip me out of my dirt overcoat.”

“Quit moaning or it´s more than likely that we´ll leave you to suffer. May get some peace and quiet if yer body´s as stiff as a statue. You won´t be able to open yer mouth to complain, will ya, pard? Hallelujah and praise the Lord,” the ladies´ man laughed.

“Why did I think that I would receive any sympathy from you, Bucklin?” Ezra asked as he swung up on his horse´s back.

“Well, if you´ve only gotten the one complaint about this drive, I don´t think you deserve any.”

“Oh, I´ve gotten plenty of grievances, Bucklin, believe me. For one, I refuse to sing lullabies to those damned cows to encourage them to sleep at night. I´ve never felt so stupid.”

“Singing to cows can´t be as bad as dressing up as a woman and singing in Wickes town, pard.”

“I was adhering to Chris´s orders on that occasion and it was in a good cause,” the gambler said as he tied his neckerchief over his nose and mouth to keep the dirt out of his face while doing drag.

“So´s this, Ez. You´ve gotten a good voice: kinda,” Buck laughed. “I heard the cows say that they like it when you do night-herd. Voice like a nightingale, they say you´ve got.”

“Yes, well, anything is better than listening to your dulcet tones. Your voice is more likely to start ‘em crying, Bucklin. It´s dreadful,” Ezra said as he rode away in disgust.

+ + + + + + +

The men gradually got used to the daily routine, although Ezra made everyone aware of his displeasure as often as he could. He received a lot of good-natured banter from the seasoned cowhands, who had taken the fancy-talking gambler into their hearts.

Nothing was seen or heard from Royal for the first week and Chris hoped that their presence was having the desired effect. He was wrong.

In the middle of the second week, Vin spotted several men heading toward the herd from the west. He watched them for a while and then rode back to warn the blond. He´d recognized a couple of the men as being Royal´s hands.

“How many are there?” Chris asked after hearing the news.


“Right. Ez? Stay with the herd and get up front to help keep it moving. I´ll get JD to help you out and I´ll ask the cook´s louse to look after the remuda instead. We´ll be back when we´ve sorted out Royal´s men.”

The gambler nodded as he pulled the neckerchief from round his face and headed toward point, while Chris went to fetch the cook´s assistant. The blond led the man back to where the horses were and then filled JD in on what was required of him. The two peacekeepers made their way back to the herd and JD took up position at the rear of the cattle to help urge on the stragglers.

After updating Hooper, Chris gathered the remainder of his men and set off where Vin indicated. The tracker led them to the appropriate place and Chris split the men up so that the approaching group would be surrounded. Vin rode away fast to come in from behind.

Chris rode out into view and the group of men stopped. “Where do ya think yer goin´?” he asked as he kept his rifle handy, laid nonchalantly over his thighs.

“None of yer business.”

“It is if it concerns the herd we´re riding with.”

“This is a free country. You ain´t gotten no right to accuse us of wanting to disrupt yer drive. We´re just heading home,” the man snapped belligerently.

“Hell of a long way from home, ain´t ya? You won´t mind us escorting ya past the herd in case ya get any ideas, will ya?” Chris said as he kicked his horse forward to draw near the man.

“Sure as Hell do.”

In the distance came the sound of gunfire, and the leader of Royal´s men grinned in triumph as he saw the startled look on Chris´s face. “Think you´ve made a mistake by the sound of it, fella.”

Chris cursed, knowing he´d been deliberately deceived and lured away from the herd. While one group of Royal´s men had allowed themselves to be seen, a second group must have been waiting until Chris and his men were occupied before making a play for the cattle.

The blond turned his horse and spurred it back the way they´d come as the rest of his men followed behind. They left the group of Royal´s men where they stood, more concerned with getting back to help with the herd than taking time to secure prisoners. The five peacekeepers breasted the rise just in time to see the herd start to stampede.

“Stampede! All hands!” came the cry from below.

“Get to the head and help turn it, Vin,” Chris yelled as he urged his horse down the incline to chase after the herd. “Buck and I will go after those bastards,” he shouted as he pointed to where he could see a group of gunman on the other side of the valley. The men were still firing their weapons at the departing herd, and seemed oblivious to the approach of Chris and Buck.

+ + + + + + +

When the gunfire had first erupted, Ezra had still been riding point as ordered. He suddenly found himself surrounded by thundering beeves and he felt like a twig on the crest of a tidal wave. His horse bounded forward as the animals crowded round it and Ezra found the equine very hard to keep control of. He tried to work his mount toward the edge of the herd and he was within sight of his goal when his horse went down like a sack of potatoes, its leg broken in a gopher hole. Ezra landed in a heap and immediately curled into a ball to try and protect himself. His horse´s body gave him a certain amount of protection, but the running cattles´ hooves still connected with his body and head more times than he liked. The sound around him was deafening and it was as if he were in the middle of an avalanche or a thunderstorm. He heard his horse scream dreadfully as it was kicked to death. Ezra felt as though he was suffocating in the terrific clouds of dust that the herd overhead created. All he could do was breathe in lungfuls of dirt. The cattle continued to pummel his body until he received one massive blow to his head, which turned out the light of the world for the foreseeable future.

Vin heard Ezra´s yell and watched in horror as his friend disappeared in the melee of animals. The sharpshooter acted quickly, knowing that Ezra´s life depended on him. He urged his horse forward while keeping his eyes fixed on the spot that he´d last seen Ezra. The running cows didn´t help his attempts to remain staring at the exact area, but he forced them out of the way roughly and rode on anxiously. When he thought he´d reached the right spot, he hung over the side of his horse and reached blindly for Ezra. His hand found something solid and he grabbed it quickly and pulled mightily, hoping it was his friend. He felt a pain on his upper right arm but thought no more about it, too worried about his friend to think of anything else. He kicked his mount out of the stampede and headed for clear space after confirming that he had indeed gotten hold of Ezra. He draped his friend´s limp body over the front of his saddle and held onto him tightly.

Up at the head of the stampede, the herd was now in the process of being turned in an attempt to bring it to a halt. The lead riders headed the front animals round to meet up with those at the rear. Once the two ends met, the creatures would begin to mill, which would naturally slow the pace.

Back where the accident had happened, the tracker finally got clear of the cattle. “Nathan! Nathan!? Where are ya?” Vin yelled as he looked round frantically for the healer. He kept a firm grip on his injured friend as he circled his mount round and round while trying to spot the healer. He finally saw the man he wanted and let go of Ezra for a split second to wave his arm in the air to attract the man´s attention. “Nate! Need some help over here!”

The summoned man heard Vin´s urgent cries and headed toward him fast, even though he didn´t know what was wrong. From the look on Vin´s face though, it was definitely bad.

“Vin? What happened?” the healer asked when he saw the con man´s unconscious form lying over the front of Vin´s saddle.

“His horse broke a leg, I reckon. Ezra fell and was trampled in the stampede,” Vin said as he pulled his horse to a halt beside the healer.

“Shit! Pass him down to me,” Nathan ordered as he dismounted and ran round to Vin´s horse.

The tracker gently slipped the injured man down into Nathan´s waiting arms and then dismounted too so that he could help.

“Jeez, Ez. I know you didn´t wanna come but there was no need to throw yerself under the beeves to prove it,” Nathan said, his lighthearted words not covering his obvious fear. “Vin? Go get the bed-wagon, will ya?” Nathan instructed as he flicked a quick, pleading look at the man.

“Sure.” The tracker leapt back on his horse and headed to the two driver-less wagons that were trailing some way behind them. The drivers had both gone to help halt the stampede, knowing that the mules were well enough trained to just continue plodding onward without any guidance.

“Josiah?” the healer called when he saw the big man appear out of the dust nearby.

“Here, brother Nate. What´s wrong?” the preacher asked as he watched Vin ride away at a lope.

“Ezra´s horse went down in the middle of the stampede. Help me with him, will ya?”

Nathan knelt beside Ezra and gently felt every inch of the man´s body after actually making sure that he was still alive. He shook his head and cursed.


“Broken his arm and thigh bad. May have broke his pelvis too. Get my bag off my horse and then find some splints, will ya? Find something hard he can lay on too ‘cause I don´t want him moving too much and upsetting his pelvis.”

Josiah stood and collected the black bag that Nathan carried everywhere with him. He passed the bag over and then scoured the surrounding area for some suitable splints. He came back with a variety of branches from the nearby woods and laid them on the ground beside Nathan. “Have to see if there´s anything in the wagon to lay him on, brother.”

“Okay. Hold him steady while I straighten the bones, will ya? I´ll do his arm first ‘cause that´s the least badly broken of the two limbs.”

Josiah put his hands on Ezra´s shoulders and held him tight while watching Nathan work. When the healer had finished, the gambler´s leg was encased thickly in bandages and his arm was strapped firmly to his chest. Nathan had also bandaged the man´s hips tightly in order to keep his pelvis together.

“How bad?”

Nathan didn´t speak straightaway as he began cleaning Ezra´s head wound with the water from his flask before bandaging it securely. Only when he´d done that did he answer the question. “He´s been badly kicked obviously and he´s gotten bruises galore. It´s the broken pelvis that worries me the most ‘cause they can be fatal, Josiah. It´s one of the worst breaks you can have and it could be making him bleed inside. If he is bleeding……..” Nathan let his voice trail off as he shrugged. “He´s bad off whatever.”

Vin brought the wagon up next to the three men on the ground and leapt down to hold the mules steady. Josiah stood up and went to the wagon bed and pulled out a few planks of wood and a rope and tied the items together to make a hard stretcher.

Chris came loping back on his black gelding and frowned worriedly at the sight before him. The blond and Buck had managed to kill all the members of the stampede-inducing group of Royal´s men very easily. The group had stupidly stayed to watch the mayhem they had caused, not expecting anyone to come after them. They soon learnt the error of their ways when a barrage of bullets cut them down within a matter of seconds. Buck and Chris left the bodies where they dropped and made their way back to help with the running cattle. The decoy group of Royal´s men had disappeared and Chris hoped that they wouldn´t see them again. He hadn´t gotten time to go searching for them anyway; there were more important things that needed attending to. The blond and Buck headed to the front of the herd and finally helped to bring it to a halt two miles further on. Chris only then realized that he was missing four of his men. Now he knew why.

“Nate?” he asked anxiously when he saw Ezra laid out unconscious on the ground.

“Ezra´s horse broke its leg while he was in the stampede. He´s been badly trampled.”

“Dammit, what can we do, Nate?” Chris said as he dismounted quickly and squatted beside the injured man. He swept his eyes over the gambler and sighed at his battered condition. Why did this have to happen when we´re so far from home? he wondered. He knew that they had, at least, another seven days of hard riding to get to their destination.

“Nothing. I´ve done all I can for him; it´s in God´s hands now.”

“Can he travel or do ya wanna make camp here?”

“Cattle need watering, Chris. There´s a river up ahead so it´d be good if he could camp there with us,” Vin said as he indicated the direction with his chin.

The blond turned back to the healer. “Nate? What do ya think? Is he up to movin´?”

“Traveling ain´t gonna help but it´s only for a short distance now, and he can´t really stay here, can he? I´ve given him something for the pain but I´ll wanna see how he is in the morning before deciding if he can travel any further.”

“Fair enough, we´ll head for the river now and then it´s up to you. Anything I can do before I go back and send the herd on?” the blond asked as he stood up and stretched his legs.

“Pad the bottom of the bed-wagon so I can put him in there. You realize that I´m gonna have to travel with him from now on, Chris, don´t ya?”

“Well, it´ll leave us short dealing with the herd but Ezra´s health must come first. We knew we´d be faced with incapacitating injuries, Nate. It was all in the plans.” Chris hurried off to follow Nathan´s order and then signaled when he was done. He was mightily pleased that he´d decided to bring two wagons. If Ezra had to stay behind because of his injuries, at least he´d stay dry inside one during his incarceration.

“Okay, let´s get him in the wagon. Gently as ya can,” Nathan said as he fussed around worriedly.

Josiah and Chris bent down and lifted the unconscious man onto the stretcher and then put him carefully in the wagon. The healer climbed up beside him while Vin climbed up in the driver´s seat again and collected the reins together.

Chris looked at the tracker and saw blood on his sleeve. “Vin? You hurt too?”

“Just a gash. Damned beeve caught me with a horn when I picked Ez up, I reckon.”

Chris climbed up on the seat and took a quick look. “Nasty.”

“Won´t stop me working, cowboy. Us Tanners are made of strong stuff.”

“Hope the Standish´s of this world are too,” the black-clad man said sadly as he climbed down to the ground. “Get Nate to see to yer wound when you get back to camp. Don´t leave it as it is, cowboy. Now, take Ez back slow and gentle, there ain´t no hurry and there´ll be a meal waiting for you when you reach us.”

“Thanks, Chris.”

Josiah and Chris then collected their friend´s mounts and headed off back to catch up with the herd again.