Merrill Shane Jones
Colton heeled Bailey in the flanks and pushed her on. She stopped. It would take many tries, but with that old horse, you had to be firm. He'd seen his dad do it many times, calling her an old, stubborn bitch, yet never giving up, heeling her harder and harder still. Colton had felt sorry for Bailey as a young boy when he saw his dad treat her that way, but now he understood that to be a man was to not take pity if it interfered with a job that must be done. He understood that now was his time to do what he had to do to take care of his family in the right and proper way, the cowboy way, something his dad no longer seemed to understand. So he heeled Bailey harder and harder still and without pity, moving her off the Harrington Ranch and onto the county road. He wondered how his dad's ranch, his ranch, could be called a ranch at all without a single head of cattle left. And he thought about how he'd show his dad, how he'd show Murphis Jim. He could do at thirteen what any man could do at any man-sized age.
He pushed Bailey north toward the Jim ranch. The town of Percival, Texas, sat like stars pulled down to the earth, the lights beating crisp and gold through the black of the early desert morning, and he felt the rush of something new, a warm buzz in his chest like a moth's wings urging him toward the light.
The Jim Ranch sat up high beyond where the Ole Jim Dirt Road winded to the left. Colton heeled and clicked at Bailey to pick up her pace. To the right of the county road was an RV park on what used to be part of the Harrington Ranch. His dad had turned that piece of their property back over to Murphis two years earlier, and Murphis turned it into a place for out-of-towners to come and stay while they fished the Philimine River. They'd come out in the summer and on the weekends with all their fancy fly-fishing gear and crowd the river. It wasn't long before Colton, his dad, and his little brother, Travis, had stopped fishing the river because there were too many peoplecity men and their boys who didn't know a thing about living off the land.
Colton cut through the southwest edge of the Percival town proper where more and more homes were going up, people moving in who didn't care about preserving the cowboy way of life, bent on turning this town into a city. He pushed Bailey to the dirt road and up around the bend to the Jim Ranch. He caught the smell of the Harrington 48forty-eight head of cattle moved twelve at a time over the past four months by truck and trailer from the Harrington Ranch to the Jim Ranchnot just manure, but the urine of cows in heat. A real cowboy knew that smell, and it wasn't an offensive onslaught like he had heard a man from the city say one day when he and his dad were having lunch at the Purple Cow. The wind had shifted northwest and blew the smell into town from the Harrington Ranch. That's the way this town's supposed to smell, he said to his dad. Couldn't agree more, his dad had said. But then he had just plain given up on the life of a cattle rancher and started turning their cows over to Murphis. His dad said it was to take place of payments for their land, and Colton pointed out that they could stud out their bulls for extra money.
Ain't that simple, his dad had said. He claimed that the cows had become more expensive to maintain than they were worth, but that didn't make any sense to Colton.
What's Murphis want with em then?
His dad hadn't answered.
Colton steered Bailey off-trail into a thicket of wolfberry and white thorn. The brush cover ended at the top of a hill where he could see the Jim house porch light. It covered the ground in dulling hues of warm gold mixed with fine dust on the breeze. He set Bailey for the cover of the big tree just beyond the edge of the light and Murphis's dogs came running up from the house.
He took a flashlight from his saddlebag and shined it at the dogs and there was Spicer in the lead. Colton had seen the dog many times riding shotgun with Murphis when he'd come to the Harrington Ranch. Spicer was much bigger than the rest of the dogs. He had a white patch on his head, and the rest of him was as dirty red as the dust-covered clay below.
From behind the tree came another pack of dogs. No collars. Wild. Some looked to be basenjis like Murphis's dogsreddish brown coats and curly tailssome coyotes, and others a mix of the two. Basenjis could jump like cats. Colton had heard Murphis say that to his dad. They could jump up, catch his leg, pull him down off the horse, but they couldn't catch a horse, not even Bailey, and it wouldn't be hard to push her to a dead run, not with these dogs around. She was already uneasy. Colton thought he could feel the edge on her nerves, her fear the same as his own. But he quickly realized the two packs were more interested in each other. They were facing off, and Colton eased up, spoke in a soft voice to Baily. Easy girl, he said, and he held her as steady as he could and he watched.
The alpha of the wild pack had a build just like Spicerstocky as a Hereford bull. A basenji that big's gotta be Spicer's son, he thought. Come back to claim what's rightly his. The dogs growled and snarled and slinked around. Spicer made the first move and all the dogs began to fight. It was like a show put on just for Colton, right there in the spotlight he had made. Spicer went for the big wild dog's throat but only got a hold of the scruff of his neck as the dog flipped back to his feet. The big wild dog yelped, tore away, and ran. His pack followed; the Jim dogs on their tails. Holy shit! Colton said to Bailey. You see that? He watched as the dogs became dark shadows, and then they were gone. He turned off his flashlight and looked at the house. No other lights had come on.
Murphis wasn't due home until the afternoon, but Colton still worried he might get back early. When Murphis came out to the Harrington Ranch earlier in the week to collect the last dozen head, he had told Colton's dad that he could make a final decision when he got back in towna decision about a job to work his own cattle, the Harrington 48, for another man. At the time, Colton thought it was shameful, but he felt a little better by his dad's answer. His dad had looked off and sighed and pinched his lips together and said, We'll see, and Colton took that as a definite no. He felt good that at least his dad still had some pride. But then he just as quickly thought his dad should take the job.
After Murphis left with the last of the cows, Colton said, How is Murphis able to afford to raise cattle if we can't? He still wanted an answer to that question.
He's got more capital, his dad said. I've told him he's better off just selling, but he's stubborn, just like my boy.
Maybe you should take that job. Then we can at least still work the cattle together. Do what we're meant to do.
I'd like nothing more, Colton, but I'm starting to see maybe we ain't really meant to. It's not enough money to make it worth my while anyway, and cheap as he is, he sure as hell ain't gonna pay more to bring you on.
Then I'll just take it myself, Colton had said.
His dad had started to laugh, but then he stopped, could apparently see it wasn't a joke. He won't hire a boy, he said. You need to let this life go, son.
That's giving up, Colton said. And he had stormed off. And he had searched through the files in his dad's office that night and found Murphis's offer: an addendum to the land contract for the Harrington Ranch. He took it from his pocket now. It was an offer for his dad to work as foreman of the Jim Ranch in lieu of making payments on their own ranch. And there was what Colton thought of as a fair salary in addition$6,200 per year. He shined the flashlight on the contract and looked at where he had crossed out his dad's name and signed his own, postdating it for today, June 17, 1978. He pocketed it and nudged Bailey forward.
He rounded a bend at the side of a steep grade where the ground had been dug out at the south edge of the Jim Ranch. He wondered what Murphis planned on building there. Something for the cattle maybe. A stockyard where he'd fatten them up. Colton imagined Murphis plowing a trail from the stockyard northwest around the mountain, all the way to El Paso where they could drive the cattle for sale just like cowboys did in the old days. El Paso was only fifty miles off by highway, less if you went as the crow flies, and driving the cattle the old-fashioned way would save on gas and maintenance costs for truck and trailer. Murphis was smart at cutting costs, Colton had heard his dad say that before, that being tightfisted was one reason he was so rich. Once Murphis saw that Colton could drive these cattle with no help at all, he'd know he'd be the right choice to lead bigger drives, to take that job.
Beyond the dim spread of the porch light, Colton could make out faint outlines of the cattle he had come for. He shined his flashlight over the humps and then toward the driveway, looking for Murphis's truck. It wasn't there. He turned Bailey around and pushed her back to the big tree, stood up in the stirrups, and reached into his back pocket, taking out a note he'd written for Murphis:
Dear Mr. Jim,
Since my dad aint took that job thought Id prove it meant for me. You got 48 head here now, but when you get back they all gonna be gone. I aint no cattle theif and that's why Im leaving this letter for proof. Im gonna drive these cattle right back with no brake or wink of sleep. When you see Im so good and capable as any man and even more what you say you give me that job. Consider this my letter of intent.
Respects and such like,
Colton R Harrington
Colton dismounted, unhooked the saddlebag, and walked to the large mesquite with the flashlight in his mouth and an eye out for the dogs. He fished out two nails and a hammer from the saddlebag, held the note and one of the nails to the tree, and drove the nail through the top of the page, all the way in with just two strikes. Damn straight. He took the other nail and hammered it in at the bottom of the page.
Looking around for the dogs, Colton put the hammer back in his saddlebag and moved quickly to mount Bailey, then watched the house and waited for a sign. Lights. Movement. A sound. But there was none. He smiled, and he yelled, Murphis Jim! I'm calling you out! The porch light flickered and for a split second he thought it had been turned off and on. He sat perfectly still, a flash of black before his eyes, the thump of his heart, his skin gone to bumps. The light flickered again.
He took a breath and nudged Bailey back around the bend. He shined the flashlight at the cows lain out in groups around the ranch at the west side of the house. He tried to get a count but couldn't see well enough until he was right up on them. He looked at the reflection of the half-moon beyond the cows in the Jim Pond, turned Bailey to the east, and thought about the last big hunt with his dad and Travis out in the Davis Mountains, lying on his belly as the first light of morning glinted off the snow-dusted floodplain and Travis shifting in the grass beside him. Their dad had been in the tree above them with his rifle, and he had whispered for Travis to keep still. He pointed at the thin crescent moon in the dark blue sky, white as the snow on the ground. A man as still as the moon, he said, that's the man that gets his game. As still as the moon, Colton had thought. Unmoving. Unwilling to change no matter what you have to face. That's how a man gets what he's after. And he had tried to be perfectly still against the freezing gusts of wind that seemed to pierce right through his hunting jacket, his thick wool sweater and long johns. Colton and his brother had fallen asleep on the cold hard ground and were jolted awake by the crack of the Remington and the dull thud of the bullet hitting homea fifteen-point whitetail buck with a twenty-six-inch spread. It was the biggest buck Colton had ever seen. He had thought about it roaming those woods, the king of all the deer around. He had stared down at it in silence, at its lifeless black eyes and its tongue hanging outraw and pinkhis reign in the Davis Mountain woodlands a thing of the past.
Colton dismounted Bailey and lay on the ground, watching the east for the first peek of sun, determined not to let the urge to sleep overtake him. He kept his eyes out for the dogs, wondering when they'd come back.
He waited an hour, and he waited some more. He nodded but never let his eyes close for more than a few seconds. The first rays of sun were a soft orange rust on the horizon. He stood, shook his head, slapped his face, one cheek, then the other, and mounted Bailey. He thought about how he hadn't heard the dogs in all that wait.
The sun began to run the sky through shades of blue and it was soon enough to see the cattle by. To the east, the porch lights of the houses in the town of Percival were like dim halos in the floating dust. Most of those people wouldn't be awake for a couple hours more. They didn't know the quiet of a morning sunrise the way Colton did, the way a cowboy did. Most of those people had regular jobs. Jobs where you didn't have to get up before the crack of dawn, still asleep after the day had already begun and the real men were doing the kind of work he was about to do now. He wondered how long it would take for his dad to notice he was gone. He figured he had time, that his dad would think he'd just gone out for a morning ride, not worrying too much until he didn't show up for breakfast.
His dad needed to see that Colton could handle this alone if he was going to let him work for Murphis. Wouldn't hire a boy! That had eaten at Colton for days, and he had finally gone up to his dad and said, He'd hire me if he saw what I could do.
You still talking about that piddly-ass foreman job?
It's a cowboy job. That's what we are.
His dad blew like a horse and shook his head. Everybody wants to be a damn cowboy, he said. He looked off and mumbled something about Murphis being right, and Colton had asked about what. Had they already talked about Colton working for Murphis? Did Murphis say he was no good, was that it? Colton would have to prove him wrong.
That ain't it, his dad had said. There's a new opportunity.
Better'n that foreman job?
Got to follow the money, son. He wouldn't say anything further when Colton had asked what he meant. Just said that it was grownup business. So Colton had decided that he'd show them a thing or two about grownup business.
He took a pair of binoculars from his saddlebag and looked off toward the canyon. He looked down the county road to see if there were any signs of his dad looking for him yet. Not a soul on the road, but there was something he didn't recognize: A dirt road leading west from the county road. There looked to be a large sign at the intersection of the dirt road and CR 1270. It was on Murphis's land. Must have been put up recently. He put the binoculars away and looked to see the Jim dogs sitting at the top of the steep bend by the tree, watching him.
How long you been sitting there? he yelled.
Colton turned Bailey toward the cows, heeled her, and she took off for the first group and roused them up. She was a cow horse, loved those cows as much as he did. It seemed to be about the only thing that could motivate that horse to move. Yaw! he yelled, and he leaned left and jerked the reins to circle the group and tighten them in. The dogs came fast, Spicer out front. Shit! Colton screamed, but he kept rounding up, cutting left, cutting right, and circling in. Get on up! Yaw! Git! Another group popped up, but the first group he'd packed tight began to spread back out. Goddammit! The dogs went after them. No! He heeled Bailey hard, pushing her after the dogs until he saw one of them nudge a large bull toward him, snapping at its hooves. The other dogs nipped at the hooves of the stragglers and guided them in. You ain't no cattle dogs! But they herded the cows and squeezed them in the way his dad had always done when they worked the Harrington 48 as a team. The dogs seemed to have the know-how and the fever for the drive in their blood. Why'd a man ever wanna give this up?
Colton pushed right, the dogs pushed left, nipping and biting and yapping and yodeling. He raised his bandana up over his nose and mouth and pulled his hat down tight to his brow for the dust. He steered the herd past the big tree and to the right and the dogs fanned left, hooking the herd down a steep grade and away from the road, heading southwest to get out of sight. All anyone would see, if anyone saw, was dust stirring up over ground, and it wouldn't raise any more of a fuss than the daily dust storms known all around Percival.
Colton counted the cows and the count was good: forty-eight head strong. His dad had taught him to count while working a herd. You got to get good at eye-balling and hanging on a number and position, he had said. Got to know every cow like you know them rocks of yours. Every little marking, so you can keep good track. Colton reached into his pocket and fingered the lucky rock he'd brought along for the drivea flat triangle-shaped rock that was smooth to the touch. He had picked every rock in his collection from the land in and around Percival, this one from Randole Canyon. He liked his rocks because they reminded him of what it meant to be a real cowboy, still as the moon, strong, steadfast.
He kept the cattle moving southwest until he could no longer see the road, then he drove them in from the right to set them straight south, straight toward Randole Canyon.
Colton could see the canyon up ahead. To the west, gray clouds settled down like a dark fog, hiding the great jagged outline of the walls that climbed to the top of Mt. Kutequain. He and the dogs were now a solid team. It was exciting with the dogs, but he couldn't understand it. Shepherds, Texas Heelers, those were cattle dogs. Colton wondered if they really knew what they were doing. If they thought they were hunting, they might hurt the calves. He tried to take his mind off of it and imagined his dad was here with him instead, closing the cattle in on the other side and helping him drive the herd, the two of them doing this thing together. But in his mind, it wasn't the canyon up ahead. It was the city of El Paso, the tall buildings just in sight on the horizonhe and his dad driving cattle to the big city, like two cowboys of the old west bringing a herd into the future. That's it, son, his dad said. Bring them up the rear. Good work! The people of El Paso seeing the way cows were meant to be delivered. Not by train. Not by truck. And they'd be there every time, waiting for Colton and his dad to appear out of a cloud of dust. Them's real cowboys, they would say, only ones there is left.
But the picture in Colton's mind grew dark, and he wondered if he would have been able to move this many head on his own, without the dogs. He imagined the Harrington 48 spread all over the county, his dad finding him struggling to rein them in, saying he's just a fool boy, just as he thought; his mom dragging him into the house. Hell no! He had somehow known it would work, and looking at the dogs, he could see it was meant to be.
He threw an arm up high. Get em, boys! he yelled. They were making good time based on the position of the sun, the lower third of it still hidden below the horizon. He circled wide right and made a beeline to the front of the herd. He steered Bailey left in front of the herd to get the cattle to turn away from the edge of the canyon. He had let them get too close to the cliff, and they were coming too fast. Bailey balked and headed straight for the cliff's edge. Colton pulled the reins hard left and pushed her back down the front of the herd, screaming at her. Don't let em spook ya, girl! He screamed at the cows. Turn! Turn! Slow it down! He pushed Bailey straight for the charging herd and heeled and heeled and screamed again. He was pouring sweat and his nerves were like barbed wire under his skin. He inched one hand tight up on the reins with the side of his palm at the back of Bailey's neck. The heat of the horse shot up through his arm. He saw the dogs duck around the cattle and run past him, snapping at hooves, helping him turn the herd left and away from the cliff. Bailey bolted down the line between the cliff and the herd. To the right, Colton saw the long drop. Rocks and gravel flew off and over the cliff's edge. One of the dogs skidded to the edge, pushing back with its front paws. It went over and out of sight, and Colton felt as if his insides were being hollowed out with a pickaxe. This was real. That dog really went over. There was no way that dog could have survived such a fall. Colton thought that this, the way he was feeling now, having almost gone over the edge himself, was how it felt to look in at yourself and see the man you were meant to be waiting there, looking back, and he was afraid of what he saw. Cowboys back in the old days didn't know fear. They couldn't, not when driving cattle through Indian country, not with outlaws waiting around every turn to thieve their cows and take their gold. And Colton had made a mistake, letting the dog go over like that. He'd have to tell Murphis the truth. It was the code of the west, the code of a cowboy. That's what his dad had always said. He'd have to tell Murphis, and that could make the difference between getting hired on or not. That could make this whole drive all for nothing.
He pushed the herd to the east, trying not to think of the dog. He thought instead about how an old man would be even more tired out by now. All men make mistakes. That's how it is. He thought about how his dad had given up the life of a cowboya real man's life. I'll never give up. But he was afraid he could, that giving up was in him the way it was in his dad, somehow in his blood. If it was in his very makeup that way, and he could fight past it, wouldn't it make him that much stronger? The thought gave him a second wind. He'd see this through no matter what.
He kept on for another couple hundred yards until the cattle stopped and began to drink at the wash. He dismounted, got a coffee can full of oats from his saddlebag, and filled up his hat. He held it under Bailey's nose and she ate. He turned the hat over and tapped out the crumbs and two of the dogs fought for the scraps. He took out a sandwich and tore off a piece. Spicer, he said, and he tossed the piece of sandwich and the dog caught it midair. Colton tore the rest of the sandwich down the middle and ate the bigger half. He tore the other half into small pieces and tossed the pieces to the rest of the pack and let them fend for themselves. He then lay down on his back for a short rest.
When he woke, the sun was as high as the top of Mt. Kutequain, the sun in the east, the mountain in the west, the two facing off. Colton wondered how long he'd been asleep. A cowboy could tell how many hours had passed by looking at the position of the sun. Looked to be about ten in the morning. He figured he'd been asleep for almost two hours. He looked at the mountain, how the sun's light seemed to consume it, and for a fleeting moment, he wished none of this was realMurphis's dog going off the cliff, the miles he had left to drive the cattle. And then he'd have to drive them right back, and he hadn't thought about the logistics of it. His dad wouldn't let him drive these cattle back if he showed up at home with them. Maybe it'd be better to head straight back west and hole up until he thought Murphis was home. But how could he know just when that would be? And if he did that, his dad might not see what he'd done, how he'd driven the Harrington 48 all by himself. How had he not thought about this? His dad would have considered every detail. Colton was tired and he wondered if he could really pull this off, but he convinced himself that it was more of a feeling than a thought, just the glimpse of a wish for it all to have been a dream and nothing more. He looked at the dogs. We gotta get, he said, and he got to his feet. Spicer looked up at him. Let's get these cows moving, Colton yelled, and Spicer stood and the other dogs stood. They all looked to Colton. It's the life ain't it? he heard himself say.
He mounted Bailey. He wheeled the horse around, trying to decide whether to head west or head home, and he saw the sign he'd seen earlier about a quarter mile away by the county road where it curved to the northwest. He took out the binoculars and looked through them at the sign. It was angled away from him, toward the county road. He put the binoculars back in his saddlebag. Hold up, he yelled to Spicer, and he heeled Bailey in the ribs and she took off toward the sign.
The sign wasn't as far as he had thought, taking him less than a minute to get there. And there it was:
Experience the cowboy life with real live
cowboys and authentic old west cattle dogs!
Move em on, Head em up
First Season: Spring 1979
Cattle dogs? People paying to pretend to be cowboys? Colton thought how a fake cowboy was like a flattened penny, no longer worth even a cent.
He and Travis had gone to the train tracks to flatten pennies a few weeks earlier. He had wanted to show his little brother how something so strong could so easily flatten out, change shape, in the face of such force. That's when he had considered that the penny was no good after it gave like that, that you couldn't buy anything with it. Colton had waved Travis over to the tracks. Gotta put your ear to the rail to know the train's coming, he had said. It's how the train robbers knew when it was time to hide. He and Travis put their ears to the rails, lying on the tracks and facing each other, and Colton told Travis how he was going to be a famous cowboy.
Real cowboys take care of their families, Colton had said, by raising cattle and driving them to market.
You mean a cowboy like Alamosa Bill or Billy the Kid? Travis asked. It was as if he hadn't heard a word Colton said.
Those were just outlaws. I'm gonna be like Wooley Jenkins. Famous for driving cattle and protecting the herd by being quick on the draw. Colton pointed his finger at Travis with his thumb held high and pulled his finger in. Pichow!
They don't have cowboys like that anymore, Travis said. They drive a ground loader or a semi nowadays. Travis looked at him with their dad's green eyes, their dad's chiseled high cheeks and long strong nose their mom often said were so striking. It should have been Colton to look like Dad. I don't think there's famous cowboys at all anymore, Travis said. Unless maybe Clint Eastwood.
He's just a pretender, Colton said. I'm talking real cowboy. Protector of the herd, the family, and the other cowpunchers he rides with. You could be on my team. You and Dad.
Travis said he wasn't interested. Said he'd rather do something new, maybe go into space like Neil Armstrong. Even the cattle trails haven't been rode in forever, he said. Maybe you could be a trucker with a pistol.
Colton didn't like the idea of faking cowboy.
The rails began to tremble and they looked up to see the train cutting around the mountain. Colton wished it was one of those old-timey trains with the big chimney stacks and a thick trail of smoke. Hurry up, he said. Lay your penny down. Travis put his penny on the rail opposite Colton's, and they ran to the side as the train blew by, the horn blasting so loud they had to cover their ears.
They went to look for the pennies and Travis found one first, long and thin. He had dropped the penny and put his thumb and a finger in his mouth.
You don't just pick it up like that, Colton said. Gotta wait till it cools. He walked to the penny and stood over it, looking at its neat shape. This one's mine, he had said.
But I found it first, said Travis.
Colton had picked it up and watched the sun glint off it and cut a glare into his brother's eyes. He had held it there until Travis looked away, thinking his brother didn't deserve the penny. How was he going to help look after the family from way up on the moon?
And now his dad was partnering with Murphis to charge city people to fake cowboy? They'd ruin this town with that and the fly-fishing. It would be a tourist town with a rodeo, people riding and roping cows for no good reason but for show. Everybody wants to be a cowboy, that's what his dad had said. A new opportunity? This? Were they going to use part of the Harrington Ranch too?
Colton looked off to the cattle spread out along the wash in the distance. He looked back at the sign. His dad wasn't the kind of man to go for something like this. Didn't used to be. And how could he do this without talking to Colton first? When had his dad and Murphis made this deal? Colton pulled out the addendum to the Harrington Ranch.
Later, he would ask his dad about being still as the moon. What about that? he would say. And his dad would tell him that being still as the moon didn't mean being stubborn, that it meant being able to still your mind and see opportunity, like the moon that's high up and sees everything. And Colton would wonder if his dad just changed the meaning for convenience, if his dad was just a liar like the men who were going to come out to the dude ranch. His dad would tell him that the dude ranch was meant to be a surprise and that's why he hadn't told him about it yet, and Colton would think it sure as hell was.
But for now, Colton stared at the sign in disbelief until he heard his dad's truck pulling off-road out by the wash. He watched his dad head his way, churning up dust and washing out the cattle in a thick cloud. He dismounted, the contract still in his hand, and waited for his dad, not the least bit worried about whatever punishment he was in for, because nothing could be worse than the approach of this man who he felt he didn't really know anymore, coming to bring him into this new world where being a cowboy was nothing more than a showboat enterprise, and he cursed his dad and he cursed Murphis Jim, and he tore the contract into pieces and let the wind give the pieces flight, littering the land, because what difference did it make now anyway? And as he watched the pieces of paper whirl and spin in the air, watched his dad getting closer, he fought, with the last bit of everything he had, the feeling that kept rising up in his chest and the thought that kept circling his mind that he couldn't be more relieved the drive was over.