Any dang fool can punch cows on a ranch, he mused. Sure, the man needed skills. He had to ride, mend fences, and brand calves—but those were ordinary chores any two-bit cowpoke could handle. Only the best cowboys could drive cattle long distances. Only the best cowboys could trek the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas with a herd two thousand strong. And only the very best cowboys could lead such outings and get the cows to market safely.
That’s all about to end.
Boots Watson sat on the small rise overlooking the Boss’s spread. He rested in the shadow of his horse, chewing on a stem of prairie grass. The old mare stood unperturbed, staring longingly back toward the stables she called home. She too was bored.
In the pasture below, twenty horses grazed on prairie grass and prickly pear. Boots and his group would saddle up these mounts before dawn and begin the long journey north. They were driving twenty-five hundred longhorns to the railhead in Abilene. Boots automatically scanned the horizon for movement, searching for rustlers, banditos, and Apaches.
Not many o’them around these days.
This part of Texas had gotten too tame. The U.S. Marshalls had chased the rustlers to wilder counties, and pushed the Mexicans across the border. The Army had cleared out Indian Territory, gathering up whatever Apaches they hadn’t massacred and driven them off to reservations. All Boots had to worry about were scorpions and rattlesnakes.
I’m good at this. Real good. But they don’t need me anymore.
There aren’t many men who could manage ten cowhands and a couple thousand head over a two-month journey. Only a few men could navigate the canyons and rivers, the dust and the flash floods. Only a very few could keep the men from killing each other and the herd from stampeding. Boots was one of those few. The Boss said so.
“Looks like this will be the last ride for both of us, old girl.”
The chestnut mare nickered and nudged his shoulder. She eyeballed a particularly juicy-looking patch of grass over yonder. She didn’t know the Union Pacific Railroad would complete the new train depot in town by next year. She didn’t know that tomorrow would mark the last time the Boss would drive his cattle to Kansas over an open trail. She didn’t know that Boots would no longer be a trail boss and would be relegated to an ordinary ranch hand. There would be no more trail drives, just train rides.
Boots sighed. Maybe it was time to settle down.
He was partial to that cute filly over at the dry goods store. What was her name? Jenny. She was a sparse, twig-of-a-thing with dark hair, pure skin, and a girlish giggle. Jenny was prettier than a two-dollar Kansas City whore, but without the face paint. She always had a smile for him and teased him about his suspenders and high-water pants. Just being near the girl turned him into a stumblebum and tied his tongue. She laughed at his clumsiness and chuckled at his lame attempts at clever conversation. But he knew she wasn’t interested in some old shit-kicker like him. He was twice her size and twice her age.
Any dang fool could see she had eyes for the blacksmith boy.
Young Terry Wade’s muscled arms gleamed with sweat as he worked the bellows and hammered hot metal. He seemed at ease with Jenny and loved to show off his skill on the anvil when she came to visit, which was often. She spent a good deal more time at the smithy’s than could be explained by any business with her father’s store. No, she wasn’t interested in Boots Watson.
He’d have better luck with the widow Beebe. Alice Beebe worked a small spread three miles to the south and seemed to be making a go of it since her husband passed away from cholera two winters ago. Boots had met her at the fall harvest hoedown and was struck by her wholesome looks and down-home attitude. Alice was tough and direct, yet friendly and kind. She’d graciously accepted his offer to dance, and they had talked the whole time so that the dance seemed to have ended before it began. They’d shared some punch and promised to keep in touch. He never got around to it.
Boots Watson groaned, stood, and climbed into his saddle. He gently prodded the mare with his spurs, and they moseyed back to the bunkhouse. He still had to oversee the final preparations for their departure, check if Cookie had sufficient supplies for his chuck wagon, and ensure the drovers were sober enough to pack their bedrolls. The cattle were already gathered in the north valley. A final check with the Boss and he’d be good to go.
Boots knew he couldn’t endure the rest of his life in a bunkhouse. He lived for the three-month cattle drive each year, looking forward to the peaceful prairie and the starlit skies. If this was to be his last drive from Texas, he’d have to light out for somewhere less civilized. He heard tell Montana was still wild, or Wyoming. They called it Big Sky country. That sounded just right to him.
The thoughts of settling down were just a dream, and a poor one at that. Having a woman to warm his bed every night seemed like a good thing, but it wouldn’t outweigh the confines of a small ranch in an increasingly crowded county. Besides, why would any decent woman want an old bow-legged cowboy? The simple fact was he loved his horse more than anything or anyone, and whiskey comforted him more than most women ever did. No, he loved to drive cattle. He lived to drive cattle. He’d have to move on. He’d have to live alone.
Any dang fool could see that.
Note: A version of this story won 1st Place in the Granbury Writers’ Bloc monthly contest in Sept 2017, and 1st Place in the 2018 Kathryn McClatchy Flash Fiction Contest sponsored by the Writers Guild of Texas.