The Reata

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

A cowboy is able to bring his injured partner to safety.

Words 4283

 

 

The Reata

A dust bellow at the ponies’ hooves provides a most poignant farewell. The tight crew assembled for the fall round- up is dismantled in minutes.

These hands were together as kith and kin for three months, now there is zero chance they will encounter one another again.

What is left of the crew squats at the fire; the reins trail down from the halters. The boys flick the lead ends against the legs of their chaps, wishing for coffee.

When all is said and done, Mr. Wathings, Mr. Rennards and Mr. Walsanes, the range management, stand a piece away and palaver while Bennie and Josh maintain their vigil at the smolder.

Hovert Walsanes, Strawboss, comes over and squats. Reaching out to warm his hands he says, “Well, we’ve a good round-up, everybody’s got a little dinero, time to go into town have a hooraw, right boys?” Hovert diverts his gaze in grassland courtesy awaiting one of the two to make reply.

“I reckon,” says Josh into the fire, ruddy face accentuating eye glint.

“What if’n you could choose? What’ve there’s winter work?” The Strawboss pitches a couple of pebbles as a time killer.

Josh raises the sombrero brim slightly by a head tilt squeezing out, “I reckon.”

“I’m thinking youse could wander up to the foothills of the Musselshell, worry them beeves out from the scrub, push ‘em on down to the range whereat we can have at them calves in the spring round up.”

Bennie, not looking up mumbles, “What’s it pay?”

“Winter work, you’re inside two days out of three, at your ease, let’s say thirty and found.”

“A little thin for freezing hands, maybe a lost finger, frost bite and all; let’s say a dime bonus for each growd animal.”

Mr. Walsanes plops his last stone at the coals and ashes that now comprise the fire, saying, “Let’s shake on a nickel.”

The men rise, shake hands all around and Mr. Walsanes wanders back to the Range Boss and Foreman.

Not wanting to show their hand the two pards walk to the bunkhouse, not expressing joy at their good fortune until out of eyesight.

Dumbfounded by their good luck in having fallen into a job for the winter thus assuring grub and a warm bed til’ spring with good wages to boot.

***

Mr. Rennards, the Foreman, is generous in allowing each of them four ponies and a mule.

They tie their outfits on the mule racks with double-diamond-hitches. String out their remuda. Bid farewell to the camp and are away.

***

Two days finds them ensconced in the line shack, doing the necessary. Chopping wood and hauling it to the pile, digging the latrine, pulling their food up to hang, the rope passed through a cut out in a tin plate held with a knot in the line to keep vermin from crawling down.

Tomorrow they will go out and scout the lay of the land. To know what-is-what before they start pushing wild and ornery cattle, never having seen a man before much less been herded.

But tonight there is what remains of a jug, a warm fire. They’ve had a fill of beans, sowbelly and biscuits washed down with strong coffee.

Bennie fools with the Henry they were let have, rubbing it with a greasy rag. Facing the fire, Josh wraps in his blanket as his rear gets no heat.

Pulling on the jug, Josh waits for the swallow to make sure it is going to stay down before passing the jug.

The boys wabash into the night. Their good fortune means fall round-up wages plus winter wages. Altogether, more money in a lump, than they’d ever had before.

This fact excites discussion as to what they should do with this magnificent sum. The ideas fly fast and furious.

New rigs, Linsey-Woolsey shirts, britches, pistols and Stetsons are beyond question. It’s what to do with the rest that begs the question. They could go to Kansas City, St. Louis or maybe even Chicago.

The images in the boy’s heads inspired by the mention of such exotic places hold little compatibility with reality. To their minds these are fantastical places, swirling with activity, in which pleasures abound.

Obscuring the boys vision a veil hides the truth that all is designed to relieve the participants of money.

***

Maurice Renners is Senior Waddie, a man entangled in the life and unable to disentangle himself.

A man able to endure the rigors of cattle herding beyond the year’s most men must give over listens to the vacuous blather of the young cowhands in the cowcamp concerning the girls they seek while the reality is that no self-respecting woman is ever going to entwine themselves with the likes of these. “I reckon you boys are aware that the slickers in them cities are going to separate your wages from you right quick?”

The boys stare at the old fella as they figure his age has caused him to become scaredy and cautious. “Well, we’ll keep an eye out, watch close; we can handle what they shovel.”

“You think so, but you’ll get skinned just the same. Have you an idea how you might protect yourself some?”

“And you say how’s that?” Josh has an interest in protecting himself that’s certain.

Maurice in a generous mood and feigning a desire to be protective of the youths as well as to slather on the benefit of his years of experience says, “Separate a little of your boodle, enough to get you home in a modicum of comfort and carry you til the next job. Hide it away and don’t touch it, then you will be alright, have a roaring time with the city ladies, pick a few fights, win some, lose some and see the sights.”

With that he rolls into his blankets leaving the youths to make eyes at each other an expression likely interpreted as… not much to that.

***

Principal amongst their fanciful notions is the conceptualization of the females available in the city. They have of course seen pictures of such lasses as they now imagine, on the bar back in saloons, in the collection of cards an occasional waddie passes about in the bunk house or most appealing of all the pictures to be found in the dream books of Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.

Such visualization contrasts starkly with the actual women found in the watering holes they frequent or those employed in the menial labor of domestics, seamstresses, and shopkeepers.

The most revolting of all, the infrequent wives commonly acquired in the mail order bride trade.

Against the reality these ladies actualize, the fair maidens of the various pictures are another race. Their dainty features, exquisite figures and magnificent hairdos conjure ecstatic thoughts of titillating rapture to the cow hands.

While the reality remains that these boys would have no idea of what to do with such a maiden should they ever encounter one. In truth in the luminosity they would be paralyzed with fear and awkwardness.

Still on the freezing prairie the erotic dreams keep them warm. 

And truth be told most are willing participants in the shenanigans of the hoax perpetuated in the cities. Believing in their hearts, as they wander back to their bleak lives on the Great Plains, having gone to the big time and seen the elephant is an experience that will hold ’em for the rest of their days.

Each wanderer satisfied he received full value for the coinage squandered.

Such wool gathering courses through the minds of young men whenever chance allows thoughts to wander from the nitty-gritty demands of the issue in hand.

***

With the dawn they shake out the stiff, put fire in the stove, brew coffee, breakfast on biscuit and sow belly which prepares them to face the day.

Having segmented the range they will empty it by turns. Their stratagem is to clear the area in such a way that the cattle can’t get behind them and repopulate a vacated area.

The intention is to push the cattle into a gather and move the bunch down into a valley. Hoping the herding instinct will be kindled and the cattle will remain herded until the spring round-up.

The valleys provide protection, grazing and water, so there is no reason for the critters to move back up the slope.

The labor is so onerous the boys each take out two ponies, for fear of overworking one should they use it a full day.

After several weeks the kinks are out of their style and the work progresses seamlessly. On an average day, they put thirty head into a valley.

That is a dollar fifty cents, if they maintain that production for the full ninety days they will appreciate one hundred and thirty five dollars in addition to their pay of ninety dollars.

With fall round-up money they will have a combined stake of four hundred and ninety five dollars.

The possibilities of what can be accomplished in Kansas City, St. Louis or Chicago with that kind of money staggers the imagination and provides for endless evening conversation in the glow of the pot stove and a belly full of beans and pork.

They put a mule deer in a tree and treat themselves occasionally to venison.

***

Bennie rolls out and yelps for Josh to wake-up and get going. Bennie fusses with the fire, puts the coffee pot on to boil, sets the biscuits in the oven and fries the sow belly. The difference between breakfast and dinner is at breakfast there are no beans.

An hour sees the lads out in the hills, their spare ponies hobbled with pig strings and grazing in a meadow bowl sheltered from the ceaseless wind by the surrounding trees and an escarpment to one side.

The boys separate. Each quietly pushes cattle, so as not to rile them, out onto a bald. Once together the critters herd up, gently, easily grazing.

Josh sees a cow with a spread of horns six feet wide in his estimation. He guides his pony to get on the outside whereat he can urge the critter to the bald, but each time he gets inside of it and the beast runs for deep cover.

Finally, Josh decides to drop a rope on the horns, (there being no room for a throw) and pull the beast out.

When he approaches, the animal bolts and Josh gives chase, as they break from the brush to where there is an open space, wherein Josh can throw his lasso, his pony puts his foot wrong, or maybe puts it in a hole, either way the chestnut cracks, the horse dips and twists simultaneously, screaming with the pain.

The wild convulsion twirls Josh who is headed away from the twist and is well out over the withers to make the throw, flinging him out of the saddle. Pitched up against a tree he hits his head rendering him unconscious.

As his limp body loses momentum his back is impaled on the ragged stump of a limb torn away in a storm with a greenstick break. The stub catches Josh just below the shoulder blade and digs a gouge three inches deep and two across.  

After the puncture he falls to the ground, still unconscious and lies in the snow.

At Josh’s mount’s scream, Bennie’s pony rears and wild eyed bucks, arching his back. Bennie is trying to see what caused his pard’s horse to scream and is caught unawares when his pony goes into convulsions. He is thrown onto a rock pile. Landing on his elbow and knee, he damages both. The pain is excruciating.

Upon recovering his wits, Bennie crawls along to Josh who is regaining his senses and begins to appreciate the pain of his injury.

Bennie, sprawled in the snow, with only one working arm tries to manipulate Josh into a more comfortable posture.

The horse’s screaming irritates him. The rifle is in the boot on the right side. The pony lays to that side although in its thrashing it raises up occasionally giving Bennie an opportunity to grab the saddle gun and snatch it out. The horse must raise his croup high enough to expose the haunch in order for the young man to secure the weapon. Several attempts are required before this act is accomplished.

With the piece in hand he scurries about crab like to the horses head and dispatches the suffering beast.

Returning to Josh he tips him up on a side to get a look at the wound and immediately recognizes the severity.

His first priority is to staunch the flow of blood. Unbuttoning his coat, he removes it and the shirt underneath, re-dons the coat and applies the shirt to the gash.

Bennie moves into the brush to locate a sapling suitable for a crutch. Hacking the wood into a prop, he is able to rise to his feet. There is a decided increase in his mobility.

Now the daunting task facing him is to find a sheltered location for the injured friend. However, there is a quick realization that even should he locate a suitable situation he would be unable to move the man to it.

Quickly, he concludes the dead horse provides the needed cover and well within range of his damaged friend. He uses his knife to slice the belly of the carcass and removes the entrails. He skins what he can of the beast. Then moves Josh into the cavity in the animal and covers the hole with the hide.

Assembling a fire, to the outside of the opening, he hopes to add warmth to Josh.

Cutting strips from the thigh he roasts them on the fire. In all the boys are as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

Bennie unsaddles his pony, hobbles him and allows him to drift on the grass. Tomorrow he will have to saddle the horse again, build a travois and move his friend back to the line shack.

After having eaten Bennie crawls in the hole with Josh to preserve what warmth he can.

Josh has been asleep or more accurately adrift on the wave of pain and cold that his body is enduring for most of the time since the accident, now he awakens at Bennie’s entrance and says, “Now, folks aren’t hardly going to be able to believe how that happened.”

“You’re right there pard, that is a strange one and that is the truth,” Bennie says.

“I suppose tomorrow you’re going to have to look after me like a babe in a basket, I’ll just luxuriate along like a king of something,” so said with a glint of the thankfulness he feels.

“Yeah, you just take your leisure and I’ll do all the heavy lifting to move you along.”

Soon each is occupied with their fitful sleep and concerns for the reality of the morrow.

In the morning Bennie, fashions a travois from two saplings, he hobbles about on his crutch, with increased alacrity as his knee is beginning to loosen. His elbow too increasingly flexes.

After considerable trial he is able to saddle the animal, affix the poles, and attached the flint hide between them. Then he wrangles Josh onto the skin, covers him with all available clothing.

He sets out on the plod back to the line cabin. Once there he finagles Josh inside, lights a fire, makes Josh as comfortable as possible and puts the pot on for coffee.

Then he is back outside to unsaddle the horse, put him hobbled to graze and carry the truck inside.

Pouring the coffee, he offers Josh a cup and settles with his own upon his bunk with his back to the wall. He can only think so far, so good. 

Josh, almost whispering, “Bennie, I’m beholden to you.”

Bennie makes no reply, wraps in his blankets and turns to the wall. The heat on his back feels good, he just barely smiles.

The next morning Bennie tends to the wound. He removes the encrusted shirt, pulling away a portion of the scab causing Josh to yelp at the pain of it. He drowns the spot in coal oil and makes a patch from a portion of clean sacking.

He threads the needle with the carpet thread they use to mend their clothes and sews the gap closed. Looking at his handy work he says, “You’re going to have a right pretty scar.”

“I always fancied a little art work,” says Josh grimly holding on to his humor while fully aware of the consequences should the injury become infected.

During the course of the day they banter back and forth. Bennie checks the hurt occasional. He is heartened with the lack of red tinge and oozing puss.

Josh takes a fever and is in its throes for two days. The episode is mild and on the third day Bennie suggests they ride to the headquarters.

“You don’t think this will just heal up, you sewed it up tight,” inquires Josh not relishing a thirty mile bounce on the travois.

“Well, fella, I’m thinking the thing should be looked at by a doctor. You can’t do no work no how. You could just have a leisurely trip in the invigorating fresh air good for what ails y’a.”

In the morning they set out. Bennie strings the remuda out, uses one of the mules for the travois thinking it more reliable than a pony.

The drifts are deep and several days of sun have crusted the snow and iced it in spots. As the miles pass they work through the horses at a good pace. When he unsaddles one he just lets the animal go off.

Sitting the horse stiffens his knee although handling the reins does flex his elbow. Each time he has to dismount and unsaddle a pony and saddle another it takes a toll. The cold takes a toll. The breaking trail in the snow takes a toll.

Bennie drags himself through the motions of what he must do. His muscles resist him adding to the burden, requiring of him supplemental mental force to cause their performance.

The strain on his mind incites delusions. He finds himself waylaid from the task at hand. Wandering about in his mind he allows the pony to drift off course and the remuda to become entangled requiring additional exertion to put things aright.  

He feels of warmth coming up off his feet and knows that it is a sign his toes are freezing. His fingers too are immobilized. He flexes them and blows on them to no avail.

Bennie realizes that if he suffers so, moving about it must be worse for Josh prone on the travois exposed to the cold with no opportunity to fight back.

Each horse in turn lasts a little less time than the previous one. Whenever, he must struggle through the changing of the saddle from horse to horse he checks on Josh who gratefully is usually a little out of his head so maybe he is not experiencing the cold so severely.

To sleep through the misery which can’t be alleviated is as good a way to pass as another.

Bennie saddles the last animal. He knows that once he works this creature down there is no salvation so he must break the trail in front of the beast to save its strength.

Leading by the reins he stomps through the snow, legs painfully expressing their being overtaxed.

The drifts now approach his waist; he is barely able to thrust through. As he emerges from each trial he can’t imagine that he will be able to gather the strength for another test.

But in each case he is able to bull his way through for there is no other option. Since no relief is available the only alternative is surrender. He must make it through.

This calculus changes when he spies an arroyo with an accumulation of dead wood.

Here the two boys might get down out of the wind. They may light a blaze and warm themselves. They might survive until such time as Providence divulges their deliverance.

In the gully Bennie unsaddles the pony and retrieves from the saddle bags his most prized possession, his reata. Purchased in Texas, the most exquisite item he holds, more valuable than his saddle.

The last pony is led to the place where Josh will lay in front of the fire. Bennie grips the horse’s head and turning it severely forces the animal down on its side.

Tying the reata about the horse’s four hoofs he secures the beast from rising. Laying the skin upon the pony Bennie then places Josh upon the skin so the heat of the animal may warm his backside.

The reata will be ruined by the wet of the snow but it is of no matter in comparison with the comfort of his friend. The choice is made without consideration or reluctance. He gives over the cherished item as if a gift.

Retrieving his tobacco tin of matches and papers from his saddlebags he strikes a light. In short order there is a good blaze under the heaviest concentration of flotsam.

The conflagration slowly gains ferocity until at last it stands twenty feet high lighting the sky as well as the surrounding prairie.

Warmth seeps into their bones displacing the cold. They begin to feel rather comfortable.

As the flames rise the heat becomes increasingly intense, so that the deep freeze begins to dissipate. They actually begin to feel contentment lifting their spirits.

“Are you at ease?” Asks Bennie eager to erase whatever pain Josh is feeling if he possibly can.

“I’m ok, my back is getting stiff but it sure feels wonderful not to be freezing.”

They sit and speak of trivial things, each fearful of touching on a subject which will set the other off in a spasm of despair, for each believes that with the warmth comes no true relief from the eventuality.

As they watch the fire burn away, creating a blanket of red, glowing coals, they begin to feel the cold encroach upon them once more. It comes as a sinister invasion messenger of doom, as it moves inwards from their outer appendages they will slowly succumb to its embrace.

Bennie realizes that what will keep them alive is staying alive; as long as they don’t die they have a chance. Further, he knows that sleep is the cold’s greatest ally for once they surrender all is lost.

Now he is frequently dozing, repeatedly catching himself and rousing with jerks and snaps. He would like to get up and move around but he must share what body heat there is with Josh.

He takes out his fixings and puts a pinch of tobacco in his cheek, when it is moistened he puts a little juice in his eyes. The burning keeps him from falling asleep.

Now only a tendril of smoke rises from the ash, they will not make morning. Bennie searches the sky for a sign of pre-dawn, but the ink dark is complete, there is no hint of the eventual rise of the sun harboring the possibility of salvation.

A soft zephyr brings a warmer air which against the cold snow covered earth creates a mist, not quite as thick as a fog but enough to give an ethereal context to the scene.

The haze blurs Bennie’s vision and causes his exhausted mind to run to fantastical visions. In his conjuring real and unreal are melded without distinction. The young cowman is lost in the swirl of what is and what is not.

There is then a sound, faint, he is uncertain of its truth, it could as well be an imagining, his mind playing a game on him in his enervation.

There is the creak of leather, the jingle of halter chain, a tinkle of cascabel, a horse snort and grunt of men in the cold.

The horses’ heads appear from the miasma as apparitions, wafts on the ether, in time the bodies are revealed and upon them riders, hunched in buffalo robes or bear skin coats. Scarves are tied about their necks and over their Stetsons, in protection of their ears.

“You got any Arbuckle on the fire?” The sparkle in the man’s voice is palpable. Bennie imagines the cowboy thinks this a fine joke without any consideration whatsoever for the trials of all concerned, given the dire circumstances.

The despondency of an instant ago is completely forgotten as Bennie communes with his saviors.

Bennie’s mind is slow to operate and he can’t think of an amusing rejoinder before the man says, “We seed your fire from yonder way and wondered how big you was since you needed such a blaze,” there is now an outright laughter in the voice. He is enjoying the encounter immensely.

***

Bennie imagines now the rest of the story, the sling between the two horses which will convey Josh to safety, warmth and medical attention.

By tomorrow there will begin the oft repeated telling of the tale, in the glow of the stove in the bunkhouse with a cup of steaming cafecito in his hand as he responds to the rapt attention of all hands and the cook.

***

For now his portion is the coiling of the ruined reata which he will carry always as a reminder of the price he paid for the good he’d been permitted to do.

In it all, is Bennie’s gratefulness for having been allowed to save the life of his partner.

The End

 


Submitted: August 15, 2015

© Copyright 2022 jeffrey a paolano. All rights reserved.

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