The shallow valley between rows of rolling hills is filled with milling cattle. It’s been a hard ride from Fredericksburg. Chad knows his horse needs a rest. The trail he’s followed has been swallowed up in other hoof prints on the road.
He sits with his leg wrapped around the saddle horn rolling a smoke. He shakes out loose tobacco from a Bull Durham pouch onto the piece of paper pinched between his fingers. Grabbing the loose strings with his teeth, he tugs closed the pouch and places it back in his vest pocket. He licks the edge of the cigarette paper and rolls it together. Pulling a Lucifer from his other vest pocket, he strikes it on the handle of his pistol. Placing one end of the cigarette to his lips, he lights the other, inhales deeply, and slowly exhales a plume of smoke. His gaze watches cowboys riding among the cattle as they harass them into some semblance of a herd. He notices two riders break away from the work and trot up the hillside toward him.
“Well, I can’t believe my eyes. Angus Tremain, is that you?” shouts Chad as the men draw closer. “Who’s that taggin’ along with you? Russell Thomas, what are you doin’ here?”
“Chadbourne Westerman, what hole did you crawl out of?” asks Angus. “We’re supposed to be here, but you’re a long way from Uvalde.”
“Ain’t that the truth. I’m a lot farther than I’d like to be. That’s for sure.”
Both riders pull to a stop facing Chad and lean over their saddle horns, crossing their arms on their horse’s necks.
“You lost or lookin’ for a job?” Angus asks.
“Truth is, boys, I’m a range detective now and chasing a killer.”
“Get out of here,” says Russell. “The last time we was together, you was top hand down on Mister McCray’s spread. You give up the good life?”
“McCray is to blame for me being here. He got me papers to be a detective and put me on the trail to find his son’s killer.”
“You don’t say.” Angus sits up straight and pushes his hat back on his head. “Come on over to the chuckwagon so we can get the whole story. I got Manolito Tito cookin’ for us on this drive. You remember him, don’t you?”
“You bet. That man can throw the best biscuits anybody ever laid their lips around. What he does with coffee is almost sinful. Best brew I ever had.”
“Wagon’s on the other side of the herd.” Angus takes off his hat, runs a hand through his brown hair, replaces his hat, and tugs it down tight on his head.
The three men ride through the milling cattle, stop their horses, dismount, and find a log beside the campfire to sit on. The chuckwagon is close to a stone-rimmed fire circle. Piled up beside the wagon are a dozen bedrolls waiting for their owners to claim. The cook stirs the bed of coals in the fire, making room to set a Dutch oven. He returns to the open shelf on the end of the wagon and continues working with a pair of ceramic bowls.
“You said McCray’s boy was killed?” asks Russell.
“He found the boy hung from an oak tree. It was a real sad day for us all.”
“Any idea who done it?”
“Nothin’ around to show who, what, or why. That’s when he said he’d hire me, get me papers, and expect me to find out what happened to his boy. So, here I am.”
“Damn, that’s a charge you’ve got to keep,” Russell replies.
“A couple of days later, I found a boy hung up by his hands from a cottonwood and beat to death, and another one beside the trail with his throat cut. Different herds. Different locations. It appears, they were all heading here.”
“You mean, the boys were drivin’ their cattle to join up with us?”
“Can’t be certain, but it appears to be that. Rustlin’ wasn’t the object because their cattle were just wanderin’ around, scattered from one valley to another,” says Chad.
“Well, if that don’t beat all. Any leads on a killer?” Angus asks.
“Thought I was on to one in Fredericksburg but lost the trail. All I know is he was heading this way.” He watches Angus for his reaction.
From under his black Stetson, Tremain stares at Chad, and with a steady, unwavering voice says, “Whoever it is better not be dogging my drive. I’ve been charged to lead this outfit to Abilene, and by the Almighty, that’s where we’re goin’.”
Chad smirks, and replies, “Angus, you weren’t shy of eighteen and ridin’ drag the first time you went up the trail in ‘65. The second time, in ‘67, you were top hand and ridin’ point. And now, in ’71, at all of twenty-four, you’re trail bossin’. I’ve known you since you were mutton bustin’ sheep on your Abuelo’s ranchero in the Nueces Strip. Your Granddaddy sold horses to my Pa to start our herd. All I’m sayin’ is watch your back. Somethin’ evil’s sniffin’ around this drive.”
“Russ, you ain’t as old as Angus. I wondered what you was doin’ here.”
“He’s talked me into running his remuda for this drive.”
“I reckon you know more about horses than any other two people I know. Seems like he’s got a good choice, makin’ you wrangler.”
“Oh hell, cut the sweet talkin’, Chad. I already told Angus I’d get his horses to Abilene and him back to Texas.”
Taking off his hat and running his hand through his sandy colored hair, Angus says, “Thanks for the warning, Chad. You and me have sat around many a campfire. I’ve got families driving their cattle to me to make up a marketable herd. I expect to have twenty-five hundred head come the end of the week.
“That’s a lot of beef, Angus,” says Chad.
“These families are trustin’ me to take their cattle to Abilene and sell them for top dollar. I’ve got to pick a dozen boys from all those you see with their cattle in the valley, make cowboys out of them, take ‘em up the trail, and bring them back home to their mamas. I aim to do that or die tryin’.”
“I know you take it serious, Angus. Do you mind if I tag along, kind of keepin’ an eye on what’s happenin’ around the herd? I ain’t drawin’ wages or workin’ for you, already got an employer. I just want to get to the bottom of the killings.”
“You know, I could use another top hand.”
“Not interested, this time, Angus. Is that a ‘yes’ to my shadowing your herd?”
“Sure. Do what you need to do. In the meantime, I’ve got cattle to brand, cowboys to grow, and a herd of the orneriest longhorns the good Lord ever created to wrestle all the way to Kansas. If you ladies will stop jaw-jackin’ with me, I gotta go to work.” He dusts his hat against his chaps, slaps it on his head, rises, mounts his sorrel, and rides toward the cattle. Russ is right behind.
Chad moves toward the coffee pot that’s keeping warm beside the fire.
The ebony eyes follow Angus, Russ, and Chad while they talk and then go their separate ways.
The morning sun creeps over the horizon. Chad awakes to hear horses snorting and stirring around. The sound of whooping and hollering comes from a circle of boys standing near the remuda. Chad rolls up his bedroll, tosses it toward the chuckwagon, and moves to join the gathering.
In the center of the circle, a horse rears, jumps, bows its back, and comes down stiff-legged as it attempts to dislodge the rider on its back. More whoops, shouts, and hurrahs.
“Don’t get throwed.” Two boys slap each other on the back.
“Grab a handful of mane and hang on.”
“Don’t let that little horse scare you any.” A short boy grabs his hat and waves it up and down.
Chad watches the animal buck, twist, turn, and thrash its way around the circle intent on ridding itself of its passenger. Suddenly, the saddle empties as the boy flies through the air and tumbles onto the ground. The horse kicks its hind legs high as if to say, “I’ve shown you.”
Outside the circle he sees two young boys sitting on the ground with their knees pulled up and resting their heads on them. He spots Russell standing toward the back of the crowd and walks up to him.
“Looks like a couple hit hard and still feel the effects.”
Russell keeps his eyes on the circle. “They’ll shake it off and be good as new, shortly.”
“So, Angus is separatin’ the wheat from the chaff?”
“All the boy’s got to do is stay three minutes on ol’ Catamount.” Russell squints into the dust being raised by the horse.
“You pick the horse, or did Angus?”
“Well, he asked my opinion, and Catamount’s about the most unrideable horse I know.”
“You have any that stick for three minutes yet?”
“There are two of them so far, only got ten more to go,” replies Russell.
Chad watches Angus pull the lariat around the fifteen hands high strawberry roan stallion’s neck. He takes a couple of wraps around a young elm tree he’s using as a snubbing post. Jerking the horse’s head close to the tree, he quickly ties his bandana across the halter covering the horse’s eyes, grabs an ear, and yanks on it drawing the horse’s head down.
Another boy dressed in dusty levis, a gray bib-front shirt, and a sweat stained wide brimmed hat, jumps up into the stirrup. He throws his leg over the horse, settles into the saddle, yanks his hat down tight on his head, grabs a handful of halter rope, and nods.
“Hang on, Benjamin,” shouts a boy from the circle.
“It’s only got to be three minutes,” a short boy hollers.
Angus yanks off the bandana and releases the lariat.
Catamount springs into the air, lands with a bone-jarring impact, commencing to bucking and twisting.
The boys roar, shouting encouragement for both rider and horse.
“YeeeHaww, ride ‘em.”
“Pitch him Catamount, toss that sorry excuse of a cowboy.”
“Hang on. Get a grip.”
After three minutes of punishment, the rider slides from the saddle onto the ground and quickly moves away from the thrashing horse.
Two waiting boys yank the rider upright.
“You did it, Ben. You made the three minutes.”
“You’re lucky that mean thing didn’t stove you up. You made it.”
They pound congratulations on Benjamin’s back as he stumbles to put distance between himself and Catamount.
“Looks like number three,” says Chad.
“I believe that boy’s a keeper,” replies Russell.
“Ol’ Catamount has more twist and turns than the Brazos.”
“That he does. He can swap ends in the blink of an eye and leave whoever is on his back clawin’ at air.”
“Angus is havin’ too much fun doin’ this. I’m goin’ over to see what Manolito’s keepin’ warm from breakfast. You comin’?”
“Naw, I’ve got to go with that boy.” Russell nods toward the one that just completed his ride. “I need to help him rope the three mounts he wants for his string. Besides, I might find one or two of these cowboys that can help me with the remuda. You go ahead.”
Chad ambles away from the noise and dust of the bronc riding to a quieter spot where Manolito has the chuckwagon set up.
“Señor Chad, it’s good to see you again. It has been a long time, no?”
“Manolito, it’s been way too long. You was busy last night so I didn’t get a chance to talk with you. How’s your family?”
“Ah, mi espousa, hijo, y hija estás bueno, bueno. I will miss them on this drive
but need the job.”
“Good to hear the family’s well. Y’all got any spare biscuits and coffee left from breakfast?”
“Señor Chad, you know I always keep coffee hot and plenty of biscuits.” He hands a covered basket to Chad, who helps himself to a couple of biscuits.
“You wouldn’t have a smidge of molasses stashed in a drawer on the wagon, would you? Sure would go right well with your biscuits.”
“Señor, your sweets tooths is still with you, si?” Manolito hands Chad a can he retrieves from a drawer.
“Muchas gracias, amigo.” Chad picks up a tin cup and moves to the coffee pot on the campfire. Settling himself on a rock, he begins sipping the coffee and taking a bite of his biscuit. Another loud roar is raised from the boys.
“Ride ‘em, Slim.”
“Don’t let go.”
“Pitch ‘em, Catamount. Pitch ‘em”
First step is to make sure they can stick to a horse. It’s an old lesson that all boys need to learn. Next, Angus will get them ropin’, cuttin’ out cattle, and stayin’ in the saddle all day. It’s the only way to turn boys into cowboys. Some will even be men by the time the drive ends. Chad smiles as he pours molasses on his biscuit.
Damn, another hole. This road is rutted so bad it’s almost impassable. Whatever has walked over it has the dirt churned up and almost impossible to drive over. Isaac Wisenheimer’s wagon jolts along the roadway leaving Fredericksburg. His twenty-year-old body bounces on the seat with every bump. A black flat crowned hat tries to control his wavy brown hair. He tries to straighten the creases of his pinned striped trousers, tugs at his black vest, and brushes trail dust from the sleeves of his not so white shirt. It was nothing short of a miracle to get safely out of Comfort. That damned fool filled the gate of my wagon with buckshot. Better it than me. I didn’t tell him the formula was a sure cure for gout, but did he listen? No. What does he expect for a dollar…miraculous healing?
Isaac’s two horses steadily plod along tugging his home on wheels behind them. The wagon is short bedded with sideboards and a solid top. A hinged platform on one side drops down to form a stage. Inside are all the worldly items needed to live: clothing, cooking utensils, even a rocking chair, and five cases of Dr. Isaac Wisenheimer’s Tonic. The wagon jolts along as the horses, without guidance from the driver, resolutely move down the road. The sign board attached to the side of the wagon reads:
Dr. Isaac Wisenheimer
– Pharmacist – Restorative tonics —
– Cures for Ailments, Rheumatism, Colic, and Lumbago –
Feeling Tired and Rundown? Dr. Wisenheimer has the cure.
I know the good folks in Bastrop told me not to go to Comfort, but those Germans have money. It was too good to pass up. Besides, I sold a case of tonic, which should hold me a week or so. The sheriff in Fredericksburg wouldn’t even let me set up shop before he hustled me out of town. What is all that caterwauling up ahead?
The noise in front of him causes him to rein in his horses and stand to get a better look. In the valley stretches a mass of cattle. Horsemen ride around and through the herd. Everyone is busy and pay him no attention. He spots a lone rider descending from a hill and approaching his wagon.
“Howdy,” says the rider. “Hope you ain’t in any hurry.”
“I’ll have you know that I am,” replies Isaac. “Do you own those cattle?”
“No. They’re owned by a bunch of folks around here and being gathered for a drive to the north.”
“Who can I talk to about clearing a way for me to pass, I’m on business.”
“I can give you the name of the man you want to talk to, even better, point him out to you, but it ain’t goin’ to do any good to ask.”
“And why is that, good sir?”
“Because he ain’t gonna do it.”
“See here. I’m a citizen and demand to have a right of way.”
“Well, friend, you can demand all you want, but Angus ain’t gonna give you no never mind.”
“Just who are you to tell me that, sir?”
“Name’s Chadbourne Westerman. I suppose I’m talkin’ to Dr. Isaac Wisenheimer, if I’m reading the name on the sideboard of your wagon correctly.”
“You are, and yes, I am Dr. Isaac Wisenheimer.”
“A real honest to goodness doctor?”
“My good man, I’ve studied with the finest teacher in the art and science of pharmaceutical compilations, and the dispensing of viscous formulas for the containment and correction of a multiplicity of ailments and injuries. My title as doctor is an earned one over years of practical application. Does that response enlighten you and address your inquiry?”
“Yep. You’re a ‘snake oil’ salesman.”
“How dare you impugn my dignity and denigrate my occupation with so vile and slanderous a term.”
“How you do spin words. How long can you keep goin’ without repeating yourself?”
“My good man, kindly clear away so I can continue my journey.” Isaac flicks the reins of his team.
Chad reaches over and grabs a handful of the reins.
“Whoa, friend. No need to get everything in a twist. You can’t go bustin’ into that herd without causing damage to them and you. Turn your team and follow me. We’ll ease over toward where the chuckwagon is staked out.”
“Indeed. Just why would I willingly follow you?”
“Because that’s where the grub and coffee are.”
When was the last time I ate? Yesterday? Could it have been day before? Coffee and food, I’ll follow this cowboy.
“Lead on, my good man. Let’s see what epicurean delights await us at the dining parlor you’ve described.”
“Angus will have a cow when he hears you,” says Chad with a grin.
Arriving at the chuckwagon, he helps Isaac unhitch his horses, hobble them, and turn them out to graze.
“Manolito, this here is Dr. Isaac Wisenheimer.” Chad introduces the two men.
“My pleasure, sir,” says Isaac extending his right hand.
“Mucho gusto, señor,” replies Manolito grasping the offered handshake. “What can I do for you gentlemens.”
“We’d be obliged for some of your fine coffee,” answers Chad. He sits on a log by the smoldering campfire. “Grab a seat, Isaac. I’d like to know more about what you’re doin’ out here.” Chad pats a spot on the log.
Using his handkerchief, Isaac brushes away the dirt. “I find myself between towns at the present time. The authorities in Fredericksburg were rather brisk with me, and I’m en route to the next major town. Which one would that be?”
“Heading this direction, I reckon your next fair size town will be Llano. It ain’t much more that a frontier trading center with a few log buildings housing business establishments, a post office, and some homes. Though it does serve the farmers and ranchers around it.”
“Splendid. In a burg of that nature, I should be able to encourage an audience for the pharmaceutical goods I offer.”
“If you mean that ‘snake oil’ you’re peddlin’, I’d say you’ll find yourself strung up mighty quick.”
“Sir, must you continue to denigrate my profession? While I accept your hospitality, I find your derogatory nature stifling. Is there any food available here?”
With a laugh, Chad motions to Manolito for something to eat and receives a nod in reply.
“Isaac, you fling those words around slicker than a polecat slidin’ on an iced over pond. I do need to ask you some important questions.”
“Very well, go ahead.”
“You said you left Fredericksburg. Right?”
“Did anyone pass you on the road? Someone in a big hurry?”
“The byway was somewhat travelled. Two, they appeared to be buffalo hunters, passed en route headed to Fredericksburg. A wagon loaded with farm implements overtook me and proceeded down the road. My team caught up with and passed a nun riding a donkey. Strange, she didn’t have an escort. One rider, on a gray horse, did gallop by me. I would not have given it any thought, except for the black duster. It streamed out behind him, flapping almost like a flag.”
“Did it appear the rider was heading this way?”
“I don’t know. Once the horse sped past, I lost attention and frankly, don’t know which direction he went.”
“You know, the weirdest idea just came to me. Where are you eventually headin’?”
“No particular destination is currently in my mind. I fancy that I’ll go where the wind blows me.”
“Great. How about if it blows you to Abilene, Kansas?”
“Why, in all of creation, would I want to go there?”
“’Cause that’s where this herd is goin’, and I’m thinkin’ I can use your assistance in running a killer to ground. You’ve seen him, and he’s seen you. If nothin’ else you’re good bait.”
“Now, just a minute. I have no intention of being used to lure some malcontent or miscreant to you.”
“So you’d rather be out on the prairie, by yourself, and have the mis..miscre..miscreature slip up on you and cut your throat?”
Grabbing his own throat, Isaac looks at Chad in alarm. “Surely, that would never happen, would it?”
“You saw him, and he saw you. What do you think?”
“Will you quit callin’ me that? My name’s Chad. Get used to it. Think about this, I’m sure there are those in the towns you’ve left in a hurry who’d love to know where you are. I imagine there might even be a lawman interested. What do you think?”
“I think your subject is becoming boring and tiresome.” Isaac fidgets and looks nervously around the campsite.
What if he does let those malcontents know where I am? There are at least two marshals interested in my whereabouts.
“The way I see it,” says Chad, “We have an opportunity to help each other. I don’t give you up, and you help me solve my mystery. Life’s too short to be on the dodge, so are you willing to help me?”
“Have you left me an option?”
“Nope. It’s all or none. Your choice.”
“It appears that I’ll assist you in your endeavor for the time being.”
“Great.” Chad slaps his hand against his leg. “We’ve got a distance to go together. By the way, what’s in that tonic you sell?”
Reaching into his hip pocket, Isaac extracts a flask. Patting it he says, “This, my friend, is the finest combination of complementary ingredients designed and concocted to provide relief from the plethora of ills and aches that plague mankind.”
“Let me see it.” Chad grabs the flask from Isaac, opens it, and takes a mouthful. He swishes the liquid around in his mouth and spits it into the fire. A brilliant blue flame erupts from the embers and quickly burns out.
Licking his lips, Chad pauses a moment, then says, “I taste Old Grand Dad, a touch of turpentine or liniment or both, and, let’s see, yep, it’s got cayenne pepper. Did you put gunpowder in it, too? Just how far off am I, Isaac?” He hands the flask back to Wisenheimer.
“You know that you are making it exceedingly difficult to like you, don’t you?” Isaac replaces the flask into his hip pocket as he glares at Chad.
“Like me or not, you’re stuck with me, and I’m stuck with you until we find out who or what was on that gray horse. You’re the one on borrowed time, Isaac.”
“You’ve made your point, Mr. Westerman. It appears that I’m your reluctant accomplice although I don’t know how I can help you.”
“We’ll find a way, Isaac. We’ll find a way even if I have to make a cowboy out of you.”
“Oh, good Lord. Anything but one of those ruffians.”
Manolito walks over and offers plates of frijoles and tortillas along with two tin cups. “The coffee, shes be ready un momento.”
Isaac ignominiously slurps the beans from the plate and sops up the juice with his tortilla.
Chad gestures toward Isaac and laughs.
“Manolito. I believe he likes your cookin’.”