The big-humped bull crashed out of the thick tangle of salt cedar and Russian olives along the river. He was the same bull they’d seen yesterday, the one they’d hoped to rouse today. He spotted the three cowboys, snot flying from his wide muzzle, eyes on fire, and crashed headlong back into the impenetrable underbrush. Five other, less unruly bulls ran with him. The cowboys were focused on the big brindled Brahma.

Rowdy yelled at Willy: “Up river!” Willy spurred his horse up the narrow, tangled trail to split the river up ahead to turn the six bulls. Farrell plunged into the snarl of salt cedar and Russian olives tight on Rowdy’s tail. The sharp spikes of the Russian olives ripped shirtsleeves and slashed their faces. In the rush, Farrell’s hat was torn off by a sinister branch. The horses sensed danger but ran through their fear.

Willy saw the six bulls clear the river and hit a narrow trail up the chalky bank on the other side. Without thinking, he splashed across and hit a trail that ran along the river, spurring his horse to stay close behind the scramble of brush and dust up the steep trail. He screamed to Rowdy: “Here!” Nothing needed to be explained.

The crashing of hoofs across the slick rocks in the shallow river impelled Rowdy to turn upstream and across and into the twisted gray sagebrush in the ravine below the steep trail. He could smell the stink of hair and shit and flight. The hard-charging bulls crashed through broken sagebrush up the steep trail that led away from the river. Rowdy was looking for another way up to cut them off. Thankful the bulls had left the snarl of river and were heading up the long finger of the mesa, he still understood the need to stay close behind. The bulls would brush up if they weren’t pushed.

Charging without fear up the narrow trail in the twisting ravine, Rowdy looked for a way up the steep slope. He could turn them back into Willy if he could get ahead of them. By God, he’d get a rope on one of them sons of bitches before the day was over. The others would be left for another day. Farrell spurred his horse hard to keep pace with Rowdy, but he knew Rowdy was half-crazy and would turn up the steep slope even without a trail. It had to be that way if they were going get a rope on any of the mavericks. the big brindled maverick.

Willy reined his horse in to keep the bulls lined out ahead of him. He knew if pushed too hard they would scatter. The big brindled Brahma he knew from chasing him before and knew that he’d duck off the trail at some point. He just hoped he’d dive off toward the ravine where Rowdy could get a shot at him. One shot. That was all they asked for. That big son of a bitch had at least seven years experience running wild. He wasn’t going to give in without a fight.

“Fuck it,” Rowdy yelled. He turned up the hard-baked slope through the tall sagebrush, holding tight with the inside of his legs, his horse twisting over trampled sagebrush, flagstone, and rubble. Before the cowboys knew what was happening, the big brindled bull wheeled around and crashed back over the top of the bulls that were hot on his tail. Willy didn’t have a chance. The big bull hit Willy’s horse with such force that he went over backward and Willy was thrown from the saddle. Scrambling to get to his feet, the big bay stomped Willy into the chalky dust of the trail. Curled beneath the menace of hooves and hot breath and slaver, Willy looked up at the soft belly of his horse, ripped wide open from the sharp twist of horn.

“Shit,” Rowdy screamed. He turned, twisting and plunging back down into the ravine, and raced back toward the river. “That son of a bitch!”

He needed to get between the maverick and the river. They’d lose him back in the thicket along the river. Farrell pulled up. He jumped clear of his saddle and scrambled up the steep slope to where Willy lay twisted and torn in the thick dust. Out of breath, he rolled Willy over, pleading with him, “Willy, are you all right? Willy, say something.” Willy’s face was caked in dust and blood.

Rowdy managed to get back to the river, turn down the trail along the river, and hit the intersection of the narrow trail along the river and the steep trail off the mesa just as the wild pumping maverick crashed through the tall sagebrush. The big bull didn’t slow down and hit Rowdy’s sorrel broadside. The horse went down, Rowdy’s leg caught underneath, and the back hoof of the spinning bull kicked Rowdy flush in the face, splattering his nose to the side of his face. Rowdy knocked cold was trapped underneath the horse in its panic to stand up. The big sorrel rolled completely over to get its legs underneath it. Resting now on its haunches, it was unable to get up. Its right hind leg was broken.

Slowly Rowdy opened his eyes, squinting up at the bright sky. His head ached and he coughed out clouds of chalky dust. He looked over at the sorrel, breathing heavily, settled against its fate. He knew the horse was done for.

When he rolled over on his butt to stand up, Rowdy felt the warm flow down his right leg inside the tall cowboy boot. He felt nothing more, just the warm flow. His tibia was broken in two. He looked up the slope to where Farrell huddled over Willy. He yelled up to him, “How’s Willy?”

“Out cold,” Farrell yelled back to Rowdy.

“Is he going to be all right?”

“I think so,” Farrell said. “How about you?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I busted my leg, though.”

“Ah, shit,” Farrell said. “That’s no good.”

“No, it ain’t.” Rowdy tried to think. It had turned into a mess in a hurry. The maverick had escaped into the snarl of brush along the river. He was probably a hundred miles away by now. And God knew where the other bulls were. Forget about them. Rowdy had to focus on their situation. He knew there was nothing to be done for his horse. Maybe it’d be best if Farrell just shot the both of them, him and his horse. It’d be easier on Farrell.

Rowdy didn’t know how bad Willy was busted up, but he knew his leg was busted pretty bad and he wasn’t going to walk out.  He looked back up the slope. Willy was sitting up now, his knees pulled up in front of him, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head.

“Hey, Willy,” Rowdy yelled up at him. “You step in front of a train?”

Willy looked up. “Fuck you.”

“Hey, I didn’t tell you to step out in front of him. You should know better than to step out in front of a fuckin’ train.”

“I didn’t exactly step out in front of him,” Willy yelled down the slope. “He kinda turned on me, kinda sudden like.”

“You all right, Willy?” Farrell asked him.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I might’ve busted a couple of ribs, though. And busted up my shoulder pretty bad.”

“Dammit, Willy,” Farrell said. “It’s no good, I tell you. He’s one mean sombitch.”

“Yeah, he is that, for sure.” Willy rubbed the back of his head and looked over at Farrell. “How’s Rowdy, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Farrell said. “I’d better go down. You gonna be all right?”

“Yeah, I’m OK. You’d better go down.”

Farrell stood, patted Willy’s shoulder, and walked down the steep slope toward Rowdy. He knew something was wrong, he just didn’t know what he was going to do about it. Rowdy looked up when he heard the jingle of spurs and then laid out flat on his back. He needed to stay calm now.

Farrell knelt beside Rowdy. He looked over at Rowdy’s horse, breathing hard. He stood up and stepped over Rowdy. He slipped the 30-30 from the saddle scabbard and levered a cartridge into the chamber. He pulled on the reins and the horse tried to stand, going down again, sliding farther down the slope. Farrell could hear the rush of the river behind him. He shook his head. He’d known this was a bad idea. Just a fuckin’ bad idea. Rowdy was too fuckin’ stubborn, that’s all. Just too fuckin’ stubborn. And what did they have to show for it? Nothing. A busted-up cowboss and two done-for horses. Luckily, Willy was going to be all right, but his horse would have to be put down. Its guts were hanging down from behind its big belly. No hope in getting them pushed back in. He didn’t have anything to stitch him up with anyway.

Farrell stepped between the horse and Rowdy and lifted the rifle to his shoulder. The horse looked straight ahead. There was no panic. Animals took death better than any human he’d ever known. He fired and the horse twitched, let out its breath, trying to stay upright, let out another breath, holding onto it longer, its dying breath, and then laid over, its legs stretched out. Tears tunneled through the chalky dust on Rowdy’s face. He wiped at the hard-caked blood below his broken nose.

When Rowdy opened his eyes, Farrell was crouched over, unfastening the cinch to drag Rowdy’s saddle clear. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it. Both of them jumped at the sharp rifle report from up the slope. Willy stepped backward. His horse staggered and tumbled down the slope. He looked up at the buzzards circling overhead. “Fuckin’ bastards.” He dragged his saddle down the trail and tossed it next to where Farrell had flung Rowdy’s saddle.

“I gotta go get Jack,” Farrell said, to no one in particular.

He walked back along the trail along the river to the ravine. He looked up the ravine, but he didn’t see his horse. He looked up the narrow trail that had been cut into the hard clay by the mavericks over the many years of running wild in the bottom of the ravine. He’d hoped that Jack would have come back toward the river, but he hadn’t. He’d stayed put, right where Farrell had dropped the reins to crawl up the steep slope to Willy.

Things could have been worse, he thought. And then he laughed. Yeah, things can always be worse. Tired and weary and thirsty, Farrell walked up the trail to where Jack stood quietly in the dull gray ravine, picked up the reins and led him back to the river. No sense in riding. He wouldn’t be riding him out of the canyon, why ride him now?

The dust rose in thick clouds in the narrow trail through the twisted sagebrush. The whole canyon was filled with nothing but dust and disgust. He led Jack to the river, dropped the reins, and Jack, nostrils flared, drank eagerly. Farrell squatted, threw his legs back, and plunged his head into the river. Here in the quiet thicket where the tiny birds flitted between the rustle of grass and the stiff branches in the trees, one could escape the dust and heat and twisted scrub of life.

As he made his way back, Farrell thought about their situation. They could fashion a travois from a couple of poles and drag Rowdy back to the pickup truck and trailer. Or they could just throw him across the saddle like a bag of flour, which wouldn’t be too comfortable, but it’d be simpler and would get him back quicker. They needed to be careful he didn’t go into shock. Right now, Rowdy wasn’t feeling too much pain, but the pain would come. And who knew what was going on inside that boot? He could be bleeding to death for all they knew. No, some urgency was called for, Farrell thought, as he walked wearily along the snarl of river.

Willy was kneeling next to Rowdy, who was drinking from the leather canteen. He looked up when he heard the rustle of brush along the river. Farrell looked into the white pain across Rowdy’s face and then looked at Willy. “We need to get him out of here,” Willy said and stood up.

Farrell pushed Jack’s flanks around to stand at a right angle to Rowdy. He and Willy, Willy wincing in pain from his cracked ribs, bent down and each of them slid an arm under one of Rowdy’s legs with an arm around behind his back, grabbing hold of each other’s hand below Rowdy’s shoulder blades. Rowdy reached his arms up over their shoulders to steady himself. Racked by pain, sitting upright between them, he didn’t utter a sound as they lifted him. Willy breathed in the pain etched across Rowdy’s stained and broken face.

“Can you sit the saddle?” he asked Rowdy.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“Then we’re going to have to throw you over the saddle like a sack of potatoes.”

“Ah, shit, Willy. Can’t we figure out nothin’ else?”

“I don’t know what.”

“My leg hanging down like that is gonna hurt like hell,” Rowdy said.

“We don’t have time to build a travois,” Farrell said. “We gotta get you out of here.”

“I think I’m going to get sick,” Rowdy said. He leaned his head down between his legs and threw up. They set him back down on the ground and he rolled over on his side and retched again. They stepped back looking at each other.

“What do you think?” Farrell asked Willy. Willy shrugged. “We gotta get him out of here.” Willy looked down at Rowdy. “Yeah, I know,” he said. They bent over and picked him up again and, in spite of his screams of pain, they threw him across the saddle. Farrell grabbed the reins. Willy picked up Rowdy’s cowboy hat that had fallen at Jack’s feet when they’d flung him over the saddle. With Rowdy slung across the saddle, Farrell led Jack back along the trail along the river. Willy followed behind carrying Rowdy’s hat, the rifle slung over his shoulder. They would come back for the saddles later.

They ignored Rowdy’s groans of pain, intent on getting him back to the pickup truck. Willy looked back at Rowdy’s sorrel. A coyote looked up suspiciously. The buzzards bounced on the hard gray hillside, their black wings spread into the low sun. He looked farther up the slope to the buzzards squabbling over the big bay.

From time to time, Willy touched the back of Rowdy’s leg. He was quiet now. The turquoise boot top was stained dark with blood. Rowdy must be bleeding pretty bad, Willy thought. They needed to hurry.

Willy slowed his step and stepped around behind Jack’s tail and over to the other side to look closer at Rowdy. Rowdy’s head dangled, his face covered by a death mask of dust and dried blood. Willy caught up to Farrell, who stopped when he felt the tug on his elbow. Willy was silent when Farrell, still holding the reins, turned to examine Rowdy. He looked back at Willy and shook his head. Willy hung his head. Farrell reached out for the vein in Rowdy’s neck. Nothing. Rowdy was dead.

Farrell handed the reins to Willy and grabbed the rifle from Willy’s shoulder. “Get him back to the pickup and radio for help,” Farrell said.

Willy didn’t say anything, he knew what Farrell had in mind. Feeling empty, limping crookedly, he started down the narrow trail that ran along the river. When he got to the twisted path that led down to the edge of the river and across, he looked back up the trail. Farrell was gone. Willy knew Farrell could track anything across any kind of terrain. And he knew Farrell wouldn’t give up until he found the wild maverick. Halfway across the river, he looked down at Rowdy’s hat, the stampede string clutched in his fingers, and then at Rowdy, his head brushing lightly against the saddle’s fender, his lifeless hands dangling below Jack’s round belly.

If was late in the afternoon when Willy got back to the pickup truck. He slid Rowdy off the saddle and carried him over his shoulder to the shade of the trailer. He bent over and slid him down to the ground and walked back to the pickup to radio for help. He didn’t know if he could raise anyone or not. If not, it really didn’t matter. There wasn’t anything anyone could do for Rowdy now. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, though. He looked back toward the river and then up at the sun, low on the ridge of the mesa. Night was fast approaching.

He opened the door, slid in behind the steering wheel of the pickup truck, and took up the mike of the two-way radio.

“Cowboss One to Headquarters,” Willy said into the radio mike, repeating himself three times before someone responded.

“This is Headquarters, go ahead Cowboss One.”

“Hey, we have a situation here. Rowdy’s dead, repeat, Rowdy’s dead.”

“Copy that, Cowboss One. What’s your location?”

“Fifteen miles up Mancos River Canyon,” Willy said.

“Copy that, Cowboss One. I’ll notify the PD.”

Willy slipped the mike back into the clip next to the two-way radio. He walked back to where he’d laid Rowdy. He knelt down in front of Rowdy, sliding his hand under the back of Rowdy’s head and lifted it off the ground. He put Rowdy’s cowboy hat on his head, wiping gently at the dust and dried blood on his face.

“It was a bad show, boss,” he said. “Just a bad show all around.” He felt the cool night seep into the hollow canyon. He walked back to the cab of the pickup and searched in the back seat for a jacket. He found Rowdy’s jacket and put it on. It smelled of the sweat of years of hard work.

At the crack of a rifle shot that echoed down the canyon, he walked away from the pickup and looked up the canyon. He wished he was with Farrell now. He guessed he’d got him. He wouldn’t have shot unless he had a reason. But then maybe he’d shot for no reason at all. Things sometimes happen for no reason. He lifted the collar of Rowdy’s coat and looked up at the beginning of stars in the blood violet sky. He hoped there’d be a moon tonight for Farrell to find his way back. It would be pitch black soon. Farrell would be all right following the river, but he’d have a hard time finding the crossing. And then he still had to find the pickup truck. But Farrell was a good tracker. He wouldn’t have any trouble finding his way back. That’s one thing about Farrell, he could always find his way back. Willy walked back to the trailer and sat down next to Rowdy.

Willy slipped out of Rowdy’s coat and spread it across Rowdy’s shoulders. He looked up at the gathering stars in the black sky and shuddered against the cold. “We’ll be going soon, my friend,” he said. “We got him. At least we did that.” It had been a long day, a long, bad day. But it was over now.



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