|Incident of the Last Drive
Author: Carla K PM
The only men left after a disastrous cattle drive, Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates are forced to face some truths about themselves.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure - Words: 2,851 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 1 - Published: 01-30-05 - id: 2241774
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Incident of the Last Drive
A Rawhide Story by Carla Keehn
This story is written for entertainment purposes only, not profit, and is not meant to infringe on any existing copyrights.
Trail boss Gil Favor slumped over the half-filled grave, his body sagging against the hilt of the shovel. His weary eyes glanced around, rejecting once again the nightmarish reality that was closing in around him.
The pitiful wailing of the herd broke the early morning calm, providing an audible confirmation of his thoughts. Favor's eyes came to rest on the handful of beeves lying on the ground just below the hilltop grave.
Only 10 left from the original 1200 head . . . Favor thought grimly. No food . . . No water . . . What's left of'em is dying by inches and there's nothing I can do to stop it . . .
Favor's view shifted down. He saw the lifeless form lying in the shallow hole in the ground and swallowed hard. Exhausted to the point of collapse, the trail boss closed his eyes for a long moment as he struggled to blot out the sound of the dying animals and everything else around him.
A pain wrenched his insides. Favor grimaced and then stiffened, taking deep breaths until the spasm ended. Instinctively he knew that, like the herd, his time was coming to an end as well. Using what little strength he had left, Favor willed his thoughts away from the pain and tried to focus instead on the more urgent matters at hand.
I have to keep going . . . he whispered through gritted teeth. I have to . . .
The pain eased. The tension in his body drained away and Favor opened his eyes, his gaze coming to rest once again on the grizzly task before him.
Whether he liked it or not, there was a grave that needed filling . . .
As the trail boss again began to shovel dirt into the ground, Favor's jumbled thoughts wandered back several months to the beginning of the drive.
Trouble had dogged the drive right from the start. The petty, little annoyances that had nipped at the drovers from the time they pulled out took an ominous turn when they found that their first stop for water was dried up.
It was after they'd found the second watering hole dry that the less experienced hands began saying the drive was cursed. Not used to life on the trail or the hard work demanded of a drover, the new men that he'd taken on hadn't been able to easily adapt to the misfortunes that were plaguing them.
It wasn't long after that the new hands quit, taking with them most of the horses in the remuda. Undaunted, Favor continued on with the handful of men that stayed, satisfied that they could be counted on to stick with him.
Even with the more experienced hands, bad luck continued to relentlessly stalk them. A late summer heat wave hit; even the weather couldn't be counted on to give them relief. Finally, several of his most experienced men began urging Favor to turn back. Favor ignored the advice; he'd been a trail boss for a long time and was no stranger to trouble. Certain that the drovers would be able to deliver the herd on time, the trail boss decided to press on.
Favor pushed his men at an exhaustive pace. He felt relieved when the final leg of their journey was finally in front of them; several days travel through miles of steep mountainous terrain.
We almost made it . . . Favor thought as he remembered how close they'd come to finishing the drive. We almost made it . . .
The bad luck that had been haunting them dealt the final blow to the drive the night before the drovers were to pull out. During the early morning hours, several of the men came down with a fever. The disease spread quickly, forcing Favor to watch helplessly as his men succumbed to it one by one, until finally only Favor, Rowdy Yates and Pete Nolan were left standing.
The body in the ground sharpened into focus again. And now Pete's gone. . . Favor thought grimly . . . only Rowdy and me are left . . .
Favor's hand tightened on the hilt of the shovel until the knuckles were white. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the feelings that were tearing away at his insides
Favor swallowed hard. The guilt gnawed at him day and night. Not because of the herd - he'd lost beeves before; that was the nature of the job that every trail boss had to accept. No, he had no choice now but to admit that he'd paid the highest price there was to pay for his stubborn refusal to turn back; he'd paid with the lives of his men, men that he'd counted as friends.
Favor stopped working again, his eyes coming to rest on the body. I'm sorry, Pete . . . the grieving trail boss thought.
Halfheartedly, Favor forced himself to find some comfort in the fact that Pete Nolan, like Wishbone, and the others were no longer suffering the agonies that disease and deprivation had caused.
Lost in his thoughts, the trail boss didn't hear the crunch of footsteps on the rocky surface behind him.
A hand reached out and gently shook him, rousing Favor from his lethargy.
"I'll take over for a while, boss," Rowdy Yates said softly. Yates swallowed hard as he tried to ignore the fire that was burning his parched throat.
"No - -." Favor replied, reluctantly glancing up. It was becoming more difficult for him to face Rowdy and see the pain etching itself more deeply in his ramrod's face.
Not that Rowdy would ever complain; that was against his nature. Still, the visible signs of Yates' suffering caused the guilt he felt to prick at him that much more.
Favor forced himself to meet Yates' probing gaze. There was a feverish intensity burning in the ramrod's sunken eyes that he'd seen too many times of late. With a heavy heart, Favor knew that it wouldn't be long before he'd have one more man to bury - -
Yates was insistent, tightening his grip on the shovel. "I figure I owe this to Pete just as much as you do, Mr. Favor, makin' sure that his final resting place won't be disturbed."
"I'm responsible for what happened, Rowdy, not you," Favor replied gruffly as he handed over the shovel.
Yates shook his head in protest. "I got just as big a share of the blame for what happened as you, boss. If I had done a better job of ramroddin' those new men, things might've turned out different."
A heavy sigh escaped from the trail boss's lips. He and Rowdy had been together for too long for him to allow Yates to take the blame for his mistakes.
"You're not to blame, Rowdy, not for any of it," Favor replied more forcefully.
Without answering, the young ramrod began filling the grave, ignoring the pain the exertion was causing him.
"I checked the herd," Rowdy began hesitantly as he worked. He squinted up at the cloudless sky. "I figure they got less than a day left unless we find a way to get'em to water and feed."
Favor shook his head grimly. "We both know there ain't nothin' gonna help them beeves, Rowdy. Even if we could get'em watered and on their feet again, they'd be too weak to make it the rest of the way."
"You're right, I suppose," Yates replied.
"You can ride out if you want," Favor continued, leaning back against an outcropping of rock for support. "There ain't any sense in both of us waitin' around for what's left of the herd to die."
"I can't just ride out and leave you here, boss," Yates protested. "We ride out together or not at all."
"You given any thought to what we'd be ridin' back to?" The trail boss asked in a hard voice. He got shakily to his feet, pain coursing through his body. "There ain't a man alive that'd trust either one of us with another herd, assumin' we could get a crew together willin' to work for us."
The man's words rankled at Rowdy. The shoveling stopped abruptly. "We ain't the first ones that ever lost a herd!" He answered in any angry voice. "Besides, I figure there's other ways for a man to earn an honest livin', a lot of'em easier than bein' a drover."
His anger spent, Yates resumed shoveling, driving the blade forcefully into the sun-baked earth. "I just can't figure it," he muttered. "We've run into trouble plenty of times before and made it."
"Sometimes there ain't no figurin' why things work out the way they do." Favor shrugged. "Sometimes its best just to stop askin' why."
"I ain't sure that's a good enough answer, boss. Not when both of us are starin' death right in the face." The shoveling stopped again. "I know this time things went sour on us but givin' up like this . . ."
"I told you to go," Favor barked. "I ain't got any choice about stayin' on but that don't mean I expect you to."
"Huh?" Yates said, he glancing down at the grave. "I don't like the idea of explaining to the owners how we lost the herd any more than you do but . . ."
"It ain't got nothin' to do with the owners, Rowdy!" Favor interrupted abruptly.
"Then what does it have to do with?"
The trail boss straightened uncomfortably. There was time when he wouldn't have stomached any questioning of his decisions or their outcome, not from Rowdy or any of the other drovers.
But this was their last drive . . .That meant that he owed Rowdy an honest answer to his question regardless of whether or not he liked answering.
"It has to do with a man holding himself accountable for his failures," Favor began harshly. "Bein' a good trail boss means lookin' out for your men as much as it does lookin' out for your herd. Any way you look at it, I failed, Rowdy – on both counts."
"So you're just gonna stay on here 'til you're the last one to die?" Rowdy protested loudly. "I don't think Pete or Wish or any of the others woulda' wanted it that way, boss. None of the men blamed you for what happened, I know that for a fact."
Favor's fists tightened. "That don't make what happened any easier for me to stomach! Stayin' on here, at least, I'll feel like I done all I could 'til the end."
The two fell silent again; each absorbed in their own thoughts. Knowing that death was right around the corner had given both men cause for serious thinking - -and searching - -for answers that sometimes never seemed to be found.
Gil Favor thought of other men that he'd met over the years, men that had, either because of their own poor judgment or just plain bad luck, lost cattle or men.
Rowdy's wrong . . . He thought grimly. Just like the others, the stench of the drive's failure would cling to them both, making work difficult, if not impossible to find. He'd seen it happen too many times before to think that things would turn out any differently for him and Rowdy. No, riding out together, the two of them had no chance. Alone, though was a different story . . .
Yates tossed in the last of the dirt. "Finished," he said, his eyes glancing out to the horizon. "There's a nice view of the mountains from here – Pete would've liked that." He let out a heavy sigh. "I'll get some rocks to put over top."
"No," Favor said, slowly rising to his feet. "There'll be time enough to do that later. I want you to take what's left of the water and ride out of here."
Yates shook his head. "I told you before, boss, I ain't ridin' out alone."
"That wasn't a request, Rowdy, that was an order - -"
The younger man held his ground. "That's one order I can't follow." He tossed the shovel aside. "I say we finish up the grave and ride out of here – together."
Favor's jaw set angrily. "I ain't askin' for what you thought." He grabbed Rowdy by the arm. "I told you to ride out of here and I meant it - -"
"I heard what you said, boss and I ain't doin' it, plain and simple - -"
Suddenly, without warning, the pain Favor had felt earlier returned with a hammer blow. Disoriented, the trail boss staggered a moment.
Yates saw the man's knees buckle. His heart racing, Rowdy eased Favor back against the rocks.
"Mr. Favor!" Yates called, dropping alongside the downed man. "Boss, answer me!"
The world around him was swimming in and out of focus. Favor swallowed hard, his face twisting into a grimace as the pain intensified. He felt the last of his strength drain away.
"Boss? You okay?" Rowdy called anxiously.
He heard the panic rising in his ramrod's voice. Favor's mouth opened but fighting against the pain made it impossible for him to speak.
"Mr. Favor?" the voice prodded as it filtered through the haze in his mind, "Can you hear me, boss?"
As the icy fingertips of darkness closed in around him, an overwhelming sense of failure washed over Gil Favor as he took stock of the men that he'd lost. Pete, Wishbone, Mushy . . . and so many others . . . All of them men who had counted on Favor to lead them safely to the end of the drive . . . And he'd failed every damn one of them, including Rowdy - -
As he slipped into unconsciousness, Favor thought that he'd heard Pete Nolan calling out to him.
"Mr. Favor? Boss, can you hear me . . ." The voice nagged. "Boss, don't do this, wake up!"
He swallowed hard, forcing himself to partial wakefulness.
Through the slits of his eyes, the trail boss saw a sea of anxious faces swimming around him. Pete . . .Mushy . . .Quince . . .
"Dead . . ." he muttered hoarsely. "All dead . . ."
Favor groaned. Even taking his last breath, he couldn't escape from the guilt that tormented him . . .
"Dead? What are you talkin' about, boss?"
Pete Nolan anxiously glanced up from his place beside the injured man and began barking orders. "Wish, get over here! And somebody find Rowdy and tell him he's needed back at camp!"
As the men scurried into action, Pete moved aside so that Wishbone could take over. Nolan watched anxiously as the older man worked.
"What's the matter with him, Wish?" Nolan demanded. "He ain't makin' any sense."
"That's the fever talkin'," Wishbone muttered as he worked. "I shoulda known somethin' was wrong when I didn't see him eatin' last night. No man in his right mind would miss a chance for some of my cooking!"
Then Favor saw Rowdy come into his line of vision. The ramrod knelt down beside Nolan and Wishbone.
"What happened, Pete?" He asked.
"I ain't rightly sure, Rowdy." Nolan explained quietly. "One minute, Mr. Favor was talkin' to me about the herd, then the next thing I know, he was sayin' somethin' about not feeling well. Then had some kind of fainting spell."
Yates glanced around at the men gathered around. "Wishbone's takin' care of Mr. Favor so the rest of you to get back to work. We still got a herd to take care of."
"I'll keep after'em, Rowdy," Nolan said, getting to his feet.
"Thanks, Pete," Yates replied absently. "Is he gonna be okay, Wish?"
"A few days rest and some of my doctorin' and he'll be right as rain." The older man nodded toward the chuck wagon. "Keep him still as you can while I get some potions that I need."
Yates nodded. Still in the grips of his delirium, Favor began thrashing around on the ground, pushing Rowdy out of his way.
"Last drive . . . all dead . . ."he muttered.
"Just take it easy, boss," Rowdy replied anxiously. "This ain't gonna be your last drive, not if the rest of us have anythin' to say about it. Wish'll have you fixed up in no time."
Favor nodded weakly in response to Rowdy's words as he fought, not so much against Rowdy's retraining grip, but against the overwhelming sense of guilt and failure that he'd experienced in his fever induced nightmare. And although the trail boss could feel Wishbone's potions at work easing the physical pain that he felt, he knew it would be a long time before the memory of that last drive would be erased from his mind.