"What's the word, Boss; we stickin' around here or we leavin'? The men are gettin' anxious."
Although Gil Favor heard Rowdy's question, he didn't answer it. Not because he was trying to be difficult, but because he was formulating an answer. Up until that very moment he had been undecided as on how to proceed. To his credit, Rowdy Yates waited patiently for the answer.
Finally Favor ground the cigarette he'd been smoking out beneath his boot heel and turned to face the ramrod. "It's been a full 48 hours since that Comanche buck gave us his little speech…two full days and no sign of him or his friends. Yellow Sky was right when she told Pete that cattle story was a smoke screen. Those Comanche wanted her and the baby."
Rowdy nodded in agreement. The next words out of the boss's mouth would not be agreed upon as readily.
"You're gonna get the herd movin' out right now, Rowdy. Move 'em and move 'em fast. If I'm not back by the time you reach Crazy Woman Creek, the herd is yours. You already know where the papers are…and the cash."
Yates' jaw dropped and Favor reached out, placing a hand on the young man's shoulder. "It probably won't come to that…this is 'just in case,' Rowdy."
"You're goin' after Pete and Mushy. Don't go alone, Boss. Take…."
Before Yates could finish the sentence, Gil finished it for him. "Not you. I need you to run things while I'm gone. I'm takin' Joe Scarlet. "
"The hell you say!" Wishbone appeared suddenly behind Rowdy, stating his own point and in typical Wishbone style - in no uncertain terms and no holds barred.
"The hell you say! Takin' Joe Scarlet and for what, I ask? All he'll be is another gun when I'm that and more! Besides, I gotta go along! I need to bring Mushy back! There ain't a single thing gone right since that boy decided to up and go chase that little skirt! The coffee's boiled over, the biscuit's burned, the pots need scourin', the plates ain't even been scraped from last night and here it is time to dish up breakfast! I'm goin' along, Boss and that's my final word!"
Wish punctuated the sentence with a determined jerk of the head. Arms crossed over his chest, he waited, tapping his foot in impatience.
"Wishbone, if I really thought that was your final word, I would take you along. As things stand, with Mushy gone and all and no one else to feed the men, you hafta stay here. Joe goes and that's my final word."
Wishbone came unwound. With his finger jabbing a hole in the sky, his bewhiskered chin jutting out inches from the boss's chest, he vehemently stated his case. "Boss, I lied. Them ain't my final words. These are…I quit!" With that the cook tore off his apron and tossed it at the boss's feet. "Now see who's gonna stick around here and feed the men!"
Favor took half a step forward to stand toe to toe with the little man. Looking down from his impressive height Gil pasted Wishbone with his patented withering glare. "If that's meant to intimidate me into taking you along, it won't work."
"Take me along or don't, that's your business, Mr. Favor, but if I don't draw pay from you, I don't take your orders neither. I come and go as I please and I please to go lookin' for Pete and my cook's louse. So there!"
Favor countered. "If you don't work for me, what the hell do you need a louse for anyway?" Watching Wishbone squirm and redden, Gil figured he hit the nail a resounding blow on the head. "You miss that kid, don't 'cha you old fakir? You miss him and you're worried…that's it now, ain't it?" Favor pressed.
"You're mighty well told I am – worried, I mean. That boy can't hardly pour water outta a boot without the instructions written on the heel and that's a fact. How's he gonna take care of himself, let alone a wife and little bitty baby? How? As to missin' him…well, I don't have nobody to yell at's all! Besides, there's two hams all smoked up and eight loaves a bread all baked. That's plenty for the men till I get back. Hell, even Rowdy here knows how to hack off a piece a ham and slap it between two slices a bread!"
Yates gave Wishbone a dirty look, which the cook ignored completely. "So now what do you say, Mr. Favor?"
Gil sighed in mock resignation. "I know when I'm beaten. Get your gear together, Wish, and Rowdy," Yates perked up at the sound of his name, the cook's slight instantly forgotten, "head 'em up and move 'em out!"
Spoken in one voice, ramrod and cook replied. "Yes, sir, Boss!"
Pete Nolan lost all track of time. One minute it was black night and the next, full morning with singing birds and dawning awareness – the cover that had protected him in the night provided nothing during the day. He was totally exposed to whoever or whatever might come looking.
Gritting his teeth at the pain, he dragged himself, the canteen and the Henry, though he reckoned he lacked the strength necessary to lever a round into the weapon he was loath to leave it behind, deeper into the copse of mesquite trees; thoughts of what might be lurking in the high grass given over to the fear of being found. Only after he figured his hiding place to be a good one did he look back to where he'd been. There, as plain as an arrow pointing the way snaked the wide, blood smeared track of his body as he'd slid on his belly through the dew-dampened grass. He groaned in realization; instead of improving his position, he'd only succeeded in making it worse.
"Damn fool," he berated himself in a whisper. "Damn stupid fool."
Other worries came to devil him and soon the fear of being seen ran a far second to the fear of dying, alone. Mushy hadn't gotten a look at his injury and for that Pete Nolan was grateful, for the youngster probably never would have left him. A Comanche lance had run him through, front to back, the razor-sharp tip exiting to the far left of his spine before being jerked free. Somehow, the lance had gone between the ribs, missing vital organs, but the wound was terrible, bleeding profusely and causing intense pain. Pete searched for something to staunch the blood, but having never replaced his neckerchief after Yellow Sky used it to tie up his arm, he had nothing with which to work. Thinking as quickly as his ebbing strength allowed, Pete rolled onto the wounded side, compressing the injury. Sure enough the blood stopped flowing. The wounded man fell into a restless nightmare-filled slumber.
Upon waking, he unstoppered the canteen and took a single deep swallow. Although he wanted more, much more, he didn't know how long it might be until Mushy came back for him and he didn't want to run out of the precious fluid. Torn muscles had stiffened to the point where Pete could hardly move at all, not that he had the energy to do so in any case. The blood loss sapped his strength to where just thinking was fast becoming too much effort and thinking clearly, impossible.
Flies swarmed above him, a blackish green cloud of tiny buzzing scavengers who wasted little time figuring out that the wounded creature whose blood they sought lacked even the strength to shoo them off. They landed at will, tormenting the already tormented man in ways most people, blessedly, might only imagine.
Sunset brought some relief from the flies as the insects took off for wherever it was flies disappeared to at night. Although the absence of the biting insects was pure relief, night brought cold and damp as devilment. Pete Nolan shivered. Drawing his legs up as best he could, he made himself small against the chill.
Night noises, too, were troublesome – whispers of the wind through the waving grass which rustled the leaves overhead like unseen hands; the cries of owl and nighthawk on the hunt, the yapping and yodeling of coyotes as they crept nearer and closer, the smell of blood drawing them for miles; them and the wolves. To Pete, the eerie sounds of the hungry animals, be they coyote or wolf didn't matter; death dealt by tooth and claw was a hideous way to meet one's maker in any event. With a trembling hand he drew the Colt from its holster and with great effort, thumbed back the hammer.
"I've seen what's left of a man after you get through…you sonsabitches won't take me alive," he vowed even as the sounds closed in, the circle tightening.
Pete's gun hand began to sweat and he wished he could wipe the moisture off against his shirt, but he didn't dare for fear the pistol would fall from his weakened grasp leaving him helpless to prevent a death no sane man could bear to contemplate. Unreal shadowy terrors were replaced by vivid pictures of the half-devoured corpses of those unlucky cowboys whose names Pete Nolan had committed to memory – their names and their faces. Pete swallowed hard.
Again the strange, almost human whispers came to him on the wind and he swore he could make out individual words… or was it only a trick of his mind? He shook his head hoping to clear the thickening fog from his brain.
There's nobody out there, he finally surmised and all the wishing in the world wouldn't change that. There's nobody out there, Pete Nolan…nobody but coyotes and wolves. Help ain't comin'. Mushy ain't comin'!
As the rustling sounds closed tightly in on his position the suffering man angled the pistol up, placing the barrel directly beneath his chin. He closed his eyes. Feeling warm breath upon his face, Pete Nolan squeezed the Colt's trigger.
To be continued.