In the Beginning
The saloon stunk of cheap perfume, rot-gut whiskey and sweat. To say it was a dive would've given it too much credit. Among the drunken cowboys, sleazy whores and card sharps cheating honest men out of their pokes one man stood apart. It wasn't his looks that singled him out to me; it was his attitude – as if he had nothing to lose and didn't mind proving it. Rangy and slim he leaned against the makeshift bar sipping at a whiskey, oblivious to the raucous hell-raising going on around him. I came in here looking for just the right man for the job. I hope I found him. My name is Gil Favor and if I can round up enough good hands, drovers, wranglers, cook, ramrod and scout, I'll soon be tacking trail boss onto my name. Wish me luck. I'll need it.
Gil Favor pushed his way through the crowd to belly up to the bar alongside the rangy cowboy. "Buy you a drink?" he asked in his most affable way.
"Thanks, but I already got one," was the surly reply to the generous offer.
"How 'bout some supper then? You look like you could use a decent meal." Gil smiled but it was lost on the cowboy who had yet to look up. Crowded up against him like he was, Gil couldn't help but feel the other man tense. Not a good sign.
The cowboy stopped staring into his drink and raised his head just enough to peer up at Favor from beneath dark brows. Narrow eyes of a deep amber appraised Gil and for a moment Favor felt he just might have misjudged a man he thought he knew well. He hadn't.
"Captain Favor, well I'll be!" Pete Nolan's expression changed in an instant from dour and suspicious to warm and friendly as he patted his old commanding officer vigorously on the back. "Well I'll be!" he repeated, beaming. "How 'bout I buy you supper? Where you been? What 'cha been up to these last few years?"
Over supper the two ex-soldiers discussed old times, the war, lost comrades and broken ideals. After that conversation turned to the more recent past – a subject neither man found much comfort in though each discovered yet another common denominator in their otherwise divergent lives; both men were widowed. Gil Favor lost a wife who'd spent the better part of their marriage waiting for her soldier-husband to return from war whereas Pete Nolan lost a wife he'd just barely gotten the time to know. Both were still grieving and both were searching for something to fill in the god-awful empty space which nothing seemed able to fill. If even the love of Gil's two daughters couldn't do it then what chance did the childless Pete Nolan have?
"So, Captain, what brings you back to Texas?" Pete accepted a refill of coffee from the waiter and ordered dessert, peach pie. Gil did likewise.
"I've got a contract to move a heard up the Sedalia trail. It's a thousand miles of dirt, heat, Indians, rustlers and bad weather, or so I've heard tell. Sign on, Pete. I need a scout. As I recall you ranged all over this part of the country." Gil dug into the pie as he waited expectantly for Nolan to answer. He should've known by the look on his ex-sergeant-major's face that he was in for at least a discussion if not a downright no.
Pete rubbed at three day's growth of well on to a decent beard scruff, hemmed and hawed and in general put off answering. "Well, you make a trail drive sound so damned inviting, Captain. I mean, what more could a cowboy ask for but bad weather, rustlers and all…but I gotta turn ya down. See, I've already got a job."
"Did I mention the scout makes twenty dollars more a month?" Gil figured he'd sweeten the pot, but Nolan looked less than convinced.
"Actually, I'm only waiting around here to get paid. This place ain't exactly healthy – if you get my meanin.'" Pete jerked a thumb toward the door, indicating the three men who had just entered the small eatery. Armed to the teeth they were as mean a looking bunch of toughs as Gil had seen in some time and the scary part was – they were staring directly at Pete Nolan and there wasn't so much as a pleasant expression among the bunch.
"Friends a yours?" Gil asked.
"Oh sure. Want me to introduce you?" Pete replied with the slightest hint of sarcasm. "They probably wanna spit my liver on a stake…I just turned their damned brother in to the sheriff."
"For the reward?" Favor hissed. "You're a bounty hunter?" Gil was shocked. He never figured Pete Nolan to go in for that type of work, but war changed a man and that was certain. It had changed him.
Pete leaned in closer to Favor. "Did I say that?"
Gil thought even Nolan must be ashamed of his newly chosen profession; ashamed enough not to admit to what it was. Favor lifted his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug.
"What I made for the six weeks it took me to track that murderin' bastard down sure beats hell outta what, fifty dollars a month scoutin' for a trail drive? He'll get what he's got comin' to him and I'll get what's comin' to me."
Over Pete's shoulder Gil watched the men approach; each wearing a black scowl like it was the only expression they'd ever entertained. "Yeah, well I'll bet you're gonna get what's comin' to you first! Your friends are walkin' over here and I'm wagerin' they ain't gonna ask to buy you a cup a coffee."
Pete couldn't move his hands from the table without being seen. Unable to reach for his holstered pistol, he was a sitting duck, but with the brothers' gaze focused totally on him to the exclusion of all else, Gil could and did reach for his Colt. Removing it from the holster, he slipped it beneath the napkin in his lap. He prayed he wouldn't have to use it, but he wasn't ready to allow Pete Nolan to die either. They'd been through too much together; had been there for each other too many times as members of John Bell Hood's renowned Texas Brigade - at Fredericksburg and Marye's Heights; at Gettysburg; at Antietem and at Appomattox Court House during the surrender. Foolish as Gil Favor believed Pete Nolan's choice of jobs to be, he'd back him in this play. There was no other choice.
However, luck or fate intervened. The sheriff walked in just as the brothers reached the table. Seeing the lawman, they backed off without so much as a single word, though Gil swore he heard at least one of them growl.
"Here's your money, Nolan." The sheriff slapped the thick envelope down onto the table, narrowly missing Pete's pie plate. "Now I want you outta my town and outta my county before nightfall. I don't go in for your kind a work." He leaned in close to snarl "your kind sets my teeth on edge. "
Pete was totally nonplussed. Obviously this wasn't the first time a lawman had objected to him or to his line of work. "If you and your kind would do your jobs, I wouldn't have to do 'em for ya." Nolan replied. As Pete reached for the envelope the sheriff backhanded him across the face, the strength of the blow knocking the unsuspecting man backwards, chair and all crashing to the floor. Pete came up in a rage, his hand centimeters from his gun.
It was Gil who stopped him, his Colt trained on Nolan's midsection. "Don't do it, Pete," he warned, shaking his head. "Don't do it."
Nolan's hands clenched into fists, but somehow he managed to get control of his anger, if just barely. "If it was anybody but you, Captain…anybody else…" he warned and though Gil knew Pete would never hurt him, even aware of that, certain of it, a chill coursed down his spine at the expression of repressed fury on the other man's face.
The sheriff smiled. "Thank the captain here, Nolan. I mighta been forced to kill you and wouldn't that a been a shame? I won't tell you again. Get outta my town and outta my county. You got," he pulled a silver watch out of his waistcoat pocket and gazed thoughtfully at the time. "You got just about three hours. You better ride fast cause that's barely enough time to make it to the county line." The sheriff tipped his hat to Gil. "Good day to you, Captain." As he walked past Pete he purposely bumped into him, attempting to goad him into a foolish action, but Nolan didn't bite. Besides, Favor still held him under his gun though Pete knew that was for show – or was it?
Gil walked Pete to the livery and watched him pack up his gear. "Sure you won't change your mind? This line a work," Favor paused. Hemming and hawing really wasn't like him, but he truly was lost for words. "This line a work'll make for a short life, Pete, too short. Now it ain't like cattle drivin' is any picnic, but…"
Nolan waved Gil off, shaking his head. "You mean well, Captain, but I'd take it as a favor if you'd mind your business and leave me out of it." Pete tightened the cinch on the buckskin and turned to face Favor. "I don't give a damn how short life is…far as I'm concerned I've lived too long already. I've outlived anything I've ever cared about." Grief was obvious in his eyes and his posture and Gil felt the bond between them strengthen. He knew exactly how Pete felt, exactly, though he hadn't lost everyone; there were his daughters. He lived and breathed for them; experiencing life through them. Pete Nolan lived and breathed and that was all.
Nolan swung a long leg up over the saddle. Touching the brim of his sweat-stained Stetson, he offered the former captain a parting salute. "Good luck with your drive, Mr. Favor. Maybe we'll cross trails again."
Gil's smile was tempered with sadness, "Same to you, Pete and I gotta feeling we'll run each to each other before long."
Favor returned to the dingy café, nursing bottomless cups of bitter coffee and smoking an endless number of harsh hand-rolled cigarettes. Time was growing short and though he'd had the word out he was looking for drovers nigh on to a week, only half a dozen had signed up so far and none of them the cream of any man's crop, but the two he was courting now seemed like the real deal.
They'd walked in together and it was plain they were old hands by the way they moved - slow and easy; the way they spoke - plain and simple; and they way they dressed – like the working men they were with well-used but cared for tools of their trade – chaps, boots and spurs in good order and nothing gaudy about them.
Gil discovered they'd been friends for years; had worked some of the biggest spreads in Texas and had gone to war and returned, but they missed the adventure of travel and so they signed on the dotted lines and Favor was glad to have them. They'd be the lynch pins of his drive; the solid core around which he could build. Scrutinizing the less than perfect penmanship Gil greeted each with a firm handshake.
"Glad to have you, Jim…Quince is it?"
"Yeah, uh, yes sir, Mr. Favor. It's Quince awright." Jim replied around the cigarette which dangled from his lower lip and which Gil was to discover perpetually dangled from Quince's lower lip unless he was eating or drinking.
"And you, Joe Scarlet…glad you're on board." Though Scarlet towered over the diminutive Quince, it appeared Jim was the spokesman of the pair as Scarlet had a gentleness about him, a shyness which didn't lend itself to being overly talky, though his handshake was firm, very.
"Thanks…thanks, Boss." He murmured softly.
"I'll need you both out at the trailhead by noon tomorrow. Just follow the road east outta town about ten miles. My wagons are there, ready and waiting."
"We'll be there, Boss," Quince smiled. Scarlet nodded.
Word of mouth brought in half a dozen more drovers. Seems when men as highly regarded among their own kind as Quince and Scarlet sign on for a drive, others of like ilk feel it's a stamp of approval and sign on as well. Within an hour Gil Favor filled his roster with the best drovers the area had to offer. Pleased with his success he saddled his horse and rode east; glad to leave the confines of town behind.
Not five miles from camp Gil heard the echo of a gunshot some distance down the road, at first giving it scant thought. 'Probably just somebody out after birds,' he mused, 'Lots a grouse around these parts.'
Loping down the rode, his mind now occupied by the daunting task ahead of him – rounding up and branding nearly three thousand head of prime, yet dangerously wild, beeves, Gil was not prepared when three men burst out of the scrub directly into the road in front of him – like a covey of quail scared up by a coyote – and headed off at a dead run across country.
"What the hell?" he asked.
Cautiously, Gil entered the trees at the point the men had exited, hand on his holstered gun.
The first thing he saw was a horse, its reins dangling to the ground as it browsed – a large buckskin gelding – Pete Nolan's animal certainly. Favor felt a cold sweat break out, though the day was far from chill. "Pete?" he called. There was no answer.
TBC -Feeback is always appreciated and thanks!