Pete Nolan sat his horse, a cigarette dangling from between the fingers of his left hand. With his hat pulled down low shading his eyes from the constant sun, he squinted into the distance. Sighing in disappointment he ground the butt of the quirly out against the pommel of his saddle and turned the buckskin back toward camp. In his self-absorbed state he very nearly rode past Gil Favor.
"No luck, Pete?" Favor asked. There was concern in the boss's voice and in his expression as he caught up to the scout.
"No luck, Boss," Nolan replied. "It's like he just up and disappeared like a puff a smoke. I tracked him as best I could, but with the ground dry like it is…." The scout hung his head. "I lost him."
Together the men rode on in silence for a time.
"Funny, Boss," Nolan began, "but the way things started out with that darned dog…"
Pete looked over at Favor and a shy gentle grin settled onto the scout's face, an almost embarrassed expression if Gil was any judge.
Nolan shrugged. "I guess I never thought to miss the old devil…"
"But you do," Favor added.
"I do," Pete admitted. "Miss him and worry. There's a lot a wolves out this way, and coyotes, too. Can't forget what a pack a coyotes can do to a man, or an animal." Nolan's expression grew sober and a shudder spread through the slim cowboy. "I've seen it too many times."
"He'll come back, Pete. It's only been a couple days." Favor offered.
"But this is where he turned up…last year when he joined the drive. It was this very place, not a mile from where camp sits now. I can't help wonderin' if maybe he decided to go on back home…back to his 'real' home."
Gil thought on how his scout really wasn't doing the trail drive much good, what with his preoccupation and worry over the lost Dog; he turned in the saddle. "Pete, take a day off and make a sweep of the area. You might be able to pick up his tracks again. It's worth a try."
Nolan took some time to reply leading Gil to figure the man was going to say no or give him some sort of argument, but that was not the case. "I'll do it, Boss and I thank you kindly for the offer." Pete held out his hand and he and Favor shook.
"Keep the herd pointed due north and I'll catch up to you within a day." Pete turned his horse east and kicked the gelding into a mile-eating lope.
"Hope I did the right thing," Gil pondered aloud, shrugging. "Oh well, it's too late now." Besides, just like Pete Nolan and every other man in camp, he, too, missed the big mongrel and his roughshod yet foolishly endearing ways. And hadn't Dog saved Nolan's life once? Favor figured he owed the animal at least the 24 hours he gave Pete – that and more.
After hours of searching in vain Pete finally cut across Dog's tracks. He was certain they were Dog's since the imprint of the left front paw showed a jagged scar running entirely across the pad. The tracks led across the rolling hills, appearing and disappearing through the changing terrain, but always in a straight line – always east. You know exactly where you're goin', don't 'cha? Nolan thought, as straight as an arrow. At that the scout glanced warily about. He couldn't allow himself to forget where he was - Indian country, Comanche country - not for a moment.
Dog's tracks led him to the remains of a burned-out squatter's cabin. Pete shook his head. "Fella must a been a real greenhorn," he muttered, "makin' a home so close to the Comanche."
Stepping down from his horse Pete checked through the charred remains. The cabin was poor at best, thrown together in haste by someone who knew little if anything about constructing any sort of decent shelter.
"Wouldn't put my horse in here let alone my family," Nolan uttered in disgust. The roof and sides must have been made of canvas, perhaps reused from the squatter's wagon, since all that remained of the 'house' was the spindly framework. "Went up like a box a matches, I'll wager."
Pete bent down and picked through the rubble coming away with the remains of what appeared to be a child's toy soldier. Pulling off his neckerchief he scrubbed away at the tiny figure. Sure enough it was a soldier, the paint of its uniform blistered, its toy rifle bent from the heat of the fire that had roared through the shack consuming everything in its path, or nearly so. Nolan felt a swift pang of loss. A child died here, perhaps more than one. He cursed the father for his stupidity or maybe it was only ignorance which in Pete's mind wasn't nearly as bad as stupidity since it meant the man wasn't negligent, but only inexperienced.
While Pete scoured the area searching for tracks of the missing Dog, he came to a conclusion. "Wasn't Comanche who fired this cabin. There's not a single sign pointin' to 'em." He stood back, hands on hips and thought long and hard. "The fire was an accident…a tipped over lamp; a candle left to burn; a dropped tobacco ash…a child playin' at the hearth." Again a great sense of sorrow settled over the cowboy. He shook it off as best he could, setting his mind once more on the search which brought him here.
Advancing twilight lent shadows to the surrounding trees and brush and a chill settled in causing Pete to pull his jacket closed and his collar up. He had only moments to follow the tracks he'd found to their source. He hurried his pace. There at the base of a low hill lay Dog, head on paws. At Nolan's approach the animal looked his way, the tail offering a soft thump of recognition.
As Pete approached he saw that the place where Dog lay was a grave, a small mound of earth where once there had been a cross of sorts. This marker lay on the ground, the words scratched into the soft wood all but obliterated by sun, wind, rain and time. The scout crouched down, resting a hand on the canine's head. Dark soulful eyes stared sadly into his.
"I know, boy. I know how it is." Pete affectionately rubbed one of Dog's ears between a thumb and forefinger. "I know how it is, but the time comes when goodbyes gotta be said."
Nolan righted the wooden cross and with the assistance of a good-sized rock tapped it into place at the head of the grave. Even with the aid of a lighted match the engraved words were impossible to make out.
With his knife Pete hollowed out a place in the dry hard soil of the grave. Into this hole he placed the little lead soldier with the blistered paint. "For company," he explained when Dog looked quizzically up at him. "He won't be alone now, your little boy. He'll have company. It's time you said goodbye."
The animal rose to his feet as if he understood every word the scout said. Dog gave a long deep stretch and as Pete got up and walked over to where he left his horse, the big dog followed obediently along.
The chill grew more pronounced and twilight deepened, but Pete figured to move on; the melancholy of the place too all-encompassing for him to stay. They, he and Dog, could make a mile or so before the pitch black of night set in making travel too difficult and too dangerous. Anything, almost anything, was better than staying the night there.
The ride into camp next morning initiated whoops of welcome. Dog seemed to realize all the excitement was over him and the gloom and sadness which had hung about the animal since leaving the small grave vanished. His usual self once more, the canine cavorted about, playfully nipping at the hands which reached out to offer a pat or sitting up on his haunches to beg a tasty tidbit from a drover's plate, red tongue lolling from a laughing mouth.
Pete Nolan almost couldn't believe the transformation. For a while he thought Dog might never be the same animal, that the loss of the child had gone too deep. But then, a year ago when the dog had appeared out of the blue, the child's loss was still a raw open wound in the animal's life and yet he behaved then as he behaved now – a silly fool, a glutton for attention and for love.
Gil Favor interrupted Pete's thoughts. "You don't look as happy as I thought you might. You found Dog after all." Gil handed the scout a cup of steaming coffee.
Pete took a sip before replying. "I found him. But I found out somethin', too, Boss.
Favor took an ember from the campfire and lit the end of his cigarillo, tossing the burning stick back into the flames. "What's that?"
Dog capered up to Pete and slumped against the scout's chap-clad leg, gazing up at the man with undisguised devotion. Nolan rumpled the animal's head with his free hand. "I found out I don't know squat when he comes to how a dog thinks or why he thinks the way he does or acts the way he does. Dogs are just as confusing as people…more so maybe. People act queer 'cause of the drink or maybe outta greed or the wantin' something that belongs to someone else, but dogs…" Nolan shrugged.
Gil smiled softly, but shook his head. "Ever think maybe you're overthinkin' this, Pete? Maybe dogs just feel a certain way and act on their feelings; perhaps they're just honest about things. People could take a lesson from 'em."
Nolan laughed, his somber frame of mind gone. "Can you imagine ole Jim Quince just actin' on his feelings? This drive would be in a world a hurt if every time Jim felt the need to wash down the trail dust he took off to the nearest saloon…and took half the boys with him!"
Favor joined Pete in laughter. "Or Rowdy felt the need to chase a pretty skirt? I never thought of it that way." Gil tossed the butt of his smoke into the fire and wiped his tearing eyes against his shirt cuff. "Maybe dogs should act like dogs and folks like folks and never the twain should meet!"
Nolan glanced down at Dog, the canine now on his back with all four legs treading air, hoping to elicit a smile from his master. Pete couldn't help but oblige. "Dogs actin' like dogs…I gotta say I agree, Mr. Favor. And let's not tell Quince about actin' on his feelings."
Gil Favor leaned in closer and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, "Let's not," he said rather emphatically. "And let's just hope Jimbo doesn't come to that conclusion on his own!"
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