At camp, breakfast was in full force. The men milled about, enjoying their last few moments of relaxation before the day officially began. Wishbone, whose day had already officially started, dutifully made his rounds with his pot of steaming and bitter coffee. Rowdy, who had been staring off into space, awoke from his reverie just in time to protect his mug from Wish's refilling trigger finger.
"No more for me, Wish."
"Why, you ain't hardly touched your first cup."
"No, I haven't," Rowdy tiredly agreed to the obvious.
"And you haven't had a bite of your breakfast."
"No I haven't, is that alright with you, Wish?"
"Now look, if you don't like my cooking," Wish began in his aggravated and bristly voice, "you just don't get yourself a plate next time."
"No, it's not that, you're cooking's fine," Rowdy responded quickly but distractedly, eager to get the grizzled old cook off his back.
"You're complimenting me. What's the matter?"
"Look nothing's the matter, I'm just not hungry is all, now leave me alone, will ya Wishbone?" Rowdy threw down his plate in frustration and stormed over to the remuda where he angrily, and thus very roughly, saddled his horse.
Pete, who had observed the whole exchange walked over to Wish, automatically holding his mug out to be refilled.
"You know what's got him so bent out of shape?" Wish asked, automatically filling the cup even as he watched Rowdy mount up and gallop away.
"No idea, but with that knucklehead, does it have to be anything to get him riled?" Wish snorted agreement to Pete's comment, then trudged off to fill up the other's mugs with his coffee.
It was late afternoon, and the herd was moving along at a speedy pace, well, speedy for cattle at any rate. Favor reined up, and surveyed the work with his piercing gaze. Satisfied, he was about to ride back into the midst of the drive when he spotted Pete loping back from his all-day scouting trip to ascertain the terrain up ahead. He met Pete halfway and waited patiently for his scout's report.
"River up ahead, looks pretty shallow, but it's fast. Could give us trouble, but it's still a good couple of days away. There's a town a couple of miles east of us, Northfork. Nothing fancy—"
"—but it'll do. Wishbone's been needing a few supplies. Rowdy and I'll go into town tomorrow."
"Say," Pete shifted in his stirrups, one hand resting one hand on the back of his saddle, "what's been bothering Rowdy? I've never seen him this sore."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean today. He was snapping at Wish when the man offered him coffee, and before that he wasn't talking to anybody, he just sat there and stared into space."
"Rowdy, not talking? We better do something right away."
"I'm serious, boss," Pete replied.
"Aww, it's probably just trail fever," Favor shrugged it off. "We've almost been on the drive for a whole month. It's his first time, he'll get over it. He might even get over it when we go to town tomorrow."
Late that evening, Pete slouched against the wagon wheel, finishing up the last of his stew, and studying Rowdy again. The kid sat near the fire, nursing his coffee and staring into the flames. But Pete could tell his mind was somewhere else, and filled with unpleasant thoughts, as the kid's tight jaw and his peculiarly tense slouch proved. Pete studied him for a little while longer, then he sighed to himself, and headed over to the young man.
"Rowdy, you feeling all right?"
Rowdy straightened from his slouch when he heard his name. "What?" he asked groggily while he refocused his eyes back into the present.
"You feeling all right?" Pete repeated.
"Oh, yeah," Yates shook the question off and turned back to the fire.
But Pete wouldn't let it go at that. "Because you're sitting there," he continued, "sipping the worst coffee I've ever had without blinking an eye, and you're not touching the best stew I think Wish has whipped up since the start of this drive."
At Nolan's words, Rowdy glanced down at his plate; sure enough (and surprisingly enough in Rowdy's eyes), the stew had hardy been touched. "Guess I'm not really hungry."
"You're sure you're okay?" Pete questioned again, still not liking the answers he was getting.
"Look I said I was okay so drop it!" the youth snapped.
"Okay, okay," Pete held his hands up in surrender. "Don't jump all over me, I'll drop it."
Rowdy sighed, ashamed of his harsh words toward someone who was just concerned for his well-being. "I'm sorry, Pete, I don't know what's got into me."
"You sure haven't been yourself lately."
"Yeah, I just…" Rowdy trailed off.
"You itching to see a town?"
"No, it's not that," Rowdy glanced up at Pete, indecision in his eyes. "Pete, do ya-do you think I'm doing a good job, as a drover, and ramrod and such?"
"Why sure I think you're doing a good job," Pete replied sincerely, and then in an effort to rile Rowdy back into his normal mood he added, grinning, "that is for a wet-eared greenhorn who still can't tell one end of a cow from another."
Rowdy forced a little smile at the friendly jibe, but it died almost as soon as it crossed his lips. "Yeah…" he muttered. He glanced at his plate, then sighed. "Give this to Mushy, will ya Pete? I'm not that hungry." With that Rowdy stood up and walked out of the camp, heading toward a little grove of trees near where the cattle were bedded down for the night.
Pete stood staring after him, a puzzled frown across his face. He delivered the almost-full plate to Mushy, where it quickly became a completely empty and clean one. Pete then walked over to where Favor was eating.
"Boss, I don't think it is just trail fever."
"What?" Favor didn't follow his scout's out of the blue statement.
"Rowdy. He's still acting strange, not talking, wouldn't touch his plate. I asked him if he was itching for a town, he said no. Then he asked me if I thought he was doing a good job. I joked with him, but he didn't react one way or another."
Favor stood up, resignedly but resolutely taking over a situation that he knew would just be trail fever. "I'll talk to him," he reassured Pete.
He found Rowdy gazing at the cattle, his right arm slung over the branch of a tree, his chin resting against his arm. He glanced up as Favor sidled up alongside.
"Nice night out," the boss commented innocently, a habit he obtained from having to continuously sneak slowly and casually up to a wild steer just to get close enough to throw a rope on him.
The ramrod eyed him knowingly, but he went along with his boss's roundabout way. "The cattle are sure restful," he agreed. "It oughta be real easy on the night hawkers."
"Yeah, real easy." Favor paused. "You want to talk?"
Rowdy sighed. "I don't know what to say. I don't know what's bugging me."
"I'm going in to town tomorrow, you want to ride along?"
Rowdy thought about it. "No thanks, Mr. Favor. If I'm going to be a good ramrod for you, I need to show the others that I'm willing to do my share of the work, even when I could've gotten out of it."
Favor would have smiled at the boy's persistence and drive to earn the respect of the men, but smiles were a rare thing with the boss, and besides, it was dark out: why waste one when nobody would see it? So instead he remained stone-faced and handed out some advice for the kid to chew on.
"That's all well and good, but just remember that you are my ramrod, and that you're learning. The men won't mind if you go with me to scout the terrain or the towns or anywhere else where I think you might gain more experience. That will make you a good ramrod too. So..." He let the question hang.
Rowdy thought for a moment, but then he sighed. "Thanks, Mr. Favor, but there's nothing in a town that can help me with this. I don't know what will help, or even what this is," Rowdy muttered with a quiet laugh, "but I'm pretty sure picking up supplies won't help."
--Hey guys, this is my first Rawhide fic. Please let me know what you think, and I'll try to update quickly. Thanks for reading!