The words were whispered so softly that Favor almost thought he had imagined them, but he knew his ramrod had spoken.
"Rowdy," he began.
"Not yet," the kid pleaded quietly. "Please, not yet."
"All right. Easy, boy, easy," he reassured the distraught kid. "Not yet." He set the rifle down and then squatted down beside his ramrod.
Rowdy nodded a wordless thanks to his boss, then turned back. And Favor saw the kid was still bleeding from the long scratches that covered the side of his face.
He had seen it all. They had been leading the herd to some much-needed water, and the cattle had smelled it long before. The creek was in a valley and the trip down was steep and treacherous, covered with loose stones and shale. Favor cursed himself for ever thinking of going this way, but he knew he had had to. They needed water, and this was the only available spot for many miles. They had needed it, but it had come at a price.
The boy's left arm hung useless at his side. And Favor remembered it all. His ramrod's surefooted, nimble horse slipping. Slipping and sliding, trying desperately to regain its balance, but the shale had been too slick. Rowdy had managed to jump off, and Favor had been, for once, grateful for having a man out of the saddle. The horse had continued to slip down the hillside, and then it fell to the level ground, and a sickening snap reverberated through the valley.
Favor had instantly galloped to Rowdy, but Rowdy had ignored him. He scrambled down the hill, scrambled with a desperation that Mr. Favor had never seen from his ramrod, and never wished to see again.
The horse was flailing, trying to get up, but a completely shattered right foreleg prevented that. The horse's eyes were rolling in pain and terror.
"Easy boy. I'm here," Rowdy knelt by his mount's neck, and gently stroked the white blaze running down its face. The horse's thrashing became less frantic as his master kneeled beside him, whispering and petting with a calm that reassured and promised protection.
The jingling of harness announced Wish's arrival. The cook had rushed to Rowdy's side, but the boy had waved off all efforts of aid, and had insisted that Wish look at the animal first.
"Fix him, Wish!"
Wishbone sighed. "There's nothing I can do." He reached out a hand to stop the bleeding from the cuts along the boy's face, but Rowdy turned out of the cook's reach.
"Lay off of me, Wishbone," he bit out savagely. The cook turned to Mr. Favor, but the boss just shrugged, and Wish had reluctantly returned to the wagon.
Mr. Favor reached to his saddle and pulled out his rifle. It was then that Rowdy had glanced up and begged for his boss to delay the inevitable. He had done so, and now Favor squatted next to his ramrod, offering silent companionship as the boy said goodbye.
Rowdy stroked the horse's neck gently, whispering the quiet assurances, words that meant nothing and were nothing, but words that poured from the soul. Every "it's okay, boy, it's gonna be okay," promised his eternal love, revealed his pride in him, and showed his infinite gratitude for the animal that had been by his side for so many years.
And he had been a good one. Aptly named, Fox was smart and possessed of a wicked sense of trickery and a malicious sense of humor. And he was definitely a one-man horse. Oh, the others could ride him, but they each had to prove that they were the boss, firmly and completely. Otherwise, the humor and trickery kicked in, literally. And even then, he would make it a long day for anyone but Rowdy in his saddle. And even Rowdy was not immune to Fox's tricks, though with Rowdy, the tricks were more apt to be playful, as if the animal was telling his friend that things were getting too dull and let's liven it up a little, shall we? And Rowdy all too often would agree with him. The two had been quite a pair to say the least.
Favor looked up when Rowdy hadn't said anything for a while, and the Boss saw his ramrod was biting his lower lip as he fought off the unseemly tears that threatened. That struck Favor harder than anything, because he knew Rowdy hadn't grown up sheltered. He'd seen death hundreds of times, and in all its ugly ways. He'd seen the brutality of nature, of man, and he'd seen his own father lying dead, cold, and stiff on the road. No, the boy had not grown up sheltered, but the boy had never looked as he looked now. The raw grief and misery that was etched all too vividly on that completely open and honest face told Favor the depths to which Rowdy felt the loss of this horse. Rowdy was about to lose a friend, a good, faithful friend and it was killing him. The moment passed, and slowly Rowdy regained his calm and his control, and he continued to whisper his sweet-nothings into Fox's ear.
"He's hurtin', Rowdy."
The kid's good hand clenched into a fist, but he nodded.
Favor picked up the rifle, but Rowdy's hand fastened on his wrist.
"I know Boss," he said quickly. "I know," he repeated again, softly. "But I'll do it."
He reached back and drew his gun from his holster. He moved until he was directly in front of the horse. Fox lifted his head and weakly nuzzled his master in the chest.
"I love you too, buddy," Rowdy whispered agreement. He gently pushed Fox's head down.
The shot rang through the valley.