"Time engraves our faces with all the tears we have not shed." - Natalie Clifford Barney
I never cried before that day.
Not once, even during the battles with my friends dying in my arms, shoving them out of the way and going on killing, shooting blindly until they told me to stop. Not when the Yankees took me prisoner and I spent a year beneath the ground without light, with so little food I lost track of the days since I'd eaten, the nights since I'd slept. When they finally set us free I was so far gone I knew nothing, never even feeling a Union officer lift me off the ground and carry me into a hospital, to the first real bed I'd slept in for almost four years.
They told me later that I'd been so close to death they'd passed me over twice until one of the men bothered to check for breath and felt the heat of my skin before he felt air, the fever more alive than my battered body. They worked on me for days, spoonfeeding broth when my stomach rebelled against solid food, mending the wounds from countless beatings, bathing me until the fever finally broke. It was weeks before I could even sit up, and I didn't recognize the skeletal face in the mirror across the room. They told me I was lucky, and in the next minute told me I was one of five- five of 600 men- who'd survived. I didn't cry then, knowing everyone and everything I'd cared about was gone. I just healed up and left, drifted home to my ma.
I couldn't stay there either. You can't see that many men die and go back to your life like it don't matter. So I drifted again, wandered as if I could find those lost years somewhere and put 'em back where they belonged.
Then I saw the trail herd come through, and I got in line to sign on. The trail boss wasn't an old man, ten, fifteen years older than me maybe, but his eyes had the look of a man who's seen too much. He looked me up and down, and I saw him open his mouth to turn me away. I knew what he saw. I was still a kid, gangly, all arms and legs. All I knew was what the army had taught me, not the front end from the back of a steer. But I wanted this job- needed it- more than anything in the world, something to take the stench of war out of my lungs, something to make me feel alive again.
"Ever herded before, boy?" His eyes studied mine, stripping away all lies that sprang to my lips. I swallowed my pride.
"No, sir. But I'm willing to learn."
I didn't expect much but his face creased into a smile.
"You've got yourself a job."
I should have turned him away the first day I set eyes on him, sent him home like a runaway child.
He was little more than a kid then, all arms and legs with a shock of lightish hair he'd tried to tame down. It was the eyes that I couldn't ignore. They were old for a kid, too old. I felt somehow that if I turned him away that day he wouldn't give up, he'd try again at another herd and another until someone finally took him on. He had something to prove, to himself more than anyone else.
I should have set my mind to it and let some other trail boss take him on. I'd lost too many kids already, boys that never got to be men ground up beneath cattle hooves or swept beneath a river current before I could call out a warning. There hadn't been enough of the last one left to bury and I still lost sleep at night over the memory of his face as he fell into the stampede.
But this one was different. He was green, all right, but not like usual. He'd lived hard even in his short life, and I could still see lines of hunger carved into his face. He wouldn't flinch in the face of death, and he looked like he'd stared down the devil himself.
Rowdy. It fit him, a boy quick with his temper, ready with his fists. But the heart beneath that showed through his eyes wasn't as hard as the set of his jaw.
I signed him on.
He kept his distance from the rest of the men for the first weeks, going at his job like a starving wolf on a chuck of meat. He rode until he was stiff, roped his hands blistered, and took the watch more than his share. He learned fast, a good hand before we'd gone twenty miles.
A good man.
It took me a while to settle with the drive. I quit a few times but I kept coming back, herd after herd, drive after drive.
Mr. Favor pushed hard. He drove his men like the cattle, but he was a good trail boss. Honest as the day is long, and unbreakable as a hanging tree. He drove me harder than the others but I didn't complain. He was teaching me to survive out here.
I guess as the drives passed I got used to him, you might say. He could be a difficult man, a stubborn man, but he was a good man. He pulled us through prairie fires, through spells so dry my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and through weeks of endless rain while the rivers swelled, stranding us on the other side. As I saw more of him, how he behaved when he thought no one was looking, I decided he wasn't hard. Not really. It broke him up inside every time he lost a man, every time he buried one of us. He never let anyone else dig the graves, staying up into the night if he had to to carve it deep so the wolves wouldn't get at the body. The time I came down with the fever he lost nights of sleep tending me, even risking his life hauling me into town to save my life. I saw the look in his eyes when I woke up, that raw relief that another man's death wouldn't be on his head, that one life had been wrestled away from the grim reaper. I thanked him for what he did when I was back on my feet but he only smiled faintly and turned away.
That's when I learned a trail boss carries blood on his hands like a gunfighter, men's lives resting on his shoulders. It's a heavy burden, even for a man like him, and there was times I saw his shoulders stoop beneath the weight.
I don't know exactly how it happened.
All I know is one moment I was on my horse, driving a steer back into the herd, and the next I felt something tear through my leg, a burning agony work it's way through me as I fell from the saddle.
I see Rowdy's face swim before my eyes as he kneels over me. His face is white as milk, eyes huge. His hands come down over my leg and I see the crimson spurting between his fingers, pooling around me.
The steer's horn had torn into my leg, ripped it up inside. The pain is all through me, and I can feel how much blood I'm losing. Not much of a chance and we both know it.
He was fumbling, pulling off his belt with one hand while trying to hold down on the wound. I catch a glimpse of white bone beneath his hand through the bloody mess. Somehow he gets it off, wraps it tight above the wound.
"Hold on, Boss." His voice sounds hollow, distant. He's fading. "You hear me, Boss?" He's shouting. I can see it in his throat even though it sounds like a whisper.
He's covered in my blood and all I can think is that it's all right because, thank God, it isn't him. It's me.
"Hang on, Boss!"
His hand, blood-smeared, grabs my wrist, digs in as the darkness closes around me.
He's holding on for both of us.
I finally cried. Just a few tears in front of the others, easily excused away by the dust thicker than flies in the air. Most of us have red eyes from it stinging, and I doubt anyone suspected anything.
But afterwards, when the others had left and I was alone beneath the stars, keeping night watch, I let myself truly cry, gut-wrenching sobs until I felt sick. I cried for all the men who didn't make it home in that war so long ago, for the nights I spent dying in that stinking hole. But most of all I cried because the doctor told me Mr. Favor would live.
It don't seem right crying when I should have been rejoicing. But I was too numb with relief to do anything but cry.
He wasn't all the way he'd been, of course. The injury that almost took his life had damaged the bone and muscle. He'd carry a stiff leg to his grave, and never sit a horse without considerable effort. His days as a trail boss were over, crushed under the wheels of the chuck wagon.
We knew he was leaving us before he was even out of bed. Wish kept a brave front but I could tell he was hurting. Mushy didn't understand, but Hey Soos in his deep faith said it was "the will of God". We accepted it.
We came to see him off into the wagon that would take him to the train and home to his little girls. He didn't say much but I could tell it meant a lot to see us there. He shook Wishbone's hand for a long time, patted Mushy on the shoulder. He stopped to talk to Quince and Scarlet- I couldn't hear the words. He didn't say anything to Hey Soos, just took his hand, shook it with a firm grip, and moved on. He stopped in front of me.
"Its your's, Rowdy." He said, quietly. "I'm making you trail boss for the rest of the drive, and if you want it, it's your's from then on."
I couldn't speak for the lump in my throat choking me. I felt his hand clasp my shoulder, rest there for just a moment.
"You're the right man for the job, Rowdy." His voice was so quiet I could barely hear it. "I never signed on a better man as I did that day."
And then he turned, climbing painfully onto the wagon, gripping the cane in a white-knuckled hand. I watched him go without trusting myself to speak.
It wasn't until he was out of sight that I noticed the other men. They were standing there, heads down, scuffing boots in the dirt, looking for all the world like a bunch of lost calves. My men. They wouldn't accept me right away, not as filling Mr. Favor's boots. Not that I wanted to, anyway. A man's own boots are hard enough to fill without trying to step into another's, especially a man like Mr. Favor. But I would do all right. I would make Mr. Favor proud.
"All right, you men." My voice when it came was strong and firm, filled with the sound of hard riding and honest work. A trail boss' voice.
"Head 'em up! Move 'em out!"