Incident at the Waters of Marah
Chapter 1: The Drought
Pete Nolan: On a cattle drive, you have to face a lot of problems that come your way. Water is often a difficulty, sometimes there's too much of it, after a heavy rainstorm; but sometimes there's too little. Anyway, someone's got to find the water to feed both man and beast – and that's down to me. I'm Pete Nolan, the scout of this drive.
Rowdy licked his dry lips. It had been three days since they had seen the last waterhole – and now their water supplies were very low. What little water he had had in his canteen from Wishbone's rationing for that day, was now all spent. But still they had another hour or so to drive in the intense heat.
The cattle were bellowing cries of discontent, along with murmurs of revolt – but there was nothing to do except keep them moving. The only hope that Rowdy had had, went with his last drop of water. He took off his hat, and ran his hands through his hair in almost desperation, whilst mopping his brow with his bandana for the hundredth time that day. Fox was panting, and beginning to froth at the mouth. The drought was awful! How did they know that the next expected waterhole wouldn't be all dried up by the time they reached it? They didn't know – that was the truth of it. No one knew what was up ahead.
He tried to swallow, but his throat stuck together uncomfortably. Would he have to see each of the cattle drop down one by one, till even he and the other drovers followed their example? No! Surely it wouldn't come to that.
Through the refraction of the heat, Rowdy could just make out an increasing billow of dust coming towards him. Rowdy urged Fox on to the approaching rider. It was Mr. Favor. His face was now pinched with anxiety, and when he spoke, it was with a sharper tone to his voice than at other times.
"Mr. Favor, how are things?" Rowdy said inquiringly. His voice seemed dry and crackled strangely in his throat before any words came out.
Favor shook his head. "Pete seems to think we'll reach water in a couple of days – but Wishbone's fractious. As far as he's concerned, we need to reach water by noon tomorrow!"
Rowdy frowned, and inwardly winced at the thought of the terrible feeling of thirst getting worse. "Pete says a couple of days? We can't last that long. The cattle can't – let alone us! They've no water – at least we have! Not that we've much!"
"There's no changing anything by getting all riled up," Gil Favor said. "I learnt that a long time ago – it's time you learnt it."
He firmly squeezed his horse, and rode off back to his position of point.
Rowdy took of his hat and shaking his head, wiped his brow and the back of his neck. He just wanted the day's work to end. He found himself actually beginning to look forward to Wishbone's stew! He could almost smell the beef cooking, and taste the warm stew running down his throat. But then he realized that the only beef he could smell was the live kind; and the only thing he could taste was dust.
The drovers punched the doggies on to where Wishbone had already set up camp. Mushy was tending to the fire, whilst Wishbone busied himself at the chuckwagon. Each of the riders, saddle sore and bone weary, parched and fatigued, were glad to finally dismount, and leave their horses with Jesus, the wrangler.
Wishbone was muttering away to himself whilst Mushy quietly stared at the flames of the fire. Rowdy was the first to notice what was missing.
"Hey, Wish," he cried, making his way up to the old cook and rubbing his knee. "Where's the stew pot? I've kinda been counting on that stew all day – how come you haven't started it yet?"
Wishbone looked at Rowdy with a cantankerous and annoyed expression. "Well, Rowdy Yates. I apologize if your disappointed – but don't tell me you thought I was going to waste what little water we have left all on a stew? There's hardly enough there to make coffee, let alone a stew!"
He continued to hack away at some dry beef. There were slices of sourdough bread next to the meat, and it was all too plain to see that they had to undergo dry sandwiches for supper.
Pete rode in at that moment. He had gone on a little, up to where the high country ended, and where you could see the plains sweeping and rolling for miles ahead.
"See anything that looked like water, Pete?" Favor asked.
Pete didn't reply straightforwardly, but merely said, "Mr. Favor, could you come with me a minute?"
Favor frowned and upon remounting his horse, galloped up to Pete. The two rode together up to the highest point on the dry tableland which they had been traversing these past few days.
"I didn't want to build up the men's hopes, Mr. Favor," Pete said. "It could just be a mirage – the heat's so bad – enough to trick a man – but I'm sure that's water out there."
Mr. Favor strained his eyes and peered. True enough, something lay ahead that shone and shimmered like water. It was a wonderful sight! "That's water alright! The men will want to know. Everyone's piqued and anxious – it'll do them good to know."
Pete smiled quietly, "Just so long as my eyes weren't playing tricks on me," he murmured.
Gil Favor looked across at Pete. "It's there Pete. It's there for real!" He could have smiled – the relief was tremendous. But they still had to reach the water. They weren't there yet. No point in smiling when things weren't wholly resolved.
"How long do you suppose the journey is?" he asked his scout.
"Depends how much we can push those steers," Pete replied. "We could make it tomorrow night at a push – but it looks over ten miles."
"We'll push 'em alright," Favor said decisively.
The two men fell silent and looked for another couple of seconds at that rippling hope ahead of them, and then rode back to camp.
They arrived just in the nick of time. All day the men had been touchy – who wouldn't be? But now it had resorted to blows!
Favor jumped off his horse, and dashed over to the two men who were fighting.
"Alright," he cried. "Break it up!"
He grabbed onto one of the men's shoulders, but the man shook off Mr. Favor, and dashed once more for his opponent.
"I said break it up!" Mr. Favor barked. It took both Pete and Rowdy's help to finally separate the two men.
"Alright," Mr. Favor said, looking at Dexter and Colby, the two men who had been fighting. "What was this all about?"
The two men, breathing heavily, looked at one another with revulsion, but said nothing.
"I said, what is this all about?" Favor repeated firmly.
Colby, still breathing heavily and glaring at Dexter, said coldly, "It's none of your business, Mr. Favor."
Mr. Favor stuck his thumb in his gun belt, and stood to his full height. "This is my cattle drive – whilst I'm trail boss, I make everything that happens on my outfit my business."
"Well, perhaps you're taking the post of trail boss too far, Mr. Favor," Colby said with a scowl. "Your job's to lead the cattle, but let us men lead our own lives."
Favor frowned. "Perhaps some others feel like you?" he looked studiously at each of the men, but no one spoke up. "Remember this Colby, I don't allow fighting."
Colby smiled curtly. "You ordering me about?"
"That's right," Favor said. "You have any objections, feel welcome to collect your pay and go. I won't stop you. I've no room on my outfit for troublemakers."
"Perhaps you want to demonstrate that," Colby said threateningly.
"Like I said," Favor said, eyeing the man thoroughly. "I don't allow fighting – and I definitely don't fight my own men. You stay on, and still want a fight when we reach Sedalia, I'll be glad to oblige - but not before!"
The man turned around and walked off, smiling obnoxiously. Pete wandered up close to Favor and said, "Do you think he's going to cause any more trouble, Mr. Favor?"
"I don't know, Pete. The men are likely to be touchy what with the drought – but we'd better keep an eye on Colby all the same."
The fight had made Favor forget the water for the time being, but before they bedded down for the night, he made sure he told them all the good news. It inspired each one of them – he had known it would. When the men got their bedrolls out of the supply wagon, they felt a new hope issuing forth out of them that was catching. Everyone caught the optimism with a new founded joy. That was, all except for Colby. He seemed immune to the 'joy bug' that was filling the camp. Instead of the eager anticipation that shone from the other men's eyes, his shot forth bitterness and revenge. Favor saw it by the light of the camp fire, as though a naked knife's blade had caught the reflection of the light. He saw it, and remembered it; and the prospect of water wasn't the only thing on his mind that night.
One by one the men fell asleep. Dexter went on night watch with Jim Quince, but the thirst of the cattle increased their unrest. The sounds of the lowing of the cattle, along with the crickets and distant coyotes, mingled with the silence. The night was peaceful, and all, for now, was calm.