Last time: After many difficulties, which include drought and a poisoned waterhole, Favor has fired one of his drovers, a man called Colby. But now Colby has turned up again with a band of men demanding the cattle in exchange for water. Favor has managed to get out of the deal, knowing that Colby will still be after the cattle. Now Rowdy and Favor have ridden on in search of the waterhole, and after escaping an ambuscade in the gorge, Favor has discovered that Rowdy is no longer in his saddle!
Chapter 6: The End
"Rowdy!" Favor exclaimed in alarm. He looked back to the gorge, and his heart missed a beat when he saw a still body on the ground. Favor dismounted, and ran towards it, but at the same instant, a bullet sent a cloud of dust scurrying by his foot. Favor darted behind a rock, and looked first at where the bullet had come from up in the rocks, and then at Rowdy's still form. Two men were by Rowdy's body now, and they roughly carried him up into the rocks.
Gil Favor's thoughts dashed about in his head wildly. What could he do? He had to save Rowdy! Why, Rowdy might be dead even now. A sickening chill crept up Favor's spine as he thought that, but he waved off the dreadful prospect. There was nothing to do, he knew, except give in.
"Alright, Colby," Favor called in a remarkably and admirably steady voice. "I'll throw my gun away, if you'll take me instead of Rowdy."
He walked away from the rock with his hands kept visibly well away from his gun; at the same moment, Colby appeared up in the rocks with a shotgun held in his two hands. He had a smug look on his face, and seemed to be enjoying a sense of power.
"You're ready to give in now, huh Favor? Ready to listen sensibly," he laughed horribly. "Well, I wanted to see you come crawling, on your hands and knees, coming begging to me – but maybe you've come a bit too late."
"How is Rowdy?" Favor called. "I'm ready to take his place."
"Oh, he's alive – at the moment," Colby said, enjoying this immensely. "But the only exchange I'll make is him for the cattle. You only get Rowdy, if we get the cattle. Think about it a minute, Mr. Favor. We can easily finish Rowdy off – easily pick you off – and get the other drovers one by one as they come in. We can see 'em from here, making their way. It's up to you – we are going to get those cattle, whether it's the hard way or the easy way. It's up to you."
At that moment, the two men who had carried Rowdy into the rocks appeared. They pushed Rowdy roughly up to where Colby was standing. Rowdy's head was bleeding badly, and he looked stunned and dizzy, but he managed to speak.
"Mr. Favor," he called. "Don't listen to them. Like you always said, the cattle come first. Don't worry about me."
Favor knew, by now, that he had lost his herd. Chiding himself for signing Colby on, for not questioning him more when he had got into fights, and for not giving him the fight that he wanted to give him now, he said, "Alright, Colby. The cattle are yours, but only if you let me tend to Rowdy."
"No, Mr. Favor," Rowdy protested weakly. "The cattle…"
"You have to give in your gun, though, Favor," Colby said. "And don't try anything smart, because Yates won't fare well if you do."
Favor nodded his head, and untying the string around his right leg, and unbuckling his gun belt, he threw the gun the furthest point from him. It clattered among the rocks as it hit the floor of the ravine.
"Okay, Favor," Colby called, ushering him with a move of his gun. "Come on up."
Favor made his way up to the rocky walls, and then scrambled up. The two men had let Rowdy go, and he was on his knees, breathing heavily, whilst trying to clear a way through the fuzziness in his head. Favor looked briefly at Colby, and then rushed to Rowdy's side.
"Rowdy, you alright?" he asked in concern.
"Boss…you shouldn't have…the cattle…" Rowdy murmured.
Favor shook his head. "You need to rest up. Over here," he helped Rowdy up, and led him over to a pile of rocks.
Once he had sat Rowdy down, the young ramrod squinted up at his boss. The blood was trickling down his face, and he could taste it in his mouth. He could feel the trail boss's fingers undoing the knot that tied the two ends of his bandana together, and then it was firmly applied to his head.
"Mr. Favor," Rowdy said, struggling to place his words as he spoke.
"No, Rowdy," Favor said. "Quiet now."
"But, Mr. Favor…the cattle…"
"What about them? We were bound to lose them one way or the other – whether the drought took 'em, the poison, these men by force, or us giving in."
"But you might have had a chance yet." Rowdy said, his words becoming less slurred, and more orderly.
"Rowdy, you've hurt your head. Quiet now, and rest," Favor commanded.
"But I am thinking right, Mr. Favor. This has knocked some sense into me, if anything," Rowdy retorted.
"We don't have a chance," Gil Favor said, looking around him at the men standing around, waiting for the approaching cattle. "Our only chance went days ago with this drought!"
"No, Mr. Favor," Rowdy replied, taking hold of the neckerchief and keeping it in place as it soaked up the blood that was oozing out of his head, "our chance went when I fell from the horse."
"That wasn't your fault," Favor said, in truth blaming himself for not keeping an eye on Rowdy.
"Well, I'm kinda blaming myself," Rowdy said. "If it weren't for this, we'd be at the water by now."
"But the cattle wouldn't. This has changed nothing when it comes to the cattle. Colby and his men would still be up in these rocks ready to pick off Pete and the others."
"But you'd have thought of something down there, Mr. Favor. Up here, we're useless. They can use us, but we can't use them!"
Favor looked at Rowdy when he said this, and frowned thoughtfully. "What did you say, Rowdy?" he asked,
"No, no, I heard you," Favor said, musing to himself.
Rowdy looked at him with a puzzled expression, his head on one side so as to try and keep the blood from flowing. The sun beating down on him along with the muzzy feeling from the gunshot wound, gave him an awful headache which pounded in his head loudly. Rowdy went to speak again, but the pain in his head became too much, so he decided to take Favor's advice, and quieten down. So, sitting back against the rock, he watched thoughtfully as he pictured the thoughts milling around Gil Favor's brain. He could almost see the trail boss weighing out everything in his mind as he congealed a plan that might save the herd.
It was then that Colby gave an exclamation of satisfaction. "They're coming near the mouth of the ravine now, Favor. Call out to them and tell them to throw away their guns. Anyone who keeps a gun and goes for it won't have a chance to pull the trigger!"
Favor swallowed slowly, and got up from where he had been squatting next to Rowdy. He discretely whispered to Rowdy, "Keep an eye open," and then made his way over to Colby at the edge of the rocks.
"Alright, Favor," Colby began. "Here's the moment that you can always remember in your days as trail boss. The day when you surrendered your cattle to one of your cowhands, because you were too weak to do anything else," he laughed horribly. "Well, I'll tell you what, Favor, you'd better keep to the rules this time. I want this story to finish just as I want it, so you'd better keep everything in order. One mistake, and your ramrod is gonna be a goner! So listen good and hear what you have to do."
Favor looked at Colby with a piercing coldness that even intimidated Colby's nerve. But Colby had gone this far, and he knew he was going to get those cattle. It was going to be simple!
"Listen, Favor, and listen good. We're not gonna have any more cigarette episodes!"
"I sort of gathered that," Favor said, insinuating with a rapid sweep with his eyes to the many gunned men around the rocks.
"Well, once your man Nolan reaches the mouth of the ravine, you're going to tell them to throw away their guns. Tell them not to run, or they won't have a boss and ramrod to start up another trail some other time. You got that?"
"As clear as a bell," Favor said, with a rueful smile.
"You won't be starting anything up here, either, Mr. Favor. You know why? Because Yates is the bottom line of any trouble started. In other words, if you care a jot about your ramrod, then forget that you ever cared about the cattle!"
Favor frowned at the threat made to his ramrod, but he knew that Rowdy would want him to try and save the cattle. He walked over the rocks, and made his way so that he was above the mouth of the ravine.
"Pete," he shouted down to the scout, who was riding point.
Pete looked up. "Why, Mr. Favor," he exclaimed. "Have you found the water?"
"We've found it alright, but Colby and his men are here. He got me to throw my gun in the rocks down there, and now you need to throw yours away. Do it before you come in, and do as he says."
Colby watched each man reach to undo their gun belts, and throw them as far as they could. He smiled with satisfaction.
"Is that all of them, Favor? Remember to press no tricks, or it's Yates' life."
Favor frowned at Colby, but called down, "Have you all thrown away your guns? Colby doesn't mind killing Rowdy in cold blood if he feels he has to."
Those words made the situation crystal clear for each of the drovers.
"Nolan," the next words came from Colby. "You know what'll happen to Favor and Yates if you start anything, so don't. Two of my men are coming down to get your rifles and shells from the wagon. Don't jump them!"
Colby's men came down to take the guns, receiving glares all round, but no trouble. They took the rifles and bullets back up to the rocks.
Wishbone, who had driven the chuck wagon next to Pete, said, "What are you gonna do, Pete? I sure hope you've got something up your sleeve, 'cause I ain't!"
Pete had been hanging on to Mr. Favor's words. "He said he threw his gun into the rocks. If only one of us could make a dash for it… Wishbone, do you still have that revolver on you? The one you never part with unless you bathe?"
"You're mighty well told I have!" Wishbone exclaimed. "When do you want me to use it?"
Pete thought for a moment. "Just wait for the signal – you'll know when the moment comes."
Wishbone nodded his head in acknowledgement.
Colby's voice sounded again. "Start easing the cattle through."
Pete nodded in assent to the other drovers, and they carefully led the cattle through. Pete looked at every crevice in the rocks. Surely Mr. Favor's gun was somewhere. Just one extra gun would help, though maybe only a little. That was when they all saw the water – and the relief swept over them. The waterhole lay ahead, shining like a long-sought gem in the brilliant sunlight! What's more, the ravine ended before you reached the waterhole, so that the great rocky walls that made the cage through which they were now passing broke off once they were at the water. If they began the attack then, they might have more chance to cause a diversion so that a few of the drovers could creep up behind the rocks, and ascend out of sight, where they could then jump Colby's men. Favor and Rowdy would have already started causing trouble up in the rocks – but they would have to act quickly! He knew that they only had a slight chance, but it was better than none. He drew his horse in close next to the chuckwagon, and muttered his plans to Wishbone, who accepted them with a mere nod of approval. Pete didn't know if they would work, but he told himself over and over again the same words, the last words, that Mr. Favor had said to him before he had left him in charge, "Remember, Pete; the cattle always come first."
That decided it for Pete Nolan. Besides, he was still chiding himself for what had happened to Dexter…was that yesterday? He shook his head. How the time had dragged since then – especially for him. He felt that this was the only way, if at all, he could make up to Mr. Favor for his mistake. Not that anything could ever make up for the death of a man, but…
Pete decided to put Dexter out of his head. He needed to think clearly right now, and a guilty conscience could barely think clearly. Besides, Dexter had drunk that water when he should have been getting on with his work! But Pete heard a voice within that told him that he should have checked it sooner!
Pete's thoughts were disturbed by the gleam of something from the rocks on the ground next to him. It was Mr. Favor's gun! How could he get it without anyone seeing him? He thought quickly, his breath catching in his dry, parched throat. In a split second, he squeezed Spot tightly with his feet, and pulled at the reins with all his might, making the poor horse rear up and buck angrily. Pete didn't waste a moment, but fell from the saddle after the first buck, grabbing the pistol from the gun belt as he did so. He stuffed it into his belt, so that only the butt end protruded, and grabbed Spot's reins, speaking softly to the animal before he remounted. He had the gun now, which made him have new hope. He wished he could have taken the whole gun belt – they would need the extra shells – but he couldn't have risked Colby seeing him carrying it. Colby's men would have seen it, and that would have started the attack too soon – they needed everything to be timed just right. They needed every extra minute!
Finally, they arrived at the waterhole. The weary cattle used the last of their energy to make a desperate charge for the water, lowing happily as they splashed about in the cool, clear water. A few of the drovers were making sure that the cattle didn't drink too much water, for fear that they wold over-hydrate themselves. Pete suddenly realized for the first time the little amount of time they had. A few of Colby's men were beginning to make their way down the rocks now, each man holding a butchering instrument. Pete shuddered at the thought. They had lost cattle to the drought, to the poison, and now to this? The filthy skinners! He wanted to punch each one of them in the face, but timing was the issue. With his back turned towards them, he pressed the gun into Joe Scarlet's hand. Scarlet read in his eyes what he had to do, and instantly saw Wishbone, carefully hiding his gun from view, beginning to get ready. Pete, hidden by the volumes of cattle pouring down to the waterhole, managed to reach the back of the rocks without being seen. Chewing the inside of his mouth with uncertainty and anxiety, he began the ascent.
Meanwhile, up in the rocks, Colby was watching the cattle as they joyfully drank their full, not knowing what lay ahead. He smiled greedily at the thought of how he had paid back Mr. Favor for having fired him; of how he had paid back Rowdy for fighting him; most of all, as he thought of the money that he would get for the hides of all those steers.
Favor looked desperately from where he stood, not far from Colby. He had kept his eyes on Pete the entire time. He knew was he was doing, but he just hoped and prayed with all his might that no one else had seen him.
It was all down to timing? They couldn't have timed it better! Just as Colby's men reached the cattle, Pete reached the top of the rocks and darted behind some large boulders. At that instant, Favor jumped on Colby and fell on him. That was the signal for Wishbone. The swing rider and old cook shot at the startled men, who grabbed for their guns in surprise.
Up in the rocks, Favor was on the ground, rolling over and over with Colby, whilst Pete handled one man who had darted to Colby's rescue, and Rowdy dealt with another. But another man fell upon Pete, trying to drag him from his adversary, whilst another, and the last to have been up in the rocks, made a desperate dart for Rowdy as he finished off his first antagonist with a staggering blow.
Wishbone and Scarlet had managed to take the men by surprise, and had thus shot several of the men. Meanwhile, the shots had made the cattle nervous and jumpy, and seething with what sounded like an angry bawl, the cattle tore around, back through the gorge.
Colby's men, what was left of them, stood in their path – and when a stampede starts, nothing that is in the way gets in the way. Favor's men looked in shock as they saw the men fall in front of the cattle's hooves. It was a horrible way to die – but at least it was quick.
Back in the rocks, Pete had managed to knock his opponent out, and both ramrod and scout watched on, wondering if they should help out the trail boss, as Colby and Favor continued to roll together on the rocks, occasionally dealing each other a punch or blow. But Gil Favor seemed to be doing pretty well himself. Both his face and Colby's were bruised and streaked with blood, but still, breathing heavily, they continued the fight.
Finally, Favor grabbed Colby by the shirt, and punched him in the face so hard that the man fell back on the ground.
He breathed heavily, and looked up at Mr. Favor, "I never thought I'd be saying this to you, Favor, but I'm ready to give up."
"I didn't think you'd say that either," Mr. Favor said truthfully, rubbing his bruised chin. He reached down and pulled Colby up, saying as he did so, "That was the fight I promised you."
"I thought you said I could have it in Sedalia," Colby said, smiling ruefully.
"Sorry, but by the time I get to Sedalia, I think you might be behind bars."
Favor turned to Pete, "Thanks, Pete," he said, smiling.
Pete shook his head. "Don't thank me, Mr. Favor. It was the least I could do – especially after yesterday."
Favor frowned, "No, Pete. The responsibility was as much mine as yours. I'm the trail boss, remember that. I take all responsibility." He turned to Colby. "You need to take some to. Don't think that when I hand you in to the sheriff in the next town I won't mention the hemlock, and what happened to Dexter."
He insinuated to the men to go down to the waterhole, and so they made their descent. The drovers had gone after the stampeding cattle, so only Wishbone and Mushy remained, filling up the water barrels that were tied to the chuckwagon.
The cattle were soon brought back and then the rest of the day was spent in luxury – for a cowboy! Wishbone cooked a stew, which, after the dry sandwiches of the past days, tasted like a dream. Wishbone's whole face shone with the compliments that he received from every one of the men.
"Mr. Favor," Rowdy said, approaching the trail boss. Mr. Favor was standing by himself, looking at his cattle.
"What is it, Rowdy?" Favor asked, turning to his young ramrod. "Got something on your mind?"
"No," Rowdy said. "I just wanted to say thanks for what you did earlier. You were ready to give up the cattle for me. I know how much the cattle mean to you, so thanks."
"I thought that I had already lost them – I couldn't see any other way. And I couldn't have my ramrod dying on me!" he smiled at Rowdy.
Rowdy took in that smile. It wasn't often that he would get a smile from the trail boss. What's more, he knew that Gil Favor hadn't wanted to lose another man. He smiled at the trail boss, wondering if he could ever fathom him out fully, or be like him.
"I'll never be the trail boss that he is," Rowdy thought to himself. "But just to be a little like him - that would make me proud."
The next day, having filled the barrels and canteens full to the brim with water, they all mounted, ready for a day in the saddle, back on the Sedalia trail.
"Head 'em up; move 'em out!"
Well, that's it! Please review to let me know what you thought of the story! Thanks! I really appreciate all your reviews!