Incident of the Bind Man's Bluff
Gil Favor: On a cattle drive, there are lots of things that can mean trouble and slow down the herd. I've been the boss of herds that have gone through floods, fires, droughts - more obstacles than I can list. But the real trouble you gotta watch out for…is people. Yep, people. Sometimes even in your own crew. Sometimes men can cause even more trouble than the usual disasters on a drive. I'm the guy who has to watch out for those disasters. I'm Gil Favor, trail boss.
Gil Favor sat atop his horse on a small rise. From here he had good overlooking view of the cattle. It was nearing dusk and the sky had just begun to turn a rosy, orange hue. So far, the grazing and water had been plentiful and there had been no accidents or delays to hinder them on the long drive to the stockyards at Sedalia, Missouri. Favor turned in his saddle toward the sound of approaching hoof beats. He shaded his eyes against the orange, setting sun and squinted his eyes. "Hey, Pete! You find a place to bed them beeves down?" He called out to the advancing rider, whom he now recognized as Pete Nolan, the scout. The rider reined his buckskin gelding in beside Favor's own mount.
Pete shifted in his saddle trying to find a more comfortable position before speaking. He pushed back his hat and nodded. "There's a good place about a mile or two farther. There's grazin' and a small stream that should be big enough for the herd. The graze isn't the best but it'll do." He motioned with his hand the direction of the place.
Favor nodded his approval. "Good. You go tell Wishbone to drive ahead and start up supper."
"Will do, Boss." With that, Pete Nolan wheeled his horse and cantered away to find Wishbone and the chuck wagon. Everything was going so smoothly, it was almost hard to believe. Usually they would have run into some sort of trouble by now. But Pete had learned not to worry about such things. Worrying never helped or hurried anything along and trouble would come on its own time. He spotted Wishbone's wagon a short distance ahead of him and called out. "Hey, Wish! Wishbone!"
Wishbone leaned over to look around the side of the wagon then stopped the team. He waited until Pete was near the side of the wagon. "What's the big idea? I finally get a good dust goin' behind and you interrupt me." He said sarcastically. Pete chuckled. He knew Wishbone to be irritable when days were like this. The heat was beating down on man and beast and the dust was enough to choke a fly, as Wishbone often put it.
"Boss wants you to go on up ahead and get supper started. The place is just over that rise. I'll take you there after I tell Rowdy where we'll be beddin' the herd down." Pete explained.
"No need for that; I've got eyes, I can see a good spot when it's there." Wishbone flicked the lines and continued driving the wagon forward; stirring a cloud of dust behind the wagon. Pete waved a hand in front of his face to clear the dust from his view before riding off to find Rowdy Yates, the second-in-command of the Gil Favor outfit. Pete shaded his eyes for a moment, then seeing Rowdy just off right swing, directed his mount toward the ramrod.
Rowdy Yates looked up when he saw Pete coming. He gave a slight pull on the reins and sat deeper in the saddle when Fox tried to continue forward with the herd. The sorrel tossed his head indignantly but complied with his master's command. The scout drew in his horse beside Rowdy's. "Boss said go ahead an bed the herd down up ahead. Place over that rise." He waved a hand in the direction. "There's a small stream so you shouldn't miss it."
Rowdy nodded and looked in the direction Pete had indicated. "Okay, Pete. Thanks. I'll tell the boys." The ramrod shifted in his saddle; looking at Pete's face then looking back down again. He opened his mouth to say something, then hesitated.
"Look, Rowdy, if you got somethin' you don't have to worry bout me bitin' your head off like Wish does." Pete said with a chuckle and a knowing smile. Each and every one of the drovers, new and old, had experienced the wrath of Wishbone at least once on the job. It wasn't that Wishbone liked to be mean but his ways were gruff; underneath that crotchety demeanor there was a caring old man who worried about the men.
"Is the boss still stewin' over somethin'?" Rowdy spat out. Then, seeing a bit of confusion on Pete's face, went on. "You remember? I told you last night that he was actin'…well, he just didn't seem himself yesterday. Kinda like his mind was off somewhere else." Rowdy had also noticed that the trail boss had not eaten breakfast that morning either, but he made no mention of it. Gil Favor was not a man to be worried or distraught over just anything; but he was also not a man to always speak his thoughts to others, unless he was positive or it was necessary in the current situation.
Thinking a long moment before answering, Pete said slowly, "Yeah, I noticed he was distracted earlier; but I wouldn't think to much about it, Rowdy. He's a trail boss and a trail boss has got a lot of things to think and plan about. He's got a lot of responsibility on his shoulders that he's gotta pack around."
"I know that but-"
Pete reached over and punched Rowdy lightly on the shoulder. "Don't worry bout it. I'm sure he's just got a lot of things on his mind."
Rowdy shook his head and sighed. "You're probably right." But there's something' botherin' the boss…I just know there is! He thought to himself.
"I'm gonna go on up ahead and look around a little more." Pete said as he began to turn his horse. He returned Rowdy's wave and wheeled his horse around. Soon, the lone horse and rider were far ahead of the herd. This far from the herd the air was clear and not suffocating as it had been back at the herd. The dust that the cattle stirred up was, at times, almost unbearable. Pete felt sorry for the drovers who were stuck with the job of riding drag, where the dust was the worst.
The wide open plain was beautiful. The tall prairie grass waved at Pete and his horse as if inviting the pair to join the grass in its dance. There was a stand of trees on the far side of the stream. A good place for Wishbone's wagon, Pete thought. Pete clucked to his horse; the buckskin responded by moving forward at a walk toward the stream which lay only a few paces away. Pete dismounted and bent down beside the stream. He brought a cupped hand down to the water and then up to his lips. The water was cool and refreshing. It was Pete's job to make sure the water was safe, and he had done so earlier before reporting back to Favor. Pete rocked back on his heels and watched his horse drink for a moment before taking another look around. Buck lifted his head from the water; droplets dripping from his black muzzle. His ears were pricked toward the stand of trees and his neigh was answered by a whinny coming from the trees. Pete straightened and stood up; his hand now resting on his .45 in its holster. An instant later, a old man emerged from the trees leading an equally old-looking mare.
Seeing the old man as no threat, Pete lowered his hand and smiled. "Hi there." He waved a hand in greeting. Pete was surprised when the old man whirled suddenly, pointing his cane around him wildly. "Who's there?" The old man backed up on shaky legs. In his haste, he tripped on a root from one of the trees and fell over backwards with a whump! Pete dropped Buck's reins and left the horse, who was trained to stay ground-tied. He ran over to where the old man had fallen. The white-haired man lay still. Awfully still. Pete was about to kneel down to check the man's pulse when his legs suddenly went out from under him. Surprised and caught off guard, Pete whirled and looked behind him. Nothing. No one in sight. "Alright, mister, now you just tell me who you are and what you're doin' on my property."
Pete spun around again to see the old man sitting up and his cane pointing at Pete. So that's what it was! The old codger tripped me with his cane, Pete realized. "Woah now! My name's Pete Nolan, I'm scoutin' for a cattle drive just over that rise. I ain't doin' nothin' wrong. This your property?"
"You're darn tootin' it is! It's rightfully mine! Now you get off of it, you hear? Get off!" The old man yelled at Pete and raised his cane menacingly. Pete slowly got to his feet and offered his hand for the old man to help him get up. The man ignored Pete's offer and got up on his own accord. "I'm warnin' you, mister!"
"What did you mean by this land bein' rightfully yours? Last I heard this was free range." Pete put his hands on his hips and stood, relaxed; studying the old man. His white beard looked as if it was due for a trimming but his white hair looked a bit thick for man of his age. The man's clothes were nice clothes but there were a few small rips and dirt smudges as if he had fallen several times. Pete looked intently at the man's face; his complexion was extremely white and wrinkles lined his face. Then Pete noticed something else. He looked closer, without being obvious, and peered at the man's eyes. They were a clear, crisp blue, but they appeared to be staring at nothing. Pete took a step closer and slowly waved a hand in front of the old man's face. Why, he's blind! Pete thought with shock when the old man had no reaction.
"That ain't none of your beeswax! It's mine, ya hear? Mine! Now git!" Suddenly the old man wavered, dropped his cane and put a hand on his forehead. Pete rushed forward just in time to keep the fainting old man from falling onto the hard ground.