Mike barreled out of bed as soon as he heard the furtive creak of the door to Slim and Jess' bedroom. Today was the roundup and he had spent more hours begging to stay home from school to help then he had asleep for the past week. At last Slim had consented, more to "protect my sanity," according to Slim, than for any other reason. After Slim relented, Daisy did too, and Mike was bubbling over with excitement.
He yanked on his shirt and did up the buttons with feverish fingers, and then hopped around the room trying to pull on his stubborn pants with more speed than was practical. He splashed vigorously in the porcelain washbasin, making sure he washed well behind his ears to avoid being sent back to try again.
Ready at last, he flung open his door and bounced into the kitchen.
"Mornin', Slim an' Jess, mornin', Aunt Daisy!" He greeted eagerly.
"Good Morning, Mike," answered Daisy from the stove where she was tending a pan of sizzling bacon.
Jess lowered his coffee cup. "Yer up mighty early, Tiger," he replied as Slim turned from the table to return the greeting.
"Slim said I could help with the roundup, remember?" Mike explained, thrusting his hands in his pockets and raising his chin importantly.
Slim tossed a wink over his shoulder to Jess. "I did?" he asked the boy, feigning ignorance.
Mike's hands came out of his pockets and a worried look crept into his eyes. "You did," He insisted pleadingly.
Slim grinned and ruffled the blonde rooster-tails. "Of course I did, an' ya know what?" he added, bending forward to look Mike in the eyes, "I bet your gonna be a big help!"
"Now how about your goin' out and seein' if there's any eggs fer breakfast, huh?" Slim suggested.
"Okay!" Mike grabbed the egg basket and was out of the door in a flash.
Jess chuckled. "If it makes him always git his chores done sa fast, we oughta have a roundup every day!" he grinned.
By the time they had finished their breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, biscuits, and coffee, with fresh milk for Mike, the Wilson brothers, who had been asked to help with the roundup, had ridden into the yard. Daisy promptly invited them in for coffee and biscuits while the men folk of the Sherman ranch went out to get things ready.
"Now, Mike, when we leave, I want you to start building the brandin' fire where we talked about. When you're ready to light it, go get Miss Daisy, alright?" Slim instructed as he saddled Alamo.
"Aww, Slim," Mike protested, hanging upside down from the top rail of corral fence.
"It's not 'cause I'm worried, Mike; it's for Miss Daisy's sake. You know how much she likes to worry, but if she watches you light it, it'll make her feel better."
"When you've got the fire goin' good, shove the brandin' irons underneath the fire, but be real careful, remember it's hot an' don't get too close." Slim ended, plucking Mike off the rail and dangling him by his knees before placing him right-side-up on the ground and then swinging up on Alamo in one graceful movement.
Jess rumpled Mike's hair before mounting with a hop, and reined over to join Slim at the porch.
"Ready, boys?" Slim asked the two as they exited the cabin, replacing their hats.
"Thanks fer the biscuits an' coffee, Mrs. Cooper."
Mike watched as the four men rode out of the yard toward the south pasture, then busied himself hauling dry branches and sagebrush from the pile he had been accumulating to the far side of the corral where there would be no danger of the barn catching fire and where the flame would not frighten the incoming cattle.
When he was ready to light the blaze, he obediently went to fetch Daisy, who was mixing something that smelled deliciously of cinnamon and sugar in her big mixing bowl.
"Why don't you use this to help light the fire, Mike?" Daisy suggested, handing the boy several crumpled pink newspaper pages.
"They got pictures on 'em, Aunt Daisy, can I look at 'em?" Mike asked innocently.
"They have, and I would rather you did not," Daisy replied firmly. "They're from a ladies magazine," she added, knowing that would quench his curiosity.
It did so quite efficiently, and he turned his attention to the box of matches she fetched down from the high shelf over the stove where they were kept.
"Can—may—I carry 'em, please?"
Daisy handed the box to Mike, with admonitions to be careful, and together they walked out to the pile of wood.
Mike placed the box on the ground and knelt beside it, holding up on licked finger to test the direction of the wind. Once that was established, he stuffed the pink paper under a light piece of wood where the soft breeze would fan the flame deeper into the wood. Taking a match from the box with careful fingers, he handed the rest of the matches to Daisy, and whipped the sulfur-tipped stick down the side of his britches a few times, resulting only in a warm path. His thumbnail worked even worse, and Daisy quickly put an end to that experiment by handing him a horseshoe she had fetched from the barn.
The rough surface worked admirably, and Mike held the shaking stick of fire against an edge of the pink paper until it smoldered and finally burst into flame. Tossing the match into the fire, Mike carefully blew on the flame, coaxing it to catch the wood. Daisy finally pulled him back, afraid he would scorch his eyebrows, assuring him as she did so that the fire was doing fine on its own.
"You lit that fire very well, Mike," Daisy praised him. "Now you will be careful, won't you, dear?" She added anxiously, preparing to go back to her baking.
"'Course I will, Aunt Daisy." Mike assured her almost impatiently, standing tall to remind his adopted aunt that he was quite old enough for the job.
"Well, alright. You'll call me if you need anything?"
After Daisy had returned to the house, still clucking and fussing like a mother hen, Mike dragged more of the dead wood nearer the fire to ensure it would burn well for a long time to come. When the flames were crackling nicely, he carefully poked the long iron shafts with the Sherman S-R on the end into the coals beneath the blaze.
That done, he fetched some strips of leather from the barn and looped them around one of the upright poles, near enough to the fire to keep a good eye on it, but far enough away to avoid any accidents. Mounting his "horse" Mike bounced industriously, pretending he was one of legendary, but short lived, pony express riders.
In his vivid imagination, a band of Indian warriors topped the hill behind him. He rode faster, but an arrow caught him in the back of his shoulder. He fell from his horse, landing the way Jess taught him, and bounced quickly to his feet, just in case Daisy was watching.
His return to reality lasted but a moment, for a ferocious Indian vaulted over the back of his horse! He caught the warrior in midair, and the two of them tumbled over and over in the loose dust of the corral. Instantly he was surrounded by howling savages!
Laying the one he was fighting out cold, he used him to trip another, and then decked a third with a firm left hook and right upper cross. Then an Indian came at him, his long knife drawn and flicking restlessly. Mike bent and drew his own knife from his boot, a knife as imaginary as his horde of enemies, and they began a duel of wits and knives. The other Indians took this opportunity to close in, and Mike hoped, and doubted, that the Calvary would send reinforcements, and soon!
Just as an Indian grabbed him from behind, Mike heard, not a Calvary bugle, but the bawl of a cow from the same hill his Indians had ridden down. He flipped his attacker over his head as the rest of his foes faded from mind and ran to check the fire. It was still burning well, but he threw another branch on it just in case and looked up at the hilltop.
The figures of men on horseback and the bobbing heads of cattle moved on the hilltop, a cloud of dust marking their back-trail. Before very long the first creatures were spilling over the side of the hill, their dewclaws clacking and the dust and flies fogging off their heaving backs.
Mike cast one more look at the fire, then skinned through the rails and crossed the corral at a trot. Slim and one of the Wilson brothers headed the herd on either side up to the wooden fence and circled them tightly. Mike hurried to the gate as Slim rode up to give further instructions.
"We're gonna cut out the calves and drive 'em across into the corral. Can you have that gate open and ready to swing shut when we've got 'em in there?"
Mike nodded eagerly.
"Alright. You open that gate and hold it so it makes an alley. Stay behind it and stand still until it's time to close it."
Slim waited until Mike had the gate swung perpendicular to the circular enclosure before leaning down from Alamo to open the fence gate and push it open. One of the brothers, Pete, rode through, pushing it out to meet the corral gate and taking up a position halfway between the two on the open side.
The rest of the men began the tedious work of outmaneuvering the dexterous bovines to separate mothers from babies. Every time they managed to get a calf alone by the gate, one of them would haze it to Pete, who would chase it to the corral, where Mike was to keep an eye on it and make sure it stayed in the corral.
When they at last had all the calves in the corral and their anxious mamas on the outside, Mike swung the gate closed and latched it while Slim, Jess, and Bill rode through and closed their gate. Too concerned about their loudly complaining calves to leave, the mother cows would stay bunched along the fence until hunger or thirst drove them away, or until their babies were returned.
All four men drank deeply from the pump then Slim and Bill rode through the gate Mike opened for them.
Jess and Pete removed the bridles from their mounts and tethered their halters to the corral fence beside the water trough.
Climbing over the rails by the crackling fire, they pulled their bandanas over their noses and waited for Slim or Bill to bring them a calf from the milling group on the other side of the corral.
Mike watched wide-eyed as the two riders circled slowly, trying not excite the already frightened creatures. Then Slim's lariat snaked out, catching by the heels a wiry black calf who seemed certain its time had come. Pleading its case with a heart-rending bellow, it struggled gamely until Slim's relentless progress toward the branding fire toppled the calf to its side. As he dragged it slowly along, a hefty black cow with a small white smudge on her forehead detached herself from the huddle near the gate and trotted down the fence until she was parallel to the calf, adding her foghorn voice to the clamor.
Jess removed the rope from the calf's heels and took a firm hold to drag it nearer the corral fence.
"Git ready with an iron, Mike," he said over his shoulder, adding to Slim, "It's a heifer."
Slim removed a small book from his vest pocket and, with a glance at the excited cow, turned to a page headed by the words "Star." Licking the tip of the stub of a pencil, he skimmed down the list to the last entry and below it wrote:
Spring 1874 black heifer
He paused and looked down at the calf. "Any marks on her, Jess?" He called, pencil poised to add any information.
Jess took the iron from Mike, its tip glowing red hot. "She'll have a white and black udder!" He called back, taking a position over the backbone of the calf near the tail. Working gently but firmly, he applied the brand to the glossy black hipbone. The hair sizzled and the stench of burning hair rose with the smoke. The calf bawled bloody murder and her mother answered back in kind. Mike covered his ears and closed his eyes. When he looked again Pete had cut an underbit in the left ear of the calf and was standing to let her scramble to her feet and race, tail high back to her companions.
Jess leaned against the corral fence and handed the iron back to Mike, who took it and was glad of the gloves Jess had made him from a piece of deerskin they had procured together.
"Jess," Mike began after returning the iron to the fire.
Jess looked down at the boy's worried face and realized what the problem was.
"Why do we have ta brand 'em when it hurts 'em so?"
"Without a brand ya don't know who the calf belongs to, so it's easy fer 'em t' git lost or stolen. 'Sides, their hide is a lot tougher than ours, so it don't hurt 'em as much as ya think it does. They're more scared than anything else." He straightened as he saw a loop fly through the air and settle around the front legs of another calf. "Git ready t' hand me an iron, Mike," Jess said, looking the boy in the eye.
Mike grinned and nodded. "Okay, Jess."
"Good boy, Tiger," Jess grinned back.
Bill dragged a protesting, little heifer, all red but for a white heart on her forehead, to the fire as Slim made a note of her and her mama in his herd book.
"Hey, Slim," Bill called with a laugh, "Mike says her name's Sweetheart!" A quick yelp followed and Jess' aggrieved voice announced that "Sweetheart" had kicked him soundly.
Before too much more time had passed, Mike realized the reason for the bandanas covering Jess and Pete's noses. Every movement stirred the dry, loose dirt of the corral until the air was permeated with dust that settled on every surface and filled every breath. Slim and Bill were above the worst of it, and Slim loaned Mike his bandana until a halt was called halfway through to allow the men to switch jobs and Mike to run in the house for his own handkerchief.
"You know, we oughtta work that old cow while we got the cows down and Bill and Pete to help," Slim was saying when Mike returned at a trot.
Jess paused as he tightened Traveler's chinch. "Ya gotta be kiddin'," he protested with dread in his voice.
"Aw, come on, Jess, you know we gotta do it sooner or later."
"I'd rather it be later," Jess griped. "Ready?" he asked, mounting with a smooth hop and forestalling any further discussion.
"What cow, Slim?" Mike asked, returning to the fire, one of Jess' spare bandanas tied firmly around his nose.
"The old Horny cow, Mike."
Mike knew that cow, and he also understood Jess' reluctance to work her. She was a cross between a Holstein and a Hereford and had both the big bones of the former and the bulk of the latter. Some whim of nature had curved her horns in toward her forehead at a lethal angle that would someday send them right into her skull unless action was taken. Her feet were a picture of misery for the toes curled up like elves' shoes, rendering her lame. She was a fairly good tempered cow, but no creature enjoys being snubbed and whittled on, and the bigger the cow, the greater the damage she can wreak, whether she means to or not. The old Horny cow weighed close to a ton.
They were close to finishing when the stage rolled in, and Jess left the roping to Pete while he and Mose changed the worn team for the fresh horses that had been stabled in the barn.
The calves were finished in time for the leftovers of the lunch that Daisy had prepared and from which the stage passengers had already enjoyed. The calves were left in the corral while they ate to keep the cows close by, and they kept up a raucous din even as they crowded around the water trough that had been freshly filled before the men went in to eat.
At the conclusion of the fine meal, the branded and cut calves were turned back out with their mothers, and the old Horny cow was herded into the corral.
Ropes were thrown around each of her feet and then two of the four mounted men pulled gently until she thudded to her knees. She was rolled to her side and her feet were stretched straight, and the lariats were snubbed fast to two upright corral posts. Slim lassoed her tossing head and pulled the rope taught.
"Mike, do you think you can hold Alamo steady while we cut those horns?" He asked.
Mike cast an anxious glance at the cow who was straining at the rope and still finding enough slack to occasionally toss her head. "I dunno, Slim," he answered.
Slim dismounted and set Mike in his saddle. "How 'bout you give it a try, an' Bill will stand right here in case you need some help, okay?"
Bill took his position at Alamo's head, and Jess handed Slim a small, sharp saw.
"Might work better if we put a halter on 'er," the younger man suggested as the cow managed to toss her nose once again and bedew them in slobber.
"Good idea. Better git another rope, though."
Another lariat was fetched from the barn and the end was pulled up to make a smaller noose within the large one. After several tries they finally managed to put the smaller noose over the cow's broad nose and the larger loop over her head. Slim the end of it to Bill, who dallied it around the saddle horn and backed Alamo up to take up the slack.
Slim picked up the saw and looked at Jess. "You want to?" he asked.
"She's all yours, boss," Jess replied.
Slim took a deep breath and knelt by the cow's head, crooning sweet-talk. With a gloved hand he grasped one curled horn and brought the hand saw into position. Slowly he began to work it across the surface of the horn, sawing as hard as he could. The cow lay still, breathing heavily, her eyes rolled back to try to observe the strange procedures going on above her eyes.
"Jess," Slim said softly, "Hold your hand over her eye, she don't need shavin's in her eye."
Jess replied with a worried glare, but covered her eye as requested. This change in events caused her to thrash about for a moment, allowing Slim a chance to catch his breath.
"Sawin' through horn is tough work," he explained to Mike with a faint grin.
"Want me ta take a turn, Slim?" Jess asked.
"I've almost got it, but you can do the other one so's we don't have ta move around so much. So now, bossy." Slim resumed cutting when she quieted and soon had the tip of the horn sawn through.
"Can I have it, Slim?" Mike asked.
"Sure, Mike." Slim pocketed the tip and handed the saw to Jess, who repeated Slim's operation while Slim obligingly protected the eye. That tip was also pocketed, and they removed the loop over the cow's nose.
"Feel better, old girl?" Jess asked, rubbing the indent made in the white hair by the horn, and was pushed roughly away by with a toss of the big head.
Pete had brought the hoof nippers and the hoof knife from the barn while Slim and Jess had been busy on the horns, and he now handed them to Jess without a word. The cowboy took them with a wry expression and approached the supine beast, crooning sweet-nothings. The cow lay still until he touched her hoof, then she proved just how little range of motion she actually had. Taking comfort in this, Jess straddled her top front leg and clamped it tight between his knees.
At first the job was easy as he shortened the over-long hooves down to their proper size, but then the ticklish work came began. Straightening to wipe the sweat from his eyes and stretch his back, Jess handed the nippers to the nearby Slim before bending again to his task. With the hoof knife he sliced off long swaths from the bottom of the hoof until both claws were even. Still using the knife he whittled a little more on both toes, making sure not to cut them too short or too deep. At last he straightened and stepped away with a sigh of relief, for the operation had gone better than he had expected.
Slim took the knife from him and repeated the performance on the top back foot, then he and Jess joined the brothers by Alamo's head.
"We're gonna have t' loosen those ropes t' git at her lower feet," Slim announced succinctly.
"If one of us whittles on 'er an' somebody else holds her leg it might work," Bill mused.
"Dally her top leg t' Traveler behind her," Jess corrected dourly.
"I'll cut, Jess, if you an' Bill'll take care of her leg," Slim said. Jess and Bill nodded, and Jess went to bridle and tighten the cinch on Traveler and ride him slowly into the corral.
Knowing she would fight for freedom the moment the tension on her top leg was released, the cowboys prepared to work quickly. Slim slowly untied the lariat from around the sturdy corral post, keeping the rope tight. Bill held onto the rope close to the hoof giving Slim slack to pass the rope over the cow's broad back.
"Pete, can you take this?" he asked, keeping his voice monotone.
Pete looked up at Mike. "Jest keep sittin' like y'are, boy," he instructed, and then left to take the rope from Slim.
Mike froze, his hands itching to tighten on the reins but fearing that would give Alamo some unwanted signal. So he sat perfectly sit, hardly daring even to breath, watching the proceedings with eyes like saucers.
In reality there was not much to see. Pete handed the rope to Jess and came back to Alamo's head while Jess dallied it around the saddle-horn. Then he slowly began to back Traveler away, taking up slack. The old Horney Cow resisted a little, but with both Bill and Slim working to bend her leg and Jess keeping the rope taught she did not resist for long. Soon her leg was out of the way, and Slim grabbed the nippers and crouched over her lower hoof, shooting a glance at Jess.
"Don't let go," he said with a wry grin.
Jess dipped his head in acknowledgment.
Slim clipped and shaved the hoof as quickly as he could and tossed the tools out of the way.
Cowboy and horse moved forward step by deliberate step while Slim and Bill eased the leg straight.
"Slim," came Jess' low, warning growl. Slim's head snapped up and quickly followed Jess' glance to Horney Cow's head. She was breathing faster, her eyes had rolled back, and she was obviously gathering herself together for a struggle. Jess and Traveler stopped just as the cow arched her back and began to thrash her free leg. Bill and Slim jumped back and waited until she grew tired of straining at the tight ropes and lay still, her sides heaving.
"Soo, now, bossy, lay easy," Slim crooned. Pete came around her head to dally the rope to the corral post, and to untie the lariat around her back leg. Bending the leg forward this time they repeated the process, and Slim again crouched to trim the hoof.
Again the procedure went smoothly, and now all that remained was to turn the huge cow loose, preferably without getting anyone hurt in the process.
Slim removed the rope halter from the head of the ungrateful cow and was rewarded with a bedewing of slobber as she tossed her head against the noose still tight around her neck.
"Jess, if you keep tension on that leg over her back we'll be able to keep her down while we take off the rest of the ropes," Slim reasoned, and the mounted cowboy nodded. "Mike, you just sit still for know. If the rope around her neck starts to git loose, back Alamo up real slow, okay?" The tall rancher asked, placing his hand on Mike's knee and looking up with a face full of confidence.
Mike gulped. "Okay, Slim," he answered bravely.
"Good boy. Pete," he continued, moving toward the cow, "Git ready to untie her back leg, Bill, you help me up here. Ready, Jess?"
When Jess flicked the brim of his Stetson in salute, the three men on the ground began to untie the clove-hitches around the corral posts, keeping the lariats as tight as they could in the process.
"Pete, come up to her hoof," Slim directed almost in a whisper as he worked his way, hand over hand, to the front hooves. "Bill, gimme your rope." He took the ropes in one hand, and when Pete reached the hind foot they worked in tandem to remove the loops from the cow's fetlocks.
Mike shot a glance to Jess, whose gaze was locked on the two men working at the feet of the big cow. The three ropes came off at the same time, and Slim and Pete jumped back as the cow began to fight to stand. By force of her sheer bulk she somehow managed to lunge to her feet, drawing a surprised Traveler toward her as she surged against the rope over her back.
"Give her slack, Jess!" Slim hollered as the cowboy did just that, riding forward until she was able to put all four feet on the ground. "Keep her tight, Mike!" None of the three cowboys on the ground dared to run past her head to where Mike sat alone on Alamo, but the boy did just fine, urging the horse back until the rope was again tight around her neck.
"That's good!" Slim called when the rope was again tight around the cow's thick neck. Mike released the pressure on the reins and the well-trained horse stopped. Slim stepped down from his hastily gained perch beside the Wilson brothers on the fence and walked on the outside of the corral until he was slightly behind his ward and his horse. Slipping through the rails, he carefully approached the horse, crooning softly and keeping both eyes fixed on the cow.
Slim swung up behind Mike and reached around him to take the reins. "Mike, I'm gonna have to let you down," he stated gently.
The small cowboy hat in front of him nodded. "Okay, Slim."
"When I put you down, walk—don't run—walk straight to the fence and go through the rails. Don't climb it. Okay?"
Again the hat nodded. Slim put his left foot in the stirrup and linked arms with Mike. Lifting him easily from the saddle, the tall cowboy leaned down until he felt Mike's feet touch the ground, never taking his eyes off the unmoving cow in front of them. He heard Mike walk at a normal pace to the fence and saw him climb through from the corner of his eye as he maneuvered himself over the back of the saddle into the seat. Slim grinned and nodded, knowing Mike would be watching and understand, even if the nodded was not directed in his direction.
The two mounted cowboys then started the awkward task of untangle the cow from the rope over her back. Every time Jess tried to give her more slack in hopes of loosening the rope from around her leg, she would step forward, taking up the slack. For every step forward she took, Slim and Alamo took one back, and it would not be long before they would be backed up to the fence. From the look on Jess' face, however, Slim could tell that he would be running out of patience far sooner than they out of room. He opened his mouth to make a suggestion, but saw that the cowboy had beaten him to a solution. Jess was undoing the lariat from around his saddle horn and was apparently preparing to flip it over the cow's back, ride around her and shake it loose.
"Might wanna let her go on your end, Slim," Jess suggested.
"Okay." Slim waited until Jess was just about ready to make the attempt, then removed the noose from the cow's neck with a shake and a flick of his wrist. He rode out of her way as Jess rode behind her, shaking his own lariat as he rode. The old Horney Cow moved quickly forward and within three steps had stepped free of the loop.
Pete and Bill swung the gates open and Slim and Jess herded the cow back to the rest of the cows and waited for the Wilsons to mount and join them.
"Glad that's done," Jess commented, lounging in the saddle.
"For this year at least." Slim agreed.
Mike climbed the fence and straddled the top rail. "Sure wish I could come with ya t' take 'em back t' pasture," he said.
"Maybe next year, Tiger," Jess promised with a nod.
"You were a real big help today, Mike," Slim praised, riding close to the boy.
Mike's eyes shone as he grinned. "Gee, thanks!"
Jess reached over and tugged Mike's hat brim over his eyes. "Yer gittin' t' be a top hand, pardner."
The boy grinned wider as he readjusted his hat and barreled off the fence to open the gate for the Wilsons.
"Oh, Mike," Slim called, "Check the fire an' make sure it's out, won'tcha, an' if the irons are cool you can hang 'em back in the barn."
Mike waved and trotted toward the fire. They had scuffed dirt over it when the branding was finished, but it was fun to stir the hot coals and dirt with a long stick, and ever more fun to be trusted to play with it all by himself. The branding irons only left a charcoal outline when he applied them to the upright post, so he carried them to their hooks in the barn and hung them neatly. The fire drew his attention once again, and he busied himself by writing the S-R brand on the fence rails with the charcoal tip he burned on a stick with a hot coal.
This day had definitely been worth all the pleading and coaxing he had done. It had been exciting and exhilarating and tiring, and he had made Slim and Jess proud of him. Daisy would be proud, too, when they told her what a big help he had been, and next year he would ride with the men and maybe even have his own horse and everything. Yes sir, it had been a great day.