Uncle shook his head sideways and asked, “Any idea where the hell they could be?” Then he clucked his tongue and his young gelding moved forward onto the trail.
Tommy followed along behind him and said nothing. He had long come to realize that his Uncle was asking himself more than anyone else a question. The way Tommy figured it, talking aloud and asking questions was one of Uncle’s many ways of thinking.
They had been in the saddle before sunup having passed under the shadow of Irish Mountain of the South Fork Range. It was spring roundup and the hunt for the final few beeves in the redwoods and surrounding hills was on.
Tommy was tickled and slightly afraid when his Uncle looked directly and said “Saddle Cracker up. You’re coming with me.” They were moving south through Uncles grazing rights. The fine grass showed its tender shoots as they paused to give their horses a breather just beyond Lemonade Springs.
“I got a feeling they cut across the Mad on us,” Uncle commented. “There isn’t a sign to cut anywhere over here.” Tommy said nothing while lying stretched out beneath the shade of a madrone tree.
A few later minutes they were back in the saddle, cutting west towards the Mad River. “Best get set to cross,” Uncle ordered.
Both riders paused long enough to pull off their boots and tie them around their necks using their bandanas. As they continued toward the river Tommy loosened his pistol belt and pulled it off. He draped it over his neck as well making certain to double-check the thumb loop.
The rush of the Mad River could be heard long before it could be seen. The creaking of saddle leather and horses hooves in the soft earth mixed with the activity of the mountain stream made Tommy’s’ heart race with anticipation.
River crossing had always been a dangerous part of the range hands occupation. No cowboy ever wanted to cross a swollen, fast moving, deep and cold river.
“Remember to hang on,” Uncle shouted back as he urged his mount into the brisk waters.
Tommy reached back and grabbed a handful of Crackers tail hair. The old mare’s ears laid down momentarily as if she realized what she were about to be asked to do.
Uncle had explained once that Oklahoma and Texas cowboys always grabbed onto their horse’s tails as they crossed a river. That way if the rider became unseated from the ‘hurricane deck’, the horse would drag him to the bank. And if the unthinkable happened and the horse should drown, then the cowhand would have a ready-made flotation device because horses never sink directly.
Neither event occurred as both horse and rider climbed the river bank further north than where they started. Uncle stopped to put his boots on and so did Tommy. If Uncle were cold, he certainly didn’t show it and Tommy knew he best not say anything either though his body shivered involuntarily and violently.
It was a little before noon and the midday sun soon dried both range-riders. They stopped at Cherry Glade Creek to stretch, eat and rest the horses. They were determined to ride until after sundown if necessary.
The coffee was strong and hot as Tommy lifted it to his lips. It warmed him and gave him energy. He swallowed the last of the cold biscuits and honey then downed the last bit of coffee.
“We ought to get a move on, Uncle,” Tommy said without realizing. His felt his heart sink into his stomach because it sounded as if he had just given his Uncle a command.
Uncle looked up and smiled then chuckled a little bit. “Okay, buckaroo, let’s get saddled up.” Uncle laughed aloud once again.
They turned their mounts in a northwesterly direction, riding for half an hour. That when Uncle stopped and leaned way over to look at the ground. Tommy moved closer to have a look. He could see very little, other than where the ground was chewed up.
“At least five of them,” Uncle said. Then he pointed up into the hills, “This way.”
Leaving the banks of the Mad River behind them, they pushed their horses deeper and deeper into the woods. This was dangerous for both man and beast as this is where people tended to live on the edge of civility. A good saddle horse could easily be mistaken for a mule deer and its rider as a jumper onto a mining claim or trespasser into a marijuana field. For this reason both riders pulled out their bright red wild rags, tied them loosely around their necks, to make certain they could be seen.
The tracks led deeper and higher into the hills. Many of the trails were dim as Tommy’s Grandpa was fond of saying. In more than one case, they had to make their own path up a grassy or moss covered slope.
Uncle leaned over and followed the tracks as the two pushed on. The tracks led into a small stand of timber.
There in a clearing stood a man and a woman. They had built a make shift corral and had rounded up seven strays. They were also working on field dressing one of the steers.
The woman saw them first as they rode into the clearing. She looked frightened as she pointed at the man with a bloodied arm and said, “It was his idea.” The man looked up and stepped straight for his rifle.
Tommy saw his action and already had his pistol in hand. The double click of the hammer caused the man to pause in his reach. Uncle rode up and picked the riffle up from the fence post and proceeded to empty the shells from its chamber. He flung the brass cartridges a far away as he could.
“Son of a…” the man said in a barely audible voice.
Then Uncle spoke, “I’d jus’ stand right there, both of ya or my young Ramrod will punch holes in both your souls.” Neither one moved.
Tommy was momentarily distracted by the term ‘Ramrod.’ That meant ‘Boss’ and that his Uncle viewed him as an equal in this ugly affair.
The man looked up at Uncle and stated, “I didn’t think anybody would be up here looking for these cows.”
“Well, you thought wrong,” Uncle replied. Then he said, “Now, ma’am if you’d be kind enough to open that gate and light a shuck under them cattle, I’d much appreciate it.”
She did as she was asked. Then she moved quickly over to a wad of blankets that appeared to be tossed on the ground. Tommy trained his pistol on her until she pulled out a baby that began to cry. He holstered his gun, feeling ashamed of himself.
Uncle raised his right hand to the brim of his hat and said, “Ma’am” as he nodded his head. Then he looked at the man then the half butchered cow and the nearly starved cow still tied to the far side of the make shift corral, “Keep the darn thing and that one too. It seems you need it more than me.”
Then taking no chances, he tosses the once loaded rifle into the brush, beyond the corral. Without another word he clicked his tongue and dashed off into the woods the way he had come, his young Ramrod hard at his side.