The sun was bright as brass, warm and golden in a cloudless sky. Colter squinted against the early-morning glare and shifted in his saddle. The day was scarcely begun and already his throat felt like a dust funnel. He hawked and spat, and took a swipe at the brushy mustache covering his upper lip. His mouth was dry and gritty, as if stuffed with wads of cotton, and it came to him that spitting only made it worse. Sometimes he wished he had a taste for chewing tobacco--just to keep the juices flowing--but that was a case of the cure being worse than the ailment. Right about then he would have traded his left nut for a steamy cup of coffee, something to sluice the grime out of his innards. Still, dinnertime was a good three hours off, and until then he might as well crap in one hand and wish in the other. Aboard the hurricane deck of a cow pony it was strictly grin and bear it--and try not to swallow too often.
Stretched out before him was the WesternTrail, a snaky ribbon of churned earth connecting Texas with the railhead at Dodge City. Every spring, after the flood waters of the Red had receded, the cattle herds were pointed north across the grassy plains. Throughout summer and early fall the trail was clogged with an unending stream of bawling, cantankerous longhorns. While the herds were small, rarely numbering more than a couple of thousand head, sometimes ten or twelve outfits passed Colter's cabin between dawn and dusk. After fording the Red at Doan's Store, they plodded northward in a steady rivulet of horns- and hooves and dust. Last year close to a quarter million beeves had shuffled past, and though spring had only recently transformed the tawny plains into an emerald sea of grass, herds were strung out as far as a man could see.
Colter and his partner, Emmet Hungate, rode for the XL, one of the largest spreads in No Man's Land. Their job was to inspect the passing herds and cut out any cows that belonged to the XL or its neighbors. It was a thankless task, long on sweat and short on sleep, but an accolade of sorts to their range savvy. While hardly more than full grown, they were old-timers in No Man's Land, and knew the brand of every outfit running cattle west of the line. The Trail crossed Beaver River where it flowed southeasterly into the Cherokee Strip, and it was here that they maintained a watch over the Texans. Cows that had drifted off home range and joined the trail herds were cut out and hazed back across the line. The Texans tolerated the practice, not outof honesty, or any sense of fair play, but because they couldn't afford trouble while trailing half6wild longhorns through a strange land.
The Cattlemen's Association had built a cabin along the trail, and from early spring to first frost Colter and Hungate called it home. Generally they were up at the crack of dawn, tending their small remuda and slapping together a hasty breakfast, and their day seldom ended much before the birds had gone to roost. But they were on their own for the most part--the XL foreman usually rode over once a week--and inspecting the Texas herds allowed them to escape the dubious joys of spring roundup. All things considered, it could have been a whole lot worse.
Especially for thirty a month and found.
That was a thought much on Buck Colter's mind these days. Thirty a month and found. A dollar a day, all the beans he could eat, and a sore butt to boot. It wasn't much of a bargain. Leastways not for a man who had notions of bettering himself. Most cowhands took to it like a pig in mud, and figured they had the world by the short hairs. But for him it was strictly a means to an end. A way station along the white man's road. The one he had chosen to follow for reasons all his own.
It was an old bone, yet one that Colter never tired of g
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