Rustlers hit the northwest corner of our trail herd just at dusk, cutting out a couple hundred Texas longhorns and stampeding them off to the west without losing a man. It was aggravating to the bone, both because our drovers over on that side somehow managed to miss the owlhoots with every round they fired and because it didn’t make sense to try tracking ’em down till daylight.
Some of us cast a jaundiced eye toward them boys who’d missed the bad guys, figgering maybe they was in on the heist. More likely, though, it was jist plain bad arranging by the trail boss. Neither Benjie nor Walt could hit the sand iffen they dropped their shooters; we all knew that well enough. They’d been assigned adjacent positions on the left flank that day, the cow snatchers had either been lucky enough or known enough to strike right between ’em, and that was that.
Come daylight, though, our personal private posse was headed out to trail the rustlers. Tam, the tall tale teller, led the trackers. He weren’t but an eighth Comanche, yet that cowboy could follow wind over water without so much as gittin’ off his horse to study the ground. Some said he was so windy hisself that the breeze actually talked to him, told him secrets no purely white man was privileged to know.
They were gone for three days.
The boss had us move the herd on up the Chisholm Trail jist a few miles to Carson’s Graze, a chunk of land with half a dozen springs to provide water and enough standing grass to keep the critters from losing too much weight while we waited. Us drovers didn’t mind; a day’s work is a day’s work, and there wasn’t near the dust in the air to choke anybody riding drag while we was holding position.
Of course, there was more night herder duty, since the guard had been doubled because of the rustlers and also because six of our best men was off chasing them escaped beeves.
Then about midafternoon on that third day–a Sunday, we thought, though out there one day was purty much like another–the boys come back with all but three of the missing longhorns. A handful of us rode out to help ’em tuck that bunch back into the main herd, but we wasn’t being nice about it. We simply wanted to stay close to old Tam.
He and the others would be grabbing an early supper, after which those of us not assigned as nighthawks would gather around over extra pots of coffee to hear him tell how they’d brung them cows back all safe and sound. When Tam the tall tale teller went to telling, no cowpoke in his right mind wanted to miss the hearing of it.
I lucked out, having pulled duty the night before. Heck, I even found a bit of sand to scour out my cup before the coffee was poured and the story began.
Even with a small bunch like that, the rustlers hadn’t been able to move with anything like the speed of the pursuing party. Twice, instead of simply crossing sizeable streams, they’d tried forcing the stolen cows to travel upstream instead. Riders or men on foot do that sort of thing all the time to cover their tracks, but of course nobody had much luck explaining that to the cattle.
As we found out, these thieves were jist too smart fer their own good.
It was like they’d gone to some kind of school and learned all the tricks in the book…but hadn’t the foggiest idea of how them tricks worked in real life. Kind of like one of them Harvard lawyers back East, always thinking they know better’n anybody else. Guess that works okay in the land of the Great White Father, or so they say, but out West it’s a good way to git yerself dead sooner rather than later.
Well, between them fools fumbling around in the water and taking time to–you ain’t gonna believe this–stop to light a danged fire to boil a pot of coffee at high noon, we was within eyeshot of ’em by the time they reached their destination. Which was, it turned out, kind of a camp, a little tent city right out there on the prairie. Close to forty old Army tents, most with patches that had patches on ’em, and it looked like nigh on a hunnert poor misguided Souls sitting around waiting fer the world to end.
No, boss, I’m tellin’ ya, I ain’t pulling yer leg; they really was waiting fer the world to jist stop turning, or at least a swarm of frogs or a plague of tornadoes or the Earth to open up and swallow ’em all. Something. We found out by slipping in close, tying off our horses in a thicket, and sneaking up there on foot. Any normal westerner would’ve spotted us in a heartbeat, but these fools wasn’t normal. We found a spot where we could hunker down in a dry wash and listen a bit.
Didn’t seem all that smart to jist brazen on in there, not with so many of ’em, even though nobody but our enterprising cow thieves seemed to be packing any shooting irons.
Now, it was plumb mystifying at first, but by sundown we’d heard enough and had it purty much figgered out. Them folks was all brain-dead followers of a religious feller who called himself God’s Seer. Ain’t exactly what any of us woulda called him, of course.
Seems this Seer fellow had word from the Creator hisself, as somehow figgered from the positions of the stars, that the world was going to jist flash to nothing–or something like that–late the night before last. Which was interesting, ’cause we only had hours to wait if we wanted to witness the End of Times up close and personal.
What’s that? No, I know the world didn’t end, idjit. Never said any of this was my idee, now did I? Where was I–oh, yeah.
Anyway, like I was saying afore I was so rudely interrupted, turned out this End of the World was supposed to happen spot-on at midnight the very night them purloined longhorns come trailing into camp with us not far behind. You know we’d all wondered why rustlers would bother when the price still ain’t gone above four bucks a head down here in Texas? Well, turned out they didn’t want to sell this bunch. They wanted to eat ’em. Have themselves a big feast, go out of this vale of tears on full stomachs when the witching hour struck.
I know, I know. It gave us the wild willies, too. How could they figger they needed two hunnert head of prime beef jist to single-feast one hunnert humans?
Turned out the answer was simple, though. This God’s Seer fella had not only calculated the time of Earth’s passing, but he’d also calculated how many true believers would be joining him fer them final few hours and a double helping of steak and beans.
Right. He’d expected thousands, but mere dozens showed up. The shortfall didn’t seem to shake up old Seer all that much, though. He jist ordered his zombies to butcher out three of the best steers and let the rest go.
We talked it over, hunkered down as we was, and decided we’d best jist let ’em do the killing and the cutting and the feasting and all. The rest of the cows were already starting to drift back the way we wanted ’em to go, anyway. Plus, them mossyhorns was plumb tuckered; they’d be bedding down right soon if we didn’t bother ’em…and give us what fer if we did.
It made us some nervous, though. What if the Seer was right? Mebbe the whole world wouldn’t end, but even one little old flash flood would more’n git our attention in that wash we was using as a listening post.
Anyway, night came and went. The sun come up like always, not even a red sky to give a sailor a bit of warning. And them true believers was fit to be tied. Some was praying aloud, some was whining at the Seer to tell ’em what went wrong with his prediction, but most was jist sitting around in little clumps, staring first at the sky and then at each other, back to the sky, jist dumbstruck.
We was still dry. With enough light to see the trail, it was time to slip on out, gather up them cattle, git headed back this way.
What? No, boss, we didn’t even bother to punish them that rustled the cows. You don’t look none too pleased to hear of our forbearance, but here’s the thing; we didn’t need to do nothing about that end of it.
See, we was jist backing outa the wash when there was one helluva commotion in that camp. When all was said and done, the men that risked their lives to steal our beef had picked out a scrub oak that was taller’n most and strung up God’s Seer by his scrawny old neck. Then the rest of them true believers started giving the hanging party what fer with sticks and stones and anything else that come to hand.
What’s that, Jeb? Yep, that’s right. You got it. The end of the world sure enough did come fer them few; that’s a fact. Jist not exactly the way they had it figgered.