They slowed and turned onto a dirt road that ran beside a small creek heading north. The boy could see the edge of the world lighten and mountains and mesas silhouetted in the east.
Up ahead, headlamps from half a dozen trucks glared at the herd of docile creatures like metallic wolves waiting for one to panic and break from the safety of the herd so they could chase it down and bring order to the world. But the cattle only milled—heads hung low—and waited for the rising day.
The old man pulled the truck up alongside the others.
“Get them horses out like I told you,” the old man said as he pulled on the emergency brake and switched off the ignition.
The boy unloaded the horses and tied their reins to the tailgate of the trailer. He could hear the old man cussing and laughing with the other cowboys over by the loading shoot and he felt lonely. He leaned against his horse and breathed in the musky smell. He closed his eyes and felt a shiver up his back. The horse leaned into him and the boy felt some comfort.
The morning mist hung on the creek bottom. Red- winged blackbirds flitted from the fence to the willow branch beside the slow-running creek. The old man conferred with the owner and finalized plans for lunch.
“You boys gather round,” he called.
Bowlegged men pushed off from leaning on horse trailers and trucks and dragged their boots towards the old man. Some spit as they gathered, others cupped their smokes in their hand as if trying to hide the glowing, but from whom is anyone’s guess.
The old man took the pipe out of his mouth with his right hand, hooked his left thumb in his belt, planted his right foot forward, and stood before them as a confident leader of men. He had led cattle drives many times. He didn’t have to say it. The set of his jaw spoke volumes.
“I’ll take point. You boys from the Davis outfit decide amongst yourselves which side of the herd you’ll flank.” Then he looked at the boy and said, “The rest of you kids will work drag.”
Thus, the hierarchy was established, sealed with the clearing of the throat, a spit of tobacco, and a scuff of a boot.