“Hi!” said a fleshy, rose-faced boy trying to sound older than he was. “Dad owns these cattle. I guess I’m going to ride back of the herd with you.
The boy looked at the kid, sizing him up, looked at his horse, his tack, the way he sat his horse, and decided he’d spent little time on the horse and probably inside a polled yard.
“Well, looks like you and I are going to be friends. Dad says that after this cattle drive I’m going to spend the summer on the ranch with you and that crusty old man. I guess I’m supposed to learn how to cowboy from him. Dad says if I learn from him, I’ll know the old ways.”
The boy frowned. This was the first time he had heard that there would be a kid his age up at the ranch all summer. The news hit him hard. There would be an intruder into his ordered and private world.
He swallowed and said, “Okay. Well, we better get around to the far end of that holding pasture so when they open this gate, we can push through.”
They reined their horses towards the gate where a dark-faced Mexican opened and let them through as if he were some ancient knight guarding a castle. The yearling steers that were milling about began to bawl and push against each other, crowding and bunching all hide and bone.
The old man sat his horse as if God had imagined him a cowboy at the beginning of time; as if the horse and man were one. He nudged the bay with his knees, laid the reins on the neck of the horse and the gelding turned and began a slow walk up the road towards the ranch. The old man called over his shoulder, “Come on, steers! Come on!”
The calls of the cowboys on the flanks and the push from the boys in the far end of the herd moved them through the gate. They followed the old man like dogs following their master. The beasts moved in a languid flow, mixing colors and shapes. Dust curled from the ground in their passing.
“Git up there, steers!” shouted the boy in a voice higher than he had wished. “Git, steers.” His arm rose stiff and outstretched as if painting the broad side of a barn. “Git up there!” Voices clipped and unintelligible began floating over the moving beasts, whistles, and clucks of tongues, each cowboy thinking his particular bark to the steer’s appropriate communication to keep moving up the road.
The herd ambled up the winding road, and it began to feel to the boys in the back of the herd that they were pushing a rope in the dirt. The steers bunched and broke at narrows in the road and the cowboys on the flanks chased down uncooperative animals to bring them back to the herd.
“Man, this dust is horrible back here!” shouted the kid over the shoulders of the steers towards the boy.
“Yeah, and the cow crap is so deep my horse is slipping in it. We almost went down a couple of times.”
They worked their horses towards the center of the rear of the herd so that they could talk without shouting. The kid had wrapped a bright red kerchief around his face like a bandit. As he approached the boy, he pulled it down and said, “When do you think we’ll get lunch?” His white teeth showed behind brown lips that had collected so much dust from being licked; it looked like he’d been dipping snuff.
The boy shrugged and said he didn’t know. Said he’d heard there was an intersection of old logging roads about seven miles ahead of where the lunch truck would be. Each cowboy would pick up a sandwich and soda as the herd passed by.
“This is fun, ain’t it?” the kid said.
“I reckon,” said the boy.
But there was no delight in his eyes. Only a benign look of uncertainty. As if something could change at any moment, without warning.