They pushed the herd in the rising angles of the morning light, talked about their horses and about their favorite television shows. They yipped and called at the straggling steers and from time to time an older cowboy would ride back to see how they were doing.
As the morning brightened and warmed into the afternoon the sun slid down the sky and turned to block their vision, they saw they had pushed the herd through a gate in a fence. The herd fanned out into the pasture. On the near side of the gate, the flanking cowboys waved and called to the herd. On the far side, the old man sat his horse. He sat there as stone with only gray-blue smoke leaking from lips that were pinched tightly around his pipe.
“How many you lose?” the old man barked.
“What?” the boy yelled, but he knew what was asked.
“I said, ‘How many did you leave behind?’”
“I don’t think we left any” the boy said glancing at the kid.
“Doubt that. Looks to me you boys been talkin’ like a couple of school girls. Been watching you for the last three miles. You sure as hell had better not left one. I guess you better ride back down that road and see. I’ll come down and get you in the morning. I don’t want you pulling that trailer up this road in the dark.”
The old man reined his horse towards the cabin and said over his shoulder to the other cowboys, “Come on, men. Let’s put the horses up and get us some supper.”
The men moved in rank behind the old man and followed him to the cabin the way the steers had followed him up the road. The two boys watched them leave.
“Did he really mean we have to ride back down the road?” the kid asked.
“What are we supposed to do for supper?”
“Don’t’ know. Maybe we can find something in one of the trucks down the road.”
“That’s fifteen miles away!” the kid said. “I already got sores on my ass. That old man’s a bastard.”
They turned their horses around and went back down the road in silence. The boy could see the shadow of the kid’s hat, shaking back and forth as if still puzzling at the injustice of the old man.
“What if we find a couple of steers?”
“That’ll be bad. He’ll blow a head gasket.”
“Wull, let’s don’t find any.”
“But they’re your cattle.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Is he always so mean?”
They made their way down the road listening for the bawling of a stray steer. They talked little. Whether from fatigue or from lack of common experiences or the weight of the day and the rejection of community that would have been enjoyed with the others in the warmth of the cabin, they didn’t know.