The Trail to Abilene
The Trail to Abilene
“Here comes the boss now.”
“This’ll probably upset him a might.”
“Upset him? Tarnation, boy! Ole Matt sees this and he’ll be hotter than a cat-house on nickel night.”
“What have we got?” the newcomer asked as he reigned in his gray dun and dismounted.
Matt Wilson had been driving cattle across Texas for the better part of a decade. Aside from the rigors of the trail, he had fought Indians, Mexicans, and rustlers, all of which had both wizened and toughened him up. He looked at the two men, then shifted his gaze to the carcass lying in the buffalo wallow.
“How many does this make, Lom?” Matt asked the older man.
Lom was a short, wiry man who had ridden the trails of Texas before they were even trails. He knew how to handle cattle better than any man Matt had ever met. “Purt near thirty by my reckonin’,” the cowpuncher responded.
Matt shook his head. He then turned his attention to the younger man. Where Lom was short, Seth was tall, taller even than Matt. He was muscular, yet his face still held a hint of wide-eyed innocence.
“Seth. You ride back to the main herd and send Doc out here.”
From the look on Seth’s face, Lom had a good idea what was going through the young man’s head. “Tarnation, boy! We ain’t wantin’ ta cook the dang’d thing. We just want ta know what kilt it.”
After he rode off, Matt turned his attention back to the dead cow. “So, how’s the kid doing?” he asked.
“Considerin’ he’s still somewhere betwixt grass and hay, not too bad. Fact is, I reckon the kid might make a fair trail boss hisself one day.”
They didn’t have to wait very long before they heard the man called Doc approaching. He dismounted and walked down into the wallow. From the white flecks of dried foam on the creature’s mouth, and the gouges in the earth where it thrashed around as it was dying, the man knew exactly what the cause of death was.
“Same as the others,” Doc said as he stood up and went to where Matt and Lom were standing. “This cow died from eating water hemlock.”
“That’s what I figured,” Matt said. Without looking at the man, he said, “Lom. Take the kid with you and ride about five miles up the trail. There’s a water hole that I want you to make sure is clear of the stuff.”
“Gotcha, boss,” the older man said climbing into the saddle and turning his strawberry roan back towards the main herd.
“Nothing else to be done here, Matt,” Doc commented. “We might as well ride back as well.”
Doc had only been with Matt’s outfit for seven months, but the trail boss had taken a liking to him. He definitely wasn’t the typical trail cook. He had the look of a tenderfoot, but had proven that that was not the case; the trail boss had seen him sling lead with the best of them. Aside from rustling up a fine meal for the hands, he also knew a good bit about medicine. Rumor had it that he had learned a good bit about herbs and the like from an old medicine man. That the man had some learning was obvious; Matt just couldn’t figure out why he was wasting his life on the trail.
“Yep. We still have a few hours of riding ahead of us, and we ain’t getting it done sitting here.”
* * * * *
Seth knew that come daybreak he would need the rest he was missing, but something had awakened him and wouldn’t let him go back to sleep. Climbing from his bedroll, he slipped his boots on, poured himself a cup of coffee that had been kept warm on a flat rock by the fire, and saddled up his mount. “Might as well go see how the fellers doing night-herd are getting along,” he said to himself.
Of the two men to whom the task had been assigned, the young man came upon Scott Mason first. As he rode up, Scott waved.
“You realize what Lom would say if he know’d you were out here instead of takin’ a shut-eye, don’t you?” Scott asked.
Seth put a dour look on his face. “Tarnation, boy. If’n ya were meant ta be ridin’ night-herd, Matt would a told ya so.”
The other cowpuncher laughed. “I guess you got him pegged.” Scott looked at the herd, then back at Seth. “So, what are you doing out here?”
“Don’t really know.”
“It’s probably the herd that’s keepin’ you awake,” Scott said after a moment. “They say Matt was the same way before he became a trail boss. It shows that you want to see the job done right.”
“That might be it,” Seth said thoughtfully. “I’d hate to see Matt’s reputation ruined because he lost so many cattle on the way to Abilene.”
“Matt’s got a good bit of reputation to fall back on, so I don’t think this will hurt him too bad.” A noise behind Scott made him turn. “Looks like I’ve got a wanderer,” he said as he spotted a young heifer straying away from the herd. “Don’t loose too much sleep over this; Matt will figure something out.”
As Scott wheeled his horse around, Seth decided to check on the other nightrider.
At first he didn’t notice Jack Ericson among the cattle when he rode up. When he saw the man’s saddle empty, he assumed that the man was answering the call of nature.
“Kinda late to be out, ain’t it?”
Seth turned towards the sound of the voice and saw Jack standing beside one of the cattle.
“She was limpin’,” Jack said by way of explanation. “Thought she might have stepped in a hole or somethin’.”
“She alright?” Seth asked.
“Yeah, it was just a thorn. She’ll be fine.”
Jack walked back to his horse and mounted up. “So, what are you doing out here?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Seth replied, “so I thought I’d ride out and see how you and Scott were doing.”
“Don’t know about him,” Jack said, “but, other than the thorn, it’s been quiet.”
“Scott had one that decided to go for a walk; beyond that, he’s had no problem.”
The two men talked for a few more minutes, and then Seth decided to take a little ride farther up the trail. “If I’m not back by sun-up, let Matt know that I’m just checking the trail.”
“Will do,” Jack replied as he dug into his vest pocket and dug out a pouch. “Build you a smoke before you go?”
“Sure,” Seth said, “why not?”
The nightrider rolled up a cigarette and, along with a match, handed it to Seth.
“Much obliged,” the young man said.
After lighting his smoke, Seth turned his horse northwest and started off up the trail. He had only been riding about a half an hour when he spotted something a couple dozen yards off to his left.
With a slight tug, his mount changed directions. As he drew closer, Seth saw that it was the moon’s light reflecting off a small pool of water. Dismounting, he walked his horse to the water’s edge.
“Might as well make sure there’s no water hemlock around here,” he said to his horse, “just in case any of the herd wanders over here.”
The animal ignored him and began to drink.
Because of the moon’s reflection, there was plenty of light by which to work. Seth spent the better part of an hour searching the area. He was surprised to find almost none of the plant. What he did find had already been pulled and appeared to have been dropped and stepped on. He also found something else that he thought Matt should know about as soon as possible.
By the time he arrived back at the camp, Scott and Jack had already ridden in. Jack saw him coming and poured him a cup of coffee.
“Find anything?” the man asked as Seth dismounted.
“Not really,” Seth replied as he accepted the tin cup and took a sip. “Where’s Matt?”
“He’s already gone out to check the herd. Don’t worry, though. I gave him your message and he said that was fine.”
“Tarnation, boy!” Lom’s voice suddenly boomed behind Seth. “This ain’t one of them high-falootin’ New York City social clubs. Swaller that coffee and mount up; there’s cattle ta move.”
Seth did as he was told and immediately regretted it. He threw down the empty cup and grabbed his canteen off his horse. It was nearly empty by the time he had his insides cooled down enough to say anything.
“Tarnation, boy,” Lom said, only his eyes showing his amusement, “I didn’t mean all at once. That stuff’s too hot to be gulpin’ like that.”
“Now you tell me,” Seth gasped.
Jack took the canteen. “I’ll run over to the chuck wagon and fill this up for you.” He returned a few moments later.
“Much obliged,” Seth said as he mounted up and hung his canteen over his saddle horn. A quick tug on the reins and his horse turned and headed towards the herd.
* * * * *
Matt sat astride his gray dun in the shade of a stand of cottonwoods. Had he been the superstitious type, he would have sworn the high, Texas sun was angry at the world and was doing its best to burn everything to a cinder. He saw Lom riding the herd and whistled to get his attention.
The older man angled towards the cottonwoods to join his boss. “I see yer settin’ a good example fer the boys,” he grinned.
“I try,” Matt replied. “Actually, that’s what I was wanting to talk to you about. Send the boys over here two at a time and tell them they get five minutes of shade.”
The trail boss was just about ready to ride back to the herd when he spotted on of the hands riding towards the cottonwoods.
“Betcha the first round when we hit Abilene he’s got bad news,” Lom said.
“How green do you think I am?” Matt looked at his friend. “That’s a sucker bet, and you know it.”
He turned his attention to the rider. “What’s wrong, Rick?”
“We lost another one, Matt,” the cowboy said. “Doc says it’s the same as the others.”
“I thought you and the kid cleaned out around the water hole?” Matt asked.
“We did, Matt. On my pappy’s grave we did.”
“You don’t even know who your pa was,” the trail boss laughed.
“Yeah, but I’m bettin’ wherever that sidewindin’ skunk is, he’s six feet under.”
Matt just shook his head.
“Rick. You’ve got five minutes here in the shade to cool down, then it’s back to the herd.”
The man smiled. “Thanks, Matt.”
“I’ll round up Seth,” Lom said, no longer thinking about his time in the shade. “Maybe he missed some thinkin’ I’d git it.”
Rick pointed towards the front of the herd. “He was up thataways a bit ago.”
Lom rode off in the direction indicated while Matt headed back the way Rick had come. Almost immediately, Lom spotted the young man and began cutting through the cattle to where he was. As he drew nearer, Seth looked at the older man.
Then Seth toppled from the saddle.
Lom was on the ground at almost the same instant the young man hit. It had been a long time since he had moved that fast, but Lom pushed himself past the few remaining cows like a man half his age.
Rick had seen it all from the shade of the cottonwoods and lit out after Matt.
After hearing what had happened, the trail boss put spurs to his mount and raced towards where the young man had fallen. He sent Rick on to find Doc.
When Doc, with Rick in tow, rode up, the expressions on Matt and Lom’s faces told him that there was little he could do. With Rick’s help, Matt put Seth’s lifeless body across his saddle and they led the horse back to the chuck wagon.
* * * * *
“What in the world was he going to do with it?” Matt asked as he held the remains of the plant Seth had found. “Lom. I need you to find out who the last person to talk to the kid was.”
“I can tell you that right now,” the cowboy said. “When I rode up this morning, him and Jack was havin’ a conversation.”
“Tell him I want to talk to him pronto.”
Lom went looking for the cowboy.
“Matt, take a look at this.” Doc handed what he had found to Matt.
“Where did you find this?”
“It was in his pants pocket, which is why it didn’t fall out when he fell off the horse,” Doc said. “It looks like he wanted to keep anyone else from seeing it.”
Before either man could pose an answer, Lom and Jack approached them. Matt closed his hand.
“Lom says you were probably the last one to talk to Seth,” Matt said.
“Yep. I talked to him last night when he rode out, and then again when he returned this morning.”
“This is when he came up the trail to see what lay ahead of us,” the trail boss nodded.
“He said he wanted to make sure we didn’t run into any more water hemlock.” Jack went quiet, almost thoughtful. “You don’t reckon he had other reasons for checkin’ for it, do you?”
Matt glanced at Doc. “What do you mean?”
“I ain’t tryin’ to talk bad about the man, especially since he’s done passed on, but what if he was feedin’ that stuff to the cattle?”
“That could explain a lot,” Matt said.
While Matt thought about what Jack had said, the cowboy took out his tobacco pouch and began to build himself a smoke. Pulling out a match, he lit his cigarette then tossed the match down and extinguished it with his boot heel.
“Could be how the kid accidentally poisoned hisself,” Jack said as he took a draw on his smoke. “Probably didn’t wash his hands afterwards.”
“You seem to have a pretty good idea as to what happened,” Matt commented. “You wouldn’t have any thoughts as to why he would do such a thing, poisoning the cattle, I mean, would you?”
“Any number of reasons, I reckon,” Jack said. “Maybe revenge for something. Or, maybe, he was planning on making you look bad so the herd would be sold cheap.”
Matt glanced first at Lom, then at Doc. “You’ve been very helpful, Jack. Now, why don’t take Seth’s place for the rest of the day. You’ll actually get to bed down come nightfall, instead of night-riding tonight.”
“You’re the boss,” Jack smiled. “I’ll saddle up and get out there.”
After he walked away, Matt bent down and picked up the match Jack had dropped. Opening his other hand, he saw that it was identical to the one Seth had found.
* * * * *
Jack had been proud of himself for pointing the finger at Seth. He was certain the young man had seen him feeding the plant to the cow last night, and it was nothing short of brilliant how he rolled the cigarette using a bit of the water hemlock. He had also made good use of the opportunity that morning when he poured both Seth’s coffee and filled up his canteen. The only hitch to his plan was that with him dead, he would have nobody to pin the killings on.
He was sure he could think of something else. He had been planning his revenge for the past seven years, ever since Matt Wilson had worked for his father. If Matt hadn’t mouthed off to a marshal about some questionable brands, his father wouldn’t have been arrested for rustling and sent to prison. Luckily, Jack had been riding with his uncle at the time, so Matt had never seen him.
By the time they reached Abilene, Jack planned to make certain that Matt was ruined. If he couldn’t discredit him, he’d do the next best thing. Matt Wilson would die.
* * * * *
Lom made sure Seth was buried proper. Despite what Jack had said, he knew there was no truth to the tale. He had tried a couple times throughout the rest of the day to talk to Matt, but the trail boss seemed to want to hear anything he had to say. Doc was the same.
By the time they had made camp that evening, he had his gear packed and was ready to leave. He was going to make one more attempt at convincing Matt, and, if that didn’t work, he was going to ride out and head back south.
When he finally caught up with Matt, he was talking with Doc and Jack.
“Seems to me you have this thing pretty much figured out,” he was saying as Lom approached.
“Now just a danged minute,” Lom said, storming into the conversation. “That boy no more kilt them cattle than you did.”
Matt ignored his friend and continued to speak. “The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with your idea about revenge.”
“That kid didn’t have a vengeful bone in his body.” Lom was getting angry.
Doc put his hand on the older man’s arm. When Lom turned sharply to look at the cook, he saw something in the man’s expression that told him his protests were useless. Throwing up his hands, he turned and walked off. “That’s it,” he said as he walked away from the fire and into the darkness, “I quit.”
Matt never seemed to notice. “There’s only one flaw I’ve found with your ideas, Jack.”
“I don’t think Seth was the one wanting revenge. I think it was you.”
Jack’s mouth dropped open. “Me?”
“It wasn’t until you mentioned selling the cattle and revenge that I finally realized who you are. You’re Cass Johnson’s boy.”
Jack knew he was found out. Since his plans for ruining Matt were finished, he decided there was only one other way to get his revenge.
Like a lightning strike, he drew his Colt and fired. Flame shot from the barrel three times, and each time they only kicked up dirt at Matt’s feet. For a second, Jack wondered why. It suddenly dawned on him just how heavy the Colt was becoming. As it fell from his grasp, he looked down and saw dark stain spreading across his chest. It was the last thing he saw.
Lom, along with the other cowpunchers gathered around.
“I believed you, Lom,” Matt said as he slid his own Colt back into its holster. “Seth was too much like his old man.”
A tear slid down Lom’s face. “I just gotta figure out how I’m gonna break this to his ma.”