A Cloud on the Prairie
Jonathan surveyed the vast prairie from his saddle. The sky was blue and clear, and a single lonely cloud floated overhead. It was the type of cloud content in its isolation, happy to sit still on the prairie unless the wind beckoned it otherwise. Farther off, a thin trail of gray smoke twirled upwards toward the cloud.
The cattle moved at a lazy pace, but at least they wandered in the right direction, Jonathan thought. Maybe after a solid month of being herded towards the rising sun the cattle had finally accepted the predetermined route.
On the horizon, Jonathan saw the laziest of the cattle bringing up the rear almost a mile away. Their pace was slower than usual.
Jonathan let out a piercing whistle that echoed across the grassland. He listened atop his horse, but no answer ever came.
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“Well, Jake,” he said to his chestnut companion, “We better go see what’s got Tom fallin’ off pace.”
He gave his loyal horse a gentle but firm nudge with his boot, and a second later Jake was dashing across the green sea. A few cattle took notice as he passed, but most were content to ignore the world for their grazing.
Surprised not to find his friend at the rear of the herd, Jonathan continued toward the thin trail of gray smoke still weaving its way into the sky.
“What the hell you doin’, Tom?” asked Jonathan as he rode up to the previous night’s campsite.
“You ain’t hardly packed anything up. Them cattle in the rear are startin’ to think they’re the ones doin’ the herdin’.”
Tom just sat quietly on an old log with his hands folded in his lap. He stared into the dying embers of what had been a healthy fire an hour earlier. Now merely a few coals held on to their orange glow. The coals pulsed and grew dimmer with every breath.
“What you foolin’ for, Tom?” asked Jonathan. “We don’t get them cattle to St. Louis by the end of the week, ain’t gonna be much more than potatoes to eat this winter. We got a deadline to meet. Come on, now. Stop foolin’.”
Tom finally looked at up at his friend. His eyes were blank. Or swimming with thoughts. Either way, he seemed far away from Jonathan. Like he held some great piece of knowledge that his friend was not yet burdened with.
“What it is it, partner?” asked Jonathan. “Why you lookin’ like that?”
“Only five days to St. Louis, right?” Tom asked.
“You know it is.”
“How long will it take you without me on the rear?”
“Seven probably, maybe six if I run Jake ragged. Why? You done found the spot for that cabin? You ready to settle down this second?”
“Nah, don’t think I’ve got much use for a place of my own these days,” said Tom as his gaze fell on his palomino mare. “Think you and ole Jake can make it with Barley in tow?”
“I reckon we could. But why would you want us to do that? What’s all this about?” Jonathan asked. Unable to hide his concern, he lowered himself off his horse.
Tom’s eyes drifted back and forth like a blade of grass on the prairie dancing in the wind. His tanned brown face had a new yellow tint to it, and the lines around his mouth and eyes had grown deeper.
Tom reached into his flannel pocket with his right hand and grabbed a strip of beef jerky. In that moment, Jonathan saw Tom’s other hand. Tom’s left hand was twice its normal size. It looked more like an eggplant, and yellow pus oozed out of two distinct puncture wounds between Tom’s thumb and his trigger finger.
Jonathan knew all too well what that wound meant for Tom. All frontier men knew.
Jonathan made his way toward his friend and sat next to Tom on the log.
“Tell ma and pa I love ‘em,” said Tom. His eyes back on the dim coals as their light faded into ash.
“I will,” said Jonathan.
“Don’t worry about her. She’ll be treated better than any other horse in Texas. Fresh oats and a warm stall every day. I’ll shoe her as soon as she needs it and ride her often. And I’ll groom her so often that ole Jake will be jealous within a month.”
Both cowboys smiled.
“This ain’t a bad place for it to end.” Tom’s eyes drifted over the sea of gently rustling grass. “Will you put up a cross for me?”
“Tom, I know we ain’t blood, but you’ve always been—”
“Stop all that, now,” said Tom. “You ain’t got to say nothing. Every cold meal, every warm fire, every damn cow to ever be in our herd, and every blade of grass on our trail knows we’re blood. Maybe not the blood you’re born into. We’re the type of blood you earn. You earn it with blisters on your hands, and sores from the saddle. You earn it with stiff joints and hungry bellies.”
The two men sat in silence for a while. Tom chewed on the last of his jerky.
“Promise you’ll find you a hardworking hand you can trust. None of them soft boys from town. Find one hungry for the frontier. Find one that will take care of the horses and the herd.”
“Well, you best get on out of here. Who knows how many cattle done wandered off by now? It won’t be long anyways. Just a few minutes now. You better get.”
“You know I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’ll be right here beside ya the whole time.”
Tom gave his old friend a weak smile.
Together they watched the last coal die out and the last puff thin gray smoke make its way up to accompany that lonely cloud.