Author’s note: This last story of this series has a very short piece that has already been written and those reading it may recall it and it was in the response to the challenge; Honor is the last refuge of the Damned. I have incorporated it with some slight editing into this story.
Jalen, no longer a boy, but a young man at age twenty-eight worked with Dallas and the other men, old hands and new ones recently hired for this cattle drive. Jalen and Dallas had been lovers and partners now since the young man had turned twenty-one, these last seven, almost eight years now. His shoulders had broadened and his chest had filled out and he was well tanned, making his green eyes stand out and his sandy hair bleached out to almost blonde by hours under the son. Jalen had been on several cattle drives with the ranch owner and knew the procedure by now. Dallas treated him as an equal and the men who worked for him understood Jalen’s position and respected it and responded to him as they would their boss. Only Jake Burns, Dallas’s long time ranch foreman and the hands who were still there from when Jalen had shown up at the ranch more than eleven years ago knew that the ranch owner had taken the boy under his wing and treated him as he would a son. The newer hands as well as the newly hired ones believed he was the boss’s son and treated him as such. Neither Dallas nor Jalen disabused them of their beliefs as it made it easier when Dallas hugged Jalen in front of them, or swatted him, whichever was the case. Dallas seldom swatted Jalen in public for the most part, now it was only when it was truly deserved because he had misbehaved outrageously in front of an audience. These events had grown fewer and far between over time and Dallas was proud of Jalen and the maturity he had developed. There was still that teen age boy underneath and his mischievous side peeked out, but mostly in an appropriate manner. The young man however still made errors in judgement or pushed his lover’s buttons until he found himself across his lap having his backside well paddled.
Jalen still wondered about this part of his life. How a sound spanking could ground him and settle him still was a bit of a mystery to him. He just knew when he felt out of sorts and was bottling things up inside that he’d push until Dallas gave him what he both deserved and had been asking for and felt better afterward even if his backside didn’t. He also found that he liked being in charge and found out he was able to quell a younger or new hand by giving them what he called his “Dallas” look. He secretly liked to see them squirm under that look and it made him feel good inside that he could rein in some of these young men that way. He found that his firm, quiet voice got more results than yelling, cussing or being sarcastic or belittling. He liked his ability to do that as well and so the two things were still confusing to him at times. How he could push for release with a spanking, yet feel dominant and in charge when he needed to be and in a quiet manner like his mentor and lover. He shook his head, deciding he needed to concentrate now on his work and could think about these things later. He called to one of the younger men to bring the other horses in the barn into the corral. He was sorting which they would take on the drive and would make up the Remuda.
Dallas Kincaid watched his young lover handle the men under his care. He liked that he didn’t feel the need to be belligerent or bullying to gain control over situations and made requests of his men, treating them with dignity instead of just shouting out orders like a military drill sergeant as he had seen others who were in charge of ranch hands do. He was grateful that Jalen had learned better ways from him and was becoming a well-respected and looked up to young man. He had to chuckle at the look he would aim at times at a couple of younger hands who were messing around instead of taking the work seriously and how they straightened up almost immediately. He mused that although Jalen had his boyish side to him he had the presence of a self-confident and in charge person. Dallas knew the boyish side of Jalen came from his past and his insecurities emotionally at times and he was more than happy to oblige him by heating his behind and giving him an ache he’d feel for a few days to remind him that the older man was still in charge and not to overstep his boundaries with him, but also to let him know that he was unconditionally loved and there wouldn’t ever be anything he could do no matter how outrageous that would cause Dallas to reject him and send him away as had happened in the past.
Jalen got on his horse, Jasper and began to cut out the horses Dallas had asked him to choose for the drive. The young hand who would be the wrangler stood nearby to halter and lead the horse off to another corral where the Remuda horses would be placed in preparation for the drive.
Dallas approached the corral and watched for a while. “Good job Jalen, you’re making very good choices.” He praised.
Jalen turned in the saddle and grinned. “Thanks Dallas, I just ask myself what you’d look for in a Remuda horse and look for that and then cut them out.”
Dallas chuckled. “Well I’m glad I’m able to be a guide to you for that.”
Jalen smiled back, love shining in his green eyes for this man.
“I think once you’re finished here we’re about set. Cookie has the chuck wagon set up and has moved in his supplies for the drive. The cattle are all penned up and are grazin’. Jake has chosen the dominant steer to lead the drive and I think we can plan to leave tomorrow mornin’.”
Jalen nodded. “All right. “
Dallas smiled. “You can tell Jake to tell the men then we’re leavin’.”
Jalen chuckled and said, “All right Boss.” Affection in his voice and a mischievous twinkle in his green eyes.
Dallas shook his head and returned a smile that promised much more at the end of the day.
Jalen, once he had gotten the go ahead by Dallas went to Jake and informed him the boss wanted to leave at dawn and the foreman and now trail boss asked him to go over to the men and spread the word they would be leaving in the morning so if they wanted to go into town that night they could, but had to report to him with their gear and to be ready to leave by dawn and anyone who wasn’t there would be fired, so not to expect to catch up with the drive.
The men all acknowledged Jalen’s instructions from Jake and completed their assigned chores before getting ready for their last night on the town. They wouldn’t have another one until they stopped at the end of the drive and received their pay.
Dallas had selected Jake as the trail boss because he had the experience and the ranch owner trusted him as well as knew he’d enforce the rules while on the drive and fairly. Jalen knew what was expected of him. He hoped Jake would choose him as one of the point riders, but also knew if he crossed him he’d be riding drag, or tail suffering with the dust and the smell of all those cattle. The young man also knew Dallas wouldn’t object because when on the drive the trail boss was totally in charge of everything. They had over thirty-five hundred head of cattle to move and there would be eighteen hands in all driving the herd plus the young wrangler who would be handling the Remuda. They’d be strung out along the trail and moving slowly for the first few days until the cattle got used to following each other down the trail. If they made fifteen miles in a day they would be doing very well. The chuck wagon and trail boss along with Dallas would be scouting ahead for a good stopping place each day for watering the cattle and grazing, so they could eat the noon meal and then again for stopping for the night. They’d also be on the lookout for any kind of trouble along the way. There wasn’t so much Indian trouble since the reservations were created, but there were always small stray bands they’d come across or the danger of rustlers trying to steal cattle that straggled behind. Crossing rivers was also another danger as well as just being exposed to the sun.
Once they stopped for the night the cattle would need to be bedded down and watches posted at two hour intervals. , At night the hands would create an atmosphere of quiet and peace because no one wanted to rile the herd. A stampede was something that was to be avoided at all costs. Mostly stampedes occurred at night and could be set off by an unexpected clap of thunder, the noise from cookie’s skillet, a snapping twig, anything that was an unexpected noise.
A stampede could cost the loss of time and cattle; it could be deadly for the cowboys handling the herd. If their horse should fall or stumble the cowhand could be crushed.
Jake was very stern about keeping the camp quiet at night for this very reason. Stampedes could happen during the day as well, and could be triggered again by a violent thunderstorm or an Indian waving a blanket at the herd. Being caught up in a stampede was the most dangerous thing that could happen to a cowboy.
Jake let the hands relax, when time allowed, but most times there was very little time for these pursuits. Dallas didn’t allow any gambling or drinking while on the drive. This could cause loud arguments to erupt and disturb the cattle, possibly causing a stampede. Once the cattle were content and things were quiet the men could converse softly, sing softly or go to the river to swim quietly or wash their dirty clothes. Most of the time they would be too tired from riding most of the day and ready to bed down for the night themselves. Each man took a turn at riding watch over the cattle so tried to get as much sleep as they could before it was their turn to take the watch.
Only select cowboys on the Smoking K drive were allowed to carry firearms, pistols and rifles. Most were not allowed for their own safety. An unarmed man was less likely to be shot at or gunned down than an armed one, especially in the cattle town at the end of the drive.
When the hands went into Stony Creek that night, two of them surreptitiously slipped away from the others and secretly met up with three other men. The two who had been hired on told the other three they were moving out in the morning.
“I’ll let the boss know.” One of them said.
The other one nodded. “You keep yourselves out of trouble. We don’t want you getting’ fired before we can get them cattle. Thirty-five hundred steers more or less will bring us all a pretty penny.”
The third one nodded. “Yeah it will, but only if we can get ‘em sold at the rail station.”
They all nodded.
One of the other men told the two “The boss said we’ll try to hit near the end of the drive so we won’t have far to bring the cattle.”
The two hired on for the drive nodded. “Okay, just don’t get seen.”
The other three men nodded. “You just don’t get caught.” One of them growled.
The other two men nodded and the quick little meeting broke up with the two hired hands mingling back in with the others from the Smoking K going on the drive.
Dawn broke with promise of a hot, sunny cloudless day. Jake Burns set up and as each hand reported to him with their gear, including Jalen, he marked them down in a book he kept for this purpose, taking down each man’s name and where they were from and a person they could contact just in case something happened to them along the way and someone had to be notified. Not all the men had someone that would care enough about them to want to know if anything happened and these Jake made note of as the Smoking K would then take responsibility to take care to bury them if they happened to be killed on the drive as was a real possibility at any time and also the Smoking K would absorb any doctor bills for any injuries incurred along the drive as well. Once all the cowboys were registered Jake closed the book, stowed his things in the chuck wagon and assigned the men to the different positions. He looked at Jalen. “You are goin’ to ride point Jalen along with Happy, but if you give me any trouble young man you’ll be ridin’ drag understand?”
Happy was one of the hands that had been on the Smoking K ranch when Jalen had been hired on and he nodded. “Yes Sir Mr. Jake.” He responded as would any of the other cowboys on the drive. “I’ll be sure to mind my manners and follow all the rules boss.”
Jake nodded and said, “Good.” He then turned to the cowboys and gave them their assigned positions. Jake was a fair man and would rotate the positions except for the point riders who would guide the lead steer, so no one had to ride behind the herd all the time unless they were riding there as a disciplinary measure. Then they’d find themselves riding drag for anywhere from a few days to a week.
Dallas smiled to himself as he watched everyone taking up their positions as the trail boss and chuck wagon started out, followed by the point riders and the steers and then by the swing riders about a third of the way back in the herd, followed by the flank riders about two thirds of the way back and then the tail or drag riders bringing up the rear.
Once all the cattle and cowboys were moving and heading down the trail Dallas rode up to where Cookie was driving the chuck wagon and Jake rode along. He rode along with them both to help spot good places to stop, but also to make sure if there was any trouble he would be at the ready to deal with it. He’d ride up and down the herd periodically to make sure the cowboys weren’t having any difficulty and occasionally helped with a stubborn steer that didn’t want to follow or with the stragglers at the end of the herd with the men who rode drag. All the cowboys respected Dallas for this as most owners either didn’t go on the drive at all, or if they did they stayed well ahead of the herd not helping out.
The Smoking K drive made pretty good time on the trail. The weather cooperated, the river crossings happened without too much difficulty, although there was always the balking steer, or the occasional steer that tried to attack a man near it, but the men were constantly on guard for problems and most all of them were experienced enough to avoid anything really bad from happening and the younger ones listened to the older and more experienced cowboys. The cowboys watched out for each other and several times Dallas had seen Jalen send a quelling look at a younger man who either wasn’t paying close enough attention or cutting up a bit too much at night.
The days passed by and although there were a few disciplinary measures taken with some of the newer or younger cowboys, no one got into any serious trouble and accepted the penalties meted out as they had come to know Dallas Kincaid was an honest, hardworking caring man and that all were treated fairly. There had even been one occasion when Jalen hadn’t done as he had been asked and ended up riding behind the herd. The thing they didn’t know was that he had done that with a sore bottom those days as well.
As they drew closer to the rail station Jalen kept having a strange feeling they were being observed. He never saw anything that tipped him off, but there was just something that didn’t sit right with the young man. He had seen two of the new hands with their heads together quite often talking at night, and they seemed to be observing the horizon during the day, but others did those things as well. There was just something that niggled at him that he didn’t like.
About three days from the rail station Jalen went to Dallas. “Dallas…I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but I can’t shake the feelin’ something’s up, but I have no idea what it is.” He told the older man with a worried look.
Dallas listened to Jalen and said, “I’ve been havin’ a feelin’ of unease these last few days as well, but I don’t have anythin’ solid to base it on either.” He told Jalen. “I think I’ll ask Jake to post two extra guards on the herd tonight.” He told the young man.
Jalen nodded. “Yes, I think that might be a very good idea.”
Later that night Jake asked the two young men, unbeknownst to him who were in cahoots with rustlers who kept out of sight to act as extra guards on the herd. They agreed readily.
One of them had been able to slip away to tip off the rustlers who had joined them in the past few days near the rail head as they had planned. It was a moonless night and the steers seemed a bit restless. The first four men rode around the herd and in camp, the others slept for a few hours until it was their watch.
The watches changed and the last watch included the two men Jalen had been suspicious of. Sometime just before dawn when the stars were just winking out and the sun was just peeking up over the horizon and the cattle were still contentedly bedded down and all was quiet and still one of the cowboys who had been connected with the rustlers and who was riding guard over the herd deliberately rode a little too close to a tree and snapped a branch off loudly, sounding like a rifle shot in the early morning stillness. All of a sudden about thirty-five hundred steers began to struggle to their feet and run blindly, startled by the loud unexpected sound.
There were shouts of stampede and the other two men guarding the herd were overtaken by the rustlers and knocked out cold as they overran the herd and the men.
There was complete pandemonium. As the steers ran and the rustlers shouted and waved hats and anything else they had the steers over ran the camp. Cowboys had jumped up out of their sleeping rolls and mounted their horses. Jalen had been awake and had stomped into his boots and jumped onto Jasper, his rifle in its holster.
Dallas had mounted hornet. There were steers with long sharp horns all over the place pushing and shoving at horses and men alike. Some men were trampled and Dallas, seeing one of his old time hands caught up in the stampede rode to try to redirect the steers, but one caught his horse Hornet with its horns causing the animal to scream and rear.
Jalen trying to see through the dust and hear over the noise saw Dallas ride into the oncoming steers. He tried to shout to him, but wasn’t sure the man could hear over all the noise and screams of men, horses and the bawling of the steers. Then there was the smell of the dust and blood.
When he saw Hornet rear and the horse scream and Dallas slip from the saddle down among the sharp hooves and horns of the oncoming steers he was sure he had screamed Dallas’s name, but no one could hear over the chaos.
Jalen saw the rustlers and tried to get into a good position to shoot, but was being jostled by steers and Jake pulled him from his saddle and onto the ground just as a bullet went whizzing past where his head had been just a moment before. Jalen held onto his rifle and swore.
As the air cleared and the chaos quieted Jalen Brooks aimed his rifle and shot at the rustlers as they high tailed it across the sage and mesquite. His anger was hot as he looked around at the carnage. His beloved Dallas trampled, broken and bleeding. Cattle moaning and being shot by the other cowboys at the trail boss’s instructions as they lay either gored or with broken limbs.
He got up from where Jake had pulled him to the ground and took a few more shots at the retreating backs of the men who had caused the horror he saw in front of him.
Jake went over to Jalen to try to settle him, but he shook the man off and went over to where Dallas lay and gently moved him, turning him onto his back. He could see the man was dead. Tears filled his green eyes and he covered his face and moaned and sobbed out his mentor’s name. He had been the only person in his life who had truly loved him. He was numb and when Jake again came over to help roughly pushed him away. “Don’t touch him!” He snapped. “I’ll take care of him!”
Jake stepped back. He knew the young man was hurting. Hell, he was angry and hurting too, but he knew the boy and man had been much closer than most knew. He decided to give Jalen his space.
Jalen went over to the chuck wagon which had miraculously survived and found a blanket. He took it and gently wrapped Dallas in it and carried him back to the chuck wagon. He laid him inside and then helped to clean up the rest of the carnage, with the dead cattle buried and the injured men tended to and the dead men and horses also buried, he looked up to the sky and wondered what he had done to deserve such a punishment…why he had been damned…He had known a man who had done nothing…a man of honor.
Jalen honored Dallas by riding alongside the chuck wagon during the day and guarding it through the night until they had arrived at the Smoking K.
He tended the battered and broken body himself, preparing it for burial.
Jalen saw to it that his mentor and lover received a proper burial. He paid homage to the man who had taught him about honor and many other things that would help him to continue on even though the love of his life was now gone.
After the funeral Jalen had been stunned to hear he had been the sole inheritor of the Smoking K Ranch. He had been numb for days after the stampede and subsequent burial. The rest of the hands had gathered up what cattle were left, sold them and returned to the ranch in time to pay their respects to Dallas Kincaid.
Jake had handled paying the cowboys and he and the hands who had worked at the Smoking K for a long time stuck around to help Jalen.
He was grateful for Jake’s assistance, but he just wasn’t Dallas. Eventually the hands drifted off to find other jobs and Jalen, realizing he had no heart any longer for the Smoking K without Dallas paid off the rest of the men and with Jake’s help sold off the stock and then the ranch itself.
He and Jake had shook hands and parted ways. The young man made one more stop before leaving the Smoking K and stopped at a gravestone. The one next to it proclaimed “Justin Dawson Kincaid” Jalen knew this was Dallas’s uncle. He knelt at the one that had Dallas Kincaid engraved on it and wept bitter tears and sobbed and asked the man to forgive him for selling his ranch but he hadn’t the heart for it and would rather see someone have it and keep it as it should be instead of letting it go downhill and decay just as Dallas’s dead body would do. He pulled the weeds that now covered the two graves and when they were both neat and looked well cared for he wiped his eyes, blew his nose and said quietly, “I love you Dallas.” Then he turned and rode off.
Jalen had drifted along until one day he came into a town named Diamond Springs. The town was infested with outlaws who were taking advantage of the people and the shopkeepers and he took it upon himself to run them out. He didn’t really care if he lived or died as he didn’t believe he had anything to live for. Fortunately for Jalen he survived and the townspeople got together and begged him to stay and become Sheriff of Diamond Springs.
Jalen decided that this was something good he could do and accepted the job and it wasn’t until five years later a young outlaw came into Jalen Christopher Brooks life to change things for him and awaken him as Dallas had done all those years ago.