Michael Carney groaned a bit as he shifted his weight in the saddle. At forty-one, he felt the aches and pains a lot more than he used to. He no longer broke the rough string, but he felt the pains of several broken ribs and a broken leg from the days when he broke young horses. He felt them especially on the cool fall mornings like the one he was currently half way through. He sighed a bit and wished yet again for another cup of Otto's coffee. That old man was cantankerous as an old mossy-horned cow, but he sure could cook.
The aching bones brought back memories of previous jobs and cattle drives. He'd pretty much seen it all, to include Indian raids, bushwhackers, and stampedes. He allowed a quick smile to penetrate his tough, leather-like face, grateful for his current job. He liked ramrodding an outfit and the Lazy KT was the best he'd ever worked for. He'd been there going on eight years and had the ranch producing nicely. That summer they'd made a round up and driven the cattle nine hundred miles to Dodge City. He'd sent out scouts and found the best trails with the most water and brought the herd in loaded with fat. That feat resulted in a prime payout of forty dollars a head which netted his boss 20,000 dollars. Tom Stone was sitting pretty as the owner of the richest ranch in the territory and he was extremely happy with Mike's work.
Mike smiled again as he rode along the creek bank, satisfied that a warm bunk belonged to him for the winter. He'd spent enough winters roughing it out in mining camps and cold line cabins. Life on the ranch suited him and as far as he was concerned, he was done moving around, except for maybe one more move that would take him to his own spread. Thoughts about raising his own family crept more and more into his mind lately. He planned to talk to Betsy over at the Cloverleaf Café about that prospect. He also wanted to talk to Tom and Karen Stone, owners of the Lazy KT, about buying a small 200-acre plot on the north side of their ranch. He had a few ideas and hoped to build the small ranch into a nice homestead for himself and Betsy.
One time, there had been another girl, Mary. He'd felt he was too young though, and wasn't ready to provide for a family at that time. Several times over the years he looked back and regretted that decision.
No more missed opportunities ole feller. No more. It's time to make something of yourself. More than just a sixty dollar a month ramrod.
He pulled up sharply when he heard a cow's panicked bellowing. It seemed to come from up ahead in a small grove of cottonwoods alongside the creek. The trees still held their leaves so he couldn't tell what the commotion was about. He feared rustlers were operating again and shucked his pistol as he moved his horse quietly ahead. His eyes roved around the shady clearing under the trees and he breathed a sigh of relief. No rustlers!
The cow lay on her side, struggling to stand. Mike's spirits sagged. Eyes searching the area for trouble, he rode to within a rope's throw of the cow. She was obviously exhausted. She lay half in and half out of the water. Foamy bubbles frothed around her mouth and her eyes held a wild, desperate look. It was Gertie.
Three years prior he'd rescued her when her mama abandoned her, which sometimes happened. Mike hand fed her, and generally babied her, spending extra time each night with the scrawny little heifer. She'd been a fighter though, and grown into a pretty little cow. She'd been like a pet during her first year of life. Now this.
Mike saw the problem immediately. Her left front leg was twisted badly and the broken bone poked through the skin, just below her knee. The poor beast must have slipped in the mud as she was climbing out of the creek bed and caught her hoof in the rocks.
Knowing what he had to do saddened him. It was almost like putting down a member of his family. Even if he could get her out of the water, he couldn't doctor her. She'd never let him get close and she'd never survive without being able to stand.
Looking around the clearing once again to make sure there were no other dangers nearby, he leveled his Colt at her head and thumbed back the hammer.
"Good bye, Gertie. I'm sorry to do this girl."
He fired the Colt. His horse shied and jumped nervously to the side, but Mike kept him under control. The gelding was fresh off the range and not yet completely broke. Gertie died instantly and once he calmed his horse down, Mike untied his rope and stepped down. Walking to the beast, he lifted her head and patted it. He then placed the loop around her neck and fashioned a hackamore by twisting the loop and placing another one around the cow's muzzle.
Climbing back into the saddle, Mike took a dally around the horn, turned his horse and took up the slack. Once the rope tightened, he gave the mustang the spur and urged him forward, slowly dragging the dead cow up onto the bank. She was heavy and by the time she was free of the water, his horse was blowing heavily. He backed it up, loosening the rope and dropping the end on the ground. Climbing down, he walked to the cow, pulled the rope from her head and began coiling it up.
He stood near the bank, enjoying the sight of the lazy water flowing by. Ripples appeared then disappeared across the clear surface. A few clouds reflected faintly on the water. Something moving through the water caught his eye and he froze. A pair of water moccasins approached the bank right in front of him. Slowly he stepped back, trying his best not to startle the snakes. They slid quickly through the mud and up the bank. He dropped his hand to the pistol butt.
The snakes stopped moving, darting their tongues out quickly, testing the air, searching for a threat. Mike drew his Colt slowly and took another step back. Just as he cocked the gun, his foot came down on the dead cow's leg. His ankle rolled and he went down in a heap, firing his pistol in the general direction of the snakes over and over again.
Mike let go with a wild yell, scrambling to get a foothold and move out of harm's way. Things happened quickly. His horse, still only green broke, screamed with fear and jumped away into a startled gallop. The snakes, sensing the wild movements, determined a threat and quickly struck out to defend themselves. One of them only found boot leather, but the other dug its fangs deep into Mike's thigh. He yelled again painfully as the snake disengaged itself and fled to the rushes to join its friend.
Mike lay on the ground, breathing heavily. He rolled over a bit to see his horse disappear down the trail, still running strong. He rolled back and quickly dug his knife from his pocket. He undid his belt and pulled his pants down. He slit his long johns near the bite and pulled them wide. Two small holes stared back at him.
He didn't have a fire or any whiskey to sterilize the blade, but he didn't stop. Gritting his teeth, he made a deep slice between the holes and started kneading his muscles, hopefully working the poison out of his leg. He had no idea if it was working, but he kept at it. Blood flowed freely from the ugly wound. He touched it with a finger then brought it to his lips, tasting it carefully. A strong bitter taste hit his tongue and he immediately spit it out. He went back to squeezing his leg and pushing towards the wound. He kept massaging the leg, but started feeling queasy and light headed. His breathing came in gasps and he felt his heart hammering in his chest.
He stopped to rest and drunkenly tasted the blood again, still bitter. He laid back against Gertie's side to rest a minute. He knew he had to keep working the wound, but was so tired.
The cow's body was still warm and a gentle breeze stirred the leaves. Multi-colored spots appeared on the blue sky above. Mike chuckled to himself.
"Well, old girl," he said as he patted her side, "it looks like we were both meant to go today. I sure wish I hadn't missed the opportunity to start a family way back then with Mary. Now I've gone and missed another one with Betsy. And I guess you're gonna miss tasting that fresh cut hay we just put up for ya. Missed opportunities. A hell of a way to leave this life, thinking about missed opportunities." Mike chuckled a bit, then sighed quietly. He noticed that his ribs and old broken leg didn't hurt anymore, and neither did the snake bite. His eyes stared at the sky and his hand convulsively gripped Gertie's leg.
"I guess I'll be seeing ya in a few minutes, girl. I sure hope there's plenty more opportunities for both of us up there."
The snakes swam lazily downstream and an hour later Mike's horse trotted into the ranch yard. Mike and Gertie lay still while the water gurgled quietly nearby.