I angle my legs into a more comfortable position, releasing the pressure on my aching hips. The burning pain is unappeased, though, and I squelch a groan.
From my rumpled blanket, I see the azure sky through the open window, and scents of the outdoors waft through - wild roses, humid creek bottoms, and breeze-brushed grass. Memories flood through me, poignant and sweet. Long days of hot dust, strangling the breath into choking gasps, spring squalls that soaked to the skin, the homely sighing of a coffee pot on the pot-bellied stove.
I wander along the back trails of my memory, as the throbbing subsides to a pale keening, enjoying the brief reprieve as I recall standing on the edge of a rocky ridge, overlooking a contented herd in a shadowed valley of belly-deep grass.
The bunkhouse door eases open, and Rye slips in, rousing me from my reverie. Hunkering down, he regards me with narrowed eyes, squinting in speculation as his face, hewn by sun and wind into leathery furrows, comes close to my own. I breathe in the scent of leather and horse-sweat, woodsmoke and prairie wind that emanates from his thinned body. A fringe of hair straggles from under his greased hat like a patch of scraggly weeds.
“Well, ol’ man, how are you doin’? We sure did miss your help today. We got the cattle moved from the south quarter up into the meadows.”
I see the meadow, lush and deep, and the stand of fragrant pines lower down the slope. The hills, streams, and trees are carved deep into my mind, indelibly engraved by every trailing. I am the trail and it is me.
“We felt bad ‘bout leavin’ you behind.” The old cowboy touches me again, tentatively, with a hand gloved in a weathered tan, his nails edged in grime. “But, we knowed you was feelin’ too poorly.”
He is right. Lying low is good, as the fire in my hips is relentless, a pulsing flame that makes every step pure agony.
“We had ourselves a bit of trouble with that bald-faced steer. You know the one. Ran through the willow bottom, and, dang, if he didn’t get hisself bogged down in the swampy ground. Then more’n a dozen of them rompy steers followed right after ‘im. I tell you, them hired boys is slack around the edges. Can’t teach ‘em no cow savvy no how.”
I detect a hint of praise in Rye’s gravelly voice. We’ve been working together enough years to appreciate each other’s skills and had come to feel a measure of disdain for the lack of aptitude in the would-be cowboys who sauntered into the corrals in their fancy duds and put-on drawls.
Rye rambled on, recounting the day: the antics of a roan steer, the necessary doctoring of another, and the eternal splendidness of his cow horse, Shiner.
I picture the cattle, a bawling collection of reds and blacks and everything in between, with nothing more to do than bury their faces in the grass, intent on being fatted up. It is a glorious site, a thousand hills dotted by a thousand head of cattle. I would tilt my head back, devouring the aromatic breeze, heavy with the scent of growing things, plants and animals alike.
My mind meanders on, discovering forgotten remnants from other years. Fine years they were, satisfying and full, until my hips began to trouble me, battered by travelling endless miles on rough land and sleeping on damp ground.
Rye’s voice changes and he draws nearer. “You been a mighty good pardner, ol’ man, the best pal a man ever had. It’s been painin’ me to see you laid up. I’ve knowed for a long time you’re ‘bout at the end of the trail.”
A featherlight touch on my head, and I capture another scent on Rye’s fingers. The tang of gunpowder. He slides an arm under my shoulders, and I lean into his bony chest, hearing the rapid beat of his heart.
“Jus’ one more journey, ol’ man, and you’ll be right as rain.” Another arm lifts my useless legs, and he hoists me up.
The sun stretches long shadows into the underbrush as Rye lays me on the soft grass and scratches my ears gently. With a sudden roar, the denim sky canopied above explodes into radiance and fades to velvety blackness.
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