Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Episode 3 in Janet's cold, lonely night in the foothill looking for cattle.

At the barn she put a bridle on Ben. He was fifteen years old, a horse Mat had raised, trained, and brought with him from his father's D-bar-K. He was the easiest to handle of the four horses Janet had available to her – an important consideration, since she did not have a saddle. At fifteen hundred pounds he was also the smallest of the four and the easiest for a twenty-year-old, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound woman to mount and sit on.
As she turned to leave the barn, Janet thought about how unpredictable the spring weather could be and grabbed a saddle blanket - an old wool blanket folded into a square - and put it on Ben. She certainly didn't need anything to improve the comfort of Ben's wide back, but if the weather should turn, the blanket might help to keep her warm until she could make it home.
At the house she told her mother that she would be gone looking for the steers. Her mother was flabbergasted.
"You can't leave us here by ourselves!"
Janet sighed. "I won't be gone long, Mother. There's nothing out there for them to eat yet, so I'm sure they won't go far."
"Well, if there is nothing for them to eat, leave them alone and they will come home. It's just irresponsible to leave a little baby - your baby - and an old woman by themselves in this wilderness."
"We need every one of those steers, Mother. They mean money to pay off our loan. You have been spoiling my baby quite well with me on the place. I'm sure you can continue just as well by yourself for a few hours." Janet reached behind the door and picked up the Winchester. From the shelf above it she took a box of shells and dumped a few in her hand which she dropped in the pocket of her father's old coat.
"Well! That certainly doesn't sound like gratitude! And why do you need to take that awful gun."
"Because it would not be very bright to go off by myself in this country without one. And you certainly won't use it." Janet leaned down and kissed her son. "Try not to take Grandma too seriously, Mark." She stood and turned to the door. "Bye, you two."
As she followed the trail of the yearlings, Janet thought once more about leaving their pasture that morning. She was sure she had closed the gate, but perhaps she was remembering one of the many other mornings when she had done exactly the same job. If she had not put so much of her attention into recreating the earlier events, or in condemning herself for her stupidity, she may have paid closer attention to the trail.
When she had been on the trail for more than an hour, she began to look closer at the tracks. The steers were still moving in a bunch, but should have been wandering, some of them heading back to the ranch where they had been receiving regular feed through the winter.
It was then that she saw the tracks of a horse. And then more. At least two, and possibly three or four horses. The steers were not wandering because they were being driven. They had not gone through a gate she had left open. They had been stolen.
She brought Ben to an abrupt halt and looked around. She was already well up into the hills and the sun had disappeared. As she thought about how she should proceed she buttoned her coat. For her to follow and return wandering steers was one thing. To follow rustlers was something else again, and not something she believed she could handle.
There was no reason for the rustlers to go west and north as they had been traveling. They would want to sell the animals, and there was nothing in the direction they were traveling except higher and higher mountains. Therefore, they would have to turn north toward the Yellowhead Trail and the new railroad, or perhaps turn back east and toward one of the larger settlements.
Janet decided to follow a little longer and find out which direction they would turn. Matt would be home from his trap line soon and perhaps he could discover where the animals had been sold if Janet could tell him the best places to look. They needed those steers. She urged Ben forward, but now they traveled much slower.

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