When I rode up to the buffalo wallow pa was lying there with his leg broke and his horse gone.
It was mid-afternoon of a mighty hot day and pa had been lying there three, four hours. His canteen was on his horse, so he had nothing to drink all that time. I got down and fetched him water with my canteen.
"Thanks boy. Looks like I played hob."
"Well," I said, "you got you a busted leg, but your jaw's in good shape. You been arguin' at me for months, now, so you just set back an' argue some more whilst I fix up your leg."
"You got to saddle and ride, boy. Everything we own and most of what our neighbors own is in those saddlebags. You just forget about me and hunt down that horse."
If I'd been older in years instead of being just man-size I might have thought about the money first, but likely not. There was twenty thousand dollars in those saddlebags, and less than a third of it was ours. It was the sale money for a steer herd we'd driven up the trail from Texas, and folks back home was a-sweating until we got back with that money.
"We'll take care of your busted leg first," I said.
There was mighty little to do with out there on the prairie but I broke some mesquite and trimmed it with my knife, shaping some splints for pa's leg.
We'd never been much on gettin' along together, pa an' me. Here I was, seventeen and feeling uppity with the growing strength in me and the need to make folks see me as a man.
Pa objected to the company I kept. He objected to me spending time out in the gully practicing gun-slinging. He was forever telling me that no gunman he'd ever heard tell of ever had anything but a bad reputation with folks that mattered.
Well , I'd always told myself I could make as big tracks as any man, but now I was faced up with it and had no idea what to do.
One thing I knew. I needed a water hole and some shade for pa. Once he was bedded down I could hightail it after that horse. The quickest way to water might be to trail pa's horse, anyway, so I hoisted him into the saddle and we'd taken after pa's gelding.
When the tracks began to edge off toward the southwest I was hopeful he was headed for water. And then an hour short of sundown we fetched up to some other tracks. They came in from the northwest and they were shod horses. Three in the bunch . . . and they'd caught pa's horse.
"Don't you take notions, son. You ain't about to go up against three men. Not with me in this condition."
It was shy of sundown when we came to the creek. It wasn't much. Two, three feet wide and a few inches deep, running through a sparse meadow between low-growing willows, with here and there a clump of cottonwood.
When I had pa off his horse and bedded down, I unslung my canteen and filled it at the creek.
"You set quiet, pa. I'll go fetch that horse."
"Don't be a fool, Edwin. You stay here."
Pa never called me Edwin unless he was mad or upset, and it was plain to be seen now that he was a worried man. Well, I was some worried my ownself.
Pa had always taken on about what it meant to have a good name, and how a man was judged by the company he kept. Whenever he saw me strutting it around with Doc Sites, Kid Reese, and them, he would read the riot act to me.
They bragged they had rustled cows, and maybe they had. They never worked that I could see, but they always had them a few dollars.
For the first time I was beginning to understand what it might mean to have a good name. If we showed up back home without that money some folks would believe our story, but others would recall that I'd been trailing around with Doc Sites and Kid Reese, and they would talk it up. First thing you knew they'd give pa a bad name as well as me.
The herd we had just sold was the first we'd been able to put together, and once we got home with that money we'd have an edge on the future for the first time. We were headed home when pa and me had a big argument and I rode off and left him, mad as all get-out and swearing not to come back. Only a few hours later I did turn back, and lucky I did. Pa's horse had shied at a rattler and throwed him, breaking his leg.
Well, anyway, I taken after our horse and those men, and hadn't gone more than a mile from where I'd left pa before I smelled smoke. They had them a fire under some cottonwoods alongside that same creek, and before they saw me coming I'd recognized them. It was Doc Sites, Kid Reese, and a square-shouldered man in a cowhide vest and a black hat. That had to be Bob Heseltine.
How many stories had Doc and the Kid told me about him? He was, they said, the best rider, the best shot, and the fastest man with a gun anywhere around. Bob Heseltine had held up the Garston Bank. He had killed Sheriff Baker in a gun battle. He had, they said, made two Texas Rangers back down. All they talked about was Bob Heseltine and the big things they'd do when he got back . . . and here he was.
There was pa's horse, still saddled. The saddlebags were off and the money dumped on the blanket. They would be some disappointed when they saw me riding up to claim it.
"Howdy!" I called out, riding into camp.
Fixed on the money as they were, they jumped for their guns, ready to fight.
Kid Reese relaxed when he saw me. "It's all right, Bob. He's a friend of ours."
"I see you found pa's horse." I was mighty dry in the mouth, all of a sudden. "And our money."
Heseltine turned his head around at me, real slow. His hard blue eyes looked mean at you over high cheekbones. Doc's lips kind of thinned down, and Kid Reese taken a slow breath, just a-staring at me.
"What d'you mean? Your money?" Heseltine demanded. "This here is our money."
"Hey, now!" I objected. "Look --"
"You look." Heseltine fixed me with those hard blue eyes. "I never seen you before. You come ridin' in here and lay claim to our money."
"They know me." I indicated Doc and the Kid. "And they know that horse. And that's pa's saddle."
Nobody said anything, and suddenly I was scared.
"That's his pa's horse, all right," Reese admitted.
"You shut your trap." Heseltine said.
"That money belongs to us and to the folks back home," I said. "You know that Doc."
"Hell," Doc said, "they never did nothing for me back there."
"You could come in with us," Reese suggested. "Just like we planned it would be when Bob came back. We can start right from here, the four of us -- but with money."
Right then I began to take a different view of things. It was one thing to talk of being bandits, but I guess I'd never really thought of it as anything but talk. Now I could see how it hurt a man to be robbed of what he'd worked hard for.
"Pa's back up the creek with his leg broken," I said. "I've got to get back to him with that horse and the money."
Bob Heseltine was facing me. "You may have been a friend to the boys here, but you're not taking any money away from here. Not you nor anybody else."
All three of them were facing me, all squared away to make their fight. Kid Reese was suddenly grinning like a fool. Doc had a rifle in his hands, and Heseltine had laid it on the line for them.
They stood ready to kill me. And these were the boys I'd been hanging out with all summer. These were the friends I'd defended to my pa.
They had me euchred. Pa, he used to tell me that when a man was holding the wrong cards it was always better not to try to buck the game. It was better to throw in your cards and wait for another deal. Only thing I was wondering now was, would they let me get out of here?
"You wont' be needin' pa's horse," I said. I caught up the reins and rode out of there.
Pa was setting up, his back against a tree. He looked mighty relieved when I rode in, but his face was gray and drawn. He was surely in pain. So I built us a fire and made coffee whilst I told him about it.
"Son, we've got to get our money. Folks trusted us with their stock, an' we given our word."
So I explained about Bob Heseltine, who was maybe as tough as Wild Bill Hickok.
Pa looked at me out of those level gray eyes of his. "How tough are you, boy?"
"Me? Why I don't know? I guess a man has to find out."
"You're right, son. You never know how tough a man is until you've tried him. Edwin, you he'p me up on that horse. We're a-goin' back."
"You got a broke leg."
"My trigger finger ain't broke. If a man won't fight for what is rightly his, if he won't fight for what he believes, then he ain't much account. We're goin' back up there, you and me, and if it's fight they want they've bought themselves a packet."
Well, I just looked at him. I'd never seen pa like that, nor believed he had it in him. I'd seen him fight Indians from inside a house, but I'd never seen him r'ar up all teeth an' talon like this.
All of a sudden I was wondering how I'd measure up when the showdown came. . . and to think I'd been low-rating pa all this time.
They were gone. There was a thin smoke from a dying fire, and some trampled sod, but they had taken out.
"Scared," pa said, contempt in his tone, "scared of a boy and a man with a broke leg. We got to catch them."
"Look, pa, you're in no shape to ride." We can go home and --"
"Boy, what're you talkin' about? It's a week's ride to the ranch, three days to the nearest folks we know. If they get that much start we'll never catch them."
They did not sleep that night, I was sure, and neither did we. Pa sat straight in his saddle. He neither whimpered nor groaned. When we watered in a coulee with day a-coming I thought I'd never seen a man so drawn and tight, yet all the night long he had followed a trail that was scarcely more than a shadow on the grass.
There in that coulee I helped pa down and covered him with a blanket. I lay down just to relax a mite, and when I opened my eyes the sun was over the horizon in the east.
We had only their tracks to guide us, and the anger that grew more terrible as the hours drew on. Pa sat up in his saddle and made no sound. His cheeks hollowed down and his eyes sank back into his skull, but the light in them scared me. If I was Bob Heseltine I'm be a worried man.
"You've got the makin's, Edwin," he said suddenly. "You'll make big tracks on the land."
Big tracks on the land. They were words he used of few men, only such Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Goodnight, and Slaughter.
Pa's leg looked awful. It was swollen around the split, but he wouldn't let me touch it. He'd taken his knife and slit his pants-leg to ease the pressure, and toward nightfall he asked me to split his boot. His gasp of relief when I done it told me how awful the pain had been before.
When I got back into the saddle it came over me all of a sudden that pa wasn't going to make it.
I knew then that he knew it too. He was just hanging on, hoping we'd come up with them whilst he could stand beside me at the showdown. He would get back the money he'd been trusted with, and he could leave me fixed for the future.
That was it. He was thinking of the two things that meant most to him. His given word, and me.
Was I worth it? Was I really worth all that? Was I worth any part of the hard work and suffering pa had gone through?