"Keep your eyes open when you ride past that grove of aspes on the far side of the herd," Kenny told James. "I couldn't see anything but the cows in that corner aren't laying down and chewing their cuds like the others; something's making them nervous."
Kenny and Jake were just coming off their shift of riding around the huge herd of cattle. James and Frank were saddling up to take the next four hours. Their boss had gone into town to arrange for the sale of the herd, and most of the wranglers rode along, to wet their whistles and celebrate the end of a long cattle drive, leaving only a skeleton crew behind to guard the herd.
Frank and James were the newest members of the crew who had come west with the cattle, and it was their first cattle drive. The men with seniority earned the privilege of having the evening off, leaving the four newest hires to babysit the cows their last night on the trail.
"Yeah, it's black as pitch out there, and I didn't see anything either, but the cows seem unsettled, Frank, so keep your eyes peeled," Jake added, as he reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. "We sure don't need any trouble now."
James and Frank swung onto their horses to ride in opposite directions around the herd. They'd meet on the far side and again back at the campfire, each round. It was customary for the men to sing or even hum as they rode, the relaxed sounds of human voices seemed to soothe the animals. Luckily, their ability to carry a tune didn't seem to be a factor.
When James and Frank met on the far side of the herd, they stopped to talk softly before riding on. "It seems quiet enough," Frank said, "but the guys are right. The cattle must sense something out there or they wouldn't be standing and looking toward the trees."
"Take your time moving away, Frank," James suggested, "keep close to this end of the herd. I'll start on around like usual, but not in any hurry. We'll try to look casual about it. Ride off slowly, but don't go too far. If it was wolves, we'd have heard them, so there might be two-legged critters out there."
"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Dolly's got her ears pointed toward the trees, like she senses another horse. Maybe you should just ride a little way and turn back if you hear anything."
They rode off again, in opposite directions, like usual, but walking their horses slowly, all senses alert for trouble. Heavy clouds hid the sliver of moon, making it so dark they were swallowed up by the night before they had ridden very far.
In the trees, two men waited patiently until the riders were out of sight. Expecting it would be a half hour before the cowhands circled the heard and returned, they stealthily rode out, slipping in among the standing cows and nudging a group of them toward the bush. With such a large herd, they figured fifty or so would not be missed right away, and it would be a good night's haul for them.
Some of the cattle bawled in protest of being driven from the familiar herd, and it alerted James and Frank that something was going on. They rode back slowly, so as not to panic the rest of the cows which were starting to stand up too; the last thing they wanted was a stampede.
The rustlers were trying to be quiet and not attract attention, but when a rope landed over the shoulders of one of them and hauled him off his horse, he let out a startled yelp as he landed. The other one looked around to see what had happened, and that's when Frank let his lariat fly, and the second rustler hit the ground with an "Ooph."
The cattle were milling around, but as the ones who had been cut out of the herd straggled back to the main group, they gradually quieted. They weren't laying down and placidly chewing their cuds, but neither did they appear panicked.
Jake and Kenny arrived to help James and Frank relieve the two captured rustlers of their jeans and boots, leaving them to find their horses or walk home in their underwear and sock feet.
"Your boots and jeans will be at the sheriff's office, along with your guns and gun-belts!" James informed them, as they watched the men stumble away, grumbling and swearing, in search of their horses, which had run off.
"They got off too easy," Kenny complained. "We should have tied them up and turned them over to the sheriff in the morning."
"In the olden days, they'd have been hung, no questions asked," Jake added.
"We dragged them over some rough ground," Frank told him, "they'll have a few bruises to show for it."
"They'll have sore feet too, from walking in their socks," James added. "That one guy had big holes in his socks he'll be close to barefoot by the time he gets home."
"We should get a bonus, besides the night's pay, for saving the boss a bundle."
"You're right, Jake, he owes us big time for extra work and no sleep tonight."
"We'll be in better shape than the rest of them tomorrow," James laughed. "Lack of sleep beats the sore heads they'll have when they wake up, after hitting the saloons tonight!"
"I'll be glad to see the end of this cattle drive tomorrow and sleep in a real bed and eat good food again," growled Kenny.
"You can say that again!" Frank agreed.