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by momark
Rated: E · Other · Action/Adventure · #1488620
Cowboys on a cattle drive slowly disappear with an unexpected result.

The trail boss lit a cigarette, the brim of his hat

sheltering it from the persistent drizzle that had plagued them

for days. The low, dark clouds seemed foreign to Texas and

taunted the ache in his lower back. Even the smoke from his

cigarette seemed to coil away like a sidewinder rather than

than draw upward into the sky.

From his vantage point on the high outcropping, Fix watched

the cattle herd snake across the prairie and into the pass, lined

on both sides by jagged rock walls. The cattle moved like a long

serpent slithering beneath a stone; although its head had already

disappeared into the narrow pass, it drew its length along in a

slow, winding motion.

During their four weeks on the trail and nearly 400 miles --

more than halfway to their destination in Abilene -- they had

lost neither a single head of cattle nor a horse. What they had

lost were three men.

First it was Zack Wade, though maybe his eastern city ways

had lit for easier pickings. But Cort Hogan and Bert Hoskins

were top hands. Billy Bean, Fix's Indian scout of many trail

drives, couldn't find a track or trace of the men.

It was as if they had vanished into the clouds.

Now, even Moose, Tubs, and Jiggs worried about rustlers picking

them off one by one. Billy would chant ancient Indian prayers far into

the night.

Yet John Fix didn't panic. Staying calm was one of the first

basics of leadership he had learned while riding with Colonel Robert

Hillerman in Grant's Army of the West.

But the past ten days were an almost inhuman strain, as the

five remaining men struggled to perform the work of eight. The added

workload, however, had kept them too busy to dwell on the disappearances

for long. With each day that passed without incident, the fear which had

gripped them gradually subsided into an uneasy apprehension.

They continued, nonetheless, to sleep in shifts with two

men standing guard as three slept. On the trail, Fix attempted

to keep each man within sight of another, a task that often proved

impossible with a herd that stretched for over a mile.

The pass created such an obstacle. While Billy Bean

scouted ahead, Moose funneled the herd into the narrow opening.

Tubbs and his horses were farther back and Jiggs, handling the

chuck wagon, was at the rear. Fix had chosen the high outcroping

as the best vantage point to keep most of his men in sight.

He watched Moose spur his horse deftly to and fro, guiding

the cattle into the pass. Fix looked to the south, where Tubbs --

trailed by the spare horses -- was little more than a blurry speck

against the waving grass and where Jiggs' chuck wagon was nearly

lost in the haze and drizzle.

Suddenly, the sky darkened -- thunder echoed, cattle lowed,

and fear returned.

Fix looked away from where Moose was working the herd

below him and scanned the range along the moving line to the south.

The high-pitched cry of a horse brought the taste of fear

to Fix's throat. He stared into the pass, pinpointing the sound

to an area shielded from view by a jutting rock. Moose's horse,

riderless, leaped into view and charged frantically into the pass.

Fix raced down the mountainside, oblivious to the tree limbs

which slashed at his face and shoulders and the loose stones which

caused his mount to nearly stumble. The sound of a single gunshot

echoing from the rock walls maded him spur his horse even harder.

When he reached the firm footing of hard ground, he yanked the reins

violently and sped into the pass.

The trail boss gasped with relief at the sight of Moose,

who was picking himself up from the dirt and holstering his sixgun.

Fix looked at the dead rattlesnake only a few feet from the

hired hand.

"Sidewinder," Moose said, as if to answer a question. He

picked up the dead reptile by the tail. "Horse spooked and damn

near threw me on top of it."

Moose dropped the snake and wiped the mud from his chaps.

"Yeah," he said. "Hate fallin' off my horse, though." He paused.

"What's the matter, boss? You look pale."

Fix pretented a calm smile. He had expected to find no one

in the pass, no trace of his rider. "Nothin'," he replied, knowing --

though he would never say -- that fear had nearly won.

"What the hell is that?" Moose asked, pointing to the south.

Fix turned in his saddle. Galloping toward them -- with a

single, black cloud spitting lightning as its backdrop -- were the

extra horses, led by Tubs' riderless mare.

Fix spurred his mount toward the opposite wall of the

pass. Moose followed on foot, waving his arms and cursing. The

horses broke stride and slowed to trot at the sight of the two

men blocking their way.

With a practiced hand, Fix had a lasso on Tub's mare.

Moose grabbed the rope tied to the mare's saddlehorn -- the reins

of the others were bound along it's length. Seeking to break free,

the horses milled about as cattle wandered into the shelter of

the pass.

Fix and Moose stared at the dark cloud and lightning, then

exchanged nervous glances while the horses pawed the earth.

"Ain't like Tubs to lose the whole string -- he's too good

a wrangler. It just ain't!" Moose blerted.

"Hell .. what now, boss?"

John Fix was checking the rounds in the cylinder of his

fourty-four revolver.

He knew what had to be done.

"Get those horses tied and signal Billy from on down

the ridge," Fix ordered. "I'm gonna find Tubs and Jiggs."

He whipped his steed to a gallop and skirted the herd. A cold

drizzle pelted his cheek and hooves pounded the earth. Fear gripped

his throat and knotted his gut.

Those feelings weren't exactly new. He and the Colonel had

led many a calvery charge.

Then he reined in to a brisk trot. He had always seen the

enemy before -- and he was never overhead.

The last strays scattered to his right as he topped a

small knoll and yelled Tubs' name. Claps of thunder were the

only response. But he spotted the Jigg's wagon less than a quarter

mile further south in a draw -- directly under the black cloud.

His horse reared as a bolt of lightning struck not thirty

feet behind. Arcs leapt between his fingers. Fix regained control

and spurred ahead.

"As good a time as any," he thought.

Fix closed on the wagon, his gun drawn, as he peered

into the darkness.

The wagon was lodged in a small ditch, maybe two feet deep.

The horses were gone, apparently freed by the impact, as were

the front wheels. The wind had ripped away much of the canvass

top, leaving only a coffin-like silhouette.

While at a full gallop, his horse suddenly pulled up. He jerked

on the reins, but they fell. There was no hand to hold them. For a fleeting

instant, Fix watched himself dissolve.

Then warmth and light -- white, all he saw was white.

"Heaven?" Fix pondered, but then he had his doubts.

Something clear encased him from boot to jaw. Fix was

on his back and struggling, but remained motionless.

He was helpless.

Fear stirred his vision and he glanced to his right.

"It's them!" he screamed, but without sound.

Not twenty feet away stood his missing drovers, from Zack to

Jiggs. All were clearly encased and closely spaced against a curving

white wall -- like bullets on a belt. Not a one of them stirred.

John focused on their expressionless faces, each with a metal

headband above the eyebrow. Each headband was connected to the next

by a wire -- like a human telegraph line. The closest length of wire

trembled when John jerked his head. A single porthole revealed the

center of a whirling dark black cloud.

Panic drove his stare to the left.

Children!

He was staring at two pale, hairless, and featureless

children. On a table at their side was an infant -- wearing a headband.

"This old horse soldier don't scare at children," he

thought. "No sir... but where's the father?"

John's stare launched a burst of jibberish from the young

ones. Then, the closest child snapped a collar on his neck and spoke.

"We need you for only a short while."

Fix drew for his missing weapon with missing motion. Sweat

poured from his body. Light blinded his sight.

Even the damn Appachies weren't this savage.

The child continued.

"We are from a different space. From time to time, we collect

the best traits of your race -- courage, honor, individualism -- for

example. We then concentrate these qualities in one of your young.

Little Winston here is the latest benefactor."

Fix still drew for his missing weapon.

"You will not recall these events, nor should you try."

At those words, Fix was unconscious.

When he woke, the damn taste of Texas sod was in his mouth.

During the course of a clear morning, Fix rounded up his missing

cattle hands from various points south of the pass. There were many

blank stares and few words.

The lone exception being Moose, who raved about killer clouds

and disappearances. That is, at least, until Fix asked if he wanted to

draw his pay.

They herded cattle through the pass during the afternoon. Jiggs

and Moose rigged a skid on the wagon and lightened the load. There

was hot coffee at evening camp. Fix stood in front the campfire and spoke.

"Men, this is the damnedest drive I've ever been on.

Each of us remembers the fear and weather, except'in maybe Zach."

"There are things that aren't remembered. Things that don't

need say'in or repeat'in. Things that won't get this cattle drive

over any sooner."

"I don't think Billy is coming back. He was leaning hard

on his Indian side and may be remember'in too much of what he saw.

Don't forget that -- Moose or any of you -- remember'in too

much of what he saw."

"That's all I got to say," Fix finished.

The men looked at one another and silently figured that

maybe the boss had best summed it up.

None of them ever saw Billy Bean again, but Indian legend

soon revered a great warrior who battled clouds -- a life of

battling clouds.

Meanwhile, on a distant island, Winston was hungry. Mrs.

Churchill saw to his needs.

"This little boy could be a leader some day," she thought.
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