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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.