Joshua chose the trail leading up from the line cabin. Small sprouts of trees littered the little used path. The powerful engine of the quad found little resistance beating down the obstacles as the pair forged upward. The morning chill lingered. The elevation slow to warm in the morning sun.
“Any reason you choose this path?” Old Tom asked when the two stopped on the crest of a rise. “Sentimental for the view?”
“Tom, you trust me don’t you?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I.”
“I got a call the other day. A few head of our cattle were discovered burnt in the back of cattle liner in Eastern Texas. How often have we sold cattle down that way?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Been a lot of years. The auction houses here have been keeping our business…and I don’t recall any recent sales.” Tom still worked the toothpick, rolling it in his teeth.
“My thoughts exactly,” Joshua confessed. “The few times I ventured out into the meadows, somethings been troubling me. Tough to keep my counts right from my short travels and but, I tell you, honestly I’ve noticed fewer of the younger stuff.” He stopped and let his words settle.
“I didn’t want to trouble Sarah with my crazy believes. Probably just some bouts of my wild imagination….but now that Ranger calls. That got me thinking harder. What if? You yourself said all our old hires are gone. Young, new crowd watching over our cattle these days, so I suppose anything is possible.”
A noise sounded in the bushes not far behind. Tom slipped the rifle from its scabbard and squinting through the daylight, searching the bushes. “Could be a lion,” he muttered. His focus tight on the shadows at the bottoms of the trees. “Best we watch our backs. A lot of them big cats roaming these hills.”
“When was the last time you ventured up into these hills?” Joshua posted the question. The next evening of the trip found them stopped for the night. Their camp set up while the sun still peeked above the towering outcrops of rock. The trail proved harder to traverse then expected.
Their route altered between worn trails to accommodate the four-wheel bike. The new trail led up a switch back circling the outer face of a mountain. A couple days in and the pair camped a quarter day’s ride short of their next destination, a line cabin sunken deep into the mountains.
A small, careful fire burnt yards from a line of trees, the campsite resting on a ledge high above a lush mountain meadow. The grass and forest below skirted by the rising rock walls of a canyon a few acres in width.
The setting sun began its dip behind the mountain peaks to the west.
Sitting with the wheels of his chair locked tight, the chair kept safely back of a rocky edge, Joshua sipped the fresh coffee Tom passed. Stray rays of sunlight highlighted sections of the canyon floor down below. Raising the cup to sip the hot liquid, he stopped mid action. A sparkle of light reflected from far down the slope among row of trees lining a narrow meadow. Leaning forward, Joshua strained his eyes peering down into the gathering shadows.
A rider on a horse appeared from the edge of the woods, the man and horse followed closely by several head of cattle. Younger, smaller stock Joshua figured from the few details he picked out from over the distance. The herd below multiplied as more cattle continued to walk from the under the cover of the trees. Then a second rider showed near the end. Splashes of movement showed the man whipping a lariat to hurry a few stragglers bringing up the rear of the herd.
Puzzled, Joshua called Tom over and the men watched in silence. The riders below aided the cattle down what now appeared to be a trail beaten into the grasses at the edge of the trees. Looking ahead of the group, Joshua let his eyes roam over the meadow. The trail, faint from the distance, snaked across the grass and led to the far end of the canyon.
In the waning light, Joshua studied the edge of the far bush. Fallen trees, or perhaps carefully placed logs, formed a corral.
“Grab my binoculars off the bike, would you mind, Tom?” He asked. The light of day fading with each second.
The crunch of Tom’s boots told of the man’s return breaking Joshua free of his watch far below. Taking the glasses, Joshua pressed the rubber tight to his eyes and went back to studying the end of the canyon. The makings of a crudely constructed corral swam into focus. Fallen logs strategically interspersed with the standing trunks of living trees created a pen to hold the newly arrived livestock. Not far from the corral, the spread remains of an old fire pit that spoke of many uses.
Joshua turned his chair away from the edge. In his haste, a wheel of the chair collided with a boulder. The force nudging the rock off the ledge. The sound echoing against the rock walls surrounding the canyon. Joshua looked down after the sound then instinctively looked over toward the riders in the meadow. The last fragments of light showed the two men on horseback glancing up toward the ledge.
Joshua held their stare, although at the distance, how much the two men could see was debatable.
“When did we ever use this canyon to pen cattle, Tom?” He asked.
“Don’t think we ever did. Not that I recall. The trails in and out are tough riding and we’ve much better grazing not far from here.”
“Figure we’ll be able to find a way down and have us a look tomorrow.”
“Pretty certain. It a long way back if you want to go down now. Otherwise, we can ride straight ahead. There used to be a sort of path down into the canyon. Should accommodate your iron horse,” the old ranch hand pointed at Joshua’s four-wheeled machine.
In the cover of darkness, a rider plucked a satellite phone from the saddle bag.
“That you boys up the hill watching us?”
“No. But I have a fair idea who that could be.”
“Don’t need strangers spying on us. This place ain’t a secret if everybody knows about it.” The words more of a challenge then a request.
“It’ll be taken care of from this end. You boys pen them cattle and settle for the night. We can meet up in the morning.”
The final hours of my service arrived. The past couple days stateside rolled past in a blur. I rose early and out of habit, dressed in my field outfit. The sun was still minutes from breaking the hold of the night when I left my quarters and hoofed it down to the mess hall.
“William,” Colonel Davidson’s voice caught me at the door. “One final assault on the old stomach,” he joked.
“Wouldn’t feel right without the regular gastronomical pains,” I tossed back.
“Fill your plate and join me, won’t you?” The Colonel asked.
“What are your plans going forward?” Colonel Davidson asked once we were seated across from each other.
“Not sure. Head home and see my father. Been a lot of years since I’ve seen or even talked to him for that matter. Maybe hang around the ranch, help out for a bit if they need me.” I paused and thought of the image the words portrayed in my mind. The whole family gathered around when I returned. A real hallmark moment. Then the bubble burst and I added.
“My dad remarried. I’ve never met his new wife so I guess it might be time to get acquainted.” I shrugged. Even with the enviable count down to the end to life in the army, I never took the time to dwell on what I’d do once my enlistment ended. A kinda, which ever way the wind blows type attitude.
“A man needs his dad,” the colonel interrupted by musing. “Mine passed several years ago. Count yourself lucky.”
A picture of my dad’s face crept into my thoughts. He’d be much older then the last time we met person to person and a lot more fragile, I presume. Liam told of dad getting tossed from a horse. Said dad was wheelchair bound these days. That would be enough to drive the old guy crazy.
The lack of mobility had to feel like a prison to a man always on the go. My memories of my dad were filled with a younger me trailing him around. Dad busy working the ranch, branding cattle, breaking horses. How did a man so full of vigour survive life locked in a chair. Suddenly I realized how much I missed my father. Missed everyone.
“It will be good to see him,” I answered honestly.
Dust rose from the onslaught of air released by the breaks of the semi tractor. The last couple days I shuttled between Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia to a base in Nashville. From there, the army had a bus driving south to Chattanooga. A more round about route then I required but the price of the ticket was right. I climbed aboard and watched the county side roll past the window.
The bus arrived mid morning, stopping on the outskirts. I climbed free and looked up the highway. The sun beat down from a sky hazy with the heat. Several tractor-trailers idled in the gravelled lot. The diner I faced looked inviting.
Tossing my back pack over my shoulder, I stepped up to the door. A wave of cool air rushed past me as I side stepped a customer on his way out the door. A quick glance around and I moved deeper into the restaurant. A stool by the counter stood open.
“Coffee,” I called to the waitress. The next leg of the journey skirted mostly north toward Crossville, the county seat of the Cumberlands. My journey stopped a few miles east and south at the foothills of the mountain range and the family ranch.
“Any of you gentlemen travelling north,” I asked after sampling the steaming black liquid the waitress set down in front of me. A couple of the truckers glanced in my direction before an old timer from the back piped up.
“Where you headed, boy?”
“This side of Crossville. Got some family up that way.” I replied, lifting the cup for a second sip of coffee.
“I’m heading past. Taking the 27. Got a stop in Crossville and then running all the way up to Knoxville.” The trucker answered.
“Can you abide with a passenger?”
I watched the man’s eyes run the length of my army uniform. “Going home for a visit?”
“No. Timed out. Served my country for 20 years. Thought it was time to move on.”
The old guy locked eyes. A slight nod of his head showed respect for my uniform. “Glad to do it, son.” He replied.