By John Thomas Tuft

Dusty sat beside the campfire finishing his coffee from a tin mug. His sorrel horse, Devil’s Angel, grazed nearby, fidgeting a bit as fireflies rose off the mountain grass in the musky dusk. Dusty was helping move the herd from the summer pastures back down below for the winter. The life of a cowboy has more than its share of solitude and sometimes more than its share of misery. After his father was killed at Shiloh, Dusty left home and headed west. The youngest in the outfit at 17, Boss posted him on the eastern side of the herd that night to watch for the mountain lion that had killed two calves earlier. Getting one dollar a day was good, honest money, but the work meant twenty-hour days, fatigue, loneliness and danger. He needed to be up before dawn when coyotes would sneak up the draws and dry creek beds looking for trouble, so he checked the Winchester repeater that he kept close at hand at all times.

After his triple B’s chow–beans, bacon, and biscuits–Dusty stretched out and watched the stars arching over the wide valley below. The cattle seemed settled for the night, and he tried not to think about the task tomorrow of getting them across the river. Other than a stampede, that was the biggest moment of danger in this job, he knew. He loved the high country with its cool breezes and hawks soaring overhead, reminding him of home in the Great Smokies. He drifted off thinking about Momma and his sisters back east. He was dreaming about being in the woods with his old hound dog when a brilliant flash of lighting and a boom of thunder jolted him awake.

Dusty’s first thought was for Devil’s Angel because a man out here with no horse was a goner. Her eyes were wide and her nostril’s flared, but she was still there beside the embers of the fire. He went to her, speaking in a soothing tone, keeping one eye on the sky. He needed to check the cattle right away. As he saddled the sorrel and slipped the rifle into its scabbard, the wind picked up. The sky split again with a bright flash and the full-throated wrath of the gods. As he swung up onto the horse, the clouds opened up and over the drum of the rain he heard restless cattle bawling and bleating. He urged Devil’s Angel forward with a kick and slap of the reins, heart in his throat. Hopefully Boss and the other cowboys were already there with them.

As he rode down the slope into the high meadow, in the next flash Dusty saw cattle milling around, agitated and unsure. It would be hell on earth if they started running downhill toward the river. Over the din he heard Boss and the others whistling and yelling out to the herd, trying to keep them reassured and controlled. Suddenly a calf broke away, terrified and heading pell-mell toward the gulch to the east. Dusty kicked Devil’s Angel and gave chase. Wind and rain lashed at his face as he struggled to keep the calf in sight. The horse was sure-footed and the two operated as one, dodging around trees, wheeling to try and head the frightened calf away from danger.

With a snort, Devil’s Angel abruptly stopped and reared on her hind legs. Dusty hung on and in the lightning glow saw the calf trapped down in the rocky gulch with the mountain lion snarling in a crouch on an overhanging rock. He jumped off the horse and clamored down into the gulch, in his haste forgetting the rifle. As he reached the frightened calf, his boot slipped on the wet rocks and his foot became inextricable wedged tight. Dusty ignored the pain and worked to free the calf as the water began to rise now in the narrow confines. With frantic tugs he finally got the calf free and pushed her toward the bank as the water reached the top of his boots.

The calf exhausted herself trying to climb the steep, slippery slope but kept falling back into the still rising water. The mountain lion snarled and licked its lips in anticipation of a fine meal. Then, without prompting, Devil’s Angel stepped forward and placed her body between the predator and her cowboy. Dusty scrabbled at the rocks imprisoning his foot as the water reached his waist. The calf bleated in despair as she fell back one last time. Dusty made a desperate grab for her, snagged her by the tail and struggled against the rushing water to pull her to himself as the water reached his chest.

As the sky turned gray with the new dawn, Boss and the other cowboys finally reached the gulch in their searching for the lost. They stopped in silence at the scene before them. In the rushing water, a shaken and weary Dusty stood, battered and bruised, trembling with the effort. Clutched close to his chest was the prodigal calf, bleating for her momma. And on the edge of the channel, Devil’s Angel, hobbled and staggering, bleeding out from the wounds of a mountain lion attack, yet still watching over them…with sighs too deep for words.

…For we do not always know how to pray as we ought…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.