“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.
The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”
“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”
“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.
“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”
“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”
The two grinned at each other companionably.
~ ~ ~ ~
George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.
“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.
“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”
Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”
“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”
“Neither of us have cattle.”
“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”
“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.
“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.
Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.
“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”
“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”
Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”
~ ~ ~ ~
“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”
Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.
“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”
She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.
“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.
. . . . to be continued