March 26th 1880 2:45 AM
Fear Level: 2
John and Archibald manage to get the dead steer field dressed and somewhat quartered. Most of the neck and left shoulder is discarded as the area around the bite has already turned. Being on the safe side, you all end up with three quarters which are easily spread out amongst the horses. With no salt and a healthy unwillingness to hang the meat to dry given what you just went through, things get a little messy, but the early spring night air is cool enough that things shouldn’t spoil barring any further encounters.
The sun goes down much quicker than expected in the grove, slipping behind the mountains in the distance. You begin to worry if you will be able to navigate in the dark but the cattle and even the horses know the way home. You find out quickly it's just best to keep the animals in a tight group and let them lead the way.
As the night wears on, you balance pushing the herd a little faster against taking it slow enough to avoid injury. Your experience has you jumping at every little thing that results in just the regular nightlife on the prairie. A bobcat screams from not too far away and weapons leap from holsters and sheaths. A good nervous laugh is had once you realize what it is, but the moment is soon gone as not too long after a feeling of ‘wrongness’ settles in. Sounds are muted and the air becomes oppressive. To say the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck, is an understatement.
It becomes obvious something is watching but it is so dark at this point, that you can’t tell from what direction or how far away this real or perceived danger is. That’s when the howling starts. At first, you are all relieved as you had seen a few coyotes. But then it settles in that these are not the yips and barks of coyotes, they are long drawn out howls eerie and beautiful at the same time. They are wolves and they are getting closer. The smell of the steer must have lured them down out of the high pines. Something to worry about to be sure, but there is some relief in the fact that it’s still the ‘natural’ world.
The pack continues to get closer and the uneasy feeling becomes more and more oppressive. And then the reason why echoes from what seems like all around you. This howl is different, it's definitely communicating with the wolves but it has an almost human quality….
Devil Eyes attempts to whinny in defiance and Hope hugs his neck to keep him quiet. Jackson, Archibald, and John risk a look over the shoulder and each will swear later that they saw something although none will be able to agree on what. Bishop keeps her eyes on the trail and up ahead she sees flickering lights. It’s the ranch! She gives her horse the freedom it wants after hearing the howl and it breaks into a gallop. The steers and other horses follow suit and it's a mad dash towards the Lazy S. The next ten minutes feel like hours and despite all rational concerns, you let the horses push themselves across the last couple of miles. As you get closer more lights come on as you realize all of you are whooping and yelling to keep the steers moving with you.
And then out of nowhere, Luke and the rest of the hands are around you calming the herd down and taking the reins from your horses. You made it. As you dismount, you see Bill leaning in the doorway with a man in a derby hat. His expression shows nothing as he lights a cigarette.
“Good work. That’s not as much as I hoped, but it's enough. Get some rest. Luke and the boys will take care of the horses. We’ll talk in the morning.”
He turns and goes back inside.
The hard cots in the bunkhouses feel like fine feather beds and breakfast the next morning, more corned beef hash and biscuits, tastes like the finest food around. Even better, it seems you are all getting used to the ranch life as the soreness and stiffness doesn’t feel so bad this morning.
What are you doing?