Shoot-out at Death Canyon

The sun seared. Everything in the distance wobbled in the heat haze. I now understood why hats were essential cowboy equipment—they were the only shade on these treeless plains. Dust took up residence in the back of my throat and cracked my lips. Licking them only made it worse. The thudding and shuffling of hooves, the clatter of horns, the mooing and the snap-crackle of the cows’ joints were our cowboy soundtrack. 

     “We don’t seem to be going very fast,” I called out when Jasper moved within earshot. “If we got a bit of speed up, we might finish the round-up a week or two earlier.”

    “Then there’d be nothing but skin and bones to sell,” he said. “We have to go nice and slow, let these critters chow down on the grasses and fatten up.”

    He began moving off, so I added: “How did you end up in the West?”

    He rode round in an arc before returning, lips pressed together. “You really are raw, aren’t you? Don’t you know it goes against the cowboy code to ask personal questions?”

    “I know about the code,” I lied, not wanting to seem a complete tourist. “But it’s different in different parts of the West. What are some of the rules round here?”

    “Let me see.” Jasper scratched his chin. “The number one rule: don’t ask questions. Two: don’t steal another man’s horse. Three: always put cowboys with leaky lips at the back of the herd.”

    Did he mean me, that I had “leaky lips”? Just because I wanted to talk occasionally.

    He showed me the back end of his horse then spun back round again.

    “Never stand downwind of a skunk,” he said. “Always check your boots for rattlesnakes. Keep some distance between you and your spurs in a lightning storm.”

    “Are you sure they’re part of the code?” I said. “They sound more like common sense to me.”

    “A cowboy’s code is whatever a cowboy wants it to be,” he said. “But seriously, you start asking folk too many questions, you’re going to bring a whole wagon-load of trouble down on yourself. People out here are runnin’ away from something as often as they’re runnin’ towards it.”

    Interesting. And on occasion, like Riley and I, they were running from one thing and towards something else.

    As I watched Jasper hurtle after another calf, I murmured: “What are you running from, Jasper McLean?”

    Great! Now I was talking to myself!