I coughed into the dark frosted air, my nose as stuffed as a Christmas goose. “Maybe we should have taken them up on that invitation to stay, Pete.”
Pete didn’t say anything one way or the other. He never did. Just kept walking like always. Well, like always except when he trotted or galloped or flat out ran. Pete’s a good horse, but not much for conversation.
The old couple we’d left that afternoon’d been hospitable, but I wouldn’t stay. It was bad enough I’d come with bad news. I couldn’t see intruding on their grief.
I still wasn’t sure why I volunteered myself to give Cookie’s parents the news. The trail boss said he’d send a letter explaining about how Cookie died, what the doc in town said was a cancer that ate up Cookie’s stomach.
A letter just didn’t seem proper, so I told him I’d go. The trail boss nodded and gave me an envelope from Cookie’s belongings. The town in the return address wasn’t far from where we’d delivered the herd. Wyoming’s a big territory, though. Not far was still a far piece.
Far enough for me to be out too long in this early snow and catch cold. I sneezed, then sneezed again. I was too cold to unbutton my coat and pull out a bandana so I wiped my nose on my leather sleeve.
Cookie’s mother and father took the news hard, but not like a surprise kind of hard. Said they knew he’d been sickly from his letters. I knew he had a sour stomach, but never thought it was the cancer that had him.
Told his folks that, and they said something funny. They said it wasn’t the cancer that had him at all. They said God had him.
I said sure, maybe now. But they said Jesus had him all along.
The wind came whistling down the little canyon we were riding through. “Not sure if it’s colder down here or up there on the ridge, Pete.”
He snorted and stopped behind a boulder sticking out from the canyon wall.
“As good a place as any to bed down, Pete. You always could pick ’em.”
I started a fire with the dead brush I gathered, my flint throwing sparks on the tinder. Pulled out the pot to get some snow to melt on the fire, then coffee and beans for dinner. Probably what I’d have for breakfast, too.
Cookie always made sure we ate better than that. Been on a lot of cattle drives and Cookie was one of the best.
I stirred the beans to make sure they didn’t burn, just like I saw Cookie do. He’d have made sure we had some fresh biscuits, stew with chunks of meat and real potatoes, better coffee than I’ve ever made.
“How’re those oats, Pete?” It was nice of Cookie’s folks to make sure we had fresh oats for the trail.
Easy to see how Cookie ended up being the guy everyone liked on the trail. Maybe that’s what comes from being a preacher’s kid.
He didn’t preach at me when I showed up on their porch at noon, though. His wife neither. They just sat me down at the table where they were laying out their meal and put a plate in front of me.
“Tell us about Arthur,” his mother said.
“Arthur?” I remembered the envelope from Cookie’s things. “Your son. O’ course.” I said the first thing that came into my head. “Good cook.”
“Couldn’t keep that boy out of the kitchen if I tried,” she said.
“Which you didn’t, Martha.” The preacher patted her arm, then rested his hand there.
“Well he knew what he was doing in there more than most men, Charles,” she said, giving his hand a pat back.
They could tease in the midst of their grief, little corners of smiles playing among the tears that rested in their eyes. One would slip every once in a while down his mother’s cheek, which his father kept leaning over to wipe away with his handkerchief.
“Were you with him? When he died, I mean?”
“No ma’am. I’m sorry to say no one was.” I looked down at my plate, still full of food I couldn’t seem to eat.
“Seemed like the first time in days he’d felt any comfort. He had a little smile on his face and just told us, ‘Boys, leave me be. I’m going to be fine tonight.’ So we did. I looked in the chuck wagon a couple hours later and Cookie . . . Arthur was still lying there so I let him rest, thought I’d check in him again in the morning.”
“Did you?” his father asked.
“Trail boss got there first. Came around and woke us up, told us Cookie was dead.”
“Oh, oh . . .” His mother’s tears flowed freely. I heard her whispering over and over, “Glory, he’s gone to glory.”
“He got there before us,” said the preacher. “That’s certain.”
They made me stay through the afternoon, asking me all I knew about Cookie, what he was like on the trail, what the men thought of him.
The sun was lowering as I finished. “I’m sorry he had to die alone.”
“He told you he’d be fine, and he was,” his mother said. “Jesus was with him the whole time.” I must have looked as unconvinced as I felt, because she turned to her husband. “Show him where it says that Jesus never leaves his sheep, Charles.”
He reached over to the small bookcase for a Bible that looked like it was worn enough to have served several preachers.
“Right here in John 10, Martha. Jesus the Good Shepherd, is that what you were thinking of?”
“I know that part,” I said a little more loudly than I intended. “It’s the part the trail boss was reading a couple weeks before Cookie died. It says Jesus keeps looking for his sheep. I didn’t know it said he stays with ’em.”
“That’s in Luke,” said Cookie’s mother. “It’s a beautiful parable. But this one is in John’s Gospel. Read it to him, Charles.”
He drew his finger down one page then to the top of the next and held it there.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
He closed the book and wiped another tear from his wife’s face.
The beans were gone, the cup of coffee cold in my hand, undrunk. I laid more wood on the fire and settled my head back on the saddle as I wrapped my bedroll around me.
“This is one cold canyon, Pete. Wouldn’t mind being held in someone’s hand about now.” I pulled the blanket to my chin. “Sure to be warmer than this.”
I stretched my arm up behind me to the saddlebags. I found it inside there, Cookie’s Bible. His folks told me to keep it from the belongings I’d brought them. They even marked the pages for me to read those stories for myself, about Jesus finding sheep and God not giving up on his own.
“I ‘spect I got some reading to do come sunup, Pete. You gonna walk easy enough for me to read on the trail?”
Pete didn’t answer. He was asleep. I put another branch on the fire and rolled over to do the same, feeling warmer already.
Cover photo by Emanuel Hahn.