It was the height of summer and the small community of Four Feather Falls was enjoying another day of cloudless blue skies and glorious sunshine.
Little Jake was enjoying every moment of it too. He’d just been to visit Ma Jones, who’d given him some candy for helping her with a few chores, and he was looking forward to whiling away the afternoon exploring some of his favourite hiding spots in Black Rock Canyon.
Presently he found himself passing through Old Clint’s ranch, marvelling at the large herd of cattle that were roaming unhurriedly this way and that. Little Jake spied a few familiar faces in the distance – Old Clint, Sheriff Tex Tucker, his horse Rocky and his faithful dog Dusty.
He waved and called out a cheerful greeting and received a couple of friendly waves and a call of “Howdy, Little Jake!” in return before making his way towards the entrance of the canyon.
Tex and Old Clint watched him go and with a dry chuckle, Clint said, “He’s a mighty pleasant young feller, Tex. Got his head in the clouds and I’d reckon some big dreams in that head of his.”
“Guessin’ you’re right at that,” Tex replied with a smile, then added, “Only right to dream big. It’s a mighty big world after all.”
“True enough,” Clint responded thoughtfully, “Where’re you off to next?”
Tex reached into the leather pouch that was slung by his waist, “Got a couple of telegrams that need sendin’, so I’ll be on my way soon enough.” He glanced over at Dusty, who had his nose to the ground. He was turning his head this way and that, sniffing intently.
“Dusty, what’re you doin’? You lose somethin’?” Tex asked.
Dusty raised his head and turned to look at Tex. Although Old Clint heard nothing more than a few innocuous ruffs and barks, Tex heard every word thanks to one of his four magic feathers.
“There’s trouble here, Boss. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it!”
Tex knew better than to ignore Dusty’s canine instincts. He turned to Clint, “Just goin’ to have a quick look around. Dusty figures there’s trouble a-brewin’. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“Take care, Tex!” Old Clint called as Tex moved Rocky off in the direction that Dusty indicated.
Rocky tossed his head back and as he spoke, Tex could once again understand the horse’s every word because of the second magic feather.
Unlike Dusty’s cheerful American tones, Rocky’s accent was refined English, something that he often remarked suited him, being a thoroughbred and all.
“You know, old boy,” he began, addressing Dusty, “one of these days, that nose of yours is going to get you into trouble.”
“Easy, Rocky,” Tex soothed, “Dusty’s got a hunch, let’s see where it takes us.”
“It’s close, Boss!” Dusty whispered excitedly.
And then it happened.
Several yards ahead, the deadly head of a snake reared up and snapped at the hind legs of one of the herd of contented cattle.
In seconds the peaceful moment shifted to a scene of total chaos. As the startled bovine cried out in shock, fear gripped the herd. Almost as one, they began to run from the threat.
“It’s a stampede!” Tex yelled over the increasing bellows and clattering hooves of the frightened cattle.
Dusty leapt onto Rocky’s back to avoid getting trampled, “They’re heading for Black Rock Canyon!”
“Tarnation!” Tex exclaimed, “Little Jake was wanderin’ that-a-ways! We’d better move – Come on, Rocky!”
“On the double, Tex!” Rocky replied with determination. He gave a fierce neigh and thundered off across the ranch, rapidly gaining on the clouds of dust from the herd’s hooves.
Tex was riding low, flattening himself against Rocky’s back to try and give them more speed, “We’ve got to pass the lead cattle before they enter the canyon or we’ll never get by ’em!” he shouted desperately.
“Leave it to me!” Rocky called back, “Hold tight – this isn’t going to be awfully dignified!”
As though he were possessed by a bolt of lightning, Rocky tore onward. He passed the herd close on the left flank, then pulled ahead and closed in on the leaders. They were still running on the all-consuming, sense-blinding burst of adrenaline.
Tex could feel every bone in his body rattling as Rocky’s hooves thundered ever closer to the canyon looming just ahead.
“It’s gonna be close!” Tex cried out, taking a deep breath and bracing himself for a glancing blow against the side wall of the canyon.
But then they were through – ahead of the herd!
“They’re not slowing down!” Dusty called over the horrendous sound of the crashing herd as the echoes bounced all around them.
“They’ve got a ways to go before they settle yet!” Tex yelled back, “We’ve gotta find Little Jake – and fast!”
Almost before the words were out of his mouth, they rounded a long curve in the canyon and there was Little Jake ahead.
“Whatever you do, don’t slow down, Rocky!” Tex shouted.
Rocky didn’t say a word, he nodded in response and kept all his focus on outpacing the herd.
Tex saw the look of terror on Little Jake’s face as they raced closer.
There was no room for error – it was now or never.
Tex slid to the slide and flung his arms out, grabbing hold of Little Jake and hoisting him up onto the saddle in one fluid movement.
“Go, Rocky! On, boy!” Tex urged, fearful that any lapse in his horse’s concentration might be disastrous for them all.
“I…don’t know…how much…longer…” Rocky gasped between uneven panting.
“Look at the herd! They’re slowing!” Dusty cried.
Tex risked a glance back.
Sure enough, the herd of cattle were slowing to an amble. Then they stopped altogether.
“Woah there! Easy now, Rocky,” Tex said, pulling on the reins and bringing Rocky to a controlled halt.
“I’m…glad….that’s…over!” Rocky wheezed gratefully.
“You did swell, Rocky – real swell,” Tex said with admiration before addressing the young boy who was looking none the worse for his ordeal, “Well now, Little Jake, are you okay? That was a mighty near thing just now.”
Little Jake smiled, “Aww, I’m okay, Sheriff. I guess I oughtn’t have wandered in here all by myself. I won’t do it again.”
“Well this time there’s no harm done,” Tex replied kindly, “And it was thanks to Dusty’s nose and Rocky’s hooves that we made it in time.”
“Gee, thanks fellers!” Little Jake said appreciatively as he patted Dusty on the head and rubbed Rocky’s neck, “Say, Sheriff – Do you think they’d like some candy?”
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