Each knew the trail like their own front porch, so the old map Val carried only took up space in his saddlebag. Not much space though, since it was crumpled in the very bottom flatter than a flapjack. None of them knew why he insisted on having it. It was the first thing he packed and the last thing he used. Other things he insisted on having were the picture of his wife in a slinky little red number and a braided lock of her shiny black hair. Things he didn't use but made him feel better to have. His younger brother Casey carried pictures, too. Six of them, each one of a different gal. Two redheads, a blonde, and three brunettes. He also carried a pair of silky blue underbritches that he said belonged to the blonde. Tammy-Lynn was her name, he'd said. She gave them to him to keep him warm at night, he'd said with a wink. Jake had snorted at that and said, "I'm sure they'll look great on you."
But Jake carried his own lucky charms, not all of which the rest of them understood. He kept an Indian head penny in his saddlebag. Riley once asked what it was for, but Jake just muttered at him to mind his own business. They all knew why he carried the rattle, though. Jake had cut it off the tail of the diamondback himself. Save for Riley, they'd all been bitten by a snake at one time or another, but Jake was the only one who took it personally.
"Ah! Sonovabitch!"
"What?" Everybody looked up from what they were doing: watering the horses, feeding the dog, checking the cattle, or cooking the beans. Jake had been rolling up the bedrolls for the morning, but then he was hopping back on one foot, flinging the top blanket of his bedroll away from himself.
"What?" Roy asked again.
Then everybody heard it. The telltale sound of chchchchchchh.
"Did he get ya?" Casey asked quickly, dropping Pepper's share of the baloney into a dish on the ground so the Australian shepherd could eat his breakfast. But now the dog was barking at the rattler coiled up in Jake's bedroll.
"Dunno," Jake muttered. He flopped down onto Casey's bedroll to pull off his left boot while Casey got Jake's Winchester.
Val said, "Riley, keep Pepper away from that blanket till we can get that rattler out of there."
Riley grabbed hold of Pepper's collar and pulled him back while Casey took aim with the rifle. The crack of the shot in the still morning air spooked the cattle, but it killed the snake.
Only Jake and Riley carried guns. Jake, because sometimes you needed one on a cattle drive, for snakes, or coyotes, or what have you. Riley, because cowboys are supposed to carry six-shooters. And Riley was a textbook example of a cowboy. He had the hat, the boots, the buckle, and the carefully perfected Clint Eastwood squint.
But then, they all wore hats.
A cowboy's hat is a sacred thing. Everything you need to know about a man can be discerned by the way he wears and treats his hat. Riley's hat was still relatively new. A few slaps against his thigh could still dislodge most of the trail dust from it. Casey's hat was white, and he kept it as pristine as you can keep a hat while living in Nevada. Roy's hat was black and well worn with a sharp brim on it still. Jake's hat had seen a stampede from a prairie dog's point of view. It had taken a beating, but he still wore it, crumpled and all. Val's hat was sun-faded and wind-weathered, but it still kept the sun off his face and the back of his neck, and he'd wear it as long as it did. Loyalty begot loyalty.
"That's one dead diamondback," Roy observed, hunkering his big, tall body down next to Jake's bedroll. He lifted the corner of the blanket with his fingers and threw it back a bit more from the still body of the dead rattler.
"I'd expect so, as his head is now officially missin'." Leave it to Casey to always elaborate on what Roy simplified.
Val went to his saddlebag, retrieved the first aid kit, and returned to where Jake sat. Val carried the practical things like the map and the first aid kit. They never used the map, but they used the first aid kit. The time Roy had broken his hand roping a stray steer, the time Val had been thrown from a spooked horse, even the time Pepper had been stung by a baby scorpion.
Jake got his boot off at last, then pulled his thick sock off as well. He rolled up his Levi's so he and Val could search his lower leg for signs of a snake bite.
"Do you feel anything?" Riley asked, vague as you please. Jake didn't answer as he touched over his ankle and foot. Neither he nor Val could find any puncture wounds in his leg, ankle, or foot.
"Didn't puncture your boot," Roy said. "Looks like it was a young one. Consider yourself lucky."
"Consider me mad as hell," Jake retorted. He got to his feet, one still booted, the other bare. He went to his own saddlebag and dug through it. Through the changes of clothes, the canteen of water, the harmonica, the dried jerky, the cans of beans, the can opener, the bottle of whiskey, the soft leather pouch holding his Indian head penny, the matches, the cigarettes, the plastic razor, the little bar of soap like in the hotels, the pair of leather gloves, and the old deck of playing cards. Through all that, he dug till he found his knife. He pulled it from its weathered, leather sheath, holding it by its crafted deer antler handle. The rest of them watched as Jake stalked over to the dead diamondback, knelt down, and cut off the rattle at the end of its tail. "Rattle now, you little sonovabitch." They all silently ignored the fact that a snake can't rattle without a head, much less without a rattle.
Later that day, after they had saddled up and headed out, Riley asked, "Why did you take the rattle off the snake?"
From the other side of Roy, Jake said, "Dunno, seemed like a good idea."
"You know, they use real snake venom to make people immune to 'em," Roy said. "They poke people with needles that are tipped with milked venom." He was slouching in his old but well oiled saddle. The leather tack on Roy's horse could outshine polished oak, even after three days on the trail.
Riley was skeptic. "Where do they do that?"
"I dunno, far east somewheres."
"That's a load of bull." Riley adjusted his only faintly dusty hat. "If that were true, they'd be doing it everywhere, and Jake wouldn't have to be so paranoid."
"I didn't take it because I'm paranoid," Jake snapped at him. "It's symbolic or somethin'."
"Ah."
From that day forward, Riley said that Jake's Indian head penny was symbolic of the Indian head that wouldn't fit in the saddlebag he took on stock drives.