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When I rode out of the timber I fell in with a cow outfit, and a sorry lot of rawhiders they were.
They had a fire going and coffee on, and the smell of the coffee and of bacon frying fairly set my stomach to asking questions of my face. I'd come a far piece with nothing to chew on but my thoughts.
When I came up to the fire not one of them upped to say aye, yes, or no. They just sat there looking beat. This was a played-out hand if ever I saw one.
"Howdy," I said. "You folks taking on any help?"
There was a thin, stooped-down man, with every bone showing through his thin cotton shirt, who looked around at me. If that man's cattle were as poor as he was, there'd not be fat enough on any one of them to grease a skillet.
"Was I to hire you, I couldn't pay. We're fresh out of everything a man needs most."
Well, I could have fetched him some ideas on that score, because I'd already seen the girl who stood with her back against the chuck wagon.
"Where you driving the herd?"
"We ain't. Not no more. We were headed for a valley out yonder where the grass stands high. Now it looks like we ain't a-goin' anywhere at all."
"Sheriff in this town lays claim to a bunch of our cattle. Swears they're local brands."
"Ain't the cattle yours?"
"Rightly they are, but there's a point of question and the sheriff knows it. Cattle have been running on Texas grass since Spanish days, with nobody laying claim to hide nor hair of them. Folks branded a few of them, but the War between the States cut that short, so they just ran free and bred free. We made a gather of them, and started north.
"We had a few brands among them. Men died during the war, and then in the Injun fightin' an' such. These brands we have nobody laid claim to, and we honestly tried to run them all down. Now this man claims they're local cattle that drifted south."
"All the way to Texas?" I said. "Swimming those rivers and all? It ain't likely. Away out west it might happen, but there's too much good grass around here for cows to leave it. He's running a bluff on you."
"You et, son? I got no kind of job for you, but no man ever walked away from Noah Gates's fire without he'd et if he was a mind to."
All I owned was on my back or on my horse. That excepts a lay of ridge-country land back in Tennessee, and the offer of that meal sounded fresh and likely to me. So I out with my skinning knife and edged up to the fire, helping myself to beef and beans.
Nobody had much to say as they moved to the fire to partake. It looked to me as if this outfit was fresh out of hope and gumption, as well as other things. They were oldish men, most of them with families at home, likely, and wondering what their womenfolks would do if they didn't come back.
They weren't the frontier type of man. These were the second string, and good men often enough, but hard work and bad crops or bad luck had probably wiped out their efforts, and had taken away a good deal of their will to fight back.
Only a few weeks before I'd left the faraway hills of Tennessee to make myself a place in the world, and when I finally taken off there was nothing left in the cabin but a chunk of side meat off a razor-back hog and some fresh ground meal. I taken that grub and rattled my hocks out of there.
When I rode up to this cow outfit I was three days without eating except for some hazelnuts I'd found, but the longer I sat there listening to their talk the more it seemed to me that this sheriff, as he called himself, was running a blazer on Gates and his outfit. The worst of it was, he looked likely to make it stick. Now, I was just a riding-through stranger, but I'd set up to good grub for the first time in days, and I didn't like to think of some no-account running me away from the trough.
Back in my mountains, folks run long on fighting. A man may not have much, but he sets store by his pride as a free-born American citizen, and is ready to fight for what he believes, you choose the time and place.
Back in the hills when you'd hunted 'coon, drunk a little 'shine, and courted the girls, there wasn't much else to do but fight. Now, I never cared much for the jug, but I was a fair hand at courting.
But with me it was mostly the fighting. It was just fighting in good spirits, knuckle and skull, root-hog-or-die kind of fighting among us boys. And what these folks needed right now was the will to fight.
Only that honed no blades for me. Pa, he always said a man had to look spry for himself, because nobody would do it for him; your opportunities didn't come knocking around, you had to hunt them down and hogtie them. Maybe it was that idea I was considering, and maybe it was the beans in the pot, or it might have been that redhead girl standing over there casting eyes at me, time to time.
So I spoke free, and I told them were they my cows nobody would take them without they had a fight.
"Ain't much we can do," Gates said. "That sheriff's a mighty hard man, and it's a hard lot he has with him. Even if we got shut of this place, there's nothing but Injuns west, and trouble of every kind."
"What about that valley with the tall grass?" I asked.
"Maybe that was just a dream. Anyway, none of us ever saw it. A passing stranger told us of it—a roving man by the name of Sackett, far riding from the western lands."
"If a Sackett told you that valley was there, it was there," I said, me being kin of theirs, although distant.
Now, I was doing some contemplating. This here wasn't an organized state yet, so there weren't any county officials, and no sheriffs. Getting the herd together had taken the last bit of gumption these men had, and the long, hard trail drive had worn them down and whipped them. And I was betting that town outfit had seen that very thing.
"Mr. Gates, what brands were they about to take?"
"Circle Three, Ten Bar, Shamrock, and Slash Seven. That adds up to about half the herd."
Well, a man doesn't look on opportunity too often, and even though the deck was stacked against them, I felt like taking a hand. "Mr. Gates," I said, "you sell those brands to me. You sell them to me right now."
"Sell them? Son, you got that kind of money?"
"No, sir. I haven't got a cent, but I'll give you a handwrit note for one thousand dollars for those cows, all the brands you've named, sight unseen."
"You're talkin' foolish, boy."
"You want my note for a thousand dollars, or you want nothing? That's what they'll leave you. Looks to me as if you've got to fight or quit. Now I'm giving you something else. You sell those cows to me and the fight becomes mine."
"They'll ride rough-shod over you, boy."
"Sell to him." The speaker was a burly, sort of fat man with a stubble of beard over a weak chin. "What can we lose?"
Then we heard the sound of their horses, and it seemed to me Gates turned a shade sicker than he had been before. "I'll write a bill of sale," I said. "All you've got to do is sign it."
There were six men with that so-called sheriff. To me he was just a thief wearing a stolen badge, and those with him were a mean, shifty-looking lot, but hard men, every one of them.
"We've come to make our cut by daylight, Gates. You just stand aside and there'll be no trouble."
"The cattle belong to us," Gates said. "We gathered them down on the Trinity."
The sheriff just grinned, a taunting, ugly kind of a grin. Oh, he'd sized them up, all right! He knew this outfit had no heart for a fight.
So I taken a letter from my pocket, and on the back of a page of that letter I wrote: In consideration of $1,000 payable when the herd is sold, I hereby sell and release title to all Circle Three, Ten Bar, Shamrock, and Slash Seven cattle to the bearer of this note.
When I handed Gates that note, he looked from them to me. He was scared, but he dearly hated to sell.
"It's better than nothing," I said, "and that's what he'll leave you." I handed him the pencil. "Just sign it."
"What's going on here?" the sheriff demanded. "What's that paper?"
"All right, all right," Gates whispered hoarsely to me. "They're yours." He glanced at the others with him. "You agree?"
They nodded, and he signed.
Deliberately I took the paper, turned my back on them, and walked to my horse. Tied to the saddle by a slipknot was my Colt revolving shotgun. Taking the shotgun, I stepped back into the light.
"What's goin' on here?" the sheriff said again. "What d'you think you're doin'?"
"I just bought title to those cattle you say you're going to cut from the herd. You ain't getting hide nor hair of them. Now, you boys just turn yourselves around and ride back to town."
He looked to be a mighty mean man, and I knew he wasn't going to back down. At the beginning, before he started to run his bluff, they might have kept him off; but once he'd gotten a toe hold it meant a fight.
"Now, see here, boy!" He started to turn his horse to bring his rifle to bear, and I let him turn until the muzzle started to lift, then I shot him out of the saddle.
That Colt shotgun was loaded with buckshot, and it cut loose with a tremendous roar. That so-called sheriff left his saddle as if he'd been pole-axed.
The rest of them sat almighty still, afraid to blink for fear I'd shoot again. There was no arguing with that shotgun, and I held the drop. My next step took me nearer, but also deeper into the shadows near a wagon.
"Pick him up," I said, "and ride out of here. I'll kill the next man on sight that I see."
Well, sir, they done it. They got down mighty meek and hung him over the saddle and then they rode out of there, and they seemed pleased to be going.
On the ground where the body lay was a six-shooter that had fallen from his belt. I went over and picked it up. It was a finely made gun with an oddly carved ivory butt. Holding it up, I called after them, but they were gone, and they were not about to come back, so I thrust that gun back of my belt, and with that move I bought a ticket to hell with a dead man's gun.
Gates's men just sat there, too surprised and shocked to speak. "They've gone," Gates said finally; "you ran them off."
Me, I walked to the fire and picked up my cup. I was shaking a mite, and I didn't want them to see it. Boy though I was, I'd had a spell of time to know something of men, and knew my troubles had only begun.
"You killed him," one of the men said, as if he couldn't believe it.
"He came yearning for it."
"But you killed him!"
I drank my coffee. Sitting there by the fire, I could see the idea was beginning to reach them. The danger was over—it was gone. But now there was something else. I owned half their herd.
And I had killed a man, something I'd never done before, and hoped not to do again. It left me feeling sickish in the stomach, but I knew I daren't let them know it.
There by the wagon wheel, that redhead girl was looking at me. She wasn't smiling, and she wasn't offering any friendliness. She was just looking.
"Seems to me," I said, "We'd better move this herd. We'd best put some distance behind us."
They stared at me. The youngest of the men could have been my grandpa.
"Did you have to shoot that man?" one of them said. "Did you have to kill him?"
"What would you have done?"
Nobody answered that question, so I finished my coffee and, taking up my fixings, walked back to my horse.
We had to get moving, but the men had already started to think. They hadn't come to any decision yet, but they would. Just give them time.
We moved the cattle west a good eight miles, then bedded down, and all night long a soft rain fell. In the morning I rode out to make tally of my cattle.
The night guard came to me. He was Harvey Bowers, a lean, bitter old man with a skimpy face and thin hair stretched hard over his skull. "What you huntin' for?" he asked.
"Studyin' my cattle. Makin' a tally, if you want to know."
"Ain't yours yet. Not until you pay that note." He rolled his quid in his lean jaws. "You got a long way to go, boy."
"I've been there before. I been over the trail."
"You come by them cattle mighty easy. It taken us months of hard work to make the gather."
"And you could have lost them in one minute. If you figured it was easy to keep them, you could have tried. I risked my hide for them, don't forget that."
The cattle were in fair shape, better than I had expected. They had come up the Shawnee Trail, the roughest of the lot, with deep rivers to swim, and lots of broken country and brush, but the grass had been good, and with the rains and all, they'd had a-plenty to drink.
But now trouble was shaping up for me. A big share of the herd was mine if I made good on that note, and the thought of it was beginning to rankle with those men. Boy I might be, but I was wise enough to know that, given time, every man jack of them would come to hate me.
The rain was a mesh of steel against an iron sky. We pointed the herd west down a valley of grass where a small stream wound among the willows and redbud. This was Indian country, but the Indians were friendly . . . it was said. The Cherokees were friendly, I knew, and good people, but they had their renegades, too, and a herd of strange cattle would be a temptation to them.