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Pa came down to the breaks along the Cowhouse where I was rousting out some steers that had taken to the brush because of the heel-flies.
"Come up to the house, boy. Tap has come home and he is talking of the western lands."
So I gathered my rope to a coil and slung it on the pommel of my saddle, and stepping up to the leather, I followed Pa up through the trees and out on the open grass.
Folks were standing in the breezeway of our Texas house, and others were grouped around in bunches, listening to Tap Henry or talking among themselves.
It was not a new thing, for there had been argument and discussion going on for weeks. We all knew that something must be done, and westward the land was empty.
Tap Henry was a tall man of twenty-seven or -eight and we had been boys together, although he was a good six to seven years older than me. A hard, reckless man with a taste for wild country and wilder living, he was a top hand in any man's outfit, and a good man with a gun.
You couldn't miss Tap Henry. He was well over six feet tall and weighed a compact one hundred and ninety. He wore a freshly laundered blue shield-style shirt with a row of buttons down each side, shotgun chaps, and Spanish boots with big California spurs.
He still packed that pearl-handled six-shooter he had taken off a man he had killed, and he was handsome as ever in that hard, flashy way of his. He was our friend and, in a sense, he was my brother.
Our eyes met across the heads of the others as I rode up, and his were cold and measuring. It was a look I had seen in his eyes before, but never directed at me. It was the way he looked when he saw a possible antagonist. Recognition came suddenly to his eyes.
"Danny! Dan, boy!" He strode through the crowd that had gathered to hear his talk of the lands to the west, and thrust out a hand. "Well, I'll be forever damned! You've grown up!"
Stepping down from the saddle, I met his grip with one of my own, remembering how Tap prided himself on his strength. For a moment I matched him, grip for grip, then let him have the better of it, for he was a proud man and I liked him, and I had nothing to prove.
It surprised me that we stood eye to eye, for he had always seemed very tall, and I believe it surprised him too.
Almost involuntarily, his eyes dropped to my belt, but I was wearing no gun. My rifle was in my saddle-boot and my knife was in its sheath.
"We're going west, Danny!" His hand on my shoulder, we walked back to where Pa now stood with Aaron Stark and Tim Foley. "I've scouted the land, and there is grass enough, and more!"
Pa glanced curiously from one to the other of us, and from the shadow of the breezeway Zebony Lambert watched us, a strange light in his green eyes. Zeb's long brown hair lay about his shoulders, as carefully combed as a woman's, his eyes level and hard under the flat brim of his Spanish hat.
Zebony Lambert was my friend, but I do not think he had many friends, for he was a solitary, self-keeping sort of man little given to talk. Of medium height, his extraordinarily broad shoulders made him seem shorter, and they were well set off by the short Spanish jacket he wore, and the buck-skin, bell-bottomed breeches.
Lambert and Tap had never met until now, and it worried me a little, for both were strong men, and Tap was inclined toward arrogance.
"Is it true, then?" I asked Pa. "Is it decided?"
"Aye . . . we're going west, Dan."
Tim Foley was our neighbor who ran a few cows of his own, but occasionally worked for us. A square-built man with a square, honest face. "And high time," he said, "for there is little grass and we have those about us who like us not at all."
"How far is it, then?"
"Six hundred miles or less. Right across Texas and into New Mexico. If we do not go on, it will be less."
Pa looked at me. More and more he was paying mind to my judgment, and listening to what I had to say. He was still the boss . . . I knew that and he knew it, but he had respect for my judgment, which had grown since he had been leaving the cattle business to me.
"How many head, Dan? What can we muster?" Pa put the question and I caught a surprised look from Tap, for he remembered me as a boy, and a boy only.
"Fifteen hundred at least, and I'd say a bit more than that. Tim will have a good three hundred head under his own brand, and Aaron nearly as many. When all are rounded up and the breaks swept clean, I would say close to three thousand head."
"It is a big herd, and we will be short of men," Pa commented thoughtfully.
"There will be three wagons, and the horse herd," I added.
"Wagons?" Tap objected. "I hadn't planned on wagons."
"We have our families," Tim said, "and there are tools we must take."
There began a discussion of what to take, of trail problems and men, and I leaned against the corral rail, listening without paying much attention. In every such venture there is always more talk than is necessary, with everybody having his say, but I knew that when all was said, much of it would be left to me, and I would do as seemed best to me.
There is no point in such endless discussion, except that men become familiar with their problems. Long ago, when the first discussion of such a move began, I had also begun thinking of it, and had made some plans I thought necessary. Lambert, a thoughtful man, had contributed a few pointed and common-sense suggestions.
We could muster barely a dozen men, far too few for the task that lay ahead. Once the herd was trail-broke, four to five men might keep it moving without much trouble, but until then it would be a fight. Some of these old mossyhorns had grown up there on the Cowhouse and they had no wish to leave home.
There would be the usual human problems too, even though the people who would be accompanying our move would all be known to us. And once away from the settlements, there would be Comanches.
It was a risk, a big risk. We were chancing everything.
We might have fought it out where we were, but Pa was no hand for a fight, although he had courage enough for two men, and had seen his share of fighting in the Mexican War and with Indians. He had grown up in the Five Counties and knew what feuding meant. It was Tap who had suggested going west, and Pa fell in with it.
But there was risk connected with everything, and we were hard men bred to a hard life in a hard land, and the lives that we lived were lonely, yet rich with the voice of our singing, and with tales told of an evening by the campfire.
What pleasures we had were created by ourselves or born of the land, our clothing was made by our own hands, our houses and corrals, also. Those who rode beside us knew the measure of our strength as we knew theirs, and each knew the courage of the other.
In that country a man saddled his own broncs and fought his own battles, and the measure of his manhood was that he did what needed to be done, and did it well, and without shirking.
Me? I, Dan Killoe, was born in a claim cabin on Cowhouse Creek with the roar of buffalo guns filling the room as Pa and my Uncle Fred beat off an Indian attack. I let out my first yell in a room filled with gunsmoke, and when Ma died I was nursed by a Mexican woman whose father died fighting with the Texans at the Alamo.
When I was six, Pa met Tap's Ma on a trip to Fort Worth, and married her, bringing her west to live with us, and they brought Tap along.
She was a pretty woman, as I recall, and good enough to us boys, but she wasn't cut out for frontier life, and finally she cut and run with some no-account drifter, leaving Tap to live with us.
Tap always pulled his weight, and more. He took to cow country like he was born to it, and we got along. He was thirteen and doing a man's work and proud of it, for the difference between a man and a boy is the willingness to do a man's work and take a man's responsibility.
Being older than me, he was always the leader, no matter what we were doing, and a few times when we had a chance to attend school, he took up for me when I might have taken a beating from bigger boys.
When Tap pulled out the first time he was seventeen and I was a bit more than ten. He was gone most of a year, working for some outfit over in the Big Thicket.
The next time I saw him he was wearing a pistol, and we heard rumors he had killed a man over near Caddo Lake.
When he was at home he worked like all get-out, but he soon had the name of being a good man to let alone. Pa said nothing much to him, only dropping a comment now and then, and Tap always listened, or seemed to. But he was gone most of the time after that, and each time he came back he was bigger, tougher, and more sure of himself.
It had been three years since we had last seen Tap, but now he was back, and at the right time, too. Trouble was building along the Cowhouse and neighbors were crowding in, and it was time we moved west and laid claim to land.
We would be leaving mighty little on the Cowhouse. When Pa moved into the country a body couldn't live there at all without neighbors and they bunched up for protection. Some died and some were killed, some drifted and some sold out, but the country changed and the people, and now it was building into a fight for range.
Some of the newcomers had no cattle, and from time to time they would kill a beef of ours. Pa was no one to keep a man's youngsters from food, so he allowed it. The trouble was, they turned from killing a beef for food to driving them off and selling them, and trouble was cropping up.
A couple of times I'd caught men with our brand on some steers they were driving, and I drove them back, but twice shots had been fired at me.
The old crop that worked hard and fought hard for their homes were gone. This new lot seemed to figure they could live off what we had worked for, and it was developing into trouble. What we wanted was land that belonged to us--land with boundaries and lines drawn plain and clear; but due to the way everybody had started out on the Cowhouse, that wasn't true here.
There was talk of moving west, and then Tap rode in, fresh from that country.
Pa was a farmer at heart, more interested in crops than cattle, and of late I'd taken to running the cattle business.
"It is a bad trip, I'll not lie about that," Tap was saying. "But the time of year is right, and if we start soon there will be grass and water."
"And when we get there?" Foley asked.
"The best grass you ever saw, and water too. We can stop on the Pecos in New Mexico, or we can go on to Colorado."
"What would you suggest?" Foley was a shrewd man, and he was keeping a close watch on Tap as he questioned him.
"The Pecos country. Near Bosque Redondo."
Karen Foley came to stand beside me, her eyes watching Tap. "Isn't he exciting?" she said. "I'm glad he will be with us."
For the first time I felt a twinge of jealousy, but it was a small twinge, for I liked and admired Tap Henry myself, and I knew what she meant.
Tap was different. He had come riding back into our lives wearing better clothes than we could afford, riding a fine chestnut gelding with a beautifully hand-tooled saddle, the first one I had ever seen. Moreover, he carried himself with a kind of style.
He had a hard, sure way about him and he walked and moved with an assurance we did not have. You felt there was no uncertainty about Tap Henry, that he knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. Only faintly, and with a twinge of guilt, did I think that perhaps he cared too little for the feelings or interests of others. Nevertheless, I could think of no better man on a trip of the kind we were planning.
Karen was another thing, for Karen and I had been walking out together, talking a little, and a couple of times we had taken rides together. We had no understanding or anything like it, but she was the prettiest girl anywhere around, and for a girl out on the Texas plains she got herself up mighty well.
She was the oldest of Tim Foley's three children. The other two were boys, fourteen and ten.
It was plain she was taken by Tap Henry, and one thing I knew about Tap was that he was no man to take lightly where women were concerned. He had a way with them, and they took to him.
Pa turned around. "Come over here, Dan. We want your advice."
Tap laughed as I walked up, and clapped a hand on my shoulder in that way he had. "What's the matter, Killoe? You taking advice from kids now?"
"Dan knows more about cattle than anybody I ever knew," Pa said quietly, "and this won't be his first trail drive."
"You?" Tap was surprised. "A trail drive?"
"Uh-huh. I took a herd through Baxter Springs last year. Took them through to Illinois and sold them."
"Baxter Springs?" Tap chuckled. "Lost half your herd, I'll bet. I know that crowd around Baxter Springs."
"They didn't cut Dan's herd," Foley said, "and they didn't turn him aside. Dan took them on through and sold out for a good price."
From the Paperback edition.