When I rode out of the timber I fell in with a cow outfit, and a sorry lot of rawhiders they were.
When I came 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 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 asked. "Swimming those rivers and all? It ain't likely. 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 Gate's fire without he'd et if he was a mind to."
All I owned was on my back or on my horse and the offer of that meal sounded fresh and likely to me. So I out with my hunting knife and edged up tot he fire, helping myself to beef and beans.
Nobody had much to say as they moved to the fire to partake. They were oldish men, most of them with families at home, likely, and wondering what their womanfolks would do if they didn't come back.
Only a few weeks before I'd left the faraway hills of Tennessee to make myself a place in the world. 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.
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 hog-tie 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."
"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 get a cent, but I'll give you a hand writ note for one thousand dollars for those cows, all the brands you've named, sight unseen."
"You're talking 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.
"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 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.
"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.