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 believed 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 buckskin, 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."
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.
"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."
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.
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 know 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."
"Good!" Tap squeezed my shoulder. "We'll make a team, won't we, boy? Man, it's good to be back!"
He glanced over toward the corral where Karen was standing. All of a sudden he said, "Well, you understand what's needed here. When you are ready for the trail, I'll take over."
He walked away from us and went over to where Karen stood by the rail.
Zebony Lambert strolled over and dropped to his heels beside me. He was smoking tobacco wrapped in paper, a habit some of the Texans were picking up from the Mexicans.
"So that's Tap Henry."
He spoke in a peculiarly flat tone, and I glanced around at him. When Zeb spoke in that voice I knew he was either unimpressed or disapproving, and I wanted them to like each other.
"We spent a lot of time together as boys, Zeb. He's my half brother, stepbrother . . . whatever they call it."
"When his Ma ran off, Pa let him stay on. Treated him like another son."
Zeb looked across the yard to where Tap was laughing and talking with Karen.
"Did he ever see his mother again."
"No. Not that I know of."
"He fancies that gun, doesn't he?"
"That he does . . . and he's good with it, too."
Zeb finished his cigarette, then pushed it into the dirt. "If you need help," he said, "I stand ready. You'll need more horses."
"You see any wild stuff?"
"Over on the Leon River. You want to try for them?" Zeb was the best wild-horse hunter anywhere around. The trouble was there was so little time. If we wanted to travel when there was water to be found we should be starting now. We should have started two weeks ago.
"Maybe we can swap with Tom Sandy. There's a lot of young stuff down in the breaks, too young for a trail herd."
"He'll throw in with you if you ask him."
"Sandy?" I could not believe it. "He's got him a good outfit. Why should he move?"
Well, that made a kind of sense. Still, any man who would leave a place like he had for Rose would leave any other place for her, and would in the end wind up with nothing. Rose was mighty pretty woman and she kept a good house, but she couldn't keep her eyes off other men. Worst of all, she had what it took to keep their eyes on her, and she knew it.
"She'll get somebody killed."
"She'll get Tom killed."
Zeb got up. "I'll ride by about sunup. Help you with that young stuff." He paused. "I'll bring the dogs."
Zebony Lambert had worked cattle over in the Big Thicket and had a bunch of the best cattle-working dogs a man ever did see, and in brush country a dog is worth three cowhands.
He went to his horse and stepped into the saddle. He walked his horse around the corral so he would not have to pass Tap Henry, and just as he turned the horse Tap looked up.
It was plain to him that Lambert was deliberately avoiding him, for around the corral was the long way. Tap laid his eyes on Zeb and watched him ride off, stepping around Karen to keep his eyes on him.
For three days then we worked sunup to sundown, with Tap Henry, Zeb Lambert, and Aaron Stark working the breaks for young stuff. Pa rode over to have a talk with Tom Sandy about a swap, and Tim Foley worked on the wagons, with his boys to help.
It was heat, dust, sweat, charging horses, fighting steers, and man-killing labor. One by one we worked them out of the brush and up onto the plain where they could be bunched. Except for a few cantankerous old mossyhorns, they were usually content as long as they were with others of their kind in the herd.
Rolling out of my soogan that third morning, it took me only a minute to put on my hat--a cowhand always puts on his hat first--and then my boots and buckskin pants.
We sat on the steps or squatted around on the ground against the wall, eating in silence. Karen came out with the big pot and refilled our cups, and took a mite longer over Tap's cup.
None of us was talking very much, but Zebony moved over beside me when he had finished eating and began to make one of those cigarettes of his.
"You been over to the Leon?"
"You and me . . . we take a pasear over there. What do you say?"
"There's plenty of work right here," I said. "I don't see--"
"I do," Tap interrupted. "I know what he means."
Zeb touched a delicate tongue-tip to his thin paper. "Do you think," he said to me, "they will let you drive your cattle away?"
"They belong to us."
"Sure--there are mighty few that don't. Those others . . . the newcomers . . . they have no cattle, and they have been living on yours. By now they know you are planning a drive, and are cleaning out the breaks."
"Dan, what's got into you?" Tap asked irritably. "They'll rustle every steer they can, and fight you for the others. How many men have we got?"
"Now? Nine or ten."
"And how many of them? There must be thirty."
"Closer to forty," Zeb said. "There's tracks over on the Leon. They are bunching your cows faster than you are, and driving them north into the wild country."
"I reckon we'd best go after them," I said.
Tap got up. "I reckon we had," he said dryly. "And if you ever carried a short gun, you'd better carry one when you go after them."
It made sense. This lot who had squatted around us had brought nothing into the country except some beat-up horses and wagon outfits. Not more than two or three had so much as a milk cow . . . and they had been getting fat on our beef, eating it, which Pa never minded much, and even selling it. And not one of them had done a tap of work.
"Don't tell Pa," I said. "He's no hand with a gun."
Tap glanced at me briefly as if to say, "And I suppose you are?" But I paid him no mind.
The sun was staining the sky with rose when we moved out from the place. As we rode away, I told Ben Cole to keep the rest of them in the bottoms of the Cowhouse and to keep busy. They knew something was up, but they offered no comment, and we trailed it off to the west, then swung north.
"You know who it is?" I asked Zeb.
"That Holt outfit, Mack, Billy, and Webb--all that crowd who ride with them."
Tough men, and mean men. Dirty, unshaven, thieves and killers all of them. A time or two I'd seen them around.
"Webb," I commented, "is left-handed."
Tap looked around at me. "Now that," he said, "is a good thing to know."
"Carries his gun on the right side, butt first, and he draws with either hand."
We picked up their trail in a coulee near the Leon River and we took it easy. They were driving some twenty head, an there were two men. Following the trail was no trick, because they had made no attempt to hide it. In fact, they seemed to be inviting trouble, and realizing how the odds figured out, they might have had that in mind.
Zeb Lambert pulled up. "Dan.," he said, "look here."
We both stopped and looked at the trail. Two riders had come in from the east and joined the two they were trailing. The grass was pushed down by their horse's hoofs and had not straightened up--they could have joined them only minutes before.
Tap Henry looked at those tracks. "It could be accident," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"Or it could be that somebody told them we were riding this way."
"Who would do a thing like that?" I asked. "None of our crowd."
"When you've lived as long as me," Tap said shortly, "you won't trust anybody. We were following two men . . . now two more come in out of nowhere."
We rode on, more cautiously now. Tap was too suspicious. None of our folks would carry word to that bunch of no-account squatters. Yet there were four of them now, and only three of us. We did not mind the odds, but it set a man to thinking. If they were tipped off that we were moving against them there might be more of them coming.
Tap suddenly turned his head and saw Zeb cutting off over the rise.
"Now what's got into him?" he demanded.
"He'll be hunting sign. Zeb could track a coon over the cap-rock in the dark of the moon."
"Will he stand."
"He'll stand. He's a fighter, Tap. You never saw a better."
Suddenly, we smelled smoke.
Almost at the same moment we saw our cattle. There must have been three hundred head bunched there, and four men were sitting around the fire. Only one of them got to his feet as we approached.
"Watch it, Tap," I said, "there's more of them."
The hollow where they were was long, maybe a quarter of a mile, and there were willows and cottonwood along the creek, and here and there some mesquite. Those willows shielded the creek from view. No telling what else they might hide.
The remuda was staked out close by. My eyes went to the staked-out horses. "Tap," I said, "five of those horses are showing sweat."
Webb Holt was there, and Bud Caldwell, and a long lean man named Tuttle. The fourth man had a shock of uncombed blond hair that curled over his shirt collar, and a chin that somehow did not quite track with his face. He had a sour, mean look about him.
"Those cows are showing our brand," I said mildly. "We're taking them back."
"Are you now?" Webb Holt asked insolently.
"And we're serving notice. No more beef--not even one."
"You folks come it mighty big around here," Webb commented. "Where'd you get the right to all these cattle? They run loose until you came along."
"Not here they didn't. There were no cattle here until my father drove them in, and the rest came by natural increase. Since then we've ridden herd on them, nursed them, dragged them out of bogs, and fought the heel-flies and varmints.
"You folks came in here with nothing and you've made no attempt to get anything. We'd see no man go hungry, least of all when he has young ones, so we've let you have beef to eat. Now you're stealing."
"Do tell?" Holt tucked his thumbs behind his belt. "Well, let me tell you something. You folks want to leave out of here, you can. But you're taking no cows."
"If you're counting on that man back in the brush," I said, "you'd best forget him. He won't be able to help you none."
Holt's eyes flickered, and Bud Caldwell touched his tongue to his lips. The blond man never turned a hair. He kept looking at Tap Henry like he'd seen him some place before.
I don't' know what you're figuring on," I said, "but in your place I'd just saddle up and ride out. And what other cattle of ours you have, I'd drive back."
"Now why would we do that?" Holt asked, recovering some of his confidence. "We've got the cows. You got nothing. You haven't even got the men."
"The kind we've got ," Tap said, "we don't need many."
Holt's eyes shifted. "I don't know you," he said.
Tap jerked his head. "I'm Dan's stepbrother, you might say, and I've got a shooting interest in that stock."
"I know him," the blond man said suddenly. "That's Tap Henry. I knew him over on the Nueces."
"He's a gunfighter, Webb."
Webb Holt centered his attention on Tap. He was wary now. Bud Caldwell moved a little to one side, spreading them out. My Patterson revolving rifle lay across my saddle, my hand across the action, and as he moved, I let the muzzle follow him . . . it seemed to make him nervous.
We knew there was a man out there in the brush, but we--at least I did--depended on Zeb to take care of him. It was a lot of depending, yet a man can do only so much, and we had four men there in front of us.
"You're going to have a choice to make," Tap said, "any minute now. If you make the right choice, you live."
Webb Holt's tongue touched his lips. I let my horse back up a mite so I could keep both Bud and that blond man under my eyes.
"You can catch up your horses and ride out," I said. "You can start any time you're a mind to."
Suddenly Zebony Lambert was standing on the edge of the brush. "You boys can open the ball any time you like," he said. "There's nobody out there in the brush to worry about."
"You could see them start to sweat.
"You kill that man?" Holt demanded.
"He didn't make an issue of it," Zeb replied.
Nobody said anything for about a minute, and it was a long minute. Then I stepped my horse up, holding that rifle muzzle on Caldwell.
"Case you're interested," I said, casually, "this here is a Patterson revolving rifle and she shoots five shots . . . 56 caliber."
"Webb . . . ?" Bud Caldwell was kind of nervous. That Patterson was pointed right at his stomach and the range was less than twenty feet.
"All right," Webb Holt replied, "we can wait. We got forty men, and we want these cows. You folks take'em along now---you won't keep them."
"Webb?" Tap's voice had an edge to it that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "You and me, Webb. Those others are out of it."
"Now you see here!" Webb Holt's face was touched with pallor.
"Forty, you said." Tap was very quiet. "I say thirty-nine, Webb. Just thirty-nine."
Bud Caldwell reached for the sky with both hands and the thin man backed up so fast he fell over a log and he just lay there, his arms outspread.
The blond man stood solid where he was. "He called it," he said loudly. "It's them two."
Webb Holt stood with his feet spread, his right side toward Tap Henry. His gun butt was on his right hip, the butt end to the fore and canted a mite.
"Look," he said, "we don't need to--" He grabbed iron and Tap shot him twice through the chest.
"Lucky you warned me about that left hand," Tap said. "I might have made a mistake."
We rounded up those cattle and drove them home, and nobody said anything, at any time.
Me, I was thinking about those other thirty-nine men, and most particularly about Holt's two brothers.
It was time we pulled out, and pulled out fast.