“You sure we’re at the right place?”
“You saw the sign pointin’ this way,” said Webb.
“I reckon this is a fool question,” Jim Roussel said, “but where do we go from here?”
“Santa Fe,” said Webb. “It’s clear enough what happened, and somebody had to bury Warren and his wife, so we’ll go callin’ on the county sheriff. Then we’ll have to find some hombre that can afford five thousand Texas longhorns. Red, why don’t you ride with me. The rest of you take the herd back along the river and wait for us.”
Wordlessly the rest of the riders obeyed, as Webb and Bohannon rode upriver toward Santa Fe. They had no trouble finding the sheriff’s office. The lawman sat at a desk cleaning his Colt. He got to his feet when they entered.
“I’m Don Webb and this is Red Bohannon.”
“Sheriff Carpenter. What can I do for you?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” said Webb. “Warren Blocker was a friend of ours, and we just came from his place. What was left of it. What can you tell us?”
“Not a lot,” Carpenter replied. “Couple of sheepmen found ’em, and they was dead and buried a week, before I heard about it. I took a posse out there, but the trail was cold. A dozen riders headed south, and we lost ’em when they split up. Renegades, I’d say.”
“Maybe,” said Webb, “but why single out the Blockers? We saw only one horse, and not another head of stock anywhere.”
“Money,” Sheriff Carpenter said. “The Blockers came from southern Arizona, and first thing they done was deposit forty thousand dollars in the local bank. It was no secret that Blocker had made his fortune in mining, and just a few days before his place was raided, he took thirty-five thousand out of the bank. I reckon I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but it was a foolish thing to do.”
“Under the circumstances, I’d have to agree with you,” said Webb. “Thanks for the information.”
“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Sheriff Carpenter said.
Webb and Bohannon closed the door behind them and stood on the boardwalk looking around.
“Come on,” said Webb. “I see a livery sign, and that’s usually where most livestock is bought and sold.”
The livery barn was large, and the office door was at one corner, in the front. Above the door was a sign that read LIVESTOCK BOUGHT AND SOLD. JORDAN WINKLER, PROP.
“Come in,” the big man said, easing his chair down to its front legs. “I’m Winkler.”
“Webb and Bohannon,” said Don. “We have Texas cattle to sell. Prime, two-year-olds and under.”
“How many?” Winkler asked cautiously.
“Fifty-five hundred,” said Webb.
Winkler whistled long and low, shaking his head.
“Folks around here don’t like beef?” Red Bohannon asked.
“Not that much of it, friend,” said Winkler. “This is sheep country. Most folks around here are third and fourth generation Mexican, and they was livin’ here while this territory still belonged to Mexico. They’re mostly mutton eaters. Them that’s partial to beef is them that’s come here from Missouri and Texas. I’ll take two hundred head, twenty dollars per.”
“Thirty dollars,” Webb said.
“Twenty,” said Winkler. “No more.”
“Twenty-five,” Webb countered.
“Twenty,” said Winkler.
Webb sighed. “Two hundred head, twenty dollars a head.”
“I’ll want a bill of sale,” said Winkler. “When can you have them here?”
“In the morning,” Webb said. “Do you have pens?”
“No,” said Winkler, “just a corral, and it’s full of mules. Just drive the cows here, and I’ll have some riders to take charge of them.”
“One thing more,” Webb said. “Do you know of anybody, anywhere, who might buy the rest of our herd? We’ll sell at twenty dollars a head.”
“Ellerbee and Sons in Los Angeles will take them,” said Winkler, “and they’ll pay lots more than twenty dollars. Couple of years back, they bought three thousand head of sheep from here. Send ’em a telegram, ask if they’ll buy, and ask for a quote.”
“Thanks,” Webb said. “Where’s the telegraph office?”
“Take a left out of here, and it’s a block up the street,” said Winkler.
They were almost to the telegraph office when Bohannon spoke.
“You forgot to ask how far it is to Los Angeles, and how we’re to get there.”
“I didn’t forget,” Webb said grimly. “We got no choice but to go, even if it’s three thousand miles. You reckon Texas cowboys can’t take a herd of longhorns where Mexicans drove three thousand damn sheep?”
Bohannon laughed, and they paused outside the telegraph office, pooling their meager resources to pay for the telegram. They entered, and taking a yellow form and a pencil, Webb wrote out the message: Have 5,000 head prime two-year-old Texas steers. Stop. If buying telegraph quote.
“We’ll wait for an answer,” said Webb, as he paid for the telegram.
“Might not have it ’fore tomorrow,” the telegrapher said. “We close at six.”
“Then we’ll wait till six, and if it hasn’t come, then we’ll be back tomorrow,” Webb said.
“Tarnation,” said Red, when they left the telegraph office, “ever’thing’s ridin’ on that telegram. We’re in one hell of a mess if they don’t answer. Denver’s God knows how far to the north, Mejicano land’s to the south, and the war’s comin’ to Texas.”
“That telegram’s got to pay off,” Webb replied. “While we’re waitin’ for an answer, we can maybe learn something about the trail to Los Angeles. Let’s find out if there’s a newspaper in town.”
The Santa Fe Chief occupied a small office across the street from the jail, and when the Texans entered, an elderly lady looked at them over the tops of her spectacles. Don wasted no time.
“Ma’am, we have some cattle we aim to trail to Los Angeles. We’ve heard other stock has been driven there, and we’re needin’ some directions.”
“You’re talking about the Old Spanish Trail,” she said, “and there’s twelve hundred miles of it. We used to print a map when it was in regular use. Perhaps I can find one.”
One entire wall of the office was lined with shelves, each of them sagging under a load of what obviously were back issues of the newspaper. Eventually she presented them with a yellowed edition of the newspaper.
“There’s a full-page map in here,” she said.
“We’re obliged, ma’am,” said Webb. “What do we owe you?”
“Nothing,” she said, with a grim smile. “You’ll hate me before you reach Los Angeles.”
Thirty minutes before the telegraph office was to close, a reply came from Ellerbee and Sons in Los Angeles. It said: Buying at sixty dollars a head. Stop. Confirm delivery date.
Speechless, Webb and Bohannon left the telegraph office, pausing to read the brief message again.
“Lord Almighty,” said Bohannon, “that’s three hundred thousand dollars for the five thousand head. I ain’t believin’ it’s possible for a bunch of hard-scrabble Texans like us to get our hands on that kind of money. Not with the country at war.”
“California’s a hell of a long ways from the war,” Webb said, “and it ain’t that many years since they discovered gold. They got the money and we got the cows, and if some joker gets overly interested, we’re from New Mexico, not Texas.”
“That’s sound thinking,” said Bohannon. “It’d be just like the Federals to take our herd or the money.”
“Not as long as I’m alive and with a gun in my hand,” Webb said.
“After Ellerbee’s quote of sixty dollars a head, twenty dollars don’t seem like much,” said Bohannon, “but it’ll be enough to keep us in grub from here to California.”
“I reckon,” Webb agreed, “but that presents another problem. Enough grub for ten of us over twelve hundred miles purely won’t fit on two pack mules. We’ll need four more.”
“Winkler has a corral full of ’em,” said Bohannon, “and when he pays us for the two hundred cows, we’ll have money.”
“I reckon we’d better see him and arrange to buy another four mules,” Webb said. “He may have the pack saddles too.”
Again Winkler was leaned back in his chair, looking as though he likely hadn’t moved since they’d last seen him.
“We’re much obliged to you,” said Webb. “Ellerbee’s agreed to buy the rest of the herd. Now we’re needin’ four more pack mules to see us through to California.”
“I can’t help you,” Winkler said. “I’ve almost never got any for sale, and I got none now.”
“You got a corral full of ’em,” said Bohannon. “You can’t bear to part with at least four?”
“If they was mine, I’d sell you the whole damn bunch,” Winkler said shortly. “I took ’em on for a couple of days, feedin’ ’em for a gent name of Starnes. Him and his riders is takin’ ’em south, to sell in the minin’ camps. You’ll have to talk to Starnes. He’s at the Santa Fe Hotel, and he’s tight as the bark on a tree.”
“Thanks,” said Webb. “We’ll talk to him.”
Webb and Bohannon found Henry Starnes at the hotel, and he listened to their plea.
“That bunch of hee-haws will bring a hundred and fifty dollars apiece in the mining camps,” Starnes said, “and I won’t sell for a penny less.”
“But you’re still a long way from the mining camps,” said Webb. “A hundred apiece.”
“Forget it,” Starnes said. “You’re wasting my time.”
“Then maybe this will interest you,” said Webb. “We have a herd of Texas steers, all two-year-olds or less, and prime. We’ve been quoted sixty dollars a head for them in the mining camps. We’ll swap you three of them for one mule.”
Starnes laughed. “You’re a long way from the mining camps. If I was interested and I liked the looks of your herd, I might swap. One mule for four cows.”
Webb swallowed his anger. Starnes was taking unfair advantage, and there was nothing they could do but accept.
“The herd’s downriver maybe ten miles,” said Webb. “Why don’t you ride down there with us? Winkler’s buying two hundred head. We can drive yours here along with his.”
“If they’re good enough for Winkler, they’re good enough for me,” Starnes said. “I’ll swap with you at Winkler’s in the morning. I’ll expect a bill of sale.”
“You’ll have one,” said Webb shortly, “and we’ll expect one from you.”
Webb and Bohannon mounted their horses and rode south along the Pecos. When the rest of the outfit saw them coming, they gathered around. First, Don told them of the quote from Ellerbee in Los Angeles, and emerging from what had seemed like certain defeat, they broke into a round of cheers. Their jubilation knew no bounds when they learned of the sale of two hundred head to Winkler, but there was anger on every face when they were told of the expensive trade for four additional mules.
“Damn it,” said Bob Vines, “we’ll have money comin’ for the two hundred head. We’d have been better off, just payin’ the hundred and fifty dollars per mule.”
“I didn’t think so,” Webb said, “because Winkler’s only payin’ twenty dollars a head. I know two thousand dollars sounds like a lot, us all bein’ broke, but we can spare the cows and I reckoned we’d need the money for grub.”
“You done exactly the right thing,” said Jim Roussel. “I don’t care how long and hard this Old Spanish Trail is, long as we got plenty of grub. Maybe we can buy coffee too.”
“There’s two mercantiles,” Red Bohannon said. “I saw ’em.”
“Once we’ve collected from Winkler,” said Webb, “I think each of us should have fifty dollars for personal use. The rest will be used for supplies and grub. Anybody object to that?”
“That’s more than fair,” Charlie English said. “I don’t remember how long it’s been since I had fifty dollars I didn’t owe somebody.”
They all shouted their agreement, and while there was still daylight, they gathered for a look at the map of the Old Spanish Trail.
“Don’t look all that bad,” said Mike Horton, “if it’s anywhere close to right. There’s a lot of rivers. At least through most of Utah Territory.”
“I been to the High Plains a time or two,” Felton Juneau said, “and in the mountains there’s always springs.”
“Let’s hope that’s the case between here and California,” said Don Webb. “There’ll be mountains aplenty.”
“I can’t imagine that much territory without Indians,” Arch Danson said. “I think we’d better do some askin’ around, before we go lopin’ along that trail.”
“We will,” said Don Webb. “Red and me had a lot to do, all in one day. Now that we have some money comin’ in Santa Fe, the pack mules that we need, and a buyer in Los Angeles, we can start lookin’ at some other things.”
“Maybe one of them other things can be a pair of wranglers,” Les Brown said. “I’d use my fifty dollars toward payin’ ’em, just to get the pack mules and the horse remuda away from the drag steers.”
“We’ll consider that,” said Webb. “Let’s see what’s left, after we’ve bought supplies.”
Next morning, shortly after first light, the outfit had cut out two hundred and sixteen head from the herd.
“Mike, Red, Charlie, and me will drive ’em into town,” Webb said. “The rest of you stay with the herd. Once we’ve collected our money, all of you will have a chance to ride in, to take care of personal needs and to help decide on supplies we’ll need for the drive on to California.”
When Webb and his companions reached town with the herd, the livery was open for business and Winkler was waiting for them.
“They are prime,” said Winkler. “Wish it was so I could afford more of ’em.”
“I reckon it’s just as well you can’t,” Webb said. “After that quote from Ellerbee, we couldn’t afford to sell ’em to you. There’s two hundred and sixteen. We traded sixteen of them to Starnes for four mules.”
“I told you he was tight,” said Winkler. “There’s fifty of the varmints, and he tried to talk me into grainin’ the lot of ’em for three days, at ten dollars a day.”
“That reminds me,” Webb said. “We don’t know what the graze is like along this Old Spanish Trail, so we’ll need grain for our horses and mules. How are you fixed for that?”
“Just had a supply train in from St. Joe,” said Winkler, “so I got shelled corn. But you’d better make a deal for it before Starnes moves out. He’ll be needin’ a lot of it for his mules.”
“Then let’s finalize our deal for the cows,” Webb said, “and we’ll go ahead and pay for some corn. We’ve had our share of troubles already.”
By the time the Texans had swapped bills of sale with Winkler and had collected their money, Henry Starnes and two of his riders were looking over the herd.
“Satisfied?” Webb asked.
Starnes nodded, producing a bill of sale for four mules. In turn, Webb handed him a signed bill for sixteen head of steers. Starnes’ two riders entered the corral with lead ropes and led out four mules.
“The lead ropes are not included,” Starnes said.
“I didn’t reckon they would be,” said Webb. “We have our own.”
Winkler looked at Starnes in disgust, but Starnes seemed not to notice. His riders were cutting out his sixteen head of cows.
“You’re supposed to have those mules out of my corral today,” Winkler said. “When?”
“Soon as the rest of my outfit gets here,” said Starnes shortly. “I’ll be needin’ grain.”
“I’ve already sold most of it,” Winkler said with some satisfaction, “but you’re welcome to what’s left.”
Winkler had three riders in charge of the cattle, and he spoke to them.
“Keep them bunched here until those mules are gone. Then herd them into the corral and give them some hay.”
“Winkler,” Webb said, “before we take these mules back to camp, do you have have pack saddles?”
“I have four,” said Winkler. “By the time folks get here, they generally have their pack saddles. Not much call for them, so you can have them all for twenty-five dollars.”
“We’re obliged,” Webb said. “We’ll take them.”
“Now,” said Mike Horton, when each mule bore one of the newly purchased pack saddles, “why don’t we stop by one of the mercantiles and and see if they have coffee? I think we all deserve some.”
“We can do better than that,” Webb said. “We’ll get some coffee, some tinned fruit or tomatoes, and maybe a side of bacon. We’re all needin’ a good feed.”
Reaching the store, they were elated to find all the items they sought, and with typical Texas fervor, they bought thirty pounds of coffee beans and a two-gallon coffee pot.
“I know we ain’t but three hours away from breakfast,” said Red Bohannon, “but there wasn’t any coffee. Why don’t we try again, when we get back to the herd?”
Don Webb laughed. “You’re readin’ my mind. Let’s ride.”
Their breakfast fire had long since burned out, but a new one was quickly kindled when they rode in with their purchases.
“Pass me a sack of coffee beans,” said Bob Vines, “and I’ll get ’em ready for the pot.”
“It’s been so long since we’ve had coffee, I hope you ain’t forgot how,” Jim Roussel said.
“Of course not,” said Vines scornfully. “I take off my sock, fill it with beans, and then smash ’em with the butt of my Colt.”
They all laughed, recognizing it for the cowboy humor that it was, and when the coffee was ready, they filled their tin cups and drank the scalding brew.
“I’ve drunk nothin’ from this cup but water for so long, it don’t know what coffee is,” Red Bohannon said.
Using pointed sticks, they broiled rashers of bacon over the open fire, washing it down with tinned tomatoes.
“Here’s a tally book and a pencil,” said Don Webb. “I’ll pass it around, and all of you can write down what you think we’ll need for the trail. Don’t bother with flour, bacon, coffee, or beans, because all those are things we know we’ll need. Now I’m going to hand each of you fifty dollars. We’ll ride into town, five of us at a time, today and tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, we’ll buy our supplies and grub, and the next day, we’ll take the trail west. Visit the saloon for a few drinks, if you like, but don’t stash a bottle in your saddlebag. There’ll be no drinking on the trail.”
“We’ll need a couple of gallons to treat wounds or snakebite,” Les Brown pointed out.
“For that, but nothing more,” said Webb.
“Bueno,” Bob Vines said. “I’ll find us a snake.”
“Then you’d better save enough for a gunshot wound,” said Don Webb, “because I’ll shoot the first hombre that shows up drunk after we leave Santa Fe.”
Bob Vines, Jim Roussel, Les Brown, Arch Danson, and Eli Mills rode into town in the early afternoon. Despite their joking about the whiskey, they avoided the saloons, going to the mercantile instead. There they purchased socks, tobacco, hard candy, and ammunition for their Colts and Henry rifles. Only then did they pause at the Silver Dollar Saloon.
“I’d like to sit in for a few hands of poker,” Jim Roussel said.
“You’ll end up broke,” said Bob Vines.
“No,” Roussel insisted. “I’ll risk one double eagle. If I lose that, I’m out. Generally I’m lucky. I once won a hundred dollars.”
“I reckon the rest of us can stand a beer or two,” said Vines. “By then, you’ll likely be broke.”
The saloon was doing a thriving business. Many of the patrons, by their dress, were obviously miners, but the occupations of the rest were questionable. Their Colts were tied-down, their hats and boots looked new, while their clothing and their hands showed not a sign of toil. The Texans stood in the gloom surveying the saloon and its inhabitants.
“I don’t like the looks of most of this bunch,” Bob Vines said. “Some of them look like they could have been involved in the robbery and murder of the Blockers.”
“But we don’t know that,” said Roussel.
There were several poker games in progress, and at that moment, a man kicked back his chair and bowed out. Three of the five remaining participants were of the stripe that Bob Vines had suggested might be renegades. One of them sported twin Colts. Roussel took the empty chair and dealt himself in. Bob, Les, Arch, and Eli each ordered a beer and took a nearby table where they could watch the game. Roussel quickly lost three pots, but he then took a fourth, fifth and sixth, putting him a few dollars ahead. Bob Vines caught his eye, but he grinned triumphantly, shaking his head. He won three more pots, and with a snarl the big man with the buscadera rig kicked back his chair and got to his feet.*
“I don’t like the way you play, kid. I think you got somethin’ up your sleeves besides your elbows.”
Just for a second there was dead silence, and his antagonist already had a gun in his hand when Jim Roussel shot him. He tumbled over backward, upsetting his chair. Two of the other men at the table, obviously his companions were on their feet, clawing at their Colts.
“Don’t,” said Bob Vines coldly.
Vines, Brown, Danson, and Mills all stood there with leveled Colts.
“Somebody get the sheriff,” the bartender shouted.
Jim Roussel remained where he was, and the duo who had been about to draw their guns sat down, their murderous eyes on Roussel. The sheriff’s office was nearby, and soon Sheriff Carpenter arrived. He knelt beside the man Roussel had shot and found him dead.
“It was self-defense, sheriff,” the house dealer volunteered. “He had his gun in his hand before the young gent drew.”
“What about it, barkeep?” Sheriff Carpenter asked.
“The man called him a cheat,” said the barkeep. “It was a more than fair fight.”
“I reckon he’s with you,” Sheriff Carpenter said, his eyes on the four Texans who still held drawn guns.
“He is,” said Bob Vines quietly, “and if you have no objection, we’ll be on our way.”
“Not until I get your names,” Sheriff Carpenter said. “I don’t doubt the self-defense claim will stand, but there’ll be an inquest in the morning. You’ll have to be present.”
Despite the tragic turn of events, Roussel insisted on collecting his winnings. The five of them left the saloon, but as they mounted their horses, the two friends of the dead man stood on the boardwalk watching them.
“I got me a strong hunch this ain’t over,” said Arch Danson.
“I have an equally strong hunch you’re right,” Bob Vines replied. “I reckon the sooner we’re out of this town, the better off we’ll be.”
“Damn it,” said Roussel angrily, “a Texan don’t run.”
“A Texan bleeds like anybody else when he’s shot in the back,” Bob Vines said grimly.
“God,” said Les Brown in awe, “I didn’t know you was that sudden with a Colt.”
“I can take care of myself,” Roussel said.
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Vines. “The hombre you shot has at least two friends, and there may be more. Remember, the Blockers were robbed and murdered by renegades, and they got away unidentified. That may be part of the same bunch hanging around the saloon.”
Don Webb listened grimly as Roussel told him what had happened at the saloon. Bob Vines, Les Brown, Arch Danson, and Eli Mills added their assurance that the fight had been in self-defense.
“I don’t question your need to defend yourself,” Webb said, “but I do question your judgment, sitting in on a game with armed men who look suspicious.”
“They were well-dressed,” said Vines, “and none of them—includin’ the one that Jim shot—looked like they’d ever done an honest day’s work.”
“There’s still time for Red, Mike, Charlie, Felton, and me to ride into town,” Webb said. “I think we’ll do some of our buying today, the rest tomorrow, and leave here the day after tomorrow. Under the circumstances, I’ll feel better when this town is behind us.”
“Bob, Les, Jim, Arch, and me still have to ride in for that inquest tomorrow,” said Eli.
“True,” Don Webb said, “but you’ll be there for that, and nothing more. I want all of you to return here immediately. Mike, Red, Charlie, Felton, and me will then take all the mules to town and buy the rest of what we need.”
“I don’t like bein’ treated like a prisoner in this camp,” said Roussel sourly.
“You’ll like being shot in the back even less,” Webb said, “but don’t get the idea all my concern is for you. The hombre you shot may be part of a vindictive bunch that will gun down any of the rest of us, just on general principles.”
“Sorry,” said Roussel, not sounding sorry at all. “I reckon I didn’t think of that.”
“Well, by God, it’s time you started thinking,” Webb said angrily. “If you want to risk your hide, that’s your business, but when the rest of us may be bushwhacked for a fool thing you’ve done, then it becomes our business. We’re an outfit, and we’ll have to stand together.”
Webb, Horton, Bohannon, English, and Juneau rode into town. First they went to the wagon yard, where they bought enough canvas to protect the supplies the four extra mules would carry. On impulse, Webb led them to Winkler’s place and asked the liveryman a question.
“We’re in need for a pair of wranglers to tend our horse remuda and pack mules on the trail. Do you know of a couple of gents who might hire on?”
“Maybe,” said Winkler. “Dominique and Roberto. They’re Mexican. Brothers, and you can’t tell ’em apart. They’re from California, and they’re good with horses. They’re here in town somewhere. Check with me tomorrow, and I’ll see if I can round ’em up.”
Without incident, the five Texans returned to their herd, and there was considerable rejoicing when Don Webb told them of the possibility they might have wranglers for the mules and the horse remuda. It wasn’t quite dark when the first watch went on duty, and from somewhere across the river, came the thunder of rifles. Riders seized their Henrys, but the shooting ended as suddenly as it had begun.
“Anybody hit?” Webb shouted.
“One slug parted my hair,” said Charlie English.
“I’m not sure they intended to hit us,” Mike Horton said. “There’s plenty of cover, and they could have attacked before dark.”
“I have an idea who they are,” said Webb, his eyes on Jim Roussel. “This may be just the start, and it’s a long way to California.”
*A buscadera rig is right and left holsters, to accommodate two guns.