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Webb drove his cattle up the river, the Staked Plains on his right. The herd was a little gaunt from the long journey and he took the last part of the trek in easy stages. Since he had been awarded the contract for beeves at the Fort, by Department orders the old receiving agent had been transferred. The new appointee was a brother-in-law of McRobert and the owner of the Flying V Y did not want to leave any loophole for rejection of the steers.
With the clean blood of sturdy youth in him Clanton recovered rapidly from the shoulder wound. In order to rest him as much as possible, Webb put him in charge of the calf wagon which followed the drag and picked up any wobbly-legged bawlers dropped on the trail. During the trip Jim discovered for himself the truth of what Billie had said, that the settlers with small ranches were lined up as allies of the Snaith-McRobert faction. These men, owners of small bunches of cows, claimed that Webb and the other big drovers rounded up their cattle in the drive, ran the road brand of the traveling outfit on these strays, and sold them as their own. The story of the drovers was different. They charged that these "nesters" were practically rustlers preying upon larger interests passing through the country to the Indian reservations. Year by year the feeling had grown more bitter, That Snaith and McRobert backed the river settlers was an open secret. A night herder had been shot from the mesquite not a month before. The blame had been laid upon a band of bronco Mescaleros, but the story was whispered that a "bad man" in the employ of the Lazy S M people, a man known as "Mysterious Pete Champa," boasted later while drunk that he had fired the shot.
Jim had heard a good deal about this Mysterious Pete. He was a killer of the most deadly kind because he never gave warning of his purpose. The man was said to be a crack shot, quick as chain lightning, without the slightest regard for human life. He moved furtively, spoke little when sober, and had no scruples against assassination from ambush. Nobody in the Southwest was more feared than he.
This man crossed the path of Clanton when the herd was about fifty miles from the Fort.
The beeves had been grazing forward slowly all afternoon and were loose-bedded early for the night. Cowpunchers are as full of larks as schoolboys on a holiday. Now they were deciding a bet as to whether Tim McGrath, a red-headed Irish boy, could ride a vicious gelding that had slipped into the remuda. Billie Prince roped the front feet of the horse and threw him. The animal was blindfolded and saddled.
Doubtful of his own ability to stick to the seat, Tim maneuvered the buckskin over to the heavy sand before he mounted. The gelding went sun-fishing into the air, then got his head between his legs and gave his energy to stiff-legged bucking. He whirled as he plunged forward, went round and round furiously, and unluckily for Tim reached the hard ground. The jolts jerked the rider forward and back like a jack-knife without a spring. He went flying over the head of the bronco to the ground.
The animal, red-eyed with hate, lunged for the helpless puncher. A second time Billie's rope snaked forward. The loop fell true over the head of the gelding, tightened, and swung the outlaw to one side so that his hoofs missed the Irishman. Tim scrambled to his feet and fled for safety.
The cowpunchers whooped joyously. In their lives near-tragedy was too frequent to carry even a warning. Dad Wrayburn hummed a stanza of "Windy Bill" for the benefit of McGrath:
"Bill Garrett was a cowboy, an' he could ride, you bet; He said the bronc he couldn't bust was one he hadn't met. He was the greatest talker that this country ever saw Until his good old rim-fire went a-driftin' down the draw."
Two men had ridden up unnoticed and were watching with no obvious merriment the contest. Now one of them spoke.
"Where can I find Homer Webb?"
Dad turned to the speaker, a lean man with a peg-leg, brown as a Mexican, hard of eye and mouth. The gray bristles on the unshaven face advertised him as well on into middle age. Wrayburn recognized the man as "Peg-Leg" Warren, one of the most troublesome nesters on the river.
"He's around here somewhere." Dad turned to Canton. "Seen anything of the old man, Jim?"
"Here he comes now."
Webb rode up to the group. At sight of Warren and his companion the face of the drover set.
"I've come to demand an inspection of yore herd," broke out the nester harshly.
"Why demand it? Why not just ask for it?" cut back Webb curtly.
"I'm not splittin' words. What I'm sayin' is that if you've got any of my cattle here I want 'em."
"You're welcome to them." Webb turned to his segundo. "Joe, ride through the herd with this man. If there's any stock there with his brand, cut 'em out for him. Bring the bunch up to the chuck wagon an' let me see 'em before he drives 'em away."
The owner of the Flying V Y brand wasted no more words. He swung his cowpony around and rode back to the chuck wagon to superintend the jerking of the hind quarters of a buffalo.
He was still busy at this when the nester returned with half a dozen cattle cut out from the herd. In those days of the big drives many strays drifted by chance into every road outfit passing through the country. It was no reflection on the honesty of a man to ask for an inspection and to find one's cows among the beeves following the trail.
Webb walked over to the little bunch gathered by Warren and looked over each one of the steers.
"That big red with the white stockin's goes with the herd. The rest may be yours," the drover said.
"The roan's mine too. My brand's the Circle Diamond. See here where it's been blotted out."
"I bought that steer from the Circle Lazy H five hundred miles from here. You'll find a hundred like it in the herd," returned Webb calmly.
Warren turned to his companion. "Pete, you know this steer. Ain't it mine?"
"Sure." The man to whom Warren had turned for confirmation was a slight, trim, gray-eyed man. Sometimes the gray of the eyes turned almost black, but always they were hard as onyx. There was about the man something sinister, something of eternal wariness. His glance had a habit of sweeping swiftly from one person to another as if it questioned what purpose might lie below the unruffled surface.
Homer Webb called to Prince and to Wrayburn. "Billie--Dad, know anything about this big red steer?"
"Know it? We'd ought to," answered Wrayburn promptly. "It's the ladino beef that started the stampede on the Brazos--made us more trouble than any ten critters of the bunch."
"You bought it from the Circle Lazy H," supplemented Billie.
Peg-Leg Warren laughed harshly. "O' course they'll swear to it. You're givin' them their job, ain't you?"
The drover looked at him steadily. "Yes, I'm givin' the boys a job, but I haven't bought 'em body an' soul, Warren."
The eyes of the nester were a barometer of his temper. "That's my beef, Webb."
"It never was yours an' it never will be."
"Raw work, Webb. I'll not stand for it."
"Don't overplay yore hand," cautioned the owner of the trail herd.
Clanton had ridden up and was talking to the cook. A couple of other punchers had dropped up to the chuck wagon, casually as it were.
Warren glared at them savagely, but swallowed his rage. "It's yore say-so right now, but I'll collect what's comin' to me one of these days. You're liable to find this trail hotter 'n hell with the lid on."
"I'm not lookin' for trouble, but I'm not runnin' away from it," returned Webb evenly.
"You're sure goin' to find it--a heap more of it than you can ride herd on. That right, Pete?"
The gray-eyed man nodded slightly. Mysterious Pete had the habit of taciturnity. His gaze slid in a searching, sidelong fashion from Webb to Prince, on to Wrayburn, across to Clanton, and back to the drover. No wolf in the encinal could have been warier.
"Cut out the roan," ordered Webb.
The ladino was separated from the bunch of Circle Diamond cattle. Warren and his satellite drove the rest from the camp.
"War, looks like," commented Dad Wrayburn.
"Yes," agreed the drover. "I wish it didn't have to be. But Peg-Leg called for a showdown. He came here to force my hand. As regards the beef, he might have had it an' welcome. But that wouldn't have satisfied him. He'd have taken it for a sign of weakness if I had given way."
"What will he do?" asked young McGrath.
"I don't know. We'll have to keep our eyes open every minute of the day an' night. Are you with me, boys?"
Tim threw his hat into the air and let out a yell. "Surest thing you know."
"Damfidon't sit in an' take a hand," said Wrayburn.
One after another agreed to back the boss.
"But don't think it will be a picnic," urged Webb. "We'll know we've been in a fight before we get through. With a crowd of gunmen like Mysterious Pete against us we'll have hard travelin'. I'd side-step this if I could, but I can't."
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