Authors: Matt Chisholm
The crew were all so jumpy that when they heard horses coming in the direction of the camp at least three of them reached for their guns, McAllister among them.
Boss Harding, who cared for his cows first and his men second, said: “Any man fires a gun I'll nail his hide on that wagon yonder.”
They all looked at the wagon and Gus, the cook, who sheepishly put away his shot-gun. The rest of them slid sixshooters back into their holsters and waited. There wasn't much else they could do. They all guessed that there were more than a dozen men riding in toward them and they guessed probably rightly that they were Jayhawkers. They had been expecting them for days. The instinct of every man since they had crossed the Kansas line from the Nations had been to hurry. But not Boss. He aimed to put fat on the cows that had been entrusted to his care. So he went slowly, almost letting the herd take the riders instead of the other way around. That, he said, was the way to trail cattle. And he ought to know. He had done the trip more times than any other man alive. Going through the Indian Nations they had been stopped by the Cherokees. The young Texan drovers wanting to pay their toll with bullets, but Boss wasn't having any of that. One shot and his herd would take off. He bought the Indians' goodwill with four beeves belonging to somebody else he had picked up on the trail.
“Just take it easy, boys,” he said, “let me handle this.”
He stared off into the darkness and McAllister who was behind him took the opportunity to back into the shadows of the timber in which they were camped. Somebody built up the fire so they could see what they were at.
The horses were near now and riders loomed into the light of the fire. There were more than a dozen of them. They practically covered one side of the camp. One of them stepped down from the saddle with a creaking of leather without being invited and walked forward so the light of the fire fell full on his face.
“Who's the boss-man around here?” he demanded.
Harding who hadn't moved where he was squatting said: “I am.”
He looked up at the Kansan, his face immobile. Harding was a small man, tough as rawhide, easy in his manner and slow to anger, the kind of man that is good with animals and men. He was in his fortieth year now, going gray around the short hairs at the temple, stooped in the shoulder and bowed in the legs. His mustache was his pride and was so large that it made his strong jaw look weak.
The Kansan was another kind of man â tall, impatient in his movements, bearded, his eyes possessing a wildness that was evident at a glance. The firelight picked out a hint of red in his beard. He carried a sixshooter at his right hip, butt forward, and in his right hand was a rifle. His boots were heavy and flat-heeled denoting farmer rather than cattleman.
“What outfit are you?”
Every man there would have told him to mind his own damned business. Every man that is except Harding.
“This is Colonel Struthers' herd,” he said evenly.
That seemed to amuse the stranger. He laughed, showing strong even white teeth.
“Well,” he said, “ain't that somethin'. Now, boss-man, you crossed the Kansas line today and as of now you're under Kansas law.”
“That follows,” Harding said with a nod.
“Which means you ain't got no right to be here at all,” said the big man.
Harding said: “We're Texans, but we're still Americans. We have the same rights as any other man.”
“Kansas law says your Texas cattle have the fever and can't come this way no more.”
“I'll need a lawman to tell me that,” Harding said.
“I'm telling you.”
“That ain't enough.”
“I'll put it plain for you, little man,” the stranger said, “you pay your toll or you turn around and head back into the Nations.”
Harding looked up with a smile.
“Now we're gettin' to it,” he said. “You're cow-thieves. Why didn't you say so at the start?”
The big man was so taken aback at the open insult that he didn't know what to say for a moment.
Finally, he told Harding: “We'll be along in the morning to cull your herd, mister. Every sick cow will be cut out.”
“How many will that amount to?”
“About three or four hundred head, I reckon. You won't hardly miss 'em from your three thousand.” Which showed the Jay-hawkers had taken a good look at the herd during the day.
Boss stood up. “I'll buy you off with six head,” he said.
The big stranger laughed again.
“Nothin' doin',” he said.
“A dozen an' that's my final offer.”
The big man looked at him in amazement.
“Listen, friend,” he said, “my message don't seem to have gotten through to you. We ain't here to bargain. We ain't doin' no deals. We're tellin' you.”
Boss looked at him from his height of five foot nothing. He didn't flinch. He looked like a suddenly aggressive little terrier.
“No,” he said through his teeth, “you listen to me, you Yankee trash. I'm tellin' you to get the hell outa here.”
The big man started to raise the rifle. He did no more than start. Suddenly there was a gun in the little man's hand and its muzzle was thrust hard into the Kansan's belly.
Boss said: “Git on your horse an' ride an' don't let me see you beggin' around this camp no more.”
Several of the riders moved.
From the darkness came McAllister's voice â
“Hold it or I blow somebody's head off.”
They all went very still. But nobody was so still as the big man with the gun in his belly. He got his eyes on that gun and its cocked hammer and he kept them there. Boss pushed him with it and he took one staggered pace backward.
“Now, git,” Boss said.
The big man looked as though he would like to say something if he could speak, but he looked past that. After a while he ground out: “This don't let you off the hook, little man. We'll be back.”
Boss said: “Relieve them of their guns, boys. At least they won't be back with them.”
The Texans got on the move. They went among the horsemen and took rifles and revolvers from them, dumping the weapons in a heap by the fire. Boss looked on with grim satisfaction. The big man walked to his horse and climbed into the saddle. He looked like he could kill a man with his hands and enjoy it. Slowly the horsemen wheeled their animals and walked them away. A short while after, the listening crew heard them pounding away into the distance.
“Double guard on the herd tonight,” Boss said as every man there let out his breath. “Come daylight we head back into the Nations. We'll drive around this scum.”
One of the boys said: “I reckon we could take on all Kansas, Boss.”
Boss grinned. “So could I when I was your age, but right now I'm more concerned with getting these cow critturs to rail head. McAllister, come out of them trees.”
McAllister walked into the firelight, putting away his gun. Boss snapped: “Who asked you to hone in?”
“Next time, wait till you're asked.”
“Might be too late.”
“You reckon I can't handle myself?”
McAllister made a soft snorting sound and said: “You're greedy, Boss, you want all the play.”
Boss grinned a little, punched him on the arm and said: “Thanks, son.”
They doubled up on the guards that night. The cattle were uneasy as if they smelled trouble and Boss always reckoned they could. One muley cow kept breaking for the hills and the boys spent all night throwing her back into the herd. They cursed the fact they had she-stuff along. A mixed herd always meant trouble. Boss had them out of their blankets long before dawn because he reckoned that if the Kansans were going to hit them it would be then, but he was wrong. They got the herd on the move going south without any trouble. They just nursed those cows along gently because even with the danger of being slow, Boss wouldn't hurry the fat off them. That was the kind of man he was.
McAllister rode on the right flank, which was a change from yesterday when he had ridden drag. He just nodded in the saddle and nudged those cows along grazing as they went so that they were unaware of being driven. Before they started the drive Boss had said: “When I'm boss, you don't drive cattle; you head 'em in the direction you want to go and let 'em drift along.” That's what they did now. And McAllister couldn't say he enjoyed the sensation. Sure, the cattle settled down nicely because they were trail-broke, but every time he saw a patch of brush he thought he saw a Jayhawker behind it. But Boss calculated that they'd be in the Nations by nightfall. That couldn't be too soon for McAllister. He hadn't forgotten that the Kansans had had all their guns taken from them and Boss had buried them, but he reckoned that kind
could lay their hands on guns if they needed them.
But the going was slow and they didn't reach the line by dark. However, Boss wasn't overly worried. They were near enough and he thought they were clear of trouble. He found water for the herd, spent the last two or three hours of the day watering them, bedded them down on good grass, said the boys could keep the normal watches and the crew could enjoy the excellent meal Gus had prepared them. They ate and hit their blankets without any delay. They were all bone tired and on the trail a man slept when he could. McAllister got into his blankets and was asleep as soon as his head was down.
McAllister knew what it was the instant that his tired mind snapped to consciousness.
Under him the earth shook. Far away in the night there came the popping of guns. But it was the fear that lunged coldly through him that told him the cows were running.
A man gave a startled yell, the tied horses tried to break loose, panic hit the remuda.
McAllister reached for a boot and heaved it on. As his hand touched the second he heard the most terrifying sound a drover could hear in the night â the sound of a stampede heading toward you. He got the second boot on and was on his feet running, cannoning into another man as he reared up from his blankets and sending him flying. He reached a horse, he couldn't see whose, in the darkness and somehow got into the saddle.
He remembered Boss's words: “If they run in the night, keep your head. Go with 'em. If you don't yell or fire your fool gun under their noses to turn 'em, they'll stay together and sometime they'll stop runnin'.”
He rammed home the spurs as the first terrified animals hit the camp. He heard them go into the wagon and heard it turn over with a crash. And then the thunder almost reached him and he knew that his frightened pony was heading the herd, charging crazily ahead through the trees into the darkness. He got his head down and clung on. All he could do was ride and keep riding till the longhorns stopped. It was up to the horse, there was nothing he could do but cling on. If the animal put its foot in a hole they were both finished.
Once he looked back and in the starlight saw the sea of horns that he had heard crashing together all the while, saw the rolling eyes and the lolling tongues and prayed that the fact that horses were faster than cows was true. Once they hit a slope and strained up it. That slowed the cattle, but they attained speed again on the slope going down and McAllister feared they would run him into the ground. He spurred the little animal under him and got the
right amount of speed from it.