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Authors: Bradford Scott

Gunsmoke over Texas

BOOK: Gunsmoke over Texas
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GUNSMOKE
OVER TEXAS
BRADFORD SCOTT

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Also Available

Copyright

ONE

F
ROM WHERE
R
ANGER
W
ALT
S
LADE SAT
his great black horse on the rimrock trail, the oil-strike town of Weirton looked like a cluster of fallen stars spread haphazard over the prairie. The smoke cloud that hung over the town reflected the glow luridly and in the bright moonlight the forest of derricks was clearly visible as a spiderweb tracery of shadows under the pall of smoke.

To the west of Weirton, with the rimrock trail running along their crest, was a range of jagged hills marching into the north as far as the eye could see. To the north and to the east were more hills, misty with distance, mere purple shadows against the star-strewn blue-black of the Texas sky. Between the hills rolled the rangeland, grass grown prairie with streams flashing like silver snakes in the moonlight.

To the south the vista was different. Looking south, Slade seemed to be gazing over the edge of the world. About five miles from where Weirton sprawled beneath its smoke cloud the cap rock abruptly ended. The timbered and grass grown tableland gave way to a steep slope of rubble and debris that tumbled downward to the beginning of a stark desert hundreds of feet below. On this dead expanse the moonlight glittered weirdly and reflected back, just as during the day the rays of the sun would reflect back in scorching heat from the gleaming sands. No shade relieved the rock-strewn wasteland. The only vegetation was sparse sage, cactus in a thousand varieties and the ghostly, snake-like arms of the octillo. Miles distant flowed the Rio Grande with the old Chihuahua Trail, one of the freight routes into Mexico, crossing the uncertain waters via a rocky ford.

Slade’s gaze came back from the stark desolation of the desert to the sultry glow of Weirton far below and some three miles east from the base of the hills.

“Well, Shadow, there it is,” he told the horse. “The hell-kettle that’s boiling over what used to be a peaceful cattle country. Looks like an interesting pueblo, even from here, and we’ve been hearing things about it all the way over from the post. Reckon Captain McNelty wasn’t far wrong when he said it was the Devil’s leavings dumped in God’s front yard. Guess we might as well amble on down there and see what we can see. Understand this snake track drops down from the rim a few miles farther on and joins with the Chihuahua Trail, and that runs right past the town.”

He gathered up the reins and sent Shadow ambling along the rimrock.

It was a pity that only Shadow was there to see the striking picture made by his master, named by the
peons
of the Rio Grande river villages El Halcon — the Hawk. Very tall, much more than six feet, the girth of his chest and the breadth of his shoulders matched his height. The white, still flood of the moonlight outlined his deeply bronzed face with its lean, powerful jaw and chin and strongly-curved nose and reflected from his gay, reckless gray eyes.

Under the broad brim of his pushed-back “J.B.” his thick hair showed so black that a blue shadow seemed to lie upon it. With careless grace he wore the homely garb of the rangeland — faded overalls and soft blue shirt with a vivid neckerchief looped at the throat, batwing chaps and scuffed high-heeled half-boots of softly tanned leather. Double cartridge belts encircled his sinewy waist and from the carefully worked and oiled cut-out holsters protruded the plain black butts of heavy guns, from which his slender hands never seemed far away.

Suddenly Slade straightened in his saddle, his easy lounge changing to an attitude of attention. From the south and at no great distance had sounded a stutter of shots, a quick volley followed by silence. Now what in blazes! he wondered. Who’d be throwing lead up here, and why?

He leaned forward, listening intently for a repetition of the gunfire, which did not come. Then abruptly his grip tightened on the reins. Beating swiftly toward him from the south was a drumming of fast hoofs.

Slade glanced about. On the far side of the trail tall brush grew thickly. He spoke to Shadow and sent him ambling across the trail into the brush, regardless of thorns and raking branches. Men coming fast from the scene of a shooting might be in a nervous mood and a bit quick on the trigger. Better for him to see the approaching horsemen before they saw him.

Of course it might be just a bunch of skylarking cowboys coming from town and shooting holes in the air. But Slade didn’t think so. That abrupt volley had an ominous purposefulness to it unlike the firecracker banging of celebrating punchers.

Nearer came the speeding hoofs. Another moment and a fast riding troop flitted past Slade’s place of concealment. He counted nine shadowy horsemen strung out along the trail. The last was bare of head and swayed in his saddle, leaning far over and gripping the pommel with one hand. To Slade, he looked very much like a gent who had recently leaned against the hot end of a passing bullet.

The riders vanished into the north. Slade sat listening till the hoofbeats were but a whisper before riding back to the trail. For a moment he hesitated, gazing after the invisible horsemen. Then he turned Shadow’s head south. He had a hunch something had happened back there on the trail, something that could stand a little investigation.

Before he had covered half a mile his hunch proved to be a straight one. Lying in the trail was a huddled form. Nearby stood a saddled and bridled horse that snorted nervously as he drew near. Slade pulled Shadow to a halt; his eyes swept the trail, the growth. He listened intently for a moment, then dismounted quickly as the man on the ground moved a little and groaned. Slade knelt beside him and gently turned him over on his back. The moonlight fell full upon his face and Slade saw that he was little more than a boy, a slender young fellow, delicately featured, with a mop of curly brown hair; he wore rangeland garb.

Slade’s black brows drew together as his glance fell on the dark stain spreading over the man’s shirt just above the heart. With deft fingers he opened the shirt and shook his head at the sight of the small blue hole in the left breast from which oozed a few drops of blood. There was blood on the wounded man’s lips, a bright froth, with a few bubbles coming and going as he breathed in stertorous gasps. He was hard hit, mighty hard hit. Slade’s hands gently explored his back and felt a sticky dampness and a ragged tear in the cloth of the shirt; the bullet had gone clear through, and that bright froth on his lips meant internal arterial bleeding. Suddenly the young man’s eyelids fluttered open. He stared dazedly at Slade.

“Take it easy,” the ranger cautioned. “In much pain?”

“Not much,” the other gasped reply, “except something seems sort of prodding inside; feels like it’s poking my heart.”

Slade cautiously examined the vicinity of the wound and his face was grave. There was undoubtedly a badly shattered rib; he could feel one broken end shoved up against the flesh. He greatly feared that the other splintered end was touching either the man’s lung or his heart, probably the latter. The man needed a doctor in a hurry if he was to live. Meanwhile he’d do what he could and hope for the best.

“I’m going to strap you up as well as I can,” he told the man. “Then I’ll pack you to town or somewhere where you can get help. Don’t try to tell me what happened now, just lie still and breathe as easy as you can.”

Slade had a roll of bandage in his saddle pouch. He procured it and was turning back to the wounded man when his eye fell on something dark lying in the trail. He stooped and picked it up. It proved to be a greasy leather cap that showed much wear. On one side was a jagged tear.

The wounded man’s broad-brimmed hat and his gun lay beside him. The cap must have belonged to the bare-headed horseman who had appeared to have been shot. Quite likely the wounded man had creased him with a slug before he went down. Slade thrust the cap into his saddle pouch and turned back to the wounded man. Working swiftly he bandaged his chest, covering the wounds in back and breast and drawing the cloth as tight as he thought advisable.

“Where you from, son?” he asked.

“Walking M ranch,” the other whispered.
“Casa
is just about three miles north of where this trail hits the Chihuahua. Take me there. Can’t miss it. Plain sight of trail. Tom Mawson’s my dad. I’m Clate.”

He spoke the name as if anybody should instantly know who Tom Mawson was. Doubtless a big ranchowner of the section, Slade decided.

“All right, Clate,” he said. “No more talk now.”

He lifted the boy’s slight form in his arms, glanced at the roan horse still standing nearby and shook his head.

“Have to carry you in my arms,” he told Clate. “Your cayuse can follow. Can’t take a chance on any jolting.”

Despite the burden of the wounded man he mounted Shadow easily, gathered up the reins and sent the big black north at a smooth running walk that covered ground fast but reduced jarring to a minimum. He was glad to note that Clate’s eyes had closed again and that he lay motionless. Evidently he was unconscious, but his breathing remained the same.

The lights of the boom town on the prairie below fell behind, dwindled to pin points and finally winked out behind a bend. Another two miles and the trail dropped over the rimrock and wound and twisted down a dizzy slope. Half an hour later Shadow’s irons rang on the hard surface of the Chihuahua.

The wounded man stirred in Slade’s arms, groaned and opened his eyes. Slade noticed uneasily that his livid face was developing an ominous flush discernible even in the moonlight; he breathed with more difficulty.

“That dang sticking and prodding is getting worse,” he gasped hoarsely. “I feel like I was going to blow up inside.”

“Take it easy,” Slade warned. “How much farther to go? We’re on the Chihuahua now.”

“Ranchhouse is right around the second bend,” panted the other. “Maybe I’ll get easier when I can lie down and straighten out.”

“Sure to,” Slade comforted him. “We’ll soon have you fixed up okay.”

Clate’s eyes closed again but his breathing seemed even heavier, the flush staining his features more pronounced. Slade gazed anxiously ahead. He was pretty well convinced that if the wounded man didn’t get attention soon he didn’t have long to live.

Twenty minutes more and Slade breathed with relief as he sighted a fine big building set in a grove of oaks, which he reasoned must be the Walking M ranchhouse. He turned Shadow into the yard, pulled up and shouted loudly.

Very quickly a light showed inside the building. The front door opened and a voice called, “What’s the matter? Come on in.”

Slade dismounted and strode up the veranda steps. A big old man with a shock of iron-gray hair peered toward him with outstretched neck.

“What in blazes — ” he began.

“Man’s hurt,” Slade interrupted. “Says he lives here. You happen to be Tom Mawson?”

“That’s right,” the old man replied. “Bring him in. Who is — good God! My son!”

TWO

“S
TEADY,
” S
LADE CAUTIONED
. “Let me lay him down on something and then send for a doctor pronto. Where’s the nearest one?”

“At Proctor, nearly ten miles to the north,” answered Mawson. “Here, lay him on this couch.”

As Slade crossed the room with his unconscious burden, Mawson rushed to the door and began roaring names. Alarmed shouts answered. Another minute and a dozen cowhands in all stages of undress came boiling up the steps. Several carried guns. They glared suspiciously at Slade and began gabbling questions, but El Halcon’s great voice abruptly cut through the uproar.

“Stop it!” he ordered. “Tighten the latigos on your jaws and listen to your boss and do what he tells you. Then the rest of you clear out onto the porch and stay there till we want you.”

Slade’s words, spoken with the authority that expects and gets obedience, stilled the clamor. Tom Mawson barked terse orders. A man darted down the steps and raced for the barn. The others tiptoed out of the room to stand in a silent cluster just outside the door. Slade walked back to the couch and gazed down at young Clate Mawson’s flushed and contorted face. His own face was very grave. He bent over the wounded man, placed an ear against his chest and listened to his breathing and the jerky beating of his heart. He straightened up and faced old Tom Mawson.

“Listen, sir,” he said, “your son is in mighty bad shape. The slug that went through him smashed a rib — splintered it. From what he told me and from the sound of what’s going on inside him, I’m afraid the splintered end is pressing against his heart and working into the muscle as he breathes. I don’t think he’ll live till the doctor gets here if something isn’t done.”

Mawson’s face went white. “Wh-what can we do?” he asked.

“Just one thing,” Slade replied. “Take a gamble on killing him to give him a chance.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Slade answered slowly, “that he must be operated on at once. That bone splinter has to be taken out before it punctures the heart wall. If it does that there will be a massive internal hemorrhage that will almost instantly be fatal.”

“But — but who’s going to do it?” gasped Mawson. “Nobody here’s a doctor.”

“I’m not a doctor either,” Slade replied, “but I’ve patched up quite a few folks in my time and I once saw, and helped with, just about the same kind of an operation. In that case the splintered bone was working into the lung. This is worse, but the operation should be just as easy. After all, it’s a relatively simple matter; not like working on an internal organ, something only a trained surgeon could attempt. This just consists of making an incision in the chest and hauling out that splinter of bone. I haven’t anything much to work with, no chloroform to put him to sleep, but I believe I can do it. I’ll be honest with you, because I have no anesthetic and only a makeshift tool with which to do the cutting, the shock may kill him, but I’m positive he’ll die anyhow before the doctor gets here if something isn’t done. As I see it, it’s the only chance he’s got, but it’s up to you, sir, you’re his father and you have the say.”

Old Tom Mawson’s face was twisted in an agony of indecision. His hands balled into trembling fists, sweat glistened on his temples. He stared wildly at Slade, met his level eyes.

And something he saw in those steady eyes, now all compassion and understanding, suddenly filled the anguished father with confidence. He squared his shoulders, his hands steadied.

“Go ahead,” he said in a quiet voice. “I’ve a notion you can do as good a chore as the doctor. Hand out the powders and we’ll do whatever you say.”

Slade gave the needed instructions without hesitation or indecision. “Call in some of your men,” he said. “Get hot water — plenty of it — and clean clothes. Clear off a big table — the dining table will do — and lay him on it. Bring every lamp in the house and place them to throw all the light possible on the table. A man must hold each of his legs. Same goes for his arms. Mr. Mawson, you place yourself where you can grip his shoulders. He’s unconscious now, but the chances are when I begin cutting, he’ll snap out of it and struggle. And for God’s sake don’t let him get away from you or move his chest sideways while I’m using the knife. Does everybody understand what he’s to do, now? Okay, get going!”

The quiet authority of his voice sent men scurrying in every direction. Soon all was in readiness. Slade drew his long bladed pocket knife and opened it.

“A devil of a tool for such a chore,” he told Mawson as he thumbed the blade, “but it’s got a razor edge and is first-class steel. Anyhow, it’ll have to do.”

He walked to the kitchen stove, in which a roaring fire was going. Removing a lid, he passed the knife blade through the flame a couple of times and waved it in the air to cool it.

“All right,” he told his assistants, “you know what to do. Hang onto him no matter what happens. All set?”

He bent over the wounded man’s chest and used the knife with swift, sure strokes. Clate Mawson groaned, gasped. Slade cut the flesh again. Clate screamed and struggled madly to throw himself from the table. Slade stepped back and calmly waited while the sturdy cowhands fought his desperate efforts and pinned him motionless. Clate gave a last agonized cry, went rigid and relaxed to lie without further sound or motion.

“He’s gone!” panted one of the cowboys.

“No, he’s just passed out again, which is the best thing that could have happened,” Slade replied quietly. “We shouldn’t have any more trouble with him. Steady now, I’m almost finished.”

Another quick stroke of the knife and he reached deft, gentle fingers through the bloody opening. With an exclamation of satisfaction he drew forth the deadly splinter, fully a third of the rib with a needle point; he held it up for Tom Mawson to see.

“Okay,” he said, “got it without doing any damage. See how his breathing has changed already. Now we’ll clean the wound and pad it to check the bleeding. The rest of the rib looks all right but shaping it up is too much of a chore for me, even if I had the tools. The doctor will finish the job.”

He worked on the wound for some time, surveyed the bandaging and straightened his back with a sigh of relief. He picked up the bloody section of rib and regarded it quizzically.

“Save it for him as a souvenir,” he told old Tom. “Maybe he’ll want to make a knife handle of it. Isn’t everybody able to claim he’s carrying a hunk of himself around in his pocket!”

That broke the tension. The cowboys shook with suppressed mirth. Even old Tom indulged in a wan chuckle.

“Put a thin pillow or a folded blanket under his head,” Slade directed. “Cover him well and somebody sit beside him. We won’t move him till the doctor gets here. I’m ready to bet a hatful of pesos that he’ll pull through.”

Old Tom Mawson wiped the sweat from his face, and there was a glitter of tears in his eyes as he gripped Slade’s hand.

“Feller,” he said thickly, “I believe you’re right. There’s no use for me to try and say anything for what you did, but if you ever want a favor from me, no matter how big, I want you to ask and ask quick.”

Slade smiled down at him, his even teeth flashing startlingly white in his bronzed face. “Well, sir,” he said, “there’s something you can do for me right now; I’d sure appreciate a bite to eat. And I’d like to put up my horse.”

Mawson instantly began shouting orders to the cook. “I’ll take care of your cayuse myself,” he finished.

“Much obliged,” Slade replied. “I’ll walk out with you, though. Old Shadow is sort of shy about anybody putting a hand on him without my okay.”

A moment later Mawson was exclaiming admiringly over the great black horse who accepted his ministrations with dignity after Slade formally “introduced” the ranchowner.

With Shadow properly cared for, Slade and Mawson returned to the house. Slade examined young Clate again and was satisfied with his appearance; he seemed to have drifted into a natural sleep. Leaving him on the dining-room table with two watchful cowhands sitting beside him, Slade walked out to the kitchen with Mawson.

“And now, sir,” he said as they sat down, “I’ll tell you all I know of what happened up there on the rimrock trail.”

As the story progressed, Mawson’s lined face hardened and his frosty eyes blazed with fury. “That danged oil crowd!” he declared. “There ain’t nothing they won’t do when they’re on the prod against you.”

Slade studied him a moment. He suspected that Mawson was a leader of the cowmen of the section.

“Those fellows I saw didn’t ride like oil workers,” he objected.

“Oh, I don’t mean the fellers who drill the wells and put up the derricks and so on,” Mawson explained. “I mean the operators and their guards they hired to watch the wells — they’re just paid gunmen of the worst sort — and the bunch of crippled crawlers they brought in to set up in business in that infernal town they built. It’s a crowd ornery enough to eat off the same plate with a snake. And every owlhoot from the Big Bend country and Mexico and every place else makes that town his headquarters. This used to be a nice peaceable section with nice folks living in it, but now!”

“You’ve had trouble with the oil folks?” Slade asked.

Mawson barked at the cook to rustle his hocks and get food on the table and answered, “If ruining my grass and poisoning my stock and widelooping cows is trouble, I’ve had plenty of it. A whole section of my south range is spoiled. The first well a young whippersnapper named Bob Kent drilled spouted oil all over the section. And I’ve found plenty of my cows stretched out dead from the stinkin’ stuff.”

“You mean, sir, that a gas well ran wild and poisoned stock?” Slade asked.

“Ain’t no gas wells so far as I’ve heard about,” Mawson replied, “but there’s oil over everything.”

“Gushers, eh?” Slade commented.

“Reckon the first one Kent drilled was what they call that,” Mawson said, “but it didn’t last long, just a few days. Plenty of oil, but since that they have to pump it out, I understand.”

Slade nodded and looked thoughtful. “A gushing well usually has one of two explanations,” he remarked. “Either pressure induced by confinement in a restricted area, sometimes by a field being at the bottom of an underground slope, or the pressure exerted by a gas pocket. An extensive gas pocket may mean a gushing well for a long time, perhaps to the full extent of its producing life. The first sort experiences a swift diminishing of pressure and quickly becomes a pumper.”

Mawson glanced at him curiously. “You talk like you know considerable about the oil business, son,” he commented.

“Oh, I’ve been around a few fields in my time,” Slade replied with truth. He did not explain that his experience had not been restricted to observation. Nor did he deem it necessary to explain that before joining the Rangers, he had graduated from a famous college of engineering, a profession he still intended to follow some day and the knowledge of which had more than once proved valuable in the course of his Ranger activities.

“And you’re sure there are no gas wells?” he added.

Mawson shook his head.

“And still you’ve had cows poisoned?”

“Plenty of ‘em,” Mawson insisted. “The danged oil gets everywhere. The creek down there that supplies all my south pasture with water is plumb ruined. The stuff is all over the water in a thick scum and the cows won’t drink it, but it seeps into the holes farther north where they do drink and it kills them.”

Slade stared at the rancher, who undoubtedly believed what he said, but which to him sounded rather incredible.

“It’s the ruination of this section, that infernal oil strike!”

“I’m not so sure,” Slade returned quietly. “I’ve a notion it’s liable to turn out the best thing that ever happened here.”

“What’s that?” Mawson demanded.

“For instance,” Slade continued, “I’ve a notion you could use a railroad line down here.”

“We could,” Mawson agreed. “It would do away with a mighty bad seventy-mile drive. But we’ll never get one.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Slade said. “I happen to know that the C. & P. has for some time been considering a line to the south and on into Mexico.”

“Tarnation!” exclaimed Mawson, “it’s a desert to the south of here and a mighty bad one.”

“A desert provides no insurmountable obstacle to railroad building,” Slade replied. “In fact, once they get over the cap rock and down to the desert floor, it makes for construction at low cost and low cost maintenance to follow. I heard the route chiefly under consideration is to the east of this valley, but with the oil field going strong and guaranteeing plenty of business for the road and a growing town right here, I predict they’ll change their plans and build straight down from McCarney, coming close to the field and passing over the cap rock.”

“Would make for mighty handy shipping,” admitted Mawson, adding pessimistically, “but the way things are going we won’t have any cows to ship by the time it gets here. In addition to the poisoning, we’ve had more cows widelooped in the past month than in two years before.”

Slade nodded but did not comment. He was content to let the seed he had planted in Mawson’s mind do a little growing.

Slade enjoyed a really excellent meal, old Tom having coffee to keep him company. He had finished eating and was rolling a cigarette when hoofs sounded outside and the white-bearded old frontier doctor from Proctor, the cattle town to the north, came hurrying in. He nodded to Mawson and the others and went to work without delay. He removed the bandages, stared at Slade’s handiwork and picked up the fragment of splintered rib and turned it over in his fingers. Then he spoke to Mawson.

“Who did it?” he asked peremptorily.

“Who shot him?” Mawson replied. “I wish I knew, Doc Cooper.”

“The devil with that!” snorted the doctor. “I ain’t interested in who shot him. That’s for you to take care of. I mean who did this chore of operating on him?”

Mawson called to Slade who still sat smoking in the kitchen. Doc Cooper started slightly as his glance took in the Hawk’s towering form.

“Yes,” he remarked, almost as if repeating something he had once said before, “the world lost a mighty fine surgeon when you decided to be a cowboy. Surgeon’s hands, no nerves, and the guts to go through with a thing like this without hesitating.” He turned to Mawson.

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