Authors: Bradford Scott
Ranger Walt Slade, named by the Mexican peons,
— The Hawk, gazed at the sign nailed to a tree trunk that leaned over the trail. It read,
Leaning in his saddle, Slade gripped the lettered board with his slim, steely fingers, ripped it from its fastening, split it in two, and cast it aside.
“Guess that takes care of that,” he remarked to Shadow, his magnificent black horse. He turned back a moment to gaze toward where, just beyond the sign, the trail forked to the north. That fork, he knew, would take him to the breaks, the hill country, and, did he choose to go that way, to Romero — at any rate, even to the south fork, and miles out of his way. He had no intention of taking it.
“Let’s go, feller, and see what’s the next joker in the deck,” he said.
Shadow snorted cheerful agreement and ambled on at a steady pace.
Upon rounding a straggle of brush, Slade was not greatly surprised to see three men in cowhand garb sitting their horses in the trail only a couple of hundred yards distant; they were gazing in his direction. He rode on steadily. When he was less than a dozen paces distant, one, a lantern-jawed individual with bristly, carroty hair, held up his hand.
“That’ll be far enough, pull up,” he called truculently. Slade obeyed the order, looking mildly inquisitive.
“Didn’t you see that sign a ways back?” the cowhand asked.
“I did,” Slade replied.
“Can’t you read?”
“Then why the devil didn’t you do what it said?” the other demanded.
“Because,” Slade replied, his voice quiet and musical, “it had no authority to enforce what it said. This is an open trail and you can’t bar an open trail, not in Texas.”
“Well this one is barred,” the fellow said, even more truculently. “Now turn back the way you came and keep going till you reach the north fork just the other side of where that sign’s posted. Turn north and keep on going, and don’t turn back south till you reach the south fork on that trail about five miles farther west. Then you can do whatever you’ve a mind to, but keep off this stretch of trail. Understand?”
“Nope,” Slade replied cheerfully. “I aim to ride ahead the way I’m going on this trail.”
“Like hell you are!” the other barked. “We’ve got plenty of authority to back up what we say.” His hand darted to his holster as he spoke.
Then he froze, as did his companions, sitting rigid in their saddles. They were looking into the muzzles of two long black guns that had just “happened” into Slade’s hands. Where those guns came from none could have said; they were just
And back of those Colt Forty-fives were the eyes of
Slade spoke, all the music gone from his voice; it was like steel grinding on ice.
“That way you have about as much authority as a snail with rheumatics,” he said. “What I should do is to take you to Amarillo and turn you over to the sheriff. But seeing as you’re just a bunch of squirrel fodder, I’m going to let you go back to wherever you came from. Get going!”
The last words blared at them like a peal of thunder from a stormy sky. They started from their saddles, then turned their horses, slowly, carefully, making no move that might be misinterpreted by the grim figure confronting them. The man who was apparently the spokesman for the group mouthed words over his shoulder:
“This ain’t finished, blast you! We’ll be seeing you again.”
“Take a good look the first time, you might not have time for a second,” Slade advised composedly. He motioned significantly with one gun. “And don’t forget, my saddle gun carries a long way,” he added.
The trio took the hint and got going. Slade watched them closely. They were about two hundred yards distant when he saw the man who did the talking grab for the rifle in his saddle boot, whirling his horse to face the Ranger.
Slade’s hand flickered to the butt of the heavy Winchester, a long range special, that snugged in his own saddle boot. The muzzle gushed fire and smoke, the report booming in the silence. He heard the clang of the bullet against metal, saw the rifle fly from the other’s hand, heard his howl of pain.
In a thoroughly bad temper, Slade shot the hat off the head of a second man, fanned the face of the third with a slug. He didn’t wish to kill anybody if he didn’t have to.
That was enough. Yelling curses, the bunch sent their horses streaking westward, to vanish behind another stand of growth perhaps a quarter of a mile distant. Slade rode on, very much on the alert, for it was just possible, although he didn’t think it likely, that the unsavory trio might return with reinforcements.
If so, he had another and even more potent weapon, but one he greatly desired not to be forced to put into play. In a cunningly concealed pocket in his broad leather belt was that which would give pause to any gathering between the Red River and the Rio Grande, a gleaming silver star set on a silver circle, the feared and honored badge of the Texas Rangers.
“Here’s hoping we won’t have to use it,” he told Shadow. “For I’d sure like to stay under cover in this section for a while longer. Managed to get by the other times we were here, so maybe the luck will hold. June along, horse, we still got quite a ways to go before a chance to put on the nosebag, and in another couple of hours it’ll be dark.”
Finally he reached the forks, pulled up, and gazed south, contemplating the wild scene.
Sitting his great black horse in the red rays of the low-lying sun, Slade made a picture worth a long day’s ride to see.
Very tall, more than six feet, the breadth of his shoulders and the depth of his chest that slimmed down to a lean, sinewy waist, matched his splendid height. And his face was as arresting as his form. A rather wide mouth, grin-quirked at the corners, relieved somewhat the tinge of fierceness evinced by the prominent hawk nose above and the powerful jaw and chin beneath. His pushed-back “J.B.,” the rainshed of the plains, revealed a broad forehead and thick, crisp hair so black that in certain lights a blue shadow seemed to lie upon it.
The sternly handsome countenance was dominated by long, black-lashed eyes of very pale gray; cold, reckless eyes that nevertheless always seemed to have gay little devils of laughter dancing in their clear depths. Devils that, if necessary, would leap to the front and be anything but laughing.
Slade wore the homely, efficient garb of the rangeland — bibless overalls, soft blue shirt with vivid neckerchief at the throat, half boots of softly tanned leather, and wore it with careless grace.
Around his waist were double cartridge belts, from the carefully worked and oiled cut-out holsters of which protruded the plain black butts of heavy guns. And from the butts of those big Colts, his slender muscular hands seemed never far away.
Some fifteen miles to the north of Amarillo, the monotonous expanse of treeless grassland was cut by a rough and broken valley several hundred feet lower than the plains to the north and south. Down the valley flowed an utterly loco stream, at times a mere trickle, at others a raging flood bellowing over treacherous quicksands and deep holes, both of which were ready and waiting to engulf the unwary rider. Scrubby cedar, mesquite and other chaparral overran the valley floor. Now and then, not too frequently, a tall tree braved the storms to stand like a sentinel keeping watch over the lesser growth and the luxuriant grass that stood almost to the height of a horse’s withers.
The Canadian River Valley! Home of little people who asked only a meager living from the soil. The home, or hiding place, too, of questionable characters who were not satisfied with anything meager and were imbued with share the wealth notions that they too often put into practice to the detriment of honest ranchers, banks, stage coaches, and anything else that packed, or could be turned into, money.
Walt Slade liked the wild and rugged valley and always enjoyed crossing it. He liked, too, the “little people” who resided there, content with little, and thus finding happiness.
Slade swept the horizon with his gaze. Far to the west was the grim Tucumcari Desert, salt, alkali, desiccated, a true wasteland, where Death lay waiting, with the mountains of New Mexico beyond. To the north was Oklahoma and the hill country. To the east the ocean of grass extending to the Cap Rock, or Plains Escarpment, where once the cruel Comanches held sway and marched their hopeless captives over the Trail of Tears.
A land of contrasts, this, quiet and peaceful under the gold of the sun or the silver of the moon — wild and frightening in the blue fury of the storm — but with a beauty and a fascination all its own.
And far to the west were to be seen patches of vivid green that Slade knew were the crops of farmers who, the year before, had bought and moved onto State lands, which the cattlemen maintained were open range, always were, and always should be.
That, there was no doubt in the Ranger’s mind, was productive of trouble.
Turning into the south fork of the trail, Slade continued on his way, wondering mildly what became of the three gentlemen he met on the trail and caring little what did become of them. Sooner or later, the chances were, he’d contact them again. Meanwhile, when he reached Amarillo and had a jabber with Sheriff Brian Carter, he might be able to learn the meaning of the sign so arrogantly proclaiming the supposed-to-be omnipotence of one Griswold.
At the moment, there was quite a confab going on in old Josh Griswold’s G-Square ranch house. Si Lerner, the talkative range boss, his left hand bandaged, was there, and his two companions, Bert Paret and Chuck Olsen.
“We tried to stop him, but before we knew what was goin’ on, he had the drop on us,” Lerner was telling old Josh. “I never saw such a pull before. Fact is, I didn’t see it this time — them guns were just there. And then at better’n two hundred yards he shot my saddle gun outa my hand and busted my finger. Blowed Chuck’s rainshed off his head.”
“And put a blue whistler so close to my nose I smelt it,” interpolated Paret.
“That’s right,” said Lerner. “We figured we’d better hightail.”
“A good thing you did,” grunted Griswold, tugging his mustache. “Guess the only reason he didn’t kill all three of you was because he didn’t want to.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if you were right,” said Olsen. “Right at first I came purty near pulling on him. Figured I might shade him. If I had, I’d have — ”
“Died!” snorted Lerner. “I never heard tell of such shootin’.”
Old Josh looked contemplative. “I reckon there’s one feller who could do it,” he remarked. “He was here a couple of times before, I heard. Worked with Sheriff Carter, even though some folks ‘lowed he was just a blasted owlhoot himself, too smart to get caught.”
He paused to worry off a chaw of eatin’ tobacco and continued:
“You say the feller you met was a big tall feller with black hair and gray eyes?”
“Uh-huh, that was the color of his eyes, all right,” said Lerner. “Never saw such eyes; went through me like a greased knife.”
Old Josh nodded. “And you say he forked a black horse.”
“That’s right, too,” answered Lerner. “Finest looking cayuse I ever laid eyes on.”
Josh nodded again. “Oh, it was him, all right,” he said. “You work dodgers didn’t know it, but you were going up against
All three stared at him. “
” Lerner repeated. “For the love of Pete! Boss, are you sure?”
“No doubt about it,” replied Griswold.
“The singingest man in the whole Southwest, with the fastest gunhand,” murmured Paret.
“That’s what they say about him,” observed Griswold. “Reckon it ain’t far off.”
“Can’t say as to the singing part, but when it comes to the gun angle, I’m right there with bells on to plumb agree,” said Paret.
“And he came right on through, eh?” Griswold observed.
“He sure did,” replied Lerner.
“When you talked me into putting up that loco sign, we didn’t figure on somebody like
coming along,” Griswold remarked. “Guess
don’t believe in signs.”
“He sure didn’t believe in that one,” replied Lerner. “Say, suppose we get the rest of the boys and ride after the blankety-blank? If he’s headed for Amarillo as we figure, we should be able to catch him up ‘fore he crosses the Valley.”
“Nope,” Griswold vetoed the suggestion. “In the first place, it would look very much like premeditated murder and might cause somebody to stretch rope. Be that as it may, if you did manage to down him, about half of you wouldn’t be alive to know about it. Let him alone. He’s heading for Amarillo to see Sheriff Carter, all right. And Brian Carter is a cold proposition; likes to see the calaboose nice and crowded. He’s liable to land on us with all four feet when he hears about that sign. It was a loco notion.”
“There was good reason for putting it up,” Lerner defended his idea.
“Uh-huh,” said Griswold. “But it sorta backfired.”
• • •
On the lip of the valley, Slade again drew rein. There were ways by which one could descend to the valley floor, some little known, often with growth hemming in and even obstructing the winding track down the precipitous slopes. Walt Slade knew of such a one, by which he could easily cross the valley and make for Amarillo.
For a long moment he sat gazing toward those distant patches of green, now invisible to any save the eyes of
, the eyes that some maintained could see around corners and through chunks of mountain.
He glanced to the north, across what it was logical to presume was Griswold’s holding.
“A straight shoot, easy going, to Oklahoma,” he observed to Shadow. “Also, another straight shoot, easy going to the valley. Horse, I’ve a notion
Griswold has been losing cows, which may account for him being on the prod and posting unlawful signs.”
He scanned the ground at his feet, the concentration furrow between his black brows deepening, a sure sign
was doing some thinking.
“And,” he added, “unless I’m greatly mistaken, and I know very well I’m not, cows have passed this way, coming, and here’s the puzzler,
the valley, not descending into it. Something strange about all this, horse. Well, the chances are we’ll find out soon enough. Down you go! Never mind snorting — you’ve been this way before and have always made it without busting your ornery neck. Let’s go!”
Shadow went, but refused to stop snorting his disgust with the whole loco business.
Finally, with a more than ordinarily explosive snort from Shadow and a clashing of irons on the stones, they reached the Valley floor.
“See, you made it okay, and in one piece,” Slade said. “A bit farther and you can cool your footers in the river, so don’t go complaining more.”
Shadow deigned to reply and ambled on past stands of wild choke berries, big plums, wild gooseberries, and grapes.
They reached the river, which was low, and he sloshed through it, scrambled up the far bank, and continued, still apparently in no very good mood. Perhaps three score paces had been covered when Slade pulled him to a sudden halt.
From no great distance up the valley had come the ringing clang of a shot, followed by a scream, a second report, then silence.
Staring in the direction of the ominous sounds, Slade saw the tree tops reddening in a rising glow that filtered through the gloom.
“Guess we’d better go see what’s happening,” he said. “Easy now, no telling what we’ll run into.”
Shadow paced ahead, his rider with every sense at hair-trigger alertness. They eased around a bristle of thicket and again Slade halted his mount.
Less than a half score of yards distant, the thatch roof of a flimsy shack was burning fiercely. Just mounting their horses were three men. And on the ground nearby lay the twitching, writhing body of another man Slade instinctively knew would never fork a horse again.
The three men spotted him at the same instant. He saw the gleam of shifted and raised metal. He drew and shot. A bullet fanned his face, but the man who had squeezed trigger a split second late whirled to the ground to lie motionless. The leaves quivered to the bellow of gunfire.
Weaving, ducking, with Shadow doing an elusive dance, Slade answered the pair shot for shot. There was a yell of pain and an arm dropped limp, a gun falling from a nerveless hand. With one accord, the pair spun their horses around and fled madly up the canyon, Slade’s bullets speeding them on their way. Just as they swerved around a thicket and out of the glare of the fire, the second man lurched forward in the saddle but kept his seat. Slade, reloading his guns, listened to the hoof beats fading into the distance. With a glance at the body on the ground, from which there was nothing more to fear, he dismounted and knelt beside the wounded man, whose movements were lessening.
He was a scrawny individual with glazing muddy eyes and a slabbing mouth. The eyes gazed up beseechingly at
“What happened?” Slade asked gently. “Why did they shoot you?”
“I — I talked,” came the gasping reply through lips foamed by bright arterial blood. “I told — ”
He choked, retched. Blood gushed from his mouth. His chest swelled mightily as he fought for air, sank in. It did not rise again.
Slade stood up. He gazed at the burning shack, which was now pretty much a ruin. Doubtless it had been occupied by the poor devil who had been done to death, apparently because he talked too much. Slade greatly regretted he had not been able to speak a few more words before taking the Big Jump. He turned his attention to the other dead man, a rather unsavory looking specimen with nothing outstanding about him. His pockets divulged nothing Slade considered of interest save quite a large sum of money, which he replaced.
The fellow’s horse had not followed the others but stood at a little distance, blowing and snorting. However it proved to be a tractable beast and Slade had no difficulty removing the rig so it could graze in comfort until picked up. With a final glance around, he swung into the saddle.
“We’ll just leave everything as is for Sheriff Carter to look over tomorrow when he rides out to fetch the bodies,” he told Shadow. “Now let’s get going before we both starve to death. Be late as is when we make it to Amarillo. Here’s hoping we have a quiet amble the rest of the trip; had enough excitement for one evening, from my way of regarding it. Let’s go!”
Climbing the south wall of the valley, steeper and more rugged than the north, Shadow made it to the crest without too much equine profanity and ambled on across the star-burned prairie. The miles flowed back under his speeding irons and a few hours after sunset, Slade saw the cluster of low-lying “fallen stars” that was Amarillo. Half an hour later found him threading his way through the outskirts.