Authors: John Thomas Edson
Mounting his big roan gelding, Washita Trace lined himself on his boss's right side, while Burt Alvord mounted his spot-rumped Appaloosa stallion and swung to Slaughter s left. The dark yoimg man cast a glance at the Winchester Model 1866 rifle in his saddle boot and wondered if he might find need for the gun folks affectionately called die "old yellow boy" because of its brass frame's color.
Side by side the three men rode slowly out of Blan-tyre and once on the open range allowed their horses to make better time. They rode south on a mission of some importance to the peace of the Blantyre County range.
Each year several southern ranches sent their trail herds north to the Kansas markets and in doing so crossed John Slaughter's great J.S. spread's range. He neither stopped, nor in any way interfered with the trail herds, for he knew the other men must go north to sell their cattle. All Slaughter asked was that they kept moving, did not overgraze his range, fed on their own beef, and kept their hands' hooravraig of Blantyre City dovni to reasonable bounds; none of them unreasonable requests to men who Imew the ways of the cattle business and the ways of Texas cowhands on a spree.
Most folks took notice of what John Slaughter said, for it was not his way to waste time in repeated warnings. Way Slaughter saw it, telling once ought to be enough for any man. After one warning Slaughter stopped talking and acted. His actions were fast, deadly and very eflEective.
Folks called John Chisum the Cattle King in those days and most of them stepped warily in his presence. Dovm south, over the New Mexico Hne at Bosque Grande, he ran an enormous spread wdth more cattle on it than he could ever coxmt for his tally book. His cowhands burned the line from shoulder to rump on everything with four legs, horns, a tail and a bellow that they found on or near his land, and called the mark the Long Rail. It was rumored they also ran the brand, or placed the jingle-bob ear mark on men who crossed their path, for Qiisum called his men 'warriors" and selected them for their ability with their guns.
When Chisum took a herd to market, he trailed 9
along a good force of his "warriors.'* Wliile they might lack some of the skill of better cowhands, Chisum did not care. The way his herds increased in number during the long drive north often surprised less-talented people, despite the old saying that a trail boss was a man who started out with a herd, fed beef to his men all the way north, lost a few head on the trip and still reached the pens with more than he started out driving. A good trail boss might increase his number by fifty or a hundred head. Chisum rarely finished a drive with less than two himdred and fifty more than his original gather.
The Long Rail's herd had been bedded down early, due to the return from town of Big Tag's party. Leaving the cattle settled down to graze and rest on an open piece of ground well clear of any ravine or clump of trees that could harbor a bear or pack of wolves which might emerge in the darkness and spook the herd, the hands gathered in the camp. Their cook had chosen a pleasant spot, by a spring of clear water and on level ground at the foot of a gentle, bush-dotted slope.
After attending to the burial of Big Tag, the men gathered to settle around the fire and lounge at ease while discussing what action they ought to take against John Slaughter and the erring town of Blantyre to reassert the Long Rail's hard-case reputation. Loyalty to their spread did not lead them to this line of thought All kiiew the advantage their reputation gave them. Few people would go against Long Rail, and it was not advisable to let one town get away with it lest others take heart
Only the cook and his helper appeared to be doing any work and neither of them gave any great energy to their duties. The helper shoved a couple of logs onto the fire and the cook gave the inevitable pot of stew a leisurely stii. All the other men lazed around and waited for their meal.
Suddenly one of the hard-cases stirred, jerking his thumb up the slope and letting forth a string of low-spoken curses. His words and action brought the attention of every other man to the slope and they studied the rider who approached. Before he was halfway down the
slope, every man knew him to be the Idller of Big Tag, and wondered why he chanced coming to their camp. "Hello, the camp," Slaughter called, halting his horse beyond the chuck wagon. *'Can I come in?"
Not imtil he received permission to enter did Slaughter swing from his saddle, leave the black stallion standing with trailing reins, and enter the camp. area. A trail drive s camp was its mobile home and received the same courtesy as did the spread's main house. Ignoring the looks thrown at him by the sullen hard-cases. Slaughter walked by the chuck wagon and across the open space to where John Chisum, the Cattle King, sat enthroned on an old chuck box before the bed wagon.
For all that he owned a great ranch and vast herds of cattle, Chisum wore clothes most of his men would have been ashamed to wear, A cheap wool hat perched on his bald head and protected it from the elements. His sim-reddened face looked frank, open and jovial, the kind of face a man felt impelled to trust on sight—^unless one happened to look at the eyes. They did not seem to hold the same warmth and twinkle of friendship as the rest of his face, but were cold, calculating, and gave warning of the real man beneath the smiling exterior. Far too many people failed, until too late, to notice the eyes. For the rest, he wore a frayed bandana, cheap hickory shirt and old calfskin vest, patched levis and ready-to-wear boots, which no cowhand worth his salt would be seen dead wearing.
The most noticeable thing about Chisum—it caught the eye in Texas even before one noticed the poverty of his dress—^was that he did not wear a gun. llie way Chisum saw it, any man who wore a gun and treated folks as Chisimi did would most hkely wind up one day having to use that gun to defend himself. So Chisum went unarmed and left any fighting—^with its attendant risk of getting wounded or even killed—to his "warriors."
For that reason Chisum paid his men fighting wages, not that he was being in any way overgenerous, for the men earned their pay. Besides, he always won back a
good portion of their pay at poker or in other games of chance where, the way he played them, there was litde chance of his losing.
It said much for Chisum's ability to talk a bird down out of a tree that he managed to stay alive and without needing a gun in such company. Yet, strange as it may seem, those hard-cases never gave a thought to the fact that Chisum invariably wound up as the ultimate winner in any game of chance they joined. Sure, a man lost money in the games, but why worry? Uncle John Chisum would always see a man dirough imtil the next pay day, keep him in food and liquor, and always with a friendly smile and happy word. That was how all the men felt—and just how Chisum hoped they might continue to feel. He spent a considerable amount of time and thought on keeping his "warriors" happy and contented.
**Howdy, Texas John,"" Chisum greeted, rising and showing no signs of ill feeling as he held out his hand.
*'You got my word?" replied Slaughter, not taking the oflFered hand.
"I got it," Chisum agreed, his face losing the smile for an instant and showing the true man underneath, then going back to its habitual expression. "Set a spell and eat. Cookie's just tossing up a beef stew. Hide of the steer he used's right over there, got a Box O brand on it"
Slaughter turned his eyes to where a steer s hide hung stretching on a rack by the chuck wagon. Its brand showed plainly a square outline around a letter O. He knew the Box O to be a ranch some distance to the southwest of his place, a small spread as Texas cattle outfits went.
"You own the Box O now, Mr. Chisum?" Slaughter asked.
A slight frown creased Chisum's brow and the smile wiped ojff his face again for a flickering instance. Chisum had been in cattle country long enough to have heard the old range saying: If a Texan calls you "mister" once, he's curious; if he calls you that after he knows your name, he doesn't like you.
The smile came back and Chisum reached behind the box he had been seated upon. He lifted up a foot-long piece of zinc stove pipe with a waterproof canvas cover at each end. Lifting one of the covers, he rummaged around inside the pipe and looked at Slaughter.
"Got me a power-of-attorney note in here authorizing me to collect and drive to market any Box O cattle I see on the trail."
"Don't bother looking/' Slaughter replied dryly. '1 ' reckon it'll be in there someplace."
During the past few years Slaughter had often heard of 3ie power-of-attorney notes Chisum kept in that piece of zinc pipe. They formed the soiu-ce of the Cattle King's wealth; and represented as neat a piece of legal skulduggery as had been pulled oflE since Peter Minuit had bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for the equivalent of twenty-five dollars.
When the meeting at the Appomattox Courthouse brought an end to the War Between The States, Texas men returned to their homes and found their herds of longhomed cattle scattered, either roaming wild over the range country or stolen by Comanches or Mexicans. Around the same time, Chisum, Charles Goodnight and other farsighted men started the first trail drives, running cattle into New Mexico where die U.S. Army had large niunbers of Apaches to feed. Other ranchers, who could not spare the time or lacked the knowledge to make such drives, asked Chisum to take their cattle along. Never one to do anything for nothing, Chisimi's first inclination had been to refuse. Then he had an inspiration. He agreed to drive the other men's cattle to mkrket for a share of the sale price, and their power-of-attomey to gather any of their stock he might find in his travels.
With his friendly smile, Chisum charmed hard-headed businessmen into signing the notes. Mostly they failed to see anything wrong in the suggestion and went along with it as the only way they could sell off their cattle. What they forgot was the strayed and stolen cattle. Chisum had forgotten neither. He gathered the notes authorizing him to collect the branded stock of dozens
of ranchers, keeping the papers in the length of zinc stove pipe. Once he had the notes, Chisum called his "warriors'" together and they went out into the range country. Along with all the unbranded stuff he found, he collected every head of branded stock belonging to the ranchers wherever he foimd such animals.
In such a manner Chisimi built up his vast herds and founded his fortune. The unbranded animals were given the Long Rail brand, no matter what mark their mothers might have canied. At first the ranchers received a portion of the money brought by Chisum's sale of their stock, which they thought was better than nothing. It had been many years since last he paid out anything and the signers of the notes had for the most part written them off as a loss. Chisum did not part with the notes though, they still gave him a valuable source of income.
Usually the stove pipe was kept in the Salamander safe at his ranch, but when he was on the trail he carried it along in die bed wagon. He had only fetched it out ready to confront Slaughter with proof of his honesty, if the Texan asked questions about the animal whidi formed the trail crew's evening meal.
**Do you always feed your hands on other folks' beef?" Slaughter asked.
''The poor, fool critter bust its leg, John," Chisum answered, still holding the smile whidi did not reach his eyes. "Now we couldn't let it lie and suffer for days, and it would've been a mortal sin to leave all that there good meat to rot on the range, wouldn't it?"
"Likely," Slaughter said. "Mind one thing, though."
"Up north of here about twenty miles there's a stream. Over the other side of it the slow elk and big antelope are plimib poisonous. Can ruin a man's appetite pamanently, happen he takes to eating them— it's my range beyond that stream."
Again Chisum momentarily lost his smile. Slow elk and big antelope were the range names for cattle butchered for eating by folks who did not own them. There were many ranchers throughout the West, Chisum
more than most, who boasted they did not know how their own beef tasted and that they would rather eat their own kin than stock which could be sold.
Only it seemed that the ruling did not apply when crossing Texas John Slaughter's land.
With an eflEort Chisum brought the friendly smile back onto his face, but he sounded more than a mite sullen and angry as he replied, 'TU mind it, John. There are some here as reckon you was a mite hard on Big Tag back in that town."
'Tm standing here afore them," Slaughter answered, looking around him. "If anybody's got anything to say, let him get up on his hind legs and say it."
Not one of Chisimi's hard-case crew offered to pick up Slaughter s tossed-down gauntlet and accept his challenge. Iliey noted the relaxed manner in which Slaughter stood, and how his gun hung so handily to his grip. Every man around the fire knew how fast Big Tag had been with a gun, and here stood the man who'd licked him. From the way they heard it, allowing for exaggerations to excuse why the other three failed to do anytfcng more decisive than toting their pard's body back to camp. Big Tag died of a sudden and fatal case of slow. That being so, none of the others aimed to try and take up where he had imavoidably left off. At least not in a fair fight and standing face to face.
'^Shucks, John," Chisum went on, after a disappointing pause wMe he waited for one of his "warriors" to get up and show his mettle. "Ain't none of us wants fuss with you. There wasn't no real harm in Big Tag, he was just a mite wild at times and maybe talked a piece too loud."
If Chisum expected his words would draw any comment from Slaughter, he was to be disappointed. For a few seconds he waited for the grim-faced Texan to speak, then gave it up in disgust and carried on:
"All we want to do is cross your range and take a herd to market."
"Which same I've never stopped anybody from doing," Slaughter replied. "As long as he minded my words."
Without another word Slaughter turned on his heel and started to walk back to his horse. He had faced the entire camp down, bearded the lion in his den, and knew that Chisum would think twice before breaking the J.S/s rules of conduct.