Authors: John Thomas Edson
That had been six months back and already the Taggerts agreed that for once they had made a mistake in selecting a center of operations. Sure, they found an outlet for selling either cattle or butchered beef without too many embarrassing questions being asked about ownership. The ranges around had plenty of cattle on them, aldiough little of the stock carried the Taggerts* brand. Not Qiat a minor detail such as brands ever bothered the Taggerts—or had not ujitil they settled the Blantyre County range. Mostly they took what they wanted, made their sales and pulled out before pubhc opinion reached the point where it started to think of ropes and cottonwood hoedown v^th the brothers as guests of honor.
In Blantyre County the Taggerts found men who would not willingly sit back even for small losses. While the brothers had never figured in the Texas Rangers' "Bible Two"—^that yearly Hst of fugitives from justice which the wearers of the star in the circle read more than the original book of the same name—they were not without fame. Less than a month after the Taggerts settled in Blantyre County, John Slaughter received word from a ranger friend, warning him of how the brothers were suspected of making theix living. Armed with the knowledge, Slaughter visited the Taggert place and warned the brothers of the fate awaiting anybody foolish enough to steal cattle or make big antelopes on his range.
While not being unduly worried by threats, it was a significant fact that the Taggerts stayed clear of Slaughter s land until ready to make their jump out of Blantyre C!ounty.
On making up their minds to leave the barren ground, the brothers decided they needed traveling money. Scar had taken a scout on Slaughter's range, knowing the ranch crew to be busy with their roundup, and found the hundred head. Even at stolen-cattle rates, a hundred head would give them suflBcient money to put miles between them and Slaughters wrath; and leave enough to set them up in anotier small spread in some more hospitable, or less suspicious area.
So the brothers gathered up the hundred head, using their considerable skill in such matters to drive the cattle out of the valley and across the range to the south line. However, at that point Scar Taggert started to make mistakes. Give him his due, they were honest mistakes such as any man might make.
Firstly, instead of delivering the cattle on the hoof to a man who had taken their loot before—for the brothers had raided on a small scale—Scar came up with a brilliant idea. Why take ten bucks a head, whidb was the best rate their dealer ever oflEered, when there was a trail herd in the area. A herd conmianded by a man not noted for honesty and fair dealing. Such a man would certainly pay fifteen dollars a head and might be persuaded to go as high as twenty.
Which only went to prove one thing. Scar Taggert had made a mighty poor guess at Chisum's character.
Sure, Chisum bought the cattle. Only his price was a measly three dollars a head. If he had been a free agent, Taggert would have said to hell with that and gone off to take the despised ten dollars a head from his regular dealer. He found himself no longer a free agent from the moment Chisum heard of Qie cattle. Chisum was no fool and knew men did not ride in out of the dark to sell legitimate stock. In fact, these days only a green dude fresh on the range, or possibly a newborn baby, would offer stock to the Cattle King under any circumstances. So Chisum told Taggert he knew
the cattle were stolen. He then gave Taggert the choice of accepting his price, or being shot on the spot as a self-confessed cow thief. In a blind hope of bluffing his way out, Taggert warned Chisum of who owned the cattle. For a moment it seemed the bluflE would work, but Chisum knew tricks that Scar Taggert had never heard of. Producing pencil and paper, Chisum insisted that Taggert make out a bill of sale, pointing out the advisability of taking three himdred dollars and his life as opposed to being handed over, along with the stolen herd, to Slaughter s tender mercies.
Taggert took the money. Which was when he made his second mistake.
Thinking that the loss might not be discovered for days, or if it was, that Slaughter would blame Chisum for the theft, Scar Taggert decided to stay until daylight before pulling out of Blantyre County. One way or another he and his brothers stood a good chance of getting clear. When Slaughter discovered the loss of his cattle he would take after them. Only Chisum, backed up by the bill of sale, would not hand over the stock without a fight.
Back at their spread, after discussing Chisum in their most choice profanity, the brothers settled down to debate what would be best for them to do. Following their usual pattern. Bill and Zeke left it to Scar to make the actual decision. After due deliberation, he announced they would lie low for a spell. Happen Chisum and Slaughter locked horns, there would be some handy pickings for the Taggert brothers. Both sides would be too busy shooting each other to notice their cattle, or at least some of their cattle, being spirited away.
For brothers, the Taggerts were a remarkably im-alike bimch. Scar, the oldest, was a small, slim dan(fy with quick wits and a nimble tongue; his right cheek bore the mark of an argument one night in San Antone which gave him his name. Zeke stood maybe six foot, had the build of a poorly nourished bean pole and was second in age. Rumor had it that Zeke was color blind, due to his always wearing bright-colored shirts and clashing bandanas that made even cowhands—^who were
not noted as being quiet, sober dressers—^blink in surprise. Youngest of the bunch was Bill, a big shambling, unwashed man with the strength of an ox and about half one's intelligence. While ^ey all admittedly came from the same mother, there was some doubt, even in her mind, if the same man sired all three.
It was shortly after noon and the three brothers had not long been out of their beds. Zeke left the house and walked to the pump-fed horse trough for his morning wash, which he performed without the aid of soap and using as litde water as possible. Just as he stood toweling his eyes, he caught sight of a movement in the distance. He did not need to use field glasses to recognize the movement as coming from two approaching riders. Nor did he look for long before making out the riders as being John Slaughter and his foreman, Washita Trace. Having good eyesight, Zeke recognized the approaching men at a distance where most folks could have seen no more than a couple of blobs on the skyline.
Turning on his heel, Zeke dropped the towel and was about to run to the house with his news. Then he remembered that Slaughter and Trace could most likely see just as well as himself. So Zeke showed commendable good sense by walking nonchalantly from the horse trough to the house and entering without a backward glance at the unwelcome visitors.
His calm did not last once he entered the cabin and slammed the door. His t\\^o brothers sat at the table stuflBng food down their throats and looked up as he entered. To ordinary eyes, little or nothing would have showed as being unusual in the way Zeke entered the cabin. Scar and Bill knew their brother, and one glance told them something was bad wrong.
''Scarl" Zeke yelped. "It's Slaughter and Trace. They're comingl"
The news brought a reaction from both Scar and Bill. Throwing a glance at his unkempt, unmade bimk, and the gunbelt which lay on it. Scar thrust back his chair and came to his feet. BiU spat out a mouthful of half-chewed beef and looked at his eldest brother in a worried manner.
^'You reckon they wouldn't find out about the herd,'' he said. '*Didn t he say that, Zeke?"
**Maybe they aren't coming here about the cattle," Scar put in before Zeke could confirm Bill's statement.
"'And maybe razorback hawgs could fly," Zeke spat out, "only they ain't got wings. You reckon Slaughter and Trace'd come over here in the middle of their roimd-up just to take tea 'n fancy cake with us?"
While Bill, in his slow-witted way, never thought of arguing any of Scar's decisions, and regarded his small brother as being brilliant and infallible in all matters, Zeke was a mite smarter and had doubts about Scar's ability to boss the outfit.
'*So they foimd out about the cattle," Scar growled, *Whaf s that prove? It went into Chisum's herd, there's nothing to connect us with that."
''Unless Slaughter saw Chisimi and learned where the cattle came from."
"You got a great head, Zeke," Scar sneered, "it's a pity you never use it."
"Yeah?" Zeke answered. "Well, it wam't me as said we should sell that herd to Chisum and make more than we would from that feller down Battle Creek way."
"All right, so I made a mistake there," Scar replied, crossing to his bimk and taking up his gunbelt. "Look, if Slaughter knew the cattle went into Chisum's herd, he'd go right after 'em and get 'em back, 'cause that's Slaughter's way. Only Chisum won't give 'em back that easy. If Slaughter'd knowed about the herd, him and Chis-um'd likely still be fighting over it."
"Unless Slaughter done got Chisum pinned down someplace where he couldn't risk making a fight of it; and tiiat'd be Slaughter's way, too," Zeke objected, thinking of what he had seen of the J.S.'s south line while making furtive scouting missions. An unnerving fact sprang to mind almost immediately. "Helll If Slaughter s men covered that ford—^"
"Yeahl" Scar agreed suddenly and shockingly seeing what might have happened. Possibly Slaughter had recovered the stock under circumstances which gave the Cattle King no choice but to surrender. In which case
Chisum would tell how he came to be in possession of the cattle, if only to have his revenge on the man who had sold them. Once Scar decided that Slaughter might be after him, he started to think fast and give his orders. ^Bill, stop filling your guts and strap your gun on, you re coming with me. Zeke, you get your rifle and go out the back way. Injun oflF through the scrub and don't let 'em see you get into the bam. Then come through. I'll keep Slaughter and Trace talking down there by the corral and if he's come about the hundred head, we'll have him whipsawed between us."
THow about the rest of his crew?" Bill asked, shambling over to where his gunbelt lay, taking it up and slinging it around his waist.
'T&iowing Slaughter s way, him n Tracell've come alone, left his men to work his cattle," Scar explained. "Come on. Let's get moving."
Neither of the yoimger brothers could think of a better plan for dealing with the situation. If the horses had been saddled ready, they might have been able to make a nm for their freedom; but it was too late to think of running out, catching and saddling horses. Zeke saw that for once his brother had formulated a good plan; while Bill thought only of filling his belly with food or liquor and left the making of plans to Scar.
The two thinking brothers knew the futility of trying to make a stand in the house. Slaughter and Trace were not fools, and knew better than to come riding right up to the front porch when visiting a bunch of cow thieves. Unless the two men saw at least some of the Taggert family, they would stay back at long rifle range and do their talking from there. Should the brothers dien make a fight of it. Slaughter was in a position to hold them pinned down in Qie house while Trace rode hke the devil after a yearling to fetch the rest of the J.S. crew. The tumble-down cabin would not be a good place to be using as a fort in a fight to save one's life, especially when opposed by battle-wise men like the J.S. crew.
If two of them went outside, the Taggerts ought to be able to luxe Slaughter and Trace down to the corrals, bringing them within the jaws of the gun trap. Should
Slaughter prove to have come looking for the men who stole his cattle, the brothers had a good chance of cutting both him and his foreman down. With Slaughter dead, the brothers could gather their belongings, be on their horses and have put a lot of miles between themselves and Blantyre County before the J.S. cowhands came to look for their missing boss.
Taking his Winchester from its place by his bed, Zeke left by the rear door of the cabin, slipping into the scrub behind the house like a weasel hunting down cottontail rabbits in a brier patch. Taking good care to avoid being seen by the approaching men, he reached the bam and climbed in through a rear window. Already his two brothers were walking from the house to meet Slaughter and Trace.
While riding slowly to the Taggert place, Slaughter and Trace kept their eyes open. They had seen Zeke's return to the house and his nonchalant manner did not fool them. Likely he had both seen and recognized them, which meant he took words to his brothers of their approach.
"Scar n Bill," Trace remarked as he watched the two shapes leave the house. "Do we stand out here?''
"Keep riding in imtil they make a move," Slaughter replied. "Ill do the talking, you watch for Zeke."
"He's watched for."
Way Scar saw it, his plan was working; not that he ever doubted it would come off. Slaughter and Trace rode closer, passing the edge of the corral and coming to a halt right where he hoped they would. Now, given only a little luck, and Zeke having reached the bam, they ought to be able to whipsaw the two Texans. It would fall on Zeke to take care of Slaughter, for the rancher sat on the side nearest to the open bam door.
"What're you after here, Slaughter?" Scar asked, stopping about thirty feet in front of his visitors. Bill halting by his side.
'Wanting help with your roundup? Me n the boysll be tolerable pleased to come on over and lend a hand if you do."
*1 figured you d already started helping us," Slaughter replied, lounging easily in his saddle and watching the two brothers before him. "Only you took that him-dred head to Chisiun's herd instead of my petalta''
"If that's a joke—!'*
^TTou don't see Wash or me laughing, do you?''
While he spoke, Slaughter concentrated on the men in front of him, leaving the locating and handling of the missing Zeke to his foreman. Neither he nor Trace trusted the Taggert brothers under the best of conditions. When they could see only two, they trusted the Taggerts even less.
Washita Trace gave his attention to spotting the missing brother, concentrating on his search as if his Hfe depended on it—and it did. After one look, he dismissed the house as a possible hiding place. Scar and Bill stood in the line of fire of anybody inside the cabin. That scrub to the right had possibiHties, yet there were open patches through which a man would have been compelled to move as he went to take up a satisfactory firing position; and Trace had seen no such movement on his way in. Which same left the bam to the left beyond Texas John. Now there was a place which had real possibilities. Happen a man slipped out of the rear door of the house, he could stay hidden dear imtil he reached the back of the bam. Even if the bam had no rear door, there would be windows or, judging from the general condition of the building, loose planks a man might pull aside so as to gain admittance.