Accordingly, Brazos Charlie Reeves dismounted and held his hands clear of his .44 Dragoon Colt. "What seems to be the problem gentlemen?" There were half a dozen Missouri farmers with shotguns and muskets confronting him on a country road. The leader with the shotgun was backed by a grim-faced young black man with a pair of pepper-box pistols.
"Them," replied the leader, pointing at the herd of lowing longhorns plodding forward.
"That's my herd," Brazos answered. "Texas longhorns on the way to Sedalia. I'm going to sell them at the railhead." Brazos paused, he was pretty sure the farmers wouldn't shoot. "Is that a problem, friend?" Brazos let his hands fall to his side. He was pretty sure the farmers wouldn't shoot.
"You bet it's a problem." The Missourian spat tobacco. "They let Texas cattle pass through Osage County and now they've got the fever!"
Now Brazos understood. When Texas cattle were herded with cattle from northern ranges, the northern beasts sometimes developed a fever. Texas cattle seldom died of it, but the fever was devastating to the others. The best way to avoid Texas fever was to avoid Texas cattle.
Brazos glanced back. While they had been talking, Red and Carlos, the cowboys riding point, had approached. Bert and Dutch Gus were behind riding sweep and Ramon further back on drag. Somewhere ahead was George, the black man who served as cook, and Frank the Kid who handled the spare horses.
"Just who are you to say I can't take my cattle through here?" Brazos kept his voice even.
"I am Josiah Throckmorton, chairman of the Yancey County Committee of Bovine Health. We're also on the scout for any jayhawking abolitionists from over Kansas way."
"That's by God impressive. You wouldn't happen to have a chaw would you? How about a badge? Any ol' bunch of outlaws can pretend to be a health committee."
"The Sheriff is in Grimes County, due north of here. I expect they'll have a blockade too." Throckmorton smiled smugly. "Just try and push your pest cattle through and you'll see who's an outlaw. Here's some chaw."
Brazos looked at Red and Carlos. They had ridden with Brazos in many a grim battle on the Texas borders. At a word they would shoot these Missouri hillbillies full of holes. But Brazos had come to sell cattle not fight a war.
"I expect water and fodder for my animals until this is resolved. Much obliged for the chaw."
Throckmorton glanced at the grim-set faces of the cowboys. He pointed to a nearby field. "Get `em off the road. You can herd `em here."
Brazos and his cowboys settled the herd and recalled the cook and the remuda. Throckmorton's slave, Ned, and one of the committeemen, a sallow-faced fellow with a straggling beard by the name of Munce stayed behind to keep an eye on the herd. George soon had food cooking. Munce eyed him sourly.
"Can that darky of yours cook good?"
"Sure," Brazos answered. "We ate his cooking all the way from Texas, ain't nobody died of it yet. You don't mind eating food cooked by a Negro?"
"Nah, so long as he ain't sittin' next to me. How much you pay for that darky?"
"Nothing, he's a free man." Brazos said. "Do I look rich? I ain't got money to buy new boots, let alone slaves."
"You ain't some abolitionist are you?" Munce said "abolitionist" the way most men said "rattlesnake". "We got a sight of trouble with them darky-loving Jayhawkers coming over from Kansas. But there's a passel of Bushwhackers will fill `em with hot lead by and by. Ain't afraid to go over to Kansas and put some bullets through abolitionist hides."
"I ain't no abolitionist, just a Texan aiming to sell his cattle." Brazos gave little thought to the matter, a man was a man, free or slave.
Dutch Gus laughed. Brazos knew that Gus, like other Germans, cared little for slavery. "Maybe some schwartz-republikaners will come from Kansas and free you, eh Herr Ned?"
"I like mass' Throck real well. Wouldn't want to leave." Ned's tone was deferential, as was expected when addressing white men. "I do miss my ol' mama back in Tennessee though."
George spoke up, though he was a black man, a cook had certain privileges. "Don't go railin' on that boy Gus! Ned, if'n you see any of them abolition men, you just get shut of `em. There's fellows say they come to help a darky and then turn around and sell him for a sight o' money! Darky stealin's pure profit. No abolition ever helped me, I had to buy my freedom."
Brazos stood up. Idle talk on slavery with strangers was never a good idea. Service in the Texas Rangers had taught Brazos that taciturnity served well. "I'm going to find the Sheriff and see about getting our herd moving again.
"I can take you to him," Munce said. "I've got to stop on the way. I'll fetch us some whiskey to wash off the trail dust."
Brazos and Munce rode off down a country lane. True to his word Munce led Brazos to a cabin, where he dismounted and went inside. Brazos had waited but a few moments when Munce returned with a bottle of whiskey.
"Hair of the dog," he said.
"I ain't worried about dogs. It's bovine health that's bit me." Brazos took a swig nonetheless.
They rode further in the moonlight. Then Brazos and Munce reached a crossroads, where open fields bordered a wood. Munce paused, trying to decide which crossroads to take. To his left, across the open fields, Brazos noticed a glow, as of a bonfire. The glow spread and took on the shape of a barn. Men were shouting in the distance.
"Come on we'd better go help." Brazos turned off the trail.
"Wait up," was all Munce said. Then they heard the gunshots. "Jayhawkers!"
Shadowy forms came racing from the direction of the flames. Horses' hooves pounded a desperate beat across the field. Brazos raised his pistol just as orange flame and hot lead erupted from the lead horseman. Brazos felt the buckshot whistle past his head and fired his Dragoon Colt. The .44 caliber cap-and-ball pistol roared and a horseman cried out in pain, but did not fall. Brazos could see their masked faces, blank where bandanas covered what wasn't hidden in the shadow of wide-brimmed hats.
Brazos wheeled to avoid the riders' gunfire and then turned back to fire again. It was a tactic the Texans had perfected in bloody skirmishes on the frontier. The riders made the road and began galloping in earnest. Munce joined in, emptying his .36 at their fleeing backs, but with no result save noise and smoke.
Brazos and Munce helped the farmer save what he could from his blazing barn. The farmer and his family drew water from the well, but it was too little too late. The farmer cursed the Jayhawkers bitterly.
"How do you know it was Jayhawkers?" Brazos asked. "All I saw was men with masked faces."
"I know it was!" the farmer exclaimed. "They done stole all my livestock a while back. Now I got nothing left." The man's eldest son approached, holding a musket. His father nodded at him. "Reckon there ain't nothing left to do but go on over to Kansas and get my own back."
"Well, good luck with those Kansas cattle thieves." Brazos paused and then swore. He leapt into the saddle.
Munce shouted, "Where you goin'?"
"To see if I have any livestock left!"
A hurtling ride down the Yancey County back roads brought Brazos to the pasture where he had left the herd. But the herd was no longer there.
"They came about half an hour after you left," Red reported grimly. "They came up through the brush silent as jackrabbits. They had the drop on us good. Fired a few shots and while we were scrambling, the outlaws made off with the herd. Didn't have much of a chance to follow `em in the dark."
"Like as not you'd have been fetched back leaking blood," Brazos said. "It seems those Jayhawkers knew exactly where we'd be. They knew the best way to come and the best way to go."
"Right smart for a bunch of Kansas abolitionists."
Brazos spat in disgust. "Red, I smell a polecat the size of a prize heifer."
Brazos slept little and was in the saddle before dawn. George made breakfast for the cowboys in the dark, though there would be no trailing today. "Hey boss," he called to Brazos. "We're out of eggs, I'm a goin' to town and buy some."
Brazos flipped him a dollar coin. "Get some bacon too. We're fresh out of beef." He glanced about and saw Ned had risen too. "Take Ned with you. He can show you the way. There sure ain't no point in him stickin' here to watch our cattle."
razos was soon working through the back trail where his herd had been taken. The cowboys were behind him, eager as hounds on the scent. But at little branching trails small numbers of cattle had turned aside. The ground grew muddier and the paths more twisted. Eventually the reduced herd had reached an area of malarial swamp. The tracks vanished in the shallow, muddy water. Brazos and his cowboys struggled through the cattails looking for evidence of the herd's passing. They found some trampled swamp grass and followed it to firmer ground. Not far beyond was a hard packed trail, beaten down with the passing of horses, oxen, and wheeled traffic. The hoof-prints of the longhorns had been erased.
On the other side of Yancey County Ned sat beside George in the chuck wagon. "So you a free darky? You always been free?"
"Nah, I was born on McKinnon plantation. I was a good bronc buster and McKinnon used to hire me to break horses and I got to earn some money. But it wasn't enough to pay for my freedom, `count of I was a good earner for McKinnon. After a while I busted my leg on an ol' outlaw bronc. My price went down right then and I was free."
"You got people in Texas?"
"I got a wife and kids. Send a bit of money to my ma and sisters in Galveston."
"You have to buy your woman?"
"Nah, she was born free over in Weberville. Her pa was white. He was from Vermont. They run him out of Weberville after a while. White folks don't like a white man take up with a colored gal, even if she's light."
"There's some nice gals in these parts, but I don't care `bout them so much. I'd rather go see my ma in Tennessee or git to a free state."
A masked man holding a shotgun stepped into the road. "Hey darky, hold still or I'll take you out of Missouri right quick!"
Brazos and his cowboys rested in the morning sun as the mud dried on them and flies buzzed. "Well damn," said Red at last.
"Yup," Bert said.
"Yup," Brazos answered.
There was a clatter of hooves from down the road. Throckmorton and his vigilantes were trotting toward Brazos.
"If it ain't the YCCBH," Brazos said. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Do you have any other veterinary cautions to discuss?"
"You damn well know!" Throckmorton snarled.
"I damn well don't." Brazos kept his voice even.
"I told you not to move your damn pest-cattle!"
"I didn't. Someone moved `em for me. I'd like `em back."
"Damn your lies!"
Brazos dug his spurs into his horse. The wiry Texas cow-pony charged into the Missourian's mount and Throckmorton tumbled from the saddle. Brazos leapt to the ground. "Get up and call me a liar again! Get up I said!"
hrockmorton was game and came at Brazos with both fists. He swung hard and fast and Brazos felt his teeth rattle. But Brazos dug into the bigger man's chest and pounded it like a war drum. Throckmorton gasped in pain and shot a blinding fast hook at Brazos' chin. The Texan ducked and launched and uppercut that sent Throckmorton reeling. Brazos' pounding fists followed the man and drove him to his knees. Throckmorton's left eye was closing and blood was trickling from Brazos' mouth.
"You want more?" Brazos asked. Throckmorton didn't answer. "Do you see any of my damn cattle? Do you? The goddam Jayhawkers got `em! And it's all on account of you stopped me when I'd have been out of this damn hill-billy county yesterday." Brazos turned away in disgust. He looked to notice his cowboys were covering the vigilantes with their sixguns.
"Hell, put them guns away. Ain't you fellows never seen a veterinary debate?"
A half dozen masked men looted the chuck-wagon while others covered George and Ned with their guns.
"All right darkies," the leader said. "You are coming with us." George noted his flat, northern accent.
"What you want with us? We jes a couple o' darkies, gen'lmens." Ned slurred his words, trying to sound like a harmless, ignorant Negro.
George had heard that often before when black men were confronted with angry, armed whites. "Y'all are Bushwhackers," he said with contempt. George had never been good at placating anybody. He continued, "A bunch of robbin' trash. You shoot and it'll rouse up the country something fierce."
The leader stared at him. "Not at all. We're Free-Soilers from Kansas. Now just keep quiet and we'll take you to some Quakers who'll set you darkies free."
"I'm already free." George snorted in contempt.
"Then it won't be a problem for you to join us." The leader turned to one of his men. "Go find them ol' boys and tell `em we got a trade to make." The man nodded and galloped off.
George spat. "What about all them longhorns you Jayhawkers stole? Are some Quaker abolitionists gonna free them?"
"Darky, I have no idea what you are talking about." The leader cocked his sixgun. "Maybe a shot will stir up the locals. I damn sure know one will settle you down."
The Jayhawkers and the two black men departed, leaving the empty chuck-wagon derelict on the road.
Brazos had led his weary cowboys back to their camp-ground. The search for the stolen herd had proved fruitless. Brazos decided to meet with the sheriff and see what results could be had from the law. He did not expect much.
After inquiring at a half-dozen farmhouses Brazos knew where the sheriff was. He also knew the county was in a high panic, for the farmers he spoke to tempered their country hospitality with loaded shotguns. Brazos found the sheriff in a remote corner of the county accompanied by four possemen.
"That's quite a tale of woe Mr. Reeves," the sheriff said. "I fear the thieves may be long gone. Crime is holding a high carnival in Yancey County. Jayhawkers are running wild." He shot a stream of tobacco juice at a stone.
"Throckmorton may seem a pompous ass, but he's a pillar of the community. Most of those Bovine Health vigilantes are jurymen, possemen, militiamen, choir members, and serve in the slave patrol. Good men." The sheriff stuffed a fresh plug of tobacco in his mouth. "There's a few I wouldn't trust around the corner with two bits and a three-legged hound dog. They been robbin' over in Kansas. Might do some robbin' in Missouri too."
On the other side of Yancey County George and Ned sat in a tumble-down shack lit by a single candle. A lookout had been posted. One man lay on a cot, badly wounded. The Jayhawkers ate cold beans from cans, but offered nothing to Ned and George.
George quietly studied the men, noting their weapons, their attentiveness, and the movements of their lookouts. He had made many cattle round-ups in the Texas brush where a failure to pay attention to wild bulls, outlaws, or hostile Indians could cost a man his life.
There was a warning call from the lookout. Then a man shouted, "Let me come up and talk, if'n you peckerwoods want to get out of this county alive."The leader crouched behind the door, gun in hand. "Show your hand! I'll plug you at the first sign of monkey business!"
The stranger announced he was unarmed and only wanted to talk. He was allowed to approach but stayed outside in the dark.
"We got your message about the contraband you wanted to trade." The voice sounded familiar to George, but he could not place it. "What's your price?"
"Eight hundred each."
"You can get fifteen hundred for `em easy."
"Nah, I got a fellow in Arkansas will buy, but not for no fifteen hundred. They'll pay that in Louisiana, but not for ones they know is stolen. `Sides, we'uns is low on cash. We might could trade some."
The leader stepped outside to negotiate. When he returned to the cabin the stranger stopped just outside the door. "This whole Jayhawking and Bushwhacking business has been powerful good for thieves like us," he said.
"So long as you don't end up with a bullet like Bill." The leader pointed at the wounded man. "We'd be back in Kansas, only I can't leave him behind on account of he owes me money."
"We'll meet up and trade and you can get back to Kansas."
"Pretty soon we'll have a picked man in charge of Yancey. Frankly, he ain't too bright. Hell, he don't even know he's picked." The stranger laughed and stepped forward. The light from the candle fell on his face. George kept his expression immobile, for he just recognized Munce, the vigilante.
The sheriff consulted his watch and signaled for the posse to return to town. They tightened their saddle girths and mounted. No sooner had the sheriff seated himself than a volley of shots rang out. The sheriff moaned in agony, but cleared his .36 Colt from its scabbard. He fired two shots and collapsed.
Brazos and the posse fired back, but the attackers had faded away in the dusk. The sheriff lived, but only barely. Brazos could see he would die soon without help. As the posse regrouped, they heard riders coming. Throckmorton and his men rode into view.
Throckmorton's expression was sour enough, even without the marks from the beating Brazos had given him. He brusquely announced he was taking the role of acting sheriff.
"I'm the deputy, Throck! Shouldn't I be sheriff?" said a posseman.
"I was elected to the county board in '48 and I supervise the Sunday school," Throckmorton answered hotly. "I don't think you have my qualifications." Throckmorton told off a pair of men to get the doctor. One of the bovine vigilantes laid a hand on Throckmorton's arm and spoke urgently in a low voice. Throckmorton scowled and nodded vigorously.
"How is it you found the sheriff? Mighty odd, him getting shot right after you showed up."
"What do you men by that?" Brazos asked. He had deliberately stayed in the saddle and on the edge of the crowd of vigilantes and possemen.
"I mean you are under arrest until you answer my questions. Get the Texan, boys!"
Brazos dug his spurs into his horse's flank. The animal had traveled far, but had great stamina. The cow-pony sped away like a shot as bullets sang through the air behind Brazos.
e managed to lose his pursuers in the swiftly advancing dark. All night long he rode, staying to back trails, often with little idea of exactly where he was going. Brazos knew the general direction his cowboys' camp lay in, but the direct route was the least safe. Finally, long after midnight he found the isolated meadow where the cowboys should have been. Brazos paused. He led his horse back into the brush and advanced on foot, moving slowly and stealthily.
Brazos saw the chuck-wagon was missing. Yet there was a fire going and men kept watch. Brazos stood still and listened.
"You think he'll show?" one of the watchers said.
"Maybe, if he don't get a warning from his boys."
"Oh, don't start that again. Hell, them cowboys is half-way back to Texas."
Hell of a way to run an ambush, Brazos thought. Good thing it's Missouri farmers chasing me, not Apaches. They'd sit still, no matter if was raining or hailing or they were on an ant mound, Apaches would be quiet and still as a grave. When their quarry showed up, he'd be fit for a grave by and by.
Brazos returned to his horse and continued riding. Now he was truly alone. He had no idea of were his men were. He'd get out of Yancey and try to regroup someplace where vigilantes and outlaws weren't after him. He had ridden clear across Yancey County twice since morning and was exhausted. So it was not at all unusual that he did not see the tumble-down shack until he was very close to it.
A voice came from behind him. "Get you hands up, pronto!"
"This is getting to be too damned regular," Brazos said. "Are you a bovine vigilante or a posseman? `Cause if you are just take me to a damn jail so I can get some rest."
"Neither." Brazos noted the speaker had a Yankee twang in his voice. "You're on the scout, eh?"
"Yup, I am a wanted man. The vagaries of commerce have reduced me from a free and easy cowboy to friendless wanderer without a plug of tobacco. I'd be obliged for some."
"Come on up to the cabin, the boss will want to meet you." Brazos was led to the door of the cabin where another man quizzed him on how he came to be wanted.
"I happened to be in the company of a prominent citizen when he got shot. That sufficed to blot my name in these parts."
"Did you shoot him?"
Brazos shrugged. "Not so's you'd notice."
"I reckon you're sound on the goose. Come on in."
The sight of a half-dozen outlaws was surprising enough, but it was nothing compared to the shock of seeing George and Ned held under guard. Brazos let no sign of recognition slip, instead he turned to face the outlaw leader.
"You're a cattleman, are you?" the outlaw leader asked. When Brazos answered he was, the outlaw replied that he needed one to help with a tricky business deal. "I need to get some cattle over the state line."
"I guess you fellows are the Jayhawkers from over Kansas way," Brazos said.
"The very same. Ever since the Missourians tried to take over the territory we've been givin' `em hell. We want a free state for free men. No darkies to drive down wages. In slave states white men have to work alongside darkies. It's just wrong. So we're fightin' to keep `em out."
"What about them?" Brazos jerked his head toward George and Ned. "You ain't plannin' to take `em to Kansas are you?"
"No, we have an offer of recompense for the dusky servitors." There was a sound of lowing cattle. "I hear the goods coming now."
Brazos went outside to see a herd of longhorn cattle marching toward the cabin in the early morning glimmer. "Damned if that ain't my herd," he muttered. The herd seemed to be diminished. They had been driven around since being stolen and some had probably strayed. There were over a dozen outlaws handling them, twice as many cowboys as Brazos had, so perhaps they held them with sheer numbers. Longhorns were skittish creatures and unpredictable when confronted with novelties.
Brazos looked around for George and Ned. They were closely guarded. An attempt to pass a weapon to George would be easily intercepted, even if he had another weapon besides a single Dragoon Model Colt. Brazos caught George's eye for a moment. The cook jerked his head at the cattle. I know they're my cattle, thought Brazos. I can hardly ask for `em back now.
Suddenly, like a charge of gunpowder whose smoldering fuse has burned to its fatal limit, George exploded in war-whoops. He leapt in the air and waved his hat like it was the Jubilee. Ned took up the cry with Pentecostal fervor and the air was rent with "Hallelujahs!"
There was a cry of, "Shoot him!" countered by a cry of, "Don't! He's worth money!" and then a Jayhawker slugged George with his gun. Brazos had his pistol out and fired an awkward shot that went over the Jayhawker's head. Then the shouts and shots were drowned in the frantic lowing of the longhorns.
The nervous beasts were thoroughly spooked by George's antics. They sheared away from the mounted Bushwhackers in a mass of hooves and horns. The outlaws had little notion of how to control the half-wild Texas cattle and soon the animals were in a panicked lope with the Bushwhackers either fleeing ahead or futilely trailing.
George was on his feet and Ned was nowhere to be seen. Brazos muttered to himself, "So that's what George meant." He swung into the saddle and loped toward George meaning to pick him up. Just as he reached for the cook there was a chorus of "Yee-haw!" from beyond the clearing.
The cowboys, led by Red, burst into view. The Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers alike forgot the cattle at the sight of armed strangers. Brazos shouted, "Bushwhackers!" and shot a Missouri outlaw. A few of the Bushwhackers reacted in anger and fired on the Jayhawkers. Soon the whole area was one of confused gunfire. Both groups of outlaws were scattered and unready for battle, while the cowboys were acting as a group. Brazos lifted George into the saddle and dashed for cover with his men.
The Jayhawkers tried to fall back on their cabin, but found the door barred. A rifle emerged from a window and felled a Jayhawker. Caught between three fires the Jayhawkers' morale crumbled and they fled.
They did not get far. Another force entered the scene. Throckmorton and the Yancey County posse emerged from the brush and joined battle. In a flash the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers had surrendered to the posse. Throckmorton called on Brazos and his cowboys to throw down their arms.
"Come and take `em!" Brazos roared back. The cowboys readied for another battle. Brazos saw Munce stalk to Throckmorton's side.
"You got it wrong, Throckmorton," Munce said. "These boys with me were just trying to get the drop on the Jayhawkers. Them cowboys was kicking in with the Kansans."
Throckmorton hesitated. Brazos knew that the posse allied with the Bushwhackers could easily overwhelm the cowboys. Then there was a shout from the cabin.
"Don't believe him boss!" Ned emerged, holding a rifle at the ready. "Munce and his boys have been bushwhackin' in Kansas. They done stole that Texan's cattle and they been runnin' with the Jayhawkers. They shot the sheriff too!"
Brazos could see Munce did not expect to be denounced by a black man. But the bushwhacker kept his nerve. Volubly and profanely he protested his innocence, all the while mounting a horse. Suddenly Munce bolted away.
An uproar ensued as Throckmorton began to demand answers from his prisoners. The Jayhawkers were only too eager to impeach the Bushwhackers who in turn threw much blame on the Kansans. The cowboys helped the posse keep order.
Brazos approached Throckmorton. "Does the Committee of Bovine Health wish to assist me in recovering my property so my pest-cattle can get the hell out of Yancey?"
"The committee is dissolved. Round up your own damn cattle." Throckmorton spat tobacco juice in disgust.
"We ain't quits yet," Brazos said. "I could sue for damages, loss of property, false arrest, assault."
"The Yancey courts would rule for me."
"The Sedalia ones would rule for me. They make a lot of money from the cattle trade and don't care for down-state hill-billies making trouble."
Throckmorton snarled in rage, but a gesture from Brazos silenced him. "I'll tell you what. I'll take your man Ned instead. I need another hand, and I'll pay you his hire, but only if ownership goes to me. You'll also get $500 after I'm paid in Sedalia."
"Ned's worth $1,500!"
"I can sue and get a lien on all your property. Your choice."
Throckmorton snarled in rage, but agreed. Brazos was sure he knew how poorly his actions would appear in court. Brazos got Red and the cowboys to work on finding the stray longhorns. Ned approached. "You takin' me to Sedalia? Then Texas? You gonna own me instead of Mister Throckmorton?"
"Sedalia, yes. Texas, only if you want. No, I won't. I'll pay you cowboy wages to help trail the herd to Sedalia. After that I'll sign your papers for freedom. You can go to Texas or Illinois or Tennessee if you want. I just have to ask one question. Can you ride as well as you shoot?"
"Then get in the saddle cowboy. We got a bunch of spooked longhorns to find."
With shouts of "Yee-haw!" the cowboys got to work and the cattle drive resumed.