It first appeared as an advancing speck on the sundown horizon. Gates drew Cody Beeson’s attention to it, and the two stared in silence at the oncoming horseman. He was riding with reckless speed, straight toward their position on the herd’s periphery.
When he was within half a mile, Sam Gates drew his rifle and waited.
“That damn fool!” he muttered, holding his fire – knowing that a horse and rider bearing down hard on hundreds of cattle in fading daylight might spook them into a stampede, but a warning shot surely would. A hundred yards out, however, the lone rider drew up, took the measure of the two of them…then approached at a deliberate pace until within easy speaking distance. He was young, lean and wore the kind of smirk on his unshaven face that let you know he knew the situation with the cattle.
“You two figurin’ on taking that herd out the other end of this valley in the morning?’
Gates eyed the rider for a long moment, spat and said, “Maybe. Who wants to know?” His tone was hard-edged but steady, sensing there was no point in being either too challenging or too accommodating until he found out what the stranger’s game was.
The rider laughed the kind of short, dismissive laugh of someone who didn’t cotton to his question being questioned. “I do,” he answered, as if to give the impression that settled the matter – but knowing it didn’t, continued, “My name don’t matter. I’m just a messenger. The fellow I work for says if you want to drive your herd on through this valley, you gotta pay for the privilege. He’ll be along shortly with a few dozen of his friends for your answer. I rode on ahead to give you his terms.” The rider threw down a crumpled piece of paper at their feet and started turning to go.
“Not so fast, friend,” Gates called out, leveling his rifle at the rider’s middle. “Let’s take a look at that message of yours. Maybe we can make you a two-way messenger and save your boss the trouble.”
Gates motioned for Beeson to pick up the paper as the rider hesitated, now not so sure Gates wouldn’t just as soon shoot him, and to hell with the cattle. In the semi-darkness, Beeson held the paper up close to the campfire they’d started and read silently.
When he’d finished, he spoke for the first time. “Ha!” Then he looked up at the hesitating rider. “Son, the fellow that signed this – Doggett, if that’s his real name – must be a real joker. Does he seriously think anyone’d give him half a herd of cattle just to let the other half through?”
The rider shrugged his shoulders, and the smirk which had disappeared at the business end of Gates’ rifle made a partial reappearance. “When the alternative is losing the whole herd – and ending up dead besides – it don’t sound like so bad a deal.” With that, he suddenly reared around and took off, low in the saddle, into the gloom.
Sam Gates slowly lowered his rifle but otherwise stood unmoving until the rider disappeared from sight.
“You should’ve shot the bastard while you had the chance,” he heard Beeson say.
Gates continued to gaze straight ahead. “I could swear I know that hombre from somewhere – there’s something about him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Beeson grunted, “He didn’t seem to know you. Anyway, it’s too late now.” He re-crumpled the messenger’s piece of paper and threw it into the campfire. “Sounds like they got more than twice the number of men we got. What’s it gonna be – fight or pay?”
Gates looked up at the cloudless sky, where an almost full moon had risen above the low ridge of hilltops. “With that moon and a clear night, we’ll be able to see them a mile out. As they’re comin’ in, we’ll stampede the herd right at them. I have a hunch they’ll turn tail and scatter so far, they won’t know what county they’re in. You go ’round and get the boys into position. When I fire a shot, that’s the signal for everyone to start shootin’ and drivin’ cowhide – and don’t stop until you’re at the other end of this damn valley. After the shootin’, I’ll hitch up the supply wagon and meet you there.”
This wasn’t the first time Sam Gates had led a cattle drive north from west Texas to the railroad in Cheyenne County, Colorado, for shipment to markets in the east – but it was the first time he’d taken the short cut through the valley of the Smoky Hill River. Because of rustlers and outlaws, it hadn’t been worth the risk to save four or five days; but this year, time was against him – and besides, he’d heard that a certain measure of law and order had come to this part of eastern Colorado. Cheyenne Wells, the county seat, now even had a sheriff worthy of the name, was the word.
Time can play tricks on a man waiting with all senses focused and tensed, but it seemed as if Beeson had hardly left when Gates saw them. Like shadows in the moonlight, the horsemen rose up out of a slight depression in the distance where the nameless rider had disappeared from Gates’ sight. There appeared to be at least two dozen of them, all right, and they made no attempt to avoid detection as they came at a slow gallop.
He expected that Doggett would be wary and stop well short when he saw Gates alone at the campfire, suspecting a possible ambush. Gates stood in clear sight, but less than a jackrabbit’s jump from a nearby cottonwood tree, just in case some hot lead was aimed in his direction when the fun started.
As Gates had hoped, Doggett held up his hand for a mass halt at just the point where the stampede should be most effective. For an instant, Gates was tempted to wait and see what Doggett would do next; instead, he fired his rifle into the air, and all hell broke loose. Shots and shouted “hi…i…i…ya……a…a”s seemed to come from all directions, but only some of the horsemen turned tail and headed back the way they came. Others jumped off their mounts to take cover from the “ambush”…but Doggett, realizing that the shots weren’t aimed at them and hearing the oncoming thunder of frenzied hooves, dug spurs into his horse’s flanks and came right at Gates; he had sized up the situation and seen that Gates’ position was the one place the stampede wouldn’t be coming from. One of Doggett’s men followed right behind, and Gates didn’t stick around to welcome them. Diving behind the cottonwood tree as Doggett and his man sprayed wild lead in his direction as they passed, Gates heard scream after scream from horseless men trying in vain to outrun the panicked herd.
It was over in a matter of minutes.
Gates could again hear the crackle of the campfire as the stampede faded in the distance. He hadn’t moved from behind the tree as he considered whether to leave the chuck wagon behind for now and catch up with his men – when Doggett and his friend realized they weren’t being chased, they might decide to come back lookin’ for him. Not that two against one scared him – he’d faced longer odds than that before – but right now, he had a job to finish, and he couldn’t finish it dead. Hitching up the wagon, he would be an easy target – better to return for it with some of the boys later.
Just then, over the crackle of the fire, he thought he heard a moan coming from the direction where many of the Doggett gang had dismounted. Something made him disregard his common sense and walk toward the sound ; as he did so, the moaning grew louder – it seemed to come from behind a thigh-high boulder in an otherwise open stretch of ground. With his rifle at the ready, Gates approached warily and then, with a sudden burst, leapt past the rock, ready to fire.
“Easy now,” Gates said, dropping his rifle and kneeling down.
The moans were coming from a man stretched out face down in the dirt, mangled feet and lower legs sticking out beyond the boulder – apparently from not having had time to draw them in as he made a last second dive for protection from the stampede. His boots and chaps had been all but torn to shreds by repeated tramplings.
Gates knew he shouldn’t take time to help a common outlaw; against his better judgment, he told the man, “I need to get you by the fire where there’s better light.” As he turned the man over, Gates could not restrain an audible gasp – it was the messenger, and seeing his face again made Gates even more certain that this was someone he’d once known…perhaps, known well.
The semi-conscious man did not react to Gates’ utterance. He seemed to be in shock, or maybe he’d cracked his head on the boulder. In any case, time was wastin’.
Gates lifted him and made his way back to the campfire – but had no sooner set him down and begun to examine his wounds, than he heard the unmistakable click of a six-gun being cocked close by. Before he could make a move, a voice was telling him, “You try anything, you’re a dead man.” Two men stood some ten feet away, guns drawn.
What could he try? He’d left his rifle back at the boulder, and he carried no other weapon. Raising his hands, he slowly straightened up to face Dogget, his companion and, in each man’s hand, the glint of steel reflected in the flickering firelight.
Doggett was a mountain of a man with the kind of mean-eyed, gap-toothed, scar-marked face you’d expect in a no-account cattle thief. “Of course, you’re a dead man anyway, so it really don’t make much difference.”
“Is that how you reward a favor,” Gates stalled, nodding toward the wounded man. “Your messenger, here, got his legs busted up pretty bad, and I was just tending to him.”
Doggett gave a derisive laugh. “You ain’t doin’ me no favor – I can’t use a man with two useless legs.” Perhaps Gates imagined it, but at Doggett’s last words, he thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the wounded man’s face twitch and change expression. Doggett, however, was continuing to talk. “Besides, you got me wrong, friend. I ain’t gonna kill you – I’d rather just watch.” Nodding to his companion, Doggett grinned, “He’s all yours – and don’t spare the lead.”
Gates dove to the ground as a shot rang out – but it wasn’t aimed at him. He looked up to see his would-be executioner falling backwards as if poleaxed…and then he saw the smoking gun in the right hand of the partially upraised messenger, who then turned it toward Doggett – but Doggett was too fast for him. One quick shot and it was over…yet Doggett wasn’t satisfied. Cursing his victim, Doggett took deliberate aim and methodically pumped two more shots into him before turning his attention again to Gates.
But Gates had taken advantage of Doggett’s act of overkill to make his move. Springing from a crouch, Gates lunged at Doggett with everything he had, arriving just as Doggett turned his gun back toward him. Gates’ charge knocked Doggett’s gun hand upward, sending skyward the bullet intended for Gates, and the two men fell as one to the ground, each desperately trying to gain control of the gun as they rolled over and over.
Gates soon realized, as they struggled, that Doggett was the stronger man, and a physical battle was not the way to go if he wanted to survive…then he noticed that they had rolled near the dead body of Doggett’s messenger.The dead man’s gun must be still in his hand or laying close by! Using Doggett’s own momentum as leverage, he managed to send Doggett flipping past him, but in doing so, he had to release Doggett’s gun hand. Now his only chance lie in coming up with the dead man’s gun in the second or two it would take Doggett to regain his bearings.
Frantically, he vaulted the dead man’s body and saw the man’s gun hand – but no gun! Meanwhile, Doggett was scrambling to his feet and turning to locate Gates, gun outstretched – and then Gates spotted the dead man’s gun on the ground beside the body. As Doggett took aim, Gates flattened himself behind the body as he gropped for the gun and found the trigger.
Doggett’s shot tore completely through the dead man’s body. Gates felt pain in his side as his finger squeezed metal. Looking up, he saw Doggett recoil but not fall, then sway back and forth like a common drunk before sinking slowly to his knees and pitching forward, face down.
Gates wasted no time trying to collect himself or checking his own wound. He picked himself up, stumbled over to where Doggett lay and turned the stricken man face up. Doggett’s eyes flickered open. Whether or not he could see the rage in Gates’ eyes, he could hear it in Gates’ voice.
“Tell me the name of your messenger!” Gates hissed, gun pressed against the space between Doggett’s eyes. As Gates watched closely, Doggett’s lips seemed to be forming a reply, but no sound came out… even so, there was no mistaking the two words uttered in silence.
It seemed almost as if Gates were someone outside himself, being a spectator as his finger pulled the trigger.