Long John Coons stood an inch over six feet, without his hat and Texas boots. His Colt six-shooter was thonged low on his right hip, and his Bowie hung down his back beneath his shirt, Indian fashion, from a rawhide thong around his neck. While Long John’s mama was a Louisiana conjuring woman, his daddy had been a hell-for-leather Texan who had died at San Jacinto. Long John had his daddy’s pale blue eyes and his swiftness with Colt and Bowie.
In 1850 Gil and Van Austin, owners of land grants from the Bandera Mountains east to the Rio Colorado, had taken a herd of Texas longhorns to hungry miners in the California goldfields. Long John had been part of that historic drive. The Austins had been generous to their riders, paying them in cows because there had been little money in Texas in the years after the war with Mexico. More than a hundred of the cows sold in California had belonged to Long John. Near Fort Yuma, Arizona Territory, a band of Mexican outlaws had murdered Bo, Long John’s friend, and the vengeful Cajun had gunned down the gang to the last man. There had been a substantial reward, and that, combined with the sale of his cows, had allowed Long John to return to Texas with more than $12,000.*
Long John had bought several grants along the Colorado, some seed cattle from the Austins, and a few blooded horses from Clay Duval’s Winged M. Duval and his friends, Gil and Van Austin, had brought the famed Mendoza horses—along with five thousand Spanish longhorns—from Mexico in 1844.**
Suzanne, Long John’s Cajun woman, was twenty-five, half a dozen years younger than Long John. The two had met in California, and Long John had known nothing about the girl, but she seemed interested in him, and wished to return to New Orleans. But when they reached Texas, Suzanne had remained with Long John, and only when they’d had an occasional fight did the girl threaten to return to New Orleans. By the time Long John learned of her unsavory past, she’d become so much a part of his life that he found himself unable to part with her. Suzanne was a foot shorter than Long John, her eyes as black as her hair. Her temper equaled Long John’s, and there were times when she swore at him, and he at her. But on this day—the last day of March 1858—they rode in peace, bound for the Austin grants, near Bandera.
“You expect a lot of your friends,” Suzanne said, “asking them for riders to look after our place while we take a trail drive to Missouri. We may be gone for months.”
“Wal, hell,” said Long John, “it was them that made the offer. They come back from Californy with twenty times as much gold as I did, an’ they ain’t hurtin’ fer money. Fact is, they tried to lend me money till all this hell-raisin’ in Kansas an’ Missouri is done. But I ain’t the kind to run from a fight, an’ I ain’t in the wrong. So Gil an’ Van says if’n I’m hell-bent on fightin’ my way to Missouri, they’ll send me four er five riders to look after our spread whilst we’re gone. I aim to take ’em up on that, long as they’ll let me pay them riders fer the time they’re workin’ fer us.”
“After we’ve sold the herd and ridden back to Texas,” said Suzanne, “and that’s assuming we make it back alive, of course.”
“Yeah,” Long John said, ignoring her sarcasm. “They know we won’t have the money till we sells the herd. Clay Duval’s offered us extry horses fer the remuda, if’n we need ’em, an’ we do.”
“If something happens to the herd,” said Suzanne, “we’ll have to sell the spread to pay what we owe.”
“Wal, hell’s fire, woman, if’n we don’t at least try to git a herd north to market, we’ll be losin’ the damn place anyhow. By God, I’d ruther go down fightin’ than git shot to ribbons doin’ nothin’. I ain’t worryin’, ’cause I reckon ye’ll be doin’ enough fer the both o’ us. Anything else on yer mind?”
“Yes,” Suzanne said. “Those Indians, Malo Coyote and Naked Horse. All they have favoring them is that they rode in with Winters and Dupree.”
“Hell’s bells,” said Long John, “they’re Cherokees from the nation, an’ they ain’t after scalps. They’re good protection agin them damn Comanches, an’ they’re the best horse wranglers I ever seen. Why, a horse’ll foller them Injuns anywhere.”
“Yes,” Suzanne said. “Right out of Texas and into Indian Territory. Don’t you think these blooded horses Clay Duval’s promised will be just a little too much temptation for this shifty-eyed pair of Cherokees?”
“Wal, dammit,” growled Long John, “we got to trust somebody. With all the hell-raisin’ goin’ on betwixt here an’ Missouri, they ain’t that many riders hankerin’ to go on this drive. On other drives, they’s been riders shot, cows shot, an’ herds stampeded to hell an’ gone.”
“Any you think this bunch of riders we have can break through where others have failed?”
“At least they ain’t scairt to try,” Long John said. “Gil an’ Van reckons they’ll be a shootin’ war a-goin’ on in a year er two, and they ain’t no tellin’ how long it’ll last. We got to trail a herd north an’ git some gold whilst we can. Right now, it’s jist pro-slave an’ abolitionist hell-raisers, an’ a few ranchers scairt o’ tick fever. Nex’ year we may have the whole damn Union army atwixt us an’ that railroad in Missouri.”
Long John and Suzanne would be away at least three days, and young Stoney Winters had been left in charge. The outfit would begin rounding up the cows needed for the trail drive. Stoney was barely twenty-one, a year older than his saddle pard, Llano Dupree. The two riders, with Long John’s outfit less than a month, hunkered under an oak, awaiting supper. Facing them, sitting cross-legged, was Naked Horse and Malo Coyote.
“Jugar,” suggested Naked Horse, deftly shuffling a deck of cards.
“Like hell,” said Llano. “No way am I gamblin’ with you pelados. You damn Injuns has got more’n one way of scalpin’ a man.”
Stoney Winters laughed, and the pair of Cherokees grinned. They were a disreputable duo with whom Llano and Stoney had an uncertain alliance. The Texans had been riding from Omaha back to Texas, and just after crossing the Red, had sighted a Comanche camp. Sneaking close, they discovered that the Comanches, two dozen strong, were torturing Malo Coyote and Naked Horse. The captives were bound to trees, with dry leaves and brush heaped about them. There was little doubt as to their fate, once the Comanches had grown tired of the torture. But darkness was near, and Llano and Stoney had managed to free the unfortunate Cherokees, a deed they soon had regretted. The Texans, along with Malo Coyote and Naked Horse, had been forced to ride for their lives, pursued by the furious Comanches.
“We be companeros,” said Malo Coyote.
“I ain’t sure we need or want companeros like you and Naked Horse,” said Stoney Winters. “You thievin’ varmints was caught stealin’ Comanche horses. That’s enough to get a man hung, and you two was guilty as sin. If we’d of knowed that at the time, we’d have backed off and let them Comanches roast the pair of you alive.”
“Damn right,” said Llano. “I reckon there’s gonna be hell enough on the Shawnee, without you varmints addin’ to it. I know Long John’s damn hard up for riders, and I just hope when he comes down on the pair of you, he forgets you rode in with us.”
Suddenly there was a shot from the bunkhouse, the breaking of glass and the clatter of overturned chairs. Stoney lit out on the run, Llano at his heels. Malo Coyote and Naked Horse remained where they were. Llano held back, allowing Stoney to enter the bunkhouse first. Five chairs and the rickety table had been overturned, and glass from the shattered lamp littered the floor. Against one wall stood the three new riders Long John had hired. With them—seeming to have become a companion—was Deuce Gitano. Against the other wall, his right-hand Colt cocked and ready, stood the surly young man known only as the Kid.
“Long John left me in charge here,” Stoney said. “Kid, put away the gun.”
“This ain’t none of your affair, boy segundo,” said the contemptuous kid. “These thievin’ bastards teamed up to cheat me. That first shot was to get their attention. I don’t miss. Now, you buyin’ in or backin’ out?”
Stoney Winters seemed to stumble to the left, pulling his Colt as he went down. The Kid’s slug tore into the door frame where Stoney had been standing, while Stoney’s lead slammed into the cylinder of the Kid’s Colt. The remaining three shells in the cylinder chain-fired as the Colt was torn from the Kid’s hand. Unbelieving, the young gunman stared first at his mangled Colt on the floor and then at Stoney Winters.
“I’ll kill you for that,” he snarled at Stoney.
“You have another Colt,” said Stoney, holstering his own. “When you’re ready, draw.”
“My time, my place,” said the Kid. “It’s a long trail to Missouri.”
“It is,” Stoney said coldly. “Pull a gun on me again, and you won’t be seein’ Missouri.”
The tension was broken when Sky Pilot banged open the door to the cook shack, announcing supper.
“Come an’ git it, you ongrateful coyotes, ’fore I throw it out.”
There were two long split-log tables, each with a split-log bench down either side. Long John’s three new riders took one of the tables, Deuce Gitano joining them. The Kid sat at the farthest end of the second table. Llano and Stoney took the opposite end of the same table. The Kid was eating awkwardly with his left hand, and Llano grinned at him. Only when the seven riders were seated and eating did Malo Coyote and Naked Horse enter the cook shack. Wordlessly, Sky Pilot heaped their plates, and the Indian duo went outside. Sitting cross-legged, their backs to the log wall of the cook shack, they ate their supper. They shied away from the bunkhouse, preferring to sleep in the brush. It was a habit Long John Coons favored, for the Comanches were still a threat. With Malo Coyote and Naked Horse well away from the ranch buildings, Comanches planning a surprise attack would be in for a surprise of their own.
The Kid finished first, got up and stalked out. He was a good four inches shy of six feet, even with the high crown of his hat uncreased so that he might seem taller. When the four men at the second table were down to their last cup of coffee, Deuce Gitano broke out a deck of cards.
“That table’s fer eatin’,” growled Sky Pilot. “When yer done, git th’ hell outta here.”
Silently the four got up and went out. Sky Pilot glowered sullenly at Llano and Stoney, but they ignored him. He began gathering the dirty tin plates, cups, and eating tools the others had left.
The three new riders—Bandy Darden, Dent Briano, and Quando Miller—accompanied by Deuce Gitano, returned to the bunkhouse. The Kid wasn’t there, and the four righted the table, the chairs, and lit another lamp. Old habits being hard to break, Deuce Gitano still carried a .31 caliber Colt pocket pistol in an inside pocket beneath his coat. He was well under six feet, and although he wore Levi’s and rough-out, runover boots, the rest of his outfit attested to days when his attire might have been that of a saloon dandy. The ring finger was missing from his left hand, a constant, bitter reminder of that night in El Paso when he’d been caught cheating. He’d worn a “cheater,” a ring whose mirrored set faced his palm, allowing him to read the cards as he dealt them. He could have been shot dead, but the men he’d cheated devised a fate worse than death. With a Bowie knife, using the poker table as a chop block, they had severed his ring finger, ring and all. Like rustlers who had been permanently marked by having their ears cropped, Deuce Gitano had been forever branded a cheat. It had become a stigma, a dead giveaway where men gathered to gamble for high stakes. Only on the range could he get by with the lame excuse that he’d lost the finger in a roping accident. Someday Gitano would kill the man who’d wielded the knife.
Bandy Darden had hair as black as an Indian, wearing it long. His eyes seemed as black as his hair, and he had a thin face, like a ferret. His Colt was thonged low on his right hip. Darden was under six feet, even with his hat and boots. He wore Levi’s and a flannel shirt, as did Dent Briano and Quando Miller. But Dent and Quando were both over six feet, and there was a kindness in their eyes that was lacking in Bandy Darden’s. Briano had pale blue eyes, while Miller’s were hazel. Both men had sandy hair, wore their Colts on their right hips, and were five years younger than the thirty-four-year-old Bandy Darden. While the three of them had “cinch ringed” enough cows to get a man shot or hanged, only Darden was a killer. The cantankerous old cook—Sky Pilot—was so named because when he got drunk enough, he took to preaching. Like most cowboy cooks, a horse had rolled on him, ending his days in the saddle forever.
It was well after sundown when Long John and Suzanne reached Van Austin’s spread, near the Bandera Mountains. Van, his wife Dorinda, and little Van, now ten, had greeted them. When supper was over, they all sat around the big kitchen table. Long John wasted no time.
“Tomorrer,” said the Cajun, “I reckon ye’d oughta send fer Gil an’ Clay. I—me an’ Suzanne, that is—will be takin’ a herd up the Shawnee Trail, whilst we still got a chanct. Ye offered—an’ so did Gil—to lend me some good hombres to look after our buildings, cows, an’ range whilst we’re gone. I’m takin’ ye up on that, pervidin’ ye let me pay these gents forty an’ found. ’Course, I can’t pay till we git the herd to the railroad an’ collect fer ’em. I’ll be needin’ horses too, an’ that’s where ol’ Clay Duval comes in. They’ll be ’leven, includin’ Suzanne an’ me, so I’m aimin’ t’ hit Clay up fer twenty-two o’ them Mendozas. We’ll be owin’ him too, till we’re able to sell some cows.”
“Long John,” Van said, “we offered to help you, and we will. So will Clay. But do you have enough riders for the drive? Some of those bulls you got from us—the Corrientes—are fighting bulls, from the arenas of Old Mexico. They’re likely to be hell on the trail, if you aim to add any of them to the drive.”*
“I aim to take some of the critters,” Long John said. “The increase has been good, an’ we got way too many bulls, so I’m trailin’ the oldest. Like ye said, them Corrientes bastards is always tryin’ to gore somethin’, somebody, er one another. I got too damn many, an’ it’s time some of ’em went to market.”
“That’s why I’m wondering if you have enough riders,” said Van. “With conditions bein’ what they are in Kansas and Missouri, and your cows never having been off your range, you’ll need a rider for every two hundred head.”
“Yer right,” Long John said, “an’ that’s what I’m figgerin’ on. There’ll be ’leven riders, includin’ Suzanne, an’ I aim to take two thousant head.”
“Good thinking,” said Van. “When do you aim to move ’em out?”
“Soon as we can git the brutes gathered. I reckoned, since I’m hirin’ yer riders to watch our spread whilst we’re gone, that I’d take ’em back with us an’ use ’em fer the gather. With extry help, I figger we can be on the trail in a week.”
“No problem,” said Van, “far as Gil an me’s concerned. While both of us are pardners with Clay in the Winged M, we generally let him make most of the decisions regarding the horses. If we can spare twenty-two horses, you got ’em.”
Next morning after breakfast, Van sent riders for Gil Austin and Clay Duval. Gil arrived first, and swinging out of the saddle, gripped Long John’s hand.
“By God,” Gil grinned, “you never stop tryin’ to get yourself killed, do you? I’ve about decided you’re indestructible, after you gunned down that bunch of outlaws at Fort Yuma.”*
“He’s never told me about that,” said Suzanne.
“You don’t want to know,” Van said.
Quickly Long John repeated to Gil what he’d already discussed with Van.
“I can spare you a couple of riders,” said Gil, “and we’ll get with Clay about the horses.”
When Clay Duval arrived, he slapped Long John on the back and told the Cajun what he wanted to hear.
“We can spare you the horses,” said Clay, “and you can pay when you’ve sold the herd. For anybody else,” he grinned, “they’d be a hundred dollars a head, but for you, two hundred.”
Once they’d had a laugh at Long John’s expense, Gil turned to Long John.
“I can send you a couple of my Lipan Apache riders. I’d trust ’em with my life.”
“I can send you two more,” Van said. “You sure that’ll be enough?”
“Yeah,” said Long John. “All I’m expectin’ ’em to do is ride the range, seein’ that the rest o’ our stock is bein’ left alone, an’ to be sure the house, the barn, the bunkhouse, an’ the cook shack is still standin’ when we git back.”
“Easy work,” Gil said. “If we ain’t careful, we’ll have them Injuns fightin’ amongst themselves, all of ’em wantin’ to go.”
“Wal,” said Long John, “I reckon we’d best pick up them extry riders an’ go with Clay to git the horses.”
The Lipan Apaches were a peaceful tribe, having settled along the Medina River, south of San Antonio. They hated only the Comanches, and the Austins had found them fearless, faithful, dependable riders. Van chose two from his outfit to accompany Long John, and the pair grinned at the Cajun, knowing him from his years as part of the Austin outfit. Long John and Suzanne rode out, accompanied by the Lipans, Clay Duval, and Gil Austin. They would pick up a second pair of Austin riders at Gil’s spread, and from there they would accompany Clay to the Winged M, where his riders would cut out the horses Long John needed.
Before Long John had ridden out, he’d instructed the riders to begin rounding up cattle for the proposed trail drive. With Stoney Winters in charge, the first day’s work had been fruitful. But the morning following Stoney’s fight with the Kid, there was another confrontation, this time in the cook shack. The Kid remained at the table until all the riders had gone out except Llano and Stoney.
“Boy segundo,” said the Kid, “I ain’t ropin’ cows today. My hand’s all swole up, and it’s your fault.”
“Kid,” Stoney said coldly, “when a man pulls a gun, he ain’t entitled to cry over the consequences. You notice I’m talkin’ about a man.”
“You sayin’ I ain’t a man?”
“Take it any way you damn please,” said Stoney. “I’m in charge till Long John returns, and you’ll do what I say.”
“And if I don’t,” the kid smirked, “you’ll go whining to your daddy.”
“Wrong,” Stoney said. “I can stomp my own snakes. But you’re right about one thing. You won’t be worth a damn on the range, and I won’t have you out there, slowin’ down the gather. But you won’t be layin’ on your backside while the rest of us work. You’ll stick close by and spend the day helpin’ Sky Pilot. You can carry wood, wash pots and pans . . .”
It was the ultimate insult. Sky Pilot detested the arrogant Kid, and the old cook chuckled with delight.
“By God,” bawled the Kid, “I won’t do it. Nobody—you, with this old buzzard throwed in—can make me!”
From beneath his dirty apron Sky Pilot whipped a Colt, cocking the weapon as he drew. He rammed the deadly muzzle under the Kid’s nose and then he spoke.
“Boy, this old buzzard can still shoot, an’ he ain’t reluctant to bore any cocky young bastard what’s needful of it. Now you lift that pistol out’n the holster, an’ you do it slow. Then lay the gun on the table.”
A drop of sweat dripped off the Kid’s nose, and he cut his eyes to Stoney in a mute appeal for help. Stoney said nothing, coldly indifferent, while Llano strove to hide a grin. White-lipped, the Kid slowly lifted his remaining Colt from its holster and placed the weapon on the table. Sky Pilot took the Colt, slipped it under his belt, and backed away.
“After supper,” said the old cook, “when the place is clean an’ cookin’ is done fer the day, you git the gun. Now git up an’ bring in a couple loads of wood. Move, dammit. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with yer legs.”
The Kid got up, and in blind fury stumbled out the door. Stoney looked at Sky Pilot and the old cook glared at him. He eased down the hammer of his Colt and shoved it back under his waistband, handy for a right-hand draw. He then went about his business, totally ignoring Llano and Stoney. They left the cook shack and headed for the barn, where the rest of the outfit was about to ride out. Most of them—even Malo Coyote and Naked Horse—were grinning, for they could see the Kid making his way toward the cook shack with a load of wood.
“If I’m any judge,” said Llano, “it ain’t a question of whether you’ll have to kill that little coyote, but when. Long John didn’t do you any favor, leavin’ you in charge of this outfit.”
“All I can do is agree with you, but seein’ what he had to choose from, who would you have picked?”
“You, I reckon,” Llano said, “but if the old devil wasn’t so stove up, I’d take a hard look at Sky Pilot.”
“He’s plenty salty, but his life won’t be worth a plugged peso if he turns his back while that Kid has a gun. I’m beginnin’ to wonder if hiring on for this trail drive was such a good idea. Most of these hombres—but for Long John and Sky Pilot—look like they’ve been run off from somewhere else. Maybe two jumps ahead of the law.”
“Trouble is,” said Llano, “with this tick fever scare in Kansas and Missouri, and with war threatenin’ to bust loose, nobody’s needin’ riders, except Long John. Everybody else is standin’ pat, waitin’ to see what’s goin’ to happen, not wantin’ to get caught in the middle. What’s botherin’ me is them Injuns, Malo Coyote and Naked Horse. You reckon that pair can be trusted from here to Missouri, or will we roll out some mornin’ and find them gone? Them and the whole damn horse remuda?”
“I warned Long John about them, but thanks to the Comanche problem, he likes the idea of having these Comanche-hating Cherokees in the outfit. Hell of it is, when it comes to horses, an Indian will steal from anybody. Who else but Malo Coyote and Naked Horse would try to grab the horses of more’n twenty Comanches?”
“It wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done,” Llano said, “saving their thieving hides almost at the expense of our own. They talk and act friendly toward us, but what would they do if you and me was captured by a bunch of Comanches?”
“I ain’t completely sure,” Stoney grinned, “but I can guess. While you and me was bein’ roasted over a slow fire, Malo Coyote and Naked Horse would use it as a diversion while they stole the Comanche horses.”
An hour before sundown Long John and Suzanne returned. With them rode four Lipan Apache riders who would remain at the L-J Connected while Long John trailed the herd to Missouri. The Lipans drove before them the twenty-two Winged M horses Clay Duval had supplied. Naked Horse and Malo Coyote concerned themselves for only a moment with the new Indian riders. The two Cherokees then turned their eyes to the magnificent Mendoza blacks. Long John Coons eyed his outfit, pausing a moment on the Kid’s surly face, wondering why the little catamount wore only one Colt in a two-gun rig. Finally Long John’s eyes sought Stoney Winters, and Stoney’s eyes told him nothing. The Cajun recalled Suzanne’s warning, and was silently thankful for Stoney Winters and his young friend, Llano Dupree. He believed they were the kind of Texans he needed, men to ride the river with, although he’d known them but a few days. At first opportunity Long John would talk to the grouchy old cook and learn what had really happened in his absence.
* Trail Drive Series #5, The California Trail
** Trail Drive Series #4, The Bandera Trail
* The Corrientes bulls were stocky, with shorter legs and horns. While the longhorn was ornery when prodded, the Corrientes were naturally mean.
* Trail Drive Series #5, The California Trail