At the herd, Webb’s companions waited anxiously. When he reported to them what he saw, there was a shocked silence. Mike Horton was the first to regain his voice.
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“You sure we’re at the right place?”
“You saw the sign pointin’ this way,” said Webb.
“I reckon this is a fool question,” Jim Roussel said, “but where do we go from here?”
“Santa Fe,” said Webb. “It’s clear enough what happened, and somebody had to bury Warren and his wife, so we’ll go callin’ on the county sheriff. Then we’ll have to find some hombre that can afford five thousand Texas longhorns. Red, why don’t you ride with me. The rest of you take the herd back along the river and wait for us.”
Wordlessly the rest of the riders obeyed, as Webb and Bohannon rode upriver toward Santa Fe. They had no trouble finding the sheriff’s office. The lawman sat at a desk cleaning his Colt. He got to his feet when they entered.
“I’m Don Webb and this is Red Bohannon.”
“Sheriff Carpenter. What can I do for you?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” said Webb. “Warren Blocker was a friend of ours, and we just came from his place. What was left of it. What can you tell us?”
“Not a lot,” Carpenter replied. “Couple of sheepmen found ’em, and they was dead and buried a week, before I heard about it. I took a posse out there, but the trail was cold. A dozen riders headed south, and we lost ’em when they split up. Renegades, I’d say.”
“Maybe,” said Webb, “but why single out the Blockers? We saw only one horse, and not another head of stock anywhere.”
“Money,” Sheriff Carpenter said. “The Blockers came from southern Arizona, and first thing they done was deposit forty thousand dollars in the local bank. It was no secret that Blocker had made his fortune in mining, and just a few days before his place was raided, he took thirty-five thousand out of the bank. I reckon I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but it was a foolish thing to do.”
“Under the circumstances, I’d have to agree with you,” said Webb. “Thanks for the information.”
“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Sheriff Carpenter said.
Webb and Bohannon closed the door behind them and stood on the boardwalk looking around.
“Come on,” said Webb. “I see a livery sign, and that’s usually where most livestock is bought and sold.”
The livery barn was large, and the office door was at one corner, in the front. Above the door was a sign that read LIVESTOCK BOUGHT AND SOLD. JORDAN WINKLER, PROP.
“Come in,” the big man said, easing his chair down to its front legs. “I’m Winkler.”
“Webb and Bohannon,” said Don. “We have Texas cattle to sell. Prime, two-year-olds and under.”
“How many?” Winkler asked cautiously.
“Fifty-five hundred,” said Webb.
Winkler whistled long and low, shaking his head.
“Folks around here don’t like beef?” Red Bohannon asked.
“Not that much of it, friend,” said Winkler. “This is sheep country. Most folks around here are third and fourth generation Mexican, and they was livin’ here while this territory still belonged to Mexico. They’re mostly mutton eaters. Them that’s partial to beef is them that’s come here from Missouri and Texas. I’ll take two hundred head, twenty dollars per.”
“Thirty dollars,” Webb said.
“Twenty,” said Winkler. “No more.”
“Twenty-five,” Webb countered.
“Twenty,” said Winkler.
Webb sighed. “Two hundred head, twenty dollars a head.”
“I’ll want a bill of sale,” said Winkler. “When can you have them here?”
“In the morning,” Webb said. “Do you have pens?”
“No,” said Winkler, “just a corral, and it’s full of mules. Just drive the cows here, and I’ll have some riders to take charge of them.”
“One thing more,” Webb said. “Do you know of anybody, anywhere, who might buy the rest of our herd? We’ll sell at twenty dollars a head.”
“Ellerbee and Sons in Los Angeles will take them,” said Winkler, “and they’ll pay lots more than twenty dollars. Couple of years back, they bought three thousand head of sheep from here. Send ’em a telegram, ask if they’ll buy, and ask for a quote.”
“Thanks,” Webb said. “Where’s the telegraph office?”
“Take a left out of here, and it’s a block up the street,” said Winkler.
They were almost to the telegraph office when Bohannon spoke.
“You forgot to ask how far it is to Los Angeles, and how we’re to get there.”
“I didn’t forget,” Webb said grimly. “We got no choice but to go, even if it’s three thousand miles. You reckon Texas cowboys can’t take a herd of longhorns where Mexicans drove three thousand damn sheep?”
Bohannon laughed, and they paused outside the telegraph office, pooling their meager resources to pay for the telegram. They entered, and taking a yellow form and a pencil, Webb wrote out the message: Have 5,000 head prime two-year-old Texas steers. Stop. If buying telegraph quote.
“We’ll wait for an answer,” said Webb, as he paid for the telegram.
“Might not have it ’fore tomorrow,” the telegrapher said. “We close at six.”
“Then we’ll wait till six, and if it hasn’t come, then we’ll be back tomorrow,” Webb said.
“Tarnation,” said Red, when they left the telegraph office, “ever’thing’s ridin’ on that telegram. We’re in one hell of a mess if they don’t answer. Denver’s God knows how far to the north, Mejicano land’s to the south, and the war’s comin’ to Texas.”
“That telegram’s got to pay off,” Webb replied. “While we’re waitin’ for an answer, we can maybe learn something about the trail to Los Angeles. Let’s find out if there’s a newspaper in town.”
The Santa Fe Chief occupied a small office across the street from the jail, and when the Texans entered, an elderly lady looked at them over the tops of her spectacles. Don wasted no time.
“Ma’am, we have some cattle we aim to trail to Los Angeles. We’ve heard other stock has been driven there, and we’re needin’ some directions.”
“You’re talking about the Old Spanish Trail,” she said, “and there’s twelve hundred miles of it. We used to print a map when it was in regular use. Perhaps I can find one.”
One entire wall of the office was lined with shelves, each of them sagging under a load of what obviously were back issues of the newspaper. Eventually she presented them with a yellowed edition of the newspaper.
“There’s a full-page map in here,” she said.
“We’re obliged, ma’am,” said Webb. “What do we owe you?”
“Nothing,” she said, with a grim smile. “You’ll hate me before you reach Los Angeles.”
Thirty minutes before the telegraph office was to close, a reply came from Ellerbee and Sons in Los Angeles. It said: Buying at sixty dollars a head. Stop. Confirm delivery date.
Speechless, Webb and Bohannon left the telegraph office, pausing to read the brief message again.
“Lord Almighty,” said Bohannon, “that’s three hundred thousand dollars for the five thousand head. I ain’t believin’ it’s possible for a bunch of hard-scrabble Texans like us to get our hands on that kind of money. Not with the country at war.”
“California’s a hell of a long ways from the war,” Webb said, “and it ain’t that many years since they discovered gold. They got the money and we got the cows, and if some joker gets overly interested, we’re from New Mexico, not Texas.”
“That’s sound thinking,” said Bohannon. “It’d be just like the Federals to take our herd or the money.”
“Not as long as I’m alive and with a gun in my hand,” Webb said.
“After Ellerbee’s quote of sixty dollars a head, twenty dollars don’t seem like much,” said Bohannon, “but it’ll be enough to keep us in grub from here to California.”
“I reckon,” Webb agreed, “but that presents another problem. Enough grub for ten of us over twelve hundred miles purely won’t fit on two pack mules. We’ll need four more.”
“Winkler has a corral full of ’em,” said Bohannon, “and when he pays us for the two hundred cows, we’ll have money.”
“I reckon we’d better see him and arrange to buy another four mules,” Webb said. “He may have the pack saddles too.”
Again Winkler was leaned back in his chair, looking as though he likely hadn’t moved since they’d last seen him.
“We’re much obliged to you,” said Webb. “Ellerbee’s agreed to buy the rest of the herd. Now we’re needin’ four more pack mules to see us through to California.”
“I can’t help you,” Winkler said. “I’ve almost never got any for sale, and I got none now.”
“You got a corral full of ’em,” said Bohannon. “You can’t bear to part with at least four?”
“If they was mine, I’d sell you the whole damn bunch,” Winkler said shortly. “I took ’em on for a coup...