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John Slaughter’s Way
by [?]

It was springtime in southwestern Texas and John Slaughter was gathering a great herd near the mouth of Devil’s River for the long drive northward over the Pecos trail. Thousands of cattle were moving slowly in a great mass, obliterating miles of the landscape, trampling out clouds of dust which rose into the blue sky; the constant bellowing came down the wind as a deep, pulsating moan which was audible for miles.

The Man from Bitter Creek reined in his horse and turned in the saddle to look back upon that scene. He was a small man with hard, quick eyes; they grew harder as they rested on that wealth of beeves.

In the wild country farther up the Pecos the Man from Bitter Creek was known by the name of Gallagher. Among the riders who roved over that Land Beyond the Law, taking their toll from the north-going herds as gray wolves take it under cover of the night, he passed as the big “He Wolf,” the leader of the pack. Wyoming’s sage-brush hills gave sepulture to eleven of his dead, and since he had fled hither he had added two graves to the boot-hill cemeteries of the Southwest.

Now as he gazed over John Slaughter’s cattle, he promised himself that when they came on into the region where he maintained his supremacy, he would seize them and, at the same time, increase his grim list of victims to fourteen.

It was an era in some respects very much like the feudal days of Europe, a time of champions and challenges and deeds of arms, a period when strong men took definite stands for right or wrong and were ready at all times to defend those positions with their lives. The Man from Bitter Creek had received John Slaughter’s gage within the hour. He had dismounted from his pony at the cattle-buyer’s camp, attracted by the spectacle of that enormous herd destined to pass through the country where he and his companions held sway, and he had hung about the place to see what he could see.

He noted with satisfaction that the cattle were sleek and fat for this time of the year; and the satisfaction grew as he peered through the dust-clouds at the riders who were handling them, for every one of the wiry ponies that passed him carried a swarthy vaquero–and half a dozen of those Mexicans would not be a match for one of the hard-eyed rustlers who were waiting along the upper Pecos in that spring of 1876. Just as he was congratulating himself on such easy pickings the cattle-buyer noticed him.

John Slaughter was in his early thirties but his lips had settled into an unrelaxing line, and his eyes had grown narrow from the habit of the long sun-smitten trails. He was black-bearded, barely of middle stature, a parsimonious man when it came to using words. When he was a boy fighting under the banner of the Lost Cause he sickened, and his colonel sent him home, where he did his recuperating as a lieutenant of the Texas rangers fighting Comanche Indians and border outlaws.

Then he drove cattle into Kansas over the Chisholm and Western trails and got further seasoning in warfare against marauders, both red and white. To maintain his rights and hold his property against armed assault had become part of his every-day life; guardedness was a habit like those narrowed eyes. And when he recognized the Man from Bitter Creek, whose reputation he well knew, he lost no time in confronting him.

So they faced each other, two veteran paladins who had been riding under hostile banners ever since they first bore arms; and John Slaughter delivered his ultimatum in three syllables.

“Hit the trail,” he said, and clamped his lips into a tight line as if he begrudged wasting that many words.

His eyes had become two dark slits.