Chapter XXVI CHUNKY SWAPS SOME COWS

CHUNKY MARTIN whistled softly to himself as his horse jogged along the trail toward Marfa.

He was feeling content and for the third or fourth time that day decided that being a Texas Ranger was just about as good as job as a man would want.

"You see, bronc, it's this way," said Chunky, who like many another rider lacking human company was in the habit of talking to his horse. "We get a fair shake at something to eat, a little money now and then and not much to do. It's a right smart way of earning a living, especially when a fellow's lazy like me. That goes for you too, you darned crowbait."

The horse didn't seem to mind but kept to the smooth running-walk that made the ground slip by so rapidly. His ears twitched a bit as Chunky talked to him, indicating to Chunky that the horse understood the one-sided conversation.

Resuming his whistling, Chunky shifted in the saddle to look down a long draw to his right. As if moved by a common signal the roan cow pony, with ears pricked upward, turned his head to follow his rider's gaze. He too had heard the sound that had attracted Chunky's attention. It was the bellow of a cow in pain.

Chunky headed his horse for the mouth of the draw.

The little stockily built officer looked younger than he was. The short compact figure which gave him his nickname was deceptively rotund. It was not fat but hard meat that made him so bulky. Despite his build he could move with a silent rapidity which had fooled more than one man along the border from Sanderson to Candelaria. They had found him astonishingly fast.

As he approached the draw Chunky slid from the saddle, slipped off his spurs, hung them on his saddle horn and pulled his carbine from the boot. He was not poking his nose into a private party in this section of the country without knowledge of whom he was calling. Making little sound he moved through the mesquite toward the spot where he heard cattle stirring.

Chunky halted at a little knoll that overlooked the pocket in the draw. Below he saw a scene not unusual on the border. A group of five men was busily engaged with about twenty head of cows and calves. Three of the men were on horseback keeping the cattle bunched while two were on the ground beside a small fire.

Near this pair a cow lay stretched on her side, her feet pulled out behind her by a taut rope snubbed to the saddle horn of a patient cow pony, which was holding back steadily to keep up the slack. As Chunky looked down unobserved one of the men at the fire pulled an iron from the coals and walked toward the cow. As the other made some marks in the sand the man with the iron carefully duplicated them on the cow's left hip. He worked slowly, returning once to the fire for a second iron with which to complete the job.

"You sure never would waste that much time on your own mark, fella," mused Chunky. "If you're not doing a little fancy changing I'm a Chinaman."

Just then one of the cows in the bunch held by the riders turned broadside to the ranger and the sun struck her side so that the brand there stood out clearly. It was a U up and a U down.

"Old Man Fosdick's cattle," was Chunky's mental comment. "What are they doing 'way down here?"

The Fosdick range, Shorty knew, was a good thirty-five miles from the scene of the branding fire.

Looking about the draw to see if he could get closer to the fire without being seen, the ranger decided that this was out of the question. Not only was he outnumbered but even if he captured the pair at the fire the mounted men could get away. And if he did capture the pair at the fire he had grave doubts that he would be allowed to leave the draw alive.

"And I'm the guy that said being a ranger was a good job," Shorty reflected gloomily as he squirmed farther under the brush.

But could he ignore what he had seen simply because he was alone? True, he could ride back for help but by the time he got it the men would be gone and the cattle too. There was too much open border near by for that. Also, his curiosity was at work. He wanted to see just what could be made out of the Fosdick brand and who was doing the making. While he looked on the cow was released and another quickly heeled and dragged to the fire. As the freshly branded cow was chased back to the bunch Chunky got a good look at its left hip. The openings in the two U's were closed and the U up and U down was now a different mark. The altered letters were joined by a bar and the new mark was a perfect dumbbell.

Chunky breathed a sigh of relief for he knew that brand and he knew where to find the owner. He would not have to fight this bunch under present conditions.

He slid back from the knoll and returned to his horse. Soon he was jiggling along the trail, once more whistling to himself as he rode.

About ten miles from the isolated draw where he had watched the rustlers change cattle brands Chunky rode into the yard of a ranch which squatted within a mile of the international boundary. It was not a pretentious place but it was well built of adobe and was located in a small grove of trees watered from a natural spring. As Chunky pulled up near the corral an elderly man waved him a greeting from a small shed where he was shoeing a horse.

"Howdy, Pop," called Chunky, and stepping down from his horse walked toward the old-timer.

Pop Hardwicke put down the hoof on which he had been working, glanced critically at the set of the shoe and then straightened up and advanced to meet the ranger.

"Howdy, Chunky," he replied, "how ya been, boy? I haven't seen ya in a month. Why don't ya drop around once in a while!"

"The state of Texas expects me to work for a living now and then," said Chunky with a grin as he and his old friend squatted in the shade of the shed. Then suddenly serious, he added: "Pop, you been selling any beef lately?"

"Some," said Pop. "Sent a little bunch down to Tucker, that fella that's got the old Perez place down below the line. He's been buying some stock cattle. Building up a little herd there, I guess, from what he's told me."

"Building up is right," said Chunky, as he began to scratch in the sand with a little stick. Pointing to his handiwork he asked, "Pop, did you ever think of this one!"

The older man looked at the sketch on the ground in front of him. There he saw the U up and the U down and beside it the dumbbell brand.

With flushed face he turned to the stocky little officer and demanded, "Why, damn it, Chunky, what do you mean?"

"Now, Pop, don't get all salted up," Chunky continued. "You know well enough that I'm not saying you're remarking anybody's cows. But I'll bet you a new hat that Tucker has more Dumbbell cows and calves down at the old Perez place than you ever gave him a bill of sale for. And they're all so mixed up with those you sold him that nobody could prove it down there."

He then told his friend what he had seen in the little draw. The old Texan listened attentively, then muttered a curse, as he realized how his iron was being used to clip off a goodly number of cattle from the herds of his friend Fosdick.

"But Chunky," he said, "we can't let 'em get away with that. What'll we do? If we go down there below the line there'll be hell to pay and if we don't they'll strip Old Man Fosdick clean."

"We're not going below the line," said the officer.  "But we'll meet those terrapins tonight and get your cattle back."

"My cattle?” said Hardwicke. “Oh, I see." He chuckled as the full import of the officer's idea struck home. "My cattle," he repeated. "Hell, that'll be good."

That night the moon had risen and the white light it cast over the rugged Big Bend ranges made riding almost as easy as by day.

Chunky Martin, accompanied by Pop Hardwicke and three or four of Pop's Mexican vaqueros, rode along toward the draw where he had watched the branding fire. When within a short distance of the place they stopped and listened.

One of the Mexican cowboys rode up alongside of the ranger and pointed across the low greasewood  and mesquite. "Look señor, they are coming now," he said.

Jack Van Ryder drawing of riders on a trail

Chunky quickly outlined his plan. Pop Hardwicke and his men nodded and, riding in a ragged line with plenty of space between them, the five cut across ahead of the herd. Chunky in the center of the line had timed it about right.

As the cattle bunched to go around a point of rock they swung slightly to the right, bringing themselves nearer to the men from the Hardwicke ranch. When this occurred Chunky, who was waiting behind the rocks until the man riding point was just abreast of him, slapped the rider over the head with his pistol barrel.

The man grunted, then slumped, nearly falling from his saddle as his horse sidestepped. At Chunky's command the horse steadied and the ranger hauled its rider off to one side, quickly resuming his place by the rocks. As the drag passed Chunky rode out and with gun in hand barked: "Hands up, all of you!"

The four riders, taken by surprise, paused uncertainly, but before they could decide whether to run or to stand and fight they heard Pop Hardwicke's voice off to their left. "Life 'em, darn ya, or ya'll get all messed up."

Covered from both sides, the rustlers quickly decided that fighting was out. They sat with hands upraised while the Mexican cowboys stripped their guns from their belts and saddles.

"Now what, Chunky?" asked Pop Hardwicke as the four men from below the border exchanged worried glances.

“Well," said Chunky, "I guess we'll drift down to your place with these cows. According to what the brand says that's where they belong."

"Yeh," grinned Pop. "Then old Fosdick will be gunning for me for rustling his cattle or maybe I'll have to buy the darned things."

"Well, anyway," said Chunky, "Ya can't say I didn't do ya a favor. I let 'ern mark about twenty head for ya and I must say they did a job of it. Now I'll need some help to get these lads to Marfa."

As the little band moved off toward the Hardwicke ranch with the man whom Chunky had knocked out sitting weakly in his saddle the little ranger resumed his contented whistle. With a grin he turned to Pop Hardwicke and said, "Pop, this being a ranger is a right good job for a guy that's lazy like me. Plenty to eat, a little money now and then and not much to do. Yep, she's mucho bueno!"

Continue with Chapter XXVII THE WILD COW ARTILLERY