Chapter III THE WEAKER SEX

Jack Van Ryder drawing of a cowboy herding cattle

IT was while the Mescalero Apaches still were making life a doubtful matter for ranchers, miners and travelers in the Rio Hondo country that Kirt Cowan arrived and in the face of many natural obstacles staked out the KK Ranch. The second K of the brand was the initial of Kirt's partner and chief backer, his wife, Kitty Cowan.

The KK brand prospered. It was known well to the cowmen of the Hondo country and its owners were loved and respected throughout the Pecos Range even beyond the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, which spread their barren, sage dotted width east of the Pecos River. The Double K, with its one ear cropped, became the mark of good horses, good cattle and open-handed Western hospitality.

It was years after the arrival of the Cowans on the Hondo that a fall from a half-broken horse placed Kirt Cowan in a chair for the remainder of his life. There he sat, bound to his porch in summer and to the livingroom in the winter months, by a pair of legs made useless in his fall. His sandy hair now streaked with gray, he fumed and fretted for a time and then on the surface at least accepted the inevitable.

It was then that Kitty Cowan began the task that was to establish her as Cattle Kitty Cowan of the Double K. The Cowans had no children. Kirt was Kitty's family and the care of her injured husband and his happiness became her religion. So the girl who had grown into the competent, matronly hostess of the Double K assumed a new role. She slipped from house-dresses into overalls and boots and from a chair by the fireside into the saddle. The Double K under her capable direction continued to hold its place among the real ranches of the Hondo country. Cowboys still sweat and swore around the branding fires in spring and fall.

Rustling was not unknown in the Hondo country but it was so frowned upon that for a number of years the losses from thieving were few. Hondo and Pecos Valley cowmen dealt a justice all their own to men found in possession of another's steers or calves.

But the picture of a woman in charge of the large herds of the Double K was too much of an invitation to be resisted by the long-riding gentry that made the rugged slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains their operating base. These rustlers watched the growth of the Double K and rejoiced at the tragedy that had overtaken Kirt Cowan. More than once his ready rifle had placed a period to mark the end of a rustler's career and now it seemed the time for revenge had come. Plans were made accordingly. Under the leadership of Cherokee Martin there was to be a raid on the rich herds of the Double K.

Cherokee Martin was the son of an Indian woman and a renegade cowboy. He had been reared by the most haphazard methods and in an environment which brought out all the worst phases of his mixed extraction. To a rat-like courage he added weasel cunning and a deep-seated determination to live without honest work. His ability to steal excellent horses and to ride the rugged Guadalupe trails had put his neck in jeopardy and taken it out again times without number.

But in the proposed raid on the Double K, Cherokee Martin could see no danger. Kirt Cowan, a fast and sure shot with an Indian's ability to read sign, might have prevented Cherokee from making the attempt, but not Kirt's wife.

Cherokee made his raid. Fifty head of white faced heifers, neatly cut away from a breeding herd, were driven off the Double K range. Cherokee, heading with them for the passes of the Guadalupes, laughed at the ease with which the raid was accomplished and joked with his three helpers as they planned the ways in which the money from the sale of the cattle would be spent. The drive to the line would be a long one but the money would make it well worth while. Best of all, no danger threatened them from the rear, where the men of the Double K, under the leadership of a woman, would be helpless.

Told of her loss, Kitty Cowan quickly made her plans. Two veteran hands, men who had served well under her husband, joined Kitty, and the three took the trail without telling Kirt. Hard riding through rough country brought them close to the heels of the missing herd on the second day. At daybreak of the third morning the three crouched on a ridge which overlooked the bed ground of the missing cattle.

Cherokee awakened to his mistake when, the herd moving out, a rifle cracked sharply and his Mexican pony was sent sprawling from under him. The battle was brief. Two of Cherokee's aides died quickly under the fire of the three rifles, while Cherokee and the other, driven to shelter in a rock pocket, were forced to surrender. One of the cowboys who had fought with Kitty in the brief skirmish nursed a shattered leg where a soft-nosed bullet had torn through the muscles of his thigh. Kitty and the other were uninjured.

White-faced and weary, Cattle Kitty bound up the wound of her rider, then stood with ready rifle while Cherokee and his partner were made to bury the dead rustlers under the rocks. Then came the task of administering justice, for there was no question of taking the men anywhere for trial. The trial would be held right where they were and Kitty would be judge and jury.

The ordeal was over and Kitty Cowan returned to the Double K with her men and her cattle. As she slipped from her horse to walk toward the porch where the crippled Kirt awaited her she staggered with fatigue, but tired as she was she managed to smile for the anxious man in the chair.

"Now don't worry, Kirt," she said. "I'm not hurt a bit, the heifers are back, and Harry's leg will be all right soon. I'm just a bit tired, that's all."

"But Kitty, for God's sake tell me what happened. Who did you catch? Did the boys hang 'em, or what?"

"No, Kirt, nobody hanged anybody," she told him, tucking the blanket around his withered legs. "I guess I was just too darn soft-hearted. But something had to be done about that Cherokee, so we just tied him up with his partner and we heated a running iron and branded a Double K on their foreheads. Then we turned 'em loose. I don't think they'll be back any more.

"But Kirt, you couldn't expect a woman to stand for hanging a man, could you, even if he was a rustler?"

Continue with Chapter IV A PAIR OF RED-TOPPED BOOTS