SMOKE spiraled skyward from the cook fires of the Block E chuckwagon. Fifty men were feeding with the Jesse Evans spread as they rounded up nearly thirty thousand head of wild New Mexican cattle. Fully half of them ate at the wagon near which the holding herd was gathered.
Close to the wagon the men who had been on day herd were spreading their soogans and bedding for the night. A quarter of a mile away the restless bawling of the cattle marked the bed ground where the night herders rode in ceaseless circles around the steers. The Block E had been combing the hills and valleys for days gathering these steers. They did not intend to lose them.
Under a scrub-oak tree, his shoulders propped comfortably against its trunk, Bud Sutton hauled away at a pair of leather laces as he repaired a stirrup. Near him squatted his friend Jimmy Carlyle. Sutton looked up from his finished task as he shoved the stirrup aside.
"Jimmy," he said, "this Billy the Kid gang is sure crowding their luck. They'll get all mixed up with the wrong outfit soon and there'll be a right smart of buryin' to do. They've been rustlin' off us for the last two months."
"Yeh," answered Carlyle as he searched his pockets for the makings. "But unless something happens to that coyote pretty soon we won't even have a milkpen calf left, let alone a herd of steers."
"Seems like the boss'd get tired of this right soon," mused Sutton. "In fact I'm betting that's why he rode off to White Oaks this evening. Looked like he was all haired up about something."
"Yeh. I hear Sheriff Pat Garrett has kinda moved in there. He's out to get this Billy Bonney, or Billy the Kid as they call him. It appears t'me he's going to take considerable getting."
The two friends had spread their blankets and were pulling off their boots when Sutton paused and glanced toward the glow of the fire near the wagons.
"Look, Jimmy, the boss is back and he's got somebody with him."
The cooky kicked the coals together and threw on some fuel. As the flames flared up the flickering light showed the bright metal of a badge glistening on the vest of the stranger.
"It's Pat Garrett," said Sutton. "I met up with him near Fort Sumner. Let's go over and see what's going on."
The two punchers strode off toward the fire where the cooky was ladling out hot coffee to two men.
"Howdy, Pat," said Sutton. "What are you doing way down here?"
"Hello, Bud," grinned the officer. "You still loose? I figured that the Oklahoma law caught up with you long ago."
"Nope. Their warrants is all run out and I can go home now if I want to unless you're looking for me. Meet my friend Jimmy Carlyle."
"Hello, Jim," said Garrett. "I've heard about you, too. Seems as though you get around quite a bit for a young fellow."
Carlyle laughed and shook hands with the officer, then reached for the coffee-ladle and a tin cup.
The boss of Block E spoke up.
"The sheriff here," he said, nodding at Garrett, "is getting ready to make a play tomorrow for Billy the Kid. He's a little shy of men and he's asked me for you two to go along as deputies. You can go if you want to but you're being paid for punching cattle. You'll have to decide yourselves whether you want to go."
Sutton looked at Carlyle, who grinned and nodded.
In the past two months we've taken a personal interest in Billy the Kid," said Carlyle. "Boss, if you don't mind we'll trail along with the sheriff."
"Mind!" said the boss. "I'm going with you."
Sheriff Garrett asked for two more men and when two had been chosen from the several who volunteered he led his new posse from the camp. Shortly before dawn he called a halt and outlined the job that was ahead.
"It's about a mile from here to the ranch where Billy the Kid and his crowd are hiding," he said. "We'll have to go straight on in. I don't think they'll be watching for us but I don't want any noise. Keep to the soft ground and the grass and keep off the rock. And one thing more. I don't want any shooting until I say so. I'm here to arrest these men if I can and not just to stage a killing."
As the party moved on more than one man, in spite of what Garrett had said about no shooting, reached under his leg to see if his rifle hung loose in the boot and then to his waist to test the slide of his pistol in the leather. All of them knew enough about Billy the Kid to realize that Garrett's attempt to arrest the youthful bandit was likely to end in smoke.
Just as the first light of day showed the log house of the mountain ranch Garrett spread his force in a fan shape that covered the front approach and from the flanks gave a fair view of the rear of the cabin.
Smoke from the mud and rock chimney indicated that already some one was astir in the house. The number of horses held in the pine pole corral showed that Billy the Kid was not riding alone. For in the pole pen fifteen mounts were saddled and ready for the trail.
The door of the cabin opened and a man stepped out. He stood bareheaded glancing around the little clearing in front of the ranch-house. As he lifted his arms above his head to stretch and yawned widely he stopped, momentarily frozen in that position. With a shouted oath he broke and ran for the door, jumped through it and slammed it behind him. He had seen a part of the posse moving up through the scattered scrub trees. The sheriff snorted in disgust as he waved his men to cover.
Billy the Kid and those who rode with him needed no more warning. Heavy window shutters made of hewn planks slammed shut and bars crashed into place. No longer was the ranch-house only a log cabin; it was an armed fort.
"That you out there, Pat?" called a rather high pitched voice.
"It's me all right, Billy," replied the sheriff as he swung from his horse behind a slight rise of ground about fifty yards from the cabin. "Your layout is covered. You'd better come on out and avoid trouble."
"Trouble for who, Pat?" queried the Kid, and then without waiting for an answer, added: "Nope. I think I'll stay here. I don't like to go out early in the day."
"Kid, I've got a warrant here for Billy Bonney and I'm going to serve it one way or the other. You'd better make it the easy way. I'll promise you that you'll go in alive and have a fair trial."
"Wait a bit, Pat; we want to talk it over," was the reply that came from within the cabin.
In the silence that followed, the morning awoke. Mountain jays screeched and flashed through the trees, the horses in the pole corral neighed at the new-comers under the oaks, and the blue spiral of smoke from the cabin chimney grew in size as some one inside stoked the fire. Billy the Kid and his men safe in the cabin, evidently were planning to "talk it over" while they had their breakfast.
Garrett and his men gathered in a group, all except two who were posted on the higher ground where they could see both sides of the ranch-house.
A half-hour passed before the voice of Billy the Kid again was heard.
"Garrett," he called, "I'll send a man out to talk to you if you'll give me your word you'll let him come back."
"All right, Kid, send him along,"' was the sheriff's reply.
The door of the ranch-house opened and a tall Mexican, apparently unarmed except for a heavy knife in his belt scabbard, strode off the porch.
"It's Martinez," said young Sutton to his friend Carlyle. "I'd know that terrapin anywhere. Boy, he's a malo hombre."
Martinez it was. Long known as an outlaw in his own right, he was now even more dangerous as the aide of Billy the Kid, the killer from Lincoln County. Apparently unafraid, he walked toward the knoll behind which Garrett's men were gathered. Garrett stepped out to meet him.
"Buenos días senior," said Martinez, "it is early in the day for visitors, no? But maybe you always ride in the night? Maybe you like the owl, No?"
This veiled insult which aligned the sheriff and his men with night-riding rustlers drew no response from Garrett. He waited until Martinez was near enough to speak in a low tone and then asked him what was the Kid's proposition.
"That we do not know yet," said Martinez. "But if there are with you some men I know you are to send them back with me and we will all talk it over."
"Which of my men do you know?" asked Garrett.
Martinez scanned the faces of those standing near him.
"Those two I've seen often in Fort Sumner," he said, pointing to Bud Sutton and Jimmy Carlyle. "If you will tell them what you want with us I will take them back with me. You have my word they will be safe."
With a nod Sutton answered the sheriff's unspoken question. Jimmy Carlyle grinned and said, "Sure. What do you want us to tell him, Pat?"
Garrett outlined his offer. The gang of Billy the Kid must surrender because he held warrants for the arrest of the leader and several members of the gang. Those for whom he did not have warrants could go free. The Kid and the others would be guaranteed safe conduct to the county seat and a fair trial. These were the terms. Accept or fight.
Bud Sutton and Jimmy Carlyle stripped off their guns and walked toward the ranch-house with Martinez. Without a backward glance they strode across the porch and into the cabin, the heavy door swinging shut behind them.
Inside the room they found Billy the Kid, the most wanted outlaw in New Mexico, seated at a rough table. With one hand he scooped frijoles into his mouth with a tortilla; in the other he held a cup of steaming coffee. Around him, some eating, some standing rifles in hand, were fourteen other outlaws.
"Hello, Sutton." said Billy the Kid. "Well, what's Garrett got to say!"
Sutton told him. The outlaw chief, who had been listening with his coffee cup suspended in air, took a drink, shook his head and answered, "Nada." After a moment's thought he went on, "Tell Garrett I'll surrender if he'll let these boys ride away first. But they've got to get away clean. When they're gone I'll walk out with my hands up."
Sutton grinned and shook his head. "How far would we get with you Billy?" he asked.
The outlaw shrugged. "Quien sabe? But you tell Garrett that's all I'll do."
For almost an hour the two cowboys argued with the outlaw but Billy the Kid stuck to his original plan. He knew that the posse never would let him get to the county-seat once his men were loose in the hills. But so did Sutton.
"It's no use of us arguing here any longer, Jimmy," Sutton said to Carlyle. "We'll just go and tell Pat that the dicker won't work."
Saying, "Adiós Billy," to the outlaw chief, the young cow-puncher started for the door followed by Carlyle. As they walked across the floor there was a shifting among the outlaws.
"Not yet," Billy the Kid warned them as he waved them back. Turning to the cow-punchers, he added, "Get going but tell Pat Garrett I'm going to be hard to take."
He swung the door open and Sutton and Carlyle walked across the porch. They heard a quick movement behind them that told of men stepping to the loop-holes. Ahead of them lay more than fifty yards of open ground.
As the two punchers walked toward the knoll where they had left Garrett they separated slightly. Before them they could see Bill Bradley and George Hindman, two members of Garrett's posse, standing in the clear watching their approach. Ten yards, twenty, thirty were passed. The knoll looked very near when from behind came the crash of rifle fire. The outlaws had broken the truce.
At the first volley Jimmy Carlyle fell. Hindman, starting to run to him, was shot down. Bradley fell mortally wounded before he could reach the shelter of a tree. Sutton in one long dive gained the knoll. On all sides the rattle of gunfire broke the stillness of the morning.
Garrett's men drew back surprised by the sudden attack. The outlaws broke from the rear of the house, ran for the corral and in a flash were in their saddles and out of a rear gate. Shots from the two guards on the hill dropped one man from his saddle but the rest rode free. Among them Billy the Kid and Martinez.
It was a silent posse that gathered around Pat Garrett and gazed at the three bodies.
Once more the little clearing was still and again the flashing blue of the jays could be seen darting through the trees. A sob broke the silence. Bud Sutton, tears rolling down his face, was standing beside the body of Jimmy Carlyle, crying but unashamed.