With the clean blood of sturdy youth in him Clanton recovered rapidly from the shoulder wound. In order to rest him as much as possible, Webb put him in charge of the calf wagon which followed the drag and picked up any wobbly-legged bawlers dropped on the trail. During the trip Jim discovered for himself the truth of what Billie had said, that the settlers with small ranches were lined up as allies of the Snaith-McRobert faction. These men, owners of small bunches of cows, claimed that Webb and the other big drovers rounded up their cattle in the drive, ran the road brand of the traveling outfit on these strays, and sold them as their own. The story of the drovers was different. They charged that these “nesters” were practically rustlers preying upon larger interests passing through the country to the Indian reservations. Year by year the feeling had grown more bitter, That Snaith and McRobert backed the river settlers was an open secret. A night herder had been shot from the mesquite not a month before. The blame had been laid upon a band of bronco Mescaleros, but the story was whispered that a “bad man” in the employ of the Lazy S M people, a man known as “Mysterious Pete Champa,” boasted later while drunk that he had fired the shot.
Jim had heard a good deal about this Mysterious Pete. He was a killer of the most deadly kind because he never gave warning of his purpose. The man was said to be a crack shot, quick as chain lightning, without the slightest regard for human life. He moved furtively, spoke little when sober, and had no scruples against assassination from ambush. Nobody in the Southwest was more feared than he.
This man crossed the path of Clanton when the herd was about fifty miles from the Fort.
The beeves had been grazing forward slowly all afternoon and were loose-bedded early for the night. Cowpunchers are as full of larks as schoolboys on a holiday. Now they were deciding a bet as to whether Tim McGrath, a red-headed Irish boy, could ride a vicious gelding that had slipped into the remuda. Billie Prince roped the front feet of the horse and threw him. The animal was blindfolded and saddled.
Doubtful of his own ability to stick to the seat, Tim maneuvered the buckskin over to the heavy sand before he mounted. The gelding went sun-fishing into the air, then got his head between his legs and gave his energy to stiff-legged bucking. He whirled as he plunged forward, went round and round furiously, and unluckily for Tim reached the hard ground. The jolts jerked the rider forward and back like a jack-knife without a spring. He went flying over the head of the bronco to the ground.
The animal, red-eyed with hate, lunged for the helpless puncher. A second time Billie’s rope snaked forward. The loop fell true over the head of the gelding, tightened, and swung the outlaw to one side so that his hoofs missed the Irishman. Tim scrambled to his feet and fled for safety.