Western Short Story
The Youngest Ranger
James J. Griffin


Western Short Story

Texas Ranger Clay Taggart reined his black and white overo to a halt atop a low hill. The view took in the settlement a short distance south. Taggart swung out of the saddle and pulled off his Stetson. He lifted his canteen from the saddlehorn, opened it, and poured most of the contents into the hat. He placed the hat in front of the horse’s muzzle. The gelding drank greedily.

“That’ll be Uvalde just ahead Mike,” he told the horse. “We’re headin’ into Travis Burnham’s home grounds. Mebbe we’ll finally catch up with him. Boy howdy, he’s led us a chase for fair.”

Taggart had been trailing the renegade for almost two months, from San Marcos, where Burnham had robbed and killed two cattle buyers, through Boerne, where he’d robbed the bank, badly wounding the clerk, to Kerrville. Taggart had missed finding the outlaw in that town by two days. Word had reached Burnham a Ranger was on his trail, so he left town on the run.

From Kerrville, Burnham had headed almost due south to Bandera, where he’d robbed another bank, this time killing a deputy. When Taggart reached Bandera, he was informed Burnham was evidently continuing south toward Uvalde, where he had kin.

Taggart let the pinto finish drinking, then took a swallow from the canteen for himself. He climbed back into the saddle.

“Let’s go, boy.”

He kicked the horse into a lope.

Twenty minutes later, Taggart rode into Uvalde. He drew abreast of the school just as a group of boys boiled out from behind the building, several of them yelling encouragement to a pair of ten year olds who were fighting. One landed a blow to his opponent’s chin, knocking him backwards. He wrapped his arms around his adversary’s waist and drove his head into his stomach. The two boys rolled in the dirt, fists flailing.

Taggart spun Mike and leapt from the saddle. He reached the combatants in two strides, grabbed them by the shoulders, and pulled them to their feet.

“Whoa, take it easy. You’re stirrin’ up quite a commotion. Settle down,” he ordered.

“Lemme go, Mister!” the smaller boy, towheaded with light blue eyes, demanded.

“Not until you quiet down,” Taggart reiterated. “That goes for both of you,” he added, when the other boy attempted to twist away.

Realizing the futility of breaking free from Taggart’s grip, the boys quit their squirming to gaze up sullenly at the Ranger.

“Now, what’s this all about?” Taggart asked.

“Nothin’,” one muttered.

“It didn’t look like nothin’ to me,” Taggart responded. “In fact, it appeared you two were tryin’ your darndest to kill each other. Let’s try this again. If I let you go, will you behave?”

“I reckon,” the towhead replied.

“Same here,” the second, lankier with dark brown hair and eyes, conceded.

“That’s more like it,” Taggart said. He released the pair.

“What’s your names?”

“Bobby. Bobby Madison,” the taller boy answered.

“Jesse Collins,” the towhead responded.

“Good. Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. So what was that ruckus all about?”

“Bobby claims Freckles is no good,” Jesse exclaimed.

“You’d better make that a mite clearer,” Taggart urged. “Who’s Freckles?”

“My horse. That’s him over there.”

Jesse pointed to a scrubby bay pinto pony tied to the school’s hitch rail.

“Bobby said Freckles isn’t good for anything just because he’s spotted. I couldn’t let him say that about my horse.”

“I’m telling the truth,” Bobby protested. “My dad’s the smartest rancher in these parts, and he says pintos ain’t good for nothin’. Only Indians think they’re worth anything.”

“That’s not true! You take that back, Bobby!” Jesse shouted.

“Just simmer down,” Taggart ordered. He turned to Bobby.

“You say pintos are worthless, Bobby?”

“That’s right. Everyone knows it,” Bobby retorted.

“You’re wrong, son. I’ll show you,” Taggart answered. He gave a soft whistle. Mike trotted up to him and nuzzled his hand.

“You see this pinto. This is my horse, Mike. He and I’ve been trail pards a long time. He’s one of the smartest broncs you’ll ever meet. Watch. Give Bobby a kiss, Mike.”

The big gelding lowered his head and licked the boy’s face.

“Now give Jesse a hug, Mike.”

Mike twisted his head to the side, then laid it on Jesse’s shoulder.

“Good boy, Mike,” Taggart praised. He dug in his pocket for a peppermint, which he gave to the horse.

“Mike’ll also shake hands,” Taggart added.

“Almost any cayuse can learn tricks, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth much, Mister,” one of the other boys objected.

“What might your name be, son?” Taggart questioned.

“Joe Perkins.”

“You’re right, Joe,” Taggart agreed. “But anyone who says the color or pattern of a horse’s coat determines whether he’s a good mount is dead wrong. Mike’s the finest horse I’ve ever owned. He’s saved my life more than once. Besides, a Texas Ranger has to ride the best mount he can possibly find.”

“You’re a Ranger, Mister?” Jesse echoed.

“That’s right. Ranger Clay Taggart. Been a Ranger for quite a few years. Mike’s been with me for most of them. He’s taught me the color of a horse’s hide doesn’t matter. It’s the heart and guts under that hide which counts. Mike’s got both. And a Ranger sure needs that, since his life depends on havin’ a good horse.”

“Well, mebbe I was wrong about all pintos,” Bobby admitted, “but that still doesn’t mean Jess’s horse is a good one.”

“We’ll have to see about that,” Taggart replied. “Jess, bring your horse over here.”

“Sure thing, Mister Taggart!”

Jesse hurried to his horse, untied him, and brought him back to the Ranger.

“Let me take a look at him,” Taggart said.

Taggart circled the small horse, studying him from every angle, picking up Freckles’ feet to examine his hooves, all the while speaking soothingly to the gelding. He stroked the horse’s neck, then looked into his eyes.

“Well, Mister Taggart?” Jesse demanded.

“Call me Clay, Jess. Or Ranger Clay. That goes for all of you.”

“But what about Freckles?” Jesse insisted.

“Yeah. Is he any good?” Bobby added. “Sure don’t look like much.”

“Freckles isn’t the best lookin’ bronc in Texas, that’s for certain,” Taggart answered. “But he’s got good legs and feet. Pretty deep chest, too. Most of all, he’s got a kindly eye. To me, that’s the most important thing in a horse. Jess, Freckles is a mount you can depend on. I’d bet my hat on it.”

“Gee, thanks, Ranger Clay. See Bobby, I told you.”

“I guess I was wrong,” Bobby answered. “Reckon I owe you an apology, Jess… for what I said about your horse, and for the fight.”

“Heck, I started that fight,” Jesse admitted. “Wasn’t all your fault, Bobby.”

He retied Freckles to the rail.

“I’d say neither of you needs to apologize,” Taggart told them. “Men disagree about horses all the time. Long as you shake hands you can put this behind you. How about it?”

“I reckon we can,” Jesse answered. “Friends again, Bobby?”

“Sure. Friends again.”

The boys shook hands.

“That’s settled. Now, I noticed a general store just up the road. Why don’t all of you skedaddle down there for some licorice? I’m buyin’,” Taggart grinned.

“You bet, Ranger Clay!” Bobby exclaimed. “Let’s go!”

The boys headed for the store on the run.

“You handled that situation quite well, sir.”

Taggart looked around at the sound of that feminine voice. For the first time, he noticed the schoolmarm. She was standing on the school’s porch, gazing with admiration at the Ranger.

“Why, thank you ma’am,” he replied. “I was just tryin’ to break up that fight.”

“And I appreciate what you did. That’s why I didn’t interfere. You had everything under control. And they’re not really bad boys. It’s just that Jesse’s family doesn’t have much except their hardscrabble ranch, while Bobby’s family is fairly well-off. They own a large spread just outside town. But despite what you might have gathered from that fight, Bobby and Jesse are best friends.”

“Well, I was a boy myself once,” Taggart answered.

“I would imagine you were,” the teacher laughed.

“Guess that did sound pretty silly,” Taggart admitted. Without realizing it, he was staring at the pretty young woman. She was petite and blonde, with blue eyes the shade of cornflowers, her complexion the color of cream. The conservative dark gray dress she wore couldn’t quite manage to conceal the curves of her well-formed figure. Her appearance contrasted with, yet perfectly complemented, the tall, brown-eyed, brown haired Taggart’s rugged looks.

“Are you going to introduce yourself, or stand there staring all afternoon?” she asked.

“I… I’m sorry, ma’am,” Taggart stammered, flushing with embarrassment. “I’m Texas Ranger Clay Taggart.”

“So I heard you tell the boys. I just wanted to hear your name again,” she teased. “My name is Lucy Squires.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Squires.”

“Please. Call me Lucy. Would you mind if I took a closer look at your horse? He’s quite beautiful.”

“Not at all,” Taggart said. He picked up Mike’s reins and led the pinto to the teacher.

“He’s everything you said he was. He’s magnificent,” Lucy praised.

Mike stuck his nose in the middle of Taggart’s back and shoved hard, knocking the Ranger off balance. Struggling to keep his feet, Taggart fell against the schoolmarm.

“I’m sorry again,” Taggart exclaimed. “I don’t know what got into Mike. He knows better’n that.”

“He was just being fresh. I don’t mind,” Lucy smiled.

“He still needs to apologize. Tell the lady you’re sorry, Mike.”

Mike snorted.

“I mean it, boy.”

Mike nuzzled the teacher’s cheek.

“Thank you, Michael. I know you didn’t intend any harm.”

Lucy patted the horse’s nose.

“He seems to like you,” Taggart observed. “But his name’s Mike.”

“I prefer to call him Michael. It fits him better. And the feeling is mutual. I like him a lot. I think I also like his owner,” Lucy answered.

Taggart flushed and changed the subject.

“I… figure I’d better get down to the store before those boys get into trouble,” he said.

“Yes, you probably should,” Lucy agreed. “But perhaps we can visit again. Will you be in Uvalde long?”

“That depends on how long it takes me to find the hombre I’m after. I’ll be here as long as it takes to corral him.”

“Who is that?”

“Travis Burnham.”

Lucy gasped.

“Travis Burnham?”

“Yes. Do you know him? He’s has kin in this area.”

“I’ve never met him, but I know his family. His mother died some time ago. His father and younger brother have a place south of town. They’re decent people. Travis supposedly isn’t anything like his relatives. I understand he’s an outlaw and killer. Please be careful, Clay.”

“Always am,” Taggart grinned. “Besides, I would like to have that visit you mentioned. Wouldn’t do to get my hide punctured before we can.”

Taggart lingered for a moment.

“You should get to the store,” Lucy urged. “Those boys are expecting their licorice.”

“You’re right,” Taggart conceded. “I’ll be on my way.”

“Just remember that invitation stands. I expect to see you again, Ranger Clay Taggart.”

“You can count on that, Miss Lucy Squires,” Taggart promised. He swung into the saddle and heeled Mike into a slow jogtrot.

#

“I wonder what’s takin’ that Ranger so long?” Tad Martin questioned. “Bet he’s not gonna buy us any licorice after all.”

“He’ll be along,” Bobby assured him. “Appears to me he’s makin’ calf eyes at Miss Squires.”

“Don’t be dumb, Bobby,” Tad objected. “Rangers ain’t interested in gals. They’re too busy chasin’ renegades and Comanches.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Bobby retorted. “Rangers like gals as well as the next man. And Miss Squires sure is pretty. We’ve all said that. I reckon she caught Ranger Clay’s eye, all right.”

“Don’t matter,” Jesse said. “He’s comin’ now.”

Taggart walked Mike up to the store, climbed from the saddle, and looped the gelding’s reins over the hitchrail. He gave the horse another peppermint.

“You boys still waitin’ on that licorice?” he grinned.

“You bet’cha,” they exclaimed.

“Let’s go.”

Taggart led the group into the establishment. The storekeeper fixed him with a steady gaze.

“Howdy, stranger. I was about to chase these ruffians from in front of my store, but they told me a Texas Ranger was in town and had promised them some candy. I wasn’t sure whether to believe them, but I reckon you’re him. I’m Ezekiel Haskins, at your service.”

The sparkle in his hazel eyes and the broad smile on his face belied his harsh words.

“That’s right. I’m Ranger Clay Taggart. Howdy yourself.”

“Pleased to meet you. What type of candy would these boys like?”

“Licorice. Give me two sticks apiece for them, and two for myself. I’d also like about half that jar of peppermints for Mike.”

“Sure thing. Mike’s your pardner?” Haskins queried.

“I guess you could say that. Mike’s my horse,” Taggart explained. “He loves peppermints.”

“He’s not the first cayuse I’ve heard of who likes ’em,” Haskins smiled, “And I would imagine a Ranger’s horse is as much a partner to him as any human.”

“You’d be right,” Taggart agreed.

Haskins handed two licorice sticks to each of the boys and the Ranger, then filled a paper sack with peppermints.

“That will be sixteen cents for the licorice, and five cents for the peppermints. You owe me twenty-one cents, Ranger.”

“That’s fair.”

Taggart dug in his pocket, came up with a quarter, and handed it to the storekeeper. He received a pair of two cent pieces as change.

“Thank you. And please come again,” Haskins said.

“I’ll be by later for some supplies,” Taggart promised.

After the candies were paid for, Taggart herded the boys onto the porch. They gathered around the Ranger, gnawing on licorice.

“You’re a real Texas Ranger, right Clay?” Bobby asked.

“I sure am,” Taggart answered.

“Then you must’ve killed a lotta owlhoots.”

“Not that many,” Taggart replied. “I don’t like killin’ a man unless he forces my hand.”

“Bet you’ve got a real fast draw too,” Bobby continued.

“Yeah. You’ve gotta be real fast with a sixgun to be a Ranger,” Jesse added. “I’ll wager you’ve outdrawn a lot of gunslingers.”

“Not at all,” Taggart demurred. “I’ve never drawn on a man yet.”

“You must’ve,” Jesse persisted. “Lawmen have to face down gunfighters all the time.”

“Jesse’s right,” Joe added, “So tell us how many, Clay.”

“Not one,” Taggart reiterated.

“You’re joshin’ us,” Bobby complained.

“I’m not joshin’ at all. You boys have been readin’ too many dime novels,” Taggart answered. “Gunfights like you’re talkin’ about mostly take place in the pages of cheap fiction. Sure, there’s been a few of them, but nowhere near as many as folks believe. As for me, when I arrest a man I’ve already got my gun out and aimed at him. I’m sure not gonna chance a killer getting the drop on me and puttin’ a slug through my guts. That goes for all of the Rangers.”

“You mean you’ve never killed an outlaw or an Indian?” Jesse asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Taggart clarified. “I’ve had to shoot raidin’ Indians, and I’ve had to kill some white desperadoes too. But I don’t like doin’ it. Most of the hombres I’ve plugged I shot in self defense when they wouldn’t surrender.”

“I don’t care what you claim, I say you’re real quick,” Jesse insisted. “Please show us how fast.”

“Yeah,” Bobby added. “Let’s see how fast you are, Ranger Clay. I’d bet if we were outlaws you could outdraw the whole bunch of us.”

“I doubt it,” Taggart chuckled. “Think about it.”

“What do you mean?” Jesse asked.

“Well, there’s seven of you, and I’m only wearin’ a sixgun. So I’d be one bullet short. One of you’d be sure to plug me. Besides, there ain’t a man anywhere who could outdraw and shoot more’n two or three men in a standup gunfight before he took a bullet.”

“I guess you’re right,” Jesse conceded.

“We’d still like to see how fast you are,” Bobby said. “How about it? Bet you can’t outdraw me.”

“I wouldn’t even try,” Taggart chuckled. “I wouldn’t have a chance against a dead shot like you.”

“C’mon, try me,” Bobby pleaded.

“Nah. Wouldn’t want to have you gut-shoot me, kid.”

“What’s the matter, Ranger? You scared of me?”

Bobby dropped his hand to his side and settled into a half-crouch.

“Nope. But I know when I’m up against a faster gun,” Taggart said.

“Show him you’re faster’n he is, Clay,” Tad urged.

“All right. Reckon you’re givin’ me no choice.”

Taggart dropped his hand to his hip and nodded.

“Whenever you’re ready, kid.”

“Now, Ranger!”

Bobby and Taggart jerked their hands upward, index fingers and thumbs forming “pistols”. Bobby aimed and “fired”. Taggart grabbed his middle, spun, and toppled across the porch rail.

“Said I was faster than that Ranger,” Bobby shouted triumphantly. “Got him in the belly!”

“You nailed him all right,” Tad exclaimed.

“Right in the guts!” Jake Slocomb added.

Jesse nudged Taggart’s ribs.

“Clay? Was Bobby really faster’n you?”

Taggart pulled himself up.

“He sure was,” he confirmed. “If we’d been facin’ each other for real I’d be dead right now. Nice shootin’, Bobby. The Rangers’ll sign you on whenever you’re ready. That goes for all of you hombres.”

“Thanks.” Bobby replied. “Since I plugged you doesn’t that mean I get your last licorice stick?”

“Reckon it does, long as you share it with your pards,” Taggart chuckled. He handed Bobby the candy. “And by the way, don’t ever point a real gun at another man, less’n you mean it. Guns aren’t toys.”

“Ranger, how about telling us some stories about the outlaws you’ve faced?” Tad asked.

“Mebbe another time. Right now I’ve got to get Mike stabled and head for the sheriff’s office. I need to check in with him. Besides, your folks’ll be wonderin’ where you’re at. You boys better head on home.”

Taggart checked the bruise which had risen on Jesse’s chin.
 

“Dunno how you’re gonna explain that. Your mom sure won’t be happy when she sees it.”

“Aw, she won’t mind that much,” Jesse said, “This isn’t the first lump I’ve got scrappin’, and it won’t be the last.”

“Are we gonna see you again, Ranger Clay?” Bobby asked.

“I’ll be around for awhile,” Taggart answered. “I reckon our paths will cross. Now scoot, all of you. Get on home.”

“Yes sir, Ranger!” Jesse answered. “G’night.”

“’Night, boys. And no more fightin‘!”

#

After the boys departed, Taggart settled Mike at the livery stable, with instructions to the hostler to make sure the pinto had a thorough rubdown and hearty feed. Assured his horse would receive the best of care, Taggart headed for the sheriff’s office.

When he entered, the man behind the desk looked up from the stack of wanted notices he was perusing.

“Can I help you, Mister?” he asked.

“Maybe. I’m Texas Ranger Clay Taggart.”

“Ranger?” The sheriff leapt to his feet.

“We haven’t seen a Ranger around here for way too long. I’m Bill Moran, Uvalde County Sheriff. What can I do for the Rangers?”

Moran was over fifty, but still had the look of a man who could hold his own in any brawl or gunfight.

“I’m trailin’ a killer who’s headed this way. He’s originally from these parts.”

“You don’t have to give me a name,” Moran answered. “Bet he’s the man named on this wanted dodger.”

He took the notice and handed it to Taggart. It carried a description of Travis Burnham, and offered a one thousand dollar reward for his capture.

“That’s the hombre I want. You have any idea where he might be holed up?”

“He’d be a fool to show his face around Uvalde,” Moran declared. “Too many people know him. I think you’re on the wrong track, Ranger.”

“I’ve gotta disagree with you, Sheriff,” Taggart replied. “I’ve been trailin’ Burnham for nearly two months. I know he’s got folks around here. After he robbed the Bandera bank and killed a deputy there, he headed due south. He’s probably makin’ for Mexico, but figures on stopping by his home place for supplies and rest before continuing on. Probably countin’ on pickin’ up a fresh horse there.”

Moran shoved back his Stetson and scratched his head.

“You might be right at that. But it wouldn’t be likely he’d get any help from his pa or kid brother,” he observed. “Troy Burnham’s a real decent sort. His boy Tom’s the same. Neither of ’em hold much truck with Travis. That boy was never anythin’ but trouble.”

“I understand Mrs. Burnham died a few years back. Did that have something to do with Travis’s becomin’ an outlaw?”

“Not a thing. Travis left home three years before his ma died. In fact, everybody feels Travis’s goin’ bad is what killed Molly. She and Troy did everything they could to raise their boys right, but it just didn’t stick with Travis. You know how it is. Some kids just turn out mean, no matter how good they’re raised. A few of them learn their lessons and change their ways, but most don’t. Travis is one of those.”

“I know,” Taggart concurred. “But kin is still kin. Burnham is probably countin’ on that. His folks might not give him any help, but they’d probably never turn him in. And if he decided to just take some supplies from ’em they sure wouldn’t object.”

“I guess that could be,” Moran conceded. “So you’ll be needin’ directions to the Burnham place.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s not hard to find It’s fifteen miles south of town. Take the south road until you come to a fork marked by a rock cairn. Take the left fork, and the Rocking B’s two miles down that road. There’s a signpost nailed to a big mesquite that marks the place. Take a right there and go another quarter mile. Cabin’s at the end of that lane.”

Bueno. I appreciate your help, Sheriff.”

“You gonna head out tonight? And you want me to ride along with you?” Moran asked.

“No on both counts,” Taggart replied. “It’s gettin’ late. It’d be after dark before I could reach the Burnham ranch. Besides, I need a rest, and more importantly so does my horse. I’ll get a room at the hotel, grab supper and a good night’s sleep, then leave at first light. There’s no need for you to come along. Travis Burnham is only one man. I can handle him.”

“And he’s probably already ridden on to Mexico by now,” Moran pointed out.

“Possibly,” Taggart agreed. “But I’ll keep on his trail until I run him down.”

“Even if it means crossin’ the border?”

“Even if it means crossin’ the border,” Taggart confirmed.

“Well, I wish you luck,” Moran said. “You’ll need it.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that, Sheriff. Adios.

“Vaya con Dios, Ranger.”

#

Two hours after sunup the next morning found the Ranger at the gate of the Rocking B Ranch. Two men were working a colt in one of the corrals. They stopped to watch Taggart while he eased Mike through the gate and rode into the yard. The younger of the pair kept his hand on the butt of an old Navy Colt hanging at his hip.

“What can we do for you, Mister?” the older man asked.

“Are you Troy Burnham?” Taggart replied.

“I am,” Burnham confirmed. “This is my boy, Tom.”

“We don’t care for strangers comin’ around,” Tom snapped. “So the smartest thing for you would be to turn that fancy pinto of yours around and ride on outta here. Make sure you close the gate on your way.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Taggart replied. “And I’m not here to cause you or your pa any trouble. But I do have to ask you some questions. My name’s Clay Taggart. I’m a Texas Ranger, and I’m after your brother Travis. Been on his trail for quite awhile now.”

“You ain’t gonna find him here,” Tom growled.

“I’d rather speak with your pa, son,” Taggart answered. “Mr. Burnham, would you mind if I got off my horse?”

“No, I don’t mind,” Troy replied. “Reckon I couldn’t stop you anyway.”

“Thanks. I won’t take up much of your time.”

Taggart swung from his saddle.

“Now you’re dismounted. Speak your piece,” Troy said.

“All right. Is Travis here?”

“No, he ain’t!” Tom snarled.

“I was speakin’ to your father, not you,” Taggart retorted. “Mister Burnham, is your boy here, or has he been here recently?”

The elder Burnham shrugged. A look of utter hopelessness crossed his face.

“There’s no point in lyin’ to you. You’d figure it out soon enough anyway,” he sighed. “Travis was here. Arrived the night before last. Took some grub, ammunition, and a fresh bronc. He lit out just after dark last night.”

“He say which way he was headed?”

“Don’t tell this lawman anythin’ more, Pa,” Tom urged.

“Son, I know you love your brother. So do I,” Troy responded. “But he’s no-good. Hasn’t been since he growed up. If this man doesn’t stop him, he’ll rob and murder more innocent folks. Sooner or later Travis is bound to die with a bellyful of lead or hangin’ from a cottonwood. I’m not gonna protect him any longer.”

To Taggart he continued, “Travis didn’t say where he was goin’. He headed south from here. My guess is Mexico.”

“That’s what I figure too,” Taggart answered. “What’s he ridin’ now?”

“A big-chested bay gelding with a sock on his near forefoot,” Troy answered.

“That’s one good horse,” Tom broke in, “You’ll have a heckuva time catchin’ up to my brother with that pinto of yours. He’s pretty, but I’ve never yet seen a spotted horse with much bottom.”

“Well, you’re lookin’ at one now,” Taggart said. “Mike’ll outlast just about any other horse in Texas. But we won’t catch Travis standin’ here palaverin’. I’d best get ridin’.”

“You want some coffee or chuck, Ranger?” Troy asked.

“Can’t take the time. I’ve got plenty of grub in my saddlebags. But thank you for the offer… and the information. I know it wasn’t easy for you to answer my questions. I’ll try and take your boy alive if at all possible.”

“Don’t matter none,” Troy replied, his voice thick with despair. “Travis made his choice a long time ago. Reckon it’d be best if you killed him with a bullet rather’n him bein’ jailed and dyin’ at the end of a rope.”

“That’ll be his decision,” Taggart answered. “Tom, Mister Burnham, again, muchas gracias. Adios.

#

It took only a few moments for Taggart to find the tracks of Travis Burnham’s horse. As his father had said, the renegade had headed south from the Rocking B.

“He ain’t tryin’ to cover his trail, Mike,” Taggart told his horse. “Appears he’s makin’ a beeline for Mexico. It’s up to us to stop him before he gets there. C’mon boy, pick up the pace.”

He spurred Mike into a ground-eating lope, a pace the gelding could maintain all day without tiring.

Two miles later, the hoofprints of Burnham’s horse turned right into a brush-choked ravine. Taggart reined Mike to a halt. He took a drink from his canteen while he studied the tracks.

“Looks like Burnman decided to try and shake off any pursuit after all,” Taggart muttered. “And that draw’s the perfect spot for a bushwhackin’. We go in there and I’m liable to end up with a bullet in my back, horse. Reckon we don’t have any choice, though. Besides, those prints are several hours old. My guess is Burnham ducked in there hopin’ no one’d follow, and just kept on goin’. Well, let’s find out.”

Taggart pushed his mount into the thick growth. Mike snorted a protest as the thorny vegetation jabbed his hide.

Taggart’s pace was slowed to a walk while he worked his way through the winding ravine. Several times he had to stop Mike and dismount to force his way through the dense underbrush. Man and horse both had blood flowing from deep scratches gouged out of their flesh by spiny needles and thorns before they finally emerged from the draw.

“Burnham accomplished what he set out to do. We lost considerable time tryin’ to follow his tracks through there. But soon’s I find some water we’re gonna take a few minutes and rest. You need a drink and I want to rub some salve on your scrapes, Mike,” Taggart told the horse.

Taggart followed Burnham’s trail for another twenty minutes, until he reached a small cienega.

“Burnham stopped here to rest his horse. We’re gonna do the same.”

Taggart swung from the saddle and loosened the cinches. He slipped the bit from his horse’s mouth and gave him a peppermint. He let Mike drink, then while the pinto cropped at the lush grass surrounding the seep, dug a tin of salve from his saddlebags. He coated the horse’s wounds with the ointment, then did the same to the scratches marring his own face and hands.

Taggart took some jerky and hardtack from his saddlebags, eating a quick meal as Mike grazed. He washed down the stringy meat and dry biscuits with water from the seep, then refilled his canteen.

“Enough relaxin’ for you, bud,” he told the horse, slapping him fondly on the neck.

“Burnham’s puttin’ miles between us, and we’re burnin’ daylight. Time to get movin’.”

Taggart slid Mike’s bridle back in place and retightened his cinches. Once he was in the saddle, he again pushed the pinto into his tireless lope.

After several miles, Taggart once again reined to a stop. He thumbed back his Stetson and scratched his head in puzzlement.

“This doesn’t make any sense, Mike. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Burnham is circlin’ back north, mebbe even headin’ back to Uvalde itself. What the devil is he up to?”

Instead of heading directly south toward Mexico, once he’d emerged from the ravine Burnham had set a twisted trail, which switched back on itself several times, but which was unmistakably gradually turning back north.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do but keep followin’ these tracks,” Taggart continued. “And we’re gainin’ on him some. Long as daylight holds out we’ve got a chance of catchin’ up to him.”

He heeled the gelding into motion once again.

To Taggart’s frustration, dusk found him apparently still several miles behind his quarry. Clouds had covered the sky during the course of the afternoon, and with a new moon that night there would be no chance of continuing on Burnham’s trail until morning.

“I reckon we’ll have to find a place to hole up for the night, Mike,” he said to the horse. “Well, at least you’ll get some more rest. You could use it. We both can. We’ll start out fresh at sunup.”

He rode two more miles, until he came upon a clear stream. The creek tumbled over a steep bluff, widened into a deep pool, then flowed in a series of rapids over a bank on the opposite side of the trail. From there it disappeared into dense undergrowth.

“This looks like as good a place as any to set up camp, Mike. We’ll stop here.”

Taggart unsaddled his horse and rubbed him down. That done, he picketed the pinto for the night on a section of thick grama grass.

“Reckon you’re all set, pardner,” he noted. “Now that you’re settled, that water looks mighty good to me. Reckon I’ll take a swim before I make my supper.”

Taggart stripped off his dirt and sweat stained clothes, tossing them on the stream bank. He plunged into the water.

The Ranger spent several minutes swimming, then several more relaxing in the stream, allowing the cool water to soak away the grime and aches of the trail. Once he felt thoroughly refreshed Taggart emerged from the stream. He allowed the evening breeze to dry himself, then redressed.

“Time to eat.”

Taggart pulled his frying pan and coffeepot from his saddlebags. He hunkered alongside the creek to fill the pot. Just as he pulled it from the water, excruciating pain exploded through his head. The last things Taggart remembered were the crack of a rifle shot, then a distant thud as his body struck the ground. The Ranger rolled over the embankment, slid to the bottom, and lay unmoving.

#

“I’m sure glad it’s Saturday, so we can go fishin’ rather’n wastin’ the day in school,” Bobby remarked to Jesse. “You about ready there?”

“Just about.” Jesse picked up his fishing pole and pulled himself onto Freckles’ back.

“Now I’m set. Let’s go.”

The boys put their horses, Jesse’s pinto and Bobby’s blaze-faced chestnut gelding, into a shuffling walk. With the entire day ahead of them, they were in no particular hurry.

“Where do you want to head, Bobby?”

“How about that spot in Agua Verde Creek? The fish are usually bitin’ there.”

“That’s fine with me. And if they ain’t we can go swimmin’,” Jesse agreed.

Walking along in the warm sunshine, the horses were almost as lethargic as their young riders. They meandered up the trail, the boys letting them set their own pace. After about three miles, Freckles suddenly stopped. He stood stock-still, head high and ears pricked sharply forward. The little pinto’s nostrils flared as he keened the air.

“C’mon, Freckles, get goin’,” Jesse urged. He drummed his heels on the horse’s ribs. The gelding merely danced sideways, still staring into the distance.

“What’s the matter with your horse?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Jesse replied, again kicking the pinto in his side. “Let’s go, Freckles.”

“Somethin’s botherin’ him, that’s for certain,” Bobby said. “Either that or he’s just bein’ stubborn.”

“Maybe. Or dumb,” Jesse answered. He tried to push the horse into motion. Freckles spun sideways, fighting the reins. He let out a loud whinny, then stood nickering.

“Seems like he wants to head up that side trail to Peter’s Bluff,” Bobby observed. “Maybe we should see why.”

“There’s nothing much up there,” Jesse protested. “The fishin’ hole’s straight ahead.”

“I know that, but your horse sure insists on tryin’ that trail. Wait a minute. Listen, Jess!”

“I don’t hear anything,” Jesse complained.

“Just hush up,” Bobby ordered. “I heard somethin’.”

Freckles again gave out a long neigh. It was answered by a return whinny. Freckles trumpeted again, this time joined by Bobby’s chestnut.

“There’s a horse up there! Monte hears it too!” Bobby exclaimed.

“You’re right. Maybe it’s hurt,” Jesse answered. “We’d better go find out.”

Jesse released the pressure on his reins. Instantly, Freckles shot up the narrow side trail at a dead run, Bobby’s chestnut at his heels.

They reached the summit of the small rise, racing along the base of the bluff. Freckles rounded a bend, then stopped so suddenly Jesse was tossed over his head and thudded to the ground.

“Jess, you all right?” Bobby called. He leapt from Monte’s back and hurried to his friend’s side.

“Yeah,” Jesse gasped. “But you were right about pintos bein’ stupid. Dumb horse!”

“He’s not so dumb. Look there!”

Bobby pointed to a black and white gelding, straining at the end of its picket rope. The horse was pawing the ground and whickering frantically.

“That’s Mike! Ranger Clay’s horse!” Jesse exclaimed.

“It sure is. Clay must be in trouble!” Bobby answered.

“We’ve gotta help him. But where’s he at?” Jesse wondered.

“He can’t be too far off. Not without his horse,” Bobby replied.

“Maybe Mike can help us.”

Jesse hurried to the Ranger’s horse.

“Can you show us where Clay is, Mike?”

“Turn him loose,” Bobby suggested. “He might lead us to Clay.”

“Good idea.”

Jesse untied the rope from Mike’s halter. The overo trotted to the embankment, where he stood pawing the dirt and whinnying.

“Down there!” Bobby exclaimed, following the gelding’s gaze.

“Where? I don’t see anything,” Jesse answered.

“There. Half-hidden in the scrub. You can hardly see him.”

Bobby pointed to the still form of a man, barely visible through the thick underbrush.

“I’ve spotted him,” Jesse shouted. “Clay!”

“He’s not movin’,” Bobby noted. “Ranger!”

“Ranger! Hey, Ranger Clay! Ranger Clay!” both boys shouted.

“It’s no use,” Bobby said. “He doesn’t hear us.”

“We’ve gotta get him outta there,” Jesse insisted.

“But how?” Bobby answered. “We might be able to climb down that bank, but we’d never be able to pull Clay back up. He’s way too heavy. Besides, what if he’s… dead?”

“We can’t know that until one of us goes down there. You afraid of a dead man?” Jesse asked.

“I, I guess not,” Bobby stammered, “It’s just that… Well, I ain’t ever seen a corpse up close before.”

“If you’re scared, I’ll go down that bank,” Jesse said.

“We’ve still gotta figure out how to get him back up,” Bobby reminded him. “Mebbe one of us should ride for help.”

“There might not be enough time for that,” Jesse replied.

“Then we’ve gotta think of somethin’, and quick,” Bobby answered.

“His horse! Bobby, get Clay’s saddle and rope!”

“That’s it!”

Bobby hurried to where Taggart’s saddle lay on the ground. He carried it back to where Mike stood, looking down at his rider and nickering questioningly.

“Get that saddle on him!” Jesse ordered.

Bobby tossed the saddle onto the gelding’s back and tightened the cinches. He took Taggart’s lariat from the saddle and dallied one end around the horn, then tied a loop in the other.

“One of us has gotta go down there and tie this rope around Clay,” he noted.

“Reckon that should be you, since you’re bigger’n I am. It’ll take all the muscle you’ve got to lift that Ranger and slip the lasso around him,” Jesse answered. “That is, unless you’re still too scared.”

“I ain’t scared,” Bobby retorted. “You just keep a tight grip on that rope. And make sure Mike doesn’t move.”

“You can count on me, pardner. But don’t slip, whatever you do. And good luck.”

“Thanks, Jess.”

Bobby wrapped his hands around the rope and disappeared over the lip of the embankment. Jesse stood at Mike’s head, keeping a tight grip on the pinto’s halter while he stroked the horse’s nose and spoke soothingly to him.

After what seemed an eternity to Jesse, Bobby came back into view, more than halfway down the steep slope. Bobby slid to the bottom, then scrambled to the downed Ranger.

“Bobby. Are you all right?” Jesse called.

“I’m fine,” Bobby shouted back.

“What about Clay?”

“His head’s all bloody, but he’s still breathin’. He looks in bad shape. We’ve gotta hurry. I’ll get this rope around him, then you have Mike pull him up. Go slow and careful!”

“Don’t worry about me and Mike. Just get that rope tied!”

It was a struggle for the eighty-five pound Bobby to lift the two hundred plus pound Taggart’s upper body and slide the rope around the unconscious Ranger. He was exhausted when the lariat was finally under Taggart’s armpits and tied around his chest.

“I’m ready, Jess. Get us outta here!”

“Hold on!”

Jesse urged Mike away from the cliff. Used to working cattle, the big gelding knew what was expected of him. He kept the rope taut while he backed slowly from the edge.

“Easy, Mike. Steady, boy. You don’t want to hurt Clay more’n he already is,” Jesse cautioned. “That’s it. Nice and easy. You’re doin’ fine, Mike. Keep goin’ just like that.”

Moments later, Mike dragged Taggart and Bobby back over the embankment’s rim.

“Stop, Mike! You were great, boy!”

Jesse unwrapped the rope from Mike’s saddlehorn. The pinto trotted to Taggart and nuzzled the Ranger’s face. Taggart’s only response was a barely audible moan.

“We did it, Jess!” Bobby shouted. “We got Clay outta there!”

“We sure did,” Jesse responded. “But we’re still in trouble. He’s not gonna come to, and there’s no way we can get him onto a horse by ourselves. We need a buckboard.”

“That means we’ll have to go for help after all.”

“One of us will. The other has to stay with Clay.”

“Which one?”

“You’d better, Bobby. Monte’s a lot faster than Freckles.”

“All right, Jess. I’ll head for your place. It’s closest. You gonna be all right until I get back?”

“I’ll be okay. Tell my pa to hurry back here. And have him send my brother for the doc.”

“I’ll be back quick as I can,” Bobby promised.

He gathered Monte’s reins, leapt onto the chestnut’s back, and pushed him into a dead run.

#

Clay Taggart woke up in unfamiliar surroundings and with a pounding headache. He was flat on his back in a comfortable bed, covered by a clean sheet. He opened his eyes to see a whitewashed ceiling. He groaned and touched a hand to his head. Most of his hair had been shaved away, and a bandage covered a good part of his scalp.

Hearing the Ranger moan, the woman at his bedside stirred.

“Ranger Taggart? Are you awake?” she softly asked.

Taggart turned his head to see a woman in her late thirties.

“I reckon so, ma’am. Might I ask who you are? And where am I?”

“My name is Bea Collins. You’re at the Triangle C Ranch.”

“Collins?”

“That’s right. Jesse Collins’ mother. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve got a wicked headache, but other than that not bad. Plus I’m a mite puzzled. How’d I get here? Last thing I remember was gettin’ shot.”

“Bobby Madison and Jesse. They were going fishing when they stumbled across you. Evidently you’d fallen over an embankment when that bullet struck. The boys found you there. I’ll let them tell you the entire story, but somehow they got you back to the trail, then came for help. My husband brought you here. You were too weak to survive the trip to town. That’s another seven miles. Doctor Palmer came out here to treat you. He confirmed our suspicions. You probably would have died before reaching Uvalde. The doctor said you had a rather severe concussion from the bullet wound, but fortunately your skull wasn’t fractured. Another quarter inch lower, however…”

“You don’t need to finish that, ma’am,” Taggart smiled. “Where is Jesse? I’d sure like to thank him. Bobby too.”

“They’re in school. They’ll be along later. So will Lucy Squires. And they’ll be pleased to see you’ve regained consciousness.”

“Lucy Squires? The schoolteacher?”

“That’s right. Doctor Palmer said you needed to be watched twenty-four hours a day until you awakened. Several women from town have been taking turns helping me do just that. Tonight is Lucy’s turn.”

“Well, what d’ya know?” Taggart whispered.

“What was that, Ranger Taggart?”

“Nothing. And call me Clay, ma’am.”

“All right. As long as you call me Bea.”

“It’s a deal.”

“Fine. Now, can I get you anything?”

“I am a bit hungry,” Taggart admitted. “How long have I been unconscious, anyway?”

“Two days,” Bea answered.

“Two days. That means I’ve got no chance of catchin’ up with Travis Burnham,” Taggart muttered.

“Travis Burnham?”

“The outlaw I was trailing, and the hombre who undoubtedly shot me,” Taggart explained. “Reckon he’s in Mexico by now. But once I’m outta this bed I’ll be on his trail again.”

“Well, that won’t be for several more days,” Bea answered. “I can’t do anything about Mister Burnham, but I can surely do something about your empty stomach. You’re not ready for a big meal yet, but how does beef broth and coffee sound?”

“That sounds just wonderful.”

“Fine. I’ll heat some for you. By the time you’ve finished eating, the boys should be here. I’ll send for the doctor too. He wanted to examine you once you awakened. Now you rest while I get your meal.”

“Thanks, Bea. I appreciate everything your family’s done for me.”

“We only did what any decent folks would do,” Bea answered. “So don’t trouble yourself about that. Just recover as quickly as possible.”

“Doctor’s orders?”

My orders, and no one disobeys them,” Bea retorted as she headed for the kitchen.

#

Taggart finished his meal and had been dozing for an hour when Jesse and Bobby burst into his room.

“Clay! You’re awake!” Jesse shouted.

“I am now,” Taggart grinned.

“Told you he was sleepin’, Jess,” Bobby scolded.

“You were? I’m sorry, Ranger,” Jesse apologized.

“No need to apologize, Jess. I’ve slept long enough anyway.”

Bea hustled into the room.

“Clay, I didn’t realize these boys were here. They snuck past me. I hope they didn’t wake you.”

“No harm done,” Taggart assured her. “In fact, I’m glad for the company.”

“Well, if you’re sure, I have to start supper. But if these boys are a bother you call me. Jesse, Bobby, don’t you wear out the Ranger. He still needs rest.”

“We won’t, Ma,” Jesse promised.

“All right. Then I’ll leave you men to talk.”

Once Bea had left, Taggart propped himself higher on his pillows.

“Jess, Bobby, I’ve gotta thank you for bein’ so brave. I understand if you hadn’t hauled me outta that gully I’d be coyote bait by now. Appreciate what you did.”

“Shucks, Ranger, it wasn’t much,” Jesse demurred.

“That’s right,” Bobby added. “Your horse did most of the work. That, and you have Jesse’s horse to thank for us findin’ you. Freckles’s the one who made us take that trail. Guess you were right. Pintos sure ain’t dumb.

“Except for Freckles tossin’ me over his head,” Jesse corrected.

“Freckles? Mebbe you’d best explain,” Taggart said.

“Sure. We were goin’ fishin’,” Bobby began.

“When we came to the trail to Peter’s Bluff, Freckles wouldn’t take another step,” Jesse broke in.

“Whoa. Hold on, boys. One at a time,” Taggart ordered. “There’s no hurry. I’m not goin’ anywhere. So take it slow and easy.”

And the boys did. For the next hour they regaled the Ranger with their version of his rescue from the bottom of Peter’s Bluff, embellishing the story but little. They were breathless by the time they finished the tale.

“And that’s everything, Clay,” Jesse concluded.

“Well, that’s quite a story,” Taggart answered. “Once I’m up and around I’ll make sure your horses get an entire sack of peppermints. And I’ll find something special for you boys too.”

“That’s not necessary, Clay,” Bobby protested.

“I know it’s not, but you deserve a reward.”

Jesse’s mother poked her head in the door.

“Speaking of rewards, I just finished mixing a cake. Would you boys want to lick the icing bowl?”

“Would we?” Jesse exclaimed, then hesitated and looked at Taggart.

“Go ahead,” Taggart chuckled.

“Thanks!” The boys raced from the room.

“Clay, I was afraid they were tiring you out, so I used that cake as an excuse,” Bea explained. “But if you’re up to it, the rest of the family is home. I’d like you to meet them.”

“Sure,” Taggart agreed.

“I’ll bring them right in.”

Bea departed, returning shortly with a rugged-looking man about her age and two children who bore strong resemblance to Jesse.

“Clay, this is my husband, Benjamin. Jesse’s older brother Frank, and their sister, Mary. Ben brought you here, and Frank fetched the doctor. Mary’s been helping me care for you.”

“Well, I’m grateful to all of you,” Taggart stated.

Introductions completed, the Collins’ and Taggart spent a few minutes in conversation, until they were interrupted by a tapping at the bedroom door.

“I hate to interrupt, but may I come in? I need to examine my patient.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Bea answered. “Clay, this is Doctor Thaddeus Palmer.”

“Glad to meet you, Doc,” Taggart said.

“And I’m certainly pleased to see you awake,” Palmer replied. “I couldn’t be sure just how severe your concussion was. Now folks, if you can leave us.”

“Of course. Supper is about ready. And don’t forget you’re joining us,” Bea reminded him. “We’ll see you shortly.”

“Ranger, you gave everyone quite a scare,” Palmer stated. He held up his hand.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two.”

“That’s fine. Do you have much dizziness? Any nausea? Blurred vision?”

“Nope. Just a bit lightheaded, doc. And I’m starved.”

“That’s good. I’ll permit you a light meal once I’m finished.”

Palmer cleaned and rebandaged Taggart’s scalp, then took his temperature. He checked the Ranger’s pulse, then put a stethoscope to Taggart’s chest to check his heartbeat.

“You’re doing fine, Ranger Taggart,” he concluded. “You’ll make a full recovery.”

“So I’ll be outta this bed in a couple of days?”

“Not quite. You’ll have that lightheaded sensation for a while, and that concussion will affect your balance. Riding a horse will be impossible for at least a week. But I am pleased with your progress. I’ll return in three days to reexamine you. If you are still doing well, then you can get up for short periods. But no more.”

“Doc, I can’t do that. I’ve gotta get after the hombre who shot me,” Taggart protested.

“Leave that to Sheriff Moran. And let me make this plain,” Palmer retorted. “If you get out of that bed too soon, you’ll finish the job Burnham started. Now, I have other patients to see. Follow my instructions, and I’ll see you in three days. Don’t, and you’ll be dead. Is that clear?”

“As crystal.”

“Good. I’ll see myself out.”

“Doc?”

“Yes, Ranger?”

“Thanks.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

After Palmer departed, Taggart lay brooding. Despite what the physician had told him, the desire to get after Travis Burnham burned like a fire deep in the Ranger’s gut. He wasn’t aware of Bea Collins entering the room with his supper until she called his name twice.

“Clay. I was afraid you’d passed out again,” she said.

“Nah. Just thinkin’. Lucy!” Clay exclaimed, when he spotted the schoolteacher standing alongside Bea.

“I told you I’d see you again, Clay,” Lucy smiled. “However, I seem to recall you promised not to have your hide punctured, to use your words.”

“Luckily the bullet hit my thick skull, so there wasn’t much damage,” Taggart answered.

“That does explain a lot,” Lucy retorted.

“I’m going to leave you two. Lucy, make sure he eats everything,” Bea ordered.

“You won’t have to worry about that. I’m famished,” Clay answered.

“I’ll take good care of him,” Lucy promised.

“Fine. I’ll see you later.”

After Taggart finished his meal, he and Lucy talked for some time, until sleep once again claimed him. With Doctor Palmer still wanting the Ranger observed constantly, Lucy remained with Taggart, finally dozing off in her chair.

Bea Collins, checking on Taggart before retiring for the night, tucked a blanket around the sleeping schoolmarm. She smiled once she finished.

Looks like one good thing might come out of this, she thought. I’d better tell the preacher to get ready for a wedding.

#

Taggart spent several frustrating days recuperating. Sheriff Moran informed the Ranger he and his deputies had failed to find Travis Burnham.

“We lost his trail not far from where he drygulched you,” Moran had said. “We have no idea where he headed. I’ve got my men watching the Burnham place, but it’s unlikely he’ll show there. My guess is he’s in Mexico.”

“You’re probably right. But I still can’t figure why he doubled back north,” Taggart had answered.

Finally allowed out of bed, Taggart was brushing his horse. He looked up at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.

“Someone’s comin’, Mike,” he noted.

A moment later the sheriff rode into the Triangle C yard and dismounted.

“Howdy, Clay.”

“Howdy yourself, Bill. What brings you by? You look as if you’re carryin’ the world on your shoulders.”

“Might as well be. Travis Burnham’s turned up.”

“He has. Where?”

“Pretty much everywhere around here. Just started gettin’ reports from the past couple days. He hit the bank in Blewett, then a saloon in Dabney. Rode north to Reagan Wells and robbed their general store. Headed east from there to Utopia, where he robbed another bank and killed the teller. Yesterday he hit the bank in Sabinal.

“He’s makin’ a circle,” Taggart observed.

“Seems so,” Moran agreed.

“And he’s headed back here to Uvalde. I’d bet my hat on it!” Taggart exclaimed. “C’mon, Mike.”

He grabbed the pinto’s leadrope and started for the barn.

“You figure on goin’ after him?” Moran asked, following along.

“Darn right,” Taggart answered. He threw the saddle on Mike’s back.

“You want some help?”

“No, except keep watch on the Burnham spread. I appreciate the offer, but I’ll have a better chance of findin’ Burnham on my own. He won’t be lookin’ for me. He thinks he killed me, remember?”

“I reckon you’re right, but where do you start lookin’ for him?” Moran wondered.

“Right back where he bushwhacked me. I’ve a hunch his hideout is near there.”

“But where? My men and I went over every inch of that spot,” Moran protested.

“Dunno. But if he’s in there, I’ll find him,” Taggart promised. “Bill, do me a favor. Tell the Collins’ I rode after Burnham. Let them know I’ll be back.”

“Sure. But are you ready to be in the saddle? Doc Palmer…”

“Doesn’t matter what the doc says. Burnham’s got to be stopped.”

Taggart slipped the bit into Mike’s mouth, then mounted.

“Okay. I’ll tell them,” Moran agreed. “But you be careful, Clay. Vaya con Dios.”

“Thanks, Bill. Adios.”

Taggart sent Mike out of the yard at a gallop.

#

An hour later Taggart was combing the area where he’d been ambushed.

“Burnham’s holed up in here somewhere, Mike. I know it,” he told the horse. “But this time we’re ready for him.”

Taggart dismounted, studying the area from which the shot had come.

“Somewhere up there,” he muttered. “Gotta be it. Mike, I’ll have to leave you here and go in on foot.”

He tied the gelding to a live oak.

Taggart edged along the base of the bluff, seeking any opening large enough to hold a man and horse. He was about to give up when he spied some brush that was withered and dry.

“That doesn’t look right,” he muttered. “It’s been rainin’, so there’s no reason for those bushes to be dead.”

Taggart yanked on one of the bushes. It came easily out of the ground, revealing a dim trail climbing through a narrow defile.

“This is it!” Taggart exclaimed. He hurried back to Mike.

“C’mon, Mike. We’ve got him now!”

Taggart walked the horse into the opening. Fresh hoofprints were evident in the dust.

“Pretty clever. Burnham hid this trail by cutting brush and stickin’ it in front of the entrance. Would’ve worked if he’d replaced it sooner, before it dried up. Well, he’s not gonna slip away again.”

Twenty minutes later, the trail opened into a small glade, with a cabin at its center.

“No horse in the corral,” Taggart said. “Bet Burnham’s not home. But I’d better make sure.”

Taggart checked the shack, finding it empty. He emerged from the cabin… and a bullet whistled past his cheek. Taggart dove to his belly, and another slug ripped the air over his head. He jerked out his Colt and returned fire. Travis Burnham sent one more bullet in the Ranger’s direction, then whirled his black around and raced for the opposite end of the glade.

Taggart dashed for his horse and leapt into the saddle. He touched spurs to Mike’s flanks, putting him into a dead run.

“We’ve got him now, pard. Go, boy!”

There were few horses in Texas which could match the big pinto’s speed and endurance. Mike was well rested and eager to run. He streaked after the fleeing renegade.

The trail emerged onto rolling, open ground, interspersed with low hills and occasional ravines. Although Burnham had a good start, Mike was steadily gaining on the outlaw’s tiring black.

“He’s headin’ for town! What is he thinkin’?” Taggart muttered. He urged Mike to greater speed.

Burnham turned in his saddle to send several shots at his pursuer. Taggart returned fire, but with accurate aim from the back of a running horse impossible neither man came near his target.

They pounded into Uvalde. Burnham pulled his black to a halt in front of the school and jumped from the saddle. He sent one last shot at the pursuing Ranger to slow him, then burst into the building.

Taggart left his saddle as Mike was still at a run. He reloaded his Colt while he raced up the school steps. A bullet smacked into the wall over his head when he stepped through the door.

“Drop the gun, Ranger! Right now! Or I’ll kill her.”

Travis Burnham was at the front of the room, Lucy Squires in his grasp. He held his pistol to the side of her head.

“I mean it, Ranger!”

“Let her go, Burnham,” Taggart ordered. “She’s got nothin’ to do with this. Neither do these kids. And you don’t want to kill a woman.”

The children were huddled behind their desks, several of the younger ones crying.

“No. You let your gun drop,” Burnham insisted. I’ll give you ten seconds.”

“You don’t wanna do this,” Taggart replied. “Let her go and we’ll take this outside, man to man.”

“Ranger, you’re dead for certain this time. Only choice you have is whether I kill this schoolmarm before I plug you. What’s it gonna be?”

“Reckon you win, Burnham.”

Taggart lowered his gun. Too late, he spied movement from the corner of his eye.

“Jesse, Bobby, no!”

The boys had slipped from their seats while Burnham was occupied with the Ranger. Now they rushed to the front of the room and dove at their teacher, the collision separating her from Burnham’s grasp.

For a split-second, Burnham’s attention was diverted from Taggart. Nonetheless, he was already thumbing back the hammer of his sixgun when the Ranger lifted his Peacemaker and fired, Taggart pulling his trigger at the same moment. Taggart’s bullet took the outlaw in his belly, jackknifing him, while Burnham’s hastily fired shot slammed into the Ranger’s side.

The mortally wounded Burnham attempted to level his gun and put another slug into Taggart. Taggart shot him through the chest. The bullet smashed Burnham backwards. He fell across the teacher’s desk, shuddered, then lay still. Taggart wrested Burnham’s gun from his hand and tossed it aside. He slid his own gun back in its holster.

“Lucy, are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes. Yes, I am, Clay,” she half-sobbed. “But what about you?”

“I’ll be all right. Get the kids out of here.” Under his breath he added, “And get the doc. Now!”

Taggart’s hands were clamped to his side, covering the crimson stain seeping through his shirt.

“All right.”

Lucy hurried the children from the classroom. Once they were outside, Taggart collapsed.

#

Once again, Taggart awoke in an unfamiliar room. This time there was the pressure of bandages wrapped around his middle.

“Ranger Taggart. You’re awake. I’ll get the doctor,” the woman at his bedside stated. She left, soon reappearing with Doctor Palmer in tow.

“Ranger Taggart. We meet again,” Palmer smiled. “Although just once I would like to visit when I’m not treating you for a bullet wound. Permit me to introduce my wife and assistant, Amanda.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Taggart nodded.

“You’ll recover fully,” Palmer explained. “However, you will be laid up for some time. That bullet was deep in your side. It took some doing to find it.”

“Burnham?”

“Already buried. Sheriff Moran has notified Ranger Headquarters.”

“Miss Squires and the kids?”

“All fine, thanks to you.”

“I’d like to see ’em.”

“In a few days, once your fever is lower,” Palmer promised. “What you need now is rest. I’ve got some laudanum to help you do that.”

“Reckon it’s no use arguing,” Taggart said.

“That’s right,” Palmer confirmed. He gave the Ranger a large dose of the laudanum. Within minutes, Taggart was again sound asleep.

#

Several days later, as promised, Palmer allowed Taggart a few visitors. The first was Sheriff Moran. Later Lucy Squires, accompanied by Jesse Collins and Bobby Madison, came by.

“Ranger! We’re sure glad to see you!” Bobby exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Jesse added. “And I thought you said that gunfights were fiction. That sure looked like one to me.”

“It was,” Taggart conceded. “Shows even a Ranger can be wrong. And speakin’ of wrong, it was plumb foolish what you two pulled. Courageous, but foolish. You could’ve been killed.”

“So could you,” Bobby pointed out.

“Yeah, but takin’ chances is my job,” Taggart answered. “And even though you should’ve stayed out of it, I’m glad you didn’t. You saved my life, and Miss Squires’ too. You’re now unofficial Texas Rangers. Soon’s you’re old enough you can join up for real.”

“You mean that?” Jesse exclaimed.

“I sure do,” Taggart grinned. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like a few minutes to speak with Miss Squires. You can come back once we’re done.”

“Sure, Clay,” Bobby answered. “C’mon, Jess, let’s go.”

“Clay, I want to thank you,” Lucy began, once the boys had left.

“You were pretty brave yourself,” Taggart answered.

“I had to be for the children.”

Doctor Palmer stuck his head in the door.

“Only a few more minutes, please.”

“All right,” Lucy said.

“Guess we don’t have time to talk,” Taggart grumbled.

“We’ll have plenty of time while you recuperate,” Lucy answered. “And hopefully after that.”

“Lucy, I’m a Texas Ranger, and always will be,” Clay explained. “I’ll be leavin’ for Austin soon as I’m able. After that, who knows where I’ll be goin’. Besides, you don’t know me very well.”

“I know what you are,” Lucy answered. “And we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other. I want to know everything about you.”

“It’s a hard life bein’ a Ranger’s gal,” Taggart noted.

“I know that. But if you love someone you take him as he is.”

“But…”

“No buts, Clay Taggart,” Lucy said. “When you leave for Austin, I’m going with you… as your wife.”

“I haven’t asked you yet.”

“You will,” Lucy promised.

She kissed him on the cheek, then turned for the door. She stopped and looked back at the bemused Ranger.

“Yes, you will.”


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