A Question of PossessionShort Story by Andy Adams
Along in the 80's there occurred a question of possession in regard to a brand of horses, numbering nearly two hundred head. Courts had figured in former matters, but at this time they were not appealed to, owing to the circumstances. This incident occurred on leased Indian lands unprovided with civil courts,--in a judicial sense, "No-Man's-Land." At this time it seemed that might graced the woolsack, while on one side Judge Colt cited his authority, only to be reversed by Judge Parker, breech-loader, short-barreled, a full-choke ten bore. The clash of opinions between these two eminent western authorities was short, determined, and to the point.
A man named Gray had settled in one of the northwest counties in Texas while it was yet the frontier, and by industry and economy of himself and family had established a comfortable home. As a ranchman he had raised the brand of horses in question. The history of this man is somewhat obscured before his coming to Texas. But it was known and admitted that he was a bankrupt, on account of surety debts which he was compelled to pay for friends in his former home in Kentucky. Many a good man had made similar mistakes before him. His neighbors spoke well of him in Texas, and he was looked upon as a good citizen in general.
Ten years of privation and hardship, in their new home, had been met and overcome, and now he could see a ray of hope for the better. The little prosperity which was beginning to dawn upon himself and family met with a sudden shock, in the form of an old judgment, which he always contended his attorneys had paid. In some manner this judgment was revived, transferred to the jurisdiction of his district, and an execution issued against his property. Sheriff Ninde of this county was not as wise as he should have been. When the execution was placed in his hands, he began to look about for property to satisfy the judgment. The exemption laws allowed only a certain number of gentle horses, and as any class of range horses had a cash value then, this brand of horses was levied on to satisfy the judgment.
The range on which these horses were running was at this time an open one, and the sheriff either relied on his reputation as a bad man, or probably did not know any better. The question of possession did not bother him. Still this stock was as liable to range in one county as another. There is one thing quite evident: the sheriff had overlooked the nature of this man Gray, for he was no weakling, inclined to sit down and cry. It was thought that legal advice caused him to take the step he did, and it may be admitted, with no degree of shame, that advice was often given on lines of justice if not of law, in the Lone Star State. There was a time when the decisions of Judge Lynch in that State had the hearty approval of good men. Anyhow, Gray got a few of his friends together, gathered his horses without attracting attention, and within a day's drive crossed into the Indian Territory, where he could defy all the sheriffs in Texas.
When this cold fact first dawned on Sheriff Ninde, he could hardly control himself. With this brand of horses five or six days ahead of him he became worried. The effrontery of any man to deny his authority--the authority of a duly elected sheriff--was a reflection on his record. His bondsmen began to inquire into the situation; in case the property could not be recovered, were they liable as bondsmen? Things looked bad for the sheriff.
The local papers in supporting his candidacy for this office had often spoken of him and his chief deputy as human bloodhounds,--a terror to evil doers. Their election, they maintained, meant a strict enforcement of the laws, and assured the community that a better era would dawn in favor of peace and security of life and property. Ninde was resourceful if anything. He would overtake those horses, overpower the men if necessary, and bring back to his own bailiwick that brand of horse-stock. At least, that was his plan. Of course Gray might object, but that would be a secondary matter. Sheriff Ninde would take time to do this. Having made one mistake, he would make another to right it.
Gray had a brother living in one of the border towns of Kansas, and it was thought he would head for this place. Should he take the horses into the State, all the better, as they could invoke the courts of another State and get other sheriffs to help.
Sixty years of experience with an uncharitable world had made Gray distrustful of his fellow man, though he did not wish to be so. So when he reached his brother in Kansas without molestation, he exercised caution enough to leave the herd of horses in the territory. The courts of this neutral strip were Federal, and located at points in adjoining States, but there was no appeal to them in civil cases. United States marshals looked after the violators of law against the government.
Sheriff Ninde sent his deputy to do the Sherlock act for him as soon as the horses were located. This the deputy had no trouble in doing, as this sized bunch of horses could not well be hidden, nor was there any desire on the part of Gray to conceal them.
The horses were kept under herd day and night in a near-by pasture. Gray usually herded by day, and two young men, one his son, herded by night. Things went on this way for a month. In the mean time the deputy had reported to the sheriff, who came on to personally supervise the undertaking. Gray was on the lookout, and was aware of the deputy's presence. All he could do was to put an extra man on herd at night, arm his men well, and await results.
The deputy secretly engaged seven or eight bad men of the long-haired variety, such as in the early days usually graced the frontier towns with their presence. This brand of human cattle were not the disturbing element on the border line of civilization that writers of that period depicted, nor the authors of the bloodcurdling drama portrayed. The average busy citizen paid little attention to them, considering them more ornamental than useful. But this was about the stripe that was wanted and could be secured for the work in hand. A good big bluff was considered sufficient for the end in view. This crowd was mounted, armed to the teeth, and all was ready. Secrecy was enjoined on every one. Led by the sheriff and his deputy, they rode out about midnight to the pasture and found the herd and herders.
"What do you fellows want here?" demanded young Gray, as Ninde and his posse rode up.
"We want these horses," answered the sheriff.
"On what authority?" demanded Gray.
"This is sufficient authority for you," said the sheriff, flashing a six-shooter in young Gray's face. All the heelers to the play now jumped their horses forward, holding their six-shooters over their heads, ratcheting the cylinders of their revolvers by cocking and lowering the hammers, as if nothing but a fight would satisfy their demand for gore.
"If you want these horses that bad," said young Gray, "I reckon you can get them for the present. But I want to tell you one thing--there are sixty head of horses here under herd with ours, outside the '96' brand. They belong to men in town. If you take them out of this pasture to-night, they might consider you a horse-thief and deal with you accordingly. You know you are doing this by force of arms. You have no more authority here than any other man, except what men and guns give you. Good-night, sir, I may see you by daylight."
Calling off his men, they let little grass grow under their feet as they rode to town. The young man roused his father and uncle, who in turn went out and asked their friends to come to their assistance. Together with the owners of the sixty head, by daybreak they had eighteen mounted and armed men.
The sheriff paid no attention to the advice of young Gray, but when day broke he saw that he had more horses than he wanted, as there was a brand or two there he had no claim on, just or unjust, and they must be cut out or trouble would follow. One of the men with Ninde knew of a corral where this work could be done, and to this corral, which was at least fifteen miles from the town where the rescue party of Gray had departed at daybreak, they started. The pursuing posse soon took the trail of the horses from where they left the pasture, and as they headed back toward Texas, it was feared it might take a long, hard ride to overtake them. The gait was now increased to the gallop, not fast, probably covering ten miles an hour, which was considered better time than the herd could make under any circumstances.
After an hour's hard riding, it was evident, from the trail left, that they were not far ahead. The fact that they were carrying off with them horses that were the private property of men in the rescue party did not tend to fortify the sheriff in the good opinion of any of the rescuers. It was now noticed that the herd had left the trail in the direction of a place where there had formerly been a ranch house, the corrals of which were in good repair, as they were frequently used for branding purposes. On coming in sight of these corrals, Gray's party noticed that some kind of work was being carried on, so they approached it cautiously. The word came back that it was the horses.
Gray said to his party, "Keep a short distance behind me. I'll open the ball, if there is any." To the others of his party, it seemed that the supreme moment in the old man's life had come. Over his determined features there spread a smile of the deepest satisfaction, as though some great object in life was about to be accomplished. Yet in that determined look it was evident that he would rather be shot down like a dog than yield to what he felt was tyranny and the denial of his rights. When his party came within a quarter of a mile of the corrals, it was noticed that Ninde and his deputies ceased their work, mounted their horses, and rode out into the open, the sheriff in the lead, and halted to await the meeting.
Gray rode up to within a hundred feet of Ninde's posse, and dismounting handed the reins of his bridle to his son. He advanced with a steady, even stride, a double-barreled shotgun held as though he expected to flush a partridge. At this critical juncture, his party following him up, it seemed that reputations as bad men were due to get action, or suffer a discount at the hands of heretofore peaceable men. Every man in either party had his arms where they would be instantly available should the occasion demand it. When Gray came within easy hailing distance, his challenge was clear and audible to every one. "What in hell are you doing with my horses?"
"I've got to have these horses, sir," answered Ninde.
"Do you realize what it will take to get them?" asked Gray, as he brought his gun, both barrels at full cock, to his shoulder. "Bat an eye, or crook your little finger if you dare, and I'll send your soul glimmering into eternity, if my own goes to hell for it." There was something in the old man's voice that conveyed the impression that these were not idle words. To heed them was the better way, if human life had any value.
"Well, Mr. Gray," said the sheriff, "put down your gun and take your horses. This has been a bad piece of business for us--take your horses and go, sir. My bondsmen can pay that judgment, if they have to."
Gray's son rode around during the conversation, opened the gate, and turned out the horses. One or two men helped him, and the herd was soon on its way to the pasture.
As the men of his party turned to follow Gray, who had remounted, he presented a pitiful sight. His still determined features, relaxed from the high tension to which he had been nerved, were blanched to the color of his hair and beard. It was like a drowning man--with the strength of two--when rescued and brought safely to land, fainting through sheer weakness. A reprieve from death itself or the blood of his fellow man upon his hands had been met and passed. It was some little time before he spoke, then he said: "I reckon it was best, the way things turned out, for I would hate to kill any man, but I would gladly die rather than suffer an injustice or quietly submit to what I felt was a wrong against me."
It was some moments before the party became communicative, as they all had a respect for the old man's feelings. Ninde was on the uneasy seat, for he would not return to the State, though his posse returned somewhat crestfallen. It may be added that the sheriff's bondsmen, upon an examination into the facts in the case, concluded to stand a suit on the developments of some facts which their examination had uncovered in the original proceedings, and the matter was dropped, rather than fight it through in open court.