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Rio Pecos Compound: Chapter 3.

13 Oct
Cover for Rio Pecos Compound, Book Six of The Clint Mason Series by William F. Martin.

Rio Pecos Compound

Learn more about Rio Pecos Compound: Book Six of The Clint Mason Series

Copyright William F. Martin. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 3.

Almost three weeks had passed since Clint had purchased the sheep herd from Sr. Juan Martinez. The Basque herders had made excellent time moving the 100,000 head of sheep. He noticed that the trail was getting very fresh, so the herd could not be very far in front of him.

Then he saw one of his horses he had left with the Mexican guards lying dead in a wash. The alarm shot through his body; instant keen alertness. He used the spyglass to scan the trail. He noticed a few white clumps in the distance and soon learned that they were dead sheep. Reading the tracks told the story of five or six bandits that had raided the Basque camp. However, the Basque carts and sheep trail continued. It would appear the bandits pulled out without success and had headed south. Clint knew that the trail they’d taken led toward the town of Tucumcari.

Within a few hours of hard riding, Clint came upon the sheep herd. The Mexican guards met him at the rear of the herd. Once they recognized him, he was waved on in. The Basque had already set up camp for the night, but everyone was on high alert for another attack. They were sure glad to see a friendly face and another gun hand.

The story they told about the raid was short. The only person hurt was one of the young Mexican guards. The bandits apparently had not realized the sheepherders had an armed guard unit with them. The bandits had ridden into their camp last night demanding money, food and horses while the Mexican guards had been out front of the herd scouting the next day’s drive. When they came back into camp, the surprised bandits started shooting wildly. The bandits had then dropped everything and rode at a dead run back down the riverbed. A stray bullet had hit one of the guard’s horses. The tumble had killed the horse and hurt the Mexican rider. The rider’s injury was not serious, but the Basque shepherds had suggested an early camp just in case. They would not be able to outrun the bandits, so a well-fortified camp would be their best chance and their injured guard could rest up a couple of days. If the bandits did not come back, the trail drive could then continue. This would also give them the opportunity to go back and dress out the two or three sheep that had been killed.

The injured guard had some bruises and scrapes, plus a sprained ankle, but the biggest injury was to his pride. The other young gunmen were ready and anxious to track down the bandits. Clint finally calmed them down. The drive would continue. Clint and one guard would follow the bandits’ tracks. His earlier scouting had convinced him that the gang was headed to Tucumcari. They were either going for help or maybe they had decided that trying to rob a guarded sheep camp wasn’t worth the risk. The camp needed a few supplies, so one guard and Clint would trail the bandits. If that led them to a trading post, they could stock up. If the bandits were getting help, then the warning could quickly be brought back to the herd.

Clint’s guess turned out to be accurate. The bandits’ tracks lead straight to the town of Tucumcari. When the guard pointed out two riders that had raided the sheep camp, Clint sent the guard to the general store to buy the supplies they needed. A trip to the saloon and café would probably let him know if the bandits were organizing another raid. It didn’t take Clint long to learn that these riders were not interested in any sheep herd that had armed guards. It turned out that two of the raiders had been hurt… one fairly seriously. These Mexican young guns must be pretty good shots to hit two of the hard riding bandits.

When Clint and the guard got back to the old campsite, the herd had moved on. These Basque knew their business. Herding sheep was both a process and a way of life. The sheep grazed on the move, so a slow-moving herd was better fed than one that was stationery. Clint could also tell that the entire Basque clan was starting to push. They were anxious to get to the new ranch.

They were still following the Canadian River west by northwest, a path that would take them through the big Mora land grant. The western edge of the Mora Spanish land grant would butt up against the Santa Fe Trail. Clint knew the area pretty well from his land surveying days. The Mora Range covered the headwaters of the Canadian River and the high plains that served as a divide to the Rio Pecos drainage basin.

Once they cleared the steep mountain range on their left, the herd could be turned south. The large grass range looked like a giant smooth dome between two rivers. The grass and sage was swaying in the breeze like silk sheets. The mountains had been eroded down between the two rivers and formed a natural passageway. Early explorers and native Indians had discovered this route long before the Santa Fe Trail was named.

The Basque shepherds realized that their old stories about this route were being confirmed. Some earlier Basque herders had been brought up the Rio Grande almost 200 years ago by the Spanish Army.

Clint was rather confident that his herd had been on the Mora Grant for at least two days. A challenge by some Mora riders was expected. Holding and protecting your land was mostly done by force rather than by law. The Mora family was not objecting to the passage of his herd, they just wanted to make sure everyone understood the rules. The accepted practice was open range to move herds, but ownership of the land was fiercely defended. There was only a brief encounter with the Mora riders, who observed the herd from a distance. Two more hard days passed before the front scouts brought word about the upcoming Santa Fe Trail.

A prolonged discussion with the herders and Mexican guards around the campfire that night led to a consensus. The main sheep herd would move slowly over the divide between the Rio Pecos and the Canadian, and then keep east of the Santa Fe Trail and head south. The families, carts and some guards would take the much easier path by using the main trail. At this point, they were only a few days from the Rio Pecos Compound. The herders would use a light camp tonight and meet for one last major camp setup before making the final push onto the Rio Pecos Compound land.

After the herd had crested the divide, stray sheep began to join the herd. Scattered bunches of ten, 20 and 30 sheep were found wandering the brush at the edges of the grass plain. Occasionally, the sheep would have a tattoo brand, but mostly they were unmarked. Most of the strays were in bad shape, often with injuries that needed tending. If the sheep were too far gone, they would be slaughtered for their hides and meat. The Basque herders were very skilled at saving sheep, but the whole process did slow the march south.

Clint and four of the guards stayed with the families and carts on the Santa Fe Trail. The other four guards watched after the shepherds. Moving the horses through the floodplain area with the sheep herd was slow and difficult on the mounts. The brush and cactus could rip the hide of a horse if great care wasn’t taken. But the wooly sheep seemed to be at home in the underbrush along the Rio Pecos. The map that Clint had drawn gave the shepherds clear landmarks to follow. The carts and everyone else would proceed to set up a good campsite two days’ drive south.

It was possible that the procession of carts, horses and people headed down the Santa Fe Trail could invite ambush. The trail was a lucrative source of supplies for the lazy, the unemployed and the thugs. The Mexican guards were cautioned over and over again about the risks on this well-traveled trail. While show of force may keep the small bands of thieves at bay, the presence of excellent horses, loaded carts and families might entice a larger bandit group to attack.

The first night’s camp just off the Santa Fe Trail gave Clint a chance to night scout the land south of him. The guards would take turns with the patrol duties. It was emphasized that everyone and the animals needed to stay rested so that an emergency drive could be made if conditions dictated. The camp was to move on south the next morning. Clint’s scouting trip turned up a campfire back in the hills west of the trail. The moonlight was just bright enough for Clint to get in close. The group of men gathered around the fire numbered close to a dozen. The guns, mounts and clothes of these men indicated that they were rustlers. Although Clint could not hear the conversation, it was clear they were planning a raid. Their gestures and pointing led Clint to believe his caravan was the most likely target. He moved around the perimeter of the camp until he located the horses. He counted fourteen riding horses and two pack mules with only one guard on duty. Bandits often did not take precautions to guard themselves. In their minds, they were the aggressors who would do the attacking.

There was no way of knowing for sure the intent of these men, but some prevention was in order. Clint was able to sneak around and disable the dozing guard. The horses and mules were then turned loose. Four of the best horses were led away, knowing that most of the other horses would follow. If Clint could steal their mounts, it might take these potential rustlers a couple of days to reorganize. Most of the horses were saddled, which was another clue that this was a group of bandits. Ranchers, travelers and honest people didn’t leave their horses saddled all night. Without saddles and their best mounts, they would not be able to muster a raid. If this group turned out to be innocent, they just run into some bad luck. The only injury was a bump on the head of the lonely guard. Clint had also wasted a little of his whisky with a splash on the gent’s clothes. Hopefully, his comrades would blame him for getting drunk and falling off his perch.

When Clint was a good distance from the campfire, he hooked a big brush and dragged it along behind to cover his tracks. The other loose horses were wandering along in a random path, but in general following his direction. Once he had intersected the Santa Fe Trail, the track would be masked by all the other travelers. Clint headed to the next designated camp location where he could rest and wait for the caravan to reach him. He had put in a good night’s work and sleep was beckoning him.

It was late the next afternoon before the Basque caravan with the Mexican guards found his campsite. He had spent the afternoon cleaning the area, building a nice fireplace, and dragging in some dry firewood. The stolen horses had all been unsaddled and their gear hidden. The horses were then driven further south and down toward the waterholes that were near the river. The better grazing and the water should keep the horses off the high and dry Santa Fe Trail. These riders had had some very good riding stock. If Clint could ever find out the intent of those riders, he could either let them find their own horses or he could come back and retrieve the best for his own ranch.

The pack mules finally wandered into camp with their packs still on. These poor animals were probably looking for someone to remove their burden. A thorough inspection of the mule packs convinced Clint that the owners were indeed bandits. The packs were full of guns, jewelry, copper pots and pans, and anything of value that these bandits had collected from various travelers.

The variety of jewelry indicated several different families had been robbed. Knowing that most people could identify their own jewelry, Clint had the idea to display these family heirlooms on the Santa Fe square. True, it might be a little tricky to avoid being charged with the robbery, so he would have to devise a plan. He couldn’t help thinking of the joy that would spread across a poor settler’s face upon retrieving a family locket or other keepsake. Most of the westward moving families had given up almost everything for this move. They would often bring small pieces of their family history with them just to maintain some connection with their past. When those few pieces are stolen, the hurt and anger can stay with you for years. There was some risk in keeping the loot in his possession, but Clint wanted to attempt to return these items to their owners. Everything was placed in the carts under the hides and wool. The mules were then stripped of their packs and turned loose.

Clint rotated the guards all night. He did not want to be surprised. But, without event, the next morning saw the caravan heading south. If all went smoothly, there would be one more major campsite on the trail, then a long day’s drive into the Rio Pecos Compound.

This upcoming last night on the trail would be a good time to celebrate. The Basque herders would not be far away with the flock, so most of these men could be brought into the camp for the night. One of the guards was sent back to check on the progress of the herd. The distance between the caravan and the herd was a little greater than Clint had expected, so it was decided by the women of the caravan to stop early so the herd and their men could catch up. Clint had to be reminded that herding sheep was their way of life. Camping on the trail was their home. One more day to the ranch was not a big thing for them.

Even though the camp had been set up about mid-afternoon, it was almost sunset before everyone finally gathered around the feast. The women had gone all out to make a huge meal. The sky was a golden orange with streaks of a pure gold lining under the clouds. The mountain range west of their campsite was exceptionally high and that height brought early sunsets, but beautiful lights and mountain silhouettes. Laughter filled the air as the shepherds were feeling relaxed and safe. It was a good night for a party.

Clint had to occasionally interrupt the Mexican guards’ fun as he sent out two at a time to patrol. These young guns loved the fun of a feast and the music, but like good soldiers, they took their turns on guard duty.

Early the next morning everyone was back to their tasks. The early stop the night before would mean no more stops before the ranch buildings would be reached. Clint let everyone know that the next campsite would be on the Rio Pecos Compound land. He informed the Basque herders that they would be coming up on his Navajo herders and their small herds of churro sheep. Since the Navajos, Basques, and Mexican guards all spoke Spanish, minimum trouble was anticipated. Clint would go ahead and alert the young Navajo girls that were tending their sheep up ahead. Keeping the herds separate would be a good idea. The white and plump bodies of the Merino-Churro cross looked a lot different than the much darker, long-haired, bare-bellied churros that the Navajos cherished. Also, both the Basque and the Navajos were owners of a share of their respective herds. It was going to require some cooperation from everyone if they were to keep ownership of the herds fair and straight.

Clint did not encounter any Navajo herders or sheep the next day. He decided to ride on into the night and finally reach his ranch house. The herds and the caravan would move at their usual steady pace. The Mexican guards had proven very reliable, even if young and obviously eager to get to Santa Fe.

Upon arriving at the compound, Clint went straight to the main Navajo Hogan. His arrival had been anticipated. One of the elder Navajo women was squatting beside a small mud oven, patiently waiting for his inquiry. A slow and rambling tale told Clint that the Navajo herd and its shepherds were well south and east of the ranch house. There had been some problems with coyotes on the western range, so they had had to move the sheep a day’s ride east.

Clint could see a little concern on the wind-burned and usually stoic Indian face. The prospect of a large herd moving on to this grazing area would definitely compete with the small Indian herd. Outrage from the Navajo matriarch was not expected, but her only outward sign was a bit of raised eyebrow as she rambled on about the family, coyotes, and new lambs. She also hinted about another trip to Santa Fe to trade blankets. The permanent setup at the ranch house compound was proving very useful. Their largest loom had been repaired and reassembled in one of the sheds. The women were taking turns on this fine loom. Clint could see a bit of pride when the woman described her latest blanket designs. She was also reporting that the men had made some very good jewelry from the sliver and turquoise last traded. They would soon need a new supply of raw stones and silver. Clint knew that this rough-looking Navajo lady was the accepted leader of the clan. She was the owner of the most sheep and had the authority to negotiate for the group. Clint was tired and only wanted to find his bed in his own house, but there was something this spokeswoman wanted to address. Though it took a long and rambling path, the conversation finally got to the point.

The Navajos had a long-time goal of returning to their homeland in the giant red rock monument canyon. The large Apache land area north of their current location would make it almost impossible or at least very difficult to return to their homeland. The Navajo were familiar with the Basque people. They were very different and had not mixed well with the Navajos. The Basque men run everything. That is not the custom of the Navajos. This was the dilemma presented to Clint.

The arrival of the Basque herd two days later was handled without much controversy. The Navajo herd being held in the southeastern grazing area left the northern sections of the range open for the huge Basque herd. This Rio Pecos Compound range could handle two to three head per acre without over-grazing. Clint knew that his large ranch could handle 200,000 to 300,000 sheep annually. The challenge over the coming years was not grazing, but would be the marketing of 50,000 to 80,000 sheep per year.

Clint had to smile at himself for having this kind of problem. His saddlebags were full of gold, his ranch was well-stocked, and life was good. His long-term planning and conniving had paid off. The task now was to defend his holdings.

The Basque had selected an area on the north side of the ranch buildings for their permanent camp. This provided them good access to the well and ranch buildings. The Navajo hogans were on the southeast side of the Rio Pecos compound buildings. Both the Basque and Navajos enjoyed nomadic lifestyles, but being at the base camps really improved their day-to-day comforts.

It took only a couple of days for the Mexican guards to request their leave. These young men wanted to see the high life of Santa Fe. The slow, dusty sheep trail had worn out their patience. Girls, music and drinks were on their minds. Clint gave them a fatherly caution about the hazards of the big city. Then they were given a good bonus in gold coins and sent on their way. They left with a promise of work at the ranch if any of them wanted to return. Four of the older Mexican guards reluctantly agreed to wait a few weeks and accompany the Navajos on their Santa Fe trading trip. Surprisingly, some of the Basques also wanted to go. They had heard rumors that there were other Basque clans in or around Santa Fe and they also had a lot of trading to do for supplies.

 
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