Early Spring, in southwest Texas. The very small town of Sutter’s Flats – one general store, one saloon, and a whole lot of nothin’ else. It’s close to the Mexican border, about 100 west of San Antonio, and close to, but not actually on, the Bayou Vermilion railroad. A small group of travellers, having seen the sights of Sutter’s Flats (it took all of two minutes) are sitting in the Lonely Crow tavern wondering what to do with themselves when they’re approached by a leathery old cowboy-looking fella:
“Howdy! My name’s Bill Sutter. I know most everyone hereabouts and I didn’t recognize you, so I wanted to say “Welcome to Sutter’s Flats.” Just to clear things up, the town’s named after my daddy. He was the first settler in this area, but that’s as far as my connection goes.
Aw, Hell. I ain’t no good at small talk. I’m lookin’ for some extra hands. I’m gettin’ ready to pull up stakes. Bayou Vermilion has got a stranglehold on the cattle trade ’round these parts, due to being the only railroad within hundreds of miles, and calling the prices they offer “highway robbery” is an insult to bandits. That bein’ the case, I’m gonna take my herd and leave, so to speak.
I’ve got a solid crew, but I’m shy a few. I’m lookin’ for experienced trail riders, but I’ll settle for anybody who knows which end of a gun the bullet comes out of. But pickin’s is gettin’ slim and I want to get on the trail before we get too far into spring, so if I can’t get that, I’ll make do with breathin’. Nobody comes to Sutter’s Flat if they’ve got anywhere else to be, so I figured I’d make you the offer.”
Our heroes, having indeed nothing better to do and nowhere in particular better to be, talk Sutter into paying slightly higher wages than he was hoping to and sign up. They’ll be paid $35 a month for the duration of their employment, with horses and food provided by the Lazy S. There’s a month or so’s work to be done around the ranch to prepare for the drive, which is planned to be along the Goodnight-Loving Trail towards Denver or the Confederate base at Roswell. They’ll be bunking at the ranch, and they can start work tomorrow morning.
The first task Sutter puts the posse to is a relatively tame one: breaking horses, under the direction of Luke Canton, Sutter’s right-hand cowboy. It doesn’t go particularly well, but eventually between them our heroes break five mustangs to the saddle and gain themselves an interesting collection of sprains and bruises. Canton then gives them the chance to try to break “Devil Eyes”, a mare who seems to be unbreakable. She’s a large, coal-black animal with a mean look in her eyes, who seems to take a hellish glee in throwing riders. Canton’s best cowboys have failed to break her so far, but he’s willing to give the posse a try at her if anyone’s got the huevos for it.
Remarkably, with the aid of intimidation, a muttered prayer from the Reverend Bly, and possibly a sly punch to the head before mounting, Martin Chavez succeeds in breaking the unbreakable horse and is given her for his own by an impressed Luke Canton. One of the posse at least has gained a little respect around the Lazy S.
The following few days sees the posse riding the ranch, trying to trace and round up wandering cattle. The work is pretty brutal, with the hands working six-and-a-half-day weeks from sunup to sunset; as well as rounding up the cattle there’s gear to be maintained and repaired, branding to be done, and the edges of the herd have to be ridden to deter predators. The new hands find it heavy going, and even Old Ben Blanco, who’s tried his hand at many hard jobs over the years, is soon showing the effects of fatigue.
A few days later our heroes encounter a nest of Terrantulas, but manage to overcome the dog-sized spiders with the help of Chavez’s blazing six-gun, Ely Bly’s righteousness, and Ben Blanco’s frontier grit and borderline alcoholism.
Soon after their arachnoid interlude the posse witness an enounter at the Lazy S ranch between Sutter and a dandified-looking gunfighter by the name of Bartholomew Phelps. Phelps tells Sutter he’s come to buy the cattle at the “agreed-upon” (and insultingly-low) price of five dollars a head, but is sent packing by Sutter. He doesn’t seem inclined to press the matter, having only six men with him and being surrounded by Lazy S hands, but it’s clear the issue isn’t over. The posse’s attention is drawn to one of Phelp’s companions, an older-looking Indian dressed in a threadbare Confederate jacket decorated with bangles and fetishes. Enquiring about him they discover that Black Dog is an old Comache raider with no love for Sutter, as Sutter was part of the posse who ran him down back in ‘73. Black Dog apparently signed on with the Confederacy for clemency, but they cut him loose after a while and it seems he’s signed on with Bayou Vermilion.
Sutter asks the posse to escort his niece Abby into town the following day, with good reason as it turns out as they soon run into Phelps at the general store. Phelps and his men pick a fight, but with Phelps gunned down his men decline to press the issue.
Bill Sutter decides that with Bayou Vermilion having taken the gloves off it’s past time to get the hell out of Sutters Flats, and accelerates his preparations. The cattle drive will be hitting the trail tomorrow.