William F. Stratton
How Pottering Pete Enforced the Law
Updated: May 24, 2021
Wayside Tales, April 1904
POTTERING PETE and Barney McGlynn stood on the platform in front of Shorty’s Place and watched the train from the North, as, with a final puff and snort, it stopped at the little station.
“Mornin’, Mr. Patton,” called out the grimy engineer, as he swung from the cab, oil-can in hand.
“Mornin’, Billy,” Pete drawled; “how’s tricks up th’ road?”
“Quiet, quiet,” Billy grunted, punctuating his remarks with squirts of the oil; “though they was havin’ a little excitement up at Peterson’s as we come through. Hoss thief.”
“Hang ’im?” Pete asked, carelessly, as he watched the passengers filing into the dingy lunch-room.
“Nope; they’ll fix that when they git him back to Moccasin Camp. That’s where he stole th’ hoss.”
“Plenty o’ trees on Peterson’s ranch,” observed Mr. Patton, dryly. “Procrastynashun is th’ thief of time.”
“Nervy cuss, he was,” Billy continued, straightening up and surveying his engine critically. “Winged one of th’ Moccasin boys jest as they grabbed him, gittin’ onto th’ train. Joe Burrows they said his name was. New comer in th’ camp.”
Pottering Pete’s drooping shoulders squared with a jerk.
“What’s that?” he asked. “Say that name ag’in, Billy.”
“Joe Burrows,” repeated the engineer. “They caught him dead to rights, too.”
Mr. Patton seized old Barney by the arm.
“Barney,” he whispered, excitedly, “hike up to th' mine, hot foot, an’ round up four of th’ boys—boys that kin shoot—an’ see that they’re heeled fer bizness.”
“What fool scheme ye up to now?” Barney growled.
“Don’t ask no questions,” said Mr. Patton, gruffly. “Have ’em here in an hour. I’m goin’ to wire to headquarters fer a speshul, an’ to ol’ Peterson to have six good hosses waitin’ at his ranch. I’m fer law an’ order, right now, Barney. Git a move on ye.”
At one o’clock the special pulled in to receive six armed and stalwart passengers, five of whom wore mystified expressions on their rough faces. At two o’clock six horsemen galloped away from old Peterson’s ranch.
“They’ve got a good start on us,” muttered Mr. Patton to Barney, who galloped at his side, “but their hosses is tired an' they’ll take it easy.”
“Looky here, Pete,” Barney growled; “I reckon ye know what’s up, but I’d like to be took in as pardner in th’ informashun.”
“Told ye, Barney, that we’re goin’ into th’ law an’ order bizness—goin’ to see that the law’s enforced ’cordin’ to th’ statutes.”
“Ain’t goin’ to try to take that hoss thief frum them Moccasin boys, air ve, Pete?” asked the old man, anxiously.
“Ain’t goin’ to jest try. Goin’ to do it!”
Barney emitted an exclamation of disgust, and pulled on the bridle-reins, only to be jerked almost from his saddle as his horse leaped forward in frightened obedience to Mr. Patton’s persuasive spur.
"Own up ye’re afeared, Barney, an’ ye kin go home,” said Pete, contemptuously.
"But, Pete,” the old man protested, "th’ feller stole th’ hoss. We hain’t got no bizness to butt in. An’ them Moccasin boys’ll fight.”
"So’ll we!’ answered Pete, savagely.
Barney stared amazedly into the stern face and fiery eyes of the man whose listless, lazy ways had won for him the sobriquet of Pottering Pete.
"It’s th’ duty of ev’ry off’cer to enforce th’ law, Barney,” Pete continued, in the old drawling tone. “An’ I’m a off’cer—speshul const’ble—with a warrant fer Joseph Burrows, grand larc’ny. Fixed it with Squire Dibbs, afore we left.”
Barney groaned, and relapsed into silence, listening to the sixteen galloping hoofs behind him as they beat in regular rhythm upon the tortuous trail. From the darkening recesses of the mountains at their right the night-owls hooted weirdly. The mournful howls of prowling coyotes floated across the valley at their left. Dim in the gathering twilight, the trail ahead of them rose and fell, sinuously, among projecting spurs. As they labored up a steep ascent, Pottering Pete suddenly threw out a long arm, in warning to those behind. A faint note of laughter came from the farther side of the spur.
“They’re jest ahead,” Pete announced, as the others gathered around him. “Stay where ye kin see me, an’ don’t come till I strike th’ second match. Then come—quick— but don’t begin th’ shootin’.”
Half-way down the slope, Pete saw the dim forms of four horsemen turn and face him.
“Halt!” commanded a voice ahead.
Pete laughed noisily.
“’Fraid of Peter Patton?” he called out. “Put up yer guns, boys. I’m lookin’ fer company—not fer trubble.”
“Oh, it’s you, is it, Mr. Patton?” said the man on the gray horse, as Pete trotted up. “Thought mebbe it was some of Joe’s friends—if he's got any.”
Pete turned toward the man whose arms were bound behind him.
“Prisoner?” he asked.
The man on the gray horse nodded.
“Hoss thief,” he said, laconically. “He won’t be with us long.”
One of the other men laughed, and the eyes of the prisoner flashed toward him. Mr. Patton struck a match and held it near the captive’s face.
“Th’ image of ol’ Joe,” he muttered, as the charred stick fell from his fingers.
“Pardner,” he said, softly, to the man on the gray horse, “I reckon ye know that Peter Patton usually gits what he wants—an’ he wants this man.”
The man on the gray horse laughed—a short, sneering laugh.
“Sorry to refuse you, Mr. Patton,” he said, “but we really can’t disappoint th’ toys at Moccasin Camp.”
He gave a silent signal, and his two companions rode nearer the prisoner. One of them carried his right arm in a rude sling.
“Two an’ a half to six,” chuckled Mr. Patton.
“You’re the last man, Patton,” continued the man on the gray horse, “that I’d think would interfere in this affair. Didn’t you help swing—”
“I wasn’t an off’cer then,” Pete broke in. “I am, this trip. Speshul const’ble, sworn to enforce th’ law. Here’s my warrant. I’ll strike another match while ye read it.”
The three peered at the paper by the light of the flickering match.
“No use buckin’ th’ law; an’ th’ statutes, boys,” urged Mr. Patton.
“Ner my possy,” he added, suavely, as the five miners dashed down the hill.
The man on the gray horse ripped out an oath.
“What you goin’ to do with him, if we give him up, peaceable?” he asked, fingering the revolver at his belt.
“Th’ Squire’ll bind 'im over to Circuit Court, ’cordin' to th’ statutes,” answered Mr. Patton.
“What’s th’ use of all that tomfoolery?” the captive interrupted, sullenly. “I can’t give bond, an’ that dinky jail won’t stand five minutes before th’ Moccasin Camp gang.”
“Kain’t help it,” said Mr. Patton. “I’ve got to go ’cordin’ to law. When I land you in th’ coop I’m out o’ th’ game.”
The three Moccasin Camp men glanced at each other significantly.
“I guess you can take him, Mr. Patton,” said the man on the gray horse. “Mebbe we’ll see him later. You can leave the hoss at Peterson’s.”
“All right, pardner,” replied Pete, cheerily. “Now, Joseph, come a-jumpin’. You’ve give us trubble enuff already; don’t try enny tricks.” It was midnight when seven men stepped from the special in front of Shorty’s Place.
“Hold her here,” Mr. Patton directed the engineer. “Ye’ll have a passenger—in twenty minnits.”
Squire Dibbs, roused from his slumber, blinked sleepily over his docket as the posse gathered in the back room of the little shack.
“He pleads guilty, Squire,” Mr. Patton announced. “What’s th’ bond?”
“Considerin’ th’ shootin’ ez well ez th’ larc’ny, I’ve made it five hunderd, Mr. Patton,” replied the Squire, looking at Pete, uneasily.
“Cheap enuff; no time to change it, ennyhow. There’s my name; reckon it’s good, Squire?”
“This here court so considers it,” replied the Squire, pompously.
“Now, Joseph,’ said Pete, hastily, “th’ quicker ye jump that speshul th’ better fer yer health. At headquarters ye’ll take th’ next train south, an’ ye’ll not git off till ye hit El Paso. Yer transportashun’s arranged fer, an’ here’s a little roll, to give ye a start. Git!”
The late prisoner hesitated.
“I don’t understand all this,” he said, huskily. “Why should you, a stranger—”
“Ye don’t need to understand it,” cried Mr. Patton, impatiently. “What ye need is to git a move on. That speshul won’t wait all night—an’ Moccasin Camp’s a-comin’ this way on th’ jump.”
The man seized Mr. Patton’s hand, shook it heartily, then turned and sped toward the waiting car.
Pottering Pete put his elbows on the Squire’s table, rested his bearded chin on his hairy hands, and gazed dreamily into the darkness beyond the open door.
“Boys,” he said, softly, a queer intonation in his rough voice, “I’m a-lookin’ back fifteen year. I see Mr. Peter Patton snugglin’ among th’ rocks, under a blazin’ sun, with no water, mighty little ammunition, an’ a broken arm, listenin’ to th’ howls of a dozen dirty Apaches a-waitin’ to starve ’im out, er to plug ’im if he shows so much as th’ tip of his nose.
“Two miles up th’ ravine I sees ol’ Joe Burrows an’ little Speck Hillis, who’d come with me on that prospectin’ trip. They hears th’ racket. Duz they scoot fer safety? Not much! Ol’ Joe—drunk half th’ time, an ornery always—hoists Speck onto one of th’ mules, an’ starts him to th’ camp, twenty mile away, fer help. Then he packs sum water an’ ammunition on t’other mule, waits till night, an’ rushes through them ‘paches like a skeered steer through a cornfiel’. Connects with Mr. Patton, an’ helps ’im to stand them red pups off till th’ boys shows up next day. Otherwise, Mr. Patton would now be twangin’ a golden harp. ’Bout a year after that ol’ Joe gits his in a little argyment down at Striker’s Point.
“Pete.” sez he, as he hit th’ trail fer th’ New Jerusalem, “I’ve got a kid somwhere back in th’ states—named fer me, an’ takes after me, though I hope he won’t turn out as ornery. Ef ye ever git a chance to give th’ kid a lift ye’ll do it, won’t ye, Pete?”
“I sed I would—an’ I have. I reckon th’ account’s square, now. That’s why I wuz fer law an’ order— fer a limited time only. Let’s go home, Barney.”