Sunday, July 31, 2005

 

_Stampede Range_ by my father, a full-length Western novel

Beginning J. R. Johnston's 1929 34-chapter Western mystery novel, _Stampede Range_, unabridged. Copies of the original hardback, published by Chelsea House, can sometimes be found on www.alibris.com. (The pseudonym is that of my father, Gerald R. Johnston. He used it also in the nearly 400 short stories -- Western, detective, etc. -- of his published 1924-34. They appeared in many of the then-numerous pulp fiction magazines and digests before they largely disappeared as the Depression deepened.)

CHAPTER I

THE CANYON

MAN and horse had come far. Both were weary and travel worn, and their heads drooped drowsily. Both were obviously products of the cattle country, lean and lithe. Slung low on the black chaps the man wore, barely discernible in the waning daylight, was a black holster containing a black-handled revolver. The sombrero, gray with dust, gave a suggestion of being gray in texture also.
Singularly enough, the headgear was the only redeeming feature of the rider's garb. His shirt was black, as were his boots and the silken kerchief about his neck. Even the saddle and bridle were of the same somber hue, while, to complete the ensemble, the name “Blacky” admirably fitted the horse.
Until they got to know him, people were apt to be greatly deceived by the man's funereal appearance, for Bill Robbins' character was not at all in keeping with his costume. He was young, impressionable, and filled with the pure joy of living.
From the top of a ridge several miles back, Robbins had glimpsed the lights springing up in the valley below, where lay Del Rio, his destination. He sighed sleepily and patted his horse's neck encouragingly.
“Just a few miles more, partner. Then a flock of oats and some hay for you, and a real, sureenough bed for me. C'mon, slowpoke. The quicker we gets to where we're goin' the quicker we gets somethin' to eat and a place to slumber. Me—I'm so tired I could sleep a week.”
Somewhere in the distance behind him sounded a low, sinister rumble.
Robbins yawned wearily and slumped down in the saddle, eyes closed. Soon he was dozing, leaving Blacky to pick his own way among the boulders that were scattered in profusion along the bed of the canyon in which they were traveling.
Suddenly Robbins awoke with a start. The sinister rumble had grown in volume, and seemed much closer. It resembled thunder, but its nature was prolonged, continuous, and totally unlike any burst of thunder he had ever heard. He picked up his reins and turned Blacky about, riding toward a sharp curve in the canyon.
On each side of him the rock walls rose sheer and unbroken. So drowsy was he that Robbins did not realize his danger until he had reached the curve and swung around it. Then, with startling abruptness, a maddened herd of cattle swept down upon him. The daylight had faded into darkness, and the beeves were terrifyingly close before he saw them. It was only the quickness of his well-trained range horse that saved him from being trampled to death at the very beginning. As the leaders of the stampede lunged forward, wild-eyed and snorting, Blacky whirled so swiftly that Robbins was almost unseated, and sped back down the canyon.
Now fully awake to his peril, the rider bent low over the saddle horn and urged the animal on with pleading voice and quirt. He knew too well what would happen if those longhorned, frightened cattle, of whom he had caught only a dim glimpse, should overtake them. He could plainly hear their laboring breaths a few scant yards behind him, the sharp click of hoofs on rock ledges, and the hundred-and-one other herd noises.
On Blacky raced, never outdistancing the stampeding cattle, but sometimes losing ground. As he rode, Robbins edged the horse over to the right wall of the canyon, hoping to find a break in the rocks which he could enter and escape. His hope was in vain, for the cliffs seemed to rise steeper and steeper and more forbidding with each agonized stride of the weary horse. The floor of the canyon had given way to deep sand now, and the maddened pace slowed accordingly.
A mile, two miles, they traveled, and under him Robbins felt Blacky weakening. Once the stout-hearted horse stumbled, and the rider's heart was in his throat for fear he would not recover his stride. Again, the animal lost ground foot by foot as the sand sapped his strength. The tip of a steer's horn raked his flank, urging him into a terrorized burst of speed, but Robbins knew that unless he soon discovered a break in the frowning walls, or some ledge where he could scramble up out of the way of the stampede, both he and Blacky were as good as dead.
The moon came out from behind a bank of clouds, a thin silver crescent whose light was faint, but enough to show, behind the fugitive, a sea of tossing horns. It showed something else, too, something that brought a cry of horror to Robbins' set lips.
No more than a hundred yards ahead of him was a sheer drop where the torrents of water after every rain, unable to wear away the hard rock ledge that cut across the canyon bed, cascaded in a sixty-foot fall to a lower level. The rider gasped, instantly realizing this new danger. Possibly his horse, despite his weariness, might have been able to outdistance the raging herd at his heels, but now, with the cattle blocking the entire canyon behind him, it seemed inevitable that he and his master would be swept to their deaths over the falls. After them, of course, would come a living torrent of beeves, pushed relentlessly on by those farther to the rear, and they would be piled deep in a huge mound of torn and bleeding flesh.
Again and again Robbins glanced ahead, searching for some nook, some niche into which he might plunge and save himself. Blacky was doomed, that was appallingly obvious, because of his greater bulk and inability to take advantage of any crevice or depression into which a man might crowd. Robbins reluctantly decided that he must think only of himself.
With each trembling stride the laboring horse carried him nearer and nearer to the falls, driven onward by the greater fear of the sullen rumble and maddened bellowing behind him. And with each stride, too, the high walls on each side, like evil monsters conspiring together to accomplish the destruction of man and beasts, came closer and closer, to form a vast hopper for the culminating act of the tragedy.
A hundred feet, seventy-five, and the rider's eyes widened suddenly. He had seen something that spelled life to him, a scrubby tree growing precariously out of a crack in the rocks at the height of his head. But it was on the opposite side of the canyon, and to reach it he must cut diagonally across the forefront of the stampede, losing the few precious feet between himself and the threatening horns. It was his only chance for escape, however.
His spurs sank into Blacky's flanks; the quirt rose and fell vigorously as he turned the horse and raced toward the tree. The animal responded nobly in a last desperate burst of speed that kept him not more than twelve inches from the trampling hoofs.
Kicking his feet clear of the stirrups, Robbins dropped the reins and reached swiftly upward. His hands grasped the tree and with one movement he pulled himself out of the saddle upon it.
He heard the scrubby growth creak ominously and felt it sway under his sudden weight. In one short glance he saw his horse slide to a halt on the very brink of the precipice, try to turn; saw it swept over the edge by the leaders of the bawling, terrorized herd. He shut his eyes from the terrible sight, but he could not shut out the sounds that came to him from the bottom of the cliff; sounds of broken bodies scrunching together; agonized, almost human screams from Blacky, and the moaning of pain-racked, bleeding cattle.
Under him, when he opened his eyes again, he could see the surging forms of the remainder of the frightened beeves, all following blindly in the wake of their leaders. At the edge of the falls they strove frantically to halt, to turn aside, only to be pushed and shoved over into the abyss, unable to stop their mad pace.
“Good Lord!” Robbins breathed in awe. “What a horrible sight! That sure was a narrow escape for yours truly!”
He shifted his weight slightly. At the base of the tree sounded a warning crack. Then, with a loud report, it snapped off at the roots and precipitated him upon the backs of the steers in the rear of the herd! He bounced between two of them and fell to the ground. A sharp hoof slashed his shoulder; another struck him on the head, and blackness overwhelmed him.
[End of chapter]
 

CHAPTER II of Stampede Range

CHAPTER II

The Necktie Party

WHEN Robbins regained consciousness it was with a feeling of unreality. It was still dark. He was lying on sand, probably just where he had fallen, for he could see the black walls of the canyon looming above him. A stone was grinding into his back, and he sat up to avoid it. The movement brought him full knowledge of an excruciating pain in his head and a similar one in his right shoulder.
He raised himself slowly to his feet, half conscious of a murmur of voices, dominated by a bitter tone, at the brink of the precipice. The attempt made him giddy. To steady himself he leaned against the rock wall beside him, unheeding the clatter of falling rubble dislodged by his hand. The persistent murmur of voices ceased abruptly, but he was too weak, too dazed, to notice.
"Well, by gosh!" he said aloud. "After what they did to me I hope all them cows has sprouted wings!"
Violent hands laid hold of him, jerking him roughly to the center of the canyon. Instinctively he struck out straight from the shoulder, his fist hit something hard, a something that gave way before the blow and fell backward. He had no opportunity to strike a second time. His arms were pinioned to his sides by panting men, one of whom called out:
"Got him, boss! Light a match, somebody. Let's see who he is."
A match flamed, cupped in two dark hands to shield it against any stray puff of wind. In its feeble rays appeared outlined the grim, rugged faces of four range men. One of them, evidently the one who had been referred to as the "boss," was a man of middle age, with a scraggly, yellowed mustache. The match went out, leaving them in darkness.
"Don't know him a-tall," this man said in the bitter tones Robbins had heard. "Never saw him before. It don't matter, though. He can stretch a rope as well as somebody we know."
The captive found his voice with that.
"Hey!" he protested. "Yuh mean yo're gonna hang me? What for, I craves to know?"
A short laugh answered him.
"As if yuh didn't know! This is the last time you'll drive any herd of mine over a cliff. Where's the rest of yore gang?"
Robbins laughed harshly.
"I dunno what yo're talkin' about. I didn't run yore cattle over that cliff! But they dang near run me over, lemme tell you! I was just ridin' along mindin' my own business when they come tearin' along behind me."
The bitter-toned man snorted derisively.
"Aw, tell it to Santy Claus! There ain't no man could escape bein' run over that ledge with a bunch of stampedin' stock followin' him. You'd ought to have thought up a better story. See if yuh can find his horse, boys, and we’ll be on our way to find a good tree."
"Wait!" Robbins pleaded desperately. He was fighting for his life. "I'm tellin' yuh the truth! My horse went over; likely is buried under yore cattle. I grabbed hold of a tree growin' out of the rock over there and pulled myself up out of reach. That's the honest-too-God truth!"
The man looked at the point he indicated. So far as he could see in the dim light the wall was entirely free of any such growth.
"Danged if I can see any tree," he said suspiciously. "That's just another of yore lies."
"It ain't! It ain't! It was just a little thing, a scrub. It broke off just as the last of the cattle ran by. I remember falling on the back of one of them. I must have been knocked out when I fell to the ground, because I woke up no more'n a half minute before you grabbed me."
One of his captors began searching along the foot of the wall. Robbins' eyes followed him anxiously.
"What's yore name, and where yuh from?" queried the "boss" gruffly.
"I'm Bill Robbins. I ain't no rustler nor nothin' like that. Just a plain cow-waddy from up North. Been working on the Rollin' R for the past six months."
The fellow who had gone searching for the tree came back dragging the stunted, stubby growth to which Robbins owed his life.
"I guess maybe that part of his story is correct, dad," he said. "Here's the tree, and it's been fresh broke off."
"Uh-huh," answered his father noncommitily. "You say yuh been working for the Rollin' R, Robbins? Do you happen to know old Jim Crimins of the C Bar up that a way?"
Robbins hesitated an instant before replying.
"Old Jim Crimins! I'll say I know him! Ain't a better cowman in the country than old Jim. Friend of yores?"
The ominous silence that greeted his words was broken by the sharp exhaling breaths of the four men. He who had called the leader "dad," a young man with a straightforward manner, looked pityingly at the prisoner. It was obvious that he was inclined to believe Robbins' story, or had been until this moment.
"I dunno whether he is a friend of mine or not," the boss answered finally. "But I know Jim Crimins better than anybody else!"
His voice took on a sudden note of thunder.
"Why? Because I'm Jim Crimins! That's why! And the cattle at the foot of that cliff are all wearin' the C Bar brand. Yuh lyin' pup! Maybe now yo're tellin' the truth about yuh bein' caught in front of the cattle, but it was because yuh got caught when yuh was turnin' them into the canyon!"
"I didn't do no such thing!" Robbins denied indignantly. "I'll admit I lied, but I had good cause. Yuh was all set to hang me, and when yuh asked about Crimins I thought maybe he was a friend of yores and if I told yuh I knew him yuh'd give me a chance to explain."
"Aw, shut up!" Crimins ordered disgustedly. "Lies fall offn your tongue faster than water off a duck's back. Throw him on a horse, boys. I guess the nearest trees are up on the rim of the valley along the Del Rio road. Let's get this thing over with."
Robbins made no resistance. He knew it would be useless. So we climbed into the saddle of the horse one of the man held for him after he had submitted to having his hands bound behind him. The man to whom the horse along mounted in rear of him.
Crimins, a black bull on a dark horse, led the way up the canyon, while the rest followed the prisoner, guns in their hands and alert for any overt move or effort to escape. They talked in low tones among themselves, and Robbins heard the cattleman's son arguing at times in his behalf. The captive could not hear much that was said, but he heard enough to gather the conversation's import and to learn that young Crimins' name was Larry.
Several miles from the falls the little cavalcade climbed tediously up out of the canyon and turned back along it until the rim of the valley was reached. Through the straggling trees there, Robbins glimpsed the light of the town toward which he had been riding when he first heard the sinister rumble of the stampede.
Crimins halted among the trees and dismounted, walking about and looking upward for a strong limb.
"All right," he called from a distance, "here's a tree as good as any. Larry, scrape up some sticks and build a fire so's we can see to do this job right."
Under the prodding have begun of the man who had been riding behind him, Robbins slipped to the ground and went to the tree Crimins had selected. It took some minutes to get the fire started. Then Crimins backed his horse under a thick, convenient limb, knotted the noose of the lariat about the prisoner's neck, and boosted him into the saddle. This done, he threw the other end of the rope over the limb and fastened it securely to the tree trunk.
"Listen, dad," Larry Crimins spoke up as he finished his preparations, "ain't we bein' a little hasty? If this gent's story is true, we'd be the same as murderers if we strung him up."
"They'll be enough out of you," his father told him gruffly. "We've proved he’s lied to us, ain’t we? I guess there's not much chance of a mistake. Sure as shootin’ he’s one of the men who've been runnin’ off our cattle and stampedin’ them over that cliff. If he was headed for Del Rio, like he says, what was he doing in the canyon, anyhow? The road to town comes along this mesa."
"I know, but I don't feel right about this it. Hadn't we'd better investigate a little more?"
Crimins ignored him and turned to Robbins.
"Now then, stranger, have yuh anythin’ to say for yoreself before the necktie party gets goin'?"
"Only that you're making a big mistake, Crimins. Yore hangin’ the wrong man. I told yuh the truth, all except about knowin’ yuh up North. About that road now, I saw the light of the town from the top of the ridge. It was dark, and I couldn't see no road, so as long as the canyon pointed straight to where I wanted to go why shouldn't I ride down it?"
There was no pleading, no fright in his voice, only a gentle reproach for the men who were going to hang him like a common criminal for something he had not done.
"You don't need to think up any more excuses," Cumins said stubbornly. He was determined to carry through the hanging. "If that's all you got to say we might as well proceed. I wanna get it over with before somebody comes along."
Robbins was silent. He looked straight before him, his jaw set. He felt it was not his time to die, knew that he had not been guilty of the wonton destruction of the C Bar cattle, yet he did not intend to whimper or show yellow. He would go like a man, unafraid, or least not showing fear.
The cattleman's hand raised, holding a quirt with which to send his horse leaping out from under the innocent victim of circumstances. As he did so, Robbins thought he heard the faint drumming of hoofs coming nearer and nearer. He strove to listen, but out of the corner of his eye he saw the hand holding the quirt flash down.
The horse jumped. Around Robbins’ neck the rope tightened abruptly, strangling him. It jerked him from the saddle, clutching at his throat like a vice. And then, just as he seemed to be falling into a bottomless pit, he heard the louder drumming of hoofs and an agonized cry -- a cry in a shrill, piercing voice that called:
"Don't, dad! For God's sake, don't!"
[End of chapter]

Saturday, July 30, 2005

 

Chapter III

Chapter III

June

THE scene upon which Robbins opened his eyes this time was far different from the black, forbidding walls of the canyon. He was lying on a bed instead of sand, and a kerosene lamp with a yellow glow was doing efficient substitute duty for the crescent moon. Above him, dimly outlined, as if in a haze, appeared an oval face. His brain cleared and the face became distinct. It was the face of a young woman, crowned by a wealth of brown hair. She smiled at him and leaned closer.
"What -- what is this? Heaven?" he asked wonderingly.
The girl laughed merrily, in vast relief.
"No, not quite. Oh, I'm so glad you're alive. We thought you were dead when we brought to here. I'm glad you're not, first for your sake, and because dad has been saved from murdering an innocent man."
He saw her clearer now. She was dressed in a white waist with a black tie bound loosely around her softly tanned neck, and leather riding skirts and boots. She turned from him and called out. From another room came the sound of heavy footsteps, and Crimins and his son strode swiftly in.
"Lord, Robbins!" cried the cattleman heartily, holding out his hand. "I'm sure glad June got there in time. Even then, she'd have been too late if Larry here had not cut the rope before it broke yore neck. He'd been cuttin' shavin's to start the fire with, and when he heard June yell, he slashed the rope and let you down. I'm danged glad you're still alive, boy, and sorry I was such an old fool."
"Oh, that's all right," Robbins assured him. "I guess you was all worked up over losin’ yore cattle, till yuh couldn't figure things straight. Maybe I'd have done the same in your place. But how come yuh didn't go through with it even after Miss June reached yuh?"
"Why," put in the girl, "when dad found the cattle gone, and set out with the boys to trail them, eyes doubted around with a flash light I usually carry at night to see if I could discover what caused the stampede. This has been the second one, and we haven't been able before to find out what frightened the stock.
"Naturally, dad and the boys figured rustlers, because there have been rustlers working in the county for several months. But I found the tracks of a grizzly and followed dad to tell them about it. I saw the fire and went toward it. When I saw what dad was doing I was sure had a scare, thinking he caught somebody who is innocent of any part in the stampede. It was lucky I called out, wasn't it?"
Robbins smiled ruefully and felt his neck.
"Outside my neck being awful stiff and store, I'm pretty much alive. I sure thought I was a goner, though, when that horse jumped from under me. This is the second time to-night I been knocked cold. The other time was by a steer. If this keeps on, somebody's gonna succeed in putting me out for good. I'm a lucky cuss, I reckon, but such luck can't last forever."
They laughed with him and all restraint disappeared.
"I'm danged sorry this happened, Robbins," Crimins said again. "I dunno what I can do to make up for it, but I'm willing to try. You can't go on to town to-night; it's too late, so suppose yuh stay here. And what's more, if there ain't anything pressin’ yuh, yuh can stay here until yuh get good and ready to leave. The C Bar Ranch is a good place when her menfolks get over their crazy spells."
"Thanks," grinned Robbins, "I sure am tired. I come a long ways to-day, and besides, the little reception I got ain't made me feel especially lively. If nobody objects too strenuous, I'll put in the rest of the night in catchin' up on my shut-eye."
Despite his soreness and the harrowing experiences of the night, Robbins was up early the next morning. At breakfast he met the two hunters of the C Bar, "Windy" Williams and Milt Thompson, who had been with Larry Crimins and his father at the interrupted necktie party. Both of them were about 30 years of age, and inseparable companions, though direct opposites. Williams was tall and blond, with the hard eyes of a man who has seen a great deal of the rough side of life, and yet, around those same eyes were numerous wrinkles that told of a warm nature under the flinty shell. Thompson was short and squat, with powerful shoulders and arms, and a pair of blue eyes in which innocence and mischievousness continually battled.
"You're looking much better this morning, Mr. Robbins," June Crimins said brightly, as she laid before him a plate and which were several delicately browned pancakes. "I hope you'll like those cakes. 'Loco' Lang, our cook, went to town yesterday and hasn't come back yet, so I'm filling in."
"I don't think I'll kick," Robbins told her, reaching for the syrup. "Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good, outside of a little soreness. But then, I'm a tough rooster. I'm dang glad you've got a good voice, Miss June, or I reckon I'd be so stiff right now I couldn't move."
Her father laughed heartily.
"Yo're a funny gent. If I'd come as close to a grave as you did, I'd be shakin’ in my boots yet."
"Me, too," seconded Larry, smiling in friendly fashion across the table. "June, give Mr. Robbins some more of them cakes. They sure are swell this mornin’."
"They sure are," Robbins agreed with his mouth half full. "Best I ever ate. But say, don’tcha go misterin’ me. Makes me feel kinda queer. Most folks call me Bill. That is," whimsically, "except those that don't like me none. Then I get called most anything they can think of, and some things that come out by themselves."
After breakfast Crimins drew him aside.
"Bill," he said earnestly, "you look like a good man to me. If you a got nothin’ much to do, and if you don't bear no hard feelin’s for last night
-- well, thanks, but I wouldn't blame yuh if yuh did -- I'd like to offer you a job. It would likely be a little dangerous, but you ate the kind of fellah that'll back out just because yore hide might get scratched. What do yuh say?"
"Well," Robbins meditated, "I'm not exactly looking for a job. What do yuh want me to do?"
"I want yuh to put that grizzly out of business first thing. Last night was the second time cattle of mine have been stampeded over that cliff. Until June told me about finding those grizzly tracks, I was sure it was the work of rustlers who maybe lost control of the stock they were stealin’. It did look kind of funny, though, that they'd get frightened each time and go over the same cliff. But a grizzly clears that up, now."
"When was it yuh lost them other cows?"
"Last Monday. Three hundred white-faces. They were about the same number went last night."
Robbins whistled softly between his teeth.
"For gosh! Six hundred? That many? Why, man, at that rate you'll be ruined if it keeps up!"
Crimins nodded grimly.
"I know it. And what's more, the rustlers get away with fifty or a hundred each time they raid us. That's why I was so bitter last night when I thought you were partly responsible. After yuh tend to the grizzly, I'd like yuh to scout around and see if maybe yuh can't get a line on the rustlers. Being a stranger here it ought to be easier for you than one allows."
"What are yuh goin’ to do about the stock that got killed last night?"
"I’ll salvage what meat I can. The boys and I will do that right away, as much is we can, and keep at it until what's left spoils on us. We can sell it to the railroad construction camp ten miles east of here. I'll manage to save a little out of the wreck. Frankly, this leaves me in a hole, Robbins. I was countin’ on them cattle to pay off a mortgage this fall. Don't know now whether I can make it or not. I know I won't if that grizzly and them rustlers do any more damage. If you'll help me against them I certainly will be much obliged to you."
"All right, I will. I'm free to come and go as I like, so you've got me on yore pay roll right now."
"I think you'll be worth a hundred a month to me, and that's what you'll get. Yore six-gun's in the house somewheres, and there's a .45-70 Winchester and plenty of shells for it, too. After the boys go, pick out a saddle from that shed over there, and yuh can have that buckskin down in the corral. He's a good horse and mighty fast. Well, I'll be on my way with the boys. Tell June to get that saddle boot for the Winchester, and to go with you to where she found them bear tracks. See yuh later."
He hurried down to the corral, where Williams and Thompson were saddling up. Robbins went back to the house and told the girl what her father had said. She found his heavy, black-handled six-shooter, the saddle boot, and the Winchester Crimins had mentioned, and gave them to the cowboy. When she had finished the dishes and had tidied up the kitchen, she joined him at the corral, ready to ride. She watched approving as he deftly roped the big buckskin horse he was to use, and then caught her own, a capable-looking bay mare. Together they rode out of the corral and headed northwest.
An hour later, up on the mesa above the valley, the girl reined in and dismounted.
"Here's where the cattle were when they got scared," she said, pointing to the numerous marks of cloven hoofs on the ground. "Light down and I'll show you the grizzly tracks I found."
They left their horses with trailing reins and walked a few rods away. There June knelt and pointed again. The soil was soft and the tracks of the cattle had cut deeply into it. But what the girl indicated with a slender forefinger was not the print of a cleft hoof, but the mark of a five-toed, flat-footed, lumbering animal. The small depressions of claws were plainly to be seen.
"H'm," murdered Robbins. "Looks like bear, all right. Must be a right big fellow, too."
“Uh-huh,” agreed June. "Wish he’d show up right now in those rocks over there."
He grinned whimsically at her.
"If he did, I'd bet he'd wonder what was making all the dust away from here."
"Huh?" She scoffed, with the easy comradery of the cow country. "But it wouldn't be you running. You’d just stand there and whang away at an with that old Winchester until he got within five feet of you."
"My gosh, yuh don't think much of my shooting, do yuh?"
A little bubble of laughter escaped her. He glanced up suspiciously.
"I meant that you'd be too scared to run, and too scared to shoot straight," she told him, but he knew by the humorous twinkle in her eye that she hadn't meant any such thing.
They followed the tracks a short distance, Robbins carrying the rifle as a precaution against the possible appearance of the bear. Range born and bread, both of them could read signs like Indians. What they saw etched on the ground was an open book to them. They easily made out the patches of ground where the cattle had been lying; could read the signs that told of the animals heaving themselves to their feet, digging in deeply in a frantic effort to get away from the thing that had frightened them.
The tracks of the grizzly followed the deep-cut trail of the herd for a quarter of a mile, and then circled back to the rocks out of which they had come. Robbins and the girl mounted their horses again to follow, for no one bred to the range will willingly walk any appreciable distance. Where the trail of their quarry disappeared into the rocks, however the man dismounted.
"You'd better stay here, June," he said. "I'm going to see if these hold up somewhere. Be back right away."
He clambered up into the jumble of boulders and ledges, rifle held ready for use. He found nothing remotely resembling a grizzly, though occasionally, in the dirt between the rocks he discovered more five-toed tracks.
It was that one of these that, giving it only casual scrutiny as he passed, he stopped suddenly and knelt beside it. For fully a minute he looked at it. At last he arose, a grin on his face, and carefully stepped on the print and obliterated it with the scraping boot.
Then he went onward, following other tracks until he lost them on a long-flat shelf of rock. He hunted diligently for some time, but did not again find them. He came across some other tracks, though, the tracks of a horse. After a short period of further search he returned to where June waited for him.
"No bear," he informed her. "Lost the tracks. There's been a horse up here, maybe keepin’ company with the grizzly, eh? Any wild or stray ones in the country?"
"Why, yes. We have a pet horse, crippled he is, that runs all over the range. Names won a. It might have been his tracks you saw."
"Uh-huh, probably was. Well, let's be moseyin’ on. I want to take a look at that canyon in daylight."
As they rode westward he asked:
"You people been having trouble with any one around here lately?"
She hesitated and glanced queerly at him.
"Well, not anything really serious. Just the usual disputes that come up now and then on all ranges. Why?"
"I was wonderin’ who it could be rustlin’ yore cattle, that's all. How you like yore neighbors?"
"Well-I, the Box B, east of us, is all right and so is the Bull's-eye, to the south between us and Del Rio."
"Who's on the west and north?"
"The T Square is west and the boundary line is the rim of the valley. On the northwest is the Big Bear Cattle Company. It's the biggest outfit in the country and runs back into the mountains for miles. Both the Big Bear and the T Square have tried to buy us out, because our range takes in the head of the creek, the entire upper part of the valley and a good deal of this mesa land right here.
"The Big Bear, named after its brand, is owned by some people up North. Melvin Kurtz, the manager, would pay a big price for the C Bar, but dad says we'd never find another ranch as good as this."
"I reckon he's right," Robbins agreed, glancing approvingly about at the rich grazing land. "This sure is one swell country. Wish I owned it."
June laughed.
"Yes, and so do a lot of others. The C Bar isn't for sale to anybody. We're going to hang onto it until the sun freezes, unless -- unless --"
He looked quickly at her. There was a note of discouragement in her voice, not at all in keeping with her sunny nature.
"Unless what?" he queried.
"Unless we aren't able to meet the mortgage in the fall. You see, last year was a pretty lean one for us, and dad had to borrow heavily at the bank. He figured if he couldn't pay up right on time that he could get an extension, but last month Matthew Whortle, of the T Square, bought the mortgage from the bank and he'll surely foreclose. Nobody knows where he got the money, because it was a bad year for all the ranchers here. Maybe he had it salted away. Anyhow, he had it, and now he owns the mortgage."
[End of chapter]

Friday, July 29, 2005

 

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER IV

TROUBLE

THEY crossed a road that wound down the slope of the high ridge and disappeared over the rim of the mesa in the general direction of Del Rio. Robbins humorously remarked that it must be the one he should have taken the night before, and June laughed.
The trail of the stampeding herd led them a half-mile farther, where it plunged down a steep grade and turned into the canyon. The high rock walls did not begin for some distance, though the banks were nearly as unscalable in places. Where the cattle had streamed into the canyon, however, they were far less perpendicular, and the opposite side could have been climbed by the maddened animals had not an easier runway presented itself.
"It wouldn't have been necessary for any one to turn them here as your dad thoughts," Robbins pointed out to his companion. "When cow critters get scared, all they want is to do some place and go fast, and they'll take level goin' every time if they can. They ain't gonna waste no time, either, climbin' up toward the clouds when there's the canyon like this waiting for them."
"Yes, you're right. I wonder dad didn't think of that."
"Probably too mad and excited. Wanta go down to the falls?”
"If you wish. Only, let's go down into the valley and around. We'll just have to come back here if we go this way."
They reached the mouth of the canyon, a half-mile above the tree-lined creek that zigzaged through the valley, just as three wagons loaded with fresh meat came creaking out. On the first sat Larry, grinning and clucking to his sweating team. Williams and Thompson were perched on the seats of the two other wagons.
"Where's dad?" The girl called to her brother.
"These back in the canyon cutting out some more meat. You'd better not go up to the falls, June. It's an awful site."
"I can stand it, I guess. Come on, Bill."
They went on up the canyon, passing the black mouth of a huge cave on the left, which June said reached far back under the frowning walls. Although the Euro insisted she could bear the site of the dead cattle, Robbins noticed that after one involuntary look as a rode up she kept her eyes studio sleep averted. There was reason enough for even the hardest woman to quail.
At the foot of the falls there was a vast mound of cows and steers, did and crushed, and student into a pile as if by some gigantic and. Their bodies were twisted and toward, and blood had spattered high on the cold walls of the canyon on either side. At one side lay a number of fresh hides while on a square of canvas beside them Crimins was busy butchering. He came forward as they dismounted, wiping his hands on a rag.
"June, you shouldn't have come," he told his daughter gently. "Bill, I haven't seen a thing of your horse yet. Isn't that a horrible thing, though? I came near blubberin' like a baby when I first saw it this mornin'. Some of the cows were still alive, badly crippled. We had to shoot them, of course."
"It's terrible, all right," Robbins agreed, "but a lot more so when you think of seein' them goin' over, and have just escaped it yoreself. I ain't got over it yet."
He felt a little shaky in the knees now that he saw the huge mound of cattle and knew that beneath it, perhaps at the very bottom, was his horse -- where he, too, would be lying had it not been for the fragile scrub of a tree. He shuttered and turned his eyes away.
"Did you see anything of the bear?" Crimins questioned, changing the subject.
"No, not a thing. We tracked him a ways, but couldn't find where he went to. He came out of the rocks at the upper edge of the Mesa, followed the heard about a quarter of a mile, and then turned back. I lost his trail when I came to a big ledge, and didn't find anything else but a few horse tracks."
"Horse tracks?"
"Yeah. June says probably Wana has been rangin' around there."
"Oh, sure, I suppose so. He wanders all over the country. Each night he comes up to the corral for a handful of sugar from June. Nothing wild at all about Wana."
Down the canyon a rider appeared, his horse picking his way gingerly over the rough ground. The man was about Crimins' size, but instead of the customary range costume, he wore writing breaches, coat, and pinch hat. A tiny mustache adorned his upper lip. Robbins felt a distinct dislike for him at first sight.
"Who's this?" he asked the girl in a low tone.
June looked and sniffed disdainfully.
"That's Melvin Kurtz, the man I was telling you about. I wonder what he wants."
Kurtz reined in and slipped easily to the ground, looking about in surprise.
"Good Lord, Crimins!" he said. What's happened?"
It was apparent to Robbins that Crimins had no more liking for the man than his daughter had, but if Kurtz observed it, he gave no notice.
"Another stampede," the rancher told him shortly. "Three hundred this time."
"That's awful! What made them run? Do you know?"
"Well, we don't rightly no; though we think it was a grizzly. June ran across and bear tracks on the Mesa last night. This mornin' Robbins, here, a new puncher of mine, tracked the bear into some rocks, but couldn't rout him out."
Kurtz eyed Robbins appraisingly.
"Couldn't you find his den, Mr. Robbins?"
"No," the cowboy answered coolly. "He got plumb away. I don't figure he's hanging around them rocks anymore. He's probably clear over the divide by this time."
"H'm! Yes, that's likely. If he is, you can use that mesa again, can't you, Crimins? That's too good a grazing land to waste. How about selling to me?"
June and Robbins drew away from the two. They did not hear Crimins' answer, but they knew from his dogged manner that he was refusing. Kurtz argued earnestly for a few moments; then he glanced at June and said something to the rancher. Crimins' eyes flamed. His fist shot out and caught the manager of the Big Bear squarely on the side of the jaw. Kurtz crumpled to the ground as if he had been poleaxed. He got dizzily to his feet, holding is jaw, and again said something that neither the girl or Robbins could hear.
They saw the cattleman start toward Kurtz with his hands clenched wrathfully, but the man backed away from him, turned and ran to his horse. Flinging himself into the saddle, he shook his fist once at Crimins and galloped down the canyon without a glanced at June and Robbins.
The girl went quickly to her father. His faced was flushed and his eyes fairly snapped in anger.
"What was the matter, that?" she asked him.
"He told me his company had decided to boost the price offered for the see bar. When I told him I wouldn't sell for any price, he said I might as well sell now as have him get it for nothin' when he married you."
The girl stared at him in surprise. There was a dangerous glint in her eyes that boded no great good for Mr. Melvin Kurtz when they met again.
"He said that? The dirty rat! If I ever think of marrying him, I hope somebody puts me in the crazy house!"
She looked at Robbins as she said this and found him eying her strangely. Her color mounted and she lowered her head in confusion.
"What have you figured on doing, Bill?" Crimins asked presently. "About that grizzly, I mean."
"Why, I don't know. I'll get him some way, though. But right now, don'tcha think I'd better help you here? That meat will spoil pretty quick in this sun."
"That's a good idea. The two of us can do a lot by night. I've been thinkin’ of using that big cave down the canyon has a storehouse until we get to haulin’ fast. It's nice and cool in there, and the meat will keep a lot better."
"June, Loco ought to be back from town by now. You go and have him put up some dinner for us and bring it out, will you? It'll save us a lot of time."
The girl nodded brightly and, waving good-by to them when she had mounted, disappeared at a trot down the canyon. Robbins took the bit out of his horse's mouth and left it to graze at will, while he and the rancher set about their task.
June came back at noon, bearing a basket of sandwiches and a large canteen of water, and chatted with them while they ate. The hard work of skinning the cattle and preparing the meat had given the two men a ravenous appetite, and they made quick work of the food she had brought.
Afterward they again attacked the mound of flesh, dragging each carcass into the big cave as soon as butchered, and stacking it with the others along the cold rock walls. When at last the sun sank they were tired and sore from their labors. It was all they could do to pull themselves upon their horses and endure the ride back to the C Bar. Nevertheless, they laughed and joked with each other on the way, as if their minds were entirely carefree.
As they rode into the C Bar yard and stopped at the corral gate, the creaking and groaning of heavily loaded wagons came to them. Looking toward the road they saw the three wagons driven by Larry Crimins, Windy Williams, and Milt Thompson slowly approaching. Anxiously Robbins and the rancher wheeled their horses and galloped to meet them.
Even before Robbins reached the leading vehicle, he realized that something had gone wrong. The discouraged droop of the heads and shoulders of the three men told him that, together with the sight of the carcasses that Crimins had confidently expected to sell to the railroad construction camp. The rancher spurred past him, and Larry halted his wagon as the two riders came up. The young man's face was drawn and tired—this showed even through the dust that had settled upon him.
“What's happened, son?” Crimins demanded, as he reined in beside the wagon.
Larry sighed wearily.
“Couldn't sell the meat, dad. Farnwell, the construction boss, told me he had just signed a contract with the T Square to furnish all the beef he needs for the next six months. So we're out of luck, I guess.”
Crimins slumped dispiritedly in his saddle and gazed absently at the ground.
“That means the end of the C Bar, then,” he said, in a voice he tried hard to keep from trembling. “I was countin' so much on Farnwell takin' nearly all of the meat that this hits me pretty deep. Oh, well, it's all in the game, I suppose.”
His son forced a smile.
“Don't give up the ship, dad. I know what it would mean to you to lose the ranch after all the years you've put in, after all the fightin' you've done to keep the land grabbers away, but you haven't lost it yet. We'll pull through somehow.”
Crimins straightened and tried to smile back, but the effort was a miserable failure. Robbins, observing the pain in his face, the sudden aging of his tanned features, was struck with pity. He saw that the C Bar meant more than a mere ranch to the cattleman. June had told him enough of her family history for him to see that. The C Bar meant home to the old rancher; the birthplace of his children, and a spot hallowed by the memories of the wife who had borne them, who had battled side by side with him through the years, until death had taken her from him.
“Oh, I'll fight, boy!” Crimins said grimly, though hopelessness and despair still lurked in his eyes. “I'll fight to the last ditch, just as I always have; but somehow it seems useless.”
“Why should it?” Robbins interposed. “Isn't there somewhere else you can sell the meat? Aren't there any minin' camps around here? How about restaurants and hotels in near-by towns? Each one might not take much, but every little bit helps, you know.”
Crimins brightened.
“By George! Robbins, you've given me hope. Maybe we can do it, after all! At any rate, it's a possibility.”
“Sure! Suppose I ride into town the first thing in the mornin' and see how the scheme goes there? Everybody in Del Rio knows you, don't they? Fine. Then if anybody needs any meat, they'll likely be glad to buy it of you.”
Crimins nodded.
“That's right. You do that, and the rest of us will get the remainder of the meat into the cave before it spoils. Well, come on and put up the horses, boys. Grub pile ought to be about ready.”
The wagons were left outside of the corral for the night, and covered with tarpaulins that were well weighted down with rocks to protect the contents from any prowling animals. The five men had just finished watering and feeding the horses when the tall, angular Loco Lang appeared in the door of the cook shack and pounded lustily with a cleaver on a section of old iron, at the same time wailing loudly in time-honored range-land fashion: “Come and get it or I'll throw it away-y-y!”
Supper was destined to become cold before it could be eaten, however, for the men had not finished washing at the bench outside the cook shack when a horseman trotted leisurely into the yard and came toward them.
“It's Mat Whortle, dad,” Larry said in a low voice. “Wonder what he wants?”
The elder Crimins did not reply, but Robbins saw his figure straighten and his jaw harden.
“Whortle owns the T Square,” Larry went on, to the cowboy, still in the same low voice. “He's the man that holds our mortgage now. Mean cuss when he wants to be, and they say he's hell on wheels as a gunfighter.”
Robbins squinted through the gathering dusk at the approaching rider. Whortle was a huge man, with drooping mustache and features that could by no stretching of the imagination be considered handsome. As he came nearer and swung down to the ground before Crimins, a slight cast in his left eye became noticeable. His horse was a tall, heavily built bay whose markings were limited to a star on the forehead and one white foot.
“Howdy, Crimins!” Whortle greeted the cattleman heartily, shoving out his hand, which Crimins completely ignored. “Heard you had a little trouble, so as I was ridin' by, I decided I'd stop in and see how bad it was.”
“You're not foolin' me a bit, Mat Whortle!” Crimins blurted angrily. “I can see through a knot hole when it's as big as you are! All you came for was to find out if I could manage to meet that mortgage. You beat me to the construction camp contract, knowin' I was dependin' on my cattle to pay you off. You knew if you could prevent me sellin' the meat I salvaged from the stampede, you'd probably have the C Bar cinched! I'm onto your tricks, Whortle! You've wanted my ranch for years, just like the Big Bear people, but you won't get it!”
Whortle flushed angrily and let his hand fall to his side. Robbins heard the kitchen door open behind him, and turning, saw June come down the steps and stand listening.
“Still the same old fool, I see!” Whortle snapped. “You and I never hit it off, Crimins, because you could never get over your idiotic ideas. Certainly I've wanted the C Bar, and I've made you a darn good price for it, too! I might have been a little easy on you, but now you won't get a single day’s extension! Chew on that a while, you cross between a horned toad and a centipede!”
Crimins stiffened, and his hand hovered over the butt of the gun on his hip.
“Whortle,” he said ominously, a dangerous glint in his eyes, “no man can come to my doorstep and call me names like that. Get off my ranch and stay off!”
The owner of the T Square sneered palpably.
“I wonder if you think you can put me off! Suppose you try it. You need to have your wings clipped, and I'm just the man that can do it, too!”
“Is that so!” Crimins was boiling over with rage. Well, I’ll show you you’re not as good as you think you are, you low-down—”
“Dad!”
June ran forward swiftly, fear in her eyes. Crimins shook off her hand, but did not take his gaze off Whortle.
“Get back, girl!” he commanded harshly. “This is none of your business. Go in the house.”
The girl stood her ground resolutely.
“I will not!” she replied emphatically. “Take your hands off your guns, both of you! There isn't going to be any gun play, not if I can help it. Mr. Whortle, get on your horse and go!”
She pointed a slender forefinger imperiously toward the road. The color had leaped into her cheeks, and though the dusk hid it somewhat, Robbins could not help noting what a pretty picture she made. Her utter fearlessness, her confident, commanding' poise, caught and held his interest, intrigued him to the depths of his soul.
Whortle shifted hesitantly from one foot to the other. Against men he knew how to conduct himself, but a girl who came between him and the man whom he had been about to shoot, a girl who interposed her own frail body to safeguard her father, was something with which he knew not how to cope.
“Must I tell you again, Mr. Whortle?” June demanded. “You are not—dad, be quiet!—you are not going to start any gun play here. You have the reputation of being a killer, Mr. Whortle; but I'm not going to allow you to add my father to your list. Please go!”
Whortle took his hand off his gun and looked past her at her father.
“All right, I'll go, Crimins; but watch out hereafter. You want war, and you'll get it! Remember, not a single day's extension do you get! Be careful how you act the next time we meet, because maybe you won't be hiding behind a woman's skirts then!”
Crimins sprang forward wrathfully; but Whortle turned abruptly on his heel, swung ponderously into his saddle, and rode away. The little group watched him go with varying emotions.
“You shouldn't have angered him, daddy,” June said reproachfully, at last. “Why did you do it? He might have extended the time, at least a little.”
Crimins sighed wearily.
“I guess you're right, June,” he answered humbly. “I was mad, though, and all I could think of was him doin' all he could to get the C Bar away from us. I don't know, girl, but what I'd better sell out for the best price I can get.”
His daughter patted his cheek tenderly.
“That isn't necessary yet, daddy. We'll stick. Come on and eat, now; supper's getting cold. Let's forget our troubles for to-night. To-morrow's another day.”
[End of chapter]

Thursday, July 28, 2005

 

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER V

A STROKE OF LUCK

ROBBINS had breakfast early the next morning, and June saw him on his way with a cheery farewell and an admonition not to forget the package of “eatin' tobacco” that Loco Lang had asked for. At the gate he met Windy Williams, returned from the canyon, where the cowboy had spent the night, and stopped a moment to talk to him.
“How's the world treatin' yuh, Windy?” he grinned. “Did yuh have a nice beauty sleep last night?”
“Well, I've had better,” the cowboy admitted whimsically. “It wouldn't have been so bad, only I never did care a heap for coyote music. Howl? Man, take all the notes ever invented, mix them up thorough like you would flapjack flour, and then let them loose in the air and you'd have a pretty good imitation of the concert I had to listen to all night. None of them got to the meat, though. I got a little sleep along toward mornin', but somethin' woke me up.
“I didn't know what it was, because it was dark as the inside of a cow. I got out my gun, though, and when I saw somethin' black movin' ahead of me, and comin' up the canyon, I cracked down on it, I can tell yuh! You should've heard that old hog leg of mine speak right out in meetin'!”
“Did yuh get what yuh shot at?”
“Nope. What I got was what the little boy shot at—nothin'.”
“Find out what it was?”
“Nope again. Leastways, I'm not sure. I had a hunch it was a man, but soon as it got light I hunted around and ran plumb across bear tracks!”
Robbins' interest grew. He could not spare the time to hunt down the pestiferous bruin now, but knowledge of the animal's habits and movements would materially help him later.
“Bear tracks?” he queried.
“Uh-huh. I followed them down the canyon, but lost them in some rocks.”
Robbins laughed.
“That's twice he's got away by gallopin' into rocks somewhere or other. There ought to be a law against rocks in this country, don'tcha think? Well, I've got to hustle my hocks to town. See yuh in jail.”
“No, yuh won't,” denied Williams, picking up his reins. “If you're gonna get yourself put in jail, yuh needn't think I'll visit yuh. I don't want no truck with jails. I was in one once.
They laughed together, and waved to each other as they parted. Robbins urged his horse to a trot, and arrived in Del Rio an hour and a half later. He went at once to the largest restaurant in town, and after much haggling, succeeded in getting a good price for six beeves, and in addition the promise of six more at the same figure if the meat were prime.
Next he visited three smaller restaurants and two butcher shops, and a hotel which maintained its own dining room, taking orders for a total of thirty-two beeves. In the hotel the buyer gave him information that enabled him to make still another sale.
“I've known Jim Crimins for years,” the man said, as he signed the agreement. “Glad to help him out, and anyway, it's a good chance for us at that price because everybody else is wanting more money. That reminds me. Tom Taylor, owner of the Three Aces Silver Mine, west of here, is in town. You might sell him some meat.”
“Thanks,” Robbins answered. “I'll sure try him. Where do yuh think he can be found about now?”
“Well, as it happens, he's right over there. Waiting for somebody, I guess.”
He pointed at a roughly dressed man of about forty-five years of age, sitting in an antiquated rocking-chair in the front of the lobby. Robbins thanked the hotel man again and walked over to him.
“Mr. Taylor,” he began. “I'm from the C Bar, Jim Crimins'ranch. I just heard you might be interested in buyin' some prime beef. How about it?”
Taylor rubbed his stubby beard and squinted up at the cowboy.
“Yeah, I might be,” he answered finally. “Jim got some to sell?”
“Lots of it. Didn't you hear that another herd of his was stampeded over a cliff? Three hundred head.”
“No! Yuh mean it? Lord, that hits him pretty bad, don't it? What's he tryin' to do, sell the beef?”
“Yes. It's good meat, yuh know. All prime stock, and the fall didn't hurt it beyond cuts and gashes that don't take away any of the flavor. I've sold some of it already to the restaurants and butcher shops here, but there's a lot left. I'll make you a price that will beat anythin' else you can get, and still it will be fair to the C Bar, considerin' the circumstances”
He named a figure, the same he had given the hotel man.
“Yes, that's better than I can do anywhere else,” Taylor agreed thoughtfully. “Have you tried the railroad construction camp yet?”
“The T Square beat us to it,” Robbins informed him. “Whortle got a contract out of Farnwell, the camp boss, to furnish all his beef for the next six months.”
“H'm! That's funny. I'm waitin' here for Whortle now. He's wantin' to contract for beef with me, too. I'm not goin' to wait much longer, though. He's twenty minutes late already.”
He glanced at his watch, a fat, silver timepiece with a heavy gold chain, and made a decision.
“I won't wait for him any longer at all,” he said with finality. “He couldn't meet your price, anyhow. Tell you what I'll do. I've got a big dugout at the mine where I keep all my provisions. It'll hold a hundred carcasses, easy. I'll buy that many at your price, and send a gang of men to haul them. That way I'll get it quicker than your small force could get it to me, and none of it will spoil.”
Robbins was stunned. He had not expected such a stroke of luck.
“Whew! A hundred? Good Lord, have you got an army to feed?”
“Not exactly, though my gang is a big one. Frankly, if I was buyin' as I usually do, I'd have the beef brought to me as I needed it. However, it'll pay me at your price to take as much as I can handle, so there you are. I'll have the freighters start right away.
“Fine!” ejaculated Robbins. “Crimins will be tickled half to death!”
Heavy footsteps sounded on the walk outside and the door opened. Mat Whortle came in and glanced hurriedly around. Catching sight of Taylor, he strode ponderously forward, his lips drawn into a smug smirk.
“Sorry I was late, Taylor,” he said, shaking hands. “What do you say we get the deal over with?”
The mine owner shook his head.
“That's all off, Whortle. I've just agreed to take a hundred cows that Jim Crimins had killed in that stampede. This gent here sold them to me.”
Whortle whirled, his brows black with suppressed rage. The glare he directed at Robbins was positively venomous.
“I've seen you before, haven't I?” he demanded gruffly. “Out at the C Bar last night. Stranger here, aren't you? Well, let me tell you somethin', hombre. No gent butts his head into Mat Whortle's business like that. Now you just take back your order. I'll sell a hundred head to Taylor at whatever price you named.”
Robbins grinned coolly.
“Why should I?” he questioned. “Mr. Taylor and I have made the deal, and it goes as it lays.”
Whortle stiffened. His eyes widened in amazement. He was a great deal heavier than the lithe cowboy, and it was plain that he had confidently expected to overawe the younger man.
“What?” he shrieked. “Why, you young pup! For two cents I'd beat you within an inch of your life!”
Smack! Robbins struck straight from the shoulder, putting all the power of his lean, steel-muscled body behind the punch. Big as he was, Whortle could not help but go down. The blow caught him flush on the point of the jaw, smashing him backward, dropping him in a crumpled heap to the floor. He twitched once, and then lay still.
Taylor stared at the cowboy in evident wonder.
“Great grief!” he cried. “What did you hit him with, a stone wall? I'd have been willin' to swear till I was blue in the face that Mat Whortle could never be knocked out like that. Man, what a wallop that was.”
Robbins breathed on his skinned knuckles.
“Well, he had it comin'. You see, he didn't expect me to hit him. Thought I'd go for my gun, and then he'd plug me. Guess he's been asleep long enough, don'tcha think?”
Reaching down, he hooked his fingers in the prone man's collar and dragged him out of the door to the edge of the sidewalk. There, beside a hitch rack, was a horse trough half full of water. Lifting the man in both arms, Robbins heaved him into the trough and soused him up and down in the water.
Whortle came to, gasping and sputtering violently. Robbins released him and stepped back, grinning. The huge cattleman flung himself out of the trough and lay in the dust of the street, too weak to rise.
A dry chuckle behind Robbins caused the latter to turn. He found himself staring into the faded, expressionless eyes of Melvin Kurtz. There was a sneer on the man's lips. For that matter, the entire manner of the manager of the Big Bear was contemptuous. Before Robbins could say anything, Kurtz turned his back and walked away. A wave of dislike akin to that which had assailed him when he first saw the fellow swept over the cowboy.
“No love lost between you two, is there?” Taylor, standing beside Robbins, asked with a grin.
“Know him?”
“Not particularly. Saw him yesterday for the first time, and I'd just as soon it would be the last. Has he been in this country long?”
“Six or seven years, I guess. Came from Chicago, and still dresses like he would in an Eastern ridin' school. Nobody likes him much. Too many airs. Knows cattle, though.”
“Uh-huh. Well, I've got to be on my way or I won't sell the rest of that beef. Besides, my little playmate, Whortle, is gettin' his breath back, and I don't want to have to kill him. See you later.”
[End of chapter]

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

 

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VI

THE FIGHT IN THE SALOON

IN half an hour Robbins canvassed Del Rio, but with little success. The population of the town was slightly over three thousand, and he already had been to most of the shops and establishments that catered to the inner man. So, at last, becoming thirsty, he rode up to a saloon across from the post office and dismounted. Tying his horse to the hitch rack, he went inside.
There were several men standing at the bar, range men, all of them, judging by their attire. Along one wall there were a number of tables, a roulette wheel, and a faro layout, though the latter was deserted save for the gambler who operated it. At a table in the corner farthest from the door sat three men, their heads together in close conversation. As Robbins strode casually up to the bar, these men ceased talking and glanced narrowly at him. When the puncher looked at them, however, they quickly lowered their eyes and continued talking among themselves.
There was something in the incident, in the way they stared at him when they thought he was not observing them, that struck a warning chord in Robbins' brain. As he sipped his beer the paunchy, red-faced bartender set before him, he kept his senses alert for any sign that would warn him of impending danger.
Out of the corner of his eye he scrutinized the three men, searching his mind for some tangible clue to the reason for the feeling that had come over him.. Each of them, cowboys to all outward appearances, wore a gun low-slung on his right leg, holster tied down. The one who was doing most of the talking was of medium height, but with broad shoulders and a bull-like neck. His companions were both taller and slenderer, and one had on a blue shirt topped by a gaudy neckerchief.
Not for an instant did Robbins take his gaze wholly from the three. Therefore, when they rose leisurely and, hitching up their gun belts, walked slowly toward him, his muscles tensed in preparation for what he divined was approaching trouble.
Blue Shirt passed him as if to leave the saloon, but Robbins was vaguely conscious that the man had no intention of actually going. He put his glass down upon the bar so that his hands would be entirely free, and waited.
Almost immediately came the shock of some one stumbling over his feet and the dull thud of a body striking the floor. He turned as the broad-shouldered leader of the three scrambled angrily to his feet and confronted him. Irate wrath, whether assumed or real, shone in the man's eyes.
“What the hell do yuh mean, trippin' me like that?” he blurted. “Reckon you don't know who I am, do yuh?”
Robbins looked him over from head to foot, noticing that his right hand hovered only a few inches above the black butt of the revolver on his thigh. The man behind him, coarse-featured and leering, had fallen into the semicrouch that denotes the gunman all over the West. Blue Shirt was standing several feet beyond him, toward the door. The men who had been drinking at the bar had whirled around and were watching with the morbid curiosity of a crowd viewing an accident.
“Can't say as I do know who yuh are,” the cowboy drawled, moving away from the bar in order that his movements would not be hampered. “I dunno as I give a hoot, either, but I ain't got much in particular to do right this minute, so if you feel in an entertaining' mood, why I'm willied' to listen.”
The man's eyes narrowed. His lip curled.
“Say, don't get gay with me!” he snarled. “I'm ‘Catamount' Perkins, I am, and I don't let no damn jasper trip me. I'm a wild wolf, and I'm out for blood! Look out, fellah, I'm coming' a-smoking'!”
From the beginning Robbins had seen that the episode had been prearranged, with the object of getting him into a quarrel and killing him. Why this should be, he had no way of knowing or time to think about. He was too much concerned for the moment, and succeeding moments, in a determined endeavor to disrupt the plans of the three men who so obviously were intent on his death.
The danger did not in the least appall him. If the self-styled Catamount Perkins expected him to tremble and plead for mercy, he was speedily to be undeceived. He took a step to the right so that he was between Perkins and Blue Shirt, and laughed harshly.
“Why don't yuh come on, then?” he demanded. “We'll see who's the one to get smoked. You look more like a ham to me than anything else.”
Snarling wrathfully, Perkins went for his gun, at the same time crying loudly: “Get him, Jack!”
Just as the bully's gun blazed, Robbins threw himself on the floor, drawing his own revolver as he did so. Simultaneously with the crashing report of Perkins' gun came a wail of pain from Blue Shirt. The cowboy laughed delightedly, realizing instantly that his ruse had been successful, and that the attempt to trap him between two fires had resulted in either the death or the wounding of the man who was Perkins' lieutenant.
His own gun was out now, and red flame stabbed from its muzzle at Perkins, who had recovered sufficiently from the shock of seeing Blue Shirt fail to remember his mission. But the split second that his brain had been inactive put him at a disadvantage that. he could not overcome. Robbins fired, and fired again, and the blast of flame and lead swept the gunman off his feet, tumbling him against the third man and spoiling the latter's aim. The fall of Perkins' heavy body jarred the glasses on the bar, but before it had ceased rolling Robbins leaped to his feet and flung himself sidewise.
So swift was this movement that the third gunman, steadying himself and firing again, missed him completely. Before he could shoot again, Robbins pulled the trigger. The cowboy's bullet caught him squarely in the center of the forehead. His eyes glazed; his knees sagged, and letting the gun fall from limp fingers, he pitched forward on his face.
Robbins went to him and stooped to look into the dead eyes. Wham! A bullet tore past his head, clipping a lock of hair peeping from under the brim of the C Bar man's hat. He dove across the body, landing on his side, and whirled. The man Perkins had shot, Blue Shirt, was not dead. It was he who had fired, and he was attempting to steady the big Colt .45 in his hand so that he could shoot again.
The cowboy's gun roared spitefully. Struck just front of the cylinder, the Colt was wrenched violently from Blue Shirt's hand, drawing thin tricklets of crimson from the smashed fingers. Getting up quickly, Robbins sprang to the man and jerked him to his feet, noticing the red stain that had spread over the fellow’s breast.
“You gents weren't as wise as yuh thought yuh were,” he said grimly. “You oughta know better than to get on both sides of a man you crave to bump off.”
Still holding his prisoner by one arm, he glanced at the bartender and the silent spectators. None of these, however, made any overt move, and he judged that they were altogether neutral. The captive squirmed uneasily, but Robbins held fast to his arm.
“What's yore name, hombre?” he demanded. The man shuffled his feet sullenly.
“Les Davids.”
“Who do you ride for?”
“The T Square.”
Robbins breathed deeply. Now he was beginning to see light, or thought he was.
“Oh, I see. So Whortle set you to kill me, did he? Are yore pals from the T Square, too?”
Davids glanced covertly past him, and his eyelids flickered.
“What do you mean?”
“Don't stall. You might as well tell me, because I'll find out anyhow.”
“Whortle done't see us to you at all,” the puncher denied. “You tripped Catamount up, and I just naturally joined in with him when he called you. That's all there is to it.”
Robbins snorted contemptuously.
“Aw, cut out the fairy tale. I know danged well this was a put-up job. All right, never mind. It been't important. Get out of here, now, before I get mad at you. If I catch you around here again I'll do worse than shoot the gun out of yore hand. Get along with you.”
As the man turned around and stooped to pick up his gun, Robbins caught him by the collar and the seat of the pants, straightened him up and sent him on the run through the door. On the sidewalk Davids collided forcibly with Melvin Kurtz, who was still in town. Both went down heavily. Kurtz got to his feet in a rage and kicked Davids in the side, swearing vitriolically.
“My, my!” chaffed Robbins, grinning widely. “Such language! What do yuh suppose mamma would do to yuh, little boy, if she heard yuh talkin' like that? Don'tcha know that's naughty?”
You go to hell! Kurtz bade him tersely, brush-in off his riding breeches and walking away.
From behind Robbins, at the farther end of the bar, came a strident command.
“Drop it! Now reach for the roof! Higher!”
Robbins spun about on his heel at the sound of a gun clattering on the bar top. His gun leaped into his hand, but he did not fire. What he saw was the bartender with his hands over his head, glaring malevolently at a tall, clean-shaven young man who was covering him with a .45. The cowboy quickly grasped the significance of the scene.
“Fixin' to plug me in the back, was he?”
The bartender shifted his gaze to Robbins, but only stared sullenly.
“That's just what he was goin' to do,” said the young man at the end of the bar. “I wasn't buttin' in on this game while there was somethin' at least resemblin' fair play, though I knew from the start it was a frame-up to fit you for a coffin. You looked capable of handlin' the three misguided gents who were gunnin' for you, so I done't make a move. But when the hydrophobia skunk here gets the idea he'll heave a slug next to your spine, I figures it's time to do somethin'. What'Il we do with him?”
Robbins strode over to the bar and picked up the gun the saloon keeper had dropped. With a flip of his hand he threw it out of an adjacent window.
“I suppose I oughta take him over my knees and him a good spankin',” he answered. “It's a cinch a fellah like him will never fight yuh face to face.”
The bartender's face flushed angrily
“Say, you young squirt!” he blustered. “Put that gun down and I'll soon show you whether I'll fight yuh face to face or not. I'll beat yuh to a pulp, that's what I'll do!“
“Do tell?“
Robbins grinned up at the ceiling and holstered his gun. Stepping up to the bar, he rested both hands upon it, palms down. Then, unexpectedly, he reached over, grabbed the bartender under the arms, and with a strength that amazed the onlookers, dragged him across the mahogany surface and threw him to the floor.
Yelling with rage, the man picked himself up and launched a vicious blow at the slender cowboy. Robbins easily parried it, and the knuckles of his right hand crashed forcibly over the bartender's heart. The bartender staggered. A second blow, catching him off balance, completed his downfall, tumbling him sprawling in the sawdust of the saloon floor. His head hit the leg of a table with an odd thump and he lay still.
“Another one down,” laughed the young stranger. “Step right up, folks. You're next!“
Robbins chuckled.
“For gosh sakes, don't give out any more invitations! I'm beginnin' to feel that the people in these parts don't appreciate my company. Thanks a lot for pacifyin' the barkeep until I could give him my undivided attention. Somehow I can't exactly approve of any leaden decorations on my backbone.”
“Oh, that's all right. Glad I was handy. I betcha our little playmate won't wake up for a week. That table leg done't do his skull no good, I'd judge. It's lucky for him his head is pretty solid, or he'd likely wake tip and find himself shovelin' coal.”
“Yeah. Well, I can't be bothered with him now. I'll let some of his friends, if he's got any, take care of him. Say, if yo're lookin' for a job, maybe I could get yuh one. How about it? Are you willing?”
The stranger nodded enthusiastically.
“That hits me in the most affirmative spot. My name's Pete Craig. I'm nearly broke, but I've still got my horse. He's outside tryin' to make a meal off the hitch rack.”
“We'll soon fix both of yuh up with chow,” Robbins told him. “As for names, call me Bill Robbins. Now what, I wonder?“
The last was occasioned by the abrupt entrance of a burly, pot-bellied individual through the swinging doors. His weather-beaten sombrero flopped over one ear, and the colored neckerchief adorning his red neck was stained and dirty from much use. The most significant thing about him was the silver star on the left side of his open, beaded vest. He glared about him scowlingly, scrutinizing the still bodies on the floor. Behind him, peering over the. top of the doors, was the face of Les Davids, leering malignantly.
“Here, what's all this?” the burly individual demanded wheezingly. “Looks like a slaughter house.”
Robbins smiled grimly.
“Yeah, and it's liable to become a real slaughter house if any more gents take a notion to bump me off. Sheriff, are you? Know these two jiggers?”
He pointed at the forms of Perkins and the other man he had shot. The sheriff glanced swiftly from one to the other. His face hardened.
“Yes, yo're damned right I do! Two of the best men on this range, and the most peaceful. Did you kill them?”
“I sure did!“ Robbins answered, sensing a note of antagonism in the officer’s voice. “What else could I do, I craves to know? I was standin' at the bar, mindin' my own business and takin' a little snort of beer, when them gents and the no-account jasper peekin' in the door walked up behind me and picked a fight. Perkins pulled his gun, and I plugged him. His bullet missed me and hit Davids. The other gent horned in and I downed him to save my own life. Then Davids tried to get me in the back and I had to shoot the gun out of his hand.”
The sheriff shook his head dubiously, and indicated the body of the bartender.
“Davids tells me different, but how about Samuels, the barkeep? Where does he come in?”
“He tried the same stunt Davids did, that's all. I popped him on the jaw and he's been investigating' dreamland ever since.”
“Davids says he and his pards were drinkin', and that when they started to go out you tripped Perkins and picked a fight with him for no reason at all. Then, when he called you, yuh shot and killed Catamount and his pal, and plugged Davids in the chest.”
The bartender groaned and sat up. The sheriff helped him to his feet and steadied him until he was able to stand alone. Samuels felt tenderly of his head and gasped in pain as his fingers touched an extremely sore spot.
“How did this fracas start, Paul?” the sheriff asked him. “Davids says this stranger is to blame. Is that right?”
Samuels squinted at Robbins through tears of pain.
“That's absolutely correct, Kelson. Davids and his pals were in here when this fellah came in. I could see right away that he was lookin' for trouble, so I watched him. Sure enough, when Perkins walked past him to go out the door, he stuck out his foot so that Catamount tripped and fell. Then Catamount got sore, naturally, and called him for it. What does he do then but shoot Catamount without a chance.”
Pete Craig snorted derisively.
“Man, you sure have got some imagination! How can anybody lie like that? Yuh wanta watch out, Paulie, because gents who abuse the truth like you do can never get to heaven! No, sir!”
“Wait a minute!” put in the sheriff. “Who asked you to butt in? What do you know about this thing?”
“I know a lot!” rasped Craig, his eyes snapping. “I not only saw all of it, but I had a hand in it as well! This crook of a bar swabber is lyin' four ways from the jack! Perkins is the one who started the fight. He deliberately tripped over Robbins' feet. It was a frame-up, that's what. Maybe Samuels was in on it, I dunno. At any rate, he would have plugged Robbins in the back if I hadn't pulled my gun on him.”
The sheriff scratched his chin seriously.
“Well, that makes no difference. I'll have to arrest yuh, Robbins, and you can tell it to the judge. I can't let yuh go free on the word of one man against two I know. If you could prove yore story, all right, but I guess you'll have to come with me.”
Craig intervened again.
“Don't be in a hurry, sheriff. These men,” pointing to those who had watched the battle, “saw all of it. They can tell you that Samuels and Davids lied. How about it, fellows?”
Apparently the spectators were not parties to the attempted frame-up, for they came to Robbins' assistance immediately.
“The barkeep is lyin', just as the stranger says,” one man said. “Perkins got what was coming' to him, and so did his pals. There ain't no question but what Robbins shot in self-defense. Even a crooked jury would have to free him on the evidence.”
“That's whatever,” agreed another. “Robbins is in the clear. Yuh can't convict a man for protectin' his own life, leastways not in this day and age.”
“Thanks,” Robbins told them. “Well, sheriff, what do yuh think about it now?”
The officer hesitated. It was apparent that he fervently desired putting the C Bar man in jail, but that in the face of such testimony he could not feel entirely justified.
“You win,” he said grudgingly at last. “There's nothin' I can do when so many support yore story. But you'd better get out of town as quick as you can. We don't want no gunmen hangin' around Del Rio.”
“I'm stayin',” asserted Robbins firmly. “As long as yore half-baked gun slingers leave me alone there'll be no trouble. Meanwhile I'm not goin' to pull my freight till I get darn good and ready!”
The officer shrugged his shoulders.
“Suit yoreself, but don't say I done't warn yuh if anythin' goes wrong. I'm goin' to keep the peace in this county if I have to kill off everybody in it, and the ones who are trouble makers will be the first to go. Remember that.”
He stalked stiffly out of the saloon, and a moment later Robbins and Craig followed. Davids had disappeared. The two men got their horses and rode out of town side by side. Robbins explained something of the difficulties the C Bar was in as they trotted along.
[End of chapter]

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VII

AN APOLOGY

CRIMINS saw them coming, and was at the corral to meet them. He glanced inquiringly at Craig as the riders dismounted, then shifted his gaze to Robbins.
“What luck, Bill?” he inquired. “Did you sell any at all?”
“Yeah, more than I expected. I'll tell yuh about it in a minute. First, I want to make yuh used [sic] to Pete Craig. If it hadn't been for him I'd probably be food for the worms right now. I told him I thought you could use another top hand.”
“Why, sure I can. Glad to meet yuh, Craig. Now, Bill, let's hear it.”
Robbins told him briefly about his trouble with Whortle and with the T Square men in the saloon, and then gave him a list of the orders he had taken. The rancher's eyes widened perceptibly as they glimpsed the total.
“A hundred and forty-four!” he gasped. “This ain't—you're not kiddin' me, are yuh, Bill?”
“Not a bit,” grinned the cowboy. “Taylor took a hundred, and will have his own men haul the meat. The rest has to be delivered in town. Pete, here, tells me he knows Morgan City and the country over there, and I suggest yuh send him there immediately to see what he can do.”
“Yeah, that's what I'll do. Put yore horses up, Pete, and after dinner catch up any one in the pasture. If yuh need money—and I never saw a wanderin' puncher that didn't—I'll give yuh some before yuh go. Yuh oughta make Morgan City by late afternoon, and get back to-morrow, eh?”
“Uh-huh, if I don't have any bad luck.”
“Yeah. Well, there's Loco grinnin' like a dang monkey. I suppose grub is ready, so what do yuh say we eat?”
The motion was promptly seconded, and as soon as they had put up their horses, Robbins and Craig joined Crimins at the wash bench. The cook came out of the kitchen and looked hopefully at Robbins. The cowboy grinned at him and continued his ablutions. Lang went to him hesitantly.
“Er—did yuh—did yuh get my eatin' tobacco?”
“Huh!” Robbins turned startled eyes on him. “Tobacco? By George, Loco, I plumb forgot. Honest, I was so busy I didn't think of it!”
An almost comical grimace of incredulity and disgust swept over the cook's features.
“Yuh mean—yuh mean yuh didn't get my eatin' tobacco?” he asked blankly.
“That's right. Sorry, but I couldn't help it. Came so near gatherin' a few plugs of lead that I couldn't remember yore plug of tobacco.”
Lang tore off his apron and, balling it up, threw it with violent flourish at the feet of Crimins.
“That settles it!” he raged. “I've got to have my eatin' tobacco. I'm not goin' to work on a place where I can't have it when I want it. I'm quittin', boss. Give me my time.”
“Now, now,” Crimins said soothingly. “Yuh don't want to get all hot under the collar, Loco. I'll see that yuh get yore tobacco.”
“But I want it now!” Lang wailed. “He promised to get me some, and he didn't! No, I'm quittin'!”
June came out of the house at this juncture, an oblong something wrapped in tinfoil in her hands.
“Here's some tobacco, Loco,” she said. “One of the boys left it in the office. You take it, and we'll get you some more when we go to town. Better get back in the kitchen, because I smell something burning.”
The cook accepted the tobacco gratefully. Stooping quickly, he caught up his apron and ran into the cook shack, calling a “Thank you, Miss June,” over his shoulder. The girl smiled at Robbins, and he introduced Craig to her.
“You mustn't mind Loco,” she told them. “That's the way he is at times, but he's harmless. He's a good cook, so we humor him.”
“Gosh, June,” Robbins cried, “I didn't know I was goin' to create a ruckus, or I'd brought a whole case of tobacco for him.”
She smiled again.
“You don't know him yet. He doesn't chew at all. Whenever he has any one get tobacco for him he merely puts it somewhere and forgets it. That's just one of his little peculiarities. He's been with us for six years, and I've never seen him chew yet. That plug I gave him was one he put on dad's desk last week and forgot.”
Craig slapped his knee in merriment and Robbins chuckled.
“Don't ever let him think you're makin' fun of him, though,” warned Crimins. “He won't stand for that. When he gets mad he nearly wrecks the place. Come on, let's eat. Milt and Windy are workin' in the canyon. We'll take their dinner to them.”
After the noonday meal the three men talked over various plans for selling and hauling the rest of the meat, and then caught and saddled fresh horses. Craig rode away westward toward Morgan City, on the main line of the railroad. June decided to accompany Robbins and her father, so the former saddled her horse and helped her mount. Lang was waiting with a basket of sandwiches at the kitchen, and when Crimins had taken them from him the trio headed directly toward the canyon.
June had not yet been informed of the events of the morning, and a portion of the trip was consumed while Robbins related them to her. When he had finished, she voiced a thought that had been in his mind.
“It looks to me as if Whortle really meant what he told dad about war. He's evidently doing his best to ruin dad from every angle. What's more, we're going to have a hard time to keep him from succeeding.”
“That's as plain as the Rocky Mountains,” admitted Crimins. “Whortle has wanted the C Bar so long, and I've turned down so many offers of his, that he probably has decided to get it any way he can, especially since what happened yesterday and this mornin'. Yes, we'll have a hard time of it if he once sets his mind on ruinin' us. He's a bad man to have for an enemy.”
“Yeah!” grinned Robbins. “I've found that out already! Here I've seen him just twice, and I've got him thirstin' for my gore before he knows my first name. I dunno but what I'll have to take to wearin' armor, if he's the sort of gent who waits in the brush for yuh to come by.”
“I wouldn't accuse him of that,” Crimins said. “Oh, he's no angel, and it wouldn't surprise me if he was a bushwhacker, but so far I've never known him to take an unfair advantage of a man—that way. No, he's too confident of himself to do that.”
A surprise awaited them at the canyon. Melvin Kurtz, looking more than ever the dandy, was standing beside Williams and Thompson, watching them skinning a carcass, and talking earnestly. As the three riders reined in he came toward them with an ingratiating smile on his handsome face.
“I come in peace, not war,” he said hurriedly, before Crimins could speak. “I'm sorry I acted as I did yesterday, Crimins, and I want to apologize to both you and Miss June. It isn't often I forget I'm a gentleman, but all of us have our irritable moments, I suppose. I'm really sorry. We've had our little trouble, our disagreements, but I see no reason why we can't be friends. The Big Bear doesn't want enemies, and neither do I.”
He completely ignored Robbins, and the latter took advantage of the opportunity to study the dapper ranch manager carefully. Kurtz, he thought, was going out of his way to be friendly. He frankly disbelieved the man's statement that he did not often forget he was a gentleman, for the kicking of the fallen Les Davids when the gunman had collided accidentally with Kurtz gave him an unimpeachable insight of the latter's character. However, the amicable efforts of Kurtz were doubtless the result of his feeling for June. Naturally, caring for her as he obviously did, he would try his best to remain in her good graces.
Crimins considered Kurtz's words thoughtfully. He had little use for the Easterner, but his better instinct would not permit him to nurse a grudge.
“‘Well, all right,” he said hesitantly. “It's 0.K. [sic] with me if June is agreeable. She's the one you need to apologize to most.”
Kurtz turned from him to the girl. He took off his narrow-brimmed pinch hat and bowed slightly.
“From the bottom of my heart, Miss June,” he vowed earnestly, “I am sorry. Please believe, and forgive me.”
The girl searched his face closely.
“Very well, Mr. Kurtz,” she said at last. “You are forgiven. Don't forget yourself again, though. I won't forgive you a second time.”
The Easterner bowed again, this time lower and with a satisfied smile.
“Thank you. I'll see to it that you won't have cause in the future. Now that we're all friends again, how can I help you, Crimins? You need more men to get this meat out before it spoils. Will you accept the loan of three Big Bear men until the work is done?”
The rancher refused. He did not want to be under any obligations whatever to the Big Bear.
“No, I can't accept, Kurtz. Thanks just the same, but I don't think we'll need them. You see, we've sold a hundred of the beeves to the mining man, Taylor. He's sending men to butcher and haul the meat, so all we'll have to do is tend to what we've sold in town, and what we expect to sell in Morgan City.”
“All right, but if you change your mind, the offer is still open. And if there is anything else I can do, please don't hesitate to call upon me.
The conversation turned to other subjects, and presently Kurtz mounted his horse and rode away. Robbins and Crimins relieved Williams and Thompson while the two punchers ate their dinner, and the work progressed rapidly. The great mound of dead cattle was fast growing smaller, and, with the aid of the men from the mines, would be taken care of to the last carcass by the next evening.
Taylor's men arrived half an hour after Kurtz left, and fell to work with a will. The ten wagons they brought with them were driven directly up to the cliff and loaded, reducing the mound greatly.
When the freighters had gone on their way down the canyon, Williams and Thompson were dispatched to find Larry, who was rounding up some horses that had broken loose, and to haul the meat already on the C Bar's three wagons to town. June did not stay, for the sight of the dead stock nauseated her.
All afternoon, until darkness fell, Robbins and Crimins labored in the canyon. Larry and his helpers made two trips to town, and reported that the meat was entirely satisfactory to the buyers. Thompson was detailed to sleep in the canyon, and Robbins brought blankets and food to him from the ranch.
The next morning they were at it again, somewhat tired, but glad that the end of the task was in sight. Thompson had come through his vigil without alarm, yet, in riding up the canyon to the cave, Robbins more than once pointed out to his companions the tracks of a bear, not particularly clearly defined, but fresh nevertheless. When the puncher was told this he was much surprised.
“Yuh mean that critter wandered all around me last night?” he demanded. “Well, that beats me hollow. I heard coyotes, but nary a bear.”
“He didn't get past you,” Crimins observed. “He smelled you, I'd judge, and didn't stay long. I'd sure like to know where he holes up. This ground is too hard to track him.”
“He'll pesticate around just long enough some of these times for one of us to tickle him with a bullet,” Robbins declared. “I feel a cravin' comin' on to notch my sights on his wishbone. Don't worry, boss, we'll get him yet.”
The day dragged past slowly and uneventfully.
Taylor's freighters finished hauling late in the afternoon, while Larry and his two men had their job done by the time the sun reached the zenith. By dusk the last of the remaining carcasses had been dressed and stacked along the cold walls of the cave, to await the return of Craig with more orders. A few of the beeves had been so bruised and wangled that the meat could not be used at all, but other than this practically little would be lost.
[End of chapter]
 

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER VIII

THE UNKNOWN

WHILE Larry waited on guard at the cave, Robbins went back to the C Bar with Crimins and the two punchers. It had been decided that he should take his turn as sentry in the canyon, so after eating supper he set out to relieve Larry and let him go back to the ranch. The night was dark, but a thin, silver crescent of moon soon poked its tip above the eastern horizon, dimly lighting the rider's way for him.
June Crimins had been the chief object of Robbins' thoughts all through the day, and his mind was occupied now in remembering her little mannerisms, her confident, determined poise in moments of stress, and the sweetness of her smile. It was something of a shock, so unconsciously had he been thinking so much of her, that he suddenly discovered he was in love. The fact struck him so abruptly, so unexpectedly, that it startled him.
“That's what's the matter with you, yuh big chump!” he said aloud. “Come on, snap out of it! As if she could ever care for a man like you are.”
Ridiculing himself, he tried to put her out of his mind, but his thoughts of her clung persistently. So engrossed was he that he did not at first hear the flurry of muffled hoofbeats that bore down upon him as he neared the mouth of the canyon. It was only when a dim, moving shape loomed up out of the darkness fifty feet away that he realized some underhanded work was afoot. He yelled aloud and reached for his gun.
Like a startled doe a dim shape, now recognized as a horse and rider, veered sharply to the left and raced madly away. Simultaneously, from the direction of the cave in the canyon, came a livid burst of flame and the dull, sullen rumble of an explosion! For a moment the sky seemed afire. Then the orange-red flare vanished, and the clatter of falling, sliding rocks made the night hideous.
“Gosh!” breathed Robbins. “Some one's blown up the cave!”
An instant he sat, undecided whether to dash up the canyon or to chase and attempt to capture the fleeing horseman. He quickly determined upon the latter course, and dug in the spurs. His horse leaped into a run. The fugitive was still in sight, though barely distinguishable in the surrounding blackness, and Robbins urged his mount on with pleading voice and quirt.
Pursued and pursuer tore across a mesa and down into a sandy draw like two swift meteorites. The unknown rider turned twice in his saddle, and each time a red flame stabbed back at Robbins, followed immediately by the sinister whine of a bullet. The cowboy returned the fire, though at the pace they were going he knew that a hit would be nothing but sheer luck.
Mile after mile they raced onward, both men hunched low over their saddles, striving to get the last ounce of speed out of their laboring mounts. Neither seemed able to gain. Both horses apparently were equal in swiftness and stamina, and the gap between them neither widened nor narrowed.
Down into another draw they plunged. The fugitive fired once more, and then was lost around a curve where the draw widened, and there were deep thickets of brush. Fearing an ambush, Robbins slowed his mad pace, and with gun cocked and ready, went cautiously forward. There was no one waiting for him in the mesquite, however, and as he rounded the curve he saw ahead of him the fleeing bulk of the horseman once more.
Again he clapped spurs to his horse and gave chase. Either the fugitive's mount was rapidly tiring or it had gone lame, for Robbins gradually began closing up the gap. Several times he glimpsed the man ahead peering back at him, but no more bullets came his way, and he galloped on with undiminished speed.
The banks of the draw drew farther apart, became less steep. The fleeing rider suddenly turned his horse toward a break in the left bank and drove him up it and out upon a broad, level plain. Robbins followed, now close behind. His quarry's quirt rose and fell in an endeavor to increase the rapidity of his flight, yet the cowboy did not lose an inch of the ground he had gained. For a minute or two the gap remained the same. Then Robbins started to close up again, and this time his gains brought him steadily up to the other until he was alongside.
The fugitive tried to wheel away, to evade his pursuer, but Robbins flung himself out of the saddle and upon the man without the slightest hesitation. The fellow fought savagely, silently, pulling up his horse with one hand to prevent serious injury should he be dragged to the ground. That was just what happened. Robbins' horse had already stopped, and was breathing heavily from the long run. The cowboy tenaciously hung on to his man, despite the latter's violent struggles, and at last jerked him sidewise off his mount.
They landed with a thud that knocked the breath from both of them. In the instant that Robbins' hold relaxed, the unknown wrenched himself free and staggered to his feet. But the cowboy launched himself from the ground and grappled with him. His right fist swung in an arc, crashed on the side of the jaw, and the fellow went down.
He was on his feet again immediately, however, and springing in with a bellow of rage. A fist slammed into Robbins' chest; another caught him on the temple, momentarily dazing him. Violently he shook his head to clear away the dizziness, and bored in again, clamping his opponent's arms to his sides.
From the first Robbins had realized that his unknown adversary was taller and heavier than he was, but he bad no intention whatever of surrendering. He hung on until the haze left his brain, then suddenly released his grasp and flashed a vicious right jab to the man's ribs. The fellow grunted and smashed through Robbins' guard to the stomach. The cowboy hammered hard knuckles to jaw and heart, but failed to drop his opponent.
Many times, in the darkness, both of the battlers missed their marks, though when their fists did land gasps of pain were forced from the lips of the recipient of the blow. Save for the sound of the blows and the wheezing and panting of their breaths, the two men fought silently. Feet far apart, bracing themselves, they stood toe to toe and slugged each other like a couple of sullen, grudge-holding boxers in a prize ring.
A smashing jab over the heart would be followed by a hard jolt to stomach or head; a slashing swing to the jaw usually prefaced a vicious uppercut or a blow to the solar plexus. After a few moments of this, neither was able to do. more than stand exhausted, so terrific were their efforts. As if by mutual consent, they stepped back a pace and panted for breath.
Robbins tried hard to pierce the darkness and get a look at his antagonist's features, but the light of the crescent moon was too dim. Unexpectedly, the man lunged forward, determining to put an abrupt end to the battle. His fist shot out and would have caught Robbins fully on the point of the chin had he not instinctively moved his head a fraction of an inch. As it was, the, blow staggered him, but he recovered before his adversary could get in another, and raising himself on his toes, lashed out straight from the shoulder with all the power in his lean body.
This he followed up with a rapid one-two to the heart and body. His opponent went down inertly, but was far from being knocked out, and just as far from giving up the fight.
“Damn you, I'll get you yet!” he snarled.
Robbins started. That voice was strangely familiar. Hurriedly he pulled a match from his pocket and lighted it with a snap of his thumb-nail. The mellow glow illuminated the features of the same tall, clean-shaven stranger who had saved his life in the Del Rio saloon.
“Craig!” he blurted. His eyes were wide, unbelieving what they saw. “So yo're the dirty skunk caused that explosion! You traitor! And I thought you was my friend!”
Craig was no less astounded than Robbins. As the match went out and Robbins started angrily for him, he scrambled hastily to his feet and thrust out both hands to protect himself.
“Hey, wait!” he cried, stumbling backward. “Lord, man, I didn't blow up nothin'! What's the matter with you?”
Robbins halted indecisively. Remembrance that he owed his life to this man dictated that he be sure of his ground.
“Don't try to [pull] anythin' like that on me,” he rasped. “Didn't I chase you clear from the canyon here?”
“Yuh did not!” Craig answered indignantly. “I was on my way back from Morgan City when I heard what sounded like an explosion. A few minutes later a gent comes tearin' around a curve in that draw back there as though he was runnin' from the devil. He takes a swipe at me with his gun barrel as he passes. Naturally I don't admire that, so I starts to chase him and just then you comes around the brush.
“I thought you was his pal and decides I'd better get out of that draw before I collect a few slugs. I dunno where the other fellow went, but his horse was faster than mine and anyway I didn't bother much to keep track of him. You've been chasin' the wrong man, that's what, and I sure wasn't goin' to get all beat up if I could help it. So when you pitched into me I fought back.”
Craig's story was so straightforward and so earnestly told that Robbins' doubts melted rapidly away.
“Damn!” he ejaculated. “I wish I could have caught him. Pete, there's crooked work goin' on here, and I'm goin' to find out who's at the bottom of it if it takes all year!
“Come on! Let's get back to the canyon and see what's happened. I've got a darn good idea that the cave is a thing of the past. Sorry I walloped you so bard, old man, but I guess we're about even. I'll be sore in every muscle for a week!”
Craig laughed musically, and felt himself over tenderly.
“That liniment bottle I saw on Loco's shelf at the ranch is sure goin' to catch it to-night,” he declared whimsically. “I dunno but what I'll have to hire somebody to carry me around.”
Their horses had not strayed far, and Robbins in the lead, they rode back to the canyon as swiftly as their tired horses could travel.
Arriving at the cave they saw, despite the darkness, the effect of the explosion. The high wall of the canyon above the cavern had been sheared off as if by some giant hand, and dropped downward. This was plainly to be seen against the sky line, and as the two men drew nearer they were compelled to pick their way among enormous boulders and slabs of rock scattered in profusion on the floor of the canyon.
Leaping off their horses the two cowboys ran to the great mass of earth and rubble that sealed the mouth of the cave and surveyed it. A sudden thought gripped Robbins.
“Craig!” he cried anxiously. “Larry's in there! He was on guard to-night while I was eating supper!”
“What!” Craig was stunned. “He's in there? The skunks!”
Frantically they began tearing at the rocks, heaving them aside regardless of sharp; jagged edges that tore their hands. A few minutes of this, however, caused both of them to realize the futility of their efforts. Literally tons of dirt and stone barred their way, and all they could do to force an entrance was pitifully inadequate. Robbins straightened up and shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“There's no use of our doin' this,” he said dispiritedly. “We couldn't dig our way into the cave in a month like this. Think of it, Pete! Larry probably was sleeping in the mouth of the cave, and he must be crushed under all this rock. Damn the man that did this! Oh, if I could get my fingers around his dirty throat!”
“Me, too,” nodded Craig solemnly. “Bill, Larry's death will about kill his dad and Miss June, but that ain't all they have to suffer. Even if we could get the meat out it wouldn't do no good. I tried every place in Morgan City to sell it, and I couldn't get an order for even a pound!”
Robbins breathed deeply.
“That means Crimins loses the C Bar then, I suppose. It sure is a shame.”
“It's more than that,” Craig told him with eyes narrowed to slits. “It's a crime, no less! Bill, every man I went to refused to even talk about buyin' from us. One of them, a man I know well, told me just enough to learn that somebody has got ahead of us. That somebody, whoever it is, issued orders that nothin' whatever be bought from the C Bar! They're out to get us, Bill. There's only two things for us to do—give in, or fight!”
“Well, we're not goin' to give in, not if I have anythin' to say about it!” Robbins said forcefully. “We're goin' to fight, and fight hard!”
Abruptly, from the blackness of the opposite wall of the canyon, came a cry. Weird, piercing, poignant, it burst on the eardrums of the astounded men like a clap of thunder. Again it rose, shriekingly; the cry of some one in agony.
[End of chapter]

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