Sunday, July 31, 2005

 

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]
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