Saturday, July 30, 2005
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."
"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]