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]
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