Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER IX

LOCO ON THE WARPATH

DROPPING the rock he was holding, Robbins ran with all speed toward the spot from which had come the shriek, closely followed by Craig. In the darkness they almost stumbled over the body of a man before they could halt. Robbins threw himself upon his knees and struck a match. The flickering light revealed youthful, bloodstained features, contorted with pain.
“Gosh, it's Larry!” the cowboy gasped. “Start a fire, will you, Pete, so we can see what we're doin'? He's bad hurt, but he's still alive. Thank God, he's not in that cave, after all!”
Craig hurriedly scraped together a bundle of twigs and grass and soon the flames of the fire dispelled the shadows. By its light they examined Larry, who had lapsed into unconsciousness again after emitting the shrieks that had startled Robbins and his companion. The young man's clothing was torn and stained, and while it was apparent that he had somehow managed to escape the full force of the blast, he was hurt rather badly. His face was deeply scratched, and there was a bump on his head that undoubtedly was partly responsible for his insensibility. Other factors, however, were far more serious.
“He's in pretty bad shape, Pete,” Robbins said gravely, rising to his feet. “His right leg is broken, and it looks as though several ribs are fractured. Get the canteen off my saddle, will you, and I'll see
if I can bring him around. We'll have to get a doctor for him pretty quick, too.”
He laved Larry's face gently with the water from his canteen, forcing a few drops between his closed lips. Presently the young man stirred and groaned, then swallowed and opened his eyes. He stared blankly upward until his eyes cleared and focused on Robbins' anxious face. The puncher smiled with relief.
“There, yo're back from slumberland at last, aren't you?” he said. “Gosh, we thought yuh was gonna pass out on us, old-timer! How are yuh feelin'?”
Larry grinned wanly and moved. A twinge of pain shot through him and he groaned aloud, his breath coming in short gasps.
“Take it easy,” cautioned Craig. “Yo're all busted up, young fella, so don't move so much as a hair. How do yuh feel?”
“Rotten!” Larry answered in a hoarse whisper. What happened?”
“Somebody blew up the cave,” Robbins told him. “Sure blocked the mouth of it with tons of rock and dirt. We thought you were in there at first.”
Larry nodded slightly.
“I remember now,” he whispered. “Give—give me some water, will you?”
Robbins held the canteen to his lips and allowed him a few sips.
“That's enough for now. Tell us what happened if yuh can.”
“I don't know very much about it,” Larry answered. “I went up to the falls a while ago, or I guess it was a while ago, and was just comin' back to the cave. I don't remember seein' or hearin' anybody, but I had got to within fifty feet of the cave when all of a sudden a blindin' flash of light leaped up in front of me. Somethin' hit me in the ribs and lifted me off my feet as if I'd been a straw, and a great gust of wind threw me backward. I remember flyin' through the air, and that's all. Did you say somebody blew up the cave?”
“Yeah,” answered Robbins gravely. “It's darn lucky for you that yuh did go up to the falls, or else you'd have been buried under more rock than you knew there was in the world. The meat is sealed tight in there, and it'd take a month to dig a way in. We never could have got yuh out in time, even if yuh had been back in the cave and escaped bein' crushed.”
“How long ago was it the explosion took place?”
“Must be over an hour. I was just comin' to relieve you when I heard it and saw a man gallopin' out of the canyon. I chased him, but he got away. I ran into Craig, here, and mistook him for the gent I was chasm'. Both of us got all bruised up before we discovered who the other was. Then we came back here. Man, you sure have a strong pair of lungs. Yuh must have come to long enough to feel how bad you were hurt, because you let out a flock of yells that like to scared us to death.”
“Do you think the fellow that blew up the cave believed I was in there, and wanted to get rid of me?” Larry queried.
“I don't rightly know,” Robbins replied, “but I don't think that was it. It's more probable that he wanted to make sure yore dad couldn't sell that meat.”
“Got any idea who he was
“Nope, unless it could be Mat Whortle, of the T Square, or one of his men. He's the only one I can think of who'd benefit by destroyin' the meat. Knowin' yore dad was dependin' upon it to pay off the mortgage, and this trouble comin' in between yore dad and him, he might have done it to make sure he'd get the C Bar.”
From the mouth of the canyon sounded the rapid beat of horses' hoofs. Robbins and Craig drew their guns and ran out of the circle of light. Four riders bore down upon the fire, and the two men were debating whether or not to send a warning shot at them when the foremost horseman cried out in a familiar voice.
“Larry! Bill! What's the trouble? What was that explosion?”
“It's Crimins,” Robbins said. Then, raising his voice, he called, at the same time moving toward the fire: “Larry's hurt, Crimins. Somebody blew up the cave.”
Crimins swore under his breath and dismounted. His companions did likewise, and all four ran toward the cowboy. Besides the rancher, June, Windy Williams, and Milt Thompson were in the party.
“Where's Larry?” June cried anxiously, staring into Robbins' face. “Is he—is he
She hesitated, and Robbins smiled reassuringly.
“No, he isn't dead, June. He's badly injured, though, and we'd better get a doctor for him right away. He's over here.”
He led them around a rock and the girl cried out in horror as she glimpsed the torn clothing and pain-racked features of her brother. She knelt beside him hastily.
“Larry, Larry, what happened?” she cried.
He smiled up at her.
“Now, sis, don't carry on. I've got a leg and a few ribs broken, but I'll be all right soon's I get a doctor.”
Crimins listened intently as Robbins told what had happened, his brow darkening with rage.
“Somebody is goin' to pay for this!” he gritted when the cowboy had finished. “We haven't time now to tend to them, whoever they are, though. Windy, you light out for town and bring a doctor to the ranch if you have to drag him! Milt, you hurry back to the ranch and bring the buckboard out. Have Loco pile in all the blankets he can find, and a small mattress or two. Beat it, both of yuh!”
The two cowboys raced to their horses, leaped into the saddle, and spurred their mounts into a frenzied gallop. June was already busying herself in doing what she could to ease her brother's pain, and when Robbins went to her and offered his aid, she directed him to find something to fashion into a splint. He hunted around in the darkness, using up all his matches, and at last found a piece of board that some former flood had swept down into the canyon.
He whittled this into shape with his knife, and then cut the leather thongs from his saddle, after first tying hard knots close to the hull so that the skirts and fenders would not fall off. Then he called Crimins to him and sent June away while they set Larry's leg. It was a painful process, yet the young man gritted his teeth and made not a sound. They bound the splint tight with the leather thongs and made Larry as comfortable as possible to wait for the return of Milt Thompson with the buckboard.
Leaving June with her brother, Robbins and Crimins strode over to the great slide of earth and rock blocking the entrance of the cave and surveyed it silently.
“Not much use thinkin' of sellin' that meat now, Bill,” the rancher said finally. “It would take a steam shovel to dig it out.”
His words were bitter, discouraged. Running through his mind, Robbins knew, was that ever-recurrent thought that the C Bar soon would be lost to him.
“Don't give up,” said Robbins reassuringly. “Nothin' is ever as bad as it seems, yuh know. We'll find a way to pull through. Don't worry.”
“I know, Bill, but it's hard to keep goin' sometimes. I don't know if Craig took any orders, haven't had time to talk with him, but it wouldn't do any good now if he had.”
“Well, I don't want to add anythin' to yore troubles,” Robbins said, “but Craig couldn't sell a single pound. Somebody issued orders or used influence to prevent any storekeeper in Morgan City buyin' our meat. I'll let him tell you about it, though.”
He called to Craig, who had been vainly trying to find Larry's horse, which was strangely missing, and had him tell the rancher what had occurred in Morgan City. Crimins listened impatiently, interrupting frequently with ejaculations of anger and vehement denunciation.
“Whortle is at the bottom of this,” he declared with absolute conviction. “I can see his hand showin' plain. You heard what he said about givin' us war if we wanted it, didn't, you, Bill? Well, don't it look to you like he's carryin' out his threat? There isn’t anybody who would gain anything' by this explosion except the person who has a hold on the C Bar, and that's Mat Whortle!”
Robbins nodded doubtfully.
“Yes, it looks like Whortle's work, all right, and yet we're not positive he's the cause. Ten to one, though, he is.”
“That's what I think. And what's more, as soon as Larry is taken care of, I'm goin' to force a showdown.”
They returned to the fire, and a little later Thompson drove up in the buckboard and pulled his team of pintos to a halt. The conveyance was piled high with blankets and a mattress, and when June had arranged them to her entire satisfaction, Craig lifted her injured brother gently and laid him upon them. Despite their tenderness, twinges of pain assailed Larry, and as they laid him upon the pile of blankets, he fainted dead away.
Several minutes were consumed in reviving him, but at last, with June sitting beside him, the party started for home. Robbins rode beside Crimins, trailing the buckboard, talking over plans to thwart the owner of the T Square. Crimins was determined to force a show-down, and the cowboy fell in with his schemes despite the fact that it was not an absolute surety that Whortle was guilty of the crime that had so nearly cost the life of Larry. Craig followed, leading June's horse.
The journey was necessarily a slow one, for roads on the ranges of the West are not noted for their smoothness. However, Thompson drove skillfully, avoiding bumps and chuck holes with deftness and dexterity that betokened long acquaintance with teams. It was nearly midnight when they reached the C Bar, and they found that Williams and the Del Rio physician, Doctor Dickson, had arrived only a few minutes before after a very hard and tiresome ride.
As soon as Larry had been carried to the house and laid on a couch in the parlor, the doctor, Crimins, and June went into consultation over him. Rob-bins, Craig, and Williams adjourned to the kitchen, where Thompson joined them after putting up the buckboard team. Loco Lang, his chef's white cap perched weirdly on the back of his head, sat down at the end of the table and picked at the pine top with the point of a kitchen knife.
“What's the matter with Larry?” he asked querulously. “What for does he have to be carried? Is he hurt?”
Robbins nodded. “Yeah, he's hurt bad, Loco. Got a busted leg, three ribs broken, and I don't know what else. Don't think he'll die, but there's always the chance. Didn't see anything' of his horse, did yuh? Must have got scared and run away, because we couldn't find him.”
“No, his horse didn't come home. How come Larry got hurt? Fall over a cliff; stampede, maybe?’
“It wasn't that, Loco. Somebody set off a lot of dynamite in the cave the meat is in. Larry got caught in the blast, but luckily he was outside, or he'd have been killed.”
The cook stared at him incredulously, a weird, dancing light in his eyes.
“Somebody blew up the cave, hurt Larry with dynamite?” he queried as if he had not heard aright.[sic]
“That's right, Loco,” Robbins said patiently.
Loco's eyes widened. The light in them faded, leaving a blank expression. He dropped the knife and put both hands on the table, while his lips twitched spasmodically. At last he rose dreamily, face hardened with firm decision. Robbins glanced at him inquiringly.
“Larry was a good boy,” Loco asserted simply. “1 know him for long time. He never hurt nobody. It's a cryin' shame they couldn't leave him alone. I'll make them pay for it, you see if I don't!”
He untied his apron, laid it on the table, but forgot to remove the chef's cap. A shotgun stood in one corner of the kitchen, and going to it he picked it up and went out of the door. Robbins half rose to stop him, but Williams laughed and put a hand on his arm.
“No use reasonin' with him,” he said. “That's Loco, all over. Let him go. Pretty soon it will dawn on him that he don't know who to look for, nor where to look, and he'll come back home. He sure is a funny jigger, but he'll fight like seven wild cats for his friends. And he can shoot, too! I've seen him knock a magpie off a fence post at a hundred yards, usin' a rifle, and I sure don't want be the gent he throws down on with that old shotgun of his. He keeps it loaded with a double charge of buckshot, and it scatters enough to take in a whole army.”
“Guess I'll have to keep on the good side of him, then,” grinned Robbins. “Watch me praise his cookin' from now on.”
June came into the kitchen, tears on her cheeks, but a smile on her lips. Robbins rose and she went to him.
“How is he?’ the cowboy asked anxiously.
“The doctor says he'll be all right before very long. He mustn’t be moved at all, of course, until the ribs and his leg have knit, but there is little danger of him dying from the effects of his injuries. The doctor says he is bruised from head to foot, and that it is a wonder his skull wasn't fractured from the blow on the head.”
“Well, we'll hope he pulls through and soon is up and around again,” Robbins smiled at her reassuringly. “Loco just took his shotgun and went out to find whoever caused the explosion and hurt Larry. Guess he intends to shoot ‘em up right.”
The girl laughed merrily, wiping her cheeks with her handkerchief.
“Loco would do something like that,” she said. “He's almost one of the family, you know, and he feels deeply any misfortune that happens to any of us. He knows what he wants to do to help us, but he never thinks about how he is going to accomplish it.”
“Yuh got to give him credit for good intentions,” Robbins grinned. “That'll help a lot, provided he don't change his mind and get to thinkin' we're his enemies instead of friends.”
“Oh, he's not as changeable as that. Please don't think he's lacking in intelligence. It's merely that he doesn't seem to be able to think connectedly and sanely. He's a mighty good friend to have, Bill, even if his brain doesn't function as it should.”
[End of chapter]
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