Thursday, July 28, 2005
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.”
“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.
“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]