Wednesday, July 27, 2005

 

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VI

THE FIGHT IN THE SALOON

IN half an hour Robbins canvassed Del Rio, but with little success. The population of the town was slightly over three thousand, and he already had been to most of the shops and establishments that catered to the inner man. So, at last, becoming thirsty, he rode up to a saloon across from the post office and dismounted. Tying his horse to the hitch rack, he went inside.
There were several men standing at the bar, range men, all of them, judging by their attire. Along one wall there were a number of tables, a roulette wheel, and a faro layout, though the latter was deserted save for the gambler who operated it. At a table in the corner farthest from the door sat three men, their heads together in close conversation. As Robbins strode casually up to the bar, these men ceased talking and glanced narrowly at him. When the puncher looked at them, however, they quickly lowered their eyes and continued talking among themselves.
There was something in the incident, in the way they stared at him when they thought he was not observing them, that struck a warning chord in Robbins' brain. As he sipped his beer the paunchy, red-faced bartender set before him, he kept his senses alert for any sign that would warn him of impending danger.
Out of the corner of his eye he scrutinized the three men, searching his mind for some tangible clue to the reason for the feeling that had come over him.. Each of them, cowboys to all outward appearances, wore a gun low-slung on his right leg, holster tied down. The one who was doing most of the talking was of medium height, but with broad shoulders and a bull-like neck. His companions were both taller and slenderer, and one had on a blue shirt topped by a gaudy neckerchief.
Not for an instant did Robbins take his gaze wholly from the three. Therefore, when they rose leisurely and, hitching up their gun belts, walked slowly toward him, his muscles tensed in preparation for what he divined was approaching trouble.
Blue Shirt passed him as if to leave the saloon, but Robbins was vaguely conscious that the man had no intention of actually going. He put his glass down upon the bar so that his hands would be entirely free, and waited.
Almost immediately came the shock of some one stumbling over his feet and the dull thud of a body striking the floor. He turned as the broad-shouldered leader of the three scrambled angrily to his feet and confronted him. Irate wrath, whether assumed or real, shone in the man's eyes.
“What the hell do yuh mean, trippin' me like that?” he blurted. “Reckon you don't know who I am, do yuh?”
Robbins looked him over from head to foot, noticing that his right hand hovered only a few inches above the black butt of the revolver on his thigh. The man behind him, coarse-featured and leering, had fallen into the semicrouch that denotes the gunman all over the West. Blue Shirt was standing several feet beyond him, toward the door. The men who had been drinking at the bar had whirled around and were watching with the morbid curiosity of a crowd viewing an accident.
“Can't say as I do know who yuh are,” the cowboy drawled, moving away from the bar in order that his movements would not be hampered. “I dunno as I give a hoot, either, but I ain't got much in particular to do right this minute, so if you feel in an entertaining' mood, why I'm willied' to listen.”
The man's eyes narrowed. His lip curled.
“Say, don't get gay with me!” he snarled. “I'm ‘Catamount' Perkins, I am, and I don't let no damn jasper trip me. I'm a wild wolf, and I'm out for blood! Look out, fellah, I'm coming' a-smoking'!”
From the beginning Robbins had seen that the episode had been prearranged, with the object of getting him into a quarrel and killing him. Why this should be, he had no way of knowing or time to think about. He was too much concerned for the moment, and succeeding moments, in a determined endeavor to disrupt the plans of the three men who so obviously were intent on his death.
The danger did not in the least appall him. If the self-styled Catamount Perkins expected him to tremble and plead for mercy, he was speedily to be undeceived. He took a step to the right so that he was between Perkins and Blue Shirt, and laughed harshly.
“Why don't yuh come on, then?” he demanded. “We'll see who's the one to get smoked. You look more like a ham to me than anything else.”
Snarling wrathfully, Perkins went for his gun, at the same time crying loudly: “Get him, Jack!”
Just as the bully's gun blazed, Robbins threw himself on the floor, drawing his own revolver as he did so. Simultaneously with the crashing report of Perkins' gun came a wail of pain from Blue Shirt. The cowboy laughed delightedly, realizing instantly that his ruse had been successful, and that the attempt to trap him between two fires had resulted in either the death or the wounding of the man who was Perkins' lieutenant.
His own gun was out now, and red flame stabbed from its muzzle at Perkins, who had recovered sufficiently from the shock of seeing Blue Shirt fail to remember his mission. But the split second that his brain had been inactive put him at a disadvantage that. he could not overcome. Robbins fired, and fired again, and the blast of flame and lead swept the gunman off his feet, tumbling him against the third man and spoiling the latter's aim. The fall of Perkins' heavy body jarred the glasses on the bar, but before it had ceased rolling Robbins leaped to his feet and flung himself sidewise.
So swift was this movement that the third gunman, steadying himself and firing again, missed him completely. Before he could shoot again, Robbins pulled the trigger. The cowboy's bullet caught him squarely in the center of the forehead. His eyes glazed; his knees sagged, and letting the gun fall from limp fingers, he pitched forward on his face.
Robbins went to him and stooped to look into the dead eyes. Wham! A bullet tore past his head, clipping a lock of hair peeping from under the brim of the C Bar man's hat. He dove across the body, landing on his side, and whirled. The man Perkins had shot, Blue Shirt, was not dead. It was he who had fired, and he was attempting to steady the big Colt .45 in his hand so that he could shoot again.
The cowboy's gun roared spitefully. Struck just front of the cylinder, the Colt was wrenched violently from Blue Shirt's hand, drawing thin tricklets of crimson from the smashed fingers. Getting up quickly, Robbins sprang to the man and jerked him to his feet, noticing the red stain that had spread over the fellow’s breast.
“You gents weren't as wise as yuh thought yuh were,” he said grimly. “You oughta know better than to get on both sides of a man you crave to bump off.”
Still holding his prisoner by one arm, he glanced at the bartender and the silent spectators. None of these, however, made any overt move, and he judged that they were altogether neutral. The captive squirmed uneasily, but Robbins held fast to his arm.
“What's yore name, hombre?” he demanded. The man shuffled his feet sullenly.
“Les Davids.”
“Who do you ride for?”
“The T Square.”
Robbins breathed deeply. Now he was beginning to see light, or thought he was.
“Oh, I see. So Whortle set you to kill me, did he? Are yore pals from the T Square, too?”
Davids glanced covertly past him, and his eyelids flickered.
“What do you mean?”
“Don't stall. You might as well tell me, because I'll find out anyhow.”
“Whortle done't see us to you at all,” the puncher denied. “You tripped Catamount up, and I just naturally joined in with him when he called you. That's all there is to it.”
Robbins snorted contemptuously.
“Aw, cut out the fairy tale. I know danged well this was a put-up job. All right, never mind. It been't important. Get out of here, now, before I get mad at you. If I catch you around here again I'll do worse than shoot the gun out of yore hand. Get along with you.”
As the man turned around and stooped to pick up his gun, Robbins caught him by the collar and the seat of the pants, straightened him up and sent him on the run through the door. On the sidewalk Davids collided forcibly with Melvin Kurtz, who was still in town. Both went down heavily. Kurtz got to his feet in a rage and kicked Davids in the side, swearing vitriolically.
“My, my!” chaffed Robbins, grinning widely. “Such language! What do yuh suppose mamma would do to yuh, little boy, if she heard yuh talkin' like that? Don'tcha know that's naughty?”
You go to hell! Kurtz bade him tersely, brush-in off his riding breeches and walking away.
From behind Robbins, at the farther end of the bar, came a strident command.
“Drop it! Now reach for the roof! Higher!”
Robbins spun about on his heel at the sound of a gun clattering on the bar top. His gun leaped into his hand, but he did not fire. What he saw was the bartender with his hands over his head, glaring malevolently at a tall, clean-shaven young man who was covering him with a .45. The cowboy quickly grasped the significance of the scene.
“Fixin' to plug me in the back, was he?”
The bartender shifted his gaze to Robbins, but only stared sullenly.
“That's just what he was goin' to do,” said the young man at the end of the bar. “I wasn't buttin' in on this game while there was somethin' at least resemblin' fair play, though I knew from the start it was a frame-up to fit you for a coffin. You looked capable of handlin' the three misguided gents who were gunnin' for you, so I done't make a move. But when the hydrophobia skunk here gets the idea he'll heave a slug next to your spine, I figures it's time to do somethin'. What'Il we do with him?”
Robbins strode over to the bar and picked up the gun the saloon keeper had dropped. With a flip of his hand he threw it out of an adjacent window.
“I suppose I oughta take him over my knees and him a good spankin',” he answered. “It's a cinch a fellah like him will never fight yuh face to face.”
The bartender's face flushed angrily
“Say, you young squirt!” he blustered. “Put that gun down and I'll soon show you whether I'll fight yuh face to face or not. I'll beat yuh to a pulp, that's what I'll do!“
“Do tell?“
Robbins grinned up at the ceiling and holstered his gun. Stepping up to the bar, he rested both hands upon it, palms down. Then, unexpectedly, he reached over, grabbed the bartender under the arms, and with a strength that amazed the onlookers, dragged him across the mahogany surface and threw him to the floor.
Yelling with rage, the man picked himself up and launched a vicious blow at the slender cowboy. Robbins easily parried it, and the knuckles of his right hand crashed forcibly over the bartender's heart. The bartender staggered. A second blow, catching him off balance, completed his downfall, tumbling him sprawling in the sawdust of the saloon floor. His head hit the leg of a table with an odd thump and he lay still.
“Another one down,” laughed the young stranger. “Step right up, folks. You're next!“
Robbins chuckled.
“For gosh sakes, don't give out any more invitations! I'm beginnin' to feel that the people in these parts don't appreciate my company. Thanks a lot for pacifyin' the barkeep until I could give him my undivided attention. Somehow I can't exactly approve of any leaden decorations on my backbone.”
“Oh, that's all right. Glad I was handy. I betcha our little playmate won't wake up for a week. That table leg done't do his skull no good, I'd judge. It's lucky for him his head is pretty solid, or he'd likely wake tip and find himself shovelin' coal.”
“Yeah. Well, I can't be bothered with him now. I'll let some of his friends, if he's got any, take care of him. Say, if yo're lookin' for a job, maybe I could get yuh one. How about it? Are you willing?”
The stranger nodded enthusiastically.
“That hits me in the most affirmative spot. My name's Pete Craig. I'm nearly broke, but I've still got my horse. He's outside tryin' to make a meal off the hitch rack.”
“We'll soon fix both of yuh up with chow,” Robbins told him. “As for names, call me Bill Robbins. Now what, I wonder?“
The last was occasioned by the abrupt entrance of a burly, pot-bellied individual through the swinging doors. His weather-beaten sombrero flopped over one ear, and the colored neckerchief adorning his red neck was stained and dirty from much use. The most significant thing about him was the silver star on the left side of his open, beaded vest. He glared about him scowlingly, scrutinizing the still bodies on the floor. Behind him, peering over the. top of the doors, was the face of Les Davids, leering malignantly.
“Here, what's all this?” the burly individual demanded wheezingly. “Looks like a slaughter house.”
Robbins smiled grimly.
“Yeah, and it's liable to become a real slaughter house if any more gents take a notion to bump me off. Sheriff, are you? Know these two jiggers?”
He pointed at the forms of Perkins and the other man he had shot. The sheriff glanced swiftly from one to the other. His face hardened.
“Yes, yo're damned right I do! Two of the best men on this range, and the most peaceful. Did you kill them?”
“I sure did!“ Robbins answered, sensing a note of antagonism in the officer’s voice. “What else could I do, I craves to know? I was standin' at the bar, mindin' my own business and takin' a little snort of beer, when them gents and the no-account jasper peekin' in the door walked up behind me and picked a fight. Perkins pulled his gun, and I plugged him. His bullet missed me and hit Davids. The other gent horned in and I downed him to save my own life. Then Davids tried to get me in the back and I had to shoot the gun out of his hand.”
The sheriff shook his head dubiously, and indicated the body of the bartender.
“Davids tells me different, but how about Samuels, the barkeep? Where does he come in?”
“He tried the same stunt Davids did, that's all. I popped him on the jaw and he's been investigating' dreamland ever since.”
“Davids says he and his pards were drinkin', and that when they started to go out you tripped Perkins and picked a fight with him for no reason at all. Then, when he called you, yuh shot and killed Catamount and his pal, and plugged Davids in the chest.”
The bartender groaned and sat up. The sheriff helped him to his feet and steadied him until he was able to stand alone. Samuels felt tenderly of his head and gasped in pain as his fingers touched an extremely sore spot.
“How did this fracas start, Paul?” the sheriff asked him. “Davids says this stranger is to blame. Is that right?”
Samuels squinted at Robbins through tears of pain.
“That's absolutely correct, Kelson. Davids and his pals were in here when this fellah came in. I could see right away that he was lookin' for trouble, so I watched him. Sure enough, when Perkins walked past him to go out the door, he stuck out his foot so that Catamount tripped and fell. Then Catamount got sore, naturally, and called him for it. What does he do then but shoot Catamount without a chance.”
Pete Craig snorted derisively.
“Man, you sure have got some imagination! How can anybody lie like that? Yuh wanta watch out, Paulie, because gents who abuse the truth like you do can never get to heaven! No, sir!”
“Wait a minute!” put in the sheriff. “Who asked you to butt in? What do you know about this thing?”
“I know a lot!” rasped Craig, his eyes snapping. “I not only saw all of it, but I had a hand in it as well! This crook of a bar swabber is lyin' four ways from the jack! Perkins is the one who started the fight. He deliberately tripped over Robbins' feet. It was a frame-up, that's what. Maybe Samuels was in on it, I dunno. At any rate, he would have plugged Robbins in the back if I hadn't pulled my gun on him.”
The sheriff scratched his chin seriously.
“Well, that makes no difference. I'll have to arrest yuh, Robbins, and you can tell it to the judge. I can't let yuh go free on the word of one man against two I know. If you could prove yore story, all right, but I guess you'll have to come with me.”
Craig intervened again.
“Don't be in a hurry, sheriff. These men,” pointing to those who had watched the battle, “saw all of it. They can tell you that Samuels and Davids lied. How about it, fellows?”
Apparently the spectators were not parties to the attempted frame-up, for they came to Robbins' assistance immediately.
“The barkeep is lyin', just as the stranger says,” one man said. “Perkins got what was coming' to him, and so did his pals. There ain't no question but what Robbins shot in self-defense. Even a crooked jury would have to free him on the evidence.”
“That's whatever,” agreed another. “Robbins is in the clear. Yuh can't convict a man for protectin' his own life, leastways not in this day and age.”
“Thanks,” Robbins told them. “Well, sheriff, what do yuh think about it now?”
The officer hesitated. It was apparent that he fervently desired putting the C Bar man in jail, but that in the face of such testimony he could not feel entirely justified.
“You win,” he said grudgingly at last. “There's nothin' I can do when so many support yore story. But you'd better get out of town as quick as you can. We don't want no gunmen hangin' around Del Rio.”
“I'm stayin',” asserted Robbins firmly. “As long as yore half-baked gun slingers leave me alone there'll be no trouble. Meanwhile I'm not goin' to pull my freight till I get darn good and ready!”
The officer shrugged his shoulders.
“Suit yoreself, but don't say I done't warn yuh if anythin' goes wrong. I'm goin' to keep the peace in this county if I have to kill off everybody in it, and the ones who are trouble makers will be the first to go. Remember that.”
He stalked stiffly out of the saloon, and a moment later Robbins and Craig followed. Davids had disappeared. The two men got their horses and rode out of town side by side. Robbins explained something of the difficulties the C Bar was in as they trotted along.
[End of chapter]
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