Tuesday, July 26, 2005





CRIMINS saw them coming, and was at the corral to meet them. He glanced inquiringly at Craig as the riders dismounted, then shifted his gaze to Robbins.
“What luck, Bill?” he inquired. “Did you sell any at all?”
“Yeah, more than I expected. I'll tell yuh about it in a minute. First, I want to make yuh used [sic] to Pete Craig. If it hadn't been for him I'd probably be food for the worms right now. I told him I thought you could use another top hand.”
“Why, sure I can. Glad to meet yuh, Craig. Now, Bill, let's hear it.”
Robbins told him briefly about his trouble with Whortle and with the T Square men in the saloon, and then gave him a list of the orders he had taken. The rancher's eyes widened perceptibly as they glimpsed the total.
“A hundred and forty-four!” he gasped. “This ain't—you're not kiddin' me, are yuh, Bill?”
“Not a bit,” grinned the cowboy. “Taylor took a hundred, and will have his own men haul the meat. The rest has to be delivered in town. Pete, here, tells me he knows Morgan City and the country over there, and I suggest yuh send him there immediately to see what he can do.”
“Yeah, that's what I'll do. Put yore horses up, Pete, and after dinner catch up any one in the pasture. If yuh need money—and I never saw a wanderin' puncher that didn't—I'll give yuh some before yuh go. Yuh oughta make Morgan City by late afternoon, and get back to-morrow, eh?”
“Uh-huh, if I don't have any bad luck.”
“Yeah. Well, there's Loco grinnin' like a dang monkey. I suppose grub is ready, so what do yuh say we eat?”
The motion was promptly seconded, and as soon as they had put up their horses, Robbins and Craig joined Crimins at the wash bench. The cook came out of the kitchen and looked hopefully at Robbins. The cowboy grinned at him and continued his ablutions. Lang went to him hesitantly.
“Er—did yuh—did yuh get my eatin' tobacco?”
“Huh!” Robbins turned startled eyes on him. “Tobacco? By George, Loco, I plumb forgot. Honest, I was so busy I didn't think of it!”
An almost comical grimace of incredulity and disgust swept over the cook's features.
“Yuh mean—yuh mean yuh didn't get my eatin' tobacco?” he asked blankly.
“That's right. Sorry, but I couldn't help it. Came so near gatherin' a few plugs of lead that I couldn't remember yore plug of tobacco.”
Lang tore off his apron and, balling it up, threw it with violent flourish at the feet of Crimins.
“That settles it!” he raged. “I've got to have my eatin' tobacco. I'm not goin' to work on a place where I can't have it when I want it. I'm quittin', boss. Give me my time.”
“Now, now,” Crimins said soothingly. “Yuh don't want to get all hot under the collar, Loco. I'll see that yuh get yore tobacco.”
“But I want it now!” Lang wailed. “He promised to get me some, and he didn't! No, I'm quittin'!”
June came out of the house at this juncture, an oblong something wrapped in tinfoil in her hands.
“Here's some tobacco, Loco,” she said. “One of the boys left it in the office. You take it, and we'll get you some more when we go to town. Better get back in the kitchen, because I smell something burning.”
The cook accepted the tobacco gratefully. Stooping quickly, he caught up his apron and ran into the cook shack, calling a “Thank you, Miss June,” over his shoulder. The girl smiled at Robbins, and he introduced Craig to her.
“You mustn't mind Loco,” she told them. “That's the way he is at times, but he's harmless. He's a good cook, so we humor him.”
“Gosh, June,” Robbins cried, “I didn't know I was goin' to create a ruckus, or I'd brought a whole case of tobacco for him.”
She smiled again.
“You don't know him yet. He doesn't chew at all. Whenever he has any one get tobacco for him he merely puts it somewhere and forgets it. That's just one of his little peculiarities. He's been with us for six years, and I've never seen him chew yet. That plug I gave him was one he put on dad's desk last week and forgot.”
Craig slapped his knee in merriment and Robbins chuckled.
“Don't ever let him think you're makin' fun of him, though,” warned Crimins. “He won't stand for that. When he gets mad he nearly wrecks the place. Come on, let's eat. Milt and Windy are workin' in the canyon. We'll take their dinner to them.”
After the noonday meal the three men talked over various plans for selling and hauling the rest of the meat, and then caught and saddled fresh horses. Craig rode away westward toward Morgan City, on the main line of the railroad. June decided to accompany Robbins and her father, so the former saddled her horse and helped her mount. Lang was waiting with a basket of sandwiches at the kitchen, and when Crimins had taken them from him the trio headed directly toward the canyon.
June had not yet been informed of the events of the morning, and a portion of the trip was consumed while Robbins related them to her. When he had finished, she voiced a thought that had been in his mind.
“It looks to me as if Whortle really meant what he told dad about war. He's evidently doing his best to ruin dad from every angle. What's more, we're going to have a hard time to keep him from succeeding.”
“That's as plain as the Rocky Mountains,” admitted Crimins. “Whortle has wanted the C Bar so long, and I've turned down so many offers of his, that he probably has decided to get it any way he can, especially since what happened yesterday and this mornin'. Yes, we'll have a hard time of it if he once sets his mind on ruinin' us. He's a bad man to have for an enemy.”
“Yeah!” grinned Robbins. “I've found that out already! Here I've seen him just twice, and I've got him thirstin' for my gore before he knows my first name. I dunno but what I'll have to take to wearin' armor, if he's the sort of gent who waits in the brush for yuh to come by.”
“I wouldn't accuse him of that,” Crimins said. “Oh, he's no angel, and it wouldn't surprise me if he was a bushwhacker, but so far I've never known him to take an unfair advantage of a man—that way. No, he's too confident of himself to do that.”
A surprise awaited them at the canyon. Melvin Kurtz, looking more than ever the dandy, was standing beside Williams and Thompson, watching them skinning a carcass, and talking earnestly. As the three riders reined in he came toward them with an ingratiating smile on his handsome face.
“I come in peace, not war,” he said hurriedly, before Crimins could speak. “I'm sorry I acted as I did yesterday, Crimins, and I want to apologize to both you and Miss June. It isn't often I forget I'm a gentleman, but all of us have our irritable moments, I suppose. I'm really sorry. We've had our little trouble, our disagreements, but I see no reason why we can't be friends. The Big Bear doesn't want enemies, and neither do I.”
He completely ignored Robbins, and the latter took advantage of the opportunity to study the dapper ranch manager carefully. Kurtz, he thought, was going out of his way to be friendly. He frankly disbelieved the man's statement that he did not often forget he was a gentleman, for the kicking of the fallen Les Davids when the gunman had collided accidentally with Kurtz gave him an unimpeachable insight of the latter's character. However, the amicable efforts of Kurtz were doubtless the result of his feeling for June. Naturally, caring for her as he obviously did, he would try his best to remain in her good graces.
Crimins considered Kurtz's words thoughtfully. He had little use for the Easterner, but his better instinct would not permit him to nurse a grudge.
“‘Well, all right,” he said hesitantly. “It's 0.K. [sic] with me if June is agreeable. She's the one you need to apologize to most.”
Kurtz turned from him to the girl. He took off his narrow-brimmed pinch hat and bowed slightly.
“From the bottom of my heart, Miss June,” he vowed earnestly, “I am sorry. Please believe, and forgive me.”
The girl searched his face closely.
“Very well, Mr. Kurtz,” she said at last. “You are forgiven. Don't forget yourself again, though. I won't forgive you a second time.”
The Easterner bowed again, this time lower and with a satisfied smile.
“Thank you. I'll see to it that you won't have cause in the future. Now that we're all friends again, how can I help you, Crimins? You need more men to get this meat out before it spoils. Will you accept the loan of three Big Bear men until the work is done?”
The rancher refused. He did not want to be under any obligations whatever to the Big Bear.
“No, I can't accept, Kurtz. Thanks just the same, but I don't think we'll need them. You see, we've sold a hundred of the beeves to the mining man, Taylor. He's sending men to butcher and haul the meat, so all we'll have to do is tend to what we've sold in town, and what we expect to sell in Morgan City.”
“All right, but if you change your mind, the offer is still open. And if there is anything else I can do, please don't hesitate to call upon me.
The conversation turned to other subjects, and presently Kurtz mounted his horse and rode away. Robbins and Crimins relieved Williams and Thompson while the two punchers ate their dinner, and the work progressed rapidly. The great mound of dead cattle was fast growing smaller, and, with the aid of the men from the mines, would be taken care of to the last carcass by the next evening.
Taylor's men arrived half an hour after Kurtz left, and fell to work with a will. The ten wagons they brought with them were driven directly up to the cliff and loaded, reducing the mound greatly.
When the freighters had gone on their way down the canyon, Williams and Thompson were dispatched to find Larry, who was rounding up some horses that had broken loose, and to haul the meat already on the C Bar's three wagons to town. June did not stay, for the sight of the dead stock nauseated her.
All afternoon, until darkness fell, Robbins and Crimins labored in the canyon. Larry and his helpers made two trips to town, and reported that the meat was entirely satisfactory to the buyers. Thompson was detailed to sleep in the canyon, and Robbins brought blankets and food to him from the ranch.
The next morning they were at it again, somewhat tired, but glad that the end of the task was in sight. Thompson had come through his vigil without alarm, yet, in riding up the canyon to the cave, Robbins more than once pointed out to his companions the tracks of a bear, not particularly clearly defined, but fresh nevertheless. When the puncher was told this he was much surprised.
“Yuh mean that critter wandered all around me last night?” he demanded. “Well, that beats me hollow. I heard coyotes, but nary a bear.”
“He didn't get past you,” Crimins observed. “He smelled you, I'd judge, and didn't stay long. I'd sure like to know where he holes up. This ground is too hard to track him.”
“He'll pesticate around just long enough some of these times for one of us to tickle him with a bullet,” Robbins declared. “I feel a cravin' comin' on to notch my sights on his wishbone. Don't worry, boss, we'll get him yet.”
The day dragged past slowly and uneventfully.
Taylor's freighters finished hauling late in the afternoon, while Larry and his two men had their job done by the time the sun reached the zenith. By dusk the last of the remaining carcasses had been dressed and stacked along the cold walls of the cave, to await the return of Craig with more orders. A few of the beeves had been so bruised and wangled that the meat could not be used at all, but other than this practically little would be lost.
[End of chapter]
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