Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER VIII

THE UNKNOWN

WHILE Larry waited on guard at the cave, Robbins went back to the C Bar with Crimins and the two punchers. It had been decided that he should take his turn as sentry in the canyon, so after eating supper he set out to relieve Larry and let him go back to the ranch. The night was dark, but a thin, silver crescent of moon soon poked its tip above the eastern horizon, dimly lighting the rider's way for him.
June Crimins had been the chief object of Robbins' thoughts all through the day, and his mind was occupied now in remembering her little mannerisms, her confident, determined poise in moments of stress, and the sweetness of her smile. It was something of a shock, so unconsciously had he been thinking so much of her, that he suddenly discovered he was in love. The fact struck him so abruptly, so unexpectedly, that it startled him.
“That's what's the matter with you, yuh big chump!” he said aloud. “Come on, snap out of it! As if she could ever care for a man like you are.”
Ridiculing himself, he tried to put her out of his mind, but his thoughts of her clung persistently. So engrossed was he that he did not at first hear the flurry of muffled hoofbeats that bore down upon him as he neared the mouth of the canyon. It was only when a dim, moving shape loomed up out of the darkness fifty feet away that he realized some underhanded work was afoot. He yelled aloud and reached for his gun.
Like a startled doe a dim shape, now recognized as a horse and rider, veered sharply to the left and raced madly away. Simultaneously, from the direction of the cave in the canyon, came a livid burst of flame and the dull, sullen rumble of an explosion! For a moment the sky seemed afire. Then the orange-red flare vanished, and the clatter of falling, sliding rocks made the night hideous.
“Gosh!” breathed Robbins. “Some one's blown up the cave!”
An instant he sat, undecided whether to dash up the canyon or to chase and attempt to capture the fleeing horseman. He quickly determined upon the latter course, and dug in the spurs. His horse leaped into a run. The fugitive was still in sight, though barely distinguishable in the surrounding blackness, and Robbins urged his mount on with pleading voice and quirt.
Pursued and pursuer tore across a mesa and down into a sandy draw like two swift meteorites. The unknown rider turned twice in his saddle, and each time a red flame stabbed back at Robbins, followed immediately by the sinister whine of a bullet. The cowboy returned the fire, though at the pace they were going he knew that a hit would be nothing but sheer luck.
Mile after mile they raced onward, both men hunched low over their saddles, striving to get the last ounce of speed out of their laboring mounts. Neither seemed able to gain. Both horses apparently were equal in swiftness and stamina, and the gap between them neither widened nor narrowed.
Down into another draw they plunged. The fugitive fired once more, and then was lost around a curve where the draw widened, and there were deep thickets of brush. Fearing an ambush, Robbins slowed his mad pace, and with gun cocked and ready, went cautiously forward. There was no one waiting for him in the mesquite, however, and as he rounded the curve he saw ahead of him the fleeing bulk of the horseman once more.
Again he clapped spurs to his horse and gave chase. Either the fugitive's mount was rapidly tiring or it had gone lame, for Robbins gradually began closing up the gap. Several times he glimpsed the man ahead peering back at him, but no more bullets came his way, and he galloped on with undiminished speed.
The banks of the draw drew farther apart, became less steep. The fleeing rider suddenly turned his horse toward a break in the left bank and drove him up it and out upon a broad, level plain. Robbins followed, now close behind. His quarry's quirt rose and fell in an endeavor to increase the rapidity of his flight, yet the cowboy did not lose an inch of the ground he had gained. For a minute or two the gap remained the same. Then Robbins started to close up again, and this time his gains brought him steadily up to the other until he was alongside.
The fugitive tried to wheel away, to evade his pursuer, but Robbins flung himself out of the saddle and upon the man without the slightest hesitation. The fellow fought savagely, silently, pulling up his horse with one hand to prevent serious injury should he be dragged to the ground. That was just what happened. Robbins' horse had already stopped, and was breathing heavily from the long run. The cowboy tenaciously hung on to his man, despite the latter's violent struggles, and at last jerked him sidewise off his mount.
They landed with a thud that knocked the breath from both of them. In the instant that Robbins' hold relaxed, the unknown wrenched himself free and staggered to his feet. But the cowboy launched himself from the ground and grappled with him. His right fist swung in an arc, crashed on the side of the jaw, and the fellow went down.
He was on his feet again immediately, however, and springing in with a bellow of rage. A fist slammed into Robbins' chest; another caught him on the temple, momentarily dazing him. Violently he shook his head to clear away the dizziness, and bored in again, clamping his opponent's arms to his sides.
From the first Robbins had realized that his unknown adversary was taller and heavier than he was, but he bad no intention whatever of surrendering. He hung on until the haze left his brain, then suddenly released his grasp and flashed a vicious right jab to the man's ribs. The fellow grunted and smashed through Robbins' guard to the stomach. The cowboy hammered hard knuckles to jaw and heart, but failed to drop his opponent.
Many times, in the darkness, both of the battlers missed their marks, though when their fists did land gasps of pain were forced from the lips of the recipient of the blow. Save for the sound of the blows and the wheezing and panting of their breaths, the two men fought silently. Feet far apart, bracing themselves, they stood toe to toe and slugged each other like a couple of sullen, grudge-holding boxers in a prize ring.
A smashing jab over the heart would be followed by a hard jolt to stomach or head; a slashing swing to the jaw usually prefaced a vicious uppercut or a blow to the solar plexus. After a few moments of this, neither was able to do. more than stand exhausted, so terrific were their efforts. As if by mutual consent, they stepped back a pace and panted for breath.
Robbins tried hard to pierce the darkness and get a look at his antagonist's features, but the light of the crescent moon was too dim. Unexpectedly, the man lunged forward, determining to put an abrupt end to the battle. His fist shot out and would have caught Robbins fully on the point of the chin had he not instinctively moved his head a fraction of an inch. As it was, the, blow staggered him, but he recovered before his adversary could get in another, and raising himself on his toes, lashed out straight from the shoulder with all the power in his lean body.
This he followed up with a rapid one-two to the heart and body. His opponent went down inertly, but was far from being knocked out, and just as far from giving up the fight.
“Damn you, I'll get you yet!” he snarled.
Robbins started. That voice was strangely familiar. Hurriedly he pulled a match from his pocket and lighted it with a snap of his thumb-nail. The mellow glow illuminated the features of the same tall, clean-shaven stranger who had saved his life in the Del Rio saloon.
“Craig!” he blurted. His eyes were wide, unbelieving what they saw. “So yo're the dirty skunk caused that explosion! You traitor! And I thought you was my friend!”
Craig was no less astounded than Robbins. As the match went out and Robbins started angrily for him, he scrambled hastily to his feet and thrust out both hands to protect himself.
“Hey, wait!” he cried, stumbling backward. “Lord, man, I didn't blow up nothin'! What's the matter with you?”
Robbins halted indecisively. Remembrance that he owed his life to this man dictated that he be sure of his ground.
“Don't try to [pull] anythin' like that on me,” he rasped. “Didn't I chase you clear from the canyon here?”
“Yuh did not!” Craig answered indignantly. “I was on my way back from Morgan City when I heard what sounded like an explosion. A few minutes later a gent comes tearin' around a curve in that draw back there as though he was runnin' from the devil. He takes a swipe at me with his gun barrel as he passes. Naturally I don't admire that, so I starts to chase him and just then you comes around the brush.
“I thought you was his pal and decides I'd better get out of that draw before I collect a few slugs. I dunno where the other fellow went, but his horse was faster than mine and anyway I didn't bother much to keep track of him. You've been chasin' the wrong man, that's what, and I sure wasn't goin' to get all beat up if I could help it. So when you pitched into me I fought back.”
Craig's story was so straightforward and so earnestly told that Robbins' doubts melted rapidly away.
“Damn!” he ejaculated. “I wish I could have caught him. Pete, there's crooked work goin' on here, and I'm goin' to find out who's at the bottom of it if it takes all year!
“Come on! Let's get back to the canyon and see what's happened. I've got a darn good idea that the cave is a thing of the past. Sorry I walloped you so bard, old man, but I guess we're about even. I'll be sore in every muscle for a week!”
Craig laughed musically, and felt himself over tenderly.
“That liniment bottle I saw on Loco's shelf at the ranch is sure goin' to catch it to-night,” he declared whimsically. “I dunno but what I'll have to hire somebody to carry me around.”
Their horses had not strayed far, and Robbins in the lead, they rode back to the canyon as swiftly as their tired horses could travel.
Arriving at the cave they saw, despite the darkness, the effect of the explosion. The high wall of the canyon above the cavern had been sheared off as if by some giant hand, and dropped downward. This was plainly to be seen against the sky line, and as the two men drew nearer they were compelled to pick their way among enormous boulders and slabs of rock scattered in profusion on the floor of the canyon.
Leaping off their horses the two cowboys ran to the great mass of earth and rubble that sealed the mouth of the cave and surveyed it. A sudden thought gripped Robbins.
“Craig!” he cried anxiously. “Larry's in there! He was on guard to-night while I was eating supper!”
“What!” Craig was stunned. “He's in there? The skunks!”
Frantically they began tearing at the rocks, heaving them aside regardless of sharp; jagged edges that tore their hands. A few minutes of this, however, caused both of them to realize the futility of their efforts. Literally tons of dirt and stone barred their way, and all they could do to force an entrance was pitifully inadequate. Robbins straightened up and shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“There's no use of our doin' this,” he said dispiritedly. “We couldn't dig our way into the cave in a month like this. Think of it, Pete! Larry probably was sleeping in the mouth of the cave, and he must be crushed under all this rock. Damn the man that did this! Oh, if I could get my fingers around his dirty throat!”
“Me, too,” nodded Craig solemnly. “Bill, Larry's death will about kill his dad and Miss June, but that ain't all they have to suffer. Even if we could get the meat out it wouldn't do no good. I tried every place in Morgan City to sell it, and I couldn't get an order for even a pound!”
Robbins breathed deeply.
“That means Crimins loses the C Bar then, I suppose. It sure is a shame.”
“It's more than that,” Craig told him with eyes narrowed to slits. “It's a crime, no less! Bill, every man I went to refused to even talk about buyin' from us. One of them, a man I know well, told me just enough to learn that somebody has got ahead of us. That somebody, whoever it is, issued orders that nothin' whatever be bought from the C Bar! They're out to get us, Bill. There's only two things for us to do—give in, or fight!”
“Well, we're not goin' to give in, not if I have anythin' to say about it!” Robbins said forcefully. “We're goin' to fight, and fight hard!”
Abruptly, from the blackness of the opposite wall of the canyon, came a cry. Weird, piercing, poignant, it burst on the eardrums of the astounded men like a clap of thunder. Again it rose, shriekingly; the cry of some one in agony.
[End of chapter]
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