Monday, July 25, 2005

 

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER X

BEAR TRACKS

CRIMINS and Doctor Dickson, the latter dressed in a black frock coat that contrasted oddly with the rest of his attire, which was thoroughly of the range, came out into the kitchen and stood talking together.
“What is yore dad thinkin' of doin', June?” Robbins asked in a low voice. “He said somethin' of havin' a show-down with Whortle, you know.”
A worried look swept over the girl's pretty face.
“I don't know just what he intends doing,” she answered. “I don't want him to get into any more trouble, though. We can't hope to fight as big an outfit as the T Square now. It would be useless, and I'm afraid of the results. Can't things be settled peaceably, without much trouble?”
Her eyes raised to his pleadingly.
“Don't you see what it would mean to me if dad were hurt now? He might—he might even be killed. I lost my mother long ago, and now that Larry is so badly hurt, it would be terrible if something happened to daddy.”
The cowboy nodded.
“Uh-huh, it would. But I'm afraid there'll be little peace on this range, June. Somebody is out to ruin the C Bar, I can see that. If it's Whortle, there'll be war to the hilt. And from what I've seen of the law in this country I'd say we couldn't expect much help from that source. The sheriff is apparently inclined to side in with the T Square in any trouble that comes along.”
June shook her head doubtfully.
“I don't think Sheriff Kelson is crooked, yet very few people in this vicinity believe he's an efficient officer. I do know this: that it was largely the vote of the T Square, the Big Bear, and one or two other large outfits that elected him.”
“I had an idea that was the case. You can see from that he'd he liable to be friendly to Whortle. No, I'm pretty sure we can't expect him to help out.
“But if we can't”—the girl shrugged her shoulders helplessly—“it means that we've got to give up or fight it out ourselves. And if that is the case”— her eyes flashed with determination— “we'll fight to the last ditch rather than lose the ranch!”
“That's the stuff!” Robbins said approvingly. “And don't fear that we won't win, either. You've got four good men to help you, at least.”
She smiled brightly at him.
“Yes, I was sure I could count on you boys. Loco can help if it becomes necessary, and then there's daddy. We ought to be able to win, I should think.”
A confusion of stamping and frightened squeals burst from the corral. Then—wham! A shotgun roared. Immediately came the rapid drumming of feet, the slamming of a gate. Loco, wild-eyed and breathless, tore into the kitchen madly, minus his chef's cap and his shotgun. He did not stop until he had put the stove between him and the door, which he eyed as if he expected the devil to be following him.
Robbins drew his gun and looked at the door also, but hearing no sound he replaced the weapon in its holster and glanced inquiringly at June. The girl went to Loco and laid her hand on his arm. Her touch seemed to have a calming effect on the cook's feeble mind, and the wild look gradually subsided.
“What's the matter, Loco?” June asked gently. “What did you shoot at? Was something bothering the horses?”
Loco nodded violently. He spoke quickly, confusedly.
“Yes'm, Miss June. Leastways, that's where it ran into me, at the corral.”
“Ran into you?”
“Yes'm. I was just leadin' my horse out of the corral when I heard somethin' sneakin' along between me and the house. I listened a minute, and then I thought maybe I was only hearin' things, but right soon I heard it again. That time I called out, ‘Who's that?' and somethin' sprung plumb at me, knockin' me down. Dark as the inside of a cow, it was, and all I could see was a big, black shape.”
“What was it?” Robbins wanted to know. “Could you tell?”
Loco shook his head.
“No-o. It was too dark to tell. Walked like a man, though, and after it knocked me down it ran away. I grabbed up my shotgun and let her go in the direction it went, but I dunno if I hit anythin'. I didn't wait to find out, but made a lot of tracks away from there.”
Crimins took a lantern off a shelf and lighted it.
“Let's see if we can find out what it was, boys,” he said, starting toward the door. “It's all right, Loco. We'll take care of it.”
“I'm coming, too,” June declared. She ran out of the room and was back in an instant with her flash light. Her father made no objection to her accompanying them and, followed by Robbins, Craig, Doctor Dickson and the two cowboys, he led the way out of the kitchen. Loco and June joined them at the corral.
“Loco says that whatever it was that frightened him ran around the corner of the corral toward the mountains, dad,” the girl said.
“Show us where you were, Loco,” Crimins ordered, holding the lantern so its rays fell upon the ground. The cook obediently pointed to the gate.
“I was just comin' out of the corral, as I said. It was right there the thing jumped on me.”
He glanced fearfully around.
“Maybe—maybe it's still here!” he whispered hoarsely.
“You needn't be afraid of that,” Robbins told him soothingly. “We'll watch out carefullike. June, bring yore flash light over here, will you?”
He took the silvered cylinder she held out to him and snapped on the switch. The yellow glow revealed the tracks of horses and men, some fresh, some old. It did more than that, however, revealing something that caused both Robbins and June to look at each other in surprise. The cowboy glanced again at the ground, and then straightened.

“We've found out what it was, Crimins,” he called to the cattleman, who was investigating tracks a few yards away. “Loco, did you say that whatever jumped at you walked like a man?”
“Uh-huh,” the cook nodded. “Stood straight up and leaped right at me. I didn't have time to shoot, because I was leadin' my horse and couldn't get my gun up.”
“Well, these tracks explain. Boss, it's our old enemy, the grizzly. I guess he wasn't content with stampedin' yore cattle. Now he's after yore horses. Here's his tracks.”
Every one gathered excitedly around and stared at the telltale prints. All of them, even Loco, were sufficiently versed in animal lore to recognize the five-toed tracks, so similar to those of a human foot.
“It's bear, all right,” agreed Crimins. “That's what bumped into you, Loco. Good thing you lit out or he might have got sore at you and chewed a few chunks out of you. Where was he when yuh shot at him?”
The cook motioned to the north corner of the corral.
“He was running around the corner post, there. All I could see was the black shape of him, and I threw down on him and pulled the trigger.”
“Then yuh don't know whether yuh hit him or not, eh?”
“Nope. Wish I had, because bear meat is awful good.”
Crimins laughed.
“Yeah, after it's cooked, it is. Me—I don't want it chasm' after me while it's still alive, though. And that's just what it's liable to do if yuh only wound it. Knowin' how that shotgun of yores scatters, I shouldn't be a bit surprised but what you nicked him. Let's go see.”
They trooped along the side of the corral to the corner, and again scrutinized the ground. Here were more bear tracks. The corral poles were chipped in several places where the buckshot from Loco's shotgun had dug in deeply.
“You had the range, Loco,” Robbins said. “Now then, the question is, did yuh shoot before or after he passed the corner? June, let me have the flash light again, will you?”
He went on a few yards, bending low to look closely at the ground. Suddenly he stopped and uttered a low exclamation of satisfaction. The group hurried to him.
“I reckon yuh plugged him, Loco,” the cowboy grinned. “See those dark spots, folks? I can't tell how bad he's hurt, but he's carryin' lead somewhere in his anatomy, that's a cinch.”
“We'll all hope for the best, Bill. I think it would be a wonderful idea to get him to chase you instead of trying to kill him. That way we'll be rid of both the bear and—“
She left the rest of the sentence to his imagination. He joined heartily in the laugh that ran around the circle of men.
“I'm always gettin' the worst of it,” he complained whimsically. “Let's change the subject. Boss, can I have one of the boys to go with me? You know what a wounded grizzly is, and I'd kinda like to have some one with a rifle back of me when I tackle him.”
“Yes, it's dangerous,” Crimins agreed. “I'll let you have one of the boys if you really want him, but I was countin' on usin' all of them myself. Even if we don't try gettin' the meat out, we've got more work to do than we can handle.”
“Never mind, then. I guess I can deal with the bear by myself. You go ahead and I'll get along by myself.”
“No, you won't,” June put in quickly. “I'll go with you.”
Robbins regarded her seriously and shook his head.
“Thanks a lot, June, but I can't accept. It's too dangerous for a woman to tackle a bear, wounded or not. No, I can probably finish him alone.”
“Why not let her go?” Crimins asked. “She's a good shot with rifle or six-gun, and she'd be just as valuable as a man to back you up. Besides, she'll likely go anyway, so yuh might as well give in first as last. Only, don't let her run the whole show. That's what she'd do if yuh let her. Always wants to be heading everythin'. Make her stay back of you if yuh want to get first shot at the grizzly, or she'll beat yuh to it.”
“In that case,” the cowboy informed the girl, as if he were conferring a great honor upon her, “you may go with me. Guess we'd better start pretty early, eh? I suppose you've got a rifle you can take.”
“Yes. It's a small-caliber weapon, but awfully powerful. I've killed wolves and coyotes with it, and the makers claim it's good for anything up to elephants. It's a .250-3000!”
“Yeah, that's a fine little gun. I got a mountain lion with one, once.”
Doctor Dickson came forward.
“Well, folks, now that the scare is over I reckon I might as well go home. I'll be out again to-morrow afternoon. G'night.”
They walked with him to his horse, and waved cheerfully to him as he rode away. June said good night, also, and went up to the house, leaving the men to unsaddle their horses and turn them loose in the corral. Larry's mount had not shown up, and none of the C Bar riders could do more than speculate as to the reason for its disappearance and its present whereabouts.
[End of chapter]
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