Sunday, July 24, 2005
BOTH June and Robbins were up with the dawn. Loco, now fully recovered from his battle with the unknown “black shape” that had so suddenly set upon him in the darkness, had breakfast ready, as well as a lunch. While they were eating, Craig saddled their horses and strapped the scabbards for their rifles in place. Making certain that they had plenty of ammunition for all their guns, Robbins filled a canteen with water, packed the lunch in a pair of saddle bags, and saw that the rifles were clean and in good working order.
“Let's go, June,” he said. “You take the canteen, will you, and I'll carry the rest of the stuff. Loco, if we have good luck, we'll bring back some of the bear meat you've been craving to taste for so long.”
The cook bobbed his head rapidly and grinned.
“Hide, too. Make good rug out of hide.”
“All right. We'll do that.”
They said “So long,” and went down to the corral, where Craig was waiting for them.
“Now the war can start.” The puncher grinned at them. “You sure look armed to the teeth, Bill. You gonna use both them rifles yo're packin', yore-self? I should think, from the looks of yuh, that Mr. Bear would be scared to death if he ever saw yuh!”
“Well, what are yuh kickin' about, then?” Robbins chuckled. “That's one way of killin’ him off, ain't it? Why waste ammunition if you can scare him to death? You can get yore mouth to waterin' for some juicy bear steaks, cowboy, because we're gonna bring some home with us.”
“Did you say ‘with' or ‘after'?” Craig queried. “I just wanta know, because if that grizzly is gonna chase yuh this way, I want to get up on the roof of the house where I can enjoy the whole show.”
Robbins grunted disdainfully.
“Huh! That's what we get for associatin' with gents like him, June. Come on, let's me and you ignore him absolutely. Darn him, I've a notion not to bring back any meat, just for that.”
He shoved the rifles into their scabbards, helped June to mount, and then swung into his own saddle.
“Are there many bears in this country, June?” the cowboy asked, when they had left the ranch behind and picked up the trail of the grizzly.
“Not an awful lot of them. A puncher for the Rafter 0 killed one last spring. There was a time when the mountains were full of them. The Big Bear Ranch got its name from the largest grizzly ever killed in this country, but bears have been pretty well thinned out in the past few years. Still, every now and then some one reports losing stock or seeing a grizzly. Why did you ask?”
“Just wondered.” He looked down at the ground, eyes searching the tracks they were following. “Haven't seen any blood spots for quite a while, June. Guess he wasn't hurt awfully bad, or he'd still be bleedin'. Let's travel a little faster. He might get it into his head to keep on goin'.”
They urged their mounts into a long, distance-eating trot that carried them rapidly northward, over the rim of the valley and upon the mesa where June had first pointed out the tracks of the bear that had stampeded her father's cattle. Once they were compelled to hunt around in a section of unusually hard ground, and thereby lost a good half an hour before they again discovered the trail of the grizzly.
The five-toed, flat-footed tracks led them straight across the mesa and into a maze of rocks and mounds. Here they lost the trail entirely~ although Robbins retraced his steps again and again in a futile endeavor to discover in what direction the bear had gone. At last he gave it up and returned to where June was waiting for him.
“No luck at all,” he told her. “Suppose we just ride around and see if we can't come across his trail somewhere. Keep yore rifle ready, but stay behind me. I don't want anythin' to happen to you.”
She glanced archly at him.
“Why not?” she asked.
Robbins settled himself in his saddle and looked at her. He had known before that she was beautiful, thoroughly desirable, but he had not. realized until this moment how much she had been in his thoughts. As he noticed the soft curve of her cheek, the tiny curls of brown hair peeping enchantingly from under the brim of her hat, the roguish twinkle in her eyes, his heart began thumping strangely. Impulsively he rode nearer, gazed into her liquid blue orbs.
“Do you have to ask that question?” he queried gently. “Don't you know the answer already?”
She did not reply. For a moment she looked into his telltale eyes, earnest, appealing, while the color crept into her cheeks. Then, suddenly, she wheeled her horse and touched him lightly with her spurs. Robbins followed thoughtfully, slowly, and presently she reined in and waited for him. There still was color in her cheeks when he reached her, but she made no mention of the incident.
“You lead the way, Bill,” she said, drawing her rifle from its scabbard and sliding a cartridge into the chamber.
Silently he went past her, looking away so that his gaze would not cause her embarrassment. She swung in behind him and without a word they continued their quest.
For more than an hour they circled and recircled about in the rocks and canyons, searching every nook that might harbor the grizzly. Gradually they worked their way into the hills, rising higher and higher above the valley. No cave, no canyon did they pass without looking into it. Once a stealthy movement in a brush thicket attracted their attention, but they saw only a cowardly coyote slinking away when they investigated. So they went on, riding siowly into another jumble of rocks.
Robbins was in the lead, his rifle fully loaded and ready for instant use and resting across the saddle. They were passing a spot where two rock ledges formed a large V. Had not the cowboy's mind been occupied with other thoughts, he probably would have seen the danger that lurked there. The girl, too, did not see at first, and only her startled, half-muffled scream warned the man.
Robbins whirled instantly, his eyes bulging at what he saw. A great dark-brown body was rearing up in the V, plunging straight at the terrified girl, who was trying desperately to keep her frightened horse from throwing her, and at the same time endeavoring to bring her rifle into action.
The grizzly, enraged at the intrusion of these insignificant-appearing creatures into its domain, lumbered toward the girl, jaws gaping and slavering. June fired, but her bullet missed a vital spot and served only to sting the bear to greater wrath. He charged with a roar. Robbins, white-faced, drove in the spurs and forced his quivering mount forward. The animal responded reluctantly, though the bite of the steel in its flanks caused it to leap ahead.
The cowboy fired twice, as fast as he could pull the trigger. There was no time to aim. He simply pointed the muzzle at the broad side of the charging bruin and let drive. Both bullets struck their mark. The grizzly whirled, snarling angrily, and bit at the places where the lead had entered. Then it straightened again, its tiny eyes seeing only the girl, and visioning her as the cause of the excruciating pain in its vitals.
It charged again, lunging forward madly. its great jaws open wide. With a shout Robbins spurred his horse savagely between the girl and the rushing, snarling grizzly, just as the huge animal reared up and flung itself toward her. The muzzle of his Winchester steadied on the beast's chest, spat flame and lead. Then a mighty paw slapped the weapon from his hand; the bear's vast, weighty bulk crashed down upon his horse, hurling him from the saddle and smashing his mount to the ground.
One leg was caught fast beneath the horse, and a twinge of pain shot through it, forcing a gasp of agony through his clenched teeth. June's horse bolted, whinnying in terror, but Robbins sensed that the girl had freed her feet from the stirrups and slipped to the ground.
The bear was far from dead. One forefoot had been wrenched badly by the fall, and the hole the cowboy had shot through the beast's chest was bleeding profusely. On three legs the grizzly lifted itself and started to crawl over the horse. In a fleeting glimpse Robbins saw that the latter's head had struck a rock and the weight of the bear had broken its neck. Had the animal been alive its struggles would have enabled the man to free his foot and seek safety in flight, but this recourse was now denied him.
Frantically he pulled his six-shooter from its holster and fired at the bear's shaggy head. Once, twice, three times he jerked the trigger, steadying the gun with each shot, aiming quickly. The bullets hit, yet the grizzly came on, seeming to know that its enemy was trapped and could not escape.
Drops of cold sweat broke out on Robbins' fore-head. His body seemed suddenly to become clammy, moist. Never before had he known the terror of that slow, remorseless advance, the cold, calculating glitter of the tiny eyes. Never before had he known that irresistible approach of the slavering, yellow fangs, the gaping jaws. He was not a coward; he could face blazing guns or keen-pointed knives with equanimity, and laugh in the very teeth of death, but there was something about the triumphant, stealthy, snarling advance of the giant grizzly that would have unnerved a Trojan.
He was helpless. That was certain. The bear knew it, too, and it reared itself upon the body of the dead horse as if for one last scrutiny of its prey before its saliva-dripping jaws would crush the life from the mere mortal that had dared intrude upon its privacy.
Even though his utter helplessness was evident, terrifyingly so, Robbins refused to allow insane fright to overwhelm him. There still were three live cartridges in his revolver, and he meant to use them in one final effort to thwart the grizzly's charge. He raised the weapon cautiously, and as if it were a signal, the bear tensed its muscles to launch its huge bulk upon him.
Hoping against hope that the bullets would strike a vital spot, Robbins aimed deliberately and fired. Wham! Wham! Wham! The three reports merged into one, so closely did they follow one another. The heavy bullets shattered one shoulder blade and tumbled the beast to the ground. The cowboy's heart leaped, yet in the next instant he realized that he might just as well have fired into the air.
Growling savagely in a renewed burst of rage, the grizzly heaved himself upon his haunches and lunged forward. His one good forefoot struck viciously, clawing the empty gun from Robbins' hand with a blow that nearly tore the arm from its socket. The man squirmed and struggled to get his foot free, though as he did so he knew his efforts were vain. He did, however, manage to move his body close to the rump of the dead horse, and there he waited with staring eyes for what seemed certain death.
[End of chapter]