Friday, July 22, 2005
AN INTERRUPTED MEAL
I WOULDN'T make any motions a-tall if I were I you,” Whortle advised. “It wouldn't be exactly the healthiest thing to do under the circumstances. Boys, it sure is lucky we heard all that shootin' and decided to have a look-see, ain't it? Here's the hombre that killed Catamount in cold blood.”
Robbins glanced sidewise at June. Just what the T Square men intended doing he did not know, but he feared some harm might befall the girl.
“What are yuh goin' to do, Whortle?” he demanded.
The rancher laughed contemptuously.
“Do? We're gonna do what the sheriff wouldn't, that's what! We're gonna make yuh pay for killin' Catamount Perkins and his pard. Yo're a stranger in this country, but that don't give yuh a license to go around makin' trouble and shootin' better men than yoreself for nothin' a-tall.”
June laughed scornfully.
“There's no use trying to pretend, Whortle. You're merely using that as an excuse to get Bill out of your way. You're afraid of him; afraid he'll do something to prevent your getting the C Bar. To tell the truth, anybody with common sense would believe he had done the county a good turn by shooting Perkins and that other roughneck. I believe ~his story fully, knowing you and the T Square as I do. I wouldn't put it past you to have set your men the deliberate task of picking a quarrel with Bill and shooting him in the back!”
Whortle's face flushed angrily.
“You keep yore mouth shut, June Crimins!” he snarled. “I don't want no fight with a woman, but don't think yuh can do as yuh please. Robbins is guilty of murder; guilty as hell. The law won't make him pay, so we're gonna! As for me bein' afraid of him—bosh! I ain't afraid of nobody.”
“Prove it!” challenged Robbins. “Put that gun down and meet me man to man! Yo're bigger than I am, but I'll fight it out with you, and if I win, it means you take yore men and get out of here. If you win, yuh can do as yuh please with me. How about it?”
The rancher instinctively felt his jaw with his left hand. The memory of the knockout blow Robbins had administered to him in Del Rio still lingered in his mind.
“That's a fair proposition,” June said. “You're a lot heavier than Bill, but I'm willing to back him if he thinks he can beat you, Whortle. What do you say?”
“Why should I do anythin' like that?” he rasped. “I've got the upper hand, and I intend to keep it. I'd be a fool to give him any chance at all. Besides, why should I let that decide whether or not he's guilty of murder, when I know already he is? He's a cold-blooded killer, and we're gonna see he don't get another chance to shoot anybody else. Robbins, if you've got any prayers to say, get started.”
“How about Miss Crimins?” the cowboy asked. “You've got nothin' against her, at least. Let her go home.”
“She can go, all right,” Whortle acquiesced. “As I said before, I'm not fightin' women, nor kids either. Get on yore horse, girl, and burn the breeze away from here. Boys, go get Robbins and bring him down where we left our horses. Then we'll decide what we want to do with him.”
To get to her horse, June saw she would have to pass in rear of Robbins and close to the dead bear. The cowboy had left her rifle leaning against the carcass when he finished inspecting it, and it was in such a position that from where he sat Whortle could not see it. If the attention of the five T Square men could be diverted from her for the brief moment necessary for her to take the few steps that would bring her to the weapon, the girl believed she could turn the tables.
Obedient to the cattleman's command, the four men came around the rock ledge, guns drawn, and motioned him forward.
“Get goin',” ordered one of them, a short fellow with a gaudy kerchief around his neck.
Robbins complied after one look at the girl beside him, and the four T Square riders fell in behind him. Foolishly, they did not consider June. Apparently it did not enter their heads that she might attempt to rescue their prisoner. The instant they turned their backs to her, she whirled and leaped around the grizzly. Whortle saw her swift movements, and realized somewhat of the danger. His own men were between him and the girl, however, and he could not shoot for fear of hitting them.
“Watch that girl, you fools!” he yelled. “Watch her!”
His warning was a second too late. June had reached the rifle, swung around hurriedly, Whortle's yell spurring her on. The muzzle of the gun covered Robbins' captors menacingly.
“Hands up!” she called stridently. “Up with them!”
The man in the gaudy kerchief had turned, gun raised. He had no compunctions about fighting women, June saw that in his eyes. She wasted no words on him. Her finger curled around the trigger, her eye glanced briefly through the sights. Crack!
The man dropped his revolver with a cry of pain. The small, powerful bullet had torn through his forearm, smashing a bone. Hastily the other men let fall their weapons and raised their hands overhead. The quickness with which the girl they had not considered worth bothering about had gained control of the situation, and her evident readiness to fire, completely cowed them.
Whortle, however, was not so easily captured. Had he been on his feet, he might have escaped by leaping from the ledge and racing away. But as he rose Robbins stooped and caught up one of the fallen revolvers, at the same time dodging around one of his erstwhile captors so that Whortle would not force him to fire.
“Don't move,” he cautioned. “Drop yore gun and stand still. I don't want to have to plug you, though I ought to. June, would yuh mind collectin' the rest of the hardware while I entertain Mr. Whortle? Fine. Whortle, if yuh don't drop that gun instantly I'll show yuh a little fancy marksmanship. A bullet slammed against the cylinder of yore six-shooter will most likely take it right away from yuh!”
Reluctantly, realizing that Robbins and June were masters of the situation, the cattleman let fall his revolver and raised his hands above his head. He glared ferociously at Robbins, however, mutely promising dire consequences when it was again his turn to control matters.
“Yo're showin' a little sense at last,” Robbins informed him magnanimously. “I wouldn't scowl like that if I were you. Just think what a fix you'd he in if we should have a sudden cold snap and yore face would freeze that way. I dunno, though, but what yore handsome countenance is improved a lot by yore scowls. It's a cinch you'll never win a prize in a beauty show, Whortle, unless it was an anti-beauty prize. Now, now, don't get all het up, because if yuh get to usin' cuss words before Miss June, I'll have to wash yore mouth out with soap.” June smothered a laugh, and the cattleman shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and scowled more than ever.
“You come down off yore throne and line up here with the rest of the roughnecks,” Robbins went on. “Where did yuh leave yore horses?”
“About a quarter of a mile south of here in a wash,” Whortle answered sullenly, complying ungraciously with the order.
“Uh-huh. You gents got any more firearms? No? Well, then, you head straight west and keep goin'.”
“West?” Whortle protested indignantly. “But our horses are south. I told yuh that!”
The cowboy grinned and nodded amiably.
“So yuh did. That's why yo're to go west. A little walk will do yuh a lot of good, I'm thinkin'. On yore way.”
Whortle opened his mouth to swear, but thought better of it.
“You'll pay for this, Robbins,” he gritted harshly. “Mat Whortle ain't the man you can put anythin' over on. I'll make yuh wish you'd never seen this country before I get through with yuh.”
“Do tell? Aren't you the little kidder, though?” He. sighed wearily. “And here I was thinkin' every-thin' was gonna be serene. Oh, well, I suppose it's all in the game, so any time yuh want to come over and play rough, why I'll be waitin' for yuh. Meanwhile, rustle yore hocks out of here before I get real peeved at yuh. By-by.”
The five T Square men walked sulkily around the ledge and disappeared. Robbins climbed up on the rock and watched them until they were quite some distance away. Occasionally, Whortle looked back to see if he were watching, and seeing that he was, went on again.
“Guess we've had excitement enough for one mornin', don'tcha think?” Robbins said, getting down to the ground and returning to June. “All this exercise has made me sorta empty in the stommick. Suppose we have somethin' to eat, provided my horse wasn't inconsiderate enough to fall on our lunch and squash it.”
“I won't object,” June answered, glancing at the sun, which was directly overhead. “It's pretty close to noon.”
“How'd you like to have some nice bear steak to go with the sandwiches?” the cowboy queried. “I don't think Mr. Grizzly would object to our makin' a meal off him now.”
“Why, that would be nice. I'll gather some wood and start a fire, and we can broil a couple of slices. I've got the canteen on my saddle.”
By the time she had the fire going, Robhins had skinned one quarter of the bear with a pocketknife and had two generous slices of meat ready. Soon savory odors began to arise as the meat began to sizzle over the coals of the fire, held on forked sticks in lieu of cooking utensils.
“Yum, yum!” June sniffed appreciatively. “How about the rest of the lunch, Mr. Man? Let rue hold the meat while you see if we're to have any. Maybe we'll have to subsist entirely on bruin.”
“Let's hope not.”
Robbins went to the body of his horse and felt in the uppermost saddle bag. His fingers encountered a paper-wrapped parcel, and he drew it forth triumphantly.
“Ah!” he cried. “Dame Fortune favors us! Now we can look upon the world and smile. As Omar Khayyam might have said, but didn't, now it can be ‘A canteen of agua, a flock of sandwiches, and thou, beside me in the wilderness.’”
She looked at him queerly.
“You know, there are times when you puzzle me,” she said seriously. “You don't seem to be what you appear to be on the surface. It isn't often one finds a cowboy who has read Omar Khayyam, even sufficiently to misquote those philosophic verses.
He laughed amusedly.
“Well, there are cowboys and cowboys. As it happens, I went to school some; but I've had a lot of the veneer knocked off me since I got out. I like this life. It's a carefree, interesting sort of existence. My dad was an old-timer of the West, and well known as a cattleman. More to please him than anythin' else, I entered school, when he insisted I have the education he was denied. But I wasn't fitted to be an office man, so pretty soon I lit out for the great open spaces. Dad was sore as the dickens; but here I am, practically my own boss and doin' the work I like to do. So there yuh are.”
She gazed thoughtfully into the fire, and as she made no comment, he knelt beside her and held out his hand.
“Let me finish cookin' that meat,” he offered. “It's tiresome holdin' those sticks so long.”
“They're about done, the steaks, I mean,” the girl said, rising. “You can finish them, though, if you wish. I'll get the water and spread the lunch.”
She turned away and picked up the parcel of sandwiches Robbins had laid upon a stone.
Plop! Zwee-e-e! A bullet struck the embers of the fire squarely, scattering them freely over the surprised cowboy, and sang off into space. Robbins tumbled backward, trying desperately to save the steaks, but failing dismally as the coals bit into his flesh. He picked himself up hastily just as a second bullet, better aimed, whined past over their heads.
“Great grief!” he cried. “What a numskull I am! I might have known they'd have rifles on their saddles. Get behind the ledge. June. They've circled back to their horses and got their rifles. Guess they're comin' back for revenge.”
He helped the girl into the shelter of the ledge and handed her the rifle he had scooped up on the way. His own lay near the dead horse, and he dived for it abruptly, thereby drawing the fire of three riflemen somewhere to the south. None of the bullets found their mark, however, and he reached his objective safely.
June had discovered where one of the marksmen lay, and reloading her weapon, opened fire. Whortle, just recognizable at the distance, leaped up from behind a rock several hundred yards to the southeast and called out defiantly, triumphantly, threatening to deal properly with both Robbins and June. The former, ensconced behind the dead horse, sent a bullet from the Winchester at him, and he dropped hurriedly from sight as the missile kicked up a puff of dust beside him.
“Darn them, why couldn't they wait until we had eaten our lunch?” Robbins called cheerily to June, nonchalantly shoving cartridges into the loading gate of his rifle. “That T Square bunch sure is inconsiderate, ain't it? You keep yore haid down, now.”
Wham! Wham! His rifle roared twice, and a man who had jumped up to run to cover nearer at hand crumpled and fell heavily. A yell of rage greeted the shots, and bullets began to whine around with increasing viciousness. One tugged spitefully at Robbins' hat as he gazed over the carcass protecting him, and taking it off, he inspected it ruefully.
“That's a sample of my luck!” he muttered.
“Dang that hombre! That headpiece cost me twenty dollars not two months ago. Come on, somebody show yoreself, and I'll show yuh what's what.”
For a time no one accepted his invitation, but presently, as if at a prearranged signal, the four remaining T Square men jumped up, raced a short distance to new shelter, and dropped again from sight. June's rifle cracked twice, but evidently she had not been expecting the move, and her bullets missed. Robbins held his fire, for he was preparing to forsake the dead horse to gain the vantage point of a boulder up a slope behind him.
He seized the opportunity presented by the Whortle forces and sprang up as they disappeared. Two of the revolvers that had belonged to the T Square riders lay in his path where they had fallen, and stooping as he ran, he scooped them up. A warning yell sounded from the new position of the enemy, and a rifle cracked. June had seen his plan, however, and so concentrated her fire on their adversaries that the latter were unable for the moment to fire with any appreciable precision or effectiveness.
“0. K.!” Robbins called, raising his head cautiously to peer forth around the boulder. “They didn't hit me. They'll try that rush again, so watch out for it. They're sore as a boil because you got the drop on them, and they won't show you any mercy now. We'll have to fight ‘em tooth and nail.”
“Don't talk so much and shoot more!” the girl called back. “Here they come
The spiteful crack of her .250-3000 joined with the savage roar of Robbins' .45-70 to repel the threatened attack. This time only three of the T Square men rose and dashed forward, the fourth, probably Whortle, remaining behind to cover their advance. One faltered as Robbins fired at him, and sank to his knees, but before the cowboy could fire again, he got up and stumbled behind a rock. Another carried his right arm awkwardly, using his rifle with his left, and him Robbins judged to be the man June had wounded following the surprise of Whortle's arrival.
“One down and two nicked, June,” he cried exultantly, ignoring her admonition to keep quiet and fight more. “That's not so bad. Now if we can put the rest out of business everythin' will be jake and we won't have to worry.”
The fire of the attackers ceased abruptly. Robbins stared wonderingly at the spots from which the last bullets had come, trying to fathom the reason for the sudden lull. No moving bushes or forms met his eye, yet in another minute something smacked savagely against the stone in front of his face, stinging his skin with fine particles of rock.
“Look out, June!” he yelled. “They've worked around to the east! One of them is at the base of the red butte!”
“I see him,” the girl answered.
Her cheek cuddled the stock of her rifle. The weapon spat orange flame. With a surprised yell, a man leaped up at the base of the butte and plunged behind it. Coolly, June looked about for another target.
“Yuh sure dusted him outa there,” Robbins observed admiringly. “Can yuh see any of the others?”
June gazed carefully around and shook her head.
“No, not yet,” she answered. “Do you suppose they've had enough? They're not shooting any more.”
[End of chapter]