Thursday, July 21, 2005
WHORTLE ‘S TRICKS
THE characteristic drone of a large-caliber rifle refuted the girl's statement, followed an instant later by a far-away report. Robbins, glimpsing a stealthy movement in a thicket of brush some three hundred yards to the south of the red butte, aimed briefly at the spot. The movement ceased an instant after he fired, but an answering bullet testified that he had missed his man.
The rest of the T Square contingent now reopened the battle with renewed vigor. Apparently the man June had hit was not badly wounded, for whining bullets began to strike around the two defenders from four different points. These points were all situated in the quarter from south to east.
One of the attackers was so placed that he commanded the big “V” in which June had taken her position, and his bullets, arriving with studied regularity, glanced off the sides of the rock ledge and showered her with needle-sharp splinters of granite.
“June!” Robbins cried. “You can't stay there! Do yuh want to get hit? Come on, run for it! There's better cover here.”
The girl fired once more before she obeyed. Holding her rifle diagonally across her breast, much in the manner of a running soldier, she ran suddenly out of the niche and raced toward the cowboy. Now she was fully exposed to the fire of all four of the T Square men, who showed they no longer had any compunctions about shooting at a woman. Their rifles roared with increasing rapidity. Puffs of dust spurted up all around the running girl, sinister whines sounded as bullets caromed off the rocks.
Robbins watched anxiously, fear in his heart that at any instant she would be hit. Brave girl! White of face she was, yet she was smiling slightly as she dashed on toward him, swift as a doe. Fraught with dangers as the moment was, the cowboy could not help but mark her courage, her cool bearing. And then his pulse hammered loudly as one of her ankles gave way and she fell, the rifle slipping from her grasp and clattering on the stones ahead of her.
Entirely forgetful of self, Robbins hastily put down his own rifle and ran to June, covering the distance between her and the boulder that had sheltered him with great bounds. A bullet snarled past, a scant inch in front of his nose, but he did not stop. Frantically he stooped, lifted the girl in his arms, and darted back.
Somehow, he knew not just how, he managed to reach the boulder in safety with his burden, and put her gently down where no bullets could possibly reach her. Her face was contorted with pain, her eyes closed. He could see no signs of a wound on her, however. She slowly opened her eyes.
“Are you hurt, June?” he queried anxiously. “Oh, if those dirty skunks shot you I'll—I'll
“Don't make any threats,” she cautioned. “They didn't hit me. My ankle turned on a stone and threw me. I must have struck my head. It's aching terribly, and so is my ankle.”
She sat up and removed her hat, exploring her tousled head tenderly. Her slender fingers found what they were seeking. and she bent her head so he could see.
“There, see that bump? Feels like a mountain, but I suppose it isn't quite that big. Guess my skull is still in one piece, anyway.
“Gosh, yuh sure had me scared for a minute. Thought I'd lost my bear-huntin' partner. If I had, I was all set to go on the warpath and clean up on that T Square bunch.”
“Well, maybe you'd better take a look and see what they're doing,” she suggested practically. “It would be just like Mat Whortle to sneak up on us. If he did, and captured you again, he might carry out his intentions against you this time.”
“Yeah, that's right. They're not shootin', so they're up to some mischief.”
He caught up the Winchester, levered a shell into the chamber, and peered around the side of the boulder. Watching him, June saw his wandering gaze come to rest. His eyes narrowed, and throwing the butt of the rifle to his shoulder, he shot three times as swiftly as he could reload and pull the trigger.
“They're sneakin' up on us, all right,” he said grimly. “Just saw one of them slippin' up to a rock. He's only about a hundred yards away, too. Here, take one of these six-guns in case they rush us. Can you stand?”
She essayed to bravely while he squinted through the sights of his rifle and fired again. A gasp of pain was wrenched from her as she rested her weight upon the injured foot, and he turned quickly and helped her to where she could lean against the boulder.
• “Don't try to walk yet,” he ordered. “Soon as I can, I'll have a look at yore ankle, but by the way things are goin' we're gonna be pretty busy the next few minutes. Can you take care of yore side?”
“Certainly I can!” she cried indignantly. “Don't you worry about me. If any of Whortle's gang come tearing around this boulder, they're going to get a reception they're not expecting. You tend to your own knitting!”
He grinned back at her and looked forth once more. He was just in time to see four men rise suddenly from the brush and rocks a short distance away and rush forward madly, their guns belching flame and lead. One limped badly. Another's right arm was carried in a crude sling, wounded and useless; but the fellow came on gamely, a revolver in his left hand.
Robbins yelled a warning to June and fired. The man who limped threw up his arms and pitched f or-ward on his face. Whortle, scowling savagely, cursed and stopped to steady his gun. Robbins ducked as the rancher pulled trigger, and the bullet clipped the edge of the boulder where his head had been.
The cowboy grinned triumphantly and looked out again. The three attackers still on their feet were running on desperately, the lust to kill in their eyes. June was shooting at intervals, but she was handicapped by her injury and the fact that their antagonists were not so much within range of her circle of action as they were in Robbins'. Scarcely fifty feet separated the fighters when the coyboy's gun clicked uselessly. Violently he threw the empty weapon at the nearest of the running men. Then he stooped and grabbed up the second of the two revolvers he had brought to the boulder with him.
He did not use it for nearly a full minute, however. High up on the slope behind Whortle and his men a rifle thundered, followed by a wild yell. The bullet smashed to bits against a rock between the T Square owner and the fellow who carried his arm in a sling. Still another whined past the cattleman's head.
In almost comical consternation, Whortle whirled and glared up the slope. Then he suddenly took to his heels and darted past the dead bear and Robbins' horse, vanishing around the very ledge from which June had been forced to flee a short time before. His two men were not slow in following him, crouching low as they ran, so that they would present a smaller target to the marksman who had so surprised them. And the latter urged them on with taunting yells and an occasional bullet, though none of his shots scored a hit.
Robbins recovered from his own surprise sufficiently to fire once, but his bullet only clipped a piece of rock from the ledge as the last of the survivors of the T Square contingent vanished around it.
“Whew!” gasped Robbins, wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. “That was a close call, wasn't it? Those three gents left in a hurry, and they're still runnin'. I can see them every now and then bobbin' over a ridge. Wonder who that is who broke up our little battle?”
“I haven't the slightest idea,” June admitted. “Can you see him?”
Robbins stepped clear of the boulder and waved his arms.
“Hey!” he yelled loudly. “Come on down! Miss Crimins is hurt!”
The man climbed upon a ledge and waved back. He was too far away for the puncher to recognize him, although not so distant that their voices did not carry.
“All right!” came a shout. “Be right down!”
“That'll bring him, whoever he is,” Robbins assured the girl. “Now, let's have a look at that ankle of yores. Reckon we don't need to fear any more from Whortle for a while. He won't dare come back this time. Likely he and his punchers are halfway to the T Square by now.” He drew off June's riding boot slowly, being careful not to cause her more pain than was absolutely necessary. Her ankle was badly swollen, and had the boot fitted tighter it would have been necessary to cut the leather in order to remove it.
“I'll get the canteen and see if there is any water left,” Robbins said, rising. “Don't move any more than you have to.”
When he returned, the girl had taken off her stocking, and he bathed the foot with a gentleness she had never expected in a man. The cold water reduced the swelling somewhat, as xvell as the pain, but it would be some days before the ankle would be in good serviceable condition again. The cowboy bound the injured member with his neckerchief, being careful not to get it too tight.
“There, that'll do until I get you back to the C Bar. I suppose you're just tickled to death you came, aren't you?”
“Why, I don't mind,” she told him smilingly. “It was awfully exciting and nerve racking, but now that it's all over, it isn't so bad. Only I feel a little weak and nervous.
“That's the reaction settin' in. You came through better than a lot of men would have, June. I'm proud of you, and I'd be willin' to have you as my partner any time.”
She glanced shyly at him.
“Just how do you mean that, Bill?”
Robbins opened his mouth to answer, but no words came forth. The clattering of stones on the other side of the boulder startled him, and he leaped to his feet, grasping the butt of the revolver he had placed in his holster. Around the boulder came a horseman, picking his way carefully. The horse was a bay, and his trappings were rich with silver ornaments.
The man was Melvin Kurtz.
[End of chapter]