Tuesday, July 19, 2005
IT was mid-afternoon when they reached the C Bar. They traveled slowly, for every jolt and jounce was painful to the girl. Craig and the two cowboys were not in evidence, but Crimins came to meet them, anxiety in his eyes as he saw that his daughter was hurt.
“What's happened?” he questioned hurriedly as Robbins slipped to the ground at the corral. “Where's yore horse, Bill?”
“Dead. Grizzly jumped on him and broke his neck. Took us by surprise and came out at us after we passed his hiding place.”
“You hurt bad, June?”
The girl smiled at him.
“No, dad. Fell and sprained my ankle. It'll be all right in a few days.”
Crimins grinned in relief, then his face set again as he glimpsed the signs of disorder, the scratches on June's cheeks.
“Yo're keepin' somethin' back,” he said shrewdly. “Both of you look as though you'd been run through a feed mill. Where'd you tear yore clothes like that, June?”
June glanced down at the rents on the front of her riding habit.
“That happened when I fell, I presume. I was running awfully fast, you see, and fell on a lot of stones.”
The rancher turned to Robbins impatiently.
“Out with it, Bill. I can tell somethin' else happened besides the grizzly jumpin' you. What was it?”
“Well,” the puncher replied, “we had a little scrap with Whortle's bunch. They surprised us after June had killed the bear and were goin' to hang me or shoot me or somethin' for killin' Catamount Perkins. June got the drop on them and like a dang fool I let them go, thinkin' I'd disarmed them by takin' their six-guns away from them.
“What do they do but get rifles off their saddles and come back! Heaved a slug into the fire I was cookin' bear steaks over and nearly burned the shirt off me. They circled around until they had a good line at June, and she had to get out of where she was and hunt new cover. We downed two of Whortle's gang, but they'd have got us if Melvin Kurtz hadn't shown up and taken a hand.”
“Melvin Kurtz?” Crimins' surprise was genuine.
“Uh-huh. Seems funny he should do anythin' for the C Bar, but he did. Shot a few times at Whortle just as they were rushin' us, and they got scared and beat it. Kurtz saw June there, so that's likely the reason he joined. I know dang well he didn't do it for my sake. He and I get along together like a couple of cats hangin' over a clothesline with their tails tied together.”
“Well. You sure hit right in the middle of trouble, don't you? I dunno,” whimsically, “but what you're to blame for all the trouble we've had lately. Leastways, wherever you go you manage to gather some excitement Wonder what's next?”
Danged if I know,” laughed the cowboy, “unless the sky falls on top of us.”
“Don't you think of the nicest things, though?” June smiled. “Let's hope nothing like that will happen. What I'm worried about at the present moment is whether you're going to let me grow to this saddle or whether you're going to carry me to the house so I can get some liniment for that ankle.”
“Gosh, I forgot!” cried Robbins, reaching up for her. “I'm more used to takin' care of horses and cattle than I am of girls.”
He carried her up to the house, passing the kitchen, where Loco came running to the door to stare wide-eyed at them. June called to him, telling him that she was unhurt save for a sprained ankle, whereupon the anxious lines of his leathery face subsided.
“In here, Bill,” Crimins said, leading the way into the parlor.
Larry was lying upon a couch, well propped up with pillows. He put down the book he had been reading and looked inquiringly at the three as they entered.
“By George, the whole Crimins family will be laid up if this thing keeps on,” he said. “What's the matter with you, June? Any broken ribs or legs?“
The girl wrinkled her nose mischievously at him as Robbins settled her in a rocking-chair.
“Was that question meant to be hopeful? Well, you're due to be disappointed if it was. All that's wrong with me is a sprained ankle and a bump on the head.”
“Did you say a sprained head and a bump on the ankle? Oh, well, never mind, sis, we'll pull you through. The doc left only a half hour ago, after fixin' me up and tryin' to break another of my ribs
—or that's the way it felt, anyhow. Bill, stop grinnin' that way and tell me how come yo're all mussed up!”
Robbins told him what he had related to the elder Crimins.
“So it was June who killed the bear, then?’
He hasn't told all the story, Larry,” June put in. “He didn't say anything about how he spurred in front of me when the grizzly charged at me, or how the bear knocked him and his horse down, breaking the buckskin's neck against a rock and pinning Bill's leg to the ground. He didn't tell how he ran out and picked me up when I fell, and ran back to cover with me despite all the bullets whizzing around us.
“No, I won't keep quiet, Mr. Bill Robbins! You're too modest. If it wasn't for him, Larry, dad, there'd be mourning in this family, let me tell you that! He doesn't do himself justice, that's all.”
Robbins flushed bashfully, and the entrance of Loco with a pan of hot water and some cloths proved an acceptable diversion to the conversation. He busied himself bathing June's ankle while the girl told everything that had happened during their fight with the bear and with the T Square men. Both Larry and his father looked gratefully at the cowboy, but spared him the embarrassment of receiving their thanks.
“What have you and the boys been doin' to-day, boss?’ Robbins asked after a while. “Did you decide to try and get through to the meat?’
The rancher shook his head.
“No. That's a hopeless task, I'm afraid, Bill. It would be merely a waste of time. We'll probably have all we can do to save the cattle on the range.”
“What do yuh mean by that?’
“Everythin' points to the biggest range war this country ‘has ever seen, Bill. Whortle is out to get me, and you're included. Yore fight with him today proves that. He's afraid of you, if for no other reason than that you've proven yoreself a friend of mine and a man who is liable to block his plans.
“There's more to it than appears on the surface, too. I'm pretty well convinced that Whortle is the cause of what has happened, but of course I can't be absolutely positive. There are a lot of things to be explained besides the blowin' up of the cave. Among them is, who shot Larry's horse and why?’
Robbins stared incredulously.
“Shot Larry's horse?”
“Yes. We found him this mornin' about a mile southwest of the mouth of the canyon. He'd been shot through the head. We'd never have known about it if Pete Craig hadn't seen the buzzards flyin' around and pointed them out to me. Pete and the rest of the boys are out there now tryin' to find the tracks of whoever killed the bronc.
“Besides that, we're missin' about a hundred cows. Somebody has taken a likin' to them and driven them off. Where they went we don't know, but they're sure gone.
“Aren't there any tracks?’
“For a ways, yes. The trail points straight north, then peters out a mile or so in the hills. Hard ground. One thing I'm glad of, at least. That is the fact you've put the kibosh on that dang grizzly. Now I don't have to worry about any more stampedes.”
Robbins finished bandaging June's ankle.
“I wouldn't say that, boss,” he said seriously. “The bear killed isn't the one that stampeded yore cattle. You remember Loco shot at him by the corral, and we found blood scattered around, show-in' he'd been hit? Well, there wasn't a single wound on the grizzly June killed except those we made!”
Crimins sat down heavily.
“Darn!” he blurted. “Then that means the bear that did the damage is still alive and holed up somewhere or other in those rocks!”
“Uh-huh. I'll do my best to get him, but there's no tellin' when or where he'll show up next.”
Two days passed uneventfully. The T Square men remained aloof from the outside world, not even visiting town. Craig, Williams, Thompson, and Robbins took turns riding the range at night on the lookout for rustlers, but they found nothing to cause alarm.
Loco Lang, muttering peevishly to himself, had harnessed the buckboard team the same afternoon of June's and Robbins' encounter with the grizzly, and had driven into the hills, returning with a plentiful supply of the coveted bear meat. It was the second night following, just at dark, that Robbins, Craig, Crimins, and June were eating supper. The girl's ankle had got sufficiently well that she could walk with the aid of a rude crutch Robbins had fashioned for her, and she was sitting at the table chatting merrily, a generous bear steak before her.
All of them ceased eating as the creak of leather and the trampling of horses came to them from the ranch yard, and they looked at the door expectantly as footsteps approached and some one knocked on the door.
“Come in!” Crimins called.
The door swung wide. As it did so a sinister feeling assailed Robbins. Instinctively he half rose, his hand falling to the butt of his gun. Into the room stepped Sheriff Kelson, followed by a deputy. Both men had their guns in their hands, and both stared with narrowed eyes at the cowboy.
“Don't draw, Robbins!” commanded the sheriff harshly. “The rest of you sit still! Robbins, yo're under arrest!”
“What for?’ the puncher demanded hoarsely.
The answer came like a thunderbolt, stunning not only the accused, but the girl and the men at the table as well.
“For the robbery of the Del Rio National Bank and the murder of John Fisher, the cashier!”
[End of chapter]