Thursday, July 14, 2005

 

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXI

THE CHASE

ROBBINS holstered his gun and searched his prisoner carefully, removing a jackknife and a .44 derringer from the man's person. The knife he tossed among the milling cattle; the derringer he appropriated to his own use after making sure it was loaded.
“I've met Harris' boss,” he told the cattle buyer. “Pete, let him put his hands down and you see if you can find that bill of sale, will you? This thing will bear lookin' into. I'll watch these two gents. Yuh might see, too, if both those fellas are dead.”
Craig put up his gun and knelt beside the bodies of the rustlers, both of whom he found to be very dead indeed. From one of the pockets of Harris' vest he drew a folded sheet of paper. Opening it, he glanced at it briefly and handed it to his friend.
“This is it. Kurtz's signature is on the bottom.” Robbins read the contents of the bill of sale thoroughly, though he was careful to keep an eye on his prisoner and the cattle buyer. He was pretty well satisfied as to the latter's honesty, but he had long ago learned that it was wisest not to take unnecessary chances.
As Craig had said, Kurtz's signature, or what purported to be his signature, was appended to the bill in the proper place. The names of two witnesses, Joe Grantham and Tom Snider, were at the left of Kurtz's.
“I never saw Kurtz's signature, so I don't know whether this is his or not,” Robbins said. “I'm of the opinion, though, that it's a forgery. Kurtz has telegraphed his boss that rustlers got away with two hundred head of Big Bear stock, and I reckon these are the ones. Besides, if yuh look close, yuh can see ragged edges on those Barred 0 brands, and rustled cattle aren't usually mixed with those that are honestly bought. What do you think about it, Pete?’
“The same as you, Bill. I'd say that Harris' boss, who sounds a lot like Les Davids, figured that nobody would suspect Big Bear cattle of bein' rustled because the brand is almost impossible to alter. He probably counted on a forged bill of sale to get the Big Bear cattle by, and the Barred 0 he could claim as his own.”
By this time half of Morgan City, more or less, bad congregated about the loading corrals, wondering and speculating as to what the shooting was all about. Those that could see stared with morbid curiosity at the two dead men, while those that could not, craned their necks like bumpkins at a circus.
A man with the star of a deputy sheriff on his vest came pushing and shouldering his way through the crowd. Robbins recognized him as George Burns, Kelson's chief and only deputy.
“Howdy, Burns,” he greeted the man. “Yo're just in time to use those handcuffs you wanted to put on me last night.”
“What's goin' on here?’ Burns demanded gruffly, scowling from the prisoner to the dead men and back again. “Looks like a killin'.”
“More like a couple of killin's, I'd say,” Robbins replied dryly. “This gent I've got collared and those two layin' there on the ground are cattle thieves of the first water. They made off with two hundred Big Bear cows and a hundred cattle belongin' to Jim Crimins.
The deputy's eyes grew round and owlish.
“Is that a fact?’ he said wonderingly. “ Three hundred beeves, eh? What was they gonna do with them?”
“Sell them to this cattle buyer. Showed him a forged bill of sale from Melvin Kurtz for the Big Bear stuff, and the C Bar stock were hair-branded into Barred 0's. Slick piece of work.”
“Well, I'm damned! Can yuh imagine that? How'd you catch on to them?’
Robbins grinned.
“Found out from the freight agent at Del Rio that some cattle were due to be shipped from here in the next day or so. So Pete and I decided we'd mosey over here and give them the ‘double o.' Soon as I saw that Barred 0 brand I figured how easy it was to change a C Bar, and then, knowin' that Kurtz had lost some cattle, I merely put three and one together and got the same result as two and two. That reminds me. Have yuh seen either of these gents on the ground before? You've been in this country longer than Pete or me, and I thought yuh might know them.”
Burns bent over the dead men.
“Seems like I've seen this fella somewheres before,” he said at last, pointing a forefinger at Harris. “Uh-huh, I know I did. Saw him talkin' to Mat Whortle in Del Rio two-three nights ago. Maybe longer than that, but anyhow, I saw him. Don't know the other hombre, nor that one yo're holdin' on to.”
“Thanks. Been in town long? About four hours? Then did yuh see anythin' of Les Davids?’
“Davids, the fella works for the T Square? Yeah, sure did. Saw him not more'n five minutes ago. I was just comin' to see what this ruckus was about and he bumped into me at the end of the street. Just came from here, he said, and was goin' for a doctor.”
“Doctor, hell!” exploded Craig. “He was one of the rustlers! Dang it, yuh let him get away?”
“Well, how was I to know?’ Burns wailed defensively. “He didn't have no sign on him sayin' he was a cattle thief!”
“Nevertheless, he was, and the leader of this bunch at that. Posed to that buyer as the owner of the Barred 0 Ranch. Now he'll probably skip out of the country and we won't be able to catch him.”
Burns hauled out his handcuffs and snapped them on the third rustler.
“We've got this one, anyway. You'll appear against him, won't yuh? Uh-huh. And how about the buyer? Was he in on the stealin', too?’
Robbins shook his head.
“I don't think so. He acts pretty straight, and we haven't enough evidence against him even if he was guilty. You take this gent to the Del Rio jail, will yuh? We'll drive the stock back.”
“All right,” the deputy acquiesced. “He won't get away from me, yuh betch. Come on, cow stealer. If yuh want to tell me all about yore past crimes and misdeeds, hop to it, but it's my duty to warn yuh that whatever yuh say may be used against yuh.”
Burns led his prisoner, silent and sullen, out of the corral and through the crowd, which was already beginning to disperse. Gun fights were not so infrequent in the vicinity of Morgan City that they aroused more than passing interest, and most of the curious spectators were satisfied with a look or two and a garbled account of what it was all about.
“Say, I'm awful sorry about this,” the cattle buyer said when the deputy had gone. “I didn't think those gents were rustlers or I wouldn't have had anythin' to do with them. If there's anythin' I can do I'll be glad to.”
“That's fine,” said Robbins. “Yuh might help carry these dead specimens out of the corral so's the coroner can see them when he comes. Then yuh can help us unload those three cars of stock and get the herd on the road. We're gonna drive them back to the home range before somebody else takes a likin' to them. I'm gettin' tired of havin' to shoot folks just because their ropes draw now and then.”
It took more than an hour to get the cattle unloaded and the herd out of town. When Morgan City was behind them Craig heaved a sigh of relief.
“Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along!” he sang. “Gosh, Bill, don't they ever have peace in this country? A fella never knows when he's gonna get blown up, shot at, or have his cattle stolen. Did yuh ever see the like?”
“No, can't say as I have,” admitted his friend. “One thing yuh can be sure of about this country, though, Pete. Nobody who lives here will ever die of the well-known dull worry and care. There's too much excitement and flyin' lead.”
He lapsed into silence and they rode thoughtfully along in rear of the herd, every now and then darting out to the side to drive back some fractious straggler. When they reached the boundary of the C Bar and Big Bear properties they sorted out the cattle as best they could, and Robbins headed for the C Bar with Crimins' stock while Craig elected to drive the rest farther into the Big Bear territory.
“Take them a mile or so and leave them,” Robbins advised. “Kurtz or his men will find them, no doubt; anyway we can tell him about them the next time we see him. I'll haze my bunch on slowly and you can catch up to me before I get to the ranch.”
It was a trifle difficult getting the two bands separated, since some of the cows, with bovine stupidity and stubbornness, desired to go in any direction but the one the punchers wanted them to. Finally the two men got them fairly well in hand and went on their separate ways.
Robbins drove the hundred C Bar cattle a mile or two and left them in a hollow. Then he rode slowly on toward the ranch, every now and then looking backward to see if Craig was in sight. He did not see his friend, however, and each time continued onward.
He was letting his horse pick its way, thinking seriously of the events that had recently caused so much of a stir in the valley, when from a distance came a faint sound.
Crack!
He reined in and listened, turning in the saddle to search the landscape behind him. Just what point the sound had come from he was not certain. He was on a high knoll, and could see clearly in all directions, but at first he could not determine the spot from which the faint cracking noise had come.
Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!
Again the sound, this time clearer and multiplied into four. Robbins shaded his eyes with his hand and stared at a ridge some two miles away. A tiny black dot had suddenly raced over the top of the ridge and down the side toward him. As he watched, fascinated, another dot appeared, another, two more, and still another. There was quite a gap between the first dot and the five pursuing, but the distance was too great for the puncher to judge it accurately.
At irregular intervals tiny puffs of white mushroomed out from the dots in the rear, and occasionally the fugitive dot replied in kind. After each white puff came that faint Crack! that Robbins had first heard.
“Rifles!” he exclaimed. “Somebody gettin' chased, and they're comin' fast! Wastin' a lot of ammunition, too. Who's that first gent, do you suppose?’
Finding no answer to his question, he turned his horse around so that he would be more comfortable and waited. The black dots were coming fast indeed, there was no doubt of that. And the way the guns cracked and spat leaden messengers of death left no room for doubt that there was open enmity between the leading dot and its pursuers.
As they drew nearer the watching rider on the knoll, the dots evolved into horses and men. The first disappeared into a hollow, then reappeared a minute later over a hill nearer at hand. Robbins stiffened and muttered in surprise.
“Craig! Pete Craig! What trouble has he got into now?”
Spurring his horse, he raced down from the knoll toward the oncoming puncher. The latter's horse was tiring fast, and was running laboriously. The five pursuers galloped up over the hill and commenced firing again. Spurts of dust leaped up all around Craig's running horse. Robbins pulled the Winchester from his saddle boot and shot at the foremost of the group, though he knew that he had little chance of scoring a hit at that range. However, his shot had the effect of slowing up the pursuit a trifle, until the five riders saw that only one man comprised the reinforcements.
The delay, momentary as it was, allowed Craig to gain slightly, and firing again, Robbins veered in to meet him. The slender puncher was ginning broadly as he galloped up, despite his danger. He had a rifle in his hands, a Winchester .30-30, and, pulling up, he turned and fired before speaking. Robbins noticed that his bullet struck scarcely a foot to the right of the leading horseman. Lifting his gaze, he saw that the rider was Mat Whortle!
[End of chapter]
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