Wednesday, July 13, 2005
CRAIG grinned at him, enjoying his surprise, meanwhile stuffing cartridges into the loading gate of his rifle.
“Didn't expect to see me leadin' home a bunch of playmates, did yuh?’ he asked humorously. “ I didn't expect to, either, or I'd have called for help. Surprised me right after I left the Big Bear cattle headed for home. In a draw, it was. Whortle and his gang comes tearin' over a mesa at me, and I sure didn't wait to pass the time of day with them.”
“Uh-huh. But we better not stand here talkin' about it or we'll be buzzard bait poco tiempo. Let's burn the breeze outa here.”
Whortle and his four men were near enough now to have more chance of hitting their targets, and five against two is not the best of advantages when the five are on the side of the enemy. Whortle let out a yell of rage as he recognized Robbins. The owner of the T Square jerked his horse back on his haunches and tried to steady his rifle for a shot at the cowboy, but the animal resented such treatment and showed his displeasure by stamping and prancing.
Whereat Whortle spurred him savagely and raced after the C Bar men, who were fast drawing away from him. Robbins and Craig took turns shooting, firing more to gain time than out of any hope that their bullets would find a mark. A mile, two miles they covered, and suddenly Craig cried out. Robbins, slightly in the lead, slowed up.
“My horse is about done for, Bill. There's a cabin or somethin' over there in that flat. Let's see if we can t make it. That's better than standin' them off in the open.”
“Yeah,” agreed Robbins heartily. “Wait a second until I heave a slug at Mr. Whortle.”
He soothed his horse with soft, words and aimed briefly. At the crack of his rifle the man riding behind Whortle, now no more than four hundred yards away, pitched from the saddle.
“Not so good,” observed Craig as casually as if he'd been watching a boy throwing rocks at a tin can. “He moved to the left just as yuh fired. Oh, well, that's one down. Come on, or we'll be late.”
They urged their horses into a gallop again and dashed for the cabin, partly hidden in a grove of cottonwoods. Immediately, divining the move, Whortle shifted his course to cut them off, firing rapidly the while. Bullets whined by the fleeing cowboys or struck the ground under their horses' hoofs. One, nipping the rump of Craig's mount, sent it onward in a sudden burst of speed.
They reached the cabin safely, though it was a nip-and-tuck affair to see which party should get there first. The T Square gang could not manage to overcome the lead of the two friends, however, despite the gain they had made in cutting across to head them off, and they halted in a disgruntled group as Robbins ducked his head and rode into the open door, followed by Craig.
The cabin had long been abandoned, by the looks of it. It was constructed of logs, and admirably suited for defense. Throwing himself out of the saddle, Robbins flung the door shut and dropped a stout mesquite pole into place across it. Craig tied the horses in one corner and ran to a window, reloading his rifle on the way. Robbins joined him, and together they considered their predicament.
“They've decided not to rush us, apparently,” Craig declared. “Leastways they've stopped and are arguin' it pro and con. Isn't that Les Davids there on the far side of Whortle?”
Robbins squinted through the window and stared at the man Craig indicated. He nodded.
“That's him, all right. Yuh know what happened? He stuck around Morgan City until he saw we'd bumped off two of his pards and captured the other, and then he lights out to warn Whortle. Whortle gathers his gang and sets out to find us. Maybe he figured on meetin' us close to Morgan City, and missed us some way. Probably didn't expect we'd separate, and ran onto you first. What do yuh suppose the range is?”
“I'd say three hundred and fifty.”
“Well, we'll try that and see if we can't break up that little meetin' out there. Whortle must not he long on memory, or else he don't think much of our shootin', to stand there in the open and gossip.”
He stepped back, rested his left hand and the barrel of the Winchester on the window sill, and squinted through the sights.
With the roaring report Whortle's horse fell as if it had been poleaxed, shot through the brain. The group scattered like chaff before a high wind, Whortle landing clear of his dead mount and running into the shelter of a thicket.
“Darn!“ exclaimed Robbins, blowing the smoke out of the barrel. “Yo're a bum guesser, Pete. If I'd set my sights at three seventy-five I'd have got him right.”
A bullet smacked into the sill, driving a splinter into Robbins' cheek.
“Ow!“ he cried, pulling it out and throwing it violently to the earth floor. “Wait till I get hold of the gent that done that!”
The cabin had evidently been built in pioneer days, for a number of loopholes were cut through the logs, two or three feet apart. The windows were small, and if they had ever known the comparative magnificence that glass afforded they were totally barren of it now. All in all, the structure was pretty much of a fort.
“We can stand them off for a week in here, Pete,” he called jubilantly to Craig. who had gone to the opposite end of the cabin. “That is, provided we can scrape up some water and grub. I don't see anybody on my side. How about yores?”
“Fella sneakin' through the brush toward a little coulee west of us,” Craig replied. “He's out of sight now, but soon as I see him again I'm gonna send him a reminder that we aren't asleep at all.”
To all appearances, the “fella” came in sight almost immediately, for Craig poked the barrel of his gun through a loophole and fired. The puncher snorted. “Shucks. Danged rifle throws off or somethin'.”
“Yeah, blame it on the gun!” snorted Robbins.
“There, I cut him loose from the ground that time! That'll learn him to be more careful. Next time I'll make him fit for the corpse factory.”
Robbins remembered something June had told him in a similar moment, and considered it appropriate to the occasion.
“Do more shootin', and talk less,” he advised.
He put this thought into practice by maintaining silence himself for quite a while and allowing his rifle to speak for him instead. The men from the T Square had ensconced themselves in coulees and behind boulders, surrounding the cabin, and were keeping up an incessant fire on the loopholes and windows.
A certain loophole on the south side of the cabin seemed to be the particular target of one of the marksmen, for more than one bullet droned through it and struck the opposite wall with a dull thuck! Robbins first became aware of the persistency of the rifleman when in passing from one end of the cabin to the other something tugged at his neckerchief. Taking it off, he discovered a ragged hole through the folds.
“H'm, that won't do,” he muttered to himself. “Can't have things like this goin' on. Wonder where that jigger is hangin' out?”
Foolishly, incautiously, he put his head down to look through the loophole. A large-caliber bullet, entering at the same moment, cut the skin of his cheek and nipped the lobe of his ear. He stumbled backward in consternation and tripped over a broken chair. Craig came running to him, and helped him up.
“I'm all right, Pete,” he said smilingly, and not a little sheepishly. “Like a dang fool I tried to look out a loophole the same moment a bullet was coming in, and we collided. Wrenched my wounded arm a little, but outside of that I guess I'm all right. There's a sniper roostin' out there somewhere, and I want to get a bead on him.”
Craig went back to his window, and the crash of his rifle testified that he was being kept fairly busy. Hunting about on the opposite wall until he found the holes the bullets coming through the loophole had made, Robbins waited until the marksman fired again and then sighted on a line with holes and loopholes as guides. His gaze came to rest on a tall cotton
wood some two hundred yards south of the cabin, and the cowboy moved quickly to the east end of the building and selected another loophole which allowed him an unobstructed view of the suspicious cottonwood. Watching closely, he saw a branch move, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a rifle barrel and an arm. A puff of white mushroomed out from the muzzle of the weapon and drifted slowly down wind. Arm and rifle barrel were withdrawn, but immediately came in sight again. Aiming slightly below and to the left of the exposed arm, Robbins fired twice, as fast as he could pull the trigger and lever another shell into the chamber.
For a moment nothing happened. Arm and barrel remained in sight, though the puncher thought he saw a sinking motion. Then the branches of the tree shook violently and the figure of a man tumbled out and fell to the ground. Robbins watched it, but there was no further movement.
“Well, Whortle will have to hire another rustler,” he called to Craig. “Shucks, if this keeps on he won't have a man left.”
“I suppose yo're just worried to death about it, aren't you!” Craig answered sarcastically. “Want me to go and hire out to him?”
“Might be a good idea, at that. Yuh ought to be some good to somebody, though I don't know how, layin' down on the job as yuh are and lettin' me fight this battle alone!”
“Say, aren't you the abused hombre, though!” Craig snorted disdainfully. “I've a good mind to leave yuh flat, just for that.”
Robbins grinned to himself and peeked out of a window. There was not much danger that the slender cowboy would carry out his threat.
A rifle crashed somewhere, and Craig's horse screamed shrilly and went down, twitching convulsively. Craig ran to the animal, but it died before he reached it. A bullet, entering near the right saddle fender, had pierced the horse's heart.
Craig made several definite and denunciatory statements anent [sic] Mr. Whortle, and stalked back to his post, mumbling angrily.
“I'm gettin' short of shells, Pete,” Robbins declared presently, fingers fumbling at the loops of his cartridge belt. “In fact, I've got three left. How are you fixed? I didn't anticipate havin' to fight a war, or I'd have brought a whole carload.”
“I'm worse off than you are, Bill. One left, and here it goes in my gun.”
“Oh, well, we've got lots of .45s, so we should worry if we do run out. If the worst gets worse, we can always use the rifles as clubs.”
A rush of feet and the heavy breathing of men startled both of them. A thud on the door, another, and Craig cried out alarmingly:
“They're breakin' in, Bill!”
Robbins ran swiftly to his aid, divining what had happened. The remaining T Square men had somehow managed to slip close to the cabin, unseen and unheard. Then, with a rush, they had leaped from their concealment and reached the door of the cabin almost before the defenders were aware of their presence.
Craig fired out of a loophole, trying to hit the attackers with the last bullet in his rifle, but they were all out of sight. Discarding the Winchester, he drew his revolver. The thudding continued, and the door creaked and groaned under the combined weight of the three bodies hurled against it. The mesquite bar across it held firmly, however, while the door itself was so well constructed that it would withstand a great amount of battering.
“Why don't yuh come on in?” Robbins cried out tauntingly.
An oath answered him, and the thud that followed was harder, more savage. The door shook, but held, and Robbins laughed loudly. Then, putting the muzzle of his rifle to a crack between two logs, he pulled the trigger. The heavy .45-90 bullet tore out some of the chinking, but apparently did no damage to the attackers, since no yell of pain rewarded the shot.
“Yuh might as well give up, Robbins,” a voice, the voice of Mat Whortle, cried outside. “We're bound to get you two hombres, even if we have to stay here a week!”
There was no thought of surrender in the minds of either Robbins or Craig. The latter shook his head silently, and Robbins smiled in absolute agreement.
“Here's what we say, Whortle!” he called back. “You and yore whole gang can go to blazes!”
Whortle swore, but made no direct reply, though Robbins heard him ordering some one to see if he could find a log with which to batter down the door.
“Keep yore eye on them, Pete!” he cried softly. “If yuh get a chance, plug one of them!”
Craig nodded grimly.
“I hope they do break down the door! We could sure show them a hot reception while they were tryin' to see who would be the first to come in!”
“Me, too,” declared his friend emphatically, selecting another crack and firing one of his remaining bullets through it.
A gasp of pain greeted the shot, and he grinned appreciatively.
“Nicked one of them, at least. Ow!“
The “Ow!” was occasioned by a stabbing flame that licked through a crack on a level with his head and seared the skin of his nose. The bullet passed by so close he imagined he could feel the touch of its sides. He peered cautiously out of a loophole beside the door and was starting to shove the muzzle of his rifle through it when the window at the end of the cabin was suddenly darkened.
A cry of alarm from Craig. He turned his head swiftly. Framed in the window, a leer of triumph on his unshaven lips, was a man. In his hands was a rifle, cocked and ready, and its ominous black muzzle was pointed at Robbins' heart!
[End of chapter]