Tuesday, July 12, 2005

 

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIII

ROARING GUNS

A HUNDRED thoughts leaped into Robbins' mind as he recognized his danger. In moments of stress the human brain usually works abnormally fast, weighing possibilities, considering results and consequences in lightninglike fashion; disconnectedly, it is true, yet it works with incredible swiftness.
So it was with Robbins. Gazing into the ominous black muzzle of the rifle, he imagined that he could almost see the steel-jacketed bullet gathering itself, as does a well-trained athlete on the starting mark, to plunge forward at him.
Thoughts of the roguish twinkle that every now and then appeared in June's liquid brown eyes sprang into his mind full grown. These kept company with other and far-different thoughts, conjectures as to who had slain Fisher in robbing the Del Rio Bank, who was the dominant figure behind all the C Bar's troubles, the places Kelson, Burns, Davids, Whortle and others held in the general scheme of things.
All these and more flashed through the cowboy's agile mind in the split second following the dramatic appearance of the man in the window and Craig's startled, alarmed yell of warning. Foremost among them was a troubled one, the thought of June's dependence upon him to help right matters and bring the C Bar out of threatened chaos. He must win through, must defeat Whortle's plan to get him out of the way, if only for June's sake.
Triumphant, leering, the unshaven face and tiny, ratlike eyes of the man in the window impressed themselves indelibly upon Robbins' brain. He saw the muzzle of the rifle, seemingly as big as that of a cannon, pointing at his heart, ready to belch forth flame and lead at the pressure of a finger on the trigger. And the finger, short and grimy, was already pressing backward. A trifle more and its jerk would release the hammer, exploding the powder in the cartridge case and forcing the steel-incased bullet upon its swift death-dealing career. Realizing, it, Robbins acted instinctively and swiftly.
He dropped flat on the earthen floor of the cabin, swinging the muzzle of the heavy .45-90 to bear upon the window in the same motion. So close together that the reports seemed one, the two guns roared viciously. The bullet from the gun in the window cut through the cowboy's clothes between arm and side, missing the flesh narrowly. Robbins was more fortunate. His bullet smashed through the man's skull. Without a sound the fellow crumpled and fell away from the window, his rifle dropping into the cabin with a harsh clatter.
“Whoopie!“ yelled Craig joyously. “You got him, Bill! That's three of the dirty polecats! Hurray for our side! Bring on the rest of ‘em!“
The hammering on the door ceased abruptly. Two voices joined in a swearing contest that exceeded in variety and quantity of oaths anything either of the defenders had ever heard before. Mingled with the flow of invective were several explosions of six-shooters, and bullets whined through the cracks of the door and dug deeply into floor or walls.
“Keep it up!“ cried Robbins tauntingly. “Keep it up, and maybe yore remarks will set the cabin afire!“
He punctuated this advice with all the bullets in his six-gun, firing them through cracks and loopholes in an earnest endeavor to reach one or both of the remaining representatives of the T Square. Whether or not he was successful in this laudable ambition, certainly neither Whortle nor his companion were especially pleased with the way he manipulated his shooting iron. Robbins and Craig heard another blistering oath, then the patter of running footsteps which diminished in sound until they could no longer hear them.
“Well, guess that's what you'd call settled for the time bein',” observed Craig after a while. “We'll roost likely hear further from Mister Whortle at a later date, but right now I've kinda got a hunch he's had his fill of us two. What's yore opinion?”
Robbins' head bobbed affirmatively.
“No question about it,” he agreed. “Leastways, I don't think Whortle is given to runnin' races purely for his health. Still, he might have considered it would be healthier right now, if he did do a little runnin'. Suppose you and I sort of pectinate [sic] around outside and see what's happened. I feel a craven' comin' on to know if an old acquaintance of mine is among the corpses.”
Craig laughed and finished reloading his revolver. Robbins did the same, and then replaced it in his holster.
“Who's the gent you want to see especially dead?” queried Craig.
“Davids,” his friend replied grimly. “There's a fella that by rights should have been strangled at birth. I haven't much use for Whortle, but at least he's a little square. He ain't afraid to come out and tell you what he thinks of yuh, and he ain't afraid to try to put a few bullets through yuh if he feels that way about it.
“Davids, on the other hand, is just the opposite. He's a sneakin' coyote, a snake in the grass. He's like that cliff that Crimins' cattle were run over—a big bluff. Bluster and bullyin' are his stocks in trade. Willin' to shoot the bravest man in the back, but he'll not fight square unless he's forced to it.”
“Sort of a rat, eh? The kind of a gent that'll pat you on the back before yore face and slap yore face behind yore back.”
“I dunno whether or not he's a contortionist, but that's the kind of a gent he is, all right. I'm hopin' against hope he's due to be numbered among the missin' from now on.”
They unbarred the door and stepped out cautiously, for there was no certainty that Whortle and his one surviving rider were not hiding out in the brush somewhere awaiting their appearance. In which case, of course, lead would have begun flying once more.
No bullets greeted them, however. Evidently the death of the third man, testifying to the accuracy of the shooting of the defenders of the cabin, had broken the nerve of the ranchman and his companion, at least for the time being. They had caught their horses as soon as they were out of sight of the cabin and its deadly marksmen, and galloped away as fast as their mounts could take them.
The man under the window, the one who had been so sure of his advantage over Robbins, was very, very dead, as Craig expressed it. They left him where he lay and went south of the cabin to the tree where the unknown sniper had held forth. He was lying where he had fallen, an inert heap. Rob-bins surveyed him disappointedly.
“Shucks, he's not Davids. Never saw him before. Darn the luck, why couldn't he have been Davids, I wanta know?”
“Does seem as if we should have a break once in a blue moon, don't it?” agreed Craig. “Don't give up hope, though, because there's still another gent to tally up.”
The third man, however, was much harder to find, and anyway, Robbins remembered that he had been killed before they had discovered Davids talking with Whortle. Nevertheless, they hunted until they found. him, propped up against a tree where Whortle or one of the other men had placed him. One look at him was enough to satisfy Robbins that Davids had escaped with Whortle.
“You see, he isn't Davids.” he told Craig. “Don't yuh remember we downed this gent before we reached the cabin, and it was after we were in there we saw Davids? Sure yuh do. So our friend the enemy has got away safe, though he may have a hole or a nick in him somewhere.”
“What are yuh gonna do with them?”
Robbins shrugged his shoulders.
“Leave them for buzzard bait, I suppose. We haven't the time to bury them, and besides, Whortle will send somebody back for the bodies after a while. If it wasn't for that, I guess we'd have to bury them.”
Returning to the cabin, he removed the saddle and bridle from Craig's horse and led his own mount outside. Craig left his saddle in one corner of the cabin where he could get it the next time he came that way, and climbed up behind Robbins. The latter had picked up the rifles, shoved his own into its scabbard, and when Craig had settled himself he handed the .30-30 to him.
“Here we go,” he said jocularly. “Each man handle his own artillery, even if it is empty. We'll sure have to stock up on shells, Pete, soon as we get to the ranch. This would be a hell of a time to have another battle begin, wouldn't it?”
[End of chapter]
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