Monday, July 11, 2005

 

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXIV

A WARNING

CRIMINS and the cowboys were not in sight when Robbins and Craig reached the C Bar. Loco, however, his leathery face beaming, came to the door of his kitchen and called out a cheery hello as the two clumped past. They went inside the ranch house and found June in the parlor reading to Larry, who was lying on the couch and gazing up at the ceiling.
“Howdy, old-timer,” Robbins greeted him smilingly. “How are the ribs, floatin' and otherwise, gettin' along?”
“Pretty good, Bill,” Larry answered, grinning. The girl smiled and laid down her book. “Yes, he's coming along fine,” she said. She saw scratches on Robbins' cheek, and her eyes went quickly over the two men, observing the torn, dirty clothing.
“What's happened this time, Bill?” she asked quietly. “Have you been in trouble again?”
Robbins glanced down at himself and grinned. “Does look like it, at that. Yes, we've had another run-in with Whortle. We found out that some cattle were bein' shipped from Morgan City, and we went over there to give them the once-over. A hundred or so of them were Barred 0's, rebranded from C Bars. The rest were Big Bears, and the man in charge of the herd had a forged bill of sale from Kurtz.
“We had a scrap there, but got the cattle back, and then drove them back to our range. Pete took the Big Bear stock a little ways into their territory, and Whortle chased him. We holed up in an abandoned cabin until we scared Whortle and Davids, one of his best men, away. Our cattle are back on C Bar land, but they need to be changed back to yore dad's brand. Best way might be to have Kelson come out and see for himself that they've been worked over, and he can give us authority to vent the brands. I don't believe there's a Barred 0 brand in this State, but it don't matter if there is.
“Yes, that might be the best way,” June nodded slowly. “Dad and the boys are somewhere on the range now.”
“Well, soon as Pete and I have somethin' to eat— we're powerful hungry, I can tell yuh—we'll traipse into town and see the sheriff. Want to see about makin' a complaint about a rustler George Burns brought back from Morgan City, so we can kill two birds with one rock.”
June ate with them, since it was nearly supper time, and cautioned Robbins about getting into any more trouble when he left.
“Please be careful, both of you,” she told them. “It will be like the T Square gang to hunt for you and pick a fight again, so try not to give them the chance, will you? We need you alive more than we do dead.”
“Huh, don'tcha think we mean more to ourselves walkin' around than lyin' in a coffin somewhere?” Craig asked her. “We aren't hankerin' to cash in our checks none a-tall.”
“No,” she smiled, “but you're not given to run-fling away from trouble, either! Oh, I know you!”
She walked with them to the corral and stood by while the two men saddled fresh horses. When they had mounted, she repeated her demand that they keep out of trouble as much as possible.
“All right, we will,” Robbins assured her. “We won't go huntin' for it, if that'll make yore mind any the easier, but of course we won't run from it if it hunts us. Dunno what time we'll be back, but you tell yore dad we got the stock back, will you? G'by.”
In Del Rio they tied their horses to the hitch rack in front of the post office and tramped into the sheriff's office. It had become dark before they reached town, and Kelson had lighted his lamps. He was sitting with his feet upon his battered old desk, smoking contentedly, but sat up straight as he saw who his visitors were.
“Oh, back, are you?” he greeted them more civilly than he had done earlier in the day. “What did yuh find out? Anythin'?”
“I'll say we did,” answered Robbins emphatically. “We ran onto the rustlers just before they were gettin' the last of the stock loaded to ship them out, and had to kill a couple of them when they wouldn't surrender. One of them gave up then, and we turned him over to yore deputy. Has he got in yet?”
“Who, George? No, haven't seen a thing of him since this mornin'. Who were the rustlers, do yuh know? Anybody from around here?”
“Uh-huh. They must've all been T Square men, Kelson. Les Davids was in charge of things, but he was wise and foxy enough to get away. He beat it back to Whortle, apparently, for we'd just got the cattle back to the range when Whortle and Davids and three other men came siftin' along heavin' lead at Pete, here. Check three more off their list.”
“No, yuh don't say?” marveled Kelson. “Mat Whortle a rustler? It's pretty hard to believe.”
“Well, it's so, whether yuh believe it or not,” Robbins said stubbornly. “The C Bar stock we recovered had all been rebranded. Barred 0's, they are now. I don't think Crimins will touch them until you come out and tell him to go ahead. The Big Bear stuff hadn't been worked on, and we turned them back on the range.”
“Oh, yuh got Kurtz's cows, too?”
“Yeah. Harris, one of the gents we had to smoke up, had a forged bill of sale from Kurtz on him.”
He went on and told the officer just what bad happened from the time they arrived in Morgan City until they reached the C Bar. Kelson repeatedly whistled in astonishment and incredulity as the story unfolded, and when Robbins had finished and Craig had corroborated what he had said, the officer slammed his fist down upon his desk forcefully.
“By George!” he burst out. “If you can show me positive proof that Whortle is the roan behind these rustlin's, I'll put him behind the bars quicker'n you can wink! I guess George and I aren't awful big successes as sheriffs, but give us half a chance and we'll trail along with the right side.
“Give me proof, and I'll bust up Whortle's gang or get busted tryin'! Only I've got to have positive proof. You can see that. I'll come out to-morrow and look over those Barred 0's. Wait a second.”
He rummaged in the drawers of his desk until he unearthed a brand registry, and delved into it. Presently he closed the book and shook his head.
“No Barred 0 in this State,” he said. “As far as that goes, it's a plain case of thievery. Maybe that cattle buyer isn't so innocent after all.”
“Yeah, but he might have thought they were brought to Morgan City from the next State,” Craig interjected. “He looked honest enough.”
“Well, anyhow, you gents get me proof that any jury can see, and I'll show you results. H'm, that reminds me. Here's a letter for you that came in this noon, Robbins. Why it was sent here instead of to the ranch, I dunno.”
He dug a dirty, sealed envelope from his pocket and handed it to the cowboy. Robbins glanced at the postmark and saw it had been mailed in Del Rio early in the morning. Slitting it open with his finger, he extracted the single sheet of paper it contained and scanned the writing. The note read:
You and your kind are not wanted in Del Rio County. Get out inside of 24 hours or you'll never leave except in a coffin.
“Love letter?” queried Craig.
Robbins shook his head and scrutinized the note. It had been written on good stationery, in ink, though the writing was not of the best. He judged that some effort had been made to disguise it.
“No love letter,” he replied. “Just a little invitation to leave the country inside twenty-four hours or take the consequences. I'd say there was somebody around Del Rio who don't like me.”
“Huh?” gasped Craig. “A warnin'?”
Robbins passed over the paper and he read it silently, handing it to Kelson when he had finished. The sheriff swore feelingly as he perused the warning and turned the paper over to see if there was anything on the other side.
“Somebody's after yore scalp, Robbins,” he said grimly. “They mean business, too, or I miss my guess. What are yuh gonna do about it?”
“Do? Why, stay, of course.”
“Good for you!“ Craig applauded heartily. “I'm with you, Bill. Only yuh want to watch out special hard hereafter that yuh don't get a bullet in the back. The kind of gent who'd send a warnin' like that wouldn't hesitate to plug yuh when yuh wasn't lookin'.”
“He's right,” seconded Kelson. “Me—I'd be shiverin' in my boots if I got one of them things.”
The whinny of a horse interrupted their conversation, and Kelson got up.
“There's George now,” he declared, stretching. “Ho hum. Yeah, it's him. I know the nickerin' of his nag. He'll probably be hungry and crabbed as the deuce. We've got plenty of room for the rustler. Nobody in the jail now.”
They waited a while, talking about rustlers and bank robbers, and Robbins learned that nothing new had been discovered about the murder of Fisher.
Presently, Kelson looked out of the door.
“Wonder what's keepin' George?” he said.
“Maybe we better go out and see what's the matter,” suggested Craig. “Have you got a corral of yore own?”
“Yeah. It's right back of the jail.”
They trooped out into the street and around the building housing the sheriff's office and the county jail. Kelson had lighted a lantern and brought it with him, and the mellow glow dissolved the shadows as they approached the pole corral constructed for the use of the sheriff and his deputies.
Along the rear of the corral were several sheds. In one corner was a water tank, while in another was a stable. Save for three horses wandering aimlessly about or standing drowsily against a shed, no living thing was visible. The stable was empty; the tracks around the corral gate had not been freshly made.
“Well, that's dang funny,” asserted Kelson in puzzlement, scratching his head. “I'd have sworn that was George's horse I heard.”
“Maybe it was somebody else's bronc,” suggested Craig. “George likely stayed in Morgan City until late.”
The officer shook his head.
“No-o, I don't think he would unless somethin' pretty important came up. He told me he'd be back by dark, sure, when he left this mornin'. He's had time to get over feelin' huffy at me.”
“Yeah, but he ain't here, that's a cinch,” Robbins put in. “We might as well go back to the office and wait. He'll be along soon. Hope he does, because I'd kinda like to get that rustler talkin'.”
The sheriff shrugged his shoulders resignedly and they started back. But they had no more than got out of the corral gate when a whinny identical with that they had first heard sounded from the rear of the sheds. Kelson broke into a run, as did Craig and Robbins, and together they raced around the corral, the sheriff showing the way with his lantern. As the latter rounded the corner he halted so abruptly that Robbins ran into him, almost tripping both of them.
“What in blazes!“ the officer burst out, staring ahead into the gloom where a horse stood and nickered softly.
Robbins was about to make some reply, thinking the bump had angered him, but no words came from his half-open mouth. What he saw drove all thought of a retort from his mind. There were more important things claiming immediate attention than petty quarrels, for what had caused the sheriff's exclamation was a dark huddle over which the deputy's horse stood, motionless, silent.
Hurriedly the three men went forward. The dark huddle was revealed in the yellow rays of the lantern as a man, fully dressed, even to gray sombrero. He was lying face down, and one leg was slightly drawn up as if life had fled in the midst of a convulsive tremor.
Kneeling beside the body, Kelson turned it over on its back with one hand, meanwhile holding the lantern so that its rays shone upon the face. For a long moment he gazed at it, while his own features twitched and trembled in the stress of his emotions. Then he rose and took off his hat, head bent sorrowfully.
[End of chapter]
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