Wednesday, July 06, 2005





THE last echo of the rifle shots faded out. For a moment silence enshrouded the little basin where only a short time before Tom Snider and Harry Davids had gasped convulsively amid wisps of pungent powder smoke, and died over the ill-acquired plunder of the Del Rio bank robbery.
The horse which Les Davids had been loading with the heavy canvas sacks containing the gold had jumped affrightedly at the first shot and raced to the corral a few feet distant so that it would have the benefit of the companionship of its own kind. There it pushed against the bars, endeavoring futilely to get nearer to the two horses within the corral, and eyed the limp, motionless body of Les Davids curiously, fearfully.
“I dunno what this is all about,” whispered Craig to his friend, “but I suppose it's all right. This is sure a fine state of affairs. First Snider gets suspicious and gets killed after he downs Harry Davids, and now Les gets bumped off. Who do yuh suppose did that shootin' just now
“I wouldn't swear to it,” grinned Robbins, also talking in a whisper, “but I think it was Santy Claus. Keep quiet—I hear something'!”
From the spot where the unknown rifleman lay came a faint rustling. Satisfied that Davids was really dead and that he had nothing more to fear from that source, the marksman was coming out into the open.
Robbins and Craig watched breathlessly as the brush parted twenty yards or so to the right of them and a man stepped forth cautiously, stealthily. He was short and pot-bellied, and in his pudgy hands he carried a Winchester .30-30. One step only he took, then he looked furtively about him as if conscious of prying eyes.
The watchers flattened themselves to the ground, careful not to rustle so much as a twig. The man looked searchingly directly at the brush behind which they lay, and for the first time they got a full glimpse of his face. It was a red face, seamed and wrinkled with dissipation and coarse living. Tiny, ratline eyes probed hither and yon in the concealing mesquite and arrow weed, vainly, futilely seeking that which instinct told the man was near by and watching him.
“Samuels!” breathed Craig. “Bill, it's yore friend from the Del Rio Saloon!”
Robbins made no reply. He was much too concerned with attempting to divine just what the rascally bartender was going to do and with where he fitted in the general scheme of mysterious happenings on the C Bar range.
For upward of a minute Samuels stood silently, motionless save for the tiny eyes that wandered about the basin. Finally, the saloon keeper apparently decided that his fears were only imaginative, and he went hesitantly to the body of Les Davids, rifle held ready. It was evident from his actions that he was unable entirely to rid himself of the instinctive feeling that he was being watched.
Had he obeyed that feeling, it is doubtful that the episode would have ended as it did. No sooner had he reached the lifeless body of Davids and bent over to look at it than a spiteful crack leaped vindictively from the left corner of the shack where the right hand and head of a man showed momentarily. Samuels never straightened his obese form. On one temple just below the faded brim of his battered sombrero appeared a small, dark hole. Without a sound the bartender fell forward, his head striking the ground on the other side of Davids. Before he had ceased the convulsive jerking in the throes of death the head and hand of the killer appeared again, then the entire body.
This time both Craig and Robbins breathed deeply. Their surprise was mutual inasmuch as they had not expected to see in the guise of a gunman the dapper, immaculate figure of Melvin Kurtz. Yet Kurtz it was, running forward with panthery grace and litheness, an automatic pistol in his hand. He went to the body of the saloon keeper without the slightest hesitation, turned the man on his back with the polished toe of his riding boot, and at sight of the small, dark hole where his bullet had entered he returned the automatic to a hidden shoulder holster with a grin of complete satisfaction.
Craig and his partner watched with bated breath, wondering, conjecturing. The events of the past few minutes had come so rapidly as to give them little time to think rationally.
“This is gettin' too swift for me,” murmured Craig. “I dunno what Kurtz is doin' here, but if there's much more gun talk this section is sure gonna be depopulated. Ain't we lain here long enough? I'm cravin' action, cowboy, and plenty of it.”
“Keep yore shirt on and yuh might get some,” Robbins told him in a whisper. “There'll be plenty of it, I'm thinkin'. Well, Kurtz is loadin' the loot on that horse again—it came loose when Davids' cayuse jumped—and it don't look like anybody else is gonna horn in. So I reckon it's about time old man Robbins' son took a hand. Come on.”
Rising to their feet as noiselessly as possible, the two friends stepped from their concealment. Kurtz's back was toward them and he did not observe their presence, so engrossed was he in his task, until they were within ten yards of him. Then, startled by the snapping of a twig under Craig's incautious feet, he whirled, eyes bulging. His hand flew inside his coat, but stopped and remained hidden as Robbins' rifle muzzle stared him in the face.
“I wouldn't if I were you, Melvin, old dear,” the cowboy advised whimsically. “Leave the little cannon where it is and bring yore hand out into the light of day. That's it. I knew you'd see the sense of it.”
Kurtz's eyes smoldered with suppressed rage. It was obvious that he resented what he considered the intrusion of the two C Bar men.
“What do you want?” he demanded hoarsely.
“Want?” Thus Robbins, with exceeding innocence. “Oh, yeah. We thought we'd like to have that mazuma all you gents have been scrappin' about. I don t see what use you could possibly have for it, Kurtz. You won't mind if we take it, will you?”
The muscles of the ranch manager's face twitched desperately, and his fingers clenched until the knuckles were a dead white. His voice was still hoarse with emotion.
“Say, listen here!” he cried hotly. “Don't think I’m sucker enough to let you two get your fingers on this money! I wasn't born yesterday! I've got it, and I'm goin' to keep it.”
There was considerable mockery in Robbins' tones.
“Do tell? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to change yore mind some, Mr. Kurtz. Yuh see,” holding back the left flap of his vest so that the badge Kelson had given was in full sight, “I'm an authorized deputy sheriff of this county, sworn to enforce the law and preserve the peace.
“The money in those bags was stolen from the Del Rio National Bank. It's the duty of every citizen to return stolen property, and as a deputy it's more than a duty for me to take charge of it. So you needn't bother to feel responsible any longer. My partner and I will take the dinero off yore hands entirely.”
For a moment Kurtz was speechless with mortification and rage. His dislike of the slender cowboy welled once more into his eyes, savagely, glaringly. He managed to control himself, however, with a visible effort.
“I—I don't believe you!” he blurted angrily. “You're just trying to steal this money for yourself! That isn't a real badge!”
“Suppose yuh take a squint at it and see for yore-self,” Robbins suggested with a grin. “Look, it says, ‘D-e-p-u-t-y S-h-e-r-i-f-f, Del Rio County.' That ought to be satisfyin' enough even for you.”
Kurtz was convinced, but he submitted with ill grace.
“You win,” he agreed sullenly. “I knew it was the loot of the bank robbery. In fact, I happened to hear the men that were just killed, except Samuels, talking about it in the shack. I was going to turn it over to Kelson, of course, but since you're his deputy, I suppose you can take it just as well.”
Robbins looked into his face searchingly. He was not at all certain that Kurtz had really intended turning over the money to the sheriff. He had little liking for the man, a dislike that had been instinctive and pronounced from the very first, yet when he thought it over he could see that he might have allowed his dislike to prejudice him.
“How does it come that you were here when Davids and his brother and Snider were arguin' about the money?” he asked.
Kurtz shrugged his shoulders eloquently.
“Why, I was merely riding around the range when I saw Les Davids galloping fast in this direction. It aroused my curiosity, so I followed. I was hiding behind the shack all the time the Davids brothers and Snider were talking, and I heard enough to learn that they and Samuels were the principals in the bank robbery. When Snider discovered the package Les Davids was carrying, he knew that Davids was double crossing him and Samuels and making away with some of the plunder.
“I rather expected to see Samuels, so I didn't reveal myself right away. I'm glad I didn't, for if I'd shot Davids, Samuels would have shot me to close my mouth and to get the money for himself. I'd rather have handed the money to Kelson myself, but you've taken the responsibility, so I can't do anything but consent. And since there's nothing more for me to do here, I'll be saying adios.”
“So long,” Robbins said, dropping the butt of his rifle to the ground. “We'll see that you get the credit for stoppin' Samuels and recoverin' the money. Pete, help me get these bags of filthy lucre off this cayuse.
Kurtz went on around the shack toward the thicket where he had left his horse. At the corner he paused and looked back. Robbins, happening to glance up at just the right moment, caught the glare of hatred on the man's face. Then the manager of the Big Bear vanished from sight.
“Gosh, that hombre sure don't love me,” the puncher said to Craig, scratching his head in perplexity. “Every once in a while he glares at me as if I was the worst enemy he had on earth. Wonder what he's got against me?”
Craig glanced at him shrewdly.
“That wouldn't be hard to answer a-tall,” he replied. “Before you came, I figure, he didn't have much competition. Now, yo're beatin' his time, and he don't like it none whatever.”
“Beatin' his time?” Robbins was plainly puzzled. “What do yuh mean, anyhow?”
Craig grinned.
“What do I mean? You poor numskull, can't yuh see that Kurtz is crazy about June, and that she don't give two whoops for him? For gosh sakes, use yore head for somethin' more than a knot to keep yore spine from unravelin'!”
Robbins snorted.
“Well, maybe I'm dumb, but I can't see why he should be sore at me just because some girl won't even look at him.”
The disgusted manner in which Craig stared at his friend was eloquent indeed.
“Of all the nitwits, Bill Robbins, yo're the prize winner!” he cried vehemently. “Don't yuh think he's got sense enough to see that yo're in love with June yoreself, that yo're standin' right square in his way?”
The question so amazed the slender cowboy that he dropped one of the bags of gold currency on his toe. Instantly he grabbed the injured member and hopped about on the other foot, his face contorted with pain. Craig looked on, laughingly. Observing this, Robbins put down his foot, though he still limped, and glared.
“Laugh, dang yuh!” he growled. “Go on, show yore ignorance. But say, tell me that again. I dunno whether I heard right or not.”
“I guess yuh heard me, all right,” Craig told him. “I said Kurtz knows yo're in love with June, and that yo're standin' in his way.”
“But what difference does that make?” demanded Robbins. “Understand, I'm not sayin' I am or I'm not in love with June, but even if I was that don't mean she's in love with me. Don't be foolish.”
“Huh!” Craig grunted derisively. “I can see the broad side of a barn when it's shoved before my face. You two are absolutely loco about each other, and everybody on the range knows it but yoreselves. Believe me, cowboy, if I was Kurtz I'd feel just exactly toward yuh as he does!”
“Aw, yo're full of marijuana!” Robbins said tersely, stooping to pick up the sack he had dropped. “Let's get this stuff loaded on our plugs and get out of here before some of the gang shows up. I'm kinda fed up on all this blood-and-thunder business.',
They carried the bags into the brush where they had left their horses, and tied them firmly to the saddle thongs. Returning to the shack, they searched it thoroughly, but found no more “legal tender of the realm.” The bodies of the Davids brothers, Snider and Samuels they left where they had fallen. The horses, likewise, they left, not wanting their progress to be impeded by extra animals should they meet with any more of the T Square riders on the way home.
“Reckon there's no use stayin' any longer,” observed Robbins, looking around the basin. “Whortle or some of his gang will likely drift in here and bury those four gents. If they don't, the buzzards will be on the job, and nobody will make a fuss about it. So let's wend our way homeward, Peter.”
They mounted and rode out of the thicket upon a mesa. Robbins was in the lead, riding silently, his mind seething with conflicting thoughts. That June could care for him, a mere wandering cowboy, he assured himself was absurd. Yet he liked to think there was a possibility, however remote, and he was totally unable to dismiss the subject from his mind.
Had he known it, in a canyon not two miles from where his horse picked its way in and out among mesquite trees and greasewood clumps across the mesa, June Crimins was in the deadliest peril of her life.
[End of chapter]
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