Saturday, July 09, 2005

 

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVI

THE MASKED VISITOR

YORE signature?” Robbins inquired. He had to I repeat the question, for Kurtz was absorbed in thought and apparently did not hear him.
“My signature?” he frowned. “Of course not! It's a forgery, pure and simple. The nerve of them! Kelson, who are these witnesses, Grantham and Snider?”
Kelson grinned.
“Whortle's men. Grantham's dead, Robbins says, and we don't know where Snider is right now. If we did—well, he'd never rustle another cow or kill another man
Some quality in the officer's tones caused Kurtz to glance inquiringly at him. Hate, and the lust to kill, shone naked in Kelson's eyes, and the manager shuddered as he realized that for some reason unknown to him, the sheriff had marked Snider for death.
“What did he do?”
“Snider is the rustler I sent back from Morgan City in George Burns' care,” Robbins informed him.
A great light broke over Kurtz.
“Oh! Then it was Snider who killed Burns?”
“As far as we know. Kelson says Burns has no relatives, and as the only friend he had, it's up to him to see that Snider gets what he deserves. If I was Snider, I'd hit for the tall timber quick.”
“And so would I. By the way, will you let me have this bill of sale? If it comes to a court case, I'll need it to prove a forgery.”
“Sorry, Kurtz, but I can't let you have it now. I need it myself. I'll promise you this, though. If it does come to that I'll let you have it then.”
“But you might lose it,” protested Kurtz. “Then where would I be for evidence against Snider?”
“I can't help that,” Robbins said curtly, reaching out and taking the paper from Kurtz's fingers. “You needn't worry about my losin' it, though. I can take care of it all right, and if yuh ever want to use it, why it's all right with me. But until you do, I'll take care of it.”
He shoved the paper in a pocket of his vest, and suddenly glanced up. So unexpectedly did he do this that he surprised a look of sullen viciousness on the manager's face. Kurtz changed his expression immediately, but Robbins had seen and wondered. He said nothing, however, nor did he appear to take any notice of the incident. Turning to Kelson, he smiled and nodded cheerily.
“Guess we won't be of any more use to-night, sheriff, so we'll be runnin' along. We're goin' to stop at the hotel to-night, and if yuh want us, just send us word. Good night. Good night, Kurtz.”
The manager of the Big Bear said good night in a friendly manner, and if Robbins had not seen the look on the man's face a moment before he might have been fooled into the belief that Kurtz bore no ill will toward him.
Unsaddling their horses, they left them in the sheriff's corral, and went to the hotel, where they got a room for the night. The hotel was only half a block from the sheriff's office, between the post office and the stage station. The room the two friends secured was on the second floor, fronting on the street. Just below the windows was the roof of the porch.
The room itself was not large, and the walls were not very thick. Both walls and ceiling had known better days, for now they were devoid of per in spots, and were plentifully scarred and pitted with bullet holes. There was only one bed, a double one, constructed of wood and quite plainly a most ancient piece of furniture. A washstand with a bowl and pitcher, two unpainted, wire-bound chairs that could not possibly have held a person of more than average weight, a dresser with the mirror cracked and a drawer missing, and a table, upon which perched a battered brass kerosene lamp, completed the room's furnishings.
“I'm all out of tobacco,” said Craig, when the landlord had lighted the lamp and left them. “Reckon I'll run down to a saloon and get some.”
“Get me some, too,” instructed Robbins, drawing off one of his boots laboriously. “Ho-hum! Gosh, but I'm tired. These sure are hectic times we're havin', partner. I'm more tickled than a boy with a new top over the prospect of havin' one night's sleep in peace.”
Craig laughed and went out. Humming to himself, Robbins continued preparing for bed. He had pulled off his other boot, unbuckled his cartridge belt and hung it on a nail at the head of the bed, and had sat down by the table when footsteps sounded in the hail outside.
Thinking it was Craig returning, he paid no attention at first, but unbuttoned his shirt and started to pull his shirt over his head. The footsteps stopped when they reached his door, and despite his sleepiness, this alone served to put him instantly on the alert. As he had said, the times had indeed been hectic, and so, when the door was suddenly flung open and the dark figure of a man loomed in the aperture, he acted instinctively.
Robbins instantly blew the light out, plunging the room into a darkness through which the roar of a revolver and the stabbing of an orange flame cut viciously. At the same time he shoved himself backward over his chair, and then scrambled to his hands and knees.
Blam! The revolver crashed again, the bullet smashing into the wreck of the chair Robbins had just vacated. The puncher guessed that his unknown assailant was still in the doorway. He had had only the barest glimpse of him, but enough to know that the fellow wore overalls and a mask made of some black material.
Robbins was unarmed, and at some disadvantage. His own revolver was in its holster at the head of the bed; the derringer he had taken from Tom Snider in the Morgan City loading corral was in the pocket of his vest, which a moment ago had been hanging on the back of the chair. Now it was somewhere on the floor, but it might just as well have been on some South Sea island, for all the good it was then.
Rising cautiously to his feet, careful not to be silhouetted against any of the windows, Robbins launched himself at the man in the doorway with a sudden rush. The revolver flashed once more, the flame of the explosion narrowly missing the cowboy's temple. His shoulder struck a moving body, and he grappled it desperately, pinioning his opponent's gun hand to his side. The man strove mightily to turn the muzzle of the weapon so that it pointed at Rob-bins; but the puncher resisted successfully, so that when the gun went off the bullet merely tore through his clothes without touching the skin.
Both men were fighting silently, savagely. Robbins had his man around the waist and was trying to lift him off his feet and throw him to the floor. Reeling backward, panting heavily, they stumbled around the room, Robbins desperately endeavoring to gain possession of the gun, the other to retain it.
Once they tripped over the wreck of the chair, and further demolished it. Robbins let go the man with one hand, and felt about on the floor, grabbing up a leg of the chair. With this he struck violently out in the darkness, but his adversary rolled over, throwing him off, and staggered to his feet.
He had no chance to use his gun, however, for Robbins was up as quickly as he, and lashing out with the chair leg, struck the weapon and wrenched it from the other's hand. The man swore painfully, then lurched forward, flinging his arms around Robbins and twisting the leg from his grasp. Robbins immediately countered by driving his head under the fellow's chin, producing a gasp of pain.
Arms flung about each other in a desperate attempt to prevent any blows being delivered, the two struggled around the room, lurching, staggering, stamping. More than once Robbins' stockinged feet were trod upon by his opponent, but he gritted his teeth and hung on. As if by mutual consent, they broke loose at last and stepped back, lashing out straight from the shoulder with hard knuckles and flying fists that hurt terrifically whenever they landed.
With the exception of exclamations of rage and pain, the erstwhile assassin had not spoken from the beginning. Robbins, too, had not spoken, being much too busy to waste his breath.
The slugging match ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Neither man had any desire to stand up and be hammered into insensibility, so it was not long before they had come to grips again and were earnestly endeavoring to wrench each other's arms from their sockets or break a neck.
Round and round they fought, eventually falling across the ancient bed and reducing it to a shapeless mass of splintered wood and torn bedclothing. Rolling off onto the floor, they twisted and shoved and dragged each other through a pool of oil from the battered lamp which had been dashed to the floor, snarling and scratching like two lobo wolves.
Sometimes Robbins was on top; at other times he was underneath and battling insanely to keep his antagonist's fingers from his throat. What would have been the end of the battle is uncertain, had not, just at this moment, there come the sounds of running feet and muffled voices in the hall outside.
The masked intruder jerked and tore and wriggled free of Robbins' grasp, and heaved himself to his feet. The cowboy sensed his intention to escape, and hurled himself upon the man again. But his efforts were in vain. A hard fist connected forcefully with his jaw, a lucky blow upon the visitor's part, and sent him tumbling over the ruined bed to the floor. His head struck the wall violently, dazing him.
Seizing the opportunity, the intruder dashed to a window, threw it up with one swift motion, and scrambled out upon the porch roof. He jumped to the ground just as Craig burst through the door of the room, followed by several other men, including the landlord. The latter held a lamp in his hand, and its rays lighted up the sadly wrecked furniture, the supine form of Robbins.
The puncher sat up as Craig ran anxiously to him, and felt of a bump on the back of his head.
“I'm all right, Pete,” he grinned ruefully. “Got an awful bump on the cranium. Did yuh see him?”
“Who?”
Some gent came up just after you went downstairs. I thought it was you comin' back, so I didn't pay much attention. Whoever it was threw open the door with a bang. I knocked the lamp off the table and he took a shot at me. All I saw was a black mask and a pair of overalls in the doorway.
“I grabbed him before he could actually hit me, though he shot two or three times, and we fought all over the room.”
Craig helped him to his feet and surveyed the room.
“It certainly looks it,” he laughed. “If anybody didn t really know what had happened, they'd think a cyclone had struck the place. Where'd he go, out the window?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Soon as he heard you and those gents,” indicating the men in the door with a nod of his head, “he decides he'd better go while the goin' was good. He slams me on the jaw, or else I run onto his fist in the dark, and knocks me against the wall.
“I was pretty dazed, but I remember hearin' him put up the window and jump off the porch roof. Then, seems to me, a horse started runnin' somewhere.”The landlord bobbed his head vigorously.“Uh-huh, I heard it. Ran like the dickens down the street, headed north out of town. Didn't see who it was, though.”
“Well, it don't matter, I guess. Just some fella that didn't like me. Likely got too much redeye and decided to wipe me out. You folks toddle along, if yuh don't mind, and we'll see if we can't catch up on our sleep. Reckon we can spread the mattress on the floor, can't we, Pete?“
“Sure,” answered the slender puncher. “Many's the time I wished I'd had that much between me and the soft side of a plank. Good night, gents. Thanks for lookin' in on my pard. Whoever wanted to play with him is probably a mile away by this time, so we're gonna turn in. Yuh might leave that lamp with us, landlord.”
[End of chapter]
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