Tuesday, July 05, 2005

 

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXX

JUNE'S DISCOVERY

MAT WHORTLE was not an overly intelligent person. Had he been, it is extremely doubtful that he would have continued as he had. Indeed, he would probably have recognized the handwriting on the wall for what it was, and would have summarily left the country for other and more congenial parts. It had long been evident even to him that Bill Robbins was a factor in the range drama not to be lightly ignored; and a factor, too, that would play a prominent part in settling matters.
However, Whortle stubbornly determined to rush madly on, as does a bull on the rampage, endeavoring to the last instant to turn the tide of what he should have known was inevitable disaster, from him. Time was when his code of honor had been fairly high, at least outwardly, but of late the reverses he had received had done much to undermine what was left of it.
While not actually implicated in the robbery of the Del Rio National Bank, he had been cognizant of the plans and expected a share of the proceeds. By the same token, the returns from the sale of rustled cattle would be divided between him and his men, though so far as the thievery of his neighbors' stock was concerned he was directly involved. He had personally led his men on many a foray, and while his activities had primarily to do with ruining the C bar, he did not hesitate when the opportunity to make off with some other ranch's cows presented itself.
Just now, on the morning when Robbins and Craig were witnessing the slaying of Les Davids and his companions at the shack in the basin, he was engaged in heating a running iron in a fire of mesquite and juniper twigs situated in a canyon whose steep slopes were lined with great rocks and boulders awaiting the touch of man or the loosening of wind and rain to roll them to the bottom.
The running iron Whortle was patiently heating was of the common cinch ring variety, and the two sticks which would serve as handles were ready to be inserted in their places when the metal began to flow. At one side stood a heavily built horse, grazing quietly on little bunches of grass growing precariously among the rocks. Some ten feet from the fire lay a fat cow, resigned and quiet save for her heaving sides and hard breathing. The animal's feet were tied together, and she had long since given up her frantic struggles to free herself.
One versed in the ways of the range would immediately have recognized that Whortle was up to some deviltry. For one thing, had his business with the branding iron been an honorable one, and accepted as such, there would have been no marks on the left slope of the canyon showing that he had forcibly dragged the cow from the mesa above so that he would be hidden from the sight of any chance passer-by until his work was finished.
Another thing which would have testified irrevocably that his business was not entirely aboveboard, was the brand on the left hip of the cow. By no means could Whortle have made the mistake of thinking it a T Square. It was as different from his own brand as night from day. It was, in fact, the symbol registered at the state capitol under the name of James Crimins.
Whortle knew, of course, that the cow he had roped and hog tied belonged to the C Bar. His concern was not with its ownership, but with its identity, which he proposed to change in the shortest order possible. Which was all well and good, and from his standpoint, a laudable ambition, but another person had entirely different ideas on the subject.
This person was none other than June Crimins, out for a morning's ride and for anything else that might prove interesting. It chanced that from an adjoining mesa she had seen a horseman in hot pursuit of a high-tailed, swift-running cow, and her woman~ s curiosity and a knowledge of the activities of the rustlers had prompted her to investigate.
So, riding cautiously forward in order not to reveal her presence, she dismounted a few yards from the rim of the canyon and, taking a rifle from a saddle scabbard, went silently to the top of the slope down which she had seen the rider disappear with his unwilling captive. She was somewhat surprised to discover in the man she saw there the owner of the T Square, but the more she thought about it the more her astonishment decreased.
From where she lay, screened by a tiny~ clump of greasewood, she could not make out the brand on the hip of the cow, but her surmise that the animal did not belong to Whortle was instinctive. She had arrived just at the moment Whortle took the running iron from the fire. She saw him approach the cow, kneel beside it, and draw the glowing iron ring over the hide on the animal's hip. Smoke arose, accompanied by the moan of pain the cow emitted.
June waited for no more. Rising hastily to her feet, rifle trained on the kneeling figure, she called out stridently:
“Drop that iron! Up with your hands! Quick!”
The iron fell from Whortle's startled fingers full upon the hip of the cow, where it lay until an agonized twitching caused it to roll to the ground. The cattleman heaved himself to his feet, right hand reaching toward the gun at his hip. The muzzle of June's rifle did not waver a hair. Whortle's hand stopped. He cursed viciously, then his hands raised slowly above his head. Careful not to relax her vigilance for even the smallest fraction of a second, June worked her way down the slope, stepping cautiously among the rocks, until she reached the bed of the canyon. There she stopped and faced Whortle with accusing eyes.
“Rustling, are you?” she demanded. “Back away ten paces. Now unbuckle your belt with your left hand and drop it to the ground.”

Whortle complied sullenly. Had it been any other woman, it is probable that he would have taken. a chance and endeavored to draw his gun and be first on the trigger. However, he was well acquainted with the quality of June's marksmanship, and knew better than to force the issue.
“Well, what are yuh goin' to do?” he asked gruffly, as the girl walked up to the cow and glanced swiftly at the burned brand.
“That depends,” she answered enigmatically. “You're quite an artist with a running iron, aren't you? I take it that you're gathering another herd of ‘Barred 0' cattle to sell in Morgan City, eh?”
Whortle looked down at the brand. He had just managed to close the C into an 0 when June interrupted him, and the bar still reached only to the center.
“What do you know about the Barred 0?” he queried. “What makes you think that was what I was doin'?”
She laughed shortly.
“I know all about the herd of C Bar stock you and your men changed to Barred 0 and tried to sell to a cattle buyer in Morgan City with two hundred Big Bear cows you also stole. Bill Robbins told me all about it.”
Whortle's face flushed angrily.
“Robbins!” he blurted. “There's a gent I'm goin' to reckon with if it takes me till doomsday! He's interfered in my business long enough; too long to suit me! You bet he's got me to reckon with!”
June laughed again, contemptuously.
“I wouldn't plan too much on that if I were you, Whortle,” she advised. “So far you haven't had much success trying to get him out of your way. I should think you'd begin to use your head a little bit and leave him alone. In the long run it might be healthier.”
“Bosh!” Whortle grunted disdainfully. “He's not such a much. The way you talk a fella'd think be was a little tin god on wheels.”
“The way he acts, anybody but a fool would take warning and be careful what they said and did when he was around!” retorted June. “He's a very capable man, I think.
“But to answer your question more definitely about what I am going to do now: First, you're going to cancel the brand on this cow and replace the C Bar. I don't suppose it will do any good to keep the cow as evidence, since we have any number of ‘Barred 0's' that will serve, so you cancel the brand and we'll turn her loose.”
Whortle did not want to obey, but June had the upper hand and there was nothing else he could do. The girl stepped backward out of his reach as he came forward, picked up the cinch ring, and tested its beat with a wet finger. The iron had cooled to the point where it would no longer sear the hide, and at. June's direction the cattleman shoved it once more into the coals of the tiny fire and waited until it glowed redly again. Then he knelt beside the cow, canceled the brand in approved range fashion, and made a new “C Bar” above it.
June incautiously stepped forward to ascertain whether or not the work was satisfactory, and nodded.
“That's all right. It's a good thing you hadn't changed the earmarks yet, or you'd have a harder job.”
“Uh-huh,” Whortle agreed disarmingly. “You must've seen me catch the critter to get here so quick.”
He rose with studied casualness to his feet. June started to answer, when suddenly he threw the hot running iron directly at her face. Instinctively she leaped aside, face blanching as the ring shot past, missing her skin by a scant fraction of an inch. In the instant that she was off balance, Whortle flung himself over the prone cow with a bellow of triumph. June tried desperately to recover, to swing the muzzle of her rifle to bear upon him, but she was too late. Her finger found the trigger, and pulled it just as he reached her, but the bullet only sped harmlessly out into space.
The rancher's hairy hands caught her wrists in a crushing grip, tearing the rifle from her and throwing it up the slope into the rocks.
“Weren't quite as smart as yuh thought yuh were,” he leered at her. “Now we'll see who does the orderin'. I'll change that brand back first, then I have some very pleasant news for you, young lady. I know that Bill Robbins, damn him! is in love with you, but he may change his mind.”
There was no fear in the girl's eyes as she stared into his. Threats alone could not intimidate her.
“You won't dare touch me!” she defied him. “You know as well as I do that you can't get away with anything like that in the West. Why, the whole range would call you to account!”
Whortle sneered and twitched the .38 from the holster at her side.
“A lot I care for what anybody thinks! Come on over here while I get my rope. I've never had the pleasure of hog tyin' a girl before.”
He dragged her toward his horse. Just as they reached it she broke loose from his grasp and sped like a doe down the canyon. He was after her immediately, however, and overtook her before she had gone more than a hundred yards. As he caught her, she turned and fought him fiercely, knocking his sombrero from his head and slapping him repeatedly. He only laughed throatily and pinioned her arms to her sides.
[End of chapter]
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