Monday, July 04, 2005
CARRYING her back to his horse despite her furious struggles, Whortle took his lariat from the pommel of his saddle and bound her hands and feet securely. This done, he left her lying upon the ground and rekindled the fire. When he had recovered the running iron he heated it, crudely blotted out the canceled brand, and transformed the newly made “C Bar” into a “Barred 0.” When he had put the finishing touches to it he stepped back and surveyed his handiwork with extreme satisfaction.
“Guess that'll pass,” he informed June, who was watching him with smoldering resentment, head raised upon a rock. “A month from now that blotch will have healed enough so that no one will be able to tell the difference. Then we can have it rounded up with the rest of them and sold. But about that time maybe Crimins won't own the C Bar any longer, and we won't need to rustle C Bar cattle.”
The girl was silent. It would have been useless to make any comment whatsoever, so she only watched him as he untied the cow and drove it away down the canyon. He returned and stood looking down at her, and she gave him stare for stare, fearlessly, undaunted.
“Where's yore horse?” he demanded abruptly.
“I left him up on the mesa. Why?”
“I'm goin' to take you with me to the T Square, that's why, and I thought you'd rather ride than be packed like a sack of flour.”
“I'm not going with you,” she refused flatly.
“Oh, yes, you are! What Mat Whortle wants be usually gets, and anythin' that Bill Robbins wants right now is particularly attractive to me. I'll get yore horse and we'll be goin'.”
She noticed as he strode away that, having her gun, he had neglected to buckle on his cartridge belt. Both his belt and holstered gun were still lying where lie had dropped them at her strident command. Whortle was climbing up the rocky slope of the canyon now, and stealthily she began working at her bonds, striving to loosen them, to reach the gun. The cattleman glanced back and grinned wolfishly at her, then went on up and over the rim out of sight.
No sooner had he disappeared than June recommenced tugging at the ropes that fastened her wrists together. A sudden sound, the rattle of a falling stone, caused her to cease her efforts. She turned her head and smothered the cry of joy that leaped to her ups.
Coming toward her, working his way down the right bank of the canyon slowly, was the C Bar cook, Loco Lang. He was moving with great care directly toward the girl, but much too slowly.
“Hurry, Loco, hurry!” she called in a hoarse whisper. “He'll be back soon! Hurry!”
“I'm comin', Miss June, I'm comin'!” the cook answered, also in a hoarse whisper.
He increased his pace, reached the bed of the canyon, and ran swiftly to her.
“I heard him, Miss June!” he cried softly. “Mister Robbins told me never to leave you out of my sight, so I was followin' you. Been followin' you all mornin'. That Mat Whortle is a bad hombre, that's what he is.”
“I second that, Loco. But we mustn't stay here talking. Untie me. He'll be back as soon as he gets my horse.”
Loco tugged fiercely at the strands of the knot at her wrists. XVhortle had tied them tightly, and it was a difficult task to loosen them. The cook was destined not to succeed in the attempt, for a savage roar of wrath testified that' the T Square owner had returned and seen him.
Loco looked up to see Whortle drop the reins of June's horse and charge down the slope of the canyon toward him. He gave one last tug at the ropes and then scrambled hastily to his feet. His hand sought the gun, ancient and weather-beaten, that reposed in a worn holster on his hip. Loco was not a gunman, but he knew how to shoot, and usually could hit any mark he aimed at. He drew and fired just as Whortle jumped over the last rock in his path and lunged at him.
The bullet from his six-shooter smashed into the cattleman's shoulder, whirling him part way around. He snarled like a trapped coyote and came on again. Loco tried to shoot once more, but Whortle plunged into him, knocking aside the weapon. A blow from a hard, knotted fist crashing against the cook's jaw sent him tumbling to the ground. Whortle kicked the gun from his nerveless fingers and yanked him viciously to his feet.
“Tryin' to butt in on my game, are yuh?” he growled. “I'll show yuh to mind yore own business!”
Smack! Again his fist struck Loco's jaw. The cook stumbled backward and fell to his knees. Whortle launched a kick at him, but quick as a cat Loco seized his foot and twisted it savagely. The rancher howled in pain and jerked free. Loco picked up a rock and heaved it with all his might straight at Whortle's head, then turned and ran up the slope of the canyon. His opponent pursued hotly, crying out wrathfully for the cook to stop and fight like a man.
June, watching with bated breath, saw Loco tug at a boulder and send it rolling downward. Whortle dodged barely in time, and cursed violently. The C Bar cook laughed derisively and threw a stone that struck the cowman on the neck and further angered him.
“Yuh dirty half-witted pup!” roared the rancher. “Wait till I get my hands on you!”
Whortle leaped for him, swung around a boulder, and by a sudden burst of speed caught the now frantic cook by the belt. Loco fought with the fierceness of a wild cat, and by thrusting out his foot managed to trip the irate cattleman. Whortle did not relinquish his hold, however, and they fell to the ground together, rolling to the bottom of the slope in a whirling mass of flailing legs and fists.
There they battled with tooth and nail, with grinding heels and stones. Whortle was by far the heavier man, and the stronger, but Loco's very desperation lent him the strength to fight on. It was inevitable that he be finally beaten, of course, but when he fell at last before a savage jolt to the heart and lay still, his body crying out with exhaustion, Whortle knew that he had been in a real battle. The cattleman's face was cut and scratched; his clothing was torn, his body bruised and sore in every muscle. He breathed with difficulty as he staggered to his feet and glared angrily down at the prone cook.
“Roll rocks down at me, will you?” he snarled. “I'll show you!”
He picked up the rope with which the cow had been tied and quickly bound the man's hands behind him. Then he stood up and glanced about, as if searching for some means of punishing Loco appropriately. His eyes lighted up as he glimpsed a heavy boulder halfway up the bank of the canyon, and the grin that leaped to his lips was that of a demon torturer.
“Whortle!” cried June, fearful for Loco's safety. “What are you going to do? Don't you dare touch that boy!”
“Don't—don't mind me, Miss June,” gasped Loco, smiling wanly at the girl. “He'll get his, don't worry. Mister Robbins has found out a lot of things about him, and he's due to get his most any time now.”
‘“What's that?” Whortle demanded roughly. “What has Bill Robbins found out about me that's so important?” -
“Plenty,” answered the cook rather tauntingly. “You're the one who's been stampeding the C Bar cattle, that's what! Yuh thought you'd hoodwinked everybody, didn't yuh? But yo're not so slick; yo're not so slick!”
Whortle's brow grew dark with rage.
“Anythin' else?” he queried, controlling himself with difficulty. ‘ A
Loco grinned and winked with childish delight at June.
“Loco!” the girl called sharply. “What do you mean? We all know it was a grizzly that frightened dad's stock! Why, we even killed one, Bill and I.”
“Yeah!” The cook nodded vigorously. “Maybe so, but take my word for it, Miss June, Mat Whortle had somethin' to do with it! And what's more”— here he glared with insane hatred at the cattleman— “he's the one who blew up the cave and hurt Larry! Oh, yuh needn't deny it, yuh snake in the grass! Mister Robbins knows it, and a lot more, too!”
The rancher's brow grew darker still.
“Well, you know too much for yore own good!” he blurted. “I'll finish you off, and then I'll tend to Crimins' girl. I've had it all figured out for the past few minutes. Guess we'd better get it over with.”
Leaving the cook and the girl, he climbed up the slope to the boulder his eyes had picked out before. June began to struggle at her bonds once more, realizing that the enraged cattleman meant some harm to Loco. This became increasingly evident, and the method as well, as Whortle commenced digging at the base of the boulder with a sharp-pointed stick he had picked up. He occupied himself several minutes with this, then wedged the stick against the boulder, sharp point in the ground, and continued digging with his fingers. The soil was sandy and fairly loose, and he made good progress.
At last, satisfied with his work, he rose and tested the boulder with a careful hand. It quivered slightly at his push, and he nodded to himself, grinning cynically. Descending to where Loco lay, he lifted the unwilling cook in his arms and carried him laboriously up the bank, depositing him close to the base of the boulder on the downward side. After which he went to June, cut the loose part of the lariat off at her wrists, reclimbed the slope to the boulder, and tied the rope around the stick.
“Now,” he leered wolfishly, “all I have to do is pull on this rope, and one Loco Lang, cook of the C Bar, will quietly pass out of the picture. Nice to think about, isn't it?”
Loco stared at him fearfully. His imagination accurately pictured to him what would happen when that rope was pulled; in fact, elaborated upon it. The stick supporting the boulder would either break roll down upon him, crushing out his life and, worse, in two or be jerked away. Then the boulder would leaving June at Whortle's mercy.
Through his half-crazed brain one thought surmounted all others. The man, who was at least partly still responsible for Larry's injury, for the troubles of the C Bar, intended some harm to one of the few persons who had been good to Loco. He could not put his own danger before hers. She must somehow be delivered out of Whortle's hands, at whatever cost to himself.
Desperately he cast about for some loophole, some means of accomplishing his purpose. Whortle had turned his back, was walking down the slope toward the end of the lariat. His eyes flashed from the rancher to the great boulder, to the stick holding it in place. He could almost reach the stick, so close was it. Could he manage to wriggle aside, to kick the stick loose, he could send the boulder rolling down upon the cattleman before the latter was aware of his peril.
Another glance at Whortle. There was not sufficient time to think of getting himself out of the path of the boulder. Already Whortle had reached the end of the rope, was stooping to pick it up. In an instant he would turn, and the chance would be lost.
With one last look of appeal and tenderness at June, watching him with fearful eyes, he slued himself around. The muscles of his legs contracted; his boots hung poised an instant, then shot out with all the power of his body behind them. Struck fairly in the center, the stick snapped like a twig.
The boulder stirred. For an agonizing moment it hesitated, as if reluctant to move from its bed. Then, with increasing speed, it plunged downward in the direction of Whortle.
[End of chapter]