Sunday, July 03, 2005
JUNE screamed in horror. Though she had not consciously intended it to, the sound somewhat muffled the first scrunchings of the downward-plunging boulder. Whortle, stooping to pick up the end of the lariat, glanced up in puzzled surprise at the girl, but did not straighten. That glance told him some danger threatened him, for the girl was staring past him with widened, terrified eyes. He saw her shudder, saw the lids clamp tightly down as if to shut out some dreadful sight. Then the first rushing sounds of the great rock reached him, drove into his brain.
He whirled, his eyes starting from their sockets. An instant he stood rooted to the spot, his nerve centers numbed to inaction. He tried to run, to leap aside, vaguely visualizing the mangled body of Loco Lang and his own imminent peril. His foot turned on a stone, wrenching his ankle and throwing him to his knees full in the path of the boulder.
Blubbering frantically, fearfully, saliva dripping from his mouth, he threw both hands up in front of him as if to ward off the hand of death. With the speed of an express train, relentlessly, irresistibly, the boulder rushed on, rolling over him, crushing the life from his body in one agonizing fraction of a second. One last horror-filled scream escaped him, then silence fell over the canyon, a silence unbroken save for the continued rush of the boulder and a final crash as it swept across to the opposite side and ended its brief career against another boulder not ten feet from where June lay.
The crash woke the girl from the stupor that had seized her as she realized the enormity of Loco's sacrifice. She struggled furiously, pulling with all her strength at the ropes that bound her wrists, and suddenly found one hand free. The last hasty tug of Loco's fingers as Whortle rushed toward him had loosened the coils of the lariat enough so that it needed only a trifle more effort to release them.
Quickly June untied the bonds at her ankles and got to her feet. Running up the slope of the canyon, she dropped to her knees beside all that was mortal of Loco Lang. The huge boulder had mercifully killed him instantly, crushing in the ribs upon his noble heart. There was nothing she could do for him, and she got up, averting her eyes.
She could not bring herself to look at the mangled form of what had been Mat Whortle. She went on across the canyon again and picked up the .38 revolver Whortle had twitched from her holster. Pointing it into the air, she pulled the trigger three times, waited a few seconds, then repeated the action; the call for help in all the West's outdoors. Then, her overwrought nerves giving way suddenly, she sank to the ground and fainted away.
Pete Craig reined in his horse and listened intently.
“Did you hear that, Bill? Three shots, close together. Seemed to come from the direction of that canyon northeast of us.”
Robbins came out of his thoughtful mood and laughed scoffingly.
“Go on, yo're hearin' things.”
“No, I'm not,” insisted Craig. “It was kinda faint, but—listen, there it is again.”
“By George!” agreed Robbins. “Yo're right. Come on, let's see who's in trouble.”
They clapped the spurs to their mounts and galloped swiftly in the direction the reports had come from. A mile they covered, and a deep canyon opened up before them. Riding along its western rim, they soon came to the crumbling slope where lay the bodies of two men. On the opposite side lay the senseless figure of a girl, and Robbins' heart throbbed painfully as he recognized it as that of June Crimins. Two horses, one the bay mare the girl rode, and the other a heavily built, rawboned animal belonging to Mat Whortle, were cropping grass unconcernedly at one side. Behind the rim of the opposite side of the canyon was another horse, head and inquiring ears only visible.
Urging his horse down the steep, rock-strewn slope, Robbins raced to June and flung himself from the saddle. Bending hastily over the girl, he sighed in relief as he saw she was breathing. Craig dismounted and stood quietly by, watching concernedly.
“Guess she's just fainted,” Robbins told him. “No signs of bein' hurt, anyhow. What do yuh suppose happened? That's Whortle layin' over there, ain't it? Who's the other?”
Craig shook his head.
“I dunno, Bill. Haven't looked at him yet. But June's comin' to. Maybe she'll tell us all about it.”
June's eyes opened and she started in terror, remembering what had occurred. Robbins spoke soothingly to her, and recognizing him, she smiled in relief and in a moment was calm enough to tell what had happened.
“Loco always impressed me as bein' a good scout, even if he was queer,” the puncher said, when she had finished her story. “He certainly did more than a lot of people would. June, if yo're all right now, I wish you'd ride down the canyon a ways and wait for us.”
He helped her mount her horse, and when she. was out of sight around a curve, he and Craig carried Loco's body up to the mesa and covered it with slabs of rock to keep away the buzzards until they could return to bury it more fittingly. This done, Robbins went to the dead cattleman and searched his pockets. Several papers he glanced at briefly and transferred to his own clothes, but the money and trinkets he found he returned. Craig made no comment as he rose.
“Let's go, Pete,” the cowboy said. “We'll leave Whortle where he is—gosh, how he must have felt when he stumbled and couldn't get out of the way of that rock—because the sheriff or the coroner will want to see his body, I suppose. Come on.”
They joined June, and rode back to the C Bar with her, relating what had happened to them on the way. They found her father working around the corral, but not at all cheerful. When his daughter questioned him as to the cause he pulled a letter from his pocket and handed it to her.
“It's from Whortle's lawyer,” he said. “The mortgage is due a week from to-day, he says, and no extension will be allowed. Of course, we haven't enough money to pay it, so that means we lose the C Bar.”
“Not necessarily,” put in Robbins. “Whortle is dead, for one thing, and for another, a lot can happen in a week. Don't let it worry you, Crimins.”
“What's that? Whortle dead?”
“Yeah, and so is Loco. He tried to kill Loco by rollin' a rock down on him, and Loco got him the same way, though he sacrificed himself to do it. Let June tell you all about it. I see the sheriff comin', along with Melvin Kurtz, and I want to talk with them.”
He and Craig left their horses at the water tank and strode to meet the two riders. They met just outside the corral gate. Both Kelson and Kurtz dismounted.
“What's this I hear about you takin' the bank money away from Kurtz after he'd recovered it from the T Square bunch and that crooked bartender, Samuels?” queried the sheriff. “Kurtz thinks yuh intend to keep it and not turn it over to me.”
Robbins glanced at the Big Bear manager, who avoided his gaze.
“I might have expected somethin' like that from him,” he said quietly. “I sorta got the idea that's what he was goin' to do, so as a deputy sheriff I took the dinero to the bosom of the law. Nothin' wrong about that, is there? It's over there in our saddle bags if yuh want it.”
Kelson's brow cleared.
“Well, that's all right, then. Kurtz, I guess maybe you made a mistake.”
“Well, maybe I did,” admitted the ranch manager, though he shot a look of venom at Robbins when he thought the latter was not observing. “Hello, Crimins; how do you do, Miss June?”
Crimins and June had come up, and they acknowledged the greetings of Kurtz and the sheriff with a nod of their heads. Crimins told them of Whortle's death, and both seemed to be somewhat shocked. Kelson declared he would go right out to look at the body and bring it in, and Crimins sent Milt Thompson and Windy Williams to bury Loco on the rim of the valley overlooking the C Bar. Kurtz stayed behind, talking with Crimins, smoking a cigarette, as he did so, which he lighted with a short, stubby match.
“For the last time, no!” Robbins heard the cattleman say to Kurtz. “I appreciate yore offer of help, but I won't sell! I'll meet that mortgage some way, and you can bank on that.”
“Well, all right,” the Big Bear manager answered.
“Just as you say. With Whortle gone and that bear killed, you'll probably have an easier time of it. You've got good blood in your stock, and good land. That mesa north of you can't be beat for grazing.”
He left in a few minutes, saying he guessed he'd catch up with Kelson and ride with him. This decision was reached rather suddenly, and he mounted and hurried away with only perfunctory farewells.
Crimins was somewhat cheered by the news of Whortle's death, though Loco's sacrifice affected him deeply.
“Now that Whortle is out of the way you can take all the time yuh need to get that grizzly,” he said to Robbins. “What have yuh thought about it?”
Robbins considered thoughtfully. June and Craig drew nearer, interested in his plans for ridding the range of the cause of much of the C Bar's misfortune.
“Why, I think it would be a good idea to give the bear another chance to stampede yore cattle, Crimins,” the cowboy said at last. “Suppose we drift two or three hundred head to the mesa and let them bed down near the rocks we killed that other grizzly in. How does that strike you?”
The proposal astounded the cattleman.
“What! And lose another herd over that cliff? I should say not! Why, that's absolutely foolish, Bill! Where'd you get such an idea, anyhow?”
June interrupted hastily. Her woman's intuition recognized something besides an idiotic plan in Robbins' words.
“Don't jump to conclusions, dad,” she said.
“Let Bill tell you his whole scheme. He must have some reason for saying what he did.”
“I have,” the puncher agreed, smiling at the girl. “If we just go huntin' for that grizzly we're liable not to have any better luck than we did before. But supposin' we were to give him another chance to start a stampede and lay out in the darkness somewhere and potted him when he showed up? Do yuh see anythin' wrong with that?”
“Do yuh mean kill the bear at the cost of the cattle?” queried Craig.
“No, of course not. You and Milt and Windy will be at the slope leadin' down into the canyon. When the cattle come tearin' along you'll turn them south and let them leg it down into the valley. That ought not to be so hard. What do yuh think?”
Crimins relaxed, though still a little dubious.
“That's different, Bill. But are yuh sure they can turn the stampede? Couldn't we get the bear before the cattle get goin'? That would fix it so there'd be no slip-up possible.”
Robbins shook his head doubtfully.
“Don't see how you can work that. Even if they don't get scared the first thing when Mr. Grizzly shows us, it won't help their peace of mind any when we suddenly break loose with a lot of shootin'. But I don't think there's any danger of not bein' able to turn the cattle. With a lot of bright lights flashin' in their faces, or maybe a big brush fire stretched across the top of the slope, they'll be just as scared and want to get away from there as they will when they see or scent that ferocious bear.”
“Go on, daddy,” put in June urgingly. “Do what Bill says. It won't hurt anything, and it may do a lot of good.”
“That's what I think,” seconded Craig. “We can turn the cattle easy, as Bill says.”
“Uh-huh. All right, then, Bill, do yore darnedest. I'm with yuh to the last ditch.”
[End of chapter]