Sunday, July 31, 2005

 

_Stampede Range_ by my father, a full-length Western novel

Beginning J. R. Johnston's 1929 34-chapter Western mystery novel, _Stampede Range_, unabridged. Copies of the original hardback, published by Chelsea House, can sometimes be found on www.alibris.com. (The pseudonym is that of my father, Gerald R. Johnston. He used it also in the nearly 400 short stories -- Western, detective, etc. -- of his published 1924-34. They appeared in many of the then-numerous pulp fiction magazines and digests before they largely disappeared as the Depression deepened.)

CHAPTER I

THE CANYON

MAN and horse had come far. Both were weary and travel worn, and their heads drooped drowsily. Both were obviously products of the cattle country, lean and lithe. Slung low on the black chaps the man wore, barely discernible in the waning daylight, was a black holster containing a black-handled revolver. The sombrero, gray with dust, gave a suggestion of being gray in texture also.
Singularly enough, the headgear was the only redeeming feature of the rider's garb. His shirt was black, as were his boots and the silken kerchief about his neck. Even the saddle and bridle were of the same somber hue, while, to complete the ensemble, the name “Blacky” admirably fitted the horse.
Until they got to know him, people were apt to be greatly deceived by the man's funereal appearance, for Bill Robbins' character was not at all in keeping with his costume. He was young, impressionable, and filled with the pure joy of living.
From the top of a ridge several miles back, Robbins had glimpsed the lights springing up in the valley below, where lay Del Rio, his destination. He sighed sleepily and patted his horse's neck encouragingly.
“Just a few miles more, partner. Then a flock of oats and some hay for you, and a real, sureenough bed for me. C'mon, slowpoke. The quicker we gets to where we're goin' the quicker we gets somethin' to eat and a place to slumber. Me—I'm so tired I could sleep a week.”
Somewhere in the distance behind him sounded a low, sinister rumble.
Robbins yawned wearily and slumped down in the saddle, eyes closed. Soon he was dozing, leaving Blacky to pick his own way among the boulders that were scattered in profusion along the bed of the canyon in which they were traveling.
Suddenly Robbins awoke with a start. The sinister rumble had grown in volume, and seemed much closer. It resembled thunder, but its nature was prolonged, continuous, and totally unlike any burst of thunder he had ever heard. He picked up his reins and turned Blacky about, riding toward a sharp curve in the canyon.
On each side of him the rock walls rose sheer and unbroken. So drowsy was he that Robbins did not realize his danger until he had reached the curve and swung around it. Then, with startling abruptness, a maddened herd of cattle swept down upon him. The daylight had faded into darkness, and the beeves were terrifyingly close before he saw them. It was only the quickness of his well-trained range horse that saved him from being trampled to death at the very beginning. As the leaders of the stampede lunged forward, wild-eyed and snorting, Blacky whirled so swiftly that Robbins was almost unseated, and sped back down the canyon.
Now fully awake to his peril, the rider bent low over the saddle horn and urged the animal on with pleading voice and quirt. He knew too well what would happen if those longhorned, frightened cattle, of whom he had caught only a dim glimpse, should overtake them. He could plainly hear their laboring breaths a few scant yards behind him, the sharp click of hoofs on rock ledges, and the hundred-and-one other herd noises.
On Blacky raced, never outdistancing the stampeding cattle, but sometimes losing ground. As he rode, Robbins edged the horse over to the right wall of the canyon, hoping to find a break in the rocks which he could enter and escape. His hope was in vain, for the cliffs seemed to rise steeper and steeper and more forbidding with each agonized stride of the weary horse. The floor of the canyon had given way to deep sand now, and the maddened pace slowed accordingly.
A mile, two miles, they traveled, and under him Robbins felt Blacky weakening. Once the stout-hearted horse stumbled, and the rider's heart was in his throat for fear he would not recover his stride. Again, the animal lost ground foot by foot as the sand sapped his strength. The tip of a steer's horn raked his flank, urging him into a terrorized burst of speed, but Robbins knew that unless he soon discovered a break in the frowning walls, or some ledge where he could scramble up out of the way of the stampede, both he and Blacky were as good as dead.
The moon came out from behind a bank of clouds, a thin silver crescent whose light was faint, but enough to show, behind the fugitive, a sea of tossing horns. It showed something else, too, something that brought a cry of horror to Robbins' set lips.
No more than a hundred yards ahead of him was a sheer drop where the torrents of water after every rain, unable to wear away the hard rock ledge that cut across the canyon bed, cascaded in a sixty-foot fall to a lower level. The rider gasped, instantly realizing this new danger. Possibly his horse, despite his weariness, might have been able to outdistance the raging herd at his heels, but now, with the cattle blocking the entire canyon behind him, it seemed inevitable that he and his master would be swept to their deaths over the falls. After them, of course, would come a living torrent of beeves, pushed relentlessly on by those farther to the rear, and they would be piled deep in a huge mound of torn and bleeding flesh.
Again and again Robbins glanced ahead, searching for some nook, some niche into which he might plunge and save himself. Blacky was doomed, that was appallingly obvious, because of his greater bulk and inability to take advantage of any crevice or depression into which a man might crowd. Robbins reluctantly decided that he must think only of himself.
With each trembling stride the laboring horse carried him nearer and nearer to the falls, driven onward by the greater fear of the sullen rumble and maddened bellowing behind him. And with each stride, too, the high walls on each side, like evil monsters conspiring together to accomplish the destruction of man and beasts, came closer and closer, to form a vast hopper for the culminating act of the tragedy.
A hundred feet, seventy-five, and the rider's eyes widened suddenly. He had seen something that spelled life to him, a scrubby tree growing precariously out of a crack in the rocks at the height of his head. But it was on the opposite side of the canyon, and to reach it he must cut diagonally across the forefront of the stampede, losing the few precious feet between himself and the threatening horns. It was his only chance for escape, however.
His spurs sank into Blacky's flanks; the quirt rose and fell vigorously as he turned the horse and raced toward the tree. The animal responded nobly in a last desperate burst of speed that kept him not more than twelve inches from the trampling hoofs.
Kicking his feet clear of the stirrups, Robbins dropped the reins and reached swiftly upward. His hands grasped the tree and with one movement he pulled himself out of the saddle upon it.
He heard the scrubby growth creak ominously and felt it sway under his sudden weight. In one short glance he saw his horse slide to a halt on the very brink of the precipice, try to turn; saw it swept over the edge by the leaders of the bawling, terrorized herd. He shut his eyes from the terrible sight, but he could not shut out the sounds that came to him from the bottom of the cliff; sounds of broken bodies scrunching together; agonized, almost human screams from Blacky, and the moaning of pain-racked, bleeding cattle.
Under him, when he opened his eyes again, he could see the surging forms of the remainder of the frightened beeves, all following blindly in the wake of their leaders. At the edge of the falls they strove frantically to halt, to turn aside, only to be pushed and shoved over into the abyss, unable to stop their mad pace.
“Good Lord!” Robbins breathed in awe. “What a horrible sight! That sure was a narrow escape for yours truly!”
He shifted his weight slightly. At the base of the tree sounded a warning crack. Then, with a loud report, it snapped off at the roots and precipitated him upon the backs of the steers in the rear of the herd! He bounced between two of them and fell to the ground. A sharp hoof slashed his shoulder; another struck him on the head, and blackness overwhelmed him.
[End of chapter]
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