A Gent From Bear Creek (Novella)/Chapter VIII
MY RETURN to War Paint with Badger Chisom was plumb uneventful. He was awful nervous all the way and every time I spoke to him he jumped and ducked like he expected to be shot at, and he hove a distinct sigh of relief when the sheriff taken charge of him. He said something like, "Safe at last, thank God!" and seemed in a sweat to get into a good, strong cell. Criminals is pecooliar people.
Well, to my surprise I found that I had become a kind of personage in War Paint account of shooting Chisom's pards and bringing him in. It warn't a narrer-minded town at all, like the folks over to Chawed Ear had led me to believe. Things was free and easy, big gambling games running all the time, bars open all day and all night, and pistols popping every hour of the day. They had a sheriff but he was a sensible man which didn't interfere with the business of honest citizens. He 'lowed it was his job to see that the town warn't overrun by thieving, murdering outlaws, not to go butting into folks' affairs. He told me that if I had occasion to shoot another gent he'd take it as a personal favor if I'd be careful not to hit no innercent bystander by mistake, and when I said I would, he said I was a credit to the community, and we had a drink.
I was about half scairt to go see Dolly Rixby, but I screwed up my courage by thinking of what Glory McGraw would say if I didn't get me a gal soon, and called on her. She warn't as peeved as I thought, though she did say: "Well, yo're a mite late, ain't you? About two days, I believe! But better late than never, I reckon."
She was broad-minded enough to understand my position, and we got along fine. Well, we did after I persuaded them young bucks which was mooning around her that I wasn't going to stand for no claim-jumping. I had to be kind of subtle about this, because it always made Dolly mad for me to disable any of her admirers. She liked me, but she also seemed to like a lot of other fellers, especially young Blink Wiltshaw, which was a good-looking young miner. Sometimes I wondered whether Dolly's interest in me was really for myself, or on account of the glory which was reflected onto her by me calling on her regular. Because by this time I'd made quite a name for myself around over the country, jest like I told Glory McGraw I would. But it didn't make much difference to me, as long as Dolly let me spark her, and I figgered that in a little time more I'd have her roped and hawg-tied and branded, and I drempt of the day when I'd take her back to Bear Creek and interjuice her to everybody as my wife. I plumb gloated over how Glory McGraw'd look then, and got to feeling kind of sorry for her, and decided I wouldn't rub it in on her too raw. I'd jest be dignified and tolerant, as become a man of my importance.
And then my money give out. Things had run remarkable smooth since I come back to War Paint, and my luck had suited it. The first night I was there I sot into a poker game in The Rebel Captain saloon with ten dollars and run it up to five hundred before I riz--more money than I'd ever knowed they was in the world. I had a remarkable run of luck at gambling for maybe three weeks, and lived high, wide and handsome, and spent money on Dolly right and left. Then my streak broke, and the first thing I knowed, I was busted.
Well, it taken money to live in a fast-stepping town like War Paint, and go with a gal like Dolly Rixby, so I cast about for something to do to get me some dough. About the time I was about ready to start working somebody's claim for day-wages, I got wind of a big jamboree which was going to be staged in Yavapai, a cowcountry town about a hundred miles north of War Paint. They was going to be hoss- races and roping and bull-dogging and I seen where it was a good chance to pick up me some easy prize money. I knowed, of course, that all them young bucks which I'd cut out could be counted on to start shining up to Dolly the minute my back was turnt, but I didn't look for no serious competition from them, and Blink Wiltshaw had pulled out for Teton Gulch a week before. I figgered he'd decided I was too much for him.
So I went and told Dolly that I was heading for Yavapai, and urged her not to pine away in my absence, because I'd be back before many days with plenty of dough. She 'lowed she could bear up under it till I got back, so I kissed her heartily, and sallied forth into the starlit evening where I got a onpleasant surprise. I run into Blink Wiltshaw jest coming up onto the stoop. I was so overcome by irritation that I started to sweep the street with him, when Dolly come out and stopped me and made us shake hands. Blink swore that he was going back to Teton Gulch next morning, and had jest stopped by to say hello, so I was mollified and pulled out for Yavapai without no more delay.
Well, a couple of days later I pulled into Yavapai, which was plumb full of wild cowboys and drunk Injuns, and everybody was full of licker and rambunctiousness, so it taken 'em a whole day to get things into shape enough and everybody sober enough to get the races started. I started entering Cap'n Kidd in every race that was run, me riding him, of course, and he won the first three races, one after another, and everybody cussed something terrible, and then the jedges said they'd have to bar me from entering any more races. So I said all right I will now lick the jedges and they turnt pale and gimme fifty dollars to agree not to run Cap'n Kidd in any more of their races.
What with that, and the prizes, and betting on Cap'n Kidd myself, I had about a thousand dollars, so I decided I wouldn't stay for the roping and bull-dogging contests next day, but would hustle back to War Paint. I'd been gone three days and was beginning to worry about them young bucks which was sweet on Dolly. I warn't scairt of 'em, but they warn't no use givin' 'em too much chance.
But I thought I'd have a little hand of poker before I pulled out, and that was a mistake. My luck warn't holding. When I ariz at midnight I had exactly five dollars in my pants. But I thinks, to hell with it; I ain't going to stay away from Dolly no longer. Blink Wiltshaw might not have went back to Teton Gulch after all. They is plenty of dough in the world, but not many gals like Dolly.
So I headed back for War Paint without waiting for morning. After all, I was five bucks to the good, and by playing clost to my shirt I might run them up to several hundred, when I got back amongst men whose style of play I knowed.
About the middle of the next morning I run head-on into a snag on the path of progress in the shape of Tunk Willoughby.
And right here lemme say that I'm sick and tired of these lies which is being circulated about me terrorizing the town of Grizzly Claw. They is always more'n one side to anything. These folks which is going around telling about me knocking the mayor of Grizzly Claw down a flight of steps with a kitchen stove ain't yet added that the mayor was trying to blast me with a sawed-off shotgun. If I was a hot-headed man like some I know, I could easy lose my temper over them there slanders, but being shy and retiring by nature, I keeps my dignity and merely remarks that these gossipers is blamed liars which I'll kick the ears off of if I catch 'em.
I didn't have no intention whatever of going to Grizzly Claw, in the first place. It lay a way off my road.
But as I passed the place where the trail from Grizzly Claw comes into the road that runs from War Paint to Yavapai, I seen Tunk Willoughby setting on a log in the fork of the trails. I knowed him at War Paint. Tunk ain't got no more sense'n the law allows anyway, and now he looked plumb discouraged. He had a mangled ear, a couple of black eyes, and a lump onto his head so big his hat wouldn't fit. From time to time he spit out a tooth.
I pulled up Cap'n Kidd and said: "What kind of a brawl have you been into?"
"I been to Grizzly Claw," he said, jest like that explained it. But I didn't get the drift, because I hadn't never been to Grizzly Claw.
"That's the meanest town in these mountains," he says. "They ain't got no real law there, but they got a feller which claims to be a officer, and if you so much as spit, he says you busted a law and has got to pay a fine. If you puts up a holler, the citizens comes to his assistance. You see what happened to me. I never found out jest what law I was supposed to have broke," Tunk said, "but it must of been one they was particular fond of. I give 'em a good fight as long as they confined theirselves to rocks and gun butts, but when they interjuiced fence rails and wagon-tongues into the fray, I give up the ghost."
"What you go there for, anyhow?" I ast.
"Well," he said, mopping off some dried blood, "I was lookin' for you. Three days ago I met yore cousin Jack Gordon, and he told me somethin' to tell you."
Him showing no signs of going on, I says: "Well, what was it?"
"I cain't remember," he said. "That lammin' they give me in Grizzly Claw has plumb addled my brains. Jack told me to tell you to keep a sharp look-out for somebody, but I cain't remember who, or why. But somebody had did somethin' awful to somebody on Bear Creek--seems like it was yore Uncle Jeppard Grimes."
"But what did you go to Grizzly Claw for?" I demanded. "I warn't there."
"I dunno," he said. "Seems like the feller which Jack wanted you to git was from Grizzly Claw, or was supposed to go there, or somethin'."
"A great help you be!" I said in disgust. "Here somebody has went and wronged one of my kinfolks, maybe, and you forgits the details. Try to remember the name of the feller, anyway. If I knew who he was, I could lay him out, and then find out what he done later on. Think, cain't you?"
"Did you ever have a wagon-tongue busted over yore head?" he said. "I tell you, it's jest right recent that I remembered my own name. It was all I could do to rekernize you jest now. If you'll come back in a couple of days, maybe by then I'll remember what all Jack told me."
I give a snort of disgust and turned off the road and headed up the trail for Grizzly Claw. I thought maybe I could learn something there. Anyway, it was up to me to try. Us Bear Creek folks may fight amongst ourselves, but we stands for no stranger to impose on anyone of us. Uncle Jeppard was about as old as the Humbolt Mountains, and he'd fit Injuns for a living in his younger days. He was still a tough old knot. Anybody that could do him a wrong and get away with it sure wasn't no ordinary man, so it warn't no wonder that word had been sent out for me to get on his trail. And now I hadn't no idee who to look for, or why, jest because of Tunk Willoughby's weak skull. I despise these here egg-headed weaklings.
I arrove in Grizzly Claw late in the afternoon and went first to the wagon-yard and seen that Cap'n Kidd was put in a good stall and fed proper, and warned the feller there to keep away from him if he didn't want his brains kicked out. Cap'n Kidd has got a disposition like a shark and he don't like strangers. There was only five other hosses in the wagon-yard, besides me and Cap'n Kidd--a pinto, a bay, a piebald, and a couple of pack-hosses.
I then went back into the business part of the village, which was one dusty street with stores and saloons on each side, and I didn't pay much attention to the town, because I was trying to figger out how I could go about trying to find out what I wanted to know, and couldn't think of no questions to ask nobody about nothing.
Well, I was approaching a saloon called the Apache Queen, and was looking at the ground in meditation, when I seen a silver dollar laying in the dust clost to a hitching rack. I immejitly stooped down and picked it up, not noticing how clost it was to the hind laigs of a mean-looking mule. When I stooped over he hauled off and kicked me in the head. Then he let out a awful bray and commenced jumping around holding up his hind hoof, and some men come running out of the saloon, and one of 'em hollered: "He's tryin' to kill my mule! Call the law!"
Quite a crowd gathered and the feller which owned the mule hollered like a catamount. He was a mean-looking cuss with mournful whiskers and a cock-eye. He yelled like somebody was stabbing him, and I couldn't get in a word aidge-ways. Then a feller with a long skmny neck and two guns come up and said: "I'm the sheriff. What's goin' on here? Who is this giant? What's he did?"
The whiskered cuss hollered: "He kicked hisself in the head with my mule and crippled the pore critter for life! I demands my rights! He's got to pay me three hundred and fifty dollars for my mule!"
"Aw, heck," I said, "that mule ain't hurt none; his laig's jest kinda numbed. Anyway, I ain't got but six bucks, and whoever gets them will take 'em offa my dead corpse." I then hitched my six-shooters for'ards, and the crowd kinda fell away.
"I demands that you 'rest him!" howled Drooping-whiskers. "He tried to 'ssassinate my mule!"
"You ain't got no star," I told the feller which said he was the law. "You ain't goin' to arrest me."
"Does you dast resist arrest?" he says, fidgeting with his belt.
"Who said anything about resistin' arrest?" I retorted. "All I aim to do is see how far yore neck will stretch before it breaks."
"Don't you dast lay hands onto a officer of the law!" he squawked, backing away in a hurry.
I was tired of talking, and thirsty, so I merely give a snort and turned away through the crowd towards a saloon pushing 'em right and left out of my way. I seen 'em gang up in the street behind me, talking low and mean, but I give no heed.
They warn't nobody in the saloon except the barman and a gangling cowpuncher which had draped hisself over the bar. I ordered whisky, and when I had drunk a few fingers of the rottenest muck I believe I ever tasted, I give it up in disgust and throwed the dollar on the bar which I had found, and was starting out when the bartender hollered: "Hey!"
I turned around and said courteously: "Don't you yell at me like that, you bat-eared buzzard! What you want?"
"This here dollar ain't no good!" says he, banging it on the bar.
"Well, neither is yore whisky!" I snarled, because I was getting mad. "So that makes us even!"
I am a long-suffering man, but it looked like everybody in Grizzly Claw was out to gyp the stranger in their midst.
"You cain't run no blazer over me!" he hollered. "You gimme a real dollar, or else--"
He ducked down behind the bar and come up with a shotgun so I taken it away from him and bent the barrel double acrost my knee and throwed it after him as he run out the back door hollering help, murder.
The cowpuncher had picked up the dollar and bit on it, and then he looked at me very sharp, and said: "Where did you get this?"
"I found it, if it's any of yore derned business," I snapped, and strode out the door, and the minute I hit the street somebody let _bam!_ at me from behind a rain-barrel acrost the street and shot my hat off. So I slammed a bullet back through the barrel and the feller hollered and fell out in the open yelling blue murder. It was the feller which called hisself the sheriff and he was drilled through the hind laig. I noticed a lot of heads sticking up over winder sills and around doors, so I roared: "Let that be a warnin' to you Grizzly Claw coyotes! I'm Breckinridge Elkins from Bear Creek up in the Humbolts, and I shoot better in my sleep than most men does wide awake!"
I then lent emphasis to my remarks by punctuating a few signboards and knocking out a few winder panes and everybody hollered and ducked. So I shoved my guns back in their scabbards and went into a restaurant. The citizens come out from their hiding-places and carried off my victim, and he made more noise over a broke laig than I thought was possible for a grown man.
They was some folks in the restaurant but they stampeded out the back door as I come in at the front, all except the cook which tried to take refuge somewheres else.
"Come outa there and fry me some bacon!" I commanded, kicking a few slats out of the counter to add p'int to my request. It disgusts me to see a grown man trying to hide under a stove. I am a very patient and mild-mannered human, but Grizzly Claw was getting under my hide. So the cook come out and fried me a mess of bacon and ham and aigs and pertaters and sourdough bread and beans and coffee, and I et three cans of cling peaches. Nobody come into the restaurant whilst I was eating but I thought I heard somebody sneaking around outside.
When I got through I ast the feller how much, and he told me, and I planked down the cash, and he commenced to bite it. This lack of faith in his feller humans so enraged me that I drawed my bowie knife and said: "They is a limit to any man's patience! I been insulted onst tonight and that's enough! You jest dast to say that coin's phoney and I'll slice off yore whiskers plumb at the roots!"
I brandished my bowie under his nose, and he hollered and stampeded back into the stove and upsot it and fell over it, and the coals went down the back of his shirt, so he riz up and run for the creek yelling bloody murder. And that's how the story got started that I tried to burn a cook alive, Injun-style, because he fried my bacon too crisp. Matter of fact, I kept his shack from catching fire and burning down, because I stomped out the coals before they done no more than burn a big hole through the floor, and I throwed the stove out the back door.
It ain't my fault if the mayor of Grizzly Claw was sneaking up the back steps with a shotgun jest at that moment. Anyway, I hear he was able to walk with a couple of crutches after a few months.
I emerged suddenly from the front door, hearing a suspicious noise, and I seen a feller crouching clost to a side winder peeking through a hole in the wall. It was the cowboy I seen in the Apache Queen. He whirled when I come out, but I had him covered.
"Air you spyin' on me?" I demanded. "'Cause if you air--"
"No, no!" he says in a hurry. "I was jest leanin' up agen that wall restin'."
"You Grizzly Claw folks is all crazy," I said disgustedly, and looked around to see if anybody else tried to shoot me, but they wam't nobody in sight, which was suspicious, but I give no heed. It was dark by that time so I went to the wagon-yard, and they warn't nobody there. I reckon the man which run it was off somewheres drunk, because that seemed to be the main occupation of most of them Grizzly Claw devils.
The only place for folks to sleep was a kind of double log-cabin. That is, it had two rooms, but they warn't no door between 'em; and in each room they wasn't nothing but a fireplace and a bunk, and jest one outside door. I seen Cap'n Kidd was fixed for the night, and then I went into the cabin and brought in my saddle and bridle and saddle blanket because I didn't trust the people thereabouts. I taken off my boots and hat and hung 'em on the wall, and hung my guns and bowie on the end of the bunk, and then spread my saddle-blanket on the bunk and laid down glumly.
I dunno why they don't build them dern things for ordinary sized humans. A man six and a half foot tall like me can't never find one comfortable for him. You'd think nobody but pigmies ever expected to use one. I laid there and was disgusted at the bunk, and at myself too, because I hadn't learnt who it was done something to Uncle Jeppard, or what he done. It looked like I'd have to go clean to Bear Creek to find out, and then maybe have to come clean back to Grizzly Claw again to get the critter. By that time Dolly Rixby would be plumb wore out of patience with me, and I wouldn't blame her none.
Well, as I lay there contemplating, I heard a man come into the wagon-yard, and purty soon I heard him come towards the cabin, but I thought nothing of it. Then the door begun to open, and I riz up with a gun in each hand and said: "Who's there? Make yoreself knowed before I blasts you down!"
Whoever it was mumbled some excuse about being on the wrong side, and the door closed. But the voice sounded kind of familiar, and the feller didn't go into the other room. I heard his footsteps sneaking off, and I riz and went to the door, and looked over towards the row of stalls. So purty soon a man led the pinto out of his stall, and swung aboard him and rode off. It was purty dark, but if us folks on Bear Creek didn't have eyes like a hawk, we'd never live to get grown. I seen it was the cowboy I'd seen in the Apache Queen and outside the restaurant. Onst he got clear of the wagon-yard, he slapped in the spurs and went racing through the village like they was a red war- party on his trail. I could hear the beat of his hoss's hoofs fading south down the rocky trail after he was out of sight.
I knowed he must of follered me to the wagon-yard, but I couldn't make no sense out of it, so I went and laid down on the bunk again. I was jest about to go to sleep when I was woke by the sounds of somebody coming into the other room of the cabin, and I heard somebody strike a match. The bunk was built agen the partition wall, so they was only a few feet from me, though with the log wall betwixt us.
They was two of them, from the sounds of their talking.
"I tell you," one of them was saying, "I don't like his looks. I don't believe he's what he pertends to be. We better take no chances, and clear out. After all, we cain't stay here forever. These people air beginning to git suspicious, and if they find out for shore, they'll be demandin' a cut in the profits, to pertect us. The stuff's all packed and ready to jump at a second's notice. Let's run for it tonight. It's a wonder nobody ain't never stumbled onto that hide-out before now."
"Aw," said the other'n, "these Grizzly Claw yaps don't do nothin' but swill licker and gamble and think up swindles to work on sech strangers as is unlucky enough to wander in here. They don't never go into the hills southwest of the village whar our cave is. Most of 'em don't even know there's a path past that big rock to the west."
"Well, Bill," said t'other'n, "we've done purty well, countin' that job up in the Bear Creek country."
At that I was wide awake and listening with both ears.
Bill laughed. "That was kind of funny, warn't it, Jim?" says he.
"You ain't never told me the particulars," says Jim. "Did you have any trouble?"
"Well," said Bill. "T'warn't to say easy. That old Jeppard Grimes was a hard old nut. If all Injun fighters was like him, I feel plumb sorry for the Injuns."
"If any of them Bear Creek devils ever catches you--" begun Jim.
Bill laughed again.
"Them hillbillies never strays more'n ten miles from Bear Creek," says he. "I had the sculp and was gone before they knowed what was up. I've collected bounties for wolves and b'ars, but that's the first time I ever got money for a human sculp!"
A icy chill run down my spine. Now I knowed what had happened to pore old Uncle Jeppard! Scalped! After all the Injun sculps he'd lifted! And them cold-blooded murderers could set there and talk about it like it was the ears of a coyote or a rabbit!
"I told him he'd had the use of that there sculp long enough," Bill was saying. "A old cuss like him--"
I waited for no more. Everything was red around me. I didn't stop for my boots, guns nor nothing. I was too crazy mad even to know sech things existed. I riz up from that bunk and put my head down and rammed that partition wall like a bull going through a rail fence.
The dried mud poured out of the chinks and some of the logs give way, and a howl went up from the other side.
"What's that?" hollered one, and t'other'n yelled: "Lookout! It's a b'ar!"
I drawed back and rammed the wall again. It caved inwards and I crashed headlong through it in a shower of dry mud and splinters, and somebody shot at me and missed. They was a lighted lantern setting on a hand-hewn table, and two men about six feet tall each that hollered and let _bam_ at me with their six-shooters. But they was too dumbfounded to shoot straight. I gathered 'em to my bosom and we went backwards over the table, taking it and the lantern with us, and you ought to of heard them critters howl when the burning ile splashed down their necks.
It was a dirt floor so nothing caught on fire, and we was fighting in the dark, and they was hollering: "Help! Murder! We are bein' 'sassinated! Ow! Release go my ear!" And then one of 'em got his boot heel wedged in my mouth, and whilst I was twisting it out with one hand, the other'n tore out of his shirt which I was gripping with t'other hand, and run out the door. I had hold of the other feller's foot and commenced trying to twist it off, when he wrenched his laig outa the boot, and took it on the run. When I started to foller him I fell over the table in the dark and got all tangled up in it.
I broke off a laig for a club and rushed to the door, and jest as I got to it a whole mob of folks come surging into the wagon-yard with torches and guns and dogs and a rope, and they hollered: "There he is, the murderer, the outlaw, the counterfeiter, the house-burner, the mule-killer!"
I seen the man that owned the mule, and the restaurant feller, and the bar-keep, and a lot of others. They come roaring and bellering up to the door, hollering: "Hang him! Hang him! String up the murderer!" And they begun shooting at me, so I fell amongst 'em with my table- laig and laid right and left till it busted. They was packed so clost together I laid out three or four at a lick, and they hollered something awful. The torches was all knocked down and trompled out except them which was held by fellers which danced around on the aidge of the mill, hollering: "Lay hold on him! Don't be scairt of the big hillbilly! Shoot him! Knife him! Knock him in the head!" The dogs having more sense than the men, they all run off except one big mongrel that looked like a wolf, and he bit the mob often'ern he did me.
They was a lot of wild shooting and men hollering: "Oh, I'm shot! I'm kilt! I'm dyin'!" and some of them bullets burnt my hide they come so clost, and the flashes singed my eye-lashes, and somebody broke a knife agen my belt buckle. Then I seen the torches was all gone except one, and my club was broke, so I bust right through the mob, swinging right and left with my fists and stomping on them that tried to drag me down. I got clear of everybody except the man with the torch who was so excited he was jumping up and down trying to shoot me without cocking his gun. That blame dog was snapping at my heels, so I swung him by the tail and hit the man over the head with him. They went down in a heap and the torch went out, and the dog clamped onto the feller's ear, and he let out a squall like a steam-whistle.
They was milling in the dark behind me, and I run straight to Cap'n Kidd's stall and jumped on him bareback with nothing but a hackamore on him. Jest as the mob located where I went, we come storming out of the stall like a hurricane and knocked some of 'em galley-west and run over some more, and headed for the gate. Somebody shet the gate but Cap'n Kidd took it in his stride, and we was gone into the darkness before they knowed what hit 'em.
Cap'n Kidd decided then was a good time to run away, like he usually does, so he taken to the hills and run through bushes and clumps of trees trying to scrape me off. When I finally pulled him up we was maybe a mile south of the village, with Cap'n Kidd no bridle nor saddle nor blanket, and me with no guns, knife, boots nor hat. And what was wuss, them devils which sculped Uncle Jeppard had got away from me, and I didn't know where to look for 'em.
I sot meditating whether to go back and fight the whole town of Grizzly Claw for my boots and guns, or what to do, when all to onst I remembered what Bill and Jim had said about a cave and a path running to it. I thought I bet them fellers will go back and get their hosses and pull out, jest like they was planning, and they had stuff in the cave, so that's the place to look for 'em. I hoped they hadn't already got the stuff, whatever it was, and gone.
I knowed where that rock was, because I'd saw it when I come into town that afternoon--a big rock that jutted up above the trees about a mile to the west of Grizzly Claw. So I started out through the bresh, and before long I seen it looming up agen the stars, and I made straight for it. Sure enough, they was a narrer trail winding around the base and leading off to the southwest. I follered it, and when I'd went nearly a mile, I come to a steep mountainside, all clustered with bresh.
When I seen that I slipped off and led Cap'n Kidd off the trail and tied him back amongst the trees. Then I crope up to the cave which was purty well masked with bushes. I listened, but everything was dark and still, but all to onst, away down the trail, I heard a burst of shots, and what sounded like hosses running. Then everything was still again, and I quick ducked into the cave, and struck a match.
They was a narrer entrance that broadened out after a few feet, and the cave run straight like a tunnel for maybe thirty steps, about fifteen foot wide, and then it made a bend. After that it widened out and got purty big--about fifty feet wide, and I couldn't tell how far back into the mountain it run. To the left the wall was very broken and notched with ledges, mighty nigh like stair-steps, and when the match went out, away up above me I seen some stars which meant that they was a cleft in the wall or roof away up on the mountain somewheres.
Before the match went out, I seen a lot of junk over in a corner covered up with a tarpaulin, and when I was fixing to strike another match I heard men coming up the trail outside. So I quick clumb up the broken wall and laid on a ledge about ten feet up and listened.
From the sounds as they arriv at the cave mouth, I knowed it was two men on foot, running hard and panting loud. They rushed into the cave and made the turn, and I heard 'em fumbling around. Then a light flared up and I seen a lantern being lit and hung up on a spur of rock.
In the light I seen them two murderers, Bill and Jim, and they looked plumb dilapidated. Bill didn't have no shirt on and the other'n was wearing jest one boot and limped. Bill didn't have no gun in his belt neither, and both was mauled and bruised, and scratched, too, like they'd been running through briars.
"Look here," said Jim, holding his head which had a welt on it which was likely made by my fist. "I ain't sartain in my mind as to jest what all _has_ happened. Somebody must of hit me with a club some time tonight, and things is happened too fast for my addled wits. Seems like we been fightin' and runnin' all night. Listen, _was_ we settin' in the wagon-yard shack talkin' peaceable, and _did_ a grizzly b'ar bust through the wall and nigh slaughter us?"
"That's plumb correct," said Bill. "Only it warn't no b'ar. It was some kind of a human critter--maybe a escaped maneyack. We ought to of stopped for hosses--"
"I warn't thinkin' 'bout no hosses," broke in Jim. "When I found myself outside that shack my only thought was to kiver ground, and I done my best, considerin' that I'd lost a boot, and that critter had nigh onhinged my hind laig. I'd lost you in the dark, so I made for the cave knowin' you'd come there eventual, if you was still alive, and it seemed like I was forever gittin' through the woods, crippled like I was. I hadn't no more'n hit the path when you come up it on the run."
"Well," says Bill, "as I went over the wagon-yard wall a lot of people come whoopin' through the gate, and I thought they was after us, but it must of been the feller we fit, because as I run I seen him layin' into 'em right and left. After I'd got over my panic, I went back after our hosses, but I run right into a gang of men on hossback, and one of 'em was that derned feller which passed hisself off as a cowboy. I didn't need no more. I taken out through the woods as hard as I could pelt, and they hollered, 'There he goes!' and hot-foot after me."
"And was them the fellers I shot at back down the trail?" ast Jim.
"Yeah," says Bill. "I thought I'd shooken 'em off, but jest as I seen you on the path, I heard hosses comin' behind us, so I hollered to let 'em have it, and you did."
"Well, I didn't know who it was," said Jim. "I tell you, my head's buzzin' like a circle-saw."
"Well," said Bill, "we stopped 'em and scattered 'em. I dunno if you hit anybody in the dark, but they'll be mighty keerful about comin' up the trail. Let's clear out."
"On foot?" says Jim. "And me with jest one boot?"
"How else?" says Bill. "We'll have to hoof it till we can steal us some cayuses. We'll have to leave all this stuff here. We don't dare go back to Grizzly Claw after our hosses. I _told_ that derned cowboy would do to watch. He ain't no cowpoke at all. He's a blame detective."
"What's that?" broke in Jim.
"Hosses' hoofs!" exclaimed Bill, turning pale. "Here, blow out that lantern! We'll climb the ledges and git out through the cleft, and take out over the mountain whar they cain't foller with hosses, and then--"
It was at that instant that I launched myself offa the ledge on top of 'em. I landed with all my two hundred and ninety pounds square on jim's shoulders and when he hit the ground under me he kind of spread out like a toad when you tromp on him. Bill give a scream of astonishment and tore off a hunk of rock about the size of a man's head and lammed me over the ear with it as I riz. This irritated me, so I taken him by the neck, and also taken away a knife which he was trying to hamstring me with, and begun sweeping the floor with his carcass.
Presently I paused and kneeling on him, I strangled him till his tongue lolled out, whilst hammering his head fervently agen the rocky floor.
"You murderin' devil!" I gritted betwixt my teeth. "Before I varnishes this here rock with yore brains, tell me why you taken my Uncle jeppard's sculp!"
"Let up!" he gurgled, being purple in the face where he warn't bloody. "They was a dude travellin' through the country and collectin' souvenirs, and he heard about that sculp and wanted it. He hired me to go git it for him."
I was so shocked at that cold-bloodedness that I forgot what I was doing and choked Bill nigh to death before I remembered to ease up on him.
"Who was he?" I demanded. "Who is the skunk which hires old men murdered so's he can colleck their sculps? My God, these Eastern dudes is wuss'n Apaches! Hurry up and tell me, so I can finish killin' you."
But he was unconscious; I'd squoze his neck too hard. I riz up and looked around for some water or whisky or something to bring him to so he could tell who hired him to sculp Uncle Jeppard, before I twisted his head off, which was my earnest intention of doing, when somebody said: "Han's up!"
I whirled and there at the crook of the cave stood that there cowboy which had spied on me in Grizzly Claw, and ten other men. They all had their Winchesters p'inted at me, and the cowboy had a star on his buzum.
"Don't move!" he said. "I'm a Federal detective, and I'm arrestin' you for manufactorin' counterfeit money!"
"What you mean?" I snarled, backing up to the wall.
"You know," he said, kicking the tarpaulin off the junk in the corner. "Look here, men! All the stamps and dyes he used to make phoney coins and bills! All packed up, ready to light out. I been hangin' around Grizzly Claw for days, knowin' that whoever was passin' this stuff made his, or their headquarters here somewheres. Today I spotted that dollar you give the barkeep, and I went _pronto_ for my men which was camped back in the hills a few miles. I thought you was settled in the wagon-yard for the night, but it seems you give us the slip. Put the cuffs on him, men!"
"No, you don't!" I snarled, bounding back. "Not till I've finished these devils on the floor--and maybe not then! I dunno what yo're talkin' about, but--"
"Here's a couple of corpses!" hollered one of the men. "He's kilt a couple of fellers!"
One of them stooped over Bill, but he had recovered his senses, and now he riz up on his elbows and give a howl. "Save me!" he bellered. "I confesses! I'm a counterfeiter, and so is Jim there on the floor! We surrenders, and you got to pertect us!"
"_Yo're_ the counterfeiters?" ejaculated the detective, took aback as it were. "Why, I was follerin' this giant! I seen him pass fake money myself. We got to the wagon-yard awhile after he'd run off, but we seen him duck in the woods not far from there, and we been chasin' him. He shot at us down the trail while ago--"
"That was us," said Bill. "It was me you was chasin'. If he was passin' fake stuff, he musta found it somewheres. I tell you, we're the men you're after, and you got to pertect us! I demands to be put in the strongest jail in this state, which even this here devil cain't bust into!"
"And he ain't no counterfeiter?" said the detective.
"He ain't nothin' but a man-eater," said Bill. "Arrest us and take us outa his rech."
"_No!"_ I roared, clean beside myself. "They belongs to me! They sculped my uncle! Give 'em knives or guns or somethin', and let us fight it out."
"Cain't do that," said the detective. "They're Federal prisoners. If you got any charge agen 'em, they'll have to be indicted in the proper form."
His men hauled 'em up and handcuffed 'em and started to lead 'em out.
"Blast yore cussed souls!" I raved. "You low-down, mangy, egg- suckin' coyotes! Does you mean to perteck a couple of dirty sculpers? I'll--"
I started for 'em and they all p'inted their Winchesters at me.
"Keep back!" said the detective. "I'm grateful for you leadin' us into this den, and layin' out these criminals for us, but I don't hanker after no battle in a cave with a human grizzly like you."
Well, what could I do? If I'd had my guns, or even my knife, I'd of took a chance with the whole eleven men, officers or not, but even I can't fight eleven .45-90's with my bare hands. I stood speechless with rage whilst they filed out, and then I went for Cap'n Kidd in a kind of a daze. I felt wuss'n a hoss-thief. Them fellers would be put in the pen safe out of my rech, and Uncle Jeppard's sculp was unavenged! It was awful. I felt like bawling.
Time I got my hoss back onto the trail, the posse with their prisoners was out of sight and hearing. I seen the only thing to do was to go back to Grizzly Claw and get my outfit, and then foller 'em and try to take their prisoners away from 'em some way.
Well, the wagon-yard was dark and still. The wounded had been carried away to have their injuries bandaged, and from the groaning that was still coming from the shacks and cabins along the street, the casualities had been plenteous. The citizens of Grizzly Claw must have been shook up something terrible, because they hadn't even stole my guns and saddle and things yet; everything was in the cabin jest like I'd left 'em.
I put on my boots, hat and belt, saddled and bridled Cap'n Kidd and sot out on the road I knowed the posse had took. But they had a long start on me, and when daylight come I hadn't overtook 'em, though I knowed they couldn't be far ahead of me. But I did meet somebody else. It was Tunk Willoughby riding up the trail, and when he seen me he grinned all over his battered features.
"Hey, Breck!" he hailed me. "After you left I sot on that there log and thunk, and thunk, and I finally remembered what Jack Gordon told me, and I started out to find you again and tell you. It was this: he said to keep a close lookout for a feller from Grizzly Claw named Bill Croghan, because he'd gypped yore Uncle Jeppard in a deal."
_"What?"_ I said.
"Yeah," said Tunk. "He bought somethin' from Jeppard and paid him in counterfeit money. Jeppard didn't know it was phoney till after the feller had got plumb away," said Tunk, "and bein' as he was too busy kyorin' some b'ar meat to go after him, he sent word for you to git him."
"But the sculp--" I said wildly.
"Oh," said Tunk, "that was what Jeppard sold the feller. It was the sculp Jeppard taken offa old Yeller Eagle, the Comanche war-chief forty years ago, and been keepin' for a souvenear. Seems like a Eastern dude heard about it and wanted to buy it, but this Croghan feller must of kept the money he give him to git it with, and give Jeppard phoney cash. So you see everything's all right, even if I did forgit a little, and no harm did--"
And that's why Tunk Willoughby is going around saying I'm a homicidal maneyack, and run him five miles down a mountain and tried to kill him--which is a exaggeration, of course. I wouldn't of kilt him if I could of caught him--which I couldn't when he taken to the thick bresh. I would merely of raised a few knots on his head and tied his hind laigs in a bow-knot around his fool neck, and did a few other little things that might of improved his memory.