The Coming of Cassidy/The coming of Cassidy
THE COMING OF CASSIDY
THE trail boss shook his fist after the departing puncher and swore softly. He hated to lose a man at this time and he had been a little reckless in threatening to "fire" him; but in a gun-fighting outfit there was no room for a hothead. "Cimarron" was boss of the outfit that was driving a large herd of cattle to California, a feat that had been accomplished before, but that no man cared to attempt the second time. Had his soul been enriched by the gift of prophecy he would have turned back. As it was he returned to the work ahead of him. "Aw, let him go," he growled. "He 's wuss off 'n I am, an' he 'll find it out quick. I never did see nobody what got crazy mad so quick as him."
"Bill" Cassidy, not yet of age, but a man in stature and strength, rode north because it promised him civilization quicker than any other way except the back trail, and he was tired of the coast range. He had forgotten the trail-boss during the last three days of his solitary journeying and the fact that he was in the center of an uninhabited country nearly as large as a good-sized state gave him no concern; he was equipped for two weeks, and fortified by youth's confidence.
All day long he rode, around mesas and through draws, detouring to avoid canyons and bearing steadily northward with a certainty that was a heritage. Gradually the great bulk of mesas swung off to the west, and to the east the range grew steadily more level as it swept toward the peaceful river lying in the distant valley like a carelessly flung rope of silver. The forest vegetation, so luxuriant along the rivers and draws a day or two before, was now rarely seen, while chaparrals and stunted mesquite became more common.
He was more than twenty-five hundred feet above the ocean, on a great plateau broken by mesas that stretched away for miles in a vast sea of grass. There was just enough tang in the dry April air to make riding a pleasure and he did not mind the dryness of the season. Twice that day he detoured to ride around prairie-dog towns and the sight of buffalo skeletons lying in groups was not rare. Alert and contemptuous gray wolves gave him a passing glance, but the coyotes, slinking a little farther off, watched him with more interest. Occasionally he had a shot at antelope and once was successful.
Warned by the gathering dusk he was casting about for the most favorable spot for his blanket and fire when a horseman swung into sight out of a draw and reined in quickly. Bill's hand fell carelessly to his side while he regarded the stranger, who spoke first, and with a restrained welcoming gladness in his voice. "Howd'y, Stranger! You plumb surprised me."
Bill's examination told him that the other was stocky, compactly built, with a pleasing face and a "good eye." His age was about thirty and the surface indications were very favorable. "Some surprised myself," he replied. "Ridin' my way?"
"Far 's th' house," smiled the other. "Better join us. Couple of buffalo hunters dropped in awhile back."
"They 'll go a long way before they 'll find buffalo," Bill responded, suspiciously. Glancing around he readily picked out the rectangular blot in the valley, though it was no easy feat. "Huntin' or ranchin'?" he inquired in tones devoid of curiosity.
"Ranchin'," smiled the other. "Hefty proposition, up here, I reckon. Th' wolves 'll walk in under yore nose. But I ain't seen no Injuns."
"You will," was the calm reply. "You 'll see a couple, first; an' then th' whole cussed tribe. They ain't got no buffalo no more, neither."
Buck glanced at him sharply and thought of the hunters, but he nodded. "Yes. But if that couple don't go back?" he asked, referring to the Indians.
"Then you 'll save a little time."
"Well, let 'em come. I 'm here to stay, one way or th' other. But, anyhow, I ain't got no border ruffians like they have over in th' Panhandle. They 're worse 'n Injuns."
"Yes," agreed Bill. "Th' war ain't ended yet for some of them fellers. Ex-guerrillas, lots of 'em."
When they reached the house the buffalo hunters were arguing about their next day's ride and the elder, looking up, appealed to Bill. "Howd'y, Stranger. Ain't come 'cross no buffaler signs, hev ye?"
Bill smiled. "Bones an' old chips. But th' gray wolves was headin' southwest."
"What 'd I tell you?" triumphantly exclaimed the younger hunter.
"Well, they ain't much dif'rence, is they?" growled his companion.
Bill missed nothing the hunters said or did and during the silent meal had a good chance to study their faces. When the pipes were going and the supper wreck cleaned away, Buck leaned against the wall and looked across the room at the latest arrival. "Don't want a job, do you?" he asked.
Bill shook his head slowly, wondering why the hunters had frowned at a job being offered on another man's ranch. "I 'm headed north. But I 'll give you a hand for a week if you need me," he offered.
Buck smiled. "Much obliged, friend; but it 'll leave me worse off than before. My other puncher 'll be back in a few weeks with th' supplies, but I need four men all year 'round. I got a thousand head to brand yet."
The elder hunter looked up. "Drive 'em back to cow-country an' sell 'em, or locate there," he suggested.
Buck's glance was as sharp as his reply, for he could n't believe that the hunter had so soon forgotten what he had been told regarding the ownership of the cattle. "I don't own 'em. This range is bought an' paid for. I won't lay down."
"I done forgot they ain't yourn," hastily replied the hunter, smiling to himself. Stolen cattle cannot go back.
"If they was I 'd stay," crisply retorted Buck. "I ain't quittin' nothin' I starts."
"How many 'll you have nex' spring?" grinned the younger hunter. He was surprised by the sharpness of the response. "More 'n I 've got now, in spite of h—l"
Bill nodded approval. He felt a sudden, warm liking for this rugged man who would not quit in the face of such handicaps. He liked game men, better if they were square, and he believed this foreman was as square as he was game. "By th' Lord!" he ejaculated. "For a plugged peso I 'd stay with you!"
Buck smiled warmly. "Would good money do? But don't you stay if you ought n't, son."
When the light was out Bill lay awake for a long time, his mind busy with his evening's observations, and they pleased him so little that he did not close his eyes until assured by the breathing of the hunters that they were asleep. His Colt, which should have been hanging in its holster on the wall where he had left it, lay unsheathed close to his thigh and he awakened frequently during the night so keyed was he for the slightest sound. Up first in the morning, he replaced the gun in its scabbard before the others opened their eyes, and it was not until the hunters had ridden out of sight into the southwest that he entirely relaxed his vigilance. Saying good-by to the two cowmen was not without regrets, but he shook hands heartily with them and swung decisively northward.
He had been riding perhaps two hours, thinking about the little ranch and the hunters, when he stopped suddenly on the very brink of a sheer drop of two hundred feet. In his abstraction he had ridden up the sloping southern face of the mesa without noticing it. "Bet there ain't another like this for a hundred miles," he laughed, and then ceased abruptly and started with unbelieving eyes at the mouth of a draw not far away. A trotting line of gray wolves was emerging from it and swinging toward the south-west ten abreast. He had never heard of such a thing before and watched them in amazement. "Well, I'm —!" he exclaimed, and his Colt flashed rapidly at the pack. Two or three dropped, but the trotting line only swerved a little without pause or a change of pace and soon was lost in another draw. "Why, they 're single hunters," he muttered. "Huh! I won't never tell this. I can't hardly believe it myself. How 'bout you, Ring-Bone?" he asked the horse.
Turning, he rode around a rugged pinnacle of rock and stopped again, gazing steadily along the back trail. Far away in a valley two black dots were crawling over a patch of sand and he knew them to be horsemen. His face slowly reddened with anger at the espionage, for he had not thought the cowmen could doubt his good will and honesty. Then suddenly he swore and spurred forward to cover those miles as speedily as possible. "Come on, ol' Hammer-Head!" he cried. "We 're goin' back!"
The hunters had finally decided they would ride into the southwest and had ridden off in that direction. But they had detoured and swung north to see him pass and be sure he was not in their way. Now, satisfied upon that point, they were going back to that herd of cattle, easily turned from skinning buffalo to cattle, and on a large scale. To do this they would have to kill two men and then, waiting for the absent puncher to return with the wagon, kill him and load down the vehicle with skins. "Like h—l they will!" he gritted. "Three or none, you piruts. Come on, White-Eye! Don't sleep all th' time; an' don't light often'r once every ten yards, you saddle-galled, barrel-bellied runt!"
Into hollows, out again; shooting down steep-banked draws and avoiding cacti and chaparral with cat-like agility, the much-described little pony butted the wind in front and left a low-lying cloud of dust swirling behind as it whirred at top speed with choppy, tied-in stride in a winding circle for the humble sod hut on Snake Creek. The rider growled at the evident speed of the two men ahead, for he had not gained upon them despite his efforts. "If I 'm too late to stop it, I 'll clean th' slate, anyhow," he snapped. "Even if I has to ambush! Will you run?" he demanded, and the wild-eyed little bundle of whalebone and steel found a little more speed in its flashing legs.
The rider now began to accept what cover he could find and when he neared the hut left the shelter of the last, low hill for that afforded by a draw leading to within a hundred yards of the dugout's rear wall. Dismounting, he ran lightly forward on foot, alert and with every sense strained for a warning.
Reaching the wall he peered around the corner and stifled an exclamation. Buck's puncher, a knife in his back, lay head down the sloping path. Placing his ear to the wall he listened intently for some moments and then suddenly caught sight of a shadow slowly creeping past his toes. Quickly as he sprang aside he barely missed the flashing knife and the bulk of the man behind it, whose hand, outflung to save his balance, accidentally knocked the Colt from Bill's grasp and sent it spinning twenty feet away.
Without a word they leaped together, fighting silently, both trying to gain the gun in the hunter's holster and trying to keep the other from it. Bill, forcing the fighting in hopes that his youth would stand a hot pace better than the other's years, pushed his enemy back against the low roof of the dugout; but as the hunter tripped over it and fell backward, he pulled Bill with him. Fighting desperately they rolled across the roof and dropped to the sloping earth at the doorway, so tightly locked in each other's arms that the jar did not separate them. The hunter, falling underneath, got the worst of the fall but kept on fighting. Crashing into the door head first, they sent it swinging back against the wall and followed it, bumping down the two steps still locked together.
Bill possessed strength remarkable for his years and build and he was hard as iron; but he had met a man who had the sinewy strength of the plainsman, whose greater age was offset by greater weight and the youth was constantly so close to defeat that a single false move would have been fatal. But luck favored him, for as they surged around the room they crashed into the heavy table and fell with it on top of them. The hunter got its full weight and the gash in his forehead filled his eyes with blood. By a desperate effort he pinned Bill's arm under his knee and with his left hand secured a throat grip, but the under man wriggled furiously and bridged so suddenly as to throw the hunter off him and Bill's freed hand, crashing full into the other's stomach, flashed back to release the weakened throat grip and jam the tensed fingers between his teeth, holding them there with all the power of his jaws. The dazed and gasping hunter, bending forward instinctively, felt his own throat seized and was dragged underneath his furious opponent.
In his Berserker rage Bill had forgotten about the gun, his fury sweeping everything from him but the primal desire to kill with his hands, to rend and crush like an animal. He was brought to his senses very sharply by the jarring, crashing roar of the six-shooter, the powder blowing away part of his shirt and burning his side. Twisting sideways he grasped the weapon with one hand, the wrist with the other and bent the gun slowly back, forcing its muzzle farther and farther from him. The hunter, at last managing to free his left hand from the other's teeth, found it useless when he tried to release the younger man's grip of the gun; and the Colt, roaring again, dropped from its owner's hand as he relaxed.
The victor leaned against the wall, his breath coming in great, sobbing gulps, his knees sagging and his head near bursting. He reeled across the wrecked room, gulped down a drink of whisky from the bottle on the shelf and, stumbling, groped his way to the outer air where he flung himself down on the ground, dazed and dizzy. When he opened his eyes the air seemed to be filled with flashes of fire and huge, black fantastic blots that changed form with great swiftness and the hut danced and shifted like a thing of life. Hot bands seemed to encircle his throat and the throbbing in his temples was like blows of a hammer. While he writhed and fought for breath a faint gunshot reached his ears and found him apathetic. But the second, following closely upon the first, seemed clearer and brought him to himself long enough to make him arise and stumble to his horse, and claw his way into the saddle. The animal, maddened by the steady thrust of the spurs, pitched viciously and bolted; but the rider had learned his art in the sternest school in the world, the "busting" corrals of the great Southwest, and he not only stuck to the saddle, but guided the fighting animal through a barranca almost choked with obstructions.
Stretched full length in a crevice near the top of a mesa lay the other hunter, his rifle trained on a small bowlder several hundred yards down and across the draw. His first shot had been an inexcusable blunder for a marksman like himself and now he had a desperate man and a very capable shot opposing him. If Buck could hold out until nightfall he could slip away in the darkness and do some stalking on his own account.
For half an hour they had lain thus, neither daring to take sight. Buck could not leave the shelter of the bowlder because the high ground behind him offered no cover; but the hunter, tiring of the fruitless wait, wriggled back into the crevice, arose and slipped away, intending to crawl to the edge of the mesa further down and get in a shot from a new angle before his enemy learned of the shift; and this shot would not be a blunder. He had just lowered himself down a steep wall when the noise of rolling pebbles caused him to look around, expecting to see his friend. Bill was just turning the corner of the wall and their eyes met at the same instant.
"'Nds up!" snapped the youth, his Colt glinting as it swung up. The hunter, gripping the rifle firmly, looked into the angry eyes of the other, and slowly obeyed. Bill, watching the rifle intently, forthwith learned a lesson he never forgot: never to watch a gun, but the eyes of the man who has it. The left hand of the hunter seemed to melt into smoke, and Bill, firing at the same instant, blundered into a hit when his surprise and carelessness should have cost him dearly. His bullet, missing its intended mark by inches, struck the still moving Colt of the other, knocking it into the air and numbing the hand that held it. A searing pain in his shoulder told him of the closeness of the call and set his lips into a thin, white line. The hunter, needing no words to interpret the look in the youth's eyes, swiftly raised his hands, holding the rifle high above his head, but neglected to take his finger from the trigger.
Bill was not overlooking anything now and he noticed the crooked finger. "Stick th' muzzle up, an' pull that trigger," he commanded, sharply. "Now!" he grated. The report came crashing back from half a dozen points as he nodded. "Drop it, an' turn 'round." As the other obeyed he stepped cautiously forward, jammed his Colt into the hunter's back and took possession of a skinning knife. A few moments later the hunter, trussed securely by a forty-foot lariat, lay cursing at the foot of the rock wall.
Bill, collecting the weapons, went off to cache them and then peered over the mesa's edge to look into the draw. A leaden splotch appeared on the rock almost under his nose and launched a crescendo scream into the sky to whine into silence. He ducked and leaped back, grinning foolishly as he realized Buck's error. Turning to approach the edge from another point he felt his sombrero jerk at his head as another bullet, screaming plaintively, followed the first. He dropped like a shot, and commented caustically upon his paucity of brains as he gravely examined the hole in his head gear. "Huh!" he grunted. "I had a fool's luck three times in twenty minutes,—d—d if I 'm goin' to risk th' next turn. Three of 'em," he repeated. "I 'm a' Injun from now on. An' that foreman shore can shoot!"
He wriggled to the edge and called out, careful not to let any of his anatomy show above the sky-line. "Hey, Buck! I ain't no buffalo hunter! This is Cassidy, who you wanted to punch for you. Savvy?" He listened, and grinned at the eloquent silence. "You talk too rapid," he laughed. Repeating his statements he listened again, with the same success. "Now I wonder is he stalkin' me? Hey, Buck!" he shouted.
"Stick yore hands up an' foller 'em with yore face," said Buck's voice from below. Bill raised his arms and slowly stood up. "Now what 'n blazes do you want?" demanded the foreman, belligerently.
"Nothin'. Just got them hunters, one of 'em alive. I reckoned mebby you 'd sorta like to know it." He paused, cogitating. "Reckon we better turn him loose when we gets back to th' hut," he suggested. "I 'll keep his guns," he added, grinning.
The foreman stuck his head out in sight. "Well, I'm d—d!" he exclaimed, and sank weakly back against the bowlder. "Can you give me a hand?" he muttered.
The words did not carry to the youth on the skyline, but he saw, understood, and, slipping and bumping down the steep wall with more speed than sense, dashed across the draw and up the other side. He nodded sagely as he examined the wound and bound it carefully with the sleeve of his own shirt. "'T ain't much—loss of blood, mostly. Yo 're better off than Travis."
"Travis dead?" whispered Buck. "In th' back! Pore feller, pore feller; didn't have no show. Tell me about it." At the end of the story he nodded. "Yo 're all right, Cassidy; yo 're a white man. He 'd 'a' stood a good chance of gettin' me, 'cept for you." A frown clouded his face and he looked weakly about him as if for an answer to the question that bothered him. "Now what am I goin' to do up here with all these cows?" he muttered.
Bill rolled the wounded man a cigarette and lit it for him, after which he fell to tossing pebbles at a rock further down the hill.
"I reckon it will be sorta tough," he replied, slowly. "But I sorta reckoned me an' you, an' that other feller, can make a big ranch out of yore little one. Anyhow, I 'll bet we can have a mighty big time tryin'. A mighty fine time. What you think?"
Buck smiled weakly and shoved out his hand with a visible effort. "We can! Shake, Bill!" he said, contentedly.