The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 19

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DAWN broke, and as the light increased Holbrook saw a column of smoke arising from the southern Twin like a faint streamer of gauze. A slender pole raised and stood erect, and his suspicious mind sought a reason for it.

"Wonder if he's tryin' to signal somebody? Long Pete! I reckon he don't know Pete's dead. He'll not see him this side of h—l," he muttered, settling in a more comfortable position to go to sleep.

The pole swayed as a rope shot over it and grew taut, and then a faded shirt, heavy with water, came into view and sagged the rope.

Holbrook grinned and picked up his rifle. "Gettin' th' wash out early. An' he must have plenty of water, to waste it like that."

He raised the sight a little and tried again. "Can't tell where they're goin'," he grumbled, and tried the third time. The edge of the shirt flopped inward as the garment momentarily assumed the general shape of a funnel.

"He ain't th' only ki-yote that can shoot," chuckled the marksman. "Fleming couldn't 'a' done any better'n that. Bet he's mad. Serves him right for havin' two. He ain't no better than me, an' I only got one, since Ackerman took my other one. Cuss it!" he swore, blinking rapidly and spitting as a sharp spat! sent sand into his face.

He shifted, wiped his lips, and peered out at a spot on the other butte where a cloud of smoke spread out along the ground. Then he poked his sombrero over the breastwork and wriggled it on a stick, but waited in vain for the expected shot

"He ain't bitin' today; an' he's savin' his cartridges. Well, I got plenty; so here goes for that shirt again."

Again the inoffensive garment flopped; and then a singing bullet passed squarely through Holbrook's expensive sombrero.

"You stay down from up there!" grunted Holbrook at the hat. "Plumb center! I got a lot of respect for that hombre. He got th' best of th' swap, too. I spoiled a worn-out shirt, an' he ventilated a twenty dollar Stetson. He owes me a couple more shots!"

The next shot missed, but the second turned the shirt into another funnel.

"Hey!" shouted an angry voice. "What you think yo're doin'?"

Holbrook's grin turned into a burst of laughter as the pole swiftly descended, and he again poked up his hat, hoping for a miss and another wasted cartridge; but, failing to draw a shot, he gave it up and crawled back to a safer and more comfortable place where he lay down to get some sleep.

Johnny, full of wrath, worked along the edge of the butte in a vain endeavor to catch sight of his enemy, and he took plenty of time in his efforts to be cautious. Any man who could hit a shirt plumb center and nearly every time, at that distance, shooting across a deceptive canyon and against the sky, was no one to get careless with. After waiting a while without hearing any more from his humorous enemy, he looked down each trail and then went to the other end of the butte.

Not far from him a slender column of smoke arose from a box-like depression which lay beyond a high ridge and was well protected from his rifle. Peering cautiously over the rim of the butte, his head hidden in a tuft of grass, he critically examined the canyon, bowlder by bowlder, ridge by ridge. A puff of smoke spurted from a pile of rocks and a malignant whine passed over his head. Wriggling back, he hurried to another point fifty yards to his right, where he again crept to the edge and looked down. Another puff of smoke and a bloody furrow across his cheek told him that the marksman had good eyes and knew how to shoot. Johnny drove a Sharp's Special into the middle of the smoke and heard an angry curse follow it.

"Hey, Nelson!" called a peeved voice from the rocks. "Nelson!"

"What you belly-achin' about?" demanded Johnny insolently.

"How'd you like to join us instead of fightin' us?"

"Yo're loco!" retorted Johnny. "Can't you think of anything better'n that? I cut my eye-teeth long ago."

"I mean it," said Quigley, earnestly. "Mean it all th' way through. We talked it over last night. It's poor business fightin' each other when we might be workin' together. Laugh if you want to; but lemme tell you it ain't as foolish as you think. It's a lazy, independent life; an' there's good money in it. You'd do better with us than you'd 'a' done alone."

"I've shore fooled 'em!" chuckled Johnny softly. Aloud he said: "I can't trust you, not after what's happened."

"I reckon you are suspicious; an' nobody can blame you," replied Quigley. "But I mean it."

"Why didn't you make this play when I was in my valley, pannin' gold an' gettin' a little herd together?" demanded Johnny. "You knowed I wasn't after no gold; an' you knowed what I was after. But no; you was hoggin' th' earth an' too cussed mean to give a man a chance, an' make another split in yore profits. You burned—oh, what's th' use? If you want my answer, stick yore head out an' I'll give it to you quick!"

"I know we acted hasty," persisted Quigley; "but some of us was ag'in it. Three of 'em are dead now; Ackerman's missin'. We'll give you th' share of one of 'em in th' herd that we got now; an' an equal share of what we get from now on. That's fair; an' it more than makes up for yore cabin an' them six cows. As far as they are concerned, we'll give you all of what they bring. How about it?"

"Reckon it's too late," replied Johnny. "I ain't takin' nobody's share. I'm aimin' to take th' whole layout, lock, stock, an' barrel. Why should I give you fellers any share in it? What'll you give me if I let you all clear out now?"

"What you mean?" demanded Quigley.

"Just what I said," retorted Johnny. "There's six of you now. It ought to be worth something to you fellers to be allowed to stay alive. I'll throw off half for th' wounded men—let 'em off at half price. What are you fellers willin' to pay me if I let you leave th' country with a cayuse apiece an' all yore personal belongin's?"

"This ain't no time for jokin'!" snapped Quigley angrily.

"I ain't jokin' a bit! I'll have yore skins pegged out to dry before I get through with you. Yo're a bunch of sap-headed jackasses, with no more sense than a sheep-herder. I'm 'most ashamed to get you; but I'm stranglin' my shame. You pore mutton-heads!"

Quigley's language almost seared the vegetation and he was threatened with spontaneous combustion. When he paused for breath he swung his rifle up and pulled the trigger, almost blind with rage. Johnny's answering shot ripped through his forearm and he felt the awful sickness which comes when a bone is scraped. Half fainting, Quigley dropped his rifle and leaned back against a rock, regarding the numbed and bleeding arm with eyes which saw the landscape turning over and over. Gathering his senses by a great effort of will, he steadied himself and managed to make and apply a rough bandage with the clumsy aid of one hand and his teeth.

"I'll give you till tomorrow mornin' to make me an offer," shouted Johnny; "but don't get reckless before then, because th' temptation shore will be more than I can stand. Think it over."

"D—n his measly hide!" moaned Quigley, his anger welling up anew. "Give him our ranch, an' cows, an' pay him to let us leave th' country! Six of us! Six gun-fightin', law-breakin', cattle-liftin' cow-punchers; sane, healthy, an' as tough as rawhide rope, payin' him, a lone man up a tree, to let us leave th' country! All right, you conceited pup; you'll pay, an' pay well, for that insult!"

He still was indulging in the luxury of an occasional burst of profanity when Holbrook approached the bowlders on his hands and knees.

"I'm still hungry; an' I can't sleep unless I'm full of grub," apologized the rustler. "An' I heard shootin'. What's th' matter, Tom? Yore language ain't fit for innercent ears!"

"Matter?" roared Quigley, going off in another flight of oratory. "Matter?" he shouted. "Look at this arm! An' listen to what that —— —— carrion-eatin' squaw's dog of a —— —— had th' —— —— gall to say!"

As the recital unfolded Holbrook leaned back against a rock and laughed until the tears washed clean furrows through the dust and dirt on his face; and the more he laughed the more his companion's anger arose. Finally Quigley could stand it no longer, and he loosed a sudden torrent of verbal fire upon his howling friend.

Holbrook feebly wiped his eyes with the backs of his dusty hands, which smeared the dirt over the wet places and gave him a grotesque appearance.

"Why shouldn't I laugh?" he choked, and then became indignant. "Why shouldn't I?" he demanded. "I've laughed at yore jokes, Fleming's stories, Cookie's cookin', an' Dan'l Boone's windy lies; an' now when something funny comes along you want me to be like th' chief mourner at a funeral! I'm forty years old an' I've met some stuck-up people in my life; but that fool up there has got more gall an' conceit than anybody I ever even heard tell of! I'm glad I didn't hear him say it, or I shore would 'a' laughed myself plumb to death. Did you ever hear anything like it; drunk or sober, did you?"

"No, I didn't!" snapped Quigley. "An' if you've got all over yore nonsense, suppose you take a look at my arm, an' fix this bandage right!"

"Sorry, Tom," answered Holbrook quickly; "but I was near keeled over. Here, gimme that arm; an' when I get it fixed right, you make a bee-line for th' ranch. There ain't no use of you stayin' out here with an arm like that. Good Lord! He shore made a mess of it! Them slugs of his are awful; an' that gun is th' worst I ever went up ag'in. I want that rifle; an' I speaks for it here an' now. When we get him, I get th' gun."

"It's yourn," groaned Quigley. "Gimme a drink of whiskey before I start out. But I don't like to leave you to handle this alone. I can stick it out."

"It's a one-man job until somebody comes out," responded Holbrook. "All I got to do is lay low an' not let him come down that trail. A ten-year-old kid can do that durin' daylight. But you ain't goin' to go till you feel a little better," he ordered, producing a flask. "You wait a while—th' sun won't be hot for a couple of hours yet. An' would you look at th' mosquitoes! They must 'a' smelled th' blood. Here, wrap yore coat around it or they'll pump it full of pizen."

Two hours later, Quigley having departed for the ranch, Holbrook lay on the top of the northern Twin, glad to have escaped from the attacks of the winged pests which had driven him out of the canyon; and hoping that his enemy would try to take advantage of the situation, if he knew of it, and try to escape. He had decided that he could guard the trail as well from the top of the butte as he could from the canyon, for the whole length of the steeply sloping path lay before him. Cool breezes played about him, there were neither flies, mosquitoes, nor yellow-jackets to plague him, and the opposite butte and the whole canyon lay under his eyes. And he also had better protection than the canyon afforded, for there was always present a vague uneasiness, no matter how well hidden he might be, while his good-shooting enemy was five hundred feet above him. Food and water were close to his hand and he enjoyed a smoke as he lazily sprawled behind his protecting breastwork of rocks and set himself the task of keeping awake and alert.

He had seen no sign of his enemy, although he had closely scrutinized every foot of the opposite butte. Quigley, he thought, must have reached the ranch by that time and no doubt Fleming or Purdy was on the way to relieve him. As he glanced along the canyon in the direction that his friend would appear he saw a movement of the brush near the bottom of the much watched trail and he slid his rifle through an opening between the rocks covering the center of the disturbance.

It was too early for Fleming or Purdy, he reflected; and his eyes narrowed as he wondered if it could be some friend of the man he was watching.

The bushes moved again and a grizzled head thrust out into view, slowly followed by a pair of massive shoulders as a great silver-tip grizzly pushed out into the little clearing where the guarding fire had been, and slowly turned its head from side to side, sniffing suspiciously. Satisfied that there was nothing to fear, it crossed the clearing and ripped the bark off of a dead and fallen tree trunk, licking up the grubs and the scurrying insects. Shredding the bark and thoroughly cleaning up the last of the grubs, it sat down and lazily regarded the towering butte.

Holbrook watched it with interest, for there was something almost human in the great bear's actions, a comical gravity and a deftness of paws which brought a grin to his face.

The bear arose clumsily, scratched itself, and proceeded toward the trail in that awkward, lumbering way which conveys such a vivid impression of tremendous strength and power. Holbrook knew that the lazy, clumsy shuffling, the indolent thrust of the rounded shoulders and the slow, deliberate reaching of the great legs, the forefeet flipping quickly forward, hid an amazing, deceptive quickness and agility, and a devastating strength. Sleepy, peaceful, and good natured as the beast appeared, its temper was always on edge and its heart knew nothing of fear when that temper was aroused; and he also knew that the vitality in that grub, insect, and berry-fed body was almost beyond belief, that a clean, heart shot would not stop it instantly.

The animal waddled onto the trail and paused to turn over a rock, licked up a few scurrying bugs and waddled on again, the great shoulders rising and falling with each deliberate step. A pause, and the red tongue wiped out a procession of hard-working ants, and again it lumbered upward.

"Nelson is due to have company; an' plenty of it!" chuckled Holbrook; "an' if he slides any lead into th' wrong place under that flea-bitten hide he'll find that butte is a cussed lot smaller than he ever thought it was. Ah-ha! Cussed if th' yellow-jackets ain't declarin' war on him! Just wait till his snout gets well stung, an' he'll be ready an' eager to fight anything that lives!"

The bear was moving swiftly now, but pausing frequently to scrape his smarting snout with one paw or the other, and it was beginning to show signs of irritation as the swarming yellow-jackets warmed to the attack.

"Gettin' riled more every minute!" grinned Holbrook. "I'd hate to run foul of him now! Mr. Nelson shore is goin' to have a grand an' busy little seance up there, unless that Sharp's of his gets home plumb center th' first crack. He'll mebby wish it was a repeater. That old varmint must be nine feet long, an' just plumb full of rage. I can imagine them wicked little eyes of hisn gettin' redder an' redder every minute. An' one swipe of them paws would cave in th' side of th' biggest steer on th' range. It's a cussed good thing grizzlies ain't got th' speed an' habits of mountain lions—they'd be th' most dangerous things on earth if they had."

The bear sat down suddenly and dragged himself a few feet, and then ran on at top speed.

Holbrook roared with laughter. "Ho! Ho! Ho! This is goin' to be as much fun as a circus! D—d if I'd miss it for a week's pay! Go on, Old Timer; steam up!"

Free at last from the stinging attacks of the yellow-jackets, the great bear suddenly stopped, squatted back on his haunches and rubbed his head and snout with both paws; and then, looking across the canyon at the place the laughter was coming from, slouched back on four legs and waddled rapidly upward, his huge body twisting ponderously at each step. Reaching the top he paused while he surveyed his immediate vicinity, looked back down the trail, glanced across the canyon again, and then slowly disappeared among the rocks and bowlders.

Holbrook shifted his rifle to a more comfortable position cross his knees and leaned forward expectantly, grinning in keen anticipation, his cigarette cold and forgotten between his lips. It was just possible that there might be more in the coming show for him than amusement, for Mr. Nelson, intent, very, very intent, upon his part of a game of tag among the bowlders, might forget for a moment and carelessly show himself long enough to become a promising target.

"Wonder how much he'll take, purty soon, to let Ol' Silver-tip leave th' country along with us?" he chuckled. "I wish Tom was here!"

Johnny opened his eyes at Pepper's snort and glanced at the horse, which trembled in every limb and whose big eyes were ablaze with terror. She had jerked the picket rope loose from under the rock which had held it, but was rigid with fear. Sitting bolt upright upright as he jerked out a Colt, Johnny glanced in the direction of Pepper's stare and then left the blanket to take care of itself. Twenty paces distant was the Sharp's, loaded and lying on a rock, and he hotly cursed the stupidity and carelessness which had caused him to go to sleep so far away from the weapon. It was the first time such a thing had happened in weeks, and he instantly resolved that it never would happen again. Between him and the rifle was the biggest, meanest looking grizzly it ever had been his misfortune to face.

The unwelcome visitor had finished a pan of beans and a pan of rice and had its nose jammed in the last can of sugar that Johnny owned. Observing his unwilling host's acrobatic leap and the flying blanket, the huge animal pushed the sugar can from its swollen nose with a cunningly curved paw, and heaved itself onto its four legs, regarding the puncher with a frankly curious and belligerent stare. The little eyes were wicked and bloodshot and one of them was nearly closed from the stings of the yellow-jackets. Altogether it was as unpleasant a sight as anyone would care to look upon at such close range.

Behind Johnny was the rock wall, rising fifteen feet above the bottom of the little rock basin, and it curved slightly outward at the top. On one side were scattered several great bowlders, and he kept these in mind as he glanced quickly behind him at the wall, which was smooth and devoid of hand-holds.

He had killed a grizzly with a six-shooter, but no such an animal as the one facing him; and a Colt was not a weapon to be eagerly used, especially at such close quarters, where a sudden rush might be fatal to the user. He knew the thickness of the bone over the little brain, and keenly realized the smallness of the eyes as a target in the slowly moving head; if he could maneuver the animal to give him a heart shot he would have a fair chance.

"G'wan away from here!" he ordered peremptorily, with an assurance in his voice which he did not feel. "Pull your stakes, you big tramp, or I'll bust yore neck!"

Bruin refused to heed him; instead, the animal shuffled forward, its head wagging, and Johnny also stepped forward, on his toes, yelled loudly and waved his arms. Bruin paused and looked him over. Johnny side-stepped toward the rifle, but the bear pivoted quickly, swung around and declared its intentions with a low but entirely sufficient growl.

Johnny figured quickly. He might beat his visitor to the gun, but he strongly doubted if he would lead by a margin large enough to have time to swing the weapon to his shoulder and obtain the nicety of aim necessary to stop his pursuer as suddenly as the occasion demanded. The bowlders remained as his other alternative, and as the bear took its second step, which was the beginning of the rush, Johnny made a very creditable leap in the direction of the bowlders, gained the first by ten feet to spare, vaulted the second, dashed around the third and streaked up the slope leading to the top of the rocky wall behind the pool.

As he gained the top a bullet hummed past his head, but it received no recognition from him, for the bear also was hustling up the slope, thoroughly aroused and abrim with energy and ambition. Jerking out his Colts, he emptied one of them into the rushing animal as he leaped aside to get behind another bowlder. The bear slowed for an instant as the six heavy slugs ripped into it, and then, loosing a roar that awoke the echoes, it gathered speed and slid around the rock, clawing desperately to make a short turn. Johnny emptied his second gun into the enraged animal as he dodged around another rock, and then, dropping both Colts into their holsters, he sprinted for the top of the wall as Holbrookes second bullet loosened a heel and almost threw him.

Reaching the edge he launched himself from it, recovered his balance like an acrobat and dashed for his rifle as the grizzly, reaching the edge, checked himself barely in time and hunted hurriedly for a way to get down the wall. Giving it up in an instant, the animal drew up its forelegs with a pivoting swing, and started at full speed along the edge, to go down the way it had come up. This exposed its left side, and the Sharp's, already at Johnny's shoulder, steadied upon the vital spot as he timed the swing of the great foreleg. There was a sharp roar, and an ounce and a quarter of lead smashed through skin and flesh, squarely into the animal's heart. The great beast collapsed, slid around and raised its head; but again the heavy rifle spoke and the massive head dropped limply, for the stopping power of a Sharp's Special is tremendous.

Johnny jerked out the smoking shell, slid another great cartridge into place, and then sat down on the rock, wiping his face with his sleeve.

"Hey!" called a distant voice. "Want any help with th' varmints?"

Johnny grabbed his rifle and slipped to the edge of the butte. Holbrook called again, carelessly exposing his shoulder; and then cursed the bullet which grooved it.

"Can I do anything more for you?" jeered Johnny.