The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 9
A SKIRMISH IN THE NIGHT
SAYING good night to his two friends, Johnny rode north along the trail, but he had not ridden more than half way to the mouth of his valley when he swung Pepper into an arroyo which he knew led to the south side of the butte behind his cabin. While heavily fringed with brush and trees it was open enough along the dry bed of the stream to permit him to push on at fair speed, and while there were rocks and bowlders in plenty, Pepper easily avoided them in the soft moonlight and went on with confidence. At last, reaching a fork, he chose the right-hand lead and pushed on more slowly for a few minutes, and then, picketing the horse, he slipped out of his chaps and boots and put on the pair of moccasins which had been hidden under the saddle flaps. Taking the rifle from the long scabbard, he slung it across his back and slipped noiselessly up the ravine.
Half an hour later he stopped suddenly and sniffed, and then glanced quickly around him. The smoke was very faint, but it was something to think about because it meant either men close at hand or a forest fire. Going on again, even more slowly, he began to take advantage of cover, and as he proceeded the smoke became steadily stronger. A sudden suspicion made him set his jaws, for he was going straight up wind and toward his cabin. Stopping a moment to consider, he turned sharply to his left and went on again, a Colt swinging loosely in his left hand. Anything close enough to be seen plainly would be near enough for the Colt, and in such poor light the six-shooter was more accurate in his hands than a rifle.
The only things about him which he could hear were the holsters, which rubbed very softly as he walked, but the sound would not carry for any distance. Having gone around the little valley near his cabin, he crawled along below the ragged skyline of the ridge and reached a point close to the cabin, when he suddenly dropped to his stomach and flattened himself to the earth.
Some restless, gambling soul could not do without a cigarette and he had detected its faint odor in time. Turning his head slowly, he sniffed deeply and swore under his breath, for he was going partly with the wind, which meant that the smoker must be somewhere behind him. Then a gentle breeze, creeping along the ridge in a back-draft, brought to him the strong and pungent odor of the fire; and he nodded in quick understanding.
The back-draft told him that the smoker was in front of him and cleared up one danger; but it also had blotted out the odor of the cigarette, and as he started forward again he put his faith in his eyes and ears. Slowly he moved along, a few feet at a time, and then he caught the brief and fragrant odor again. Worming around a great, up-thrust slab of lava he stopped suddenly and held his breath. A speck of fire, faint through the clinging ashes, moved in a swift, short arc, became brighter and moved back again, a gleaming dot of red. He could see the hand and part of the arm of the man who had just knocked the ashes from a cigarette in a characteristic and thoughtless gesture. He was sitting just around the corner of a huge bowlder not far away, his back to it, and a dull gleam of reflected moonlight revealed the end of his rifle.
From where he now lay Johnny could see the smoldering ruins of his cabin, where the flames were low and the flying sparks but few. A little current of air fanned the ashes for a few minutes and sent the sparks swirling and dancing, and the flickering, ghostly flames licking upward with renewed life. The increased light, fitful as it had been, brought a smile to his face; for he had caught sight of a pair of spurred boots projecting beyond a rock not far from the glowing embers.
"Ah, th' devil!" muttered the man near him. "I'm goin' home. He's scared out."
The speaker arose and stretched, and grumblingly leaned over to pick up his sombrero, the moon lighting his hair; and he suddenly crumpled forward and sprawled out without a groan as Johnny's Colt struck his head.
The owner of the spurred boots, down behind the rock near the cabin, wriggled backward and looked up to see what had made the noise, caught sight of a dim, ghostly figure moving past a bowlder and called up to it.
"Come on, Ben; let's get goin'. Where's Fleming?"
"Thanks to my fool idea of strategy," said a peeved voice high above the cabin, "which I borrowed from our doughty friend, Mr. Ackerman, I'm up here, smoked up like a ham. I ain't stuck on this. Shootin' a good man from ambush never did set well on my stummick. Reckon Ben's asleep, like a reg'lar sentry; he didn't have th' cussed smoke to make things interestin' for him. Hey, Ben!" he called, wearily.
"No use yellin'," warned Spurred Boots earnestly. "He ain't asleep. I just saw him move. Up to some of his fool jokes, I reckon; an' it's a d—d poor time to play 'em. I'm a little nervous, an' might shoot without askin' any questions. Comin' down?"
"Yo're just whistlin' I am," growled Fleming. "It's all fool nonsense, us three watchin' an' waitin' to shoot that feller. When he finds his shack burned an' his rustlin' business busted up, he'll move out without us pluggin' him. D—n it! Didn't he say he was done? But you just listen to th' mockin' bird: If there's any shootin' to be done, he'll do his little, two-handed share. I've been eddicated today; done had a superstition knocked sprawlin'. An' so did Jim get eddicated. He made his play for that feller's right hand, when d—d if he ain't left-handed. It made Jim near sick; for a minute I was scared he'd lose his dinner. An' I allus believed left-handed men came in third by two lengths; but lawsy me! What? I'm insulted! I said lawsy."
"You shore can talk!" admired Spurred Boots. "Sometimes a cussed lot too much. What in blazes is Ben doin'?" he asked petulantly, stiffly arising and working his arms and legs.
"Fixin' to jump out on us from behind a rock, an' yell 'Boo!'" grunted Fleming. "Ben, he's an original feller; allus was, even as a kid. D—n these thorns." A thin stream of profanity came from the crevice and Fleming slid down the rest of the way and rolled out into the circle of illumination. "Just like water down a chute, or a merry-hearted bowlder down a hill. Roll, Jordan, roll. Was you askin' about Benjamin, th' catcher of lightning? Benjamin Franklin Gates, his name is; an' he's done gone home. He's a sensible feller, B. F. G. is; but only in spots, little spots, widely spaced."
"You talk as much as Jim Howard's wife," grumbled Spurred Boots. "Jim he said—"
"Of course he did! wasn't it awful?" interposed Fleming. "It was just like a man. But I think it was me that told you that story; so we'll let it keep its secret. As I was sayin', getting in my words edgeways like, but shore gettin' 'em in: Ben has pulled th' picket stake, an' like th' Arabs, done went."
"You mean Arapahoes."
"Did I? I allus call 'em that for short. Have mercy, Jehovah!"
"I saw him move just before I spoke," replied Spurred Boots positively. "But that was a long time ago, before th' deluge, of words," he jabbed ironically.
"Cease; spare thy whacks. An' where th' h—l did you ever hear of th' deluge? Some Old Timer tell you about it?" responded Fleming. "I been seein' things, too. All kinds of things. Some had tails but no legs; some had legs but no tails; an' to make a short tale shorter, that was a ghost what you saw. A wild, woopin', woppin' ghost. Come on, Nat; let's flit."
"Then my ghost lit a cigarette a long time back," retorted Nat Harrison. "An' then it said 'flop.' Do they smoke cigarettes?" he demanded with great sarcasm.
"Some does; an' some smokes hops; an' some smokes dried loco weed," grinned Fleming. "That was a spark what you saw, an' th' musical flop was a trout fish turnin' cartwheels on th' water. One of them sparks plumb lit on th' back of my neck, an' I cussed near jumped over th' edge an' made a 'flop' of my own for myself. An' it's a blamed long walk home," he sighed.
"There's th' lightnin's play-fellow now! See him, up there?" demanded Harrison. "Must 'a' been off scoutin'. Hey, Ben! Wait for us—be right up."
Fleming glanced up as another vagrant breeze fanned the embers, and he forthwith did several things at once, and did them quite well. Sending Harrison plunging down behind a rock by one great shove, he jumped for another and fired as he moved. "Ben h—l!" he shouted, firing again. "I've seen that hombre before today. Keep yore head down, an' get busy!"
Two alert and attentive young men gave keen scrutiny to the ridge and wondered what would happen next. Thirty minutes went by, and then Harrison rolled over and over, laughing uproariously.
"Cussed if it ain't funny!" he gurgled. "'Some smoke cigarettes, some smokes hops, an' some smokes dried loco weed!' Ha-ha-ha! An' I reckon yo're still seein' them woopin' woops."
"You'll see somethin' worse if you moves out into sight," retorted Fleming. "That ghost that I just saw was a human that ain't got to th' ghost state yet. If you don't believe me, you ask Ackerman, if you've got th' nerve."
Harrison rose nonchalantly and sauntered over toward the embers. "Come on, Art; I'm cussed near asleep," he yawned.
"You acts like you was plumb asleep, an' walkin' in it," snapped Fleming angrily. "But it's a good idea," he admitted ironically. "You stay right there an' draw his fire, an' I'll pull at his flash. You make a good decoy, naturally; it comes easy to you. A decoy is an imitation. Stand still, now, so he can line up his sights on you. I'm all ready."
Harrison grinned and waved his hand airily. "There ain't no human up there," he placidly remarked. "An' I don't care if Benjamin F. is there: she goes as she lays. What you saw was a bear or a lobo or a cougar come up to see th' fire, an' hear you orate from th' mountain top. They'll go long ways to see curious things. In th' book, on page eighteen, it says that they has great streaks of humor, an' a fittin' sense of th' ridiculous. Animals are awful curious about little things. An' on page thirty-one it says they has a powerful sense of smell; an' you know you was up purty high. An' I ain't lookin' forward with joy unconfined to gropin' along no moonlit trail with th' boss of th' wolf tribe, or other big varmits sneakin' around. I might step on a tail an' loosen things up considerable. They're hell on wheels when you steps on their tails, poor things."
"La! La!" said Fleming sympathetically. "Just because you have got yore head out of th' window it don't say you ain't goin' to get no cinder in yore eye. A lead cinder. Lemme tell you that animal wore pants an' a big sombrero. I tell you I saw him!"
"It was one of them sparks," grunted the other, enjoying himself. "One of 'em that plumb lit on th' back of yore neck. A spark is a little piece of burnin' wood which soars like th' eagle, an' when it comes down makes sores like th' devil. Te-de-dum-dum! Howsomeever, if yo're goin' with me, yo're goin' to start right now—I've done it already," and he walked slowly toward the creek.
Fleming arose and hesitated, scanning the ridge with searching eyes. Then he stepped out and followed his friend, who already was across the creek and climbing the steep bank.
After reaching the top of the steep part of the ridge he glanced about over the great slope and then paused for breath and reflection, peering curiously toward the tree-shaded hollow where he had seen the much-debated movement. Obeying a sudden impulse he drew his gun and went cautiously forward, bent low and taking full advantage of the cover. A deep groan at his side made him jump and step back. Cautiously peering over a large rock he started in sudden surprise, swearing under his breath. Benjamin Franklin Gates, neatly trussed and gagged, lay against the rock on its far side, and his baleful eyes spoke volumes. There came a soft step behind Fleming and he wheeled like a flash, his upraised gun cutting down swiftly, and came within an ace of pulling the trigger at Harrison, who writhed sideways and snarled at him. Then Harrison also saw the bound figure on the ground and swore with depth, feeling, and vigor.
"Smokes dried loco weed!" he jeered sarcastically, his voice barely audible. "I feels uncomfortable, entirely too present," he whispered, sinking quietly to the ground.
"Which is unanimous," remarked Fleming, with simple emphasis. "Ben, he ain't sayin' nothin'," he added cheerfully.
An angry gurgle came from the bound figure and it rolled over to face them. Harrison grinned at it. "Under other circumstances I could enjoy this unusual situation," he remarked softly.
"Face to face with Ben, an' him not sayin' a word," marveled Fleming, his eyes busy with the rock-strewn slope. "But I can almost hear him think. Twinkle, twinkle, little star—wonder where Mr. Two-gun Nelson is located at this short, brief, an' interestin' second?"
Another gurgle slobbered from the bound man and his heels thumped the ground.
"Hark!" said Harrison, tensely. "I hears me a noise!"
"I hears me it, too," said Fleming. "But not a word; not a soft, harsh, lovin', long, short, or profane word. Not even a syllable. Not even th' front end of a syllable. All is silent; all but that mysterious drummin' noise. An' if it was farther away I'd be quite restless."
A coughing gurgle and a choked snort came from the base of the rock, and then a louder, more persistent drumming.
"An' you said Benjamin had done snuk home," accused Harrison. "I'm surprised at you. He's been here all th' time. How could he snuk when he's hogtied, which is appropriate? Gurgle, gurgle, little man—I'll untie you if I can." He bent over, cut loose the gag, slashed the belt from the trussed feet and severed the neckerchief from the crossed wrists. "There! There! Not so loud!" he gently chided.
"Blankety dashed blank blank!" said Ben Gates. "Dashed blankety dashed blank blank! What th' h—l you want to cut that belt for, you dashed dashed blankety blank of a dash! Three dollars done gone to th' devil! Just because you got a blankety-blank knife do you have to slash every dashed-dashed thing you see!"
"Sh!" whispered Fleming. "We know yo're grateful; but what happened?" he breathed, too busy to look around.
"Shut yore face!" ordered Harrison, trying in vain to stare through a great, black lava bowlder which lay on the other side of a small clearing.
"Dashed blank! " said Benjamin. "It's been shut enough, you d—d pie-faced doodle-bug! "
"Yes; yes; we know," soothed Fleming; "but what happened?"
"Leaned over to get my blankety-blank hat and a dashed tree fell on my blank head!" He felt of the afore-mentioned head with a light and tender touch; and the generous bump made him swear again.
"It's that prospectin' rustler," enlightened Fleming, gratis, as he peered into the shadows behind him.
"No!" said Gates. "I reckoned it was General Grant an' th' Army of th' Potomac! Dead shore it wasn't Columbus?" he sneered.
"It was not Columbus, Benjamin," said Fleming. "Columbus discovered America in 1492 or 1942—some time around there. Ain't you heard about it yet? An' somehow I feels like a calf bein' drug to th' brandin' fire. I feels that I'm goin' to get somethin' soon; an' I ain't shore just what it's goin' to be."
"You'll get it, all right," cheered Harrison, anger in his voice withal. "It'll be a snub-nosed .45, if you don't shut up yore trap. You ain't openin' no Fourth of July celebration, or runnin' for Congress."
Ben felt for his gun and cursed peevishly. "My guns are gone: lend me one of yourn!" he said.
"Th' gentleman has quite a collection," chuckled Harrison. "Three Colts an' a Winchester. Good pickin', says he. Good enough, says I. True, says he; but, he says, I have hopes of more. Ta-ta! jeers I."
"Shut yore face!" growled Fleming, writhing.
"I want a gun, an' I wants it now!" blazed Gates, pugnaciously.
"Fair sir, how many guns do you think we pack?" demanded Harrison.
"You got a rifle an' a Colt!" snapped Gates. "I wants one of 'em!"
"He only wants one of 'em," said Fleming.
"I was scared you'd be a hog," said Harrison. "Here; take this Winchester, an' keep it. Bein' generous is all right; but it has its limits."
Gates gripped the weapon affectionately and sat up. "No use of stayin' here like we done took root," he said, rising to his feet. "We wants to spread out. Mebby he's still hangin' around."
"Yes; an' shoot each other," growled Harrison. "I'm goin' to spread out, all right; an' when I quits spreadin' I'll be in my little bunk. He's a mile away by now; but if he ain't, don't you let him have that gun; he's got enough now."
He stopped suddenly, and their hair arose on their heads as a long-drawn, piercing scream rang out. It sounded like a woman in mortal agony and it came from the ridge above them. From the upper end of the rock-walled pasture below came a howl, deep, long-drawn, evil, threatening. They turned searching eyes toward the nearer sound and saw a crescent bulk silhouetted against the moon. It lay in the top of a blasted pine, and as they looked, it raised its chunky head and neck and screamed an answering challenge to the lobo wolf in the canyon.
Ben moved swiftly, and a spurt or flame split the night, crashing echoes returning in waves. The crescent silhouette in the tree-top leaped convulsively and crashed to the ground, breaking off the dead limbs in its fall, and then there ensued a spitting, snarling, thrashing turmoil as the great panther scored the earth in its agony.
Ben's friends forsook him as though he were a leper and melted into the shadows, cursing him from A to Z. They wanted no ringing notice of their presence broadcasted, and the flash and roar of the heavy rifle had done just that.
As they faded into the darker shadows farther back a crashing sounded in the brush and they peered forth to see the great panther plunging and writhing through the bushes, smashing its way through the oak brush in desperate plunges. Reaching the edge of a small clearing it gave one convulsive leap, another harrowing scream and thudded against a bowlder, where it suddenly relaxed and lay quiet.
"There's near a quart of corn juice up in my bunk, an' I'm goin' for it," said Harrison, moving swiftly up the rough trail. "I need it, an' I need it bad!"
"That cat's mate ain't fur away," remarked Fleming thoughtfully. "It's due hereabouts right soon. I'm stickin' closer than a brother, Nat. Lead me to th' fluid which consoleth, arouseth anger and dulleth pain; blaster of homes, causer of—of—headaches, d—n it! Ben, he's a great hunter, a wild, untamed, ferocious slayer of varmints; he can stay here an' argue with th' inquirin' mate, if he wants, while we wafts yonder an' hence. It won't be draped up in no tree, neither; somehow I can just see it sniffin' at th' beloved dead an' then soft-footin' through th' brush, over th' ridges an' around th' bowlders, its whiskers bristlin', its wicked little ears pointed back, an' its long, generous tail goin' jerk-jerk, tremble-tremble. Lovely picture. Fascinatin' picture. It is lookin' real hard for th' misguided son-of-a-gun that killed its tuneful mate. Nice kitty; pretty kitty; lovely kitty! I votes, twice, for that whiskey. I votes three times for that whiskey. Lead th' way, Nat; an' for my sake keep yore eyes peeled."
Quick, heavy steps behind them made them jump for cover, turning as they jumped, and to peer anxiously back along the trail.
Ben walked into sight, the rifle held loosely in front of him as he peered into the shadows. "You acts like you has springs in yore laigs," he derisively remarked.
"An' you acts like you had sour dough for brains," courteously retorted Harrison. "An' it's so sour it's moldy. Go away from here!"
"Yo're a great little, two-laigged success," sneered Fleming. "Reg'lar Dan'l Boone. I hopes if any gent ever trails me for my scalp it will be you. You wants to buy yoreself a big tin whistle an' a bass drum when you go out ambushin'!"
"I claims that was a good shot," complacently replied Ben. "What with it bein' near dark, an' a strange gun, an' my head most splittin', I holds it was. Must 'a' been to make you long-winded ijuts so d—d jealous."
"Trouble is, yore head didn't split enough," grumbled Harrison pleasantly. "It should 'a' been split from topknot to chin. Next time I goes man-huntin', you stays home with yore pretty picture books."
"Suits me," grunted Ben placidly. "Yore company hurts my ears, offends my nose, an' shocks my eyes. An' as for th' excitement, why I done got enough of that to—look out!" he yelled, firing without raising the gun to his shoulder.
An answering flash split the darkness between two bowlders further up the slope and Ben pitched sideways. His companions fired as if by magic; the instant return fire sent Harrison reeling backward. He tripped on a root and fell sprawling, the gun flying from his hand. Fleming leaped toward a huge rock, firing as he jumped, and slid behind the cover, where he sighed, and groped for his gun with trembling hands. Groans and muttered curses came from the trail, and Fleming, raising himself to a sitting position, his back against a rock, saw Harrison dragging himself toward his gun and a clump of brush.
"You stay where you are," said an ominous voice, "an' put up yore hands!"
Lying in a patch of moonlight, Harrison could do nothing but obey; but Fleming nerved himself and picked up his gun, still able to fight and only waiting for his enemy to show himself. Several minutes passed and then a hand darted over the rock and wrenched Fleming's gun out of the weak hand that held it.
"You ain't goin' to get hurt no more if you acts sensible," said the new owner of the gun. "Where you hit?"
"Thigh an' shoulder," muttered Fleming weakly.
The stranger fell to work swiftly and deftly and in a short time he arose and moved toward the two men in the clearing. "You'll be all right after yore friends get you home," he said over his shoulder. Reaching the two figures on the trail he first took their guns and then looked them over.
"This feller with th' lump on his head is my old friend, th' smoker," said Johnny. "He's got a crease in his scalp. Barrin' a little blood an' a big headache, he'll be all right after a while. Where'd I get you?" he demanded of Harrison.
"Arm," grunted Harrison. "Through th' flesh. I done tripped an' fell—must 'a' near busted a rock with my fool head when I lit," he said, as if to explain his subsequent inaction. "We reckoned you'd left th' country till we found th' package you tied up an' left."
"I come back for th' rest of my stuff," replied Johnny. "I was scared to come up th' valley."
"You acts like you'd scare easy," admitted Harrison. "I'm sorry you ain't got more nerve," he grinned despite the pain in his arm.
"Here," said Johnny, squatting beside him, "lemme tie up that arm. I wasn't aimin' to shoot nobody till I was cornered," he grinned. "I heard what you fellers said, back in th' valley, an' that's why. I was plumb peaceful, tryin' to slip away, when that gent up an' let drive at me. Bein' in a pocket made by them fool bowlders I couldn't get out, so I had to cut down on you with both hands. Th' dark shadows helped me a lot; you couldn't see what you was shootin' at. An' anyhow, I owe him somethin'. I was under that tree when he up an' dumped that pleasant cougar down on top of me, right in my arms. Never was more surprised in all my life. An' to make matters worse, this is my best pair of pants."
"Show 'em to me!" begged Harrison.
Johnny stepped back for inspection and waved his hands at the trousers; and Harrison had to laugh at what he saw. What was left of them formed a very short kilt, and the underwear was torn into bloody strips.
"I'm pullin' my stakes," continued Johnny pleasantly. "This layout is too excitin' for a man of my bashful an' retirin' disposition. You can tell Quigley he don't have to set no more ambushes in that valley, an' also that th' first time I meet him I'm goin' to smoke him up with both hands. I'm honin' for to get a look at him, just a quick glance. Give my regards to yore friend Ackerman; his gun, an' that other feller's, is with Pop Hayes; but mebby they ought to wait till I leave th' country before they go in for 'em."
He turned on his heel and walked slowly away, with a pronounced limp, a present from the cougar. When he reached the edge of the clearing he paused and faced about.
"You two fellers will be all right in a little while, an' if you can't get yore friend home, you can send them that can. I'll take yore six-guns along with me so there won't be no accidents; but I'll leave this rifle over here on this rock, empty. Th' cartridges are on th' ground on th' other side of th' rock. That cougar's mate is some het up about now, I reckons, an' you may need it. Better not come for it for a couple of minutes. There's been enough shootin' already. Adios," and he was gone as silently as a shadow.
Harrison sat cross-legged and waited considerable more than two minutes and then walked slowly toward the rifle. As he picked it up there came a haunting scream and a rolling fusillade of shots from the south. Then a distant voice called faintly.
"I got th' mate, an' lost th' rest of my pants. Adios!"
"I'll be d—d!" grunted Harrison, going toward his friend at the rock. "That feller is one cheerful hombre; an' a white man, too. If I was Quigley, I'll bet four bits I wouldn't show my face in Hastings till he was a long way off. No, ma'am; not a-tall. Here, Art; you take th' gun till I go back an' see how Dan'l Boone is comin' along. He's a rip-snortin', high-class success, he is! I'll bet you he'll brag about droppin' that cougar, you just wait an' see. Hello, you wild jackass! How you feel!"
"You can go to h—l" snorted the man with the creased scalp, sitting up. "An' I don't care a cuss when you starts, or how you goes. I'm fond of excitement, thrive on it an' get fat; but I serves notice, here an' now, that I'm quittin'. Any man that takes th' trail with you two fools is a bigger fool. Great guns! I won't have no head left after a while!"
"You never did have one that amounted to anythin'," said Harrison cheerfully. "I admit that it's a handy place to hang a hat, but when that is said, th' story is ended. Amen. You set right where you are till you are able to walk, an' then we'll get Art home."
"Takin' Art home is what we should 'a' done long ago; we're doin' this thing backwards, th' d—n fool!" moaned Ben. "We'd 'a' been home long ago if it wasn't for him."
"Huh?" muttered Harrison. "Well, I'll be d—d! Say! If it wasn't for you pluggin' that cat we'd 'a' been home, whole an' happy, sleepin' th' sleep of th' innercent, When you got that bright idea, you shore touched off a-plenty. He was pullin' his stakes, aimin' to get out peaceful, when you dumped that panther right down plumb around his neck! Man! Man! But I wish I'd 'a' seen that! Benjamin, if you only knowed what I'm thinkin' about you! Words ain't capable of revealin' my thoughts; they fall far short; an' if I used enough words I'd strain my vo—vocabulary, till it never would be any good any more. An' I can only swear in English, Spanish, Navajo, an' Ute. An education must be a grand thing."
"Th' breaks was ag'in us," explained Benjamin.
"Lord, please hold me back!" prayed Harrison.
Well to the south of them a limping cow-puncher, with no trousers at all now, and blood-soaked strips of underwear pasted to his torn and bleeding legs, pushed doggedly toward his horse, swearing at almost every painful step and avoiding all kinds of brush as he painstakingly held to the middle of the dried bed of the creek. His shirt tail, cut into ragged strips, flapped in the cold breeze where not held down by the weight of the sagging belts and holsters; and in his hands he carried the captured Colts.
Reaching his horse he fastened the extra weapons to his saddle, carefully drew on his chaps, coiled up the picket rope and climbed gingerly astride.
"Come on, Pepper!" he growled "Pull out of this. I got a pair of pants wrapped up in that tarpaulin at th' mouth of th' valley; an' I wants 'em bad. You shore missed somethin' this evening you lucky old cow!"
When day broke it revealed a shivering, grumbling cow-puncher washing his cuts and gashes in the cold, pure water of Nelson's creek. Retiring to the pebbly bank, he tore up a clean shirt and used it all for bandages, after which he carefully drew on a pair of clean underdrawers and covered them with a pair of well-worn trousers. The chaps came next as a protection against whipping branches and clinging brush. Rolling up the tarpaulin he fastened it behind his saddle and, mounting stiffly, started for Hastings.
Some hours later he lolled at ease and related to the grinning proprietor the strange and exciting occurrences of the night. Pop was swung from one extreme to the other as the tale unfolded, while Andrew Jackson chuckled, whistled, and laughed until the narrator's scratching fingers lulled him into a deep and soul-stirring ecstasy.
"You shore started some fireworks," chuckled Pop when the tale was finished. "An' yo're cussed lucky, too. When Ackerman showed his hand yesterday I knowed trouble was fixin' to ride you to a frazzled finish. Now what d—d fool thing are you goin' to do?" he demanded anxiously.
"I'm goin' to keep out of that valley," reluctantly answered Johnny. "It ain't got no charms for me no more. They've burned my cabin, an' I reckon I got all th' gold there was, anyhow. When my legs get well I'm goin' to try it again somewhere else. Twin Buttes are too unlucky for me."
"Now yo're shoutin'," beamed Pop. "You just set around here an' take things easy for a few days, while me an' Charley fixes that tarp so it'll be a pack cover an' a tent that is one. No prospector wants to build a shack unless winter ketches him in th' hills or he finds a rich strike. Me an' you an' Charley will go fishin' a few days from now an' have a reg'lar rest. I'm all tired out, too. Business is shore confinin'." He looked Johnny over and chuckled. "Cussed if I wouldn't 'a' give six pesos, U. S., to 'a' seen that cougar a-fannin' you! He-he-he!"