Dud had joined Tom in the doorway. "Meet up with Mr. Houck?" he asked.
"Have any talk?"
"He had some, but he hadn't hardly got to goin' good when the mad dog sashayed up the street. Mr. Houck he adjourned the meetin' immediate."
"More important business, I reckon," Dud grinned.
"He didn't mention it, but all those present were in a kinda hurry."
"So's some one else." Reeves nodded his head toward a small cloud of dust approaching the ranch.
A rider galloped up and dragged his mount to a halt. "Utes have broke out! Killed a trapper on Squaw Creek! Burned two nesters' houses!" His voice was high and excited.
"Rumor?" asked Dud.
"No, sir. I talked with a fellow that seen the body. Met two families that had lit out from Squaw Creek. They're sure enough on the warpath."
Harshaw took the matter seriously. He gave crisp orders to his riders to cover the creeks and warn all settlers to leave for Bear Cat or Meeker. Dud and Bob were assigned Milk Creek.
It was hard for the young fellows, as they rode through a land of warm sunshine, to believe that there actually was another Indian outbreak. It had been ten years since the Meeker massacre and the defeat of Major Thornburg's troops. The country had begun to settle up. The Utes knew that their day was done, though they still came up occasionally from the reservation on illicit hunting trips.
This very country over which they were riding was the scene of the Thornburg battle-field. The Indians had lain in ambush and waited for the troops to come over the brow of the rise. At the first volley the commander of the soldiers had fallen mortally wounded. The whites, taken by surprise, fell back in disorder. The Utes moved up on them from both sides and the trapped men fled.
"Must 'a' been right about here Thornburg was shot," explained Dud. "Charley Mason was one o' the soldiers an' he told me all about it. Captain Jack was in charge of this bunch of Utes. Seems he had signal fires arranged with those at the agency an' they began their attacks at the same time. Charley claimed they didn't know there was Injuns within twenty miles when the bullets began to sing. Says he ran five miles before he took a breath."
Bob looked around apprehensively. History might repeat itself. At this very moment the Utes might be lying in the draw ready to fire on them. He was filled with a sudden urgent desire to get through with their job and turn the heads of their ponies toward Bear Cat.
"Makes a fellow feel kinda squeamish," Dud said. "Let's move, Bob."
They carried the word to the settlers on the creek and turned in the direction of Bear Cat. They reached town late and found the place bustling with excitement. Families of settlers were arriving in wagons and on horseback from all directions. There were rumors that the Indians were marching on the town. A company of militia had been ordered to the scene by the Governor of the State and was expected to arrive on the second day from this.
Camp-fires were burning in the park plaza and round them were grouped men, women, and children in from the ranches. On all the roads leading to town sentries were stationed. Others walked a patrol along the riverbank and along the skirts of the foothills.
Three or four cowpunchers had been celebrating the declaration of war. In the community was a general feeling that the Utes must be put down once for all. In spite of the alarm many were glad that the unrest had come to an issue at last.
Bob and Dud tied their horses to a hitching-rack and climbed the fence into the park. Blister came out of the shadows to meet them.
"W-whad I tell you, Texas man?" he asked of Bob. "Show-down at last, like I said."
Into the night lifted a startled yell. "Here come the Injuns!"
Taut nerves snapped. Wails of terror rose here and there. A woman fainted. The sound of a revolver shot rang out.
One of the roisterers, who had been loud in his threats of what he meant to do to the Indians, lost his braggadocio instantly. He leaped for the saddle of the nearest horse and dug his spurs home. In his fuddled condition he made a mistake. He had chosen, as a mount upon which to escape, the fence that encircled the park.
"Gid ap! Gid ap!" he screamed.
"Yore bronc is some balky, ain't it, Jud?" Hollister asked. He had already discovered that the panic had been caused by a false cry of "Wolf" raised by one of the fence rider's companions.
"S-some one hitched it to a post," Blister suggested.
"Ride him, puncher," urged Bob. "Stick to yore saddle if he does buck."
Jud came off the fence sheepishly. "I was aimin' to go get help," he explained.
"Where was you going for it—to Denver?" asked Blister.
The night wore itself out. With the coming of day the spirits of the less hardy revived. The ranchers on the plaza breakfasted in groups, after which their children were bundled off to school. Scouts rode out to learn the whereabouts of the Utes and others to establish contact with the approaching militia.
Harshaw organized a company of rangers made up mostly of cowpunchers from the river ranches. During the day more of these drifted in. By dusk he had a group of forty hard-riding young fellows who could shoot straight and were acquainted with the country over which they would have to operate. Blister was second in command. All of the Slash Lazy D riders had enlisted except one who had recently broken a leg.
Scouts brought in word that the Utes had swung round Bear Cat and were camped about thirty miles up the river. Harshaw moved out to meet them. He suspected the Indians of planning to ambush the militia before the soldiers could join forces with the rangers.
Bob had joined the rangers with no enthusiasm. He had enlisted because of pressure both within and without. He would have been ashamed not to offer himself. Moreover, everybody seemed to assume he would go. But he would much rather have stayed at Bear Cat with the home guards. From what he had picked up, he was far from sure that the Utes were to blame this time. The Houck killing, for instance. And that was not the only outrage they had endured. It struck him more like a rising of the whites. They had provoked the young bucks a good deal, and a sheriff's posse had arrested some of them for being off the reservation hunting. Wise diplomacy might at least have deferred the conflict.
During the bustle of preparing to leave, Bob's spirits were normal even though his nerves were a little fluttery. As they rode out of town he caught sight for a moment of a slim, dark girl in a blue gingham at the door of the hotel. She waved a hand toward the group of horsemen. It was Dud who answered the good-bye. He had already, Bob guessed, said a private farewell of his own to June. At any rate, his friend had met Hollister coming out of the hotel a few minutes before. The cowpuncher's eyes were shining and a blue skirt was vanishing down the passage. There had been a queer ache in Bob Dillon's heart. He did not blame either of them. Of course June would prefer Dud to him. Any girl in her senses would. He had all the charm of gay and gallant youth walking in the sunshine.
None the less it hurt and depressed him that there should be a private understanding between his friend and June. A poignant jealousy stabbed him. There was nothing in his character to attract a girl like June of swift and pouncing passion. He was too tame, too fearful. Dud had a spice of the devil in him. It flamed out unexpectedly. Yet he was reliable too. This clean, brown man, fair-haired and steady-eyed, riding with such incomparable ease, would do to tie to, in the phrase of the country. Small wonder a girl's heart turned to him.
A RECRUIT JOINS THE RANGERS
Harshaw did not, during the first forty-eight hours after leaving Bear Cat, make contact with either the Indians or the militia. He moved warily, throwing out scouts as his party advanced. At night he posted sentries carefully to guard against a surprise attack. It was not the habit of the tribes to assault in the darkness, but he was taking no chances. It would be easy to fall into an ambush, but he had no intention of letting the rangers become the victims of carelessness.
At the mouth of Wolf Creek a recruit joined the company. He rode up after camp had been made for the night.
"Jake Houck," Bob whispered to Dud.
"Who's boss of this outfit?" the big man demanded of Blister after he had swung from the saddle.
"Harshaw. You'll find him over there with the cavvy."
Houck straddled across to the remuda.
"Lookin' for men to fight the Utes?" he asked brusquely of the owner of the Slash Lazy D brand.
"If you mean business an' ain't bully-pussin' I'll take a hand," the Brown's Park man said, and both voice and manner were offensive.
The captain of the rangers met him eye to eye. He did not like this fellow. His reputation was bad. In the old days he had been a rustler, rumor said. Since the affair of the Tolliver girl he had been very sulky and morose. This had culminated in the killing of the Ute. What the facts were about this Harshaw did not know. The man might be enlisting to satisfy a grudge or to make himself safe against counter-attack by helping to drive the Indians back to the reservation. The point that stood out was that Houck was a first-class fighting man. That was enough.
"We mean business, Houck. Glad to have you join us. But get this straight. I'll not have you startin' trouble in camp. If you've got a private quarrel against any of the boys it will have to wait."
"I ain't aimin' to start anything," growled Houck. "Not till this job's finished."
"Good enough. Hear or see anything of the Utes as you came?"
"Which way you come?"
Houck told him. Presently the two men walked back toward the chuck-wagon.
"Meet Mr. Houck, boys, any of you that ain't already met him," said Harshaw by way of introduction. "He's going to trail along with us for a while."
The situation was awkward. Several of those present had met Houck only as the victim of their rude justice the night that June Tolliver had swum the river to escape him. Fortunately the cook at that moment bawled out that supper was ready.
Afterward Blister had a word with Bob and Dud while he was arranging sentry duty with them.
"Wish that b-bird hadn't come. He's here because he wants to drive the Utes outa the country before they get him. The way I heard it he had no business to kill that b-buck. Throwed down on him an' killed him onexpected. I didn't c-come to pull Jake Houck's chestnuts outa the fire for him. Not none. He ain't lookin' for to round up the Injuns and herd 'em back to the reservation. He's allowin' to kill as many as he can."
"Did anybody see him shoot the Ute?" asked Bob.
"Seems not. They was back of a stable. When folks got there the Ute was down, but still alive. He claimed he never made a move to draw. Houck's story was that he shot in self-defense. Looked fishy. The Injun's gun wasn't in s-sight anywheres."
"Houck's a bad actor," Dud said.
"Yes." Blister came back to the order of the day. "All right, boys. Shifts of three hours each, then. T-turn an' turn about. You two take this knoll here. If you see anything movin' that looks suspicious, blaze away. We'll c-come a-runnin'."
Bob had drunk at supper two cups of strong coffee instead of his usual one. His thought had been that the stimulant would tend to keep him awake on duty. The effect the coffee had on him was to make his nerves jumpy. He lay on the knoll, rifle clutched fast in his hands, acutely sensitive to every sound, to every hazy shadow of the night. The very silence was sinister. His imagination peopled the sage with Utes, creeping toward him with a horrible and deadly patience. Chills tattooed up and down his spine.
He pulled out the old silver watch he carried and looked at the time. It lacked five minutes of ten o'clock. The watch must have stopped. He held it to his ear and was surprised at the ticking. Was it possible that he had been on sentry duty only twelve minutes? To his highly strung nerves it had seemed like hours.
A twig snapped. His muscles jumped. He waited, gun ready for action, eyes straining into the gloom. Something rustled and sped away swiftly. It must have been a rabbit or perhaps a skunk. But for a moment his heart had been in his throat.
Again he consulted the watch. Five minutes past ten! Impossible, yet true. In that eternity of time only a few minutes had slipped away.
He resolved not to look at his watch again till after eleven. Meanwhile he invented games to divert his mind from the numbing fear that filled him. He counted the definite objects that stood out of the darkness—the clumps of sage, the greasewood bushes, the cottonwood trees by the river. It was his duty to patrol the distance between the knoll and those trees at intervals. Each time he crept to the river with a thumping heart. Those bushes—were they really willows or Indians waiting to slay him when he got closer?
Fear is paralyzing. It pushes into the background all the moral obligations. Half a dozen times the young ranger was on the point of waking Dud to tell him that he could not stand it alone. He recalled Blister's injunctions. But what was the use of throwing back his head and telling himself he was made in the image of God when his fluttering pulses screamed denial, when his heart pumped water instead of blood?
He stuck it out. How he never knew. But somehow he clamped his teeth and went through. As he grew used to it, his imagination became less active and tricky. There were moments, toward the end of his vigil, when he could smile grimly at the terror that had obsessed him. He was a born coward, but he did not need to let anybody know it. It would always be within his power to act game whether he was or not.
At one o'clock he woke Dud. That young man rolled out of his blanket grumbling amiably. "Fine business! Why don't a fellow ever know when he's well off? Me, I might be hittin' the hay at Bear Cat or Meeker instead of rollin' out to watch for Utes that ain't within thirty or forty miles of here likely. Fellow, next war I stay at home."
Bob slipped into his friend's warm blanket. He had no expectation of sleeping, but inside of five minutes his eyes had closed and he was off.
The sound of voices wakened him. Dud was talking to the jingler who had just come off duty. The sunlight was pouring upon him. He jumped up in consternation.
"I musta overslept," Bob said.
Dud grinned. "Some. Fact is, I hadn't the heart to waken you when you was poundin' yore ear so peaceful an' tuneful."
"You stood my turn, too."
"Oh, well. It was only three hours. That's no way to divide the night anyhow."
They were eating breakfast when a messenger rode into camp. He was from Major Sheahan of the militia. That officer sent word that the Indians were in Box Canyon. He had closed one end and suggested that the rangers move into the other and bottle the Utes.
Harshaw broke camp at once and started for the canyon. A storm blew up, a fierce and pelting hail. The company took refuge in a cottonwood grove. The stones were as large as good-sized plums, and in three minutes the ground was covered. Under the stinging ice bullets the horses grew very restless. More than one went plunging out into the open and had to be forced back to shelter by the rider. Fortunately the storm passed as quickly as it had come up. The sun broke through the clouds and shone warmly upon rivulets of melted ice pouring down to the Blanco.
Scouts were thrown forward once more and the rangers swung into the hills toward Box Canyon.
"How far?" Bob asked Tom Reeves.
"'Bout half an hour now, I reckon. Hope we get there before the Injuns have lit out."
Privately Bob hoped they would not. He had never been under fire and his throat dried at the anticipation.
"Sure," he answered. "We're humpin' along right lively. Be there in time, I expect. Too bad if we have to chase 'em again all over the map."
Box Canyon is a sword slash cut through the hills. From wall to wall it is scarcely forty feet across. One looks up to a slit of blue sky above.
Harshaw halted close to the entrance. "Let's make sure where Mr. Ute is before we ride in, boys. He might be up on the bluffs layin' for us. Dud, you an' Tom an' Big Bill go take a look-see an' make sure. We'll come a-runnin' if we hear yore guns pop."
Two men in uniform rode out of the gulch. At the sight of the rangers they cantered forward. One was a sergeant.
"Too late," said he. "They done slipped away from us. We took shelter from the hail under a cutbank where the canyon widens. They musta slipped by us then. We found their tracks in the wet ground. They're headin' west again, looks like."
"We've got a warm trail," Harshaw said to Blister Haines. "We better go right after 'em."
"Hot foot," agreed Blister.
"Major Sheahan's followin' them now. He said for you to come right along."
The cavalcade moved at once.
"DON'T YOU LIKE ME ANY MORE?"
Harshaw's rangers caught up with the militia an hour later. The valley men were big, tanned, outdoor fellows, whereas the militia company was composed of young lads from Colorado towns, most of them slight and not yet fully developed. The state troopers were, however, brisk, alert, and soldierly. Some of them were not used to riding, but they made the best of it with the cheerful adaptability of American youth.
The trail of the Indians cut back across the mesa toward Utah. Evidently they were making for their home country again. Bob began to hope that the Utes would reach the reservation without a fight. In this desire the owner of the Slash Lazy D heartily joined. He had no impulses toward the slaughter of the tribal remnants.
Others of the party did not share this feeling. Without going into the causes of the Indian troubles, it can safely be said that the frontiersmen generally believed that the tribes were dangerous and not to be trusted. In any difficulty between a white and a red man they assumed the latter was to blame. Many old-timers held that the only way to settle the Indian question was to exterminate the tribes or at least reduce them to impotence.
The pursuers followed a hot trail. Twice they had a brush with the rear guard of the flying Utes, during which Bob heard bullets singing above his head. He felt a very unpleasant sinking in the pit of his stomach, and could hardly resist the temptation to slip out of the saddle and take refuge behind the horse he was riding.
The rangers and the soldiers reached Bear Cat long after dark. Dud and Reeves had ridden into town ahead of their companions, so that when the rest came in they found a hot supper waiting for them on the plaza.
June helped serve the weary men. Big fires had been built on the square and by the light of the flames Bob could see her slim figure flitting to and fro. Afterward, when the meal was at an end, he saw Dud Hollister walking beside her to the hotel. The cowpuncher was carrying a load of dishes and supplies. It would have surprised Bob to learn that he was the subject of their conversation.
For the first time Dud had heard that day from Blister the story of the mad dog episode. He made June tell it to him again from her viewpoint. When she had finished he asked her a question.
"Anybody ever tell you about the fight Bob had with Bandy Walker?"
The light in her dark eyes quickened. "Did they have a fight?" she asked evenly, with not too great a show of interest.
"I dunno as you could rightly call it a fight," Dud drawled. "Bob he hammered Bandy, tromped on him, chewed him up, an' spit him out. He was plumb active for about five minutes."
"What was the trouble?"
"Bandy's one o' these mean bullies. He figured he could run on Bob. The boy took it meek an' humble for a week or so before he settled with Bandy generous an' handsome. The bow-legged guy might have got away with it if he hadn't made a mistake."
"A mistake?" repeated June.
"He had a few remarks to make about a young lady Bob knew."
June said nothing. In the darkness Dud made out only the dusky outline of her profile. He could not tell what she was thinking, had no guess that her blood was racing tumultuously, that a lump was swelling in the soft round throat.
Presently she asked her companion a question as to how Jake Houck came to be with the rangers. Dud understood that the subject was changed.
The soldiers found beds wherever they could. Some rolled up in their blankets near the fires. Others burrowed into haystacks on the meadow. Before daybreak they expected to be on the march again.
The bugle wakened them at dawn, but a good many of the cowpunchers were already up. Big Bill went to one of the haystacks to get feed for his horse. He gathered a great armful of hay and started away with it. A muffled voice inside wailed protest.
"Lemme out, doggone it."
Bill dropped the hay, and from it emerged a short and slender youth in uniform. He bristled up to the huge puncher.
"What d'you think you're doing, fellow?"
The cowpuncher sat down on a feed-rack and laughed till he was weak. "Drinks are on me, son," he gasped at last. "I 'most fed you to my hawss."
"Mebbe you think because I ain't as big as a house you can sit there an' laugh at me. I'll have you know you can't," the boy snapped.
"Fellow, I'm not laughin' at you. Napoleon was a runt, I've heard tell. But it was comical, you stickin' yore head up through the hay thataway. I'll stand pat on that, an' I ain't a-going to fight about it either."
The soldier's dignity melted to a grin. "Did you say drinks was on you, Jumbo?"
After Big Bill had fed his horse they went away arm in arm to see what Dolan could do for them in the way of liquid refreshment.
Just before the rangers and soldiers saddled for the start, Dud jingled over to his friend who was helping to pack the supply-wagons.
"Lady wants to see you, Bob. I'll take yore place here," Dud said.
Dillon lifted a barrel half full of flour into the nearest wagon and straightened a body cramped from stooping. "What lady?" he asked.
"Listen to the fellow," derided Hollister. "How many ladies has he got on the string, do you reckon?" The fair-haired cowpuncher grinned. "You meander round to the back of the hotel an' I expect you'll meet up with the lady. Mollie Larson she—"
"Oh, Mrs. Larson." For a moment a wild hope had flamed in Bob's heart. His thoughts had flashed to another woman in the hotel.
"Why, yes. Mollie runs the hotel, don't she? Was you lookin' for some other lady to send for you?" Dud asked innocently.
Bob did not answer this. He was already striding toward the hotel.
Out of the darkness of the adobe wall shadow a slim figure moved to meet the ranger. The young fellow's heart lost a beat.
"I—wanted to see you before you left," a low voice said.
A kind of palsy came over Dillon. He stood motionless, no life in him except for the eloquent eyes. No words came to help him.
"I thought—maybe—" June stopped, hesitated, and came out impetuously with what was in her mind. "Aren't we ever going to be friends again, Bob?"
A warm glow suffused him. The back of his eyes smarted with tears. He started to speak, but stopped. For he was boyishly ashamed to discover that he could not trust his voice.
"Don't you like me any more?" she asked. "Have I done something to make you mad?"
"No, you haven't." There was a rough edge to the words, put there by suppressed emotion. "You know better 'n that. I keep away from you because—because I acted like a yellow dog."
"When you fought Bandy Walker to keep clean my good name?" she asked in a murmur.
"Oh, that!" He waved her question aside as of no importance.
"Or when you fought the mad dog in the street with yore bare hands?"
"You know when, June," he answered bitterly. "When I let Jake Houck walk off with you to save my worthless hide."
"I've forgotten that, Bob," she said gently. "So much has happened since. That was foolishness anyhow, what—what we did in Blister's office. But I hate to give up the boy on Piceance Creek who was kinda like a brother to me. Do I have to lose him?"
There was no need for her big dark eyes to plead with him. His face was working. He bit his lip to keep from breaking down. This was what he wanted more than anything else in the world, but he was embarrassed and irritated at the display of emotion he could not wholly control.
"'S all right with me," he said gruffly.
"Then we'll be friends again, won't we?"
"Ump-ha!" he grunted. "I—I'd just as lief." He recognized this as cavalier and added: "I mean it's awful good of you."
"When you come back you won't forget to ask for me if I'm not where you see me. I'll want to hear all about what you do."
"Yes," he promised; and in a burst of gratitude cried: "You're a dandy girl, June. If you treated me like I deserved you'd never speak to me again."
She flushed. "That's silly. I never did feel thataway. Lots of times I've wanted to tell you that—that it needn't make any difference. But I couldn't, 'count of—what we did in Blister's office. A girl has to be awful careful, you know. If we hadn't done that foolish thing—"
"A judge'll fix you up with papers settin' you free, June," he told her. "I'll do anything to help that you want."
"Well, when you come back," she postponed. Talk on that subject distressed and humiliated her.
"I got to go," he said. "Good-bye."
She gave him her hand shyly. Their eyes met and fell away.
He stood a moment, trying to find an effective line of exit. He had missed his cue to leave, as thousands of lovers have before and since.
"Got to hit the trail," he murmured in anticlimax.
"Yes," she agreed.
Bob drew back one foot and ducked his head in a bow. A moment later he was hurrying toward the remuda.
A CUP OF COLD WATER
The pursuers caught up with the Utes the third day out from Bear Cat. It was in the morning, shortly after they had broken camp, that Houck and Big Bill while scouting in advance of the troop jumped up an Indian out of the sagebrush.
He made across the mesa toward the river. Houck fired at him twice as he ran, but the sentinel disappeared from sight apparently unhit. The sound of the firing brought up rapidly the main body of the troopers. Before Major Sheahan and Harshaw could work out a programme another Indian sentry could be seen running through the sage.
The sight of him was like that of a red rag to a bull. Not waiting for orders, a dozen punchers instantly gave chase. The rest of the party followed. Houck was in the lead. Not far behind was Bob Dillon.
The mesa bench dropped sharply down a bare shale scarp to the willows growing near the river. The Indian camp below could be seen from the edge of the bluff. But the rush to cut off the Ute was so impetuous that the first riders could not check their horses. They plunged down the bare slope at a headlong gallop.
Bob heard the ping of bullets as they sang past him. He saw little spatters of sand flung up where they struck. As his horse slithered down on its haunches through the rubble, the man just in front of him dived headlong from his horse. Bob caught one horrified glimpse of him rolling over and clutching at his breast. Next moment Dillon, too, was down. His mount had been shot under him.
He jumped up and ran for the willows, crouching low as he sped through the sage. Into the bushes he flung himself and lay panting. He quaked with fear. Every instant he expected to see the Utes rushing toward him. His rifle was gone, lost in the fall. The hand that drew the revolver from his belt trembled as with an ague.
Only a few of the riders had been unable to check themselves on the edge of the bluff. The others had now drawn back out of sight. A wounded horse lay kicking on the slope. It was the one upon which Bob had been mounted. The huddled figure of a man, with head grotesquely twisted, sat astride a clump of brush. Another sprawled on the hillside, arms and legs outflung.
Below, in the sage not far from the willows, another body lay in the sand. This one moved. Bob could see the man trying to hitch himself toward the shelter of the river bushes. Evidently he was badly wounded, for he made practically no progress. For a few minutes he would lie still, then try once more to crawl forward.
The popping of guns had shifted farther to the right. Bob judged that the rangers and soldiers were engaged with the Indians somewhere on the ridge. Only a few desultory shots came from the camp. But he knew it would be only a question of time till some Ute caught sight of the wounded man and picked him off as he lay helpless in the open.
Bob did not know who the wounded man was. He might be Dud Hollister or Tom Reeves. Or perhaps Blister Haines. Young Dillon sweated in agony. His throat was parched. He felt horribly sick and weak, was still shaking in a palsy of fear.
It was every man for himself now, he reasoned in his terror. Perhaps he could creep through the willows and escape up the river without being seen. He began to edge slowly back.
But that man crouched in the sunshine, tied by his wound to a spot where the Utes would certainly find him sooner or later, fascinated Bob's eyes and thoughts. Suppose he left him there—and found out too late that he had deserted Dud, abandoning him to almost certain death. He could not do that. It would not be human. What Dud would do in his place was not open to question. He would go out and get the man and drag him to the willows. But the danger of this appalled the cowpuncher. The Utes would get him sure if he did. Even if they did not hit him, he would be seen and later stalked by the redskins.
After all there was no sense in throwing away another life. Probably the wounded man would die anyhow. Every fellow had to think of himself at a time like this. It was not his fault the ranger was cut off and helpless. He was no more responsible for him than were any of the rest of the boys.
But it would not do. Bob could not by any sophistry escape the duty thrust on him. The other boys were not here. He was.
He groaned in desperation of spirit. He had to go and get the ranger who had been shot. That was all there was to it. If he did not, he would be a yellow coyote.
Out of the precarious safety of the willows he crept on hands and knees, still shaking in an ague of trepidation. Of such cover as there was he availed himself. From one sagebush to another he ran, head and body crouched low. His last halt was back of some greasewood a dozen yards from the ranger.
"I'll get you into the willows if I can," he called in a sibilant whisper. "You bad hurt?"
The wounded man turned. "My laig's busted—two places. Plugged in the side too."
Bob's heart sank. The face into which he looked was that of Jake Houck. If he had only known in time! But it was too late now. He had to finish what he had begun. He could not leave the fellow lying there.
He crawled to Houck. The big man gave directions. "Better drag me, I reckon. Go as easy as you can on that busted laig."
Dillon took him beneath the arms and hauled him through the sand. The wounded man set his teeth to keep back a groan. Very slowly and carefully, an inch here, a foot there, Bob worked Houck's heavy body backward. It was a long business. A dozen times he stopped to select the next leg of the journey.
Beads of perspiration stood on Houck's forehead. He was in great pain, but he clenched his teeth and said nothing. Bob could not deny him gameness. Not a sound escaped his lips. He clung to his rifle even though a free hand would greatly ease the jarring of the hurt leg.
Back of a scrub cottonwood Bob rested for a moment. "Not far now," he said.
Houck's eyes measured the distance to the willows. "No," he agreed. "Not far."
"Think maybe I could carry you," Bob suggested. "Get you on my shoulder."
"Might try," the wounded man assented. "Laig hurts like sixty."
Bob helped him to his feet and from there to his shoulder. He staggered over the rough ground to the willows. Into these he pushed, still carrying Houck. As gently as he could he lowered the big fellow.
"Got me as I came over the bluff," the Brown's Park man explained. "I was lucky at that. The Utes made a good gather that time. Outa four of us they collected two an' put me out of business. Howcome they not to get you?"
"Shot my horse," explained Bob. "I ducked into the willows."
It was hot in the willows. They were a young growth and the trees were close. The sun beat down on the thicket of saplings and no breeze penetrated it.
Houck panted. Already fever was beginning to burn him up.
"Hotter'n hell with the lid on," he grumbled. "Wisht I had some water." He drew out a flask that still had two fingers of whiskey in it, but he had resolution enough not to drink. This would not help him. "Reckon I better not take it," he said regretfully.
Bob took the bandanna handkerchief from his throat and soaked one end of it in the liquor. "Bathe yore head," he advised. "It'll cool it fine."
As the day grew older and the sun climbed the sky vault the heat increased. No breath of air stirred. The wounded man had moments of delirium in which he moaned for water.
There was water, cool and fresh, not fifty yards from them. He could hear the rushing river plunging toward the Pacific, the gurgling of the stream as it dashed against boulders and swept into whirlpools. But between Bob and that precious water lay a stretch of sandy wash which the Blanco covered when it was high. One venturing to cross this would be an easy mark for sharpshooters from the camp.
It seemed to him that the firing was now more distant. There was a chance that none of the Utes were still in the camp. Fever was mounting in Houck. He was in much distress both from thirst and from the pain of the wounds. Bob shrank from the pitiful appeals of his high-pitched, delirious voice. The big fellow could stand what he must with set jaws when he was sentient. His craving found voice in irrational moments while he had no control over his will. These were increasing in frequency and duration.
Dillon picked up the flask. "Got to leave you a while," he said. "Back soon."
The glassy eyes of Houck glared at him. His mind was wandering. "Torturin' me. Tha's what you're doin', you damned redskin," he muttered.
"Going to get water," explained Bob.
"Tha's a lie. You got water there—in that bottle. Think I don't know yore Apache ways?"
Bob crept to the edge of the willows. From the foliage he peered out. Nobody was in sight. He could still see a faint smoke rising from the Indian camp. But the firing was a quarter of a mile away, at least. The bend of the river was between him and the combatants.
Bob took his courage by the throat, drew a long breath, and ran for the river. Just as he reached it a bullet splashed in the current almost within hand's reach. The cowpuncher stooped and took two hasty swallows into his dry mouth. He filled the bottle and soaked the bandanna in the cold water. A slug of lead spat at the sand close to his feet. A panic rose within him. He got up and turned to go. Another bullet struck a big rock four paces from where he was standing. Bob scudded for the willows, his heart thumping wildly with terror.
He plunged into the thicket, whipping himself with the bending saplings in his headlong flight. Now that they had discovered him, would the Indians follow him to his hiding-place? Or would they wait till dusk and creep up on him unseen? He wished he knew.
The water and the cool, wet bandanna alleviated the misery of the wounded man. He shut his eyes, muttering incoherently.
There was no longer any sound of firing. The long silence alarmed Bob. Was it possible that his friends had been driven off? Or that they had retired from the field under the impression that all of the riders who had plunged over the bluff had been killed?
This fear obsessed him. It rode him like an old man of the sea. He could not wait here till the Utes came to murder him and Houck. Down in the bottom of his heart he knew that he could not leave this enemy of his to the fate that would befall him. The only thing to do was to go for help at once.
He took off his coat and put it under Houck's head. He moistened the hot bandanna for the burning forehead and poured the rest of the water down the throat of the sick man. The rifle he left with Houck. It would only impede him while he was crossing the mesa.
None of us know what we can do till the test comes. Bob felt it was physically impossible for him to venture into the open again and try to reach his friends. He might at any instant run plumb into the Utes. Nevertheless he crept out from the willows into the sage desert.
The popping of the guns had begun again. The battle seemed to be close to the edge of the mesa round the bend of the river. Bob swung wide, climbing the bluff from the farther skirt of the willows. He reached the mesa.
From where he lay he could see that the whites held a ridge two hundred yards away. The Utes were apparently in the river valley.
He moved forward warily, every sense abnormally keyed to service. A clump of wild blackberries grew on the rim of the bluff. From this smoke billowed. Bullets began to zip past Bob. He legged it for the ridge, blind to everything but his desperate need to escape.
"KEEP A-COMIN', RED HAID"
When the rangers and the militia stampeded after the Indian scout, Dud Hollister was examining the hoof of his mount. He swung instantly to the saddle and touched his pony with the spur. It shot across the mesa on the outskirts of the troop. Not impeded by riders in front, Dud reached the bluff above the river valley on the heels of the advance guard. He pulled up just in time to keep from plunging over.
The Utes, under cover of the willow saplings, were concentrating a very heavy fire on the bluff and slope below. Dud's first thought was that the troops had been drawn into a trap. Every man who had been carried over the edge of the mesa by the impetus of the charge was already unhorsed. Several were apparently dead. One was scudding for cover.
Dud drew back promptly. He did not care to stand silhouetted against the sky-line for sharpshooters. Nobody had ever accused the Utes of being good shots, but at that distance they could hardly miss him if he stayed.
The soldiers and rangers gathered in a small clump of cottonwoods. Harshaw read his boys the riot act.
"Fine business," he told them bitterly. "Every last one of you acted like he was a tenderfoot. Ain't you ever seen a Ute before? Tryin' to collect him so anxious, an' him only bait to lead you on. I reckon we better go home an' let Major Sheahan's boys do this job. I'm plumb disgusted with you."
The range-riders looked at each other out of the corners of meek eyes. This rebuke was due them. They had been warned against letting themselves be drawn on without orders.
"That fellow Houck he started it," Big Bill suggested humbly by way of defense.
"Were you drug into it? Did he rope you off yore horse an' take you along with him?" demanded Harshaw sarcastically. "Well, I hope you got yore lesson. How many did we lose?"
A roll-call showed four missing. Hollister felt a catch at the throat when his riding partner failed to report. Bob must be one of those who had gone over the ledge.
One of Sheahan's troopers on scout duty reported. "Indians making for a gulch at the end of the willows, sir. Others swarming up into the bushes at the edge of the mesa."
A cowpuncher familiar with the country volunteered information. "Gulch leads to that ridge over there. It's the highest point around here."
"Then we'd better take the ridge," Harshaw suggested to Sheahan. "Right quick, too."
The major agreed.
They put the troop in motion. Another scout rode in. The Utes were hurrying as fast as they could to the rock-rim. Major Sheahan quickened the pace to a gallop. The Indians lying in the bushes fired at them as they went.
Tom Reeves went down, his horse shot under him. Dud pulled up, a hundred yards away. Out of the bushes braves poured like buzzing bees. The dismounted man would be cut off.
Hollister wheeled his cowpony in its tracks and went back. He slipped a foot from the stirrup and held it out as a foot-rest for Reeves. The Utes whooped as they came on. The firing was very heavy. The pony, a young one, danced wildly and made it impossible for Tom to swing up.
Dud dismounted. The panicky horse backed away, eyes filled with terror. It rose into the air, trembling. Dud tried to coax it to good behavior.
The moments were flying, bringing the Utes nearer every instant.
"We gotta make a run for it, Dud," his companion said hurriedly. "To the willows over there."
There was no choice. Hollister let go the bridle and ran. Scarcely fifty yards behind them came the Utes.
Even in their high-heeled boots the cowpunchers ran fast. Once within the shelter of the willows they turned and opened fire. This quite altered the situation. The foremost brave faltered in his pigeon-toed stride, stopped abruptly, and dived for the shelter of a sagebush. The others veered off to the right. They disappeared into some blackberry bushes on the edge of the mesa. Whether from here they continued to the valley the punchers in the willows could not tell.
"Some lucky getaway," Dud panted.
"Thought I was a goner sure when they plugged my bronc," said Reeves.
He took a careful shot at the sagebush behind which the Indian had taken refuge. The Ute ran away limping.
"Anyhow, that guy's got a souvenir to remember me by. Compliments of Tom Reeves," grinned the owner of that name.
"We've got to get back to the boys somehow. I reckon they're havin' quite a party on the ridge," Dud said.
The sound of brisk firing came across the mesa to them. It was evident that the whites and redskins had met on the ridge and were disputing for possession of it.
"My notion is we'd better stick around here for a while," Reeves demurred. "I kinda hate to hoof it acrost the flat an' be a target the whole darned way."
This seemed good to Hollister. The troopers seemed to be holding their own. They had not been driven back. The smoke of their rifles showed along the very summit of the rock-rim. The inference was that the Utes had been forced to fall back.
The two rangers lay in the willows for hours. The firing had died down, recommenced, and again ceased. Once there came the sound of shots from the right, down in the valley close by the river.
"They're likely gettin' the fellow that wasn't killed when he went over the bluff," Dud suggested. "There ain't a thing we can do to help him either."
"That's it, I reckon. They're collectin' him now. Wonder which of the boys it is."
Dud felt a twinge of conscience. There was nothing he could do to help the man hemmed in on the riverbank, but it hurt him to lie there without attempting aid. The ranger making the lone fight might be Bob Dillon, poor Bob who had to whip his courage to keep himself from playing the weakling. Dud hoped not. He did not like to think of his riding mate in such desperate straits with no hope of escape.
The battle on the ridge had begun again. Hollister and Reeves decided to try to rejoin their friends. From the north end of the willows they crept into a small draw that led away from the river toward the hills beyond the mesa. Both of them were experienced plainsmen. They knew how to make the most of such cover as there was. As they moved through the sage, behind hillocks and along washes, they detoured to put as much distance as possible between them and the Utes at the edge of the bench.
But the last hundred yards had to be taken in the open. They did it under fire, on the run, with a dozen riflemen aiming at them from the fringe of blackberry bushes that bordered the mesa. Up the ridge they went pell-mell, Reeves limping the last fifty feet of the way. An almost spent bullet had struck him in the fleshy part of the lower leg.
Hawks let out a cowboy yell at sight of them, jumped up, and pulled Dud down beside him among the boulders.
"Never expected to see you lads again alive an' kickin' after you an' the Utes started that footrace. I'll bet neither one of you throwed down on yoreself when you was headin' for the willows. Gee, I'm plumb glad to see you."
"We're right glad to be here, Buck," acknowledged Dud. "What's new?"
"We got these birds goin', looks like. In about an hour now we're allowin' to hop down into the gulch real sudden an' give 'em merry hell."
Dud reported to Harshaw. The cattleman dropped a hand on his rider's shoulder with a touch of affection. He was very fond of the gay young fellow.
"Thought they'd bumped you off, boy. Heap much glad to see you. What do you know?"
"I reckon nothing that you don't. There was firin' down by the river. Looks like they found one o' the boys who went over the bluff."
"An' there's a bunch of 'em strung out among the bushes close to the edge of the mesa. Fifteen or twenty, would you think?"
"Must be that many, the way their bullets dropped round Tom an' me just now."
"Tom much hurt?"
"Flesh wound only—in the laig."
Harshaw nodded. His mind was preoccupied with the problem before them. "The bulk of 'em are down in this gulch back of the ridge. We met 'em on the summit and drove 'em back. I judge they've had a-plenty. We'll rout 'em out soon now."
A brisk fire went on steadily between the Utes in the gulch and the whites on the ridge. Every man had found such cover as he could, but the numbers on both sides made it impossible for all to remain wholly hidden. The casualties among the troopers had been, however, very light since the first disastrous rush over the bluff.
Dud caught Harshaw's arm. "Look!" he cried, keenly excited.
A man had emerged from the bushes and was running across the flat toward the ridge. Dud and Tom had kept well away toward the foothills, not out of range of the Utes, but far enough distant to offer poor targets. But this man was running the gauntlet of a heavy fire close enough to be an easy mark. Blanco valley settlers, expert marksmen from much big-game hunting, would have dropped the runner before he had covered thirty yards. But the Indians were armed with cheap trade guns and were at best poor shots. The runner kept coming.
Those on the ridge watched him, their pulses quick, their nerves taut. For he was running a race with death. Every instant they expected to see him fall. From the bushes jets of smoke puffed like toy balloons continuously.
"Fire where you see the smoke, boys," Harshaw shouted.
The rangers and militia concentrated on the fringe of shrubbery. At least they could make it hot enough for the Indians to disturb their aims.
"He's down!" groaned Hollister.
He was, but in a second he was up once more, still running strong. He had stumbled over a root. The sage was heavy here. This served as a partial screen for the swiftly moving man. Every step now was carrying him farther from the sharpshooters, bringing him closer to the ridge.
"By Godfrey, he'll make it!" Harshaw cried.
It began to look that way. The bullets were still falling all around him, but he was close to the foot of the ridge.
Dud made a discovery. "It's Bob Dillon!" he shouted. Then, to the runner, with all his voice, "Keep a-comin', Red Haid!"
The hat had gone from the red head. As he climbed the slope the runner was laboring heavily. Dud ran down the hill to meet him, half a dozen others at his heels, among them Blister. They caught the spent youth under the arms and round the body. So he reached the crest.
Blister's fat arms supported him as his body swayed. The wheezy voice of the justice trembled. "G-glory be, son. I 'most had heart f-failure whilst you was hoofin' it over the mesa. Oh, boy! I'm g-glad to see you."
Bob sat down and panted for breath. "I got to go—back again," he whispered from a dry throat.
"What's that?" demanded Harshaw. "Back where?"
"To—to the river. I came to get help—for Houck."
"He's down there in the willows wounded."
AN OBSTINATE MAN STANDS PAT
A moment of blank silence fell on the little group crouched among the boulders. Bob's statement that he had to go back through the fire zone—to Houck—had fallen among them like a mental bombshell.
Blister was the first to find his voice. "You been down there l-lookin' after him?"
"Yes. They hit him in the leg—twice. An' once in the side. He's outa his head. I got him water from the river."
"Was that when I heard shootin' down there?" Dud asked.
"Well, I'll be d-dawg-goned!" Blister exclaimed.
Of life's little ironies he had never seen a stranger example than this. It had fallen to Bob Dillon to look after his bitter enemy, to risk his life for him, to traverse a battle-field under heavy fire in order to get help for him. His mind flashed back to the boy he had met less than a year ago, a pallid, trembling weakling who had shriveled under the acid test of danger. He had traveled a long way since then in self-conquest.
"Houck was down in the open last I seen him," Hawks said. "Did he crawl to the willows?"
"I kinda helped him," Bob said, a little ashamed.
"Hmp! An' now you think we'd ought to let two-three men get shot going after him across the mesa," Harshaw said. "Nothin' doing. Not right away anyhow. Houck's foolishness got him into the hole where he is. He'll have to wait till we clean out this nest in the gulch. Soon as we've done that we'll go after him."
"But the Utes will rush the willows," Bob protested mildly.
"Sorry, but he'll have to take his chance of that. Any of the rest of us would in his place. You've done what you could, son. That lets you out."
"No, I'm going back," Bob said quietly. "I told him I would. I got to go."
"That wouldn't be r-right sensible, would it?" asked Blister. "N-not right away anyhow. After we get those b-birds outa the blackberry bushes, time enough then for you to h-hit the back trail."
"No, I promised." There was in Bob's face a look Blister had never seen there before, something hard and dogged and implacable. "My notion is for half a dozen of us to go on horses—swing round by the far edge of the mesa. We can drop down into the valley an' pick Houck up if we're lucky."
"And if you're not lucky?" Harshaw demanded.
"Why, o' course we might have trouble. Got to take our chances on that."
"They might wipe the whole bunch of you out. No, sir. I need my men right here. This whole thing's comin' to a show-down right soon. Houck will have to wait."
"I got to go back, Mr. Harshaw," Bob insisted. "I done promised him I would."
"Looky here, boy. You'll do as you please, of course. But there's no sense in being bull-haided. How much do you figure you owe this Jake Houck? I never heard tell he was yore best friend. You got him into the willows. You went to the river and brought him water. You ran a big risk comin' here to get help for him. We'll go to him just as soon as it's safe. That ought to content you."
Before Bob's mental vision there flashed a picture of a man in fever burning up for lack of water. He could not understand it himself. It was not reasonable, of course. But somehow Jake Houck had become his charge. He had to go through with the job.
"I'm going back to him," he said stubbornly.
"Then you're a darn fool. He wouldn't go a step of the way for you."
"Maybe not. That ain't the point. He needs me. Do I get a horse?"
"Yes, if you're bound an' determined to go," Harshaw said. After a momentary hesitation he added: "And if any of the boys want to go along they can. I'm not hinderin' them. But my advice is for them to stick right here."
Bob's eyes swept the little group round him. "Any one want to take a chance? We'll snake Houck outa the willows an' make a getaway sure."
"Or else you'll stay there with him permanent," Harshaw contributed. "It's plumb foolishness, boys. Houck had his orders an' he broke away from them deliberate. He'd ought to take what's comin'."
Dud pleaded with Dillon. "If it was anybody but Houck, Bob, I'd trail along with you. I sure would. But I can't see as there's any call for us to take such a big risk for him. He's got it in for us both. Said himself he was layin' for us. You stood by him to a fare-you-well. Ain't that enough?"
Bob did not attempt to reason. He simply stated facts. "No, I got to go back, Dud. He's a mighty sick man, an' he needs me. The Utes are liable to find him any time. Maybe I could stand 'em off."
"An' maybe you couldn't," Blister said. "It's plumb s-suicide."
Dillon looked at his fat friend with a faint, dreary smile. He did not himself relish the task before him. "Thought you told me to be a wolf, to hop to it every chance I got to do some crazy thing."
Blister hedged. "Oh, well, a f-fellow wants to have some sense. I never see a good thing that couldn't be r-run into the ground. Far as I know, I never told you to stand on the D. & R. G. tracks an' try to stop the express with yore head."
"I'll have to be going now," Bob said. He turned to Harshaw. "Where's that bronc I get to carry me back?"
"Up there in the pinons. Dud, you see he gets a good one. I'm wishin' you luck, son. An' I'll say one thing right out in meetin'. You're a better man than Lou Harshaw." The cattleman's hand gripped that of Dillon firmly.
"Shucks! Tha's foolishness," Bob murmured, embarrassed. "I'm scared stiff if you want to know."
"I reckon that's why you're aimin' for to make a target of yorese'f again," Hawks suggested ironically. "Damn 'f I'd do it for the best man alive, let alone Jake Houck. No, sir. I'll go a reasonable way, but I quit this side of suicide. I sure do."
Over to the left rifles were still popping, but at this point of the ridge the firing had temporarily died down. Bob Dillon was the center of interest.
A second time his eye traveled over the group about him. "Last call for volunteers, boys. Anybody want to take a ride?"
Blister found in that eye some compelling quality of leadership. "Dawg-gone you, I'll go," his high falsetto piped.
Bob shook his head. "Not you, Blister. You're too fat. We're liable to have to travel fast."
Nobody else offered himself as a sacrifice. There were men present who would have taken a chance for a friend, but they would not do it for Houck.
Dud went with Bob to the pinons. While Dillon saddled one horse, Hollister put the bridle on a second.
"What's that for?" Bob asked.
"Oh, I'm soft in the haid," Dud grunted. "Gonna trail along. I'll tell you right now I ain't lost Houck any, but if you're set on this fool business, why, I'll take a whirl with you."
"Good old Dud," Bob beamed. "I'll bet we get away with it fine."
"Crazy old Dud," the owner of the name grumbled. "I'll bet we get our topknots scalped."
They rode down from the rim-rock, bearing to the right, as far away from the river as possible. The Utes in the blackberry fringe caught sight of them and concentrated their fire on the galloping horsemen. Presently the riders dipped for a minute behind a swell of ground.
"A heap more comfortable ridin' here," Dud said, easing his horse for a few moments to a slower pace. "I never did know before why the good Lord made so much of this country stand up on end, but if I get outa this hole I'll not kick at travelin' over hills so frequent. They sure got their uses when Injuns are pluggin' at you."
They made as wide a circuit as the foothills would allow. At times they were under a brisk fire as they cantered through the sage. This increased when they swung across the mesa toward the river. Fortunately they were now almost out of range.
Riding along the edge of the bluff, they found a place where their sure-footed cowponies could slide and scramble down. In the valley, as they dashed across to the willows where Bob had left Houck, they were again under fire. Even after they had plunged into the thicket of saplings they could hear bullets zipping through the foliage to right and left.
The glazed eyes in Houck's flushed face did not recognize the punchers. Defiance glowered in his stare.
"Where'd you get the notion, you red devils, that Jake Houck is a quitter? Torment me, will you? Burn me up with thirst, eh? Go to it an' see."
Bob took a step or two toward the wounded man. "Don't you know me, Houck? We've come to look after you. This is Dud Hollister. You know him."
"What if I did gun him?" the high-pitched voice maundered on. "Tried to steal my bronc, he did, an' I wouldn't stand for it a minute.... All right. Light yore fires. Burn me up, you hounds of Hades. I'm not askin' no favors. Not none a-tall."
The big man's hand groped at his belt. Brown fingers closed on the butt of a forty-five. Instantly both rescuers were galvanized to life. Dud's foot scraped into the air a cloud of sand and dust as Bob dived forward. He plunged at Houck a fraction of a second behind his friend.
Into the blue sky a bullet went singing. Bob had been in time to knock the barrel of the revolver up with his outflung hand.
THREE IN A PIT
Wounded though he was, Houck managed to make a good deal of trouble for the punchers before they pinned him down and took the forty-five from him. His great strength was still at command, and he had the advantage that neither of his rescuers wanted to injure him during the struggle. They thrashed over the ground, arms and legs outflung wildly. Houck gave up only when his vigor collapsed.
His surrender was complete. He lay weak and panting, bleeding from reopened wounds, for the time as helpless and submissive as a child.
From a canteen they gave him water. Afterward they washed and tied up the wounds, bathed the fevered face, and kept the mosquitoes from him by fanning them away.
"Expect I'd better take a pasear an' see where Mr. Ute's at," Dud said. "He's liable to drap in onexpected while we're not lookin'—several of him, huntin' for souvenirs in the scalp line for to decorate his belt with."
From the little opening he crept into the thicket of saplings and disappeared. Bob waited beside the delirious man. His nerves were keyed to a high tension. For all he knew the beadlike eyes of four or five sharpshooters might be peering at him from the jungle.
The sound of a shot startled him. It came from the direction in which Dud had gone. Had he been killed? Or wounded? Bob could not remain longer where he was. He too crept into the willows, following as well as he could the path of Hollister.
There came to him presently the faint crackle of twigs. Some one or something was moving in the bosk. He lay still, heart thumping violently. The sound ceased, began again.
Bob's trembling hand held a revolver pointed in the direction of the snapping branches. The willows moved, opened up, and a blond, curly head appeared.
Bob's breath was expelled in a long sigh of relief. "Wow! I'm glad to see you. Heard that shot an' thought maybe they'd got you."
"Not so you can notice it," Dud replied cheerfully. "But they're all round us. I took a crack at one inquisitive buck who had notions of collectin' me. He ce'tainly hit the dust sudden as he vamosed."
"What'll we do?"
"I found a kinda buffalo wallow in the willows. We'll move in on a lease an' sit tight till Harshaw an' the boys show up."
They carried and dragged Houck through the thicket to the saucer-shaped opening Hollister had discovered. The edges of this rose somewhat above the surrounding ground. Using their spurs to dig with, the cowpunchers deepened the hollow and packed the loose dirt around the rim in order to heighten the rampart.
From a distance came the sound of heavy, rapid firing, of far, faint yells.
"The boys are attackin' the gulch," Dud guessed. "Sounds like they might be makin' a clean-up too."
It was three o'clock by Bob's big silver watch. Heat waves were shimmering in the hollow and mosquitoes singing. Occasionally Houck's voice rose in delirious excitement. Sometimes he thought the Utes were torturing him. Again he lived over scenes in the past. Snatches of babble carried back to the days of his turbulent youth when all men's cattle were his. In the mutterings born of a sick brain Bob heard presently the name of June.
"... Tell you I've took a fancy to you. Tell you Jake Houck gets what he wants. No sense you rarin' around, June. I'm yore man.... Mine, girl. Don't you ever forget it. Mine for keeps.... Use that gun, damn you, or crawl into a hole. I'm takin' yore wife from you. Speak yore piece. Tell her to go with me. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
The firing came nearer.
Again Dud guessed what was taking place. "They've got the Utes outa the gulch an' are drivin' them down the valley. Right soon they're liable to light on us hard. Depends on how much the boys are pressin' them."
They had two rifles and four revolvers, for Houck had lately become a two-gun man. These they examined carefully to make sure they were in order. The defenders crouched back to back in the pit, each of them searching the thicket for an angle of one hundred and eighty degrees.
The sound of the battle died down. Evidently the pursuers were out of contact with the natives.
"Don't like that," Dud said. "If the Utes have time they'll try to pick us up as they're passin'."
"See one?" asked his friend.
"Think so. Something moved. Down in that hollow. He's outa sight now."
"They've got us located, then. Old Man Trouble headed this way. Something liable to start. Soon now."
The minutes dragged. Bob's eyes blurred from the intensity with which he watched.
A bullet struck the edge of the pit. Bob ducked involuntarily. Presently there was a second shot—and a third.
"They're gettin' warm," Dud said.
He and Bob fired at the smoke puffs, growing now more frequent. Both of them knew it would be only a short time till one of them was hit unless their friends came to the rescue. Spurts of sand flew every few moments.
There was another undesirable prospect. The Utes might charge and capture the pit, wiping out the defenders. To prevent this the cowpunchers kept up as lively a fire as possible.
From down the valley came the sound of scattered shots and yells. Dud swung his hat in glee.
"Good boys! They're comin' in on the rear. Hi yi yippy yi!"
Firing began again on the other side. The Utes were caught between the rangers to the left and the soldiers to the right. Bob could see them breaking through the willows toward the river. It was an easy guess that their horses were bunched here and that they would be forced to cross the stream to escape.
Five minutes later Harshaw broke through the saplings to the pit. "Either of you boys hurt?" he demanded anxiously.
"Not a scratch on either of us," Dud reported.
The boss of the Slash Lazy D wrung their hands. "By Godfrey! I'm plumb pleased. Couldn't get it outa my head that they'd got you lads. How's Houck?"
"He's right sick. Doc had ought to look after him soon. He's had one mighty bad day of it."
Houck was carried on a blanket to the riverbank, where camp was being made for the night. The Utes had been routed. It was estimated that ten or twelve of them had been killed, though the number could not be verified, as Indians always if possible carry away their dead. For the present, at least, no further pursuit of them was feasible.
Dr. Tuckerman dressed the wounds of the Brown's Park man and looked after the others who had been hurt. All told, the whites had lost four killed. Five were wounded more or less seriously.
The wagons had been left on the mesa three miles away. Houck was taken here next day on a stretcher made of a blanket tied to willow poles. The bodies of the dead were also removed.
Two days later the rangers reached Bear Cat. They had left the soldiers to complete the task of rounding up the Utes and taking them back to the reservation.
A HERO IS EMBARRASSED
Following the Ute War, as it came to be called, there was a period of readjustment on the Rio Blanco. The whites had driven off the horses and the stock of the Indians. Two half-grown boys appropriated a flock of several thousand sheep belonging to the Indians and took them to Glenwood Springs. On the way they sold the sheep right and left. The asking price was a dollar. The selling price was twenty-five cents, a watermelon, a slice of pie, or a jack-knife with a broken blade.
The difficulties that ensued had to be settled. To get a better understanding of the situation the Governor of the State and a general of the United States Army with their staffs visited the White River country. While in Bear Cat they put up at the hotel.
Mollie did a land-office business, but she had no time to rest day or night. Passing through the office during the rush of the dinner hour, she caught sight of Blister Haines sprawled on two chairs. He was talking with Bob Dillon.
"Hear you done quit the Slash Lazy D outfit. What's the idee?" he said.
"Nothin' in ridin'," Bob told him. "A fellow had ought to get a piece of land on the river an' run some cattle of his own. Me an' Dud aim to do that."
"Hmp! An' meanwhile?"
"We're rip-rappin' the river for old man Wilson."
Blister was pleased, but he did not say so. "Takes a good man to start on a s-shoestring an' make it go with cattle."
"That's why we're going into it," Bob modestly explained.
Mollie broke in. "What are you boys loafin' here for when I need help in the dining-room? Can either of you sling hash?"
The fat man derricked himself out of the chairs. "We can. L-lead us to the job, ma'am."
So it happened that Blister, in a white apron, presently stood before the Governor ready to take orders. The table was strewn with used dishes and food, debris left there by previous diners. The amateur waiter was not sure whether the Governor and his staff had eaten or were ready to eat.
"D-do you want a r-reloadin' outfit?" he asked.
The general, seated beside the Governor, had lived his life in the East. He stared at Blister in surprise, for at a council held only an hour before this ample waiter had been the chief spokesman in behalf of fair play to the Indians. He decided that the dignified thing to do was to fail to recognize the man.
Blister leaned toward the Governor and whispered confidentially. "Say, Gov, take my tip an' try one o' these here steaks. They ain't from dogy stock."
The Governor had been a cattleman himself. The free-and-easy ways of the West did not disturb him. "Go you once, Blister," he assented.
The waiter turned beaming on the officer. His fat hand rested on the braided shoulder. "How about you, Gen? Does that go d-double?"
Upon Blister was turned the cold, hard eye of West Point. "I'll take a tenderloin steak, sir, done medium."
"You'll sure find it'll s-stick to yore ribs," Blister said cheerfully.
Carrying a tray full of dishes, Bob went into the kitchen choking down his mirth.
"Blister's liable to be shot at daybreak. He's lessie-majesting the U.S. Army."
Chung Lung shuffled to the door and peered through. Internal mirth struggled with his habitual gravity. "Gleat smoke, Blister spill cup cloffee on general."
This fortunately turned out to be an exaggeration. Blister, in earnest conversation with himself, had merely overturned a half-filled cup on the table in the course of one of his gestures.
Mollie retired him from service.
Alone with Bob for a moment in the kitchen, June whispered to him hurriedly. "Before you an' Dud go away I want to see you a minute."
"Want to see me an' Dud?" he asked.
She flashed a look of shy reproach at him. "No, not Dud—you."
Bob stayed to help wipe the dishes. It was a job at which he had been adept in the old days when he flunkied for the telephone outfit. Afterward he and June slipped out of the back door and walked down to the river.
June had rehearsed exactly what she meant to say to him, but now that the moment had arrived it did not seem so easy. He might mistake her friendliness. He might think there was some unexpressed motive in the back of her mind, that she was trying to hold him to the compact made in Blister Haines's office a year ago. It would be hateful if he thought that. But she had to risk it if their comradeship was going to mean anything. When folks were friends they helped each other, didn't they? Told each other how glad they were when any piece of good luck came. And what had come to Bob Dillon was more than good luck. It was a bit of splendid achievement that made her generous blood sing.
This was all very well, but as they moved under the cottonwoods across the grass tessellated with sunshine and shadow, the fact of sex thrust itself up and embarrassed her. She resented this, was impatient at it, yet could not escape it. Beneath the dusky eyes a wave of color crept into the dark cheeks.
Though they walked in silence, Bob did not guess her discomposure. As clean of line as a boy, she carried herself resiliently. He thought her beautiful as a wild flower. The lift and tender curve of the chin, the swell of the forearms above the small brown hands that had done so much hard work so competently, filled him with a strange delight. She had emerged from the awkwardness and heaviness of the hoydenish age. It was difficult for him to identify her with the Cinderella of Piceance Creek except by the eager flash of the eyes in those moments when her spirit seemed to be rushing toward him.
They stood on the bank above the edge of the ford. June looked down into the tumbling water. Bob waited for her to speak. He had achieved a capacity for silence and had learned the strength of it.
Presently June lifted her eyes to his. "Dud says you an' he are going to take up preemptions and run cattle of your own," she began.
"Yes. Harshaw's going to stake us. We'll divide the increase."
"I'm glad. Dud ought to quit going rippity-cut every which way. No use his wastin' five or six years before he gets started for himself."
"No," Bob assented.
"You're steadier than he is. You'll hold him down."
Bob came to time loyally. "Dud's all right. You'll find him there like a rock when you need him. Best fellow in all this White River country."
Her shining eyes sent a stab of pain through his heart. She was smiling at him queerly. "One of the best," she said.
"Stay with you to a fare-you-well," he went on. "If I knew a girl—if I had a sister—well, I'd sure trust her to Dud Hollister. All wool an' a yard wide that boy is."
"Yes," June murmured.
"Game as they make 'em. Know where he's at every turn of the road. I'd ce'tainly back his play to a finish."
"I know you would."
"Best old pal a fellow ever had."
"It's really a pity you haven't a sister," she teased.
Bob guessed that June had brought him here to talk about Dud. He did, to the exclusion of all other topics. The girl listened gravely and patiently, but imps of mischief were kicking up their heels in her eyes.
"You give him a good recommendation," she said at last. "How about his friend?"
"No, Bob Dillon." Her dark eyes met his fairly. "Oh, Bob, I'm so glad."
He was suddenly flooded with self-consciousness. "About us preemptin'?" he asked.
"No. About you being the hero of the campaign."
The ranger was miserably happy. He was ashamed to have the thing he had done dragged into the light, embarrassed to hear her use so casually a word that made him acutely uncomfortable. Yet he would not for the world have missed the queer little thrills that raced through him.
"That's plumb foolishness," he said.
"Yes, it is—not. Think I haven't heard all about it? How you dragged Jake Houck into the willows right spang from among the Utes? How you went to the river an' got him water? How you went for help when everybody thought you'd be killed? An' how you shamed Dud into going back with you? I made Mr. Harshaw tell me all he knew—and Dud too. He said—Mr. Harshaw said—"
Bob interrupted this eager attack. "I'll tell you how it was, June. When I saw Houck lying out there with a busted leg I didn't know who he was—thought maybe it was Dud. So I had to go an' get him. If I'd known it was Houck—"
"You knew it was Houck before you dragged him back, didn't you?" she charged. "You knew it when you went to the river to get him water?"
"Truth is, I was scared so I shook," he confessed humbly. "But when a fellow's sufferin' like Jake Houck was—"
"Even your enemy."
"Oh, well, enemies don't count when you're fightin' Utes together. I had to look after him—couldn't duck it. Different with Dud when he rode back to get Tom Reeves. Did you hear about that?"
She put a damper on the sudden enthusiasm that lilted into his voice. "Yes, I heard about that," she said dryly. "But we're talking of another man now. You've got to stand there an' take it, Bob. It won't last but a minute anyhow. I never was so tickled in my life before. When I thought of all you've suffered an' gone through, an' how now you've stopped the tongues of all the folks who jeered at you, I went to my room and cried like a little girl. You'll understand, won't you? I had to tell you this because we've promised to be friends. Oh, I am so glad for you, Bob."
He swallowed a lump in his throat and nodded. "Yes, I'll understand, June. It—it was awful nice of you to tell me. I reckon you ought to hate me, the way I treated you. Most girls would."
She flashed a quick look at his flaming face. His embarrassment relieved hers.
"As if you knew what most girls would think," she derided. Nevertheless she shifted the conversation to grounds less personal and dangerous. "Now you can tell me some more about that Dud you're always braggin' of."
Bob did not know as he talked of his friend that June found what he said an interpretation of Robert Dillon rather than Dudley Hollister.
 Piling up brush to protect the bank from being washed away.
A RESPONSIBLE CITIZEN
Dillon and Hollister were lounging on the bank of Elk Creek through the heat of the day. They had been chasing a jack-rabbit across the mesa for sport. Their broncos were now grazing close at hand.
"Ever notice how a jack-rabbit jumps high when it's crowded?" Dud asked idly.
Bob nodded. "Like a deer. Crowd one an' he gets to jumpin' high. 'D you see that jack turn a somersault just as I threw my rope the last time?"
Dud's keen eyes ranged the landscape. They were on the edge of the mesa where it dipped down into the valley. Since he and Bob had decided to preempt a quarter-section each, it had become a habit of his to study the localities over which they rode.
"Country looks good round here," he suggested.
"Yes," agreed his friend.
"What we lookin' for anyhow, Bob?"
"Wood, grass, and water."
"Well, they're right here, ain't they?"
Bob had been thinking the same thing himself. They saddled and quartered over the ground carefully. There was a wide stretch of meadow close to the junction of Elk Creek and the river. Upon part of it a growth of young willow had sprung up. But he judged that there was nearly one hundred and fifty acres of prairie. This would need no clearing. Rich wild grass already covered it luxuriously. For their first crop they could cut the native hay. Then they could sow timothy. There would be no need to plough the meadow. The seed could be disked in. Probably the land never would need ploughing, for it was a soft black loam.
"How about roads?" Bob asked. "The old-timers claim we'll never get roads here."
"Some one's going to take up all this river land mighty soon. That's a cinch. An' the roads will come right soon after the settlers. Fact is, we've got to jump if we're going to take up land on the river an' get a choice location."
"My notion too," agreed Bob. "We'd better get a surveyor out here this week."
They did. Inside of a month they had filed papers at the land office, built cabins, and moved their few possessions to the claims. Their houses were made of logs mud-chinked, with dirt floors and shake roofs instead of the usual flat dirt ones. They expected later to whipsaw lumber for the floors. A huge fireplace in one end of each cabin was used for cooking as well as for heat until such time as they could get stoves. Already they planned a garden, and in the evenings were as likely to talk of turnips, beets, peas, beans, and potatoes as of the new Hereford bulls Larson and Harshaw were importing from Denver.
For the handwriting was on the wall. Cattlemen must breed up or go out of business. The old dogy would not do any longer. Already Utah stock was displacing the poor southern longhorns. Soon these, too, would belong to the past. Dud and Bob had vision enough to see this and they were making plans to get a near-pedigreed bull.
Dud sighed in reminiscent appreciation of the old days that were vanishing. He might have been seventy-two instead of twenty-two coming February. Behind him lay apparently all his golden youth.
"We got to adopt ourselves to new ways, old Sure-Shot," he ruminated aloud. "Got to quit hellin' around an' raisin' Cain. Leastways I have. You never did do any o' that. Yes, sir, I got to be a responsible citizen."
The partner of the responsible citizen leaned back in a reclining chair which he had made from a plank sawed into five parts that were nailed together at angles.
"You'll be raisin' little towheads right soon," he said through a cloud of smoke.
"No, sir. Not me. Not Dud Hollister. I can boss my own se'f for a spell yet," the fair-haired youth protested vehemently. "When I said we got to adopt ourselves, I was thinkin' of barb-wire fences an' timothy hay. 'S all right to let the dogies rough through the winter an' hunt the gulches when the storms come. But it won't do with stock that's bred up. Harshaw lost close to forty per cent of his cattle three years ago. It sure put some crimp in him. He was hit hard again last winter. You know that. Say he'd had valuable stock. Why, it would put him outa business. Sure would."
"Yes," admitted Bob. "There's a schoolmarm down at Meeker was askin' me about you. You know her—that snappin'-eyed brunette. Wanted to know all about yore claim, an' was it a good one, an' didn't I think Mr. Hollister a perfect gentleman, an'—"
Dud snatched a blanket from the bunk and smothered the red head. They clinched, rolled on the floor, and kicked over the chair and stool. Presently they emerged from battle feeling happier.
"No, we got to feed. Tha's the new law an' the gospel of the range," Dud continued. "Got to keep our cattle under fence in winter an' look after 'em right. Cattle-raisin' as a gamble will be a losing bet right soon. It's a business now. Am I right?"
"Sounds reasonable to me, Dud."
Bob's face was grave, but he smiled inwardly. The doctrine that his friend had just been expounding was not new to him. He had urged it on Dud during many a ride and at more than one night camp, had pointed to the examples of Larson, Harshaw, and the other old-timers. Hollister was a happy-go-lucky youth. The old hard-riding cattle days suited him better. But he, too, had been forced at last to see the logic of the situation. Now, with all the ardor of a convert, he was urging his view on a partner who did not need to be convinced.
Dillon knew that stock-raising was entering upon a new phase, that the old loose range system must give way to better care, attention to breeding, and close business judgment. The cattleman who stuck to the old ways would not survive.
BEAR CAT ASLEEP
Bear Cat basked in the mellow warmth of Indian summer. Peace brooded over the valley, a slumberous and placid drowsiness. Outside Platt & Fortner's store big freight wagons stood close to the sidewalk. They had just come in from their long overland journey and had not yet been unloaded. A Concord stage went its dusty way down the street headed for Newcastle. Otherwise there was little evidence of activity.
It was about ten o'clock in the morning. The saloons and gambling-houses were almost deserted. The brisk business of the night had died down. Even a poker player and a faro dealer must sleep.
Main Street was in a coma. A dog lazily poked a none too inquisitive nose into its epidermis in a languid search for fleas. Past the dog went a barefoot urchin into a store for two pounds of eight-penny nails.
Three horsemen appeared at the end of the street and moved down it at the jog-trot which is the road gait of the cowpuncher. They dismounted near the back door of Platt & Fortner's and flung the bridle reins over the wheel spokes of the big freight wagons with the high sides. They did not tie the reins even in slip knots.
The riders stood for a moment talking in low voices before they separated. One went into Dolan's. He was a good-looking young fellow about twenty. A second wandered into the hotel saloon. He was not good-looking and was twice twenty. The third strolled past the bank, glanced in, turned, and walked past it a second time. He straddled, with jingling spurs, into the big store.
Tom Platt nodded casually to him. "Anything I can do for you, Houck?"
"I reckon," Houck grunted.
Platt noticed that he limped slightly. He had no feeling of friendliness toward Houck, but common civility made him inquire how the wounded leg was doing. After the Indian campaign the Brown's Park man had gone to Meeker for his convalescence. That had been two months since.
"'S all right," growled the big fellow.
"Good. Thought you kinda favored it a little when you walked."
The Brown's Park man bought a plug of chewing tobacco and a shirt.
"Guess the soldiers got the Utes corralled all right by this time. Hear anything new about that?" Platt asked by way of making conversation.
"No," Houck replied shortly. "Got an empty gunnysack I could have?"
"Sure." The storekeeper found one and a string with which to tie it.
"I'll take a slab of side meat an' a pound of ground coffee," the big man growled.
He made other purchases,—flour, corn meal, beans, and canned tomatoes. These he put in the gunnysack, tying the open end. Out of the side door he went to the horses standing by the big freight wagons. The contents of the sack he transferred to saddle-bags.
Then, without any apparent doubt as to what he was going to do next, he dropped into another store, one which specialized in guns and ammunition, though it, too, sold general supplies. He bought cartridges, both for the two forty-fives and for the rifle he carried. These he actually tested in his weapons, to make sure they fitted easily.
The proprietor attempted a pleasantry. "You're kinda garnished with weapons, stranger. Not aimin' to hold up the town, are you?"
The amiable laugh died away. The wall-eyed stranger was looking at him in bleak silence. Not an especially timid man, the owner of the place felt a chill run down his spine. That stare carried defiance, an unvoiced threat. Later, the storekeeper made of it a stock part of his story of the day's events.
"When the stranger gave me that look of his I knew right away something was doing. 'Course I didn't know what. I'll not claim I did, but I was sure there'd be a job for the coroner before night. Blister come into the store just after he left. I said to him, 'Who's that big black guy?' He says, 'Jake Houck.' 'Well,' I says, 'Jake Houck is sure up to some deviltry.'"
It is easy to be a prophet after the event. When Houck jingled out of the store and along the sidewalk to the hotel, none of the peaceful citizens he met guessed what he had in mind. None of them saw the signal which passed between him and the young fellow who had just come out of Dolan's. This was not a gesture. No words were spoken, but a message went from one to the other and back. The young puncher disappeared again into Dolan's.
Afterward, when Bear Cat began to assemble its recollections of the events prior to the dramatic climax, it was surprising how little that was authentic could be recalled. Probably a score of people noted casually the three strangers. Houck was recognized by three or four, Bandy Walker by at least one. The six-foot youngster with them was known by nobody who saw him. It was learned later that he had never been in the town before. The accounts of how the three spent the hour between ten and eleven are confusing. If they met during that time it was only for a moment or two while passing. But it is certain that Bandy Walker could not have been both in the blacksmith shop and at Platt & Fortner's five minutes before eleven. The chances are that some of the town people, anxious to have even a small part in the drama, mixed in their minds these strangers with others who had ridden in.
Bob Dillon and Dud Hollister dropped from their saddles in front of the hotel at just eleven o'clock. They had ridden thirty miles and stood for a moment stretching the cramp out of their muscles.
Dud spoke, nodding his head to the right. "Look what's here, Sure-Shot. Yore friend Bandy—old, tried, an' true."
Walker was trailing his high-heeled boots through the dust across the street from Dolan's toward the big store. If he saw Bob he gave no sign of knowing him.
The two friends passed into the hotel. They performed the usual rites of internal and external ablutions. They returned to the bar, hooked their heels, and swapped with Mike the news of the day.
"Hear Larson's bought the K T brand. Anything to it?" asked Dud.
"Paid seven thousand down, time on the balance," Mike said. "How you lads makin' it on Elk?"
"Fine. We got the best preemptions on the river. Plenty of good grass, wood an' water handy, a first-class summer range. It's an A1 layout, looks like."
"At the end of nowhere, I reckon," Mike grinned.
"The best steers are on the edge of the herd," Dud retorted cheerfully. "It's that way with ranches too. A fellow couldn't raise much of a herd in Denver, could he?"
A sound like the explosion of a distant firecracker reached them. It was followed by a second.
It is strange what a difference there is between the report of one shot and another. A riotous cowpuncher bangs away into the air to stress the fact that he is a live one on the howl. Nobody pays the least attention. A bullet flies from a revolver barrel winged with death. Men at the roulette wheel straighten up to listen. The poker game is automatically suspended, a hand half dealt. By some kind of telepathy the players know that explosion carries deadly menace.