Man to man, p.25

Man to Man, page 25

 

Man to Man
 


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  CHAPTER XXV

  THE STAMPEDE

  Terry had sensed something of the truth. In its way here was thebeginning of the end of many things. Before she and Steve Packard,making what haste was possible in the thick dark and with what silencewas allowed them, had gone a score of paces deeper into the canon, thecrack of a rifle shouted its reverberating message of menace back andforth in the rocky ravine, a spurt of flame showed where the riflemanstood upon a pinnacle of rock almost directly above their heads andthere came the further sounds of men's startled voices and thescampering of horses' hoofs, fleeing southward through the pass.

  "They had lookouts all along!" cried Steve over his shoulder,discarding caution and secrecy and throwing his rifle to his shoulder."Better hold back, Terry!"

  He fired, accepted the precarious chances offered him by an uneven andunknown trail in the dark and raced on deeper and deeper into the longchasm. It seemed to him that he had glimpsed something moving at thetop of the cliffs just about the place whence Blenham's men had loweredthe steers. He asked no question but threw up his gun-barrel and firedagain.

  From straight in front of him there came back to his ears the clang andthud of iron horseshoes upon granite, the rattle of rocks along thetrail; now and again he saw a spark struck out underfoot. Then, farahead as the canon widened suddenly and a little thinning of thedarkness resulted, he made out dim, running forms, and again he firedfrom his own leaping horse.

  A flying bullet might find a target and it might not; at any rate thesound of the shots volleyed and boomed echoingly between the stonewails imprisoning them, and Barbee or one of Barbee's men should hear.Steve was estimating hopefully as he dashed on after the fugitives andas Terry dashed on after him, that the men at the top of the cliffswould not try to come down now, not knowing who or how many theattackers were, but would seek escape above.

  Then, if his cowboys heard and rode toward the cliffs, it was all inthe cards that they might intercept at least a couple of Blenham'stools.

  A running form almost at his side drew his attention briefly, and allbut drew hot, questing lead after it. Then he made out that it was butone of the stolen steers, abandoned now; he pressed by, firing timeafter time into the canon ahead of him. And behind him he heardTerry's voice, eager and fearless, crying out:

  "Good boy, Steve Packard! We'll get 'em yet!"

  A spurt of flame from far ahead and close to the wall of the canon, thecrack of another rifle, long drawn out, and the whine of a bulletsinging its vicious way overhead, and again Steve fired, answering shotwith shot. He heard a man shout and fired in the direction of thevoice. And then the only sounds rising from the narrow gorge werethose of running horses and the accompanying noises of rattling stones.

  Now the way was again tortuous, pitch-black, boulder-strewn. Steveslowed down rather than break his horse's legs or his own neck, notknowing whether to turn to right or left. In a moment of uncertaintyhe felt and heard Terry push ahead of him. He heard her hurrying onand followed, shouting to her to come back. Ten minutes later, out ofthe pass now and upon a low-lying ridge whence he could look across thehills billowing away darkly toward the southland, he came up with heragain.

  "They got off that way." She pointed south. "Saw one figure and maybetwo going down the slope. There's no use following. The way is tooopen and it's too dark. They've got away after all."

  "For to-night," said Steve. "But maybe the fellows at the top of thecliffs----"

  "I'll show you the way up," said Terry.

  So without delaying they turned back and came presently under Drop OffCliffs again. Here they left their horses and, Terry showing the way,found the old path up the precipice. Along many a narrow shelf of rockthey went, over many a gigantic granite splinter where foothold wasprecarious enough, up many a steep climb. But in their present moodthey would have achieved even a more difficult and more hazardous taskwith eagerness and assurance. Twenty minutes brought them to the top.

  "Who's that?" shouted a sudden voice as Steve's hat came up out of thevoid. "Hands up!"

  "That you, Barbee?" grunted Steve. "Hands up? I'd drop a cleanhundred feet if I did a fool trick like that. Did they get away? Themen up here?"

  He wriggled up to the top, lay on his stomach and gave a hand to Terry,drew her to lie a moment breathless at his side and then again turnedto Barbee. There was another man with him and both were lookingwonderingly at Steve and Terry.

  "I never heard a man say," muttered the astounded Barbee, "that therewas stair-steps up here! For a man an' girl to come up----"

  "And for our cows to go down!" cried Steve, on his feet now and comingto Barbee's side. "You heard everything, Barbee? You know what hashappened?"

  "Yes," said Barbee. "A hundred yards over that way--" he pointed alongthe cliff's edge--"where a twisted cedar-tree stands in a littlewashout, not hardly to be noticed unless you're on the lookout for it,they had their pulleys hitched an' a long steel cable. It was easyshootin', come to think of it. Jus' rope a cow, cinch her up tightwith two big straps they had all ready, slip a hook through thebelly-band, an' lower away! Pretty smooth, huh?"

  "And they all got away?"

  "No, they didn't," said Barbee queerly. "I got one of 'em!"

  "You did?" Steve swung back toward him eagerly. "Who is he, Barbee?And where is he? I want a talk with him."

  Barbee shook his head and reached for his tobacco and papers. He wasyoung after all, was Barbee, and this was his first man.

  "Andy Sprague, it was," said Barbee. "He's dead now."

  There fell a heavy, breathless silence upon the three standing thereunder the stars. Terry shivered as though with cold and drew a stepcloser to Steve; he felt her hand on his arm. Barbee lighted hiscigarette, his hands steady, but his face looking terribly serious inthe brief-lived light shed upon it.

  "I heard you shootin'," said Barbee. "I rode this way, on the jump. Iwas only about a mile up the valley; maybe a shade less. He had hishorse close an' was on him an' poundin' leather lively to get out. Wecome pretty close to runnin' into each other. I hollered at him tohold on an' he jus' rode on his spurs an' I shot. Emptied my gun. Gothim twice, bein' that lucky, an' him that unlucky. He slid off hiscayuse an' clawed aroun' an'--an' he's dead now," ended Barbee briefly.

  "Did he tell you anything? Did he say anything that would implicateanybody?"

  "Meanin'," said Barbee steadily, "did he squeal on his pals?"

  "Just that. Did he mention any names?"

  "No," replied Barbee thoughtfully. "He jus' cusses me an' dies game.But this here was in his pocket."

  He passed it to his employer. It was a bit of note-paper. Steve andTerry read it together as Steve struck one match after another. Thenthey looked into each other's faces, grown very tense, while Barbeesmoked in silence. The few words were:

  BLENHAM: This here Mex don't seem to know what I mean. Next time senda man as can talk English. Anyway I am coming to-night. I don't wantno killing if it ain't necessary, but there ain't going to be a hide orhoof left in Drop Off by morning.

  And the signature, cramped and stiff, was that of Steve's grandfather.

  "So," muttered Steve heavily. "The old man has gone the limit, has he?He meant it when he said he'd stop at nothing to smash me. And yet Ican't believe----"

  "Let me see it again," Terry commanded.

  She took the paper from his fingers and with it his block of sulphurmatches. For even Terry, to whom old man Packard was as relentless andunscrupulous as Satan himself, hesitated to believe that he was hand inglove with Blenham in this.

  There might be a way to read between the lines, to come to some otherunderstanding of the baffling situation. Evidently the old man hadgiven the note to the "Mex" who did not know enough of the Englishlanguage to carry word of mouth; the Mex had passed it to Sprague.

  Steve and Barbee and the man with Barbee--an old Ranch Number Ten handnamed Bandy Oliver--had stepped aside quietly. Terry stoo
d with thenote in her hand, forgetting it for the moment. So, at the last,matters had come to this: There lay a man over yonder, dead, withBarbee's lead in him.

  And old man Packard was coming to-night, now of all times when Steve'sheart was hard, when his brain was hot with his fury, when he had justcome upon men stealing his stock and had learned that his owngrandfather, the old mountain-lion from the north, was one of them.

  "If they meet to-night," said Terry, "those two Packards, there aregoing to be other men killed. Good men and bad men. And, as likely asnot, Blenham won't be one of them."

  "There was another jasper with Sprague. He got away. That way, Ithink. Couldn't say, but there might have been more; what with thedark an' the cattle scared an' churnin' aroun'."

  Steve with Barbee and Bandy Oliver had moved slowly away and toward theupper end of the plateau. Detached words, fragments of their speech,floated back to her more and more indistinctly on the night wind thatnever sleeps upon these uplands.

  Terry turned from them and stood for a little looking down into theblack void of the canon into which the stolen cattle had been lowered,from which she and Steve had just climbed. She fancied that thedarkness down there was thinning. The dawn was coming up almostimperceptibly over the mountain-tops, filtering wanly into the depthsof the canons. The night had rushed by; it would soon be day.

  And old man Packard had not come. Thank God for that. Down in herheart Terry was conscious of a leaping gladness. She knew, admittednow, that she had been afraid. A man lay dead over yonder; if Packardmet Packard to-night there would be other men dead. Terry shivered anddrew back from the edge of the precipice.

  "It's always colder just before day," she told herself.

  "Sunrise already?"

  Steve's voice, borne to her ears with startling distinctness. He hadnot come nearer; maybe the dawn wind was stiffening, thus bearing hiswords to her more clearly. Or it might be that Steve had lifted hisvoice suddenly.

  Why should a man be startled by a new sunrise? True, the night hadgone quickly, but----

  "The sun never rose there!" Steve's voice again, thrilling through herwith its portent. "It's fire--range fire--in a dozen places!"

  A bright glow lay across the far, upper end of Drop Off Valley. Atfirst one might have done as Steve Packard did and wondered what hadhappened to the sun. The sky had merely brightened warmly, slowly,gradually, showing a hint of pink. And then, as the bone-dry grasshere and there had caught, vivid streaks of flame and a veritabledevil's dance of a myriad sparks shot high skyward. And, as Steve hadcried out, not in one place only, but in a dozen spots had the firesbeen lighted.

  "To herald the wrathful coming of Hell-Fire Packard!"

  Such was the thought springing full-fledged into Terry's brain, intoSteve's, into Yellow Barbee's. A chain of fires had been startedacross the whole width of the feeding grounds. Now the rising windmade of it a sudden burning barrier that extended from side to side ofDrop Off Valley, came rushing toward the lower end, threatening toleave but a black charred devastation of the precious pasturage.

  Barbee had run and thrown himself upon his horse. Steve had graspedthe dragging reins of Andy Sprague's mount. Terry saw him and his twocowboys swing about toward the upper end.

  "Terry!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Down the cliffs again; quick!The fire is coming this way; the herds will stampede!"

  There was only the sound of thudding hoofs as the three men rodefuriously to meet the menace the dawn had brought and seek to grapplewith it. Then that sound had gone and its place, for a little taken byheavy silence, gradually gave way to new sounds. The crack of rifles,faintly heard--thin voices of men shouting a long way off--a sound likethat of a distant sea, moving restlessly--grown to suggest the comingof a storm that ever swelled in violence--and then a deep and deepeningrumble, like thunder.

  The herd had stampeded.

  To Terry there came then, for the first time in her life, the sense ofutter helplessness and hopelessness. At least the others were doingsomething, no matter how fruitless it might prove, while she was doingnothing. Steve was riding full-tilt to meet the herd. She saw him andhis men, strange figures in the uncertain light, looming big againstthe dawn sky and the fires' glow. They were shouting, waving theirarms. Then, going down over a swell of earth they were lost to her.

  Again and again there came to her the sound of shots and men's voicesshouting, cursing, yelling wild commands, a rising clamor meant todivert the blind rush of frightened beasts, to turn them to right andleft so that they might scramble out of the valley before they came tothe lower end where Terry stood--where was the yawning chasm down intowhich many a great, terror-filled body was doomed to plunge toannihilation unless the way were found to swing the flood of fear asidein time.

  Barbee and Bandy Oliver and the other boys were obeying Steve'scommands, doing all that they could, seeking frantically to split theherd and divert it and so save it. But all of the time the windstrengthened, the fires rose higher and higher against the sky, thesparks soared to rarer altitudes, were flung further out, new fireswere catching everywhere.

  The tall, dry grass was burning in a hundred places. The herd,sweeping on, was snorting its terror, yielding absolutely to the blindinstinct of flight. And steadily the thunderous murmuring sound fromthe hoof-smitten earth rose and swelled. Closer and closer they came.Terry could distinguish Steve's voice.

  In her hand were the matches he had given her in order that she mightread again his grandfather's letter. A little gasp broke from herlips. The letter fluttered from her hand, no longer of the slightestimportance and on the wings of the wind went outward and then down intothe chasm. She ran forward swiftly, a hundred yards from theprecipice's edge. She struck a match, stopped briefly, set it to thegrass.

  The flame caught, leaping up avidly, licking hungrily for more fuel, ademon for desire, newly born, yearning to rage a giant of destruction.The girl snatched a handful of the burning grass and ran with it; alittle further forward, then to the side, scattering burning wisps asshe went.

  Everywhere that a spark fell it made of itself a blaze. Already, intwenty seconds, she had created a broad belt of flame that rose swiftlyand spread to right and left.

  About her everywhere the air grew stifling, hot, filled with smoke andash and cinder so that as she ran her lungs began to hurt her. But shekept on. Nearer were the herds coming; Steve and his men had not beenable to stem the mad torrent; not yet had they succeeded in turning it.

  And in another handful of minutes the black, tight-jammed mass of bigpanting bodies would be hurtling out into space. Unless she made herfire extend from side to side in a wall of leaping, roaring, swirlingmenace that would do what no men and horses could accomplish.

  Terry was racing as never had Terry run before, her breath coming inchoking sobs, her eyes shining wildly, her body shaken with the effortshe put upon it. She had her burning barrier across the more dangerousend of the valley, where the cliffs dropped sheerest, she had butanother few yards to go and there would be hope that she would succeed.But she must not stop yet, not yet.

  She ran on toward the nearer rim of the valley, scattering burningwisps of grass as she went, her heart beating wildly, seeming ready toburst through her side. She fell, rose, ran on. She stood still amoment, turning her back to the fires of her own building, lookingtoward the upper end whence came the steady roar.

  For an instant she stood fascinated. It looked as though the grounditself, in many a low-lying swell, were racing on to meet her. Thenshe saw the hundreds of horns glistening dully in the new light. Thatblack mass, surging forward, was the herd and she was still in its path.

  She cried out and threw down her last torch and ran just as thefrightened steers were running, fear in her heart, racing away fromdeath, just running for her life. She saw a form ahead of the others,breaking away from them, sweeping down upon her. She cried out interror; then she knew and cried out again and threw up her arms andturn
ed toward the rider who had remembered her and feared for her andcome for her. And Steve, bending from his saddle, equal to the need ofthe moment, swept her up and caught her tight in his arm and rode outof the way of herd and fire.

  From a little crag-crested knoll, standing hand in hand, their formsblended in silhouette against the dawn, they watched breathlessly theend of the stampede. The maddened brutes rushed on, straight towardTerry's barrier of flame. Then those in the van sought suddenly toalter their headlong courses.

  Steve's face was white with anger as he saw the result. A fullhalf-dozen, perhaps ten, big bodies at the fore passed through the farend of the flaming line, swept on, sought to swerve only at the lastfrantic moment with their fellows crowding them to the brink, and,struggling wildly, went over and down and out of sight. Terryshuddered.

  The herd, however, broke, divided, swung to right and left and passedabout the burning danger-signal and to the outer rims of the valley,achieving safety somewhere in the night, scattering, tossing theirgleaming fronts, snorting, and beginning to bellow their rage.

  "If it hadn't been for you, Terry Temple--" Steve began, his voice alittle hoarse.

  "If it hadn't been for you, Steve Packard,"' laughed Terry a trifleunsteadily but quite happily, "where would I have been?"

  And then, quite as though their destiny wished it made plain that notyet had the time come for them to devote exclusively to themselves,Barbee rode down toward them, spurring through the last of the fleeingherd, shouting:

  "There's a dozen men ridin' this way an' ridin' like----! An' thefirelight's shinin' on their guns; every man's totin' one. An' it'sol' Hell-Fire Packard ridin' at their head."

  "I'm glad he has come," muttered Steve heavily.

  And then, as though he were uncertain of his return to her, he kissedTerry's lips that were lifted toward his. In a dull stupor, so muchhad she experienced these last few minutes, she watched him swing againto the back of a horse and ride to meet those who came. The very wayhe carried his rifle in front of him bespoke with rare eloquence hisreadiness for anything.

 
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