The folks on Bear Creek ain't what you'd call peaceable by nature, but I was kind of surprised to come onto Erath Elkins and his brother-in-law Joel Gordon locked in mortal combat on the bank of the creek. But there they was, so tangled up they couldn't use their bowies to no advantage, and their cussing was scandalous to hear.
Remonstrances being useless, I kicked their knives out of their hands and throwed 'em bodily into the creek. That broke their holds and they come swarming out with blood-thirsty shrieks and dripping whiskers, and attacked me. Seeing they was too blind mad to have any sense, I bashed their heads together till they was too dizzy to do anything but holler.
"Is this any way for relatives to ack?" I asked disgustedly.
"Lemme at him!" howled Joel, gnashing his teeth whilst blood streamed down his whiskers. "He's broke three of my fangs and I'll have his life!"
"Stand aside, Breckinridge!" raved Erath. "No man can chaw a ear offa me and live to tell the tale!"
"Aw, shut up," I snorted. "One more yap outa either'n of you, and I'll see if yore fool heads are harder'n this." I brandished a fist under their noses and they quieted down. "What's all this about?" I demanded.
"I just discovered my brother-in-law is a thief," said Joel bitterly. At that Erath give a howl and a vi'lent plunge to get at his relative, but I kind of pushed him backwards, and he fell over a willer stump.
"The facts is, Breckinridge," said Joel, "me and this polecat found a buckskin poke full of gold nuggets in a holler oak over on Apache Ridge yesterday. We didn't know whether somebody in these parts had just hid it there for safe-keepin', or whether some old prospector had left it there a long time ago and maybe got sculped by the Injuns and never come back to git it. We agreed to leave it alone for a month, and if it was still there at that time, we'd feel purty shore that the original owner was dead, and we'd split the gold between us. Well, last night I got to worryin' somebody'd find it which wasn't as honest as me, so this mornin' I thought I better go see if it was still there..." At this point Erath laughed bitterly.
Joel glared at him ominously and continued: "Well, no sooner I hove in sight of the holler tree than this skunk let go at me from the bresh with a rifle-gun--"
"That's a lie!" yelped Erath. "It war jest the other way around!"
"Not bein' armed, Breckinridge," Joel said with dignity, "and realizin' that this coyote was tryin' to murder me so he could claim all the gold, I legged it for home and my weppins. And presently I sighted him sprintin' through the bresh after me."
Erath begun to foam slightly at the mouth. "I warn't chasin' you," he said. "I was goin' home after my rifle-gun."
"What's yore story, Erath?" I inquired.
"Last night I drempt somebody had stole the gold," he answered sullenly. "This mornin' I went to see if it was safe. Just as I got to the tree, this murderer begun shootin' at me with a Winchester. I run for my life, and by some chance I finally run right into him. Likely he thought he'd kilt me and was comin' for the sculp."
"Did either one of you see t'other'n shoot at you?" I asked.
"How could I, with him hid in the bresh?" snapped Joel. "But who else could it been?"
"I didn't have to see him," growled Erath. "I felt the wind of his slug."
"But each one of you says he didn't have no rifle," I said.
"He's a cussed liar," they accused simultaneous, and would have fell on each other tooth and nail if they could have got past my bulk.
"I'm convinced they's been a mistake," I said. "Git home and cool off."
"You're too big for me to lick, Breckinridge," said Erath. "But I warn you, if you cain't prove to me that it wasn't Joel which tried to murder me, I ain't goin' to rest nor sleep nor eat till I've nailed his mangy sculp to the highest pine on Apache Ridge."
"That goes for me, too," said Joel, grinding his teeth. "I'm declarin' truce till tomorrer mornin'. If Breckinridge cain't show me by then that you didn't shoot at me, either my wife or yore'n'll be a widder before midnight."
So saying they stalked off in opposite directions, whilst I stared helplessly after 'em, slightly dazed at the responsibility which had been dumped onto me. That's the drawback of being the biggest man in your settlement. All the relatives pile their troubles onto you. Here it was up to me to stop what looked like the beginnings of a regular family feud which was bound to reduce the population awful.
The more I thought of the gold them idjits had found, the more I felt like I ought to go and take a look to see was it real stuff, so I went back to the corral and saddled Cap'n Kidd and lit out for Apache Ridge, which was about a mile away. From the remarks they'd let fell whilst cussing each other, I had a purty good idea where the holler oak was at, and sure enough I found it without much trouble. I tied Cap'n Kid and clumb up on the trunk till I reached the holler. And then as I was craning my neck to look in, I heard a voice say: "Another dern thief!"
I looked around and seen Uncle Jeppard Grimes p'inting a gun at me.
"Bear Creek is goin' to hell," said Uncle Jeppard. "First it was Erath and Joel, and now it's you. I'm goin' to throw a bullet through yore hind laig just to teach you a little honesty."
With that he started sighting along the barrel of his Winchester, and I said: "You better save yore lead for that Injun over there."
Him being a old Indian fighter he just naturally jerked his head around quick, and I pulled my .45 and shot the rifle out of his hands. I jumped down and, put my foot on it, and he pulled a knife out of his boot, and I taken it away from him and shaken him till he was so addled when I let him go he run in a circle and fell down cussing something terrible.
"Is everybody on Bear Creek gone crazy?" I demanded. "Can't a man look into a holler tree without gettin' assassinated?"
"You was after my gold," swore Uncle Jeppard.
"So it's your gold, hey?" I said. "Well, a holler tree ain't no bank."
"I know it," he growled, combing the pine-needles out of his whiskers. "When I come here early this mornin' to see if it was safe, like I frequent does, I seen right off somebody'd been handlin' it. Whilst I was meditatin' over this, I seen Joel Gordon sneakin' towards the tree. I fired a shot across his bows in warnin' and he run off. But a few minutes later here come Erath Elkins slitherin' through the pines. I was mad by this time, so I combed his whiskers with a chunk of lead and he high-tailed it. And now, by golly, here you come--"
"I don't want yore blame gold!" I roared. "I just wanted to see if it was safe, and so did Joel and Erath. If them men was thieves, they'd have took it when they found it yesterday. Where'd you get it, anyway?"
"I panned it, up in the hills," he said sullenly. "I ain't had time to take it to Chawed Ear and git it changed into cash money. I figgered this here tree was as good a place as any. But I done put it elsewhere now."
"Well," I said, "you got to go tell Erath and Joel it was you shot at 'em, so they won't kill each other. They'll be mad at you, but I'll cool 'em off, maybe with a hickory club."
"All right," he said. "I'm sorry I misjedged you, Breckinridge. Just to show you I trusts you, I'll show you whar I hid it."
He led me through the trees till he come to a big rock jutting out from the side of a cliff, and pointed at a smaller stone wedged beneath it.
"I pulled out that rock," he said, "and dug a hole and stuck the poke in. Look!" He heaved the rock out and bent down. And then he went straight up in the air with a yell that made me jump and pull my gun with cold sweat busting out all over me.
"What's the matter with you?" I demanded. "Are you snake-bit?"
"Yeah, by human snakes!" he hollered. "It's gone! I been robbed!"
I looked and seen the impressions the wrinkles in the buckskin poke had made in the soft earth. But there wasn't nothing there now.
Uncle Jeppard was doing a scalp dance with a gun in one hand and a bowie knife in the other'n. "I'll fringe my leggins with their mangy sculps!" he raved. "I'll pickle their hearts in a barr'l of brine! I'll feed their livers to my houn' dawgs!"
"Whose livers?" I inquired.
"Whose, you idjit?" he howled. "Joel Gordon and Erath Elkins, dern it! They didn't run off. They snuck back and seen me move the gold! I've kilt better men than them for half as much!"
"Aw," I said, "t'ain't possible they stole yore gold--"
"Then where is it?" he demanded bitterly. "Who else knowed about it?"
"Look here!" I said, pointing to a belt of soft loam near the rocks. "A horse's tracks."
"What of it?" he demanded. "Maybe they had horses tied in the bresh."
"Aw, no," I said. "Look how the Calkins is set. They ain't no horses on Bear Creek shod like that. These is the tracks of a stranger--I bet the feller I seen ride past my cabin just about daybreak. A black-whiskered man with one ear missin'. That hard ground by the big rock don't show where he got off and stomped around, but the man which rode this horse stole yore gold, I'll bet my guns."
"I ain't convinced," said Uncle Jeppard. "I'm goin' home and ile my rifle-gun, and then I'm goin' to go over and kill Joel and Erath."
"Now you lissen," I said forcibly. "I know what a stubborn old jassack you are, Uncle Jeppard, but this time you got to lissen to reason or I'll forget myself and kick the seat outa yore britches. I'm goin' to follow this feller and take yore gold away from him, because I know it was him stole it. And don't you dare to kill nobody till I git back."
.... There is more of this story ...