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."
"I'll give you till tomorrer mornin'," he compromised. "I won't pull a trigger till then. But," said Uncle Jeppard waxing poetical, "if my gold ain't in my hands by the time the mornin' sun h'ists itself over the shinin' peaks of the Jackass Mountains, the buzzards will rassle their hash on the carcasses of Joel Gordon and Erath Elkins."
I went away from there, mounted Cap'n Kidd and headed west on the trail of the stranger. It was still tolerably early in the morning, and one of them long summer days ahead of me. They wasn't a horse in the Humbolts to equal Cap'n Kidd for endurance. I've rode a hundred miles on him between sun-down and sun-up. But that horse the stranger was riding must have been some chunk of horse-meat hisself. The day wore on, and still I hadn't come up with my man. I was getting into country I wasn't familiar with, but I didn't have much trouble in following the trail, and finally, late in the evening, I come out on a narrow dusty path where the calk-marks of his hoofs was very plain.
The sun sunk lower and my hopes dwindled. Cap'n Kidd was beginning to tire, and even if I got the thief and got the gold, it'd be a awful push to get back to Bear Creek in time to prevent mayhem. But I urged on Cap'n Kidd, and presently we come out onto a road, and the tracks I was following merged with a lot of others. I went on, expecting to come to some settlement, and wondering just where I was. I'd never been that far in that direction before then. Just at sun-down I rounded a bend in the road and seen something hanging to a tree, and it was a man. There was another man in the act of pinning something to the corpse's shirt, and when he heard me he wheeled and jerked his gun--the man, I mean, not the corpse. He was a mean looking cuss, but he wasn't Black Whiskers. Seeing I made no hostile move, he put up his gun and grinned.
"That feller's still kickin'," I said.
"We just strung him up," said the fellow. "The other boys has rode back to town, but I stayed to put this warnin' on his buzzum. Can you read?"
"No," I said.
"Well," he said, "this here paper says: 'Warnin' to all outlaws and specially them on Grizzly Mountain--Keep away from Wampum.'"
"How far's Wampum from here?" I asked.
"Half a mile down the road," he said. "I'm Al Jackson, one of Bill Ormond's deputies. We aim to clean up Wampum. This is one of them derned outlaws which has denned up on Grizzly Mountain."
Before I could say anything I heard somebody breathing quick and gaspy, and they was a patter of bare feet in the bresh, and a kid girl about fourteen years old bust into the road.
"You've killed Uncle Joab!" she shrieked. "You murderers! A boy told me they was fixin' to hang him! I run as fast as I could--"
"Git away from that corpse!" roared Jackson, hitting at her with his quirt.
"You stop that!" I ordered. "Don't you hit that young 'un."
"Oh, please, Mister!" she wept, wringing her hands. "You ain't one of Ormond's men. Please help me! He ain't dead--I seen him move!"
Waiting for no more I spurred alongside the body and drawed my knife.
"Don't you cut that rope!" squawk the deputy, jerking his gun. So I hit him under the jaw and knocked him out of his saddle and into the bresh beside the road where he lay groaning. I then cut the rope and eased the hanged man down on my saddle and got the noose offa his neck. He was purple in the face and his eyes was closed and his tongue lolled out, but he still had some life in him.
Evidently they didn't drop him, but just hauled him up to strangle to death. I laid him on the ground and work over him till some of his life begun to come back to him, but I knowed he ought to have medical attention. I said: "Where's the nearest doctor?"
"Doc Richards in Wampum," whimpered the kid. "But if we take him there Ormond will get him again. Won't you please take him home?"
"Where you-all live?" I inquired.
"We been livin' in a cabin on Grizzly Mountain since Ormond run us out of Wampum," she whimpered.
"Well," I said, "I'm goin' to put yore uncle on Cap'n Kidd and you can set behind the saddle and help hold him on, and tell me which way to go." So I done so and started off on foot leading Cap'n Kidd in the direction the girl showed me, and as we went I seen the deputy Jackson drag hisself out of the bresh and go limping down the road holding his jaw.
I was losing a awful lot of time, but I couldn't leave this feller to die, even if he was a outlaw, because probably the little gal didn't have nobody to take care of her but him. Anyway, I'd never make it back to Bear Creek by daylight on Cap'n Kidd, even if I could have started right then.
It was well after dark when we come up a narrow trail that wound up a thickly timbered mountain side, and purty soon somebody in a thicket ahead of us hollered: "Halt whar you be or I'll shoot!"
"Don't shoot, Jim!" called the girl. "This is Ellen, and we're bringin' Uncle Joab home."
A tall hard-looking young feller stepped out in the open, still p'inting his Winchester at me. He cussed when he seen our load.
"He ain't dead," I said. "But we ought to git him to his cabin."
So Jim led me through the thickets until we come into a clearing where they was a cabin, and a woman come running out and screamed like a catamount when she seen Joab. Me and Jim lifted him off and carried him in and laid him on a bunk, and the women begun to work over him, and I went out to my horse, because I was in a hurry to get gone. Jim follered me.
"This is the kind of stuff we've been havin' ever since Ormond come to Wampum," he said bitterly. "We been livin' up here like rats, afeard to stir in the open. I warned Joab against slippin' down into the village today, but he was sot on it, and wouldn't let any of the boys go with him. Said he'd sneak in, git what he wanted and sneak out again."
"Well," I said, "what's yore business is none of mine. But this here life is hard lines on women and children."
"You must be a friend of Joab's," she said. "He sent a man east some days ago, but we was afraid one of Ormond's men trailed him and killed him. But maybe he got through. Are you the man Joab sent for?"
"Meanin' am I some gunman come in to clean up the town?" I snorted. "Naw, I ain't. I never seen this feller Joab before."
"Well," said Jim, "cuttin' down Joab like you done has already got you in bad with Ormond. Help us run them fellers out of the country! There's still a good many of us in these hills, even if we have been run out of Wampum. This hangin' is the last straw. I'll round up the boys tonight, and we'll have a show-down with Ormond's men. We're outnumbered, and we been licked bad once, but we'll try it again. Won't you throw in with us?"
"Lissen," I said, climbing into the saddle, "just because I cut down a outlaw ain't no sign I'm ready to be one myself. I done it just because I couldn't stand to see the little gal take on so. Anyway, I'm lookin' for a feller with black whiskers and one ear missin' which rides a roan with a big Lazy-A brand."
Jim fell back from me and lifted his rifle. "You better ride on," he said somberly. "I'm obleeged to you for what you've did--but a friend of Wolf Ashley cain't be no friend of our'n."
I give him a snort of defiance and rode off down the mountain and headed for Wampum, because it was reasonable to suppose that maybe I'd find Black Whiskers there.
Wampum wasn't much of a town, but they was one big saloon and gambling hall where sounds of hilarity was coming from, and not many people on the streets and them which was mostly went in a hurry. I stopped one of them and ast him where a doctor lived, and he pointed out a house where he said Doc Richards lived, so I rode up to the door and knocked, and somebody inside said: "What you want? I got you covered."
"Are you Doc Richards?" I said, and he said: "Yes, keep your hands away from your belt or I'll fix you."
"This is a nice, friendly town!" I snorted. "I ain't figgerin' on harmin' you. They's a man up in the hills which needs yore attention."
At that the door opened and a man with red whiskers and a shotgun stuck his head out and said: "Who do you mean?"
"They call him Joab," I said. "He's on Grizzly Mountain."
"Hmmmm!" said Doc Richards, looking at me very sharp where I sot Cap'n Kidd in the starlight. "I set a man's jaw tonight, and he had a lot to say about a certain party who cut down a man that was hanged. If you're that party, my advice to you is to hit the trail before Ormond catches you."
"I'm hungry and thirsty and I'm lookin' for a man," I said. "I aim to leave Wampum when I'm good and ready."
"I never argue with a man as big as you," said Doc Richards. "I'll ride to Grizzly Mountain as quick as I can get my horse saddled. If I never see you alive again, which is very probable, I'll always remember you as the biggest man I ever saw, and the biggest fool. Good night!"
I thought, the folks in Wampum is the queerest acting I ever seen. I took my horse to the barn which served as a livery stable and seen that he was properly fixed. Then I went into the big saloon which was called the Golden Eagle. I was low in my spirits because I seemed to have lost Black Whiskers' trail entirely, and even if I found him in Wampum, which I hoped, I never could make it back to Bear Creek by sun-up. But I hoped to recover that derned gold yet, and get back in time to save a few lives.
They was a lot of tough looking fellers in the Golden Eagle drinking and gambling and talking loud and cussing, and they all stopped their noise as I come in, and looked at me very fishy. But I give 'em no heed and went to the bar, and purty soon they kinda forgot about me and the racket started up again. Whilst I was drinking me a few fingers of whisky, somebody shouldered up to me and said: "Hey!" I turned around and seen a big, broad-built man with a black beard and blood-shot eyes and a pot-belly with two guns on.