WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
30,000 on the Hoof
Zane Grey (1940) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Logan Huett lived to learn that he did not yet know the West.
Like wildfire in a wide-swept prairie the dramatic killing of Tim Mooney travelled over the range. Before the shock of his neighbours and fellow-ranchers had passed, the Mooney family left the locality and Dwight Collier sold out to Holbert to ride away. He was not backward in telling that of late he had suspected Mooney of deals in which he had not part. The range did not believe this, but they were quick to accept the rumour that Mooney's son drew a large amount from the bank at Flagg.
Then little by little, as cowboys compared notes and cattlemen found time and freedom to talk, the guilt of Tim Mooney stood out indisputably. None of them patted Logan Huett on the back for his service in ridding the range of this crooked cattleman, but they exonerated him from any suspicion whatever. They called the fight an even break in which the better and the honest man came out on top. The good it did manifestly served to scare off any other lone and butchering rustler who might have followed in Mooney's footsteps. However, the harm it created was the tendency to focus attention of the predatory cattle interests--the rustlers and their queer ramifications--upon the fact that there were rich pickings in the Mogollons and from the Little Colorado to the Tonto Rim.
Huett's sons did not suffer any blight of spirit because their father had joined the ranks of Arizona killers. George and Grant grew a little harder, and Abe a little more silent. But Lucinda and Barbara did not leave the canyon, even to visit their nearest neighbour, for over a year. When they did return to Flagg, they found that the incident had been swallowed up in the past, during which plenty of dark and considerably sterner deeds had transpired. No bar sinister or ban of ignominy had extended to their names during this period of seclusion. Their friends, the real born pioneers, amazed them with a warmer welcome and absolute reticence; as a result Lucinda and Barbara were not long in recovering from the shock.
Logan alone knew what havoc Mooney's killing had wrought in him. The great fear that he had given his sons a name they would never live down, that the success of his enterprise had been disrupted, if not set back for many years, and the genuine horror and remorse he had endured--all these futile apprehensions had been a senseless waste of mental strength, of nights of sleep and days of labour. He lived to discover this fact too late. Of the numberless vicissitudes of life by which he had been burdened, the killing of Mooney cost him the most anguish and left the hardest mark. To survive and to grow in that country required more than a great ambition, with commensurate strength, endurance, honesty,--and indomitable pluck: a cattleman needed all these qualities and more to gain foothold and means; even when he had finally raised herds of cattle and many horses, it took vastly more courage to keep them. A prosperous cattle-country had always developed or drawn the rustler, and as long as cattle were raised it would continue to do so. Wide, unfenced ranges, the wilderness of forest and canyon, would never see the day that cattle were not easy to steal and men of that ilk present who would not profit by it.
The ensuing period multiplied Huett's cattle and the labours incident to their care. He was keen enough to see that the habits ingrained by the long years of toil and poverty could not change on short notice, if they ever could at all. He was glad of this. He had brought his family up modestly, to know the value of money, to be happy working towards a definite end, to be little influenced by the outside world. Cars and magazines found their way down into Sycamore Canyon, to open the eyes of the wilderness-loving Huetts, to force upon them the progress of the modern world, but they did not change Huett's idea of cattle-raising, nor the eighteen-hour day of the cowboy Huetts, nor the economy and industry of the women. The future had come almost to mean nothing: the present was full, all-satisfying.
The time came when the spider-shaped Sycamore Canyon, with its ten miles in length and its vast acreage in grass and browse, supported fifteen thousand head. It was a well-fenced range, protected from storms and cold and heat and drought, and impractical for the operations of rustlers. Only wandering riders butchered a beef occasionally as they passed through. But Turkey Canyon, with twice the acreage, with its numberless rich grassy offshoots, became the bane of Huett's life. Sycamore should have been enough to look after for one man and his three sons, but they had undertaken the task and they would not falter. Despite the continuous stealing of stock by rustlers, horse-thieves, riders with no known homes or occupations, the Turkey Canyon herd increased. A few straggling steers driven off in the woods, a bunch of young stock cut out--and stolen at night through one of the outlets impossible to close, or a daylight raid by a band of determined rustlers who operated when the Huetts were miles away--these kept the Turkey herd from climbing by leaps and bounds to equal that of Sycamore. And it wore on Huett year by year, until he grew implacable towards the thieves who kept him from his cherished goal.
"Dad, you're cussed short-sighted and bull-headed," averred George repeatedly. "Let's sell the Turkey herd."
"Not yet," declared Huett doggedly, for the hundredth time.
"Well, then, let's pay no more attention to these two-bit thieves, let's lay for the real rustlers, who raid Turkey once or so a year. They're about due now. Last time they got three hundred head...They grab a bigger bunch every time."
"Sense in that," agreed Huett, gruffly. "What's your plan?"
"Abe says we'll camp down there, hide out and watch."
"And leave Lucinda and Barbara alone? Nope to that."
"One of us will go home every night."
"I reckon that'll do. But what of the other work?"
"It'll have to go till we drive this outfit away for good, or kill them!"
"Ha! We've got to catch them first."
"Abe swears they keep a lookout on one of the high points or along the rim. They watch us. Then when we're gone they pull the raid."
"What's the use to camp near Turkey, then? A better plan will be for you boys to pretend to drive to town, but come back after dark, and next day before sun-up we'll sneak down to Turkey."
Even this plan failed to trap the keen rustlers, as did also the hiding-out down in Turkey Canyon. No sooner had the Huetts returned to the necessary harvesting than the rustlers made off with the largest steal Huett had ever sustained. Abe reported the loss, which he estimated two days later from a broad cattle-track heading down towards the Tonto.
"Sell that Turkey herd or see it fade before your very eyes," warned George Huett to the raging rancher.
"Dad, I've a hunch that outfit will come back," said Abe, ponderingly. "They must have a safe sale for stock."
"Safe! If we trailed them and recognized every stolen steer, what could we do?" retorted George. "We have no brand. We're an easy mark for those buzzards."
"Boys, time was when our losses were less than what it'd have cost to hire a dozen riders. But that day has passed. My method never stood the test of years--I'm bound to admit that. All the same, I won't change."
"It'd be wiser to weaken. Sell out or hire cowboys," advised George.
"Weaken? Hell no!...Grant, do you side with George?"
"I sure do, Dad. I hate to go against you. None of us ever did before. But this is getting too tough to stand. Maybe it never occurred to you to think how we boys need money. You never give us any money. And we've sure earned wages, if no more...Well, you could sell that Turkey bunch for twenty dollars a head. Nigh on to ten thousand head. Almost two hundred thousand dollars!...We'd all be rich, and you'd still have the Sycamore herd."
The amazing stand from the youngest son, heretofore the least asserting one of the Huetts, hurt Logan deeply and precipitated one of the few quarrels he had ever had with them. The argument did not end there. George and Grant took it to their mother and Barbara. When, to Logan's consternation, his women-folk promptly and vigorously took issue against him, for the first time in any serious stand, he discovered grievous doubts of himself, of his unchangeable passion and will. He argued, stormed, raged, all to no avail. He was wrong. Then, as a last straw, Barbara appealed to the silent Abe and won him over. The Huetts' house was divided against itself.
The truth overcame his rage with himself and vexation with them. He sat down in his big chair and leaned his head on his hands. Lucinda came to touch his shoulder with sympathy.
"Folks," he said, laboriously, "allowing you're right, you don't see it from my side of the fence. I've spent my life--the best of it--fighting odds in this canyon...Lack of money and help first--then the meat-eaters, and cold, wet, heat, drought, ignorance of farming--I had to learn--and a thousand other troubles, the last and worst of which is the cattle-thief. For nearly thirty years I've fought these odds--and now I'm rich in stock--with my life's ambition in sight... You ask me--and I acknowledge its justice--to quit now, to weaken in the face of a few lousy rustlers. I won't do it! Dammit, I'd lose every head of stock in Turkey Canyon rather than show yellow...But this is what I will do. As soon as I can count thirty thousand head, I'll sell, divide the money equally among you, and go back to civilization to live...That's all. I'm boss here. And what I say goes."
Huett did not sell a single head that year, and thus avoided leaving the Turkey Canyon herd unprotected. He sent Grant, with Lucinda and Barbara, to town for supplies. They took their time about this trip. Upon their return Huett marvelled anew at what a little visit outside would 48 for women. He did not need civilization, and in fact was better in mind without contacts with men. The times had changed, but he did not change. Lucinda looked rested and averred that it had been good to go, but better to come home. Barbara returned rosy and fresh, handsomer than ever, raving about airplanes and motion-pictures. Logan had never seen either, and was amazed. He asked Grant one question: "What's the price of cattle?"
"By golly, Dad. I--I forgot. I sure forgot to ask," replied Grant, mortified at his laxness.
"For the land's sake! What did you do all the while?"
"I bought all on your list," replied Grant, stoutly.
"Well, I'll see. The wagon looks loaded all right."
Abe looked with affectionate regard from Barbara's radiant face to Grant's. "Wal, Dad," he drawled, "reckon I'd better go next time--or lose my girl."
Barbara joined in the laugh, but she blushed becomingly. Huett made the mental reservation that she should be marrying one of his sons soon; and he could not see, as Lucinda averred, that Abe had the inside track. Pity there were not three Barbaras!
October was in its last golden decline. With November came the first snows, and the movement of cattle ceased. Huett and Abe took to the woods and the game trails. Of late years game had gradually grown harder to find. There were plenty of deer and turkey far back in the forest, when once Sycamore Canyon and its adjacent ridges had been overrun with them. Hunters from the railroad towns had grown in number from year to year. Huett and Abe encountered some of these that season, roaming around, shooting at every rustle in the brush.
"Son," he said to Abe, as they rested on a log, "I reckon I'm unreasonable. But I don't like the new order of things. All these tenderfoot hunters banging around. Elk protected by law. Open season for deer and turkey one month. Forest under Government supervision."
"Dad, you think only of your one object in life," replied Abe. "The President of the United States was thinking of our children's children when he made this a forest reserve. It's a good thing. We don't obey the laws any more than the Stillmans or the other backwoods people. We kill meat when we want it. But these laws were not made for natives who, live in the woods."
"Humph! Why didn't he make laws against rustlers?"
"There are plenty of laws to govern cattle-thieves, but who can enforce them way out here in this canyon country? It's up to us, Dad."
"Reckon I've owned these woods too long," said Logan, as he gazed lovingly down the timbered swale, where the noon-day sun shone on patches of snow coloured with russet oak leaves and scarlet maple. The great silver spruces vied with the yellow pines for supremacy over the forest glade. The aspens, almost wholly denuded of their golden, fluttering leaves, stood out white-trunked against the dark-green background. Windfalls massed on the ridge, and there was down timber everywhere. The air was cold, though the sun felt warm upon Logan's bare head; the old forest tang of pine was thick in his nostrils. The truth came to Logan that he hated to share this wilderness with anyone but his own.
"I reckon it'll last during my day," replied Abe, thoughtfully.
"Abe, you know we're going to live in town eventually. I wonder now."
"That'll be fine for the women, and for Barbara, when she has youngsters. But I'll spend half my time in these woods. When you sell our stock, Dad, keep Sycamore for me."
"For you and me, son."
They picked up their turkeys and venison, and went on down the ridge towards home. Huett had a strange thought that troubled him. More than twenty-five years ago he had taken Abe on his first hunt up that ridge. They had never missed a year since; but there would come a hunt together, perhaps this present one, that must be the last. Huett threw off the vague, sad presage.
The Turkey Canyon herd had got beyond handling by so few riders. It had multiplied exceedingly. Every spring rustlers tore down the fences to let the cattle stray into ravines and work out on top. That fall it would have taken an army of cowboys to prevent the theft of straggling steers and yearlings, but such loss' was so insignificant that Huett could only guess at it; his sons never told him.
One night Abe did not come home from his scouting. It was not unusual for him to stay away overnight during the hunting season, but this was early October. Logan was concerned, not for Abe's safety, because he knew that Abe had no equal in the Arizona woods, but for fear of the long-expected cattle raid.
"Where'd you see Abe last?" asked Huett.
"He waved to me from the rim above Turkey Wash. The sound point," replied Grant. "He made signs. The most I could make of them was that he'd got track of something down Turkey. His last signal I took to mean he'd come home."
"But suppose he doesn't return?" queried Logan.
George and Grant pondered for a while, and at length were in accord about the wisdom of waiting until the next day, and if Abe did not return then, of taking up his trail froth the point where Grant had last seen him. Lucinda and Barbara grew worried and would not go to bed. Finally, late in the evening Huett went outside with his sons and listened. The autumn night was solemnly quiet; them George, keen-eared, voiced a warning whisper. The group froze stone-like. Presently soft, padded footsteps caught Huett's ear--he knew that quick tread. In another moment Abe loomed up on the porch...
"Howdy. Stayed awake late for me, huh? Just as well, for I shore would have rustled you out."
"Yes, we're up, son, and what else is up?" rejoined Huett, again his relieved and confident self.
"I reckon you'll think hell is up," said Abe frankly. "Cattle raid?"
"Nope, not yet. But we're in for a humdinger."
"Forewarned is forearmed, you know. Come out with it," replied Huett, gruffly.
"Dad, Jim Stillman and his brother, with Tobe Campbell, and two more men I didn't know, are going to raid us."
"Five of them, eh? Well, not if we see them first!" Logan replied grimly.
"All my hiding out for them wasted time!" ejaculated Abe, in disgust. "They didn't come down through the woods. They came up the road from Pine, and made no bones about piling right down into Turkey. I sneaked up as close as I could get. They camped in an open spot and weren't afraid of a bright fire, but at that I heard a little and guessed a lot...Would it surprise you to learn Tobe Campbell was Hillbrand's right-hand man?"
"Wal, son, nothing can surprise me about that coyote," Logan drawled.
"It's so, and Campbell had taken hold of that Stillman outfit. Tobe is the meanest and the slickest of that Campbell bunch...Tobe had to give it away that he was Hillbrand's man. I heard him. Jim didn't have the guts to hold out against this, and they got together right then and there. I heard your name, Dad, and mine, and something about Sycamore. Tobe drew a map on the ground. I jumped at conclusions, and made up my mind about their deal hours before I found out. They sat there talking till long after midnight--didn't drink anything but coffee. Anybody could have told there was a big deal on...Sure, Jim Stillman shook like a leaf...They were all excited except Tobe. He was cool and bright, like a coiled, greasy rattler."
"Ahuh. And what's his big deal?" queried Logan, sharply. "Campbell aims to drive Sycamore."
"Sycamore!" exploded Huett. George smacked a hard fist in his palm, and Grant, who seldom used expletives, swore lustily. Then Logan found his tongue.
"Abe, if you're not loco, that Campbell hombre is. Drive Sycamore? I never thought of such a thing. It couldn't be done."
"Yes, it could. Bold deal, you bet--but practical to a rustler like Hillbrand. Slow drive up Sycamore before dawn. Some rider will go up and open our gate. They'd have two thousand head climbing out before we got you...You know, it's quite far to where our road starts up the slope. They figured we might not hear a slow drive. When we did come out--as Tobe is figuring--they'd smoke us up from the slope, and once on top with all the cattle they could drive, they'd be jake. They'd have all the advantage. A couple of men could hold us back and kill us if we tried to get out up the road. The others would drive the cattle hell bent on, once down in the Tonto...And, Paw, we could never prove those unbranded tattle belonged to us."
"My God! Just like that," ejaculated Huett, with a snap of his fingers.
"It might have been just like that, Dad," retorted Abe, cool and hard. "But I got on to them. Tobe Campbell will sever turn that trick. And some of them won't get out of Sycamore."
"George, how'll we meet this deal?" queried Huett.
"Dad, this Tobe Campbell always was a crafty hombre. If he put a couple of his outfit close to the cabin here they could kill us or drive us back while the rest stole the cattle."
"I thought of that," spoke up Abe, quietly. "We won't be in there when it gets light enough to see. But Maw and Barbara will. And when the fight begins they can shoot out the window as fast as they can pull the trigger."
Huett nodded his shaggy head in approval of that. Plenty of rifle shots would help. "And do you reckon we ought to hide out--let them make the drive up here?...I don't like that plan."
"Neither do I--so damned much. But what're we gonna do better?" rejoined Abe, dubiously.
"It won't do to waste time. After all, my objection to your plan must be the idea of my stock being driven up here. Campbell's outfit will be behind them, and might make a drive up the road in spite of us."
"Dad, they'll walk the tattle, two riders behind, two on each side of the herd, and one--who you can gamble will be Tobe Campbell--out in front. He'll open the gate."
"Foxy Tobe!" ejaculated George, scornfully. "If we should happen to wake up he'd be out of gunshot."
"Abe, figure the deal quick," said Huett, realizing the imperative need of prompt decision.
"All right," replied Abe, in quick eagerness, showing that he was ready. "Dad, you stay here in the cabin with Mother and Bab. Keep your eyes peeled. Have your rifles and six-guns loaded, with plenty of shells on hand. When the ball opens, shoot, whether you're in range or not...George, you and Grant hide in the cow-shed. Don't let the cattle be started up the road. Don't wait for me to shoot. I'll go up, chain that gate so it can't be opened pronto. Then I'll work down on the rocky point that sticks farthest out in the canyon. I can cover every place from there. If they drive up under the west wall, well, the ball will be over without any of you getting a dance. But they'll probably drive up the centre. That means a thousand-yard shot for me--pretty far for a moving target. My main object in taking that stand, though, is to make sure Campbell doesn't climb the slope below the road. You know there's only one place. He's sharp enough to know it...I reckon that's all."
George and Grant went round the cabin to their quarters. Huett did not speak to Abe before they returned, rifles in hand, buckling on gun-belts. In the cool starlight they appeared formidable.
"Paw, it's been comin' a long time," said Abe significantly. The three tall forms vanished in the gloom of the corrals.
A dull, fiery pang gnawed at Huett's vitals. After the many stealings of the rustlers, the consequent pursuits, the running encounters, brushes, and escapes, there was to be a crucial fight. Huett had always longed to get it over with, but now that the hour had come he had a dreadful premonition that one or more of them might be killed. He felt this the darkest hour in his spiritual life as well as:--his physical career as a cattleman. Huett gazed down the weird, opaque canyon and cursed it with all the passion a strong, man could feel in a moment of intense bitterness and regret. He had loved this wilderness valley, he had spent more than the better half of his life there; his early dream, his ambition, his love of Lucinda, and the days of toil and defeat, the coming one by one of his sons, the blessed gift of little Barbara, the years of rain and shine, of struggle and victory--all were inextricably, hopelessly woven of these complex, fateful fibres.
Then, almost magically it seemed, his old practical habit reasserted itself--the habit of facing an obstacle: so powerful had it grown that this rustler raid and the ruts that had seemed so fearful were discounted. Logan paced to and fro until a faint grey showed over the black forest to the east. Dawn was not far away. No doubt the rustlers were already on the move. He went back into the cabin.
"Luce--Bab, wake up," he called.
They were asleep, having lain down fully dressed, and both voiced the same query.
"Abe's all right. He got home long ago. We're in for a fight with that Stillman outfit. Tobe Campbell has thrown in with them. They're going to try to drive Sycamore."
Logan was to learn what a pioneer's daughter could say in the hour of greatest stress. He thrilled to his marrow.
"Tobe Campbell!" exclaimed Barbara, in hot amazement. "Why, that hombre made violent love to me--called his brother Jack a low-down, worthless backwoods loafer--begged me to marry him. And now he sneaks up here with those outcast Stillmans to rob us!...The damned rotten lousy Tonto villain! I hope Abe shoots one of his pop-eyes out!"
"You'll get that chance yourself, maybe," he replied. "I'll want you and Luce to do some shooting when they come. Abe's idea is for us to shoot as much as we can whether we see any rustlers or not."
"I hope we come right close," snapped Barbara, viciously. "Dad, it's just hideous to think that after all we've endured--now when we've earned peace and rest, we must fight for our cattle and our very lives."
"Hideous is right, Barbara...No, Luce, don't strike a light. It's daybreak now. We'll be able to see pronto."
The open door and window let in the grey gloom. Logan placed a table under the window, and piled it high with firearms and ammunition. He made sure the guns were loaded.
"Stand here and don't talk," whispered Logan, taking his rifle. "I'll watch from the door."
He peered out. The rims of the canyon were black, the space between grey, with outlines of trees and walls dimly showing. Straining his ears, Logan listened for sounds. At last he heard a light thud up in the woods, probably the fall of a pine cone. It quickened his sense. There was a strange, oppressive silence mantling the forest. By looking back at the east he could discern the almost imperceptible brightening and spreading of the light.
Then the indistinct shapes began to take form and familiarity--the path, the bridge and brook, the tall pines to their right, the blur of corrals and sheds, the bulge of slope.
A whistle! It had a low, piercing, human quality. No bird or animal ever emitted a note like that. Barbara, peering out of the window, heard it, for she whispered something. Logan turned to reply: "Must have been George. Abe's too far away...Reckon they hear the drive!"
Logan listened more calmly. As the hour approached its climax his mind and senses seemed to fix. The grey gloom perceptibly lifted or disintegrated. He saw the corrals, and the cow-barn, where George and Grant waited, and the pale-yellow road leading up the slope. A blue jay broke the silence, heralding the dawn. Faint and far away sounded the chatter of a black squirrel. Then Logan heard another faint noise which he could not identify.
The ruddy colour appeared over the eastern pine-fringed rim. A stone rattled down over the ledge opposite the cabin, giving Logan a start. It was not an unusual sound. Weathering of the cliffs was always going on. He peered up the trail, through the gap in the ledge. It was light enough now for him to see that the gate of peeled poles was open. Seldom of late had it been closed, but now it seemed an oversight. Still, cattle running up the canyon would never find that small, steep opening. He turned towards the canyon.
A curtain of fog hung over the upper part, silvering in the light of breaking day. The ground was white with frost. On the moment he saw a dark moving line come from behind the jutting corner of wall.
"Dad--there!" whispered the sharp-eyed Barbara.
Logan did not reply nor turn. He had felt the gush of hot blood, the leap of passion, the stringing of his nerves. Doubt ceased. What brazen boldness these cattle-thieves showed! To raid a rancher's herd in front of his door! It seemed incredible; but there moved the dark line, ragged with heads and horns, not a half-mile away; and a faint sound of hoofs thudded on the still air. Logan shut his eyes and tried to simulate sleep, to find if that faint trample would wake him. But it was hard to hear even now when he was awake. The cunning Tobe Campbell had learned much from Hillbrand. Cattlemen in that country lived too far apart; they were too indifferent to their neighbours, too jealously intent upon their own business; they made no concerted effort to get rid of rustlers--and this was the result.
"Oh, Dad, they're driving all our herd!" whispered Barbara, indignantly.
"No. But they're sure not stingy with this raid...Barbara, you and Luce keep your nerve now. Hell will be popping pronto. I'll miss my guess, though, if it lasts long."
He watched. When he saw horsemen at each side of the herd and behind, his thoughts ceased whirling and settled into the one cold, hard business at hand. The rustlers drove straight up the canyon, on the right of the brook, over the deeper grass. They had not missed any asset to help them in this raid. No hoof cracked a rock or made a thud in that grass.
Logan counted eight riders. Abe had missed some. The herd drove easily. They were tame. They passed opposite Abe's stand surely out of rifle range--still Logan listened grimly for a shot. How little these rustlers dreamed that the most unerring rifleman in Arizona had sharp, cold eyes upon them!
"Folks, get ready..." ordered Huett, turning to look at his family.
Barbara stood with her rifle over the window-sill, which was almost up to her shoulder. Her pale face, flashing eyes and compressed lips showed resolute defiance and courage. Strangely Huett remembered her the first time he had ever seen her--a curly-haired, big-eyed little tot. Lucinda held her gun ready, locked in sombre expectancy, as if she could see dreadful issues beyond Huett's ken.
A ringing rifle-shot broke the silent canyon. It came from the wall beyond the corrals. Abe! Huett wheeled to gaze. He almost stepped outside in his eagerness. The herd was across the brook nearing the turn; riders were galloping up on both sides, swinging guns aloft, while hoarse shouts startled the cattle into a run. Another sharp crack from the cliff; it brought puffs of white smoke from the mounted men. The crack of their guns right over the heads of the herd stampeded the cattle. Rapid rifle-fire burst from the sheds. Men appeared swallowed up in a trampling roar and cloud of dust.
Huett levelled his rifle at the melee and waited for a rider to break through the dust. A horse plunged into view, but it was riderless. As Huett stepped out on the porch, peering low, he saw a burst of red flame from the ledge above the cabin, and then simultaneously with a banging gunshot came a violent shock, a burning blow from a bullet that knocked him back against the wall.
"Get away--from window!" he shouted to the women inside. He raised himself on his elbow. Two riders, guns in hands, yelling like Indians, rode down at breakneck pace, and reaching a level, began to shoot. Bang-bang-bang! Bullets thudded into the logs of the cabin. As the two turned towards the corrals and galloped by, a stream of red fire burst from the cabin window. Huett dropped flat as Barbara's thirty barked spitefully. The foremost horse broke his fast pace, leaped high with horrid snorts, and plunged down, unseating his rider, but as the horse lunged, the rustler hung on grimly to the pommel. He made a magnificent leap from flying feet and just missed the saddle. The crippled horse, mad with pain and fright, dragged him across the brook and kicked free to race among the bellowing, scattering herd.
Barbara ran out of the cabin, working the lever of her rifle. She fired at the second horseman. He emitted a piercing yell of agony and, sagging in his saddle, managed to guide his horse down the canyon on the left side of the brook.
Huett lurched upright from his knees, staggering, and seized hold of the porch post. Just then Barbara wheeled, her face like ashes, her eyes bright with a brilliant light.
"Dad! You're hurt!" she cried, piercingly, and rushed to support him.
"I don't know...reckon so," he replied, thickly. His senses were not clear. As she helped him over the high door-jam, Lucinda gave him one horrified look and collapsed on the floor. Logan felt hot blood streaming down his face and neck. Barbara helped him to his big chair, and then dashed back to the door, working the lever of her rifle. She peered out.
"What's doing, Bab?" called Logan, hoarsely.
"Oh, I--can't tell," she panted. "Yes...cattle on the rim--down canyon...Stampede!...I see riders--scattered...horses running hard...Oh, Dad! I believe we've driven the rustlers off!"
"I'll bet we have--those that could ride!...Bab, come here...Run your finger in this hole over my ear."
"Dad! I--I can't! Oh, the blood is pouring," cried Barbara, suddenly weak.
"Then I'll have to...Augh! Talk about fire!--Aw, that hombre just creased me!"
"Dad, you're not--bad hurt?" faltered Barbara.
"I'm not hurt at all. Bullet ditched my scalp. Gosh, it burns! I'm bleeding like a stuck pig. Well, if the boys get off this easy we're jake...Lucinda's only fainted, I reckon."
"She's coming to," cried Barbara, gladly. Then she ran to the door, and gazing out she cried: "George! He's crippled. Can't see the other boys...Oh, mercy, if they're only safe!"
Barbara bathed Lucinda's face, brought her back to consciousness and helped her to the bed. Logan averted his bloody face, and stood up with an effort. "Luce, I'm all right." He stamped out on to the porch to encounter George, dragging his leg. The healthy tan was gone from his face. At sight of his father he halted short with a grimace.
"Just nicked over the ear, George," announced Logan. "Aw, that's good. You sure look a sight to scare one into creeps...I stopped a slug, worse luck."
"God!...I'm afraid, Dad. I saw him get hit--fall--then jump up. Four or five of those thieves bolted for the road. Grant ran out to hold them back. They were using Colts. With his Winchester, Grant had the best of them. I ran out, too. That's when I got stung, from the other direction. I ducked behind the corral--had two shots at the other two. Didn't miss, either, but they got away...Dad, I counted eight men altogether."
"Eight?--Yes, so did I. There's Abe. He's holding Grant up. They're coming. If he can walk at all he's not hard hit...Aw, thank God!...I reckoned my lot could be no worse, but it could! George, tell the women we're jake, while I wash off this gore."
Logan took a survey of the canyon. The dust had settled. All down the grassy stretch cattle had begun to graze. In the square before the corrals Logan espied two prone figures, one of which moved. Half-way up the road there lay another. Far down under the west wall he saw a crippled horse dragging its bridle.
Striding to the bench, Huett washed the blood from his head. He felt the hot, stinging furrow over his ear. What a narrow escape! Still, an inch or even less was as good as a mile--the Huetts had weathered another vicissitude of pioneer life. The terrible remorse that had clamped him before the fight came back with new strength, but it could not stand before his exultation at the successful repulse of this rustler raid. With this gang split and depleted, if merely of its leaders, there would nevertheless be a let-up in rustling for a long time.