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A Cup Of Cold Water








From: The Fighting Edge

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.





Next: Keep A-comin' Red Haid

Previous: Don't You Like Me Any More?



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