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Bear Cat Asks Questions








From: The Fighting Edge

A man bow-legged into Gillespie's and went straight to the bar. "Gimme a
drink--something damned hot," he growled.

He was a big, broad-shouldered fellow, hook-nosed, with cold eyes set
close. Hair and eyebrows were matted with ice and a coat of sleet covered
his clothes. Judging from voice and manner, he was in a vile humor.

A young fellow standing near was leaning with his back against the bar,
elbows resting on it. One heel was hooked casually over the rail.

"Anything been seen of a strange girl in town to-night?" the newcomer
asked. "She ain't right in her head an' I was takin' her to her dad's
place when she slipped away. I'm worried about her, out in this storm."

The cowpuncher looked at him coldly, eye to eye. "I'd say you got a
license to be. If she's lost out to-night she's liable to be frozen to
death before mo'ning."

"Yes," agreed Houck, and his lids narrowed. What did this young fellow
mean? There was something about his manner both strange and challenging.
If he was looking for a fight, Houck knew just where he could be
accommodated.

"In which case--"

The puncher stopped significantly.

"In which case--?" Houck prompted.

"--it might be unlucky for the guy that took her out an' lost her."

"What's yore name, fellow?" Jake demanded.

"Fellow, my name's Dud Hollister," promptly answered the other. "D'you
like it?"

"Not much. Neither it nor you."

Houck turned insolently back to the bar for his drink.

Mike was stirring into the glass of liquor cayenne pepper which he was
shaking from a paper. He was using as a mixer the barrel of a
forty-five.

The salient jaw of Houck jutted out. "What monkey trick are you tryin' to
play on me?" he asked angrily.

"You wanted it hot," Mike replied, and the bartender's gaze too was cold
and level.

It seemed to the former rustler that here was a second man ready to
fasten a quarrel on him. What was the matter with these fellows anyhow?

Another puncher ranged himself beside Hollister. "Who did this bird claim
he was, Dud?" he asked out loud, offensively.

"Didn't say. Took that li'l' bride out in this storm an' left her there.
Expect he'll be right popular in Bear Cat."

Houck smothered his rage. This was too serious to be settled by an
explosion of anger and an appeal to arms.

"I tell you she hid whilst I was openin' a gate. I been lookin' for her
six hours. Thought maybe she'd come to town. My idee is to organize a
search party an' go out after her. Quick as we can slap saddles on broncs
an' hit the trail."

Fragments of the facts had drifted out to the boys from the sick-room.

Dud tried an experiment. "Where'll we hunt for her--up toward Piceance?"

Houck deliberated before answering. If he were to tell the truth--that
she had escaped from him in the hills nine miles down the river--these
men would know he had been lying when he said he was taking June to her
father. If he let the search party head toward Piceance, there would be
no chance for it to save the girl. The man was no coward. To his credit,
he told the truth.

A half-circle of hostile faces hemmed him in, for the word had spread
that this was the man who had carried off June Tolliver. He was the focus
of a dozen pairs of eyes. Among the cattlemen of the Old West you will
still look into many such eyes, but never among city dwellers will you
find them. Blue they are for the most part or gray-blue, level, direct,
unfearing; quiet and steady as steel, flinging no flags of flurry,
tremendously sure of themselves. They can be very likable eyes, frank and
kind, with innumerable little lines of humor radiating from the corners;
or they can be stern and chill as the Day of Judgment.

Jake Houck found in them no gentleness. They judged him, inexorably,
while he explained.

"Where was you takin' her?" asked Larson, of the Wagon Rod outfit.

In spite of his boldness, of the dominating imperiousness by means of
which he had been used to ride roughshod over lesser men, Houck felt a
chill sensation at his heart. They were too quiet--too quiet by half.

"We was to have been married to-day," he said surlily. "This Dillon boy
got her to run off with him. He was no good. I rode hell-for-leather into
town to head 'em off."

Blister brought him back to the question of the moment. "An' you were
t-takin' her--?"

"To Brown's Park."

"Forcin' her to go. Was that it?" Hollister broke in.

"No, sir. She went of her own accord."

"Asked you to take her there, mebbe?"

"None o' yore damn business."

"How old is she, Mr. Houck?" Larson questioned.

"I dunno."

"I do. Sixteen coming Christmas," said Dud. "Dillon told me."

"An' how old are you, Mr. Houck?" the quiet, even voice of the owner of
the Wagon Rod pursued.

"I d'no as that's got anything to do with it, but I'm forty-three," Jake
retorted defiantly.

"You meant to live with her?"

"I meant to treat her right," was the sullen reply.

"But livin' with her, an' her another man's wife."

"No, sir. That fake marriage with Dillon don't go. She was promised to
me." He broke out suddenly in anger: "What's eatin' you all? Why don't
you go out an' help me find the girl? These whatfors an' whyfors can
wait, I reckon."

Blister dropped a bomb. "She's found."

"Found!" Houck stared at the fat man. "Who found her? Where? When?"

"Coupla hours ago. Here in this r-room. Kinda funny how she'd swim the
river a night like this an' walk eight-ten miles barefoot in the snow,
all to get away from you, an' her goin' with you of her own accord."

"It wasn't eight miles--more like six."

"Call it six, then. Fact is, Mr. Houck, she was mighty scared of you--in
a panic of terror, I'd say."

"She had no call to be," the Brown's Park settler replied, his voice
heavy with repressed rage. "I'm tellin' you she wasn't right in her
head."

"An' you was takin' advantage of that to make this li'l' girl yore--to
ruin her life for her," Hollister flung back.

In all his wild and turbulent lifetime Jake Houck had never before been
brought to task like this. He resented the words, the manner, the quiet
insistence of these range men. An unease that was not quite fear, but was
very close to it, had made him hold his temper in leash. Now the savage
in him broke through.

"You're a bunch of fool meddlers, an' I'm through explainin'. You can go
to hell 'n' back for me," he cried, and followed with a string of
crackling oaths.

The eyes of the punchers and cattlemen met one another. No word was
spoken, but the same message passed back and forth a score of times.

"I expect you don't quite understand where you're at, Mr. Houck," Larson
said evenly. "This is mighty serious business for you. We aim to give you
a chance to tell yore story complete before we take action."

"Action?" repeated Houck, startled.

"You're up against it for fair," Reeves told him. "If you figure on
gettin' away with a thing like that in a white man's country you've sure
got another guess comin'. I don't know where you're from or who you are,
but I know where you're going."

"D-don't push on the reins, Tom," the justice said. "We aim to be
reasonable about this, I reckon."

"Sure we do." Dud countered with one of Blister's own homely apothegms.
"What's the use of chewin' tobacco if you spit out the juice? Go through,
I say. There's a cottonwood back of the kitchen."

"You're fixin' for to hang me?" Houck asked, his throat and palate gone
suddenly dry.

"You done guessed it first crack," Tom nodded.

"Not yet, boys," protested Haines in his whispering falsetto. "I reckon
we'd ought to wait an' see how the girl comes out."

"Why had we?" demanded a squat puncher from the Keystone. "What
difference does it make? If ever any one needed stringin' up, it's the
guy here. He's worse than Douglas or any other Injun ever was. Is it yore
notion we'd oughta sit around with our hands in our pockets, Blister,
while reptiles like this Houck make our girls swim the river at night an'
plough barefoot through snowstorms? I ain't that easy-dispositioned
myself."

"Shorty's sure whistlin'. Same here," another chap-clad rider chipped
in.

"An' here."

Blister dropped into the background inconspicuously and vanished. He
appeared to be in a minority of one, not counting Houck, and he needed
reenforcements.

"We'll hear what Mr. Houck has to say before we pass judgment," Larson
said.

But Houck, looking into the circle of grim faces that surrounded him,
knew that he was condemned. Nothing that he could say would make any
difference. He shrugged his heavy shoulders.

"What's the use? You've done made up yore minds."

He noticed that the younger fellows were pressing closer to him. Pretty
soon they would disarm him. If he was going to make a fight for his life,
it had to be now. His arm dropped to his side, close to the butt of the
revolver he carried.

He was too late. Hollister jumped for his wrist and at the same time Mike
flung himself across the bar and garroted him. He struggled fiercely to
free himself, but was dragged down to the floor and pinioned. Before he
was lifted up his hands were tied behind him.

Unobserved, the front door of the barroom had opened. An ice-coated
figure was standing on the threshold.

Houck laughed harshly. "Come right in, Tolliver. You'll be in time to
take a hand in the show."

The little trapper's haggard eyes went round in perplexity. "What's the
trouble?" he asked mildly.

"No trouble a-tall," answered the big prisoner hardily. "The boys are
hangin' me. That's all."





Next: Houck Takes A Ride

Previous: Mollie Takes Charge



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