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Bear Cat Asleep








From: The Fighting Edge

Bear Cat basked in the mellow warmth of Indian summer. Peace brooded over
the valley, a slumberous and placid drowsiness. Outside Platt & Fortner's
store big freight wagons stood close to the sidewalk. They had just come
in from their long overland journey and had not yet been unloaded. A
Concord stage went its dusty way down the street headed for Newcastle.
Otherwise there was little evidence of activity.

It was about ten o'clock in the morning. The saloons and gambling-houses
were almost deserted. The brisk business of the night had died down. Even
a poker player and a faro dealer must sleep.

Main Street was in a coma. A dog lazily poked a none too inquisitive nose
into its epidermis in a languid search for fleas. Past the dog went a
barefoot urchin into a store for two pounds of eight-penny nails.

Three horsemen appeared at the end of the street and moved down it at the
jog-trot which is the road gait of the cowpuncher. They dismounted near
the back door of Platt & Fortner's and flung the bridle reins over the
wheel spokes of the big freight wagons with the high sides. They did not
tie the reins even in slip knots.

The riders stood for a moment talking in low voices before they
separated. One went into Dolan's. He was a good-looking young fellow
about twenty. A second wandered into the hotel saloon. He was not
good-looking and was twice twenty. The third strolled past the bank,
glanced in, turned, and walked past it a second time. He straddled, with
jingling spurs, into the big store.

Tom Platt nodded casually to him. "Anything I can do for you, Houck?"

"I reckon," Houck grunted.

Platt noticed that he limped slightly. He had no feeling of friendliness
toward Houck, but common civility made him inquire how the wounded leg
was doing. After the Indian campaign the Brown's Park man had gone to
Meeker for his convalescence. That had been two months since.

"'S all right," growled the big fellow.

"Good. Thought you kinda favored it a little when you walked."

The Brown's Park man bought a plug of chewing tobacco and a shirt.

"Guess the soldiers got the Utes corralled all right by this time. Hear
anything new about that?" Platt asked by way of making conversation.

"No," Houck replied shortly. "Got an empty gunnysack I could have?"

"Sure." The storekeeper found one and a string with which to tie it.

"I'll take a slab of side meat an' a pound of ground coffee," the big man
growled.

He made other purchases,--flour, corn meal, beans, and canned tomatoes.
These he put in the gunnysack, tying the open end. Out of the side door
he went to the horses standing by the big freight wagons. The contents of
the sack he transferred to saddle-bags.

Then, without any apparent doubt as to what he was going to do next, he
dropped into another store, one which specialized in guns and ammunition,
though it, too, sold general supplies. He bought cartridges, both for the
two forty-fives and for the rifle he carried. These he actually tested in
his weapons, to make sure they fitted easily.

The proprietor attempted a pleasantry. "You're kinda garnished with
weapons, stranger. Not aimin' to hold up the town, are you?"

The amiable laugh died away. The wall-eyed stranger was looking at him in
bleak silence. Not an especially timid man, the owner of the place felt a
chill run down his spine. That stare carried defiance, an unvoiced
threat. Later, the storekeeper made of it a stock part of his story of
the day's events.

"When the stranger gave me that look of his I knew right away something
was doing. 'Course I didn't know what. I'll not claim I did, but I was
sure there'd be a job for the coroner before night. Blister come into the
store just after he left. I said to him, 'Who's that big black guy?' He
says, 'Jake Houck.' 'Well,' I says, 'Jake Houck is sure up to some
deviltry.'"

It is easy to be a prophet after the event. When Houck jingled out of the
store and along the sidewalk to the hotel, none of the peaceful citizens
he met guessed what he had in mind. None of them saw the signal which
passed between him and the young fellow who had just come out of Dolan's.
This was not a gesture. No words were spoken, but a message went from one
to the other and back. The young puncher disappeared again into Dolan's.

Afterward, when Bear Cat began to assemble its recollections of the
events prior to the dramatic climax, it was surprising how little that
was authentic could be recalled. Probably a score of people noted
casually the three strangers. Houck was recognized by three or four,
Bandy Walker by at least one. The six-foot youngster with them was known
by nobody who saw him. It was learned later that he had never been in the
town before. The accounts of how the three spent the hour between ten and
eleven are confusing. If they met during that time it was only for a
moment or two while passing. But it is certain that Bandy Walker could
not have been both in the blacksmith shop and at Platt & Fortner's five
minutes before eleven. The chances are that some of the town people,
anxious to have even a small part in the drama, mixed in their minds
these strangers with others who had ridden in.

Bob Dillon and Dud Hollister dropped from their saddles in front of the
hotel at just eleven o'clock. They had ridden thirty miles and stood for
a moment stretching the cramp out of their muscles.

Dud spoke, nodding his head to the right. "Look what's here, Sure-Shot.
Yore friend Bandy--old, tried, an' true."

Walker was trailing his high-heeled boots through the dust across the
street from Dolan's toward the big store. If he saw Bob he gave no sign
of knowing him.

The two friends passed into the hotel. They performed the usual rites of
internal and external ablutions. They returned to the bar, hooked their
heels, and swapped with Mike the news of the day.

"Hear Larson's bought the K T brand. Anything to it?" asked Dud.

"Paid seven thousand down, time on the balance," Mike said. "How you lads
makin' it on Elk?"

"Fine. We got the best preemptions on the river. Plenty of good grass,
wood an' water handy, a first-class summer range. It's an A1 layout,
looks like."

"At the end of nowhere, I reckon," Mike grinned.

"The best steers are on the edge of the herd," Dud retorted cheerfully.
"It's that way with ranches too. A fellow couldn't raise much of a herd
in Denver, could he?"

A sound like the explosion of a distant firecracker reached them. It was
followed by a second.

It is strange what a difference there is between the report of one shot
and another. A riotous cowpuncher bangs away into the air to stress the
fact that he is a live one on the howl. Nobody pays the least attention.
A bullet flies from a revolver barrel winged with death. Men at the
roulette wheel straighten up to listen. The poker game is automatically
suspended, a hand half dealt. By some kind of telepathy the players know
that explosion carries deadly menace.

So now the conversation died. No other sound came, but the two cattlemen
and the bartender were keyed to tense alertness. They had sloughed
instantly the easy indolence of casual talk.

There came the slap of running footsteps on the sidewalk. A voice called
in excitement, "They've killed Ferril."

The eyes of the Elk Creek ranchers met. They knew now what was taking
place. Ferril was cashier of the Bear Cat bank.





Next: Bear Cat Awake

Previous: A Responsible Citizen



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