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Don't You Touch Him!








From: The Fighting Edge

Inside the big chuck tent of the construction camp the cook was busy
forking steak to tin plates and ladling potatoes into deep dishes.

"Git a move on you, Red Haid," he ordered.

Bob Dillon distributed the food at intervals along the table which ran
nearly the whole length of the canvas top. From an immense coffee pot he
poured the clear brown liquid into tin cups set beside each plate. This
done, he passed out into the sunshine and beat the triangle.

From every tent men poured like seeds squirted from a squeezed lemon.
They were all in a hurry and they jostled each other in their eagerness
to get through the open flap. Straw boss, wood walkers, and ground men,
they were all hungry. They ate swiftly and largely. The cook and his
flunkey were kept busy.

"More spuds!" called one.

"Coming up!" Dillon flung back cheerfully.

"Shoot along more biscuits!" a second ordered.

"On the way!" Bob announced.

The boss of the outfit came in leisurely after the rush. He brought a
guest with him and they sat down at the end of the table.

"Beans!" demanded a line man, his mouth full.

"Headed for you!" promised the flunkey.

The guest of the boss was a big rangy fellow in the early forties. Bob
heard the boss call him "Jake," and later "Houck." As soon as the boy had
a moment to spare he took a good look at the man. He did not like what he
saw. Was it the cold, close-set eyes, the crook of the large nose, or the
tight-lipped mouth gave the fellow that semblance to a rapacious wolf?

As soon as Bob had cleaned up the dishes he set off up the creek to meet
June. The boy was an orphan and had been brought up in a home with two
hundred others. His life had been a friendless one, which may have been
the reason that he felt a strong bond of sympathy for the lonely girl on
Piceance. He would have liked to be an Aladdin with a wonder lamp by
means of which he could magically transform her affairs to good fortune.
Since this could not be, he gave her what he had--a warm fellow-feeling
because of the troubles that worried her.

He found June waiting at their usual place of meeting. Pete Tolliver's
forty-four hung in a scabbard along the girl's thigh. Bob remembered that
she had spoken of seeing a rattlesnake on the trail yesterday.

"'Lo, boy," she called.

"'Lo, June. I met yore friend."

"What friend?"

"Jake Houck. He was down at the camp for dinner to-day--came in with the
boss."

"He's no friend of mine," she said sulkily.

"Don't blame you a bit. Mr. Houck looks like one hard citizen. I'd hate
to cross him."

"He's as tough as an old range bull. No matter what you say or do you
can't faze him," she replied wearily.

"You still hate him?"

"More 'n ever. Most o' the time. He just laughs. He's bound an'
determined to marry me whether or not. He will, too."

Bob looked at her, surprised. It was the first time she had ever admitted
as much. June's slim body was packed with a pantherish resilience. Her
spirit bristled with courage. What had come over her?

"He won't if you don't want him to."

"Won't he?" June was lying on a warm flat rock. She had been digging up
dirt at the edge of it with a bit of broken stick. Now she looked up at
him with the scorn of an experience she felt to be infinitely more
extensive than his. "A lot you know about it."

"How can he? If you an' Mr. Tolliver don't want him to."

"He just will."

"But, June, that don't listen reasonable to me. He's got you buffaloed.
If you make up yore mind not to have him--"

"I didn't say I'd made up my mind not to have him. I said I hated him,"
she corrected.

"Well, you wouldn't marry a fellow you hated," he argued.

"How do you know so much about it, Bob Dillon?" she flared.

"I use what brains I've got. Women don't do things like that. There
wouldn't be any sense in it."

"Well, I'll prob'ly do it. Then you'll know I haven't got a lick o'
sense," she retorted sullenly.

"You ce'tainly beat my time," he said, puzzled. "I've heard you say more
mean things about him than everybody else put together, an' now you're
talkin' about marryin' him. Why? What's yore reason?"

She looked up. For a moment the morose eyes met his. They told nothing
except a dogged intention not to tell anything.

But the boy was no fool. He had thought a good deal about the lonely life
she and her father led. Many men came into this country three jumps ahead
of the law. It was not good form to ask where any one came from unless he
volunteered information about antecedent conditions. Was it possible that
Jake Houck had something on Tolliver, that he was using his knowledge to
force June into a marriage with him? Otherwise there would be no
necessity for her to marry him. As he had told her, it was a free land.
But if Houck was coercing her because of her fears for Tolliver, it was
possible this might be a factor in determining June to marry him.

"Don't you do it, June. Don't you marry him. He didn't look good to me,
Houck didn't," Dillon went on. He was a little excited, and his voice had
lifted.

A man who came at this moment round the bend of the creek was grinning
unpleasantly. His eyes focused on Dillon.

"So I don't look good to you. Tha's too bad. If you'll tell me what you
don't like about me I'll make myself over," jeered Houck.

Bob was struck dumb. The crooked smile and the stab of the eyes that went
with it were menacing. He felt goose quills running up and down his
spine. This man was one out of a thousand for physical prowess.

"I didn't know you was near," the boy murmured.

"I'll bet you didn't, but you'll know it now." Houck moved toward Dillon
slowly.

"Don't you, Jake Houck! Don't you touch him!" June shrilled.

"I got to beat him up, June. It's comin' to him. D'you reckon I'll let
the flunkey of a telephone camp interfere in my business? Why, he ain't
half man-size."

Bob backed away warily. This Colossus straddling toward him would thrash
him within an inch of his life. The boy was white to the lips.

"Stop! Right now!" June faced Houck resolutely, standing between him and
his victim.

The big fellow looked at the girl, a slim, fearless little figure with
undaunted eyes flinging out a challenge. He laughed, delightedly, then
brushed her aside with a sweep of his arm.

Her eyes blazed. The smouldering passion that had been accumulating for
weeks boiled up. She dragged out the six-shooter from its holster.

"I won't have you touch him! I won't! If you do I'll--I'll--"

Houck stopped in his stride, held fast by sheer amazement. The revolver
pointed straight at him. It did not waver a hair's breadth. He knew how
well she could shoot. Only the day before she had killed a circling hawk
with a rifle. The bird had dropped like a plummet, dead before it struck
the ground. Now, as his gaze took in the pantherish ferocity of her tense
pose, he knew that she was keyed up for tragedy. She meant to defend the
boy from him if it resulted in homicide.

It did not occur to him to be afraid. He laughed aloud, half in
admiration, half in derision.

"I b'lieve you would, you spunky li'l wild cat," he told her in great
good humor.

"Run, Bob," called June to the boy.

He stood, hesitating. His impulse was to turn and fly, but he could not
quite make up his mind to leave her alone with Houck.

The cowman swung toward the girl.

"Keep back!" she ordered.

Her spurt of defiance tickled him immensely. He went directly to her, his
stride unfaltering.

"Want to shoot up poor Jake, do you? An' you an' him all set for a
honeymoon. Well, go to it, June. You can't miss now."

He stood a yard or so from her, easy and undisturbed, laughing in genuine
enjoyment. He liked the child's pluck. The situation, with its salty tang
of danger, was wholly to his taste.

But he had disarmed the edge of June's anger and apprehension. His
amusement was too real. It carried the scene from tragedy to farce.

June's outburst had not been entirely for the sake of Bob. Back of the
immediate cause was the desire to break away from this man's dominance.
She had rebelled in the hope of establishing her individual freedom. Now
she knew this was vain. What was the use of opposing one who laughed at
her heroics and ignored the peril of his position? There was not any way
to beat him.

She pushed the six-shooter back into its holster and cried out at him
bitterly. "I think you're the devil or one of his fiends."

"An' I think you're an angel--sometimes," he mocked.

"I hate you!" she said, and two rows of strong little white teeth snapped
tight.

"Sho! Tha's just a notion you got. You like me fine, if you only knew it,
girl."

She was still shaken with the emotion through which she had passed. "You
never were nearer death, Jake Houck, than right now a minute ago."

His back to Dillon, the cowman gave a curt command. "Hit the trail,
boy--sudden."

Bob looked at June, whose sullen eyes were fighting those of her father's
guest. She had forgotten he was there. Without a word Bob vanished.

"So you love me well enough to shoot me, do you?" Houck jeered.

"I wish I could!" she cried furiously.

"But you can't. You had yore chance, an' you couldn't. What you need is a
master, some one you'll have to honor an' obey, some one who'll look
after you an' take the devil outa you. Meanin' me--Jake Houck.
Understand?"

"I won't! I won't!" she cried. "You come here an' bully me
because--because of what you know about Father. If you were half a
man--if you were white, you wouldn't try to use that against me like you
do."

"I'm using it for you. Why, you li'l' spitfire, can't you see as Jake
Houck's wife you get a chance to live? You'll have clothes an' shoes an'
pretties like other folks instead o' them rags you wear now. I aim to be
good to you, June."

"You say that. Don't I know you? I'd 'most rather be dead than married
to you. But you keep pesterin' me. I--I--" Her voice broke.

"If you don' know what's best for you, I do. To-morrow I got to go to
Meeker. I'll be back Thursday. We'll ride over to Bear Cat Friday an' be
married. Tha's how we'll fix it."

He did not take her in his arms or try to kiss her. The man was wise in
his generation. Cheerfully, as a matter of course, he continued:

"We'll go up to the house an' tell Tolliver it's all settled."

She lagged back, sulkily, still protesting. "It's not settled, either.
You don't run everything."

But in her heart she was afraid he had stormed the last trench of her
resistance.





Next: An Elopement

Previous: June Asks Questions



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