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Houck Takes A Ride








From: The Fighting Edge

Tolliver rubbed a hand uncertainly over a bristly chin. "Why, what are
they doin' that for, Jake?"

"Are you the Tolliver girl's father?" asked Larson.

"Yes, sir."

"Then we got bad news for you. She's sick."

"Sick?" the trapper's lips trembled.

"A mighty sick girl. This man here--this Houck, if that's what he calls
himself--took her away from the young fellow she'd married and started up
to Brown's Park with her. Somehow she gave him the slip, swam the river,
an' came back to town barefoot through the snow. Seems she lost her shoes
while she was crossin' the Blanco."

The color washed away beneath the tan of the father's face. "Where's she
at?"

"Here--at the hotel. Mrs. Gillespie an' Doc Tuckerman are lookin' after
her."

"I'd like to go to her right away."

"Sure. Dud, you know where the room is. Take Mr. Tolliver there."

"Pete." Houck's voice was hoarse, but no longer defiant. In this little
man, whom he had always bullied and dominated, whose evil genius he had
been, lay his hope of life. "Pete, you ain't a-going to leave yore old
pardner to be hanged."

Tolliver looked bleakly at him. The spell this man had woven over him
twenty-odd years ago was broken forever. "I'm through with you, Jake," he
said.

"You ain't intendin' to lift a hand for me?"

"Not a finger."

"Won't you tell these men howcome it I rode down to Bear Cat after
June?"

The Piceance Creek man's jaw tightened. His small eyes flashed hate.
"Sure, I'll tell 'em that. About two-three weeks ago Houck showed up at
my place an' stayed overnight. I knew him when we was both younger, but I
hadn't seen him for a long time. He took a notion to my June. She didn't
want to have a thing to do with him, but he bullied her, same as he did
me. June she found out he knew something about me, an' she was afraid to
make him mad. I reckon finally he got some kinda promise outa her. He had
some business at Meeker, an' he was comin' back to the ranch yestiddy.
Then he aimed to bring her here to get married."

He was looking steadily at Houck. Pete had found at last the courage to
defy him. He could tell anything he liked about the escape from Canyon
City.

"I was away all day lookin' over my traps an' fixin' them up. When I
reached home I found two notes. I got 'em here somewheres." Tolliver
fumbled in his coat pockets, but did not find them. "One was from June.
She said she was runnin' away to marry the Dillon boy. The other was from
Jake Houck. He'd got to the house before I did, found her note to me, an'
lit out after her. Soon's I could run up a horse I hit the trail too."

"Threw me down, eh, Pete?" Houck said bitterly. "Well, there's two can
play at that."

Tolliver did not flinch. "Go to it, soon as you've a mind to. I don't owe
you a thing except misery. You wrecked my life. I suffered for you an'
kept my mouth padlocked. I was coyote enough to sit back an' let you
torment my li'l' girl because I was afraid for to have the truth come out
an' hurt her. I'd ought to have gone after you with a forty-five. I'm
through. They can't hang you any too soon to suit me. If they don't--an'
if my June don't get well--I'll gun you sure as God made li'l' apples."

He turned and walked out of the room with Dud Hollister.

In the passage they met Mollie Gillespie and Blister Haines. The first
words the landlady heard were from Houck.

"No, sir, I've got nothing to say. What'd be the use? You've made up yore
minds to go through with this thing. A fool could see that. Far as
Tolliver goes, I reckon I'll go it alone an' not do any beefin' about
him. He threw me down hard, but he was considerable strung up about June.
Wouldn't do any good for me to tell what I know."

"Not a bit," assented Reeves. "Might as well game it out."

Houck's hard, cold eye looked at him steadily. "Who said anything about
not gaming it out? If you're expectin' me to beg an' crawl you've got
hold of the wrong man. I'm a damned tough nut an' don't you forget it.
Whenever you're ready, gents."

From the door Mrs. Gillespie spoke. "What's all this?"

She became at once the center of attention. The punchers grouped around
Houck were taken by surprise. They were disconcerted by this unexpected
addition to the party. For though Mrs. Gillespie led an irregular life,
no woman on the river was so widely loved as she. The mother of Bear Cat,
the boys called her. They could instance a hundred examples of the
goodness of her heart. She never tired of waiting on the sick, of giving
to those who were needy. It was more than possible she would not approve
the summary vengeance about to be executed upon the Brown's Park man.

The prisoner was the first to answer. "Just in time, ma'am. The boys are
stagin' an entertainment. They're fixin' to hang me. If you'll accept an
invite from the hangee I'll be glad to have you stay an'--"

"Hanging him? What for? What's he done?"

Tom Reeves found his voice. "He's the fellow done dirt to the li'l'
Tolliver girl, ma'am. We've had a kinda trial an'--"

"Fiddlesticks!" interrupted the woman. She swept the group with an
appraising eye. "I'm surprised to see you in this, Larson. Thought you
had more sense. Nobody would expect anything better of these flyaway
boys."

The owner of the Wagon Rod brand attempted defense, a little sheepishly.
"What would you want us to do, Mollie? This fellow treated the girl
outrageous. She's liable to die because--"

"Die! Nonsense! She's not going to die any more than this Houck is." She
looked the Brown's Park man over contemptuously with chill, steady eyes.
"He's a bad egg. It wouldn't hurt my feelings any if you rode him outa
town on a rail, but I'm not going to have you-all mixed up in a lynching
when there's no need for it."

Larson stole a look around the circle of faces. On the whole he was glad
Mrs. Gillespie had come. It took only a few minutes to choke the life out
of a man, but there were many years left in which one might regret it.

"O' course, if you say Miss Tolliver ain't dangerous sick, that makes a
difference," he said.

"Don't see it," Tom Reeves differed. "We know what this fellow aimed to
do, an' how he drove her to the river to escape him. If you ask me, I'll
say--"

"But nobody's askin' you, Tom," Mollie cut into his sentence sharply.
"You're just a fool boy chasin' cows' tails for thirty dollars a month.
I'm not going to have any of this nonsense. Bear Cat's a law-abidin'
place. We're all proud of it. We don't let bad-men strut around an' shoot
up our citizens, an' we don't let half-grown punchers go crazy an' start
hangin' folks without reason. Now do we?" A persuasive smile broke out on
the harsh face and transformed it. Every waif, every under-dog, every
sick woman and child within fifty miles had met that smile and warmed to
it.

Reeves gave up, grinning. "I ain't such a kid either, Mrs. Gillespie, but
o' course you got to have yore way. We all know that. What d' you want us
to do with this bird?"

"Turn him over to Simp an' let him put the fellow in the jail. There's
just as good law right here as there is anywhere. I'd hate to have it go
out from here that Bear Cat can't trust the officers it elects to see
justice done. Don't you boys feel that way too?"

"Can't we even ride him outa town on a rail? You done said we might."

Mrs. Gillespie hesitated. Why not? It was a crude and primitive
punishment, but it would take drastic treatment to get under the hide of
this sneering bully who had come within an ace of ruining the life of
June Tolliver. The law could not touch him. He had not abducted her. She
had gone of her own volition. Unfulfilled intentions are not criminal
without an overt act. Was he to escape scot free? She had scoffed at the
idea that June might die. But in her heart she was not so sure. The fever
was growing on her. It would be days before the crisis was reached.

"Will you promise, honest injun, not to kill or maim him, not to do
anything that will injure him permanent?"

"Yes, ma'am. We'll jes' jounce him up some."

"All agree to that?"

They did.

"Will you go along with the boys, Jim?" She smiled. "Just to see they're
not too--enthusiastic."

The owner of the Wagon Rod said he would.

Mollie nodded. "All right, boys. The quicker the sooner."

Fifteen minutes later Jake Houck went out of town on a rail.





Next: A Scandal Scotched

Previous: Bear Cat Asks Questions



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