Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Self-defence








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

When Bruce came out of the canyon, where he had a wider view of the sky,
he saw that wicked-looking clouds were piling thick upon one another in
the northeast, and he wondered whether the month was the first of
November or late October, as Slim insisted. They had lost track somehow,
and of the day of the week they had not the faintest notion.

There was always the first big snowstorm to be counted on in the Bitter
Root Mountains, after which it sometimes cleared and was open weather
for weeks. But this was when it came early in September; the snow that
fell now would in all probability lie until spring.

At any rate, there was wood to be cut, enough to last out a week's
storm. But, first, Bruce told himself, he must clean up the rocker, else
he would lose nearly the entire proceeds of his day's work. The gold was
so light that much of it floated and went off with the water when the
sand was wet again, after it had once dried upon the apron.

Bruce placed a gold pan at the end of the rocker, and, with a clean
scrubbing brush, carefully worked the sand over the Brussels-carpet
apron, pouring water into the grizzly the while.

"That trip up the canyon cost me half a day's wages," he thought as he
saw the thin yellow scum floating on the top of the pan.

Sitting on his heel by the river's edge, where he had made a quiet pool
by building a breakwater of pebbles, he agitated and swirled the sand
in the gold pan until only a small quantity remained, and while he
watched carefully lest some of the precious specks and flakes which
followed in a thick, yellow string behind the sand slip around the
corners and over the edge, he also cast frequent glances at the peaks
that became each moment more densely enveloped in the clouds.

"When she cuts loose she's going to be a twister," and he added grimly,
as instinctively his eyes sought the saddleback or pass over which the
ancient trail of the Sheep-eater Indians ran: "Those game hogs better
pull their freight if they count on going out as they came in."

His fingers were numb when he stood up and shook the cold river water
from them, turning now to look across for a sight of Slim.

"I've cut his share of wood all summer, so I guess there's no use
quitting now. Turning pancakes is about the hardest work he's done since
we landed on the bar. Oh, well"--he raised one big shoulder in a shrug
of resignation--"we'll split this partnership when we get out of here.
By rights I ought to dig out now."

The chips flew as he swung the ax with blows that tested the tough oak
handle. Bruce Burt was a giant in his strength, and as unconscious of
the greatness of it as a bear. He could not remember that he had ever
fully tried it. He never had lifted a weight when he had not known that,
if necessary, he could lift a little more. His physique had fulfilled
the promise of his sturdy youth, and he was as little aware that it,
too, was remarkable as he was of the fact that men and women turned in
admiration to look again at his dark, unsmiling face upon the rare
occasions when he had walked the streets of the towns.

He was as splendid a specimen of his kind as Old Felix, as primitive
nearly, and as shy. His tastes had led him into the wilderness, and he
had followed the gold strikes and the rumors of gold strikes from
Sonora, in Old Mexico, to the Siberian coast, on Behring Sea, in search
of a new Klondike. He had lived hard, endured much in the adventurous
life of which he seldom talked. His few intimates had been men like
himself--the miners and prospectors who built their cabins in the
fastnesses with Hope their one companion, to eat and sleep and work
with. He was self-educated and well informed along such lines as his
tastes led him. He read voraciously all that pertained to Nature, to her
rocks and minerals, and he knew the habits of wild animals as he knew
his own. Of the people and that vague place they called "the outside,"
he knew little or nothing.

He had acquaintances and he had enemies in the mining camps which
necessity compelled him to visit at long intervals for the purchase of
supplies. Agreeable and ingratiating storekeepers who sold him
groceries, picks, shovels, powder, drills, at fifty per cent. profit,
neat, smooth-shaven gamblers, bartenders, who welcomed him with
boisterous camaraderie, tired and respectable women who "run" boarding
houses, painted, highly-perfumed ladies of the dance hall, enigmatic
Chinamen, all were types with which he was familiar. But he called none
of them "friend." Their tastes, their interests, their standards of
conduct were different from his own. They had nothing in common, yet he
could not have explained exactly why. He told himself vaguely that he
did not "cotton" to them, and thought the fault was with himself.

Bruce was twenty-seven, and his mother was still his ideal of womanhood.
He doubted if there were another like her in all the world. Certainly he
never had seen one who in the least approached her. He remembered her
vividly, the grave, gray, comprehending eyes, the long braids of hair
which lay like thick new hempen rope upon the white counterpane.

His lack of a substantial education--a college education--was a sore
spot with him which did not become less sore with time. If she had lived
he was sure it would have been different. With his mother to intercede
for him he knew that he would have had it. After her death his father
grew more taciturn, more impatient, more bent on preparing him to follow
in his footsteps, regardless of his inclinations. The "lickings" became
more frequent, for he seemed only to see his mistakes and childish
faults.

The culmination had come when he had asked to be allowed to leave the
country school where he rode daily, and attend the better one in the
nearest village, which necessitated boarding. After nerving himself for
days to ask permission, he had been refused flatly.

"What do you think I'm made of--money?" his father had demanded. "You'll
stay where you are until you've learned to read, and write, and figure:
then you'll help me with the cattle. Next thing you'll be wantin' to
play a flute or the piano."

He thought of his father always with hardness and unforgiveness, for he
realized now, as he had not at the time he ran away from home, what the
thousands of acres, the great herd of sleek cattle, meant--the fortune
that they represented.

"He could have so well afforded it," Bruce often mused bitterly. "And
it's all I would have asked of him. I didn't come into the world because
I wanted to come, and he owed it to me--my chance!"

The flakes of snow which fell at first and clung tenaciously to Bruce's
dark-blue flannel shirt were soft and wet, so much so that they were
almost drops of rain, but soon they hardened and bounced and rattled as
they began to fall faster.

As he threw an armful of wood behind the sheet-iron camp stove, Bruce
gave a disparaging poke at a pan of yeast bread set to rise.

"Slim and I will have to take this dough to bed with us to keep it warm
if it turns much colder. Everything's going to freeze up stiff as a
snake. Never remember it as cold as this the first storm. Well, I'll get
a pail of water, then let her come." He added uneasily: "I wish Slim
would get in."

His simple preparations were soon complete, and when he closed the heavy
door of whip-sawed lumber it was necessary to light the small kerosene
lamp, although the dollar watch ticking on its nail said the hour was
but four-thirty.

He eyed a pile of soiled dishes in disgust, then set a lard bucket of
water to heat.

"Two days' gatherings! After I've eaten four meals off the same plate it
begins to go against me. Slim would scrape the grub off with a stick and
eat for a year without washing a dish. Seems like the better raised some
fellers are the dirtier they are when they're out like this. Guess I'll
wash me a shirt or two while I'm holed up. Now where did I put my
dishrag?"

His work and his huge masculinity looked ludicrously incongruous as he
bent over the low table and scraped at the tin plates with his thumb
nail or squinted into the lard buckets, of which there seemed an endless
array.

The lard bucket is to the prospector what baling wire is to the
freighter on the plains, and Bruce, from long experience, knew its
every use. A lard bucket was his coffee-pot, his stewing kettle, his
sour-dough can. He made mulligan in one lard bucket and boiled beans in
another. The outside cover made a good soap dish, and the inside cover
answered well enough for a mirror when he shaved.

He wrung out his dishcloth now and hung it on a nail, then eyed the bed
in the end of the cabin disapprovingly.

"That's a tough-looking bunk for white men to sleep in! Wonder how
'twould seem if 'twas made?"

While he shook and straightened the blankets, and smote the bear-grass
pillows with his fists, he told himself that he would cut some fresh
pine boughs to soften it a little as soon as the weather cleared.

"I'm a tidy little housewife," he said sardonically as he tucked away
the blankets at the edge. "I've had enough inside work to do since I
took in a star boarder to be first-class help around some lady's home."
A dead tree crashed outside. "Wow! Listen to that wind! Sounds like a
bunch of squaws wailing; maybe it's a war party lost in the Nez Perce
Spirit Land. Wish Slim would come." He walked to the door and listened,
but he could hear nothing save the howling of the wind.

He was poking aimlessly at the bread dough with his finger, wondering if
it ever meant to rise, wondering if his partner would come home in a
better humor, wondering if he should tell him about the salt, when Slim
burst in with a swirl of snow and wind which extinguished the tiny lamp.
In the glimpse Bruce had of his face he saw that it was scowling and
ugly.

Slim placed his rifle on the deer-horn gun rack without speaking and
stamped the mud and snow from his feet in the middle of the freshly
swept floor.

"I was kind of worried about you," Bruce said, endeavoring to speak
naturally. "I'm glad you got in."

"Don't know what you'd worry about me for," was the snarling answer.
"I'm as well able to take care of myself as you are."

"It's a bad night for anybody to be roaming around the hills." Bruce was
adjusting the lamp chimney and putting it back on the shelf, but he
noticed that Slim's face was working as it did in his rages, and he
sighed; they were in for another row.

"You think you're so almighty wise; I don't need you to tell me when
it's fit to be out."

Bruce did not answer, but his black eyes began to shine. Slim noticed it
with seeming satisfaction, and went on:

"I saw them pet sheep of yourn comin' down. Did you give 'em salt?"

Bruce hesitated.

"Yes, Slim, I did. I suppose I shouldn't have done it, but the poor
little devils----"

"And I'm to go without! Who the ---- do you think you are to give away my
salt?"

"Your salt----" Bruce began savagely, then stopped. "Look here, Slim!"
His deep voice had an appealing note. "It wasn't right when there was
so little, I'll admit that, but what's the use of being so onery? I
wouldn't have made a fuss if you had done the same thing. Let's try and
get along peaceable the few days we'll be cooped up in here, and when
the storm lets up I'll pull out. I should have gone before. But I don't
want to wrangle and quarrel with you, Slim; honest I don't."

"You bet you don't!" Slim answered, with ugly significance.

Bruce's strong, brown fingers tightened as he leaned against the window
casement with folded arms. His silence seemed to madden Slim.

"You bet you don't!" he reiterated, and added in shrill venom: "I might
'a' knowd how 'twould be when I throwed in with a mucker like you."

"Careful, Slim--go slow!" Bruce's eyes were blazing now between their
narrowed lids, but he did not move. His voice was a whisper.

"That's what I said! I'll bet your father toted mortar for a plasterer
and your mother washed for a dance hall!"

Slim's taunting, devilish face, corpse-like in its pallor above his
black beard, was all Bruce saw as he sprang for his throat. He backed
him against the door and held him there.

"You miserable dog--I ought to kill you!" The words came from between
his set teeth. He drew back his hand and slapped him first on the right
cheek, then on the left. He flung Slim from him the length of the cabin,
where he struck against the bunk.

Slim got to his feet and rushed headlong toward the door. Bruce thought
he meant to snatch his rifle from the rack, and was ready, but he tore
at the fastening and ran outside. Bruce watched the blackness swallow
him, and wondered where he meant to go, what he meant to do on such a
night. He was not left long in doubt.

He heard Slim coming back, running, cursing vilely as he came. The shaft
of yellow light which shot into the darkness fell upon the gleaming
blade of the ax that he bore uplifted in his hand.

"Slim!"

The answer was a scream that was not human. Slim was a madman! Bruce saw
it clearly now. Insanity blazed in his black eyes. There was no
mistaking the look; Slim was violently, murderously insane!

"I'm goin' to get you!" His scream was like a woman's screech. "I've
meant to get you all along, and I'm goin' to do it now!"

"Drop it, Slim! Drop that ax!"

But Slim came on.

Instinctively Bruce reached for the heavy, old-fashioned revolver
hanging on its nail.

Slim half turned his body to get a longer, harder swing, aiming as
deliberately for Bruce's head as though he meant to split a stick of
wood.

Bruce saw one desperate chance and took it. He could not bring himself
to stop Slim with a gun. He flung it from him. Swift and sure he swooped
and caught Slim by the ankles in the instant that he paused. Exerting
his great strength, he hurled him over his shoulder, ax and all, where
he fell hard, in a heap, in the corner, between the bunk and wall. The
sharp blade of the ax cut the carotid artery.

Bruce turned to see a spurt of blood. Slim rolled over on his back, and
it gushed like a crimson fountain. Bruce knelt beside him, trying
frantically to bring together the severed ends, to stop somehow the
ghastly flow that was draining the madman's veins.

But he did not know how, his fingers were clumsy, and Slim would not lie
still. He threshed about like a dying animal, trying to rise and stagger
around the room. Finally his chest heaved, and his contracted leg
dropped with a thud. Bruce stared at the awful pallor of Slim's face,
then he got up and washed his hands.

He looked at the watch ticking steadily through it all; it was barely a
quarter to five. He spread his slicker on the bunk and laid Slim on it
and tried to wash the blood from the floor and the logs of the cabin
wall, but it left a stain. He changed his shirt--murderers always
changed their shirts and burned them.

Slim was dead; he wouldn't have to get supper for Slim--ever again. And
he had killed him! Mechanically he poked his finger into the dough. It
was rising. He could work it out pretty soon. Slim was dead; he need not
get supper for Slim; he kept looking at him to see if he had moved. How
sinister, how "onery" Slim looked even in death. He closed his mouth and
drew the corner of a blanket over the cruel, narrow face. How still it
seemed after the commotion and Slim's maniacal screams!

He had joined the army of men who have killed their partners. What
trifles bring on quarrels in the hills; what mountains molehills become
when men are alone in the wilderness! That cook in the Buffalo Hump who
tried to knife him because he stubbed his toe against the coffee-pot,
and "Packsaddle Pete," who meant to brain him when they differed over
throwing the diamond hitch; and now Slim was dead because he had given a
handful of salt to the mountain sheep.

It did not seem to matter that Slim had said he meant to kill him,
anyhow, or that the way in which his malignant eyes had followed his
every movement took on new significance in the light of what had
happened. He blamed himself. He should have quit long ago. He should
have seen that Slim's ill-balanced mind needed only a trifle to shove it
over the edge. It had never seemed so still in the cabin even when Slim
was gone as it did now. Mechanically he set about getting supper, making
as much noise as he could.

But he was unable to eat after it was on the table before him. He drank
his coffee and stared at the bacon and cold biscuit a while, then washed
the dishes again. Slim seemed to be getting farther and farther away.

The storm outside had become a blizzard. Old Mother Westwind took to her
heels and the Boss of the Arctic raged. It occurred to Bruce that it
would be hard to bury Slim if the ground froze, and that reminded him
that perhaps Slim had "folks" who ought to know.

Bruce filled the stove, and shoved his bread in the oven; then he pulled
Slim's war bag from under the bunk and dumped the contents on the table,
hoping with all his heart that he would not find an address. He could
not imagine how his should find the words in which to tell them that he
had killed Slim.

There were neckties, samples of ore, a pair of silk suspenders, and a
miner's candlestick, one silk sock, a weasel skin, a copy of "The
Gadfly," and a box of quinine pills. No papers, no letters, not a single
clew to his identity. Bruce felt relief. Wait--what was this? He took
the bag by the corners, and a photographer's mailing case fell out. It
was addressed to Slim in Silver City, New Mexico, in a childish,
unformed hand.

He took out the picture and found himself smiling into the eyes that
smiled up into his. He knew intuitively that it was Slim's sister, yet
the resemblance was the faintest, and there was not a trace of his
meanness in her look.

He had been right in his conjecture, Slim was "the runt of something
good." There was no mistaking the refinement and good breeding in the
girl's sweet face.

Slim had known better, yet nearly always he had talked in the language
of the uneducated Westerner, in the jargon of yeggmen, and the
vernacular of the professional tramps with whom he had hoboed over the
West--a "gay cat," as he was pleased to call himself, when boasting of
the "toughness" of his life. He had affected uncleanliness, uncouthness;
but in spite of his efforts the glimmer of the "something good" of which
he was the runt had shown through.

Slim had had specific knowledge of a world which Bruce knew only by
hearsay; and when it had suited his purpose, as when Bruce had first met
him in Meadows, he had talked correctly, even brilliantly, and he had
had an undeniable charm of manner for men and women alike. But, once
well started down the river, he had thrown off all restraint, ignoring
completely the silent code which exists between partners in the hills.

Such fellows were well named "black sheep," Bruce thought, as he looked
at the picture.

A letter had been wrapped around the photograph, with an address and a
date line twelve years old. The letter read:

DEAR BROTHER: We have just heard that you were working in a mine
down there and so I thought I would write and tell you that I
hope you are well and make a lot of money. I hope you do and
come home because we are awful poor and mother says if I don't
marry well she don't know what we will do because there are
mortgages on everything and we don't keep horses any more and
only one servant which is pretty hard for mother. The girl is
sassy sometimes but mother can't let her go because she can't
pay her yet. Please, Freddie, come home and help us. Everything
dreadful has happened to us since father died. Mother will
forgive you for being bad and so do I although it was not nice
to see our names and pictures in the papers all the time. Write
to me, Freddie, as soon as you get this. Your loving sister,

HELEN.

P. S.--I am thirteen to-day and this is my picture. I wish I
could go West too, but don't mention this when you write.

Bruce wondered if Slim had answered. He would wager his buckskin bag of
dust that he had not. The marvel was that he had even kept the letter.
He looked again at the date line--twelve years--the mortgages had long
since been foreclosed, if it had depended upon Slim to pay them--and she
was twenty-five. He wondered if she'd "married well."

Slim was a failure; he stood for nothing in the world of achievement;
for all the difference that his going made, he might never have been
born. Then a thought as startling as the tangible appearance of some
ironic, grinning imp flashed to his mind. Who was he, Bruce Burt, to
criticise his partner, Slim? What more had he accomplished? How much
more difference would his own death make in anybody's life? His mother's
labored words came back with painful distinctness: "I've had such hopes
for you, my little boy. I've dreamed such dreams for you--I wanted to
see them all come true." An inarticulate sound came from him that was
both pain and self-disgust. He was close to twenty-eight--almost
thirty--and he'd spent the precious years "just bumming round." Nothing
to show for them but a little gold dust and the clothes he wore. He
wondered if his mother knew.

Her wedding ring was still in a faded velvet case that he kept among his
treasures. He never had seen a woman who had suggested ever so faintly
the thought that he should like to place it on her finger. There had
been women, of a kind--"Peroxide Louise," in Meadows, with her bovine
coquetry and loud-mouthed vivacity, yapping scandal up and down the
town, the transplanted product of a city's slums, not even loyal to the
man who had tried to raise her to his level.

Bruce never had considered marrying; the thought of it for himself
always made him smile. But why couldn't he--the thought now came
gradually, and grew--why shouldn't he assume the responsibilities Slim
shirked if conditions were the same and help was still needed? In
expiation, perhaps, he could halfway make amends.

He'd write and mail the letter in Ore City as soon as he could snowshoe
out. He'd express them half the dust and tell them that 'twas Slim's.
He'd----"OO--oo--ough!" he shivered--he'd forgotten to stoke the fire.
Oh, well, a soogan would do him well enough.

He pulled a quilt from under Slim and wrapped it about his own
shoulders. Then he sat down again by the fireless stove and laid his
head on his folded arms upon the rough pine table. The still body on
the bunk grew stark while he slept, the swift-running river froze from
shore to shore, the snow piled in drifts, obliterating trails and
blocking passes, weighting the pines to the breaking point, while the
intense cold struck the chill of death into the balls of feathers
huddled for shelter under the flat branches of the spruces.





Next: The Jack-pot

Previous: The Game Butchers



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 487