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The Game Butchers

From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

"Ain't this an awful world!" By this observation Uncle Bill Griswold,
standing on a narrow shelf of rock, with the sheep's hind quarters on
his back, meant merely to convey the opinion that there was a great deal
of it.

The panting sportsman did not answer. T. Victor Sprudell was looking for
some place to put his toe.

"There's a hundred square miles over there that I reckon there never was
a white man's foot on, and they say that the West has been went over
with a fine-tooth comb. Wouldn't it make you laugh?"

Mr. Sprudell looked far from laughter as, by placing a foot directly in
front of the other, he advanced a few inches at a time until he reached
the side of his guide. It was an awful world, and the swift glance he
had of it as he raised his eyes from the toes of his boots and looked
off across the ocean of peaks gave him the feeling that he was about to
fall over the edge of it. His pink, cherubic face turned saffron, and he
shrank back against the wall. He had been in perilous places before, but
this was the worst yet.

"There might be somethin' good over yonder if 'twas looked into right,"
went on Uncle Bill easily, as he stood with the ball of his feet hanging
over a precipice, staring speculatively. "But it'll be like to stay
there for a while, with these young bucks doin' all their prospectin'
around some sheet-iron stove. There's nobody around the camps these
days that ain't afraid of work, of gittin' lost, of sleepin' out of
their beds of nights. Prospectin' in underbrush and down timber is no
cinch, but it never stopped me when I was a young feller around sixty or
sixty-five." A dry, clicking sound as Sprudell swallowed made the old
man look around. "Hey--what's the matter? Aire you dizzy?"

Dizzy! Sprudell felt he was going to die. If his shaking knees should
suddenly give way beneath him he could see, by craning his neck
slightly, the exact spot where he was going to land. His chest, plump
and high like a woman's, rose and fell quickly with his hard breathing,
and the barrel of his rifle where he clasped it was damp with nervous
perspiration. His small mouth, with its full, red lips shaped like the
traditional cupid's bow, was colorless, and there was abject terror in
his infantile blue eyes. Yet superficially, T. Victor Sprudell was a
brave figure--picturesque as the drawing for a gunpowder "ad," a man of
fifty, yet excellently well preserved.

A plaid cap with a visor fore and aft matched his roomy knickerbockers,
and canvas leggings encased his rounded calves. His hob-nailed shoes were
the latest thing in "field boots," and his hunting coat was a credit to
the sporting house that had turned it out. His cartridge belt was new
and squeaky, and he had the last patents in waterproof match safes and
skinning knives. That goneness at his stomach, and the strange
sensations up and down his spine, seemed incongruous in such valorous
trappings. But he had them unmistakably, and they kept him cringing
close against the wall as though he had been glued.

It was not entirely the thought of standing there that paralyzed him; it
was the thought of going on. If accidentally he should step on a
rolling rock what a gap there would be in the social, financial, and
political life of Bartlesville, Indiana! It was at this point in his
vision of the things that might happen to him that he had gulped.

"Don't look down; look up; look acrost," Uncle Bill advised. "You're
liable to bounce off this hill if you don't take care. Hello," he said
to himself, staring at the river which lay like a great, green snake at
the base of the mountains, "must be some feller down there placerin'.
That's a new cabin, and there's a rocker--looks like."

"Gold?" Sprudell's eyes became a shade less infantile.

"Gold a-plenty; but it takes a lard can full to make a cent and there's
no way to get water on the ground."

Uncle Bill stood conjecturing as to who it might be, as though it were
of importance that he should know before he left. Interest in his
neighbor and his neighbor's business is a strong characteristic of the
miner and prospector in these, our United States, and Uncle Bill
Griswold in this respect was no exception. It troubled him for hours
that he could not guess who was placering below.

"Looks like it's gittin' ready for a storm," he said finally. "We'd
better sift along. Foller clost to me and keep a-comin', for we don't
want to get caught out 'way off from camp. We've stayed too long in the
mountains for that matter, with the little grub that's left. We'll pull
out to-morrow."

"Which way you going?" Sprudell asked plaintively.

"We gotta work our way around this mountain to that ridge." Uncle Bill
shifted the meat to the other shoulder, and travelled along the steep
side with the sure-footed swiftness of a venerable mountain goat.

Sprudell shut his trembling lips together and followed as best he could.
He was paying high, he felt, for the privilege of entertaining the
Bartlesville Commercial Club with stories of his prowess. He doubted if
he would get over the nervous strain in months, for, after all, Sprudell
was fifty, and such experiences told. Never--never, he said to himself
when a rolling rock started by his feet bounded from point to point to
remind him how easily he could do the same, never would he take such
chances again! It wasn't worth it. His life was too valuable. Inwardly
he was furious that Uncle Bill should have brought him by such a way.
His heart turned over and lay down with a flop when he saw that person
stop and heard him say:

"Here's kind of a bad place; you'd better let me take your gun."

Kind of a bad place! When he'd been frisking on the edge of eternity.

Uncle Bill waited near a bank of slide rock that extended from the
mountain top to a third of the way down the side, after which it went
off sheer.

"'Tain't no picnic, crossin' slide rock, but I reckon if I kin make it
with a gun and half a sheep on my back you can make it empty-handed.
Step easy, and don't start it slippin' or you'll slide to kingdom come.
Watch me!"

Sprudell watched with all his eyes. The little old man, who boasted that
he weighed only one hundred and thirty with his winter tallow on,
skimmed the surface like a water spider, scarcely jarring loose a rock.
Sprudell knew that he could never get across like that. Fear would make
him heavy-footed if nothing else.

"Hurry up!" the old man shouted impatiently. "We've no time to lose.
Dark's goin' to ketch us sure as shootin', and it's blowin' up plumb

Sprudell nerved himself and started, stepping as gingerly as he could;
but in spite of his best efforts his feet came down like pile drivers,
disturbing rocks each time he moved.

Griswold watched him anxiously, and finally called:

"You're makin' more fuss than a cow elk! Step easy er you're goin' to
start the whole darn works. Onct it gits to movin', half that bank'll

Sprudell was nearly a third of the way across when the shale began to
move, slowly at first, with a gentle rattle, then faster. He gave a
shout of terror and floundered, panic-stricken, where he stood.

The old man danced in frenzy:

"Job in your heels and run like hell!"

But the mass had started, and was moving faster. Sprudell's feet went
from under him, and he collapsed in a limp heap. Then he turned over and
scrabbled madly with hands and feet for something that would hold.
Everything loosened at his touch and joined the sliding bank of shale.
He could as easily have stopped his progress down a steep slate roof.

"Oh, Lord! There goes my dude!" Uncle Bill wrung his hands and swore.

Sprudell felt faint, nauseated, and his neck seemed unable to hold his
heavy head. He laid his cheek on the cold shale, and, with his arms and
legs outstretched like a giant starfish, he weakly slid. His body,
moving slower than the mass, acted as a kind of wedge, his head serving
as a separator to divide the moving bank. He was conscious, too, of a
curious sensation in his spine--a feeling as though some invisible power
were pulling backward, backward until it hurt. He wanted to scream, to
hear his own voice once more, but his vocal cords would not respond; he
could not make a sound.

Griswold was shouting something; it did not matter what. He heard it
faintly above the clatter of the rocks. He must be close to the edge
now--Bartlesville--the Commercial Club--Abe Cone--and then Mr. Sprudell
hit something with a bump! He had a sensation as of a hatpin--many
hatpins--penetrating his tender flesh, but that was nothing compared to
the fact that he had stopped, while the slide of shale was rushing by.
He was not dead! but he was too astonished and relieved to immediately
wonder why.

Then he weakly raised his head and looked cautiously over his shoulder
lest the slightest movement start him travelling again. What miracle had
saved his life? The answer was before him. When he came down the slide
in the fortunate attitude of a clothespin, the Fates, who had other
plans for him, it seemed, steered him for a small tree of the stout
mountain mahogany, which has a way of pushing up in most surprising

"Don't move!" called Griswold. "I'll come and get ye!"

Unnecessary admonition. Although Sprudell was impaled on the thick,
sharp thorns like a naturalist's captive butterfly, he scarcely
breathed, much less attempted to get up.

"Bill, I was near the gates," said Sprudell solemnly when Griswold, at
no small risk to himself, had snaked him back to solid ground. "Fortuna
audaces juvat!"

"If that's Siwash for 'close squeak,' it were; and," with an anxious
glance at the ominous sky, "'tain't over."

Next: Self-defence

Previous: Pardners

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