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The Man From The Shoshone Fastnesses








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

Though the sharpshooter's rifle cracked twice during his run for the
cottonwood, the sheepman reached the tree in safety. He could dodge
through the brush as elusively as any man in Wyoming. It was a trick he
had learned on the whitewashed football gridiron. For in his buried past
this man had been the noted half-back of a famous college, and one of
his specialties had been running the ball back after a catch through a
broken field of opponents. The lesson that experience had then thumped
into him had since saved his life on more than one occasion.

Having reached the tree, Bannister took immediate advantage of the lie
of the ground to snake forward unobserved for another hundred feet.
There was a dip from the foot of the tree, down which he rolled into the
sage below. He wormed his way through the thick scrub brush to the edge
of a dry creek, into the bed of which he slid. Then swiftly, his body
bent beneath the level of the bank, he ran forward in the sand. He moved
noiselessly, eyes and ears alert to aid him, and climbed the bank at a
point where a live oak grew.

Warily he peeped out from behind its trunk and swept the plain for his
foe. Nothing was to be seen of him. Slowly and patiently his eyes again
went over the semi-circle before him, for where death may lurk behind
every foot of vegetation, every bump or hillock, the plainsman leaves
as little as may be to chance. No faintest movement could escape the
sheepman's eyes, no least stir fail to apprise his ears. Yet for many
minutes he waited in vain, and the delay told him that he had to do with
a trained hunter rather than a mere reckless cow-puncher. For somewhere
in the rough country before him his enemy lay motionless, every faculty
alive to the least hint of his presence.

It was the whirring flight of a startled dove that told Bannister the
whereabouts of his foe. Two hundred yards from him the bird rose,
and the direction it took showed that the man must have been trailing
forward from the opposite quarter. The sheepman slipped back into the
dry creek bed, retraced his steps for about a stone-throw, and again
crawled up the bank.

For a long time he lay face down in the grass, his gaze riveted to the
spot where he knew his opponent to be hidden. A faint rustle not born
of the wind stirred the sage. Still Bannister waited. A less experienced
plainsman would have blazed away and exposed his own position. But not
this young man with the steel-wire nerves. Silent as the coming of
dusk, no breaking twig or displaced brush betrayed his self-contained
presence.

Something in the clump he watched wriggled forward and showed
indistinctly through an opening in the underscrub. He whipped his rifle
into position and fired twice. The huddled brown mass lurched forward
and disappeared.

"Wonder if I got him? Seems to me I couldn't have missed clean," thought
Bannister.

Silence as before, vast and unbroken.

A scramble of running feet tearing a path through the brush, a crouching
body showing darkly for an eyeflash, and then the pounding of a horse's
retreating feet.

Bannister leaped up, ran lightly across the intervening space, and with
his repeater took a potshot at the galloping horseman.

"Missed!" he muttered, and at once gave a sharp whistle that brought his
pony to him on the trot. He vaulted to the saddle and gave chase. It was
rough going, but nothing in reason can stop a cow-pony. As sure footed
as a mountain goat, as good a climber almost as a cat, Buck followed the
flying horseman over perilous rock rims and across deep-cut creek beds.
Pantherlike he climbed up the steep creek sides without hesitation, for
the round-up had taught him never to falter at stiff going so long as
his rider put him at it.

It was while he was clambering out of the sheer sides of a wash that
Bannister made a discovery. The man he pursued was wounded. Something in
the manner of the fellow's riding had suggested this to him, but a drop
of blood splashed on a stone that happened to meet his eye made the
surmise a certainty.

He was gaining now--not fast, almost imperceptibly, but none the less
surely. He could see the man looking over his shoulder, once, twice, and
then again, with that hurried, fearful glance that measures the approach
of retribution. Barring accidents, the man was his.

But the unforeseen happened. Buck stepped in the hole of a prairie
dog and went down. Over his head flew the rider like a stone from a
catapult.

How long Ned Bannister lay unconscious he never knew. But when he came
to himself it was none too soon. He sat up dizzily and passed his hand
over his head. Something had happened.

What was it? Oh, yes, he had been thrown from his horse. A wave
of recollection passed over him, and his mind was clear once more.
Presently he got to his feet and moved rather uncertainly toward Buck,
for the horse was grazing quietly a few yards from him.

But half way to the pony he stopped. Voices, approaching by way of the
bed of Dry Creek, drifted to him.

"He must 'a' turned and gone back. Mebbe he guessed we was there."

And a voice that Bannister knew, one that had a strangely penetrant,
cruel ring of power through the drawl, made answer: "Judd said before
he fainted he was sure the man was Ned Bannister. I'd ce'tainly like to
meet up with my beloved cousin right now and even up a few old scores.
By God, I'd make him sick before I finished with him!"

"I'll bet y'u would, Cap," returned the other, admiringly. "Think we'd
better deploy here and beat up the scenery a few as we go?"

There are times when the mind works like lightning, flashes its messages
on the wings of an electric current. For Bannister this was one of them.
The whole situation lighted for him plainly as if it had been explained
for an hour.

His cousin had been out with a band of his cut-throats on some errand,
and while returning to the fastnesses of the Shoshone Mountains had
stopped to noon at a cow spring three or four miles from the Lazy D.
Judd Morgan, whom he knew to be a lieutenant of the notorious bandit,
had ridden toward the ranch in the hope of getting an opportunity to
vent his anger against its mistress or some of her men. While pursuing
the renegade Bannister had stumbled into a hornet's nest, and was in
imminent danger of being stung to death. Even now the last speaker was
scrambling up the bank toward him.

The sheepman had to choose between leaving his rifle and immediate
flight. The latter was such a forlorn hope that he gave up Buck for the
moment, and ran back to the place where his repeating Winchester had
fallen. Without stopping he scooped the rifle up as he passed. In his
day he had been a famous sprinter, and he scudded now for dear life.
It was no longer a question of secrecy. The sound of men breaking their
hurried way through the heavy brush of the creek bank came crisply to
him. A voice behind shouted a warning, and from not a hundred yards in
front of him came an answering shout. Hemmed in from the fore and the
rear, he swung off at a right angle. An open stretch lay before him, but
he had to take his desperate chance without cover. Anything was better
than to be trapped like a wild beast driven by the beaters to the guns.

Across the bare, brown mesa he plunged; and before he had taken a dozen
steps the first rifle had located its prey and was sniping at him.
He had perhaps a hundred yards to cover ere the mesa fell away into a
hollow, where he might find temporary protection in the scrub pines.
And now a second marksman joined himself to the first. But he was going
fast, already had covered half the distance, and it is no easy thing to
bring down a live, dodging target.

Again the first gun spoke, and scored another miss, whereat a mocking,
devilish laugh rang out in the sunshine.

"Y'u boys splash a heap of useless lead around the horizon. I reckon
Cousin Ned's my meat. Y'u see, I get him in the flapper without spoiling
him complete." And at the word he flung the rifle to his shoulder and
fired with no apparent aim.

The running man doubled up like a cottontail, but found his feet again
in an instant, though one arm hung limp by his side. He was within a
dozen feet of the hilldrop and momentary safety.

"Shall I take him, Cap?" cried one of the men.

"No; he's mine." The rifle smoked once more and again the runner went
down. But this time he plunged headlong down the slope and out of sight.

The outlaw chief turned on his heel. "I reckon he'll not run any more
to-day. Bring him into camp and we'll take him along with us," he said
carelessly, and walked away to his horse in the creek bed.

Two of the men started forward, but they stopped half way, as if rooted
to the ground. For a galloping horseman suddenly drew up at the very
point for which they were starting. He leaped to the ground and warned
them back with his rifle. While he covered them a second man rode up and
lifted Bannister to his saddle.

"Ready, Mac," he gave the word, and both horses disappeared with
their riders over the brow of the hill. When the surprised desperadoes
recovered themselves and reached that point the rescuers had disappeared
in the heavy brush.

The alarm was at once given, and their captain, cursing them in a
raucous bellow for their blunder, ordered immediate pursuit. It was some
little time before the trail of the fugitives was picked up, but once
discovered they were over hauled rapidly.

"We're not going to get out without swapping lead," McWilliams admitted
anxiously. "I wisht y'u wasn't hampered with that load, but I reckon
I'll have to try to stand them off alone."

"We bucked into a slice of luck when I opened on his bronc mavericking
around alone. Hadn't been for that we could never have made it," said
Missou, who never crossed a bridge until he came to it.

"We haven't made it yet, old hoss, not by a long mile, and two more on
top o' that. They're beginning to pump lead already. Huh! Got to drap
your pills closer'n that 'fore y'u worry me."

"I believe he's daid, anyway," said Missou presently, peering down into
the white face of the unconscious man.

"Got to hang onto the remains, anyhow, for Miss Helen. Those coyotes are
too much of the wolf breed to leave him with them."

"Looks like they're gittin' the aim some better," equably remarked the
other a minute later, when a spurt of sand flew up in front of him.

"They're ce'tainly crowding us. I expaict I better send them a
'How-de-do?' so as to discourage them a few." He took as careful aim as
he could on the galloping horse, but his bullet went wide.

"They're gaining like sixty. It's my offhand opinion we better stop at
that bunch of trees and argue some with them. No use buck-jumpin' along
to burn the wind while they drill streaks of light through us."

"All right. Take the trees. Y'u'll be able to get into the game some
then."

They debouched from the road to the little grove and slipped from their
horses.

"Deader'n hell," murmured Missou, as he lifted the limp body from his
horse. "But I guess we'll pack what's left back to the little lady at
the Lazy D."

The leader of the pursuers halted his men just out of range and came
forward alone, holding his right hand up in the usual signal of peace.
In appearance he was not unlike Ned Bannister. There was the same long,
slim, tiger build, with the flowing muscles rippling easily beneath the
loose shirt; the same effect of power and dominance, the same clean,
springy stride. The pose of the head, too, even the sweep of salient
jaw, bore a marked resemblance. But similarity ceased at the expression.
For instead of frankness there lurked here that hint of the devil of
strong passion uncontrolled. He was the victim of his own moods, and in
the space of an hour one might, perhaps, read in that face cold cunning,
cruel malignity, leering ribaldry, as well as the hard-bitten virtues of
unflinching courage and implacable purpose.

"I reckon you're near enough," suggested Mac, when the man had
approached to within a hundred feet of the tree clump.

"Y'u're drawing the dead-line," the other acknowledged, indolently.
"It won't take ten words to tell y'u what I want and mean to have. I'm
giving y'u two minutes to hand me over the body of Ned Bannister. If
y'u don't see it that way I'll come and make a lead mine of your whole
outfit."

"Y'u can't come too quick, seh. We're here a-shootin', and don't y'u
forget it," was McWilliams's prompt answer.

The sinister face of the man from the Shoshones darkened. "Y'u've signed
your own death warrants," he let out through set teeth, and at the word
swung on his heel.

"The ball's about to open. Pardners for a waltz. Have a dust-cutter,
Mac, before she grows warm."

The puncher handed over his flask, and the other held it before his eye
and appraised the contents in approved fashion. "Don't mind if I do.
Here's how!"

"How!" echoed Missou, in turn, and tipped up the bottle till the liquor
gurgled down his baked throat.

"He's fanning out his men so as to, get us both at the front and back
door. Lucky there ain't but four of them."

"I guess we better lie back to back," proposed Missou. "If our luck's
good I reckon they're going to have a gay time rushing this fort."

A few desultory shots had already been dropped among the cottonwoods,
and returned by the defendants when Missou let out a yell of triumph.

"Glory Hallelujah! Here comes the boys splittin' down the road
hell-for-leather. That lopsided, ring-tailed snorter of a hawss-thief
is gathering his wolves for a hike back to the tall timber. Feed me a
cigareet, Mac. I plumb want to celebrate."

It was as the cow-puncher had said. Down the road a cloud of dust
was sweeping toward them, in the centre of which they made out three
hardriding cowboys from the ranch. Farther back, in the distance, was
another dust whirl. The outlaw chief's hard, vigilant gaze swept over
the reinforcements! and decided instantly that the game had gone against
him for the present. He whistled shrilly twice, and began a slow retreat
toward the hills. The miscreants flung a few defiant shots at the
advancing cowmen, and disappeared, swallowed up in the earth swells.

The homeward march was a slow one, for Bannister had begun to show signs
of consciousness and it was necessary to carry him with extreme care.
While they were still a mile from the ranch house the pinto and its
rider could be seen loping toward them.

"Ride forward, Denver, and tell Miss Helen we're coming. Better have her
get everything fixed to doctor him soon as we get there. Give him the
best show in the world, and he'll still be sailing awful close to the
divide. I'll bet a hundred plunks he'll cash in, anyway."

"DONE!"

The voice came faintly from the improvised litter. Mac turned with
a start, for he had not known that Bannister was awake to his
surroundings. The man appeared the picture of helplessness, all the
lusty power and vigor stricken out of him; but his indomitable spirit
still triumphed over the physical collapse, for as the foreman looked
a faint smile touched the ashen lips. It seemed to say: "Still in the
ring, old man."





Next: In The Lazy D Hospital

Previous: A Party Call



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