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The Outlaw Gets A Bad Break








From: The Fighting Edge

Houck crawled through the barbed-wire fence and looked back into the park
from which he had just fled. June was kneeling beside the man he had
shot. Some one was running across the grass toward her. Soon the pursuit
would be at his heels. He dared not lose a second.

He plunged into the sage, making for the hills which rose like a
saw-toothed wall on the horizon. If he could reach them he might find
there a precarious safety. Some wooded pocket would give him shelter
until the pursuit had swept past. He was hungry, but if he must he could
do without food for a day.

The bandit was filled with a furious, impotent rage at the way fortune
had tricked him. Thirty-five miles from Bear Cat, well back from the
river, three horses were waiting for him and his dead companions in a
draw. Unless somebody found them they would wait a long time. The way
that led to them was barred for him. He would have to try to reach
Glenwood or Rifle. From there he could perhaps catch a freight east or
west. His one chance was to get clear out of the country. After this
day's work it would be too small to hold him.

Nothing had come out as he had planned it. The farthest thing from his
hopes had been that he would have to fight his way out. He had not killed
that fool Dillon of set purpose. He knew now that if his anger had not
blazed out he might have made his getaway and left the fellow alive. But
he had been given no time to think. It was a bad break of the luck. The
White River settlers would not forgive him that. They would remember that
Dillon had saved him from the Indians in the Ute campaign, and they would
reason--the thickheaded idiots--that the least he could have done was to
let the boy go.

He plunged through the sand of the sage hills at a gait that was half a
run and half a walk. In his high-heeled boots fast travel was difficult.
The footgear of the cattleman is not made for walking. The hill riders do
most of their travel in a saddle. Houck's feet hurt. His toes were driven
forward in the boots until each step became torture. From his heels the
skin peeled from sliding up and down against the hard leather.

But he dared not stop. Already he could hear the pursuers. In the still
night there came to him the shout of one calling to another, the ring of
a horse's hoof striking on a stone. They were combing the mesa behind
him.

Houck stumbled forward. Vaguely there rose before him a boulder-strewn
slope that marked the limit of the valley. Up this he scrambled in a
desperate hurry to reach the rocks. For the pursuit was almost upon him
now.

Two outcroppings of sandstone barred the way. They leaned against each
other, leaving a small cave beneath. Into this Houck crawled on hands and
knees.

He lay crouched there, weapon in hand, like a cornered wolf, while the
riders swept up and past. He knew one palpitating moment when he thought
himself about to be discovered. Two of the posse stopped close to his
hiding-place.

"Must be close to him," one said. "Got the makin's, Jim?"

"Sure." Evidently the tobacco pouch was passed from one to the other.
"Right in these rocks somewhere, I shouldn't wonder."

"Mebbeso. Mebbe still hot-footin' it for the hills. He's in one heluva
hurry if you ask me."

"Killed Bob Dillon in the park, I heard."

"If he did he'll sure hang for it, after what Dillon did for him."

There came the faint sound of creaking leather as their horses moved up
the hill.

The outlaw waited till they were out of hearing before he crept into the
open. Across the face of the slope he cut obliquely, working always
toward higher ground. His lips were drawn back so that the
tobacco-stained teeth showed in a snarl of savage rage. It would go ill
with any of the posse if they should stumble on him. He would have no
more mercy than a hunted wild beast.

With every minute now his chances of safety increased. The riders were
far above him and to the left. With luck he should reach Piceance Creek
by morning. He would travel up it till he came to Pete Tolliver's place.
He would make the old man give him a horse. Not since the night he had
been ridden out of Bear Cat on a rail had he seen the nester. But Pete
always had been putty in his hands. It would be easy enough to bully him
into letting him have whatever he wanted. All he needed was a saddled
mount and provisions.

Houck was on unfamiliar ground. If there were settlers in these hills he
did not know where they were. Across the divide somewhere ran Piceance
Creek, but except in a vague way he was not sure of the direction it
took. It was possible he might lay hold of a horse this side of
Tolliver's. If so, he would not for a moment hesitate to take it.

All night he traveled. Once he thought he heard a distant dog, but though
he moved in the direction from which the barking had come he did not find
any ranch. The first faint glimmer of gray dawn had begun to lighten the
sky when he reached the watershed of Piceance.

It had been seventeen hours since he had tasted water and that had been
as a chaser after a large drink of whiskey. He was thirsty, and he
hastened his pace to reach the creek. Moving down the slope, he pulled up
abruptly. He had run into a cavvy grazing on the hill.

A thick growth of pine and pinon ran up to the ridge above. Back of a
scrub evergreen Houck dropped to consider a plan of action. He meant to

get one of these horses, and to do this he must have it and be gone
before dawn. This was probably some round-up. If he could drift around
close to the camp and find a saddle, there would likely be a rope
attached to it. He might, of course, be seen, but he would have to take a
chance on that.

Chance befriended him to his undoing. As he crept through the brush
something caught his ankle and he stumbled. His groping fingers found a
rope. One end of the rope was attached to a stake driven into the ground.
The other led to a horse, a pinto, built for spirit and for speed, his
trained eye could tell.

He pulled up the stake and wound up the rope, moving toward the pinto as
he did so. He decided it would be better not to try to get a saddle till
he reached Tolliver's place. The rope would do for a bridle at a pinch.

The horse backed away from him, frightened at this stranger who had
appeared from nowhere. He followed, trying in a whisper to soothe the
animal. It backed into a small pinon, snapping dry branches with its
weight.

Houck cursed softly. He did not want to arouse anybody in the camp or to
call the attention of the night jinglers to his presence. He tried to
lead the pinto away, but it balked and dug its forefeet into the ground,
leaning back on the rope.

The outlaw murmured encouragement to the horse. Reluctantly it yielded to
the steady pull on its neck. Man and beast began to move back up the
hill. As soon as he was a safe distance from the camp, Houck meant to
make of the rope a bridle.

In the pre-dawn darkness he could see little and that only as vague
outlines rather than definite shapes. But some instinct warned the hunted
man that this was no round-up camp. He did not quite know what it was.
Yet he felt as though he were on the verge of a discovery, as though an
unknown but terrible danger surrounded him. Unimaginative he was, but
something that was almost panic flooded up in him.

He could not wait to mount the horse until he had reached the brow of the
hill. Drawing the rope close, he caught at the mane of the horse and bent
his knees for the spring.

Houck had an instant's warning, and his revolver was half out of its
scabbard when the rush of the attack flung him against the startled
animal. He fought like a baited bear, exerting all his great strength to
fling back the figures that surged up at him out of the darkness. From
all sides they came at him, with guttural throat cries, swarming over
each other as he beat them down.

The struggling mass quartered over the ground like some unwieldy
prehistoric reptile. Houck knew that if he lost his footing he was done
for. Once, as the cluster of fighters swung downhill, the outlaw found
himself close to the edge of the group. He got his arms free and tried to
beat off those clinging to him. Out of the melee he staggered, a pair of
arms locked tightly round his thighs. Before he could free himself
another body flung itself at his shoulder and hurled him from his feet.

His foes piled on him as ants do on a captured insect. His arms were tied
behind him with rawhide thongs, his feet fastened together rather
loosely.

He was pulled to a sitting posture. In the east the sky had lightened
with the promise of the coming day.

His clothes torn from arms and body, his face bleeding from random blows,
Houck looked round on the circle of his captors defiantly. In his glaring
eyes and close-clamped, salient jaw no evidence was written of the
despair that swept over him in a wave and drowned hope. He had in this
bleak hour of reckoning the virtue of indomitable gameness.

"All right. You got me. Go to it, you red devils," he growled.

The Utes gloated over him in a silence more deadly than any verbal
threats. Their enemy had been delivered into their hands.





Next: The End Of A Crooked Trail

Previous: Bob Holds His Red Haid High



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