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Authors: Al Cody

Tags: #western

Star Toter (10 page)

BOOK: Star Toter
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How long he clung, while the tree swayed and threatened to give way, he had no way of guessing. Time lost its meaning, while the storm continued its relentless attack. Cold air came with it, and he was chilled to the bone, becoming so numb that he feared he would lose his hold.

Finally the rain slackened; then a rift in the clouds appeared. The sun lanced through, then, as though horrified at what it beheld, drew back; more rain came leaking through, finally slowing to a drizzle. When the light returned, like a belated dawn, it revealed water everywhere, and devastation.

Apparently the full force of the storm had centered there. The watershed of the surrounding hills had been poured on this valley, and to dispose of the surplus had taxed the outlets. The waste which had washed into it was a mountain where the stage had first halted. There was mud and sand, tangled trees and boulders, some of them as big as small houses. Not far from Locke's tree, a man-high boulder had stopped. Had it hit the tree, the trunk would have snapped like a matchstick.

Above the newly made hill, incongruous in such a setting, part of a wheel lifted. That was all that remained of the stage. The rest would remain forever buried in that vast pile of rubble.

Ted Foley was of course buried with it. That part was not too bad. It was a fitting grave for a man who had tooled the stage through the high country.

Locke tried to climb down, but lost his hold and fell, so cold and stiff that his muscles would not respond. He picked himself up and splashed through the receding waters, moving mechanically toward the town. Night came down while he plodded, ushered in by a ragged panorama of wind-torn clouds, tinted to wild glory by the sun. He had no eyes for such beauty.

Exhaustion caused by the chill of the storm was in the marrow of his bones. He fell, and lay awhile before rousing himself enough to get up and stagger ahead. He came to virtually dry ground, where the storm had barely reached, but he was too tired to notice the difference.

It was so late when he reached town that the streets were almost deserted. He weaved ahead, then collapsed drunkenly. He was on his knees, trying to get back on his feet and not quite able to do so, when he became aware of helping hands under his arms, a voice in his ears. It was Ginny's voice.

Locke tried to respond, but the fog was too dense. He walked as he was guided, but without any sense of where he was going or why. The oblivion which had been at his heels for hours was everywhere now, hemming him in…

 

 

 

The bewilderment of utter exhaustion, caused largely by the long chill of the water, had been like a smothering blanket when he had gone to sleep. There was still bewilderment when he awoke, a sense of unreality such as had not come to him in years. He sat up, conscious of stiffness in every protesting muscle, looked around, and his wonder grew.

He was in a bed, between white sheets. It was a softer bed than he had been accustomed to, and there were lacy curtains at the window, a pink geranium on the window sill. There was a dressing table and mirror, with a stool before it. Besides these were articles distinctly foreign to his experience, things unmistakably feminine: a comb and brush, a small hand mirror, a bottle of colored lotion.

Good Lord, what's happened to me? Locke wondered. Where am I? He sat up and swung his legs to the floor, and the accumulated aches and stiffness caused by the long exposure creaked through joints and muscles. He looked anxiously around for his clothes and found no sign of them.

There was a small rug on the floor, and he rested his feet on it, moved gingerly to a curtain which walled away a corner of the room, peered hopefully behind, then drew back, abashed. There were garments there, but certainly not his own.

His dismay was growing. As he heard a light step in the next room, he jumped hastily for the shelter of the bedclothes. Ginny's voice came from beyond the door.

"Are you awake, Orin?"

Relief drove out part of the dismay. This must be Ginny's house—her room, her bed. How he had gotten there was past his understanding, but that it was Ginny rather than a stranger was reassuring.

"I'm awake," he croaked, still not too sure if he was, or if this would turn out to be a dream at the tag end of a nightmare. The door opened and Ginny came in, cheerfully smiling, his shirt and pants over her arm. Both had been dried and cleaned and pressed.

"Good morning, Orin," she greeted him as matter-of-factly as if this were an everyday happening. "I hope you're feeling better."

He eyed her uncertainly. "I'm fine, thanks," he managed. "But how on earth did I get here, Ginny?"

"I brought you here," she explained. "I found you on the street last night, almost in a state of collapse. You had fallen, and were past going another step, it seemed. But it was only a little way here, and you managed, with me helping. You were asleep as you walked, I think. I don't suppose you remember."

"No, I don't," he confessed. "The whole thing seems like a nightmare—"

"You were caught in the cloudburst, weren't you?" Ginny nodded. "I've been hearing how bad it was, a few miles from town. You must have almost drowned."

"It was bad enough," he agreed, then came back to the present. "But you shouldn't have brought me here, Ginny." Dismay surged in him. "It isn't right! What will people say? I'd never have come here if I'd known what I was about."

"I don't suppose you would," she agreed. "But 1 couldn't get you any farther, and besides, you needed taking care of. No one need say anything, or know about it. I'm sure no one saw you come here, in the dark. When you leave, you can step out with a package under your arm, as if you'd just stopped in to get something."

Her calm acceptance of the situation eased his worry. She studied him with a calm appraisal. "I guess what you needed most was rest," she decided. "I expect you'll be pretty sore and stiff for a while, but you're strong. Here are your clothes. I did the best I could with them."

"Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. And if you'd like to shave, I'll get Dad's old razor."

"Looks like I could stand a shave, all right," Locke agreed, glimpsing himself in the mirror. She left the room, and he dressed, blushing as he realized that she must have gotten him out of his soaked garments and into bed.

He knew that he would never have reached his own room without help. If he had fallen and spent the night lying out at that high altitude, cold, soaked, exhausted and unconscious—then he would never have wakened.

Or if he had been discovered by any of those who followed King Steele, he would have been equally badly off. Knowing that, Ginny had done the sensible thing without question or hesitation.

The cheerful aroma of hot cakes and coffee greeted him as he stepped into the next room. Ginny turned from bending over the stove, her cheeks warm from the heat.

"Right over there," she said, and indicated the razor, a mirror and a bowl of hot water. Locke shaved, nor did she question him until they were seated at the table.

"You're feeling better?" she asked.

"I'm going to be fine, thanks to you," he agreed. "I can never thank you enough, Ginny."

"That's a rule that works both ways," she returned. "I think you know how it feels to be friendless, to feel as if you were all alone in the world, without a single one who mattered. It's pleasant to have a friend who you know is a friend."

Because he could understand so well, he had no reply. If the years had been bad for him, they must have been even worse for her.

"Here are your guns," Ginny said. "I've oiled and dried them, and I think they're in good working order, though I doubt if your cartridges will be dependable."

"I'll stop at the hardware store and get a fresh supply," he answered, amazed anew at her attention to every small detail. She realized that a gun meant a lot to a man in that town, and doubly so to him. He had not told her about Ted Foley or the attack on the stage, giving only enough details of the flood for her to understand. Even so, she had a good notion what was happening in Highpoint, the savage cross-currents between which he had been caught.

It came to him that there were many things which he wanted to tell her, matters which all at once had become vital to them, but this was neither the time nor the place.

"I'm not going to try and thank you, Ginny," he said. "Not now. Later, there's a lot I'll want to say."

"I'll be ready," she promised. "Don't forget those cartridges," she warned.

 

13

Fury had shaken King Steele as an earthquake crumples the earth's crust. The failure of his men, and the certainty that the gold shipment was lost, burst upon him like an incredible chapter from a tale of Arabian Nights. That one man could so circumvent the many arrayed against him was all but unthinkable.

Nothing had worked as Steele planned, but some of the events might be shaped to his own ends. With luck, the whole episode might prove more profitable than otherwise.

"You say the sheriff's dead?" he demanded. "Are you sure?"

Big Mule nodded. The name had been foisted upon him both because of his physical size and his stubbornness, and it had clung after his real name had been conveniently forgotten.

"There ain't a trace of him to be found," he said. "And if you'd seen how that water come down, and the stuff it washed, the way it buried the stage—" He shrugged. "We found two o' the stage team half a mile away. They'd been washed there an' lodged on a bank, six feet higher'n the valley floor. Yeah, I reckon he's under that pile somewhere."

"It sounds that way," Steele conceded. Since events had taken this turn, it might be time to crowd his luck. One bold stroke could give him control of the Wild Buttes.

"The whole thing, of course," he added, "was an accident."

Big Mule eyed him sharply, then grinned heavily. "Yeah," he agreed. "Sure was. Some accident."

"Do you know where Cable is?" Steele asked, and Big Mule studied him carefully. The question sounded irrevelant, as though he were changing the subject, but Big Mule knew his employer too well to be fooled.

"Yeah," he agreed. "He's down Red Creek way. Gone to the roundup."

"Accidents sometimes happen at a roundup," Steele mused. "Fatal accidents."

Big Mule's lips tightened, then slowly spread to reveal a row of stained teeth.

"Yeah," he conceded. "Sometimes they do."

"I like accidents better—when they look like accidents," Steele added. "It ought to be a good night for ridin' south, Big."

Big Mule stood and stretched mighty arms, flexing fingers like well stuffed sausages.

"Reckon I'll be moseyin'," he said, and went out.

Many men rode for a look at the place where the cloudburst had poured down, shaking their heads at the devastation. The area was comparatively narrow, a circle only a few miles in circumference. But inside the circle the water had really spilled.

It was not a matter of public knowledge that Locke had been out there or that he had had anything to do with the stage. But since his bed had not been slept in, and there was no trace of him, it was assumed that he must have gone that way and been trapped.

Not too much about the real happenings of the day before was known. The vigilante guards had ridden for hours, watching the lumber wagon, before someone discovered that their freight was only a dummy box, far too light in weight to contain the gold which it was supposed to hold.

"So you got caught in your own rope," Steele decided. "Well, that being so, we'll let you rest in peace, the great two-gun marshal, dying in performance of his duties." He stepped out into the sunshine and halted in staring amazement. Sheriff Orin Locke was just emerging from the hardware store, his belt stuffed with cartridges which gleamed with newness.

 

 

 

Big Mule lost no time in riding out of town, swinging to the east and south, down through a placid foothill country where Red Creek flowed. Once out of town, he made camp and slept the rest of the night.

"No reason why a man should wear himself out hustlin'," he assured his horse. "I get plenty tired of always being on the jump. And another thing. Once this job's done, I'm gonna have me a few drinks of whiskey. Killin' is dry business."

It was nearing mid-forenoon when he unexpectedly encountered Grant Cable. The boss of the Three Sevens was riding north, alone, even as Big Mule rode south.

For the first time in his career, Cable was a prey to doubts and uncertainties. Across the years he had been sure of himself, knowing what he wanted and how to get it. His mind had been trained to follow a devious course, doing it so adroitly that he had long filled a dual role without even his daughter suspecting him. It had seemed that he was far too clever ever to need to worry.

His talk with Reta had shocked him out of his complacency, and the subsequent interview with Locke had jarred him to the depths of his being. When you played such a game, you dealt, of necessity, with men of little scruple. So it was well to remember that what the other fellow might do was unpredictable.

But he had forgotten his own rule, and King Steele had pulled a switch, with the result that the sheriff was no longer under their control. What worried Cable was not so much what might happen to himself as the dire possibility which Locke had suggested—what would happen to Reta when she found out?

He had welcomed the chance to go to the roundup, so as to have a few days' delay before facing the issue. But as soon as he arrived at Red Creek, he had realized that dodging settled nothing.

This had to be faced and fought through, and the sooner the better. After a sleepless night, Cable saddled a horse and started north again, his mind made up.

He'd side with the sheriff, since that was what Reta wanted. What might come of such a course was obscured by uncertainty, but for the first time in years his mind was at peace. As he rode, he toyed with the idea of making restitution to certain victims of past injustices, chief among them Ginny Landers. But that, so far, was only an idea.

He recognized Big Mule without surprise. The Mule was probably bringing a message from Steele. Cable pulled up. "Howdy, Big," he greeted him.

BOOK: Star Toter
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