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Authors: Al Cody

Tags: #western

Star Toter (14 page)

BOOK: Star Toter
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"How about it?" Steele gritted.

"That's one of your methods which doesn't work."

"No?" Steele was in a deadly mood. "We'll see how well it works. Put up your hands—lift them, I tell you!" he screamed, as Locke still faced him with arms across his chest. "I'm giving you your life this way, so you'd better take it."

Something in his eyes and voice decided Locke. Steele was perfectly capable of killing an unarmed man in cold blood. He raised his arms, and Steele's gun tilted.

"You've had this coming a long time," he spat, and fired with the words, two quick shots which blended into one sound. Locke felt the shock of the bullets like red-hot irons driven through his flesh. Blood spurted, running inside his shirt sleeves, dripping from his finger tips as his arms sagged at his sides. Each had a bullet through the flesh, above the elbow. Pain lanced in a sickening wave, so that it took all his will to stand.

Steele punched the empty shells from his gun and replaced them with fresh cartridges.

"So bullets don't work, eh?" he taunted. "They've sure dehorned you, Locke. For a two-gun man, that will be worse than killing. All right, boys; let's get going."

Through a red-tinted haze, Locke watched them ride away, taking his gold-filled saddle-bags with them. He kept his feet, despite the pain which slashed from arms to shoulders and seemed to spread like poison through his body. Forty-five bullets had the impact of heavy hammer blows.

Even worse than the pain was Steele's contempt, the realization that he had succeeded in dehorning a lawman. What could be more helpless than a gunman with a bullet through each arm?

Everything that Locke had tried to do was being frustrated. Ted Foley had died, even though Orin had been along to try to help him. His father was dead, the buildings on the Wagon Wheel burned, Ray desperately ill, to be hunted down now at Steele's leisure. He had saved the gold, only to have it restolen. Now this crowning indignity had been added.

The mental agony of defeat almost blunted the physical pain, but not for long. As the receding hoofbeats died, Locke realized what he was up against. He had a hole in each arm which rendered him helpless, cast aside as no longer of any importance.

The first gush of blood was subsiding somewhat, which was pretty good proof that the bullets had missed the arteries. He wouldn't inevitably bleed to death in a matter of minutes. Still, there were four bullet holes in him; the steel-jacketed bullets had plowed cleanly through flesh and out again. And four such punctures, unless something was done, could drain away a lot of blood.

It would soon be enough to weaken him dangerously, perhaps to kill him. Steele probably figured that he would die within a matter of hours; a slower, more unpleasant death than one caused by a bullet driven through his head or his heart, but just as certain. With two broken, bleeding arms, a man couldn't help himself, and he'd stand little chance of getting to help.

Locke moved his left arm, flinching with the pain, setting his teeth. He tried the other, fighting back a crimson mist which made the earth appear to move. But the suspicion that had come to his mind was confirmed. Whatever Steele had intended—and it was probably the worst —his bullets had missed the bones.
Neither arm was broken!

The wounds were clean, holes bored through flesh and out again, and they had already bled enough to cleanse themselves. Had the bullets been soft-nosed, they would have nearly ripped off his arms, but each had been capped by steel.

Given good treatment, his arms should heal in due course, a matter of weeks. Locke's lip twisted at the thought. Showdown could be no more than a matter of hours away, if indeed this was not it, as far as he was concerned.

The realization that Steele had failed completely to cripple him offered a ray of hope. Aside from the pain of movement, he could use his arms if he had to; not much, for the agony was too great. But he must use them enough to get a bandage of sorts around each, to check the bleeding.

He was sweating and gray-faced by the time that job was done. He'd used his bandana for one, another bandana which usually served as a handkerchief for the other. He had made no attempt to remove his shirt, doing things the simplest way: a twisting of the folded cloth around an arm, drawing it as tightly as possible, tying it with teeth and fingers. Then he had done a repeat job on the other arm.

Several times it had seemed impossible, yet it was that or count himself finished, and he had driven protesting muscles to obey his will. Now his arms hung limp, the bleeding almost stopped, though they throbbed in a steady beat of agony. The pain weakened and sickened him, but his mind overrode it. He'd done something which Steele had considered impossible.

They had left his horse, transferring the saddle-bags, a part of the whole contemptuous gesture. The cayuse shied nervously at the smell of blood as Locke crossed to it, then steadied as he spoke. It had been grazing just beyond the mud and debris, with dropped reins.

Under ordinary circumstances, getting into the saddle wouldn't have been too bad. The thought of gathering up the reins made him blanch.

He solved the problem by getting both leathers in his teeth and holding fast. Putting a foot into the stirrup, balancing and swinging, was risky. He was weak and nauseated, and a sudden swing by the skittish cayuse might send him under its hoofs. It stood, as though sensing his difficulty, and he managed, using one hand to aid himself.

In the saddle he had a hard time, as the cayuse settled into a run. Had it tried bucking, he would have been helpless. Then, though it was heading back for Highpoint, he had to fight to hold fast to the reins, both of which were on the left side of the horse's neck. Keeping balanced required all his skill and strength.

When the horse tired and slowed, he grasped the reins with his left hand. They had sagged beside it, almost dropped. Perhaps his mind was dulled, but the worst of the pain seemed past.

With luck, he might make it back to town, even find Bannon and get his wounds looked after. But that would help only himself. He would still be helpless to fight back against Steele; that would require guns.

There was no other way to deal with Steele, and after the exhibition of marksmanship given him by Steele, he knew that no other man would stand a chance in a gun battle. Yet what chance did he have? Steele had dehorned him, exactly as he'd intended.

 

 

 

Steele was playing it smart. That meant taking the gold shipment back to town and returning it to the express company. Doing so would mean losing booty for the possession of which several men had already died, but that was a cheap price to pay for the benefits which would accrue.

Secretly, Steele had long aspired to wear the sheriff's star. It was fine to be the real power in the community, a power which no longer had to be shared. But he was vain enough to crave the prestige of the office. It had been out of the question even to consider such a thing long as he divided his rule with Grant Cable. Now, with Cable out of the way and the star in his possession, recovery of the gold would enhance his prestige. People would be inclined to forget some of his former actions, once they had their gold back.

Locke's taunts had been as sharp as spurs, doubly so because they were true. He had wanted three things, and the possession of power and wealth made the third even more desirable. To win Reta's favor, he would drastically alter his former plans.

It was still necessary to complete his case against Locke, and to bring back the gold, proof that Locke had been a thief, was the best way. In any event, doing so would entail no real loss, only a delay. The gold would still have to be shipped out, and his men would be waiting.

Only Big Mule was inclined to kick about the plan. "Say," he protested, "I been workin' for a cut of that loot. I figure I got my pay coming now. I want money for whiskey."

"If that's what's worrying you, you can have all the whiskey you want," Steele told him. "This other is business."

Mule regarded his boss, not entirely mollified. Many thoughts moved behind his pig-like eyes, but he kept them to himself. Only the promise was important for the moment. Whiskey, and plenty of it, was what he had craved for a long while. Killing a man took something out of you; after such a chore, only liquor would bring forgetfulness.

He kept straight on toward Steele's Wild Buttes Saloon when the others stopped at the stage station. Steele unloaded the bulging saddle-bags.

"Here's the gold," he informed the swiftly gathering crowd. "We got it back by watching Locke. Like I figured, he'd cached it, and was aiming to make a getaway. Only we put a stop to that."

"What happened?"

"Nothing much." Steele shrugged modestly. "He tried to put up a fight when we caught him with the goods. He stopped a couple of bullets, so I don't figure he'll get far."

Since Steele was backed by witnesses, they had to believe his charges. The gold, returned by Steele after being recovered by him, was substantial proof of their half-voiced suspicions.

"Everybody come and get their own nuggets," Steele invited. "That way, nobody loses."

"I sure wouldn't have believed it of Orin," someone commented. "What about Ray Locke?"

"I'll find him," Steele promised. "That's the next thing to do. We know now that the Lockes were all crooks, and that clears up a lot of the outlawry and trouble this country's been plagued with. There'll be a nice reward for any information as to where Ray's hiding," he added.

Big Mule emerged from the saloon in time to hear the last remark. He was not a social-minded being, especially when it came to drinking. At such a time, the Mule preferred to get a supply of liquor and go off by himself, where he could consume it without interruption. Since he always turned ugly before his spree was ended, none who knew him made any objection to his doing so.

Mule halted, a sack with several clinking bottles in it clutched in one big paw. His eyes narrowed cunningly at Steele's remark, and he chuckled to himself.

"Reckon I could open your eyes, Steele—if'n I had a mind to," he ruminated. "But when the time comes, I aim to be there to see the fun—and drinking comes first. The longer you whew around and don't find Ray, the better price you'll be willing to pay! Cheat me out of my share of that gold, will you?"

Muttering to himself, he crossed to his horse and climbed, not too steadily, into the saddle. Bystanders veered from his path, and he rode out from town in solitary splendor. A little more than a mile beyond, he pulled off from the road and began the serious business of getting drunk.

With Big Mule, it was a business. He would go for long intervals without taking a drop, but about twice each year he felt the craving. Where an ordinary man would become drunk, under such conditions, on a few drinks, Big Mule was different. He had reached town late the evening before and started to dissipate his thirst, but his appetite had only been nicely whetted when Steele had summoned him to follow Locke's trail.

Resuming now, Big Mule drank his whiskey straight, emptying a bottle as though it contained a mild soda pop. He was on his third bottle, still showing few outward effects, when he heard a sound and looked up to see Locke riding toward town.

 

19

Locke's horse was walking, choosing its own gait. The man in the saddle was gray and drawn. To Big Mule's wide-eyed amazement, he was riding with both arms bloody and bandaged. Mule's eyes still focused accurately enough so that he could tell that the bandages must have been contrived and tied by Locke, despite his handicap. Admiration stirred in the Mule's uncertain mind, and he heaved to his feet.

"Here," he said, and advanced, holding out the half-emptied bottle. "Snakes and horned toads, you ought to be dead, man! You need a drink."

Locke eyed him, his interest slowly stirring. For the last few miles he had been sunk, in a pain-filled apathy which took scant account of the passage of time or distance. Shock had set in, and only a dogged resistance kept him in the saddle. The fingers of his left hand still clamped on the reins. At Mule's appearance, the cayuse stopped of its own accord.

"Blazes," Big Mule added, awed, "I reckon you're near as good a man as I am!"

That simple tribute was the highest which Big Mule could pay. Seeing Locke's condition, he held the bottle for him, and Locke drank. He choked at first; then color returned to his cheeks as the fiery liquor took effect. In his condition it was life-giving. He drank more than enough normally to make him drunk, but it merely combatted his exhaustion and helped restore him to something approaching normalcy.

"Thanks," he gasped, as Big Mule tossed the bottle away. "That helped."

"You needed it," Mule said. "I got plenty." He gestured toward the half-dozen bottles laid out in disarray where he had sprawled on the grass. "Only trouble is," he confided disgustedly, "they don't make good whiskey any more. Ain't got no bite to it. Jus' dishwater."

His own throat still burning from the liquor, Locke shook his head in wonder. He felt immensely better, momentarily almost himself.

"Dishwater!" he repeated. "What sort of a man are you?"

"I ain't so bad as what folks think," Big Mule protested mournfully. "I don't do cussed things just to be mean—not generally. I do jobs because the boss wants them done. Tha's all. Nothing personal. Like when I killed Cable. That was jus' a job. I didn't have nothin' 'gainst him—not a thing in the world. I kind of liked him, far's that goes."

He was drunk enough so that his tongue was loosening.

"Reckon they'll have found him by this time," Big Mule added moodily. "It looksh jus' like an ash'dent, though. Tha'sh wha's supposed to look like. But the' wan't nothin' per'shonal 'bout it."

He stopped and mechanically swept up another bottle, struggling with the foil which held the cork in place. By now his huge fingers were becoming so clumsy that it resisted his efforts. Impatiently, he knocked the neck off with a blow of his gun-barrel, tipped the bottle and allowed the contents to drain down his throat.

BOOK: Star Toter
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