Chapter Eighteen: The Catrock Gang
 

A woman with a checkered apron and a motherly look came to let her chickens out and milk the cow, and woke Bud so that she could tell him she believed he had been on a "toot", or he never would have taken such a liberty with her corral. Bud agreed to the toot, and apologized, and asked for breakfast. And the woman, after one good look at him, handed him the milk bucket and asked him how he liked his eggs.

"All the way from barn to breakfast," Bud grinned, and the woman chuckled and called him Smarty, and told him to come in as soon as the cow was milked.

Bud had a great breakfast with the widow Hanson. She talked, and Bud learned a good deal about Crater and its surroundings, and when he spoke of holdup gangs she seemed to know immediately what he meant, and told him a great deal more about the Catrockers than Marian had done. Everything from murdering and robbing a peddler to looting the banks at Crater and Lava was laid to the Catrockers. They were the human buzzards that watched over the country and swooped down wherever there was money. The sheriff couldn't do anything with them, and no one expected him to, so far as Bud could discover.

He hesitated a long time before he asked about Marian Morris. Mrs. Hanson wept while she related Marian's history, which in substance was exactly what Marian herself had told Bud. Mrs. Hanson, however, told how Marian had fought to save her father and Ed, and how she had married Lew Morris as a part of her campaign for honesty and goodness. Now she was down at Little Lost cooking for a gang of men, said Mrs. Hanson, when she ought to be out in the world singing for thousands and her in silks and diamonds instead of gingham dresses and not enough of them.

"Marian Collier is the sweetest thing that ever grew up in this country," the old lady sniffled. "She's one in a thousand and when she was off to school she showed that she wasn't no common trash. She wanted to be an opery singer, but then her mother died and Marian done what looked to be her duty. A bird in a trap is what I call her."

Bud regretted having opened the subject, and praised the cooking by way of turning his hostess's thoughts into a different channel. He asked her if she would accept him as a boarder while he was in town, and was promptly accepted.

He did not want to appear in public until the bank was opened, and he was a bit troubled over identification. There could be no harm, he reflected, in confiding to Mrs. Hanson as much as was necessary of his adventures. Wherefore he dried the dishes for her and told her his errand in town, and why it was that he and his horse had slept in her corral instead of patronizing hotel and livery stable. He showed her the checks he wanted to cash, and asked her, with flattering eagerness for her advice, what he should do. He had been warned, he said, that Jeff and his friends might try to beat him yet by stopping payment, and he knew that he had been followed by them to town.

"What You'll do will be what I tell ye," Mrs Hanson replied with decision. "The cashier is a friend to me--I was with his wife last month with her first baby, and they swear by me now, for I gave her good care. We'll go over there this minute, and have talk with him. He'll do what he can for ye, and he'll do it for my sake."

"You don't know me, remember," Bud reminded her honestly.

The widow Hanson gave him a scornful smile and toss of her head. "And do I not?" she demanded. Do you think I've buried three husbands and thinking now of the fourth, without knowing what's wrote a man's face? Three I buried, and only one died his bed. I can tell if a man's honest or not, without giving him the second look. If you've got them checks you should get the money on them--for I know their stripe. Come on with me to Jimmy Lawton's house. He's likely holding the baby while Minie does the dishes."

Mrs. Hanson guessed shrewdly. The cashier of the Crater County Bank was doing exactly what she said he would be doing. He was sitting in the kitchen, rocking a pink baby wrapped in white outing flannel with blue border, when Mrs. Hanson, without the formality of more than one warning tap on the screen door, walked in with Bud. She held out her hands for the baby while she introduced the cashier to Bud. In the next breath she was explaining what was wanted of the bank.

"They've done it before, and ye know it's plain thievery and ought to be complained about. So now get your wits to work, Jimmy, for this friend of mine is entitled to his money and should have it if it is there to be had."

"Oh, it's there," said Jimmy. He looked at his watch, looked at the kitchen clock, looked at Bud and winked. "We open at nine, in this town," he said. "It lacks half an hour--but let me see those checks."

Very relievedly Bud produced them, watched the cashier scan each one to make sure that they were right, and quaked when Jimmy scowled at Jeff Hall's signature on the largest check of all. "He had a notion to use the wrong signature, but he may have lost his nerve. It's all right, Mr. Birnie. Just endorse these, and I'll take them into the bank and attend to them the first thing I do after the door is open. You'd better come in when I open up--"

"The gang had some talk about cleaning out the bank while they 're about it," Bud remembered suddenly. "Can't you appoint me something, or hire me as a guard and let me help out? How many men do you have here in this bank?"

"Two, except when the president's in his office in the rear. That's fine of you to offer. We've been held up, once--and they cleaned us out of cash." Jimmy turned to Mrs. Hanson. "Mother, can't you run over and have Jess come and swear Mr. Birnie in as a deputy? If I go, or he goes, someone may notice it and tip the gang off."

Mrs. Hanson hastily deposited the baby in its cradle and went to call "Jess", her face pink with excitement.

"You're lucky you stopped at her house instead of some other place," Jimmy observed. "She's a corking good woman. As a deputy sheriff, you'll come in mighty handy if they do try anything, Mr. Birnie--if you're the kind of a man you look to be. I'll bet you can shoot. Can you?"

"If you scare me badly enough, I might get a cramp in my trigger finger," Bud confessed. Jimmy grinned and went back to considering his own part.

"I'll cash these checks for you the first thing I do. And as deputy you can go with me. I'll have to unlock the door on time, and if they mean to stop payment, and clean the bank too, it will probably be done all at once. It has been a year since they bothered us, so they may need a little change. If Jess isn't busy he may stick around."

"No one expects him to round up the gang, I heard."

"No one expects him to go into Catrock Canyon after them. He'll round them up, quick enough, if he can catch them far enough from their holes."

Jess returned with Mrs. Hanson, swore in a new deputy, eyed Bud curiously, and agreed to remain hidden across the road from the bank with a rifle. He nodded understandingly when Bud warned him that the looting was a matter of hearsay on his part, and departed with an awkward compliment to Mrs. Jim about hoping that the baby was going to look like her.

Jim lived just behind the bank, and a high board fence between the two buildings served to hide his coming and going. But Bud took off his hat and walked stooping,--by special request of Mrs. Hanson--to make sure that he was not observed.

"I think I'll stand out in front of the window," said Bud when they were inside. "It will look more natural, and if any of these fellows show up I'd just as soon not show my brand the first thing."

They showed up, all right, within two minutes of the unlocking of the bank and the rolling up of the shades. Jeff Hall was the first man to walk in, and he stopped short when he saw Bud lounging before the teller's window and the cashier busy within. Other men were straggling up on the porch, and two of them entered. Jeff walked over to Bud, who shifted his position enough to bring him facing Jeff, whom he did not trust at all.

"Mr. Lawton," Jeff began hurriedly, "I want to stop payment on a check this young feller got from me by fraud. It's for five thousand eight hundred dollars, and I notify you--"

"Too late, Mr. Hall. I have already accepted the checks. Where did the fraud come in? You can bring suit, of course, to recover."

"I'll tell you, Jimmy. He bet that my horse couldn't beat Dave Truman's Boise. A good many bet on the same thing. But my horse proved to have more speed, so a lot of them are sore." Bud chuckled as other Sunday losers came straggling in.

"Well, it's too late. I have honored the checks," Jimmy said crisply, and turned to hand a sealed manila envelope to the bookkeeper with whispered instructions. The bookkeeper, who had just entered from the rear of the office, turned on his heel and left again.

Jeff muttered something to his friends and went outside as if their business were done for the day.

"I gave you five thousand in currency and the balance in a cashier's check," Jimmy whispered through he wicket. "Sent it to the house, We don't keep a great deal--ten thousand's our limit in cash, and I don't think you want to pack gold or silver--"

"No, I didn't. I'd rather--"

Two men came in, one going over to the desk where he apparently wrote a check, the other came straight to the window. Bud looked into the heavily bearded face of a man who had the eyes of Lew Morris. He shifted his position a little so that he faced the man's right side. The one at the desk was glancing slyly over his shoulder at the bookkeeper, who had just returned to his work.

"Can you change this twenty so I can get seven dollars and a quarter out of it?" asked the man at he window. As he slid the bill through the wicket he started to sneeze, and reached backward--for his handkerchief, apparently.

"Here's one," said Bud. "Don't sneeze too hard, old-timer, or you're liable to sneeze your whiskers all off. It's happened before."

Someone outside fired a shot in at Bud, clipping his hatband in front. At the sound of the shot the whiskered one snatched his gun out, and the cashier shot him. Bud had sent a shot through the outside window and hit somebody--whom, he did not know, for he had no time to look. The young fellow at the desk had whirled, and was pointing a gun shakily, first at he cashier and then at Bud. Bud fired and knocked he gun out of his hand, then stepped over the man he suspected was Lew and caught the young fellow by the wrist.

"You're Ed Collier--by your eyes and your mouth," Bud said in a rapid undertone. "I'm going to get you out of this, if you'll do what I say. Will you?"

"He got me in here, honest," the young fellow quaked. He couldn't be more than nineteen, Bud guessed swiftly.

"Let me through, Jimmy," Bud ordered hurriedly. "You got the man that put up this job. I'll take the kid out the back way, if you don't mind."

Jimmy opened the steel-grilled door and let them through.

"Ed Collier," he said in a tone of recognition. "I heard he was trailing--"

"Forget it, Jimmy. If the sheriff asks about him, say he got out. Now, Ed, I'm going to take you over to Mrs. Hanson's. She'll keep an eye on you for a while."

Eddie was looking at the dead man on the floor, and trembling so that he did not attempt to reply; and by way of Jimmy's back fence and the widow Hanson's barn and corral, Bud got Eddie safe into the kitchen just as that determined lady was leaving home with a shotgun to help defend the honor of the town.

Bud took her by the shoulder and told her what he wanted her to do. "He's Marian's brother, and too young to be with that gang. So keep him here, safe and out of sight, until I come. Then I'll want to borrow your horse. Shall I tie the kid?"

"And me an able-bodied woman that could turn him acrost my knee?" Mrs. Hanson's eyes snapped.

"It's more likely the boy needs his breakfast. Get along with ye!"

Bud got along, slipping into the bank by the rear door and taking a hand in the desultory firing in the street. The sheriff had a couple of men ironed and one man down and the landlord of the hotel was doing a great deal of explaining that he had never seen the bandits before. Just by way of stimulating his memory Bud threw a bullet close to his heels, and the landlord thereupon grovelled and wept while he protested his innocence.

"He's a damn liar, sheriff," Bud called across the hoof- scarred road. "He was talking to them about eleven o'clock last night. There were three that chased me into town, and they got him up out of bed to find out whether I'd stopped there. I hadn't, luckily for me. If I had he'd have showed them the way to my room, and he'd have had a dead boarder this morning. Keep right on shedding tears, you old cut- throat! I was sitting on the court-house porch, last night, and I heard every word that passed between you and the Catrockers!"

"I've been suspicioning here was where they got their information right along," the sheriff commented, and slipped the handcuffs on the landlord. Investigation proved that Jeff Hall and his friends had suddenly decided that they had no business with the bank that day, and had mounted and galloped out of town when the first shot was fired. Which simplified matters a bit for Bud.

In Jimmy Lawton's kitchen he received his money, and when the prisoners were locked up he saved himself some trouble with the sheriff by hunting him up and explaining just why he had taken the Collier boy into custody.

"You know yourself he's just a kid, and if you send him over the road he's a criminal for life. I believe I can make a decent man of him. I want to try, anyway. So you just leave me this deputy's badge, and make my commission regular and permanent, and I'll keep an eye on him. Give me a paper so I can get a requisition and bring him back to stand trial, any time he breaks out. I'll be responsible for him, sheriff."

"And who in blazes are you?" the sheriff inquired, with a grin to remove the sting of suspicion. "Name sounded familiar, too!"

"Bud Birnie of the Tomahawk, down near Laramie; Telegraph Laramie if you like and find out about me.

"Good Lord! I know the Tomahawk like a book!" cried the sheriff. "And you're Bob Birnie's boy! Say! D'you remember dragging into camp on the summit one time when you was about twelve years old--been hidin' out from Injuns about three days? Well, say! I'm the feller that packed you into the tent, and fed yuh when yuh come to. Remember the time I rode down and stayed over night at yore place, the time Bill Nye come down from his prospect hole up in the Snowies, bringin' word the Injuns was up again?" The sheriff grabbed Bud's hand and held it, shaking it up and down now and then to emphasize his words.

"Folks called you Buddy, then. I remember yuh, helpin' your mother cook 'n' wash dishes for us fellers. I kinda felt like I had a claim on yuh, Buddy.

"Say, Bill Nye, he's famous now. Writin' books full of jokes, and all that. He always was a comical cuss. Don't you remember how the bunch of us laughed at him when he drifted in about dark, him and four burros--that one he called Boomerang, that he named his paper after in Laramie? I've told lots of times what he said when he come stoopin' into the kitchen--how Colorou had sent him word that he'd give Bill just four sleeps to get outa there. An, 'Hell!' says Bill. 'I didn't need any sleeps!' An' we all turned to and cooked a hull beef yore dad had butchered that day--and Bill loaded up with the first chunks we had ready, and pulled his freight. He sure didn't need any sleeps--"

"Yes, you bet I remember. Jesse Cummings is your name. I sure ought to remember you, for you and your partner saved my life, I expect. I thought I'd seen you before, when you made me deputy. How about the kid? Can I have him? Lew Morris, the man that kept him on the wrong side of the law, is dead, I heard the doctor say. Jimmy got him when he pulled his gun."

"Why, yes--if the town don't git onto me turnin' him loose, I guess you can have the kid for all I care. He didn't take any part in the holdup, did he Buddy?"

"He was over by the customers' desk when Lew started, to hold up the cashier."

"Well I got enough prisoners so I guess he won't be missed. But you look out how yuh git him outa town. Better wait til kinda late to-night. I sure would like to see him git a show. Them two Collier kids never did have a square deal, far as I've heard.

But be careful, youngster. I want another term off this county if I can get it. Don't go get me in bad."

"I won't," Bud promised and hurried back to Mrs. Hanson's house.

That estimable lady was patting butter in a wooden bowl when Bud went in. She turned and brushed a wisp of gray hair from her face with her fore arm and sh-shed him into silent stepping, motioning toward an inner room. Bud tiptoed and looked, saw Ed Collier fast asleep, swaddled in a blanket, and grinned his approval.

He made sure that the sleep was genuine, also that the blanket swaddling was efficient. Moreover, he discovered that Mrs. Hanson had very prudently attached a thin wire to the foot of the blanket cocoon, had passed the wire through a knot hole in a cupboard set into the partition, and to a sheep bell which she no doubt expected to ring upon provocation--such as a prisoner struggling to release his feet from a gray blanket fastened with many large safety pins.

"He went right to sleep, the minute I'd fed him and tied him snug," Mrs. Hanson murmured. "He was a sulky divvle and wouldn't give a decent answer to me till he had his stomach filled. From the way he waded into the ham and eggs, I guess a square meal and him has been strangers for a long time."

Sleep and Ed Collier must have been strangers also, for Bud attended the inquest of Lew Morris, visited afterwards with Sheriff Cummings, who was full of reminiscence and wanted to remind Bud of everything that had ever happened within his knowledge during the time when they had been neighbors with no more than forty miles or so between them. The sheriff offered Bud a horse and saddle, which he promised to deliver to the widow's corral after the citizens of Crater had gone to bed. And while he did not say that it would be Ed's horse, Bud guessed shrewdly that it would. After that, Bud carefully slit the lining of his boots tucked money and checks into the opening he had made, and did a very neat repair job.

All that while Ed Collier slept. When Bud returned for his supper Ed had evidently just awakened and was lying on his back biting his lip while he eyed the wire that ran from his feet to the parting of a pair of calico curtains. He did not see Bud, who was watching him through a crack in the door at the head of the bed. Ed was plainly puzzled at the wire and a bit resentful. He lifted his feet until the wire was well slackened, held them poised for a minute and deliberately brought them down hard on the floor.

The result was all that he could possibly have expected. Somewhere was a vicious clang, the rattle of a tin pan and the approaching outcry of a woman. Bud retreated to the kitchen to view the devastation and discovered that a sheep bell not too clean had been dislodged from a nail and dragged through one pan of milk into another, where it was rolling on its edge, stirring the cream that had risen. As Mrs. Hanson rushed in from the back yard, Bud returned to the angry captive's side.

"I've got him safe," he soothed Mrs. Hanson and her shotgun. "He just had a nightmare. Perhaps that breakfast you fed him was too hearty. I'll look after him now, Mrs. Hanson. We won't be bothering you long, anyway."

Mrs. Hanson was talking to herself when she went to her milk pans, and Bud released Eddie Collier, guessing how humiliating it must be to be a young fellow pinned into a blanket with safety pins, and knowing from certain experiences of his own that humiliation is quite as apt to breed trouble as any other emotion.

Eddie sat up on the edge of the bed and stared at Bud. His eyes were like Marian's in shape and color, but their expression was suspicion, defiance, and watchfulness blended into one compelling stare that spelled Fear. Or so Bud read it, having trapped animals of various grades ever since he had caught the "hawntoad", and seen that look many, many times in the eyes of his catch.

"How'd you like to take a trip with me--as a kind of a partner?" Bud began carelessly, pulling a splinter off the homemade bed for which Mrs. Hanson would not thank him--and beginning to whittle it to a sharp point aimlessly, as men have a way of doing when their minds are at work upon a problem which requires--much constructive thinking.

"Pardner in what?" Eddie countered sullenly.

"Pardner in what I am planning to do to make money. I can make money, you know--and stay on friendly terms with the sheriff, too. That's better than your bunch has been able to do. I don't mind telling you--it's stale news, I guess--that I cleaned up close to twelve thousand dollars in less than a month, off a working capital of three thoroughbred horses and about sixty dollars cash. And I'll add the knowledge that I was playing against men that would slip a cold deck if they played solitaire, they were so crooked. And if that doesn't recommend me sufficiently, I'll say I'm a deputy sheriff of Crater County, and Jesse Cummings knows my past. I want to hire you to go with me and make some money, and I'll pay you forty a month and five per cent bonus on my profits at the end of two years. The first year may not show any profits, but the second year will. How does it sound to you?"

He had been rolling a cigarette, and now he offered the "makings" to Ed, who accepted them mechanically, his eyes still staring hard at Bud. He glanced toward the door and the one little window where wild cucumber vines were thickly matted, and Bud interpreted his glance.

"Lew and another Catrocker--the one that tried to rope me down in the Sinks--are dead, and three more are in jail. Business won't be very brisk with the Catrock gang for a while."

"If you're trying to bribe me into squealing on the rest, you're a damn fool," said Eddie harshly. "I ain't the squealing kind. You can lead me over to jail first. I'd rather take my chances with the others." He was breathing hard when he finished.

"Rather than work for me?" Bud sliced off the sharp point which he had so carefully whittled, and began to sharpen a new one. Eddie watched him fascinatedly.

"Rather than squeal on the bunch. There's no other reason in God's world why you'd make me an offer like that. I ain't a fool quite, if my head does run up to a peak."

Bud chewed his lip, whittled, and finally threw the splinter away. When he turned toward Eddie his eyes were shiny.

"Kid, you're breaking your sister's heart, following this trail. I'd like to see you give her a chance to speak your name without blinking back tears. I'd like to see her smile all the way from her dimples to her eyes when she thinks of you. That's why I made the offer--that and because I think you'd earn your wages."

Eddie looked at him, looked away, staring vacantly at the wall. His eyelashes were blinking very fast, his lip began to tremble. "You--I--I never wanted to--I ain't worth saving-- oh, hell! I never had a chance before--" He dropped sidewise on the bed, buried his face in his arms and sobbed hoarsely, like the boy he was.