XV. The Fight
 

Herky hauled me out of the brush, and held me in the light. The others scrambled from under the remains of the loft, and all viewed me curiously.

"Kid, you ain't hurt much?" queried Buell, with concern.

I would have snapped out a reply, but I caught sight of Dick's pale face and anxious eyes.

"Ken," he called, with both gladness and doubt in his voice, "you look pretty good--but that blood. . . . Tell me, quick!"

"It's nothing, Dick, only a little cut. The bullet just ticked my arm."

Whatever Dick's reply was it got drowned in Herky-Jerky's long explosion of strange language. Herky was plainly glad I had not been badly hurt. I had already heard mirth, anger, disgust, and fear in his outbreaks, and now relief was added. He stripped off my coat, cut off the bloody sleeve of my shirt, and washed the wound. It was painful and bled freely, but it was not much worse than cuts from spikes when playing ball. Herky bound it tightly with a strip of my shirt-sleeve, and over that my handkerchief.

"Thar, kid, thet'll stiffen up an' be sore fer a day or two, but it ain't nothin'. You'll soon be bouncin' clubs offen our heads."

It was plain that Herky--and the others, for that matter, except Buell-- thought more of me because I had wielded a club so vigorously.

"Look at thet lump, kid," said Bud, bending his head. "Now, ain't thet a nice way to treat a feller? It made me plumb mad, it did."

"I'm likely to hurt somebody yet," I declared.

They looked at me curiously. Buell raised his face with a queer smile. Bud broke into a laugh.

"Oh, you're goin' to? Mebbe you think you need an axe," said he.

They made no offer to tie me up then. Bud went to the door and sat in it, and I heard him half whisper to Buell: "What 'd I tell you? Thet's a game kid. If he ever wakes up right we'll have a wildcat on our hands. He'll do fer one of us yet." These men all took pleasure in saying things like this to Buell. This time Buell had no answer ready, and sat nursing his head. "Wal, I hev a little headache myself, an' the crack I got wasn't nothin' to yourn," concluded Bud. Then Bill began packing the supplies indoors, and Herky started a fire. Bud kept a sharp eye on me; still, he made no objection when I walked over and lay down upon the blankets near Dick.

"Dick, I shot a bear and helped to tie up a cub," I said. And then I told him all that had happened from the time I scrambled out of the spring-hole till I was discovered up in the loft. Dick shook his head, as if he did not know what to make of me, and all he said was that he would give a year's pay to have me safe back in Pennsylvania.

Herky-Jerky announced supper in his usual manner--a challenge to find as good a cook as he was, and a cheerful call to "grub." I did not know what to think of his kindness to me. Remembering how he had nearly drowned me in the spring, I resented his sudden change. He could not do enough for me. I asked the reason for my sudden popularity.

Herky scratched his head and grinned. "Yep, kid, you sure hev riz in my estimashun."

"Hey, you rummy cow-puncher," broke in Bud, scornfully. "Mebbe you'd like the kid more'n you do if you'd got one of them wollops."

"Bud, I ain't sayin'," replied Herky, with his mouth full of meat. "Considerin' all points, howsoever, I'm thinkin' them wallops was distributed very proper."

They bandied such talk between them, and occasionally Bill chimed in with a joke. Greaser ate in morose silence. There must have been something on his mind. Buell took very little dinner, and appeared to be in pain. It was dark when the meal ended. Bud bound me up for the night, and he made a good job of it. My arm burned and throbbed, but not badly enough to prevent sleep. Twice I had nearly dropped off when loud laughs or voices roused me. My eyes closed with a picture of those rough, dark men sitting before the fire.

A noise like muffled thunder burst into my slumber. I awakened with my body cramped and stiff. It was daylight, and something had happened. Buell ran in and out of the cabin yelling at his men. All of them except Herky were wildly excited. Buell was abusing Bud for something, and Bud was blaming Buell.

"Thet's no way to talk to me!" said Bud, angrily. "He didn't break loose in my watch!'

"You an' Greaser had the job. Both of you--went to sleep--take thet from me!"

"Wal, he's gone, an' he took the kid's gun with him," said Bill, coolly. "Now we'll be dodgin' bullets."

Dick Leslie had escaped! I could hardly keep down a cry of triumph. I did ask if it was true, but none of them paid any attention to me. Buell then ordered Herky-Jerky to trail Dick and see where he had gone. Herky refused point-blank. "Nope. Not fer me," he said. "Leslie has a rifle. So has Bent, an' we haven't one among us. An', Buell, if Leslie falls in with Bent, it's goin' to git hot fer us round here."

This silenced Buell, but did not stop his restless pacings. His face was like a thunder-cloud, and he was plainly worried and harassed. Once Bud deliberately asked what be intended to do with me, and Buell snarled a reply which no one understood. His gloom extended to the others, except Herky, who whistled and sang as he busied himself about the campfire. Greaser appeared to be particularly cast down.

"Buell, what are you going to do with me?" I demanded. But he made no answer.

"Well, anyway," I went on, "somebody cut these ropes. I'm mighty sore and uncomfortable."

Herky-Jerky did not wait for permission; he untied me, and helped me to my feet. I was rather unsteady on my legs at first, and my injured arm felt like a board. It seemed dead; but after I had moved it a little the pain came back, and it had apparently come to stay. We ate breakfast, and then settled down to do nothing, or to wait for something to turn up. Buell sat in the doorway, moodily watching the trail. Once he spoke, ordering the Mexican to drive in the horses. I fancied from this that Buell might have decided to break camp, but there was no move to pack.

The morning quiet was suddenly split by the stinging crack of a rifle and a yell of agony.

Buell leaped to his feet, his ruddy face white.

"Greaser!" he exclaimed.

"Thet was about where Greaser cashed," relied Bill, coolly knocking the ashes from his pipe.

"No, Bill, you're wrong. Here comes Greaser, runnin' like an Indian."

"Look at the blood! He's been plugged, all right!" exclaimed Herky-Jerky.

The sound of running feet drew nearer, and suddenly the group at the door broke to admit the Mexican. One side of his terrified face was covered with blood. His eyes were staring, his hands raised, he staggered as if about to fall.

"Senyor William! Senyor William!" he cried, and then called on Saint Somebody.

"Jim Williams! I said so," muttered Bud.

Bill caught hold of the excited Mexican, and pulled him nearer the light.

"Thet ain't a bad hurt. jest cut his ear off!" aid Bill. "Hyar, stand still, you wild man! you're not goin' to die. Git some water, Herky. Fellers, Greaser has been oneasy ever since he knew Jim Williams was lookin' fer him. He thinks Jim did this. But Jim Williams don't use a rifle, an', what's more, when he shoots he don't miss. You all heerd the rifle-shot."

"Then it was old Bent or Leslie?" questioned Buell.

"Leslie it were. Bent uses a 45-90 caliber. Thet shot we heerd was from the little 38--the kid's gun."

"Wal, it was a narrer escape fer Greaser," said Bud. "Leslie's sore, an' he'll shoot fer keeps. Buell, you've started somethin'."

When Bill had washed the blood off the Mexican it was found that the ball had carried away the lower part of the ear, and with it, of course, the gold earring. The wound must have been extremely painful; it certainly took all the starch out of Greaser. He kept mumbling in his own language, and rolling his wicked black eyes and twisting his thin, yellow hands.

"What's to be done?" asked Buell, sharply.

"Thet's fer you to say," replied Bill, with his exasperating calmness.

"Must we hang up here to be shot at? Leslie's takin' a long chance on thet kid's life if he comes slingin' lead round this cabin."

Herky-Jerky spat tobacco-juice across the room and grunted. Then, with his beady little eyes as keen and cold as flint, he said: "Buell, Leslie knows you daren't harm the kid; an' as fer bullets, he'll take good care where he stings 'em. This deal of ours begins to look like a wild-goose stunt. It never was safe, an' now it's worse."

Here was even Herky-Jerky harping on Buell's situation. To me it did not appear much more serious than before. But evidently they thought Buell seemed on the verge of losing control of himself. He glared at Herky, and rammed his fists in his pockets and paced the long room. Presently he stepped out of the door.

A rifle cracked clear and sharp, another bellowed out heavy and hollow. A bullet struck the door-post, a second hummed through the door and budded into the log wall. Buell jumped back into the room. His face worked, his breath hissed between his teeth, as with trembling hand he examined the front of his coat. A big bullet had torn through both lapels.

Bill stuck his pudgy finger in the hole. "The second bullet made thet. It was from old Hiram's gun--a 45-90!"

"Bent an' Leslie! My God! They're shootin' to kill!" cried Buell.

"I should smile," replied Herky-Jerky.

Bud was peeping out through a chink between the logs. "I got their smoke," he said; "look, Bill, up the slope. They're too fur off, but we may as well send up respects." With that he aimed his revolver through the narrow crack and deliberately shot six times. The reports clapped like thunder, the smoke from burnt powder and the smell of brimstone filled the room. By way of reply old Hiram's rifle boomed out twice, and two heavy slugs crashed through the roof, sending down a shower of dust and bits of decayed wood.

"Thet's jist to show what a 45-90 can do," remarked Bill.

Bud reloaded his weapon while Bill shot several times. Herky-Jerky had his gun in hand, but contented himself with peering from different chinks between the logs. I hid behind the wide stone fireplace, and though I felt pretty safe from flying bullets, I began to feel the icy grip of fear. I had seen too much of these men in excitement, and knew if circumstances so brought it about there might come a moment when my life would not be worth a pin. They were all sober now, and deadly quiet. Buell showed the greatest alarm, though he had begun to settle down to what looked like fight. Herky was more fearless than any of them, and cooler even than Bill. All at once I missed the Mexican. If he had not slipped out of the room he had hidden under the brush of the fallen loft or in a pile of blankets. But the room was smoky, and it was hard for me to be certain.

Some time passed with no shots and with no movement inside the cabin. Slowly the blue smoke wafted out of the door. The sunlight danced in gleams through the holes in the ragged roof. There was a pleasant swish of pine branches against the cabin.

"Listen, , whispered Bud, hoarsely. "I heerd a pony snort."

Then the rapid beat of hard hoofs on the trail was followed by several shots from the hillside. Soon the clatter of hoofs died away in the distance.

"Who was thet?" asked three of Buell's men in unison.

"Take it from me, Greaser's sneaked," replied Buell.

"How'd he git out?"

With that Bud and Bill began kicking in the piles of brush.

"Aha! Hyar's the place," sang out Bud.

In one corner of the back wall a rotten log had crumbled, and here it was plain to all eyes that Greaser had slipped out. I remembered that on this side of the cabin there was quite a thick growth of young pine. Greaser had been able to conceal himself as he crawled toward the horses, and had probably been seen at the last moment. Herky-Jerky was the only one to make comment.

"I ain't wishin' Greaser any hard luck, but hope he carried away a couple Of 45-90 slugs somewheres in his yaller carcass."

"It'd be worth a lot to the feller who can show me a way out of this mess," said Buell, mopping the beads of sweat from his face.

I got up--it seemed to me my mind was made up for me--and walked into the light of the room.

"Buell, I can show you the way," I said, quietly.

"What!" His mouth opened in astonishment. "Speak up, then."

The other men stepped forward, and I felt their eyes upon me.

"Let me go free. Let me out of here to find Dick Leslie! Then when you go to jail in Holston for stealing lumber I'll say a good word for you and your men. There won't be any charge of kidnapping or violence."

After a long pause, during which Buell bored me with gimlet eyes, he said, in a queer voice: "Say thet again."

I repeated it, and added that he could not gain anything now by holding me a prisoner. I think he saw what I meant, but hated to believe it.

"It's too late," I said, as he hesitated.

"You mean Leslie lied an' you fooled me--you did get to Holston?" he shouted. He was quivering with rage, and the red flamed in his neck and face.

"Buell, I did get to Holston and I did send word to Washington," I went on, hurriedly for I had begun to lose my calmness. "I wrote to my father. He knows a friend of the Chief Forester who is close to the Department at Washington. By this time Holston is full of officers of the forest service. Perhaps they're already at your mill. Anyway, the game's up, and you'd better let me go."

Buell's face lost all its ruddy color, slowly blanched, and changed terribly. The boldness fled, leaving it craven, almost ghastly. Realizing he had more to fear from the law than conviction of his latest lumber steal, he made at me in blind anger.

"Hold on!" Herky-Jerky yelled, as he jumped between Buell and me.

Buell's breath was a hiss, and the words he bit between his clinched teeth were unintelligible. In that moment he would have killed me.

Herky-Jerky met his onslaught, and flung him back. Then, with his hand on the butt of his revolver, he spoke:

"Buell, hyar's where you an' me split. You've bungled your big deal. The kid stacked the deck on you. But I ain't a-goin' to see you do him harm fer it."

"Herky's right, boss," put in Bill, "thar's no sense in addin' murder to this mess. Strikes me you're in bad enough."

"So thet's your game? You're double-crossin' me now--all on a chance at kidnappin' for ransom money. Well, I'm through with the kid an' all of you. Take thet from me!"

"You skunk!" exclaimed Herky-Jerky, with the utmost cheerfulness.

"Wal, Buell," said Bill, in cool disdain, "comsiderin' my fondness fer fresh air an' open country, I can't say I'm sorry to dissolve future relashuns. I was only in jail onct, an' I couldn't breathe free."

It was then Buell went beside himself with rage. He raised his huge fists, and shook himself, and plunged about the room, cursing. Suddenly he picked up an axe, and began chopping at the rotten log above the hole where Greaser had slipped out. Bud yelled at him, so did Bill; Herky-Jerky said unpleasant things. But Buell did not hear them. He hacked and dug away like one possessed. The dull, sodden blows fell fast, scattering pieces of wood about the floor. The madness that was in Buell was the madness to get out, to escape the consequences of his acts. His grunts and pants as he worked showed his desperate energy. Then he slammed the axe against the wall, and, going down flat, began to crawl through the opening. Buell was a thick man, and the hole appeared too small. He stuck in it, but he squeezed and flattened himself, finally worked through, and disappeared.

A sudden quiet fell upon his departure.

"Hands up!"

Jim Williams's voice! It was strange to see Herky and Bud flash up their arms without turning. But I wheeled quickly. Bill, too, had his hands high in the air.

In the sunlight of the doorway stood Jim Williams. Low down, carelessly, it seemed, he held two long revolvers. He looked the same easy, slow Texan I remembered. But the smile was not now in his eyes, and his lips were set in a thin, hard line.