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   Chapter 13 No.13

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 14354

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


VB Fights

Jed returned that evening, worn by a hard day's riding. He was silent. VB, too, was quiet and they spoke little until the housework was finished and Jed had drawn off his boots preparatory to turning in.

Then VB said: "Bob Thorpe was over to-day."

"So?"

"Uh-huh; wanted to buy the Captain."

After a pause Jed commented: "That's natural."

"Wanted me to give you the good word."

The old man walked through the doorway into the little bunk room and VB heard him flop into the crude bed.

A short interval of silence.

"Jed," called VB, "ever hear where his daughter went to school?"

A long yawn. Then:

"Yep-don't remember."

Another pause.

"She was over, too."

"Oh-ho-o-o!"

The boy felt himself flushing, and then sat bolt upright, wondering soberly and seriously why it should be so-without reason.

Young VB slept restlessly that night. He tossed and dreamed, waking frequently under a sense of nervous tension, then falling back to half-slumber once more. Thorpe came, and his daughter, offering fabulous sums for the Captain, which were stubbornly refused.

Then, shouting at the top of her voice, the girl cried:

"But I will give you kisses for him! Surely that is enough!"

And VB came back to himself, sitting up in bed and wadding the blankets in his hands. He blinked in the darkness and herded his scattered senses with difficulty. Then the hands left off twisting the covers and went slowly to his throat. For the thirst was on him and in the morning he rose in the grip of the same stifling desire, and his quavering hands spilled things as he ate.

Jed noticed, but made no comment. When the meal was finished he said:

"S'pose I could get you to crawl up on the Captain an' take a shoot up Curley Gulch with an eye out for that black mare an' her yearlin'?"

VB was glad to be alone with his horse, and as he walked to the corral, his bridle over his arm, he felt as though, much as Jed could help him, he could never bring the inspiration which the black beast offered.

He opened the gate and let it swing wide. The Captain came across to him with soft nickerings, deserting the alfalfa he was munching. He thrust his muzzle into the crook of VB's elbow, and the arm tightened on it desperately, while the other hand went up to twine fingers in the luxurious mane.

"Oh, Captain!" he muttered, putting his face close to the animal's cheek. "You know what it is to fight for yourself! You know-but where you found love and help when you lost that fight, I'd find-just blackness-without even a candle-"

The stallion moved closer, shoving with his head until he forced VB out of the corral. Then with his teasing lips he sought the bridle.

"You seem to understand!" the man cried, his tired eyes lighting. "You seem to know what I need!"

Five minutes later he was rushing through the early morning air up the gulch, the Captain bearing him along with that free, firm, faultless stride that had swept him over those mountains for so many long, unmolested years.

Throughout the forenoon they rode hard. VB looked for the mare and colt, but the search did not command much of his attention.

"Why can't I turn all this longing into something useful?" he asked the horse. "Your lust for freedom has come to this end; why can't my impulses to be a wild beast be driven into another path?"

And the Captain made answer by bending his superb head and lipping VB's chap-clad knee.

The quest was fruitless, and an hour before noon VB turned back toward the ranch, making a short cut across the hills. In one of the gulches the Captain nickered softly and increased his trotting. VB let him go, unconscious of his brisker movement, for the calling in his throat had risen to a clamor. The horse stopped and lowered his head, drinking from a hole into which crystal water seeped.

The man dropped off and flopped on his stomach, thrusting his face into the pool close to the nose of the greedily drinking stallion. He took the water in great gulps. It was cold, as cold as spring water can be, yet it was as nothing against the fire within him.

The Captain, raising his head quickly, caught his breath with a grunt, dragging the air deep into his great lungs and exhaling slowly, loudly, as he gazed off down the gulch; then he chewed briskly on the bit and thrust his nose again into the spring.

VB's arm stole up and dropped over the horse's head.

"Oh, boy, you know what one kind of thirst is," he said in a whisper. "But there's another kind that this stuff won't quench! The thirst that comes from being in blackness-"

They went on, dropped off a point, and made for the flat little buildings of the ranch. As he approached, VB saw three saddled horses standing before the house, none of which was Jed's property. Nothing strange in that, however, for one man's home is another's shelter in that country, whether the owner be on the ground or not, and to VB the thought of visitors brought relief. Contact with others might joggle him from his mood.

He left the Captain, saddled, at the corral gate, bridle reins down, and he knew that the horse would not budge so much as a step until told to do so. Then he swung over toward the house, heels scuffing the hard dirt, spurs jingling. At the threshold he walked squarely into the man Rhues.

The recognition was a distinct shock. He stepped backward a pace-recoiled rather, for the movement was as from a thing he detested. Into his mind crowded every detail of his former encounters with this fellow; in the Anchor bunk house and across the road from the saloon in Ranger. They came back vividly-the expression of faces, lights and shadows, even odors, and the calling in him for the help that throttles became agonizing.

Rhues misconstrued his emotion. His judgment was warped by the spirit of the bully, and he thought this man feared him. He remembered that defiant interchange of questions, and the laugh that went to VB on their first meeting. He nursed the rankling memory. He had told it about that Avery's tenderfoot was afraid to take a drink-speaking greater truth than he was aware-but his motive had been to discredit VB in the eyes of the countrymen, for he belonged to that ilk who see in debauchery the mark of manhood.

Coming now upon the man he had chosen to persecute, and reading fear in VB's eyes, Rhues was made crudely happy.

"You don't appear to be overglad to see us," he drawled.

VB glanced into the room. A Mexican sat on the table, smoking and swinging his legs; a white man he remembered having seen in Ranger stood behind Rhues. Jed was nowhere about. He looked back at the snaky leer in those half-opened green eyes, and a rage went boiling into his brain. The unmistakable challenge which came from this bully was of the sort that strips from men civilization's veneer.

"You've guessed it," he said calmly. "I don't know why I should be glad to see you. These others"-he motioned-"are strangers to me."

Then he stepped past Rhues into the room.

The man grinned at him as he tossed his hat to a chair and unbuckled the leather cuffs.

"But that makes no differe

nce," he went on. "Jed isn't here. It's meal time, and if you men want to eat I'll build a big enough dinner."

Rhues laughed, and the mockery in his tone was of the kind that makes the biggest of men forget they can be above insult.

"We didn't come here to eat," he said. "We come up to see a horse we heerd about-th' Captain. We heerd Jed caught him."

VB started. The thought of Rhues inspecting the stallion, commenting on him, admiring him, was as repulsive to Young VB as would be the thought to a lover of a vile human commenting vulgarly on the sacred body of the woman of women.

The Mexican strolled out of the house as VB, turning to the stove, tried to ignore the explanation of their presence. He walked on toward the ponies. A dozen steps from the house he stopped, and called:

"Por Dios, hombre!"

Rhues and the other followed him, and VB saw them stand together, staring in amazement at the Captain. Then they moved toward the great horse, talking to one another and laughing.

VB followed, with a feeling of indignation. The trio advanced, quickening their pace.

"Hold on!" he cried in sudden alarm. "Don't go too near; he's dangerous!"

Already the Captain had flattened his ears, and as VB ran out he could see the nose wrinkling, the lips drawing back.

"What's got into you?" demanded Rhues, turning, while the Mexican laughed jeeringly. "I guess if you can ride him a man can git up clost without gittin' chawed up! Remember, young kid, we've been workin' with hosses sence you was suckin' yer thumb."

The others laughed again, but VB gave no heed. He was seeing red again; reason had gone-either reason or the coating of conventions.

"Well, if you won't stand away from him because of danger, you'll do it because I say so!" he muttered.

"O-ho, an' that's it!" laughed Rhues, walking on.

VB passed him and approached the Captain and took his bridle.

"Be still, boy," he murmured. "Stand where you are."

He stroked the nose, and the wrinkles left it.

Rhues laughed again harshly.

"Well, that's a fine kind o' buggy horse!" he jeered. "Let a tenderfoot come up an' steal all th' man-eatin' fire outen him!"

He laughed again and the others joined. The Mexican said something in Spanish.

"Yah," assented Rhues. "I thought we was comin' to see a hoss-th' kind o' nag this feller pertended to be. But now-look at him! He's just a low-down --"

VB sprang toward him.

"You-" he breathed, "you-you hound! Why, you aren't fit to come into sight of this horse. You-you apologize to that horse!" he demanded, and even through his molten rage the words sounded unutterably silly.

Yet he went on, fists clenched, carried beyond reason or balance by the instinctive hate for this man and love for the black animal behind him.

Rhues laughed again.

"Who says so, besides you, you --. Why, you ain't no more man'n that hoss is hoss!"

He saw then that he had reckoned poorly. The greenhorn, the boy who cowered at the thought of a man's dissipation, had disappeared, and in his stead stood a quivering young animal, poising for a pounce.

Being a bully, Rhues was a coward. So when VB sprang, and he knew conflict was unavoidable, his right hand whipped back. The fingers closed on the handle of his automatic as VB made the first step. They made their hold secure as the Easterner's arm drew back. They yanked at the gun as that fist shot out.

It was a good blow, a clean blow, a full blow right on the point of the chin, and, quickly as it had been delivered, the right was back in an instinctive guard and the left had rapped out hard on the snarling mouth. Rhues went backward and down, unbalanced by the first shock, crushed by the second; and the third, a repeated jab of the left, caught him behind the ear and stretched him helpless in the dust.

His fingers relaxed their hold on the gun that he had not been quick enough to use, so lightning-like was the attack from this individual he had dubbed a "kid." VB stepped over the prostrate form, put his toe under the revolver, and flipped it a dozen yards away.

Then Jed Avery pulled up his horse in a shower of dust, and VB, his rage choking down words, turned to lead the Captain into the corral. The animal nosed him fiercely and pulled back to look at Rhues, who, under the crude ministrations of his two companions, had taken on a semblance of life.

A moment later VB returned from the inclosure, bearing his riding equipment. He said to Jed: "This man insulted the Captain. I had to whip him." Then he walked to the wagon shed, dropped his saddle in its shelter, and came back.

Rhues sat up and, as VB approached, got to his feet. He lurched forward as if to rush his enemy, but the Mexican caught him and held him back.

VB stood, hands on hips, and glared at him. He said: "No, I wouldn't come again if I were you. I don't want to have to smash you again. I'd enjoy it in a way, but when a man is knocked out he's whipped-in my country-judged by the standards we set there.

"You're a coward, Rhues-a dirty, sneaking, low-down coward! Every gun-man is a coward. It's no way to settle disputes-gun fighting."

He glared at the fellow before him, who swore under his breath but who could not summon the courage to strike.

"You're a coward, and I hope I've impressed that on you," VB went on, "and you'll take a coward's advantage. Hereafter I'm going to carry a gun. You won't fight in my way because you're not a man, so I'll have to be prepared for you in your way. I just want to let you know that I understand your breed! That's all.

"Don't start anything, because I'll fight in two ways hereafter-in my way and in yours. And that goes for you other two. If you run with this-this thing, it marks you. I know what would have happened if Jed hadn't come up. You'd have killed me! That's the sort you are. Remember-all three of you-I'm not afraid, but it's a case of fighting fire with fire. I'll be ready."

Rhues stood, as though waiting for more.

When VB did not go on he said, just above a whisper: "I'll get you-yet!"

And VB answered, "Then I guess we all understand one another."

When the three had ridden away Jed shoved his Colt tight into its holster again and looked at the young chap with foreboding.

"There'll be trouble, VB; they're bad," he said. "He's a coward. The story'll go round an' he'll try to get you harder 'n ever. If he don't, those others will-will try, I mean. Matson and Julio are every bit as bad as Rhues, but they ain't quite got his fool nerve.

"They're a thievin' bunch, though it ain't never been proved. Nobody trusts 'em; most men let 'em alone an' wait fer 'em to show their hand. They've been cute; they've been suspected, but they ain't never got out on a limb. They've got a lot to cover up, no doubt. But they've got a grudge now. An' when cowards carry grudges-look out!"

"If a man like Rhues were all I had to fear, I should never worry," VB muttered, weak again after the excitement. "He's bad-but there are worse things-that you can't have the satisfaction of knocking down."

And his conspiring nostrils smelled whisky in that untainted air.

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