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   Chapter 21 No.21

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 11152

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Guns Crash

Out in the shadow of the building three men huddled close together, talking in whispers-Rhues, Matson, and the Mexican. Rhues had watched the progress of the poker game, waiting the chance he had tried to seek out ever since that day up at Avery's when he had been beaten down by the flailing fists of that tall young tenderfoot. He had seen VB start for the bar; he knew the hour had struck.

"We've got him!" he whispered. "He won't get away this time. They won't be no mistakes."

"S-s-s-s!" the Greaser warned.

"Aw, nobody'll ever know," Rhues scoffed in an undertone. "They'll never know that unless you spill. An' if you do-it'll mean three of us to th' gallows, unless-we're lynched first!"

Silence a moment, and they heard VB's voice raised. Then Rhues whispered his quick plans.

"Take it easy," he warned in conclusion. "Don't start nothin'. Let him git drunk; then he'll do th' startin' an' it'll be easy."

Inside a bottle was thumped on the bar, a glass beside it. Feverishly VB reached for both, lifting the glass with uncertain hand, tilting the bottle from the bar, not trusting his quaking muscles to raise it. The neck touched the glass with a dull clink; the mouth of the bottle gurgled greedily as the first of the liquor ran out-for all the world as if it had waited these months for that chuckle of triumph.

And then that romanticism of youth came to the surface of his seething thoughts again. It would be the closing of a chapter, that drink. It was for her sake he would lift it to his lips. He wanted to bid her a last, bitter farewell. She was over there, far across the hills, sleeping and dreaming-with her golden hair-over there in the northeast. He laughed harshly, set the bottle back on the bar, and turned his face in her direction.

Those who watched from the other end of the room saw him turn his head unsteadily; saw the sudden tenseness which spread through his frame, stiffening those faltering knees. He turned slowly toward the door and thrust his face forward as though to study and make certain that he saw rightly.

Like a rush of fire the realization swept through him. A man stood there in the moonlight, and the sheen from the heavens was caught on the dull barrel of a gun in his hand.

VB was covered, and he knew by whom! The man who had fought less than half a dozen times in his life, and then with bare fists, was the object of a trained gun hand. He could almost see the glitter of the green eyes that were staring at him.

Instinct should have told him to spring to one side; a leap right or left would have carried him out of range, but instinct had been warped by all those months of struggle.

He was on the brink, at the point of losing his balance; but the battling spirit within him still throbbed, though his frenzy, his lack of faith, had nearly killed it. Now the thing came alive pulsing, bare!

An instant before he had not cared what happened. Now he did, and the end was not the only thing in view; the means counted with Young VB.

He did not jump for shelter. He roared his rage as he prepared to stand and fight.

The others understood before his hand reached his shirt front. The bartender dropped behind the fixture and the others in the room sprang behind the barrels and stove. By the time VB's hand had clasped the neck of his shirt he stood alone. When the vicious yank he gave the garment ripped it open from throat halfway to waist the first belch of fire came from that gun out there.

The bottle on the bar exploded, fine bits of glass shooting to the far corners of the room.

"Come on-you-yellow-"

VB's fingers found the butt of his Colt, closed and yanked. It came from the holster, poised, muzzle upward, his thumb over the hammer. Possibly he stood thus a tenth part of a second, but while he waited for his eyes to focus well a generation seemed to parade past. He was hunted down by a crawling piece of vermin!

A parallel sprang to his mind. While Rhues sought his body did not another viper seek his soul? Was-

Then he made out the figure-crouched low. The forty-five came down, and the room resounded with its roar. He stood there, a greenhorn who had never handled a weapon in his life until the last year, giving battle to a gun fighter whose name was a synonym!

Out of the moonlight came another flash, and before VB could answer the hunched figure had leaped from the area framed by the doorway.

"You won't stand!" the boy cried, and strode across the room.

"Don't be a fool! VB!"

The bartender's warning might as well have been unheard. Straight for the open door went the boy, gun raised, coughing from the powder smoke. But the mustached man, though panderer by profession, revolted at unfairness; perhaps it was through the boy's ignorance, but he knew VB walked only to become a target. Twice his gun roared from behind the bar and the two swinging lamps became scattered, tinkling fragments.

VB seemed not to heed, not to notice that he was in darkness. He reached the door, put his left hand against the casing, and looked out. With lights behind he would have been riddled on the instant. But, looking from blackness to moonlight, he was invisible for the moment-but only for a moment.

The stream of yellow stabbed at him again and Young VB, as though under the blow of a sledge, spun round and was flattened against the wall.

His left breast seemed to be in flames. He reached for it, fired aimlessly with the other hand in the direction of his hidden foe, and let the gun clatter to the flo

or.

He wondered if it were death-that darkness. He felt the fanning of the wind, heard, dimly, its uneasy soughing. It was very dark.

A movement and its consequent grip of pain brought him back. He saw then that a heavy cloud, wind driven, had blotted out the moon. In a frenzy he came alert! He was wounded! He had dropped his gun and they were waiting for him out there, somewhere; waiting to finish him!

He could feel the smearing of blood across his chest as his clothing held it in. His legs commenced to tremble, from true physical weakness this time.

And the Captain was waiting!

That thought wiped out every other; he was possessed with it. He might be dying, but if he could only get to the Captain; if he could only feel that silken nose against his cheek! Nothing would matter then.

If he could get up, if he could mount, the Captain would take care of him. He could outrun those bullets-the Captain. He would take him home, away from this inferno.

"I'm coming, Captain!" he muttered brokenly. "You're waiting! Oh, I know where to find you. I'm coming, boy, coming!"

He stepped down from the doorway and reeled, a hand against his wounded breast. It seemed as though it required an eternity to regain his balance. Then he lurched forward a step. Oh, they were merciless! They opened on him from behind-when he had no weapon, when his life was gushing away under his shirt! Those shots never came from one gun alone. More than one man fired on him!

His salvation then was flight. He ran, staggering, stumbling. He plunged forward on his face and heard a bullet scream over him.

"Oh, Captain!" he moaned. "Can't you come and get me? Can't you?"

He snarled his determination to rally those senses that tried to roam off into vagaries. He got to his hands and knees and crawled, inch by inch. He heard another shot, but it went wild. He got to his feet and reeled on. They thought they'd done for him when he fell! He heard himself laughing crazily at the joke.

"Oh, you'll laugh, too-Captain!" he growled. "It's a joke-you'll-if I can only get to-you!"

His numb, lagging legs seemed to make conscious efforts to hold him back. His head became as heavy as his feet and rolled about on his neck, now straight forward, now swinging from side to side. His arms flopped as no arm ever should flop. And he heard the blood bubbling under his vest. Perhaps he would never get there! Perhaps he was done for!

"Oh, no-I can't quit before-I get to-you, Captain!" he muttered as he fell again. "You're waiting-where I told you to wait! I've got to-get-there!"

Of only one thing in this borderland between consciousness and insensibility was he certain-the Captain was waiting. The Captain was waiting! If he could get that far- It was the climax of all things. To reach his horse; to touch him; to put his arms about those ankles as he fell and hold them close; to answer trust with trust. For through all this the Captain had waited!

The shack where he had left the horse swam before his eyes. He heard the breath making sounds in his throat as he crawled on toward it, counting each hand-breadth traveled an achievement. He tried to call out to the horse, but the words clogged and he could not make his voice carry.

"Just a moment, boy!" he whispered. "Only-a moment longer-then you won't have-to wait!"

He was conscious again that his pursuers fired from behind. It was moonlight once more, and they could see him as he reeled on toward the shack. He sprawled again as his foot met a stone, and the guns ceased to crash.

But VB did not think on this more than that instant. He found no comfort in the cessation of firing. For him, only one attainable object remained in life. He wanted to be with the thing of which he was certain, away from all else-to know a faith was justified; to sense once again stability!

His hand struck rough wood. He strained his eyes to make out the tumble-down structure rising above him.

"Captain!" he called, forcing his voice up from a whisper. "Come-boy, I'm-ready-to go-home!"

Clinging to the logs, he raised himself to his feet and swayed in through the door.

"Captain," he muttered, closing his eyes almost contentedly and waiting. "Captain?"

He started forward in alarm, a concern mounting through his torture and dimming his sensibilities.

"Captain-are you-here?"

He stumbled forward, arms outstretched in the darkness, feeling about the space. He ran into a wall; turned, met another.

"Captain!" he cried, his voice mounting to a ranting cry.

The Captain was gone!

Reason for keeping on slipped from VB's mind. He needed air, so his reflexes carried him through the doorway again, out of the place where he had left the stallion, out of the place where his trust had been betrayed. He stumbled, recovered his balance, plunged on out into the moonlight, into the brush, sobbing heavily. His knees failed. He crashed down, face plowing into cool soil.

"Captain"! he moaned. "Oh, boy-I didn't think-you would-fail- No wonder-I couldn't keep-going-"

He did not hear the running feet, did not know they rolled him over, Rhues with his gun upraised.

"I got him, th' --" he muttered.

"Then let's get out-pronto!"

Twenty minutes later a man with a lantern stepped out of the shack in which the Captain had stood. Two others were with him.

"Yes, he left his horse there, all right," the man with the light muttered. "He got to him an' got away. Nobody else could lead that horse off. He couldn't 'a' been hard hit or he couldn't 'a' got up."

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