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   Chapter 22 No.22

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 13949

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Tables Turn; and Turn Again

A young chap from the East who was in Clear River County because of his lungs named her Delilah when she was only a little girl-Delilah Gomez. She cooked now for the Double Six Ranch, the buildings of which clustered within a stone's throw of the Ranger post office. And that night as she sat looking from her window she thought, as she did much of the time, about the smiling Julio with his guitar-the handsome fellow who lived with Se?or Rhues and did no work, but wore such fine chaps and kerchiefs!

She sighed, then started to her feet as she saw him come through the gate and up the path, and hastened to open the door for him.

Julio took off his hat.

"It is late," he said, flashing his teeth. "I come to ask you to do something for me, Delilah."

"What is it-now-so late?" she asked breathlessly.

"In the old house across the road"-he pointed-"is a horse. It is the horse of a friend. A friend, also, of Se?or Rhues. He is now in the saloon. He is drunk. Will you take the horse away? To the place of Se?or Rhues? And put him in the barn? And be sure to fasten the door so he will not get out?"

Delilah was puzzled a moment.

"But why," she asked, "why so late?"

Julio bowed profoundly again.

"We go-Se?or Rhues, Se?or Matson, and I, Julio, to take our friend away from the saloon. We are busy. Senor Rhues offers this."

He pressed a dollar into her palm. And for the dollar and a flash of Julio's teeth, Delilah went forth upon her commission.

The three men watched her go.

"That devil'd tear a man to pieces," Rhues muttered. "Any woman can handle him, though. Git him locked up, an' th' -- tenderfoot can't make it away! He'll have to stay an' take what's comin'!"

The girl led the Captain down the road, past the Double Six Ranch, on to the cramped little barn behind the cabin where lived Rhues and his two companions.

It was not an easy task. The Captain did not want to go. He kept stopping and looking back. But the girl talked to him kindly and stroked his nose and-VB himself had taught him to respect women. This woman talked softly and petted him much, for she remembered the great horse she had seen ridden by the tall young fellow. Besides, the dollar was still in her hand. She led him into the cramped little barn, left him standing and came out, closing the doors behind her. Then she set out for home, clasping the dollar and thinking of Julio's smile.

The first shot attracted her. The second alarmed, and those that followed terrified the girl. She ran from the road and hovered in the shadow of a huge bowlder, watching fearfully, uttering little moans of fright.

She heard everything. Some men ran past her in the direction of Rhues's cabin, and she thought one of them must be Julio. But she was too frightened to stir, to try to determine; too frightened to do anything but make for her own home.

The girl moved stealthily through the night, facing the moon that swung low, unclouded again, making all radiant. She wanted to run for home, where she could hide under blankets, but caution and fear held her to a walk. She did not cry out when she stumbled over the body; merely cowered, holding both hands over her lips.

For a long time she stood by it, looking down, not daring to stoop, not daring to go away. Then the hand that sprawled on the dirt raised itself fell back; the lips parted, a moan escaped, and the head rolled from one side to the other.

The fear of dead things that had been on her passed. She saw only a human being who was hurt. She dropped to her knees and took the head in her lap.

"Oh, por Dios! It is the se?or who rode the horse!" she muttered, and looked quickly over her shoulder at the Rhues cabin.

"They left him; they thought he was dead," she went on aloud. "They should know; he should be with them. They were going for him when the shooting began!"

She looked closer into VB's face and he moaned again. His eyes opened. The girl asked a sharp question in Spanish.

"Is the se?or much hurt?" she repeated in the language he understood.

"Oh, Captain!" he moaned. "Why? Why did you-quit?"

She lifted him up then and he struggled sluggishly to help himself.

Once he muttered: "Oh, Gail! It hurts so!"

She strained to the limits of her lithe strength until she had him on his feet. Then she drew one of his arms about her neck, bracing herself to support his lagging weight.

"Come," she said comfortingly. "We will go-to them."

No light showed from the Rhues cabin, but the girl was sure the men were there, or would come soon. Loyal to Julio for the dollar and the memory of his graciousness, she worked with the heart of a good Samaritan, guiding the unconscious steps of the muttering man toward the little dark blot of houses.

It was a floundering progress. Twice in the first few rods the man went down and she was sorely put to get him on his feet again. But the moving about seemed to bring back his strength, and gradually he became better able to help himself.

They crossed the road and passed through the gap in the fence by the cabin. VB kept muttering wildly, calling the girl Gail, calling for the Captain in a plaintive voice.

"There they are now! See the light?" she whispered. "It is not much. They have covered the window. Yes."

"What?" VB asked, drawing a hand across his eyes.

She repeated her assertion that the men were in the cabin and he halted, refusing drunkenly to go on.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I'm unarmed-they-"

But she tugged at him and forced him to go beside her. They progressed slowly, painfully, quietly. There was no sound, except VB's hard breathing, for they trod in dust. They approached the house and the girl put out a hand to help her along with the burden.

A thin streak of light came from a window. It seemed to slash deeply into the staggering man, bringing him back to himself. Then a sound, the low, worried nickering of a horse! The Mexican girl felt the arm about her neck tighten and tremble.

"The Captain!" VB muttered, looking about wildly.

He opened his lips to cry out to the horse as the events of the night poured back into his consciousness, to cry his questioning and his sorrow, to put into words the mourning for a faith, but that cry never came from his throat.

The nickering of the stallion and the flood of memory had brought him to a clear understanding of the situation; a sudden glare of light from the abruptly uncovered window before which he and the girl stood provoked an alertness which was abnormally keen, that played with the subjective rather than the more cumbersome objective. He stooped with the quickness of a drop and scuttled into the shadows, cautious, the first law of man athrob.

The man who had brushed away the blanket that had screened the window burst into irritated talk. VB recognized him as Matson. Back in the shadows of the room he saw the Mexican standing.

A table was close to the window, so close that in crowding behind it Matson had torn down the blanket that had done service as a curtain. A lamp burned on the table, its wick so high that smoke streamed upward through the cracked chimney. And close beside the lamp, eyes glittering, cruel cunning in every line, the flush of anger smearing it, was the face of Rhues!

VB, crouching there, saw then that Matson's finger was leveled at Rhues.

"It ain't good money!"

That was the declaration Matson had made as the blanket slipped down and disclosed the scene. He repeated it, and his voice rose to a snarl.

Delilah started to rise but VB jerked her back with a vehemence that shot a new fear through the girl, that made her breathe quickly and loudly. For the first time he turned and looked at the girl, not to discover who this might be that had brought him to the nest of those who sought his life, but to threaten.

"You stay here," he whispered sharply. "If you make a sound, I'll-you'll never forget it!"

His face was close to hers and he wagged his head to emphasize the warning.

Where she had expected to find a friend the Mexican girl realized that she had encountered a foe. Where she had, from the fullness of her heart and for a dollar and the admiration of Julio, sought to help, she knew now that she had wronged. His intensity filled her with this knowledge and sent her shrinking against the wall of the cabin, a hand half raised to her cheek, trembling, wanting to whimper for mercy.

"Keep still!" he warned again, and, stretching one hand toward her as though to do sentry duty, ready to throttle any sound, to stay any flight, to bolster his commands, he crept closer to the window.

"Why ain't it good?" Rhues was asking in a voice that carried no great conviction, as though he merely stalled for time.

VB saw him stretch a bill close to the lamp and Matson lean low beside him. The light fell on the piece of currency, not six feet from VB's fever-bright eyes. He saw that they were inspecting a fifty-dollar bill issued by the Confederate States of America! And Rhues said grudgingly: "Well, if that ain't good, they's only six hunderd 'n all!"

Up came the buried memories, struggling through all the welded events in the furnace consciousness of the man who pressed his face so close to the window's crinkly glass. His eyes sought aimlessly for some object that might suggest a solution for the slipping thought he tried to grasp. They found it-found it in a rumpled, coiled contrivance of leather that lay beside the lamp. It was a money belt. The money belt that Kelly, the horse buyer, had worn!

Six hundred dollars! And a Confederate States fifty-dollar bill! They were quarreling over the spoils of that chill murder!

VB swayed unsteadily as he felt a rage swell in him, a rage that nullified caution. He turned his eyes back to the Mexican girl cringing just out of his reach and moved the extended hand up and down slowly to keep his warning fresh upon her. He wanted time to think, just a moment to determine what action would be most advisable. His heart raced unevenly and he thought the hot edges of his wound were blistering.

"That's two hundred apiece, then," Rhues said, and straightened.

VB saw that the hand which had dropped the worthless piece of paper held a roll of yellow-backed bills.

"Two hundred we all git," he growled. "You git it, Julio gits it, I git it-an' I'm th' party what done th' work!"

VB stooped and grasped Delilah roughly by the arm. He held a finger to his lips as he dragged the shaking girl out to where she could see.

"Watch!" he commanded, close in her ear. "Watch Rhues-and the others!"

Rhues counted slowly, wetting his thumb with hasty movements and dropping bills from the roll to the table top.

"Both you"-he looked up to indicate Matson and Julio-"gits 's much 's me, an' I done th' work!"

"An' if we're snagged, we stand as good a chanct o' gettin' away as you," Matson remarked, and laughed shortly.

Rhues looked up again and narrowed the red lids over his eyes.

"You said it!" he snarled. "That's why it's good to keep yer mouths shut! That's why you got to dig out-with me.

"If I'm snagged-remember, they's plenty o' stories I could tell about you two-an' I will, too, if I'm snagged 'cause o' you!"

He worked his shoulders in awkward gesture.

"An' that's why we want our share," Matson growled back. "An' want it quick! We watched th' road; you done th' killin'. We thought it was jus' to settle things with that --, but it wasn't. It was profitable."

He ended with another short laugh.

"Well, I said I'd git him, didn't I? An' I did, didn't I? An' if th' first time went wrong it was-profitable, wasn't it?"

"Yes, but queek, queeker!" the Mexican broke in. "They might come-now!"

"Well, quit snivelin'!" snapped Rhues. "It didn't go as we planned. I had to shoot 'fore I wanted to. But I got him, didn't I?"

Julio reached for the pile of bills Rhues shoved toward him; Matson took his; Rhues pocketed the rest. And outside, VB relaxed his hold on the girl's wrist, raising both hands upward and out, fingers stiff and claw-like.

Kelly, good-natured, careless, likable, trusting Kelly, had gone out to pay toll to this man's viciousness; had gone because he, VB, would not submit to Rhues's bullying! And now they laughed, and called it a profitable mistake!

All his civilized, law-abiding nature rose in its might. All that spirit which demands an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, which makes for statutes and courts and the driving of nations into fixed paths, lifted VB above any caution that the circumstances could have engendered. His whole nature cried out for the justice he had been trained to respect; his single remaining impulse was to make this man Rhues suffer for the act of which there was such ample evidence.

He struggled to find a way toward retribution, for in a moment it might be too late. He had no thought beyond the instant, no idea but to possess himself of something more, to make the case stronger for society. He had seen, he had heard, he had the girl beside him, but he wanted more evidence.

Matson moved away from the window and as he did so the sash sagged inward. It was a hinged casing!

His hands numb from excitement, VB forced his arms against it, shoving stoutly. The force of his effort precipitated his head and shoulders into the room! He had a flash of the three men as they whirled and poised, with oaths, but his mind did not linger on them. His fingers clutched the money belt, drew it to him, and as Rhues dropped a hand to his hip VB staggered backward out of the window, stuffing the money belt inside his shirt, in against the hot wound, and stared about him.

For an instant, silence, as Rhues stood, gun drawn, shoulders forward, gazing at the empty window. Then upon them came a shrill, quavering, anxious cry-the call of the Captain.

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