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   Chapter 11 No.11

A Man Four-Square By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 11986

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Fugitives

Through the gathering darkness Prince watched the figure of his companion droop. The slim, lithe body sagged and the shoulders were heavy with exhaustion. Both small hands clung to the pommel of the saddle. It took no prophet to see that in his present condition the wounded man would never travel the gun-barrel road as far as the dust of the Flying V Y herd. Even by easy stages he could not do it, and with pursuit thundering at their heels the ride would be a cruel, grilling one.

"How about pullin' a little strategy on Sanders, Jim? Instead of hittin' the long trail, let's circle back around the town, strike the river, make camp, an' lie low in the chaparral. Does that listen good to you?"

Young Clanton looked at his friend suspiciously. The younger man was fagged out and in a good deal of pain. The jolting of the pony's movements jarred the bandages on the wound. Already his fever was high and he had moments of light-headedness. He knew that his partner was proposing to jeopardize his own chances of escape in order to take care of him.

"No, sir. We'll keep goin' right ahead," he said irritably. "Think I'm a quitter? Think I'm goin' to lie down on you?"

"Would I be likely to think that?" asked Billie gently. "What I'm thinking is that both of us would be better for a good night's rest. Why not throw off an' camp in the darkness? While we're sleepin' Sanders an' his posse will be ridin' the hearts out of their horses. It looks like good business to me to let 'em go to it."

"No," said Jim obstinately. "No. We'll keep ridin'."

Prince knew that the other understood what he was trying to do, and that his pride-and perhaps something better than pride-would not accept such a sacrifice. Billie said no more, but his mind still wrestled with the problem before him. It was impossible, while his comrade was so badly hurt, to hold a pace that would keep them ahead of the Lazy S M riders. Already Sanders must be gaining on them, and to make matters worse Clanton drew down to a walk. His high-pitched voice and disjointed expressions told the older man that he was at the beginning of delirium.

"What do you mean, standing there and grinnin' at me like a wolf, Dave Roush? I killed you once. You're dead an' buried. How come you alive again? Then shoot, both of you! Come out from cover, Hugh Roush." He stopped, and took the matter up from another angle. "You're a liar, you coyote. I'm not runnin' away. Two to one … two to one … I'll ride back an' gun you both. I'm a-comin' now."

He pulled up and turned his horse. Faintly there came to Billie the thudding of horses' hoofs. In five minutes it would be too late to save either the sick man or himself. It never occurred to him for a moment to desert Clanton. Somehow he must get him into the chaparral, and without an instant's delay. His mind seized on the delirious fancy of the young fellow.

"You're sure right, Jim," he said quietly. "I'd go an' gun them too. I'll ride with you an' see fair play. They're out here in the brush. Come on."

"No. They're back in town. Leave 'em to me. Don't you draw, Billie."

"All right. But they're over here to our right. I saw 'em there. Come.

We'll sneak up on 'em so that they can't run when they hear you."

Billie turned. He swung his horse into the mesquite. His heart was heavy with anxiety. Would the wounded man accept his lead? Or would his obstinacy prevail?

"Here they are. Right ahead here," continued Prince.

Followed a moment of suspense, then came the crashing of brush as Clanton moved after him.

"S-sh! Ride softly, Jim. We don't want 'em to hear us an' get away."

"Tha's right. Tha's sure right. You said somethin' then, Billie. But they'll not get away. Haven't I slept on their trail four years? They're mine at last."

Prince was drawing him farther from the road. But the danger was not yet over. As the posse passed, some member of it might hear them, or young Clanton might hear it and gallop out to the road under the impression he was going to meet Dave Roush. Billie twisted in and out of the brush, never for an instant letting his friend pull up. On a moving horse one cannot hear so distinctly as on one standing still.

At last Billie began to breathe more easily. The pursuers must have passed before this. He could give his attention to the sick man.

Jim was clutching desperately to the saddle-horn. The fever was gaining on him and the delirium worse. He talked incessantly, sometimes incoherently. From one subject to another he went, but always he came back to Dave Roush and his brother. He dared them to stand up and fight. He called on them to stop running, to wait for him. Then he trailed off into a string of epithets usually ending in sobs of rage.

The sickness of the young man tore the heart of his companion. Every instinct of kindness urged him to stop, make up a bed for the wounded boy, and let him rest from the agony of travel. But he dared not stop yet. He had to keep going till they reached a place of temporary safety.

With artful promises of immediate vengeance upon his enemies, by means of taunts at him as a quitter, through urgent proddings that reached momentarily the diseased mind, Prince kept him moving through the brush. The sweat stood out on the white face of the young fellow shining ghastly in the moonlight.

After what seemed an interminable time they could see from a mesa the lights of Los Portales. Billie left the town well to his right, skirted the pastures on the outskirts, and struck the river four miles farther down.

While they were still a long way from it the boy collapsed completely and slid from the saddle to which he had so long clung. His friend uncinched and freed the sorrel, lifted the slack body to his own horse, and walked beside the animal to steady the lurching figure.

At the bank of the river he stopped and lifted the body to the ground. It lay limp and slack where the cowpuncher set it do

wn. Through the white shoulder dressings a stain of red had soaked. For a moment Billie was shaken by the fear that the Arizonian might be dead, but he rejected it as not at all likely. Yet when he held his hand against the heart of the wounded man he was not sure that he could detect a beating.

From the river he brought water in his hat and splashed it into the white face. He undid the shoulder bandages, soaked them in cold water, and rebound the wound. Between the clenched teeth he forced a few drops of whiskey from his flask.

The eyelids fluttered and slowly opened.

"Where are we, Billie?" the sick man asked; then added: "How did we get away from 'em?"

"Went into the brush an' doubled back to the river. I'm goin' to hunt a place where we can lie hid for a few days."

"Oh, I'll be all right by mornin'. Did I fall off my hawss?"

"Yes. I had to turn your sorrel loose. Soon as I've picked a permanent camp I'll have to let mine go too. Some one would be sure to stumble on it an' go to guessin'."

After a moment the sick man spoke quietly. "You're a good pal, Billie. I haven't known many men would take a long chance like this for a fellow they hadn't met a month ago."

"I'm not forgettin' how you rode up Escondido when I asked you to go."

"You got a lot of sabe, too. You don't go bullin' Into a fight when there's a good reason for stayin' out. At Tolleson's if you had drawn yore gun when the shootin' was on, the whole Lazy S M would have pitched in an' riddled us both. They kept out because you did. That gave me a chance to come through alive."

The Texan registered embarrassment with a grin. "Yes, I'm the boy wonder of the Brazos," he admitted.

A faint, unexpected gleam of humor lay for a moment in the eyes of the sick man. "I got you where the wool's short, Billie. I can throw bouquets at you an' you got to stand hitched because I'm sick. Doc says to humor me. If I holler for the moon you climb up an' get it."

"I'll rope it for you," assented the cowpuncher. "How's the game shoulder?"

"Hurts like Heligoland. Say, ain't I due for one of them sleep powders

Doc fixed up so careful?"

His companion gave him one, after which he folded his coat and put it under the head of Clanton, Over him he threw a saddle blanket.

"Back soon," he promised.

The sick man nodded weakly.

Billie swung to the saddle and turned down the river. Unfortunately the country here was an open one. Along the sandy shore of the stream the mesquite was thin. There was no soapweed and very little cactus. The terrain of the hill country farther back was rougher, more full of pockets, and covered with heavier brush. But it was necessary for the fugitives to remain close to water.

What Prince hoped to find was some sort of cave or overhanging ledge of shale under which they could lie hidden until Jim's strength returned sufficiently to permit of travel. The problem would be at best a difficult one. They had little food, scarce dared light a fire, and Clanton was in no condition to stand exposure in case the weather grew bad. Even if the boy weathered the sickness, it would not be possible for him to walk hundreds of miles in his weakened condition. But this was a matter which did not press for an answer. Billie intended to cross no bridges until he came to them. Just now he must focus his mind on keeping the wounded man alive and out of the hands of his enemies.

Beyond a bend he came upon a jutting bank that for lack of better might serve his purpose. He could scoop out a cave in which his partner might lie protected from the hot midday sun. If he filled the mouth with tumble weeds during the day they might escape observation for a time.

When the Texan returned to his friend, he found him in restless slumber. He tossed to and fro, muttering snatches of incoherent talk. The wound seemed to pain him even in his sleep, for he moved impatiently as though trying to throw off some weight lying heavy upon it.

But when he awoke his mind was apparently clear. He met Billie's anxious look with a faint, white-lipped smile. To his friend the young fellow had the signs of a very sick man. It was a debatable question whether to risk moving him now or take the almost hopeless chance of escaping detection where they were.

Prince put the decision on Jim himself. The answer came feebly, but promptly.

"Sure, move me. What's one little-bullet in the shoulder, Billie? Gimme some sleep-an' I'll be up an' kickin'."

Yet the older man noticed that his white lips could scarcely find strength to make the indomitable boast.

Very gently Billie lifted the wounded man and put him on the back of the cowpony. He held him there and guided the animal through the sand to the bend. Clanton hung on with clenched teeth, calling on the last ounce of power in his exhausted body with his strong will.

"Just a hundred yards more," urged the walking man as they rounded the bend. "We're 'most there now."

He lifted the slack body down and put it in the sand. The hands of the boy were ice cold. The sap of life was low in him. Prince covered him with the blankets and his coat. He gave him a sup or two of whiskey, then gathered buffalo chips and made a fire in which he heated some large rocks. These he tucked in beneath the blankets beside the shivering body. Slowly the heat warmed the invalid. After a time he fell once more into troubled sleep.

Billie drove his horse away and pelted it with stones to a trot. He could not keep it with him without risking discovery, but he was almost as much afraid that its arrival in Los Portales might start a search for the hidden fugitives. There was always a chance, of course, that the bay would stop to graze on the plains and not be found for a day or two.

The rest of the night the Texan put in digging a cave with a piece of slaty shale. The clay of the bank was soft and he made fair progress. The dirt he scooped out was thrown by him into the river.

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