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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSawtooth Ranch - Chapter 16. The Sawtooth Shows Its Hand
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Sawtooth Ranch - Chapter 16. The Sawtooth Shows Its Hand Post by :thavelick Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1050

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Sawtooth Ranch - Chapter 16. The Sawtooth Shows Its Hand


In her fictitious West Lorraine had long since come to look upon violence as a synonym for picturesqueness; murder and mystery were inevitably an accompaniment of chaps and spurs. But when a man she had cooked breakfast for, had talked with just a few hours ago, lay dead in the bunk-house, she forgot that it was merely an expected incident of Western life. She lay in her bed shaking with nervous dread, and the shrill rasping of the crickets and tree-toads was unendurable.

After the first shock had passed a deep, fighting rage filled her, made her long for day so that she might fight back somehow. Who was the Sawtooth Company, that they could sweep human beings from their path so ruthlessly and never be called to account? Not once did she doubt that this was the doing of the Sawtooth, another carefully planned "accident" calculated to rid the country of another man who in some fashion had become inimical to their interests.

From Lone she had learned a good deal about the new irrigation project which lay very close to the Sawtooth's heart. She could see how the Quirt ranch, with its water rights and its big, fertile meadows and its fences and silent disapprobation of the Sawtooth's methods, might be looked upon as an obstacle which they would be glad to remove.

That her father had been sent down that grade with a brake deliberately made useless was a horrible thought which she could not put from her mind. She had thought and thought until it seemed to her that she knew exactly how and why the killer's plans had gone awry. She was certain that she and Swan had prevented him from climbing down into the canyon and making sure that her dad did not live to tell what mischance had overtaken him. He had probably been watching while she and Swan made that stretcher and carried her dad away out of his reach. He would not shoot _her_,--he would not dare. Nor would he dare come to the cabin and finish the job he had begun. But he had managed to kill Frank--poor old Frank, who would never grumble and argue over little things again.

There was nothing picturesque, nothing adventurous about it. It was just straight, heart-breaking tragedy, that had its sordid side too. Her dad was a querulous sick man absorbed by his sufferings and not yet out of danger, if she read the doctor's face aright. Jim and Sorry had taken orders all their life, and they would not be able to handle the ranch work alone; yet how else would it be done? There was Lone,--instinctively she turned her thoughts to him for comfort. Lone would stay and help, and somehow it would be managed.

But to think that these things could be done without fear of retribution. Jim and Sorry, Swan and Lone had not attempted to hide their belief that the Sawtooth was responsible for Frank's death, yet not one of them had hinted at the possibility of calling the sheriff, or placing the blame where it belonged. They seemed browbeaten into the belief that it would be useless to fight back. They seemed to look upon the doings of the Sawtooth as an act of Providence, like being struck by lightning or freezing to death, as men sometimes did in that country.

To Lorraine that passive submission was the most intolerable part, the one thing she could not, would not endure. Had she lived all of her life on the Quirt, she probably would never have thought of fighting back and would have accepted conditions just as her dad seemed to accept them. But her mimic West had taught her that women sometimes dared where the men had hesitated. It never occurred to her that she should submit to the inevitable just because the men appeared to do so.

Wherefore it was a new Lorraine who rose at daybreak and silently cooked breakfast for the men, learned from Jim that Sorry was not back from Echo, and that Swan and Lone had gone down to the place where Frank had been found. She poured Jim's coffee and went on her tiptoes to see if her father still slept. She dreaded his awakening and the moment when she must tell him about Frank, and she had an unreasonable hope that the news might be kept from him until the doctor came again.

Brit was awake, and the look in his eyes frightened Lorraine so that she stopped in the middle of the room, staring at him fascinated.

"Well," he said flatly, "who is it this time? Lone, or--Frank?"

"Why--who is what?" Lorraine parried awkwardly. "I don't---"

"Did they git Frank, las' night?" Brit's eyes seemed to bore into her soul, searching pitilessly for the truth. "Don't lie to me, Raine--it ain't going to help any. Was it Frank or Lone? They's a dead man laid out on this ranch. Who is it?"

"F-frank," Lorraine stammered, backing away from him. "H-how did you know?"

"How did it happen?" Brit's eyes were terrible.

Lorraine shuddered while she told him.

"Rabbits in a trap," Brit muttered, staring at the low ceiling. "Can't prove nothing--couldn't convict anybody if we could prove it. Bill Warfield's got this county under his thumb. Rabbits in a trap. Raine, you better pack up and go home to your mother. There's goin' to be hell a-poppin' if I live to git outa this bed."

Lorraine stooped over him, and her eyes were almost as terrible as were Brit's. "Let it pop. We aren't quitters, are we, dad? I'm going to stay with you." Then she saw tears spilling over Brit's eyelids and left the room hurriedly, fighting back a storm of weeping. She herself could not mourn for Frank with any sense of great personal loss, but it was different with her dad. He and Frank had lived together for so many years that his loyal heart ached with grief for that surly, faithful old partner of his.

But Lorraine's fighting blood was up, and she could not waste time in weeping. She drank a cup of coffee, went out and called Jim, and told him that she was going to take a ride, and that she wanted a decent horse.

"You can take mine," Jim offered. "He's gentle and easy-gaited. I'll go saddle up. When do you want to go?"

"Right now, as soon as I'm ready. I'll fix dad's breakfast, and you can look after him until Lone and Swan come back. One of them will stay with him then. I may be gone for three or four hours. I'll go crazy if I stay here any longer."

Jim eyed her while he bit off a chew of tobacco. "It'd be a good thing if you had some neighbour woman come in and stay with yuh," he said slowly. "But there ain't any I can think of that'd be much force. You take Snake and ride around close and forget things for awhile." He hesitated, his hand moving slowly back to his pocket. "If yuh feel like you want a gun----"

Lorraine laughed bitterly. "You don't think any accident would happen to _me_, do you?"

"Well, no--er I wouldn't advise yuh to go ridin'," Jim said thoughtfully. "This here gun's kinda techy, anyway, unless you're used to a quick trigger. Yuh might be safer without than with it."

By the time she was ready, Jim was tying his horse, Snake, to the corral. Lorraine walked slowly past the bunk-house with her face turned from it and her thoughts dwelling terrifiedly upon what lay within. Once she was past she began running, as if she were trying to outrun her thoughts, Jim watched her gravely, untied Snake and stood at his head while she mounted, then walked ahead of her to the gate and opened it for her.

"Yore nerves are sure shot to hell," he blurted sympathetically as she rode past him. "I guess you need a ride, all right. Snake's plumb safe, so yuh got no call to worry about him. Take it easy, Raine, on the worrying. That's about the worst thing you can do."

Lorraine gave him a grateful glance and a faint attempt at a smile, and rode up the trail she always took,--the trail where she had met Lone that day when he returned her purse, the trail that led to Fred Thurman's ranch and to Sugar Spring and, if you took a certain turn at a certain place, to Granite Ridge and beyond.

Up on the ridge nearest the house Al Woodruff shifted his position so that he could watch her go. He had been watching Lone and Swan and the dog, trailing certain tracks through the sagebrush down below, and when Lorraine rode away from the Quirt they were in the wagon road, fussing around the place where Frank had been found.

"They can't pin nothing on _me_," Al tried to comfort himself. "If that damn girl would keep her mouth shut I could stand a trial, even. They ain't got any evidence whatever, unless she saw me at Rock City that night." He turned and looked again toward the two men down on the road and tilted his mouth down at the corners in a sour grin.

"Go to it and be damned to you!" he muttered. "You haven't got the dope, and you can't git it, either. Trail that horse if you want to--I'd like to see yuh amuse yourselves that way!"

He turned again to stare after Lorraine, meditating deeply. If she had only been a man, he would have known exactly how to still her tongue, but he had never before been called upon to deal with the problem of keeping a woman quiet. He saw that she was taking the trail toward Fred Thurman's, and that she was riding swiftly, as if she had some errand in that direction, something urgent. Al was very adept at reading men's moods and intentions from small details in their behaviour. He had seen Lorraine start on several leisurely, purposeless rides, and her changed manner held a significance which he did not attempt to belittle.

He led his horse down the side of the ridge opposite the road and the house, mounted there and rode away after Lorraine, keeping parallel with the trail but never using it, as was his habit. He made no attempt to overtake her, and not once did Lorraine glimpse him or suspect that she was being followed. Al knew well the art of concealing his movements and his proximity from the inquisitive eyes of another man's saddle horse, and Snake had no more suspicion than his rider that they were not altogether alone that morning.

Lorraine sent him over the trail at a pace which Jim had long since reserved for emergencies. But Snake appeared perfectly able and willing to hold it and never stumbled or slowed unexpectedly as did Yellowjacket, wherefore Lorraine rode faster than she would have done had she known more about horses.

Still, Snake held his own better than even Jim would have believed, and carried Lorraine up over Granite Ridge and down into the Sawtooth flat almost as quickly as Lorraine expected him to do. She came up to the Sawtooth ranch-houses with Snake in a lather of sweat and with her own determination unweakened to carry the war into the camp of her enemy. It was, she firmly believed, what should have been done long ago; what would have curbed effectually the arrogant powers of the Sawtooth.

She glanced at the foreman's cottage only to make sure that Hawkins was nowhere in sight there, and rode on toward the corrals, intercepting Hawkins and a large, well-groomed, smooth-faced man whom she knew at once must be Senator Warfield himself. Unconsciously Lorraine mentally fitted herself into a dramatic movie "scene" and plunged straight into the subject.

"There has been," she said tensely, "another Sawtooth accident. It worked better than the last one, when my father was sent over the grade into Spirit Canyon. Frank Johnson is _dead_. I am here to discover what you are going to do about it?" Her eyes were flashing, her chest was rising and falling rapidly when she had finished. She looked straight into Senator Warfield's face, her own full in the sunlight, so that, had there been a camera "shooting" the scene, her expression would have been fully revealed--though she did not realise all that.

Senator Warfield looked her over calmly (just as a director would have wished him to do) and turned to Hawkins. "Who is this girl?" he asked. "Is she the one who came here temporarily--deranged?"

"She's the girl," Hawkins affirmed, his eyes everywhere but on Lorraine's face. "Brit Hunter's daughter--they say."

"They _say_? I _am his daughter! How dare you take that tone, Mr Hawkins? My home is at the Quirt. When you strike at the Quirt you strike at me. When you strike at me I am going to strike back. Since I came here two men have been killed and my father has been nearly killed. He may die yet--I don't know what effect this shock will have upon him. But I know that Frank is dead, and that it's up to me now to see that justice is done. You--you cowards! You will kill a man for the sake of a few dollars, but you kill in the dark. You cover your murders under the pretence of accidents. I want to tell you this: Of all the men you have murdered, Frank Johnson will be avenged. You are going to answer for that. I shall see that you do answer for it! There is justice in this country, there _must be. I'm going to demand that justice shall be measured out to you. I----"

"Was she violent, before?" Senator Warfield asked Hawkins in an undertone which Lorraine heard distinctly. "You're a deputy, Hawkins. If this keeps on, I'm afraid you will have to take her in and have her committed for insanity. It's a shame, poor thing. At her age it is pitiful. Look how she has ridden that horse! Another mile would have finished him."

"Do you mean to say you think I'm crazy? What an idea! It seems to me, Senator Warfield, that you are crazy yourself, to imagine that you can go on killing people and thinking you will never have to pay the penalty. You will pay. There is law in this land, even if----"

"This is pathetic," said Senator Warfield, still speaking to Hawkins. "Her father--if he is her father--is sick and not able to take care of her. We'll have to assume the responsibility ourselves, I'm afraid, Hawkins. She may harm herself, or----"

Lorraine turned white. She had never seen just such a situation arise in a screen story, but she knew what danger might lie in being accused of insanity. While Warfield was speaking, she had a swift vision of the evidence they could bring against her; how she had arrived there delirious after having walked out from Echo,--why, they would call even that a symptom of insanity! Lone had warned her of what people would say if she told any one of what she saw in Rock City, perhaps really believing that she had imagined it all. Lone might even think that she had some mental twist! Her world was reeling around her.

She whirled Snake on his hind feet, struck him sharply with the quirt and was galloping back over the trail past the Hawkins house before Senator Warfield had finished advising Hawkins. She saw Mrs Hawkins standing in the door, staring at her, but she did not stop. They would take her to the asylum; she felt that the Sawtooth had the power, that she had played directly into their hands, and that they would be as ruthless in dealing with her as they had been with the nesters whom they had killed. She knew it, she had read it in the inscrutable, level look of Senator Warfield, in the half cringing, wholly subservient manner of Hawkins when he listened to his master.

"They're fiends!" she cried aloud once, while she urged Snake up the slope of Granite Ridge. "I believe they'd kill me if they were sure they could get away with it. But they could frame an insanity charge and put me--my God, what fiends they are!"

At the Sawtooth, Senator Warfield was talking with Mrs Hawkins while her husband saddled two horses. Mrs Hawkins lived within her four walls and called that her "spere," and spoke of her husband as "he." You know the type of woman. That Senator Warfield was anything less than a godlike man who stood very high on the ladder of Fame, she would never believe. So she related garrulously certain incoherent, aimless utterances of Lorraine's, and cried a little, and thought it was perfectly awful that a sweet, pretty girl like that should be crazy. She would have made an ideal witness against Lorraine, her very sympathy carrying conviction of Lorraine's need of it. That she did not convince Senator Warfield of Lorraine's mental derangement was a mere detail. Senator Warfield had reasons for knowing that Lorraine was merely afflicted with a dangerous amount of knowledge and was using it without discretion.

"You mustn't let her run loose and maybe kill herself or somebody else!" Mrs Hawkins exclaimed. "Oh, Senator, it's awful to think of! When she went past the house I knew the poor thing wasn't right----"

"We'll overtake her," Senator Warfield assured her comfortingly. "She can't go very far on that horse. She'd ridden him half to death, getting here. He won't hold out--he can't. She came here, I suppose, because she had been here before. A sanitorium may be able to restore her to a normal condition. I can't believe it's anything more than some nervous disorder. Now don't worry, my good woman. Just have a room ready, so that she will be comfortable here until we can get her to a sanitorium. It isn't hopeless, I assure you--but I'm mighty glad I happened to be here so that I can take charge of the case. Now here comes Hawkins. We'll bring her back--don't you worry."

"Well, take her away as quick as you can, Senator. I'm scared of crazy people. His brother went crazy in our house and----"

"Yes, yes--we'll take care of her. Poor girl, I wish that I had been here when she first came," said the senator, as he went to meet Hawkins, who was riding up from the corrals leading two horses--one for Lorraine, which shows what was his opinion of Snake.

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