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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Fighting Edge - Chapter 30. A Recruit Joins The Rangers
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The Fighting Edge - Chapter 30. A Recruit Joins The Rangers Post by :jesuz99 Category :Long Stories Author :William Macleod Raine Date :May 2012 Read :673

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The Fighting Edge - Chapter 30. A Recruit Joins The Rangers

CHAPTER XXX. A RECRUIT JOINS THE RANGERS

Harshaw did not, during the first forty-eight hours after leaving Bear Cat, make contact with either the Indians or the militia. He moved warily, throwing out scouts as his party advanced. At night he posted sentries carefully to guard against a surprise attack. It was not the habit of the tribes to assault in the darkness, but he was taking no chances. It would be easy to fall into an ambush, but he had no intention of letting the rangers become the victims of carelessness.

At the mouth of Wolf Creek a recruit joined the company. He rode up after camp had been made for the night.

"Jake Houck," Bob whispered to Dud.

"Who's boss of this outfit?" the big man demanded of Blister after he had swung from the saddle.

"Harshaw. You'll find him over there with the cavvy."

Houck straddled across to the remuda.

"Lookin' for men to fight the Utes?" he asked brusquely of the owner of the Slash Lazy D brand.

"Yes, sir."

"If you mean business an' ain't bully-pussin' I'll take a hand," the Brown's Park man said, and both voice and manner were offensive.

The captain of the rangers met him eye to eye. He did not like this fellow. His reputation was bad. In the old days he had been a rustler, rumor said. Since the affair of the Tolliver girl he had been very sulky and morose. This had culminated in the killing of the Ute. What the facts were about this Harshaw did not know. The man might be enlisting to satisfy a grudge or to make himself safe against counter-attack by helping to drive the Indians back to the reservation. The point that stood out was that Houck was a first-class fighting man. That was enough.

"We mean business, Houck. Glad to have you join us. But get this straight. I'll not have you startin' trouble in camp. If you've got a private quarrel against any of the boys it will have to wait."

"I ain't aimin' to start anything," growled Houck. "Not till this job's finished."

"Good enough. Hear or see anything of the Utes as you came?"

"No."

"Which way you come?"

Houck told him. Presently the two men walked back toward the chuck-wagon.

"Meet Mr. Houck, boys, any of you that ain't already met him," said Harshaw by way of introduction. "He's going to trail along with us for a while."

The situation was awkward. Several of those present had met Houck only as the victim of their rude justice the night that June Tolliver had swum the river to escape him. Fortunately the cook at that moment bawled out that supper was ready.

Afterward Blister had a word with Bob and Dud while he was arranging sentry duty with them.

"Wish that b-bird hadn't come. He's here because he wants to drive the Utes outa the country before they get him. The way I heard it he had no business to kill that b-buck. Throwed down on him an' killed him onexpected. I didn't c-come to pull Jake Houck's chestnuts outa the fire for him. Not none. He ain't lookin' for to round up the Injuns and herd 'em back to the reservation. He's allowin' to kill as many as he can."

"Did anybody see him shoot the Ute?" asked Bob.

"Seems not. They was back of a stable. When folks got there the Ute was down, but still alive. He claimed he never made a move to draw. Houck's story was that he shot in self-defense. Looked fishy. The Injun's gun wasn't in s-sight anywheres."

"Houck's a bad actor," Dud said.

"Yes." Blister came back to the order of the day. "All right, boys. Shifts of three hours each, then. T-turn an' turn about. You two take this knoll here. If you see anything movin' that looks suspicious, blaze away. We'll c-come a-runnin'."

Bob had drunk at supper two cups of strong coffee instead of his usual one. His thought had been that the stimulant would tend to keep him awake on duty. The effect the coffee had on him was to make his nerves jumpy. He lay on the knoll, rifle clutched fast in his hands, acutely sensitive to every sound, to every hazy shadow of the night. The very silence was sinister. His imagination peopled the sage with Utes, creeping toward him with a horrible and deadly patience. Chills tattooed up and down his spine.

He pulled out the old silver watch he carried and looked at the time. It lacked five minutes of ten o'clock. The watch must have stopped. He held it to his ear and was surprised at the ticking. Was it possible that he had been on sentry duty only twelve minutes? To his highly strung nerves it had seemed like hours.

A twig snapped. His muscles jumped. He waited, gun ready for action, eyes straining into the gloom. Something rustled and sped away swiftly. It must have been a rabbit or perhaps a skunk. But for a moment his heart had been in his throat.

Again he consulted the watch. Five minutes past ten! Impossible, yet true. In that eternity of time only a few minutes had slipped away.

He resolved not to look at his watch again till after eleven. Meanwhile he invented games to divert his mind from the numbing fear that filled him. He counted the definite objects that stood out of the darkness--the clumps of sage, the greasewood bushes, the cottonwood trees by the river. It was his duty to patrol the distance between the knoll and those trees at intervals. Each time he crept to the river with a thumping heart. Those bushes--were they really willows or Indians waiting to slay him when he got closer?

Fear is paralyzing. It pushes into the background all the moral obligations. Half a dozen times the young ranger was on the point of waking Dud to tell him that he could not stand it alone. He recalled Blister's injunctions. But what was the use of throwing back his head and telling himself he was made in the image of God when his fluttering pulses screamed denial, when his heart pumped water instead of blood?

He stuck it out. How he never knew. But somehow he clamped his teeth and went through. As he grew used to it, his imagination became less active and tricky. There were moments, toward the end of his vigil, when he could smile grimly at the terror that had obsessed him. He was a born coward, but he did not need to let anybody know it. It would always be within his power to act game whether he was or not.

At one o'clock he woke Dud. That young man rolled out of his blanket grumbling amiably. "Fine business! Why don't a fellow ever know when he's well off? Me, I might be hittin' the hay at Bear Cat or Meeker instead of rollin' out to watch for Utes that ain't within thirty or forty miles of here likely. Fellow, next war I stay at home."

Bob slipped into his friend's warm blanket. He had no expectation of sleeping, but inside of five minutes his eyes had closed and he was off.

The sound of voices wakened him. Dud was talking to the jingler who had just come off duty. The sunlight was pouring upon him. He jumped up in consternation.

"I musta overslept," Bob said.

Dud grinned. "Some. Fact is, I hadn't the heart to waken you when you was poundin' yore ear so peaceful an' tuneful."

"You stood my turn, too."

"Oh, well. It was only three hours. That's no way to divide the night anyhow."

They were eating breakfast when a messenger rode into camp. He was from Major Sheahan of the militia. That officer sent word that the Indians were in Box Canyon. He had closed one end and suggested that the rangers move into the other and bottle the Utes.

Harshaw broke camp at once and started for the canyon. A storm blew up, a fierce and pelting hail. The company took refuge in a cottonwood grove. The stones were as large as good-sized plums, and in three minutes the ground was covered. Under the stinging ice bullets the horses grew very restless. More than one went plunging out into the open and had to be forced back to shelter by the rider. Fortunately the storm passed as quickly as it had come up. The sun broke through the clouds and shone warmly upon rivulets of melted ice pouring down to the Blanco.

Scouts were thrown forward once more and the rangers swung into the hills toward Box Canyon.

"How far?" Bob asked Tom Reeves.

"'Bout half an hour now, I reckon. Hope we get there before the Injuns have lit out."

Privately Bob hoped they would not. He had never been under fire and his throat dried at the anticipation.

"Sure," he answered. "We're humpin' along right lively. Be there in time, I expect. Too bad if we have to chase 'em again all over the map."

Box Canyon is a sword slash cut through the hills. From wall to wall it is scarcely forty feet across. One looks up to a slit of blue sky above.

Harshaw halted close to the entrance. "Let's make sure where Mr. Ute is before we ride in, boys. He might be up on the bluffs layin' for us. Dud, you an' Tom an' Big Bill go take a look-see an' make sure. We'll come a-runnin' if we hear yore guns pop."

Two men in uniform rode out of the gulch. At the sight of the rangers they cantered forward. One was a sergeant.

"Too late," said he. "They done slipped away from us. We took shelter from the hail under a cutbank where the canyon widens. They musta slipped by us then. We found their tracks in the wet ground. They're headin' west again, looks like."

"We've got a warm trail," Harshaw said to Blister Haines. "We better go right after 'em."

"Hot foot," agreed Blister.

"Major Sheahan's followin' them now. He said for you to come right along."

The cavalcade moved at once.

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