Read CHAPTER XXXI - NASH STARTS THE FINISH of Trailin, free online book, by Max Brand, on ReadCentral.com.

Through the windows and the door the cowpunchers fled from the red spurt of the flames, each man for himself, except Shorty Kilrain, who stooped, gathered the lanky frame of Calamity Ben into his arms, and staggered out with his burden.  The great form of William Drew loomed through the night.

His hand on the shoulder of Shorty, he cried:  “Is he badly burned?”

“Shot,” said Kilrain bitterly, “by the tenderfoot; done for.”

It was strange to hear the big voice go shrill with pain.

“Shot?  By Anthony?  Give him to me.”

Kilrain lowered his burden to the ground.

“You’ve got him murdered.  Ain’t you through with him?  Calamity, he was my pal!”

But the big man thrust him aside and knelt by the stricken cowpuncher.

He commanded:  “Gather the boys; form a line of buckets from the pump; fight that fire.  It hasn’t a hold on the house yet.”

The habit of obedience persisted in Kilrain.  Under the glow of the fire, excited by the red light, the other man stood irresolute, eager for action, but not knowing what to do.  A picture came back to him of a ship labouring in a storm; the huddling men on the deck; the mate on the bridge, shrieking his orders through a megaphone.  He cupped his hands at his mouth and began to bark orders.

They obeyed on the run.  Some rushed for the kitchen and secured buckets; two manned the big pump and started a great gush of water; in a moment a steady stream was being flung by the foremost men of the line against the smoking walls and even the ceiling of the dining-room.  So far it was the oil itself, which had made most of the flame and smoke, and now, although the big table was on fire, the main structure of the house was hardly touched.

They caught it in time and worked with a cheer, swinging the buckets from hand to hand, shouting as the flames fell little by little until the floor of the room was awash, the walls gave back clouds of steam, and the only fire was that which smouldered along the ruined table.  Even this went out, hissing, at last, and they came back with blackened, singed faces to Calamity and Drew.

The rancher had torn away the coat and shirt of the wounded man, and now, with much labour, was twisting a tight bandage around his chest.  At every turn Calamity groaned feebly.  Kilrain dropped beside his partner, taking the head between his hands.

“Calamity — pal,” he said, “how’d you let a tenderfoot, a damned tenderfoot, do this?”

The other sighed:  “I dunno.  I had him covered.  I should have sent him to hell.  But sure shootin’ is better’n fast shootin’.  He nailed me fair and square while I was blockin’ him at the door.”

“How d’you feel?”

His voice died away in a horrible whisper and bubbles of red foam rose to his lips.

“God!” groaned Shorty, and then called loudly, as if the strength of his voice might recall the other, “Calamity!”

The eyes of Calamity rolled up; the wide lips twisted over formless words; there was no sound from his mouth.  Someone was holding a lantern whose light fell full on the silent struggle.  It was Nash, his habitual sneer grown more malevolent than ever.

“What of the feller that done it, Shorty?” he suggested.

“So help me God,” said the cattleman, with surprising softness, “the range ain’t big enough to keep him away from me.”

Drew, completing his bandage, said, “That’s enough of such talk, Nash.  Let it drop there.  Here, Kilrain, take his feet.  Help me into the house with him.”

They moved in, the rest trailing behind like sheep after a bell-weather, and it was astonishing to see the care with which big Drew handled his burden, placing it at last on his own four-poster bed.

“The old man’s all busted up,” said little Duffy to Nash.  “I’d never of guessed he was so fond of Calamity.”

“You’re a fool,” answered Nash.  “It ain’t Calamity he cares about.”

“Then what the devil is it?”

“I dunno.  We’re goin’ to see some queer things around here.”

Drew, having disposed of the wounded man, carefully raising his head on a pillow, turned to the others.

“Who saw Ben shot?”

“I did,” said Kilrain, who was making his way to the door.

“Come back here.  Are you sure you saw the shot fired?”

“I seen the tenderfoot — damn his eyes! — whip up his gun and take a snap shot while he was runnin’ for the door where Calamity stood.”

Nash raised his lantern high, so that the light fell full on the face of
Drew.  The rancher was more grey than ever.

He said, with almost an appeal in his voice:  “Mightn’t it have been one of the other boys, shooting at random?”

The tone of Kilrain raised and grew ugly.

“Are you tryin’ to cover the tenderfoot, Drew?”

The big man made a fierce gesture.

“Why should I cover him?”

“Because you been actin’ damned queer,” answered Nash.

“Ah, you’re here again, Nash?  I know you hate Bard because he was too much for you.”

“He got the start of me, but I’ll do a lot of finishing.”

“Kilrain,” called Drew, “you’re Calamity’s best friend.  Ride for Eldara and bring back Dr. Young.  Quick!  We’re going to pull Ben through.”

“Jest a waste of time,” said Nash coolly.  “He’s got one foot in hell already.”

“You’ve said too much, Nash.  Kilrain, are you going?”

“I’ll stop for the doctor at Eldara, but then I’ll keep on riding.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothin’.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Nash, and turned with the other.

“Stop!” called Drew.  “Boys, I know what you have planned; but let the law take care of this.  Remember that we were the aggressors against young Bard.  He came peaceably into this house and I tried to hold him here.  What would you have done in his place?”

“They’s a dozen men know how peaceable he is,” said Nash drily.  “Wherever he’s gone on the range he’s raised hell.  He’s cut out for a killer, and Glendin in Eldara knows it.”

“I’ll talk to Glendin.  In the meantime you fellows keep your hands off Bard.  In the first place because if you take the law into your own hands you’ll have me against you — understand?”

Kilrain and Nash glowered at him a moment, and then backed through the door.

As they hurried for the barn Kilrain asked:  “What makes the chief act soft to that hell-raiser?”

“If you have a feller cut out for your own meat,” answered Nash, “d’you want to have any one else step in and take your meal away?”

“But you and me, Steve, we’ll get this bird.”

“We’ll get Glendin behind us first.”

“Why him?”

“Play safe.  Glendin can swear us in as deputies to — ’apprehend,’ as he calls it, this Bard.  Apprehendin’ a feller like Bard simply means to shoot him down and ask him to come along afterward, see?”

“Nash, you got a great head.  You ought to be one of these lawyers.  There ain’t nothin’ you can’t find a way out of.  But will Glendin do it?”

“He’ll do what I ask him to do.”

“Friend of yours?”

“Better’n a friend.”

“Got something on him?”

“These here questions, they ain’t polite, Shorty,” grinned Nash.

“All right.  You do the leadin’ in this game and I’ll jest follow suit.  But lay your course with nothin’ but the tops’ls flyin’, because I’ve got an idea we’re goin’ to hit a hell of a storm before we get back to port, Steve.”

“For my part,” answered Nash, “I’m gettin’ used to rough weather.”

They saddled their horses and cut across the hills straight for Eldara.  Kilrain spurred viciously, and the roan had hard work keeping up.

“Hold in,” called Nash after a time.  “Save your hoss, Shorty.  This ain’t no short trail.  D’you notice the hosses when we was in the barn?”

“Nope.”

“Bard took Duffy’s grey, and the grey can go like the devil.  Hoss-liftin’?  That’s another little mark on Bard’s score.”