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A short story by B. M. Bower


Title:     Blink
Author: B. M. Bower [More Titles by Bower]

The range-land was at its unpicturesque worst. For two days the wind had raged and ranted over the hilltops, and whooped up the long coulees, so that tears stood in the eyes of the Happy Family when they faced it; impersonal tears blown into being by the very force of the wind. Also, when they faced it they rode with bodies aslant over their saddle-horns and hats pulled low over their streaming eyes, and with coats fastened jealously close. If there were buttons enough, well and good; if not, a strap cinched tightly about the middle was considered pretty lucky and not to be despised. Though it was early September, "sour-dough" coats were much in evidence, for the wind had a chill way of searching to the very marrow--and even a good, sheepskin-lined "sour-dough" was not always protection sufficient.

When the third day dawned bleakly, literally blown piecemeal from out darkness as bleak, the Happy Family rose shiveringly and with sombre disapproval of whatever met their blood-shot eyes; dressed hurriedly in the chill of flapping tent and went out to stagger drunkenly over to where Patsy, in the mess-tent, was trying vainly to keep the biscuits from becoming dust-sprinkled, and sundry pans and tins from taking jingling little excursions on their own account. Over the brow of the next ridge straggled the cavvy, tails and manes whipping in the gale, the nighthawk swearing so that his voice came booming down to camp. Truly, the day opened inauspiciously enough for almost any dire ending.

As further evidence, saddling horses for circle resolved itself, as Weary remarked at the top of his voice to Pink, at his elbow, into "a free-for-all broncho busting tournament." For horses have nerves, and nothing so rasps the nerves of man or beast as a wind that never stops blowing; which means swaying ropes and popping saddle leather, and coat-tails flapping like wet sheets on a clothes line. Horses do not like these things, and they are prone to eloquent manifestations of their disapproval.

Over by the bed-wagon, a man they called Blink, for want of a better name, was fighting his big sorrel silently, with that dogged determination which may easily grow malevolent. The sorrel was at best a high-tempered, nervous beast, and what with the wind and the flapping of everything in sight, and the pitching of half-a-dozen horses around him, he was nearly crazed with fear in the abstract.

Blink was trying to bridle him, and he was not saying a word--which, in the general uproar, was strange. But Blink seldom did say anything. He was one of the aliens who had drifted into the Flying U outfit that spring, looking for work. Chip had taken him on, and he had stayed. He could ride anything in his string, and he was always just where he was wanted. He never went to town when the others clattered off for a few hours' celebration more or less mild, he never took part in any of the camp fun, and he never offended any man. If any offended him they did not know it unless they were observant; if they were, they would see his pale lashes wink fast for a minute, and they might read aright the sign and refrain from further banter. So Blink, though he was counted a good man on roundup, was left pretty much alone when in camp.

Andy Green, well and none too favorably known down Rocking R way, and lately adopted into the Happy Family on the recommendation of Pink and his own pleasing personality, looped the latigo into the holder, gave his own dancing steed a slap of the don't-try-to-run-any-whizzers-on-me variety, and went over to help out Blink.

Blink eyed his approach with much the same expression with which he eyed the horse. "I never hollered for assistance," he remarked grudgingly when Andy was at his elbow. "When I can't handle any of the skates in my string, I'll quit riding and take to sheep-herding." Whereupon he turned his back as squarely as he might upon Andy and made another stealthy grab for the sorrel's ears. (There is such a thing in the range-land as jealousy among riders, and the fame of Andy Green had gone afar.)

"All right. Just as you say, and not as I care a darn," Andy retorted, and went back to where his own mount stood tail to the wind. He did not in the least mind the rebuff; he really felt all the indifference his manner portrayed--perhaps even more. He had offered help where help was needed, and that ended it for him. It never occurred to him that Blink might feel jealous over Andy's hard-earned reputation as a "tamer of wild ones," or mistake his good nature for patronage.

Five minutes later, when Chip looked around comprehensively at the lot of them in various degrees of readiness; saw that Blink was still fighting silently for mastery of the sorrel and told Andy to go over and help him get saddled, Andy said nothing of having had his services refused, but went. This time, Blink also said nothing, but accepted in ungracious surrender the assistance thus thrust upon him. For on the range-land, unless one is in a mind to roll his bed and ride away, one does not question when the leader commands. Andy's attitude was still that of indifference; he really thought very little about Blink or his opinions, and the rapid blinking of the pale lashes was quite lost upon him.

They rode, eighteen ill-natured, uncomfortable cowboys, tumultuously away from the camp, where canvas bulged and swayed, and loose corners cracked like pistol shots, over the hill where even the short, prairie grass crouched and flattened itself against the sod; where stray pebbles, loosened by the ungentle tread of pitching hoofs, skidded twice as far as in calm weather. The gray sky bent threateningly above them, wind-torn into flying scud but never showing a hint of blue. Later there might be rain, sleet, snow--or sunshine, as nature might whimsically direct; but for the present she seemed content with only the chill wind that blew the very heart out of a man.

Whenever Chip pulled up to turn off a couple of riders that they might search a bit of rough country, his voice was sharp with the general discomfort. When men rode away at his command, it was with brows drawn together and vengeful heels digging the short-ribs of horses in quite as unlovely a mood as themselves.

Out at the end of the "circle," Chip divided the remainder of his men into two groups for the homeward drive. One group he himself led. The other owned Weary as temporary commander and galloped off to the left, skirting close to the foothills of the Bear Paws. In that group rode Pink and Happy Jack, Slim, Andy Green and Blink the silent.

"I betche we get a blizzard out uh this," gloomed Happy Jack, pulling his coat collar up another fraction of an inch. "And the way Chip's headed us, we got to cross that big flat going back in the thick of it; chances is, we'll git lost."

No one made reply to this; it seemed scarcely worth while. Every man of them rode humped away from the wind, his head drawn down as close to his shoulders as might be. Conversation under those conditions was not likely to become brisk.

"A fellow that'll punch cows for a living," Happy Jack asserted venomously after a minute, "had ought to be shut up somewheres. He sure ain't responsible. I betche next summer don't see me at it."

"Aw, shut up. We know you're feeble-minded, without you blatting it by the hour," snapped Pink, showing never a dimple.

Happy Jack tugged again at his collar and made remarks, to which no one paid the slightest attention. They rode in amongst the hills and narrow ridges dividing "draws" as narrow, where range cattle would seek shelter from the cutting blast that raked the open. Then, just as they began to realize that the wind was not quite such a raging torment, came a new phase of nature's unpleasant humor.

It was not a blizzard that descended upon them, though when it came rolling down from the hilltops it much resembled one. The wind had changed and brought fog, cold, suffocating, impenetrable. Yet such was the mood of them that no one said anything about it. Weary had been about to turn off a couple of men, but did not. What was the use, since they could not see twenty yards?

For a time they rode aimlessly, Weary in the lead. Then, when it grew no better but worse, he pulled up, just where a high bank shut off the wind and a tangle of brush barred the way in front.

"We may as well camp right here till things loosen up a little," he said. "There's no use playing blind-man's-buff any longer. We'll have some fire, for a change. Mama! this is sure beautiful weather!"

At that, they brightened a bit and hurriedly dismounted and hunted dry wood. Since they were to have a fire, the general tendency was to have a big one; so that when they squatted before it and held out cold, ungloved fingers to the warmth, the flames were leaping high into the fog and crackling right cheerily. It needed only a few puffs at their cigarettes to chase the gloom from their faces and put them in the mood for talk. Only Blink sat apart and stared moodily into the fire, his hands clasped listlessly around his knees, and to him they gave no attention. He was an alien, and a taciturn one at that. The Happy Family were accustomed to living clannishly, even on roundup, and only when they tacitly adopted a man, as they had adopted Pink and Irish and, last but not least important, Andy Green, did they take note of that man's mood and demand reasons for any surliness.

"If Slim would perk up and go run down a grouse or two," Pink observed pointedly, "we'd be all right for the day. How about it, Slim?"

"Run 'em down yourself," Slim retorted. "By golly, I ain't no lop-ear bird dog."

"The law's out fer chickens," Happy Jack remarked dolefully.

"Go on, Happy, and get us a few. You've got your howitzer buckled on," fleered Andy Green. Andy it was whose fertile imagination had so christened Happy Jack's formidable weapon.

"Aw, gwan!" protested Happy Jack.

"Happy looks like he was out for a rep," bantered Pink. "He makes me think uh the Bad Man in a Western play. All he needs is his hat turned up in front and his sleeves rolled up to his elbow, like he was killing hogs. Happy would make a dandy-looking outlaw, with that gun and that face uh his."

"Say, by golly, I bet that's what he's figurin' on doing. He ain't going to punch cows no more--I bet he's thinking about turning out."

"Well, when I do, you'll be the first fellow I lay for," retorted Happy, with labored wit.

"You never'd get a rep shooting at a target the size uh Slim," dimpled Pink. "Is that toy cannon loaded, Happy?"

"I betche yuh dassen't walk off ten paces and let me show yuh," growled Happy.

Pink made as if to rise, then settled back with a sigh. "Ten paces is farther than you could drive me from this fire with a club," he said. "And you couldn't see me, in this fog."

"Say, it _is_ pretty solid," said Weary, looking around him at the blank, gray wall. "A fellow could sit right here and be a lot ignorant of what's going on around him. A fellow could--"

"When I was riding down in the San Simon basin," spoke up Andy, rolling his second cigarette daintily between his finger-tips, "I had a kinda queer experience in a fog, once. It was thick as this one, and it rolled down just about as sudden and unexpected. That's a plenty wild patch uh country--or it was when I was there. I was riding for a Spanish gent that kept white men as a luxury and let the greasers do about all the rough work--such as killing off superfluous neighbors, and running brands artistic, and the like. Oh, he was a gay mark, all right.

"But about this other deal: I was out riding alone after a little bunch uh hosses, one day in the fall. I packed my gun and a pair uh field glasses, and every time I rode up onto a mesa I'd take a long look at all the lower country to save riding it. I guess I'd prognosticated around like that for two or three hours, when I come out on a little pinnacle that slopes down gradual toward a neighbor's home ranch--only the ranch itself was quite a ride back up the basin.

"I got off my horse and set down on a rock to build me a smoke, and was gazing off over the country idle, when I seen a rider come up out of a little draw and gallop along quartering-like, to pass my pinnacle on the left. You know how a man out alone like that will watch anything, from a chicken hawk up in the air to a band uh sheep, without any interest in either one, but just to have your eyes on something that's alive and moves.

"So I watched him, idle, while I smoked. Pretty soon I seen another fellow ride out into sight where the first one had, and hit her up lively down the trail. I didn't do no wondering--I just sat and watched 'em both for want uh something better to do."

"Finding them strays wasn't important, I s'pose?" Happy Jack insinuated.

"It could wait, and did. So I kept an eye on these gazabos, and pretty soon I saw the hind fellow turn off the trail and go fogging along behind a little rise. He come into sight again, whipping down both sides like he was heading a wild four-year-old; and that was queer, because the only other live thing in sight was man number one, and I didn't see no reason why he should be hurting himself to get around to windward like that.

"Maybe it was five minutes I watched 'em: number one loping along like there wasn't nothing urgent and he was just merely going somewhere and taking his time for it, and number two quirting and spurring like seconds was diamonds."

"I wish they was that valuable to you," hinted Pink.

"They ain't, so take it easy. Well, pretty soon they got closer together, and then number two unhooked something on his saddle that caught the light. There's where I got my field glasses into play. I drew a bead with 'em, and seen right off it was a gun. And I hadn't no more than got my brain adjusted to grasp his idea, when he puts it back and takes down his rope. That there," Andy added naively, "promised more real interest; guns is commonplace.

"I took down the glasses long enough to size up the layout. Glasses, you know, are mighty deceiving when it comes to relative distances, and a hilltop a mile back looks, through the glass, like just stepping over a ditch. With the naked eye I could see that they were coming together pretty quick, and they done so.

"Number one looks back, but whether he seen number two I couldn't say; seemed to me like he just glanced back casual and in the wrong direction. Be that is it may, number two edged off a little and rode in behind a bunch uh mesquite--and then I seen that the trail took a turn, right there. So he pulled up and stood still till the other one had ambled past, and then he whirled out into the trail and swung his loop.

"When I'd got the glasses focused on 'em again, he had number one snared, all right, and had took his turns. The hoss he was riding--it was a buckskin--set back and yanked number one end over end out uh the saddle, and number one's hoss stampeded off through the brush. Number two dug in his spurs and went hell-bent off the trail and across country dragging the other fellow--and him bouncing over the rough spots something horrible.

"I don't know what got the matter uh me, then; I couldn't do anything but sit there on my rock and watch through the glasses. Anyway, while they looked close enough to hit with a rock, they was off a mile or more. So while I could see it all I couldn't do nothing to prevent. I couldn't even hear number one yell--supposing he done any hollering, which the chances is he did a plenty. It was for all the world like one uh these moving pictures.

"I thought it was going to be a case uh dragging to death, but it wasn't; it looked to me a heap worse. Number two dragged his man a ways--I reckon till he was plumb helpless--and then he pulled up and rode back to where he laid. The fellow tried to get up, and did get partly on his knees--and number one standing over him, watching.

"What passed I don't know, not having my hearing magnified like my sight was. I framed it up that number two was getting his past, present and future read out to him--what I'd call a free life reading. The rope was pinning his arms down to his sides, and number two was taking blamed good care there wasn't any slack, so fast as he tried to get up he was yanked back. From first to last he never had a ghost of a show.

"Then number two reaches back deliberate and draws his gun and commences shooting, and I commences hollering for him to quit it--and me a mile off and can't do nothing! I tell yuh right now, that was about the worst deal I ever went up against, to set there on that pinnacle and watch murder done in cold blood, and me plumb helpless.

"The first shot wasn't none fatal, as I could see plainer than was pleasant. Looked to me like he wanted to string out the agony. It was a clear case uh butchery from start to finish; the damnedest, lowest-down act a white man could be guilty of. He empties his six-gun--counting the smoke-puffs--and waits a minute, watching like a cat does a gopher. I was sweating cold, but I kept my eyes glued to them glasses like a man in a nightmare.

"When he makes sure the fellow's dead, he rides alongside and flips off the rope, with the buckskin snorting and edging off--at the blood-smell, I reckon. While he's coiling his rope, calm as if he'd just merely roped a yearling, the buckskin gets his head, plants it and turns on the fireworks.

"When that hoss starts in pitching, I come alive and drop the glasses into their case and make a jump for my own hoss. If the Lord lets me come up with that devil, I aim to deal out a case uh justice on my own hook; I was in a right proper humor for doing him like he done the other fellow, and not ask no questions. Looked to me like he had it coming, all right.

"I'd just stuck my toe in the stirrup, when down comes the fog like a wet blanket on everything. I couldn't see twenty feet--" Andy stopped and reached for a burning twig to relight his cigarette. The Happy Family was breathing hard with the spell of the story.

"Did yuh git him?" Happy Jack asked hoarsely. Andy took a long puff at his cigarette. "Well, I--Holy smoke! what's the matter with _you_, Blink?" For Blink was leaning forward, half crouched, like a cat about to pounce, and was glaring fixedly at Andy with lips drawn back in a snarl. The Happy Family looked, then stared.

Blink relaxed, shrugged his shoulders and grinned unmirthfully. He got up, pulled up his chaps with the peculiar, hitching gesture which comes with long practice and grows to be second nature, and stared back defiantly at the wondering faces lighted by the dancing flames. He turned his back coolly upon them and walked away to where his horse stood, took up the reins and stuck his toe in the stirrup, went up and landed in the saddle ready for anything. Then he wheeled the big sorrel so that he faced those at the camp-fire.

"A man's a damned fool, Andy Green, to see more than is meant for him to see. He's plumb crazy to go round blatting all he knows. You won't tell that tale again, _mi amigo!_"

There was the pop of a pistol, a puff of blue against the gray, and then the fog reached out and gathered Blink and the sorrel to itself. Only the clatter of galloping hoofs came to them from behind the damp curtain. Andy Green was lying on his back in the grass, his cigarette smoking dully in his fingers, a fast widening red streak trailing down from his temple.

The Happy Family rose like a covey of frightened chickens before the echoes were done playing with the gun-bark. On the heels of Blink's shot came the crack of Happy Jack's "howitzer" as he fired blindly toward the hoof-beats. There was more shooting while they scurried to where their horses, snorting excitement, danced uneasily at the edge of the bushes. Only one man spoke, and that was Pink, who stopped just as he was about to swing into the saddle.

"Damme for leaving my gun in camp! I'll stay with Andy. Go on--and if yuh don't get him, I'll--" he turned back, cursing hysterically, and knelt beside the long figure in the grass. There was a tumult of sound as the three raced off in pursuit, so close that the flight of the fugitive was still distinct in the fog.

While they raced they cursed the fog that shielded from their vengeance their quarry, and made such riding as theirs a blind gamble with the chances all in favor of broken bones; their only comfort the knowledge that Blink could see no better than could they. They did not talk, just at first. They did not even wonder if Andy was dead. Every nerve, every muscle and every thought was concentrated upon the pursuit of Blink. It was the instant rising to meet an occasion undreamed of in advance, to do the only thing possible without loss of a second in parley. Truly, it were ill for Blink to fall into the hands of those three in that mood.

They rode with quirt and spur, guided only by the muffled _pluckety-pluck, pluckety-pluck_ of Blink's horse fleeing always just before. Whenever the hoof-beats seemed a bit closer, Happy Jack would lift his long-barreled .45 and send a shot at random toward the sound. Or Weary or Slim would take a chance with their shorter guns. But never once did they pull rein for steep or gulley, and never once did the hoof-beats fail to come back to them from out the fog.

The chase had led afar and the pace was telling on their mounts, which breathed asthmatically. Slim, best he could do, was falling behind. Weary's horse stumbled and went to his knees, so that Happy Jack forged ahead just when the wind, puffing up from the open, blew aside the gray fog-wall. It was not a minute, nor half that; but it was long enough for Happy Jack to see, clear and close, Blink pausing irresolutely upon the edge of a deep, brush-filled gulley. Happy Jack gave a hoarse croak of triumph and fired, just as the fog-curtain swayed back maddeningly. Happy Jack nearly wept with pure rage. Weary and Slim came up, and together they galloped to the place, riding by instinct of direction, for there was no longer any sound to guide.

Ten minutes they spent searching the gulley's edge. Then they saw dimly, twenty feet below, a huddled object half-hidden in the brush. They climbed down none too warily, though they knew well what might be lying, venomous as a coiled rattler, in wait for them below. Slipping and sliding in the fog-dampened grass, they reached the spot, to find the big sorrel crumpled there, dead. They searched anxiously and futilely for more, but Blink was not there, nor was there anything to show that he had ever been there. Then not fear, perhaps, but caution, came to Happy Jack.

"Aw, say! he's got away on us--the skunk! He's down there in the brush, somewheres, waiting for somebody to go in and drag him out by the ear. I betche he's laying low, right now, waiting for a chance to pot-shot us. We better git back out uh this." He edged away, his eyes on the thicket just below. To ride in there was impossible, even to the Happy Family in whole or in part. To go in afoot was not at all to the liking of Happy Jack.

Slim gave a comprehensive, round-eyed stare at the unpromising surroundings, and followed Happy Jack. "By golly, that's right. Yuh don't git me into no hole like that," he assented.

Weary, foolhardy to the last, stayed longest; but even Weary could not but admit that the case was hopeless. The brush was thick and filled the gully, probably from end to end. Riding through it was impossible, and hunting it through on foot would be nothing but suicide, with a man like Blink hidden away in its depths. They climbed back to the rim, remounted and rode, as straight as might be, for the camp-fire and what lay beside, with Pink on guard.

It was near noon when, through the lightening fog, they reached the place and discovered that Andy, though unconscious, was not dead. They found, upon examination of his hurt, that the bullet had ploughed along the side of his head above his ear; but just how serious it might be they did not know. Pink, having a fresh horse and aching for action, mounted and rode in much haste to camp, that the bed-wagon might be brought out to take Andy in to the ranch and the ministrations of the Little Doctor. Also, he must notify the crew and get them out searching for Blink.

All that night and the next day the cowboys rode, and the next. They raked the foothills, gulley by gulley, their purpose grim. It would probably be a case of shoot-on-sight with them, and nothing saved Blink save the all-important fact that never once did any man of the Flying U gain sight of him. He had vanished completely after that fleeting glimpse Happy Jack had gained, and in the end the Flying U was compelled to own defeat.

Upon one point they congratulated themselves: Andy, bandaged as he was, had escaped with a furrow ploughed through the scalp, though it was not the fault of Blink that he was alive and able to discuss the affair with the others--more exactly, to answer the questions they fired at him.

"Didn't you recognize him as being the murderer?" Weary asked him curiously.

Andy moved uneasily on his bed. "No, I didn't. By gracious, you must think I'm a plumb fool!"

"Well, yuh sure hit the mark, whether yuh meant to or not," Pink asserted. "He was the jasper, all right. Look how he was glaring at yuh while you were telling about it. _He_ knew he was the party, and having a guilty conscience, he naturally supposed yuh recognized him from the start."

"Well, I didn't," snapped Andy ungraciously, and they put it down to the peevishness of invalidism and overlooked the tone.

"Chip has given his description in to the sheriff," soothed Weary, "and if he gets off he's sure a good one. And I heard that the sheriff wired down to the San Simon country and told 'em their man was up here. Mama! What bad breaks a man will make when he's on the dodge! If Blink had kept his face closed and acted normal, nobody would have got next. Andy didn't know he was the fellow that done it. But it sure was queer, the way the play come up. Wasn't it, Andy?"

Andy merely grunted. He did not like to dwell upon the subject, and he showed it plainly.

"By golly! he must sure have had it in for that fellow," mused Slim ponderously, "to kill him the way Andy says he did. By golly, yuh can't wonder his eyes stuck out when he heard Andy telling us all about it!"

"I betche he lays for Andy yet, and gits him," predicted Happy Jack felicitously. "He won't rest whilst an eye-witness is running around loose. I betche he's cached in the hills right now, watching his chance."

"Oh, go to hell, the whole lot of yuh!" flared Andy, rising to an elbow. "What the dickens are yuh roosting around here for? Why don't yuh go on out to camp where yuh belong? You're a nice bunch to set around comforting the sick! _Vamos_, darn yuh!"

Whereupon they took the hint and departed, assuring Andy, by way of farewell, that he was an unappreciative cuss and didn't deserve any sympathy or sick-calls. They also condoled openly with Pink because he had been detailed as nurse, and advised him to sit right down on Andy if he got too sassy and haughty over being shot up by a real outlaw. They said that any fool could build himself a bunch of trouble with a homicidal lunatic like Blink, and it wasn't anything to get vain over.

Pink slammed the door upon their jibes and offered Andy a cigarette he had just rolled; not that Andy was too sick to roll his own, but because Pink was notably soft-hearted toward a sick man and was prone to indulge himself in trifling attentions.

"Yuh don't want to mind that bunch," he placated. "They mean all right, but they just can't help joshing a man to death."

Andy accepted also a light for the cigarette, and smoked moodily. "It ain't their joshing," he explained after a minute "It's puzzling over what I can't understand that gets on my nerves. I can't see through the thing, Pink, no way I look at it."

"Looks plain enough to me," Pink answered. "Uh course, it's funny Blink should be the man, and be setting there listening--"

"Yes, but darn it all, Pink, there's a funnier side to it than that, and it's near driving me crazy trying to figure it out. Yuh needn't tell anybody, Pink, but it's like this: I was just merely and simply romancing when I told that there blood-curdling tale! I never was south uh the Wyoming line except when I was riding in a circus and toured through, and that's the truth. I never was down in the San Simon basin. I never set on no pinnacle with no field glasses--" Andy stopped short his labored confession to gaze, with deep disgust, upon Pink's convulsed figure. "Well," he snapped, settling back on the pillow, "_laugh_, darn yuh! and show your ignorance! By gracious, I wish _I_ could see the joke!" He reached up gingerly and readjusted the bandage on his head, eyed Pink sourly a moment, and with a grunt eloquent of the mood he was in turned his face to the wall.

[The end]
B. M. Bower's short story: Blink