Guns of the Timberlands
by Louis L'Amour
Reading Level: 5.5
In his present condition he was no good to anyone. On the other hand, there was not a chance in a million that anyone would ride this way unless one of his own men came looking for him. The first thing would be to check his weapons to make sure he was prepared to defend himself, get the saddle off the palouse, and to dress his wounds, somehow.
He was on the bank of the stream with the nearest building not twenty yards off. It was the sagging frame structure of what had, by the faded sign, once been the town’s saloon. Across the street was an assay office, and farther down were other buildings, all of frame or log construction.
Behind a dugout was a field of maize, now gone wild. It was only a few yards distant. On his second try Clay managed to get to his feet, and behind the saloon he found an old pickle jar. He dipped water, built a small fire of dry sticks from around the saloon, and soon had the water boiling. From the long abandoned field he got some maize and having pounded it to fragments, made a poultice to put on his wounded shoulder after he had bathed it in hot water.
It was a slow process, and he stopped many times to rest. Luckily, the bullet had gone on through his shoulder. When the wound had been bathed and the poultice tied on, he got to the palouse and slipped off the saddle and bridle, then picketed the horse on the grass near the stream.
For himself he found a hollow inside the foundation of a ruined building and settled down with the sun to warm his bones. He awakened with a start and glanced quickly at the sun. He must have slept at least two hours. He made his way to the stream and drank again.
Clay seated himself and stared at the water. His face was hot and his mouth dry. He bathed the wound again and changed the poultice. Aware of his hunger, he ate jerked beef from his saddlebag, then gathered his blanket around him and lay on the ground.
His head throbbed with slow, heavy throbs, and a slow fire burned in the injured shoulder. He kept flexing his fingers, frightened of stiffness, knowing the danger that could come to him now, in this hour of trial, if he failed in gun skill.
Several times he lost consciousness, whether in sleep or weakness he did not know. Shadows seemed to peer at him from the darkness under the trees and he stared up at the wide sky, caught in some vague enchantment by a drifting cloud which he watched through long, intent minutes. A cricket chirped… cicadas sang in the hot, lazy afternoon. He lay quiet and, after a while, lulled by the heat, the crickets and the stream, he slept.
He awakened in complete darkness. Night had come while he slept and with it a penetrating chill from off the high peaks. His fever had left him and he was shaking with chill, despite the blanket. He crawled to the stream and drank. The water was cold, but it went down his throat like some crystalline elixir, giving him strength and new life. He lay back after he had finished drinking and huddled in his blankets. His head throbbed and his shoulder held a mall pulsating beat.
Wind stirred in the crests of the pines and off in the blackness of the forest a tree branch scraped. From the ghostly buildings came faint, creaking sounds. A loose shutter swayed on rusty hinges, there was a scurrying of tiny feet, and something small and animate stirred the tall grass. The moon was rising just above the ridge and it stretched long shadows behind the buildings, and turned the rank grass of the street into a silver flowing stream.
He had to move…His mind told him that he must move but his muscles did not respond. He huddled closer in his blankets and watched the moon rise until it swung free above the black, serrated ridge. The wide black eyes of glassless windows peered at him. He had to move. He must get up. He must get a saddle on his horse. He must get back. They would believe him dead. They would retaliate and men would be killed.
He rolled over and got to his knees. Near by his horse cropped grass and he went to it and led it to the saddle. He stooped, after the blanket was in place and free of wrinkles, and grasped the heavy stock saddle. He waited, mustering strength, then swung it free and to the horse’s back.
Exhausted by the effort, he leaned against the horse and counted the heavy throbs in his skull. Then he got the bridle on and thrust his rifle back in the boot. Grasping the pommel, he pulled himself into the saddle, still clutching the blankets around his shoulders.
The Notch was closest-he would go there. There was no antidote for he throbbing pain in his shoulder, but he had never been a man who spared himself. Wounds were not new to him and he had seen many a bullet wound treated by pushing a silk handkerchief through the hole with a stick, and a little medicine dabbed on, of whatever kind was available.
A kindly man with others, he could be harsh with himself, and wounded or not he had no right to sit here when men were risking their lives to protect his property. He almost forgot his pain, shaken as he was by a deep-seated anger.
And that very anger frightened him. Clay Bell know himself, and he was quiet partly to cover what lay under the surface. He was actually a man of violent and explosive temper, carefully guarded against and usually controlled; but occasionally, under exceptional strain, he had given way to outbursts of berserk fury. He was always better when thinking for others…he must get back to them and their sobering influence.
Reaching Deep Creek, he waded the horse through the stream and up the bank. The fever was on him again now, and his shoulder, aroused by handling the heavy saddle, was a steady beat of agony. No longer conscious of the coolness and the night, he was shaking with pain and with fury.
He had asked for none of this. He had lived quietly here, far from the old trails, the gun trails, the kill-hungry men he had known. He had built carefully here planning for the future. Now the greed of one man could destroy all that, wreck lives and ruin the health of a pleasant young cowhand who bothered no one.
Bert Garry lay minus an eye and scarred for life, perhaps soon to die, because of the ruthless brutality of that one man.
And someone lying in ambush had shot Clay himself, had tried to kill him.
Branches slapped at his shoulders and his head felt heavy. There was sickness on him, and the heaviness of pain, and the moon seemed vague in the wide sky. The trees loomed right and left and all around him. He sat in the saddle like a drunken man, and like a drunken man there throbbed in his brain only the thought of what had been done and a driving urge to fight, to smash, to kill….
Suddenly he felt the mustang’s muscles tighten and saw its ears come up. Instinct snapped him to himself, his long living with danger alerting him now. He drew up, listening.
A moment passed when only the stream rustled behind him…and then he smelled woodsmoke, and heard voices.
They were strange voices, and none of his men would be here, close to The Notch, yet away from it.
His mouth felt dry and something rose up inside of him. So they had broken through. Brown and Jackson might have been killed…Red rage began to take him and he felt his body begin to tremble.
A stick cracked and someone said, “Pete Simmons took their heart out when he jumped the Garry kid. This fight’s over.”
Inside him something welled up and burst. He dropped his hand to his left gun and he yelled, a wild rebel yell torn with pain and fury. And then he slapped spurs to the horse and leaped him through the brush into the firelight.
Startled lumberjacks came to their feet, eyes wild. One man grabbed at a rifle, but Bell’s gun smashed a shot and the man screamed, dropping the rifle to grab a broken shoulder. A bullet smashed the coffee pot, another ripped at the bed of the fire, scattering sparks and embers. He was across the camp and gone into darkness, his gun stabbing flame.
And then he wheeled, swaying in the saddle, his face hard and savage. Deliberately he lifted the gun and proceeded to put a hole in everything in sight.
Reloading, he smashed the frying pan, emptied the water bucket, smashed a rifle stock, and burned the ribs of a man scrambling for a gun.
Sitting his horse, he filled his gun again. Then he walked his horse back to the edge of camp.