- Chapter 1-5
- Chapter 6-10
- Chapter 11-15
- Chapter 16-20
- Chapter 21-25
- Chapter 26-30
- Chapter 31-35
- Chapter 36-40
- Chapter 41-46
XVI. — STRAWHAN’S PEPPER PLOT
The locomotive gradually increased its speed. The shaking and the rocking made the gorilla aware that something unusual was happening. It fired blindly with its revolver and knocked off the glass cover of a pressure gauge.
Steam gushed forth, and the gorilla leapt on to the piled coal in the tender for safety. It was afraid of the hissing and bubbling in other parts of the engine.
On rocked the train. There was no hand at the throttle. Now that it had been opened halfway the train would run until that head of steam gave out. Maybe the passengers in the coaches at the rear wondered why they had stopped and started again in that fashion, but they could never have guessed that their lives were in the hands of a huge gorilla, or that the train had saved three ruffians from a well-deserved fate.
O’Neil stared over the side of the engine at the rushing embankments and the swiftly passing trees. He did not like the look of them. They looked unnatural. He beat his chest with his clenched fists, and bellowed wrathfully.
That did no good. The train sped along as fast as ever. Not until the pressure of steam gave out would it stop. O’Neil knew nothing of this. Gripped by a sudden fear, he leapt wildly out into the darkness.
There had been a tree about ten yards away. The gorilla had collided with it. With a fifteen mile an hour force behind its leap, and a weight of six hundred pounds to back it up, the impact with the tree was terrific. There was a snapping sound, and it broke off near the roots. O’Neil, half-stunned, rolled over and over down the banking.
There he lay, breathing hard, his head feeling as if it had split. He had no idea where he was or why he was there.
A quarter of an hour must have gone past before he arose and shook himself. He had the track to himself. The train had gone, the lights of Red Deer Valley were beyond a rise in the prairie, and could not be seen. There was not a sound to break the silence of the night. About that same time the runaway train was hissing to a standstill about five miles distant.
O’Neil lurched to his feet. He shook his head, pounded on his chest, and snarled.
He remembered his three enemies, the three he had tracked such a distance, and he remembered a strange monster coming between him and these men and rescuing them.
Once again rage seized him. He sniffed the track, but found no scent, not even his own. A human being might have been lost, but not the Six-Gun Gorilla. Instinct told him which way to take. He turned back the way the train had brought him and fled along the darkened track, sometimes upright, sometimes on all fours.
He did not take more than an hour to reach the outskirts of Red Deer Valley, and there he searched around like some nightmarish bloodhound for the scent of the men he sought.
He found cast-off ropes. Tutt Strawhan and his companions had rid themselves of their bonds. O’Neil snarled at them, and gripped his gun, but there was nothing at which to aim. He fired no shots.
It was not difficult for him to pick up their trail. He scented them almost at once, and set out after them. Back towards the edge of the settlement he went, until he came to a stable.
The stable door was open. There were no horses inside. A local cattle dealer had possessed three good horses only an hour before. Now they were gone. The Strawhan Gang had taken them. Those three frightened men had wanted to get away from the district more than anything in the world. They had not bothered about buying the horses which they required in order to make their escape.
O’Neil squatted down and growled to himself. He noticed the tracks of the horses, sniffed them, peered at them with his little, intent eyes, and licked his hips.
It was not the first time he had trailed the killers when they were on horseback. They could not shake him by escaping on horses.
Nearby the same owner of the stable had stored some mangels for his cattle in the winter. O’Neil sat down beside these and seized one of the huge, turnip-shaped vegetables.
His yellow fangs bit deeply into it. He was ravenous. In Colorado there was not much food suitable for an African gorilla, but anything in the way of fruit of vegetables suited O’Neil. He ate that mangel to the last fragment, then grabbed another.
In all he ate a dozen of the pile, and felt better after his meal. A drink of water at a nearby pool refreshed him, and once more he took up the trail of the fleeing horsemen.
The gun flapped against his thigh. Sometimes he steadied it with a hairy hand.
More often than not he travelled on all fours, but sometimes he rose on his hind legs and peered ahead, sniffing the air, and growling to himself.
The night grew darker. A wind chilled the air. The stars were blotted out. Coyotes howled in the distance. The Six-Gun Gorilla kept the same pace, however, never once faltering.
A horse could have gone faster than the gorilla, but it could not have gone further. Tutt Strawhan was heading for his old district, the district where he and his gang had made themselves feared by everyone by their terrible crimes. There the three killers hoped to re-gather their fortunes and collect some more kindred spirits to go in search of Masters’ gold, which they had been forced to leave behind them when fleeing from the vengeance of the Six-Gun Gorilla.
The Strawhan Gang did not talk as they rode along. They were too tired and too scared for that. Yet they could not have been more silent than their pursuer.
Except for his breathing, O’Neil made absolutely no sound. He plodded on like a machine.
At last he saw a light ahead and gave a deep growl. He drew his gun, and flourished it. Lights meant men, perhaps the three men he sought. Men understood these things called guns. The gun gave them power over him.
So, like some gunman bent on murder, he crept towards the cluster of huts which nestled at the foot of a pass. It was not a settlement, but merely a place where someone had built a store at the cross trails.
Cattlemen, prospectors going north, and prospectors coming south, all stopped there as their first contact with civilization after being in the wilds. There were two lean-to huts besides the store, and outside the store was the usual rail to which horses were tied.
At the moment there were five horses tied there, and the Six-Gun Gorilla shambled up to them.
He wanted to sniff them and find out whether any of them were the ones which the men he had been following had stolen.
The first horse he approached reared and broke its rope. The next moment it fled into the darkness. The second one squealed and did likewise. The third buck-jumped and pawed at the air, before it fell over on its back and lay kicking its legs in the air.
O’Neil made for the fourth horse. This was a chestnut with a wicked look in its eyes.
It waited until the gorilla was within reach, then up flashed its hind legs.
Both hooves caught O’Neil on the throat, and bowled him backwards.
Never in his life had he been hit so hard. He turned two complete somersaults before falling amongst some bushes and remaining still.
The maddened horse then tried to break loose, but its halter was too strong. It was still plunging when the noise brought some men running out from the saloon.
Tutt Strawhan, his two killer henchmen, and two other friends of his were there. At the discovery that their horses had gone, they raised a shout.
Strawhan shouted to them to take care.
“Be careful the gorilla isn’t around!” he roared. “Something must’ve scared the horses. I reckon the gorilla’s lurking about.”
The two men had not been with the gang leader during the recent ordeal were inclined to scoff at his fears. They did not know the terror aroused by that slow and deliberate tracker. They muttered something about being determined to get their horses, and rode away into the darkness on the animals that remained tethered.
Tutt Strawhan and the two members of his gang crowded in the doorway of the store. They had collected guns as soon as they had arrived amongst friends. Now they leveled them into the darkness.
“If he’s out there he’ll give himself away sooner or later,” muttered Tutt Strawhan. “I’ve got an idea. If he’s skulkin’ around we’ll get him. Someone fetch me a lot of pepper, five or six pounds of it. I saw a keg near the end of the counter in the store.”
A minute later Pete Stark came staggering back with the entire keg. Whilst Strawhan and El Valdo walked behind him with drawn revolvers, Stark poured a thick ring of pepper right round the store.
He made a complete circle, after which he dumped the remainder of the keg on the steps at the door of the store, and retired inside with the others.
The three killers had an idea that O’Neil would come snuffling around the store very soon. When he put his nose into the pepper he would soon give himself away.
Then would be the time to pour a volley into him.
XVII. — THE BATTLE IN THE STORE
There was no town, not even a village, but merely a store and two lean-to huts at the crosstrails.
It was night, and somewhere away in the distance sounded the rattle of hoofs. Horses were stampeding, and two mounted men were after them.
Within the doorway of the store stood three grim men with leveled guns. They had put out the lights behind them. They seemed to be listening intently for something they were expecting.
Occasionally they whispered amongst themselves, but very low. They seemed afraid to raise their voices.
Yet those three were three of the toughest gunmen in that part of the West. There were men who had committed many crimes in their time, and who were feared far and wide.
Now, however, they trembled at every sound, and pointed their guns towards the slightest noise. Their nerves were almost at breaking point.
It was not another gunman they feared, at least, not a human one. They were expecting to see a huge, slouching figure loom out of the darkness—a gorilla!
For some weeks now Tutt Strawhan and his companions had been trailed by the Six-Gun Gorilla, a hairy monster which had come into their lives at the Dragonfly Mine, a small gold mine in the Boulder hills of Colorado.
This mine had belonged to Bart Masters, a lone miner who had worked it for seven years, aided by the gorilla, which he had purchased when young from a sailor named O’Neil.
O’Neil was the name Masters had given the gorilla, and the miner had taught the great beast to do various useful jobs. He had even taught it how to fire a revolver.
One night Masters had decided to abandon the mine and go back to civilization. He had nearly ten thousand pounds’ worth of gold.
Before he could leave, a bunch of gunmen known as the Strawhan Gang had come to the lonely mine, and had killed Bart Masters, wounded the chained gorilla, and made off with the gold.
O’Neil had recovered, and had nearly gone mad when he had discovered his master was dead. He had buckled on his dead master’s six shooter and bandolier, and had set out on the trail of the murderers.
The train had led him several hundred miles already. He had hounded the gang so closely that they had been forced to leave the gold behind them. One of the four had already been slain, and the rest had tried to shake O’Neil off by jumping a train. He had managed to pick up the trail, and had reached this lonely spot, where the three ruffians had expected to find two fellow crooks.
Suddenly the horses tethered outside the store had broken loose and stampeded. The Strawhan Gang felt sure that O’Neil was the cause of this, and that he was skulking somewhere nearby. Whilst the two men they had met at this place had gone in search of the runaway horses, Tutt Strawhan, Pete Stark and El Valdo, the half-breed, had arranged a trap for the Six-Gun Gorilla.
They had scattered pepper thickly around the store, and were now waiting with their guns. If O’Neil pushed his nose into the pepper and betrayed himself by sneezing, the gang would at once empty their guns into him.
That was why they were so silent.
Time passed. In the distance they could hear their comrades, who were chasing the horses, shouting to each other. Evidently they had not yet rounded up the runaways.
“What’s happened to him?” muttered Tutt Strawhan. “Why is he so quiet?”
None of the killers knew. They did not know that one of the frightened horses, in breaking loose, had let fly with both hoofs at the Six-Gun Gorilla.
The gorilla now lay unconscious amongst the bushes not a dozen yards from the store. It was the first knockout O’Neil had received in his life.
Gradually the great beast recovered his senses. First of all his thick tongue moved, then his eyes flickered, and he slowly raised his head. That gave him an agonizing pain, for the two hoofs of the horse had landed on his throat.
The pain cleared his head. He snarled about it, managed to sit up, balancing himself with his hands, and glared about him.
He could neither hear nor see anyone, but somewhere close by he could smell human beings. What was more, he could smell the particular human beings he sought!
His hair began to bristle. He lurched to his feet, steadying himself with one hairy hand against a tree.
His lips drew away from his ugly teeth, and the other hand dropped back to the gunbelt at his side. It was a very human gesture, just as though he meant to draw a gun.
Then his eyes searched the darkness. He saw the low framework building which was the store, and guessed that the men he sought were hidden there.
He had no need to go snuffling along the ground in order to follow the scent which drifted on the wind. He knew that the men he wanted were in this building.
Slowly, ponderously he commenced to drag himself towards the spot. Once again the stark hatred that he felt for the killers of his master was welling up in his heart.
There were no lights in the store, but a bright star overhead was reflected in one of the windows. O’Neil saw this and paused.
What was that light? He suspected a trap. He was always suspicious when he was dealing with men.
Slowly, deliberately he reached for the six-gun and drew it from the holster. The gun was fully loaded. Bart Masters had taught his pet how to do this.
The Six-Gun Gorilla leveled the gun, aimed at the light reflected from the window, and fired.
There was a shattering of glass, and from the doorway came a babble of excited voices.
Strawhan and his gang had not expected this. They had been waiting for sneezing or spluttering when the gorilla reached their barricade of pepper. The shot had startled them by its unexpectedness. Pete Stark, in his nervousness, loosed off his gun.
O’Neil crouched and snarled. He knew the danger of those flying missiles, and he was not fool enough to rush against them. Stealthily, slowly he made for the side of the store wall.
In that position, crawling almost on his stomach, it was impossible for him to avoid getting a sniff of the pepper which was so thickly spread on the ground.
He gasped, snorted, and gave vent to a tremendous sneeze. It was more like an explosion than a sneeze. His eyes watered, and he caught his breath. He sneezed again.
“There he is!” croaked Pete Stark, and fired into the darkness.
Luckily for O’Neil he was too low to the ground to get the benefit of the full blast of the gunfire, but one or two of the pellets from a sawn-off shotgun caught him and tore through his hair. They wounded him, but they were only slight flesh wounds. The pain angered him, however, and with the Six-Gun Gorilla anger meant only one thing—attack.
With a terrible roar of fury he made a bound which a kangaroo might have envied, and cleared the space to the front porch of the store.
He seemed to the three killers to have come from nowhere. Strawhan and his partners had no time to fire off their guns at their enemy. They fell back into the store for cover, and O’Neil plunged after them.
It was very fortunate for them that his immense shoulders were too great for the width of the door. He stuck in the doorway, and that delay gave them a chance to scramble for the rear of the store, where they crouched behind the counter.
Three revolvers were out, pouring shots towards the door. Fear mush have made their aim faulty, for not a single bullet hit the Six-Gun Gorilla.
O’Neil was in a raging temper by this time. Gripping the doorposts, one in either hand, he tugged, and they came away easily. Not only did they come away, but they brought half of the wooden walls of the store with them. When O’Neil advanced into the store, he carried before him a shield of timber.
Bullets thudded into this woodwork, but did not enter the hairy body behind. Like a tank going into action, the Six-Gun Gorilla marched down the centre of the store.
The three men behind the counter suddenly turned and bolted through a rear door into the darkness and fled.
The gorilla again dived after them. He collided with the counter, from which a collection of tins, pots and packages dropped on the floor.
There were some pots of honey, which broke on the floor. In passing, O’Neil must have put one of his forepaws into some of the spilled honey, and cut it slightly on the glass.
Raising his wound to his lips in order to lick it, he became conscious of the sweet flavor of the honey. Sugar, jam, honey, or anything of that kind were to O’Neil the most attractive things in life. He paused, groped around amongst the wreckage, and found more of the broken pots.
There and then he crouched down amongst the wreckage of the contents of the counter to lick up everything sweet. There was nothing that he overlooked. He even crushed tins flat in his paws and sucked the contents. For the time being he was not a gorilla with a purpose in life, but merely a hungry animal which had come upon a store of good things.
The three fleeing men had time to reach the safety of some cliffs to the rear of the crosstrails, and there they climbed to a ledge where they felt sure they could hold their own against the gorilla.
Guns in hand, they waited through the dark hours that followed. They almost hoped that O’Neil would come and try to clamber up the ledge. It would be easy to put a bullet in his head as he did this.
But O’Neil was much too busy. For once he had discovered something even more pressing than his longing for vengeance. He gorged himself on the contents of the store.
Hours passed. The weary men who had been chasing the horses returned. They had caught the runaways, and felt pleased with themselves.
Hitching these to the rail outside the store, they passed through the door.
“What’s the idea of putting the lights out and leaving the door open, Strawhan?” growled one.
“Huh!” came a grunt from the darkness, and two hairy paws reached out and caught the tough Westerner about the middle.
Right up into the air the wretched man was lifted, and duly sniffed and examined by the gorilla. Speechless with fear, he did not even dare cry out.
“What’s the matter, Hank?” cried his pal.
A strange, gurgling sound was the only reply he received. Suddenly panic stricken, he turned and fled. His limp friend was hurled after him as though he had been a doll.
O’Neil had discovered that this was not one of the men he sought.
XVIII. — O’NEIL CLAIMS ANOTHER VICTIM
Dawn came, and the store was not was silent as a tomb. There was no movement inside. The Six-Gun Gorilla lay sleeping amongst a hundred burst tins and broken jars. He had eaten his fill.
He still gripped the revolver in one hand, and the bandolier had slipped up around his neck. The gorilla was snoring.
On the ledge on the nearby cliff three sunken-eyed men clung on for their lives and stared towards the crosstrails. They were still and cold. They wanted to come down, but they did not dare do so. They still did not know what had happened to the gorilla after they had fled from the store.
“Maybe we kill heem with our shooting!” muttered El Valdo. “Maybe he die.”
Tutt Strawhan and Pete Stark wished they could believe that this had happened. It was true that they had hit O’Neil once or twice, but they doubted whether his wounds were fatal, because his hide was so thick.
Yet no movement came from the store. Birds settled on the roof and flew away again peacefully. The horses tethered to the rail outside kicked their heels impatiently, and wondered when they were going to be fed.
Everything looked peaceful enough. The sun came up and shone warmly on everything. Tutt Strawhan and his comrades became hungry and thirsty.
“Guess we’d better go down. He’s gone somewhere else. Maybe he chased Hank and Ike when they brought back the horses,” murmured Strawhan. “Go over and see if everything’s all right at the store, Stark.”
Pete Stark paled and shook his head defiantly.
“Go yourself, if you’re so eager!” he snarled.
Tutt Strawhan dropped a hand to his gun, then, realizing that there was no use quarrelling amongst themselves, he made for the edge of the ledge.
“I will!” he said.
Down he went, and the other two killers pushed forward to watch him creep up to one of the store windows. They saw him peep inside, standing on tip-toe to do so, and then he turned and shouted—
“It’s O.K. Nothing in there!”
That was where he was mistaken. Behind the overturned counter the huge bulk of the gorilla lay extended. The immense beast had eaten so much that it was almost senseless. It was sleeping as soundly as a squirrel in the wintertime.
From the window Tutt Strawhan had been unable to see anything of his hairy trailer. He was quite convinced that the store was empty. He even waited in the doorway until the others joined him.
“The brute’s made a rare mix up in here. Old Garvin will have a fit when he gets back an’ sees this,” he muttered. “Reckon we could do with some back ourselves. Think we could rake some out from the wreckage? Gorillas don’t eat meat. Maybe he ain’t touched the bacon.”
They rummaged around amongst the fallen stock on the floor, and had nearly reached the overturned counter when Strawhan found a side of bacon.
He dragged it out, examined it, and decided it was in good enough condition to cook. There was a stove in the far end of the store, and the killers proceeded to light this and get the bacon sliced.
Before long the savory smell of frying bacon filled the store. The Strawhan Gang squatted around. They had found some bread and had a plate each. They were waiting for the bacon to be done to a turn.
So intent were they on this that they did not see the movement at the other end of the store. O’Neil had awakened!
It was the scent of the bacon in his nostrils that had roused the Six-Gun Gorilla. He remembered that smell from the days when his master had cooked breakfast in the shack up at the Dragonfly Mine.
He lifted his head and sniffed. It brought back memories. He tried to whine, but his throat was dry. He felt sick. The effects of the overeating were still upon him.
Slowly and clumsily he raised himself and peered over the top of the counter. A murmur of voices made him glance to the other end of the store. His nostrils dilated, his eyes widened, and his hair stood on end.
There were the very men for whom he had been hunting these past few week. They were calmly sitting there almost within his reach!
O’Neil’s lips curled back in a soundless snarl.
None of the gang looked round. The bacon was ready. Tutt Strawhan had reached for the pan.
The Six-Gun Gorilla rose silently to his feet. He touched the top of the counter with two forepaws, and vaulted over as lightly as a shadow. He weighed six hundred pounds, but when he pleased he could move as quietly as a gazelle.
With measured tread he crossed the room.
Tutt Strawhan was bending down to swop the best part of the bacon on to his own plate. He always believed in taking the best share before giving the rest to his partners.
Suddenly a hand came over his shoulder and gripped the handle of the pan.
“Don’t be a fool!” he snarled. “Let go, Stark. You’ll get your share in a minute. If there’s not enough you can cook some more. There’s plenty more bacon. Leg go, I say! I—”
The words died on his lips. Looking down as he wrenched at the frying pan, he saw that the arm around him was massive and hairy. The hand was covered with long, reddish-brown hairs, too.
He turned his head, and found himself looking into the snarling face of the Six-Gun Gorilla. As for the other two men, they were so paralyzed with terror that they just sat there staring.
Tutt Strawhan gave one screech, and suddenly let go the frying pan.
O’Neil had been pulling upwards. As a result the pan came up with a rush, and the contents, bacon and hot grease, were flung in the gorilla’s face.
O’Neil gave a roar of rage. The greasy bacon stuck to his face, his nose, and the top of his head. He clawed at his desperately, and as he did so Tutt Strawhan took a headlong dive through the open door.
Pete Stark and El Valdo were after him a second later, but the half-breed was not quite quick enough.
Half-blinded as he was, the Six-Gun Gorilla managed to snatch out his revolver and fire at the last of the fleeing figures.
El Valdo was the last man, and the shot caught him in the back of his right shoulder. Down on his knees he went, and rolled down the steps into the open.
His two friends did not stop for him.
The gorilla lumbered after its victim. As the doorway had been widened so effectively the night before, O’Neil passed through now without any trouble.
He bent over the wounded man, who shrieked with fear when he saw the immense brute bending over him.
O’Neil sniffed as his prisoner. He could smell blood, and that excited him, but chiefly he could smell that this was one of the men who had killed his master.
He growled, picked up El Valdo with one hand, and held him in the air. With his other hand he hammered on his massive chest.
It was O’Neil’s way of showing his triumph. He wanted the whole world to hear that he had captured yet another of his master’s murderers.
In the distance Tutt Strawhan and Pete Stark stopped and looked back. They were fascinated by what they saw. They saw O’Neil brandishing his victim as though he was a doll. They saw El Valdo make desperate efforts to draw his revolver.
The gorilla saw what the half-breed was trying to do, and gave him a slap with an open hand. It looked like a playful slip, but actually it broke the man’s arm. El Valdo started to whimper.
Gravely, as though he was a jailer or an executioner, O’Neil marched towards the nearest tree with his prisoner. He hesitated for a few moments at the foot of the tree, then reached up and pushed his prisoner across the lowest branch.
El Valdo gripped the branch and hung on with his one good hand. The Six-Gun Gorilla stepped back, and drew his revolver from its holster.
“He—He’s going to pump lead into El Valdo!” marveled Pete Stark.
Very gravely O’Neil took aim. He rested one end of the revolver on his crooked forearm. This was the way his master had taught him to shoot when they had done target practice together. The gorilla took careful aim at the wriggling form on the branch.
O’Neil had fired, and a shot thudded into the ruffian’s body.
A second shot crashed through the man’s head, and he dropped limply to the ground.
The Six-Gun Gorilla roared in triumph, and started bouncing up and down as though he had gone mad.
With the knuckles of his hands touching the ground at every bound, he went up and down, up and down, until it made one dizzy to watch him.
Then he remembered his revolver. It lay smoking on the ground. His dead master had taught him to clean it after shooting, but O’Neil had always found this a difficult thing to do. He never could thread a cloth trough the barrel, and, in any case, he did not have a cloth.
Instead he opened the breech, put the end of the barrel to his mount, and blew so mightily that gunpowder, soot, and everything else in the barrel came flying out the other end.
He continued to do this until no more dust came out. It was a crude but effective way of cleaning the gun. Then he squatted down to reload.
This took him half an hour, and all the time the body of his second victim lay close at his feet.
Justice had been done according to the Six-Gun Gorilla, but there were still two more of the Strawhan Gang to be accounted for.
XIX. — MURDER ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE
Strawhan and Pete Stark had seen their friend slain, and had become panic stricken. Instead of sticking to their previous intention of waiting and filling the gorilla with lead, they bed up the trail towards the mountains, looking round every now and again to make sure that O’Neil was not following them.
They knew full well that O’Neil followed them chiefly by his sense of smell. They decided to make his task a difficult one.
They came to a mountain stream which flowed swiftly down the mountainside. They took to this, scrambling up the riverbed, wet to the knees, sometimes almost washed backwards.
It was hard and cold work walking against the force of the current, but they knew that they were laying no scent which the gorilla could follow. If they could get to the top of the mountain in this way, they might put him off their scent altogether.
“What is it he smells about us?” asked Pete Stark. “We’re not polecats.”
“No, I guess it’s our clothes,” growled Strawhan. “Maybe it’s our brand of tobacco, or the dirt we’ve dropped on our clothes at one time or another. It would be a good idea to get rid of these clothes an’ boots.”
They toyed with the idea as the struggled upwards, and at last they came to a narrow pass through which the stream flowed. They were still in this pass when they heard voices above them.
The banks of the stream were high and overhanging here, and on one bank ran a trail. Along this trail two prospectors were travelling, tramping stolidly beside their string of pack mules. There were five mules in all, mostly laden with equipment.
The prospectors had not the slightest idea that they were not the only men in this pass. The mules were nearest the stream, and their masters cast no glance towards it.
Strawhan whispered to his companion, and Pete Stark nodded as he drew his revolver. They crawled up the bank of the stream until they were almost on the trail. There they lay behind some bushes and waited.
The two prospectors came along, suspecting nothing. They passed the spot where the two killers lay, and as soon as they passed two revolvers rang out.
The two prospectors dropped in their tracks. They had been killed instantly.
The mules would have bolted if their reins had not become caught round the bodies of their dead masters. The beasts stood trembling as the two scoundrels came hastening to the side of their victims.
Both the prospectors were sturdy fellows, and their clothes were of the usual prospector type. The killers cold-bloodedly turned the dead men over on the side of the trail and removed their clothes and boots.
These they exchanged for their own, dressing the corpses in their own clothing, even lacing up the boots which they had discarded.
Once they had changed their clothes their spirits rose. They buckled on their revolver belts, and shook their fists down the mountainside.
“Now let’s see the durned gorilla follow us after this!” chortled Pete Stark. “That’s the last we’ll see of him.”
The two killers then searched the prospector’s packs and found plenty of food. Feeling safe from immediate pursuit, they lit a fire and cooked breakfast to make up for the meal which had been interrupted.
Satisfied both with their meal and their morning’s work, they presently mounted two of the mules and rode on towards the higher ranges. They were now heading for the districts where they were well known—and feared.
The morning drew on. The sun was high in the sky when at last a hairy figure came shambling up the mountain trail. It was O’Neil.
He had lost the scent on the mountainside, and had been searching for it all morning. He had never found it, but the trail leading upwards had tempted him to follow.
O’Neil was grumbling and grunting to himself as he climbed up the trail. His teeth were bared, and his fierce little eyes stared towards the mountain peaks.
Suddenly he stopped and wrinkled his nostrils. A faint scent had come down the wind, a scent which he recognized and which excited him.
It was the scent of the men he sought, mixed with something else.
He increased speed, scrambling forward with the gun dangling and bumping against his hairy thigh.
He saw two objects on the trail. Two still figures lay near the water’s edge. He paused and crouched, wondering if this was a trick. He knew that men were filled with cunning and trickery.
He waited, but there came no sign of movement from these still figures. When the wind blew in his direction he scented the hated smell of the men he sought, but it was mixed with something else—blood.
Gradually O’Neil crept nearer, until finally he saw that the two men had their eyes closed. One of them lay on his back, one on his side. There was something unnatural about the way they were lying. This made the Six-Gun Gorilla suspicious.
But the hated smell drove him on, and with a final rush he pounced on them and clutched them both at the same time in his great arms.
High into the air he lifted the lifeless bodies, snarling and growling in his threat.
No movement came from his victims. They did not struggle. They did not shout.
O’Neil felt that this was uncanny. He dropped the men on to the ground and waited for them to try and run away, much as a cat might do to a mouse.
Nothing happened. They lay as they had fallen, and the puzzled gorilla bent and sniffed them all over.
Then, for the first time, O’Neil realized that they were dead. Standing at his full height, he stared about him in amazement.
How had they died? He had not killed them, and he could see no one else about.
Somehow or other he was uncertain that they were the men he sought, yet they had about them the usual smell which he had remembered every since that fateful night at the Dragonfly Mine. It was not too strong, but it was unmistakable.
He turned the dead men this way and that, examining them in every possible way. He found their bleeding wounds, and recoiled angrily. This did not seem right.
The rage began to grow. He had followed these men all this distance with the idea of killing them to revenge his dead master. Now he found that someone had done this before him, and his temper rose against the men who had dared to do this thing.
These men who now lay dead had been his enemies! Why should someone else kill them? He felt that he had been cheated.
He nosed around the surrounding ground, and found another scent. There were tracks of mules going up the mountainside. Mingled with the smell of the mules was another scent, and unknown one, but one which had a faint suggestion of something that he knew very well.
Running around on all fours, he became more and more disturbed. There was something very wrong here. Those tracks going up to the top of the ranges must be the tracks of the men who had killed his two bitterest enemies, and who had caused him to have his chase for nothing.
He now hated these men who had cheated him of his revenge. He decided to go after them.
Having made this resolve, he bent over the stream, drank deeply, then turned his head towards the top of the ranges.
Behind him lay two still bodies, the bodies of two men who he believed to be his enemies. Something had happened to them which he could not explain, but he connected this something with the men who travelled with the mules.
There was a dull, smoldering ache at the back of his brain. All his longing for vengeance turned towards them. He still had his six-gun, and he still had ammunition. He would go after them.
So it came about that O’Neil still followed Tutt Strawhan and Pete Stark without knowing it, and those two scoundrels were firmly convinced that they were in no further danger.
Quite unaware of the fact that O’Neil was still on their trail, they took their tie as they crossed the ranges. In their new clothes they felt as though they had taken a new identity. They even began to talk about the gold which they had been forced to abandon at a certain coaching post far to the south, and wondered what had become of it.
It maddened them to think that they had lost such a fortune, especially as it would now only have to be shared amongst the two of them. They discussed plans as to how they might go back in search of it.
The mules followed them steadily. There was a full camping kit as well as supplies of provisions on those beasts. Tutt Strawhan and his companion decided to pretend to be prospectors until they reached the territory where they were known and feared.
So, just before nightfall, when they sighted lights ahead, they resolved to make their first attempt at deception.
“You’re Jack Rolls and I’m Peter Lewis,” said Strawhan. “We’re bound for Monopoly Valley looking for gold. If there’s a saloon here ahead we might manage to get news of some of our pals.”
Knowing that it was the end of the day’s trek, the mules increased their pace when they saw the cluster of shacks and buildings ahead. The outfit pulled up outside a combined saloon and store, a place which was evidently the meeting place of the men of the settlement, for a number of horses were already tethered outside the building.
The two killers confidently swaggered forward. Half a dozen men were waiting in the doorway, watching them curiously. Tutt Strawhan saw that there was no one there whom he recognized, tilted his hat and grunted:
“How-do! Any chance of gettin’ a hot meal in this joint? I’m Pete Lewis, an’ this is Jack Rolls. That’s our outfit over there. We’ve come a durn long way, and feel just about tuckered up.”
The men on the porch said nothing. Their silence was unusual. The two newcomers felt awkward.
“Reckon we can find a trough around here for our mules?” murmured Pete Stark.
“No!” The snarl came from a big man, who had suddenly whipped two guns from under the tails of his coat and was covering the two supposed prospectors closely.
“Before you do anything else, you’ve got to explain what you’ve done to Tim Slade and Monty Barr. Those are their mules, and those are their clothes you’re wearing. Guess there’s something mighty queer here!”
Half a dozen of the miners drew guns. The two men who had committed murder in order to put the Six-Gun Gorilla off their trail now found themselves nearer death than ever.
XX. — PRISONERS OF THE MINERS
Hanging oil lamps cast a fitful light over the porch of the crude store which also served as a saloon in a far western settlement.
It was not much of a settlement, but merely a group of shacks and cabins on the edge of the mining country.
Half a dozen men were standing in the doorway of the store when newcomers arrived with several laden mules. One of these men in the doorway whipped out a revolver and covered the newcomers.
“Answer me!” he thundered. “Where did you get them mules? Where’s Tim Slade an’ Monty Barr? Why are you wearin’ their clothes?”
There was a snarl from the rest of the group as they closed round and twitched the guns from the belts of the new arrivals. As for these two men who had just reached the threshold of the store, their mouths sagged weakly open. They looked around like trapped beasts.
Trapped they were, and the trap was very much of their own making. Neither the clothes they wore, nor the mules and the equipment, were their rightful property. They had murdered two innocent prospectors in order to get possession of these, and had hoped to disguise themselves in order to shake a terrible pursuer off their trail.
But now Tutt Strawhan and Pete Stark found themselves in a bigger mess than ever. They had been unfortunate enough to come to the very settlement where the two prospectors whom they had murdered were well known. Both the clothing and equipment were recognized.
Sweat shone on their faces as they rushed into the store and backed against the counter.
“I—I can explain! It was a mistake!” sputtered Tutt Strawhan, and to see him then no one would have believed that he had the reputation of being one of the toughest gunmen in the West. It was a different matter when he had no gun in his hand!
“Mistake! Guess it was a mistake!” growled one of the local men. “You would never have got that kit or clothes without killing our two friends. You dirty skunks! You’ve killed two of the straightest guys in the world. What shall we do with ’em, you men, shoot ’em or string ’em up?”
“String ’em up!” roared the rest of the miners.
“Aye, we’ll rope ’em up sure enough, but first of all we’ll have to wait till the sheriff gets back.” Said the man who had asked the question. “We won’t do nothin’ without him. We’ll be all fair an’ legal like. Best thing to do with these skunks is to put ’em in the cellar for the night. They’ll be safe enough there.”
So despite their protests, Strawhan and Stark were seized and their arms bound. Under the store was a fairly big cellar with barrels and boxes stacked at one end. The two prisoners were pushed roughly into a corner, and told to keep quiet. No one thought of giving them food or water. Every man there was too disgusted at the idea of the two prospectors being murdered. A search party was organized to gown down the trail and look for their bodies.
Meanwhile the two prisoners in the cellar whispered hoarsely to each other. This was a stroke of bad luck which they had never expected. Bad luck had come their way frequently lately, and it was entirely of their own doing.
The Tutt Strawhan Gang had been much feared in one part of Colorado, and might still have been enjoying a good deal of power if they had not heard about old Bart Masters, who ran a small gold mine on his own up in the Boulder Hills.
Masters had worked this mine for seven years, aided by a gorilla which he had purchased from a sailor named O’Neil.
He had called the gorilla O’Neil, and had taught it to do various odd jobs, even how to fire a revolvers. One night Masters had decided to abandon the mine and go back to civilization, but he had been murdered by the Strawhan Gang who had also wounded O’Neil, and made off with the miner’s gold.
When O’Neil had recovered, and discovered that his master was dead, he had buckled on his master’s gunbelt and bandolier and had set out on the trail of the murdering gang.
The trail had led for hundreds of miles. The Six-Gun Gorilla had hounded the killers from place to place, had forced them to abandon the gold, and had already killed two of them, and had so terrified Strawhan and Stark that these two had resolved to disguise themselves in some way to try to shake him off the scent.
That was why they had murdered Tim Slade and Monty Barr, and why they had donned the clothes of their victims. They believed that the gorilla would find the bodies and mistake them for their own, because of the scent of the clothes.
At the time it had seemed a brilliant plan. They had congratulated themselves upon it. Now they thought differently. These furious miners were going to hang them just as soon as the sheriff came back. It was not much use having escaped the Six-Gun Gorilla in order to be hanged.
The two prisoners struggled desperately with their bonds, and finally Tutt Strawhan managed to get one hand free. He released himself, then freed Pete Stark, but after that the killers could go no further. The only exit from the cellar was through the trapdoor in the floor of the saloon, and over their heads they could hear the men of the settlement tramping about and talking.
“We’ll have to wait till everyone’s gone for the night. Guess we can lift that trap from underneath,” muttered Strawhan. “No good getting panicky yet. We’ll make a getaway before the sheriff comes back.”
A crack of light showed through the boarding overhead, but that was the only light the captives had in the darkness of the cellar. Time seemed to be endless.
The men above were expecting their sheriff back that night some time or other, and intended to wait up for him and to tell him about the tragedy. They were also awaiting the return of the search party which had been sent out for the bodies of the two prospectors.
“Here he comes! Here’s the sheriff.”
All heads turned towards the doorway. All the men rose expectantly from the tables at which they had been sitting, but the door did not open. Instead, there came a low knocking.
“Come in!” shouted half a dozen men at once.
The door was not opened. Again the knocking sounded. One of the miners lost his patience, and strode the length of the room.
“Who in heck is it?” he grunted, as he flung the door wide. “It’s a free country. Walk in.”
It was very dark outside. All he could see was a bulky shape at the top of the two steps leading from the trail. Nearby some tethered horses were kicking and rearing in evident fear.
“Come on in mister!” sang out the miner. “We thought it was our sheriff. Did you see anything of him on the trail?”
His voice tailed away hoarsely, for the bulky shape at the top of the steps had lumbered forward. The startled miner found himself staring at a huge shaggy chest.
Backing away, vainly trying to cry some alarm to his friends in the saloon the man at the door saw a terrible face appear in the lamplight.
It was like something out of a nightmare, with flat nose, wide mouth, gleaming teeth, and reddish, glaring eyes. It was the face of a gorilla.
The startled miner’s eyes nearly popped out of his head as he staggered back into the saloon trying to gasp out the alarm.
The gorilla followed him up, occasionally lowering a hand to the floor to steady itself, but usually managing to walk erect. The doorway was wide, but one of the doorposts was knocked over at a drunken angle as the visitor stepped inside.
The occupants of the saloon stared at the strange figure unbelievingly. They had never seen a gorilla in Colorado before. Few of the men there even knew what the beast was. Even those who did recognize the beast were stunned with amazement when they saw the gunbelt, with the heavy six-gun, and the bandolier of cartridges slung around the animal’s shoulder.
“What in the heck—?” exploded someone.
Some of the men reached for their guns, but directly they did that the gorilla did the same.
Face twisted in a fiendish snarl, the gun held in a huge paw, the Six-Gun Gorilla walked the length of the store, looking to right and left with those keen reddish-brown eyes.
He was sniffing the air as though he scented something or someone he recognized. A deep rumble came from his throat. Every hair on his body seemed to bristle. He was in a towering rage.
The two prisoners in the cellar were speechless with horror. They had heard everything that had happened in the saloon, and now heard the floor boards creaking ominously under the weight of the intruder.
The gun, and the face behind it, fascinated the terrified settlers. They pressed themselves further and further back against the counter in the saloon, and stared. Not one of them tried a shot. They were almost paralyzed with fear.
The gorilla reached them, put out a huge paw, and thrust two of them to one side. He leaned over the counter and looked behind it.
The storekeeper had ducked behind cover of the counter at the first glimpse of the intruder. O’Neil reached over with a long arm, caught hold of the man’s belt, and lifted him straight into view.
He held him in the air for inspection, snuffed him all over doubtfully, whilst the man trembled like a leaf, then dropped him lightly on the floor.
The Six-Gun Gorilla’s lips curled back in a snarl. He could not understand it. He could smell the men he wanted, yet they were not here!
He stamped about the room, peering in odd corners. He tried to open a cupboard, and the door came off in his huge hand.
The men in the saloon did not dare stir. They now realized that this nightmare gunman had no intention of harming them as long as they did not interfere with him in any way as he searched the building. What he was looking for they could not imagine.
Be the first to comment