"I wonder," said Hopalong, glancing through the door, "if them friends of mine reckon I'm any ascared to go in that tent? Huh, I'll just show 'em anyhow!" whereupon he dismounted, flung the reins over his horse's head, and strode through the doorway.
The nearest seat, a bench made by placing a bottom board of the evangelist's wagon across two up-ended boxes, was close enough to the exhorter and he dropped into it and glanced carelessly at his nearest neighbor. The carelessness went out of his bearing as his eyes fastened themselves in a stare on the man's neck-kerchief. Hopalong was hardened to awful sights and at his best was not an artistic soul, but the villainous riot of fiery crimson, gaudy yellow, and pugnacious and domineering green which flaunted defiance and insolence from the stranger's neck caused his breath to hang over one count and then come double strong at the next exhalation. "Gee whiz!" he whispered.
The stranger slowly turned his head and looked coldly upon the impudent disturber of his reverent reflections. "Meaning?" he questioned, with an upward slant in his voice. The neck-kerchief seemed to grow suddenly malignant and about to spring. "Meaning?" repeated the other with great insolence, while his eyes looked a challenge.
While Hopalong's eyes left the scrambled color-insult and tried to banish the horrible after-image, his mind groped for the rules of etiquette governing free fist fights in gospel tents, and while he hesitated as to whether he should dent the classic profile of the color-bearer or just twist his nose as a sign of displeasure, the voice of the evangelist arose to a roar and thundered out. Hopalong ducked instinctively.
"—Stop! Stop before it is too late, before death takes you in the wallow of your sins! Repent and gain salvation—"
Hopalong felt relieved, but his face retained its expression of childlike innocence even after he realized that he was not being personally addressed; and he glanced around. It took him ninety-seven seconds to see everything there was to be seen, and his eyes were drawn irresistibly back to the stranger's kerchief. "Awful! Awful thing for a drinking man to wear, or run up against unexpectedly!" he muttered, blinking. "Worse than snakes," he added thoughtfully.
"Look ahere, you—" began the owner of the offensive decoration, if it might be called such, but the evangelist drowned his voice in another flight of eloquence.
"—Peace! Peace is the message of the Lord to His children," roared the voice from the upturned soap box, and when the speaker turned and looked in the direction of the two men-with-a-difference he found them sitting up very straight and apparently drinking in his words with great relish; whereupon he felt that he was making gratifying progress toward the salvation of their spotted souls. He was very glad, indeed, that he had been so grievously misinformed about the personal attributes of one Hopalong Cassidy,—glad and thankful.
"Death cometh as a thief in the night," the voice went on. "Think of the friends who have gone before; who were well one minute and gone the next! And it must come to all of us, to all of us, to me and to you—"
The man with the afflicted neck started rocking the bench.
"Something is coming to somebody purty soon," murmured Hopalong. He began to sidle over towards his neighbor, his near hand doubled up into a huge knot of protuberant knuckles and white-streaked fingers; but as he was about to deliver his hint that he was greatly displeased at the antics of the bench, a sob came to his ears. Turning his head swiftly, he caught sight of the stranger's face, and sorrow was marked so strongly upon it that the sight made Hopalong gape. His hand opened slowly and he cautiously sidled back again, disgruntled, puzzled, and vexed at himself for having strayed into a game where he was so hopelessly at sea. He thought it all over carefully and then gave it up as being too deep for him to solve. But he determined one thing: He was not going to leave before the other man did, anyhow.
"An' if I catch that howling kerchief outside," he muttered, smacking his lips with satisfaction at what was in store for it. His visit to Wallace was not very important, anyway, and it could wait on more important events.
"There sits a sinner!" thundered out the exhorter, and Hopalong looked stealthily around for a sight of a villain. "God only has the right to punish. 'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord, and whosoever takes the law into his own hands, whosoever takes human life, defies the Creator. There sits a man who has killed his fellow-men, his brothers! Are you not a sinner, Cassidy?"
Cassidy jumped clear of the bench as he jerked his head around and stared over the suddenly outstretched arm and pointing finger of the speaker and into his accusing eyes.
"Answer me! Are you not a sinner?"
Hopalong stood up, confused, bewildered, and then his suspended thoughts stirred and formed. "Guilty, I reckon, an' in the first degree. But they didn't get no more'n what was coming to 'em, no more'n they earned. An' that's straight!"
"How do you know they didn't? How do you know they earned it? How do you know?" demanded the evangelist, who was delighted with the chance to argue with a sinner. He had great faith in "personal contact," and his was the assurance of training, of the man well rehearsed and fully prepared. And he knew that if he should be pinned into a corner by logic and asked for his proofs, that he could squirm out easily and take the offensive again by appealing to faith, the last word in sophistry, and a greater and more powerful weapon than intelligence. This was his game, and it was fixed; he could not lose if he could arouse enough interest in a man to hold him to the end of the argument. He continued to drive, to crowd. "What right have you to think so? What right have you to judge them? Have you divine insight? Are you inspired? 'Judge not lest ye be judged,' saith the Lord, and you dare to fly in the face of that great command!"
"You've got me picking the pea in this game, all right," responded Hopalong, dropping back on the bench. "But lemme tell you one thing; Command or no command, devine or not devine, I know when a man has lived too long, an' when he's going to try to get me. An' all the gospel sharps south of heaven can't stop me from handing a thief what he's earned. Go on with the show, but count me out."
While the evangelist warmed to the attack, vaguely realizing that he had made a mistake in not heeding Dave Wilkes' tip, Hopalong became conscious of a sense of relief stealing over him and he looked around wonderingly for the cause. The man with the kerchief had "folded his tents" and departed; and Hopalong, heaving a sigh of satisfaction, settled himself more comfortably and gave real attention to the discourse, although he did not reply to the warm and eloquent man on the soap box. Suddenly he sat up with a start as he remembered that he had a long and hard ride before him if he wished to see Wallace, and arising, strode towards the exit, his chest up and his chin thrust out. The only reply he made to the excited and personal remarks of the revivalist was to stop at the door and drop his last dollar into the yeast box before passing out.
For a moment he stood still and pondered, his head too full of what he had heard to notice that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Although the evangelist had adopted the wrong method he had gained more than he knew and Hopalong had something to take home with him and wrestle out for himself in spare moments; that is, he would have had but for one thing: As he slowly looked around for his horse he came to himself with a sharp jerk, and hot profanity routed the germ of religion incubating in his soul. His horse was missing! Here was a pretty mess, he thought savagely; and then his expression of anger and perplexity gave way to a flickering grin as the probable solution came to his mind.
"By the Lord, I never saw such a bunch to play jokes," he laughed. "Won't they never grow up? They was watching me when I went inside an' sneaked up and rustled my cayuse. Well, I'll get back again without much trouble, all right. They ought to know me better by this time."
"Hey, stranger!" he called to a man who was riding past, "have you seen anything of a skinny roan cayuse fifteen han's high, white stocking on the near foreleg, an' a bandage on the off fetlock, Bar-20 being the brand?"
The stranger, knowing the grinning inquisitor by sight, suspected that a joke was being played: he also knew Dave Wilkes and that gentleman's friends. He chuckled and determined to help it along a little. "Shore did, pardner; saw a man leading him real cautious. Was he yourn?"
"Oh, no; not at all. He belonged to my great-great-grandfather, who left him to my second cousin. You see, I borrowed it," he grinned, making his way leisurely towards the general store, kept by his friend Dave, the joker. "Funny how everybody likes a joke," he muttered, opening the door of the store. "Hey, Dave," he called.
Mr. Wilkes wheeled suddenly and stared. "Why, I thought you was half-way to Wallace's by now!" he exclaimed. "Did you come back to lose that lone dollar?"
"Oh, I lost that too. But yo're a real smart cuss, now ain't you?" queried Hopalong, his eyes twinkling and his face wreathed with good humor. "An' how innocent you act, too. Thought you could scare me, didn't you? Thought I'd go tearing 'round this fool town like a house afire, hey? Well, I reckon you can guess again. Now, I'm owning up that the joke's on me, so you hand over my cayuse, an' I'll make up for lost time."
Dave Wilkes' face expressed several things, but surprise was dominant. "Why, I ain't even seen yore ol' cayuse, you chump! Last time I saw it you was on him, going like the devil. Did somebody pull you off it an' take it away from you?" he demanded with great sarcasm. "Is somebody abusing you?"
Hopalong bit into a generous handful of dried apricots, chewed complacently for a moment, and replied: "'At's aw right; I want my cayuse." Swallowing hastily, he continued: "I want it, an' I've come to the right place for it, too. Hand it over, David."
"Dod blast it, I tell you I ain't got it!" retorted Dave, beginning to suspect that something was radically wrong. "I ain't seen it, an' I don't know nothing about it."
Hopalong wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Well, then, Tom or Art does, all right."
"No, they don't, neither; I watched 'em leave an' they rode straight out of town, an' went the other way, same as they allus do." Dave was getting irritated. "Look here, you; are you joking or drunk, or both, or is that animule of yourn really missing?"
"Huh!" snorted Hopalong, trying some new prunes. "'Ese prunes er purty good," he mumbled, in grave congratulation. "I don' get prunes like 'ese very of'n."
"I reckon you don't! They ought to be good! Cost me thirty cents a half-pound," Dave retorted with asperity, anxiously shifting his feet. It didn't take much of a loss to wipe out a day's profits with him.
"An' I don't reckon you paid none too much for 'em, at that," Mr. Cassidy responded, nodding his head in comprehension. "Ain't no worms in 'em, is there?"
"Shore there is!" exploded Dave. "Plumb full of 'em!"
"You don't say! Hardly know whether to take a chance with the worms or try the apricots. Ain't no worms in them, anyhow. But when am I going to get my cayuse? I've got a long way to go, an' delay is costly—how much did you say these yaller fellers cost?" he asked significantly, trying another handful of apricots.
"On the dead level, cross my heart an' hope to die, but I ain't seen yore cayuse since you left here," earnestly replied Dave. "If you don't know where it is, then somebody went an' lifted it. It looks like it's up to you to do some hunting, 'stead of cultivating a belly-ache at my expense. I ain't trying to keep you, God knows!"
Hopalong glanced out of the window as he considered, and saw, entering the saloon, the same puncher who had confessed to seeing his horse. "Hey Dave; wait a minute!" and he dashed out of the store and made good time towards the liquid refreshment parlor. Dave promptly nailed the covers on the boxes of prunes and apricots and leaned innocently against the cracker box to await results, thinking hard all the while. It looked like a plain case of horse-stealing to him.
"Stranger," cried Hopalong, bouncing into the bar-room, "where did you see that cayuse of mine?"
"The ancient relic of yore family was aheading towards Hoyt's Corners," the stranger replied, grinning broadly. "It's a long walk. Have something before you starts?"
"Damn the walk! Who was riding him?"
"Nobody at all."
"What do you mean?"
"He wasn't being rid when I saw him."
"Hang it, man; that cayuse was stole from me!"
"Somewhat in the nature of a calamity, now ain't it?" smiled the stranger, enjoying his contributions to the success of the joke.
"You bet yore life it is!" shouted Hopalong, growing red and then pale. "You tell me who was leading him, understand?"
"Well, I couldn't see his face, honest I couldn't," replied the stranger. "Every time I tried it I was shore blinded by the most awful an' horrible neck-kerchief I've ever had the hard luck to lay my eyes on. Of all the drunks I ever met, them there colors was—Hey! Wait a minute!" he shouted at Hopalong's back.
"Dave, gimme yore cayuse an' a rifle—quick!" cried Hopalong from the middle of the street as he ran towards the store. "Hypocrite son-of-a-hoss-thief went an' run mine off. Might 'a' knowed nobody but a thief could wear such a kerchief!"
"I'm with you!" shouted Dave, leading the way on the run towards the corral in the rear of his store.
"No, you ain't with me, neither!" replied Hopalong, deftly saddling. "This ain't no plain hoss-thief case—it's a private grudge. See you later, mebby," and he was pacing a cloud of dust towards the outskirts of the town.
Dave looked after him. "Well, that feller has shore got a big start on you, but he can't keep ahead of that Doll of mine for very long. She can out-run anything in these parts. 'Sides, Cassidy's cayuse looked sort of done up, while mine's as fresh as a bird. That thief will get what's coming to him, all right."
MR. CASSIDY COGITATES
While Hopalong tried to find his horse, Ben Ferris pushed forward, circling steadily to the east and away from the direction of Hoyt's corners, which was as much a menace to his health and happiness as the town of Grant, twenty miles to his rear. If he could have been certain that no danger was nearer to him than these two towns, he would have felt vastly relieved, even if his horse was not fresh. During the last hour he had not urged it as hard as he had in the beginning of his flight and it had dropped to a walk for minutes at a stretch. This was not because he felt that he had plenty of time, but for the reason that he understood horses and could not afford to exhaust his mount so early in the chase. He glanced back from time to time as if fearing what might be on his trail, and well he might fear. According to all the traditions and customs of the range, both of which he knew well, somewhere between him and Grant was a posse of hard-riding cow-punchers, all anxious and eager for a glance at him over their sights. In his mind's eye he could see them, silent, grim, tenacious, reeling off the miles on that distance-eating lope. He had stolen a horse, and that meant death if they caught him. He loosened his gaudy kerchief and gulped in fear, not of what pursued, but of what was miles before him. His own saddle, strapped behind the one he sat in, bumped against him with each reach of the horse and had already made his back sore—but he must endure it for a time. Never in all his life had minutes been so precious.
Another hour passed and the horse seemed to be doing well, much better than he had hoped—he would rest it for a few minutes at the next water while he drank his fill and changed the bumping saddle. As he rounded a turn and entered a heavily grassed valley he saw a stream close at hand and, leaping off, fixed the saddle first. As he knelt to drink he caught a movement and jumped up to catch his mount. Time after time he almost touched it, but it evaded him and kept up the game, cropping a mouthful of grass during each respite.
"All right!" he muttered as he let it eat. "I'll get my drink while you eat an' then I'll get you!"
He knelt by the stream again and drank long and deep. As he paused for breath something made him leap up and to one side, reaching for his Colt at the same instant. His fingers found only leather and he swore fiercely as he remembered—he had sold the Colt for food and kept the rifle for defence. As he faced the rear a horseman rounded the turn and the fugitive, wheeling, dashed for the stolen horse forty yards away, where his rifle lay in its saddle sheath. But an angry command and the sharp hum of a bullet fired in front of him checked his flight and he stopped short and swore.
"I reckon the jig's up," remarked Mr. Cassidy, balancing the up-raised Colt with nicety and indifference.
"Yea; I reckon so," sullenly replied the other, tears running into his eyes.
"Well, I'm damned!" snorted Hopalong with cutting contempt. "Crying like a li'l baby! Got nerve enough to steal my cayuse, an' then go an' beller like a lost calf when I catch you. Yo're a fine specimen of a hoss-thief, I don't think!"
"Yo're a liar!" retorted the other, clenching his fists and growing red.
Mr. Cassidy's mouth opened and then clicked shut as his Colt swung down. But he did not shoot; something inside of him held his trigger finger and he swore instead. The idea of a man stealing his horse, being caught red-handed and unarmed, and still possessed of sufficient courage to call his captor a name never tolerated or overlooked in that country! And the idea that he, Hopalong Cassidy, of the Bar-20, could not shoot such a thief! "Damn that sky pilot! He's shore gone an' made me loco," he muttered, savagely, and then addressed his prisoner. "Oh, you ain't crying? Wind got in yore eyes, I reckon, an' sort of made 'em leak a little—that it? Or mebby them unholy green roses an' yaller grass on that blasted fool neck-kerchief of yourn are too much for your eyes, too!"
"Look ahere!" snapped the man on the ground, stepping forward, one fist upraised. "I came nigh onto licking you this noon in that gospel sharp's tent for making fun of that scarf, an' I'll do it yet if you get any smart about it! You mind yore own business an' close yore fool eyes if you don't like my clothes!"
"Say! You ain't no cry-baby after all. Hanged if I even think yo're a real genuine hoss-thief!" enthused Mr. Cassidy. "You act like a twin brother; but what the devil ever made you steal that cayuse, anyhow?"
"An' that's none of yore business, neither; but I'll tell you, just the same," replied the thief. "I had to have it; that's why. I'll fight you rough-an'-tumble to see if I keep it, or if you take the cayuse an' shoot me besides: is it a go?"
Hopalong stared at him and then a grin struggled for life, got it, and spread slowly over his tanned countenance. "Yore gall is refreshing! Damned if it ain't worse than the scarf. Here, you tell me what made you take a chance like stealing a cayuse this noon—I'm getting to like you, bad as you are, hanged if I ain't!"
"Oh, what's the use?" demanded the other, tears again coming into his eyes. "You'll think I'm lying an' trying to crawl out—an' I won't do neither."
"I didn't say you was a liar," replied Hopalong. "It was the other way about. Reckon you can try me, anyhow; can't you?"
"Yes; I s'pose so," responded the other, slowly, and in a milder tone of voice. "An' when I called you that I was mad and desperate. I was hasty—you see, my wife's dying, or dead, over in Winchester. I was riding hard to get to her before it was too late when my cayuse stepped into a hole just the other side of Grant—you know what happened. I shot the animal, stripped off my saddle an' hoofed it to town, an' dropped into that gospel dealer's layout to see if he could make me feel any better—which he could not. I just couldn't stand his palaver about death an' slipped out. I was going to lay for you an' lick you for the way you acted about this scarf—had to do something or go loco. But when I got outside there was yore cayuse, all saddled an' ready to go. I just up an' threw my saddle on it, followed suit with myself an' was ten miles out of town before I realized just what I'd done. But the realizing part of it didn't make no difference to me—I'd 'a' done it just the same if I had stopped to think it over. That's flat, an' straight. I've got to get to that li'l woman as quick as I can, an' I'd steal all the cayuses in the whole damned country if they'd do me any good. That's all of it—take it or leave it. I put it up to you. That's yore cayuse, but you ain't going to get it without fighting me for it! If you shoot me down without giving me a chance, all right! I'll cut a throat for that wore-out bronc!"
Hopalong was buried in thought and came to himself just in time to cover the other and stop him not six feet away. "Just a minute, before you make me shoot you! I want to think about it."
"Damn that gun!" swore the fugitive, nervously shifting his feet and preparing to spring. "We'd 'a' been fighting by this time if it wasn't for that!"
"You stand still or I'll blow you apart," retorted Hopalong, grimly. "A man's got a right to think, ain't he? An' if I had somebody here to mind these guns so you couldn't sneak 'em on me I'd fight you so blamed quick that you'd be licked before you knew you was at it. But we ain't going to fight—stand still! You ain't got no show at all when yo're dead!"
"Then you gimme that cayuse—my God, man! Do you know the hell I've been through for the last two days? Got the word up at Daly's Crossing an' ain't slept since. I'll go loco if the strain lasts much longer! She asking for me, begging to see me: an' me, like a damned idiot, wasting time out here talking to another. Ride with me, behind me—it's only forty miles more—tie me to the saddle an' blow me to pieces if you find I'm lying—do anything you wants; but let me get to Winchester before dark!"
Hopalong was watching him closely and at the end of the other's outburst threw back his head. "I reckon I'm a plain fool, a jackass; but I don't care. I'll rope that cayuse for you. You come along to save time," Hopalong ordered, spurring forward. His borrowed rope sailed out, tightened, and in a moment he was working at the saddle. "Here, you; I'm going to swamp mounts with you—this one is fresher an' faster." He had his own saddle off and the other on in record time, and stepped back. "There; don't stand there like a fool—wake up an' hustle! I might change my mind—that's the way to move! Gimme that neck-kerchief for a souveneer, an' get out. Send that cayuse back to Dave Wilkes, at Grant—it's hissn. Don't thank me; just gimme that scarf an' ride like the devil."
The other, already mounted, tore the kerchief from his throat and handed it quickly to his benefactor. "If you ever want a man to take you out of hell, send to Winchester for Ben Ferris—that's me. So long!"
Mr. Cassidy sat on his saddle where he had dropped it after making the exchange and looked after the galloping horseman, and when a distant rise had shut him from sight, turned his eyes on the scarf in his hand and cogitated. Finally, with a long-drawn sigh he arose, and, placing the scarf on the ground, caught and saddled his horse. Riding gloomily back to where the riot of color fluttered on the grass he drew his Colt and sent six bullets through it with a great amount of satisfaction. Not content with the damage he had inflicted, he leaned over and swooped it up. Riding further he also swooped up a stone and tied the kerchief around it, and then stood up in his stirrups and drew back his arm with critical judgment. He sat quietly for a time after the gaudy missile had disappeared into the stream and then, wheeling, cantered away. But he did not return to the town of Grant—he lacked the nerve to face Dave Wilkes and tell his childish and improbable story. He would ride on and meet Red as they had agreed; a letter would do for Mr. Wilkes, and after he had broken the shock in that manner he could pay him a personal visit sometime soon. Dave would never believe the story and when it was told Hopalong wanted to have the value of the horse in his trousers pocket. Of course, Ben Ferris might have told the truth and he might return the horse according to directions. Hopalong emerged from his reverie long enough to appeal to his mount:
"Bronc, I've been thinking: am I or am I not a jackass?"
RED BRINGS TROUBLE
After a night spent on the plain and a cigarette for his breakfast, Hopalong, grouchy and hungry, rode slowly to the place appointed for his meeting with Red, but Mr. Connors was over two hours late. It was now mid-forenoon and Hopalong occupied his time for a while by riding out fancy designs on the sand; but he soon tired of this makeshift diversion and grew petulant. Red's tardiness was all the worse because the erring party to the agreement had turned in his saddle at Hoyt's Corners and loosed a flippant and entirely uncalled-for remark about his friend's ideas regarding appointments.
"Well, that red-headed Romeo is shore late this time," Hopalong muttered. "Why don't he find a girl closer to home, anyhow? Thank the Lord I ain't got no use for shell games of any kind. Here I am, without anything to eat an' no prospects of anything, sitting up on this locoed layout like a sore thumb, an' can't move without hitting myself! An' it'll be late to-day before I can get any grub, too. Oh, well," he sighed, "I ain't in love, so things might be a whole lot worse with me. An' he ain't in love, neither, only he won't listen to reason. He gets mad an' calls me a sage hen an' says I'm stuck on myself because some fool told me I had brains."
He laughed as he pictured the object of his friend's affections. "Huh; anybody that got one good, square look at her wouldn't ever accuse him of having brains. But he'll forget her in a month. That was the life of his last hobbling fit an' it was the worst he ever had."
Grinning at his friend's peculiarly human characteristics he leaned back in the saddle and felt for tobacco and papers. As he finished pouring the chopped alfalfa into the paper he glanced up and saw a mounted man top the sky-line of the distant hills and shoot down the slope at full speed.
"I knowed it: started three hours late an' now he's trying to make it up in the last mile," Hopalong muttered, dexterously spreading the tobacco along the groove and quickly rolling the cigarette. Lighting it he looked up again and saw that the horseman was wildly waving a sombrero.
"Huh! Wigwagging for forgiveness," laughed the man who waited. "Old son-of-a-gun, I'd wait a week if I had some grub, an' he knows it. Couldn't get mad at him if I tried."
Mr. Connors' antics now became frantic and he shouted something at the top of his voice. His friend spurred his mount. "Come on, bronc; wake up. His girl said 'yes' an' now he wants me to get him out of his trouble." Whereupon he jogged forward. "What's that?" he shouted, sitting up very straight. "What's that?"
Red energetically swept the sombrero behind him and pointed to the rear. "War-whoops! W-a-r w-h-o-o-p-s! Injuns, you chump!" Mr. Connors appeared to be mildly exasperated.
"Yes?" sarcastically rejoined Mr. Cassidy in his throat, and then shouted in reply: "Love an' liquor don't mix very well in you. Wake up! Come out of it!"
"That's straight—I mean it!" cried Mr. Connors, close enough now to save the remainder of his lungs. "It's a bunch of young bucks on their first war-trail, I reckon. 'T ain't Geronimo, all right; I wouldn't be here now if it was. Three of 'em chased me an' the two that are left are coming hot-foot somewhere the other side of them hills. They act sort of mad, too."
"Mebby they ain't acting at all," cheerily replied his companion. "An' then that's the way you got that graze?" pointing to a bloody furrow on Mr. Connors' cheek. "But just the same it looks like the trail left by a woman's finger nail."
"Finger nail nothing," retorted Mr. Connors, flushing a little. "But, for God's sake, are you going to sit here like a wart on a dead dog an' wait for 'em?" he demanded with a rising inflection. "Do you reckon yo're running a dance, or a party, or something like that?"
"How many?" placidly inquired Mr. Cassidy, gazing intently towards the high sky-line of the distant hills.
"Two—an' I won't tell you again, neither!" snapped the owner of the furrowed cheek. "The others are 'way behind now—but we're standing still!"
"Why didn't you say there was others?" reproved Hopalong. "Naturally I didn't see no use of getting all het up just because two sprouted papooses feel like crowding us a bit; it wouldn't be none of our funeral, would it?" and the indignant Mr. Cassidy hurriedly dismounted and hid his horse in a nearby chaparral and returned to his companion at a run.
"Red, gimme yore Winchester an' then hustle on for a ways, have an accident, fall off yore cayuse, an' act scared to death, if you know how. It's that little trick Buck told us about, an' it shore ought to work fine here. We'll see if two infant feather-dusters can lick the Bar-20. Get a-going!"
They traded rifles, Hopalong taking the repeater in place of the single-shot gun he carried, and Red departed as bidden, his face gradually breaking into an enthusiastic grin as he ruminated upon the plan. "Level-headed old cuss; he's a wonder when it comes to planning or fighting. An' lucky,—well, I reckon!"
Hopalong ran forward for a short distance and slid down the steep bank of a narrow arroyo and waited, the repeater thrust out through the dense fringe of grass and shrubs which bordered the edge. When settled to his complete satisfaction and certain that he was effectually screened from the sight of any one in front of him, he arose on his toes and looked around for his companion, and laughed. Mr. Connors was bending very dejectedly apparently over his prostrate horse, but in reality was swearing heartily at the ignorant quadruped because it strove with might and main to get its master's foot off its head so it could arise. The man in the arroyo turned again and watched the hills and it was not long before he saw two Indians burst into view over the crest and gallop towards his friend. They were not to be blamed because they did not know the pursued had joined a friend, for the second trail was yet some distance in front of them.
"Pair of budding warriors, all right; an' awful important. Somebody must 'a' told them they had brains," Mr. Cassidy muttered. "They're just at the age when they knows it all an' have to go 'round raising hell all the time. Wonder when they jumped the reservation."
The Indians, seeing Mr. Connors arguing with his prostrate horse, and taking it for granted that he was not stopping for pleasure or to view the scenery, let out a yell and dashed ahead at grater speed, at the same time separating so as to encircle him and attack him front and rear at the same time. They had a great amount of respect for cowboys.
This manoeuvre was entirely unexpected and clashed violently with Mr. Cassidy's plan of procedure, so two irate punchers swore heartily at their rank stupidity in not counting on it. Of course everybody that knew anything at all about such warfare knew that they would do just such a thing, which made it all the more bitter. But Red had cultivated the habit of thinking quickly and he saw at once that the remedy lay with him; he astonished the exultant savages by straddling his disgruntled horse as it scrambled to its feet and galloping away from them, bearing slightly to the south, because he wished to lure his pursuers to ride closer to his anxious and eager friend.
This action was a success, for the yelling warriors, slowing perceptibly because of their natural astonishment at the resurrection and speed of an animal regarded as dead or useless, spurred on again, drawing closer together, and along the chord of the arc made by Mr. Connors' trail. Evidently the fool white man was either crazy or had original and startling ideas about the way to rest a horse when hard pressed, which pleased them much, since he had lost so much time. The pleasures of the war-trail would be vastly greater if all white men had similar ideas.
Hopalong, the light of fighting burning strong in his eyes, watched them sweep nearer and nearer, splendid examples of their type and seeming to be a part of their mounts. Then two shots rang out in quick succession and a cloud of pungent smoke arose lazily from the edge of the arroyo as the warriors fell from their mounts not sixty yards from the hidden marksman.
Mr. Connors' rifle spat fire once to make assurance doubly sure and he hastily rejoined his friend as that person climbed out of the arroyo.
"Huh! They must have been half-breeds!" snorted Red in great disgust, watching his friend shed sand from his clothes. "I allus opined that 'Paches was too blamed slick to bite on a game like that."
"Well, they are purty 'lusive animals, 'Paches; but there are exceptions," replied Hopalong, smiling at the success of their scheme. "Them two ain't 'Paches—they're the exceptions. But let me tell you that's a good game, just the same. It is as long as they don't see the second trail in time. Didn't Buck and Skinny get two that way?"
"Yes, I reckon so. But what'll we do now? What's the next play?" asked Red, hurriedly, his eyes searching the sky-line of the hills. "The rest of the coyotes will be here purty soon, an' they'll be madder than ever now. An' you better gimme back that gun, too."
"Take yore old gun—who wants the blamed thing, anyhow?" Hopalong demanded, throwing the weapon at his friend as he ran to bring up the hidden horse. When he returned he grinned pleasantly. "Why, we'll go on like we was greased for calamity, that's what we'll do. Did you reckon we was going to play leap-frog around here an' wait for the rest of them paint-shops, like a blamed fool pair of idiots?"
"I didn't know what you might do, remembering how you acted when I met you," retorted Red, shifting his cartridge belt so the empty loops were behind and out of the way. "But I shore knowed what we ought to do, all right."
"Well, mebby you also know how many's headed this way; do you?"
"You've got me stumped there; but there's a round dozen, anyway," Red replied. "You see, the three that chased me were out scouting ahead of the main bunch; an' I didn't have no time to take no blasted census."
"Then we've got to hit the home trail, an' hit it hard. Wind up that four-laigged excuse of yourn, an' take my dust," Hopalong responded, leading the way. "If we can get home there'll be a lot of disgusted braves hitting the high spots on the back trail trying to find a way out. Buck an' the rest of the boys will be a whole lot pleased, too. We can muster thirty men in two hours if we gets to Buckskin, an' that's twenty more than we'll need."
"Tell you one thing, Hoppy; we can get as far as Powers' old ranch house, an' that's shore," replied Red, thoughtfully.
"Yes!" exploded his companion in scorn and pity. "That old sieve of a shack ain't good enough for me to die in, no matter what you think about it. Why, it's as full of holes as a stiff hat in a melee. Yo're on the wrong trail; think again."
Mr. Cassidy objected not because he believed that Powers' old ranch house was unworthy of serious consideration as a place of refuge and defence, but for the reason that he wished to reach Buckskin so his friends might all get in on the treat. Times were very dull on the ranch, and this was an occasion far too precious to let slip by. Besides, he then would have the pleasure of leading his friends against the enemy and battling on even terms. If he sought shelter he and Red would have to fight on the defensive, which was a game he hated cordially because it put him in a relatively subordinate position and thereby hurt his pride.
"Let me tell you that it's a whole lot better than thin air with a hard-working circle around us—an' you know what that means," retorted Mr. Connors. "But if you don't want to take a chance in the shack, why mebby we can make Wallace's, or the Cross-O-Cross. That is, if we don't get turned out of our way."
"We don't head for no Cross-O-Cross or Wallace's," rejoined his friend with emphasis, "an' we won't waste no time in Powers' shack, neither; we'll push right through as hard as we can go for Buckskin. Let them fellers find their own hunting—our outfit comes first. An' besides that'll mean a detour in a country fine for ambushes. We'd never get through."
"Well, have it yore own way, then!" snapped Red. "You allus was a hard-headed old mule, anyhow." In his heart Red knew that Hopalong was right about Wallace's and the Cross-O-Cross.
Some time after the two punchers had quitted the scene of their trap, several Apaches loped up, read the story of the tragedy at a glance, and galloped on in pursuit. They had left the reservation a fortnight before under the able leadership of that veteran of many war-trails—Black Bear. Their leader, chafing at inaction and sick of the monotony of reservation life, had yielded to the entreaties of a score of restless young men and slipped away at their head, eager for the joys of raiding and plundering. But instead of stealing horses and murdering isolated whites as they had expected, they met with heavy repulses and were now without the mind of their leader. They had fled from one defeat to another and twice had barely eluded the cavalry which pursued them. Now two more of their dwindling force were dead and another had been found but an hour before. Rage and ferocity seethed in each savage heart and they determined to get the puncher they had chased, and that other whose trail they now saw for the first time. They would place at least one victory against the string of their defeats, and at any cost. Whips rose and fell and the war-party shot forward in a compact group, two scouts thrown ahead to feel the way.
Red and Hopalong rode on rejoicing, for there were three less Apaches loose in the Southwest for the inhabitants to swear about and fear, and there was an excellent chance of more to follow. The Southwest had no toleration for the Government's policy of dealing with Indians and derived a great amount of satisfaction every time an Apache was killed. It still clung to the time-honored belief that the only good Indian was a dead one. Mr. Cassidy voiced his elation and then rubbed an empty stomach in vain regret,—when a bullet shrilled past his head, so unexpectedly as to cause him to duck instinctively and then glance apologetically at his red-haired friend; and both spurred their mounts to greater speed. Next Mr. Connors grabbed frantically at his perforated sombrero and grew petulant and loquacious.
"Both them shots was lucky, Hoppy; the feller that fired at me did it on the dead run; but that won't help us none if one of 'em connects with us. You gimme that Sharps—got to show 'em that they're taking big chances crowding us this way." He took the heavy rifle and turned in the saddle. "It's an even thousand, if it's a yard. He don't look very big, can't hardly tell him from his cayuse; an' the wind's puffy. Why don't you dirty or rust this gun? The sun glitters all along the barrel. Well, here goes."
"Missed by a mile," reproved Hopalong, who would have been stunned by such a thing as a hit under the circumstances, even if his good-shooting friend had made it.
"Yes! Missed the coyote I aimed for, but I got the cayuse of his off pardner; see it?"
"Talk about luck!"
"That's all right: it takes blamed good shooting to miss that close in this case. Look! It's slowed 'em up a bit, an' that's about all I hoped to do. Bet they think I'm a real, shore-'nuff medicine-man. Now gimme another cartridge."
"I will not; no use wasting lead at this range. We'll need all the cartridges we got before we get out of this hole. You can't do nothing without stopping—an' that takes time."
"Then I'll stop! The blazes with the time! Gimme another, d'ye hear?"
Mr. Cassidy heard, complied, and stopped beside his companion, who was very intent upon the matter at hand. It took some figuring to make a hit when the range was so great and the sun so blinding and the wind so capricious. He lowered the rifle and peered through the smoke at the confusion he had caused by dropping the nearest warrior. He was said to be the best rifle shot in the Southwest, which means a great deal, and his enemies did not deny it. But since the Sharps shot a special cartridge and was reliable up to the limit of its sight gauge, a matter of eighteen hundred yards, he did not regard the hit as anything worthy of especial mention. Not so his friend, who grinned joyously and loosed his admiration.
"Yo're a shore wonder with that gun, Red! Why don't you lose that repeater an' get a gun like mine? Lord, if I could use a rifle like you, I wouldn't have that gun of yourn for a gift. Just look at what you did with it! Please get one like it."
"I'm plumb satisfied with the repeater," replied Red. "I don't miss very often at eight hundred with it, an' that's long enough range for most anybody. An' if I do miss, I can send another that won't, an' right on the tail of the first, too."
"Ah, the devil! You make me disgusted with yore fool talk about that carbine!" snapped his companion, and the subject was dropped.
The merits of their respective rifles had always been a bone of contention between them and one well chewed, at that. Red was very well satisfied with his Winchester, and he was a good judge.
"You did stop 'em a little," asserted Mr. Cassidy some time later when he looked back. "You stopped 'em coming straight, but they're spreading out to work up around us. Now, if we had good cayuses instead of these wooden wonders, we could run away from 'em dead easy, draw their best mounted warriors to the front an' then close with 'em. Good thing their cayuses are well tired out, for as it is we've got to make a stand purty soon. Gee! They don't like you, Red; they're calling you names in the sign language. Just look at 'em cuss you!"
"How much water have you got?" inquired his friend with anxiety.
"Canteen plumb full. How're you fixed?"
"I got the same, less one drink. That gives us enough for a couple of days with some to spare, if we're careful," Mr. Connors replied. New Mexican canteens are built on generous lines and are known as life-preservers.
"Look at that glory-hunter go!" exclaimed Red, watching a brave who was riding half a mile to their right and rapidly coming abreast of them. "Wonder how he got over there without us seeing him."
"Here; stop him!" suggested Hopalong, holding out his Sharps. "We can't let him get ahead of us and lay in ambush—that's what he's playing to do."
"My gun's good, and better, for me, at this range; but you know, I can't hit a jack-rabbit going over rough country as fast as that feller is," replied his companion, standing up in his stirrups and firing.
"Huh! Never touched him! But he's edging off a-plenty. See him cuss you. What's he calling you, anyhow?"
"Aw, shut up! How the devil do I know? I don't talk with my arms."
"Are you superstitious, Red?"
"No! Shut up!"
"Well, I am. See that feller over there? If he gets in front of us it's a shore sign that somebody's going to get hurt. He'll have plenty of time to get cover an' pick us off as we come up."
"Don't you worry—his cayuse is deader'n ours. They must 'a' been pushing on purty hard the last few days. See it stumble?—what'd I tell you!"
"Yes; but they're gaining on us slow but shore. We've got to make a stand purty soon—how much further do you reckon that infernal shack is, anyhow?" Hopalong asked sharply.
"'T ain't fur off—see it any minute now."
"Here," remarked Hopalong, holding out his rifle, "stencil yore mark on his hide; catch him just as he strikes the top of that little rise."
"Ain't got time—that shack can't be much further."
And it wasn't, for as they galloped over a rise they saw, half a mile ahead of them, an adobe building in poor state of preservation. It was Powers' old ranch house, and as they neared it, they saw that there was no doubt about the holes.
"Told you it was a sieve," grunted Hopalong, swinging in on the tail of his companion. "Not worth a hang for anything," he added bitterly.
"It'll answer, all right," retorted Red grimly.
MR. HOLDEN DROPS IN
Mr. Cassidy dismounted and viewed the building with open disgust, walking around it to see what held it up, and when he finally realized that it was self-supporting his astonishment was profound. Undoubtedly there were shacks in the United States in worse condition, but he hoped their number was small. Of course he knew that the building was small. Of course he knew that the building would make a very good place of defence, but for the sake of argument he called to his companion and urged that they be satisfied with what defence they could extemporize in the open. Mr. Connors hotly and hastily dissented as he led the horses into the building, and straightway the subject was arbitrated with much feeling and snappy eloquence. Finally Hopalong thought that Red was a chump, and said so out loud, whereat Red said unpleasant things about his good friend's pedigree, attributes, intelligence, et al., even going so far as to prognosticate his friend's place of eternal abode. The remarks were fast getting to be somewhat personal in tenor when a whine in the air swept up the scale to a vicious shriek as it passed between them, dropped rapidly to a whine again and quickly died out in the distance, a flat report coming to their ears a few seconds later. Invisible bees seemed to be winging through the air, the angry and venomous droning becoming more pronounced each passing moment, and the irregular cracking of rifles grew louder rapidly. An angry s-p-a-t! told of where a stone behind them had launched the ricochet which hurled skyward with a wheezing scream. A handful of 'dobe dust sprang from the corner of the building and sifted down upon them, causing Red to cough.
"That ricochet was a Sharps!" exclaimed Hopalong, and they lost no time in getting into the building, where the discussion was renewed as they prepared for the final struggle. Red grunted his cheerful approval, for now he was out of the blazing sun and where he could better appreciate the musical tones of the flying bullets; but his companion, slamming shut the door and propping it with a fallen roof-beam, grumbled and finally gave rein to his rancor by sneering at the Winchester.
"It shore gets me that after all I have said about that gun you will tote it around with you and force yoreself into a suicide's grave," quoth Mr. Cassidy, with exuberant pugnacity. "I ain't in no way objecting to the suicide part of it, but I can't see that it's at all fair to drag me onto the edge of everlasting eternity with you. If you ain't got no regard for yore own life you shore ought to think a little about yore friend's. Now you'll waste all yore cartridges an' then come snooping around me to borrow my gun. Why don't you lose the damned thing?"
"What I pack ain't none of yore business, which same I'll uphold," retorted Mr. Connors, at last able to make himself heard. "You get over on yore own side an' use yore Colt; I've wondered a whole lot where you ever got the sense to use a Colt—I wouldn't be a heap surprised to see you toting a pearl-handled .22, like the kids use. Now you 'tend to yore grave-yard aspirants, an' lemme do the same with mine."
"The Lord knows I've stood a whole lot from you because you just can't help being foolish, but I've got plumb weary and sick of it. It stops right here or you won't get no 'Paches," snorted Hopalong, peering intently through a hole in the shack. The more they squabbled the better they liked it,—controversies had become so common that they were merely a habit; and they served to take the grimness out of desperate situations.
"Aw, you can't lick one side of me," averred Red loftily. "You never did stop anybody that was anything," he jeered as he fired from his window. "Why, you couldn't even hit the bottom of the Grand Canyon if you leaned over the edge."
"You could, if you leaned too far, you red-headed wart of a half-breed," snapped Hopalong. "But how about the Joneses, Tarantula Charley, Slim Travennes, an' all the rest? How about them, hey?"
"Huh! You couldn't 'a' got any of 'em if they had been sober," and Mr. Connors shook so with mirth that the Indian at whom he had fired got away with a whole skin and cheerfully derided the marksman. "That 'Pache shore reckons it was you shooting at him, I missed him so far. Now, you shut up—I want to get some so we can go home. I don't want to stay out here all night an' the next day as well," Red grumbled, his words dying slowly in his throat as he voiced other thoughts.
Hopalong caught sight of an Apache who moved cautiously through a chaparral lying about nine hundred yards away. As long as the distant enemy lay quietly he could not be discerned, but he was not content with assured safety and took a chance. Hopalong raised his rifle to his shoulder as the Indian fired and the latter's bullet, striking the edge of the hole through which Mr. Cassidy peered, kicked up a generous handful of dust, some of which found lodgment in that individual's eyes.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Wow!" yelled the unfortunate, dancing blindly around the room in rage and pain, and dropping his rifle to grab at his eyes. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
His companion wheeled like a flash and grabbed him as he stumbled past. "Are you plugged bad, Hoppy? Where did they get you? Are you hit bad?" and Red's heart was in his voice.
"No, I ain't plugged bad!" mimicked Hopalong. "I ain't plugged at all!" he blazed, kicking enthusiastically at his solicitous friend. "Get me some water, you jackass! Don't stand there like a fool! I ain't going to fall down. Don't you know my eyes are full of 'dobe?"
Red, avoiding another kick, hastily complied, and as hastily left Mr. Cassidy to wash out the dirt while he returned to his post by the window. "Anybody'd think you was full of red-eye, the way you act," muttered Red peevishly.
Hopalong, rubbing his eyes of the dirt, went back to the hole in the wall and looked out. "Hey, Red! Come over here an' spill that brave's conceit. I can't keep my eyes open long enough to aim, an' it's a nice shot, too. It'd serve him right if you got him!"
Mr. Connors obeyed the summons and peered out cautiously. "I can't see him, nohow; where is the coyote?"
"Over there in that little chaparral; see him now? There! See him moving. Do you mean to tell me—"
"Yep; I see him, all right. You watch," was the reply. "He's just over nine hundred—where's yore Sharps?" He took the weapon, glanced at the Buffington sight, which he found to be set right, and aimed carefully.
Hopalong blinked through another hole as his friend fired and saw the Indian flop down and crawl aimlessly about on hands and knees. "What's he doing now, Red?"
"Playing marbles, you chump; an' here goes for his agate," replied the man with the Sharps, firing again. "There! Gee!" he exclaimed, as a bullet hummed in through the window he had quitted for the moment, and thudded into the wall, making the dry adobe fly. It had missed him by only a few inches and he now crept along the floor to the rear of the room and shoved his rifle out among the branches of a stunted mesquite which grew before a fissure in the wall. "You keep away from that windy for a minute, Hoppy," he warned as he waited.
A terror-stricken lizard flashed out of the fissure and along the wall where the roof had fallen in and flitted into a hole, while a fly buzzed loudly and hovered persistently around Red's head, to the rage of that individual. "Ah, ha!" he grunted, lowering the rifle and peering through the smoke. A yell reached his ears and he forthwith returned to his window, whistling softly.
Evidently Mr. Cassidy's eyes were better and his temper sweeter, for he hummed "Dixie" and then jumped to "Yankee Doodle," mixing the two airs with careless impartiality, which was a sign that he was thinking deeply. "Wonder what ever became of Powers, Red. Peculiar feller, he was."
"In jail, I reckon, if drink hasn't killed him."
"Yes; I reckon so," and Mr. Cassidy continued his medley, which prompted his friend quickly to announce his unqualified disapproval.
"You can make more of a mess of them two songs than anybody I ever heard murder 'em! Shut up!"—and the concert stopped, the vocalist venting his feelings at an Indian, and killing the horse instead.
"Did you get him?" queried Red.
"Nope; but I got his cayuse," Hopalong replied, shoving a fresh cartridge into the foul, greasy breech of the Sharps. "An' here's where I get him—got to square up for my eyes some way," he muttered, firing. "Missed! Now what do you think of that!" he exclaimed.
"Better take my Winchester," suggested Red, in a matter-of-fact way, but he chuckled softly and listened for the reply.
"Aw, you go to the devil!" snapped Mr. Cassidy, firing again. "Whoop! Got him that time!"
"Where?" asked his companion, with strong suspicion.
"None of yore business!"
"Aw, darn it! Who spilled the water?" yelled Red, staring blankly at the overturned canteen.
"Pshaw! Reckon I did, Red," apologized his friend ruefully. "Now of all the cussed luck!"
"Oh, well; we've got another, an' you had to wash out yore eyes. Lucky we each had one—Holy smoke! It's most all gone! The top is loose!"
Heartfelt profanity filled the room and the two disgusted punchers went sullenly back to their posts. It was a calamity of no small magnitude, for, while food could be dispensed with for a long time if necessary, going without water was another question. It was as necessary as cartridges.
Then Hopalong laughed at the ludicrous side of the whole affair, thereby revealing one of the characteristics which endeared him to his friends. No matter how desperate a situation might be, he could always find in it something at which to laugh. He laughed going into danger and coming out of it, with a joke or a pleasantry always trembling on the end of his tongue.
"Red, did it ever strike you how cussed thirsty a feller gets just as soon as he knows he can't have no drink? But it don't make much difference, nohow. We'll get out of this little scrape just as we've allus got out of trouble. There's some mad war-whoops outside that are worse off than we are, because they are at the wrong end of yore gun. I feel sort of sorry for 'em."
"Yo're shore a happy idiot," grinned Red. "Hey! Listen!"
Galloping was heard and Hopalong, running to the door, looked out through a crack as sudden firing broke out around the rear of the shack, and fell to pulling away the props, crying, "It's a puncher, Red; he's riding this way! Come on an' help him in!"
"He's a blamed fool to ride this way! I'm with you!" replied Red, running to his side.
Half a mile from the house, coming across the open space as fast as he could urge his horse, rode a cowboy, and not far behind him raced about a dozen Apaches, yelling and firing.
Red picked up his companion's rifle, and steadying it against the jamb of the door, fired, dropping one of the foremost of the pursuers. Quickly reloading again, he fired and missed. The third shot struck another horse, and then taking up his own gun he began to fire rapidly, as rapidly as he could work the lever and yet make his shots tell. Hopalong drew his Colt and ran back to watch the rear of the house, and it was well that he did so, for an Apache in that direction, believing that the trapped punchers were so busily engaged with the new developments as to forget for the moment, sprinted towards the back window; and he had gotten within twenty paces of the goal when Hopalong's Colt cracked a protest. Seeing that the warrior was no longer a combatant, Mr. Cassidy ran back to the door just as the stranger fell from his horse and crawled past Red. The door slammed shut, the props fell against it, and the two friends turned to the work of driving back the second band, which, however, had given up all hope of rushing the house in the face of Red's telling fire, and had sought cover instead.
The stranger dragged himself to the canteens and drank what little water remained, and then turned to watch the two men moving from place to place, firing coolly and methodically. He thought he recognized one of them from the descriptions he had heard, but he was not sure.
"My name's Holden," he whispered hoarsely, but the cracking of the rifles drowned his voice. During a lull he tried again. "My name's Holden," he repeated weakly. "I'm from the Cross-O-Cross, an' can't get back there again."
"Mine's Cassidy, an' that's Connors, of the Bar-20. Are you hurt very bad?"
"No; not very bad," lied Holden, trying to smile. "Gee, but I'm glad I fell in with you two fellers," he exclaimed. He was but little more than a boy, and to him Hopalong Cassidy and Red Connors were names with which to conjure. "But I'm plumb sorry I went an' brought you more trouble," he added regretfully.
"Oh, pshaw! We had it before you came—you needn't do no worrying about that, Holden; besides, I reckon you couldn't help it," Hopalong grinned facetiously. "But tell us how you came to mix up with that bunch," he continued.
Holden shuddered and hesitated a moment, his companions alertly shifting from crack to crack, window to window, their rifles cracking at intervals. They appeared to him to act as if they had done nothing else all their lives but fight Indians from that shack, and he braced up a little at their example of coolness.
"It's an awful story, awful!" he began. "I was riding towards Hoyt's Corners an' when I got about half way there I topped a rise an' saw a nester's house about half a mile away. It wasn't there the last time I rode that way, an' it looked so peaceful an' home-like that I stopped an' looked at it a few minutes. I was just going to start again when that war-party rode out of a barranca close to the house an' went straight for it at top speed. It seemed like a dream, 'cause I thought Apaches never got so far east. They don't, do they? I thought not—these must 'a' got turned out of their way an' had to hustle for safety. Well, it was all over purty quick. I saw 'em drag out two women an'—an'—purty soon a man. He was fighting like fury, but he didn't last long. Then they set fire to the house an' threw the man's body up on the roof. I couldn't seem to move till the flames shot up, but then I must 'a' went sort of loco, because I emptied my gun at 'em, which was plumb foolish at that distance, for me. The next thing I knowed was that half of 'em was coming my way as hard as they could ride, an' I lit out instanter; an' here I am. I can't get that sight outen my head nohow—it'll drive me loco!" he screamed, sobbing like a child from the horror of it all.
His auditors still moved around the room, growing more and more vindictive all the while and more zealously endeavoring to create a still greater deficit in one Apache war-party. They knew what he had looked upon, for they themselves had become familiar with the work of Apaches in Arizona. They could picture it vividly in all its devilish horror. Neither of them paid any apparent attention to their companion, for they could not spare the time, and, also, they believed it best to let him fight out his own battles unassisted.
Holden sobbed and muttered as the minutes dragged along, at times acting so strangely as to draw a covert side-glance from one or both of the Bar-20 punchers. Then Mr. Connors saw his boon companion suddenly lean out of a window and immediately become the target for the hard-working enemy. He swore angrily at the criminal recklessness of it. "Hey, you! Come in out of that! Ain't you got no brains at all, you blasted idiot! Don't you know that we need every gun?"
"Yes; that's right. I sort of forgot," grinned the reckless one, obeying with alacrity and looking sheepish. "But you know there's two thundering big tarantulas out there fighting like blazes. You ought to see 'em jump! It's a sort of a leap-frog fight, Red."
"Fool!" snorted Mr. Connors belligerently. "You'd 'a' jumped if one of them slugs had 'a' got you! Yo're the damnedest fool that ever walked on two laigs, you blasted sage-hen!" Mr. Connors was beginning to lose his temper and talk in his throat.
"Well, they didn't get me, did they? What you yelling about, anyhow?" growled Hopalong, trying to brazen it out.
"An' you talking about suicide to me!" snapped Mr. Connors, determined to rub it in and have the last word.
Mr. Holden stared, open-mouthed, at the man who could enjoy a miserable spider fight under such distressing circumstances, and his shaken nerves became steadier as he gave thought to the fact that he was a companion of the two men about whose exploits he had heard so much. Evidently the stories had not been exaggerated. What must they think of him for giving way as he had? He rose to his feet in time to see a horse blunder into the open on Red's side of the house, and after it blundered its owner, who immediately lost all need of earthly conveyances. Holden laughed from the joy of being with a man who could shoot like that, and he took up his rifle and turned to a crack in the wall, filled with the determination to let his companions know that he was built of the right kind of timber after all, wounded as he was.
Red's only comment, as he pumped a fresh cartridge into the barrel, was, "He must 'a' thought he saw a spider fight, too."
"Hey, Red," called Hopalong. "The big one is dead."
"What big one?"
"Why, don't you remember? That big tarantula I was watching. One was bigger than the other, but the little feller shore waded into him an'—"
"Go to the devil!" shouted Red, who had to grin, despite his anger.
"Presently, presently," replied Hopalong, laughing.
So the day passed, and when darkness came upon them all of the defenders were wounded, Holden desperately so.
"Red, one of us has got to try to make the ranch," Hopalong suddenly announced, and his friend knew he was right. Since Holden had appeared upon the scene they had known that they could not try a dash; one of them had to stay.
"We'll toss for it; heads, I go," Red suggested, flipping a coin.
"Tails!" cried Hopalong. "It's only thirty miles to Buckskin, an' if I can get away from here I'm good to make it by eleven to-night. I'll stop at Cowan's an' have him send word to Lucas an' Bartlett, so there'll be enough in case any of our boys are out on the range in some line house. We can pick 'em up on the way back, so there won't be no time lost. If I get through you can expect excitement on the outside of this sieve by daylight. You an' Holden can hold her till then, because they never attack at night. It's the only way out of this for us—we ain't got cartridges or water enough to last another day."
Red, knowing that Hopalong was taking a desperate chance in working through the cordon of Indians which surrounded them, and that the house was safe when compared to running such a gantlet, offered to go through the danger line with him. For several minutes a wordy war raged and finally Red accepted a compromise; he was to help, but not to work through the line.
"But what's the use of all this argument?" feebly demanded Holden. "Why don't you both go? I ain't a-going to live nohow, so there ain't no use of anybody staying here with me, to die with me. Put a bullet through me so them devils can't play with me like they do with others, an' then get away while you've got a chance. Two men can get through as easy as one." He sank back, exhausted by the effort.
"No more of that!" cried Red, trying to be stern. "I'm going to stay with you an' see things through. I'd be a fine sort of a coyote to sneak off an' leave you for them fiends. An', besides, I can't get away; my cayuse is hit too hard an' yourn is dead," he lied cheerfully. "An' yo're going to get well, all right. I've seen fellers hit harder than you are pull through."
Hopalong walked over to the prostrate man and shook hands with him. "I'm awful glad I met you, Holden. Yo're pure grit all the way through, an' I like to tie to that kind of a man. Don't you worry about nothing; Red can handle this proposition, an' we'll have you in Buckskin by to-morrow night; you'll be riding again in two weeks. So long."
He turned to Red and shook hands silently, led his horse out of the building and mounted, glad that the moon had not yet come up, for in the darkness he had a chance.
"Good luck, Hoppy!" cried Red, running to the door. "Good luck!"
"You bet—an' lots of it, too," groaned Holden, but he was gone. Then Red wheeled. "Holden, keep yore eyes an' ears open. I'm going out to see that he gets off. He may run into a—" and he, too, was gone.
Holden watched the doors and windows, striving to resist the weak, giddy feeling in his head, and ten minutes later he heard a shot and then several more in quick succession. Shortly afterward Red called out, and almost immediately the Bar-20 puncher crawled in through a window.
"Well?" anxiously cried the man on the floor. "Did he make it?"
"I reckon so. He got away from the first crowd, anyhow. I wasn't very far behind him, an' by the time they woke up to what was going on he was through an' riding like blazes. I heard him call 'em half-breeds a moment later an' it sounded far off. They hit me,—fired at my flash, like I drilled one of them. But it ain't much, anyhow. How are you feeling now?"
"Fine!" lied the other. "That Cassidy is shore a wonder—he's all right, an' so are you. I'll never see him again, but I shore hope he gets through!"
"Don't be foolish. Here, you finish the water in yore canteen—I picked it up outside by yore cayuse. Then go to sleep," ordered Red. "I'll do all the watching that's necessary."
"I will if you'll call me when you get sleepy."
"Why, shore I will. But don't you want the rest of the water? I ain't a bit thirsty—I had all I could hold just before you came," Red remarked as his companion pushed the canteen against him in the dark. He was choking with thirst. "Well, then; all right," and Red pretended to drink. "Now, then, you go to sleep; a good snooze will do you a world of good—it's just what you need."
BUCK TAKES A HAND
Cowan's saloon, club, and place of general assembly for the town of Buckskin and the nearby ranches, held a merry crowd, for it was pay-day on the range and laughter and liquor ran a close race. Buck Peters, his hands full of cigars, passed through the happy-go-lucky, do-as-you-please crowd and invited everybody to smoke, which nobody refused to do. Wood Wright, of the C-80, tuned his fiddle anew and swung into a rousing quick-step. Partners were chosen, the "women" wearing handkerchiefs on their arms to indicate the fact, and the room shook and quivered as the scraping of heavy boots filled the air with a cloud of dust. "Allaman left!" cried the prompter, and then the dance stopped as if by magic. The door had crashed open and a blood-stained man staggered in and towards the bar, crying, "Buck! Red's hemmed in by 'Paches!"
"Good God!" roared the foreman of the Bar-20, leaping forward, the cigars falling to the floor to be crushed and ground into powder by careless feet. He grasped his puncher and steadied him while Cowan slid an extra generous glassful of brandy across the bar for the wounded man. The room was in an uproar, men grabbing rifles and running out to get their horses, for it was plain to be seen that there was hard work to be done, and quickly. Questions, threats, curses filled the air, those who remained inside to get the story listening intently to the jerky narrative; those outside, caring less for the facts of an action past than for the action to come, shouted impatiently for a start to be made, even threatening to go on and tackle the proposition by themselves if there were not more haste. Hopalong told in a graphic, terse manner all that was necessary, while Buck and Cowan hurriedly bandaged his wounds.
"Come on! Come on!" shouted the mounted crowd outside, angry, and impatient for a start, the prancing of horses and the clinking of metal adding to the noise. "Get a move on! Will you hurry up!"
"Listen, Hoppy!" pleaded Buck, in a furore. "Shut up, you outside!" he yelled. "You say they know that you got away, Hoppy?" he asked. "All right—Lanky!" he shouted. "Lanky!"
"All right, Buck!" and Lanky Smith roughly pushed his way through the crowd to his foreman's side. "Here I am."
"Take Skinny and Pete with you, an' a lead horse apiece. Strike straight for Powers' old ranch house. Them Injuns'll have pickets out looking for Hoppy's friends. You three get the pickets nearest the old trail through that arroyo to the southeast, an' then wait for us. We'll come along the high bank on the left. Don't make no noise doing it, neither, if you can help it. Understand? Good! Now ride like the devil!"
Lanky grabbed Pete and Skinny on his way out and disappeared into the corral; and very soon thereafter hoof-beats thudded softly in the sandy street and pounded into the darkness of the north, soon lost to the ear. An uproar of advice and good wishes crashed after them, for the game had begun.
"It's Powers' old shack, boys!" shouted a man in the door to the restless force outside, which immediately became more restless. "Hey! Don't go yet!" he begged. "Wait for me an' the rest. Don't be a lot of idiots!"
Excited and impatient voices replied from the darkness, vexed, grouchy, and querulous. "Then get a move on—whoa!—it'll be light before we get there if you don't hustle!" roared one voice above the confusion. "You know what that means!"
"Come on! Come on! For God's sake, are you tied to the bar?"
"Yo're a lot of old grandmothers! Come on!"
Hopalong appeared in the door. "I'll show you the way, boys!" he shouted. "Cowan, put my saddle on yore cayuse—pronto!"
"Good for you, Hoppy!" came from the street. "We'll wait!"
"You stay here; yo're hurt too much!" cried Buck to his puncher, as he grabbed up a box of cartridges from a shelf behind the bar. "Ain't you got no sense? There's enough of us to take care of this without you!"
Hopalong wheeled and looked his foreman squarely in the eyes. "Red's out there, waiting for me—I'm going! I'd be a fine sort of a coyote to leave him in that hell hole an' not go back, wouldn't I!" he said, with quiet determination.
"Good for you, Cassidy!" cried a man who hastened out to mount.
"Well, then, come on," replied Buck. "There's blamed few like you," he muttered, following Hopalong outside.
"Here's the cayuse, Cassidy," cried Cowan, turning the animal over to him. "Wait, Buck!" and he leaped into the building and ran out again, shoving a bottle of brandy and a package of food into the impatient foreman's hand. "Mebby Red or Hoppy'll need it—so long, an' good luck!" and he was alone in a choking cloud of dust, peering through the darkness along the river trail after a black mass that was swallowed up almost instantly. Then, as he watched, the moon pushed its rim up over the hills and he laughed joyously as he realized what its light would mean to the crowd. "There'll be great doings when that gang cuts loose," he muttered with savage elation. "Wish I was with 'em. Damn Injuns, anyhow!"
Far ahead of the main fighting force rode the three special-duty men, reeling off the miles at top speed and constantly distancing their friends, for they changed mounts at need, thanks to the lead horses provided by Mr. Peters' cool-headed foresight. It was a race against dawn, and every effort was made to win—the life of Red Connors hung in the balance and a minute might turn the scale.
In Powers' old ranch house the night dragged along slowly to the grim watcher, and the man huddled in the corner stirred uneasily and babbled, ofttimes crying out in horror at the vivid dreams of his disordered mind. Pacing ceaselessly from window to window, crack to crack, when the moon came up, Mr. Connors scanned the bare, level plain with anxious eyes, searching out the few covers and looking for dark spots on the dull gray sand. They never attacked at night, but still—. Through the void came the quavering call of a coyote, and he listened for the reply, which soon came from the black chaparral across the clearing. He knew where two of them were hiding, anyhow. Holden was muttering and tried to answer the calls, and Red looked at him for the hundredth time that night. He glanced out of the window again and noticed that there was a glow in the eastern sky, and shortly afterwards dawn swiftly developed.
Pouring the last few drops of the precious water between the wounded man's parched and swollen lips, he tossed the empty canteen from him and stood erect.
"Pore devil," he muttered, shaking his head sorrowfully, as he realized that Holden's delirium was getting worse all the time. "If you was all right we could give them wolves hell to dance to. Well, you won't know nothing about it if we go under, an' that's some consolation." He examined his rifle and saw that the Colt at his thigh was fully loaded and in good working order. "An' they'll pay us for their victory, by God! They'll pay for it!" He stepped closer to the window, throwing the rifle into the hollow of his arm. "It's about time for the rush; about time for the game—"
There was movement by that small chaparral to the south! To the east something stirred into bounding life and action; a coyote called twice—and then they came, on foot and silently as fleeting shadows, leaning forward to bring into play every ounce of energy in the slim, red legs. Smoke filled the room with its acrid sting. The crashing of the Winchester, worked with wonderful speed and deadly accuracy by the best rifle shot in the Southwest, brought the prostrate man to his feet in an instinctive response to the call to action, the necessity of defence. He grasped his Colt and stumbled blindly to a window to help the man who had stayed with him.
On Red's side of the house one warrior threw up his arms and fell forward, sprawling with arms and legs extended; another pitched to one side and rolled over twice before he lay still; the legs of the third collapsed and threw him headlong, bunched up in a grotesque pile of lifeless flesh; the fourth leaped high into the air and turned a somersault before he struck the sand, badly wounded, and out of the fight. Holden, steadying himself against the wall, leaned in a window on the other side of the shack and emptied his Colt in a dazed manner—doing his very best. Then the man with the rifle staggered back with a muttered curse, his right arm useless, and dropped the weapon to draw his Colt with the other hand.
Holden shrieked once and sank down, wagging his head slowly from side to side, blood oozing from his mouth and nostrils; and his companion, goaded into a frenzy of blood-lust and insane rage at the sight, threw himself against the door and out into the open, to die under the clear sky, to go like the man he was if he must die. "Damn you! It'll cost you more yet!" he screamed, wheeling to place his back against the wall.
The triumphant yells of the exultant savages were cut short and turned to howls of dismay by a fusillade which thundered from the south where a crowd of hard-riding, hard-shooting cow-punchers tore out of the thicket like an avalanche and swept over the open sand, yelling and cursing, and then separated to go in hot pursuit of the sprinting Apaches. Some stood up in their stirrups and fired down at a slant, making a short, chopping motion with their heavy Colts; others leaned forward, far over the necks of their horses, and shot with stationary guns; while yet others, with reins dangling free, worked the levers of blue Winchesters so rapidly that the flashes seemed to merge into a continuous flame.
"Thank God! Thank God—an' Hoppy!" groaned the man at the door of the shack, staggering forward to meet the two men who had lost no time in pursuit of the enemy, but had ridden straight to him.
"I was scared stiff you was done fer!" cried Hopalong, leaping off his horse and shaking hands with his friend, whose hand-clasp was not as strong as usual. "How's Holden?" he demanded, anxiously.
"He passed. It was a close—" began Red, weakly, but his foreman interposed.
"Shut up, an' drink this!" ordered Buck, kindly but sternly. "We'll do the talking for a while; you can tell us all about it later on. Why, hullo!" he cried as Lanky Smith and his two happy companions rode up. "Reckon you must 'a' got them pickets."
"Shore we did! Stalked 'em on our bellies, didn't we, Skinny?" modestly replied Mr. Smith, the roping expert of the Bar-20. "Ropes an' clubbed guns did the rest. Anyhow, there was only two anywhere near the trail."
"We didn't see you," responded the foreman, tying the knot of a bandage on Mr. Connors' arm. "An' we looked sharp, too."
"Reckon we was hunting for more; we sort of forgot what you said about waiting for you," Mr. Smith replied, grinning broadly.
"An' you've got a good memory now," smiled Mr. Peters.
"We didn't find no more, though," offered Mr. Pete Wilson, with grave regret. "An' we looked good, too. But we got Red, an' that's the whole game. Red, you old son-of-a-gun, you can lick yore weight in powder!"
"It's too bad about Holden," muttered Red, sullenly.
HOPALONG NURSES A GROUCH
After the excitement incident to the affair at Powers' shack had died down and the Bar-20 outfit worked over its range in the old, placid way, there began to be heard low mutterings, and an air of peevish discontent began to be manifested in various childish ways. And it was all caused by the fact that Hopalong Cassidy had a grouch, and a big one. It was two months old and growing worse daily, and the signs threatened contagion. His foreman, tired and sick of the snarling, fidgety, petulant atmosphere that Hopalong had created on the ranch, and driven to desperation, eagerly sought some chance to get rid of the "sore-thumb" temporarily and give him an opportunity to shed his generous mantle of the blues. And at last it came.
No one knew the cause for Hoppy's unusual state of mind, although there were many conjectures, and they covered the field rather thoroughly; but they did not strike on the cause. Even Red Connors, now well over all ill effects of the wounds acquired in the old ranch house, was forced to guess; and when Red had to do that about anything concerning Hopalong he was well warranted in believing the matter to be very serious.
Johnny Nelson made no secret of his opinion and derived from it a great amount of satisfaction, which he admitted with a grin to his foreman.
"Buck," he said, "Hoppy told me he went broke playing poker over in Grant with Dave Wilkes and them two Lawrence boys, an' that shore explains it all. He's got pack sores from carrying his unholy licking. It was due to come for him, an' Dave Wilkes is just the boy to deliver it. That's the whole trouble, an' I know it, an' I'm damned glad they trimmed him. But he ain't got no right of making us miserable because he lost a few measly dollars."
"Yo're wrong, son; dead, dead wrong," Buck replied. "He takes his beatings with a grin, an' money never did bother him. No poker game that ever was played could leave a welt on him like the one we all mourn, an' cuss. He's been doing something that he don't want us to know—made a fool of hisself some way, most likely, an' feels so ashamed that he's sore. I've knowed him too long an' well to believe that gambling had anything to do with it. But this little trip he's taking will fix him up all right, an' I couldn't 'a' picked a better man—or one that I'd rather get rid of just now."
"Well, lemme tell you it's blamed lucky for him that you picked him to go," rejoined Johnny, who thought more of the woeful absentee than he did of his own skin. "I was going to lick him, shore, if it went on much longer. Me an' Red an' Billy was going to beat him up good till he forgot his dead injuries an' took more interest in his friends."
Buck laughed heartily. "Well, the three of you might 'a' done it if you worked hard an' didn't get careless, but I have my doubts. Now look here—you've been hanging around the bunk house too blamed much lately. Henceforth an' hereafter you've got to earn your grub. Get out on that west line an' hustle."
"You know I've had a toothache!" snorted Johnny with a show of indignation, his face as sober as that of a judge.
"An' you'll have a stomach ache from lack of grub if you don't earn yore right to eat purty soon," retorted Buck. "You ain't had a toothache in yore whole life, an' you don't know what one is. G'wan, now, or I'll give you a backache that'll ache!"
"Huh! Devil of a way to treat a sick man!" Johnny retorted, but he departed exultantly, whistling with much noise and no music. But he was sorry for one thing: he sincerely regretted that he had not been present when Hopalong met his Waterloo. It would have been pleasing to look upon.
While the outfit blessed the proposed lease of range that took him out of their small circle for a time, Hopalong rode farther and farther into the northwest, frequently lost in abstraction which, judging by its effect upon him, must have been caused by something serious. He had not heard from Dave Wilkes about that individual's good horse which had been loaned to Ben Ferris, of Winchester. Did Dave think he had been killed or was still pursuing the man whose neck-kerchief had aroused such animosity in Hopalong's heart? Or had the horse actually been returned? The animal was a good one, a successful contender in all distances from one to five miles, and had earned its owner and backers much money—and Hopalong had parted with it as easily as he would have borrowed five dollars from Red. The story, as he had often reflected since, was as old as lying—a broken-legged horse, a wife dying forty miles away, and a horse all saddled which needed only to be mounted and ridden.
These thoughts kept him company for a day and when he dismounted before Stevenson's "Hotel" in Hoyt's Corners he summed up his feelings for the enlightenment of his horse.
"Damn it, bronc! I'd give ten dollars right now to know if I was a jackass or not," he growled. "But he was an awful slick talker if he lied. An' I've got to go up an' face Dave Wilkes to find out about it!"
Mr. Cassidy was not known by sight to the citizens of Hoyt's Corners, however well versed they might be in his numerous exploits of wisdom and folly. Therefore the habitues of Stevenson's Hotel did not recognize him in the gloomy and morose individual who dropped his saddle on the floor with a crash and stamped over to the three-legged table at dusk and surlily demanded shelter for the night.
"Gimme a bed an' something to eat," he demanded, eyeing the three men seated with their chairs tilted against the wall. "Do I get 'em?" he asked, impatiently.
"You do," replied a one-eyed man, lazily arising and approaching him. "One dollar, now."
"An' take the rocks outen that bed—I want to sleep."
"A dollar per for every rock you find," grinned Stevenson, pleasantly. "There ain't no rocks in my beds," he added.
"Some folks likes to be rocked to sleep," facetiously remarked one of the pair by the wall, laughing contentedly at his own pun. He bore all the ear-marks of being regarded as the wit of the locality—every hamlet has one; I have seen some myself.
"Hee, hee, hee! Yo're a droll feller, Charley," chuckled Old John Ferris, rubbing his ear with unconcealed delight. "That's a good un."
"One drink, now," growled Hopalong, mimicking the proprietor, and glaring savagely at the "droll feller" and his companion. "An' mind that it's a good one," he admonished the host.
"It's better," smiled Stevenson, whereat Old John crossed his legs and chuckled again. Stevenson winked.
"Riding long?" he asked.
"Since I started."
"Till I stop."
"Where do you belong?" Stevenson's pique was urging him against the ethics of the range, which forbade personal questions.
Hopalong looked at him with a light in his eye that told the host he had gone too far. "Under my sombrero!" he snapped.
"Hee, hee, hee!" chortled Old John, rubbing his ear again and nudging Charley. "He ain't no fool, hey?"
"Why, I don't know, John; he won't tell," replied Charley.
Hopalong wheeled and glared at him, and Charley, smiling uneasily, made an appeal: "Ain't mad, are you?"
"Not yet," and Hopalong turned to the bar again, took up his liquor and tossed it off. Considering a moment he shoved the glass back again, while Old John tongued his lips in anticipation of a treat. "It is good—fill it again."
The third was even better and by the time the fourth and fifth had joined their predecessors Hopalong began to feel a little more cheerful. But even the liquor and an exceptionally well-cooked supper could not separate him from his persistent and set grouch. And of liquor he had already taken more than his limit. He had always boasted, with truth, that he had never been drunk, although there had been two occasions when he was not far from it. That was one doubtful luxury which he could not afford for the reason that there were men who would have been glad to see him, if only for a few seconds, when liquor had dulled his brain and slowed his speed of hand. He could never tell when and where he might meet one of these.
He dropped into a chair by a card table and, baffling all attempts to engage him in conversation, reviewed his troubles in a mumbled soliloquy, the liquor gradually making him careless. But of all the jumbled words his companions' diligent ears heard they recognized and retained only the bare term "Winchester"; and their conjectures were limited only by their imaginations.
Hopalong stirred and looked up, shaking off the hand which had aroused him. "Better go to bed, stranger," the proprietor was saying. "You an' me are the last two up. It's after twelve, an' you look tired and sleepy."
"Said his wife was sick," muttered the puncher. "Oh, what you saying?"
"You'll find a bed better'n this table, stranger—it's after twelve an' I want to close up an' get some sleep. I'm tired myself."
"Oh, that all? Shore I'll go to bed—like to see anybody stop me! Ain't no rocks in it, hey?"
"Nary a rock," laughingly reassured the host, picking up Hopalong's saddle and leading the way to a small room off the "office," his guest stumbling after him and growling about the rocks that lived in Winchester. When Stevenson had dropped the saddle by the window and departed, Hopalong sat on the edge of the bed to close his eyes for just a moment before tackling the labor of removing his clothes. A crash and a jar awakened him and he found himself on the floor with his back to the bed. He was hot and his head ached, and his back was skinned a little—and how hot and stuffy and choking the room had become! He thought he had blown out the light, but it still burned, and three-quarters of the chimney was thickly covered with soot. He was stifling and could not endure it any longer. After three attempts he put out the light, stumbled against his saddle and, opening the window, leaned out to breathe the pure air. As his lungs filled he chuckled wisely and, picking up the saddle, managed to get it and himself through the window and on the ground without serious mishap. He would ride for an hour, give the room time to freshen and cool off, and come back feeling much better. Not a star could be seen as he groped his way unsteadily towards the rear of the building, where he vaguely remembered having seen the corral as he rode up.
"Huh! Said he lived in Winchester an' his name was Bill—no, Ben Ferris," he muttered, stumbling towards a noise he knew was made by a horse rubbing against the corral fence. Then his feet got tangled up in the cinch of his saddle, which he had kicked before him, and after great labor he arose, muttering savagely, and continued on his wobbly way. "Goo' Lord, it's darker'n cats in—oof!" he grunted, recoiling from forcible contact with the fence he sought. Growling words unholy he felt his way along it and finally his arm slipped through an opening and he bumped his head solidly against the top bar of the gate. As he righted himself his hand struck the nose of a horse and closed mechanically over it. Cow-ponies look alike in the dark and he grinned jubilantly as he complimented himself upon finding his own so unerringly.
"Anything is easy, when you know how. Can't fool me, ol' cayuse," he beamed, fumbling at the bars with his free hand and getting them down with a fool's luck. "You can't do it—I got you firs', las', an' always; an' I got you good. Yessir, I got you good. Quit that rearing, you ol' fool! Stan' still, can't you?" The pony sidled as the saddle hit its back and evoked profane abuse from the indignant puncher as he risked his balance in picking it up to try again, this time successfully. He began to fasten the girth, and then paused in wonder and thought deeply, for the pin in the buckle would slide to no hole but the first. "Huh! Getting fat, ain't you, piebald?" he demanded with withering sarcasm. "You blow yoreself up any more'n I'll bust you wide open!" heaving up with all his might on the free end of the strap, one knee pushing against the animal's side. The "fat" disappeared and Hopalong laughed. "Been learnin' new tricks, ain't you? Got smart since you been travellin', hey?" He fumbled with the bars again and got two of them back in place and then, throwing himself across the saddle as the horse started forward as hard as it could go, slipped off, but managed to save himself by hopping along the ground. As soon as he had secured the grip he wished he mounted with the ease of habit and felt for the reins. "G'wan now, an' easy—it's plumb dark an' my head's bustin'."
When he saddled his mount at the corral he was not aware that two of the three remaining horses had taken advantage of their opportunity and had walked out and made off in the darkness before he replaced the bars, and he was too drunk to care if he had known it.
The night air felt so good that it moved him to song, but it was not long before the words faltered more and more and soon ceased altogether and a subdued snore rasped from him. He awakened from time to time, but only for a moment, for he was tired and sleepy.
His mount very quickly learned that something was wrong and that it was being given its head. As long as it could go where it pleased it could do nothing better than head for home, and it quickened its pace towards Winchester. Some time after daylight it pricked up its ears and broke into a canter, which soon developed signs of irritation in its rider. Finally Hopalong opened his heavy eyes and looked around for his bearings. Not knowing where he was and too tired and miserable to give much thought to a matter of such slight importance, he glanced around for a place to finish his sleep. A tree some distance ahead of him looked inviting and towards it he rode. Habit made him picket the horse before he lay down and as he fell asleep he had vague recollections of handling a strange picket rope some time recently. The horse slowly turned and stared at the already snoring figure, glanced over the landscape, back the to queerest man it had ever met, and then fell to grazing in quiet content. A slinking coyote topped a rise a short distance away and stopped instantly, regarding the sleeping man with grave curiosity and strong suspicion. Deciding that there was nothing good to eat in that vicinity and that the man was carrying out a fell plot for the death of coyotes, it backed away out of sight and loped on to other hunting grounds.
A FRIEND IN NEED
Stevenson, having started the fire for breakfast, took a pail and departed towards the spring; but he got no farther than the corral gate, where he dropped the pail and stared. There was only one horse in the enclosure where the night before there had been four. He wasted no time in surmises, but wheeled and dashed back towards the hotel, and his vigorous shouts brought Old John to the door, sleepy and peevish. Old John's mouth dropped open as he beheld his habitually indolent host marking off long distances on the sand with each falling foot.
"What's got inter you?" demanded Old John.
"Our broncs are gone! Our broncs are gone!" yelled Stevenson, shoving Old John roughly to one side as he dashed through the doorway and on into the room he had assigned to the sullen and bibulous stranger. "I knowed it! I knowed it!" he wailed, popping out again as if on springs. "He's gone, an' he's took our broncs with him, the measly, low-down dog! I knowed he wasn't no good! I could see it in his eye; an' he wasn't drunk, not by a darn sight. Go out an' see for yoreself if they ain't gone!" he snapped in reply to Old John's look. "Go on out, while I throw some cold grub on the table—won't have no time this morning to do no cooking. He's got five hours' start on us, an' it'll take some right smart riding to get him before dark; but we'll do it, an' hang him, too!"
"What's all this here rumpus?" demanded a sleepy voice from upstairs. "Who's hanged?" and Charley entered the room, very much interested. His interest increased remarkably when the calamity was made known and he lost no time in joining Old John in the corral to verify the news.
Old John waved his hands over the scene and carefully explained what he had read in the tracks, to his companion's great irritation, for Charley's keen eyes and good training had already told him all there was to learn; and his reading did not exactly agree with that of his companion.
"Charley, he's gone and took our cayuses; an' that's the very way he came—'round the corner of the hotel. He got all tangled up an' fell over there, an' here he bumped inter the palisade, an' dropped his saddle. When he opened the bars he took my roan gelding because it was the best an' fastest, an' then he let out the others to mix us up on the tracks. See how he went? Had to hop four times on one foot afore he could get inter the saddle. An' that proves he was sober, for no drunk could hop four times like that without falling down an' being drug to death. An' he left his own critter behind because he knowed it wasn't no good. It's all as plain as the nose on your face, Charley," and Old John proudly rubbed his ear. "Hee, hee, hee! You can't fool Old John, even if he is getting old. No, sir, b' gum."