Charley had just returned from inside the corral, where he had looked at the brand on the far side of the one horse left, and he waited impatiently for his companion to cease talking. He took quick advantage of the first pause Old John made and spoke crisply.
"I don't care what corner he came 'round, or what he bumped inter; an' any fool can see that. An' if he left that cayuse behind because he thought it wasn't no good, he was drunk. That's a Bar-20 cayuse, an' no hoss-thief ever worked for that ranch. He left it behind because he stole it; that's why. An' he didn't let them others out because he wanted to mix us up, neither. How'd he know if we couldn't tell the tracks of our own animals? He did that to make us lose time; that's what he did it for. An' he couldn't tell what bronc he took last night—it was too dark. He must 'a' struck a match an' seen where that Bar-20 cayuse was an' then took the first one nearest that wasn't it. An' now you tell me how the devil he knowed yourn was the fastest, which it ain't," he finished, sarcastically, gloating over a chance to rub it into the man he had always regarded as a windy old nuisance.
"Well, mebby what you said is—"
"Mebby nothing!" snapped Charley. "If he wanted to mix the tracks would he 'a' hopped like that so we couldn't help telling what cayuse he rode? He knowed we'd pick his trail quick, an' he knowed that every minute counted; that's why he hopped—why, yore roan was going like the wind afore he got in the saddle. If you don't believe it, look at them toe-prints!"
"H'm; reckon yo're right, Charley. My eyes ain't nigh as good as they once was. But I heard him say something 'bout Winchester," replied Old John, glad to change the subject. "Bet he's going over there, too. He won't get through that town on no critter wearing my brand. Everybody knows that roan, an'—"
"Quit guessing!" snapped Charley, beginning to lose some of the tattered remnant of his respect for old age. "He's a whole lot likely to head for a town on a stolen cayuse, now ain't he! But we don't care where he's heading; we'll foller the trail."
"Grub pile!" shouted Stevenson, and the two made haste to obey.
"Charley, gimme a chaw of yore tobacker," and Old John, biting off a generous chunk, quietly slipped it into his pocket, there to lay until after he had eaten his breakfast.
All talk was tabled while the three men gulped down a cold and uninviting meal. Ten minutes later they had finished and separated to find horses and spread the news; in fifteen more they had them and were riding along the plain trail at top speed, with three other men close at their heels. Three hundred yards from the corral they pounded out of an arroyo, and Charley, who was leading, stood up in his stirrups and looked keenly ahead. Another trail joined the one they were following and ran with and on top of it. This, he reasoned, had been made by one of the strays and would turn away soon. He kept his eyes looking well ahead and soon saw that he was right in his surmise, and without checking the speed of his horse in the slightest degree he went ahead on the trail of the smaller hoof-prints. In a moment Old John spurred forward and gained his side and began to argue hot-headedly.
"Hey! Charley!" he cried. "Why are you follering this track?" he demanded.
"Because it's his; that's why."
"Well, here, wait a minute!" and Old John was getting red from excitement. "How do you know it is? Mebby he took the other!"
"He started out on the cayuse that made these little tracks," retorted Charley, "an' I don't see no reason to think he swapped animules. Don't you know the prints of yore own cayuse?"
"Lawd, no!" answered Old John. "Why, I don't hardly ride the same cayuse the second day, straight hand-running. I tell you we ought to foller that other trail. He's just cute enough to play some trick on us."
"Well, you better do that for us," Charley replied, hoping against hope that the old man would chase off on the other and give his companions a rest.
"He ain't got sand enough to tackle a thing like that single-handed," laughed Jed White, winking to the others.
Old John wheeled. "Ain't, hey! I am going to do that same thing an' prove that you are a pack of fools. I'm too old to be fooled by a common trick like that. An' I don't need no help—I'll ketch him all by myself, an' hang him, too!" And he wheeled to follow the other trail, angry and outraged. "Young fools," he muttered. "Why, I was fighting all around these parts afore any of 'em knowed the difference between day an' night!"
"Hard-headed old fool," remarked Charley, frowning, as he led the way again.
"He's gittin' old an' childish," excused Stevenson. "They say warn't nobody in these parts could hold a candle to him in his prime."
Hopalong muttered and stirred and opened his eyes to gaze blankly into those of one of the men who were tugging at his hands, and as he stared he started his stupefied brain sluggishly to work in an endeavor to explain the unusual experience. There were five men around him and the two who hauled at his hands stepped back and kicked him. A look of pained indignation slowly spread over his countenance as he realized beyond doubt that they were really kicking him, and with sturdy vigor. He considered a moment and then decided that such treatment was most unwarranted and outrageous and, furthermore, that he must defend himself and chastise the perpetrators.
"Hey!" he snorted, "what do you reckon yo're doing, anyhow? If you want to do any kicking, why kick each other, an' I'll help you! But I'll lick the whole bunch of you if you don't quite mauling me. Ain't you got no manners? Don't you know anything? Come 'round waking a feller up an' man-handling—"
"Get up!" snapped Stevenson, angrily.
"Why, ain't I seen you before? Somewhere? Sometime?" queried Hopalong, his brow wrinkling from intense concentration of thought. "I ain't dreaming; I've seen a one-eyed coyote som'ers, lately, ain't I?" he appealed, anxiously, to the others.
"Get up!" ordered Charley, shortly.
"An' I've seen you, too. Funny, all right."
"You've seen me, all right," retorted Stevenson. "Get up, damn you! Get up!"
"Why, I can't—my han's are tied!" exclaimed Hopalong in great wonder, pausing in his exertions to cogitate deeply upon this most remarkable phenomenon. "Tied up! Now what the devil do you think—"
"Use yore feet, you thief!" rejoined Stevenson roughly, stepping forward and delivering another kick. "Use yore feet!" he reiterated.
"Thief! Me a thief! Shore I'll use my feet, you yaller dog!" yelled the prostrate man, and his boot heel sank into the stomach of the offending Mr. Stevenson with sickening force and laudable precision. He drew it back slowly, as if debating shoving it farther. "Call me a thief, hey! Come poking 'round kicking honest punchers an' calling 'em names! Anybody want the other boot?" he inquired with grave solicitation.
Stevenson sat down forcibly and rocked to and fro, doubled up and gasping for breath, and Hopalong squinted at him and grinned with happiness. "Hear him sing! Reg'lar ol' brass band. Sounds like a cow pulling its hoofs outen the mud. Called me a thief, he did, just now. An' I won't let nobody kick me an' call me names. He's a liar, just a plain, squaw's dog liar, he—"
Two men grabbed him and raised him up, holding him tightly, and they were not over careful to handle him gently, which he naturally resented. Charley stepped in front of him to go to the aid of Stevenson and caught the other boot in his groin, dropping as if he had been shot. The man on the prisoner's left emitted a yell and loosed his hold to sympathize with a bruised shinbone, and his companion promptly knocked the bound and still intoxicated man down. Bill Thomas swore and eyed the prostrate figure with resentment and regret. "Hate to hit a man who can fight like that when he's loaded an' tied. I'm glad, all the same, that he ain't sober an' loose."
"An' you ain't going to hit him no more!" snapped Jed White, reddening with anger. "I'm ready to hang him, 'cause that's what he deserves, an' what we're here for, but I'm damned if I'll stand for any more mauling. I don't blame him for fighting, an' they didn't have no right to kick him in the beginning."
"Didn't kick him in the beginning," grinned Bill. "Kicked him in the ending. Anyhow," he continued seriously, "I didn't hit him hard—didn't have to. Just let him go an' shoved him quick."
"I'm just naturally going to clean house," muttered the prisoner, sitting up and glaring around. "Untie my han's an' gimme a gun or a club or anything, an' watch yoreselves get licked. Called me a thief! What are you fellers, then?—sticking me up an' busting me for a few measly dollars. Why didn't you take my money an' lemme sleep, 'stead of waking me up an' kicking me? I wouldn't 'a' cared then."
"Come on, now; get up. We ain't through with you yet, not by a whole lot," growled Bill, helping him to his feet and steadying him. "I'm plumb glad you kicked 'em; it was coming to 'em."
"No, you ain't; you can't fool me," gravely assured Hopalong. "Yo're lying, an' you know it. What you going to do now? Ain't I got money enough? Wish I had an even break with you fellers! Wish my outfit was here!"
Stevenson, on his feet again, walked painfully up and shook his fist at the captive, from the side. "You'll find out what we want of you, you damned hoss-thief!" he cried. "We're going to tie you to that there limb so yore feet'll swing above the grass, that's what we're going to do."
Bill and Jed had their hands full for a moment and as they finally mastered the puncher, Charley came up with a rope. "Hurry up—no use dragging it out this way. I want to get back to the ranch some time before next week."
"Why I ain't no hoss-thief, you liar!" Hopalong yelled. "My name's Hopalong Cassidy of the Bar-20, an' when I tell my friends about what you've gone an' done they'll make you hard to find! You gimme any kind of a chance an' I'll do it all by myself, sick as I am, you yaller dogs!"
"Is that yore cayuse?" demanded Charley, pointing.
Hopalong squinted towards the animal indicated. "Which one?"
"There's only one there, you fool!"
"That so?" replied Hopalong, surprised. "Well, I never seen it afore. My cayuse is—is—where the devil is it?" he asked, looking around anxiously.
"How'd you get that one, then, if it ain't yours?"
"Never had it—'t ain't mine, nohow," replied Hopalong, with strong conviction. "Mine was a hoss."
"You stole that cayuse last night outen Stevenson's corral," continued Charley, merely as a matter of form. Charley believed that a man had the right to be heard before he died—it wouldn't change the result and so could not do any harm.
"Did I? Why—" his forehead became furrowed again, but the events of the night before were vague in his memory and he only stumbled in his soliloquy. "But I wouldn't swap my cayuse for that spavined, saddle-galled, ring-boned bone-yard! Why, it interferes, an' it's got the heaves something awful!" he finished triumphantly, as if an appeal to common sense would clinch things. But he made no headway against them, for the rope went around his neck almost before he had finished talking and a flurry of excitement ensued. When the dust settled he was on his back again and the rope was being tossed over the limb.
The crowd had been too busily occupied to notice anything away from the scene of their strife and were greatly surprised when they heard a hail and saw a stranger sliding to a stand not twenty feet from them. "What's this?" demanded the newcomer, angrily.
Charley's gun glinted as it swung up and the stranger swore again. "What you doing?" he shouted. "Take that gun off'n me or I'll blow you apart!"
"Mind yore business an' sit still!" Charley snapped. "You ain't in no position to blow anything apart. We've got a hoss-thief an' we're shore going to hang him regardless."
"An' if there's any trouble about it we can hang two as well as we can one," suggested Stevenson, placidly. "You sit tight an' mind yore own affairs, stranger," he warned.
Hopalong turned his head slowly. "He's a liar, stranger; just a plain, squaw's dog of a liar. An' I'll be much obliged if you'll lick hell outen 'em an' let—why, hullo, hoss-thief!" he shouted, at once recognizing the other. It was the man he had met in the gospel tent, the man he had chased for a horse-thief and then swapped mounts with. "Stole any more cayuses?" he asked, grinning, believing that everything was all right now. "Did you take that cayuse back to Grant?" he finished.
"Han's up!" roared Stevenson, also covering the stranger. "So yo're another one of 'em, hey? We're in luck to-day. Watch him, boys, till I get his gun. If he moves, drop him quick."
"You damned fool!" cried Ferris, white with rage. "He ain't no thief, an' neither am I! My name's Ben Ferris an' I live in Winchester. Why, that man you've got is Hopalong Cassidy—Cassidy, of the Bar-20!"
"Sit still—you can talk later, mebby," replied Stevenson, warily approaching him. "Watch him, boys!"
"Hold on!" shouted Ferris, murder in his eyes. "Don't you try that on me! I'll get one of you before I go; I'll shore get one! You can listen a minute, an' I can't get away."
"All right; talk quick."
Ferris pleaded as hard as he knew how and called attention to the condition of the prisoner. "If he did take the wrong cayuse he was too blind drunk to know it! Can't you see he was!" he cried.
"Yep; through yet?" asked Stevenson, quietly.
"No! I ain't started yet!" Ferris yelled. "He did me a good turn once, one that I can't never repay, an' I'm going to stop this murder or go with him. If I go I'll take one of you with me, an' my friends an' outfit'll get the rest."
"Wait till Old John gets here," suggested Jed to Charley. "He ought to know this feller."
"For the Lord's sake!" snorted Charley. "He won't show up for a week. Did you hear that, fellers?" he laughed, turning to the others.
"Stranger," began Stevenson, moving slowly ahead again. "You give us yore guns an' sit quiet till we gets this feller out of the way. We'll wait till Old John Ferris comes before doing anything with you. He ought to know you."
"He knows me all right; an' he'd like to see me hung," replied the stranger. "I won't give up my guns, an' you won't lynch Hopalong Cassidy while I can pull a trigger. That's flat!" He began to talk feverishly to gain time and his eyes lighted suddenly. Seeing that Jed White was wavering, Stevenson ordered them to go on with the work they had come to perform, and he watched Ferris as a cat watches a mouse, knowing that he would be the first man hit if the stranger got a chance to shoot. But Ferris stood up very slowly in his stirrups so as not to alarm the five with any quick movement, and shouted at the top of his voice, grabbing off his sombrero and waving it frantically. A faint cheer reached his ears and made the lynchers turn quickly and look behind them. Nine men were tearing towards them at a dead gallop and had already begun to forsake their bunched-up formation in favor of an extended line. They were due to arrive in a very few minutes and caused Mr. Ferris' heart to overflow with joy.
"Me an' my outfit," he said, laughing softly and waving his hand towards the newcomers, "started out this morning to round up a bunch of cows, an' we got jackasses instead. Now lynch him, damn you!"
The nine swept up in skirmish order, guns out and ready for anything in the nature of trouble that might zephyr up. "What's the matter, Ben?" asked Tom Murphy ominously. As under-foreman of the ranch he regarded himself as spokesman. And at that instant catching sight of the rope, he swore savagely under his breath.
"Nothing, Tom; nothing now," responded Mr. Ferris. "They was going to hang my friend there, Mr. Hopalong Cassidy, of the Bar-20. He's the feller that lent me his cayuse to get home on when Molly was sick. I'm going to take him back to the ranch when he gets sober an' introduce him to some very good friends of hissn that he ain't never seen. Ain't I, Cassidy?" he demanded with a laugh.
But Mr. Cassidy made no reply. He was sound asleep, as he had been since the advent of his very good and capable friend, Mr. Ben Ferris, of Winchester.
MR. TOWNSEND, MARSHAL
Mr. Cassidy went to the ranch and lived like a lord until shame drove him away. He had no business to live on cake and pie and wonderful dishes that Mrs. Ferris and her sister literally forced on him, and let Buck's mission wait on his convenience. So he tore himself away and made up for lost time as he continued his journey on his own horse, for which Tom Murphy and three men had faced down the scowling population of Hoyt's Corners. The rest of his journey was without incident until, on his return home along another route, he rode into Rawhide and heard about the marshal, Mr. Townsend.
This individual was unanimously regarded as an affliction upon society and there had been objections to his continued existence, which had been overruled by the object himself. Then word had gone forth that a substantial reward and the undying gratitude of a considerable number of people awaited the man who would rid the community of the pest who seemed to be ubiquitous. Several had come in response to the call, one had returned in a wagon, and the others were now looked upon as martyrs, and as examples of asinine foolhardiness. Then it had been decided to elect a marshal, or perhaps two or three, to preserve the peace of the town; but this was a flat failure. In the first place, Mr. Townsend had dispersed the meeting with no date set for a new one; in the second, no man wanted the office; and as a finish to the comedy, Mr. Townsend cheerfully announced that hereafter and henceforth he was the marshal, self-appointed and self-sustained. Those who did not like it could easily move to other localities.
With this touch of office-holding came ambition, and of stern stuff. The marshal asked himself why he could not be more officers than one and found no reason. Thereupon he announced that he was marshal, town council, mayor, justice, and pound-keeper. He did not go to the trouble of incorporating himself as the Town of Rawhide, because he knew nothing of such immaterial things; but he was the town, and that sufficed.
He had been grievously troubled about finances in the past, and he firmly believed that genius such as his should be above such petty annoyances as being "broke." That was why he constituted himself the keeper of the public pound, which contented him for a short time, but later, feeling that he needed more money than the pound was giving him, he decided that the spirit of the times demanded public improvements, and therefore, as the executive head of the town, he levied taxes and improved the town by improving his wardrobe and the manner of his living. Each saloon must pay into the town treasury the sum of one hundred dollars per year, which entitled it to police protection and assured it that no new competitors would be allowed to do business in Rawhide.
Needless to say he was not furiously popular, and the crowds congregated where he was not. His tyranny was based upon his uncanny faculty of anticipating the other man's draw. The citizens were not unaccustomed to seeing swift death result to the slower man from misplaced confidence in his speed of hand—that was in the game—an even break; but to oppose an individual who always knew what you were going to do before you knew it yourself—this was very discouraging. Therefore, he flourished and waxed fat.
Of late, however, he had been very low in finances and could expect no taxes to be paid for three months. Even the pound had yielded him nothing for over a week, the old patrons of Rawhide's stores and saloons preferring to ride twenty miles farther in another direction than to redeem impounded horses. Perhaps his prices had been too high, he thought; so he assembled the town council, the mayor, the marshal, and the keeper of the public pound to consult upon the matter. He decided that the prices were too high and at once posted a new notice announcing the cut. It was hard to fall from a dollar to "two bits," but the treasury was low—the times were panicky.
As soon as he had changed the notice he strolled up to the Paradise to inform the bartender that impounding fines had been cut to bargain prices and to ask him to make the fact generally known through his patrons. As he came within sight of the building he jumped with pleasure, for a horse was standing dejectedly before the door. Joy of joys, trade was picking up—a stranger had come to town! Hastening back to the corral, he added a cipher to the posted figure, added a decimal point, and changed the cents sign to that of a dollar. Two dollars and fifty cents was now the price prescribed by law. Returning hastily to the Paradise, he led the animal away, impounded it, and then sat down in front of the corral gate with his Winchester across his knees. Two dollars and fifty cents! Prosperity had indeed returned!
"Where the CG ranch is I dunno, but I do know where one of their cayuses is," he mused, glancing between two of the corral posts at the sleepy animal. "If I has to auction it off to pay for its keep and the fine, the saddle will bring a good, round sum. I allus knowed that a dollar wasn't enough, nohow."
Nat Fisher, punching cows for the CG and tired of his job, leaned comfortably back in his chair in the Paradise and swapped lies with the all-wise bartender. After a while he realized that he was hopelessly outclassed at this diversion and he dug down into his pocket and brought to light some loose silver and regarded it thoughtfully. It was all the money he had and was beginning to grow interesting.
"Say, was you ever broke?" he asked suddenly, a trace of sadness in his voice.
The bartender glanced at him quickly, but remained judiciously silent, smelling the preamble of an attempt to "touch."
"Well, I have been, am now, an' allus will be, more or less," continued Fisher, in soliloquy, not waiting for an answer to his question. "Money an' me don't ride the same range, not any. Here I am fifty miles away from my ranch, with four dollars and ninety-five cents between me an' starvation an' thirst, an' me not going home for three days yet. I was going to quit the CG this month, but now I gotta go on working for it till another pay-day. I don't even own a cayuse. Now, just to show you what kind of a prickly pear I am, I'll cut the cards with you to see who owns this," he suggested, smiling brightly at his companion.
The bartender laughed, treated on the house, and shuffled out from behind the bar with a pack of greasy playing cards. "All at once, or a dollar a shot?" he asked, shuffling deftly.
"Any way it suits you," responded Fisher, nonchalantly. He knew how a sport should talk; and once he had cut the cards to see who should own his full month's pay. He hoped he would be more successful this time.
"Don't make no difference to me," rejoined the bartender.
"All right; all at once, an' have it over with. It's a kid's game, at that."
"High wins, of course?"
The bartender pushed the cards across the table for his companion to cut. Nat did so, and turned up a deuce. "Oh, don't bother," he said, sliding the four dollars and ninety-five cents across the table.
"Wait," grinned the bartender, who was a stickler for rules. He reached over and turned up a card, and then laughed. "Matched, by George!"
"Try again," grinned Fisher, his face clearing with hope.
The bartender shuffled, and Fisher turned a five, which proved to be just one point shy when his companion had shown his card.
"Now," remarked Fisher, watching his money disappear into the bartender's pocket, "I'll put up my gun agin ten of yore dollars if yo're game. How about it?"
"Done—that's a good weapon."
"None better. Ah, a jack!"
"I say queen—nope, king!" exulted the dispenser of liquids. "Say, mebby you can get a job around here when you quit the CG," he suggested.
"That's a good idea," replied Fisher. "But let's finish this while we're at it. I got a good saddle outside on my cayuse—go look it over an' tell me how much you'll put up agin it. If you win it an' can't use it, you can sell it. It's first class."
The bartender walked to the door, looked carefully around for a moment, his eyes fastening upon a trail in the sandy street. Then he laughed. "There ain't no saddle out here," he reported, well knowing where it could be found.
"What! Has that ornery piebald—well, what do you think of that!" exclaimed Fisher, looking up and down the street. "This is the first time that ever happened to me. Why, some coyote stole it! Look at the tracks!"
"No; it ain't stolen," the bartender responded. He considered a moment and then made a suggestion. "Mebby the marshal can tell you where it is—he knows everything like that. Nobody can take a cayuse out of this town while the marshal is up an' well."
"Lucky town, all right," chirped Fisher. "An' where is the marshal?"
"You'll find him down the back way a couple of hundred yards; can't miss him. He allus hangs out there when there are cayuses in town."
"Good for him! I'll chase right down an' see him; an' when I get that piebald——!"
The bartender watched him go around the corner and shook his head sadly. "Yes; hell of a lucky town," he snorted bitterly, listening for the riot to begin.
The marshal still sat against the corral gate and stroked the Winchester in beatific contemplation. He had a fine job and he was happy. Suddenly leaning forward to look up the road, he smiled derisively and shifted the gun. A cow-puncher was coming his way rapidly, and on foot.
"Are you the marshal of this flea of a town?" politely inquired the newcomer.
"I am the same," replied the man with the rifle. "Anything I kin do for you?"
"Yes; have you seen a piebald cayuse straying around loose-like, or anybody leading one—CG being the brand?"
"I did; it was straying."
"An' which way did it go?"
"Into the town pound."
"What! Pond! What'n blazes is it doing with a pond? Couldn't it drink without getting in? Where's the pond?"
"Right here. It's eating its fool head off. I said pound, not pond. P-o-u-n-d; which means that it's pawned, in hock, for destroying the vegetation of Rawhide, an' disturbing the public peace."
"Good joke on the piebald, all right; it was never locked up before," laughed Fisher, trying to read a sign that faced away from him at a slight angle. "Get it out for me an' I'll disturb its peace. Sorry it put you to all that trouble," he sympathized.
"Two dollars an' four bits, an' a dollar initiation fee—it wasn't never in the pound before. That makes three an' a half. Got the money with you?"
"What!" yelled Fisher, emerging from his trance. "What!" he yelled again.
"I ain't none deaf," placidly replied the marshal. "Got the money, the three an' a half?"
"If you think yo're going to skin me outen three-fifty, one-fifty, or one measly cent, you need some medicine, an' I'll give it to you in pill form! You'd make a bum-looking angel, so get up an' hand over that cayuse, an' do it damned quick!"
"Three-fifty, an' two bits extry for feed. It'll cost you 'bout a dollar a day for feed. At the end of the week I'll sell that cayuse at auction to pay its bills if you don't cough up. Got the money?"
"I've got a lead slug for you if I can borrow my gun for five minutes!" retorted Fisher, seething double from anger.
"Five dollars more for contempt of court," pleasantly responded Mr. Townsend. "As Justice of the Peace of this community I must allow no disrespect, no contempt of the sovereign law of this town to go unpunished. That makes it eight-seventy-five."
"An' to think I lost my gun!" shouted Fisher, dancing with rage. "I'll get that cayuse out an' I won't pay a cent, not a damned cent! An' I'll get you at the same time!"
"Now you dust around for fifteen dollars even an' stop yore contempt of court an' threats or I'll drill you just for luck!" rejoined Mr. Townsend, angrily. "If you keep on working yore mouth like that there won't be nothing coming to you when I sell that cayuse of yourn. Turn around an' strike out or I'll put you with yore ancestors!"
THE STRANGER'S PLAN
Fisher, wild with rage, returned to the Paradise and profanely unfolded the tale of his burning wrongs to the bartender and demanded the loan of his gun, which the bartender promptly refused. The present owner of the gun liked Fisher very much for being such a sport and sympathized with him deeply, but he did not want to have such a pleasing acquaintance killed.
"Now, see here: you cool down an' I'll lend you fifteen dollars on that saddle of yourn. You go up an' get that cayuse out before the price goes up any higher—you don't know that man like I do," remarked the man behind the bar earnestly. "That feller Townsend can shoot the eyes out of a small dog at ten miles, purty nigh. Do you savvy my drift?"
"I won't pay him a cussed cent, an' when he goes to sell that piebald at auction, I'll be on hand with a gun; I'll get one somewhere, all right, even if I have to steal it. Then I'll shoot out his eyes at ten paces. Why, he's a two-laigged hold-up! That man would—" he stopped as a stranger entered the room. "Hey, stranger! Don't you leave that cayuse of yourn outside all alone or that coyote of a marshal will steal it, shore. He's the biggest thief I ever knowed. He'll lift yore animal quick as a wink!" Fisher warned, excitedly.
The stranger looked at him in surprise and then smiled. "Is it usual for a marshal to steal cayuses? Somewhat out of line, ain't it?" he asked Fisher, glancing at the bartender for light.
"I don't care what's the rule—that marshal just stole my cayuse; an' he'll take yourn, too, if you ain't careful," Fisher replied.
"Well," drawled the stranger, smiling still more, "I reckon I ain't going to stay out there an' watch it, an' I can't bring it in here. But I reckon it'll be all right. You see, I carry 'big medicine' agin hoss-thieves," he replied, tapping his holster and smiling as he remembered the time, not long past, when he himself had been accused of being one. "I'll take a chance if he will—what'll you all have?"
"Little whiskey," replied Fisher, uneasily, worrying because he could not stand for a return treat. "But, say; you keep yore eye on that animal, just the same," he added, and then hurriedly gave his reasons. "An' the worst part of the whole thing is that I ain't got no gun, an' can't seem to borrow none, neither," he added, wistfully eyeing the stranger's Colt. "I gambled mine away to the bartender here an' he won't lemme borrow it for five minutes!"
"Why, I never heard tell of such a thing before!" exclaimed the stranger, hardly believing his ears, and aghast at the thought that such conditions could exist. "Friend," he said, addressing the bartender, "how is it that this sort of thing can go on in this town?" When the bartender had explained at some length, his interested listener smote the bar with a heavy fist and voiced his outraged feelings. "I'll shore be plumb happy to spread that coyote marshal all over his cussed pound! Say, come with me; I'm going down there right now an' get that cayuse, an' if the marshal opens his mouth to peep I'll get him, too. I'm itching for a chance to tunnel a man like him. Come on an' see the show!"
"Not much!" retorted Fisher. "While I am some pleased to meet a white man, an' have a deep an' abiding gratitude for yore noble offer, I can't let you do it. He put it over on me, an' I'm the one that's got to shoot him up. He's mine, my pudding; an' I'm hogging him all to myself. That is one luxury I can indulge in even if I am broke; an' I'm sorry, but I can't give you cards. Seeing, however, as you are so friendly to the cause of liberty an' justice, suppose you lend me yore gun for about three minutes by the watch. From what I've been told about this town such an act will win for you the eternal love an' gratitude of a down-trodden people; yore gun will blaze the way to liberty an' light, freedom an' the right to own yore own property, an' keep it. All I ask is that I be the undeserving medium."
"A-men," sighed the bartender. "Deacon Jones will now pass down the aisle an' collect the buttons an' tin money."
"Stranger," continued Fisher, warming up, when he saw that his words had not produced the desired result, "King James the Twelfth, on the memorable an' blood-soaked field of Trafalgar, gave men their rights. On that great day he signed the Magnet Charter, and proved himself as great a liberator as the sainted Lincoln. You, on this most auspicious occasion, hold in yore strong hand the destiny of this town—the women an' children in this cursed community will rise up an' bless you forever an' pass yore name down to their ancestors as a man of deeds an' honor! Let us pause to consider this—"
"Hold that pause!" interrupted the astounded bartender hurriedly, and with shaking voice. "String it out till I get untangled! I ain't up much on history, so I won't take no chance with that; but I want to tell our eloquent guest that there ain't no women or children in this town. An' if there was, I sort of reckon their ancestors would be born first. What do you think about it—"
"Let us pause to consider the shameful an' burning indignity perpetrated upon us to-day!" continued Fisher, unheeding the bartender's words. "I, a peaceful, law-abiding citizen of this glorious Commonwealth, a free an' equal member of a liberty-loving nation, a nation whose standard is, now and forever, 'Gimme liberty or gimme det', a nation that stands for all the conceivable benefits that mankind may enjoy, a nation that scintillates pyrotechnically over the prostitution of power—"
Bang! went the bartender's fist on the counter. "Hey! Pause again! Wait a minute! Go back to 'shameful an' burning,' and gimme a chance!"
"—that stands for an even break, I, Nathaniel G. Fisher, have been deprived of one of my inalienable rights, the right of locomotion to distant an' other parts. An' I say, right here an' now, that I won't allow no spavined individual with thieving prehensils to—"
"Has that pound-keeper got a rifle?" calmly interrupted the stranger, without a pang of remorse.
"He has. Thus has it allus been with tyrants—well armed, fortified by habit an' tradition—"
"Then you won't get my gun, savvy? We'll find another way to get that cayuse as long as you feel that the marshal is yore hunting. Besides, this man's gall deserves some respect; it is genius, an' to pump genius full of cold lead is to act rash. Now, suppose you tell me when this auction is due to come off."
"Oh, not for a week; he wants to run up the board an' keep expenses. Tyrants, such as him—"
"Shore," interposed the bartender, "he'll make the expenses equal what he gets for the cayuse, no matter what it comes to. An' he's the whole town, an' the justice of the peace, besides. What he says goes."
"Well, I'm the Governor of the State an' I've got the Supreme Court right here in my holster, so I reckon I can reverse his official acts an' fill his legal opinions full of holes," the stranger replied, laughing heartily. "Bartender, will you help me play a little joke on His Honore, the Town,—just a little harmless joke?"
"Well, that all depends whether the joke is harmless on me. You see, he can shoot like the devil—he allus knows when a man is going to draw, an' gets his gun out first. I ain't got no respect for him, but I take off my hat to his gunplay, all right."
The stranger smiled. "Well, I can shoot a bit myself. But I shore wish he'd hold that auction quick—I've got to go on home without losing any more time. Fisher, suppose you go down to the pound and dare that tumble-bug to hold the auction this afternoon. Tell him that you'll shoot him full of holes if he goes pulling off any auction to-day, an' dare him to try it. I want it to come off before night, an' I reckon that'll hustle it along."
"I'll do anything to get the edge on that thief," replied Fisher, quickly, "but don't you reckon I'd better tote a gun, going down an' bearding such a thief in his own den? You know I allus like to shoot when I'm being shot at."
"Well, I don't blame you; it's only a petty weakness," grinned the stranger, hanging onto his Colt as if fearing that the other would snatch it and run. "But you'll do better without any gun—me an' the bartender don't want to have to go down there an' bring you back on a plank."
"All right, then," sighed Fisher, reluctantly, "but he'll jump the price again. He'll fine me for contempt of court an' make me pay money I ain't got for disturbing him. But I'm game—so long."
When he had gained the street, the stranger turned to the bartender. "Now, friend, you tell me if this man of gall, this Mr. Townsend, has got many friends in town—anybody that'll be likely to pot shoot from the back when things get warm. I can't watch both ends unless I know what I'm up against."
"No! Every man in town hates him," answered the bartender, hastily, and with emphasis.
"Ah, that's good. Now, I wonder if you could see 'most everybody that's in town now an' get 'em to promise to help me by letting me run this all by myself. All I want them to do is not to say a word. It ain't hard to keep still when you want to."
"Why, I reckon I might see 'em—there ain't many here this time of day," responded the bartender. "But what's yore game, anyhow?" he asked, suddenly growing suspicious.
"It's just a little scheme I figgered out," the stranger replied, and then he confided in the bartender, who jigged a few fancy steps to show his appreciation of the other's genius. His suspicions left him at once, and he hastened out to tell the inhabitants of the town to follow his instructions to the letter, and he knew they would obey, and be glad, hilariously glad, to do so. While he was hurrying around giving his instructions, the CG puncher returned to the hotel and reported.
"Well, it worked, all right," Fisher growled. "I told him what I'd do to him if he tried to auction that cayuse off an' he retorted that if I didn't shut up an' mind my own business, that he'd sell the horse this noon, at twelve o'clock, in the public square, wherever that is. I told him he was a coyote and dared him to do it. Told him I'd pump him full of air ducts if he didn't wait till next week. Said I had the promise of a gun an' that it'd give me great pleasure to use it on him if he tried any auctioneering at my expense this noon. Then he fined me five dollars more, swore that he'd show me what it meant to dare the marshal of Rawhide an' insult the dignity of the court an' town council, an' also that he'd shoot my liver all through my system if I didn't leave him to his reflections. Now, look here, stranger; noon is only two hours away an' I'm due to lose my outfit: what are you going to do to get me out of this mess?" he finished anxiously, hands on hips.
"You did real well, very fine, indeed," replied the stranger, smiling with content. "An' don't you worry about that outfit—I'm going to get it back for you an' a little bit more. So, as long as you don't lose nothing, you ain't got no kick coming, have you? An' you ain't got no interest in what I'm going to do. Just sit tight an' keep yore eyes an' ears open at noon. Meantime, if you want something to do to keep you busy, practise making speeches—you ought to be ashamed to be punching cows an' working for a living when you could use yore talents an' get a lot of graft besides. Any man who can say as much on nothing as you can ought to be in the Senate representing some railroad company or waterpower steal—you don't have to work there, just loaf an' take easy money for cheating the people what put you there. Now, don't get mad—I'm only stringing you: I wouldn't be mean enough to call you a senator. To tell the truth, I think yo're too honest to even think of such a thing. But go ahead an' practise—I don't mind it a bit."
"Huh! I couldn't go to Congress," laughed Fisher. "I'd have to practise by getting elected mayor of some town an' then go to the Legislature for the finishing touches."
"Mr. Townsend would beat you out," murmured the stranger, looking out of the window and wishing for noon. He sauntered over to a chair, placed it where he could see his horse, and took things easy. The bartender returned with several men at his heels, and all were grinning and joking. They took up their places against the bar and indulged in frequent fits of chuckling, not letting their eyes stray from the man in the chair and the open street through the door, where the auction was to be held. They regarded the stranger in the light of a would-be public benefactor, a martyr, who was to provide the town with a little excitement before he followed his predecessors into the grave. Perhaps he would not be killed, perhaps he would shoot the pound-keeper and general public nuisance—but ah, this was the stuff of which dreams were made: the marshal would never be killed, he would thrive and outlive his fellow-townsmen, and die in bed at a ripe old age.
One of the citizens, dangling his legs from the card table, again looked closely at the man with the plan, and then turned to a companion beside him. "I've seen that there feller som'ers, sometime," he whispered. "I know I have. But I'll be teetotally dod-blasted if I can place him."
"Well, Jim; I never saw him afore, an' I don't know who he is," replied the other, refilling his pipe with elaborate care, "but if he can kill Townsend to-day, I'll be so plumb joyous I won't know what to do with m'self."
"I'm afraid he won't, though," remarked another, lolling back against the bar. "The marshal was born to hang—nobody can beat him on the draw. But, anyhow, we're going to see some fun."
The first speaker, still straining his memory for a clue to the stranger's identity, pulled out a handful of silver and placed it on the table. "I'll bet that he makes good," he offered, but there were no takers.
The stranger now lazily arose and stepped into the doorway, leaning against the jamb and shaking his holster sharply to loosen the gun for action. He glanced quickly behind him and spoke curtly: "Remember, now—I am to do all the talking at this auction; you fellers just look on."
A mumble of assent replied to him, and the townsmen craned their necks to look out. A procession slowly wended its way up the street, led by the marshal, astride a piebald horse bearing the crude brand of the CG. Three men followed him and numerous dogs of several colors, sizes, and ages roamed at will, in a listless, bored way, between the horse and the men. The dust arose sluggishly and slowly dissipated in the hot, shimmering air, and a fly buzzed with wearying persistence against the dirty glass in the front window.
The marshal, peering out from under the pulled-down brim of his Stetson, looked critically at the sleepy horse standing near the open door of the Paradise and sought its brand, but in vain, for it was standing with the wrong side towards him. Then he glanced at the man in the door, a puzzled expression stealing over his face. He had known that man once, but time and events had wiped him nearly out of his memory and he could not place him. He decided that the other horse could wait until he had sold the one he was on, and, stopping before the door of the Paradise, he raised his left arm, his right arm lying close to his side, not far from the holster on his thigh.
"Gentlemen an' feller-citizens," he began: "As marshal of this booming city, I am about to offer for sale to the highest bidder this A Number 1 piebald, pursooant to the decree of the local court an' with the sanction of the town council an' the mayor. This same sale is for to pay the town for the board an' keep of this animal, an' to square the fine in such cases made an' provided. It's sound in wind an' limb, fourteen han's high, an' in all ways a beautiful piece of hoss-flesh. Now, gentlemen, how much am I bid for this cayuse? Remember, before you make me any offer, that this animal is broke to punching cows an' is a first-class cayuse."
The crowd in the Paradise had flocked out into the street and oozed along the front of the building, while the stranger now leaned carelessly against his own horse, critically looking over the one on sale. Fisher, uneasy and worried, squirmed close at hand and glanced covertly from his horse and saddle to the guns in the belts on the members of the crowd.
It was the stranger who broke the silence: "Two bits I bid—two bits," he said, very quietly, whereat the crowd indulged in a faint snicker and a few nudges.
The marshal looked at him and then ignored him. "How much, gentlemen?" he asked, facing the crowd again.
"Two bits," repeated the stranger, as the crowd remained silent.
"Two bits!" yelled the marshal, glaring at him angrily: "Two bits! Why, the look in this cayuse's eyes is worth four! Look at the spirit in them eyes, look at the intelligence! The saddle alone is worth a clean forty dollars of any man's money. I am out here to sell this animal to the highest bidder; the sale's begun, an' I want bids, not jokes. Now, who'll start it off?" he demanded, glancing around; but no one had anything to say except the terse stranger, who appeared to be getting irritated.
"You've got a starter—I've given you a bid. I bid two bits—t-w-o b-i-t-s, twenty-five cents. Now go ahead with yore auction."
The marshal thought he saw an attempt at humor, and since he was feeling quite happy, and since he knew that good humor is conducive to good bidding, he smiled, all the time, however, racking his memory for the name of the humorist. So he accepted the bid: "All right, this gentleman bids two bits. Two bits I am bid—two bits. Twenty-five cents. Who'll make it twenty-five dollars? Two bits—who says twenty-five dollars? Ah, did you say twenty-five dollars?" he snapped, leveling an accusing and threatening fore-finger at the man nearest him, who squirmed restlessly and glanced at the stranger. "Did you say twenty-five dollars?" he shouted.
The stranger came to the rescue. "He did not. He hasn't opened his mouth. But I said twenty-five cents," quietly observed the humorist.
"Who'll gimme thirty? Who'll gimme thirty dollars? Did I hear thirty dollars? Did I hear twenty-five dollars bid? Who said thirty dollars? Did you say twenty-five dollars?"
"How could he when he was talking politics to the man behind him?" asked the stranger. "I said two bits," he added complacently, as he watched the auctioneer closely.
"I want twenty-five dollars—an' you shut yore blasted mouth!" snapped the marshal at the persistent twenty-five-cent man. He did not see the fire smouldering in the squinting eyes so alertly watching him. "Twenty-five dollars—not a cent less takes the cayuse. Why, gentlemen, he's worth twenty in cans! Gimme twenty-five dollars, somebody. I bid twenty-five. I want thirty. I want thirty, gentlemen; you must gimme thirty. I bid twenty-five dollars—who's going to make it thirty?"
"Show us yore twenty-five an' she's yourn," remarked the stranger, with exasperating assurance, while Fisher grew pale with excitement. The stranger was standing clear of his horse now, and alert readiness was stamped all over him. "You accepted my bid—show yore twenty-five dollars or take my two bits."
"You close that face of yourn!" exploded the marshal, angrily. "I don't mind a little fun, but you've got altogether too damned much to say. You've queered the bidding, an' now you shut up!"
"I said two bits an' I mean just that. You show yore twenty-five or gimme that cayuse on my bid," retorted the stranger.
"By the pans of Julius Caesar!" shouted the marshal. "I'll put you to sleep so you'll never wake up if I hears any more about you an' yore two bits!"
"Show me, Rednose," snapped the other, his gun out in a flash. "I want that cayuse, an' I want it quick. You show me twenty-five dollars or I'll take it out from under you on my bid, you yaller dog! Stop it! Shut up! That's suicide, that is. Others have tried it an' failed, an' yo're no sleight-of-hand gun-man. This is the first time I ever paid a hoss-thief in silver, or bought stolen goods, but everything has to have a beginning. You get nervous with that hand of yourn an' I'll cure you of it! Git off that piebald, an' quick!"
The marshal felt stunned and groped for a way out, but the gun under his nose was as steady as a rock. He sat there stupidly, not knowing enough to obey orders.
"Come, get off that cayuse," sharply commanded the stranger. "An' I'll take yore Winchester as a fine for this high-handed business you've been carrying on. You may be the local court an' all the town officials, but I'm the Governor, an' here's my Supreme Court, as I was saying to the boys a little while ago. Yo're overruled. Get off that cayuse, an' don't waste no more time about it, neither!"
The marshal glared into the muzzle of the weapon and felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. Never before had he failed to anticipate the pull of a gun. As the stranger said, there must always be a beginning, a first time. He was thinking quickly now; he was master of himself again, but he realized that he was in a tight place unless he obeyed the man with the drop. Not a man in town would help him; on the other hand, they were all against him, and hugely enjoying his discomfiture. With some men he could afford to take chances and jerk at his gun even when at such a disadvantage, but—
"Stranger," he said slowly, "what's yore name?"
The crowd listened eagerly.
"My friends call me Hopalong Cassidy; other people, other things—you gimme that cayuse an' that Winchester. Here! Hand the gun to Fisher, so there won't be no lamentable accidents: I don't want to shoot you, 'less I have to."
"They're both yourn," sighed Mr. Townsend, remembering a certain day over near Alameda, when he had seen Mr. Cassidy at gun-play. He dismounted slowly and sorrowfully. "Do I—do I get my two bits?" he asked.
"You shore do—yore gall is worth it," said Mr. Cassidy, turning the piebald over to its overjoyed owner, who was already arranging further gambling with his friend, the bartender.
Mr. Townsend pocketed the one bid, surveyed glumly the hilarious crowd flocking in to the bar to drink to their joy in his defeat, and wandered disconsolately back to the pound. He was never again seen in that locality, or by any of the citizens of Rawhide, for between dark and dawn he resumed his travels, bound for some locality far removed from limping, red-headed drawbacks.
JOHNNY LEARNS SOMETHING
For several weeks after Hopalong got back to the ranch, full of interesting stories and minus the grouch, things went on in a way placid enough for the most peacefully inclined individual that ever sat a saddle. And then trouble drifted down from the north and caused a look of anxiety to spoil Buck Peters' pleasant expression, and began to show on the faces of his men. When one finds the carcasses of two cows on the same day, and both are skinned, there can be only one conclusion. The killing and skinning of two cows out of herds that are numbered by thousands need not, in themselves, bring lines of worry to any foreman's brow; but there is the sting of being cheated, the possibility of the losses going higher unless a sharp lesson be given upon the folly of fooling with a very keen and active buzz-saw,—and it was the determination of the outfit of the Bar-20 to teach that lesson, and as quickly as circumstances would permit.
It was common knowledge that there was a more or less organized band of shiftless malcontents making its headquarters in and near Perry's Bend, some distance up the river, and the deduction in this case was easy. The Bar-20 cared very little about what went on at Perry's Bend—that was a matter which concerned only the ranches near that town—as long as no vexatious happenings sifted too far south. But they had so sifted, and Perry's Bend, or rather the undesirable class hanging out there, was due to receive a shock before long.
About a week after the finding of the first skinned cows, Pete Wilson tornadoed up to the bunk house with a perforated arm. Pete was on foot, having lost his horse at the first exchange of shots, which accounts for the expression describing his arrival. Pete hated to walk, he hated still more to get shot, and most of all he hated to have to admit that his rifle-shooting was so far below par. He had seen the thief at work and, too eager to work up close to the cattle skinner before announcing his displeasure, had missed the first shot. When he dragged himself out from under his deceased horse the scenery was undisturbed save for a small cloud of dust hovering over a distant rise to the north of him. After delivering a short and bitter monologue he struck out for the ranch and arrived in a very hot and wrathful condition. It was contagious, that condition, and before long the entire outfit was in the saddle and pounding north, Pete overjoyed because his wound was so slight as not to bar him from the chase. The shock was on the way, and as events proved, was to be one long to linger in the minds of the inhabitants of Perry's Bend and the surrounding range.
The patrons of the Oasis liked their tobacco strong. The pungent smoke drifted in sluggish clouds along the low, black ceiling, following its upward slant toward the east wall and away from the high bar at the other end. This bar, rough and strong, ran from the north wall to within a scant two feet of the south wall, the opening bridged by a hinged board which served as an extension to the counter. Behind the bar was a rear door, low and double, the upper part barred securely—the lower part was used most. In front of and near the bar was a large round table, at which four men played cards silently, while two smaller tables were located along the north wall. Besides dilapidated chairs there were half a dozen low wooden boxes partly filled with sand, and attention was directed to the existence and purpose of these by a roughly lettered sign on the wall, reading: "Gents will look for a box first," which the "gents" sometimes did. The majority of the "gents" preferred to aim at various knotholes in the floor and bet on the result, chancing the outpouring of the proprietor's wrath if they missed.
On the wall behind the bar was a smaller and neater request: "Leave your guns with the bartender.—Edwards." This, although a month old, still called forth caustic and profane remarks from the regular frequenters of the saloon, for hitherto restraint in the matter of carrying weapons had been unknown. They forthwith evaded the order in a manner consistent with their characteristics—by carrying smaller guns where they could not be seen. The majority had simply sawed off a generous part of the long barrels of their Colts and Remingtons, which did not improve their accuracy.
Edwards, the new marshal of Perry's Bend, had come direct from Kansas and his reputation as a fighter had preceded him. When he took up his first day's work he was kept busy proving that he was the rightful owner of it and that it had not been exaggerated in any manner or degree. With the exception of one instance the proof had been bloodless, for he reasoned that gun-play should give way, whenever possible, to a crushing "right" or "left" to the point of the jaw or the pit of the stomach. His proficiency in the manly art was polished and thorough and bespoke earnest application. The last doubting Thomas to be convinced came to five minutes after his diaphragm had been rudely and suddenly raised several inches by a low right hook, and as he groped for his bearings and got his wind back again he asked, very feebly, where "Kansas" was; and the name stuck.
When Harlan heard the nickname for the first time he stopped pulling the cork out of a whiskey bottle long enough to remark, casually, "I allus reckoned Kansas was purty close to hell," and said no more about it. Harlan was the proprietor and bartender of the Oasis and catered to the excessive and uncritical thirsts of the ruck of range society, and he had objected vigorously to the placing of the second sign in his place of business; but at the close of an incisive if inelegant reply from the marshal, the sign went up, and stayed up. Edwards' language and delivery were as convincing as his fists.
The marshal did not like the Oasis; indeed, he went further and cordially hated it. Harlan's saloon was a thorn in his side and he was only waiting for a good excuse to wipe it off the local map. He was the Law, and behind him were the range riders, who would be only too glad to have the nest of rustlers wiped out and its gang of ne'er-do-wells scattered to the four winds. Indeed, he had been given to understand in a most polite and diplomatic way that if this were not done lawfully they would try to do it themselves, and they had great faith in their ability to handle the situation in a thorough and workmanlike manner. This would not do in a law-abiding community, as he called the town, and so he had replied that the work was his, and that it would be performed as soon as he believed himself justified to act. Harlan and his friends were fully conversant with the feeling against them and had become a little more cautious, alertly watching out for trouble.
On the evening of the day which saw Pete Wilson's discomfiture most of the habitues had assembled in the Oasis where, besides the card-players already mentioned, eight men lounged against the bar. There was some laughter, much subdued talking, and a little whispering. More whispering went on under that roof than in all the other places in town put together; for here rustling was planned, wayfaring strangers were "trimmed" in "frame-ups" at cards, and a hunted man was certain to find assistance. Harlan had once boasted that no fugitive had ever been taken from his saloon, and he was behind the bar and standing on the trap door which led to the six-by-six cellar when he made the assertion. It was true, for only those in his confidence knew of the place of refuge under the floor; it had been dug at night and the dirt carefully disposed of.
It had not been dark very long before talking ceased and card-playing was suspended while all looked up as the front door crashed open and two punchers entered, looking the crowd over with critical care.
"Stay here, Johnny," Hopalong told his youthful companion, and then walked forward, scrutinizing each scowling face in turn, while Johnny stood with his back to the door, keenly alert, his right hand resting lightly on his belt not far from the holster.
Harlan's thick neck grew crimson and his eyes hard. "Looking fer something?" he asked with bitter sarcasm, his hands under the bar. Johnny grinned hopefully and a sudden tenseness took possession of him as he watched for the first hostile move.
"Yes," Hopalong replied coolly, appraising Harlan's attitude and look in one swift glance, "but it ain't here, now. Johnny, get out," he ordered, backing after his companion, and safely outside, the two walked towards Jackson's store, Johnny complaining about the little time spent in the Oasis.
As they entered the store they saw Edwards, whose eye asked a question.
"No; he ain't in there yet," Hopalong replied.
"Did you look all over? Behind the bar?" Edwards asked, slowly. "He can't get out of town through that cordon you've got strung around it, an' he ain't nowhere else. Leastwise, I couldn't find him."
"Come on back!" excitedly exclaimed Johnny, turning towards the door. "You didn't look behind the bar! Come on—bet you ten dollars that's where he is!"
"Mebby yo're right, Kid," replied Hopalong, and the marshal's nodding head decided it.
In the saloon there was strong language, and Jack Quinn, expert skinner of other men's cows, looked inquiringly at the proprietor. "What's up now, Harlan?"
The proprietor laughed harshly but said nothing—taciturnity was his one redeeming trait. "Did you say cigars?" he asked, pushing a box across the bar to an impatient customer. Another beckoned to him and he leaned over to hear the whispered request, a frown struggling to show itself on his face. "Nix; you know my rule. No trust in here."
But the man at the far end of the line was unlike the proprietor and he prefaced his remarks with a curse. "I know what's up! They want Jerry Brown, that's what! An' I hopes they don't get him, the bullies!"
"What did he do? Why do they want him?" asked the man who had wanted trust.
"Skinning. He was careless or crazy, working so close to their ranch houses. Nobody that had any sense would take a chance like that," replied Boston, adept at sleight-of-hand with cards and very much in demand when a frame-up was to be rung in on some unsuspecting stranger. His one great fault in the eyes of his partners was that he hated to divvy his winnings and at times had to be coerced into sharing equally.
"Aw, them big ranches make me mad," announced the first speaker. "Ten years ago there was a lot of little ranchers, an' every one of 'em had his own herd, an' plenty of free grass an' water for it. Where are the little herds now? Where are the cows that we used to own?" he cried, hotly. "What happens to a maverick-hunter now-a-days? By God, if a man helps hisself to a pore, sick dogie he's hunted down! It can't go on much longer, an' that's shore."
Cries of approbation arose on all sides, for his auditors ignored the fact that their kind, by avarice and thievery, had forever killed the occupation of maverick-hunting. That belonged to the old days, before the demand for cows and their easy and cheap transportation had boosted the prices and made them valuable.
Slivers Lowe leaped up from his chair. "Yo're right, Harper! Dead right! I was a little cattle owner once, so was you, an' Jerry, an' most of us!" Slivers found it convenient to forget that fully half of his small herd had perished in the bitter and long winter of five years before, and that the remainder had either flowed down his parched throat or been lost across the big round table near the bar. Not a few of his cows were banked in the east under Harlan's name.
The rear door opened slightly and one of the loungers looked up and nodded. "It's all right, Jerry. But get a move on!"
"Here, you!" called Harlan, quickly bending over the trap door, "Lively!"
Jerry was half way to the proprietor when the front door swung open and Hopalong, closely followed by the marshal, leaped into the room, and immediately thereafter the back door banged open and admitted Johnny. Jerry's right hand was in his side coat pocket and Johnny, young and self-confident, and with a lot to learn, was certain that he could beat the fugitive on the draw.
"I reckon you won't blot no more brands!" he cried, triumphantly, watching both Jerry and Harlan.
The card-players had leaped to their feet and at a signal from Harlan they surged forward to the bar and formed a barrier between Johnny and his friends; and as they did so that puncher jerked at his gun, twisting to half face the crowd. At that instant fire and smoke spurted from Jerry's side coat pocket and the odor of burning cloth arose. As Johnny fell, the rustler ducked low and sprang for the door. A gun roared twice in the front of the room and Jerry staggered a little and cursed as he gained the opening, but he plunged into the darkness and threw himself into the saddle on the first horse he found in the small corral.
When the crowd massed, Hopalong leaped at it and strove to tear his way to the opening at the end of the bar, while the marshal covered Harlan and the others. Finding that he could not get through. Hopalong sprang on the shoulder of the nearest man and succeeded in winging the fugitive at the first shot, the other going wild. Then, frantic with rage and anxiety, he beat his way through the crowd, hammering mercilessly at heads with the butt of his Colt, and knelt at his friend's side.
Edwards, angered almost to the point of killing, ordered the crowd to stand against the wall, and laughed viciously when he saw two men senseless on the floor. "Hope he beat in yore heads!" he gritted, savagely. "Harlan, put yore paws up in sight or I'll drill you clean! Now climb over an' get in line—quick!"
Johnny moaned and opened his eyes. "Did—did I—get him?"
"No; but he gimleted you, all right," Hopalong replied. "You'll come 'round if you keep quiet." He arose, his face hard with the desire to kill. "I'm coming back for you, Harlan, after I get yore friend! An' all the rest of you pups, too!"
"Get me out of here," whispered Johnny.
"Shore enough, Kid; but keep quiet," replied Hopalong, picking him up in his arms and moving carefully towards the door. "We'll get him, Johnny; an' all the rest, too, when——" The voice died out in the direction of Jackson's and the marshal, backing to the front door, slipped out and to one side, running backward, his eyes on the saloon.
"Yore day's about over, Harlan," he muttered. "There's going to be some few funerals around here before many hours pass."
When he reached the store he found the owner and two Double-Arrow punchers taking care of Johnny. "Where's Hopalong?" he asked.
"Gone to tell his foreman," replied Jackson. "Hey, youngster, you let them bandages alone! Hear me?"
"Hullo, Kansas," remarked John Bartlett, foreman of the Double-Arrow. "I come nigh getting yore man; somebody rode past me like a streak in the dark, so I just ups an' lets drive for luck, an' so did he. I heard him cuss an' I emptied my gun after him."
"The rest was a-passing the word along to ride in when I left the line," remarked one of the other punchers. "How you feeling now, Johnny?"
THE END OF THE TRAIL
The rain slanted down in sheets and the broken plain, thoroughly saturated, held the water in pools or sent it down the steep sides of the arroyo, to feed the turbulent flood which swept along the bottom, foam-flecked and covered with swiftly moving driftwood. Around a bend in the arroyo, where the angry water flung itself against the ragged bulwark of rock and flashed away in a gleaming line of foam, a horseman appeared bending low in the saddle for better protection against the storm. He rode along the edge of the stream on the farther bank, opposite the steep bluff on the northern side, forcing his wounded and jaded horse to keep fetlock deep in the water which swirled and sucked about its legs. He was trying his hardest to hide his trail. Lower down the hard, rocky ground extended to the water's edge, and if he could delay his pursuers for an hour or so, he felt that, even with his tired horse, he would have more than an even chance.
But they had gained more than he knew. Suddenly above him on the top of the steep bluff across the torrent a man loomed up against the clouds, peered intently into the arroyo, and then waved his sombrero to an unseen companion. A puff of smoke flashed from his shoulder and streaked away, the report of the shot lost in the gale. The fugitive's horse reared and plunged into the deep water and with its rider was swept rapidly towards the bend, the way they had come.
"That makes the fourth time I've missed that coyote!" angrily exclaimed Hopalong as Red Connors joined him.
The other quickly raised his rifle and fired; and the horse, spilling its rider out of the saddle, floated away tail first. The fugitive, gripping his rifle, bobbed and whirled at the whim of the greedy water as shots struck near him. Making a desperate effort, he staggered up the bank and fell exhausted behind a boulder.
"Well, the coyote is afoot, anyhow," said Red, with great satisfaction.
"Yes; but how are we going to get to him?" asked Hopalong. "We can't get the cayuses down here, an' we can't swim that water without them. An' if we could, he'd pot us easy."
"There's a way out of it somewhere," Red replied, disappearing over the edge of the bluff to gamble with Fate.
"Hey! Come back here, you chump!" cried Hopalong, running forward. "He'll get you, shore!"
"That's a chance I've got to take if I get him," was the reply.
A puff of smoke sailed from behind the boulder on the other bank and Hopalong, kneeling for steadier aim, fired and then followed his friend. Red was downstream casting at a rock across the torrent but the wind toyed with the heavy, water-soaked reata as though it were a string. As Hopalong reached his side a piece of driftwood ducked under the water and an angry humming sound died away downstream. As the report reached their ears a jet of water spurted up into Red's face and he stepped back involuntarily.
"He's so shaky," Hopalong remarked, looking back at the wreath of smoke above the boulder. "I reckon I must have hit him harder than I thought in Harlan's. Gee! He's wild as blazes!" he yelled as a bullet hummed high above his head and struck sharply against the rock wall.
"Yes," Red replied, coiling the rope. "I was trying to rope that rock over there. If I could anchor to that, the current would push us over quick. But it's too far with this wind blowing."
"We can't do nothing here 'cept get plugged. He'll be getting steadier as he rests from his fight with the water," Hopalong remarked, and added quickly, "Say, remember that meadow back there a ways? We can make her from there, all right."
"Yo're right; that's what we've got to do. He's sending 'em nearer every shot—Gee! I could 'most feel the wind of that one. An' blamed if it ain't stopped raining. Come on."
They clambered up the slippery, muddy bank to where they had left their horses, and cantered back over their trail. Minute after minute passed before the cautious skulker among the rocks across the stream could believe in his good fortune. When he at last decided that he was alone again he left his shelter and started away, with slowly weakening stride, over cleanly washed rock where he left no trail.
It was late in the afternoon before the two irate punchers appeared upon the scene, and their comments, as they hunted slowly over the hard ground, were numerous and bitter. Deciding that it was hopeless in that vicinity, they began casting in great circles on the chance of crossing the trail further back from the river. But they had little faith in their success. As Red remarked, snorting like a horse in his disgust, "I'll bet four dollars an' a match he's swum down the river clean to hell just to have the laugh on us." Red had long since given it up as a bad job, though continuing to search, when a shout from the distant Hopalong sent him forward on a run.
"Hey, Red!" cried Hopalong, pointing ahead of them. "Look there! Ain't that a house?"
"Naw; course not! It's a—it's a ship!" Red snorted sarcastically. "What did you think it might be?"
"G'wan!" retorted his companion. "It's a mission."
"Ah, g'wan yoreself! What's a mission doing up here?" Red snapped.
"What do you think they do? What do they do anywhere?" hotly rejoined Hopalong, thinking about Johnny. "There! See the cross?"
"An' there's tracks at last—mighty wobbly, but tracks just the same. Them rocks couldn't go on forever. Red, I'll bet he's cashed in by this time."
"Cashed nothing! Them fellers don't."
"Well, if he's in that joint we might as well go back home. We won't get him, not nohow," declared Hopalong.
"Huh! You wait an' see!" replied Red, pugnaciously.
"Reckon you never run up agin a mission real hard," Hopalong responded, his memory harking back to the time he had disagreed with a convent, and they both meant about the same to him as far as winning out was concerned.
"Think I'm a fool kid?" snapped Red, aggressively.
"Well, you ain't no kid."
"You let me do the talking; I'll get him."
"All right; an' I'll do the laughing," snickered Hopalong, at the door. "Sic 'em, Red!"
The other boldly stepped into a small vestibule, Hopalong close at his heels. Red hitched his holster and walked heavily into a room at his left. With the exception of a bench, a table, and a small altar, the room was devoid of furnishings, and the effect of these was lost in the dim light from the narrow windows. The peculiar, not unpleasant odor of burning incense and the dim light awakened a latent reverence and awe in Hopalong, and he sneaked off his sombrero, an inexplicable feeling of guilt stealing over him. There were three doors in the walls, deeply shrouded in the dusk of the room, and it was very hard to watch all three at once.
Red was peering into the dark corners, his hand on the butt of his Colt, and hardly knew what he was looking for. "This joint must 'a' looked plumb good to that coyote, all right. He had a hell of a lot of luck, but he won't keep it for long, damn him!" he remarked.
"Quit cussing!" tersely ordered Hopalong. "An' for God's sake, throw out that damned cigarette! Ain't you got no manners?"
Red listened intently and then grinned. "Hear that? They're playing dominoes in there—come on!"
"Aw, you chump! 'Dominee' means 'mother' in Latin, which is what they speaks."
"How do you know?"
"Hanged if I can tell—I've heard it somewhere, that's all."
"Well, I don't care what it means. This is a frame-up so that coyote can get away. I'll bet they gave him a cayuse an' started him off while we've been losing time in here. I'm going inside an' ask some questions."
Before he could put his plan into execution, Hopalong nudged him and he turned to see his friend staring at one of the doors. There had been no sound, but he would swear that a monk stood gravely regarding them, and he rubbed his eyes. He stepped back suspiciously and then started forward again.
"Look here, stranger," he remarked, with quiet emphasis, "we're after that cow-lifter, an' we mean to get him. Savvy?"
The monk did not appear to hear him, so he tried another tack. "Habla Espanola?" he asked, experimentally.
"You have ridden far?" replied the monk in perfect English.
"All the way from the Bend," Red replied, relieved. "We're after Jerry Brown. He tried to kill Johnny, an' near made good. An' I reckon we've treed him, judging from the tracks."
"And if you capture him?"
"He won't have no more use for no side pocket shooting."
"I see; you will kill him."
"Shore's it's wet outside."
"I'm afraid you are doomed to disappointment."
"Ya-as?" asked Red with a rising inflection.
"You will not want him now," replied the monk.
Red laughed sarcastically and Hopalong smiled.
"There ain't a-going to be no argument about it. Trot him out," ordered Red, grimly.
The monk turned to Hopalong. "Do you, too, want him?"
"My friends, he is safe from your punishment."
Red wheeled instantly and ran outside, returning in a few moments, smiling triumphantly. "There are tracks coming in, but there ain't none going away. He's here. If you don't lead us to him we'll shore have to rummage around an' poke him out for ourselves: which is it?"
"You are right—he is here, and he is not here."
"We're waiting," Red replied, grinning.
"When I tell you that you will not want him, do you still insist on seeing him?"
"We'll see him, an' we'll want him, too."
As the rain poured down again the sound of approaching horses was heard, and Hopalong ran to the door in time to see Buck Peters swing off his mount and step forward to enter the building. Hopalong stopped him and briefly outlined the situation, begging him to keep the men outside. The monk met his return with a grateful smile and, stepping forward, opened the chapel door, saying, "Follow me."
The unpretentious chapel was small and nearly dark, for the usual dimness was increased by the lowering clouds outside. The deep, narrow window openings, fitted with stained glass, ran almost to the rough-hewn rafters supporting the steep-pitched roof, upon which the heavy rain beat again with a sound like that of distant drums. Gusts of rain and the water from the roof beat against the south windows, while the wailing wind played its mournful cadences about the eaves, and the stanch timbers added their creaking notes to swell the dirge-like chorus.
At the farther end of the room two figures knelt and moved before the white altar, the soft light of flickering candles playing fitfully upon them and glinting from the altar ornaments, while before a rough coffin, which rested upon two pedestals, stood a third, whose rich, sonorous Latin filled the chapel with impressive sadness. "Give eternal rest to them, O Lord,"—the words seeming to become a part of the room. The ineffably sad, haunting melody of the mass whispered back from the room between the assaults of the enraged wind, while from the altar came the responses in a low, Gregorian chant, and through it all the clinking of the censer chains added intermittent notes. Aloft streamed the vapor of the incense, wavering with the air currents, now lost in the deep twilight of the sanctuary, and now faintly revealed by the glow of the candles, perfuming the air with its aromatic odor.
As the last deep-toned words died away the celebrant moved slowly around the coffin, swinging the censer over it and then, sprinkling the body and making the sign of the cross above its head, solemnly withdrew.
From the shadows along the side walls other figures silently emerged and grouped around the coffin. Raising it they turned it slowly around and carried it down the dim aisle in measured tread, moving silently as ghosts.
"He is with God, Who will punish according to his sins," said a low voice, and Hopalong started, for he had forgotten the presence of the guide. "God be with you, and may you die as he died—repentant and in peace."
Buck chafed impatiently before the chapel door leading to a small, well-kept graveyard, wondering what it was that kept quiet for so long a time his two most assertive men, when he had momentarily expected to hear more or less turmoil and confusion.
C-r-e-a-k! He glanced up, gun in hand and raised as the door swung slowly open. His hand dropped suddenly and he took a short step forward; six black-robed figures shouldering a long box stepped slowly past him, and his nostrils were assailed by the pungent odor of the incense. Behind them came his fighting punchers, humble, awed, reverent, their sombreros in their hands, and their heads bowed.
"What in blazes!" exclaimed Buck, wonder and surprise struggling for the mastery as the others cantered up.
"He's cashed," Red replied, putting on his sombrero and nodding toward the procession.
Buck turned like a flash and spoke sharply: "Skinny! Lanky! Follow that glory-outfit, an' see what's in that box!"
Billy Williams grinned at Red. "Yo're shore pious, Red."
"Shut up!" snapped Red, anger glinting in his eyes, and Billy subsided.
Lanky and Skinny soon returned from accompanying the procession.
"I had to look twice to be shore it was him. His face was plumb happy, like a baby. But he's gone, all right," Lanky reported.
"Deader'n hell," remarked Skinny, looking around curiously. "This here is some shack, ain't it?" he finished.
"All right—he knowed how he'd finish when he began. Now for that dear Mr. Harlan," Buck replied, vaulting into the saddle. He turned and looked at Hopalong, and his wonder grew. "Hey, you! Yes, you! Come out of that an' put on yore lid! Straddle leather—we can't stay here all night."
Hopalong started, looked at his sombrero and silently obeyed. As they rode down the trail and around a corner he turned in his saddle and looked back; and then rode on, buried in thought.
Billy, grinning, turned and playfully punched him in the ribs. "Getting glory, Hoppy?"
Hopalong raised his head and looked him steadily in the eyes; and Billy, losing his curiosity and the grin at the same instant, looked ahead, whistling softly.
Edwards slid off the counter in Jackson's store and glowered at the pelting rain outside, perturbed and grouchy. The wounded man in the corner stirred and looked at him without interest and forthwith renewed his profane monologue, while the proprietor, finishing his task, leaned back against the shelves and swore softly. It was a lovely atmosphere.
"Seems to me they've been gone a long time," grumbled the wounded man. "Reckon he led 'em a long chase—had six hours' start, the toad." He paused and then as an afterthought said with conviction: "But they'll get him—they allus do when they make up their minds to it."
Edwards nodded moodily and Jackson replied with a monosyllable.
"Wish I could 'a' gone with 'em," Johnny growled. "I like to square my own accounts. It's allus that way. I get plugged an' my friends clean the slate. There was that time Bye-an'-Bye went an' ambushed me—ah, the devil! But I tell you one thing: when I get well I'm going down to Harlan's an' clean house proper."
"Yo're in hard luck again: that'll be done as soon as yore friends get back," Jackson replied, carefully selecting a dried apricot from a box on the counter and glancing at the marshal to see how he took the remark.
"That'll be done before then," Edwards said crisply, with the air of a man who has just settled a doubt. "They won't be back much before to-morrow if he headed for the country I think he did. I'm going down to the Oasis an' tell that gang to clear out of this town. They've been here too long now. I never had 'em dead to rights before, but I've got it on 'em this time. I'd 'a' sent 'em packing yesterday only I sort of hated to take a man's business away from him an' make him lose his belongings. But I've wrastled it all out an' they've got to go." He buttoned his coat about him and pulled his sombrero more firmly on his head, starting for the door. "I'll be back soon," he said over his shoulder as he grasped the handle.
"You better wait till you get help—there's too many down there for one man to watch an' handle," Jackson hastily remarked. "Here, I'll go with you," he offered, looking for his hat.
Edwards laughed shortly. "You stay here. I do my own work by myself when I can—that's what I'm here for, an' I can do this, all right. If I took any help they'd reckon I was scared," and the door slammed shut behind him.
"He's got sand a plenty," Jackson remarked. "He'd try to push back a stampede by main strength if he reckoned it was his duty. It's his good luck that he wasn't killed long ago—I'd 'a' been."
"They're a bunch of cowards," replied Johnny. "As long as you ain't afraid of 'em, none of 'em wants to start anything. Bunch of sheep!" he snorted. "Didn't Jerry shoot me through his pocket?"
"Yes; an' yo're another lucky dog," Jackson responded, having in mind that at first Johnny had been thought to be desperately wounded. "Why, yore friends have got the worst of this game; they're worse off than you are—out all day an' night in this cussed storm."
While they talked Edwards made his way through the cold downpour to Harlan's saloon, alone and unafraid, and greatly pleased by the order he would give. At last he had proof enough to work on, to satisfy his conscience, for the inevitable had come as the culmination of continued and clever defiance of law and order.
He deliberately approached the front door of the Oasis and, opening it, stepped inside, his hands resting on his guns—he had packed two Colts for the last twenty-four hours. His appearance caused a ripple of excitement to run around the room. After what had taken place, a visit from him could mean only one thing—trouble. And it was entirely possible that he had others within call to help him out if necessary.
Harlan knew that he would be the one held responsible and he ceased wiping a glass and held the cloth suspended in one hand and the glass in the other. "Well?" he snapped, angrily, his eyes smouldering with fixed hatred.
"Mebby you think it's well, but it's going to be a blamed sight better before sundown to-morrow night," evenly replied the marshal. "I just dropped in sort of free-like to tell you to pack up an' get out of town before dark—load yore wagon an' vamoose; an' take yore friends with you, too. If you don't—" he did not finish in words, for his tightening lips made them unnecessary.
"What!" yelled Harlan, red with anger. He placed his hands on the bar and leaned over it as if to give emphasis to his words. "Me pack up an' git! Me leave this shack! Who's going to pay me for it, hey? Me leave town! You drop out again an' go back to Kansas where you come from—they're easier back there!"
"Well, so far I ain't found nothing very craggy 'round here," retorted Edwards, closely watching the muttering crowd by the bar. "Takes more than a loud voice an' a pack of sneaking coyotes to send me looking for something easier. An' let me tell you this: You stay away from Kansas—they hangs people like you back there. That's whatever. You pack up an' git out of this town or I'll start a burying plot with you on yore own land."
The low, angry buzz of Harlan's friends and their savage, scowling faces would have deterred a less determined man; but Edwards knew they were afraid of him, and the men on whom he could call to back him up. And he knew that there must always be a start, there must be one man to show the way; and each of the men he faced was waiting for some one else to lead.
"You all slip over the horizon before dark to-night, an' it's dark early these days," he continued. "Don't get restless with yore hands!" he snapped ominously at the crowd. "I means what I say—you shake the mud from this town off yore boots before dark—before that Bar-20 outfit gets back," he finished meaningly.
Questions, imprecations, and threats filled the room, and the crowd began to spread out slowly. His guns came out like a flash and he laughed with the elation that comes with impending battle. "The first man to start it'll drop," he said evenly. "Who's going to be the martyr?"
"I won't leave town!" shouted Harlan. "I'll stay here if I'm killed for it!"
"I admire yore loyalty to principle, but you've got damned little sense," retorted the marshal. "You ain't no practical man. Keep yore hands where they are!"—his vibrant voice turned the shifting crowd to stone-like rigidity and he backed slowly toward the door, the poor light gleaming dully from the polished blue steel of his Colts. Rugged, lion-like, charged to the finger tips with reckless courage and dare-devil self-confidence, his personality overflowed and dominated the room, almost hypnotic in its effect. He was but one against many, but he was the master, and they knew it; they had known it long enough to accept it without question, and the training now stood him in good stead.
For a moment he stood in the open doorway, keenly scrutinizing them for signs of danger, his unwavering guns charged with certain death and his strong face made stronger by the shadows in its hollows. "Before dark!"—and he was gone.
He left behind him deep silence, which endured for several moments.
"By the Lord, I won't!" cried Harlan, still staring at the door.
The spell was broken and a babel of voices filled the room, threats mingling with excuses, hot, vibrant, profane. These men were not cowards all the way through, but only when face to face with the master. They had flourished in a way by their wits alone on the same range with the outfits of the C-80 and the Double-Arrow, for individually they were "bad," and collectively they made a force of no mean strength. Edwards had landed among them like a thunderbolt and had proved his prowess, and they still held him in awesome respect. His reckless audacity and grim singleness of purpose had saved him on more than one occasion, for had he wavered once he would have been shot down without mercy. But gradually his enforcement of hampering laws became more and more intolerable, and their subordinated spirits were nearly on the point of revolt. When he faced them they resumed their former positions in relation to him—but once out of his sight they plotted to destroy him. Here was the crisis: it was now or never. They could not evade his ultimatum—it was obey or fight.
Submission was not to be thought of, for to flee would be to lose caste, and the story of such an act would follow them wherever they went, and brand them as cowards. Here they had lived, and here they would stay if possible, and to this end they discussed ways and means.
"Harlan's right!" emphatically announced Laramie Joe. "We can't pull out and have this foller us."
"We should have started it with a rush when he was in here," remarked Boston, regretfully.
Harlan stopped his pacing and faced them, shoving out a bottle of whiskey as an aid to his logic.
"That chance is past, an' I don't know but what it is a good thing," he began. "He was primed an' looking fer trouble, an' he'd shore got a few of us afore he went under. What we want is strategy—that's the game. You fellers have got as much brains as him, an' if we thrash this thing out we can find a way to call his play—an' get him! No use of any of us getting plugged 'less we have to. But whatever we do we've got to start it right quick an' have it over before that Bar-20 gang comes back. Harper, you an' Quinn go scouting—an' don't take no guns with you, neither. Act like you was hitting the long trail out, an' work back here on a circle. See how many of his friends are in town. While you are gone the rest of us will hold a pow-wow an' take the kinks out of this game. Chase along, an' don't waste no time."
"Good!" cried Slivers Lowe emphatically. "There's blamed few fellers in town now that have any use for him, for most of them are off on the ranges. Bet we won't have more than six to fight, an' there's that many of us here."
The scouts departed at once and the remaining four drew close in consultation.
"One more drink around and then no more till this trouble is over," Harlan said, passing the bottle. The drinks, in view of the coming drought and the thirsty work ahead, were long and deep, and new courage and vindictiveness crept through their veins.
"Now here's the way it looks to me," Harlan continued, placing the bottle, untasted by himself, on the floor behind him. "We've got to work a surprise an' take Edwards an' his friends off their guard. That'll be easy if we're careful, because they think we ain't looking for fight. When we get them out of the way we can take Jackson's store an' use one of the other shacks and wait for the Bar-20 to ride in. They'll canter right in, like they allus do, an' when they get close enough we'll open the game with a volley an' make every shot tell. 'T won't last long, 'cause every one of us will have his man named before they get here. Then the few straddlers in town, seeing how easy we've gone an' handled it'll join us. We've got four men to come in yet, an' by the time the C-80 an' Double-Arrow hears about it we'll be fixed to drive 'em back home. We ought to be over a dozen strong by dark."
"That sounds good, all right," remarked Slivers, thoughtfully, "but can we do it that easy?"
"Course we can! We ain't fools, an' we all can shoot as well as them," snapped Laramie Joe, the most courageous of the lot. Laramie had taken only one drink, and that a small one, for he was wise enough to realize that he needed his wits as keen as he could have them.
"We can do it easy, if Edwards goes under first," hastily replied Harlan. "An' me an' Laramie will see to that part of it. If we don't get him, you all can hit the trail an' we won't be sore about it. That is, unless you are made of the stuff that stands up an' fights 'stead of running away. I reckon I ain't none mistaken in any of you. You'll all be there when things get hot."
"You can bet the shack I won't do no trail-hitting," growled Boston, glancing at Slivers, who squirmed a little under the hint.
"Well, I'm glued to the crowd; you can't lose me, fellers," Slivers remarked, re-crossing his legs uneasily. "Are we going to begin it from here?"
"We ought to spread out cautions and surround Jackson's, or wherever Edwards is," Laramie Joe suggested. "That's my—"
"Yo're right! Now you've hit it plumb on the head!" interrupted Harlan, slapping Laramie heartily across the back. "What did I tell you about our brains?" he cried, enthusiastically. He had been on the point of suggesting that plan of operations when Laramie took the words out of his mouth. "I'd never thought of that, Laramie," he lied, his face beaming. "Why, we've got 'em licked to a finish right now!"
"This is a hummer of a game," laughed Slivers. "But how about the Bar-20 crowd?"
"I've told you that already," replied the proprietor.
"You bet it's a hummer," cried Boston, reaching for the whiskey bottle under cover of the excitement and enthusiasm.
Harlan pushed it away with his foot and raised his clenched fist. "Do you wonder I didn't think of that plan?" he demanded. "Ain't I been too mad to think at all? Hain't I seen my friends treated like dogs, an' made to swaller insults when I couldn't raise my hand to stop it? Didn't I see Jerry Brown chased out of my place like a wild beast? If we are what we've been called, then we'll sneak out of town with our tails atween our laigs; but if we're men we'll stay right here an' cram the insults down the throats of them that made 'em! If we're men let's prove it an' make them liars swaller our lead."
"My sentiments an' allus was!" roared Slivers, slapping Harlan's shoulder.
"We're men, all right, an' we'll show 'em it, too!"
At that instant the door opened and four guns covered it before it had swung a foot.
"Put 'em down—it's Quinn!" exclaimed the man in the doorway, flinching a bit. "All right, Jed," he called over his shoulder to the man who crowded him. After Quinn came Big Jed and Harper brought up the rear. They had no more than shaken the water from their sombreros when the back door let in Charley Rich and his two companions, Frank and Tom Nolan. While greetings were being exchanged and the existing conditions explained to the newcomers, Harper and Quinn led Harlan to one side and reported, the proprietor smiling and nodding his head wisely. And while he listened, Slivers surreptitiously corralled the whiskey bottle and when the last man finished with it there was nothing in it but air.