"Well, boys," exclaimed Harlan, "things are our way. Quinn, here, met Joe Barr, of the C-80, who said Converse an' four other fellers, all friends of Edwards, stopped at the ranch an' won't be back home till the storm stops. Harper saw Fred Neil going back to his ranch, so all we've got to figger on is the marshal, Barr, an' Jackson, an' they're all in Jackson's store. Lacey might cut in, since he'd sell more liquor if I went under, but he can't do very much if he does take a hand. Now we'll get right at it." The whole thing was gone over thoroughly and in detail, positions assigned and a signal agreed upon. Seeing that weapons were in good condition after their long storage in the cellar, and that cartridge belts were full, the ten men left the room one at a time or in pairs, Harlan and Laramie Joe being the last. And both Harlan and Laramie delayed long enough to take the precaution of placing horses where they would be handy in case of need.
Joe Barr laughingly replied to Johnny Nelson's growled remarks about the condition of things in general and tried to soothe him, but Johnny was unsoothable.
"An' I've been telling him right along that he's got the best of it," complained Jackson in a weary voice. "Got a measly hole through his shoulder—good Lord! if it had gone a little lower!" he finished with a show of exasperation.
"An' ain't I been telling you all along that it ain't the measly hole in my shoulder that's got me on the prod?" retorted Johnny, with more earnestness than politeness. "But why couldn't I go with my friends after Jerry an' get shot later if I had to get it at all? Look what I'm missing, roped an' throwed in this cussed ten-by-ten shack while they're having a little excitement."
"Yo're missing some blamed nasty weather, Kid," replied the marshal. "You ain't got no kick coming at all. Why, I got soaked clean through just going down to the Oasis."
"Well, I'm kicking, just the same," snapped Johnny. "An' furthermore, I don't see nobody big enough to stop me, neither—did you all get that?"
The rear door opened and Fred Neal looked in. "Hey, Barr; come out an' gimme a hand in the corral. Busted my cinch all to pieces half a mile out—an' how the devil it ever busted like that is—" the door slammed shut and softened his monologue.
"Would you listen to that!" snorted Barr in an injured tone. "Didn't I go an' tell him near a month ago that his cussed cinch wouldn't hold no better'n a piece of wet paper?" His complaint added materially to the atmosphere of sullen discontent pervading the room. "An' now I gotter go out in this rain an'—" the slam of the door surpassed anything yet attempted in that line of endeavor. Jackson grabbed a can of corn as it jarred off the shelf behind him and directed a pleasing phrase after the peevish Barr.
"Say, won't somebody please smile?" gravely asked Edwards. "I never saw such a happy, cheerful bunch before."
"I might smile if I wasn't so blamed hungry," retorted Johnny. "Doesn't anybody ever eat in this town?" he asked in great sarcasm. "Mebby a good feed won't do me no good, but I'm going to fill myself regardless. An' after that, if the grub don't shock me to death, I'm shore going to trim somebody at Ol' Sledge—for two bits a hand."
"If I could play you enough hands at that price I could sell out an' live high without working," grinned Jackson, preparing to give the reckless invalid all he could eat. "That's purty high, Kid; but I just feel real devilish, an' I'm coming in."
"An' I'll go over to my shack, get some money, an' bust the pair of you," laughed Edwards, again buttoning his coat and going towards the door. "Holy Cats! A log must 'a' got jammed in the sluice-gate up there," he muttered, scowling at the black sky. "It's coming down harder'n ever, but here goes," and he stepped quickly into the storm.
Jackson paused with a frying pan in his hands and looked through the window after the departing marshal, and saw him stagger, stumble forward, then jerk out his guns and begin firing. Hard firing now burst out in front and Jackson, cursing angrily, dropped the pan and reached for his rifle—to drop it also and sink down, struck by the bullet which drilled through the window. Johnny let out a yell of rage, grabbed his Colt, and ran to the door in time to see Edwards slowly raise up on one elbow, fire his last shot, and fall back riddled by bullets.
Jackson crawled to his rifle and then to the side window, where he propped his back against a box and prepared to do his best. "It was shore a surprise," he swore. "An' they went an' got Edwards before he could do anything."
"They did not!" retorted Johnny. "He—" the glass in the door vibrated sharply and the speaker, stepping to one side out of sight, with a new and superficial wound, opened fire on the building down the street. Two men were lying on the ground across the street—these Edwards had shot—and another was trying to drag himself to the shelter of a building. A man sprinted from an old corral close by in a brave and foolhardy attempt to save his friend, and Johnny swore because he had to fire twice at the same mark.
The rear door crashed open and shut as Barr, closely followed by Neal, ran in. They had been caught in the corral but, thanks to Harlan's whiskey, had managed to hold their own until they had a chance to make a rush for the store.
"Where's the marshal?" cried Barr, catching sight of Jackson. "Are you plugged bad?" he asked, anxiously.
"Well, I ain't plugged a whole lot good!" snapped Jackson. "An' Edwards is dead. They shot him down without warning. We're going to get ours, too—these walls don't stop them bullets. How many out there?"
"Must be a dozen," hastily replied Neal, who had not remained idle. Both he and Barr were working like mad men moving boxes and barrels against the walls to make a breastwork capable of stopping the bullets which came through the boards.
"I reckon—I'm bleeding inside," Jackson muttered, wearily and without hope. "Wonder how—long we—can hold out?"
"We'll hold out till we're good an' dead!" replied Johnny, hotly. "They ain't got us yet an' they'll pay for it before they do. If we can hold 'em off till Buck an' the rest come back we'll have the pleasure of seeing 'em buried."
"Oh, I'll get you next time!" assured Barr to an enemy, slipping a fresh cartridge into the Sharps and peering intently at a slight rise on the muddy plain. "You shoot like yo're drunk," he mumbled.
"But what is it all about, anyhow?" asked Neal, finding time for an immaterial question. "Who are they?—can't see nothing but blurs through this rain!"
"Yes; what's the game?" asked Barr, mildly surprised that he had not thought of it before.
"It's that Oasis gang," Johnny responded. He fired, and growled with disappointment. "Harlan's at the head of it," he added.
"Edwards—told Harlan to—get out of—town," Jackson began.
"An' to take his gang with him," Johnny interposed quickly to save Jackson from the strain. "They had till dark. Guess the rest. Oh, you coyote!" he shouted, staggering back. There was a report farther down the barricade and Neal called out, "I got him, Nelson; he's done. How are you?"
"Mad! Mad!" yelled Johnny, touching his twice-wounded shoulder and dancing with rage and pain. "Right in the same place! Oh, wait! Wait! Hey, gimme a rifle—I can't do nothing with a Colt at this range; my name ain't Hopalong," and he went slamming around the room in hot search of what he wanted.
"There ain't—no more—Johnny," feebly called Jackson, raising slightly to ease himself. "You can have—my gun purty—soon. I won't be able—to use it—much longer."
"Why don't Buck an' Hoppy hurry up!" snarled Johnny.
"Be a long time—mebby," mumbled Jackson, his trembling hands trying to steady the rifle. "They're all—around us. Ah, missed!" he intoned hoarsely, trying to pump the lever with unobeying hands. "I can't last—much—" the words ceased abruptly and the clatter of the rifle on the floor told the story.
Johnny stumbled over to him and dragged him aside, covering the upturned face with his own sombrero, and picked up the rifle. Rolling a barrel of flour against the wall below the window he fixed himself as comfortably as possible and threw a shell into the chamber.
"Now, you coyotes; you pay me for that!" he gritted, resting the gun on the window sill and holding it so he could work it with one hand and shoulder.
"Wonder how them pups ever pumped up enough courage to cut loose like this?" queried Neal from behind his flour barrel.
"Whiskey," hazarded Barr. "Harlan must 'a' got 'em drunk. An' that's three times I've missed that snake. Wish it would stop raining so I could see better."
"Why don't you wish they'd all drop dead? Wish good when you wish at all: got as much chance of having it come true," responded Neal, sarcastically. He smothered a curse and looked curiously at his left arm, and from it to the new, yellow-splintered hole in the wall, which was already turning dark from the water soaking into it. "Hey, Joe; we need some more boxes!" he exclaimed, again looking at his arm.
"Yes," came Johnny's voice. "Three of 'em—five of 'em, an' about six feet long an' a foot deep. But if my outfit gets here in time we'll want more'n a dozen."
"Say! Lacey's firing now!" suddenly cried Barr. "He's shooting out of his windy. That'll stop 'em from rushing us! Good boy, Lacey!" he shouted, but Lacey did not hear him in the uproar.
"An' he's worse off than we are, being alone," commented Neal. "Hey! One of us better make a break for help—my ranch's the nearest. What d'ye say?"
"It's suicide; they'll get you before you get ten feet," Barr replied with conviction.
"No; they won't—the corral hides the back door, an' all the firing is on this side. I can sneak along the back wall an' by keeping the buildings atween me an' them, get a long ways off before they know anything about it. Then it's a dash—an' they can't catch me. But can you fellers hold out if I do?"
"Two can hold out as good as three—go ahead," Johnny replied. "Leave me some of yore Colt cartridges, though. You can't use 'em all before you get home."
"Don't stop fer that; there's a shelfful of all kinds behind the counter," Barr interposed.
"Well, so long an' good luck," and the rear door closed, and softly this time.
"Two hours is some wait under the present circumstances," Barr muttered, shifting his position behind his barricade. "He can't do it in less, nohow."
Johnny ducked and looked foolish. "Missed me by a foot," he explained. "He can't do it in two—not there an' back," he replied. "The trail is mud over the fetlocks. Give him three at the least."
"They ain't shooting as much as they was before."
"Waiting till they gets sober, I reckon," Johnny replied.
"If we don't hear no ruction in a few minutes we'll know he got away all right," Barr soliloquized. "An' he's got a fine cayuse for mud, too."
"Hey, why can't you do the same thing if he makes it?" Johnny suddenly asked. "I can hold her alone, all right."
"Yo're a cheerful liar, you are," laughed Barr. "But can you ride?"
"Reckon so, but I ain't a-going to."
"Why, we both can go—it's a cinch!" Barr cried. "Come on!"
"Lord!—an' I never even thought of that! Reckon I was too mad," Johnny replied. "But I sort of hates to leave Jackson an' Edwards," he added, sullenly.
"But they're gone! You can't do them no good by staying."
"Yes; I know. An' how about Lacey chipping in on our fight?" demanded Johnny. "I ain't a-going to leave him to take it all. You go, Barr; it wasn't yore fight, nohow. You didn't even know what you was fighting for!"
"Huh! When anybody shoots at me it's my fight, all right," replied Barr, seating himself on the floor behind the breastwork. "I forgot all about Lacey," he apologized. At that instant a tomato can went spang! and fell off the shelf. "An' it's too late, anyhow; they ain't a-going to let nobody else get away on that side."
"An' they're tuning up again, too," Johnny replied, preparing for trouble. "Look out for a rush, Barr."
THE BAR-20 RETURNS.
Hopalong Cassidy stopped swearing at the weather and looked up and along the trail in front of him, seeing a hard-riding man approach. He turned his head and spoke to Buck Peters, who rode close behind him. "Somebody's shore in a hurry—why, it's Fred Neal."
It was. Mr. Neal was making his arms move and was also shouting something at the top of his voice. The noise of the rain and of the horses' hoofs splashing in the mud and water at first made his words unintelligible, but it was not long before Hopalong heard something which made him sit up even straighter. In a moment Neal was near enough to be heard distinctly and the outfit shook itself out of its weariness and physical misery and followed its leader at reckless speed. As they rode, bunched close together, Neal briefly and graphically outlined the relative positions of the combatants, and while Buck's more cautious mind was debating the best way to proceed against the enemy, Hopalong cried out the plan to be followed. There would be no strategy—Johnny, wounded and desperate, was fighting for his life. The simplest way was the best—a dash regardless of consequences to those making it, for time was a big factor to the two men in Jackson's store.
"Ride right at 'em!" Hopalong cried. "I know that bunch. They'll be too scared to shoot straight. Paralyze 'em! Three or four are gone now—an' the whole crowd wasn't worth one of the men they went out to get. The quicker it's over the better."
"Right you are," came from the rear.
"Ride up the arroyo as close as we can get, an' then over the edge an' straight at 'em," Buck ordered. "Their shooting an' the rain will cover what noise we make on the soft ground. An' boys, no quarter!"
"Reckon not!" gritted Red, savagely. "Not with Edwards an' Jackson dead, an' the Kid fighting for his life!"
"They're still at it!" cried Lanky Smith, as the faint and intermittent sound of firing was heard; the driving wind was blowing from the town, and this, also, would deaden the noise of their approach.
"Thank the Lord! That means that there's somebody left to fight 'em," exclaimed Red. "Hope it's the Kid," he muttered.
"They can't rush the store till they get Lacey, an' they can't rush him till they get the store," shouted Neal over his shoulder. "They'd be in a cross fire if they tried either—an' that's what licks 'em."
"They'll be in a cross fire purty soon," promised Pete, grimly.
Hopalong and Red reached the edge of the arroyo first and plunged over the bank into the yellow storm-water swirling along the bottom like a miniature flood. After them came Buck, Neal, and the others, the water shooting up in sheets as each successive horse plunged in. Out again on the farther side they strung out into single file along the narrow foot-hold between water and bank and raced towards the sharp bend some hundreds of yards ahead, the point in the arroyo's course nearest the town. The dripping horses scrambled up the slippery incline and then, under the goading of spurs and quirts, leaped forward as fast as they could go across the level, soggy plain.
A quarter of a mile ahead of them lay the scattered shacks of the town, and as they drew nearer to it the riders could see the flashes of guns and the smoke-fog lying close to the ground. Fire spat from Jackson's store and a cloud of smoke still lingered around a window in Lacey's saloon. Then a yell reached their ears, a yell of rage, consternation and warning. Figures scurried to seek cover and the firing from Jackson's and Lacey's grew more rapid.
A mounted man emerged from a corral and tore away, others following his example, and the outfit separated to take up the chase individually. Harlan, wounded hard, was trying to run to where he had left his horse, and after him fled Slivers Lowe. Hopalong was gaining on them when he saw Slivers raise his arm and fire deliberately into the back of the proprietor of the Oasis, leap over the falling body, vault into the saddle of Harlan's horse and gallop for safety. Hopalong's shots went wide and the last view any one had of Slivers in that part of the country was when he dropped into an arroyo to follow it for safety. Laramie Joe fled before Red Connors and Red's rage was so great that it spoiled his accuracy, and he had the sorrow of seeing the pursued grow faint in the mist and fog. Pursuit was tried until the pursuers realized that their mounts were too worn out to stand a show against the fresh animals ridden by the survivors of the Oasis crowd.
Red circled and joined Hopalong. "Blasted coyotes," he growled. "Killed Jackson an' Edwards, an' wanted the Kid! He's shore showed 'em what fighting is, all right. But I wonder what got into 'em all at once to give 'em nerve enough to start things?"
"Edwards paid his way, all right," replied Hopalong. "If I do as well when my time comes I won't do no kicking."
"Yore time ain't coming that way," responded Red, grinning. "You'll die a natural death in bed, unless you gets to cussing me."
"Shore there ain't no more, Buck?" Hopalong called.
"Yes. There was only five, I reckon, an' they was purty well shot up when we took a hand. You know, Johnny was in it all the time," replied the foreman, smiling. "This town's had the cleaning up it's needed for some time," he added.
They were at Jackson's store now, and hurriedly dismounted and ran in to see Johnny. They found him lying across some boxes, which brought him almost to the level of a window sill. He was too weak to stand, while near him in similar condition lay Barr, too weak from loss of blood to do more than look his welcome.
"How are you, Kid?" cried Buck anxiously, bending over him, while others looked to Barr's injuries.
"Tired, Buck, awful tired; an' all shot up," Johnny slowly replied. "When I saw you fellers—streak past this windy—I sort of went flat—something seemed to break inside me," he said, faintly and with an effort, and the foreman ordered him not to talk. Deft fingers, schooled by practice in rough and ready surgery, were busy over him and in half an hour he lay on Jackson's cot, covered with bandages.
"Why, hullo, Lacey!" exclaimed Hopalong, leaping forward to shake hands with the man Red and Billy had gone to help. "Purty well scratched up, but lively yet, hey?"
"I'm able to hobble over here an' shake han's with these scrappers—they're shore wonders," Lacey replied. "Fought like a whole regiment! Hullo, Johnny!" and his hand-clasp told much.
"Yore cross fire did it, Lacey; that was the whole thing," Johnny smiled. "Yo're all right!"
Red turned and looked out of the window toward the Oasis and then glanced at Buck. "Reckon we better burn Harlan's place—it's all that's left of that gang now," he suggested.
"Why, yes; I reckon so," replied the foreman. "That's as—"
"No, we won't!" Hopalong interposed quickly. "That stands till Johnny sets it off. It's the Kid's celebration—he was shot in it."
After the flurry at Perry's Bend the Bar-20 settled down to the calm routine work and sent several drive herds to their destination without any unusual incidents. Buck thought that the last herd had been driven when, late in the summer, he received an order that he made haste to fill. The outfit was told to get busy and soon rounded up the necessary number of three-year-olds. Then came the road branding, the final step except inspection, and this was done not far from the ranch house, where the facilities were best for speedy work.
Entirely recovered from all ill effects of his afternoon in Jackson's store up in Perry's bend, Johnny Nelson waited with Red Connors on the platform of the branding chute and growled petulantly at the sun, the dust, but most of all at the choking, smarting odor of burned hair which filled their throats and caused them to rub the backs of grimy hands across their eyes. Chute-branding robbed them of the excitement, the leaven of fun and frolic, which they always took from open or corral branding—and the work of a day in the corral or open was condensed into an hour or two by the chute. This was one cow wide, narrow at the bottom and flared out as it went up, so the animal could not turn, and when filled was, to use Johnny's graphic phrase, "like a chain of cows in a ditch." Eight of the wondering and crowded animals, guided into the pen by men who knew their work to the smallest detail and lost no time in its performance, filed into the pen after those branded had filed out. As the first to enter reached the farther end a stout bar dropped into place, just missing the animal's nose; and as the last cow discovered that it could go no farther and made up its mind to back out, it was stopped by another bar, which fell behind it. The iron heaters tossed a hot iron each to Red and Johnny and the eight were marked in short order, making about two hundred and fifty they had branded in three hours. This number compared very favorably with that of the second chute where Lanky Smith and Frenchy McAlister waved cold irons and sarcastically asked their iron men if the sun was supposed to provide the heat; whereat the down-trodden heaters provided heat with great generosity in their caustic retorts.
"Oh, Susanna, don't you cry for me," sang Billy Williams, one of the feeders. "But why in Jericho don't you fellers get a move on you? You ain't no good on the platform—you ought to be mixing biscuits for Cookie. Frenchy and Lanky are the boys to turn 'em out," he offered, gratis.
Red's weary air bespoke a vast and settled contempt for such inanities and his iron descended against the side of the victim below him—he would not deign to reply. Not so with Johnny, who could not refrain from hot retort.
"Don't be a fool all the time," snapped Johnny. "Mind yore own business, you shorthorn. Big-mouthed old woman, that's what—" his tone dropped and the words sank into vague mutterings which a strangling cough cut short. "Blasted idiot," he whispered, tears coming into his eyes at the effort. Burning hair is bad for throat and temper alike.
Red deftly knocked his companion's iron up and spoke sharply. "You mind yourn better—that makes the third you've tried to brand twice. Why don't you look what yo're doing? Hot iron! Hot iron! What're you fellers doing?" he shouted down at the heaters. "This ain't no time to go to sleep. How d'ye expect us to do any work when you ain't doing any yoreselves!" Red's temper was also on the ragged edge.
"You've got one in yore other hand, you sheep!" snorted one of the iron heaters with restless pugnacity. "Go tearing into us when you—" he growled the rest and kicked viciously at the fire.
"Lovely bunch," grinned Billy who, followed by Pete Wilson, mounted the platform to relieve the branders. "Chase yoreselves—me an' Pete are shore going to show you cranky bugs how to do a hundred an hour. Ain't we, Pete? An' look here, you," he remarked to the heaters, "don't you fellers keep us waiting for hot irons!"
"That's right! Make a fool out of yoreself first thing!" snapped one of the pair on the ground.
"Billy, I never loved you as much as I do this minute," grinned Johnny wearily. "Wish you'd 'a' come along to show us how to do it an hour ago."
"I would, only—"
"Quit chinning an' get busy," remarked Red, climbing down. "The chute's full; an' it's all yourn."
Billy caught the iron, gave it a preliminary flourish, and started to work with a speed that would not endure for long. He branded five out of the eight and jeered at his companion for being so slow.
"Have yore fun now, Billy," Pete replied with placid good nature. "Before we're through with this job you'll be lucky if you can do two of the string, if you keep up that pace."
"He'll be missing every other one," growled his heater with overflowing malice. "That iron ain't cold, you Chinaman!"
"Too cold for me—don't miss none," chuckled Billy sweetly. "Fill the chute! Fill the chute! Don't keep us waiting!" he cried to the guiders, hopping around with feigned eagerness and impatience.
Hopalong Cassidy rode up and stopped as Red returned to take the place of one of the iron heaters. "How they coming, Red?" he inquired.
"Fast. You can sic that inspector on 'em the first thing to-morrow morning, if he gets here on time. Bet he's off som'ers getting full of redeye. Who're going with you on this drive?"
"The inspector is all right—he's here now an' is going to spend the night with us so as to be on hand the first thing to-morrow," replied Hopalong, grinning at the hard-working pair on the platform. "Why, I reckon I'll take you, Johnny, Lanky, Billy, Pete, an' Skinny, an' we'll have two hoss-wranglers an' a cook, of course. We'll drive up the right-hand trail through West Valley this time. It's longer, but there'll be more water that way at this time of the year. Besides, I don't want no more foot-sore cattle to nurse along. Even the West Valley trail will be dry enough before we strike Bennett's Creek."
"Yes; we'll have to drive 'em purty hard till we reach the creek," replied Red, thoughtfully. "Say; we're going to have three thousand of the finest three-year-old steers ever sent north out of these parts. An' we ought to do it in a month an' deliver 'em fat an' frisky. We can feed 'em good for the last week."
"I just sent some of the boys out to drive in the cayuses," Hopalong remarked, "an' when they get here you fellers match for choice an' pick yore remuda. No use taking too few. About eight apiece'll do us nice. I shore like a good cavvieyeh."
"Hullo, Hoppy!" came from the platform as Billy grinned his welcome through the dust on his face. "Want a job?"
"Hullo yoreself," growled Pete. "Stick yore iron on that fourth steer before he gets out, an' talk less with yore mouth."
"Pete's still rabid," called Billy, performing the duty Pete suggested.
"That may be the polite name for it," snorted one of the iron heaters, testing an iron, "but that ain't what I'd say. Might as well cover the subject thoroughly while yo're on it."
"Yes, verily," endorsed his companion.
"Here comes the last of 'em," smiled Pete, watching several cattle being driven towards the chute. "We'll have to brand 'em on the move, Billy; there ain't enough to fill the chute."
"All right; hot iron, you!"
Early the next morning the inspector looked them over and made his count, the herd was started north and at nightfall had covered twelve miles. For the next week everything went smoothly, but after that, water began to be scarce and the herd was pushed harder, and became harder to handle.
On the night of the twelfth day out four men sat around the fire in West Valley at a point a dozen miles south of Bennett's Creek, and ate heartily. The night was black—not a star could be seen and the south wind hardly stirred the trampled and burned grass. They were thoroughly tired out and their tempers were not in the sweetest state imaginable, for the heat during the last four days had been almost unbearable even to them and they had had their hands full with the cranky herd. They ate silently, hungrily—there would be time enough for the few words they had to say when the pipes were going for a short smoke before turning in.
"I feel like hell," growled Red, reaching for another cup of coffee, but there was no reply; he had voiced the feelings of all.
Hopalong listened intently and looked up, staring into the darkness, and soon a horseman was seen approaching the fire. Hopalong nodded welcome and waved his hand towards the food, and the stranger, dismounting, picketed his horse and joined the circle. When the pipes were lighted he sighed with satisfaction and looked around the group. "Driving north, I see."
"Yes; an' blamed glad to get off this dry range," Hopalong replied. "The herd's getting cranky an' hard to hold—but when we pass the creek everything'll be all right again. An' ain't it hot! When you hear us kick about the heat it means something."
"I'm going yore way," remarked the stranger. "I came down this trail about two weeks ago. Reckon I was the last to ride through before the fence went up. Damned outrage, says I, an' I told 'em so, too. They couldn't see it that way an' we had a little disagreement about it. They said as how they was going to patrol it."
"Fence! What fence?" exclaimed Red.
"Where's there any fence?" demanded Hopalong sharply.
"Twenty mile north of the creek," replied the stranger, carefully packing his pipe.
"What? Twenty miles north of the creek?" cried Hopalong. "What creek?"
"Bennett's. The 4X has strung three strands of barb wire from Coyote Pass to the North Arm. Thirty mile long, without a gate, so they says."
"But it don't close this trail!" cried Hopalong in blank astonishment.
"It shore does. They say they owns that range an' can fence it in all they wants. I told 'em different, but naturally they didn't listen to me. An' they'll fight about it, too."
"But they can't shut off this trail!" exclaimed Billy, with angry emphasis. "They don't own it no more'n we do!"
"I know all about that—you heard me tell you what they said."
"But how can we get past it?" demanded Hopalong.
"Around it, over the hills. You'll lose about three days doing it, too."
"I can't take no sand-range herd over them rocks, an' I ain't going to drive 'round no North Arm or Coyote Pass if I could," Hopalong replied with quiet emphasis. "There's poison springs on the east an' nothing but rocks on the west. We go straight through."
"I'm afraid that you'll have to fight if you do," remarked the stranger.
"Then we'll fight!" cried Johnny, leaning forward. "Blasted coyotes! What right have they got to block a drive trail that's as old as cattle-raising in these parts! That trail was here before I was born, it's allus been open, an' it's going to stay open! You watch us go through!"
"Yo're dead right, Kid; we'll cut that fence an' stick to this trail, an' fight if we has to," endorsed Red. "The Bar-20 ain't crawling out of no hole that it can walk out of. They're bluffing; that's all."
"I don't think they are; an' there's twelve men in that outfit," suggested the stranger, offhand.
"We ain't got time to count odds; we never do down our way when we know we're right. An' we're right enough in this game," retorted Hopalong, quickly. "For the last twelve days we've had good luck, barring the few on this dry range; an' now we're in for the other kind. By the Lord, I wish we was here without the cows to take care of—we'd show 'em something about blocking drive trails that ain't in their little book!"
"Blast it all! Wire fences coming down this way now," mused Johnny, sullenly. He hated them by training as much as he hated horse-thieves and sheep; and his companions had been brought up in the same school. Barb wire, the death-knell to the old-time punching, the bar to riding at will, a steel insult to fire the blood—it had come at last.
"We've shore got to cut it, Red,—" began Hopalong, but the cook had to rid himself of some of his indignation and interrupted with heat.
"Shore we have!" came explosively from the tail board of the chuck wagon. "Got to lay it agin my li'l axe an' swat it with my big ol' monkey wrench! An' won't them posts save me a lot of trouble hunting chips an' firewood!"
"We've shore got to cut it, Red," Hopalong repeated slowly. "You an' Johnny an' me'll ride ahead after we cross the creek to-morrow an' do it. I don't hanker after no fight with all these cows on my han's, but we've got to risk one."
"Shore!" cried Johnny, hotly. "I can't get over the gall of them fellers closing up the West Valley drive trail. Why, I never heard tell of such a thing afore!"
"We're short-handed; we ought to have more'n we have to guard the herd if there's a fight. If it stampedes—oh, well, that'll work out to-morrow. The creek's only about twelve miles away an' we'll start at daylight, so tumble in," Hopalong said as he arose. "Red, I'm going out to take my shift—I'll send Pete in. Stranger," he added, turning, "I'm much obliged to you for the warning. They might 'a' caught us with our hands tied."
"Oh, that's all right," hastily replied the stranger, who was in hearty accord with the plans, such as they were. "My name's Hawkins, an' I don't like range fences no more'n you do. I used to hunt buffalo all over this part of the country before they was all killed off, an' I allus rode where I pleased. I'm purty old, but I can still see an' shoot; an' I'm going to stick right along with you fellers an' see it through. Every man counts in this game."
"Well, that's blamed white of you," Hopalong replied, greatly pleased by the other's offer. "But I can't let you do it. I don't want to drag you into no trouble, an'—"
"You ain't dragging me none; I'm doing it myself. I'm about as mad as you are over it. I ain't good for much no more, an' if I shuffles off fighting barb wire I'll be doing my duty. First it was nesters, then railroads an' more nesters, then sheep, an' now it's wire—won't it never stop? By the Lord, it's got to stop, or this country will go to the devil an' won't be fit to live in. Besides, I've heard of your fellers before—I'll tie to the Bar-20 any day."
"Well, I reckon you must if you must; yo're welcome enough," laughed Hopalong, and he strode off to his picketed horse, leaving the others to discuss the fence, with the assistance of the cook, until Pete rode in.
When Hopalong rode in at midnight to arouse the others and send them out to relieve Skinny and his two companions, the cattle were quieter than he had expected to leave them, and he could see no change of weather threatening. He was asleep when the others turned in, or he would have been further assured in that direction.
Out on the plain where the herd was being held, Red and the three other guards had been optimistic until half of their shift was over and it was only then that they began to worry. The knowledge that running water was only twelve miles away had the opposite effect than the one expected, for instead of making them cheerful, it caused them to be beset with worry and fear. Water was all right, and they could not have got along without it for another day; but it was, in this case, filled with the possibility of grave danger.
Johnny was thinking hard about it as he rode around the now restless herd, and then pulled up suddenly, peered into the darkness and went on again. "Damn that disreputable li'l rounder! Why the devil can't he behave, 'stead of stirring things up when they're ticklish?" he muttered, but he had to grin despite himself. A lumbering form had blundered past him from the direction of the camp and was swallowed up by the night as it sought the herd, annoying and arousing the thirsty and irritable cattle along its trail, throwing challenges right and left and stirring up trouble as it passed. The fact that the challenges were bluffs made no difference to the pawing steers, for they were anxious to have things out with the rounder.
This frisky disturber of bovine peace was a yearling that had slipped into the herd before it left the ranch and had kept quiet and respectable and out of sight in the middle of the mass for the first few days and nights. But keeping quiet and respectable had been an awful strain, and his mischievous deviltry grew constantly harder to hold in check. Finally he could stand the repression no longer, and when he gave way to his accumulated energy it had the snap and ginger of a tightly stretched rubber band recoiling on itself. On the fourth night out he had thrown off his mask and announced his presence in his true light by butting a sleepy steer out of its bed, which bed he straightway proceeded to appropriate for himself. This was folly, for the ground was not cold and he had no excuse for stealing a body-warmed place to lie down; it was pure cussedness, and retribution followed hard upon the act. In about half a minute he had discovered the great difference between bullying poor, miserable, defenceless dogies and trying to bully a healthy, fully developed, and pugnacious steer. After assimilating the preliminary punishment of what promised to be the most thorough and workmanlike thrashing he had ever known, the indignant and frightened bummer wheeled and fled incontinently with the aroused steer in angry pursuit. The best way out was the most puzzling to the vengeful steer, so the bummer cavorted recklessly through the herd, turning and twisting and doubling, stepping on any steer that happened to be lying down in his path, butting others, and leavening things with great success. Under other conditions he would have relished the effect of his efforts, for the herd had arisen as one animal and seemed to be debating the advisability of stampeding; but he was in no mood to relish anything and thought only of getting away. Finally escaping from his pursuer, that had paused to fight with a belligerent brother, he rambled off into the darkness to figure it all out and to maintain a sullen and chastened demeanor for the rest of the night. This was the first time a brick had been under the hat.
But the spirits of youth recover quickly—his recovered so quickly that he was banished from the herd the very next night, which banishment, not being at all to his liking, was enforced only by rigid watchfulness and hard riding; and he was roundly cursed from dark to dawn by the worried men, most of whom disliked the bumming youngster less than they pretended. He was only a cub, a wild youth having his fling, and there was something irresistibly likable and comical in his awkward antics and eternal persistence, even though he was a pest. Johnny saw more in him than his companions could find, and had quite a little sport with him: he made fine practice for roping, for he was about as elusive as a grasshopper and uncertain as a flea. Johnny was in the same general class and he could sympathize with the irrepressible nuisance in its efforts to stir up a little life and excitement in so dull a crowd; Johnny hoped to be as successful in his mischievous deviltry when he reached the town at the end of the drive.
But to-night it was dark, and the bummer gained his coveted goal with ridiculous ease, after which he started right in to work off the high pressure of the energy he had accumulated during the last two nights. He had desisted in his efforts to gain the herd early in the evening and had rambled off and rested during the first part of the night, and the herders breathed softly lest they should stir him to renewed trials. But now he had succeeded, and although only Johnny had seen him lumber past, the other three guards were aware of it immediately by the results and swore in their throats, for the cattle were now on their feet, snorting and moving about restlessly, and the rattling of horns grew slowly louder.
"Ain't he having a devil of a good time!" grinned Johnny. But it was not long before he realized the possibilities of the bummer's efforts and he lost his grin. "If we get through the night without trouble I'll see that you are picketed if it takes me all day to get you," he muttered. "Fun is fun, but it's getting a little too serious for comfort."
Sometime after the middle of the second shift the herd, already irritable, nervous, and cranky because of the thirst they were enduring, and worked up to the fever pitch by the devilish manoeuvres of the exuberant and hard-working bummer, wanted only the flimsiest kind of an excuse to stampede, and they might go without an excuse. A flash of lightning, a crash of thunder, a wind-blown paper, a flapping wagon cover, the sudden and unheralded approach of a careless rider, the cracking and flare of a match, or the scent of a wolf or coyote—or water, would send an avalanche of three thousand crazed steers crashing its irresistible way over a pitch-black plain.
Red had warned Pete and Billy, and now he rode to find Johnny and send him to camp for the others. As he got halfway around the circle he heard Johnny singing a mournful lay, and soon a black bulk loomed up in the dark ahead of him. "That you, Kid?" he asked. "That you, Johnny?" he repeated, a little louder.
The song stopped abruptly. "Shore," replied Johnny. "We're going to have trouble aplenty to-night. Glad daylight ain't so very far off. That cussed li'l rake of a bummer got by me an' into the herd. He's shore raising Ned to-night, the li'l monkey: it's getting serious, Red."
"I'll shoot that yearling at daylight, damn him!" retorted Red. "I should 'a' done it a week ago. He's picked the worst time for his cussed devilment! You ride right in an' get the boys, an' get 'em out here quick. The whole herd's on its toes waiting for the signal; an' the wink of an eye'll send 'em off. God only knows what'll happen between now and daylight! If the wind should change an' blow down from the north, they'll be off as shore as shooting. One whiff of Bennett's Creek is all that's needed, Kid; an'—"
"Oh, pshaw!" interposed Johnny. "There ain't no wind at all now. It's been quiet for an hour."
"Yes; an' that's one of the things that's worrying me. It means a change, shore."
"Not always; we'll come out of this all right," assured Johnny, but he spoke without his usual confidence. "There ain't no use—" he paused as he felt the air stir, and he was conscious of Red's heavy breathing. There was a peculiar hush in the air that he did not like, a closeness that sent his heart up in his throat, and as he was about to continue a sudden gust snapped his neck-kerchief out straight. He felt that refreshing coolness which so often precedes a storm and as he weighed it in his mind a low rumble of thunder rolled in the north and sent a chill down his back.
"Good God! Get the boys!" cried Red, wheeling. "It's changed! An' Pete an' Billy out there in front of—there they go!" he shouted as a sudden tremor shook the earth and a roaring sound filled the air. He was instantly lost to ear and eye, swallowed by the oppressive darkness as he spurred and quirted into a great, choking cloud of dust which swept down from the north, unseen in the night. The deep thunder of hoofs and the faint and occasional flash of a six-shooter told him the direction, and he hurled his mount after the uproar with no thought of the death which lurked in every hole and rock and gully on the uneven and unseen plain beneath him. His mouth and nose were lined with dust, his throat choked with it, and he opened his burning eyes only at intervals, and then only to a slit, to catch a fleeting glance of—nothing. He realized vaguely that he was riding north, because the cattle would head for water, but that was all, save that he was animated by a desperate eagerness to gain the firing line, to join Pete and Billy, the two men who rode before that crazed mass of horns and hoofs and who were pleading and swearing and yelling in vain only a few feet ahead of annihilation—if they were still alive. A stumble, a moment's indecision, and the avalanche would roll over them as if they were straws and trample them flat beneath the pounding hoofs, a modern Juggernaut. If he, or they, managed to escape with life, it would make a good tale for the bunk house some night; if they were killed it was in doing their duty—it was all in a day's work.
Johnny shouted after him and then wheeled and raced towards the camp, emptying his Colt in the air as a warning. He saw figures scurrying across the lighted place, and before he had gained it his friends raced past him and gave him hard work catching up to them. And just behind him rode the stranger, to do what he could for his new friends, and as reckless of consequences as they.
It seemed an age before they caught up to the stragglers, and when they realized how true they had ridden in the dark they believed that at last their luck was turning for the better, and pushed on with renewed hope. Hopalong shouted to those nearest him that Bennett's Creek could not be far away and hazarded the belief that the steers would slow up and stop when they found the water they craved; but his words were lost to all but himself.
Suddenly the punchers were almost trapped and their escape made miraculous, for without warning the herd swerved and turned sharply to the right, crossing the path of the riders and forcing them to the east, showing Hopalong their silhouettes against the streak of pale gray low down in the eastern sky. When free from the sudden press of cattle they slowed perceptibly, and Hopalong did likewise to avoid running them down. At that instant the uproar took on a new note and increased threefold. He could hear the shock of impact, whip-like reports, the bellowing of cattle in pain, and he arose in his stirrups to peer ahead for the reason, seeing, as he did so, the silhouettes of his friends arise and then drop from his sight. Without additional warning his horse pitched forward and crashed to the earth, sending him over its head. Slight as was the warning it served to ease his fall, for instinct freed his feet from the stirrups, and when he struck the ground it was feet first, and although he fell flat at the next instant, the shock had been broken. Even as it was, he was partly stunned, and groped as he arose on his hands and knees. Arising painfully he took a short step forward, tripped and fell again; and felt a sharp pain shoot through his hand as it went first to break the fall. Perhaps it was ten seconds before he knew what it was that had thrown him, and when he learned that he also learned the reason for the whole calamity—in his torn and bleeding hand he held a piece of barb wire.
"Barb wire!" he muttered, amazed. "Barb wire! Why, what the—Damn that ranch!" he shouted, sudden rage sweeping over him as the situation flashed through his mind and banished all the mental effects of the fall. "They've gone an' strung it south of the creek as well! Red! Johnny! Lanky!" he shouted at the top of his voice, hoping to be heard over the groaning of injured cattle and the general confusion. "Good Lord! are they killed!"
They were not, thanks to the forced slowing up, and to the pool of water and mud which formed an arm of the creek, a back-water away from the pull of the current. They had pitched into the mud and water up to their waists, some head first, some feet first, and others as they would go into a chair. Those who had been fortunate enough to strike feet first pulled out the divers, and the others gained their feet as best they might and with varying degrees of haste, but all mixed profanity and thankfulness equally well; and were equally and effectually disguised.
Hopalong, expecting the silence of death or at least the groaning of injured and dying, was taken aback by the fluent stream of profanity which greeted his ears. But all efforts in that line were eclipsed when the drive foreman tersely explained about the wire, and the providential mud bath was forgotten in the new idea. They forthwith clamored for war, and the sooner it came the better they would like it.
"Not now, boys; we've got work to do first," replied Hopalong, who, nevertheless, was troubled grievously by the same itching trigger finger. They subsided—as a steel spring subsides when held down by a weight—and went off in search of their mounts. Daylight had won the skirmish in the east and was now attacking in force, and revealed a sight which, stilling the profanity for the moment, caused it to flow again with renewed energy. The plain was a shambles near the creek, and dead and dying steers showed where the fence had stood. The rest of the herd had passed over these. The wounded cattle and three horses were put out of their misery as the first duty. The horse that Hopalong had ridden had a broken back; the other two, broken legs. When this work was out of the way the bruised and shaken men gave their attention to the scattered cattle on the other side of the creek, and when Hawkins rode up after wasting time in hunting for the trail in the dark, he saw four men with the herd, which was still scattered; four others near the creek, of whom only Johnny was mounted, and a group of six strangers riding towards them from the west and along the fence, or what was left of that portion of it.
"That's awful!" he cried, stopping his limping horse near Hopalong. "An' here come the fools that done it."
"Yes," replied Johnny, his voice breaking from rage, "but they won't go back again! I don't care if I'm killed if I can get one or two of that crowd—"
"Shut up, Kid!" snapped Hopalong as the 4X outfit drew near. "I know just how you feel about it; feel that way myself. But there ain't a-going to be no fighting while I've got these cows on my han's. That gang'll be here when we come back, all right."
"Mebby one or two of 'em won't," remarked Hawkins, as he looked again over the carnage along the fence. "I never did much pot-shooting, 'cept agin Injuns; but I dunno—" He did not finish, for the strangers were almost at his elbow.
Cranky Joe led the 4X contingent and he did the talking for it without waste of time. "Who the hell busted that fence?" he demanded, belligerently, looking around savagely. Johnny's hand twitched at the words and the way they were spoken.
"I did; did you think somebody leaned agin it?" replied Hopalong, very calmly,—so calmly that it was about one step short of an explosion.
"Well, why didn't you go around?"
"Three thousand stampeding cattle don't go 'round wire fences in the dark."
"Well, that's not our fault. Reckon you better dig down an' settle up for the damages, an' half a cent a head for water; an' then go 'round. You can't stampede through the other fence."
"That so?" asked Hopalong.
"Reckon it is."
"Yo're real shore it is?"
"Well there's only six of us here, but there's six more that we can get blamed quick if we need 'em. It's so, all right."
"Well, coming down to figures, there's eight here, with two hoss-wranglers an' a cook to come," retorted Hopalong, kicking the belligerent Johnny on the shins. "We're just about mad enough to tackle anything: ever feel that way?"
"Oh, no use getting all het up," rejoined Cranky Joe. "We ain't a-going to fight 'less we has to. Better pay up."
"Send yore bills to the ranch—if they're O. K., Buck'll pay 'em."
"Nix; I take it when I can get it."
"I ain't got no money with me that I can spare."
"Then you can leave enough cows to buy back again."
"I'm not going to pay you one damned cent, an' the only cows I'll leave are the dead ones—an' if I could take them with me I'd do it. An' I'm not going around the fence, neither."
"Oh, yes; you are. An' yo're going to pay," snapped Cranky Joe.
"Take it out of the price of two hundred dead cows an' gimme what's left," Hopalong retorted. "It'll cost you nine of them twelve men to pry it out'n me."
"You won't pay?" demanded the other, coldly.
"Not a plugged peso."
"Well, as I said before, I don't want to fight nobody 'less I has to," replied Cranky Joe. "I'll give you a chance to change yore mind. We'll be out here after it to-morrow, cash or cows. That'll give you twenty-four hours to rest yore herd an' get ready to drive. Then you pay, an' go back, 'round the fence."
"All right; to-morrow suits me," responded Hopalong, who was boiling with rage and felt constrained to hold it back. If it wasn't for the cows—!
Red and three companions swept up and stopped in a swirl of dust and asked questions until Hopalong shut them up. Their arrival and the manner of their speech riled Cranky Joe, who turned around and loosed one more remark; and he never knew how near to death he was at that moment.
"You fellers must own the earth, the way you act," he said to Red and his three companions.
"We ain't fencing it in to prove it," rejoined Hopalong, his hand on Red's arm.
Cranky Joe wheeled to rejoin his friends. "To-morrow," he said, significantly.
Hopalong and his men watched the six ride away, too enraged to speak for a moment. Then the drive foreman mastered himself and turned to Hawkins. "Where's their ranch house?" he demanded, sharply. "There must be some way out of this, an' we've got to find it; an' before to-morrow."
"West; three hours' ride along the fence. I could find 'em the darkest night what ever happened; I was out there once," Hawkins replied.
"Describe 'em as exact as you can," demanded Hopalong, and when Hawkins had done so the Bar-20 drive foreman slapped his thigh and laughed nastily. "One house with one door an' only two windows—are you shore? Good! Where's the corrals? Good again! So they'll take pay for their blasted fence, eh? Cash or cows, hey! Don't want no fight 'less it's necessary, but they're going to make us pay for the fence that killed two hundred head, an' blamed nigh got us, too. An' half a cent a head for drinking water! I've paid that more'n once—some of the poor devils squatting on the range ain't got nothing to sell but water, but I don't buy none out of Bennett's Creek! Pete, you mounted fellers round up a little—bunch the herd a little closer, an' drive straight along the trail towards that other fence. We'll all help you as soon as the wranglers bring us up something to ride. Push 'em hard, limp or no limp, till dark. They'll be too tired to go crow-hopping 'round any in the dark to-night. An' say! When you see that bummer, if he wasn't got by the fence, drop him clean. So they've got twelve men, hey! Huh!"
"What you going to do?" asked Red, beginning to cool down, and very curious.
"Yes; tell us," urged Johnny.
"Why, I'm going to cut that fence, an' cut it all to hell. Then I'm going to push the herd through it as far out of danger as I can. When they're all right Cookie an' the hoss-wranglers will have to hold 'em during the night while we do the rest."
"What's the rest?" demanded Johnny.
"Oh, I'll tell you that later; it can wait," replied Hopalong. "Meanwhile, you get out there with Pete an' help get the herd in shape. We'll be with you soon—here comes the wranglers an' the cavvieyeh. 'Bout time, too."
MR. BOGGS IS DISGUSTED
The herd gained twelve miles by dark and would pass through the northern fence by noon of the next day, for Cook's axe and monkey wrench had been put to good use. For quite a distance there was no fence: about a mile of barb wire had been pulled loose and was tangled up into several large piles, while rings of burned grass and ashes surrounded what was left of the posts. The cook had embraced this opportunity to lay in a good supply of firewood and was the happiest man in the outfit.
At ten o'clock that night eight figures loped westward along the southern fence and three hours later dismounted near the first corral of the 4X ranch. They put their horses in a depression on the plain and then hastened to seek cover, being careful to make no noise.
At dawn the door of the bunk house opened quickly and as quickly slammed shut again, three bullets in it being the reason. An uproar ensued and guns spat from the two windows in the general direction of the unseen besiegers, who did not bother about replying; they had given notification of their presence and until it was necessary to shoot there was no earthly use of wasting ammunition. Besides, the drive outfit had cooled down rapidly when it found that its herd was in no immediate danger and was not anxious to kill any one unless there was need. The situation was conducive to humor rather than anger. But every time the door moved it collected more lead, and it finally remained shut.
The noise in the bunk house continued and finally a sombrero was waved frantically at the south window and a moment later Nat Boggs, foreman of the incarcerated 4X outfit, stuck his head out very cautiously and yelled questions which bore directly on the situation and were to the point. He appeared to be excited and unduly heated, if one might judge from his words and voice. There was no reply, which still further added to his heat and excitement. Becoming bolder and a little angrier he allowed his impetuous nature to get the upper hand and forthwith attempted the feat of getting through that same window; but a sharp pat! sounded on a board not a foot from him, and he reconsidered hastily. His sombrero again waved to insist on a truce, and collected two holes, causing him much mental anguish and threatening the loss of his worthy soul. He danced up and down with great agility and no grace and made remarks, thereby leading a full-voiced chorus.
"Ain't that a hell of a note?" he demanded plaintively as he paused for breath. "Stick yore hat out, Cranky, an' see what you can do," he suggested, irritably.
Cranky Joe regarded him with pity and reproach, and moved back towards the other end of the room, muttering softly to himself. "I know it ain't much of a bonnet, but he needn't rub it in," he growled, peevishly.
"Try again; mebby they didn't see you," suggested Jim Larkin, who had a reputation for never making a joke. He escaped with his life and checked himself at the side of Cranky Joe, with whom he conferred on the harshness of the world towards unfortunates.
The rest of the morning was spent in snipe-shooting at random, trusting to luck to hit some one, and trusting in vain. At noon Cranky Joe could stand the strain no longer and opened the door just a little to relive the monotony. He succeeded, being blessed with a smashed shoulder, and immediately became a general nuisance, adding greatly to the prevailing atmosphere. Boggs called him a few kinds of fools and hastened to nail the door shut; he hit his thumb and his heart became filled with venom.
"Now look at what they went an' done!" he yelled, running around in a circle. "Damned outrage!"
"Huh!" snorted Cranky Joe with maddening superiority. "That ain't nothing—just look at me!"
Boggs looked, very fixedly, and showed signs of apoplexy, and Cranky Joe returned to his end of the room to resume his soliloquy.
"Why don't you come out an' take them cows!" inquired an unkind voice from without. "Ain't changed yore mind, have you?"
"We'll give you a drink for half a cent a head—that's the regular price for watering cows," called another.
The faint ripple of mirth which ran around the plain was lost in opinions loudly expressed within the room; and Boggs, tears of rage in his eyes, flung himself down on a chair and invented new terms for describing human beings.
John Terry was observing. He had been fluttering around the north window, constantly getting bolder, and had not been disturbed. When he withdrew his sombrero and found that it was intact he smiled to himself and leaned his elbows on the sill, looking carefully around the plain. The discovery that there was no cover on the north side cheered him greatly and he called to Boggs, outlining a plan of action.
Boggs listened intently and then smiled for the first time since dawn. "Bully for you, Terry!" he enthused. "Wait till dark—we'll fool 'em."
A bullet chipped the 'dobe at Terry's side and he ducked as he leaped back. "From an angle—what did I tell you?" he laughed. "We'll drop out here an' sneak behind the house after dark. They'll be watching the door—an' they won't be able to see us, anyhow."
Boggs sucked his thumb tenderly and grinned. "After which—," he elated.
"After which—," gravely repeated Terry, the others echoing it with unrestrained joy.
"Then, mebby, I can get a drink," chuckled Larkin, brightening under the thought.
"The moon comes up at ten," warned a voice. "It'll be full to-night—an' there ain't many clouds in sight."
"Ol' King Cole was a merry ol' soul," hummed McQuade, lightly.
"An'—a—merry—ol'—soul—was—he!—was—he!" thundered the chorus, deep-toned and strong. "He had a wife for every toe, an' some toes counted three!"
"Listen!" cried Meade, holding up his hand.
"An' every wife had sixteen dogs, an' every dog a flea!" shouted a voice from the besiegers, followed by a roar of laughter.
The hilarity continued until dark, only stopping when John Terry slipped out of the window, dropped to all-fours and stuck his head around the corner of the rear wall. He saw many stars and was silently handed to Pete Wilson.
"What was that noise?" exclaimed Boggs in a low tone. "Are you all right, Terry?" he asked, anxiously.
Three knocks on the wall replied to his question and then McQuade went out, and three more knocks were heard.
"Wonder why they make that funny noise," muttered Boggs.
"Bumped inter something, I reckon," replied Jim Larkin. "Get out of my way—I'm next."
Boggs listened intently and then pushed Duke Lane back. "Don't like that—sounds like a crack on the head. Hey, Jim! Say something!" he called softly. The three knocks were repeated, but Boggs was suspicious and he shook his head decisively. "To 'ell with the knocking—say something!"
"Still got them twelve men?" asked a strange voice, pleasantly.
"An' every dog a flea," hummed another around the corner.
"Hell!" shouted Boggs. "To the door, fellers! To the door—quick!"
A whistle shrilled from behind the house and a leaden tattoo began on the door. "Other window!" whispered O'Neill. The foreman got there before him and, shoving his Colt out first to clear the way, yelled with rage and pain as a pole hit his wrist and knocked the weapon out of his hand. He was still commenting when Duke Lane pried open the door and, dropping quickly on his stomach, wriggled out, followed closely by Charley Beal and Tim. At that instant the tattoo drummed with greater vigor and such a hail of lead poured in through the opening that the door was promptly closed, leaving the three men outside to shift for themselves with the darkness their only cover.
Duke and his companions whispered together as they lay flat and agreed upon a plan of action. Going around the ends of the house was suicide and no better than waiting for the rising moon to show them to the enemy; but there was no reason why the roof could not be utilized. Tim and Charley boosted Duke up, then Tim followed, and the pair on the roof pulled Charley to their side. Flat roofs were great institutions they decided as they crawled cautiously towards the other side. This roof was of hard, sun-baked adobe, over two feet thick, and they did not care if their friends shot up on a gamble.
"Fine place, all right," thought Charley, grinning broadly. Then he turned an agonized face to Tim, his chest rising. "Hitch! Hitch!" he choked, fighting with all his will to master it. "Hitch-chew! Hitch-chew! Hitch-chew!" he sneezed, loudly. There was a scramble below and a ripple of mirth floated up to them.
"Hitch-chew?" jeered a voice. "What do we want to hit you for?"
"Look us over, children," invited another.
"Wait until the moon comes up," chuckled the third. "Be like knocking the nigger baby down for Red an' the others. Ladies and gents: We'll now have a little sketch entitled 'Shooting snipe by moonlight.'"
"Jack-snipe, too," laughed Pete. "Will somebody please hold the bag?"
The silence on the roof was profound and the three on the ground tried again.
"Let me call yore attention to the trained coyotes, ladies an' gents," remarked Johnny in a deep, solemn voice. "Coyotes are not birds; they do not roost on roofs as a general thing; but they are some intelligent an' can be trained to do lots of foolish tricks. These ani-mules were—"
"Step this way, people; on-ly ten cents, two nickels," interrupted Pete. "They bark like dogs, an' howl like hell."
"Shut up!" snapped Tim, angrily.
"After the moon comes up," said Hopalong, "when you fellers get tired dodging, you can chuck us yore guns an' come down. An' don't forget that this side of the house is much the safest," he warned.
"Go to hell!" snarled Duke, bitterly.
"Won't; they're laying for me down there."
Johnny crawled to the north end of the wall and, looking cautiously around the corner, funnelled his hands: "On the roof, Red! On the roof!"
"Yes, dear," was the reply, followed by gun-shots.
"Hey! Move over!" snapped Tim, working towards the edge furthest from the cheerful Red, whose bullets were not as accurate in the dark as they promised to become in a few minutes when the moon should come up.
"Want to shove me off?" snarled Charley, angrily. "For heaven's sake, Duke, do you want the whole earth?" he demanded of his second companion.
"You just bet yore shirt I do! An' I want a hole in it, too!"
"Ain't you got no sense?"
"Would I be up here if I had?"
"It's going to be hot as blazes up here when the sun gets high," cheerfully prophesied Tim: "an' dry, too," he added for a finishing touch.
"We'll be lucky if we're live enough to worry about the sun's heat—say, that was a close one!" exclaimed Duke, frantically trying to flatten a little more. "Ah, thought so—there's that blamed moon!"
"Wish I'd gone out the window instead," growled Charley, worming behind Duke, to the latter's prompt displeasure.
"You fellers better come down, one at a time," came from below. "Send yore guns down first, too. Red's a blamed good shot."
"Hope he croaks," muttered Duke. "That's closer yet!"
Tim's hand raised and a flash of fire singed Charley's hair. "Got to do something, anyhow," he explained, lowering the Colt and peering across the plain.
"You damned near succeeded!" shouted Charley, grabbing at his head. "Why, they're three hundred, an' you trying for 'em with a—oh!" he moaned, writhing.
"Locoed fool!" swore Duke, "showing 'em where we are! They're doing good enough as it is! You ought—got you, too!"
"I'm going down—that blamed fool out there ain't caring what he hits," mumbled Charley, clenching his hands from pain. He slid over the edge and Pete grabbed him.
"Next," suggested Pete, expectantly.
Tim tossed his Colt over the edge. "Here's another," he swore, following the weapon. He was grabbed and bound in a trice.
"When may we expect you, Mr. Duke?" asked Johnny, looking up.
"Presently, friend, presently. I want to—wow!" he finished, and lost no time in his descent, which was meteoric. "That feller'll kill somebody if he ain't careful!" he complained as Pete tied his hands behind his back.
"You wait till daylight an' see," cheerily replied Pete as the three were led off to join their friends in the corral.
There was no further action until the sun arose and then Hopalong hailed the house and demanded a parley, and soon he and Boggs met midway between the shack and the line.
"What d'you want?" asked Boggs, sullenly.
"Want you to stop this farce so I can go on with my drive."
"Well, I ain't holding you!" exploded the 4X foreman.
"Oh, yes; but you are. I can't let you an' yore men out to hang on our flanks an' worry us; an' I don't want to hold you in that shack till you all die of thirst, or come out to be all shot up. Besides, I can't fool around here for a week; I got business to look after."
"Don't you worry about us dying with thirst; that ain't worrying us none."
"I heard different," replied Hopalong, smiling. "Them fellers in the corral drank a quart apiece. See here, Boggs; you can't win, an' you know it. Yo're not bucking me, but the whole range, the whole country. It's a fight between conditions—the fence idea agin the open range idea, an' open trails. The fence will lose. You closed a drive trail that's 'most as old as cow-raising. Will the punchers of this part of the country stand for it? Suppose you lick us,—which you won't—can you lick all the rest of us, the JD, Wallace's, Double-Arrow, C-80, Cross-O-Cross, an' the others! That's just what it amounts to, an' you better stop right now, before somebody gets killed. You know what that means in this section. Yo're six to our eight, you ain't got a drink in that shack, an' you dasn't try to get one. You can't do a thing agin us, an' you know it."
Boggs rested his hands on his hips and considered, Hopalong waiting for him to reply. He knew that the Bar-20 man was right but he hated to admit it, he hated to say he was whipped.
"Are any of them six hurt?" he finally asked.
"Only scratches an' sore heads," responded Hopalong, smiling. "We ain't tried to kill anybody, yet. I'm putting that up to you."
Boggs made no reply and Hopalong continued: "I got six of yore twelve men prisoners, an' all yore cayuses are in my han's. I'll shoot every animal before I'll leave 'em for you to use against me, an' I'll take enough of yore cows to make up for what I lost by that fence. You've got to pay for them dead cows, anyhow. If I do let you out you'll have to road-brand me two hundred, or pay cash. My herd ain't worrying me—it's moving all the time. It's through that other fence by now. An' if I have to keep my outfit here to pen you in or shoot you off I can send to the JD for a gang to push the herd. Don't make no mistake: yo're getting off easy. Suppose one of my men had been killed at the fence—what then?"
"Well, what do you want me to do?"
"Stop this foolishness an' take down them fences for a mile each side of the trail. If Buck has to come up here the whole thing'll go down. Road-brand me two hundred of yore three-year-olds. Now as soon as you agree, an' say that the fight's over, it will be. You can't win out; an' what's the use of having yore men killed off?"
"I hate to quit," replied the other, gloomily.
"I know how that is; but yo're wrong on this question, dead wrong. You don't own this range or the trail. You ain't got no right to close that old drive trail. Honest, now; have you?"
"You say them six ain't hurt?"
"No more'n I said."
"An' if I give in will you treat my men right?"
"When will you leave."
"Just as soon as I get them two hundred three-year-olds."
"Well, I hate a quitter; but I can't do nothing, nohow," mused the 4X foreman. He cleared his throat and turned to look at the house. "All right; when you get them cows you get out of here, an' don't never come back!"
Hopalong flung his arm with a shout to his men and the other kicked savagely at an inoffensive stick and slouched back to his bunk house, a beaten man.
TEX EWALT HUNTS TROUBLE
Not more than a few weeks after the Bar-20 drive outfit returned to the ranch a solitary horseman pushed on towards the trail they had followed, bound for Buckskin and the Bar-20 range. His name was Tex Ewalt and he cordially hated all of the Bar-20 outfit and Hopalong in particular. He had nursed a grudge for several years and now, as he rode south to rid himself of it and to pay a long-standing debt, it grew stronger until he thrilled with anticipation and the sauce of danger. This grudge had been acquired when he and Slim Travennes had enjoyed a duel with Hopalong Cassidy up in Santa Fe, and had been worsted; it had increased when he learned of Slim's death at Cactus Springs at the hands of Hopalong; and, some time later, hearing that two friends of his, "Slippery" Trendley and "Deacon" Rankin, with their gang, had "gone out" in the Panhandle with the same man and his friends responsible for it, Tex hastened to Muddy Wells to even the score and clean his slate. Even now his face burned when he remembered his experiences on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion. He had been played with, ridiculed, and shamed, until he fled from the town as a place accursed, hating everything and everybody. It galled him to think that he had allowed Buck Peters' momentary sympathy to turn him from his purpose, even though he was convinced that the foreman's action had saved his life. And now Tex was returning, not to Muddy Wells, but to the range where the Bar-20 outfit held sway.
Several years of clean living had improved Tex, morally and physically. The liquor he had once been in the habit of consuming had been reduced to a negligible quantity; he spent the money on cartridges instead, and his pistol work showed the results of careful and dogged practice, particularly in the quickness of the draw. Punching cows on a remote northern range had repaid him in health far more than his old game of living on his wits and other people's lack of them, as proved by his clear eye and the pink showing through the tan above his beard; while his somber, steady gaze, due to long-held fixity of purpose, indicated the resourcefulness of a perfectly reliable set of nerves. His low-hung holster tied securely to his trousers leg to assure smoothness in drawing, the restrained swing of his right hand, never far from the well-worn scabbard which sheathed a triggerless Colt's "Frontier"—these showed the confident and ready gun-man, the man who seldom missed. "Frontiers" left the factory with triggers attached, but the absence of that part did not always incapacitate a weapon. Some men found that the regular method was too slow, and painstakingly cultivated the art of thumbing the hammer. "Thumbing" was believed to save the split second so valuable to a man in argument with his peers. Tex was riding with the set purpose of picking a fair fight with the best six-shooter expert it had ever been his misfortune to meet, and he needed that split second. He knew that he needed it and the knowledge thrilled him with a peculiar elation; he had changed greatly in the past year and now he wanted an "even break" where once he would have called all his wits into play to avoid it. He had found himself and now he acknowledged no superior in anything.
On his way south he met and talked with men who had known him, the old Tex, in the days when he had made his living precariously. They did not recognize him behind his beard, and he was content to let the oversight pass. But from these few he learned what he wished to know, and he was glad that Hopalong Cassidy was where he had always been, and that his gun-work had improved rather than depreciated with the passing of time. He wished to prove himself master of The Master, and to be hailed as such by those who had jeered and laughed at his ignominy several years before. So he rode on day after day, smiling and content, neither under-rating nor over-rating his enemy's ability with one weapon, but trying to think of him as he really was. He knew that if there was any difference between Hopalong Cassidy and himself that it must be very slight—perhaps so slight as to result fatally to both; but if that were so then it would have to work out as it saw fit—he at least would have accomplished what many, many others had failed in.
In the little town of Buckskin, known hardly more than locally, and never thought of by outsiders except as the place where the Bar-20 spent their spare time and money, and neutral ground for the surrounding ranches, was Cowan's saloon, in the dozen years of its existence the scene of good stories, boisterous fun, and quick deaths. Put together roughly, of crude materials, sticking up in inartistic prominence on the dusty edge of a dustier street; warped, bleached by the sun, and patched with boards ripped from packing cases and with the flattened sides of tin cans; low of ceiling, the floor one huge brown discoloration of spring, creaking boards, knotted and split and worn into hollows, the unpretentious building offered its hospitality to all who might be tempted by the scrawled, sprawled lettering of its sign. The walls were smoke-blackened, pitted with numerous small and clear-cut holes, and decorated with initials carelessly cut by men who had come and gone.
Such was Cowan's, the best patronized place in many hot and dusty miles and the Mecca of the cowboys from the surrounding ranches. Often at night these riders of the range gathered in the humble building and told tales of exceeding interest; and on these occasions one might see a row of ponies standing before the building, heads down and quiet. It is strange how alike cow-ponies look in the dim light of the stars. On the south side of the saloon, weak, yellow lamp light filtered through the dirt on the window panes and fell in distorted patches on the plain, blotched in places by the shadows of the wooden substitutes for glass.
It was a moonlight night late in the fall, after the last beef round-up was over and the last drive outfit home again, that two cow-ponies stood in front of Cowan's while their owners lolled against the bar and talked over the latest sensation—the fencing in of the West Valley range, and the way Hopalong Cassidy and his trail outfit had opened up the old drive trail across it. The news was a month old, but it was the last event of any importance and was still good to laugh over.
"Boys," remarked the proprietor, "I want you to meet Mr. Elkins. He came down that trail last week, an' he didn't see no fence across it." The man at the table arose slowly. "Mr. Elkins, this is Sandy Lucas, an' Wood Wright, of the C-80. Mr. Elkins here has been a-looking over the country, sizing up what the beef prospects will be for next year; an' he knows all about wire fences. Here's how," he smiled, treating on the house.
Mr. Elkins touched the glass to his bearded lips and set it down untasted while he joked over the sharp rebuff so lately administered to wire fences in that part of the country. While he was an ex-cow-puncher he believed that he was above allowing prejudice to sway his judgment, and it was his opinion, after careful thought, that barb wire was harmful to the best interests of the range. He had ridden over a great part of the cattle country in the last few yeas, and after reviewing the existing conditions as he understood them, his verdict must go as stated, and emphatically. He launched gracefully into a slowly delivered and lengthy discourse upon the subject, which proved to be so entertaining that his companions were content to listen and nod with comprehension. They had never met any one who was so well qualified to discuss the pros and cons of the barb-wire fence question, and they learned many things which they had never heard before. This was very gratifying to Mr. Elkins, who drew largely upon hearsay, his own vivid imagination, and a healthy logic. He was very glad to talk to men who had the welfare of the range at heart, and he hoped soon to meet the man who had taken the initiative in giving barb wire its first serious setback on that rich and magnificent southern range.
"You shore ought to meet Cassidy—he's a fine man," remarked Lucas with enthusiasm. "You'll not find any better, no matter where you look. But you ain't touched yore liquor," he finished with surprise.
"You'll have to excuse me, gentlemen," replied Mr. Elkins, smiling deprecatingly. "When a man likes it as much as I do it ain't very easy to foller instructions an' let it alone. Sometimes I almost break loose an' indulge, regardless of whether it kills me or not. I reckon it'll get me yet." He struck the bar a resounding blow with his clenched hand. "But I ain't going to cave in till I has to!"
"That's purty tough," sympathized Wood Wright, reflectively. "I ain't so very much taken with it, but I know I would be if I knowed I couldn't have any."
"Yes, that's human nature, all right," laughed Lucas. "That reminds me of a little thing that happened to me once—"
"Listen!" exclaimed Cowan, holding up his hand for silence. "I reckon that's the Bar-20 now, or some of it—sounds like them when they're feeling frisky. There's allus something happening when them fellers are around."
The proprietor was right, as proved a moment later when Johnny Nelson, continuing his argument, pushed open the door and entered the room. "I didn't neither; an' you know it!" he flung over his shoulder.
"Then who did?" demanded Hopalong, chuckling. "Why, hullo, boys," he said, nodding to his friends at the bar. "Nobody else would do a fool thing like that; nobody but you, Kid," he added, turning to Johnny.
"I don't care a hang what you think; I say I didn't an'—"
"He shore did, all right; I seen him just afterward," laughed Billy Williams, pressing close upon Hopalong's heels. "Howdy, Lucas; an' there's that ol' coyote, Wood Wright. How's everybody feeling?"
"Where's the rest of you fellers?" inquired Cowan.
"Stayed home to-night," replied Hopalong.
"Got any loose money, you two?" asked Billy, grinning at Lucas and Wright.
"I reckon we have—an' our credit's good if we ain't. We're good for a dollar or two, ain't we, Cowan?" replied Lucas.
"Two dollars an' four bits," corrected Cowan. "I'll raise it to three dollars even when you pay me that 'leven cents you owe me."
"'Leven cents? What 'leven cents?"
"Postage stamps an' envelope for that love letter you writ."
"Go to blazes; that wasn't no love letter!" snorted Lucas, indignantly. "That was my quarterly report. I never did write no love letters, nohow."
"We'll trim you fellers to-night, if you've got the nerve to play us," grinned Johnny, expectantly.
"Yes; an' we've got that, too. Give us the cards, Cowan," requested Wood Wright, turning. "They won't give us no peace till we take all their money away from 'em."
"Open game," prompted Cowan, glancing meaningly at Elkins, who stood by idly looking on, and without showing much interest in the scene.
"Shore! Everybody can come in what wants to," replied Lucas, heartily, leading the others to the table. "I allus did like a six-handed game best—all the cards are out an' there's some excitement in it."
When the deal began Elkins was seated across the table from Hopalong, facing him for the first time since that day over in Muddy Wells, and studying him closely. He found no changes, for the few years had left no trace of their passing on the Bar-20 puncher. The sensation of facing the man he had come south expressly to kill did not interfere with Elkins' card-playing ability for he played a good game; and as if the Fates were with him it was Hopalong's night off as far as poker was concerned, for his customary good luck was not in evidence. That instinctive feeling which singles out two duellists in a card game was soon experienced by the others, who were careful, as became good players, to avoid being caught between them; in consequence, when the game broke up, Elkins had most of Hopalong's money. At one period of his life Elkins had lived on poker for five years, and lived well. But he gained more than money in this game, for he had made friends with the players and placed the first wire of his trap. Of those in the room Hopalong alone treated him with reserve, and this was cleverly swung so that it appeared to be caused by a temporary grouch due to the sting of defeat. As the Bar-20 man was known to be given to moods at times this was accepted as the true explanation and gave promise of hotly contested games for revenge later on. The banter which the defeated puncher had to endure stirred him and strengthened the reserve, although he was careful not to show it.
When the last man rode off, Elkins and the proprietor sought their bunks without delay, the former to lie awake a long time, thinking deeply. He was vexed at himself for failing to work out an acceptable plan of action, one that would show him to be in the right. He would gain nothing more than glory, and pay too dearly for it, if he killed Hopalong and was in turn killed by the dead man's friends—and he believed that he had become acquainted with the quality of the friendship which bound the units of the Bar-20 outfit into a smooth, firm whole. They were like brothers, like one man. Cassidy must do the forcing as far as appearances went, and be clearly in the wrong before the matter could be settled.