The next week was a busy one for Elkins, every day finding him in the saddle and riding over some one of the surrounding ranches with one or more of its punchers for company. In this way he became acquainted with the men who might be called on to act as his jury when the showdown came, and he proceeded to make friends of them in a manner that promised success. And some of his suggestions for the improvement of certain conditions on the range, while they might not work out right in the long run, compelled thought and showed his interest. His remarks on the condition and numbers of cattle were the same in substance in all cases and showed that he knew what he was talking about, for the punchers were all very optimistic about the next year's showing in cattle.
"If you fellers don't break all records for drive herds of quality next year I don't know nothing about cows; an' I shore don't know nothing else," he told the foreman of the Bar-20, as they rode homeward after an inspection of that ranch. "There'll be more dust hanging over the drive trails leading from this section next year when spring drops the barriers than ever before. You needn't fear for the market, neither—prices will stand. The north an' central ranges ain't doing what they ought to this year—it'll be up to you fellers down south, here, to make that up; an' you can do it." This was not a guess, but the result of thought and study based on the observations he had made on his ride south, and from what he had learned from others along the way. It paralleled Buck's own private opinion, especially in regard to the southern range; and the vague suspicions in the foreman's mind disappeared for good and all.
Needless to say Elkins was a welcome visitor at the ranch houses and was regarded as a good fellow. At the Bar-20 he found only two men who would not thaw to him, and he was possessed of too much tact to try any persuasive measures. One was Hopalong, whose original cold reserve seemed to be growing steadily, the Bar-20 puncher finding in Elkins a personality that charged the atmosphere with hostility and quietly rubbed him the wrong way. Whenever he was in the presence of the newcomer he felt the tugging of an irritating and insistent antagonism and he did not always fully conceal it. John Bartlett, Lucas, and one or two of the more observing had noticed it and they began to prophesy future trouble between the two. The other man who disliked Elkins was Red Connors; but what was more natural? Red, being Hopalong's closest companion, would be very apt to share his friend's antipathy. On the other hand, as if to prove Hopalong's dislike to be unwarranted, Johnny Nelson swung far to the other extreme and was frankly enthusiastic in his liking for the cattle scout. And Johnny did not pour oil on the waters when he laughingly twitted Hopalong for allowing "a licking at cards to make him sore." This was the idea that Elkins was quietly striving to have generally accepted.
The affair thus hung fire, Elkins chafing at the delay and cautiously working for an opening, which at last presented itself, to be promptly seized. By a sort of mutual, unspoken agreement, the men in Cowan's that night passed up the cards and sat swapping stories. Cowan, swearing at a smoking lamp, looked up with a grin and burned his fingers as a roar of laughter marked the point of a droll reminiscence told by Bartlett.
"That's a good story, Bartlett," Elkins remarked, slowing refilling his pipe. "Reminds me of the lame Greaser, Hippy Joe, an' the canned oysters. They was both bad, an' neither of 'em knew it till they came together. It was like this. . . ." The malicious side glance went unseen by all but Hopalong, who stiffened with the raging suspicion of being twitted on his own deformity. The humor of the tale failed to appeal to him, and when his full senses returned Lucas was in the midst of the story of the deadly game of tag played in a ten-acre lot of dense underbrush by two of his old-time friends. It was a tale of gripping interest and his auditors were leaning forward in their eagerness not to miss a word. "An' Pierce won," finished Lucas; "some shot up, but able to get about. He was all right in a couple of weeks. But he was bound to win; he could shoot all around Sam Hopkins."
"But the best shot won't allus win in that game," commented Elkins. "That's one of the minor factors."
"Yes, sir! It's luck that counts there," endorsed Bartlett, quickly. "Luck, nine times out of ten."
"Best shot ought to win," declared Skinny Thompson. "It ain't all luck, nohow. Where'd I be against Hoppy, there?"
"Won't neither!" cried Johnny, excitedly. "The man who sees the other first wins out. That's wood-craft, an' brains."
"Aw! What do you know about it, anyhow?" demanded Lucas. "If he can't shoot so good what chance has he got—if he misses the first try, what then?"
"What chance has he got! First chance, miss or no miss. If he can't see the other first, where the devil does his good shooting come in?"
"Huh!" snorted Wood Wright, belligerently. "Any fool can see, but he can't shoot! An' it's as much luck as wood-craft, too, an' don't you forget it!"
"The first shot don't win, Johnny; not in a game like that, with all the dodging an' ducking," remarked Red. "You can't put one where you want it when a feller's slipping around in the brush. It's the most that counts, an' the best shot gets in the most. I wouldn't want to have to stand up against Hoppy an' a short gun, not in that game; no, sir!" and Red shook his head with decision.
The argument waxed hot. With the exception of Hopalong, who sat silently watchful, every one spoke his opinion and repeated it without regard to the others. It appeared that in this game, the man with the strongest lungs would eventually win out, and each man tried to show his superiority in that line. Finally, above the uproar, Cowan's bellow was herd, and he kept it up until some notice was taken of it. "Shut up! Shut up! For God's sake, quit! Never saw such a bunch of tinder—let somebody drop a cold, burned-out match in this gang, an' hell's to pay. Here, all of you, play cards an' forget about cross-tag in the scrub. You'll be arguing about playing marbles in the dark purty soon!"
"All right," muttered Johnny, "but just the same, the man who—"
"Never mind about the man who! Did you hear me?" yelled Cowan, swiftly reaching for a bucket of water. "This is a game where I gets the most in, an' don't forget it!"
"Come on; play cards," growled Lucas, who did not relish having his decision questioned on his own story. Undoubtedly somewhere in the wide, wide world there was such a thing as common courtesy, but none of it had ever strayed onto that range.
The chairs scraped on the rough floor as the men pulled up to a table. "I don't care a hang," came Elkins' final comment as he shuffled the cards with careful attention. "I'm not any fancy Colt expert, but I'm damned if I won't take a chance in that game with any man as totes a gun. Leastawise, of course, I wouldn't take no such advantage of a lame man."
The effect would have been ludicrous but for its deadly significance. Cowan, stooping to go under the bar, remained in that hunched-up attitude, his every faculty concentrated in his ears; the match on its way to the cigarette between Red's lips was held until it burned his fingers, when it was dropped from mere reflex action, the hand still stiffly aloft; Lucas, half in and half out of his chair, seemed to have got just where he intended, making no effort to seat himself. Skinny Thompson, his hand on his gun, seemed paralyzed; his mouth was open to frame a reply that never was uttered and he stared through narrowed eyelids at the blunderer. The sole movement in the room was the slow rising of Hopalong and the markedly innocent shuffling of the cards by Elkins, who appeared to be entirely ignorant of the weight and effect of his words. He dropped the pack for the cut and then looked up and around as if surprised by the silence and the expressions he saw.
Hopalong stood facing him, leaning over with both hands on the table. His voice, when he spoke, rumbled up from his chest in a low growl. "You won't have no advantage, Elkins. Take it from me, you've had yore last fling. I'm glad you made it plain, this time, so it's something I can take hold of." He straightened slowly and walked to the door, and an audible sigh sounded through the room as it was realized that trouble was not immediately imminent. At the door he paused and turned back around, looking back over his shoulder. "At noon to-morrow I'm going to hoof it north through the brush between the river an' the river trail, starting at the old ford a mile down the river." He waited expectantly.
"Me too—only the other way," was the instant rejoinder. "Have it yore own way."
Hopalong nodded and the closing door shut him out into the night. Without a word the Bar-20 men arose and followed him, the only hesitant being Johnny, who was torn between loyalty and new-found friendship; but with a sorrowful shake of the head, he turned away and passed out, not far behind the others.
"Clannish, ain't they?" remarked Elkins, gravely.
Those remaining were regarding him sternly, questioningly, Cowan with a deep frown darkening his face. "You hadn't ought to 'a' said that, Elkins." The reproof was almost an accusation.
Elkins looked steadily at the speaker. "You hadn't ought to 'a' let me say it," he replied. "How did I know he was so touchy?" His gaze left Cowan and lingered in turn on each of the others. "Some of you ought to 'a' told me. I wouldn't 'a' said it only for what I said just before, an' I didn't want him to think I was challenging him to no duel in the brush. So I says so, an' then he goes an' takes it up that I am challenging him. I ain't got no call to fight with nobody. Ain't I tried to keep out of trouble with him ever since I've been here? Ain't I kept out of the poker games on his account? Ain't I?" The grave, even tones were dispassionate, without a trace of animus and serenely sure of justice.
The faces around him cleared gradually and heads began to nod in comprehending consent.
"Yes, I reckon you have," agreed Cowan, slowly, but the frown was not entirely gone. "Yes, I reckon—mebby—you have."
It was noon by the sun when Hopalong and Red shook hands south of the old ford and the former turned to enter the brush. Hopalong was cool and ominously calm while his companion was the opposite. Red was frankly suspicious of the whole affair and nursed the private opinion that Mr. Elkins would lay in ambush and shoot his enemy down like a dog. And Red had promised himself a dozen times that he would study the signs around the scene of action if Hopalong should not come back, and take a keen delight, if warranted, in shooting Mr. Elkins full of holes with no regard for an even break. He was thinking the matter over as his friend breasted the first line of brush and could not refrain from giving a slight warning. "Get him, Hoppy," he called, earnestly; "get him good. Let him do some of the moving about. I'll be here waiting for you."
Hopalong smiled in reply and sprang forward, the leaves and branches quickly shutting him from Red's sight. He had worked out his plan of action the night before when he was alone and the world was still, and as soon as he had it to his satisfaction he had dropped off to sleep as easily as a child—it took more than gun-play to disturb his nerves. He glanced about him to make sure of his bearings and then struck on a curving line for the river. The first hundred yards were covered with speed and then he began to move more slowly and with greater regard for caution, keeping close to the earth and showing a marked preference for low ground. Sky-lines were all right in times of peace, but under the present conditions they promised to become unhealthy. His eyes and ears told him nothing for a quarter of an hour, and then he suddenly stopped short and crouched as he saw the plain trail of a man crossing his own direction at a right angle. From the bottom of one of the heel prints a crushed leaf was slowly rising back towards its original position, telling him how new the trail was; and as if this were not enough for his trained mind he heard a twig snap sharply as he glanced along the line of prints. It sounded very close, and he dropped instantly to one knee and thought quickly. Why had the other left so plain a trail, why had he reached up and broken twigs that projected above his head as he passed? Why had he kicked aside a small stone, leaving a patch of moist, bleached grass to tell where it had lain? Elkins had stumbled here, but there were no toe marks to tell of it. Hopalong would not track, for he was no assassin; but he knew that he would do if he were, and careless. The answer leaped to his suspicious mind like a flash, and he did not care to waste any time in trying to determine whether or not Elkins was capable of such a trick. He acted on the presumption that the trail had been made plain for a good reason, and that not far ahead at some suitable place,—and there were any number of such within a hundred yards,—the maker of the plain trail lay in wait. Smiling savagely he worked backward and turning, struck off in a circle. He had no compunctions whatever now about shooting the other player of the game. It was not long before he came upon the same trail again and he started another circle. A bullet zipped past his ear and cut a twig not two inches from his head. He fired at the smoke as he dropped, and then wriggled rapidly backward, keeping as flat to the earth as he could. Elkins had taken up his position in a thicket which stood in the centre of a level patch of sand in the old bed of the river,—the bed it had used five years before and forsaken at the time of the big flood when it cut itself a new channel and made the U-bend which now surrounded this piece of land on three sides. Even now, during the rainy season, the thicket which sheltered Mr. Elkins was frequently an island in a sluggish, shallow overflow.
"Hole up, blast you!" jeered Hopalong, hugging the ground. The second bullet from Mr. Elkins' gun cut another twig, this one just over his head, and he laughed insolently. "I ain't ascared to do the moving, even if you are. Judging from the way you keep out o' sight the canned oysters are in the can again. I never did no ambushing, you coyote."
"You can't make remarks like that an' get away with 'em—I've knowed you too long," retorted Elkins, shifting quickly, and none too soon. "You went an' got Slim afore he was wide awake. I know you, all right."
Hopalong's surprise was but momentary, and his mind raced back over the years. Who was this man Elkins, that he knew Slim Travennes? "Yo're a liar, Elkins, an' so was the man who told you that!"
"Call me Ewalt," jeered the other, nastily. "Nobody'll hear it, an' you'll not live to tell it. Ewalt, Tex Ewalt; call me that."
"So you've come back after all this time to make me get you, have you? Well, I ain't a-going to shoot no buttons off you this time. I allus reckoned you learned something at Muddy Wells—but you'll learn it here," Hopalong rejoined, sliding into a depression, and working with great caution towards the dry river bed, where fallen trees and hillocks of sand provided good cover in plenty. Everything was clear now and despite the seriousness of the situation he could not repress a smile as he remembered vividly that day at the carnival when Tex Ewalt came to town with the determination to kill him and show him up as an imitation. His grievance against Elkins was petty when compared to that against Ewalt, and he began to force the issue. As he peered over a stranded log he caught sight of his enemy disappearing into another part of the thicket, and two of his three shots went home. Elkins groaned with pain and fear as he realized that his right knee-cap was broken and would make him slow in his movements. He was lamed for life, even if he did come out of the duel alive; lamed in the same way that Hopalong was—the affliction he had made cruel sport of had come to him. But he had plenty of courage and he returned the fire with remarkable quickness, his two shots sounding almost as one.
Hopalong wiped the blood from his cheek and wormed his way to a new place; when half way there he called out again, "How's yore health—Tex?" in mock sympathy.
Elkins lied manfully and when he looked to get in another shot his enemy was on the farther bank, moving up to get behind him. He did not know Hopalong's new position until he raised his head to glance down over the dried river bed, and was informed by a bullet that nicked his ear. As he ducked, another grazed his head, the third going wild. He hazarded a return shot, and heard Hopalong's laugh ring out again.
"Like the story Lucas told, the best shot is going to win out this time, too," the Bar-20 man remarked, grimly. "You thought a game like this would give you some chance against a better shot, didn't you? You are a fool."
"It ain't over yet, not by a damned sight!" came the retort.
"An' you thought you had a little the best of it if you stayed still an' let me do the moving, didn't you? You'll learn something before I get through with you: but it'll be too late to do you any good," Hopalong called, crouched below a hillock of sand so the other could not take advantage of the words and single him out for a shot.
"You can't learn me nothing, you assassin; I've got my eyes open, this time." He knew that he had had them open before, and that Hopalong was in no way an assassin; but if he could enrage his enemy and sting him into some reflex carelessness he might have the last laugh.
Elkins' retort was wasted, for the sudden and unusual, although a familiar sound, had caught Hopalong's ear and he was giving all his attention to it. While he weighed it, his incredulity holding back the decision his common sense was striving to give him, the noise grew louder rapidly and common sense won out in a cry of warning an instant before a five-foot wall of brown water burst upon his sight, sweeping swiftly down the old, dry river bed; and behind it towered another and greater wall. Tree trunks were dancing end over end in it as if they were straws.
"Cloud-burst!" he yelled. "Run, Tex! Run for yore life! Cloud-burst up the valley! Run, you fool; Run!"
Tex's sarcastic retort was cut short as he instinctively glanced north, and his agonized curse lashed Hopalong forward. "Can't run—knee cap's busted! Can't swim, can't do—ah, hell—!"
Hopalong saw him torn from his shelter and whisked down the raging torrent like an arrow from a bow. The Bar-20 puncher leaped from the bank, shot under the yellow flood and arose, gasping and choking many yards downstream, fighting madly to get the muddy water out of his throat and eyes. As he struck out with all his strength down the current, he caught sight of Tex being torn from a jutting tree limb, and he shouted encouragement and swam all the harder, if such a thing were possible. Tex's course was checked for a moment by a boiling back-current and as he again felt the pull of the rushing stream Hopalong's hand gripped his collar and the fight for safety began. Whirled against logs and stumps, drawn down by the weight of his clothes and the frantic efforts of Tex to grasp him—fighting the water and the man he was trying to save at the same time, his head under water as often as it was out of it, and Tex's vise-like fingers threatening him—he headed for the west shore against powerful cross-currents that made his efforts seem useless. He seemed to get the worst of every break. Once, when caught by a friendly current, they were swung under an overhanging branch, but as Hopalong's hand shot up to grasp it a submerged bush caught his feet and pulled him under, and Tex's steel-like arms around his throat almost suffocated him before he managed to beat the other into insensibility and break the hold.
"I'll let you go!" he threatened; but his hand grasped the other's collar all the tighter and his fighting jaw was set with greater determination than ever.
They shot out into the main stream, where the U-bend channel joined the short-cut, and it looked miles wide to the exhausted puncher. He was fighting only on his will now. He would not give up, though he scarce could lift an arm, and his lungs seemed on fire. He did not know whether Tex was dead or alive, but he would get the body ashore with him, or go down trying. He bumped into a log and instinctively grasped it. It turned, and when he came up again it was bobbing five feet ahead of him. Ages seemed to pass before he flung his numb arm over it and floated with it. He was not alone in the flood; a coyote was pushing steadily across his path towards the nearer bank, and on a gliding tree trunk crouched a frightened cougar, its ears flattened and its sharp claws dug solidly through the bark. Here and there were cattle and a snake wriggled smoothly past him, apparently as much at home in the water as out of it. The log turned again and he just managed to catch hold of it as he came up for the second time.
Things were growing black before his eyes and strange, weird ideas and images floated through his brain. When he regained some part of his senses he saw ahead of him a long, curling crest of yellow water and foam, and he knew, vaguely, that it was pouring over a bar. The next instant his feet struck bottom and he fought his way blindly and slowly, with the stubborn determination of his kind, towards the brush-covered point twenty feet away.
When he opened his eyes and looked around he became conscious of excruciating pains and he closed them again to rest. His outflung hand struck something that made him look around again, and he saw Tex Ewalt, face down at his side. He released his grasp on the other's collar and slowly the whole thing came to him, and then the necessity for action, unless he wished to lose what he had fought so hard to save.
Anything short of the iron man Tex had become would have been dead before this or have been finished by the mauling he now got from Hopalong. But Tex groaned, gurgled a curse, and finally opened his eyes upon his rescuer, who sank back with a grunt of satisfaction. Slowly his intelligence returned as he looked steadily into Hopalong's eyes, and with it came the realization of a strange truth: he did not hate this man at all. Months of right living, days and nights of honest labor shoulder to shoulder with men who respected him for his ability and accepted him as one of themselves, had made a new man of him, although the legacy of hatred from the old Tex had disguised him from himself until now; but the new Tex, battered, shot-up, nearly drowned, looked at his old enemy and saw him for the man he really was. He smiled faintly and reached out his hand.
"Cassidy, yo're the boss," he said. "Shake."