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Title: Hopalong Cassidy
Author: Mulford, Clarence E.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Hopalong Cassidy" ***

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    Hopalong Cassidy

    BY

    Clarence E. Mulford


    Author of
    The BAR-20 THREE, "TEX", Etc.

    GROSSET & DUNLAP, Publishers

    By arrangement with A. C. McClurg & Co.


    COPYRIGHT
    BY A. C. MCCLURG & CO.
    1910

    Published March 12, 1910
    Second Edition, March 19, 1910
    Third Edition, March 26, 1910
    Fourth Edition, May 28, 1910
    Fifth Edition, July 9, 1910
    Sixth Edition, January 28, 1911

    Entered at Stationers' Hall, London

    _All Rights Reserved_


    _Affectionately Dedicated
    to My Father_



    CONTENTS


    CHAPTER

          I. ANTONIO'S SCHEME
         II. MARY MEEKER RIDES NORTH
        III. THE ROUNDUP
         IV. IN WEST ARROYO
          V. HOPALONG ASSERTS HIMSELF
         VI. MEEKER IS TOLD
        VII. HOPALONG MEETS MEEKER
       VIII. ON THE EDGE OF THE DESERT
         IX. ON THE PEAK
          X. BUCK VISITS MEEKER
         XI. THREE IS A CROWD
        XII. HOBBLE BURNS AND SLEEPERS
       XIII. HOPALONG GROWS SUSPICIOUS
        XIV. THE COMPROMISE
         XV. ANTONIO MEETS FRIENDS
        XVI. THE FEINT
       XVII. PETE IS TRICKED
      XVIII. THE LINE HOUSE RE-CAPTURED
        XIX. ANTONIO LEAVES THE H2
         XX. WHAT THE DAM TOLD
        XXI. HOPALONG RIDES SOUTH
       XXII. LUCAS VISITS THE PEAK
      XXIII. HOPALONG AND RED GO SCOUTING
       XXIV. RED'S DISCOMFITURE
        XXV. ANTONIO'S REVENGE
       XXVI. FRISCO VISITS EAGLE
      XXVII. SHAW HAS VISITORS
     XXVIII. NEVADA JOINS SHAW
       XXIX. SURROUNDED
        XXX. UP THE WALL
       XXXI. FORTUNE SNICKERS AT DOC
      XXXII. NATURE TAKES A HAND
     XXXIII. DOC TRAILS
      XXXIV. DISCOVERIES
       XXXV. JOHNNY TAKES THE HUT
      XXXVI. THE LAST NIGHT
     XXXVII. THEIR LAST FIGHT
    XXXVIII. A DISAGREEABLE TASK
      XXXIX. THIRST
         XL. CHANGES
        XLI. HOPALONG'S REWARD



HOPALONG CASSIDY



CHAPTER I

ANTONIO'S SCHEME


The raw and mighty West, the greatest stage in all the history of the
world for so many deeds of daring which verged on the insane, was
seared and cross-barred with grave-lined trails and dotted with
presumptuous, mushroom towns of brief stay, whose inhabitants flung
their primal passions in the face of humanity and laughed in
condescending contempt at what humanity had to say about it. In many
localities the real bad-man, the man of the gun, whose claims to the
appellation he was ready to prove against the rancorous doubting of
all comers, made history in a terse and business-like way, and also
made the first law for the locality--that of the gun.

There were good bad-men and bad bad-men, the killer by necessity and
the wanton murderer; and the shifting of these to their proper strata
evolved the foundation for the law of to-day. The good bad-men, those
in whose souls lived the germs of law and order and justice, gradually
became arrayed against the other class, and stood up manfully for
their principles, let the odds be what they might; and bitter,
indeed, was the struggle, and great the price.

From the gold camps of the Rockies to the shrieking towns of the
coast, where wantonness stalked unchecked; from the vast stretches of
the cattle ranges to the ever-advancing terminals of the persistent
railroads, to the cow towns, boiling and seething in the loosed
passions of men who brooked no restraint in their revels, no one
section of country ever boasted of such numbers of genuine bad-men of
both classes as the great, semi-arid Southwest. Here was one of the
worst collections of raw humanity ever broadcast in one locality; here
the crack of the gun would have sickened except that moralists were
few and the individual so calloused and so busy in protecting his own
life and wiping out his own scores that he gave no heed to the sum
total of the killings; it was a word and a shot, a shot and a laugh or
a curse.

In this red setting was stuck a town which we will call Eagle, the
riffle which caught all the dregs of passing humanity, where men
danced as souls were freed. Unmapped, known only to those who had
visited it, it reared its flimsy buildings in the face of God and
rioted day and night with no thought of reckoning; mad, insane with
hellishness unlimited.

Late in the afternoon of a glorious day towards this town rode
Antonio, "broncho-buster" for the H2, a Mexican of little courage,
much avarice, and great capacity for hatred. Crafty, filled with
cunning of the coyote kind, shifty-eyed, gloomy, taciturn, and
scowling, he was well fitted for the part he had elected to play in
the range dispute between his ranch and the Bar-20. He was absolutely
without mercy or conscience; indeed, one might aptly say that his
conscience, if he had ever known one, had been pulled out by the roots
and its place filled with viciousness. Cold-blooded in his ferocity,
easily angered and quick to commit murder if the risk were small, he
embraced within his husk of soul the putrescence of all that was evil.

In Eagle he had friends who were only a shade less evil than himself;
but they had what he lacked and because of it were entitled to a
forced respect of small weight--they had courage, that spontaneous,
initiative, heedless courage which toned the atmosphere of the whole
West to a magnificent crimson. Were it not for the reason that they
had drifted to his social level they would have spurned his
acquaintance and shot him for a buzzard; but, while they secretly held
him in great contempt for his cowardice, they admired his criminal
cunning, and profited by it. He was too wise to show himself in the
true light to his foreman and the outfit, knowing full well that death
would be the response, and so lived a lie until he met his friends of
the town, when he threw off his cloak and became himself, and where he
plotted against the man who treated him fairly.

Riding into the town, he stopped before a saloon and slouched in to
the bar, where the proprietor was placing a new stock of liquors on
the shelves.

"Where's Benito, an' th' rest?" he asked.

"Back there," replied the other; nodding toward a rear room.

"Who's in there?"

"Benito, Hall, Archer an' Frisco."

"Where's Shaw?"

"Him an' Clausen an' Cavalry went out 'bout ten minutes ago."

"I want to see 'em when they come in," Antonio remarked, shambling
towards the door, where he listened, and then went in.

In the small room four men were grouped around a table, drinking and
talking, and at his entry they looked up and nodded. He nodded in
reply and seated himself apart from them, where he soon became wrapped
in thought.

Benito arose and went to the door. "_Mescal, pronto_," he said to the
man outside.

"D----d _pronto_, too," growled Antonio. "A man would die of alkali in
this place before he's waited on."

The proprietor brought a bottle and filled the glasses, giving Antonio
his drink first, and silently withdrew.

The broncho-buster tossed off the fiery stuff and then turned his
shifty eyes on the group. "Where's Shaw?"

"Don't know--back soon," replied Benito.

"Why didn't he wait, when he knowed I was comin' in?"

Hall leaned back from the table and replied, keenly watching the
inquisitor, "Because he don't give a d--n."

"You----!" shouted the Mexican, half arising, but the others
interfered and he sank back again, content to let it pass. But not so
Hall, whose Colt was half drawn.

"I'll kill you some day, you whelp," he gritted, but before anything
could come of it Shaw and his companions entered the room and the
trouble was quelled.

Soon the group was deep in discussion over the merits of a scheme
which Antonio unfolded to them, and the more it was weighed the better
it appeared. Finally Shaw leaned back and filled his pipe. "You've got
th' brains of th' devil, 'Tony."

"Eet ees not'ing," replied Antonio.

"Oh, drop that lingo an' talk straight--you ain't on th' H2 now,"
growled Hall.

"Benito, you know this country like a book," Shaw continued. "Where's
a good place for us to work from, or ain't there no choice?"

"Thunder Mesa."

"Well, what of it?"

"On de edge of de desert, high, beeg. De walls are stone, an' so ver'
smooth. Nobody can get up."

"How can we get up then?"

"There's a trail at one end," replied Antonio, crossing his legs and
preparing to roll a cigarette. "It's too steep for cayuses, an' too
narrow; but we can crawl up. An' once up, all h--l can't follow as
long as our cartridges hold out."

"Water?" inquired Frisco.

"At th' bottom of th' trail, an' th' spring is on top," Antonio
replied. "Not much, but enough."

"Can you work yore end all right?" asked Shaw.

"_Si_," laughed the other. "I am 'that fool, Antonio,' on th' ranch.
But they're th' fools. We can steal them blind an' if they find it
out--well," here he shrugged his shoulders, "th' Bar-20 can take th'
blame. I'll fix that, all right. This trouble about th' line is just
what I've been waitin' for, an' I'll help it along. If we can get 'em
fightin' we'll run off with th' bone _we_ want. That'll be easy."

"But can you get 'em fightin'?" asked Cavalry, so called because he
had spent several years in that branch of the Government service, and
deserted because of the discipline.

Antonio laughed and ordered more _mescal_ and for some time took no
part in the discussion which went on about him. He was dreaming of
success and plenty and a ranch of his own which he would start in Old
Mexico, in a place far removed from the border, and where no questions
would be asked. He would be a rich man, according to the standards of
that locality, and what he said would be law among the peons. He liked
to daydream, for everything came out just as he wished; there was no
discordant note. He was so certain of success, so conceited as not to
ask himself if any of the Bar-20 or H2 outfits were not his equal or
superior in intelligence. It was only a matter of time, he told
himself, for he could easily get the two ranches embroiled in a range
war, and once embroiled, his plan would succeed and he would be safe.

"What do you want for your share, 'Tony?" suddenly asked Shaw.

"Half."

"What! _Half?_"

"_Si._"

"You're loco!" cried the other. "Do you reckon we're going to buck up
agin th' biggest an' hardest fightin' outfit in this country an' take
all sorts of chances for a measly half, to be divided up among seven
of us!" He brought his fist down on the table with a resounding thump.
"You an' yore game can go to h--l first!" he shouted.

"I like a hog, all right," sneered Clausen, angrily.

"I thought it out an' I got to look after th' worst an' most important
part of it, an' take three chances to you fellers' one," replied
Antonio, frowning. "I said half, an' it goes."

"Run all th' ends, an' keep it all," exclaimed Hall. "An', by God,
we've got a hand in it, now. If you try to hog it we'll drop a word
where it'll do th' most good, an' don't you forget it, neither."

"Anton ees right," asserted Benito, excitedly. "Eet ees one reesk for
Anton."

"Keep yore yaller mouth shut," growled Cavalry. "Who gave you any say
in this?"

"Half," said Antonio, shrugging his shoulders.

"Look here, you," cried Shaw, who was, in reality, the leader of the
crowd, inasmuch as he controlled all the others with the exception of
Benito and Antonio, and these at times by the judicious use of
flattery. "We'll admit that you've got a right to th' biggest share,
but not to no half. You have a chance to get away, because you can
watch 'em, but how about us, out there on th' edge of h--l? If they
come for us we won't know nothing about it till we're surrounded. Now
we want to play square with you, an' we'll give you twice as much as
any one of th' rest of us. That'll make nine shares an' give you two
of 'em. What more do you want, when you've got to have us to run th'
game at all?"

Antonio laughed ironically. "Yes. I'm where I can watch, an' get
killed first. You can hold th' mesa for a month. I ain't as easy as I
look. It's my game, not yourn; an' if you don't like what I ask, stay
out."

"We will!" cried Hall, arising, followed by the others. His hand
rested on the butt of his revolver and trouble seemed imminent. Benito
wavered and then slid nearer to Antonio. "You can run yore game all by
yore lonesome, as _long_ as you _can_!" Hall shouted. "I know a feller
what knows Cassidy, an' I'll spoil yore little play right now. You'll
look nice at th' end of a rope, won't you? It's this: share like Shaw
said or get out of here, an' look out for trouble a-plenty to-morrow
morning. I've put up with yore gall an' swallered yore insultin'
actions just as long as I'm going to, an' I've got a powerful notion
to fix you right here and now!"

"No fightin', you fools!" cried the proprietor, grabbing his Colt and
running to the door of the room. "It's up to you fellers to stick
together!"

"I'll be d----d if I'll stand--" began Frisco.

"They want too much," interrupted Antonio, angrily, keeping close
watch over Hall.

"We want a fair share, an' that's all!" retorted Shaw. "Sit down, all
of you. We can wrastle this out without no gun-play."

"You-all been yappin' like a set of fools," said the proprietor. "I've
heard every word you-all said. If you got a mite of sense you'll be
some tender how you shout about it. It's shore risky enough without
tellin' everybody this side of sun-up."

"I mean just what I said," asserted Hall. "It's Shaw's offer, or
nothin'. We ain't playing fool for no Greaser. _Yes_, that's th'
word--Greaser!" he repeated in answer to Antonio's exclamation. "If
you don't like it, lump it!"

"Here! Here!" cried Shaw, pushing Hall into a seat. "If you two have
got anything to settle, wait till some other time."

"That's more like it," growled the proprietor, shuffling back to the
bar.

"Good Lord, 'Tony," cried Shaw in a low voice. "That's fair enough;
we've got a right to something, ain't we? Don't let a good thing fall
through just because you want th' whole earth. Better have a little
than none."

"Well, gimme a third, then."

"I'll give you a slug in th' eye, you hog!" promised Hall, starting to
rise again, but Shaw held him back. "Sit down, you fool!" he ordered,
angrily. Then he turned to the Mexican. "Third don't go; take my offer
or leave it."

"Gimme a fourth; that's fair enough."

Shaw thought for a moment and then looked up. "Well, that's more like
it. What do you say, fellers?"

"No!" cried Hall. "Two-ninths, or nothin'!"

"A fourth is two-eighths, only a little more," Shaw replied.

"Well, all right," muttered Hall, sullenly.

"That ees ver' good," laughed Benito, glad that things were clearing.
All his sympathies were with his countryman, but he hesitated to take
his part in the face of such odds.

The others gave their consent to the division and Shaw smiled. "Well,
that's more like it. Now we'll go into this thing an' sift it out.
Keep mum about it--there's twenty men in town that would want to join
us if they knowed."

"I'm goin' to be boss; what I say goes," spoke up Antonio. "It's my
game an' I'm takin' th' most risky end."

"You ain't got sand enough to be boss of anything," sneered Hall.
"Yore sand is chalk."

"You'll say too much someday," retorted Antonio, glaring.

"Oh, not to _you_, I reckon," rejoined Hall, easily.

"Shut up, both of you!" snapped Shaw. "You can be boss, 'Tony," he
said, winking at Hall. "You've got more brains for a thing like this
than any of us. I don't see how you can figger it out like you do."

Antonio laughed in a self-satisfied way, for it was pleasant to hear
such an admission from the lips of a Gringo, and he was ready to
discuss things in a better spirit. But he remembered one thing, and
swore to take payment if the plan leaked out; the proprietor had
confessed hearing every word, which was not at all to his liking. If
Quinn should tell, well, Quinn would die; he would see to that, he and
Benito.



CHAPTER II

MARY MEEKER RIDES NORTH


Mary Meeker, daughter of the H2 owner and foreman, found pleasure in
riding on little tours of investigation. She had given the southern
portions her attention first and found, after the newness had worn
off, that she did not care for the level, sandy stretches of
half-desert land which lay so flat for miles. The prospect was always
the same, always uninteresting and wearying and hot. Now she
determined upon a step which she had wished to take for a long time,
and her father's request that she should not take it grew less and
less of a deterrent factor. He had given so much thought and worry to
that mysterious valley, dropped so many remarks about it, that she at
last gave rein to her curiosity and made ready to see for herself. It
was green and hilly, like the rugged Montana she had quitted to come
down to the desert, and it should be a small Montana to her. There
were hills of respectable size, for these she saw daily from the ranch
house door, and she loved hills; anything would be better than the
limitless sand.

She had known little of restraint; her corner of the world had been
filled entirely by men and she had absorbed much of their better
traits. Self-reliant as a cowgirl should be, expert with either Colt
or Winchester, and at home in the saddle, she feared nothing the
desert might hold, except thirst. She was not only expert with
weapons, but she did not fear to use them against men, as she had
proved on one occasion in wild Montana. So she would ride to the hills
which called her so insistently and examine the valley.

One bright morning just before the roundup began she went to the
corral and looked at her horse, a cross between Kentucky stock and
cow-pony and having in a great degree the speed of the first and the
hardiness of the last, and sighed to think that she could not ride it
for days to come. Teuton was crippled and she must choose some other
animal. She had overheard Doc Riley tell Ed Joyce that the piebald in
the smaller corral was well broken, and this was the horse she would
take. The truth of the matter was that the piebald was crafty and
permitted the saddle to be fixed and himself ridden for varying
periods of time before showing what he thought of such things. Doc,
unprepared for the piebald's sudden change in demeanor, had taken a
tumble, which made him anxious to have his wounded conceit soothed by
seeing Ed Joyce receive the same treatment.

Mary found no trouble in mounting and riding the animal and she was
glad that she had overheard Doc, for now she had two horses which were
thoroughly reliable, although, of course, Teuton was the only really
good horse on the range. She rode out of the corral and headed for the
White Horse Hills, scarcely twelve miles away. What if her father had
warned her not to ride near the lawless punchers who rode the northern
range? They were only men and she was sure that to a woman they would
prove to be gentlemen.

The southern boundary of the Bar-20 ran along the top of the hills and
from them east to the river, and it was being patrolled by three
Bar-20 punchers, Hopalong, Johnny, and Red, all on the lookout for
straying cattle of both ranches. Neither Hopalong nor Red had ever
seen Mary Meeker, but Johnny had upon the occasion of his scout over
the H2 range, and he had felt eminently qualified to describe her. He
had finished his eulogistic monologue by asserting that as soon as his
more unfortunate friends saw her they would lose sleep and sigh often,
which prophecy was received in various ways and called forth widely
differing comment. Red had snorted outright and Pete swore to learn
that a woman was on the range; for Pete had been married, and his wife
preferred another man. Hopalong, remembering a former experience of
his own, smiled in knowing cynicism when told that he again would fall
under the feminine spell.

Red was near the river and Johnny half-way to the hills when Hopalong
began the ascent of Long Hill, wondering why it was that Meeker had
made no attempt to cross the boundary in force and bring on a crisis;
and from Meeker his mind turned to the daughter.

"So there's a woman down here now," he muttered, riding down into an
arroyo and up the other bank. "This country is gettin' as bad as
Kansas, d----d if it ain't. First thing we know it'll be nursin'
bottles an' school houses, an' h--l loose all th' time instead of once
in a while."

He heard hoofbeats and glanced up quickly, alert and ready for
trouble, for who would be riding where he was but some H2 puncher?

"What th'----!" he exclaimed under his breath, for riding towards him
at an angle was Mary Meeker; and Johnny was wrong in his description
of her, but, he thought, the Kid had done as well as his limited
vocabulary would allow. She _was_ pretty, pretty as--she was more than
pretty!

She had seen him at the same time and flashed a quick glance which
embraced everything; and she was surprised, for he was not only
passably good-looking, barring the red hair, but very different from
the men her father had told her made up the outfit of the Bar-20. He
removed his sombrero instantly and drew up to let her pass, a queer
expression on his face. Yes, he thought, Johnny had wronged her, for
no other woman could have such jet-black hair crowning such a face.

"By God!" he whispered, and went no farther, for that was the summing
up of his whole opinion of her.

"He _is_ a gentleman," she thought triumphantly, for he had proved
that she was right in her surmise regarding the men of the northern
ranch. She spurred to pass him and then her piebald took part in the
proceedings. The prick of the spur awakened in him a sudden desire to
assert his rights, and he promptly pitched to make up for his hitherto
gentle behavior. So taken up with what the last minute had brought
forth she was unprepared for the vicious bucking and when she opened
her eyes her head was propped against Hopalong's knee and her face
dripping with the contents of his canteen.

"D--n yore ugly skin!" he was saying to the piebald, which stood
quietly a short distance away, evidently enjoying the result of his
activity. "Just you wait! I'll show you what's due to come yore way
purty soon!" He turned again to the woman and saw that her eyes were
closed as before. "By God, yore--yore beautiful!" he exclaimed
triumphantly, for he had found the word at last.

She moved slightly and color came into her cheeks with a sudden rush
and he watched her anxiously. Soon she moved again and then, opening
her eyes, struggled to gain her feet. He helped her up and held her
until she drew away from him.

"What was it?" she asked.

"That ugly cayuse went an' pitched when you wasn't lookin' for it," he
told her. "Are you hurt much?"

"No, just dizzy. I don't want to make you no trouble," she replied.

"You ain't makin' me any trouble, not a bit," he assured her
earnestly. "But I'd like to make some trouble for that ornery cayuse
of yourn. Let me tone him down some."

"No; it was my fault. I should 'a been looking--I never rode him
before."

"Well, you've got to take my cayuse to get home on," he said. "He's
bad, but he's a regular angel when stacked up agin that bronc. I'll
ride the festive piebald, an' we can trade when you get home." Under
his breath he said, "Oh, just wait till I get on you, you wall-eyed
pinto! I'll give you what you need, all right!"

"Thank you, but I can ride him now that I know just what he is," she
said, her eyes flashing with determination. "I've never let a bronc
get th' best of me in th' long run, an' I ain't goin' to begin now. I
came up here to look at th' hills an' th' valley, an' I'm not going
back home till I've done it."

"That's th' way to talk!" he cried in admiration. "I'll get him for
you," he finished, swinging into his saddle. He loosened the lariat at
the saddle horn while he rode towards the animal, which showed sudden
renewed interest in the proceedings, but it tarried too long. Just as
it wheeled and leaped forward the rope settled and the next thing it
knew was that the sky had somehow slid under its stomach, for it had
been thrown over backward and flat on its back. When it had struggled
to its feet it found Hopalong astride it, spurring vigorously on the
side farthest from Mary, and for five minutes the air was greatly
disturbed. At the end of that time he dismounted and led a penitent
pony to its mistress, who vaulted lightly into the saddle and waited
for her companion to mount. When he had joined her they rode up the
hill together side by side.

Johnny, shortly after he had passed Hopalong on the line, wished to
smoke and felt for his tobacco pouch, which he found to be empty. He
rode on for a short distance, angry with himself for his neglect, and
then remembered that Hopalong had a plentiful supply. He could
overtake the man on the hill much quicker than he could Red, who had
said that he was going to ride south along the river to see if Jumping
Bear Creek was dry. If it were, Meeker could be expected to become
active in his aggression. Johnny wheeled and cantered back along the
boundary trail, alertly watching for trespassing cattle.

It was not long before he came within sight of the thicket which stood
a little east of the base of Long Hill, and he nearly fell from the
saddle in astonishment, for his friend was on the ground, holding a
woman's head on his knee! Johnny didn't care to intrude, and
cautiously withdrew to the shelter of the small chaparral, where he
waited impatiently. Wishing to stretch his legs, he dismounted and
picketed his horse and walked around the thicket until satisfied that
he was out of sight of his friend.

Suddenly he fancied that he heard something suspicious and he crept
back around the thicket, keeping close to its base. When he turned the
corner he saw the head of a man on the other side of the chaparral
which lay a little southwest of his position. It was Antonio, and he
was intently watching the two on the slope of the hill, and entirely
unaware that he was being watched in turn.

Johnny carefully drew his Colt and covered the Mexican, for he hated
"Greasers" instinctively, but on Antonio he lavished a hatred far
above the stock kind. He had seen the shifty-eyed broncho-buster on
more than one occasion and never without struggling with himself to
keep from shooting. Now his finger pressed gently against the trigger
of the weapon and he wished for a passable excuse to send the other
into eternity; but Antonio gave him no cause, only watching eagerly
and intently, his face set in such an expression of malignancy as to
cause Johnny's finger to tremble.

Johnny arose slightly until he could see Hopalong and his companion
and he smothered an exclamation. "Gosh A'mighty!" he whispered, again
watching the Mexican. "That's Meeker's gal or I'm a liar! Th'
son-of-a-gun, keeping quiet about it all this time. An' no wonder th'
Greaser's on th' trail!"

It was not long before Johnny looked again for Hopalong and saw him
riding up the hill with his companion. Then he crept forward, watching
the Mexican closely, his Colt ready for instant use. Antonio slowly
drew down until he was lost to sight of the Bar-20 puncher, who ran
swiftly forward and gained the side of the other thicket, where he
again crept forward, and around the chaparral. When he next caught
sight of the broncho-buster the latter was walking towards his horse
and his back was turned to Johnny.

"Hey, you!" called the Bar-20 puncher, arising and starting after the
other.

Antonio wheeled, leaped to one side and half drew his revolver, but he
was covered and he let the weapon slide back into the holster.

"What was you doing?"

Antonio's reply was a scowl and his inquisitor continued without
waiting for words from the other.

"Never mind that, for I saw what you was doing," Johnny said. "An' I
shore knew what you wanted to do, because I came near doing it to you.
Now it ain't a whole lot healthy for you to go snooping around this
line like you was, for I'll plug you on suspicion next time. Get on
that cayuse of yourn an' hit th' trail south--go on, make tracks!"

The Mexican mounted and slowly wheeled. "You hab drop, now," he said
significantly. "Nex' time, _quien sabe_?"

Johnny dropped his Colt into the holster and removed his hand from the
butt. "You're a liar!" he shouted, savagely. "I ain't got th' drop.
It's an even break, an' what are you going to do about it?"

Antonio shrugged his shoulders and rode on without replying, quite
content to let things stand as they were. He had learned something
which he might be able to use to advantage later on and he had
strained the situation just a little more.

"Huh! Next time!" snorted Johnny in contempt as he turned to go back
to his horse. "It'll allus be 'nex' time' with that Greaser, 'less he
gets a good pot shot at me, which he won't. He ain't got sand enough
to put up a square fight. Now for Red; he'll shore be riding this way
purty soon, an' that'll never do. Hoppy won't want anybody foolin'
around th' hills for a while, lucky devil."

More than an hour had passed before he met Red and he forthwith told
him that he had caught the Mexican scouting on foot along the line.

"I ain't none surprised, Kid," Red replied, frowning. "You've seen how
th' H2 cows are being driven north agin us an' that means we'll be
tolerable busy purty soon. Th' Jumping Bear is dry as tinder, an' it
won't be long before Meeker'll be driving to get in th' valley."

"Well, I'm some glad of that," Johnny replied, frankly. "It's been
peaceful too blamed long down here. Come on, we'll ride east an' see
if we can find any cows to turn. Hey! Look there!" he cried, spurring
forward.



CHAPTER III

THE ROUNDUP


The Texan sky seemed a huge mirror upon which were reflected the white
fleecy clouds sailing northward; the warm spring air was full of that
magnetism which calls forth from their earthy beds the gramma grass
and the flowers; the scant vegetation had taken on new dress and
traces of green now showed against the more sombre-colored stems;
while in the distance, rippling in glistening patches where, disturbed
by the wind, the river sparkled like a tinsel ribbon flung carelessly
on the grays and greens of the plain. Birds winged their joyous way
and filled the air with song; and far overhead a battalion of tardy
geese flew, arrow-like, towards the cool lakes of the north, their
faint honking pathetic and continuous. Skulking in the coulees or
speeding across the skyline of some distant rise occasionally could be
seen a coyote or gray wolf. The cattle, less gregarious than they had
been in the colder months, made tentative sorties from the lessening
herd, and began to stray off in search of the tender green grass which
pushed up recklessly from the closely cropped, withered tufts.
Rattlesnakes slid out and uncoiled their sinuous lengths in the warm
sunlight, and copperheads raised their burnished armor from their
winter retreats. All nature had felt the magic touch of the warm
winds, and life in its multitudinous forms was discernible on all
sides. The gaunt tragedy of a hard winter for that southern range had
added its chilling share to the horrors of the past and now the cattle
took heart and lost their weakness in the sunlight, hungry but
contented.

The winter had indeed been hard, one to be remembered for years to
come, and many cattle had died because of it; many skeletons, stripped
clean by coyotes and wolves, dotted the arroyos and coulees. The cold
weather had broken suddenly, and several days of rain, followed by
sleet, had drenched the cattle thoroughly. Then from out of the north
came one of those unusual rages of nature, locally known as a
"Norther," freezing pitilessly; and the cattle, weakened by cold and
starvation, had dumbly succumbed to this last blow. Their backs were
covered with an icy shroud, and the deadly cold gripped their vitals
with a power not to be resisted. A glittering sheet formed over the
grasses as far as eye could see, and the cattle, unlike the horses,
not knowing enough to stamp through it, nosed in vain at the
sustenance beneath, until weakness compelled them to lie down in the
driving snow, and once down, they never arose. The storm had raged for
the greater part of a week, and then suddenly one morning the sun
shown down on a velvety plain, blinding in its whiteness; and when
spring had sent the snow mantle roaring through the arroyos and water
courses in a turmoil of yellow water and driftwood, and when the range
riders rode forth to read the losses on the plain, the remaining
cattle were staggering weakly in search of food. Skeletons in the
coulees told the story of the hopeless fight, how the unfortunate
cattle had drifted before the wind to what shelter they could find and
how, huddled together for warmth, they had died one by one. The valley
along Conroy Creek had provided a rough shelter with its scattered
groves and these had stopped the cattle drift, so much dreaded by
cowmen.

It had grieved Buck Peters and his men to the heart to see so many
cattle swept away in one storm, but they had done all that courage and
brains could do to save them. So now, when the plain was green again
and the warm air made riding a joy, they were to hold the calf
roundup. When Buck left his blanket after the first night spent in the
roundup camp and rode off to the horse herd, he smiled from suppressed
elation, and was glad that he was alive.

Peaceful as the scene appeared there was trouble brewing, and it was
in expectation of this that Buck had begun the roundup earlier than
usual. The unreasoning stubbornness of one man, and the cunning
machinations of a natural rogue, threatened to bring about, from what
should have been only a misunderstanding, as pretty a range war as the
Southwest had seen. Those immediately involved were only a few when
compared to the number which might eventually be brought into the
strife, but if this had been pointed out to Jim Meeker he would have
replied that he "didn't give a d--n."

Jim Meeker was a Montana man who thought to carry out on the H2 range,
of which he was foreman, the same system of things which had served
where he had come from. This meant trouble right away, for the Bar-20,
already short in range, would not stand idly by and see him encroach
upon their land for grass and water, more especially when he broke a
solemn compact as to range rights which had been made by the former
owners of the H2 with the Bar-20. It meant not only the forcible use
of Bar-20 range, but also a great hardship upon the herds for which
Buck Peters was responsible.

Meeker's obstinacy was covertly prodded by Antonio for his own
personal gains, but this the Bar-20 foreman did not know; if he had
known it there would have been much trouble averted, and one more
Mexican sent to the spirit world.

Buck Peters was probably the only man of all of them who realized just
what such a war would mean, to what an extent rustling would flourish
while the cowmen fought. His best efforts had been used to avert
trouble, so far successfully; but that he would continue to do so was
doubtful. He had an outfit which, while meaning to obey him in all
things and to turn from any overt act of war, was not of the kind to
stand much forcing or personal abuse; their nervous systems were
constructed on the hair-trigger plan, and their very loyalty might set
the range ablaze with war. However, on this most perfect of mornings
Meeker's persistent aggression did not bother him, he was free from
worry for the time.

Just north of Big Coulee, in which was a goodly sized water hole, a
group of blanket-swathed figures lay about a fire near the chuck
wagon, while the sleepy cook prepared breakfast for his own outfit,
and for the eight men which the foreman of the C80 and the Double
Arrow had insisted upon Buck taking. The sun had not yet risen, but
the morning glow showed gray over the plain, and it would not be long
before the increasing daylight broke suddenly. The cook fires crackled
and blazed steadily, the iron pots hissing under their dancing and
noisy lids, while the coffee pots bubbled and sent up an aromatic
steam, and the odor of freshly baked biscuits swept forth as the cook
uncovered a pan. A pile of tin plates was stacked on the tail-board of
the wagon while a large sheet-iron pail contained tin cups. The
figures, feet to the fire, looked like huge, grotesque cocoons, for
the men had rolled themselves in their blankets, their heads resting
on their saddles, and in many cases folded sombreros next to the
leather made softer pillows.

Back of the chuck wagon the eastern sky grew rapidly brighter, and
suddenly daylight in all its power dissipated the grayish light of the
moment before. As the rim of the golden sun arose above the low sand
hills to the east the foreman rode into camp. Some distance behind him
Harry Jones and two other C80 men drove up the horse herd and enclosed
it in a flimsy corral quickly extemporized from lariats; flimsy it
was, but it sufficed for cow-ponies that had learned the lesson of the
rope.

"All ready, Buck," called Harry before his words were literally true.

With assumed ferocity but real vociferation Buck uttered a shout and
watched the effect. The cocoons became animated, stirred and rapidly
unrolled, with the exception of one, and the sleepers leaped to their
feet and folded the blankets. The exception stirred, subsided, stirred
again and then was quiet. Buck and Red stepped forward while the
others looked on grinning to see the fun, grasped the free end of the
blanket and suddenly straightened up, their hands going high above
their heads. Johnny Nelson, squawking, rolled over and over and, with
a yell of surprise, sat bolt upright and felt for his gun.

"Huh!" he snorted. "Reckon yo're smart, don't you!"

"Purty near a shore 'nuf pin-wheel, Kid," laughed Red.

"Don't you care, Johnny; you can finish it to-night," consoled Frenchy
McAllister, now one of Buck's outfit.

"Breakfast, Kid, breakfast!" sang out Hopalong as he finished drying
his face.

The breakfast was speedily out of the way, and pipes were started for
a short smoke as the punchers walked over to the horse herd to make
their selections. By exercising patience, profanity, and perseverance
they roped their horses and began to saddle up. Ed Porter, of the
C80, and Skinny Thompson, Bar-20, cast their ropes with a sweeping,
preliminary whirl over their heads, but the others used only a quick
flit and twist of the wrist. A few mildly exciting struggles for the
mastery took place between riders and mounts, for some cow-ponies are
not always ready to accept their proper place in the scheme of things.

"Slab-sided jumpin' jack!" yelled Rich Finn, a Double Arrow puncher,
as he fought his horse. "Allus raisin' th' devil afore I'm all awake!"

"Lemme hold her head, Rich," jeered Billy Williams.

"Her laigs, Billy, not her head," corrected Lanky Smith, the Bar-20
rope expert, whose own horse had just become sensible.

"Don't hurt him, bronc; we need him," cautioned Red.

"Come on, fellers; gettin' late," called Buck.

Away they went, tearing across the plain, Buck in the lead. After some
time had passed the foreman raised his arm and Pete Wilson stopped and
filled his pipe anew, the west-end man of the cordon. Again Buck's arm
went up and Skinny Thompson dropped out, and so on until the last man
had been placed and the line completed. At a signal from Buck the
whole line rode forward, gradually converging on a central point and
driving the scattered cattle before it.

Hopalong, on the east end of the line, sharing with Billy the posts of
honor, was now kept busy dashing here and there, wheeling, stopping,
and manoeuvring as certain strong-minded cattle, preferring the
freedom of the range they had just quitted, tried to break through the
cordon. All but branded steers and cows without calves had their
labors in vain, although the escape of these often set examples for
ambitious cows with calves. Here was where reckless and expert riding
saved the day, for the cow-ponies, trained in the art of punching
cows, entered into the game with zest and executed quick turns which
more than once threatened a catastrophe to themselves and riders.
Range cattle can run away from their domesticated kin, covering the
ground with an awkward gait that is deceiving; but the ponies can run
faster and turn as quickly.

Hopalong, determined to turn back one stubborn mother cow, pushed her
too hard, and she wheeled to attack him. Again the nimble pony had
reason to move quickly and Hopalong swore as he felt the horns touch
his leg.

"On th' prod, hey! Well, stay on it!" he shouted, well knowing that
she would. "Pig-headed old fool--_all right_, Johnny; I'm comin'!" and
he raced away to turn a handful of cows which were proving too much
for his friend. _"Ki-yi-yeow-eow-eow-eow-eow!"_ he yelled, imitating
the coyote howl.

The cook had moved his wagon as soon as breakfast was over and
journeyed southeast with the cavvieyh; and as the cordon neared its
objective the punchers could see his camp about half a mile from the
level pasture where the herd would be held for the cutting-out and
branding. Cookie regarded himself as the most important unit of the
roundup and acted accordingly, and he was not far wrong.

"Hey, Hoppy!" called Johnny through the dust of the herd, "there's
cookie. I was 'most scared he'd get lost."

"Can't you think of anythin' else but grub?" asked Billy Jordan from
the rear.

"Can you tell me anything better to think of?"

There were from three to four thousand cattle in the herd when it
neared the stopping point, and dust arose in low-hanging clouds above
it. Its pattern of differing shades of brown, with yellow and black
and white relieving it, constantly shifted like a kaleidoscope as the
cattle changed positions; and the rattle of horns on horns and the
muffled bellowing could be heard for many rods.

Gradually the cordon surrounded the herd and, when the destination was
reached, the punchers rode before the front ranks of cattle and
stopped them. There was a sudden tremor, a compactness in the herd,
and the cattle in the rear crowded forward against those before;
another tremor, and the herd was quiet. Cow-punchers took their places
around it, and kept the cattle from breaking out and back to the
range, while every second man, told off by the foreman, raced at top
speed towards the camp, there to eat a hasty dinner and get a fresh
horse from his _remuda_, as his string of from five to seven horses
was called. Then he galloped back to the herd and relieved his nearest
neighbor. When all had reassembled at the herd the work of cutting-out
began.

Lanky Smith, Panhandle Lukins, and two more Bar-20 men rode some
distance east of the herd, there to take care of the cow-and-calf cut
as it grew by the cutting-out. Hopalong, Red, Johnny, and three others
were assigned to the task of getting the mother cows and their calves
out of the main herd and into the new one, while the other punchers
held the herd and took care of the stray herd when they should be
needed. Each of the cutters-out rode after some calf, and the victim,
led by its mother, worked its way after her into the very heart of the
mass; and in getting the pair out again care must be taken not to
unduly excite the other cattle. Wiry, happy, and conceited cow-ponies
unerringly and patiently followed mother and calf into the press,
nipping the pursued when too slow and gradually forcing them to the
outer edge of the herd; and when the mother tried to lead its
offspring back into the herd to repeat the performance, she was in
almost every case cleverly blocked and driven out on the plain where
the other punchers took charge of her and added her to the
cow-and-calf cut.

Johnny jammed his sombrero on his head with reckless strength and
swore luridly as he wheeled to go back into the herd.

"What's th' matter, Kid?" laughingly asked Skinny as he turned his
charges over to another man.

"None of yore d----d business!" blazed Johnny. Under his breath he
made a resolve. "If I get you two out here again I'll keep you here if
I have to shoot you!"

"Are they slippery, Johnny?" jibed Red, whose guess was correct.
Johnny refused to heed such asinine remarks and stood on his dignity.

As the cow-and-calf herd grew in size and the main herd dwindled, more
punchers were shifted to hold it; and it was not long before the main
herd was comprised entirely of cattle without calves, when it was
driven off to freedom after being examined for other brands. As soon
as the second herd became of any size it was not necessary to drive
the cows and calves to it when they were driven out of the first herd,
as they made straight for it. The main herd, driven away, broke up as
it would, while the guarded cows stood idly beside their resting
offspring awaiting further indignities.

The drive had covered so much ground and taken so much time that
approaching darkness warned Buck not to attempt the branding until the
morrow, and he divided his force into three shifts. Two of these
hastened to the camp, gulped down their supper, and rolling into their
blankets, were soon sound asleep. The horse herd was driven off to
where the grazing was better, and night soon fell over the plain.

The cook's fires gleamed through the darkness and piles of biscuits
were heaped on the tail-board of the wagon, while pots of beef and
coffee simmered over the fires, handy for the guards as they rode in
during the night to awaken brother punchers, who would take their
places while they slept. Soon the cocoons were quiet in the grotesque
shadows caused by the fires and a deep silence reigned over the camp.
Occasionally some puncher would awaken long enough to look at the sky
to see if the weather had changed, and satisfied, return to sleep.

Over the plain sleepy cowboys rode slowly around the herd, glad to be
relieved by some other member of the outfit, who always sang as he
approached the cattle to reassure them and save a possible stampede.
For cattle, if suddenly disturbed at night by anything, even the
waving of a slicker in the hands of some careless rider, or a
wind-blown paper, will rise in a body--all up at once, frightened and
nervous. The sky was clear and the stars bright and when the moon rose
it flooded the plain with a silvery light and made fairy patterns in
the shadows.

Snatches of song floated down the gentle wind as the riders slowly
circled the herd, for the human voice, no matter how discordant, was
quieting. A low and plaintive "Don't let this par-ting grieve y-o-u"
passed from hearing around the resting cows, soon to be followed by
"When-n in thy dream-ing, nights like t-h-e-s-e shall come a-gain--"
as another watcher made the circuit. The serene cows, trusting in the
prowess and vigilance of these low-voiced centaurs to protect them
from danger, dozed and chewed their cuds in peace and quiet, while the
natural noises of the night relieved the silence in unobtruding
harmony.

Far out on the plain a solitary rider watched the herd from cover and
swore because it was guarded so closely. He glanced aloft to see if
there was any hope of a storm and finding that there was not,
muttered savagely and rode away. It was Antonio, wishing that he
could start a stampede and so undo the work of the day and inflict
heavy losses on the Bar-20. He did not dare to start a grass fire for
at the first flicker of a light he would be charged by one or more of
the night riders and if caught, death would be his reward.

While the third shift rode and sang the eastern sky became a dome of
light reflected from below and the sunrise, majestic in all its fiery
splendor, heralded the birth of another perfect day.

Through the early morning hours the branding continued, and the
bleating of the cattle told of the hot stamping irons indelibly
burning the sign of the Bar-20 on the tender hides of calves. Mother
cows fought and plunged and called in reply to the terrified bawling
of their offspring, and sympathetically licked the burns when the
frightened calves had been allowed to join them. Cowboys were deftly
roping calves by their hind legs and dragging them to the fires of the
branding men. Two men would hold a calf, one doubling the foreleg back
on itself at the knee and the other, planting one booted foot against
the calf's under hind leg close to its body, pulled back on the other
leg while his companion, who held the foreleg, rested on the animal's
head. The third man, drawing the hot iron from the fire, raised and
held it suspended for a second over the calf's flank, and then there
was an odor and a puff of smoke; and the calf was branded with a mark
which neither water nor age would wipe out.

Pete Wilson came riding up dragging a calf at the end of his rope,
and turned the captive over to Billy Williams and his two helpers,
none of them paying any attention to the cow which followed a short
distance behind him. Lanky seized the unfortunate calf and leaned over
to secure the belly hold, when someone shouted a warning and he
dropped the struggling animal and leaped back and to one side as the
mother charged past. Wheeling to return the attack, the cow suddenly
flopped over and struck the earth with a thud as Buck's rope went
home. He dragged her away and then releasing her, chased her back into
the herd.

"_Hi!_ Get that little devil!" shouted Billy to Hopalong, pointing to
the fleeing calf.

"Why didn't you watch for her, you half-breed!" demanded the indignant
Lanky of Pete. "Do you think this is a ten-pin alley!"

Hopalong came riding up with the calf, which swiftly became recorded
property.

"Bar-20; tally one," sang out the monotonous voice of the tally-man.
"Why didn't you grab her when she went by, Lanky?" he asked, putting a
new point on his pencil.

"Hope th' next one heads yore way!" retorted Lanky, grinning.

"Won't. I ain't abusin' th' kids."

"Bar-20; tally one," droned a voice at the next fire.

All was noise, laughter, dust, and a seeming confusion, but every man
knew his work thoroughly and was doing it in a methodical way, and the
confusion was confined to the victims and their mothers.

When the herd had been branded and allowed to return to the plain, the
outfit moved on into a new territory and the work was repeated until
the whole range, with the exception of the valley, had been covered.
When the valley was worked it required more time in comparison with
the amount of ground covered than had been heretofore spent on any
part of the range; for the cattle were far more numerous, and it was
no unusual thing to have a herd of great size before the roundup place
had been reached. This heavy increase in the numbers of the cattle to
be herded made a corresponding increase in the time and labor required
for the cutting-out and branding. Five days were required in working
the eastern and central parts of the valley and it took three more
days to clean up around the White Horse Hills, where the ground was
rougher and the riding harder. And at every cutting-out there was a
large stray-herd made up of H2 and Three Triangle cattle. The H2 had
been formerly the Three Triangle. Buck had been earnest in his
instructions to his men regarding the strays, for now was the
opportunity to rid his range of Meeker's cattle in a way natural and
without especial significance; once over the line it would be a
comparatively easy matter to keep them there.

For taking care of this extra herd and also because Buck courted
scrutiny during the branding, the foreman accepted the services of
three H2 men. This addition to his forces made the work move somewhat
more rapidly and when, at the end of each day's cutting-out, the
stray herd was complete, it was driven south across the boundary line
by Meeker's men. When the last stray-herd started south Buck rode over
to the H2 punchers and told them to tell their foreman to let him know
when he could assist in the southern roundup and thus return the
favor.

As the Bar-20 outfit and the C80 and Double Arrow men rode north
towards the ranch house they were met by Lucas, foreman of the C80,
who joined them near Medicine Bend.

"Well, got it all over, hey?" he cried as he rode up.

"Yep; bigger job than I thought, too. It gets bigger every year an'
that blizzard didn't make much difference in th' work, neither," Buck
replied. "I'll help you out when you get ready to drive."

"No you won't; you can help me an' Bartlett more by keeping all yore
men watchin' that line," quickly responded Lucas. "We'll work
together, me an' Bartlett, an' we'll have all th' men we want. You
just show that man Meeker that range grabbin' ain't healthy down
here--that's all we want. Did he send you any help in th' valley?"

"Yes, three men," Buck replied. "But we'll break even on that when he
works along th' boundary."

"Have any trouble with 'em?"

"Not a bit."

"I sent Wood Wright down to Eagle th' other day, an' he says th' town
is shore there'll be a big range war," remarked Lucas. "He said
there's lots of excitement down there an' they act like they wish th'
trouble would hurry up an' happen. We've got to watch that town, all
right."

"If there's a war th' rustlers'll flock here from all over,"
interposed Rich Finn.

"Huh!" snorted Hopalong. "They'll flock out again if we get a chance
to look for 'em. An' that town'll shore get into trouble if it don't
live plumb easy. You know what happened th' last time rustlin' got to
be th' style, don't you?"

"Well," replied Lucas, "I've fixed it with Cowan to get news to me an'
Bartlett if anything sudden comes up. If you need us just let him know
an' we'll be with you in two shakes."

"That's good, but I don't reckon I'll need any help, leastwise not for
a long time," Buck responded. "But I tell you what you might do, when
you can; make up a vigilance committee from yore outfits an' ride
range for rustlers. We can take care of all that comes on us, but we
won't have no time to bother about th' rest of th' range. An' if you
do that it'll shut 'em out of our north range."

"We'll do it," Lucas promised. "Bartlett is going to watch th' trails
north to see if he can catch anybody runnin' cattle to th' railroad
construction camps. Every suspicious lookin' stranger is going to be
held up an' asked questions; an' if we find any runnin' irons, you
know what that means."

"I reckon we can handle th' situation, all right, no matter how hard
it gets," laughed the Bar-20 foreman.

"Well, I'll be leavin' you now," Lucas remarked as they reached the
Bar-20 bunk house. "We begin to round up next week, an' there's lots
to be done before then. Say, can I use yore chuck wagon? Mine is shore
done for."

"Why, of course," replied Buck heartily. "Take it now, if you want, or
any time you send for it."

"Much obliged; come on, fellers," Lucas cried to his men. "We're goin'
home."



CHAPTER IV

IN WEST ARROYO


Hopalong was heading for Lookout Peak, the highest of the White Horse
Hills, by way of West Arroyo, which he entered half an hour after he
had forded the creek, and was half way to the line when, rounding a
sharp turn, he saw Mary Meeker ahead of him. She was off her horse
picking flowers when she heard him and she stood erect, smiling.

"Why, I didn't think I'd see you," she said. "I've been picking
flowers--see them? Ain't they pretty?" she asked, holding them out for
his inspection.

"They shore are," he replied, not looking at the flowers at all, but
into her big, brown eyes. "An' they're some lucky, too," he asserted,
grinning.

She lowered her head, burying her face in the blossoms and then picked
a few petals and let them fall one by one from her fingers. "You
didn't look at them at all," she chided.

"Oh, yes, I did," he laughed. "But I see flowers all th' time, and not
much of you."

"That's nice--they are so pretty. I just love them."

"Yes. I reckon they are," doubtfully.

She looked up at him, her eyes laughing and her white teeth glistening
between their red frames. "Why don't you scold me?" she asked.

"Scold you! What for?"

"Why, for being on yore ranch, for being across th' line an' in th'
valley."

"Good Lord! Why, there ain't no lines for you! You can go anywhere."

"In th' valley?" she asked, again hiding her face in the flowers.

"Why, of course. What ever made you think you can't?"

"I'm one of th' H2," she responded. "Paw says I run it. But I'm awful
glad you won't care."

"Well, as far as riding where you please is concerned, you run this
ranch, too."

"There's a pretty flower," she said, looking at the top of the bank.
"That purple one; see it?" she asked, pointing.

"Yes. I'll get it for you," he replied, leaping from the saddle and
half way up the bank before she knew it. He slid down again and handed
the blossom to her. "There."

"Thank you."

"See any more you wants?"

"No; this is enough. Thank you for getting it for me."

"Oh, shucks; that was nothing," he laughed awkwardly. "That was shore
easy."

"I'm going to give it to you for not scolding me about being over th'
line," she said, holding it out to him.

"No; not for that," he said slowly. "Can't you think of some other
reason?"

"Don't you want it?"

"Want it!" he exclaimed, eagerly. "Shore I want it. But not for what
you said."

"Will you wear it because we're friends?"

"Now yo're talking!"

She looked up and laughed, her cheeks dimpling, and then pinned it to
his shirt, while he held his breath lest the inflation of his lungs
bother her. It was nice to have a flower pinned on one's shirt by a
pretty girl.

"There," she laughed, stepping back to look at it.

"Gosh!" he complained, ruefully. "You've pinned it up so high I can't
see it. Why not put it lower down?"

She changed it while he grinned at how his scheming had born fruit. He
was a hog, he knew that, but he did not care.

"Oh, I reckon _I'm_ all right!" he exulted. "Shore you don't see no
more you want?"

"Yes; an' I must go now," she replied, going towards her horse. "I'll
be late with th' dinner if I don't hurry."

"What! Do you cook for that hungry outfit?"

"No, not for them--just for Paw an' me."

"When are you comin' up again for more flowers?"

"I don't know. You see, I'm going to make cookies some day this week,
but I don't know just when. Do you like cookies, an' cake?"

"You bet I do! Why?"

"I'll bring some with me th' next time. Paw says they're th' best he
ever ate."

"Bet I'll say so, too," he replied, stepping forward to help her into
the saddle, but she sprang into it before he reached her side, and he
vaulted on his own horse and joined her.

She suddenly turned and looked him straight in the eyes. "Tell me,
honest, has yore ranch any right to keep our cows south of that line?"

"Yes, we have. Our boundaries are fixed. We gave th' Three Triangle
about eighty square miles of range so our valley would be free from
all cows but our own. That's all th' land between th' line an' th'
Jumping Bear, an' it was a big price, too. They never drove a cow over
on us."

She looked disappointed and toyed with her quirt.

"Why don't you want to let Paw use th' valley?"

"It ain't big enough for our own cows, an' we can't share it. As it
is, we'll have to drive ten thousand on leased range next year to give
our grass a rest."

"Well,--" she stopped and he waited to hear what she would say, and
then asked her when she would be up again.

"I don't know! I don't know!" she cried.

"Why, what's the matter?"

"Nothing. I'm foolish--that's all," she replied, smiling, and trying
to forget the picture which arose in her mind, a picture of desperate
fighting along the line; of her father--and him.

"You scared me then," he said.

"Did I? Why, it wasn't anything."

"Are you shore?"

"Please don't ask me any questions," she requested.

"Will you be up here again soon?"

"If th' baking turns out all right."

"Hang the baking! come anyway."

"I'll try; but I'm afraid," she faltered.

"Of what?" he demanded, sitting up very straight.

"Why, that I can't," she replied, hurriedly. "You see, it's far coming
up here."

"That's easy. I'll meet you west of th' hills."

"No, no! I'll come up here."

"Look here," he said, slowly and kindly. "If yo're afraid of bein'
seen with me, don't you try it. I want to see you a whole lot, but I
don't want you to have no trouble with yore father about it. I can
wait till everything is all right if you want me to."

She turned and faced him, her cheeks red. "No, it ain't that, exactly.
Don't ask me any more. Don't talk about it. I'll come, all right, just
as soon as I can."

They were on the line now and she held out her hand.

"Good-bye."

"Good-bye for now. Try to come up an' see me as soon as you can. If
yo're worryin' because that Greaser don't like me, stop it. I've been
in too many tight places to get piped out where there's elbow room."

"I asked you not to say nothing more about it," she chided. "I'll come
when I can. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," he replied, his sombrero under his arm. He watched her
until she became lost to sight and then, suspicious, wheeled, and saw
Johnny sitting quietly on his horse several hundred yards away. He
called his friend to him by one wide sweep of his arm and Johnny
spurred forward.

"Follow me, Johnny," he cried, dashing towards the arroyo. "Take th'
other side an' look for that Greaser. I'll take this side. Edge off;
yo're too close. Three hundred yards is about right."

They raced away at top speed, reckless and grim, Johnny not knowing
just what it was all about; but the word Greaser needed no sauce to
whet his appetite since the day he had caught Antonio watching his
friend on the hill, and he scanned the plain eagerly. When they
reached the other end of the arroyo Hopalong called to him: "Sweep
east an' back to th' line on a circle. If you catch him, shoot off
yore Colt an' hold him for _me_. I'm going west."

When they saw each other again it was on the line, and neither had
seen any traces of Antonio, to Johnny's vexation and Hopalong's great
satisfaction.

"What's up, Hoppy?" shouted Johnny.

"I reckoned that Greaser might 'a followed her so he could tell tales
to Meeker," Hopalong called.

Johnny swept up recklessly, jauntily, a swagger almost in the very
actions of his horse, which seemed to have caught the spirit of its
rider.

"Caught you that time," he laughed--and Johnny, when in a teasing
mood, could weave into his laughter an affectionate note which found
swift pardon for any words he might utter. "You an' her shore make a
good--" and then he saw the flower on his friend's shirt and for the
moment was rendered speechless by surprise. But in him the faculty of
speech was well developed and he recovered quickly. "Sufferin'
coyotes! Would you look at that! What's comin' to us down here,
anyway? Are you loco? Do you mean to let th' rest of th' outfit see
_that_?"

"Calamity is comin' to th' misguided mavericks that get gay about it!"
retorted Hopalong. "I wear what I feels like, an' don't you forget it,
neither."

"'In thy d-a-r-k eyes splendor, where th' l-o-v-e light longs to
dwel-l,'" Johnny hummed, grinning. Then his hand went out. "Good luck,
Hoppy! Th' best of luck!" he cried. "She's a dandy, all right, but she
ain't too good for you."

"Much obliged," Hopalong replied, shaking hands. "But suppose you tell
me what all th' good luck is for. To hear you talk anybody'd think all
a feller had to do was to ride with a woman to be married to her."

"Well, then take off that wart of a flower an' come on," Johnny
responded.

"What? Not to save yore spotted soul! An' that ain't no wart of a
flower, neither."

Johnny burst out laughing, a laugh from the soul of him, welling up in
infectious spontaneity, triumphant and hearty. "Oh, oh! You bit that
time! Anybody'd think about right in yore case, as far as _wantin'_
to be married is concerned. Why, yo're hittin' th' lovely trail to
matri-mony as hard as you can."

In spite of himself Hopalong had to laugh at the jibing of his friend,
the Kid. He thumped him heartily across the shoulders to show how he
felt about it and Johnny's breath was interfered with at a critical
moment.

"Oh, just wait till th' crowd sees that blossom! Just wait," Johnny
coughed.

"You keep mum about what you saw, d'y' hear?"

"Shore; but it'll be on my mind all th' time, an' I talk in my sleep
when anything's on my mind."

"Then that's why I never heard you talk in yore sleep."

"Aw, g'wan! But they'll see th' flower, won't they?"

"Shore they will; but as long as they don't know how it got there they
can't say much."

"They can't, hey!" Johnny exclaimed. "That's a new one on me. It's
usually what they don't know about that they talks of most. What they
don't know they can guess in this case, all right. Most of 'em are
good on readin' signs, an' that's plain as th' devil."

"But don't you tell 'em!" Hopalong warned.

"No. I won't tell 'em, honest," Johnny replied. He could convey the
information in a negative way and he grinned hopefully at the fun
there would be.

"I mean it, Kid," Hopalong responded, reading the grin. "I don't care
about myself; they can joke all they wants with me. But it ain't
nowise right to drag her into it, savvy? She don't want to be talked
about like that."

"Yo're right; they won't find out nothin' from me," and Johnny saw his
fun slip from him. "I'm goin' east; comin' along?"

"No; th' other way. So long."

"Hey!" cried Johnny anxiously, drawing rein, "Frenchy said Buck was
going to put some of us up in Number Five so Frenchy an' his four
could ride th' line. Did Buck say anything to you about it?"

Line house Number Five was too far from the zone of excitement, if
fighting should break out along the line, to please Johnny.

"He was stringin' you, Kid," Hopalong laughed. "He won't take any of
th' old outfit away from here."

"Oh, I knowed that; but I thought I'd ask, that's all," and Johnny
cantered away, whistling happily.

Hopalong looked after him and smiled, for Johnny had laughed and
fought and teased himself into the heart of every man of the outfit:
"He's shore a good Kid; an' how he likes a fight!"



CHAPTER V

HOPALONG ASSERTS HIMSELF


Paralleling West Arroyo and two miles east of it was another arroyo,
through which Hopalong was riding the day following his meeting with
Mary. Coming to a place where he could look over the bank he saw a
herd of H2 and Three Triangle cows grazing not far away, and Antonio
was in charge of them. Hopalong did not know how long they had been in
the valley, nor how they had crossed the line, but their presence was
enough. It angered him, for here was open and, it appeared, authorized
defiance. Not content to let his herds run as they wished, Meeker was
actually sending them into the valley under guard, presumably to find
out what would be done about it. The H2 foreman would find that out
very soon.

The Mexican looked around and wheeled sharply to face the danger, his
listlessness gone in a flash. He was not there because of any orders
from Meeker, but for reasons of his own. So when the Bar-20 puncher
raised his arm and swept it towards the line he sat in sullen
indifference, alert and crafty.

"You've got gall!" cried Hopalong. "Who told you to herd up here!"

Antonio frowned but did not reply.

"Yo're three miles too far north," continued Hopalong, riding slowly
forward until their stirrups almost touched.

Antonio shrugged his shoulders.

"I ain't warbling for my health!" cried Hopalong. "You start them cows
south right away."

"I can't."

Hopalong stared. "You can't! Got a sore thumb, mebby! Well, I reckon
you can, an' will."

"I can't. Boss won't let me."

"Oh, he won't! Well, I feel sorry for yore boss but yo're going to
push 'em just th' same."

Antonio again shrugged his shoulders and lifted his hands in a gesture
of helplessness.

"How long you been here, an' how'd you get in?"

"'N'our. By de _rio_."

"Oh, yore foreman's goin' to raise h--l, ain't he!" Hopalong snorted.
"He's going to pasture on us whether we like it or not, is he? He's a
land thief, that's what he is!"

"De boss ees all right!" asserted Antonio, heatedly.

"If he is he's lop-sided, but he'll be _left_ if he banks on this play
going through without a smash-up. You chase them cows home an' keep
'em there. If I find you flittin' around th' ends of th' line or
herdin' on this side of it I'll give you something to nurse--an'
you'll be lucky if you can nurse it. Come on, get a-going!"

Antonio waved his arm excitedly and was about to expostulate, but
Hopalong cut him short by hitting him across the face with his quirt:
"D--n you!" he cried, angrily. "Shut yore mouth! Get them cows going!
You coffee-colored half-breed of a Greaser, I've a mind to stop you
right now. Come on, get a move on!"

The Mexican's face grew livid and he tried to back away, swearing in
Spanish. Stung to action by the blow, he jerked at his gun, but found
Hopalong's Colt pushing against his neck.

"Drop that gun!" the Bar-20 puncher ordered, his eyes flashing. "Don't
you know better'n that? We've put up with yore crowd as long as we're
going to, an' th' next thing will be a slaughter if that foreman of
yourn don't get some sense, an' get it sudden. Don't talk back! Just
start them cows!"

The Mexican could do nothing but obey. His triumph at the success of
his effort was torn with rabid hatred for the man who had struck him;
but he could not fight with the Colt at his neck, and so sullenly
obeyed. As they neared the line Hopalong ceased his personal remarks
and, smiling grimly, turned to another topic.

"I let you off easy; but no more. Th' next herd we find in our valley
will go sudden an' hard. If anybody is guardin' it they'll never know
what hit 'em." He paused for a moment and then continued, cold
contempt in his voice: "I reckon you had to obey orders, but you won't
do it again if you know what's good for you. If yore boss, as you
calls him, don't like what I've done, you tell him I said to drive th'
next herd hisself. If he ain't man enough to bring 'em in hisself,
tell him that Cassidy says to quit orderin' his men to take risks he's
a-scared of."

"He ees brafe; he ain't 'fraid," Antonio rejoined. "He weel keel you
ef I tell heem what you say."

"Tell him jus' th' same. I'll be riding th' line mostly, an' if he
wants to hunt me up an' confab about it he can find me any time."

Antonio shrugged his shoulders and rode south, filled with elation at
his success in stirring up hostility between the two ranches, but his
heart seethed with murder for the blow. He would carry a message to
Meeker that would call for harsh measures, and the war would be on.

As the Mexican departed Lanky Smith rode into sight and cantered
forward to meet his friend.

"What's up?" he asked.

"I don't know, yet," replied Hopalong. "Greasers are such liars I
don't know what to think," and he related the matter to his companion.

"Lord, but you sent a stiff message to Meeker!" Lanky exclaimed. "You
keep yore eyes plumb open from now on. Meeker'll be wild, an' th'
Greaser won't forget that blow."

"Was anybody on th' east end this morning?"

"Shore; me an' Pete," Lanky replied, frowning. "He couldn't get a cow
acrost without us seein' him--he lied."

"Well, it makes no difference how he got across; he was there, an'
that's all I care about."

"There's one of his outfit now," Lanky said.

Hopalong looked around and saw an H2 puncher riding slowly past them,
about two hundred yards to the south.

"Who is he?" Lanky asked.

"Doc Riley. Meeker got him an' Curley out of a bad scrape up north an'
took them both to punch for him. I hear he is some bad with th' Colt.
Sort of reckons he's a whole war-party in breech-cloths an' war-paint
just 'cause he's got his man."

"He's gettin' close to th' line," Lanky remarked.

"Yes, because we've been turnin' their cows."

"Reckon he won't stop us none to speak of."

Doc had stopped and was watching them and while he looked a cow
blundered out of the brush and started to cross the line. Hopalong
spurred forward to stop it, followed by Lanky, and Doc rode to
intercept them.

"G'wan back, you bone-yard!" Hopalong shouted, firing his Colt in
front of the animal, which now turned and ran back.

Doc slid to a stand, his Colt out. "What do you think you're doing
with that cow?"

"None of yore business!" Hopalong retorted.

Doc backed away so he could watch Lanky, his hand leaping up, and
Hopalong fired. Doc dropped the weapon and grabbed at his right arm,
cursing wildly.

"You half-breed!" cried Hopalong, riding closer. "Next time you gets
any curious about what I'm doing, you better write. You're a fine
specimen to pull a gun on me, you are!"

"You'll stop turnin' our cows, or you'll get a pass to h--l!" retorted
Doc. "We won't stand for it no more, an' when th' boys hears about
this you'll have all you can take care of."

"I ain't got nothing to do but ride th' line an' answer questions like
I did yourn," Hopalong rejoined. "I will have lots of time to take
care of any little trouble that blows up from yore way. But _Meeker's_
th' man I want to see. Tell him to take a herd across this line, will
you?"

"You'll see him!" snapped Doc. "An' you'll need to see him first,
too."

"I don't pot-shoot--I'll leave that for you fellers. All I want is an
even break."

"You'll get it," replied Doc, wheeling and riding off.

"Things are movin' so fast you better send for Buck," Lanky suggested.
"Hell'll be poppin' down here purty soon."

"I'll tell him what's going on, but there ain't no use of bringing him
down here till we has to," Hopalong replied. "We can handle 'em. But I
reckon Johnny had better go up an' tell him."

"Johnny ought to be riding this way purty quick; he's coming from th'
hills."

"We'll meet him an' get him off."

They met Johnny and when he had learned of his mission he protested
against being sent away from the line when things were getting
crowded. "I don't want to miss th' fun!" he exclaimed. "Send Red, or
Lanky."

"Red's too handy with th' Winchester; we might need him," Hopalong
replied, smiling.

"Then you go, Lanky," Johnny suggested. "I'm better'n you with th'
Colt."

"You're better'n nothing!" retorted Lanky. "You do what you're told,
an' quick. Nothing will happen while you're gone, anyhow."

"Then why don't you want to go?"

"I don't want th' ride," Lanky replied. "It's too fur."

"Huh!" snorted Johnny. "Too bad about you an' th' ride! Poor old man,
scared of sixty miles. I'll toss up with you."

"One of you has got to ride to Red an' tell him. He mustn't get caught
unexpected," Hopalong remarked.

"What do you call?" asked Johnny, flipping a coin and catching it when
it came down.

"All right, that's fair enough. Heads," Lanky replied.

"Whoop! It's tails!" cried Johnny, wheeling. "I'm going for Red," and
he was gone before Lanky had time to object.

"Blasted Kid!" Lanky snorted. "How'd I know it was tails?"

"That's yore lookout," laughed Hopalong. "You ought to know him by
this time. It's yore own fault."

"I'll tan his hide some of these fine days," Lanky promised. "He's too
fresh," and he galloped off to cover the thirty miles between him and
the bunk house in the least possible time so as to return as soon as
he could.



CHAPTER VI

MEEKER IS TOLD


When Antonio had covered half of the distance between the line and the
H2 bunk house he was hailed from a chaparral and saw Benito ride into
view. He told his satellite what had occurred in the valley, gave him
a message for Shaw, who was now on the mesa, and cantered on to tell
Meeker his version of the morning's happenings.

The H2 foreman was standing by the corral when his broncho-buster rode
up, and he stared. "Where'd you get that welt on th' face?" he
demanded.

Antonio told him, with many exclamations and angry gestures, that he
had ridden through the valley to see if there were any H2 cows grazing
on it, that he had found a small herd and was about to return to his
own range when he was held up and struck by Hopalong, who accused him
of having driven the cattle across the line. When he had denied this
he had been called a liar and threatened with death if he was ever
again caught on that side of the line.

"By G-d!" cried the foreman. "That's purty high-handed! I'll give 'em
something to beller about when I finds out just what I want to do!"

"He say, 'Tell that boss of yourn to no send you, send heemself nex'
time.' He say he weel keel you on sight. I say he can't. He laugh,
_so_!" laughing in a blood-curdling manner. "He say he keel nex' man
an' cows that cross line. He ees _uno_ devil!"

"He will, hey!" Meeker exclaimed, thoroughly angered. "We'll give him
all th' chance he wants when we get things fixed. 'Tony, what did you
do about getting those two men you spoke of? You went down to Eagle,
didn't you?"

"_Si, si_," assured the Mexican. "They come, _pronto_. They can keel
heem. They come to-day; _quien sabe_?"

"I'll do my own killin'--but here comes Doc," Meeker replied. "Looks
mad, too. Mebby they was going to kill him an' he objected. Hullo,
Doc; what's th' matter?"

"That Cassidy d--n near blowed my arm off," Doc replied. "Caught him
turnin' back one of our cows an' told him not to. When I backed off so
I could keep one eye on his friend he up an' plugs me through my gun
arm."

"I see; they owns th' earth!" Meeker roared. "Shootin' up my men
'cause they stick up for me! Come in th' house an' get that wing
fixed. We can talk in there," he said, glancing at Antonio. "They cut
'Tony across th' face with a quirt 'cause he was ridin' in their
valley!"

"Let's get th' gang together an' wipe 'em off th' earth," Doc
suggested, following Meeker towards the house.

Mary looked up when they entered: "What's th' matter, Dad? Why, are
you hurt, Doc?"

"Don't ask questions, girl," Meeker ordered. "Get us some hot water
an' some clean cloth. Sit down, Doc; we'll fix it in no time."

"We better clean 'em up to-morrow," Doc remarked.

"No; there ain't no use of losin' men fighting if there's any other
way. You know there's a good strong line house on th' top of Lookout
Peak, don't you?"

"Shore; reg'lar fort. They calls it Number Three."

Mary had returned and was tearing a bandage, listening intently to
what was being said.

"What's th' matter with getting in that some day soon an' holdin' it
for good?" asked the foreman. "It overlooks a lot of range, an' once
we're in it it'll cost 'em a lot of lives to get it back--if they can
get it back."

"You're right!" cried Doc, eagerly. "Let me an' Curley get in there
to-night an' hold her for you. We can do it."

"You can't do that. Somebody sleeps in it nights. Nope, we've got to
work some scheme to get it in th' daylight. They are bound to have it
guarded, an' we've got to coax him out somehow. I don't know how, but
I will before many hours pass. Hullo, who's this?" he asked, seeing
two strangers approach the house.

"Couple of Greasers," grunted Doc.

"Hey, you," cried Meeker through the open door. "You go down to th'
corral an' wait for me."

"_Si, señor._"

"What's th' matter, Dad?" asked Mary. "How did Doc get shot?"

Meeker looked up angrily, but his face softened.

"There's a whole lot th' matter, Mary. That Bar-20 shore is gettin'
hot-headed. Cassidy hit 'Tony acrost th' face with a quirt an' shot
Doc. 'Tony was riding through that valley, an' Doc told Cassidy not to
drive back a cow of ourn."

She flushed. "There must 'a been more'n that, Dad. He wouldn't 'a shot
for that. I know it."

"You know it!" cried Meeker, astonished. "How do you know it?"

"He ain't that kind. I know he ain't."

"I asked how you knew it!"

She looked down and then faced him. "Because I know him, because he
ain't that kind. What did you say to him, Doc?"

Meeker's face was a study and Doc flushed, for she was looking him
squarely in the eyes.

"What did you say to him?" she repeated. "Did you make a gun-play?"

"Well, by G-d!" shouted Meeker, leaping to his feet. "You know him,
hey! 'He ain't that kind!' How long have you known him, an' where'd
you meet him?"

"This is no time to talk of that," she replied, her spirit aroused.
"Ask Doc what he did an' said to get shot. Look at him; he lied when
he told you about it."

"I told him to quit driving our cows back," Doc cried. "Of course I
had my hand on my gun when I said it. I'd been a fool if I hadn't,
wouldn't I?"

"That ain't all," she remarked. "Did you try to use it?"

Meeker was staring first at one and then at the other, not knowing
just what to say. Doc looked at him and his mind was made up.

"What'd you do, Doc?" he asked.

"I said: 'What are you doing with that cow?' an' he said it wasn't
none of my business. I got mad then an' jerked my gun loose, but he
got me first. I wasn't going to shoot. I was only getting ready for
him if he tried to."

"How did he know you wasn't going to shoot?" Meeker demanded. "Reckon
I can't blame him for that. He must be quick on th' draw."

"Quickest I ever saw. He had his gun out to shoot in front of a cow.
At th' time I thought he was going to kill it. That's what made me get
in so quick. He slid it back in th' holster an' faced me. I told you
what happened then."

"Well, we've got to show them fellers they can't fool with us an' get
away with it," Meeker replied. "An' I've got to have th' use of that
crick somehow. I'll think of some way to square things."

"Wait, I'll go with you," Doc remarked, following the other towards
the door.

"You go in th' bunk house an' wait for me. I want to see what them
Greasers want."

"Wonder how much 'Tony didn't tell," mused the foreman, as he went
towards the corral. "Reckon Cassidy cut him 'cause he was a Greaser.
Come purty nigh doing it myself, once. Well, I don't care, but I've
got to notice plays like that or they'll think I'm scared of 'em. I'll
go up an' have it out, an' when I get ready I'll show them swaggerin'
bucks what's what."

When he returned he saw Antonio leaning against his shack, for the
Mexican was not tolerated by the rest of the outfit and so lived
alone. He looked at his foreman and leered knowingly, and then went
inside the building, where he laughed silently. "That's a joke, all
right! Meeker hiring two of my brothers to watch his cows an' do his
spying! We'll skin this range before we're through."

Meeker frowned when he caught his broncho-buster's look and he
growled: "You never did look good, an' that welt shore makes you look
more like th' devil than ever." He glanced at the house and the frown
deepened. "So you know Cassidy! That's a _nice_ thing to tell me! I'll
just go up an' see that coyote, right now," and he went for his horse,
muttering and scowling.

Antonio knew of a herd of cows and calves which had not been included
in the H2 roundup, and which were fattening on an outlying range.
There was also a large herd of Bar-20 cattle growing larger every day
on the western range far outside the boundaries. Benito was scouting,
Shaw and the others were nearly ready for work on the mesa, and now
Meeker had hired Antonio's brothers to help him to be robbed. Added to
this was the constantly growing hostility along the line, and this
would blaze before he and Benito had finished their work. Everything
considered he was very much pleased and even his personal vengeance
was provided for. Doc had more cause for animosity against Hopalong
than he had, and if the Bar-20 puncher should be killed some day when
Doc rode the northern range Doc would be blamed for it. But Meeker had
not acted as he should have done when two of his men had been hurt on
the same day, and that must be remedied. The faster things moved
towards fighting the less chance there would be of the plot becoming
known.

Antonio was the broncho-buster of the H2 because he was a positive
genius at the work, and he was a good, all-around cowman when he
overcame his inherent laziness; but he was cruel to a degree with both
horses and cattle. Because of his fitness Meeker had overlooked his
undesirable qualities, which he had in plenty. He was entirely too
fond of liquor and gambling, was uncertain in his hours, and used his
time as he saw fit when not engaged in breaking horses. A natural
liar, exceedingly unclean in his habits, vindictive and with a temper
dry as tinder, he was shunned by the other members of the outfit. This
filled his heart with hatred for them and for Meeker, who did not
interfere. He swore many times that he would square up everything
some day, and the day was getting closer.

In appearance he was about medium height, but his sloping shoulders
and lax carriage gave his arms the appearance of being abnormally
long. His face was sharp and narrow, while his thin, wiry body seemed
almost devoid of flesh. Like most cowboys he was a poor walker and his
toes turned in like those of an Indian. Such was Antonio, who longed
to gamble with Fortune in a dangerous game for stakes which to him
were large, and who had already suggested to Meeker that the line
house on Lookout Peak was the key to the situation. It was the germ,
which grew slowly in the foreman's brain and became more feasible and
insistent day by day, and it accounted for his fits of abstraction; it
would not do to fail if the attempt were made.



CHAPTER VII

HOPALONG MEETS MEEKER


When Meeker was within a mile of the line he met Curley, told him what
had occurred and that he was going to find Hopalong. Curley smiled and
replied that he had seen that person less than ten minutes ago and
that he was riding towards the peak, and alone.

"We'll go after him," Meeker replied. "You come because I want to face
him in force so he won't start no gun-play an' make me kill him.
That'd set hell to pop."

Hopalong espied Johnny far to the east and he smiled as he remembered
the celerity with which that individual had departed after glancing at
the coin.

"There ain't no flies on th' Kid, all right," he laughed, riding
slowly so Johnny could join him. He saw Curley riding south and looked
over the rough plain for other H2 punchers. Some time later as he
passed a chaparral he glanced back to see what had become of his
friend, but found that he had disappeared. When he wheeled to watch
for him he saw Meeker and Curley coming towards him and he shook his
holster to be sure his Colt was not jammed in it too tightly.

"Well, here's where th' orchestry tunes up, all right," he muttered
grimly. "Licked th' Greaser, plugged Doc, an' sent word to Meeker to
come up if he wasn't scared. He's come, an' now I'll have to lick two
more. If they push me I'll shoot to kill!"

The H2 foreman rode ahead of his companion and stopped when fifty
yards from the alert line-rider. Pushing his sombrero back on his
head, he lost no time in skirmishing. "Did you chase my broncho-buster
out of yore valley, cut his face with yore quirt, an' shoot Doc? Did
you send word to me that you'd kill me if I showed myself?"

"Was you ever an auctioneer," calmly asked Hopalong, "or a book
agent?"

"What's that got to do with it?" Meeker demanded. "You heard what I
said."

"I don't know nothing about yore broncho-buster, taking one thing at a
time, which is proper."

"What! You didn't drive him out, or cut him?"

"No; why?" asked Hopalong, chuckling.

"He says you did--an' somebody quirted him."

"He's loco--he wasn't in th' valley," Hopalong replied. "Think he
could get in that valley? Him, or any other man we didn't want in?"

"You're devilish funny!" retorted Meeker, riding slowly forward,
followed by his companion, who began to edge away from his foreman.
"Since you are so exact, did you chase him off yore range an' push
him over th' line at th' point of yore gun?"

"You've got me. Better not come too close--my cayuse don't like
gettin' crowded."

"That's all right," Meeker retorted, not heeding the warning. "Do you
mean to tell me you don't know? Yore name's Cassidy, ain't it?" he
asked, angrily, his determination to avoid fighting rapidly becoming
lost.

"That's my own, shore 'nuf name," Hopalong answered, and then: "Do you
mean that cross-eyed, bone-yard of a yellow-faced Greaser I caught
stealing our range?"

"Yes!" snapped Meeker, stopping again.

"Why didn't you say so, then, 'stead of calling him yore
broncho-buster?" Hopalong demanded. "How do I know who yore
broncho-buster is? I don't know what every land pirate does in this
country."

"Then you shot Doc--do you know who I mean this time?" sarcastically
asked the H2 foreman.

"Oh, shore. He didn't get his gun out quick enough when he went after
it, did he? Any more I can tell you before I begins to say things,
too?"

Meeker, angered greatly by Hopalong's contemptuous inflection and the
reckless assertiveness of his every word and look, began to ride to
describe a circle around the Bar-20 puncher, Curley going the other
way.

"You said you'd kill me when you saw me, didn't you, you--"

Hopalong was backing away so as to keep both men in front of him,
alert, eager, and waiting for the signal to begin his two-handed
shooting. "I ain't a whole lot deaf--I can hear you from where you
are. You better stop, for I've ridden out of tighter holes than this,
an' you'll shore get a pass to h--l if you crowd me too much!"

     Adown th' road, an' gun in hand,
     Comes Whiskey Bill, mad Whiskey Bill--

This fragment of song floated out of a chaparral about twenty yards
behind Hopalong, who grinned pleasantly when he heard it. Now he knew
where Johnny was, and now he had the whip hand without touching his
guns; while the youngster was not in sight he was all the more
dangerous, since he presented no target. Johnny knew this and was
greatly pleased thereby, and he was more than pleased by the way
Hopalong had been talking.

The effect of the singing was instant and marked on Meeker and his
companion, for they not only stopped suddenly and swore, but began to
back away, glancing around in an endeavor to locate the joker in the
deck. This they failed to do because Johnny was far too wise to
advertise his exact whereabouts. Meeker looked at Curley and Curley
looked at Meeker, both uneasy and angry.

"As I was sayin' before th' concert began," Hopalong remarked,
laughing shortly, "it's a pass to h--l if you crowd me too much. Now,
Meeker, you'll listen to me an' I'll tell you what I didn't have time
to say before: I told that shifty-eyed mud-image of a Greaser that
th' next herd of yourn to cross th' line should be brought in by you,
'less you was scared to run th' risks yore men had to take. He said
you'd kill me for that message, an' I told him you knew where you
could find me. Now about Doc: When a man pulls a gun on me he wants to
be quicker than _he_ was or he'll shore get hurt. I could 'a killed
him just as easy as to plug his gun arm, an' just as easy as I could
'a plugged both of you if you pulled on me. You came up here looking
for my scalp an' if you still wants it I'll go away from th' song bird
in the chaparral an' give you th' chance. I'd ruther let things stay
as they are, though if you wants, I'll take both you an' Curley,
half-mile run together, with Colts."

"No, I didn't come up here after your scalp, but I got mad after I
found you. How long is this going to last? I won't stand for it much
longer, nohow."

"You'll have to see Buck. I'm obeyin' orders, which are to hold th'
line against you, which I'll do."

"H'm!" replied Meeker, and then: "Do you know my girl?"

Hopalong thought quickly. "Why, I've seen her ridin' around some. But
why?"

"She says she knows you," persisted Meeker, frowning.

The frown gave Hopalong his cue, but he hardly knew what to say, not
knowing what she had said about it.

"Hey, you!" he suddenly cried to Curley. "Keep yore hand from that
gun!"

"I didn't--"

"You're lying! Any more of that an' I'll gimlet you!"

"What in h--l are you doing, Curley?" demanded Meeker, the girl
question out of his mind instantly. He had been looking closely at
Hopalong and didn't know that Curley was innocent of any attempt to
use his Colt.

"I tell--"

"Get out of here! I've wasted too much time already. Go home, where
that gun won't worry you. You, too, Meeker! Bring an imitation bad-man
up here an' sayin' you didn't want my scalp! Flit!"

"I'll go when I'm d----d good and ready!" retorted Meeker, angry
again. "You're too blasted bossy, you are!" he added, riding towards
the man who had shot Doc.

     A-looking for some place to land----

floated out of the chaparral and he stiffened in the saddle and
stopped.

"Come on, Curley! We can't lick pot-shooters. An' let that gun alone!"

"D--n it! I tell you I wasn't going for my gun!" Curley yelled.

"Get out of here!" blazed Hopalong, riding forward.

They rode away slowly, consulting in low voices. Then the foreman
turned and looked back. "You better be careful how you shoot my
punchers! They ain't all like Doc, an' they ain't all Greasers,
neither."

"Then you're lucky," Hopalong retorted. "You keep yore cows on yore
side an' we won't hurt none of yore outfit."

When they had gone Hopalong wheeled to look for Johnny and saw him
crawling out of a chaparral, dragging a rifle after him. He capered
about, waving the rifle and laughing with joy and Hopalong had to
laugh with him. When they were rid of the surplus of the merriment
Johnny patted the rifle. "Reckon they was shore up against a marked
deck that time! Did you see 'em stiffen when I warbled? Acted like
they had roped a puma an' didn't know what to do with it. Gee, it was
funny!"

"You're all right, Kid," laughed Hopalong. "It was yore best play--you
couldn't 'a done better."

"Shore," replied Johnny. "I had my sights glued to Curley's shirt
pocket, an' he'd been plumb disgusted if he'd tried to do what you
said he did. I couldn't 'a missed him with a club at that range. I
nearly died when you pushed Meeker's girl question up that blind
canyon. It was a peach of a throw, all right. Bet he ain't remembered
yet that he didn't get no answer to it. We're going to have some
blamed fine times down here before everything is settled, ain't we?"

"I reckon so, Kid. I'm going to leave you now an' look around by West
Arroyo. You hang around th' line."

"All right--so long."

"Can you catch yore cayuse?"

"Shore I can; he's hobbled," came the reply from behind a spur of the
chaparral. "_Stand still, you hen!_ All right, Hoppy."

Johnny cantered away and, feeling happy, began, singing:

     Adown th' road, an' gun in hand,
       Comes Whiskey Bill, mad Whiskey Bill;
     A-looking for some place to land
       Comes Whiskey Bill.
     An' everybody'd like to be
     Ten miles away behind a tree
     When on his joyous, achin' spree
       Starts Whiskey Bill.

     Th' times have changed since you made love,
       Oh, Whiskey Bill, oh, Whiskey Bill;
     Th' happy sun grinned up above
       At Whiskey Bill.
     An' down th' middle of th' street
     Th' sheriff comes on toe-in feet,
     A-wishing for one fretful peek
       At Whiskey Bill.

     Th' cows go grazin' o'er th' lea--
       Pore Whiskey Bill, pore Whiskey Bill;
     An' aching thoughts pour in on me
       Of Whiskey Bill.
     Th' sheriff up an' found his stride,
     Bill's soul went shootin' down th' slide--
     How are things on th' Great Divide,
       Oh, Whiskey Bill?



CHAPTER VIII

ON THE EDGE OF THE DESERT


Thunder Mesa was surrounded by almost impenetrable chaparrals,
impenetrable to horse and rider except along certain alleys, but not
too dense for a man on foot. These stretched away on all sides as far
as the eye could see and made the desolate prospect all the more
forbidding. It rose a sheer hundred feet into the air, its sides
smooth rock and affording no footing except a narrow, precarious ledge
which slanted up the face of the southern end, too broken and narrow
to permit of a horse ascending, but passable to a man.

The top of the mesa was about eight acres in extent and was rocky and
uneven, cut by several half-filled fissures which did not show on the
walls. Uninviting as the top might be considered it had one feature
which was uncommon, for the cataclysm of nature which had caused this
mass of rock to tower above the plain had given to it a spring which
bubbled out of a crack in the rock and into a basin cut by itself;
from there it flowed down the wall and into a shallow depression in
the rock below, where it made a small water hole before flowing
through the chaparrals, where it sank into the sand and became lost
half a mile from its source.

At the point where the slanting ledge met the top of the mesa was a
hut built of stones and adobe, its rear wall being part of a
projecting wall of rock. Narrow, deep loopholes had been made in the
other walls and a rough door, massive and tight fitting, closed the
small doorway. The roof, laid across cedar poles which ran from wall
to wall, was thick and flat and had a generous layer of adobe to repel
the rays of the scorching sun. Placed as it was the hut overlooked the
trail leading to it from the plain, and should it be defended by
determined men, assault by that path would be foolhardy.

On the plain around the mesa extended a belt of sparse grass, some
hundreds of feet wide at the narrowest point and nearly a mile at the
widest, over which numerous rocks and bowlders and clumps of chaparral
lay scattered. On this pasture were about three score cattle, most of
them being yearlings, but all bearing the brand HQQ and a diagonal ear
cut. These were being watched by a careless cowboy, although it was
belittling their scanty intelligence to suppose that they would leave
the water and grass, poor as the latter was, to stray off onto the
surrounding desert.

At the base of the east wall of the mesa was a rough corral of cedar
poles set on end, held together by rawhide strips, which, put on
green, tightened with the strength of steel cables when dried by the
sun. In its shadow another man watched the cattle while he worked in
a desultory way at repairing a saddle. Within the corral a man was
bending over a cow while two others held it down. Its feet were tied
and it was panting, wild-eyed and frightened. The man above it stepped
to a glowing fire a few paces away and took from it a hot iron, with
which he carefully traced over the small brand already borne by the
animal. With a final flourish he stepped back, regarding the work with
approval, and thrust the iron into the sand. Taking a knife from his
pocket he trimmed the V notch in its ear to the same slanting cut seen
on the cattle outside on the pasture. He tossed the bit of cartilage
from him, stepping back and nodding to his companions, who loosened
the ropes and leaped back, allowing the animal to escape.

Shaw, who had altered the H2 brand, turned to one of the others and
laughed heartily. "Good job, eh Manuel? Th' H2 won't know their cow
now!"

Manuel grinned. "_Si, si_; eet ees!" he cried. He was cook for the
gang, a bosom friend of Benito and Antonio, slight, cadaverous, and as
shifty-eyed as his friends. In his claw-like fingers he held a husk
cigarette, without which he was seldom seen. He spoke very little but
watched always, his eyes usually turned eastward. He seemed to be
almost as much afraid of the east as Cavalry was of the west, where
the desert lay. He ridiculed Cavalry's terror of the desert and
explained why the east was to be feared the more, for the eastern
danger rode horses and could come to them [Transcriber's note: Text
seems to be missing here in the original.] "Hope 'Tony fixes up that
line war purty soon, eh, Cavalry?" remarked Shaw, suddenly turning to
the third man in the group.

Cavalry was staring moodily towards the desert and did not hear him.

"Cavalry! Get that desert off yore mind! Do you want to go loco? Who's
going to take th' next drive an' bring back th' flour, you or
Clausen?"

"It's Clausen's turn next."

Manuel slouched away and began to climb the slanting path up the mesa.
Shaw watched him reflectively and laughed. "There he goes again. Beats
th' devil how scared he is, spending most of his time on th' lookout.
Why, he's blamed near as scared of them punchers as you are of that
skillet out yonder."

"We ain't got no kick, have we?" retorted Cavalry. "Ain't he looking
out for us at th' same time?"

"I don't know about that," Shaw replied, frowning. "I ain't got no
love for Manuel. If he saw 'em coming an' could get away he'd sneak
off without saying a word. It'd give him a chance to get away while we
held 'em."

"We'll see him go, then; there's only one way down."

"Oh, th' devil with him!" Shaw exclaimed. "What do you think of th'
chances of startin' that range war?"

"From what th' Greaser says it looks good."

"Yes. But he'll get caught some day, or night, an' pay for it with his
life."

Cavalry shrugged his shoulders. "I reckon so; but he's only a
Greaser," he said, coldly. "I'd ruther they'd get him out there than
to follow him here. If he goes, I hope it's sudden, so he won't have
time to squeal."

"He's a malignant devil, an' he hates that H2 outfit like blazes,"
replied Shaw. "An' now he's got a pizen grudge agin' th' Bar-20. He
might let his hate get th' upper hand an' start in to square things;
if he does that he'll over-reach, an' get killed."

"I reckon so; but he's clever as th' devil hisself."

"Well, if he gets too big-headed out here Hall will take care of him,
all right," Shaw laughed.

"I don't like th' Greasers he's saddled us with," Cavalry remarked.
"There's Manuel an' Benito. One of 'em is here all th' time an' close
to you, too, if you remember. Then he's going to put two or three on
th' range; why?"

"Suspects we'll steal some of his share, I reckon. An' if he gets in
trouble with us they'll be on his side. Oh, he's no fool."

"If he 'tends to business an' forgets his grudges it'll be a good
thing for us. That Bar-20 has got an awful number of cows. An' there's
th' H2, an' th' other two up north."

"We've tackled th' hardest job first--th' Bar-20," replied Shaw,
laughing. "I used to know some fellers what said that outfit couldn't
be licked. They died trying to prove themselves liars."

"Wonder how much money 'Tony totes around on him?" asked Cavalry.

"Not much; he's too wise. He's cached it somewhere. Was you reckonin'
on takin' it away from him at th' end?"

"No, no. I just wondered what he did with it."

The man at the gate looked up. "Here comes 'Tony."

Shaw and his companion rode forward to meet him.

"What's up?" cried Shaw.

"I have started th' war," Antonio replied, a cruel smile playing over
his sharp face. "They'll be fightin' purty soon."

"That's good," responded Shaw. "Tell us about it."

Antonio, with many gestures and much conceit, told of the trick he had
played on Hopalong, and he took care to lose no credit in the telling.
He passed lightly over the trouble between Doc and the Bar-20 puncher,
but intimated that he had caused it. He finished by saying: "You send
to th' same place to-morrow an' Benito'll have some cows for you.
They'll soon give us our chance, an' it'll be easy then."

"Mebby it will be easy," replied Shaw, "but that rests with you.
You've got to play yore cards plumb cautious. You've done fine so far,
but if you ain't careful you'll go to h--l in a hurry an' take us with
you. You can't fool 'em all th' time, for someday they'll get
suspicious an' swap ideas. An' when they do that it means fight for
us."

Antonio smiled and thought how easy it might be, if the outfits grew
suspicious and he learned of it in time, to discover tracks and other
things and tell Meeker he was sure there was organized rustling and
that all tracks pointed to Thunder Mesa. He could ride across the
border before any of his partners had time to confess and implicate
him. But he assured Shaw that he would be careful, adding: "No, I
won't make no mistakes. I hate 'em all too much to grow careless."

"That's just where you'll miss fire," the other rejoined. "You'll
pamper yore grouch till you forget everything else. You better be
satisfied to get square by taking their cows."

"Don't worry about that."

"All right. Here's yore money for th' last herd," he said, digging
down into his pocket and handing the Mexican some gold coins. "You
know how to get more."

Antonio took the money, considered a moment and then pocketed it,
laughing. "Good! But I mus' go back now. I won't be out here again
very soon; it's too risky. Send me my share by Benito," he called over
his shoulder as he started off.

The two rustlers watched him and Cavalry shook his head slowly. "I'm
plumb scairt he'll bungle it. If he does we'll get caught like rats in
a trap."

"If we're up there we can hold off a thousand," Shaw replied, looking
up the wall.

"Here comes Hall," announced the man at the gate.

The newcomer swept up and leaped from his hot and tired horse. "I
found them other ranches are keeping their men ridin' over th' range
an' along th' trails--I near got caught once," he reported. "We'll
have to be careful how we drives to th' construction camps."

"They'll get tired watchin' after a while," replied the leader. "'Tony
was just here."

"I don't care if he's in h--l," retorted Hall. "He'll peach on us to
save his mangy skin, one of these days."

"We've got to chance it."

"Where's Frisco?"

"Down to Eagle for grub to tide us over for a few days."

"Huh!" exclaimed Hall. "Everything considered we're goin' to fight
like th' devil out here someday. Down to Eagle!"

"We can fight!" retorted Shaw. "An' if we has to run for it, there's
th' desert."

"I'd ruther die right here fighting than on that desert," remarked
Cavalry, shuddering. "When I go I want to go quick, an' not be
tortured for 'most a week." He had an insistent and strong horror of
that gray void of sand and alkali so near at hand and so far across.
He was nervous and superstitious, and it seemed always to be calling
him. Many nights he had awakened in a cold sweat because he had
dreamed it had him, and often it was all he could do to resist going
out to it.

Shaw laughed gratingly. "You don't like it, do you?"

Hall smiled and walked towards the slanting trail.

"Why, it ain't bad," he called over his shoulder.

"It's an earthly hell!" Cavalry exclaimed. He glanced up the mesa
wall. "We can hold that till we starve, or run out of cartridges--then
what?"

"You're a calamity howler!" snapped Shaw. "That desert has wore a
saddle sore on yore nerves somethin' awful. Don't think about it so
much! It can't come to you, an' you ain't going to it," he laughed,
trying to wipe out the suggestion of fear that had been awakened in
him by the thought of the desert as a place of refuge. He had found a
wanderer, denuded of clothes, sweating blood and hopelessly mad one
day when he and Cavalry had ridden towards the desert; and the sight
of the unfortunate's dying agonies had remained with him ever since.
"We ain't going to die out here--they won't look for us where they
don't think there's any grass or water."

Fragments of Manuel's song floated down to them as they strode towards
the trail, and reassured that all would be well, their momentary
depression was banished by the courage of their hearts.

The desert lay beyond, quiet; ominous by its very silence and inertia;
a ghastly, malevolent aspect in its every hollow; patient,
illimitable, scorching; fascinating in its horrible calm, sinister,
forbidding, hellish. It had waited through centuries--and was still
waiting, like the gigantic web of the Spider of Thirst.



CHAPTER IX

ON THE PEAK


Hopalong Cassidy had the most striking personality of all the men in
his outfit; humorous, courageous to the point of foolishness, eager
for fight or frolic, nonchalant when one would expect him to be quite
otherwise, curious, loyal to a fault, and the best man with a Colt in
the Southwest, he was a paradox, and a puzzle even to his most
intimate friends. With him life was a humorous recurrence of
sensations, a huge pleasant joke instinctively tolerated, but not
worth the price cowards pay to keep it. He had come onto the range
when a boy and since that time he had laughingly carried his life in
his open hand, and although there had been many attempts to snatch it
he still carried it there, and just as recklessly.

Quick in decisions and quick to suspect evil designs against him and
his ranch, he was different from his foreman, whose temperament was
more optimistic. When Buck had made him foreman of the line riders he
had no fear that Meeker or his men would take many tricks, for his
faith in Hopalong's wits and ability was absolute. He had such faith
that he attended to what he had to do about the ranch house and did
not appear on the line until he had decided to call on Meeker and put
the question before him once and for all. If the H2 foreman did not
admit the agreement and promise to abide by it then he would be told
to look for trouble.

While Buck rode towards Lookout Peak, Hopalong dismounted at the line
house perched on its top and found Red Connors seated on the rough
bench by the door. Red, human firebrand both in hair and temper, was
Hopalong's loyal chum--in the eyes of the other neither could do
wrong. Red was cleaning his rifle, the pride of his heart, a
wicked-shooting Winchester which used the Government cartridge
containing seventy grains of powder and five hundred grains of lead.
With his rifle he was as expert as his friend was with the Colt, and
up to six hundred yards, its limit with accuracy, he could do about
what he wished with it.

"Hullo, you," said Red, pleasantly. "You looks peevish."

"An' you look foolish. What you doing?"

"Minding my business."

"Hard work?" sweetly asked Hopalong, carelessly seating himself on the
small wooden box which lay close to his friend.

"Hey, you!" cried Red, leaping up and hauling him away. "You bust them
sights an' you'll be sorry! Ain't you got no sense?"

"Sights? What are you going to do with 'em?"

"Wear 'em 'round my neck for a charm! What'd you reckon I'd do with
'em!"

"Didn't know. I didn't think you'd put 'em on that thing," Hopalong
replied, looking with contempt at his friend's rifle. "Honest, you
ain't a-goin' to put 'em on that lead ranch, are you? You're like th'
Indians--want a lot of shots to waste without re-loadin'."

"I ain't wasting no shots, an' I'm going to put sights on that lead
ranch, too. These old ones are too coarse," Red replied, carefully
placing the box out of danger. "Now you can sit down."

"Thanks; please can I smoke?"

Red grunted, pushed down the lever of the rifle, and began to
re-assemble the parts, his friend watching the operation. When Red
tried to slip the barrel into its socket Hopalong laughed and told him
to first draw out the magazine, if he wanted to have any success.

The line foreman took a cartridge from the pile on the bench and
compared it with one which he took from his belt, a huge, 45-caliber
Sharps special, shooting five hundred and fifty grains of lead with
one hundred and twenty grains of powder out of a shell over three
inches long; a cartridge which shot with terrific force and for a
great distance, the weight of the large ball assuring accuracy at long
ranges. Beside this four-inch cartridge the Government ammunition
appeared dwarfed.

"When are you going to wean yoreself from popping these musket caps,
Red?" he asked, tossing the smaller cartridge away and putting his own
back in his belt.

"Well, you've got gall!" snorted Red, going out for his cartridge.
Returning with it he went back to work on his gun, his friend laughing
at his clumsy fingers.

"Yore fingers are all thumbs, an' sore at that."

"Never mind my fingers. Have you seen Johnny around?"

"Yes; he was watching one of them new H2 Greasers. He'll go off th'
handle one of these days, for he hates Greasers worse'n I do, an' that
coffee face'll drive him to gun-play. He reminds me a whole lot of a
bull-pup chained with a corral-ful of cats when there's Greasers
around."

Red laughed and nodded. "Where's Lanky?"

"Johnny said he was at Number Four fixin' that saddle again. He ain't
done nothin' for th' last month but fix it. Purty soon there won't be
none of it left to fix."

"There certainly won't!"

"His saddle an' yore gun make a good pair."

"Let up about the gun. You can't say nothin' more about it without
repeatin' yoreself."

"It's a sawed-off carbine. I'd ruther have a Spencer any day."

"You remind me a whole lot of a feller I once knowed," Red retorted.

"That so?" asked Hopalong, suspiciously. "Was he so nice?"

"No; he was a fool," Red responded, going into the house.

"Then that's where you got it, for they say it's catching."

Red stuck his head out of the door. "On second thought you remind me
of another feller."

"You must 'a knowed some good people."

"An' he was a liar."

"Hullo, Hop Wah!" came from the edge of the hilltop and Hopalong
wheeled to see Skinny Thompson approaching.

"What you doing?" Skinny asked, using his stock question for beginning
a conversation.

"Painting white spots on pink elephants!"

"Where's Red?"

"In th' shack, rubbin' 'em off again."

"Johnny chased that Greaser off'n th' ranch," Skinny offered,
grinning.

"Good for him!" cried Hopalong.

"Johnny's all right--here comes Buck," Red said, coming out of the
house. "Johnny's with him, too. Hullo, Kid!"

"Hullo, Brick-top!" retorted Johnny, who did not like his nickname. No
one treated him as anything but a boy and he resented it at times.

"Did he chase you far?" Hopalong queried.

"I'd like to see anybody chase me!"

Buck smiled. "How are things down here?"

Hopalong related what had occurred and the foreman nodded. "I'm going
down to see Meeker--he's th' only man who can tell me what we're to
look for. I don't want to keep so many men down here. Frenchy has got
all he can handle, an' I want somebody up in Two. So long."

"Let me an' Red go with you, Buck," cried Hopalong.

"Me, too!" exclaimed Johnny, excitedly.

"You stay home, an' don't worry about me," replied the foreman, riding
off.

"I don't like to see him go alone," Hopalong muttered. "He may get a
raw deal down there. But if he does we'll wipe 'em off'n th' earth."

"Mamma! Look there!" softly cried Johnny, staring towards the other
side of the plateau, where Mary Meeker rode past. Red and Skinny were
astonished and Johnny and Hopalong pretended to be; but all removed
their sombreros while she remained in sight. Johnny was watching
Hopalong's face, but when Red glanced around he was staring over the
hill.

"Gosh, ain't she a ripper!" he exclaimed softly.

"She is," admitted Skinny. "She shore is."

Hopalong rubbed his nose reflectively and turned to Red. "Did you ever
notice how pretty a freckle is?"

Red stared, for he had only toleration for the fair sex, and his
friend continued:

"Take a purty girl an' stick a freckle on her nose an' it sort of
takes yore breath."

Red grinned. "I ain't never took a purty girl an' stuck a freckle on
her nose, so I can't say."

Hopalong flushed at the laughter and Skinny cried, joyously: "She's
got two of us already! Meeker's got us licked if he'll let her show
herself once in a while. Oh, these young fellers! Nothing can rope
'em so quick as a female, an' th' purtier she is th' quicker she can
do it."

A warning light came into Hopalong's eyes. "Nobody in this outfit'll
go back on Buck for all th' purty women in th' world!"

"Good boy!" thought Johnny.

"We've got to watch th' Kid, just th' same," laughed Skinny.

"I'll knock yore head off!" cried Johnny. "You're sore 'cause you know
you ain't got no chance with women while me an' Hoppy are around!"

Red looked critically at Hopalong and snickered. "If we've got to look
like him to catch th' women, thank God we don't want 'em!"

"Is that so!" retorted Hopalong.

"Say," drawled Skinny. "Wouldn't th' Kid look nice hobbled with
matrimony? That is, after he grows up."

"You go to th' devil!"

"Gee, Kid, you look bloodthirsty," laughed Red. "You can fool them
Greasers easy if you looks like that."

"You go to," Johnny retorted, swinging into the saddle. "I'm going
along th' line to see what's loose."

"I'll lick you when I see you again!" shouted Red, grinning.

Johnny turned and twirled his fingers at his red-haired friend. "Yah,
you ain't man enough!"

"Johnny's gettin' more hungry for a fight every day," Hopalong
remarked. "He's itching for one."

"So was you a few years back, an' you ain't changed none," replied
Red. "You used to ride around looking for fights."

"To hear you talk, anybody'd think you was a Angel of Peace," Hopalong
retorted.

"One's as bad as th' other, so shut up," Skinny remarked, going into
the house for a drink.



CHAPTER X

BUCK VISITS MEEKER


As Buck rode south he went over the boundary trouble in all its
phases, and the more he thought about it the firmer his resolution
grew to hold the line at any cost. He had gone to great expense and
labor to improve the water supply in the valley and he saw no reason
why the H2 could not do the same; and to him an agreement was an
agreement, and ran with the land. What Meeker thought about it was not
the question--the point at issue was whether or not the H2 could take
the line and use the valley, and if they could they were welcome to
it.

But while there was any possibility for a peaceable settlement it
would be foolish to start fighting, for one range war had spread to
alarming proportions and had been costly to life and property. Then
there was the certainty that once war had begun, rustling would
develop. But, be the consequences what they might, he would fight to
the last to hold that which was rightfully his. He was not going to
Meeker to beg a compromise, or to beg him to let the valley alone; he
was riding to tell the H2 foreman what he could expect if he forced
matters.

When he rode past the H2 corrals he was curiously regarded by a group
of punchers who lounged near them, and he went straight up to them
without heeding their frowns.

"Is Meeker here?"

"No, he ain't here," replied Curley, who was regarded by his
companions as being something of a humorist.

"Where is he?"

"Since you asks, I reckon he's in th' bunk house," Curley replied.
"Where he ought to be," he added, pointedly, while his companions
grinned.

"That's wise," responded Buck. "He ought to stay there more often. I
hope his cows will take after him. Much obliged for th' information,"
he finished, riding on.

"His cows an' his punchers'll do as they wants," asserted Curley,
frowning.

"Excuse me. I reckoned _he_ was boss around here," Buck apologized, a
grim smile playing about his lips. "But you better change that 'will'
to 'won't' when you mean th' valley."

"I mean _will_!" Curley retorted, leaping to his feet. "An' what's
more, I ain't through with that game laig puncher of yourn, neither."

Buck laughed and rode forward again. "You have my sympathy, then," he
called over his shoulder.

Buck stopped before the bunk house and called out, and in response to
his hail Jim Meeker came and stood in the door.

The H2 foreman believed he was right, and he was too obstinate to
admit that there was any side but his which should be considered. He
wanted water and better grass, and both were close at hand. Where he
had been raised there had been no boundaries, for it had been free
grass and water, and he would not and could not see that it was any
different on his new range. He had made no agreement, and if one had
been made it did not concern him; it concerned only those who had made
it. He did not buy the ranch from the old owners, but from a
syndicate, and there had been nothing said about lines or
restrictions. When he made any agreements he lived up to them, but he
did not propose to observe those made by others.

"How'dy, Meeker," said Buck, nodding.

"How'dy, Peters; come in?"

"I reckon it ain't worth while. I won't stay long," Buck replied. "I
came down to tell you that some of yore cows are crossing our line.
They're gettin' worse every day."

"That so?" asked Meeker, carelessly.

"Yes."

"Um; well, what's th' reason they shouldn't? An' what is that 'line,'
that we shouldn't go over it?"

"Dawson, th' old foreman of th' Three Triangle, told you all about
that," Buck replied, his whole mind given to the task of reading what
sort of a man he had to deal with. "It's our boundary; an' yourn."

"Yes? But I don't recognize no boundary. What have they got to do with
me?"

"It has this much, whether you recognize it or not: It marks th' north
limit of yore grazin'. _We_ don't cross it."

"Huh! You don't have to, while you've got that crick."

"We won't have th' crick, nor th' grass, either, if you drive yore
cows on us. That valley is our best grazing, an' it ain't in th'
agreement that you can eat it all off."

"What agreement?"

"I didn't come down here to tell you what you know," Buck replied,
slowly. "I came to tell you to keep yore Greasers an' yore cows on
yore own side, that's whatever."

"How do you know my cows are over there?"

"How do I know th' sun is shining?"

"What do you want me to do?" Meeker asked, leaning against the house
and grinning.

"Hold yore herds where they belong. Of course some are shore to stray
over, but strays don't count--I ain't talkin' about them."

"Well, I've punched a lot of cows in my day," replied Meeker, "an'
over a lot of range, but I never seen no boundary lines afore. An'
nobody ever told me to keep on one range, if they knowed me. I've run
up against a wire fence or two in th' last few years, but they didn't
last long when I hit 'em."

"If you want to know what a boundary line looks like I can show you.
There's a plain trail along it where my men have rode for years."

"So you say; but I've got to have water."

"You've got it; twenty miles of river. An' if you'll put down a well
or two th' Jumping Bear won't go dry."

"I don't know nothing about wells," Meeker replied. "Natural water's
good enough for me without fooling with wet holes in th' ground."

"No; but, by G-d, yo're willin' enough to use them what I put down! Do
you think I spent good time an' money just to supply _you_ with water?
Why don't you get yore own, 'stead of hoggin' mine!"

"There's water enough, an' it ain't yourn, neither."

"It's mine till somebody takes it away from me, an' you can gamble on
that."

"Oh, I reckon you'll share it."

"I reckon I won't!" Buck retorted. "Look here; my men have held that
range for many years against all kinds of propositions an' didn't get
pushed into th' discard once; an' they'll go right on holding it. Hell
has busted loose down here purty often during that time, but we've
allus roped an' branded it; an' we hain't forgot how!"

"Well, I don't want no trouble, but I've got to use that water, an' my
men are some hard to handle."

"You'll find mine worse to handle before you gets through," Buck
rejoined. "They're restless now, an' once they start, all h--l can't
stop 'em." Meeker started to reply, but Buck gave him no chance. "Do
you know why I haven't driven you back by force? It wasn't because I
figgered on what _you'd_ do. It was on account of th' rustling that'll
blossom on this range just as soon as we get too busy to watch things.
That's why, but if yo're willing to take a chance with cow thieves, I
am."

"I'm willing. I've got to have water on my northwest corner," Meeker
replied. "An' I'm going to have it! If my cows get on yore private
reservation, it's up to you to drive 'em off; but I wouldn't be none
hasty doing it if I was you. You see, my men are plumb touchy."

"That's final, is it?"

"I ain't never swallered nothing I ever said."

"All right. I can draw on forty men to fill up gaps, an' I'll do it
before I let any range jumper cheat me out of what's mine. When you
buck that line, come ready for trouble."

"Yore line'll burn you before you get through pampering it," retorted
Meeker, angrily.

"So? We'll pamper anybody that tries to keep us from pampering our
line. If there are any burns they'll not be salved in _our_ bunk
house. So long."

Meeker laughed, stretched, and slipped his thumbs in the arm-holes of
his vest, watching the Bar-20 foreman ride away. Then he frowned and
snapped his fingers angrily. "We'll keep you busy on yore 'line' when
I get ready to play th' cards I'm looking for!" he exclaimed. "Th'
gall of him! Telling me I can't pasture where I wants! By G-d, I'll be
told I'm using his sunlight an' breathing his air!"

He stepped forward. "Curley! Chick! Dan!"

A moment later the three men stood before him.

"What is it, Jim?" asked Curley.

"You fellers drive north to-morrow. Pick up th' stragglers an' herd
'em close to that infernal line. Don't drive 'em over till I tell you,
but don't let none stray south again; savvy? If they want to stray
north it's none of our business."

"Good!"

"Fine!"

"That's th' way to talk!"

"Don't start nothing, but if trouble comes yore way take care of
yoreselves," Meeker remarked. "I'm telling you to herd up on our north
range, that's all."

"Shore; we'll do it!" laughed Curley.

"Is that house on th' peak guarded?" Meeker asked.

"Somebody's there most of th' time," replied Dan Morgan.

"Yes; it's their bunk house now," explained Chick.

"All right; don't forget to-morrow."



CHAPTER XI

THREE IS A CROWD


When Buck reached the line on his return Hopalong was the first man he
met and his orders were to the point: "Hold this line till h--l
freezes, drive all H2 cows across it, an' don't start a fight; but be
shore to finish any that zephyrs up. Keep yore eyes open."

Hopalong grinned and replied that he would hold the line that long and
then skate on the ice, that any cow found trying to cross would get
indignant, and that he and trouble were old friends. Buck laughed and
rode on.

"Red Eagle, old cayuse!" cried the line rider, slapping the animal
resoundingly. "We're shore ready!" And Red Eagle, to show how ready he
was to resent such stinging familiarities, pitched viciously and bit
at his rider's leg.

"Hit her up, old devil!" yelled Hopalong, grabbing his sombrero and
applying the spurs. Red Eagle settled back to earth and then shot
forward at top speed along the line trail, bucking as often as he
could.

It was not long before Hopalong saw a small herd of H2 cows on Bar-20
land and he rode off to head them. When he got in front of the herd he
wheeled and dashed straight at it, yelling and firing his Colt, the
horse squealing and pitching at every jump.

"Ki-yi, yeow-eow-eow-eow!" he yelled, and the herd, terror-stricken,
wheeled and dashed towards their ranch. He followed to the line and
saw them meet and terrorize another herd, and he gleefully cried that
it would be a "shore 'nuf stampede."

"Look at 'em go, old Skyrocket," he laughed. The horse began to pitch
again but he soon convinced it that play time had passed.

"You old, ugly wart of a cayuse!" he cried, fighting it viciously as
it reared and plunged and bit. "Don't you know I can lick four like
you an' not touch leather! There, that's better. If you bite me again
I'll kick yore corrugations in! But we made 'em hit th' high trail,
didn't we, old hinge-back?"

He looked up and stiffened, feeling so foolish that he hardly knew
enough to tear off his sombrero, for before him, sitting quietly in
her saddle and looking clean through him, was Mary Meeker, a
contemptuous firmness about her lips.

"Good-afternoon, Miss Meeker," he said, wondering how much she had
seen and heard.

"I'll not spoil yore fun," she icily replied, riding away.

He stared after her until she had ridden around a chaparral and out of
his sight, and he slammed his sombrero on the ground and swore.

"D--n th' luck!"

Then he spurred to overtake her and when he saw her again she was
talking to Antonio, who was all smiles.

"Coffee-colored galoot!" Hopalong muttered, savagely. "I'll spill him
all over hisself some day, th' squint-eyed mud-image! Th' devil with
him, if he don't like my company he can amble."

He swept up to them, his hair stirred by the breeze and his right hand
resting on the butt of his Colt. Antonio was talking when he arrived,
but he had no regard for "Greasers" and interrupted without loss of
time.

"Miss Meeker," he began, backing his horse so he could watch the
Mexican. "I shore hope you ain't mad. Are you?"

She looked at him coldly, and her companion muttered something in
Spanish; and found Hopalong's eyes looking into his soul, which hushed
the Spanish.

"You talk United States if you've got anything to say, which you
ain't," Hopalong commanded and then turned to the woman. "I'm shore
sorry you heard me. I didn't think you was anywhere around."

"Which accounts for you terrorizing our cows an' calves," she
retorted. "An' for trying to start a stampede."

Antonio stiffened at this, but did nothing because Hopalong was
watching him.

"You ought to be ashamed of yoreself!" she cried, her eyes flashing
and deep color surging into her cheeks. "You had no right to treat
them calves that way, or to start a stampede!"

"I didn't try to start no stampede, honest," he replied, fascinated by
the color playing across her face.

"You did!" she insisted, vehemently. "You may think it's funny to
scare calves, but it ain't!"

"I was in a hurry," he replied, apologetically. "I shore didn't think
nothing about th' calves. They was over on us an' I had to drive 'em
back before I went on."

"You have no right to drive 'em back," she retorted. "They have every
right to graze where th' grass is good an' where they can get water.
They can't live without water."

"They shore can't," he replied in swift accord, as if the needs of
cattle had never before crossed his mind. "But they can get it at th'
river."

"You have no right to drive 'em away from it!"

"I ain't going to argue none with you, Miss," he responded. "My orders
are to drive 'em back, which I'll do."

"Do you mean to tell me that you'll keep them from water?" she
demanded, her eyes flashing again.

"It ain't my fault that yore men don't hold 'em closer to th' river,"
he replied. "There's water a-plenty there. Yore father's keeping 'em
on a dry range."

"Don't say anything about my father," she angrily retorted. "He knows
his business better'n you can tell it to him."

"I'm sorry if I've gone an' said anything to make you mad," he
earnestly replied. "I just wanted to show you that I'm only obeying
orders. I don't want to argue with you."

"I didn't come here to argue," she quickly retorted. "I don't want you
to drive our calves so hard, that's all."

"I'll be plumb tender with 'em," he assured her, grinning. "An' I
didn't try to scare that other herd, honest."

"I saw you trying to scare them just before you saw me."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, chuckling as he recalled his fight with Red Eagle.
"That was all th' fault of this ornery cayuse. He got th' idea into
his fool head that he could throw me, so me an' him had it out right
there."

She had been watching his face while he spoke and she remembered that
he had fought with his horse, and believed that he was telling the
truth. Then, suddenly, the humorous side struck her and brought a
smile to her face. "I'm sorry I didn't understand," she replied in a
low voice.

"Then you ain't mad no more?" he asked eagerly.

"No; not a bit."

"I'm glad of that," he laughed, leaning forward. "You had me plumb
scared to death."

"I didn't know I could scare a puncher so easy, 'specially you," she
replied, flushing. "But where's yore sombrero?"

"Back where I throwed it," he grinned.

"Where you threw it?"

"Shore. I got sore when you rode away, an' didn't care much what
happened," he replied, coolly. Then he transfixed the Mexican with his
keen eyes. "If yo're so anxious to get that gun out, say so or do it,"
he said, slowly. "That's th' second time."

Mary watched them breathlessly, but Hopalong didn't intend to have any
fighting in her presence.

"You let it alone before I take it away from you," he said. "An' I
reckon you better pull out--you ain't needed around here. Go on,
flit!"

Antonio glanced at Mary for orders and she nodded her head. "I don't
need you; go."

Hopalong watched him depart and turned to his companion. "What's
eating him, anyhow?"

"I don't know. I never saw him act that way before."

"H'm. I reckon I know; but he don't want to act that way again," he
said, decisively. "Greasers are shore funny animals."

"All men are funny," she replied. "Th' idea of being scared by me when
you ain't afraid of a man like him."

"That's a different kind of a scare, an' I never felt like that
before. It made me want to kill somebody. I don't want you to get mad
at me. I like you too much. You won't, will you?"

She smiled. "No."

"Never? No matter what happens?"

"Do you care?"

"Do I care! You know I do. Look at me, Mary!"

"No; don't come any nearer. I must go--good-bye."

"Don't go; let's ride around for a while."

"But 'Tony may tell Dad; an' if he does Dad'll come up here an' make
trouble. No, I must go."

"Tell 'Tony I want to see him," he replied. "If he says anything I'll
make him pay for it; an' he won't do it again."

"You mustn't do that! It would make things all th' worse."

"Will you come up again to-morrow?"

She laughed. "That'll be too soon, won't it?"

"Not by a blamed sight."

"Well, I don't know. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," he said, holding out his hand.

She gave him her hand and then tried to push him away. "No, no! No, I
say! I won't come any more if you do that!"

Despite her struggles he drew her to him and kissed her again and
again.

"I hate you! I hate you!" she cried, her face the color of fire. "What
made you do it! You've spoiled everything, an' I'll never see you
again! I hate you!" and she wheeled and galloped away.

He spurred in pursuit and when he had overtaken her he grasped her
horse by the bridle and stopped her. "Mary! Don't be mad--I love you!"

"Will you let me go?" she demanded, her face crimson.

"Not till you say yo're not mad."

"Please let me go," she replied, looking in his eyes, "I'm not mad at
you; but you mustn't do that again. Won't you let me go before some
one sees us?"

He released her and she impulsively put her hand on his arm. "Look
out--an' watch 'Tony," and she was gone.

"Yo're th' best girl ever rode a cayuse," he muttered, joyously.
"'Look out--an' watch 'Tony,'" he cried. "What do I care about that
Greaser? I can clean out th' whole gang now. Just let 'em start
something."

When he neared the place where his sombrero lay he saw Johnny in the
act of picking it up, and Johnny might take a notion to make a race
out of it before giving it up. "Hey, you!" Hopalong cried, dashing
forward, "gimme that cover!"

"Come an' get it; I don't want it," Johnny retorted. "What made you
lose it?"

"Fighting."

"Fighting! Fighting who?"

"Just fighting, Kid."

"Ah, come on an' tell me," begged Johnny. Then, like a shot: "Was it
that Greaser?"

"Nope."

"Who was it?"

"None of yore business," laughed Hopalong, delighted to be able to
tease him.

"All right!" Johnny cried. "You wait; th' boys will be glad to learn
about you an' her!"

Hopalong's hand shot out and gripped his friend's shoulder. "Don't you
say a word about it, do you hear?"

"Shore. I was only fooling," replied Johnny. "Think I tell them kind
of things! Yo're a big fool, you are."

"I was too quick, Kid. I know yo're a thoroughbred. An' now I'll tell
you who I was fighting. Its was Red Eagle. He got a fit of pitching,
an' I had to take it out of him."

"I might 'a knowed it," responded Johnny, eying the tracks in the
sand. "But I reckoned you might 'a had a run-in with that Greaser. I
was saving him for myself."

"Why do you hate him so much more'n th' other Greasers?"

"Never mind that now. I'll tell you after I get him."

"Have you seen Buck since he came back?"

"No; why?"

Hopalong told him what the foreman had said and his friend grinned.
"The good old days are coming back again, Hoppy!" he exulted. "Now I
can kick th' shirt off'n that Greaser, can't I, if he gets gay?"

"If he don't kick yourn off first."

"I'd like to see him try it; or you, either! Mebbe you'd like to try
it now?"

"Shoo, fly! Shoo, fly," laughed Hopalong.

"Where are you going now?" asked Johnny.

"Where I please."

"Shore. I knowed that. That's where you want to go," grinned Johnny.
"But where do you want to go?"

"Where I can't go now."

"Ah, shut up! Come on. I'll go with you."

"Well, I'm going east to tell th' fellers what Buck said."

"Go ahead. I'm with you," Johnny said, wheeling.

"I didn't ask you to come."

"I didn't ask you to go," retorted Johnny. "Here," he said, holding
out a cigar and putting another in his mouth. "Have a smoke; they're
all right."

"Where the devil did you get 'em?"

"Up in Number Five."

"In Number Five!"

"Shore. Frenchy, th' son-o'-a-gun, had three of 'em hid over th'
windy," Johnny explained. "I hooked 'em."

"So I reckoned; did you take 'em all?"

"Was you going up?"

"No; but did you?"

"Well, I looked good, but I didn't see none to leave."

"You wait till he finds it out," Hopalong warned.

"He won't do nothing," assured Johnny, easily. "Anyhow, yo're as
guilty as me. He ain't got no right to cache cigars when we can't get
to town for any. Besides, he's afraid of me."

"Scared of you! Oh, Lord, that's good!"

"Quit fooling an' get started," Johnny said, kicking his friend's
horse.

"You behave, or I'll get that Greaser to lick you good," threatened
Hopalong as he quieted Red Eagle.

"Huh! He don't like fights."

"How do you know?"

"Because my grub is his poison; get a-going."

They cantered eastward, driving back Meeker's cows whenever they were
found too close to the line or over it, and it was not long before
they made out Lanky riding towards them. He had not yet seen them and
Johnny eagerly proposed that they prepare an ambush and scare him.

"He don't scare, you fool," replied Hopalong. "A joke is a joke, but
there ain't no use getting shot at when you can't shoot back. No use
getting killed for a lark."

"He might shoot, mightn't he," Johnny laughed. "I didn't think about
that."

Lanky looked around, waved his hand and soon joined them. "I see yo're
taking care of th' Kid, Hopalong. Hullo, Kid."

"Go to blazes!" snorted Johnny.

"Has he been a good boy, Hoppy?"

"No more'n usual. He's looking for Antonio."

"_Again_?" asked Lanky, grinning. "Ain't you found him yet?"

"Ah, go on. I'll find him when I want him," Johnny retorted.

When Lanky had heard Buck's orders he frowned.

"We'll hold it all right. Wait for Billy, he'll be along purty soon. I
left him chasing some cows."

"Got yore saddle so it'll stay together for more'n ten minutes at a
time?" asked Johnny.

"I bought Billy's old one," Lanky replied. "Got anything to say about
it?"

Billy Williams, pessimist by nature and choice, rode up and joined
them and, laughing and joking, they rode towards the Peak, to see if
Buck had any further orders. But they had not gone far before Hopalong
stopped and thought. "You go on. I'll stay out here an' watch things."

"I'm with you, Hoppy," Johnny offered. "You fellers go on; me an'
Hopalong'll take care of th' line out here."

"All right," replied Lanky. "So long."

A few minutes later Johnny turned in his saddle. "Hey, Billy!" he
shouted.

"What?"

"Has Lanky paid you for that saddle, yet?"

"Shore; why?"

"Oh, nothing. But yo're lucky."

Billy turned and said something to Lanky and they cantered on their
way.

"Hey, Hoppy; don't you tell Frenchy about them cigars," Johnny
suddenly remarked some time later.



CHAPTER XII

HOBBLE BURNS AND SLEEPERS


The western part of the Bar-20 ranch was poor range and but few cattle
were to be found on it until Big Coulee had been reached. This portion
of the ranch fed quite a large number of cattle, many of which were
outlaws, but because of the heavy work demanded on the more fertile
southern and eastern sections it was the custom with Buck to pay
little attention to the Big Coulee herds; if a man rode up there once
in a while he was satisfied. This time it was Skinny who was to look
over the condition of affairs around Number Two, which was not far
from Big Coulee.

Detouring here and there he took his own time and followed the general
direction of the western line, and about four hours after he had
quitted the Peak he passed line house Number Two and shortly afterward
stopped on the rim of the coulee, a brush-grown depression of a score
of acres in extent, in which was a pond covering half an acre and fed
by springs on the bottom, its outlet being a deep gorge cut in the
soft stone. Half a mile from the pond the small stream disappeared in
the sand and was lost.

He rode through the coulee without seeing a single cow and an
exploration lasting over an hour resulted no better. Beyond a bear
track or two among the berry bushes he saw no signs of animal life.
This did not disturb him because he took it for granted that the herds
had wandered back to where the grass was better. Stopping at the line
house to eat, he mounted and rode towards the hills to report to
Hopalong.

Suddenly it struck him that he had seen no cow tracks in the mud
around the water hole and he began to hunt for cattle. Using Pete's
glasses constantly to sweep the plain for the missing herds, it was
not until he had reached a point half-way to the Peak that his search
was rewarded by seeing a calf far to the east of him. Watching it
until it stood out boldly to his sight he followed an impulse and rode
towards it to examine it at close range.

Upon getting near it he saw that it bore the V notch of the H2 cut in
its ear, and that it was not branded. He thought it strange that an H2
"sleeper" should be so far from home, without a mother to lead it
astray, and he roped it to look more closely at the notch. His opinion
was that it had been done very recently, for the cartilage had not yet
dried on the edges. Releasing the animal he mounted and started for
the line, muttering to himself.

As he swung into the line trail he saw a lame cow limping around a
thicket and he spurred forward, roped and threw it, this time giving
no thought to the ears, for its brand was that of the Bar-20. He
looked at the hocks and found them swollen and inflamed, and his
experience told him that it had been done by hobbles. This, to him,
explained why the calf was alone, and it gave him the choice of two
explanations for the hobbling and the newly cut ear notch on the calf.
Either the H2 was sleepering Bar-20 calves for their irons later on,
or rustlers were at work. It seemed incredible that any H2 puncher
should come that distance to make a few sleepers--but the herd had not
been to the water hole! He was greatly wrought up and it was none the
more pleasant to be unable to say where the blame lay. There was only
one thing to do and that was to scout around and try to find a clue to
the perpetrators--and, perhaps, catch the thieves at work. This proved
to be unfruitful until he came to North Hill, where he found a cow
dead from gunshot. He put spurs to his horse and rode straight for the
Peak, which he reached as night fell and as Hopalong, Red, Pete, and
Lanky were eating supper and debating the line conditions.

Skinny joined them and listened to the conversation, wordless, nodding
or shaking his head at the points made. When he had finished eating he
leaned back against his saddle and fumbled for tobacco and pipe,
gazing reflectively into the fire, at which he spat. Hopalong turned
in time to see the act and, knowing Skinny's peculiarities, asked
abruptly: "What's on yore mind, Skinny?"

"Little piece of h--l," was the slow reply, and it gained the
attention of the others at once. "I saw a H2 sleeper, up just above
th' Bend and half way between it an' th' line."

"That so!" exclaimed Hopalong.

"Long way from home--starting in young to ramble," Red laughed. "Lazy
trick, that sleepering."

"This here calf had a brand new V--hadn't healed yet," Skinny
remarked, lighting his pipe. "An' it didn't--_puff_--have
no--_puff_--mother," he added, significantly.

"Huh, weaned, you chump--but that fresh V is shore funny."

"Go on, Skinny," ordered Hopalong, eagerly.

"I found its mother an hour later--hobble-burned an' limping; an' it
wasn't no H2 cow, neither; it was one of ourn."

"Rustling!" cried Hopalong.

"Th' H2 is doing it," contradicted Red, quickly.

"They wouldn't take a chance like that," replied Hopalong.

"There ain't no rule for taking chances," Red rejoined. "Some men'll
gamble with h--l itself--you, for instance, in gun-play."

"What else?" demanded Hopalong of Skinny.

"That Big Coulee herd ain't up there, an' hain't been near th' water
hole for so long th' mud's smooth around the edges of th' pond; kin
savvy?"

"It's rustlers, by G-d!" cried Hopalong, looking triumphantly at Red.

"An' I found a dead cow--shot--on th' upper end of North Hill," Skinny
added.

"H2!" Red shouted. "They're doing it!"

"Yes, likely; it was an H2 cow," Skinny placidly explained.

"Why in h--l can't you tell things in a herd, 'stead of stringin' 'em
out like a stiff reata trailing to soften!" Red cried. "Yo're the
damndest talker that ever opened a mouth!"

Skinny took the pipe from his mouth and looked at Red.

"I allus get it all out, don't I? What are you kicking about?"

"Yes, you do; like a five thousand herd filtering through a two-foot
gate!"

"Mebby th' herd drifted to th' valley," Pete offered.

"Mebby nothing!" Red retorted. "Why, we can't drive 'em down here
without 'em acting loco about it."

"Cows are shore fool animals," Pete suggested in defence.

"There's more than cows that are fool animals," Red snapped, while
Skinny laughed to see Pete get his share.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sixteen miles to the southeast of the Peak, Meeker sat on a soap box
and listened, with the rest of his outfit, to what Curley was
saying,--"an' when I got down a good ways south I found two young
calves bellering for their maws. They was sleepers; an' an hour later
I found them same maws bellering for them calves--they was limping
a-plenty an' their hocks looked burned--hobble burns."

Meeker mused for a moment and then arose. "You ride that range
regular, an' be cautious. Watch towards Eagle. If you catch any
sons-of-skunks gamboling reckless, an' they can't explain why they are
flitting over our range, shoot off yore gun accidental--there won't be
no inquest."



CHAPTER XIII

HOPALONG GROWS SUSPICIOUS


The eastern sky grew brighter and the dim morning light showed a group
of men at breakfast on the Peak. They already had been given their
orders and as soon as each man finished eating he strode off to where
his horse was picketed with the others, mounted, and rode away. Pete
had ridden in late the night before and was still sleeping in the
house, Hopalong not wishing to awaken him until it was absolutely
necessary.

Red Connors, riding back to the house from the horse herd, drew rein
for a final word. "I'm going out to watch that unholy drift of
Meeker's cows, just this side of th' half-way point. They was purty
thick last night when I rode in. I told Johnny to keep on that part of
th' line, for I reckon things will get too crowded for one man to
handle. Th' two of us can take care of 'em, all right. You knows where
you can find us if you need us."

"I don't like that drift, but I'll stay here an' give Pete an hour
more sleep," Hopalong replied. "Buck didn't know just when he'd be
down again, but I'm looking for him before noon, just th' same."

"Well, me an' Johnny'll stop th' drift. So long," and Red cantered
away, whistling softly.

Hopalong kicked out the fire and walked restlessly around the plateau,
puzzled by the massing of the H2 cows along the line. The play was
obvious enough on its face, for it meant that Meeker, tired of
inaction, had decided to force the issue by driving into the valley.
But Hopalong, suspicious to a degree, was not satisfied with that
solution.

On more than one occasion he had searched past the obvious and found
deeper motives, and to this ferment of thought he owed his life many
times. He, himself, essentially a schemer and trusting no one but the
members of his outfit, accused others of scheming and bent his mind to
outwit them. Buck often irritated him greatly, for the foreman,
optimistic and believing all men honest until they proved to be
otherwise, held that Meeker thought himself to be in the right and so
was justified in his attempt to use the valley. Hopalong believed that
Meeker was not square, that he knew he had no right to the valley and
was trying to steal range; he maintained that the wiser way was to
believe all men crooked and put the burden on them of proving
otherwise; then he was prepared for anything.

A better cow-man than Buck Peters never lived; he knew the cattle
industry thoroughly, was honest, fair, and fearless, maintained an
even temper and tried to avoid fighting until the last ditch had been
reached. But it was an indisputable fact that Hopalong Cassidy had
proved himself to be the best man on the ranch when danger threatened.
He grasped situations quickly and clearly and his companions looked to
him for suggestions when the sky was clouded by impending conflict.
Buck realized that his line-foreman was eminently better qualified to
handle the skirmish line than himself, that Hopalong could carry out
things which would fall flat if any one else attempted them. Back of
Buck's confidence was the pleasing knowledge that no man had ever yet
got in the first shot against Hopalong on an "even break," and that
when his puncher's gun exploded it was all over; this is why Hopalong
could, single-handed, win out in any reasonable situation.

While Hopalong turned the matter over in his mind he thought he saw a
figure move among the chaparrals far to the south and he whipped out
his glasses, peering long and steadily at the place. Then he put them
away and laughed softly. "You can't fool me, by G-d! I'll let you make
yore play--an' if Pete don't kill a few of you I'm a liar. Here are
th' shells--pick out th' pea."

Returning to the house he shook Pete. "Hey, get up!"

Pete bounded up, wide awake in an instant. "Yes?"

"Put on yore clothes an' come outside a minute," he ordered, going
out.

Pete finished buttoning his vest when he joined his friend, who was
pointing south. "Pete, they're playing for this house, an' I can't
stay--Red an' Johnny may need me any minute. Down there a Greaser is
watching this house. Meeker is massing his cows along th' line for two
reasons; he's trying to draw us away from here so he can get in, an'
he's going to push over th' line if he falls down here. You stay in
that shack. Don't leave it for a second, understand? Stop anybody that
comes up here if you have to kill him. But don't leave this house for
nothing, savvy?"

"Go ahead. I savvy."

Hopalong vaulted to his saddle and started away. "I'll get somebody to
help you as soon as I can," he called.

"Don't need anybody!" Pete shouted, going inside and barring the door.

Hopalong was elated by the way he had forestalled Meeker, and also
because it was Pete who guarded the house. He knew his companions only
as a man can know friends with whom he has lived for nearly a score of
years. Red was too good a fighter to be cooped up while trouble
threatened in the open; Johnny, rash and hot-tempered, could be
tempted to leave the house to indulge in personal combat if taunted
enough, and he, too, was too good a man in a _mêlée_ to remain on the
Peak. The man for the house was Pete, for he was accurate enough for
that short range, he was unemotional and did not do much thinking for
himself when it ran counter to his instructions; he had been told to
stay in the house and hold it, and that, Hopalong felt certain, he
would do.

"Pete'll hold 'em with one leg in th' air if they happen to be taking
a step when he sees 'em," he laughed.

But Pete was to be confronted with a situation so unexpected and of
such a nature that for once in his life he was going to forget
orders--and small blame to him.



CHAPTER XIV

THE COMPROMISE


It was night and on the H2 sickly, yellow lights gleamed from the
ranch houses. From the bunk house came occasional bursts of song, the
swinging choruses thundering out on the night air, deep-toned and
strong. In the foreman's quarters the clatter of dishes was soon
stilled and shortly afterward the light in the kitchen could be seen
no more. A girl stood in the kitchen door for a moment and then,
singing, went inside and the door closed. The strumming of a guitar
and much laughter came from Antonio's shack, for now he had Juan and
Sanchez to help him pass the time.

Meeker emerged from a corral, glanced above him for signs of the
morrow's weather, and then stood and gazed at the Mexican's shack.
Turning abruptly on his heel he strode to the bunk house and smiled
grimly as the chorus roared out, for he had determined upon measures
which might easily change the merriment to mourning before another day
passed. He had made up his mind to remain inactive no longer, but to
put things to the test--his outfit and himself against the Bar-20.

He entered the building and slamming the door shut behind him, waited
until the chorus was finished. When the last note died away he issued
his orders for the next day, orders which pleased his men, who had
chafed even more than he under the galling inaction, since they did
not thoroughly understand the reasons for it.

"I had them cows herded up north for th' last three days so they'd be
ready for us when we wanted 'em," he said, and then leaped at the door
and jerked it open, peering about outside. The guitar was still
strumming in the Mexican's shack and he recognized the voices of three
in the singing. Turning, he beckoned Doc Riley to him and the two
stepped outside, closing the door behind them. Great noise broke out
within the house as his orders were repeated and commented on. Meeker
and Doc moved to the corner of the building and consulted earnestly
for several minutes, the foreman gesticulating slowly.

"But Juan said they had a man to guard it," Doc replied.

"Yes; he told me," Meeker responded. "I'm going to fix that before I
go to bed--we've got to coax him out on some excuse. Once we get him
out of th' house we can cover him, an' th' rest'll be easy. I won't be
able to be with you--I'll have to stay outside where I can move around
an' look out for th' line trouble, an' where they can see me. But you
an' Jack can hold it once you get in. By G-d, you _must_ get in, an'
you _must_ hold it!"

"We'll do it if it's possible."

"That's th' way to talk. Th' boys seem pleased about it," Meeker
laughed, listening to the joy loose in the house.

"Pleased! They're tickled plumb to death," Doc cried. "They've got so
sore about having to keep their guns quiet that when they cut
loose--well, something's due to happen."

"I don't want that if there's any other way," Meeker replied
earnestly. "If this thing can be done without wholesale slaughter
we've got to do it that way. Remember, Doc, this whole country is
backing Peters. He's got thirteen men now, an' he can call on thirty
more in two days. Easy is th' way, easy."

"I'll spend th' next hour pounding that into their hot heads," Doc
replied. "They're itching for a chance to square up for everything.
They're some sore, been so for a couple of days, about that line house
being guarded--they get sore plumb easy now, you know."

"Well, good-night, Doc."

"Good-night, Jim."

Meeker went towards his own house and as he neared the kitchen door a
deep-throated wolf-hound bayed from the kennels, inciting a clamorous
chorus from the others. Meeker shouted and the noise changed to low,
deep, rumbling growls which soon became hushed. Chains rattled over
wood and the fierce animals returned to their grass beds to snarl at
each other. The frightened crickets took up their song again and
poured it on the silence of the night.

The foreman opened the door and strode through the kitchen and into
the living room, his eyes squinting momentarily because of the light.
His daughter was sitting in a rocking chair, sewing industriously, and
she looked up, welcoming him. He replied to her and, dexterously
tossing his sombrero on a peg in the wall where it caught and hung
swinging, walked heavily to the southern window and stood before it,
hands clasped behind his back, staring moodily into the star-stabbed
darkness. Down the wind came the faint, wailing howl of a wolf,
quavering and distant, and the hounds again shattered the peaceful
quiet. But he heard neither, so absorbed was he by his thoughts. Mary
looked at him for a moment and then took up her work again and resumed
sewing, for he had done this before when things had gone wrong, and
frequently of late.

He turned suddenly and in response to the movement she looked up,
again laying her sewing aside. "What it is?" she asked.

"Trouble, Mary. I want to talk to you."

"I'm always ready to listen, Daddy," she replied. "I wish you wouldn't
worry so. That's all you've done since we left Montana."

"I know; but I can't help it," he responded, smiling faintly. "But I
don't care much as long as I've got you to talk it over with. Yo're
like yore mother that way, Mary; she allus made things easy, somehow.
An' she knew more'n most women do about things."

"Yo're my own Daddy," she replied affectionately. "Now tell me all
about it."

"Well," he began, sitting on the table, "I'm being cheated out of my
rights. I find lines where none exist. I'm hemmed in from water, th'
best grazing is held from me, my cows are driven helter-skelter, my
pride hurt, an' my men mocked. When I say I must have water I'm told
to go to th' river for it, twenty miles from my main range, an' lined
with quicksands; an' yet there is water close to me, water enough for
double th' number of cows of both ranches! It is good, clean water,
unfailing an' over a firm bottom, flowing through thirty miles of th'
best grass valley in this whole sun-cursed section. Two hundred miles
in any direction won't show another as good. An' yet, I dassn't set my
foot in it--I can't drive a cow across that line!"

He paused and then continued: "I'm good an' sick of it all. I ain't
going to swaller it no longer, not a day. Peace is all right, but not
at th' price I'm paying! I'd ruther die fighting for what's mine than
put up with what I have since I came down here."

"What are you going to do?" she asked quietly.

"I'm going to have a force on that line by to-morrow night!" he cried,
gradually working himself into a temper. "_I'm_ going to hold them
hills, an' th' springs at th' bottom of 'em. _I'm_ going to use that
valley an' I'll fight until th' last man goes under!"

"Don't say that, Daddy," she quickly objected. "There ain't no line
worth yore life. What good will it do you when yo're dead? You can get
along without it if it comes to that. An' what'll happen to me if you
get killed?"

"No, girl," he replied. "You've held me back too long. I should 'a
struck in th' beginning, before they got so set. It would 'a been
easier then. I don't like range wars any more'n anybody, but it's
come, an' I've got to hold up my end--an' my head!"

"But th' agreement?" she queried, fearful for his safety. She loved
her father with all her heart, for he had been more than a father to
her; he had always confided in her and weighed her judgment; they had
been companions since her mother died, which was almost beyond her
memory; and now he would risk his life in a range war, a vindictive,
unmerciful conflict which usually died out when the last opponent
died--and perhaps he was in the wrong. She knew the fighting ability
of that shaggy, tight-lipped breed of men that mocked Death with
derisive, profane words, who jibed whether in _mêlée_ or duel with as
light hearts as if engaged in nothing more dangerous than dancing. And
she had heard, even in Montana, of the fighting qualities of the
outfit that rode range for the Bar-20. If they must be fought, then
let it be for the right principles and not otherwise. And there was
Hopalong!--she knew in her heart that she loved him, and feared it and
fought it, but it was true; and he was the active leader of his
outfit, the man who was almost the foreman, and who would be in the
thickest of the fighting. She didn't purpose to have him killed if he
was in the right, or in the wrong, either.

"Agreement!" he cried, hotly. "Agreement! I hear that every time I say
anything to that crowd, an' now you give it to me! Agreement be
d----d! Nason never said nothing about any agreement when he told me
he had found a ranch for me. He wouldn't 'a dealt me a hand like that,
one that'd give me th' worst of it in a show-down! He found out all
about everything before he turned over my check to 'em."

"But they say there is one, an' from th' way they act it looks that
way."

"I don't believe anything of th' sort! It's just a trick to hog that
grass an' water!"

"Hopalong Cassidy told me there was one--he told me all about it. He
was a witness."

"Hopalong h--l!" he cried, remembering the day that Doc had been shot,
and certain hints which Antonio had let fall.

"Father!" she exclaimed, her eyes flashing.

"Oh, don't mind me," he replied. "I don't know what I'm saying half
th' time. I'm all mixed up, now-a-days."

"I believe he was telling the truth--he wouldn't lie to me," she
remarked, decisively.

He looked at her sharply. "Well, am I to be tied down by something I
don't know about? Am I to swaller everything I hear? _I_ don't know
about no agreement, except what th' Bar-20 tells me. An' if there was
one it was made by th' Three Triangle, wasn't it?--an' not by Nason or
me? Am I th' Three Triangle? Am I to walk th' line on something I
didn't make? _I_ didn't make it!--oh, I'm tired arguing about it."

"Well, even if there wasn't no agreement you can't blame them for
trying to keep their land, can you?" she asked, idly fingering her
sewing. "The land is theirs, ain't it?"

"Did you ever hear of free grass an' free water?"

"I never heard of nothing else till I came down here," she admitted.
"But it may be different here."

"Well, it ain't different!" he retorted. "An' if it is it won't stay
so. What goes in Montanny will go down here. Anyhow, I don't want
their land--all I want is th' use of it, same as they have. But
they're hogs, an' want it all."

"They say it ain't big enough for their herds."

"Thirty-five miles long, and five miles wide, in th' valley alone, an'
it ain't big enough! Don't talk to me like that! You know better."

"I'm only trying to show it to you in every light," she responded.
"Mebby yo're right, an' mebby you ain't; that's what we've got to find
out. I don't want to think of you fightin', 'specially if yo're wrong.
Suppose yo're killed,--an' you might be. Ain't there some other way to
get what you want, if yo're determined to go ahead?"

"Yes, I might be killed, but I won't go alone!" he cried savagely.
"Fifty years, man an' boy, I've lived on th' range, taking every kick
of fortune, riding hard an' fightin' hard when I had to. I ain't no
yearling at any game about cows, girl."

"But can't you think of some other way?" she repeated.

"I've got to get that line house on th' hill," he went on, not
heeding her question. "Juan told me three days ago, that they've put a
guard in it now--but I'll have it by noon to-morrow, for I've been
thinking hard since then. An' once in it, they can't take it from me!
With that in my hands I can laugh at 'em, for I can drive my cows over
th' line close by it, down th' other side of th' hill, an' into th'
valley near th' springs. They'll be under my guns in th' line house,
an' let anybody try to drive 'em out again! Two men can hold that
house--it was built for defence against Indians. Th' top of th' hill
is level as a floor an' only two hundred yards to th' edge. Nobody can
cross that space under fire an' live."

"If they can't cross it an' live, how can _you_ cross it, when th'
house is guarded? An' when th' first shot is fired you'll have th'
whole outfit down on you from behind like wild fire. Then what'll you
do? You can't fight between two fires."

"By G-d, yo're right! Yo're th' brains of this ranch," he cried, his
eyes squinting to hide his elation. He paced back and forth, thinking
deeply. Five minutes passed, then ten, and he suddenly turned and
faced her, to unfold the plan he had worked out the day before. He had
been leading up to it and now he knew how to propose it. "I've got it.
I've got it! Not a shot, not a single shot!"

"Tell me," she said smiling.

He slowly unfolded it, telling her of the herds waiting to be driven
across the line to draw the Bar-20 men from the Peak, and of the part
she was to play. She listened quietly, a troubled frown on her face,
and when he had finished and asked her what she thought of it she
looked at him earnestly and slowly replied:

"Do you think that's fair? Do you want _me_ to do that?"

"What's unfair about it? They're yore enemies as much as they are
mine, ain't they? Ain't everything fair in love an' war, as th' books
say?"

"In war, perhaps; but not in love," she replied in a low voice,
thinking of the man who wore her flower.

"Now look here!" he cried, leaning forward. "Don't you go an' get soft
on any of that crowd! Do you hear?"

"We won't mix love an' war, Daddy," she said, decisively. "You take
care of yore end, that's war; an' let me run my part. I'll do what I
want to when it comes to falling in love; an' I'll help you to-morrow.
I don't want to do it, but I will; you've got to have th' line house,
an' without getting between two fires. I'll do it, Daddy."

"Good girl! Yo're just like yore mother--all grit!" he cried, going
towards the door. "An' I reckon I won't have to take no hand in _yore_
courting," he said, grabbing his sombrero. "Yo're shore able to run
yore own."

"But _promise_ me you won't interfere," she said, calmly, hiding her
triumph.

"It's a go. I'll keep away from th' sparking game," he promised. "I'm
going out to see th' boys for a minute," and the door slammed,
inciting the clamor of the kennels again, which he again hushed.
"D--n 'em!" he muttered, exultantly. "They tried to hog th' range, an'
then they want my girl! But they _won't_ hog th' range no more, an'
I'll put a stop to th' courting when she plays her cards to-morrow,
an' without having any hand in it. Lord, I win, every trick!" he
laughed.



CHAPTER XV

ANTONIO MEETS FRIENDS


Before daylight the next morning Antonio left the ranch and rode
south, bearing slightly to the west, so as not to leave his trail in
Curley's path. He was to meet some of Shaw's men who would come for
more cattle. When a dozen miles southwest of the ranch house he espied
them at work on the edge of an arroyo. They had a fire going and were
re-branding a calf. Far out on the plain was a dead cow, the calf's
mother, shot because they had become angered by its belligerency when
it had gone "on th' prod." They had driven cow and calf hard and when
they tried to separate the two the mother had charged viciously,
narrowly missing one of them, to die by a shot from the man most
concerned. Meanwhile the calf had run back over its trail and they had
roped it as it was about to plunge over the bank of the arroyo.

"You fools!" yelled Antonio, galloping towards them. "Don't you know
better'n to blot on this range! How many times have I told you that
Curley rides south!"

"He never gets this far west--we've watched him," retorted Clausen,
angrily.

"Is that any reason why he can't!" demanded the Mexican. "How do we
know what he'll do?"

"Yes!" rejoined Clausen. "An' I reckon he can find that steep-bank
hollow with th' rope gate, can't he? Suppose he finds th' herds you
holds in it for us--what then?"

"It's a whole lot farther west than here!" retorted Antonio, hotly.
"They never go to Little Muddy, an' if they do, that's a chance we've
got to take. But you can wait till you get to th' mesa before you
change brands, can't you!"

"Aw, close yore pie-sump!" cried Frisco. "Who th' devil is doing this,
anyhow? You make more noise than Cheyenne on th' Fourth of July!"

"What right have you fellers got to take chances an' hobble _me_ with
trouble?"

"Who's been doing all th' sleepering, hey?" sarcastically demanded
Dick Archer. "Let Meeker's gang see the God-forsaken bunch of sleepers
running on their range an' you'll be hobbled with trouble, all right."

Through laziness, carelessness, or haste calves might not be branded
when found with branded cows. Feeling was strong against the use of
the "running iron," a straight iron rod about eighteen inches long
which was heated and used as a pencil on the calf's hide, and a man
caught with one in his possession could expect to be dealt with
harshly; it was a very easy task to light a fire and "run" a brand,
and the running iron was easily concealed under the saddle flap. But
it was not often that a puncher would carry a stamping iron, for it
was cumbersome. With a running iron a brand could be changed, or the
wrong mark put on unbranded cattle; but the stamping iron would give
only one pattern.

When a puncher came across an unbranded calf with its branded mother,
and the number which escaped the roundup was often large, he branded
it, if he had an iron; if he did not have the iron he might cut the
calf's ears to conform to the notch in its mother's ears. When the
calf was again seen it might have attained its full growth. In that
case there was no branded mother to show to whom it belonged; but its
cut ears would tell.

These unbranded, ear-cut calves were known as "sleepers" and, in
localities where cattle stealing was being or had been carried on to
any extent, such sleepering was regarded with strong suspicion, and
more than one man had paid a dear price for doing the work.

The ear mark of the H2 was a V, while the Bar-20 depended entirely on
the brand, and part of its punchers' saddle equipment was a stamping
iron.

Cowmen held sleepering in strong disfavor because it was an easy
matter for a maverick hunter or a rustler to drive off these sleepers
and, after altering the ear cut, to brand them with his own or some
strange brand; and it was easy to make sleepers.

In the case of rustling the separation of branded calves and mothers
was imperative, for should any one see a cow of one brand with a calf
of another, it was very probable that a committee of discretionary
powers would look into the matter. Hobbling and laming mothers and
then driving away the calves were not the only ways of separating them
and of weaning the calves, for a shot was often as good a way as any;
but as dead cows, if found, were certain to tell the true story, this
was not generally employed.

"Yes," laughed Frisco. "What about th' sleepers?"

They were discreetly silent about the cow they had killed, for they
were ashamed of having left such a sign; but they would not stand
Antonio's scorn and anger, and that of the other members of the band,
and so said nothing about it.

"Where's th' mother of this calf?" demanded the Mexican, not heeding
the remarks about sleepers.

"Hanged if I know," replied Clausen, easily; "an' hanged if I care--we
can leave _one_ cow, I reckon."

"Got many for us this time?" asked Archer as they rode west, driving
before them the newly branded calf.

"Not many," replied Antonio. "It's risky, with Curley loose. We won't
be able to do much till th' fighting starts."

When they reached their destination they came to a deep, steep-walled
depression, exit from which was had at only one end where a narrow
trail wound up to the plain. Across this trail at its narrowest point
was stretched a lariat.

The depression itself was some ten acres in extent and was well
covered with grass, while near the southwest corner was a muddy pool
providing water for the herd which was now held captive.

Clausen rode down and removed the rope, riding into the basin to
hasten the egress of the herd. When the last cow had scrambled out and
joined its fellows, Archer and Frisco drove them west, leaving Clausen
to say a few final words with Antonio before joining them.

"How's th' range war coming on?"

"Fine!" laughed Antonio. "Meeker's going to attack th' line house on
th' Peak, though what good it'll do him is more than I can figure out.
I put it in his head because it'll start th' fight. I had to grin when
I heard Meeker and Doc planning it last night--they're easy."

"Gee!" laughed Clausen. "It's a stiff play. Who's going to win?
Meeker?"

"Meeker's going to get th' licking of his life. I know that Bar-20
gang, every one. I've lived down here for some time, an' I know what
they've done. Don't never get in a six-shooter argument with that
feller Cassidy; an' if his friend Connors tells you to stop under
eight hundred yards, you do it, an' trust to yore tongue, or Colt.
He's th' devil hisself with a Winchester."

"Much obliged--but I ain't so bad that way myself. Well, I'm going to
ooze west. Got any word for Shaw?"

"I'll send word by Benito--I'll know more about it to-morrow."

"All right," and Clausen was being jerked over the scenery by his
impatient mount.

Antonio wheeled and rode at a gallop, anxious to be found on northern
range, and eager to learn the result of his foreman's attack.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Salem," once a harpooner on a whaling vessel, now cook for the H2,
drove home from Eagle in the chuck wagon, which contained food
supplies for his ranch. He was in that state hovering between tears
and song, which accounts for the winding trail his wagon wheels left,
and also for him being late. He had tarried in Eagle longer than he
should have, for he was reluctant to quit the society of his several
newly made friends, who so pleasantly allowed him to "buy" for them.
When he realized how the time had flown and that his outfit would be
clamoring for the noonday meal, such clamoring being spicy and
personal in its expression, he left the river trail before he should
and essayed a shorter way home, chanting a sea song.

     A pirate bold, on th' Spanish Main--
       Set sail, yo-ho, an' away we go--

"Starboard yore helm, you lubbers!" he shouted when the horses headed
towards Mexico. Then he saw a large bulk lying on the sand a short
distance ahead and he sat bolt upright.

"There she blows! No, blast me, it's a dead cow!"

He drove closer to it and, stopping the team, staggered over to see
what had killed it.

"D--n me, if it ain't shot in th' port eye!" he ejaculated. "If I find
the lubber what's sinkin' our cows, I'll send him to Davy Jones'
locker!"

He returned to the wagon and steered nor' by nor' east, once more
certain of his bearings, for he knew the locality now, and sometime
later he saw Curley riding towards him.

"Ahoy!" he yelled. "Ahoy, you wind-jammer!"

"What's eating you? Why are you so late?" demanded Curley,
approaching. "You needn't say--I know."

"Foller my wake an' you'll see a dead cow," cried Salem. "Deader'n
dead, too! Shot in th' starboard--no, was it starboard? Now, d----d if
I know--reckon it was in th' port eye, though I didn't see no port
light; aye, 'twas in th' port--"

"What in h--l do I care what eye it was!" shouted Curley. "Where is
it?"

"Eight knots astern. Shot in th' port eye, an', as I said, deader'n
dead. Flew our flag, too."

Curley, believing that the cook had seen what he claimed, wheeled
abruptly and galloped away to report it to Meeker.

"Hey! Ain't you going to _see_ it?" yelled Salem, and as he received
no reply, turned to his team. "Come on, weigh anchor! Think I want to
lay out here all night? 'A-sailing out of Salem town,--'" he began,
and then stopped short and thought. "I _knowed_ it!--it _was_ th' port
eye! Same side th' flag was on!" he exclaimed, triumphantly.



CHAPTER XVI

THE FEINT


On the boundary line alert and eager punchers rode at a canter to and
fro, watching the herds to the south of them, and quick to turn back
all that strayed across the line. Just east of the middle point of the
boundary Red and Johnny met and compared notes, and both reported the
same state of affairs, which was that the cattle came constantly
nearer.

Johnny removed his field glasses from his eyes.

"There's punchers with that herd, Red. Three of 'em."

"I reckoned so."

"Wonder what they think they're going to do?"

"We'll know purty soon."

"They're coming this way."

"If you had th' brains of a calf you'd know they wouldn't go south."

"Think they're going to rush us?" Johnny asked, eagerly.

"No; course not!" retorted Red. "They're going to make 'em stand on
their heads!"

Johnny began to hum--

     Joyous Joe got a juniper jag,
     A-jogging out of Jaytown;
     Joyous Joe got a juniper jag--

"We'll show that prickly pear from Montanny some fine points."

"Now, look here, Kid; don't you let 'em get a cow across th' line.
Shoot every one, but keep yore eyes on th' gang."

"'Joyous Joe got a juniper jag,--' Come on, you half-breeds!"

"Wonder where Hopalong is?" Red asked.

"Up on th' Peak, I reckon. _Hey_, Billy!" he yelled. "Here comes
Billy, Red."

"I guessed as much when you yelled; if you don't yell away from my ear
next time I'll kick yore pants over yore hat. D----d idiot, you!"

"Hullo, Billy," cried Johnny, ignoring Red's remarks. "Just in time
for th' pie. Where's Hopalong?"

"In th' hills."

"You get along an' tell him what's doing out here," ordered Red. "Go
lively!"

"Reckon I'd better stay an' give you a hand; you'll need it before
long," Billy replied.

"You know what Hopalong said, don't you?" blazed Red. "What do you
think me an' th' Kid are made of, anyhow? You go on, an' quick!"

"Send Johnny," Billy suggested, hopefully.

"Why, you coyote!" cried Johnny, excitedly. "Th' idea! You go on!"

"Yo're a pair of hogs," grumbled Billy, riding off. "I'll get square,
someday. Hope they lick you!"

"Run along, little boy," jeered Johnny. "Oh, gee! Here they come!" he
cried as Billy rode behind the chaparral. "Look at 'em!"

"_Let_ 'em come!" cried Billy, returning. "We'll lick 'em!"

"Get out of here!" shouted Red, drawing his Winchester from its
sheath. "For G-d's sake, do what yo're told! Want to let Meeker win
out?"

"Nope; so long," and Billy galloped away.

"That ain't a herd!" cried Johnny, elated. "That's only a handful.
It's a scrawny looking bunch, men an' all. Come on, you coyotes!" he
yelled, waving his rifle.

"You chump; this ain't the real play--it's a blind, a wedge," Red
replied. "They're pushing a big one through somewhere else."

"I'm shore glad Billy went, an' not me," Johnny remarked.

"There's Morgan," Red remarked. "I know his riding."

"Bet you won't know it when th' show's over. An' there's Chick, too.
He needs a licking. You won't know his riding, neither."

The herd came rapidly forward and the men who were guarding it waved
their sombreros and urged it on. Red, knowing that he would be crowded
if he waited until the cows were upon him, threw his rifle to his
shoulder and began to shoot rapidly, and cow after cow dropped, and
the rush was stopped. Before the H2 men could get free from the
panic-stricken herd Red and Johnny were within a hundred yards of them
and when they looked up it was to see Red covering them, while Johnny,
pleased by the reduced range, was dropping more cows.

"Stop!" Red shouted, angrily.

"Huh!" exclaimed Johnny, looking up. "Oh, I thought you was talking to
me," he muttered, and then dropped another cow.

"What in h--l do you think yo're doing?" yelled Morgan.

"Just practising," retorted Johnny. He quickly swung his rifle on
Chick. "Hands up! No more of that!"

"You've got gall, shooting our cows!" replied Chick.

"Get 'em up, boy!" snapped Johnny, and Chick slowly raised his arms,
speaking rapidly.

"What do you take us for!" shouted Ed Joyce, frantic at his
helplessness.

"Coyotes," replied Red. "An' since coyotes don't ride, you get off'n
them cayuses, _pronto_."

"Like h--l!" retorted Ed.

Johnny's rifle cracked and Ed tumbled off his dead horse, and when he
arose the air was blue.

"Nex' gent say 'I,'" called Johnny.

"I'll be d----d if I'll stand for that!" yelled Morgan, reaching for
his gun. The next thing he knew was that the air was full of comets,
and that his horse was dead.

Chick sullenly dismounted and stood watching Red, who was now in
vastly better spirits, since the H2 rifles were on the horses and too
far away from their owners to be of any use. The range was too great
for good revolver shooting even if they could get them into action.

"Watch 'em," said Red, firing. Chick's horse, stung to frenzy by the
wound, kicked up its heels and bolted, leaving the three punchers
stranded ten miles from home.

"Turn around an' hit th' back trail," ordered Red. "No back talk!"

"I'll bust you wide open, someday, you red-headed wart!" threatened
Dan, shaking his fist at the grinning line man. "That's a h--l of a
thing to do, that is!"

"Shut up an' go home. Ain't you got enough?" shouted Red.

"Just wait, you half-breed!" yelled Ed Joyce.

"That's two with th' waiting habit," laughed Johnny.

"What do--" began Chick, stepping forward.

"Shut up! Who told you to open yore face!" cried Red, savagely. "Get
home! G'wan!"

"Walk, you coyotes, walk!" exulted Johnny.

He and his companion watched the three angry punchers stride off
towards the H2 and then Red told Johnny to ride west while he,
himself, would go east to help his friends if they should need him.
They had just begun to separate when Johnny uttered a shout of joy.
Antonio had joined the trio of walkers and they were pulling him from
his horse. He waved his arms excitedly, but Chick had him covered. Dan
and Ed were already on the animal and they quickly pulled Chick up
behind them, narrowly watching the Mexican all the while. The horse
fought for some time and then started south, the riders shouting while
Antonio, still waving his arms, plodded homeward on foot.

Great joy filled Johnny's heart as he gloated over the Mexican's
predicament. "Hoof it, you greasy snake! Kick up th' dust, you lazy
lizard!"

"They can't get in th' game again for some time, till they get
cayuses," remarked Red. "That makes four less to deal with, counting
th' Greaser as a whole man."

"Three an' a third," corrected his companion. "He acts like he had all
eternity to get nowhere--look at him! Let's go down an' rope him. He's
on th' prod now--we can have a lot of fun."

"If I go down there it'll be to plug him good," Red replied. "You hang
around out here for a while. I'm goin' west--Pete's in that house
alone--so long, Kid."

Johnny grinned a farewell to Antonio and followed instructions while
his friend rode towards the Peak to assist Pete, the lonely, who as it
happened, would be very glad to see him.



CHAPTER XVII

PETE IS TRICKED


Pete Wilson grumbled, for he was tiring of his monotonous vigil, and
almost hoped the H2 would take the house because of the excitement
incident to its re-capture. At first his assignment had pleased, but
as hour after hour passed with growing weariness, he chafed more and
more and his temper grew constantly shorter.

With the exception of smoking he had exhausted every means of passing
the time; he knew to a certainty how many bushes and large stones were
on the plateau, the ranges between him and distant objects, and other
things, and now he had to fall back on his pipe.

"Wish some son-of-a-thief would zephyr up an' start something," he
muttered. "If I stays in this fly-corral much longer I'll go loco. A
couple of years back we wouldn't have waited ten minutes in a case
like this--we'd 'a chased that crowd off th' range quick. What's
getting into us has got me picking out th' festive pea, all right."

He stopped at the east window and scrutinized the line as far as he
could see the dim, dusty, winding trail, hoping that some of the
outfit would come into sight. Then he slid the Sharps out of the
window and held it on an imaginary enemy, whom he pretended was going
to try to take the house. While he thought of caustic remarks, with
which to greet such a person, he saw the head of a horse push up into
view over the edge of the hill.

Sudden hope surged through him and shocked him to action. He cocked
the rifle, the metallic clicks sweet to his ears. Then he saw the
rider, and it was--Mary Meeker.

Astonishment and quick suspicion filled his mind and he held the
weapon ready to use on her escort, should she have one. Her horse
reared and plunged and, deciding that she was alone, and ashamed to be
covering a woman, he slid the gun back into the room, leaning it
against the wall close at his hand, not losing sight of the rider for
a moment.

"Now, what th' devil is she doing up here, anyhow?" he puzzled, and
then a grin flickered across his face as the possible solution came to
him. "Mebby she wants Hopalong," he muttered, and added quickly,
"Purty as blazes, too!" And she did make a pretty picture even to his
scoffing and woman-hating mind.

She was having trouble with her mount, due to the spurring it was
getting on the side farther from the watcher. It reared and plunged,
bucking sideways, up-and-down and fence-cornered, zig-zagging over the
ground forward and back, and then began to pitch "stiff-legged."
Pete's eyes glowed with the appreciation of a master rider and he was
filled with admiration, which soon became enthusiastic, over her
saddle-ease and cool mastery. She seemed to be a part of the horse.

"She'd 'a been gone long ago if she was fool enough to sit one of them
side saddle contraptions," he mused. "A-straddle is th' only--_Good!_
All right! Yo're a stayer!" he exclaimed as she stepped from one
stirrup and stood up in the other when the animal reared up on its
hind legs.

He glanced out of the other windows of the house and fell to watching
her again, his face darkening as he saw that she appeared to be
tiring, while her mount grew steadily worse. Then she "touched
leather," and again and again. Her foot slipped from the stirrup, but
found it again, while she frantically clung to the saddle horn.

"Four-legged devil!" Pete exclaimed. "Wish _I_ was on you, you ornery
dog! Hey! Don't you bite like that! Keep yore teeth away from that leg
or I'll blow yore d----d head off!" he cried wrathfully as the animal
bit viciously several times at the stirrup leather. "I'll whale th'
stuffin' outen you, you wall-eyed clay-bank! Yo're too bronc for _her_
to ride, all right."

Then, during another and more vicious fit of stiff-legged pitching the
rider held to the saddle horn with both hands, while her foot, again
out of the stirrup, sought for it in vain. She was rapidly losing her
grip on the saddle and suddenly she was thrown off, a cry reaching
Pete's ears. The victorious animal kicked several times and shook its
head vigorously in celebration of its freedom and then buck-jumped
across the plateau and out of sight down the hill, Pete strongly
tempted to stop its exuberance with a bullet.

Pete glanced at the figure huddled in the dust and then, swearing
savagely and fearing the worst, threw down the bar and jerked open the
door and ran as rapidly as his awkward legs would take him to see what
he could do for her, his hand still grasping his rifle. As he knelt
beside her he remembered that he had been told not to leave the house
under any circumstances and he glanced over his shoulder, and just in
time to see a chap-covered leg disappear through the doorway. His
heart sank as the crash of the bar falling into place told him that he
had been unworthy of the trust his best friend had reposed in him. It
was plain enough, now, that he had been fooled, to understand it all
and to know that as he left the house one or more H2 punchers had
sprinted for it from the other side of the plateau.

Red fury filled him in an instant and tearing the revolver from the
girl's belt he threw it away and then, grasping her with both hands,
he raised her up as though she weighed nothing and threw her over his
shoulder, sprinting for the protection of the hillside, which he
reached in a few bounds. Throwing her down as he would throw a bag of
flour he snarled at her as she arose and brushed her clothes. Years
ago in Pete's life a woman had outraged his love and trust and sent
him through a very hell of sorrow; and since then he had had no love
for the sex--only a bitter, scathing cynicism, which now found its
outlet in words.

"Yo're a nice one, you are!" he yelled. "You've done yore part! Yo're
all alike, every d----d one of you--Judas wasn't no man, not by a
d----d sight! You know a man won't stand by an' see you hurt without
trying to help you--an' you play it against him!"

She was about to retort, but smiled instead and went on with her
dusting.

"Tickled, hey! Well, you watch an' see what _we_ do to coyotes! You'll
see what happens to line-thieves down here!"

She looked up quickly and suspected that instead of averting a fight
she had precipitated one. Both Hopalong and her father were in as much
danger now as if she had taken no part in the trouble.

Pete emptied his revolver into the air as rapidly as he could work the
hammer and hurriedly reloaded it, all the time watching his prisoner
and the top of the hill. Three quick reports, muffled by distance,
replied from Long Hill and he turned to her.

"Now why don't you laugh?" he gritted savagely. He caught sight of her
horse grazing calmly further down the hill and his Sharps leaped to
his shoulder and crashed. The animal stiffened, erect for a moment,
and then sank slowly back on its quivering haunches and dropped.

"_You_ won't pitch no more, d--n you!" he growled, reloading.

Her eyes snapped with anger and she caught at her holster. "You
coward! You coward!" she cried, stamping her foot. "To kill that
horse, an' steal my gun--afraid of a woman!" she taunted. "Coward!"

"I'll pull a snake's fangs rather than get bit by one, when I can't
shoot 'em!" he retorted, stung by her words. "You'll see how big a
coward I am purty soon--an' you'll stay right here an' see it, too!"

"_I_ won't run away," she replied, sitting down and tucking her feet
under her skirts. "_I'm_ not afraid of a coward!"

Another shot rang out just over the top of Stepping Stone Hill and he
replied to it. Far to the west a faint report was heard and Pete knew
that Skinny was roweling the lathered sides of his straining horse.
Yet another sounded flatly from the direction of the dam, the hills
multiplying it into a distant fusillade.

"Hear 'em!" he demanded, fierce joy ringing in his voice. "Hear 'em!
You've kicked th' dynamite, all right--you'll smell th' smoke of yore
little squib clean down to yore ranch house!"

"That's grand--yo're doing it fine," she laughed, strangling the fear
which crept slowly through her. "Go on--it's grand!"

"It'll be a whole lot grander when th' boys get here an' find out
what's happened," he promised. "There'll be some funerals start out
from what's left of yore ranch house purty soon."

"Ki-i-i-e-e-p! Ki-ip ki-ip!" came the hair-raising yell from the top
of Stepping Stone Hill, and Pete withheld the rest of his remarks to
reply to it in kind. Suddenly Red Connors, his quirt rising and
falling, bounded over the top of the hill and shot down the other side
at full speed. Close behind him came Billy Williams, who rode as
recklessly until his horse stepped into a hole and went down, throwing
him forward like a shot out of a catapult. He rolled down the hill
some distance before he could check his impetus and then, scrambling
to his feet, drew his Colt and put his broken-legged mount out of its
misery before hobbling on again.

Red slid to a stand and leaped to the ground, his eyes on the woman,
but his first thought was for the house. "What's th' matter? Why ain't
you in that shack? Didn't Hopalong tell you to hold it?" he demanded.
Turning to Mary Meeker he frowned. "What are you doing up here? Don't
you know this ain't no place for you to-day?"

Pete grasped his shoulder and swung him around so sharply that he
nearly lost his balance, crying: "Don't talk to her, she's a d----d
snake!"

Red's hand moved towards his holster and then stopped, for it was a
friend who spoke. "What do you mean, d--n you? Who's a snake? What's
wrong here, anyhow?"

Billy limped up and stood amazed at the strange scene, for besides the
presence of the woman, his friends were quarrelling and he had never
seen that before. Seeing Mary look at him he flushed and sneaked off
his sombrero, ashamed because he had forgotten it.

Pete swiftly related all that had occurred, and ended with another
curse flung at his prisoner, who looked him over with a keen, critical
glance and then smiled contemptuously.

"That's a fine note!" Red cried, his sombrero also coming off. He
looked at Mary and saw no fear in her face, no sign of any weakness,
but rather a grimness in the firmness of her lips and a battling light
in her eyes, which gained her immunity from his tongue, for he admired
grit. "Here, you, stop that cussing! You can't cuss no woman while I'm
around!" he cried hotly. "Hopalong'll break you wide open if he hears
you. Cussing won't do no good; what we want is thinking, an'
fighting!" Catching sight of Billy, who looked self-conscious and a
little uncomfortable, he cried: "An' what's th' matter with you?"

Billy jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the dead
horse and Red, following the motion, knew. "By th' Lord, you got off
easy! Pete, you watch yore prisoner; keep her out of danger, an'
there'll be lots of it purty soon. We'll get th' house for you."

"Send up to Cowan's saloon; he had some dynamite, an' if we can get
any we can blow them sneaks off th' face of th' earth," Pete
exclaimed, his anger and shame urging him against his better nature.
"Go ahead. I'll take th' chances using th' stuff--I lost th' house."

The pathetic note of self-condemnation in his last words stopped Red's
reprimand and he said, instead: "We'll talk about that later. But
don't you lose no sleep--they can't hold it, dynamite or no dynamite.
We'll have it before sundown."

Dynamite! Mary caught her breath and sudden fear gripped her heart.
Dynamite! And two men were in the house, Doc Riley and Jack Curtis,
men who would not be there if she had not made it possible for
them--she was responsible.

"Here comes Skinny!" cried Billy, waving his arm.

"An' here's Hopalong!" joyously cried Pete, elated, for he pinned his
faith in his line-foreman's ability to get out of any kind of a hole,
no matter how deep and wide. "Now things 'll happen! We're going to
get busy _now_, all right!"

The two arrived at the same instant and both asked the same question.
Then Hopalong saw Mary and he was at her side in a trice.

"Hullo! What are _you_ doing up here?" he cried in astonishment.

"I'm a prisoner--of _that_!" she replied, pointing at Pete.

Hopalong wheeled. "What! What have you been doing to her? Why ain't
you in th' house, where you belongs?"

Pete told him, briefly, and he turned to the prisoner, a smile of
admiration struggling to get through his frown. She looked at him
bravely, for now was the crisis, which she had feared, and welcomed.

"By th' Lord!" he cried, softly. "Yo're a thoroughbred, a fighter from
start to finish. But you shouldn't come up here to-day; there's no
telling, sometimes, where bullets go after they start." Turning, he
said, "Pete, you chump, stay on this side of th' hill an' watch th'
house. Billy, lay so you can watch th' door. Red, come with me. An' if
anybody gets a shot at them range stealers, shoot to kill. Understand?
Shoot to kill--it's time."

"Dynamite?" queried Pete, hopefully. "I'll use it. Cowan--"

Hopalong stared. "Dynamite! Dynamite! We ain't fighting 'em that way,
even if they are coyotes. You go an' do what I told you."

"Yes, but--"

"Shut up!" snapped Hopalong. "I know how you feel _now_, but you'll
think different to-morrow."

"Let's swap th' girl for th' house," suggested Skinny, grinning. "It's
a shore cinch," he added, winking at Billy, who laughed.

Hopalong wheeled to retort, caught Skinny's eye closing, and laughed
instead. "I reckon that would work all right, Skinny. It'd be a good
joke on 'em to take th' house back with th' same card they got it by.
But this ain't no time for joking. Pete, you better stay here an'
watch th' window on this side; Billy, take th' window on th' south
side. Skinny can go around west an' Red'll take th' door. They won't
be so joyous after they get what's coming their way. This ain't no
picnic; shoot to kill. We've been peaceful too blamed long!"

"That's th' way to talk!" cried Pete. "If we'd acted that way from th'
very first day they crossed our line we wouldn't be fighting to
capture our own line house! You know how to handle 'em all right!"

"Pete, how much water is in there?" Hopalong asked.

"'Bout a hatful--nobody brought me any this morning, th' lazy cusses."

"All right; they won't hold it for long, then. Take yore places as I
said, fellers, an' get busy," he replied, and then turned to Mary.
"Where's yore father? Is _he_ in that house?"

"I don't know--an' I wouldn't tell if I did!"

"Say, yo're a regular hummer! Th' more you talk th' better I like
you," he laughed, admiringly. "You've shore stampeded me worse than
ever--I'm so loco I can't wait much longer--when are you going to
marry me? Of course you know that you've got to someday."

"Indeed I have _not_!" she retorted, her face crimson. "If you wait
for me to marry you you will die of old age! An' I'm shore somebody's
listening."

"Then _I'll_ marry _you_--of course, that's what I meant."

"Indeed you _won't!_"

"Then th' minister will. After this line fighting is over I won't
wait. I'll just rope you an' drive you down to Perry's Bend to th'
hobbling man, if you won't go any other way. We'll come back a team.
Oh, I mean just what I say," and she knew that he did, and she was
glad at heart that he thought none the less of her for the trick she
had played on Pete. He seemed to take everything as a matter of
course, and as a matter of course was going to re-take the house.

"You just _dare_ try it! Just _dare!_" she cried, hotly.

"Now you have gone an' done it, for I never take a dare, _never_," he
laughed. "It's us for th' sky pilot, an' then th' same range for life.
Yo're shore purty, an' that fighting spunk doubles it. You can begin
to practise calling yourself Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy, of th' Bar-20."

Pete fired, swore, and turned his head. "How th' devil can I hit a
house with all that fool talk!" and the two, suddenly realizing that
Pete had been ordered to remain close by, looked foolish, and both
laughed.

"It gets on my nerves," Pete growled, and then: "Here comes Johnny
like a greased coyote."

They looked and saw Johnny tearing down Stepping Stone Hill as if he
were afraid that the fighting would be over before he could take a
hand in it. When he came within hailing distance he stood up in his
stirrups, shouting, "What's up?" and then, seeing Pete, understood.
Leaping from the saddle he jerked his rifle out of the sheath and ran
to him, jeering. "Oh, you Pete! Oh you d----d fool!"

"Hey, Johnny! How's things east?" Hopalong demanded.

Johnny stopped and hastily recounted how he and Red had driven back
the herd, adding: "Her dad is out there now looking at his dead
cows--I saw him when I came back from East Arroyo. An' I saw them
three punchers ride over that ridge down south; and they shore made
good time. Say, how did they get Pete out?" he asked eagerly.

"I'll tell you that later--Pete, you go an' tell Red to come here, an'
take his place. We can't swap Mary for th' house, but we can swap her
dad! Mary, you better go home--this won't be no place for you in a
little while. Where's yore cayuse?" he asked, looking around.

"It's down there--he shot it," she replied, nodding at Pete.

"Shot it? Lord, but he must 'a been mad! Well, you can get
square--Pete, where's yore cayuse?"

"How th' devil do _I_ know!" Pete blazed, indignantly. "_I_ wasn't
keeping track of no cayuse after they got th' house!"

"It's down there on th' hill--see it?" volunteered Johnny. "Shall I
get it?" he asked, grinning at the disgruntled Pete.

"Yes; an' strip th' fixings off her cayuse while yo're about
it--lively."

Johnny vaulted into his saddle and loped down the hill, shortly
returning with Mary's saddle and bridle in front of him and Pete's
horse at the end of his rope. Hopalong quickly removed Pete's saddle
and put the other in its place, Pete eloquent in his silence, and
Johnny manifestly pleased by the proceedings.

"Now you can ride," Hopalong smiled, helping her into the saddle.
"Pete don't care at all--he ain't saying a word," whereat Pete said a
word, several of them in fact, under his breath and vowed that he
would kill the men in the house to get square.

"I'll send it back as soon as I can," she promised, and then, when
Hopalong leaned closer and whispered something to her, she flushed and
spurred the animal, leaving him standing in a cloud of dust, a smile
on his face.

Johnny, grinning until his face threatened to be ruptured, wheeled on
Pete. "Yo're a lucky fool, even if you did go an' lose th' house for
us--wish she'd ride _my_ cayuse!"

Pete replied in keeping with his feelings now that there was no woman
present, and walked away to change places with Red, who soon came up.
Then the three mounted and cantered east to find the H2 foreman,
Johnny mauling "Whiskey Bill" in his exuberance. Suddenly he turned in
his saddle and slapped his thigh: "I'll bet four cents to a tooth
brush that she's telling her dad to get scarce. She heard what you
said, Hoppy!"

"Right! Come on!" exclaimed Hopalong, spurring into a gallop, his
companions racing behind, spurring and quirting to catch him.

"Say, Red, she's a straight flush," Johnny shouted to his companion.
"Can't be beat--if she turns Hoppy down I'm next in th' line-up!"

"You don't want no wife--you wants a nurse!" Red retorted.



CHAPTER XVIII

THE LINE HOUSE RE-CAPTURED


After Chick, Dan Morgan, and Ed Joyce had commandeered Antonio's horse
and left him on foot they rode as rapidly as they could to the corrals
of their ranch, where they saddled fresh mounts and galloped back to
try conclusions with the men who had humbled them. They also wished to
find their foreman, who they knew was somewhere along the line. Chick
rode to the west, Dan to the east, and Ed Joyce straight ahead;
intending to search for Meeker and then ride together again.

Meanwhile Antonio, tired of walking, returned to the line and lay in
ambush to waylay the first Bar-20 puncher to ride past him, hoping to
get a horse and also to leave a dead man for the Bar-20 to find and
lay the blame on the H2. He knew that his rustler allies had scouts in
the chaparrals and were ready to run off a big herd as soon as
conditions were propitious, and he was anxious to give them the word
to begin.

It chanced, however, that Ed Joyce was the first man to approach the
Mexican, and he paid dearly for being a party to taking Antonio's
horse. The dead man would not inflame the Bar-20, but the H2, and the
results would be the same in the end. Mounting Ed's horse Antonio
galloped north into the valley through West Arroyo so as to leave
tracks in the direction of the Bar-20, intending to describe a
semi-circle and return to his ranch by way of the river trail, leaving
the horse where the trail crossed the Jumping Bear. By going the
remainder of the way on foot he would not be seen on the horse of the
murdered puncher, which might naturally enough stray in that
direction, and so be free from suspicion.

Lanky Smith, wondering why none of his friends had passed him on the
line, followed the trail west to see if things were as they should be.
He was almost in sight of a point opposite West Arroyo, his view being
obstructed by chaparrals, when he heard a faint shot, and spurred
forward, his rifle in the hollow of his arm ready for action. It could
mean only one thing--one of his friends was shooting H2 cows, and
complications might easily follow. When he had turned out of an arroyo
which made part of the line for a short distance he saw a body huddled
on the sand several hundred feet ahead of him. At that instant Meeker,
with Chick and Dan close at his heels, came into view on the other
side, saw the body and, drawing their own conclusions, opened a hot
fire on the Bar-20 puncher, riding to encircle him. Surprised for an
instant, and then filled with rage because they had killed one of his
friends, as he thought, he returned their fire and raced at Chick, who
was now some distance from his companions. Dan and Meeker wheeled
instantly and rode to the aid of their friend, and Lanky's horse
dropped from under him. Luckily for him he felt a warning tremor go
through the animal and jerked his feet free from the stirrups as it
sank down, quickly crawling behind it for protection.

Immediately thereafter Chick lost his hat, then the use of his right
arm, followed by being deprived of the services of a very good
cow-pony, for Lanky now had a rest for his rifle and while his
marksmanship was not equal to that of his friend Red, it was good
enough for his present needs. Dan Morgan started to shout to his
foreman and then swore luridly instead, for Lanky was pleased to drill
him at five hundred yards, the bullet tearing a disconcerting hole in
Dan's thigh.

Meeker had been most zealously engaged all this time in making his
rifle go off at regular intervals, his bullets kicking up the dust,
humming viciously about Lanky's head, and thudding into the carcass of
the dead horse. Then Lanky swore and shook the blood from his cheek,
telling Meeker what he thought about the matter. Settling down again
he determined to husk Meeker's body from its immortal soul, when he
found his magazine empty. Reaching to his belt for the wherewithal for
the husking he discovered the lamentable fact that he had only three
cartridges left for the Winchester, and the Colt was more ornamental
than useful at that range. To make matters worse both Chick and Dan
were now sitting up wasting cartridges in his direction, while Meeker
seemed to have an unending supply. Just then the H2 foreman found his
mark again and rendered his enemy's arm useless. At that point the
clouds of misfortune parted and Hopalong, Red and Johnny at his heels,
whirled into sight from the west, firing with burning zeal.

Meeker's horse went down, pinning its rider under it; Dan Morgan threw
up his arms as he sat in the saddle, for his rifle was shattered;
Chick, popping up his good arm first, arose from behind his fleshy
breastwork and announced that he could not fight, although he
certainly wanted to; but Meeker said nothing.

Riding first to Lanky, his friends joked him into a better humor while
they attended to his wounds. Then they divided to extend the
wound-dressing courtesy. First they tried to kill a man, then to save
him; but, of course, they desired mostly to render him incapable of
injuring them and as long as this was accomplished it was not
necessary to deprive him of life.

Hopalong, being in command, went over to look at the H2 foreman and
found him unconscious. Dragging him from under the body of his horse
Hopalong felt along the pinned leg and found it was not broken.
Pouring a generous amount of whiskey down the unconscious man's throat
he managed to revive him and then immediately disarmed him. Meeker
complained of pains in his groin, not by words but by actions. His
left leg seemed paralyzed and would not obey him. Hopalong called Red,
who took the injured man up in front of him, where Hopalong bound his
hands to the pommel of the saddle.

Meeker preserved a stolid silence until Lanky joined them and then his
rage poured out in a torrent of abuse and accusations for the killing
of Ed Joyce. Lanky retorted by asking who Ed Joyce was, and wanted to
know whose body he had found just before Meeker had come onto the
scene. When he found that they were the same he explained that he had
not seen it before Meeker had, which the H2 foreman would not believe.
Red captured Dan Morgan's horse and led it up. After Chick and Dan had
been helped to mount the Bar-20 men's horses, placed before the
saddles and bound there, all started towards Lookout Peak, Lanky
riding Dan's horse.

When they had arrived at their destination Meeker suddenly realized
what he was to be used for and stormed impotently against it. He heard
the intermittent firing around the plateau and knew that Doc and Jack
still held the house, and believed they could continue to hold it,
since the thick adobe walls were impenetrable to rifle fire.

"Well, Meeker, it's you for th' house," Hopalong remarked after he had
sent Red to stop the fire of the others. "You got off d----d lucky
to-day; th' next time you raise the dickens along our line we'll pay
yore ranch houses a visit in a body an' give you something to think
about. We handled you to-day with six of us up north, an' what th'
whole crowd can do you can guess. Now walk up there an' tell them
range-jumpers to vamoose th' house!"

"They'll shoot me before they sees who I am," Meeker retorted,
sullenly. "If yo're so anxious to get 'em out, do it yoreself--I don't
want 'em."

By this time the others were coming up and heard Meeker's words, and
Hopalong, turning to Skinny and Billy, curtly ordered them to mount.
"Take this royal American fool up to th' bunk house to Buck. Tell Buck
what's took place down here, an' also that we're going to shoot h--l
out of th' fellers in th' house before he sees us. After that those of
us who can ride are going down to th' H2 an' clean up that part of th'
game, buildings an' all. Go on, lively! Red, Johnny, Pete; cover th'
windows an' fill that shack plumb full of lead. It's clouding up now
an' when it gets good an' dark we'll bust in th' door an' end it.
Skinny, you come back again, quick, with all th' grub an' cartridges
you can carry. Meeker started this, but _I'm_ going to finish it an'
do it right. There won't be no more line fights down here for a long
time to come."

"I reckon I'll have to order 'em out," Meeker growled. "What'll you do
to 'em if I do?"

"Send 'em home so quick they won't have any time to say 'good-bye,'"
Hopalong rejoined. "We've seen too much of you fellers now. An' after
I send 'em home you see that they stays away from that line--we'll
shoot on sight if they gets within gunshot of it! You've shore had a
gall, pushing us, you an' yore hatful of men an' cows! If it wasn't
for th' rustling we'd 'a pushed you into th' discard th' day I found
yore Greaser herding on us."

Meeker, holding his side because of the pain there from the fall,
limped slowly up the hill, waving his sombrero over his head as he
advanced.

"What do you want now?--_Meeker!_" cried a voice from the building.
"What's wrong?"

"Everything; come on out--we lose," the foreman cried, shame in his
voice.

"Don't you tell us that if you wants us to stay here," came the swift
reply. "We're game as long as we last, an' we'll last a long time,
too."

"I know it, Doc--" his voice broke--"they've killed Ed an' captured
Chick, Dan, an' me. I'd say fight it out, an' I'd fight to th' end,
only they'll attack th' ranch house if we do. We're licked, _this
time!_"

"First sensible words you've said since you've been on this range,"
growled Lanky. "You was licked before you began, if you only knowed
it. An' you'll get licked _every_ time, too!"

"Well, we'll come out an' give up if they'll let us all go, including
you," cried Doc. "I ain't going to get picked off in th' open while
I've got this shack to fight in, not by a blamed sight!"

"It's all right, Doc," Meeker replied. "How's Jack?" he asked,
anxiously, not having heard Doc's companion speak.

"Wait an' see," was the reply, and the door opened and the two
defenders stepped into sight, bandaged with strips torn from their
woollen shirts, the remains of which they did not bother to carry
away.

"Who played that gun through th' west window?" asked Doc, angrily.

"Me!" cried Skinny, belligerently. "Why?"

"Muzzle th' talk--you can hold yore pow-wow some other time,"
interposed Hopalong. "You fellers get off this range, an' do it quick.
An' stay off, savvy?"

Meeker, his face flushed by rage and hatred for the men who had so
humiliated him, climbed up on Dan's horse and Dan was helped up
behind. Then Chick was helped to mount in front of his foreman and
they rode down the hill, followed by Doc and Jack. The intention was
to let Dan ride to the ranch after they had all got off the Bar-20
range, and send up the cook with spare horses. Just then Doc
remembered that he and Jack had left their mounts below when they
walked up the hill to take the house, and they went after them.

At this instant Curley was seen galloping up and he soon reported what
Salem had seen. Meeker flew into a rage at this and swore that he
would never give in to either foe. While Curley was learning of the
fighting, Doc and his companion returned on foot, reporting that their
horses had strayed, whereupon Meeker got off the horse he rode and
told Doc and Chick to ride it home, Curley being despatched for
mounts, while the others sat down on the ground and waited.

When Curley returned with the horses he was very much excited, crying
that during his absence Salem had seen six men run off a herd of
several hundred head towards Eagle and had tried to overtake them in
the chuck wagon.

"God A'mighty!" cried Meeker, furiously. "Ain't I got enough, _now_!
Rustling, an' on a scale like that! Peters was right after all about
th' rustling, d--n him. A whole herd! Why didn't they take th' rest,
an' th' houses, an' th' whole ranch? An' Salem, th' fool, chasing 'em
in th' chuck wagon! Wonder they didn't take him, too."

"I reckon he wished he had his harpoon with him," Chick snorted, the
ridiculousness of Salem's action bringing a faint grin to his face,
angry and wounded as he was. "He's the locoedest thing that wears
pants in this section, or any other!"

"It was a shore fizzle all around," Meeker grumbled. "But I ain't
through with that line yet--no, by th' Lord, I ain't got started yet!
But this rustling has got to be cleaned up first of all--th' line can
wait; an' if we don't pay no attention to th' valley for a while
they'll think we've given it up an' get off their guard."

"Shore!" cried Dan, whose fury had been aroused almost to madness by
the sting of the bitter defeat, and who itched to kill, whether
puncher or rustler it little mattered; he only wanted a vent for his
rage.

"We'll parade over that south range like buzzards sighting carrion,"
Meeker continued, leading the way homeward. "I ain't a-going to get
robbed all th' time!"

"Wonder if Smith did shoot Ed?" queried Dan, thoughtfully. "There was
quite a spell between th' shot I heard an' us seeing him, an' he acted
like he had just seen Ed. But it's tough, all right. Ed was a blamed
good feller."

"Who did shoot him, then?" snapped Meeker, savagely. "There's no
telling what happened out there before we got there. Here, Curley, you
ain't full of holes like us--you ride up there an' get him while we go
home. He's laying near that S arroyo right close to th' line--th' one
we scouted through that time."

"Shore, I'll get him," replied Curley, wheeling. "See you later."



CHAPTER XIX

ANTONIO LEAVES THE H2


On the H2 Jim Meeker rolled and muttered in his sleep, which had been
more or less fitful because of his aching groin and strained leg.
Gazing confusedly about him he sat bolt upright, swearing softly at
the pain and then, realizing that he was where he should be, grumbled
at the kaleidoscopic dreams that had beset him during his few hours of
sleep, and glanced out of the window. Hastily dressing he strode to
the kitchen door, calling his daughter as he passed her room, and
looked out. The bunk house and the corrals were beginning to loom up
in the early light and the noise in the cook shack told him that Salem
was preparing breakfast for the men. He did not like the looks of the
low, huge, black cloud east of him and as he figured that it would not
pass over the ranch houses unless the wind shifted sharply he suddenly
stared at a corral and then hastened back to his room for the Colt
which lay on the floor beside his bunk. He had seen a man flit past
the further corral, speed across the open, and disappear behind the
corral nearest to the bunk house. This ordinarily would have provoked
no further thought, for his men were crazy-headed enough to do
anything, but while rustling flourished, and so audaciously, and while
a line war was on, it would stand prompt investigation.

Peering again from the door, Colt in hand, Meeker slipped out silently
and ran to the corral wall as rapidly as his injuries would allow.
When he reached it he leaned close to it and waited, his gun levelled
at the corner not ten feet from him. Half a minute later and without a
sound a man suddenly turned it, crouching and alertly watching the
bunk house and cook shack at his left, and then stopped with a jerk
and reached to his thigh as he became aware that he was being watched
at such close range. Straightening up and smothering an exclamation he
faced the foreman and laughed, but to Meeker's suspicious ears it
sounded very much forced and strained.

"No _sabe_ Anton?" asked the prowler, smiling innocently and raising
his hand from the gun.

Meeker stood silent and motionless, the Colt as steady as a rock, and
a heavy frown covered his face as he searched the evil eyes of his
broncho-buster, whose smile remained fixed.

"No _sabe Anton_?" somewhat hastily repeated the other, a faint trace
of anxiety in his voice, but the smile did not waver, and his eyes did
not shift. He began to realize that it was about time for him to leave
the H2, for he knew that few things grow so rapidly as suspicion. And
he knew that the outfit would do very little weighing in his case.

Meeker slowly lowered his weapon and swore; he did not like the
prowling any better than he did the smile and the laugh and the
treacherous eyes.

"I no savvy why yo're flitting around th' scenery when you should
ought to be in bed," he replied, his words ominously low and distinct.
"You've shore had a narrow squeak, for I came nigh on to letting drive
from th' door on a gamble. An' I'll own that I'm some curious as to
why yo're prowling around so early before breakfast. It ain't a whole
lot like you to be out so early before grub time. What dragged you
from th' bunk so d----d early, anyhow?"

Antonio rolled a cigarette to gain time, being elaborately exacting,
and thought quickly for an excuse. Tossing the match in the air and
letting the smoke curl slowly from his nostrils he grinned pleasantly.
"I no sleep--have bad dreams. I wake up, _uno_, _dos_ times an' teenk
someteeng ees wrong. Then I ride to see. Eet ees soon light after that
an' I am hungry, so I come back. Eet ees no more, at all."

"Oh, it ain't!" retorted the foreman, still frowning, for he strongly
doubted the truth of what he had heard, so strongly that he almost
passed the lie. "It's some peculiar how this ranch has been shedding
dreams last night, all right. However, since I had some few myself I
won't say I had all there was loose. But you listen to me, an' listen
good, too. When I want any scouting done before daylight I'll take
care of it myself, savvy? An' if yo're any wise you'll cure yoreself
of th' habit of being out nights percolating around when you ought to
be asleep. You ain't acted none too wide awake lately an' yore string
of cayuses has shore been used hard, so I want it stopped, an' stopped
_sudden_; hear me? I ain't paying you to work nights an' loaf days an'
use up good cayuses riding hell-bent for nothing. You ain't never
around no more when I want you, so you get weaned of flitting around
in th' night air like a whip-poor-will; you might go an' catch
malaria!"

"I no been out bafo'--Juan, he tell you that ees so, _si_."

"Is that so? I sort of reckon he'd tell me anything you want him to if
he thought I'd believe it. Henceforth an' hereafter you mind what
_I've_ just told _you_. You might run up against some rustler what you
don't know very well, an' get shot on suspicion," Meeker hazarded, but
he found no change in the other's face, although he had hit Antonio
hard, and he limped off to the ranch house to get his breakfast,
swearing every time he put his sore leg forward, and at the ranch
responsible for its condition.

Antonio leaned against the corral wall and smoked, gazing off into
space as the foreman left him, for he had much to think about. He
smiled cynically and shrugged his shoulders as he shambled to his
shack, making up his mind to leave the H2 and join Shaw on the mesa as
soon as he could do so, and the sooner the better. Meeker's remark
about meeting strange rustlers, thieves he did not know, was very
disquieting, and it was possible that things might happen suddenly to
the broncho-buster of the H2. Soon emerging from his hut he walked
leisurely to the fartherest corral and returned with his saddle and
bridle. After holding a whispered consultation with Juan and Sanchez,
who both showed great alarm at what he told them, and who called his
attention to the fact that he had lost one of the big brass buttons
from the sleeve of his coat, the three walked to the cook shack for
their breakfast, where, every morning, they fought with Salem.

"Here comes them Lascars again to fill their holds with white man's
grub," the cook growled as he espied them. "If I was th' old man I'd
maroon them, or make 'em walk th' plank. Here, _you_! Get away from
that bench!" he shouted, running out of the shack. "That's _my_ grub!
If you ain't good enough to eat longside of th' crew, d----d if you
can eat with th' cook! Some day I'll slit you open, tail to gills, see
if I don't! Here's yore grub--take it out on th' deck an' fight for
it," and Salem, mounting guard over the bench, waved a huge butcher
knife at them and ordered them off. "Bilgy smelling lubbers! I'll run
afoul of 'em some morning an' make shark's food out of th' whole lot!"

Meanwhile Meeker, finding his breakfast not yet ready, went to
Antonio's shack and glanced in it. The bunk his broncho-buster used
was made up, which struck him as peculiar, since it was well known
that Antonio never made up his bunk until after supper. As he turned
to leave he espied the saddle and saw that the stirrups were streaked
with clay. "Now what was he doing over at th' river last night?" he
soliloquized. Shrugging his shoulders he wheeled and went to the bunk
house, where he stumbled over a box, whacking his shins soundly. His
heartfelt and extemporaneous remarks regarding stiff legs and
malicious boxes awakened Curley, who sat up and vigorously rubbed his
eyes with his rough knuckles. Grunts and profanity came from the other
bunks, Dan swearing with exceptional loquacity and fervor at his
wounded thigh.

"Somebody'll shore have to lift me out like a baby," he grumbled.
"I'll get square for this, all right!"

"Aw, what you cussing about?" demanded Chick, whose arm throbbed with
renewed energy when he sat up. "How'd you like to have an arm like
mine so you can't use it for grub, hey?"

"You an' yore arm can--"

"What's matter, Jim?" interrupted Curley, dropping his feet to the
floor and groping for his trousers. "You got my pants?" he asked Dan,
whereupon Dan told him many things, ending with: "In th' name of
heaven what do I want with pants on this leg! I can't get my own on,
let alone yourn. Mebby Chick has put 'em on his scratched wing!" he
added, with great sarcasm, whereupon Curley found them under his bunk
and muttered a profane request to be told why they had crawled so far
back.

"Yo're a hard luck bunch if yo're as sore as me," growled Meeker,
kicking the offending box out of doors. "I cuss every time I hobble."

"Oh, I ain't sore, not a bit--I'm feeling fine," exulted Curley,
putting one foot into a twisted trouser leg while he hopped
recklessly about to keep his balance, Dan watching him enviously. He
grabbed Chick's shoulder to steady himself and then arose from the
floor to find Chick calling him every name in the language and
offering to whip him with one hand if he grabbed the wounded arm
again.

"Aw, what's th' matter with you!" he demanded, getting the foot
through without further trouble. "I didn't stop to think, you chump!"

"Why didn't you?" snapped Chick, aggressively.

"Curley, yo're a plain, d----d nuisance--get outside where you'll have
plenty of room to get that other leg in," remarked Dan.

"Not satisfied with keeping us all awake by his cussed snoring an'
talking, he goes an' _hops_ right on my bad arm!" Chick remarked. "He
snores something awful, Jim; like a wagon rumbling over a wooden
bridge; an' he whistles every lap."

"You keep away from _me_, you cow!" warned Doc, weighing a Colt in his
hand by the muzzle. "I'll shore bend this right around yore face if
you don't!"

"Aw, go to th' devil! Yo're a bunch of sore-heads, just a bunch of--"
Curley snapped, his words becoming inaudible as he went out to the
wash bench, where Meeker followed him, glad to get away from the
grunting, swearing crowd inside.

"Curley," the foreman began, leaning against the house to ease his
thigh and groin, "that Greaser of our'n is either going _loco_, or he
is up to some devilment, an' I a whole lot favors th' devilment. I
thought of telling him to clean out, get off th' range an' stay off,
but I reckon I'll let him hang around a while longer to see just what
his game is. Of course if he is crooked, it's rustling. I'd like an
awful lot to ketch him rustling; it'd wipe out a lot of guessing, an'
him at th' same time."

"They're all of 'em crooked," Curley replied, refilling the basin.
"Every blasted one, an' he's worse than all th' others--he's a
coyote!"

"Yes, I reckon you ain't far from right," replied Meeker. "Well,
anyway, I put in a bad night an' rolled out earlier'n usual. I looked
out an' saw somebody sneaking around th' corral, an', gettin' my gun,
I went after him hot foot. It was Antonio, an' when I asks for whys
an' wherefores, he gives me a fool yarn about having a dream. He woke
up an' was plumb scared to death somebody was running off with th'
ranch, an', being so all-fired worried about th' safety of th' ranch
he's too lazy to work for, he just couldn't sleep, but had to get up
an' _saddle his cayuse_ an' _ride_ around th' corrals to see if it was
here. Now, what do you think of that?"

"Huh!" snorted Curley. "He don't care a continental cuss about this
ranch or anybody on it, an' never did."

"Which same I endorses; it shore was a sudden change," Meeker replied,
glancing at the Mexican's shack. "I looked in his hut an' saw his bunk
hadn't been used since night afore last, so he must 'a had his dreams
then. There was yaller clay on his stirrups--he must 'a been scared
somebody was going to run off with th' river, too. Now he shore was
rampaging all over creation last night--he didn't have no dreams nor
no sleep in that bunk last night, nohow. Now, th' question is, where
was he, an' what th' devil was he doing? I'd give twenty-five dollars
if I knowed for shore."

"That's easy!" snorted Curley, trying to get water out of his ear.
"Where'd I 'a been last night if I wasn't broke? Why, down in Eagle
having a good time--there's lots of good times in that town if you've
got th' price of more than a look-in. Or, mebby, he was off seeing his
girl, his _dulce_, as he calls her. That's a good way to pass th'
evening, too." Then, seeing the frown on Meeker's face he swiftly
contradicted himself, realizing that it was no time for jesting. "Why,
it looks to me like he might be a little interested in some of th'
promiscuous cattle lifting that's going on 'round here. I'll pump him
easy so he won't know what I'm driving at."

"Yes, you might do that if yo're shore you won't scare him away, but I
want you to pass th' horse corral, anyhow, an' see what horse he rode.
See how hard he pushed it riding around th' corrals, an' if there's
any yellow clay on its legs. Don't let him see you doing it or he'll
get gun-shy an' jump th' country. I'm going up to breakfast--Mary's
calling me."

Curley looked up. "Shore I'll do it. Holy cats! It's raining some on
th' hills, all right. Look yonder!"

"Yes. I saw it this morning early. It passed to th' northeast of us.
I'll be back soon," and the foreman limped away. "Hey, Curley," he
called over his shoulder for Antonio's benefit, "take a look at them
sore yearlings in th' corral," referring to several calves they had
quarantined.

"All right, Jim. They was some better last night. I don't think it's
anything that's catching."

"O-o-h!" yawned Jack in the doorway. "Seems like I just turned
in--gosh, but I'm sleepy."

"Nothing like cold water for that feeling," laughed Curley. "We stayed
up too late last night talking it over. Hullo, Chick; still going to
lick me one-handed?"

"You get away from that water, so I can wash one-handed," replied
Chick. "But you shouldn't ought to 'a done that. No, Jack--go ahead;
but I'm next. Hey, Dan!" he cried, laughing, "shall I bring some water
in to you?"

"I won't stay here an' listen to such language as Dan's ripping off,"
Curley grinned, starting away. "I'm going up to look at them sick
yearlings in Number Two corral."

True to his word Curley looked the animals over thoroughly and then
dodged into the horse corral, where he quickly examined the horses as
he passed them, alert for trouble, for a man on foot takes chances
when he goes among cow-ponies in a corral. Not one of the animals
forming Antonio's _remuda_ appeared to have been ridden and it was not
until he espied Pete, Doc's favorite horse, that he found any signs.
Pete's hair was roughened and still wet from perspiration, there was a
streak of yellow clay along its belly on one side but none on its
hoofs, and dried lather still clung to its jaws. Pete made no effort
to get away, for he was one of the best trained and most intelligent
animals on the ranch, a veteran of many roundups and drives, and he
knew from experience that he would not be called on to do double duty;
he had done his trick while the others rested.

"An' you know I ain't a-going to ride you, hey?" Curley muttered.
"You've had yore turn, an' you know you won't be called on to-day, you
wise old devil. Pete, some people say cayuses ain't got no sense, that
they can't reason--they never knowed you, did they? Well, boy, you'll
have yore turn grazing with th' rest purty soon."

He returned to the bunk house and spent a few minutes inside and then
sauntered easily towards the ranch house, where the foreman met him.

"So there wasn't no clay on his hoofs, hey?" Meeker exclaimed. "Some
on his belly, an' none on his hoofs. Hum! I reckon Pete was left by
hisself while th' Greaser wrastled with th' mud. Must 'a thought he
was prospecting. Well, he's a liar, an' a sneak; watch him close, an'
tell th' rest to do th' same. Mebby we'll get th' chance soon of
stretching his yellow neck some bright morning. I'll be down purty
soon to tell you fellers where to ride."

Curley returned to the wash bench and cleansed his hands, and because
the cold water felt so good, he dipped his face into it again, blowing
like a porpoise. As he squilgeed his face to lessen the duty of the
overworked towel, he heard a step and looked up quickly. Antonio was
leaning against the house and scowling at him, for he had looked
through a crack in the corral wall and had seen Pete being examined.

"Eet ees _bueno_ thees mornin'," the Mexican offered.

"What's good?" Curley retorted, staring because of Antonio's unusual
loquacity.

"_Madre de Dios_, de weatha."

"Oh, salubrious," replied Curley, evading a hole in the towel. "Plumb
sumptuous an' highfalutin', so to speak. You had a nice night for
Eagle, all right. Who-all was down there?"

"Antone not en Eagle--he no leev de rancho," the Mexican replied,
surprised. He hesitated as if to continue and Curley noticed it.

"What's on yore mind, 'Tony? What's eating you? _Pronto_, I'm hungry.
Next!"

"No nex'--I no _sabe_."

"You talkee likum Chinee!" retorted Curley. "Why don't you learn how
to talk English? It's easy enough. An' what do you want, anyhow,
getting so friendly all of a sudden?"

Antonio hesitated again. "What you do een de corral thees mornin'?"

"Oh, I was looking at them yearlings--they was purty bad, but they're
gettin' along all right. What do you think about 'em?"

"No; een de _beeg_ corral."

"Oh, you do!" snapped Curley. "Well, I remembered you was riding
around this morning before sun-up so I reckoned I'd look in an' see if
you rid my cayuse, which you didn't, an' which is good for you. I
ain't a whole lot intending to go moping about on no tired-out bronc,
an' don't you forget it, neither. An' seeing as how it ain't none of
your d----d business what I do or where I go, that's about all for
you."

"You no spik true--_Pah_! eet ees a lie!" cried the Mexican excitedly,
advancing a step, and running into the wash water and a fist, both of
which met him in the face. Curley, reaching for his holster and
finding that he had forgotten to buckle it on, snatched the Remington
from Antonio's sheath while the fallen man was half dazed. Pointing it
at the Mexican's stomach, he ordered him up and then told him things.

"I reckon you got off easy, Greaser--th' next time you calls me a liar
shoot first, or there'll be one less unwashed, shifty-eyed coyote of a
Greaser to ride range nights."

Antonio, drenched and seething with fury, his discolored face working
with passion and his small, cruel eyes snapping, sprang to the wall
and glared at the man who had knocked him down. But for the gun in
Curley's hand there would have been the flash of a knife, but the
Remington was master of the situation. Knife throwing is a useful art
at times, but it has its limitations. Cursing in Spanish, he backed
away and slunk into his shack as Doc Riley stuck his head out of the
bunk house doorway, hoping to be entertained.

"Worth while hanging 'round, Curley? Any chance of seeing a scrap?"
Doc asked, eying the gun in his friend's hand.

"You could 'a seen th' beginning of a scrap a couple of minutes
earlier," Curley replied. "I didn't give him a chance to throw. Why,
he was out all night on Pete, yore cayuse--rode him hard, too. He
said--"

"My Pete! Out all night on Pete!" yelled Doc, taking a quick step
towards Antonio's hut, the door of which slammed shut, whereupon Doc
shouted out his opinions of "Greasers" in general and of Antonio in
particular. "Is that right?" he asked, turning to Curley. "Was he out
on Pete?"

"He shore was--used him up, too."

"I'll break every bone in his yaller carcass!" Doc shouted, shaking
his fist at the hut. "Every time I see him I want to get my gun going,
an' it's getting worse all th' time. Unwashed pup! I'll fill him full
of lead pills surer than anything some of these days, you see if I
don't!"

"If you don't I will," replied Curley. "I just don't know why I didn't
then because--"

"Four bells--grub pile!" rang out the stentorian voice of Salem, who
could shout louder than any man on the ranch, and the conversation
came to an abrupt end, to be renewed at the table.

When Antonio heard the cook's shout he opened the door a trifle and
then, seeing that the coast was clear, picked up the bundle which
contained his belongings, shouldered his saddle, slipped his rifle
under his arm, and ran to the corral. Juan and Sanchez had been there
before him and he found that they not only had taken four of the best
horses, but that they had also picketed two good ones for him, and had
driven off the remainder to graze, which would delay pursuit should it
be instituted. Saddling the better of the two, he left the other and
cantered northwest until hidden from the sight of any one at the
ranch, and then galloped for safety.

Meeker, returning to the bunk house, found his men in far better humor
than they were in when he left them, although the death and burial of
Ed Joyce and the other misfortunes of the day before had quieted them
a little. As he entered the room he heard Salem in the cook shack,
droning a mournful dirge-like air as he slammed things about.

"Hey, cook!" shouted the foreman, standing in the door of the gallery.
"Cook!"

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"You are shore you didn't recognize none of them thieves that ran off
our herd yesterday?"

"Nary a one, sir. They was running with all sails set two points off
my port bow, which left me astarn of 'em. I was in that water-logged,
four-wheeled hulk of a chuck wagon an' I couldn't overhaul 'em, sir,
'though I gave chase. I tried a shot with th' chaser, but I was
rolling so hard I couldn't hull 'em. But I'll try again when I'm
sober, sir."

"All right, Salem," laughed Meeker. "Curley, you take yore regular
range. Doc, suppose you take th' west, next to Curley? Chick an' Dan
will have to stay here till they get well enough to ride, an' I'll
need somebody on th' ranch after yesterday, anyhow. Jack, how do you
feel? Good! Ride between here an' Eagle. I'm going to go down to that
town an' see what I can find out."

"But I can ride, Jim," offered Chick, eagerly. "This arm won't bother
me much. Let me stick close to Doc, or one of th' boys. Maybe they
might need me, Jim."

"You stay right here, like I said. We'll have to wait till we're all
right before we can get down to work in earnest. An' every one of you
look out for trouble--shoot first an' talk after." He turned again to
the gallery. "Salem, kill a cow an' sun cure th' meat; we might want
it in a hurry sometime soon. That'll be one cow they don't get,
anyway."

"Who's going to ride north, Jim?" asked Doc.

"Nobody; th' Bar-20 has been so d----d anxious to turn our cows an' do
our herding for us, an' run th' earth, we'll just let 'em for a while.
Not much danger of any rustlers buzzing reckless around _that_
neighborhood; they'll earn all they steal if they get away with it."

     I saw her face grow cold in death,
     I saw her--

came Salem's voice in a new wail. Meeker grabbed a quirt and, leaping
to the gallery, threw it. The song stopped short and other words,
less tuneful, finished the cook's efforts.

"You never mind what you saw!" shouted the foreman. "If you can't sing
anything but graveyard howls, you shut up yore singer!"



CHAPTER XX

WHAT THE DAM TOLD


About the time Meeker caught Antonio prowling around the corral,
Hopalong stepped out of the line house on the Peak and saw the
approaching storm, which gladdened him, notwithstanding the fact that
he and Red would ride through it to the bunk house. The range was fast
drying up, the grass was burning under the fierce heat of the sun, and
the reservoir, evaporating as rapidly as it was supplied, sent but
little water down the creek through the valley. This storm, if it
broke over the valley, promised to be almost a flood, and would not
only replenish the water supply, but would fortify the range for quite
a while against the merciless sun.

After he had sent Meeker and his men on their homeward journey he
ordered all but Red to report to Buck at the bunk house, believing
that the line fighting was at an end for a while, at least. But to
circumvent any contingency to the contrary, he and Red remained to
guard the house and discuss the situation. The rest of the line riders
were glad to get away for a day, as there was washing and mending to
be done, clothes to be changed, and their supply of cartridges and
tobacco to be replenished.

After throwing his saddle on his horse he went back to the house to
get his "slicker," a yellow water-proof coat, and saw Red gathering up
their few belongings.

"Going to rain like th' devil, Red," he said. "We'll get soaked before
we reach th' dam, but it'll give th' grass a chance, all right. It's
due us, an' we're going to get it."

Red glanced out of the window and saw the onrushing, low black mass of
clouds. "Gee! I reckon yes! Going to be some fireworks, too."

Hopalong, slipping into the hideous slicker, followed Red outside and
watched him saddle up. "It'll seem good to be in th' house again with
all th' boys, an' eat cook's grub once more. I reckon Frenchy an' some
of his squad will drift in--Johnny said he was going to ride out that
way on his way back an' tell 'em all th' news."

"Yes. Mind yore business, Ginger!" Red added as his horse turned its
head and nipped at his arm, half in earnest and half in playful
expostulation. Ginger could not accustom himself to the broad, hind
cinch which gripped his soft stomach, and he was wont to object to it
in his own way. "Yes, it's going to be a shore enough cloud-burst!"
Red exclaimed, glancing apprehensively at the storm. "Mebby we better
take th' hill trail--we won't have no cinch fording at th' Bend if
_that_ lets loose before we get there. We should 'a gone home with th'
crowd last night, 'stead of staying up here. I knowed they wouldn't
try it again--it's all yore fault."

"Oh, yo're a regular old woman!" retorted Hopalong. "A wetting will do
us good--an' as for th' ford, I feel like having a swim."

The close, humid air stirred and moaned, and fitful gusts bent the
sparse grass and rustled across the plateau, picking up dust and
sending it eddying along the ground. A sudden current of air whined
around the corners of the line house, slamming the door violently and
awakening the embers of the fire into a mass of glowing coals, which
crackled and gave off flying sparks. Several larger embers burst into
flame and tumbled end over end across the ground, and Hopalong,
running them down, stamped them out, returning and kicking dust over
the fire, actuated by the plainsman's instinct. Red watched him and
grinned.

"Of course that cloud-burst won't put the fire out," he remarked,
sarcastically, although he would have done the same thing if his
friend had not.

"Never go away an' leave a fire lit," Hopalong replied, sententiously,
closing the banging door and fastening it shut. A streak of lightning
quivered between earth and clouds and the thunder rolled in many
reverberations along the cliffs of the valley's edge, to die out on
the flat void to the west. Down the wind came the haunting wail of a
coyote, sounding so close at hand that Red instinctively reached for
his rifle and looked around.

"Take _mine_!" jeered Hopalong, mounting, having in mind the greater
range of his weapon. "You'll shore need it if you want to get that
feller. Gee, but it's dark!"

It was dark and the air was so charged with electricity that blue
points of flame quivered on the ears of their horses.

"We're going to get h--l!" shouted Red above the roar of the storm.
"Every time I spits I make a streak in th' air--an' ain't it hot!"

One minute it was dark; another, the lightning showed things in a
ghastly light, crackling and booming like a huge fireworks exhibition.
The two men could feel the hearts of their horses pounding against
their sides, and the animals, nervous as cats, kept their ears moving
back and forth, the blue sparks ghostly in the darkness.

"Come on, get out of this," shouted Hopalong. "D--n it, there goes my
hat!" and he shot after it.

For reply Red spurred forward and they rode down the steep hill at a
canter, which soon changed to a gallop, then to a dead run. Suddenly
there came a roar that shook them and the storm broke in earnest, the
rain pouring down in slanting sheets, drenching them to the skin in a
minute, for their slickers were no protection against that deluge.
Hopalong stripped his off, to see it torn from his grasp and disappear
in the darkness like a frightened thing.

"Go, then!" he snapped. "I was roasting in you, anyhow! I won't have
no clothes left by th' time I hits th' Bend--which is all th' better
for swimming."

Red slackened pace, rode at his friend's side, their stirrups almost
touching, for it was safer to canter than to gallop when they could
not see ahead of them. The darkness gradually lessened and when they
got close to the dam they could see as well as they could on any dull
day, except for a distance--the sheets of water forbade that.

"What's that?" Hopalong suddenly demanded, drawing rein and listening.
A dull roar came from the dam and he instinctively felt that something
was radically wrong.

"Water, of course," Red replied, impatiently. "This is a _storm_," he
explained.

Hopalong rode out along the dam, followed by Red, peering ahead.
Suddenly he stopped and swore.

"She's _busted_! Look there!"

A turbulent flood poured through a cut ten feet wide and roared down
the other side of the embankment, roiled and yellow.

"Good G-d! She's a goner shore!" cried Red excitedly.

"It shore is--_No_, Red! It's over th' stone work--see where that
ripple runs? We can save it if we hustle," Hopalong replied, wheeling.
"Come on! Dead cows'll choke it--get a move on!"

When Buck had decided to build the dam he had sent for an engineer to
come out and look the valley over and to lay out the lines to be
followed. The west end, which would be built against the bluff, would
be strong; but Buck was advised to build a core of rubble masonry for
a hundred feet east of the centre, where the embankment must run
almost straight to avoid a quicksand bottom. This had been done at a
great increase over the original estimate of the cost of the dam, but
now it more than paid for itself, for Antonio had dug his trench over
the rubble core--had he gone down a foot deeper he would have struck
it and discovered his mistake.

Hopalong and Red raced along the dam and separated when they struck
the plain, soon returning with a cow apiece dragging from their
lariats, which they released and pushed into the torrent. The bodies
floated with the stream and both men feared their efforts were in
vain. Then Hopalong uttered a shout of joy, for the carcasses,
stranding against the top of the masonry core, stopped, the water
surging over them. Racing away again they dragged up more cows until
the bodies choked the gap, when they brought up armfuls of brush and
threw them before the bodies. Then Red espied a shovel, swore
furiously at what it told him, and fell to throwing dirt into the
breach before the brush. He had to take it from different places so as
not to weaken the dam, and an hour elapsed before they stopped work
and regarded the results of their efforts with satisfaction.

"Well, she's there yet, and she'll stay, all right. Good thing we
didn't take th' hill trail," Hopalong remarked.

"Somebody cut it, all right," Red avowed, looking at the shovel in his
hands. "_H2_! Hoppy, see here! This is _their_ work!"

"Shore enough H2 on th' handle, but Meeker an' his crowd never did
that," Hopalong replied. "I ain't got no love for any of 'em, but
they're too square for this sort of a thing. Besides, they want to use
this water too much to cheat themselves out of every chance to get
it."

"You may be right--but it's d----d funny that we find their shovel on
th' job," Red rejoined, scowling at the brand burned into the wooden
handle.

"What's that yo're treading on?" Hopalong asked, pointing to a bright
object on the ground.

Red stooped and then shouted, holding up the object so his friend
could see it. "It's a brass button as big as a half-dollar--bet it
belonged to th' snake that used this shovel!"

"Yo're safe. I won't bet you--an' Antonio was th' only one I've seen
wearing buttons like that in these parts," Hopalong replied. "I'm
going to kill him on sight!" and he meant what he said.

"Same here, th' ornery coyote!" Red gritted.

"That Greaser has had me guessing, but I'm beginning to see a great
big light," Hopalong remarked, taking the button and looking it over.
"Yep, it's hissen, all right."

"Well, we've filled her," Red remarked after a final inspection.

"She'll hold until to-morrow, anyhow, or till we can bring th' chuck
wagon full of tools an' rocks down here," Hopalong replied. "We'll
make her solid for keeps when we begin. You better take th' evidence
with you, Red, an' let Buck look 'em over. It's a good thing Buck
spent that extra money putting in that stone core! Besides losing th'
reservoir we'd have had plenty of dead cows by this time if it wasn't
for that."

"An' that Greaser went an' picked out the weakest spot in th' whole
thing, or th' spot what would be th' weakest if that wall wasn't
there," Red remarked. "He ain't no fool, but a stacked deck can beat a
good head time after time."

When they reached the ford they found a driftwood-dotted flood roaring
around the bend, three times as wide as it was ordinarily, for the
hills made a watershed that gave quick results in such a rain.

"Now Red Eagle, old cayuse, here's where you swim," Hopalong laughed,
riding up stream so he would not be carried past the bottom of the
hill trail on the farther side. Plunging in, the two horses swam
gallantly across, landing within a few feet of the point aimed at, and
scrambled up the slippery path, down which poured a stream of water.

When they reached the half-way point between the ford and the ranch
houses the storm slackened, evolving into an ordinary rain, which
Hopalong remarked would last all day. Red nodded and then pointed to a
miserable, rain-soaked calf, which moved away at their approach.

"Do you see that!" he exclaimed. "Our brand, an' Meeker's ear notch!"

"That explains th' shovel being left on th' dam," quickly replied
Hopalong. "It would be plumb crazy for th' H2 to make a combination
like that ear notch an' our brand, an' you can gamble they don't know
nothing about it. Th' gent that left Meeker's shovel _for us to find_
did that, too. You know if any of th' H2 cut th' dam they wouldn't
forget to take th' shovel with 'em, Red. It's Antonio, that's who it
is. He's trying to make a bigger fight along th' line an' stir things
up generally so he can rustle promiscuous. Well, we'll give all our
time to th' rustling end from now on, if I have got any voice in th'
matter. An' I hope to th' Lord I can get within gun range of that
coyote of a Greaser. Why, by th' A'mighty, I'll go down an' plug him
on his own ground just as soon as I can get away, which will be
to-morrow! That's just what I'll do! I'll stop his plays or know th'
reason why."

"An' I'm with you--you'll take a big chance going down there alone,"
Red replied. "_After_ Meeker hears what we've got to say he'll be
blamed glad we came."

An hour later they stopped at the ranch house, a squat, square
building, flat of roof, its adobe walls three feet thick and
impenetrable to heat. Stripping saddles and bridles from their
streaming mounts, they drove the animals into a large corral and ran
to the bunk house, where laughter greeted their appearance.

"Swimming?" queried Johnny, putting aside his harmonica.

"Hey, you! Get out of here an' lean up against th' corral till you
shed some of that water!" cried Lanky, the wounded, watching the
streams from their clothes run over the floor. "We'll be afloat in a
minute if you don't get out--we ain't no fishes."

"You shut up," retorted Red. "We'll put you out there to catch what
water we missed if you gets funny," he threatened, stripping as
rapidly as he could. He hung the saturated garments on pegs in the
gallery wall and had Pete rub him down briskly, while Billy did the
same for his soaked companion.

Around them were their best friends, all laughing and contented,
chaffing and exchanging personal banter with each other, engaged in
various occupations, from sewing buttons on shirts to playing cards
and mending riding gear. Snatches of songs burst forth at odd
intervals, while laughter was continually heard. This was the
atmosphere they loved, this repaid them for their hard work, this and
the unswerving loyalty, the true, deep affection, and good-natured
banter that pricked but left no sting. Here was one of the lures of
the range, the perfect fellowship that long acquaintance and the
sharing of hard work and ubiquitous danger breeds among the members of
a good, square outfit. Not one of them ever counted personal safety
before duty to his ranch and his companions, taking his hard life
laughingly and without complaint, generous to a fault, truthful and
loyal and considerate. There was manhood for you, there was contempt
for restricting conventions, for danger; there was a unity of thought
and purpose that set the rough-spoken, ready-fighting men of the
saddle and rope in a niche by themselves, a niche where fair play,
unselfishness, and a rough but sterling honor abides always. Their
occupation gave more than it exacted and they loved it and the open,
wind-swept range where they were the dominating living forces.

Buck came in with Frenchy McAllister and Pie Willis and grinned at his
crowd of happy "boys," who gave warm welcome. The foreman was not
their "boss," their taskmaster, but he was their best friend, and he
shared with them the dangers and joys which were their lot,
sympathetic in his rough way, kind and trusting.

Hopalong struggling to get his head through a dry shirt, succeeded,
and swiftly related to his foreman the occurrences of the morning,
pointing to the shovel and button as the total exhibit of his proofs
against the Mexican. The laughter died out, the banter was hushed, and
the atmosphere became that of tense hostility and anger. When he had
ceased speaking angry exclamations and threats filled the room, coming
from men who always "made good." When Red had told of the H2-Bar-20
calf, an air of finality, of conviction, settled on them; and it
behooved Antonio to hunt a new range, for his death would be sudden
and merciless if he met any of the Bar-20 outfit, no matter when or
where. They never forgot.

After brief argument they came to the decision that he was connected
with the rustling going on around them, and this clinched his fate.
Several, from the evidence and from things which they had observed and
now understood, were of the opinion that he was the ringleader of the
cattle thieves, the head and the moving spirit.

"Boys," Buck remarked, "we won't bother about th' line very much for a
while. It's been a peaceable sort of a fracas, anyhow, an' I don't
expect much further trouble. If H2 cows straggle across an' yo're
right handy to 'em an' ain't got nothing pressing to do, drive 'em
back; but don't look for 'em particularly. There won't be no more
drives against us for a long time. We've got to hunt rustlers from now
on, an' hunt hard, or they'll get too numerous to handle very easy.
Let th' cows take care of themselves along th' river, Frenchy, an' put
your men up near Big Coulee, staying nights in Number Two. Pete an'
Billy will go with you. That'll protect th' west, an' there won't be
no rustling going on from th' river, nohow. Don't waste no time
herding--put it all in hunting. Hopalong, you, Johnny, Red, an' Skinny
take th' hills country an' make yore headquarters in Number Three an'
Four. Lanky will stay up here until he can handle hisself good again.
I'll ride promiscuous, but if any of you learn anything you want me to
know, leave it with Lanky or th' cook if you can't find me. Just as
soon as we have anything to go on, we'll start on th' war path hot
foot an' clean things up right an' proper."

"What'll we do if we catches anybody rustling?" asked Johnny, assuming
an air of ignorance and curiosity, and ducking quickly as Red swung at
him.

"Give 'em ten dollars reward an' let 'em go," Buck grinned.

"Give me ten if I brings th' Greaser to you?"

"I'll fine you twenty if you waste that much time over him," Buck
replied.

"Whoop!" Johnny exulted. "Th' good old times are coming back again!
Remember Bye-an'-Bye an' Cactus Springs, Buckskin an' Slippery
Trendley? Remember th' good old scraps? Now we'll have something else
to do besides chasing cows an' wiping th' rust off our guns!"

Lanky, who took keen delight in teasing the youngster, frowned
severely. "Yo're just a fool kid, just a happy idiot!" he snorted, and
Johnny looked at him, surprised but grinning. "Yes, you are! I never
seen such a bloody-minded animal in all my born days as you! After all
th' fighting you've gone an' got mixed up in, you still yap for more!
You makes me plumb disgusted, you do!"

"He _is_ awful gory," remarked Hopalong soberly. "Just a animated
massacre in pants."

"Regular Comanche," amended Red, frowning. "What do you think about
him, Frenchy?"

"I'd ruther not say it," Frenchy replied. "You ask Pie--he ain't
scared of nothing, massacre _or_ Comanche."

Johnny looked around the room and blurted out, "You all think th' same
as me, every one of you, even if you are a lot of pussy-cats, an' you
know it, too!"

"Crazy as a locoed cow," Red whispered across the room to Buck, who
nodded sorrowfully and went into the cook shack.

"You wait till I sees Antonio an' you'll find out how crazy I am!"
promised Johnny.

"I shore hopes he spanks you an' sends you home a-bawling," Lanky
snorted. "You needs a good licking, you young cub!"

"Yah, yah!" jibed Johnny. "Needing an' getting are two different
tunes, grand-pop!"

"You wasn't down here, was you, Frenchy, when Johnny managed to rope a
sleepy gray wolf that was two years old, an' tried to make a pet out
of him?" asked Hopalong, grinning at his recollection of the affair.

"No!" exclaimed Frenchy in surprise. "Did he do it?"

"Oh, yes, he did it; with a gun, after th' pet had torn his pants off
an' chewed him up real well. He's looking for another, because he says
that was too mean a beast to have any luck with."

Buck stepped into the room again. "Who wants to go with me to th' dam
in th' wagon?" he asked. "I want to look at that cut an' fix it for
keeps if it needs fixing. All right! All right! Anybody'd think I
asked you to go to a dance," he laughed. "Pete, you an' Billy an' Pie
will be enough."

"Can't we ride alongside?" asked Pie. "Do we have to sit in that
thing?"

"You can walk, if you want to. I don't care how you go," Buck
replied, stepping into the rain with the three men close behind him.
Soon the rattling of the wagon was heard growing fainter on the plain.

The banter and the laughter ran on all the rest of the morning. After
dinner Hopalong built a fire in the huge stove and put a ladleful of
lead on the coals, while Frenchy and Skinny re-sized and re-capped
shells from the boxes on the wall. Hopalong watched the fire and
smoked the bullet moulds, while Lanky managed to measure powder and
fill the shells after Frenchy and Skinny had finished with them.
Hopalong filled the moulds rapidly while Johnny took out the bullets
and cooled them by dropping them into cold rain water, being cautioned
by Hopalong not to splash any water into the row of moulds. As soon as
he found them cool enough, Johnny wiped them dry and passed them on to
Red, who crimped them into the charged shells. Soon the piles of
cartridges grew to a goodly size, and when the last one had been
finished the crowd fell to playing cards until supper was ready.
Hopalong, who had kept on running bullets, sorted them, and then
dropped them into the boxes made for each size. Finally he stopped and
went to the door to look for signs of the morrow's weather.

"Clearing up in th' west an' south--here comes Buck an' th' others,"
he called over his shoulder. "How was it, Buck?" he shouted, and out
of the gathering dusk came the happy reply:

"Bully!"



CHAPTER XXI

HOPALONG RIDES SOUTH


The morning broke clear and showed a clean, freshened plain to the men
who rode to the line house on the Peak, there to take up their
quarters and from there to ride as scouts. Hopalong sent Red to ride
along the line for the purpose of seeing how things were in that
vicinity and, leaving the others to go where they wished, struck south
down the side of the hill, intending to hunt Antonio on his own
ground. Tied to his saddle was the shovel and in his pocket he carried
the brass button, his evidence for Meeker. As he rode at an easy lope
he kept a constant lookout for signs of rustling. Suddenly he leaned
forward and tightened his knee grip, the horse responding by breaking
into a gallop, while its rider took up his lariat, shaking it into a
long loop, his twisting right wrist imparting enough motion to it to
keep it clear of the vegetation and rocks.

A distant cow wheeled sharply and watched him for a moment and then,
snorting, its head down and its tail up, galloped away at a speed not
to be found among domesticated cattle. It was bent upon only one
thing--to escape that dreaded, whirling loop of rawhide, so pliant
and yet so strong. Hopalong, not as expert as Lanky, who carried a
rope nearly sixty feet long and who could place it where he wished,
used one longer than the more common lariats.

The cow did its best, but the pony steadily gained, nimbly executing
quick turns and jumping gullies, up one side of a hill and down the
other, threading its way with precision through the chaparrals and
deftly avoiding the holes in its path. Closer and closer together came
the pursued and pursuers, and then the long rope shot out and sailed
through the air, straight for the animal's hind legs. As it settled, a
quick upward jerk of the arm did the rest and there was a snubbing of
rope around the saddle horn, a sudden stopping and dropping back on
haunches on the part of the pony, and the cow went down heavily. The
rider did not wait for the horse to get set, but left the saddle as
soon as the rope had been securely snubbed, and ran to the side of his
victim.

The cow was absolutely helpless, for the rope was taut, the
intelligent pony leaning back and being too well trained to allow the
least amount of slack to bow the rawhide closer to the earth.
Therefore Hopalong gave no thought to his horse, for while cinches,
pommel, and rope held, the small, wiry, wild-eyed bundle of galvanic
cussedness would hold the cow despite all its efforts to get up.

"Never saw _that_ brand before, an' I've rid all over this country for
a good many years, too," he soliloquized. "There sure ain't no HQQ
herd down this way, nor no place close enough for a stray. Somebody
is shore starting a herd on his own hook; from th' cows on this range,
too.

"By th' great horned spoon! I can see Bar-20 in them marks!" he cried,
bending closer. "All he had to do was to make a H out of th' Bar,
close up th' 2, an' put a tail on th' O! Hum--whoop! There is H2 in
it, too! Close th' 2 an' add a Q, an' there you are! I don't mind a
hog once in a while, but working both ranches to a common mark is
shore too much for me. Stealing from both ranches an' markin 'em all
HQQ!"

He moved up to look at the ears and swore when he saw them. "D--n it!
That's all I want to know! Mebby a sheriff wouldn't get busy on th'
evidence, but I ain't no sheriff--I'm just a plain cow-punch with good
common sense. Meeker's cut is a V in one ear--here I finds a slant
like Skinny saw, an' in both ears. If that don't cut under Meeker's
notch I'm a liar! All framed up to make a new herd out of our cows.
Just let me catch some coyote with a running iron under his saddle
flap an' see what happens!"

He quickly slacked the rope and slipped off the noose, running as fast
as he could go to his pony, for some cows get "on the prod" very
easily, and few cows are afraid of a man on foot; and when a
long-horned Texas cow has "its dander up," it is not safe for an
unmounted man to take a chance with its horns, unless he is willing to
shoot it down. This Hopalong would not do, for he did not want to let
the rustlers know that the new brand had been discovered. Vaulting
into his saddle he eluded the charge of the indignant cow and loped
south, coiling up his rope as he went.

Half an hour after leaving the HQQ cow he saw a horseman ahead of him,
threading his way through a chaparral. As Hopalong overtook him the
other emerged and stopped, uncertain whether to reach for his gun or
not. It was Juan, who had not gone to Mesa overnight, scouting to
learn if any new developments had taken place along the boundary. Juan
looked at the shovel and then at the puncher, his face expressionless.

Hopalong glanced at the other's cuff, found it was all right, and then
forced himself to smile. "Looking for rustlers?" he bantered.

"_Si._"

"What! There ain't no rustlers loose on this range, is there?" asked
Hopalong, surprised.

"_Quien sabe?_"

"Oh, them sleepers were made by yore own, lazy outfit, an' you might
as well own up to it," Hopalong grinned, deprecatingly. "You can fool
Meeker, all right, he's easy; but you can't throw dust in my eyes like
that. On th' level, now, ain't I right? Didn't you fellers make them
sleepers?"

Juan shrugged his shoulders. "_Quien sabe?_"

"That '_Quien sabe_' is th' handiest an' most used pair of words in
yore cussed language," replied Hopalong grinning. "Ask one of you
fellers something you don't want to tell an' it's '_Quien sabe?_'
ain't it?"

"_Si_," laughed the Mexican.

"I thought so," Hopalong retorted. "You can't tell me that any gang
that would cut a dam like they did ourn wouldn't sleeper, an' don't
you forget it, neither!"

Juan's face cleared for a moment as he gloated over how Antonio's
scheme had worked out, and he laughed. "No can fool you, hey?" Then he
pressed his knee tighter against his saddle skirt and a worried look
came into his eyes.

Hopalong took no apparent notice of the action, but he saw it, and it
sent one word burning through his brain. They were riding at a walk
now and Hopalong, not knowing that Juan had left the H2, suggested
that they ride to the ranch together. He was watching the Mexican
closely, for it would not be unusual for a man in Juan's position to
try to get out of it by shooting. The Mexican refused to ride south
and Hopalong, who was determined to stay with his companion until he
found out what he wanted to know, proposed a race to a barranca that
cut into the plain several hundred yards ahead. He would let Juan beat
him, and all the way, so he could watch the saddle flap, and if this
failed he would waste no more time in strategy, but would find out
about it quickly. Juan also declined to race, and very hurriedly, for
the less his saddle was jolted the better it would be for him. He knew
Hopalong's reputation as a revolver fighter and would take no chances.

"That ain't a bad cayuse you got there. I was wondering if it could
beat mine, what's purty good itself. Is it very bronc?" he asked,
kicking the animal in the ribs whereupon it reared and pranced.
Juan's left hand went to the assistance of his knee, his right grasped
the cantle of his saddle, where it was nearer the butt of his Colt,
and a look of fear came into his eyes.

Hopalong watched his chance and as the restive animal swung towards
him he spurred it viciously, at the same time crying: "Take yore hand
from off that flap, you d----d cow-lifter!"

The command was unnecessary, for a thin, straight rod of iron slipped
down and stuck in the sand, having worked loose from its lashings.
Mexican-like, Juan had put off until to-morrow to heat it and bend a
loop in one end for more secure fastening.

At the instant it fell Juan leaned back and dropped over on the far
side of his horse, his right leg coming up level with his enemy, and
reached for his gun, intending to shoot through the end of the holster
and save time. But he went farther than he had intended, not stopping
until he struck the earth, his bullet missing Hopalong by only a few
inches.

The Bar-20 puncher slipped his Colt back into the sheath and, leaning
down, deftly picked up the iron and fastened it to his saddle. Roping
the Mexican's horse he continued on his way to the H2, leaving Juan
where he had fallen.

When he arrived at the ranch he turned the horse into the corral and
started to ride to the bunk house; but Salem, enjoying a respite from
cooking and washing dishes, saw him and started for him on an awkward
run, crying:

"Where'd you git that hoss? Where'd you clear from, an' who are you?"

"Th' cayuse belongs to Meeker--Juan was riding it. Is anybody around?"

"I'm around, ain't I, you fog-eyed lubber! Where's th' Lascar? Who are
you?"

"Well, Duke, I'm from th' Bar-20, an' my name is Hop--"

"Weigh anchor an' 'bout ship! You can't make this port, you
wind-jamming pirate!"

"I want to see yore foreman. This is his shovel, an' I--"

"Then where'd you get it, hey? How'd you get his--"

"Hang it!" interrupted Hopalong, losing his patience. "I tell you I
want to see Meeker! I want to see him about some--"

"An' where's th' coolie that rid that hoss?" demanded the cook,
belligerently.

"You won't see that thief no more. That's one of th' things I want
to--"

"Hooray!" cried Salem. "Was he drowned, or shanghaied?"

"Was he what? What are you talking about, anyhow? Where did you ever
learn how to talk Chinese?"

"What! Chinese! You whale-bellied, barnacle-brained bilge pirate, I've
got a good notion--"

"Say, is there anybody around here that ain't loco? Are they all as
crazy as you?" Hopalong asked.

Salem grabbed up one of the bars of the corral gate and, roaring
strange oaths, ran at the stranger, but Hopalong spurred his horse and
kept clear of the pole while Salem grew short winded and more profane.
Then the puncher thought of Mary and cantered towards the ranch house
intending to ask her where he could find her father, thus combining
business with pleasure. Salem shook the pole at him and then espied
the saddled horse in the corral. He disliked horses as much as they
disliked him, so much, in fact, that he said the only reason he did
not get out of the country and go back to the sea was because he had
to ride a horse to do it. But any way was acceptable under the present
exigencies, so he clambered into the saddle after more or less effort
and found it not quite roomy enough for one of his growing corpulency.
Shouting "Let fall!" he cantered after the invader of his ranch,
waving the pole valiantly. He did not see that the ears of his mount
were flattened or that its eyes were growing murderous in their
expression, and he did not know that the lower end of the pole was
pounding lustily against the horse's legs every time he waved the
weapon. All he thought about was getting his pleasant duty over with
as soon as possible, and he gripped the pole more firmly.

Hopalong looked around curiously to see what the cook was doing to
make all that noise, and when he saw he held his sides. "Well, if th'
locoed son-of-a-gun ain't after me! Lord! Hey, stranger," he shouted,
"if you want him to run fast, take hold of his tail an' pull it three
times!"

He was not averse to having a little fun at the tenderfoot's expense
and he deferred his visit to the house to circle around the angry cook
and shout advice. Instead of laying the reins against his mount's neck
to turn it, Salem jerked on them, which the indignant animal instantly
resented. It had felt all along that it was being made a fool of and
imposed upon, but now it would have a sweet revenge. Leaping forward
suddenly it stopped stiff-legged and arched its back several times
with all the force it was capable of; but it could have stopped
immediately after the first pitch, for Salem, still holding to the
pole, executed a more or less graceful parabola and landed in a
sitting posture amid much dust.

"_Whoof!_ What'd we strike?" he demanded dazedly. Then, catching sight
of the cause of his flight, which was at that moment cropping an
overlooked tuft of grass as if it were accustomed to upsetting
pole-waving cooks, Salem scrambled to his feet and ran at it, getting
in one good whack before the indignant and groping pony could move.

"There, blast you!" he yelled. "I'll show you what you get for a trick
like that!" Turning, and seeing Hopalong laughing until the tears ran
down his face, he roared, "What are you laughing at, d--n you?"

A rope sailed out and tightened around Salem's feet and he once more
sat down, unable to arise this time, because of Hopalong's horse,
which backed slowly, step by step, dragging the captive, who was now
absolutely helpless.

"Now I want to talk to you for a few minutes, an' I'm going to,"
Hopalong remarked. "Will you listen quietly or will you risk losing
th' seat of yore pants? You've _got_ to listen, anyhow."

"Wha--what----go ahead, only stop th' headway of yore craft! Lay to!
I'm on th' rocks!"

Laughing, Hopalong rode closer to him. "Where's Antonio?"

"In h--l, I hope, leastwise that's where he ought to be."

"Well, I just sent his friend Juan there--had to; he toted a running
iron an'--"

"Did you? Did you?" cried Salem in accents of joy. "Why didn't you say
so before! Come in an' splice th' main brace, shipmate! That cross
between a nigger an' a Chinee is in Davy Jones' locker, is he? Hey,
wait till I get these lashings cast off--yo're a good hand after all.
Come in an' have some grog--best stuff this side of Kentucky, where it
was made."

"I ain't got time," replied Hopalong, smiling. "Where's that Greaser
broncho-buster?"

"Going to send _him_ down too? D--n my tops'ls, wish I knowed! He
deserted, took shore leave, an' ain't reported since. Yo're
clipper-rigged, a regular AB, you are! Spin us th' yarn, matey."

Hopalong told him about the dam and the shooting of Juan and gave him
the shovel and button for Meeker, Salem's mouth wide open at the
recital. When he had finished the cook grabbed his stirrup and urged
him towards the grog, but Hopalong laughingly declined and, looking
towards the ranch house, saw Jim Meeker riding like mad in their
direction.

"What do you want?" blazed the foreman, drawing rein, his face dark
with anger.

"I want to plug Antonio, an' his friend Sanchez," Hopalong replied
calmly. "I just caught Juan with a running iron under his saddle flap
an' I drilled him for good. Here's th' iron."

"Good for you!" cried Meeker, taking the rod. "They've jumped, all of
'em. I'm looking for 'em myself, an' we're all looking for coyotes
toting these irons. I'm glad you got one of 'em!"

"Antonio scuttled their dike--here's th' shovel he did it with,"
interrupted Salem eagerly. "An' here's th' button off th' Greaser's
jacket. He left it by th' shovel. My mate, here, is cruising to fall
in with 'em, an' when he does there'll be--"

"Why, that's _my_ shovel!" cried Meeker. "An' that's his button, all
right."

Hopalong told him all about the attempt to cut the dam and when he had
ceased Meeker swore angrily. "Them Greasers are on th' rustle, shore!
They're trying to keep th' fighting going on along th' line so we'll
be too busy to bother 'em in their stealing. I've been losing cows
right an' left--why, they run off a herd of beef right here by th'
houses. Salem saw 'em. They killed cows down south an' covered my
range with sleepers an' lame mothers. How did you come to guess he
had an iron?"

Hopalong told of the HQQ cow he had found and, dismounting, traced the
brand in the sand, Meeker bending over eagerly.

"You see this Bar-20?" he asked, pointing it out, and his interested
companion interrupted him with a curse.

"Yes, I do; an' do _you_ see this H2?" he demanded. "They've merged
our brands into one--stealing from both of us!"

"Yes. I figgered that out when I saw th' mark; that's one of th'
things I came down to tell you about," Hopalong replied, mounting
again. "An' Red an' me found a Bar-20 calf with a V ear notch, too.
That proves what th' dam was cut for, don't it?"

"Why didn't I drop that coyote when I caught him skulking th' other
morning!" growled Meeker, regretfully. "He had just come back from
yore dam then--had yaller mud on his cayuse an' his stirrups. Out all
night on a played-out bronc, an' me too thick to guess he was up to
some devilment an' shoot him for it! Oh, h--l! I thought purty hard of
you, Cassidy, but I reckon we all make mistakes. Any man what would
stop to think out th' real play when he found that shovel is square."

"Oh, that's all right. I allus did hate Greasers, an' mebby that was
why I suspected him, that an' th' button."

Meeker turned to the cook. "Where's Chick an' Dan?" he asked,
impatiently. "I ain't seen 'em around."

"Why, Chick rid off down south an' Dan cleared about an hour ago."

"What! With that leg of hissen!"

"Aye, aye, sir; he couldn't leave it behind, you know, sir."

"All right, Cassidy; much obliged. I'll put a stop to th' rustling on
_my_ range, or know th' reason why. D--n th' day I ever left
Montanny!" Meeker swore, riding towards the ranch house.

"Say, I hope you find them Lascars," remarked Salem. "Yo're th' boy
that'll give 'em what they needs. Wish you had caught 'em all four
instead of only one."

Hopalong smiled. "Then they might 'a got me instead."

"No, no, siree!" exclaimed the cook. "You can lick 'em all, an' I'll
gamble on it, too! But you better come in an' have a swig o' grog
before you weighs anchor, matey. As I was saying, it's th' best grog
west of Kentucky. Come on in!"



CHAPTER XXII

LUCAS VISITS THE PEAK


When Hopalong returned to the line house on the Peak he saw Johnny and
Skinny talking with Lucas, the C80 foreman, and he hailed them.

"Hullo, Lucas!" he cried. "What are you doing down here?"

"Glad to see you, Hopalong," Lucas replied, shaking hands. "Came down
to see Buck, but Lanky, up in th' bunk house, said he was off
somewhere scouting. From what Lanky said I reckon you fellers had a
little joke down here last week."

"Yes," responded Hopalong, dismounting. "It was a sort of a joke,
except that somebody killed one of Meeker's men. I'll be blamed if I
know who done it. Lanky says he didn't an' he don't have to deny a
thing like that neither. Looks to me like he caught some brand-blotter
dead to rights, like I did a little while ago, an' like he got th'
worst of th' argument. Lanky would 'a told me if he did it, an' don't
you forget it, neither."

"What's that about catching somebody dead to rights?" eagerly asked
Johnny.

"Who was it?" asked Skinny.

"Juan. He toted a running iron an' I caught him just after I looked
over a cow with a new brand--"

"Did you get him good?" quickly asked Johnny. "Did he put up a fight?"

"Yes; an' what was th' brand?" Skinny interposed.

"Here, here!" laughed Hopalong. "I reckon I'll save time if I tell you
th' whole story," and he gave a short account of his ride, interrupted
often by the inquisitive and insistent Johnny.

"An' who is Salem?" Johnny asked.

"Meeker's cook."

"What did Meeker say about it when you told him?"

"Gimme a chance to talk an' I'll tell you!" and Johnny remained silent
for a moment. Finally the story was told and Johnny, who had been
swearing vengeance on all "Greasers," asked one more question,
grinning broadly:

"An' what did Mary say?"

"You say Meeker lost a whole herd?" asked Lucas. "Let me tell you
there's more people mixed up in this rustling than we think. But I'll
tell you one thing; that herd didn't go north, unless they drove ten
miles east or west of our range."

"Well, I reckon it's under one man, all right," Hopalong replied. "If
it was a lot of separate fellers running it by themselves there'd 'a
been a lot of blunders an' some few of 'em would 'a been shot before
Juan went. It's a gang, all right. But why th' devil did they turn
loose that H2 rebranded cow, that HQQ that I found? They might 'a
knowed it would cause some hot thinking when it was found. That cow is
just about going to lick 'em."

"Stray," sententiously remarked Skinny.

"Shore, that's what it was," Lucas endorsed.

"An' do you know what that means?" asked Hopalong, looking from face
to face. "It means that they can't be holding their herds very far
away. It's three to one that I'm right."

"Mebby they're down in Eagle," suggested Johnny hopefully, for Eagle
would be a good, exciting proposition in a fight.

"No, it ain't there," Hopalong replied. "There's too many people down
there. They would all know about it an' want a share in th' profits;
but it ain't a whole lot foolish to say that Eagle men are in it."

"Look here!" cried Skinny. "Mebby that HQQ is their road brand--that
cow might 'a strayed from their drive. They've got to have some brand
on cows they sell, an' they can't leave ours on an' get back alive."

"You are right, but not necessarily so about th' road brand," Hopalong
rejoined. "But that don't tell us where they are, does it?"

"We've got to hunt HQQ cows on th' drive," Johnny interposed as Skinny
was about to speak. "I'll go down to Eagle an' see if I can't get on
to a drive. Then I'll trail th' gang all th' way an' back to where
they hangs out. That'll tell us where to go, all right."

"You keep out of Eagle--you'd be shot before you reached Quinn's
saloon," Hopalong said. "No; it ain't Eagle, not at all. See here,
Lucas; have you watched them construction camps along that railroad?
There ain't a better market nowhere than them layouts; they don't ask
no questions if th' beef is cheap."

"Yes, I've watched th' trails leading to 'em."

"Why, they wouldn't cross yore range!" Hopalong cried. "They'd drive
around you an' hit th' camp from above; they ain't fools. Hey! I've
got it! They can't go around th' Double Arrow unless they are willing
to cross th' Staked Plain, an' you can bet they ain't. That leaves th'
west, an' there's a desert out there they wouldn't want to tackle.
They drive between th' desert an' yore range."

"If they drive to th' camps, yo're right without a doubt," Skinny
remarked. "But mebby they are driving south--mebby they're starting a
ranch along th' Grande, or across it."

"Well, we'll take th' camps first," Hopalong replied. "Lucas, can you
spare a man to look them camps over? Somebody that can live in 'em a
month, if he has to?"

"Shore. Wood Wright is just th' man."

"No, he ain't th' man," contradicted Hopalong quickly. "Anybody that
wears chaps, or walks like he does would arouse suspicion in no time,
an' get piped out some night. This man has got to have business up
there, like looking for a job. Say! Can you get along without yore
cook for a while? If you can't we will!"

"You bet yore life I can!" exulted Lucas. "That's good. He can get a
job right where th' meat is used, an' where th' hides will be kicking
around. He goes to-morrow!"

"That's th' way; th' sooner th' better," Hopalong responded. "But we
won't wait for him. We'll scout around lively down here an' if we
don't find anything he may. But for th' Lord's sake, don't let him
ride a cayuse into that camp that has brands of this section. Cowan
will be glad to lend you his cayuse; he got it up north too far to
make 'em suspicious."

"Yes; I reckon that'll be about the thing."

"Here comes Red," Johnny remarked. "Hey, Red, Hoppy got Juan this
morning. Caught him toting a straight iron!"

"Johnny, you get away lively an' tell Frenchy to scout west," Hopalong
ordered. "You can stay up in Number Two with them to-night, but come
down here again in th' morning. Red, to-morrow at daylight we go west
an' comb that country."

"That's th' way," remarked Lucas, mounting. "Get right at it. Have you
got any word for Buck? I'll go past th' house an' leave it if you
have."

"Yes; tell him what we've talked over. An' you might send yore outfit
further west, too," Hopalong responded. "I'll bet a month's pay we
end this cow-lifting before two more weeks roll by. We've got to!"

"Oh, yes; I near forgot it--Bartlett thinks we-all ought to get
together after th' rustling is stopped an' shoot that town of Eagle
plumb off th' earth," Lucas said. "It's only a hell hole, anyhow, an'
it won't do no harm to wipe it out." He looked around the group. "What
do you fellers think about it?" he asked.

"Well, we might, then; we've got too many irons in th' fire now,
though," Hopalong replied. "Hey, Johnny! Get a-going! We'll talk about
Eagle later."

"I'm forgetting lots of things," laughed Lucas. "We had a little fight
up our way th' other day. Caught a feller skinning one of Bartlett's
cows, what had strayed over on us. Got him dead to rights, too. He put
up a fight while he lasted. Said his name was Hawkins."

"Hawkins!" exclaimed Hopalong. "I've heard that name somewhere."

"Why, that's th' name on th' notice of reward posted in Cowan's," Red
supplied. "He's wanted for desertion from th' army, an' for other
things. They want him bad up at Roswell, an' they'll pay for him, dead
or alive."

"Well, they won't get him; he ain't keeping good enough," Lucas
replied. "An' we don't want that kind of money. So long," and he was
off.

"So you got Juan," Red remarked. "You ought to have took him alive--we
could get it all out of him an' find out where his friends are hanging
out."

"He went after his gun, an' he had an iron," Hopalong replied. "I
didn't know he had left Meeker, an' I didn't stop to think. You see,
he was a brand-blotter."

"What's Meeker going to do about th' line?" Red asked.

"Nothing for a while; he's too worried an' busy looking after his
sleepers. He ain't so bad, after all."

"Say," remarked Skinny, thoughtfully. "Mebby that gang is over east,
like Trendley was. There's lots of water thereabouts, an' good grass,
too, in th' Panhandle. Look how close it is to Fort Worth an' th'
railroad."

"Too many people over there," Hopalong replied. "An' _they_ know all
about th' time we killed Trendley an' wiped out his gang. They won't
go where they are shore we'll look."

"If I can get sight of one of them Greasers I'll find out where they
are," Red growled. "I'll put green rawhide around his face if I have
to, an' when he savvys what th' sun is going to do to that hide an'
him, he'll talk, all right, an' be glad of th' chance."

"To hear you, anybody would think you'd do a thing like that,"
Hopalong laughed. "I reckon he'd drop at eight hundred, clean an' at
th' first shot. But, say, green rawhide wouldn't do a thing to a man's
face, would it! When it shrunk he'd know it, all right."

"Crush it to a pulp," Skinny remarked. "But who is going to cook th'
supper? I'm starved."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hopalong awakened suddenly and listened and found Red also awake.
Hoofbeats were coming towards the house and Hopalong peered out into
the darkness to see who it was, his Colt ready.

"Who's that?" he challenged, sharply, the clicks of his gun ringing
clear in the night air.

"Why, me," replied a well-known voice. "Who'd you think it was?"

"Why didn't you stay up in Number Two, like I told you? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Johnny replied, stripping off his saddle and bridle.

"An' you came all th' way down here in th' dark, just to wake us up?"
Hopalong asked, incredulously. "Twenty miles just for that!"

"No. I ain't got here yet--I'm only half way," Johnny retorted. "Can't
you see I'm here? An' I didn't care about you waking up. I wanted to
get here, an' here I am."

"In th' name of heaven, are you drunk, or crazy?" asked Red. "Of all
th' d--n fools I ever--"

"Oh, shut up, all of you!" growled Skinny, turning over in his bunk.
"Lot of locoed cusses that don't know enough to keep still! Let th'
Kid alone, why don't you!" he muttered, and was sound asleep again.

"No, I ain't drunk or crazy! Think I was going to stay up there when
you two fellers are going off scouting to-morrow? Not by a jugful! I
ain't letting nothing get past me, all right," Johnny rejoined.

"Well, you ain't a-going, anyhow," muttered Hopalong, crawling into
his bunk again. "You've got to stay with Skinny--" he did not speak
very loud, because he knew it would cause an argument, and he wished
to sleep instead of talk.

"What'd you say?" demanded Johnny.

"For G-d's sake!" marvelled Red. "Can't nobody go an' scratch
'emselves unless th' Kid is on th' ground? Come in here an' get to
sleep, you coyote!"

     Adown th' road, his gun in hand,
     Comes Whiskey Bill, mad Whiskey--

Johnny hummed. "Hey! What you doing?" he yelled, leaping back.

"You heave any more guns on my face an' you'll find out!" roared
Skinny, sitting up and throwing Johnny's Colt and belt to the floor.
"Fool infant!"

"Tumble in an' shut up!" cried Red. "We want some sleep, you sage
hen!"

"Yo're a lot of tumble-bugs!" retorted Johnny, indignantly. "How did I
know Skinny had his face where I threw my gun! He's so cussed thin I
can't hardly see him in daylight, th' chalk mark! Why didn't he say
so? Think I can see in th' dark?"

"I don't talk in my sleep!" retorted Skinny, "or go flea-hopping
around in th' dark like a--"

"_Shut up!_" shouted Hopalong, and silence at last ensued.



CHAPTER XXIII

HOPALONG AND RED GO SCOUTING


As Hopalong and Red rode down the slope of the Peak the rays of the
sun flashed over the hills, giving promise of a very hot day. They
were prepared to stay several days, if need be, on the semi-arid plain
to the west of them, for it would be combed thoroughly before they
returned. On they loped, looking keenly over the plain and
occasionally using their field glasses to more closely scrutinize
distant objects, searching the barrancas and coulees and threading
through mesquite and cactus growths. Hopalong momentarily expected to
find signs of what they were looking for, while Red, according to
his habit, was consistently contradictory in his words and
disproportionately pessimistic.

Moving forward at a swinging lope they began to circle to the west and
as they advanced Hopalong became eager and hopeful, while his
companion grumbled more and more. In his heart he believed as Hopalong
did, but there had to be something to talk about to pass the time more
pleasantly; so when they met in some barranca to ride together for a
short distance they exchanged pleasantries.

"Yo're showing even more than yore usual amount of pig-headed
ignorance to-day," Hopalong grumbled. "Yore blasted, ingrowing
disposition has been shedding cussedness at every step. I'll own up to
being some curious as to when it's going to peter out."

"As if that's any of yore business," retorted Red. "But I'll just tell
you, since you asks; it's going to stop when I get good an' ready,
savvy?"

"Yo're awful cheerful at times," sarcastically snorted his companion.

Red's eyes had been roving over the plain and now he raised his
glasses and looked steadily ahead.

"What's that out there? Dead cow?" he asked, calmly.

Hopalong put his glasses on it instantly. "Cow?" he asked,
witheringly. "No; it's an over-grown lizard! Come on," he cried,
spurring forward, Red close behind him.

Riding around it they saw that it bore the brand of the H2, and
Hopalong, dismounting, glanced it over quickly and swore.

"Shot in th' head--what did I tell you!"

"You didn't have to get off yore cayuse to see that," retorted Red.
"But get on again, an' come along. There's more out here. I'll take
th' south end of this--don't get out of hearing."

"Wait! Wonder why they shot it, instead of driving it off after they
got it this far?" Hopalong mused.

"Got on th' prod, I reckon, leaving its calf an' being run so hard.
I've seen many a one I'd like to have shot. Looks to me like they hang
out around that water hole--they drove it that way."

"You can bet yore head they didn't drive it straight to their
hang-out--they ain't doing nothing like that," Hopalong replied. "They
struck south after they thought they had throwed off any pursuit. They
drove it almost north, so far; savvy?"

"Well, they've got to have water if they're holding cows out on this
stove," Red rejoined. "An' I just told you where th' water is."

"G'wan! Ten cows would drain that hole in two days!" Hopalong
responded. "They've also got to have grass, though mebby you never
knew that. An' what about that herd Meeker lost? They wouldn't circle
so far to a one-by-nothing water hole like that one is."

"Well, then, where'll they find grass an' water out here?" demanded
Red, impatiently. "Th' desert's west, though mebby you never knew
that!"

"Red, we've been a pair of fools!" Hopalong cried, slapping his thigh
by way of emphasis. "Here we are skating around up here when Thunder
Mesa lays south, with plenty of water an' a fair pasture on all sides
of it! That's where we'll go."

"Hoppy, once in a great while you do show some intelligence, an'
you've shown some now; but we better go up to that water hole first,"
Red replied. "We can swing south then. We're so close to it now that
there ain't nothing to be gained by not taking a look at it. Mebby
we'll find a trail, or something."

"Right you are; come on. There ain't no use of us riding separate no
more."

Half an hour later Hopalong pointed to one side, to a few half-burned
greasewood and mesquite sticks which radiated like the spokes of a
wheel.

"Yes, I saw 'em," Red remarked. "They couldn't wait till they got home
before they changed th' brand, blamed fools."

"Yes, an' that explains th' HQQ cow I discovered," Hopalong quickly
replied. "They got too blamed hasty to blot it an' it got away from
'em."

"Well, it shore beats th' devil how Meeker had to go an' stir up this
nest of rattlers," Red grumbled, angrily.

"If these fellers hang out at Thunder Mesa an' drive to th' railroad
camps we ought to strike their trail purty close to th' water hole,"
Hopalong remarked. "It's right in their path."

Red nodded his head. "Yes, we ought to."

An hour later they rode around a chaparral and came within sight of
the water hole, which lay a few hundred yards away. As they did so a
man rode up out of the depression and started north, unconscious of
his danger.

The two men spurred to overtake him, both drawing their rifles and
getting ready for action. He turned in his saddle, saw them, and
heading westward, quirted and spurred his horse into a dead run, both
of his pursuers shouting for him to stop as they followed at top
speed. He glanced around again and, seeing that they were slowly but
surely gaining, whipped up his rifle and fired at them several times,
both replying. He kept bearing more and more to the west and Red rode
away at an angle to intercept him. Ten minutes later the fleeing man
turned and rode north again, but Red had gained fifty yards over
Hopalong and suddenly stopping his horse to permit better shooting, he
took quick aim and fired. The pursued man found that his horse was
useful only as a breastwork as Red's report died away, and hastily
picked himself up and crawled behind it.

"Look out, Red!" warned Hopalong as he flung himself off his horse and
led it down into a deep coulee for protection. "That's Dick Archer,
an' he can shoot like th' very devil!"

Red, already in a gully, laughed. "An' so can I."

"Hey, I'm going around on th' other side--look out for him," Hopalong
called, starting away. "We can't waste no more time up here than we
has to."

"All right; go ahead," Red replied, pushing his sombrero over the edge
of the gully where the rustler could see it; and he laughed softly
when he saw the new hole in it. "He shore can shoot, all right," he
muttered. Working down the gully until he came to a clump of
greasewood he crawled up the bank and looked out at the man behind
the dead horse, who was intently watching the place where he had seen
Red's sombrero. "I knowed Eagle was holding cards in this game," Red
remarked, smiling grimly. "Wonder how many are in it, anyhow?"

Hearing the crack of a gun he squinted along the sights of his
Winchester and waited patiently for a chance to shoot. Then he heard
another shot and saw the rustler raise himself to change his position,
and Red fired. "I knowed, too, that Hoppy would drive him into range
for me, even if he didn't hit him. Wonder what Mr. Dick Archer thinks
about _my_ shooting about now? Ah!" he cried as the smoke from his
second shot drifted away. "Got you again!" he grunted. Then he dropped
below the edge of the gully and grinned as he listened to the bullets
whining overhead, for the rustler, wounded twice inside of a minute by
one man, was greatly incensed thereby and petulantly bombarded the
greasewood clump. He knew that he was done for, but that was no reason
why he shouldn't do as much damage as he could while he was able.

"Bet he's mad," grinned Red. "An' there goes that Sharps--I could tell
Hoppy's gun in a fusillade."

Crawling back up the gully to his first position Red peered out
between some gramma grass tufts and again slid his rifle to his
shoulder, laughing softly at the regular reports of the Sharps.

A puff of smoke enveloped his head and drifted behind him as he worked
the lever of his rifle and, arising, he walked out towards the
prostrate man and waved for his friend to join him. As he drew near
the rustler struggled up on one elbow, and Red, running forward with
his gun raised half-way to his shoulder, cried: "Don't make no
gun-play, or I'll blow you apart! Where's th' rest of yore gang?"

"Go to h--l!" coughed the other, trying to get his Colt out, for his
rifle was empty. He stiffened and fell flat.

Ten minutes later Hopalong and Red were riding southwest along a plain
and well beaten trail, both silent and thoughtful. And at the end of
an hour they saw the ragged top of Thunder Mesa towering against the
horizon. They went forward cautiously now and took advantage of the
unevenness of the plain, riding through barrancas and keeping close to
chaparrals.

"Well, Red, I reckon we better stop," Hopalong remarked at last, his
glasses glued to his eyes. "No use letting them see us."

"Is that smoke up there?" asked Red.

"Yes; an' there's somebody moving around near th' edge."

"I see him now."

"I reckon we know all that's necessary," Hopalong remarked. "That
trail is enough, anyhow. Now we've got to get back to th' ranch
without letting them fellers see us."

"We can lead th' cayuses till we can get in that barranca back there,"
Red replied. "We won't stick up so prominent if we do that. After we
make it we'll find it easy to keep from being seen if we've any
caution."

Hopalong threw himself out of the saddle. "Dismount!" he cried. "That
feller up there is coming towards this end. He's their lookout, I
bet."

They remained hidden and quiet for an hour while the lookout gazed
around the plain, both impatient and angry at the time he gave to his
examination. When he turned and disappeared they waited for a few
minutes to see if he was coming back, and satisfied that the way was
clear, led their horses to the barranca and rode through it until far
enough away to be safe from observation.

Darkness caught them before they had covered half of the distance
between the mesa and the ranch, and there being no moon to light the
way, they picketed their mounts, had supper, and rolling up in their
blankets, spent the night on the open plain.



CHAPTER XXIV

RED'S DISCOMFITURE


On their return they separated and Red, coming to an arroyo, rode
along its edge for a mile and then turned north. Ten minutes after he
had changed his course he espied an indistinct black speck moving
among a clump of cottonwoods over half a mile ahead of him, and as he
swung his glasses on it a cloud of smoke spurted out. His horse
reared, plunged, and then sank to earth where it kicked spasmodically
and lay quiet. As the horse died Red, who had dismounted at the first
tremor, threw himself down behind it and shoved his rifle across the
body, swearing at the range, for at that distance his Winchester was
useless. A small handful of sand flew into the air close beside him
with a vicious spat, and the bullet hummed away into the brush as a
small pebble struck him sharply on the cheek. A few seconds later he
heard the faint, flat report.

"It's a clean thousand, an' more," he growled. "Wish I had Hopalong's
gun. I'd make that feller jump!"

He looked around to see how close he was to cover and when he glanced
again at the cottonwoods they seemed to be free of an enemy. Then a
shot came from a point to the north of the trees and thudded into the
carcass of the horse. Red suddenly gave way to his accumulated anger
which now seethed at a white heat and, scrambling to his feet, ran to
the brush behind him. When he gained it he plunged forward to top
speed, leaping from cover to cover as he zig-zagged towards the man
who had killed Ginger, and who had tried his best to kill him.

He ran on and on, his rifle balanced in his right hand and ready for
instant use, his breath coming sharply now. Red was in no way at home
out of the saddle. His high-heeled, tight-fitting boots cramped his
toes and the sand made running doubly hard. He was not far from the
cottonwoods; they lay before him and to his right.

Turning quickly he went north, so as to go around the plot of ground
on which he hoped to find his accurate, long-range assailant, and as
he came to a break in the hitherto close-growing brush he stopped
short and dropped to one knee behind a hillock of sand, the rifle
going to his shoulder as part of the movement.

Several hundred yards east of him he saw two men, who were hastily
mounting, and running from them was a frightened calf. One of the pair
waved an arm towards the place where Ginger lay and as he did so a
puff of smoke lazily arose from behind the hillock of sand to the west
and he jumped up in his saddle, his left arm falling to his side.
Another puff of smoke arose and his companion fought his wounded and
frightened horse, and then suddenly grasped his side and groaned. The
puffs were rising rapidly behind the hillock and bullets sang sharply
about them; the horse of the first man hit leaped forward with a
bullet-stung rump. Spurring madly the two rustlers dashed into the
brush, lying close along the necks of their mounts, and soon were lost
to the sight of the angry marksman.

Red leaped up, mechanically refilling the magazine of his rifle, and
watched them out of sight, helpless either to stop or pursue them. He
shook his rifle, almost blind with rage, crying: "I hope you get to
Thunder Mesa before _we_ do, an' stay there; or run into Frenchy an'
his men on yore way back! If I could get to Number Two ahead of you
you'd never cross that boundary."

As he returned to his horse his rage cooled and left him, a quiet,
deep animosity taking its place, and he even smiled with savage
elation when he thought how he had shot at eight hundred yards--they
had not escaped entirely free from punishment and his accuracy had
impressed them so much that they had not lingered to have it out with
him, even as they were two to one, mounted, and armed with long-range
rifles. And he could well allow them to escape, for he would find them
again at the mesa, if they managed to cross the line unseen by his
friends, and he could pay the debt there.

He swore when he came to the body of his horse and anger again took
possession of him. Ginger had been the peer of any animal on the
range and, contrary to custom, he had felt no little affection for it.
At cutting out it had been unequalled and made the work a pleasure to
its rider; at stopping when the rope went home and turning short when
on the dead run it had not been excelled by any horse on the ranch. He
had taught it several tricks, such as coming to him in response to a
whistle, lying down quickly at a slap on the shoulder, and bucking
with whole-hearted zeal and viciousness when mounted by a stranger.
Now he slapped the carcass and removed the saddle and bridle which had
so often displeased it.

"Ginger, old boy," he said, slinging the forty-pound saddle to his
shoulder and turning to begin his long tramp towards the dam, "I shore
hate to hoof it, but I'd do it with a lot better temper if I knowed
you was munching grass with th' rest of the cavvieyh. You've been a
good old friend, an' I hates to leave you; but if I get any kind of a
chance at th' thief that plugged you I'll square up for you good an'
plenty."

To the most zealous for exercise, carrying a forty-pound
double-cinched saddle for over five miles across a hot, sandy plain
and under a blazing, scorching sun, with the cinches all the time
working loose and falling to drag behind and catch in the vegetation,
was no pleasant task; and add to that a bridle, full magazine rifle,
field glasses, canteen, and a three-pound Colt revolver swinging from
a belt heavily weighted with cartridges, and it becomes decidedly
irksome, to say the least. Red's temper can be excused when it is
remembered that for years his walking had been restricted to getting
to his horse, that his footwear was unsuited for walking, that he had
been shot at and had lost his best horse. Each mile added greatly to
his weariness and temper and by the time he caught sight of Hopalong,
who rode recklessly over the range blazing at a panic-stricken coyote,
he was near the point of spontaneous combustion.

He heaved the saddle from him, kicked savagely at it as it dropped,
for which he was instantly sorry, and straightened his back slowly for
fear that any sudden exertion would break it. His rifle exploded,
twice, thrice; and Hopalong sat bolt upright and turned, his rifle
going instinctively to his shoulder before he saw his friend's waving
sombrero.

The coyote-chaser slid the smoking Sharps into its sheath and galloped
to meet his friend who, filling the air with sulphurous remarks, now
seated himself on the roundly cursed saddle.

Hopalong swept up and stopped, grinning expectantly and, to Red,
exasperatingly. "Where's yore cayuse?" he asked. "Why are you toting
yore possessions on th' hoof? Are you emigrating?"

Red's reply was a look wonderfully expressive of all the evils in
human nature, it was fairly crowded with murder and torture, and
Hopalong held his head on one side while he weighed it.

"Phew!" he exclaimed in wondering awe. "Yo're shore mad! You'd freeze
old Geronimo's blood if he saw that look!"

"An' I'll freeze yourn; I'll let it soak into th' sand if you don't
change yore front!" blazed Red.

"What's the matter? Where's Ginger?"

A rapid-fire string of expletives replied and then Hopalong began to
hear sensible words, which more and more interspersed the profanity,
and it was not long before he learned of Red's ride along the arroyo's
rim.

"When I turned north," Red continued, wrathfully, "I saw something in
them dozen cottonwoods around that come-an'-go spring; an' then what
do you think happened?" he cried. Not waiting for any reply he
continued hastily: "Why, some murdering squaw's dog went an' squibbed
at me at long range! With me on my own ranch, too! An' he killed
Ginger first shot. He missed me three straight an' _I_ couldn't do
nothing at a thousand an' over with this gun."

"Th' d--n pirate!" exclaimed Hopalong, hotly.

"I was a whole lot mad by that time, so I jumped back into th' brush
an' ran for th' grove, hoping to get square when I got in range. After
I'd run about a thousand miles I came to th' edge of th' clearing west
of th' trees an' d----d if I didn't see two fellers climbing on their
cayuses, an' some hasty, too. Reckon they didn't know how many friends
I might have behind me. Well, I was some shaky from running like I
did, an' they was a good eight hundred away, but I let drive just th'
same an' got one in th' arm, th' other somewhere else, an' hit both of
their cayuses. I wish I'd 'a filled 'em so full of holes they couldn't
hang together, th' thieves!"

"I'd shore like to go after them, Red," Hopalong remarked. "We could
ride west an' get 'em when they pass that water hole if you had a
cayuse."

"Oh, we'll get 'em, all right--at th' mesa," Red rejoined. "I'm so
tired I wouldn't go now if I could. Walking all th' way down here with
that saddle! You get off that cayuse an' let me ride him," he
suggested, mopping his face with his sleeve.

"What! Me? _Me_ get off an' walk! I reckon not!" replied Hopalong, and
then his face softened. "You pore, unfortunate cow-punch," he said,
sympathetically. "You toss up yore belongings an' climb up here behind
me. I'll take you to th' dam, where Johnny has picketed his cayuse.
Th' Kid's going in for a swim; said he didn't know how soon he'd get a
chance to take a bath. We can rustle his cayuse for a joke--come on."

"Oh, wait a minute, can't you?" Red replied, wearily. "I can't lift my
legs high enough to get up there--they're like lead. That trail was
hell strung out."

"You should 'a cached yore saddle an' everything but th' gun an' come
down light," Hopalong remarked. "Or you could a' gone to th' line an'
waited for somebody to come along. Why didn't you do that?"

"I ain't leaving that saddle nowhere," Red responded. "Besides I was
too blamed mad to stop an' think."

"Well, don't wait very long--Johnny may skin out if you do," Hopalong
replied, and then, suddenly: "Just where was it you shot at them
snakes?" Red told him and Hopalong wheeled as if to ride after them.

"Here, you!" cried Red, the horseless. "Where th' devil are you going
so sudden?"

"Up to get them cow-lifters that you couldn't, of course," his
companion replied. "I'm shore going to show you how easy it is when
you know how."

"Like h--l you are!" Red cried, springing up, his lariat in his hand.
"Yo're going to stay right here with me, that's what yo're going to
do! I've got something for you to do, you compact bundle of gall! You
try to get away without me and I'll make you look like an interrupted
spasm, you wart-headed Algernon!"

"Do you want 'em to get plumb away?" cried the man in the saddle,
concealing his mirth.

"I want you to stick right here an' tote me to a cayuse!" Red
retorted, swinging the rope. "_I'm_ going to be around when anybody
goes after them Siwashes, an' don't you forget it. There ain't no
hurry--we'll get 'em quick enough when we starts west. An' if you try
any get-away play an' leave me out here on my two feet with all these
contraptions, I'll pick you off'n that piebald like hell greased with
calamity!"

Hopalong laughed heartily. "Why, I was only a-fooling, Red. Do you
reckon I'd go away an' leave you standing out here like a busted-down
pack mule?"

"I hoped you was only fooling, but I wasn't taking no chances with a
cuss like you," Red replied, grinning. "Not with this load of woe, you
bet."

"Say, it's too bad you didn't have my gun up there," Hopalong said,
regretfully. "You could 'a got 'em both then, an' had two cayuses to
ride home on."

"Well, _I_ could 'a got 'em with it," Red replied, grinning, his good
nature returning under the chaffing. "But you can't hit th' mesa with
it over six hundred. They'd 'a got away from you without getting hit."

Hopalong laughed derisively and then sobered and became anxious.
"Yo're right, Red, yo're right," he asserted with tender solicitude.
"Now you get right up here behind me an' I'll take you to th' dam
where th' Kid is. Pore feller," he sighed. "Well, I ain't a-wondering
after all you've been through. It was enough to make a _strong_-minded
man loco." He smiled reassuringly. "Now climb right up behind me,
Reddie. Gimme yore little saddle an' yore no-account gun--Ouch!"

"I'll give you th' butt of it again if you don't act like you've made
th' best of them gravy brains!" Red snorted. "Here, you lop-eared
cow-wrastler--catch this!" throwing the saddle so sudden and hard that
Hopalong almost lost his balance from the impact. "Now you gimme a
little room in front of th' tail--I ain't no blasted fly."

Hopalong gave his friend a hand and Red landed across the horse's
back, to the instant and strong dislike of that animal, which showed
its displeasure by bucking mildly.

"Glory be!" cried Hopalong, laughing. "Riding double on a bucking
hinge ain't no play, is it? Suppose he felt like pitching real
strong--where would you be with that tail holt?"

"You bump my nose again with th' back of yore head an' you'll see how
much play it is!" Red retorted. "Come on--pull out. We ain't glued
fast. Th' world moves, all right, but if yo're counting on it sliding
under you till th' dam comes around you're way off; it ain't moving
that way. Hey! Stop that spurring!"

"I'll hook 'em in you again if you don't shut up!" Hopalong promised,
jabbing them into the horse, which gave one farewell kick, to Red's
disgust, and cantered south with ears flattened.

"Whoop! I'm riding again!" Red exulted.

"I'm glad it wasn't Red Eagle they went an' killed," Hopalong
remarked.

"Red Eagle!" snorted Red, indignantly. "What good is this cayuse,
anyhow? Ginger was worth three like this."

"Well, if you don't like this cayuse you can get off an' hoof it, you
know," Hopalong retorted. "But I'll tell you what you know a'ready;
there ain't no cayuse in this part of th' country that can lose him in
long-distance running. He ain't no fancy, parlor animal like Ginger
was; he don't know how to smoke a cig or wash dishes, or do any of th'
fool things yore cayuse did, but he is right on th' job when it comes
to going hard an' long. An' it's them two things that tell how much a
cayuse is worth, down here in this country. If I could 'a jumped on
him up there when they made their get-away from you, me an' th' Sharps
would 'a fixed 'em. They wouldn't be laughing now at how easy you
was."

"They ain't laughing, not a bit of it--an' they won't even be able to
swear after I get out to th' mesa," Red asserted. "Have you seen Buck,
or anybody 'cept th' Kid?"

"Yes. I told Buck an' Frenchy about it, an' Skinny, too," Hopalong
replied. "Buck an' Frenchy went north along th' west line to get th'
boys from Number Two. Buck says we'll go after 'em just as soon as we
can get ready, which most of us are now. Pore Lanky; he's got to stay
home an' pet his wounds--Buck said he couldn't go."

"Did Buck say who was going an' who was going to stay home?"

"Yes; you, Johnny, Billy, Pete, Skinny, Frenchy, me, Buck, an' Pie
Willis are going--th' rest will have to watch th' ranch. That makes
nine of us. Wonder how many are up that mesa?"

"There'll be plenty, don't you worry," Red replied. "When we go after
anybody we generally has to mix up with a whole company. I wouldn't be
a whole lot surprised if they give us an awful fight before they peter
out. They'll be up in th' air a hundred feet. We'll have plenty to do,
all right."

"Well, two won't be there, anyhow--Archer an' Juan. I bet we'll find
most of th' people of Eagle up there waiting for us."

"Lord, I hope they are!" cried Red. "Then we can clean up everything
at once, town an' all."

"There's th' Kid--see th' splash?" Hopalong laughed. "He shore is
stuck on swimming. He don't care if there's cotton-mouths in there
with him. One of them snakes will get him some day, an' if one does,
then we'll plant him, quick."

"Oh, I dunno. I ain't seen none at th' dam," Red replied. "They don't
like th' sand there as much as they do th' mud up at th' other end,
an' along th' sides. Gee! There's his cayuse!"

Johnny dove out of sight, turned over and came up again, happy as a
lark, and saw his friends riding towards him, and he trod water and
grinned. "Hullo, fellers. Coming in?--it's fine! Hey, Red. We're all
going out to Thunder Mesa as soon as we can! But what are you riding
double for? Where's yore cayuse?" Something in Red's expression made
him suspicious of his friends' intentions and, fearing that he might
have to do some walking, he made a few quick strokes and climbed out,
dressing as rapidly as his wet skin would permit.

Red briefly related his experience and Johnny swore as he struggled
through his shirt. "What are you going to do?" he asked, poking his
head out into sight.

"I'm going to ride yore cayuse to th' line house--you ain't as tired
as me," replied Red.

"Not while I'm alive, you ain't!" cried Johnny, running to his horse.
Then he grinned and went back to his clothes. "You take him an' rope
th' cayuse I saw down in that barranca--there's two of 'em there,
both belonging to Meeker. But you be shore to come back!"

"Shore, Kid," Red replied, vaulting into the saddle and riding away.

Johnny fastened his belt around him and looked up. "Say, Hoppy," he
laughed, "Buck said Cowan sent my new gun down to th' bunk house
yesterday. He's going to bring it with him when he comes down
to-morrow. But I only got fifty cartridges for it--will you lend me
some of yourn if I run short?"

"Where did Cowan get it?"

"Why, don't you remember he said he'd get me one like yourn th' next
time he went north? He got back yesterday--bought it off some feller
up on th' XS. Cost me twenty-five dollars without th' cartridges. But
I've got fifty empties I can load when I get time, so I'll be all
right later on. Will you lend me some?"

"Fifty is enough, you chump," laughed Hopalong. "You won't get that
many good chances out there."

"I know; but I want to practise a little. It'll shoot flatter than my
Winchester," Johnny grinned, hardly able to keep from riding to the
bunk house to get his new gun.

Red rode up leading a horse. "That's a good rope, Kid, 'though th'
hondo is purty heavy," he said, saddling the captured animal. "Is Buck
going to bring down any food an' cartridges when he comes?" he asked.

"Yes; three cayuses will pack 'em. We can send back for more if we
stay out there long enough to need more. Buck says that freak spring
up on top flows about half a mile through th' chaparral before it
peters out. What do you know about it, Red?" Hopalong asked.

"Seems to me that he's right. I think it flows through a twisting
arroyo. But there'll be water enough for us, all right."

"I got a .45-120 Sharps just like Hopalong's, Red," Johnny grinned.
"He said he'd lend me fifty cartridges for it, didn't you, Hoppy?"

"Well, I'll be blamed!" exclaimed Hopalong. "First thing _I_ knowed
about it, if I did. I tell you you won't need 'em."

"Where'd you get it?" asked Red.

"Cowan got it. I told you all about it three weeks ago."

"Well, you better give it back an' use yore Winchester," replied Red.
"It ain't no good, an' you'll shoot some of us with it, too. What do
_you_ want with a gun that'll shoot eighteen hundred? You can't hit
anything now above three hundred."

"Yo're another--I can, an' you know it, too. Three hundred!" he
snorted. "Huh! Here comes Skinny!"

Skinny rode up and joined them, all going to the Peak. Finally he
turned and winked at Johnny.

"Hey, Kid. Hopalong ought to go right down to th' H2 while he's got
time. He hadn't ought to go off fighting without saying good-bye to
his girl, had he?"

"She'd keep him home--wouldn't let him take no chances of getting
shot," Red asserted. "Anyhow, if he went down there he'd forget to
come back."

"Ow-wow!" cried Johnny. "You hit him! You hit him! Look at his face!"

"He shore can't do no courting while he's away," Skinny remarked. "He
wouldn't let Red go with him when he went to give Meeker th' shovel,
an' I didn't know why till just now."

"You go to blazes, all of you!" exclaimed Hopalong, red and
uncomfortable. "I ain't doing no courting, you chump! An' Red knows
why I went down there alone."

"Yes; you gave me a fool reason, an' went alone," Red retorted. "An'
if that ain't courting, for th' Lord's sake what is it? Or is she
doing all of it, you being bashful?"

"Yes, Hoppy; tell us what it is," asked Skinny.

"Oh, don't mind them, Hoppy; they're jealous," Johnny interposed.
"Don't you make no excuses, not one. Admit that yo're courting an'
tell 'em that yo're going to keep right on a-doing it an' get all th'
honey you can."

Red and Skinny grinned and Hopalong, swearing at Johnny, made a quick
grab for him, but missed, for Johnny knew the strength of that grip.
"I ain't courting! I'm only trying to--trying to be--sociable; that's
all!"

"Sociable!" yelled Red. "Oh, Lord!"

"It must be nice to be sociable," replied Johnny. "Since you ain't
courting, an' are only trying to be sociable, then you won't care if
we go down an' try it. Me for th' H2!"

"You bet; an' I'm going down, too," asserted Red, who was very much
afraid of women, and who wouldn't have called on Mary Meeker for a
hundred dollars.

Hopalong knew his friend's weakness and he quickly replied: "Red, I
dare you to do that. I dare you to go down there an' talk to her for
five minutes. When I say talk, I don't mean stammer. I dare you!"

"Do you dare _me_?" asked Johnny, quickly, glancing at the sun to see
how much time he had.

"Oh, I ain't got time," replied Red, grinning.

"You ain't got th' nerve, you mean," jeered Skinny.

"I dare you, Red," Hopalong repeated, grimly.

"I asked you if you dared _me?_" hastily repeated Johnny.

"_You!_ Not on yore life, Kid. But you stay away from there!" Hopalong
warned.

"Gee--wish you'd lend me them cartridges," sighed Johnny. "Mebbe
Meeker has got some he ain't so stingy with," he added, thoughtfully.

"I'll lend you th' cartridges, Kid," Hopalong offered. "But you stay
away from th' H2. D'y hear?"



CHAPTER XXV

ANTONIO'S REVENGE


While Red had been trudging southward under his saddle and other
possessions a scene was being enacted on a remote part of the H2 range
which showed how completely a cowboy leased his very life to the man
who paid him his monthly wage, one which serves to illustrate in a way
how a ranchman was almost a feudal lord. There are songs of men who
gave up their lives to save their fellows, one life for many, and they
are well sung; but what of him who risks his life to save one small,
insignificantly small portion of his employer's possessions, risks it
without hesitation or fear, as a part of his daily work? What of the
man who, not content with taking his share of danger in blizzard,
fire, and stampede, on drive, roundup, and range-riding, leaps
fearlessly at the risk of his life to save a paltry head or two of
cattle to his ranch's tally sheet? Such men were the rule, and such a
one was Curley, who, with all his faults, was a man as a man should
be.

Following out his orders he rode his part of the range with alertness,
and decided to explore the more remote southwestern angle of the
ranch. Doc had left him an hour before to search the range nearer
Eagle and would not be back again until time to return to the ranch
house for the night. This was against Meeker's orders, for they had
been told to keep together for their own protection, but they had
agreed that there was little risk and that it would be better to
separate and cover more ground.

The day was bright and, with the exception of the heat, all he could
desire. His spirits bubbled over in snatches of song as he cantered
hither and yon, but all the time moving in the general direction of
the little-ridden territory. On all sides stretched the same
monotonous view, sage brush, mesquite, cactus, scattered tufts of
grass, and the brown plain, endless, flat, wearying.

The surroundings did not depress him, but only gradually slowed the
exultant surge of his blood and, as he hummed at random, an old
favorite came to him out of the past, and he sung it joyously:

      My taste is that of an aristocrat,
        My purse that of a pauper:
      I scorn the gold her parents hold--
        But shore I love their daughter.
      Hey de diddle de, hey de dee,
        But shore I love their daughter.

      When silvery nights my courting light
        An' souls of flowers wander,
      Then who's to blame if I loved th' game
        An' did not pause to ponder?
      Hey de diddle de, hey de dee,
        An' did not pause to ponder.

      Her eyes are blue, an' oh, so true--
        Th' words were said ere thought, Lad.
      Her father swore we'd meet no more--
        But I am not distraught, Lad.
      Hey de diddle de, hey de de--
        But I am not distraught, Lad.

He ceased abruptly, rigidly erect, staring straight ahead as the
significance of the well trodden trail impressed itself on his mind.
He was close to the edge of a steep-walled basin; and leading to it
was a narrow, steep gully, down which the beaten trail went. Riding
closer he saw that two poles were set close to the wall of the gully,
and from one of them dangled a short, frayed hempen rope. There was a
water hole in the basin, surrounded by a muddy flat, and everywhere
were the tracks of cattle.

As he hesitated to decide whether or not it would be worth while to
ride through the depression he chanced to look south, and the question
decided itself. Spurring savagely, he leaned forward in the saddle,
the wind playing a stern song in his ears, a call to battle for his
ranch, his pride, and his hatred for foul work. He felt the peculiar,
compelling delight, the surging, irresistible intoxication of his kind
for fighting, the ecstasy of the blood lust, handed down from his
Saxon forefathers.

A mile ahead of him was a small herd of cattle, being driven west by
two men. Did he stop to return to the ranch for assistance? Did he
count the odds? Not he, for he saw the perpetrators of the insults he
and his companions had chafed under--the way was clear, the quarry
plain, and he asked naught else.

They saw him coming--one of them raised a pair of glasses to his eyes
and looked closely at him and from him all around the plain. All the
time they were driving the cattle harder, shouting and whipping about
them with their rawhide quirts; and constantly nearer came the cowboy,
now standing up in his stirrups and lashing his straining mount
without mercy. Soon he thought he recognized one of the herders, and
he flung the name on the whistling wind in one contemptuous shout:
"_Antonio!_ D--n his soul!" and fell to beating the horse all the
harder.

It was Antonio, and a puff of smoke arose from the Mexican's shoulder
and streaked behind, soon followed by another. Curley knew the rifle,
a .40-90 Sharps, and did not waste a shot, for he must be on equal
terms before he could hope to cope with it. Another puff, then another
and another, but still he was not hit. Now he drew his own rifle from
its holster and hazarded a shot, but to no avail. Then the second
herder, who had not as yet fired, snatching the rifle from Antonio's
hands and, checking his horse, leaped off and rested the weapon across
the saddle. Taking deliberate aim, he fired, and Curley pitched out of
the saddle as his horse stumbled and fell. The rider scrambled to his
feet, dazed and hurt, and ran to his horse, but one look told the
story and he ended the animal's misery with a shot from his Colt.

The herder and the cattle were rapidly growing smaller in the distance
but the Mexican rode slowly around the man on foot, following the
circumference of a large circle and shooting with calm deliberation.
The bullets hummed and whined viciously past the H2 puncher, kicking
up the dust in little spurts, and cold ferocity filled his heart as he
realized the rustler's purpose. He raised his own rifle and fired--and
leaded the barrel. When he had fallen the barrel had become choked
with sand and dust and he was at the mercy of his gloating enemy, who
would now wipe out the insult put upon him at the bunk house. Slowly
Antonio rode and carefully he fired and then, seeing that there was
something wrong with Curley's rifle, which the puncher threw aside, he
drew closer, determined to shoot him to pieces.

Curley was stung with rage now. He knew that it was only a question of
waiting until the right bullet came, and scorning to hug the sand for
the "Greaser" he held in such contempt, and vaguely realizing that
such an act would not change the result, he put all his faith in a
dash. He ran swiftly towards his astonished enemy, who expected him to
seek what cover the dead horse would give him, Colt in hand, cursing
at every jump and hoping to be spared long enough to get within range
with his six-shooter, if only for one shot. Antonio did not like this
close work and cantered away, glancing back from time to time. When
Curley finally was forced to stop because of exhaustion the rider also
stopped and slipped off his horse to have a rest for the rifle. Curley
emptied the Colt in a futile, enraged effort to make a lucky hit while
his enemy calmly aimed from across the saddle. Hastily reloading the
Colt as he ran, the puncher dashed forward again, zig-zagging to avoid
being hit. There was a puff of gray smoke, but Curley did not hear
the report. He threw one arm half up as if to ward off the shot and
pitched forward, face down in the dust, free from all pain and strife.

Antonio fired again and then cautiously drew nearer to his victim, the
rifle at the ready. Turning shortly he made a quick grab at his horse,
fearing that it might leave him on foot to be caught by some wandering
H2 puncher. Springing into the saddle he rode forward warily to get a
closer look at the man he had murdered, proud of his work, but fearful
that Curley was playing dead.

When assured that he had nothing to fear from the prostrate form, he
rode close. "Knock me down, will you!" he gritted, urging the horse to
trample on the body, which the animal refused to do. "Call me an
unwashed Greaser coyote, hey! Come out looking for us, did you? Well,
you found us, all right, but a h--l of a lot of good it did you, you
American dog! You ain't saying a word, are you, you carrion? You ain't
got no smart come-back now, an' you ain't throwing no wash water on
me, are you?"

He started and looked around nervously, fearful that he might be
caught and left lying on the sand as he had left Curley. One or two of
the H2 outfit carried single-shot rifles which shot as far if not
farther than his own, and the owners of them knew how to shoot.
Wheeling abruptly he galloped after the herd, looking back constantly
and thinking only of putting as great a distance as possible between
himself and the scene of the killing.

A lizard crawled out of a hillock and stared steadily at the quiet
figure and then, making a tentative sortie, disappeared under the
sand; but the man who had sung so buoyantly did not mind it, he lay
wrapped in the Sleep Eternal. He had died as he had lived, fearlessly
and without a whimper.

Late in the afternoon Doc Riley, sweeping on a circling course, rode
through chaparrals, alert even after his fruitless search, looking
around on all sides, and wondered if Curley and he would meet before
they reached the ranch proper. Suddenly something caught his eye and
he stood up in the stirrups to see it better, a ready curse leaping
from his lips. He could not make out who it was, but he had fears and
he spurred forward as hard as he could go. Then he saw the horse and
knew.

Riding close to the figure so as to be absolutely sure, he knew beyond
a hope of mistake and looked around the plain, his expression
malevolent and murderous.

"Curley! Curley!" he cried, leaping off his horse and placing a heavy,
kindly hand on the broad, sloping shoulder of the man who had been his
best friend for years. "So they got you, lad! They got you! In God's
name, why did I leave you?" he cried in bitter self-condemnation.
"It's my fault, it's my fault, lad!" He straightened up suddenly and
glared around through tear-dimmed eyes. "_But by th' living God I'll
pay them for this,_ I'll pay them for this! D--n their murdering
souls!"

He caught sight of an empty cartridge shell and snatched it up
eagerly. ".40-90, by G-d! That's Antonio's! Curley, my lad, I'll get
him for you--an' when I _do_! I'll send his soul to th' blackest pit
in h--l, an' send it _slow!_"

He noticed and followed the tracks in the sand, reading them easily.
He found the Winchester and quickly learned its story, which told him
the whole thing. Returning to the body of his friend he sat by it
quietly, looking down at it for several minutes, his sombrero in his
hand.

"Well, wishing won't do no good," he muttered, dismounting. "I'll take
you home, lad, an' see you put down too deep for coyotes to bother
you. An' I'll square yore scores or join you trying."

He lifted the body across the withers of his horse and picked up the
Colt. Mounting, he rode at a walk towards the bunk house, afire with
rage and sorrow.

       *       *       *       *       *

For the third time Meeker strode to the door of the bunk house and
looked out into the darkness, uneasy and anxious. Chick sauntered over
to him and leaned against the frame of the door. "They'll show up
purty soon, Jim," he remarked.

"Yes. I reckon so--Salem!" the foreman called. "Put their grub where
it'll keep warm."

"Aye, aye, sir. I was just thinking I ought to. They're late, ain't
they, sir?" he asked. "An' it's dark, too," he added, gratis.

"Why, is it, Salem?" queried Dan, winking at Jack Curtis, but Salem
disappeared into the gallery.

"Listen!--I hear 'em!" exclaimed Chick.

"You hear one of 'em," corrected Meeker, turning to the table to
finish drinking his coffee. "Hey, Salem! Never mind warming that
grub--rustle it in here. One of 'em's here, an' he'll be starved,
too."

Suddenly Chick started back with an exclamation as Doc Riley loomed up
in the light of the door, carrying a body over his shoulder. Stepping
into the room while his friends leaped to their feet in amazement and
incredulity, he lowered his burden to a bench and faced them, bloody
and furious.

"What's th' matter?" exclaimed Meeker, the first to find his voice,
leaping forward and dropping the cup to the floor. "Who did that?"

Doc placed his sombrero over the upturned face and ripped out a savage
reply. "Antonio! Yore broncho-buster! Th' snake that's raising all th'
devil on this range! Here--see for yoreself!" tossing the cartridge
shell to his foreman, who caught it clumsily, looked at it, and then
handed it to Dan. Exclamations and short, fierce questions burst from
the others, who crowded up to see the shell.

"Tell me about it, Doc," requested Meeker, pacing from wall to wall.

"He was shot down like a dog!" Doc cried, his rage sweeping over him
anew in all its savagery. "I saw th' whole thing in th' sand, plain as
day. Th' Greaser got his cayuse first an' then rode rings around him,
keeping out of range of Curley's Colt, for Curley had leaded his
rifle. It was Colt against Sharps at five hundred, that was what it
was! He didn't have a show, not a measly show for his life! Shot down
like _a dog!_"

"Where'd it happen?" asked Chick, breathlessly, while the low-voiced
threats and imprecations swelled to an angry, humming chorus.

"Away down in th' southwest corner," replied Doc, and he continued
almost inaudibly, speaking to himself and forgetful of the others. "Me
an' him went to school together an' I used to lick every kid that
bullied him till he got big enough to do it hisself. We run away
together an' shared th' same hard luck. We went through that Sioux
campaign together, side by side, an' to think that after he pulled out
of _that_ alive he had to be murdered by a yaller coward of a Greaser!
If he'd been killed by a human being an' in a fair fight it would be
all right; but by that coyote--it don't seem possible, not noway. I
licked th' feller that hurt him on his first day at school--I'm going
to kill th' last!

"Meeker," he said, coming to himself and facing the angry foreman,
"I'm quitting to-night. I won't punch no more till I get that Greaser.
I take up that trail at daylight an' push it to a finish even if it
takes me into Mexico--it's got to be him or me, now."

"You don't have to quit _me_ to do that, an' you _know_ it!" Meeker
cried. "I don't care if yo're gone for six months--yore pay goes on
just th' same. He went down fighting for me, an' I'll be everlastingly
condemned if I don't have a hand in squaring up for it. Yo're going on
special duty for th' H2, Doc, an' yore orders are to get Antonio.
Why, by th' Lord, I'll take up th' trail with you, Doc, an' with th'
rest of th' boys behind me. This ranch can go galley-west an' crooked
till we get that snake. Dan an' Salem stays with my girl an' to watch
th' ranch--th' rest of us are with you--we're as anxious as you to
push him Yonder, Doc."

"If I can get him alive, get my two hands on his skinny neck," Doc
muttered, his fingers twitching, "I'll kill him slow, so he'll feel it
longer, so he'll be shore to know why he's going. I want to _feel_ his
murdering soul dribble hell-wards, an' let him come back a couple of
times so I can laugh in his yaller face when he begs! I want to get
him--_so!_" and Chick shuddered as the knotted, steel-like fingers
opened and shut, for Doc was half devil now. While Chick stared, the
transformed man walked over to the bench and picked up the body in his
brawny arms and strode into the blackness--Curley was going to lie in
the open, with the stars and the sky and the sighing wind.

"God!" breathed Chick, looking around, "I never saw a man like _that_
before!"

"I hope he gets what he wants!" exclaimed Dan, fiercely.

"You fellers get yore traps ready for a chase," Meeker ordered as he
strode to the door of the gallery. "Fifty rounds for six-shooters an'
fifty for rifle, an' plenty of grub. It's a whole lot likely that th'
Greaser headed for his gang, an' we've got to be ready to handle
everything that comes up. Hey, Salem!" he shouted.

"Aye, aye, sir!" replied Salem, who had just come in from one of the
corrals and knew nothing of what had occurred.

"Did you cure that beef I told you to?" demanded the foreman.

"Yes, sir; but it ain't had time to cure--th' weather's not been
right. Howsomever, I smoked some. That'll be ship-shape."

"Well, have it on our cayuses at daylight. Did you cut this beef in
strips, or in twenty-pound chunks, like you did th' last?"

"Strips, _little_ strips--I ain't trying to sun-cure no more big
hunks, not me, sir."

Meeker turned and went towards the outer door.

"Don't waste no time, boys," he said. "Get all th' sleep you can
to-night--you'll need it if I reckon right. Good-night," and he
stepped out into the darkness. "D--n them dogs!" he muttered,
disappearing in the direction of the kennels, from which came
quavering, long-drawn howls.



CHAPTER XXVI

FRISCO VISITS EAGLE


Eagle did not thoroughly awaken until the sun began to set, for it was
not until dark that its inhabitants, largely transient, cared to
venture forth. Then it was that the town seethed, boldly, openly,
restrained by nothing save the might of the individual.

Prosperity had blessed the town, for there had been an abrupt and
pleasing change in local conditions since the disagreement between the
two ranches north of the town had assumed warlike aspect. Men who
heretofore had no standing with the proprietors of the town's places
of amusement and who had seldom been able to pay for as much liquor as
they were capable of drinking, now swaggered importantly where they
pleased, and found welcome where formerly it had been denied them; for
their hands were thrust deep into pockets from which came the cheerful
and open-sesame clinking of gold. Even Big Sandy, who had earned his
food by sweeping out the saloons and doing odd jobs about them, and
who was popularly believed to be too lazy to earn a better living by
real work, now drank his fill and failed to recognize a broom when he
saw it. While the inhabitants could not "get in" on the big plums
which they were certain were being shaken down on the range, they
could and did take care of the windfalls, and thrived well. They would
stay in town until their money was gone and then disappear for a week,
and return to spend recklessly. It is not out of place to state, in
passing, that numerous small herds bearing strange brands frequently
passed around the town at a speed greater than that common to drives,
and left clouds of dust on the southeastern horizon.

The town debated the probable whereabouts of ten men who had suddenly
disappeared in a body, along with Antonio of the H2. It was obvious
what they were doing and the conjectures were limited as to their
whereabouts and success. For a while after they had left one or two
had ridden in occasionally to buy flour and other necessities, and at
that time they had caused no particular thought. But now even these
visits had ceased. It was common belief that Quinn knew all about
them, but Quinn for good reasons was not urged to talk about the
matter. Big Sandy acted as though he knew, which increased his
importance for a time, and discredited him thereafter.

While the citizens had been able to rustle as they pleased they had
given but little thought to the ten men, being too busy to trail. But
now that the H2 punchers rode range with rifles across their arms
rustling had become very risky and had fallen off. Then it was that
the idlers renewed their conjectures about Shaw and his men and
thrashed that matter over and over again. The majority being, as we
have said, transients, knew nothing about Thunder Mesa, and those who
did know of it were silent, for Shaw and some of his companions knew
only one way to close a man's mouth, and were very capable.

So it happened that about noon of the day Curley lost his life six men
met in the shadow cast by the front of the "Rawhide" a hundred yards
from Quinn's, and exercised squatter sovereignty on the bench just
outside the door, while inside the saloon Big Sandy and Nevada played
cards close to the bar and talked in low tones. When they were aware
of the presence of those on the bench they played silently and
listened. The six men outside made up one of the groups of the town's
society, having ridden in together and stuck together ever since they
had arrived, which was wise.

Big Sandy and Nevada made a team more feared than any other
combination. The former, while fair with weapons, was endowed with
prodigious strength; by some it was hailed as being greater than that
of Pete Wilson, the squat giant of the Bar-20, whose strength was
proverbial, as it had good right to be. Nevada was the opposite type,
slender, short, wiry, and soft-spoken, but the quickest man in town on
the draw and of uncertain temper.

Chet Bates, on the bench, replied to a companion and gave vent to his
soft, Southern laugh. "Yuh still wondering 'bout thet man Shaw, an'
th' othas?"

"Nothing else to do, is there?" retorted Dal Gilbert. "We can't run no
more cattle, can we?"

"I reckon we can't."

"They're running a big game an' I want to get in it," remarked John
Elder. "Frisco was allus friendly. We've got to go trailing for 'em."

"Yes; an' get shot," interposed George Lewis. "They're ten to our six.
An' that ain't all of our troubles, neither. We'll find ourselves in a
big fight some day, an' right here. Them ranches will wake up, patch
up their troubles, an' come down here. You remember what Quinn said
about th' time Peters led a lot of mad punchers agin Trendley an' his
crowd, don't you? In a day he can raise men enough to wipe this town
off th' map."

"Yuh forget, suh, that they are fighting foh principles, an' men who
fight foh principles don't call truces," said Chet Bates.

"You've said that till it's old," laughed Sam Austin.

"_I_ say we've got to keep our eyes open," warned Lewis.

"Th' devil with that!" broke in Con Irwin. "What _I_ want to know is
how we're going to get some of th' easy money Shaw's getting."

"We'll have to wait for one of his men to come to town an' trail him
back," replied Gilbert.

"What do you say that we try to run one more good herd an' then scout
for them, or their trails?" asked Irwin.

"Heah comes somebody," remarked Chet, listening.

The sound of galloping grew rapidly louder and soon they saw Frisco
turn into the street and ride towards them. As they saw him a quiet
voice was heard behind them and looking up, they saw Nevada smiling at
them. "Get him drunk an' keep him away from Quinn's," he counselled.

They exchanged looks and then Elder stepped out into the street and
held up his hand. "Hullo, Frisco!" he cried.

"Where yuh been keeping yuhself foh so long?" asked Chet, affably.
"Holed up som'ers?"

"Hullo, fellers," grinned Frisco, drawing rein.

"Everybody have a drink on me," laughed Chet. "Ah'm pow'ful thirsty."

Frisco was escorted inside to the bar, where Chet did the honors, and
where such a spirit of hospitality and joviality surrounded him that
he forgot how many drinks he had taken. He dug up a handful of gold
and silver and spread it out on the bar and waved at the bartender.
"Bes' you got--ver' bes'," he grinned. "Me an' my fren's want th' ver'
bes'; don't we, fellers? I got money--helluva lot of money--an' thersh
more where it came from, ain't that so, boys?"

When the noise had subsided he turned around and levelled an unsteady
finger at the bartender. "I never go--back onsh fren', never. An'
we're all frensh--ain't we, fellers? Tha's right. I got s'more
frensh--good fellesh, an' lots of money cached in sand."

"Ah'll bet yuh have!" cried Chet.

"You allus could find pay-dirt," marvelled Nevada, glancing warningly
around him. "Yo're a fine prospector, all right."

Frisco stared for a moment and then laughed loudly and leaned against
the bar for support. "Proshpector! Proshpector! W'y, we earned tha's
money--run a helluva lot of risks. Mebby tha's Bar-20 outfit'll jump
us an' make us fight 'em. No; they can't jump us--they can't get up at
us!"

"On a mesa, shore!" whispered Elder to Lewis.

"Wha's you shay?"

"Said they couldn't lick you."

"Who couldn't--lick us?"

"Th' Bar-20," explained Elder.

Frisco rubbed his head and drew himself up, suspicion percolating
through his muddled brain. "Never shaid nozzing 'bout no Bar-Twensh!"
he asserted, angrily. "Nozzing 'tall. I'm going out of here--don't
like you! Gotta get some flour an' ozzer stuff. Never shaid nozzing
'bout--" he muttered, staggering out.

Nevada turned to Elder. "You go with him an' quiet his suspicions.
Keep him away from Quinn, for that coyote'll hold him till he gets
sober if you don't. This is the chance we've been wanting. Don't try
to pump him--his trail will be all we need."

"Wonder what mesa they're on?" asked Lewis.

"Don't know, an' don't care," Nevada replied. "We'll find out quick
enough. There's eight of us an' we can put up a stiff argument if they
won't take us in. You know they ain't going to welcome us, don't
you?"

"Hey, go out th' back way," growled Big Sandy, interposing his huge
bulk between Bates and the door. "An' don't let Frisco see you near a
cayuse, neither," he added.

Nevada walked quickly over to his friend and said a few hurried words
in a low voice and Big Sandy nodded. "Shore, Nevada; he might try
that, but I'll watch him. If he tries to sneak I'll let you know
hasty. We're in this to stay," and he followed the others to the door.

Nevada turned and faced the bartender. "Mike, you keep quiet about
what you saw an' heard to-day; understand? If you don't, me an' you
won't fit in this town at th' same time."

Mike grinned. "I forgot how to talk after one exciting day up in
Cheyenne, an' I ain't been drunk since, neither."

"Yo're a wise man," replied the other, stepping out by the back door
and hastening up the street where he could keep watch over Quinn's
saloon. It was an hour before he caught sight of Frisco, and he was
riding west, singing at the top of his lungs. Then Quinn slipped into
his corral and threw a saddle on a horse.

"Drop it!" said a quiet voice behind him and he turned to see Nevada
watching him.

"What do you mean?" demanded Quinn, ominously.

"Let loose of that cayuse an' go back inside," was the reply.

"You get th' h--l out of here an' mind yore own--" Quinn leaped aside
and jerked at his Colt; but was too late, and he fell, badly wounded.
Nevada sprang forward and disarmed him and then, mounting, galloped
off to join his friends.



CHAPTER XXVII

SHAW HAS VISITORS


When Frisco reached the edge of the clearing around the mesa he saw
Antonio and Shaw toiling cautiously up the steep, precarious trail
leading to the top, and he hailed vociferously. Both looked around,
Antonio scowling and his companion swearing at their friend's
condition. Frisco's pack horse, which he had sense enough to bring
back, was loaded down with bags and packages which had been put on
recklessly, inasmuch as a slab of bacon hung from the animal's neck
and swayed to and fro with each step; and the animal he rode had a
bartender's apron hanging down before its shoulders.

"Had a rip-snorting time--rip-snorting time," he announced pleasantly,
in a roar. "Salubrious--rip-snorting--helluva time!"

"Nobody'd guess it!" retorted Shaw. "Look at them bundles! An' him an
expert pack-horse man, too. An' that cayuse with a shirt! For anybody
that can throw as neat a diamond hitch as him, that pack horse is a
howling disgrace!"

"Hang th' pack horse!" growled Antonio. "I bet th' whole town knows
our business now! He ought to be shot. Where you going?"

"Down to help him up," Shaw replied. "He'll bust his fool neck if he
wrestles with that trail alone. You go on up an' send a couple of th'
boys down to bring up th' grub," he ordered, starting down the path.

"Let him bust his fool neck!" cried the Mexican. "He should 'a done
that before he left."

"What's th' ruction?" asked Clausen, looking down over the edge at the
Mexican.

"Oh, Frisco's come back howling drunk. Go down an' help him tote th'
grub up. Shaw said for somebody else to help you."

"Hey, Cavalry," cried Clausen. "Come on an' gimme a hand," and the two
disappeared down the trail.

The leader returned, heralded by singing and swearing, and pushed
Frisco over the mesa top to sprawl full-length on the ground. Shaw
looked down at him with an expression of anger and anxiety and then
turned abruptly on his heel as a quavering snore floated up from the
other.

"Here, Manuel!" he called, sharply. "Take my glasses an' go out to
yore lookout rock. Look towards Eagle an' call me if you see anybody."

The Mexican shuffled away as Cavalry and Clausen, loaded down,
appeared over the edge of the mesa wall and dropped their loads at
Shaw's feet.

"What did you tell him to get?" asked Clausen, marvelling.

"What do you think I told him to get?" snapped Shaw.

"I don't know, seeing what he brought back," was the reply.

Shaw examined the pile. "G-d's name, what's all this stuff?" he
roared. "Bacon! An' all th' meat we want is down below. Canned milk!
Two bottles XXX Cough Syrup, four bottles of whiskey, bottle vaniller
extract, plug tobacco, an' three harmonicas! Is _that_ flour!" he
yelled, glaring at a small bag. "Twenty pounds! Five pounds of salt!"

"I reckon he bought all th' cartridges in town," Cavalry announced,
staggering into sight with a box on his shoulder. "Lord, but it's
heavy!"

"Twenty pounds of flour to last nine men a month!" Shaw shouted,
kicking at the bag. "An' look at this coffee--two pounds! I'll teach
him a lesson when he gets sober."

"Well, he made up th' weight in th' cartridges," Cavalry grinned. He
grasped Shaw's arm. "What's got into Manuel?"

The leader looked and sprinted to the lookout rock, where Manuel was
gesticulating, and took the glasses. Half a minute later he returned
them to the Mexican and rejoined his companions near the pile of
supplies.

"What is it?" asked Cavalry.

"Some of our Eagle friends. Mebby they want cards in this game, but
we'll waste little time with 'em. Post th' fellers along th' edge,
Clausen, an' you watch th' trail up. Keep 'em covered while I talks
with 'em. Don't be slow to burn powder if they gets to pushing
things."

"They trailed Frisco," growled Cavalry.

"Shore; oh, he was a great success!" snapped Shaw, going to the edge
of the mesa to await the eight newcomers, his men finding convenient
places along the top of the wall, their rifles ready for action.

They did not have long to wait for soon Nevada and Chet Bates rode
into the clearing and made for the trail.

"That's far enough, Nevada!" shouted Shaw, holding up his hand.

"Why, hullo, Shaw!" cried the man below. "Yo're up a good tree, all
right," he laughed.

"Yes."

"Can we ride up, or do we have to take shank's mare?"

"Neither."

"Well, we want some water after that ride," replied Nevada.

"Plenty of it below. Nobody asked you to take that ride. What do you
want, anyhow?"

"Why, when Frisco said you was out here we thought we'd drop in on you
an' pay you a little visit."

"You have paid us a little visit. Call again next summer."

"Running many cows?" asked Nevada.

"Nope; educating coyotes. Didn't see none, did you?"

Nevada exchanged a few words with his companion and then looked up
again. "I reckon you need us, Shaw. Eight more men means twice as many
cows; an' we can all fight a little if th' ranches get busy out here."

"We're crowded now. Better water up an' hit th' back trail. It's hard
riding in th' dark."

"We didn't come out here for a drink," replied Nevada. "We came out to
help you rustle, which same we'll do. I tell you that you need us,
man!"

"When I need you I'll send for you. _Adios._"

"You ain't going to let us come up?"

"Not a little bit. Pull yore stakes an' hit th' back trail. _Adios!_"

"Well, we'll hang around to-night an' talk it over again to-morrow.
Mebby you'll change yore mind. So long," and the two wheeled and
disappeared into the chaparrals, Nevada chuckling. "I didn't spring
that little joker, Chet, because it's a good card to play last. When
we tell him that we won't let nobody come down off'n th' mesa it'll be
after we can't do nothing else. No use making him mad."

Up on the mesa Shaw wheeled, scowling. "I knowed that fool would fire
off something big! Why can't he get drunk out here, where it's all
right?"

"That Nevada is a shore bad proposition," Clausen remarked.

"So'm I!" snapped Shaw. "He can't come up, an' pursooant to that idee
I reckon you an' Hall better arrange to watch th' trail to-night."

He walked away and paced slowly along the edge of the wall, studying
every yard of it. He had done this thing before and had decided that
no man sat a saddle who could scale the sheer hundred feet of rock
which dropped so straight below him. But somehow he felt oppressed,
and the sinking sun threw into bold relief the furrows of his
weather-beaten, leathery face and showed the trouble marks which sat
above his eyes. At one part of the wall he stopped and peered over,
marshalling imaginative forces in attack after attack against it. But
at the end he smiled and moved on--that was the weakest point in his
defence, but he would consider himself fortunate if he should find no
weaker defence in future conflicts. As he returned to the hut he
glanced at the lookout rock and saw Manuel in his characteristic pose,
unmoving, silent, watchful.

"I'm getting as bad as Cavalry and his desert," he grumbled. "Still,
they can't lick us while we stay up here."



CHAPTER XXVIII

NEVADA JOINS SHAW


Late in the forenoon of the day after Nevada had argued with Shaw,
Manuel shifted his position on the lookout rock and turned to face the
hut. "Señor! Señor Shaw! He ees here."

Shaw strode to the edge of the mesa and looked down, seeing Nevada
sitting quietly on a horse and looking up at him. Manuel, his duty
performed, turned and looked eastward, shrinking back as Shaw stepped
close to him. Lying prone along the edge half a dozen men idly
fingered rifles as they covered the man below, Antonio's face in
particular showing intense aversion to any more recruits.

"Morning, Shaw," shouted Nevada. "Going to let us come up?"

The leader was about to reply when he felt a tug at his ankle and saw
Manuel's lips moving. "What is it, Greaser?"

"Look, Señor, look!" whispered the frightened Mexican, pointing
eastward. "Eet ees de Bar-20! They be here _poco tiempo_!"

"Shut up!" retorted Shaw in a whisper, glancing east, and what he saw
changed his reply to the man below. "Well, Nevada, we are purty
crowded up here as it is, but I'll ask th' boys about it. They ain't
quite decided. Be back in a minute," and he stepped back out of sight
of those below and waved his companions to him. Briefly stating the
facts he asked that Nevada and his force be allowed up to help repulse
the Bar-20, and the men who only a short time before had sworn that
they would take in no partners nodded assent and talked over the new
conditions while their leader again went to the edge.

"We can get along without you fellers," he called down, "but we don't
reckon you'll cut any hole in our profits as long as you do yore share
of work. If yo're willin' to share an' share alike, in work, grub,
profits, an' fighting, why I reckon you can come up. But I'm leader
here an' what I says goes; are you agreeable?"

"That's fair," Nevada replied. "Th' harder th' work th' bigger th'
pay--come on, boys," he cried, turning and waving his arm. "We're in!"

While the newcomers put their horses in the corral and toiled
carefully up the steep trail Manuel stared steadily into the east and
again saw the force that had filled him with fear. Hall, who was now
watching with him, abruptly arose and returned to the hut, reporting:
"Seven men out there--it's th' Bar-20, all right, I reckon"; and
almost immediately afterward Manuel found a moving speck far to the
east which Shaw's powerful glasses soon showed to be three pack horses
driven by two men.

Nevada looked curiously about him as he gained his goal and then
sought a place in the hut for his bunk. This, however, was full, and
he cast around outside to find the best place for his blankets.
Finding it, he stepped to the spring and had just quenched his thirst
when he saw Shaw standing on a ledge of rock above him, looking down.
"What is it, Shaw?" he asked.

"Well, you fellers shore enough raised h--l, now didn't you!" demanded
the leader, a rising anger in his voice. "Yo're a fine collection of
fools, you are--"

"What do--"

"--Leading that Bar-20 gang out here by th' nice, plain trail you
left," Shaw continued, sarcastically, not heeding the other's
explosive interjection. "That's a nice thing to saddle us with! D--n
it, don't you know you've queered th' game for good?"

"Yo're drunk!" retorted Nevada, heatedly. "We came up from th' south!
How th' devil could that crowd hit _our_ trail?"

"They must 'a hit southwest on a circle," lied Shaw. "Manuel just now
saw 'em pass a clearing an' heading this way--nine of 'em!"

"Th' devil!" exclaimed Nevada. "How many are up here now?" he asked
quickly.

"Sixteen."

"All right! Let 'em come!" cried the other. "Sixteen to nine--it's
easy!" he laughed. "Look here; we can clean up them fellers an' then
raid their ranch, for there's only four left at home. We can run off a
whopping big herd, sell 'em, an' divvy even. Then we separates,
savvy? Why, it couldn't be better!"

Shaw showed his astonishment and his companion continued. "Th' H2 is
shy men, an' th' C80 and th' Double Arrow is too far away to bother
us. As soon as we lick this aggregation of trouble hunters, what's
left will ride hell-bent for that valley. Then th' biggest herd ever
rustled in these parts, a trip to a new range, an' plenty of money to
spend there."

"That sounds good--but this pleasing cleaning-up is due to be full of
knots," Shaw rejoined. "Them nine men come from th' craggiest outfit
of high-toned gun-artists in these parts, an' you can bet that they
are th' pick of th' crowd! Cassidy, Connors, Peters--an' they've got
forty friends purty nigh as bad, an' eager to join in. I ain't no ways
a quitter, but this looks to me like Custer's Last Stand, us being th'
Custers."

"Ah, yo're loco!" retorted Nevada. "Look here! Send a dozen picked men
down quick an' let 'em lose 'emselves in th' chaparral, far back. When
th' terrible man-killers of th' great Bar-20 get plugging this way,
our trouble-gang slips up from behind an' it's all over! Go on, before
it's too late! Or one of us will ride like th' devil to Eagle for
help--but it's got to be quick! You say I got you in this, which I
know well I didn't, but now I'll get you out an' put you in th' way of
a barrel of money."

The crack of a rifle sounded from the plain and the next instant
Clausen dashed up, crying, "Manuel tried to cut an' run, but somebody
down below dropped him off'n th' trail. They're all around us!"

"Good for th' somebody!" cried Shaw. "I'll kill th' next man that
tries to leave us--that goes, so pass it along." Then he turned to
Nevada, a sneer on his face. "That means anybody riding for help,
too!" and he backed away.

Hall turned the corner, looking Nevada squarely in the eyes. "Say,
Shaw, wonder what's got into Archer? He's been gone a long time for
that trip."

"Reckon he's got tired an' quit," replied Shaw.

"You know he ain't that kind!" Hall cried, angrily.

"All right, all right. If he comes back an' finds out what's up he'll
probably hustle to Eagle for some of th' boys," Shaw responded.
Neither would ever see Dick Archer again--his bones were whitening
near a small water hole miles to the north, as Hopalong and Red could
testify.

"As long as one of us is outside we've got a chance," Nevada remarked.
"How're we fixed for grub, Hall?"

"Got enough jerked beef to last us a month," and Hall departed.

A shot hummed over Nevada's head and, ducking quickly, he followed
Hall. Close behind him went Shaw, muttering. "Well, it had to come
sometime--an' we're better fixed than I ever reckoned we'd be. Now
we'll see who gets wiped out!"



CHAPTER XXIX

SURROUNDED


Above, a pale, hot sky with only a wisp of cloud; below, a semi-arid
"pasture," scant in grass, seamed by tortuous gullies and studded with
small, compact thickets and bulky bowlders. A wall of chaparral,
appearing solid when viewed from a distance, fenced the pasture, and
rising boldly from the southwest end of the clearing a towering mass
of rock flung its rugged ramparts skyward. Nature had been in a sullen
mood when this scene had been perpetrated and there was no need of men
trying to heighten the gloomy aspect by killing each other. Yet they
were trying and had been for a week, and they could have found no
surroundings more in keeping with their occupation.

Minute clouds of smoke spurted from the top of the wall and from the
many points of vantage on the pasture to hang wavering for an instant
before lazily dissipating in the hot, close air. In such a sombre
setting men had elected to joke and curse and kill, perhaps to die;
men hot with passion and blood-lust plied rifles with deliberate
intent to kill. On one side there was fierce deep joy, an exultation
in forcing the issue, much as if they had tugged vainly at a leash and
suddenly found themselves free. They had been baited, tricked, robbed,
and fired upon and now, their tormentors penned before them, there
would be no cessation in their efforts to wipe out the indignities
under which they had chafed for so long a time.

On the other side, high up on a natural fortress which was considered
impregnable, lay those who had brought this angry pack about them.
There was no joy there, no glad eagerness to force the battle, no
jokes nor laughter, but only a grim desperation, a tenacious holding
to that which the others would try to take. On one side aggression; on
the other, defence. Fighters all, they now were inspired by the
merciless end always in their minds; they were trapped like rats and
would fight while mind could lay a plan or move a muscle. Of the type
which had out-roughed, out-fought for so long even the sturdy, rough
men who had laid the foundation for an inland empire amid dangers
superlative, they knew nothing of yielding; and to yield was to die.
It was survivor against survivor in an even game.

"Ah, God!" moaned a man on the mesa's lofty rim, staggering back
aimlessly before he fell, never to rise again. His companions regarded
him curiously, stolidly, without sympathy, as is often the case where
death is constantly expected. Dal Gilbert turned back to his rifle and
the problems before him. "So you've gone, too. An' I reckon we'll
follow"--such was Chet Bates' obituary.

In a thicket two hundred yards south of the mesa Red Connors worked
the lever of his rifle, a frown on his face. "I got him, all right. Do
you know who he is?"

"No; but I've seen him in Eagle," replied Hopalong, lowering the
glasses. "What's worrying me is water--my throat's drying awful."

"You shouldn't 'a forgot it," chided Red. "Now we've got to go without
it all day."

Hopalong ducked and swore as he felt of his bleeding face. "Purty
close, that!"

"Mind what yo're doing!" replied Red. "Get off my hand."

"This scrap is shore slow," Hopalong growled. "Here we've been doing
this for a whole week, all of us shot up, an' only got two of them
fellers."

"Well, yo're right; but there ain't a man up there that ain't got a
few bullet holes in him," Red replied. "But it is slow, that's shore."

"I've got to get a drink, an' that's all about it," Hopalong asserted.
"I can crawl in that gully most of th' way, an' then trust a
side-hopping dash. Anyhow, I'm tired of this place. Johnny's got th'
place for _me_."

"You better stay here till it's dark, you fool."

"Aw, stay nothing--so long," and Hopalong, rifle in hand, crawled
towards the gully. Red watched the mesa intently, hoping to be able to
stop some of the firing his rash friend was sure to call forth.

Twenty minutes passed and then two puffs of smoke sailed against the
sky, Red replying. Then half a dozen puffs burst into sight. A faint
shout came to Red's ears and he smiled, for his friend was safe.

As Hopalong gained the chaparral he felt himself heartily kicked and,
wheeling pugnaciously, looked into Buck Peters' scowling face. "Yo're
a healthy fool!" growled the foreman. "Ain't you got no sense at all?
Hereafter you flit over that pasture after dark, d'y hear!"

"He's th' biggest fool I ever saw, an' th' coolest," said a voice in
the chaparral at the left.

"Why, hullo, Meeker," Hopalong laughed, turning from Buck. "How do you
like our little party now?"

"I'm getting tired of it, an' it's some costly for me," grumbled the
H2 foreman. "Bet them skunks in Eagle have cleaned out every head I
owned." Then he added as an afterthought: "But I don't care a whole
lot if I can see this gang wiped out--_Antonio_ is th' coyote _I'm_
itching to stop."

"He'll be stopped," replied Hopalong. "Hey, Buck, Red's shore
thirsty."

"He can stay thirsty, then. An' don't you try to take no water to him.
You stay off that pasture during daylight."

"But it was all my fault--" Hopalong began, and then he was off like a
shot across the open, leaping gullies and dodging around bowlders.

"Here you!" roared Buck, and stopped to stare, Meeker at his side. A
man was staggering in circles near a thicket which lay a hundred yards
from them. He dropped and began to crawl aimlessly about, a good
target for the eager rifles on the mesa. Bullets whined and shrilled
and kicked up the dust on the plain, but still the rushing Bar-20
puncher was unhit. From the mesa came the faint crackling of rifle
fire and clouds of smoke hovered over the cover sheltering Red
Connors. Here and there over the pasture and along the chaparral's rim
rifles cracked in hot endeavor to drive the rustlers from their
positions long enough to save the reckless puncher. Buck and Meeker
both were firing now, rapidly but carefully, muttering words of hope
and anxiety as they worked the levers of their spurting guns. Then
they saw Hopalong gain the prostrate man's side, drag him back to
cover, and wave his arm. The fire from the mesa was growing weaker and
as it stopped Hopalong, with the wounded man on his back, ran to the
shelter of a gully and called for water.

"He's th' best man in this whole country!" cried Meeker, grabbing up a
canteen and starting to go through the chaparral to give them water.
"To do that for one of _my_ men!"

"I've knowed that for nigh onto fifteen years," replied Buck.

Near the Eagle trail Billy Williams and Doc Riley lay side by side,
friendly now.

"I tell you we've been shooting high," Doc grumbled. "It's no cinch
picking range against that skyline."

"Hey! Look at Hopalong!" cried Billy, excitedly. "Blamed idiot--why,
he's going out to that feller. Lord! Get busy!"

"That's Curtis out there!" ejaculated Doc, angrily. "They've got him,
d--n 'em!"

"My gun's jammed!" cursed Billy, in his excitement and anger standing
up to tear at the cartridge. "I allus go an'--" he pitched sideways to
the sand, where he lay quiet.

Doc dropped his rifle and leaped to drag his companion back to the
shelter of the cover. As he did so his left arm was hit, but he
accomplished his purpose and as he reached for his canteen the Bar-20
pessimist saved him the trouble by opening his eyes and staring
around. "Oh, my head! It's shore burning up, Doc!" he groaned. "What
th' devil happened that time, anyhow?"

"Here; swaller this," Doc replied, handing him the canteen.

"Who got me?" asked Billy, laying the vessel aside.

"How do I know? Whoever he was he creased you nice. His friends got me
in th' arm, too. You can help me fix it soon."

"Shore I will! We can lick them thieves, Doc," Billy expounded without
much interest. "Yessir," he added.

"You make me tired," Doc retorted. "You talking about being careful
when you stand up in plain sight of them fellers like you just did."

"Yes, I know. I was mad, an' sort of forgot about 'em being able to
shoot at me--but what happened out there, anyhow?"

Doc craned his neck. "There's Cassidy now, in that gully--Meeker's
just joined him. Good men, both of 'em."

"You bet," replied Billy, satisfied. "Yessir, we can lick 'em--we've
got to."

On the west side of the mesa, back in the chaparral and out of sight
of the rustlers, Pie Willis lay face down in the sand, quiet. Near him
lay Frenchy McAllister, firing at intervals, aflame with anger and a
desire to kill. Opposite him on the mesa, a scant three hundred yards
away, two rustlers gloated and fired, eager to kill the other puncher,
who shot so well.

"That other feller knows his business, Elder," remarked Nevada as a
slug ricochetted past his head. "Wonder who he is."

"Wonder _where_ he is," growled Elder, firing at a new place. "He's
been shifting a lot. Anyhow, we got one. There's so much smoke down
there I can't seem to place him. Mebby--" he fell back, limp, his
rifle clattering down a hundred feet of rock.

Nevada looked at him closely and then drew back to a more secure
position. "We're even, stranger, but we ain't quits, by a good deal!"
He swore. _Zing-ing-ing!_ "Oh, you know I moved, do you!" he gritted.
"Well, how's _that_!" _Spat_! a new, bright leaden splotch showed on
the rock above his head and hot lead stung his neck and face as the
bullet spattered. "I'll get you yet, you coyote!" he muttered,
changing his position again. "Ah, _h--l_!" he sobbed and dropped his
rifle to grasp his right elbow, shattered by a Winchester .45. Pain
shot through every fibre of his body and weakened him so he could not
crawl for shelter or assistance. He swayed, lost his balance and
swayed further, and as his side showed beyond the edge of his rocky
rampart he quivered and sank back, helpless, pain-racked, and bleeding
to death from two desperate wounds.

"We was--tricked--up here!" he moaned. "That must--be Red--Connors out
there. Ah!" _Spat! Chug! Spat!_ But Nevada did not hear them now.

Down in the chaparral, Frenchy, getting no response to his shots,
picked up his glasses and examined the mesa. A moment later he put
them back in the case, picked up his rifle and crawled towards his
companion.

"Pie!" he called, touching the body. "Pie, old feller! I got 'em both
for you, Pie--got 'em--" screened by the surrounding chaparral he
stood up and shook a clenched fist at the sombre, smoke-wreathed pile
of rock and shouted: "An' they won't be all! Do you hear, you thieves?
_They won't be all!_"

Lying in a crack on the apex of a pinnacle of rock a hundred yards
northwest of the mesa Johnny Nelson cursed the sun and squirmed around
on the hot stone, vainly trying to find a spot comparatively cool,
while two panic-stricken lizards huddled miserably as far back in the
crack as they could force themselves. Long bright splotches marked the
stone all around the youthful puncher and shrill whinings came to him
out of the air, to hurtle away in the distance ten times as loud and
high-pitched. For an hour he had not dared to raise his head to aim,
and his sombrero, which he had used as a dummy, was shot full of
holes. Johnny, at first elated because of his aerial position, now
cursed it fervently and was filled with disgust. When he had begun
firing at sunrise he had only one man to face. But the news went
around among the rustlers that a fool had volunteered to be a target
and now three good shots vied with each other to get the work over
with quickly, and return to their former positions.

"I reckon I can squirm over th' edge an' drop down that split," Johnny
soliloquized, eying a ragged, sharp edge in the rock close at hand.
"Don't know where it goes to, or how far down, but it's cool, that's
shore."

He wriggled over to it, flattened as much as possible, and looked over
the edge, seeing a four-inch ledge ten feet below him. From the ledge
it was ten feet more to the bottom, but the ledge was what interested
him.

"Shore I can--just land on that shelf, hug th' wall an' they can't
touch me," he grinned, slipping over and hanging for an instant until
he stopped swinging. The rock bulged out between him and the ledge,
but he did not give that any thought. Letting go he dropped down the
face of the rock, shot out along the bulge and over his cherished
ledge, and landed with a grunt on a mass of sand and debris twenty
feet below. As he pitched forward to his hands he heard the metallic
warning of a rattlesnake and all his fears of being shot were knocked
out of his head by the sound. When he landed from his jump he was on
the wrong side of the crevice and among hot lead. Ducking and dodging
he worked back to the right side and then blew off the offending
rattler's head with his Colt. Other rattlers now became prominent and
Johnny, realizing that he was an unwelcome guest in a rattlesnake den,
made good use of his eyes and Colt as he edged towards the mouth of
the crevice. Behind him were rattlers; before him, rustlers who could
and would shoot. To say that he was disgusted is to put it mildly.

"Cussed joint!" he grunted. "This is a measly place for me. If I stay
I get bit to death; if I leave I get shot. Wonder if I can get to that
ledge--ugh!" he cried as the tip of a rattler's tail hung down from it
for an instant. "Come on! Bring 'em all out! Trot out th' tarantulas,
copper heads, an' Gilas! Th' more th' merrier! Blasted snake
hang-out!"

He glanced about him rapidly, apprehensively, and shivered. "No more
of this for Little Johnny! I'll chance th' sharp-shooters," he yelled,
and dashed out and around the pile so quickly as to be unhit. But he
was not hit for another reason, also. Skinny Thompson and Pete Wilson,
having grown restless, were encircling the mesa by keeping inside the
chaparral and came opposite the pinnacle about the time Johnny
discovered his reptilian neighbors. Hearing the noise they both
stopped and threw their rifles to their shoulders. Here was a fine
opportunity to lessen the numbers of the enemy, for the rustlers,
careless for the moment, were peering over their breastwork to see
what all the noise was about, not dreaming that two pairs of eyes
three hundred yards away were calculating the range. Two puffs of
smoke burst from the chaparral and the rustlers ducked out of sight,
one of them hard hit. At that moment Johnny made his dash and caused
smiles to flit across the faces of his friends.

"We might 'a knowed it was him!" laughed Skinny. "Nobody else would be
loco enough to pick out that thing."

"Yes; but now what's he doing?" asked Pete, seeing Johnny poking
around among the rocks, Colt in hand.

"Hunting rustlers, I reckon," Skinny replied. "Thinks they are
tunnelling an' coming up under him, I suppose. Hey! Johnny!"

Johnny turned, peering at the chaparral.

"What are you doing?" yelled Skinny.

"Hunting snakes."

Skinny laughed and turned to watch the mesa, from which lead was
coming.

"Can you cover me if I make a break?" shouted Johnny, hopefully.

"No; stay where you are!" shouted Pete, and then ducked.

"Stop yelling and move about some or you'll get us both hit," ordered
Skinny. "Them fellers can _shoot_!"

"Come on; let's go ahead. Johnny can stay out there till dark an' hunt
snakes," Pete was getting sarcastic. "Wonder if he reckons we came
here to get shot at just to hunt snakes!"

"No; we'll help him in," Skinny replied. "You'll find th' rattlers
made it too hot for him up there. Start shooting."

Johnny hearing the rapid firing of his friends, ran backwards, keeping
the pinnacle between him and his enemies as long as he could. Then,
once out of its shelter, he leaped erratically over the plain and
gained a clump of chaparral. He now had only about a hundred yards to
go, and Johnny could sprint when need was. He sprinted. Joining his
friends the three disappeared in the chaparral and two disgusted
rustlers helped a badly wounded companion to the rough hospital in the
hut at the top of the mesa trail.

Johnny and his friends had not gone far before Johnny, eager to find a
rustler to shoot at, left them to go to the edge of the chaparral and
while he was away his friends stumbled on the body of Pie Willis.
Johnny, moving cautiously along the edge of the chaparral, soon met
Buck and Hopalong, who were examining every square foot of the mesa
wall for a way up.

"Hullo, Johnny!" cried Hopalong. "What you doing here? Thought you was
plumb stuck on that freak rock up north."

"I was--an' _stuck_, for shore," grinned Johnny. "That rock is a nest
of snakes, besides being a fine place to get plugged by them fellers.
An' hot!"

"How'd you get away?"

"Pete an' Skinny drove 'em back an' I made my get-away. They're in th'
chaparral somewhere close," Johnny replied. "But why are you
telescoping at th' joker? Think you see money out there?"

"Looking for a place to climb it," Hopalong responded. "We're
disgusted with this long-range squibbing. You didn't see no breaks in
th' wall up where you was, did you?"

"Lemme see," and Johnny cogitated for a moment. Then his face cleared.
"Shore I did; there's lots of cracks in it, running up an' down, an' a
couple of ledges. I ain't so shore about th' ledges, though--you see I
was too busy to look for ledges during th' first part of th' seance,
and I dassn't look during th' last of it. There was three of 'em
a-popping at me!"

"Hey, Johnny!" came a hail; "Johnny!"

"That's Pete an' Skinny--Hullo!" Johnny shouted.

"Come here--Pie Willis is done for!"

"What?"

"Pie--Willis--is--done--for!"

The three turned and hastened towards the voice, shouting questions.
They found Skinny and Pete standing over the body and sombreros came
off as the foreman knelt to examine it. Pie had been greatly liked by
the members of the outfit he had lately joined, having been known to
them for years.

"Clean temple shot," Buck remarked, covering the face and arising.
"There's some fine shots up on that rock. Well, here's another reason
why we've got to get up there an' wipe 'em out quick. Pie was a white
man, square as a die and a good puncher--I wouldn't have asked for a
better pardner. You fellers take him to camp--we're going to find a
way to square things if there is one. No, Pete, you an' Johnny carry
him in--Skinny is going with us."

Buck, Hopalong, and Skinny returned to the edge of the pasture and the
foreman again swept the wall through his glasses. "Hey! What's that? A
body?"

Hopalong looked. "Yes, two of 'em! I reckon Pie died game, all right."

"Well, come on--we've got to move along," and Buck led the way north,
Skinny bringing up the rear. Next to Lanky Smith, at present nursing
wounds at the ranch, Skinny was the best man with a rope in the Bar-20
outfit and the lariat he used so deftly was one hundred and fifty feet
in length, much longer than any used by those around the mesa. Buck
had asked him to go with them because he wished to have his opinion as
to the possibility of getting a rope up the mesa wall.

When they came opposite the rock which had sheltered Johnny they
sortied to see if that part of the mesa was guarded, but there was no
sign of life upon it. Then, separating, they dashed to the midway
cover, the thicket, which they reached without incident. From there
they continued to the pinnacle and now could see every rock and seam
of the wall with their naked eyes. But they used the glasses and after
a few minutes' examination of the ledges Hopalong turned to his
companions. "Just as Johnny said. Skinny, do you reckon if you was
under them to-night that you could get yore rope fast to th' bottom
one?"

"Shore; that's easy. But it won't be no cinch roping th' other,"
Skinny replied. "She sticks out over th' first by two feet. It'll be
hard to jerk a rope from that narrow foothold."

"Somebody can hang onto you so you can lean out," Buck replied. "Pete
can hold you easy."

"But what'll he hold on to?"

Hopalong pointed. "See that spur up there, close to th' first ledge?
He can hitch a rope around that an' hang to th' rope. I tell you it's
_got_ to be done. We can't lose no more men in this everlasting
pot-shooting game. We've got to get close an' clean up!"

"Well, I ain't saying nothing different, am I?" snapped Skinny. "I'm
saying it'll be hard, an' it will. Now suppose one of them fellers
goes on sentry duty along this end; what then?"

"We'll solve that when we come to it," Hopalong replied. "I reckon if
Red lays on this rock in th' moonlight that he can drop any sentry
that stands up against th' sky at a hundred yards. We've got to try
it, anyhow."

"_Down!_" whispered Buck, warningly. "Don't let 'em know we're here.
Drop that gun, Hoppy!"

They dropped down behind the loose bowlders while the rustler passed
along the edge, his face turned towards the pinnacle. Then, deciding
that Johnny had not returned, he swept the chaparral with a pair of
glasses. Satisfied at length that all was well he turned and
disappeared over a rocky ledge ten feet from the edge of the wall.

"I could 'a dropped him easy," grumbled Hopalong, regretfully, and
Skinny backed him up.

"Shore you could; but I don't want them to think we are looking at
this end," Buck replied. "We'll have th' boys raise th' devil down
south till dark an' keep that gang away from this end."

"I reckon they read yore mind--hear th' shooting?" Skinny queried.

"That must be Red out there--I can see half of him from here,"
Hopalong remarked, lowering his glasses. "Look at th' smoke he's
making! Wonder what's up? Hear th' others, too!"

"Come on--we'll get out of this," Buck responded. "We'll go to camp
an' plan for to-night, an' talk it over with th' rest. I want to hear
what Meeker's going to do about it an' how we can place his men."

"By thunder! If we _can_ get up there, half a dozen of us with Colts,
an' sneak up on 'em, we'll have this fight tied up in a bag so quick
they won't know what's up," Skinny remarked. "You can bet yore life
that if there's any way to get a rope up that wall I'll do it!"



CHAPTER XXX

UP THE WALL


Pipes were glowing in the shadows away from the fire, where men lay in
various attitudes of ease. A few were examining wounds while others
cleaned rifles and saw that their revolvers were in good condition.
Around the fire but well back from it four men sat cross-legged, two
others stretched out on their elbows and stomachs near them.

"You say everything is all right on th' ranch?" asked Buck of a man
who, covered with alkali, had just come from the Bar-20. "No trouble,
hey?"

"Nope; no trouble at all," replied Cross, tossing his sombrero aside.
"Lucas an' Bartlett each sent us four men to help out when they
learned you had come out here. We shipped four of 'em right on to th'
H2, which is too short-handed to do any damage to rustlers."

"Much obliged for that," spoke up Meeker, relief in his voice. "I'm
blamed glad to hear things are quiet back home--but I don't know how
long they'll stay that way with Eagle so close."

"Well, Eagle ain't a whole lot anxious to dip in no more," laughed
Cross, looking at the H2 foreman. "Leastawise, that's what Lucas said.
He sent a delegation down there which made a good impression. There
was ten men in it an' they let it be known that if they came back
again there would be ten more with 'em. In that case Eagle wouldn't be
no more than a charred memory. Since Quinn died, being shot hard by
Nevada, who I reckons is out here, th' town ain't got nobody to tell
it how to do things right, which is shore pleasant."

"You bring blamed good news--I'm glad Lucas went down there," Buck
replied. "I can't tell as good news about us out here, yet. We've had
a hard time for a week. They got Pie to-day, an' most of us are shot
up plentiful. Yo're just in time for th' festival, Cross--we're going
to try to rush 'em to-night an' get it over. We reckon Skinny an' Pete
can get us a way up that wall before dawn."

"Me for th' rush," laughed Cross. "I'm fresh as a daisy, which most of
you fellers ain't. How many of 'em have you got so far? Are there many
still up there?"

"We've got four of 'em that I knows of, an' how many of 'em died from
their wounds I can't say," replied Hopalong. "But a whole lot of 'em
have been plugged, an' plugged hard."

"But how many are up there still able to fight?"

"I should say about nine," Hopalong remarked, thoughtfully.

"Ten," corrected Red. "I've been watching th' positions an' I know."

"About nine or ten--they shift so nobody can really tell," Buck
replied. "I reckon we've seen 'em all in Eagle, too."

"Frenchy got Nevada an' another to-day, on th' west side," Johnny
interposed.

"I'm glad Nevada is gone--he's a terror in a mix-up," Cross rejoined.
"Best two-handed gun man in Eagle, he was."

"Huh!" snorted Johnny. "Stack him up against Hoppy an' see how long
he'd last!"

"I said in Eagle!" retorted Cross.

Buck suddenly stood up and stretched. "You fellers all turn in now an'
snatch some sleep. I'm going out to see how things are with Billy.
I'll call you in time. Doc, you an' Curtis are too shot up to do any
climbing--you turn in too. When I come back I'll wake you an' send you
out to help Billy watch th' trail. Where's Red?"

"Over here--what do you want?" came from the shadows.

"Nothing, only get to sleep. I reckoned you might be off somewheres
scouting. Skinny, where's yore rope? Got that manilla one? Good! Put
three more hemp lariats out here where I can find 'em when I come
back. Now don't none of you waste no time; turn in right now!" He
started to walk away and then hesitated, turning around. "Doc, you an'
Curtis better come with me now so you won't lose no time hunting
Billy in th' dark when yore eyes are sleepy--it's hard enough to find
him now in th' dark, when I'm wide awake. You can get yore sleep out
there--he'll wake you when yo're needed."

The two punchers arose and joined him, Doc with his left arm bandaged
and his companion with three bandages on him. When they joined Buck
Doc protested. "Let me go with you an' th' rest of th' boys, Peters,
when you go up that wall. I came out here to get th' Greaser that
murdered Curley, an' I hate to miss him now. If I can't climb th' boys
will be glad to pull me up, an' it won't take no time to speak of. My
gun arm is sound as a dollar--_I_ want that Greaser!"

Buck glanced at Meeker, who refused to give any sign of his thoughts
on the matter. "Well, all right, Doc. But if we should have to fight
as soon as we get up an' don't have no time to pull you after us,
you'll miss everything. But you can do what you want."

"I'll just gamble on that. I ain't hurt much, an' if I can't climb
I'll manage to get in th' scrap someway, even if I has to hunt up
Billy," replied Doc, contentedly, returning to the fire.

Buck and his companion moved away into the darkness while those around
the fire lay down to get a few hours' rest, which they needed badly.
George Cross, who was not sleepy, remained awake in a shadow and kept
guard, although none was needed.

Buck and Curtis found Billy by whistling and the wounded H2 puncher
found a place to lie down and was soon asleep, while the foreman and
his friend sat up, watching the faint glow on the mesa, the camp-fire
of the besieged. Once they heard the clatter of a rifle from the head
of the trail and later they saw a dim figure pass quickly across the
lighted space. They were content to watch on such a night, for the air
had cooled rapidly after the sun went down and the sky was one
twinkling mass of stars.

Twice during the wait Buck disappeared into the black chaparral close
at hand and struck a match under his coat to see the time, and on the
last occasion he returned to Billy, remarking: "Got half an hour yet
before I leave you. Are you sleepy?"

"No, not very; my head hurts too much to sleep," Billy replied,
re-crossing his legs and settling himself in a more comfortable
position. "When you leave I'll get up on my hoofs so I won't feel like
dosing off. I won't wake Curtis unless I have to--he's about played
out."

"You wake him when you think I've been gone half an hour," Buck
ordered. "It'll take him some time to get his eyes open--we mustn't
let any get away. They've got friends in Eagle, you know."

"Wish I could smoke," Billy remarked, wistfully.

"Why, you can," replied Buck, quickly. "Go back there in th' chaparral
an' get away with a pipeful. I'll watch things till you come back, an'
if I need you quick I can call. You've got near half an hour--make th'
best of it."

"Here's th' gun--much obliged, Buck," and Billy disappeared, leaving
the foreman to plan and watch. Buck glanced at the sleeping man
occasionally when he heard him toss or mutter and wished he could let
him sleep on undisturbed.

Suddenly a flash lighted up the top of the trail for an instant and
the sharp report of a rifle rang out loudly on the still, night air.
Buck, grabbing the Winchester, sprang to his feet as an excited chorus
came from the rustlers' stronghold. Then he heard laughter and a few
curses and quiet again ensued.

"What was that, Buck?" came a low, anxious hail from behind.

The foreman laughed softly and replied: "Nothing, Billy, except that
th' guard up there reckoned he saw something to shoot at. It's funny
how staring at th' dark will get a feller seeing things that ain't.
Why, had yore smoke so soon?" he asked in surprise as Billy sat down
beside him.

"Shore," replied Billy. "Two of 'em. I reckon yore time is about up.
Gimme th' gun now."

"Well, good luck, Billy. Better move up closer to th' trail if you can
find any cover. You don't want to miss none. So long," and Billy was
alone with his sleeping companion.

When the foreman returned to the camp he was challenged, and stopped,
surprised. "It's Peters," he called.

"Oh, all right. Time to go yet?" asked Cross, emerging from the
darkness.

"Purty near; but I thought I told you to go to sleep?"

"I know, but I ain't sleepy, not a bit. So I reckoned I'd keep watch
over th' rest of th' gang."

"Well, since yo're wide awake, you help me knot these ropes an' let
th' others have a few minutes more," Buck responded, picking up
Skinny's fifty-foot lariat and placing it to one side. He picked up
the three shorter ropes and threw one to his companion. "Put a knot
every foot an' a half--make 'em tight an' big."

In a few minutes the work was finished and Buck awakened the sleeping
men, who groped their way to the little stream close by and washed the
sleep out of their tired eyes, grabbing a bit of food on their return
to the fire.

"Now, fellers," said the foreman, "leave yore rifles here--it's Colts
this trip, except in Red's case. Got plenty of cartridges? Everybody
had a drink an' some grub? All right; single file after me an' don't
make no noise."

When the moon came up an hour later Red Connors, lying full length on
the apex of the pinnacle which Johnny had tried and found wanting,
watched an indistinct blurr of men in the shadow of the mesa wall. He
saw one of them step out into the moonlight, lean back and then
straighten up suddenly, his arm going above his head. The silence was
so intense that Red could faintly hear the falling rope as it struck
the ground. Another cast, and yet another, both unsuccessful, and
then the fourth, which held. The puncher stepped back into the shadow
again and another figure appeared, to go jerking himself up the face
of the wall. While he watched the scaling operations Red was not
missing anything on the top of the mesa, where the moon bathed
everything in a silvery light.

Then he saw another figure follow the first and kick energetically as
it clambered over onto the ledge. Soon a rope fell to the plain and
the last man up, who was Skinny, leaned far out and cast at the second
ledge, Pete holding him. After some time he was successful and again
he and his companion went up the wall. Pete climbed rapidly, his heavy
body but small weight for the huge, muscular arms which rose and fell
so rapidly. On the second ledge the same casting was gone through
with, but it was not until the eighth attempt that the rope stayed up.
Then Red, rising on his elbows, put his head closer to the stock of
his rifle and peered into the shadows back of the lighted space on the
rocky pile. He saw Pete pull his companion back to safety and then,
leaping forward, grasp the rope and climb to the top. Already one of
the others was part way up the second rope while another was squirming
over the lower ledge, and below him a third kicked and hauled, half
way up the first lariat.

"String of monkeys," chuckled Red. "But they can't none of 'em touch
Pete in that sort of a game. Wonder what Pete's doing?" he queried as
he saw the man on the top of the mesa bend, fumble around for a
moment, and then toss his arm out over the edge. "Oh, it's a knotted
rope--he's throwing it down for th' others. Well, Pete, old feller,
you was th' first man to get--_Lord_!"

He saw Pete wheel, leap forward into a shadow, and then a heaving,
twisting, bending bulk emerged into the moonlight. It swayed back and
forth, separated into two figures and then became one again.

"They're fighting, rough an' tumble!" Red exclaimed. "Lord have mercy
on th' man who's closing with that Pete of ourn!"

He could hear the scuffling and he knew that the others had heard it,
too, for Skinny was desperately anxious to wriggle over the edge,
while down the line of ropes the others acted like men crazed. Still
the pair on the mesa top swayed back and forth, this way and that,
bending, twisting, and Red imagined he could hear their labored
breathing. Then Skinny managed to pull himself to the top of the wall
and sprang forward, to sink down from a kick in the stomach.

"God A'mighty!" cried Red excitedly. "Who is it that can give Pete a
fight like that? Well, I'm glad he's so busy he can't use his gun!"

Skinny was crawling around on his hands and knees as Buck's head arose
over the edge. The foreman, well along in years, and heavy, was too
tired to draw himself over the rim without a moment's rest. He had no
fear for Pete, but he was worried lest some rustler might sound an
alarm. Skinny now sat up and felt for his Colt, but the foreman's
voice stopped him. "No shooting, yet! Want to tell 'em what's up? You
let them fellers alone for a minute, an' give me a hand here."

Pete, his steel-like fingers darting in for hold after hold, managed
to jerk his opponent's gun from its sheath and throw it aside, where
Skinny quickly picked it up. He was astonished by the skill and
strength of his adversary, who blocked every move, every attempt to
get a dangerous hold. Pete, for a man reputed as being slow, which he
was in some things, was darting his arms in and out with remarkable
quickness, but without avail. Then, realizing that his cleaner living
was standing him in good stead, and hearing the labored breathing of
the rustler, he leaped in and clinched. By this time Hopalong and
three more of the attacking force had gained the mesa top and were
sent forward by the foreman, who was now intent upon the struggle at
hand.

"It's Big Sandy!" Hopalong whispered to Skinny, pausing to watch for a
moment before he disappeared into the shadows.

He was right, and Big Sandy, breathless and tired, was fighting a
splendid fight for his life against a younger, fresher, and stronger
man. The rustler tried several times for a throat hold but in vain,
and in a fury of rage threw his weight against his opponent to bear
him to the ground, incautiously bringing his feet close together as he
felt the other yield. In that instant Pete dropped to a crouch, his
vice-like hands tightened about Big Sandy's ankles, and with a sudden,
great surge of his powerful back and shoulders he straightened up and
Sandy plunged forward to a crashing fall on the very edge of the mesa,
scrambled to his feet, staggered, lost his balance, and fell backwards
a hundred feet to the rocks below.

The victor would have followed him but for Buck, who grasped him in
time. Pete, steady on his feet again, threw Buck from him by one sweep
of his arms and wheeled to renew the fight, surprise flashing across
his face at not seeing his opponent.

"He's down below, Pete," Buck cried as Johnny, white-faced, crawled
over the edge.

"What was that?" exclaimed the Kid. "Who fell?"

"Big Sandy," replied the foreman. "He--" the report of a shot cut him
short. "Come on!" he cried. "They're at it!" and he dashed away,
closely followed by Johnny and Pete as Jim Meeker came into view. The
H2 foreman slid over the mesa rim, leaped to his feet and sprinted
forward, Colt in hand, to be quickly lost in the shadows, and after
him came Red Connors, the last.

Down below Doc, hearing a thud not far from him, hurried around a spur
of rock in the wall, sick at heart when he saw the body. Bending over
quickly he recognized the mass as once having been Big Sandy, and he
forthwith returned to the rope to be pulled up. When he at last
realized that his friends had forgotten him there was loud, lurid
cursing and he stamped around like a wild man, waving a Colt in his
right hand. Finally he dropped heavily on a rock, too enraged to
think, and called the attacking force, collectively and individually,
every name that sprang to his lips. As he grew calmer he arose from
the rock, intending to join Billy and Curtis at the other end of the
pasture, and as he took a step in that direction he heard a sharp
click and a pebble bounced past him. He stepped backwards quickly and
looked up, seeing a figure sliding rapidly down the highest rope. He
was immediately filled with satisfaction and easily forgave his
companions for the anxiety they had caused him, and as he was about to
call out he heard a Spanish oath. Slipping quickly and noiselessly
into the deeper shadow at the base of the wall he flattened himself
behind the spur of rock close to the rope, where he waited tensely, a
grim smile transforming his face.



CHAPTER XXXI

FORTUNE SNICKERS AT DOC


Antonio was restless and could not sleep. He turned from side to side
on the ground near the fire before the hut and was one of the first to
run to the top of the trail when the guard there discharged his rifle
at nothing. Returning to his blanket the Mexican tried to compose
himself to rest, but was unsuccessful. Finally he arose, picked up his
rifle, and slouched off into the shadows to wander about from point to
point.

Cavalry, coming in from his post to get a drink, caught sight of the
Mexican before he was swallowed up by the darkness and, suspicious as
ever of Antonio, forgot the drink and followed.

After wandering about all unconscious of espionage Antonio finally
drifted to the western edge and seated himself comfortably against a
bowlder, Cavalry not fifty feet away in a shadow. Time passed slowly
and as the Mexican was about to return to the fire he chanced to
glance across the mesa along a moon-lighted path and stiffened at what
he saw. A figure ran across the lighted space, silently, cautiously,
Colt in hand, and then another, then two together, and the Mexican
knew that the enemy had found a way up the wall and were hurrying
forward to fight at close quarters, to effect a surprise on the
unsuspecting men about the fire and in the hut. There remained,
perhaps, time enough for him to escape and he arose and ran north,
crouching as he zig-zagged from cover to cover, cautious and alert.

Cavalry, because of his position, had not seen the flitting punchers
and, his suspicions now fully aroused, he slipped after the Mexican to
find out just what he was going to do. When the firing burst out
behind him he paused and stood up, amazed. As he struggled to
understand what it meant he saw three men run past a bowlder at his
left and then he knew, and still hesitated. He was not a man who
thought quickly and his first natural impulse, due to his army
training, was to try to join his friends, but gradually the true
situation came to him. How many men there were in the attacking force
he did not know, but he had seen three after the fighting had begun;
and it was evident that the cowmen would not rush into the lion's jaws
unless they were strong enough to batter down all resistance. Four of
his friends were dead, another had evidently deserted, and the
remainder were all more or less severely wounded--there could be no
hope of driving the ranchmen back, and small chance of him being able
to work through their line to join his friends. There remained only
one thing to be done, to save himself while he might.

As he moved forward slowly and cautiously to find a way down the wall
he remembered the Mexican's peculiar actions and wondered if he had a
hand in helping the cowmen up.

Meanwhile Antonio, reaching the edge of the open space where Pete and
Big Sandy had fought, saw Red Connors appear over the rim and dash
away to join in the fighting. Waiting long enough to assure himself
that there were none following Red he ran to the edge and knelt by the
rope. Leaving his rifle behind and seeing that the flap of his holster
was fastened securely, he lowered himself over, sliding rapidly down
to the first ledge. Here he spent a minute, a minute that seemed an
eternity, hunting for the second rope in the shadows, found it and
went on.

Sliding and bumping down the rough wall he at last reached the plain
and, with a sigh of relief, turned to run. At that instant a figure
leaped upon him from behind and a hand gripped his throat and jerked
him over backwards. Antonio instinctively reached for his Colt with
one hand while he tore at the gripping fingers with the other, but he
found himself pinned down between two rocks in such a manner that his
whole weight and that of his enemy was on the holster and made his
effort useless. Then, terrified and choking for breath, he dug wildly
at the vice-like fingers which not for a moment relaxed, but in vain,
for he was growing weaker with each passing second.

Doc leaned forward, peering into the face before him, his fingers
gripping with all their power, gripping with a force which made the
muscles of the brawny forearm stand out like cords, his face
malevolent and his heart full of savage joy. Here was the end of his
hunt, here was the man who had murdered Curley in cold blood,
cowardly, deliberately. The face, already dark, was turning black and
the eyes were growing wide open and bulging out. He felt the surge of
the Mexican's pulse, steadily growing weaker. But he said no word as
he watched and gloated, he was too intent to speak, too centred upon
the man under him, too busy keeping his fingers tight-gripped. He
would make good his threat, he would keep his word and kill the
murderer of his best friend with his naked hand, as he had sworn.

Up above the two, Cavalry, working along the edge, had come across
Antonio's rifle and then as he glanced about, saw the rope. Here was
where the cowmen had come up and here was where he could go down. From
the way the shooting continued he knew that the fight was desperate
and he believed himself to be cut off from his friends. He hated to
desert in the face of the enemy, to leave his companions of a
dangerous business to fight for their lives without him, but there was
only one thing to do since he could not help them--he must save
himself.

Dropping his rifle beside the other he lowered himself over the edge
and slid rapidly down. When half-way down the last rope his burning
hands slipped and he fell head over heels, and landed on Doc, knocking
him over and partially stunning him. Cavalry's only idea now was to
escape from the men who, as he thought, were guarding the rope and,
hastily picking himself up, he dashed towards the chaparral to the
west as fast as he could run, every moment expecting to feel the hot
sting of a bullet. At last, when the chaparral closed about him he
plunged through it recklessly and ran until sheer exhaustion made him
drop insensible to the sand. He had run far, much farther than he
could have gone were it not for the stimulus of the fear which gripped
him; and had he noticed where he was going he would have known that he
was running up a slope, a slope which eventually reached a level
higher than the top of the mesa. And when he dropped if he had been
capable of observation he would have found himself in a chaparral
which arose above his head, and seen the narrow lane through it which
led to a great expanse of sand, tawney and blotched with ash-colored
alkali, an expanse which stretched away to the desolate horizon.

Shortly after Cavalry's descent Antonio stirred, opened his eyes,
stared vaguely about him and, feeling his bruised and aching throat,
staggered to his feet and stumbled to the east, hardly conscious of
what he was doing. As he proceeded his breath came easier and he began
to remember having seen Doc lying quiet against a rock. He hesitated a
moment as he wondered if Doc was dead and if so, who had killed him.
Then he swore because he had not given him a shot to make sure that he
would not rejoin his friends. Hesitating a moment he suddenly decided
that he would be better off if he put a good distance between himself
and the mesa, and ran on again, eager to gain the shelter of the
chaparral.

When Doc opened his eyes and groped around he slowly remembered what
had occurred and his first conscious act was to look to see if his
expected victim were dead or alive. It did not take him long to
realize that he was alone and his hand leaped for his Colt as he
peered around. Limping out on the plain he caught sight of the running
Mexican, rapidly growing indistinct, and hazarded two shots after him.
Antonio leaped into a new speed as though struck with a whip and
cursed himself for not having killed the H2 puncher when he had the
chance. A moment more and he was lost in the thickets. Doc tried to
follow, but his leg, hurt by Cavalry's meteoric descent, was not equal
to any great demand for speed and so, turning, he made his way towards
the camp to get a horse and return to take up the Mexican's trail.

He lost an hour in this, a feverishly impatient hour, punctuated with
curses as he limped along and with an unsparing quirt once he was
astride. What devilish Humpty Dumpty had cheated him this time? "All
the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty
together again"--they couldn't if he once caught up with the Mexican.
He laughed grimly and swore again as the cranky beast beneath him
shied a pain into his sore leg. "Go on, you!" he yelled, as he swept
up to where the ropes still dangled against the wall. "Th' Mexican
first," he muttered. The world was not big enough to hide the murderer
of Curley, to save him from his just deserts. The two trails lay plain
before him in the brilliant moonlight and his pony sprang forward
toward the spot where Antonio had disappeared in the chaparral.



CHAPTER XXXII

NATURE TAKES A HAND


When Hopalong caught up with his four companions he was astonished by
the conditions on the mesa. Instead of a bowlder-strewn, rocky plain
as he had believed it to be he found himself on a table-land cut and
barred by fissures which ran in all directions. At one time these had
been open almost to the level of the surrounding pasture but the winds
had swept sand and debris into the gashes until now none were much
more than ten feet deep. Narrow alleyways which led in every
direction, twisting and turning, now blocked and now open for many
feet in depth, their walls sand-beaten to a smoothness baffling the
grip of one who would scale them, were not the same in a fight as a
comparatively flat plain broken only by miscellaneous bowlders and
hummocks. There could be no concerted dash for the reason that one
group of the attacking force might be delayed until after another had
begun to fight. And it was possible, even probable, that the turns in
the alleyways might be guarded; and once separated in the heat of
battle it would be easy enough to shoot each other. Instead of a
dashing fight soon to be over, it looked as though it would be a
deadly game of hide and seek to wear out the players and which might
last for an indefinite length of time. It was disconcerting to find
that what had been regarded as the hardest part of the whole affair,
the gaining of the mesa top, was the easiest.

"Here, fellows!" Hopalong growled. "We'll stick together till we get
right close, an' then if we have time an' these infernal gorges don't
stop us, we may be able to spread out. We've got to move easy, too. If
we go galloping reckless we'll run into some guard an' there won't be
no surprise party on Thunder Mesa. We can count on having light,
though not as much as we might have, for th' moon won't go back on us
till th' sun fades it."

"It's light enough," growled Skinny. "Come on--we've got to go ahead
an' every minute counts. _I_ didn't think we'd lose so much time
roping them knobs an' getting up."

They moved forward cautiously in single file, alert and straining eyes
and ears, and had covered half of the distance when a shot was heard
ahead and they listened, expecting an uproar. Waiting a minute and
hearing nothing further, they moved on again, angry and disgruntled.
Then another shot rang out and they heard Billy and Curtis reply.

"Shooting before daylight, before they get their morning's grub,"
grumbled George Cross.

"Yes; sort of eye-opener, I reckon," softly laughed Chick Travers,
who was nervous and impatient. "Get a move on an' let's start
something," he added.

As they separated to take advantage of a spoke-like radiation of
several intersecting fissures another shot rang out ahead and there
was an angry _spat_! close to Hopalong's head. Another shot and then a
rattling volley sent the punchers hunting cover on the run, but they
were moving forward all the time. It was a case of getting close or be
killed at a range too great for Colts, and their rifles were in the
camp. Had the light been better the invaders might have paid dearly
right there for the attack.

Confusion was rife among the defenders and the noise of the shouts and
firing made one jumble of sound. Bullets whistled along the fissures
in the dim light and hummed and whizzed as they ricochetted from wall
to wall. As yet the attacking force had made no reply, being too
busily occupied in getting close to lose time in wasting lead at that
range, and being only five against an unknown number protected by a
stone hut and who knew every bowlder, crevice, and other points of
vantage.

Hopalong slid over a bowlder which choked his particular and personal
fissure and saw Jim Meeker sliding down the wall in front of it. And
as Meeker picked himself up Skinny Thompson slid down the other wall.

"Well, I'm hanged!" grunted Hopalong in astonishment.

"Same here," retorted Skinny. "What you doing 'way over here?"

"Thought you was going to lead th' other end of th' line!" rejoined
Hopalong.

"This is it--yo're off yore range."

"Well, I reckon not!" Hopalong responded, indignantly.

"An' say, Meeker, how'd you get over here so quick?" Skinny asked,
turning to the other. "You was down below when I saw you last."

"_Me?_ Why, I just follered my nose, that's all," Meeker replied,
surprised.

"You've got a blamed crooked nose, then," Skinny snorted, and turned
to Hopalong. "Why don't you untangle yoreself an' go where you belong,
you carrot-headed blunderer!"

"Hang it! I tell you I--" Hopalong began, and then ducked quickly.
"Lord, but somebody's got us mapped out good!"

"Well, some of our fellers have started up--hear 'em over there?"
exclaimed Skinny as firing broke out on the east. "Them's Colts, all
right. Mebby it's plumb lucky for us it _ain't_ so blamed light, after
all; we'll have time to pick our places before they can see us real
good."

"Pick our places!" snorted Hopalong. "Get tangled up, you mean!" he
added.

"Hullo! What you doing, fellers?" asked a pained and surprised voice
above them. "Why ain't you in it?"

"For th' love of heaven--it's Frenchy!" cried Hopalong. "Skinny, I
reckon them Colts you heard belonged to th' rustlers. _We're_ all here
but a couple."

"Didn't I leave you over east about five minutes ago, Frenchy?"
demanded Skinny, his mouth almost refusing to shut.

"Shore. I'm east--what's eating at you?" asked Frenchy.

"Come on--get out of this!" ordered Hopalong, scrambling ahead. "You
foller me an' you'll be all right."

"We'll be back to th' ropes if we foller you," growled Skinny. "Of all
th' locoed layouts I ever run up against this here mesa top takes th'
prize," he finished in disgust.

Bullets whined and droned above them and frequently hummed down the
fissure to search them out, the high, falsetto whine changing quickly
to an angry _spang_! as they struck the wall a slanting blow. They
seemed to spring away again with renewed strength as they sang the
loud, whirring hum of the ricochette, not the almost musical, sad note
of the uninterrupted bullet, but venomous, assertive, insistent. The
shots could be distinguished now, for on one side were the sharp
cracks of rifles; on the other a different note, the roar of Colts.

"This ain't no fit society for six-shooters," Meeker remarked in a low
voice as they slid over a ridge, and dropped ten feet before they knew
it.

"For th' Lord's sake!" ejaculated Hopalong as he arose to his feet.
"Step over a rock an' you need wings! Foller a nice trail an' you
can't get out of th' cussed thing! Go west an' you land east, say
'so-long' to a friend an' you meet him a minute later!"

"We ought to have rifles in this game," Meeker remarked, rubbing his
knee-cap ruefully.

"Yes; an' ladders, ropes, an' balloons," snorted Skinny.

"Send somebody back for th' guns," suggested Frenchy.

"Who?" demanded Hopalong. "Will _you_ go?"

"Me? Why, I don't want no rifle!"

"Huh! Neither do I," remarked Skinny. "Here, Frenchy, give me a boost
up this wall,--take my foot!"

"Well, don't wiggle so, you piece of string!"

"That's right! Walk backwards! I ain't no folding step-ladder! How do
you think I'm going to grab that edge if you takes me ten feet away
from it?"

_Spang! Spang! Zing-ing-ing!_

"Here, you! Lemme down! Want me to get plugged!" yelled Skinny,
executing ungraceful and rapid contortions. "Lower me, you fool!"

"Let go that ridge, then!" retorted Frenchy.

During the comedy Hopalong had been crawling up a rough part of the
wall and he fired before he lost his balance. As he landed on Meeker a
yell rang out and the sound of a rifle clattering on rock came to
them. "I got him, Skinny--go ahead now," he grunted, picking himself
up.

It was not long until they were out of the fissure and crawling down
a bowlder-strewn slope. As they came to the bottom they saw a rustler
trying to drag himself to cover and Meeker fired instantly, stopping
the other short.

"Why, I thought _I_ stopped him!" exclaimed Hopalong.

"Reckon you won't rustle no more cows, you thief," growled Meeker,
rising to his knees.

Hopalong pulled him down again as a bullet whizzed through the space
just occupied by his head. "Don't you get so curious," he warned.
"Come on--I see Red. He's got his rifle, lucky cuss."

"Good for him! Wish I had mine," replied Meeker, grinning at Red, who
wriggled an elbow as a salutation. In his position Red could hardly be
expected to do much more, since two men were waiting for a shot at
him.

"Well, you can get that gun down there an' have a rifle," Hopalong
suggested, pointing to the Winchester lying close to its former owner.
"You can do it, all right."

"Good idea--shoot 'em with their own lead," and the H2 foreman
departed on his hands and knees for the weapon.

"I hit one--he's trying to put his shoulder together," cried Red,
grinning. "What makes you so late--I was th' last one up, an' I've
been here a couple of hours."

"Yo're a sinful liar!" retorted Hopalong. "We stopped to pick
blackberries back at that farm house," he finished with withering
sarcasm.

"You fellers had time to get married an' raise a family," Red replied.
He ducked and looked around. "Ah, you coyote--hit him, but not very
hard, I reckon."

It was daylight when Pete, on the other end of the line, turned and
scourged Johnny. "Ain't you got no sense in yore fool head? How can I
see to shoot when you kick around like that an' fill my eyes with
dirt! Come down from up there or I'll lick you!"

"Ah, shut up!" retorted Johnny with a curse. "You'd kick around if
somebody nicked _yore_ ear!"

"Well, it serves you right for being so unholy curious!" Pete replied.
"You come down before he nicks yore eye!"

"Not before I get square--_Wow!_" and Johnny came down rapidly.

"Where'd he get you that time?"

"None of yore business!" growled Johnny.

"I told you to come--"

"Shut up!" roared Johnny, glaring at him. "Wish I had that new Sharps
of mine!"

"Go an' get it, Kid. Yo're nimble," Pete responded. "An' bring up some
of th' others, too, while yo're about it."

"But how long will this fight last, do you reckon?" the other asked,
with an air of weighing something.

"All day with rifles--a week without 'em."

"Shore yo're right?"

"Yes; go ahead. There'll be some of th' scrap left for you when you
get back."

"All right,--but don't you get that feller. I want him for what he did
to me," and Johnny hastened away. He returned in fifteen minutes with
two rifles and gave one of them to his companion.

"They're .45-70's--an' full, too," he remarked. "But I ain't got no
more cartridges for 'em."

"How'd you get 'em so quick?"

"Found 'em by th' rope where we come up--didn't have to stop; just
picked 'em up an' came right back," Johnny laughed. "But I wonder how
they got there?"

"Bet four dollars an' a tooth-pick they means that two thieves got
away down them ropes. Where's Doc?"

"Don't know--but I don't think anybody pulled him up here."

"Then he might 'a stopped them two what owned th' rifles--he would be
mad enough to stay there a month if Red forgot him."

"Yes; waiting to lick Red when he came down," and Johnny crawled up
again to his former position. "Now, you cow-stealing coyote, watch
out!" As he settled down he caught sight of his foreman. "Hullo, Buck!
What you doing?"

"Stringing beads for my night shirt," retorted Buck. "You get down
from up there, you fool!"

"Can't. I got to pay for--" he ducked, and then fired twice. "Just
missed th' other ear, Pete. But I made him jump a foot--plugged him
where he sits down. He was moving away. An' blamed if he ain't a
Greaser!"

"Yes; an' you took two shots to do it, when cartridges are so scarce,"
Pete grumbled.

At first several of the rustlers had defended the hut but the
concentrated fire of the attacking force had poured through its north
window from so many angles that evacuation became necessary. This was
accomplished through the south window, which opened behind the natural
breastwork, and at a great cost, for Con Irwin and Sam Austin were
killed in the move.

The high, steep ridge which formed the rear wall of the hut and
overlooked the roof of the building ran at right angles to the low
breastwork and extended from the north end of the hut to the edge of
the mesa, a distance of perhaps fifty feet. On the side farthest from
the breastwork it sloped to the stream made by the spring and its
surface was covered with bowlders. The rustlers, if they attempted to
scale its steep face, would be picked off at short range, but they
realized that once the enemy gained its top their position would be
untenable except around the turn in the breastwork at the other side
of the mesa. In order to keep the punchers from gaining this position
they covered the wide cut which separated the ridge from the enemy's
line, and so long as they could command this they were safe.

After wandering from point to point Hopalong finally came to the edge
of the cut and found Red Connors ensconced in a narrow, shallow
depression on a comparatively high hummock. While they talked his
eyes rested on the ridge across the cut and took in the possibilities
that holding it would give.

"Say, Red, if we could get up on that hill behind th' shack we'd have
this fight over in no time--see how it overlooks everything?"

"Yes," slowly replied Red. "But we can't cross this barranca--they
sweep it from end to end. I tried to get over there, an' I know."

"But we can try again," Hopalong replied. "You cover me."

"Now don't be a fool, Hoppy!" his friend retorted. "We can't afford to
lose you for no gang of rustlers. It's shore death to try it."

"Well, you can bet I ain't going to be fool enough to run twenty yards
in th' open," Hopalong replied, starting away. "But I'm going to look
for a way across, just th' same. Keep me covered."

"All right, I'll do my best--but don't you try no dash!"

But the rustlers had not given up the idea of holding the ridge
themselves, and there was another and just as important reason why
they must have it; their only water was in the hut and the spring. To
enter the building was certain death, but if they could command the
ridge it would be possible to get water, for the spring and rivulet
lay on the other side at its base. Hall, well knowing the folly of
trying to scale the steep bank under fire, set about finding another
way to gain the coveted position. He found a narrow ledge on the face
of the mesa wall, at no place more than eight inches wide, and he
believed that it led to the rear of the ridge. Finding that the wall
above the narrow foothold was rough and offered precarious finger
holds, he began to edge along it, a hundred feet above the plain. When
he had almost reached the end of his trying labors he was discovered
by Billy and Curtis, who lay four hundred yards away in the chaparral,
and at once became the target for their rifles. Were it not for the
fact that they could not shoot at their best because of their wounds
Hall would never have finished his attempt, and as it was the bullets
flattened against the wall so close to him that on two occasions he
was struck by spattering lead and flecks of stone. Then he moved
around the turn and was free from that danger, but found that he must
get fifty yards north before he could gain the plateau again. To make
matters worse the ledge he was on began to grow narrower and at one
place disappeared altogether. When he got to the gap he had to cling
to the rough wall and move forward inch by inch, twice narrowly
missing a drop to the plain below. But he managed to get across it and
strike the ledge again and in a few minutes more he stepped into a
crevice and sat down to rest before he pushed on. When he looked
around he found that the crevice led northeast and did not run to the
ridge, and he swore as he realized that he must go through the enemy's
line to gain the position. He would not risk going back the way he had
come, for he was pretty well tired out. He thought of trying to get to
the other end of the mesa so as to escape by the way the attacking
force had come up, but immediately put it out of his mind as being too
contemptible for further consideration. He arose and moved forward,
seeking a way up the wall of the crevice--and turning a corner, bumped
into Jim Meeker.

There was no time for weapons and they clinched. Meeker scorned to
call for help and Hall dared make no unnecessary noise while in the
enemy's line and so they fought silently. Both tried to draw their
Colts, Meeker to use his either as a gun or a club, Hall as a club
only, and neither succeeded. Both were getting tired when Hall slipped
and fell, the H2 foreman on top of him. At that instant Buck Peters
peered down at them from the edge of the fissure and then dropped
lightly. He struck Hall over the head with the butt of his Colt and
stepped back, grinning.

"There'll be a lot more of these duets if this fight drags out very
long," Buck said. "This layout is shore loco with all its hidden
trails. Have you got a rope, Jim? We'll tie this gent so he won't hurt
hisself if you can find one."

"No. Much obliged, Peters," Meeker replied. "Why, yes I have, too.
Here, use this," and he quickly untied his neck-kerchief and gave it
to his friend. Buck took the one from around Hall's neck and the two
foremen gave a deft and practical exhibition of how to tie a man so he
cannot get loose. Meeker took the Winchester from Hall's back, the
Colt and the cartridge belt, and gave them to Buck, laughing.

"Seventy-three model; .44 caliber," he explained. "You'll find it
better than th' six-shooter, an' you'll have plenty of cartridges for
it, too."

"But don't you want it?" asked Buck, hesitating.

"Nope. I left one around th' corner here. I can get along with it till
I get my own from th' camp."

"All right, Jim. I'll be glad to keep this--it'll come in handy."

"Tough luck, finding them fellers in such a strong layout," Meeker
growled, glancing around at the prisoner. "Ah, got yore eyes open,
hey?" he ejaculated as Hall glared at him. "How many of you fellers
are up here, anyhow?"

"Five thousand!" snapped Hall. "It took two of you to get me!" he
blazed. "Got my guns, too, ain't you? Hope they bust an' blow yore
cussed heads off!"

"Thanks, stranger, thanks," Buck replied, turning to leave. "But
Meeker had you licked good--I only hurried it to save time. Coming,
Jim?"

"Shore. But do you think this thief can get loose?"

Buck paused, searching his pockets, and smiled as he brought to light
a small, tight roll of rawhide thongs. "Here, this'll keep him down,"
and when they had finished their prisoner could move neither hands nor
feet. They looked at him critically and then went away towards the
firing, the rustler cursing them heartily.

"What's th' matter, Meeker?" asked Buck suddenly, noticing a drawn
look on his companion's face.

"Oh, I can't help worrying about my girl. She ain't scared of nothing
an' she likes to ride. She's too purty to go breezing over a range
that's covered with rustling skunks. I told her to stay in th' house,
but--"

"Well, why in thunder don't you go back where you can take care of
her?" Buck demanded, sharply. "She's worth more than all th' cows an'
rustlers on earth. You ain't needed bad out here, for we can clean
this up, all right. You know as long as there are fellers like us to
handle a thing like this no man with a girl depending on him has
really got any right to take chances. I never thought of it before, or
I'd 'a told you so. You cut loose for home to-day, an' leave us to
finish this."

"Well, I'll see how things go to-morrow, then. I can pull out th' next
morning if everything is all right out here." He hesitated a moment,
looking Buck steadily in the eyes, a peculiar expression on his face.
"Peters, yo're a white man, one of th' whitest I ever met, an' you've
got a white outfit. I don't reckon we'll have no more trouble about
that line of yourn, not nohow. When we settle down to peace an'
punching again I'm going to let you show me how to put down some wells
at th' southern base of yore hills, like you said one day. If I can
get water, a half as much as you got in th' Jumping Bear, I'll be
fixed all right. But I want to ask you a fair question, man to man. I
ain't no real fool an' I've seen more than I'm supposed to, but I want
to be shore about this, dead shore. What kind of a man is Hopalong
Cassidy when it comes to women?"

Buck looked at him frankly. "If I had a daughter I wouldn't want a
better man for her."



CHAPTER XXXIII

DOC TRAILS


Doc had not gone far into the chaparral before he realized that his
work was going to be hard. The trail was much fainter than it would
have been if the Mexican were mounted; the moonlight failed to
penetrate the chaparral except in irregular patches which made the
surrounding shadows all the deeper by contrast; what little he saw of
the trail led through places far too small and turning too sharply to
permit being followed by a man on horseback, and lastly, he expected
every minute to be fired upon, and at close range. He paused and
thought a while--Antonio would head for Eagle, that being the only
place where he could get assistance, and there he would find friends.
Doc picked his way out of the labyrinth of tortuous alleys and finally
came to a comparatively wide lane leading southeast. He rode at a
canter now and planned how he would strike the fugitive's trail
further down, and after he had ridden a few miles he was struck by a
thought that stopped him at once.

"Hang it all, he might 'a headed for them construction camps or for
one of th' north ranches, to steal a cayuse," he muttered. "Th' only
safe thing for me to do is to jump his trail an' stop guessing, an'
even then mebby he'll get me before I get him. That's a clean gamble,
an' so here goes," wheeling and retracing his course. When he again
found the trail at the place he had quit it, he dismounted and crawled
along on his hands and knees in order to follow the foot-prints among
the shadows. Then some animal bounded up in front of him and leaped
away, and as he turned to look after it he caught sight of his horse
standing on its hind legs, and the next instant it was crashing
through the chaparral. Drawing his Colt and cursing he ran back in
time to see the horse gain an alleyway and gallop off. Angered
thoroughly he sent a shot after it and then followed it, finally
capturing it in a blind alley. Roundly cursing the frightened beast he
led it back to where he had left the trail and, keeping one hand on
the reins, continued to follow the foot-prints. Day broke when he had
reached the edge of the chaparral and he mounted with a sigh of relief
and rode forward along the now plainly marked trail.

As he cantered along he kept his eyes searching every possible cover
ahead of and on both sides of him, watching the trail as far ahead as
he could see it, for the Mexican might have doubled back to get a
pursuer as he rode past. After an hour of this caution he slapped his
thigh and grinned at his foolishness.

"Now ain't I a cussed fool!" he exclaimed. "A regular, old-woman of a
cow-puncher! That Greaser won't do no doubling back or ambushing.
He'll shore reckon on being trailed by a bunch an' not by a locoed,
prize-winning idiot. Why, he's making th' best time he can, an' that's
a-plenty, too. Besides he ain't got no rifle. Lift yore feet, you
four-legged sage hen," he cried, spurring his horse into a lope. He
mechanically felt at the long rifle holster at the saddle flap and
then looked at it quickly. "An' no rifle for _me_, neither! Oh, well,
that's all right, too. I don't need any better gun than he's got, th'
coyote. Canteen full of water an' saddle flaps stuffed with grub. Why,
old cayuse, if you can do without drinking till we get back to th'
mesa we'll be plumb happy. Wonder when you was watered last?"

The trail had been swinging to the north more and more and when Doc
noted this fact he grinned again.

"Nice fool I'd 'a been hunting for these tracks down towards Eagle,
wouldn't I? But I wonder where he reckons he's going, anyhow?"

Sometime later he had his answer, for he found himself riding towards
a water hole and then he knew the reason for the trail swinging north.
He let his mount drink its fill and while he waited he noticed a torn
sombrero, then a spur, and further away the skeleton of a horse.
Looking further he saw the skeleton of a man, all that the coyotes had
left of the body of Dick Archer, the man killed by Red on the day when
he and Hopalong had discovered that Thunder Mesa was inhabited. He
pushed around the water hole and then caught sight of something in the
sand. Edging his mount over to it he leaned down from the saddle and
picked up a Colt's revolver, fully loaded and as good as the day
Archer died. That air contained no moisture. As he slipped it in a
saddle bag he spurred forward at top speed, for on the other side of a
hummock he saw the head and then the full figure of a man plodding
away from him, and it was Antonio.

The fugitive, hearing hoofbeats, looked back and then dropped to one
knee, his rifle going to his shoulder with the movement.

"Where in h--l did _he_ get a rifle?" ejaculated Doc, forcing his
horse to buck-jump and pitch so as to be an erratic target. "He didn't
have none when _I_ grabbed him! Th' devil! That cussed skeleton back
there gave _me_ a six-shooter, an' _him_ a rifle!"

There was a dull smothered report and he saw the Mexican drop the gun
and rock back and forth, apparently in agony, and he rode forward at
top speed. Jerking his horse to its haunches he leaped off it just as
Antonio wiped the blood from his eyes and jerked loose his Remington
six-shooter. But his first shot missed and before he could fire again
Doc grappled with him.

This time it was nearly an even break and Doc found that the slim
figure of his enemy was made up of muscles of steel, that the lazy
Greaser of the H2 ranch was, when necessary, quick as a cat and filled
with the courage of desperation. It required all of Doc's attention
and skill to keep himself from being shot by the other's gun and when
he finally managed to wrest the weapon loose he was forced to drop it
quickly and grab the same hand, which by some miracle of speed and
dexterity now held a knife, a weapon far more deadly in hand-to-hand
fighting. Once when believing himself to be gone the buckle of his
belt stayed the slashing thrust and he again fought until the knife
was above his head. Then, suddenly, two fingers flashed at his eyes
and missed by so close a margin that Doc's eyebrows were torn open and
his eyes blinded with blood. Instinct stronger than the effect of the
disconcerting blindness made him hold his grip on the knife hand, else
he would have been missing when his foreman looked for him at the
mesa. He dug the fingers of his left hand, that had gripped around the
Mexican's waist, into his enemy's side and squeezed the writhing man
tighter to him, wiping the blood from his eyes on the shirt of the
other. As he did so he felt Antonio's teeth sink into his shoulder and
a sudden great burst of rage swept over him and turned a man already
desperate into a berserker, a mad man.

The grip tightened and then the brawny, bandaged left arm quickly
slipped up and around the Mexican's neck, pressing against the back of
it with all the power of the swelling, knotted muscles. A smothered
cry sobbed into his chest and he bent the knife hand back until the
muscles were handicapped by their unnatural position and then,
suddenly releasing both neck and hand, leaped back a step and the next
instant his heavy boot thudded into the Mexican's stomach and he
watched the gasping, ghastly-faced rustler sink down in a nerveless
heap, fighting desperately for the breath that almost refused to
return.

Doc wiped his eyes free of blood and hastily bound his neck-kerchief
around the bleeding eyebrows. As he knotted the bandage he stepped
forward and picked up both the revolver and knife and threw them far
from him. Glancing at the rifle he saw that it had burst and knew that
the greased, dirty barrel had been choked with sand. He remembered how
Curley's rifle had been leaded by the same cause and fierce joy surged
through him at this act of retributive justice. He waited patiently,
sneering at the groaning Mexican and taunting him until the desperate
man had gained his feet.

Doc stepped back a pace, tossing the burst rifle from him, and grinned
malignantly. "Take yore own time, Greaser. Get all yore wind an'
strength. _I_ ain't no murderer--I don't ride circles around a man an'
pot-shoot him. I'm going to kill you fair, with my hands, like I said.
Th' stronger you are th' better I'll feel when I leave you. An' if you
should leave me out here on th' sand, all right--but it's got to be
fair."

When fully recovered Antonio began the struggle by leaping forward,
thinking his enemy unprepared. Doc faced him like a flash and bent
low, barely escaping the other's kick. They clinched and swayed to and
fro, panting, straining, every ounce of strength called into play.
Then Doc got the throat hold again and took a shower of blows
unflinchingly. His eyebrows, bleeding again, blinded him, but he could
feel if he could not see. Slowly the resistance weakened and finally
Doc wrestled Antonio to his knees, bending over the Mexican and slowly
tightening his grip; and the man who had murdered Curley went through
all he had felt at the base of the mesa wall, at last paying with his
life for his career of murder, theft, fear, and hypocrisy.

Doc arose and went to his horse. Leading the animal back to the scene
of the struggle he stood a while, quietly watching the Mexican for any
sign of life, although he knew there would be none.

"Well, bronc, Curley's squared," he muttered, swinging into the saddle
and turning the animal's head. "Come on, get out of this!" he
exclaimed, quirting hard. As he passed the water hole he bowed to the
broken skeleton. "Much obliged, stranger, whoever you was. Yore last
play was a good one."



CHAPTER XXXIV

DISCOVERIES


When the two foremen entered the firing line again they saw Red
Connors and they cautiously went towards him. As they came within
twenty feet of him Buck chanced to glance across the cut and what he
saw brought a sudden smile to his face.

"Meeker, Red has got that spring under his gun!" he exclaimed in a low
voice. "They can't get within ten feet of it or within ten feet of th'
water at any point along its course. This is too good to bungle--wait
for me," and he ran out of sight around a bend in the crevice, Meeker
staring across at the spring, his eyes following the rivulet until it
flowed into the deep, narrow cut it had worn in the side of the mesa.

Red looked around. "Why, hullo, Meeker! Where's Buck? Thought I heard
him a minute ago. If you have got any water to spare I can use some of
it good. Some thief drilled my canteen when I went fooling along this
barranca, an' I ain't got a drop left."

Meeker began to move closer to him, Red warning him to be careful, and
adding, "Three of them fellers ain't doing nothing but watch this
cut. Scared we'll get across it an' flank 'em, I reckon."

"Do you know that yo're covering their water supply?" Meeker asked,
handing his canteen to his thirsty companion. "They can't get to it as
long as you stay here. That's why they're after you so hard."

Red wiped his lips on his sleeve and sighed contentedly. "It's blamed
hot, but it's wet. But is that right? Am I keeping 'em thirsty?
Where's th' water?"

"Shore you are; it's right over there--see that little ditch?" Meeker
replied, pointing.

_Bing! Spat!_

The H2 foreman dropped his arm and grinned. "They're watching us purty
close, ain't they? Didn't miss me far, at that," showing his companion
a torn sleeve and a lead splotch on the rock behind him.

"Not a whole lot. Two of them fellers can shoot like blazes. Yo're
plumb lucky," Red responded. "If you'd showed more'n yore sleeve that
time they'd 'a hit you." He looked across the cut and puckered his
brow. "Well, if that's where their water is they don't get none. Mebby
we can force 'em out if we watches that spring right smart."

"Here comes Buck now, with Skinny."

"It's too good a card to lose, Skinny," the Bar-20 foreman was saying
as he approached. "You settle some place near here where you can pot
anybody that tries for a drink. Mebby this little trick wins th' game
for us--_quien sabe?_ Hullo, Red; where's yore side pardner?"

"Oh, he went prospecting along this barranca to see if he could get
across," Red replied. "He wants to get up on top of that ridge behind
th' shack. Says if he can do it th' fight won't last long. See how it
overlooks their layout?"

Buck looked and his eyes glistened. "An' he's right, too, like he is
generally. That's th' key, an' it lies between them an' th' spring.
Beats all how quick that feller can size up a hand. If he could play
poker as well as he can fight he could quit working for a living."

"Yes; yo're shore right," Red replied.

Several shots rang out from the breastwork and the bullets hummed past
them down the cut. A burst of derisive laughter replied fifty yards to
their right and a taunt followed it. More shots were fired and
answered by another laugh and taunt, inducing profanity from the
marksman, and then Hopalong called to Red. "Six out of seven went
plumb through my sombrero, Red, when I poked it out to find if they
was looking. They was. Purty good for 'em, eh?"

"Too blamed good to suit me--lucky yore head wasn't in it," Red
replied.

Hopalong, singing in stentorian voice an original version of "Mary and
Her Little Lamb" in which it seemed he aspired to be the lamb, finally
came into view with a perforated sombrero in his hand, which he eyed
ruefully. "A good roof gone up, but I didn't reckon everybody was
looking my way," he grumbled. "Somebody shore has got to pay for that
lid, too," then he glanced up, saw Meeker, and looked foolish.
"Howd'y, Meeker; what's new, Buck?"

"Hey, Hoppy! Did you know I was covering their drinking water?" asked
Red, triumphantly.

"I knowed you was covering some of it, but you needn't take on no airs
about it, for you didn't know it," Hopalong retorted. "What I want to
know is why you wasn't covering _me_, like you said you would!" he
cried, eying Red's sombrero, which lay at his feet. "It's all yore
fault that my Stetson's bust wide open, an' that being so, we'll just
swap, right now, too!" suiting the action to the words.

"Hey! Gimme that war-bonnet, you bunch of gall!" yelled Red kicking at
his tormentor and missing. "Gimme that, d'y hear!"

"Give you a punch in th' eye, you sheep!" retorted Hopalong, backing
away. "Think you can get away with a play like that after saying you
was going to cover me? _I_ ain't no papoose, you animated carrot!"

"Gimme that Stetson!" Red commanded, starting to arise. There was a
sharp hum and he dropped back again, blood flowing from his cheek,
that being the extent of his person he had so inadvertently exposed.
"There, blank you! See what you made me do! Going to drop that hat?"

"Why don't you give 'em a good shot at you? That ain't no way to treat
'em--but honest, Red, you shouldn't get so excited over a little thing
like that," Hopalong replied. "Now, I'll leave it to Meeker,
here--hadn't I ought to take his roof?"

Meeker laughed. "Th' Court reserves its decision, but possession is
nine points in law."

"Huh! Possession is everything. Since I can keep it, why, then,
according to th' Court, th' hat belongs to me. Hear that, Red?"

"Yes, I hear it! An' if I wasn't so cussed busy I'd show you how long
you'd keep it," Red rejoined. "I'll bet you a hat you don't keep it a
day after we get this off'n our hands. Bow-legged Algernon, you!"

"Done--then I'll have two hats; one for work an' one to wear when I'm
visiting," Hopalong laughed. "But you've got th' best of th' swap,
anyhow. That new lid of yourn, holes an' all, is worth twice as much
as this wool thing I'm getting for it. My old one is a _hat!_"

Red refused to lower his dignity by replying and soon fired. "Huh!
Reckon that feller won't shoot no more with his right hand."

"Say, I near forgot to tell you Meeker captured one of them fellers
out back; got him tied up now," Buck remarked, relating the incident,
Meeker interrupting to give the Bar-20 foreman all the credit.

"Good!" exclaimed Red. "It's a rope necktie for him. An' one less to
shoot at me."

"An' _you_ here, Buck!" cried Hopalong in surprise. "Come on, lead th'
way! How do you know he was th' only one to get behind us! Good
Lord!"

"Gosh, yo're right!" Buck exclaimed, running off. "Come on, Jim. We're
a pair of fools, after all!"

At the other end of the line Chick Travers and George Cross did as
well as they could with their Colts, but found their efforts
unavailing. Their positions were marked by the rustlers and they had
several narrow escapes, both being wounded, Cross twice. Ten yards
west of them Frenchy McAllister was crawling forward a foot at a time
from cover to cover and so far he had not been hit. His position also
had been marked and he was now trying to find a new one unobserved,
where he could have a chance to shoot once without instantly being
fired upon. Pete and Johnny had separated, the latter having given up
his attempt to make the rustler pay for his wounded ear. He had
emptied the magazine of the rifle he had found and now only used his
Colt. As he worked along the firing line he saw Frenchy ten yards in
front of him, covered nicely by a steep rise in the ground.

"How are you doing out there, Frenchy?" he asked in a low voice.

"Not very good; wish I had my rifle," came the soft-spoken reply.

"I had one that I found, but I used up all th' cartridges there was in
th' magazine."

"What kind an' caliber?"

".45-70 Winchester. I found it by th' ropes. Pete says he reckoned
some rustler must have left it behind an' got away down th'--"

"Get it for me, Kid, will you?" interrupted Frenchy, eagerly. "I
plumb forgot to leave my belt of rifle cartridges back in th' camp.
Got it on now, an' it's chock full, too. Hurry up, an' I'll work back
to you for it."

"What luck! In a second," Johnny exulted, disappearing. Returning with
the rifle he handed it to his friend and gazed longingly at the
beltful of rifle cartridges. "Say, Frenchy," he began. "You know we'll
all have our rifles to-night, an' you've got more cartridges for that
than you can use before then. It won't be more than three hours before
we send for ours. Suppose you gimme some of them for Pete--he's got
th' mate to that gun, an' can't use it no more because it's empty."

"Shore, Kid," and Frenchy slipped a handful of cartridges out of his
belt and gave them to Johnny. "With my compliments to Pete. What was
that you was saying about rustlers an' th' ropes?"

Johnny told of Pete's deductions regarding the finding of the rifles
and Frenchy agreed with them, and also that Doc had taken care of the
owners of the weapons when they had reached the plain.

"Well, I'm going further away from them thieves now that I've got
something to shoot with," Frenchy asserted. "They won't be looking for
any of us a hundred yards or more farther back. Mebbe I can catch some
of 'em unawares."

"I'll chase off an' give Pete these pills," Johnny replied. "He'll be
tickled plumb to death. He was cussing bad when I left him."

George Cross, crawling along a steep, smooth rock barely under the
shelter of a bowlder, endeavored to grasp the top, but under-reached
and slipped, rolling down to the bottom and in plain sight of the
rustlers. As his companion, Chick Travers, tried to help him two shots
rang out and Cross, sitting up with his hands to his head, toppled
back to arise no more. Chick leaped up and fired twice at one of the
marksmen, and missed. His actions had been so sudden and unexpected
that he escaped the return shot which passed over him by a foot as he
dropped back to cover. Somehow the whole line seemed to feel that
there had been a death among them, as evidenced by the burst of firing
along it. And the whole line felt another thing; that the cartridges
of the rustlers were getting low, for they seemed to be saving their
shots. But it was Hopalong who found the cause of the diminishing
fire. After hunting fruitlessly with the two foremen and finding that
Hall was the only man to get back of the firing line he left his two
companions in order to learn the condition of his friends. As he made
his way along the line he chanced to look towards the hut and saw four
rifles on the floor of it, and back of them, piled against the wall,
was the rustlers' main supply of ammunition. Calling out, he was
answered by Pete, who soon joined him.

"Pete, you lucky devil, turn that rifle through th' door of th' shack
an' keep it on them cartridges," he ordered. "They ain't been shooting
as fast as they was at first, an' there's th' reason for it. Oh, just
wait till daylight to-morrow! They won't last long after that!"

"They won't get them cartridges, anyhow," Pete replied with
conviction.

"Hey, fellers," cried a voice, and they looked around to see Chick
Travers coming towards them. "Yore man Cross has passed. He rolled off
his ledge an' couldn't stop. They got him when he hit th' bottom of
it."

"D--n 'em!" growled Hopalong. "We'll square our accounts to-morrow
morning. Pete, you watch them cartridges."

"Shore--" _Bang!_ "Did you see that?" Pete asked, frantically pumping
the lever of his rifle.

"Yes!" cried Chick. "Some feller tried to get in that south window!
Bet he won't try again after that hint. Hear him cuss? There--Red must
'a fired then, too!"

"Good boy, Pete!--keep 'em out. We'll have somebody in there after
dark," Hopalong responded. "They've got th' best covers now, but we'll
turn th' table on 'em when th' sun comes up to-morrow."

"Here comes Buck an' Meeker," remarked Chick. "Them two are getting a
whole lot chummy lately, all right. They're allus together."

"That's good, too. They're both of 'em all right," Hopalong replied,
running to meet them. Chick saw the three engage in a consultation and
look towards the hut and the ridge behind it, Buck and Meeker nodding
slowly at what Hopalong was saying. Then they moved off towards the
west where they could examine the building at closer range.



CHAPTER XXXV

JOHNNY TAKES THE HUT


As the day waned the dropping shots became less and less frequent and
the increasing darkness began to work its magic. The unsightly plain
with its crevices and bowlders and scrawny vegetation would soon be
changed into one smooth blot, to be lighted with the lurid flashes of
rifles as Red and Pete fired at irregular intervals through the south
windows of the hut to keep back any rustler who tried to get the
ammunition within its walls. Two were trying and had approached the
window just as a bullet hummed through it. They stopped and looked at
each other and moved forward again. Then a bullet from Pete's rifle,
entering through the open door, hummed out the window and struck
against the rocky ridge.

"Say! Them coyotes can see us through that windy," remarked Clausen.
"Th' sky at our backs is too light yet."

"They can't see us standing here," objected Shaw.

"Then what are they shooting at?"

"Cuss me if I know. Looks like they was using th' winder for a
target. Reckon we better wait till it gets darker."

"If we wait till it's dark we can sneak in through th' door,"
suggested Clausen. "If we go in crawling we ain't likely to stop no
shot high enough to go through that windy."

"You can if you wants, but I ain't taking no chances like that, none
whatever."

Another shot whined through the window and stopped with an angry spat
against the ridge. Shaw scratched his head reflectively. "It shore
beats me why they keeps that up. There ain't no sense to it," he
declared in aggrieved tones. "They don't know nothing about them
cartridges in there."

"That's it!" exclaimed Clausen, excitedly. "I bet a stack of blues
they do know. An' they're covering somebody going in to steal 'em. Oh,
h--l!" and he slammed his hat to the ground in bitter anger. "An' us
a-standing here like a couple of mired cows! I'm going to risk it."

"Wait," advised Shaw. "Let's try a hat an' see if they plug at it."

"Wait be d----d! My feet are growing roots right now. I'm going in,"
and Clausen broke away from his friend and ran towards the hut, a
crouching run, comical to look at but effective because it kept his
head below the level of the window; without pausing in his stride his
body lengthened into a supple curve as he plunged head foremost
through the window, landing on the cabin floor with hands and feet
bunched under him, his passing seen only as a fleeting, puzzling
shadow, by the watchful eyes outside.

Across the cut Johnny was giving Red instructions and turned to leave.
"Th' cut is full of shadows an' th' moon ain't up yet. Now, remember,
one more shot through that window--I'm going to foller it right in.
Get word to Pete as soon as you can, though I won't pass th' door.
He's only got three cartridges left an' he'll be getting some anxious
about now. So long."

"So long, an' good luck, Kid," Red replied.

Johnny wriggled across the cut on his stomach, picking out the shadows
and gaining the shelter of the opposite bank, stood up, and ran to the
hut. Red fired and then Johnny cautiously climbed through the window
and dropped to the floor.

He had anticipated Clausen by the fraction of a second. As his feet
touched the floor the noise of Clausen's arrival saluted him and the
startled Johnny jerked his gun loose and sent a shot in the other's
direction, leaping aside on the instant. The flash of the discharge
was gone too quickly for him to distinguish anything and the
scrambling sound that followed mystified him further. That there had
been no return shot did not cause him to dance with joy, far
otherwise; it made him drop silently to his stomach and hunt the
darkest part of the hut, the west wall. He lay still for a minute,
eyes and ears strained for a sound to tell him where to shoot. Then
Red called to him and wanted an answer, whereupon Johnny thought of
things he ached to call Red. Then he heard a low voice outside the
south window, and it called: "Clausen, Clausen--what happened? Why
don't you answer?"

"Oh, so my guest is Clausen, hey?" Johnny thought. "Wonder if Clausen
can see in th' dark? 'Nother d----d fool wanting an answer! I'll bet
Clausen is hugging th' dark spots, too. Wonder if I scared him as much
as he scared me?"

The suspense was becoming too much of a strain and, poking his Colt
out in front of him, he began to move forward, his eyes staring ahead
of him at the place where Clausen ought to be.

Inch by inch he advanced, holding his breath as well as he could,
every moment expecting to have Clausen salute him in the face with a
hot .45. Johnny was scared, and well scared, but it only proves
courage to go on when scared stiff, and Johnny went on and along the
wall he thought Clausen was using for a highway.

"Wonder how it feels to have yore brains blowed out," he shivered.
"For God's sake, Clausen, make a noise--sneeze, cough, choke, yell,
anything!" he prayed, but Clausen remained ominously silent. Johnny
pushed his Colt out farther and poked it all around. Touching the wall
it made a slight scraping sound and Johnny's blood froze. Still no
move from Clausen, and his fright went down a notch--Clausen was
evidently even more scared than he was. That was consoling. Perhaps he
was so scared that he couldn't pull a trigger, which would be far more
consoling.

"Johnny! Johnny! Answer, can't you!" came Red's stentorian voice,
causing Johnny to jump a few inches off the floor.

"Clausen! Clausen!" came another voice.

"For God's sake, answer, Clausen! Tell 'em yo're here!" prayed Johnny.
"Yo're d----d unpolite, anyhow."

By this time he was opposite the door and he wondered if Pete had been
told not to bombard it. He stopped and looked, and stared. What was
that thing on the floor? Or was it anything at all? He blinked and
moved closer. It looked like a head, but Johnny was taking no chances.
He stared steadily into the blackest part of the hut for a moment and
then looked again at the object. He could see it a little plainer now,
for it was not quite as dark outside as it was in the building; but he
was not sure about it.

"Can't fool me, you coyote," he thought. "Yo're hugging this wall as
tight as a tick on a cow, a blamed sight tighter than I am, an' in
about a minute I'm going to shoot along it about four inches from th'
floor. I'd just as soon get shot as be scared to death, anyhow. Mebby
we've passed each other! An' Holy Medicine! Mebby there's two of 'em!"

He regarded the object again. "That shore looks like a head, all
right." He felt a pebble under his hand and drawing back a little he
covered the questionable object and then tossed the pebble at it.
"Huh, if it's a head, why in thunder didn't it move?"

There were footsteps outside the south window and he listened, the
Colt ready to stop any one rash enough to look in, Clausen or no
Clausen.

"Where's Clausen, Shaw?" said a voice, and the reply was so low Johnny
could not make it out.

"Yes; that's just what I want to know," and Johnny stared in frowning
intentness at the supposed head. He moved closer to the object and by
dint of staring thought he saw the head and shoulders of a man face
down in a black, shallow pool. Then his hand became wet and he jerked
it back and wiped it on his sleeve; he could hardly believe his
senses. As he grasped the significance of his discovery he grinned
sheepishly and moved back to the north wall, where no rustler's bullet
could find him. "Lord! An' I got him th' first crack! Got him shooting
by ear!"

"Johnny! Johnny!" came Red's roar, anxious and querulous.

Johnny wheeled and shook his Colt out of the window, for the moment
forgetting the peril of losing sight of the opening in the other wall.
"I'll Johnny _you_, you blankety-blank fool!" he shouted. Then he
heard a curse at the south window and turned quickly, his Colt
covering the opening. "An' I'll Johnny you too, you cow-stealing
coyotes! Stick yore thieving heads in that windy an' holler for yore
Clausen! _I_ can show you where he is, an' send you after him if
you'll just take a look! Want them cartridges, hey? Well, come an' get
'em!"

A bullet, fired at an angle through the window, was the reply and
several hummed through the open door and glanced off the steep sides
of the ridge. Waiting until they stopped coming he dropped and
wriggled forward along the west wall, feeling in front of him until he
touched a box. Grasping it he dragged the important cartridges to him
and then backed to the north window with them.

He fell to stuffing his pockets with the captured ammunition and then
stopped short and grinned happily. "Might as well _hold_ this shack
an' wait for somebody to look in that windy. They can't get me."

He dropped the box and walked to the heavy plank door, slamming it
shut. He heard the thud of bullets in it as he propped it, and
laughed. "Can't shoot through them planks, they're double thick." He
smelled his sticky fingers. "An' they're full of resin, besides."

He stopped suddenly and frowned as a fear entered his mind; and then
smiled, reassured. "Nope; no rustling snake can climb up that
ridge--not with Red an' Pete watching it."



CHAPTER XXXVI

THE LAST NIGHT


Fifty yards behind the firing line of the besiegers a small fire
burned brightly in a steep-walled basin, casting grotesque shadows on
the rock walls as men passed and re-passed. Overhead a silvery moon
looked down at the cheerful blaze and from the cracks and crevices of
the plain came the tuneful chorus of Nature's tiny musicians, sounding
startlingly out of place where men were killing and dying. A little
aside from the others three men in consultation reached a mutual
understanding and turned to face their waiting friends just as Pete
Wilson ran into the lighted circle.

"Hey, Johnny is in th' hut with th' cartridges," he exclaimed, telling
the story in a few words.

"Good for th' Kid!"

"It's easy now, thanks to him."

"Why didn't he tell us he was going to try that?" demanded Buck.
"Taking a chance like that on his own hook!"

"Scared you wouldn't let him," Pete laughed. "Red an' me backed him up
with our rifles th' best we could. He had a fight in there, too,
judging from th' shot. He had me an' Red worried, thinking he might 'a
been hit, but he was cussing Red when I left."

"Well, that helps us a lot," Buck replied. "Now I want three of you to
go to camp an' bring back grub, rifles, an' cartridges. Pete, Skinny,
Chick--yo're th' ones. Leave yore canteens here an' hustle! Hopalong,
you an' Meeker go off somewhere an' get some sleep. I'll call you
before it gets light. Frenchy, me an' you will take all th' canteens
at hand an' fill 'em while we've got time. They won't be able to see
us now. We'll pass Red an' get his, too. Come on."

When they returned they dropped the dripping vessels and began
cleaning their Colts. That done they filled their pipes and sat
cross-legged, staring into the fire. A snatch of Johnny's exultant
song floated to them and Buck smiled, laying his pipe aside and
rising. "Well, Frenchy, things'll happen in chunks when th' sun comes
up. Something like old times, eh? There ain't no Deacon Rankin or
Slippery Trendley here--" he stopped, having mentioned a name he had
promised himself never to say in Frenchy's presence, and then
continued in a subdued voice, bitterly scourging himself for his
blunder. "They're stronger than I thought, an' they've shot us up
purty well, killed Willis an' Cross, an' made fools of us for weeks on
th' range; but this is th' end of it all. _We_ deal to-morrow, an' we
cut th' cards to-night."

Frenchy was strangely silent, staring fixedly at the fire. Buck
glanced at him in strong sympathy, for he knew what his slip of the
tongue had awakened in his friend's heart. Frenchy had adored his
young wife and since the day he had found her foully murdered in his
cabin on the Double Y he had been another man. When the moment of his
vengeance had come, when he had her murderer in his power and saw his
friends ride away to leave him alone with Trendley that day over in
the Panhandle, to exact what payment he wished, then he had become his
old self for a while, but it was not long before he again sank into
his habitual carelessness, waiting patiently for death to remove his
burden and make him free. His vengeance did not bring him back his
wife.

Buck shook his head slowly and affectionately placed a heavy hand on
his friend's shoulder. "Frenchy, won't you ever forget it? It hurts me
to see you this way so much. It's over twenty years now an' day after
day I've grieved to see you so unhappy. You paid him for it in yore
own way. Can't you forget it now?"

"Yes; I killed him, an' slow. He never thought a man could make th'
payment so hard, not even his black heart could realize it till he
felt it," Frenchy replied, slowly and calmly. "He took th' heart out
of me; he killed my wife and made my life a living hell. All I had
worth living for went that day, an' if I could kill him over again
every day for a year it wouldn't square th' score. I reckon I ain't
built like other men. You never heard me whimper. I kept my poison to
myself an' tried to do the best that was in me. An' you ain't never
heard me say what I'm going to tell you now. I never believed in
hunches, but something tells me that I'll leave all this behind me
before another day passes. I felt it somehow when we left th' ranch
an' it's been growing stronger every hour since. If I do pass out
to-morrow, I want you to be glad of it, same as I would be if I could
know. I'm going back to th' line now an' watch them fellers. So long."

The two men, bosom friends for thirty years, looked in each other's
eyes as they grasped hands, and it was Buck's eyes that grew moist and
dropped first. "So long, Frenchy--an' good luck, as you see it."

The foreman watched his friend until lost in the darkness and he
thought he heard him singing, but of this he was not sure. He turned
and stared at the fire for a minute, silent, immovable, and then
breathed heavily.

"I never saw anybody carry a grief so long, never," he soliloquized.
"I reckon it sort of turned his brain, coming so sudden an' in such a
damnable way. I know it made me see red for a week. If I had only
stayed there that day! When he got Trendley in th' Panhandle I hoped
he would change, an' he did for a while, but that was all. He lived
for that alone, an' since then I reckon he's felt he hadn't nothing to
do with his life. He has been mixed up in a bunch of gun-arguments
since then; but he didn't have no luck. Well, Frenchy, I hate to lose
a friend like you, but here's better luck to-morrow, luck as you see
it, friend!"

He kicked the fire together and was about to add fuel when he heard
two quick shots and raised his head to listen. Then a ringing whoop
came from the front and he recognized Johnny's voice. He heard Red
call out and Johnny reply and he smiled grimly as he went towards the
sounds. "Reckon somebody tried to get in that shack, like a fool. He
must 'a been disgusted. How that Kid shore does love a fight!"

     Joyous Joe got a juniper jag,
       A-jogging out of Jaytown,

came down the wind.

"Did you get him, Kid?" cried Buck from the firing line.

"Nope; got his hat, though--but I shore got Clausen an' all of their
cartridges!"

"Can you keep them shells alone?"

"_Can_ I? _Wow_, ask th' other fellers! An' I'm eating jerked
beef--sorry I can't give you some."

"Shut up about eating, you pig!" blazed Red, who was hungry.

"You'll eat hot lead to-morrow, all of you!" jeered a rustler's voice.

Red fired at the sound. "Take yourn now!" he shouted.

"You can't hit a cow!" came the taunt, while other strange voices
joined in.

Buck found Red and ordered him to camp to get some sleep before Pete
and the others returned, feeling that he and Frenchy were enough to
watch. Red demurred sleepily and finally compromised by lying down at
Buck's side, where he would be handy in case of trouble. Buck waited
patiently, too heavily laden with responsibility to feel the need of
rest, and when he judged that three hours had passed began to worry
about the men he had sent to camp. Drawing back into a crevice he
struck a match and looked at his watch.

"Twelve o'clock!" he muttered. "I'll wake Red an' see how Frenchy is
getting on. Time them fellers were back too."

Frenchy changed his position uneasily and peered at the distant
breastwork, hearing the low murmur of voices behind it. All night he
had heard their curses, but a new note made him sit up and watch more
closely. The moon was coming up now and he could see better. Suddenly
he caught the soft flash of a silver sombrero buckle and fired
instantly. Curses and a few shots replied and a new, querulous voice
was added to the murmur, a voice expressing pain.

"I reckon you got him," remarked a quiet voice at his side as Buck lay
down beside him. The foreman had lost some time in wandering along the
whole line of defence and was later than he had expected.

"Yes; I reckon so," Frenchy replied without interest, and they lapsed
into silence, the eloquent silence of men who understand each other.
They heard a shot from below and knew that Billy or Curtis was about
and smiled grimly at the rising murmur it caused among the rustlers.
Buck glanced at the sky and frowned. "There can't be more'n five or
six left by now, an' if it wasn't for th' moon I'd get th' boys
together an' rush that bunch." He was silent for a moment and then
added, half to himself, "but it won't be long now, an' we can wait."

Distant voices heralded the return of Pete and his companions and the
foreman arose. "Frenchy, I'm going to place th' boys an' start things
right away. We've been quiet too long."

"Might as well," Frenchy replied, "I'm getting sleepy--straining my
eyes too much, I reckon, trying to see a little better than I can."

"Here's th' stuff, Buck," Skinny remarked as the foreman entered the
circle of light. "Two days' fighting rations, fifty rounds for th'
rifles an' fifty for th' Colts. Chick is coming back there with th'
rifles."

"Good. Had yore grub yet?" Buck asked. "All right--didn't reckon you'd
wait for it. What kept you so long? You've been gone over three
hours."

"We was talking to Billy an' Curtis," Skinny remarked. "They're
anxious to have it over. They've been spelling each other an' getting
some sleep. We saw Doc's saddle piled on top of th' grub when we got
to camp. It wasn't there when we all left th' other night. Billy says
Doc came running past last night, saddled up an' rode off. He got back
this afternoon wearing a bandage around his head. He didn't say where
he had been, but now he is at th' bottom of th' trail waiting for a
shot, so Billy says. Pete reckons he went after somebody that got
down last night, one of them fellers that left their rifles up here by
th' ropes."

"Mebby yo're right," replied Buck, hurriedly. "Get ready to fight. I
ain't going to wait for daylight when this moonlight will answer.
Pete, Skinny, Chick--you get settled out on th' east end, where me an'
Frenchy will join you. We'll have this game over before long."

He strode away and returned with Hopalong and Meeker, who hastily ate
and drank and, filling their belts with cartridges and taking their
own rifles from the pile Chick had brought, departed toward the cut
with orders for Red to come in.

Pete and his companions moved away as Frenchy, shortly followed by
Red, came in and reported.

"Eat an' drink, lively. Red, you get back to yore place an' take care
of th' cut," Buck ordered. "Frenchy, you come out east with th' rest.
There's cartridges for you both an' there's yore own rifle, Frenchy."

"Glad yo're going to start things," chewed Red through a mouthful of
food. "It's about time we show them fellers we can live up to our
reputations. Any of 'em coming my way won't go far."

Frenchy filled his pipe and lighted it from a stick he took out of the
fire and as it began to draw well he stepped quickly forward and held
out his hand. "Good luck, Red. They can't fight long."

"Same to you, Frenchy," Red cried, grasping the hand. "Yo're right,
there. You look plumb wide awake, like Buck--how'd you do it?"

Frenchy laughed and strode after his foreman, Red watching him. "He's
acting funny--reckon it's th' sleep he's missed. Well, here goes," and
he, too, went off to the firing line.

     --An' aching thoughts pour in on me,
       Of Whiskey Bill,

came Johnny's song from the hut--and the fight began again.



CHAPTER XXXVII

THEIR LAST FIGHT


A figure suddenly appeared on the top of the flanking ridge, outlined
against the sky, and flashes of flame spurted from its hands, while
kneeling beside it was another, rapidly working a rifle, the roar of
the guns deafening because of the silence which preceded it. Shouts,
curses, and a few random, futile shots replied from the breastworks,
its defenders, panic-stricken by the surprise and the deadly accuracy
of the two marksmen, scurrying around the bend in their
fortifications, so busy in seeking shelter that they failed to make
their shots tell. Two men, riddled by bullets, lay where they had
fallen and the remaining three, each of them wounded more than once,
crouched under cover and turned their weapons against the new factors;
but these had already slid down the face of the ridge and were
crawling along the breastwork, alert and cautious.

In front of the rustlers heavy firing burst out along the cowmen's
line and Red Connors, from his old position above the cut, swung part
way around and turned his rifle against the remnant of the defenders
at another angle, and fired at every mark, whether it was hand, foot,
or head; while Johnny, tumbling out of the south window of the hut,
followed in the wake of Hopalong and Meeker. The east end of the line
was wrapped in smoke, where Buck and his companions labored zealously.

Along the narrow trail up the mesa's face a man toiled heavily and it
was not long before Doc Riley opened fire from the rear. The three
rustlers, besieged from all sides, found their positions to be most
desperate and knew then that only a few minutes intervened between
them and eternity. They had three choices--to surrender, to die
fighting, or to leap from the mesa to instant death below.

Shaw, to his credit, chose the second and like a cornered wolf goaded
to despair leaped up and forward to take a gambler's chance of gaining
the hut. Before him were Hopalong, Meeker, Johnny, and Doc. Doc was
hastily reloading his Colt, Johnny was temporarily out of sight as he
crawled around a bowlder, and Hopalong was greatly worried by
ricochettes and wild shots from the rifles of his friends which
threatened to end his career. Meeker alone was watching at that moment
but his attention was held by the rustler near the edge of the mesa
who was trying to shrink himself to fit the small rock in front of him
and to use his gun at the same time.

Shaw sprang from his cover and straight at the H2 foreman, his foot
slipping slightly as he fired. The bullet grazed Meeker's waist, but
the second, fired as the rustler was recovering his balance, bored
through Meeker's shoulder. The H2 foreman, bending forward for a shot
at the man behind the small rock, was caught unawares and his balance,
already strained, was destroyed by the shock of the second bullet, and
he flopped down to all fours. Shaw sprang over him just as Hopalong
and Johnny caught sight of him and he swung his revolver on Hopalong
at the moment when the latter's bullet crashed through his brain.

Buck Peters, trying for a better position, slipped on the rock which
had been the cause of the death of George Cross and before he could
gain his feet a figure leaped down in front of him and raised a Colt
in his defence, but spun half way around and fell, shot through the
head. A cry of rage went up at this and a rush was made against the
breastworks from front and side. Frenchy McAllister's forebodings had
come true.

Sanchez, finding his revolver empty and with no time to reload, held
up his hands. Frisco, blinded by blood, wounded in half a dozen
places, desperate, snarling, and still unbeaten, wheeled viciously,
but before he could pull his trigger, Hopalong grasped him and hurled
him down, Johnny going with them. Doc, a second too late, waved his
sombrero. "Come on, it's all over!"

In another second the rushing punchers from the front slid and rolled
and plunged over the breastwork and eyed the results of their fire.

Meeker staggered around the corner and leaned against Buck for
support. "My G-d! This is awful! I didn't think we were doing so much
damage."

"I did!" retorted Buck. "I know what happens when my outfit burns
powder. Where's Red?" he asked anxiously.

"Here I am," replied a voice behind him.

"All right; take that Greaser to th' hut, somebody," the foreman
ordered. "Johnny, you an' Pete take this feller there, too," pointing
to Frisco. "He's th' one that killed Frenchy. Hopalong, take Red, an'
bring in that feller me an' Meeker tied up in that crevice, if he
ain't got away."

Hopalong and Red went off to bring in Hall and Buck turned to the
others. "You fellers doctor yore wounds. Meeker, yo're hard hit," he
remarked, more closely looking at the H2 foreman.

"Yes. I know it--loss of blood, mostly," Meeker replied. "An' if it
hadn't been for Cassidy I'd been hit a d----d sight harder. Where's
Doc? He knows what to do--_Doc_!"

"Coming," replied a voice and Doc turned the corner. He had a limited
knowledge of the work he was called upon to do, and practice, though
infrequent, had kept it more or less fresh.

"Reckon yo're named about right, Doc," Buck remarked as he passed the
busy man. "You got me beat an' I ain't no slouch."

"I'd 'a been a real Doc if I hadn't left college like a fool to punch
cows,--you've got to keep still, Jim," he chided.

"Hey, Buck," remarked Hopalong, joining the crowd and grinning at the
injured, "we've got that feller in th' shack. When th' feller I
grabbed out here saw him he called him Hall. Th' other is Frisco an'
th' Greaser ain't got no name, I reckon. How you feeling, Meeker? That
was Shaw plugged you."

"Feeling better'n him," Meeker growled. "Yo're a good man to work
with, Cassidy."

"Well, Cassidy, got any slugs in you?" affably asked Doc, the man
Hopalong had wounded on the line a few weeks before. Doc brandished a
knife and cleaning rod and appeared to be anxious to use them on
somebody else.

"No; but what do you do with them things?" Hopalong rejoined, feeling
of his bandage.

"Take out bullets," Doc grinned.

"Oh, I see; you cut a hole in th' back an' then push 'em right
through," Hopalong laughed. "Reckon I'd ruther have 'em go right
through without stopping. Who's that calling?"

"Billy an' Curtis. Tell 'em to come up," Buck replied, walking towards
the place where Frenchy's body lay.

Hopalong went to the edge and replied to the shouts and it was not
long before they appeared. When Doc saw them he grinned pleasantly and
drew them aside, trying to coax them to let him repair them. But
Billy, eying the implements, sidestepped and declined with alacrity;
Curtis was the victim.

"After _him_ th' undertaker," Billy growled, going towards the hut.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

A DISAGREEABLE TASK


Two men, Hall and Frisco, sat with their backs against the wall of the
hut, weaponless, wounded, nervous, one sullen and enraged, the other
growling querulously to himself about his numerous wounds. The third
prisoner, the Mexican, was pacing to and fro with restless strides,
vicious and defiant, his burning eyes quick, searching, calculating.
It seemed as though he was filled with a tremendous amount of energy
which would not let him remain quiet. When his companions spoke to him
he flashed them a quick glance but did not answer; thinking, scheming,
plotting, he missed not the slightest movement of those about him.
Wounded as he was he did not appear to know it, so intent was he upon
his thoughts.

Hall, saved from the dangers of the last night's fight, loosed his
cumulative rage frequently in caustic and profane verbal abuse of his
captors, his defeat, his companions, and the guard. Frisco, courageous
as any under fire, was dejected because of the wait; merely a
difference of temperament.

The guard, seated carelessly on a nearby rock, kept watch over the
three and cogitated upon the whole affair, his Colt swinging from a
hand between his knees. Twenty paces to his right was a stack of
rifles and Sanchez, lengthening his panther stride with barely
perceptible effort, drew nearer to them on each northward lap. He
typified the class of men who never give up hope, and as he gained
each yard he glanced furtively at the guard and then estimated the
number of leaps necessary to reach the coveted rifles. His rippling
muscles were bunching up for the desperate attempt when the guard
interfered, the sharp clicks of his Colt bringing the Mexican to an
abrupt stop. Sanchez shrugged his shoulders and wheeling, resumed his
restless walk, being careful to keep it within safe limits.

Hall, lighting his pipe, blew a cloud of smoke into the air and looked
at the guard, who was still cogitating.

"How did you fools finally figger we was out here?"

Hopalong looked up and smiled. "Oh, we just figgered you fools would
be here, and would stay up here. Yore friend Antonio worked too hard."

Hall carefully packed his pipe and puffed quickly. "I knowed he'd
bungle it, d----d Greaser. It was th' Greasers that busted up th'
game. Sixteen men an' four of 'em Greasers. By G-d, if we was all
white men we'd 'a given you fellers a hot tune to dance to. Greasers
are all cowards, any--"

"You lie!" snapped Sanchez, stepping forward.

"Stop it!" shouted Hopalong, half arising, his Colt on the two. "You
keep peaceful--there's been too much fighting now. But if them other
Greasers had been like this one here I reckon you wouldn't 'a lost
nothing by having 'em."

"What happened to Cavalry an' Antonio?" asked Hall. "Did you get 'em
when you came up?"

"They got down th' way we came up--Doc trailed th' Greaser an' got him
at that water hole up north," Hopalong replied. "Don't know nothing
about th' other feller. Reckon he got away, but one don't make much
difference, anyhow. He'll never come back to this country."

"Say, how much longer will it take yore friends to do th' buryin'
act?" asked Frisco, irritably. "I'm plumb tired of waiting--these
wounds hurt like blazes, too."

"Reckon they're coming now," was the reply. "I hear--yes, here they
are."

"I owe you ten dollars, Hall," Frisco remarked, trivial things now
entering his mind. "Reckon you won't get it, neither."

"Oh, pay me in h--l!" Hall snapped.

"Yes," Buck was saying, "he shore was white. He knowed he was going
an' he went like th' man he was--saving a friend. 'Tain't th' first
time Frenchy McAllister's saved my life, neither."

Frisco glanced around and his face flashed with a look of recognition,
but he held his tongue; not so with Curtis, who stared at him in
surprise and stepped forward.

"Good G-d! It's Davis! What ever got you into this?"

"Easy money an' a gun fight," Davis, alias Frisco, replied.

"Tough luck, tough luck," Curtis muttered slowly.

"D--n tough, if you asks me," Frisco growled.

"What happened to th' others?" Curtis asked, referring to three men
with whom he and Frisco had punched and prospected several years
before.

"Little Dan went out in that same gun fight, Joe Baird was got by th'
posse next day, an' George Wild an' I got into th' mountains an' was
separated. I got free after a sixty-mile chase, but I don't know how
George made out. We had stuck up a gold caravan an' killed two men
what was with it. They was th' only fellers to pull their guns against
us."

"Well, I'm d----d!" ejaculated Curtis. "An' so that crowd went bad!"

"Say, for th' Lord's sake, get things moving," cried Hall, angrily.
"If we've got to die make it quick--or else shoot that infernal
Greaser--he's got on my nerves with his tramp, tramp, tramp! Wish I'd
'a gone with Shaw 'stead of waiting for my own funeral."

Buck surveyed them. "Got anything to say?"

"Not me--I've had mine," replied Frisco, toying with a bandage. Then
he started to say something but changed his mind. "Oh, well, what's
th' use! Go ahead."

"Don't drag it out," growled Hall. "Say, you got _my_ rope there?" he
demanded suddenly, eying the coils slung over Skinny's shoulder. "No,
you ain't. I want my own, savvy?"

"Oh, we ain't got time to hunt for no ropes," rejoined Skinny. "One's
as good as another, ain't it?"

"Yes, I reckon so--hustle it through," Hall replied, sullenly.

"Go ahead, you fellers," ordered Hopalong as some of his friends went
first down the trail after the two sent to the camp for the horses.
"Come on, Sanchez! Fall in there!"

When the procession reached the bottom of the trail Buck halted it to
wait for the horses and his prisoners took one more look around.

"Say, Peters, where's th' cayuses we had in that corral?" asked Hall,
surprised.

"Oh, we got them out th' first night--we wasn't taking no chances,"
replied the foreman. "They're somewhere near th' camp now."

As the horse herd was driven up Sanchez made his last play. All were
intent upon tightening cinches, the more intent because of the
impending and disagreeable task, when he slipped like a shadow through
the group and throwing himself across a likely looking pinto (he knew
the horse), headed in a circular track for the not too distant
chaparral.

"_Take_ him, Red!" shouted Buck, who was the first to recover.

Red's rifle leaped to his shoulder and steadied; in three more jumps
the speedy pinto would have shielded Sanchez, clinging like a burr to
the further side; but the rifle spoke once and the fleeing Mexican
dropped and lay quiet on the sand.

Hopalong rode out to him and glancing at the still form, wheeled and
returned. "Got him clean, Red."

       *       *       *       *       *

A group of horsemen rode eastward towards the chaparral and as it was
about to enclose them one of the riders bringing up the rear turned in
his saddle and looked back at two dangling forms outlined against the
darker background of the frowning mesa, two where he had expected to
see three.

"Well, th' rustling is over," he remarked. "Say, that Greaser wasn't
no coward. I reckoned Greasers was all yaller dogs."

"Have you known many of 'em?" asked Skinny, quietly.

"No," replied Chick. "Didn't ever see none till I came down here.
Reckon there ain't many up in Montanny. But I heard lots about 'em.
_He_ was all grit! I allus reckoned they was coyotes, an' mostly
scared."

"If you stay down here for long you'll meet some more that ain't
cowards," Skinny replied. "I have--more'n once. A Greaser is a man,
same as me an' you, an' I've known some that would look th' devil
hisself in th' eye an' call him a liar."

"Gee!" exclaimed Chick, thoughtfully.



CHAPTER XXXIX

THIRST


The stars grow dim and a streak of color paints the eastern sky,
sweeping through the upper reaches of the darkness and tingeing the
earth's curtain until the dim gray light outlines spectral yuccas and
twisted, grotesque cacti leaning in the hushed air like drunken
sentries of some monstrous army. The dark carpet which stretched away
on all sides begins to show its characteristics and soon develops into
greasewood brush. As if curtains were drawn aside objects which a
moment before were lost to sight in the darkness emerge out of the
light like ghosts, bulky, indistinct, grotesque, and array themselves
to complete the scene.

The silence seems to deepen and become strained, as if in fear of what
is to come; the dark ground is now gray and tawny in places and the
vegetation is plain to the eye. Then out of the east comes a flash and
a red, coppery sun flares above the horizon, molten, quivering,
blinding; the cool of the night swiftly departs and a caldron-like
heat bursts upon the plain. The silence seems almost to shrink and
become portentous with evil, the air is hushed, the plants stand
without the movement of a leaf, and nowhere is seen any living
creature. The whole is unreal, a panorama, with vegetation of wax and
a painted, faded blue sky, the only movement being the shortening
shadows and the rising sun.

Across the sand is an erratic trail of shoe prints, coming from the
east. For a dozen yards it runs evenly and straight, then a few close
prints straggle to and fro, zig-zagging hither and yon for a distance,
finally going on straight again. But the erratic prints grow more
frequent and become more pronounced as they go on, circling and
weaving, crossing, re-crossing and doubling back as their maker
staggered hopelessly on his way, urged only by the instinct of thirst,
to find water, if it were only a mouthful. The trail is here blurred,
for he fell, and the prints of his hands and knees and shoe-tips tell
how he went on for some distance. He gained his feet here and threw
away his Colt, and later his holster and belt.

The sun is overhead now and the sand shimmers, the heated air
quivering and glistening, and the desolate void takes on an air of
mystery and fear, and death. No living thing moves across the
heat-cursed sand, but here is a tangled mass of sand and clay and
greasewood twigs, in the heart of which mice sleep and wait for night,
and over there is a hillock sheltering lizards. Stay! Under that
greasewood bush a foolish gray wolf is waiting for night--but he has
little to fear, for he can cover forty miles between dark and dawn,
and his instinct is infallible; no wandering trail will mark his
passing, but one as straight as the flight of a bullet. The shadows
shrink close to the stems of the plants and the thin air dances with
heat.

Behind that clump of greasewood, back beyond those crippled cacti, a
man staggers on and on. His hair is matted, his fingers bleeding from
digging frantically in the sand for water; his lips, cracked and
bleeding and swollen, hide the shrivelled, stiff tongue which clicks
against his teeth at every painful step. His eyelids are stiff and the
staring, unblinking eyes are set and swollen. He clutches at his
throat time and time again,--a drowning sensation is there. Ha! He
drops to his knees and digs frantically again, for the sand is moist!
A few days ago a water hole lay there. He throws off his shirt and
finally staggers on again.

His tongue begins to swell and forces itself beyond the swollen,
festering lips; the eyelids split and the protruding eyeballs weep
tears of blood. His skin cracks and curls up, the clefts going
constantly deeper into the flesh, and the exuding blood quickly dries
and leaves a tough coating over the wounds. Wherever the exudation
touches it stings and burns, and the cracks and clefts, irritated more
and more each minute, deepen and widen and lengthen, smarting and
nerve-racking with their pain.

There! A grove of beautiful green trees is before him, and in it a
fountain splashes with musical babbling. He yells and dances and then,
casting aside the rest of his clothes, staggers towards it. Water,
water, at last! Water and shade! It grows indistinct, wavers--and is
gone! But it must be there. It was there only a moment ago--and on and
on he runs, hands tearing at his choking, drowning throat. Here is
water--close at hand--a purling, cold brook, whispering and tinkling
over its rocky bed--he jumps into it--it moved! It's over there, ten
paces to his right. On and on he staggers, the stream just ahead. He
falls more frequently and wavers now. Oh, for just a canteen of water,
just a swallow, just a drop! The gold of the world would not buy it
from him--just a drop of water!

He is dying from within, from the inside out. The liquids of his body
exude through the clefts and evaporate. His brain burns and bands of
white-hot steel crush his throbbing head and his burning lungs. No
amount of water will save him now--only death, merciful death can end
his sufferings.

Water at last! Real water, a noisome pool of stagnant liquid lies at
the bottom of a slight depression, the dregs of a larger pool
concentrated by evaporation. Around it are the prints of many kinds of
feet. It is water, water!--he plunges forward into it and lies
motionless, half submerged. A grayback lizard darts out of the
greasewood near at hand, blinks rapidly and darts back again, glad to
escape the intolerable heat.

Cavalry had escaped.



CHAPTER XL

CHANGES


With the passing of the weeks the two ranches had settled down to
routine duty. On the H2 conditions were changed greatly for the better
and Meeker gloated over his gushing wells and the dam which gave him a
reservoir on his north range, the early completion of which he owed
largely to the experience and willing assistance of Buck and the
Bar-20 outfit.

It was getting along towards Fall when a letter came to the Bar-20
addressed to John McAllister. Buck looked at it long and curiously.
"Wonder who's writing to Frenchy?" he mused. "Well, I've got to find
out," and he opened the envelope and looked at the signature; it made
him stare still more and he read the letter carefully. George
McAllister, through the aid of the courts, had gained possession of
the old Double Y in the name of its owners and was going to put an
outfit on the ground to evict and hold off those who had jumped it. He
knew nothing about ranching and wanted Frenchy McAllister, who owned
half of it, to take charge of it and to give him the address of Buck
Peters, the other half-owner. He advised that Peters' share be bought
because the range was near a railroad and was growing more valuable
every day.

Buck's decision was taken instantly. Much as he disliked to leave the
old outfit here was the chance he had been waiting for without knowing
it. He would never have set foot on the Double Y during Frenchy's
lifetime because of loyalty to his old friend. Had he at any time
desired possession of the property he and his friends could have taken
it and left court actions to the other side. But Frenchy was gone, and
he still owned half of a valuable piece of property and one that he
could make pay well. He was getting on in years and it would be
pleasant to have his cherished dream come true, to be the over-lord
and half-owner of a good cattle ranch and to know that when he became
too old to work with any degree of pleasure he need not worry about
his remaining years. If he left the Bar-20 one of his friends would
take his place and he was sure it would be Hopalong. The advancement
in pay and authority would please the man whom he had looked upon as
his son. And perhaps it would bring to Hopalong that which now kept
his eyes turned towards the H2. Yes, it was time to go to his own and
let another man come into _his_ own; to move along and give a younger
man a chance.

He replied to George McAllister at length, covering everything, and
took the letter to the bunk house to have it mailed.

"Billy," he said, "here's a letter to go to Cowan's th' first thing
to-morrow. Don't forget."

Buck started the fall work early and pushed it harder than usual for
he wished to have everything done before the new foreman took charge.
The beef roundup and drives were over with quickly, considering the
time and labor involved, and when the chill blasts of early Winter
swept across the range and whined around the ranch buildings Buck
smiled with the satisfaction which comes with work well done. George
McAllister, failing to buy Buck's interest, now implored him to go to
the Double Y at once and take charge, which he had promised to do in
time to become familiar with conditions on the winter-bound northern
range before the new herds were driven to it.

As yet he had told his men nothing of his plans for fear they would
persuade him to stay where he was, but he could tell Meeker, and one
crisp morning he called at the H2 and led its foreman aside. When he
had finished Meeker grasped his hand, told him how sorry he was to
lose so good a friend and neighbor, and how glad he was at that
friend's good fortune.

"I hope Cassidy _is_ th' man to take yore place, Peters," he remarked,
thoughtfully. "He's a good man, th' best in th' country, white,
square, and nervy. I've had my eyes on him for some time an' I'll back
him to bust anything he throws his rope on. He can handle that ranch
easy an' well."

"Yo're right," replied Buck, slowly. "He ain't never failed to make
good yet. Whoever th' boys pick out to be foreman will be foreman,
for th' owners have left that question with me. But Meeker, it's like
pulling teeth for me to go up to Montana without him. I can't take him
'less I take 'em all, an' I've got reasons why I can't do that. An' I
ain't quite shore he'd go with me now--yore ranch holds something that
ties him tight to this range. He'll be lonely up in our ranch house,
an' it's plenty big enough for two," he finished, smiling
interrogatively at his companion.

"Well, I reckon it'll not be lonely if he wants to change it," laughed
Meeker. "Leastawise, them's th' symptoms plentiful enough down here. I
was dead set agin it at first, but now I don't want nothing else but
to see my girl fixed for life. An' when I pass out, all I have is
hers."



CHAPTER XLI

HOPALONG'S REWARD


Seven men loitered about the line house on Lookout Peak, wondering why
they, the old outfit, had been told to await their foreman there. Why
were the others, all good fellows, excluded? What could it mean?
Foreboding grew upon them as they talked the matter over and when Buck
approached they waited eagerly for him to speak.

He dismounted and looked at them with pride and affection and a trace
of sorrow showed in his voice and face when he began to talk.

"Boys," he said, slowly, "we've got things ready for snow when it
comes. Th' cattle are strong an' fat, there's plenty of grass curing
on th' range, an' th' biggest drive ever sent north from this ranch
has been taken care of. There's seven of you here, two on th' north
range, an' four more good men coming next week; an' thirteen men can
handle this ranch with some time to spare.

"I've been with you for a long time now. Some of you I've had for over
twelve years, an' no man ever had a better outfit. You've never turned
back on any game, an' you've never had no trouble among yoreselves.
You've seen me sending an' getting letters purty regular for some
time, an' you've been surprised at how I've pushed you to get ready
for winter. I'm going to tell you all about it now, an' when I've
finished I want you to vote on something," and they listened in dumb
surprise and sorrow while he told them of his decision. When he had
finished they crowded about him and begged him to stay with them,
telling him they would not allow him to leave. But if he must go, then
they, too, must go and help him whip a wild and lawless range into
submission. He would need them badly in Montana, and nowhere could he
get men who would work and fight so hard and cheerfully for him as his
old outfit. They would not let him talk and he could not if they
would, for there was something in his throat which choked and pained
him. Johnny Nelson and Hopalong were tugging at his shoulders and the
others stormed and pleaded and swore, tears in the eyes of all. He
wavered and would have thrown away all his resolutions, when he
thought of Hopalong and the girl. Pushing them back he told them he
could not stay and begged them, as they loved him, to consider his
future. They looked at one another strangely and then realized how
selfish they were, and said so profanely.

"_Now_ yo're my old outfit," he cried, striking while the iron was
hot. "I've told you why I must go, an' why I can't take _all_ of you
with me, an' why I won't take a few an' leave th' rest. Don't think I
don't want you! Why, with you at my back I'd buck that range into
shape in no time, an' chase th' festive gun-fighters off th' earth.
Mebby some day you can come up to me, but not now. Now I want th' new
foreman of th' Bar-20 to be one of th' men who worked so hard an'
loyally an' long for me an' th' ranch. I want one of you to take my
place. Th' owners have left th' choice to me, an' say th' man I
appoint will be their choice; an' I ain't a-going to do it--I can't do
it. One last favor, boys; go in that house an' pick yore foreman. Go
now, an' I'll wait for you here."

"We'll do it right here--Red Connors!" cried Hopalong.

"Hopalong!" yelled Red and Johnny in the same voice, and only a breath
ahead of the others. "Hopalong! Hopalong!" was the cry, his own voice
lost, buried, swept under. He tried to argue, tried to show that he
was unfit, but he could make no headway, for his exploits were shouted
to convince him. As fast as he tried to speak some one remembered
something else he had done--they ranged over a period of ten years and
from Mexico to Cheyenne; from Dodge City and Leavenworth to the
Rockies.

Buck laughed and clapped his hands on Hopalong's shoulders. "I appoint
you foreman, an' you can't get out of it, nohow! Lemme shake hands
with th' new foreman of th' Bar-20--I'm one of th' boys now, an' glad
to get rid of th' responsibility for a while. Good luck, son!"

"No you ain't going to get rid of 'em," laughed Hopalong, but serious
withal. "Yo're th' foreman of this ranch till you leave us--ain't he,
boys?" he appealed.

Buck put his hands to his ears and yelled for less noise. "All right,
I'll play at breaking you in--'though th' Lord knows I can't show you
nothing you don't know now. My first order under these conditions is
that you ride south, Hopalong, an' tell th' news to Meeker, an' to his
girl. An' tell 'em separate, too. An' don't forget I want to see you
hobbled before I leave next month--tell her to make it soon!"

Hopalong reddened and grinned under the rapid-fire advice and chaffing
of his friends and tried to retort.

Johnny sprang forward. "Come on, fellers! Put him on his cayuse an'
start him south! We've got to have _some_ hand in his courting,
anyhow!"

"Right!"

"Good idea!"

"Look out! _Grab_ him, Red!"

"Up with him!"

"We ought to escort him on his first love trail," yelled Skinny above
the uproar. "Come on! _Saddles_, boys!"

"Like h--l!" cried Hopalong, spurring forward his nettlesome mount.
"You've got to grow wings to catch me an' Red Eagle! _Go, bronc!_" and
he shot forward like an arrow from a bow, cheers and good wishes
thundering after him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Buck moved about restlessly in his sleep and then awakened suddenly
and lay quiet as a hand touched his shoulder. "What is it? Who are
you?" he demanded, ominously.

"I reckoned you'd like to know that yo're going to be best man in two
weeks, Buck," said a happy voice. "She said a month, but I told her
you was going away before then, an' you _might_, you know. I shore
feel joyous!"

The huge hand of the elder man closed over his in a grip which made
him wince. "Good boy, an' good luck, Hoppy! It was due you an' I
knowed you'd win. Good luck, an' happiness, son!"





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