Produced by Al Haines.
Dust cover art]
Buck Peters, Ranchman
Being the Story of What Happened When Buck Peters, Hopalong Cassidy, and Their Bar-20 Associates Went to Montana
BY Clarence E. Mulford AND John Wood Clay
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS IN COLOR BY MAYNARD DIXON
CHICAGO A. C. McCLURG & CO. 1912
Copyright A. C. McCLURG & CO. 1912
Published March, 1912 Published April, 1912
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England
ALSO BY MR. MULFORD
HOPALONG CASSIDY. With five illustrations in color by Maynard Dixon.$1.50
THE ORPHAN. With illustrations in color by Allen True. 91.50
BAR-20. Illustrated by N. C. Wyeth and F. E. Schoonover. $1.50
BAR-20 DAYS. With four illustrations in color by Maynard Dixon. $1.35net
A. C. McCLURG & CO., Publishers CHICAGO
I Tex ReturnsII H. Whitby Booth is Shown HowIII Buck Makes FriendsIV The Foreman of the Double YV "Comin' Thirty" has NotionsVI An Honest Man and a RogueVII The French RoseVIII Tex Joins the EnemyIX Any Means to an EndX Introducing a ParasiteXI The Man OutsideXII A Hidden EnemyXIII Punctuation as a Fine ArtXIV Fighting the ItchXV The Slaughter of the InnocentsXVI The Master MindXVII Hopalong's Night RideXVIII Karl to the RescueXIX The Weak LinkXX Misplaced ConfidenceXXI Pickles Tries to TalkXXII "A Ministering Angel"XXIII Hopalong's MoveXXIV The Rebellion of Cock MurrayXXV Mary Receives CompanyXXVI Hunters and HuntedXXVII Points of the CompassXXVIII The Heart of a Rose
So she stood, silently regarding him . . . _Frontispiece_(missing from source book)
The rifle belonging to Hopalong never missed--and besides, he had madehis wish
Rose flung herself from the saddle and ran to him
As he spoke he hurled his horse against Hopalong's, while his right handflashed to his hip
Buck Peters, Ranchman
Johnny Nelson reached up for the new, blue flannel shirt he had hungabove his bunk, and then placed his hands on hips and soliloquized: "Mean' Red buy a new shirt apiece Saturday night an' one of 'em 's goneSunday mornin'; purty fast work even for this outfit."
He strode to the gallery to ask the cook, erstwhile subject of the MostHeavenly One, but the words froze on his lips. Lee Hop'sstoop-shouldered back was encased in a brand new, blue flannel shirt,the price mark chalked over one shoulder blade, and he sing-songed aChinese classic while debating the advisability of adopting a pair oftrousers and thus crossing another of the boundaries between the Orientand the Occident. He had no eyes in the back of his head but was rarelygifted in the "ways that are strange," and he felt danger before theboot left Johnny's hand. Before the missile landed in the dish pan LeeHop was digging madly across the open, half way to the ranch house, andtemporary safety.
Johnny fished out the boot and paused to watch the agile cook. "He 'sgot eyes all over hisself--an' no coyote ever lived as could beat him,"was his regretful comment. He knew better than to follow--Hopalong'swife had a sympathetic heart, and a tongue to be feared. She had notyet forgotten Lee Hop's auspicious initiation as an _ex-officio_ memberof the outfit, and Johnny's part therein. And no one had been able toconvince her that sympathy was wasted on a "Chink."
The shirtless puncher looked around helplessly, and then a grin slippedover his face. Glancing at the boot he dropped it back into the dishwater, moved swiftly to Red's bunk, and in a moment a twin to his ownshirt adorned his back. To make matters more certain he deposited onRed's blankets an old shirt of Lee Hop's, and then sauntered over toSkinny's bunk.
"Hoppy said he 'd lick me if I hurt th' Chink any more; but he did n'tsay nothin' to Red. May th' best man win," he muttered as he liftedSkinny's blankets and fondled a box of cigars. "One from forty-threeleaves forty-two," he figured, and then, dropping to the floor andcrawling under the bunk, he added a mark to Skinny's "secret" tally.Skinny always liked to know just how many of his own cigars he smoked.
"Now for a little nip, an' then th' open, where this cigar won't talk soloud," he laughed, heading towards Lanky's bunk. The most diligentsearch failed to produce, and a rapid repetition also failed. Lanky'sclothes and boots yielded nothing and Johnny was getting sarcastic whenhis eyes fell upon an old boot lying under a pile of riding gear in acorner of the room. Keeping his thumb on the original level he drank,and then added enough water to bring the depleted liquor up to histhumb. "Gee--I 've saved sixty-five dollars this month, an' two daysare gone already," he chuckled. He received sixty-five dollars, andwhat luxuries were not nailed down, every month.
Mounting his horse he rode away to enjoy the cigar, happy that thewinter was nearly over. There was a feeling in the air that told ofSpring, no matter what the calendar showed, and Johnny felt unreststirring in his veins. When Johnny felt thus exuberant things promisedto move swiftly about the bunk-house.
When far enough away from the ranch houses he stopped to light thecigar, but paused and, dropping the match, returned the "Maduro" to hispocket. He could not tell who the rider was at that distance, but itwas wiser to be prudent. Riding slowly forward, watching the otherhorseman, he saw a sombrero wave, and spurred into a lope. Then hesquinted hard and shook his head.
"Rides like Tex Ewalt--but it ain't, all right," he muttered. Closerinspection made him rub his eyes. "That arm swings like Tex, just th'same! An' I did n't take more'n a couple of swallows, neither. Why,d--n it! If that ain't him I 'm going' to see _who_ it is!" and hepushed on at a gallop. When the faint hail floated down the wind to himhe cut loose a yell and leaned forward, spurring and quirting. "Oldson-of-a-gun 's come back!" he exulted. "Hey, Tex! Oh, Tex!" heyelled; and Tex was yelling just as foolishly.
They came together with a rush, but expert horsemanship averted acollision, and for a few minutes neither could hear clearly what theother was saying. When things calmed down Johnny jammed a cigar into hisfriend's hands and felt for a match.
"Why, I don't want to take yore last smoke, Kid," Tex objected.
"Oh, go ahead! I 've got a hull _box_ of 'em in th' bunk-house," wasthe swift reply. "Could n't stay away, eh? Did n't like th' East,nohow, did you? Gosh, th' boys 'll be some tickled to see you, Tex.Goin' to stay? How you feelin'?"
"You bet I 'm a-stayin'," responded Tex. "Is that Lanky comin'?"
"Hey, Lanky!" yelled Johnny, standing up and waving the approachinghorseman towards them. "_Pronto_! Tex 's come back!"
Lanky's pony's legs fanned a haze under him and he rammed up against Texso hard that they had to grab each other. Everybody was talking at onceand so they rode towards the bunk-house, picking up Billy on the way.
"Where's Hopalong?" demanded Tex. "Married! H--l he is!" A strangelook flitted across his face. "Well, I 'm d--d! An' where 's Red?"
Johnny glanced ahead just in time to see Lee Hop sail around a
corner ofthe corral, and he replied with assurance, "Red 's th' other side of th'corral."
"Huh!'" snorted Lanky, "You 've got remarkable eyes, Kid, if you can seethrough--well, I 'm hanged if he _ain't_!"
After Red came Pete, waving a water-soaked boot. They disappeared andwhen Tex and his friends had almost reached the corral, Lee Hop roundedthe same corner again, too frightened even to squeal. As he startedaround the next corner he jumped away at an angle, Pete, still wavingthe boot, missing him by inches. Pete checked his flow of language ashe noticed the laughing group and started for it with a yell. A momentlater Red came into sight, panting heavily, and also forgot the cook.Lee Hop stopped and watched the crowd, taking advantage of theopportunity to gain the cook shack and bar the door. "Dlam shirt nogood--sclatchee like helle," he muttered. White men were strange--theyloved each other like brothers and fought one another's battles. "Ledhead! Led head!" he cried, derisively. "My hop you cloke! Hop youcloke chop-chop! No fliend my, savee?"
Skinny Thompson, changing his trousers in the bunkroom, heard Lee'sremarks and laughed. Then he listened--somebody was doing a lot oftalking. "They 're loco, plumb loco, or else somethin's wrong," and hehopped to the door. A bunched crowd of friends were tearing toward him,yelling and shooting and waving sombreros, and a second look made himagain miss the trousers' leg and hop through the door to save himself.The blood swept into his face as he saw the ranch house and he verypromptly hopped back again, muttering angrily.
The crowd dismounted at the door and tried to enter _en masse_; becomingsane it squirmed into separate units and entered as it should. Lee Hophastily unbarred his door and again fled for his life. When he returnedhe walked boldly behind his foreman, and very close to him,gesticulating wildly and trying to teach Hopalong Cantonese. Theforeman hated to chide his friends, but he and his wife were tired ofturning the ranch house into a haven for Chinese cooks.
As he opened the door he was grabbed and pushed up against a man whoclouted him on the back and tried to crush his hand. "Hullo, Cassidy!Best sight I've laid eyes on since I left!" yelled the other above thenoise.
"Tex!" exclaimed Hopalong. "Well, I'm d--d! When did you get here?Going to stay? Got a job yet? How'd you like the East? Married? _I_am--best thing I ever did. You look white--sick?"
"City color--like the blasted collars and shirts," replied the other,still pumping the hand. "I 'm goin' to stay, I 'm lookin' for a job,an' I 'd ruther punch cows for my keep than get rich in th' East. It 'sall fence-country--can't move without bumping into somebody orsomething--an' noise! An' crooked! They 'd steal th' fillin's out ofyore teeth when you go to talk--an' you won't know it!"
"Like to see 'em fool _me_!" grunted Johnny, looking savage.
"Huh! Th' new beginners 'd pick you out to practise on," snorted Red."That yore shirt or mine?" he asked, suspiciously.
"They 'd give you money for th' fun of taking it away from you,"asserted Tex. "Why, one feller, a slick dresser, too, asks me for th'time. I was some proud of that ticker--cost nigh onto a hundreddollars. He thanks me an' slips into th' crowd. When I went to put th'watch back I did n't have none. I licked th' next man, old as he was,who asks me for th' time. He was plumb surprised when I punchedhim--reckon he figured I was easy."
"Ain't they got policemen?" demanded Red.
"Yes; but _they_ don't carry watches--they 're too smart."
"Have a drink, Tex," suggested Lanky, bottle in hand. When the owner ofit took a drink he looked at his friends and then at the bottle, disgustpictured on his face. "This liquor's shore goin' to die purty soon.It's gettin' weaker every day. Now I wonder what in h--l Cowan makes itout of?"
"It _is_ sort of helpless," admitted Tex. "Now, Kid, I 'll borrowanother of them cigars of yourn. Them Maduros are shore good stuff. Iwould n't ask you only you said you had a--"
"D'ju see any shows in th' East?" demanded Johnny, hurriedly: "Real,good, bang-up shows?"
Skinny faded into the bunk-room and soon returned, puzzled andsuspicious. He slipped Tex a cigar and in a few moments sidled up closeto the smoker.
"That as good as th' Kid's?" he asked, carelessly.
Tex regarded it gravely: "Yes; better. I like 'em black, but don't saynothin' to Johnny. He likes them blondes 'cause he 's young."
It was not long before Tex, having paid his respects to the foreman'swife, returned to the bunk-house, leaned luxuriously against the walland told of his experiences in the East. He had an attentive audienceand it swayed easily and heartily to laughter or sympathy as the wordswarranted. There was much to laugh at and a great deal to straincredulity. But the great story was not told, the story of the thingspitiful in the manner in which they showed up how square a regeneratedman could be, and how false a woman. It was the old story--ambitiondrove him out into a new world with nothing but a clean conscience, astrong, deft pair of hands, and a clever brain; a woman drove him back,beaten, disheartened, and perilously near the devious ways he hadforsaken. He could not stay in the new surroundings withoutkilling--and he knew the woman was to blame; so when he felt the groundslip under his hesitating feet, he threw the new life behind him andhastened West, feverish to gain the locality where he had learned tolook himself in the face with regret and remorse, but without shame.
In turn he learned of the things that had occurred since he had left: ofthe bitter range-war; of his best friend's promotion and marriage; andof Buck Peters' new venture among hostile strangers. The latter touchedhim deeply--he knew, from his own bitter experiences, the dishearteningstruggle against odds great enough to mean a hard fight for Buck and allhis old outfit. Something that in Tex's heart had been struggling forweeks, the vague uneasiness which drove him faster and faster towardsthe West, now possessed him with a strength not to be denied. He knewwhat it was--the old lust for battle, the game of hand and wits withlife on the table, could not be resisted. The southern range was nowpeaceful, thanks to Buck and his men, thanks to Meeker's real nature;the Double Arrow and the C80 formed a barrier of lead and steel on thenorth and east, a barrier that no rustler cared to force. Peace meantsolitude on the sun-kissed range and forced upon him opportunities forthought--and insanity, or suicide. But up in Montana it would bedifferent; and the field, calling insistently for Tex to come, was onewhere his peculiar abilities would be particularly effective. Buckneeded friends, but stubbornly forbade any of his old outfit to joinhim. Of course, they would disregard his commands and either half orall of the Bar Twenty force would join him; but their going would bedelayed until well after the Spring round-up, for loyalty to their homeranch demanded this. Tex was free, eager, capable, and as courageous asany man. He had the cunning of a coyote, the cold savagery of a wolf,and the power of a tiger. In his lightning-fast hands a Colt rarelymissed--and he gathered from what he heard that such hands werenecessary to make the right kind of history on the northern range.
Finally Hopalong arose to go to the ranch house for the noon meal,taking Tex with him. The foreman and his wife did not eat with theoutfit, because the outfit would not allow it. Mary had insisted atfirst that her husband should not desert his friends in that manner, andhe stood neutral on the question. But the friends were notneutral--they earnestly contended that he belonged to his wife and theywould not intrude. Lanky voiced their attitude in part when he said: "We've had him a long time. We borrow him during workin' hours--we neverlearned no good from him, so we ain't goin' to chance spottin' our lilywhite souls." But there was another reason, which Johnny explained innaive bluntness: "Why, Ma'am, we eats in our shirt sleeves, an' we grabsregardless. We has to if we don't want Pete to get it all. An' somehowI don't think we 'd git very fat if we had to eat under wraps. You see,we 're free-an'-easy--an' we might starve, all but Pete. Why, Ma'am,Pete can eat any thin', anywheres, under any conditions. So we sticksto th' old table an' awful good appetites."
So Hopalong and Tex walked away together, the limp of the one keepingtime with that of the other, for Tex's wounded kne
e had mended a greatdeal better than he had hoped for. Hopalong stopped a moment to pat hiswolf hounds, briefly complimenting them to Tex, and then pushed open thekitchen door, shoving Tex in ahead of him.
"Just in time, boys," said Mary, "I hope you 're good an' hungry."
They both grinned and Hopalong replied first: "Well, I don't believePete can afford to give us much of a handicap to-day."
"Nor any other time, as far's I 'm concerned," added Tex, laughing. "We'll do yore table full justice, Mrs. Cassidy," he assured her.
Mary, dish in hand, paused between the stove and the table. She lookedat Tex with mischievous eyes: "Billy-Red tells me you love him like abrother. Is he deceiving me?"
Hopalong laughed and Tex replied, smiling: "More like a sister, Mrs.Cassidy--I can't find any faults in him, an' we don't fight."
Mary completed her journey to the stove, filled the dish and carried itto the table; resting her hands on the edge of the table, she leanedforward in seeming earnestness. "Well, you must know that we are one,and if you love Billy-Red--" finishing with an expressive gesture."Those who love me call me Mary."
Tex's face was gravely wistful, but a wrinkle showed at the outer cornerof his eyes. "Well," he drawled, "those who love me call me Tex."
"Good!" exclaimed Hopalong, grinning.
"An' I 'm thankful that my hair 's not th' color to cause any trustin'soul to call me by a more affectionate name," Tex finished. He duckedHopalong's punch while Mary laughed a bird-like trill that brought toher husband's face an expression of idolizing happiness and made Texsmile in sympathy. As the dinner progressed Tex shared less and less inthe conversation, preferring to listen and make occasional comments, andfinally he spoke only when directly addressed.
When the meal was over and the two men started to go into thesitting-room, Mary said: "You 'll have to excuse me, Mr.--er--Tex," sheamended, smiling saucily. "I guess you two men can take care of eachother while I red up."
"We 'll certainly try hard, Mrs.--er--Mary," Tex replied, his face gravebut his eyes twinkling. "We watched each other once before, you know."
As soon as they were alone Hopalong waved his companion to a chair andbluntly asked a question: "What's th' matter, Tex? You got plumb quietat th' table."
The other, following his friend's example, filled a pipe before hereplied.
"Well, I was thinkin'--could n't help it; an' I was drawin' a contrastthat hurt. Hoppy, I 'm not goin' to stay here longer 'n I can help; youdon't need me a little bit, an' if you took me in yore outfit it 'd beonly because you want to help me. This ain't no place for me--I needexcitement, clean, purposeful excitement, an' you fellows have made thispart of th' country as quiet as a Quaker meetin'. I 've been thinkin'Buck needs somebody that 'll stick to him--an' there ain't nothin' Iwon't do for Buck. So I 'm goin' to pull my freight north, but _not_ asTex Ewalt."
"Tex, if you do that I 'll be able to sleep better o' nights," was theearnest reply. "We 'd like to have you. You know that, but it mightmean life to Buck if he had you. Lord, but could n't you two raise h--lif you started! He 'll be tickled half to death to see you--there willbe at least one man he won't have to suspect."
Tex considered a moment. "He won't see me--to know me. I 'm one manwhen I 'm known, when I 've declared myself; I can be two or three if Idon't declare myself. One fighting man won't do him much good--if Icould take th' outfit along we would n't waste no time in strategy. Th'rest of th' population, hostile to Buck, would move out as we rodein--an' they would n't come back. No, I 'm playing th' stranger toBuck. Somebody 's goin' to pay me for it, too. An' th' pay 'll not bein money but in results. I won't starve, not as long as people like toplay cards. I quit that, you know; but if I do play, it 'll be part ofmy bigger game."
"I feel sorry for th' card-playin' population if you figger you ought toeat," smiled Hopalong, reminiscently.
"If I 'd 'a' knowed about Buck, I 'd 'a' gone to Montana 'stead ofcomin' here, an' saved some valuable time," Tex observed.
"But as far as that goes, Tex, they can't do much before Spring,anyhow," Hopalong remarked, thoughtfully. "An' it's yore own fault," headded. "We wanted to send you th' news occasionally, but you never letus know where you was. We 'd 'a' liked to hear from you, too."
"Yes, I reckon I 've got time enough; besides, I need th' exercise,"agreed Tex.
"How is it you never wrote?" asked Hopalong, curiously.
Tex left his seat and walked to the door. "Take a walk with me--thisain't no place to tell a story like that."
"I 've got somethin' better 'n that--I want to go down to th' H2 an' seemy father-in-law for a couple of minutes. Never met him, did you? Wecan ride slow an' have lots of time. Be with you in a minute," andHopalong hastened to ask his wife if she had any word to send to herfather. He joined Tex at the bunkhouse, now deserted except for LeeHop, and in a minute they left for the H2. As they rode, Tex told hisstory.
"This is going to be short an' meaty. When I left here I struck KansasCity first, then Chicago, spending a few days in each of them. I 'dheard a lot about New York, an' headed for it. I had n't been therevery long before I met a woman, an' you know they can turn us punchersinto fool knots. Well, I courted her four days an' married her--oh, Iwas plumb in love with her, all right. She was one of them sweet,dreamy, clingin' kind--pretty as h--l, too. I had a good job by then,and for most a year I was too happy to put my feet on this common oldearth. I never gambled, never drank, and found it not very hard to quitcussing, except on real, high-toned occasions. But I never could getalong without my gun. Civilization be d--d! There 's more crooks an'killers in New York than you an' me ever saw or heard of. Once I wasglad I had it--did n't have to shoot, though. Th' man got careless an'let his gun waver a little an' was lookin' at th' works in _mine_ beforehe knowed it. He did n't want no money--what he needed was a match, an'he was doin' it to win a bet--or so he palavers. I takes his stubby .32an' kicks him so he 'd _earn_ that bet, an' lets him go. I had tolaugh--him stackin' agin _me_ at that game!
"Well, I got promoted, an' had to travel out of town every two weeks. I'd be gone two days an' then turn up bright an' smilin' for my wife toadmire. Once I was wired to come back quick on account of somethin'unexpected turnin' up, an' I lopes home to spend that second night in myown bed. I remember now that I wondered if th' wife would be there orat her mother's.
"She was there, but she was n't admirin' _me_. I saw red, an' th' factthat I did n't go loco proved that I ain't never goin'. But th' triggerhung on a breath an' _he_ knowed it. He was pasty white an' could n'thardly stand up. Then th' shock wore off an' he was th' coolest man intown.
"'What are you goin' to do about it?' he asks, slowly. 'Yore wife loves_me_, not you. She 's allus loved me--you never really reckoned she wasin love with _you_, did you?"
"_I_ was shocked then, only I was wearin' my poker face an' he could n'tsee nothin'. 'Why, I did think, once in a while, that she loved me,' Iretorts. 'I certainly kept you hangin' 'round th' gutter an' _sneakin'_in, anyhow. When I get through with you they 'll find you in that samegutter.'
"'Goin' to shoot me? I _ought_ to have a chance. I ain't got nogun--you see, I ain't wild an' woolly like you,' an' he actuallygrinned!
"'What kind of a chance did _I_ have, out of town an' not suspectin' anythin'?' I asks.
"'But she _loves_ me; don't you understand? She was _happy_ with me.What good will it do _you_ if you kill me an' break her heart? She 'llnever look at you again.'
"'I reckon she won't anyhow,' I retorts. 'Leastwise not if I can helpit. Look here: Don't you know you deserve to die?'
"'That's open to debate, but for brevity I 'll say yes; but I want achance. I gave _you_ a chance every time I came here--you did n't takeit, that's all.'
"'I 'll get you a gun, d--d if I won't,' I replied, an' backed towardsth' valise where my big old Colt was. But he stops me with a sneer.
"'I said a _chance_! You was _born_ with a gun in your hand, an'
it 'dbe pure murder.'
"'I 'm glad somethin 's pure,' says I. Then I remembered that oldvalise again. Remember th' last thing I did for you an' Peters before Iquit, Hoppy?"
Hopalong thought quickly. "Yes, you an' Pete put in two days settin'poisoned cows in th' brush on th' west line. Did a good job, too.Ain't been bothered none by wolves since."
Tex chuckled. "There was a bottle of yore stuff in that war-bag an' itwas half full. I don't remember puttin' it there, but there she was.So I takes it an' holds it up for him to look at, readin' th' label outloud. That was th' only time my wife says a word, an' she says _his_name, sorrowful; then she goes on lookin' from him to me an' from me tohim.
"He laughs at me an' sneers again. 'Think I 'm go in' to eat that?' hesays.
"I don't answer. I 'm too busy workin' with one hand an' watchin' him.I knowed he did n't have no gun, but there was chairs an' bottlesa-plenty. I got down a bottle of bitters an' poured some of it in acouple of glasses. Then I drops in some pain-killer an' stirs it up.It does n't mix very well, so I pushed th' remains of their supper toone side an' slips th' two glasses under th' table cloth, holdin' oneedge of it in my teeth so it would n't touch th' glasses an' let himfollow 'em. If they 'd been cards I 'd 'a' spread 'em monte-fashionunder his nose--but they was n't.
"'Now, you skunk--take your pick an' don't wrangle no more about yorechances. An' you drink it before I drink mine, or I 'll blow yorecussed ribs loose!'
"I had given him credit for havin' a-plenty nerve, but now I sees it wasn't nerve at all--just gall. He was pasty white again, almost green,an' his little soul plumb tried to climb out of his eyes. I was a wholelot surprised at how he went to pieces an' I was savagely elated at th'way he was a-starin' at that cloth. He looks at me for an instant andthen back at th' little shell game on th' table' an' he says in a weak,thin voice: 'How 'd I know--you 'll drink--yourn?'
"'You ain't supposed to be knowin' anythin' about my habits while I 'vegot this gun--an' it's gettin' plumb heavy, too,' I retorts. 'You 'vebeen yellin' about an even break, an' there it is. An' if it 'll hurrythings any I 'll pick up my glass now an' drink it as soon as I see yoreglass empty, an' yore Adam's apple bob enough. We won't have to waitvery long before we get results. You 'll pick yore glass an' drain itor you 'll stop lead.' An' I did n't care, Hoppy, which one he got--Iwas worse'n dead then--what th' h--l did I care about livin'?
"I reached out to get my glass as soon as he had his'n an' I laid th'gun on my knee, knowin' he did n't have no weapon, an' that I could getth' drop before he could swing a bottle or chair. But I knowed wrong.He was a liar. As I touched my glass his hand streaks for his hippocket. I gave him th' liquor in his eyes an' lunged for his gun handjust in time. Then I lets loose all th' rage that was boilin' in me an'when I gets tired of punishin' him, I throws him at th' feet of th'woman, picks up both guns, gets what personal duffle I need, an' blowsth' ranch. His face was even all over, his nose was busted, his teethstuck in his lips, an' he had a broken gun-wrist that gave somebody awhole lot of trouble before it worked right again, if it ever did. I 'mglad I did n't shoot him--there was a lot more of satisfaction doin' itwith my naked hands. It was man to man an' I played with him, with allhis extra twenty pounds. By G--d, I can feel it yet!"
During the short pause Hopalong looked steadily ahead with unseeingeyes, his face hard, his eyes narrowed, and a tightness about his lipsthat told plainly what he felt. To come home to that! He realized thathis companion was speaking again and gave close attention.
"I don't know where I put in th' next week, but when I got rational Ifound myself in a cell in a Philadelphia jail, along with bums andcrooks. I found that I 'd beat up a couple of policemen when I wasdrunk. When I got ready to leave th' town I didn't have a whole lot ofmoney, so I played cards with what I had an' left th' town as soon as Ihad my fare--which did n't take long. That bunch never went up agin'such a well trained deck in their lives."
This time Hopalong broke the silence that ensued, his hand droppingunconsciously on his friend's arm in warm, impulsive sympathy. "ByG--d, what a deal! It's awful, Tex; awful!"
"Yes, it was--an' it ain't exactly what you 'd call a joke right now.But I ain't worryin' none about th' woman--she killed my love stone coldthat night. But when I think of how things _might_ 'a' turned out ifshe 'd been square, of th' home I 'd 'a' had--but h--l, what's th' use,anyhow? Now what hurts me most is my pride an' conceit--an' th' way Iturned to th' drink an' cheatin' so easy. It makes me mad clean throughto think of what a infant I was, how I played th' fool for th' Lordknows how long; an' sometimes I want to kill somebody to sort of getsquare with myself. Up north I 'll be too busy tryin' to make fools outof other people to do much in th' line of sympathizin' with myself--an'too busy an' cautious to break back to drink an' cards. That was one ofth' things drove me back here--there 's a whole lot more temptationfacin' a man back East, an' 'specially a feller that's totin' a big loadof trouble."
"Don't it beat all how different luck will run for different people?"marvelled Hopalong, thinking of his portion.
"That was runnin' in my mind while I was eatin'," replied Tex. "ReckonI _did_ get sort of quiet. But I 'm plumb glad th' right kind of luckcame yore way, all right."
They rode on for a short time, each busy with his own thoughts, and thenHopalong looked up. "We 're goin' up to see Buck just as soon as I feelth' ranch is in proper shape. I 've got to get th' round-up out of th'way first. You see, we ain't had no honeymoon trip yet."
"Yo 're lucky again; I never could see no joy in hikin' over th' countrychangin' trains, livin' in hotels, sleepin' in a different bed everynight, each one worse'n th' one before, lookin' after baggage, an'workin' hard all th' time. I 've often wondered why it is that twopeople jump into all that trouble just as soon as they get into theirown little heaven for th' first time." Then Tex's face grew earnest."Now, look here, Hoppy: You ain't goin' up to see Buck till I tell youto come. I know you, all right; just as soon as you land you 'll be outgunnin' for th' bunch that's tryin' to bust Buck's game. You ain'tsingle no more--yo're a married man, an' when a man 's got a wife likeyourn he naturally ain't got no cussed business runnin' 'round puttin'hisself in th' way of gettin' killed. You let yore gun get plumb dustyan' when you want any excitement, go out an' try to make water run uphill, or somethin' simple like that. You handle th' trouble that comesto you, an' don't go off a-lookin' for it."
They spent the rest of the time in discussing the status of the marriedman, and when Mary afterward learned of the stand Tex took she sharedmore of her husband's affection for him. After a short stay at the H2they turned homeward and went thoroughly into the matter of Tex's ridenorth. It was agreed that extra precaution would do no harm, and inorder to have no blunder on the part of any one, they decided that itwas best not to say anything about where he was going. Hopalong wasgreatly pleased and relieved now that he knew that his old foreman wouldhave some one to help him fight his battles on that cold, distant range;but he did not appear to be as cheerful about it as was his companion.Tex looked forward to the trip with all the eagerness and impatience ofa boy and it showed in his conversation and actions.
When they reached the ranch house at dusk they found Mary cooking a verysmall meal, and she waved them off. "You an' Billy-Red can't eat hereto-night: yo 're goin' to eat with th' boys in th' bunk-house. I wouldn't spoil your fun for anything. Now you get right out--I mean justwhat I say!"
"But, girl--" began Hopalong.
"Now I 've made up my mind, an' that's all there is about it. I can getalong without you this once--I won't do it again, you know--an' I wantyou boys to have a rousin' good time all by yoreselves. I want th' boysto like me, Billy-Red, to feel that I ain't changed _everythin'_ bybein' here. Now you clear out--Lee knows all about it, an' I cookedsome goodies this afternoon for th' feast. Johnny cleaned out th' caketins an' scraped th' bowls I mixed th' fillin' in--I had to drive himaway. Look! There he is, leanin' up against that tree
watchin' for meto set somethin' out to cool. He purty near got away with a pie--oh, he's terrible! But he 's a good boy, just th' same."
Tex turned, emitted a blood-curdling yell and started for the anxiousJohnny, Hopalong close behind, while Mary stood in the door and watchedthe fun, laughing with delight. The outfit piled out of the bunk-house,caught sight of Johnny pounding towards them, and joined in, much to theKid's disgust. They did not know anything about the affair, but theydid not have to know--Johnny was legitimate prey for all, at any timeand under any conditions. The fleeing youngster was nearly caught twiceas he dodged and doubled, but once past them, he drew away with ease.When the winded and laughing pursuers finally stopped, he circled aroundto the nearest corral, found a seat on the gate and watched themstraggle back to the bunk-house, deriding them with cheerful abandon,dissecting them with a shrewd and cutting tongue. He took them up inrotation and laid bare their faults and weaknesses until they leanedagainst the wall and laughed at each other until the tears came. Thenhe turned to ridicule.
"An' there's Skinny," he continued, slowly and gravely, while he rolleda cigarette. "Th' only way you can see him, except at noon, is to lookat him in front, or at his feet. Why, I grabbed a broom in th' dark onetime an' shore apologized before I realized that it was n't him at all.When he sits down he looks like a figger four, an' I 'm allus a-scaredhe 'll get into one pant's laig by mistake. When he eats solid stuff helooks like a rope with a knot in it--it's scary watchin' them knots godown--looks like he was skinnin' hisself. You can't tell whether he 'scomin' or goin'--th' bumps is all alike. His laigs is so long he lookslike a wishbone an' I 'm holdin' my breath most of th' time for fear he'll split. When he goes huntin' all he has to do is to stand still soth' game won't see him; it wanders up to see what's holdin' up th' hat.He put Pete's pants on once when he fell in th' crick--after he fellin--an' I lifts my hat when I saw th' ridin' skirts. His laigs arebeautiful--except for them knobs half way down where they hinge. An'when he swallers a mouthful of water he looks like a muscle dance. Why,I got into his bunk one night by mistake an' spent five minutes a-tryin'to smooth out a crease in th' blanket. Then he wakes up an' tells me togo over an' scratch Red for a change. Tells me to git off 'n him,'cause I 'm flattenin' him out. That can't be did, an' he knew it, too.
"What _you_ laughin' at, Red? You ain't got no laugh comin'. Everymornin' you sit on th' bunk an' count yore clothes an' groan. You putyore hat on first an' yore boots next. Then you takes off th' boots soyore socks can get on. Then th' boots go on again. Then they come offagain to let yore pants go on, after which on go th' boots again. Thenyou take yore hat off to let th' shirt slip over yore head an' it goesright back on again. I 've seen you feel around for yore suspenders forfive minutes before you remembered they was under th' shirt."
"Yo 're another! I don't wear no suspenders!"
"No, you don't. Not now, but you did. You quit 'em 'cause they cost adollar a pair an' kept gettin' lost under th' shirt. Now when you dressup you lift my suspenders. Tex never saw you in love. I did; lots oftimes; about twice a month. You put th' saddle on th' corral wall,close th' horse, an' mount th' gate. You eat coffee with a knife an'sugar th' water. When I wake up first I see you huggin' th' pillow,which is my old coat wrapped around my old pants. If anybody says'patience,' you bust yore neck a-lookin' for her. What did you do up toWallace's that time when his niece came on to visit at his ranch?Wallace told me all about it, an' all about th' toothbrush, too. Lemmesee if you remember good. Did n't you--"
"You never mind about me rememberin'," Red shouted, grabbing up a bucketof water off the wash bench and starting for his tormentor. Johnnyleaped down and backed off, dodging behind the corral wall. As Red madethe turn he fell sprawling, the water affectionately clinging to him.When he arose and looked around Johnny was entering the bunk-house doorand the rest of the outfit clung together trying to hold themselves up,and voiced its misery in wails. At that moment Lee Hop buck-jumpedaround the corner on his trip from the cook shack to the corral, hisfavorite place of refuge when the ranch house was cut off from him, andhe saw Red too late. When he was able to think he was minus a shirt andRed was carrying him under one arm and the shirt under the other.
"Now, you heathen--get that grub on th' table or I 'll picket you an'Johnny to th' same stake!" Red threatened, grimly.
"Him get clake. Him stealie pie. Alle same in klitchen. Eatchop-chop!" wailed the cook. He was promptly dropped and looked up intime to see a rush for the cook shack. But Johnnie was placing thedelicacies on the table and close scrutiny failed to discover anythingwrong with them, notwithstanding the suspicious manner in which histongue groomed his teeth.
The supper was a howling success, and unlike the usual Bar-20 meals, wasprolonged, and fun seasoned every dish. Even Lee Hop, incapable as hewas of grasping most of the points in their rapid flight, and not whollyin sympathy with certain members of the outfit--even his countenancelost its expression of constant watchfulness; his mouth widened into agrin whose extremities were lost somewhere in the region of his backhair; his eyes gleamed like jet buttons in a dish of mush; and hismoisture-laden skin shone until, altogether, his head resembled nothingso much as a pumpkin-bogie, a good-natured one, with an extra largecandle lighted inside. He was tempted now and again to insert a remarkin the short openings, but experience checked him in time. When thecrowd filed into the living-room it was to tell tales of men living anddead; stories that covered a great range of human action, from thefoolishness of "Aristotle" Smith to the cold ferocity and cruelty ofSlippery Trendley and Deacon Rankin. The hours flew past withastonishing speed and when Tex looked at his watch he stared for amoment and returned it to his pocket with a quick, decisive movement.
"It's past midnight, fellows, an' I 'm riding' on in the mornin'," heremarked, arising.
The crowd looked its amazement and then vociferously announced itsregret. These men held it a breach of etiquette to question, andbecause there were no "whys" or "wherefores," Tex felt impelled toexplain. He was going on to see old friends, but he would return. TheBar-20 was his range and he would get back as soon as he could. Indeference to his wishes and to let him get as much sleep as possible,the outfit quietly prepared for rest, and Hopalong, bidding themgood-night, departed for the ranch house.
Breakfast over the next morning, Tex rode north, followed by an escortof friends of which any man would have been proud. Hopalong and Maryrode at his side and behind in a compact bunch came the boys. Theystopped when the river trail was reached and Tex shook hands all around.
"I 'm sorry to leave you, Hopalong," he said earnestly; "but you knowhow it is: I 've been away quite a spell and things happen quick outhere. You 'll see me again this Summer an' I 'll come to stay if youwant me. Mary, I 'm mighty glad to see he 's got such a goodforeman--he 's needed one a long time; an' I can see a big improvementin him already."
"Reckon you might profit by the example--must be girls a-plenty out inthis country who 'd make good foremen," she replied, laughing.
Tex's face showed no trace of hurt as the chance arrow sped to the mark;he laughed, pointing at Johnny. "I reckon there are; but the Kid wouldn't give me no show."
"We 'll answer for him, Tex," chuckled Red. "We cured him once beforean' we 'd be shore glad to do it again."
"Yep--kept him in the hills, starvin' an' freezin' for a whole month,"sweetly added Skinny.
Johnny flushed and squirmed but had no time to retort, Pete and theothers being too busy talking to Tex to let him be heard. Finally Texbacked off, raised his hat, and with a bow and a smile to Mary, wheeledand loped off along the trail to run Spring a race to Montana. Everytime he looked back he waved in answer to his friends, and then, swiftlymounting a rise, was silhouetted for an instant against the white cloudson the horizon and as swiftly dropped from sight, a faint chorus ofyells reaching him.
The outfit turned slowly to return to their ranch and when they missedtheir foreman, they saw him sitting sile
nt where they had left him, hiswife's hand on his arm. He could still see Tex against the sky, clearcut, startlingly strong and potent, and he nodded his head slowly. "He's needed up there, an' he 's the best man to go." Turning, he wassurprised to find his wife so near and he smiled joyously: "Wouldn't goan' leave me all alone, would you, Honey? Yo 're shore a thoroughbredan' I 'm plumb proud of you. Race you to th' bunch!"