Hopalong cassidy, p.14
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.14
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XIV

  THE COMPROMISE

  It was night and on the H2 sickly, yellow lights gleamed from theranch houses. From the bunk house came occasional bursts of song, theswinging choruses thundering out on the night air, deep-toned andstrong. In the foreman's quarters the clatter of dishes was soonstilled and shortly afterward the light in the kitchen could be seenno more. A girl stood in the kitchen door for a moment and then,singing, went inside and the door closed. The strumming of a guitarand much laughter came from Antonio's shack, for now he had Juan andSanchez to help him pass the time.

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

  He entered the building and slamming the door shut behind him, waiteduntil the chorus was finished. When the last note died away he issuedhis orders for the next day, orders which pleased his men, who hadchafed even more than he under the galling inaction, since they didnot thoroughly understand the reasons for it.

  "I had them cows herded up north for th' last three days so they'd beready for us when we wanted 'em," he said, and then leaped at the doorand jerked it open, peering about outside. The guitar was stillstrumming in the Mexican's shack and he recognized the voices of threein the singing. Turning, he beckoned Doc Riley to him and the twostepped outside, closing the door behind them. Great noise broke outwithin the house as his orders were repeated and commented on. Meekerand Doc moved to the corner of the building and consulted earnestlyfor 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 Igo to bed--we've got to coax him out on some excuse. Once we get himout of th' house we can cover him, an' th' rest'll be easy. I won't beable to be with you--I'll have to stay outside where I can move aroundan' look out for th' line trouble, an' where they can see me. But youan' 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," Meekerlaughed, listening to the joy loose in the house.

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

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

  "I'll spend th' next hour pounding that into their hot heads," Docreplied. "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 housebeing 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 adeep-throated wolf-hound bayed from the kennels, inciting a clamorouschorus from the others. Meeker shouted and the noise changed to low,deep, rumbling growls which soon became hushed. Chains rattled overwood and the fierce animals returned to their grass beds to snarl ateach other. The frightened crickets took up their song again andpoured it on the silence of the night.

  The foreman opened the door and strode through the kitchen and intothe living room, his eyes squinting momentarily because of the light.His daughter was sitting in a rocking chair, sewing industriously, andshe looked up, welcoming him. He replied to her and, dexterouslytossing his sombrero on a peg in the wall where it caught and hungswinging, walked heavily to the southern window and stood before it,hands clasped behind his back, staring moodily into the star-stabbeddarkness. Down the wind came the faint, wailing howl of a wolf,quavering and distant, and the hounds again shattered the peacefulquiet. But he heard neither, so absorbed was he by his thoughts. Marylooked at him for a moment and then took up her work again and resumedsewing, for he had done this before when things had gone wrong, andfrequently 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'tworry so. That's all you've done since we left Montana."

  "I know; but I can't help it," he responded, smiling faintly. "But Idon't care much as long as I've got you to talk it over with. Yo'relike 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 allabout it."

  "Well," he began, sitting on the table, "I'm being cheated out of myrights. 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, mypride hurt, an' my men mocked. When I say I must have water I'm toldto go to th' river for it, twenty miles from my main range, an' linedwith quicksands; an' yet there is water close to me, water enough fordouble 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 milesin any direction won't show another as good. An' yet, I dassn't set myfoot 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'tgoing to swaller it no longer, not a day. Peace is all right, but notat th' price I'm paying! I'd ruther die fighting for what's mine thanput 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 themhills, an' th' springs at th' bottom of 'em. _I'm_ going to use thatvalley an' I'll fight until th' last man goes under!"

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

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

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

  "Agreement!" he cried, hotly. "Agreement! I hear that every time I sayanything to that crowd, an' now you give it to me! Agreement bed----d! Nason never said nothing about any agreement when he told mehe had f
ound 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 allabout everything before he turned over my check to 'em."

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

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

  "Hopalong Cassidy told me there was one--he told me all about it. Hewas 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 halfth' time. I'm all mixed up, now-a-days."

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

  He looked at her sharply. "Well, am I to be tied down by something Idon't know about? Am I to swaller everything I hear? _I_ don't knowabout no agreement, except what th' Bar-20 tells me. An' if there wasone it was made by th' Three Triangle, wasn't it?--an' not by Nason orme? Am I th' Three Triangle? Am I to walk th' line on something Ididn'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 fortrying to keep their land, can you?" she asked, idly fingering hersewing. "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 stayso. What goes in Montanny will go down here. Anyhow, I don't wanttheir land--all I want is th' use of it, same as they have. Butthey'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 findout. 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 toget 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 kickof fortune, riding hard an' fightin' hard when I had to. I ain't noyearling 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, notheeding her question. "Juan told me three days ago, that they've put aguard in it now--but I'll have it by noon to-morrow, for I've beenthinking 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 overth' 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 thathouse--it was built for defence against Indians. Th' top of th' hillis level as a floor an' only two hundred yards to th' edge. Nobody cancross 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 youdo? You can't fight between two fires."

  "By G-d, yo're right! Yo're th' brains of this ranch," he cried, hiseyes squinting to hide his elation. He paced back and forth, thinkingdeeply. Five minutes passed, then ten, and he suddenly turned andfaced her, to unfold the plan he had worked out the day before. He hadbeen 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 drivenacross the line to draw the Bar-20 men from the Peak, and of the partshe 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 shelooked 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 aremine, ain't they? Ain't everything fair in love an' war, as th' bookssay?"

  "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 softon any of that crowd! Do you hear?"

  "We won't mix love an' war, Daddy," she said, decisively. "You takecare of yore end, that's war; an' let me run my part. I'll do what Iwant 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, goingtowards 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 runyore own."

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

  "It's a go. I'll keep away from th' sparking game," he promised. "I'mgoing 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!" helaughed.

 
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