Hopalong cassidy, p.17
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.17

           Honoré Morrow



  Pete Wilson grumbled, for he was tiring of his monotonous vigil, andalmost hoped the H2 would take the house because of the excitementincident to its re-capture. At first his assignment had pleased, butas hour after hour passed with growing weariness, he chafed more andmore and his temper grew constantly shorter.

  With the exception of smoking he had exhausted every means of passingthe time; he knew to a certainty how many bushes and large stones wereon the plateau, the ranges between him and distant objects, and otherthings, and now he had to fall back on his pipe.

  "Wish some son-of-a-thief would zephyr up an' start something," hemuttered. "If I stays in this fly-corral much longer I'll go loco. Acouple of years back we wouldn't have waited ten minutes in a caselike this--we'd 'a chased that crowd off th' range quick. What'sgetting 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 hecould see the dim, dusty, winding trail, hoping that some of theoutfit would come into sight. Then he slid the Sharps out of thewindow and held it on an imaginary enemy, whom he pretended was goingto try to take the house. While he thought of caustic remarks, withwhich to greet such a person, he saw the head of a horse push up intoview over the edge of the hill.

  Sudden hope surged through him and shocked him to action. He cockedthe rifle, the metallic clicks sweet to his ears. Then he saw therider, and it was--Mary Meeker.

  Astonishment and quick suspicion filled his mind and he held theweapon ready to use on her escort, should she have one. Her horsereared and plunged and, deciding that she was alone, and ashamed to becovering a woman, he slid the gun back into the room, leaning itagainst the wall close at his hand, not losing sight of the rider fora moment.

  "Now, what th' devil is she doing up here, anyhow?" he puzzled, andthen a grin flickered across his face as the possible solution came tohim. "Mebby she wants Hopalong," he muttered, and added quickly,"Purty as blazes, too!" And she did make a pretty picture even to hisscoffing and woman-hating mind.

  She was having trouble with her mount, due to the spurring it wasgetting on the side farther from the watcher. It reared and plunged,bucking sideways, up-and-down and fence-cornered, zig-zagging over theground forward and back, and then began to pitch "stiff-legged."Pete's eyes glowed with the appreciation of a master rider and he wasfilled with admiration, which soon became enthusiastic, over hersaddle-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 themside saddle contraptions," he mused. "A-straddle is th' only--_Good!_All right! Yo're a stayer!" he exclaimed as she stepped from onestirrup and stood up in the other when the animal reared up on itshind legs.

  He glanced out of the other windows of the house and fell to watchingher again, his face darkening as he saw that she appeared to betiring, while her mount grew steadily worse. Then she "touchedleather," and again and again. Her foot slipped from the stirrup, butfound it again, while she frantically clung to the saddle horn.

  "Four-legged devil!" Pete exclaimed. "Wish _I_ was on you, you ornerydog! Hey! Don't you bite like that! Keep yore teeth away from that legor I'll blow yore d----d head off!" he cried wrathfully as the animalbit 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 therider held to the saddle horn with both hands, while her foot, againout of the stirrup, sought for it in vain. She was rapidly losing hergrip on the saddle and suddenly she was thrown off, a cry reachingPete's ears. The victorious animal kicked several times and shook itshead vigorously in celebration of its freedom and then buck-jumpedacross the plateau and out of sight down the hill, Pete stronglytempted to stop its exuberance with a bullet.

  Pete glanced at the figure huddled in the dust and then, swearingsavagely and fearing the worst, threw down the bar and jerked open thedoor and ran as rapidly as his awkward legs would take him to see whathe could do for her, his hand still grasping his rifle. As he kneltbeside her he remembered that he had been told not to leave the houseunder any circumstances and he glanced over his shoulder, and just intime to see a chap-covered leg disappear through the doorway. Hisheart sank as the crash of the bar falling into place told him that hehad been unworthy of the trust his best friend had reposed in him. Itwas plain enough, now, that he had been fooled, to understand it alland to know that as he left the house one or more H2 punchers hadsprinted for it from the other side of the plateau.

  Red fury filled him in an instant and tearing the revolver from thegirl'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 hisshoulder, sprinting for the protection of the hillside, which hereached in a few bounds. Throwing her down as he would throw a bag offlour he snarled at her as she arose and brushed her clothes. Yearsago in Pete's life a woman had outraged his love and trust and senthim through a very hell of sorrow; and since then he had had no lovefor the sex--only a bitter, scathing cynicism, which now found itsoutlet in words.

  "Yo're a nice one, you are!" he yelled. "You've done yore part! Yo'reall alike, every d----d one of you--Judas wasn't no man, not by ad----d sight! You know a man won't stand by an' see you hurt withouttrying to help you--an' you play it against him!"

  She was about to retort, but smiled instead and went on with herdusting.

  "Tickled, hey! Well, you watch an' see what _we_ do to coyotes! You'llsee what happens to line-thieves down here!"

  She looked up quickly and suspected that instead of averting a fightshe had precipitated one. Both Hopalong and her father were in as muchdanger now as if she had taken no part in the trouble.

  Pete emptied his revolver into the air as rapidly as he could work thehammer and hurriedly reloaded it, all the time watching his prisonerand 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 herhorse grazing calmly further down the hill and his Sharps leaped tohis 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. "Youcoward! You coward!" she cried, stamping her foot. "To kill thathorse, 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'tshoot 'em!" he retorted, stung by her words. "You'll see how big acoward 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 feetunder her skirts. "_I'm_ not afraid of a coward!"

  Another shot rang out just over the top of Stepping Stone Hill and hereplied to it. Far to the west a faint report was heard and Pete knewthat Skinny was roweling the lathered sides of his straining horse.Yet another sounded flatly from the direction of the dam, the hillsmultiplying 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 yorelittle squib clean down to yore ranch house!"

  "That's grand--yo're doing it fine," she laughed, strangling the fearwhich crept slowly through her. "Go on--it's grand!"

  "It'll be a whole lot grander when th' boys get here an' find outwhat's happened," he promised. "There'll be some funerals start outfrom 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 topof Stepping Stone Hill, and Pete withheld the rest of his remarks toreply to it in kind. Suddenly Red Connors, his quirt rising andfalling, bounded over the top of the hill and shot down the other sideat full speed. Close behind him came Billy Williams, who rod
e asrecklessly until his horse stepped into a hole and went down, throwinghim forward like a shot out of a catapult. He rolled down the hillsome distance before he could check his impetus and then, scramblingto his feet, drew his Colt and put his broken-legged mount out of itsmisery 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'tyou 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'tyou know this ain't no place for you to-day?"

  Pete grasped his shoulder and swung him around so sharply that henearly lost his balance, crying: "Don't talk to her, she's a d----dsnake!"

  Red's hand moved towards his holster and then stopped, for it was afriend who spoke. "What do you mean, d--n you? Who's a snake? What'swrong here, anyhow?"

  Billy limped up and stood amazed at the strange scene, for besides thepresence of the woman, his friends were quarrelling and he had neverseen that before. Seeing Mary look at him he flushed and sneaked offhis sombrero, ashamed because he had forgotten it.

  Pete swiftly related all that had occurred, and ended with anothercurse flung at his prisoner, who looked him over with a keen, criticalglance and then smiled contemptuously.

  "That's a fine note!" Red cried, his sombrero also coming off. Helooked 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 lightin her eyes, which gained her immunity from his tongue, for he admiredgrit. "Here, you, stop that cussing! You can't cuss no woman while I'maround!" he cried hotly. "Hopalong'll break you wide open if he hearsyou. Cussing won't do no good; what we want is thinking, an'fighting!" Catching sight of Billy, who looked self-conscious and alittle uncomfortable, he cried: "An' what's th' matter with you?"

  Billy jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the deadhorse and Red, following the motion, knew. "By th' Lord, you got offeasy! 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 getany we can blow them sneaks off th' face of th' earth," Peteexclaimed, 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'sreprimand and he said, instead: "We'll talk about that later. Butdon'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 forthem--she was responsible.

  "Here comes Skinny!" cried Billy, waving his arm.

  "An' here's Hopalong!" joyously cried Pete, elated, for he pinned hisfaith 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 toget 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'tyou in th' house, where you belongs?"

  Pete told him, briefly, and he turned to the prisoner, a smile ofadmiration struggling to get through his frown. She looked at himbravely, for now was the crisis, which she had feared, and welcomed.

  "By th' Lord!" he cried, softly. "Yo're a thoroughbred, a fighter fromstart to finish. But you shouldn't come up here to-day; there's notelling, sometimes, where bullets go after they start." Turning, hesaid, "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' ifanybody 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'llthink different to-morrow."

  "Let's swap th' girl for th' house," suggested Skinny, grinning. "It'sa shore cinch," he added, winking at Billy, who laughed.

  Hopalong wheeled to retort, caught Skinny's eye closing, and laughedinstead. "I reckon that would work all right, Skinny. It'd be a goodjoke 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' southside. Skinny can go around west an' Red'll take th' door. They won'tbe so joyous after they get what's coming their way. This ain't nopicnic; 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 tocapture 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 Isaid, 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 likeyou," he laughed, admiringly. "You've shore stampeded me worse thanever--I'm so loco I can't wait much longer--when are you going tomarry me? Of course you know that you've got to someday."

  "Indeed I have _not_!" she retorted, her face crimson. "If you waitfor me to marry you you will die of old age! An' I'm shore somebody'slistening."

  "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'twait. 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 wasglad at heart that he thought none the less of her for the trick shehad played on Pete. He seemed to take everything as a matter ofcourse, 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_," helaughed. "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 beginto practise calling yourself Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy, of th' Bar-20."

  Pete fired, swore, and turned his head. "How th' devil can I hit ahouse with all that fool talk!" and the two, suddenly realizing thatPete had been ordered to remain close by, looked foolish, and bothlaughed.

  "It gets on my nerves," Pete growled, and then: "Here comes Johnnylike a greased coyote."

  They looked and saw Johnny tearing down Stepping Stone Hill as if hewere afraid that the fighting would be over before he could take ahand in it. When he came within hailing distance he stood up in hisstirrups, shouting, "What's up?" and then, seeing Pete, understood.Leaping from the saddle he jerked his rifle out of the sheath and ranto 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 backthe herd, adding: "Her dad is out there now looking at his deadcows--I saw him when I came back from East Arroyo. An' I saw themthree punchers ride over that ridge down south; and they shore madegood 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 herdad! Mary, you better go home--this won't be no place for you in alittle 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 getsquare--Pete, where's yore cayuse?"

  "How th' devil do _I_ know!" Pete blazed, indignantly. "_I_ wasn'tkeeping track of no cayuse after they got th' house!"

  "It's down there on th' hill--see it?" volunteered Johnny. "Shall Iget it?" he asked, grinning at the disgruntled Pete.

  "Yes; an' strip th' fixings off her cayuse while yo're aboutit--lively."

  Johnny vaulted into his saddle and loped down the hill, shortlyreturning with Mary's saddle and bridle in front of him and Pete'shorse at the end of his rope. Hopalong quickly removed Pete's saddleand put the other in its place, Pete eloquent in his silence, andJohnny 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 aword, several of them in fact, under his breath and vowed that hewould kill the men in the house to get square.

  "I'll send it back as soon as I can," she promised, and then, whenHopalong leaned closer and whispered something to her, she flushed andspurred the animal, leaving him standing in a cloud of dust, a smileon his face.

  Johnny, grinning until his face threatened to be ruptured, wheeled onPete. "Yo're a lucky fool, even if you did go an' lose th' house forus--wish she'd ride _my_ cayuse!"

  Pete replied in keeping with his feelings now that there was no womanpresent, 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 inhis saddle and slapped his thigh: "I'll bet four cents to a toothbrush that she's telling her dad to get scarce. She heard what yousaid, Hoppy!"

  "Right! Come on!" exclaimed Hopalong, spurring into a gallop, hiscompanions 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.

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