Hopalong cassidy, p.19
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.19
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XIX

  ANTONIO LEAVES THE H2

  On the H2 Jim Meeker rolled and muttered in his sleep, which had beenmore or less fitful because of his aching groin and strained leg.Gazing confusedly about him he sat bolt upright, swearing softly atthe pain and then, realizing that he was where he should be, grumbledat the kaleidoscopic dreams that had beset him during his few hours ofsleep, and glanced out of the window. Hastily dressing he strode tothe kitchen door, calling his daughter as he passed her room, andlooked out. The bunk house and the corrals were beginning to loom upin the early light and the noise in the cook shack told him that Salemwas preparing breakfast for the men. He did not like the looks of thelow, huge, black cloud east of him and as he figured that it would notpass over the ranch houses unless the wind shifted sharply he suddenlystared at a corral and then hastened back to his room for the Coltwhich lay on the floor beside his bunk. He had seen a man flit pastthe further corral, speed across the open, and disappear behind thecorral nearest to the bunk house. This ordinarily would have provokedno further thought, for his men were crazy-headed enough to doanything, but while rustling flourished, and so audaciously, and whilea line war was on, it would stand prompt investigation.

  Peering again from the door, Colt in hand, Meeker slipped out silentlyand 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 levelledat the corner not ten feet from him. Half a minute later and without asound a man suddenly turned it, crouching and alertly watching thebunk house and cook shack at his left, and then stopped with a jerkand reached to his thigh as he became aware that he was being watchedat such close range. Straightening up and smothering an exclamation hefaced the foreman and laughed, but to Meeker's suspicious ears itsounded very much forced and strained.

  "No _sabe_ Anton?" asked the prowler, smiling innocently and raisinghis hand from the gun.

  Meeker stood silent and motionless, the Colt as steady as a rock, anda heavy frown covered his face as he searched the evil eyes of hisbroncho-buster, whose smile remained fixed.

  "No _sabe Anton_?" somewhat hastily repeated the other, a faint traceof anxiety in his voice, but the smile did not waver, and his eyes didnot shift. He began to realize that it was about time for him to leavethe H2, for he knew that few things grow so rapidly as suspicion. Andhe knew that the outfit would do very little weighing in his case.

  Meeker slowly lowered his weapon and swore; he did not like theprowling any better than he did the smile and the laugh and thetreacherous eyes.

  "I no savvy why yo're flitting around th' scenery when you shouldought 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 drivefrom th' door on a gamble. An' I'll own that I'm some curious as towhy yo're prowling around so early before breakfast. It ain't a wholelot like you to be out so early before grub time. What dragged youfrom 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 andletting the smoke curl slowly from his nostrils he grinned pleasantly."I no sleep--have bad dreams. I wake up, _uno_, _dos_ times an' teenksometeeng ees wrong. Then I ride to see. Eet ees soon light after thatan' I am hungry, so I come back. Eet ees no more, at all."

  "Oh, it ain't!" retorted the foreman, still frowning, for he stronglydoubted the truth of what he had heard, so strongly that he almostpassed the lie. "It's some peculiar how this ranch has been sheddingdreams last night, all right. However, since I had some few myself Iwon't say I had all there was loose. But you listen to me, an' listengood, too. When I want any scouting done before daylight I'll takecare of it myself, savvy? An' if yo're any wise you'll cure yoreselfof th' habit of being out nights percolating around when you ought tobe asleep. You ain't acted none too wide awake lately an' yore stringof 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 neveraround no more when I want you, so you get weaned of flitting aroundin th' night air like a whip-poor-will; you might go an' catchmalaria!"

  "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 ifhe thought I'd believe it. Henceforth an' hereafter you mind what_I've_ just told _you_. You might run up against some rustler what youdon't know very well, an' get shot on suspicion," Meeker hazarded, buthe found no change in the other's face, although he had hit Antoniohard, and he limped off to the ranch house to get his breakfast,swearing every time he put his sore leg forward, and at the ranchresponsible for its condition.

  Antonio leaned against the corral wall and smoked, gazing off intospace as the foreman left him, for he had much to think about. Hesmiled cynically and shrugged his shoulders as he shambled to hisshack, making up his mind to leave the H2 and join Shaw on the mesa assoon as he could do so, and the sooner the better. Meeker's remarkabout meeting strange rustlers, thieves he did not know, was verydisquieting, and it was possible that things might happen suddenly tothe broncho-buster of the H2. Soon emerging from his hut he walkedleisurely to the fartherest corral and returned with his saddle andbridle. After holding a whispered consultation with Juan and Sanchez,who both showed great alarm at what he told them, and who called hisattention to the fact that he had lost one of the big brass buttonsfrom the sleeve of his coat, the three walked to the cook shack fortheir breakfast, where, every morning, they fought with Salem.

  "Here comes them Lascars again to fill their holds with white man'sgrub," the cook growled as he espied them. "If I was th' old man I'dmaroon them, or make 'em walk th' plank. Here, _you_! Get away fromthat 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 youcan eat with th' cook! Some day I'll slit you open, tail to gills, seeif I don't! Here's yore grub--take it out on th' deck an' fight forit," and Salem, mounting guard over the bench, waved a huge butcherknife at them and ordered them off. "Bilgy smelling lubbers! I'll runafoul of 'em some morning an' make shark's food out of th' whole lot!"

  Meanwhile Meeker, finding his breakfast not yet ready, went toAntonio's shack and glanced in it. The bunk his broncho-buster usedwas made up, which struck him as peculiar, since it was well knownthat Antonio never made up his bunk until after supper. As he turnedto leave he espied the saddle and saw that the stirrups were streakedwith clay. "Now what was he doing over at th' river last night?" hesoliloquized. Shrugging his shoulders he wheeled and went to the bunkhouse, where he stumbled over a box, whacking his shins soundly. Hisheartfelt and extemporaneous remarks regarding stiff legs andmalicious boxes awakened Curley, who sat up and vigorously rubbed hiseyes with his rough knuckles. Grunts and profanity came from the otherbunks, Dan swearing with exceptional loquacity and fervor at hiswounded 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 withrenewed energy when he sat up. "How'd you like to have an arm likemine so you can't use it for grub, hey?"

  "You an' yore arm can--"

  "What's matter, Jim?" interrupted Curley, dropping his feet to thefloor and groping for his trousers. "You got my pants?" he asked Dan,whereupon Dan told him many things, ending with: "In th' name ofheaven 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!" headded, with great sarcasm, whereupon Curley found them under his bunkand muttered a profane request to be told why they had crawled so farback.

  "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 hoppedrecklessly about to k
eep his balance, Dan watching him enviously. Hegrabbed Chick's shoulder to steady himself and then arose from thefloor to find Chick calling him every name in the language andoffering to whip him with one hand if he grabbed the wounded armagain.

  "Aw, what's th' matter with you!" he demanded, getting the footthrough 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 haveplenty 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. "Hesnores something awful, Jim; like a wagon rumbling over a woodenbridge; an' he whistles every lap."

  "You keep away from _me_, you cow!" warned Doc, weighing a Colt in hishand by the muzzle. "I'll shore bend this right around yore face ifyou 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 thewash bench, where Meeker followed him, glad to get away from thegrunting, swearing crowd inside.

  "Curley," the foreman began, leaning against the house to ease histhigh and groin, "that Greaser of our'n is either going _loco_, or heis up to some devilment, an' I a whole lot favors th' devilment. Ithought 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 whathis game is. Of course if he is crooked, it's rustling. I'd like anawful 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 acoyote!"

  "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 lookedout 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 whysan' wherefores, he gives me a fool yarn about having a dream. He wokeup an' was plumb scared to death somebody was running off with th'ranch, an', being so all-fired worried about th' safety of th' ranchhe's too lazy to work for, he just couldn't sleep, but had to get upan' _saddle his cayuse_ an' _ride_ around th' corrals to see if it washere. Now, what do you think of that?"

  "Huh!" snorted Curley. "He don't care a continental cuss about thisranch 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 bunkhadn't been used since night afore last, so he must 'a had his dreamsthen. There was yaller clay on his stirrups--he must 'a been scaredsomebody was going to run off with th' river, too. Now he shore wasrampaging all over creation last night--he didn't have no dreams norno sleep in that bunk last night, nohow. Now, th' question is, wherewas he, an' what th' devil was he doing? I'd give twenty-five dollarsif 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 Eaglehaving a good time--there's lots of good times in that town if you'vegot th' price of more than a look-in. Or, mebby, he was off seeing hisgirl, 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 swiftlycontradicted 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 himeasy 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 Iwant 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'sany yellow clay on its legs. Don't let him see you doing it or he'llget gun-shy an' jump th' country. I'm going up to breakfast--Mary'scalling me."

  Curley looked up. "Shore I'll do it. Holy cats! It's raining some onth' 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," hecalled over his shoulder for Antonio's benefit, "take a look at themsore yearlings in th' corral," referring to several calves they hadquarantined.

  "All right, Jim. They was some better last night. I don't think it'sanything that's catching."

  "O-o-h!" yawned Jack in the doorway. "Seems like I just turnedin--gosh, but I'm sleepy."

  "Nothing like cold water for that feeling," laughed Curley. "We stayedup too late last night talking it over. Hullo, Chick; still going tolick me one-handed?"

  "You get away from that water, so I can wash one-handed," repliedChick. "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 waterin 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 sickyearlings in Number Two corral."

  True to his word Curley looked the animals over thoroughly and thendodged into the horse corral, where he quickly examined the horses ashe passed them, alert for trouble, for a man on foot takes chanceswhen he goes among cow-ponies in a corral. Not one of the animalsforming Antonio's _remuda_ appeared to have been ridden and it was notuntil he espied Pete, Doc's favorite horse, that he found any signs.Pete's hair was roughened and still wet from perspiration, there was astreak of yellow clay along its belly on one side but none on itshoofs, and dried lather still clung to its jaws. Pete made no effortto get away, for he was one of the best trained and most intelligentanimals on the ranch, a veteran of many roundups and drives, and heknew 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, youwise old devil. Pete, some people say cayuses ain't got no sense, thatthey can't reason--they never knowed you, did they? Well, boy, you'llhave yore turn grazing with th' rest purty soon."

  He returned to the bunk house and spent a few minutes inside and thensauntered easily towards the ranch house, where the foreman met him.

  "So there wasn't no clay on his hoofs, hey?" Meeker exclaimed. "Someon his belly, an' none on his hoofs. Hum! I reckon Pete was left byhisself while th' Greaser wrastled with th' mud. Must 'a thought hewas 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 ofstretching his yellow neck some bright morning. I'll be down purtysoon to tell you fellers where to ride."

  Curley returned to the wash bench and cleansed his hands, and becausethe cold water felt so good, he dipped his face into it again, blowinglike a porpoise. As he squilgeed his face to lessen the duty of theoverworked towel, he heard a step and looked up quickly. Antonio wasleaning against the house and scowling at him, for he had lookedthrough 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 unusualloquacity.

  "_Madre de Dios_, de weatha."

  "Oh, salubrious," replied Curley, evading a hole in the towel. "Plumbsumptuous an' highfalutin', so to speak. You had a nice night forEagle, 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 howto 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'regettin' along all right. What do you thi
nk about 'em?"

  "No; een de _beeg_ corral."

  "Oh, you do!" snapped Curley. "Well, I remembered you was ridingaround this morning before sun-up so I reckoned I'd look in an' see ifyou rid my cayuse, which you didn't, an' which is good for you. Iain'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 ofyour d----d business what I do or where I go, that's about all foryou."

  "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 ofwhich met him in the face. Curley, reaching for his holster andfinding that he had forgotten to buckle it on, snatched the Remingtonfrom Antonio's sheath while the fallen man was half dazed. Pointing itat 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 liarshoot first, or there'll be one less unwashed, shifty-eyed coyote of aGreaser to ride range nights."

  Antonio, drenched and seething with fury, his discolored face workingwith passion and his small, cruel eyes snapping, sprang to the walland glared at the man who had knocked him down. But for the gun inCurley's hand there would have been the flash of a knife, but theRemington was master of the situation. Knife throwing is a useful artat times, but it has its limitations. Cursing in Spanish, he backedaway and slunk into his shack as Doc Riley stuck his head out of thebunk 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 minutesearlier," 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. Hesaid--"

  "My Pete! Out all night on Pete!" yelled Doc, taking a quick steptowards Antonio's hut, the door of which slammed shut, whereupon Docshouted out his opinions of "Greasers" in general and of Antonio inparticular. "Is that right?" he asked, turning to Curley. "Was he outon Pete?"

  "He shore was--used him up, too."

  "I'll break every bone in his yaller carcass!" Doc shouted, shakinghis 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 fullof lead pills surer than anything some of these days, you see if Idon't!"

  "If you don't I will," replied Curley. "I just don't know why I didn'tthen because--"

  "Four bells--grub pile!" rang out the stentorian voice of Salem, whocould shout louder than any man on the ranch, and the conversationcame to an abrupt end, to be renewed at the table.

  When Antonio heard the cook's shout he opened the door a trifle andthen, seeing that the coast was clear, picked up the bundle whichcontained his belongings, shouldered his saddle, slipped his rifleunder his arm, and ran to the corral. Juan and Sanchez had been therebefore him and he found that they not only had taken four of the besthorses, but that they had also picketed two good ones for him, and haddriven off the remainder to graze, which would delay pursuit should itbe instituted. Saddling the better of the two, he left the other andcantered northwest until hidden from the sight of any one at theranch, and then galloped for safety.

  Meeker, returning to the bunk house, found his men in far better humorthan they were in when he left them, although the death and burial ofEd Joyce and the other misfortunes of the day before had quieted thema 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 offour herd yesterday?"

  "Nary a one, sir. They was running with all sails set two points offmy 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 wasrolling so hard I couldn't hull 'em. But I'll try again when I'msober, sir."

  "All right, Salem," laughed Meeker. "Curley, you take yore regularrange. Doc, suppose you take th' west, next to Curley? Chick an' Danwill have to stay here till they get well enough to ride, an' I'llneed somebody on th' ranch after yesterday, anyhow. Jack, how do youfeel? Good! Ride between here an' Eagle. I'm going to go down to thattown an' see what I can find out."

  "But I can ride, Jim," offered Chick, eagerly. "This arm won't botherme much. Let me stick close to Doc, or one of th' boys. Maybe theymight need me, Jim."

  "You stay right here, like I said. We'll have to wait till we're allright before we can get down to work in earnest. An' every one of youlook out for trouble--shoot first an' talk after." He turned again tothe gallery. "Salem, kill a cow an' sun cure th' meat; we might wantit 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' doour 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, leapingto 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 singanything but graveyard howls, you shut up yore singer!"

 
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