Hopalong cassidy, p.20
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.20
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XX

  WHAT THE DAM TOLD

  About the time Meeker caught Antonio prowling around the corral,Hopalong stepped out of the line house on the Peak and saw theapproaching storm, which gladdened him, notwithstanding the fact thathe and Red would ride through it to the bunk house. The range was fastdrying up, the grass was burning under the fierce heat of the sun, andthe reservoir, evaporating as rapidly as it was supplied, sent butlittle water down the creek through the valley. This storm, if itbroke over the valley, promised to be almost a flood, and would notonly replenish the water supply, but would fortify the range for quitea while against the merciless sun.

  After he had sent Meeker and his men on their homeward journey heordered all but Red to report to Buck at the bunk house, believingthat the line fighting was at an end for a while, at least. But tocircumvent any contingency to the contrary, he and Red remained toguard the house and discuss the situation. The rest of the line riderswere glad to get away for a day, as there was washing and mending tobe done, clothes to be changed, and their supply of cartridges andtobacco to be replenished.

  After throwing his saddle on his horse he went back to the house toget his "slicker," a yellow water-proof coat, and saw Red gathering uptheir few belongings.

  "Going to rain like th' devil, Red," he said. "We'll get soaked beforewe reach th' dam, but it'll give th' grass a chance, all right. It'sdue us, an' we're going to get it."

  Red glanced out of the window and saw the onrushing, low black mass ofclouds. "Gee! I reckon yes! Going to be some fireworks, too."

  Hopalong, slipping into the hideous slicker, followed Red outside andwatched him saddle up. "It'll seem good to be in th' house again withall th' boys, an' eat cook's grub once more. I reckon Frenchy an' someof his squad will drift in--Johnny said he was going to ride out thatway on his way back an' tell 'em all th' news."

  "Yes. Mind yore business, Ginger!" Red added as his horse turned itshead and nipped at his arm, half in earnest and half in playfulexpostulation. Ginger could not accustom himself to the broad, hindcinch which gripped his soft stomach, and he was wont to object to itin his own way. "Yes, it's going to be a shore enough cloud-burst!"Red exclaimed, glancing apprehensively at the storm. "Mebby we bettertake th' hill trail--we won't have no cinch fording at th' Bend if_that_ lets loose before we get there. We should 'a gone home with th'crowd last night, 'stead of staying up here. I knowed they wouldn'ttry it again--it's all yore fault."

  "Oh, yo're a regular old woman!" retorted Hopalong. "A wetting will dous good--an' as for th' ford, I feel like having a swim."

  The close, humid air stirred and moaned, and fitful gusts bent thesparse grass and rustled across the plateau, picking up dust andsending it eddying along the ground. A sudden current of air whinedaround the corners of the line house, slamming the door violently andawakening the embers of the fire into a mass of glowing coals, whichcrackled and gave off flying sparks. Several larger embers burst intoflame and tumbled end over end across the ground, and Hopalong,running them down, stamped them out, returning and kicking dust overthe fire, actuated by the plainsman's instinct. Red watched him andgrinned.

  "Of course that cloud-burst won't put the fire out," he remarked,sarcastically, although he would have done the same thing if hisfriend had not.

  "Never go away an' leave a fire lit," Hopalong replied, sententiously,closing the banging door and fastening it shut. A streak of lightningquivered between earth and clouds and the thunder rolled in manyreverberations along the cliffs of the valley's edge, to die out onthe flat void to the west. Down the wind came the haunting wail of acoyote, sounding so close at hand that Red instinctively reached forhis rifle and looked around.

  "Take _mine_!" jeered Hopalong, mounting, having in mind the greaterrange of his weapon. "You'll shore need it if you want to get thatfeller. Gee, but it's dark!"

  It was dark and the air was so charged with electricity that bluepoints of flame quivered on the ears of their horses.

  "We're going to get h--l!" shouted Red above the roar of the storm."Every time I spits I make a streak in th' air--an' ain't it hot!"

  One minute it was dark; another, the lightning showed things in aghastly light, crackling and booming like a huge fireworks exhibition.The two men could feel the hearts of their horses pounding againsttheir sides, and the animals, nervous as cats, kept their ears movingback and forth, the blue sparks ghostly in the darkness.

  "Come on, get out of this," shouted Hopalong. "D--n it, there goes myhat!" and he shot after it.

  For reply Red spurred forward and they rode down the steep hill at acanter, which soon changed to a gallop, then to a dead run. Suddenlythere came a roar that shook them and the storm broke in earnest, therain pouring down in slanting sheets, drenching them to the skin in aminute, for their slickers were no protection against that deluge.Hopalong stripped his off, to see it torn from his grasp and disappearin the darkness like a frightened thing.

  "Go, then!" he snapped. "I was roasting in you, anyhow! I won't haveno clothes left by th' time I hits th' Bend--which is all th' betterfor swimming."

  Red slackened pace, rode at his friend's side, their stirrups almosttouching, for it was safer to canter than to gallop when they couldnot see ahead of them. The darkness gradually lessened and when theygot close to the dam they could see as well as they could on any dullday, except for a distance--the sheets of water forbade that.

  "What's that?" Hopalong suddenly demanded, drawing rein and listening.A dull roar came from the dam and he instinctively felt that somethingwas radically wrong.

  "Water, of course," Red replied, impatiently. "This is a _storm_," heexplained.

  Hopalong rode out along the dam, followed by Red, peering ahead.Suddenly he stopped and swore.

  "She's _busted_! Look there!"

  A turbulent flood poured through a cut ten feet wide and roared downthe other side of the embankment, roiled and yellow.

  "Good G-d! She's a goner shore!" cried Red excitedly.

  "It shore is--_No_, Red! It's over th' stone work--see where thatripple runs? We can save it if we hustle," Hopalong replied, wheeling."Come on! Dead cows'll choke it--get a move on!"

  When Buck had decided to build the dam he had sent for an engineer tocome out and look the valley over and to lay out the lines to befollowed. The west end, which would be built against the bluff, wouldbe strong; but Buck was advised to build a core of rubble masonry fora hundred feet east of the centre, where the embankment must runalmost straight to avoid a quicksand bottom. This had been done at agreat increase over the original estimate of the cost of the dam, butnow it more than paid for itself, for Antonio had dug his trench overthe rubble core--had he gone down a foot deeper he would have struckit and discovered his mistake.

  Hopalong and Red raced along the dam and separated when they struckthe plain, soon returning with a cow apiece dragging from theirlariats, which they released and pushed into the torrent. The bodiesfloated with the stream and both men feared their efforts were invain. Then Hopalong uttered a shout of joy, for the carcasses,stranding against the top of the masonry core, stopped, the watersurging over them. Racing away again they dragged up more cows untilthe bodies choked the gap, when they brought up armfuls of brush andthrew them before the bodies. Then Red espied a shovel, sworefuriously at what it told him, and fell to throwing dirt into thebreach before the brush. He had to take it from different places so asnot to weaken the dam, and an hour elapsed before they stopped workand regarded the results of their efforts with satisfaction.

  "Well, she's there yet, and she'll stay, all right. Good thing wedidn't take th' hill trail," Hopalong remarked.

  "Somebody cut it, all right," Red avowed, looking at the shovel in hishands. "_H2_! Hoppy, see here! This is _their_ work!"

  "Shore enough H2 on th' handle, but Meeker an' his crowd never didthat," Hopalong replied. "I ain't got no love for any of 'em, butthey're too square for this sort of a thing. Besides, they want to usethis water too much to cheat the
mselves out of every chance to getit."

  "You may be right--but it's d----d funny that we find their shovel onth' job," Red rejoined, scowling at the brand burned into the woodenhandle.

  "What's that yo're treading on?" Hopalong asked, pointing to a brightobject on the ground.

  Red stooped and then shouted, holding up the object so his friendcould see it. "It's a brass button as big as a half-dollar--bet itbelonged to th' snake that used this shovel!"

  "Yo're safe. I won't bet you--an' Antonio was th' only one I've seenwearing buttons like that in these parts," Hopalong replied. "I'mgoing to kill him on sight!" and he meant what he said.

  "Same here, th' ornery coyote!" Red gritted.

  "That Greaser has had me guessing, but I'm beginning to see a greatbig light," Hopalong remarked, taking the button and looking it over."Yep, it's hissen, all right."

  "Well, we've filled her," Red remarked after a final inspection.

  "She'll hold until to-morrow, anyhow, or till we can bring th' chuckwagon full of tools an' rocks down here," Hopalong replied. "We'llmake her solid for keeps when we begin. You better take th' evidencewith you, Red, an' let Buck look 'em over. It's a good thing Buckspent that extra money putting in that stone core! Besides losing th'reservoir we'd have had plenty of dead cows by this time if it wasn'tfor that."

  "An' that Greaser went an' picked out the weakest spot in th' wholething, or th' spot what would be th' weakest if that wall wasn'tthere," Red remarked. "He ain't no fool, but a stacked deck can beat agood head time after time."

  When they reached the ford they found a driftwood-dotted flood roaringaround the bend, three times as wide as it was ordinarily, for thehills made a watershed that gave quick results in such a rain.

  "Now Red Eagle, old cayuse, here's where you swim," Hopalong laughed,riding up stream so he would not be carried past the bottom of thehill trail on the farther side. Plunging in, the two horses swamgallantly across, landing within a few feet of the point aimed at, andscrambled up the slippery path, down which poured a stream of water.

  When they reached the half-way point between the ford and the ranchhouses the storm slackened, evolving into an ordinary rain, whichHopalong remarked would last all day. Red nodded and then pointed to amiserable, rain-soaked calf, which moved away at their approach.

  "Do you see that!" he exclaimed. "Our brand, an' Meeker's ear notch!"

  "That explains th' shovel being left on th' dam," quickly repliedHopalong. "It would be plumb crazy for th' H2 to make a combinationlike that ear notch an' our brand, an' you can gamble they don't knownothing about it. Th' gent that left Meeker's shovel _for us to find_did that, too. You know if any of th' H2 cut th' dam they wouldn'tforget to take th' shovel with 'em, Red. It's Antonio, that's who itis. He's trying to make a bigger fight along th' line an' stir thingsup generally so he can rustle promiscuous. Well, we'll give all ourtime to th' rustling end from now on, if I have got any voice in th'matter. An' I hope to th' Lord I can get within gun range of thatcoyote of a Greaser. Why, by th' A'mighty, I'll go down an' plug himon his own ground just as soon as I can get away, which will beto-morrow! That's just what I'll do! I'll stop his plays or know th'reason why."

  "An' I'm with you--you'll take a big chance going down there alone,"Red replied. "_After_ Meeker hears what we've got to say he'll beblamed glad we came."

  An hour later they stopped at the ranch house, a squat, squarebuilding, flat of roof, its adobe walls three feet thick andimpenetrable to heat. Stripping saddles and bridles from theirstreaming mounts, they drove the animals into a large corral and ranto the bunk house, where laughter greeted their appearance.

  "Swimming?" queried Johnny, putting aside his harmonica.

  "Hey, you! Get out of here an' lean up against th' corral till youshed some of that water!" cried Lanky, the wounded, watching thestreams from their clothes run over the floor. "We'll be afloat in aminute if you don't get out--we ain't no fishes."

  "You shut up," retorted Red. "We'll put you out there to catch whatwater we missed if you gets funny," he threatened, stripping asrapidly as he could. He hung the saturated garments on pegs in thegallery wall and had Pete rub him down briskly, while Billy did thesame for his soaked companion.

  Around them were their best friends, all laughing and contented,chaffing and exchanging personal banter with each other, engaged invarious occupations, from sewing buttons on shirts to playing cardsand mending riding gear. Snatches of songs burst forth at oddintervals, while laughter was continually heard. This was theatmosphere they loved, this repaid them for their hard work, this andthe unswerving loyalty, the true, deep affection, and good-naturedbanter that pricked but left no sting. Here was one of the lures ofthe range, the perfect fellowship that long acquaintance and thesharing of hard work and ubiquitous danger breeds among the members ofa good, square outfit. Not one of them ever counted personal safetybefore duty to his ranch and his companions, taking his hard lifelaughingly and without complaint, generous to a fault, truthful andloyal and considerate. There was manhood for you, there was contemptfor restricting conventions, for danger; there was a unity of thoughtand purpose that set the rough-spoken, ready-fighting men of thesaddle and rope in a niche by themselves, a niche where fair play,unselfishness, and a rough but sterling honor abides always. Theiroccupation gave more than it exacted and they loved it and the open,wind-swept range where they were the dominating living forces.

  Buck came in with Frenchy McAllister and Pie Willis and grinned at hiscrowd of happy "boys," who gave warm welcome. The foreman was nottheir "boss," their taskmaster, but he was their best friend, and heshared with them the dangers and joys which were their lot,sympathetic in his rough way, kind and trusting.

  Hopalong struggling to get his head through a dry shirt, succeeded,and swiftly related to his foreman the occurrences of the morning,pointing to the shovel and button as the total exhibit of his proofsagainst the Mexican. The laughter died out, the banter was hushed, andthe atmosphere became that of tense hostility and anger. When he hadceased speaking angry exclamations and threats filled the room, comingfrom men who always "made good." When Red had told of the H2-Bar-20calf, an air of finality, of conviction, settled on them; and itbehooved Antonio to hunt a new range, for his death would be suddenand merciless if he met any of the Bar-20 outfit, no matter when orwhere. They never forgot.

  After brief argument they came to the decision that he was connectedwith the rustling going on around them, and this clinched his fate.Several, from the evidence and from things which they had observed andnow understood, were of the opinion that he was the ringleader of thecattle thieves, the head and the moving spirit.

  "Boys," Buck remarked, "we won't bother about th' line very much for awhile. It's been a peaceable sort of a fracas, anyhow, an' I don'texpect much further trouble. If H2 cows straggle across an' yo'reright handy to 'em an' ain't got nothing pressing to do, drive 'emback; but don't look for 'em particularly. There won't be no moredrives against us for a long time. We've got to hunt rustlers from nowon, an' hunt hard, or they'll get too numerous to handle very easy.Let th' cows take care of themselves along th' river, Frenchy, an' putyour men up near Big Coulee, staying nights in Number Two. Pete an'Billy will go with you. That'll protect th' west, an' there won't beno rustling going on from th' river, nohow. Don't waste no timeherding--put it all in hunting. Hopalong, you, Johnny, Red, an' Skinnytake th' hills country an' make yore headquarters in Number Three an'Four. Lanky will stay up here until he can handle hisself good again.I'll ride promiscuous, but if any of you learn anything you want me toknow, leave it with Lanky or th' cook if you can't find me. Just assoon as we have anything to go on, we'll start on th' war path hotfoot an' clean things up right an' proper."

  "What'll we do if we catches anybody rustling?" asked Johnny, assumingan air of ignorance and curiosity, and ducking quickly as Red swung athim.

  "Give 'em ten dollars reward an' let 'em go," Buck grinned.

  "Give me ten if I brings th' Greaser to you?"
>
  "I'll fine you twenty if you waste that much time over him," Buckreplied.

  "Whoop!" Johnny exulted. "Th' good old times are coming back again!Remember Bye-an'-Bye an' Cactus Springs, Buckskin an' SlipperyTrendley? Remember th' good old scraps? Now we'll have something elseto do besides chasing cows an' wiping th' rust off our guns!"

  Lanky, who took keen delight in teasing the youngster, frownedseverely. "Yo're just a fool kid, just a happy idiot!" he snorted, andJohnny looked at him, surprised but grinning. "Yes, you are! I neverseen such a bloody-minded animal in all my born days as you! After allth' fighting you've gone an' got mixed up in, you still yap for more!You makes me plumb disgusted, you do!"

  "He _is_ awful gory," remarked Hopalong soberly. "Just a animatedmassacre in pants."

  "Regular Comanche," amended Red, frowning. "What do you think abouthim, Frenchy?"

  "I'd ruther not say it," Frenchy replied. "You ask Pie--he ain'tscared of nothing, massacre _or_ Comanche."

  Johnny looked around the room and blurted out, "You all think th' sameas me, every one of you, even if you are a lot of pussy-cats, an' youknow it, too!"

  "Crazy as a locoed cow," Red whispered across the room to Buck, whonodded sorrowfully and went into the cook shack.

  "You wait till I sees Antonio an' you'll find out how crazy I am!"promised Johnny.

  "I shore hopes he spanks you an' sends you home a-bawling," Lankysnorted. "You needs a good licking, you young cub!"

  "Yah, yah!" jibed Johnny. "Needing an' getting are two differenttunes, grand-pop!"

  "You wasn't down here, was you, Frenchy, when Johnny managed to rope asleepy gray wolf that was two years old, an' tried to make a pet outof him?" asked Hopalong, grinning at his recollection of the affair.

  "No!" exclaimed Frenchy in surprise. "Did he do it?"

  "Oh, yes, he did it; with a gun, after th' pet had torn his pants offan' chewed him up real well. He's looking for another, because he saysthat was too mean a beast to have any luck with."

  Buck stepped into the room again. "Who wants to go with me to th' damin th' wagon?" he asked. "I want to look at that cut an' fix it forkeeps if it needs fixing. All right! All right! Anybody'd think Iasked you to go to a dance," he laughed. "Pete, you an' Billy an' Piewill be enough."

  "Can't we ride alongside?" asked Pie. "Do we have to sit in thatthing?"

  "You can walk, if you want to. I don't care how you go," Buckreplied, stepping into the rain with the three men close behind him.Soon the rattling of the wagon was heard growing fainter on the plain.

  The banter and the laughter ran on all the rest of the morning. Afterdinner Hopalong built a fire in the huge stove and put a ladleful oflead on the coals, while Frenchy and Skinny re-sized and re-cappedshells from the boxes on the wall. Hopalong watched the fire andsmoked the bullet moulds, while Lanky managed to measure powder andfill the shells after Frenchy and Skinny had finished with them.Hopalong filled the moulds rapidly while Johnny took out the bulletsand cooled them by dropping them into cold rain water, being cautionedby Hopalong not to splash any water into the row of moulds. As soon ashe found them cool enough, Johnny wiped them dry and passed them on toRed, who crimped them into the charged shells. Soon the piles ofcartridges grew to a goodly size, and when the last one had beenfinished the crowd fell to playing cards until supper was ready.Hopalong, who had kept on running bullets, sorted them, and thendropped them into the boxes made for each size. Finally he stopped andwent to the door to look for signs of the morrow's weather.

  "Clearing up in th' west an' south--here comes Buck an' th' others,"he called over his shoulder. "How was it, Buck?" he shouted, and outof the gathering dusk came the happy reply:

  "Bully!"

 
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