Hopalong cassidy, p.25
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.25

           Honoré Morrow



  While Red had been trudging southward under his saddle and otherpossessions a scene was being enacted on a remote part of the H2 rangewhich showed how completely a cowboy leased his very life to the manwho paid him his monthly wage, one which serves to illustrate in a wayhow a ranchman was almost a feudal lord. There are songs of men whogave up their lives to save their fellows, one life for many, and theyare well sung; but what of him who risks his life to save one small,insignificantly small portion of his employer's possessions, risks itwithout hesitation or fear, as a part of his daily work? What of theman who, not content with taking his share of danger in blizzard,fire, and stampede, on drive, roundup, and range-riding, leapsfearlessly at the risk of his life to save a paltry head or two ofcattle to his ranch's tally sheet? Such men were the rule, and such aone was Curley, who, with all his faults, was a man as a man shouldbe.

  Following out his orders he rode his part of the range with alertness,and decided to explore the more remote southwestern angle of theranch. Doc had left him an hour before to search the range nearerEagle and would not be back again until time to return to the ranchhouse for the night. This was against Meeker's orders, for they hadbeen told to keep together for their own protection, but they hadagreed that there was little risk and that it would be better toseparate and cover more ground.

  The day was bright and, with the exception of the heat, all he coulddesire. His spirits bubbled over in snatches of song as he canteredhither and yon, but all the time moving in the general direction ofthe little-ridden territory. On all sides stretched the samemonotonous view, sage brush, mesquite, cactus, scattered tufts ofgrass, and the brown plain, endless, flat, wearying.

  The surroundings did not depress him, but only gradually slowed theexultant surge of his blood and, as he hummed at random, an oldfavorite came to him out of the past, and he sung it joyously:

  My taste is that of an aristocrat, My purse that of a pauper: I scorn the gold her parents hold-- But shore I love their daughter. Hey de diddle de, hey de dee, But shore I love their daughter.

  When silvery nights my courting light An' souls of flowers wander, Then who's to blame if I loved th' game An' did not pause to ponder? Hey de diddle de, hey de dee, An' did not pause to ponder.

  Her eyes are blue, an' oh, so true-- Th' words were said ere thought, Lad. Her father swore we'd meet no more-- But I am not distraught, Lad. Hey de diddle de, hey de de-- But I am not distraught, Lad.

  He ceased abruptly, rigidly erect, staring straight ahead as thesignificance of the well trodden trail impressed itself on his mind.He was close to the edge of a steep-walled basin; and leading to itwas a narrow, steep gully, down which the beaten trail went. Ridingcloser he saw that two poles were set close to the wall of the gully,and from one of them dangled a short, frayed hempen rope. There was awater hole in the basin, surrounded by a muddy flat, and everywherewere the tracks of cattle.

  As he hesitated to decide whether or not it would be worth while toride through the depression he chanced to look south, and the questiondecided itself. Spurring savagely, he leaned forward in the saddle,the wind playing a stern song in his ears, a call to battle for hisranch, his pride, and his hatred for foul work. He felt the peculiar,compelling delight, the surging, irresistible intoxication of his kindfor fighting, the ecstasy of the blood lust, handed down from hisSaxon forefathers.

  A mile ahead of him was a small herd of cattle, being driven west bytwo men. Did he stop to return to the ranch for assistance? Did hecount the odds? Not he, for he saw the perpetrators of the insults heand his companions had chafed under--the way was clear, the quarryplain, and he asked naught else.

  They saw him coming--one of them raised a pair of glasses to his eyesand looked closely at him and from him all around the plain. All thetime they were driving the cattle harder, shouting and whipping aboutthem with their rawhide quirts; and constantly nearer came the cowboy,now standing up in his stirrups and lashing his straining mountwithout mercy. Soon he thought he recognized one of the herders, andhe flung the name on the whistling wind in one contemptuous shout:"_Antonio!_ D--n his soul!" and fell to beating the horse all theharder.

  It was Antonio, and a puff of smoke arose from the Mexican's shoulderand streaked behind, soon followed by another. Curley knew the rifle,a .40-90 Sharps, and did not waste a shot, for he must be on equalterms before he could hope to cope with it. Another puff, then anotherand another, but still he was not hit. Now he drew his own rifle fromits holster and hazarded a shot, but to no avail. Then the secondherder, who had not as yet fired, snatching the rifle from Antonio'shands and, checking his horse, leaped off and rested the weapon acrossthe saddle. Taking deliberate aim, he fired, and Curley pitched out ofthe saddle as his horse stumbled and fell. The rider scrambled to hisfeet, dazed and hurt, and ran to his horse, but one look told thestory and he ended the animal's misery with a shot from his Colt.

  The herder and the cattle were rapidly growing smaller in the distancebut the Mexican rode slowly around the man on foot, following thecircumference of a large circle and shooting with calm deliberation.The bullets hummed and whined viciously past the H2 puncher, kickingup the dust in little spurts, and cold ferocity filled his heart as herealized the rustler's purpose. He raised his own rifle and fired--andleaded the barrel. When he had fallen the barrel had become chokedwith sand and dust and he was at the mercy of his gloating enemy, whowould now wipe out the insult put upon him at the bunk house. SlowlyAntonio rode and carefully he fired and then, seeing that there wassomething wrong with Curley's rifle, which the puncher threw aside, hedrew closer, determined to shoot him to pieces.

  Curley was stung with rage now. He knew that it was only a question ofwaiting until the right bullet came, and scorning to hug the sand forthe "Greaser" he held in such contempt, and vaguely realizing thatsuch an act would not change the result, he put all his faith in adash. He ran swiftly towards his astonished enemy, who expected him toseek what cover the dead horse would give him, Colt in hand, cursingat every jump and hoping to be spared long enough to get within rangewith his six-shooter, if only for one shot. Antonio did not like thisclose work and cantered away, glancing back from time to time. WhenCurley finally was forced to stop because of exhaustion the rider alsostopped and slipped off his horse to have a rest for the rifle. Curleyemptied the Colt in a futile, enraged effort to make a lucky hit whilehis enemy calmly aimed from across the saddle. Hastily reloading theColt as he ran, the puncher dashed forward again, zig-zagging to avoidbeing hit. There was a puff of gray smoke, but Curley did not hearthe report. He threw one arm half up as if to ward off the shot andpitched forward, face down in the dust, free from all pain and strife.

  Antonio fired again and then cautiously drew nearer to his victim, therifle at the ready. Turning shortly he made a quick grab at his horse,fearing that it might leave him on foot to be caught by some wanderingH2 puncher. Springing into the saddle he rode forward warily to get acloser look at the man he had murdered, proud of his work, but fearfulthat Curley was playing dead.

  When assured that he had nothing to fear from the prostrate form, herode close. "Knock me down, will you!" he gritted, urging the horse totrample on the body, which the animal refused to do. "Call me anunwashed Greaser coyote, hey! Come out looking for us, did you? Well,you found us, all right, but a h--l of a lot of good it did you, youAmerican dog! You ain't saying a word, are you, you carrion? You ain'tgot no smart come-back now, an' you ain't throwing no wash water onme, are you?"

  He started and looked around nervously, fearful that he might becaught and left lying on the sand as he had left Curley. One or two ofthe H2 outfit carried single-shot rifles which shot as far if notfarther than his own, and the owners of them knew how to shoot.Wheeling abruptly he galloped after the herd, looking back constantlyand thinking only of putting as great a distance as possible betweenhim
self and the scene of the killing.

  A lizard crawled out of a hillock and stared steadily at the quietfigure and then, making a tentative sortie, disappeared under thesand; but the man who had sung so buoyantly did not mind it, he laywrapped in the Sleep Eternal. He had died as he had lived, fearlesslyand without a whimper.

  Late in the afternoon Doc Riley, sweeping on a circling course, rodethrough chaparrals, alert even after his fruitless search, lookingaround on all sides, and wondered if Curley and he would meet beforethey reached the ranch proper. Suddenly something caught his eye andhe stood up in the stirrups to see it better, a ready curse leapingfrom his lips. He could not make out who it was, but he had fears andhe spurred forward as hard as he could go. Then he saw the horse andknew.

  Riding close to the figure so as to be absolutely sure, he knew beyonda hope of mistake and looked around the plain, his expressionmalevolent and murderous.

  "Curley! Curley!" he cried, leaping off his horse and placing a heavy,kindly hand on the broad, sloping shoulder of the man who had been hisbest friend for years. "So they got you, lad! They got you! In God'sname, why did I leave you?" he cried in bitter self-condemnation."It's my fault, it's my fault, lad!" He straightened up suddenly andglared around through tear-dimmed eyes. "_But by th' living God I'llpay them for this,_ I'll pay them for this! D--n their murderingsouls!"

  He caught sight of an empty cartridge shell and snatched it upeagerly. ".40-90, by G-d! That's Antonio's! Curley, my lad, I'll gethim for you--an' when I _do_! I'll send his soul to th' blackest pitin h--l, an' send it _slow!_"

  He noticed and followed the tracks in the sand, reading them easily.He found the Winchester and quickly learned its story, which told himthe whole thing. Returning to the body of his friend he sat by itquietly, looking down at it for several minutes, his sombrero in hishand.

  "Well, wishing won't do no good," he muttered, dismounting. "I'll takeyou home, lad, an' see you put down too deep for coyotes to botheryou. An' I'll square yore scores or join you trying."

  He lifted the body across the withers of his horse and picked up theColt. Mounting, he rode at a walk towards the bunk house, afire withrage and sorrow.

  * * * * *

  For the third time Meeker strode to the door of the bunk house andlooked out into the darkness, uneasy and anxious. Chick sauntered overto him and leaned against the frame of the door. "They'll show uppurty soon, Jim," he remarked.

  "Yes. I reckon so--Salem!" the foreman called. "Put their grub whereit'll keep warm."

  "Aye, aye, sir. I was just thinking I ought to. They're late, ain'tthey, sir?" he asked. "An' it's dark, too," he added, gratis.

  "Why, is it, Salem?" queried Dan, winking at Jack Curtis, but Salemdisappeared into the gallery.

  "Listen!--I hear 'em!" exclaimed Chick.

  "You hear one of 'em," corrected Meeker, turning to the table tofinish drinking his coffee. "Hey, Salem! Never mind warming thatgrub--rustle it in here. One of 'em's here, an' he'll be starved,too."

  Suddenly Chick started back with an exclamation as Doc Riley loomed upin the light of the door, carrying a body over his shoulder. Steppinginto the room while his friends leaped to their feet in amazement andincredulity, he lowered his burden to a bench and faced them, bloodyand furious.

  "What's th' matter?" exclaimed Meeker, the first to find his voice,leaping forward and dropping the cup to the floor. "Who did that?"

  Doc placed his sombrero over the upturned face and ripped out a savagereply. "Antonio! Yore broncho-buster! Th' snake that's raising all th'devil on this range! Here--see for yoreself!" tossing the cartridgeshell to his foreman, who caught it clumsily, looked at it, and thenhanded it to Dan. Exclamations and short, fierce questions burst fromthe others, who crowded up to see the shell.

  "Tell me about it, Doc," requested Meeker, pacing from wall to wall.

  "He was shot down like a dog!" Doc cried, his rage sweeping over himanew in all its savagery. "I saw th' whole thing in th' sand, plain asday. Th' Greaser got his cayuse first an' then rode rings around him,keeping out of range of Curley's Colt, for Curley had leaded hisrifle. It was Colt against Sharps at five hundred, that was what itwas! He didn't have a show, not a measly show for his life! Shot downlike _a dog!_"

  "Where'd it happen?" asked Chick, breathlessly, while the low-voicedthreats and imprecations swelled to an angry, humming chorus.

  "Away down in th' southwest corner," replied Doc, and he continuedalmost inaudibly, speaking to himself and forgetful of the others. "Mean' him went to school together an' I used to lick every kid thatbullied him till he got big enough to do it hisself. We run awaytogether an' shared th' same hard luck. We went through that Siouxcampaign together, side by side, an' to think that after he pulled outof _that_ alive he had to be murdered by a yaller coward of a Greaser!If he'd been killed by a human being an' in a fair fight it would beall right; but by that coyote--it don't seem possible, not noway. Ilicked th' feller that hurt him on his first day at school--I'm goingto kill th' last!

  "Meeker," he said, coming to himself and facing the angry foreman,"I'm quitting to-night. I won't punch no more till I get that Greaser.I take up that trail at daylight an' push it to a finish even if ittakes me into Mexico--it's got to be him or me, now."

  "You don't have to quit _me_ to do that, an' you _know_ it!" Meekercried. "I don't care if yo're gone for six months--yore pay goes onjust th' same. He went down fighting for me, an' I'll be everlastinglycondemned if I don't have a hand in squaring up for it. Yo're going onspecial duty for th' H2, Doc, an' yore orders are to get Antonio.Why, by th' Lord, I'll take up th' trail with you, Doc, an' with th'rest of th' boys behind me. This ranch can go galley-west an' crookedtill we get that snake. Dan an' Salem stays with my girl an' to watchth' ranch--th' rest of us are with you--we're as anxious as you topush him Yonder, Doc."

  "If I can get him alive, get my two hands on his skinny neck," Docmuttered, his fingers twitching, "I'll kill him slow, so he'll feel itlonger, so he'll be shore to know why he's going. I want to _feel_ hismurdering soul dribble hell-wards, an' let him come back a couple oftimes so I can laugh in his yaller face when he begs! I want to gethim--_so!_" and Chick shuddered as the knotted, steel-like fingersopened and shut, for Doc was half devil now. While Chick stared, thetransformed man walked over to the bench and picked up the body in hisbrawny arms and strode into the blackness--Curley was going to lie inthe open, with the stars and the sky and the sighing wind.

  "God!" breathed Chick, looking around, "I never saw a man like _that_before!"

  "I hope he gets what he wants!" exclaimed Dan, fiercely.

  "You fellers get yore traps ready for a chase," Meeker ordered as hestrode to the door of the gallery. "Fifty rounds for six-shooters an'fifty for rifle, an' plenty of grub. It's a whole lot likely that th'Greaser headed for his gang, an' we've got to be ready to handleeverything that comes up. Hey, Salem!" he shouted.

  "Aye, aye, sir!" replied Salem, who had just come in from one of thecorrals and knew nothing of what had occurred.

  "Did you cure that beef I told you to?" demanded the foreman.

  "Yes, sir; but it ain't had time to cure--th' weather's not beenright. Howsomever, I smoked some. That'll be ship-shape."

  "Well, have it on our cayuses at daylight. Did you cut this beef instrips, or in twenty-pound chunks, like you did th' last?"

  "Strips, _little_ strips--I ain't trying to sun-cure no more bighunks, not me, sir."

  Meeker turned and went towards the outer door.

  "Don't waste no time, boys," he said. "Get all th' sleep you canto-night--you'll need it if I reckon right. Good-night," and hestepped out into the darkness. "D--n them dogs!" he muttered,disappearing in the direction of the kennels, from which camequavering, long-drawn howls.

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