Hopalong cassidy, p.29
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.29
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XXIX

  SURROUNDED

  Above, a pale, hot sky with only a wisp of cloud; below, a semi-arid"pasture," scant in grass, seamed by tortuous gullies and studded withsmall, compact thickets and bulky bowlders. A wall of chaparral,appearing solid when viewed from a distance, fenced the pasture, andrising boldly from the southwest end of the clearing a towering massof rock flung its rugged ramparts skyward. Nature had been in a sullenmood when this scene had been perpetrated and there was no need of mentrying to heighten the gloomy aspect by killing each other. Yet theywere trying and had been for a week, and they could have found nosurroundings more in keeping with their occupation.

  Minute clouds of smoke spurted from the top of the wall and from themany points of vantage on the pasture to hang wavering for an instantbefore lazily dissipating in the hot, close air. In such a sombresetting men had elected to joke and curse and kill, perhaps to die;men hot with passion and blood-lust plied rifles with deliberateintent to kill. On one side there was fierce deep joy, an exultationin forcing the issue, much as if they had tugged vainly at a leash andsuddenly found themselves free. They had been baited, tricked, robbed,and fired upon and now, their tormentors penned before them, therewould be no cessation in their efforts to wipe out the indignitiesunder which they had chafed for so long a time.

  On the other side, high up on a natural fortress which was consideredimpregnable, lay those who had brought this angry pack about them.There was no joy there, no glad eagerness to force the battle, nojokes nor laughter, but only a grim desperation, a tenacious holdingto that which the others would try to take. On one side aggression; onthe other, defence. Fighters all, they now were inspired by themerciless end always in their minds; they were trapped like rats andwould fight while mind could lay a plan or move a muscle. Of the typewhich had out-roughed, out-fought for so long even the sturdy, roughmen who had laid the foundation for an inland empire amid dangerssuperlative, they knew nothing of yielding; and to yield was to die.It was survivor against survivor in an even game.

  "Ah, God!" moaned a man on the mesa's lofty rim, staggering backaimlessly before he fell, never to rise again. His companions regardedhim curiously, stolidly, without sympathy, as is often the case wheredeath is constantly expected. Dal Gilbert turned back to his rifle andthe problems before him. "So you've gone, too. An' I reckon we'llfollow"--such was Chet Bates' obituary.

  In a thicket two hundred yards south of the mesa Red Connors workedthe lever of his rifle, a frown on his face. "I got him, all right. Doyou know who he is?"

  "No; but I've seen him in Eagle," replied Hopalong, lowering theglasses. "What's worrying me is water--my throat's drying awful."

  "You shouldn't 'a forgot it," chided Red. "Now we've got to go withoutit all day."

  Hopalong ducked and swore as he felt of his bleeding face. "Purtyclose, that!"

  "Mind what yo're doing!" replied Red. "Get off my hand."

  "This scrap is shore slow," Hopalong growled. "Here we've been doingthis for a whole week, all of us shot up, an' only got two of themfellers."

  "Well, yo're right; but there ain't a man up there that ain't got afew bullet holes in him," Red replied. "But it is slow, that's shore."

  "I've got to get a drink, an' that's all about it," Hopalong asserted."I can crawl in that gully most of th' way, an' then trust aside-hopping dash. Anyhow, I'm tired of this place. Johnny's got th'place for _me_."

  "You better stay here till it's dark, you fool."

  "Aw, stay nothing--so long," and Hopalong, rifle in hand, crawledtowards the gully. Red watched the mesa intently, hoping to be able tostop some of the firing his rash friend was sure to call forth.

  Twenty minutes passed and then two puffs of smoke sailed against thesky, Red replying. Then half a dozen puffs burst into sight. A faintshout came to Red's ears and he smiled, for his friend was safe.

  As Hopalong gained the chaparral he felt himself heartily kicked and,wheeling pugnaciously, looked into Buck Peters' scowling face. "Yo'rea healthy fool!" growled the foreman. "Ain't you got no sense at all?Hereafter you flit over that pasture after dark, d'y hear!"

  "He's th' biggest fool I ever saw, an' th' coolest," said a voice inthe chaparral at the left.

  "Why, hullo, Meeker," Hopalong laughed, turning from Buck. "How do youlike our little party now?"

  "I'm getting tired of it, an' it's some costly for me," grumbled theH2 foreman. "Bet them skunks in Eagle have cleaned out every head Iowned." Then he added as an afterthought: "But I don't care a wholelot if I can see this gang wiped out--_Antonio_ is th' coyote _I'm_itching to stop."

  "He'll be stopped," replied Hopalong. "Hey, Buck, Red's shorethirsty."

  "He can stay thirsty, then. An' don't you try to take no water to him.You stay off that pasture during daylight."

  "But it was all my fault--" Hopalong began, and then he was off like ashot across the open, leaping gullies and dodging around bowlders.

  "Here you!" roared Buck, and stopped to stare, Meeker at his side. Aman was staggering in circles near a thicket which lay a hundred yardsfrom them. He dropped and began to crawl aimlessly about, a goodtarget for the eager rifles on the mesa. Bullets whined and shrilledand kicked up the dust on the plain, but still the rushing Bar-20puncher was unhit. From the mesa came the faint crackling of riflefire and clouds of smoke hovered over the cover sheltering RedConnors. Here and there over the pasture and along the chaparral's rimrifles cracked in hot endeavor to drive the rustlers from theirpositions long enough to save the reckless puncher. Buck and Meekerboth were firing now, rapidly but carefully, muttering words of hopeand anxiety as they worked the levers of their spurting guns. Thenthey saw Hopalong gain the prostrate man's side, drag him back tocover, and wave his arm. The fire from the mesa was growing weaker andas it stopped Hopalong, with the wounded man on his back, ran to theshelter of a gully and called for water.

  "He's th' best man in this whole country!" cried Meeker, grabbing up acanteen and starting to go through the chaparral to give them water."To do that for one of _my_ men!"

  "I've knowed that for nigh onto fifteen years," replied Buck.

  Near the Eagle trail Billy Williams and Doc Riley lay side by side,friendly now.

  "I tell you we've been shooting high," Doc grumbled. "It's no cinchpicking range against that skyline."

  "Hey! Look at Hopalong!" cried Billy, excitedly. "Blamed idiot--why,he's going out to that feller. Lord! Get busy!"

  "That's Curtis out there!" ejaculated Doc, angrily. "They've got him,d--n 'em!"

  "My gun's jammed!" cursed Billy, in his excitement and anger standingup to tear at the cartridge. "I allus go an'--" he pitched sideways tothe sand, where he lay quiet.

  Doc dropped his rifle and leaped to drag his companion back to theshelter of the cover. As he did so his left arm was hit, but heaccomplished his purpose and as he reached for his canteen the Bar-20pessimist saved him the trouble by opening his eyes and staringaround. "Oh, my head! It's shore burning up, Doc!" he groaned. "Whatth' devil happened that time, anyhow?"

  "Here; swaller this," Doc replied, handing him the canteen.

  "Who got me?" asked Billy, laying the vessel aside.

  "How do I know? Whoever he was he creased you nice. His friends got mein th' arm, too. You can help me fix it soon."

  "Shore I will! We can lick them thieves, Doc," Billy expounded withoutmuch interest. "Yessir," he added.

  "You make me tired," Doc retorted. "You talking about being carefulwhen you stand up in plain sight of them fellers like you just did."

  "Yes, I know. I was mad, an' sort of forgot about 'em being able toshoot at me--but what happened out there, anyhow?"

  Doc craned his neck. "There's Cassidy now, in that gully--Meeker'sjust joined him. Good men, both of 'em."

  "You bet," replied Billy, satisfied. "Yessir, we can lick 'em--we'vegot to."

  On the west side of the mesa, back in the chaparral and out of sightof the rustlers, Pie Willis lay face down in the sand, quiet. Near himl
ay Frenchy McAllister, firing at intervals, aflame with anger and adesire to kill. Opposite him on the mesa, a scant three hundred yardsaway, two rustlers gloated and fired, eager to kill the other puncher,who shot so well.

  "That other feller knows his business, Elder," remarked Nevada as aslug ricochetted past his head. "Wonder who he is."

  "Wonder _where_ he is," growled Elder, firing at a new place. "He'sbeen shifting a lot. Anyhow, we got one. There's so much smoke downthere I can't seem to place him. Mebby--" he fell back, limp, hisrifle clattering down a hundred feet of rock.

  Nevada looked at him closely and then drew back to a more secureposition. "We're even, stranger, but we ain't quits, by a good deal!"He swore. _Zing-ing-ing!_ "Oh, you know I moved, do you!" he gritted."Well, how's _that_!" _Spat_! a new, bright leaden splotch showed onthe rock above his head and hot lead stung his neck and face as thebullet spattered. "I'll get you yet, you coyote!" he muttered,changing his position again. "Ah, _h--l_!" he sobbed and dropped hisrifle to grasp his right elbow, shattered by a Winchester .45. Painshot through every fibre of his body and weakened him so he could notcrawl for shelter or assistance. He swayed, lost his balance andswayed further, and as his side showed beyond the edge of his rockyrampart he quivered and sank back, helpless, pain-racked, and bleedingto death from two desperate wounds.

  "We was--tricked--up here!" he moaned. "That must--be Red--Connors outthere. Ah!" _Spat! Chug! Spat!_ But Nevada did not hear them now.

  Down in the chaparral, Frenchy, getting no response to his shots,picked up his glasses and examined the mesa. A moment later he putthem back in the case, picked up his rifle and crawled towards hiscompanion.

  "Pie!" he called, touching the body. "Pie, old feller! I got 'em bothfor you, Pie--got 'em--" screened by the surrounding chaparral hestood up and shook a clenched fist at the sombre, smoke-wreathed pileof rock and shouted: "An' they won't be all! Do you hear, you thieves?_They won't be all!_"

  Lying in a crack on the apex of a pinnacle of rock a hundred yardsnorthwest of the mesa Johnny Nelson cursed the sun and squirmed aroundon the hot stone, vainly trying to find a spot comparatively cool,while two panic-stricken lizards huddled miserably as far back in thecrack as they could force themselves. Long bright splotches marked thestone all around the youthful puncher and shrill whinings came to himout of the air, to hurtle away in the distance ten times as loud andhigh-pitched. For an hour he had not dared to raise his head to aim,and his sombrero, which he had used as a dummy, was shot full ofholes. Johnny, at first elated because of his aerial position, nowcursed it fervently and was filled with disgust. When he had begunfiring at sunrise he had only one man to face. But the news wentaround among the rustlers that a fool had volunteered to be a targetand now three good shots vied with each other to get the work overwith quickly, and return to their former positions.

  "I reckon I can squirm over th' edge an' drop down that split," Johnnysoliloquized, eying a ragged, sharp edge in the rock close at hand."Don't know where it goes to, or how far down, but it's cool, that'sshore."

  He wriggled over to it, flattened as much as possible, and looked overthe edge, seeing a four-inch ledge ten feet below him. From the ledgeit was ten feet more to the bottom, but the ledge was what interestedhim.

  "Shore I can--just land on that shelf, hug th' wall an' they can'ttouch me," he grinned, slipping over and hanging for an instant untilhe stopped swinging. The rock bulged out between him and the ledge,but he did not give that any thought. Letting go he dropped down theface of the rock, shot out along the bulge and over his cherishedledge, and landed with a grunt on a mass of sand and debris twentyfeet below. As he pitched forward to his hands he heard the metallicwarning of a rattlesnake and all his fears of being shot were knockedout of his head by the sound. When he landed from his jump he was onthe wrong side of the crevice and among hot lead. Ducking and dodginghe worked back to the right side and then blew off the offendingrattler's head with his Colt. Other rattlers now became prominent andJohnny, realizing that he was an unwelcome guest in a rattlesnake den,made good use of his eyes and Colt as he edged towards the mouth ofthe crevice. Behind him were rattlers; before him, rustlers who couldand would shoot. To say that he was disgusted is to put it mildly.

  "Cussed joint!" he grunted. "This is a measly place for me. If I stayI get bit to death; if I leave I get shot. Wonder if I can get to thatledge--ugh!" he cried as the tip of a rattler's tail hung down from itfor an instant. "Come on! Bring 'em all out! Trot out th' tarantulas,copper heads, an' Gilas! Th' more th' merrier! Blasted snakehang-out!"

  He glanced about him rapidly, apprehensively, and shivered. "No moreof this for Little Johnny! I'll chance th' sharp-shooters," he yelled,and dashed out and around the pile so quickly as to be unhit. But hewas not hit for another reason, also. Skinny Thompson and Pete Wilson,having grown restless, were encircling the mesa by keeping inside thechaparral and came opposite the pinnacle about the time Johnnydiscovered his reptilian neighbors. Hearing the noise they bothstopped and threw their rifles to their shoulders. Here was a fineopportunity to lessen the numbers of the enemy, for the rustlers,careless for the moment, were peering over their breastwork to seewhat all the noise was about, not dreaming that two pairs of eyesthree hundred yards away were calculating the range. Two puffs ofsmoke burst from the chaparral and the rustlers ducked out of sight,one of them hard hit. At that moment Johnny made his dash and causedsmiles to flit across the faces of his friends.

  "We might 'a knowed it was him!" laughed Skinny. "Nobody else would beloco enough to pick out that thing."

  "Yes; but now what's he doing?" asked Pete, seeing Johnny pokingaround among the rocks, Colt in hand.

  "Hunting rustlers, I reckon," Skinny replied. "Thinks they aretunnelling an' coming up under him, I suppose. Hey! Johnny!"

  Johnny turned, peering at the chaparral.

  "What are you doing?" yelled Skinny.

  "Hunting snakes."

  Skinny laughed and turned to watch the mesa, from which lead wascoming.

  "Can you cover me if I make a break?" shouted Johnny, hopefully.

  "No; stay where you are!" shouted Pete, and then ducked.

  "Stop yelling and move about some or you'll get us both hit," orderedSkinny. "Them fellers can _shoot_!"

  "Come on; let's go ahead. Johnny can stay out there till dark an' huntsnakes," Pete was getting sarcastic. "Wonder if he reckons we camehere to get shot at just to hunt snakes!"

  "No; we'll help him in," Skinny replied. "You'll find th' rattlersmade it too hot for him up there. Start shooting."

  Johnny hearing the rapid firing of his friends, ran backwards, keepingthe pinnacle between him and his enemies as long as he could. Then,once out of its shelter, he leaped erratically over the plain andgained a clump of chaparral. He now had only about a hundred yards togo, and Johnny could sprint when need was. He sprinted. Joining hisfriends the three disappeared in the chaparral and two disgustedrustlers helped a badly wounded companion to the rough hospital in thehut at the top of the mesa trail.

  Johnny and his friends had not gone far before Johnny, eager to find arustler to shoot at, left them to go to the edge of the chaparral andwhile he was away his friends stumbled on the body of Pie Willis.Johnny, moving cautiously along the edge of the chaparral, soon metBuck and Hopalong, who were examining every square foot of the mesawall for a way up.

  "Hullo, Johnny!" cried Hopalong. "What you doing here? Thought you wasplumb stuck on that freak rock up north."

  "I was--an' _stuck_, for shore," grinned Johnny. "That rock is a nestof snakes, besides being a fine place to get plugged by them fellers.An' hot!"

  "How'd you get away?"

  "Pete an' Skinny drove 'em back an' I made my get-away. They're in th'chaparral somewhere close," Johnny replied. "But why are youtelescoping at th' joker? Think you see money out there?"

  "Looking for a place to climb it," Hopalong responded. "We'redisgusted with this long-range squibbing. You didn't see no breaks inth' wall up where you was, did
you?"

  "Lemme see," and Johnny cogitated for a moment. Then his face cleared."Shore I did; there's lots of cracks in it, running up an' down, an' acouple of ledges. I ain't so shore about th' ledges, though--you see Iwas too busy to look for ledges during th' first part of th' seance,and I dassn't look during th' last of it. There was three of 'ema-popping at me!"

  "Hey, Johnny!" came a hail; "Johnny!"

  "That's Pete an' Skinny--Hullo!" Johnny shouted.

  "Come here--Pie Willis is done for!"

  "What?"

  "Pie--Willis--is--done--for!"

  The three turned and hastened towards the voice, shouting questions.They found Skinny and Pete standing over the body and sombreros cameoff as the foreman knelt to examine it. Pie had been greatly liked bythe members of the outfit he had lately joined, having been known tothem for years.

  "Clean temple shot," Buck remarked, covering the face and arising."There's some fine shots up on that rock. Well, here's another reasonwhy we've got to get up there an' wipe 'em out quick. Pie was a whiteman, square as a die and a good puncher--I wouldn't have asked for abetter pardner. You fellers take him to camp--we're going to find away to square things if there is one. No, Pete, you an' Johnny carryhim in--Skinny is going with us."

  Buck, Hopalong, and Skinny returned to the edge of the pasture and theforeman again swept the wall through his glasses. "Hey! What's that? Abody?"

  Hopalong looked. "Yes, two of 'em! I reckon Pie died game, all right."

  "Well, come on--we've got to move along," and Buck led the way north,Skinny bringing up the rear. Next to Lanky Smith, at present nursingwounds at the ranch, Skinny was the best man with a rope in the Bar-20outfit and the lariat he used so deftly was one hundred and fifty feetin length, much longer than any used by those around the mesa. Buckhad asked him to go with them because he wished to have his opinion asto the possibility of getting a rope up the mesa wall.

  When they came opposite the rock which had sheltered Johnny theysortied to see if that part of the mesa was guarded, but there was nosign of life upon it. Then, separating, they dashed to the midwaycover, the thicket, which they reached without incident. From therethey continued to the pinnacle and now could see every rock and seamof the wall with their naked eyes. But they used the glasses and aftera few minutes' examination of the ledges Hopalong turned to hiscompanions. "Just as Johnny said. Skinny, do you reckon if you wasunder them to-night that you could get yore rope fast to th' bottomone?"

  "Shore; that's easy. But it won't be no cinch roping th' other,"Skinny replied. "She sticks out over th' first by two feet. It'll behard to jerk a rope from that narrow foothold."

  "Somebody can hang onto you so you can lean out," Buck replied. "Petecan hold you easy."

  "But what'll he hold on to?"

  Hopalong pointed. "See that spur up there, close to th' first ledge?He can hitch a rope around that an' hang to th' rope. I tell you it's_got_ to be done. We can't lose no more men in this everlastingpot-shooting game. We've got to get close an' clean up!"

  "Well, I ain't saying nothing different, am I?" snapped Skinny. "I'msaying it'll be hard, an' it will. Now suppose one of them fellersgoes on sentry duty along this end; what then?"

  "We'll solve that when we come to it," Hopalong replied. "I reckon ifRed lays on this rock in th' moonlight that he can drop any sentrythat stands up against th' sky at a hundred yards. We've got to tryit, anyhow."

  "_Down!_" whispered Buck, warningly. "Don't let 'em know we're here.Drop that gun, Hoppy!"

  They dropped down behind the loose bowlders while the rustler passedalong the edge, his face turned towards the pinnacle. Then, decidingthat Johnny had not returned, he swept the chaparral with a pair ofglasses. Satisfied at length that all was well he turned anddisappeared over a rocky ledge ten feet from the edge of the wall.

  "I could 'a dropped him easy," grumbled Hopalong, regretfully, andSkinny backed him up.

  "Shore you could; but I don't want them to think we are looking atthis end," Buck replied. "We'll have th' boys raise th' devil downsouth till dark an' keep that gang away from this end."

  "I reckon they read yore mind--hear th' shooting?" Skinny queried.

  "That must be Red out there--I can see half of him from here,"Hopalong remarked, lowering his glasses. "Look at th' smoke he'smaking! Wonder what's up? Hear th' others, too!"

  "Come on--we'll get out of this," Buck responded. "We'll go to campan' plan for to-night, an' talk it over with th' rest. I want to hearwhat Meeker's going to do about it an' how we can place his men."

  "By thunder! If we _can_ get up there, half a dozen of us with Colts,an' sneak up on 'em, we'll have this fight tied up in a bag so quickthey won't know what's up," Skinny remarked. "You can bet yore lifethat if there's any way to get a rope up that wall I'll do it!"

 
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