Hopalong cassidy, p.3
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.3

           Honoré Morrow



  The Texan sky seemed a huge mirror upon which were reflected the whitefleecy clouds sailing northward; the warm spring air was full of thatmagnetism which calls forth from their earthy beds the gramma grassand the flowers; the scant vegetation had taken on new dress andtraces of green now showed against the more sombre-colored stems;while in the distance, rippling in glistening patches where, disturbedby the wind, the river sparkled like a tinsel ribbon flung carelesslyon the grays and greens of the plain. Birds winged their joyous wayand filled the air with song; and far overhead a battalion of tardygeese flew, arrow-like, towards the cool lakes of the north, theirfaint honking pathetic and continuous. Skulking in the coulees orspeeding across the skyline of some distant rise occasionally could beseen a coyote or gray wolf. The cattle, less gregarious than they hadbeen in the colder months, made tentative sorties from the lesseningherd, and began to stray off in search of the tender green grass whichpushed up recklessly from the closely cropped, withered tufts.Rattlesnakes slid out and uncoiled their sinuous lengths in the warmsunlight, and copperheads raised their burnished armor from theirwinter retreats. All nature had felt the magic touch of the warmwinds, and life in its multitudinous forms was discernible on allsides. The gaunt tragedy of a hard winter for that southern range hadadded its chilling share to the horrors of the past and now the cattletook heart and lost their weakness in the sunlight, hungry butcontented.

  The winter had indeed been hard, one to be remembered for years tocome, and many cattle had died because of it; many skeletons, strippedclean by coyotes and wolves, dotted the arroyos and coulees. The coldweather had broken suddenly, and several days of rain, followed bysleet, had drenched the cattle thoroughly. Then from out of the northcame one of those unusual rages of nature, locally known as a"Norther," freezing pitilessly; and the cattle, weakened by cold andstarvation, had dumbly succumbed to this last blow. Their backs werecovered with an icy shroud, and the deadly cold gripped their vitalswith a power not to be resisted. A glittering sheet formed over thegrasses as far as eye could see, and the cattle, unlike the horses,not knowing enough to stamp through it, nosed in vain at thesustenance beneath, until weakness compelled them to lie down in thedriving snow, and once down, they never arose. The storm had raged forthe greater part of a week, and then suddenly one morning the sunshown down on a velvety plain, blinding in its whiteness; and whenspring had sent the snow mantle roaring through the arroyos and watercourses in a turmoil of yellow water and driftwood, and when the rangeriders rode forth to read the losses on the plain, the remainingcattle were staggering weakly in search of food. Skeletons in thecoulees told the story of the hopeless fight, how the unfortunatecattle had drifted before the wind to what shelter they could find andhow, huddled together for warmth, they had died one by one. The valleyalong Conroy Creek had provided a rough shelter with its scatteredgroves and these had stopped the cattle drift, so much dreaded bycowmen.

  It had grieved Buck Peters and his men to the heart to see so manycattle swept away in one storm, but they had done all that courage andbrains could do to save them. So now, when the plain was green againand the warm air made riding a joy, they were to hold the calfroundup. When Buck left his blanket after the first night spent in theroundup camp and rode off to the horse herd, he smiled from suppressedelation, and was glad that he was alive.

  Peaceful as the scene appeared there was trouble brewing, and it wasin expectation of this that Buck had begun the roundup earlier thanusual. The unreasoning stubbornness of one man, and the cunningmachinations of a natural rogue, threatened to bring about, from whatshould have been only a misunderstanding, as pretty a range war as theSouthwest had seen. Those immediately involved were only a few whencompared to the number which might eventually be brought into thestrife, but if this had been pointed out to Jim Meeker he would havereplied that he "didn't give a d--n."

  Jim Meeker was a Montana man who thought to carry out on the H2 range,of which he was foreman, the same system of things which had servedwhere he had come from. This meant trouble right away, for the Bar-20,already short in range, would not stand idly by and see him encroachupon their land for grass and water, more especially when he broke asolemn compact as to range rights which had been made by the formerowners of the H2 with the Bar-20. It meant not only the forcible useof Bar-20 range, but also a great hardship upon the herds for whichBuck Peters was responsible.

  Meeker's obstinacy was covertly prodded by Antonio for his ownpersonal gains, but this the Bar-20 foreman did not know; if he hadknown it there would have been much trouble averted, and one moreMexican sent to the spirit world.

  Buck Peters was probably the only man of all of them who realized justwhat such a war would mean, to what an extent rustling would flourishwhile the cowmen fought. His best efforts had been used to averttrouble, so far successfully; but that he would continue to do so wasdoubtful. He had an outfit which, while meaning to obey him in allthings and to turn from any overt act of war, was not of the kind tostand much forcing or personal abuse; their nervous systems wereconstructed on the hair-trigger plan, and their very loyalty might setthe range ablaze with war. However, on this most perfect of morningsMeeker's persistent aggression did not bother him, he was free fromworry for the time.

  Just north of Big Coulee, in which was a goodly sized water hole, agroup of blanket-swathed figures lay about a fire near the chuckwagon, while the sleepy cook prepared breakfast for his own outfit,and for the eight men which the foreman of the C80 and the DoubleArrow had insisted upon Buck taking. The sun had not yet risen, butthe morning glow showed gray over the plain, and it would not be longbefore the increasing daylight broke suddenly. The cook fires crackledand blazed steadily, the iron pots hissing under their dancing andnoisy lids, while the coffee pots bubbled and sent up an aromaticsteam, and the odor of freshly baked biscuits swept forth as the cookuncovered a pan. A pile of tin plates was stacked on the tail-board ofthe wagon while a large sheet-iron pail contained tin cups. Thefigures, feet to the fire, looked like huge, grotesque cocoons, forthe men had rolled themselves in their blankets, their heads restingon their saddles, and in many cases folded sombreros next to theleather made softer pillows.

  Back of the chuck wagon the eastern sky grew rapidly brighter, andsuddenly daylight in all its power dissipated the grayish light of themoment before. As the rim of the golden sun arose above the low sandhills to the east the foreman rode into camp. Some distance behind himHarry Jones and two other C80 men drove up the horse herd and enclosedit in a flimsy corral quickly extemporized from lariats; flimsy itwas, but it sufficed for cow-ponies that had learned the lesson of therope.

  "All ready, Buck," called Harry before his words were literally true.

  With assumed ferocity but real vociferation Buck uttered a shout andwatched the effect. The cocoons became animated, stirred and rapidlyunrolled, with the exception of one, and the sleepers leaped to theirfeet and folded the blankets. The exception stirred, subsided, stirredagain and then was quiet. Buck and Red stepped forward while theothers looked on grinning to see the fun, grasped the free end of theblanket and suddenly straightened up, their hands going high abovetheir heads. Johnny Nelson, squawking, rolled over and over and, witha yell of surprise, sat bolt upright and felt for his gun.

  "Huh!" he snorted. "Reckon yo're smart, don't you!"

  "Purty near a shore 'nuf pin-wheel, Kid," laughed Red.

  "Don't you care, Johnny; you can finish it to-night," consoled FrenchyMcAllister, now one of Buck's outfit.

  "Breakfast, Kid, breakfast!" sang out Hopalong as he finished dryinghis face.

  The breakfast was speedily out of the way, and pipes were started fora short smoke as the punchers walked over to the horse herd to maketheir selections. By exercising patience, profanity, and perseverancethey roped their horses and began to saddle up. Ed Porter, of theC80, and Skinny Thompson, Bar-20, cast their ropes with a sweeping,preliminary whirl over their heads, but the others used only a q
uickflit and twist of the wrist. A few mildly exciting struggles for themastery took place between riders and mounts, for some cow-ponies arenot always ready to accept their proper place in the scheme of things.

  "Slab-sided jumpin' jack!" yelled Rich Finn, a Double Arrow puncher,as he fought his horse. "Allus raisin' th' devil afore I'm all awake!"

  "Lemme hold her head, Rich," jeered Billy Williams.

  "Her laigs, Billy, not her head," corrected Lanky Smith, the Bar-20rope expert, whose own horse had just become sensible.

  "Don't hurt him, bronc; we need him," cautioned Red.

  "Come on, fellers; gettin' late," called Buck.

  Away they went, tearing across the plain, Buck in the lead. After sometime had passed the foreman raised his arm and Pete Wilson stopped andfilled his pipe anew, the west-end man of the cordon. Again Buck's armwent up and Skinny Thompson dropped out, and so on until the last manhad been placed and the line completed. At a signal from Buck thewhole line rode forward, gradually converging on a central point anddriving the scattered cattle before it.

  Hopalong, on the east end of the line, sharing with Billy the posts ofhonor, was now kept busy dashing here and there, wheeling, stopping,and manoeuvring as certain strong-minded cattle, preferring thefreedom of the range they had just quitted, tried to break through thecordon. All but branded steers and cows without calves had theirlabors in vain, although the escape of these often set examples forambitious cows with calves. Here was where reckless and expert ridingsaved the day, for the cow-ponies, trained in the art of punchingcows, entered into the game with zest and executed quick turns whichmore than once threatened a catastrophe to themselves and riders.Range cattle can run away from their domesticated kin, covering theground with an awkward gait that is deceiving; but the ponies can runfaster and turn as quickly.

  Hopalong, determined to turn back one stubborn mother cow, pushed hertoo hard, and she wheeled to attack him. Again the nimble pony hadreason to move quickly and Hopalong swore as he felt the horns touchhis leg.

  "On th' prod, hey! Well, stay on it!" he shouted, well knowing thatshe would. "Pig-headed old fool--_all right_, Johnny; I'm comin'!" andhe raced away to turn a handful of cows which were proving too muchfor his friend. _"Ki-yi-yeow-eow-eow-eow-eow!"_ he yelled, imitatingthe coyote howl.

  The cook had moved his wagon as soon as breakfast was over andjourneyed southeast with the cavvieyh; and as the cordon neared itsobjective the punchers could see his camp about half a mile from thelevel pasture where the herd would be held for the cutting-out andbranding. Cookie regarded himself as the most important unit of theroundup and acted accordingly, and he was not far wrong.

  "Hey, Hoppy!" called Johnny through the dust of the herd, "there'scookie. I was 'most scared he'd get lost."

  "Can't you think of anythin' else but grub?" asked Billy Jordan fromthe rear.

  "Can you tell me anything better to think of?"

  There were from three to four thousand cattle in the herd when itneared the stopping point, and dust arose in low-hanging clouds aboveit. Its pattern of differing shades of brown, with yellow and blackand white relieving it, constantly shifted like a kaleidoscope as thecattle changed positions; and the rattle of horns on horns and themuffled bellowing could be heard for many rods.

  Gradually the cordon surrounded the herd and, when the destination wasreached, the punchers rode before the front ranks of cattle andstopped them. There was a sudden tremor, a compactness in the herd,and the cattle in the rear crowded forward against those before;another tremor, and the herd was quiet. Cow-punchers took their placesaround it, and kept the cattle from breaking out and back to therange, while every second man, told off by the foreman, raced at topspeed towards the camp, there to eat a hasty dinner and get a freshhorse from his _remuda_, as his string of from five to seven horseswas called. Then he galloped back to the herd and relieved his nearestneighbor. When all had reassembled at the herd the work of cutting-outbegan.

  Lanky Smith, Panhandle Lukins, and two more Bar-20 men rode somedistance east of the herd, there to take care of the cow-and-calf cutas it grew by the cutting-out. Hopalong, Red, Johnny, and three otherswere assigned to the task of getting the mother cows and their calvesout of the main herd and into the new one, while the other punchersheld the herd and took care of the stray herd when they should beneeded. Each of the cutters-out rode after some calf, and the victim,led by its mother, worked its way after her into the very heart of themass; and in getting the pair out again care must be taken not tounduly excite the other cattle. Wiry, happy, and conceited cow-poniesunerringly and patiently followed mother and calf into the press,nipping the pursued when too slow and gradually forcing them to theouter edge of the herd; and when the mother tried to lead itsoffspring back into the herd to repeat the performance, she was inalmost every case cleverly blocked and driven out on the plain wherethe other punchers took charge of her and added her to thecow-and-calf cut.

  Johnny jammed his sombrero on his head with reckless strength andswore luridly as he wheeled to go back into the herd.

  "What's th' matter, Kid?" laughingly asked Skinny as he turned hischarges over to another man.

  "None of yore d----d business!" blazed Johnny. Under his breath hemade a resolve. "If I get you two out here again I'll keep you here ifI have to shoot you!"

  "Are they slippery, Johnny?" jibed Red, whose guess was correct.Johnny refused to heed such asinine remarks and stood on his dignity.

  As the cow-and-calf herd grew in size and the main herd dwindled, morepunchers were shifted to hold it; and it was not long before the mainherd was comprised entirely of cattle without calves, when it wasdriven off to freedom after being examined for other brands. As soonas the second herd became of any size it was not necessary to drivethe cows and calves to it when they were driven out of the first herd,as they made straight for it. The main herd, driven away, broke up asit would, while the guarded cows stood idly beside their restingoffspring awaiting further indignities.

  The drive had covered so much ground and taken so much time thatapproaching darkness warned Buck not to attempt the branding until themorrow, and he divided his force into three shifts. Two of thesehastened to the camp, gulped down their supper, and rolling into theirblankets, were soon sound asleep. The horse herd was driven off towhere the grazing was better, and night soon fell over the plain.

  The cook's fires gleamed through the darkness and piles of biscuitswere heaped on the tail-board of the wagon, while pots of beef andcoffee simmered over the fires, handy for the guards as they rode induring the night to awaken brother punchers, who would take theirplaces while they slept. Soon the cocoons were quiet in the grotesqueshadows caused by the fires and a deep silence reigned over the camp.Occasionally some puncher would awaken long enough to look at the skyto see if the weather had changed, and satisfied, return to sleep.

  Over the plain sleepy cowboys rode slowly around the herd, glad to berelieved by some other member of the outfit, who always sang as heapproached the cattle to reassure them and save a possible stampede.For cattle, if suddenly disturbed at night by anything, even thewaving of a slicker in the hands of some careless rider, or awind-blown paper, will rise in a body--all up at once, frightened andnervous. The sky was clear and the stars bright and when the moon roseit flooded the plain with a silvery light and made fairy patterns inthe shadows.

  Snatches of song floated down the gentle wind as the riders slowlycircled the herd, for the human voice, no matter how discordant, wasquieting. A low and plaintive "Don't let this par-ting grieve y-o-u"passed from hearing around the resting cows, soon to be followed by"When-n in thy dream-ing, nights like t-h-e-s-e shall come a-gain--"as another watcher made the circuit. The serene cows, trusting in theprowess and vigilance of these low-voiced centaurs to protect themfrom danger, dozed and chewed their cuds in peace and quiet, while thenatural noises of the night relieved the silence in unobtrudingharmony.

  Far out on the plain a solitary rider watched the herd from cover andswor
e because it was guarded so closely. He glanced aloft to see ifthere was any hope of a storm and finding that there was not,muttered savagely and rode away. It was Antonio, wishing that hecould start a stampede and so undo the work of the day and inflictheavy losses on the Bar-20. He did not dare to start a grass fire forat the first flicker of a light he would be charged by one or more ofthe night riders and if caught, death would be his reward.

  While the third shift rode and sang the eastern sky became a dome oflight reflected from below and the sunrise, majestic in all its fierysplendor, heralded the birth of another perfect day.

  Through the early morning hours the branding continued, and thebleating of the cattle told of the hot stamping irons indeliblyburning the sign of the Bar-20 on the tender hides of calves. Mothercows fought and plunged and called in reply to the terrified bawlingof their offspring, and sympathetically licked the burns when thefrightened calves had been allowed to join them. Cowboys were deftlyroping calves by their hind legs and dragging them to the fires of thebranding men. Two men would hold a calf, one doubling the foreleg backon itself at the knee and the other, planting one booted foot againstthe calf's under hind leg close to its body, pulled back on the otherleg while his companion, who held the foreleg, rested on the animal'shead. The third man, drawing the hot iron from the fire, raised andheld it suspended for a second over the calf's flank, and then therewas an odor and a puff of smoke; and the calf was branded with a markwhich neither water nor age would wipe out.

  Pete Wilson came riding up dragging a calf at the end of his rope,and turned the captive over to Billy Williams and his two helpers,none of them paying any attention to the cow which followed a shortdistance behind him. Lanky seized the unfortunate calf and leaned overto secure the belly hold, when someone shouted a warning and hedropped the struggling animal and leaped back and to one side as themother charged past. Wheeling to return the attack, the cow suddenlyflopped over and struck the earth with a thud as Buck's rope wenthome. He dragged her away and then releasing her, chased her back intothe herd.

  "_Hi!_ Get that little devil!" shouted Billy to Hopalong, pointing tothe fleeing calf.

  "Why didn't you watch for her, you half-breed!" demanded the indignantLanky of Pete. "Do you think this is a ten-pin alley!"

  Hopalong came riding up with the calf, which swiftly became recordedproperty.

  "Bar-20; tally one," sang out the monotonous voice of the tally-man."Why didn't you grab her when she went by, Lanky?" he asked, putting anew point on his pencil.

  "Hope th' next one heads yore way!" retorted Lanky, grinning.

  "Won't. I ain't abusin' th' kids."

  "Bar-20; tally one," droned a voice at the next fire.

  All was noise, laughter, dust, and a seeming confusion, but every manknew his work thoroughly and was doing it in a methodical way, and theconfusion was confined to the victims and their mothers.

  When the herd had been branded and allowed to return to the plain, theoutfit moved on into a new territory and the work was repeated untilthe whole range, with the exception of the valley, had been covered.When the valley was worked it required more time in comparison withthe amount of ground covered than had been heretofore spent on anypart of the range; for the cattle were far more numerous, and it wasno unusual thing to have a herd of great size before the roundup placehad been reached. This heavy increase in the numbers of the cattle tobe herded made a corresponding increase in the time and labor requiredfor the cutting-out and branding. Five days were required in workingthe eastern and central parts of the valley and it took three moredays to clean up around the White Horse Hills, where the ground wasrougher and the riding harder. And at every cutting-out there was alarge stray-herd made up of H2 and Three Triangle cattle. The H2 hadbeen formerly the Three Triangle. Buck had been earnest in hisinstructions to his men regarding the strays, for now was theopportunity to rid his range of Meeker's cattle in a way natural andwithout especial significance; once over the line it would be acomparatively easy matter to keep them there.

  For taking care of this extra herd and also because Buck courtedscrutiny during the branding, the foreman accepted the services ofthree H2 men. This addition to his forces made the work move somewhatmore rapidly and when, at the end of each day's cutting-out, thestray herd was complete, it was driven south across the boundary lineby Meeker's men. When the last stray-herd started south Buck rode overto the H2 punchers and told them to tell their foreman to let him knowwhen he could assist in the southern roundup and thus return thefavor.

  As the Bar-20 outfit and the C80 and Double Arrow men rode northtowards the ranch house they were met by Lucas, foreman of the C80,who joined them near Medicine Bend.

  "Well, got it all over, hey?" he cried as he rode up.

  "Yep; bigger job than I thought, too. It gets bigger every year an'that blizzard didn't make much difference in th' work, neither," Buckreplied. "I'll help you out when you get ready to drive."

  "No you won't; you can help me an' Bartlett more by keeping all yoremen watchin' that line," quickly responded Lucas. "We'll worktogether, me an' Bartlett, an' we'll have all th' men we want. Youjust show that man Meeker that range grabbin' ain't healthy downhere--that's all we want. Did he send you any help in th' valley?"

  "Yes, three men," Buck replied. "But we'll break even on that when heworks along th' boundary."

  "Have any trouble with 'em?"

  "Not a bit."

  "I sent Wood Wright down to Eagle th' other day, an' he says th' townis shore there'll be a big range war," remarked Lucas. "He saidthere's lots of excitement down there an' they act like they wish th'trouble would hurry up an' happen. We've got to watch that town, allright."

  "If there's a war th' rustlers'll flock here from all over,"interposed Rich Finn.

  "Huh!" snorted Hopalong. "They'll flock out again if we get a chanceto look for 'em. An' that town'll shore get into trouble if it don'tlive plumb easy. You know what happened th' last time rustlin' got tobe th' style, don't you?"

  "Well," replied Lucas, "I've fixed it with Cowan to get news to me an'Bartlett if anything sudden comes up. If you need us just let him knowan' we'll be with you in two shakes."

  "That's good, but I don't reckon I'll need any help, leastwise not fora long time," Buck responded. "But I tell you what you might do, whenyou can; make up a vigilance committee from yore outfits an' riderange for rustlers. We can take care of all that comes on us, but wewon't have no time to bother about th' rest of th' range. An' if youdo that it'll shut 'em out of our north range."

  "We'll do it," Lucas promised. "Bartlett is going to watch th' trailsnorth to see if he can catch anybody runnin' cattle to th' railroadconstruction camps. Every suspicious lookin' stranger is going to beheld up an' asked questions; an' if we find any runnin' irons, youknow what that means."

  "I reckon we can handle th' situation, all right, no matter how hardit gets," laughed the Bar-20 foreman.

  "Well, I'll be leavin' you now," Lucas remarked as they reached theBar-20 bunk house. "We begin to round up next week, an' there's lotsto be done before then. Say, can I use yore chuck wagon? Mine is shoredone for."

  "Why, of course," replied Buck heartily. "Take it now, if you want, orany time you send for it."

  "Much obliged; come on, fellers," Lucas cried to his men. "We're goin'home."

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