Hopalong cassidy, p.30
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.30

           Honoré Morrow



  Pipes were glowing in the shadows away from the fire, where men lay invarious attitudes of ease. A few were examining wounds while otherscleaned rifles and saw that their revolvers were in good condition.Around the fire but well back from it four men sat cross-legged, twoothers stretched out on their elbows and stomachs near them.

  "You say everything is all right on th' ranch?" asked Buck of a manwho, covered with alkali, had just come from the Bar-20. "No trouble,hey?"

  "Nope; no trouble at all," replied Cross, tossing his sombrero aside."Lucas an' Bartlett each sent us four men to help out when theylearned you had come out here. We shipped four of 'em right on to th'H2, which is too short-handed to do any damage to rustlers."

  "Much obliged for that," spoke up Meeker, relief in his voice. "I'mblamed glad to hear things are quiet back home--but I don't know howlong they'll stay that way with Eagle so close."

  "Well, Eagle ain't a whole lot anxious to dip in no more," laughedCross, looking at the H2 foreman. "Leastawise, that's what Lucas said.He sent a delegation down there which made a good impression. Therewas ten men in it an' they let it be known that if they came backagain there would be ten more with 'em. In that case Eagle wouldn't beno more than a charred memory. Since Quinn died, being shot hard byNevada, who I reckons is out here, th' town ain't got nobody to tellit how to do things right, which is shore pleasant."

  "You bring blamed good news--I'm glad Lucas went down there," Buckreplied. "I can't tell as good news about us out here, yet. We've hada hard time for a week. They got Pie to-day, an' most of us are shotup plentiful. Yo're just in time for th' festival, Cross--we're goingto try to rush 'em to-night an' get it over. We reckon Skinny an' Petecan get us a way up that wall before dawn."

  "Me for th' rush," laughed Cross. "I'm fresh as a daisy, which most ofyou fellers ain't. How many of 'em have you got so far? Are there manystill up there?"

  "We've got four of 'em that I knows of, an' how many of 'em died fromtheir wounds I can't say," replied Hopalong. "But a whole lot of 'emhave been plugged, an' plugged hard."

  "But how many are up there still able to fight?"

  "I should say about nine," Hopalong remarked, thoughtfully.

  "Ten," corrected Red. "I've been watching th' positions an' I know."

  "About nine or ten--they shift so nobody can really tell," Buckreplied. "I reckon we've seen 'em all in Eagle, too."

  "Frenchy got Nevada an' another to-day, on th' west side," Johnnyinterposed.

  "I'm glad Nevada is gone--he's a terror in a mix-up," Cross rejoined."Best two-handed gun man in Eagle, he was."

  "Huh!" snorted Johnny. "Stack him up against Hoppy an' see how longhe'd last!"

  "I said in Eagle!" retorted Cross.

  Buck suddenly stood up and stretched. "You fellers all turn in now an'snatch some sleep. I'm going out to see how things are with Billy.I'll call you in time. Doc, you an' Curtis are too shot up to do anyclimbing--you turn in too. When I come back I'll wake you an' send youout to help Billy watch th' trail. Where's Red?"

  "Over here--what do you want?" came from the shadows.

  "Nothing, only get to sleep. I reckoned you might be off somewheresscouting. Skinny, where's yore rope? Got that manilla one? Good! Putthree more hemp lariats out here where I can find 'em when I comeback. Now don't none of you waste no time; turn in right now!" Hestarted to walk away and then hesitated, turning around. "Doc, you an'Curtis better come with me now so you won't lose no time huntingBilly in th' dark when yore eyes are sleepy--it's hard enough to findhim now in th' dark, when I'm wide awake. You can get yore sleep outthere--he'll wake you when yo're needed."

  The two punchers arose and joined him, Doc with his left arm bandagedand his companion with three bandages on him. When they joined BuckDoc protested. "Let me go with you an' th' rest of th' boys, Peters,when you go up that wall. I came out here to get th' Greaser thatmurdered Curley, an' I hate to miss him now. If I can't climb th' boyswill be glad to pull me up, an' it won't take no time to speak of. Mygun arm is sound as a dollar--_I_ want that Greaser!"

  Buck glanced at Meeker, who refused to give any sign of his thoughtson the matter. "Well, all right, Doc. But if we should have to fightas soon as we get up an' don't have no time to pull you after us,you'll miss everything. But you can do what you want."

  "I'll just gamble on that. I ain't hurt much, an' if I can't climbI'll manage to get in th' scrap someway, even if I has to hunt upBilly," replied Doc, contentedly, returning to the fire.

  Buck and his companion moved away into the darkness while those aroundthe fire lay down to get a few hours' rest, which they needed badly.George Cross, who was not sleepy, remained awake in a shadow and keptguard, although none was needed.

  Buck and Curtis found Billy by whistling and the wounded H2 puncherfound a place to lie down and was soon asleep, while the foreman andhis friend sat up, watching the faint glow on the mesa, the camp-fireof the besieged. Once they heard the clatter of a rifle from the headof the trail and later they saw a dim figure pass quickly across thelighted space. They were content to watch on such a night, for the airhad cooled rapidly after the sun went down and the sky was onetwinkling mass of stars.

  Twice during the wait Buck disappeared into the black chaparral closeat hand and struck a match under his coat to see the time, and on thelast occasion he returned to Billy, remarking: "Got half an hour yetbefore I leave you. Are you sleepy?"

  "No, not very; my head hurts too much to sleep," Billy replied,re-crossing his legs and settling himself in a more comfortableposition. "When you leave I'll get up on my hoofs so I won't feel likedosing off. I won't wake Curtis unless I have to--he's about playedout."

  "You wake him when you think I've been gone half an hour," Buckordered. "It'll take him some time to get his eyes open--we mustn'tlet any get away. They've got friends in Eagle, you know."

  "Wish I could smoke," Billy remarked, wistfully.

  "Why, you can," replied Buck, quickly. "Go back there in th' chaparralan' get away with a pipeful. I'll watch things till you come back, an'if I need you quick I can call. You've got near half an hour--make th'best of it."

  "Here's th' gun--much obliged, Buck," and Billy disappeared, leavingthe foreman to plan and watch. Buck glanced at the sleeping manoccasionally when he heard him toss or mutter and wished he could lethim sleep on undisturbed.

  Suddenly a flash lighted up the top of the trail for an instant andthe sharp report of a rifle rang out loudly on the still, night air.Buck, grabbing the Winchester, sprang to his feet as an excited choruscame from the rustlers' stronghold. Then he heard laughter and a fewcurses and quiet again ensued.

  "What was that, Buck?" came a low, anxious hail from behind.

  The foreman laughed softly and replied: "Nothing, Billy, except thatth' guard up there reckoned he saw something to shoot at. It's funnyhow staring at th' dark will get a feller seeing things that ain't.Why, had yore smoke so soon?" he asked in surprise as Billy sat downbeside him.

  "Shore," replied Billy. "Two of 'em. I reckon yore time is about up.Gimme th' gun now."

  "Well, good luck, Billy. Better move up closer to th' trail if you canfind any cover. You don't want to miss none. So long," and Billy wasalone with his sleeping companion.

  When the foreman returned to the camp he was challenged, and stopped,surprised. "It's Peters," he called.

  "Oh, all right. Time to go yet?" asked Cross, emerging from thedarkness.

  "Purty near; but I thought I told you to go to sleep?"

  "I know, but I ain't sleepy, not a bit. So I reckoned I'd keep watchover th' rest of th' gang."

  "Well, since yo're wide awake, you help me knot these ropes an' letth' others have a few minutes more," Buck responded, picking upSkinny's fifty-foot lariat and placing it to one side. He picked upthe three shorter ropes and threw one to his companion. "Put a knotevery foot an' a half--make 'em tight an' big."

  In a few minutes the work was finished and Bu
ck awakened the sleepingmen, who groped their way to the little stream close by and washed thesleep out of their tired eyes, grabbing a bit of food on their returnto the fire.

  "Now, fellers," said the foreman, "leave yore rifles here--it's Coltsthis trip, except in Red's case. Got plenty of cartridges? Everybodyhad a drink an' some grub? All right; single file after me an' don'tmake no noise."

  When the moon came up an hour later Red Connors, lying full length onthe apex of the pinnacle which Johnny had tried and found wanting,watched an indistinct blurr of men in the shadow of the mesa wall. Hesaw one of them step out into the moonlight, lean back and thenstraighten up suddenly, his arm going above his head. The silence wasso intense that Red could faintly hear the falling rope as it struckthe ground. Another cast, and yet another, both unsuccessful, andthen the fourth, which held. The puncher stepped back into the shadowagain and another figure appeared, to go jerking himself up the faceof the wall. While he watched the scaling operations Red was notmissing anything on the top of the mesa, where the moon bathedeverything in a silvery light.

  Then he saw another figure follow the first and kick energetically asit clambered over onto the ledge. Soon a rope fell to the plain andthe last man up, who was Skinny, leaned far out and cast at the secondledge, Pete holding him. After some time he was successful and againhe and his companion went up the wall. Pete climbed rapidly, his heavybody but small weight for the huge, muscular arms which rose and fellso rapidly. On the second ledge the same casting was gone throughwith, but it was not until the eighth attempt that the rope stayed up.Then Red, rising on his elbows, put his head closer to the stock ofhis rifle and peered into the shadows back of the lighted space on therocky pile. He saw Pete pull his companion back to safety and then,leaping forward, grasp the rope and climb to the top. Already one ofthe others was part way up the second rope while another was squirmingover the lower ledge, and below him a third kicked and hauled, halfway up the first lariat.

  "String of monkeys," chuckled Red. "But they can't none of 'em touchPete in that sort of a game. Wonder what Pete's doing?" he queried ashe saw the man on the top of the mesa bend, fumble around for amoment, and then toss his arm out over the edge. "Oh, it's a knottedrope--he's throwing it down for th' others. Well, Pete, old feller,you was th' first man to get--_Lord_!"

  He saw Pete wheel, leap forward into a shadow, and then a heaving,twisting, bending bulk emerged into the moonlight. It swayed back andforth, separated into two figures and then became one again.

  "They're fighting, rough an' tumble!" Red exclaimed. "Lord have mercyon th' man who's closing with that Pete of ourn!"

  He could hear the scuffling and he knew that the others had heard it,too, for Skinny was desperately anxious to wriggle over the edge,while down the line of ropes the others acted like men crazed. Stillthe pair on the mesa top swayed back and forth, this way and that,bending, twisting, and Red imagined he could hear their laboredbreathing. Then Skinny managed to pull himself to the top of the walland sprang forward, to sink down from a kick in the stomach.

  "God A'mighty!" cried Red excitedly. "Who is it that can give Pete afight like that? Well, I'm glad he's so busy he can't use his gun!"

  Skinny was crawling around on his hands and knees as Buck's head aroseover the edge. The foreman, well along in years, and heavy, was tootired to draw himself over the rim without a moment's rest. He had nofear for Pete, but he was worried lest some rustler might sound analarm. Skinny now sat up and felt for his Colt, but the foreman'svoice stopped him. "No shooting, yet! Want to tell 'em what's up? Youlet them fellers alone for a minute, an' give me a hand here."

  Pete, his steel-like fingers darting in for hold after hold, managedto jerk his opponent's gun from its sheath and throw it aside, whereSkinny quickly picked it up. He was astonished by the skill andstrength of his adversary, who blocked every move, every attempt toget a dangerous hold. Pete, for a man reputed as being slow, which hewas in some things, was darting his arms in and out with remarkablequickness, but without avail. Then, realizing that his cleaner livingwas standing him in good stead, and hearing the labored breathing ofthe rustler, he leaped in and clinched. By this time Hopalong andthree more of the attacking force had gained the mesa top and weresent forward by the foreman, who was now intent upon the struggle athand.

  "It's Big Sandy!" Hopalong whispered to Skinny, pausing to watch for amoment before he disappeared into the shadows.

  He was right, and Big Sandy, breathless and tired, was fighting asplendid fight for his life against a younger, fresher, and strongerman. The rustler tried several times for a throat hold but in vain,and in a fury of rage threw his weight against his opponent to bearhim to the ground, incautiously bringing his feet close together as hefelt the other yield. In that instant Pete dropped to a crouch, hisvice-like hands tightened about Big Sandy's ankles, and with a sudden,great surge of his powerful back and shoulders he straightened up andSandy plunged forward to a crashing fall on the very edge of the mesa,scrambled to his feet, staggered, lost his balance, and fell backwardsa hundred feet to the rocks below.

  The victor would have followed him but for Buck, who grasped him intime. Pete, steady on his feet again, threw Buck from him by one sweepof his arms and wheeled to renew the fight, surprise flashing acrosshis face at not seeing his opponent.

  "He's down below, Pete," Buck cried as Johnny, white-faced, crawledover the edge.

  "What was that?" exclaimed the Kid. "Who fell?"

  "Big Sandy," replied the foreman. "He--" the report of a shot cut himshort. "Come on!" he cried. "They're at it!" and he dashed away,closely followed by Johnny and Pete as Jim Meeker came into view. TheH2 foreman slid over the mesa rim, leaped to his feet and sprintedforward, Colt in hand, to be quickly lost in the shadows, and afterhim came Red Connors, the last.

  Down below Doc, hearing a thud not far from him, hurried around a spurof rock in the wall, sick at heart when he saw the body. Bending overquickly he recognized the mass as once having been Big Sandy, and heforthwith returned to the rope to be pulled up. When he at lastrealized that his friends had forgotten him there was loud, luridcursing and he stamped around like a wild man, waving a Colt in hisright hand. Finally he dropped heavily on a rock, too enraged tothink, and called the attacking force, collectively and individually,every name that sprang to his lips. As he grew calmer he arose fromthe rock, intending to join Billy and Curtis at the other end of thepasture, and as he took a step in that direction he heard a sharpclick and a pebble bounced past him. He stepped backwards quickly andlooked up, seeing a figure sliding rapidly down the highest rope. Hewas immediately filled with satisfaction and easily forgave hiscompanions for the anxiety they had caused him, and as he was about tocall out he heard a Spanish oath. Slipping quickly and noiselesslyinto the deeper shadow at the base of the wall he flattened himselfbehind the spur of rock close to the rope, where he waited tensely, agrim smile transforming his face.

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