Hopalong cassidy, p.31
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.31

           Honoré Morrow



  Antonio was restless and could not sleep. He turned from side to sideon the ground near the fire before the hut and was one of the first torun to the top of the trail when the guard there discharged his rifleat nothing. Returning to his blanket the Mexican tried to composehimself to rest, but was unsuccessful. Finally he arose, picked up hisrifle, and slouched off into the shadows to wander about from point topoint.

  Cavalry, coming in from his post to get a drink, caught sight of theMexican before he was swallowed up by the darkness and, suspicious asever of Antonio, forgot the drink and followed.

  After wandering about all unconscious of espionage Antonio finallydrifted to the western edge and seated himself comfortably against abowlder, Cavalry not fifty feet away in a shadow. Time passed slowlyand as the Mexican was about to return to the fire he chanced toglance across the mesa along a moon-lighted path and stiffened at whathe saw. A figure ran across the lighted space, silently, cautiously,Colt in hand, and then another, then two together, and the Mexicanknew that the enemy had found a way up the wall and were hurryingforward to fight at close quarters, to effect a surprise on theunsuspecting men about the fire and in the hut. There remained,perhaps, time enough for him to escape and he arose and ran north,crouching as he zig-zagged from cover to cover, cautious and alert.

  Cavalry, because of his position, had not seen the flitting punchersand, his suspicions now fully aroused, he slipped after the Mexican tofind out just what he was going to do. When the firing burst outbehind him he paused and stood up, amazed. As he struggled tounderstand what it meant he saw three men run past a bowlder at hisleft and then he knew, and still hesitated. He was not a man whothought quickly and his first natural impulse, due to his armytraining, was to try to join his friends, but gradually the truesituation came to him. How many men there were in the attacking forcehe did not know, but he had seen three after the fighting had begun;and it was evident that the cowmen would not rush into the lion's jawsunless they were strong enough to batter down all resistance. Four ofhis friends were dead, another had evidently deserted, and theremainder were all more or less severely wounded--there could be nohope of driving the ranchmen back, and small chance of him being ableto work through their line to join his friends. There remained onlyone thing to be done, to save himself while he might.

  As he moved forward slowly and cautiously to find a way down the wallhe remembered the Mexican's peculiar actions and wondered if he had ahand in helping the cowmen up.

  Meanwhile Antonio, reaching the edge of the open space where Pete andBig Sandy had fought, saw Red Connors appear over the rim and dashaway to join in the fighting. Waiting long enough to assure himselfthat there were none following Red he ran to the edge and knelt by therope. Leaving his rifle behind and seeing that the flap of his holsterwas fastened securely, he lowered himself over, sliding rapidly downto the first ledge. Here he spent a minute, a minute that seemed aneternity, hunting for the second rope in the shadows, found it andwent on.

  Sliding and bumping down the rough wall he at last reached the plainand, with a sigh of relief, turned to run. At that instant a figureleaped upon him from behind and a hand gripped his throat and jerkedhim over backwards. Antonio instinctively reached for his Colt withone hand while he tore at the gripping fingers with the other, but hefound himself pinned down between two rocks in such a manner that hiswhole weight and that of his enemy was on the holster and made hiseffort useless. Then, terrified and choking for breath, he dug wildlyat the vice-like fingers which not for a moment relaxed, but in vain,for he was growing weaker with each passing second.

  Doc leaned forward, peering into the face before him, his fingersgripping with all their power, gripping with a force which made themuscles of the brawny forearm stand out like cords, his facemalevolent and his heart full of savage joy. Here was the end of hishunt, here was the man who had murdered Curley in cold blood,cowardly, deliberately. The face, already dark, was turning black andthe eyes were growing wide open and bulging out. He felt the surge ofthe Mexican's pulse, steadily growing weaker. But he said no word ashe watched and gloated, he was too intent to speak, too centred uponthe man under him, too busy keeping his fingers tight-gripped. Hewould make good his threat, he would keep his word and kill themurderer of his best friend with his naked hand, as he had sworn.

  Up above the two, Cavalry, working along the edge, had come acrossAntonio's rifle and then as he glanced about, saw the rope. Here waswhere the cowmen had come up and here was where he could go down. Fromthe way the shooting continued he knew that the fight was desperateand he believed himself to be cut off from his friends. He hated todesert in the face of the enemy, to leave his companions of adangerous business to fight for their lives without him, but there wasonly one thing to do since he could not help them--he must savehimself.

  Dropping his rifle beside the other he lowered himself over the edgeand slid rapidly down. When half-way down the last rope his burninghands slipped and he fell head over heels, and landed on Doc, knockinghim over and partially stunning him. Cavalry's only idea now was toescape from the men who, as he thought, were guarding the rope and,hastily picking himself up, he dashed towards the chaparral to thewest as fast as he could run, every moment expecting to feel the hotsting of a bullet. At last, when the chaparral closed about him heplunged through it recklessly and ran until sheer exhaustion made himdrop insensible to the sand. He had run far, much farther than hecould have gone were it not for the stimulus of the fear which grippedhim; and had he noticed where he was going he would have known that hewas running up a slope, a slope which eventually reached a levelhigher than the top of the mesa. And when he dropped if he had beencapable of observation he would have found himself in a chaparralwhich arose above his head, and seen the narrow lane through it whichled to a great expanse of sand, tawney and blotched with ash-coloredalkali, an expanse which stretched away to the desolate horizon.

  Shortly after Cavalry's descent Antonio stirred, opened his eyes,stared vaguely about him and, feeling his bruised and aching throat,staggered to his feet and stumbled to the east, hardly conscious ofwhat he was doing. As he proceeded his breath came easier and he beganto remember having seen Doc lying quiet against a rock. He hesitated amoment as he wondered if Doc was dead and if so, who had killed him.Then he swore because he had not given him a shot to make sure that hewould not rejoin his friends. Hesitating a moment he suddenly decidedthat he would be better off if he put a good distance between himselfand the mesa, and ran on again, eager to gain the shelter of thechaparral.

  When Doc opened his eyes and groped around he slowly remembered whathad occurred and his first conscious act was to look to see if hisexpected victim were dead or alive. It did not take him long torealize that he was alone and his hand leaped for his Colt as hepeered around. Limping out on the plain he caught sight of the runningMexican, rapidly growing indistinct, and hazarded two shots after him.Antonio leaped into a new speed as though struck with a whip andcursed himself for not having killed the H2 puncher when he had thechance. A moment more and he was lost in the thickets. Doc tried tofollow, but his leg, hurt by Cavalry's meteoric descent, was not equalto any great demand for speed and so, turning, he made his way towardsthe camp to get a horse and return to take up the Mexican's trail.

  He lost an hour in this, a feverishly impatient hour, punctuated withcurses as he limped along and with an unsparing quirt once he wasastride. What devilish Humpty Dumpty had cheated him this time? "Allthe king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumptytogether again"--they couldn't if he once caught up with the Mexican.He laughed grimly and swore again as the cranky beast beneath himshied a pain into his sore leg. "Go on, you!" he yelled, as he sweptup to where the ropes still dangled against the wall. "Th' Mexicanfirst," he muttered. The world was not big enough to hide the murdererof Curley, to save him from his just deserts. The two trails lay plainbefore him in the brilliant moonlight and his pony sprang forw
ardtoward the spot where Antonio had disappeared in the chaparral.

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