Hopalong cassidy, p.32
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.32
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XXXII

  NATURE TAKES A HAND

  When Hopalong caught up with his four companions he was astonished bythe conditions on the mesa. Instead of a bowlder-strewn, rocky plainas he had believed it to be he found himself on a table-land cut andbarred by fissures which ran in all directions. At one time these hadbeen open almost to the level of the surrounding pasture but the windshad swept sand and debris into the gashes until now none were muchmore than ten feet deep. Narrow alleyways which led in everydirection, twisting and turning, now blocked and now open for manyfeet in depth, their walls sand-beaten to a smoothness baffling thegrip of one who would scale them, were not the same in a fight as acomparatively flat plain broken only by miscellaneous bowlders andhummocks. There could be no concerted dash for the reason that onegroup of the attacking force might be delayed until after another hadbegun to fight. And it was possible, even probable, that the turns inthe alleyways might be guarded; and once separated in the heat ofbattle it would be easy enough to shoot each other. Instead of adashing fight soon to be over, it looked as though it would be adeadly game of hide and seek to wear out the players and which mightlast for an indefinite length of time. It was disconcerting to findthat what had been regarded as the hardest part of the whole affair,the gaining of the mesa top, was the easiest.

  "Here, fellows!" Hopalong growled. "We'll stick together till we getright close, an' then if we have time an' these infernal gorges don'tstop us, we may be able to spread out. We've got to move easy, too. Ifwe go galloping reckless we'll run into some guard an' there won't beno surprise party on Thunder Mesa. We can count on having light,though not as much as we might have, for th' moon won't go back on ustill th' sun fades it."

  "It's light enough," growled Skinny. "Come on--we've got to go aheadan' every minute counts. _I_ didn't think we'd lose so much timeroping them knobs an' getting up."

  They moved forward cautiously in single file, alert and straining eyesand ears, and had covered half of the distance when a shot was heardahead and they listened, expecting an uproar. Waiting a minute andhearing nothing further, they moved on again, angry and disgruntled.Then another shot rang out and they heard Billy and Curtis reply.

  "Shooting before daylight, before they get their morning's grub,"grumbled George Cross.

  "Yes; sort of eye-opener, I reckon," softly laughed Chick Travers,who was nervous and impatient. "Get a move on an' let's startsomething," he added.

  As they separated to take advantage of a spoke-like radiation ofseveral intersecting fissures another shot rang out ahead and therewas an angry _spat_! close to Hopalong's head. Another shot and then arattling volley sent the punchers hunting cover on the run, but theywere moving forward all the time. It was a case of getting close or bekilled at a range too great for Colts, and their rifles were in thecamp. Had the light been better the invaders might have paid dearlyright there for the attack.

  Confusion was rife among the defenders and the noise of the shouts andfiring made one jumble of sound. Bullets whistled along the fissuresin the dim light and hummed and whizzed as they ricochetted from wallto wall. As yet the attacking force had made no reply, being toobusily occupied in getting close to lose time in wasting lead at thatrange, and being only five against an unknown number protected by astone hut and who knew every bowlder, crevice, and other points ofvantage.

  Hopalong slid over a bowlder which choked his particular and personalfissure and saw Jim Meeker sliding down the wall in front of it. Andas Meeker picked himself up Skinny Thompson slid down the other wall.

  "Well, I'm hanged!" grunted Hopalong in astonishment.

  "Same here," retorted Skinny. "What you doing 'way over here?"

  "Thought you was going to lead th' other end of th' line!" rejoinedHopalong.

  "This is it--yo're off yore range."

  "Well, I reckon not!" Hopalong responded, indignantly.

  "An' say, Meeker, how'd you get over here so quick?" Skinny asked,turning to the other. "You was down below when I saw you last."

  "_Me?_ Why, I just follered my nose, that's all," Meeker replied,surprised.

  "You've got a blamed crooked nose, then," Skinny snorted, and turnedto Hopalong. "Why don't you untangle yoreself an' go where you belong,you carrot-headed blunderer!"

  "Hang it! I tell you I--" Hopalong began, and then ducked quickly."Lord, but somebody's got us mapped out good!"

  "Well, some of our fellers have started up--hear 'em over there?"exclaimed Skinny as firing broke out on the east. "Them's Colts, allright. Mebby it's plumb lucky for us it _ain't_ so blamed light, afterall; we'll have time to pick our places before they can see us realgood."

  "Pick our places!" snorted Hopalong. "Get tangled up, you mean!" headded.

  "Hullo! What you doing, fellers?" asked a pained and surprised voiceabove them. "Why ain't you in it?"

  "For th' love of heaven--it's Frenchy!" cried Hopalong. "Skinny, Ireckon them Colts you heard belonged to th' rustlers. _We're_ all herebut a couple."

  "Didn't I leave you over east about five minutes ago, Frenchy?"demanded Skinny, his mouth almost refusing to shut.

  "Shore. I'm east--what's eating at you?" asked Frenchy.

  "Come on--get out of this!" ordered Hopalong, scrambling ahead. "Youfoller me an' you'll be all right."

  "We'll be back to th' ropes if we foller you," growled Skinny. "Of allth' locoed layouts I ever run up against this here mesa top takes th'prize," he finished in disgust.

  Bullets whined and droned above them and frequently hummed down thefissure to search them out, the high, falsetto whine changing quicklyto an angry _spang_! as they struck the wall a slanting blow. Theyseemed to spring away again with renewed strength as they sang theloud, whirring hum of the ricochette, not the almost musical, sad noteof the uninterrupted bullet, but venomous, assertive, insistent. Theshots could be distinguished now, for on one side were the sharpcracks of rifles; on the other a different note, the roar of Colts.

  "This ain't no fit society for six-shooters," Meeker remarked in a lowvoice as they slid over a ridge, and dropped ten feet before they knewit.

  "For th' Lord's sake!" ejaculated Hopalong as he arose to his feet."Step over a rock an' you need wings! Foller a nice trail an' youcan't get out of th' cussed thing! Go west an' you land east, say'so-long' to a friend an' you meet him a minute later!"

  "We ought to have rifles in this game," Meeker remarked, rubbing hisknee-cap ruefully.

  "Yes; an' ladders, ropes, an' balloons," snorted Skinny.

  "Send somebody back for th' guns," suggested Frenchy.

  "Who?" demanded Hopalong. "Will _you_ go?"

  "Me? Why, I don't want no rifle!"

  "Huh! Neither do I," remarked Skinny. "Here, Frenchy, give me a boostup this wall,--take my foot!"

  "Well, don't wiggle so, you piece of string!"

  "That's right! Walk backwards! I ain't no folding step-ladder! How doyou think I'm going to grab that edge if you takes me ten feet awayfrom it?"

  _Spang! Spang! Zing-ing-ing!_

  "Here, you! Lemme down! Want me to get plugged!" yelled Skinny,executing ungraceful and rapid contortions. "Lower me, you fool!"

  "Let go that ridge, then!" retorted Frenchy.

  During the comedy Hopalong had been crawling up a rough part of thewall and he fired before he lost his balance. As he landed on Meeker ayell rang out and the sound of a rifle clattering on rock came tothem. "I got him, Skinny--go ahead now," he grunted, picking himselfup.

  It was not long until they were out of the fissure and crawling downa bowlder-strewn slope. As they came to the bottom they saw a rustlertrying to drag himself to cover and Meeker fired instantly, stoppingthe other short.

  "Why, I thought _I_ stopped him!" exclaimed Hopalong.

  "Reckon you won't rustle no more cows, you thief," growled Meeker,rising to his knees.

  Hopalong pulled him down again as a bullet whizzed through the spacejust occupied by his head. "Don't you get so curious," he warned."Come on--I see Red. He's g
ot his rifle, lucky cuss."

  "Good for him! Wish I had mine," replied Meeker, grinning at Red, whowriggled an elbow as a salutation. In his position Red could hardly beexpected to do much more, since two men were waiting for a shot athim.

  "Well, you can get that gun down there an' have a rifle," Hopalongsuggested, pointing to the Winchester lying close to its former owner."You can do it, all right."

  "Good idea--shoot 'em with their own lead," and the H2 foremandeparted on his hands and knees for the weapon.

  "I hit one--he's trying to put his shoulder together," cried Red,grinning. "What makes you so late--I was th' last one up, an' I'vebeen here a couple of hours."

  "Yo're a sinful liar!" retorted Hopalong. "We stopped to pickblackberries back at that farm house," he finished with witheringsarcasm.

  "You fellers had time to get married an' raise a family," Red replied.He ducked and looked around. "Ah, you coyote--hit him, but not veryhard, I reckon."

  It was daylight when Pete, on the other end of the line, turned andscourged Johnny. "Ain't you got no sense in yore fool head? How can Isee to shoot when you kick around like that an' fill my eyes withdirt! Come down from up there or I'll lick you!"

  "Ah, shut up!" retorted Johnny with a curse. "You'd kick around ifsomebody nicked _yore_ ear!"

  "Well, it serves you right for being so unholy curious!" Pete replied."You come down before he nicks yore eye!"

  "Not before I get square--_Wow!_" and Johnny came down rapidly.

  "Where'd he get you that time?"

  "None of yore business!" growled Johnny.

  "I told you to come--"

  "Shut up!" roared Johnny, glaring at him. "Wish I had that new Sharpsof mine!"

  "Go an' get it, Kid. Yo're nimble," Pete responded. "An' bring up someof th' others, too, while yo're about it."

  "But how long will this fight last, do you reckon?" the other asked,with an air of weighing something.

  "All day with rifles--a week without 'em."

  "Shore yo're right?"

  "Yes; go ahead. There'll be some of th' scrap left for you when youget back."

  "All right,--but don't you get that feller. I want him for what he didto me," and Johnny hastened away. He returned in fifteen minutes withtwo rifles and gave one of them to his companion.

  "They're .45-70's--an' full, too," he remarked. "But I ain't got nomore cartridges for 'em."

  "How'd you get 'em so quick?"

  "Found 'em by th' rope where we come up--didn't have to stop; justpicked 'em up an' came right back," Johnny laughed. "But I wonder howthey got there?"

  "Bet four dollars an' a tooth-pick they means that two thieves gotaway down them ropes. Where's Doc?"

  "Don't know--but I don't think anybody pulled him up here."

  "Then he might 'a stopped them two what owned th' rifles--he would bemad enough to stay there a month if Red forgot him."

  "Yes; waiting to lick Red when he came down," and Johnny crawled upagain to his former position. "Now, you cow-stealing coyote, watchout!" As he settled down he caught sight of his foreman. "Hullo, Buck!What you doing?"

  "Stringing beads for my night shirt," retorted Buck. "You get downfrom up there, you fool!"

  "Can't. I got to pay for--" he ducked, and then fired twice. "Justmissed th' other ear, Pete. But I made him jump a foot--plugged himwhere he sits down. He was moving away. An' blamed if he ain't aGreaser!"

  "Yes; an' you took two shots to do it, when cartridges are so scarce,"Pete grumbled.

  At first several of the rustlers had defended the hut but theconcentrated fire of the attacking force had poured through its northwindow from so many angles that evacuation became necessary. This wasaccomplished through the south window, which opened behind the naturalbreastwork, and at a great cost, for Con Irwin and Sam Austin werekilled in the move.

  The high, steep ridge which formed the rear wall of the hut andoverlooked the roof of the building ran at right angles to the lowbreastwork and extended from the north end of the hut to the edge ofthe mesa, a distance of perhaps fifty feet. On the side farthest fromthe breastwork it sloped to the stream made by the spring and itssurface was covered with bowlders. The rustlers, if they attempted toscale its steep face, would be picked off at short range, but theyrealized that once the enemy gained its top their position would beuntenable except around the turn in the breastwork at the other sideof the mesa. In order to keep the punchers from gaining this positionthey covered the wide cut which separated the ridge from the enemy'sline, and so long as they could command this they were safe.

  After wandering from point to point Hopalong finally came to the edgeof the cut and found Red Connors ensconced in a narrow, shallowdepression on a comparatively high hummock. While they talked hiseyes rested on the ridge across the cut and took in the possibilitiesthat holding it would give.

  "Say, Red, if we could get up on that hill behind th' shack we'd havethis fight over in no time--see how it overlooks everything?"

  "Yes," slowly replied Red. "But we can't cross this barranca--theysweep it from end to end. I tried to get over there, an' I know."

  "But we can try again," Hopalong replied. "You cover me."

  "Now don't be a fool, Hoppy!" his friend retorted. "We can't afford tolose you for no gang of rustlers. It's shore death to try it."

  "Well, you can bet I ain't going to be fool enough to run twenty yardsin th' open," Hopalong replied, starting away. "But I'm going to lookfor a way across, just th' same. Keep me covered."

  "All right, I'll do my best--but don't you try no dash!"

  But the rustlers had not given up the idea of holding the ridgethemselves, and there was another and just as important reason whythey must have it; their only water was in the hut and the spring. Toenter the building was certain death, but if they could command theridge it would be possible to get water, for the spring and rivuletlay on the other side at its base. Hall, well knowing the folly oftrying to scale the steep bank under fire, set about finding anotherway to gain the coveted position. He found a narrow ledge on the faceof the mesa wall, at no place more than eight inches wide, and hebelieved that it led to the rear of the ridge. Finding that the wallabove the narrow foothold was rough and offered precarious fingerholds, he began to edge along it, a hundred feet above the plain. Whenhe had almost reached the end of his trying labors he was discoveredby Billy and Curtis, who lay four hundred yards away in the chaparral,and at once became the target for their rifles. Were it not for thefact that they could not shoot at their best because of their woundsHall would never have finished his attempt, and as it was the bulletsflattened against the wall so close to him that on two occasions hewas struck by spattering lead and flecks of stone. Then he movedaround the turn and was free from that danger, but found that he mustget fifty yards north before he could gain the plateau again. To makematters worse the ledge he was on began to grow narrower and at oneplace disappeared altogether. When he got to the gap he had to clingto the rough wall and move forward inch by inch, twice narrowlymissing a drop to the plain below. But he managed to get across it andstrike the ledge again and in a few minutes more he stepped into acrevice and sat down to rest before he pushed on. When he lookedaround he found that the crevice led northeast and did not run to theridge, and he swore as he realized that he must go through the enemy'sline to gain the position. He would not risk going back the way he hadcome, for he was pretty well tired out. He thought of trying to get tothe other end of the mesa so as to escape by the way the attackingforce had come up, but immediately put it out of his mind as being toocontemptible for further consideration. He arose and moved forward,seeking a way up the wall of the crevice--and turning a corner, bumpedinto Jim Meeker.

  There was no time for weapons and they clinched. Meeker scorned tocall for help and Hall dared make no unnecessary noise while in theenemy's line and so they fought silently. Both tried to draw theirColts, Meeker to use his either as a gun or a club, Hall as a clubonly, and neither succeeded. Both were getting tired when H
all slippedand fell, the H2 foreman on top of him. At that instant Buck Peterspeered down at them from the edge of the fissure and then droppedlightly. He struck Hall over the head with the butt of his Colt andstepped back, grinning.

  "There'll be a lot more of these duets if this fight drags out verylong," Buck said. "This layout is shore loco with all its hiddentrails. Have you got a rope, Jim? We'll tie this gent so he won't hurthisself if you can find one."

  "No. Much obliged, Peters," Meeker replied. "Why, yes I have, too.Here, use this," and he quickly untied his neck-kerchief and gave itto his friend. Buck took the one from around Hall's neck and the twoforemen gave a deft and practical exhibition of how to tie a man so hecannot get loose. Meeker took the Winchester from Hall's back, theColt and the cartridge belt, and gave them to Buck, laughing.

  "Seventy-three model; .44 caliber," he explained. "You'll find itbetter than th' six-shooter, an' you'll have plenty of cartridges forit, too."

  "But don't you want it?" asked Buck, hesitating.

  "Nope. I left one around th' corner here. I can get along with it tillI get my own from th' camp."

  "All right, Jim. I'll be glad to keep this--it'll come in handy."

  "Tough luck, finding them fellers in such a strong layout," Meekergrowled, glancing around at the prisoner. "Ah, got yore eyes open,hey?" he ejaculated as Hall glared at him. "How many of you fellersare up here, anyhow?"

  "Five thousand!" snapped Hall. "It took two of you to get me!" heblazed. "Got my guns, too, ain't you? Hope they bust an' blow yorecussed heads off!"

  "Thanks, stranger, thanks," Buck replied, turning to leave. "ButMeeker had you licked good--I only hurried it to save time. Coming,Jim?"

  "Shore. But do you think this thief can get loose?"

  Buck paused, searching his pockets, and smiled as he brought to lighta small, tight roll of rawhide thongs. "Here, this'll keep him down,"and when they had finished their prisoner could move neither hands norfeet. They looked at him critically and then went away towards thefiring, the rustler cursing them heartily.

  "What's th' matter, Meeker?" asked Buck suddenly, noticing a drawnlook on his companion's face.

  "Oh, I can't help worrying about my girl. She ain't scared of nothingan' she likes to ride. She's too purty to go breezing over a rangethat's covered with rustling skunks. I told her to stay in th' house,but--"

  "Well, why in thunder don't you go back where you can take care ofher?" Buck demanded, sharply. "She's worth more than all th' cows an'rustlers on earth. You ain't needed bad out here, for we can cleanthis up, all right. You know as long as there are fellers like us tohandle a thing like this no man with a girl depending on him hasreally got any right to take chances. I never thought of it before, orI'd 'a told you so. You cut loose for home to-day, an' leave us tofinish this."

  "Well, I'll see how things go to-morrow, then. I can pull out th' nextmorning if everything is all right out here." He hesitated a moment,looking Buck steadily in the eyes, a peculiar expression on his face."Peters, yo're a white man, one of th' whitest I ever met, an' you'vegot a white outfit. I don't reckon we'll have no more trouble aboutthat line of yourn, not nohow. When we settle down to peace an'punching again I'm going to let you show me how to put down some wellsat th' southern base of yore hills, like you said one day. If I canget water, a half as much as you got in th' Jumping Bear, I'll befixed all right. But I want to ask you a fair question, man to man. Iain't no real fool an' I've seen more than I'm supposed to, but I wantto be shore about this, dead shore. What kind of a man is HopalongCassidy when it comes to women?"

  Buck looked at him frankly. "If I had a daughter I wouldn't want abetter man for her."

 
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