Hopalong cassidy, p.33
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.33

           Honoré Morrow



  Doc had not gone far into the chaparral before he realized that hiswork was going to be hard. The trail was much fainter than it wouldhave been if the Mexican were mounted; the moonlight failed topenetrate the chaparral except in irregular patches which made thesurrounding shadows all the deeper by contrast; what little he saw ofthe trail led through places far too small and turning too sharply topermit being followed by a man on horseback, and lastly, he expectedevery minute to be fired upon, and at close range. He paused andthought a while--Antonio would head for Eagle, that being the onlyplace where he could get assistance, and there he would find friends.Doc picked his way out of the labyrinth of tortuous alleys and finallycame to a comparatively wide lane leading southeast. He rode at acanter now and planned how he would strike the fugitive's trailfurther down, and after he had ridden a few miles he was struck by athought that stopped him at once.

  "Hang it all, he might 'a headed for them construction camps or forone of th' north ranches, to steal a cayuse," he muttered. "Th' onlysafe thing for me to do is to jump his trail an' stop guessing, an'even then mebby he'll get me before I get him. That's a clean gamble,an' so here goes," wheeling and retracing his course. When he againfound the trail at the place he had quit it, he dismounted and crawledalong on his hands and knees in order to follow the foot-prints amongthe shadows. Then some animal bounded up in front of him and leapedaway, and as he turned to look after it he caught sight of his horsestanding on its hind legs, and the next instant it was crashingthrough the chaparral. Drawing his Colt and cursing he ran back intime to see the horse gain an alleyway and gallop off. Angeredthoroughly he sent a shot after it and then followed it, finallycapturing it in a blind alley. Roundly cursing the frightened beast heled it back to where he had left the trail and, keeping one hand onthe reins, continued to follow the foot-prints. Day broke when he hadreached the edge of the chaparral and he mounted with a sigh of reliefand rode forward along the now plainly marked trail.

  As he cantered along he kept his eyes searching every possible coverahead of and on both sides of him, watching the trail as far ahead ashe could see it, for the Mexican might have doubled back to get apursuer as he rode past. After an hour of this caution he slapped histhigh and grinned at his foolishness.

  "Now ain't I a cussed fool!" he exclaimed. "A regular, old-woman of acow-puncher! That Greaser won't do no doubling back or ambushing.He'll shore reckon on being trailed by a bunch an' not by a locoed,prize-winning idiot. Why, he's making th' best time he can, an' that'sa-plenty, too. Besides he ain't got no rifle. Lift yore feet, youfour-legged sage hen," he cried, spurring his horse into a lope. Hemechanically felt at the long rifle holster at the saddle flap andthen looked at it quickly. "An' no rifle for _me_, neither! Oh, well,that's all right, too. I don't need any better gun than he's got, th'coyote. Canteen full of water an' saddle flaps stuffed with grub. Why,old cayuse, if you can do without drinking till we get back to th'mesa we'll be plumb happy. Wonder when you was watered last?"

  The trail had been swinging to the north more and more and when Docnoted this fact he grinned again.

  "Nice fool I'd 'a been hunting for these tracks down towards Eagle,wouldn't I? But I wonder where he reckons he's going, anyhow?"

  Sometime later he had his answer, for he found himself riding towardsa water hole and then he knew the reason for the trail swinging north.He let his mount drink its fill and while he waited he noticed a tornsombrero, then a spur, and further away the skeleton of a horse.Looking further he saw the skeleton of a man, all that the coyotes hadleft of the body of Dick Archer, the man killed by Red on the day whenhe and Hopalong had discovered that Thunder Mesa was inhabited. Hepushed around the water hole and then caught sight of something in thesand. Edging his mount over to it he leaned down from the saddle andpicked up a Colt's revolver, fully loaded and as good as the dayArcher died. That air contained no moisture. As he slipped it in asaddle bag he spurred forward at top speed, for on the other side of ahummock he saw the head and then the full figure of a man ploddingaway from him, and it was Antonio.

  The fugitive, hearing hoofbeats, looked back and then dropped to oneknee, his rifle going to his shoulder with the movement.

  "Where in h--l did _he_ get a rifle?" ejaculated Doc, forcing hishorse to buck-jump and pitch so as to be an erratic target. "He didn'thave none when _I_ grabbed him! Th' devil! That cussed skeleton backthere gave _me_ a six-shooter, an' _him_ a rifle!"

  There was a dull smothered report and he saw the Mexican drop the gunand rock back and forth, apparently in agony, and he rode forward attop speed. Jerking his horse to its haunches he leaped off it just asAntonio wiped the blood from his eyes and jerked loose his Remingtonsix-shooter. But his first shot missed and before he could fire againDoc grappled with him.

  This time it was nearly an even break and Doc found that the slimfigure of his enemy was made up of muscles of steel, that the lazyGreaser of the H2 ranch was, when necessary, quick as a cat and filledwith the courage of desperation. It required all of Doc's attentionand skill to keep himself from being shot by the other's gun and whenhe finally managed to wrest the weapon loose he was forced to drop itquickly and grab the same hand, which by some miracle of speed anddexterity now held a knife, a weapon far more deadly in hand-to-handfighting. Once when believing himself to be gone the buckle of hisbelt stayed the slashing thrust and he again fought until the knifewas above his head. Then, suddenly, two fingers flashed at his eyesand missed by so close a margin that Doc's eyebrows were torn open andhis eyes blinded with blood. Instinct stronger than the effect of thedisconcerting blindness made him hold his grip on the knife hand, elsehe would have been missing when his foreman looked for him at themesa. He dug the fingers of his left hand, that had gripped around theMexican's waist, into his enemy's side and squeezed the writhing mantighter to him, wiping the blood from his eyes on the shirt of theother. As he did so he felt Antonio's teeth sink into his shoulder anda sudden great burst of rage swept over him and turned a man alreadydesperate into a berserker, a mad man.

  The grip tightened and then the brawny, bandaged left arm quicklyslipped up and around the Mexican's neck, pressing against the back ofit with all the power of the swelling, knotted muscles. A smotheredcry sobbed into his chest and he bent the knife hand back until themuscles were handicapped by their unnatural position and then,suddenly releasing both neck and hand, leaped back a step and the nextinstant his heavy boot thudded into the Mexican's stomach and hewatched the gasping, ghastly-faced rustler sink down in a nervelessheap, fighting desperately for the breath that almost refused toreturn.

  Doc wiped his eyes free of blood and hastily bound his neck-kerchiefaround the bleeding eyebrows. As he knotted the bandage he steppedforward and picked up both the revolver and knife and threw them farfrom him. Glancing at the rifle he saw that it had burst and knew thatthe greased, dirty barrel had been choked with sand. He remembered howCurley's rifle had been leaded by the same cause and fierce joy surgedthrough him at this act of retributive justice. He waited patiently,sneering at the groaning Mexican and taunting him until the desperateman had gained his feet.

  Doc stepped back a pace, tossing the burst rifle from him, and grinnedmalignantly. "Take yore own time, Greaser. Get all yore wind an'strength. _I_ ain't no murderer--I don't ride circles around a man an'pot-shoot him. I'm going to kill you fair, with my hands, like I said.Th' stronger you are th' better I'll feel when I leave you. An' if youshould leave me out here on th' sand, all right--but it's got to befair."

  When fully recovered Antonio began the struggle by leaping forward,thinking his enemy unprepared. Doc faced him like a flash and bentlow, barely escaping the other's kick. They clinched and swayed to andfro, panting, straining, every ounce of strength called into play.Then Doc got the throat hold again and took a shower of blowsunflinchingly. His eyebrows, bleeding again, blinded him, but he couldfeel if he could not see. Slowly the resistance weakened and finallyDoc wrestled Antonio
to his knees, bending over the Mexican and slowlytightening his grip; and the man who had murdered Curley went throughall he had felt at the base of the mesa wall, at last paying with hislife for his career of murder, theft, fear, and hypocrisy.

  Doc arose and went to his horse. Leading the animal back to the sceneof the struggle he stood a while, quietly watching the Mexican for anysign of life, although he knew there would be none.

  "Well, bronc, Curley's squared," he muttered, swinging into the saddleand turning the animal's head. "Come on, get out of this!" heexclaimed, quirting hard. As he passed the water hole he bowed to thebroken skeleton. "Much obliged, stranger, whoever you was. Yore lastplay was a good one."

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