Hopalong cassidy, p.36
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.36

           Honoré Morrow



  Fifty yards behind the firing line of the besiegers a small fireburned brightly in a steep-walled basin, casting grotesque shadows onthe rock walls as men passed and re-passed. Overhead a silvery moonlooked down at the cheerful blaze and from the cracks and crevices ofthe plain came the tuneful chorus of Nature's tiny musicians, soundingstartlingly out of place where men were killing and dying. A littleaside from the others three men in consultation reached a mutualunderstanding and turned to face their waiting friends just as PeteWilson ran into the lighted circle.

  "Hey, Johnny is in th' hut with th' cartridges," he exclaimed, tellingthe story in a few words.

  "Good for th' Kid!"

  "It's easy now, thanks to him."

  "Why didn't he tell us he was going to try that?" demanded Buck."Taking a chance like that on his own hook!"

  "Scared you wouldn't let him," Pete laughed. "Red an' me backed him upwith our rifles th' best we could. He had a fight in there, too,judging from th' shot. He had me an' Red worried, thinking he might 'abeen hit, but he was cussing Red when I left."

  "Well, that helps us a lot," Buck replied. "Now I want three of you togo to camp an' bring back grub, rifles, an' cartridges. Pete, Skinny,Chick--yo're th' ones. Leave yore canteens here an' hustle! Hopalong,you an' Meeker go off somewhere an' get some sleep. I'll call youbefore it gets light. Frenchy, me an' you will take all th' canteensat hand an' fill 'em while we've got time. They won't be able to seeus now. We'll pass Red an' get his, too. Come on."

  When they returned they dropped the dripping vessels and begancleaning their Colts. That done they filled their pipes and satcross-legged, staring into the fire. A snatch of Johnny's exultantsong floated to them and Buck smiled, laying his pipe aside andrising. "Well, Frenchy, things'll happen in chunks when th' sun comesup. Something like old times, eh? There ain't no Deacon Rankin orSlippery Trendley here--" he stopped, having mentioned a name he hadpromised himself never to say in Frenchy's presence, and thencontinued in a subdued voice, bitterly scourging himself for hisblunder. "They're stronger than I thought, an' they've shot us uppurty well, killed Willis an' Cross, an' made fools of us for weeks onth' range; but this is th' end of it all. _We_ deal to-morrow, an' wecut th' cards to-night."

  Frenchy was strangely silent, staring fixedly at the fire. Buckglanced at him in strong sympathy, for he knew what his slip of thetongue had awakened in his friend's heart. Frenchy had adored hisyoung wife and since the day he had found her foully murdered in hiscabin on the Double Y he had been another man. When the moment of hisvengeance had come, when he had her murderer in his power and saw hisfriends ride away to leave him alone with Trendley that day over inthe Panhandle, to exact what payment he wished, then he had become hisold self for a while, but it was not long before he again sank intohis habitual carelessness, waiting patiently for death to remove hisburden and make him free. His vengeance did not bring him back hiswife.

  Buck shook his head slowly and affectionately placed a heavy hand onhis friend's shoulder. "Frenchy, won't you ever forget it? It hurts meto see you this way so much. It's over twenty years now an' day afterday I've grieved to see you so unhappy. You paid him for it in yoreown way. Can't you forget it now?"

  "Yes; I killed him, an' slow. He never thought a man could make th'payment so hard, not even his black heart could realize it till hefelt it," Frenchy replied, slowly and calmly. "He took th' heart outof me; he killed my wife and made my life a living hell. All I hadworth living for went that day, an' if I could kill him over againevery day for a year it wouldn't square th' score. I reckon I ain'tbuilt like other men. You never heard me whimper. I kept my poison tomyself an' tried to do the best that was in me. An' you ain't neverheard me say what I'm going to tell you now. I never believed inhunches, but something tells me that I'll leave all this behind mebefore another day passes. I felt it somehow when we left th' ranchan' it's been growing stronger every hour since. If I do pass outto-morrow, I want you to be glad of it, same as I would be if I couldknow. I'm going back to th' line now an' watch them fellers. So long."

  The two men, bosom friends for thirty years, looked in each other'seyes as they grasped hands, and it was Buck's eyes that grew moist anddropped first. "So long, Frenchy--an' good luck, as you see it."

  The foreman watched his friend until lost in the darkness and hethought he heard him singing, but of this he was not sure. He turnedand stared at the fire for a minute, silent, immovable, and thenbreathed heavily.

  "I never saw anybody carry a grief so long, never," he soliloquized."I reckon it sort of turned his brain, coming so sudden an' in such adamnable way. I know it made me see red for a week. If I had onlystayed there that day! When he got Trendley in th' Panhandle I hopedhe would change, an' he did for a while, but that was all. He livedfor that alone, an' since then I reckon he's felt he hadn't nothing todo with his life. He has been mixed up in a bunch of gun-argumentssince then; but he didn't have no luck. Well, Frenchy, I hate to losea friend like you, but here's better luck to-morrow, luck as you seeit, friend!"

  He kicked the fire together and was about to add fuel when he heardtwo quick shots and raised his head to listen. Then a ringing whoopcame from the front and he recognized Johnny's voice. He heard Redcall out and Johnny reply and he smiled grimly as he went towards thesounds. "Reckon somebody tried to get in that shack, like a fool. Hemust 'a been disgusted. How that Kid shore does love a fight!"

  Joyous Joe got a juniper jag, A-jogging out of Jaytown,

  came down the wind.

  "Did you get him, Kid?" cried Buck from the firing line.

  "Nope; got his hat, though--but I shore got Clausen an' all of theircartridges!"

  "Can you keep them shells alone?"

  "_Can_ I? _Wow_, ask th' other fellers! An' I'm eating jerkedbeef--sorry I can't give you some."

  "Shut up about eating, you pig!" blazed Red, who was hungry.

  "You'll eat hot lead to-morrow, all of you!" jeered a rustler's voice.

  Red fired at the sound. "Take yourn now!" he shouted.

  "You can't hit a cow!" came the taunt, while other strange voicesjoined in.

  Buck found Red and ordered him to camp to get some sleep before Peteand the others returned, feeling that he and Frenchy were enough towatch. Red demurred sleepily and finally compromised by lying down atBuck's side, where he would be handy in case of trouble. Buck waitedpatiently, too heavily laden with responsibility to feel the need ofrest, and when he judged that three hours had passed began to worryabout the men he had sent to camp. Drawing back into a crevice hestruck a match and looked at his watch.

  "Twelve o'clock!" he muttered. "I'll wake Red an' see how Frenchy isgetting on. Time them fellers were back too."

  Frenchy changed his position uneasily and peered at the distantbreastwork, hearing the low murmur of voices behind it. All night hehad heard their curses, but a new note made him sit up and watch moreclosely. The moon was coming up now and he could see better. Suddenlyhe caught the soft flash of a silver sombrero buckle and firedinstantly. Curses and a few shots replied and a new, querulous voicewas added to the murmur, a voice expressing pain.

  "I reckon you got him," remarked a quiet voice at his side as Buck laydown beside him. The foreman had lost some time in wandering along thewhole line of defence and was later than he had expected.

  "Yes; I reckon so," Frenchy replied without interest, and they lapsedinto silence, the eloquent silence of men who understand each other.They heard a shot from below and knew that Billy or Curtis was aboutand smiled grimly at the rising murmur it caused among the rustlers.Buck glanced at the sky and frowned. "There can't be more'n five orsix left by now, an' if it wasn't for th' moon I'd get th' boystogether an' rush that bunch." He was silent for a moment and thenadded, half to himself, "but it won't be long now, an' we can wait."

  Distant voices heralded the return of Pete and his companions and theforeman arose. "Frenchy, I'm going to place th' boys an' start
thingsright away. We've been quiet too long."

  "Might as well," Frenchy replied, "I'm getting sleepy--straining myeyes too much, I reckon, trying to see a little better than I can."

  "Here's th' stuff, Buck," Skinny remarked as the foreman entered thecircle of light. "Two days' fighting rations, fifty rounds for th'rifles an' fifty for th' Colts. Chick is coming back there with th'rifles."

  "Good. Had yore grub yet?" Buck asked. "All right--didn't reckon you'dwait for it. What kept you so long? You've been gone over threehours."

  "We was talking to Billy an' Curtis," Skinny remarked. "They'reanxious to have it over. They've been spelling each other an' gettingsome sleep. We saw Doc's saddle piled on top of th' grub when we gotto camp. It wasn't there when we all left th' other night. Billy saysDoc came running past last night, saddled up an' rode off. He got backthis afternoon wearing a bandage around his head. He didn't say wherehe had been, but now he is at th' bottom of th' trail waiting for ashot, so Billy says. Pete reckons he went after somebody that gotdown last night, one of them fellers that left their rifles up here byth' ropes."

  "Mebby yo're right," replied Buck, hurriedly. "Get ready to fight. Iain't going to wait for daylight when this moonlight will answer.Pete, Skinny, Chick--you get settled out on th' east end, where me an'Frenchy will join you. We'll have this game over before long."

  He strode away and returned with Hopalong and Meeker, who hastily ateand drank and, filling their belts with cartridges and taking theirown rifles from the pile Chick had brought, departed toward the cutwith orders for Red to come in.

  Pete and his companions moved away as Frenchy, shortly followed byRed, came in and reported.

  "Eat an' drink, lively. Red, you get back to yore place an' take careof th' cut," Buck ordered. "Frenchy, you come out east with th' rest.There's cartridges for you both an' there's yore own rifle, Frenchy."

  "Glad yo're going to start things," chewed Red through a mouthful offood. "It's about time we show them fellers we can live up to ourreputations. Any of 'em coming my way won't go far."

  Frenchy filled his pipe and lighted it from a stick he took out of thefire and as it began to draw well he stepped quickly forward and heldout his hand. "Good luck, Red. They can't fight long."

  "Same to you, Frenchy," Red cried, grasping the hand. "Yo're right,there. You look plumb wide awake, like Buck--how'd you do it?"

  Frenchy laughed and strode after his foreman, Red watching him. "He'sacting funny--reckon it's th' sleep he's missed. Well, here goes," andhe, too, went off to the firing line.

  --An' aching thoughts pour in on me, Of Whiskey Bill,

  came Johnny's song from the hut--and the fight began again.

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