Hopalong cassidy, p.8
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.8
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER VIII

  ON THE EDGE OF THE DESERT

  Thunder Mesa was surrounded by almost impenetrable chaparrals,impenetrable to horse and rider except along certain alleys, but nottoo dense for a man on foot. These stretched away on all sides as faras the eye could see and made the desolate prospect all the moreforbidding. It rose a sheer hundred feet into the air, its sidessmooth rock and affording no footing except a narrow, precarious ledgewhich slanted up the face of the southern end, too broken and narrowto permit of a horse ascending, but passable to a man.

  The top of the mesa was about eight acres in extent and was rocky anduneven, cut by several half-filled fissures which did not show on thewalls. Uninviting as the top might be considered it had one featurewhich was uncommon, for the cataclysm of nature which had caused thismass of rock to tower above the plain had given to it a spring whichbubbled out of a crack in the rock and into a basin cut by itself;from there it flowed down the wall and into a shallow depression inthe rock below, where it made a small water hole before flowingthrough the chaparrals, where it sank into the sand and became losthalf a mile from its source.

  At the point where the slanting ledge met the top of the mesa was ahut built of stones and adobe, its rear wall being part of aprojecting wall of rock. Narrow, deep loopholes had been made in theother walls and a rough door, massive and tight fitting, closed thesmall doorway. The roof, laid across cedar poles which ran from wallto wall, was thick and flat and had a generous layer of adobe to repelthe rays of the scorching sun. Placed as it was the hut overlooked thetrail leading to it from the plain, and should it be defended bydetermined men, assault by that path would be foolhardy.

  On the plain around the mesa extended a belt of sparse grass, somehundreds of feet wide at the narrowest point and nearly a mile at thewidest, over which numerous rocks and bowlders and clumps of chaparrallay scattered. On this pasture were about three score cattle, most ofthem being yearlings, but all bearing the brand HQQ and a diagonal earcut. These were being watched by a careless cowboy, although it wasbelittling their scanty intelligence to suppose that they would leavethe water and grass, poor as the latter was, to stray off onto thesurrounding desert.

  At the base of the east wall of the mesa was a rough corral of cedarpoles set on end, held together by rawhide strips, which, put ongreen, tightened with the strength of steel cables when dried by thesun. In its shadow another man watched the cattle while he worked ina desultory way at repairing a saddle. Within the corral a man wasbending over a cow while two others held it down. Its feet were tiedand it was panting, wild-eyed and frightened. The man above it steppedto a glowing fire a few paces away and took from it a hot iron, withwhich he carefully traced over the small brand already borne by theanimal. With a final flourish he stepped back, regarding the work withapproval, and thrust the iron into the sand. Taking a knife from hispocket he trimmed the V notch in its ear to the same slanting cut seenon the cattle outside on the pasture. He tossed the bit of cartilagefrom him, stepping back and nodding to his companions, who loosenedthe ropes and leaped back, allowing the animal to escape.

  Shaw, who had altered the H2 brand, turned to one of the others andlaughed heartily. "Good job, eh Manuel? Th' H2 won't know their cownow!"

  Manuel grinned. "_Si, si_; eet ees!" he cried. He was cook for thegang, a bosom friend of Benito and Antonio, slight, cadaverous, and asshifty-eyed as his friends. In his claw-like fingers he held a huskcigarette, without which he was seldom seen. He spoke very little butwatched always, his eyes usually turned eastward. He seemed to bealmost as much afraid of the east as Cavalry was of the west, wherethe desert lay. He ridiculed Cavalry's terror of the desert andexplained why the east was to be feared the more, for the easterndanger rode horses and could come to them [Transcriber's note: Textseems to be missing here in the original.] "Hope 'Tony fixes up thatline war purty soon, eh, Cavalry?" remarked Shaw, suddenly turning tothe third man in the group.

  Cavalry was staring moodily towards the desert and did not hear him.

  "Cavalry! Get that desert off yore mind! Do you want to go loco? Who'sgoing to take th' next drive an' bring back th' flour, you orClausen?"

  "It's Clausen's turn next."

  Manuel slouched away and began to climb the slanting path up the mesa.Shaw watched him reflectively and laughed. "There he goes again. Beatsth' devil how scared he is, spending most of his time on th' lookout.Why, he's blamed near as scared of them punchers as you are of thatskillet out yonder."

  "We ain't got no kick, have we?" retorted Cavalry. "Ain't he lookingout for us at th' same time?"

  "I don't know about that," Shaw replied, frowning. "I ain't got nolove for Manuel. If he saw 'em coming an' could get away he'd sneakoff without saying a word. It'd give him a chance to get away while weheld 'em."

  "We'll see him go, then; there's only one way down."

  "Oh, th' devil with him!" Shaw exclaimed. "What do you think of th'chances of startin' that range war?"

  "From what th' Greaser says it looks good."

  "Yes. But he'll get caught some day, or night, an' pay for it with hislife."

  Cavalry shrugged his shoulders. "I reckon so; but he's only aGreaser," he said, coldly. "I'd ruther they'd get him out there thanto follow him here. If he goes, I hope it's sudden, so he won't havetime to squeal."

  "He's a malignant devil, an' he hates that H2 outfit like blazes,"replied Shaw. "An' now he's got a pizen grudge agin' th' Bar-20. Hemight let his hate get th' upper hand an' start in to square things;if he does that he'll over-reach, an' get killed."

  "I reckon so; but he's clever as th' devil hisself."

  "Well, if he gets too big-headed out here Hall will take care of him,all right," Shaw laughed.

  "I don't like th' Greasers he's saddled us with," Cavalry remarked."There's Manuel an' Benito. One of 'em is here all th' time an' closeto you, too, if you remember. Then he's going to put two or three onth' range; why?"

  "Suspects we'll steal some of his share, I reckon. An' if he gets introuble with us they'll be on his side. Oh, he's no fool."

  "If he 'tends to business an' forgets his grudges it'll be a goodthing for us. That Bar-20 has got an awful number of cows. An' there'sth' H2, an' th' other two up north."

  "We've tackled th' hardest job first--th' Bar-20," replied Shaw,laughing. "I used to know some fellers what said that outfit couldn'tbe licked. They died trying to prove themselves liars."

  "Wonder how much money 'Tony totes around on him?" asked Cavalry.

  "Not much; he's too wise. He's cached it somewhere. Was you reckonin'on takin' it away from him at th' end?"

  "No, no. I just wondered what he did with it."

  The man at the gate looked up. "Here comes 'Tony."

  Shaw and his companion rode forward to meet him.

  "What's up?" cried Shaw.

  "I have started th' war," Antonio replied, a cruel smile playing overhis sharp face. "They'll be fightin' purty soon."

  "That's good," responded Shaw. "Tell us about it."

  Antonio, with many gestures and much conceit, told of the trick he hadplayed on Hopalong, and he took care to lose no credit in the telling.He passed lightly over the trouble between Doc and the Bar-20 puncher,but intimated that he had caused it. He finished by saying: "You sendto th' same place to-morrow an' Benito'll have some cows for you.They'll soon give us our chance, an' it'll be easy then."

  "Mebby it will be easy," replied Shaw, "but that rests with you.You've got to play yore cards plumb cautious. You've done fine so far,but if you ain't careful you'll go to h--l in a hurry an' take us withyou. You can't fool 'em all th' time, for someday they'll getsuspicious an' swap ideas. An' when they do that it means fight forus."

  Antonio smiled and thought how easy it might be, if the outfits grewsuspicious and he learned of it in time, to discover tracks and otherthings and tell Meeker he was sure there was organized rustling andthat all tracks pointed to Thunder Mesa. He could ride across theborder before any of his partners had time
to confess and implicatehim. But he assured Shaw that he would be careful, adding: "No, Iwon't make no mistakes. I hate 'em all too much to grow careless."

  "That's just where you'll miss fire," the other rejoined. "You'llpamper yore grouch till you forget everything else. You better besatisfied to get square by taking their cows."

  "Don't worry about that."

  "All right. Here's yore money for th' last herd," he said, diggingdown into his pocket and handing the Mexican some gold coins. "Youknow how to get more."

  Antonio took the money, considered a moment and then pocketed it,laughing. "Good! But I mus' go back now. I won't be out here againvery soon; it's too risky. Send me my share by Benito," he called overhis shoulder as he started off.

  The two rustlers watched him and Cavalry shook his head slowly. "I'mplumb scairt he'll bungle it. If he does we'll get caught like rats ina trap."

  "If we're up there we can hold off a thousand," Shaw replied, lookingup the wall.

  "Here comes Hall," announced the man at the gate.

  The newcomer swept up and leaped from his hot and tired horse. "Ifound them other ranches are keeping their men ridin' over th' rangean' along th' trails--I near got caught once," he reported. "We'llhave to be careful how we drives to th' construction camps."

  "They'll get tired watchin' after a while," replied the leader. "'Tonywas just here."

  "I don't care if he's in h--l," retorted Hall. "He'll peach on us tosave his mangy skin, one of these days."

  "We've got to chance it."

  "Where's Frisco?"

  "Down to Eagle for grub to tide us over for a few days."

  "Huh!" exclaimed Hall. "Everything considered we're goin' to fightlike th' devil out here someday. Down to Eagle!"

  "We can fight!" retorted Shaw. "An' if we has to run for it, there'sth' desert."

  "I'd ruther die right here fighting than on that desert," remarkedCavalry, shuddering. "When I go I want to go quick, an' not betortured for 'most a week." He had an insistent and strong horror ofthat gray void of sand and alkali so near at hand and so far across.He was nervous and superstitious, and it seemed always to be callinghim. Many nights he had awakened in a cold sweat because he haddreamed it had him, and often it was all he could do to resist goingout to it.

  Shaw laughed gratingly. "You don't like it, do you?"

  Hall smiled and walked towards the slanting trail.

  "Why, it ain't bad," he called over his shoulder.

  "It's an earthly hell!" Cavalry exclaimed. He glanced up the mesawall. "We can hold that till we starve, or run out of cartridges--thenwhat?"

  "You're a calamity howler!" snapped Shaw. "That desert has wore asaddle sore on yore nerves somethin' awful. Don't think about it somuch! It can't come to you, an' you ain't going to it," he laughed,trying to wipe out the suggestion of fear that had been awakened inhim by the thought of the desert as a place of refuge. He had found awanderer, denuded of clothes, sweating blood and hopelessly mad oneday when he and Cavalry had ridden towards the desert; and the sightof the unfortunate's dying agonies had remained with him ever since."We ain't going to die out here--they won't look for us where theydon't think there's any grass or water."

  Fragments of Manuel's song floated down to them as they strode towardsthe trail, and reassured that all would be well, their momentarydepression was banished by the courage of their hearts.

  The desert lay beyond, quiet; ominous by its very silence and inertia;a ghastly, malevolent aspect in its every hollow; patient,illimitable, scorching; fascinating in its horrible calm, sinister,forbidding, hellish. It had waited through centuries--and was stillwaiting, like the gigantic web of the Spider of Thirst.

 
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