By Clarence E. Mulford
AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED TO "M. D."
ON A STRANGE RANGE
Two tired but happy punchers rode into the coast town and dismounted in front of the best hotel. Putting up their horses as quickly as possible they made arrangements for sleeping quarters and then hastened out to attend to business. Buck had been kind to delegate this mission to them and they would feel free to enjoy what pleasures the town might afford. While at that time the city was not what it is now, nevertheless it was capable of satisfying what demands might be made upon it by two very active and zealous cow-punchers. Their first experience began as they left the hotel.
"Hey, you cow-wrastlers!" said a not unpleasant voice, and they turned suspiciously as it continued: "You've shore got to hang up them guns with the hotel clerk while you cavorts around on this range. This is fence country."
They regarded the speaker's smiling face and twinkling eyes and laughed. "Well, yo're the foreman if you owns that badge," grinned Hopalong, cheerfully. "We don't need no guns, nohow, in this town, we don't. Plumb forgot we was toting them. But mebby you can tell us where lawyer Jeremiah T. Jones grazes in daylight?"
"Right over yonder, second floor," replied the marshal. "An' come to think of it, mebby you better leave most of yore cash with the guns—somebody'll take it away from you if you don't. It'd be an awful temptation, an' flesh is weak."
"Huh!" laughed Johnny, moving back into the hotel to leave his gun, closely followed by Hopalong. "Anybody that can turn that little trick on me an' Hoppy will shore earn every red cent; why, we've been to Kansas City!"
As they emerged again Johnny slapped his pocket, from which sounded a musical jingling. "If them weak people try anything on us, we may come between them and their money!" he boasted.
"From the bottom of my heart I pity you," called the marshal, watching them depart, a broad smile illuminating his face. "In about twenty-four hours they'll put up a holler for me to go git it back for 'em," he muttered. "An' I almost believe I'll do it, too. I ain't never seen none of that breed what ever left a town without empty pockets an' aching heads—an' the smarter they think they are the easier they fall." A fleeting expression of discontent clouded the smile, for the lure of the open range is hard to resist when once a man has ridden free under its sky and watched its stars. "An' I wish I was one of 'em again," he muttered, sauntering on.
Jeremiah T. Jones, Esq., was busy when his door opened, but he leaned back in his chair and smiled pleasantly at their bow-legged entry, waving them towards two chairs. Hopalong hung his sombrero on a letter press and tipped his chair back against the wall; Johnny hung grimly to his hat, sat stiffly upright until he noticed his companion's pose, and then, deciding that everything was all right, and that Hopalong was better up in etiquette than himself, pitched his sombrero dexterously over the water pitcher and also leaned against the wall. Nobody could lose him when it came to doing the right thing.
"Well, gentlemen, you look tired and thirsty. This is considered good for all human ailments of whatsoever nature, degree, or wheresoever located, in part or entirety, ab initio," Mr. Jones remarked, filling glasses. There was no argument and when the glasses were empty, he continued: "Now what can I do for you? From the Bar-20? Ah, yes; I was expecting you. We'll get right at it," and they did. Half an hour later they emerged on the street, free to take in the town, or to have the town take them in,—which was usually the case.
"What was that he said for us to keep away from?" asked Johnny with keen interest.
"Sh! Not so loud," chuckled Hopalong, winking prodigiously.
Johnny pulled tentatively at his upper lip but before he could reply his companion had accosted a stranger.
"Friend, we're pilgrims in a strange land, an' we don't know the trails. Can you tell us where the docks are?"
"Certainly; glad to. You'll find them at the end of this street," and he smilingly waved them towards the section of the town which Jeremiah T. Jones had specifically and earnestly warned them to avoid.
"Wonder if you're as thirsty as me?" solicitously inquired Hopalong of his companion.
"I was just wondering the same," replied Johnny. "Say," he confided in a lower voice, "blamed if I don't feel sort of lost without that Colt. Every time I lifts my right laig she goes too high—don't feel natural, nohow."
"Same here; I'm allus feeling to see if I lost it," Hopalong responded. "There ain't no rubbing, no weight, nor nothing."
"Wish I had something to put in its place, blamed if I don't."
"Why, now yo're talking—mebby we can buy something," grinned Hopalong, happily. "Here's a hardware store—come on in."
The clerk looked up and laid aside his novel. "Good-morning, gentlemen; what can I do for you? We've just got in some fine new rifles," he suggested.
The customers exchanged looks and it was Hopalong who first found his voice. "Nope, don't want no rifles," he replied, glancing around. "To tell the truth, I don't know just what we do want, but we want something, all right—got to have it. It's a funny thing, come to think of it; I can't never pass a hardware store without going in an' buying something. I've been told my father was the same way, so I must inherit it. It's the same with my pardner, here, only he gets his weakness from his whole family, and it's different from mine. He can't pass a saloon without going in an' buying something."
"Yo're a cheerful liar, an' you know it," retorted Johnny. "You know the reason why I goes in saloons so much—you'd never leave 'em if I didn't drag you out. He inherits that weakness from his grandfather, twice removed," he confided to the astonished clerk, whose expression didn't know what to express.
"Let's see: a saw?" soliloquized Hopalong. "Nope; got lots of 'em, an' they're all genuine Colts," he mused thoughtfully. "Axe? Nails? Augurs? Corkscrews? Can we use a corkscrew, Johnny? Ah, thought I'd wake you up. Now, what was it Cookie said for us to bring him? Bacon? Got any bacon? Too bad—oh, don't apologize; it's all right. Cold chisels—that's the thing if you ain't got no bacon. Let me see a three-pound cold chisel about as big as that,"—extending a huge and crooked forefinger,—"an' with a big bulge at one end. Straight in the middle, circling off into a three-cornered wavy edge on the other side. What? Look here! You can't tell us nothing about saloons that we don't know. I want a three-pound cold chisel, any kind, so it's cold."
Johnny nudged him. "How about them wedges?"
"Twenty-five cents a pound," explained the clerk, groping for his bearings.
"They might do," Hopalong muttered, forcing the article mentioned into his holster. "Why, they're quite hocus-pocus. You take the brother to mine, Johnny."
"Feels good, but I dunno," his companion muttered. "Little wide at the sharp end. Hey, got any loose shot?" he suddenly asked, whereat Hopalong beamed and the clerk gasped. It didn't seem to matter whether they bought bacon, cold chisels, wedges, or shot; yet they looked sober.
"Yes, sir; what size?"
"Three pounds of shot, I said!" Johnny rumbled in his throat. "Never mind what size."
"We never care about size when we buy shot," Hopalong smiled. "But, Johnny, wouldn't them little screws be better?" he asked, pointing eagerly.
"Mebby; reckon we better get 'em mixed—half of each," Johnny gravely replied. "Anyhow, there ain't much difference."
The clerk had been behind that counter for four years, and executing and filling orders had become a habit with him; else he would have given them six pounds of cold chisels and corkscrews, mixed. His mouth was still open when he weighed out the screws.
"Mix 'em! Mix 'em!" roared Hopalong, and the stunned clerk complied, and charged them for the whole purchase at the rate set down for screws.
Hopalong started to pour his purchase into the holster which, being open at the bottom, gayly passed the first instalment through to the floor. He stopped and looked appealingly at Johnny, and Johnny, in pain from holding back screams of laughter, looked at him indignantly. Then a guileless smile crept over Hopalong's face and he stopped the opening with a wad of wrapping paper and disposed of the shot and screws, Johnny following his laudable example. After haggling a moment over the bill they paid it and walked out, to the apparent joy of the clerk.
"Don't laugh, Kid; you'll spoil it all," warned Hopalong, as he noted signs of distress on his companion's face. "Now, then; what was it we said about thirst? Come on; I see one already."
Having entered the saloon and ordered, Hopalong beamed upon the bartender and shoved his glass back again. "One more, kind stranger; it's good stuff."
"Yes, feels like a shore-enough gun," remarked Johnny, combining two thoughts in one expression, which is brevity.
The bartender looked at him quickly and then stood quite still and listened, a puzzled expression on his face.
Tic—tickety-tick—tic-tic, came strange sounds from the other side of the bar. Hopalong was intently studying a chromo on the wall and Johnny gazed vacantly out of the window.
"What's that? What in the deuce is that?" quickly demanded the man with the apron, swiftly reaching for his bung-starter.
Tickety-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, the noise went on, and Hopalong, slowly rolling his eyes, looked at the floor. A screw rebounded and struck his foot, while shot were rolling recklessly.
"Them's making the noise," Johnny explained after critical survey.
"Hang it! I knowed we ought to 'a' got them wedges!" Hopalong exclaimed, petulantly, closing the bottom of the sheath. "Why, I won't have no gun left soon 'less I holds it in." The complaint was plaintive.
"Must be filtering through the stopper," Johnny remarked. "But don't it sound nice, especially when it hits that brass cuspidor!"
The bartender, grasping the mallet even more firmly, arose on his toes and peered over the bar, not quite sure of what he might discover. He had read of infernal machines although he had never seen one. "What the blazes!" he exclaimed in almost a whisper; and then his face went hard. "You get out of here, quick! You've had too much already! I've seen drunks, but—G'wan! Get out!"
"But we ain't begun yet," Hopalong interposed hastily. "You see—"
"Never mind what I see! I'd hate to see what you'll be seeing before long. God help you when you finish!" rather impolitely interrupted the bartender. He waved the mallet and made for the end of the counter with no hesitancy and lots of purpose in his stride. "G'wan, now! Get out!"
"Come on, Johnny; I'd shoot him only we didn't put no powder with the shot," Hopalong remarked sadly, leading the way out of the saloon and towards the hardware store.
"You better get out!" shouted the man with the mallet, waving the weapon defiantly. "An' don't you never come back again, neither," he warned.
"Hey, it leaked," Hopalong said pleasantly as he closed the door of the hardware store behind him, whereupon the clerk jumped and reached for the sawed-off shotgun behind the counter. Sawed-off shotguns are great institutions for arguing at short range, almost as effective as dynamite in clearing away obstacles.
"Don't you come no nearer!" he cried, white of face. "You git out, or I'll let this leak, an' give you all shot, an' more than you can carry!"
"Easy! Easy there, pardner; we want them wedges," Hopalong replied, somewhat hurriedly. "The others ain't no good; I choked on the very first screw. Why, I wouldn't hurt you for the world," Hopalong assured him, gazing interestedly down the twin tunnels.
Johnny leaned over a nail keg and loosed the shot and screws into it, smiling with childlike simplicity as he listened to the tintinnabulation of the metal shower among the nails. "It does drop when you let go of it," he observed.
"Didn't I tell you it would? I allus said so," replied Hopalong, looking back to the clerk and the shotgun. "Didn't I, stranger?"
The clerk's reply was a guttural rumbling, ninety per cent profanity, and Hopalong, nodding wisely, picked up two wedges. "Johnny, here's yore gun. If this man will stop talking to hisself and drop that lead-sprayer long enough to take our good money, we'll wear em."
He tossed a gold coin on the table, and the clerk, still holding tightly to the shotgun, tossed the coin into the cash box and cautiously slid the change across the counter. Hopalong picked up the money and, emptying his holster into the nail keg, followed his companion to the street, in turn followed slowly by the suspicious clerk. The door slammed shut behind them, the bolt shot home, and the clerk sat down on a box and cogitated.
Hopalong hooked his arm through Johnny's and started down the street. "I wonder what that feller thinks about us, anyhow. I'm glad Buck sent Red over to El Paso instead of us. Won't he be mad when we tell him all the fun we've had?" he asked, grinning broadly.
They were to meet Red at Dent's store on the way back and ride home together.
They were strangely clad for their surroundings, the chaps glaringly out of place in the Seaman's Port, and winks were exchanged by the regular habitues when the two punchers entered the room and called for drinks. They were very tired and a little under the weather, for they had made the most of their time and spent almost all of their money; but any one counting on robbing them would have found them sober enough to look out for themselves. Night had found them ready to go to the hotel, but on the way they felt that they must have one more bracer, and finish their exploration of Jeremiah T. Jones' tabooed section. The town had begun to grow wearisome and they were vastly relieved when they realized that the rising sun would see them in the saddle and homeward bound, headed for God's country, which was the only place for cow-punchers after all.
"Long way from the home port, ain't you, mates?" queried a tar of Hopalong. Another seaman went to the bar to hold a short, whispered consultation with the bartender, who at first frowned and then finally nodded assent.
"Too far from home, if that's what yo're driving at," Hopalong replied. "Blast these hard trails—my feet are shore on the prod. Ever meet my side pardner? Johnny, here's a friend of mine, a salt-water puncher, an' he's welcome to the job, too."
Johnny turned his head ponderously and nodded. "Pleased to meet you, stranger. An' what'll you all have?"
"Old Holland, mate," replied the other, joining them.
"All up!" invited Hopalong, waving them forward. "Might as well do things right or not at all. Them's my sentiments, which I holds as proper. Plain rye, general, if you means me," he replied to the bartender's look of inquiry.
He drained the glass and then made a grimace. "Tastes a little off—reckon it's my mouth; nothing tastes right in this cussed town. Now, up on our—" He stopped and caught at the bar. "Holy smoke! That's shore alcohol!"
Johnny was relaxing and vainly trying to command his will power. "Something's wrong; what's the matter?" he muttered sleepily.
"Guess you meant beer; you ain't used to drinking whiskey," grinned the bartender, derisively, and watching him closely.
"I can—drink as much whiskey as—" and, muttering, Johnny slipped to the floor.
"That wasn't whiskey!" cried Hopalong, sleepily, "that liquor was fixed!" he shouted, sudden anger bracing him. "An' I'm going to fix you, too!" he added, reaching for his gun, and drawing forth a wedge. His sailor friend leaped at him, to go down like a log, and Hopalong, seething with rage, wheeled and threw the weapon at the man behind the bar, who also went down. The wedge, glancing from his skull, swept a row of bottles and glasses from the shelf and, caroming, went through the window.
In an instant Hopalong was the vortex of a mass of struggling men and, handicapped as he was, fought valiantly, his rage for the time neutralizing the effects of the drug. But at last, too sleepy to stand or think, he, too, went down.
"By the Lord, that man's a fighter!" enthusiastically remarked the leader, gently touching his swollen eye. "George must 'a' put an awful dose in that grog."
"Lucky for us he didn't have no gun—the wedge was bad enough," groaned a man on the floor, slowly sitting up. "Whoever swapped him that wedge for his gun did us a good turn, all right."
A companion tentatively readjusted his lip. "I don't envy Wilkins his job breaking in that man when he gets awake."
"Don't waste no time, mates," came the order. "Up with 'em an' aboard. We've done our share; let the mate do his, an' be hanged. Hullo, Portsmouth; coming around, eh?" he asked the man who had first felt the wedge. "I was scared you was done for that time."
"No more shanghaiing hair pants for me, no more!" thickly replied Portsmouth. "Oh, my head, it's bust open!"
"Never mind about the bartender—let him alone; we can't waste no time with him now!" commanded the leader sharply. "Get these fellers on board before we're caught with 'em. We want our money after that."
"All clear!" came a low call from the lookout at the door, and soon a shadowy mass surged across the street and along a wharf. There was a short pause as a boat emerged out of the gloom, some whispered orders, and then the squeaking of oars grew steadily fainter in the direction of a ship which lay indistinct in the darkness.
A man moaned and stirred restlessly in a bunk, muttering incoherently. A stampeded herd was thundering over him, the grinding hoofs beating him slowly to death. He saw one mad steer stop and lower its head to gore him and just as the sharp horns touched his skin, he awakened. Slowly opening his bloodshot eyes he squinted about him, sick, weak, racking with pain where heavy shoes had struck him in the melee, his head reverberating with roars which seemed almost to split it open. Slowly he regained his full senses and began to make out his surroundings. He was in a bunk which moved up and down, from side to side, and was never still. There was a small, round window near his feet—thank heaven it was open, for he was almost suffocated by the foul air and the heat. Where was he? What had happened? Was there a salty odor in the air, or was he still dreaming? Painfully raising himself on one elbow he looked around and caught sight of a man in the bunk across. It was Johnny Nelson! Then, bit by bit, the whole thing came to him and he cursed heartily as he reviewed it and reached the only possible conclusion. He was at sea! He, Hopalong Cassidy, the best fighting unit of a good fighting outfit, shanghaied and at sea! Drugged, beaten, and stolen to labor on a ship.
Johnny was muttering and moaning and Hopalong slowly climbed out of the narrow bunk, unsteadily crossed the moving floor, and shook him. "Reckon he's in a stampede, too!" he growled. "They shore raised h—l with us. Oh, what a beating we got! But we'll pass it along with trimmings."
Johnny's eyes opened and he looked around in confusion. "Wha', Hopalong!"
"Yes; it's me, the prize idiot of a blamed good pair of 'em. How'd you feel?"
"Sleepy an' sick. My eyes ache an' my head's splitting. Where's Buck an' the rest?"
Hopalong sat down on the edge of the bunk and sore luridly, eloquently, beautifully, with a fervor and polish which left nothing to be desired in that line, and caused his companion to gaze at him in astonishment.
"I had a mighty bad dream, but you must 'a' had one a whole lot worse, to listen to you," Johnny remarked. "Gee, you're going some! What's the matter with you. You sick, too?"
Thereupon Hopalong unfolded the tale of woe and when Johnny had grasped its import and knew that his dream had been a stern reality, he straightway loosed his vocabulary and earned a draw. "Well, I'm going back again," he finished, with great decision, arising to make good his assertion.
"Swim or walk?" asked Hopalong nonchalantly.
"Huh! Oh, Lord!"
"Well, I ain't going to either swim or walk," Hopalong soliloquized. "I'm just going to stay right here in this one-by-nothing cellar an' spoil the health an' good looks of any pirate that comes down that ladder to get me out." He looked around, interested in life once more, and his trained eye grasped the strategic worth of their position. "Only one at a time, an' down that ladder," he mused, thoughtfully. "Why, Johnny, we owns this range as long as we wants to. They can't get us out. But, say, if only we had our guns!" he sighed, regretfully.
"You're right as far as you go; but you don't go to the eating part. We'll starve, an' we ain't got no water. I can drink about a bucketful right now," moodily replied his companion.
"Well, yo're right; but mebby we can find food an' water."
"Don't see no signs of none. Hey!" Johnny exclaimed, smiling faintly in his misery. "Let's get busy an' burn the cussed thing up! Got any matches?"
"First you want to drown yoreself swimming, an' now you want to roast the pair of us to death," Hopalong retorted, eyeing the rear wall of the room. "Wonder what's on the other side of that partition?"
Johnny looked. "Why, water; an' lots of it, too."
"Naw; the water is on the other sides."
"Then how do I know?—sh! I hear somebody coming on the roof."
"Tumble back in yore bunk—quick!" Hopalong hurriedly whispered. "Be asleep—if he comes down here it'll be our deal."
The steps overhead stopped at the companionway and a shadow appeared across the small patch of sunlight on the floor of the forecastle. "Tumble up here, you blasted loafers!" roared a deep voice.
No reply came from the forecastle—the silence was unbroken.
"If I have to come down there I'll—" the first mate made promises in no uncertain tones and in very impolite language. He listened for a moment, and having very good ears and hearing nothing, made more promises and came down the ladder quickly and nimbly.
"I'll bring you to," he muttered, reaching a brawny hand for Hopalong's nose, and missing. But he made contact with his own face, which stopped a short-arm blow from the owner of the aforesaid nose, a jolt full of enthusiasm and purpose. Beautiful and dazzling flashes of fire filled the air and just then something landed behind his ear and prolonged the pyrotechnic display. When the skyrockets went up he lost interest in the proceedings and dropped to the floor like a bag of meal.
Hopalong cut another piece from the rope in his hand and watched his companion's busy fingers. "Tie him good, Johnny; he's the only ace we've drawn in this game so far, an' we mustn't lose him."
Johnny tied an extra knot for luck and leaned forward, his eyes riveted on the bump under the victim's coat. His darting hand brought into sight that which pleased him greatly. "Oh, joy! Here, Hoppy; you take it."
Hopalong turned the weapon over in his hand, spun the cylinder and gloated, the clicking sweet music to his ears. "Plumb full, too! I never reckoned I'd ever be so tickled over a snub-nosed gun like this—but I feel like singing!"
"An' I feel like dying," grunted Johnny, grabbing at his stomach. "If the blamed shack would only stand still!" he groaned, gazing at the floor with strong disgust. "I don't reckon I've ever been so blamed sick in all my—" the sentence was unfinished, for the open porthole caught his eye and he leaped forward to use it for a collar.
Hopalong gazed at him in astonishment and sudden pity took possession of him as his pallid companion left the porthole and faced him.
"You ought to have something to eat, Kid—I'm purty hungry myself—what the blazes!" he exclaimed, for Johnny's protesting wail was finished outside the port. Then a light broke upon him and he wondered how soon it would be his turn to pay tribute to Neptune.
"Mr. Wilkins!" shouted a voice from the deck, and Hopalong moved back a step. "Mr. Wilkins!" After a short silence the voice soliloquized: "Guess he changed his mind about it; I'll get 'em up for him," and feet came into view. When halfway down the ladder the second mate turned his head and looked blankly down a gun barrel while a quiet but angry voice urged him further: "Keep a-coming, keep a-coming!" The second mate complained, but complied.
"Stick 'em up higher—now, Johnny, wobble around behind the nice man an' take his gun—you shut yore yap! I'm bossing this trick, not you. Got it, Kid? There's the rope—that's right. Nobody'd think you sick to see you work. Well, that's a good draw; but it's only a pair of aces against a full, at that. Wonder who'll be the next. Hope it's the foreman."
Johnny, keeping up by sheer grit, pointed to the rear wall. "What about that?"
For reply his companion walked over to it, put his shoulder to it and pushed. He stepped back and hurled his weight against it, but it was firm despite its squeaking protest. Then he examined it foot by foot and found a large knot, which he drove in by a blow of the gun. Bending, he squinted through the opening for a full minute and then reported:
"Purty black in there at this end, but up at the other there's a light from a hole in the roof, an' I could see boxes an' things like that. I reckon it's the main cellar."
"If we could get out at the other end with that gun you've got we could raise blazes for a while," suggested Johnny. "Anyhow, mebby they can come at us that way when they find out what we've gone an' done."
"Yo're right," Hopalong replied, looking around. Seeing an iron bar he procured it and, pushing it through the knot hole in the partition, pulled. The board, splitting and cracking under the attack, finally broke from its fastenings with a sharp report, and Hopalong, pulling it aside, stepped out of sight of his companion. Johnny was grinning at the success of his plan when he was interrupted.
"Ahoy, down there!" yelled a stentorian voice from above. "Mr. Wilkins! What the devil are you doing so long?" and after a very short wait other feet came into sight. Just then the second mate, having managed to slip off the gag, shouted warning:
"Look out, Captain! They've got us and our guns! One of them has—" but Johnny's knee thudded into his chest and ended the sentence as a bullet sent a splinter flying from under the captain's foot.
"Hang these guns!" Johnny swore, and quickly turned to secure the gag in the mouth of the offending second mate. "You make any more yaps like that an' I'll wing you for keeps with yore own gun!" he snapped. "We're caught in yore trap an' we'll fight to a finish. You'll be the first to go under if you gets any smart."
"Ahoy, men!" roared the captain in a towering rage, dancing frantically about on the deck and shouting for the crew to join him. He filled the air with picturesque profanity and stamped and yelled in passion at such rank mutiny.
"Hand grenades! Hand grenades!" he cried. Then he remembered that his two mates were also below and would share in the mutineers' fate, and his rage increased at his galling helplessness. When he had calmed sufficiently to think clearly he realized that it was certain death for any one to attempt going down the ladder, and that his must be a waiting game. He glanced at his crew, thirteen good men, all armed with windlass bars and belaying pins, and gave them orders. Two were to watch the hatch and break the first head to appear, while the others returned to work. Hunger and thirst would do the rest. And what joy would be his when they were forced to surrender!
Hopalong groped his way slowly towards the patch of light, barking his shins, stumbling and falling over the barrels and crates and finally, losing his footing at a critical moment, tumbled down upon a box marked "Cotton." There was a splintering crash and the very faint clink of metal. Dazed and bruised, he sat up and felt of himself—and found that he had lost his gun in the fall.
"Now, where in blazes did it fly to?" he muttered angrily, peering about anxiously. His eyes suddenly opened their widest and he stared in surprise at a field gun which covered him; and then he saw parts of two more.
"Good Lord! Is this a gunboat?" he cried. "Are we up against bluejackets an' Uncle Sam?" He glanced quickly back the way he had come when he heard Johnny's shot, but he could see nothing. He figured that Johnny had sense enough to call for help if he needed it, and put that possibility out of his mind. "Naw, this ain't no gunboat—the Government don't steal men; it enlists 'em. But it's a funny pile of junk, all the same. Where in blazes is that toy gun? Well, I'll be hanged!" and he plunged toward the "Cotton" box he had burst in his descent, and worked at it frantically.
"Winchesters! Winchesters!" he cried, dragging out two of them. "Whoop! Now for the cartridges—there shore must be some to go with these guns!" He saw a keg marked "Nails," and managed to open it after great labor—and found it full of army Colts. Forcing down the desire to turn a handspring, he slipped one of the six-shooters in his empty holster and patted it lovingly. "Old friend, I'm shore glad to see you, all right. You've been used, but that don't make no difference." Searching further, he opened a full box of machetes, and soon after found cartridges of many kinds and calibres. It took him but a few minutes to make his selection and cram his pockets with them. Then he filled two Colts and two Winchesters—and executed a short jig to work off the dangerous pressure of his exuberance.
"But what an unholy lot of weapons," he soliloquized on his way back to Johnny. "An' they're all second-hand. Cannons, too—an' machetes!" he exclaimed, suddenly understanding. "Jumping Jerusalem!—a filibustering expedition bound for Cuba, or one of them wildcat republics down south! Oh, ho, my friends; I see where you have bit off more'n you can chew." In his haste to impart the joyous news to his companion, he barked his shins shamefully.
"'Way down south in the land o' cotton, cinnamon seed an''—whoa, blast you!" and Hopalong stuck his head through the opening in the partition and grinned. "Heard you shoot, Kid; I reckoned you might need me—an' these!" he finished, looking fondly upon the weapons as he shoved them into the forecastle.
Johnny groaned and held his stomach, but his eyes lighted up when he saw the guns, and he eagerly took one of each kind, a faint smile wreathing his lips. "Now we'll show these water snakes what kind of men they stole," he threatened.
Up on the deck the choleric captain still stamped and swore, and his crew, with well-concealed mirth, went about their various duties as if they were accustomed to have shanghaied men act this way. They sympathized with the unfortunate pair, realizing how they themselves would feel if shanghaied to break broncos.
Hogan, A. B., stated the feelings of his companions very well in his remarks to the men who worked alongside: "In me hear-rt I'm dommed glad av it, Yensen. I hope they bate the old man at his own game. 'T is a shame in these days for honest men to be took in that unlawful way. I've heard me father tell of the press gangs on the other side, an' 't is small business."
Yensen looked up to reply, chanced to glance aft, and dropped his calking iron in his astonishment. "Yumping Yimminy! Luk at dat fallar!"
Hogan looked. "The deuce! That's a man after me own heat-rt! Kape yore pagan mouth shut! If ye take a hand agin 'em I'll swab up the deck wid yez. G'wan wor-rking like a sane man, ye ijit!"
"Ay ent ban fight wit dat fallar! Luk at the gun!"
A man had climbed out of the after hatch and was walking rapidly towards them, a rifle in his hands, while at his thigh swung a Colt. He watched the two seamen closely and caught sight of Hogan's twinkling blue eyes, and a smile quivered about his mouth. Hogan shut and opened one eye and went on working.
As soon as Hopalong caught sight of the captain, the rifle went up and he announced his presence without loss of time. "Throw up yore hands, you pole-cat! I'm running this ranch from now on!"
The captain wheeled with a jerk and his mouth opened, and then clicked shut as he started forward, his rage acting galvanically. But he stopped quickly enough when he looked down the barrel of the Winchester and glared at the cool man behind it.
"What the blank are you doing?" he yelled.
"Well, I ain't kidnapping cow-punchers to steal my boat," replied Hopalong. "An' you fellers stand still or I'll drop you cold!" he ordered to the assembled and restless crew. "Johnny!" he shouted, and his companion popped up through the hatch like a jack-in-the-box. "Good boy, Johnny. Tie this coyote foreman like you did the others," he ordered. While Johnny obeyed, Hopalong looked around the circle, and his eyes rested on Hogan's face, studying it, and found something there which warmed his heart. "Friend, do you know the back trail? Can you find that runt of a town we left?"
"Shore, you; who'd you think I was talking to? Can you find the way back, the way we came?"
"Shure an' I can that, if I'm made to."
"You'll swing for mutiny if you do, you bilge-wallering pirate!" roared the trussed captain. "Take that gun away from him, d'ye hear!" he yelled at the crew. "I'm captain of this ship, an' I'll hang every last one of you if you don't obey orders! This is mutiny!"
"You won't do no hanging with that load of weapons below!" retorted Hopalong. "Uncle Sam is looking for filibusters—this here gun is 'cotton,'" he said, grinning. He turned to the crew. "But you fellers are due to get shot if you sees her through," he added.
"I'm captain of this ship—" began the helpless autocrat.
"You shore look like it, all right," Hopalong replied, smiling. "If yo're the captain you order her turned around and headed over the back trail, or I'll drop you overboard off yore own ship!" Then fierce anger at the thought of the indignities and injuries he and his companion had suffered swept over him and prompted a one-minute speech which left no doubt as to what he would do if his demand was not complied with. Johnny, now free to watch the crew, added a word or two of endorsement, and he acted a little as if he rather hoped it would not be complied with: he itched for an excuse.
The captain did some quick thinking; the true situation could not be disguised, and with a final oath of rage he gave in. "'Bout ship, Hogan; nor' by nor'west," he growled, and the seaman started away to execute the command, but was quickly stopped by Hopalong.
"Hogan, is that right?" he demanded. "No funny business, or we'll clean up the whole bunch, an' blamed quick, too!"
"That's the course, sor. That's the way back to town. I can navigate, an' me orders are plain. Ye're Irish, by the way av ye, and 't is back to town ye go, sor!" He turned to the crew: "Stand by, me boys." And in a short time the course was nor' by nor'west.
The return journey was uneventful and at nightfall the ship lay at anchor off the low Texas coast, and a boat loaded with men grounded on the sandy beach. Four of them arose and leaped out into the mild surf and dragged the boat as high up on the sand as it would go. Then the two cow-punchers followed and one of them gave a low-spoken order to the Irishman at his side.
"Yes, sor," replied Hogan, and hastened to help the captain out onto the sand and to cut the ropes which bound him. "Do ye want the mates, too, sor?" he asked, glancing at the trussed men in the boat.
"No; the foreman's enough," Hopalong responded, handing his weapons to Johnny and turning to face the captain, who was looking into Johnny's gun as he rubbed his arms to restore perfect circulation.
"Now, you flat-faced coyote, yo're going to get the beating of yore life, an' I'm going to give it to you!" Hopalong cried, warily advancing upon the man whom he held to be responsible for the miseries of the past twenty-four hours. "You didn't give me a square deal, but I'm man enough to give you one! When you drug an' steal any more cow-punchers—" action stopped his words.
It was a great fight. A filibustering sea captain is no more peaceful than a wild boar and about as dangerous; and while this one was not at his best, neither was Hopalong. The latter luckily had acquired some knowledge of the rudiments of the game and had the vigor of youth to oppose to the captain's experience and his infuriated but well-timed rushes. The seamen, for the honor of their calling and perhaps with a mind to the future, cheered on the captain and danced up and down in their delight and excitement. They had a lot of respect for the prowess of their master, and for the man who could stand up against him in a fair and square fist fight. To give assistance to either in a fair fight was not to be thought of, and Johnny's gun was sufficient after-excuse for non-interference.
The sop! sop! of the punishing blows as they got home and the steady circling of Hopalong in avoiding the dangerous attacks, went on minute after minute. Slowly the captain's strength was giving out, and he resorted to trickery as his last chance. Retreating, he half raised his arms and lowered them as if weary, ready as a cat to strike with all his weight if the other gave an opening. It ought to have worked—it had worked before—but Hopalong was there to win, and without the momentary hesitation of the suspicious fighter he followed the retreat and his hard hand flashed in over the captain's guard a fraction of a second sooner than that surprised gentleman anticipated. The ferocious frown gave way to placid peace and the captain reclined at the feet of the battered victor, who stood waiting for him to get up and fight. The captain lay without a sign of movement and as Hopalong wondered, Hogan was the first to speak.
"Fer the love av hiven, let him be! Ye needn't wait—he's done; I know by the sound av it!" he exclaimed, stepping forward. "'T was a purty blow, an' 't was a gr-rand foight ye put up, sor! A gr-rand foight, but any more av that is murder! 'T is an Irishman's game, sor, an' ye did yersilf proud. But now let him be—no man, least av all a Dootchman, iver tuk more than that an' lived!"
Hopalong looked at him and slowly replied between swollen lips, "Yo're right, Hogan; we're square now, I reckon."
"That's right, sor," Hogan replied, and turned to his companions. "Put him in the boat; an' mind ye handle him gintly—we'll be sailing under him soon. Now, sor, if it's yer pleasure, I'll be after saying good-bye to ye, sor; an' to ye, too," he said, shaking hands with both punches. "Fer a sick la-ad ye're a wonder, ye are that," he smiled at Johnny, "but ye want to kape away from the water fronts. Good-bye to ye both, an' a pleasant journey home. The town is tin miles to me right, over beyant them hills."
"Good-bye, Hogan," mumbled Hopalong gratefully. "Yo're square all the way through; an' if you ever get out of a job or in any kind of trouble that I can help you out of, come up to the Bar-20 an' you won't have to ask twice. Good luck!" And the two sore and aching punchers, wiser in the ways of the world, plodded doggedly towards the town, ten miles away.
The next morning found them in the saddle, bound for Dent's hotel and store near the San Miguel Canyon. When they arrived at their destination and Johnny found there was some hours to wait for Red, his restlessness sent him roaming about the country, not so much "seeking what he might devour" as hoping something might seek to devour him. He was so sore over his recent kidnapping that he longed to find a salve. He faithfully promised Hopalong that he would return at noon.
DICK MARTIN STARTS SOMETHING
Dick Martin slowly turned, leaned his back against the bar, and languidly regarded a group of Mexicans at the other end of the room. Singly, or in combinations of two or more, each was imparting all he knew, or thought he knew about the ghost of San Miguel Canyon. Their fellow-countryman, new to the locality, seemed properly impressed. That it was the ghost of Carlos Martinez, murdered nearly one hundred years before at the big bend in the canyon, was conceded by all; but there was a dispute as to why it showed itself only on Friday nights, and why it was never seen by any but a Mexican. Never had a Gringo seen it. The Mexican stranger was appealed to: Did this not prove that the murder had been committed by a Mexican? The stranger affected to consider the question.
Martin surveyed them with outward impassiveness and inward contempt. A realist, a cynic, and an absolute genius with a Colt .45, he was well known along the border for his dare-devil exploits and reckless courage. The brainiest men in the Secret Service, Lewis, Thomas, Sayre, and even old Jim Lane, the local chief, whose fingers at El Paso felt every vibration along the Rio Grande, were not as well known—except to those who had seen the inside of Government penitentiaries—and they were quite satisfied to be so eclipsed. But the Service knew of the ghost, as it knew everything pertaining to the border, and gave it no serious thought; if it took interest in all the ghosts and superstitions peculiar to the Mexican temperament it would have no time for serious work. Martin once, in a spirit of savage denial, had wasted the better part of several successive Friday nights in the San Miguel, but to no avail. When told that the ghost showed itself only to Mexicans he had shrugged his shoulders eloquently and laughed, also eloquently.
"A Greaser," he replied, "is one-half fear and superstition, an' the other half imagination. There ain't no ghosts, but I know the Greasers have seen 'em, all right. A Greaser can see anything scary if he makes up his mind to. If I ever see one an' he keeps on being one after I shoot, I'll either believe in ghosts, or quit drinking." His eyes twinkled as he added: "An' of the two, I think I'd prefer to see ghosts!"
He was flushed and restless with deviltry. His fifth glass always made him so; and to-night there was an added stimulus. He believed the strange Mexican to be Juan Alvarez, who was so clever that the Government had never been able to convict him. Alvarez was fearless to recklessness and Martin, eager to test him, addressed the group with the blunt terseness for which he was famed, and hated.
"Greasers are cowards," he asserted quietly, and with a smile which invited excitement. He took a keen delight in analyzing the expressions on the faces of those hit. It was one of his favorite pastimes when feeling coltish.
The group was shocked into silence, quickly followed by great unrest and hot, muttered words. Martin did not move a muscle, the smile was set, but between the half-closed eyelids crouched Combat, on its toes. The Mexicans knew it was there without looking for it—the tone of his voice, the caressing purr of his words, and his unnatural languor were signs well known to them. Not a criminal sneaking back from voluntary banishment in Mexico who had seen those signs ever forgot them, if he lived. Martin watched the group cat-like, keenly scrutinizing each face, reading the changing emotions in every shifting expression; he had this art down so well that he could tell when a man was debating the pull of a gun, and beat him on the draw by a fraction of a second.
"De senor ees meestak," came the reply, as quiet and caressing as the words which provoked it. The strange Mexican was standing proudly and looking into the squinting eyes with only a grayness of face and a tigerish litheness to tell what he felt.
"None go through the canyon after dark on Fridays," purred Martin.
"I go tro' de canyon nex' Friday night. Eef I do, then you mak apology to me?"
"I'll limit my remark to all but one Greaser."
The Mexican stepped forward. "I tak' thees gloove an' leave eet at de Beeg Ben', for you to fin' in daylight," he said, tapping one of Martin's gauntlets which lay on the bar. "You geev' me eet befo' I go?"
"Yes; at nine o'clock to-morrow night," Martin replied, hiding his elation. He was sure that he knew the man now.
The Mexican, cool and smiling, bowed and left the room, his companions hastening after him.
"Well, I'll bet twenty-five dollars he flunks!" breathed the bartender, straightening up.
Martin turned languidly and smiled at him. "I'll take that, Charley," he replied.
Johnny Nelson was always late, and on this occasion he was later than usual. He was to have joined Hopalong and Red, if Red had arrived, at Dent's at noon the day before, and now it was after nine o'clock at night as he rode through San Felippe without pausing and struck east for the canyon. The dropping trail down the canyon was serious enough in broad daylight, but at night to attempt its passage was foolhardy, unless one knew every turn and slant by heart, which Johnny did not. He was thirty-three hours late now, and he was determined to make up what he could in the next three.
When Johnny left Hopalong at Dent's he had given his word to be back on time and not to keep his companions waiting, for Red might be on time and he would chafe if he were delayed. But, alas for Johnny's good intentions, his course took him through a small Mexican hamlet in which lived a senorita of remarkable beauty and rebellious eyes; and Johnny tarried in the town most of the day, riding up and down the streets, practising the nice things he would say if he met her. She watched him from the heavily draped window, and sighed as she wondered if her dashing Americano would storm the house and carry her off like the knights of old. Finally he had to turn away with heavy and reluctant heart, promising himself that he would return when no petulant and sarcastic companions were waiting for him. Then—ah! what dreams youth knows.
Half an hour ahead of him on another trail rode Juan, smiling with satisfaction. He had come to San Felippe to get a look at the canyon on Friday nights, and Martin had given him an excuse entirely unexpected. For this he was truly grateful, even while he knew that the American had tried to pick a quarrel with him and thus rid the border of a man entirely too clever for the good of customs receipts; and failing in that, had hoped the treacherous canyon trail would gain that end in another manner. Old Jim Lane's fingers touched wires not one whit more sensitive than those which had sent Juan Alvarez to look over the San Miguel—and Lane's wires had been slow this time. When Juan had left the saloon the night before and had seen Manuel slip away from the group and ride off into the north, he had known that the ghost would show itself the following night.
But Juan was to be disappointed. He was still some distance from the canyon when a snarling bulk landed on the haunches of his horse. He jerked loose his gun and fired twice and then knew nothing. When he opened his eyes he lay quietly, trying to figure it out with a head throbbing with pain from his fall. The cougar must have been desperate for food to attack a man. He moved his foot and struck something soft and heavy. His shots had been lucky, but they had not saved him his horse and a sprained arm and leg. There would be no gauntlet found at the Big Bend at daylight.
When Johnny Nelson reached the twin boulders marking the beginning of the sloping run where the trail pitched down, he grinned happily at sight of the moon rising over the low hills and then grabbed at his holster, while every hair in his head stood up curiously. A wild, haunting, feminine scream arose to a quavering soprano and sobbed away into silence. No words can adequately describe the unearthly wail in that cry and it took a full half-minute for Johnny to become himself again and to understand what it was. Once more it arose, nearer, and Johnny peered into the shadows along a rough backbone of rock, his Colt balanced in his half-raised hand.
"You come 'round me an' you'll get hurt," he muttered, straining his eyes to peer into the blackness of the shadows. "Come on out, Soft-foot; the moon's yore finish. You an' me will have it out right here an' now—I don't want no cougar trailing me through that ink-black canyon on a two-foot ledge—" he thought he saw a shadow glide across a dim patch of moonlight, but when his smoke rifted he knew he had missed. "Damn it! You've got a mate 'round here somewhere," he complained. "Well, I'll have to chance it, anyhow. Come on, bronc! Yo're shaking like a leaf—get out of this!"
When he began to descend into the canyon he allowed his horse to pick its own way without any guidance from him, and gave all of his attention to the trail behind him. The horse could get along better by itself in the dark, and it was more than possible that one or two lithe cougars might be slinking behind him on velvet paws. The horse scraped along gingerly, feeling its way step by step, and sending stones rattling and clattering down the precipice at his left to tinkle into the stream at the bottom.
"Gee, but I wish I'd not wasted so much time," muttered the rider uneasily. "This here canyon-cougar combination is the worst I ever butted up against. I'll never be late again, not never; not for all the girls in the world. Easy, bronc," he cautioned, as he felt the animal slip and quiver. "Won't this trail ever start going up again?" he growled petulantly, taking his eyes off the black back trail, where no amount of scrutiny showed him anything, and turned in the saddle to peer ahead—and a yell of surprise and fear burst from him, while chills ran up and down his spine. An unearthly, piercing shriek suddenly rang out and filled the canyon with ear-splitting uproar and a glowing, sheeted half-figure of a man floated and danced twenty feet from him and over the chasm. He jerked his gun and fired, but only once, for his mount had its own ideas about some things and this particular one easily headed the list. The startled rider grabbed reins and pommel, his blood congealed with fear of the precipice less than a foot from his side, and he gave all his attention to the horse. But scared as he was he heard, or thought that he heard, a peculiar sound when he fired, and he would have sworn that he hit the mark—the striking of the bullet was not drowned in the uproar and he would never forget the sound of that impact. He rounded Big Bend as if he were coming up to the judge's stand, and when he struck the upslant of the emerging trail he had made a record. Cold sweat beaded his forehead and he was trembling from head to foot when he again rode into the moonlight on the level plain, where he tried to break another record.
Meanwhile Hopalong and Red quarrelled petulantly and damned the erring Johnny with enthusiastic abandon, while Dent smiled at them and joked; but his efforts at levity made little impression on the irate pair. Red, true to his word, had turned up at the time set, in fact, he was half an hour ahead of time, for which miracle he endeavored to take great and disproportionate credit. Dent was secretly glad about the delay, for he found his place lonesome. He thoroughly enjoyed the company of the two gentlemen from the Bar-20, whose actions seemed to be governed by whims and who appeared to lack all regard for consequences; and they squabbled so refreshingly, and spent their money cheerfully. Now, if they would only wind up the day by fighting! Such a finish would be joy indeed. And speaking of fights, Dent was certain that Mr. Cassidy had been in one recently, for his face bore marks that could only be acquired in that way.
After supper the two guests had relapsed into a silence which endured only as long as the pleasing fulness. Then the squabbling began again, growing worse until they fell silent from lack of adequate expression. Finally Red once again spoke of their absent friend.
"We oughtn't get peevish, Hoppy—he's only thirty-six hours late," suggested Red. "An' he might be a week," he added thoughtfully, as his mind ran back over a long list of Johnny's misdeeds.
"Yes, he might. An' won't he have a fine cock-an'-bull tale to explain it," growled Hopalong, reminiscently. "His excuses are the worst part of it generally."
"Eh, does he—make excuses?" asked Dent, mildly surprised.
"He does to us," retorted Red savagely. "He's worse than a woman; take him all in all an' you've got the toughest proposition that ever wore pants. But he's a good feller, at that."
"Well, you've got a lot of nerve, you have!" retorted Hopalong. "You don't want to say anything about the Kid—if there's anybody that can beat him in being late an' acting the fool generally, it's you. An' what's more, you know it!"
Red wheeled to reply, but was interrupted by a sudden uproar outside, fluent swearing coming towards the house. The door opened with a bang, admitting a white-faced, big-eyed man with one leg jammed through the box he had landed on in dismounting.
"Gimme a drink, quick!" he shouted wildly, dragging the box over to the bar with a cheerful disregard for chairs and other temporary obstructions. "Gimme a drink!" he reiterated.
"Give you six hops in the neck!" yelled Red, missing and almost sitting down because of the enthusiasm he had put into his effort. Johnny side-stepped and ducked, and as he straightened up to ask for whys and wherefores, Red's eyes opened wide and he paused in his further intentions to stare at the apparition.
"Sick?" queried Hopalong, who was frightened.
"Gimme that drink!" demanded Johnny feverishly, and when he had it he leaned against the bar and mopped his face with a trembling hand.
"What's the matter with you, anyhow?" asked Red, with deep anxiety.
"Yes; for God's sake, what's happened to you?" demanded Hopalong.
Johnny breathed deeply and threw back his shoulders as if to shake off a weight. "Fellers, I had a cougar soft-footing after me in that dark canyon, my cayuse ran away on a two-foot ledge up the wall,—an'—I—saw—a—ghost!"
There was a respectful silence. Johnny, waiting a reasonable length of time for replies and exclamations, flushed a bit and repeated his frank and candid statement, adding a few adjectives to it. "A real, screeching, flying ghost! An' I'm going home, an' I'm going to stay there. I ain't never coming back no more, not for anything. Damn this border country, anyhow!"
The silence continued, whereupon Johnny grew properly indignant. "You act like I told you it was going to rain! Why don't you say something? Didn't you hear what I said, you fools!" he asked pugnaciously. "Are you in the habit of having a thing like that told you? Why don't you show some interest, you dod-blasted, thick-skulled wooden-heads?"
Red looked at Hopalong, Hopalong looked at Red, and then they both looked at Dent, whose eyes were fixed in a stare on Johnny.
"Huh!" snorted Hopalong, warily arising. "Was that all?" he asked, nodding at Red, who also arose and began to move cautiously toward their erring friend. "Didn't you see no more'n one ghost? Anybody that can see one ghost, an' no more, is wrong somewhere. Now, stop, an' think; didn't you see two?" He was advancing carefully while he talked, and Red was now behind the man who saw one ghost.
"Why, you—" there was a sudden flurry and Johnny's words were cut short in the melee.
"Good, Red! Ouch!" shouted Hopalong. "Look out! Got any rope, Dent? Well, hurry up: there ain't no telling what he'll do if he's loose. The mescal they sells down in this country ain't liquor—it's poison," he panted. "An' he can't even stand whiskey!"
Finding the rope was easier than finding a place to put it, and the unequal battle raged across the room and into the next, where it sounded as if the house were falling down. Johnny's voice was shrill and full of vexation and his words were extremely impolite and lacked censoring. His feet appeared to be numerous and growing rapidly, judging from the amount of territory they covered and defended, and Red joyfully kicked Hopalong in the melee, which in this instance also stands for stomach; Red always took great pains to do more than his share in a scrimmage. Dent hovered on the flanks, his hands full of rope, and begged with great earnestness to be allowed to apply it to parts of Johnny's thrashing anatomy. But as the flanks continued to change with bewildering swiftness he begged in vain, and began to make suggestions and give advice pleasing to the three combatants. Dent knew just how it should be done, and was generous with the knowledge until Johnny zealously planted five knuckles on his one good eye, when the engagement became general.
The table skidded through the door on one leg and caromed off the bar at a graceful angle, collecting three chairs and one sand-box cuspidor on the way. The box on Johnny's leg had long since departed, as Hopalong's shin could testify. One chair dissolved unity and distributed itself lavishly over the room, while the bed shrunk silently and folded itself on top of Dent, who bucked it up and down with burning zeal and finally had sense enough to crawl from under it. He immediately celebrated his liberation by getting a strangle hold on two legs, one of which happened to be the personal property of Hopalong Cassidy; and the battle raged on a lower plane. Red raised one hand as he carefully traced a neck to its own proper head and then his steel fingers opened and swooped down and shut off the dialect. Hopalong pushed Dent off him and managed to catch Johnny's flaying arm on the third attempt, while Dent made tentative sorties against Johnny's spurred boots.
"Phew! Can he fight like that when he's sober?" reverently asked Dent, seeing how close his fingers could come to his gaudy eye without touching it. "I won't be able to see at all in an hour," he added, gloomily.
Hopalong, seated on Johnny's chest, soberly made reply as he tenderly flirted with a raw shin. "It's the mescal. I'm going to slip some of that stuff into Pete's cayuse some of these days," he promised, happy with a new idea. Pete Wilson had no sense of humor.
"That ghost was plumb lucky," grunted Red, "an' so was the sea-captain," he finished as an afterthought, limping off toward the bar, slowly and painfully followed by his disfigured companions. "One drink; then to bed."
After Red had departed, Hopalong and Dent smoked a while and then, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, Hopalong arose. "An' yet, Dent, there are people that believe in ghosts," he remarked, with a vast and settled contempt.
Dent gave critical scrutiny to the scratched bar for a moment. "Well, the Greasers all say there is a ghost in the San Miguel, though I never saw it. But some of them have seen it, an' no Greasers ride that trail no more."
"Huh!" snorted Hopalong. "Some Greasers must have filled the Kid up on ghosts while he was filling hisself up on mescal. Ghosts? R-a-t-s!"
"It shows itself only to Greasers, an' then only on Friday nights," explained Dent, thoughtfully. This was Friday night. Others had seen that ghost, but they were all Mexicans; now that a "white" man of Johnny's undisputed calibre had been so honored Dent's skepticism wavered and he had something to think about for days to come. True, Johnny was not a Greaser; but even ghosts might make mistakes once in a while.
Hopalong laughed, dismissing the subject from his mind as being beneath further comment. "Well, we won't argue—I'm too tired. An' I'm sorry you got that eye, Dent."
"Oh, that's all right," hastily assured the store-keeper, smiling faintly. "I was just spoiling for a fight, an' now I've had it. Feels sort of good. Yes, first thing in the morning—breakfast'll be ready soon as you are. Good-night."
But the proprietor couldn't sleep. Finally he arose and tiptoed into the room where Johnny lay wrapped in the sleep of the exhausted. After cautious and critical inspection, which was made hard because of his damaged eye, he tiptoed back to his bunk, shaking his head slowly. "He wasn't drunk," he muttered. "He saw that ghost all right; an' I'll bet everything I've got on it!"
At daybreak three quarrelling punchers rode homeward and after a monotonous journey arrived at the bunk house and reported. It took them two nights adequately to describe their experiences to an envious audience. The morning after the telling of the ghost story things began to happen. Red starting it by erecting a sign.
NOTISE—NO GHOSTS ALOWED
An exuberant handful of the outfit watched him drive the last nail and step back to admire his work, and the running fire of comment covered all degrees of humor, and promised much hilarity in the future at the expense of the only man on the Bar-20 who had seen a ghost.
In a week Johnny and his acute vision had become a bye-word in that part of the country and his friends had made it a practice to stop him and gravely discuss spirit manifestations of all kinds. He had thrashed Wood Wright and been thrashed by Sandy Lucas in two beautiful and memorable fights and was only waiting to recover from the last affair before having the matter out with Rich Finn. These facts were beginning to have the effect he strove for; though Cowan still sold a new concoction of gin, brandy, and whiskey which he called "Flying Ghost," and which he proudly guaranteed would show more ghosts per drink than any liquor south of the Rio Grande—and some of his patrons were eager to back up his claims with real money.
This was the condition of affairs when Hopalong Cassidy strolled into Cowan's and forgot his thirst in the story being told by a strange Mexican. It was Johnny's ghost, without a doubt, and when he had carelessly asked a few questions he was convinced that Johnny had really seen something. On the way home he cogitated upon it and two points challenged his intelligence with renewed insistence: the ghost showed itself only on Friday, and then only to "Greasers." His suspicious mind would not rest until he had reviewed the question from all sides, and his opinion was that there was something more than spiritual about the ghost of the San Miguel—and a cold, practical reason for it.
When he rode into the corral at the ranch he saw that another sign had been put on the corral wall. He had destroyed the first, speaking his mind in full at the time. He swept his gloved hand upward with a rush, tore the flimsy board from its fastenings, broke it to pieces across his saddle, and tossed the fragments from him. He was angry, for he had warned the outfit that they were carrying the joke too far, that Johnny was giving way to hysterical rage more frequently, and might easily do something that they all would regret. And he felt sorry for the Kid; he knew what Johnny's feelings were and he made up his mind to start a few fights himself if the persecution did not cease. When he stepped into the bunk house and faced his friends they listened to a three-minute speech that made them squirm, and as he finished talking the deep voice of the foreman endorsed the promises he had just heard made, for Buck had entered the gallery without being noticed. The joke had come to an end.
When Johnny rode in that evening he was surprised to find Hopalong waiting for him a short distance from the corral and he replied to his friend's gesture by riding over to him. "What's up now?" he asked.
"Come along with me. I want to talk to you for a few minutes," and Hopalong led the way toward the open, followed by Johnny, who was more or less suspicious. Finally Hopalong stopped, turned, and looked his companion squarely in the eyes. "Kid, I'm in dead earnest. This ain't no fool joke—now you tell me what that ghost looked like, how he acted, an' all about it. I mean what I say, because now I know that you saw something. If it wasn't a ghost it was made to look like one, anyhow. Now go ahead."
"I've told you a dozen times already," retorted Johnny, his face flushing. "I've begged you to believe me an' told you that I wasn't fooling. How do I know you ain't now? I'm not going to tell—"
"Hold on; yes, you are. Yo're going to tell it slow, an' just like you saw it," Hopalong interrupted hastily. "I know I've doubted it, but who wouldn't! Wait a minute—I've done a heap of thinking in the past few days an' I know that you saw a ghost. Now, everybody knows that there ain't no such thing as ghosts; then what was it you saw? There's a game on, Kid, an' it's a dandy; an' you an' me are going to bust it up an' get the laugh on the whole blasted crowd, from Buck to Cowan."
Johnny's suspicions left him with a rush, for his old Hoppy was one man in a thousand, and when he spoke like that, with such sharp decision, Johnny knew what it meant. Hopalong listened intently and when the short account was finished he put out his hand and smiled.
"We're the fools, Kid; not you. There's something crooked going on in that canyon, an' I know it! But keep mum about what we think."
Johnny lost his grouch so suddenly and beamed upon his friends with such a superior air that they began to worry about what was in the wind. The suspense wore on them, for with Hopalong's assistance, Johnny might spring some game on them all that would more than pay up for the fun they had enjoyed at his expense; and the longer the suspense lasted the worse it became. They never lost sight of him while he was around and Hopalong had to endure the same surveillance; and it was no uncommon thing to see small groups of the anxious men engaged in deep discussion. When they found that Buck must have been told and noticed his smile was as fixed as Hopalong's or Johnny's, they were certain that trouble of some nature was in store for them.
Several weeks later Buck Peters drew rein and waited for a stranger to join him.
"Howdy. Is yore name Peters?" asked the newcomer, sizing him up in one trained glance.
"Well, who are you, an' what do you want?"
"I want to see Peters, Buck Peters. That yore name?"
"Yes; what of it?"
"My name's Fox. Old Jim Lane gave me a message for you," and the stranger spoke earnestly to some length. "There; that's the situation. We've got to have shrewd men that they don't know an' won't suspect. Lane wants to pay a couple of yore men their wages for a month or two. He said he was shore he could count on you to help him out."
"He's right; he can. I don't forget favors. I've got a couple of men that—there's one of 'em now. Hey, Hoppy! Whoop-e, Hoppy!"
Mr. Cassidy arrived quickly, listened eagerly, named Red and Johnny to accompany him, overruled his companions by insisting that if Johnny didn't go the whole thing was off, carried his point, and galloped off to find the lucky two, his eyes gleaming with anticipation and joy. Fox laughed, thanked the foreman, and rode on his way north; and that night three cow-punchers rode south, all strangely elated. And the friends who watched them go heaved signs of relief, for the reprisals evidently were to be postponed for a while.
THE GHOST OF THE SAN MIGUEL
Juan Alvarez had not been in San Felippe since Dick Martin left, which meant for over a month. Martin was down the river looking for a man who did not wish to be found; and some said that Martin cared nothing about international boundaries when he wanted any one real bad. And there was that geologist who wore blue glasses and was always puttering around in the canyon and hammering chips of rock off the steep walls; he must have slipped one noon, because his body was found on a flat boulder at the edge of the stream. Manuel had found it and wanted to be paid for his trouble in bringing it to town—but Manuel was a fool. Who, indeed, would pay good money for a dead Gringo, especially after he was dead? And there were three cow-punchers holding a herd of 6-X cattle up north, an hour or so from the town. They wanted to buy steers from Senor Rodriguez, but said that he was a robber and threatened to cut his ears off. Cannot a man name his own price? These cow-punchers liked to get drunk and gallop through San Felippe, shooting like crazy men. They got drunk one Friday night and went shouting and singing to the Big Bend in the canyon to see the flying ghost, and they called it names and fired off their pistols and sang loudly; and for a week they insulted all the Mexicans in town by calling them liars and cowards. Was it the fault of any one that the ghost would show itself only to Mexicans? Oh, these Gringos—might the good God punish them for their sins!
Thus the peons complained to the padre while they kept one eye open for the advent of the rowdy cow-punchers, who always wanted to drink, and then to fight with some one, either with fists or pistols. Why should any one fight with them, especially with such things as fists?
"Let them fight among themselves. What have you to do with heretics?" reproved the good padre, who ostracized himself from the pleasant parts of the wide world that he might make easier the life and struggles of his ignorant flock. "God is not hasty—He will punish in His own way when it best suits Him. And perhaps you will profit much if you are more regular to mass instead of wasting the cool hours of the morning in bed. Think well of what I have said, my children."
But the cow-punchers were not punished and they swore they would not leave the vicinity until they had all the steers they wanted, and at their own price. And one night their herd stampeded and was checked only in time to save it from going over the canyon's edge. And for some reason Sanchez kept out of the padre's way and did not go to confess when he should, for the padre spoke plainly and set hard obligations for penance.
The cow-punchers swore that it had been done by some Mexican and said that they would come to town some day soon and kill three Mexicans unless the guilty one was found and brought to them. Then the padre mounted his donkey and went out to them to argue and they finally told him they would wait for two weeks. But the padre was too smart for them—he sent a messenger to find Senor Dick Martin, and in one week Senor Martin came to town. There was no fight. The Gringo rowdies were cowards at heart and Martin could not shoot them down in cold blood, and he could not arrest them, because he was not a policeman or even a sheriff, but only a revenue officer, which was a most foolish law. But he watched them all the time and wanted them to fight—there was no more shooting or drunkenness in town. Nobody wanted to fight Senor Martin, for he was a great man. He even went so far as to talk with them about it and wave his arms, but they were as frightened at him as little children might be.
So the Mexicans gossiped and exulted, some of the bolder of them even swaggering out to the Gringo camp; but Martin drove them back again, saying he would not allow them to bully men who could not retaliate, which was right and fair. Then, afraid to go away and leave the mad cow-punchers so close to town, he ordered them to drive their herd farther east, nearer to Dent's store, and never to return to San Felippe unless they needed the padre; and they obeyed him after a long talk. After seeing them settled in their new camp, which was on Monday morning, Martin returned to San Felippe and told the padre where he could be found and then rode away again. San Felippe celebrated for a whole day and two Mexican babies were christened after Senor Dick Martin, which was honor all around.
Friday, when Manuel went over to spy upon the cow-punchers in their new camp, he found them so drunk that they could not stand, and before he crept away at dusk two of them were sleeping like gorged snakes and the third was firing off his revolver at random, which diversion had not a little to do with Manuel's departure.
When Manuel crept away he headed straight for a crevice near the wall of the canyon at the Big Bend and, reaching it, looked all around and then dropped into it. Not long thereafter another Mexican appeared, this one from San Felippe, and also disappeared into the crevice. As darkness fell Manuel reappeared with something under his jacket and a moment later a light gleamed at the base of a slender sapling which grew on the edge of the canyon wall and leaned out over the abyss. It was cleverly placed, for only at one spot on the Mexican side of the distant Rio Grande could it be seen—the high canyon walls farther down screened it from any one who might be riding on the north bank of the river. In a moment there came an answering twinkle and Manuel, covering the lantern with a blanket, was swallowed up in the darkness of the crevice.
Without a trace of emotion, Dick Martin, from his place of concealment, caught the answering gleam, and he watched Manuel disappear. "Cassidy was right in every point; Lewis or Sayre couldn't 'a' done this better. I hope he won't be late," he muttered, and settled himself more comfortably to wait for the cue for action, smiling as the moon poked its rim over the low hills to his right. "This means promotion for me, or I've very much mistaken," he chuckled.
Hopalong was not late and as soon as it was dark he and his companions stole into the canyon on foot. They felt their way down the east end of the trail, not far from Dent's, toward the Big Bend, which they gained without a mishap. Johnny was sent up to a place they had noticed and marked in their memories at the time they had rioted down to defy the ghost. He was to stop any one trying to escape up the San Felippe end of the canyon trail, and his confidence in his ability to do this was exuberant. Hopalong and Red slowly and laboriously worked their way down the perilous path leading to the bottom, forded the stream, and crept up the other side, where they found cover not far from a wide crack in the canyon wall. Upon the occasion of their hilarious visit to the Big Bend they had observed that a faint trail led to the crack and had cogitated deeply upon this fact.
Three hours passed before the watchers in and above the canyon were rewarded by anything further; and then a light flickered far down the canyon and close to the edge of the stream. Immediately strange noises were heard and suddenly the ghost swung out of the opening in the rock wall near Hopalong and Red and danced above their heads, while the shrieking which had so frightened Johnny and his horse filled the canyon with uproar and sent Martin wriggling nearer to the crevice which he had watched so closely. The noise soon ceased, but the ghost danced on, and the sound of men stumbling along the rocky ledge bordering the stream became more and more audible. Four were in the party and they all carried bulky loads on their backs and grunted with pleasure and relief as they entered the entrance in the wall. When the last man had disappeared and the noise of their passing had died out, Johnny's rope sailed up and out, and the ghost swayed violently and then began to sag in an unaccountable manner towards the trail as the owner of the rope hitched its free end around a spur of rock and made it fast. Then he feverishly scrambled down the steep path to join his friends.
Hopalong and Red, wriggling on their stomachs towards the crack in the wall, paused in amazement and stared across the canyon; and then the former chuckled and whispered something in his companion's ear. "That was why he lugged his rope along! He's just idiot enough to want a souveneer an' plaything at the risk of losing the game. Come on!—they'll tumble to what's up an' get away if we don't hustle."
When the two punchers cautiously and noiselessly entered the crack and felt their way along its rock walls they heard fluent swearing in Spanish by the man who worked the ghost, and who could not understand its sudden ambition to take root. It was made painfully clear to him a moment later when a pair of brawny hands reached out of the darkness behind him and encircled his throat a hand's width below his gleaming cigarette. Another pair used cords with deftness and despatch and he was left by himself to browse upon the gag when all his senses returned.
Hopalong, with Red inconsiderately stepping on his heels, felt his way along the wall of the crevice, alert and silent, his Colt nestling comfortably in his right hand, while the left was pushed out ahead feeling for trouble. As they worked farther away from the canyon distant voices could be heard and they forthwith proceeded even more cautiously. When Hopalong came to the second bend in the narrow passage he peered around it and stopped so abruptly that Red's nose almost spread itself over the back of his head. Red's indignation was all the harder to bear because it must bloom unheard.
In a huge, irregular room, whose roof could not be discerned in the dim light of the few candles, five men were resting in various attitudes of ease as they discussed the events of the night and tried to compute their profits. They were secure, for Manuel, having by this time put away the ghost and megaphone, was on duty at the mouth of the crevice, and he was as sensitive to danger as a hound.
"The risk is not much and the profits are large," remarked Pedro, in Spanish. "We must burn a candle for the repose of the soul of Carlos Martinez. It is he that made our plans safe. And a candle is not much when we—"
"Hands up!" said a quiet voice, followed by grim commands. The Mexicans jumped as if stung by a scorpion, and could just discern two of the rowdy gringo cow-punchers in the heavy shadows of the opposite wall, but the candle light glinted in rings on the muzzles of their six-shooters. Had Manuel betrayed them? But they had little time or inclination for cogitation regarding Manuel.
"Easy there!" shouted Red, and Pedro's hand stopped when half way to his chest. Pedro was a gambler by nature, but the odds were too heavy and he sullenly obeyed the command.
"Stick 'em up! Stick 'em up! Higher yet, an' hold 'em there," purred a soft voice from the other end of the room, where Dick Martin smiled pleasantly upon them and wondered if there was anything on earth harder to pound good common sense into than a "Greaser's" head. His gun was blue, but it was, nevertheless, the most prominent part of his make-up, even if the light was poor.
One of the Mexicans reached involuntarily for his gun, for he was a gun-man by training; while his companions felt for their knives, deadly weapons in a melee. Martin, crying, "Watch 'em, Cassidy!" side-stepped and lunged forward with the speed and skill of a boxer, and his hard left hand landed on the point of Juan Alvarez' jaw with a force and precision not to be withstood. But to make more certain that the Mexican would not take part in any possible demonstration of resistance, Martin's right circled up in a short half-hook and stopped against Juan's short ribs. Martin weighed one hundred and eighty pounds and packed no fat on his well-knit frame.
At this moment a two-legged cyclone burst upon the scene in the person of Johnny Nelson, whose rage had been worked up almost to the weeping point because he had lost so much time hunting for the crevice where it was not. Seeing Juan fall, and the glint of knives, he started in to clean things up, yelling, "I'm a ghost! I'm a ghost! Take 'em alive! Take 'em alive!"
Hopalong and Red felt that they were in his way, and taking care of one Mexican between them, while Martin knocked out another, they watched the exits,—for anything was possible in such a chaotic mix-up,—and gave Johnny plenty of room. The latter paused, triumphant, looked around to see if he had missed any, and then advanced upon his friends and shoved his jaw up close to Hopalong's face. "Tried to lose me, didn't you! Wouldn't wait for me! For seven cents an' a toothbrush I'd give you what's left!"
Red grabbed him by trousers and collar and heaved him into the passageway. "Go out an' play with yore souveneer or we'll step on you!"
Johnny sat up, rubbed certain portions of his anatomy, and grinned. "Oh, I've got it, all right! I'm shore going to take that ghost home an' make some of them fools eat it!"
Martin smiled as he finished tying the last prisoner. "That's right, Nelson; you've got it on 'em this time. Make 'em chew it."
HOPALONG LOSES A HORSE
For a month after their return from the San Miguel, Hopalong and his companions worked with renewed zest, and told and retold the other members of the outfit of their unusual experiences near the Mexican border. Word had come up to them that Martin had secured the conviction of the smugglers and was in line for immediate advancement. No one on the range had the heart to meet Johnny Nelson, for Johnny carried with him a piece of the ghost, and became pugnacious if his once-jeering friends and acquaintances refused to nibble on it. Cowan still sold his remarkable drink, but he had yielded to Johnny's persuasive methods and now called it "Nelson's Pet."
One bright day the outfit started rounding up a small herd of three-year-olds, which Buck had sold, and by the end of the week the herd was complete and ready for the drive. This took two weeks and when Hopalong led his drive outfit through Hoyt's Corners on its homeward journey he felt the pull of the town of Grant, some miles distant, and it was too strong to be resisted. Flinging a word of explanation to the nearest puncher, he turned to lope away, when Red's voice checked him. Red wanted to delay his home-coming for a day or two and attend to a purely personal matter at a ranch lying to the west. Hopalong, knowing the reason for Red's wish, grinned and told him to go, and not to propose until he had thought the matter over very carefully. Red's reply was characteristic, and after arranging a rendezvous and naming the time, the two separated and rode toward their destinations, while the rest of the outfit kept on towards their ranch.
"A man owes something to all his friends," Hopalong mused. In this case he owed a return game of draw poker to certain of Grant's leading citizens, and he liked to pay his obligations when opportunity offered.
It was mid-afternoon when he topped a rise and saw below him the handful of shacks making up the town. A look of pleased interest flickered across his face as he noticed a patched and dirty tent pitched close up to the nearest shack. "Show!" he exclaimed. "Now, ain't that luck! I'll shore take it in. If it's a circus, mebby it has a trick mule to ride—I'll never forget that one up in Kansas City," he grinned. But almost instantly a doubt arose and tempered the grin. "Huh! Mebby it's the branding chute of some gospel sharp." As he drew near he focussed his eyes on the canvas and found that his fears were justified.
"All Are Welcome," he spelled out slowly. "Shore they are!" he muttered. "I never nowhere saw such hard-working, all-embracing rustlers as them fellers. They'll stick their iron on anything from a wobbly calf or dying dogie to a staggering-with-age mosshead, an' shout 'tally one' with the same joy. Well, not for mine, this trip. I'm going to graze loose an' buck-jump all I wants. Anyhow, if I did let him brand me I'd only backslide in a week," and Hopalong pressed his pony to a more rapid gait as two men emerged from the tent. "There's the sky-pilot now," he muttered—"an' there's Dave!" he shouted, waving his arm. "Oh, Dave! Dave!"
Dave Wilkes looked up, and his grin of delight threatened to engulf his ears. "Hullo, Cassidy! Glad to see you! Keep right on for the store—I'll be with you in a minute." When David told his companion the visitor's name the evangelist held up his hand eloquently and spoke.
"I know all about him!" he exclaimed sorrowfully. "If I can lead him out of his wickedness I will rest content though I save no more souls this fortnight. Is it all true?"
"Huh! What true?"
"All that I have heard about him."
"Well, I dunno what you've heard," replied Dave, with grave caution, "but I reckon it might be if it didn't cover lying, stealing, cowardice, an' such coyote traits. He's shore a holy terror with a short gun, all right, but lemme tell you something mebby you ain't heard: There ain't a square man in this part of the country that won't feel some honored an' proud to be called a friend of Hopalong Cassidy. Them's the sentiments rampaging hereabouts. I ain't denying that he's gone an' killed off a lot of men first an' last—but the only trouble there is that he didn't get 'em soon enough. They all had lived too blamed long when they went an' stacked up agin him an' that lightning short gun of hissn. But, say, if yo're calculating to tackle him at yore game, lead him gentle—don't push none. He comes to life real sudden when he's shoved. So long; see you later, mebby."
The revivalist looked after him and mused, "I hope I was informed wrong, but this much I have to be thankful for: The wickedness of most of these men, these over-grown children, is manly, stalwart, and open; few of them are vicious or contemptible. Their one great curse is drink."
When Hopalong entered the store he was vociferously welcomed by two men, and the proprietor joining them, the circle was complete. When the conversation threatened to repeat itself cards were brought and the next two hours passed very rapidly. They were expensive hours to the Bar-20 puncher, who finally arose with an apologetic grin and slapped his thigh significantly.
"Well, you've got it all; I'm busted wide open, except for a measly dollar, an' I shore hopes you don't want that," he laughed. "You play a whole lot better than you did the last time I was here. I've got to move along. I'm going east an' see Wallace an' from there I've got to meet Red an' ride home with him. But you come an' see us when you can—it's me that wants revenge this time."
"Huh; you'll be wanting it worse than ever if we do," smiled Dave.
"Say, Hoppy," advised Tom Lawrence, "better drop in an' hear the sky-pilot's palaver before you go. It'll do you a whole lot of good, an' it can't do you no harm, anyhow."
"You going?" asked Hopalong suspiciously.
"Can't—got too much work to do," quickly responded Tom, his brother Art nodding happy confirmation.
"Huh; I reckoned so!" snorted Hopalong sarcastically, as he shook hands all around. "You all know where to find us—drop in an' see us when you get down our way," he invited.
"Sorry you can't stay longer, Cassidy," remarked Dave, as his friend mounted. "But come up again soon—an' be shore to tell all the boys we was asking for 'em," he called.
Considering the speed with which Hopalong started for Wallace's, he might have been expecting a relay of "quarter" horses to keep it going, but he pulled up short at the tent. Such inconsistency is trying to the temper of the best-mannered horse, and this particular animal was not in the least good-mannered, wherefore its rider was obliged to soothe its resentment in his own peculiar way, listening meanwhile to the loud and impassioned voice of the evangelist haranguing his small audience.