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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBar-20 Days - Chapter 21. The Fence
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Bar-20 Days - Chapter 21. The Fence Post by :vbhnl Category :Long Stories Author :Clarence E. Mulford Date :May 2012 Read :1485

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Bar-20 Days - Chapter 21. The Fence


When Hopalong rode in at midnight to arouse the others and send them out to relieve Skinny and his two companions, the cattle were quieter than he had expected to leave them, and he could see no change of weather threatening. He was asleep when the others turned in, or he would have been further assured in that direction.

Out on the plain where the herd was being held, Red and the three other guards had been optimistic until half of their shift was over and it was only then that they began to worry. The knowledge that running water was only twelve miles away had the opposite effect than the one expected, for instead of making them cheerful, it caused them to be beset with worry and fear. Water was all right, and they could not have got along without it for another day; but it was, in this case, filled with the possibility of grave danger.

Johnny was thinking hard about it as he rode around the now restless herd, and then pulled up suddenly, peered into the darkness and went on again. "Damn that disreputable li'l rounder! Why the devil can't he behave, 'stead of stirring things up when they're ticklish?" he muttered, but he had to grin despite himself. A lumbering form had blundered past him from the direction of the camp and was swallowed up by the night as it sought the herd, annoying and arousing the thirsty and irritable cattle along its trail, throwing challenges right and left and stirring up trouble as it passed. The fact that the challenges were bluffs made no difference to the pawing steers, for they were anxious to have things out with the rounder.

This frisky disturber of bovine peace was a yearling that had slipped into the herd before it left the ranch and had kept quiet and respectable and out of sight in the middle of the mass for the first few days and nights. But keeping quiet and respectable had been an awful strain, and his mischievous deviltry grew constantly harder to hold in check. Finally he could stand the repression no longer, and when he gave way to his accumulated energy it had the snap and ginger of a tightly stretched rubber band recoiling on itself. On the fourth night out he had thrown off his mask and announced his presence in his true light by butting a sleepy steer out of its bed, which bed he straightway proceeded to appropriate for himself. This was folly, for the ground was not cold and he had no excuse for stealing a body-warmed place to lie down; it was pure cussedness, and retribution followed hard upon the act. In about half a minute he had discovered the great difference between bullying poor, miserable, defenceless dogies and trying to bully a healthy, fully developed, and pugnacious steer. After assimilating the preliminary punishment of what promised to be the most thorough and workmanlike thrashing he had ever known, the indignant and frightened bummer wheeled and fled incontinently with the aroused steer in angry pursuit. The best way out was the most puzzling to the vengeful steer, so the bummer cavorted recklessly through the herd, turning and twisting and doubling, stepping on any steer that happened to be lying down in his path, butting others, and leavening things with great success. Under other conditions he would have relished the effect of his efforts, for the herd had arisen as one animal and seemed to be debating the advisability of stampeding; but he was in no mood to relish anything and thought only of getting away. Finally escaping from his pursuer, that had paused to fight with a belligerent brother, he rambled off into the darkness to figure it all out and to maintain a sullen and chastened demeanor for the rest of the night. This was the first time a brick had been under the hat.

But the spirits of youth recover quickly--his recovered so quickly that he was banished from the herd the very next night, which banishment, not being at all to his liking, was enforced only by rigid watchfulness and hard riding; and he was roundly cursed from dark to dawn by the worried men, most of whom disliked the bumming youngster less than they pretended. He was only a cub, a wild youth having his fling, and there was something irresistibly likable and comical in his awkward antics and eternal persistence, even though he was a pest. Johnny saw more in him than his companions could find, and had quite a little sport with him: he made fine practice for roping, for he was about as elusive as a grasshopper and uncertain as a flea. Johnny was in the same general class and he could sympathize with the irrepressible nuisance in its efforts to stir up a little life and excitement in so dull a crowd; Johnny hoped to be as successful in his mischievous deviltry when he reached the town at the end of the drive.

But to-night it was dark, and the bummer gained his coveted goal with ridiculous ease, after which he started right in to work off the high pressure of the energy he had accumulated during the last two nights. He had desisted in his efforts to gain the herd early in the evening and had rambled off and rested during the first part of the night, and the herders breathed softly lest they should stir him to renewed trials. But now he had succeeded, and although only Johnny had seen him lumber past, the other three guards were aware of it immediately by the results and swore in their throats, for the cattle were now on their feet, snorting and moving about restlessly, and the rattling of horns grew slowly louder.

"Ain't he having a devil of a good time!" grinned Johnny. But it was not long before he realized the possibilities of the bummer's efforts and he lost his grin. "If we get through the night without trouble I'll see that you are picketed if it takes me all day to get you," he muttered. "Fun is fun, but it's getting a little too serious for comfort."

Sometime after the middle of the second shift the herd, already irritable, nervous, and cranky because of the thirst they were enduring, and worked up to the fever pitch by the devilish manoeuvres of the exuberant and hard-working bummer, wanted only the flimsiest kind of an excuse to stampede, and they might go without an excuse. A flash of lightning, a crash of thunder, a wind-blown paper, a flapping wagon cover, the sudden and unheralded approach of a careless rider, the cracking and flare of a match, or the scent of a wolf or coyote--or water, would send an avalanche of three thousand crazed steers crashing its irresistible way over a pitch-black plain.

Red had warned Pete and Billy, and now he rode to find Johnny and send him to camp for the others. As he got halfway around the circle he heard Johnny singing a mournful lay, and soon a black bulk loomed up in the dark ahead of him. "That you, Kid?" he asked. "That you, Johnny?" he repeated, a little louder.

The song stopped abruptly. "Shore," replied Johnny. "We're going to have trouble aplenty to-night. Glad daylight ain't so very far off. That cussed li'l rake of a bummer got by me an' into the herd. He's shore raising Ned to-night, the li'l monkey: it's getting serious, Red."

"I'll shoot that yearling at daylight, damn him!" retorted Red. "I should 'a' done it a week ago. He's picked the worst time for his cussed devilment! You ride right in an' get the boys, an' get 'em out here quick. The whole herd's on its toes waiting for the signal; an' the wink of an eye'll send 'em off. God only knows what'll happen between now and daylight! If the wind should change an' blow down from the north, they'll be off as shore as shooting. One whiff of Bennett's Creek is all that's needed, Kid; an'--"

"Oh, pshaw!" interposed Johnny. "There ain't no wind at all now. It's been quiet for an hour."

"Yes; an' that's one of the things that's worrying me. It means a change, shore."

"Not always; we'll come out of this all right," assured Johnny, but he spoke without his usual confidence. "There ain't no use--" he paused as he felt the air stir, and he was conscious of Red's heavy breathing. There was a peculiar hush in the air that he did not like, a closeness that sent his heart up in his throat, and as he was about to continue a sudden gust snapped his neck-kerchief out straight. He felt that refreshing coolness which so often precedes a storm and as he weighed it in his mind a low rumble of thunder rolled in the north and sent a chill down his back.

"Good God! Get the boys!" cried Red, wheeling. "It's _changed_! An' Pete an' Billy out there in front of--_there they go_!" he shouted as a sudden tremor shook the earth and a roaring sound filled the air. He was instantly lost to ear and eye, swallowed by the oppressive darkness as he spurred and quirted into a great, choking cloud of dust which swept down from the north, unseen in the night. The deep thunder of hoofs and the faint and occasional flash of a six-shooter told him the direction, and he hurled his mount after the uproar with no thought of the death which lurked in every hole and rock and gully on the uneven and unseen plain beneath him. His mouth and nose were lined with dust, his throat choked with it, and he opened his burning eyes only at intervals, and then only to a slit, to catch a fleeting glance of--nothing. He realized vaguely that he was riding north, because the cattle would head for water, but that was all, save that he was animated by a desperate eagerness to gain the firing line, to join Pete and Billy, the two men who rode before that crazed mass of horns and hoofs and who were pleading and swearing and yelling in vain only a few feet ahead of annihilation--if they were still alive. A stumble, a moment's indecision, and the avalanche would roll over them as if they were straws and trample them flat beneath the pounding hoofs, a modern Juggernaut. If he, or they, managed to escape with life, it would make a good tale for the bunk house some night; if they were killed it was in doing their duty--it was all in a day's work.

Johnny shouted after him and then wheeled and raced towards the camp, emptying his Colt in the air as a warning. He saw figures scurrying across the lighted place, and before he had gained it his friends raced past him and gave him hard work catching up to them. And just behind him rode the stranger, to do what he could for his new friends, and as reckless of consequences as they.

It seemed an age before they caught up to the stragglers, and when they realized how true they had ridden in the dark they believed that at last their luck was turning for the better, and pushed on with renewed hope. Hopalong shouted to those nearest him that Bennett's Creek could not be far away and hazarded the belief that the steers would slow up and stop when they found the water they craved; but his words were lost to all but himself.

Suddenly the punchers were almost trapped and their escape made miraculous, for without warning the herd swerved and turned sharply to the right, crossing the path of the riders and forcing them to the east, showing Hopalong their silhouettes against the streak of pale gray low down in the eastern sky. When free from the sudden press of cattle they slowed perceptibly, and Hopalong did likewise to avoid running them down. At that instant the uproar took on a new note and increased threefold. He could hear the shock of impact, whip-like reports, the bellowing of cattle in pain, and he arose in his stirrups to peer ahead for the reason, seeing, as he did so, the silhouettes of his friends arise and then drop from his sight. Without additional warning his horse pitched forward and crashed to the earth, sending him over its head. Slight as was the warning it served to ease his fall, for instinct freed his feet from the stirrups, and when he struck the ground it was feet first, and although he fell flat at the next instant, the shock had been broken. Even as it was, he was partly stunned, and groped as he arose on his hands and knees. Arising painfully he took a short step forward, tripped and fell again; and felt a sharp pain shoot through his hand as it went first to break the fall. Perhaps it was ten seconds before he knew what it was that had thrown him, and when he learned that he also learned the reason for the whole calamity--in his torn and bleeding hand he held a piece of barb wire.

"Barb wire!" he muttered, amazed. "Barb wire! Why, what the--_Damn that ranch_!" he shouted, sudden rage sweeping over him as the situation flashed through his mind and banished all the mental effects of the fall. "They've gone an' strung it south of the creek as well! Red! Johnny! Lanky!" he shouted at the top of his voice, hoping to be heard over the groaning of injured cattle and the general confusion. "Good Lord! _are they killed_!"

They were not, thanks to the forced slowing up, and to the pool of water and mud which formed an arm of the creek, a back-water away from the pull of the current. They had pitched into the mud and water up to their waists, some head first, some feet first, and others as they would go into a chair. Those who had been fortunate enough to strike feet first pulled out the divers, and the others gained their feet as best they might and with varying degrees of haste, but all mixed profanity and thankfulness equally well; and were equally and effectually disguised.

Hopalong, expecting the silence of death or at least the groaning of injured and dying, was taken aback by the fluent stream of profanity which greeted his ears. But all efforts in that line were eclipsed when the drive foreman tersely explained about the wire, and the providential mud bath was forgotten in the new idea. They forthwith clamored for war, and the sooner it came the better they would like it.

"Not now, boys; we've got work to do first," replied Hopalong, who, nevertheless, was troubled grievously by the same itching trigger finger. They subsided--as a steel spring subsides when held down by a weight--and went off in search of their mounts. Daylight had won the skirmish in the east and was now attacking in force, and revealed a sight which, stilling the profanity for the moment, caused it to flow again with renewed energy. The plain was a shambles near the creek, and dead and dying steers showed where the fence had stood. The rest of the herd had passed over these. The wounded cattle and three horses were put out of their misery as the first duty. The horse that Hopalong had ridden had a broken back; the other two, broken legs. When this work was out of the way the bruised and shaken men gave their attention to the scattered cattle on the other side of the creek, and when Hawkins rode up after wasting time in hunting for the trail in the dark, he saw four men with the herd, which was still scattered; four others near the creek, of whom only Johnny was mounted, and a group of six strangers riding towards them from the west and along the fence, or what was left of that portion of it.

"That's awful!" he cried, stopping his limping horse near Hopalong. "An' here come the fools that done it."

"Yes," replied Johnny, his voice breaking from rage, "but they won't go back again! I don't care if I'm killed if I can get one or two of that crowd--"

"Shut up, Kid!" snapped Hopalong as the 4X outfit drew near. "I know just how you feel about it; feel that way myself. But there ain't a-going to be no fighting while I've got these cows on my han's. That gang'll be here when we come back, all right."

"Mebby one or two of 'em won't," remarked Hawkins, as he looked again over the carnage along the fence. "I never did much pot-shooting, 'cept agin Injuns; but I dunno--" He did not finish, for the strangers were almost at his elbow.

Cranky Joe led the 4X contingent and he did the talking for it without waste of time. "Who the hell busted that fence?" he demanded, belligerently, looking around savagely. Johnny's hand twitched at the words and the way they were spoken.

"I did; did you think somebody leaned agin it?" replied Hopalong, very calmly,--so calmly that it was about one step short of an explosion.

"Well, why didn't you go around?"

"Three thousand stampeding cattle don't go 'round wire fences in the dark."

"Well, that's not our fault. Reckon you better dig down an' settle up for the damages, an' half a cent a head for water; an' then go 'round. You can't stampede through the other fence."

"That so?" asked Hopalong.

"Reckon it is."

"Yo're real shore it is?"

"Well there's only six of us here, but there's six more that we can get blamed quick if we need 'em. It's so, all right."

"Well, coming down to figures, there's eight here, with two hoss-wranglers an' a cook to come," retorted Hopalong, kicking the belligerent Johnny on the shins. "We're just about mad enough to tackle anything: ever feel that way?"

"Oh, no use getting all het up," rejoined Cranky Joe. "We ain't a-going to fight 'less we has to. Better pay up."

"Send yore bills to the ranch--if they're O. K., Buck'll pay 'em."

"Nix; I take it when I can get it."

"I ain't got no money with me that I can spare."

"Then you can leave enough cows to buy back again."

"I'm not going to pay you one damned cent, an' the only cows I'll leave are the dead ones--an' if I could take them with me I'd do it. An' I'm not going around the fence, neither."

"Oh, yes; you are. An' yo're going to pay," snapped Cranky Joe.

"Take it out of the price of two hundred dead cows an' gimme what's left," Hopalong retorted. "It'll cost you nine of them twelve men to pry it out'n me."

"You won't pay?" demanded the other, coldly.

"Not a plugged peso."

"Well, as I said before, I don't want to fight nobody 'less I has to," replied Cranky Joe. "I'll give you a chance to change yore mind. We'll be out here after it to-morrow, cash or cows. That'll give you twenty-four hours to rest yore herd an' get ready to drive. Then you pay, an' go back, 'round the fence."

"All right; to-morrow suits me," responded Hopalong, who was boiling with rage and felt constrained to hold it back. If it wasn't for the cows--!

Red and three companions swept up and stopped in a swirl of dust and asked questions until Hopalong shut them up. Their arrival and the manner of their speech riled Cranky Joe, who turned around and loosed one more remark; and he never knew how near to death he was at that moment.

"You fellers must own the earth, the way you act," he said to Red and his three companions.

"We ain't fencing it in to prove it," rejoined Hopalong, his hand on Red's arm.

Cranky Joe wheeled to rejoin his friends. "To-morrow," he said, significantly.

Hopalong and his men watched the six ride away, too enraged to speak for a moment. Then the drive foreman mastered himself and turned to Hawkins. "Where's their ranch house?" he demanded, sharply. "There must be some way out of this, an' we've got to find it; an' before to-morrow."

"West; three hours' ride along the fence. I could find 'em the darkest night what ever happened; I was out there once," Hawkins replied.

"Describe 'em as exact as you can," demanded Hopalong, and when Hawkins had done so the Bar-20 drive foreman slapped his thigh and laughed nastily. "One house with one door an' only two windows--are you shore? Good! Where's the corrals? Good again! So they'll take pay for their blasted fence, eh? Cash or cows, hey! Don't want no fight 'less it's necessary, but they're going to make us pay for the fence that killed two hundred head, an' blamed nigh got us, too. An' half a cent a head for drinking water! I've paid that more'n once--some of the poor devils squatting on the range ain't got nothing to sell but water, but I don't buy none out of Bennett's Creek! Pete, you mounted fellers round up a little--bunch the herd a little closer, an' drive straight along the trail towards that other fence. We'll all help you as soon as the wranglers bring us up something to ride. Push 'em hard, limp or no limp, till dark. They'll be too tired to go crow-hopping 'round any in the dark to-night. An' say! When you see that bummer, if he wasn't got by the fence, drop him clean. So they've got twelve men, hey! Huh!"

"What you going to do?" asked Red, beginning to cool down, and very curious.

"Yes; tell us," urged Johnny.

"Why, I'm going to cut that fence, an' cut it all to hell. Then I'm going to push the herd through it as far out of danger as I can. When they're all right Cookie an' the hoss-wranglers will have to hold 'em during the night while we do the rest."

"What's the rest?" demanded Johnny.

"Oh, I'll tell you that later; it can wait," replied Hopalong. "Meanwhile, you get out there with Pete an' help get the herd in shape. We'll be with you soon--here comes the wranglers an' the cavvieyeh. 'Bout time, too."

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