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Hopalong Nurses A Grouch








From: Bar-20 Days

After the excitement incident to the affair at Powers' shack had died
down and the Bar-20 outfit worked over its range in the old, placid way,
there began to be heard low mutterings, and an air of peevish discontent
began to be manifested in various childish ways. And it was all caused
by the fact that Hopalong Cassidy had a grouch, and a big one. It
was two months old and growing worse daily, and the signs threatened
contagion. His foreman, tired and sick of the snarling, fidgety,
petulant atmosphere that Hopalong had created on the ranch, and
driven to desperation, eagerly sought some chance to get rid of the
"sore-thumb" temporarily and give him an opportunity to shed his
generous mantle of the blues. And at last it came.

No one knew the cause for Hoppy's unusual state of mind, although there
were many conjectures, and they covered the field rather thoroughly; but
they did not strike on the cause. Even Red Connors, now well over all
ill effects of the wounds acquired in the old ranch house, was forced to
guess; and when Red had to do that about anything concerning Hopalong he
was well warranted in believing the matter to be very serious.

Johnny Nelson made no secret of his opinion and derived from it a great
amount of satisfaction, which he admitted with a grin to his foreman.

"Buck," he said, "Hoppy told me he went broke playing poker over in
Grant with Dave Wilkes and them two Lawrence boys, an' that shore
explains it all. He's got pack sores from carrying his unholy licking.
It was due to come for him, an' Dave Wilkes is just the boy to deliver
it. That's the whole trouble, an' I know it, an' I'm damned glad they
trimmed him. But he ain't got no right of making us miserable because
he lost a few measly dollars."

"Yo're wrong, son; dead, dead wrong," Buck replied. "He takes his
beatings with a grin, an' money never did bother him. No poker game that
ever was played could leave a welt on him like the one we all mourn, an'
cuss. He's been doing something that he don't want us to know--made a
fool of hisself some way, most likely, an' feels so ashamed that he's
sore. I've knowed him too long an' well to believe that gambling had
anything to do with it. But this little trip he's taking will fix him
up all right, an' I couldn't 'a' picked a better man--or one that I'd
rather get rid of just now."

"Well, lemme tell you it's blamed lucky for him that you picked him to
go," rejoined Johnny, who thought more of the woeful absentee than he
did of his own skin. "I was going to lick him, shore, if it went on
much longer. Me an' Red an' Billy was going to beat him up good till he
forgot his dead injuries an' took more interest in his friends."

Buck laughed heartily. "Well, the three of you might 'a' done it if
you worked hard an' didn't get careless, but I have my doubts. Now look
here--you've been hanging around the bunk house too blamed much lately.
Henceforth an' hereafter you've got to earn your grub. Get out on that
west line an' hustle."

"You know I've had a toothache!" snorted Johnny with a show of
indignation, his face as sober as that of a judge.

"An' you'll have a stomach ache from lack of grub if you don't earn yore
right to eat purty soon," retorted Buck. "You ain't had a toothache in
yore whole life, an' you don't know what one is. G'wan, now, or I'll
give you a backache that'll ache!"

"Huh! Devil of a way to treat a sick man!" Johnny retorted, but he
departed exultantly, whistling with much noise and no music. But he was
sorry for one thing: he sincerely regretted that he had not been present
when Hopalong met his Waterloo. It would have been pleasing to look
upon.

While the outfit blessed the proposed lease of range that took him out
of their small circle for a time, Hopalong rode farther and farther
into the northwest, frequently lost in abstraction which, judging by its
effect upon him, must have been caused by something serious. He had not
heard from Dave Wilkes about that individual's good horse which had been
loaned to Ben Ferris, of Winchester. Did Dave think he had been killed
or was still pursuing the man whose neck-kerchief had aroused such
animosity in Hopalong's heart? Or had the horse actually been returned?
The animal was a good one, a successful contender in all distances from
one to five miles, and had earned its owner and backers much money--and
Hopalong had parted with it as easily as he would have borrowed five
dollars from Red. The story, as he had often reflected since, was as old
as lying--a broken-legged horse, a wife dying forty miles away, and a
horse all saddled which needed only to be mounted and ridden.

These thoughts kept him company for a day and when he dismounted before
Stevenson's "Hotel" in Hoyt's Corners he summed up his feelings for the
enlightenment of his horse.

"Damn it, bronc! I'd give ten dollars right now to know if I was a
jackass or not," he growled. "But he was an awful slick talker if he
lied. An' I've got to go up an' face Dave Wilkes to find out about it!"

Mr. Cassidy was not known by sight to the citizens of Hoyt's Corners,
however well versed they might be in his numerous exploits of wisdom and
folly. Therefore the habitues of Stevenson's Hotel did not recognize him
in the gloomy and morose individual who dropped his saddle on the floor
with a crash and stamped over to the three-legged table at dusk and
surlily demanded shelter for the night.

"Gimme a bed an' something to eat," he demanded, eyeing the three men
seated with their chairs tilted against the wall. "Do I get 'em?" he
asked, impatiently.

"You do," replied a one-eyed man, lazily arising and approaching him.
"One dollar, now."

"An' take the rocks outen that bed--I want to sleep."

"A dollar per for every rock you find," grinned Stevenson, pleasantly.
"There ain't no rocks in my beds," he added.

"Some folks likes to be rocked to sleep," facetiously remarked one of
the pair by the wall, laughing contentedly at his own pun. He bore all
the ear-marks of being regarded as the wit of the locality--every hamlet
has one; I have seen some myself.

"Hee, hee, hee! Yo're a droll feller, Charley," chuckled Old John
Ferris, rubbing his ear with unconcealed delight. "That's a good un."

"One drink, now," growled Hopalong, mimicking the proprietor, and
glaring savagely at the "droll feller" and his companion. "An' mind that
it's a good one," he admonished the host.

"It's better," smiled Stevenson, whereat Old John crossed his legs and
chuckled again. Stevenson winked.

"Riding long?" he asked.

"Since I started."

"Going fur?"

"Till I stop."

"Where do you belong?" Stevenson's pique was urging him against the
ethics of the range, which forbade personal questions.

Hopalong looked at him with a light in his eye that told the host he had
gone too far. "Under my sombrero!" he snapped.

"Hee, hee, hee!" chortled Old John, rubbing his ear again and nudging
Charley. "He ain't no fool, hey?"

"Why, I don't know, John; he won't tell," replied Charley.

Hopalong wheeled and glared at him, and Charley, smiling uneasily, made
an appeal: "Ain't mad, are you?"

"Not yet," and Hopalong turned to the bar again, took up his liquor
and tossed it off. Considering a moment he shoved the glass back again,
while Old John tongued his lips in anticipation of a treat. "It is
good--fill it again."

The third was even better and by the time the fourth and fifth had
joined their predecessors Hopalong began to feel a little more cheerful.
But even the liquor and an exceptionally well-cooked supper could not
separate him from his persistent and set grouch. And of liquor he had
already taken more than his limit. He had always boasted, with truth,
that he had never been drunk, although there had been two occasions when
he was not far from it. That was one doubtful luxury which he could not
afford for the reason that there were men who would have been glad to
see him, if only for a few seconds, when liquor had dulled his brain and
slowed his speed of hand. He could never tell when and where he might
meet one of these.

He dropped into a chair by a card table and, baffling all attempts
to engage him in conversation, reviewed his troubles in a mumbled
soliloquy, the liquor gradually making him careless. But of all the
jumbled words his companions' diligent ears heard they recognized and
retained only the bare term "Winchester"; and their conjectures were
limited only by their imaginations.

Hopalong stirred and looked up, shaking off the hand which had aroused
him. "Better go to bed, stranger," the proprietor was saying. "You
an' me are the last two up. It's after twelve, an' you look tired and
sleepy."

"Said his wife was sick," muttered the puncher. "Oh, what you saying?"

"You'll find a bed better'n this table, stranger--it's after twelve an'
I want to close up an' get some sleep. I'm tired myself."

"Oh, that all? Shore I'll go to bed--like to see anybody stop me! Ain't
no rocks in it, hey?"

"Nary a rock," laughingly reassured the host, picking up Hopalong's
saddle and leading the way to a small room off the "office," his
guest stumbling after him and growling about the rocks that lived in
Winchester. When Stevenson had dropped the saddle by the window and
departed, Hopalong sat on the edge of the bed to close his eyes for just
a moment before tackling the labor of removing his clothes. A crash and
a jar awakened him and he found himself on the floor with his back
to the bed. He was hot and his head ached, and his back was skinned
a little--and how hot and stuffy and choking the room had become!
He thought he had blown out the light, but it still burned, and
three-quarters of the chimney was thickly covered with soot. He was
stifling and could not endure it any longer. After three attempts he
put out the light, stumbled against his saddle and, opening the window,
leaned out to breathe the pure air. As his lungs filled he chuckled
wisely and, picking up the saddle, managed to get it and himself through
the window and on the ground without serious mishap. He would ride
for an hour, give the room time to freshen and cool off, and come back
feeling much better. Not a star could be seen as he groped his way
unsteadily towards the rear of the building, where he vaguely remembered
having seen the corral as he rode up.

"Huh! Said he lived in Winchester an' his name was Bill--no, Ben
Ferris," he muttered, stumbling towards a noise he knew was made by a
horse rubbing against the corral fence. Then his feet got tangled up in
the cinch of his saddle, which he had kicked before him, and after great
labor he arose, muttering savagely, and continued on his wobbly way.
"Goo' Lord, it's darker'n cats in--oof!" he grunted, recoiling from
forcible contact with the fence he sought. Growling words unholy he felt
his way along it and finally his arm slipped through an opening and he
bumped his head solidly against the top bar of the gate. As he righted
himself his hand struck the nose of a horse and closed mechanically over
it. Cow-ponies look alike in the dark and he grinned jubilantly as he
complimented himself upon finding his own so unerringly.

"Anything is easy, when you know how. Can't fool me, ol' cayuse," he
beamed, fumbling at the bars with his free hand and getting them down
with a fool's luck. "You can't do it--I got you firs', las', an' always;
an' I got you good. Yessir, I got you good. Quit that rearing, you ol'
fool! Stan' still, can't you?" The pony sidled as the saddle hit its
back and evoked profane abuse from the indignant puncher as he risked
his balance in picking it up to try again, this time successfully. He
began to fasten the girth, and then paused in wonder and thought deeply,
for the pin in the buckle would slide to no hole but the first. "Huh!
Getting fat, ain't you, piebald?" he demanded with withering sarcasm.
"You blow yoreself up any more'n I'll bust you wide open!" heaving
up with all his might on the free end of the strap, one knee pushing
against the animal's side. The "fat" disappeared and Hopalong laughed.
"Been learnin' new tricks, ain't you? Got smart since you been
travellin', hey?" He fumbled with the bars again and got two of them
back in place and then, throwing himself across the saddle as the horse
started forward as hard as it could go, slipped off, but managed to save
himself by hopping along the ground. As soon as he had secured the grip
he wished he mounted with the ease of habit and felt for the reins.
"G'wan now, an' easy--it's plumb dark an' my head's bustin'."

When he saddled his mount at the corral he was not aware that two of the
three remaining horses had taken advantage of their opportunity and had
walked out and made off in the darkness before he replaced the bars, and
he was too drunk to care if he had known it.

The night air felt so good that it moved him to song, but it was not
long before the words faltered more and more and soon ceased altogether
and a subdued snore rasped from him. He awakened from time to time, but
only for a moment, for he was tired and sleepy.

His mount very quickly learned that something was wrong and that it was
being given its head. As long as it could go where it pleased it could
do nothing better than head for home, and it quickened its pace towards
Winchester. Some time after daylight it pricked up its ears and broke
into a canter, which soon developed signs of irritation in its rider.
Finally Hopalong opened his heavy eyes and looked around for his
bearings. Not knowing where he was and too tired and miserable to give
much thought to a matter of such slight importance, he glanced around
for a place to finish his sleep. A tree some distance ahead of him
looked inviting and towards it he rode. Habit made him picket the horse
before he lay down and as he fell asleep he had vague recollections
of handling a strange picket rope some time recently. The horse slowly
turned and stared at the already snoring figure, glanced over the
landscape, back the to queerest man it had ever met, and then fell
to grazing in quiet content. A slinking coyote topped a rise a short
distance away and stopped instantly, regarding the sleeping man with
grave curiosity and strong suspicion. Deciding that there was nothing
good to eat in that vicinity and that the man was carrying out a fell
plot for the death of coyotes, it backed away out of sight and loped on
to other hunting grounds.





Next: A Friend In Need

Previous: Buck Takes A Hand



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