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On A Strange Range








From: Bar-20 Days

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.





Next: The Rebound

Previous: The Thumb Print



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