Tex Ewalt Hunts Trouble
From: Bar-20 Days
Not more than a few weeks after the Bar-20 drive outfit returned to the
ranch a solitary horseman pushed on towards the trail they had followed,
bound for Buckskin and the Bar-20 range. His name was Tex Ewalt and he
cordially hated all of the Bar-20 outfit and Hopalong in particular. He
had nursed a grudge for several years and now, as he rode south to rid
himself of it and to pay a long-standing debt, it grew stronger until he
thrilled with anticipation and the sauce of danger. This grudge had been
acquired when he and Slim Travennes had enjoyed a duel with Hopalong
Cassidy up in Santa Fe, and had been worsted; it had increased when he
learned of Slim's death at Cactus Springs at the hands of Hopalong; and,
some time later, hearing that two friends of his, "Slippery" Trendley
and "Deacon" Rankin, with their gang, had "gone out" in the Panhandle
with the same man and his friends responsible for it, Tex hastened to
Muddy Wells to even the score and clean his slate. Even now his face
burned when he remembered his experiences on that never-to-be-forgotten
occasion. He had been played with, ridiculed, and shamed, until he fled
from the town as a place accursed, hating everything and everybody. It
galled him to think that he had allowed Buck Peters' momentary sympathy
to turn him from his purpose, even though he was convinced that the
foreman's action had saved his life. And now Tex was returning, not to
Muddy Wells, but to the range where the Bar-20 outfit held sway.
Several years of clean living had improved Tex, morally and physically.
The liquor he had once been in the habit of consuming had been reduced
to a negligible quantity; he spent the money on cartridges instead,
and his pistol work showed the results of careful and dogged practice,
particularly in the quickness of the draw. Punching cows on a remote
northern range had repaid him in health far more than his old game of
living on his wits and other people's lack of them, as proved by his
clear eye and the pink showing through the tan above his beard; while
his somber, steady gaze, due to long-held fixity of purpose, indicated
the resourcefulness of a perfectly reliable set of nerves. His low-hung
holster tied securely to his trousers leg to assure smoothness in
drawing, the restrained swing of his right hand, never far from the
well-worn scabbard which sheathed a triggerless Colt's "Frontier"--these
showed the confident and ready gun-man, the man who seldom missed.
"Frontiers" left the factory with triggers attached, but the absence of
that part did not always incapacitate a weapon. Some men found that the
regular method was too slow, and painstakingly cultivated the art of
thumbing the hammer. "Thumbing" was believed to save the split second
so valuable to a man in argument with his peers. Tex was riding with the
set purpose of picking a fair fight with the best six-shooter expert it
had ever been his misfortune to meet, and he needed that split second.
He knew that he needed it and the knowledge thrilled him with a peculiar
elation; he had changed greatly in the past year and now he wanted an
"even break" where once he would have called all his wits into play to
avoid it. He had found himself and now he acknowledged no superior in
On his way south he met and talked with men who had known him, the old
Tex, in the days when he had made his living precariously. They did not
recognize him behind his beard, and he was content to let the oversight
pass. But from these few he learned what he wished to know, and he was
glad that Hopalong Cassidy was where he had always been, and that his
gun-work had improved rather than depreciated with the passing of time.
He wished to prove himself master of The Master, and to be hailed as
such by those who had jeered and laughed at his ignominy several years
before. So he rode on day after day, smiling and content, neither
under-rating nor over-rating his enemy's ability with one weapon, but
trying to think of him as he really was. He knew that if there was any
difference between Hopalong Cassidy and himself that it must be very
slight--perhaps so slight as to result fatally to both; but if that were
so then it would have to work out as it saw fit--he at least would have
accomplished what many, many others had failed in.
In the little town of Buckskin, known hardly more than locally, and
never thought of by outsiders except as the place where the Bar-20
spent their spare time and money, and neutral ground for the surrounding
ranches, was Cowan's saloon, in the dozen years of its existence the
scene of good stories, boisterous fun, and quick deaths. Put together
roughly, of crude materials, sticking up in inartistic prominence on the
dusty edge of a dustier street; warped, bleached by the sun, and patched
with boards ripped from packing cases and with the flattened sides of
tin cans; low of ceiling, the floor one huge brown discoloration of
spring, creaking boards, knotted and split and worn into hollows, the
unpretentious building offered its hospitality to all who might be
tempted by the scrawled, sprawled lettering of its sign. The walls were
smoke-blackened, pitted with numerous small and clear-cut holes, and
decorated with initials carelessly cut by men who had come and gone.
Such was Cowan's, the best patronized place in many hot and dusty miles
and the Mecca of the cowboys from the surrounding ranches. Often at
night these riders of the range gathered in the humble building and told
tales of exceeding interest; and on these occasions one might see a
row of ponies standing before the building, heads down and quiet. It is
strange how alike cow-ponies look in the dim light of the stars. On the
south side of the saloon, weak, yellow lamp light filtered through the
dirt on the window panes and fell in distorted patches on the plain,
blotched in places by the shadows of the wooden substitutes for glass.
It was a moonlight night late in the fall, after the last beef round-up
was over and the last drive outfit home again, that two cow-ponies stood
in front of Cowan's while their owners lolled against the bar and talked
over the latest sensation--the fencing in of the West Valley range,
and the way Hopalong Cassidy and his trail outfit had opened up the old
drive trail across it. The news was a month old, but it was the last
event of any importance and was still good to laugh over.
"Boys," remarked the proprietor, "I want you to meet Mr. Elkins. He came
down that trail last week, an' he didn't see no fence across it." The
man at the table arose slowly. "Mr. Elkins, this is Sandy Lucas, an'
Wood Wright, of the C-80. Mr. Elkins here has been a-looking over the
country, sizing up what the beef prospects will be for next year; an'
he knows all about wire fences. Here's how," he smiled, treating on the
Mr. Elkins touched the glass to his bearded lips and set it down
untasted while he joked over the sharp rebuff so lately administered to
wire fences in that part of the country. While he was an ex-cow-puncher
he believed that he was above allowing prejudice to sway his judgment,
and it was his opinion, after careful thought, that barb wire was
harmful to the best interests of the range. He had ridden over a great
part of the cattle country in the last few yeas, and after reviewing
the existing conditions as he understood them, his verdict must go as
stated, and emphatically. He launched gracefully into a slowly
delivered and lengthy discourse upon the subject, which proved to be
so entertaining that his companions were content to listen and nod with
comprehension. They had never met any one who was so well qualified
to discuss the pros and cons of the barb-wire fence question, and they
learned many things which they had never heard before. This was very
gratifying to Mr. Elkins, who drew largely upon hearsay, his own vivid
imagination, and a healthy logic. He was very glad to talk to men who
had the welfare of the range at heart, and he hoped soon to meet the
man who had taken the initiative in giving barb wire its first serious
setback on that rich and magnificent southern range.
"You shore ought to meet Cassidy--he's a fine man," remarked Lucas with
enthusiasm. "You'll not find any better, no matter where you look. But
you ain't touched yore liquor," he finished with surprise.
"You'll have to excuse me, gentlemen," replied Mr. Elkins, smiling
deprecatingly. "When a man likes it as much as I do it ain't very easy
to foller instructions an' let it alone. Sometimes I almost break loose
an' indulge, regardless of whether it kills me or not. I reckon it'll
get me yet." He struck the bar a resounding blow with his clenched hand.
"But I ain't going to cave in till I has to!"
"That's purty tough," sympathized Wood Wright, reflectively. "I ain't
so very much taken with it, but I know I would be if I knowed I couldn't
"Yes, that's human nature, all right," laughed Lucas. "That reminds me
of a little thing that happened to me once--"
"Listen!" exclaimed Cowan, holding up his hand for silence. "I reckon
that's the Bar-20 now, or some of it--sounds like them when they're
feeling frisky. There's allus something happening when them fellers are
The proprietor was right, as proved a moment later when Johnny Nelson,
continuing his argument, pushed open the door and entered the room. "I
didn't neither; an' you know it!" he flung over his shoulder.
"Then who did?" demanded Hopalong, chuckling. "Why, hullo, boys," he
said, nodding to his friends at the bar. "Nobody else would do a fool
thing like that; nobody but you, Kid," he added, turning to Johnny.
"I don't care a hang what you think; I say I didn't an'--"
"He shore did, all right; I seen him just afterward," laughed Billy
Williams, pressing close upon Hopalong's heels. "Howdy, Lucas; an'
there's that ol' coyote, Wood Wright. How's everybody feeling?"
"Where's the rest of you fellers?" inquired Cowan.
"Stayed home to-night," replied Hopalong.
"Got any loose money, you two?" asked Billy, grinning at Lucas and
"I reckon we have--an' our credit's good if we ain't. We're good for a
dollar or two, ain't we, Cowan?" replied Lucas.
"Two dollars an' four bits," corrected Cowan. "I'll raise it to three
dollars even when you pay me that 'leven cents you owe me."
"'Leven cents? What 'leven cents?"
"Postage stamps an' envelope for that love letter you writ."
"Go to blazes; that wasn't no love letter!" snorted Lucas, indignantly.
"That was my quarterly report. I never did write no love letters,
"We'll trim you fellers to-night, if you've got the nerve to play us,"
grinned Johnny, expectantly.
"Yes; an' we've got that, too. Give us the cards, Cowan," requested Wood
Wright, turning. "They won't give us no peace till we take all their
money away from 'em."
"Open game," prompted Cowan, glancing meaningly at Elkins, who stood by
idly looking on, and without showing much interest in the scene.
"Shore! Everybody can come in what wants to," replied Lucas, heartily,
leading the others to the table. "I allus did like a six-handed game
best--all the cards are out an' there's some excitement in it."
When the deal began Elkins was seated across the table from Hopalong,
facing him for the first time since that day over in Muddy Wells, and
studying him closely. He found no changes, for the few years had left
no trace of their passing on the Bar-20 puncher. The sensation of facing
the man he had come south expressly to kill did not interfere with
Elkins' card-playing ability for he played a good game; and as if the
Fates were with him it was Hopalong's night off as far as poker was
concerned, for his customary good luck was not in evidence. That
instinctive feeling which singles out two duellists in a card game
was soon experienced by the others, who were careful, as became good
players, to avoid being caught between them; in consequence, when the
game broke up, Elkins had most of Hopalong's money. At one period of his
life Elkins had lived on poker for five years, and lived well. But he
gained more than money in this game, for he had made friends with the
players and placed the first wire of his trap. Of those in the room
Hopalong alone treated him with reserve, and this was cleverly swung so
that it appeared to be caused by a temporary grouch due to the sting of
defeat. As the Bar-20 man was known to be given to moods at times this
was accepted as the true explanation and gave promise of hotly contested
games for revenge later on. The banter which the defeated puncher had to
endure stirred him and strengthened the reserve, although he was careful
not to show it.
When the last man rode off, Elkins and the proprietor sought their bunks
without delay, the former to lie awake a long time, thinking deeply.
He was vexed at himself for failing to work out an acceptable plan
of action, one that would show him to be in the right. He would gain
nothing more than glory, and pay too dearly for it, if he killed
Hopalong and was in turn killed by the dead man's friends--and
he believed that he had become acquainted with the quality of the
friendship which bound the units of the Bar-20 outfit into a smooth,
firm whole. They were like brothers, like one man. Cassidy must do the
forcing as far as appearances went, and be clearly in the wrong before
the matter could be settled.
The next week was a busy one for Elkins, every day finding him in the
saddle and riding over some one of the surrounding ranches with one or
more of its punchers for company. In this way he became acquainted with
the men who might be called on to act as his jury when the showdown
came, and he proceeded to make friends of them in a manner that promised
success. And some of his suggestions for the improvement of certain
conditions on the range, while they might not work out right in the
long run, compelled thought and showed his interest. His remarks on the
condition and numbers of cattle were the same in substance in all cases
and showed that he knew what he was talking about, for the punchers were
all very optimistic about the next year's showing in cattle.
"If you fellers don't break all records for drive herds of quality next
year I don't know nothing about cows; an' I shore don't know nothing
else," he told the foreman of the Bar-20, as they rode homeward after an
inspection of that ranch. "There'll be more dust hanging over the
drive trails leading from this section next year when spring drops
the barriers than ever before. You needn't fear for the market,
neither--prices will stand. The north an' central ranges ain't doing
what they ought to this year--it'll be up to you fellers down south,
here, to make that up; an' you can do it." This was not a guess, but the
result of thought and study based on the observations he had made on his
ride south, and from what he had learned from others along the way.
It paralleled Buck's own private opinion, especially in regard to
the southern range; and the vague suspicions in the foreman's mind
disappeared for good and all.
Needless to say Elkins was a welcome visitor at the ranch houses and was
regarded as a good fellow. At the Bar-20 he found only two men who
would not thaw to him, and he was possessed of too much tact to try
any persuasive measures. One was Hopalong, whose original cold reserve
seemed to be growing steadily, the Bar-20 puncher finding in Elkins
a personality that charged the atmosphere with hostility and quietly
rubbed him the wrong way. Whenever he was in the presence of the
newcomer he felt the tugging of an irritating and insistent antagonism
and he did not always fully conceal it. John Bartlett, Lucas, and one
or two of the more observing had noticed it and they began to prophesy
future trouble between the two. The other man who disliked Elkins was
Red Connors; but what was more natural? Red, being Hopalong's closest
companion, would be very apt to share his friend's antipathy. On the
other hand, as if to prove Hopalong's dislike to be unwarranted, Johnny
Nelson swung far to the other extreme and was frankly enthusiastic in
his liking for the cattle scout. And Johnny did not pour oil on the
waters when he laughingly twitted Hopalong for allowing "a licking
at cards to make him sore." This was the idea that Elkins was quietly
striving to have generally accepted.
The affair thus hung fire, Elkins chafing at the delay and cautiously
working for an opening, which at last presented itself, to be promptly
seized. By a sort of mutual, unspoken agreement, the men in Cowan's that
night passed up the cards and sat swapping stories. Cowan, swearing at a
smoking lamp, looked up with a grin and burned his fingers as a roar of
laughter marked the point of a droll reminiscence told by Bartlett.
"That's a good story, Bartlett," Elkins remarked, slowing refilling
his pipe. "Reminds me of the lame Greaser, Hippy Joe, an' the canned
oysters. They was both bad, an' neither of 'em knew it till they came
together. It was like this. . . ." The malicious side glance went unseen
by all but Hopalong, who stiffened with the raging suspicion of being
twitted on his own deformity. The humor of the tale failed to appeal
to him, and when his full senses returned Lucas was in the midst of
the story of the deadly game of tag played in a ten-acre lot of dense
underbrush by two of his old-time friends. It was a tale of gripping
interest and his auditors were leaning forward in their eagerness not to
miss a word. "An' Pierce won," finished Lucas; "some shot up, but able
to get about. He was all right in a couple of weeks. But he was bound to
win; he could shoot all around Sam Hopkins."
"But the best shot won't allus win in that game," commented Elkins.
"That's one of the minor factors."
"Yes, sir! It's luck that counts there," endorsed Bartlett, quickly.
"Luck, nine times out of ten."
"Best shot ought to win," declared Skinny Thompson. "It ain't all luck,
nohow. Where'd I be against Hoppy, there?"
"Won't neither!" cried Johnny, excitedly. "The man who sees the other
first wins out. That's wood-craft, an' brains."
"Aw! What do you know about it, anyhow?" demanded Lucas. "If he can't
shoot so good what chance has he got--if he misses the first try, what
"What chance has he got! First chance, miss or no miss. If he can't see
the other first, where the devil does his good shooting come in?"
"Huh!" snorted Wood Wright, belligerently. "Any fool can see, but he
can't shoot! An' it's as much luck as wood-craft, too, an' don't you
"The first shot don't win, Johnny; not in a game like that, with all the
dodging an' ducking," remarked Red. "You can't put one where you want it
when a feller's slipping around in the brush. It's the most that counts,
an' the best shot gets in the most. I wouldn't want to have to stand up
against Hoppy an' a short gun, not in that game; no, sir!" and Red shook
his head with decision.
The argument waxed hot. With the exception of Hopalong, who sat silently
watchful, every one spoke his opinion and repeated it without regard to
the others. It appeared that in this game, the man with the strongest
lungs would eventually win out, and each man tried to show his
superiority in that line. Finally, above the uproar, Cowan's bellow was
herd, and he kept it up until some notice was taken of it. "Shut up!
Shut up! For God's sake, quit! Never saw such a bunch of tinder--let
somebody drop a cold, burned-out match in this gang, an' hell's to pay.
Here, all of you, play cards an' forget about cross-tag in the scrub.
You'll be arguing about playing marbles in the dark purty soon!"
"All right," muttered Johnny, "but just the same, the man who--"
"Never mind about the man who! Did you hear me?" yelled Cowan, swiftly
reaching for a bucket of water. "This is a game where I gets the
most in, an' don't forget it!"
"Come on; play cards," growled Lucas, who did not relish having his
decision questioned on his own story. Undoubtedly somewhere in the wide,
wide world there was such a thing as common courtesy, but none of it had
ever strayed onto that range.
The chairs scraped on the rough floor as the men pulled up to a table.
"I don't care a hang," came Elkins' final comment as he shuffled the
cards with careful attention. "I'm not any fancy Colt expert, but I'm
damned if I won't take a chance in that game with any man as totes a
gun. Leastawise, of course, I wouldn't take no such advantage of a
The effect would have been ludicrous but for its deadly significance.
Cowan, stooping to go under the bar, remained in that hunched-up
attitude, his every faculty concentrated in his ears; the match on its
way to the cigarette between Red's lips was held until it burned his
fingers, when it was dropped from mere reflex action, the hand still
stiffly aloft; Lucas, half in and half out of his chair, seemed to have
got just where he intended, making no effort to seat himself. Skinny
Thompson, his hand on his gun, seemed paralyzed; his mouth was open
to frame a reply that never was uttered and he stared through narrowed
eyelids at the blunderer. The sole movement in the room was the slow
rising of Hopalong and the markedly innocent shuffling of the cards by
Elkins, who appeared to be entirely ignorant of the weight and effect of
his words. He dropped the pack for the cut and then looked up and around
as if surprised by the silence and the expressions he saw.
Hopalong stood facing him, leaning over with both hands on the table.
His voice, when he spoke, rumbled up from his chest in a low growl. "You
won't have no advantage, Elkins. Take it from me, you've had yore last
fling. I'm glad you made it plain, this time, so it's something I can
take hold of." He straightened slowly and walked to the door, and an
audible sigh sounded through the room as it was realized that trouble
was not immediately imminent. At the door he paused and turned back
around, looking back over his shoulder. "At noon to-morrow I'm going to
hoof it north through the brush between the river an' the river trail,
starting at the old ford a mile down the river." He waited expectantly.
"Me too--only the other way," was the instant rejoinder. "Have it yore
Hopalong nodded and the closing door shut him out into the night.
Without a word the Bar-20 men arose and followed him, the only hesitant
being Johnny, who was torn between loyalty and new-found friendship; but
with a sorrowful shake of the head, he turned away and passed out, not
far behind the others.
"Clannish, ain't they?" remarked Elkins, gravely.
Those remaining were regarding him sternly, questioningly, Cowan with
a deep frown darkening his face. "You hadn't ought to 'a' said that,
Elkins." The reproof was almost an accusation.
Elkins looked steadily at the speaker. "You hadn't ought to 'a' let me
say it," he replied. "How did I know he was so touchy?" His gaze left
Cowan and lingered in turn on each of the others. "Some of you ought to
'a' told me. I wouldn't 'a' said it only for what I said just before,
an' I didn't want him to think I was challenging him to no duel in
the brush. So I says so, an' then he goes an' takes it up that I am
challenging him. I ain't got no call to fight with nobody. Ain't I tried
to keep out of trouble with him ever since I've been here? Ain't I kept
out of the poker games on his account? Ain't I?" The grave, even tones
were dispassionate, without a trace of animus and serenely sure of
The faces around him cleared gradually and heads began to nod in
"Yes, I reckon you have," agreed Cowan, slowly, but the frown was not
entirely gone. "Yes, I reckon--mebby--you have."
Next: The Master
Previous: Mr Boggs Is Disgusted