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The Fence








From: Bar-20 Days

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."





Next: Mr Boggs Is Disgusted

Previous: Barb Wire



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