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The Master








From: Bar-20 Days

It was noon by the sun when Hopalong and Red shook hands south of the
old ford and the former turned to enter the brush. Hopalong was cool
and ominously calm while his companion was the opposite. Red was frankly
suspicious of the whole affair and nursed the private opinion that Mr.
Elkins would lay in ambush and shoot his enemy down like a dog. And Red
had promised himself a dozen times that he would study the signs around
the scene of action if Hopalong should not come back, and take a keen
delight, if warranted, in shooting Mr. Elkins full of holes with no
regard for an even break. He was thinking the matter over as his friend
breasted the first line of brush and could not refrain from giving a
slight warning. "Get him, Hoppy," he called, earnestly; "get him good.
Let him do some of the moving about. I'll be here waiting for you."

Hopalong smiled in reply and sprang forward, the leaves and branches
quickly shutting him from Red's sight. He had worked out his plan of
action the night before when he was alone and the world was still, and
as soon as he had it to his satisfaction he had dropped off to sleep as
easily as a child--it took more than gun-play to disturb his nerves.
He glanced about him to make sure of his bearings and then struck on a
curving line for the river. The first hundred yards were covered with
speed and then he began to move more slowly and with greater regard for
caution, keeping close to the earth and showing a marked preference for
low ground. Sky-lines were all right in times of peace, but under the
present conditions they promised to become unhealthy. His eyes and ears
told him nothing for a quarter of an hour, and then he suddenly stopped
short and crouched as he saw the plain trail of a man crossing his own
direction at a right angle. From the bottom of one of the heel prints
a crushed leaf was slowly rising back towards its original position,
telling him how new the trail was; and as if this were not enough for
his trained mind he heard a twig snap sharply as he glanced along the
line of prints. It sounded very close, and he dropped instantly to one
knee and thought quickly. Why had the other left so plain a trail, why
had he reached up and broken twigs that projected above his head as he
passed? Why had he kicked aside a small stone, leaving a patch of moist,
bleached grass to tell where it had lain? Elkins had stumbled here, but
there were no toe marks to tell of it. Hopalong would not track, for he
was no assassin; but he knew that he would do if he were, and careless.
The answer leaped to his suspicious mind like a flash, and he did not
care to waste any time in trying to determine whether or not Elkins was
capable of such a trick. He acted on the presumption that the trail
had been made plain for a good reason, and that not far ahead at some
suitable place,--and there were any number of such within a hundred
yards,--the maker of the plain trail lay in wait. Smiling savagely
he worked backward and turning, struck off in a circle. He had no
compunctions whatever now about shooting the other player of the game.
It was not long before he came upon the same trail again and he started
another circle. A bullet zipped past his ear and cut a twig not two
inches from his head. He fired at the smoke as he dropped, and then
wriggled rapidly backward, keeping as flat to the earth as he could.
Elkins had taken up his position in a thicket which stood in the centre
of a level patch of sand in the old bed of the river,--the bed it had
used five years before and forsaken at the time of the big flood when it
cut itself a new channel and made the U-bend which now surrounded this
piece of land on three sides. Even now, during the rainy season,
the thicket which sheltered Mr. Elkins was frequently an island in a
sluggish, shallow overflow.

"Hole up, blast you!" jeered Hopalong, hugging the ground. The second
bullet from Mr. Elkins' gun cut another twig, this one just over his
head, and he laughed insolently. "I ain't ascared to do the moving,
even if you are. Judging from the way you keep out o' sight the canned
oysters are in the can again. I never did no ambushing, you coyote."

"You can't make remarks like that an' get away with 'em--I've knowed you
too long," retorted Elkins, shifting quickly, and none too soon. "You
went an' got Slim afore he was wide awake. I know you, all right."

Hopalong's surprise was but momentary, and his mind raced back over the
years. Who was this man Elkins, that he knew Slim Travennes? "Yo're a
liar, Elkins, an' so was the man who told you that!"

"Call me Ewalt," jeered the other, nastily. "Nobody'll hear it, an'
you'll not live to tell it. Ewalt, Tex Ewalt; call me that."

"So you've come back after all this time to make me get you, have you?
Well, I ain't a-going to shoot no buttons off you this time. I allus
reckoned you learned something at Muddy Wells--but you'll learn it
here," Hopalong rejoined, sliding into a depression, and working with
great caution towards the dry river bed, where fallen trees and hillocks
of sand provided good cover in plenty. Everything was clear now and
despite the seriousness of the situation he could not repress a smile
as he remembered vividly that day at the carnival when Tex Ewalt came to
town with the determination to kill him and show him up as an imitation.
His grievance against Elkins was petty when compared to that against
Ewalt, and he began to force the issue. As he peered over a stranded
log he caught sight of his enemy disappearing into another part of the
thicket, and two of his three shots went home. Elkins groaned with pain
and fear as he realized that his right knee-cap was broken and would
make him slow in his movements. He was lamed for life, even if he did
come out of the duel alive; lamed in the same way that Hopalong was--the
affliction he had made cruel sport of had come to him. But he had plenty
of courage and he returned the fire with remarkable quickness, his two
shots sounding almost as one.

Hopalong wiped the blood from his cheek and wormed his way to a
new place; when half way there he called out again, "How's yore
health--Tex?" in mock sympathy.

Elkins lied manfully and when he looked to get in another shot his enemy
was on the farther bank, moving up to get behind him. He did not know
Hopalong's new position until he raised his head to glance down over the
dried river bed, and was informed by a bullet that nicked his ear. As
he ducked, another grazed his head, the third going wild. He hazarded a
return shot, and heard Hopalong's laugh ring out again.

"Like the story Lucas told, the best shot is going to win out this time,
too," the Bar-20 man remarked, grimly. "You thought a game like this
would give you some chance against a better shot, didn't you? You are a
fool."

"It ain't over yet, not by a damned sight!" came the retort.

"An' you thought you had a little the best of it if you stayed still an'
let me do the moving, didn't you? You'll learn something before I get
through with you: but it'll be too late to do you any good," Hopalong
called, crouched below a hillock of sand so the other could not take
advantage of the words and single him out for a shot.

"You can't learn me nothing, you assassin; I've got my eyes open, this
time." He knew that he had had them open before, and that Hopalong was
in no way an assassin; but if he could enrage his enemy and sting him
into some reflex carelessness he might have the last laugh.

Elkins' retort was wasted, for the sudden and unusual, although a
familiar sound, had caught Hopalong's ear and he was giving all his
attention to it. While he weighed it, his incredulity holding back
the decision his common sense was striving to give him, the noise grew
louder rapidly and common sense won out in a cry of warning an instant
before a five-foot wall of brown water burst upon his sight, sweeping
swiftly down the old, dry river bed; and behind it towered another and
greater wall. Tree trunks were dancing end over end in it as if they
were straws.

"Cloud-burst!" he yelled. "Run, Tex! Run for yore life! Cloud-burst up
the valley! Run, you fool; Run!"

Tex's sarcastic retort was cut short as he instinctively glanced north,
and his agonized curse lashed Hopalong forward. "Can't run--knee cap's
busted! Can't swim, can't do--ah, hell--!"

Hopalong saw him torn from his shelter and whisked down the raging
torrent like an arrow from a bow. The Bar-20 puncher leaped from the
bank, shot under the yellow flood and arose, gasping and choking many
yards downstream, fighting madly to get the muddy water out of his
throat and eyes. As he struck out with all his strength down the
current, he caught sight of Tex being torn from a jutting tree limb, and
he shouted encouragement and swam all the harder, if such a thing
were possible. Tex's course was checked for a moment by a boiling
back-current and as he again felt the pull of the rushing stream
Hopalong's hand gripped his collar and the fight for safety began.
Whirled against logs and stumps, drawn down by the weight of his clothes
and the frantic efforts of Tex to grasp him--fighting the water and
the man he was trying to save at the same time, his head under water
as often as it was out of it, and Tex's vise-like fingers threatening
him--he headed for the west shore against powerful cross-currents that
made his efforts seem useless. He seemed to get the worst of every
break. Once, when caught by a friendly current, they were swung under
an overhanging branch, but as Hopalong's hand shot up to grasp it
a submerged bush caught his feet and pulled him under, and Tex's
steel-like arms around his throat almost suffocated him before he
managed to beat the other into insensibility and break the hold.

"I'll let you go!" he threatened; but his hand grasped the other's
collar all the tighter and his fighting jaw was set with greater
determination than ever.

They shot out into the main stream, where the U-bend channel joined the
short-cut, and it looked miles wide to the exhausted puncher. He was
fighting only on his will now. He would not give up, though he scarce
could lift an arm, and his lungs seemed on fire. He did not know whether
Tex was dead or alive, but he would get the body ashore with him, or
go down trying. He bumped into a log and instinctively grasped it. It
turned, and when he came up again it was bobbing five feet ahead of him.
Ages seemed to pass before he flung his numb arm over it and floated
with it. He was not alone in the flood; a coyote was pushing steadily
across his path towards the nearer bank, and on a gliding tree trunk
crouched a frightened cougar, its ears flattened and its sharp claws
dug solidly through the bark. Here and there were cattle and a snake
wriggled smoothly past him, apparently as much at home in the water as
out of it. The log turned again and he just managed to catch hold of it
as he came up for the second time.

Things were growing black before his eyes and strange, weird ideas and
images floated through his brain. When he regained some part of his
senses he saw ahead of him a long, curling crest of yellow water and
foam, and he knew, vaguely, that it was pouring over a bar. The next
instant his feet struck bottom and he fought his way blindly and slowly,
with the stubborn determination of his kind, towards the brush-covered
point twenty feet away.

When he opened his eyes and looked around he became conscious of
excruciating pains and he closed them again to rest. His outflung hand
struck something that made him look around again, and he saw Tex Ewalt,
face down at his side. He released his grasp on the other's collar and
slowly the whole thing came to him, and then the necessity for action,
unless he wished to lose what he had fought so hard to save.

Anything short of the iron man Tex had become would have been dead
before this or have been finished by the mauling he now got from
Hopalong. But Tex groaned, gurgled a curse, and finally opened his eyes
upon his rescuer, who sank back with a grunt of satisfaction. Slowly his
intelligence returned as he looked steadily into Hopalong's eyes, and
with it came the realization of a strange truth: he did not hate this
man at all. Months of right living, days and nights of honest labor
shoulder to shoulder with men who respected him for his ability and
accepted him as one of themselves, had made a new man of him, although
the legacy of hatred from the old Tex had disguised him from himself
until now; but the new Tex, battered, shot-up, nearly drowned, looked at
his old enemy and saw him for the man he really was. He smiled faintly
and reached out his hand.

"Cassidy, yo're the boss," he said. "Shake."

They shook.





Next: Buckskin

Previous: Tex Ewalt Hunts Trouble



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