From: Hopalong Cassidy's Rustler Round-up
A fire burned briskly in front of Mr. Trendley's cabin that night
and several punchers sat around it occupied in various ways. Two men
leaned against the wall and sang softly of the joys of the trail and
the range. One of them, Lefty Allen, of the O-Bar-O, sang in his sweet
tenor, and other men gradually strolled up and seated themselves on
the ground, where the fitful gleam of responsive pipes and cigarettes
showed like fireflies. The songs followed one after another, first a
lover's plea in soft Spanish and then a rollicking tale of the cow-
towns and men. Supper had long since been enjoyed and all felt that
life was, indeed, well worth living.
A shadow loomed against the cabin wall and a procession slowly made
its way toward the open door. The leader, Hopalong, disappeared within
and was followed by Mr. Trendley, bound and hobbled and tied to Red,
the rear being brought up by Frenchy, whose rifle lolled easily in the
crotch of his elbow. The singing went on uninterrupted and the hum of
voices between the selections remained unchanged. Buck left the crowd
around the fire and went into the cabin, where his voice was heard
assenting to something. Hopalong emerged and took a seat at the fire,
sending two punchers to take his place. He was joined by Frenchy and
Red, the former very quiet.
In the center of a distant group were seven men who were not armed.
Their belts, half full of cartridges, supported empty holsters. They
sat and talked to the men around them, swapping notes and experiences,
and in several instances found former friends and acquaintances. These
men were not bound and were apparently members of Buck's force. Then
one of them broke down, but quickly regained his nerve and proposed a
game of cards. A fire was started and several games were immediately
in progress. These seven men were to die at daybreak.
As the night grew older man after man rolled himself in his blanket
and lay down where he sat, sinking off to sleep with a swiftness that
bespoke tired muscles and weariness. All through the night, however,
there were twelve men on guard, of whom three were in the cabin.
At daybreak a shot from one of the guards awakened every man within
hearing, and soon they romped and scampered down to the river's edge
to indulge in the luxury of a morning plunge. After an hour's
horseplay they trooped back to the cabin and soon had breakfast out of
Waffles, foreman of the O-Bar-O, and You-bet Somes strolled over to
the seven unfortunates who had just completed a choking breakfast and
nodded a hearty "Good morning." Then others came up and finally all
moved off toward the river. Crossing it, they disappeared into the
grove and all sounds of their advance grew into silence.
Mr. Trendley, escorted outside for the air, saw the procession as it
became lost to sight in the brush. He sneered and asked for a smoke,
which was granted. Then his guards were changed and the men began to
straggle back from the grove.
Mr. Trendley, with his back to the cabin, scowled defiantly at the
crowd that hemmed him in. The coolest, most damnable murderer in the
West was not now going to beg for mercy. When he had taken up crime as
a means of livelihood he had decided that if the price to be paid for
his course was death, he would pay like a man. He glanced at the
cottonwood grove, wherein were many ghastly secrets, and smiled. His
hairless eyebrows looked like livid scars and his lips quivered in
scorn and anger.
As he sneered at Buck there was a movement in the crowd before him
and a pathway opened for Frenchy, who stepped forward slowly and
deliberately, as if on his way to some bar for a drink. There was
something different about the man who had searched the Staked Plain
with Hopalong and Red: he was not the same puncher who had arrived
from Montana three weeks before. There was lacking a certain air of
carelessness and he chilled his friends, who looked upon him as if
they had never really known him. He walked up to Mr. Trendley and
gazed deeply into the evil eyes.
Twenty years before, Frenchy McAllister had changed his identity
from a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care cow-puncher and became a
machine. The grief that had torn his soul was not of the kind which
seeks its outlet in tears and wailing; it had turned and struck
inward, and now his deliberate ferocity was icy and devilish. Only a
glint in his eyes told of exultation, and his words were sharp and
incisive; one could well imagine one heard the click of his teeth as
they bit off the consonants: every letter was clear-cut, every
syllable startling in its clearness.
"Twenty years and two months ago to-day," he began, "you arrived at
the ranchhouse of the Double Y, up near the Montana-Wyoming line.
Everything was quiet, except, perhaps, a woman's voice, singing. You
entered, and before you left you pinned a note to that woman's dress.
I found it, and it is due."
The air of carelessness disappeared from the members of the crowd
and the silence became oppressive. Most of those present knew parts of
Frenchy's story, and all were in hearty accord with anything he might
do. He reached within his vest and brought forth a deerskin bag.
Opening it, he drew out a package of oiled silk and from that he took
a paper. Carefully replacing the silk and the bag, he slowly unfolded
the sheet in his hand and handed it to Buck, whose face hardened. Two
decades had passed since the foreman of the Bar-20 had seen that
precious sheet, but the scene of its finding would never fade from his
memory. He stood as if carved from stone, with a look on his face that
made the crowd shift uneasily and glance at Trendley.
Frenchy turned to the rustler and regarded him evilly. "You are the
hellish brute that wrote that note," pointing to the paper in the hand
of his friend. Then, turning again, he spoke: "Buck, read that paper."
The foreman cleared his throat and read distinctly:
"McAllister: Yore wife is too blame good to live.
There was a shuffling sound, but Buck and Frenchy, silently backed
up by Hopalong and Red, intervened, and the crowd fell back, where it
surged in indecision.
"Gentlemen," said Frenchy, "I want you to vote on whether any man
here has more right to do with Slippery Trendley as he sees fit than
myself. Any one who thinks so, or that he should be treated like the
others, step forward. Majority rules."
There was no advance and he spoke again: "Is there any one here who
objects to this man dying?"
Hopalong and Red awkwardly bumped their knuckles against their guns
and there was no response.
The prisoner was bound with cowhide to the wall of the cabin and
four men sat near and facing him. The noonday meal was eaten in
silence, and the punchers rode off to see about rounding up the cattle
that grazed over the plain as far as eye could see. Supper-time came
and passed, and busy men rode away in all directions. Others came and
relieved the guards, and at midnight another squad took up the vigil.
Day broke and the thunder of hoofs as the punchers rounded up the
cattle became very noticeable. One herd swept past toward the south,
guarded and guided by fifteen men. Two hours later and another
followed, taking a slightly different trail so as to avoid the close-
cropped grass left by the first. At irregular intervals during the day
other herds swept by, until six had passed and denuded the plain of
Buck, perspiring and dusty, accompanied by Hopalong and Red, rode up
to where the guards smoked and joked. Frenchy came out of the cabin
and smiled at his friends. Swinging in his left hand was a newly
filled Colt's .45, which was recognized by his friends as the one
found in the cabin and it bore a rough "T" gouged in the butt.
Buck looked around and cleared his throat: "We've got th' cows on
th' home trail, Frenchy," he suggested.
"Yas?" Inquired Frenchy. "Are there many?"
"Yas," replied Buck, waving his hand at the guards, ordering them to
follow their friends. "It's a good deal for us: we've done right smart
this hand. An' it's a good thing we've got so many punchers: we got a
lot of cattle to drive."
"About five times th' size of th' herd that blamed near made angels
out'en me an' yu," responded Frenchy with a smile.
"I hope almighty hard that we don't have no stampedes on this here
drive. If th' last herds go wild they'll pick up th' others, an' then
there'll be th' devil to pay."
Frenchy smiled again and shot a glance at where Mr. Trendley was
bound to the cabin wall.
Buck looked steadily southward for some time and then flecked a
foam-sud from the flank of his horse. "We are goin' south along th'
Creek until we gets to Big Spring, where we'll turn right smart to th'
west. We won't be able to average more'n twelve miles a day, `though
I'm goin' to drive them hard. How's yore grub?"
"Grub to burn."
"Got yore rope?" Asked the foreman of the Bar-20, speaking as if the
question had no especial meaning.
Frenchy smiled: "Yes."
Hopalong absent-mindedly jabbed his spurs into his mount with the
result that when the storm had subsided the spell was broken and he
said "So long," and rode south, followed by Buck and Red. As they
swept out of sight behind a grove Red turned in his saddle and waved
his hat. Buck discussed with assiduity the prospects of a rainfall and
was very cheerful about the recovery of the stolen cattle. Red could
see a tall, broad-shouldered man standing with his feet spread far
apart, swinging a Colt's .45, and Hopalong swore at everything under
the sun. Dust arose in streaming clouds far to the south and they
spurred forward to overtake the outfits.
Buck Peters, riding over the starlit plain, in his desire to reach
the first herd, which slept somewhere to the west of him under the
care of Waffles, thought of the events of the past few weeks and
gradually became lost in the memories of twenty years before, which
crowded up before his mind like the notes of a half-forgotten song.
His nature, tempered by two decades of a harsh existence, softened as
he lived again the years that had passed and as he thought of the
things which had been. He was so completely lost in his reverie that
he failed to hear the muffled hoofbeats of a horse that steadily
gained upon him, and when Frenchy McAllister placed a friendly hand on
his shoulder he started as if from a deep sleep.
The two looked at each other and their hands met. The question which
sprang into Buck's eyes found a silent answer in those of his friend.
They rode on side by side through the clear night and together drifted
back to the days of the Double Y.
After an hour had passed, the foreman of the Bar-20 turned to his
companion and then hesitated:
"Did, did-was he a cur?"
Frenchy looked off toward the south and, after an interval, replied:
"Yas. "Then, as an after thought, he added, "Yu see, he never reckoned
it would be that way."
Buck nodded, although he did not fully understand, and the subject
was forever closed.
Next: Mr Cassidy Meets A Woman
Previous: The Call