Authors: Louis - Hopalong 02 L'amour
The Trail To Seven Pines
Two Dead Men.
opalong Cassidy stopped his white gelding on the bald backbone of the ridge. No soil covered the wind-swept sandstone, only a few gnarled cedars that seemed, as is their way, to draw nourishment from the very rock itself. In this last hour before sunset the air was of startling clarity, so much so that objects upon the mountainside across the valley stood out, clearly defined as though but a few yards away instead of as many miles.
Where he sat the sun was bright, but in the west, which was his direction, towering masses of cumulus piled to majestic heights, dwarfing the mountains to insignificance.
The crests of the mighty clouds were glorious with sunlight, but the flat undersides were sullen with impending rain. Hopalong squinted appraisingly at the sky and became no happier at what he saw.
Seven Pines, proudly claiming title as the toughest town west of anywhere, was a good twelve miles off, hidden in the mountains across the valley. Long before he could ride a third of that distance those clouds would be giving the valley a thorough drenching. What he needed now was shelter, and he needed it badly.
So it was that he sat in his saddle studying the country with careful eyes. The stage route was but a mile or so to the north, but he had heard of no shelter there and so far his information had been most accurate. Even as he watched, the gigantic cloud moved nearer, lightning stabbed through it, and the thunder rolled and grumbled.
To the south and west the valley narrowed before spewing out into the vast waste of Adobe Flat. Waterless most of the time, after a rain it would become a slippery, greasy surface that concealed unexpected sinks and mud traps. Close by, the mountainside was broken and serrated, carved by upheaval and erosion. There were notches among the rocks in some of the canyons, but they might well prove deathtraps in such a storm as this would be. Hopalong Cassidy had lived too long in the West not to realize the danger that lay in the bottoms of canyons and dry washes. It was such a sudden rush of water that had finally ended his feud with Tex Ewalt and brought them together as friends, but more often than not, it meant only death to the unwary traveler.
Suddenly, as he was about to ride on, a movement caught his eye and he drew up sharply.
From the mouth of a canyon below and to the southwest a small group of riders had emerged. Something in their bunched way of riding warned Cassidy, and he kneed his mount to the partial concealment of a juniper. At this distance even his field glasses offered him no marks of identification, save a single white splotch on the flank of one horse and that same horse's white nose. There were six riders, and they moved north at a rapid pace, keeping close to the mountain and choosing a route that offered cover from view.
He watched them until they disappeared, scowling slightly, for he knew this land in which he lived. Although a stranger in this area, he was far from strange to the West and western ways, and it seemed these men were riding on a mission. A mission that demanded they remain hidden from anyone passing down the stagecoach road.
"All right, Topper," Hopalong said quietly to the short-coupled gelding, "let's ride along and see what happens. It's a cinch they know where there's shelter. They won't like to get wet any more than we do."
The white horse moved along, choosing its own trail, heading down and northward on a slant. With another appraising glance at the cloud, much nearer now, Hopalong Cassidy drew his six-shooters one after the other and carefully wiped them free of dust.
They were worn silver-plated Colt .45's, their bone handles networked with tiny cracks, their balance perfect. It had been weeks since he had drawn a gun for any reason, but he knew that the price of safety was unresting vigilance.
Seven Pines was his immediate destination, but actually he was just roving across the country. Somewhere to the north, an old friend of the cattle trails, Gibson of the old STL, had a ranch where he lived with his widowed daughter. Hopalong planned to stop with them for a few days before swinging northeast into Montana.
The presence of the riders, even while it promised the proximity of shelter, disturbed him. He had no desire to walk into a range war or any trouble whatsoever. This ride of his was strictly a sightseeing trip, taken with money in his pocket and no feeling of hurry.
A few spattering drops of rain struck his hat brim, sweeping it with a hasty barrage.
Hopalong frowned and dug for his slicker, donning it without slowing his pace. By now he was off the ridge and well into a stand of cedar, his eyes busy searching for shelter. Once he glimpsed an old mine dump, but the tunnel was long since caved in and the buildings had collapsed.
When he reached the vague trail skirting the foot of the mountain he found the tracks of the bunch ahead of him. He studied the tracks briefly, reading them as easily as another man might read a page of print. These were fresh horses, well shod, but one horse had the hoof trimmed too narrow, causing him to toe in somewhat. Another dash of rain came, gained impetus, and then proceeded in a downpour that drew a gray veil across the desert and mountains. The sky darkened and the rolling clouds closed out the sun, shutting down all the miles before him with darkness and slashing rain.
The gray streak of a trail led downward from the mine dump, offering a chance of speed, so he lifted the gelding into a canter and went down the mountain to the main road. Halting briefly, he again found the tracks of the riders. Not yet wiped out by the rain, they crossed the road and then ran along through the brush parallel to it.
The shower eased, and Hopalong smelled the old familiar odor that raindrops bring to long-dry dust. Then there was a crash of thunder and more rain, and behind the rain a roaring weight of wind. Now the darkness became absolute, without a chink of light anywhere except for the constant play of lightning. The wide valley was filled with sound, and the rain came down in solid sheets of water turned into a scythe driven by the fierce wind.
He turned onto the stage road, and Topper held to his canter. Then suddenly the storm lulled, and down this hallway of silence Hopalong heard the sudden crash of shots!
Two . . . three more, a light volley . . . and then one. The last was a lone, final shot. The ending of something.
Reining in, Hopalong strained his ears against the sudden silence, listening. There was nothing, and then the rain came again, whispering at first, then mounting in crescendo to new heights of fury. Pushing on, his hat brim pulled low, his slicker collar high around his ears, he wondered at the shots. A cold drop fell down the back of his neck and found a trail down his spine. He shivered and strained his eyes into the blackness ahead.
Riding suddenly onto the scene of a shooting was anything but smart, but this was new country to him, known only by hearsay, and if he got off the trail now he could easily wander out into the valley and become lost. Suddenly Hopalong felt the gelding's muscles tense and in a flash of lightning he saw its head come up sharply. At the same time Hopalong saw, on the trail ahead, a dark shape sprawled in the mud!
Drawing up, he waited for lightning. It came, and he stared beyond the man's body, but the trail was empty as far as he could see. Whatever had happened here was now over. Swinging down beside the fallen man, he turned him over. Rain splashed on a white, dead face and over a bullet-riddled body. One hole was in the head. Shielding a struck match, Hopalong's lips compressed. This man had been downed by the other shots, but the last one had been fired by a gun held against his skull, burning with its muzzle blast the hair and skin. Of this man they had made sure.
Quickly he went through the man's pockets, removing his wallet, papers, and what loose money he could find. These things should go to the man's relatives, if any, and would help serve as identification. In this rain they would soon become soaked and illegible unless protected.
The dead man had made a try for his life. His pistol was gripped in his hand and one shot had been fired.
Standing over him, oblivious of the rain, Hopalong studied the situation. The man had been removed from the stage, for he lay to one side of the trail, and it looked as if he had been given his chance, had taken it, and lost. Cut deeply into the trail were the tracks of the stage. "Holdup," Hoppy muttered. "This hombre either asked for a scrap or had it forced on him. One thing, he doesn't size up like any pilgrim.
He'd been to the wars before."
Mounting, Hopalong rode up the trail a short distance, then stopped as a flash of lightning revealed yet another body. Swinging down, Hopalong bent to touch the man, and he groaned. Straightening up, Hopalong waited for another flash of light, then spotted a slight overhang in the rock of the cliff, an overhang that gave promise of growing deeper as the rock curved away from the trail.
Tying his horse to a juniper, Hopalong returned and picked the man up, carrying him deep into the sheltered cleft where no rain fell and where the sand was dry. Gathering dried sticks from the remains of a long-dead tree, he built a fire. When it was burning briskly he put some water on and opened the wounded man's coat and vest. A glance showed the man was hard hit.
The first hole was a flesh wound, low down on the left side. It had bled profusely, and the whole side of the fellow's clothing was soaked with blood. Higher, there was yet another and more serious wound. This one was just over the heart, and Hopalong felt his skin tighten at the look of it.
When the water was hot he took his time bathing the wounds, then bandaged them tightly with a compress made of split and slightly roasted prickly-pear leaves. It was a remedy he had seen Indians and old-timers use for the removal of inflammation and he had nothing else at hand. Familiar as he was with bullet wounds, he knew the man's chance of survival was small, yet the fellow was young, powerfully built, and obviously in excellent health.
Going back for more fuel, Hopalong led his white horse more deeply into the cut and stripped off the saddle. There was a bank of blown-up earth that had sprouted grass, and the gelding was quickly at home. Walking back, Hopalong saw that his patient's eyes were open. The man was staring around him with uncomprehending wonder. Moving closer, Hopalong advised quietly, "Just take it easy, partner. You caught a couple of bad ones."
The man stared at him, his brow puckering. "Who-who are you?"
"Driftin' through. Heard some shootin' ahead of me, and when I came up I found a dead man, and then you."
"Then I nailed one of 'em?"
"Doubt it. This hombre wore a frock coat and a gray hat. Hard-lookin', with a reddish mustache."
"Oh. He was a passenger." The man was quiet for a minute and his breathing was heavy.
He was a clean-cut, rather handsome young man with cow country written all over him.
He wore two guns and looked like a man who could use them.
"What happened?" Hopalong asked.
"Stickup. I was ridin'-ridin' shotgun. They shot me first off but I stuck it out and figured I nailed one of 'em. Then they got me again and I fell off the stage.
They were masked-like always."
"Fourth time in three months . . . This was my first trip. The other guards got it too." A faint smile flickered across the wounded man's face. "Whoever pulls these jobs doesn't like shotgun messengers."
Hopalong had put some broth, made from jerky and a handful of flour, on the fire.
It was hot now, and he fed a little to the wounded man. He took his time, letting the man have plenty of time to breathe, hoping the broth would give him added strength.
He seemed to have lost a lot of blood.
"What's your name, amigo? I'd better know."
The young fellow stared at him. "That bad? Well, I'm Jesse Lock. Don't reckon anybody will miss me much. You might hunt up my brother and let him know. He's got him a place up in the Roberts Mountains. Name of Ben Lock."
The rain slowed until all that could be heard of it was a trickle of runoff and the slow dripping of the trees. Thankfully, the wounded man settled into a fitful sleep, but his ragged breathing had Hopalong worried. If the stage had made it to Seven Pines there should be a party sent out to look for the men downed in the robbery.
But they might believe both men were dead, or that the trail was washed out. Hoppy went back and cinched up the saddle on Topper. He was afraid he would have to leave Jesse Lock and go for help, instead of waiting for it to come to them.
The sky was growing gray when Jesse Lock next opened his eyes, and the first thing he noticed was the saddle on the white horse. His eyes flickered to Hopalong. "I'm not makin' out so good," he whispered hoarsely. "Reckon I'm bad off."
"Yeah." Cassidy eased the wounded man into a more comfortable position. "How far is it to Seven Pines? You need a doctor."
"Twelve miles. Find Doc Marsh-he's a good man."
Hopalong bathed the wounds once more, and they looked better than he would have expected.
He renewed the poultice of prickly pear, and Lock watched him curiously. "Heard of that. Indian remedy, ain't it?"
"Yes. I'm goin' for the doc. You'll be all right?"
The wounded man's eyes were ironically amused. "Don't reckon I'll wander off and get a leg broken. And I'm sure not goin' to get any better without a doctor." He hesitated, looked at Hopalong almost wistfully, and said slowly, "Sure do hate to see you go, amigo."