The Trail to Seven Pines
Hopalong Cassidy stopped his white gelding on the bald backbone of the ridge. No soil covered the wild 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.
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. Hopalong Cassidy had lived too long in the West not to realize the danger that lay in the bottoms of canyons and dry washes.
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.
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 3 T L, 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.
A few spattering drops of rain struck his hat brim, sweeping it with a hasty barrage. Hopalong dug for his slicker, donning it without slowing his pace. 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. 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.
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 thing.
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.
Riding suddenly onto a 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 lightening 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 he 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 fresh 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.
"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."
"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. The were masked--like always."
"Fourth time in three months . . . This was my first trip. The other guards got it too."
Hopalong had some 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 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'sgot 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." The wounded man's eyes were ironically amused. "Don't reckon I'll wander off and get a leg broken." He hesitated, looked at Hopalong almost wistfully, and said slowly, "Sure do hate to see you go, amigo."
Drawing one of the wounded man's guns, Hopalong handed it to him. "Just in case," he said. "They might figure you knew something and come back." He drew the belts nearer. "But I doubt it. I figure you'll be all right."
He headed down the trail at a fast clip, and Topper liked it. He was a horse that always liked to run, and he ran now. Yet they had gone no more than four miles when Hopalong saw a black blotch on the trail ahead that speedily developed into a racing buckboard and a half-dozen riders. There were two men in the buckboard, a blocky man with auburn hair and mustache, and a taller, younger man with a mustache of clipped blond hair and cool but friendly blues eyes. They drew up at Hopalong's lifted hand.
"Wounded man up ahead," he said. "Let's hurry. Is Doc Marsh here?"
The blond man nodded. "I'm Doc Marsh."
Hopalong wheeled his horse and led them back up the badly washed trail. One of the men wore a star. He was a tall old man with cold gray eyes and a handlebar mustache. "Who's alive?"
"Lock, he said his name was."
Hopalong was acutely conscious that the others were closing around, listening intently. "He's badly hurt." Hopalong avoided the question. "They get anything?"
"They got it all!" The burly man driving the buckboard made the reply. "Got my whole cleanup! Thirty thousand dollars' worth of gold! One more like that and I'll be broke!"
Racing into the canyon, they churned to a halt at Hopalong's gesture and swung down. Hurrying through the rocks in the lead, Hopalong Cassidy stopped suddenly. His face slowly turned gray and hard.
Jesse Lock was dead. His gun was clutched in his hand, the muzzle tight against his temple!
"Suicide!" One of the men drew back. "He shot himself!"
"Looks like it," another man said, and Hopalong lifted his head slowly, having a feeling there had been almost satisfaction in the man's voice. But he could not make out which had been the speaker.
The sheriff said nothing, and Hopalong stared at him curiously. When the old man did not speak, Hopalong said quietly, "He didn't kill himself. He wasmurdered."
"Murdered?" They all stared at him.
"He was murdered," Hopalong Cassidy repeated. "This man was alive and cheerful when I left him. He would not have shot himself."
"What's it look like to you, Hadley?" The speaker was a tall, bulky man with a broad red face. "If that isn't a suicide, what is it? The gun's still in position."
Sheriff Hadley looked shrewdly at Hopalong and pulled his mustache thoughtfully. "He was alive when you left him? Was that gun within reach?"
"I put the gun in his hand. I didn't want to leave, but the man needed a doctor if he was goin' to live. I figure he might have made it."
Dr. March had been examining the body. He looked up now. "That's true. Those wounds are in mighty healthy condition, everything considered."
"Look!" The red-faced man indicated the position of the gun. "If that isn't suicide, what would you call it?"
Hopalong felt anger mount within him. He looked up, his blue eyes utterly cold. "He knew he was hard hit, but he was standin' up to it. There wasn't"--he said the words viciously-- "a single streak of yellow in that kid. He didn't kill himself. Look where that gun muzzle is! Flush against his temple! Muzzle blast would have thrown that gun away from his head and maybe clear out of his hand!"
Dr. Marsh nodded. "This gentleman is correct, Hadley," he said quietly. "Also, at that distance, the side of the face would have been badly burned. I can see only a few grains of powder in the skin."
The red-faced man was keeping his eyes on Cassidy. Slowly his gaze went over the black sombrero, shirt, and trousers tucked into high stitched boots, the tied-down, bone-handled guns, then climbed to his cold eyes and silver hair. "That puts you in a bad light," he suggested. "You were the last to see him alive."
"No." Hopalong's gaze was frosty. "The killer was the last to see him." He nodded back along the trail. "There's another one back there. Big fellow in a frock coat."
Hopalong was getting the men placed. The man who had driven the buckboard was Harrington, the mine super and part owner. It was on his shoulders the loss would fall. The big red-faced man was Pony Harper. He was a horse trader who owned the livery stable and corrals in Seven Pines and supplied beef to the mines and a railroad contracting outfit some thirty miles away. There was another man, hollow-cheeked, with yellow eyes and a tied-down gun; they called him Rawhide. He was searching the body in the road.
"Somebody cleaned him out!"
"What did you expect?" Hadley asked dryly. "This here was a robbery." Grimly, Hopalong said nothing. After what had happened to Jesse Lock, he wanted a chance to look over the contents of the man's wallet privately before he handled it over to anyone.
Another rider was coming up the trail from town. He was a well-built, pleasant-looking man of forty. "Howdy, Ronson!" Hadley nodded toward the dead man. "Anybody ever seen this hombre before?"
"I've seen him." Rawhide touched his tongue to a cigarette. "This man's Sim Thacker, the gunfighter."
"Thacker!" Ronson stared at the dead man. "Dead! Who did it?"
"That would answer a lot of other questions," Hadley said. "Looks like whoever did it gave him his chance, then drilled him."
"And put on the finishing touches with a bullet to the head," Hopalong said dryly. "That outfit seems to have an urge to leave no witnesses behind. They must figure folks might get to know them."
Nobody said anything for a while. Dr. Marsh examined Thacker, then got to his feet. "There's nothing more here for me," he said. "How about you, Harrington?"
The mine super shook his head. "Let's load them up and start back."
The valley fell behind them and the buckboard led the way into the narrow canyon. Scattered mine dumps and shacks began to appear, and then the trail ended in a narrow street flanked by false-fronted buildings. Behind these buildings, which stretched for a quarter of a mile along the sides of the canyon, the mountians sloped steeply back, both sides covered with houses, claim shacks, and ramshackle huts of one kind or another.
Up the street Hopalong noticed a saddle shop, bootmaker, blacksmith, barber and dentist, a lawyer's office, the jail, a hotel, a boarding-house, and an assortment of other stores and gambling joints. He counted the signs of nine saloons.
Hopalong turned his horse toward the livery stable. Pony Harper and Rawhide had also turned off. Rawhide swung from his saddle, and when Harper went into the livery stable office he said quietly, "You sort of look familiar."
"Like somebody I seen in Montana. Or maybe it was Texas?"
"Never can tell."
Rawhide chewed that over, but he didn't like it. He rolled a smoke and shot an uneasy glance at Hopalong, who was placidly giving his horse a rubdown with a handful of hay.
"Lock have much to say?" he ventured.
"Said he had a brother," Hopalong admitted. "I'm goin' to look him up."
"Mister, you better slope it. This here ain't a friendly town."
"Well"--Hopalong Cassidy's eyes twinkled a little-- "I'm not huntin' trouble with anybody." He turned and started for the door. "So long."
Rawhide stared after him, his eyes ugly. "You'll see," he whispered. "I give you twenty-four hours in this town!"