The Rustlers of West Fork

Hopalong Cassidy watched the old banker count the money with careful fingers. Fifteen thousand dollars was an amount to be handled with reverence and respect. As he watched the mounting stack of bills, Hopalong saw them less as the long green bills they were than as the cattle they represented--the cattle and the work. Into that stack of bills was going money that had grown from days of cold wind and rain, nights of thunder and lightening, of restless herds poised for stampede, of rivers and washes running brim full with roaring flood waters, of dust, blistering sun, and the roar of rustler's guns.

Into the pile so flat and green went more than money. Into that pile went months of brutal labor, the brindle steer that had killed a horse under him down in Lonetree Canyon, and the old mossyhorn who had fouled Lanky's rope on a juniper, putting him three weeks in bed with a broken leg. And into that pile went the kid from Toyah, who had ridden up to join them so full of vitality and exuberance, only to have his horse step into a prairie-dog hole while running ahead of a stampede. They had buried what was left of the kid and sent his hat and gun to a brother in El Paso.

"There she is, Hoppy," the banker said at last. "Buck will be mighty glad to get shut of that debt, I know. He's a man who takes bein' in debt harder'n any man I can think of, an' he's sure scrimped an' cut corners to have that much in three years!"

"Yeah," Cassidy agreed, "Buck's right conscientious about most things. He don't like to get into debt in the first place, but you how it was with Dick Jordan. When he fell heir to that ranch out West he sold his cattle an' remuda to Buck, knowin' if there was one man around he could trust to pay ever' last red cent it was Buck.

"Came at a good time too. Buck had been talkin' about more cattle, an' with the additional range he could use, it would be a positive shame not to have'em. Otherwise, he never would have gone into debt."

"Yeah, I'm takin' it West, an' glad of the chance. Old Dick was a friend of mine, too, an' I've heard a sight about that ranch o' his. Rightly, it belonged to his wife. It was part of an old Spanish grant, you know."

"Uh-huh. Helped draw up some o' the papers. Got a daughter now, I hear."

"Had her a long time. Shucks, she was fourteen or fifteen before they left here."

"Say"--the banker turned around in his chair-- "who's goin' out there with you?"

"I'm goin' alone. Mesquite's off somewhere, as usual, an' Buck can't spare two men. Anyway, it ain't a two-man job."

"Maybe. Things out thataway are pretty lively. Had a letter from a friend of mine out to McClellan. Had his bank held up about three weeks ago, killed his cashier, wounded a deputy sheriff, then lost the durned posse."

"Lost `em?"

"Uh-huh, just plain lost `em."

Hopalong slid off the desk and gathered up the money. "Well, Buck will be waitin' for me, so I'd better get into the leather an' ride to the ranch. But don't you worry about his money. I'll see it got to Dick, as promised."

Tucking the packages of bills into his black shirt and drawing his belt tighter, he hitched his guns into an easier position on his dark-trousered hip and started for the door.

The banker arose from his chair and walked to the window where her could watch Cassidy cross the street. The same trim bowed legs, the broad, sloping shoulders, the lean waist and choppy walk of the horseman. His silver guns were worn by much handling, and his boots were cracked and dusty. Suddenly the banker found himself wishing he was younger and starting West with Hopalong on that ride.

As he started to turn from the window a movement caught his eye, and he hesitated. A man had stepped out from beside the bank and started slowly across the street in Hopalong's wake. If that man had been standing alongside the bank, he might have seen Hopalong take the money, for there was an office window near the desk. The banker frowned. His wife would be waiting supper, and if he got into the saloon he might not get out for hours . . . Anyway, Hopalong could take care of himself. He always had.

Trouble followed Hopalong Cassidy like wolves follow a snow-driven herd, but few men were more fitted to cope with it than the silver-haired gunfighter. He should have told Hoppy to look up Monaghan, at the bank in McClellan. Well, he could write to him. Maybe Hoppy would have business over that way.

Dusk was softening the line of the buildings when Hopalong crossed the street to the saloon. A poker game was in session when he pushed through the batwing doors, but the players carefully avoided his eyes. They knew each other, and knew the game was fairly even all around. But Hopalong was a specialist at draw. His brand of poker was apt to be expensive for them, and they wanted none of that.

Three men lounged at the bar, all strangers. One of them, Hoppy remembered, had passed him on the step. His casual glance read their brands with a quick, easy eye, and he grinned to himself. Drifting punchers, maybe a shade on the owl-hoot side.

Trail dust lay thick on their clothes, but their guns had been wiped clean, and the cartridges in their belts shone brightly. One man--who had passed him on the walk before the saloon--was a slender young fellow with straight, clean-cut features and a deep line at one corner of his mouth. When he glanced toward Cassidy, Hopalong saw that one eye was half closed by a lowered lid. At first the man seemed to be winking, and then Hoppy realized the affliction was permanent.

The other two also had the look of hard cases. The tall man was round-shouldered and his face carried deep-set lines of cruelty and harshness. The third stranger was scarcely more than a boy, but one already far gone down the hard trails by the look of him.

"Pullin' out tomorrow, Hoppy?" The bartender leaned his arms on the bar. "Johnny was sayin' you were headed West to visit Dick Jordan."

At the name all three strangers turned sharply to stare at Hopalong. Their expressions excited his interest and also their apparent familiarity with the name of Dick Jordan. Only a familiar name could have turned them so sharply. They looked away, and the man with the squint eye spoke to the others in a low, careful voice, as though explaining something.

"Yeah," said Cassidy, "we bought his herd three years ago. Buck wants me to ride out there, and that country always did appeal to me. It will be good to get shut of this dust and fill my lungs with that good mountain air again."

"Dick bought hisself a good ranch, I hear."

"He didn't buy it. His wife was Spanish an' the ranch was part of an old land grant belonging to her family. She inherited it, so they just moved out there. They took their daughter with them. She was maybe fifteen years old. Nice kid, but all knees and freckles.

One of the strangers snickered, and Cassidy glanced at them appraisingly. Two of them avoided his eyes, but the one with the bad eyelid met his glance boldly. "Heerd what y' said about ridin' to see Dick Jordan, " he commented dryly, "an' if I was you, I'd forget it. That there's a tough country for drifters. They don't cotton to `em not none a-tall!"

"That right?" Hopalong said carelessly. "Well, maybe I can help them get used to it."

The tall man answered him, and his eyes were hard as he looked at Cassidy. "You go out there huntin' him," he said insolently, "an' you're sure likely to find him! You're liable to go right where he is!" As he finished speaking he put down his glass and all three walked out of the saloon. On the walk outside one of them spoke, and then all laughed.

Cassidy glanced at the bartender. "Know those fellers?"

"Been around all afternoon," the bartender explained, "an' takin' in a lot of room. The squinty one, he's gettin' his horse shod. Then they're driftin' on, headin' West."

Hopalong accepted the information and turned it over in his mind. Suppose they knew he had the money? They might be honest cowhands just feeling their oats in a strange town, but all Hopalong's instincts told him they were more than that, and men to be reckoned with. Nor was he the man to underrate anyone. Considering the problem, he decided that it they were planning to rob him they would do it tonight, and probably right now. There was nothing to be gained by keeping them waiting. With a plan of the town in his mind, he did a few minutes of rapid thinking, then turned and waved good night to the bartender and stepped outside.

Opposite the saloon a man sat beside a saddled horse. As Hopalong stepped out, the man drew deep on his cigarette, and it glowed with sudden, sharp brightness. Cassidy noticed it with a wry curling at the corners of his mouth. A signel. Who did they think he was? A pilgrim? A soft-tailed tenderfoot? He stepped down beside his horse and tightened the saddle girth, watching the man out of the corners of his eyes.

There were only three places men might wait where that cigarette signal could be seen. There was a narrow opening beyond the hardware store down the street. Farther along the entrance to the alley by the livery stable was another, and up the street by the sheriff's office was the third. Nobody but a fool would wait by the livery stable, for the other end of that alley was closed off by the horse corrals. The night was cool, and that puncher across the street could have been there for only one reason, to warn the others that Cassidy had come out. Necessarily, they would have to be ready no matter which way he turned, so one man must be up the street, the other down.

The spot by the hardware store and the alley by the sheriff's office would be the places. One man to stop him and two to close in.

Hopalong tightened the cinch, and then, as he put a foot in the stirrup, he suddenly seemed to remember something. He took down his foot, stepped up on the boardwalk, and went back into the saloon. Scarcely aware of the surprised glances, he walked swiftly throught the room to the back, and turning, as if to enter the office, he went past it into a narrow passage from which a door opened at the back.

Careful not to allow his spurs to jingle, he walked swiftly toward the sheriff's office. When behind it, he looked up the narrow alleyway between the buildings and caught the dark outline of the man who was waiting there. A hard grin parted his lips, and he moved up behind the man. "Huntin' somebody?" he asked softely.

The squint-eyed man whirled swiftly, his hand dropping for his gun, and Hopalong struck with a work-hardened fist. It caught the man flush on the chin and his knees sagged, letting his jaw down to meet the lifting right. As though his legs had turned to limp rubber, the man slumped to the ground, and Hopalong stepped swiftly past him to the corner.

Across the street the cigarette smoker, having heard sounds of the brief scuffle, was on his feet, starting toward him. He stepped out past his horse. "Bizco?" he called softly. "What's up?"

Hopalong stepped easily into the street. "I am," he said.

It was the youngster of the lot, and the least experienced. Instead of brazening it out, he felt himself trapped, and his own guilty reaction betrayed him. His hand dropped for his gun.

The tall man down the street was already aware that something had gone wrong, and had stepped out from cover and started toward them. When he saw Hopalong Cassidy he knew that somehow their plan had miscarried, and like his younger friend, he grabbed for his six-shooter.

Neither man saw the blur of movement as Hopalong Cassidy drew. His guns came up, spouting flame even as theirs cleared leather, and his first shot was for the tall man, who he rightly deduced was the more dangerous of the two. The shot struck just above the glisten of the belt buckle and the second cut the edge of the first. In almost the same instant Hopalong's other gun had roared, and the younger man went to his knees. He tried a shot that tugged at Cassidy's sleeve. Then he spilled over in the dust, losing his grip on his pistol.

Wheeling, Hoppy jumped back into the alley by the sheriff's office, but all he heard was a sudden pounding of hoofs, so he stopped. Bizco, the squint-eyed one, was gone.

People were crowding doorways and some had ventured into the street. Two men were bent over the tall man in front of the hardware store. Watching narrowly, Hopalong crossed to Shorty. Dropping to his knees, he turned him on his back.

The man was dying. Gently Hoppy eased his position. His eyes flashed open and he looked up at Hoppy. "Fast!" he gasped hoarsely. "You're too blamed fast!"

He breathed heavily, and Cassidy listened to the approaching feet.

"Sorry," the fellow said.

"What you after?" Cassidy asked.

"Money. Bixco seen y' draw money from the bank."

"What was all that about Dick Jordan? You know him?"

It took several attempts before the man's lips could form the words. "Did . . . did know him. Don't . . . don't y' go out . . . there. Wouldn't stand a chance! They . . . Soper an' Sparr . . . devils!"

What about Jordan? Is he all right? His family with him?" Cassidy's voice hurried, for the man was dying fast.

If he understood the words he did not reply. The chances were that he never heard them at all, that already he was beyond hearing, beyond listening, beyond even thinking.

Cassidy walked back to his horse, Topper. He swung into the saddle and turned the white gelding down the trail toward the ranch. Buck Petters would have questions to ask and he would want to know all about it.

Peters was at the table when Hopalong came in. Hopalong unbuttoned his shirt and placed the packets of money on the table, and Buck dabbed at his mouth with a red-checked napkin. "Sure took your time! I was beginnin' to get worried."

"What you got to worry about, you old mosshorn? Who does the work around here, anyway? You knew danged well I'd get this money an' bring it back, an' all you had to do was set here an' get fat waitin'. Rose feeds you too good, Buck. You're losin' your figger."

Buck's face fired up. "My figger's my own business!" He glared suspiciously at Hopalong. "What happened? I can smell trouble writ all over you!"

Dropping into a seat, Cassidy forked a slab of beef to his plate and accepted the hot coffee Rose poured for him. Then he told them briefly and quietly just what had happened. He left out nothing except the remarks on the subject of Dick Jordan. While Rose worried and Buck chafed at the bit and talked about outlaws, Hopalong's mind was already away from the table and far down the trail he was about to travel.

If anything had gone wrong, it would be a good thing that he was going out. Dick Jordan was a fine man, and hard-handed, but just, and noted always for hospitality.

"Is Mesquite back yet?"

Buck's eyes brightened. "See?" he said to Rose. "I knowed it! He's got somethin' on his mind that smells of trouble! If he hadn't, he would never think of askin' about Mesquite at a time like this!"

Cassidy forked another slab of beef onto his plate and piled mashed potatoes around it. "The kid's a top hand in any crowd."

"He's good with a gun too. Mean an' on the prod. I never in my life seen but one hombre as ready for trouble as he is!"

"Now who would that be?" Hopalong demanded innocently.

"You, you wall-eyed galoot! You always did hunt trouble!"

"This here trip," Hopalong lied cheerfully, "looks like the quietest sort of ride. Dick Jordan may have trouble from time to time, but you know Dick. I'll take your money out there an' deliver it safe."

The thought that had come to him as he ate was far from a pleasent one. The name Sparr had at last struck a responsive chord in his brain. Of course there could be many Sparrs. Soper he had never heard of. But there was one Sparr of whom he knew, and none of what he knew was good.

Like Jordan himself, Avery Sparr had been a buffalo hunter. From buffalo hunting, he had graduated to town marshal of a tough Western town. Indiscriminate killings won him quick removal from that job and he had drifted West. His surly nature and ready guns earned him no friends and many enemies.

Hopalong could not imagine such a man on Jordan's ranch. Dick was not a man to be frightened of a six-gun reputation, nor were the hands he was accustomed to have around him. Probably he was stewing over nothing.

He got up and stretched. "Thanks Rose. I sure did enjoy that supper. Last home cookin' I'll be gettin' for some time, I expect."

He turned toward the door, then stopped. "Say, Buck, you got that last letter of Pam's around anywheres? I'd like a look at it."

Buck Peter's suspicions were not dead. He eyed Hopalong darkly. "Yeah," he said; "it's in my desk. I'll get it for you" He got up and lumbered into the office. "What you want that for? The town you want is Horse Springs. It's a stage stop an' cowtown."

"I know the town. I was there once. All I want to see is that letter. Seems to me I remember Pam sayin' somethin' about where to go if I came out there."

He found the letter at last, and handed it over. Hopalong had seen the letter but once before, and had been told all that was in it. Accordingly, when he glanced at it he had done just that--glanced. Now, with thoroughly aroused suspicions, he looked at it with new eyes. Instantly he felt his pulse jump.

He read the letter through slowly, and then returned to the part that referred to him.

This was two paragraphs, and the writing was different, somehow, as though strained.

Remind Hopalong of the games he used to teach me. There was one especially that I used to like to play. I wish he would think of this as he reads my letter. Dad often refers to that situation in Dry Canyon when Hopalong joined him. It would be wonderful to see Hoppy again now, feeling like that.

Cassidy looked up at Buck's inquiring eyes. All his resolutions about keeping Buck from knowing went up the board, forgotten in his exasperation. "Buck, we're a couple o' fools! The day this letter came you mentioned it to me, and you said she reminded me of the Dry Canyon affair. When I looked at this letter I was thinkin' about that gelding of mine, down sick with the colic, an' I never paid it no attention."

"What's wrong?" Buck demanded.

Slowly Hopalong read the passage aloud, and then he swore. "Don't you see? She mentions that business in Dry Canyon, an' says she wants to see me again, feelin' like that!"

Rose looked from one to the other. "Dry Canyon? What does that mean?"

"Mean?" Buck was genuinely worried now. "Why, four rustlers had Dick Jordan cornered down in Dry Canyon. He was helpless an' they were aimin' to kill him. Then Hopalong showed up. They turned on him, an' Hoppy downed two of them an' the other two throwed up their hands."

"But what is that to worry about?" she protested. "It's in the past."

"Yeah, but she wants to see me again, like that ! I think they are in trouble, an' need help!"

"Why wouldn't she say so then?" Buck protested.

"Maybe somebody made her write the letter," Hopalong said, "but remember what she said about the games I used to teach her? Well, one of those games was a code game. We used to see what messages we could write by using the first letter of each word as the secret message. Now wait a minute."

He studied the letter with care, and then he said, "What did you make of this part?"

Buck stared at it. "That? Couldn't make sense Figgered the kid had us mixed up with somebody else she knowed."

Hopalong scowled and read aloud.

How ever, Long Pete Carroll of Mesa Escabrosa, head of Ppy, never did come out. Better call Rod Edwards for us. Lew Brake was through a year ago. He left Pat, that mustang here, but finally came after him.

"Now take just the first letters. H-e-L-P C-o-M-E h-o-PPY."

"See? " Hopalong looked up. "Help, come Hoppy, "she says.

This next part doesn't make sense because she's tryin' to make the letter sound right. She's got the first two letters of `better' underlined because she wants to use `em both. Same thing with the next word. Figgerin' in the same way, what do you get? `Be Careful.' Then later she says `Help' again.

"Mighty lousy code!" Buck sniffed

"Aw, it was just a kid's game I figgered out!" Hopalong protested. "Tried to make it easy for her. Never figgered she'd use it like this."

"When you leavin'?" Buck asked thoughtfully. "If they do need help, you better go mighty quick."

"At daybreak," Hopalong Cassidy said quietly; "an' you can wish me luck."