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By Clarence E. Mulford
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1993 Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
All rights reserved.
On a Strange Range
Two tired but happy punchers rode into the coast town and dismounted in front of the best hotel. Putting up their horses as quickly as possible they made arrangements for sleeping quarters and then hastened out to attend to business. Buck had been kind to delegate this mission to them and they would have it over with first of all; then they would feel free to enjoy what pleasures the town might afford. While at that time the city was not what it is now, nevertheless it was capable of satisfying what demands might be made upon it by two very active and zealous cow-punchers. Their first experience began as they left the hotel.
"Hey, you cow-wrastlers!" said a not unpleasant voice, and they turned suspiciously as it continued: "You've shore got to hang up them guns with th' hotel clerk while you cavorts around on this range. This is fence country."
They regarded the speaker's smiling face and twinkling eyes and laughed. "Well, yo're th' foreman if you owns that badge," grinned Hopalong, cheerfully. "We don't need no guns, nohow, in this town, we don't. Plumb forgot we was toting them. But mebby you can tell us where lawyer Jeremiah T. Jones grazes in daylight?"
"Right over yonder, second floor," replied the marshal. "An' come to think of it, mebby you better leave most of yore cash with th' guns — somebody'll take it away from you if you don't. It'd be an awful temptation, an' flesh is weak."
"Huh!" laughed Johnny, moving back into the hotel to leave his gun, closely followed by Hopalong. "Anybody that can turn that little trick on me an' Hoppy will shore earn every red cent; why, we've been to Kansas City!"
As they emerged again Johnny slapped his pocket, from which sounded a musical jingling. "If them weak people try anything on us, we may come between them and their money!" he boasted.
"From th' bottom of my heart I pity you," called the marshal, watching them depart, a broad smile illuminating his face. "In about twenty-four hours they'll put up a holler for me to go git it back for 'em," he muttered. "An' I almost believe I'll do it, too. I ain't never seen none of that breed what ever left a town without empty pockets an' aching heads — an' th' smarter they think they are th' easier they fall." A fleeting expression of discontent clouded the smile, for the lure of the open range is hard to resist when once a man has ridden free under its sky and watched its stars. "An' I wish I was one of 'em again," he muttered, sauntering on.
Jeremiah T. Jones, Esq., was busy when his door opened, but he leaned back in his chair and smiled pleasantly at their bow-legged entry, waving them towards two chairs. Hopalong hung his sombrero on a letter press and tipped his chair back against the wall; Johnny hung grimly to his hat, sat stiffly upright until he noticed his companion's pose, and then, deciding that everything was all right, and that Hopalong was better up in etiquette than himself, pitched his sombrero dexterously over the water pitcher and also leaned against the wall. Nobody could lose him when it came to doing the right thing.
"Well, gentlemen, you look tired and thirsty. This is considered good for all human ailments of whatsoever nature, degree, or wheresoever located, in part or entirety, ab initio," Mr. Jones remarked, filling glasses. There was no argument and when the glasses were empty, he continued: "Now what can I do for you? From the Bar-20? Ah, yes; I was expecting you. We'll get right at it," and they did. Half an hour later they emerged on the street, free to take in the town, or to have the town take them in, — which was usually the case.
"What was that he said for us to keep away from?" asked Johnny with keen interest.
"Sh! Not so loud," chuckled Hopalong, winking prodigiously.
Johnny pulled tentatively at his upper lip but before he could reply his companion had accosted a stranger.
"Friend, we're pilgrims in a strange land, an' we don't know th' trails. Can you tell us where th' docks are?"
"Certainly; glad to. You'll find them at the end of this street," and he smilingly waved them towards the section of the town which Jeremiah T. Jones had specifically and earnestly warned them to avoid.
"Wonder if you're as thirsty as me?" solicitously inquired Hopalong of his companion.
"I was just wondering th' same," replied Johnny. "Say," he confided in a lower voice, "blamed if I don't feel sort of lost without that Colt. Every time I lifts my right laig she goes too high — don't feel natural, nohow."
"Same here; I'm allus feeling to see if I lost it," Hopalong responded. "There ain't no rubbing, no weight, nor nothing."
"Wish I had something to put in its place, blamed if I don't."
"Why, now yo're talking — mebby we can buy something," grinned Hopalong, happily. "Here's a hardware store — come on in."
The clerk looked up and laid aside his novel. "Good-morning, gentlemen; what can I do for you? We've just got in some fine new rifles," he suggested.
The customers exchanged looks and it was Hopalong who first found his voice. "Nope, don't want no rifles," he replied, glancing around. "To tell th' truth, I don't know just what we do want, but we want something, all right — got to have it. It's a funny thing, come to think of it; I can't never pass a hardware store without going in an' buying something. I've been told my father was th' same way, so I must inherit it. It's th' same with my pardner, here, only he gets his weakness from his whole family, and it's different from mine. He can't pass a saloon without going in an' buying something."
"Yo're a cheerful liar, an' you know it," retorted Johnny. "You know th' reason why I goes in saloons so much — you'd never leave 'em if I didn't drag you out. He inherits that weakness from his grandfather, twice removed," he confided to the astonished clerk, whose expression didn't know what to express.
"Let's see: a saw?" soliloquized Hopalong. "Nope; got lots of 'em, an' they're all genuine Colts," he mused thoughtfully. "Axe? Nails? Augurs? Corkscrews? Can we use a corkscrew, Johnny? Ah, thought I'd wake you up. Now, what was it cookie said for us to bring him? Bacon? Got any bacon? Too bad — oh, don't apologize; it's all right. Cold chisels — that's th' thing if you ain't got no bacon. Let me see a three-pound cold chisel about as big as that," — extending a huge and crooked forefinger, — "an' with a big bulge at one end. Straight in th' middle, circling off into a three-cornered wavy edge on the other side. What? Look here! You can't tell us nothing about saloons that we don't know. I want a three-pound cold chisel, any kind, so it's cold."
Johnny nudged him. "How about them wedges?"
"Twenty-five cents a pound," explained the clerk, groping for his bearings.
"They might do," Hopalong muttered, forcing the article mentioned into his holster. "Why, they're quite hocus-pocus. You take th' brother to mine, Johnny."
"Feels good, but I dunno," his companion muttered. "Little wide at th' sharp end. Hey, got any loose shot?" he suddenly asked, whereat Hop-along beamed and the clerk gasped. It didn't seem to matter whether they bought bacon, cold chisels, wedges, or shot; yet they looked sober.
"Yes, sir; what size?"
"Three pounds of shot, I said!" Johnny rumbled in his throat. "Never mind what size."
"We never care about size when we buy shot," Hopalong smiled. "But, Johnny, wouldn't them little screws be better?" he asked, pointing eagerly.
"Mebby; reckon we better get 'em mixed — half of each," Johnny gravely replied. "Anyhow, there ain't much difference."
The clerk had been behind that counter for four years, and executing and filling orders had become a habit with him; else he would have given them six pounds of cold chisels and corkscrews, mixed. His mouth was still open when he weighed out the screws.
"Mix 'em! Mix 'em!" roared Hopalong, and the stunned clerk complied, and charged them for the whole purchase at the rate set down for screws.
Hopalong started to pour his purchase into the holster which, being open at the bottom, gayly passed the first instalment through to the floor. He stopped and looked appealingly at Johnny, and Johnny, in pain from holding back screams of laughter, looked at him indignantly. Then a guileless smile crept over Hopalong's face and he stopped the opening with a wad of wrapping paper and disposed of the shot and screws, Johnny following his laudable example. After haggling a moment over the bill they paid it and walked out, to the apparent joy of the clerk.
"Don't laugh, Kid; you'll spoil it all," warned Hopalong, as he noted signs of distress on his companion's face. "Now, then; what was it we said about thirst? Come on; I see one already."
Having entered the saloon and ordered, Hopalong beamed upon the bartender and shoved his glass back again. "One more, kind stranger; it's good stuff."
"Yes, feels like a shore-enough gun," remarked Johnny, combining two thoughts in one expression, which is brevity.
The bartender looked at him quickly and then stood quite still and listened, a puzzled expression on his face.
Tic — tickety-tick — tic-tic, came strange sounds from the other side of the bar. Hopalong was intently studying a chromo on the wall and Johnn gazed vacantly out of the window.
"What's that? What in the deuce is that?" quickly demanded the man with the apron, swiftly reaching for his bung-starter.
Tickety-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, the noise went on, and Hopalong, slowly rolling his eyes, looked at the floor. A screw rebounded and struck his foot, hile shot were rolling recklessly.
"Them's making th' noise," Johnny explained ter critical survey.
"Hang it! I knowed we ought to 'a' got them edges!" Hopalong exclaimed, petulantly, closing the bottom of the sheath. "Why, I won't have no gun left soon 'less I holds it in." The complaint as plaintive.
"Must be filtering through th' stopper," Johnny remarked. "But don't it sound nice, especially then it hits that brass cuspidor!"
The bartender, grasping the mallet even more firmly, arose on his toes and peered over the bar, not quite sure of what he might discover. He had read of infernal machines although he had never been one. "What th' blazes!" he said in almost a whisper; and then his face went hard. "You get out of here, quick! You've had too much already! I've seen drunks, but — G'wan! Get out!"
"But we ain't begun yet," Hopalong interposed hastily. "You see —"
"Never mind what I see! I'd hate to see what ou'll be seein' before long. God help you when you finish!" rather impolitely interrupted the bartender. He waved the mallet and made for the end of the counter with no hesitancy and lots of purpose in his stride. "G'wan, now! Get out!"
"Come on, Johnny; I'd shoot him only we didn't put no powder with th' shot," Hopalong remarked sadly, leading the way out of the saloon and towards the hardware store.
"You better get out!" shouted the man with the mallet, waving the weapon defiantly. "An' don't you never come back again, neither," he warned.
"Hey, it leaked," Hopalong said pleasantly as he closed the door of the hardware store behind him, whereupon the clerk jumped and reached for the sawed-off shotgun behind the counter. Sawed-off shotguns are great institutions for arguing at short range, almost as effective as dynamite in clearing away obstacles.
"Don't you come no nearer!" he cried, white of face. "You git out, or I'll let this leak, an' give you all shot, an' more than you can carry!"
"Easy! Easy there, pardner; we want them wedges," Hopalong replied, somewhat hurriedly. "Th' others ain't no good; I choked on th' very first screw. Why, I wouldn't hurt you for th' world," Hopalong assured him, gazing interestedly down the twin tunnels.
Johnny leaned over a nail keg and loosed the shot and screws into it, smiling with childlike simplicity as he listened to the tintinnabulation of the metal shower among the nails. "It does drop when you let go of it," he observed.
"Didn't I tell you it would? I allus said so," replied Hopalong, looking back to the clerk and the shotgun. "Didn't I, stranger?"
The clerk's reply was a guttural rumbling, ninety per cent profanity, and Hopalong, nodding wisely, picked up two wedges. "Johnny, here's yore gun. If this man will stop talking to hisself and drop that lead-sprayer long enough to take our good money, we'll wear 'em."
He tossed a gold coin on the table, and the clerk, still holding tightly to the shotgun, tossed the coin into the cash box and cautiously slid the change across the counter. Hopalong picked up the money and, emptying his holster into the nail keg, followed his companion to the street, in turn followed slowly by the suspicious clerk. The door slammed shut behind them, the bolt shot home, and the clerk sat down on a box and cogitated.
Hopalong hooked his arm through Johnny's and started down the street. "I wonder what that feller thinks about us, anyhow. I'm glad Buck sent Red over to El Paso instead of us. Won't he be mad when we tell him all th' fun we've had?" he asked, grinning broadly.
They were to meet Red at Dent's store on the way back and ride home together.
* * *
They were strangely clad for their surroundings, the chaps glaringly out of place in the Seaman's Port, and winks were exchanged by the regular habitués when the two punchers entered the room and called for drinks. They were very tired and a little under the weather, for they had made the most of their time and spent almost all of their money; but any one counting on robbing them would have found them sober enough to look out for themselves. Night had found them ready to go to the hotel, but on the way they felt that they must have one more bracer, and finish their exploration of Jeremiah T. Jones' tabooed section. The town had begun to grow wearisome and they were vastly relieved when they realized that the rising sun would see them in the saddle and homeward bound, headed for God's country, which was the only place for cow-punchers after all.
"Long way from th' home port, ain't you, mates?" queried a tar of Hopalong. Another seaman went to the bar to hold a short, whispered consultation with the bartender, who at first frowned and then finally nodded assent.
"Too far from home, if that's what yo're driving at," Hopalong replied. "Blast these hard trails — my feet are shore on th' prod. Ever meet my side pardner? Johnny, here's a friend of mine, a saltwater puncher, an' he's welcome to th' job, too."
Johnny turned his head ponderously and nodded. "Pleased to meet you, stranger. An' what'll you all have?"
"Old Holland, mate," replied the other, joining them.
"All up!" invited Hopalong, waving them forward. "Might as well do things right or not at all. Them's my sentiments, which I holds as proper. Plain rye, general, if you means me," he replied to the bartender's look of inquiry.
He drained the glass and then made a grimace. "Tastes a little off — reckon it's my mouth; nothing tastes right in this cussed town. Now, up on our —" he stopped and caught at the bar. "Holy smoke! That's shore alcohol!"
Johnny was relaxing and vainly trying to command his will power. "Something's wrong; what's th' matter?" he muttered sleepily.
"Guess you meant beer; you ain't used to drinking whiskey," grinned the bartender, derisively, and watching him closely.
"I can — drink as much whiskey as —" and, muttering, Johnny slipped to the floor.
Excerpted from Bar-20 Days by Clarence E. Mulford. Copyright © 1993 Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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