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CHASE IN THE MOUNTAINS
As Red Connors put the sorrel up the slope he felt the big horse break stride and knew that it was all in. From the top of the hill Red could see the cloud of dust marking pursuit, but realized that he was out of sight, for the time being at least. Grimly he stared at the rifle in the saddle scabbard. If he just had some more cartridges!
This Winchester in the hands of Red Connors had done phenomenal shooting, but now he had no more ammunition and even his six-shooter was empty. There was a bloody wound in his side and unless he quickly found somewhere to hide he was a gone gosling.
More than once in these past few days he had thought of his old friend Hopalong Cassidy. There was no one like him for planning a way out or around, and no one like him with a six-gun either. Right then Red Connors would have given almost anything if he could have seen Hopalong come over the rise ahead of him.
He turned the sorrel along the ridge, keeping to the broken country and putting as many pines between himself and the direction of the pursuit as possible. He knew this was a race with death, and the men behind him had every intention of leaving him for the buzzards.
Yet it was not his own life alone that hung in the balance, but the lives and hopes of his friends on the 3TL. With what he now knew, there was every chance they might finally end the systematic cattle stealing that he suspected had been going on in the High Rock country for the last several months. However, that was the very reason the rustlers could not let him live.
Before him the mountain broke off sharply, offering a magnificent view of the sunken gorges and the distant Sawtooth Range far to the north. The path he had followed was an ancient game trail; now he turned off it, holding to a rocky shelf to leave no prints, and headed down-slope into a grove of aspen and mountain laurel. Far below he could see the brilliant blue of a small lake, set like a jewel among the towering peaks and the ranges about it.
The sorrel plodded wearily, and Red knew that behind him his enemies would be gaining. Their own animals were fresh. Sooner or later they would corner him.
Sweat trickled down Red's face and he removed his hat, wiping his hand over his sparse red hair. Suddenly he saw a steep footpath, turning down the face of the cliff to the right of the trail, and instantly he decided to gamble. Swinging down, he hastily stripped his saddle and bridle from the exhausted horse and, hitting it a thump on the shoulder, swung toward the trail.
He staggered now, almost dropping the heavy saddle. Fifty feet down the steep path he found a tiny ledge, a place that offered a little shelter from above, and into which no man could gain entry as long as Red remained conscious and able to resist, for the narrowness of the path was such that it would be very easy to overbalance an attacker and send him crashing down the face of the cliff.
Above him he heard horses, then voices. The riders reined in and he heard them talking. "Aw! Don't tell me that! I hit the redheaded billy goat, and you know it! No use to chase him! He's done for!"
"Here's his trail," a new voice said. "His horse broke stride here, but kept on goin'. He won't get far now, and it's a long ways until dark. We got him wherever he is."
"Mount up, then," a third voice said. "Hoyt, you and Mex stay here until we send up a smoke or signal you. He might try to double back over the mountain."
"No chance. That redhead's done for!" The speaker cleared his throat. "And I'm just as glad! He could shoot!"
There was a sound of horses moving off and then silence. A boot scuffed on rock and then a match scratched. "Me, I'm pleased to be here," a voice said. "I've had enough of ridin' for one week. That hombre was sure hard to catch!"
"Senor, 'ave you see thees trail? She's been travel' recent!"
Red Connors stiffened. Half dead with exhaustion as he was, he forced his muscles to alertness and waited, tense with effort.
Now Hoyt scoffed. "Ain't been nobody down there but a goat! And if there was," he added, "you want to go down that trail after him? I don't!"
Red Connors backed up and sat down. For the first time he had a chance to examine his wound. The slug had cut through the flesh of his side, but although his clothing was soaked with blood, the wound didn't look serious. He looked again at his canteen. It was empty. They had given him no time to stop and refill. Like cowhands cutting a steer, they had kept after him, keeping him away from water, away from town, away from main trails. Whichever way he headed they were ready for him and had turned him back.
Worse, they seemed to know how much ammunition he had. They had drawn him into a fire fight, they had given him chances, and he knew he had killed two horses and crippled at least one man. But that was only after he had learned that what ammunition he had was in his belt. His rifle and pistol had been empty--and that meant somebody had made sure they were empty, for he never left them so. Somebody on the 3TL was a traitor; somebody there wanted him dead.
Sagging back against the wall, he fought for consciousness. Pain mounted through his exhausted body and waves of darkness went over him. Over the mountains the sun was bright and hot. The slow afternoon drew on, the coolness and darkness came, and Red Connors lay sprawled full length in the tiny hollow of rock where he had fallen.
Twelve miles to the south Hopalong Cassidy rode along the main trail toward the cow town of Tascotal and the 3TL Ranch. Hopalong had been in the saddle all day and he was tired. The trail was good and the excellent steeldust gelding he rode was a horse that liked to travel. He had left Topper on the other side of the mountain, suffering from a temporary lameness. Hopalong had hired a man to bring him out to Gibson's when Topper recovered.
Farther south, long chains of mountains stretched away from the trail, and to the north, beyond the foothills were towering ranges, all clad with pines and firs, some capped with crowns of snow. The wheel marks of the stage were in the road, but there were few other signs of passing until he reached White Rock Wells.
Filling his canteen at the Wells, he looked around from long habit and saw signs left by a body of at least six riders. All had been armed and ready, for he saw the marks left by the rifle stocks in the damp sand. They had been leaned against a rock while their owners drank. Men carrying rifles in their hands usually meant trouble . . . so it might pay to ride carefully on the way into town.
Several of the men had smoked cigarettes here, and there had been a fire where they made coffee. Then four horses had ridden on and two had remained at the spring. Where were those two now?
His ears caught a whisper of sound and he wheeled just in time to see two men emerge from the woods. They were staring, wild-eyed, and even as their eyes met, both men grabbed for their guns.
Then their hands froze, for they were looking into the muzzles of a pair of Colt .45's. Hopalong's flashing, lightning-swift draw left them both in a state of complete paralysis. All they could do was stare with a sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs that told them they had never in all their misspent lives been so close to death. One of them was lean and rawboned. His companion was a burly, unshaven man in a dirty vest.
"Just who do you hombres think I am?" Cassidy demanded.
"It ain't him," the stocky man said swiftly, with brightening face. "Our feller's older and he's got red hair."
"That's right, Bones." The taller of the two men shook his head. "Sorry, mister. When we first saw you we figured you was the hombre we were huntin'. We had our minds dead set on him!"
For an instant Hopalong studied them, then holstered his guns. "Who are you hunting?" he asked curiously.
"Redhead. Hombre's a killer. Shot a cowpoke up north of here. But don't worry, we got him sewed up tighter'n a green hide in the hot sun. Every water hole is blocked, all the trails, and the road to town."
Bones nudged the taller man. "Shut up, Slim! You talk too much!"
Cassidy slung his canteen on the saddle horn, and keeping the horse between himself and the two men, he swung a leg over the saddle. His eyes strayed to the horses the men had been leading. Both of them were marked 8 Boxed H. The 8 preceded the box, the H enclosed. He looked up at the riders and neither of them impressed him favorably. He decided that his sympathies were with the pursued man.
"See you!" he said offhand, then turned the steeldust and rode away. But he sat sideways in the saddle, keeping an eye on the two sullen cowhands.
Slim swallowed and stared at Bones. "You see that hombre throw them guns?" he asked incredulously.
"Stranger around. Wonder if the boss knows him?"
"This hombre looked like Texas to me. Seems maybe I should remember him. . . ."
They walked into the trail, but the unknown gunfighter had already disappeared from view. He was out of their sight, but he had not forgotten them, and right now he was remembering what they had said. . . .
One man alone, water holes guarded, heat, exhaustion, trails blocked, no chance to escape. A man running in smaller and smaller circles until finally trapped. It was not a pleasant thought. He shook his head to clear it of the somber thoughts.
Tascotal should be somewhere ahead, and after that the 3TL. Gibson would be surprised to see him, and as for Connors? He chuckled. Red would have a good laugh when he saw him carrying a repeating Winchester instead of his old single-shot buffalo gun. Red would--
The man those men had been hunting had been a redhead, older than Hoppy.
Suppose it was Red Connors they were hunting? He pushed on toward town, his eyes and ears alert. He was going to have to hunt up some news.
The lights of Tascotal showed at last; he rode up to the livery stable and swung down. A thin-faced man with sharp eyes came to meet him. He took in Cassidy in one sweeping, comprehensive look, lingering longest on the tied-down guns. "Give him some corn," Hopalong said as the man led the horse toward a stall. "Say, what's going on in this country, anyway? I run into two gents down the road and they sure were hostile."
The stablehand looked at him again, then released the girth on the saddle and slipped it from the horse. "Lucky you didn't get shot, stranger. They are huntin' a mighty salty gent, by all accounts."
"Who is he? What did he do?"
The stablehand spat. "Mister," he said dryly, "you ask a lot of questions and that ain't healthy hereabouts."
"No harm in telling me, is there? I'm interested."
The man hesitated, then shrugged indifferently. "Reckon not. The feller's a stranger who's been out to Gibson's place. Nobody knows what happened, but he run into Ed Springer out on the flatland. There was some shootin', and this hombre downed Ed, then headed back to the 3TL. Some of the Springer outfit took after him, and he cut out for the hills. He's got all the boys scared of his shootin'. He knocked McCale out of the saddle at seven hundred yards with a Winchester. They figure he's out of ammunition now, though, and the boys are closin' in. That's all I know, mister."
Gibson . . . the 3TL . . . a redheaded man who could hit a moving target at just under half a mile! Somewhere out in those black mountains Red Connors was being hunted down like a wild beast.
"Got a fresh horse I could borrow? As good a horse as my gelding?"
The stablehand straightened. "I reckon not. That's a mighty fine horse you got there. Besides," he added, "it's not a good country to be ridin' in now."
"I'll buy a horse. You got one?"
His cold, bright eyes held those of the stablehand for an instant, and then the fellow turned and walked down the line of stalls. In a box stall at the end of the barn was a splendid black horse. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness Hopalong could see a patch of white and gray spots on its flank: an Appaloosa.
"This palouse," the man said, "is the best horse around here. He belongs to an hombre that died mighty sudden here a while back, an' I got a claim against him for the feed bill, so I reckon he's more my horse than anybody's.
"He's a mountain horse and he can outrun, outclimb, outlast any cayuse in this here country. I can't rightly sell him, but I'll mebbe lend him to you on condition you don't tell me where you're goin' or for why. I ain't aimin' to know anythin'."
"Saddle him up!" Hopalong turned to the door. "I'll eat and pick up some ammunition. You have that horse ready to go, mister."
The stablehand followed Cassidy back and picked up the saddle. As Hopalong started for the door the man's voice stopped him. "Tough country back in there, and those hombres doin' the huntin' know it like the back of their hand, but if I needed a hideout right quick, I reckon I know where I'd go."
Hopalong turned slowly. "Where would that be?"
"There's a cave high up on Copper Mountain, just about timberline. There's water in it, and plenty of wood, and nobody can come close without bein' seen. You hit Lone Pine Pass and turn left up the mountain at the Pine. Keep on the game trail till you get to a blaze-face boulder. Then turn left again and start circlin' the peak. When you cross the rockslide you'll see a clump of trees mebbe five hundred feet higher and what looks like a big ledge. The cave'll be there."
From the Paperback edition.