“All right,” muttered Johnny, “but just the same, the man who—”
“Never mind about the man who! Did you hear me?” yelled Cowan, swiftly reaching for a bucket of water. “This is a game where I gets the most in, an’ don’t forget it!”
“Come on; play cards,” growled Lucas, who did not relish having his decision questioned on his own story. Undoubtedly somewhere in the wide, wide world there was such a thing as common courtesy, but none of it had ever strayed onto that range.
The chairs scraped on the rough floor as the men pulled up to a table. “I don’t care a hang,” came Elkins’ final comment as he shuffled the cards with careful attention. “I’m not any fancy Colt expert, but I’m damned if I won’t take a chance in that game with any man as totes a gun. Leastawise, of course, I wouldn’t take no such advantage of a lame man.”
The effect would have been ludicrous but for its deadly significance. Cowan, stooping to go under the bar, remained in that hunched-up attitude, his every faculty concentrated in his ears; the match on its way to the cigarette between Red’s lips was held until it burned his fingers, when it was dropped from mere reflex action, the hand still stiffly aloft; Lucas, half in and half out of his chair, seemed to have got just where he intended, making no effort to seat himself. Skinny Thompson, his hand on his gun, seemed paralyzed; his mouth was open to frame a reply that never was uttered and he stared through narrowed eyelids at the blunderer. The sole movement in the room was the slow rising of Hopalong and the markedly innocent shuffling of the cards by Elkins, who appeared to be entirely ignorant of the weight and effect of his words. He dropped the pack for the cut and then looked up and around as if surprised by the silence and the expressions he saw.
Hopalong stood facing him, leaning over with both hands on the table. His voice, when he spoke, rumbled up from his chest in a low growl. “You won’t have no advantage, Elkins. Take it from me, you’ve had yore last fling. I’m glad you made it plain, this time, so it’s something I can take hold of.” He straightened slowly and walked to the door, and an audible sigh sounded through the room as it was realized that trouble was not immediately imminent. At the door he paused and turned back around, looking back over his shoulder. “At noon to-morrow I’m going to hoof it north through the brush between the river an’ the river trail, starting at the old ford a mile down the river.” He waited expectantly.
“Me too—only the other way,” was the instant rejoinder. “Have it yore own way.”
Hopalong nodded and the closing door shut him out into the night. Without a word the Bar-20 men arose and followed him, the only hesitant being Johnny, who was torn between loyalty and new-found friendship; but with a sorrowful shake of the head, he turned away and passed out, not far behind the others.