“Clannish, ain’t they?” remarked Elkins, gravely.
Those remaining were regarding him sternly, questioningly, Cowan with a deep frown darkening his face. “You hadn’t ought to ‘a’ said that, Elkins.” The reproof was almost an accusation.
Elkins looked steadily at the speaker. “You hadn’t ought to ‘a’ let me say it,” he replied. “How did I know he was so touchy?” His gaze left Cowan and lingered in turn on each of the others. “Some of you ought to ‘a’ told me. I wouldn’t ‘a’ said it only for what I said just before, an’ I didn’t want him to think I was challenging him to no duel in the brush. So I says so, an’ then he goes an’ takes it up that I am challenging him. I ain’t got no call to fight with nobody. Ain’t I tried to keep out of trouble with him ever since I’ve been here? Ain’t I kept out of the poker games on his account? Ain’t I?” The grave, even tones were dispassionate, without a trace of animus and serenely sure of justice.
The faces around him cleared gradually and heads began to nod in comprehending consent.
“Yes, I reckon you have,” agreed Cowan, slowly, but the frown was not entirely gone. “Yes, I reckon—mebby—you have.”
It was noon by the sun when Hopalong and Red shook hands south of the old ford and the former turned to enter the brush. Hopalong was cool and ominously calm while his companion was the opposite. Red was frankly suspicious of the whole affair and nursed the private opinion that Mr. Elkins would lay in ambush and shoot his enemy down like a dog. And Red had promised himself a dozen times that he would study the signs around the scene of action if Hopalong should not come back, and take a keen delight, if warranted, in shooting Mr. Elkins full of holes with no regard for an even break. He was thinking the matter over as his friend breasted the first line of brush and could not refrain from giving a slight warning. “Get him, Hoppy,” he called, earnestly; “get him good. Let him do some of the moving about. I’ll be here waiting for you.”
Hopalong smiled in reply and sprang forward, the leaves and branches quickly shutting him from Red’s sight. He had worked out his plan of action the night before when he was alone and the world was still, and as soon as he had it to his satisfaction he had dropped off to sleep as easily as a child—it took more than gun-play to disturb his nerves. He glanced about him to make sure of his bearings and then struck on a curving line for the river. The first hundred yards were covered with speed and then he began to move more slowly and with greater regard for caution, keeping close to the earth and showing a marked preference for low ground. Sky-lines were all right in times of peace, but under the present conditions they promised to become unhealthy. His eyes and ears told him nothing for a quarter of