Shortly after noon, Hopalong, who had ridden with his head bowed low in meditation, looked up and slapped his thigh. Then he looked at Red and grinned.
"Look ahere, Red," he began, "there ain't no rustlers with their headquarters on this God-forsaken sand heap, an' there never was. They have to have water an' lots of it, too, an' th' nearest of any account is th' Pecos, or some of them streams over in th' Panhandle. Th' Panhandle is th' best place. There are lots of streams an' lakes over there an' they're right in a good grass country. Why, an' army could hide over there an' never be found unless it was hunted for blamed good. Then, again, it's close to the railroad. Up north aways is th' south branch of th' Santa Fé Trail an' it's far enough away not to bother anybody in th' middle Panhandle. Then there's Fort Worth purty near, an' other trails. Didn't Buck say he had all th' rest of th' country searched? He meant th' Pecos Valley an' th' Davis Mountains country. All th' rustlers would have to do if they were in th' Panhandle would be to cross th' Canadian an' th' Cimarron an' hit th' trail for th' railroad. Good fords, good grass an' water all th' way, cattle fat when they are delivered an' plenty of room. Th' more I thinks about it th' more I cottons to the Panhandle."
"Well, it shore does sound good," replied Red, reflectively. "Do yu mean th' Cunningham Lake region or farther north?"
"Just th' other side of this blasted desert: anyhere where there's water," responded Hopalong, enthusiastically. "I've been doin' some hot reckonin' for th' last two hours an' this is th' way it looks to me: they drives th' cows up on this skillet for a ways, then turns east an' hits th' trail for home an' water. They can get around th' canon near Thatcher's Lake by a swing of th' north. I tell yu that's th' only way out'n this. Who could tell where they turned with th' wind raisin' th' devil with the trail? Didn't we follow a trail for a ways, an' then what? Why, there wasn't none to follow. We can ride north 'till we walk behind ourselves an' never get a peek at them. I am in favor of headin' for th' Sulphur Spring Creek district. We can spend a couple of weeks, if we has to, an' prospect that whole region without havin' to cut our water down to a smell an' a taste an' live on jerked beef. If we investigates that country we'll find something else than sand storms, poisoned water holes an' blisters."
"Ain't th' Panhandle full of nesters (farmers)?" inquired Red, doubtfully.
"Along th' Canadian an' th' edges, yas; in th' middle, no," explained Hopalong. "They hang close together on account of th' war-whoops, an' they like th' trails purty well because of there alius bein' somebody passin'."
"Buck ought to send some of th' Panhandle boys up there," suggested Red. "There's Pie Willis an' th' Jordans—they knows th' Panhandle like yu knows poker."
Frenchy had paid no apparent attention to the conversation up to this point, but now he declared himself. "Yu heard what Buck said, didn't yu?" he asked. "We were told to search th' Staked Plains from one end to th' other an' I'm goin' to do it if I can hold out long enough. I ain't goin' to palaver with yu because what yu say can't be denied as far as wisdom is concerned. Yu may have hit it plumb center, but I knows what I was ordered to do, an' yu can't get me to go over there if you shouts all night. When Buck says anything, she goes. He wants to know where th' cards are stacked an' why he can't holler 'Keno,' an' I'm goin' to find out if I can. Yu can go to Patagonia if yu wants to, but yu go alone as far as I am concerned."
"Well, it's better if yu don't go with us," replied Hopalong, taking it for granted that Red would accompany him. "Yu can prospect this end of th' game an' we'll be takin' care of th' other. It's two chances now where we only had one afore."
"Yu go east an' I'll hunt around as ordered," responded Frenchy.
"East nothin'," replied Hopalong. "Yu don't get me to wallow in hot alkali an' lose time ridin' in ankle-deep sand when I can hit th' south trail, skirt th' White Sand Hills an' be in God's country again. I ain't goin' to wrastle with no canon this here trip, none whatever. I'm goin' to travel in style, get to Big Spring by ridin' two miles to where I could only make one on this stove. Then I'll head north along Sulpher Spring Creek an' have water an' grass all th' way, barrin' a few stretches. While you are bein' fricasseed I'll be streakin' through cotton-wood groves an' ridin' in the creek."
"Yu'll have to go alone, then," said Red, resolutely. "Frenchy ain't a-goin' to die of lonesomeness on this desert if I knows what I'm about, an' I reckon I do, some. Me an' him'll follow out what Buck said, hunt around for a while an' then Frenchy can go back to th' ranch to tell Buck what's up an' I'll take th' trail yu are a-scared of an' meet yu at th' east end of Cunningham Lake three days from now."
"Yu better come with me," coaxed Hopalong, not liking what his friend had said about being afraid of the trail past the canon and wishing to have some one with whom to talk on his trip. "I'm goin' to have a nice long swim to-morrow night," he added, trying bribery.
"An' I'm goin' to try to keep from hittin' my blisters," responded Red. "I don't want to go swimmin' in no creek full of moccasins—I'd rather sleep with rattlers or copperheads. Every time I sees a cotton-mouth I feels like I had just sit down on one."
"I'll flip a coin to see whether yu comes or not," proposed Hopalong.
"If yu wants to gamble so bad I'll flip yu to see who draws our pay next month, but not for what you said," responded Red, choking down the desire to try his luck.
Hopalong grinned and turned toward the south. "If I sees Buck afore yu do, I'll tell him yu an' Frenchy are growin' watermelons up near Last Stand Rock an' are waitin' for rain. Well, so long," he said.
"Yu tell Buck we're obeyin' orders!" shouted Red, sorry that he was not going with his bunkie.
Frenchy and Red rode on in silence, the latter feeling strangely lonesome, for he and the departed man had seldom been separated when journeys like this were to be taken. And when in search of pleasure they were nearly always together. Frenchy, while being very friendly with Hopalong, a friendship that would have placed them side by side against any odds, was not accustomed to his company and did not notice his absence.
Red looked off toward the south for the tenth time and for the tenth time thought that his friend might return. "He's a son-of-a-gun," he soliloquized.
His companion looked up: "He shore is, an' he's right about this rustler business, too. But we'll look around for a day or so an' then yu raise dust for th' Lake. I'll go back to th' ranch an' get things primed, so there'll be no time lost when we get th' word."
"I'm sorry I went an' said what I did about me takin' th' trail he was a-scared of," confessed Red, after a pause. "Why, he ain't a-scared of nothin'."
"He got back at yu about them watermelons, so what's th' difference?" asked Frenchy. "He don't owe yu nothin'."
An hour later they searched the Devil's Rocks, but found no rustlers. Filling their canteens at a tiny spring and allowing their mounts to drink the remainder of the water, they turned toward Hell Arroyo, which they reached at nightfall. Here, also, their search availed them nothing and they paused in indecision. Then Frenchy turned toward his companion and advised him to ride toward the Lake in the night when it was comparatively cool.
Red considered and then decided that the advice was good. He rolled a cigarette, wheeled and faced the east and spurred forward: "So long," he called.
"So long," replied Frenchy, who turned toward the south and departed for the ranch.
The foreman of the Bar—20 was cleaning his rifle when he heard the hoof-beats of a galloping horse and he ran around the corner of the house to meet the newcomer, whom he thought to be a courier from the Double Arrow. Frenchy dismounted and explained why he returned alone.
Buck listened to the report and then, noting the fire which gleamed in his friend's eyes, nodded his approval to the course. "I reckon it's Trendley, Frenchy—I've heard a few things since yu left. An' yu can bet that if Hopalong an' Red have gone for him he'll be found. I expect action any time now, so we'll light th' signal fire." Then he hesitated; "Yu light it—yu've been waiting a long time for this."
The balls of smoke which rolled upward were replied to by other balls at different points on the plain, and the Bar—20 prepared to feed the numbers of hungry punchers who would arrive within the next twenty-four hours.
Two hours had not passed when eleven men rode up from the Three Triangle, followed eight hours later by ten from the O-Bar-O. The outfits of the Star Circle and the Barred Horseshoe, eighteen in all, came next and had scarcely dismounted when those of the C—80 and the Double Arrow, fretting at the delay, rode up. With the sixteen from the Bar—20 the force numbered seventy-five resolute and pugnacious cowpunchers, all aching to wipe out the indignities suffered.