The ranchmen who knew him—and there were few who did not—were his friends, for he was working in their interests. At whichever cabin he drew rein he was certain of a hospitable reception.
With no clearly defined idea of where he would spend the remaining hours of the night, he turned the nose of Queenie toward the ranges, among the mountain spurs.
Grizzly Weber and Budd Hankinson would stay near the cattle for an indefinite time, and he was debating whether to join them or to ride on to the ranch of Dick Hawkridge, a number of miles to the northeast, when his meditations were broken in upon in the most startling manner.
During those perilous times, the lonely horseman, in a dangerous region, relies much on his intelligent steed for warning. While Monteith Sterry could do a great deal of thinking in the saddle, he was too alert to drop into a brown study that would divert his thoughts from his surroundings.
He was no more than a mile from the Whitney ranch when his mare pricked up her ears, gave an almost inaudible whinny, and slightly slackened her pace.
That meant that she scented danger, and her rider was on the qui vive.
He tightened the rein and drew her to a full stop. She turned her head to the right and looked steadily in that direction, with her pretty ears thrown forward. This meant that whatever impended was coming from that point of the compass.
But the keen eyes of Mont Sterry could not penetrate the moonlight sufficiently far to detect anything. He was out of the saddle in a twinkling, and tried a trick learned from the old hunters. He pressed one ear against the ground, which, as all know, is a much better conductor of sound than the air.
This told the story he anticipated. The faint but distinct clamping of horses' hoofs was heard. The number was indefinite, but, somewhat to his surprise, none of them was running or loping; all were moving on a walk.
The noise was so clear that when he rose to his feet and looked off to the right he expected to see the animals and their riders, and he was not disappointed.
On the outer margin of the field of vision the outlines of several horsemen assumed shape. They were approaching, and one of their steeds emitted a whinny, as a salutation to the motionless Queenie, who had shifted her pose so as to face that point of the compass.
"Sh!" whispered Sterry to her.
But there was no call for the warning; she was too well trained to betray her master, and remained mute.
But it was inevitable that if the young man could discern the figures of the approaching horsemen, they must also see him. He leaped into the saddle and turned away.
He knew instinctively they were rustlers, and he was almost equally certain they were hunting for him. There were at least three; and, well aware of their character, he was only prudent in shying off, with the intention of avoiding them altogether.
But they were not the men to be bluffed in that fashion. They were "out" for the inspector, and did not intend that such an opportunity should slip by unchallenged.
"Hello, pard!" called one of the trio, "where from and where going?"
This was a pointed demand, to which Mont Sterry made an equally pointed response.
"That is my own business; I will attend to it, and you may attend to yours."
All this time he was keeping watch of their movements. Their horses were still walking, but they were now coming straight toward him. At a touch of the rein Queenie headed directly away, and her gait was about the same. She acted as though she shared the thoughts of her master, who shrank from sending her off on a flying run, as would have been more prudent for him to do.
A brave man dislikes to flee, even when his better judgment tells him it is the only wise thing to do.
The night was so still that Sterry plainly heard the words of the men when talking to each other in an ordinary conversational tone.
"I believe that's him," said one of them, eagerly.
"It sounded like his voice, but he wouldn't leave the Whitneys at this time of night when she's there."
"He's too free with his tongue, anyway; we'll make him show up."
"Say, you! hold on a minute. Do you know anything about Mont Sterry? We're looking for him."
"I am Mont Sterry," was the defiant response. "What do you propose to do about it?"
A HOT PURSUIT.
It may be said Mont Sterry answered his own question at the moment of asking it, for, bringing his Winchester to his shoulder, he let fly at the rustlers, and then with a word and touch of the spur sent Queenie bounding away with arrowy swiftness.
Unquestionably it was a daring act on his part, but there was wisdom in it. He knew those men were seeking his life, and would shoot him, as they had threatened to do, on sight. When they met, it would be a question simply as to which got the drop on the other.
They were preparing to make a rush at him, and while he had no fear of a contest of speed between Queenie and any animal that "wore horse-hair," they were altogether too near at the beginning of the contest, and the chance of using their rifles was too much against him.
The crack of the Winchester accompanying his sharp reply, with the whistle of the bullet about their heads, gave them a momentary shock, which delayed the pursuit for a few precious seconds.
This was the object of the fugitive, for, while that brief interval was thrown away by them, he improved it to the utmost. At such crises a few rods count immensely, and they were made to count on the side of Mont Sterry.
They were insufficient, however, to take him beyond peril. Men like those horsemen are quick to recover from a surprise, and it would have seemed that Sterry was hardly started in his flight when they were speeding after him. He heard their maledictions and knew that the struggle for life was on.
Comparatively brief as had been the time spent in the West by Sterry, he had not neglected his education along the lines indispensable to those following his manner of living. At the moment of giving Queenie rein he flung himself forward on her neck, hugging it close and uttering an involuntary prayer that the bullets might pass harmlessly by him and his horse.
There were enough of the missiles to kill several men, but the chance for aiming was so poor that even such fine marksmen as the rustlers had little chance. The mare was only dimly discernible, and she, like their own horses, was going at full speed.
Had the sun been shining the result must have been widely different.
The encounter with these men was so unexpected and the several changes of direction by Queenie so sudden and unavoidable that Sterry was not given a chance to take his bearings. The one object was to get as far from them as possible in the quickest time in which it could be done.
When that distance became a safe one it would be soon enough to give attention to the points of the compass.
Nobly did Queenie do her duty. She had carried her master out of many a peril, and she could be counted on to do it as long as the ability remained with her. Sterry's anxiety was really more on her account than on his own. He knew there was little danger of himself being struck by the bullets of the rustlers, who, as I have shown, had no possible chance of taking any sort of aim, but she was a conspicuous target, which it would seem they ought to hit with little difficulty.
Often must a person in the situation of Sterry leave everything to his horse. He did not seek to guide Queenie, but sat, or rather lay, in the saddle and on her neck, as she skimmed like a swallow over the undulating prairie.
Strange imaginings were in the brain of the young man during those few minutes. He listened to each shot of the Winchesters, and then, instead of feeling any apprehension for himself, waited for the dreaded evidence that his horse had been struck.
The skilful railway engineer, sitting in his cab, with his hand on the throttle, can discover, on the instant, the slightest disarrangement in the mass of intricate mechanism over which he holds control. His highly trained senses enable him to feel it like a flash. So it was that Mont Sterry would have detected any injury to his horse as quickly as she herself. No matter if but the abrasion of the skin, the puncture of the flesh, or the nipping of an ear, she would betray it involuntarily.
If she were wounded and should fall, the situation of her rider would be well-nigh hopeless. He could only throw himself behind her body and have it out with his enemies. Such a defence has been successfully made many a time by white men against Indians; but Sterry would not be fighting Crows nor Sioux, but those of his own race and blood, as brave and skilful as he.
"Thank God!" he murmured, after each shot, as the splendid play of the machinery under him continued without a break or tremor; "she was not hit that time. She is running at her best."
Once his heart stood still, for she seemed to quiver through her body, as if involuntarily shrinking from the prick of a sword.
In his alarm, Sterry rose to an upright posture in the saddle, and leaning to the right and left, and looking forward and behind him, searched for the wound. He hardly expected to see it, for it would have been beyond his sight in any one of a dozen different portions of the body.
But if in one of the limbs, it would quickly show in the gait of the animal.
"No," he murmured, "there is no change of pace; it could not have been much, and it may be she was not hit at all."
The rustlers fired two shots at this moment, when the horseman was more of a target than his animal, but he gave no heed to that; it was she for whom he felt concern.
A glance backward brought a thrill of hope. The distance between him and his pursuers had perceptibly increased. Queenie was showing her heels to those who dared dispute with her the supremacy of fleetness. She would soon leave them out of sight, unless it should prove she was disabled by some of the shots.
All would have gone well but for the appearance of a new danger of which he did not dream.
Suddenly Queenie emitted her faint, familiar whinny, and swerved to the left. She had scented a new peril.
In the gloom almost directly ahead loomed the figures of other horsemen bearing down upon the fugitive. They might be friends, and they might be enemies, but it would not do to take chances. Without an instant's hesitation Sterry wheeled to the left and spoke to his horse:
"Now, Queenie, do your best."
The mare responded with the same gameness she always showed; but the situation had suddenly become so grave that Monteith Sterry assuredly would have been overwhelmed and cut off but for one of the most extraordinary occurrences that ever came to any person in the extremity of danger.
A STRANGE DIVERSION.
It was the wonderful sagacity of the little mare which intervened at this crisis in the fate of her rider.
She was no more than fairly stretched away on a dead run from the new peril when she shot into an arroya or depression in the prairie. Such a depression suggests the dry bed of a stream through which the water may not have flowed for years. It is sometimes a few feet only in width, and again it may be a number of rods. The rich, alluvial soil often causes a luxuriant growth of grass, cottonwood or bush, which affords the best of grazing and refuge for any one when hard pressed by the enemy.
The arroya into which Queenie plunged had gently sloping sides, and was perhaps fifty feet wide. The bottom was covered not only with grass, but with the thin undergrowth to which allusion has been made, and which was so frail in character that it offered no impediment to the passage of a running horse.
Sterry's expectation was that his mare would shoot across the depression and up the other bank with the least possible delay; but of her own accord, and without suggestion from him, she turned abruptly to the left and dropped to a walk.
He was astounded, and was on the point of speaking impatiently to her as he jerked the bridle-rein, when the occurrence already referred to took place, and made the action of the animal seem like an inspiration or instinct approaching the height of reason.
At the moment she made the sharp turn to the left, another horseman galloped up the opposite slope and off upon the prairie. By an amazing coincidence it happened that he was in the arroya, and in the act of crossing in the same direction with the fugitive, when the furious plunge of the mare sent his own bounding up the farther bank.
Sterry caught the situation like a flash. Before Queenie had gone more than a half-dozen rods he brought her to a standstill. They resembled an equestrian statue, so motionless were they for a full minute.
The converging parties of pursuers could plainly see the second horseman speeding away from the other side, and inevitably concluded that he was the inspector whom they wanted. They were after him hot-footed on the instant.
This man was Ira Inman, a well-known rustler, and the intimate friend of Larch Cadmus. When he saw himself pursued by a half-dozen of his friends he reined up, and calmly but wonderingly awaited their arrival, which took place within the next few seconds.
"Up with your hands! Quick about it, too! You're the man we want!"
"Wal," replied the leader, surveying them with a grin, and paying no heed to their fierce commands, "now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?"
If there ever were a set of dumbfounded men, they were the rustlers who closed about the leader and recognized him in the moonlight. The remarks that followed his identification were as ludicrous as they were vigourous.
The majority believed he had played a trick on them in pretending to be Mont Sterry, whom all were so anxious to bring down; but there were one or two who were not satisfied. They knew the voice of the inspector, which in no way resembled the gruff tones of Inman. Then, their leader was not given to practical jokes.
"What set you to hunting me so hard?" he asked, after the first flurry was over.
"We're looking for Mont Sterry."
"Wal, what made you take me for him? Do I look like him in the moonlight?"
"But you said you were, and fired at us," explained one.
"Fired at you? Said I was that chap? What in the mischief are you driving at?"
One, who suspected the truth, now interposed.
"We did meet Sterry and hailed him; you must have heard our guns; he dashed into the arroya; we saw you gallop out on t'other side, and took you for him."
"Ah, I understand it all now," replied Inman; "I had ridden down there on my way back from a little scout, when a horseman dashed into the slope behind me like a thunderbolt. My horse was so scared that he went up the other side on the jump, and before I could turn around to find out what it all meant, you lunkheads came down on me with the request to oblige you by throwing up my hands, which I will see you hanged before I'll do."
"But where is he? What has become of him?" asked several, looking around, as thought they expected to see the young man ride forward and surrender himself.
"Wal, calling to mind the kind of horse he rides, I should say he is about a half-mile off by this time, laughing to find out how cleverly he has fooled you chaps."
"It looks as if you was in the same boat, Inman," retorted one of the chagrined party.
"I wasn't chasing Sterry."
"He seemed to be chasing you, for you came out of the arroya ahead of him."
"If he was chasing me," replied the leader, who felt that the laugh was on his companions, "he would have followed me out; but I don't see anything of him;" and he, too, stared around, as though not sure the man would not do the improbable thing named.
"It was a blamed cute trick, any way you look at it," remarked one of the party. "It was queer that you should have been there, Inman, just at the minute needed. But for that, we would have had him, sure."
"Wal, you can make up your mind that we have him as good as catched already. He can't get out of the country without some of the boys running against him, and the first rustler that catches sight of Mr. Sterry will drop him in his tracks."
"If he gets the chance to do it," was the wise comment of another. "That fellow is quick on the shoot and isn't afraid of any of us."
"He ain't the first one that's made that mistake, only to find himself rounded up at last. Larch Cadmus' idea of 24 hours' notice don't go down with this crowd, eh?"
And the crowd unanimously responded in the negative.
THE BACK TRAIL.
Mont Sterry had wisdom enough to turn to the fullest account the remarkable advantage gained through the sagacity of his mare.
His pursuers, in their haste to head him off, had dashed across the arroya at a point only a short distance above where he entered and their leader emerged from it. They were sure to discover the truth in a short time.
Waiting, therefore, only until they had passed beyond, he rode his horse a few rods along the depression, and then left it on the same side by which he had ridden into it.
Unconsciously he fell into an error of which he was not dreaming. In the short distance passed, the arroya made a sweeping curve, and he had repeatedly changed his own course since leaving the Whitney ranch. Thus it was almost inevitable that he should get the points of the compass mixed, and that he should follow a route widely different from the one intended.
Had he paused long enough to note the position of the full moon in the heavens, or the towering Big Horn Mountains, he would have gained an approximate idea of where he was; but, despite his experience in the West, he galloped forward at an easy canter, with never a suspicion of the blunder he was making.
He was on the alert for rustlers, and kept glancing to the right and left, and to the front and rear. As has been shown, he had little fear of being overtaken in a chase where he was given an equal chance with his pursuers, but his narrow escape rendered him more apprehensive than usual.
"I thought of staying with Weber and Hankinson to-night," he mused, "but I think it hardly prudent. The rustlers may pay them a visit, and my presence will only make matters worse; and yet those fellows don't want to start up a band of regulators who will shoot them down without mercy, and that's just what will take place if they carry their outrages too far."
"My death won't bring the regulators into existence," he grimly reflected, "for one man, more or less, doesn't count; but there is much bitter feeling in the country."
Once he thought he caught the sounds of horses' feet on the prairie, and checked his mare to listen, but she gave no evidence of suspicion—a thing she was sure to do, if the cause existed.
Sterry was so well satisfied by this fact that he did not dismount to test the matter as before. He rode on, however, and held her down to a walk.
His eventless course had continued some minutes before a thought came to him of the direction he was following, with the possibility that he was wrong.
"I wonder if we are on the right track, Queenie?" he said, addressing his animal, as was his custom when they were alone. "It would be strange if we didn't drift away from our bearings. Hello! that can't be Dick Hawkridge's ranch; we haven't gone far enough for that; but what the mischief can it be, unless a fire that some one has started in the open?"
The starlike twinkle of a point of light suddenly shone out directly in advance. It puzzled him by appearing only for a moment, when it vanished as quickly as it entered his field of vision.
This fact suggested that it was within some dwelling and had been extinguished, or was shut from sight by being moved past a window or open door to another point in the interior.
"We are so near, Queenie, we may as well go farther," he added, not unmindful of his danger from those who were making such a hot search for him. He kept his horse on a walk, maintaining a keen watch between the dainty ears that were already pricked up as if she knew something was likely to happen quite soon.
Advancing in this deliberate fashion, the outline of one of those long, low wooden structures so common in the West was gradually defied in the moonlight, and he knew he was approaching the home of some ranchman.
But whose? was the question that perplexed him. He recalled that some of his travelling had been done at a high rate of speed, but the distance between the Whitney and Hawkridge ranches was fully a dozen miles, and he was sure that that space had not been covered by him since bidding his friends good-by earlier in the evening, especially as he had not followed a direct course.
"Can it be?" he exclaimed, with a sudden suspicion. "Yes, by gracious! What a blunder!"
The exclamation was caused by the sight of a young man, with one arm in a sling, who came forward to welcome him.
He had returned to the Whitney home, which he supposed was miles away, and this was his old friend Fred, who came smilingly forward and said, as he recognized him:
"I am glad, indeed, to see you, Mont; we heard the sound of the firing and feared that something had happened to you."
"Nothing at all, thank you, and nothing to Queenie—but that reminds me," he added, slipping out of the saddle; "she acted once as though she had been hit, though it wasn't bad enough to show itself in her gait."
The two made a hasty examination but discovered nothing; proof that, as her owner said, the wound, if any, was too slight to trouble her.
"Fred, what do you think of my coming back to you in this fashion?" abruptly asked Sterry, with a laugh, looking around in his friend's face.
"The most sensible thing you could have done; it redeems your foolishness in leaving us as you did."
"But my return was involuntary."
"How was that?"
"I thought I was miles distant, and had no idea of my location until I caught the outlines of your house; I assure you I contemplated no such performance as this."
"Well, you're here, so what's the use of talking unless you mean to mount your mare and try it again."
"Hardly that; I have too much mercy on her."
The couple walked past the dwelling to the rude but roomy shelter at the rear where the horses were sometimes placed when not in use, or when the severity of the weather made the protection necessary. There the saddle, bridle and trappings were removed from the mare, and she was made comfortable. Then the two returned to their seats at the front of the building, to smoke and chat a few minutes before retiring for the night.
That mysterious warm-air current known as the Chinook wind steals through the depressions of the Rocky Mountains, at certain seasons of the year, from the mild surface of the Pacific, and tempers the severity of the winters in some portions of Montana, Wyoming, and the great West to a degree that renders them milder than many places farther south.
It was early in the month of May, when even in the Middle States it is not often comfortable to remain seated out of doors after the close of day, but Sterry and Whitney found it pleasant to occupy their chairs in front of the building, with no other protection then their own warm garments.
Whitney's wound was doing so well that he expressed himself ashamed to wear his arm in a sling. He freed it from the support, moved it readily about, and declared that after the next morning he would no longer shirk duty.
In one sense, Monteith Sterry was disappointed. He hoped they would be joined by Jennie, from whom he parted earlier in the evening, but he reflected that the hour was late, and she probably felt that her duty was with her sorrowing mother.
"She belongs there," he concluded, "and I respect her for doing her duty."
But she heard the murmur of voices after they had talked a few minutes, and appeared at the outer door, where she greeted her friend and listened with an intensity of interest that may be imagined to his account of his brush with the rustlers. Although she had become accustomed to danger during her life in the West, there could be no mistaking her solicitude for him. She said little, however, and, excusing herself, bade the two good-night.
"I tell you," said her brother, when she was gone, "if you stay, or rather attempt to stay, in this section, Mont, it is suicide—nothing more nor less."
"Well, I know times are likely to be warm, but, hang it, I can't bear the thought of being run out of Wyoming. It's a mighty big State, and there ought to be room enough for me."
"You persist in treating it lightly, but it is no trifling matter; you have been warned; were shot at, when we had our flurry with the rustlers; and, even while attempting to ride across the country, had the narrowest escape of your life—an escape so curious that it couldn't be repeated in a hundred years."
"It's the unexpected that happens."
"Not so often as the expected. Mont, what made you leave us so abruptly to-night?"
"O, I can hardly tell," replied the other, carelessly flinging one leg over the other and puffing at his cigar, as though the matter was of no importance.
"I know; you believed that if you stayed here you would increase the peril to us."
"You've hit it exactly; that was it."
"What sort of friends do you take us to be?"
"That isn't it; rather, what sort of friend would I be, thus knowingly to place you and your mother and sister in danger? If those rustlers knew where I am, a dozen would be here before sunrise."
"What of it? We are ready for them."
"That's a poor answer to my statement; you had enough of that woeful business yesterday; they hold me in such hatred that they would burn down your place, if they could reach me in no other way."
"And yet you propose to stay in Wyoming and have it out with them?"
"I haven't said that," remarked Sterry, more thoughtfully; "I may soon leave for a more civilized section, much as I hate to play the seeming coward; but what you said about my parents, brothers and sisters at home, gave me something to think over while riding across the prairie to-night."
"I shall hate to lose your company, for it is like old times to talk over our school days, but I would not be a friend to allow my selfishness to stand in the way of your good."
Sterry smoked a moment in silence, and then flung away his cigar and turned abruptly on his companion.
"Fred, if you could have prevented what took place yesterday by sacrificing every dollar of the property you have in Wyoming, you would have done it."
"Yes, God knows I would have done it a thousand times over; mother will never recover from the blow."
"And yet you may be the next to fall during this frightful state of affairs. If the situation of your mother and sister is so sad because of the loss of the head of the household, what will it be if you should be taken?"
"I appreciate your kindness, Mont, but you put the case too strongly; in one sense we all stand in danger of sudden death every day. I might live to threescore and ten in Wyoming, and be killed in a railroad accident or some other way the first day I left it. There is no particular enmity between the rustlers and me; that brush yesterday was one of those sudden outbursts that was not premeditated by them."
"It didn't look that way to me."
"You were not there when it opened. They were driving a lot of mavericks toward their ranch down the river, when Budd Hankinson saw a steer among them with our brand. You know it—a sort of cross with father's initials. Without asking for its return, Budd called them a gang of thieves, cut out the steer and drove him toward our range. If he had gone at the thing in the right way there would have been no trouble, but his ugly words made them mad, and the next thing we were all shooting at each other."
"You inflicted more harm than they, and they won't forget it."
"I don't want them to forget it," said Fred, bitterly, "but they won't carry their enmity to the extent of making an unprovoked attack on me or any of my people."
"Possibly not, but you don't want to bank on the theory."
"You must not forget," continued the practical Whitney, "that all we have in the world is invested in this business, and it would be a sacrifice for us to sell out and move eastward, where I would be without any business."
"You could soon make one for yourself."
"Well," said Whitney, thoughtfully, "I will promise to turn it over in my mind; the associations, however, that will always cling to this place, and particularly my sympathy for mother and Jennie, will be the strongest influences actuating me, provided I decide to change."
Mont Sterry experienced a thrill of delight, for he knew that when a man talks in that fashion he is on the point of yielding. He determined to urge the matter upon Jennie, and there was just enough hope in his heart that the prospect of being on the same side of the Mississippi with him would have some slight weight.
"I am glad to hear you speak thus, for it is certain there will be serious trouble with the rustlers."
"All which emphasizes what I said earlier in the evening about your duty to make a change of location."
The proposition, now that there was reason to believe that Fred Whitney had come over to his way of thinking, struck Sterry more favourably than before. In fact he reflected, with a shudder, what a dismal, unattractive section this would be, after the removal of his friends.
"I shall not forget your words; what you said has great influence with me, and you need not be surprised if I bid adieu to Wyoming within a week or a few days."
"It can't be too soon for your own safety, much as we shall regret to lose your company."
Although Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber were removed from the scene of the events described, the night was not to pass without their becoming actors in some stirring incidents.
Ordinarily they would have spent the hours of darkness at the ranch of their employer, for the immense herds of cattle, as a rule, required no looking after. The ranges over which they grazed were so extensive that they were left to themselves, sometimes wandering for many miles from the home of their owner. They might not be seen for days and weeks. Their brands and the universal respect in which such proof of proprietorship was held prevented, as a rule, serious loss to the owners.
But the date will be recognized by the reader as one of a peculiarly delicate nature, when men were obliged to look more closely after their rights than usual.
The couple, therefore, rode behind the cattle to the foothills, along which they were expected to graze for an indefinite time. Hustlers were abroad, and the occurrences of the previous day had inflamed the feeling between them and the cowmen. It was not unlikely that, having been beaten off, some of them might take the means of revenging themselves by stealing a portion of the herd.
Budd and Weber dismounted after reaching the foothills, and, without removing the saddles from their horses, turned them loose to graze for themselves. No fear of their wandering beyond recall. A signal would bring them back the moment needed.
The hardy ranchers seated themselves with their backs against a broad, flat rock, which rose several feet above their heads. The bits were slipped from the mouths of their horses, so as to allow them to crop the succulent grass more freely, while the men gave them no attention, even when they gradually wandered beyond sight in the gloom.
"Times are getting lively in these parts," remarked Weber, as he filled his brierwood and lit it; "this thing can't go on forever; the rustlers or cowmen have got to come out on top, and I'm shot if one can tell just now which it will be."
"There can only be one ending," quietly replied his companion, whose pipe, being already lit, was puffed with the deliberate enjoyment of a veteran; "the rustlers may stir things up, and I s'pose they've got to get worse before they get better, but what's the use? It's like a mob or a riot; the scamps have things their own way at first, but they knuckle under in the end."
"I guess you're right; that was bad business yesterday; I shouldn't wonder if it ended in the young folks moving East again with their mother, whose heart is broke by the death of her husband."
"The younker is too plucky a chap to light out 'cause the governor has been sent under; he's had better luck than most tenderfeet who come out here and start in the cattle bus'ness; he done well last year, and if the rustlers let him alone, he'll do a good deal better this year; he may move, but he ain't agoin' to let them chaps hurry him, you can make up your mind to that."
The couple smoked a minute or two in silence. Then Weber, without removing his pipe from between his lips, uttered the words:
"Budd, something's going to happen powerful soon."
Hankinson, also keeping his pipe between his lips, turned his head and looked wonderingly at his friend. He did not speak, but the action told his curiosity; he did not understand the words.
"I mean what I say," added Weber, shaking his head; "I know it."
"What do you mean? Something happens every night and every day."
"That isn't what I'm driving at; something's going to happen afore daylight; you and me ain't through with this work."
Hankinson was still dissatisfied. He took his pipe from his mouth, and, looking sideways at his friend, asked:
"Can't you come down to facts and let a fellow know what you're driving at?"
"I don't exactly know myself, but I feel it in my left leg."
At this strange remark the other laughed heartily and silently. He had little patience with superstition. He knew his friend held peculiar whims in that respect. Weber expected something in the nature of scoffing and was prepared for it. He spoke doggedly:
"It has never deceived me. Six years ago, when we was trying to round up Geronimo and his Apache imps, ten of us camped in the Moggollon Mountains. Hot! Well, you never knowed anything like it. All day long the metal of our guns would blister our naked hands; we didn't get a drop of water from sunup till sundown; we was close on to the trail of the varmints, and we kept at it by moonlight till our horses gave out and we tumbled out among the rocks so used up that we could hardly stand. Our lieutenant was a bright young chap from South Car'lina that had come out of West Point only that summer, but he was true blue and warn't afeared of anything. We all liked him. I had seen him fight when a dozen of the Apaches thought they had us foul, and I was proud of him. He belonged to a good family, though that didn't make him any better than anyone else, but he treated us white.
"So when we went into camp, I goes to him and I says, says I, 'Lieutenant, there's going to be trouble.' He looked up at me in his pleasant way and asks, 'What makes you think so, Grizzly?' The others was listening, but I didn't mind that, and out with it. ''Cause,' says I, 'my left leg tells me so.'
"'And how does your leg tell you?' he asked again, with just a faint smile that wasn't anything like the snickers and guffaws of the other chaps. 'Whenever a twitch begins at the knee and runs down to my ankle,' says I, 'that is in the left leg, and then keeps darting back and forth and up and down, just as though some one was pricking it with a needle, do you know what it says?'
"'I'm sure I don't, but I'd like to know.'
"'Injins! Varmints! They're nigh you; look out!'
"Wal, instead of j'ining the others in laughing at me, he says; just as earnest-like as if it was the colonel that had spoke, 'If that's the case, Grizzly, why we'll look out; you have been in this business afore I was born and I am glad you told me. I didn't s'pose any of 'em was within miles of us, but it's easy to be mistaken.'
"Wal, to make a long story short we didn't any of us go to sleep; the boys laughed at what I said, but the way the lieutenant acted showed 'em he believed me, and that was enough. The Apaches come down on us that night and wiped out two of the boys. If the lieutenant hadn't showed his good sense by believing what I told him, there wouldn't have been one of us left."
Budd Hankinson then crossed his legs, extended on the ground as they were, shoved his sombrero back on his head, with his Winchester resting against the rock behind him, and smoked his pipe after the manner of a man who is pondering a puzzling question. The latter assumed much the same position, but, having said sufficient, was not disposed to speak until after the other had given his opinion.
"Grizzly, when your leg warns you like that, does it speak plain enough to tell you the sort of danger that's coming? Does it say what hour; where the trouble is to come from, and who them that make the trouble will be?"
"No!" replied the other, contemptuously; "how could a fellow's leg do that?"
"How could it do anything 'cept help tote him around when he wanted it to?"
"I've just explained, that twitching is a warning—that's all. I 'spose the leg thinks that's enough; so it is."
"There ain't any Apaches or Comanches in this part of the world."
"But there's rustlers, and where's the ch'ice?"
"Wal, Grizzly, all I've got to say is let 'em come; it ain't the first time we've seen 'em, and we're ginerally ready for 'em. We was yesterday, and I reckon we'll get there, all the same, to-night or to-morrow morning."
Grizzly Weber felt it his duty to be more explicit.
"The night I was telling you about down in Arizona wasn't the only time my leg signaled to me. While it allers means that something is going to come, it doesn't always mean it'll amount to much. It has happened that only a slight flurry follored. That may be the case to-night."
"What's to be done? Are we to set here on the ground and wait for it? I was going to take turns with you watching, but I guess we hadn't better go to sleep yet."
"You can sleep till near morning if you like, and when I want to lay down I'll wake you, but afore you do that I'll take a look around."
Weber rose to his feet, yawned, stretched his long, muscular arms, looked about him and listened. The moonlight enabled him to see only a comparatively short distance in any direction. Near-by were the forms of several cattle stretched upon the ground and sleeping. One or two were still chewing their cuds, but the scene was suggestive of rest and quiet, the reverse of what he told his friend was coming.
The horses had drifted too far off to be visible, but it was certain they were within signal distance. Rocks, stunted undergrowth, bushes, and the rich, luxuriant grass met the eye everywhere. Thousands of cattle were scattered over an area of many acres, and, unless molested by dishonest persons, would be within ready reach when the time for the round-up arrived. Neither eye nor ear could detect anything of the peril which the rancher believed impended with the same faith that he believed the sun would rise on the following morning.
That faith could not be shaken by the profound quiet. Without speaking again to his friend he strolled toward the north, that is parallel with the spur along whose slope the cattle were grazing. As he moved forward they were continually in sight. Most of them were lying on the ground, but a few were on their feet, browsing and acquiring the luscious plumpness which has made that section one of the most famous grazing regions of the Union. They paid no attention to the rancher while making his way around, among and past them. They were too accustomed to the sight of the sturdy cattleman to be disturbed by him.
An eighth of a mile from the rock where he had left his comrade, Weber once more paused. Nothing as yet had come to confirm that peculiar warning described, but his faith knew no weakening on that account.
From a long way came the sound of rifle-firing, sometimes rapid, and sometimes consisting of dropping shots.
"They're at it somewhere," muttered the rancher; "it doesn't come from the ranch, so I guess the folks are all right."
The reports were too far off for him to feel any interest in them; that which was foretold by the twitching of his limb must come much closer to answer the demands of the occasion.
Weber resumed his walk around and among the prostrate animals. He was on the alert, glancing to the right and left, and speculating as to the nature of the "trouble" that could not be far off.
Through the impressive stillness he caught a subdued sound which caused him again to stop in his walk and listen. His keen vision could discover nothing, nor was he certain of the nature of the disturbance.
He knelt down and pressed his ear to the ground. That told the story; several hundred of the herd were in motion and moving away from him. They would not do this of their own accord, and the rancher translated its meaning at once; they were being driven off.
He broke into a loping trot toward the threatened point, holding his Winchester ready for instant use. As he was likely to need his horse, he placed his fingers between his lips and emitted the whistle by which he was accustomed to summon the faithful beast. Then he sent out a different call. That was for the listening ears of Budd Hankinson, who would be sure to hasten to his comrade.
But Weber did not wait for man or animal. They could come as fast as they chose. The case was too urgent to admit of delay.
He believed the moving cattle were hardly a furlong distant, but they were not only going at a rapid pace, but were moving directly away from where the rancher had halted.
He could run as swiftly and as long as an Indian, but the course was difficult, and he believed the cattle were going so fast that he was gaining little if anything on them. When he had run a short way he stopped and glanced impatiently back in the gloom.
"Why doesn't Cap hurry?" he muttered, referring to his horse; "he must have heard my call, and he never lets it pass him. Budd, too, don't want to break his neck trying to overtake me."
His impatience made him unjust. Neither man nor beast had had time to come up, even though each had set out at their best speed the moment they heard the signal. They would be on hand in due course, unless prevented.
Weber called them again, with a sharp, peremptory signal, which could not fail to apprise both of the urgency of the case. Then, afraid of losing any advantage, he pushed after the fleeing cattle. The figures of the sleeping animals around him grew fewer in number. By and by none was to be seen. He had passed the outer boundary of those that were left, and was now tramping over the section from which they had been stampeded or driven by the rustlers.
He dropped to the ground again. But it was only to use the earth as a medium of hearing. The multitudinous trampings became distinct once more. The cattle were running, proof that the thieves were pressing them hard and were in fear of pursuit.
Leaping up again, the rancher peered backward in the moonlight. Something took shape, and he identified the figure of a man approaching. The Winchester was grasped and half aimed, so as to be ready for instant use.
But it was his friend, who was coming on the run. Budd Hankinson had heard the call, and obeyed it with surprising promptness.
"What's up?" he asked, as he halted, breathing not a whit faster because of his unusual exertion.
"They're running off some of the cattle; where's the hosses?"
"Hanged if I know! I called to Dick the minute I started, but he didn't show up; I don't know were he is."
"I whistled for Cap at the same time I did for you; he ought to be here first. I wonder if they've stolen him?" added Weber, affrightedly.
"No, they wouldn't have come that close; they didn't have the chance; but it gets me."
With that he sent out the signal once more. Budd did the same, and then they broke into their swift, loping trot after the fleeing animals, both in an ugly mood.
They were at great disadvantage without their own horses when it was clear the rustlers were mounted. But, though on foot, the ranchers could travel faster than the gait to which the cattle had been forced. They increased their speed, and it was quickly evident they were gaining on the rogues.
It was not long before they discerned the dark bodies galloping off in alarm. Almost at the same moment the ranchers saw the outlines of two horsemen riding from right to left, and goading the cattle to an injuriously high pace. Grizzly Weber, who was slightly in advance, turned his head and said, in excitement:
"Budd, they're not rustlers; they're Injins!"
THE "DOG INDIANS."
Weber was right in his declaration that the parties who were stampeding a part of the herd were Indians. They were two in number, both superbly mounted, and dashing back and forth with great swiftness, as they urged the animals to a frantic flight. They knew the danger of pursuit and the value of time.
The rancher, who shouted to his companion, was a few paces in advance at the exciting moment he made the discovery. The sight so angered him that he stopped abruptly and brought his rifle to his shoulder, with the intention of shooting the marauder from his horse.
This would have been done the next instant but for the exclamation of Grizzly Weber. Despite the noise and confusion, the Indian heard him and saw his danger. Before the rancher could sight his weapon the thief seemed to plunge headlong over the further side of his steed; but instead of doing so he resorted to the common trick of his people, all of whom are unsurpassable horsemen. He flung himself so far over that nothing of his body remained visible. The horse himself became the shield between him and the white man. The redskin was in the saddle, but he would have been just as expert had he been riding bareback.
Weber muttered his disappointment, but held his rifle ready to fire the instant he caught sight of any part of the fellow's person. At any rate, a recourse was open to him; he could shoot the horse, and thus place his enemy on the same footing with himself. He decided to do so.
The hurly-burly was bewildering. The cattle were bellowing in affright, galloping frenziedly before the two horsemen, dashing back and forth among them at the rear like two lunatics, and goading them to desperate haste.
At the instant the Indian whom Grizzly Weber selected as his man eluded his fatal aim, his horse was running diagonally. This could not be continued without the abandonment of the herd. He must wheel, to come back behind the fleeing cattle. The rancher waited for that moment, prepared to fire the instant any tangible part of the body of the rogue was revealed by the moonlight.
But an astonishing exploit prevented the shot. The savage wheeled, just as was anticipated, but, in the act of doing so, threw himself for a second time over the side of his horse, so as to interpose his body. He did it with such inimitable dexterity that the rancher was baffled.
All this took place in a twinkling, as may be said; but, brief as was the time, it caused Weber to lose valuable ground. The horse was growing dimmer in the gloom, and, unless checked, would quickly be beyond reach of the Winchester still levelled at him. Nothing was easier than to drive a bullet through his brain and then have it out with the Indian. Possibly the single bullet would end the career of both.
Budd Hankinson called out something, but Grizzly Weber did not catch it. With grim resolution he sighted as best he could in the moonlight at the galloping steed, and then with a shiver lowered his weapon undischarged, awed by the sudden discovery of the deed he had come within a hair of committing.
The erratic motions of the Indian and his horse entangled both with the flying cattle. All at once the nimble steed became so crowded on every side that his only escape from being gored to death was by a tremendous bound which he made over the back of a terrified steer who lowered his head for the purpose of driving his horns into his body. He made the leap with amazing skill and grace.
As he went up in the air, with the Indian clinging to his side, the astonishing leap was executed with perfect ease, precision and perfectness, his figure rising above the mass of struggling animals and standing out for a moment in clear relief.
That one glimpse of the outlines of the splendid horse, together with the brilliancy of the performance itself, told Grizzly Weber that the steed was his own Cap. The owner had by a hair escaped sending a bullet through the brain of the animal whom he loved as his own brother.
Grizzly was stupefied for an instant. Then, knowing that Cap had been duped by some conjuration, he sent out the familiar signal with a sharp distinctness that rose above the din and racket, which, to ordinary ears, would have been overwhelming.
The result was remarkable, and approached the ridiculous. Cap heard the call, and instantly turned to obey it. The Indian on his back strove furiously to prevent and to keep him at his work. Cap fought savagely, flinging his head aloft, rearing, plunging, and refusing to follow the direction toward which the redskin twisted his head by sheer strength. It was a strife between rider and steed, and the latter made no progress in either direction while keeping up the fight, which was as fierce as it was brief.
The Indian could not force the horse to obey him, and the efforts of Cap to reach his master were defeated by the wrenching at the bit. It looked as if the horse had been seized with the frenzy that possessed every one, and was fighting and struggling aimlessly and accomplishing nothing.
But Grizzly Weber was not the one to stand idly by and allow this extraordinary contest to go on. Nothing intervened between him and the daring marauder, and he dashed toward him.
The redskin's audacity, nimbleness and self-possession excited the admiration of Grizzly Weber, angered though he was at the trick played on him. The rider knew the risk of keeping up the fight with the obdurate beast, for the master was sure to arrive on the spot within a few seconds. Before the rancher could reach him he went from the saddle as if shot out of a gun.
Freed from his incubus, Cap emitted a joyful whinny and trotted toward his master.
"You rascal!" exclaimed the delighted rancher, vaulting upon his back in a twinkling. "Now we'll settle with the chap that tried to part you and me."
All this consumed but a few moments. The Indian could not have gone far. He would not dash among the cattle, who, now that they were stampeded, were as dangerous as so many wild beasts. He had hardly time to conceal himself, and Grizzly was certain that he had him.
All the same, however, the cowman made a miscalculation. When he wheeled Cap about to run down the daring redskin he was nowhere to be seen. There were no trees near, but there were boulders, rocks and depressions, with the rich grass everywhere, and the dusky thief was as safe as if beyond the Assinaboine, in British territory.
"I'm glad of it," thought Weber, a moment later; "a redskin that can show such a performance as that desarves to save his scalp."
In the dizzying flurry Grizzly had no time to think of his companion, who had enough to attend to his own matters. He now looked around for him, but he, too, was invisible.
"I wonder whether he got his horse back, for Dick must have been stole, the same as was Cap."
And, grateful for having regained possession of his horse, he patted the silken neck of the noble animal.
Grizzly's years of experience with cattle apprised him of a gratifying truth. The course of the stampeded herd was changing. Instead of fleeing away from the main body they were veering around, so that, if the change of course continued, they would return to the neighbourhood from which they started.
Panic-smitten cattle are not apt to do a thing of that kind of their own accord. Some cause, and a strong one, too, must have effected this diversion in the line of flight. All at once, above the din, sounded the penetrating voice of a man, who was striving with herculean energy to change the course of the wild animals.
One sound of that voice was sufficient to identify it as Budd Hankinson's. He must have played his cards well to have done all this in so brief a space of time.
And such had been the case beyond a doubt. Budd suspected from the first what did not enter Grizzly's mind until it flashed upon him as described. The fact that neither of their horses appeared when summoned convinced Budd that they had been stolen. True, even in that case they would have obeyed the signal, had they been near enough, and had the circumstances allowed them to identify it; but, although not far off, the noise immediately around them shut out the call of Grizzly from their ears, until he repeated it, as has been told.
Hankinson anticipated his friend in this act. In his case, the thief in the saddle of Dick gave it up at once. He leaped off, and whisked out of sight. It was then Budd called to Grizzly that the thieves had their horses; but the other did not catch his words, and, therefore, gave them no further heed.
The instant Budd's feet were in the stirrups he set his horse bounding along the side of the herd, with the purpose of checking the stampede by changing its course. Grizzly understood matters and set off after him, leaving to the sagacious Cap to thread his way to the other side of the running cattle.
In the course of a few minutes the ranchers opened communication and pushed their work with a vigor which brought good results. The cattle were tired. They had been on their feet most of the day while grazing, were growing fat, and naturally were indisposed to severe exertion. Their pace dropped to a walk, and sooner than would have been supposed, the fright passed off. The herders kept them moving until close to the main herd, where they were allowed to rest. Budd and Grizzly dismounted once more, turning their horses loose, and seated themselves on the ground. The night, as will be remembered, was mild, and they did not need their blankets to make them comfortable.
"Wal," was the smiling remark of Grizzly, as he began refilling his pipe, "my leg didn't deceive me this time."
"No, I'll own up it played square; but, Grizzly, if we've got to fight the red varmints as well as rustlers, there will be some lively fun in Wyoming and Montana before the thing is over."
"The Injins won't take a hand in this. You know who them two thieves were, don't you?"
"A couple of 'dog Injins,' of course."
"There isn't anybody else that's got anything to do with this; it's sort of queer—that is, it has struck me so two or three times—that the Injins have tramps among 'em the same as white folks. They call 'em 'dog Injins,' I s'pose, 'cause they don't claim any particular tribe, but tramp back and forth over the country, slipping off their reservations whenever they get a chance."
"Yes, there are plenty of 'em," assented Budd; "we've met 'em before; you'll find 'em as far north as the Saskatchewan and as low down as the Rio Grande. But I say, Grizzly, they were two slick ones; I never seen finer work."
"Nor me either; if they had been satisfied with taking our hosses we'd never seen 'em agin. Gracious!" added the rancher, "for myself, I'd rather lost half the herd than Cap."
"It seems to me," said Budd, after smoking a moment in silence, "that although them 'dog Injins' was pretty smart in getting out of the way when we come down on 'em, they weren't smart in trying to run off the cattle. They must have known we'd find it out at daylight and would be after 'em hot-footed."
Grizzly had been puzzling over the same phase of the question. The 'dog Indian' is a vagabond, who, belonging to some particular tribe, as of necessity must be the case, affiliates with none, but goes whithersoever his will leads him, provided he is not prevented. Sometimes they remain on the reservation for weeks and months, as orderly, industrious and well-behaved as the best of the red men. Then they disappear, and may not turn up for a long time. In truth, they are as likely not to turn up at all, but to lead their wandering, useless lives just as the vagrants do in civilized communities.
Surely the couple who had played their parts in the incidents of the night must have known that nothing could be gained by stampeding a part of Whitney's herd. The cattle were branded, and could not be disposed of for that reason. Besides, a couple of Indians in charge of several hundred cattle would be objects of suspicion themselves, and certain to be called to account. They could make no common cause with the rustlers, for the latter would have naught to do with them.
More than likely Grizzly Weber hit the truth when he said:
"It was a piece of pure deviltry on their part. When they got into the saddles they felt safe. Instead of making off with the hosses, they thought they would stir up a little fun by stampeding the cattle. After injuring 'em by rapid driving for a good many miles they would have paid no more attention to 'em, and let us find 'em as best we could."
"Yes," assented Budd, "they bit off more'n they could chaw, and so lost the hosses. But, Grizzly, have you noticed there's been several guns shot off around the country to-night?"
"Yas," replied the other, indifferently; "I've heard 'em several times, but I haven't obsarved any coming from the house; it must be that some of the boys are having fun to-night instead of sleeping like lambs, as they ought to do."
"And there'll be more of it to-morrow, but that's what we've got to expect at all times. I'm going to sleep; call me when you want me."
Budd spread the blanket, which he had taken from the back of his horse, on the ground and lay down. Hardly five minutes passed when he was wrapped in sound slumber. To prevent himself from becoming unconscious, Grizzly rose and walked slowly around and among the herd. He had no thought of anything further occurring, for the 'dog Indians' would be certain to keep away from that neighbourhood after what had occurred. He did not feel easy, however, concerning his friends at the ranch. He knew trouble was at hand, and he would have been glad if the mother and daughter were removed beyond danger. The sounds of rifle-firing and the bright glow in the horizon, made by a burning building, confirmed his misgivings as to what a few days or hours were sure to bring forth.
AN UNPLEASANT VISIT.
IT will be recalled that during these incidents Monteith Sterry and Fred Whitney were sitting at the front of the long, low building, which was the home of the latter, discussing the incidents of the last day or two, as well as the matter of Whitney removing, with his family, to the East, in order to prevent any addition to the affliction they had just suffered.
Besides this, Whitney had turned on his young friend, and impressed upon him that he, too, was incurring unjustifiable risk by remaining in Wyoming during the inflamed state of public feeling. There was much less excuse in the case of Sterry than of his host. He ought to be at home prosecuting the study of his profession, as his parents wished him to do. His health was fully restored, and it cannot be denied that he was wasting his precious days. He was fond of his father, mother, brothers and sisters, and it would grieve them beyond expression if he should uselessly sacrifice himself.
"Yes," he replied, "I cannot deny the truth of what you say, Fred. I ought to leave this part of the country."
"Of course; you're not needed; your future has been mapped for you, and it is hard to make up lost time."
"We found that out at the high school," returned Mont, with a light laugh; "but the pearl of great price, in a worldly sense, is good health, and I have been repaid in securing it."
"And having secured it, it remains—Mont," added his companion abruptly, but without the slightest change of tone, "don't stop to ask me why, but step quickly through the door and into the house, and keep out of sight for a few minutes."
"I understand," said Sterry, obeying without an instant's hesitation.
The prompt, unquestioning compliance with the request of Fred Whitney showed that Monteith Sterry understood the reason that it was made of him.
The truth was, that during the last few minutes the young men were talking in front of the house, each descried something suspicious on the broad plain. They instinctively lowered their voices, and though neither made reference to it, both gave more attention to it than to their own words.
They heard nothing of the tramp of horses, but saw the shadowy figures of several men hovering on what may be termed the line of invisibility. Sometimes they were distinguished quite clearly, and then seemed to vanish; but the youths could not be mistaken.
A number of persons were out there, not mounted, but on foot, and moving about, without approaching any closer, for the space of several minutes. It looked as if they were reconnoitering the house from a distance and debating the best manner of procedure.
The suspicions of the friends were the same. They were rustlers looking for the inspector.
Mont Sterry would have preferred to stay where he was and have it out with them, but the circumstances were so peculiar that he could not refuse to do as his comrade requested.
The cause of Whitney's wish was the abrupt increasing distinctness of the figures, proof that they had reached a decision and were approaching the house.
They speedily came into plain sight, four men, in the garb of cowmen, and they were rustlers beyond question.
Conscious that they were seen, they now advanced directly, as if coming from a distance, though the fact that they were on foot showed that such was not the case.
With feelings which it would be hard to describe, Fred Whitney recognized the first as Larch Cadmus, wearing the same whiskers as before. Had he been thoughtful enough to disguise his voice the young man would not have suspected his identity.
The moon had worked around into that quarter of the heavens that its light shone on the figure of Fred, who rose to his feet, as was his custom, and advanced a few paces to meet the newcomers.
"Good evening!" he said. "How happens it that you are afoot at this time of night?"
"Our horses ain't fur off," replied Cadmus; "the rest of the boys didn't think it worth while to trouble you."
"What do you mean by troubling me?" asked Fred, though he understood the meaning.
"We're on an unpleasant errand," continued Cadmus, acting as the spokesman of the party, the others remaining in the background and maintaining silence.
"Shall I bring chairs for you? It is so unusually mild to-night that I am sitting out doors from choice, and I do not wish to disturb my mother and sister, who retired some time ago."
"No, we'll stand," was the curt response. "Whitney, as I suppose it is, are you accustomed to sit out here alone?"
"Not when I can have company."
"Were you alone before we came up?"
"When you were here earlier in the evening, as you saw for yourself, I had my sister and a friend."
"Exactly; who was that friend?"
"Mont Sterry, the gentleman who is on a little tour through some parts of Wyoming and Montana to try to help make you fellows behave yourselves."
"Yes; wal, we're looking for him."
"Why do you come here?"
"Because he spends a good deal of his time here; he seems to be interested in Miss Whitney."
"Well, if he is, that is no business of yours," retorted Fred, angered by the reference to his sister.
"Perhaps not, but it would be well for you to keep a civil tongue in your head, Fred Whitney; we're not in a pleasant mood to-night, for we've had trouble."
"It matters not to me what trouble you've had; you have no right to name any member of my family. They are in affliction; my father was shot down by your gang yesterday, and, though we made several of you fellows bite the dust, the whole of them weren't worth his little finger."
"We'll let them matters drop; I told you we're looking for Mont Sterry, and we're going to have him."
"And I ask you again, why do you come here after him? I don't deny that he was with me, but he left fully two hours ago."
"We know that; he gave us the slip, but we believe he came back."
"And I ask what reason you have for such belief; why did he bid us good-by and ride away? I know that he had not the slightest intention of returning for several days," said Fred, sticking to the technical truth.
"We don't care what his intention was, he did come back."
"How do you know that?"
"He was sitting in that chair alongside of you less than ten minutes ago; you were smoking and talking, though you didn't speak loud enough for us to catch your words."
"Where is the proof, Larch Cadmus, of what you say?"
Without noticing this penetration of his disguise, the rustler turned and spoke to the nearest of his companions:
"Spark Holly, how was it?"
"I seen 'em both and heard 'em talking," was the prompt response of the individual appealed to.
"Are your eyes better than the others'?" asked Fred.
"They don't have to be," replied Cadmus, speaking for him. "While we stayed in front of the house, Spark stole round to the rear, where none of your family seen him. He got to the corner and had a good look at both of you."
"Does he know Sterry?" inquired Fred, purposely raising his voice, that his friend, standing a few feet away within the house, should not miss a word.
"He don't know him, but I do, and the description Spark gives fits the man we're after to a T. We want him."
"But the notice you gave Sterry allowed him twenty-four hours' grace. Why do you ask for him now?"
"Them was my sentiments, but when I joined the party under Inman, a little while ago, he told me the boys had reconsidered that matter, and decided that after what Sterry has done, and tried to do, I hadn't any right to make the promise."
"That may be their decision, but it cannot affect yours; you are bound by the pledge you made in writing to him."
Larch Cadmus, like his companions, was growing impatient. He said:
"I haven't come here to argue the matter with you; I've come after my man, and am going to have him."
"And I repeat what I said: he left more than two hours ago, and you have no business to come here."
"Do you mean to tell me he isn't in the house?" demanded Cadmus, with rising temper.
"I refuse to answer, but I do say that neither you nor any of your gang shall enter my home, where are my mother and sister, their hearts stricken by your murderous doings of yesterday, except over my dead body."
"We don't like to disturb the ladies," said Cadmus, "but we mean business; we have promised the boys to bring back that fellow; but I'll make a proposition."
"What is it?"
"If you will say that Mont Sterry is not in there, we'll go away without disturbing any one; we'll take your word."
"I recognize no right of yours to question me," was the scornful reply of Fred Whitney.
"Boys," said Cadmus, turning again to his companions, "that's only another way of owning up that the coward is hiding here, afraid to meet us; he's our game."
A DELICATE SITUATION.
Few men possessed more courage than Fred Whitney, and he was thoroughly aroused.
Sitting in front of his own home during the evening, it naturally happened that he was without any weapon at immediate command. His Winchester and revolvers, his inseparable companions, during those stirring times, whenever away from home, were inside. It need not be said that every one of the rustlers had his "guns" in his possession, so he was a single, defenceless man against four armed ones.
Nevertheless, he strode forward in front of the open door, determined to make good his threat.
"You talk of cowards," he said; "you are four, and each has his pistols and rifle; I have none and one arm is wounded, but I defy you!"
"Come, come," said the leader, "this will do you no good; we're bound to have that man, and if he won't come out we must go after him. If you stand in the way we'll pitch you aside. We don't want to hurt you."
"Advance at your peril—"
"Fred, move a little to the left—that will do. I've got a bead on him now."
It was the voice of Mont Sterry, a few feet away, in the darkness of the room. The muzzle of his rifle, however, projected just enough to reflect the moonlight, and it was leveled at the breast of Larch Cadmus.
"One step," added Sterry, "and you're a dead man."
"Larch Cadmus," said Fred, thrilled by the occurrence, "for we recognize you despite those whiskers, I never knew Mont Sterry to break his word!"
Language cannot do justice to the situation. At the very moment the miscreant was about to advance to hurl Whitney from his path he was confronted by the muzzle of a loaded rifle, held by a man who was in deadly earnest, and who realized he was at bay.
The startled ruffian recoiled a step and stared into the darkened room, as if he failed to grasp the situation.
"Not a step in any direction," said Sterry, warningly; "if you attempt to retreat, advance, or move aside, I'll fire."
It would be a rash thing for any one to deny that the young inspector had secured the "drop" on Larch Cadmus.
But the man was accustomed to violence, and it took him but a minute to rally.
"Pretty well done, I'll own," he said, with a forced laugh; "but what good is it going to do you? There are three more of us here and a half-dozen hardly a hundred yards away."
"And what good will they do you?"
"Spark," said Cadmus, "slip back to the boys and give 'em the tip; we'll see about this thing."
"The moment Spark or either of the other two stirs I'll let the moonlight through you! I'm going to keep my gun pointed right at you, Mr. Cadmus. If those fellows think I'm worth more than you, they have a chance to prove it, for only one of them has to take the first step to leave, when I'll press this trigger just a little harder than now. More than that, if one of them shouts, whistles, or makes any kind of a signal, I'll do as I threaten. If any man doesn't think so, let him make the trial."
"Well, I'll be hanged!" muttered Larch Cadmus; "this is a go!"
Judging from the new turn of affairs, it looked as if a single individual had the "drop" on four others.
It struck Larch Cadmus that this was a good occasion for something in the nature of a compromise.
"See here, Sterry," he said, assuming an affected jocularity which deceived no one, "I'll own you've played it on me mighty fine. But you can't stand there all night with your Winchester p'inted at me, and bime-by I'll git tired; can't we fix the matter up some way?"
"Fred," said Sterry, with the same coolness shown from the first, "slip through the door; you know where your gun is; stoop a little, so I won't have to shift my aim; when that is done we'll talk about compromise."
Fred Whitney, as quick as his companion to "catch on," did instantly what was requested. He dodged into the darkened apartment, with which, of course, he was so familiar that he needed the help of no light to find his weapon.
Had Larch Cadmus been as subtle as his master, perhaps he might have prevented this by ordering one of his men to cover Whitney with his gun, though it is more than probable that Sterry still would have forced the leading rustler to his own terms.
But there was one among the four with the cunning of a fox; he was Spark Holly, who had located the inspector when in front of the house.
At the moment Cadmus was brought up all standing, as may be said, Holly stood so far to one side that he was not in the young man's field of vision. He, like his two companions, could have slipped off at any moment without danger to himself, but it would have been at the cost of their leader's life; nor could they shift their position and raise a weapon to fire into the room, where there was a prospect of hitting the daring youth at bay, without precipitating that catastrophe.
The instant, however, Fred Whitney turned his back on the rustlers, Holly saw his opportunity. He vanished.
The others, more sluggish than he, held their places, dazed, wondering, stupefied, and of no more account than so many logs of wood.
Shrewd enough to do this clever thing, Spark Holly was too cautious to spoil it by allowing his movement to be observed. Had he darted over the plain in front of the house, Mont Sterry would have seen the fleeing figure, understood what it meant, and, carrying out his threat, shot down Larch Cadmus.
Holly lost no time in dodging behind the structure, moving with the stealth of an Indian in the stillness of the night. Then he made a circuit so wide that, as he gradually described a half-circle and came round to the point whence he had first advanced to the dwelling, he was so far off that the keenest vision from the interior could not catch a glimpse of him.
Certain of this, he ran only a short distance, when he came up with the half-dozen mounted rustlers of whom Cadmus had spoken, and who were wondering at the unaccountable delay.
The messenger quickly made everything plain, and they straightway proceeded to take a hand in the business.
Larch Cadmus was well fitted to act the leader of so desperate a company of men. He was chagrined beyond measure at the manner in which the tables had been turned on him, but, like all such persons, when caught fairly, he knew how to accept the situation philosophically.
None understood better than he that the individual who held that Winchester levelled would press the trigger on the first provocation. He was the one that had sent the warning, and the other was the one that had received it. The twenty-four hours' truce had been ended by the words and action of Cadmus himself, and his chief wonder, now that Fred Whitney was with him, was that Monteith Sterry should show any mercy to his persecutor; had the situations been reversed, the course also would have been different.
But the ruffian was on the alert. He noticed the guarded movement of Spark Holly at the moment Whitney entered his home, and he needed no one to tell him what it meant.
He had slipped off to bring help and it would not take him long to do it, though Cadmus might well feel uneasy over what would take place when Sterry should learn the trick played on him.
It may be that a person's senses are keener in situations of grave peril than at other times, for, calculating as clearly as he could the period it would take his comrade to reach the horsemen, only a short way back on the prairie, Cadmus heard sounds which indicated their approach, though they must remain invisible for several minutes.
"Wal," said he, in his off-hand manner, directly after Whitney had whisked into the house, "now that you're together, how long do you mean to keep this thing up?"
"We're through," was the response.
"What do you mean?" asked the surprised fellow.
"You can go away as soon as you please. Mont Sterry doesn't care anything more about you, but I'll keep you covered as long as you are in sight, and if you or any of your men try any deception you'll take the consequences."
With a moment's hesitation, doubtless caused by distrust of his master, Cadmus began edging to one side. A few steps were enough to take him out of range of that dreaded weapon, and then his demeanour changed.
"That was a good trick of yours, Mont Sterry, but it won't do you a bit of good."
"Here come the rest of the boys, and if you think you can hold them up, why try it."
At that moment the horsemen assumed form in the gloom and approached the house in a diagonal direction. Encouraged by their presence, Larch Cadmus once more moved toward the open door and resumed the position of leader.
"Now, my fine fellow, we summon you to surrender," he called in his brusquest voice and manner.
The reply was striking. A young man stepped from the door and advanced to meet the horsemen. There was an instant when Cadmus believed his victim had come forth to give himself up as commanded, but one glance showed that it was Fred Whitney. He calmly awaited the coming of the mounted men, saluted them, and said:
"You have come for Mont Sterry, and Cadmus there assures me that if I give him my word that he is not in my house he will accept the statement; do you agree to it?"
"How's that, Larch?" asked Ira Inman, turning toward him.
"Them was my words, but—"
"Well, then, I have to say that Mont Sterry is not in my house; the only persons there are my mother and sister."
"But I seen him, and he got the drop on me—how's that?"
"Yes," replied Whitney, enjoying his triumph, "he was there a few minutes ago, and he did get the drop on you and the rest of your fellows; but I took his place; he went out of the back door, mounted his mare, and if there's any of you that think you can overhaul him, you can't start a moment too soon."
No man who heard these words doubted their truth. They told such a straightforward tale that they could not be questioned. They would have been zanies had they believed that, with the back door at command and the certain approach of his enemies, Sterry had waited for them to attack him.
True, he and his friend would have held a strong position, in which they could have made it warm for the others, but the ultimate advantage must have been on the side of the assailants.
The laugh was on Cadmus, and those were the men who, in their chagrin, vented their feelings upon him. The worst of it was, he was as angry as they; but he might well ask how he could have helped himself, and whether any one of them would have done any better.
The foxy Holly, at a whispered word from Inman, darted around the end of the building and entered the stables. A brief examination showed that no animals, all being known to him, except those belonging to Whitney, were there.
Had any doubt remained, it was removed by his sense of hearing. Without the intervention of the dwelling to obstruct the sound, he caught the faint, rhythmic beating of the earth, barely audible and gradually growing fainter in the distance. It was just such a sound as is made by a horse going at a leisurely, sweeping gallop, and that was the explanation he gave it.
Mont Sterry was safe beyond pursuit, for there was no horse in the company that could overtake him. Spark Holly returned to the party in front and made his report.
It may be said the report was accepted and placed on file for future reference.
It was characteristic of those men, too, that they did not delay their own actions, now that their business may be said to have been finished.
"Well," said Inman, "that isn't the first time that fellow gave us the slip to-night. The way he did it before was mighty clever, but I don't see that he deserves any credit for fooling Cadmus, for any one would have known enough to do that. But remember that Mr. Mont Sterry is still in Wyoming, and we are not through with him yet."
"And there ain't any twenty-four hours' truce," added Cadmus.
"After what has taken place, there's little fear of Sterry making any mistake on that point," said Whitney, who was so pleased over the outcome of matters that he could speak in gentler terms than he would have used had the circumstances been different.
It would seem strange that these men, who but a brief time before were so hostile to the single person now in their power, should converse without the least offensive action; but most, if not all, of the doings of the men concerned in the late troubles in that section were in hot blood, and would not have occurred had time been taken for thought and consideration.
Inman and his brother rustlers wheeled about and rode off in the direction whence they came. Their movements indicated that they had no intention of following Sterry, since the course taken by him was almost directly the opposite; but Whitney was not fully satisfied. He remained in front of his home, listening in the stillness of the night to the sounds made by the hoofs of the galloping horses.
Gradually they grew fainter, until, had there been any air stirring, or had the tension of hearing been less, he would have heard nothing; but, when the noises were hovering close to inaudibility, they continued thus. They neither increased nor diminished, but remaining the same, steadily shifted the direction whence they came.
Instead of keeping to the westward, as they had been for a long time, they worked around to the north and east. Then the decrease in distinctness of sound was so rapid that it was quickly lost.
The truth was evident: the rustlers had started in pursuit of Sterry, though why they should have taken so much pains to conceal the fact from Fred Whitney was more than he could understand.
"They may overtake him," thought the young man as he turned to enter the house, "but it will not be right away."
A light foot-fall sounded in the darkness of the room.
"Is that you, Jennie?" he asked in a guarded undertone.
"Yes, brother; have they gone?"
"Some time ago. Is mother asleep?"
"She was asleep before they came, utterly worn out. I am glad she knows nothing of the cause of their visit. And what of Monteith?"
"He is many miles away, and still riding hard."
"Will they pursue him?"
"Let them do so if they wish, they will have a fine time overtaking him," was the light reply of the brother, who, leaning over in the gloom, affectionately kissed his sister good-night.
THE BURNED RANCH.
Meanwhile Monteith Sterry was making the best of his opportunity.
It was no great exploit for him to slip out of the back door, when he found his enemies gathering in front; but, had he not been convinced that the movement was in the interests of his friends, as well as himself, he would not have made it.
His flight was at a moderate pace for several hundred yards, by which time he considered himself safe from pursuit and gave his mare free rein. Her speed was rapid, but she was capable of maintaining it for hours without fatigue.
Sterry's intention was to make his way to the ranch of his friend, Dick Hawkridge, which lay to the westward. He began veering in that direction, so that it may be said that while Inman and his band were riding toward him, he was approaching them. Two causes, however, prevented a meeting of the parties.
Sterry was much further out than the rustlers, and in the darkness they could see nothing, if indeed they could hear anything of each other. Then he had not ridden far when he was checked by an unexpected sight.
A bright red glow appeared to the northward in the sky. It was too vivid, distinct and near for him to mistake its nature. It was a burning building, the flames showing so strongly that, aware as he was of the deceptive nature of such a light, he knew it was no more than a mile away. He turned the head of his mare in that direction.
"Things seem to be stirring to-night," was his thought as he galloped forward, with his gaze fixed on the burning structure. "That may be an accident, but such accidents are not common in this part of the world."
His supposition was that it was the work of the rustlers, but he was mistaken.
The building was similar to that occupied by the Whitneys, though somewhat smaller, and burned so fast that when he reached the spot it was a mass of blazing embers, with hardly a semblance of the original structure remaining.
The sight was interesting of itself, but the attention of Sterry was riveted by the figure of a man lying motionless on the ground, only a few paces in front of where the door had been. His nerveless right hand still grasped the Winchester with which he had evidently made a sturdy fight when stricken down.
Sterry did not dismount, but, sitting in the saddle, looked on the sorrowful sight as revealed by the glow of the burning building. He was saddened that such things should be.
Little time, however, was given him for gloomy reverie, when Queenie sniffed the air and turned her head a little to one side. Looking in that direction, the rider saw the figure of a horseman assume shape in the glow as his animal advanced at a slow step. He must have detected Sterry before the latter saw him, and was studying him with close attention, his rifle supported across his saddle in front, ready for instant use.
Reading his suspicion, the young man called out:
"Come on, partner! You and I cannot be enemies at such a time as this."
The salutation reassured the other, who increased his pace.
Before he reached Sterry the latter half-regretted his action, for he recognized the man as Duke Vesey, one of the most notorious of rustlers and a bitter personal enemy. But a certain chivalry rules among such people, and after the greeting of Sterry to Vesey there was little danger of the latter taking unfair advantage of it.
"This is bad business," remarked the younger, pointing to the figure on the ground.
A hard look crossed the face of the rustler and his thin lips compressed as he shook his head.
"Yes, that's what's left of Jack Perkins; he was my pard."
"How did it happen?"
"How did it happen! A pretty question for you to ask. He was killed by the stockmen less than an hour ago."
"But they didn't ride hither and shoot him down, I am sure."
"I don't know what you can be sure of," said Vesey, ominously. "Jack and I were riding along peaceable like, when we heard horsemen behind us. We didn't pay any attention to them till we got home and Jack slipped off his horse. I concluded to stay in the saddle until the fellows came up and I had a talk with them. They were Capt. Asbury and his stockmen, and the first thing they called out was an order for us to throw up our hands.
"Well," continued Vesey, grimly, "we aren't in that kind of business, and the next thing the guns were popping all around us. Jack had nerve. I wish the poor fellow had stayed in the saddle; but his horse scooted off, and he stood right there where he fell, without a leaf to shelter him, and pumped the lead into those stockmen, who were mean enough to shoot the brave fellow in his tracks without giving him a chance for life."
"You told me they ordered him to surrender before the firing began."
"So they did, that they might shoot him down the easier. I had a hot chase with them, and it was a pretty close call for me; but they didn't keep up the hunt for long. You would think," added Vesey, bitterly, "that they would have been satisfied with dropping poor Jack, without burning down our home; but that is the style of the stockmen."
Here was a representative of each of the factions, or associations, so hostile to each other. The rustler knew Monteith Sterry, and must have felt a consuming resentment toward him. His words and manner indicated, too, that he was not averse to a quarrel. He had fought the stockmen more than once, and, with the memory of the recent collision and the advantages on the other side, he welcomed the chance of a conflict on anything like equal terms.
Monteith did not stand in any personal fear of the famous rustler, and was fully armed and on the alert. Without seeming to do so, he kept a watch on the man, but he disliked the thought of a personal encounter with him. The scene, the surroundings, and his own nature, revolted, and he resolved to submit to all that it was possible to bear before falling back on the last resort.
"No doubt," said Sterry, "there has been injustice on both sides, and stockmen as well as rustlers have done things for which there is no justification; I hope the trouble will soon end."
"It will end as soon as we get justice."
"Yes," Sterry could not help retorting, "for if justice were done to you rustlers none would be left. However," he hastened to add, "there is no reason why you and I should quarrel, Vesey; I had no share in the death of your friend; and if the case is as you represent it, he was more sinned against than sinning."
"Of course you had no share in that simply because you wasn't here, but you have been concerned in other affairs like this where some of the rustlers have gone down."
"It is quite possible I have," coolly replied Sterry, "inasmuch as when a man is attacked it is his duty to defend himself. I have not yet been convinced that I ought to stand up and allow others to do as they please when weapons were in my hands."
"You have no business in Wyoming anyway," said Vesey, angrily; "you have been sent here by the Association to do its underhand work."
"Duke Vesey," said Sterry, "you are a man of too much education to talk in that way. If you and I quarrel, it will be your fault, but don't fancy that I hold you in any fear. Good-night."
It was a dignified proceeding on the part of Monteith Sterry, and the rustler possessed enough gentlemanly instinct to appreciate the feelings of the young man, who had attested his courage too often for any one to question it. But at the moment of wheeling his mare to ride off both caught the sound of approaching horsemen, and Sterry checked his animal.
"Who are they?" he asked, glancing at the rustler.
"How should I know? They may be some of your folks."
"They are as likely to be yours. I don't think, Duke, it is wise for us to stay here where we offer such inviting targets, for whoever the party may be, one of us is sure to be an enemy."
Monteith Sterry moved away from the area of illumination as he spoke, Vesey keeping close to his side.
"Is it understood, Duke," asked the younger, "there's a truce between you and me?"
"Of course; if you know anything about Duke Vesey, you know he's square. If they happen to be some of our boys, I won't take any advantage of you, nor let them, if I can help it."
"And if they are Capt. Asbury and others, I will reciprocate."
Enough was said. Enemies though the men were, no bosom friends could have been more in unison for the time. Ready to shoot each other on sight less than an hour before, and as they were liable to be within the following hour, they were equally ready to risk their lives, if necessary, to carry out the pledge just exchanged.