The attack upon them had been so sudden that they had taken no heed of where they were going. It was every man for himself, with the broncho boys' bullets for the hindmost.
About noon Ted and the boys from the sign camps rode up to the ranch house, driving before them a band of about twenty ponies which they had found grazing on the prairie or seeking the shelter of the coulees.
Not a sign of the marauding Indians had they seen.
"Boys, as soon as we can get something to eat we're going after those Indians," said Ted, dismounting and going into the house. "We've got mounts for nearly all of us, now. A guard will be left at the house, then we'll get on their trail. We can't afford to let this thing go. Those Indians must be taught a lesson, so that they will get over the idea that they can run in on us and take what they want just because we are boys."
"That's ther way ter talk," exclaimed Bud Morgan heartily. "Give 'em what's comin' to 'em, an' give it to 'em good an' plenty."
"I guess it won't be any snap to find them now," said Ben.
"They've scattered. But we can trail them. They'll leave a track like that of a moose, it will be so wide. They're in the hills somewhere, laying for another opportunity to raid the corral. They need ponies to ride, and beef to eat, and they have got the idea into their heads that we were sent out here to cater to their wants. It's our business to fool them."
"Oh, hurry up," cried Stella. "I'm so anxious to get started I'm all in a flutter."
"Who said you were going?" asked Ted, with a smile. "This is no pleasure trip. Trailing and fighting Indian outlaws is no matinee."
"I should say not," said Stella coolly. "But it's work for the broncho boys, and I'm one of them. Bud has promised to teach me the art of following an Indian trail, and there never will be a better time than this."
Ted could only shrug his shoulders, as he turned away to see if McCall was hurrying dinner. He knew that he would waste time arguing with the spirited young woman, who was as good a cowgirl as he was a cowboy, and for one of her sex quite as courageous.
So eager were the boys to be off that they fairly bolted their food, and rushed to the corral to saddle their cayuses.
Then they saw to their arms, and each took his rifle in the boot of his saddle.
Sultan had had such a hard day's work since daylight, rounding up the scattered ponies, that Ted left him in the corral, and decided to ride a fresh horse. The only serviceable animal he could find was the worst riding beast on the place, a vicious, half-broken Texas pony, which had to be roped and held before the rider could mount.
This, however, made little difference to Ted, who could ride anything that would fit a saddle.
While he held the saddle ready to throw it on Bingo's back Bud roped and held the rearing, raging, bucking beast, who was busy kicking holes in the air with his wicked heels.
After maneuvering around the corral several times, Ted managed to dodge the flying hoofs long enough to slip the saddle and tie the latigo.
Then it was up to him to mount.
Whenever he approached Bingo from the rear, dancing around to escape the pony's battery, and got to the side where he could grasp the horn of his saddle, Bingo would wheel in a circle away from him as if he was fastened to a pivot.
The performance was getting monotonous, for the boys were standing around in a ring waiting to start.
Ted was getting impatient also at the fool antics of the pony.
"Stop your fooling," he said to Bingo. "When I do land on your back I'll make you sorry you didn't stand still, my bucko."
He stepped back several feet and stood looking at the pony, who, with ears flattened and the whites of his eyes showing, stood still also, waiting for further developments.
He didn't know exactly what was coming, but wanted to be ready for it, whatever it was to be.
Suddenly Ted gave a short, swift run, leaped in the air, and before Bingo could gather himself for a plunge, Ted was astraddle of the saddle.
Bingo remembered his part then, but he was too late, for simultaneously he felt the sting of the quirt across his shoulder, and the prick of the spur in his flank.
A horse can think of only one thing at a time, while a mule can pay attention to the mule-skinner's lash and think of forty-seven varieties of devilment at the same time.
In trying to keep his mind on the sting of the quirt and the prick of the rowels at the same time, Bingo got rattled.
He leaped high into the air, intending to fall backward, and crush his rider. But Ted had been there before many times, and as he went up a stinging blow across Bingo's withers brought him down in a hurry.
Then he did some more plunging, but the spur in his side, and Ted's firm seat, soon convinced him that it was wasting time to fool with Ted, and he set off at a gallop across the prairie.
With a ringing cheer the boys followed, and soon caught up with him.
When they were together again, Ted paired the boys off to scout.
"I'll tell you how you will probably find it, fellows," said Ted. "The Indians ride in different directions. Whenever you hit a trail follow it, but go slow and keep your eyes peeled for an ambuscade. You will find that eventually all the trails will lead to the same place. If we are in luck, we will find them before they go on into the mountains, and we may have a skirmish. I hope, however, that we will be able to settle the matter without resorting to any shooting. Uncle Sam is mighty touchy about any one killing his Indians except his soldiers, no matter what an Indian does. We'll probably all come together where the Indians are. Kit, you ride with me. You other fellows choose your partners. Bud, take good care of Stella."
"You kin bet yer active an' useful life I will," said Bud, as he and Stella galloped off together.
Bud and Kit rode away to the north, while the other broncho boys spread out in pairs over the prairie.
Ted had been riding an hour without crossing a track.
"There's no use going in this direction any longer, Kit," he said. "They've probably gone farther to the west. I guess we'd better strike off that way, and take a chance of cutting them somewhere over there."
They had paused on the bank of a small frozen stream lined with willows, and Ted had dismounted to walk up and down the bank to find a place where he could break a hole in the ice to water the ponies.
"You'll have to rope Bingo and hold him when I go to get on," he said to Kit before he got down.
"All right," said Kit. "I'd get down and cut that hole in the ice myself, only my arm might give me trouble again. I've got to be mighty careful of it yet."
As Ted was looking for a safe place to lead the ponies down to the stream, with Bingo's bridle reins hanging over his arm, he was startled by a snort from the brute, and a sudden back pull.
He looked over his shoulder at the pony to see what was the matter with it.
Bingo was standing with his head high, his ears pointed forward, his nostrils as red as if they were lined with red silk, and the whites of his eyes like pieces of chalk, snorting as if in terror.
Ted read the symptoms instantly.
"He smells Indians," he muttered to himself.
He looked around for Kit, and saw him far down the stream, struggling vainly with the pony he was riding, which was running away in a panic of fear.
Kit was an expert and dauntless horseman, and not one of the broncho boys except Ted could excel him in horsemanship, but with his wounded arm he could not bring the brute under control.
"That settles it with me," muttered Ted. "I'm going to have a time getting on the back of this beast, for he will be worse than ever now that he has scented Indians."
He heard a noise behind him, and wheeled.
Coming out of the willows a few hundred yards away were a score of Indians, painted for war and all armed with rifles.
With a hasty movement the leader of the broncho boys loosened his revolvers and glanced to see if his rifle was ready for instant use.
The Indians had stopped, as much surprised as Ted, and stood staring at him in a stupid sort of way.
Ted saw that if he was to escape being murdered now was his chance, and turned to his pony.
As he did so the Indians let out a whoop that frightened Bingo almost into a fit, and, wheeling suddenly, he dashed away, almost dragging the reins from Ted's grasp.
But as he did so Ted was by his side, running with one hand clutching the long mane.
It was rough running over the rocks and hummocks with which the bank of the stream was strewn, but Ted seemed to fly through space, so lightly did his feet touch the ground.
Rifle balls were now singing through the air above Ted, and on every side, which only served to increase the speed with which Bingo was running away from his enemies, the Indians.
Bingo had been trained in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas to regard the Indian as his natural enemy, and whenever he smelled one it was his most earnest desire to get as far away as possible in the shortest space of time.
This was fortunate for Ted also.
While it was not an easy matter for Ted to mount while the pony was wheeling away from him, Ted was well educated in the cavalry drill as used at West Point, and mounting a running horse was one of the easiest of the many equestrian tricks with which he was familiar.
When he thought he was far enough away from the Indians not to afford them too good an aim for his body, he placed his hand on the cantle of the saddle, gave a smart upward spring, and the impetus of his running and the pony's speed took him through the air like a bird, and he settled in the saddle as easily, almost, as if he would have sat down in a chair.
As he reached the saddle he, for the first time, threw a glance over his shoulder.
The Indians were in full pursuit, yelling like madmen.
They were led by a young fellow dressed in a yellow buckskin shirt elaborately beaded, and trimmed with fringe, while on his head was a bonnet of eagle feathers, which trailed far behind him as he dashed on far in advance of his followers.
"Here's a chance to stop that chap," said Ted, swinging around in his saddle and throwing his forty-five over his shoulder.
The six-shooter cracked, and as the smoke floated away Ted saw that his bullet had gone where he intended it to go.
The pony on which the young Indian was riding stumbled and staggered forward a few feet, then dropped.
That brought the party to a halt, and Ted, turning his face forward, galloped on.
Kit had succeeded in mastering his pony and had brought it to a halt, and, as the report of Ted's revolver reached his ears, he turned and rode rapidly in that direction.
As the two boys came together and found that they were unharmed and that the war party of Indians had been halted, they dove into a coulee, followed it a short distance, and climbed again to higher ground.
The Indians were no longer in sight, and they set off at a gallop toward the west.
For half an hour they rode, when Ted suddenly pulled his pony to a stop.
On a rise far away he saw a black, slowly moving mass, which, at first, he had taken to be a band of buffalo, but when it strung out he discovered that it was a party of men on horseback.
As the sun was behind the riders, Ted could not distinguish whether or not they were Indians or whites, as he could have done if the sun had been shining upon them.
"If it's Indians I don't want any more of it," he said.
"I don't think they are Indians," said Kit. "Those fellows sit straighter than Indians. I believe they are either our own boys, or cavalry from the post."
"I believe you are right," said Ted. "Let's fire a few shots to attract their attention, and then ride to them."
The shots were fired, and presently they heard several faint reports, and knew that they had been heard and answered.
In a few minutes they had ridden to where the party was standing on the ridge of a rolling hill.
They were the broncho boys under the leadership of Ben Tremont. They had all come together on a broad trail that pointed toward the foothills in the north, and, as they rode, had picked up one pair of scouts after another.
"Where are Bud and Stella?" asked Ted, running his eye over the party.
"Haven't seen anything of them," said Ben, "although we have been keeping a lookout for them. They rode farther to the west, and probably will pick us up later. I think this trail leads into the hills, and that we will find the Indians in camp not far away."
This was Ted's belief also, and, taking the leadership, he ordered an advance.
"Halt!" Ted Strong had stopped his pony, and with his hand shading his eyes, was looking steadily to the front.
"What is it?" asked Ben, riding to his side.
"Smoke over the top of that hill right in front of us."
Ted did not take his eyes from the spot.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "The bunch of Indians who chased me have taken a short cut and beaten us in. I saw a band of Indians cross in front of us, and one pony carried double."
"Then we have caught up with them."
"I think so. Hold the boys here, I'm going forward to scout. When I signal, come forward as fast as you can ride."
A BATTLE OF QUIRTS.
Ted turned Bingo over to one of the boys to care for, and crept forward stealthily toward the hill behind which he had seen a thin thread of blue smoke rising in the still air.
No one but an Indian or a trained scout would build so small a fire. A tenderfoot would have made one that roared and sent a vast cloud of smoke toward the sky to attract any enemy that might be in the vicinity.
But an Indian builds his fire in a space not much larger than the hollow of his two hands, and manages to send up smoke that only a trained eye could detect, and at the same time have heat enough with which to warm himself and cook his food, with as little fuel as possible.
As he went forward, Ted was surprised that he came upon no sign of a camp guard.
The Indians evidently thought that the boys would not have the courage to follow them into their own country, and had grown careless.
So much the better. It would give him a chance to learn how they were situated before making an attack.
He crept on his hands and knees to the ridge of the hill, and, removing his hat, peered over the edge.
Below in a small valley he saw about fifty Indians, who, from their dress and their manner of painting their faces, he knew to be of various tribes.
He easily recognized in the band several Blackfeet, six or seven Crows, some Sioux, who had come far north, and to his astonishment a few Southern Indians, such as Caddos, Cheyennes, and Comanches.
This alone was enough to convince him that the Indians were outlaws and renegades, and that they were plunderers and thieves, as well; probably murderers hiding out from the United States troops.
In the circle about the fire he soon discovered the young fellow whose pony he had shot beside the frozen stream.
The young Indian, for he did not appear much older than Ted himself, was holding forth to a number of other Indians.
Probably he was boasting of his pursuit of the white boy, and the unfortunate mishap that brought down his pony and prevented him from bringing a white captive into camp.
Not far away from this group Ted observed a man dressed in Indian garb, who yet did not act like the other Indians. An Indian has a peculiar, slouching walk, while this man strode about with the smarter, quicker, springier tread of a white man.
Presently the supposed Indian drew from his belt a pouch of tobacco and some cigarette papers, and proceeded to roll a cigarette.
Northern Indians do not roll cigarettes; they smoke pipes. It is only the Indians of the Southwest who take their solace from tobacco through the little homemade paper tubes.
"That's a fellow who has been a cow-puncher," said Ted. "He's a white man disguised as an Indian. Probably one of the Whipple gang. I've got my opinion of a white man who will play Indian, and live with the dirty scoundrels," said Ted to himself, with disgust.
He had seen all that was necessary, and had laid his plan of attack in his mind.
Creeping down the hill, he threw his hand in the air as a signal for the boys to come to him, also signaling for silence.
In a few minutes they were by his side, and, while one of the fellows held Bingo safely, Ted sprang into the saddle.
"Now, fellows, we're going to ride around the end of this hill and plump into the Indian camp. The snow will deaden the hoofbeats of the ponies, but keep as still as possible. We'll surprise them, and probably be able to settle the whole thing without firing a shot. But don't bet on it, and keep your hands on your guns, but don't fire until they make the first crack, then rush them and drive them into the hills, and bring down all you can."
With this advice they rode forward by twos, Ted and Ben in the lead.
It did not take long to round the hill, and then, as suddenly as if they had opened a door and stepped into a room, they were in the midst of the Indians.
No such surprising and sudden attack was ever made. The Indians stood as if they were carved of wood as the boys rode up to them, staring open-mouthed.
Only one of them made a break—the young Indian whom Ted had dismounted.
For several moments not a word was said.
Ted saw instantly that the broncho boys had all the best of it, and that the Indians had been taken completely by surprise, for not one of them was armed. Their rifles and guns were either still on their saddles, and the ponies were standing some distance away, or they were stacked beside a ledge of rock twenty or more feet from the fire, where most of them were congregated.
The young fellow whom Ted had foiled stared for a moment with a look of contempt and dislike.
Suddenly he made a rush to where the guns were standing.
"Stop!" Ted's voice rang out sharply. But the youth continued to run.
"Stop, or I'll kill you!" shouted Ted again.
Then an old Indian cried out something, in the tongue of the Blackfeet, and the young fellow halted suddenly and came walking back with a sickly look on his face.
The old Indian who had stopped the youth now stepped a little ways forward, and, holding up his hands in a peace sign, began to talk.
"You are my brothers," he said, "and Flying Sun, the medicine man, welcomes you to our camp."
Ted held up his hands in a sign of peace also, but said nothing.
"He's a darned old hypocrite," said Ben, in an aside to Ted. "He has murder in those little red eyes of his, if ever a man had."
"I'm on to him," said Ted. "Keep your eyes on that bunch, and give it to them if they start anything treacherous."
"My white brothers come with peace for their red brothers. Join us at the fire. Warm yourselves; eat of our meat."
"We are willing to be brothers," said Ted. "But one brother does not steal the ponies from the corral of the other."
"That was the work of the young men, and they are now sorry for it," said the medicine man.
Ted looked at the young fellow whom he had unhorsed, and saw that his face was distended in a sarcastic smile.
"The young brave yonder is the one who led the raid on my corral. He does not look sorry," said Ted, pointing to the offender.
Flying Sun threw a glance in the direction of the young man, and said a few words sharply in the Blackfeet tongue.
"Crazy Cow is young and the son of a chief. His blood is hot within him, and he does not know what he does," said Flying Sun.
Crazy Cow's face at once assumed a look of sadness.
"I have not come for war," said Ted gravely, "but I want to warn you and your tribe that I will not stand for any raids on our ranch. You will find that we are good fighters, and that we can kill just as well as the soldiers. The ranch is ours, and the cattle and horses are ours, and do not belong to the young men of your tribe. They must leave us alone, or we will be compelled to deal out justice to them in our own way, which is a hard one."
"Very well, my brother," said the wily old chief. "We desire to live in peace with our white brothers. Your cattle and horses shall be sacred to our young men."
"I mean this," said Ted, looking at the old man severely. "Keep your young men away from our ranch, or they will be killed."
At this Crazy Cow drew himself up to his full height, and looked at Ted with scorn.
"Two can make killing," he said, in perfectly plain English.
"Perhaps they can," said Ted quickly. "But I want to say to you particularly, that if you are ever seen within the lines of the Long Tom Ranch again you will be sorry that you ever were born. I have said enough. Get on your horses and go. You are now on the ranch. Get beyond it."
The young Indian gave a short, harsh laugh, and strode toward a pony, decorated after the fashion of war ponies with feathers and bits of red flannel woven into his mane and tail.
The other Indians were not slow to follow his example, and soon they were all mounted.
"Now look out for treachery," said Ted in an aside to the boys.
"Keep your eyes peeled, fellows," said Ben, passing the word along back.
"Ride up in open order so that we can surround that bunch if they get gay," said Ted, in a low voice, and the boys rode out and scattered themselves in a long line.
The Indians were bunched pretty well together.
It was a critical moment.
The slightest suspicious move on the part of the boys might have alarmed the Indians and started a fight.
While the boys kept their hands on their weapons not one was drawn.
The Indians rode off to a distance of a few hundred feet, then halted. All had their rifles or guns in their hands, but not in a hostile way.
They were well aware that the white boys were much better armed than they, and were not in a temper to stand any foolishness.
It seemed as if the Indians had stopped to say good-by before riding away into the mountains.
But when they stopped, Crazy Cow rode out from them a short distance and stopped.
"I am Crazy Cow," he said in a boastful way.
This was in the manner of a personal challenge, as if he had said: "Who the deuce are you? Knock the chip off my shoulder if you dare."
Ted looked at him for a moment, for Crazy Cow was staring at him with an impertinent look in his face.
"I don't care who you are," said Ted, who was disgusted with the fellow's airs. "If you were the chief himself, I would tell you to keep away from my cows and ponies. What is the son of a chief? Nothing!"
The tone in which Ted said this was such that the young Indian flushed a deeper red, and grasped his rifle harder.
"I am an educated Indian," said Crazy Cow, "and as good as any white man. This is my country, and I shall go wherever I please."
"Go where you will, except on my ranch. Keep off that."
The Indian shrugged his shoulders.
"I go where I please. You, whoever you are, have no right to prevent me from going anywhere. Who are you to talk to me like that?"
"My name is Ted Strong. I am a deputy United States marshal. Do you know what that is?"
"Yes. I spit on them."
"Well, here's one you won't spit on. That's a cinch. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a man who got his education free from the United States, to talk that way."
"Bah! I hate the United States which robbed my people of their lands, and then made treaties only to break them. Since they have driven me into the mountains they owe me a living, and I'm going to collect it."
"Very well, only be careful how you do it. I have said enough."
"Ted Strong talks big and much, but does nothing. He is a coward who is afraid of the Indian."
"I am not afraid of you. I think I have shown it."
"Yes, but you ran when I surprised you by the stream."
"My pony ran, and to keep from losing him I clung to him."
"It was a good thing for you that he did run. If he hadn't, you would never have gone home again, and the buzzards and vultures, assisted by the prairie wolves, would have you by now."
"Big talk means nothing. You are not a fighter, you are a squaw. You are a fool and a boaster."
"No, I am a chief, and a warrior. I have seen the blood of the white man flow, and I drank it. I am brave."
"You're full of hot air. Run along now; I'm disgusted with you."
"Hah! White squaw afraid to fight. Go back to your camp, and cook the meals and wash the clothes in the tub."
Crazy Cow made motions, of scrubbing at a tub.
At this the other Indians burst into laughter.
"You are but an idle boaster, Crazy Cow. You make much noise like the wind in the trees. That is all it amounts to. You do not make me feel bad by what you say."
Crazy Cow, seeing that he could not get Ted angry with his banter, tried a new tack.
"Hah, little bay pony," he cried, addressing Bingo. "Are you a squaw pony?"
He paused in a listening attitude as if he was paying close attention to what the pony was saying.
"Yes, you are ashamed to be ridden by a squaw who does not fight, but only talks. Come over here, squaw pony, and be ridden by a man."
Again his speech was greeted by the laughter of the Indians, to whom it was interpreted by the disguised white man.
"So you think I will not fight, eh? You think I am a squaw, do you?" said Ted quietly.
The Indian only laughed.
"I will show you who is the squaw. I will thrash you with my quirt until you cry out with pain. You may keep your gun. I am not afraid of it."
"Now you begin to talk a little like a man. But you won't fight. Little pony, you are ridden by a squaw. Why don't you throw him off and come to me, who is a fighter?"
"Fellows, stand fast," said Ted to the boys. "I'm going to give that young buck such a licking as he never thought possible. If they don't play fair, shoot."
Ted threw his rifle to Ben, so that he would not be burdened by it, and rode toward the Indian, who also threw his weapon to one of his followers. In his right hand he carried a long, braided Indian whip of thongs. It was a cruel weapon, for the Indian is cruel to everything in his power, from his squaw to his dog.
This he grasped firmly in his right hand, and awaited Ted's coming with a satirical smile on his face.
Ted had been coming on quietly, but when he was a few feet from Crazy Cow he suddenly gave Bingo the spur, and the astonished horse reached the Indian's side in two jumps.
Without a moment's hesitation Ted reached forward and grasped the Indian by a collar of leather which he wore laced around his throat, somewhat after the fashion of the white linen chokers worn by young white men.
Furiously the young Indian lashed out with his quirt, which struck Ted across the shoulders, and made him wince with the burning sharpness of it.
But Ted was back at him like a flash, and his quirt sang through the air and slapped upon the buckskin shirt worn by the Indian.
Crazy Cow, whom the lash had not hurt in the least, only laughed.
Ted saw that he might go on thrashing the Indian all day upon his shirt, and that it would have no more effect than if he whipped a covering of iron.
The other Indians also saw the humor of the situation, and joined in the laughter.
Meantime, the Indian was plying his quirt with all his force, and every time the lash struck Ted across the shoulders or neck it left a blue welt.
Whipping fights are common among the Indian lads, and are merely tests of courage, and the power to endure pain without crying out. The Indian boy who cries out unexpectedly at some particularly stinging blow is called a squaw, and sent into Coventry by the others for varying lengths of time, during which none of them will speak to him.
Crazy Cow had often indulged in the whipping sport, and knew how to wield the quirt most effectively.
So the battle of the quirts went on, the blows falling as fast as their arms could fly, but Ted plainly was getting the worst of it on account of the protection which the buckskin shirt gave the Indian.
Ted saw that this soon must change or he would be ignominiously beaten. He had not shown that he suffered any pain from the blows he received, although the Indians watched his face closely for any sign that he was weakening.
At last Ted thought that he had discovered a vulnerable spot.
With a sudden wrench of his strong wrist upon the leather collar which he grasped, he whipped Crazy Cow flat across his saddle and held him there.
Then with all his strength he brought his quirt across the seat of Crazy Cow's blue flannel trousers, which were drawn tight, and upon the tender part of the back of his legs.
The Indian struggled furiously, but could not release himself, and all the while the cruel blows were raining upon him.
A huge burst of laughter rose from the broncho boys, but the Indians could not see the joke, and with angry exclamations started forward to rescue their young chief.
But at this sign of hostility Ben Tremont let out a roar, and every broncho boy threw his rifle to his shoulder, and the Indians shrank back in silence.
Ted thrashed the Indian until his yells of agony and his struggles ceased, then threw him aside.
"Go back to your people and tell them that you are no longer fit to be chief. That you have been whipped with a quirt by a white boy until you cried. It is you who are the squaw," said Ted, riding back to his party.
As Ted released the badly punished young Indian and rode back to where the boys were waiting for him, Crazy Cow painfully raised himself to a sitting position in his saddle. But the pain was too great, and he slowly and painfully slid to the ground. But the backs of his legs were so seamed with welts that he could not walk.
He was, indeed, an object for pity, but he had been defeated, and not only that, but had been whipped on the most shameful spot, in Indian fighting, and his friends would have none of him.
When he looked toward them for sympathy they only pointed the finger of scorn at him, and laughed.
Now Ted rode out in front of the boys, and, raising his voice, said to the Indians:
"Go back to your village. Do not come to my ranch again. Next time it will be something worse than quirts with which we fight, and dead men, instead of squaws with sore legs, will be the result. Go!"
The old medicine man turned his pony toward the mountains, and in a guttural voice gave the command.
Without a word, and without looking back, the Indians started on their way, Crazy Cow following dejectedly on foot, leading his pony.
He had been conquered and humiliated, but his heart burned with hatred for the young white chief who had been the cause of it.
When the Indians were out of sight, Ted returned to the boys.
"Well, that's over for the present," he said.
"Yes, but we'll have trouble with those fellows later, you may be sure," said Ben. "Look out for a ball or a knife in the back from Crazy Cow."
"I don't fear him as much as I do the cunning and treachery of that old villain, Flying Sun, who plans these raids and lets the young men execute them while he stays back in a safe place."
"What interests me more than anything else just now is Stella and Bud. I propose that we drop everything else and hunt for them. You know that since the appearance of the man without a face, and now this encounter with the Indians, to say nothing of sending Sol Flatbush's body home on his horse, the members of the Whipple gang will be pretty keen after every member of our party."
"True, Ben. We must be very careful of Stella from now on. I would not have taken this ranch had I known that it was menaced by such a gang of thieves as seems to be in the mountains."
"Where had we better scout?" asked Ben.
"Do you think Bud and Stella went farther west?"
"Yes. As we started away from the ranch house I heard Bud say to Stella, 'When the gang came out of the corral just before daylight I saw that most of them headed into the west. If we go that way we're sure to beat the others to the trail.' Then I saw them slip away quietly back of the house, and later they disappeared over a rise due west."
"Then that's where we must look for them. Forward, fellows. We're going to find Bud and Stella."
"Do you think it is necessary for all of us to go?" asked Kit.
"No, I don't. The ranch must have a guard of some sort. About half of you turn back to the lines, and two of you ride to the ranch house to see that all is well, and guard it."
Ben sorted out the fellows who were to go back to the ranch, keeping all the broncho boys to start on the hunt for the missing ones.
No one felt exactly uneasy for the safety of Stella and Bud, but it was proper, under the circumstances, to see that they were safe.
"As before, we will split up into couples to search for Bud and Stella," said Ted. "You better come with me this time, Ben."
To the west of the line of the Long Tom Ranch the land became more broken. At first the hills ceased to be rolling and broke off into canons, more or less deep, with sometimes sides that assumed the dignity of precipices.
The sides of the foothills were clothed in small tracts of scrubby pine timber, and altogether it was not a pleasant country to travel over in winter.
* * * * *
When Bud and Stella left the ranch house, Stella was bubbling over with joy at the prospect of being in the hunt for the Indians, and the prospect of Bud teaching her the mysteries of the trail, particularly the war trail.
"Don't say a word," said Bud, with a wink, "an' we'll fool 'em all. Them Injuns never went nowhere except inter ther east. I throwed out a blast o' hot atmosphere erbout them goin' west. That wuz ter fool ole nosey Ben, who had his neck stretched out like a spring chicken's ter hear what was bein' said, an' git ther advantage o' my sooperior knowledge.
"Well, when I see that I thort I'd give him somethin' ter chase, so I hands out the west p'int, when I mean ter go ter ther east. When we start out we'll ride ter ther west until we come ter ther first draw, then foller it ter ther south until we come ter a break leadin' east, then foller that, an' we'll be fust onter ther red man's tracks."
"All right," laughed Stella. "That will be a good joke on Ben. He didn't like it because he couldn't go with us."
Now it will be seen that Bud's little fiction in the hearing of Ben was not the proper thing, and, as it turned out, Bud was mighty sorry for his apparently innocent fib before the end of the day, or the dawning of the next.
They did as Bud planned, and when they were well out of sight and hearing of the other boys they turned to the east, and, when well out on the prairie, turned their ponies' heads to the north.
As they cantered across the prairie, on which the snow was like dry sand and only about an inch deep, they could see bands of their cattle here and there pawing the snow off the grass, or "rustling" for their fodder, as the cowmen call it.
"I shore believe thar's somethin' wrong on this yere range," Bud remarked, after they had gone a few miles.
"Why?" asked Stella.
"Somethin' wrong with ther cattle."
"In what way?"
"Thar ain't half enough o' them here."
"Do you mean that some of them are gone?"
"Yep. Thet's jest what I mean."
"Nonsense. Who could have stolen them? The Indians?"
"No. I reckon not. The Injuns is keen after ponies. In the fust place thar ain't nobody what kin wear out a pony as fast as an Injun. They work their ponies ter death, starve 'em, beat ther hides off'n 'em, neglect 'em, and when they're wore out turn 'em loose fer ther wolves. Second, they kin run off a bunch o' ponies in a hurry, but they balk some at rustlin' cattle because they move so slow. If we aire shy on beeves ther white men has got 'em."
"When we get back we ought to round the cattle up and count."
"That's ther only way ter do it. I've got a pretty good eye fer a herd, an' it's my idee thet we're losers here, an' that ther rustlers is gittin' rich off'n us."
About noon Bud pulled in his horse, and examined the snowy ground carefully.
He had struck a trail.
Winding across the prairie in a northeasterly direction was a broad trail, the tracks of many cattle and horses.
"Here we are," said Bud. "Thar's whar some o' our cattle and several ponies have passed."
He got down to the ground, and, stooping over the trail, regarded it carefully.
Suddenly he straightened up.
"This is not an Injun trail," he said.
"It isn't?" asked Stella.
"No. Here are the tracks of cattle, an' on top of them those of horses ridden by white men."
"How do you know they were not Indians?"
"Here's an impression o' a horseshoe, an' here's another o' a different size. These were made by animiles ridden by white men."
"I can understand why you should know that they were white men's horses because Indians do not shoe their ponies, but I'm blessed if I can see how you know that white men were riding them."
"Easy enough. These horses were ridden straight. An Indian, in spite of stories to the contrary, is not a good horseman. He rides all over the ground instead of straight ahead when he is going anywhere, seemin' as if he wanted to get his money's worth of the ride. If it had been Indians who were driving off these cattle, you would see pony tracks all over the prairie about here."
"Then we've struck the wrong trail."
"Well, we've missed the Indians, but we've struck another and a better lead. Ther boys under Ted will most likely git in ther trail o' ther pony snatchers, but we're on another lay—cattle thieves."
"This is something of a surprise, isn't it?"
"You bet. If we hadn't run ercross this yere trail we mightn't have got on ter ther fact thet our steers wuz bein' lifted ontil so many o' them wuz gone thet it would make a big hole in our herd."
"Have they much the start of us?"
"I reckon they have." Bud was down on his knees, looking closely at the tracks.
"Yes," he continued, "they went by here shortly after midnight."
"How do you know?"
"Against ther east side o' each o' these leetle depressions made by a hoof is some fresh snow."
"I don't see how that tells the time."
"I do. Along about midnight last night a wind come up an' blew from ther west fer half an hour. It drifted a little snow before it, which settled inter these depressions an' banked up against ther east side o' these tracks."
"That seems reasonable. Bud, where did you learn all these things about trailing?"
"Never learned them nowhar. It's jest thinkin' about what yer see what makes a scout an' trailer. These cattle is somewhar up in them hills yon. They probably drove until sunup, an' then stopped ter give ther critters a rest before shovin' them inter ther mountings."
"Then I suppose we better hurry. We may be able to find out where they are."
"Righto, we'll mosey. I reckon we've struck a good thing."
"How many beeves do you suppose there were in that steal?"
"Oh, I reckon fifty er sixty."
"Whew! That's worth going after."
Bud had mounted, and they galloped along the trail, which was broad and deep. It led them through coulees and over hills and down into valleys, and the sun was high and the trail apparently endless.
"Bud, let us stop and eat our lunch. I'm hungry," said Stella.
"All right. I'm a bit peckish myself," was the reply.
They were in a narrow valley which was strewn with great bowlders, and on the sides of the hills grew a great many scrub pines. Through the center of it ran the broad trail.
The lunch was tied to the cantle of Bud's saddle, while Stella carried a canteen of coffee, for she was a great favorite of McCall, the cook, and when she started out for the day he invariably put up the best lunch a cow camp could afford.
Bud, in the meantime, had found a spring on the hillside and had watered the horses, then made a fire of pine boughs over which they heated the coffee and warmed themselves. Then they began their luncheon.
Bud was so busily appeasing his hunger that he did not say much, and did not think it strange that Stella said nothing. They were seated on opposite sides of the fire, and Bud, thinking that perhaps Stella might need something, looked across at her.
What he saw caused him to stare.
Stella was looking over his head with an expression of horror on her face. Her wide, staring eyes were filled with an unspeakable horror.
Her hand was poised in mid-air, just as if she had been going to put something into her mouth, when the action was arrested by the sight of something that froze her with terror.
"Stella, what's ther matter?" Bud managed to blurt out.
Stella's lips moved, but no sound came from them. She was too frightened to speak.
Then Bud, observing the direction in which she was looking, turned his head.
In an instant he was on his feet. He had become very pale, and his hand shook as he reached slowly toward his holster.
Standing behind him was a creature such as he never had seen before.
It was a man of great stature, clad entirely in black, over which was thrown a long, black cloak.
But the horror of the creature was the face. Out of an expressionless mask of silver, without nose or mouth, gleamed a pair of fierce, black eyes, that twinkled maliciously. Midway of the face were two holes, nostrils through which he breathed.
It was the man at whom Carl had fired his six harmless bullets—the man with the silver face.
Bud stood staring at him like one frozen, but Stella, when she saw that Bud was as frightened as herself, was able to take her eyes away from those terrible orbs that shone through the silver face, and regained her composure, and now was able to look at him without terror and with curiosity.
There was something fascinating in that blank, rounded, shining, white face, lighted only by those remarkable eyes.
What was behind that mask? A face, or only a blank?
Bud had somewhat recovered from the ague of terror into which the sudden appearance of the man with the silver face had thrown him, for he was a brave fellow, and not easily shaken from his courage.
"What do you want?" he asked at last, but yet with a little tremor in his voice.
There was no answer, but the eyes continued to burn in a very suggestive way. It seemed as if the man behind the mask was trying to speak, but could not.
Presently, however, he made a motion with his hand that told them to follow him.
"I'll be derned if we do," said Bud stubbornly. "Who aire yer, anyway, an' what business hey yer buttin' in on us this away?"
A strange, inarticulate, bubbling sound came from behind the silver face, but Bud could not understand it.
Again came the signal to follow.
"Not on yer life," said Bud firmly. He drew his revolver, and a look of decision came into his face. When Bud took on this look he meant business.
"Oh, Bud, don't oppose the terrible creature," whispered Stella, to whom fear had come again from looking on that blank but fascinating face.
"No, by jing, I ain't goin' erlong with thet freak. If I could see his face an' knowed who he wuz I might talk business."
As he said this the eyes behind the silver mask fairly shot forth sparks of anger, and again that horrible bubbling noise was heard.
The creature raised his arm. There was a sudden rush, and Bud felt his arms grasped from behind.
But as this happened he had presence of mind enough to point his revolver at the man in the silver mask and pull the trigger.
The weapon crashed, and, as the smoke cleared away, Bud saw the thing of horror still standing unharmed where he had been, although the revolver had been pointed directly at his heart, while from behind the mask came again that sickening, bubbling laugh.
At another signal from the figure Bud was dragged a little way up the hillside, and his wrists were securely tied, his arms embracing a tree.
While this was being done Stella, too frightened to make an outcry, was led away, and, looking over his shoulder, Bud saw her mount Magpie and ride away surrounded by four men, led by the man with the silver face, who bestrode a splendid black charger.
Bud was left alone to survive, if he could, the perils of frost and hungry wolves.
LOST IN THE WILDERNESS.
Stella could not keep her eyes from the silver mask of the man who rode by her side. She was wondering continually at the mystery of him.
For an hour or more they rode up one valley, then across a hill or stretch of prairie, and through valleys again, the black mountains coming nearer all the time, until at last they entered a forest of pines, which they traversed until night began to fall.
At a gesture from "Silver Face," as Stella had named the man who rode by her side, the party came to a halt.
Stella now saw that it was the intention to camp, for, while some of the men cared for the horses, others cut down several small pine trees and built a shelter of pine boughs, into which she was ushered, and before which a blazing fire had been lighted.
It had grown very cold, and Stella was grateful for the heat that filled her shelter.
One of the men had brought food, and a pan and coffeepot from a pack on one of the horses, and now began to cook supper.
Stella fully realized the peril of her situation, but particularly that of Bud, who had been left alone, bound and helpless, in that wilderness.
If he had not given the impression to the boys that he was going west instead of east, things might have been easier for them, but now Bud might perish of cold or be the prey of wild animals before Ted could come to their rescue, which she was sure he would do soon.
After she had eaten the supper which the man with the silver face brought her with his own hands, she felt better and more cheered, and began to take a brighter view of the situation.
The floor of her lean-to shelter had been thickly strewn with pine boughs, which were soft and aromatic, and Stella reclined upon them, and gazed into the fire, listening to the strange sounds that filled the forest, for the camp was absolutely quiet.
After eating their supper the men had silently smoked their pipes and then curled up on their blankets, which had been spread on mattresses of pine boughs, and were asleep.
Only Silver Face was awake, and he sat wrapped in his cloak near the fire, his eyes taking on a fiercer gleam as the flickering lights struck them.
Stella wondered who he was. Evidently the mask concealed a horrible mystery. Could he talk, and would not? Was that eerie, bubbling laugh of his the only articulate sound he could make?
Stella wished she knew more about him, and that he would talk to her.
The night was growing on, but Stella did not feel like sleeping.
Occasionally Silver Face arose and replenished the fire with resinous pine logs, and for a while the flames leaped high, filling the woods with strange shadows and ghostly, wavering spots of light.
Then afar, it seemed, there sounded the night cries of wild animals, timber wolves, those dreaded monsters of the lupus tribe, and occasionally the scream of the cougar, like a woman in agony. Then, close behind her shelter, there sounded a horrible, snarling shriek. It was the night cry of a bobcat close at hand, attracted to the camp by the scent of the meat which had been cooked for supper.
It was so near and clear that for a moment Stella's heart seemed to stop beating altogether, and she felt as if she would suffocate, and buried her face in her hands, expecting every moment to feel the claws of the terrible animal sink into the flesh of her back.
But at the sound Silver Face leaped to his feet, and was coming swiftly around the fire.
Through the silver mask his eyes were gleaming wickedly.
Stella heard him, and looked up. He was standing before her at the corner of her shelter, his blank face turned toward the place from which the cat's cry had come.
Suddenly a strange thing happened. From the breast of the black garment worn by Silver Face leaped a flame, followed by the crash of a revolver. This was succeeded by another, and a third.
The sleeping men had been aroused, and were sitting up in their blankets, blinking stupidly.
Behind her shelter Stella heard a thrashing among the frozen underbrush, while Silver Face stood immovable, the blazing eyes in the mask staring in that direction.
Meanwhile, Stella was marveling at those shots which had seemed to spring from his very body, and without the apparent use of his hands.
But soon the noise in the brush ceased, and Silver Face stepped out of sight.
In a moment he was back, and threw into the circle of light about the fire the body of an enormous mountain cat.
The men had fallen back into their blankets and were sleeping again, while Silver Face resumed his place before the fire.
Soon Stella, began to yawn, and her eyes grew heavy with sleep.
But she did not want to sleep. She had a foreboding that if she slept she would be in danger.
However, the dancing flames and the soft, comfortable heat which came from the fire were too much for her resolution, and her head began to droop, and presently her body sank gently down, and, as she pillowed her head on her arm, she fell into a deep sleep.
How long she slept she did not know, but when she awoke it was light.
The fire had burned low, and she felt cold and numb.
Staggering to her feet, she looked around. The camp was deserted.
The men were gone, and so were the horses. Beside the fire was a considerable pile of wood, and Stella hastily pulled the embers of the fire together and threw several sticks upon it. As the fire blazed up and she grew warmer, she tried to review the situation.
Why had the men who had captured and brought her thus far deserted her? Had they been frightened away by the proximity of the boys? No, it could not have been that, for the boys were far away.
Then a thought of horror flashed across her mind. She had been brought here to perish in the wilderness. Probably Silver Face and his men, desiring to wreak vengeance upon Ted, and feeling that keeping her a prisoner would be too much of a burden, had brought her into this dangerous place to leave her a prey to the wild animals that she knew infested the forests.
If they had only left her Magpie, she might have stood some chance of escaping.
But her fortitude soon returned to her. She was not dead yet, and, while she had a fighting chance, she would not despair.
Something of pity must have moved the men, for she found that they had left her revolver and her rifle beside her in the lean-to, and that in a pile not far from the fire was food enough to last her for several meals.
She set about cooking some breakfast, and caught herself singing as she did so.
After she had eaten she sat down in her shelter to think a way out of her predicament.
She was in the midst of a reverie when she was brought to her feet by that most dreaded of sounds—the howl of the timber wolf.
For a moment she stood trembling, trying to think what her best course would be.
The wolves had smelled the frying bacon from afar, and had been attracted to it, for the scent had carried far in the clear air.
From another direction came another wolf cry, and presently they seemed to come from every direction.
They were far away as yet, but the wolves were gathering.
Without trying to reason further, Stella gathered up what food she could carry, and, grasping her rifle, struck out into the forest in the direction away from that from which the howls of the wolves came to her.
Suddenly to one side appeared a slinking, gray form, which slunk along, apparently dodging behind the trees, but following her.
As it came from behind a tree in fair sight, she swung her rifle to her shoulder and fired.
It was a strike, for the wolf, with a howl of pain sprang in the air, then rolled over on the snow and lay still.
As the report of the shot reverberated back from the mountains, it was followed by a perfect crescendo of wolf howls.
They sounded louder and nearer now, and Stella's heart began to beat rapidly with fear.
Too well she knew what would happen if they caught her.
But suddenly a thought came to her, and she stopped.
Surely Ted and the boys would come to find her. They might even now be on the way, and who could say they were not far away?
If she could only send them a message to let them know that they were on the right trail!
Her face lighted up with an inspiration. She had the means.
Breaking a stick from a low-growing tree, she began to write in the snow:
"I am followed by a wolf pack. Hurry." "Stella"
These were the words she left behind her for Ted to read should he come that way.
Then she hurried on with all speed.
Every few minutes the howls of the wolves assailed her ears as she struggled on through the snow.
Her burden of food was becoming very heavy, and she cast away a part of it.
Perhaps, she thought, it would serve to stop the wolves for a while when they found it on her trail.
Every moment seemed to bring the cries of the wolves nearer.
They were following in her footsteps now, for the noise was all behind her, not scattered over the forest, as it had been at first.
The brutes had gathered into a pack, and Stella shuddered as she pictured in her mind the gray band coming upon her with long, loping, tireless strides; with red, long, lolling tongues and slavering, sharp-fanged jaws.
Presently she heard another noise behind her, and looked over her shoulder.
The sight that met her eyes caused her to almost faint.
Not twenty yards behind her was an enormous gray wolf, loping along easily but as swiftly as a horse.
His eyes were blazing like green lamps, and his great body was scarred and torn. Evidently he was the king of the pack.
Stopping suddenly, she drew her revolver and fired two shots at him.
He came to a halt with a snarl of rage and began biting at his shoulder.
Then Stella turned and ran again, with the clamor of the pack close behind her.
But she was failing, and her run had become a painful stagger, and her breath came in gasps.
She was near the end, and she realized it. She fancied herself falling into the midst of that ravenous crew and shuddered. What could she do to save herself?
Not far ahead was a tree with a forked branch growing low enough for her to reach it if she still had strength to get so far. With almost a superhuman effort she continued her flight toward it.
As she reached it the great, gray king of the pack was only a few feet behind her, so close that she could hear him pant from his long run.
She reached up to the branch and tried to pull herself up, but it was an impossible task burdened with food and rifle and her coat, which she had removed at a time when she had stopped long enough to write another message in the snow for Ted.
She threw the rifle in the snow and tried it again, but she could not, and then cast aside the food and the coat, and succeeded in clambering into the sheltering nook just as the great wolf, leaping into the air, swept past her, carrying in his teeth a shred of her skirt. She was safe, but by a very narrow margin.
She looked up into the tree, for the branch upon which she was perched was so near the ground that she was not safe from the leaps of the savage and famished brutes.
But the next higher branch was far beyond her reach or her ability to climb to.
She must defend herself as best she could.
Fortunately she had retained her revolver and had a good supply of ammunition.
As the old wolf leaped again she fired, and knew that the ball had entered his neck. If she could shoot him often enough, she ought to kill him after a while.
But now the clamor was all about her. The pack had arrived, and was leaping about the foot of the tree like waves upon a storm-tossed shore.
Her red coat had been torn to shreds, and, in the fight over the food she had cast aside, more than one of the brutes had met his death by the razorlike teeth of his comrades.
Suddenly, through the din about her, Stella lifted her head and listened, while for a moment the wolves ceased leaping and howling and stood listening also.
From afar off, and very faintly, there came to her a subdued cheer. Her heart leaped with hope. Could it be the boys who were signaling to her?
But now the wolves, even more savage than before, were leaping at her, their saber teeth snapping within an inch of her, as she fired into their faces, and laughed as she saw them roll upon the snow in their death agony.
Again she heard a faint cry in the forest. Oh, if she should be wrong, and it was not the dear old Moon Valley yell, she would die.
Now the old king of the pack returned to the attack.
He was bigger and stronger than any of the others, and when he snapped at them with his terrible teeth they made way for him.
He began a succession of leaps at her, and every time she planted a bullet in his massive and seemingly invulnerable body.
But each leap brought him closer to her perch.
The next jump might be the one by which he would reach her, she thought, and that surely would be the end, for, if he ever succeeded in getting his hooked fangs fastened in her clothes, she would be pulled from the tree in an eye twinkling, and she shuddered as she thought of the sequel.
The end seemed very near, and she had about given up hope of holding out until the boys could reach her, when a well-known yell was wafted to her on the frozen air. The boys had come.
She felt the fangs of the king of the pack fasten in her skirt, and she knew that she was being pulled out of her perch when, through the woods came Ted and Bud and Ben, and the rest of her friends, yelling like mad and amid a perfect fusillade of rifle shots.
Then she began to slide out of the tree. But she did not reach the ground, for Ted was there, and she slipped naturally and without harm into his arms, as the last of the pack that remained alive escaped into the forest.
WHO WHIPPLE WAS.
There was great rejoicing when Stella so far recovered from the strain which she had been undergoing, to learn that Bud was safe, although he had passed a very uncomfortable as well as perilous night tied to a tree with the cold numbing him, and wolves sniffing and snarling at him.
These he had been able to keep off for several hours by kicking them whenever they got close enough.
But he was rapidly becoming exhausted when in the distance he heard shouts.
Ted and the boys had ridden to the west until they realized that it was useless to go any farther, for they had not come upon the trail of Bud and Stella, and Ted came to the conclusion that they had gone in the opposite direction.
But it was almost night when they turned their faces to the east, and day was dawning when they heard Bud's cry for help, and rescued him by driving the snarling pack from his heels.
When they had heard his story about the man with the silver face and his crew, and the fact that they had taken Stella away with them, the boys waited only long enough to make a fire to thaw out Bud, and to make some coffee, and took up the broad trail.
When they came to the deserted camp they were almost sure that Stella had gone on with her captors, and were about to follow the trail.
Had they done so, Stella would have perished in the woods. But Ted had one of his "hunches" that Stella was not far away, and rode around the camp in a wide circle.
He was soon rewarded by finding the prints of Stella's shoes in the snow, and, concluding that she had in some manner escaped from her captors, he called the boys together and started on her trail.
They had not gone far when they, too, heard the howls of the wolf pack, and knew that Stella was in great danger.
Presently they came upon Stella's message in the snow and obeyed her injunction to hurry.
They had been compelled to leave their horses at the camp, for the forest was too dense to permit them to ride.
When Stella told them of her adventure and about Silver Face and the stolen cattle, they decided to push forward on the trail, and, if possible, regain their stolen property.
At the camp they remounted, and, having to ride double where Bud and Stella were concerned, made but slow progress.
But the trail was broad and good, and they made good time as compared with a slow cattle drive.
Early in the afternoon Ted became conscious, in that remarkable way of his, that not far ahead some one was on the trail.
Stella was riding behind him, for the boys had taken turns in carrying her so as not to burden any one horse too much, and he transferred her to Kit's pony, and, telling the boys to move forward slowly, rode on ahead to scout.
Ted wanted to see for himself this wonderful Silver Face, who was impervious to bullets, and who could fire them from his chest with no apparent effort on his own part.
Ted was also affected as the others had been who had seen him; that is, by the mystery of the creature.
He had ridden quite a distance ahead of the party, and had just entered into the pass of a canon which seemed to broaden out into a respectable valley farther on, when he was brought to a halt by the scream of a rifle ball close to his head.
This was warning enough, and he scurried into the shelter of a huge rock that jutted from the canon wall.
In a few minutes he emerged from it and rode back over the trail.
When the party came up with him he told them of the shot.
"It's my opinion," he said, "that Silver Face and his men and our cattle are in that canon or valley, but how to reach them I don't know."
"S'pose we go scoutin' on ther hills above, an' take a look," said Bud. "Stella an' ther boys can cache ther hosses an' hide, er come erlong with us."
"Very well," said Ted. And so they did. Hiding their horses in a thick glade of cedar trees, they climbed in single file up the side of the mountain, and were soon in an advantageous position, from which they had a good view up and down the valley.
A curious sight met their sight.
In the center of the valley they saw their bunch of steers close herded by several cowboys, while not far away two men were butchering one of the steers.
"They're going to have beef for dinner," said Ted, with a grin.
"I hope it chokes 'em," growled Bud.
"Or that they never get a chance to eat it at all," said Stella.
Lounging around the fire were a party of Indians, but, though Ted could not see from that distance whether or not they were the followers of Crazy Cow, he thought most likely they were.
The great figure of Silver Face could easily be picked out from among his followers, even were it not from the reflected light from his silver mask whenever the rays of the sun smote it.
Close to the west wall of the valley, and huddled under its shelter, were a number of Indian tepees, while farther on were several white canvas tents.
"Boys, we've stumbled upon the permanent camp or rendezvous of the outlaw Indians, and the members of the Whipple gang," said Ted.
As they were looking they saw a young woman, dressed as cowgirl, and with long, blond hair hanging down her back, come out of one of the tents, and look over the scene.
Silver Face strode to her side, and then began a strange pantomime between the pair with her hands. This convinced Stella that the man with the silver mask was unable to talk.
"I don't see how we are going to get at those fellows," said Ted.
"They do seem to be pretty well fixed to defend themselves," said Ben, who was lying flat on the rocky edge of the canon wall, looking into the scene below.
"Oh, Ted," cried Stella, grasping the arm of the leader of the broncho boys. "Look there. It is Magpie, my pony. There isn't another like him in the world. We must get him back, Ted. Think of letting a dirty Indian outlaw ride and abuse the splendid fellow."
"All right, Stella," replied Ted. "Show us how to do it successfully, and we'll go down and tackle the whole mess."
"See, there's an Indian throwing his filthy blanket on Magpie's back. I can't stand that."
Stella put her rifle to her shoulder, and was about to pull the trigger when Ted's hand closed down over the lock of the weapon.
"Not on your life," he said. "This is not the time for anything like that. If we were to get them after us right now we'd last about as long as a snowball on a hot stove. Wait a while."
While Stella said nothing she was angry clear through. It hurt her like a blow to have her pony ridden by another.
The Indian, having fastened his blanket on the pony's back to his satisfaction, sprang upon his back, and began to lash him with a quirt.
"Oh, the brute!" exclaimed Stella. "I hope Magpie throws and kills him for his cruelty."
Magpie wheeled and bucked under the unusual punishment, and the Indian continued to beat him.
"I can't stand it any longer," cried Stella, gnashing her pretty, small, white teeth.
This time she got her rifle to her shoulder, and, before she could be restrained, had fired a shot. Perhaps Ted knew that the provocation was great, for he did not interfere this time.
At any rate, the ball flew close enough to knock the hat from the Indian's head, and cause him to dismount and scurry to the shelter of the rock wall.
But it caused the greatest excitement in the camp.
The man with the silver mask rushed forward, rapidly scanning the cliff for whoever had fired the shot.
He did not have long to search, for the smoke hovering over the spot where Stella was lying on the top of the cliff was advertisement enough.
A man by his side handed him a rifle, which he sighted, then took down as a puff of smoke rose above him.
Then there followed the smash of a bullet on the rock, a foot below where Stella was lying.
"Pretty close work," said Ted. "That fellow is a corking good shot. Look, he's coming to shoot again. Duck! I'll bet he gets the range this time."
Every head went out of sight. Then came the sharp report of the rifle, and the ball from it shattered the edge of the rock not far from Stella's head.
"That'll be about enough of that," said Ted, picking up his own Winchester. "We'll have to stop that fellow's fun, or he'll end by hurting some of us."
Ted poked the barrel of his Winchester over the edge of the rock, adjusted the sights, took a short aim, and fired.
Then he looked to see the result of it, and saw the man with the silver face drop his rifle, stagger to the side of the canon, and sink down.
"By jove! I got him," exclaimed Ted. "I believe that from here we can drive that whole bunch out of the valley and get back our cattle and horses, if we dodge back and shoot straight. We'll try it. Every fellow get ready to fire."
On seeing their leader fall, the men, both white and red, in the valley, ran hither and yon in a state of great excitement.
But when the boys began to fire systematically at them, kicking up the snow about them with every shot, it became a veritable panic.
Shouts of terror were heard, and, as the young woman raised the man with the silver mask to his feet and helped him walk to the tent, the others hastily saddled their ponies, and prepared to decamp.
All the while the boys were pumping Winchester balls into them, and occasionally a horse dropped, or with a yell a man would grasp a leg or an arm and fall to the ground.
"We've got them going," shouted Ted. "Keep it up until we get them on the run."
The boys fired their rifles until they got hot, then waited for them to cool, and resumed firing.
It was like bedlam in the valley, and not one of the men attempted to retaliate by firing back. They were in a panic of fear.
As soon as one got his horse saddled he dashed away toward the head of the valley out of the way of those spiteful bullets which sang about them like enraged hornets.
Not one of them stopped to burden himself with his baggage, nor did they pay any attention to the stolen cattle.
They were in too much of a hurry to get away safely themselves.
The Indians left their tepees standing, and ran for their lives.
Soon the valley was clear of men. All that remained in sight were the bunch of cattle, a small band of ponies in a rope corral, and the tepees and tents.
"I guess we're safe to go down now, and take possession of our own," said Ted.
"Don't forget that Silver Face and the young woman are in that tent," said Stella warningly. "Look out for treachery."
Without further delay the boys and Stella climbed down the mountain to where their horses were, and, mounting, rode fearlessly into the valley.
As they approached the tents the flap of one of them was pushed back and the young woman came out.
Her hand was raised for silence, and the tears were coursing down her cheeks.
"Hush!" she said. "He is dead."
"Who is dead?" asked Ted, with the greatest respect.
"Silver Face," was the answer.
"Who was he?" asked Ted.
"I don't know. I found him lying in the mountains almost dead from an accident a few months ago, and nursed him back to life, but he never spoke again, and he has never been able to let me know who he was."
"Pardon me, but who are you?" asked Ted.
"I?" said the woman, drawing herself up proudly. "I am Whipple."
"What? Leader of the Whipple gang?" asked Ted, almost incredulously.
"The same," said she. "I have laughed many times at the fear I inspired among you ranchmen in the valley, and the officers of the law, to say nothing of the soldiers. But that was because they had never seen me, and believed me to be a man."
They all looked their astonishment, for she was an exceedingly pretty woman, and spoke in gentle tones.
"But it is all over now," she continued sadly. "If those steers and ponies are yours, take them. I am going to leave the mountains, and my men are scattered and will leave also. I told them to go. And now that Silver Face is no more, there is no reason why I should stay here."
"You loved him?" asked Ted, nodding toward the tent.
"Yes," she answered quietly. "He was my husband. When I had nursed him back to life I sent my boys out and kidnaped a preacher. I had him brought here blindfolded, and made him marry us, then sent him back, not knowing where he had been."
Ted and the boys looked their sympathy.
"Can I be of any assistance to you in caring for him?" asked Stella, very sweetly.
A look of terror crossed the woman's face.
"No, no," she cried. "Leave me with my dead. Take what belongs to you and go."
She retired into the tent, and they heard her weeping, and turned away.
The boys started immediately on the back trail to the ranch, where they arrived with their cattle and ponies.
That was the last of the Whipple gang, for the members of it left the country, and the outlaw Indians were gathered in by the troops and the Indian police, and imprisoned on the reservations.
But on winter evenings, as he sat before the big fire in the Long Tom ranch house, his big snow camp, Ted Strong often turned over in his mind the facts about the death of Silver Face, the man of mystery.
Somehow, away down in his heart, he did not believe that the man with the silver mask was dead, but that he would some day meet him again and solve the mystery that surrounded him.
In the early part of December, however, the members of the Moon Valley outfit left the Long Tom Ranch for Phoenix, Arizona.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST.
Although it was winter, the air was soft and pleasant, and at noon the sun shone with some fervor.
It was Arizona, and as Ted Strong sat on Sultan and gazed across the wide valley, over which the sun's warm rays shimmered above the sand and cactus, greasewood and sage toward a low-lying ranch house in the far distance, it did not seem at all like Christmas.
But it was Christmas Eve, in spite of the fact that there was no snow, no sleigh bells, no apparent use for Santa Claus, and that roses were blooming in yards where there was sufficient black earth for them to thrive.
Behind his saddle Ted had a great bundle wrapped in burlap and securely tied.
For many miles on the way Ted had cast anxious glances behind him, and occasionally reached back to assure himself that he had not lost his freight.
This argued that it was a very precious burden.
"I guess that must be the place," mused Ted, as he looked at the apparently deserted house.
Not a live creature was to be seen about the place, neither man, woman, nor beast.
"Cheerful-looking prospect for Christmas," Ted continued to soliloquize, as those who travel or ride on mountain or plain in solitude often get in the habit of doing.
"Wonder where the folks are?" he continued. "Hope they got here all right. But, of course, they did. Bud is too good a leader to let them get off the trail. Besides, they have been long enough on the way to have got here and back again." Again he paused, musing.
"Well, Sultan, old chap, it has been a long, dry drive, hasn't it?"
Sultan, on hearing his name, gave a toss of his head and a soft snicker, and Ted's hand passed gently over his beautiful, glossy mane with a caressing gesture.
"Hello, here comes some one. Wonder who it is. That's the only sign of life, except a few rattlesnakes and horned toads I've seen since I left the railroad at San Carlos."
Shading his eyes from the sun, Ted looked for several minutes at the dark speck bobbing along in the distance, a mere shadow against the yellow surface of the earth.
"He's taking his time," muttered Ted. "Reckon he's wondering who I am, and what I'm standing here for. It can't be one of our fellows. I guess I'll just wait for him to come up and say howdy."
There was a faint trail, or road, which skirted Sombrero Peak, the mass of multicolored rock at Ted's back, over which he had come on his way from San Carlos to the Bubbly Well ranch house, which he was now facing in the distance. But where he was now standing the road branched off to the west, while a fainter trail lay straight before him to the ranch house.
Bubbly Well was the ranch of Major Caruthers, an Englishman, and a retired officer of the British army, who had come to America to pass his remaining days in the open. He was a well-preserved man, tall, stalwart, with white hair and a red, fresh-looking face, who could ride well and was an excellent shot, but who knew nothing about the cattle business.
Ted had met him in Phoenix, at the hotel, and had dropped into "cow talk." When the English major learned that Ted knew so much about the cattle business, he told of his ranch at Bubbly Well, confessing that his own knowledge of steers, cows, round-ups, and the like was so limited that, instead of making the ranch pay, it had been steadily losing money for him.
It was then that the major had invited Ted to visit him at the ranch, look the situation over, and give expert advice how to better the condition of things.
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said the major; "let's make up a Christmas party for Bubbly Well. The holidays are so beastly lonely out here, don't you know, and Christmas knocks me all of a heap. Come out and help me make things cheerful."
"I'd like to," Ted had said, "but I'm not a free agent. I am with a party of friends, who are also my partners in the cattle business and other enterprises. You see, my first duty is to them. I don't know what their plans are."
At this the major looked considerably crestfallen. Then Ted, as briefly as he could, told the Englishman all about the broncho boys and their plans and principles.
As he talked, Major Caruthers occasionally interjected such exclamations as "Extraordinary!" "Very remarkable!" "Fawncy!"
He was intensely interested in Ted's accounts of some of the adventures which the members of the Moon Valley outfit had gone through, and when Ted stopped, with an apology for having consumed so much time in talking about himself and his friends, the major assured him that he could listen with pleasure and profit all night if Ted could only go on telling him such stories.
"My boy, I have the very thing," said the major, after a moment's thought.
Ted looked at the Englishman inquiringly.
"Do you think your friends, not knowing me, would accept an invitation to spend Christmas at Bubbly Well, and as long thereafter as they can and will?"
"That's a very kind thought," said Ted. "You see, we generally contrive to be at our Moon Valley Ranch at Christmas time, but this year we had business in this part of the country, and could not finish it in time to get back home, and were planning to get as much joy out of the day in the hotel here as we could."
"Christmas in a hotel!" exclaimed the major. "I can't think of anything more dismal. I'd spend Christmas in my own place even if there wasn't another live thing there, and nothing to eat but cheese and crackers."
"I feel very much that way myself," laughed Ted.
"Then you'll come?" asked the Englishman eagerly.
"I think my friends will be very glad to accept the invitation," answered Ted. "I am sure I should like to, personally, and I thank you for the privilege and the honor."
"Don't speak of it."
They talked of other things; about sport, and about the dangers of ranching in that country.
Before they parted it was decided that the broncho boys should visit Major Caruthers' ranch. They were to take their own mounts on the train to the nearest railroad station to Bubbly Well, where they would be met by one of the major's men as a guide.
It was three days before Christmas when all of them, except Ted, arrived at the ranch and were given a hearty welcome by the Englishman. That is, all arrived there except the leader of the broncho boys, who had remained in Phoenix to attend to some business details and do some shopping, agreeing to follow them later and arrive at the ranch Christmas Eve.
At the opening of this chapter we find him within sight of Bubbly Well, with a pack of Christmas presents for all hands on his back, waiting patiently for the approaching rider.
In the course of a few minutes, the stranger rode up, and, with a cold and quiet greeting, pulled in his mount, a beautiful chestnut mare, and looked Ted over from top to toe in a cool manner.
He was a handsome young chap, dressed in such a manner that Ted could not quite determine what he was. He had not the appearance of a cow-puncher, nor was he a town man, for he was bronzed by the sun, and he sat his mare like a born horseman.
His clothes were dark, save for a tan vest which buttoned close around his throat; his boots were of the very best quality, and fitted the calf of his leg snugly, and on his head was an expensive Stetson, with the skin of a rattlesnake for a band.
But it was his face that affected Ted with a sort of dislike that yet had something of fascination in it, while at the same time it puzzled him, it was such a strange mixture of good and bad.
"Can you tell me what ranch house that is over there, and who owns it?" said the stranger, in a well-bred manner that yet had the freedom of the West in it.
"Yes," answered Ted. "That is the Bubbly Well Ranch, and it is owned by Major Caruthers."
A strange expression passed over the young fellow's face.
"Jack Caruthers—do you happen to know?"
"I have never heard him called Jack," said Ted, smiling. "He signs himself 'John Stairs Caruthers.'"
"It must be the same," said the young fellow musingly.
"Do you know him?" asked Ted.
"Well, no. That is, not exactly." The stranger thought a moment. "I suppose I'll have to put up somewhere for the night; it's a dickens of a way to anywhere out here. I started from Rodeo, across the mountain, early this morning, thinking I could make it to San Carlos by night, but——"
"You couldn't get there before morning if you rode at top speed," said Ted, as the other hesitated.
"Are you going to the ranch house?" asked the stranger suddenly.
"Do you think your friend would put me up for the night?"
"I haven't a doubt of it. And to-morrow, too. You know this is Christmas Eve."
"So it is. I hadn't thought of it. My name is Farnsworth—Hilary Farnsworth."
The young fellow looked defiantly at Ted, who had started slightly at the name.
"Do you want to take me to the house now?" asked Farnsworth, with a slightly contemptuous smile.
So this was Farnsworth. "Fancy" Farnsworth, as he was called in the Southwest. Ted looked at him with new interest, and the other stared back with his gray eyes, which were as handsome as a woman's, and yet had in their depths a wicked, cruel gleam.
"I don't see why not," said Ted.
"You know me?" asked Farnsworth, with a smile.
"May I ask your name?"
"Certainly. I beg your pardon. I am Ted Strong."
At this Farnsworth suddenly pulled his horse to its haunches, at the same time throwing his hand backward, and, with almost incredible rapidity, whipping out a revolver.
His face was white, and had as suddenly assumed an expression in which fear and determination were equally present.
"No, you don't!" he said slowly and coldly. "You don't get me that way. I'm not as easy as that."
Ted had made no move to draw his revolver, and was smiling in an amused sort of way.
"I'm sure I don't want you," he said.
"You're a deputy United States marshal, aren't you?"
"I am, but I'm not after you."
"Then you haven't heard?"
"Nothing about you recently. When I was in this part of the country before I heard——"
"Oh, you can always hear a lot about a fellow in this rotten part of the world—except the truth. Then you haven't heard the latest news from Rodeo?"
"Not a word."
"And you don't want to arrest me?"
"Not now. I wouldn't know what to arrest you for, and I haven't seen a United States warrant for months."
"I believe I can trust you. You seem to be a square chap, in spite of what I've heard of you. But I want to tell you one thing: I've got eyes in the back of my head, and there isn't a quicker man on the draw in Arizona, so no monkey business. This is not a boast, but a warning."
"I have nothing against you now," said Ted quietly; "but if I ever have, you'll know it, and have your chance. But I don't see any use in standing here in the sun palavering. Let's hike to the house yonder. I've been riding since daybreak without a drink, and I'd like to sample the major's famous Bubbly Well."
Farnsworth looked sharply at Ted for a moment, then replaced his revolver, and signaled to lead the way.
They rode in silence along the trail toward the ranch house for several minutes.
"How shall I introduce you to the major—as Farnsworth?" asked Ted, at last.
Farnsworth paused to think before replying.
"I think not," he said at last. "If I am to stay there for the night, there may as well be no unpleasant feeling. Call me anything you like but that, and I will fall in with it. They may know something about me, and, while I would be safe while Major Caruthers considered me a guest, still, it might cause some restraint."
"Probably you are right. How will Mr. Dickson do?"
"As good as any. Say, Strong, you're a brick! I won't forget this."
"This is a sort of truce. Anyway, it's Christmas, and a fellow should put away malice at such a time."
"Have you malice toward me?"
"No, I can't say that I have. But I have heard things about you that haven't prepossessed me in your favor."
"Have you ever thought that perhaps you have heard more than the truth?"
"Of course; I know that men are usually painted worse than they are."
"That's true. It's especially true with regard to myself."
For a moment Ted said nothing. He was running over in his mind several of the stories he had heard about this handsome and daring young fellow.
"Well, I'll take your word for it because it's Christmas," he said at last.
"I'll make you believe that I'm telling the truth before our acquaintance ends," said Farnsworth. As Ted looked into his eyes he saw that they had changed in expression. Now they were bold and brave and truthful, where before Ted had seen only a cold, cruel, relentless look.
Ted threw back his head, and the Moon Valley yell issued from his mouth.
It instantly transformed the slumbering ranch house. Out of doors, from around corners, and even as if they sprang out of the ground, appeared the broncho boys, and the air fairly rang with their shouts of welcome.
"That's the way I'd like to be greeted," said Farnsworth, a little bitterly.
"Then why don't you fix it so that you are?" asked Ted, smiling.
CHRISTMAS AT BUBBLY WELL.
Ted introduced Farnsworth as Mr. Dickson, whom he had met on the road, and the boys made the newcomer welcome in their usual characteristic style.
In a few minutes Major Caruthers rode up to the house, and Ted brought Farnsworth forward. From the question Farnsworth had put to him when he had first mentioned the owner of the Bubbly Well Ranch, Ted was anxious to see the meeting between the two men.
Major Caruthers received the young fellow cordially, and told him, with true Western hospitality, that he was welcome to stay as long as he wished.
But Ted was watching Farnsworth.
As he put out his hand to grasp the major's, a peculiar look crossed his face. It was rather wistful, too, and it seemed as if he wanted to say much more than the few formal words of thanks which he returned in exchange for the major's greeting.
Ted looked curiously at the two men, and started with surprise at a peculiar resemblance Farnsworth bore to the older man.
Ted had not particularly noticed the major's face and eyes before, but now he noticed that his eyes bore a remarkable resemblance to those of Farnsworth.
There was a resemblance, too, in the shape of the head and the turn of the jaw, but there it ended; and Ted surmised that the major must be at least fifteen or twenty years older than the stranger.
During the rest of the day there was much mystery about the house that always precedes Christmas.
Stella was particularly busy, and flew here and there, whispering with Bud, who seemed to be in some secret with her.
Behind the big ranch living room was a bedroom which had been used for casual guests.
Stella had possession of it, and had taken the bed down and banished it until after the holidays.
Within this room certain mysterious things were going on, and whenever Stella or Bud left it, the door was always locked behind them.
Not all the teasing of Ben and Kit, nor their efforts to get past the door, were successful in finding out what was going on.
Along toward evening, Bud, who had not met Farnsworth, or Dickson, as he was known to Bubbly Well, came across that young man pacing up and down the veranda alone.
When Bud saw him he stopped as if shot, took a long look, and then passed on.
But he set out to find Ted, which he did at last at the corral.
"See here, Ted," said the golden-haired cow-puncher, "whar did yer pick up ther maverick what's up at ther house? I hear he come with yer."
"I met him on the road, and he wanted to know if the major would put him up for the night, and I told him I thought he would be welcome," answered Ted.
"Of course he'd be welcome. Ther major would welcome a yaller dog with ther mange, out in this yere lonely place. But say, boy, does yer know what yer brought?"
"Why? I don't understand you exactly, I'm afraid."
"Yes, yer do. Who is that feller? He's not Dickson. Who is he?"
"That's what I'm tryin' ter do, an' if yer don't give up peaceful, I'm goin' through yer, minute."
"Do you know who he is?"
"I've got my suspicions. I see a feller up to Phoenix what's ther dead ringer fer him, an' his name wasn't Dickson then."
"What was it?"
"It was Fancy Farnsworth."
"I guess you're on, Bud. But Mr. Farnsworth asked me to keep it dark, and, as it is Christmas, I consented to do so. Remember, this is the time for brotherly love and peace toward all men. It wasn't much to do, and I invented the name of Dickson for him myself. What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothin', if yer like ter bring cattle like that ter our Chrismus festivities. Fer me, I wouldn't."
"I guess he's not as bad as that."
"Well, if yer don't know, I will, an' let yer chew on it, an' see if yer want ter take any chances on him. Now, Farnsworth ain't his real name, neither. D'y'ever hear tell o' ther Somber Pass massacree, where a tenderfoot immigrant named Spooner an' his family was killed, an' their wagons an' horses, an' a pile o' money what Spooner had brought with him ter start a cattle ranch an' buy stock with, wuz taken? D'y'ever hear tell o' that?"
"Sure. It's part of the history of the Territory."
"D'y'ever hear any suspicions cast upon nobody?"
"I never did. That is, I never heard any one specifically charged with the crime. Did you?"
"I did, an' his other name was Farnsworth, only that wasn't ther name he went by at that time. He's ther feller who was p'inted out ter me as ther devil what led ther band o' cutthroats what killed ther Spooner family fer a measly few thousands o' dollars. That's what I meant if yer knew who yer was bringin' ter yer happy home."
"Why, that crime was committed five years ago, and Dickson or Farnsworth, as he calls himself, was too young then to be engaged in anything of that sort."
"He looks young, but he ain't. He's ther feller. Look out fer him, Ted."
"Don't you tip off who he is, Bud. I brought him here because it is Christmas, and he's going to stay. He's going to get a square deal here if I have to fight for him."
"Oh, I won't say nothin', but I'd like ter slip a pair o' handcuffs onto them smooth, white wrists o' hisn, jest ther same. But why is he here? What's he doin' in this part o' ther country?"
"I don't know, Bud. He asked me when he met me and knew who I was if I had heard the news about him. I hadn't, and told him so, but he did not volunteer any information on the subject."
"Whar did he come from? Did he tell you?"
"Yes, he said he had come from Rodeo; starting early this morning."
"Then look fer a big piece o' news from Rodeo right soon."
"How do you know?"
"I know this, if Farnsworth left Rodeo airly this mornin' thar was some good reason fer it. I reckon it's a killin'. But he's a chump ter stop off here. If anything has been pulled off at Rodeo, ther whole country will be out after him, fer Fancy, so called fer his passion fer good clothes an' high-colored poker chips, they don't like none too well, he's too almighty quick an' slick with his six-shooter, hez got a list o' killin's ter his credit as long as yer arm."
"Well, he's here; let's forget it until after breakfast. But as long as he's here as a guest, he gets all the protection I can give him."
Supper that night was a very merry function in the Bubbly Well ranch house, full of mysterious whisperings and jokes which were only understood by two or three at a time.
Mr. Dickson, as the latest guest, occupied a seat at the left hand of the host, and Ted again noticed the remarkable resemblance between the two, although it did not seem to be apparent to the others; at least, no one mentioned it.
After supper was over, and the Chinese cook and waiter had cleared the room, the major brought out a violin, and asked if any one could play it.
"Clay kin jest make a fiddle sing!" shouted Bud, dragging the modest Kentuckian forward.
There was a piano in the living room, and Stella and Clay went to it, and while Clay played the violin, Stella accompanied him.
Lively airs were demanded, and the ranch house fairly rang with the clapping of feet as Bud and Carl and Kit danced reels and jigs and cake walks, and the laughter of the boys at Bud's jokes and Carl's lingual mistakes.
But at last they became tired of music. It was ten o'clock, and the major disappeared for a few minutes, then entered, leading the way for the two Chinamen, who bore between them baskets of rosy apples, dishes of nuts and raisins and candies, and pitchers of cider.
Although the day had been warm enough in the sun, the night was cool, and the fire that leaped high in the fireplace made the room cozy and comfortable, and one could well imagine that outside was the snow glistening under the stars, and hear the far-away jingle of the sleigh bells.
They sat around the fireplace eating apples and cracking nuts, talking nonsense and laughing at Bud's comic antics, until even Farnsworth relaxed from the air of anxiety he had borne all evening, and once or twice laughed.