"All right. But first give me a dose of that medicine."
Ted administered the medicine, which was a mild stimulant, and Caruthers began:
"When I jumped through the window, I did so, not because I was afraid of the four men, but to save you from trouble. I knew that the fellows had been sent to get me, not by the authorities, but by my brother-in-law Mowbray. You know about him?"
Ted nodded, and Caruthers went on:
"I went directly to Sombrero Peak. I knew they would look for me in another place. I was right, but I had not foreseen another thing. When I was in hiding I was surprised by the sudden appearance of Ban Joy and his sister Itsu San, the servants of my sister. They, too, had fled from Mowbray and his gang of murderers.
"This was somewhat inconvenient for me, for I knew that Mowbray, while he would not probably get on my track until I could communicate with you, would easily track the Japanese, and I was not in any position to defend myself and them, for I was out of ammunition, having lost my cartridge belt. But I found a small cave and fortified it as well as possible, and awaited the coming of the Gray Wolves."
"The Gray Wolves?" said Ted, with interrogation in his voice.
"Yes, that is what Mowbray and his thieves and murderers call themselves. You will know why, I'm thinking, before long.
"But to proceed: We continued to live in the cave for a few days, Joy contriving to trap rabbits and birds, upon which we lived. Then, in a moment of foolhardiness, I determined to go out and see if I could find out whether we had been followed, and at the same time try to get to San Carlos and supply myself with a Winchester and some cartridges, for I knew that, if I was properly armed, I could stand off the gang.
"Well, I saddled the little pony and started out, after telling Joy to come here if I didn't return. I scouted cautiously among the hills, trying to find the pass on the other side of the peak which led out to San Carlos.
"To make a long story short, I rode right into the trap, and was caught by the Gray Wolves. I had six shells in my revolver, and as they surrounded me I fought for my life, and I am glad to say I got three of them before they got me. But I couldn't hit Mowbray, although I tried my best to do so. He seemed to bear a charmed life. As soon as I had fired my last shot I wheeled the pony and fled. Up to this time I had not been hit, but just as I was getting safely away, having jumped through the men surrounding me, clubbing them to the earth with the butt of my pistol, I turned to look back. I saw Mowbray bring down his rifle and take deliberate aim at me, and I shuddered, because Mowbray is one of the finest shots in the world. Then I heard the report of his weapon, and felt the sting of the bullet. He had aimed to strike my heart, but the turn of my body saved me."
"But how did you come to be tied to the pony's back?" asked Ted.
"When I was struck by the bullet I felt myself going. I knew that very soon I would lose consciousness, and in that event I would soon be captured, so it behooved me, while I still retained my senses, to save myself. There was a lariat hanging to the horn of the saddle, and I proceeded to tie myself to the pony's back as well as I could. You see, I knew that the pony would go home when he found himself free.
"I was no sooner well tied to the pony's back when I heard the howl of the wolves, and recognized the voice of White Fang."
"Yes, the master of the pack. Have you not heard of him. He is well known in this part of the country—a wolf with almost human intelligence, fierce, a perfect devil of an animal, to whose pack every ranch in this country has paid heavy tribute. You will know more about him if you stay here. He is the devil in the hide of an animal.
"Well, I resigned myself to my fate, with a prayer that the little pony would get me to the Bubbly Well Ranch before the wolves pulled me from his back. And he did."
"But you said something about the Gray Wolves visiting us?"
"Yes. They will be here. Prepare to defend your lives and the house. They know I am here, and they know that you have my sister's treasure. That is what they want."
"How do you know that?"
"Joy told me, and more, which you will learn later. But I feel faint, and can talk no more. 'Ware the Gray Wolves!"
Frederic Caruthers' warning was received seriously.
Ted and the boys consulted about the defense of the house, for the news of the Gray Wolves was not much of a surprise to Ted, who had all along felt that they were sure to be attacked by Mowbray and his men when they found that Major Caruthers and the broncho boys had emptied the Mowbray house of all its valuables.
The fact that there was an organized body of murderers and thieves under Mowbray called the Gray Wolves was not inappropriate.
But if the Gray Wolves came to the attack, the boys were prepared to receive and deal with them as they would with any band of marauding animals.
"We'll establish a guard at once," said Ted, "and it will stand as organized until this thing is settled."
"It will have to be kept up night and day," said Ben Tremont. "If these chaps are as clever as I think they will probably seek to do us harm by day as well as night."
"Thar's sense in thet thar," said Bud. "Better make it two watches."
"All right," said Ted. "Ben will have charge of the day watch, and take six of the boys, whom he will detail for duty as he thinks best."
"How do you want to arrange the hours?" asked Ben.
"Suit yourself about that, but I would suggest that the day be divided from six o'clock to six o'clock, day and night."
"Suits me," said Ben. "That will give my six boys a stunt of two hours each, which will make it easy for every one, and insure a constant and careful watch."
"Bud, you will be captain of the night watch," said Ted. "How do you want to arrange it?"
"I would patrol ther house outside," said Bud. "And my fellers would work in pairs. I should think Ben's men could do their best work from the cupola on top o' ther house, usin' ther major's spyglass ter keep tabs on ther horizon in every direction. At night, we can only watch close to the house outside."
"That sounds all right. Get your first guard established at once. We don't know how close they may be to us right now."
Kit was sent into the cupola with the spyglass and a Winchester with its magazine full, to take the first watch.
It was not necessary to give Kit any instructions, for he was a most intelligent guard.
He had not been on watch more than an hour when he whistled to Ted, who was crossing the yard on his way to the corral.
"What is it?" said Ted, stopping and looking up.
"I wish you'd come up here a moment. I see something which puzzles me mightily. It's kind of uncanny," replied Kit.
Ted laughed at Kit's fancy, but went into the house and climbed into the cupola.
"What is it?" he asked, taking his place beside Kit.
"Take the glass and look along my arm to where my finger is pointing, and tell me what you see."
Ted did so, and, after looking for several moments, took down the glass and said:
"It looks to me like a wounded wolf. I never saw a wolf make such strange motions."
"Quick! Look again. What do you see?"
"By Jove!" said Ted slowly. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. That is a wolf all right, but it seems to be waving something white at us. It doesn't seem to be able to move along. I wonder what it is."
"Some trick, probably. Remember what Frederic Caruthers said about the Gray Wolves' visit, and the cleverness of the fellows?"
"Yes. What do you think of it?"
"I think it is a lure to excite our curiosity, and get us to go out there and fall into a trap."
"That sounds reasonable."
"You will notice that the wolf is just over the top of a rise on the prairie. The question is, What is beyond the rise, in the hollow?"
"I'm going out to find out."
"I wouldn't if I were you, Ted."
"I'm afraid it's a trap, and that you'll fall into it."
"We'll never find out what it is if we don't go out there."
"That's a cinch, and that's just what they want you to do."
"Well, I'm going."
Kit knew that when Ted said anything in the tone of voice he had just used he meant it, and that it was useless to argue with him.
"All right, go as far as you like," he said. "I'll keep my eye on you, and if anything happens I'll sound the warning."
Stella and the other members of the Moon Valley outfit were resting against the time when they would be called to duty, and only Kit was there to see Ted catch Sultan out of the corral, saddle him, and ride away.
Ted rode slowly across the prairie to where he had seen the wolf.
But the wolf had disappeared from view just as Ted started from the corral, and Kit could see it no more. He took this for a bad omen. Evidently, the wolf had seen that he had lured a rider from the ranch house, and, having accomplished its purpose, it was no longer necessary to expose itself to attack.
As Ted drew nearer to the spot where he had seen the wolf he went more slowly, and carefully examined his revolvers, and swung his knife sheath loose, so that he could get at that weapon quickly, if it became necessary.
Although he looked carefully to the front, he could not see the wolf.
Kit saw that Ted had missed the place where the wolf had been seen, and that he was too far to the right. He observed, also, that Ted was going cautiously, and that he was preparing for an attack, and he was sure that Ted would be able to take care of himself against fair odds.
Now Ted went forward again and soon gained the top of the rise.
He went very cautiously, peering over the edge.
Suddenly he sprang back and whipped out his revolver, and slowly let himself out of his saddle.
"Ted's found him," muttered Kit in the cupola to Stella, who had climbed up to his side to learn how the watch was going.
"Let me have the glass, Kit," she said.
Kit handed it to her, and she trained it on the figure of Ted, who was creeping along the top of the hill.
"Oh, Kit, he sees the wolf," cried Stella, interpreting for Kit's benefit the little drama being enacted for their benefit on the far-away hilltop.
"What's he doing now?" asked Kit, who was growing impatient from seeing nothing except the changing expressions on Stella's face.
"Ha!" Stella gave forth an excited little exclamation.
"What is it? Give me the glass."
"Go away!" Stella pushed off Kit's hand that was reaching out for the glass.
"Now he's gone. He's out of sight. No; I can see his head. It's going up and down."
A long pause.
"Well, what's doing?" said Kit eagerly, and somewhat impatiently.
"Can't see a thing."
"Oh, rats! Let me look."
"Keep quiet. I see his head now."
"Is that all? What's he doing?"
"Here he comes. I can see his shoulders all bent over."
"Is he hurt?"
"Of course not, silly."
"Then why is he bent over?"
"I believe he's carrying something. Yes. He has something in his arms. Goodness, gracious me!"
"What is it?"
"Why, he's carrying a wolf in his arms. But what a funny wolf."
"I insist upon having the glass. I'm the fellow on watch."
"Kit, you're very rude. Don't bother me. Don't you see through me? Am I not telling you everything that occurs?"
"Oh, what's the use?" Kit shrugged his shoulders in a disgusted way, as if he were expressing the futility of arguing with a woman, and wishing that she were a boy, so that he could punch her head and take back his glass again.
"What's the matter with the wolf?" Kit asked at last, in a sulky tone.
"If you get mad at me, Kit, I won't talk to you." Stella took down the glass for a moment and looked at Kit severely.
"All right, fire away, but tell me what's going on, for Heaven's sake. Don't break off in the middle that way."
"It's an awful big wolf, and its hide don't fit it. Its legs stick out of the skin, and I can see one of its feet. Gracious, it has a queer sort of a boot on it, and this wolf has human hands."
"Stella, quit your fooling. What is going on out there? This is serious. It's no time for nonsense."
"I'm not fooling. I'm quite in earnest. Now Ted's lifting the queer thing onto the saddle, and holding it there."
"Has he killed the wolf, or man, or wolf man, or woman, or whatever crazy thing it is? I knew there was something queer about it," exclaimed Kit.
"I'm sure I don't know whether he killed it or not. I couldn't see through the hill."
"What's he doing now?"
"He has started toward the house, leading the pony and holding the thing in the saddle. Here! Take your old glass! I'm going to ride out and see what it's all about."
She thrust the spyglass into Kit's hand, and, with a merry laugh at his look of disgust, disappeared through the scuttle, and a few minutes later he saw her riding like mad across the prairie toward Ted.
In the course of a half hour they were both back at the house, and Kit's curiosity led him to desert his post to find out what Ted's strange burden was.
Ted lifted something from his saddle and carried it into the house very tenderly.
Stella was very silent, and followed Ted closely, helping as well as she could to uphold his burden.
"What is it?" asked Kit.
"A girl," answered Stella curtly.
Stella paid no attention to him, but rushed ahead of Ted, and led the way to her own room.
"This way, Ted," she cried. "She must be brought in here."
Ted did as he was told, and laid the strange thing he carried on Stella's bed, and stepped back to look at it.
It was the skin of an enormous gray wolf, which all but enveloped a human form. Between the opening in the head, where once had been the cruel jaws of the wolf, peeped a pretty, brown face. But the eyes were closed. And a little, brown hand swung inertly from the place where a wolf's paw once had been; while below was a dainty foot, incased in a Japanese stocking divided, like a mitten, for the big toe.
"Who, or what is it?" asked Kit, looking curiously down at the strange object.
"I think it must be Itsu San, the little Japanese girl who was Helen Mowbray's maid," answered Ted.
"Great Scott, how did she happen in this fix?"
"I don't know. We'll have to wait until she recovers."
"Is she hurt?"
"I don't think so. I think she is merely exhausted by fatigue, hunger, and fear."
Meanwhile, Stella was busy cutting away the wolfskin in which the Japanese girl was concealed and entangled.
The commotion had brought the boys into the room, and they gazed with wonder at the sight.
"Now, you chaps clear out," said Stella, pushing them gently toward the door. "Do you want to scare the poor thing into fits when she comes to? The sight of all you fellows will frighten her worse than ever."
The boys hastened to leave the room, and Stella had just closed the door upon them when Itsu San, for it was she, opened her eyes and gave a little scream of joy when she saw that she was safe, and in the presence of a very pretty and kind-looking American girl of her own age.
"Don't be frightened," said Stella.
"I not no fright now," said Itsu San, with a charming smile, that was like that of a happy baby.
"How in the world did you come to be in this horrid thing?" asked Stella, kicking the wolfskin, which she had thrown to the floor.
"I come to give warn," answered the Japanese girl.
"The Gray Wolves."
"Go ahead and tell me."
"The Gray Wolves catch my blother. I hide, and hear them talk and say they kill all evelybody here."
"Mebbe so to-night. Mebbe so to-mollow."
"Who said that?"
"The devil man."
"Who is he?"
"Mowbray and his men found you and your brother in the place where you were hiding, and took your brother after you had succeeded in hiding. Is that it?"
Itsu San nodded for reply.
"You heard them talking among themselves, and Mowbray planned to attack this house, and kill us all?"
Again the Japanese girl nodded.
"When they had gone you found this wolfskin, and, thinking that it was the only way in which to escape, you crawled into it, and crept all the way here, playing wolf, to warn us?"
"Yes. I crawled to their camp, and heard them talk. I tried to get close to my blother, to cut him loose, but they saw me and drove me away, and shot at me."
"Mercy! But I don't see why they didn't see through your disguise. It wouldn't fool any one."
"It was the half dark."
"Oh, yes. But why didn't you get out of the skin when you came within sight of the house?"
"I not have the strength. I climb the hill and see the house. Then I fall down, and not can rise again. All what I can do is to wave my handkerchief. Then I faint."
"You are a brave and lovely girl, and I already love you like a sister," said Stella warmly. "You shall stay here, and need not be afraid. We will be ready for the Gray Wolves, and they will not kill either us or you. Your warning comes just in time."
BAGGING THE GRAY WOLVES.
That night Ted Strong went on watch himself in the cupola, while Bud and Clay Whipple marched around the house in opposite directions.
Until the threatened attack took place Ted determined that he would watch the house personally, in addition to the regular guard.
About midnight Ted heard a slight noise out on the prairie.
The night was bright and frosty, and the stars shone with a peculiarly brilliant radiance, seemingly larger, brighter, and nearer the earth than in more northern climes.
Instantly his acute senses located the place whence the noise had come.
It was merely a slight rustling, but as there was no wind Ted knew instantly that it had been made by some creature.
His eyes, fixed on the spot, soon became accustomed to the faint light, and he saw an indistinct form that was so near the color of the earth that a pair of eyes not so sharp as his would have failed to detect it.
So indistinct was it that it looked almost like a wraith of grayish-blue smoke by the starlight.
Presently, as he still stared closely at it, he saw another form much like it steal through the dead grass toward it.
Then, over the hills on the east, rose the moon in its first quarter, shedding a pale light over the prairie.
Ted was now able to see that there was a pack of wolves, instead of two, as he at first thought.
The boys on the ground could not see the wolves on account of the tufts of grass that scattered over the prairie, and, had they seen them, would not have been able to distinguish one from the other.
It seemed strange to Ted that the wolves had not yet given voice. It was unusual for wolves to come so near a ranch house in numbers without giving warning by howling.
Suddenly the reason why they did not dawned upon him.
They were not wolves, but men in wolves' clothing.
Ted chuckled at the thought.
The "wolves" did not know yet that they were discovered, for they could not see Ted in his cupola watch-house, although they could easily see Bud and Clay as they walked around the house, now in the full light of the moon.
Ted was suddenly startled by hearing a noise to the left, and at the same time he heard Bud stop in his march. Evidently he had been attracted by the sound also.
As Ted looked he saw the cause of the noise. It was a wolf, larger than the others, which had crept closer to the house.
As he was looking at it he was astonished to see it rise up.
Then he caught the glint of a revolver barrel in the moonlight.
In an instant he knew the meaning of it.
With the precision of a machine his own rifle rose to his shoulder, and, without a second's hesitation, a streak of flame belched from it, followed by the roar of the report.
Looking closely through the smoke, Ted saw the "wolf" straighten up to the full stature of a man, then fall to the ground, over which it went writhing and tossing, while at the same time the most human of yells expressing agony came from it.
This was the signal for the other "wolves" to howl, and the most unearthly noise come from all sides of the house.
These were followed by a perfect fusillade of rifle and revolver shots from everywhere, most of them aimed at the cupola.
But as soon as Ted had fired the shot that had brought down the man wolf he had jumped through the scuttle into the attic of the house, and the balls harmlessly riddled the cupola.
From a window on the second floor Ted saw a score or more of forms leap into prominence; the forms of men who cast aside their skins of wolf, and who had turned their wolfish howls into the scarcely less fiendish yells of men.
At the sight he rushed downstairs, and found the boys hastily gathering in the dark living room, arming themselves from the gun rack, and taking their places beside the windows.
In the middle of the room stood the major, supporting with one arm the unsteady form of his brother Frederic, who had risen at the first alarm in spite of his wound, and who insisted upon fighting with the rest.
"The Gray Wolves have come," he said. "They will be hard to drive off. But you must do it, or go yourselves."
Stella and the young Japanese girl were standing at one of the windows peering fearfully out.
"Come away from there, Stella," said Ted. "They might see you and fire."
"All right, Ted, but you can bet that I will be in this somewhere," said Stella. "It's my business to defend this girl, and I'm going to do it."
Ted smiled, but said nothing, and passed on around the room, seeing that the boys were properly placed to resist the attack when it came.
Outside all was quiet again. The howls had ceased, and not a man was in evidence anywhere. It was the calm before the storm.
"What's the plan?" said Bud, coming up to Ted, for he and Clay had run into the house at Ted's shot from the cupola.
"I hardly know," answered Ted. "My plan is somewhat upset. I thought at first that they were going to attack us immediately in this room. But they seem to have changed their minds."
"I've got a hunch," said Bud, scratching his head in a meditative way.
"Let us have it. That's what we need now."
"They're creeping up on us. I see one o' them a minute ago. They're countin' on gettin' up ter ther house before we expect 'em, an' then pourin' a volley inter us, an' puttin' us out o' business quick."
"That would be like that brute Mowbray."
"I've got it figgered that way. Now, s'posin' we fool 'em by not bein' here. They sneak until they git so's they kin fire through ther windows without any danger ter themselves, an' run away. But we ain't here."
"Where will we be?"
"Comin' up on them from behind."
"That's the stuff. Notify the boys at once. We'll get behind the house and creep up on them through the grass. We'll fool them at their own game."
As silently as ghosts the broncho boys deserted the living room and went to the back door. After carefully reconnoitering the situation without, Ted softly opened the door, and led the boys into the shadow of the house, and they crept away through the tall grass.
Only Frederic Caruthers and Stella and the Japanese girl remained in the house.
Skirting the house grounds, the boys were soon out on the prairie, giving their enemies a wide berth.
Raising his head slightly from behind a tuft of grass, Ted took stock of the position of the enemy.
In the shadow of the house beneath the windows of the living room he could see the still darker shadows of the Gray Wolves.
Leading the boys into a semicircle from which at a word of command they could rush the house, Ted passed this word along the line:
"If they enter the house, as they probably will, we will close in quietly, rush the house, and capture them inside. Let none of them escape, and make no noise."
They had not many minutes to wait before the Gray Wolves began to get uneasy.
Evidently they expected some movement within the house, and the continued silence puzzled them.
But suddenly, like the scream of a tempest, the still air was shattered with wild yells and pistol shots, followed by the crash of breaking glass.
The Gray Wolves had stormed the house, breaking in the windows, smashing in the front door, and making all the noise they could, with the object of frightening the inmates into a condition where they would be unable to defend themselves.
Stella, with young Caruthers and Itsu San, had locked themselves into a back room, which they could defend for a few minutes at least against all comers.
As the Gray Wolves attacked the house Ted gave the word to advance, and they moved forward as one man, crouching behind the grass tufts to be out of sight of any guard the Wolves might have set.
It took not more than a minute or two to reach the side of the house, and look through the windows.
Inside the living room men could be seen running back and forth, searching for the broncho boys and the treasure.
Finally a wild yell told Ted that the safe had been found.
"That's good," said Ted to Bud. "They're at the safe. It will take all their attention for a while. They don't know, poor fools, that the treasure has been carried out and buried elsewhere. There's where we'll bag most of them. When we get in, boys, look out for Mowbray. Don't let him escape."
At a signal the boys climbed into the living room, which was now deserted, for the Wolves had scattered all over the house. Most of them were in the major's room working on the safe.
They had tried to move it from the house, but it proved too heavy for them, and they were now trying to break it open with an ax which they had found in one of the lower rooms.
Ted had heard the blows as they beat upon the lock, and in the din it was not a difficult thing for the broncho boys to get into the house without being heard.
Several of the Wolves, in searching the lower part of the house, had discovered the locked room in which Stella and the other two were in hiding.
They had attempted to batter down the door, only to be driven from it by shots sent at them by Stella and Caruthers.
"Trouble back there, Bud," said Ted. "I guess some one is trying to get at Stella. Take a couple of the boys, and go back and stop it."
"What are you goin' ter do?" asked Bud, who was afraid the rescuing assignment would cut him out of the fight above stairs.
Just at that moment there was a tremendous explosion overhead, the crash of glass and the triumphant yells of the Gray Wolves.
"I'm going upstairs," yelled Ted. "When you've driven off or captured these fellows down here, come up."
At this he dashed away for the broad stairs that led to the upper story, followed by the broncho boys and Major Caruthers.
They had just reached the landing above when the yell of triumph turned to one of baffled rage, for the Wolves had found that the safe was empty.
Ted Strong, with a look such as a conquering warrior might wear, burst into the room where the Wolves were clustered around the empty safe.
Behind him followed the boys.
"Surrender!" shouted Ted.
The Gray Wolves wheeled to look into a perfect battery of rifles. Not to surrender meant death. To attempt to raise a hand would bring a shot, or a dozen.
The Gray Wolves realized that they were in a trap, and that if they made the least resistance they would be shot down.
"Throw your guns on the floor!" commanded Ted.
He was obeyed.
"Gather up those guns," said Ted. Bud and Clay stepped forward, and gathered in the rifles and revolvers.
Ted's eyes were running over the group of prisoners trying to pick out Mowbray, when suddenly there was a smashing of glass, and, as he turned in that direction, he saw a form taking a flying leap through the window to the ground, and, quick as a flash, he fired and rushed to the window.
But when he got there his only reward was the sight of a man on horseback headed for the hills, swaying dangerously in his saddle.
Mowbray had escaped, but he had taken with him an unpleasant reminder of Ted Strong.
WHITE FANG LEADS HOME.
Ted herded the Gray Wolves into one of the rooms and placed guards at the door and at the outside windows.
The desperadoes were thoroughly cowed. Burk was so frightened that he was willing to do anything Ted said, and cringed to the leader of the broncho boys like a thrashed cur.
"What are you goin' to do with us?" he asked Ted.
"I'm going to put you where you will no longer disgrace the office you held by the authority of the United States," said Ted promptly. "You will get all you deserve."
"Let me down easy," begged Burk.
"You don't deserve it. You will be in jail as soon as it gets light enough to march you to Rodeo."
The first thing for Ted to do was to get rid of his prisoners, then to go after Mowbray, the archcriminal, and bring him to justice, and to arrest Ban Joy, the Japanese thug, whom he was convinced was the murderer of Helen Mowbray.
There was one more thing that demanded his attention for the safety of the live stock as well as the people of the Bubbly Well Ranch, and that was the destruction of White Fang, the demon wolf that was as well known in that part of the country as a destructive agency as Mowbray, the thief and murderer, himself.
For years White Fang had preyed upon the ranchmen, exacting a heavy toll in cattle and sheep. Every huntsman in the country had taken to the chase for him, but the cunning old rascal had outwitted or out-footed them all.
The following afternoon the broncho boys, led by Ted Strong, marched up the main street of Rodeo to the jail with a score of desperadoes bound to their horses.
When they appeared a great many of the townspeople, friends of the prisoners, gathered and made a demonstration to take them away from the boys.
Ted immediately formed the boys in a circle about the prisoners.
With rifles trained upon the crowd the broncho boys held them off while Ted spoke to them quietly, but with a force that carried conviction. He told the people just what the prisoners had done, and what he expected to prove against them, hinting that there were other men in the town who would join them in jail if what he suspected proved to be true. Later in the day a strange thing happened: Several men in high office disappeared from the town, and were never seen there more.
Having turned his prisoners over to the sheriff, the boys rode back to the Bubbly Well Ranch, feeling safe from further depredations for a time at least.
On the lower part of the ranch the wolves had been playing havoc with the calves and the yearlings, and the major's cowboys were continually bringing in news of the depredations of the pack.
The pack was led by old White Fang, the cowboys said, and they could do nothing with him. Whatever traps they laid for him were upset by the cunning of the old rascal, and he made life miserable for the men responsible for the cattle.
"What are we going to do about him?" said the major one day to Ted. "I suppose we'd better organize a big hunt, and drive the wolves out of the country."
"No use," said Ted. "The old beggar would hide in the mountains until it was over, and then renew the attack on you."
"What do you propose, then?"
"I'm going out after him myself, and I'll not come back until I get him."
Stella, who was curled up in a big chair in the living room reading, looked up quickly when Ted said this, and smiled out of the corner of her mouth, for she scented sport in this.
"I think I'll go along," said the major.
"I'd like to have you, major, but it won't do this time. You are too heavy a rider. It will take a light rider to turn the trick with White Fang," answered Ted, and the major looked a bit taken back.
But Stella chuckled to herself. If it took a light rider, she was in that class.
Later in the day she saw Ted and Bud go toward the corral. Ted carried in his hand a new, strong Mexican lariat.
She watched them a few minutes before she realized their mission.
"I believe they're going on the wolf hunt," she said to herself, "and without me." Her eyes flashed. "We'll see about that."
She ran into her room, and soon emerged ready for a ride. But when she got on the veranda Ted and Bud were galloping away across the prairie.
Without hesitating she ran to the corral, caught her pony and saddled it, and was in pursuit.
Ted heard the clatter of her pony's feet and turned to see her coming at whirlwind speed, and slowed up to wait for her.
"Ha, ha!" she cried, as she came up with them, her face wreathed in smiles. "Thought you'd go without me, eh?"
"Didn't think you'd care about such a commonplace thing as chasing a wolf," said Ted.
"Well, I'm going," she answered, putting her pony into a gallop.
They rode for the lower pasture, which ran up into the foothills of Sombrero Peak, where the recent depredations of the wolves had been bothering the cow-punchers.
They passed small herds of cattle grazing here and there, attended by herders, who waved their hands to the trio as they swept past.
As they were entering the foothills Ted's keen eye caught sight of a slinking form on the rise of a hill running parallel with their path.
He reined in suddenly and looked long at it.
"By Jove, I believe that's our game over there," he said. "Take a look at it, Bud and Stella. Don't you think that is White Fang?"
"It shore is, er his twin brother," said Bud, to which Stella nodded acquiescence.
"Take it easy," said Ted. "We'll ride toward him, and when we get as close as we can without his bolting, put your spurs to it and chase him for all you're worth. He can run like a scared rabbit."
They rode easily toward the wolf, who looked up at them with a wise, sidewise twist of his hoary old head, but did not increase his speed any.
"He's tolling us into the hills where he can easily get lost," said Ted. "Don't let him do it! Head him off! Turn him back to the prairie."
Diverging, they rode parallel with White Fang again, and, before he suspected their maneuver, they were ahead of him, and began to close in.
But finally White Fang stopped and watched them for a moment, then deliberately turned and set off on the back trail at a smart lope along the ridge he had come.
"I wish we had a couple of Russian wolfhounds here," said Ted, as the three were breezing along in the trail of White Fang. "That would make it something like a chase."
"I'm bettin' that ole galoot will give us somethin' ter do before we ketch up with him, at that," said Bud.
"Close up on him," said Ted. "He's having too good a time."
They let their horses out a notch or two, and closed up on White Fang, who was off the ridge by this time, and galloping across the prairie.
The old wolf did not seem to have as much steam in him as usual, and loped along in easy fashion, occasionally looking over his shoulder at them, apparently gauging the distance and their speed.
"The only way to get close to him is to spurt when he isn't thinking about it," said Ted. "Let 'em out!"
A prick of the spur sent their horses forward on the leap.
Ted was coiling his rope in his hand ready for a cast, and Stella and Bud followed his example.
"When we get close enough to throw, scatter out, and be ready to let your rope go if either of us misses. All ready now!"
Ted dashed forward, swinging his rope around his head, and when he was close enough he made a beautiful cast and the rope went through the air as true as a bullet, hovering in a sinuous loop above White Fang. But just as it was about to settle the wily old rascal dodged to one side, and the rope fell into the sand.
"He's a cute chap," shouted Ted, bringing in his rope without slackening his speed, while Bud's rope flew through the air and missed the wolf by about a foot.
Stella was in a bad position to throw, and withheld her rope.
Again they closed in upon the wolf, who had begun to grow more wary and had hit up his speed, dodging and turning on his trail, making some swift turns and nimble feats of horsemanship necessary to keep within roping distance of him.
In this manner a dozen or more unsuccessful casts were made.
At last Ted got tired of the hide-and-seek game, and determined to end it.
"I'm going to get him this time," he shouted, gathering his rope firmly. "Back me up!"
He dashed at White Fang, with Bud and Stella on either side of him. Swinging his rope about his head, Ted watched his opportunity.
Suddenly the loop left his hand and shot as unerringly toward the wolf as if it had left the muzzle of a rifle.
It soared through the air like a thing of life, twisting as gracefully and sinuously as a serpent. For an instant the wide loop hovered over the gray, swiftly running animal. Then it fell suddenly, and settled over and around the seemingly doomed animal.
But White Fang, king of the pack, was too old a villain to be caught so easily. He leaped through the loop of Ted's lariat like a circus performer through a hoop.
But Stella's rope whizzed through the air and caught the old fellow unawares.
Then it seemed as if all the forces of wild nature had been turned loose.
The wolf leaped into the air as he felt the rope tighten around his neck, and threw himself here and there with a violence inconceivable, snapping at the rope and trying to sever it. But Stella's lariat was of Mexican rawhide, and even White Fang's sharp teeth had no effect on it.
The rope tightened and slacked in the struggle, and, had it been of ordinary texture, it would never have stood the strain.
Ted had ridden up to the plunging beast, and began to belabor it with his quirt, to take the spirit out of it. The wolf had never felt the sting of a whip before. It was such a new experience to it that it stopped bucking in sheer amazement. But Ted did not discontinue, and the wolf slunk upon the ground, its wild nature thoroughly tamed for the time.
"Stop!" cried Stella. "Let us see what he will do now."
Ted rode away, and the wolf sat up on its haunches, and, lifting its head toward the mountains, gave a long, wailing, dismal howl.
"He knows he's done for," said Ted. "That's his death song."
"Let him do what he will," cried Stella.
Presently White Fang rose, tried to shake the rope from his neck, and when he found that he could not do so, got up and started on a trot toward the mountains.
"Follow him," cried Ted. "He's leading us home. Who can say what we will find there?"
They followed the wolf through coulees and over rocky ridges in the foothills, and through a canon at the base of Sombrero Peak.
They climbed rocky paths, higher and higher up the side of the peak. White Fang's captors followed him silently. No more did he try to escape from the rope. He seemed to have given up hope, and was going home to die.
At last they arrived at the wall of a precipice, along which ran a narrow ledge just wide enough for their ponies to travel.
The path was well worn, as if many animals, including men, had passed that way.
Suddenly it dawned upon Ted where the wolf was leading.
Where but to the rendezvous of the band of the Gray Wolves?
He straightened up and looked to his revolvers, and then the wolf slunk around a bend on the cliff's side and walked into a cave.
Ted followed him closely, and stopped in the entrance in amazement. Just within sat Mowbray propped against the side wall, his face drawn and haggard, his eyes half glazed with approaching death.
But he stirred as Ted appeared, and groped about for his revolver.
"Stop!" cried Ted. "The game's up!"
Mowbray's hand dropped weakly by his side, as the wolf slunk to him and licked his face, at which the dying man raised his arm and placed it around the neck of the king of the pack, the most savage wolf in Arizona.
Ted could not but respect this strange exhibition of animal affection, so unusual.
There was a moaning cry from the depths of the cave, and Ted dismounted and went in to see what had caused it.
Chained to a rock he found the emaciated body of the Jap, Ban Joy, whom he suspected of being the murderer of Helen Mowbray. Here was luck. The wolf had led him to the two men whom he most wanted to capture.
"Now, Joy, I want you to tell me the truth," said Ted, when he had released the Japanese. "Did you murder Miss Mowbray, and why did you do it?"
The Jap looked at him with growing intelligence in his eyes.
"Me no kill. Mistah Mowbray kill with cord. I see him, and he tly to kill me."
Ted looked at Mowbray, who had straightened up and was listening.
Then he nodded his head, and signaled to Ted to give him a drink of water. After he had drunk he seemed stronger.
"Come here," he said, in a hoarse whisper. Ted went to his side.
"I might as well confess," he said. "It will make the end easier. I will be dead in a few minutes, for I am mortally wounded. I would have released that poor devil of a Japanese, but I hadn't the strength to go to him."
"Take it easy," said Ted.
"I murdered Helen Mowbray by strangling her with a cord," he said, after a pause. "I did it because I had gambled away everything I had and needed money—and she wouldn't give it to me.
"I lived for many years in India, and there I became a member of the sect known as the Thugs, who use a cord to strangle their victims. She cast me off, and when she refused to help me I became enraged and killed her. I am sorry now, for she was a fine woman, but I needed money."
"Then Farnsworth had nothing to do with it?" asked Ted.
"Tell me another thing. Did Farnsworth, so called, have anything to do with the murder of the Spooner family in Somber Pass?"
"No, I and my men did that. Farnsworth has led a pretty clean life. He has stood for the crimes I committed for the sake of his sister. Wherever and whenever I got into a scrape I used his name, and put the crimes I committed upon him, and he stood for them on account of his sister's name."
"Is he a bad man? Has he killed many men?"
"Only such as he had to, to defend his sister's name. I say it was I who was guilty of the crimes charged to him. I hate him, and always have done so, but I am dying, and it is only fair play to clear him."
"That is all I want to know," said Ted, trying to make the man more comfortable. But he was beyond help, and in less than a half hour he sighed, and his wicked spirit passed away.
Ted and Bud buried him on the mountainside, and, after releasing White Fang, watched it for a few moments.
It went to the edge of a peak overlooking a deep chasm, and there sat on its haunches howling dismally.
Then, to the amazement of all, it straightened up and leaped far out, turning over and over in its descent until it fell in the rocky bottom of the chasm, crushed and broken.
Ted and the broncho boys, together with Stella, remained at the Bubbly Well Ranch until well into the winter, when the entire party returned to the Moon Valley Ranch to spend several uneventful weeks.
"Is this the Moon Valley outfit?"
A young cavalry officer galloped up to the head of a beef trail that strung backward for the better part of a mile, the cattle plodding on wearily, guarded by a dozen or more tired and cross cow-punchers.
"It is, lieutenant," answered Ted Strong, eying the epaulets on the officer's tunic, and reading his rank.
The lieutenant was in anything but a pleasant frame of mind, and looked sneeringly at Ted, and at the tired cattle behind him.
"Well, another fifteen minutes' delay would have cost you the contract," he said. "It seems to me that you have been taking your time. Don't you know that a government contract means business, and that to-day doesn't mean to-morrow?"
This was said in such an uppish and unpleasant manner that Ted could scarce restrain an angry reply, for he was tired out with the long drive, which had been unusually full of dangers and vexatious delays.
But instead of making a sharp answer he merely smiled at the officer, and said:
"Yes, I understand all about government contracts and the penalties for not living up to them. But I am within the government reservation, and here are my cattle, and I have, as you say, fifteen minutes to spare."
"Well, we consider that you are overdue, as you should have been here in time to have the cattle inspected and formally accepted before the time allowance elapsed."
"Nothing in the contract that says so," said Ted, still pleasantly.
"Well, it's usage, and that goes in the army."
"I'm not in the army."
"I don't want any words with you on the matter. It is sufficient that you are late, and that you have been the cause of a great deal of worry and annoyance."
Ted was beginning to get angry at the officer's tone and looks.
He turned from the lieutenant to the herd, and shouted:
"Bud, round 'em up and bed 'em. This is as far as we go to-night."
"No, you don't," said the lieutenant. "You will drive into the quarantine pasture, where your stock will be inspected in the morning."
Ted paid no attention to him, and the rounding up of the herd began as he had ordered, while the lieutenant fumed and fussed and swore.
At last he could stand it no longer, and dashed away from Ted's side to where Bud was superintending the work of the cow-punchers.
"Here, none of that," he said brusquely to Bud, who looked even more disreputable than Ted.
"See here, who are you alludin' at?" asked Bud, wheeling around on him.
"I'm talking to you. I want those cattle driven in to the pasture, and I want no delay or nonsense about it," cried the officer angrily.
"Now, run along, little soldier boy, don't yer see I'm busy?" Bud looked at the officer with a tolerant pity.
Ted now rode up and interfered.
"I'm capable of giving all the orders necessary to my men," he said gently. "You will please not interfere."
"Who are you?" asked the lieutenant, with a sneer.
"My name is Ted Strong."
The lieutenant looked at him with some curiosity and respect.
"Oh," he said. "I thought perhaps you were some kind of a foreman. My name is Lieutenant Barrows."
Ted acknowledged it with a slight bow.
"I am in charge of this delivery of beef to the department, and as you are already late I wish you to send this herd further into the reservation."
"I am sorry I cannot comply with your wish," said Ted, "but it will be impossible to-night. The cattle made a forced march to-day, and are tired out, and, besides, they have just been watered, and have only time to graze a full feed before they bed. I am explaining all this to show you that my action in not doing what you wish was not through spite, but in the best interests of both the government and ourselves."
"It is my duty to inspect the animals, and——"
"I can't help that. The cattle do not go forward a foot farther to-night. I will get them into the pasture early in the morning."
"That will be too late," said the officer curtly. "I shall inform the commandant of the post, Colonel Croffut, that you are late and that you refuse to obey orders."
"Confound your impudence, who are you to give orders to me?" asked Ted, mad in a minute.
"As I told you, I am the inspector, and it seems to me that it would be good policy, to say the least, to cater to my wishes somewhat."
"What do I care for your wishes? Less than that, if I am doing the right thing and stand within my own rights;" and he snapped his fingers.
"Perhaps you may be sorry."
"That's my affair."
"Very well. I am to understand that you refuse to move the cattle on to-night."
"You've got it right."
The lieutenant bowed, and, turning, rode slowly away with an ugly scowl on his face.
"I reckon Little Bright Eyes has got it in fer you now," said Bud, who had ridden up in time to hear this part of the conversation. "He's aimin' ter do some dirty work, I reckon."
"Oh, bother him! He got me all worked up and angry, and that always makes me feel bad. I wish he had happened to be somewhere else. Forget him! We'll drive the herd in early in the morning. He couldn't have inspected the beeves this evening, anyway."
It took some little time to get the big herd in shape for the night, and Ted was washing himself and putting on some clean clothes when a soldier dashed up on a horse and asked for Mr. Strong.
"I am Strong," said Ted, rubbing his head and neck vigorously with a rough towel.
The soldier looked at Ted in some surprise, as the colonel had alluded to him as the "government beef contractor."
"Well?" said Ted.
"I guess it's your father I want," said the soldier.
"Guess again. There's no such person here."
"Are you the beef contractor?"
"Surest thing you know. What do you want?"
"Colonel's compliments, sir, and the colonel would like to have you call at his quarters at the first convenient moment."
"What about? These beef cattle?"
"I don't know, sir; I didn't hear him say."
"All right. Tell him I'll be there in a few minutes. Where is his house?"
"Last house on the right-hand side of the parade, as you go in."
Ted nodded, and went on dressing himself. He was as tired as a dog, but he supposed the commandant wanted to talk to him about the cattle, and he would have to go.
As he rode up to the commandant's quarters he saw a young man and a very pretty girl talking on the veranda, and when he had ascended the steps he saw that the man was none other than Lieutenant Barrows.
He was just about to ring the bell when the girl looked at him, and her eyes brightened because Ted Strong, straight and stalwart, with his fine, handsome head and straightforward, honest eyes, was a person very good to look at.
"Do you wish to see papa?" she asked, coming forward.
"Colonel Croffut expressed a desire to speak with me," answered Ted, lifting his hat.
"If you will wait a moment I will call him," said Miss Croffut, for, of course, Ted had guessed who she was from her question.
She tripped into the hall, and called to her father, and then entered a room, and was followed by the commandant himself.
"So you are Ted Strong, the beef contractor," said Colonel Croffut, looking Ted over.
The colonel was a big man with a pink face and a brusque manner.
"I am," said Ted coolly.
"Excuse me. Take a seat. You needn't go, Hallie. Keep your seat, Barrows." The colonel motioned Ted into a chair, and took one himself.
For several minutes he sat blowing clouds of smoke into the air from his cigar, but saying nothing.
Miss Croffut and Lieutenant Barrows continued their conversation about lawn tennis and riding, as if Ted were not there, but the lieutenant observed that Miss Croffut's eyes strayed often toward Ted, and it made him irritable.
"See here, young man," said the colonel, turning suddenly upon Ted in a manner that in another person would indicate that the commandant was very angry. "What do you mean by sending such a message to me?"
"I sent no message to you," said Ted quietly. "I didn't even know your name until your striker mentioned it to me a few minutes ago."
Had Ted looked at the young lady at the other end of the veranda he would have seen an irrepressible smile flit across her features, as she looked at her father.
"That was a facer for dad," she whispered to Lieutenant Barrows, who frowned. "The idea of telling papa that he had never heard of him, the great warrior and Indian fighter, Colonel Croffut."
The colonel stared at Ted with a sort of amazement for a moment, and grunted:
"Well, you're likely to know a great deal more about me before we're through with one another."
"I hope so," said Ted pleasantly. "But what is your business with me?"
"I'll speak of it when I come to it," said the old soldier.
"Then you'll have to be quick about it, for I've been in the saddle continuously for six weeks, and I'm tired. Besides, I've got a day's work to do before I turn in to-night."
There was something crisp and business-like in Ted's speech, and not at all impertinent, that caused the colonel to look at him again.
"What's this I hear about your refusal to accede to our just demand that the cattle intended to fill your contract be turned into our pasture?" asked the colonel sharply.
"Only this," answered Ted: "I arrived here just in time, with my stock worn out from forced marches. I had just let them have all the water they could drink, and it was necessary that they should have a good feed in order to rest well to-night to be in condition to stand inspection to-morrow. I was well within my rights in deciding not to move them any farther to-night."
"I understand that you were impertinent to the officer who made this request to you," thundered the colonel.
Ted laughed softly to himself.
"If I was impertinent to him I was there and perfectly responsible, personally, for my conduct. It was wholly unofficial, and I cannot see why he should come to you with it."
Ted looked at the lieutenant, who had flushed angrily.
The girl looked from Ted to Barrows, and then at her father.
"That is not the question, sir. He represents the army in his person when he comes to you on the army's business."
"Well, I can't fight the whole army," said Ted, laughing, "but I can certainly take care of myself in all ordinary matters."
Barrows half rose in his chair as if he was going to resent Ted's remark.
"Sit down, Barrows," said the colonel explosively. "The young man is right as far as that is concerned. Now, sir, I've half a mind not to accept your beef at all. I consider that you have not properly filled the contract."
"I certainly have," said Ted stoutly. "The beef was on the government reservation fifteen minutes before the time limit according to the acknowledgment of Lieutenant Barrows himself."
"I said no such thing," almost shouted the lieutenant.
"Be careful," said Ted. "That is giving me the lie direct. Several of my men heard you say so."
"Mr. Barrows, please be quiet," said Miss Croffut. "I shall go in."
"I beg your pardon, Miss Croffut," said Ted, rising and bowing. "I had no intention of carrying on a quarrel in your presence. Colonel, I shall be glad to discuss this matter with you in your office if you wish, but not here. I have no quarrel with you, and I do not propose to, if I can avoid it."
"I presume you mean that you would quarrel with me," said Barrows, blustering up.
"I have no objection in the world, but not in a lady's presence," said Ted, turning from him carelessly.
"I don't like your attitude at all, Mr. Strong," said the colonel. "That is not my idea of army discipline, in fact, sir——"
"Excuse me, colonel," said an officer, bustling up, "don't forget that to-morrow is beef-issue day to the Indians, and that we must have three hundred head before noon to-morrow. There is not a hoof in the government pasture."
Barrows was trying to attract the other officer's attention with vigorous shakes of his head, which Ted, although his back was toward Barrows, saw reflected in the window.
What could the matter be? Were they so short of beef at the post and a beef issue coming off, and then attempt to bluff him with their army rulings? He saw through it all, and now he would stand pat, and take nobody's bluff.
The officer walked away at a signal from the colonel, who turned to Ted.
"I want you to go back to your herd and drive it into the government pasture at once, do you hear, at once?" he said in a tone of great severity.
"I think not," said Ted. "The herd stays where it is until morning, or if it must be driven at all it will be over the way it came."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean that I forfeit the contract. The cattle are mine to do with as I please. I shall immediately proceed to drive them off the reservation."
"But that will ruin you."
"That's my business. Good evening, sir."
"Wait a moment. Don't you know that we must have the beef; that there is an Indian beef issue to-morrow?"
"I didn't know it until a moment ago. Now I know a lot more than I did when I came here."
"Confound it, boy, there'll be an Indian uprising if we don't give them their beef to-morrow."
"That's for you to take care of. Good evening. The contract is declared off."
Ted hurried back to the cow camp.
"Stuff's off," he shouted, when he came within shouting distance. The boys, who were lounging around the fire, resting from their arduous drive, sprang to their feet.
"What's the row?" asked big Ben Tremont.
"They insist upon our driving the herd about five miles farther into the reservation to-night, so that that lazy lieutenant who is to do the inspecting in the morning will have as little trouble as possible. I refused to do it, and they tried to run a sandy on me, but I wouldn't stand for it. If they'd been white to me I would have had the cattle in there if it took me all night."
"That duck o' a lootenant wuz a trifle gay," said Bud. "He tried to run a blazer on yer Uncle Dudley, but I told him to run along, an' I reckon he'll have no Christmas present for me this year."
"Did you tell the boss there was nothing doing in the moving line?" asked Ben.
"You bet I did," answered Ted. "That gay lieutenant who was here ran at once to the boss with his tale of woe, and the boss threw his chest out at me and tried the little-boy game on me. He thought he had me bluffed when in comes another officer, who told him that a beef issue to the Indians was due to-morrow, and that there wasn't an animal in the post pasture."
"Wow!" exclaimed Bud. "That means trouble for some one, unless they can dig up something to take its place, for an Indian who has his mouth made up fer fresh meat is lierble ter become rantankerous if he don't get it."
"I guess that's why they were so anxious to get the beef up to the pasture to-night," said Kit.
"Of course. When I heard that all my nerve came back to me, and I decided that I would give those officers a lesson."
"What are you going to do?" asked Ben.
"Drive the herd off the reservation."
"Gee, that will put us in the hole bad."
"Oh, I don't know. We'll trail them a little farther north, keep them a few months on free range, then drive them to the railroad and slide them into Chicago on a rising market. I had the whole thing figured out in case we got here too late, which I expected to do on account of our being held back by dry weather and too much water, coming in streaks."
"I'd like to have been there when you were throwing your bluff into the colonel. I suppose he had the surprise of his life."
"He looked like it. By Jove, he has a mighty pretty daughter, if he is a grouch himself."
"Seem to have an eye for beauty yourself."
"Not as keen as yours." Ben blushed when Ted said this, for Ben was always having a new girl and talking about her.
"I noticed her because she was so pleasant, and so different from her father, and that fellow Barrows, who seems to be very soft on her."
"Well, we have no fight with the ladies of the post," said Ben.
"How did it end?" asked Kit, who always wanted results.
"I simply told them that they couldn't have the cattle now, and walked away."
"That must have been a facer."
"Seemed to be, for the colonel called after me to know if I was aware that if the beef issue didn't come off there would probably be an Indian uprising, and I told him it was up to him."
"Well, I suppose it's hike," said Bud, pulling on his boots.
"Yes, get the dogies up, and we'll trail them back until we are out of the reservation. It's not far."
The boys mounted, and rode among the cattle, getting them to their feet.
Soon the herd was moving slowly along the back trail, with Ted and Bud pointing them out.
Suddenly, from the woods to the right rode a band of horsemen in the dark, for the sun had long since gone down.
"What's this? A holdup?" asked Bud.
"Can't tell yet. By Jove, I believe they are soldiers. I wonder if they are going to try to stop us."
"S'posing they try it?"
"We'll have to ride it out. I wouldn't be held up on the reservation now for anything. That would spoil it all. They would do anything they wanted with us if we stood for that, and throw out a lot of legitimate stock to get square with us."
"What do you mean?"
"If they're soldiers, and try to keep us in, you ride back and start the herd to stampeding. Let the soldiers take care of themselves. If they're regular cavalry, they will be able to ride well enough to get out of the way."
"Bully idea. O' course, we can't help it if the cattle get scared at them bright uniforms, an' git ter runnin'." Bud chuckled at the thought.
The voice of Lieutenant Barrows rang out commandingly.
"Now's your chance, Bud," said Ted. "Mind you, get them started good and plenty. I don't care if they run five miles."
Presently, from the rear of the herd came a shout of warning, and the herd increased its speed from a lazy walk into a trot.
Back in the darkness the cowboys were riding through the herd hurrying up the cattle with their quirts.
From a trot they broke into a gallop, and this soon grew into a perfect rout, for cattle are easily frightened at night.
As soon as Ted saw that the cattle were going to run, sure enough, he dashed across the intervening space to where the dark forms were standing in the path of the oncoming cattle.
He saw at once that it was Lieutenant Barrows and a squad of cavalrymen, and that they were armed with carbines. He resented this, as the lieutenant had no business to arm his men in this way for such an errand.
As Ted rode up, he shouted:
"Get out of the way, if you don't want to be trampled to death."
"What do you mean, you scoundrel?" shouted Barrows. "Halt, when I give the command, or take the consequences."
"Out of the way, you fool!" shouted Ted, as he swept past. "Don't you see that the cattle are stampeding?"
If the lieutenant did not know it, being so recently out of West Point, the men did, for with a yell they turned and rode like mad for the side lines.
Then, for the first time, the young officer, hearing the sullen bellow of the cattle and the thunder of the hoofs, turned and followed Ted.
But the leaders were almost upon him, and, realizing that death was following him fast, he gave an agonizing cry.
Ted heard the cry, and understood its import.
While he disliked and despised the bullying officer, he had no desire to see harm come to him.
The lieutenant's horse, while a good-enough cavalry animal in times of peace, was not the match of the cow ponies, and was already badly winded, as well as frightened, and was losing ground steadily.
"Bear off to the right!" shouted Ted repeatedly. But the officer was evidently too frightened or rattled to understand, and kept blundering along.
Ted saw that disaster was sure to follow in a short while if Barrows didn't change his tactics.
The herd was going at regulation stampede speed now, but this did not cause Ted to think of his own danger when he deliberately turned Sultan and came galloping back upon the advancing sea of sharp horns.
In a moment he was beside Barrows, wheeled suddenly, and began to ride against the cavalry horse, forcing it to one side, and urging it on with lashes of his quirt.
At last he got the heavy brute going the way he wanted and soon it was out of danger, as the frantic herd swept by with a roar like that of a lightning express rushing over a culvert.
Barrows was sitting on his trembling horse, pale, and with beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.
"You did that on purpose, curse you," snarled the lieutenant. "You made those cattle run."
Ted looked at him in astonishment. He thought at least that the soldier would murmur some few words of gratitude for having been saved from a horrible death.
"You're a grateful chap, I must say," said Ted. "You weren't far from kingdom come then, I can tell you."
"I'll see that you are punished for this," said Barrows, wheeling his horse and riding out of sight in the direction of the post.
It was two hours before the boys headed the cattle and got them to milling, and then broke them up and succeeded in getting them bedded down.
As they got a new camp fire made, and were lying around it, Bud said, with a laugh:
"That was a mighty slick trick o' yours, Ted. It certainly took ther herd off ther reservation in a hurry."
"I don't see yet why it was necessary to stampede them," said Ben, who was sore at having had to do so much work getting the herd together again.
"Can't, eh?" said Bud. "That's all er collidge eddication done fer yer? Why, if we hadn't got them cattle off'n thar pretty pronto, thet thar lootenant would hev bagged every animile on foot. But Ted, he foresee what they wuz up ter, an' ther simplest way wuz ter run 'em off in a fake stampede. It done ther work, too, fer we're out o' ther reservation whar they can't touch us."
Except for the night guard, the boys rolled themselves in their blankets and were soon sound asleep.
The next morning Ted began to drift the herd slowly into the north, where there was plenty of free range. They were still well within view of the fort.
It was almost time for the beef issue at the post, and Ted and Bud, walking their ponies slowly along in the lead of the herd, were talking about it.
"Wonder they ain't been out to head us off this morning?" said Bud.
"They know they cannot take forcible possession of our cattle when we are off the reservation," answered Ted. "Hello, what's that heading this way?"
Coming toward them from the direction of the fort, several riders were kicking up the dust in lively fashion.
As they got nearer the riders revealed themselves as four soldiers, accompanied by two ladies.
Suddenly Ted pulled in his pony, and grasped Bud's arm.
"If that don't look like Stella I'll eat my saddle blanket fried in butter," he said.
"Shore do look some like her," answered Bud, "an' that's ther same little ole red jacket what she wears."
In a few moments they heard Stella's hail, and answered it.
Then up galloped Stella and Miss Croffut, accompanied by the commandant of the post, Lieutenant Barrows, and two other officers, a captain and a major.
After greeting the boys, and formally introducing Miss Croffut, Stella told them that from their last telegram she thought she might be able to catch them at Fort Felton, and had not hesitated in coming on, particularly as she happened to know Miss Croffut.
"What's this trouble you fellows have been getting into with the folks at the fort?" asked Stella.
"We're not having any trouble, but we had some in the night when the dogies stampeded us," replied Ted, with an almost imperceptible wink at her.
"None of my business, I suppose?"
"None in the least."
"See here, Mr. Strong," the colonel broke in, "I suppose I was somewhat hasty last night in talking with you, especially as you had arrived on time. I wish you'd turn back, and let us have those cattle."
"Like to if you'd said so a little earlier, but since morning, and the expiration of the contract, beef has gone up."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you haven't money enough to buy these cattle. What's the matter? Want a few head to feed to the Indians?"
"We want the whole herd, but as you have guessed the truth, we must have a few head to keep those crazy Indians from making trouble. They have heard that the cattle are gone, and I'm afraid that they will break loose and murder a lot of settlers to get even with Uncle Sam."
"What are the troops for?"
"We wouldn't dare go after them without orders from Washington."
"Well, you started it, and I would advise you to go on to the finish."
"If we don't get enough cattle to feed the Indians the post is ruined."
"You should have thought of that contingency when you sent your amiable young assistant out to me." He looked at Barrows.
"Well, I apologize for him. He was dead wrong, but so was I."
"Nothing doing! You would have given me the worst of it if I had been chump enough not to know the cow business as I do. But these cattle are due on the high range in a few days, and we must be moving on. Adios."
"Oh, Mr. Strong, please do let us have enough cattle for those poor Indians. The squaws and babies and growing children are actually starving, for the government has kept them on short allowance lately. Let a few head go to us."
Ted said nothing for several moments, during which they all looked at him anxiously.
"Come on, Ted, be a good fellow," said Stella, with a laugh.
"All right," said Ted. "How many do you want cut out?" Ted was looking at the colonel.
"I'd like to have the whole herd," answered the colonel.
"They're not for sale. They're going up to the high range for the rest of the summer, then to market, and I hope it will be a fairer one than this. But for the sake of the young ladies, who have more influence with this bunch in a minute than all the officers at Fort Felton have in a year, I'll cut out enough for the beef issue. How many head do you need for the Indians?"
"About five hundred," answered the colonel, in a very different voice from that he had used the night before.
"Bud, cut out, count, and deliver five hundred head at the post pasture. Stella, we're going on. Where's your aunt?"
"Up at the post. Say, Ted Strong, don't believe for a minute that I'm not going, too. I'll get a wagon for auntie, and we'll hit your trail in a couple of hours."
THE BEEF ISSUE.
When Bud and the boys rode into the herd to cut out the five hundred head of cattle, the four officers went away to inspect the animals as they came out, leaving Ted to talk to the two girls.
Nothing was said about the unpleasant interview on the colonel's veranda the evening before, but Stella laughingly told how she had decided at the last moment to follow the fortunes of the boys, and had dragged her aunt off to Montana without giving her time to think about it.
While they were chatting the colonel rode up.
"Mr. Strong, I wish you would come up to headquarters and get your voucher for these cattle before you go. I should like you to dine with us, also."
"Please do, Ted," said Stella. "Then you can ride back to camp with aunt and I. I have been trying to persuade Hallie to join our party for a week or two, and experience the joys and excitement of the cattle trail."
"I should like very much to go with you, but——"
Miss Croffut looked at her father with some apprehension.
"If Mrs. Graham will consent to add to her burdens as a chaperon I have no objections," said the colonel whose manner toward Ted had been simply reversed by the independence and manliness the broncho boys had exhibited.
"We should be very glad to have you with us, Miss Croffut," said Ted. "And if you have never been on the long drive I believe you would find much that would interest you."
"Then it's all settled," cried Stella. "I'm sure aunt would be delighted to have you, and you will like the boys. They are like a lot of brothers to me, only they are better than most brothers, for they let me do what I please, and are a help instead of a nuisance."
They all laughed at Stella's estimate of the usefulness of brothers, and rode away toward the fort, Ted leading the way with Miss Croffut, whom he found to be an exceedingly interesting companion, and who expressed her love for riding and other outdoor sports.
"We're going to see the beef issue," Stella called to Ted.
"All right," he answered. "It will be some time before the cattle are up to the pens, and, in the meantime, we'll leave you there, and ride over to headquarters and settle the business end of it."
The girls were left at the office of the Indian agent near the place where the cattle were to be issued to the Indians.
Scattered over the prairie near the agent's office were the members of the tribe, waiting patiently for their portion of the fresh meat, which, at certain times of the year, Uncle Sam doled out to them.
It was a savage sight. Here and there were the smoke-browned tepees of the Indians, before which sat the squaws and papooses, and the old men and women.
The bucks, heads of families, strode back and forth majestically, with their rifles and old muskets in the hollow of their arms, while the young men and half-grown boys dashed here and there on their ponies.
It was an animated scene, and the two girls looked at it curiously, for neither of them had seen anything like it before.
While they were looking out of the window a shadow darkened the doorway, and they looked up to see a tall young buck Indian standing on the threshold.
He was very tall for a Northern Indian, and his broad, bronze-colored face, with its high cheek bones, and prominent, aquiline nose, with the black, beady eyes between, and the wide, loose-lipped mouth beneath, caused Miss Croffut to shudder unknowingly.
To her there was something repulsive about the fellow. But Stella looked at him boldly and inquiringly.
"How?" grunted the Indian.
"What you want?" asked Stella, in a business-like way.
"Me want agent," he answered, with a leer, which evidently he intended for a smile of fascination.
"Not here," said Stella sharply.
The Indian stared at her with an expression of amazement, which gradually turned to one of admiration.
"Heap good-looking squaw," he grunted.
"Get out," said Stella again.
She was not frightened, only disgusted.
"Me Running Bear. Heap big chief. Heap rich. Heap brave. Running Bear want white squaw. Heap other wives cook for white squaw. Make plenty red dress."
When the Indian had first entered the room Stella thought that there was something decidedly familiar about the redskin, but when the name "Running Bear" fell from his lips, her worst fears were confirmed—this was the Indian with whom Ted had had trouble during the winter, when he had broken up the Whipple gang.
As he strode into the middle of the room, with his hand on the butt of the revolver that hung on his left hip, Miss Croffut uttered a faint scream.
Stella was not exactly frightened, but she felt that there might be some danger in being in the room with this Indian brute, with not a white man in hailing distance.
When he got nearer she smelled liquor. Running Bear had been drinking, and Stella knew that a drinking Indian is a crazy Indian who will do things he never would dream of doing when he is sober.
She unconsciously felt for her own revolver, but it was not at her side. Then she remembered that she had left it at the colonel's house when she had started out that morning.
She eyed the Indian closely as he advanced farther into the room, and saw that in the Indian's eyes there was a strange gleam. He reminded her of a snake about to devour its prey, as he moved toward her, almost imperceptibly, seeming not to move, and yet getting closer to her all the time.
Now he was quite close to her, and Hallie Croffut was sitting back in her chair gazing at the Indian with an expression of frozen horror on her face.
"White squaw give Running Bear a kiss," gurgled the brute.
Stella tried to scream, but her throat refused to give forth a sound. It was like the nightmare when one tries to scream for terror of the awful shape that is about to menace, but cannot utter a sound.
Somewhere outside she heard her name. It was Ted calling to her, but she could not answer.
Now the Indian was only a step away, and had reached out his arms to grasp her.
Suddenly the door flew open, and there stood Ted Strong. But only for an instant.
With one leap he was into the room, and as the Indian turned, with that beastly leer still on his face, Ted was upon him.
Catching the Indian by the collar, he swung him around, while at the same time his left arm flew forward, and his fist struck the Indian's jaw with a smash that sent his head back, and wrung a groan from him. Again and again the fist encountered the Indian's face, rocking his head horribly, until it hung upon his shoulder, and then, with an exclamation of disgust, Ted flung the brute from him, and the inert body rolled into a corner, where it lay still.
"Oh, Ted," exclaimed Stella, "that Indian is Running Bear, with whom you had trouble when putting the Whipple gang out of business."
"I know it, but I don't think he'll bother us any more. Come, girls," said Ted, "it's time to go out and see the beef issue. They're reading the names now, and the bucks are assembling."
Outside a strange scene was being enacted. A clerk from the Indian agent's office was sitting on top of the fence of the cattle corral reading the names of the Indians from a large book.
"Na-to-no-mah, John Fisher!" called the clerk, and a middle-aged Indian stepped forward listlessly and stood aside.
"The first name is his Indian or tribe name," explained Ted. "The name John Fisher is the name given him in Washington, so that the clerks will not get him mixed with an Indian whose name is similar."
So the reading went on, and after each name the clerk said "one" or "two," meaning that the owner of the name was entitled to one or two cows, according to the number of members of his family.
"Running Bear!" called the clerk.
There was no answer.
"Running Bear! Where is Running Bear?" The clerk looked around anxiously, for Running Bear was a prominent Indian, and was entitled to three cows, or as many as he could graft, and was never known to miss a beef issue. There were murmurs of wonder among the Indians at the absence of Running Bear, and the clerk was about to mark off his name, when he staggered out of the agent's house, groggy from the punishment he had received, with one eye a vivid green, and holding on to his jaw as if he was afraid of losing it.
"Ah, there you are, Running Bear," said the clerk. "You look as if you had collided with a streak of lightning. What's the matter?"
But the Indian only shook his head and pressed his jaw harder.
"Reckon you've got the toothache, eh? Well, when you get your teeth fastened into a piece of fresh bull meat you'll be all right."
Running Bear gave one look, in which all the concentrated hatred of a lifetime was to be seen. Then he turned away and went out to his tepee, where one of his squaws bound his jaw in a wet cloth.
But the roll had been called, and the Indians stood expectant close to the gate of the corral.
While the clerk stood up on the fence with his list he repeated the names and the number of cattle to which each Indian was entitled, and men inside the corral opened the gate and drove them out.
As a frightened cow or angry steer was loosed from the corral it was met with shouts, wild and blood-curdling, from all the Indians, and its owner sprang upon his pony and took after the poor beast, driving it into the open beyond, and away from the house and corral.
"Now begins the chase," said Ted. "We'll get out here where we will have a good view, but I don't think you will care to see much of it. It gets to be pretty—well, pretty raw after a while."
"Why don't they kill their beef in a slaughterhouse and give them the meat, instead of turning the animals over to them alive?" asked Stella.
"The Indians wouldn't stand for that," answered Ted. "This is the only sport they have in a year's time. You see, they are not permitted to leave the reservations to go far away to hunt big game, and they take it out in hunting, or playing they are hunting, these miserable cows."
"I don't see any fun in that," said Miss Croffut.
"You haven't the imagination of an Indian. You see, they make believe they are hunting buffalo again, and the chase is quite as exciting to them as if they were doing the real thing."
By this time the prairie was covered with steers and cows, lumbering along in front of the Indians, who were pursuing them with shrill cries, shooting at them with bows and arrows or with rifles, striving always to wound them, but not to kill them too soon, for if they killed them right away they would miss the fun of the chase.
This made the beef issue a carnival of brutality, and Ted soon saw that the girls were getting tired of it.
In the center of the great circle in which there were several dozen cattle running around aimlessly, pursued by a yelling, exultant, bloodthirsty band of Indians, were several wounded steers and cows, which had gone down and were unable to rise. Several groups of Indians, squatting on the rim of the circle, were shooting at them.
This was dangerous business, and the white spectators moved back out of range.
The shooting was very reckless at times, and the Indian agent had to protest to the soldiers, who, under Lieutenant Barrows, had the issue in charge.
Ted and the two girls were sitting on their ponies, watching the show from a position of safety, as they were out of line of any of the shooting parties.
Without warning a ball sang through the air, clipped through the mane of Ted's pony, and pierced the sleeve of Ted's jacket, passing out between him and Miss Croffut, who was by his side.
As Ted looked up hastily he caught a gleam of blue across the circle as it dodged behind the group of yelling and shooting Indians.
Ted glanced at Stella, and saw a look in her eyes which plainly said:
"Did you see it, too?" And Ted nodded.
Miss Croffut had screamed as the ball went past, and Ted's pony, burned by it, reared.
"Let's get out of this," said Ted quietly. "Those Indians are beginning to shoot wildly, and some one is going to get accidentally hit. I wonder that the soldiers don't regulate it better."
"They are afraid of getting the Indians angry," explained Miss Croffut. "The war department allows them to do as they please at this function, to keep them quiet at other times."
But most of the poor dumb brutes had succumbed to this slow method of butchering, and the squaws, with horrible cries, rushed into the field, every one to the steer which her lord and master had killed, and the hideous rites of skinning and cutting up the animals was begun by the women, who were even more bloodthirsty than the men.
"Come, we don't want to see this," said Ted, and led the way from the field.
"It is time for dinner," said Miss Croffut. "Then we must get ready for the trail. We will get a wagon from the storekeeper—a regular camp wagon with beds and a tent. Papa will arrange it all, and he will detail an orderly to drive it for us, and care for our things."
"That will be fine for you and aunt, but for me—the saddle and the camp fire," said Stella.
A SLAP ON THE FACE.
As they were riding toward the post they were joined by Ben, Bud, Kit, Clay, and Carl, who came riding up like Cossacks, and were presented to Miss Croffut, on either side of whom they fell into place, and began to talk animatedly and enthusiastically about the coming trail.
Ben expanded mightily in the presence of a new girl, while quiet Kit contented himself by slipping in a witty remark that was pointed enough to puncture Ben's gas bag of grand talk once in a while, to the great amusement of the army girl, who had never before met such fine, free, and easy, yet gentlemanly, fellows.
Ted and Stella were riding together behind them.
"Did you see him?" asked Stella at last, looking up at Ted.
"See who?" asked Ted.
"The man who shot at you, trying to murder you, and cast the blame on the Indians," she replied directly.
"Oh, that was an accident," said Ted. "I saw a flash of a blue coat over where the shot came from, but it was probably an Indian with a blue shirt on."
"And you didn't see who it was?" she asked again wonderingly.
"Don't you even suspect?"
"Hadn't thought of it."
"Suppose it was not an accident, who do you think would be most likely to try to shoot you from ambush, and make it appear an accident?"
Ted thought a moment. Could it be possible that it was not an accident? For a few minutes after the ball had plowed its way through their little party he had thought perhaps it might have been sent at them accidentally, as the Indians were doing some pretty wild shooting, and then again he almost believed it to be an intentional shot. It could not have come closer to him from such a distance, and yet so narrowly missed his heart, unless it was intended for him.
"Let me see," he mused. "Why, of course," he said, with a smile. "I didn't think of it before. It must have been that Indian, Running Bear, who was trying to get square for the punching I gave him."
"Ted, you're as blind as a rat," said Stella.
"Did you see the fellow who shot at me?"
"I did. Got a good, square, sure-enough look."
"Who was it?"
For a moment Stella did not reply.
"You'll hardly believe it," she answered, at last.
"I'll believe you. I don't know that you ever told me anything that was not the truth."
"But it seems so incredible, that I would hardly believe it if I had not seen it with my own eyes."
"Well, out with it."
"It was Lieutenant Barrows."
"Stella! You can't mean it."
Ted stopped his pony, and stood staring at the girl.
"It was he who fired the shot. I am positive of it. I saw him do it, and was just about to cry out a warning when the bullet struck your pony and passed through your coat sleeve, and he dodged out of sight."
"The hideous cur!" exclaimed Ted, who was the apostle of fair play, and who always felt bitterly when he saw another practice false, and especially an officer, who was supposed to uphold all the best standards for a gentleman. In fact, "an officer and a gentleman" were synonymous to him.
"It seems incredible," he said, at last. "I didn't think he was much of a chap, he has not had much experience, and I thought he would grow out of his bad habits."
"He's horrible," exclaimed Stella impatiently. "But that is not the worst of it. Hallie is engaged to marry him some day. Think of it!"
"Too bad. Of course she must know nothing of this. She must believe that it was an accident."
"Of course. Unless she mentions it we will say nothing about it, and I'll tell her that you do not care to have anything said about it."
"That's the thing. Pretty bad outlook for her."
"Yes, and the worst of it is, she's crazy about him, and the colonel, her father, is very much in favor of the marriage, and is doing everything he can to bring it about. You see, Barrows is very rich."
"Is he the son of Barrows, the railroad multi-millionaire, do you know?"
"Yes, Hallie told me all about it. She says his father is going to have him promoted through his influence in Washington to be military attache to one of our embassies in Europe. He has completely dazzled her with his wealth, and the prospects ahead of her."
"And she is such a sweet and sensible girl, but she has no mother, and the other ladies at the post, especially Mrs. Calhoun, the major's wife, have put a lot of nonsense into her head."
"Well, if she comes with us, we'll try to get some of it out."
"It looks as if Ben was trying to do that now," said Stella, pointing to where Ben was talking to the girl, who was laughing happily.
"Yes, or putting a lot of another brand into it."
"Don't they make a handsome couple. Ben is such a fine-looking chap in the saddle. I wish he would do something to cut out Barrows."
"Look out. Don't you go to meddling in this affair," laughed Ted. "Well, here we are at the colonel's. I reckon he didn't count on this addition to his table."
As they rode up to the others, Hallie Croffut was insisting that the other boys remain for dinner, and the colonel, hearing the contention from his chair on the veranda, came down to add his invitation to that of his daughter.
So it was that they all stayed, and just before dinner was announced Lieutenant Barrows rode up and joined the group.
He was hot and dusty, and in a bad temper. He acknowledged the introductions to the boys superciliously, and barely nodded to Ted.
Hallie looked at him with a puzzled frown, but said nothing, and entered the house with Stella.
During dinner Ben sat at the left hand of Hallie, with Barrows opposite.
Ben was in his usual good spirits, and was so easy and gentlemanly in his deportment, in spite of his rough clothes, that Stella was quite proud of him.
While he kept Hallie in a constant gale of laughter by his witty remarks, Barrows did nothing but scowl at him, when he was not casting sinister glances at Ted, who, however, never looked at him.
After dinner the girls rushed away to get ready for the trip, and the boys went out on the veranda to wait for them, while the colonel and Barrows went into the library, ostensibly to talk over business of the post, as Barrows was officer of the day.