But presently Ted heard the voices of the two men rising above the normal pitch.
"I seriously object to Hallie going with such people."
The voice was Barrows', and it was angry.
"But they are all right," said the colonel. "I know Strong well by reputation, and the Grahams are old friends of mine. Knew them for years when I was in New Mexico. Hallie and Stella went to school together. There can be no objection on that score."
"But this cad Strong is nothing but a common cow-puncher, and his companions are even worse."
"They're worth more than you are financially," said the colonel. "That is, they have made more individually than you have made. I'm not saying what your father gives, or will give you. And that counts for something."
"Well, there is no use saying anything more about it if you are willing to give your consent to Hallie traveling in the company of, and camping with, such a low blackguard as that fellow Strong."
"You dare not call him that to his face," came an indignant voice. Evidently Stella had entered the library in time to hear Barrows' speech.
"I am surprised to hear you speak in that manner of one of my guests," came the voice of Hallie Croffut. "Papa, I'm going with Stella. At first I hesitated to leave you and Clarence here alone, but now I am decided. You will not be very lonely, and I shall be very safe and happy with Stella and dear Mrs. Graham, who is like an own aunt to me, and with those gentlemen, the broncho boys. Good-by, daddy. We'll be back soon."
"So his name's Clarence, eh?" said Bud Morgan, on the veranda. "Well, wouldn't that jar yer?"
In the library Hallie was kissing her father good-by, and then offered her hand to Barrows.
"Good-by, Clarence," she said. "I hope you'll be in a better frame of mind when I get back."
"I want to talk to you privately before you go," said Barrows, in a sulky voice.
"It is not necessary," answered the girl.
"But I insist upon it. It is my right."
"You have no rights I do not give you. This is good-by."
"I'll make you regret this yet. I'll——"
"Hold hard, Barrows. Remember, you are in my house, and that you are talking to my daughter. Threats to a girl do not come gracefully from a gentleman." The colonel evidently had sprung to his feet, and his voice was cold and harsh.
"Very well, I will not threaten. I will execute."
The young officer strode from the room and through the hall, pausing to pick up his cap.
At the door he came face to face with Ted Strong, who was standing there quietly, waiting for the moment when he should think his presence would be necessary in the library.
As the two came face to face, Barrows stopped and looked into Ted's eyes with a look of intense hatred. He was as white as a sheet, and his lips trembled.
"So you have been acting the eavesdropper, eh?" Barrows said, with a sneer. "I hope you heard all I said about you, and that is not all I think, either. Would you like to hear some more."
"I don't care what you think about me. That will do me no harm. But if you desire to retain your beauty I would advise you to keep it to yourself. You probably know what I think of you, you cowardly assassin." Ted spoke these words in a tone intended only for the ears of Barrows himself.
"What do you mean?" stammered the young officer, pale as death.
"You know. You missed my heart at the beef issue by an inch or two, but you were seen, you cur, and you can't lie out of it. If I were to tell it, you would be drummed out of the army, and every place else where there are square men. Keep away from me and mine in every way, and especially with your filthy tongue. If you do not, I'll break you."
Barrows uttered an unspeakable epithet to Ted under his breath.
A loud crack sounded far enough to reach the ears of those in the library, and bring the broncho boys to their feet. Across the white face of Lieutenant Barrows were the crimson finger marks left by Ted Strong.
Without a word the lieutenant swung on his heel, and walked down the steps, mounted his horse, and rode away.
In the doorway stood a young girl who looked at his going with wide eyes. She was very pale, but as Barrows rode away without a word or a glance backward, a flush slowly mounted to her forehead.
She turned and threw her arms around the neck of Stella, for it was Hallie Croffut who had seen the blow delivered.
"He didn't even offer to resent the blow," sobbed Hallie. "Is it possible that he is a coward?"
"There, dear, I wouldn't worry about him," said Stella soothingly. "It was very wrong for Ted to do so."
Ted, who was standing near, also watching the departing lieutenant with some surprise, heard these words and turned to look at the girls.
He smiled, however, when he heard Stella trying to comfort Hallie by blaming him, for over the shoulder of the crying girl his girl pard winked at him with a smile that assured him that, no matter what she said, she thought that whatever happened he was all right.
"Say," drawled Bud to the other boys, "Ted put ther bloom o' youth on Clarence's cheek, didn't he?"
"He certainly did," said Ben, "and probably saved Clarence from getting a good, stout punch on the nose from me."
Ben held up for inspection a fist as big as a picnic ham, and worked it around as if it was fitted to a toggle joint.
"He didn't get all that was coming to him, either," said Kit. "If ever there was a cad he's got the job."
"And seems to be swelled up over it, too," said Clay.
"Ach, yes, dot iss der vay mit dem army offichers," sighed Carl. "Dey vas so conspicuousness in deir uniforms dot dey vos ridiculousness."
"Say, Dutch, you want ter look out or you'll blow out all o' yer teeth some o' these days sayin' them words," warned Bud.
"Well, it isn't such a good joke as it seems," said Kit reflectively. "A young fellow in the army, and with the backing he has, can make it pretty disagreeable for fellows like us living and doing business in a country where an army post is part of the civil government. Have you thought of that?"
"Kit's right," said Ted. "I guess we've made an enemy. But I'll be mighty glad of it if it serves to accomplish one thing."
"What's that?" asked Ben.
"If it will keep him away from Hallie Croffut," was the answer.
"I reckon there's others who will help attend to that," said Ben sturdily, whereat several of the boys smiled. Ben was forever coming to the rescue of maidens in distress, especially if they were more than merely pretty.
"We've all got to do our share at cheering the poor girl up," said Kit, with a sly glance at Ted, who grinned.
"Oh, I guess I'm large and strong enough to carry my own burdens," said Ben. "I've managed to pack a good many of them' so far without getting round-shouldered."
"Yes, and without losing your appetite."
"Hush, boys," cautioned Ted. "Here come the girls."
Stella came out of the house, bearing in her arms a lot of shawls and bundles, followed by Mrs. Graham and Hallie Croffut.
"When you see me coming at this stage of the game loaded down like this you'd know for sure that Auntie Graham was going on a roughing trip."
"That's all right," said Kit. "Mrs. Graham can take whatever she likes on the trips, if she'll only go along."
"You're a nice boy, Kit, to say such nice things," said Mrs. Graham, smiling. "But you're all nice boys to take an old lady like me with you, and stand for all my laziness and tantrums."
"That's right, auntie, you keep on with that line of talk, and you'll get these fellows so spoiled that I'll have to begin training them all over again. I just had them so that they were going along all right. But you mustn't let them know they're nice, or they'll quit being nice right there. Come, fellows, help carry Auntie Graham's things down to the wagon. We've got to get started pretty pronto."
They were all ready to start when an orderly dashed up on horseback, and handed Hallie a letter, saluted, and rode off.
The girl tore open the envelope, and read its contents.
"What shall I do?" she asked, handing the letter to Ted.
Ted's eyes ran over it rapidly.
"Forget it," he answered, crumpling the note in his hand and throwing it away.
RUNNING BEAR'S SQUAW.
As they rode away to join the herd, which had been moving slowly northward, Hallie and Stella rode together, and Hallie was telling her friend what she felt, and what she thought about her break with Lieutenant Barrows.
"That note was the most impertinent thing I ever read," Hallie was saying.
"What was it all about? Ted did not think it was of much importance," said Stella.
"And yet it was all about him."
"You don't say so. What was it?"
Stella was not very curious about the letter, for she was too free and independent to care what an enemy said of her or her friends. She had that intense loyalty of character that put tried and chosen friends before all the world, and she believed and stuck to her friends through all and above all. But this was a characteristic of all the broncho boys.
She didn't believe that anything any one could write about Ted Strong could hurt him, at least it could not with her.
"It forbade me going with you on this trip, and said some awful things about Mr. Strong," said Hallie.
"Is that all?"
"It said that Ted was a scoundrel, and that he felt it his duty to expose him, and that, moreover, Ted had declared himself his enemy, and he was going to get the bitterest sort of revenge for the insult Ted had offered him. And—and a lot more."
"If he wanted revenge, why didn't he take it while he had the chance? Anyway, Ted doesn't seem to be very much afraid, so I'm not going to worry."
Ted realized that he had made a bitter and dangerous enemy.
Barrows would be dangerous because he would not fight in the open, but would stab him in the back. The way in which he had taken the slap on the face proved that he was an open coward, but secretly was brave enough in his blows. The shot fired by him at the beef issue was proof enough for that.
But Ted, while he determined to keep his eyes open, was not borrowing trouble, and soon put Barrows and his enmity out of his mind.
They caught up with the herd in the middle of the afternoon, and Hallie, who had never seen so many cattle before in her life, was delighted with the experience she was about to undergo.
The weather was splendid, and Stella rode up and down with her along the line, introducing such of the boys as had not met her, and teaching her the points of the cattle business.
Finally, Hallie got hold of Bud, who volunteered to teach her how to shoot and throw a lariat, and she was perfectly happy, and soon forgot the unpleasant occurrences at her home before she left.
Stella was just spoiling for a good, hard gallop, and tried to get Ted to go with her in a race across the prairie, but he politely but firmly declined the honor, on account, as he explained, that he was responsible for the safety of several thousand head of cattle, and as he had been up against one failure with them so far he did not propose to face another because of neglect.
"All right, Smarty," said Stella. "You don't have to go. But you'll be sorry if anything happens to me."
"Stay with the herd, Stella," he said. "What's the use of tearing off alone across the prairie?"
"Not very much, as a matter of fact, but if you'd been shut up in a poky old hotel for a couple of weeks, and only going out with your aunt to shop around in stuffy dry-goods stores, you'd like to get out for a breezer yourself," she said.
"I reckon I would, but don't go far, and get back before dark."
She waved her hand to him gayly, gave Magpie a flick with her whip, and went flying across the country.
"Hi, Stella!" shouted Kit. "Where you goin'?"
But she was already out of hearing.
"Let her go," said Ted. "She's got one of her crazy riding spells on, and she'll just have to ride it out of her."
In a few minutes she was a speck on the horizon.
"That girl can ride some," said Kit, looking regretfully after her. Kit could "ride some" himself, and this afternoon he just felt like a good breeze across the turf, and no one suited him for a riding companion like Stella, for she was so fearless and bold, and never balked at a chance.
But Stella was gone, and the drive settled down to a steady thing.
We will leave the herd for the present to follow the fortunes of Stella, whose ride that afternoon had so much to do with fashioning the immediate fortunes of Ted Strong and the broncho boys.
As Stella was borne exultingly along through the clear, sharp air of the Montana uplands, she was singing in a high, sweet voice the cowboy song, "The Wolf Hunt."
"Over the hills on a winter's morn, In the rosy glow of a day just born, With the eager hounds so fleet and strong, On the gray wolf's track we jog along."
As she paused at the end of the first verse she thought she heard an echo of it. It seemed that off to the north somewhere she had heard an eerie "Ai-i-e!" But she listened attentively, bringing Magpie to a stop, and hearing it no more, concluded that she had been mistaken.
Then she galloped on, still singing at the top of her voice from sheer happiness and good spirits, the other verses of the wolf song, and, although she paused frequently for the repetition of the cry, she did not hear it until she had sung the refrain for the last time:
"The race is o'er, the battle won, The wolf lies dying in the sun; His midnight raids are of the past, He's met the conquering foe at last. Well done, brave hounds! Thy savage prey Was shrewdly caught and killed to-day."
As she stopped and looked around her at the brown, rocky hills, once more she heard that shrill and heart-searching wail.
"What can it be?" muttered Stella, reining in her horse. "Is it a woman, or is it a beast trying to lure me on? It sounds like a woman in distress, and yet cougars can cry like that, also."
She meditated a moment, and then decided to take a chance.
She would search out the creature that had sent forth that desolate cry.
"Ai-i-e!" cried Stella, imitating the other.
"Ai-i-e!" came the reply.
It came from the north, and seemed only a short distance away.
Slowly Stella crept forward up the rocky hillside, pausing now and then to listen.
Once more she heard the wail. This time it seemed to be under her very feet, and, guarding against treachery, she drew her revolver, and walked softly on.
Suddenly she stopped in amazement. At her feet lay a young Indian girl.
She was lying on a blanket, and the yellow front of her deerskin tunic was stained with blood.
Without an instant's hesitation Stella was on her knees beside the girl, working with swift and gentle fingers to unfasten the tunic.
As she did so the girl opened her eyes, and, seeing Stella, smiled.
Then her Indian stoicism failed her, and she uttered a groan and fainted.
"Poor thing," muttered Stella. "Poor, wounded, wild thing. Here lies the wild wolf 'dying in the sun,' as the song says. I wonder if she knew the song."
But by this time she had opened the tunic and saw a bullet wound on the brown skin, through which the blood was oozing steadily.
She stood up and looked around for a water sign, and not far away discovered a little clump of willows, which advertised a spring.
She hurried to it and filled her hat to the brim with the cool fluid and rushed back to the wounded Indian girl, who had not yet recovered from her fainting fit.
Stella bathed her head, washed her wound, and then poured some of the water between her lips.
At that the girl opened her eyes, and, with another smile, opened her lips as if to speak.
"Rest now, dear," said Stella, with so much pity and love in her voice that the girl could only smile once more, and gratefully close her eyes.
It did not take Stella long to improvise bandages from some of her own garments, which she tore into strips, and bound up the wound so that it stopped bleeding at last.
Another drink of water so refreshed the Indian girl that she tried to rise, but Stella gently forced her back, and told her to rest.
Stella never rode away from camp without taking food in a small bag, which was attached to the cantle of her saddle.
She now bethought herself of it, and hurried away for it.
The Indian girl was ravenously hungry, and her faintness was as much due to her abstinence from food as from the loss of blood.
But when she had eaten she appeared much stronger.
"What is your name?" asked Stella.
The girl looked up at her and smiled.
"I am Singing Bird, daughter of Cloud Chief," she answered.
"You can speak English well," said Stella, at which the girl looked pleased.
"Yes, I went to the Indian school, and learned to speak and to sing hymns."
"How do you come to be here?"
"My man shot me."
"What?" cried Stella, in a horrified tone. "Your man shot you? What do you mean by that?"
"I am Running Bear's squaw."
"You are married to Running Bear?"
The girl nodded her head.
"And did Running Bear shoot you?"
"Yes. He shot me and left me to die."
"The horrible brute. What did he shoot you for?"
"He said he had too many squaws, and wanted a white squaw."
"Couldn't he have sent you away without trying to kill you?"
"I wouldn't tell him something."
"Oh, that was the reason, eh?"
"Yes, he married me at the school for my secret, and when I wouldn't tell him he began to hate me."
"Tell me about it. How long have you been married to him?"
"I thought you were rather young to be a wife. How old are you?"
"I am seventeen."
"Where is your home; where does your father live?"
"My father is in the Far North. I cannot go to him any more now. My man has turned me out and tried to kill me, but yet I live. But there is nothing for me now but to die."
"Indeed, you are not going to die. You are going to live with me until you are well, then you can say what you are going to do."
"The white lady is too good to an Indian girl."
"No, that is only right. How do you feel now? Do you think you could travel if I was to help you into my saddle?"
"I will do what my sister wishes," said the Indian girl simply, trying to rise. But the effort was too much for her, and she sank back, the blood spurting freshly from the wound.
"That won't do," said Stella, easing the girl back, and rolling up her jacket and placing it under her head. "You are not able to leave here yet. At least, you cannot ride."
The Indian girl was perfectly passive under Stella's guidance, and did not think of having a will of her own.
"I wish one of the boys had come with me," Stella said to herself. "Something always happens when I go away alone. I must get word to them somehow."
"I am going to fire my revolver to bring help," said she to Singing Bird. "You will not be frightened."
The other girl shook her head.
Stella fired her revolver three times, and waited for an answer, but none came.
After waiting a while longer, she fired three more shots.
"No shoot again. Need bullets for wolves. Come around soon," said Singing Bird.
The day was going fast, and soon it would be dark. She could not leave the girl to go for help, for with the dark the wolves would come.
Singing Bird had fallen into a feverish doze, and Stella arose and gathered up some dry wood from about the spring, and carried it to where the girl was lying.
Stella had some matches in her outfit, and when it got dark she intended lighting the fire, hoping that the boys would see it when they came to look for her when she did not return at dark.
Again she brought water from the spring, and sat down beside her new-found friend to bathe her head and reduce her fever.
As darkness fell she heard vague rustlings in the tall grass, and looked carefully about. In the dim light she saw pale-green lights moving about, and knew that the wolves had smelled blood, and were gathering. But she was not afraid. She knew that she could keep them away with the fire and her revolver.
One of the wolves came quite close to the little camp and set up a howl, and the Indian girl awoke.
"White girl go to her friends," she said to Stella. "Leave Singing Bird to die as the Great Manitou intended."
"Indeed, I will not. I will stay with you until my friends come to me, and then we will take you with us and nurse you."
Stella thought it was time to light the fire, and as its flames leaped high, she felt more at ease.
When the wolves came close to the camp she fired her revolver at them, and drove them away.
The hours passed silently, Stella rising occasionally to replenish the fire and look at Singing Bird, who seemed to be sleeping. As a matter of fact, the young Indian, who had been reared out-of-doors, and was perfectly healthy, was recovering rapidly from her wound, although had it not been for Stella she would probably not have survived the night, for what the chill night air would not have done the wolves would have finished.
It was long past midnight when out of the west rose a clear, welcome shout that sounded as the sweetest music to her ear, the Moon Valley yell, and she answered it, while the Indian girl sat up and smiled at her.
They had been found at last.
"THE WOOFER" APPEARS.
Presently Stella heard the clatter of many pony hoofs on the turf, then a succession of yells, and Ted, Ben, and Bud galloped into the circle of light made by her fire.
"Hello, what have we here?" asked Ted, riding up and flinging himself from the saddle.
"I found this Indian girl, Singing Bird, daughter of Cloud Chief, lying here with a wound in her breast that would have killed an ordinary mortal, but I think she is getting better."
"We got worried about you when you did not return for supper, and started out to find you. If we hadn't seen the reflection of your fire against the sky we would have passed you by. How did this happen?"
"She tells me she is the squaw of Running Bear, with whom you had an argument at the beef issue."
"Yes, I remember him. What about him? Why is he not here to take care of his wife?"
"He shot her and left her here to die, because he was tired of her, and, she says, because she would not reveal to him a secret."
"He certainly is a precious scoundrel, and deserves worse than I gave him, and if I ever meet him again I won't do a thing to him."
"But we must get this girl to a camp where she can be cared for, Ted. It is cruel to leave her here on the cold ground when she can have a cot and plenty of blankets."
"I don't know how we are going to manage it to-night."
"One of you can ride back to camp, and get the wagon and a lantern, and come back for her. She ought to have better attention than I can give her here."
"That's all right. Bud, ride back to camp and get the wagon out, and fill it with blankets and my medicine chest, and get back here as soon as your team will bring you."
Ben had sauntered down to where the willows were seen, and soon returned with a big armful of wood, which he tossed upon the fire, then sat just outside the blaze and popped away with his revolver at the little balls of pale-green light, the wolves' eyes, which he saw floating among the tall grass, and he always knew when he had made a bull's-eye by the howl, and the thrashing around that followed it.
Ted sat with Stella, watching the Indian girl, who had again fallen into a deep sleep.
"Did she say what her secret is?" asked Ted.
"No, I didn't ask her, and I don't intend to. If she wants to confide in me, well and good, but I am not a sharer of other peoples' troubles or secrets. I have as many of my own as I can take care of."
It was almost dawn when they heard the rumble of wagon wheels, and Bud drove over the top of the hill, and came toward them.
"By my Aunt Hester's black cat's tail, I never had sech a time gittin' a team hitched up as this one. It took me an hour to ketch 'em out o' ther pony herd, and yer talks about drivers, I'd jest as soon try ter drive two bolts o' red-hot chain lightning. But I've got all ther ginger worked outer 'em now, an' I reckon that nigh bay will not never buck no more."
"Now we'll see if she can be moved," said Ted. "I think we can lift her right on the blanket on which she is lying, and into the wagon, if you will lend a hand, Stella."
Each of the four took a corner of the blanket, and with some difficulty, for Singing Bird suffered excruciating pain with every motion, they got her into the wagon and started for the camp, driving slowly over the rough ground.
It was almost daylight when they reached camp, where willing hands helped to make the girl comfortable in a tent which Ted rigged up.
Then Ted and Stella went to work with all their surgical skill, and soon had Singing Bird's wound properly dressed. Stella stood guard over her, and nursed her as tenderly as if the Indian had been a sister of her blood.
Ted had stayed the herd until Singing Bird should be well enough to get up. The pasturage was fine, and after their arduous drive Ted thought that it would do the cattle no harm to have a long rest.
He was undecided what to do with the Indian girl. It was not altogether practicable to take her with them, and it did not seem to be the humane thing to leave her behind to again fall into the hands of her brutal Indian husband.
At last one morning Stella announced that Singing Bird was almost well. On account of her health and generally fine physical condition she had made rapid progress toward recovery.
"What are we going to do with her?" asked Ted, when Stella announced that Singing Bird was well enough to travel.
"I don't know what she wants to do," said Stella. "One thing I am sure of, I am not going to see her come to any harm. I have grown very fond of her, for she is a sweet, good girl."
"Let us ask her what she wants to do. I suppose we shall have to abide by her decision, for we cannot turn her adrift."
Singing Bird was sitting in front of her tent in the sun, watching the cowboys sitting around their camp, weaving horsehair bridles, cleaning their guns, mending their clothes, and doing other things that fall to the leisure of a cow camp.
"Singing Bird, you are well now, and able to travel," said Stella, sitting down on the grass.
The girl looked at her and then at Ted with an expression of alarm in her face. They both saw that she feared what was coming.
"What do you want to do, Singing Bird? We must be on the trail again, for we have a long way to go to the big pasture to the north," Stella continued.
"I want to stay with you, sister," said the Indian girl simply. "I will die if you send me away. I will slave for you if you will only let me stay near you. I have no one else on earth. My husband has cast me out; my father will not have me back; the white man does not want the Indian. I am alone in the world. You have saved my life. I am your slave."
"That settles it," said Stella, with the hint of tears in her eyes. "You shall stay with me, dear. Ted, get ready to move the herd whenever you are ready. Singing Bird goes with me."
"All right," said Ted, glad that the matter was so easily disposed of. "You can do whatever you want to with this outfit. If you say she goes, why, she goes."
He went out to where the boys were to give orders for getting the herd on the move again.
"We'll hit the trail in the morning," he said. "It will take some time to break camp, and we might as well stay around here the rest of to-day and get an early start in the morning."
Far out on the prairie they heard a cheery shout, and saw coming toward them a horseman, driving before him a bunch of six steers.
"Git on to ther new herd crossin' our trail," said Bud derisively. "Jumpin' sand, hills, but thet feller hez a big bunch o' cattle."
"Wonder where he got them all. He's surely a big drover," said Kit.
But the stranger hustled the six steers into the camp, and pulled up a scrawny little cayuse, and, taking off his hat with a flourish to Stella and Hallie, who had joined the boys, said:
"Your pardon, ladies an' gents, but what may be ther brand that is burned inter ther hides o' yer esteemed cattle?"
Ted looked at him questioningly, and saw a tall, thin, bronzed individual, dressed in a most unusual costume for a cow-puncher, for such he evidently was from the manner in which he had driven the cattle, and the way in which he sat and handled his horse.
He had a strange face, half humorous and half sinister. One moment he would be merry and gay, but in an instant, and for an instant only, it would change to suspicion and caution. He was lean of frame, but very muscular, and his eyes were of a keen, piercing blue.
"Any particular reason for wanting to know?" asked Ted quizzically, smiling up at the tatterdemalion of a cowboy.
"Well, I reckon," was the drawling reply. "I picked up six strays out here a ways, an' they don't belong ter no brand in this yere part o' ther country, so I suspicions they belong ter some pilgrims' road brand. Now, yours is ther only bunch o' trail cattle what's passed this way recently, an' me, bein' wise ter ther ways o' ther plains, hez ther hunch thet they might be yours. Right cute o' me, wa'n't it?"
Ted laughed at the chap's half-humorous, half-serious manner.
"Our brand is the Lazy Z," he replied.
"Then them critters aire yourn. Look 'em over, an' if they don't belong ter you, hand 'em back, an' I'll make 'em ther noocleus o' a herd o' my own."
Ted rode up to the six strays, which were peacefully grazing not far away, and examined the brand. They belonged to the herd, all right, and he said so.
"Well, stranger, much obliged to you for picking them up and bringing them in," said Ted. "Now, what can I do for you? Those critters are worth a hundred dollars or more to this outfit. I'll split with you."
"No, you won't, stranger, seein' it's all ther same ter you. I may be a measly, fleabitten, hongry, lone maverick o' ther plains, but thar's one thing I ain't, an' that's a 'lost and found' department, 'suitable reward offered, an' no questions asked.' When I picks up a man's strays I hands 'em in if I can find him, or if I was so blame' hongry I couldn't resist ther temptation I might butcher one fer ther sake o' sinkin' my molars inter a tenderloin steak. But thet's ther wust a feller could say fer me. If ther critters aire yours, take 'em, an' welcome."
"All right, pardner," said Ted, who had taken a fancy to the fellow. "At least, you'll eat with us."
"Shore I'll break bread. I'm as hongry ez a shipwrecked sailor. When does ther tocsin sound?"
"The dinner bell will ring in about half an hour. Get down and turn your cayuse out to graze, and join us about the fire."
"Which means ter open ther mouth o' my war bag, an' give up my pedigree."
"Something like that," said Ted, with a laugh.
The ungainly cow-puncher slid out of his saddle like an eel, and slipped the saddle and bridle off his pony, and, giving it a slap on the haunch, sent it out to eat.
Throwing his horse furniture on the ground near the fire, he squatted in the ring of boys about, and proceeded to roll a cigarette in a leisurely way.
"Say, hombre," he said, looking at Ted. "You've got a mighty tidy outfit yere."
Ted nodded, and continued to watch the stranger's face.
"Which outfit mought it be?" asked the cow-puncher, picking a live coal out of the fire and placing the end of his cigarette against it.
"Moon Valley, Black Hills," said Ted.
"An' your name mought be——"
The stranger paused with his cigarette halfway to his lips, and lifted his eyebrows.
"Sho! Yer don't say?"
"But I do."
"Well, I'm right proud ter meet up with yer, an' be able ter do yer a small service. My handle is numerous, not because I've ever had any serious reason ter change ther one my daddy give me, but because ther cow-punchers has a most humorous way o' hitchin' whatever label they thinks fits onter a man."
"What's your present label?" asked Ted.
"Ther cognomen what I packs with me now is sure fantastical. I'm known on ther Western free range as 'The Woofer.'"
"'The Woofer'? That's a strange name."
"It ain't my real name, which is 'Tennessee Al.'"
"How did you come to be named 'The Woofer'?"
"Well, it's jest a piece o' foolishness," said the cow-puncher, laughing at the recollection of it.
"Tell us about it."
"Well, it was this away: About two year ago last Chrismus I wuz punchin' cows over on Coburn's ranch. Chrismus Eve ther boys got some cagy, an' we all decided ter go inter Cut Bank, ther tradin' town some ten mile away, an' cellybrate. It wuz a bad night, with ther wind blowin' out o' ther nor'west, an' ther promise o' a bliz.
"Wallace Coburn balks some at ther boys leavin' ther cattle, fer he sees thet thar's some danger o' their driftin' in ther night. But yer don't can up a lot o' cow-punchers Chrismus Eve when they wants ter go, so finally he grunts out that we kin go, an' off we starts.
"'Fleshy' Wheeler, so called because he wa'n't no bigger round nor a lemonade straw, kep' a saloon in Cut Bank, an' thar wuz ter be a day. Well, we-all went ter ther dance, which progressed beautiful, when one o' ther boys come in an' announces that a big herd o' cattle had drifted through ther town while we wuz trippin' ther light fantastic toe, and that one o' ther critters had fallen inter ther town well.
"Naturally, ther town people objected ter havin' range cow mixed in with their drinkin' water, an' hinted strong that it wuz up ter us cow-punchers ter git it out, at ther same time emphasizin' their invitation with a lot o' shiny six-shooters.
"Well, we goes inter caucus, an' decided thet ther cow belongs ter ther Coburn outfit, an' that we're too humane ter let a pore critter stay in a well Chrismus Eve, when joy an' peace an' merriment is reignin' everywhere.
"Now, as you-all knows, when a cow is hauled out o' a bog or a well she don't feel no gratitood, she jest gits mad plumb through an' h'ists her tail, an' runs fer ther fust thing she sees afoot, with her horns ready fer immediate business.
"Before we goes out ter git ther cow outer ther well, we tells Fleshy ter stand guard at the door, an' when ther cow charges, ter let us in, then slam ther door in ther cow's face. He agrees.
"We ropes ther cow, an' altogether pulls her out an' puts her on terry firmy. Then we hits it up fer ther house, with ther cow as mad as a woman scorned, an' only two jumps behind me, what is ther last man ter git under way.
"Ther boys hits ther house, an' Fleshy lets 'em in, but me, bein' some feet behind, he doesn't see, at least, that's ther way he explains ter me later, an' he slams ther door in my face jest ez ther cow arrives.
"My only chance is ter keep runnin', an' I starts around ther house, hopin' that when I gits ter ther door ag'in Fleshy will have discovered his mistake, an' have it open hospitablelike fer me, but cold feet fer ther cow.
"But, no, ther door is closed an' bolted, an' I start on another lap around ther house with Mrs. Cow a-snortin' an' a-blowin' in my immediate vicinity, an' comin' fast. Every time I hit ther ground with my hoofs I grunted 'woof.' I wuz gittin' winded, what with runnin' an' yellin', so thet I wuz gruntin' 'woof' most all ther time.
"Inside, all wuz merriment, an' me runnin' fer my life, fer ther cow wuz most industrious, an' didn't know what it wuz ter git tired.
"Well, ter make a long tale short, I kept runnin' an' gruntin' 'woof' at every jump, ther sweat runnin' down an' freezin' on my clothes, until mornin', when ther cow gits tired an' goes away. Then ther boys comes out an' finds me, an' says they're mighty surprised ter see me, havin' conclooded that I'd gone home.
"'We hear somethin' goin' "woof" all night, an' thought it wuz ther cow,' says Fleshy, 'an' we didn't dast open ther door fer fear she'd want ter come in, an' as there wuz ladies there, it wouldn't do. Wuz that you what was woofin' all night?'
"After that I wuzn't nothin' ter them boys but 'The Woofer.'"
SINGING BIRD'S SECRET.
The boys laughed at the story, for Woofer, as they began to call him immediately, told it in a most comical manner. They all took to him immensely, and regarded him as quite an acquisition to the camp.
Dinner was announced by McCall, the cook, and Woofer certainly did justice to it, being, as Bud remarked in an aside to Hallie, "holler all the way down to his toes." He confessed that he had had nothing to eat but a little mud, which he had absorbed when he got a drink at a water hole, since the noon of the day before.
Ted had been thinking about the man. It would do no harm to have another puncher in the outfit, and would relieve the night guard, which at times was a little overworked.
"Say, Woofer, you won't take a reward for bringing in our strays, how would you like a job with this outfit?" he said.
"I don't want you to think I'm workin' ther grub line," said the cow-puncher quickly.
When a cow-puncher is said to be working the grub line, he is known as a thriftless cowman who cannot hold a job long anywhere, and who travels from ranch to ranch, staying only long enough at each to get fed up, then passing on with a few dollars in his pocket, to repeat the operation elsewhere.
"Certainly not," answered Ted. "If I believed that I wouldn't offer you the job."
"All right," said Woofer. "This outfit looks good to me, an' I'll jine, an' go ter work instanter."
"You're on the pay roll, then."
Woofer proved quickly that he knew the business thoroughly, and when, the next morning, the herd got under way, he took the left point, with Bud on the right, and headed the herd into the north.
For several days life on the trail was monotonous. Whenever Ted could be spared from the herd he and Stella and Hallie Croffut, and sometimes Ben or Kit, took long rides off the trail with their rifles, after a pronghorn or black-tail deer, and frequently they had venison for supper.
The life was most fascinating to Hallie, who enjoyed every minute of it, and had seemingly forgotten the unpleasant features of her start with the party.
Singing Bird rode in the wagon, with Mrs. Graham, waiting on that lady in the capacity of maid. Stella had undertaken to teach her the duty of maid, and the girl soon did for Mrs. Graham what had taken a great deal of Stella's time.
The Indian girl was devoted to Stella, and whenever she was near, followed the pretty white girl with eyes in which shone devotion and affection.
She had made herself so useful, and was so self-effacing that every one wondered how they had ever been able to get along without her.
Stella had conceived a real affection for her, she was so gentle and sweet of manner.
They had long talks together in the evenings, sitting away from the fire, the Indian girl telling her white friend all about the life led by the Indians, their wrongs at the hands of the white men, their religious beliefs, their songs, and their folklore.
And, more important than all, she taught Stella the language of the Blackfeet and the Sioux. Stella was a good scholar, and it was surprising how rapidly she picked up the Indian tongues. Later she was to feel gratitude to the Indian girl for this knowledge.
For several days Stella had noticed that Singing Bird was uneasy and apparently unhappy, and it worried her.
She spoke to Ted about it, and he was of the opinion that the Indian girl was getting homesick, that her wild nature was asserting itself, and that she was experiencing a longing to be among her own people again, and free from the conventions of civilized life.
Stella did not think so, and determined to speak to Singing Bird about it at the first good opportunity.
One day the chance came as they were walking together in a wood near which they had camped.
"What is the matter with you, sister?" asked Stella kindly. "Is it that you are not satisfied with our ways, and that you want to leave us?"
Singing Bird looked at her with troubled eyes, in which the tears soon began to well up.
"My sister knows that I love her," she said, "and that I would not leave her unless she wishes me to."
She looked at Stella inquiringly.
"No, I want you to stay. But if you are troubled, you must tell me as one sister would tell another."
"I will tell you," said the Indian girl simply, "and I would have told you long ago, only that I did not want to trouble you, nor make trouble for any one else in the camp."
"What do you mean by making trouble for any one else in the camp?"
"I mean that the new man who drives the cows is a bad man. Beware of him."
"You mean the man called Woofer?"
"Yes, it is he whom I mean. He is the traitor, and he doesn't like the master, Ted Strong."
"How do you know that?"
"From what he has said to me. He is the bad man."
"But tell me all about it. I didn't know that he had talked to you, even. Why did you not tell me this before?"
"The white man threatened to kill me if I told."
"Now you must tell me all."
"We will sit down here, for there is much to tell."
Singing Bird took a seat upon a fallen tree, and Stella sat down beside her.
"Proceed," said Stella, "and leave nothing out."
"When he first came to the camp, I wished he would not stay," began Singing Bird, "but every one seemed to think he was the good man, and who am I to say anything against the wishes of my friends who saved my life and made me a home?"
"Did you know him then?"
"Yes. I have seen him at the white soldiers' fort. He is the friend of Running Bear. He is a bad man, who steals other men's cattle."
"But he brought ours back to us."
"That was a trick to get into your camp. He is as cunning as a bad Indian. One day he came to me when no one was about, and told me that he had seen my husband, Running Bear, and that I must go back to him. I was frightened, but told him I would not do so. Then he begged me to tell him the secret I have. I told him I could not do it."
"You have never told me that secret."
"But I will. Always I have intended to do so."
"When you are ready. But go on."
"Then he told me that if I would tell him the secret he would marry me himself." The Indian girl flushed. "You know, sister, that it is a great thing for an Indian girl to marry a white man."
"But you are already the wife of Running Bear," said Stella, who was puzzled.
"That is the Indian marriage, and soon broken. But when I told him I didn't want to marry him, he got very angry. I told him I was going to stay with you, and he said that if I did I would be killed with all the rest of you; that it was coming, and that Mr. Strong had many enemies who were stronger than all of you."
"Did he hint when this was going to take place?"
"Yes, when we get to the Far North."
"Did he say anything else?"
"He told me that if I didn't go with him to-night he would kill me when I slept."
"We shall see about that," said Stella spiritedly. "But why is all this fuss being made about you and your secret? It must be something very important."
"Yes, to the white man, but not to the Indian."
"Then why did Running Bear shoot you because you would not tell him?"
"He wanted to sell the secret to a white man for whisky."
"Who is the white man? Do you know?"
"Yes. But I do not like to tell."
"You have told me so much, you must tell me the rest."
"The white man is a soldier at the fort."
"A common soldier?"
"No, a chief, who carries a sword."
"Oh, an officer. What is his name?"
"He is called Barrows."
"Oh! And he offered Running Bear whisky for your secret? That is bad."
"Yes. Chief Barrows wants the secret, and he has sent the man who drives cows here to make me tell it."
"Singing Bird, you must tell me the secret."
Stella settled herself to hear the Indian girl's story.
"It began when I was a little child," said Singing Bird. "One time when my father's tribe was hunting, we came to a place where a lot of white men were digging in the sands of the big, muddy river."
"Was that the Missouri?"
"The white men call it so. We camped beside them, and one day I saw them washing out of the sand little grains of yellow metal, which they thought much of, although the Indians would rather have iron, the black metal."
"They were hunting for gold."
"Yes. In their talk with my father they said that somewhere up the river was the mother of the gold, where all this came from. They asked my father if he knew where it was.
"Now, my father had found where there was plenty of the yellow metal. But he, too, was shrewd, and, seeing that the white men prized it so highly, he thought he would go back and get the gold, and sell it to the white men for iron and shot and powder and blankets.
"The white men guessed that he knew where the mother of gold was, and asked him. But he refused to tell them, and went away.
"The white men followed us for days. One evening I was with my mother, and heard my father tell her where the yellow metal was on the opposite side of the river, pointing to a great sycamore tree that grew on the river bank. 'Beneath that tree lies much of the yellow metal,' he said to her, and I saw the tree, and knew what he said was true.
"That night the white men came to our camp and had a long talk with my father, trying to make him tell where the mother gold was, and, when he would not, suddenly they fell upon the camp, and, after killing some of the young men, drove my father and the others away. At the first shot my mother ran away into the woods with me."
"That was horrible," interjected Stella.
"As my mother ran, she was shot in the back, but she kept on running until she was out of sight before she fell.
"Then the white men went away, and I lay there with my mother until she breathed no more and was cold.
"I cried for a long time because it was dark and cold, and I could hear the wild animals in the woods all about me.
"This frightened me, and I began to call 'Ai-i-e!' which is the Indian way of lamentation, and I cried louder all the time to keep the wild animals from me."
"And did no one hear you?"
"Yes. In the night I heard a noise in the wood, and it was the noise of a man walking, an Indian man, for it was soft, made by moccasins. Then I cried louder, and soon my father came and picked both me and my mother up in his arms and carried us away into the woods, where he buried my mother, and went away into the North again.
"But as I grew up, I thought often about the mother gold and the place where it was hidden by the Great Spirit, for so I had heard my father say. Once when I spoke of it to my father he told me never to speak of it to him again, for it was cursed, having taken away from him his son, who was killed by the white men, and my mother.
"So never did I talk of it. But when Running Bear heard of it from some of the old men who had been with my father, and heard that I was the only one of all the tribe who knew where it was, he began to court me, and then bought me of my father for twenty ponies.
"We had not been married long when he asked me to take him to the place of gold, but my father told me not to do so, and I did not. Then he began to beat me, and tried to kill me, but the secret is still mine.
"In time others heard that I possessed the great secret of the hiding place of the mother gold, for when Running Bear was drunk he would boast that his squaw was the richest woman in the world, because of her secret, and many men have tried to get it from me. Then the army chief, who carries the sword, got hungry for the gold, and gave Running Bear plenty of whisky to make me tell where it was, and now he has sent Woofer to make me tell, or to kill me."
"Will you tell Ted Strong where the mother gold is hidden?" asked Stella.
"I will, if you wish me to. But it is accursed."
"Nonsense. That is only a superstition. Now that you have told me, all will be well. Be careful, and do not let Woofer see you alone, and if he lays his hand on you, scream for me. We will now go back to the camp."
As the two girls walked away with their arms around one another's waists, a tall, gaunt man rose from behind a dead tree not far away, and over his face spread a shrewd smile.
It was Woofer.
A NIGHT CHASE.
The tent occupied by Singing Bird was pitched some distance from that occupied by Mrs. Graham and the two girls, Stella and Hallie, and when she had attended to the wants of Mrs. Graham, she retired to it.
It was early in the evening, and when she saw that her friend had retired, Stella sought out Ted, and told him the story she had heard that afternoon.
At first Ted was inclined to be somewhat incredulous about Woofer's share in it as told by the Indian girl, but when he thought it over and put together certain facts which had come to his attention, and recalled questions, apparently innocent at the time they were asked, which Woofer had put to him from time to time, he began to suspect that the merry cow-puncher was, after all, merely acting a part.
Ted took Bud into consultation, and the three went over the matter carefully.
If it were true that Barrows was after the gold, he had a double cause to do injury to the broncho boys.
There could be no doubt that Barrows, by virtue of his position, was capable of being a very dangerous foe, especially in this part of the country where the boys were virtually alone, and where they had no friends, and were compelled to rely absolutely upon themselves.
That their doings were probably known to Barrows by means of a system of espionage conducted by Woofer, who, Ted now recalled, was in the habit of leaving the camp for long, solitary rides at intervals. What could be easier than when Woofer heard them talking about their plans to ride out and meet a courier sent by Barrows to get the information?
Ted resolved not only to fight Barrows with his own weapons, and to a finish, but to interfere with his plans to get the gold in the mine to which Singing Bird only could guide them.
It was necessary, therefore, to guard the Indian girl closely, and this he proposed to do, and when he had rid the camp of Woofer, and scoured the country for Barrows' spies and sent them off, he would proceed to the mine.
As it was, they were headed in the direction of the Missouri River, and it would not be at all out of their way, or interfere with their business.
Woofer was sitting with the boys around the camp fire, regaling them with stories of cow-punching in various parts of the country, and making of himself a most agreeable companion, and Ted, watching him carefully, could see nothing guilty or suspicious about him.
But that didn't prevent him from keeping his eyes open.
Gradually the camp settled down for the night.
Stella went to bed after she had peeped into the tent occupied by Singing Bird, and satisfied herself that she was sleeping quietly and safely.
One by one the boys rolled themselves in their blankets beside the fire, and dropped into deep slumber.
Woofer had said good night among the first, saying that he was very tired, and would "crawl into the wool," as he expressed it.
Only the night guard was awake, as they rode around and around the sleeping herd, their voices breaking out softly into song as a restless steer arose and sniffed the air and began to walk around.
Ted was lying in his blankets, breathing softly and deeply, evidently sound asleep.
Overhead the stars sparkled brightly, casting a radiance upon the earth that made things several feet distant perfectly observable.
Woofer's blankets had been spread at the edge of the circle farthest from the fire. Ted also slept on the outer rim, and not more than ten feet from Woofer.
It was past midnight, as Ted could tell by the stars, for he was not asleep, although feigning to be.
He lay facing the place where Woofer was circled up in his blankets, when he saw the cow-puncher raise his head cautiously, not more than an inch or two, and look around.
Ted closed his eyelids to a mere crack, for the light from the fire shone on his face, and in that position watched Woofer's movements.
Woofer was very sly and cautious. Ted had observed that he had ostentatiously pulled off his boots when he lay down. Now he could see by the movements of the blankets that he was pulling them on again out of sight.
"That fellow is going to get up in a minute," thought Ted, "and I think I know just what he is going to do."
He had not long to wait, for presently Woofer crawled out of his blankets on the far side, and began to wriggle away on his belly, like a snake.
Ted still kept his eyes upon him.
Once Woofer stopped and looked back to see if his escape from camp had been observed, or if any one was stirring.
Ted had not moved, and apparently was as sound asleep as ever.
Reassured that no one had seen him leave his blankets, Woofer proceeded until he was without the radius of the camp fire's glow, when he rose to an upright position.
But Ted could still follow him by the starlight.
Evidently believing himself safe, Woofer did not again look around, but walked slowly and silently toward the tents, which were plainly to be seen about fifty feet distant from the fire.
The tent in which the Indian girl was sleeping was farther from the fire than that occupied by Mrs. Graham and her two charges.
Ted had slipped from his blankets at the moment when Woofer rose to his feet, and was creeping along, close to the ground paralleling Woofer's progress, but about twenty feet to the left.
Woofer arrived at the Indian girl's shelter and stopped, and seemed to be listening.
This gave Ted time to creep nearer.
He saw the cow-puncher lift the flap of the tent and look within, still listening carefully for anything that would tell him that Singing Bird was awake.
Ted was not more than ten feet away when Woofer disappeared.
He had entered the tent.
Suddenly from within it there came a muffled cry, then the tent began to pitch and toss. Evidently a savage struggle was going on within.
But it was all so silent that had Ted not been within striking distance of it, he would not have heard anything of it.
Suddenly the tent flew apart, and Woofer appeared, carrying in his arms the insensible form of the Indian girl.
Woofer was a very powerful man, and he ran swiftly from the tent bearing the girl in his arms as if she were a child.
Ted dashed after him. It did not occur to him to raise an alarm.
But as swiftly as he ran, Woofer had the better of him, for a few strides took him out of Ted's sight.
Ted stopped and listened, blaming himself for not closing with Woofer sooner.
Not a sound of Woofer's retreat came to his ears.
Suddenly he heard a nicker at his elbow almost, and looked around. It was Sultan, who had smelled him, and had come to him, and was now rubbing his velvety nose against Ted's sleeve.
In an inspiration Ted leaped upon his back, and caught the headstall, which he always left on Sultan when he turned him loose in the night so that he could get him in a hurry should there be a night alarm of any sort.
An idea came to him as soon as he felt Sultan under him.
Woofer undoubtedly had thought to have a horse saddled and ready waiting for him somewhere near the camp. If he could only get Sultan to call to it and get an answer, he would soon find him.
He had no sooner conceived the thought when Sultan whinneyed like a trumpet call.
From a distance came an answering cry. It was the voice of Magpie, and Ted knew it well. Stella's little black-and-white mare and Sultan were the greatest friends, and when she heard him call, she replied.
Woofer was about to steal the most valuable and swiftest of the animals, except Sultan. That was another reason why Ted was now so keen on the chase. He turned Sultan's head in the direction of Magpie's call, and the little stallion galloped away like the wind.
Ted had no bridle, but that was not necessary, for he and Sultan understood one another so well that a slight pressure of the rider's knees was all the guidance the horse needed.
Again came Magpie's shrill call, and this time Sultan nickered and fairly flew. Somewhere ahead, in the darkness, Ted heard for the first time the hoofbeats of the pony, and knew that Woofer had reached it and was away.
"Follow her; catch her, Sultan," called Ted, and Sultan seemed to understand, and let himself out to his full stride, although he missed the firm, guiding hand on the bridle.
Magpie was put to her utmost, but she was heavily handicapped by carrying double for a race against Sultan, who was not even burdened by the heavy saddle he usually bore.
So it was that Sultan steadily gained on the little mare, who was not disposed to do her utmost even under whip and spur, which Woofer did not spare.
They were now racing in the dark along the ridge of a deep coulee, the wall on the right of which went down steeply to a depth of thirty or more feet.
Ted could not see the way, but he knew that they were riding a perilous path, and that a slip of the foot or a rolling rock might cost them their lives.
But he knew Sultan's feet were sure, and that unless an accident which could not be avoided took place, they were safe.
He had so gained on Woofer that he could now see him dimly outlined against the sky in advance of him.
If it were only level ground on which he could urge Sultan, it would not be a matter of more than a few minutes before he would be up with him.
But evidently Woofer saw him, also, for there was the flash of a revolver, and a ball sang past Ted's head.
He dared not fire in return for fear of hitting Singing Bird.
But the race must end soon, for Ted was steadily gaining.
At length they swept down from the ridge and into the coulee, along the level bottom of which they galloped, Sultan always edging up, closer and closer to Magpie, who evidently was slowing down.
Now Ted spoke to Sultan and urged him for the first time, and the gallant little beast spurted forward, and in an instant's time was abreast of the other horse.
Ted's eyes were almost put out by a blinding flash, and there was a deafening roar.
Woofer had placed his forty-five close to his head, leaning far out of his saddle, and fired.
By same interposition of Providence, however, the ball went past his head, singeing his hair, and he bent forward and struck Woofer on the head with the butt of his own weapon.
Woofer seemed to shrink in the saddle, like a wet rag, and the Indian girl was slipping from his arms to the ground when Ted seized her and transferred her to his own saddle.
At the same moment the insensible form of Woofer slipped to the ground.
Feeling herself free of her burden, Magpie came to a stop, and trotted back to where Ted was waiting for her, and rubbed noses with Sultan.
The Indian girl had been rendered unconscious by a blow on the head in the tent, and was just recovering as Ted rescued her from a fall to the ground.
Presently she opened her eyes, and, not knowing what had taken place within the last few minutes, she tried to struggle out of Ted's arms, at the same time uttering shrill screams, and trying to use her finger nails on his face. She was fighting like a wild cat, and it was all Ted could do to prevent her from injuring him, while he was trying to get her quiet enough to realize the change in her fortunes.
Finally she recognized his voice and ceased to struggle, but sat up and looked at him in amazement.
"It is I, Singing Bird," said he. "I followed you and took you away from Woofer. You are safe."
Then she saw it was so, and remained quiet.
He let her slip to the ground, and then assisted her to mount Magpie, and thus they rode slowly back to camp.
Before going Ted got down from Sultan's back and found Woofer, who was lying where he fell. He was not in a serious condition, but Ted knew that he would suffer from a severe headache when he awoke. Then he would have to take care of himself, alone on the vast prairie without a horse. But it was his own lookout, and perhaps it would teach him a much-needed lesson.
When they reached camp the night guard was changing, and, seeing Ted and the Indian girl come riding in together, the boys aroused the whole camp with their eager questions.
Ted told them briefly all that had happened during the attempted abduction of Singing Bird, but the time was not ripe to divulge the burden of the Indian girl's story of the gold in the mother lode.
THE LOCOED STEER.
The daring attempt to abduct the Indian girl made a strong impression on every one of the Moon Valley outfit, and they resolved that they would not be caught napping in that manner again.
The herd continued to move forward slowly toward the north, with nothing to vary the monotony.
The long, grassy slopes of Montana furnished the best of feed, and the country was plentifully watered with clear, flashing mountain streams, and, all in all, it was an ideal cow country.
The herd was now well up toward the northeast corner of Montana, and not far away was the Missouri, near the banks of which Ted intended to hold the cattle until they were in fine condition, and then drive them by easy stages to the railroad.
One day Bud rode up to Ted with a very serious face, so unusual a thing that Ted looked at him with a grin.
"What's the grouch about now, Bud?" he asked.
"I ain't got no grouch," answered Bud.
"No? You look as if some one had handed you a lemon."
"No lemons in mine, but I jest got a hunch that this yere outfit is being follered, an' that thar's some dirty work doin'."
"What makes you think that?"
"I found a couple o' dead steers back a bit with our brand on them."
"Great Scott! What seemed the matter with them?"
"All swelled up."
"That's what makes them swell up. There's no disease in ther herd, what I kin diskiver. All healthy enough. But some o' them is showin' signs o' loco, an' thar ain't no loco weed on this range."
"That's mighty strange. I hadn't noticed it. What do you think of it?"
"I believe that dog Woofer is follerin' us, an' has been spreadin' poison o' some kind on ther range what either kills or makes ther steers crazy."
"If that is true, it is the most serious thing that has come our way in a long time. It wouldn't take much of that sort of work to put the whole bunch out of business and leave us with not enough cattle to pay to drive back to the road."
"That's right. We'd be in a pretty fix with the best o' our herd rottin' out here on the prairie. And about all we've got is tied up in it, too."
"What do you think is behind it?"
"Barrows, the dirty little coward of an officer back there at Fort Felton, striking back-hand blows at us through his money, by hirin' crooks and murderers to do his dirty work. There's more than one man at work at this."
"I've no doubt you're right. By Jove! I'm going to take a look at the situation myself."
"Be careful about goin' too far away from the herd alone."
"I will; and, say, warn Stella and Miss Croffut about going out of sight of the herd, and to always fire a signal if strange men approach them when away from camp."
"I'll put everybody on, and warn them to be on their guard."
As Ted rode on, he turned the matter over in his mind.
Not knowing exactly if poison had been given the cattle, or if they had eaten of a poisonous weed, of which he had no knowledge, Ted was in a quandary. But it was questions like this that came before cowmen on the range, and it was the successful ones who solved them.
Ted felt, therefore, that it was up to him to get at the cause of the trouble which had unexpectedly come to him.
If he was being followed by a band of cattle poisoners who worked in the night, the sooner he knew it the better, for he could then lay plans to put them out of their nefarious business.
As he rode, he came across three swollen bodies of steers, and examined them. Clearly they had been poisoned, as Bud had said.
Far out on the range he saw a lone steer. Thinking that it was a stray, he rode toward it, with the intention of driving it back toward the herd.
For a herd steer, it was acting in an unaccountable manner. At times it galloped away in a frantic sort of way, throwing its head from side to side, then as suddenly stopping, and, with drooping head, standing quietly. Then away it would go again, charging at some unseen foe, only to become stupid once more.
"Something wrong with that brute," said Ted to himself. "Either it has got into a nest of rattlesnakes and has been bitten and is charging them, or it is locoed. We'll soon see."
He kept on fearlessly toward the steer, which continued its strange conduct.
When he was still several feet away the steer noticed him for the first time, apparently. It lowered its head and looked at him in a dazed sort of way.
This steer was known as Blue Eyes, on account of the curious bluish patch of hair that grew around one of its eyes. It had always been known as a particularly intelligent and tractable beast.
But now it was a very demon, with gleaming, blood-shot eyes and pawing hoofs, uttering deep, guttural bellows, and throwing the sand up over its back to the accompaniment of its thrashing tail.
"You look pretty dangerous, old fellow," muttered Ted, stopping his pony and gazing at it from a safe distance.
"No signs of rattlesnakes around here, or I'd smell them," soliloquized Ted. "Wonder what's the matter with you."
For answer, the steer gave an extra flip to its tail, and, without further warning, charged upon Ted with head down and wicked horns gleaming like bayonets. Ted's horse gave a snort of fear, and trembled in every muscle.
Ted at once realized his danger, and wheeled his horse like a bullfighter as Blue Eyes dashed past him, its horn scraping his leg.
"It's fight or run," thought Ted, "with a poor chance to get away from the brute. When they're in that condition they can run like an automobile."
Again the steer, having recovered itself, turned to the attack.
"I'll have to put a few bullets into that brute, if this thing keeps up much longer. It's just crazy enough not to be afraid of a man on horseback, besides, it's a good deal more active than usual." Ted's thoughts were keeping time with the swift actions of the brute, which was wheeling and charging like mad, so that it took all his agility and superb horsemanship to keep clear of it.
Now the horse was getting tired, and was almost useless because it was losing whatever sense it had had, and was becoming awkward and unmanageable.
The steer stood off for several minutes looking at Ted in a lowering way, but when Ted tried to run from it, it was close to his heels in a minute, and he had to simply throw the horse to one side, bringing it to its knees, to avoid the brute.
"That settles it," said Ted, taking his forty-five from its holster and advancing slowly upon the frantic steer.
As it started to charge again he fired directly at the middle of its forehead.
But the animal was hardly staggered, as the missile flattened on its skull and fell harmlessly to the ground.
"This won't do," said Ted. "I've got to get into this game myself. No more peek-a-boo goes with Blue Eyes. I'll do the tackling for a while."
He wheeled out of the way, then turned suddenly and rode after the steer, firing four balls in rapid succession into its body.
But this did not seem to affect the animal's spirits at all, and Ted rode off a short distance and reloaded.
When he turned again toward the beast it was charging, and was so close to him that he hardly had time to get out of its way.
He might have made it had not the horse caught the smell of blood, which was running from the steer in several places.
This rattled him so that he lost his footing, and the next instant he was struck on the withers by the steer's horns and went rolling over and over on the prairie, while Ted Strong flew from his back, and landed heavily on the sod, with his revolver knocked from his hand.
The locoed steer stood a few feet away pawing the earth and looking at him with dim eyes, all blood-shot and crazy, not making a move toward him, yet always seeming about to do so.
Stealthily, inch by inch, Ted crawled toward where his forty-five lay on the ground.
It was six feet from where he lay to that gun, and he prayed silently that he could reach it before the steer changed its mind and rushed him.
He knew it would do no good for him to rise and go toward the weapon. If he did, the steer would immediately rush him, and that would be the end of things for him, for he would stand no chance whatever against that terrible beast, crazed, and powerful beyond its ordinary strength.
As long as he crept gently the steer seemed not to notice him.
Now he was within five feet of the revolver with his arm stretched out at full length. It was only four feet now, and still the steer did not make any move to attack him.
He was trying to think where he would shoot it. In the throat, ranging so that the bullet would pierce its heart; or through the eye, and so reach its brain.
Now his fingers closed around the weapon, and he clutched it convulsively, leaping to his feet like an acrobat.
At the same moment the steer, bellowing like an insane thing, charged upon him, and he fired into its blue eye.
The ball pierced the brain and killed the brute instantly, but did not stop the headlong flight of it, and before Ted could step out of its way, it struck him with the force of a locomotive. As he went to the ground, the dead steer fell on top of him.
Ted's fight with the steer had been seen, and across the prairie two flying figures simply split the air. When they reached the side of the prostrate steer, they flung themselves to the earth and flew to the rescue of Ted. One was Stella and the other was Bud.
"Is he dead?" asked Stella breathlessly.
"I reckon not," answered the cow-puncher, who, secretly, was very much afraid he was; he didn't see how Ted could help being dead, having been charged by a steer, and having gone down beneath its weight.
He was struggling like a demon to lift the heavy animal from Ted's body.
The bulk of the steer was lying across Ted's chest, whose face was black from the congestion, so that Stella dared not look at him.
"Pump yer gun fer all it's worth," commanded Bud, in a rough voice. "Keep shootin' till yer bring 'em on ther run. We've got ter get him from under this steer soon, er he'll be all in."
Stella had snatched her Winchester from the boot of her saddle, and fired it in rapid succession into the air until the magazine was empty. Then she refilled it, and began shooting again.
Presently she heard answering shots from the direction of the camp, and in a few minutes several horsemen came tearing over the top of a distant hill, to disappear into a valley and come into sight again on a nearer hill. Soon, with a shout that fairly split the air, six of the boys, led by Ben and Kit, threw themselves from their saddles in front of her.
"What's the matter?" they yelled in unison.
"Throw that steer off Ted," she commanded.
Then they saw what the matter was, and altogether they hoisted the steer, and Ted was freed of the terrible weight.
He was scarcely breathing, for the wind had been completely knocked out of him. Ben laid him flat on his back, and, straddling him, with his knees on the ground, began to work Ted's arms with an upward, backward, and outward motion, as if he was restoring the breath to a half-drowned person. Soon a flush came into Ted's face, and he gave a gasp, and his breath came in short, painful inhalations. As Ben continued the exercise, his breathing became regular, and he opened his eyes with surprise, to see so many of his friends about him, and particularly big Ben straddling him and apparently holding him down. He thought at first that Ben was responsible for his prostrate condition, or that he had struck him.
"What are you doing?" Ted said angrily. "Let me up, dog-gone you."
But when he saw the dead steer on the ground beside him he remembered what had happened, and sat up and laughed with the others.
It did not take him long to recover after this.
"I'm going to try to find out what caused this beast to go mad," said Ted. "There's certainly something wrong about it."
"How are you going to find that out?" asked Ben.
"I don't know yet, but I will," Ted answered. "Come on, two or three of you fellows. The rest of you ride back to the camp. You may be needed there. We can't guard things too closely these days."
The party separated, and Ted, with Bud, Ben, and Kit, rode away, but they had gone only a little ways when they heard a noise behind them. It was Stella galloping toward them.
"I'm going, too," she said, and go she did.
Riding about half a mile west they came to a deep coulee, into which they descended and followed its course for a short distance, when suddenly Ted held up his hand as a signal to halt.
"I smell burning paper," he said, and, getting down from his saddle, went forward alone on foot, as silently as an Indian.
Suddenly he bent forward, examining something on the ground, and motioned the others forward. They rode to his side, and saw him looking at a small, dead camp fire.
"Some one camped here last night," he said, thrusting his hand into the warm ashes. "And whoever it was burned papers in it before he went away this morning; the smell of them is still in the air." But no nose in the party was keen-scented enough to detect it except Ted's.
Ted was still pawing among the ashes, when a change in expression swept over his face, and soon he pulled out several small pieces of charred paper. They were only burned on their curled-up edges, and Ted saw that they were covered with writing, evidently part of a letter.
"What's this?" he exclaimed, after he had spread them out, and studied them attentively. "Here are some words. There is not very much sense in them, though."
"What do they read?" asked Stella.
"This is all I can make out of it: 'I *end you *** **nds of ***is **een. ***tter it on *** *rass. nce rr ws,'. Sounds as crazy as the steer, doesn't it?"
"That's as easy as living on a farm," said Stella, who had been looking over Ted's shoulder.
"All right, Miss Smarty, what is it?" said Ted laughingly.
"See, it's part of instructions to some one, and the way I read it is like this: 'I send you so many pounds'—I don't know just how many, but from the spaces the weight is expressed in three letters or three figures. The next is presumably a poison, although I wouldn't have thought of it if you hadn't spoken of it. What does two words, the first ending in 'is' and the other in 'een' mean, I wonder?"
They all scratched their heads for an answer.
"Why, sure, I have it," said Ted. "It is Paris green."
"That's it. Clever boy. Then there's 'tter,' which simply shouts 'scatter' at you. After that 'rass.' That's not hard. It reads so far: 'I send you, say six, pounds of Paris green,' although it must have been more than that. 'Scatter it on the grass.'"
"But the rest of it. That will stump you," said Ben.
"That's what caused me to get next to it first. It's Clarence Barrows, as sure as you're born!"
"Stella, you're right, by jinks!" shouted Bud. "Ther sweet-scented Lieutenant Barrows has sent men out yere ter poison our critters, and we've caught him with ther goods on."
THE BOBWHITE'S CALL.
The discovery that Lieutenant Barrows had lent himself to such an enormous crime in the sight of all cowmen as to attempt to poison a herd of cattle, served to keep them all silent as they rode homeward, but around the fire that night their tongues loosened as they discussed it.
They told Hallie Croffut nothing about it, as they wished to save her pain, for as far as any of them knew she was still betrothed to Lieutenant Barrows, who was proving himself an enemy indeed.
"I see how it is, and how easy," said Ted. "They have been following us ever since we have been on the trail, but from a secure distance, generally riding parallel with us, out of sight in coulees, watching us continually."
"But how could they poison our cattle, without our seeing some of them sometimes?" asked Kit.
"Easy enough. Probably there are only two of them, for more would be in the way, and run more risk of being seen."
"But about the poisoning part of it? I don't understand how they could do it."
"That's easy, too. They are probably a day ahead of us all the time, guessing at our probable direction of march. If they guess it wrong, they try it over again, for they are never more than a mile or so away. When they pick out a place where they think we will graze, they scatter the Paris green on the grass for the cattle to lick up. It takes a good-sized dose of the poison to affect so large an animal as a steer, and that is probably why we have not lost more of our stock by that means. They could never get quite enough, that is, the most of them, to kill them. Such as are dead did get enough to make them loco first, and kill them afterward."
"Another thing," said Kit: "We have had several heavy rains in the early morning lately, and that has served to run the poison off."
"I wouldn't wonder, also, if they haven't missed our route several times, and left the Paris green to poison some other herd," said Stella.
"Their salvation, I am convinced, is also due to the peculiar quality of the water they have found to drink. Who knows but that it is a perfect antidote for the Paris green?" said Ben wisely.
"Oh, slush!" interposed Bud. "I reckon ther truth is they haven't begun ter poison in right earnest yet. From ther letter, I would think that they had just received the stuff and were trying it out before they begin the big poisoning stunt. I'll bet Woofer is the chief actor, and that he's just met ther feller what brought ther poison out with him. Having found that it worked on a few o' ther cattle, they'll spread it on thick ahead o' us. An' ther wust part o' it is, thar don't seem no way ter circumvent 'em, onless we go hunt fer 'em, an' put 'em out er business quick."
"Well said, Bud," was Ted's comment. "There's no way of discovering the confounded stuff. We can't go ahead with a microscope and a chemical laboratory to analyze every blade of grass along the route for Paris green. The best we can do is to take our chances and keep going north. But I think we'd better establish outside picket lines which will stay well in advance, and off to the flanks. If it can be done, this system will succeed in at least frightening them off for a while. Everybody prepare to stand extra hours in the saddle."
A line of outriders was established at once, and the herd pushed on, and for several days there were no evidences that any more of the cattle had been poisoned.
They were nearing the river, as they could tell by the gradual sloping of the land to the east, and the flatness of the country.
One afternoon about four o'clock Brock, one of the hired cow-punchers, came riding into camp as fast as his horse would run, and fell out of the saddle. He had been shot through the leg, and was almost insensible from loss of blood when he succeeded in getting in.
When he was able to speak, he said to Ted:
"I was riding picket about two miles off to the west. As I topped a hill I saw a body of men about a quarter of a mile away. With my glasses I saw that they were soldiers, and wondered what they were doing so far from a post, as there isn't one nearer here than Fort Felton."
"Soldiers, eh?" asked Ted. "Cavalry or infantry?"
"How many of them were there?"
"I should say about fifty."
"Did they see you?"
"They must have seen me, for I saw them brought to a halt, and remain that way for several minutes, while the officer was looking at me through his binoculars. After they had satisfied themselves as to what I was, they galloped to the north, and I soon lost sight of them behind the hills."
"I wonder what troops are doing out here. I haven't heard of any trouble with the Indians, and there is no gang of outlaws this far north that it would take troops to subdue."
Stella looked at Ted significantly, and he read her thoughts.
Could it be that Lieutenant Barrows had been able to use his influence, or his cunning, to bring a detachment of troops so far away from the post to attend to his own personal affairs, while ostensibly on the government's business?
He dismissed the thought, however, as soon as it was conceived. It appeared to be too ridiculous.
However, they were all on their guard now. They realized that there were others on the range, and they were aware that a powerful and vindictive enemy was close at hand.
"How did you come to receive the shot in the leg?" asked Ted, breaking the silence.
"As I turned to ride to camp to report what I had seen, something moved down in the coulee. At first I thought it might be a wolf or coyote, but as I drove the pony into it a shot was fired, and it got me in the leg. I didn't wait for any more, as I did not know how many men there might be, and I deemed it wise to get to camp alive with the news."
"The poisoners!" was Ted's brief comment.
"They've got us pretty well hemmed in," said Ben. "They mean business."
"Yes, but we'll break through, and beat them yet," said Ted, with conviction.
But they were a long ways from being out of danger yet as they were soon to know.
That evening Ted, accompanied by Stella and Hallie, rode out of camp. Ted wanted to spy out the land in advance to see if there were any signs of the troops and the poisoners.
They were riding along out of sight of the camp, talking cheerfully and feeling perfectly safe, when they were brought to a sudden stop by a command, "Halt!" given in a gruff tone.
They stared in amazement when they saw that they were surrounded by a detachment of soldiers, and that the command had been given by a sergeant. A dozen carbines were leveled at them.
"What's the meaning of this?" asked Ted, with a smile.
"Orders for your arrest," answered the sergeant gruffly. "Disarm the man."
Several soldiers stepped to Ted's side, and the one who attempted to take Ted's rifle from its boot on the saddle received a kick on the chest that sent him sprawling on his back.
But as the kick was delivered, and before he could do anything further in his defense, Ted was struck a ringing blow on the head with the butt of a carbine, and was dragged from the saddle.
As he went down he heard a shout of alarm.
"Don't shoot!" he heard the sergeant cry. "Let her go. We don't want her, anyway."
Then Ted knew that Stella had escaped, to carry the news back to the boys, and to bring assistance.
"I wish the Indian girl had been along," the sergeant said to one of the men. "We'd have all we wanted, then."
"Oh, we'll get her later," was the reply.
Ted was hoisted to his feet in no gentle manner, and then he discovered that his arms had been bound. Sitting on her pony was Hallie Croffut, pale but calm, regarding the scene with an expression of contempt.
"What is the meaning of this, Brown?" she asked, addressing the sergeant
"Orders from a s'perior officer, miss," said the sergeant apologetically, saluting respectfully.
"Well, you and your superior officer will be sorry for this day's work when the colonel hears of it," was all she said.
The sergeant saluted again, and ordered the men to march.
Ted was lifted into his saddle, and, in the center of the detachment, was marched away.
They rode thus for several miles, when, in the gathering dusk, Ted saw ahead of him a small cabin.
In a few moments they were in front of it, and Ted and Hallie were assisted to the ground and bade to enter.
In the center of the room, seated at a table, was Lieutenant Barrows, who scowled at Ted, but hadn't the courage, apparently, to look at his fiancee.
Hallie Croffut did not address him, but he felt the glance of scorn she gave him, for he winced under it.
"For what am I arrested?" asked Ted coolly.
"You will discover when your trial comes," was the cold reply.
"And why have you dared to detain me?" asked Hallie.
"Your father's orders, Miss Croffut," he said almost inaudibly.
"I believe that you are lying. If you are, Heaven help you, for there is not a decent man in all the army who will not hound you to disgrace. To think that you would countenance this outrage against your colonel's daughter is almost past belief. But now I know you for what you are, you cur."
Barrows went white as a sheet as she said this, and his lip curled back from his teeth, like those of an angry dog, as he half rose to his feet with a gesture as if he would strike her. But he thought better of it, and sank back.
"Brown, take them away," he said to the sergeant. "I will hold you personally responsible for them."
The sergeant saluted, and, catching Ted by the elbow, marched him into the next room.
Hallie Croffut started to follow him, when she was stayed by Barrows.
"Hallie, won't you come back with me?" he pleaded. "If you will, I will release Strong and let the rest of it go."
"I wouldn't trust you out of my sight," said the girl. "Oh, how happy I am that I have found you out in time. You are the most miserable specimen of a man I ever heard of, and to think that you have called yourself an officer and a gentleman. But this is the last for you. If you were brave enough you ought to kill yourself to save the army from the disgrace of having had you in it."
"Curse you!" he cried, in impotent rage. "If you were not a woman I would knock you down."
"If you feel like it, don't let so small a matter that I am a girl and your colonel's daughter interfere with your pleasure. Strike me!"
But Barrows only stared at her with a white face, and with a muttered curse left the room.
"This way, miss," said the sergeant. She entered the room into which Ted had been taken, but he was not there.
In the middle of the floor was an open trapdoor.
"I must ask you to go down there," said the sergeant. "You will find a ladder. You will be safe, and it is not for long. We start for the post soon, I am told."
Hallie made no reply, but did as she was bid.
The cellar was as dark as a pocket, and she could see absolutely nothing as her feet touched the earth floor.
But she found a box, and sat down upon it. The trap was closed, a bolt shot in it, and she was in Stygian darkness.
She was terribly frightened at first, but there were no rats in the cellar, which she had at first feared, and she fell to thinking what it all meant. Surely the army must have gone entirely mad that she, Hallie Croffut, its pet, should be under arrest in a dark and musty cellar.
But presently her heart stopped beating. In a far corner she heard a faint noise.
Something else was in the place with her. What could it be? Where was Ted? What did it all mean?
Then she heard a groan, and an uneasy movement.
"Who is it?" Hallie asked, in a trembling voice.
"Is that you, Hallie?" It was Ted's voice.
"Yes, it is I. Where are you?"
"Over here in the corner. Those brutes threw me down the ladder, and it stunned me. Come here. Perhaps you can untie my hands. Then we will see what chance there is for escape."
Ted was soon released, and, climbing the ladder, tried the trapdoor, but found it securely fastened.
There had been no sound above them for some time, and Ted came to the conclusion that the soldiers were gone.
He was right. When the prisoners had been thrust into the cellar, Barrows and his men rode away, leaving them alone.
Hours dragged along in the dark, and they scarcely spoke to one another, both lost in their thoughts.
Suddenly Ted started up. Outside he heard a whistle, and he listened for it to be repeated. It was the whistle of the bobwhite. He knew that there were no quail in this region at this time of the year. He knew, too, that it was an Indian signal which Stella and Singing Bird had used between them. Could it be that Stella was outside, and that she was signaling the house, and thinking it occupied, did not dare come to it? He answered it as well as he could, knowing, however, that the sound would not get beyond the cellar.
For several minutes the whistling continued, then stopped. What if they had gone away?
After a long time, it seemed, he heard a stealthy noise overhead. Some one was crawling through the window. Then there was a light step overhead.
"Ted! Hallie! Where are you?" It was Stella calling to them, and they both raised their voices in a joyous shout. Then the bolt slipped, and the trap was raised.
"Come up out of there," cried Stella, "unless you like it. Singing Bird and I started out after you. I met her on the way, and she trailed you here. She has just started back for the boys."
A DUEL WITH LARIATS.
Outside it was night, and beyond the clearing the woods were dark. Both Ted's and Hallie's horses were gone, and it would be impossible for them to start back toward the camp without them.
"We'd better hide in the woods until morning," said Stella. "Singing Bird will guide the boys here. Besides, we do not know when that brave warrior Barrows will return with his soldiers."
"That is a good idea," said Ted, and they crossed the clearing to the woods, and found a place of concealment from which they could see all that took place at the house.
The night was far advanced, and the girls were sleeping on a couch of dried pine needles, which Ted had gathered for them.
Ted was on watch to shield them from harm, and to drive away the animals of the night.
He was half asleep himself, sitting with his back to a tree with his head on his arms, which were crossed on his knees.
An unusual sound brought him to his senses instantly, and he was listening intently.
He heard the sound of horses' feet, and the subdued rumble of men talking.
There were only two horses, and they were coming on uncertainly.
Evidently their riders did not know their way, and were feeling along in the dark, which was intense.
"It ought to be along here somewhere."
It was the voice of Woofer.
"Well, I hope it is," said another voice, "I'm tired of this night riding. When did the boss say he'd be here?"
"Early in ther mornin'. He's goin' ter make an attack on ther cow camp ter-night, an' what he don't kill he's goin' ter bring here, an' stampede ther cattle an' scatter them all over ther range."
Woofer laughed as he said it.
"I don't care much what he does," he continued, "if he'll only turn over ther Injun gal ter me. That'll be ernuff fer you an' me, I reckon."
"Then what's he goin' ter do?"
"He's goin' ter take that Croffut gal, he's jest crazy about her, an' hike her off ter ther coast, an' put her aboard a private yacht he's got there, an' that'll be ther last o' her in this community."
"What's goin' ter happen ter ther rest o' them?"
"He's got er nice little deal fixed up fer Ted Strong. He wuz tellin' me thet if I wanted it, ther job was mine. I reckon I'll take it," and Woofer laughed heartily.
"You're ter be ther executioner, eh?"
"That's about ther size o' it."
"An' yer hate yer job, eh?" This was greeted with uproarious laughter.
"Like a kid hates candy."
"What's it goin' ter be?"
"A little rope play, I reckon."
"That's yer long suit. Hello, what's this? Here we are at the cabin."
Ted heard the men dismount and enter the cabin, and then their voices roaring with rage.
"They've escaped, darn 'em!" they heard Woofer shout. "Hey, there, turn out an' hunt 'em! Ther boss will be wild when he finds this out."
"Hunt fer 'em nothin', in this dark? Yer wouldn't find 'em in a blue moon. Why, it was all we could do ter find ther cabin."
"Well, they can't git far away. We'll find 'em in ther mornin'."
They retired to the cabin again, and slammed the door.
"Did you hear that?"
Stella's hand was on Ted's arm, and she whispered to him in an awed sort of voice.
"You awake?" he said. "Yes, I heard it, but don't let it worry you. They won't get us very soon."
They heard Hallie sobbing quietly.
"What's the matter, dear?" asked Stella. "Don't be frightened."
"Suppose he does," sobbed Hallie.
"Suppose who does what?" asked Stella, throwing her arms around her friend.
"Suppose Lieutenant Barrows does get me and takes me away on a boat. Oh, I shall kill myself!"
"Never fear," said Ted. "He won't do that. Why, the whole army would be up in arms and after him before he got fifty miles."
Hallie took comfort in this, and slept again, while Ted and Stella remained on guard.
As the night wore on, they both became very sleepy, and they must have dropped into a doze, for when they awoke at the sound of a loud laugh, the sun was shining brightly, and they were surrounded by soldiers, and Woofer was looking down at them with a sneering laugh.
"Jest like ther babes in ther woods," he shouted, and the soldiers laughed with him.
Ted was on his feet in an instant, feeling for his revolver, but it was not in its accustomed place, and he suddenly remembered that it had been taken from him by the soldiers the night before.
"Whar's ther lootenant?" asked Woofer. "He'd be glad ter see this tablow."
"He's gone out inter ther woods ter walk his mad off. When he got within strikin' distance o' ther cow camp last night his sand run out, and he started back. Then when he found that his birds had flown that was ther last kick what sent him down."
"What's he goin' ter do now."
"I reckon he'll make ther best o' what he's got now. Come, git up." Woofer spoke roughly to the two girls, and they arose. "Come along back to the cabin. Ther lootenant will be mighty glad ter see yer. One o' you sour doughs hunt up ther lootenant an' tell him ther lost is found."
Ted saw that resistance was useless, and, taking the girls by the hand, he crossed the wide clearing between the woods and the cabin; at the door of which they arrived just as Barrows strode up.
One of the soldiers was busy preparing breakfast, and the others were grouped around jesting about their night's work.
The two girls were sent into the room in which Ted and Hallie had been taken the night before, but Ted was not confined, and was allowed to walk up and down in front of the cabin.
Barrows did not attempt to hold conversation with any of them, but sat at his table with his head in his hand, thinking moodily.
Evidently Barrows was an arrant coward. He had set out with the intention of ruining the Moon Valley herd, and killing all who attempted to resist him, but his courage had failed him.
Ted saw hope in this, if the boys would only arrive on time.
He thought over the conversation he had heard the night before on the arrival of Woofer and his companion at the cabin, with regard to his own fate. Evidently it meant something out of the ordinary, for it seemed to have given extreme pleasure to Woofer, for it was evidently the intention that all the advantage was to be with the cow-puncher. Well, it didn't matter much, so long as he had the ghost of a show himself. He was willing to take a long chance.