Breakfast was announced, and, as the soldiers sat down to eat, the cook came out with three tin plates on which there were bacon and bread, and tin cups of coffee for the prisoners, and they sat down together in the shade of the cabin and ate their food gratefully, for they were very hungry.
The meal was soon over, and Woofer began to strut up and down in front of the cabin.
"I reckon here's where I get my revenge, ain't it, lootenant?" he said, stopping in front of Barrows.
"Do what you please with him," said Barrows crossly, "but leave the girls alone."
"I don't want but one gal, an' she's copper colored," laughed Woofer insultingly, walking to his horse, which was already saddled.
"Now, young feller," he said to Ted, "I'm goin' ter give yer a chance fer yer white alley. I'm goin' ter try ter rope yer while yer dodges me. If I get yer, why—I'll drag yer, see?"
Ted saw that he was to have no chance for his life whatever.
He was to be afoot, while the other man was to ride and try to rope him, and, if he succeeded, drag him to death over the rough ground.
"Do you call that a chance for my life?" asked Ted.
"As much as you'll get," answered Woofer, with a canine grin. "Get out an' take a fightin' chance, or I'll rope yer an' drag yer without it."
Ted looked around the circle of grinning faces about him, and saw that there was no mercy for him. He must make the best fight he could.
Woofer had ridden out into the open and was coiling his rope in his hand ready for a cast.
As Ted walked out he saw in the grove the horses of the soldiers, and among them Sultan bridled and saddled, and a thought flashed through his mind that before the duel was ended he might find use for his beautiful stallion.
As soon as Ted was in the open, Woofer began to circle around him on a lope, steadily increasing the pony's speed, at the same time keeping the rope swinging about his head.
Ted wheeled on his heels, always keeping his face to the horseman, the pivot, as it were, of this little spectacle. Near the cabin stood the soldiers, watching the play with interest. Stella and Hallie were at one side, their eyes fastened on the scene with a sort of fascinated horror. Stella knew well the danger of the bout. In the doorway of the cabin Lieutenant Barrows leaned indifferently, smoking a cigarette, and watching the uneven contest with slight interest in its outcome, and with no regard whatever for the thing which all gentlemen hold sacred, that is, fair play.
Around and around rode Woofer, waiting for a good chance for a cast, but always finding Ted alert. But suddenly the rope flew from his hand with unerring accuracy, and Ted had just time to dodge it. It had been as swift and almost as deadly as the strike of a rattlesnake.
With a confident smile, Woofer drew in his rope again, coiling it, and making ready for another cast.
Again he circled and cast, and this time the rope settled over Ted's shoulders, and a great shout went up from the soldiers.
But before Woofer could tighten it Ted managed to wriggle out of it, and again Woofer drew it in.
Ted realized the danger in which he would stand if ever Woofer succeeded in getting him fast.
Suddenly his hand came in contact with something hard in his pocket. It was his knife, and he surreptitiously inserted his hand, and opened it, then drew it out concealed in his palm. He felt sure that if it was discovered that even this chance would be taken from him.
Again and again Woofer cast and Ted dodged, and the soldiers were getting tired of the monotony of it, and began to deride Woofer for not being able to get Ted.
This aroused the man to anger, and the next time he sent the rope over Ted's shoulders, and drew it taut. A wild cry went up as Ted was being dragged along as fast as he could run, and Stella turned white and gave a cry of fear.
But Ted reached up, just as he was about to be carried off his feet, and cut the rope in two.
At this a yell of protest rose from Woofer, but the men had at last turned with sympathy to Ted.
"Let him have the knife," they cried. "You have the horse and the rope."
Woofer was forced to be content, and he slowly dragged the rope back again, and made a new noose.
He was getting rattled, while Ted was gaining courage, and the rope did not come as accurately as when Woofer had not begun to grow weary.
The soldiers were now addressing rough pleasantries at Woofer, who was growing angry and trying harder than ever to rope Ted and drag him to death.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the rope settled over Ted's arms, for he had grown a little careless, and his eyes had been directed toward the top of the hill behind the cabin, where he had seen something that caused his eyes to open with wonder.
But when he felt himself being dragged along on a run he came to his senses. Stooping his head, he managed to get the knife between his teeth. Then he went along the rope, gathering it in his hands as he went, as if he were climbing it hand over hand.
A shout of joy went up from the two girls at this, for they saw his purpose.
On he went, the rope coming into his hand and being coiled on his arm. Woofer all the while was urging on his pony, trying to throw Ted off his feet.
Ted had now gathered in about thirty feet of the rope, or about half of it.
Woofer saw his game, and swore horribly, as he tried in vain to throw Ted.
When he thought he had enough rope, Ted bent his head once more, and his fingers grasped the knife with which he cut the rope and was free.
Suddenly a shrill whistle left his lips, and there was a nickering answer as Sultan left the other horses and came galloping to his side.
Stella threw up her hat and shouted, and the soldiers followed her example.
As Sultan galloped on, Ted leaped into the saddle, and began to make a noose in his lariat, for he now was equally armed with his enemy.
But Woofer was game, and came galloping back. He didn't know how good a roper Ted was, but he felt confidence in himself.
Around they went, circling like horsemen in a circus ring, with watchful eyes and whirling lariats.
But suddenly Ted's rope left his hand before Woofer could divine his meaning, and pinioned the cow-puncher.
At the same moment Ted gave Sultan a prick with the spur, and the little stallion leaped into the air.
Woofer left his saddle and struck the ground with a bump that knocked the wind out of him.
This was not to the liking of the soldiers, who ran howling toward Ted.
"Drag him from his horse," they shouted.
"No, yer don't. Fair play fer all!" a clear voice rang out above the din, and the soldiers turned toward the hill behind the cabin.
On the summit stood Bud Morgan, his long, fair hair floating in the breeze, and on either side of him ten cow-punchers with their Winchesters trained upon the unarmed soldiers, whose carbines were stacked in the house.
"Three cheers for the broncho boys!" yelled Stella shrilly. "You can't beat 'em anyway you try."
THE MOTHER LODE.
As the boys swarmed down the hill to where Ted and the girls were standing apart from the soldiers, who stood staring at them in amazement, they let out the Moon Valley yell, and acted as though they were a victorious army taking possession of a conquered city.
Lieutenant Barrows stood in the doorway in open-mouthed amazement at the change of scene, in which he and his men were not the captors, but the captured.
He started to bluster by ordering Hallie to get ready to accompany him back to her father.
"I shall not go," she said positively. "I don't believe that my father sent for me."
"I know he didn't," said Ted firmly.
"What do you know about it?" asked Barrows, with a sneer.
"I know that it was your intention to kidnap Miss Croffut and take her to the coast, where you would board a yacht and carry her out of the country."
"That's a——" began Barrows.
"Don't let the word lie pass your lips as applied to me, or I'll jam it down your throat," said Ted, advancing toward the officer, who turned pale and retreated.
"You shouldn't tell your intentions to such irresponsible persons as the Woofer, here. He told all about it early this morning so loud that the whole of Montana might have heard it if they had been awake. I heard it, and if Woofer denies saying that you did say so, then he's a liar, and I'm personally responsible for everything I say."
"I did say so, and I heard the lieutenant say so," said Woofer defiantly.
"Another thing, I have in my pocketbook scraps of a letter written by you in which you say you have sent Paris green out to poison our cattle, and you did succeed in a way, but not as you wished. Barrows, your game is played. You are at the end. I shall see that the proper authorities get all the details of this, and you know what will happen then. You will be chased out of the army like a mad dog, and all the influence you can bring to bear will not serve you."
Barrows was looking at Ted with terror in his eyes.
"My advice to you is to skip before the army gets on to you," continued Ted. "Disappear. Obliterate yourself. It will be easier for you to be thought a deserter than what will be thought of you if what we know about you goes back to the post."
Barrows stepped back into the cabin, and Ted walked to where he could keep his eye on the soldier.
Suddenly he jumped into the cabin and wrenched a pistol out of Barrows' hand.
"No, you don't," he cried angrily. "You can't pay for this by self-murder. You've got to live to pay for your meanness."
Barrows submitted to be disarmed by Ted. He stood looking for a moment at Hallie, and for a moment it seemed as if he would speak to her. Then, with a cry of agony, he rushed across the open, leaped upon his horse, and, plunging into the grove, was lost to sight.
"Sergeant, now you know what to do," said Ted. "There's only one thing for you to do. Hike for the post and tell the commandant anything you like to explain the absence of Barrows. But be sure to say to the colonel that his daughter is safe and well and prefers to stay with Miss Fosdick and her friends. I don't know how deeply you are mixed up in this cattle-poisoning, girl-abducting scheme of Barrows, but I give you the benefit of the doubt."
"Sure, sir, I didn't know anything about the cattle poisoning, nor do any of the men, and as for abducting the young lady, all I knew about it was that we were sent by the colonel to bring her back, that is, the lieutenant said so. We was to arrest you for stealin' cattle from the gover'ment. But I don't see as we can do anything, now that the officer in charge is gone. All right, sir, I'll tell the colonel all what you said, an' somethin' that's been layin' hard on my stomach ever since I got wise to the officer what's not in charge no more. Men, get ready to march."
The soldiers saddled their horses, and got ready to start on the march back to Fort Felton.
When they were ready to start, Ted walked up to Woofer and the man who had come in with him in the night.
"Woofer," said he, "strike the back trail, and don't look around. You are not wanted in this part of the country. Remember, we are all deputy United States marshals, and not in the least afraid to use our authority. Hike!"
"All right, pardner, if you say you don't like our sassiety we won't force it on you. We'd like good company back to Felton, anyhow, an' the sojers has plenty o' grub. Adios!"
With a wave of the hand, the sergeant led his column out of the clearing, and, climbing the hill, struck into the southwest, where lay the fort.
When they were gone Singing Bird came out of the woods in which she had been hiding, for she was in mortal terror of Woofer.
When she knew that Woofer was in the vicinity she had run into the woods and immediately climbed into a tall pine tree that grew on the hill, where she was sure he would not be able to find her.
Now, when she came forth, she ran to Stella, in a very much excited state.
"Sister," she cried. "I have found it!"
"Found what?" asked Stella, in surprise at the girl's emotion, for usually she had the stoicism of her Indian blood.
"I have found the place of the secret, the place of the mother gold," cried Singing Bird, trembling with excitement.
"I have seen it, the place where my mother lay," she continued, when her excitement had somewhat passed away.
"How?" asked the puzzled Stella.
"When I climbed the tree I saw the big, muddy river lying over there. I looked about. It seemed that I had seen it the same before. Then I remembered the night the white men killed my mother, and it all came back to me. Woofer was one of the men. He knew that we were coming near to it."
"How did you recognize it as the place?" asked Stella.
"By the tree across the river, and by the bluffs, and the turn of the river. Oh, I know it. You can't fool Indian on signs like that."
The boys were standing around listening eagerly, for this was the first time they had heard of the "mother gold." Briefly Ted related the story told by Singing Bird about the gold in the river, and how her father found the mother lode.
"I'm fer gettin' thar as soon as we kin," said Bud Morgan. "Whenever I smell gold I git tired o' ther smell o' cows."
"Looks good to me," said Ben.
"Me, too," said Kit, and the other boys raised a shout for the mother lode and the excitement of finding gold.
"But the cattle?" asked Ted.
"We'll drive them down into this valley, where part of the force can easily watch them, while the other part is engaged in the fascinating sport of gold hunting. Me for the gold." Thus Stella delivered herself, and that seemed to settle it.
Accordingly the cattle were driven down from the plain and into the beautiful grassy valley, with the Missouri flowing at the foot of it. Then they pitched their camp.
Singing Bird had gone into the woods on an exploring mission to find, if she could, the grave in which her father had buried her mother the day after the fight with the white miners, and had been gone an hour or more, when she came hurrying back, trembling like an aspen.
Rushing up to Ted, she fell at his feet.
"What's the matter now?" he asked, in a kindly way.
"I have seen him," she cried. "Save me! Save me!"
"Whom have you seen?" asked Ted.
"Running Bear. I go into the woods, and I see moccasin tracks; fresh ones. They are large and new, made this day. I run away from them. Then I see an Indian hiding behind the trees, always following me, and I turned and ran for the camp. He followed me until he saw the camp, when he turned and ran the other way."
"Are you sure it was Running Bear?"
"Oh, yes, I am sure. I know Running Bear. He was my husband."
"Well, do not be afraid. Running Bear will not hurt you. But don't go away from the camp."
Ted told the boys that the Indian was on their trail, looking for the mine himself, but that he would probably track them until they found it, and then try to take it from them by pressing to his service a band of Indians, which he could very well do.
When Stella went to look for Singing Bird that evening she could not be found. The alarm was passed to the boys, and a thorough search of the camp was begun, but the girl could not be found.
"She has done what I told her not to do," said Ted. "She has left camp, and that precious rascal has captured her. But he will not wring her secret from her. I am convinced that she would die first."
"But what are we going to do about her?" asked Stella. "We can't let her remain where she is."
"Where is she?" he asked whimsically.
"Where is she?" Stella repeated the question excitedly. "Do you suppose that I would be here if I knew. I don't know where she is, but I'm going to find out."
"Not to-night, Stella, surely."
"Yes, to-night. Right now."
"There's no buts in this at all. Who wants to help me find Singing Bird?"
Every fellow in the outfit stepped forward.
"Well, I guess that's enough," she said, laughing. "But, I want you and Kit. The others can stay behind and 'tend the herd. We'll be back when we return." She waved a merry hand to the others, and the three strode into the woods, Bud bending eagerly forward to find the trail.
Presently Bud struck a moccasin trail, and they followed it until it mingled with another.
The first was undoubtedly that of Singing Bird. The other was that of a big man, or of a man with a big foot.
"I reckon she come out here ter find her mother's grave, an' met up with ther bully, her husband. Here they seem ter hev had a struggle, and then thar is only one track, but deeper, showin' that he was carryin' weight. I reckon he put his hand over her mouth an' carried her off by main strength."
"Poor Singing Bird," murmured Stella. "If she has really fallen into the hands of that brute, it's a sure thing that she'll be killed this time, and now we're bound to follow her and get her."
"That's interfering between a man and his wife," said Kit.
"I don't care. She's mine now, for I saved her life. She said so."
"All right, Stella, we'll find her if we swaller our chewin' gum. Forward!" Bud led the way, always with his eyes on the ground.
After traversing a few hundred yards he stopped.
"Here they're walkin' side by side again," he said, "and they're going toward the river."
They hastened on to the bank of the river, and there all trace of them was lost at the water's edge.
"They've crossed over, but not in a boat," said Bud. "I don't see how they could do it if they didn't swim. There isn't the sign o' a boat around here."
"Then over the river we go," said Stella. "But the question is, how?"
"I'll swim it," said Bud. "And if I find any trace of them over there, I'll holler."
Bud threw his guns on the bank and plunged into the water, and in a few minutes was across, for so near the headwaters it was not wide.
They saw him scouting along the shore, and presently he waved his hand at them, and pointed to the ground.
"He's found them," said Kit. "But how are we to get over?"
Kit ran up and down the shore, and soon found several logs, which he towed to where Stella was waiting, and fastened them together into a raft.
"There you are," he said. "Climb aboard, and I'll ferry you across."
Stella did so, and in a few minutes they were on the other side.
Bud showed them the tracks of Singing Bird, and they followed them into the woods.
Close beside the track was a huge stump of a sycamore tree, and Stella elected to sit down beside it and wait until they returned, as she was pretty tired. The boys passed on with the warning to fire her revolver three times if anything should alarm her.
As she sat beside the stump, she picked up a stick, and began poking in the earth at her feet. As she did so, there was a rumbling sound beneath her, and the world seemed to be slipping from her. This was followed by a rush of earth and a clatter of stones, and Stella went down with it.
She did not fall more than ten feet, however, before she stopped, a little shaken but unhurt.
When she had recovered somewhat, she looked about her.
Then she gave a little shriek of joy. It seemed as if she had fallen into a regular nest of pure gold, for the glittering grains were everywhere about her, on her clothes and in her hair.
Suddenly she recalled everything. She had found the mother lode that the Indian girl had told of.
Drawing her revolver, she fired three shots, the danger signal, and immediately it was answered by three shots, but from the side of the river she had just quitted.
This surprised her, but in a moment she heard a shout. It was Ted. Evidently thinking that something might befall her, he had followed, and in a few moments she heard him splashing in the water.
"Hello!" he cried.
"Here I am, Ted," cried Stella, and in a moment she saw his face outlined above her in the opening of the hole.
"How the deuce did you get there?" he asked.
"Oh, I just dropped in to take a look around, and what do you think I found? I've found gold by the bushel. Ted, this is the mother lode."
Ben, Carl, and Clay were with Ted, and soon Bud and Kit, who had heard the shots, came hurrying back.
When they heard what had happened they were much surprised.
"But this cannot be the place. Where is the sycamore tree Singing Bird said was a landmark?" said Ted.
They had pulled Stella out of the hole, and now she pointed to the big, old stump.
"That is what's left of it," she said. "If I hadn't that hunch to sit down here, we wouldn't have found the mother lode in a blue moon."
As they were speaking they heard a sound behind them, and turned to see Running Bear. He had crept up to them so silently that not one of them had heard him until he was a step away.
"Ugh!" he grunted. "White boy go away. This my country."
"Go to your grandmother," said Ted. "Where is Singing Bird?"
"She in Running Bear wigwam. Mebbe so you like Singing Bird. You can have same go away."
"What, and leave you in possession of all this gold? Not likely."
"Then Running Bear make you. Hate white boy. Not make play this time."
Before Ted was aware of his intention, the Indian had sprung upon him from the side. He was immensely powerful, and forced Ted backward toward the edge of the pit, evidently with the intention of breaking his neck by the fall.
But Ted managed to get a good hold at last, and forced him back gradually.
Then Running Bear came at him with greater strength, and again they wrestled perilously near the edge of the pit.
Running Bear took advantage of Ted's trip over the loose tree roots, and slowly forced him backward, in spite of his herculean efforts, to the pit's edge.
He had bent Ted's head back until his neck cracked, and if he threw him into the pit, it likely would kill him.
From where they stood, on the opposite side of the pit, none of the boys could get a shot at Running Bear without endangering the life of Ted.
It was a pretty tight situation, and the boys were really alarmed for Ted's safety, when out of the woods ran an apparition—a woman so covered with blood as to be unrecognizable. But Stella uttered a scream. She had seen that it was Singing Bird, who had been terribly injured by her brute of a husband, who had evidently tortured her to get from her the information she possessed about the mother lode.
Before any one could divine what she was about to do, the Indian girl had sprung toward Running Bear and plunged a long, keen knife into his back to the hilt.
It was an Indian's revenge. She had given him blood for blood.
Running Bear staggered backward, then suddenly wheeled, caught the knife from the girl's hand, and was about to plunge it into her, when he fell forward on his face and lay quite still.
Singing Bird weaved back and forth for a moment, then she, too, sank to the ground.
When the horror of the sudden tragedy passed from them sufficiently, the boys rushed to the side of the unhappy couple, but they both were dead.
That was the tragedy of the "Mother Lode Mine" on the upper Missouri, which became the property of the Moon Valley Company, and which paid enormously until it worked out, for it was only a pocket, thus putting an end to the placer mining on the islands farther down the river.
The rest is soon told. Barrows was never heard of again, for he knew that if he returned to take a court-martial for his misconduct, he would have fared badly.
That fall the officers at the post sent word to Ted that if his cattle were for sale they would be glad to buy them at his own figure, so that his independence in repudiating the first contract was a good thing after all, for, besides the profits which came from Stella's gold mine, the herd paid handsomely. But Stella never forgot Singing Bird, whose gentle life paid the penalty for the greed for gold. Not far from the mine she was buried, and a stone carved with the story of her death still marks the place where she was laid to rest.
* * * * *
WESTERN STORY LIBRARY
For Everyone Who Likes Adventure.
"Ted Strong's Contract" is the title of the next volume in the Western Story Library, No. 43, a story of wild adventure in the far West written by Edward C. Taylor.
Ted Strong and his band of bronco-busters have most exciting adventures in this line of attractive, big books, and furnish the reader with an almost unlimited number of thrills.
If you like a really good Western cowboy story, then this line is made expressly for you.