"My share of the—"
"Yes, there is something. What robbery was it you shared in?"
"I didn't steal anything."
"I suppose not. You did the dirty work of being lookout, or something like that, and they threw you the bone while they kept the meat and fat, eh?"
"What shall I do with him?" asked Ted.
"Keep him locked up as a hostage. That may bring those young fools to their senses," said Billy. "I'm disgusted with him for not making a clean breast of the whole foolish business, and if it wasn't for his sister, I'd toss him up in the air and forget him."
The rest of the day was spent in picking shot out of Farley, and by evening he was relieved of the last one.
"We'll put him in that empty room at the corner of the house, and take turns watching him through the night," said Ted.
Until bedtime Farley sat in the living room with the rest of them, and they were unusually guarded in their conversation.
When it came time to retire Farley was conducted to the room which was to be his prison, and it fell to Carl to take the first watch, and to call Ben at one o'clock.
In the room there was a lounge and a pair of blankets for Farley, a table and a lamp, and a chair for the watch.
"Whatever you do, don't go to sleep, Carl," said Ted. "The reason I'm putting you on the first watch is because you're such a sleepyhead."
"Don'd vorry aboud me," said Carl, with a yawn. "I pet you I vas der sleepinglessness feller in der whole bunch. If he gets avay on my vatch it vill not be pecause I don'd sleep."
"I guess you mean all right, but I swear I can't understand you. Only keep awake."
"Oh, yah; I avake keeping all der time."
Carl sat in the chair watching his prisoner, and soon saw Farley's chest heaving regularly and heard his deep breathing as he slept. Then things seemed to waver and fade away.
Carl started up at hearing some one beating on the door, and sat rubbing his eyes. It was broad daylight.
"All right, I'll get up pooty soon yet. Is preakfast retty?"
"Here, open the door. This is Ted."
"Vait a minute."
Carl staggered sleepily to the door and unlocked it.
"Where is your prisoner?" asked Ted, stalking into the room, and looking at the open window.
"My vat? Ach, Gott in himmel, vat haf I dided? I am schoost coming avake. He iss gone! I haf slept on vatch. I am foreffer disgraced. Kill me, Ted! I haf no appetite to live any more alretty," cried Carl.
Ted had been angry at discovering the escape of Farley, for he had conceived a plan to use him against Creviss. He had risen early, and when he found that all the boys were in bed except Carl, he immediately suspected the truth.
But Carl's despairing manner turned him from anger.
"Never mind, Carl," he said. "It was my fault for putting you on watch. You were not cut out for a watchman. Or, perhaps, you were, according to the funny papers, but not of prisoners."
During breakfast Carl was compelled to endure the jokes of the boys at his failure to guard the prisoner, which he did with a lugubrious countenance; then, at a signal from Ted, the subject was dropped.
About ten o'clock Billy Sudden rode up to the ranch house.
There was something in his manner that betokened news of importance, and he strode unbidden into the living room, where Ted was sitting at his desk.
"Where's the kid?" he asked abruptly.
"Who, Farley?" asked Ted, looking up from his work.
"I said skipped."
"Great Scott! I'd give a hundred dollars if he hadn't."
"What time did he get away?"
"Don't know, exactly. Carl was watching him, but he fell asleep almost as soon as they were in the room together, and didn't wake up until six o'clock this morning, and Farley was gone. No one knows how he got away or at what time. It might have been any time. He probably woke up in the night and saw that Carl was dead to the world, and opened the window, dropped to the ground, and hit the trail. That's all I know about it. But what makes you so anxious about it?"
"Then you haven't heard the news?"
"Guess not. What is it?"
"The First National Bank was robbed last night."
"Great guns! Creviss' bank! That's the United States depository!"
"What are the details?"
"I rode through town this morning on my way over here to see if being confined for the night wouldn't make the kid talk, when I saw a bunch of men standing in front of the bank. I butted in and asked what the excitement was, and they told me that the bank had been robbed."
"That's what nobody knows. When the cashier, Mr. Henson, got to the bank this morning everything apparently was all right. The doors and windows were fastened, and there was no sign anywhere that the bank had been forcibly entered. Of course, he didn't look at these things first. He went to the vault and opened it at the proper time and examined its contents casually. Everything seemed to be as usual. But when, a few minutes later, he went to get out the currency, it was all gone. He hadn't counted up when I left there, so no one knows the exact amount, but it was large."
THE BATTLE WITH THE BULL.
The excitement incident to the mysterious robbery of the Creviss bank was intense.
How had it been done? This was the question that every one was asking his neighbor. But none could answer it.
The evening before the robbery had taken place the bank had been closed by the cashier, and by Mr. Creviss himself.
The money, books, and papers, with which the business of the day had been conducted, had been carried into the vault by the cashier, and Mr. Creviss, who was an unusually cautious man, looked into the vault after the cashier came out, to see that everything was in. Then he closed the vault doors, and turned the handle of the combination, setting the time lock, thus securing the doors from being opened until nine o'clock the next morning.
The only way in which it could be opened, and an almost impossible way, at that, was by blowing it open.
And yet the vault had been robbed, and the vault lock had apparently not been tampered with.
It had the appearance of necromancy.
Ted rode into town with Billy Sudden, arriving about noon.
Billy rode on to the Dumb-bell Ranch, and Ted stopped at the bank. It seemed deserted. But as he entered the door he saw a big man, dressed in the flashy clothes affected by managers of cheap circuses and fake shows, standing at the end of the counter talking to Wiley Creviss.
"I can't do anything with that check," Ted heard Creviss say. "You'll have to come in when the cashier is here. The safe is locked, and I can't get into it, anyway, and all the currency is in it. I'm only staying here until the cashier gets back from dinner."
"When will that be?" asked the stranger.
"In about half an hour."
The stranger picked up his valise, which seemed to be heavy, and walked out grumbling about banks that closed up for dinner.
Ted said nothing to Wiley, but he took a good look about the bank, disregarding the other lad's scowls.
He observed that the vault door stood open, but that there was no money in sight, and the place had an air of desertion, as if business was slack.
When Strong had seen all that he wanted of the apparent entrances to the bank that a criminal might use to force his way in, he left with two distinct impressions on his mind. One was that the vault door had been open when he came in, and that Wiley Creviss had abruptly closed it when he saw Ted staring at it. The other was the remarkable appearance of the showman, for without doubt he was that.
As before, the mysterious robbery of the bank proved to be too hard a nut for the citizens to crack, and when they had thrashed out all the theories advanced and knocked them to pieces again, they forgot it.
Not so Ted Strong. This succession of robberies, none of them leaving behind the slightest clew to the perpetrators, interested him. Its very difficulty of solution, which had made the lesser brains abandon it, compelled his attention and interest.
Had it been his business to tackle the problem, he gladly would have done so. But the only Federal end to it was the robbery of the post office, which the inspectors of that department were working on, unless, perhaps, it might be found that the funds of the government for general purposes at Fort Rincon had been stolen. Then the case would come under the operations of the United States marshal's office.
But other and more pressing things of a personal nature gradually took his attention from crime, and he devoted himself to the coming round-up.
All the spare room in the Moon Valley Ranch house was occupied by visiting cattle buyers, who had come to the round-up. The rooms of the boys had been given up to guests, while they camped on the prairie behind the house.
At last the great day came.
Early in the morning the boys were out, and with them was Stella.
Cow Suggs had loaned Ted his outfit for the day, and Ted was glad to have the boys, for there was no cleverer cowman in the country at a round-up, saving Ted himself, who was king of them all, and so conceded, than the dark, lithe cow-puncher, Billy Sudden, who had been through college and had traveled in Europe before he deserted the East for the toil, freedom, and excitement of the range.
It was now time to round up all the stock on the Moon Valley Range, cut out the marketable stuff, and brand the yearlings.
This is not only a troublesome task, but it is dangerous, and not a moment of the time until the task is accomplished but has its exciting adventures and escapes from death.
The boys did not know exactly how many head of cattle they owned. They had been selling and replenishing their stock from time to time, and the increase of calves had been very large, for Moon Valley, situated in the lee of Dent du Chien, or Dog Tooth Mountain, with its rich grass, the richest in the Black Hills, and its abundance of fresh, clear spring water, was an ideal breeding place.
There were on the ranch at that time several dangerous bulls, and this added to the hard work of the day, because the monarchs of the range did not like to be disturbed and have their following broken up and scattered.
In the big pasture, which lay at the foot of Deni du Chien Mountain, was the largest herd in the valley.
The king of this herd was known as "Gladiator." He was always looking for a fight, and never refused a challenge, whether from another bull or from what he considered his natural enemy, man.
A man on foot in that pasture would have stood no more chance for his life than if he tried to stand in front of the engine that hauls the Empire State Express going at top speed. Gladiator would kill him just as quickly and as surely.
So it was that strangers were kept out of the big pasture, whether they were mounted or not, unless they were escorted by some member of the broncho boys, or one of the older cowboys about the place. Stella, with her red bolero, nearly caused a tragedy one day by coming within the vision of Gladiator, who took the bolero for a challenge.
Stella turned in time and fled, and had it not been for the fleetness of her pony and her own superb riding, there had been no more to relate of the adventures of the girl pard of the Moon Valley boys.
The morning of the round-up Ted undertook personally to turn the herd to the rendezvous.
Stella insisted upon accompanying him, and at last he was persuaded to give his consent, but only on the condition that she wear subdued colors, which she did, with skirt and jacket of a light-dun color.
The herd was grazing in the noble range that stretched for miles along and across the valley in the shadow of the splendid mountain.
It was widely scattered, and as the band of horsemen rode out toward it the cattle lifted their heads for a moment and took a quiet survey, then returned to their feeding.
Not so Gladiator.
The great white-and-black bull raised his head proudly, and his fierce, steady eyes regarded them without fear.
Indeed, Gladiator knew no fear, whether of man or beast, wolf pack or mountain lion, serpent or bird of prey.
He was monarch of that herd, and no one said him nay except Ted Strong, who ruled the ranch and all that was on it, by the general consent of his comrades and his own fitness for his rulership.
Ted and Gladiator had had numerous differences, and it was the bull that had backed down every time.
Yet he did not fear Ted. Rather he hated him because he could not conquer this quick, brave, and resourceful fellow.
"That bull will be the death of you some of these days," said Stella to Ted once when Gladiator, resenting Ted's intrusion into the herd for the purpose of cutting out some calves, charged him. But Ted in the end threw the bull with his rope, humiliating him before all the herd. From that time forth Gladiator's eyes always became red with anger when he saw Ted, but he did not misbehave, because he respected Ted's lariat and quirt, and the strong arm that wielded them.
When they got to the herd the boys circled it from behind, riding in slowly.
Ted and Stella were on the left point, with Bud and Kit opposite.
Bill Sudden was in the rear to drive, while the other Moon Valley cowboys and Billy Sudden's boys came in from the sides.
At the first interruption of their grazing the cattle moved along sluggishly, but Gladiator did not move.
The big bull stood his ground, with eyes gazing steadily at Ted and Stella, who were approaching him slowly and persistently.
Suddenly Gladiator threw up his head and gave a low, menacing bellow.
"The old chap is waking up," said Ted.
"Be careful, Ted," said Stella. "He's not in very good humor."
"I see he isn't. But if we go at him easily he'll be all right."
"Don't take any chances with him alone, Ted."
"Still, I'm not going to let him boss this job. He's got to lead this herd out, and that's all there is to it, for it's a cinch that they won't go without him."
Stella knew that it was useless to say anything more, as when Ted made up his mind to do a thing, it would be done if everything broke.
Billy Sudden had got the herd moving up from the rear, but the forward end of the herd was stagnant.
Gladiator refused to budge, and stood with his stubborn forefeet planted on the sod, his head raised insolently.
But it could be seen that his anger was working within him, and would soon break forth.
Bud was working the cattle nearest him gently on the move, but when they saw that their leader was standing still they ceased their progress and began to crowd and mill, and the steers were getting reckless and beginning to throw their tails in the air and utter low, growling bellows.
It was a critical moment. Who was to be the master must be decided quickly. If the bull conquered then the cattle would get to milling generally, and the mischief would be to pay.
It would not take long for them to stampede, if the bull started the panic, or made a charge. Ted saw the danger, and knew that the condition must be treated diplomatically, which was the easier way, or with force, of which the outcome was most uncertain.
It depended, in a measure, on the temper of the bull himself.
The cattle were crowding up from the rear, and those nearest the bull were beginning to feel the pressure and were pushing toward Gladiator, who was fifteen feet in advance of the herd.
When he noticed that the herd was moving, his anger increased, and he lowered his head and began to paw the ground.
Ted held up his hand to Billy Sudden as a signal to cease pushing the animals, but they had got the impetus and would not stop.
In a moment they had begun to crowd upon the bull, who, with legs planted stubbornly, would not be crowded, and began to gore aside those who were being pushed upon him.
Ted saw instantly that this was going to result in disaster if not stopped, as the frightened steers, feeling Gladiator's sharp horns, turned back on the herd, and were pushing their way frantically into the center of it, while others, coming up, were forced upon the bull's horns.
"Darn a stubborn bull, anyhow!" exclaimed Ted. "I've got to get in and put a stop to that, or Gladiator will have the herd to milling or running in less than ten minutes."
"Be careful," was all Stella said, but there was a world of anxiety in her voice.
"You better get out of the way, Stella," said Ted "Ride to the rear. You will see it all, and have just as much fun, and will be out of danger."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to make that bull move along or bust a string."
Ted's jaw was set with determination, and when Stella saw that she knew that it would be useless for her to say anything more.
Ted loosened his rope, grasped his quirt firmly, and rode slowly toward the bull, while Stella signaled to Billy Sudden to ride up to the head of the herd.
The boys, observing Ted's actions, knew what he was about to do, and ceased moving the cattle and sat on their horses to watch for the outcome of the contest.
Most of them felt like spectators at a performance of a specially hazardous feat, and held their breath. But each was on the alert to rush to Ted's assistance the moment he seemed to need it.
As the bull looked up, and saw Ted approaching him, he ceased pawing, and stood with watchful eyes. Occasionally he sent forth a challenging bellow. His tail was switching from side to side, like that of an angry cat.
Ted was coming alertly. No one knew the danger of openly attacking the bull better than himself, and yet it must be done.
It was rule or kill, so far as the bull was concerned, for if the boys could not manage him they would be compelled to kill him so that they might be able to handle the herd, substituting a more amiable bull in his place.
A cowman cannot always tell what a bull is going to do when it is faced on the range. It may dodge the issue or it may attack, and Ted was wary enough to be on the watch for the latter contingency.
Therefore, when Gladiator, without so much warning as the lowering of his head, sprang at Ted when he was not more than ten feet away, he covered the distance in two or three lumbering bounds, and Ted had just sufficient time to wheel his pony to one side to avoid being bowled over. But the horns of the bull struck the gaiter on his left leg, as it rushed past, and tore it off, almost unseating him. Stella, breathlessly watching the encounter, gasped as she saw Ted reel in his saddle. But she breathed easier as she saw him straighten up and turn his horse rapidly to face the bull again.
With almost incredible agility, the bull turned and came rushing at Ted again, but the leader of the broncho boys rode swiftly away from him, tolling him away from the herd.
Finally the bull stopped and began to paw the earth. Ted, to tempt him to another attack, directed Sultan toward him at full speed, intending to swerve when he got close to his bullship, and dodge him and infuriate him further, so that he would follow. He knew that Sultan could outrun Gladiator.
But, as he got close to the bull, in spite of the warning cries from Stella and Bud, Gladiator swerved to meet the attack, and before the fleet-footed pony could escape he was struck, and went rolling over the ground.
A cry of horror went up from the boys as they all dashed to the scene. Ted Strong was on the ground. The pony had scrambled to his feet, and stood trembling a few feet distant. The bull, with lowered head, was charging upon Ted.
TED GETS AN ASSIGNMENT.
To the horror-stricken onlookers it appeared that Ted's end had come. He lay prone upon the sod with his face turned to the sky, evidently stunned.
The bull, with all the ferocity of his kind when goaded to anger, was charging upon him, his needle-like horns a few inches from the ground, and the foam flecking from his lips.
Stella, her face white and drawn, was galloping toward him as fast as her pony could go, while Bud was lashing his pony to the height of its speed as he crossed the face of the herd. Billy Sudden was neck and neck with Stella, calling to her to hold back.
Suddenly Ted Strong came to life, and looked over his shoulder.
He saw his danger, and quick as thought he rolled over, away from the bull.
But that was all. Every one could see that it would do no good. He could not expect to escape from the infuriated beast in that manner, and a hollow groan escaped the lips of more than one.
Ted surely was doomed.
The bull's horns caught Ted in the side as he continued to roll away from it, and it stopped for an instant, settling itself to toss him. Stella turned her head away with a muttered prayer, and even the cowboys, used to accidents in the round-up, gasped.
But suddenly they saw a cloud of dust fly upward, and thought at first that Ted had fired his revolver into the face of the infuriated beast, and it seemed strange that they had not heard the report of the weapon.
Then, miracle of miracles, the bull, with a snort of pain, threw up its head, and Ted was not impaled upon its horns.
There was another cloud of dust, and the bull began backing away, slowly but surely, shaking its head, as if in pain.
"Screamin' catamounts, did yer see thet, Stella?" cried Bud Morgan, as he rode alongside the girl,
"What did he do?" asked Stella.
"He's saved hisself by blindin' ther bull. He throwed dust inter its eyes. I'm dinged if I see how thet feller kin think o' things like thet when he's down an' out. Look at him!"
As the bull rubbed its face in the grass Ted rolled over twice, then leaped to his feet and ran to where Sultan was awaiting him.
A mighty cheer went up from the boys, and the color came back into Stella's face with a rush, but she could not have uttered a sound to save her life.
In the meantime, the bull had recovered, having rubbed the dust from its eyes in the short grass, and looked about for its enemy.
It caught sight of Ted in the act of mounting, and sprang toward him with the swiftness of a deer.
Then Stella recovered her voice.
"Run, Ted! Run!" she cried.
But Ted had seen the necessity of that himself, and, wheeled Sultan and dashed off, looking over his shoulder at the enraged monster that was following him, while he rapidly uncoiled his lariat.
Having run several hundred yards and outdistanced the bull, he turned and stopped with his rope in his hand, closely calculating the animal's distance and speed.
Bud and Stella were following the bull closely, both of them preparing their lariats for the throw.
As the bull charged, Ted's rope was seen to leave his hand and go sailing through the air in graceful loops and curves that lengthened out one after the other.
One of the most difficult throws a cow-puncher can make with a lariat was that which Ted attempted. He had to calculate to a degree the speed with which the bull was advancing toward him, and that at which the rope was leaving him. To calculate the point where the two would come together would seem an almost impossible task.
But so nicely had Ted estimated it, that the open noose fell over the bull's head and settled down, and, turning swiftly, Ted spurred Sultan to one side, and the bull, shaking his head and emitting short, angry bellows, rushed past.
The intelligent pony had suddenly come to a stop, bracing himself for the shock, and when Gladiator came to the end of the rope he turned completely over, and landed on his back with a thud that shook the earth.
Bud had galloped forward, and was about to throw himself from the saddle to tie the brute, when, with the agility of a cat, the bull was on its feet, shaking its head and stamping the earth in a perfect fury of anger and desperation. But it was by no means beaten, and ran at Bud, who took to his heels. When again it arrived at the end of the rope, it went head over heels, much to its loss of wind and dignity.
This time it did not rise so briskly, and Ted gave it all the time it wanted.
Suddenly Stella dashed out and rode toward the bull, and when a few feet from it curved off, with the angry brute in full pursuit. Had her pony stumbled it would have been all up with her, for Gladiator was wild with rage, and when it was again thrown its fury knew no bounds.
"A few more throws like that will settle him, I think," shouted Ted. "Bait him again, Bud."
Again Bud rode out, and the bull took after him as before, and, when he was jerked onto his back by the rope, he lay there.
Ted rode rapidly up to him, and, detaching a rope which had been knotted around his waist, tied the bull's legs fore and aft, and the exhausted brute did not make an objection.
For several minutes the bull lay panting, then it recovered.
When it came to its normal condition at last, it struggled furiously to get to its feet, but each time it got up Ted jerked it to its side, standing close to it so that it could see him.
Time and again it thus fruitlessly struggled.
It seemed to realize suddenly that it had been a very foolish bull, and that it had met its master, who now stood over him ready to tumble him over at any moment.
So he lay quite still, following Ted's movements with its great, dark eyes, out of which all the ferocity had vanished.
Ted stepped up to it and patted its head, and it made no objection to these attentions. Then he began to untie the bonds that held its legs together.
"Look out fer him, he's treacherous," called Bud.
"He's all right," answered Ted. "I'll bet he'll eat out of my hand."
When it felt that it was free again, the bull got slowly to his feet and walked sedately in the direction of the herd.
"You've broken the spirit of that bull," said Stella.
"You bet I have," said Ted. "That's just what he needed. He'll be a good bull now. If he isn't, I'll give him some more."
Ted now rode to the head of the herd with Stella, and the other boys took their places.
"All right, Billy. Send them forward," shouted Ted to the rear of the herd.
Skillfully Ted set the herd to moving toward the south, where the other herds were gathering under the management of the boys.
At first Gladiator threw up his head arrogantly, and did not stir.
Ted again rode toward him, swinging his lariat. The bull saw him as well as the rope, and, recognizing the agents of his defeat, moved off briskly at the head of the herd.
"Say," said Bud, across the head of the herd, "yer could slap that old duffer across the face with your hat, and he'd apologize."
They were almost at the rendezvous, where thousands of cattle had been gathered into a huge herd, and in every direction could be seen dust clouds announcing that others were on the way.
"Here comes Carl hotfoot," said Stella. "He looks as if something had happened, and he was an extra edition with 'a full account of the terrible disaster.'"
"Hello, Carl! What is it?" asked Ted.
"Der United States marshal vaiting for you on der veranda iss," answered Carl solemnly.
"Well, what do I care?" asked Ted. "He's come at a mighty busy time if he just wants to swap a little conversation. Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, but he say it is very important vork, an' for you to hurry."
"My compliments to the marshal, and tell him I'm busy, and will see him as soon as I get through. You entertain him for a while."
"But he der boss iss."
"Not on this ranch. This is a free and unadulterated republic, where there are no bosses. Tell him to make himself at home, and I'll be there as soon as I can."
Now the cattle were all rounded up, and the cutting out of the two and three-year olds began.
This was intensely exciting work, in which Stella joined, as she was as skilled at it as any of the boys. Outside of the big herd, the cowboys were picking up the cut-outs and driving them to the branding pens, for many of them were acquired stock, and even many of the home yearlings had never been branded.
Then the cows with calves were cut out, so that the youngsters might get a touch of life by feeling the sting of the hot iron with the Crescent V brand on it.
The buyers were circulating in the herds, looking over the stock.
Several of the buyers had brought their own cow-punchers with them, and these went to work cutting out the selections of their employers.
The sky was thick with dust, and the air rang with the shouts of the cowboys and the lowing and bellowing of the cattle.
The rattle of countless hoofs on the hard soil added to the din, and the cattle weaving in and out ceaselessly, and the dashing riding of the cowboys as they swooped out of the mass occasionally to drive back an escaping steer, made a scene of excitement, movement, and noise never seen anywhere, except at a Western cattle round-up and cut-out.
Soon the work was pretty well in hand, and, leaving Bud Morgan as segundo, Ted went to the house to see the marshal.
He found that officer sitting on the veranda, quietly smoking a cigar, an interested witness of the proceedings.
"How are you, Mr. Easton?" said Ted, shaking hands with the marshal. "I must apologize for not coming sooner, but my hands were full."
"So I see," said the marshal cordially. "I was watching you work out there. Say, I believe I'd like to be a cow-puncher if I wasn't so old."
"It's a young man's job," said Ted, laughing; "and even at that it is about all a young fellow can stand at times. But this to-day is a mere picnic to what we are up against sometimes."
"Well, you seem to be right in it."
"Yes, I love my business. I wouldn't be anything in the world except a cow-puncher."
"But, remember, you are also a government officer."
"I never forget that. But, if it came to being compelled to quit one or the other of the occupations, I'd still be a cow-puncher, and let the marshalship go."
"That's the very thing I came to see about."
"You want my resignation?" asked Ted, his spirits falling to zero.
"By no means," laughed the marshal. "Not that, but to ask you to undertake a somewhat difficult job. It transpires that when the Soldier Butte bank was robbed the other night, a large amount of money belonging to the government was taken. I didn't know this until early this afternoon, when I received a telegram from Washington to go after the robbers and land them."
"That'll be somewhat of a job," said Ted, drawing his chair closer to the marshal, so that he couldn't be overheard by passing people.
"I'm well aware of that, and that's the reason I come to you. You and your boys must undertake the duty of clearing up the mystery of the robbery, and, if possible, recovering the money."
"I have a very probable theory as to who the robbers are, but it will be entirely another matter to fasten it on them."
"I leave it all to you. I don't want to have anything to do with it. All I want are results."
"But I shall not have time to tackle it for a day or two. Unfortunately our fall round-up is in progress, and, as this is the time we sell the product of our business, we can't leave it until everything is cleared up."
"That's all right, Mr. Strong. But when you do get busy, don't come back home until you land the thieves."
A VISITOR IN THE NIGHT.
A great deal of money changed hands that day. The stock buyers had their wallets loaded with cash when they came a-buying, for, when they had cut out the cattle they wanted, and the price was struck, they were prepared to drive them off at once.
The sales at the round-up had been large, and Ted and the boys sat up late that night, after those guests who had elected to remain over for the festivities of the next day were safely in bed, counting the money and going over the books.
"It has been a mighty good year for us, boys," said Ted, as he contemplated the total of their sales.
"Yes, and, best of all, it leaves us with all the old stock disposed of, and nothing but young and vigorous animals with which to begin building up again," said Kit, who had a great head for the cattle business and a faculty for seeing into the future.
"What aire we goin' ter do with all this yere mazuma?" asked Bud, looking over the stacks of fifties, twenties, tens, and fives that lay on the table around which they were sitting in the living room, and which was flanked by piles of gold and a few hundred-dollar bills.
"Can't get it into the bank until day after to-morrow," said Ted. "We'll be too busy to-morrow looking after our guests, and I don't suppose we'll be free until after the dance to-morrow night. Still, I'm not worrying about it. We know everybody here to-night, and I'll take care of it till we can ride over to Strongburg and bank it."
Just then the door blew open with a bang, and big Ben scurried in, bringing with him a blast of prairie wind, crisp and chill from the mountain, that scattered the greenbacks all over the room, and two or three of the fives were blown into the fire and incinerated before any one could rescue them.
"Close that door!" shouted Bud, grasping frantically at the money that was capering over the top of the table.
Ben closed the door with a slam that shook the house.
"'A fool and his money is soon parted,'" quoted Ben, when he saw the havoc wrought by the wind.
"You bet," said Kit "Three fives blew into the fireplace, and are no more. We'll just charge them to your account."
"Like dolly, you will!" said Ben.
"If it hadn't been for you they wouldn't be there. What's the reason we won't?"
"Because you won't. I didn't make the wind."
"No, but consarn ye, ye let it in, an' ye're an accessory before er after ther fact. I reckon both," said Bud.
"Let it go, boys," said Ted. "Pick up the bills, and we'll count and stack them again."
"Where have you been, anyway?" asked Kit, addressing Ben.
"Down beddin' my show for the night. They're about all in now. All except the music, which will be here in the morning," replied Ben. "I'm not at all stuck on myself, but—"
"Oh, no, you've got a very poor opinion of yourself, I guess," said Kit.
"But I want to say that I think I got the bunkie-doodelest show that ever paced the glimmering, gleaming, gloaming grass of Moon Valley."
"Listen to the hombre explode," said Bud. "He's tryin' ter be a feeble imitation o' a real showman. I'll bet he shows up ter-morrer like a ringmaster in a sucuss, with high, shiny boots an' a long whip an a tall, slick hat, an' crack his whip an' say: 'What will ther leetle lady hev next?'"
Ben blushed, for his ambitions in the show line, now that he had had a taste of it, had really been in that direction, only he wouldn't have had the boys know it for the world.
"How about the show, anyhow, Ben?" asked Ted.
"What have you got? You might as well let us know now."
"Not on your autobiography," answered Ben haughtily. "I want to say, though, that your eyes will bulge like the knobs on a washstand drawer when you see what I've got, and then come to look at the bill for such a stupendous, striking, and singularly successful aggregation of freaks, acts, and divertisements embodied in this colossal and cataclysmic congregation of—"
"Oh, cheese it," said Kit. "You give me the pip."
"All right, have it your own way," sighed Ben. "This is what a fellow gets for serving his country, from Thomas Jefferson to John D. Rockefeller."
"Come on," said Ted persuasively. "Loosen up and tell us what we are to have to-morrow. This is an executive session of the whole."
"You're like a lot of kids the day before Christmas. You've just got to see what mamma's hidden in the closet," said Ben. "Well, I'll let you in on a little of it."
"Shoot when you're ready," said Kit.
"I was over at Strongburg about a month ago, and, knowing that I'd have to rustle up a show soon, I wrote to a theatrical agent in Chicago to let me know if he could furnish me with a good amusement company at small cost. He wrote me that he had the very thing, and offered me one of these bum 'wild west' shows, with a bunch of spavined ponies, a lot of imitation cowboys, fake Indians, and Coney Island target shooters."
"An' yer didn't take 'em?" asked Bud, in surprise.
"Tush! Well, I was up against it, when Morrison, the hotel man, told me that there was a showman in town, and perhaps I might get something out of him.
"I hunted him up. He was a typical showman. Big fellow, large as a Noah's ark, dressed like a sunset, and loud as an eighteen-inch gun."
"I saw the fellow in Soldier Butte the other day. He was talking to Wiley Creviss in the bank," said Ted. "You've described him more picturesquely than I should, but I'm convinced he's the same man."
"I asked him what he had, and he told me he could furnish me on short notice anything from a three-ring circus to a hand organ and monkey," continued Ben. "I told him how much money I wanted to spend, and he said he'd fix me up a show that would make everybody delighted, and I told him to go ahead. The show blew in to-night, and ran up their tents down near the corral."
"How many have you got in it?"
"I've got a balloon ascension for the afternoon, a giant and a midget, a magician, an Egyptian fortune teller, a trick mule, a Circassian beauty, and a strong man." Ben looked around proudly, and the boys burst into peals of laughter.
"Have you scraped the mold off of them yet?" asked Kit.
"How's that?" asked Ben haughtily.
"Have you pulled the burs off the chestnuts?"
"See here, what do you mean? Are you casting aspersions on my show?"
"Not exactly, but I think you've been stung by some old stranded side show that was taking the tie route back home. Circassian beaut! Ho-ho, likewise ha-ha! and some more."
"Ter say nothin' o' a Egyptian fortune teller from Popodunk, Ioway, an' a wild man from ther Quaker village. Oh! give me ther smellin' salts. I'm goin' ter hev ther histrikes," laughed Bud.
"Haf you not got a echukated vooly pig und a feller vot 'eats 'em alife'?" asked Carl.
"That's right, Dutchy. It's a bum show what ain't got them," laughed Bud.
The boys were laughing until the house rang with it, and Stella poked her pretty head out of the door to ask to be told the joke. Bud complied, with many humorous embellishments.
"Don't pay any attention to them, Ben," said Stella sympathetically, "I'll take in the show from start to finish."
"Could friendship go any farther than that?" asked Kit pathetically.
"Oh, you fellows give me a pain," said Ben, rising and stalking off to bed.
He was soon followed by the others, Ted and Kit remaining behind to gather up the money and slip rubber bands around each of the packages of currency.
"We ought to have a safe in the house, Ted," said Kit, looking over the pile of money. "We often have large sums of money in the house, and some time we might get robbed."
"There's not much danger of that, Kit," answered Ted. "There are not many fellows who would have the nerve to come into this house. Too many guns, and too many fellows who are not afraid to shoot them. I'm not afraid."
"What was that?"
Kit was staring at the rear window.
"I just looked up and thought I saw a face at the window."
"You're getting imaginative."
Just then the clock struck twelve.
"No, I don't think so. I heard a slight cracking noise and looked up. Something white appeared at the window for an instant. It looked like the face of a child."
"Nonsense. A child couldn't look through that window. It's seven feet from the ground."
"Well, I suppose I was mistaken. Let's hide that money and go to bed."
"Where shall we put it?"
Kit looked around the room, then smiled.
"Why, in the cubby-hole, of course. There's a safe for you. We haven't used it for so long that I'd almost forgotten it."
"The very thing. Nobody'd find it there in a blue moon."
They crossed over to a corner of the room and threw back the corner of a rug. Where the baseboard was mortised at the corner there appeared to have been a patch put in. Ted placed his hand against this, near the top, and it tipped back. It was hung on a pivot, and, as its top went in and the bottom came out, there was revealed a boxlike receptacle about two feet long and six inches deep.
"This is a bully place," said Ted, placing the packages of money within it. "It is known to only five of us, and I'll bet that most of us have forgotten its very existence."
The board was turned back into place and the rug spread out again.
"Safe as in the Strongburg Bank," said Kit. "Well, me for the feathers. We're going to be kept humping to-morrow. Buenas noches."
In a few minutes the big ranch house was dark and quiet; every person in it was sound asleep.
Ted Strong had sunk into a deep and untroubled sleep, for his day had been very active, and he was tired when he lay down.
But he had not been sleeping more than a half hour when he found himself sitting straight up in bed, very wide-awake, and wondering why.
"Something wrong in the house," he muttered to himself.
He sniffed the air to discover the smell of smoke. But it was not that.
Had he locked up? He went over his actions just before retiring, and was sure that he had attended faithfully to everything.
The money! The thought came to him like a blow.
Something had happened to the money.
He was out of bed in a jiffy and slipped into his trousers, and, grabbing his revolver from beneath his pillow, he opened the door and walked softly along the hall in his bare feet.
The hall opened into the living room through an arch in which a portiere, made of small pieces of bamboo strung together, was hung.
As he looked cautiously into the living room his elbow struck this, and it rattled sharply in the stillness.
He had heard a faint creak, and, as he peeped around the corner of the arch, he saw dimly the figure of a man near the door, evidently just in the act of opening it.
With a succession of noiseless leaps Ted was across the room, and arrived at the door just as it swung open and the man was about to depart.
But Ted was upon his back with the swiftness of a bobcat, and they came together to the floor with? a crash.
The burglar was beneath, but this did not prevent him from fighting with a desperation that lent strength to his already strong and lithe body.
He was slenderer and younger than Ted, who could feel it in the fellow's build as they struggled.
"Let me out, or I'll kill you," said the burglar, and Ted saw the flash of a knife.
At the same moment something rushed past them in the dark, and out of the door.
As Ted saw it dimly it was small, and its motions were awkward and lumbering. He thought it was a dog, and was about to raise his revolver to fire at it when he thought better of it, as he did not want to arouse the household if he could conquer his man without making a noise.
"Don't shoot," said the man, who had observed Ted's motion with the gun.
At this extraordinary request Ted paused.
He had twisted the man's wrist until he dropped the knife, and then shoved it beyond reach with the muzzle of his revolver.
His strong left hand was in the nape of the fellow's neck, and Ted had his nose ground into the rug. He had found a gun in the fellow's hip pocket, and relieved him of it.
Then Ted rose, and told his captive to get up
Slowly he did so, and Ted made him move to the center of the room.
Bud's golden head appeared around the corner of the doorway.
Ted could just distinguish it.
"Who's that?" asked Bud.
"It's Ted. Come in and strike a light. I've caught something."
In a moment a light flared up.
"Jack Farley!" exclaimed Ted, in astonishment.
"Yes, blast you, Jack Farley," replied the youth.
"Couldn't keep away, eh?"
"A feller'd think thet once was enough," said Bud.
"I couldn't help myself. I had to come," growled Farley.
"Well, this time you'll stay. You shan't abuse our hospitality again. Bud, get a rope and tie our friend. He's skittish, and is likely to run away if he's turned loose."
Farley was soon tied securely.
"Keep an eye on him, Bud," said Ted. "I want to look over the premises."
Ted went directly to the corner and pushed back the pivot door, struck a match, and looked into the box.
It was empty.
Then, turning back to Farley, he searched him thoroughly.
There was no money in his pockets.
Ted called up Kit, and the three of them ransacked the living room thoroughly, but not a dollar could be found. "What did you do with the money you stole from that hole?" said Ted, gazing fiercely into Farley's eyes.
"I haven't seen a dollar of it," was the reply.
TED STRONG HAS A THEORY.
After Farley had been securely locked up in a storeroom without windows, they went to bed, feeling secure that there would be no further attempt to enter the house that night.
At breakfast they discussed the robbery after their guests had left the house.
"I don't understand what became of the money," said Ted. "It looks to me like one of those mysterious robberies, and the capture of Farley puts it up to the Riley and Creviss gang. Now that we've been touched personally we will take some interest in the gang, and I have a large crayon picture of about a dozen hitherto respectable young fellows learning useful trades in a reformatory institution."
"But that doesn't bring back our money, neither does it tell us how it was stolen or what became of it," said Ben.
"I can't get a thing out of Farley," said Ted. "I tackled him this morning as soon as I got up, but he wouldn't open his mouth. My belief is that he is in deadly fear of some one, probably Skip Riley."
"Well, we've got him where the hair is short, anyway," said Kit. "He was caught in the act, and will come out of prison an older and a wiser man."
"What else besides Farley did you see in the room, Ted?" asked Stella.
"I really couldn't say what it was," said Ted. "It was dark, and there was only the faintest kind of light outside from the stars. The room was perfectly dark. I was sitting on Farley's back holding him down. He had thrown the door open, and we were in the doorway, but there was a space between us and the door-jamb.
"Suddenly I heard a faint noise beside me and could just see something scud past me onto the veranda."
"What did it look like?"
"It was about as high as a small dog, only shorter and thicker than a dog, and ran with a clumsy, heavy, sideways motion."
"Are you sure it was a dog?"
"No, I'm not sure, for I didn't see it plainly. All I could see was that it looked like some kind of an animal, but just what kind I couldn't determine."
"Your description would lead me to believe that it was a coon."
"No, I don't think it was a coon, or I would have been able to distinguish it by its smell."
"I didn't know but that it might be a coon trained to steal and sneak out. I've heard of such things, and it is by no means impossible, for you know that coons, like crows, are natural-born thieves."
"By Jove, that gives me an idea. I think it was a dog, and that its strange gait was due to the fact that the money had been tied upon him so that he would get away with it in case Farley was caught."
"No, the dog theory is wrong. What about a trained monkey?" Stella looked around the table to see how this was taken.
"C'rect!" shouted Bud. "Stella, yer struck ther problem a solar plexus thet time."
"That does seem reasonable, and if it is true it solves the mysterious robberies of the Strongburg Trust Company's office, the post office, and Creviss' bank," said Ted.
"It's worth looking into, anyway," said Ben. "Now I wonder if there is such a thing as a trained monkey in my marvelous and magnificent gathering of the splendors of the Orient out there. By Jove, I'm going through that camp with a fine-tooth comb, and if I find a monk, I'll habeas-corpus him, and we'll hang him to the rafters."
"Well, mum's the word about the money," warned Ted. "We don't want this thing to leak out. If it does, there's a chance against us."
Although they all felt pretty blue about the loss of the money, they had nothing but hearty welcomes and smiles for their guests, who began to arrive from all parts of the county, and from far-distant States and Territories, to help rejoice with the boys for a prosperous year, not knowing that all the prosperity had fallen into the hands of thieves.
The grounds about the ranch house had been gayly decorated for the occasion. An enormous American flag flapped and snapped in the fresh breeze from the top of a tall staff in front of the house, and the Belle Fourche band was playing in a gayly decorated stand. The showmen had erected their tents, and already the boys and girls from the ranches and towns were going in and out, witnessing the wonders to be beheld in them.
Stella was receiving her girl guests on the veranda, for she was a great favorite among the cowgirls in the country on account of her friendliness and unaffected ways.
Mrs. Graham was welcoming the older women, while Ted and Jack Slate were shaking hands with the ranchmen and cowboys.
Clay's fires were going well, and the steer and sheep were being roasted for the noontime feast.
Ben had gone on a still-hunt among the tents belonging to the showman, and, while he found three small dogs, there was no sign of a monkey, and by adroit questioning he learned that they had had a monkey, but that it had died at Leadville, because the air in that altitude was too cold and rare for it.
These facts he communicated to Ted, and seemed to explode the monkey-thief theory.
During the morning there was a baseball game between the cowboys and the clerks from the stores in Soldier Butte and Strongburg, in which the score was forty-one to three in favor of the clerks. The cowboys couldn't play ball any more than a rabbit, encumbered as they were by their chaps, high-heeled boots, and spurs. It took a home-run hit to get one of them to first base.
After dinner the cowboy sports were to come off.
When Ted could get away from his duties as host for a few minutes he sauntered through the crowd, extending greetings to all whom he knew, but at the same time keeping a close watch over everything.
The theft of the money from the cubby-hole had aroused in him all his detective instincts.
He saw two or three of the young fellows who had been with Wiley Creviss the night of the ball, but he paid no attention to them. They were welcome to come to the festivities, and to remain so long as they behaved themselves.
But he determined to have them watched.
Soon he came upon some more of the Creviss gang and saw them mingle with several boys, whom he knew to be tough characters, from Strongburg.
"The clan is gathering," he said to himself. "We're likely to have trouble with those fellows before the day is over. I'll put Bud next to them, and have the boys watch them."
"Whom do you suppose I saw just now?"
It was Stella's voice, and she was standing at his elbow.
"Who?" he asked.
"Is that so? I have been watching for him to come along. A lot of his fellows are here, and they are sticking pretty well together. Where did you see him?"
"I told Ben I'd take in his show even if no one else did, and I've kept my promise. When I was in that biggest tent I suddenly came upon Creviss in close conversation with the boss showman. When they saw me looking at them they separated in a hurry, and Creviss left the tent."
"H'm! I wonder if Ben knows this fellow who owns the show."
"Don't know, I'm sure. It wouldn't be a bad scheme to find out something about him in view of the robbery last night."
"You're right, Stella. Another thing I've been thinking about: I've been looking for Skip Riley, the Strongburg fireman, the supposed leader of the Flying Demons. If they are going to try any of their monkey business to-day he ought to be here."
"Haven't you heard the news? I intended to tell you, but must have forgotten. The last time I was in Strongburg I heard that Riley had resigned, and left the town for the East."
"I hadn't heard it. Then that puts it up to Creviss."
"But who is the fellow who runs the show? Ben says his name is Colonel Ben Robinson, and that he is an old circusman down on his luck temporarily."
"Look around and find out what you can. They will not suspect you if you ask questions as they would me. If you find out anything, let me know."
"All right, Ted, I'll circulate, and report."
Ted wandered over to the show tents, and entered them all, with kindly greetings to the performers, who all knew him as the leader of the broncho boys, and asked him if they could be excused from performing while the riding and other cowboy stunts were going forward, and Ted told them to lay off if they wanted to, as most of the guests would be out in the grand stand, anyhow.
In the last tent he entered he found the strong man lifting weights against a lot of husky cow-punchers, and the giant and midget.
But it was the midget that struck him most forcibly. He had a sly, cunning face and a bad eye, and when Ted came in he tried to hide behind the giant, who picked him up as one would a baby in arms. But the little fellow wriggled free and climbed down the big man like a monkey down a tree. Then he slipped across to the middle of the tent and shinned up the pole to the top, and hung there, looking down at Ted.
"What's the matter with the little fellow?" Ted asked the giant.
"Oh, he ain't got real good sense," rumbled the giant. "His brain stopped growing with his body, I reckon. But you can teach him tricks the same as you can a dog or a monkey, and he'll do them all right. I reckon he's afraid of you. He is of some people, the boss in particular."
"How long have you been with the boss?"
"Not very long. He just took the show over from the old boss a month ago. We were going to pieces over to Cheyenne, and he come along and bought us. He's been a showman in his time, but says he hasn't been in the biz for several years. He knows the biz, though, and has scads of money. We are well fed and get our salaries regular. Him and Prince Carl, that's the midget, are great pals. The midget sleeps in his tent, and the boss seldom lets him out of his sight."
"Say, Bellows, how many times have I got to tell you not to stand there gassing with patrons of the show? Every one don't want to bother with your theories and troubles." Ted turned, to face the boss showman.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Strong?" he went on. "I didn't recognize your back. It's all right to talk to you. But I've got to call the giant down once in so often for taking up people's time, for he's an awful gabber."
He walked away, but when Ted tried to get the giant to tell him some more about the midget and the boss, he would not say a word.
But the giant had planted the seed of a theory in Ted's mind.
Presently Ted saw Stella beckoning to him in the crowd, and forced his way to her side.
She took his arm, and they got out of the crowd. Ted saw that she had something to communicate.
"Well?" he said, smiling down on her.
"There's going to be something doing here," said she. "The boss showman has been talking with several of the gang."
"All right. Did you hear anything about Skip Riley?"
"Yes. He's been gone from Strongburg about a month."
"Learn anything else about him?"
"Skip Riley is not his name at all."
"That so? What is it? Did you learn?"
"I was talking to a lady from Strongburg, one of those who got him a job on the fire department."
"What did she know about him?"
"She said that she was appointed a committee of one by the Ladies' Aid Society over there to look up the new fireman's career."
"And I suppose she ran onto some hot stuff?"
"It seems that the ex-convict, Skip Riley, had been a circus performer once upon a time, before he took to being a burglar."
"Was burglary the crime for which he was put in prison?"
"Yes, so she says. He was an aeronaut and acrobat."
"Good! And what was his stage name? Did she say?"
"Robinson—Ben Robinson. She says that she was told that he was quite famous in his day as a circus performer, but that he couldn't resist the temptation to steal, and so had to quit the business, as none of the circus proprietors would have him around."
"Did she say where she got this information?"
"Yes. It was sent to her by the warden of the penitentiary in which Riley was confined before he came to Strongburg."
"Then her information is probably correct. Stella, thanks to you, we've got them dead to rights. We've solved the mystery hanging around all these recent robberies."
"Nearly, but not quite. How were they accomplished?"
"That I don't know positively, but I have a theory which I believe will turn out to be correct."
"But about Riley?"
"Ben Robinson, the proprietor of this show, and Skip Riley, burglar and ex-convict, are one and the same man."
ALOFT AFTER A PRISONER.
"All ready for the big show," cried Kit, riding up to Ted. "When will we begin the sports?"
Ted looked over the grand stand, which was built around an arena in which the cowboy sports were to come off.
This was the most important event of the day, for while bronchobusting and cattle roping are a cowboy's business, yet he finds unending amusement in doing these same things if his girl and friends are there to witness his skill.
After some ordinary feats of trick riding by the visiting cowboys, several really dangerous steers were turned loose in the arena, and for several minutes a very fair imitation of a Spanish bullfight, minus the killing of the animals, took place.
After several of the steers had been roped, thrown, and tied, there still remained in the arena a sullen and difficult brute, which was as tricky as a rat, and the boys gave him up one at a time.
"Why don't you give the girls a chance at him?" shouted a cowgirl derisively, from the seats.
"Any girl who wants to tackle him is at liberty to do so," Ted shouted back through his megaphone.
Instantly three girls leaped into the arena, and borrowed ponies from their cowboy acquaintances.
Ted motioned to Sophy Cozak, the pretty and buxom girl from the Bohemian prairie, whom Bud had admired at the dance; she rode forward on Bud's own particular horse, Ranger.
Sophy had several brothers who had taught her the cow business, and she had few equals on the range.
As she rode out she was greeted with a round of applause from her admirers. She gathered up her rope and sent the horse forward at an easy lope toward the steer, which looked at her a moment and trotted off.
Sophy followed him, and made three casts of the rope, and every time the brute dodged it, and the rope fell to the ground.
That settled it with Sophy, and she rode in, and another girl took her place. She, too, was unsuccessful, as was the third, and the audience was distinctly disappointed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried Ted, through the megaphone. "It was not the intention of any one living on the Moon Valley Ranch to take part in these contests, but if there are no other young ladies in the grand stand who would like to try their ropes on the steer, we can produce one whom we think can rope and tie it at the first trial. I refer to Miss Stella Fosdick. I have not consulted her wishes in the matter, but will ask her if she will undertake it."
At this a wild cheer went up, and Ted dashed out of the arena to find Stella. In a moment he was back, and announced that Miss Fosdick would try it.
Presently Stella rode in on Custer at a hard gallop, gathering up her rope as she rode. There was a sort of gay self-confidence in her manner that captivated the throng, and the cheers split the air.
Stella rode straight at the steer, which, seeing her approach; galloped down the arena with her in pursuit.
Swinging her rope above her head, she chased it back until it was about in the middle of the field, and suddenly the rope left her hand unerringly and shot through the air, seemed to hesitate for an instant, then fell over the steer's head.
Custer came to a stop the moment the rope left her hand, with his body well braced. The steer went to the end of the rope as fast as it could go, then was flung in the air, and lay upon his back sprawling like some ridiculous four-legged crab, while the girl leaped from her saddle, ran swiftly across the intervening space, tied his legs together, and held up her hand.
The crowd fairly went wild with enthusiasm at her feat, as she mounted again, leaving the steer to the tender mercies of the cow-punchers, who flocked about her. Then she dashed out of the arena, waving her hat in recognition of the applause.
Then the bunch of wild Montana horses, which never had felt the saddle, were driven in, and Ted offered a twenty-dollar gold piece to any puncher who could rope, saddle, and bridle, and ride one of the bronchos ten minutes without being thrown.
"Easy money!" shouted the cowboys, flocking into the arena.
The black, which had caused Ted so much trouble when the bunch first came to the ranch, was not with them. He was considered too dangerous an animal to be handled at an entertainment where there were so many women and children.
Only two cow-punchers succeeded in even getting their saddles on the bronchos without throwing them and hog-tying them, and only one, Billy Sudden, stayed the required ten minutes, and he said afterward that it wasn't his fault, because the broncho wouldn't let him get off.
Ted then announced that there was another animal in the herd that he would ask no man to ride, but that he would try to do so himself.
Another great cheer went up as Ted rode away after the black demon, to whom the boys had given the name Lucifer, for his supposed resemblance to his satanic majesty.
But it was found impossible to drive Lucifer into the arena.
"Never mind," said Ted, "we'll throw the saddle on him here, and I'll ride him in."
A crowd of men and boys was standing around, and Ted removed his saddle and handed it to a young fellow in the crowd to hold until he had thrown Lucifer. The animal was standing in the center of the circle, his wary eyes taking in the crowd, and letting fly with his heels at the approach of any one.
"Now, Bud," called Ted, "ride in on him and rope him. You, Kit, get him by the leg and throw him, and I'll slip a bridle on him."
It was not much of a trick to rope and hold him so that he couldn't kick. But when Ted tried to slip the bit between his teeth, he fought like the demon that he was, biting and kicking, so that he had to be thrown to his side and his head held down before the bridle could be put on him.
Then he was allowed to rise. There was no doubt but that the horse was insane with rage and fear, and several cowmen came forward and tried to persuade Ted from attempting to ride him, but Ted was as obstinate as the horse, and said that he would conquer the black, or die in the attempt.
He finally found the fellow who had been holding his saddle, although he had left his stand and was found back behind the crowd talking to a gang of young fellows, among whom Ted recognized several of Creviss' companions. This delayed and angered him, and he called the saddle bearer down for deserting his post, and was answered with sneers and laughter.
After many trials, and the exertion of a great deal of patience, Ted got the saddle on Lucifer and hastily cinched, and as he sprang to the brute's back the ropes were loosed. With a bound and a snort of terror the black dashed forward, and it was with the greatest difficulty that Ted swung it so it went through the gates and into the arena without dashing him against the posts.
Once inside the arena, the brute began to exhibit terrible ferocity.
Stella and Bud had followed in his wake, and when the girl saw how the brute was behaving, she whispered to Bud:
"That demon will kill him yet."
"If he don't kill it," answered Bud.
"Why did you let him ride it? I got there a moment too late, and he was already in the saddle, or I should have stopped it."
"What could I do? He had told the people he would ride it, and that settled it with him."
Lucifer was exercising all the tricks known to wild and terrified bronchos when they first feel saddle and bridle, and which seem to be inbred in them. He bucked, but there was never a horse that could buck Ted off. He reared, he kicked, rolled, and fell backward. But every time he stopped for a moment to note the result, there the unshakable enemy was on his back again. Clearly he was puzzled.
Then a new paroxysm of rage would shake him, and he would go through the same performances again, but with no better success.
Suddenly Ted brought his quirt down on the brute's flanks, and it leaped high into the air in an agony of fear and pain. It had felt that stinging thing before, and hated it.
Then it started to run away from this terrible thing that bestrode its back.
"By Heaven! it's running away," muttered Bud. "It'll be an act o' Providence if Ted isn't killed."
Down the arena they dashed, Ted sitting in the saddle as if he and it and the stallion were all of a piece.
When the brute came to the arena's end, and saw before him the shouting multitude, it suddenly swerved to come back, and Ted realized that something had happened to the saddle. It was slipping, and yet he was sure he had cinched it tight. Back they came tearing again, and passed Stella and Bud like a rocket.
"Great guns!" cried Bud, "his saddle's loose. He's a goner now, shore."
Every one saw Ted's danger, for Ted was leaning well over, and the saddle was on the horse's side. A hollow groan went up.
At Bud's first words Stella was off after Ted like a shot.
The horse, as every one could now see, was trying its best to kill Ted, and many of the spectators were positive that it would do so.
Now the cinch had parted.
"The cinch has broken," the shout went up. "It will kill him, sure!" Ted was now leaning far over on the horse's side, his left leg well under the horse's belly and his foot in the stirrup, while the heel of his left, boot was clinging to the edge of the tipped saddle. It was a most precarious position, for if the saddle slipped farther he would go under and be trampled and kicked to death before any one could reach him.
The powerful brute was bent on Ted's destruction, and seemed about to accomplish it, when Stella galloped to his side, and, grasping his hand, held him safe.
"The cinch is off," she called to him. "I'll help you up, then kick the saddle loose."
Slowly but surely Ted worked himself up until he could release his foot from the stirrup. Then, with a sudden wrench that almost pulled Stella to the ground, he was again on top. With a kick he sent the saddle to the ground, and was riding bareback, while the brute stumbled and almost went to his knees as the saddle fell between his legs.
But now Ted took charge of the situation. With quirt and spur he drove the beast here and there, punishing it, giving it no rest, allowing it to do nothing in its own way until it staggered and heaved and swayed with fatigue and lack of breath, and yet he urged it.
"He'll kill that horse yet," said Billy Sudden.
"No, he knows what that horse will stand, and he's going to make him stand it," said Bud.
The people had never seen such riding as this, and when they realized that Ted had conquered the stallion and was now rubbing it in, they shouted until their throats cracked.
At last the horse could go no farther, and Ted let it stop, as he slipped to the ground and gave the brute a slap with his hand.
"I reckon you'll know better next time, old fellow," was all he said, and walked to where his saddle was lying.
As he picked it up, he was seen to stop and look at the cinch carefully, then hurry to where the boys were awaiting him.
"Fellows," he said solemnly, throwing the saddle on the ground, "that cinch did not break, it was cut."
A dozen of the boys leaped to the ground and examined the cinch.
It was true. The cinch had been cut almost through with a sharp knife, and the strain upon it had parted it. There could be no doubt as to what had been intended.
As Stella came riding up, she shouted:
"The cinch was cut. I saw it. Wiley Creviss did it. I didn't realize at the time what he was doing or know that it was Ted's saddle, and when I did find out, he was mounted and away."
A howl of indignation went up at this.
"Scatter out, boys, and round up Creviss," shouted Billy Sudden. "We know what to do with him when he's caught."
Ted's adventure with Lucifer ended the performances in the arena, and, as the balloon was inflated and ready to ascend, the people flocked to where it was straining at the ropes.
Ted had mounted Sultan again, and left the arena surrounded by Stella and the boys.
"Who's going up in her?" asked Ted.
"Ben Robinson, the boss," answered Ben.
"Do you know who he is?" asked Ted.
Ben stared at him without replying.
"I'll tell you," said Ted. "He's Skip Riley, thief and ex-convict, the leader of the Flying Demons. He is the man who caused us to lose our money last night, and who engineered all the mysterious robberies hereabouts. Do you reckon he intends to come back?"
Ben's eyes started from their sockets in surprise.
"I—I don't know," he stammered. "By Jove! we must stop him. Maybe he's going to skip."
The boys had crowded about Ted as he spoke.
"We'll have to hurry if we get him," shouted Ben. "He's in the basket now."
With shouts of warning Ted and the boys pushed their horses through the crowd, which rushed aside to let them through.
They could see Skip Riley lift a large tin box into the basket from the ground. As he was getting ready to start there was a shrill cry, and the midget came waddling through the crowd and climbed over the side of the car and up Riley's body until it clung to his shoulder like a monkey. A great many of the thoughtless laughed at this. They did not understand the significance of the move.
"Get ready to cut her loose," shouted Riley.
Two or three men stood by with sharp knives in their hands.
Riley saw Ted and the boys pushing rapidly through the crowd.
"Cut her loose!" shouted Riley, and the balloon shot upward, amid the shouts of the people.
"Too late,'" said Ben.
"Not yet," cried Ted, spurring through the crowd.
A long guide rope was dragging from the car of the balloon.
"Follow me, Bud. The balance of you catch Creviss and the rest of them. I'm going with Riley."
Before they knew exactly what he meant, Ted grasped the guide rope as it passed over his head, and was swung out of the saddle and dangled in the air, to the horror of the people, who expected to see him fall and be dashed to pieces at any minute, for the balloon had shot up rapidly and was now several hundred feet above the ground.
But Riley, looking over the country and taking account of the direction in which the balloon was traveling, was unaware that he had taken on another passenger.
Hand over hand Ted climbed steadily, until at last he reached the car and looked over the edge of it.
Riley's back was toward him, and noiselessly Ted slipped over the side and into the basket.
Then the midget happened to turn his head, and saw Ted and uttered a frightened cry, which brought Riley around so that he found himself looking into the cold, dark bore of Ted's forty-four.
"Got you!" said Ted coolly.
"How did you get here?" said Riley, trying to smile. "If I'd known that you wanted to come I'd have waited for you."
"I don't think," said Ted. "But now we'll go down."
"No, I've got to give the people a run for their money. We must go a little farther."
"I said we'd go down."
"But we can't until the gas gets cool and exhausts. I have no escape valve."
"Then I'll shoot a hole in the bag. I guess we'll go down then."
"For Heaven's sake, don't do that! You'd blow us all to pieces."
"Then down with her. I mean what I say."
Riley looked at Ted for a moment, then pulled a string. There followed a hissing noise, and the balloon began to sink, slowly at first, then more rapidly.
Ted did not dare take his eyes off Riley to see how close they were to the ground. But he heard the Moon Valley long yell, and knew that they were near the earth, and that Bud Morgan was not far away.
Suddenly the car bumped on the ground, bounced and struck again, then stopped, and Ted heard Bud's cheerful voice right behind him.
"Jumpin' sand hills, so yer got him, eh? Come, climb out," said Bud to Riley, "we need yer on terry firmy."
"Cover him, Bud, while I search him. If he makes a break, kill him. He's an ex-convict, so don't take any chances with him," said Ted.
Riley yielded up a gun and a knife and then he was hustled out of the car, with the midget still clinging to him, and Ted took charge of the tin box.
Billy Sudden and some of his men had come up, and so had Ben and Kit, and Riley was conducted back to the ranch house strongly guarded.
Once inside with their prisoners and the boys, Ted closed the doors on the curious crowd. The first thing he did was to open the tin box. On top were the packages of bills stolen from the cubby-hole, and beneath it a large amount of money and the bonds taken from the Strongburg Trust Company, as well as registered letters from which the money had not yet been extracted, and a large amount of brand-new treasury notes which answered the description of the government funds stolen from Creviss' bank.
"It's all here," said Ted, "and the evidence is complete."
"But how did he manage to do it without leaving a mark or a broken lock behind him?" asked Ben.
"How? By means of this," and Ted placed his hand on the head of the midget, who shrank from him with a snarling cry.
"Still I don't understand it."
"The day I saw him in the Creviss bank he marched out with the plunder under my very eyes. The day before the robbery this fellow went into the bank with the dwarf in his valise. Wiley Creviss was alone. The valise was opened, and the dwarf slipped out of the valise and into the vault, and concealed himself.
"During the night the dwarf collected all the money and bonds he could, and made himself comfortable. When it came time for the bank to open in the morning he again concealed himself, and remained in hiding until noon, when Wiley Creviss again came on watch while the cashier went to dinner. Then Riley, here, entered with his valise, and the dwarf crept into it, and was carried out of the bank with the money."
"But what had the midget to do with the theft of our money?"
"That's simple. Farley and the dwarf were to do the job. The dwarf was sent up to the roof, for he can climb like a monkey, and came down the chimney and opened the door for Farley. That was a mistake, for they would not have been caught, except for Farley."
"How did they know where you hid the money?"
"The dwarf saw us through the window, and Kit saw him, but I thought it was all imagination. That was how they robbed the post office. The dwarf was lowered down the chimney. That is about the size of it. Am I correct, Riley?"
"Correct enough, so far as I'm concerned. I guess it's back to 'the stir' for me. But this midget didn't know what he was doing, and ought to be sent to an asylum instead of the prison," said Riley.
At that moment there was a great commotion without, and a crowd of cowboys rode up. In the center of the circle made by them was Wiley Creviss and several of his gang. In all, with Riley and the dwarf, there were eight of them in custody, and without ado they were hurried to the Strongburg jail.
The United States marshal was in Strongburg when Ted came in with his prisoners.
"What is all this, Strong?" asked the marshal.
"That bank-robbing gang you ordered me to bring in," answered Ted.
"You made quick work of it. Get any of the money?"
"All of it. It is in the Strongburg bank. You see, they made the mistake of robbing us last night. But for that they would have got away, and we would have had a hard time catching them. As it was, they walked right in to us."
Skip Riley went back to the penitentiary for a long term of years, and the midget was sent to an asylum for the feeble-minded.
Jack Farley turned State's evidence, and Creviss and ten other young reprobates were sent to a reformatory.
As for Lucifer, he turned out, next to Sultan and Custer, the best horse on the ranch.
THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.
A very short time after the capture of Skip Riley, Ted Strong was standing in the waiting room of the Union Station at St. Louis, the metropolis of Missouri, whither he had been summoned by a letter from the chief of the United States secret service.
He was waiting for Bud Morgan, who had gone to the baggage room to inquire about a trunk which had become lost on the way from Moon Valley, and which contained a number of valuable papers, including both their commissions as deputy United States marshals.
The enormous waiting room was crowded with passengers from the incoming trains, with which the numerous tracks were full from end to end.
As Ted Strong leaned over the iron railing, looking down into the lower waiting room, he was conscious that a woman had stepped to his side. Glancing up sideways, he saw that close to him was a very beautiful young girl, who wore a traveling cloak of pearl gray, and a long feather boa, which the draft had blown across his sleeve.
His glance intercepted one from her, and not wishing her to think that he was idly staring at her, he directed his gaze once more to the surging crowd below. As his eyes wandered over the throng, he saw a man look up, and make the most imperceptible gesture with his head.
He did not know the man. Turning swiftly to the young lady at his side, he caught sight of a smile and a slight uplifting of her eyebrows.
Undoubtedly a signal had passed between the two, and Ted, not wishing to be an eavesdropper, looked away again. But in the swift glance he had given the young girl—for now he saw that she was little else—he made a mental note of her. The gray eyes with the long, dark lashes, the oval face, beautiful in shape and of an ivory tint; the scarlet, curving lips, the slender, trim figure, and the strange, subtle perfume which she exhaled, one would never forget.
He also noted the appearance of the man who had signaled the girl.
The man was five feet seven inches in height; his face was well rounded, but not too fat. He had a brown, pointed beard; the eyes were pale, almost colorless; the forehead, broad and high, a fact which Ted noted when the man lifted his hat to wipe his brow. He had the air of a well-bred man of the world, and was probably a resident of New York. There was something familiar about the man that made Ted think that he had seen him before.
Ted saw Bud come through the door into the waiting room from the midway of the station, look up and wave his hand, with a frown and a shake of the head that told him his pard's quest for the missing baggage had been fruitless.
At the same time, the girl at his side seemed to bump into him, and as he turned to her she muttered an apology and hurried away. Although he followed her with his eyes a few moments, she was soon lost in the crowd.
He slipped his hands into the pockets of his jacket, and, with his back to the railing, prepared to wait until Bud reached him.
As his left hand sank into his pocket, his fingers came in contact with a piece of paper.
He knew that he had not placed the paper in his pocket, and glanced around with his usual caution to see if any one was watching him. He saw that wonderful pair of gray eyes with the dark lashes—Irish eyes, he called them—watching him over the shoulders of a man a dozen feet away in the crowd. But the moment the woman realized that she was being observed, she disappeared.
"Deuced strange," he muttered to himself, fumbling with the paper, which he had not withdrawn from his pocket. "That girl placed this paper in my pocket. I wonder why. There is something out of the way here, for the paper was not there before she stood beside me."
One less wise than Ted, and not so modest, might have thought that the girl was trying to flirt with him. But to Ted there was something more important and mysterious than that in her actions.
If he read them aright, she had placed the paper in his pocket when she apparently accidentally bumped into him, and had gone away only to come back to see if he had discovered it.
Although he searched the crowd with eager eyes, he did not see her again, and was confident that she had disappeared as soon as she had accomplished her mission, which was to convey some message to him.
Although he was somewhat curious to know what, if anything, was written on the paper, he restrained himself until he could be alone, for he did not know who might be in that crowd looking for just such a move on his part.
Just then Bud brushed his way through the crowd and came up to Ted.
"Them things ain't come yit," he said, in a tone of discontent, "an' me stranded in St. Looey with no more clean shirt than a rabbit."
"You can easily get a clean shirt," said Ted, "but it's not so easy to get a new commission. That's what's worrying me, for there is no telling how soon we may need one."
"Well, let's git out o' this mob, er I'll begin ter beller an' mill, an' if they don't git out o' my way I'll cause sech a stampede thet it'll take ther police all day ter round 'em up ag'in."
Ted said nothing to Bud about the paper he had discovered in his pocket, but picked up his valise. They then made their way to the street and rode uptown in a car, where they registered at a quiet hotel.
Ted went immediately to the room assigned to him, locked the door, and drew out the paper.
He could not conceive what it would contain, for he was far above the vanity of thinking that the young woman who had stood by his side would interest herself in him enough to write him a silly note.
"The man with the pointed beard!" thought Ted.
Of course, it was he who had caused the note to be slipped into his pocket.
Taking a chair by the window, he slowly opened the note, observing at the time that the same fragrance came from it as had filled the air while the girl stood beside him in the station.
It was a sheet of pale-blue letter paper folded three times.
In the upper left-hand corner was an embossed crest, the head of a lion rampant, and beneath it a dainty monogram, which he made out to be "O. B. N.," or any one of the combinations of those letters. He could not tell which combination was the correct one.
The writing was in a fashionable feminine hand, and written with a pencil.
It was as follows:
"T. S.: This is a friendly warning from one who dare not communicate with you personally, for reasons which you will discover and understand later on, if things turn out as we"—the word "we" had been scratched out and "I" written above it—"anticipate. Be very careful while you are in St. Louis. Do not go on the streets alone, and go armed. Your mission is known, and you will be watched by persons who will seek to get you out of the way. We—that is, I, also know of your mission, and take this means of warning you of your danger, as you have done me services in the past without knowing it. Now, the sting of this note lies in this, and don't forget it, don't get into any fights, no matter what the provocation, for I have it straight that that, is the lay to do you. If you do so, not being able to avoid it, shoot straight, and you will come out all right in the end. I will see to that part of it at the right time.