"We watched ther performance fer a while, then ther Injuns got up an' begin ter mosey. In an hour thar wuzn't a Injun within twenty mile. They jest hit ther high places fer home.
"Thet wuz ther way Ezra saved our party. After thet he could hev et every boot in ther outfit, an' thar wouldn't hev been a kick."
"What became of him?" asked Kit.
"Oh, he went back home with Ping an' raised a large family, an' they wuz talkin' o' runnin' him fer ther legislature an account o' his whiskers an' his smartness."
"He was a smart goat, wasn't he?" said Dick.
"You bet. Thet's why I said that some goats wuz jest ez smart ez lots o' collidge gradooates what I hev met."
THE COUNTERFEIT BANK NOTE.
When they arose in the morning the train was speeding over the prairie, and Dick could hardly be pulled away from the window long enough to go to breakfast with Stella and Mrs. Graham, so great was his delight at being in the "really and truly" wild West.
When they were all back in the car again, Ted, for the first time, noticed a large man, flashily dressed, who wore a flaming red necktie, and who evidently thought himself irresistible to the ladies.
He walked up and down the aisle on the slightest pretext, ogling every pretty woman in the car, and Ted was getting very tired of it, especially as once or twice he had the impertinence to stop and look into the stateroom in which Stella and Mrs. Graham were sitting.
"I'll take a fall out of that fellow if he keeps up that sort of thing much longer," said Ted, who was sitting beside Kit.
"I was thinking of the same thing," said Kit. "He makes me tired. I wonder what he is, anyway?"
"He has the make-up of a gambler or a saloon keeper," answered Ted. "He better keep away from me if he knows when he's well off."
At a town farther down the line a young lady entered the car, and took a seat directly in front of Kit, who was alone, Ted having gone to the front of the train to consult the conductor about a mistake that had been made in their tickets.
Presently the flashy man with the red necktie spied her and sauntered past her down the aisle. In a few moments he came back, twirling his black mustache, which evidently was dyed, and casting glances at the young lady.
Stopping in front of her, he said:
"Is this seat taken, lady?"
The young lady looked up, and answered coldly:
"No, sir; but there are plenty of other seats in the car which are unoccupied."
"This one looks good to me," said the fellow, with a smile which was supposed to be very fetching.
Without further excuse he plumped himself down in the seat beside her, and threw his arm familiarly over the back of it, at the same time hitching closer to her.
Then he tried to draw her into conversation, but she turned from him and looked out of the window.
But he persisted, and she showed that his attentions were annoying her.
Kit watched the proceedings, and was boiling with anger, but he did not feel that he had the right to interfere until the young lady showed by her manner that she desired assistance.
Presently the man said something to the young lady in a low voice that seemed to arouse her anger, for she rose hastily to her feet, her face burning.
"Let me pass!" she said.
"Don't leave me like this," said the fellow, blocking the way with his knees. "Sit down. We'll soon be good friends. You'll find me a good fellow."
"I insist, sir, that you allow me to pass," said the girl, growing pale, her voice rising a little.
Kit could stand it no longer. He reached over and tapped the fellow on the shoulder.
"Allow the lady to pass," he said quietly.
The hawk turned his head and sized Kit up. This did not take much time, for Kit was small and slender, his black eyes being the largest part of him, proportionately.
"What the deuce have you got to do with this?" he sneered, looking savagely at Kit.
"Just enough to make sure that you do it," said Kit, rising.
"Well, I don't allow no pups like you to interfere with me. You sit down an' let this gal an' me attend to our own business, er I'll bend you an' tie you into a knot an' throw you out of the window."
Kit did not reply, but he reached over and got the fellow by the coat collar and jerked him into the aisle, and, twisting him around, planted his toe between his coat tails with a force that sent him halfway down the length of the car.
"You're on the wrong train," said Kit. "The cattle train is on the other track."
The fellow soon regained his balance, and came rushing back like a charging bull.
"You little snipe!" he roared, "I'll kill you for that."
But as he got near Kit dodged into the space between the seats, and as the fellow rushed past, carried on by the momentum of his run, Kit swung at him with his right fist.
It caught the fellow back of the ear, and the force behind the blow, as well as the rate at which he had been coming, sent him headlong between two seats, where he lay crumpled up like a rag.
The commotion had attracted the attention of Bud and Ben, and they were by Kit's side in a moment.
"Need any help?" asked Bud.
"Not a bit," replied Kit. "I'm not very large, but no man of that sort can call me a pup."
The fellow lay where he fell, and Bud warned away several passengers who wanted to go to his assistance.
"He's all right," he said. "A crack like that never injured any one permanently, but sometimes it wakes them up ter ther foolishness of insulting a lady when ther broncho boys are around."
Kit lifted his hat to the young lady.
"Pardon me for making a disturbance," he said. "I don't think you'll be bothered again."
The young lady was profuse in her thanks, and resumed her seat.
Presently the fellow on the floor got up and sneaked into another car, without looking again at either Kit or the young lady.
"Hello, Kit! What was it all about?" asked Ted entering the car.
"Oh, I never could stand for red neckties, nohow," answered Kit apologetically.
When the train stopped for dinner they all trooped into the station dining room, and secured for themselves a long table, around which they sat like a big and happy family.
As Ted and Kit were walking along the platform toward the dining room Ted suddenly halted and stared at a man who was leaning against the wall of the station.
"By Jove, I believe it's him!" he muttered.
"Who's him?" asked Kit.
"The express robber, Checkers," answered Ted. "And yet I'm not sure. If it is him it's one of the best disguises I ever saw. Look at your friend of the red necktie hurrying up to him. By Jove, they're a good pair! I wish I could hear that fellow in the checked suit speak."
"That fellow will get caught up yet if he persists in wearing checked suits," said Kit. "It seems to be his badge, or a disease with him."
"I suppose that's why they call him Checkers," said Ted. "I wish I knew. I'd take a chance at arresting him."
At that moment the man in the checked suit looked up and caught Ted and Kit staring at him.
Hastily calling the attention of the man with the red necktie to them, he hurried around the corner, and the other followed.
Ted ran to the corner of the station, but all he could see of either was through a swirl of dust as the motor car in which they were riding flew up the street.
"By crickey! I'll bet anything that was Checkers," grumbled Ted. "I'm always too late to get to him. But next time I'll take a long chance with him."
The train pulled into Green River at eight o'clock that night, and they all went to the leading hotel, and Ted registered them as coming from the ranch.
During the evening the boys mingled with the crowd in the hotel lobby, talking cattle, and met many of the representative women of the section.
They were out after a bunch of stockers, and promised to be in the neighborhood for several days and to visit the ranches and look over the stock.
One of the men whom they met was introduced to them as Colonel Billings, ranch owner and speculator in cattle.
He was a middle-aged man of most pleasant features—benign, good-natured, and yet shrewd. He dressed well for a cowman, and from his pink, bald crown and gray chin whiskers down to his neat shoes, he looked the part of the prosperous business man.
"I have a lot of stock such as I think you boys need out at my ranch," he said to Ted, when he learned that they wanted to buy. "I'd like to have you bring your party out to the place and stay several days as my guests. You would then have plenty of time to look the stock over, and if you like them I'm sure we can strike a bargain."
Ted thanked him and promised to go out to look at the stock, but as for the invitation for the whole party to stop at the ranch, he would have to consult the wishes of the party. He rather liked the colonel, who was, apparently, bluff and sincere.
As Ted was on his way to the bank which had issued the bill which he had found in the haunted house, he stopped suddenly. He had just seen a young woman enter a store hurriedly, and look at him over her shoulder as she did so. She it was who had slipped the note of warning into his pocket in the Union Station, in St. Louis.
Evidently she was trying to avoid him. But why? He wanted to thank her for that kindly service, and, quite naturally, he had some curiosity to know who she was.
Without apparently hurrying he followed her into the store, and looked around for her. She was not in sight, and he walked up and down the aisles between the counters, but could not find her.
Then he observed that there was a back door to the store, which opened onto an arcade. She had escaped him through that, and Ted looked up and down the arcade. At the far end, where it opened out into the public square, a carriage stood, and a young lady was getting into it.
It was the young lady of the subtle perfume and the note.
In a moment she was gone.
He was not far from the bank, and giving the young woman no more thought, for he was sure he would see her again, for she seemed to be mixed up in his fortunes in some manner, he made his way to the financial institution and asked for the president.
"You will find Mr. Norcross in his private office at the end of the corridor," said the clerk.
At the door of the office Ted found a colored messenger, who stopped him and asked his business.
"Is Mr. Norcross in his office?" asked Ted.
"Yes, sah, but he is busy," answered the messenger.
"Well, take my card in to him, and tell him I would like to see him when he is at leisure."
The negro went away, and in a few moments returned to say that Mr. Norcross would be glad to see Mr. Strong presently.
While Ted waited he stood looking out of the window into the street. The door behind him opened, and he turned.
Walking rapidly down the corridor was the man with the pointed beard, whom he had seen in the Union Station in St. Louis give the signal to the girl who had slipped the note into his pocket.
Ted stared after him. The mystery of the note was getting thicker. But he would try to think it out later.
He found Mr. Norcross an elderly, but active man.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Strong," said the banker, referring to Ted's card.
"I come to you for information concerning a recent robbery and the murder of an express messenger in an express car in St. Louis," said Ted.
"In what capacity do you come?"
"As an officer of the government."
"Oh, ah, rather young for such work, aren't you?"
"Pardon, but that has nothing at all to do with it. I am a deputy United States marshal, and have received instructions to examine into certain matters regarding the recent robberies from express trains in this part of the country."
"I suppose you have your credentials as an officer."
"I think I can convince those who have the right to know that I am what I profess to be."
"Very well. I meant no offense, but there have been so many violent things done out here, that naturally a banker desires to at least know something of his callers. What can I do for you?"
"Did your bank make a shipment of currency to the East, last week?"
"Yes, sir, that is a well-known fact."
"What was the amount?"
"Forty thousand dollars. It was to meet some paper which was due in St. Louis."
"And it was stolen from the express car?"
"Yes. The express company has reimbursed us for it."
"What sort of currency was it?"
"Mostly of our own issue."
"Do you recognize this bill?"
Ted took from his pocket the counterfeit bill of the bank, and handed it to the president, who looked at it a moment and handed it back.
"Yes, that is one of the bills. The money sent was all in that series of numbers."
Ted picked the bill up, and put it in his pocket.
"Here, you mustn't take that," said the president. "That is the property of the bank. Give it to me. The express company will need it for evidence."
"Then I will keep it. It will be safer with me."
A suspicion had entered Ted's mind, which was strengthened by the conduct of the president, who was white-faced and trembling.
"From your examination of the bill, you are positive that it was one of those shipped to St. Louis?"
"I am not certain, of course, but as I said, it is within the series of numbers which we sent. Why do you ask?"
"Because it is a counterfeit."
The president sank down in his chair. He had suddenly become pale, and was trembling like a leaf.
"What will you take for that bill, young man? Name your own price," said Mr. Norcross.
"It is not for sale, and you have not money enough to buy it," replied Ted Strong.
A CRIME WITHIN A CRIME.
"Well, friend, have you decided to come out to my ranch, and look my stock over?"
It was Colonel Billings, the genial ranchman, who addressed Ted, meeting him in the lobby of the hotel.
"Yes, I think I will," answered Ted. "When will it be convenient for you to be there?"
"I am going out to-morrow, and will be glad to see you and your friends."
"There are a good many of us," said Ted, laughing.
"The more the merrier. The house is large, and I could drop you all down into it, and the house would hardly know it."
"How do we get out there?"
"I see you have a couple of ladies with you, and I shall telephone over to my manager to send a carriage in for them, and horses for the use of you boys. How many horses and saddles will you need? There are plenty at the ranch."
"We will need eight horses. One of the ladies prefers to ride, and we'll need a gentle pony for the small boy, whose experience is limited."
"Sidesaddle for the lady?"
"No," said Ted, with a grin, "this young lady will not use one. She is a cowgirl, and rides a man's saddle."
"All right, my boy. The outfit will be here in the morning. By the way, I am going to have some other guests. I suppose you will not object."
"One of them is a young New Yorker, who has come West to invest in ranch property, and who has brought his sister with him. Charming people. The other is a rather uncouth person, but you will forgive his eccentricities, I am sure. To tell you the truth, he often grates on me, but I overlook it because he has lacked advantages. He made his money in the liquor business, in which he has been all his life. But he is a good fellow at heart, and is my partner in a way, having invested a large sum of money with me in cattle."
"I shall be very glad to meet them, although, I'm afraid I shall not be able to see much of them, as I shall be very busy."
"When you are under my roof, sir, you are as free as if you had been born there. I am glad you and your friends are coming. It does my old heart good to have young people around me. I will see you in the morning, and shall feel honored to escort you to my home."
With this they parted.
"Jolly old chap," said Ted to himself. "I know just how he feels about having a lot of people come to visit him. I like it myself."
Stella had been out for a ride with little Dick. She had secured a couple of ponies from the stable connected with the hotel, and had given Dick his first riding lesson.
Ted met them as they were dismounting in front of the hotel.
"Ted, that boy is going to be a second edition of you in the saddle," cried Stella enthusiastically. "I never saw such a seat for a kid. Why he takes to a horse like a young duck to water."
"That's good," said Ted. "Do you like to ride, Scrub, I mean Dick?"
The boy flushed at the name Scrub, but he recovered himself immediately.
"Yes, it's fine," he answered. "I like horses, and they seem to take to me. I'd like to ride a horse all the time."
"Well, you'll have all you want of it when you get out to Moon Valley," said Ted. "Would you like to go out again? If you do, go ahead. I guess we can trust you not to break your neck."
The boy smiled and nodded, and climbed into his saddle again, and was off.
"Ted, that boy is going to be a credit to us all," said Stella. "But he must have an education. Although he speaks well and doesn't use much slang, that is, for a boy, he knows absolutely nothing that he hasn't picked up. He must go to school some day, but not now, for he hardly knows his alphabet, and as for other branches of knowledge, why, he doesn't know they exist, and he is as full of superstition as a Cocopo squaw. Wherever he got his beliefs, I can't imagine."
"All right, Stella, he shall go to school. It doesn't really matter much, that he has never been to school before. He'll learn so fast that he'll make up for lost time, don't fear. That boy has a good head."
"I'm going to teach him myself until he is able to take his place in school with boys of his own age. He's just crazy to learn."
"His early education is up to you. I'm not afraid he will learn anything he shouldn't from you. Go at him slowly and sensibly. Don't try to stuff it all into him at once. Meanwhile, I'll teach him to ride, shoot, herd, rope, and all that, occasionally impressing upon him the cardinal principles of the broncho boys—truth, honesty, sincerity, courage, and kindness."
"He'll be a fine fellow some of these days, Ted, and a good-looking and good-tempered one."
"I think he will. Suppose we take a little walk, if you have nothing better to do. I want to get your opinion on some matters."
"The very thing. I saw a pretty little park on the bank of a river. We'll walk there."
"I have promised to go out to Colonel Billings' ranch to-morrow, and I took the liberty of accepting the invitation for you all, as there is nothing to do around here, and I have a hunch that something good will come of it."
"I'll be glad to go. You know how much I like the town. I wouldn't care if I never saw one again."
"It's all right, then. We'll start in the morning. I am more than anxious to go now, especially as Billings tells me he has invited several other people to be his guests."
"Who are they?"
"You remember the girl who slipped the note into my pocket in the St. Louis station, and the young fellow with the pointed beard. Well, I saw them both in town this morning. The girl ran away from me on the street, jumped into a carriage, and drove away."
"There's nothing about you to cause a girl to run." Stella looked up at Ted in a teasing way.
"That'll be all right," said he. "But a few minutes after I saw the fellow with the pointed beard coming out of the private office of Norcross, the president of the bank that was robbed of the forty thousand dollars. He went by me like a rocket, as if he were afraid of me."
"Sure it was he?"
"Positive. But the strange part of it was my interview with the banker. He acknowledged that the bank had been robbed of the money, and identified the bill dropped by Checkers in his flight, as one of the shipment, but when I announced that it was a counterfeit, he went all to pieces, and, after trying to bluff me into giving him the note, wanted to buy it, asking me to name my own price."
"What does that mean, I wonder?"
"It means, that this case of the robbery and the murder of the express messenger is not the simple thing I thought. There is a crime within a crime."
"What in the world do you mean?"
"Just this, Norcross, the banker, is mixed in the crime, and Heaven only knows how many more men quite as prominent as he. The express-robbing syndicate is a strong one, and hard to beat."
"But you'll beat it yet. I know you."
"Thank you for your faith and encouragement, Stella. But it's going to be a hard pull, and it will take all of us to do it."
"What do you think of it now?"
"My idea is, that the alleged forty thousand dollars was not real money at all, and that Norcross was trying to double-cross the very men he was standing in with."
"Still, I hardly understand."
"Well, Norcross agreed with the members of the syndicate to ship forty thousand dollars to St. Louis, which was to be stolen en route by the syndicate's own men. They would then have their forty thousand back, and the forty thousand which they could make the express company pay them. The original forty thousand would come back to Norcross, and he would get his share of the money which the express company would pay."
"That was easy."
"It would have been, but for the fact that Norcross insisted upon being insured for the use of his forty thousand in case anything else happened to it. In this way he got another large sum."
"I see. But from what you have found out so far, I don't quite understand how you figure it out."
"All I have to go by is my own way of deducing things. The forty thousand dollars which was to be stolen was supposed by the other members of the syndicate to be real money. It was for this that the syndicate insured Norcross. But, instead, he substituted counterfeits, if, indeed, most of the supposed money was not just blank paper."
"He is a real financier, eh?"
"Yes, but he didn't take into consideration that he had scoundrels just as shrewd as himself to deal with. For instance, I believe when the truth is known, it will be found out that the syndicate was going to beat Norcross. But that is mere supposition. The tug of war is coming soon. It will take place at the ranch of Colonel Billings."
"I thought you believed in him."
"I do. I have made a few inquiries about him. I wanted to find out what sort of a chap he was before taking you and your aunt out to his place. Every one speaks of him as one of the leading men in the county and State."
"Then why should he be drawn into this mess?"
"I think he has done it unconsciously. He has a partner who has invested money in Billings' cattle. Do you remember the fellow in the train whom Kit knocked down? The chap who insulted that pretty girl."
"From the description given me of one of his coming guests by the colonel, I believe the man with the red necktie is he."
"What? That horrid thing."
"I didn't tell you, but Kit and I saw him talking to a man at the station where we stopped for dinner, whom I am convinced was no other than Checkers himself."
"Whew! That looks suspicious."
"In addition to that, the colonel has invited a man and his sister to visit him while we are there. This man is a New Yorker; I don't know his name, but the colonel says he is out here to buy a ranch. Who do you suppose it is?"
"Haven't an idea."
"The girl who dropped the warning note into my pocket, and the young man with the pointed beard."
"Looks pretty complicated, doesn't it?"
"Worse than that. Ted, are you sure about this Colonel Billings?"
"One is sure of nothing in this world, but I have taken a fancy to Billings, and when I like a man he generally turns out all right, making allowances for minor faults and habits. Yes, I think I can trust Billings."
"But not his friends. Ted, do you want to know what I think?"
"I feel that the invitation out there is a trap to catch you, and possibly keep you away from the town."
"Nonsense! Why should they want to keep me away from the town? There doesn't seem to be anything wrong in town that I could bother them in, except the Norcross incident, and if, as I suspect, he has duped his partners, he will say nothing to them about me."
"Suppose they want to get out there to do away with you."
"They wouldn't ask all of you out there with me in that case."
"That is where you are mistaken. They are too shrewd to excite your suspicions by inviting you alone. It will not be hard for them to get you away from the ranch to look at some cattle and then kill you. Ted, you are too dangerous to them to be let alone."
"Well, it can't be helped now, and being right in among them is a hope I did not expect to see realized so easily. But they will have no advantage over me, for none of the syndicate, I take it, know of the counterfeits as yet, except Norcross and the inevitable Checkers. But at that, I don't think they will resort to violence. We are too strong for them, at the ranch, at least I believe they will use diplomacy."
"Well, we can play at the game ourselves. There, perhaps, I can help you."
"You bet you can. But let us go down to the station and see if the red motor car, 118, has arrived yet."
When they reached the station, Ted went to the express agent and asked for the car.
"Yes," said the agent, "the car arrived this morning, Mr. Strong, and I delivered it according to your instructions. The charges are not paid yet. Your messenger said you would call later and settle for them, and, knowing you by reputation, I let it go."
Ted was staring at the agent.
"You delivered it according to my instructions?"
"I didn't give any one an order for the car."
"Why, you must have forgotten it. Here it is. I happened to see one of your boys down here, and called him to one side and asked him if it was your signature, and he very promptly identified it."
"Let me see that order."
The agent produced an order written on the note paper of the hotel.
Ted stared at it incredulously.
"It looks like my writing, but I didn't write it. I'll swear to that. Look at this, Stella. Is that my hand?"
Stella looked at the paper studiously for a minute or two, then handed it back.
"A casual look at it would deceive me, but you did not write it. It lacks several of your individualisms, and has others that are not yours."
"That is right. This order is a forgery. I did not write it. The express-robber syndicate is getting bolder every minute. They'll come in and steal you some day," Ted said to the agent. "Notify your company that my car has been stolen, and that I want it restored to me."
"Great Scott!" was all the agent could say.
"What sort of looking chap was it that presented the order?" asked Ted.
"Well, he was an ordinary-looking chap. He had on a—"
"Yes, sir. How did you know?"
"Checkers has come into his own at last," said Ted, turning to Stella.
TED IN THE TOILS.
The following morning an impressive cavalcade set out for the ranch of Colonel Billings, led by the genial owner himself. Behind him came Ted and Stella, between whom rode little Dick.
Then came Mrs. Graham in a well-appointed carriage, and acting as her outriders and escorts were the boys. When they arrived at the ranch, after passing numerous herds of fine cattle on the way, they found one of the finest ranch houses in the West.
It was a great, white modern structure that could be seen for miles across the level prairie, which showed hardly a single rise or depression in all the miles they had ridden.
None of the guests whom the colonel had told Ted would be present accompanied the party. The colonel explained this by saying that other matters had detained them in town, and that he preferred to permit them to follow, rather than defer the pleasure of being their escort.
This was said with so much sincerity that Ted could not doubt him. Mrs. Graham and Stella were ensconced in a large apartment on the first floor, with large windows opening upon a wide veranda.
Both expressed themselves as delighted with their room, much to the gratification of their host. The broncho boys found quarters in the spacious second floor, which had as many rooms as the average hotel.
"Well, what do you think of Colonel Billings now?" Ted asked of Stella, when they met on the broad lawn in front of the ranch house after they had seen their rooms.
Stella simply shook her head.
"What do you mean by that?" asked Ted. "That you don't know, or that you don't care to say?"
"I can't tell you yet, Ted. I like him somehow for his genial ways, and yet something tells me to beware."
"Well, I'd sooner trust your intuition than my judgment. I'll keep an eye on him. And—yet, I feel the same as you in a way. But I hate to distrust any one."
"I know you do, Ted, and that is why you get fooled on some people sometimes."
"But not on all people all the time?"
"Then what does one's first impression amount to, anyway?"
"Not much, unless they can make good a good first impression."
"I'm not going to worry about him. The other fellows are the ones for that."
"That's what I think."
"I'm going to ride out over the range, and take a look at the cattle. Want to go along?"
"Of course I do."
They found their horses in the corral, and after telling Colonel Billings that they would be back for dinner, departed.
"When you go through the west gate into the big pasture, look out for a big Hereford bull in there," Colonel Billings called after them.
Ted nodded and waved his hand, and they were off. Colonel Billings certainly did have a splendid ranch. They rode for miles within the fences before they came to the west gate.
"Think we better go any farther?" asked Ted, when they had come this far.
"Yes. Let us go on," replied Stella. "We have plenty of time, and I would like to see just how big this ranch is."
"Don't forget the red bull," said Ted, as he closed the gate behind them.
"I've seen many a dangerous bull before," laughed Stella.
"If we find him and he takes after us, keep on the far side of me. I don't much fancy that pony you're on."
"I don't myself. I wish we had a bunch of Moon Valley ponies here to ride. I've never seen any that could come up to them."
They were following a trail that led directly into the west. It was a cattle trail, and Ted's practiced eye told him that it led to water. Several miles to the west he saw the plain became broken.
"There's water over there," he said.
"That's where we'll find the cattle," answered Stella. "Do you want to go that far and look at them?"
"I will if you think you can stand it."
Stella looked at him scornfully.
"I guess this beast will go the distance," she answered, giving the little gray a clip with her quirt, and galloping ahead of Ted, who was not slow to follow.
As they proceeded the ground became more and more broken.
"I believe there is a bit of 'bad land' over there," said Ted, pointing forward.
Still they saw no cattle, although Colonel Billings had told him that morning that his greatest herd, the one he wished the boys to examine with the view to purchase, lay in the big west pasture.
But all they could see so far was the broad stretch of green prairie and the low line of the rough land in the distance. Not a living thing was in sight.
The only movement was the flying shadows of the white clouds over the prairie, and the waving of the deep, rich grass when a vagrant breeze swept by.
But suddenly Ted pulled in his pony, and shaded his eyes with his hand, staring into the west.
"What is it?" asked Stella, reining in.
"I thought I saw something red shoot across the horizon to the west, where you see those gray rocks," answered Ted.
"A cow—or, perhaps, the dangerous red bull," laughed Stella.
"Nothing like that. It wasn't the right color. Did you ever see a scarlet cow?"
"Well, the thing I saw was scarlet, and it was not shaped like a cow."
He was still looking intently into the west.
"There it is again!" he exclaimed, unlimbering his field glasses.
After a moment of intense scrutiny, he raised the glasses suddenly to his eyes.
"By Jove!" he cried, "it's a motor car, and I believe it's 118."
"Impossible!" cried Stella.
"No, entirely possible," said Ted intensely. "Don't you see if it was this fellow Checkers who got the machine from the agent by false pretenses he would take it as far away from town as possible?"
"Yes, I see that."
"Then which direction would he take if, as I think, he is in league with the train-robbing syndicate, which we have persuaded ourselves to think made their headquarters at Green River, but in this direction? We have learned that others of those we believe to be in it are to be the guests of this ranch, and—"
"I see. He could not well bring the red car to the ranch house."
"Then where do you suppose he's going with it?"
"There's no better place to hide it than in those very 'bad lands,' if I am guessing right, at the rough land yonder."
"True. What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to find that red car and my friend, Checkers."
"Not alone, Ted. You're going to get the other boys to help you, aren't you?"
"Now is the accepted time. I'm going right away now. But it would be a good scheme for you to ride back to the ranch and tell Bud and the boys quietly what I am about, and have them come out in case I should need help."
"I hate to see you ride away alone, Ted. You can't tell what there is over there. Better let me go along."
"No, Stella, it would be no use. You know that I appreciate your courage and skill in every way, but this, probably, will be no work for girls."
Stella pouted at this. She did not like the idea of the long ride back to the ranch house alone.
She looked at Ted to see if he really was in earnest, and when she saw the look in his face she turned back with a wave of the hand and a "So long!" and started for the ranch house.
"Tell Bud to bring three or four of the boys out here with him," shouted Ted after her. "Thank you, Stella."
But she only nodded her head and pursued her way, and Ted, after looking after her for a moment, rode forward. He had not seen the red car for several minutes, it having disappeared behind a rocky butte.
Having a fair horse, he gave it the gad and struck into a gallop. Soon he entered upon the rough land, and from a rise saw a stream below and a herd of cattle beyond, where the prairie began again; the railroad, and a small red station house, with two or three low buildings about it.
He now understood that he had seen the red car on the far side of the ravine, through which the stream flowed, and went down to the stream, his horse sliding on its haunches amid a clatter of broken clay and pebbles.
He was soon across and clambered up the other wall of the ravine, and there in the clay found the impression of the tires of the red car.
"I'm all right now," he muttered to himself. "On the track of Checkers and the robbers' automobile. I wonder where it will end."
He had no difficulty in following the tracks of the automobile for a considerable distance, when the ravine ran out on that side and the bank of the stream flattened; and he rode along it, following the trail with ease.
Then the bank of the stream rose again, and the water flowed through a ravine, into which the red car had entered. It could not escape him, and Ted chuckled, and examined his revolver, loosening it well in its holster, for he had not forgotten the warning against Checkers given him by Chief Desmond.
The ravine grew deeper as he advanced, and soon it became tolerably dark at the bottom where the high walls shut out the light. Suddenly his horse stumbled, and, as Ted shot over its head, he heard the twang of a broken wire that had been stretched across the path.
He had fallen into a trap. As he struck the earth, he was stunned for a moment, then a heavy weight was upon him.
He twisted around and felt for his revolver, but it had fallen from his holster, and he felt his arms grasped and a thong passed around his wrists, and then around his ankles.
The weight was lifted from him and he rolled over on his back. Standing above him was the man whom he knew as Checkers.
"Well, my lad, you delivered yourself like a lamb to the slaughter," said Checkers, with a smile.
Ted could say nothing. He was too busy wondering how easily he had fallen into the toils.
"You went up against a tough proposition when yon tackled me," continued the man. "It would have been a good thing for you if you had never run across me. You know too much to be left alive. I shall see that you are properly taken care of."
Checkers issued a shrill whistle.
"Come," he said to Ted, "get to your feet."
Ted arose as three men came around an elbow of the wall of the ravine.
"Take care of this boy," said Checkers to them. "And if he escapes—"
He finished the sentence with a smile that made the men wince.
STELLA IMITATES SANTA CLAUS.
"Come on, fellow," said one of the men, jerking Ted along by hops.
"We'll attend to him all right, boss," said another.
"He'll get all that's coming to him," said the third, with a grin that was almost as diabolical as that of Checkers.
Around the elbow of the ravine wall, in a small cove was a log cabin with a lean-to shed, under which was sheltered the fatal red car which had lured him to captivity.
The cabin was backed up against the wall of the ravine, and was small and dirty as to interior. A fire burned in a big stone fireplace at one end, filling the room with a suffocating smudge.
The room was almost dark, but Ted, from the corner into which he had been flung, was soon able to make out that the men were cooking something over the glowing embers, at the same time taking swigs from a black bottle, and smoking reeking pipes of vile tobacco.
After the food was cooked they began to eat, but did not offer Ted any of it, all the while making jokes at his expense, and vaguely hinting at his fate.
Ted wished now that he had taken Stella's advice, and had not rushed in so rashly. Had he waited for Bud and two or three of the boys to come to his assistance, he could easily have caught the whole lot for their cabin was in a perfect pocket from which they could not have escaped.
Who were these rough fellows with whom Checkers would not associate, for Ted could hear his archenemy pacing up and down outside, and he had not forgotten how he had addressed these men?
Probably they were only ordinary villains who did the dirty work planned by the wiser heads of the syndicate. He wondered if the boys would be able to find him before they settled with him, as they had promised.
After the men had finished their meal the voice of the leader summoned them outside. Ted could hear commands being given in a low voice, and mumbles from the men.
It appeared from what Ted could gather from the tones of the voice, rather than from any words that he caught, that one of the men was protesting against what Checkers was ordering.
Suddenly there was a cry of agony.
"Don't do that, boss," said one of the men.
"Shut up, or you'll get a taste of the same knife," came the voice of Checkers in a tone of rage. "When I say a thing must be done it is as good as done. Now go ahead and do as I tell you."
"Go on, and do it. Are you a coward? You've done it before," Ted heard Checkers say. "I'm going away now, and if you can't show me what I want when I get back, well—you know."
In a moment Ted heard the chug of the motor car, then the grating of the tires on the earth as it started away.
"Remember what I said," the voice of Checkers came floating back.
"Say, Bill, this is a derned outrage," said one of the men outside. "I, fer one, am not in favor of standin' for it."
"Well, if yer don't, you'll get the same," said other man.
"I never see any one so handy with that bloomin' knife o' his."
"Look out you don't get a taste o' it, then."
"Is he dead, Bill?"
There was a shuffling of feet outside, and Ted knew that they were turning a body over.
"Yes, he's stone-dead."
"Pore Dick! He had his faults, but he was a good pal."
"He wuz, but too derned soft-hearted. He didn't want ter kill a feller in cold blood never."
"An' yet he wa'n't no coward. I never see ther time Dick w'd refuse ter fight if ther other feller had some show, an' he wa'n't squeamish about holdin' up a train er runnin' off a bunch o' cattle, but I always hear him say thet he didn't take no stock in plain, straight murder."
"That's so, but it's not murder, Tom, when yer kills ther feller what's yer enemy. Now, honor bright, is it?"
"I dunno. I was brought up ter fight, an' fight like ther devil hisself when it come ter fightin', but I reckon I'm too much o' a derned coward ter murder cold."
"Well, this is one o' ther times when it's got ter be did, an' I reckon we might as well be about it. Git ready."
"No, sir, I'm not goin' ter do it."
"Tom, yer a fool. Do yer know what'll happen when ther boss comes back an' finds out that it ain't been did?"
"An' aire yer goin' ter resk it?"
"Then ye're a bigger fool than I am. I'm goin' ter carry out orders. What's ther difference? A couple of good slashes an' it's all over."
"But think o' the death cry, Bill. I've heerd too many o' them already. I hears them when I sleep and they wake me up."
"Tom, yer talk ter me like a sick canary peeps. I always thought yer wuz a man."
"An' don't yer think so now, Bill?"
"Not from ther way yer talkin'."
"Well, if yer has any doubts erbout it I'll give yer a chanct ter prove it, any way yer like."
"Now, what's ther use o' talkin' that away, Tom? Dick's dead by ther hand o' ther boss. What's thar in it fer you or me if ther cub in thar dies er not? Be sensible."
"It ain't matterin' a chaw o' terbaccer ter me whether he dies er not, but he's got a right ter die in a natural way, so to speak."
"An' how is that, my Sunday-school friend?"
"In a fair fight, by gosh!"
"An' who's goin' ter give him a fair fight? I don't want none o' it."
"So that's ther way yer built, is it, Bill? I always thought yer was a game man."
"I reckon I be, but that's not in this question. Here's an enemy ter ther gang what lays bound in the cabin. Why should I resk my life in a fight with him er fer him. It's so derned easy fer a feller ter go in thar an' stick a knife inter him, an' then, yer see, it's all over with."
"Yer wrong, Bill."
"I'd sooner do that than have ther boss come back an' stick his knife inter me."
"Aire yer afraid ter fight ther boss?"
"He's ther only man I be afraid of."
There was a long silence following this, and Ted understood the terrible power of Checkers over his men, and Desmond's warning.
"Well, I'm tired o' chewin' erbout ther virtue o' killin' a man one way or another, an' I'm goin' ter foller orders. If you don't want ter jine in I reckon as how I'll have ter tell ther boss that yer flunked."
There was no response to this, and a few moments elapsed in which Ted listened hopefully for his champion's voice.
Suddenly something dropped in the fireplace, and Ted, straining his eyes in that direction, saw a tiny pair of tan riding boots come into view, followed by a tan skirt, and Stella dropped noiselessly into the room.
She held up a warning finger as she saw Ted in the corner.
"Sh, sh!" she whispered, as she felt for his bonds and cut them.
Ted was on his feet on the instant, and Stella pressed a revolver into his hand.
"I didn't go back to the ranch house, but followed you here. I saw the red car go out, and hid. Then I sneaked along until I heard those fellows quarreling. I was on the top of the bluff here, and guessed that you were inside the cabin, as I couldn't see you anywhere outside, so I just dropped in." As Stella whispered this she smiled, and Ted could only look his thanks.
The fellow named Tom, who had been opposed to killing Ted, had evidently been doing some hard thinking, and the threat of his mate to expose him to Checkers evidently convinced him that he would rather be alive than perish for a mere sentiment.
"All right, Bill," he said; "I don't like it, but we've got to share it."
"Sure," said the other. "It'll be blow and blow. We both strike together."
"Come on, then."
"Now," said Ted, putting Stella behind him and crouching in the darkness.
The two men entered the cabin noisily, knowing that they had nothing to fear from an unarmed boy bound hand and foot and lying in the corner with nothing to hope for.
As they approached the corner they were surprised to see a stalwart young form arise suddenly and a pair of revolvers gleam through the darkness as a voice rang out commandingly:
The hands of both went up very promptly.
"Drop those knives!"
A pair of knives clattered to the floor.
"Face about, both of you, and go out. The first to make a break gets a shot in the back."
At Ted's command both men obeyed. When they were outside in the sunlight, Ted looked them over. Both had revolvers in their holsters.
"Take their revolvers away from them, Stella," said Ted.
As the girl moved forward to comply with the request of Ted Strong, the men stared at her in amazement.
"Now, which of you is Tom?" asked Ted.
"I am," said one of them.
"You lie!" answered Ted. "I know you by your voice. You are not Tom:—you are Bill."
"Yes, I'm Tom," said the other fellow.
"That's right," said Ted.
"Now, see here, Tom, if I give you the chance will you dig out of this and escape? It won't be very long before you are caught, anyway, and you know what that means."
"You bet I will," said the fellow, who had protested against the murder of Ted.
"All right, I'll give you the chance. I'll take your friend in charge myself. You can take down your hands, Tom."
The fellow was in a state of wonderment as he did so.
"Who are you, anyway?" asked the fellow called Bill.
"I am Ted Strong."
"Then it's all up. We're done for," said the train robber, in a resigned voice.
TED HOLDS A PROFITABLE BAG.
Tom signaled to Ted to step aside, and, telling Stella to keep the other fellow covered with her revolver, Ted accompanied him.
"Thank yer fer turnin' me loose," said Tom. "I've been tryin' ter get away fer months, but couldn't. Here's a tip: They're goin' ter rob ther Overland Express t'-night right out yon at that little station yer can see from ther top o' ther rise. Ther loot is ter be hid near Bubbly Spring until things blow over, but ther gang will come here. Thar's my tip. Good-by. I'm off."
The fellow disappeared up the bank of the stream.
Ted bound the other upon the back of his pony, which he found not far from the scene of his own downfall, and conveyed him to Green River, where he placed him in jail, with instructions that he should be allowed to communicate with no one.
Then he and Stella returned to the Billings ranch house.
"Say nothing whatever about our adventure," said Ted, as he and Stella rode along discussing the matter. "I think there will be something doing there to-night."
When they got back to the ranch, Ted simply explained their absence by saying that they had ridden farther than they had at first intended.
Ted was introduced to the other guests, who had arrived in his absence. There was Mr. Norcross, the banker, who looked a little sheepish when Ted shook hands with him and acted as if he had never seen him before. The man with the black mustache and the red necktie was Mr. Dennis Corrigan, of Chicago, and neither he nor the boys appeared to have seen him before. The young man with the pointed beard was Mr. van Belder, of New York.
Colonel Billings was full of hospitable notions, and made the afternoon pass delightfully.
"They tell me there is very good shooting in the neighborhood at times," said Mr. Corrigan, as they all sat on the veranda in the afternoon.
"Excellent," said the colonel. "At this time of the year the snipe shooting is fine."
"What is the best time to shoot them?" asked Van Belder.
"I should say after dark," said the host, with an imperceptible wink at Mr. Corrigan.
"I don't see how you can shoot snipe after dark," said Ted.
"You don't exactly shoot them," explained Mr. Corrigan. "It's this way, and a fine game, and often practiced in South Chicago: The party goes out, and one holds the bag while the rest go along and drive the birds in, and the fellow who holds the bag catches them in it. It's lots easier than shooting them, and you get more birds."
"By Jove, that's a new experience to me!" said Ted. "I'd like to try it."
Mr. van Belder looked at him curiously, but drawled that he thought it very fine sport. So it was agreed that that night they should go on a snipe-bagging expedition.
The party was to be made up of Ted, who was eager to hold the bag for the snipe to run into; Mr. Corrigan, the colonel, Mr. van Belder, and a few others.
Most of the boys declined absolutely to go.
"Say, aire ye gittin' plumb dotty?" asked Bud, when he got Ted out of hearing. "Tell me, is it possible thet yer eyeteeth aire so far secreted up inter yer head thet yer don't know erbout baggin' snipe?"
But all the answer Bud got was a wink.
"Now, what hez ther hombre got up his sleeve, I wonder?" said Bud, as he wandered off.
Ted and Stella had an animated conversation a few minutes later out of the sight and hearing of the others. But Stella walked off, smiling. She knew.
It was just getting dark when the party left the ranch house.
Ted carried a large, empty sack over his shoulder. With the organizers of the party went Bud, Ben, Kit, Carl, and Clay.
The maddest person in the house that evening was Stella, because she couldn't go, too. But as she said good-by to the party from the steps of the ranch house she smiled comprehensively at Ted.
A walk of a half mile brought the party to the edge of a small creek.
"Now," said Mr. Corrigan, "here's where you wait with the bag while we go up to the creek and chase them down. You may have to wait a little while, and you must have patience."
"Don't worry about me," answered Ted; "I have plenty of that. I'll be here when the snipe come down, and if any of them get away, charge them to me."
After they had been gone some time Ted lit a match and looked at his watch. It was a quarter to nine.
The Overland Express was due in Green River at nine-twenty. The little red station of Polifax would foe passed by ten minutes after she left Green River.
While he was in Green River that afternoon Ted had been very careful to find the exact location of Bubbly Spring. He was more than two miles from it in his blind to wait for the snipe.
As soon as the crashing of the feet of the snipe drivers and the shouts and laughter had died away, Ted left his hiding place and darted through the dark woods and swampy ground for Bubbly Spring.
Long before he got there he heard the long screech of the whistle of the Overland Express announcing its approach at Green River, and a few minutes later its whistle that it was on its way. He had just reached Bubbly Spring and concealed himself in the bushes when the whistle gave a long shriek of danger.
The signal of the train robbers had been given at Polifax. The engineer had seen the red light and had whistled to the trainmen that danger was ahead, and that he was going to stop.
In a few moments Ted heard a few pops, and knew that the train robbers were firing their revolvers alongside of the train to prevent interference.
What if the train robbers should fail?
The train started up again, and Ted knew by that that nobody had been killed, and it added to his anxiety as to the success of the robbery. He wanted it to occur, for if he could secure the loot he could destroy the train robbers surely.
All he wanted now was tangible evidence. He lay back breathlessly in the bushes, waiting. Soon he heard the rapid hoofbeats of horses, then a crashing in the bushes.
These noises were approaching him rapidly. The crisis was at hand.
In a moment the moon burst through the clouds, illuminating the little valley through which the small stream from the spring flowed, and Ted crept into closer cover. Then into the glade galloped ten men.
Between two of them was swung a small, square thing, which was dropped at the foot of a cottonwood tree not a dozen feet from where Ted was concealed.
A man leaped from the back of a horse. He had a spade in his hand, and as he advanced Ted drew in his breath sharply.
It was Corrigan, the Chicago millionaire. Behind him was Norcross, the banker.
Ted looked vainly for Checkers. If he had been with the robbers at the holdup, he had not come here with them. Meanwhile, the dirt was flying, and a hole was being dug at the foot of the cotton wood.
After it was deep enough an iron box was dropped into it and covered with earth, and silently the men remounted and rode away.
Ted waited about fifteen minutes to be sure that none of them would return. Then he dug into the freshly laid earth and soon had exhumed the iron box. It was somewhat of a heavy load, but he packed it manfully, and in about half an hour carried it in his bag into the living room of the ranch house.
He was greeted with shouts of laughter from Corrigan and several of the others. But Stella looked at him anxiously, and he gave her a reassuring glance.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Corrigan. "What do you think of snipe hunting now?"
"It was a good joke," said the colonel, "but I'm sure you will take it good-naturedly."
"Yes," said Mr. Norcross, the banker. "It's quite a favorite amusement out here."
Only the New Yorker said nothing, but gave Ted a peculiar glance. Ted looked around at the group with a foolish smile.
"It was a good joke, gentlemen," said he, "and I have never been sore because I have been handed one."
Another burst of satisfied laughter greeted this from the big three—Corrigan, Norcross, and the colonel. But Stella and the boys looked glum that Ted was being made the butt of a joke.
Then Ted put his sack on the floor and opened it and lifted something out and placed it on the table. It was the iron box he had dug from the earth at Bubbly Spring, with the fresh earth still sticking to it.
Corrigan's face turned white. Norcross had to lean against the corner of the table to keep from falling.
Ted easily opened the lock of the box, and threw it open.
"You left me to hold the bag, did you?" he asked of the astounded conspirators. "Well, what do you think of these for snipe?"
The room was as quiet as a church.
"Gentlemen, you are all under arrest. Boys, get into your saddles. We are going to ride to the rendezvous of the gang of robbers which to-night robbed the Overland Express and stole the money I have here," and he lifted out package after package of stolen currency.
Stella was laughing and waving her hat.
"I knowed yer had somethin' up yer sleeve when yer consented ter go snipe huntin'! Yer ther limit," said Bud.
Only Mr. van Belder of all the conspirators was calm. He ripped a beard from his face, and there stood Darby O'Neill, the United States secret agent!
"Say, Ted, give me that counterfeit of the Green River National Bank. It is all I need to take Norcross away for a long term. I've been working on him for a long time, but you knocked the persimmon at last."
"You had me guessing," said Ted. "When I got that note that was slipped into my pocket in St. Louis I ought to have guessed that it was you, but you are so clever at disguise that you always fool me."
"But you've never fooled me yet," was the reply. "I've banked on you every time, and every time you've come back with the goods."
"But who was the young lady who slipped me the note?"
"My sister, who is a very clever girl detective, as you may know some day."
After the boys had made secure the three men at the head of the train robbers' syndicate, they went to the cabin in which Ted had so nearly lost his life, and secured the rest of the robbers.
Next morning at daylight they found the body of Checkers lying beside the fatal red car not far from the scene of the holdup. He had been killed by a stray shot fired by one of his own men.
Thus was the train robbers' syndicate wiped out through the acumen and courage of Ted Strong, and the loyal backing of his comrades.
The broncho boys decided that more stock was needed at the Moon Valley Ranch, and the entire outfit set out for No Man's Land, in northern Texas.
THE MAGPIE PONY.
"Say, podner, might I be so free an' onquisitive ez ter inquire ez ter whar yer got thet thar palfrey yer ridin'?"
The speaker was a tall, gaunt old man with a tangled mass of grizzled whiskers, and the "podner" he addressed was Bud Morgan.
"Yer might," answered Bud, eying the questioner keenly.
"Why don't yer?"
"Oh, I see. Whar did yer git it?"
"I traded a Waterbury watch fer it, an' ther feller what made ther trade throwed in a pack o' cigareets."
"Anything else ye'd like ter know?"
"Well, seein' ez yer so communicative, I'd like ter hev yer tell me how fur it's ter Yeller Fork."
"Ez fur ez yer kin ride betwixt 'arly breakfast an' dinner."
"Well, I'm obleegin' ter yer. I reckon we'll be hikin'."
"Who's ther kid?"
"Thet boy is my grandson. We come outer Missouri ter see what could be did in this yere new country, an' it's mighty hard sleddin'."
"What's ther trouble?"
"Well, stranger, so long ez yer kind ernuff ter inquire, I'll tell yer."
"I'm too old ter work at ther only thing what seems ter be out yere—cow-punchin'—an' ther kiddie is too young. Now, if 'twas farmin', we'd be in it."
"Thar ain't no more farmin' out yere than a rabbit, thet's shore. What might yer bizness be at home?"
"I'm a hoss trader."
"Thar ought ter be somethin' doin' out yere fer yer, then. All thar is in this country is hosses an' cattle."
"They ain't my kind o' hosses."
"Yer don't seem ter fancy cow ponies, eh?"
"I reckon they're all right in their way, podner, but they're a leetle too wild fer me to break, an' the kid's not strong enough."
"Askin' questions seems ter be fash'n'ble. Whar did yer git thet magpie hoss?"
Bud was looking over the old man's mount, a beautiful little black-and-white-spotted pony, as clean limbed as a racer, and with a round and compact body. It was a bizarre-looking little animal, with a long, black mane and tail, at the roots of which was a round, white spot. It was the sort of animal that would attract attention anywhere.
"Magpie! Podner, I riz her from a colt."
"She's shore a showy beast."
"She is some on ther picture, ain't she?" asked the old man, looking the pony over admiringly.
"She's all right, but—"
"But what, podner?" The old man looked at Bud with a frown.
"Well, I ain't none on knockin' another man's hoss, but I never see one o' them black-an'-white-spotted animiles what could do more than lope, an' out in this yere country hosses hez got ter run like a scared coyote ter be any good in ther cow business."
"Yer reckon this yere Magpie can't run?" asked the old man, bristling.
"I ain't said so."
"Well, yer alluded ter a magpie hoss as couldn't do nothin' but lope."
"I ain't never see none what could do much more."
"You ain't never see Magpie split ther wind, then."
"Mebbe ye'd like ter."
"Mebbe I would."
"I reckon yer thinks ther cow what yer a-straddlin' of now kin run some."
"A leetle bit. But, yer see, when I got him he was a broken-down cow hoss what hed been ridden ter death an' fed on sand an' alkali water so long thet he wa'n't much good nohow."
"Jest picked him up wanderin'?"
"Not eggsactly. Yer see, it wuz this way: I was coming ercross Noo Mexico about a month back, when I runs foul o' a hombre what is all in. He hadn't et fer so long thet yer could see ther bumps made by his backbone through his shirt. I hed some grub in my war bag, an' I fed an' watered him. This yer nag wuz all in, too, an' he hed a long way ter go, so when ther feller ups an' perposes ter trade ponies I give him ther merry cachinnation."
"Go ahead, podner, yer shore hez a splendid education."
"I see thet he'll never git ter whar he's goin' on ther nag, an' I thinks I'll do him a favor by sittin' him on a piece o' live hossmeat, an' I said I'd trade if he hed anythin' ter boot. Now, what do yer think he hed?"
"I ain't got a notion."
"A pack o' Mexican cigareets what burned like a bresh fire an' smelled like a wet dog under a stove."
"Haw, haw! An' yer traded?"
"I thought some fust, an' then I thinks what's ther odds? Thar's plenty o' hosses in camp, an' it'll probably save ther feller's life ter let him hev ther pony, what ain't none out o' ther common, so I says, 'It's a go, pard.' I clumb down an' we changed saddles, an' he handed over ther pack o' cigareets an' we went our ways."
"Yer shore is a kind-hearted man."
"I ain't, neither. I jest knows a hoss when I sees one."
"Yer don't call thet a hoss yer a-straddlin', I hope?"
"I shore do. He ain't much fer ter gaze on admirin', I agree, but he's a good little cayuse. I reckon, now, yer some proud o' thet magpie hoss."
"I be. It kin outrun anythin' this side o' ther State o' Newbrasky."
"P'r'aps yer lookin' fer a race ter see what ther best we've got in camp kin do, no?"
"Thar ain't nary time what I won't run a race if I think thar's ary merit in my hossflesh. How erbout ther animile what yer sits on so graceful?"
"Oh, I reckon he kin ride rings eround ther magpie hoss," said Bud, who was a trifle nettled at the old man's jeering tone.
"Yer certain got a lot o' confidence in a dead one."
"I reckernize ther fact that he ain't none pretty, but handsome is as handsome does. Hatrack is some shy on meat an' he's got a temper like a disappointed woman, ter say nothin' o' havin' had ther botts, ringbone, heaves, an' spavin', but he's a good nag, fer all thet, an' would be good-lookin' ernough if his wool wasn't wore off in so many places."
"Haw, haw! He ain't what ye'd call a show animile."
"He ain't, but, say, stranger, he kin run."
"What d'ye say ter a leetle brush betwixt Magpie an' yer Hatrack?"
"I'm ther gamest thing what ever yer see when it comes ter a hoss race."
"What'll we race fer?"
"Nag an' nag. If yer beats me, yer takes Hatrack, an' if he gits away with ther spotted pony, why, yer turns her over ter me. Is it a go?"
"If yer throw in a six-shooter fer odds."
"All right, pard, jest ter show yer thet I ain't no shorthorn, I'll go yer. I've got a shooter in my war-bag up ter camp what'll kick ther arm outer yer socket every time yer pulls ther trigger, but she'll send a bullet through a six-inch oak beam."
"Anything, so it's odds. I'll go yer. I reckon I could sell it fer a dollar er so."
"I reckon yer could," said Bud sarcastically. "I wuz offered ten dollars fer it by a hombre down ter Las Vegas a month ago. But he was a husky feller, an' wanted a strong shooter. He wanted ter go out huntin' fer a feller with it, an' I wouldn't let him hev it. Is it a go, shore enough?"
"All right; come over ter ther camp an' stay overnight, an' fill yer pale American hides with ther best grub what ever wuz cooked on ther range. Our cook is an artist."
Bud led the way on his little, flea-bitten skeleton of a pony that snorted and reared, kicked, and showed the whites of its eyes when he woke it from the drooping position it had held while he was talking to the old man.
In half an hour they were in sight, from the hill they had topped, of a vast band of cattle grazing in a broad valley.
In a sheltered spot below the hill was a typical cow camp. A white-covered chuck wagon shone in the rays of the departing sun, and the smoke arose from the cook's fire, where he was baking biscuit in a Dutch oven, while the fragrant odors of frying bacon and steaming coffee filled the air.
"What have you found this time?" asked Ben Tremont, as Bud came into camp.
"This yere gent is a maverick from Missouri what I found wanderin' across the peerarie searchin' fer Yaller Fork, an' he hez bantered me ter a hoss race, I ast him ter come in an' stay overnight, an' eat, an' we'll run ther hosses in ther mornin'."
"I'm goin' ter run Hatrack agin' thet magpie mare o' hisn, an' throw in a six-shooter with Hatrack if I lose."
"Say, are you going altogether dippy?" growled Ben. "Why, that little mare will run away from you as if Hatrack was tied to a post."
"Reckon so? Well, maybe I want to lose Hatrack, an' maybe all I want is ter capture thet magpie pony."
"Oh, what a lovely pony!"
Stella Fosdick had ridden into camp, and her exclamation of admiration for the magpie pony drew the attention of the boys to her.
"D'ye like thet thar pony?" asked Bud.
"I think it's beautiful," answered Stella enthusiastically.
"Then it's yours."
"What do you mean?"
"This old gent an' me is goin' ter hev a race in ther mornin', hoss fer hoss, an' when it's over ther magpie hoss is yours."
A peal of rippling laughter greeted this.
"See yere, gal, what is all this noise about?" asked Bud huffily. "If yer laughin' at ther idea o' Hatrack beatin' ther magpie hoss, don't yer do it, fer thet's showin' ignerance o' hossflesh, an' I thought yer wuz too well brought up at Moon Valley ter think thet pretty spots on a hoss hez anythin' ter do with his ability ter make a race er hold a cow."
"Forgive me, Bud, I didn't mean to laugh at Hatrack, but, really, he doesn't look as if he could run any faster than a lame dog."
"Oh, I reckon he'll git over ther ground fast ernough," said Bud, with a sly wink at the girl. "But he won't do it with me on his back. I'm a trifle heavy fer fast work. I'll hev ter git Kit ter pilot him, I reckon."
"I reckon you won't," said Stella. "If any one rides him it will be me. I'm a good many pounds lighter than Kit."
"All right, Stella. I wanted yer ter ride him, but I didn't like ter impose on good nature by askin' yer ter do it."
"Why, I'd love to ride the race. You ought to know me by this time."
"It's a go, an' if yer win, as win yer must, ther magpie hoss is yours."
"Oh, Bud, you don't mean it! Then I'll certainly ride to win."
So it was settled, and the old man and his grandson were accorded the hospitality of the camp.
After a hearty supper, while they were all sitting around the fire, and the old man was telling stories of his trip into the Southwest, for the broncho boys were now herding a big bunch of range cattle in what is known as No Man's Land, an arm of northern Texas lying west of Oklahoma, and claimed by both, the day watch rode into camp, and, stripping their saddles from their ponies, turned them loose. Then the boys threw themselves upon the ground to rest after several hours of constant riding.
One of the cowboys in the outfit, Sol Flatbush by name, stood staring at the old man and the boy.
He was scratching his forelock in a meditative sort of way, as if trying to remember something.
"What is it, Solly? I reckon what yer tryin' ter think of is that ye've forgot yer supper," said Bud.
"No, 'tain't that," said the cow-puncher, staring harder at the old man.
"Hear about ther race, Sol?" asked Ben.
"Now, don't yer expect me ter ask yer what race an' then spring thet ole gag about ther 'human race.' I won't stand fer it. I've got troubles enough. Thet buckskin pony o' mine hez hed ther very divil in him all day, an' I ain't feelin' none too amiable."
"This is on the square."
"Well, cut loose."
"Bud is going to race Hatrack against that magpie horse grazing out there, and throw in a six-shooter if the old gent wins."
Sol Flatbush turned and looked at the magpie pony, then at the old man. Suddenly a gleam of intelligence illuminated his face, and he grinned.
"Say, Bud, I wisht ye'd come over yere an' look at this buckskin's off hind foot, an' tell me what ye thinks o' it. He's been actin' powerful queer on it all day."
Bud rose lazily and followed Sol out of camp. The buckskin was grazing peacefully a few hundred yards away, and as they walked toward it Sol Flatbush said:
"Bud, d'ye know that ole maverick?"
"I shore don't. Never even ast him his name," answered Bud.
"Well, I do. That's ole 'Cap' Norris. He's a hoss sharp fer fair. He an' that boy don't do nothin' but ride the country with that magpie hoss, pickin' up races at cow camps an' ranches an' in towns. That hoss o' hisn is a 'ringer.' His real name is Idlewild, an' he's a perfessional race hoss. Boy, yer stung!"
"Oh, I don't know," said Bud quietly, as Sol Flatbush made this announcement of the ability of Magpie, or Idlewild, as he was known elsewhere.
"But I do," urged Sol. "I see that hoss run at Ponca City on ther Fo'th o' July a year ago, an' he jest run away from ther best Indian racers what ther Osages could bring over, an' yer knows they kin go some."
"Sol, my son, don't git excited. Yer Uncle Bud knows what he's doin' when he's going inter this yere race. He ain't tellin' ther ole man, nor none o' you fellers, what thar is in thet Hatrack hoss."
"Got somethin' up yer sleeve?"
"I reckon I hev. If I was a bettin' man, I'd wager my share o' Moon Valley that Hatrack would win this yere race."
"Sho; yer don't say!"
"Ted seen him run. Ask him. Now, don't you worry none about me. I know a hoss when I see one standin' on its four legs. That magpie hoss is a good one, whether his name is Magpie or Idlewild. Ther name don't make him run no better. But Hatrack is some, too, an' I want that magpie pony for Stella. She ain't got no hoss of her own down yere, an' that spotted pony is jest ther sort o' showy hoss what a gal likes."
"Well, I ain't wantin' ter be buttin' in none," said Sol, in a crestfallen way.
"Yer ain't butted in none, Sol. I'm obliged ter yer fer givin' me ther tip erbout ther old sharp. When he fust braced me I sized him up fer a sharp, an' when he told me he was a hoss trader from Missouri I had a straight line on him."
They returned to camp, where the old man was still regaling the boys with anecdotes, having proved himself a most entertaining story-teller.
The boy sat close beside him listening, but never saying a word, except when he was addressed. He was small and slender, and evidently weighed much less than a hundred pounds.
His face was small and thin, and apparently youthful, but his eyes were old and shrewd, and there was a crafty look about his face at times when the old man brought out a point in a story. Evidently he had heard these stories many times before. When he smiled it was in a sly and furtive way.
Ted Strong had come in from riding around the herd, having inspected it before it was bedded down for the night. He had heard all about the proposed race, and smiled quietly as Ben joshed Bud about the loss of his pony Hatrack on the morrow.
He had looked the boy over carefully, and his impression was not pleasant.
"I tell yer what, boys," said the old man, when conversation began to lag. "S'posin' we put this race off until to-morrow afternoon, an' run it over at Snyder, across the line in Oklahomy?"
"What's ther occasion?" asked Bud.
"Jest ter give ther people over thar a chance ter see a real live race. Besides, I'm out o' money, an' I reckon we could have a reg'lar race, an' charge admission. That would enable me an' my grandson ter git back ter ole Missou' again. We ain't much use out here. What d'yer say?"
"I ain't no professional racer," said Bud slowly, "an' I ain't in this race fer what I kin make out o' it. Yer made yer brag about yer hoss an' slurred mine, an' I'm jest game enough ter lose him if he can't beat that calcimined hoss o' yours, but I don't go in fer bettin' er none o' thet sort o' thing."
"I ain't said nothin' about bettin'," said the old man, in an injured tone.
"I know yer ain't, an' I ain't accused yer o' it none. What I wuz goin' ter say wuz thet if yer hard up an' need ther money ter take yer home I'm ther first feller ter jump in ter help yer."
"We're all willing to help on a thing like that," said Ted.
"Then ye'll consent ter pull off ther race in Snyder?" asked the old man eagerly.
"I am, if ther other boys will consent ter it," said Bud.
"All right with me," said Ted, and the other boys voiced their assent.
It looked as if there was a good bit of fun in prospect.
"Thanks, boys," said the old man, with a catch in his voice, as if he was deeply touched. "Ye'll do a good turn fer me an' little Bill here. Bill, we'll git home fer Christmas yit."
"If you're going to make it a public race, you'll have to get over to Snyder early to make arrangements," said Ted.
"I'll leave before sunup in ther mornin', an' we'll have the race at three o'clock. Is that all satisfactory?"
This proved satisfactory to the boys, and, having agreed to be on hand in time with Hatrack, every one turned in.
When the boys turned out in the morning the blankets which the old man and the boy had occupied were empty and cold, showing that they had departed long before daylight.
"There's something fishy about that old chap," said Ben Tremont, as they were at breakfast.
"Of course, there is," said Ted. "He's an old horse sharp. Sol Flatbush knows him. He wants a race in town, thinking he can draw us into betting. He doesn't know that we never gamble, but he evidently believes that in the excitement of the moment he will be able to get some of our money."
"Well, he'll get fooled on that," said Ben.
"He'll git fooled in several other ways, too," grunted Bud.
After breakfast Bud went out and roped Hatrack, and after a tussle that lasted several strenuous minutes, brought him into camp. Hatrack certainly was a sorry-looking beast.
His long, dirty, yellowish-brown hair was rumpled and fluffed up. His ribs showed sharp, and his tail was full of burs, while his short and scraggy mane was missing in spots.
His flanks had been rubbed bare of hair where he had lain for many nights on the rocks and in the sands of the desert.
"Well, dog my cats, if he ain't ther orneriest-lookin' beast what ever toted a saddle," said Bud, looking him over, as Hatrack stood with drooping head and ears.
"Bud, he isn't worth making cat's meat out of," said Ben. "I guess you made that race to get rid of him. It's easier and more humane than shooting him or abandoning him to the prairie wolves."
"Reckon so?" asked Bud, looking at Ben out of the corner of a twinkling eye.
"Oh, dear me, but he's awfully ugly," said Stella, coming from the tent which she and her aunt, Mrs. Graham, occupied a short distance from the camp.
She was as spick and span as a new dollar, nattily dressed in a bifurcated riding skirt, from beneath which peeped a pair of high tan riding boots.
Her white Stetson had just the right curl of brim to be most becoming, and her wavy hair fell in profusion over her shoulders.
She was pulling on a pair of fringed gauntlets, and her braided quirt, with a silver knob for a handle, hung by its thong from her slender wrist.
"Now, see here, Stella, don't yer go ter feelin' knocky about yer mount, er yer won't hev no confidence in him, an' will lose. I want ter say ter yer right now that this hoss what looks like ther last rose o' summer, ther last run o' shad, an' ther breakin' up o' a hard winter in a last year's bird's nest, is all right, an' he can't lose this race. Ride him true, an' don't give him ther gad none. All yer got ter do is ter encourage him by a word now an' then, an' pilot him straight ter ther wire."
"All right, Bud. I was only joking," laughed Stella. "It isn't the prettiest horse that wins the race. I know that well, but, you see, like every girl, I like pretty things, and a horse might as well look good as run fast. It has always seemed to me that the two go together."
During the middle of the forenoon the broncho boys started for the town of Snyder to attend the race.
Bud led Hatrack, and a troublesome job he had of it, for the animated skeleton objected to being on the halter, as any self-respecting range horse would, and he pulled back and sideways and almost dragged Bud from his saddle several times.
"Ding bat yer," Bud would shout, "yer ornery, unsanctified, muley, harebrained, contaminated son o' a zebra, git down on yer feet an' foller. Ye'll git all that's comin' ter yer when ther race starts. Save yer sweat until then."
But Hatrack thought differently, and before they were halfway to Snyder it took all the efforts of Bud in the lead and Ben, Kit, and Clay Whipple in the rear, to keep him moving in a forward direction.
Only enough boys were left with the herd to keep it from scattering. Ted and Stella rode in the lead as they entered the town, which was crowded with a motley assemblage of cow-punchers, gamblers, and Indians in their gay blankets and with painted faces.
The Indians of the plains are keen on horse racing, and among the various tribes are to be found some of the fleetest horses in the West, many of them trained to all the tricks of racing. An Indian jockey is the shrewdest of his class, and is an adept at all the tricks of the trade.
"Hi! Look at the livin' skeleton!"
Bud swung around in his saddle and stared at a cow-puncher standing on the sidewalk in Snyder, as he rode into town dragging behind him the dejected Hatrack, who looked as if he had been living on two oats for dinner and a spear of grass for supper all his life.
He ambled along like a tired and footsore dog behind Bud, with his ears drooping and his toes kicking up the dust. He was a sad-looking animal, and the word having gone abroad that he was the horse that was to enter the race with Magpie, he was jeered from one end of the street to the other, as Bud led him to the corral at the edge of the town. Bud pretended to be angry at the joshing his steed received, but when he had turned his back upon the jokers he would wink gently to himself in a way that would have been puzzling to the supporters of the spotted horse.
Cap Norris had done his work well.
Every one in town knew of the coming race, and word had been sent to the ranches in the surrounding country, so that before noon the streets were crowded with people.
"Say, fellows," said Ted, when the boys met at the hotel for dinner, "this fellow Norris is sure a sharp. That talk about his wanting to get enough money to take him back home was a lie. He's a gambler, and is in league with a bunch of gamblers in this town."
"How do you know?" asked Ben.
"How do I know? Why, man alive, they're betting on Magpie all over town. The tip seems to have gotten out that Bud Morgan and the broncho boys have a surprise up their sleeves, and that they are going to ring in another horse than Hatrack."
"How is that?"
"They believe we're going to slip in another horse, a professional racing horse with a record."
"Let 'em think so. It won't be a professional race horse—at least, not in this country—that we will put in, but jest ole Hatrack, an' if he don't win the race by a city block I'll eat him, hoofs an' all."
"Put us next, Bud," said Ben.
"That's what," said Kit. "You've sure got a trick concealed somewhere. What is it?"
"No, I haven't," said Bud. "But if I wuz a bettin' man I know what hoss I'd back to win."
That was all the boys could get out of him on the subject, but they were convinced none the less that Bud had a secret concerning the horse, and that they would learn what it was in good time.
The race was to be held at the fair grounds, and was to be a dash of three hundred yards.
Cap Norris would not consent to a longer race, although Bud said he would run Hatrack any distance up to a quarter of a mile, but the innocent old man with the long whiskers objected to running his horse a long distance.
As the hour approached for the race, the grounds began to fill up. Several races between Indian ponies took place to keep the crowd amused until the big race of the day was to come off.
"They've been working us," said Ted, coming up to where Stella and the boys were standing beside Hatrack, which looked more sad and dejected than ever.
"In what way?" asked Bud.
"This race is a gambling game to get the money away from the innocents," answered Ted. "They've had men going among the people from the country and the cow-punchers, telling them that it is a put-up job on our part, and that we're sure to win. In that way they have got a lot of people to bet on Hatrack. I've a good mind to draw out of it altogether and spoil their game."
"For fear the innocents will lose their money?" asked Bud.
"Yes. I don't want to be a party to robbing those fellows."
"Don't you worry. If you want to punish Norris and his friends, don't interfere. Let it go on, I tell you. They'll be the worst-beaten lot o' crooks that ever robbed a town."
"All right, Bud, if you say so."
It was now time for the race of the day, and Bud and Norris marked off the course.
Ben was appointed judge, with a large man, apparently a stranger in the town, who was chosen by Norris, and the two selected a third.
The third man was a stranger to Ben, but he picked him out of the crowd, and the other judge accepted him.
As Stella climbed into the saddle, Hatrack gave two or three kittenish jumps, and the crowd yelled. It had not expected this added feature to the race, a girl jockey.
Shout after shout went up as she rode over the course slowly, Hatrack having settled down into his usual dejected manner. The cheers and some of the jeers that greeted him came from the men who had been induced to bet on him.
"Now, Stella," said Bud, as Stella rode back again, "when you start, shout 'Vamose!' in Hatrack's ear. That's the word he has always been sent away with. Stick tight, an' let him go. Don't forget the word 'Vamose!'"
THE GREAT CHIQUITA.
Hatrack and Magpie were now brought up to the starting point.
The boy who traveled with old man Norris was on the back of the latter horse, sitting in a regular jockey's saddle and stripped of all superfluous clothing.
He was the typical jockey now. He had put away all the appearance of youth, and was a crafty and sly man.
It was apparent that the whole outfit was in the racing business, and as the crowd looked at the discrepancy between the two horses, and observed that on the best-looking horse was a professional jockey, while on the crowbait was only a girl, something like a groan went up.
But some of them were game, and cheered Stella to the echo.
"You're all right!" shouted her supporters.
"Hurrah fer ther girl jockey," yelled the cow-punchers. "I got a month's wages that says she'll win the race."
But the other side had something to say, also. They made all sorts of fun of Hatrack, and roars of laughter went up as he ambled, stiff-legged, onto the course.
Clay Whipple was chosen to start the race, and stood beside the track with a red flag in his hand. The two horses were jockeyed back and forth for several minutes.
"Are you ready?" shouted Clay, as they came up.
"No!" shouted Stella.
"No!" answered the jockey.
Back again they went, and came up neck and neck, the riders nodding to Clay.
"Go!" cried Clay, bringing down the red flag with a swish through the air.
"Vamose!" Stella's clear young voice rang out.
Then an amazing thing happened. Hatrack seemed to be suddenly galvanized into life. He straightened out, and shot to the front with great, long horizontal leaps. His body seemed to be gliding close to the earth.
His head was between his legs, and he was running like a greyhound. Stella was bent low upon his neck, and every moment or two she would shout in Spanish, "Go it! Vamose!" or, "You're winning! Vamose!"
And winning Hatrack surely was. Now he was half a length ahead of the fleet Magpie, who was running the race of her life.
Behind her Stella could hear the crowd yelling like mad. The air fairly shook with the shouts of the multitude as the two horses shot forward. But it was a short race, and seemed to Stella to have ended almost as soon as it began.
As she flew past Bud, she got a fleeting glimpse of him jumping up and down in a very ecstasy of glee, and she knew that she had won, and began pulling in Hatrack. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Magpie was already down to a walk a short distance from the wire, and that Cap Norris and the jockey were talking earnestly.