Yet they could not afford to give up now. If things worked out as the agent had hoped, they might succeed in arresting Delton and his gang.
"And that reward will come in right handy," Billee Dobb said.
"Will we really get a reward if we capture these smugglers?" Nort asked Hawkins.
"You certainly will! And the government will be glad to pay it, too."
"I don't care so much about the reward as I do about getting Delton," declared Bud, as he remembered how he was mistreated at the hands of the smuggler.
"An' I'd like to get my bronc back," Yellin' Kid asserted, as he moved his arms briskly about to warm himself.
The night wore on, minutes seeming like hours. Billee Dobb stood motionless, leaning against the side of the ranch house, and at his feet sat the Mexican, seemingly oblivious of the cold. Hawkins moved slowly about, glancing every now and then down the road. The others stood about, talking in low tones. The storm seemed to have been blown aside, as the rumble of thunder no longer reached the ears of the waiting men. Still the moon was covered with clouds, making the night almost pitch-black. A soft glow from the low-turned lamp within the ranch house was the only illumination.
"Say, I'm goin' to take a walk around to the corral," exclaimed the Kid suddenly. "This waitin' is gettin' me woozy. Just want to see if the ponies are all right."
"Watch your step," Bud cautioned. "It's pretty dark. And don't make too much noise."
"I ain't goin' on any picnic," Yellin' Kid answered. "Be back soon."
He left the protection of the house and in a moment was lost sight of in the darkness. It wasn't far to the corral, and as he approached the horses stirred uneasily.
"All right there, ponies," the Kid called softly. At the sound of a familiar voice the restless moving stopped, and the animals suffered the Kid to walk in among them.
"Lonesome, hey?" he said in a low tone. "So am I. Don't like this hangin' around nohow! Wish we'd have some action." He stroked the nose of one of the steeds. The horse whinnied softly in response. "Wish I had my own cayuse here," the Kid mused. "Hated to lose her. Best bronc I ever had. Golly, it's dark!"
As though to dispute him the moon suddenly slid from behind the clouds. The Kid looked about him—at the ranch house, standing gaunt and silent, and at the little group of men waiting motionless—and at the moonlit road, stretching far out over the prairie. There'd be no smugglers to-night. Why, you could see for miles down that road, now. Not a thing in—what was that? The Kid stared harder. There, about a mile away, lurching from side to side? It must be—a car! Coming fast, too!
For a moment the Kid stood quietly. Then with a leap he made for the ranch house. As he reached the men the moon disappeared again, and the scene was blotted out.
"Hey!" he called in a repressed yell. "They're comin'!"
"What!" The group turned like a flash, as one man. "Who's coming? Where?"
"Down the road! An automobile!"
Excitement spread like a wave.
"Easy!" Hawkins cautioned. "Not so much noise! What did you see, Kid?"
"Saw an auto comin' down the road like a locoed steer! Just when the moon came out then, I happened to be lookin' that way, and I saw——"
"Listen!" Bud held up his hand, forgetting that they couldn't see him in the darkness that had now settled down again. "Don't you hear something?"
Through the air came the sounds of a car—the throttle wide open.
"Can't see it, but I can hear it!" Hawkins exclaimed. "Must be driving without lights. They sure are coming! All set, you men?"
"One of us better get the ponies ready, in case we miss them!" the Kid declared. "Billee, will you do that?"
"Suppose so," the rancher grumbled. "I allers seem t' miss the fightin'!"
"You'll get plenty of that," asserted Hawkins. "But let's not waste time talking. They'll be here in two minutes. Listen, you fellows, and listen good! Billee, you get the horses ready for a quick start. Nort, you and the Kid get around to the other side of the house, fast. Dick, Bud and I will stay here.
"Now here's what's going to happen—the car will pull up right here, and the Chinks will be unloaded. We take them—don't forget, we're Delton's men. As soon as they hand the Chinks over to us we cover the men in the car, and get them. Then when Delton comes we get him, too—if we can. He should be here now—must have been a slip-up in the time. All the better for us. Quick—do you understand?"
The roar of the approaching car could be heard plainly now. There was not much time left.
"You want Nort an' me to watch the road in the other direction?" asked the Kid.
"Yes—and we'll be here when they unload the Chinks. All right now?"
"All set! Let's go, Nort!"
Yellin' Kid and Nort ran swiftly to the other side of the ranch house, in which position they would be hidden from sight of the road until they chose to show themselves. Billee Dobb went around to the corral.
The oncoming car was plunging along the road, and would reach the Shooting Star ranch in another minute. It couldn't be seen, due to the blackness of the night—the clouds seemed to have thickened in the last few minutes—but the noise was sufficient indication of its approach. The six men awaited its arrival with breathless excitement. If the plan only worked! Delton would surely show up sooner or later, he couldn't risk too long a delay—and the capture would be complete. The boys felt their hearts beating fast as the moment approached. Guns were out now, and ready for action.
Suddenly another sound came to the ears of the waiting ones—the sound of rapid hoof-beats. Those on the farther side of the house from. where the car was coming peered down the road in the direction of town. They held their breaths.
"Hear it?" the Kid asked excitedly of Nort.
"Horses! and coming this way! It must be Delton—he timed it perfectly—he'll arrive just as the car does! Kid, we've got more than our hands full this time!"
"Shall we tell the others?"
"No time—we've got to try and head them off, until Hawkins stops the car, gets the Chinks and covers the smugglers! Come on, Kid!"
The two, with guns drawn, ran down the road in the direction of the approaching horsemen. It was a foolhardy thing to do, for they had no means of telling how many of Delton's gang were coming. Louder and louder sounded the gallop of the ponies, and nearer came the smugglers' car. The night was still pitch-black. The moon was as if it had never shone. In the distance thunder muttered, but the boys were too excited to notice it. Overhead the clouds were growing heavier.
"Here they come, Kid! Stop them!"
Nort threw himself in front of one of the ponies just as the group of horsemen were about to dash through. Yellin' Kid jumped to Nort's side, gun drawn.
"Hold up there!" he yelled. "Stick 'em up! High!"
There was a vivid flash of lightning. In the glare the two challengers saw that Delton was directly in front of them, and behind him were four others. Delton reached for his gun. Then the heavens opened with a crash of thunder and the rain poured down in a deluge.
Through the darkness came many and varied sounds. The thunder rolled long and continuously. The angry voices of men rose loud and hoarse. Along the drenched road came the smugglers' car, its exhaust roaring. And over all the rain came down in torrents.
"Out of the way there, you!" came a voice. "We ain't got no time for foolin'!"
"Stick to it, Nort!" the Kid yelled. "Don't let them through!"
The two boys were standing in the middle of the road, guns out, determined to prevent Delton and his men from closing in on Hawkins, who was grimly awaiting the smuggling car. If they could be held off until the auto pulled in and stopped, the party at the other side of the ranch house might succeed in capturing the Chink runners.
There was a sudden shot.
"Hurt, Nort?" the Kid called anxiously.
"Nope! Missed! Put those guns up, you! We've got you covered! Climb down off those horses quick, or we'll fill you full of holes!"
There was a desperate ring in the boy rancher's voice, and Delton must have recognized this, for he yelled something to the men back of him and they all halted. The thunder was less frequent now, although the rain had not let up. The boys standing in the road were soaked to the skin. Still they remained firmly in their place, listening to the roar of the approaching car, and hoping they could hold Delton until it reached the ranch. By the sound it was almost to the Shooting Star ranch now. In another moment——
"Hey, you guys, what's the idea?" through the night came a questioning voice. "Don't you know it's rainin' here? How about lettin' us in the ranch to get dry?"
"You stay where you are!" the Kid yelled. "You'll have plenty o' time to get dry all right!"
"Kid—here's the car! Watch out now!" Nort was at the Kid's side, but facing the other way. "Can you see anything—any of Delton's bunch?"
"Nope—only hear that guy that was talking! Can you?"
"No but—what's that?"
From the other side of the house came three shots in rapid succession. Then someone yelled. The next moment Dick came splashing around to where the Kid and Nort were waiting.
"They—they fooled us!" Dick panted. "Delton and three others got to the car before we did and warned the smugglers! They all got away!"
"Delton!" the Kid exclaimed. "Why, we had him here——"
"Yes you did!" came a mocking voice. "You big cheese—all you had was a good talk! So long!" There was the splashing noise of a horse rapidly departing for parts unknown.
"Can—you—beat—that!" Nort ejaculated. "Fooled! Taken in like suckers! While we stood here talking——"
"Yes, and while we're standing here talking now, the smugglers are getting farther and farther away! Come on! We've got to chase them!" Dick turned and made for the corral.
"Chase an auto on a horse?" the Kid yelled. "What's the sense of that?"
"They can't go fast in this wet—and we can spot them by the noise. Hurry up!"
"But I ain't got no pony!" wailed the Kid. "Wish I had my bronc! What am I supposed to do; stay here?"
"No—one of Delton's bunch lost his seat and we've got his animal—use that. He got away in the auto. But for the love of Pete, hurry up!"
The rain had abated a little when the boys reached the corral. Billee Dobb was waiting with the ponies untied and ready. It was but the work of a moment to mount and lead the other horses over to where Hawkins and Bud were standing.
"Where's my new bronc?" the Kid asked as he came up.
"Here—this do you?" Bud was holding a little black pony.
"Sure—as long as it's got legs!" The Kid swung himself upon the horse's back. "Right! Let's go!"
"We've no time to lose, men!" Hawkins called out. "We messed that up proper! This Delton is more clever than I thought he was."
All were mounted now and ready to take up the chase. The Kid was letting his pony walk about, and the rest were awaiting Hawkins's word to start.
The six riders set out into the night. Hawkins said the car had taken a route at right angles and to the left of the road, and all went in that direction. They pushed their ponies as fast as they dared over the soaked prairie, hoping to catch sight of the car before they had ridden too far. It was obvious that no auto could make great speed over the rough surface of the plains, and to add to this rain must certainly slow them up still more. So the punchers had a fairly good chance of overtaking them. Delton would probably be acting as convoy to the car, and if they were able to take that, they would capture him also. With these thoughts in mind the ranchers beat along through the rain, which was not now so heavy.
"What happened?" asked Billee Dobb.
"Just this," Bud answered. "Mr. Hawkins and I were waiting for the car to reach us. We couldn't hear what was happening on the other side of the house, and Mr. Hawkins and I were all set to grab the gang in it, when four men came riding by like mad and reached the car before we did. They yelled something, and in a second the car was off the road and away, the horsemen after it. But one of the riders fell, and didn't wait to get on his horse again—just hopped on the running board of the car."
"What were those cracks we heard?"
"I took a couple of pot-shots at the tires, but I don't think I hit anything. Too dark. And it was raining cats and dogs, you know."
"Don't I know it! Nort an' me sure had our hands full. Five men to stop! We figured if we could hold them until you had the fellows in the car covered, we could capture them too. Say, see any Chinks in the car?"
"Didn't see anything! The car turned off before we could get close enough to see in it."
"Too bad we couldn't work it, boys," Hawkins ruefully said. "We've still got a chance to nab them, though. They can't get far over this ground with a car."
"They can lead us a merry chase," Dick asserted. "Wonder what time it is?"
"One o'clock," Bud suggested. "Not much more, anyway. Think they came over this way, Mr. Hawkins?"
"Yes—I do. Know where we are?"
"Comin' to the water hole, I think," answered Yellin' Kid.
"Say, maybe they're going to try and make for the place where they held me!" Bud exclaimed. "That's over this way somewhere."
"Can you find it again?" the agent asked, an anxious note in his voice.
"Then if we don't make out to-night we can have a try at that in the morning."
"How far do you want to go?" Bud asked Hawkins.
"Let's see now. I have an idea, and I want to see what you fellows think about it. First, though, are you sure that you can find that ranch where they held you, Bud?"
"Can in daylight. Maybe not at night."
"If you started from the water hole do you think you could spot it at night?"
"Might. I could try it, anyway."
"Hold up a minute, then."
The six riders drew rein, and waited for the agent's next words.
"It's not much use trailing them much farther. What I think they did, is to make for that ranch house where Bud was, and stay there. Now here's the point. Even if we did come upon them now, we'd have a hard job taking them. I think this is a better plan. Listen, now."
The boys drew closer around Hawkins.
"This idea I have calls for two men to stay up all night. Who'll do it?"
"Let me in on that!"
"What is it—keeping guard?"
"Yes, Nort, that's exactly what it is—keeping guard. Now here's the dope. We followed that bunch pretty far. There's no doubt but that they headed for that house, and intend to unload their Chinks there. Now if we can only keep them in that house until morning, we can get the whole gang—including the Chinks—like rats in a trap. Now do you see what I mean?"
"You mean you want some of us to watch the place and do a little shootin' so that they won't come out?"
"That's it exactly, Kid! If two men can get close to the house, and keep firing at intervals, they'll think that we've got them cold, and will stay there long enough to allow us to get them by morning."
"What's the matter with all of us going up there now?"
"Wouldn't do any good, and besides, someone has got to be at your ranch. And some of us have got to get a little sleep. We may have to do some more riding to-morrow."
"Well, if you think that's best, I'll do it, for one," spoke Dick.
"And I'll go with you!" Bud exclaimed. "I owe Delton quite a good deal for the way he hauled me off my horse!"
"All set for this new plan then?" asked Billee.
"Yes, I think that would be best," Hawkins said slowly. "Bud, you know something about the lay-out of the place. We'll ride part of the way with you, in case anything happens. Then when we get near it, you'll have to go on alone. You and Dick can decide on a plan of action. We will ride back, and return before dawn. This time we won't fail!"
"You'll ride with us to the place now, you mean?"
"Almost to it. Then I'll know the way to find it again. Come on, let's get started!"
The moon was now struggling to shine through the clouds as the six took up the ride again. Bud was in the lead. They had ridden for ten minutes when, suddenly, Bud uttered an exclamation, and pulled up his horse.
"Look there!" he cried, pointing.
Ahead loomed a dark mass. The boys rode up to it. As they approached slowly the moon finally came out fully, and before them they, saw the wreck of an automobile.
DOWN AND OUT
"It's a car!" Dick cried. "Must be the smugglers' machine, and they wrecked it and got away! Now we know they're at that ranch!"
"Wonder what happened to the Chinks?" the Kid said as he examined the wreck more closely. The mass of twisted metal lay still in the moonlight like some once-living thing that had met its sudden doom.
"Probably dragged them along too," Hawkins suggested. "Yep, I think this is the smugglers' car, all right. Looks like the one we had a short glimpse of, just before it turned off. And, if that's the case, our plan may succeed. Having a harbor close at hand, it's natural for them to make for it. Now it's up to us to see that they stay there until we capture them."
"That's our job, and we'll do it too," Bud said in a determined tone of voice. "Might as well get going. The longer we stay here, the more time we give Delton."
"True enough," commented Dick. "I wonder if anyone was hurt when this car crashed?"
"Doubt it," Hawkins said. "Those boys are too lucky! If they weren't they never would have gotten away with the stunt they pulled to-night. Imagine riding right into our hands and getting away from us! Every time I think of it I feel like kicking myself around the block."
"It wasn't any more your fault than the fault of the rest of us," Nort declared. "They were too many, and too clever. Let's forget it and go after them again, and this time we'll win. What do you say, boys?"
"No more foolin' around for us!"
"Well, on our way," Bud called. He took one more look at the auto lying on its side in a small depression, and spurred his horse onward. The rest followed quickly. The night was well spent, now, and but little time remained to reach the ranch and post the guard. However, it was not far now, and by dint of hard riding, following directions from Bud, they reached the vicinity of the ranch house in half an hour. They halted well away from the house itself.
"Take it easy now," Hawkins cautioned. "We don't want to make too much noise. Bud, have you and Dick decided what you're to do?"
"Practically—he is going to take one side, and I'm to take the other, and if we see anyone come out we'll fire over their heads. That'll keep 'em in all right, for they can't see us in the dark. No one likes to be fired on by someone he can't see—as we all found out. Now it's time to give them some of their own medicine."
"Yes sir!" exclaimed the Kid. "I wish I could stay with you, Dick, and have a crack at them myself."
"You come along with us, Kid. We'll be back before dawn, and you'll see plenty of action then. Now is there anything you boys want before we leave?" asked the secret service man.
"Might bring back a snack for us," Bud suggested. "It's cold and hungry work waiting in the dark. Not that we mind it," he added quickly, "as long as it helps capture Delton. And if you can make it, Mr. Hawkins, please get back as soon as you can. They may try to make a rush for it."
"We will—we'll be back as soon as we get things right at the ranch and maybe snatch an hour's rest. Depends on how much time we have. But we'll surely be back before it's light."
This conversation was being carried on near a small group of trees, just out of sight of the old farm or ranch house. Now Hawkins and the rest turned their ponies toward home. Dick and Bud, of course, were due to remain and watch Delton's retreat.
"Now we're on our own," Bud said as he listened to the hoof-beats of the horses gradually dying away. "Let's get up to where we can see the house."
"What about the broncs? Think we better leave them?"
"Well, what do you think? We want them near us so we can get going quick if we have to. Suppose we tie them as close to the house as we can without being seen?"
"That's a good idea. Well, there's the place. Somebody's sure in it. All lit up!"
The boys stood and looked at the old farm house which loomed in the moonlight before them. It was certainly inhabited, for several lights were glowing on the ground floor, and every now and then a figure would pass in front of the lamps, casting a shadow plainly visible from the outside.
"Got a lot of nerve, walking around like that in front of lamps," Bud commented. "Easy to take a pot-shot at them."
"Guess they don't figure us as the kind for that sort of thing," Dick responded. "And we're not, either—though it would serve them right if someone did let ride at the window."
The two boys now took up their positions agreed upon—Dick around to the left, and Bud to the right. They were thus separated from each other by about three hundred yards.
"Mustn't start thinking foolish things!" Dick exclaimed to himself. "Got enough on my mind now." He shook his head as though to rid it of fancies which hung around it. The boy was certainly not of a morbid type, and it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be a bit uneasy, considering his situation. Yet he would not even admit to himself that he was anything but wholly composed.
"Wonder how Bud is making out?" he thought. "Perhaps I'd better sneak over and see. But no, there's no sense in that." Thus did he dismiss the craving for company. "Besides, I've got my job cut out for me here."
He looked more intently at the house, seeking to concentrate his attention on the everyday affairs of life. Smuggling. The reward if they caught Delton. What they could do with it. A new herd of cows. The Kid's bronc—whether he would see it again. How Delton timed the arrival at the Shooting Star ranch just when the smuggling car got there. The getaway. How it did rain!
Still, in spite of himself, that uneasy feeling was stealing over the boy. Surely there was no one around but Bud, away over on the other side. Of course it was night, but there was plenty of moonlight, and there was not much chance of Delton's men prowling about. Perhaps it was because there were trees back of him that Dick felt restless. Might be better to move more out in the open.
The boy arose, then suddenly froze into stillness. That peculiar feeling that there was someone behind him became stronger.
It seemed as though a pair of eyes were boring into his back. He listened intently. Suddenly he heard a voice.
The boy turned swiftly, hand on his every nerve a quiver!
"It's me, Dick! Billee Dobb!"
What a relief! The boy now recognized the old rancher's voice, and the next moment Billee appeared, walking as noiselessly as possible.
"What on earth are you doing here, Billee?"
"I decided to come back. Didn't want to miss all the fun."
"Yes, but you weren't supposed to, were you?"
"I told Hawkins, an' he said go ahead. So here I am."
"So I see." Dick could now afford to laugh at his foolish fears. "But let me tell you, you gave me a thrill for a moment. Now that you're here, what are you going to do?"
"Watch with you. That's what I came back for."
"Nice of you to do it, Billee. What time is it, do you know?"
"'Bout two. Lots of time yet."
The rancher was observing the activity within the old house. Nothing could be seen but the passing and re-passing of the figures in front of the windows, but for some reason it appeared that more persons were moving about.
"Looks as though something was goin' to happen," Billee commented in a low voice.
"Think so? Well, we've just got to wait, that's all."
The time passed slowly. Billee and Dick were observing the situation within the house as best they might, without necessarily exposing themselves.
"Say, Dick," said the veteran rancher after an hour that seemed like a year, "I'm goin' to investigate."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm a-goin' up and have a look inside an' see what's happenin'."
"I don't know, Billee—they might spot you and let ride with some lead."
"Don't worry about that, Dick. They'll never know I'm there. Now you wait here an' I'll be right back."
"Well, for the love of Pete, be careful! We don't want anything to go wrong."
"Nothin's goin' wrong. Now you wait."
Billee Dobb moved softly in the direction of the ranch house, walking so easily it seemed as though he were stepping on wool. Unlike most other punchers, who spend most of their time on horseback, Billee was exceptionally surefooted. Much tramping about the country did that for him, and there were some who said he had been active in Indian warfare, long ago. He would be the first to deny this, however, as it would add too much to his age.
So while Dick waited impatiently, the rancher went toward the house, shoulders low, making himself as inconspicuous as possible. The distance between the house and where Dick was waiting was not far, but it was all open, and with the moon lighting up the scene almost like day, a person crossing might be easily seen.
Nearer and nearer Billee crept. Dick could see him picking his way like a dancer, so that he might step on no branch or twig which would break and give him away. Now he was almost at the side of the house. Dick saw him lean forward and cautiously peer in the window.
Then it happened. Dick saw a flash of fire from within the room, and the roar of a gun awakened the stillness of the night. Billee staggered back. He fell to the ground, but was up in a moment, and ran swaying toward Dick. The door of the house flew open, and a man with a gun in his hand burst out on the porch. Like a flash Dick had his gun out and fired. The man ducked back as the bullet struck the side of the house with a resounding "ping!"
With a supreme effort Billee reached the shelter of the trees. Dick ran to him. The old man's face was twisted with pain, and he sank to the earth.
"Dick—Dick—" he gasped, "they got me! They got me! I'm down—and—out!"
Nort, Mr. Hawkins and Yellin' Kid rode as fast as they might toward the Shooting Star. It was their intention to reach the ranch and return as soon as possible, after having taken a bite to eat. The idea of resting was given up as the hours flew by. It seemed no time at all before the stars grew dull, and the gray fingers of dawn spread out in the east.
"Have to hurry," Hawkins commented as he fumbled around in the dark kitchen of the ranch. "Where in thunder is that lamp? Haven't you got one out here?"
"Sure—I think so," Nort answered. "Have to hunt for it, though. I'm not so certain of my ground here. It's all new to me, you know.
"Well, it's not in the corner, that's sure. Let's have another match, Kid. Ah, here we are!" The soft illumination of an oil lamp flooded the room. "Got any non-exploding sand in this machine, Nort?"
"It's something the gold-brick artists used to sell to farmer's wives to keep lamps from exploding. Nothing hut plain, ordinary sand, but the directions that came with it said to always keep the lamp clean, not to put too much oil in it, trim the wick, and so forth. Then put the sand in and the lamp would never explode. Of course it wouldn't, if the directions were followed. But the sand didn't help any. It was the cleaning that did the trick. Yet the buyer bought peace of mind and security for ten cents, so the game wasn't so bad as it sounds."
"Pretty good!" the Kid laughed. "Never heard of that trick before, but a feller was out here last year sellin' an electric belt, guaranteed to take off ten pounds. All you had to do was to live on bread an' water for five days an' run two miles every morning, wearin' the electric belt. Didn't do no business here, though, 'cause most of the boys wanted to put on weight, not lose it."
"Some graft," Hawkins declared. "Well, that's neither here nor there. Find that bread and meat, Nort?"
"Yep. Got it all fixed up. Say, by the way, I wonder where that Mex cook of ours went?"
"That's so too!" exclaimed Hawkins, as they hurriedly ate a lunch. "Forgot all about him in the excitement. No use looking for him now, I suppose. He may turn up."
"Then again he may not," the Kid spoke grimly. "We're well rid of him, I think. Don't like them Greasers nohow, and this one was no prize beauty. Didn't Bud say he was one of Delton's men?"
"Said he might be. He's not so bad, Kid. He may be dumb, but I don't think he'd pull anything really raw."
"You seem right interested in him, Nort."
"No, it isn't that, but I just don't like to see you get him wrong. Well, never mind. Let it ride. How about starting back, Mr. Hawkins?"
"Right. Blow out that lamp, Kid, and let's be on our way."
The three made their way toward the door, moving by sense of touch. As they reached their ponies, tied up near the house, the moon was a pale disc hanging on the edge of the horizon. The chill wind of dawn stirred restlessly, and the men shivered slightly. Though their wet clothes had nearly dried, they were still a bit damp, and not conducive to comfort on the open prairie.
"Just about make it if we step along," Nort said, looking up at the dimming stars.
"Takes a long while to get light out here," Yellin' Kid asserted. "We'll get there before dawn. But let's go. I'm frozen."
The three threw their mounts into a gallop and set out once more for Delton's ranch.
"I had an idea that Billee Dobb wanted to stay with Bud," Nort said as they sped along. "The old boy hates to miss any action."
"Well, I thought as long as he really wanted to go back, he might as well go," Hawkins declared. "He might be of some help, after all. Never can tell what will happen when you're trailing a gang like Delton's."
"You mean pretty rough, hey?"
"Sure! They have to be, to get along in their business. It's no child's play, smuggling Chinese. And it's no picnic capturing them, either."
Over the darkened range the three rode, like avenging angels. No time now for hesitating, and seeking a sure footing for the horses. They must take their chance. And if one spilled—well—it was all in the game. They must reach Bud and Dick before dawn. To Nort, sticking tight to his galloping pony, it seemed to have been a waste of time to ride all the way back to the Shooting Star. But on second thought he realized that it was necessary for them to have food, for they might be gone some time. A man can neither fight nor ride well on an empty stomach.
"Nearly there!" commented the Kid. No one was wasting words now. Breath was too precious. The only sounds heard were the even beats of the ponies' feet on the earth, and the creaking of the saddles. Hawkins was riding well, the Kid saw, even though he did come from the east. To the cowboy all places not west are "east," and so it was that the Kid looked upon Washington.
"Make it?" Nort called to the Kid.
"Sure! Coming to the water hole now."
The Kid's thoughts were racing along, keeping pace with the horses' flying feet. As is the case when one is engaged in work of a monotonous nature, such as riding, one's thoughts seem to whirl about in a circle, the same subjects recurring with regularity. The Kid was thinking about his lost bronco. Then Delton. Then the reward. Then back to the bronco again. And all the while the miles were disappearing behind him.
Suddenly the Kid pulled his mount to a stop.
"Wait!" he cautioned. "Isn't that where we left Bud, just ahead?"
A group of trees rose in front. They had a familiar aspect.
"Sure looks like it!" Hawkins agreed.
"Let's take it easy. Kid, you lead, and go slow."
The three walked their horses toward the trees. As they came nearer, they made certain that they had reached their destination. And just in time. The sky was graying rapidly.
"You two wait here, and hold my new bronc," Yellin' Kid directed softly, "an' I'll go around on foot. See how the land lays. All right, Mr. Hawkins?"
"All right, Kid. Go ahead. Then come back and tell us."
The Kid dismounted and handed his bridle rein to Nort. Then he walked carefully into the trees, and disappeared from view.
"See some action soon," Hawkins declared. He and Nort were waiting on their horses about three hundred yards from where the Kid had disappeared into the trees. "The old ranch house is right back there. And this time I want to make sure of getting the whole gang."
"Don't you think they figured we followed them, and are all set for us?"
"Maybe. Can't help that. But I'm not so sure, Nort—you know they had to get those Chinks to a place of safety. Couldn't let them wander around loose. And this was the only place they could go to. They had no choice. And whether they figured we'd follow or not, they had to dig in here."
"They sure got away neat before," Nort said, as he thought of the escape. "And if they hadn't wrecked their auto we'd probably never have seen them again. Now we've got a chance."
"Yes, and a little more than a chance. Wonder what's keeping the Kid. Told him to come right back."
"And here he comes—runnin'!" exclaimed Nort suddenly, as a figure burst into sight. "Something must be the matter!"
They spurred their horses toward the Kid, and met him half way.
"What is it?" Hawkins asked sharply.
"Billee Dobb!" Yellin' Kid panted. "He's—" It was an ominous pause.
"Not so loud! Easy!"
"It's Billee!" the Kid exclaimed in a lower voice. "They shot him!"
"Shot him! Is he dead?"
"Not yet. Looks pretty bad. Bleedin' hard. By golly, let's go after those yellow sneaks, an' get 'em!"
"Shot Billee Dobb," Nort said slowly, as though he couldn't believe it. "Poor old Billee! Well—" he looked up sharply. "Let's go!"
The boy's lips were closed grimly. In his eyes shone a wild light. Whatever quarter would have been extended to the smugglers before, they could expect none now. The chase had turned—had changed into a personal venture. They had been seeking the capture of the smugglers because it had been their duty. Now——
"Men," Hawkins spoke in a low voice, clipping his words, "let's get started. We got work to do!"
There was not another word spoken. Belts were tightened, and guns loosened in their holsters. Dawn was just breaking. The three men closed in on the ranch house in silence.
Finally Nort spoke.
"What about Billee?" he asked.
"Dick's taking care of him as best he can. Poor old geezer—" the Kid bit his lip sharply. "He told me—he was sorry it happened, 'cause now he'll miss the fun."
"How did he look, Kid? I mean——"
"Can't tell, Nort. He's hit pretty bad. Course we don't know for sure—he's pretty old, you know——"
"But tough as a board," Hawkins broke in. "I know his kind. Don't worry boys. I'm sure he'll pull through O. K. Kid, is Bud coming with us?"
"Said he'd be right here. Want to wait he comes, before going closer?"
There was a halt in the determined march toward the ranch house. There seemed to be but little formal plan in the boys' attack; simply to "get those guys an' get 'em good," as the Kid expressed it. But now that the first shock of learning of Billee's wound had passed, all realized how hopeless it would be to simply go up and take Delton. Some sort of a scheme of attack was necessary if anything was to be accomplished.
"Here's Bud now," Hawkins said as the boy rancher rode toward them. There was a sober look on his face.
"How goes it?" the Kid asked, anxiously.
"Pretty fair. He's got a chance, I think. Bleeding's stopped. Dick's got him covered up with a saddle blanket over there a ways. If I get a crack at Delton——"
"How'd it happen, Bud?" asked Hawkins quickly. It was evident that he wanted the boys to control themselves. It was dangerous work they were about to start, and thought must be clear and quick, unimpeded by external circumstance.
"From what I gather from Dick, Billee sneaked up to take a look in one of the windows, and someone snipped him. He just made the shelter of the trees and fell unconscious."
"Well, men, that means we have an additional reason for taking Delton." Mr. Hawkins looked about him to be sure all were listening. In the east the red rim of the morning sun was bulging over the horizon. The time for action had come.
"Nort, come over here a minute, will you? Hold my bridle rein while I see if I've got that paper with me."
The boy, wondering a little, seized the rein while Hawkins went through his pockets. The agent's eyes were riveted on Nort's hand. It was as steady as a rock.
"Never mind—guess I won't need it. All right." Hawkins took the reins from the boy, satisfied by his little ruse that Nort was not affected by his lack of sleep. The business before them called for a firm hand and nerve.
Hawkins was speaking in a low voice.
"Can you men all hear what I'm saying? If not, get closer. Now listen. We've got to figure this thing out, or fail again. And if we don't take Delton this time, I'm afraid we never will. At least that's the way it seems to me. Here's what I thought. We'll ask him to surrender and come with us peaceably. We are bound to do that. They know by this time that we are on their heels, and can cause trouble for them if they attempt an escape now. I believe they'll bide their time, and make a rush for it. That's what we have to be ready for. I'm going up there with a flag of truce, and demand that they give in to the law."
The agent dismounted and, drawing his gun, he tied to the barrel of it a white handkerchief.
"You mean to say you're goin' to walk right up there in broad daylight, after what they did to Billee?" Yellin' Kid asked in a tone of surprise.
"I am. It's my duty. Besides, it's safe enough. No one but a fool would shoot a man bearing a white flag, when they're in Delton's position. It'll go hard enough with them as it is. I have an idea they might agree to come peaceably.
"Well I haven't," the Kid said grimly. "The only way we'll get those skunks out of their hole is to pull them out!"
Hawkins shrugged his shoulders and prepared to set out. They all walked to the edge of the trees, and just as the sun burst forth in all its glory Hawkins started across the open space toward the ranch house.
The boys watched him with anxious eyes. Would he cross safely, or would he be shot down like a dog? There was no sign from the ranch house. All activity had ceased as though the occupants had been frozen into stillness. Nearer and nearer walked the agent, head up, the gun with the handkerchief tied on it held in front of him. Still there was no sign of life inside the house. When the agent reached within ten feet of the place, the boys saw him stop and look closely at the quiet house.
"Hey, you!" he yelled.
"Nervy guy," the Kid commented, "He might easily get creased, standin' there yellin'. Me, I wouldn't put it past that bunch!"
Suddenly a window flew up and a head poked out. It was a stranger, none of the boys ever having seen the fellow before.
"What do you want?" the man demanded in a truculent tone.
"I call upon you to surrender, in the name of the law!" said Hawkins.
"You what?" Without waiting for an answer, the head drew in but the window remained open. In a moment the head reappeared.
"What are you talking about? Why should we surrender?"
"You're under arrest for smuggling, and for assault and battery with intent to kill!"
"You don't say!" The head popped in. Then in a moment——
"Who are you—John Law?"
"I happen to be a federal agent. But I'm not here to give you my history. Do you surrender?" The boys could hear the sting in the agent's words.
"Wait a minute." Once more the head disappeared. This time it stayed back for some minutes. The watching boys were moving uneasily. Finally another came to the window—it was Delton. The agent gave no sign that he knew him.
"Want to speak to me?" asked Delton, an imperious note in his voice.
"Makes no difference who I speak to. I want to know if you'll surrender, and give yourselves over to the law."
"You know well enough! Smuggling, and shooting!"
"It was that bird's own fault that he got shot. What's he want to come sneaking around for? Serves him right! As for smuggling, who said we were smugglers?"
"Never mind about that." The agent was speaking quickly now. "I ask you once more, do you surrender?"
Unwittingly Hawkins lowered his gun on which was the flag of truce. There was a sudden report, and a spurt of dust arose at the agent's feet.
"There's our answer!" Delton yelled, and slammed down the window.
Hawkins wasted no time in returning to the waiting boys.
"That's that," he said grimly, and he removed the handkerchief from his gun. "We got to go after them. Kid, where's Billee Dobb resting?"
"Over there behind that bend. Want me to go over and see how he's makin' out?"
"Yes. In the meantime, where's that meat and bread you brought, Nort? Everybody grab some. Got water over there for Billee, Kid?"
"Yep; Dick's got a canteen full, and he's got Billee's shoulder tied up with his shirt. We can't do anything more for him 'til we get home."
"I hate to think of Billee lying out there hurt," Bud said a trifle sadly. "Think we all better go over and see him?"
"No, I don't," Hawkins said decidedly. "The Kid knows what he's talking about, and if he says we can't do anything more for Billee, there's no use tracking over there and getting him excited. Here, now, everybody get some of the food Nort brought."
"Not so hungry," Bud said, looking longingly toward the window where they had last seen Delton.
"Eat anyway, Bud. You'll need it. And stop worrying about Billee. I'm sure he'll make out all right."
On his way to the injured man the Kid brought some of the bread and meat for Dick. The others, though they protested they weren't hungry, ate as much as Nort carried. All felt better after this refreshment.
Within five minutes the Kid was back.
"Better!" he called as he came up. "Dick says he's getting along O. K. Took some of the food and wanted to know if he could be shifted to where he could see the fireworks. He's quiet now, though. Dick's afraid he'll start a hemorrhage if he moves around much."
"He might, too," Bud agreed. "It's best to keep him as quiet as possible. Well—when do we start?"
Hawkins had been standing by the side of his pony. Now he mounted and faced the house.
"We start now!" he said. "First we have to decide how to close in. I think Nort and I had better come in from the left. Kid, you and Bud get around to the extreme right. In that way we can cover the whole ground. Nort and I will start first, and try to make the door.
"When I shoot, you start, Kid. If we can get into the house, the rest is easy. I know that bunch. Fine when they're on top, but as soon as anyone gets under their guard, they welch. That's the reason I think we can make it. But listen—" and the agent's voice dropped. "This is a mighty risky business. I don't want anyone to get in this against his will. No telling what may happen. Are you boys willing to take a chance?"
Bud was the first to speak.
"Mr. Hawkins," he said, "I think I know the others well enough to speak for them. When we started this thing, we did so because it was our duty, and, I might as well admit it, because of the excitement. Since then something has happened. Billee Dobb was shot. Are you answered?"
"I am," said the agent, with an understanding look. "All set then, boys. Around that way, Bud. Wait for three shots, then close in—fast. Let's go!"
Bud and Yellin' Kid started for the right of the house. The moment had come. Before many more minutes passed, the plan would have either succeeded, or there would be fewer men able to walk around the ranch house. Hawkins and Nort drew their guns, and headed their ponies to the left, throwing them into a gallop. They crouched low in the saddles. What was in their minds as they made ready for that desperate charge? Fear? Hardly that. A turmoil of excitement, probably.
As they dashed out into the open Nort gave a quick glance toward the window. He could see nothing save darkness within. It took but a few seconds for them to reach the side of the house. Hawkins looked over at Nort. The boy nodded. Now!
They raced madly toward the house. Bang! A shot rang out, and a puff of smoke came from one of the windows. Nort's hat went sailing away as though it were on a string. Bang! Nort saw the agent's pony falter, then recover and go dashing on. Now they were almost to the house. It had seemed as though one of them surely would be hit, for they were speeding across perfectly open territory and the occupants of the house were firing rapidly.
But, somehow, luck was with them. They reached the porch safely. And just as Hawkins was about to give the signal for Bud and the Kid to attack, he saw something that stayed his hand.
From the rear of the house a volume of black smoke was pouring.
A RING OF FIRE
"Wait, Nort!" Hawkins yelled. "Stick close to the house! Get in close! Not the front—this way! This way!"
He pulled his horse over to one side and held him as near the side wall of the ranch house as he could get. Nort followed him, also hugging the wall. In that way they were protected from the bullets of Delton's men.
"See what happened?" the agent exclaimed. "The place is on fire! Now they've got to get out, and they'll run right into our hands. How I hope the Kid has sense enough to stay away and nab them when they come out!"
The smoke was billowing out in huge clouds, now. It was a frame house, and a firetrap if there ever was one. Now the flames licked through, and the boards started to burn as though they had been soaked with gasoline.
"Can you sneak around the corner and signal to Bud?" suggested Hawkins. "Tell him to stay back. Wonder how in thunder this fire ever got going?"
Nort walked his mount toward the front, still keeping as close to the side of the house as possible. All gun-fire from within the burning place had now ceased, but the boy was taking no chances. There were but two windows on that side of the house, and their rooms were not occupied, so that as long as the ranchers kept hugging the wall they could not be shot at. The firing as they approached had evidently been done from an angle.
Hawkins's horse was prancing wildly about. His eyes were focused upon the tongues of flame that spurted out of the rear of the building.
"They can't stay in there much longer!" Hawkins yelled. "How about their ponies? Know where they keep them?"
"Easy to find out. Let's do it—quick. We ought to get around to where the Kid and Bud are and join forces. Ready?"
Hawkins nodded, and once more the two flashed across the open ground, this time away from the danger zone. But there was no need for such haste, for not a shot followed them.
"The horses!" Nort yelled as he rode up. "Get them, Bud, and Delton won't have a dog's chance!"
"Got 'em!" Bud answered. "Soon as we saw the fire I went to where they had them tethered and led 'em over here. There they are, by that tree. Say, I wonder who started this thing?"
"What makes you think someone started it?" Hawkins asked, looking at him closely.
"Well, I figure it couldn't set itself—and it's not likely an accident would happen."
"Can't tell—like as not a lamp turned over. Wow, look at that roof go! Where can those birds be keeping themselves? What chance have they got now?"
"Probably trying to put it out from inside. Foolish thing to do, but they know as soon as they come out they're finished. I wouldn't deliberately set the place on fire, but it sure solved our problem for us."
As the fire raged more fiercely, the ranchers looked at each other. What had happened to Delton? Could it be that he determined to stick it out until the last moment, and risk a horrible death? Surely he must realize that in peaceful surrender lay his only hope.
Suddenly Bud uttered a cry.
"Here comes someone! Out of the cellar! Look!" Running toward them was a bedraggled figure. Clothes torn, face blackened with smoke, it presented a truly pitiful picture. As it ran it waved its arms wildly. Something in the appearance, or possibly its gesture, caused Bud to exclaim:
"Say, he looks familiar! Kid, Nort—know who that is?"
The boys looked curiously at the wretched man. Now he was almost upon them, and they could see his eyes glaring wildly. He reached them and fell to the ground, exhausted. Bud dismounted quickly and bent over him.
"Get up!" he commanded. "Let's have a look at you!" The man dragged himself to his feet. At a sight of his face, blackened as it was by the smoke, all started back.
"Well, what do you know about that!" the Kid cried. "It's our Mexican cook!"
"What are you doing here?" Nort asked sharply. "You with Delton? Hey? Tell the truth now or I'll hit you!"
"He can't talk!" Bud protested. "Give him a chance. He's all in. Come here, Mex." The boy held out his arm and the Mexican seized it and steadied himself. "Were you with Delton?" Bud asked.
The Mexican shook his head negatively. Then he pointed to the burning building and waved his arms wildly.
"Steady up!" Bud commanded. "Take it easy!"
The man took a deep breath and regained control of himself. But his gestures were still inexplainable. After a minute of vain gesticulating the Kid suddenly exclaimed:
"I think I get it! Mex, listen here: Did you set that fire?"
A vigorous nod of the head. The boys looked at each other in surprise.
The Mexican pointed to himself, then held up two fingers. Then he pointed to the house, and shook his fist.
"Be means his brother!" the Kid said. "What about him, Mex? Did Delton get hold of him?"
Another nod, and more furious gestures.
"I see!" cried the Kid. "He means Delton put his brother up to some dirty work. That right, Mex?"
Eagerly the man signified yes.
"And he did this to get back at him. But where is Delton, Mex? Why doesn't he come out? He'll be burned to death in there!"
The fire had eaten its way through to the front of the house and now the whole upper story was ablaze. It seemed impossible that any living creature could withstand those flames.
"Where's Delton, Mex?" the Kid persisted.
The cook pointed to the house then to the ground.
"The cellar!" Bud cried. "He means they're hiding in the cellar! That's the reason they can stay in there so long. We should have thought of that before."
"They'll soon be out," spoke Hawkins a trifle grimly. "The fire is reaching the lower story. We may expect a rush any minute now."
The men were standing in a group at the edge of the trees. With the house directly in front of them, and the country about perfectly flat, there was no chance of anyone escaping unseen. The flames mounted higher. There was a certain amount of awe in the faces of all as they thought of the tortures a person would endure if he were trapped in that furnace. And for all they knew, men might be burning to death in front of them! It was a harrowing situation. Even though they had shot Billee Dobb, it was an inhuman thing to wish, or even think, of them being caught in a burning building.
If they would only come out, even though they came shooting! Bud saw a huge tongue of flame shoot out of the roof.
"I can't stand this any longer!" he shouted. "Those men must be burning to death! I can't stay here and watch that. I'm going to——"
"But what can you do?" Nort asked. "They want to stay there until they're good and ready to leave. I don't see how we can help them. Certainly I don't want to see anyone burned to death, but I don't think we can do anything, except go in and get them, which we can't do; and if they won't come out, they won't."
"Perhaps they're trapped!"
"You'd know it if they were. They'd yell or something. No matter how much they want to escape, they won't risk getting burned. No man would."
"Then why don't they come out?" Bud persisted.
"Ask me something easier! Maybe the Mex can tell us something about it. Hey, Mex! Why they no come out?"
But this time the cook shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands wide in a gesture expressing ignorance. They could get no information there.
"I'm going to ride over and see!" Bud exclaimed, a ring of determination in his voice.
"Well, if you want to—then I'll go with you. Kind of wonder where they are myself." This from Nort.
They had to force their horses to head toward the fire. The sparks were flying high, and the heat could be plainly felt even at the distance the boys stood. But finally Bud and Nort got the ponies started.
The animals approached the fire with mincing steps. The boys had to force them continually onward, for no beast will go toward fire willingly. A few more steps and Nort said:
"Say, Bud, there's not much point in this. The broncs will never go near enough for us to see anything. What say we get off and walk? I don't think there's much chance of Delton shooting at us. If we really want to find out anything we better get off these horses."
"Guess that's right," agreed Bud as his mount reared high. "Fast, though—snap to it, Nort!"
The boys turned their ponies away from the fire and rode swiftly back. They dismounted and without hesitation, ran again to the burning house. They made for the side, from where the Mexican cook had staggered out.
"There ought to be an entrance to the cellar about here," Bud panted as he ran on. "The Mex said they were down there!"
As they neared the building they saw that this was so. A small door indicated the way to the cellar. The heat was tremendous, and Nort wondered if their errand hadn't been in vain. It didn't seem possible that there living creatures were voluntarily remaining within.
Just as Nort was about to tell Bud his thought, a figure emerged and staggered toward them. It was the man who had protested at Delton's treatment of Bud when the boy had been taken, bound, to this very house. The man was in sad case. His breath was coming in sobs, and he maintained an upright position only by a supreme effort. One side of his face was badly burned.
"Help—" he gasped. "Help—men in there——"
"What is it? Speak quick!" Bud commanded. "Can't they get out? Are they in danger?'
"Trapped! Delton—in there—can't move—hit on the head——"
The next moment the man collapsed at their feet, unconscious.
THE RATTLING BUCKBOARD
"Quick, Nort! Pull him back out of the heat and call the others! We've got to save those men!"
"What's the matter?" Dick cried as he came up. "Aren't they out of that furnace yet?"
"No—they're trapped inside! We've got to get them out! Billee Dobb—is—is he dead?"
"No—he's better! He insisted on my coming over when he saw the smoke. Thought I might be needed. No time for talk now—we've got to get busy!"
"It's sure death to enter that!" Hawkins cried as another huge tongue of flame shot heavenward, sending the boys reeling back. "You'll only throw your lives away!"
"I can't help it—we must do something! We can't see them burned to death!"
At that moment Bud felt a tug at his sleeve. He jerked around. At his elbow was the Mexican cook. He motioned to himself, then toward the cellar. Then he leaped forward.
"Follow him!" Bud cried. "He knows how to get in safely!"
With a rush the others were on the heels of the Mexican.
"Someone has got to stay here—help them out if we do get them!" exclaimed Hawkins. "Nort—you and Dick wait!"
Bud was directly behind the Mexican. He saw the man disappear down into the smoke, and taking a full breath, the boy followed. He found himself below ground, and for a moment hesitated to get his bearings. The air was choking, but the heat was not intolerable. The fire had not quite reached the lower floor.
There was no time to be lost, for any minute the building might collapse and bury them. Bud plunged on. He could see faintly now, and he caught a glimpse of a figure in front of him, beckoning.
"Go—ahead!" the boy gasped. "Coming!"
A few steps further and he stumbled against a door. At his side was the Mexican, pointing. Bud pushed frantically, but the door refused to budge. Then he found the reason. It was bolted.
"You—you locked them in! You inhuman——"
He saw the Mexican shrug his shoulders. Even in the burning building the Latin's philosophical mind did not desert him.
Bud struggled with the bolt. It stuck. He strove with all his strength—and the door flew open. The boy stumbled in. His foot struck a body stretched upon the floor.
He reached down and lifted the unconscious man to his shoulder. Behind him he heard a voice. It was that of Yellin' Kid.
"Give him here!" The Kid seized the limp form and passed it to someone at his side. "We'll get 'em out like a bucket-brigade! Pass 'em to me, Bud!"
Through the smoke Bud groped his way. His hand encountered another body. In a moment he lifted the man and passed him to the Kid. His head felt as if it were bursting, but on he struggled, seeking, hands outstretched. He passed another body out to the Kid. Another. Then he heard a moan and turned toward it. A man lay against the wall. His hands moved feebly, and even in the smoke and gloom Bud, could see blood streaming from a cut on his head. The boy bent over and grasped the man's arm. His face was within an inch of the other's.
The boy's cry was involuntary. Here, under his very hands, was the man who was the cause of their misfortunes—who had committed crimes, no telling how many, and who had perhaps shot one of their comrades. And yet Bud was risking his life to save this creature. Was it fair to ask——?
A low moan came from the wretched figure. Bud looked for a long moment at the blood-stained face. Then with a sudden heave he lifted him and staggered to the door.
"I'll take him!" he gasped to the Kid, who had reached for the burden. "See if there are any more!"
He heard Yellin' Kid smashing against the walls in an effort to locate other senseless figures. Then he followed Bud.
"Can't find any more. Ask the Mex how many——"
The cook heard the inquiry and flung his arms wide, indicating that the rest had made their escape. The Kid, gasping, plunged out into the open.
As he gulped in great mouthfuls of the welcome fresh air the Kid heard a sudden crash. He turned quickly. A shower of sparks and flames shot into the air, like the eruption of a volcano. There was another roar, and the next moment the building was in ruins. The walls had collapsed, and nothing remained of the structure but a pile of embers. With horror written on his face, the Kid looked wildly about him.
"Bud!" he almost screamed. "Bud—is he in there? Get him out—get him——"
"All right, Kid—all right—" said a voice by his side. It was Bud. The Kid stared at him for a long minute, with a suspicious moisture in his eyes. Then he laid his hand on Bud's shoulder.
"Thought—you were—" he said in a husky voice. And he did a strange yet a boyish thing. He withdrew his hand from Bud's shoulder and planted it hard under the other's ribs.
"Baby!" he exclaimed. "We sure did clean up that place! Threw them out like bags of corn. Anybody hurt bad?"
The two, their faces blackened and with clothes torn, walked toward the group of men gathered about the injured. They saw the forms stretched on the ground, and for a moment feared that their rescue work had been in vain.
The boy ranchers looked at the figure upon the ground. The man groaned and opened his eyes. He stared straight into the eyes of Bud. For a moment hostility glared out at the boy, then Delton half closed his eyes as though he were trying to think. The men gathered about were quiet, watching their prisoner. He wet his lips with his tongue.
"Thanks," he murmured, and held out his hand with a feeble gesture. Bud reached down and grasped it with a smile.
"Don't mention it," the boy said quickly. Then he straightened up and looked over to Mr. Hawkins. "Say, are you thinking the same thing I am?" he asked the agent.
"You mean, where are the Chinks? You bet I'm wondering that! Wait, I believe I can find out. Hey, Mex!" The agent called to the cook who was standing on the edge of the group. "Come here! You know him?"
He pointed to a man seated on the ground, leaning against a tree, with one of his sleeves burned entirely away. The arm was scorched. But with his other hand the man was calmly holding a cigarette.
The Mexican cook looked at him and then nodded briefly.
"He's your brother, isn't he?"
Another careless nod.
"Then you ask him what became of the Chinks!"
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Dick wanted to know.
"Tried it—won't answer. I think his brother can make him talk."
This proved to be correct. The cook bent over his brother and made a few rapid motions with his fingers. The seated man muttered something. Again the cook's fingers moved. This time his brother answered more at length, and the cook walked in the direction of a small shed, motioning to the others to follow. Nort and Mr. Hawkins trailed along behind. When they reached the shack the cook pointed to it.
"In there?" the agent asked doubtfully. It didn't seen large enough to hold more than two men. It had probably been used to shelter a calf when the place had been run by a farmer.
The Mexican nodded. Hawkins stepped to the small door and jerked it open. A bundled-up mass of humanity almost tumbled into his arms, and when they untangled themselves, there were not two Chinese, but five!
"How in thunderation did you all ever get in there?" Nort inquired wonderingly. "Hey, you! Quiet down! We're not going to hurt you. What do you think this is, a circus? Gee! They were like sardines!"
The Chinese were as excited as rabbits, and chattered away in evident fear. None of them spoke English, and it was some time before they could be made to understand that no harm was intended them.
As the agent returned to the little group of wounded and others, he saw them centered about something and all talking at once. He quickened his pace and in a moment saw the cause of the commotion.
"Billee Dobb!" he exclaimed. "Golly, I'm glad to see you moving again! How did you get over here?"
"Dick and Yellin' Kid carried me," the veteran rancher answered with a smile. "Like a silly baby! They jest lifted me up an' brung me along. Said I had to see the last act, anyway."
"How are you feeling?" Hawkins asked anxiously. "I wanted to go to you soon as I heard about it, but I couldn't, Billee."
"Sure, I know you couldn't. I was all right. Dick stayed by me until I had to threaten him with a six-gun to get him to help you people. Why, I'm feelin' O. K. now. Jest got me in the shoulder. Laid me out for a spell—I ain't as young as I was—why, I remember the time when I got an arrow full in the side—didn't phase me none—went right on and got the guy that shot it—I was a man in them days—I remember——"
"Now, Billee, take it easy," Bud said gently. "Tell us all about it later. You got lots of time. Thirsty?"
"A leettle," the rancher replied with a sigh. Bud leaned over and held his canteen to the other's lips. Billee took a long drink and sighed again. "Tired," he said weakly. "Want to sleep."
He lay back on the blanket. Bud drew the edges over him and motioned the others away. "Let him sleep. Best thing in the world for him. We'll take him back later. I don't want to move him until that wound gets good and quiet."
"What about these others?" Nort inquired. "We want to get them out of the way. There are five men who can't walk. Then there's two more who managed to get out without being burned. They're here too. We've got to get them all back some way. Can't walk them, and we haven't enough horses. What do you think, Mr. Hawkins?"
"Let me see," the agent said. "It is a problem, Nort. Bud, have you a suggestion? The sooner we can get the bunch to town the quicker we'll get something hot to eat. And a little sleep wouldn't harm us any. Think of anything, Bud?"
"Well, if—" The boy stopped and listened intently. In the distance he heard the sounds of horses. Then as they approached nearer the creaking noise of a wagon traveling fast came to him. The next moment all heard a voice yelling:
"Get along there, boys! Watch it—watch it! Pete, you spavin-back cayuse, come out of that! Quit side-steppin'! At a baby—now yore goin'! Out of that hole! Out of it! Pete! Pete! You dog-eared knock-kneed bleary-eyed paint, if you don't swing wide I'll skin you alive! You, Pete!"
A rattling buckboard popped into view like the presiding genius of a jack-in-the-box.
"It's our friend from town—from the store!" Nort exclaimed.
"Yes, and look who's with him!" Bud yelled. "It's Dad! Yea, Dad! Golly, I'm glad you came! You're just in time!"
YELLIN' KID FINDS HIS BRONC
The wagon came to a sudden stop, and Mr. Merkel jumped out.
"Hello, son! Howdy, boys! Say—what happened here? Bud—how did you get burned? You hurt?" There was a note of anxiety in the father's voice.
"Not a bit, Dad! Just blackened up a little. Had a fire, and we had to pull some men out. Look at that!"
The boy pointed to the mass of embers that was once a house. The fire had died down until now there was only glowing bits of wood left. It had started quickly and ended as suddenly.
"Anybody seriously burned?" Mr. Merkel looked at his son keenly, as though to satisfy himself that he was uninjured. The father's glance evidently convinced him that Bud was all right, for he turned quickly and said to the others:
"Where's Billee Dobb? I don't see him."
"Billee is the one who is really hurt, Uncle," Nort answered. "He's got a piece of lead in his shoulder. He's asleep now—be all right later, I think."
"Shot! The rascals! They'll suffer for that! You want to get Billee to a doctor as soon as possible, before infection sets in. We'll bring him back in the wagon."
"How did you happen to come here, Dad?" Bud asked curiously. "I didn't think you knew where we were."
"I didn't, exactly. I have a confession to make, Bud. You weren't sent out here to herd sheep. You were sent to do just what you did—to capture the smugglers."
"But—but why didn't you tell us?"
"I couldn't, Bud. I gave my word to the government that I'd not let on the reason I was sending you out here. You see, no one could tell just what would happen. If you knew that you were sent to go after smugglers, and you went after the wrong gang, things would be in a pretty mess. So they concluded that it was best to leave you in the dark. I'll admit I favored telling you, boys, but as it turned out, the other way may have been best. Even as it was, I let slip something about it. And when you weren't at the ranch I figured you might be in this direction. I sort of suspected this place. Well, all's well that ends well. Now what, boys?"
"If we can get that wild buckboard man to drive slowly, we have a load of passengers to take back. Oh, say, Dad, do you know Mr. Hawkins? I don't know whether you—" Bud paused suggestively.
"Yes, indeed," Mr. Merkel said with a smile. "We're old friends. He came to me long ago and arranged most of this scheme. Sorry we had to do it, boys—but the government seems to know its business!"
"I'm glad you look at it in that light, Mr. Merkel," the agent said as he shook hands. "We have to be very, very careful—and a slip that may seem trivial to others may mean success or failure to us. But let me say that these boys have more than come up to expectations. I have never seen a better——"
"Hey, hey, take it easy!" the Kid laughed. "It might go to our heads. But one thing, Mr. Hawkins. It's about——"
"I know—the reward! And you get it, too, boys. As soon as we get to town I'll give you a check that's in my office safe. You have certainly earned it."
"Now we can get a new bunch of longhorns!" shouted Dick gleefully. "Great stuff! That's worth going without a night's sleep for!"
"And the radio," Nort broke in. "We get that, too!"
"You and your sparkin' outfit," Yellin' Kid scoffed. "You want music with your grub, I guess!"
"Say, Mr. Hawkins, what's the penalty for smuggling in this state?" Bud inquired. "I just wondered——"
"Ten years," the agent answered briefly. "Delton's due for quite a long stretch. He'll have time to think over his errors."
"Ten years," Bud said musingly. "Ten years in jail! Mr. Hawkins, if we testified that Delton wasn't so bad as he's supposed to be, and that——"
The boy stopped. Hawkins looked at him long and hard. Then he walked over and held out his hand.
"Son," he said simply, "that's the whitest thing I've ever seen a man do. I'll try to fix it up for you. We'll do what we can to lighten his sentence."
"Thanks," Bud said gratefully.
"Well, when do we start?" Mr. Merkel asked. "If you men are hungry, we'd better get going. Did I understand you to say we'd have a load going back, Bud?"
"And then some! Now let's see how we can arrange this. Billee Dobb goes back in the buckboard. And so do the others who are badly hurt. How many do you think can ride, Kid? You know we've got their horses at the back, and some can come along on them."
"Figure Delton and two of those other guys should go in the wagon. The rest can fork the broncs. They're able. Well, let's get those fellers that are going along with this wild man in the wagon. Think you can take it easy a short spell?" Yellin' Kid asked the grinning driver.
"Sure! Like an am-bu-lance. They'll never know they're ridin'."
"All right. Now about these Chinks. Guess they'll have to get along on the ponies."
"But maybe they can't ride," Nort suggested.
"Maybe they can't—but they're gonna take a lesson right now! Their first an' last. Let's get hold of Billee an' lift him in the wagon. Still asleep?"
"Yep. Easy now. That does it——"
As they raised the form of the old rancher he stirred uneasily. Then he opened his eyes.
"Boss!" he exclaimed. "What do you think of me bein' carried around this way. Wait a minute, boys, I can walk. I want to——"
"You're to lay right still," admonished Yellin' Kid. "Think we want you bleedin' all over the landscape? Now go slow, an' Mr. Merkel will shake hands with you when we get you in the wagon."
"How are you, Billee?" the cattle owner asked warmly. "Heard you had an accident! Well, we'll feed you up good for a couple of days and you'll soon be on horseback again."
"Sure will! Can't say I like this lyin' down idea. But the boys won't let me get up."
The buckboard carrying Billee and the other injured men went first, and the rest of the procession followed, with Mr. Hawkins and Dick in the extreme rear, to see that everything went well. And thus they started for town.
They had scarcely gotten under way when all heard the sound of a horse behind them. They turned and saw a riderless pony galloping toward them.
"What the mischief—" Bud cried out as he saw the horse nearing them. "He wants to visit! Look—his halter has been broken. Must be a runaway. I wonder——"
"Runaway nothin'!" yelled the Kid. "He's comin' home! That's my bronc!"
The horse made straight for Yellin' Kid.
"Look at that—knows me! Well! Well! Well! Come home to papa! My bronc, sure as you're a foot high! See that spot above his eye? I'd know it in a million! Come here, baby—where you been? Huh? I been lookin' all over for you."
There was a sudden exclamation from one of the smugglers who was riding in front of the Kid.
"Got away!" the man muttered. "Thought I tied her——"
"So-o-o you're the coot that had her, hey? An' you tied her up tight, hey? So she couldn't get loose? Well, let me tell you that this little paint can bust any halter, if she wants to. Can't you, baby? By golly, I——"
"Sing it, Kid, sing it!" Dick laughed. "Do you tuck her in bed at night, too?"
"Well, she's the best bronc I ever had!" the Kid said definitely. "An' I'm goin' to ride her in. Dick, hang on to this pony, will you? Lead her in for me. Well!" As he got into the saddle of his own mount. "Here we are again, baby! Now I won't need that other horse that you were goin' to get me, Mr. Hawkins. 'Scuse me a minute, boys——"
He threw the bronc into a gallop and tore across the plain. Then he wheeled and came rushing back.
"He's happy," Nort said with a grin. "Never expected to see his bronc again, and she runs right into his hands. Hey, you—where did you keep her?"
"Around the side," the man who had spoken before answered with a scowl. "Thought I might need her in a hurry. His horse, was it? Well, he was ridin' mine. A fair exchange is no robbery. Now he's got her back he's got no kick comin'."
"Hasn't, hey? Don't know about that. If he finds any marks on her——"
"She wasn't touched," the man said quickly. "Fast enough without that."
"Lucky for you," Nort commented, meaningly.
After his mad dash the Kid returned in easier fashion. And so the strange procession wended its way back to Roaring River. It took them rather a long time to get there, as the buckboard had to be driven slowly on account of the injured. True to his promise, the young "wild man" held his verbally much-abused horses down to a walk.
The smugglers were removed to jail, with the assurance from the warden that those who were injured would be treated by a local doctor. The Chinese were also jailed, to be held for the federal officers. Deportment, first back to Mexico, and, eventually, back to China was their portion. They seemed to realize it, for they were a sad and silent bunch.
Billee Dobb was given a room to himself in the ranch house where he could rest and get well, and then the others washed up and "filled up," as Nort expressed it.
"Now comes the reward," said Mr. Hawkins, and he arranged to have it paid to the Boy Ranchers, with Yellin' Kid and Billee Dobb sharing in it. There was an additional reward for capturing the smuggled Chinese as well as the smugglers, so there was a fund large enough for all to share.
"Let's go up and see Billee now," proposed Bud, when they had eaten and quieted down.
They found the old rancher restlessly picking at the coverlet of his bed, his weather-tanned face in strange contrast to the white pillow cases. As the boys and Mr. Merkel entered, Billee grinned.
"Fust time I ever been t' bed by daylight in seventeen years," he said. "Don't know what to do with myself. Now if Snake Purdee was only here, he could——"
"An' here I am!" exclaimed a voice outside the door. "Hello, Billee! Heard you was receivin' callers an' I came right over. What'll you have—a song? All right, boys—come on in! Billee wants us to sing for him!"
Into the room shuffled Billee's companions of Diamond X: Slim Degnan, Fat Milton, and the rest.
"Howdy, you old de-teck-a-tive you!"
"How's it feel to be a hero?"
"Now boys—are you ready? Ta da—let's go!"
They all joined in the song. And as Billee Dobb "smiled a smile" that reached to the corners of the room, the notes of "Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie, With Variations," filled the house and flowed over into the outer air. And Billee Dobb just lay there, smiling and smiling.
As for the Boy Ranchers—they were happy, too. They had done a good job. They had covered themselves with glory.
"And maybe there are other jobs ahead," remarked Bud.