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´╗┐Title: Cowmen and Rustlers - A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges
Author: Ellis, Edward Sylvester, 1840-1916
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Cowmen and Rustlers - A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges" ***

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COWMEN AND RUSTLERS

A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges

BY

EDWARD S. ELLIS

AUTHOR OF "LOG CABIN SERIES," "BOONE AND KENTON SERIES," ETC.

WITH FOUR FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS BY W.M. CARY

MCMIV



CONTENTS.

CHAPTER

     I. A MERRY GROUP

    II. A WARNING FROM THE WOODS

   III. THE FLIGHT OVER THE ICE

    IV. THE REPORT OF GUNS

     V. LOOKING SOUTHWARD

    VI. COWMEN AND RUSTLERS

   VII. THE WARNING

  VIII. GOOD-BY

    IX. A SUMMONS AND A REPLY

     X. A HOT PURSUIT

    XI. A STRANGE DIVERSION

   XII. THE BACK TRAIL

  XIII. A CONSULTATION

   XIV. UNWELCOME CALLERS

    XV. THE "DOG INDIANS"

   XVI. AN UNPLEASANT VISIT

  XVII. A DELICATE SITUATION

 XVIII. A MISCALCULATION

   XIX. THE BURNED RANCH

    XX. THE TRUCE

   XXI. A MESSENGER IN HASTE

  XXII. IMPORTANT TIDINGS

 XXIII. AT BAY

  XXIV. THE PRIMITIVE FORT

   XXV. THE FLAG or TRUCE

  XXVI. THE UNDERGROUND MISSIVE

 XXVII. ON PAROLE

XXVIII. THE FINAL SUMMONS

  XXIX. A STRANGE OCCURRENCE

   XXX. THE MISSING ONE

  XXXI. WHY IT WAS DONE

 XXXII. THE HOSTAGE

XXXIII. THE PRISONER

 XXXIV. OUT IN THE NIGHT

  XXXV. CONCLUSION



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.

"FIRED TWO MORE BARRELS"

"COMING STRAIGHT TOWARD HIM"

"A MASS OF BLAZING EMBERS"

"CHALLENGED ON THE EDGE OF THE CAMP"



CHAPTER I.

A MERRY GROUP.


The Whitney household, in the western part of Maine, was filled with
sunshine, merriment and delight, on a certain winter evening a few
years ago.

There was the quiet, thoughtful mother, now past her prime, but with
many traces of the beauty and refinement that made her the belle
of the little country town until Hugh Whitney, the strong-bearded
soldier, who had entered the war as private and emerged therefrom
with several wounds and with the eagles of a colonel on his shoulder,
carried her away from all admirers and made her his bride.

Hugh had been absent a couple of weeks in Montana and Wyoming, whither
he was drawn by a yearning of many years' standing to engage in the
cattle business. He had received some tuition as a cowboy on the
Llano Estacada, and the taste there acquired of the free, wild life,
supplemented, doubtless, by his experience during the war, was held in
restraint for a time only by his marriage.

The absence of the father was the only element lacking to make the
household one of the happiest in that section of Maine; but the letter
just received from him was so cheerful and affectionate that it added
to the enjoyment of the family.

The two principal factors in this jollity were the twins and only
children, Fred and Jennie, seventeen on their last birthday, each
the picture of health, bounding spirits, love and devotion to
their parents and to one another. They had been the life of the
sleighing-parties and social gatherings, where the beauty of the
budding Jennie attracted as much admiration as did that of her mother
a score of years before, but the girl was too young to care for any
of the ardent swains who were ready to wrangle for the privilege of a
smile or encouraging word. Like a good and true daughter she had no
secrets from her mother, and when that excellent parent said, with a
meaning smile, "Wait a few years, Jennie," the girl willingly promised
to do as she wished in that as in every other respect.

Fred was home for the Christmas holidays, and brought with him
Monteith Sterry, one year his senior. Sterry lived in Boston, where he
and Fred Whitney were classmates and warm friends. Young Whitney had
spent several Sundays with Sterry, and the latter finally accepted the
invitation to visit him at his home down in Maine.

These two young men, materially aided by Jennie, speedily turned the
house topsy-turvy. There was no resisting their overrunning spirits,
though now and then the mother ventured on a mild protest, but the
smile which always accompanied the gentle reproof betrayed the truth,
that she was as happy as they in their merriment, with which she would
not have interfered for the world.

That night the full, round moon shone from an unclouded sky, and the
air was crisp and clear. There was not much snow on the ground, and
the ice on the little river at the rear of the house was as smooth as
a polished window-pane. For nearly two score miles this current,
which eventually found its way into the Penobscot, wound through the
leafless woods, past an occasional opening, where, perhaps, the humble
cabin of some backwoodsman stood.

It was an ideal skating rink, and the particular overflow of spirits
on that evening was due to the agreement that it was to be devoted to
the exhilarating amusement.

"We will leave the house at 8 o'clock," said Fred at the supper table,
"and skate to the mouth of Wild Man's Creek and back."

"How far is that?" inquired Monteith Sterry.

"About ten miles."

Pretty Jennie's face took on a contemptuous expression.

"Not a bit more; we shall be only fairly started when we must turn
back."

"Well, where do you want to go, sister?"

"We shouldn't think of stopping until we reach Wolf Glen."

"And may I inquire the distance to that spot?" asked Sterry again.

"Barely five miles beyond Wild Man's Creek," said she.

Those were not the young men to take a "dare" from a girl like her.
It will be admitted that thirty miles is a pretty good spurt for a
skater, but the conditions could not have been more favourable.

"It's agreed, then," remarked Sterry, "that we will go to Wolf Glen,
and then, and then--"

"And then what?" demanded Jennie, turning toward him.

"Why not keep on to Boston and call on my folks?"

"If you will furnish the ice we will do so."

"I couldn't guarantee ice all the way, but we can travel by other
means between the points, using our skates as the chance offers."

"Or do as that explorer who is to set out in search of the north
pole--have a combination skate and boat, so when fairly going we can
keep straight on."

"I will consent to that arrangement on one condition," interposed the
mother, so seriously that all eyes were turned wonderingly upon her.

"What is that?"

"That you return before the morrow."

The countenances became grave, and turning to Sterry, on her right,
Jennie asked, in a low voice:

"Is it safe to promise that?"

"Hardly. Let us leave the scheme until we have time in which fully to
consider it."

"You will start, as I understand, at eight," remarked the mother,
speaking now in earnest. "You can readily reach Wolf Glen within a
couple of hours. There you will rest a while and return as you choose.
So I will expect you at midnight."

"Unless something happens to prevent."

The words of Monteith Sterry were uttered jestingly, but they caused a
pang to the affectionate parent as she asked:

"What could happen, Monteith?"

Fred took it upon himself to reply promptly:

"Nothing at all."

"Is the ice firm and strong?"

"It will bear a locomotive; I never saw it finer; the winter has not
been so severe as some we have known, but it has got there all the
same; Maine can furnish the Union with all the ice she will want next
summer."

"There may be air-holes."

"None that we cannot see; they are few and do not amount to anything."

Here Sterry spoke with mock gravity.

"The name, Wolf Glen, is ominous."

"We have wolves and bears and other big game in this part of the
State, but not nearly as many as formerly. It hardly pays to hunt
them."

"I hope we shall meet a few bears or wolves," said Jennie, with her
light laugh.

"And why?" demanded the shocked mother.

"I would like a race with them; wouldn't it be fun!"

"Yes," replied Sterry, "provided we could outskate them."

"I never knew that wild animals skate."

"They can travel fast when they take it into their heads to turn
hunter. I suppose many of the bears are hibernating, but the
wolves--if there are any waiting for us--will be wide awake and may
give us the roughest kind of sport."

Fred Whitney knew his mother better than did his friend and understood
the expression on her face. So did Jennie, and the couple had such
sport of their Boston visitor that the cloud quickly vanished and
Monteith felt a trifle humiliated at his exhibition of what might
be considered timidity. Nevertheless he quietly slipped his loaded
revolver in the outer pocket of his heavy coat just before starting
and when no one was watching him.

Precisely at eight o'clock the three friends, warmly and conveniently
clad, with their keen-edged skates securely fastened, glided
gracefully up-stream, the mother standing on the porch of her home and
watching the figures as they vanished in the moonlight.

She was smiling, but in her heart was a misgiving such as she had not
felt before, when her children were starting off for an evening's
enjoyment. The minute they were beyond sight she sighed, and,
turning about, resumed her seat by the table in the centre of the
sitting-room, where, as the lamplight fell upon her pale face, she
strove to drive away the disquieting thoughts that would not leave
her.

It was a pleasing sight as the three young people, the picture of
life, health and joyous spirits, side by side, laughing, jesting, and
with never a thought of danger, moved out to the middle of the river
and then sped toward its source, with the easy, beautiful movement
which in the accomplished skater is the ideal of grace. The motion
seemingly was attended with no effort, and could be maintained for
hours with little fatigue.

The small river, to which allusion has been made, was one hundred
yards in width at the point where they passed out upon its surface.
This width naturally decreased as they ascended, but the decrease was
so gradual that at Wolf Glen, fifteen miles away, the breadth
was fully three-fourths of the width opposite the Whitney home.
Occasionally, too, the channel widened to double or triple its usual
extent, but those places were few in number, and did not continue
long. They marked a shallowing of the current and suggested in
appearance a lake.

There were other spots where this tributary itself received others.
Sometimes the open space would show on the right, and further on
another on the left indicated where a creek debouched into the stream,
in its search for the ocean, the great depository of most of the
rivers of the globe.

The trees, denuded of vegetation, projected their bare limbs into the
crystalline air, and here and there, where they leaned over the banks,
were thrown in relief against the moonlit sky beyond. The moon itself
was nearly in the zenith, and the reflected gleam from the glassy
surface made the light almost like that of day. Along the shore,
however, the shadows were so gloomy and threatening that Monteith
Sterry more than once gave a slight shudder and reached his mittened
hand down to his side to make sure his weapon was in place.

The course was sinuous from the beginning, winding in and out so
continuously that the length of the stream must have been double that
of the straight line extending over the same course. Some of these
turnings were abrupt, and there were long, sweeping curves with a view
extending several hundred yards.

They were spinning around one of these, when Sterry uttered an
exclamation:

"I'm disappointed!"

"Why?" inquired Jennie, at his elbow.

"I had just wrought myself up to the fancy that we were pioneers, the
first people of our race to enter this primeval wilderness, when lo!"

He extended his arm up-stream and to the right, where a star-like
twinkle showed that a dwelling stood, or some parties had kindled a
camp-fire.

"Quance, an old fisherman and hunter, lives, there," explained Fred,
"as I believe he has done for fifty years."

"Would you like to make a call on him?" asked Jennie.

"I have no desire to do so; I enjoy this sport better than to sit by
the fire and listen to the most entertaining hunter. Isn't that he?"

The cabin was several rods from the shore, the space in front being
clear of trees and affording an unobstructed view of the little log
structure, with its single door and window in front, and the stone
chimney from which the smoke was ascending. Half-way between the cabin
and the stream, and in the path connecting the two, stood a man with
folded arms looking at them. He was so motionless that he suggested a
stump, but the bright moonlight left no doubt of his identity.

"Holloa, Quance!" shouted Fred, slightly slackening his speed and
curving in toward shore.

The old man made no reply. Then Jennie's musical voice rang out on the
frosty air, but still the hunter gave no sign that he knew he had been
addressed. He did not move an arm nor stir.

"I wonder whether he hasn't frozen stiff in that position," remarked
Sterry. "He may have been caught in the first snap several weeks ago
and has been acting ever since as his own monument."

At the moment of shooting out of sight around the curve the three
glanced back. The old fellow was there, just as they saw him at first.
They even fancied he had not so much as turned his head while they
were passing, but was still gazing at the bank opposite him, or, what
was more likely, peering sideways without shifting his head to any
extent.

The occurrence, however, was too slight to cause a second thought.

They were now fairly under way, as may be said, being more than a mile
from their starting-point. They were proceeding swiftly but easily,
ready to decrease or increase their speed at a moment's notice.
Sometimes they were nigh enough to touch each other's hands, and again
they separated, one going far to the right, the other to the left,
while the third kept near the middle of the stream. Then two would
swerve toward shore, or perhaps it was all three, and again it was
Jennie who kept the farthest from land, or perhaps a fancy led her to
skim so close that some of the overhanging limbs brushed her face.

"Look out; there's an air-hole!" called the brother, at the moment the
three reunited after one of these excursions.

"What of it!" was her demand, and instead of shooting to the right or
left, she kept straight on toward the open space.

"Don't try to jump it!" cautioned Sterry, suspecting her purpose;
"it's too wide."

"No doubt it is for you."

The daring words were on her lips, when she rose slightly in the air
and skimmed as gracefully as a bird across the space of clear water.
She came down seemingly without jar, with the bright blades of steel
ringing over the crystal surface, and without having fallen a foot to
the rear of her companions.

"That was foolish," said her brother, reprovingly; "suppose the ice
had given away when you struck it again?"

"What's the use of supposing what could not take place?"

"The air-hole might have been wider than you suppose."

"How could that be when it was in plain sight? If it had been wider,
why I would have jumped further, or turned aside like my two gallant
escorts. Stick to me and I'll take care of you."

There was no dashing the spirits of the girl, and Sterry broke into
laughter, wondering how it would be with her if actual danger did
present itself.

Occasionally the happy ones indulged in snatches of song and fancy
skating, gliding around each other in bewildering and graceful curves.
The three were experts, as are nearly all people in that section of
the Union. Any one watching their exhibitions of skill and knowing the
anxiety of the mother at home would have wondered why she should feel
any misgiving concerning them.

True, there were wild animals in the forests, and at this season
of the year, when pressed by hunger, they would attack persons if
opportunity presented; but could the fleetest outspeed any one of
those three, if he or she chose to put forth the utmost strength and
skill possessed?

"Look!"

It was Jennie who uttered the exclamation, and there was good cause
for it. She was slightly in advance, and was rounding another of the
turns of the stream, when she caught sight of a huge black bear, who,
instead of staying in some hollow tree or cave, sucking his paw the
winter through, was lumbering over the ice in the same direction with
themselves.

He was near the middle of the frozen current, so that it was prudent
for them to turn to the right or left, and was proceeding at an easy
pace, as if he was out for a midnight stroll, while he thought over
matters. Though one of the stupidest of animals, he was quick to hear
the noise behind him and looked back to learn what it meant.



CHAPTER II.

A WARNING FROM THE WOODS.


Monteith Sterry began drawing the mitten from his right hand with the
intention of using his revolver on the bear, when he checked himself
with the thought:

"Better to wait until I need it; the most of this excursion is still
before us."

The lumbering brute came to a stop, with his huge head turned, and
surveyed the approaching skaters. Had they attempted to flee, or had
they come to a halt, probably he would have started after them. As it
was he swung half-way round, so that his side was exposed. He offered
a fine target for Sterry's weapon, but the young man still refrained
from using it.

"It isn't well to go too near him," remarked Fred Whitney, seizing the
arm of his sister and drawing her toward the shore on the left.

"I don't mean to," replied the bright-witted girl, "but if we turn
away from him too soon he will be able to head us off; he mustn't
suspect what we intend to do."

"There's sense in that," remarked Sterry, "but don't wait too long."

The three were skating close together, with their eyes on the big
creature, who was watching them sharply.

"Now!" called Fred, in a low, quick voice.

He had not loosened his grip of his sister's arm, so that when he made
the turn she was forced to follow him. The moment was well chosen, and
the three swung to one side as if all were controlled by the single
impulse.

Bruin must have been astonished; for, while waiting for his supper
to drop into his arms, he saw it leaving him. With an angry growl he
began moving toward the laughing party.

The tinge of anxiety which Fred Whitney felt lasted but a moment. He
saw that they could skate faster than the bear could travel; and, had
it been otherwise, no cause for fear would have existed, for, with the
power to turn like a flash, it would have been the easiest thing in
the world to elude the efforts of the animal to seize them.

They expected pursuit, and it looked for a minute as if they were
not to be disappointed. The animal headed in their direction with
no inconsiderable speed, but, with more intelligence than his kind
generally display, he abruptly stopped, turned aside, and disappeared
in the wood before it could be said the race had really begun.

Jennie was the most disappointed of the three, for she had counted
upon an adventure worth the telling, and here it was nipped in the
bud. She expressed her regret.

"There's no helping it," said Monteith, "for I can think of no
inducement that will bring him back; but we have a good many miles
before us, and it isn't likely that he's the only bear in this part of
Maine."

"There's some consolation in that," she replied, leading the way back
toward the middle of the course; "if we see another, don't be so
abrupt with him."

The stream now broadened to nearly three times its ordinary extent,
so that it looked as if they were gliding over the bosom of some lake
lagoon instead of a small river. At the widest portion, and from the
furthest point on the right, twinkled a second light, so far back
among the trees that the structure from whence it came was out of
sight. They gave it little attention and kept on.

Sterry took out his watch. The moonlight was so strong that he saw the
figures plainly. It lacked a few minutes of nine.

"And yonder is the mouth of Wild Man's Creek," said Fred; "we have
made pretty good speed."

"Nothing to boast of," replied Jennie; "if it were not for fear of
distressing mother, I would insist that we go ten or fifteen miles
further before turning back."

Since plenty of time was at command, they continued their easy pace,
passing over several long and comparatively straight stretches of
frozen water, around sharp bends, beyond another expansion of the
stream, in front of a couple of natural openings, and finally, while
it lacked considerable of ten o'clock, they rounded to in front of
a mass of gray towering rocks on the right bank of the stream, and,
skating close into shore, sat down on a bowlder which obtruded several
feet above the ice.

They were at the extremity of their excursion. These collective rocks
bore the name of Wolf Glen, the legend being that at some time in the
past a horde of wolves made their headquarters there, and, when the
winters were unusually severe, held the surrounding country in
what might be called a reign of terror. They had not yet wholly
disappeared, but little fear of them was felt.

The friends could not be called tired, though, after skating fifteen
miles, the rest on the stone was grateful.

They sat for half an hour chatting, laughing, and as merry as when
they started from home. The sky was still unclouded, but the moon had
passed beyond the zenith. A wall of shadow was thrown out from one of
the banks, except for occasional short distances, where the course of
the stream was directly toward or from the orb.

When Sterry again glanced at his watch it was a few minutes past ten.
They had rested longer than any one suspected.

"Mother won't look for us before midnight," remarked Fred, "and we can
easily make it in that time."

"She was so anxious," said the sister, who, despite her
light-heartedness, was more thoughtful than her brother, "that I would
like to please her by getting back sooner than she expects."

"We have only to keep up this pace to do it," said Monteith, "for we
have been resting fully a half hour--"

He paused abruptly. From some point in the wintry wilderness came a
dismal, resounding wail, apparently a mile distant.

"What is that?" asked Monteith, less accustomed to the Maine woods
than his companions.

"It is the cry of a wolf," replied Fred; "I have heard it many times
when hunting alone or with father."

"It isn't the most cheerful voice of the night," commented the young
Bostonian, who, as yet never dreamed of connecting it with any peril
to themselves. And then he sang:

  Yes, the war whoop of the Indian may produce a pleasant thrill
  When mellowed by the distance that one feels increasing still;
  And the shrilling of the whistle from the engine's brazen snout
  May have minor tones of music, though I never found it out.

The verse was hardly finished when the howl was repeated.

"It is hard to tell from what point it comes," observed Fred, "but I
think it is on the right shore as we go back."

"Do you imagine it is far from the river?" inquired Monteith.

"I think not, but I may be mistaken."

"I am quite sure Fred is right," said his sister; "and, more than
that, that particular wolf isn't a great way off. I wonder whether he
has scented our trail?"

Before any comment could be made upon this remark, a second, third,
fourth, and fully a half-dozen additional howls rang through the
forest arches. They came from the left shore, and apparently were
about as far off as the cry first heard.

"They are answers," said Fred, in a low voice, in which his companions
detected a slight tremor.

It was at this moment that the first fear thrilled all three. The
cries might mean nothing, but more likely they meant a good deal. The
wolf is one of the fiercest of American wild animals when suffering
from hunger, though a coward at other times, and a horde of them are
capable of attacking the most formidable denizens of the woods.

The fact that they were between the skaters and home, and at no great
distance from the course they must follow to reach there, was cause
for fear. It was almost certain that in some way the keen-scented
creatures had learned there was game afoot that night for them, and
they were signalling to each other to gather for the feast.

Fred and Monteith were not specially frightened on their own account,
for, if the worst should come, they could take to the trees and wait
for help. They might make a sturdy fight, and perhaps, with anything
like a show, could get away from them without taking to such a refuge.

But it was the presence of Jennie that caused the most misgiving.
True, she was as swift and skilful a skater as either, but that of
itself was not likely to save her.

But she was the coolest of all, now that the danger assumed a reality.

The lightness and gayety that had marked the three from the moment
of leaving home had gone. They were thoughtful, the very opposite in
their mood to that of a few minutes before.

"I wish I had brought my pistol," said Fred.

"I have mine," observed Monteith; "a good Smith & Wesson, and each of
the five chambers is loaded."

"Thank fortune for that; have you any extra cartridges?"

"Not one."

"Your pistol may be the means of saving us."

"Why do you speak that way?" asked Jennie; "I never knew you were
scared so easily."

"I am sorry you are with us, sister; my alarm is on your account."

"I do not see why I am not as safe as either of you; neither can skate
faster than I."

"If we are to escape by that means, your chances are as good as ours;
but those creatures have a fearful advantage over us, because we must
run the gauntlet."

"We are not so certain of that; if we hasten, we may pass the
danger-point before they discover us."

For the first time since leaving home the three did their best.
Separated from each other by just enough space to give play to
the limbs, they sped down the icy river with the fleetness of the
hurricane, their movements almost the perfect counterpart of each
other.

First on the right foot, they shot well toward the shore on that side,
then bending gracefully to the left, the weight was thrown on that
limb, the impetus being imparted to the body without any apparent
effort, after the manner of a master of the skater's art. These,
sweeping forward, were many rods in length, the polished steel
frequently giving out a metallic ring as it struck the flinty ice. Now
and then, too, a resounding creak sped past, and might have alarmed
them had they not understood its nature. It indicated no weakness of
the frozen surface, but was caused by the settling of the crystal
floor as the water flowed beneath.

For a few minutes these were the only noises that broke the impressive
stillness. The three had begun to hope that the ominous sounds would
be heard no more, and that the wolves were too far from the river to
discover them until beyond reach.

If they could once place themselves below the animals they need not
fear, for they could readily distance them. Should the speed of the
pursuers become dangerous, a sharp turn or change in the course would
throw them off and give the fugitives an advantage that would last for
a long time. But they dreaded the appearance of a whole pack of the
brutes in front, thus shutting off their line of flight homeward.
True, in that case they could turn about and flee up stream, but the
risk of encountering others attracted by the cries would be great, and
perhaps leave their only recourse to a flight into the woods.

The thoughts of each turned to the nearest hunter's cabin, although it
was several miles distant, and probably beyond reach.

It was strange that, having emitted so many signals, the wolves should
become suddenly quiescent.

No one spoke, but as they glided swiftly forward they peered along the
gleaming surface in search of that which they dreaded to see.

They approached one of those long, sweeping bends to which allusion
has been made. Jennie had already proven that neither of her
companions could outspeed her. They were doing their utmost, but she
easily held her own with less effort than they showed.

In truth, she was slightly in advance as they began following the
curve of the river, her head, like each of the others, bent forward,
to see whither they were going.

"They are there!"

It was she who uttered the exclamation which sent a thrill through
both. They asked for no explanation, for none was needed, and an
instant later they were at her side, she slightly slackening her pace.

The sight, while alarming, was not all that Fred and Monteith
anticipated.

Three or four gaunt animals were trotting along the ice near the left
shore, but no others were visible.

"Keep in the middle while I take a turn that way," said Monteith,
sheering in the direction named.

Brother and sister did not read the meaning of this course, nor could
they detect its wisdom. But they obeyed without question.

Young Sterry hoped by making what might look like an attack upon the
famishing beasts to scare them off for a few minutes, during which the
three, and especially Jennie, could reach a point below them. With the
brutes thus thrown in the rear, it might be said the danger would be
over.

Now, as every one knows, the wolf is a sneak, and generally will run
from a child if it presents a bold front; but the animal becomes very
dangerous when pressed by hunger.

Monteith Sterry's reception was altogether different from what he
anticipated. When the half-dozen wolves saw him speeding toward them
they stopped their trotting, and, like the bear, looked around, as not
understanding what it meant.

"Confound them! Why don't they take to the woods?" he muttered. He had
removed the mitten from his right hand, which grasped his revolver.
"This isn't according to Hoyle."

He shied a little to the right, with a view of preventing a collision
with the creatures, and the moment he was close enough, let fly with
one chamber at the nearest.

Accidentally he nipped the wolf, which emitted a yelping bark, leaped
several feet in the air, then limped into the woods, as he had learned
enough of the interesting stranger.

That was just what the youth had hoped to do, and the success of his
scheme would have been perfect had the others imitated their wounded
companion, but they did not.

Without paying any attention to Sterry they broke into a gallop toward
the middle of the river, their course such as to place them either in
advance of Fred and Jennie Whitney or to bring all together.

Greatly alarmed for his friends, Monteith did an unnecessary thing
by shouting (for the couple could not fail to see their danger), and
fired two more barrels of his pistol. Neither shot took effect, nor
did the wolves give them any heed, but they and the skaters converged
with perilous swiftness.

Forgetful of his own danger, Monteith shouted again:

"Look out! Why don't you change your course?"

Neither replied, but it was absurd for the panic-stricken youth to
suppose they did not understand the situation and were shaping their
movements accordingly.

Having observed the wolves as soon as Sterry, they never lost sight
of them for a second. Every action was watched, and the curious
proceeding noted the instant made.

Fred and Jennie continued gliding straight forward, as if they saw
them not, and a collision appeared inevitable. At the moment when
Monteith's heart stood still, the couple turned almost at right angles
to the left--that is, in exactly the opposite direction from the
course of the wolves--and in a second they were fifty feet nearer that
shore than the brutes. Then followed another quick turn, and they were
gliding with arrowy speed straight down stream. They had simply passed
around the animals, who, detecting the trick, made their limbs rigid
and slid over the ice, with their claws scratching it, until able to
check their speed to allow them to turn and resume the pursuit.

Sterry was on the point of uttering a shout of exultation and
admiration at the clever manoeuvre, when Jennie cried out; and well
might she do so, for fifty yards beyond, and directly in their path,
the ice seemed suddenly to have become alive with the frightful
creatures, who streamed from the woods on both sides, ravenous, fierce
and unrestrainable in their eagerness to share in the expected feast.



CHAPTER III.

THE FLIGHT OVER THE ICE.


The same minute that Monteith Sterry saw the new peril which
threatened them all he darted out beside the brother and sister, who
had slackened their pace at sight of the wolves in front.

"What shall we do?" asked Fred; "we cannot push on; let's go up
stream."

"You cannot do that," replied Jennie, "for they are gathering behind
us."

A glance in that direction showed that she spoke the truth. It looked
as if a few minutes would bring as many there as in advance.

"We shall have to take to the woods," said Fred, "and there's little
hope there."

"It won't do," added the sister, who seemed to be thinking faster than
either of her companions. "The instant we start for the shore they
will be at our heels. Make as if we were going to run in close to the
right bank, so as to draw them after us; then turn and dash through
them."

The manoeuvre was a repetition of the one she and her brother had
executed a few minutes before, and was their only hope.

"I will take the lead with my pistol," said Monteith, "while you keep
as close to me as you can."

Every second was beyond value. The wolves were not the creatures to
remain idle while a conference was under way. At sight of the three
figures near the middle of the course they rent the air with howls,
and came trotting toward them with that light, springy movement shown
by a gaunt hound, to whom the gait is as easy as a walk.

Monteith Sterry shot forward on his right foot, his revolver, with its
two precious charges, tightly gripped in his naked hand.

This was to be called into play only in the last extremity. The
killing of a couple of wolves from such a horde could produce no
effect upon the rest, unless perhaps to furnish some of them a lunch,
for one of the curious traits of the _lupus_ species is that they are
cannibals, so to speak.

His hope was that the flash and report of the weapon would frighten
the animals into opening a path for a moment, through which the
skaters could dart into the clear space below.

Having started, Monteith did not glance behind him. Fred and his
sister must look out for themselves. He had his hands more than full.

With a swift, sweeping curve he shot toward the bank, the brutes
immediately converging to head him off. The slight, familiar scraping
on the ice told him that Fred and Jennie were at his heels. He kept on
with slackening speed until close to the shore, and it would not do to
go any further. An overhanging limb brushed his face.

But his eye was on the wolves further out in the stream. The place was
one of the few ones where the course was such that no shadow was along
either bank. The moment most of the creatures were drawn well over
toward the right shore, Sterry did as his friends did awhile before,
skimming abruptly to the left and almost back over his own trail, and
then darting around the pack. The line was that of a semicircle, whose
extreme rim on the left was several rods beyond the last of the wolves
swarming to the right.

"Now!" called Sterry at the moment of turning with all the speed at
his command.

Critical as was the moment, he flung one glance behind him. Fred and
Jennie were almost nigh enough to touch him with outstretched hand. No
need of shouting any commands to them, for they understood what he was
doing, or rather trying to do.

Young Sterry, as I have said, had cleared the horde of wolves, making
the turn so quickly that they slid a rod or more over the ice before
able to check themselves and change their own course.

The stratagem seemed as successful as the other, but it was too soon
to congratulate themselves. At the moment when everything promised
well, the most enormous wolf he had ever seen bounded from under the
trees on the left bank and galloped directly for him.

He was so far in advance that the only way of dodging him was by
another sharp turn in his course. To do this, however, would bring him
so near the other brutes that they were almost certain to leap upon
every one of the party.

"Use your revolver!" called Fred from the rear.

Monteith had already decided that this was an exigency demanding one
of the remaining charges, and he partly raised the weapon in front of
him.

Meanwhile, the huge wolf had stopped on seeing that the procession was
coming in a straight line for him. The youth moderated his speed still
more, that he might perfect his aim.

He was in the act of levelling his pistol, when the animal advanced
quickly a couple of steps and made a tremendous leap at his throat.
The act was unexpected, but at the instant of his leaving the ice
Monteith let fly with one chamber at him.

The success was better than he had a right to expect, for the leaden
pellet bored its way through the skull of the wolf, who, with a
rasping yelp, made a sidelong plunge, as if diving off a bank into the
water, and, striking on the side of his head, rolled over on his back,
with his legs vaguely kicking at the moon, and as powerless to do harm
as a log of wood.

Brief as was the halt, it had given the leading brutes of the main
body time to come up. They were fearfully near, when the scent of
blood and the sight of their fallen comrade suggested to the foremost
that a meal was at their disposal. They flew at the huge fellow and
rended him to shreds and fragments in a twinkling.

The only way of escape was still in front, and, with the utmost
energy, power, and skill at his command, Monteith Sterry darted ahead.
His crouching body, the head well in advance, somewhat after the
manner of a racing bicyclist on the home-stretch, his compressed lips,
his flashing eyes, with every muscle tense, were proof that he knew it
had now become a struggle of life and death.

If he allowed one of those wolves to approach nigh enough to leap upon
him, he would be borne to the earth like a flash and share the fate
of the victim of his pistol. They were near, for he could hear that
multitudinous pattering on the ice, when the din of their cries
permitted it, and they were running fast.

But, he reasoned, if they were so close to him they must be still
closer to the brother and sister, whose peril, therefore, was
correspondingly greater. He looked around. He was farther from the
horde than he supposed, but Fred and Jennie were not directly behind
him, as he had thought.

At the moment an awful thrill shot through him; he caught a glimpse
of Fred close in shore and going like the wind. The couple were still
preserved from the fangs of the wolves, but only heaven knew how long
it would last.

A short distance ahead an opening showed where a creek put in from the
woods and hills. Monteith gave it only a glance when he skimmed past
at the same furious pace as before. It looked as if there was hope at
last, for the brutes first seen were all at the rear. If new danger
came, it would be from others that ran out on the ice in front.

"It seems to me that all the wolves in Maine are on this little
river," was his thought, "but there may be a few left that will try to
get into our path."

A wild cry came from his friends and he glanced toward them. Not only
that, but believing his help was needed, he sheered over to them as
quickly as he could.

The course of the river had changed, so that a ribbon of shadow
extended along that bank, partially obscuring the form of Fred
Whitney, who seemed to cling to it as if therein lay his safety.

The brutes were now so far to the rear that there was little to be
feared from them, though they still kept up the pursuit, and while
able to follow in a straight line were doing so with more speed than
would be expected.

It struck Sterry that his friend was not skating with his utmost
skill. He was alarmed.

"What's the matter, Fred?" he called, drawing quickly near him.

"O, Jennie! Jennie! What will become of her?"

Fred Whitney, it was now apparent, was alone.

Forgetful of the savage brutes, Monteith Sterry slackened his pace,
and in a scared voice demanded:

"What has become of her? Where is she?"

"She darted into the mouth of that creek."

"Why didn't you follow?"

"I could not; it was done in a flash; she called to me to keep on and
said something else which I could not catch."

"But," continued the wondering Monteith, "how could she do it when she
was at your side?"

"She fell a little to the rear and made a lightning turn. I attempted
to follow, but it seemed half the pack were in my path, and it was
certain death. I was frantic for the moment, and even now do not
understand what it all meant."

"What a woeful mistake!" wailed Monteith; "the chances are a thousand
to one that she is lost."

"I think," said the brother, half beside himself, "that it may have
been a good thing, but--"

A peculiar cry behind them caused Monteith to turn his head. The
wolves had gained so fast during the last few minutes that one of them
was in the act of springing on Fred Whitney.

"Stoop, quick!" shouted his companion.

Fred bent low in the nick of time, and the gaunt, lank body shot over
his head, landing on the ice in front. Before he could gather himself
a bullet from the revolver was driven into his vitals and he rolled
over and over, snapping and yelping in his death-throes.

The skaters swerved aside enough to avoid him, and the next instant
were skimming over the ice at their utmost speed.

It was not a moment too soon, for the halt was well-nigh fatal; but
they could travel faster than the animals, and steadily drew away from
them until, ere long, they were safe, so far as those creatures were
concerned. They continued the pursuit, however, being a number of rods
to the rear and in plain sight of the fugitives, who looked back,
while speeding forward with undiminished swiftness.

But the couple could not continue their flight, knowing nothing of the
missing one. The wolves were between them and her, and Monteith Sterry
had fired the last shot in his revolver.

"How far back does that tributary reach?" he asked.

"I never learned, but probably a good way."

"Its breadth is not half of this."

"No; nothing like it."

"What has become of her?"

"Alas! alas! What shall I answer?"

"But, Fred, she is not without hope; she can skate faster than either
of us, and I am sure none of them was in front of her on the creek or
she would not have made the turn she did."

"If the creek extends for several miles, that is with enough width to
give her room, she will outspeed them; but how is she to get back?"

"What need that she should? When they are thrown behind she can take
off her skates and continue homeward through the woods, or she may
find her way back to the river and rejoin us."

"God grant that you are right; but some of the wolves may appear in
front of her, and then--"

"Don't speak of it! We would have heard their cries if any of them had
overtaken her."

No situation could be more trying than that of the two youths, who
felt that every rod toward home took them that distance farther from
the beloved one whose fate was involved in awful uncertainty.

"This won't do," added Monteith, after they had skated some distance
farther; "we are now so far from the animals that they cannot trouble
us again; we are deserting her in the most cowardly manner."

"But what shall we do? What _can_ we do?"

"You know something of this part of the country; let's take off our
skates and cut across the creek; she may have taken refuge in the limb
of a tree and is awaiting us."

"Isn't some one coming up stream?" asked Fred, peering forward, where
the straight stretch was so extensive that the vision permitted them
to see unusually far.

"It may be another wolf."

"No; it is a person. Perhaps Quance has been drawn from his home by
the racket. He is a great hunter. I hope it is he, for he can give us
help in hunting for Jennie--"

Monteith suddenly gripped the arm of his friend.

"It is not a man! It is a woman!"

"Who can it be? Not Jennie, surely--"

"Hurry along! You are no skaters at all!"

It was she! That was her voice, and it was her slight, girlish figure
skimming like a swallow toward them.

Within the following minute Fred Whitney clasped his beloved sister in
his arms, both shedding tears of joy and gratitude.

Jennie had had a marvellous experience, indeed. Controlled by an
intuition or instinct which often surpasses reason, she was led to
dart aside into the smaller stream at the critical moment when the
fierce wolves were so near that escape seemed impossible. She had
fallen slightly to the rear, and a single terrified glance showed her
a beast in the act of leaping at her. Her dart to the left was only
the effort to elude him for that instant, and she was not aware of the
mouth of the creek until she had entered it. Then, seeing that it was
altogether too late to rejoin her brother, she had no course left but
to continue the flight which, until then, she had not intended.

The words which she called to Fred, that were not understood by him,
were to the effect that she would try to rejoin him farther down the
stream, with whose many turnings she was more familiar than he.

She ascended the tributary with all the wonderful skill at her
command. Not only the brute that was on the point of leaping at her,
but three others, turned as soon as they could poise themselves and
went after her at their utmost bent.

But her change of direction was a most fortunate action. As in the
case of the abrupt darting aside, when on the surface of the larger
stream, it placed her considerably in advance of the nearest pursuers.
Add to this her power of outspeeding them when the chance was equal,
and it will be seen that her only danger was from the front.

The creek was so narrow that if any of the wolves appeared before
her she would be lost, for there was not room to manoeuvre as on the
larger stream.

But she met none. The first signals had drawn them to the river, and
if there were any near, they and she were mutually unaware of it.

As her brother had said, she was more acquainted with this section
than he. She knew at what points the river and its tributary curved so
as to bring them near each other. Reaching that place, she buried the
heels of her skate-runners in the ice, sending the particles about
her in a misty shower, and quickly came to a halt. Then, standing
motionless, she listened.

In the distance sounded the howling of the animals so repeatedly
disappointed of their prey, but none was nigh enough to cause her
misgiving.

"I hope no harm has come to Fred or Monteith," she murmured. "Both can
skate fast enough to leave the wolves behind; they would have done so
at once if they had not been bothered by having me with them. Now they
ought to be able to take care of themselves."

She sat down on the bank and removed her skates. The slight layer of
snow on the leaves caused no inconvenience, for she was well shod, and
the walk was not far. Her fear was that some of the wolves might sneak
up unseen. Often she stopped and listened, but when half the distance
was passed, without any alarm from that source, she believed nothing
was to be feared. A little farther and she reached the main stream,
the distance passed being so much less than was necessary for her
escorts that she knew that she was in advance of them, even if they
had continued their flight without interruption.

Her club skates were securely refastened, and then she listened again.

The cries of the brutes were few and distant and could not cause
alarm.

Hark! A familiar sound reached her. She recognized it as made by
skates gliding over the ice. Rising to her feet, she remarked, with a
smile:

"I think I will give them a surprise." And she did. The meeting was a
happy one, and before the stroke of midnight all three were at home,
where they found the mother anxiously awaiting their return and
greatly relieved to learn that despite their stirring experience no
harm had befallen any member of the little party.



CHAPTER IV.

THE REPORT OF GUNS.


And now comes a change of scene and incident.

Hugh Whitney returned to his Maine home a few weeks after the stirring
adventures of his children and Monteith Sterry with the wolves. He
was so pleased with the western country that he made his decision to
remove thither. He met with no difficulty in selling at a fair price
his little property in the Pine-Tree State, and with a portion of the
proceeds he bought a ranch near the headwaters of Powder River, to
which place he removed, with his family, in the spring of 1890,
directly after the incidents related in the preceding chapters.

One of the pleasures of this radical change of residence and
occupation was that it was pleasing to his son Fred and his twin
sister Jennie, now about nineteen years of age.

Whether the wife shared in the desire to make her home in that new
country, or whether she expressed the wish to do so because she saw it
would gratify her husband, cannot be said with certainty. There was no
doubt, however, about the eagerness with which the brother and sister
took part in the removal.

Young, ardent, and of sturdy frame, with all the natural yearning of
imaginative youth for adventure, the prospect was an inviting one to
them. Their father's glowing accounts of the magnificent scenery, its
vast resources and limitless possibilities, caused a yearning on their
part probably deeper than his own.

It is rare that such expectations are fully realized in this life. It
cannot be said that those of the brother and sister found more than
a partial fulfilment, but, though the fateful day came when they
regretted the change beyond the power of language to express, yet it
was many months before it dawned upon them.

Hugh Whitney's herd of cattle numbered several thousand, and, on the
day when we take up the eventful history of the family, they were
grazing on the open ranges along the spurs of the Big Horn Mountains.

The two cowmen engaged by Whitney to assist him in the duty of looking
after his property were Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber. They were
veterans in the business, brave and true and tried. Under their
tuition, and that of his father, Fred Whitney became a skilful
horseman and rancher. He learned to lasso and bring down an obdurate
steer, to give valuable help in the round-ups, to assist in branding
the registered trademark of his father on the haunches of his animals.

This brand consisted of a cross, with two stars above, one below, the
initial letter of his given name on the left, and that of his surname
on the right. When this was burned into the flesh of the yearlings,
it identified his property, no matter where wandering, and the honest
rancher would no more disturb it than he would enter another's home
and rob him of his clothing.

The first year was an enjoyable one to Jennie. Her father presented
her with an excellent animal, of which she became very fond. A good
horsewoman when in Maine, in Wyoming she acquired a skill which
compelled the admiration of the cowmen themselves.

"She's struck her callin'," remarked Budd Hankinson one day, while
watching her speeding like a courser across the open country.

"What is that?" asked the father, who was proud of his children, and
especially of the pretty daughter.

"Why, riding hosses like a streak of lightnin'," was the somewhat
indefinite response.

"What particular profession can she fill by dashing over the country
in that style?" continued the parent with a smile.

"Why, showing other persons how it is done. I've no doubt, colonel,
that she could make good wages in breaking broncos and teaching young
women like her how to ride in the right style; I advise you to think
about it."

"I will do so," replied the parent, with so much gravity that the
cowman never suspected his sincerity, but felt the satisfaction of
believing he had given his employer a valuable "pointer."

Another pleasure which followed the removal of the Whitneys to Wyoming
was that their friend Monteith Sterry followed them within a few
months. He had shown some signs of running down in health while
attending the high school in Boston, despite the fact that he was one
of the best athletes in the institution; but he readily persuaded his
wealthy father that a few months' experience in the bracing northwest
would do him more good than anything and everything else in the world.

That he might have some pretext other than the one which could not
wholly deceive the Whitneys, he engaged to serve the Live Stock
Association, which was beginning to have trouble with the rustlers.
Matters were not only going wrong, but were rapidly getting worse in
Wyoming, and they were glad to secure the services of such a daring
and honest youth, who seemed rather to welcome the fact that he could
perform his duties faithfully only at personal risk to himself.

It need not be explained how it came about that young Sterry found it
necessary to give a great deal of his attention to that section of
Wyoming in which the Whitneys lived. There appeared to be more need of
it there than in any of the other neighborhoods where the outlook was
really threatening.

The natural consequence was that he became a frequent visitor at the
home of his former friend, though he found other acquaintances engaged
in the cattle business who were glad to have him take shelter under
their roofs. Sometimes he engaged in hunting with them, and several
times Fred Whitney and Jennie joined him. There was a spice of peril
in these excursions which rendered them fascinating to all three.

The particular day to which we refer was a mild afternoon in May,
1892. Jennie was helping her mother with her household duties in their
home, where they had lived since coming from their native State. The
building was one of the long, low wooden structures common in that
section, to which the fashions of the older civilization have not yet
penetrated. It possessed all the comforts they required, though it
took some time for the brother and sister to accustom themselves to
the odd style of architecture.

Jennie, as usual, was in high spirits. She had been out for a ride
during the forenoon, and was now trying to make up for it by taking
the burden of most of the work upon her comely shoulders.

In the middle of one of her snatches of song she abruptly paused with
the question:

"Did you hear that, mother?"

"No; to what do you refer?"

"The sound of rifle-firing; something is wrong on the range."

The two paused and listened, looking in each other's pale countenances
as they did so.

"It _is_ rifle-firing!" said Mrs. Whitney in a scared voice; "what can
it mean?"

"Trouble with the rustlers," replied Jennie, hurrying through the
open door to the outside that she might hear the better. Her mother
followed, and the two stood side by side, listening and peering
across the wide stretch of undulating plain in the direction of the
mountains, whose wooded crests were outlined against the clear spring
sky.

There could be no mistaking the alarming sounds. They were made by
rifles, fired sometimes in quick succession, often mingling with each
other, and then showing comparatively long intervals between the
discharges of the weapons.

"Father said the rustlers were becoming bolder," remarked Jennie, "and
there was sure to be trouble with them before long."

"It has come," was the comment of the parent, "and who shall tell the
result?"

"It cannot last long, mother."

"A few minutes is a good while at such a time. A score of shots have
already been fired, and some of them must have done execution."

"Father, Fred and our two men are unerring shots."

"And so are they," responded the mother, referring to the rustlers,
who have made so much trouble for the cattlemen of Wyoming.



CHAPTER V.

LOOKING SOUTHWARD.


Mrs. Whitney and her daughter Jennie stood at the door of their ranch
listening, with rapidly beating hearts, to the sounds of rifle-firing
from the direction of the cattle-range where the beloved husband and
son were looking after their property.

Three shots came in quick succession; then, after the interval of a
full minute, two more followed, and then all was still.

Mother and daughter maintained their listening attitude a while
longer, but nothing more reached their ears.

"It is over," said the parent in an undertone.

Aye, the conflict was over. One party was beaten off, but which? And
how many brave men, the finest horsemen and rifle-shots in the world,
lay on the green sward, staring, with eyes that saw not, at the blue
sky, or were being borne away by their comrades on the backs of their
tough ponies?

A brief space and the story would be told.

Jennie Whitney shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed to the
southward for the first sight of returning friends, whose coming could
not be long delayed.

The mother was straining her vision in the same direction, watching
for that which she longed and yet dreaded to see. But years had
compelled her to use glasses, and her eyes were not the equal of
those bright orbs of Jennie. She would be the first to detect the
approaching horsemen.

A good field-glass was in the house, but neither thought of it; their
attention was too deeply absorbed.

"It is time they appeared," remarked Mrs. Whitney, her heart sinking
under the dreadful fear of the possible reason why they remained
invisible.

Suppose there was none to appear!

But those keen eyes of the maiden have detected something, and she
starts and peers more intently than before.

Far to the southward, in the direction of the mountain spurs, and on
the very boundary of her vision, a black speck seems to be quivering
and flickering, so indistinct, so impalpable, that none but the
experienced eye can guess its nature.

But the eye which is studying it is an experienced one. Many a time it
has gazed across the rolling prairie, and identified the loved father
and brother before another could discover a person at all.

"Some one is coming," she says to her mother.

"Some one!" is the alarmed response; "are there no more?"

"There may be, but this one is in advance."

"But why should he be in advance of the rest?" is the query, born of
the fear in the heart of the parent.

"It is not mine to answer for the present; he may be better mounted
and is coming for--for--"

"For what?"

"Help."

"Help! What help can we give them?"

"We have a gun in the house, and there is plenty of ammunition."

"That means they have suffered--have been defeated. Look closely,
Jennie; do you see no others?"

She has been searching for them from the first. The approaching
horseman is now fully defined against the dark-green of the mountains,
and the country for half a mile is in clear view.

Over this broad expanse Jennie Whitney's eyes rove, and her heart
seems to stand still as she answers:

"He is alone; I see no others."

"Then he brings evil tidings! Our people have been defeated; more than
one has fallen."

The approaching horseman was riding furiously. His fleet animal was
on a dead run, his neck outstretched, mane and tail streaming as he
thundered through the hurricane created by his own tremendous speed.

The man who sat in the saddle was a perfect equestrian, as are all the
cowmen and rustlers of the West. He leaned forward, as if he would
help his horse to reach his goal at the earliest instant. His
broad-brimmed hat fitted so well that it kept its place on his head
without any fastening; but his own long, dark locks fluttered over his
brawny shoulders, while the trusty Winchester was held in a firm grasp
across the saddle in front, where it could be used on the second
needed.

Jennie Whitney was studying him closely, for he must be father,
brother, or one of the two hired men. She was praying that he was a
relative, but it was not so.

The mother could now distinguish the horseman plainly, though not as
much so as her daughter.

"I think it is father," she said, speaking her hope rather than her
conviction.

"No; it is not he," replied the daughter.

"Then it is Fred."

"No; you are mistaken; it is Budd."

"Alas and alas! why should it be he, and neither my husband nor son?"
wailed the parent.

Jennie was right. The man was the veteran cowboy, Budd Hankinson,
who had whirled the lasso on the arid plains of Arizona, the Llano
Estacado of Texas and among the mountain ranges of Montana; who had
fought Apaches in the southwest, Comanches in the south and Sioux
in the north, and had undergone hardships, sufferings, wounds and
privations before which many a younger man than he had succumbed.

No more skilful and no braver ranchman lived.

Budd had a way of snatching off his hat and swinging it about his head
at sight of the ladies. It was his jocular salutation to them, and
meant that all was well.

But he did not do so now. He must have seen the anxious mother and
daughter almost as soon as they discerned him. Jennie watched for the
greeting which did not come.

"Something is amiss," was her conclusion.

The hoofs of the flying horse beat the hard ground with a regular
rhythm, and he thundered forward like one who knew he was bringing
decisive tidings which would make the hearts of the listeners stand
still.

The black eyes of the cowman were seen gleaming under his hat-rim as
he looked steadily at the couple, against whom his horse would dash
himself the next minute, like a thunderbolt, unless checked.

No fear, however, of anything like that. He rounded to in front of
the women, and halted with a suddenness that would have flung a less
skilful rider over his head, but which hardly caused Budd Hankinson a
jar.

He read the questioning eyes, and before the words could shape
themselves on the pallid lips he called out:

"The mischief is to pay!"

"What is it, Budd?" asked Jennie, she and her mother stepping close to
his box-stirrup.

"We have had a fight with the rustlers--one of the worst I ever
seed--there was eight of 'em."

"Was anybody--hurt?" faltered the mother.

"Wal, I reckon; three of them rustlers won't rustle again very soon,
onless that bus'ness is carried on below, where they've gone; two
others have got holes through their bodies about the size of my hat."

"But--but were any of our people injured?" continued the parent, while
Jennie tried to still the throbbing of her heart until the answer
came.

"Wal, yes," replied Budd, removing his hat and passing his
handkerchief across his forehead, as though the matter was of slight
account; "I'm sorry to say some of us got it in the neck."

"Who--who--how was it? Don't trifle!"

"Wal, you see Zip Peters rode over from Capt. Whiting's to tell us
about the rustlers, and he hadn't much more'n arriv, when along come
the others behind him with one of our branded steers. I made them give
him up, and then the fight was on. Zip got a piece of lead through
the body and the arm, and went out of the saddle without time to say
good-by. My hip was grazed twice, but it didn't amount to nothin'; I'm
as good as ever. Grizzly lost a piece of his ear, but he bored the
rustler through that done it, so that account was squared."

"Then father and Fred were not hurt?" gasped Jennie, clasping her
hands and gazing inquiringly into the face of the messenger.

"Wal," he replied, with the same exasperating coolness he had shown
after his first exclamation, "I wish I could say that, but it ain't
quite so good."

"What--what of my husband?" demanded Mrs. Whitney, stepping so close
that she laid her hand on the knee of the sturdy horseman; "tell me
quick; and what of Fred, my son?"

"Fred fought like a house afire; he killed one of the rustlers, but
his horse was shot and Fred got it through the arm, which ended his
power to do much fighting, but he laid down behind his hoss and kept
it up like the trump he is."

"Then he isn't badly injured?"

"Bless your heart! of course not; he will be all right in a few days;
his arm wants a little nursing, that's all. In the midst of the rumpus
who should ride up but Mont Sterry, as he had heard the firing, and
the way he sailed in was beautiful to behold. It reminded me of the
times down in Arizona when Geronimo made it so lively. He hadn't much
chance to show what he could do, for the rustlers found they had
bitten off more than they could chaw, and they skyugled after he had
dropped one."

The wife and mother drew a sigh of relief, but the daughter was far
from satisfied. A dreadful fear in her heart had not yet been quelled.

Her quick perceptions noticed that Budd had said nothing more about
her father than to mention the fact that he had been wounded. The
mother, in her distress and anxiety, caught at a hope as an assurance
which the daughter could not feel.

At the same time Jennie saw that, despite the apparent nonchalance
of the messenger and his assumed gayety, he was stirred by some deep
emotion.

"He is keeping back something, because he fears to tell it," was her
correct conclusion.



CHAPTER VI.

COWMEN AND RUSTLERS.


Jennie Whitney saw something else, which almost made her heart stop
beating.

To the southward, whence Budd Hankinson had ridden, several horsemen
were in sight, coming from the direction of the cattle-ranges. They
were approaching at a walk, something they would not do unless serious
cause existed.

The messenger had been sent ahead to break the news to the sad and
anxious hearts.

"Budd," she said, "you have not told us about father."

"Why, yes, my dear," interposed her mother, as if to shut out all evil
tidings; "nothing has happened to him."

"Wal, I'm sorry to say that he has been hurt worse than Fred," was the
alarming response, accompanied by a deep sigh.

"How bad? How much worse? Tell us, tell us," insisted the wife.

"Thar's no use of denyin' that he got it bad; fact is he couldn't have
been hit harder."

The distressed fellow was so worked up that he turned his head and
looked over his shoulder, as if to avoid those yearning eyes fixed
upon him. That aimless glance revealed the approaching horsemen and
nerved him with new courage.

"Now, Mrs. Whitney and Jennie, you must be brave. Bear it as he would
bear the news about you and Fred if he was--alive!"

A shriek accompanied the words of the cowman, and Jennie caught her
mother in time to save her from falling. Her own heart was breaking,
but she did her utmost, poor thing, to cheer the one to whom the
sunlight of happiness could never come again.

"There, mother, try to bear it. We have Fred left to us, and I am with
you. God will not desert us."

Hugh Whitney had never spoken after that first interchange of volleys
with the rustlers. He died bravely at the post of duty and was
tenderly borne homeward, where he was given a decent burial, his grave
bedewed not only by the tears of the stricken widow and children, but
by those of the stern, hardy cowmen to whom he had been an employer as
kind and indulgent as he was brave.

A few paragraphs are necessary to explain the incidents that follow.

Wherever cattlemen have organized outfits and located ranches
cattle-thieves have followed, and fierce fighting has resulted. These
men are known as "rustlers." The late troubles caused cattle and
horse-thieves to unite against the legitimate owners, and the name now
includes both classes of evil-doers. The troubles in Wyoming were the
results of the efforts of the Wyoming State Live Stock Association to
put a check upon rustlers who are tempted to steal by the vast profits
afforded.

At the time the Association was formed the rustlers were few in
number, and confined their acts to branding the mavericks or unbranded
yearlings with their own brands. They did not act in concert, and
since the laws of the State require every brand to be registered, in
order to establish ownership, the rustlers had as much right to their
own brands as the legitimate cowmen. As long as the mavericks were not
openly branded there was no means of stopping them.

It happens quite often that the round-up fails to gather in all the
cattle. The mavericks are allowed to go to the outfit with whose
cattle they have run, and that outfit puts its own brand on them.

The rustlers grew more daring as their numbers increased, and, instead
of confining their operations to the mavericks, began altering brands.
Not only that, but they were often bold enough to leave the old brand
and burn a new one and forge a bill of sale.

The rustlers were generally the owners of small ranches, or cowboys
who had a few head of cattle on the range or running with some
rancher's stock. The Association made a rule that no cow outfit should
employ a cowman that had been guilty of branding a maverick, or of
helping the rustlers, or of working with or for them. A blacklist was
kept of such cowmen, with the result that a good many were unable to
get employment from the Association outfits and were compelled to
become rustlers themselves.

The association of rustlers became desperate because of the serious
check given them by the Live Stock Association, which placed its
inspectors at all the cattle-markets, Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis,
Kansas City and St. Paul. Every shipment of cattle was closely
inspected, and if it came from a rustler he was obliged to prove his
title to each steer, or they were confiscated and the proceeds sent to
the owner of the brand. Sometimes a legal proof of ownership would not
be accepted, for the owners were determined to stamp out the rustling
business.

Deprived by this means of a market for their hoof cattle, the rustlers
were compelled to butcher their cattle or drive to Montana. The latter
recourse was not only difficult and dangerous, but there was no
certainty of a market when accomplished, as the Live Stock Association
kept a vigilant watch on all Wyoming cattle.

The other scheme was unsatisfactory, but it was all that was left to
the rustlers. They employed a number of butchers at Buffalo to do
their killing for them, but even then they were not sure of always
getting their meat marketed.

In the summer of 1891 the rustlers ran waggons openly on all the
three great round-ups, and worked the round-up just as if they were a
regular Association outfit. They also gathered in all the mavericks,
and no one dared interfere.

It should be added that no more dangerous set of men can be found
anywhere than the Wyoming rustlers. No living being excels them in
horsemanship. The bucking pony is as a child in their hands. There
is not one among them who cannot rope, throw, tie and brand a steer
single-handed. They include the best riders and the best shots in the
cattle business. They do not know what fear is, and in the year named
became strong enough to elect one of their own number sheriff.



CHAPTER VII.

THE WARNING.


The full moon was shining on the second night succeeding the conflict
which Budd Hankinson described between the rustlers and the cowmen of
Whitney's ranch. The man that had fallen was laid away in a grave back
of the house, and mother, son and daughter mourned him with a sorrow
that was soothed by the consciousness that he had been a good husband
and father in every sense of the word.

On this night, before the hour was late, three persons were seated in
the balmy air on the outside of the dwelling, talking together in low
tones.

They were Fred Whitney, whose bandaged arm rested in a sling, Monteith
Sterry, and Jennie Whitney. The memory of the recent affliction
suffered in the death of the father naturally subdued the voices and
tinged the words with a seriousness that would not have been felt at
other times.

Young Sterry, as already stated, had accepted an engagement with
the Live Stock Association, which required him to investigate the
operations of the rustlers over a large portion of Wyoming and
Montana, and to report at regular intervals to his superior officers.

This was perilous business, but Sterry set about the work with a
vigour, directness and intelligence that were felt over an extent of
territory numbering hundreds of square miles, and made him a marked
man by the rustlers, who are always quick to identify their friends
and enemies. It seemed to make little difference, however, to him, who
loved the excitement. He was a capital pistol and rifle-shot, a fine
horseman, and as devoid of fear as the men against whom he directed
his movements.

Unconsciously Monteith Sterry brought a grievous peril upon his
friends, who held him in so high regard. Hated intensely by the
rustlers, they were not long in learning that he spent a great deal
of his time at the Whitneys. They came to be regarded, therefore, as
aiders and abettors of his. This enmity was emphasized by the attack
of which an account has been given.

"I think, Fred," said his sister, oppressed by the shadow that had
fallen across the threshold, "we ought to sell out and leave this
country."

"Why?" he gently asked.

"Because not only of what happened yesterday, but of the certainty
that such attacks will be repeated."

"What reason have you to fear their repetition?" asked Monteith.

"Matters are growing worse between the cowmen and the rustlers; I have
heard our men talk, and you have said so yourself."

"I cannot deny it," replied their visitor, thoughtfully smoking his
cigar. He would have been pleased had her brother, now the head of the
little household, decided to make his home once more in the East, for
then he would take up the study of his profession of law and be placed
where he could often meet them.

"It would be cowardly to sell out and abandon the country through
fear of those men," said the brother, to whom the proposition was not
pleasant.

"But suppose you should be their next victim?" suggested Jennie, with
a shudder.

"I don't think I shall be a victim," he quietly responded; "this wound
won't bother me long, and with Budd and Grizzly to help, we can laugh
at all the rustlers in the country."

"It is hardly a matter of courage," ventured Sterry, "for no one
knowing you or your sister would question your bravery, but it is
rather the peace of mind of your mother and her. It will be a
long time, if ever, before your parent recovers from the shock of
yesterday. No matter how confident and plucky you may be, Fred, you
know it is no guarantee against a bullet from one of those scamps at
five hundred or a thousand yards. I shudder to think of what might
happen."

Fred turned and looked full in the handsome face of the fellow beside
him.

"It strikes me that you are showing little faith in your own words.
Why do you remain where you are a marked man when there is no need of
it, and where your personal danger is certainly as great as mine?"

This _argumentum ad hominem_ was so unexpected that Sterry was
embarrassed for the moment, but found voice to reply:

"I have no mother and sister dependent on me, as you have."

"But you have brothers, sisters, father and mother, and therefore the
more to mourn if you should fall. The fact is, Mont, I feel that it
is a duty you owe to them to give up the dangerous calling you have
adopted. You not only do not need it, but are squandering time that
ought to be given to the study of your profession, and you have become
so feared and hated by the rustlers that they will go to any length to
'remove' you."

"The more cause, therefore, why I should stay," responded the other.

"A poor argument--"

The discussion was interrupted by the sound of a horse's hoofs. Some
one was riding toward them on a gallop, and speedily loomed to view
in the bright moonlight. The three instinctively ceased speaking and
gazed curiously at the horseman, who reined up in front of where they
were sitting.

Hospitality is limitless in the West, and, before the stranger had
halted, Fred Whitney rose from his chair and walked forward to welcome
him.

The man was in the costume of a cowboy, with rifle, revolver and all
the paraphernalia of the craft.

"Is your name Whitney?" asked the horseman, speaking first.

"It is; what can I do for you?"

"Do you know Mont Sterry?"

"He is a particular friend of mine," replied Whitney, refraining from
adding that he was the young man sitting a few paces away with his
sister and hearing every word said.

"Well, there's a letter for him; if I knew where to find him I would
deliver it myself. Will you hand it to him the next time you meet
him?"

As he spoke he leaned forward from his saddle and handed a sealed
envelope to Fred Whitney, who remarked, as he accepted it:

"I will do as you wish; I expect to see him soon; won't you dismount
and stay over night with us?"

"No; I have business elsewhere," was the curt answer, as the fellow
wheeled and spurred off on a gallop.

Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber, the two hired men, were absent,
looking after the cattle, for the rustler is a night hawk who often
gets in the best part of his work between the set and rise of sun.

Mrs. Whitney was sitting in the gloom, alone in her sorrow. Jennie
wished to stay with her, but the mother gently refused, saying she
preferred to have none with her. No light was burning in the building,
and that night the weather was unusually mild.

Mont Sterry accepted the paper from the hand of his friend and
remarked, with a smile:

"I suspect what it is. When the rustlers don't like a man they have a
frank way of telling him so, supplemented by a little good advice, I
fancy I have been honoured in a similar way."

He deliberately tore open the envelope, while Jennie and her brother
looked curiously at him. The moonlight, although strong, was not
sufficiently so to show the words, which were written in lead-pencil.
Fred Whitney, therefore, struck a match and held it in front of the
paper, while the recipient read in a low voice, loud enough, however,
to be heard in the impressive hush:

    "MONT STERRY: If you stay in the Powder River country twenty-four
    hours longer you are a dead man. Over fifty of us rustlers have
    sworn to shoot you on sight, whether it is at Fort McKinley,
    Buffalo, or on the streets of Cheyenne. I have persuaded the
    majority to hold off for the time named, but not one of them will
    do so an hour longer, nor will I ask them to do so. We are bound
    to make an honest living, and it is weak for me to give you this
    warning, but I do it, repeating that if you are within reach
    twenty-four hours from the night on which this is handed to
    Whitney I will join them in hunting you down, wherever you may be.

    "LARCH CADMUS."



CHAPTER VIII.

GOOD-BYE.


Monteith Sterry read the "warning" through in a voice without the
slightest tremor. Then he quietly smoked his cigar and looked off in
the moonlight, as though thinking of something of a different nature.

It was natural that Jennie Whitney should be more impressed by the
occurrence, with the memory of the recent tragedy crushing her to the
earth. She exclaimed:

"Larch Cadmus! Why, Fred, he has visited our house several times; he
was here last week."

"Yes," replied her brother; "he has often sat at our table; and, by
the way, he is a great admirer of yours."

"Nonsense!" was the response; "why do you say that?"

"It may be nonsense, but it is true, nevertheless. Your mother noticed
it; and, that there might be no mistake, Larch had the impudence to
tell me so himself."

"I never liked him; he is a bad man," said Jennie, much to the relief
of Sterry, who felt a little uncomfortable. "I did not know he
belonged to the rustlers."

"He was a cowboy until last fall. He had a quarrel with Col. Ringgold
and went off with the others, and has been on the blacklist ever
since."

"Why didn't he bring the message himself," continued the sister,
"instead of sending it?"

"He did," was the significant reply of the brother.

"What! That surely was not he?"

"It was. I knew his voice the moment he spoke; those whiskers were
false; he didn't want to be recognized, and I thought it as well to
humor his fancy, but I could not be mistaken."

"Now that I recall it, his voice _did_ resemble Cadmus'," said the
sister, more thoughtfully.

"Of course, and I can tell you something more; he was among the
rustlers with whom we had the fight yesterday. He did his best to kill
me, and came pretty near succeeding. It wasn't he, however, who put
the bullet through my arm, for I dropped that fellow."

"You frighten me!" was all that Jennie Whitney could say.

Sterry still smoked in silence. He was thinking hard, but it was his
turn to be startled by the next remark.

"Larch Cadmus hates you, Mont, not so much because you are the enemy
of all rustlers, but more because he believes my sister holds you in
higher esteem than she does him."

Sterry was clever enough to parry this compliment with considerable
skill.

"For the same reason he is jealous of every gentleman whom Miss
Whitney has ever met, for it would be a sorry tribute to any man's
worth if he did not stand higher in her regard than Larch Cadmus."

"Well spoken!" said the young lady, relieved from what threatened to
become an embarrassing situation for her.

Had her brother chosen he might have expressed what was in his mind,
but he had the good taste to refrain. None knew better than he the
deep, tender affection existing between his friend and his sister,
though it had not yet reached the point of avowal and confession.

"Well, Mont, what are you going to do about it?" asked Whitney.

By way of reply, the latter twisted the "warning" into the form of a
lamplighter. Then he applied a match to one corner, and held the paper
until it had burned to the last fragment.

"That's my opinion of Mr. Larch Cadmus and his gang, and I shall pay
the same attention to them."

"You are not wise," ventured Jennie, who, with the awful memory of
the preceding day upon her, could not but shudder at the peril to her
friend, who had never been quite so near to her as during the last few
hours, when he showed so much tender sympathy for her and her mother
and brother in the depth of their desolation and woe.

"I thank you," he said, with the same manly frankness he had always
shown; "I have no desire to appear as a boaster or to make light of
danger, but one of the truest adages is that it is not the barking dog
that does the biting."

"Don't make the mistake of supposing it is not so in this case," said
Whitney, "and none should know it better than you."

"I do not underestimate the courage of those fellows; they will shrink
at nothing, but there is no more excuse for my running away upon
receiving such a warning than there would be for all the inhabitants
of Wyoming to leave the State at such a command."

"The case is not parallel," was the comment of Fred Whitney.

"Bear in mind that if I stay, as I intend to do, I do not mean to sit
down and wait for those rustlers to pick me off. I count on having
something to say and do in the matter; but, friends, I must bid you
good-night."

"What do you mean?" asked the astonished Fred Whitney.

"I must leave," replied Sterry, rising to his feet; "I have already
staid too long."



CHAPTER IX.

A SUMMONS AND A REPLY.


Brother and sister were astounded. The hour was late, and they had
been urging their guest to remain several days with them. He had not
consented, nor had he refused, from which they were confident he would
stay.

And now he announced his intention of departing at once, riding out
into the night--whither?

They protested, but he replied so earnestly that an urgent necessity
existed that they refrained. He gave no hint of the reason for his
strange action, and they could not ask it. His fleet mare, which
had been allowed to graze on the succulent grass at the rear of the
building with the other horses, was brought forward and saddled and
bridled, and he quickly vaulted upon her back.

"Remember me to your mother; it is not worth while to disturb her; I
hope soon to be with you again."

He leaned over and pressed the hand of Fred Whitney, and then, raising
his hat with his left hand, extended the right to Jennie.

Fred made an excuse to move away a few paces, for he understood the
situation.

"Good-by," Sterry said in a voice just low enough to reach the dear
one, as he pressed the delicate hand which rested so trustingly in his
own.

"Good-by," she answered. "I am sorry you are going."

"So am I, but it is better that I should leave. As I said, I trust
soon to see you again. Do you know why I hope Fred will decide to
return to the East with you and your mother?"

"I suppose because we shall all be safer there;" and then she added,
forgetting her sorrow for the moment, "that is if we do not go skating
to Wolf Glen."

"It is not necessary to remove as far as Maine, but father insists
that I am wasting time here, when I ought to be home studying my
profession."

"And he is right, Monteith."

"But," he replied in a low voice, "before I go back I want to make
sure that you will do the same. There, good-by again."

He replaced his hat, wheeled and dashed across the prairie without
another word.

Jennie stood gazing in the direction taken by him for some time after
he had disappeared in the gloom of the night. Then she turned to speak
to her brother, but he had passed within the house. She resumed her
seat, knowing he would soon return.

Fifteen minutes and more went by and she was still alone.

Sh! Was she mistaken, or was that the faint sound of a horse's hoofs
in the distance?

She turned her head and listened. The murmur of voices, as her brother
and mother talked in low tones, did not disturb her, and the almost
inaudible lowing of the cattle on the distant ranges was but a part of
silence itself.

Hardly a breath of air was stirring, but all knew the eccentric way
in which sound is sometimes carried by it. Suddenly the reports of
rifle-firing were heard, faint but distinct, and lasting several
minutes. Then other and different noises reached her, still faint but
clear.

Her power of hearing, like her vision, was exceptionally strong. It
was that which enabled her to tell that the last sounds were not made
by a single animal, but by several going at a high rate of speed.
These, with the reports of rifles, made her certain that the rustlers
had attacked Sterry.

Meanwhile the young man found matters exceedingly lively.

The reception of the "warning" through the hands of Fred Whitney was
proof that his enemies knew he was frequently at his house. Their
messenger had gone thither to deliver it. Young Whitney had slain one
of their number, and though the law-breakers themselves had suffered
the most, they felt bitter resentment toward the family.

If Sterry remained with them they would have trouble. He was satisfied
that Larch Cadmus recognized him, as he sat in front of the rancher's
house, and would not forget to tell it to his comrades, who would
speedily make the place a visit. He believed they were likely to do it
before the rise of the morrow's sun.

If the Whitneys were attacked, his presence would add to the defensive
strength, but such an attack would not be made if he was not there.
Desperate and defiant as the rustlers had been, it would be an
injustice to represent them as capable of such wantonness.

He felt, therefore, that it was his duty to leave the ranch without
delay, thus removing an element of grave danger. It would have been
hardly wise to make this explanation to them, though he believed Fred
suspected it.

Turning his back, therefore, upon the dearest spot in all the West
to him, he set his mare Queenie on an easy, swift gallop, heading
southward toward the ranges where the cattle of the Whitneys were
grazing.

Sterry, in one sense, was without a home as long as he remained
in Wyoming or Montana, while in another sense he was the owner of
numberless dwelling-places or "headquarters." He may be likened to a
commercial traveller in a vast and sparsely-settled region, where he
is well known and welcomed by the inhabitants.

The ranchmen who knew him--and there were few who did not--were his
friends, for he was working in their interests. At whichever cabin he
drew rein he was certain of a hospitable reception.

With no clearly defined idea of where he would spend the remaining
hours of the night, he turned the nose of Queenie toward the ranges,
among the mountain spurs.

Grizzly Weber and Budd Hankinson would stay near the cattle for an
indefinite time, and he was debating whether to join them or to ride
on to the ranch of Dick Hawkridge, a number of miles to the northeast,
when his meditations were broken in upon in the most startling manner.

During those perilous times, the lonely horseman, in a dangerous
region, relies much on his intelligent steed for warning. While
Monteith Sterry could do a great deal of thinking in the saddle,
he was too alert to drop into a brown study that would divert his
thoughts from his surroundings.

He was no more than a mile from the Whitney ranch when his mare
pricked up her ears, gave an almost inaudible whinny, and slightly
slackened her pace.

That meant that she scented danger, and her rider was on the _qui
vive_.

He tightened the rein and drew her to a full stop. She turned her head
to the right and looked steadily in that direction, with her pretty
ears thrown forward. This meant that whatever impended was coming from
that point of the compass.

But the keen eyes of Mont Sterry could not penetrate the moonlight
sufficiently far to detect anything. He was out of the saddle in a
twinkling, and tried a trick learned from the old hunters. He pressed
one ear against the ground, which, as all know, is a much better
conductor of sound than the air.

This told the story he anticipated. The faint but distinct clamping of
horses' hoofs was heard. The number was indefinite, but, somewhat to
his surprise, none of them was running or loping; all were moving on a
walk.

The noise was so clear that when he rose to his feet and looked off to
the right he expected to see the animals and their riders, and he was
not disappointed.

On the outer margin of the field of vision the outlines of several
horsemen assumed shape. They were approaching, and one of their steeds
emitted a whinny, as a salutation to the motionless Queenie, who had
shifted her pose so as to face that point of the compass.

"Sh!" whispered Sterry to her.

But there was no call for the warning; she was too well trained to
betray her master, and remained mute.

But it was inevitable that if the young man could discern the figures
of the approaching horsemen, they must also see him. He leaped into
the saddle and turned away.

He knew instinctively they were rustlers, and he was almost equally
certain they were hunting for him. There were at least three; and,
well aware of their character, he was only prudent in shying off, with
the intention of avoiding them altogether.

But they were not the men to be bluffed in that fashion. They were
"out" for the inspector, and did not intend that such an opportunity
should slip by unchallenged.

"Hello, pard!" called one of the trio, "where from and where going?"

This was a pointed demand, to which Mont Sterry made an equally
pointed response.

"That is my own business; I will attend to it, and you may attend to
yours."

All this time he was keeping watch of their movements. Their horses
were still walking, but they were now coming straight toward him. At a
touch of the rein Queenie headed directly away, and her gait was about
the same. She acted as though she shared the thoughts of her master,
who shrank from sending her off on a flying run, as would have been
more prudent for him to do.

A brave man dislikes to flee, even when his better judgment tells him
it is the only wise thing to do.

The night was so still that Sterry plainly heard the words of the men
when talking to each other in an ordinary conversational tone.

"I believe that's him," said one of them, eagerly.

"It sounded like his voice, but he wouldn't leave the Whitneys at this
time of night when she's there."

"He's too free with his tongue, anyway; we'll make him show up."

"Say, you! hold on a minute. Do you know anything about Mont Sterry?
We're looking for him."

"I am Mont Sterry," was the defiant response. "What do you propose to
do about it?"



CHAPTER X.

A HOT PURSUIT.


It may be said Mont Sterry answered his own question at the moment of
asking it, for, bringing his Winchester to his shoulder, he let fly at
the rustlers, and then with a word and touch of the spur sent Queenie
bounding away with arrowy swiftness.

Unquestionably it was a daring act on his part, but there was wisdom
in it. He knew those men were seeking his life, and would shoot him,
as they had threatened to do, on sight. When they met, it would be a
question simply as to which got the drop on the other.

They were preparing to make a rush at him, and while he had no fear
of a contest of speed between Queenie and any animal that "wore
horse-hair," they were altogether too near at the beginning of the
contest, and the chance of using their rifles was too much against
him.

The crack of the Winchester accompanying his sharp reply, with the
whistle of the bullet about their heads, gave them a momentary shock,
which delayed the pursuit for a few precious seconds.

This was the object of the fugitive, for, while that brief interval
was thrown away by them, he improved it to the utmost. At such crises
a few rods count immensely, and they were made to count on the side of
Mont Sterry.

They were insufficient, however, to take him beyond peril. Men like
those horsemen are quick to recover from a surprise, and it would have
seemed that Sterry was hardly started in his flight when they were
speeding after him. He heard their maledictions and knew that the
struggle for life was on.

Comparatively brief as had been the time spent in the West by Sterry,
he had not neglected his education along the lines indispensable to
those following his manner of living. At the moment of giving Queenie
rein he flung himself forward on her neck, hugging it close and
uttering an involuntary prayer that the bullets might pass harmlessly
by him and his horse.

There were enough of the missiles to kill several men, but the chance
for aiming was so poor that even such fine marksmen as the rustlers
had little chance. The mare was only dimly discernible, and she, like
their own horses, was going at full speed.

Had the sun been shining the result must have been widely different.

The encounter with these men was so unexpected and the several changes
of direction by Queenie so sudden and unavoidable that Sterry was not
given a chance to take his bearings. The one object was to get as far
from them as possible in the quickest time in which it could be done.

When that distance became a safe one it would be soon enough to give
attention to the points of the compass.

Nobly did Queenie do her duty. She had carried her master out of many
a peril, and she could be counted on to do it as long as the ability
remained with her. Sterry's anxiety was really more on her account
than on his own. He knew there was little danger of himself being
struck by the bullets of the rustlers, who, as I have shown, had no
possible chance of taking any sort of aim, but she was a conspicuous
target, which it would seem they ought to hit with little difficulty.

Often must a person in the situation of Sterry leave everything to his
horse. He did not seek to guide Queenie, but sat, or rather lay, in
the saddle and on her neck, as she skimmed like a swallow over the
undulating prairie.

Strange imaginings were in the brain of the young man during those
few minutes. He listened to each shot of the Winchesters, and then,
instead of feeling any apprehension for himself, waited for the
dreaded evidence that his horse had been struck.

The skilful railway engineer, sitting in his cab, with his hand on the
throttle, can discover, on the instant, the slightest disarrangement
in the mass of intricate mechanism over which he holds control. His
highly trained senses enable him to feel it like a flash. So it was
that Mont Sterry would have detected any injury to his horse as
quickly as she herself. No matter if but the abrasion of the skin, the
puncture of the flesh, or the nipping of an ear, she would betray it
involuntarily.

If she were wounded and should fall, the situation of her rider would
be well-nigh hopeless. He could only throw himself behind her body and
have it out with his enemies. Such a defence has been successfully
made many a time by white men against Indians; but Sterry would not
be fighting Crows nor Sioux, but those of his own race and blood, as
brave and skilful as he.

"Thank God!" he murmured, after each shot, as the splendid play of the
machinery under him continued without a break or tremor; "she was not
hit that time. She is running at her best."

Once his heart stood still, for she seemed to quiver through her body,
as if involuntarily shrinking from the prick of a sword.

In his alarm, Sterry rose to an upright posture in the saddle, and
leaning to the right and left, and looking forward and behind him,
searched for the wound. He hardly expected to see it, for it would
have been beyond his sight in any one of a dozen different portions of
the body.

But if in one of the limbs, it would quickly show in the gait of the
animal.

"No," he murmured, "there is no change of pace; it could not have been
much, and it may be she was not hit at all."

The rustlers fired two shots at this moment, when the horseman was
more of a target than his animal, but he gave no heed to that; it was
she for whom he felt concern.

A glance backward brought a thrill of hope. The distance between him
and his pursuers had perceptibly increased. Queenie was showing her
heels to those who dared dispute with her the supremacy of fleetness.
She would soon leave them out of sight, unless it should prove she was
disabled by some of the shots.

All would have gone well but for the appearance of a new danger of
which he did not dream.

Suddenly Queenie emitted her faint, familiar whinny, and swerved to
the left. She had scented a new peril.

In the gloom almost directly ahead loomed the figures of other
horsemen bearing down upon the fugitive. They might be friends, and
they might be enemies, but it would not do to take chances. Without
an instant's hesitation Sterry wheeled to the left and spoke to his
horse:

"Now, Queenie, do your best."

The mare responded with the same gameness she always showed; but the
situation had suddenly become so grave that Monteith Sterry assuredly
would have been overwhelmed and cut off but for one of the most
extraordinary occurrences that ever came to any person in the
extremity of danger.



CHAPTER XI.

A STRANGE DIVERSION.


It was the wonderful sagacity of the little mare which intervened at
this crisis in the fate of her rider.

She was no more than fairly stretched away on a dead run from the new
peril when she shot into an arroya or depression in the prairie. Such
a depression suggests the dry bed of a stream through which the water
may not have flowed for years. It is sometimes a few feet only in
width, and again it may be a number of rods. The rich, alluvial soil
often causes a luxuriant growth of grass, cottonwood or bush, which
affords the best of grazing and refuge for any one when hard pressed
by the enemy.

The arroya into which Queenie plunged had gently sloping sides, and
was perhaps fifty feet wide. The bottom was covered not only with
grass, but with the thin undergrowth to which allusion has been made,
and which was so frail in character that it offered no impediment to
the passage of a running horse.

Sterry's expectation was that his mare would shoot across the
depression and up the other bank with the least possible delay; but of
her own accord, and without suggestion from him, she turned abruptly
to the left and dropped to a walk.

He was astounded, and was on the point of speaking impatiently to her
as he jerked the bridle-rein, when the occurrence already referred to
took place, and made the action of the animal seem like an inspiration
or instinct approaching the height of reason.

At the moment she made the sharp turn to the left, another horseman
galloped up the opposite slope and off upon the prairie. By an amazing
coincidence it happened that he was in the arroya, and in the act of
crossing in the same direction with the fugitive, when the furious
plunge of the mare sent his own bounding up the farther bank.

Sterry caught the situation like a flash. Before Queenie had gone more
than a half-dozen rods he brought her to a standstill. They resembled
an equestrian statue, so motionless were they for a full minute.

The converging parties of pursuers could plainly see the second
horseman speeding away from the other side, and inevitably concluded
that he was the inspector whom they wanted. They were after him
hot-footed on the instant.

This man was Ira Inman, a well-known rustler, and the intimate friend
of Larch Cadmus. When he saw himself pursued by a half-dozen of
his friends he reined up, and calmly but wonderingly awaited their
arrival, which took place within the next few seconds.

"Up with your hands! Quick about it, too! You're the man we want!"

"Wal," replied the leader, surveying them with a grin, and paying no
heed to their fierce commands, "now that you've got me, what are you
going to do with me?"

If there ever were a set of dumbfounded men, they were the rustlers
who closed about the leader and recognized him in the moonlight. The
remarks that followed his identification were as ludicrous as they
were vigourous.

The majority believed he had played a trick on them in pretending to
be Mont Sterry, whom all were so anxious to bring down; but there
were one or two who were not satisfied. They knew the voice of the
inspector, which in no way resembled the gruff tones of Inman. Then,
their leader was not given to practical jokes.

"What set you to hunting me so hard?" he asked, after the first flurry
was over.

"We're looking for Mont Sterry."

"Wal, what made you take me for him? Do I look like him in the
moonlight?"

"But you said you were, and fired at us," explained one.

"Fired at you? Said I was that chap? What in the mischief are you
driving at?"

One, who suspected the truth, now interposed.

"We did meet Sterry and hailed him; you must have heard our guns; he
dashed into the arroya; we saw you gallop out on t'other side, and
took you for him."

"Ah, I understand it all now," replied Inman; "I had ridden down there
on my way back from a little scout, when a horseman dashed into the
slope behind me like a thunderbolt. My horse was so scared that he
went up the other side on the jump, and before I could turn around to
find out what it all meant, you lunkheads came down on me with the
request to oblige you by throwing up my hands, which I will see you
hanged before I'll do."

"But where is he? What has become of him?" asked several, looking
around, as thought they expected to see the young man ride forward and
surrender himself.

"Wal, calling to mind the kind of horse he rides, I should say he is
about a half-mile off by this time, laughing to find out how cleverly
he has fooled you chaps."

"It looks as if you was in the same boat, Inman," retorted one of the
chagrined party.

"I wasn't chasing Sterry."

"He seemed to be chasing you, for you came out of the arroya ahead of
him."

"If he was chasing me," replied the leader, who felt that the laugh
was on his companions, "he would have followed me out; but I don't see
anything of him;" and he, too, stared around, as though not sure the
man would not do the improbable thing named.

"It was a blamed cute trick, any way you look at it," remarked one of
the party. "It was queer that you should have been there, Inman, just
at the minute needed. But for that, we would have had him, sure."

"Wal, you can make up your mind that we have him as good as catched
already. He can't get out of the country without some of the boys
running against him, and the first rustler that catches sight of Mr.
Sterry will drop him in his tracks."

"If he gets the chance to do it," was the wise comment of another.
"That fellow is quick on the shoot and isn't afraid of any of us."

"He ain't the first one that's made that mistake, only to find himself
rounded up at last. Larch Cadmus' idea of 24 hours' notice don't go
down with this crowd, eh?"

And the crowd unanimously responded in the negative.



CHAPTER XII.

THE BACK TRAIL.


Mont Sterry had wisdom enough to turn to the fullest account the
remarkable advantage gained through the sagacity of his mare.

His pursuers, in their haste to head him off, had dashed across the
arroya at a point only a short distance above where he entered and
their leader emerged from it. They were sure to discover the truth in
a short time.

Waiting, therefore, only until they had passed beyond, he rode his
horse a few rods along the depression, and then left it on the same
side by which he had ridden into it.

Unconsciously he fell into an error of which he was not dreaming. In
the short distance passed, the arroya made a sweeping curve, and he
had repeatedly changed his own course since leaving the Whitney ranch.
Thus it was almost inevitable that he should get the points of the
compass mixed, and that he should follow a route widely different from
the one intended.

Had he paused long enough to note the position of the full moon in the
heavens, or the towering Big Horn Mountains, he would have gained an
approximate idea of where he was; but, despite his experience in the
West, he galloped forward at an easy canter, with never a suspicion of
the blunder he was making.

He was on the alert for rustlers, and kept glancing to the right and
left, and to the front and rear. As has been shown, he had little fear
of being overtaken in a chase where he was given an equal chance with
his pursuers, but his narrow escape rendered him more apprehensive
than usual.

"I thought of staying with Weber and Hankinson to-night," he mused,
"but I think it hardly prudent. The rustlers may pay them a visit, and
my presence will only make matters worse; and yet those fellows don't
want to start up a band of regulators who will shoot them down without
mercy, and that's just what will take place if they carry their
outrages too far."

"My death won't bring the regulators into existence," he grimly
reflected, "for one man, more or less, doesn't count; but there is
much bitter feeling in the country."

Once he thought he caught the sounds of horses' feet on the prairie,
and checked his mare to listen, but she gave no evidence of
suspicion--a thing she was sure to do, if the cause existed.

Sterry was so well satisfied by this fact that he did not dismount to
test the matter as before. He rode on, however, and held her down to a
walk.

His eventless course had continued some minutes before a thought came
to him of the direction he was following, with the possibility that he
was wrong.

"I wonder if we are on the right track, Queenie?" he said, addressing
his animal, as was his custom when they were alone. "It would be
strange if we didn't drift away from our bearings. Hello! that can't
be Dick Hawkridge's ranch; we haven't gone far enough for that; but
what the mischief can it be, unless a fire that some one has started
in the open?"

The starlike twinkle of a point of light suddenly shone out directly
in advance. It puzzled him by appearing only for a moment, when it
vanished as quickly as it entered his field of vision.

This fact suggested that it was within some dwelling and had been
extinguished, or was shut from sight by being moved past a window or
open door to another point in the interior.

"We are so near, Queenie, we may as well go farther," he added, not
unmindful of his danger from those who were making such a hot search
for him. He kept his horse on a walk, maintaining a keen watch between
the dainty ears that were already pricked up as if she knew something
was likely to happen quite soon.

Advancing in this deliberate fashion, the outline of one of those
long, low wooden structures so common in the West was gradually defied
in the moonlight, and he knew he was approaching the home of some
ranchman.

But whose? was the question that perplexed him. He recalled that some
of his travelling had been done at a high rate of speed, but the
distance between the Whitney and Hawkridge ranches was fully a dozen
miles, and he was sure that that space had not been covered by him
since bidding his friends good-by earlier in the evening, especially
as he had not followed a direct course.

"Can it be?" he exclaimed, with a sudden suspicion. "Yes, by gracious!
What a blunder!"

The exclamation was caused by the sight of a young man, with one arm
in a sling, who came forward to welcome him.

He had returned to the Whitney home, which he supposed was miles away,
and this was his old friend Fred, who came smilingly forward and said,
as he recognized him:

"I am glad, indeed, to see you, Mont; we heard the sound of the firing
and feared that something had happened to you."

"Nothing at all, thank you, and nothing to Queenie--but that reminds
me," he added, slipping out of the saddle; "she acted once as though
she had been hit, though it wasn't bad enough to show itself in her
gait."

The two made a hasty examination but discovered nothing; proof that,
as her owner said, the wound, if any, was too slight to trouble her.

"Fred, what do you think of my coming back to you in this fashion?"
abruptly asked Sterry, with a laugh, looking around in his friend's
face.

"The most sensible thing you could have done; it redeems your
foolishness in leaving us as you did."

"But my return was involuntary."

"How was that?"

"I thought I was miles distant, and had no idea of my location until I
caught the outlines of your house; I assure you I contemplated no such
performance as this."

"Well, you're here, so what's the use of talking unless you mean to
mount your mare and try it again."

"Hardly that; I have too much mercy on her."

The couple walked past the dwelling to the rude but roomy shelter at
the rear where the horses were sometimes placed when not in use, or
when the severity of the weather made the protection necessary. There
the saddle, bridle and trappings were removed from the mare, and she
was made comfortable. Then the two returned to their seats at the
front of the building, to smoke and chat a few minutes before retiring
for the night.



CHAPTER XIII.

A CONSULTATION.


That mysterious warm-air current known as the Chinook wind steals
through the depressions of the Rocky Mountains, at certain seasons
of the year, from the mild surface of the Pacific, and tempers the
severity of the winters in some portions of Montana, Wyoming, and
the great West to a degree that renders them milder than many places
farther south.

It was early in the month of May, when even in the Middle States it is
not often comfortable to remain seated out of doors after the close of
day, but Sterry and Whitney found it pleasant to occupy their chairs
in front of the building, with no other protection then their own warm
garments.

Whitney's wound was doing so well that he expressed himself ashamed
to wear his arm in a sling. He freed it from the support, moved it
readily about, and declared that after the next morning he would no
longer shirk duty.

In one sense, Monteith Sterry was disappointed. He hoped they would be
joined by Jennie, from whom he parted earlier in the evening, but he
reflected that the hour was late, and she probably felt that her duty
was with her sorrowing mother.

"She belongs there," he concluded, "and I respect her for doing her
duty."

But she heard the murmur of voices after they had talked a few
minutes, and appeared at the outer door, where she greeted her friend
and listened with an intensity of interest that may be imagined to
his account of his brush with the rustlers. Although she had become
accustomed to danger during her life in the West, there could be no
mistaking her solicitude for him. She said little, however, and,
excusing herself, bade the two good-night.

"I tell you," said her brother, when she was gone, "if you stay, or
rather attempt to stay, in this section, Mont, it is suicide--nothing
more nor less."

"Well, I know times are likely to be warm, but, hang it, I can't bear
the thought of being run out of Wyoming. It's a mighty big State, and
there ought to be room enough for me."

"You persist in treating it lightly, but it is no trifling matter;
you have been warned; were shot at, when we had our flurry with the
rustlers; and, even while attempting to ride across the country,
had the narrowest escape of your life--an escape so curious that it
couldn't be repeated in a hundred years."

"It's the unexpected that happens."

"Not so often as the expected. Mont, what made you leave us so
abruptly to-night?"

"O, I can hardly tell," replied the other, carelessly flinging one leg
over the other and puffing at his cigar, as though the matter was of
no importance.

"I know; you believed that if you stayed here you would increase the
peril to us."

"You've hit it exactly; that was it."

"What sort of friends do you take us to be?"

"That isn't it; rather, what sort of friend would I be, thus knowingly
to place you and your mother and sister in danger? If those rustlers
knew where I am, a dozen would be here before sunrise."

"What of it? We are ready for them."

"That's a poor answer to my statement; you had enough of that woeful
business yesterday; they hold me in such hatred that they would burn
down your place, if they could reach me in no other way."

"And yet you propose to stay in Wyoming and have it out with them?"

"I haven't said that," remarked Sterry, more thoughtfully; "I may soon
leave for a more civilized section, much as I hate to play the seeming
coward; but what you said about my parents, brothers and sisters at
home, gave me something to think over while riding across the prairie
to-night."

"I shall hate to lose your company, for it is like old times to
talk over our school days, but I would not be a friend to allow my
selfishness to stand in the way of your good."

Sterry smoked a moment in silence, and then flung away his cigar and
turned abruptly on his companion.

"Fred, if you could have prevented what took place yesterday by
sacrificing every dollar of the property you have in Wyoming, you
would have done it."

"Yes, God knows I would have done it a thousand times over; mother
will never recover from the blow."

"And yet you may be the next to fall during this frightful state of
affairs. If the situation of your mother and sister is so sad because
of the loss of the head of the household, what will it be if you
should be taken?"

"I appreciate your kindness, Mont, but you put the case too strongly;
in one sense we all stand in danger of sudden death every day. I might
live to threescore and ten in Wyoming, and be killed in a railroad
accident or some other way the first day I left it. There is no
particular enmity between the rustlers and me; that brush yesterday
was one of those sudden outbursts that was not premeditated by them."

"It didn't look that way to me."

"You were not there when it opened. They were driving a lot of
mavericks toward their ranch down the river, when Budd Hankinson saw
a steer among them with our brand. You know it--a sort of cross with
father's initials. Without asking for its return, Budd called them a
gang of thieves, cut out the steer and drove him toward our range. If
he had gone at the thing in the right way there would have been no
trouble, but his ugly words made them mad, and the next thing we were
all shooting at each other."

"You inflicted more harm than they, and they won't forget it."

"I don't want them to forget it," said Fred, bitterly, "but they won't
carry their enmity to the extent of making an unprovoked attack on me
or any of my people."

"Possibly not, but you don't want to bank on the theory."

"You must not forget," continued the practical Whitney, "that all we
have in the world is invested in this business, and it would be a
sacrifice for us to sell out and move eastward, where I would be
without any business."

"You could soon make one for yourself."

"Well," said Whitney, thoughtfully, "I will promise to turn it over
in my mind; the associations, however, that will always cling to this
place, and particularly my sympathy for mother and Jennie, will be the
strongest influences actuating me, provided I decide to change."

Mont Sterry experienced a thrill of delight, for he knew that when
a man talks in that fashion he is on the point of yielding. He
determined to urge the matter upon Jennie, and there was just enough
hope in his heart that the prospect of being on the same side of the
Mississippi with him would have some slight weight.

"I am glad to hear you speak thus, for it is certain there will be
serious trouble with the rustlers."

"All which emphasizes what I said earlier in the evening about your
duty to make a change of location."

The proposition, now that there was reason to believe that Fred
Whitney had come over to his way of thinking, struck Sterry more
favourably than before. In fact he reflected, with a shudder, what a
dismal, unattractive section this would be, after the removal of his
friends.

"I shall not forget your words; what you said has great influence with
me, and you need not be surprised if I bid adieu to Wyoming within a
week or a few days."

"It can't be too soon for your own safety, much as we shall regret to
lose your company."



CHAPTER XIV.

UNWELCOME CALLERS.


Although Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber were removed from the scene
of the events described, the night was not to pass without their
becoming actors in some stirring incidents.

Ordinarily they would have spent the hours of darkness at the ranch of
their employer, for the immense herds of cattle, as a rule, required
no looking after. The ranges over which they grazed were so extensive
that they were left to themselves, sometimes wandering for many miles
from the home of their owner. They might not be seen for days and
weeks. Their brands and the universal respect in which such proof of
proprietorship was held prevented, as a rule, serious loss to the
owners.

But the date will be recognized by the reader as one of a peculiarly
delicate nature, when men were obliged to look more closely after
their rights than usual.

The couple, therefore, rode behind the cattle to the foothills, along
which they were expected to graze for an indefinite time. Hustlers
were abroad, and the occurrences of the previous day had inflamed the
feeling between them and the cowmen. It was not unlikely that, having
been beaten off, some of them might take the means of revenging
themselves by stealing a portion of the herd.

Budd and Weber dismounted after reaching the foothills, and, without
removing the saddles from their horses, turned them loose to graze for
themselves. No fear of their wandering beyond recall. A signal would
bring them back the moment needed.

The hardy ranchers seated themselves with their backs against a broad,
flat rock, which rose several feet above their heads. The bits were
slipped from the mouths of their horses, so as to allow them to crop
the succulent grass more freely, while the men gave them no attention,
even when they gradually wandered beyond sight in the gloom.

"Times are getting lively in these parts," remarked Weber, as he
filled his brierwood and lit it; "this thing can't go on forever; the
rustlers or cowmen have got to come out on top, and I'm shot if one
can tell just now which it will be."

"There can only be one ending," quietly replied his companion, whose
pipe, being already lit, was puffed with the deliberate enjoyment of a
veteran; "the rustlers may stir things up, and I s'pose they've got to
get worse before they get better, but what's the use? It's like a mob
or a riot; the scamps have things their own way at first, but they
knuckle under in the end."

"I guess you're right; that was bad business yesterday; I shouldn't
wonder if it ended in the young folks moving East again with their
mother, whose heart is broke by the death of her husband."

"The younker is too plucky a chap to light out 'cause the governor has
been sent under; he's had better luck than most tenderfeet who come
out here and start in the cattle bus'ness; he done well last year, and
if the rustlers let him alone, he'll do a good deal better this year;
he may move, but he ain't agoin' to let them chaps hurry him, you can
make up your mind to that."

The couple smoked a minute or two in silence. Then Weber, without
removing his pipe from between his lips, uttered the words:

"Budd, something's going to happen powerful soon."

Hankinson, also keeping his pipe between his lips, turned his head and
looked wonderingly at his friend. He did not speak, but the action
told his curiosity; he did not understand the words.

"I mean what I say," added Weber, shaking his head; "I know it."

"What do you mean? Something happens every night and every day."

"That isn't what I'm driving at; something's going to happen afore
daylight; you and me ain't through with this work."

Hankinson was still dissatisfied. He took his pipe from his mouth,
and, looking sideways at his friend, asked:

"Can't you come down to facts and let a fellow know what you're
driving at?"

"I don't exactly know myself, but I feel it in my left leg."

At this strange remark the other laughed heartily and silently. He had
little patience with superstition. He knew his friend held peculiar
whims in that respect. Weber expected something in the nature of
scoffing and was prepared for it. He spoke doggedly:

"It has never deceived me. Six years ago, when we was trying to round
up Geronimo and his Apache imps, ten of us camped in the Moggollon
Mountains. Hot! Well, you never knowed anything like it. All day long
the metal of our guns would blister our naked hands; we didn't get a
drop of water from sunup till sundown; we was close on to the trail of
the varmints, and we kept at it by moonlight till our horses gave out
and we tumbled out among the rocks so used up that we could hardly
stand. Our lieutenant was a bright young chap from South Car'lina that
had come out of West Point only that summer, but he was true blue and
warn't afeared of anything. We all liked him. I had seen him fight
when a dozen of the Apaches thought they had us foul, and I was proud
of him. He belonged to a good family, though that didn't make him any
better than anyone else, but he treated us white.

"So when we went into camp, I goes to him and I says, says I,
'Lieutenant, there's going to be trouble.' He looked up at me in his
pleasant way and asks, 'What makes you think so, Grizzly?' The others
was listening, but I didn't mind that, and out with it. ''Cause,' says
I, 'my left leg tells me so.'

"'And how does your leg tell you?' he asked again, with just a faint
smile that wasn't anything like the snickers and guffaws of the other
chaps. 'Whenever a twitch begins at the knee and runs down to my
ankle,' says I, 'that is in the left leg, and then keeps darting back
and forth and up and down, just as though some one was pricking it
with a needle, do you know what it says?'

"'I'm sure I don't, but I'd like to know.'

"'Injins! Varmints! They're nigh you; look out!'

"Wal, instead of j'ining the others in laughing at me, he says; just
as earnest-like as if it was the colonel that had spoke, 'If that's
the case, Grizzly, why we'll look out; you have been in this business
afore I was born and I am glad you told me. I didn't s'pose any of 'em
was within miles of us, but it's easy to be mistaken.'

"Wal, to make a long story short we didn't any of us go to sleep; the
boys laughed at what I said, but the way the lieutenant acted showed
'em he believed me, and that was enough. The Apaches come down on us
that night and wiped out two of the boys. If the lieutenant hadn't
showed his good sense by believing what I told him, there wouldn't
have been one of us left."

Budd Hankinson then crossed his legs, extended on the ground as they
were, shoved his sombrero back on his head, with his Winchester
resting against the rock behind him, and smoked his pipe after the
manner of a man who is pondering a puzzling question. The latter
assumed much the same position, but, having said sufficient, was not
disposed to speak until after the other had given his opinion.

"Grizzly, when your leg warns you like that, does it speak plain
enough to tell you the sort of danger that's coming? Does it say what
hour; where the trouble is to come from, and who them that make the
trouble will be?"

"No!" replied the other, contemptuously; "how could a fellow's leg do
that?"

"How could it do anything 'cept help tote him around when he wanted it
to?"

"I've just explained, that twitching is a warning--that's all. I
'spose the leg thinks that's enough; so it is."

"There ain't any Apaches or Comanches in this part of the world."

"But there's rustlers, and where's the ch'ice?"

"Wal, Grizzly, all I've got to say is let 'em come; it ain't the
first time we've seen 'em, and we're ginerally ready for 'em. We was
yesterday, and I reckon we'll get there, all the same, to-night or
to-morrow morning."

Grizzly Weber felt it his duty to be more explicit.

"The night I was telling you about down in Arizona wasn't the only
time my leg signaled to me. While it allers means that something is
going to come, it doesn't always mean it'll amount to much. It has
happened that only a slight flurry follored. That may be the case
to-night."

"What's to be done? Are we to set here on the ground and wait for it?
I was going to take turns with you watching, but I guess we hadn't
better go to sleep yet."

"You can sleep till near morning if you like, and when I want to lay
down I'll wake you, but afore you do that I'll take a look around."

Weber rose to his feet, yawned, stretched his long, muscular arms,
looked about him and listened. The moonlight enabled him to see only a
comparatively short distance in any direction. Near-by were the forms
of several cattle stretched upon the ground and sleeping. One or two
were still chewing their cuds, but the scene was suggestive of rest
and quiet, the reverse of what he told his friend was coming.

The horses had drifted too far off to be visible, but it was certain
they were within signal distance. Rocks, stunted undergrowth, bushes,
and the rich, luxuriant grass met the eye everywhere. Thousands of
cattle were scattered over an area of many acres, and, unless molested
by dishonest persons, would be within ready reach when the time for
the round-up arrived. Neither eye nor ear could detect anything of the
peril which the rancher believed impended with the same faith that he
believed the sun would rise on the following morning.

That faith could not be shaken by the profound quiet. Without speaking
again to his friend he strolled toward the north, that is parallel
with the spur along whose slope the cattle were grazing. As he moved
forward they were continually in sight. Most of them were lying on
the ground, but a few were on their feet, browsing and acquiring the
luscious plumpness which has made that section one of the most famous
grazing regions of the Union. They paid no attention to the rancher
while making his way around, among and past them. They were too
accustomed to the sight of the sturdy cattleman to be disturbed by
him.

An eighth of a mile from the rock where he had left his comrade, Weber
once more paused. Nothing as yet had come to confirm that peculiar
warning described, but his faith knew no weakening on that account.

From a long way came the sound of rifle-firing, sometimes rapid, and
sometimes consisting of dropping shots.

"They're at it somewhere," muttered the rancher; "it doesn't come from
the ranch, so I guess the folks are all right."

The reports were too far off for him to feel any interest in them;
that which was foretold by the twitching of his limb must come much
closer to answer the demands of the occasion.

Weber resumed his walk around and among the prostrate animals. He was
on the alert, glancing to the right and left, and speculating as to
the nature of the "trouble" that could not be far off.

Through the impressive stillness he caught a subdued sound which
caused him again to stop in his walk and listen. His keen vision could
discover nothing, nor was he certain of the nature of the disturbance.

He knelt down and pressed his ear to the ground. That told the story;
several hundred of the herd were in motion and moving away from him.
They would not do this of their own accord, and the rancher translated
its meaning at once; they were being driven off.

He broke into a loping trot toward the threatened point, holding his
Winchester ready for instant use. As he was likely to need his horse,
he placed his fingers between his lips and emitted the whistle by
which he was accustomed to summon the faithful beast. Then he sent out
a different call. That was for the listening ears of Budd Hankinson,
who would be sure to hasten to his comrade.

But Weber did not wait for man or animal. They could come as fast as
they chose. The case was too urgent to admit of delay.

He believed the moving cattle were hardly a furlong distant, but they
were not only going at a rapid pace, but were moving directly away
from where the rancher had halted.

He could run as swiftly and as long as an Indian, but the course was
difficult, and he believed the cattle were going so fast that he was
gaining little if anything on them. When he had run a short way he
stopped and glanced impatiently back in the gloom.

"Why doesn't Cap hurry?" he muttered, referring to his horse; "he must
have heard my call, and he never lets it pass him. Budd, too, don't
want to break his neck trying to overtake me."

His impatience made him unjust. Neither man nor beast had had time to
come up, even though each had set out at their best speed the moment
they heard the signal. They would be on hand in due course, unless
prevented.

Weber called them again, with a sharp, peremptory signal, which could
not fail to apprise both of the urgency of the case. Then, afraid of
losing any advantage, he pushed after the fleeing cattle. The figures
of the sleeping animals around him grew fewer in number. By and by
none was to be seen. He had passed the outer boundary of those that
were left, and was now tramping over the section from which they had
been stampeded or driven by the rustlers.

He dropped to the ground again. But it was only to use the earth as a
medium of hearing. The multitudinous trampings became distinct once
more. The cattle were running, proof that the thieves were pressing
them hard and were in fear of pursuit.

Leaping up again, the rancher peered backward in the moonlight.
Something took shape, and he identified the figure of a man
approaching. The Winchester was grasped and half aimed, so as to be
ready for instant use.

But it was his friend, who was coming on the run. Budd Hankinson had
heard the call, and obeyed it with surprising promptness.

"What's up?" he asked, as he halted, breathing not a whit faster
because of his unusual exertion.

"They're running off some of the cattle; where's the hosses?"

"Hanged if I know! I called to Dick the minute I started, but he
didn't show up; I don't know were he is."

"I whistled for Cap at the same time I did for you; he ought to
be here first. I wonder if they've stolen him?" added Weber,
affrightedly.

"No, they wouldn't have come that close; they didn't have the chance;
but it gets me."

With that he sent out the signal once more. Budd did the same, and
then they broke into their swift, loping trot after the fleeing
animals, both in an ugly mood.

They were at great disadvantage without their own horses when it was
clear the rustlers were mounted. But, though on foot, the ranchers
could travel faster than the gait to which the cattle had been forced.
They increased their speed, and it was quickly evident they were
gaining on the rogues.

It was not long before they discerned the dark bodies galloping off in
alarm. Almost at the same moment the ranchers saw the outlines of
two horsemen riding from right to left, and goading the cattle to an
injuriously high pace. Grizzly Weber, who was slightly in advance,
turned his head and said, in excitement:

"Budd, they're not rustlers; they're Injins!"



CHAPTER XV.

THE "DOG INDIANS."


Weber was right in his declaration that the parties who were
stampeding a part of the herd were Indians. They were two in number,
both superbly mounted, and dashing back and forth with great
swiftness, as they urged the animals to a frantic flight. They knew
the danger of pursuit and the value of time.

The rancher, who shouted to his companion, was a few paces in advance
at the exciting moment he made the discovery. The sight so angered him
that he stopped abruptly and brought his rifle to his shoulder, with
the intention of shooting the marauder from his horse.

This would have been done the next instant but for the exclamation of
Grizzly Weber. Despite the noise and confusion, the Indian heard him
and saw his danger. Before the rancher could sight his weapon the
thief seemed to plunge headlong over the further side of his steed;
but instead of doing so he resorted to the common trick of his people,
all of whom are unsurpassable horsemen. He flung himself so far over
that nothing of his body remained visible. The horse himself became
the shield between him and the white man. The redskin was in the
saddle, but he would have been just as expert had he been riding
bareback.

Weber muttered his disappointment, but held his rifle ready to fire
the instant he caught sight of any part of the fellow's person. At any
rate, a recourse was open to him; he could shoot the horse, and thus
place his enemy on the same footing with himself. He decided to do so.

The hurly-burly was bewildering. The cattle were bellowing in
affright, galloping frenziedly before the two horsemen, dashing back
and forth among them at the rear like two lunatics, and goading them
to desperate haste.

At the instant the Indian whom Grizzly Weber selected as his man
eluded his fatal aim, his horse was running diagonally. This could not
be continued without the abandonment of the herd. He must wheel, to
come back behind the fleeing cattle. The rancher waited for that
moment, prepared to fire the instant any tangible part of the body of
the rogue was revealed by the moonlight.

But an astonishing exploit prevented the shot. The savage wheeled,
just as was anticipated, but, in the act of doing so, threw himself
for a second time over the side of his horse, so as to interpose his
body. He did it with such inimitable dexterity that the rancher was
baffled.

All this took place in a twinkling, as may be said; but, brief as
was the time, it caused Weber to lose valuable ground. The horse was
growing dimmer in the gloom, and, unless checked, would quickly be
beyond reach of the Winchester still levelled at him. Nothing was
easier than to drive a bullet through his brain and then have it out
with the Indian. Possibly the single bullet would end the career of
both.

Budd Hankinson called out something, but Grizzly Weber did not catch
it. With grim resolution he sighted as best he could in the moonlight
at the galloping steed, and then with a shiver lowered his weapon
undischarged, awed by the sudden discovery of the deed he had come
within a hair of committing.

The erratic motions of the Indian and his horse entangled both with
the flying cattle. All at once the nimble steed became so crowded on
every side that his only escape from being gored to death was by a
tremendous bound which he made over the back of a terrified steer who
lowered his head for the purpose of driving his horns into his body.
He made the leap with amazing skill and grace.

As he went up in the air, with the Indian clinging to his side,
the astonishing leap was executed with perfect ease, precision and
perfectness, his figure rising above the mass of struggling animals
and standing out for a moment in clear relief.

That one glimpse of the outlines of the splendid horse, together with
the brilliancy of the performance itself, told Grizzly Weber that
the steed was his own Cap. The owner had by a hair escaped sending
a bullet through the brain of the animal whom he loved as his own
brother.

Grizzly was stupefied for an instant. Then, knowing that Cap had been
duped by some conjuration, he sent out the familiar signal with a
sharp distinctness that rose above the din and racket, which, to
ordinary ears, would have been overwhelming.

The result was remarkable, and approached the ridiculous. Cap heard
the call, and instantly turned to obey it. The Indian on his back
strove furiously to prevent and to keep him at his work. Cap fought
savagely, flinging his head aloft, rearing, plunging, and refusing
to follow the direction toward which the redskin twisted his head
by sheer strength. It was a strife between rider and steed, and the
latter made no progress in either direction while keeping up the
fight, which was as fierce as it was brief.

The Indian could not force the horse to obey him, and the efforts of
Cap to reach his master were defeated by the wrenching at the bit. It
looked as if the horse had been seized with the frenzy that possessed
every one, and was fighting and struggling aimlessly and accomplishing
nothing.

But Grizzly Weber was not the one to stand idly by and allow this
extraordinary contest to go on. Nothing intervened between him and the
daring marauder, and he dashed toward him.

The redskin's audacity, nimbleness and self-possession excited the
admiration of Grizzly Weber, angered though he was at the trick played
on him. The rider knew the risk of keeping up the fight with the
obdurate beast, for the master was sure to arrive on the spot within
a few seconds. Before the rancher could reach him he went from the
saddle as if shot out of a gun.

Freed from his incubus, Cap emitted a joyful whinny and trotted toward
his master.

"You rascal!" exclaimed the delighted rancher, vaulting upon his back
in a twinkling. "Now we'll settle with the chap that tried to part you
and me."

All this consumed but a few moments. The Indian could not have gone
far. He would not dash among the cattle, who, now that they were
stampeded, were as dangerous as so many wild beasts. He had hardly
time to conceal himself, and Grizzly was certain that he had him.

All the same, however, the cowman made a miscalculation. When he
wheeled Cap about to run down the daring redskin he was nowhere to be
seen. There were no trees near, but there were boulders, rocks and
depressions, with the rich grass everywhere, and the dusky thief was
as safe as if beyond the Assinaboine, in British territory.

"I'm glad of it," thought Weber, a moment later; "a redskin that can
show such a performance as that desarves to save his scalp."

In the dizzying flurry Grizzly had no time to think of his companion,
who had enough to attend to his own matters. He now looked around for
him, but he, too, was invisible.

"I wonder whether he got his horse back, for Dick must have been
stole, the same as was Cap."

And, grateful for having regained possession of his horse, he patted
the silken neck of the noble animal.

Grizzly's years of experience with cattle apprised him of a gratifying
truth. The course of the stampeded herd was changing. Instead of
fleeing away from the main body they were veering around, so that, if
the change of course continued, they would return to the neighbourhood
from which they started.

Panic-smitten cattle are not apt to do a thing of that kind of their
own accord. Some cause, and a strong one, too, must have effected this
diversion in the line of flight. All at once, above the din, sounded
the penetrating voice of a man, who was striving with herculean energy
to change the course of the wild animals.

One sound of that voice was sufficient to identify it as Budd
Hankinson's. He must have played his cards well to have done all this
in so brief a space of time.

And such had been the case beyond a doubt. Budd suspected from the
first what did not enter Grizzly's mind until it flashed upon him
as described. The fact that neither of their horses appeared when
summoned convinced Budd that they had been stolen. True, even in that
case they would have obeyed the signal, had they been near enough, and
had the circumstances allowed them to identify it; but, although
not far off, the noise immediately around them shut out the call of
Grizzly from their ears, until he repeated it, as has been told.

Hankinson anticipated his friend in this act. In his case, the thief
in the saddle of Dick gave it up at once. He leaped off, and whisked
out of sight. It was then Budd called to Grizzly that the thieves had
their horses; but the other did not catch his words, and, therefore,
gave them no further heed.

The instant Budd's feet were in the stirrups he set his horse bounding
along the side of the herd, with the purpose of checking the stampede
by changing its course. Grizzly understood matters and set off after
him, leaving to the sagacious Cap to thread his way to the other side
of the running cattle.

In the course of a few minutes the ranchers opened communication and
pushed their work with a vigor which brought good results. The cattle
were tired. They had been on their feet most of the day while grazing,
were growing fat, and naturally were indisposed to severe exertion.
Their pace dropped to a walk, and sooner than would have been
supposed, the fright passed off. The herders kept them moving until
close to the main herd, where they were allowed to rest. Budd and
Grizzly dismounted once more, turning their horses loose, and seated
themselves on the ground. The night, as will be remembered, was mild,
and they did not need their blankets to make them comfortable.

"Wal," was the smiling remark of Grizzly, as he began refilling his
pipe, "my leg didn't deceive me this time."

"No, I'll own up it played square; but, Grizzly, if we've got to fight
the red varmints as well as rustlers, there will be some lively fun in
Wyoming and Montana before the thing is over."

"The Injins won't take a hand in this. You know who them two thieves
were, don't you?"

"A couple of 'dog Injins,' of course."

"There isn't anybody else that's got anything to do with this; it's
sort of queer--that is, it has struck me so two or three times--that
the Injins have tramps among 'em the same as white folks. They call
'em 'dog Injins,' I s'pose, 'cause they don't claim any particular
tribe, but tramp back and forth over the country, slipping off their
reservations whenever they get a chance."

"Yes, there are plenty of 'em," assented Budd; "we've met 'em before;
you'll find 'em as far north as the Saskatchewan and as low down as
the Rio Grande. But I say, Grizzly, they were two slick ones; I never
seen finer work."

"Nor me either; if they had been satisfied with taking our hosses we'd
never seen 'em agin. Gracious!" added the rancher, "for myself, I'd
rather lost half the herd than Cap."

"It seems to me," said Budd, after smoking a moment in silence, "that
although them 'dog Injins' was pretty smart in getting out of the way
when we come down on 'em, they weren't smart in trying to run off the
cattle. They must have known we'd find it out at daylight and would be
after 'em hot-footed."

Grizzly had been puzzling over the same phase of the question. The
'dog Indian' is a vagabond, who, belonging to some particular tribe,
as of necessity must be the case, affiliates with none, but goes
whithersoever his will leads him, provided he is not prevented.
Sometimes they remain on the reservation for weeks and months, as
orderly, industrious and well-behaved as the best of the red men. Then
they disappear, and may not turn up for a long time. In truth, they
are as likely not to turn up at all, but to lead their wandering,
useless lives just as the vagrants do in civilized communities.

Surely the couple who had played their parts in the incidents of the
night must have known that nothing could be gained by stampeding a
part of Whitney's herd. The cattle were branded, and could not be
disposed of for that reason. Besides, a couple of Indians in charge of
several hundred cattle would be objects of suspicion themselves, and
certain to be called to account. They could make no common cause with
the rustlers, for the latter would have naught to do with them.

More than likely Grizzly Weber hit the truth when he said:

"It was a piece of pure deviltry on their part. When they got into the
saddles they felt safe. Instead of making off with the hosses, they
thought they would stir up a little fun by stampeding the cattle.
After injuring 'em by rapid driving for a good many miles they would
have paid no more attention to 'em, and let us find 'em as best we
could."

"Yes," assented Budd, "they bit off more'n they could chaw, and so
lost the hosses. But, Grizzly, have you noticed there's been several
guns shot off around the country to-night?"

"Yas," replied the other, indifferently; "I've heard 'em several
times, but I haven't obsarved any coming from the house; it must be
that some of the boys are having fun to-night instead of sleeping like
lambs, as they ought to do."

"And there'll be more of it to-morrow, but that's what we've got to
expect at all times. I'm going to sleep; call me when you want me."

Budd spread the blanket, which he had taken from the back of his
horse, on the ground and lay down. Hardly five minutes passed when
he was wrapped in sound slumber. To prevent himself from becoming
unconscious, Grizzly rose and walked slowly around and among the herd.
He had no thought of anything further occurring, for the 'dog Indians'
would be certain to keep away from that neighbourhood after what had
occurred. He did not feel easy, however, concerning his friends at the
ranch. He knew trouble was at hand, and he would have been glad if
the mother and daughter were removed beyond danger. The sounds of
rifle-firing and the bright glow in the horizon, made by a burning
building, confirmed his misgivings as to what a few days or hours were
sure to bring forth.



CHAPTER XVI.

AN UNPLEASANT VISIT.


IT will be recalled that during these incidents Monteith Sterry and
Fred Whitney were sitting at the front of the long, low building,
which was the home of the latter, discussing the incidents of the
last day or two, as well as the matter of Whitney removing, with
his family, to the East, in order to prevent any addition to the
affliction they had just suffered.

Besides this, Whitney had turned on his young friend, and impressed
upon him that he, too, was incurring unjustifiable risk by remaining
in Wyoming during the inflamed state of public feeling. There was much
less excuse in the case of Sterry than of his host. He ought to be at
home prosecuting the study of his profession, as his parents wished
him to do. His health was fully restored, and it cannot be denied that
he was wasting his precious days. He was fond of his father, mother,
brothers and sisters, and it would grieve them beyond expression if he
should uselessly sacrifice himself.

"Yes," he replied, "I cannot deny the truth of what you say, Fred. I
ought to leave this part of the country."

"Of course; you're not needed; your future has been mapped for you,
and it is hard to make up lost time."

"We found that out at the high school," returned Mont, with a light
laugh; "but the pearl of great price, in a worldly sense, is good
health, and I have been repaid in securing it."

"And having secured it, it remains--Mont," added his companion
abruptly, but without the slightest change of tone, "don't stop to ask
me why, but step quickly through the door and into the house, and keep
out of sight for a few minutes."

"I understand," said Sterry, obeying without an instant's hesitation.

The prompt, unquestioning compliance with the request of Fred Whitney
showed that Monteith Sterry understood the reason that it was made of
him.

The truth was, that during the last few minutes the young men were
talking in front of the house, each descried something suspicious on
the broad plain. They instinctively lowered their voices, and though
neither made reference to it, both gave more attention to it than to
their own words.

They heard nothing of the tramp of horses, but saw the shadowy
figures of several men hovering on what may be termed the line of
invisibility. Sometimes they were distinguished quite clearly, and
then seemed to vanish; but the youths could not be mistaken.

A number of persons were out there, not mounted, but on foot, and
moving about, without approaching any closer, for the space of several
minutes. It looked as if they were reconnoitering the house from a
distance and debating the best manner of procedure.

The suspicions of the friends were the same. They were rustlers
looking for the inspector.

Mont Sterry would have preferred to stay where he was and have it out
with them, but the circumstances were so peculiar that he could not
refuse to do as his comrade requested.

The cause of Whitney's wish was the abrupt increasing distinctness
of the figures, proof that they had reached a decision and were
approaching the house.

They speedily came into plain sight, four men, in the garb of cowmen,
and they were rustlers beyond question.

Conscious that they were seen, they now advanced directly, as if
coming from a distance, though the fact that they were on foot showed
that such was not the case.

With feelings which it would be hard to describe, Fred Whitney
recognized the first as Larch Cadmus, wearing the same whiskers as
before. Had he been thoughtful enough to disguise his voice the young
man would not have suspected his identity.

The moon had worked around into that quarter of the heavens that its
light shone on the figure of Fred, who rose to his feet, as was his
custom, and advanced a few paces to meet the newcomers.

"Good evening!" he said. "How happens it that you are afoot at this
time of night?"

"Our horses ain't fur off," replied Cadmus; "the rest of the boys
didn't think it worth while to trouble you."

"What do you mean by troubling me?" asked Fred, though he understood
the meaning.

"We're on an unpleasant errand," continued Cadmus, acting as the
spokesman of the party, the others remaining in the background and
maintaining silence.

"Shall I bring chairs for you? It is so unusually mild to-night that
I am sitting out doors from choice, and I do not wish to disturb my
mother and sister, who retired some time ago."

"No, we'll stand," was the curt response. "Whitney, as I suppose it
is, are you accustomed to sit out here alone?"

"Not when I can have company."

"Were you alone before we came up?"

"When you were here earlier in the evening, as you saw for yourself, I
had my sister and a friend."

"Exactly; who was that friend?"

"Mont Sterry, the gentleman who is on a little tour through some
parts of Wyoming and Montana to try to help make you fellows behave
yourselves."

"Yes; wal, we're looking for him."

"Why do you come here?"

"Because he spends a good deal of his time here; he seems to be
interested in Miss Whitney."

"Well, if he is, that is no business of yours," retorted Fred, angered
by the reference to his sister.

"Perhaps not, but it would be well for you to keep a civil tongue in
your head, Fred Whitney; we're not in a pleasant mood to-night, for
we've had trouble."

"It matters not to me what trouble you've had; you have no right to
name any member of my family. They are in affliction; my father was
shot down by your gang yesterday, and, though we made several of you
fellows bite the dust, the whole of them weren't worth his little
finger."

"We'll let them matters drop; I told you we're looking for Mont
Sterry, and we're going to have him."

"And I ask you again, why do you come here after him? I don't deny
that he was with me, but he left fully two hours ago."

"We know that; he gave us the slip, but we believe he came back."

"And I ask what reason you have for such belief; why did he bid us
good-by and ride away? I know that he had not the slightest intention
of returning for several days," said Fred, sticking to the technical
truth.

"We don't care what his intention was, he did come back."

"How do you know that?"

"He was sitting in that chair alongside of you less than ten minutes
ago; you were smoking and talking, though you didn't speak loud enough
for us to catch your words."

"Where is the proof, Larch Cadmus, of what you say?"

Without noticing this penetration of his disguise, the rustler turned
and spoke to the nearest of his companions:

"Spark Holly, how was it?"

"I seen 'em both and heard 'em talking," was the prompt response of
the individual appealed to.

"Are your eyes better than the others'?" asked Fred.

"They don't have to be," replied Cadmus, speaking for him. "While we
stayed in front of the house, Spark stole round to the rear, where
none of your family seen him. He got to the corner and had a good look
at both of you."

"Does he know Sterry?" inquired Fred, purposely raising his voice,
that his friend, standing a few feet away within the house, should not
miss a word.

"He don't know him, but I do, and the description Spark gives fits the
man we're after to a T. We want him."

"But the notice you gave Sterry allowed him twenty-four hours' grace.
Why do you ask for him now?"

"Them was my sentiments, but when I joined the party under Inman, a
little while ago, he told me the boys had reconsidered that matter,
and decided that after what Sterry has done, and tried to do, I hadn't
any right to make the promise."

"That may be their decision, but it cannot affect yours; you are bound
by the pledge you made in writing to him."

Larch Cadmus, like his companions, was growing impatient. He said:

"I haven't come here to argue the matter with you; I've come after my
man, and am going to have him."

"And I repeat what I said: he left more than two hours ago, and you
have no business to come here."

"Do you mean to tell me he isn't in the house?" demanded Cadmus, with
rising temper.

"I refuse to answer, but I do say that neither you nor any of your
gang shall enter my home, where are my mother and sister, their hearts
stricken by your murderous doings of yesterday, except over my dead
body."

"We don't like to disturb the ladies," said Cadmus, "but we mean
business; we have promised the boys to bring back that fellow; but
I'll make a proposition."

"What is it?"

"If you will say that Mont Sterry is not in there, we'll go away
without disturbing any one; we'll take your word."

"I recognize no right of yours to question me," was the scornful reply
of Fred Whitney.

"Boys," said Cadmus, turning again to his companions, "that's only
another way of owning up that the coward is hiding here, afraid to
meet us; he's our game."



CHAPTER XVII.

A DELICATE SITUATION.


Few men possessed more courage than Fred Whitney, and he was
thoroughly aroused.

Sitting in front of his own home during the evening, it naturally
happened that he was without any weapon at immediate command. His
Winchester and revolvers, his inseparable companions, during those
stirring times, whenever away from home, were inside. It need not be
said that every one of the rustlers had his "guns" in his possession,
so he was a single, defenceless man against four armed ones.

Nevertheless, he strode forward in front of the open door, determined
to make good his threat.

"You talk of cowards," he said; "you are four, and each has his
pistols and rifle; I have none and one arm is wounded, but I defy
you!"

"Come, come," said the leader, "this will do you no good; we're bound
to have that man, and if he won't come out we must go after him. If
you stand in the way we'll pitch you aside. We don't want to hurt
you."

"Advance at your peril--"

"Fred, move a little to the left--that will do. I've got a bead on him
now."

It was the voice of Mont Sterry, a few feet away, in the darkness of
the room. The muzzle of his rifle, however, projected just enough
to reflect the moonlight, and it was leveled at the breast of Larch
Cadmus.

"One step," added Sterry, "and you're a dead man."

"Larch Cadmus," said Fred, thrilled by the occurrence, "for we
recognize you despite those whiskers, I never knew Mont Sterry to
break his word!"

Language cannot do justice to the situation. At the very moment the
miscreant was about to advance to hurl Whitney from his path he was
confronted by the muzzle of a loaded rifle, held by a man who was in
deadly earnest, and who realized he was at bay.

The startled ruffian recoiled a step and stared into the darkened
room, as if he failed to grasp the situation.

"Not a step in any direction," said Sterry, warningly; "if you attempt
to retreat, advance, or move aside, I'll fire."

It would be a rash thing for any one to deny that the young inspector
had secured the "drop" on Larch Cadmus.

But the man was accustomed to violence, and it took him but a minute
to rally.

"Pretty well done, I'll own," he said, with a forced laugh; "but what
good is it going to do you? There are three more of us here and a
half-dozen hardly a hundred yards away."

"And what good will they do you?"

"Spark," said Cadmus, "slip back to the boys and give 'em the tip;
we'll see about this thing."

"The moment Spark or either of the other two stirs I'll let the
moonlight through _you!_ I'm going to keep my gun pointed right at
you, Mr. Cadmus. If those fellows think I'm worth more than you, they
have a chance to prove it, for only one of them has to take the first
step to leave, when I'll press this trigger just a little harder than
now. More than that, if one of them shouts, whistles, or makes any
kind of a signal, I'll do as I threaten. If any man doesn't think so,
let him make the trial."

"Well, I'll be hanged!" muttered Larch Cadmus; "this _is_ a go!"

Judging from the new turn of affairs, it looked as if a single
individual had the "drop" on four others.

It struck Larch Cadmus that this was a good occasion for something in
the nature of a compromise.

"See here, Sterry," he said, assuming an affected jocularity which
deceived no one, "I'll own you've played it on me mighty fine. But you
can't stand there all night with your Winchester p'inted at me, and
bime-by I'll git tired; can't we fix the matter up some way?"

"Fred," said Sterry, with the same coolness shown from the first,
"slip through the door; you know where your gun is; stoop a little,
so I won't have to shift my aim; when that is done we'll talk about
compromise."

Fred Whitney, as quick as his companion to "catch on," did instantly
what was requested. He dodged into the darkened apartment, with which,
of course, he was so familiar that he needed the help of no light to
find his weapon.

Had Larch Cadmus been as subtle as his master, perhaps he might have
prevented this by ordering one of his men to cover Whitney with his
gun, though it is more than probable that Sterry still would have
forced the leading rustler to his own terms.

But there was one among the four with the cunning of a fox; he was
Spark Holly, who had located the inspector when in front of the house.

At the moment Cadmus was brought up all standing, as may be said,
Holly stood so far to one side that he was not in the young man's
field of vision. He, like his two companions, could have slipped off
at any moment without danger to himself, but it would have been at the
cost of their leader's life; nor could they shift their position and
raise a weapon to fire into the room, where there was a prospect
of hitting the daring youth at bay, without precipitating that
catastrophe.

The instant, however, Fred Whitney turned his back on the rustlers,
Holly saw his opportunity. He vanished.

The others, more sluggish than he, held their places, dazed,
wondering, stupefied, and of no more account than so many logs of
wood.

Shrewd enough to do this clever thing, Spark Holly was too cautious to
spoil it by allowing his movement to be observed. Had he darted over
the plain in front of the house, Mont Sterry would have seen the
fleeing figure, understood what it meant, and, carrying out his
threat, shot down Larch Cadmus.

Holly lost no time in dodging behind the structure, moving with the
stealth of an Indian in the stillness of the night. Then he made a
circuit so wide that, as he gradually described a half-circle and came
round to the point whence he had first advanced to the dwelling, he
was so far off that the keenest vision from the interior could not
catch a glimpse of him.

Certain of this, he ran only a short distance, when he came up with
the half-dozen mounted rustlers of whom Cadmus had spoken, and who
were wondering at the unaccountable delay.

The messenger quickly made everything plain, and they straightway
proceeded to take a hand in the business.



CHAPTER XVIII.

A MISCALCULATION.


Larch Cadmus was well fitted to act the leader of so desperate a
company of men. He was chagrined beyond measure at the manner in which
the tables had been turned on him, but, like all such persons, when
caught fairly, he knew how to accept the situation philosophically.

None understood better than he that the individual who held that
Winchester levelled would press the trigger on the first provocation.
He was the one that had sent the warning, and the other was the one
that had received it. The twenty-four hours' truce had been ended by
the words and action of Cadmus himself, and his chief wonder, now that
Fred Whitney was with him, was that Monteith Sterry should show any
mercy to his persecutor; had the situations been reversed, the course
also would have been different.

But the ruffian was on the alert. He noticed the guarded movement of
Spark Holly at the moment Whitney entered his home, and he needed no
one to tell him what it meant.

He had slipped off to bring help and it would not take him long to do
it, though Cadmus might well feel uneasy over what would take place
when Sterry should learn the trick played on him.

It may be that a person's senses are keener in situations of grave
peril than at other times, for, calculating as clearly as he could the
period it would take his comrade to reach the horsemen, only a short
way back on the prairie, Cadmus heard sounds which indicated their
approach, though they must remain invisible for several minutes.

"Wal," said he, in his off-hand manner, directly after Whitney had
whisked into the house, "now that you're together, how long do you
mean to keep this thing up?"

"We're through," was the response.

"What do you mean?" asked the surprised fellow.

"You can go away as soon as you please. Mont Sterry doesn't care
anything more about you, but I'll keep you covered as long as you are
in sight, and if you or any of your men try any deception you'll take
the consequences."

With a moment's hesitation, doubtless caused by distrust of his
master, Cadmus began edging to one side. A few steps were enough to
take him out of range of that dreaded weapon, and then his demeanour
changed.

"That was a good trick of yours, Mont Sterry, but it won't do you a
bit of good."

"Why not?"

"Here come the rest of the boys, and if you think you can hold them
up, why try it."

At that moment the horsemen assumed form in the gloom and approached
the house in a diagonal direction. Encouraged by their presence, Larch
Cadmus once more moved toward the open door and resumed the position
of leader.

"Now, my fine fellow, we summon you to surrender," he called in his
brusquest voice and manner.

The reply was striking. A young man stepped from the door and advanced
to meet the horsemen. There was an instant when Cadmus believed his
victim had come forth to give himself up as commanded, but one glance
showed that it was Fred Whitney. He calmly awaited the coming of the
mounted men, saluted them, and said:

"You have come for Mont Sterry, and Cadmus there assures me that if
I give him my word that he is not in my house he will accept the
statement; do you agree to it?"

"How's that, Larch?" asked Ira Inman, turning toward him.

"Them was my words, but--"

"Well, then, I have to say that Mont Sterry is not in my house; the
only persons there are my mother and sister."

"But I seen him, and he got the drop on me--how's that?"

"Yes," replied Whitney, enjoying his triumph, "he was there a few
minutes ago, and he _did_ get the drop on you and the rest of your
fellows; but I took his place; he went out of the back door, mounted
his mare, and if there's any of you that think you can overhaul him,
you can't start a moment too soon."

No man who heard these words doubted their truth. They told such a
straightforward tale that they could not be questioned. They would
have been zanies had they believed that, with the back door at command
and the certain approach of his enemies, Sterry had waited for them to
attack him.

True, he and his friend would have held a strong position, in which
they could have made it warm for the others, but the ultimate
advantage must have been on the side of the assailants.

The laugh was on Cadmus, and those were the men who, in their chagrin,
vented their feelings upon him. The worst of it was, he was as angry
as they; but he might well ask how he could have helped himself, and
whether any one of them would have done any better.

The foxy Holly, at a whispered word from Inman, darted around the end
of the building and entered the stables. A brief examination showed
that no animals, all being known to him, except those belonging to
Whitney, were there.

Had any doubt remained, it was removed by his sense of hearing.
Without the intervention of the dwelling to obstruct the sound, he
caught the faint, rhythmic beating of the earth, barely audible and
gradually growing fainter in the distance. It was just such a sound as
is made by a horse going at a leisurely, sweeping gallop, and that was
the explanation he gave it.

Mont Sterry was safe beyond pursuit, for there was no horse in the
company that could overtake him. Spark Holly returned to the party in
front and made his report.

It may be said the report was accepted and placed on file for future
reference.

It was characteristic of those men, too, that they did not delay
their own actions, now that their business may be said to have been
finished.

"Well," said Inman, "that isn't the first time that fellow gave us the
slip to-night. The way he did it before was mighty clever, but I don't
see that he deserves any credit for fooling Cadmus, for any one would
have known enough to do that. But remember that Mr. Mont Sterry is
still in Wyoming, and we are not through with him yet."

"And there ain't any twenty-four hours' truce," added Cadmus.

"After what has taken place, there's little fear of Sterry making any
mistake on that point," said Whitney, who was so pleased over the
outcome of matters that he could speak in gentler terms than he would
have used had the circumstances been different.

It would seem strange that these men, who but a brief time before were
so hostile to the single person now in their power, should converse
without the least offensive action; but most, if not all, of the
doings of the men concerned in the late troubles in that section were
in hot blood, and would not have occurred had time been taken for
thought and consideration.

Inman and his brother rustlers wheeled about and rode off in the
direction whence they came. Their movements indicated that they had
no intention of following Sterry, since the course taken by him was
almost directly the opposite; but Whitney was not fully satisfied. He
remained in front of his home, listening in the stillness of the night
to the sounds made by the hoofs of the galloping horses.

Gradually they grew fainter, until, had there been any air stirring,
or had the tension of hearing been less, he would have heard nothing;
but, when the noises were hovering close to inaudibility, they
continued thus. They neither increased nor diminished, but remaining
the same, steadily shifted the direction whence they came.

Instead of keeping to the westward, as they had been for a long
time, they worked around to the north and east. Then the decrease in
distinctness of sound was so rapid that it was quickly lost.

The truth was evident: the rustlers had started in pursuit of Sterry,
though why they should have taken so much pains to conceal the fact
from Fred Whitney was more than he could understand.

"They may overtake him," thought the young man as he turned to enter
the house, "but it will not be right away."

A light foot-fall sounded in the darkness of the room.

"Is that you, Jennie?" he asked in a guarded undertone.

"Yes, brother; have they gone?"

"Some time ago. Is mother asleep?"

"She was asleep before they came, utterly worn out. I am glad she
knows nothing of the cause of their visit. And what of Monteith?"

"He is many miles away, and still riding hard."

"Will they pursue him?"

"Let them do so if they wish, they will have a fine time overtaking
him," was the light reply of the brother, who, leaning over in the
gloom, affectionately kissed his sister good-night.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE BURNED RANCH.


Meanwhile Monteith Sterry was making the best of his opportunity.

It was no great exploit for him to slip out of the back door, when he
found his enemies gathering in front; but, had he not been convinced
that the movement was in the interests of his friends, as well as
himself, he would not have made it.

His flight was at a moderate pace for several hundred yards, by which
time he considered himself safe from pursuit and gave his mare free
rein. Her speed was rapid, but she was capable of maintaining it for
hours without fatigue.

Sterry's intention was to make his way to the ranch of his friend,
Dick Hawkridge, which lay to the westward. He began veering in that
direction, so that it may be said that while Inman and his band were
riding toward him, he was approaching them. Two causes, however,
prevented a meeting of the parties.

Sterry was much further out than the rustlers, and in the darkness
they could see nothing, if indeed they could hear anything of each
other. Then he had not ridden far when he was checked by an unexpected
sight.

A bright red glow appeared to the northward in the sky. It was too
vivid, distinct and near for him to mistake its nature. It was a
burning building, the flames showing so strongly that, aware as he was
of the deceptive nature of such a light, he knew it was no more than a
mile away. He turned the head of his mare in that direction.

"Things seem to be stirring to-night," was his thought as he galloped
forward, with his gaze fixed on the burning structure. "That may be
an accident, but such accidents are not common in this part of the
world."

His supposition was that it was the work of the rustlers, but he was
mistaken.

The building was similar to that occupied by the Whitneys, though
somewhat smaller, and burned so fast that when he reached the spot it
was a mass of blazing embers, with hardly a semblance of the original
structure remaining.

The sight was interesting of itself, but the attention of Sterry was
riveted by the figure of a man lying motionless on the ground, only
a few paces in front of where the door had been. His nerveless right
hand still grasped the Winchester with which he had evidently made a
sturdy fight when stricken down.

Sterry did not dismount, but, sitting in the saddle, looked on the
sorrowful sight as revealed by the glow of the burning building. He
was saddened that such things should be.

Little time, however, was given him for gloomy reverie, when Queenie
sniffed the air and turned her head a little to one side. Looking in
that direction, the rider saw the figure of a horseman assume shape in
the glow as his animal advanced at a slow step. He must have detected
Sterry before the latter saw him, and was studying him with close
attention, his rifle supported across his saddle in front, ready for
instant use.

Reading his suspicion, the young man called out:

"Come on, partner! You and I cannot be enemies at such a time as
this."

The salutation reassured the other, who increased his pace.

Before he reached Sterry the latter half-regretted his action, for
he recognized the man as Duke Vesey, one of the most notorious of
rustlers and a bitter personal enemy. But a certain chivalry rules
among such people, and after the greeting of Sterry to Vesey there was
little danger of the latter taking unfair advantage of it.

"This is bad business," remarked the younger, pointing to the figure
on the ground.

A hard look crossed the face of the rustler and his thin lips
compressed as he shook his head.

"Yes, that's what's left of Jack Perkins; he was my pard."

"How did it happen?"

"How did it happen! A pretty question for you to ask. He was killed by
the stockmen less than an hour ago."

"But they didn't ride hither and shoot him down, I am sure."

"I don't know what you can be sure of," said Vesey, ominously. "Jack
and I were riding along peaceable like, when we heard horsemen behind
us. We didn't pay any attention to them till we got home and Jack
slipped off his horse. I concluded to stay in the saddle until the
fellows came up and I had a talk with them. They were Capt. Asbury and
his stockmen, and the first thing they called out was an order for us
to throw up our hands.

"Well," continued Vesey, grimly, "we aren't in that kind of business,
and the next thing the guns were popping all around us. Jack had
nerve. I wish the poor fellow had stayed in the saddle; but his horse
scooted off, and he stood right there where he fell, without a leaf to
shelter him, and pumped the lead into those stockmen, who were mean
enough to shoot the brave fellow in his tracks without giving him a
chance for life."

"You told me they ordered him to surrender before the firing began."

"So they did, that they might shoot him down the easier. I had a hot
chase with them, and it was a pretty close call for me; but they
didn't keep up the hunt for long. You would think," added Vesey,
bitterly, "that they would have been satisfied with dropping poor
Jack, without burning down our home; but that is the style of the
stockmen."

Here was a representative of each of the factions, or associations, so
hostile to each other. The rustler knew Monteith Sterry, and must
have felt a consuming resentment toward him. His words and manner
indicated, too, that he was not averse to a quarrel. He had fought the
stockmen more than once, and, with the memory of the recent collision
and the advantages on the other side, he welcomed the chance of a
conflict on anything like equal terms.

Monteith did not stand in any personal fear of the famous rustler, and
was fully armed and on the alert. Without seeming to do so, he kept a
watch on the man, but he disliked the thought of a personal encounter
with him. The scene, the surroundings, and his own nature, revolted,
and he resolved to submit to all that it was possible to bear before
falling back on the last resort.

"No doubt," said Sterry, "there has been injustice on both sides, and
stockmen as well as rustlers have done things for which there is no
justification; I hope the trouble will soon end."

"It will end as soon as we get justice."

"Yes," Sterry could not help retorting, "for if justice were done to
you rustlers none would be left. However," he hastened to add, "there
is no reason why you and I should quarrel, Vesey; I had no share in
the death of your friend; and if the case is as you represent it, he
was more sinned against than sinning."

"Of course you had no share in that simply because you wasn't here,
but you have been concerned in other affairs like this where some of
the rustlers have gone down."

"It is quite possible I have," coolly replied Sterry, "inasmuch as
when a man is attacked it is his duty to defend himself. I have not
yet been convinced that I ought to stand up and allow others to do as
they please when weapons were in my hands."

"You have no business in Wyoming anyway," said Vesey, angrily; "you
have been sent here by the Association to do its underhand work."

"Duke Vesey," said Sterry, "you are a man of too much education to
talk in that way. If you and I quarrel, it will be your fault, but
don't fancy that I hold you in any fear. Good-night."



CHAPTER XX.

THE TRUCE.


It was a dignified proceeding on the part of Monteith Sterry, and
the rustler possessed enough gentlemanly instinct to appreciate the
feelings of the young man, who had attested his courage too often for
any one to question it. But at the moment of wheeling his mare to ride
off both caught the sound of approaching horsemen, and Sterry checked
his animal.

"Who are they?" he asked, glancing at the rustler.

"How should I know? They may be some of your folks."

"They are as likely to be yours. I don't think, Duke, it is wise for
us to stay here where we offer such inviting targets, for whoever the
party may be, one of us is sure to be an enemy."

Monteith Sterry moved away from the area of illumination as he spoke,
Vesey keeping close to his side.

"Is it understood, Duke," asked the younger, "there's a truce between
you and me?"

"Of course; if you know anything about Duke Vesey, you know he's
square. If they happen to be some of our boys, I won't take any
advantage of you, nor let them, if I can help it."

"And if they are Capt. Asbury and others, I will reciprocate."

Enough was said. Enemies though the men were, no bosom friends could
have been more in unison for the time. Ready to shoot each other on
sight less than an hour before, and as they were liable to be within
the following hour, they were equally ready to risk their lives, if
necessary, to carry out the pledge just exchanged.

They had to ride but a short way when the gloom became deep enough to
protect them against the sight of the horsemen who were approaching
from the opposite direction.

Six men rode into view, halting on the spot vacated by the couple
just before, the one at the head being recognized in the glow of the
burning ruins as Capt. Asbury, with whom the affray had taken place a
short time previous. Sterry knew each, as did his companion.

"All the party do not seem to be there," remarked Sterry.

"They are not," replied Vesey; "three are missing."

"I wonder if anything can have happened to them?"

"Accidents are liable to take place in this part of the world--"

"Hands up!" was the startling command that broke upon the couple at
that moment, from a point directly behind them.

The truth was, Sterry and Vesey had been seen by the horsemen as they
stole away in the gloom. Capt. Asbury, suspecting they were rustlers,
sent three of his men out beyond them on foot, and they did their part
so well that they came up without alarming either of their horses, who
ordinarily would have detected them.

"I've been trapped!" muttered Vesey, savagely, glancing at the
figures, standing but a short way off in the moonlight, with their
Winchesters levelled.

"Never mind," said Sterry, quickly, "up with your hands, as I do, or
we'll both catch it; I'll stand by you."

The rustler was wise enough to obey, with only a momentary hesitation.
Had he not done so, he would never have had a second chance, for the
stockmen were very much in earnest.

The footmen came forward with their weapons at a level, for they were
too prudent to give their prisoners a chance.

"How are you, Hendricks?" asked Sterry, with a laugh, as the trio
joined them.

The man addressed peered closely in his face, suspecting, and yet not
convinced of his identity until after a minute or two.

"Well, I'll be hanged!" he exclaimed; "is that you, Mont?"

"I have a suspicion that it is," was the reply of Sterry, laughing
quite heartily as he lowered his hands.

"Who is your friend?" he asked, moving around to gain a better view of
the rustler.

"Ah, that's the man we're looking for," added Hendricks a moment
later; "he's Duke Vesey, the partner of the late Jack Perkins."

"You are right," Sterry hastened to say, "but he is under the
protection of a flag of truce."

"A flag of truce!" repeated the other; "where is it?"

"I gave him my pledge to shield him against you folks, as he agreed to
do if your party had proven to be his friends."

"Well, that's a queer state of affairs," laughed the other, not
forgetting to keep guard of the prisoner, who was permitted to lower
his hands. The other stockmen were equally alert, now that there was
but one man to watch, so that Vesey was really as helpless as though
deprived of all his weapons.

"I do not see what is so queer about it," replied Sterry, warmly; "we
heard you coming and moved off out of sight. Before doing so Vesey
pledged himself to stand by me against any of his friends, if it
became necessary, and I promised to do the same for him. The issue
shows that it is my privilege to keep my promise--that's all."

It was plain that Hendricks felt himself in a quandary. He had been
sent out to capture the two men under the supposition that they were
rustlers. It was proved that one of them was the very individual whom
Capt. Asbury was anxious to secure. To release him after taking him
prisoner would place his captor in anything but a pleasant situation
with his leader.

Suspecting his dilemma, Sterry said:

"You can readily arrange it by taking me in as prisoner and allowing
Vesey to go."

"That is all well enough, but it will put me in a hole that I don't
intend to be put in. Capt. Asbury is the boss of this business; you
two can ride up to him and make your report; that will place the
responsibility where it belongs."

This seemed reasonable, but Sterry felt uneasy. He knew the violent
temper of Capt. Asbury, and feared he would refuse to acknowledge
the agreement as binding upon him. On the other hand, Sterry was
determined to stand by his pledge to the last.

"I can't consent to that," he said.

"You've got to," replied Hendricks; "it is idle to suppose that any
such bargain as you may choose to make can be binding on others who
were not present when it was made, and therefore were not parties to
it."

"That is one way of putting it, but the promise is binding on me, and
as true as I am a living man I will fight to the death against you and
the whole party before this person shall suffer because of his faith
in my word."

"Very well, then, fight it is; he has got to surrender to Capt. Asbury
and await what he is willing to do with him."

"Duke," said Sterry, turning to the rustler, "it's two of us against
three, and you and I have been there before."

But on the verge of the explosion the rustler came to the rescue.

"There's no need of any row, Sterry; I'll surrender and take my
chances."

And to settle the dispute he struck his horse into a gallop, and
before the surprise was over rode up to the group, who were gazing
wonderingly off in the gloom, whence came the sound of voices.

Sterry and the footmen were but a brief space behind them. While the
astonished captain and his companions were looking around for an
explanation, Mont Sterry made it in as brief and pointed words as were
at his command.

Capt. Asbury fixed his gray eyes upon the handsome countenance of the
young man during the few minutes he was speaking, and Sterry saw,
despite the forceful terms in which he stated the agreement, that the
leading stockman was angry.

"I've no objection," he remarked, striving to control his voice, which
was tremulous with anger, "if you choose to play the woman, but I
don't see what I've got to do with it."

"Vesey surrendered under my promise that he should be protected; had
he not believed that promise he would not have surrendered."

"But would have been shot down where he sat in the saddle. Had he been
beyond reach and come in under such a pledge, the case would have been
altogether different; but as it is--"

The fateful words were interrupted by a rush and dash. Attention had
been diverted for the moment from the prisoner to the one who was
pleading for him and to him who held his fate in his hands. The
observant Vesey saw the inevitable trend of events, and, taking
advantage of the chance, was off like a thunderbolt.

The parting glimpse showed him leaning forward on his horse, who was
plunging at utmost speed straight away in the gloom. A half dozen
shots were sent after him and something like pursuit was attempted,
but brief as was the start gained it was sufficient, and he was soon
beyond all danger.



CHAPTER XXI.

A MESSENGER IN HASTE.


The daring escape of the prisoner did not tend to improve the temper
of Capt. Asbury, and he indulged in a number of emphatic expressions,
during which Monteith Sterry was dignified enough to hold his peace.

But the leader of the stockmen quickly recovered his self-poise and
accepted the matter as one of the peculiar incidents liable to take
place at any time.

His version of the difficulty with the rustlers differed from that
given by Vesey. They rode up to the house, not knowing who dwelt
there, and were received with a shot, which, fortunately, did no
damage. Duke Vesey was at the rear, near the structure in which the
horses were stabled, when he hurriedly mounted and dashed off, just as
he had recently done. He did not make a fight like his companion, who,
as was represented, stood his ground. He was repeatedly summoned to
surrender, but paid no heed to it, and it became a choice whether to
shoot him down or allow him to empty the saddles.

While Sterry could not feel so well disposed toward Vesey after
hearing this account, he did not regret the part he had acted, and he
was also suspicious that Capt. Asbury had tinged his version with a
little romance.

The incident itself was of small moment, but the consequences were
likely to be far-reaching and important. One of the rustlers had
fallen and his companion had escaped. His story of the fight would
place the blame wholly upon the stockmen and inflame the feeling
between the rustlers and ranchmen, already at a dangerous intensity.

Capt. Asbury was out with his men for the purpose of arresting several
of the most notorious of the offenders against the law. Those rustlers
were sufficiently powerful to make trouble. If they were given time to
organize they could sweep the captain and his little party from the
earth. There was reason to believe they would do that very thing,
now that Duke Vesey was at liberty to spread his account of the last
outrage.

Capt. Asbury held a brief consultation with his men, all, including
Sterry, taking part. The consensus of opinion was that they ought to
effect a junction with some of the larger parties of stockmen known to
be abroad, or withdraw to some safe point like Buffalo, Riverside, or
the nearest military station.

Ira Inman, Larch Cadmus and the others were on the "war-path," and at
no great distance. Morning would probably find them in sight, if the
stockmen should stay where they were.

Capt. Asbury decided to ride to the westward, in the hope of effecting
a junction with friends or of reaching a point where they would be
secure against their assailants.

The night was well advanced, but their horses had done comparatively
little travelling and were capable of a good deal more. The captain
took the lead, holding only occasional converse with his men as he
swung along at an easy pace; but he, like the rest, was on the lookout
for danger, which was liable to approach from any point of the
compass.

A marked change showed itself in the temperature. The weather, as will
be remembered, had been unusually mild earlier in the evening, but
it now became sharp and chilly, as though the breath from the snowy
mountain crests was wafted down upon them.

In a valley-like depression, an hour later, where there was an
abundance of grass, beside a flowing stream of water, the party went
into camp, with a couple of their number on guard, just as they would
have done if in a hostile country--which in point of fact was the
case.

The night passed, however, without any disturbance, and all were astir
before sunrise. The men were provided with several days' rations,
while the succulent grass afforded the animals all the food they
needed, so there was no trouble on that score.

Capt. Asbury and Monteith Sterry mounted their horses and rode to the
crest of the nearest elevation, which was fully 100 feet in height and
commanded a wide sweep of country. The morning was clear and bright,
and the first glance they cast to the northward revealed a stirring
sight. A horseman was less than a half-mile away, and riding at
headlong speed, as if in the extremity of mortal fright.

"What can it mean?" asked the puzzled leader; "no one is pursuing him,
and I see no cause for his panic."

"I suspect," replied Sterry, thoughtfully, "that he is a messenger
bringing important tidings to you."



CHAPTER XXII.

IMPORTANT TIDINGS.


It seemed strange that the messenger, if such he was, should know the
right course to follow in order to reach the camp of Capt. Asbury, for
he was riding directly toward it, and that, too, at the highest speed
of which his horse was capable.

But Monteith Sterry had noted a fact which escaped the captain, though
he was an observant man. The horseman was not approaching the camp at
the moment the couple reached the crest of the elevation and began
scrutinizing the surrounding country; he was going at right angles to
it, but (as it afterward proved) he carried a glass, with which, at
that moment, he was also scanning the horizon for something he was
very anxious to find.

Fortunately he caught sight of the couple, and though he could not be
assured of their identity at so great a distance, the suspicion of
the truth as to Capt. Asbury caused him to put his animal to his best
speed.

In a brief time he rode up. While some rods away he recognized the
captain and saluted him. A little nearer approach and he identified
Sterry, who was astonished beyond measure to discover that he was his
old friend, Dick Hawkridge, toward whose ranch he had ridden on the
preceding evening.

"You're out early, Dick," was the salutation of Sterry, as his old
friend reined up beside him and extended his hand.

"And are riding hard," added Capt. Asbury, who liked the young man.

"I ride hard," replied Hawkridge, gravely, "because there is need of
it; I was looking for you."

"And why looking for me?" inquired the captain.

"Because you and your men are in great peril."

"Ah. What might be its nature?"

"From the rustlers."

"I was trying to persuade myself that it was they who were in peril
from us, but you put it differently."

"It might be as you wish if you had twenty-five or fifty men; but with
less than a dozen, and more than twice that number looking for you,
discretion is the better part of valor."

"Tell me, Hawkridge, how all this interesting information came to
you," continued Capt. Asbury.

"My ranch is not far to the northward, my cattle are ranging among the
foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, and all my hands are with them. I
sat up late last night, going over my accounts and trying to get them
into shape, and it was past midnight when two rustlers rode up. I
supposed they meant to stay all night and invited them in. I have
never had any trouble with them, and they had two purposes in
calling. One was to give me a little advice, and the other to secure
information."

"Their advice, I suppose, was that you cast in your fortunes with
them, and take up the business of branding mavericks and altering
other brands."

"Hardly that, but it was that I should keep out of the trouble, for
there are going to be ugly times. Now you know that, however much I
may wish to let things proceed smoothly, I will never identify myself
with the law-breakers. I gave my callers to understand that, and I
think they respect my position.

"It seems to me," added Hawkridge, thoughtfully, "that there have been
some woeful mistakes made. The Cattle Association have organized
an expedition to rid Johnson, Natroma and Converse Counties of
cattle-thieves, as they call them. They have imported twenty-five
picked men from Texas, every one of whom is a fighter and dead shot,
with Capt. Smith, an ex-U.S. marshal, as their leader. One of the
party may be taken as a type of the rest. He is Scott Davis, once a
guard on the Deadwood coach, and he carries a gun with twenty notches
on the stock, each representing the death of a road-agent or other
outlaw.

"The expedition left Cheyenne some days ago and is somewhere in this
section. Strong as it is, it is doomed to defeat, for I don't care
how brave and skilful those fellows are, they are no more so than the
rustlers, who far outnumber them.

"However, it isn't that which concerns you and me just now, though it
may do so later. The rustlers have learned that you are out with a
small party, and they are after you."

Capt. Asbury was a brave man, and he did not start on hearing this
announcement, for he had been expecting it from the first; but he
was prudent as well as daring, and he knew his young friend did not
underestimate the danger of himself and companions.

"Have they learned anything about last night's doings?" asked Sterry.

"That's what started me off after you in such a hurry. My callers
stayed more than two hours, and were about leaving when who should
ride up but Duke Vesey, with his story of the killing of his comrade,
Jack Perkins, by you and your men."

"I suppose he called it a murder," remarked Capt. Asbury,
sarcastically.

"Yes, the worst kind, too. I knew he was drawing a long bow, but he
will tell it to others, and it will spread like wildfire. He was
looking for Ira Inman, Larch Cadmus and his party. There are more of
them than you and others are aware of, riding up and down the country,
ripe for any mischief. From what I know, Inman and a dozen of the most
desperate rustlers are in the neighborhood, and as the two fellows who
were at my ranch volunteered to help Vesey find them they will do it
pretty soon, if they have not already done so. Vesey declared it as
his belief that you would be discovered not far from his burned home,
so as soon as they left I mounted my best horse and started to give
you warning."

"I appreciate your kindness, Hawkridge; how did you know the right
direction?"

"I knew the course to Vesey's ranch, and was speeding that way when
I caught sight of you and Sterry on the top of this hill. I took a
squint through my glass, was pretty sure who it was, and then came
like mad. I didn't suspect it was you though, Mont, until I almost ran
against you."

"Did Vesey say anything about me?" asked Sterry, with a meaning glance
at the captain.

"He said you had acted like a white man in some dispute, but he didn't
give the particulars and I didn't question him. He is intensely bitter
against the captain and his party, and declares that not one of them
shall get out of the country alive; and, captain, Duke Vesey is a man
of his word."

"Then I suppose I may consider myself disposed of," replied Asbury,
with a laugh.

"Not as bad as that, but it depends upon yourself."

"What do you advise?"

"Start southward at once with your men; if you meet the Texans and
their friends, join them if you choose; it will make their strength so
much the greater, and they need it all. If you fail to meet them,
keep on till you cross the Platte and strike Fort Fetterman. In other
words, captain, you have no business to be where you are."



CHAPTER XXIII.

AT BAY.


Capt. Asbury drew a cigar from his pocket and lit it, first offering
one to each of his companions. He puffed in silence for a minute or
two, evidently absorbed in thought. He was a veteran of the civil war,
and had learned to be cool in dangerous crises.

"Hawkridge," he remarked, removing his cigar, "you are right in the
main, although not wholly so."

"I await correction."

"Doubtless it is all true what you say about the festive rustlers
roaming up and down the land seeking whom they may devour, but you
forget that, leaving out the quarter of a hundred from the Lone Star
State, there are also other bands of stockmen abroad. Now, if we could
effect a junction with one or two of those companies, why, you'll
admit, the aspect of affairs will be changed."

"Unquestionably; but consider how slight the chance--"

"On the contrary, I think the prospect is good. Now, if you'll be kind
enough to level your glass to the eastward, possibly you will observe
something interesting."

Both young men quickly turned their heads in the direction indicated,
and there, sure enough, was descried a body of horsemen, probably a
mile distant, approaching on a gallop.

Hawkridge levelled his glass. While thus engaged, Capt. Asbury
signalled to his men to mount and be ready to move on a moment's call.

It was well to be ready for any emergency.

Dick Hawkridge studied the horsemen closely for some minutes without
speaking. Then, with his eye still at the glass, he repeated slowly,
as if to himself:

"There are thirteen of them, and the spotted horse at the head I am
sure belongs to Ira Inman; the whole party are rustlers."

He lowered the binocular and looked at the captain, adding:

"I suspected it; their party is but a little stronger than yours, for
Mont and I will stand with you, but it seems to me it would be foolish
to risk a fight in the open."

"I am willing to retreat, but I don't intend to be run out of Wyoming
by all the rustlers between Sheridan and Cheyenne. I am willing,
however," he added, with a smile, "to make a strategical movement to
the rear until we strike some place where there's a show for defence;
do you know of any such place?"

"My house is well fitted for that, and is not far off."

"All right; lead on."

By this time the rest of the party had ridden to the top of the hill,
where the situation was quickly made clear to them. They looked off at
the party of rustlers, and several expressed the wish that the captain
would stay and fight them; but he replied that they were quite certain
to get enough of fighting before they were many days older, and he
followed Hawkridge.

At sight of the flight, the rustlers uttered tantalizing shouts
and discharged their Winchesters in the air. At the same time they
increased the speed of their animals; but, as they were no better
mounted than the stockmen, there was little chance of overtaking them.

The surface was undulating, the ground being well covered with verdure
even thus early in the spring. Sometimes pursuers and fugitives were
out of sight of each other for a minute or two, but not long enough to
affect the situation.

The course was northwest, and Hawkridge was hopeful that they would
reach his ranch in an hour or a little more. And this they probably
would have done had they not been interrupted, or rather checked,
by the unexpected appearance of a third company of horsemen, almost
directly in front of the stockmen.

"It may be they are friends," said Capt. Asbury, instantly bringing
his horse down to a walk, as did the others.

But the hope was delusive. A brief scrutiny of the strangers through
the glass by Dick Hawkridge left no doubt that they, too, were
rustlers, probably engaged on the same errand as Inman and his men.

This, of course, overthrew the plan of taking refuge at the ranch of
Hawkridge, with a view of defending themselves, for to push on insured
a collision with the party in front. They seemed to be about as
numerous as Inman's company, and as the latter were sure to arrive
before anything could be accomplished by the most spirited attack on
the rustlers, it would have been folly to incur such a risk.

The most obvious course was to turn to the left, with no special
object except to reach some place that could be used as a means of
defence. In a country with such a varied surface it ought not to take
long to find a refuge.

Dick Hawkridge, when leading the way to his home, acted as guide, and
now that the change was made he continued to do so because of his
familiarity with the country. Beside him rode his friend, Mont Sterry,
with Capt. Asbury and the rest following in loose order.

It was an interesting question as to how Inman and the others would
act upon meeting, and the stockmen watched for the junction.

At the moment the abrupt turn was made in the course of the fugitives
the two parties of rustlers did not see each other, a precipitous
ridge preventing. They must have been puzzled, therefore, to
understand the cause of the sudden change in the line of flight.

The mystery, however, was speedily cleared up, and the rustlers
greeted each other with ringing cheers, adding a few derisive shouts
to the fleeing stockmen. They were seen to mingle for a short time
only, while they discussed the situation. Then the company, increased
to more than a score, galloped after the cattlemen.

A fight was inevitable, for the flight and pursuit could not continue
indefinitely. Brave and confident, the rustlers were ardent for the
opportunity, while Capt. Asbury and his men were equally eager to
come upon some place which would do something toward equalizing the
strength of the combatants.

It was humiliating thus to flee before the very men whom he had set
out to arrest, but what veteran has not been obliged to do humiliating
things in the course of his career?

"This flight can't continue much longer," quietly remarked Monteith
Sterry to Hawkridge, at his side.

"Why not?"

"The men are dissatisfied and are unwilling to keep it up. We have let
those fellows approach so near that their bullets come uncomfortably
close.

"Capt. Asbury is growing impatient; I shouldn't wonder if he gives the
order to stop and have it out with them. It will be warm work if we
do, but over that next ridge I think we shall gain sight of a good
place for making a stand."

Something in the appearance of the surroundings was familiar to
Sterry, but he could not identify them.

Just then two of the rustlers fired their guns, and the pinge of one
of the bullets was plainly heard. Sterry looked around and saw Capt.
Asbury compress his lips and shake his head; he did not like the way
things were going. A crisis was at hand.

The top of the ridge being attained, all saw a large structure below,
and not far off.

"Do you recognize it?" asked Hawkridge, with a smile.

"No--why, yes; is it possible?"

"You ought to know it, for, if I am not mistaken, you are considerably
interested in one member of the family."

"I never supposed we were so near Fred Whitney's home," was the amazed
comment of Sterry, who was in doubt whether, under the circumstances,
he ought to be pleased or not.

"There's where we'll make a stand," called out Capt. Asbury, "and let
the music begin."



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE PRIMITIVE FORT.


"Move a little lively, boys," added the captain, spurring his horse
to a faster gait; "there'll be some shooting, and they're closer than
they ought to be."

By a providential coincidence, the whole party of rustlers halted
before ascending the ridge, which would give them a view of the
building in which the stockmen were about to make a stand. They
probably saw the impossibility of overtaking the fugitives by a direct
pursuit, and paused to decide upon some different course of action.

This was proven by what they did a few minutes later, for they
separated into two divisions, one turning to the right and the other
to the left. They seemed to think that the course of their enemies
must change soon, in which case there was a chance of heading them off
and bringing them between two fires. The rustlers were more familiar
with the country than the stockmen, and, had the chase continued, it
is likely it would have resulted as they expected.

But, strangely enough, these people forgot the Whitney home, upon
which it may be said the horsemen stumbled the next moment.

Down the ridge rode the dozen or more, Hawkridge, Sterry and Capt.
Asbury at the head, with the others almost upon their heels. In the
brisk morning air the frightened Jennie Whitney hastened to the door
and gazed wonderingly upon the party.

She recognized the handsome youth, who doffed his hat, a courtesy
instantly imitated by Hawkridge, the captain, and then the rest of the
men, as they halted in front of the door, where stood the pale and
startled mother, at a loss to understand the meaning of the strange
sight.

"Good-morning!" called Sterry. "Where's Fred?"

"He's on the range with the men, looking after the cattle."

"And are you and your mother alone?"

"We are the only ones in the house. What is the meaning of all this?"
she asked, looking with astonishment at the horsemen.

"We are pursued by a company of rustlers," replied Hawkridge; "they
are directly behind us; I started to lead our friends to my ranch, but
they headed us off, and we were compelled to apply here for shelter."

"You are welcome," Mrs. Whitney hastened to say; "dismount and come in
as soon as you can."

Sterry, Hawkridge and Capt. Asbury thanked her simultaneously. Time
was beyond value. They expected every instant to hear the crack of the
rifles and the shouts of their enemies on the crest of the ridge, and
could not comprehend why they were delayed.

They dashed to the structure at the rear and a short distance from
the dwelling, into which they ran their horses, slipped off their
trappings, and hurried back to the house.

Every one was inside and not a shot fired, nor was a rustler seen. It
was beyond explanation.

But the stockmen were wise enough to turn to the best account the
grace thus given to them.

They stationed themselves at the front and rear doors and windows with
loaded weapons, on the alert to wing the first rustler who showed
himself.

Sterry found time to exchange a few words with Jennie and her mother.

"It is too bad," he said, "to put you to this trouble and danger; but
the rustlers outnumber us more than two to one, and it was the only
hope that offered itself."

"And glad am I that it _did_ present itself. O, if my poor husband had
been here when they attacked him!"

"When do you expect the return of Fred?"

"Not before night, and the hands may not come with him. He does not
dream of anything like this."

"Nor did we, a little while ago. Had any other refuge presented itself
we would have seized it; but I never suspected we were near your home
until we came over the ridge and saw it but a few rods away."

"But, where are they?" asked the wondering Jennie.

"That's something I don't understand, for they were near enough for
their bullets to whistle about our ears."

"They have seen where you took shelter and are afraid to attack you."

"That may be; but why don't they show themselves?"

At this moment Capt. Asbury approached. Repeating his regrets that
they should place their friends in such danger, he said:

"As there is no saying how long we shall have to stay here, we ought
to learn the nature of our defences. Our horses are in the stables,
where, if the rustlers choose, they can get them, and they will be
pretty sure to choose to do it. They can steal to the rear of the
sheds and take them out without risk. Now, Mrs. Whitney, we have
enough rations with us to last, in a pinch, for three or four days;
how are you fixed?"

"We have but a small quantity of food in the house--none worth
mentioning."

"No matter how slight, it is worth mentioning. Under the
circumstances, I think we can say we are provisioned for the whole
time of the siege, which must be over in less than a week."

"But how will it end?" asked the lady.

The captain shrugged his shoulders.

"Take no thought of the morrow; but what worries me is the question of
water--how about that?"

A hurried examination disclosed that there was not quite two pailfuls
in the house. Even that was more than usual. The small stream from
which the supply was obtained was beyond the stables in which the
horses were sheltered. Water from that source was out of the question
while the siege continued.

Several of the men had a small quantity in their canteens, but,
inasmuch as no such contingency as this was anticipated, little
preparation had been made.

Still Capt. Asbury expressed himself gratified at the result of his
investigation. The weather was so cool that a moderate amount of
the precious fluid would prevent suffering, and he decided that,
dispensing with what ordinarily was used for cooking purposes, they
could get along quite well for three days, and possibly longer.

The lower part of the flat building consisted of two parts, used
respectively for the kitchen and the dining and sitting-room. There
were four apartments above--one for the parents, one each for the son
and daughter, and one for visitors. These, of course, would be held
sacred for the members of the family, while the others found sleep, as
opportunity presented, below stairs.

There were windows on all sides of the house; and the structure, while
not strong, was, of course, bullet-proof.

Before all this was ascertained the rustlers showed themselves. But
instead of appearing on the ridge, over which the cattlemen had
ridden, half of them showed themselves on the other side, having
circled around back of the stables.

A moment later the rest were observed on top of the ridge. Thus, with
the exception of the broad level plain stretching in the direction of
the Big Horn Mountains, it may be said that the ranch was surrounded
by the rustlers, who held the stockmen at bay.

What would be the result? None could foresee.

Hawkridge drew Sterry aside and said, in a guarded undertone:

"There is only one thing to be feared."

"What is that?"

"It is easy for them to burn this building."

"Do you think they will do that, when they know a couple of women are
inside?"

"It doesn't follow that there is any necessity of their being burned,
nor indeed of any of us suffering from fire. When you touch off a barn
the rats get out, and that's what we shall have to do."

"But they will give us a chance, first."

"Yes, a chance to surrender, and we might have done that without
putting ourselves to all this trouble."

"And suppose we _do_ surrender, after making the best fight we
can--what are likely to be the terms offered?"

"They will treat the majority, including myself, as prisoners of war;
but Capt. Asbury, and probably you, will be excepted--he because
of the killing of Perkins last night, and you because you have
disregarded the warning to leave the country when ordered to do so."

"All of which is mighty interesting to the captain and myself,"
remarked Sterry, with little evidence of fear; "but we will hope for
better things."



CHAPTER XXV.

THE FLAG OF TRUCE.


In one important respect the combatants showed commendable discretion.
Although there had been considerable firing on the part of the
rustlers, none of the cattlemen were hurt. It is not unlikely that the
bullets were intended to frighten them, since such excellent marksmen
otherwise could not have discharged their weapons without execution.

Capt. Asbury and his men had not returned a shot. When their enemies
appeared on more than one side of the building it would have been easy
to pick off several without risk to those sheltered within the house,
but he gave orders that nothing of that sort should be done.

The bitterness between the parties was already intense. There were
hot-heads on both sides eager to open the lamentable conflict, but
were it done, there was no saying where it would end. It was wise,
therefore, that the leaders forbore from active hostilities at this
early stage of the business.

From the front of the structure the plain stretched in the direction
of the Big Horn Mountains. It was across this that Jennie Whitney
descried, two days before, the return of her friends with the body of
her father. She now ascended to the second story and peered long and
frequently in the same direction, in the hope of catching sight of her
brother.

Meanwhile Capt. Asbury disposed of the members of his party as best
he could. They needed no instructions from him to avoid in every way
possible annoying the ladies, who were considerate and kind.

About midday, excitement was caused among the besieged by the
appearance of a flag of truce. A man rode over the ridge, down which
the cattlemen had come in such haste, holding a white handkerchief
fluttering over his head. His horse walked slowly and the rider
kept his gaze on the front of the house, as though in doubt of the
reception awaiting him. A hundred feet away he came to a halt, still
flourishing the peace signal above his hat.

Capt. Asbury was the first to discover the messenger and hurriedly
arranged for the interview.

"Inasmuch as that fellow is neither Inman, Cadmus, nor anyone of the
leaders, it is not the thing for me to meet him."

"You have recognized him?" was the inquiring remark of Hawkridge,
glancing with a smile at the officer.

"No. Who is he?"

"Duke Vesey, who does not feel particularly amiable toward you."

"I will meet him," volunteered Monteith Sterry. The captain shook his
head.

"While that fellow is friendly to you, perhaps, others of the company
are very resentful; it isn't best to tempt them. Hawkridge, you are
the best one to act."

"Very well; I will do so."

The horseman had come to a stop and was gazing fixedly at the
building, as if waiting for a response to his advance.

Jennie Whitney descended the stairs at this moment.

"I think I see Fred coming," she said, with some agitation; "will they
do him any harm?"

"No," replied Sterry, "they have nothing against him."

"But the other day--" she ventured, doubtfully.

"Was a scrimmage, likely to take place at any time; that is ended, but
they will probably hold him prisoner."

During this brief conversation a brisk search was going on among the
three men for a white pocket-handkerchief. None of them possessed such
an article, the hue in each case being different. Hawkridge appealed
to Miss Whitney, and she produced a linen handkerchief of snowy
whiteness.

"Just the thing," he said, drawing back the door sufficiently to allow
him to pass out. "I don't think I will be detained long. It is
understood," he added, turning to the captain, "that we don't consider
the question of surrender under any terms."

"It will be better to report, and then decide what to do."

Hawkridge bowed and passed out. He waved the spotless linen in front
of his face as he walked toward the horseman, and both smiled when
they recognized each other.

"Well, Duke, what is it?" asked the footman, as though he were asking
an ordinary question of a friend.

"I reckon you can guess. Since the two companies came together Ira
Inman is at the head of the army. Some of the boys are wild to begin
shooting, and they'll do it pretty soon. Before that, Inman decided to
offer you folks a chance to give in. That's my business."

"You simply demand our surrender, as I understand it?"

"You've guessed it the first time," replied Vesey, with a nod of his
head.

"What terms do you offer?"

"You'll be treated as prisoners of war; but," added the rustler, "it
is hardly right to say that. It's Inman's idea to hold you as hostages
for the right treatment of any of our boys that may fall into the
hands of the stockmen."

"That is quite different. Let me ask, Duke, whether this treatment is
guaranteed to all of our folks?"

"I wish I could say it was, Dick, but I can't; Inman makes two
exceptions--Capt. Asbury and Mont Sterry. That Sterry showed himself
so much of a man and was so square toward me when I was caught that I
would do anything I could for him. I appealed to Inman to let up on
him, but he won't; some of the boys are so mad they will shoot him on
sight."

"And Capt. Asbury?"

Vesey's face became hard.

"He ought to be hanged because of the way he acted last night."

"But what is proposed to do with him and Sterry?"

"Give them a fair trial."

Hawkridge shook his head with a meaning smile.

"It won't work, Duke; there isn't a man in our company who would
consent to anything of the kind. There could be but one issue to such
a trial, and it would be nothing less than the betrayal of our leader
or a comrade by us."

"Inman declares he will burn down the house if you refuse his terms."

"Let him try it as soon as he pleases; you can tell him for Capt.
Asbury that his terms are rejected."



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE UNDERGROUND MISSIVE.


Dick Hawkridge, standing on the ground, looked up in the bronzed face
of Duke Vesey, sitting in the saddle.

At every window on the lower floor were faces watching the two men
that had thus met under a flag of truce. From the ridge on the right,
and the undulating ground to the left, peered the rustlers, intensely
interested in the actions of the couple, whose words were spoken in
tones too low to reach the ears of any on either side. No actors ever
had a more attentive audience than they.

When Hawkridge announced to Vesey that his proffer was rejected (for
it was useless to report first to Capt. Asbury, as he had been told to
do), the horseman said:

"Dick, you would have been a cur to accept such terms, though I would
do anything to even matters with that Asbury; but I want to get a
message to Mont Sterry."

"You can trust me to carry it."

"It is for him alone; I have it in writing. Well, good-by."

He leaned over from the saddle and extended his hand. As Hawkridge
took it he felt something in his palm.

"I understand," he said; "it shall be delivered."

No one watching the couple, as nearly all were doing, suspected this
little by-play. They saluted, and Vesey spurred his pony to a gallop,
passing up the ridge and joining his friends to report, while
Hawkridge was admitted through the door, which was immediately closed
and secured behind him.

To the captain and the others who crowded around he quickly told what
had passed.

"Your order was to let you know the terms before giving an answer," he
added, addressing the leader, "but you see it wasn't necessary."

A buzz of commendation left no doubt of the wisdom of his course.

"But what about his threat to burn the building?" asked Sterry,
addressing no one in particular.

"He will do it, or at least will try it," replied Hawkridge, "for he
doesn't intend any one shall have time to interfere, as may be the
case if he delays too long."

"To set fire to the house," remarked the captain, who had given much
thought to the question, "they must first reach it, and that manoeuvre
will prove a costly one to them. I suspect that some other firing will
take place about that time--eh, boys?"

The response revealed the feelings of the men, who were chafing under
their restraint.

"But, surely," continued Sterry, "they do not mean to burn the
building while Mrs. Whitney and her daughter are within?"

"As was said some time ago," replied Hawkridge, "that makes little
difference, since it is not to be supposed that even we will stay
inside during the conflagration. The firing is meant to drive us out,
and it will do it."

"But there must be considerable shooting, and the ladies will be in
danger."

"I think Inman will order us to send them out, so as to prevent harm
to them."

"If they were Sioux or Crows they might launch burning arrows and
fire-balls; but they can't do that, and will have to run some risk in
getting the flames under way."

"There are signs of a storm, and if the night proves dark it will be
much in their favor and against us."

"Suppose they fire the stables," suggested one of the men.

"They are too far off to place us in danger, unless a strong wind
should blow directly this way."

"Well, boys," said Capt. Asbury, hopefully, "the thing isn't through
yet. I think Inman will give us another message before opening the
ball, so you may rest easy until he makes his next move."

Meanwhile Hawkridge had managed to deliver the little twist of paper,
placed in his hand by Vesey. Inasmuch as the matter had been managed
with so much care, he deemed it right that no one should see the
transfer to his friend.

Sterry was surprised and glanced down at the object, but, quick to
catch on, closed his palm again and took part in the conversation. It
was some minutes before he gained a chance to examine the contents
unobserved. When he did so, they proved so important that he called
Hawkridge and the captain aside and showed the letter to them. Each
read it in turn, the contents being as follows:

    "FRIEND STERRY: You acted square with me, and I will do the same
    with you. Inman doesn't expect you folks to accept his terms, for
    if you do it will be good-by to yourself and Capt. Asbury. It
    would suit me very well to see him go, as he will if we get a
    chance at him, but I can't bear the idea of anything bad happening
    to you after the way you stood by me last night when that Asbury
    meant to shoot me.

    "So my advice is this: Get out of where you are and leave as fast
    as you know how. Queer advice, you'll think, but I'll show you how
    you can follow it. A friend of mine, whom we can both trust, and
    I, will be on watch to-night at the stables. It looks as if it is
    going to be as dark as a wolf's mouth.

    "It won't do to move before 10 o'clock. When everything is ready I
    will light a cigarette and flirt the match around my head once, as
    if to put it out. That will mean that the way is open. Steal out
    of the back door and dodge to the stables; your mare will be
    ready, and when another chance opens you can make a break. No one
    can overtake you, and I don't think it will be suspected who you
    are.

    "If you succeed, I hope you will have sense enough to stay out of
    Wyoming, at least until this flurry is over. If you are detected
    while trying to reach the stables you can dart back, for I don't
    think anyone will shoot at you, since we have orders not to do
    that until after you folks begin the rumpus.

    "Inman means to set fire to the house to-night. He won't be able
    to hold back the boys much longer. When ready, he will send word
    and ask the two ladies to come out to him, where he will hold them
    beyond reach of fire and bullet. He expects there will be the
    hottest kind of shooting, and it will be a bad thing for you
    folks. Capt. Asbury may as well make his will, for I'm not the
    only one that will lay for him.

    "Don't forget my directions. It will not be before 10 o'clock, and
    may be a little later. Don't let any one see this, and don't drop
    a hint to Asbury. It is meant for your good, and you will act like
    a sensible man.

    "D.V."



CHAPTER XXVII.

ON PAROLE.


A new matter of interest claimed the immediate attention of the
defenders within the home of ranchman Whitney.

It will be remembered that the sister had reported the approach of a
horseman, whom she believed to be her brother. The rider was now in
plain sight, and a brief scrutiny through the glass by Hawkridge
removed all doubt; she was right.

He was coming at an easy, swinging gallop, straight toward his home.
He must have seen the rustlers while yet a considerable way off, for
he quickened the pace of his animal, stirred by a natural anxiety for
his loved ones and by a curiosity to know the meaning of the strange
condition of affairs.

Had he understood matters fully, while yet at a distance, he would
have avoided a mistake which occasioned him and his friends intense
regret, and which proved irreparable.

He did not cease his advance until within a hundred yards, when the
cattlemen, who were watching his every movement, saw him bring his
horse to a sudden halt. At the same moment a couple of rustlers moved
into view, their guns held so as to cover him. He sat motionless until
they came up, one on either side, when he was seen to be conversing
earnestly with them.

"They have made him prisoner," remarked Hawkridge, "just as I was sure
they would."

"Will they do him harm?" asked Mrs. Whitney, who, with Jennie, had
descended the stairs and stood with the group near the front door.

"No," was Hawkridge's reassuring reply; "he must see the uselessness
of resistance, and we are not fighting Indians who learned warfare
from the late lamented Sitting Bull."

It was noticed that Fred Whitney, despite the wound of a couple of
days before, no longer wore his arm in a sling. As he had said, he was
ashamed to do so.

Brave as was the young man, he had judgment. He knew that he was at
the mercy of a score of rustlers, and quickly learned the situation.
Capt. Asbury, Monteith Sterry, Dick Hawkridge and a number of
cattlemen were besieged in his home.

While he was holding earnest converse with his captors one of them
turned and addressed Inman, who was out of sight of the besieged,
because of the intervening ridge. His reply caused Whitney to dismount
and walk in that direction, he, too, passing out of the field of
vision.

He was invisible for perhaps ten minutes, when he was seen coming
over the ridge toward his own door, but without his Winchester or
revolvers. A moment later he was admitted. He kissed his mother and
sister and grasped the hands of his friends, who crowded around to
congratulate him and hear what he had to say.

"They told me everything," he replied, looking into the glowing faces,
and smiling at the anxiety depicted on several. "I have made a woeful
mistake, boys."

"How's that?" asked several in the same breath.

"Hankinson and Weber have moved several miles further into the
mountains, so nothing will be seen of them for several days, and
perhaps not for a week. The trouble with the rustlers makes it
necessary that we should keep closer watch than usual upon the stock,
and it is understood that they are not to leave the cattle until they
get word from me. So, as I said, they are out of the question."

"Is that the mistake you refer to?" asked Sterry.

"I wish it was; but a couple of hours ago, Hankinson, who had ridden
a considerable distance beyond the grazing grounds, came in with the
report that a large body of men were camped in a valley a mile or so
further on. There must be fifty at least."

Capt. Asbury emitted a low whistle.

"Rustlers again! By and by we'll have all there are in Wyoming
swarming about this house."

"No; Budd visited them, and found they were cattlemen on the hunt for
rustlers. Had he known of Inman's party out here he would have given
them a pointer, but of course he doesn't dream of anything of the
kind. Now, the mistake I made is this: When I saw the horsemen
gathered about the buildings and ridge, I ought to have wheeled and
ridden as hard as I could to the stockmen. They would have been here
before night and wound up this business in a jiffy. But I kept on and
rode right into the trap set for me, and can do nothing."

No one could question the justice of Whitney's self-condemnation, but
there was no help for it.

"How is it you were allowed to join us?" asked Capt. Asbury.

"I am here under parole; you see they took my horse, rifle and pistols
from me. I would not have been allowed to come to you except upon my
pledge to return within fifteen minutes."

"And what will they do with you, my boy?" asked his mother, alarmed by
the information.

"Nothing, so long as I remain a model prisoner; but how are you fixed
for defence?"

He was quickly made acquainted with the situation of affairs.

"Ah," he added, with a sigh, "if there was some way of getting word to
the stockmen; but I see none."

"They will not be likely to give you a chance?"

Fred shook his head.

"I'm afraid I overdid the thing. I asked them to be allowed to go back
to my cattlemen, but they would not listen to it. They acted as if
they were suspicious, and told me I must stay with them until the
trouble ended, which they assured me would be soon."

Sterry glanced significantly at Asbury and Hawkridge. He recalled that
singular message from Duke Vesey. If all went well, it might contain a
shadow of hope. It was deemed best, however, to make no reference
to it, even for the benefit of Whitney, who was questioned until he
described as exactly as he could the location of the cattlemen.

The grace had expired. No one thought of advising Whitney to disregard
his parole, and no urging could have induced him to do it. He
affectionately kissed and embraced mother and sister, warmly shook the
hands of his friends again, assured them of his hope that all would
come out right, and then, passing through the door, was seen to walk
up the ridge and pass over the summit, to take his place among his
captors, there to await their pleasure.

"Sterry," said Asbury, drawing him and Hawkridge aside, "you were
saying awhile ago that nothing could induce you to accept the offer of
Vesey to slip out in the darkness of the night."

"No; as he presented it, such a flight would have been a piece of
cowardice altogether different from my flight last night. It would
have weakened your defensive force and helped no one but me."

"Now, however, it wears a different aspect."

"Yes, it looks providential, and promises to open the way for the
escape of all. I hardly think," added Sterry, with a smile, "that
with all of Vesey's gratitude to me he would do what he intends if he
foresaw the probable consequences, for it means nothing less than the
overthrow of Inman's plans."

"And the baffling of his charitable intentions concerning myself,"
grimly added the captain.

"It seems to me we forgot one phase of the business," remarked
Hawkridge, "and that is the fact that the chances of failure are a
hundredfold greater than those of success."

His companions looked questioningly at him.

"Perhaps it will not be difficult for Vesey to secure the placing of
himself and friend at the stables, as he promises to do, but it seems
unlikely that, with a dark night and the temptation for some of us
to try to get away, they will be the only couple that will be on the
lookout at that time. But, supposing they are," added Hawkridge,
"Sterry will have to mount his horse and ride off. There will be some
of the rustlers beyond him, and how can he pass them unchallenged?"

"If it proves too risky to try on horseback I can do it on foot,"
replied Sterry; "in the darkness I will be taken for one of them, and,
if questioned, can throw them off their guard. The tramp to where the
stockmen are in camp I judge to be little if any more than five miles,
and it won't take me long to travel that after getting clear of these
people."

"I have a strong belief that the whole scheme is doomed to failure,"
said Hawkridge, and Capt. Asbury agreed with him.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE FINAL SUMMONS.


Now came hours of wearisome waiting, especially to the besieged, who
found in their close quarters little freedom of movement. Some of the
men stretched out on the lower floor and slept; others talked and
engaged in games of chance, while a desultory watch was maintained,
through the doors and windows, upon the rustlers, several of whom were
continually in sight.

Before the afternoon had half passed all doubt of the coming darkness
was removed. The sky became heavily clouded, the air was raw and
chilly, and no moon was visible.

Several distant rifle-shots were heard an hour later, but no one
could conjecture or discover the explanation. Probably they signified
nothing.

Fred Whitney showed himself on top of the ridge once, and waved his
hand in salutation to his friends. This was done to reassure his
mother and sister, who were anxious, despite what he had said to them.

Many longing glances were cast across the broad plain in the direction
of the mountains. Like shipwrecked mariners scanning the horizon for
the rescuing sail, the besieged were hopeful that some good fortune
would bring the strong body of stockmen that way; but the vision was
rewarded by no such welcome sight.

Capt. Asbury received a shock just before night closed in. So many
hours had passed without the exchange of a shot that both parties
exposed themselves freely. Had they chosen, a good many might have
been picked off; but the general understanding that the hour had not
yet come for action, threatened, at times, to change the impending
tragedy into a most ordinary situation.

Capt. Asbury was sitting by one of the front windows, smoking his
briarwood, and looking nowhere in particular, when he saw a man
kneeling on top of the ridge and carefully sighting his gun at him.
Before the fellow could secure an aim the officer moved quickly back
out of sight, and he vanished.

"I have no doubt it was Duke Vesey," he thought; "what a pity I did
not shoot him last night."

He judged it not worth while to tell any of the rest of the incident,
but he took care not to tempt the fellow again by a second exposure to
his aim.

But for this prompt action on the part of the leader, a frightful
conflict must have been precipitated. The shooting of the captain
would cause retaliation on the part of the stockmen, and it would
instantly become a question as to which could do the most execution.

The occurrence was startling enough of itself, but Capt. Asbury
quickly recovered, only to find himself troubled by another matter,
which was more serious.

It was the doubt whether the intended crime of Vesey was solely of his
own responsibility. Was it not likely that he had received permission
from Inman to end the suspense by shooting the captain of the
stockmen? The captain knew that he was as much detested by the leading
rustlers as by Vesey. Probably the men were growing too impatient to
be restrained much longer.

The suspicion appeared more reasonable from the fact that, the leader
once "removed," there would remain but the single exception to those
guaranteed honorable treatment. Surrender, therefore, would be more
probable.

No single shot could do so much to aid the rustlers as that which came
near being made.

"This strained situation can't last much longer; I believe it will be
settled before the rise of to-morrow's sun."

Monteith Sterry secured more than one chance of a few words with
Jennie. The sense of danger naturally draws persons closer together,
though the incentive was hardly needed in their case.

"Monteith," said she, as they sat apart by themselves, with the shadow
of the coming night gradually closing around, "what is to be the end
of all this?"

"I will tell you what I think," he replied, and thereupon read in a
guarded voice the letter received from Duke Vesey, after which they
burned it, that it might not fall into hands that could injure the
sender.

"You can see that we are going to be favoured with a very dark night,
and Vesey is so anxious to befriend me that I am sure he will find the
way, though Hawkridge and the captain are less confident."

"But suppose they recognize you?"

"They can't do that in the darkness, and my rustling friend will not
draw me into a peril that is greater than that of staying here."

"I feel as do Mr. Hawkridge and Capt. Asbury," she said, unable to
share his ardour.

"Then do you wish me to stay here?"

"I think it is safer."

"And go up in flame and smoke?"

"Won't you be willing to share the risk with me?" she asked, entering
into his half-jocose vein.

"But the rustlers will save you that risk; they will give you a good
point of observation, from which you can have a fine view of the
scene."

"Suppose mother and I refuse to leave?"

"I am certain you will not do that," said Sterry, gravely, "for you
will be in great danger under any circumstances."

"But if we remain they may not try to fire the house."

He shook his head.

"Dismiss all idea of that; do not fancy, because hours have passed
without the exchange of a shot, that there is any friendship between
the parties. By and by a gun will be fired; somebody will be hurt, and
then they will be at it like so many tigers. No, Jennie," he added,
"when the warning comes for you and your mother to withdraw you must
do so, not only for your own sake, but for ours."

"And how yours?"

"We--that is, the men--can fight much better when your presence causes
them no anxiety."

"But, tell me, do not Capt. Asbury and the rest feel hopeful of
beating off the rustlers?"

"Of course they will make a brave fight, and there is a chance of
their success, but I shudder when I think of what the cost will be to
both sides. How much better if all this can be averted."

"True, indeed! And if I could be assured that you would succeed in
reaching the camp of the cattlemen, I would bid you Godspeed."

"I certainly will never reach it by staying here, and I think if my
chances were doubly less they ought to be taken for the sake of the
good that will come to all."

At this juncture, Capt. Asbury, sitting near the window, called out:

"Here's a visitor!"

In the gloom he was not clearly visible, even though he was seen to
advance, and heard to knock on the door. But when the latter was
opened, Fred Whitney stepped inside.

Here the gathering darkness was more pronounced, for it was not deemed
prudent to have a light.

"Inman has sent me with his ultimatum," said the messenger; "he says
he has given you abundant time to think over the matter, and wants
your decision."

"What are his terms?" asked Capt. Asbury.

"The same as before."

"He promises to treat all of us as prisoners of war, with the
exception of Sterry and myself. We are guaranteed a trial, which is
another way of saying we shall be shot. I will allow my men to vote on
the question," added the leader.

The indignant protests, however, compelled the officer to recall his
harsh remark.

"Of course I knew that would be your reply," Fred hastened to say;
"and it is what Inman and Cadmus expect. I have been sent to bring my
mother and sister out of the house, for the rustlers intend to attack
you before morning. That means, too, that they intend to burn it."

The three defenders who were in the secret saw the danger in which
this placed Sterry's intended flight.

If the attack were made before 10 o'clock, there could be no possible
opportunity for his getting away. Some means, therefore, must be
found for deferring the assault until after that hour, if it could be
accomplished without arousing the suspicions of the rustlers.



CHAPTER XXIX.

A STRANGE OCCURRENCE.


"Do you know," inquired Sterry, "how soon it is contemplated making
the attack?"

"I have not heard Inman or Cadmus say, but from the talk of the men I
judge it will be quite soon."

"Probably within a couple of hours?" "Sooner than that--by 9 o'clock
at the latest."

It was the mother who now spoke: "Suppose Jennie and I decline to
leave the house?"

"That has been considered," replied the son, "and I am sorry to say
it will make no difference. The rustlers are in an uglier mood than
before--wrathful because they have been kept idle so long. They can
claim that they have given you ample notice, and if you refuse to come
out they cannot be held blamable for the consequences."

This would never do, and Hawkridge interposed:

"If the attack cannot be prevented, Fred, it must be delayed."

"On what grounds?"

"Any that you can think of; they must not disturb us until near
midnight."

"But I shall have to give a reason; I am as anxious as you to do my
utmost, but I do not see how I can do anything."

The quick wit of Jennie came to the rescue.

"Tell Capt. Inman and Larch Cadmus for me that we have a number of
articles we wish to save from destruction; ask them in the name of
mother and myself to give us time in which to gather them together."

Fred was silent for a moment.

"At least it will do no harm to try it, even though I do not believe
it will be of any use."

"Ask them to make it between 11 and 12; we will then have time to
collect all we want--in fact a good deal more time than is necessary."

"I do not see the need of this," replied the brother, who, it need not
be repeated, had no knowledge of what was in the minds of the few;
"I think I can say that if I do not return in the course of ten or
fifteen minutes, you may consider your prayer granted."

Bidding them good-by once more, he passed out of the door and
disappeared in the darkness, which had now fully descended and shut
from sight the impatient rustlers.

It was a peculiar situation in which the defenders, including the
mother and sister, dreaded the return of the head of the household,
but the front of the dwelling was watched with an intensity of
interest it would be hard to describe.

"By gracious! there he is!" exclaimed Dick Hawkridge, hardly ten
minutes after Fred's departure; "it's no use."

A shadowy figure was observed moving across the dark space in front,
but while they were waiting for him to enter the door, which was
unfastened to admit him, he passed on and vanished in the gloom
without checking his motion or speaking.

"That wasn't Fred," whispered Jennie; "I know his walk too well."

"It makes no difference," replied Sterry, "you can depend that he will
soon put in an appearance."

But the slow minutes dragged along and nothing was seen of him. By and
by a faint hope began to form that the urgent request of the ladies
had been conceded, for they insisted that they could see no reason why
it should not be.

A full hour passed, and, when it was after 9 o'clock, all doubt was
removed. The attack would not be made until close upon midnight.
Monteith Sterry would be given the chance, provided Duke Vesey showed
the way for him.

The crisis was so near that it was deemed best to let all know what
was in contemplation. Capt. Asbury, therefore, explained it to the
men, as the daughter had explained to the mother.

"Those fellows can't be trusted," the leader added; "they may seek to
give the impression that the delay has been granted, while preparing
to assail us when least expected. The night is dark, as you see, and
favourable to their plans. Keep the closest watch possible on all
sides of the house, for to set fire to it they must approach near
enough to touch the building."

"Suppose we catch sight of some one stealing up?" asked one of the
cattlemen.

"Challenge him, and if he does not give a satisfactory response,
fire."

"What will be a satisfactory response?"

"The voice of Fred Whitney, and I may say of Duke Vesey, or the
announcement that the individual is the bearer of a message for us. In
the latter case, of course, he will approach from the front. When you
shoot, too, boys, you mustn't throw away any shots, for this isn't
going to be child's play."

"We understand that," was the significant response of a couple of the
stockmen.

It was now growing so late that Sterry placed himself near the rear
door to watch for the expected signal from Vesey, feeling, as the
minutes passed, a nervousness greater than at any time before.

Since no light burned in the house, the only means of determining the
hour was by striking a match and holding it in front of a watch. Hope
became high when 10 o'clock was at hand.

Sterry half expected, in case everything promised well, that Vesey
would manage to give something in the nature of a preliminary signal,
but the closest scrutiny showed nothing of the kind.

Capt. Asbury, who maintained his place near one of the front windows,
close to the door, suddenly called:

"Come here a moment, Sterry."

The young man stepped hastily across the room.

"You have everything clear in your mind?" was the question which
struck the young man as slightly inopportune.

"Yes; as clear as I can have; why do you ask?"

"I wanted to be certain, for your task is a delicate one; we will
hold the door ajar a little while after you go, so that if anything
happens, such as their recognizing you, you will be able to dash back.
You know it won't do for you to be identified."

"I understand," replied Sterry, who felt that he ought to be at his
post.

He hastily stepped back, and as he did so was surprised to find the
door drawn open several inches.

"What does that mean?" he asked of the several gathered around in the
darkness, whose faces he could not see.

"Why," replied Hawkridge, "what does it mean, indeed? I thought you
passed out just now."

"You see I did not. Why do you make such a remark?"

"Some one went out," was the amazing declaration.



CHAPTER XXX.

THE MISSING ONE.


Monteith Sterry was astounded by the declaration of Dick Hawkridge
that some one had passed through the rear door while he was talking
with Capt. Asbury.

"Who was it?" demanded he.

"I told you we thought it was you," replied his friend.

"But you know it wasn't," he replied, impatiently.

"Then I have no idea who it was."

"Some one has taken advantage of the moment I spent with the
captain--I wonder if he had anything to do with it," he added, growing
unjustly suspicious in his resentment.

He strode across the room; and, knowing where the leader was,
demanded:

"What is the meaning of this, Capt. Asbury?"

"The meaning of what?"

"While I was talking a few seconds with you some person slipped out of
the back door; do you know anything of it?"

"It is beyond my comprehension," replied the leader in a voice which
removed all distrust of him.

And forgetful, in his excitement, of his duty at the front, he stepped
hastily to the rear, where most of the men had crowded, despite the
orders for them to maintain a strict watch.

"I heard you and the captain speaking," said Hawkridge, in
explanation, "but your voices were so low that I would not have
identified them anywhere. Supposing you to be where you really were,
I stepped to the rear window here and peered out in the gloom where I
knew the stable to be--"

"Did you see anything?" interrupted Sterry.

"Not a sign of the signal. While I was straining my eyes to pierce
the darkness the door was drawn inward slightly, and a figure moved
quickly across the space toward the stables."

"You could not identify it?"

"Of course not, for you see how dark it is, and there was no light; in
fact, I hardly saw it before it vanished."

"It is as I supposed," added Sterry, angrily. "Some one fancied he had
a better chance by slipping off than in remaining here, and has looked
after his own safety. I wish I knew who it was."

"We can soon find out," remarked Capt. Asbury; "our men are not too
numerous for me to forget their names and voices."

He raised his tones and summoned them.

"I don't believe they will attempt to fire the house as long as the
ladies are with us," he exclaimed; "some one of our party has been
cowardly enough to sneak off. As I call your names, answer."

He proved the truth of what he said. He had eight companions, not
counting Hawkridge and Sterry. With little hesitation, for his memory
was instantly prompted by others, he pronounced each name, and to
every one came the prompt, unmistakable response of the owner.

"One of those rustlers has managed to get in here undiscovered,"
was the next theory of Sterry, whose temper did not improve at the
unaccountable turn of affairs. "I don't see why Inman and the rest
delay their attack, when we are only children in their hands; they can
do with us as they please--"

All started, for at that moment a sharp rap sounded on the door.
Before opening it, Capt. Asbury called out:

"Who's there?"

"It is I--Fred Whitney--let me in, quick!"

He was admitted without an instant's delay, while all crowded around
in the darkness.

"Well, you can imagine what I have come for. I made known the request
of mother and Jennie, but Inman and Cadmus would not think of granting
it at first. I told Cadmus that it was your special request, Jennie,
adding a little ornamentation of my own, such as that you knew that
when he learned how much it could please you, he could not refuse. I
hope I did right, did I not, sister?"

In the slight laugh which followed this question, the reply of the
young lady was not heard, and her brother continued:

"Well, I put it so strong that Cadmus fell in with me and persuaded
Inman to do the same. They agreed to wait until 10 o'clock, but no
longer; so you see I did not accomplish all that I hoped, but it was
better than nothing. If I am not mistaken it is past 10 now."

"Not more than a few minutes."

"Well, at any rate, the time is up, and they have sent me to notify
you that they will wait no longer. I suppose that you, mother and
Jennie, have got together all that you can take away. As I have to
escort you back, I will carry the things, unless you smuggle in some
of the bedsteads."

"Then it is the intention to attack as soon as the ladies are fairly
out of the way?" was the inquiring remark of Capt. Asbury.

"You may depend that it won't be delayed ten minutes."

"Do you know whether they will begin by shooting or trying to set fire
to the building?"

"They haven't given me their confidence, but I don't see why they
should expect to accomplish as much with their guns as they could have
done during the day time. They will set fire to the place, no doubt."

"It may be well to impress upon those people that we are guarding
every side, and the first rustler of whom we catch a glimpse will be
riddled."

"They are prepared for that, of course; be careful, friends, and don't
expose yourselves more than you are obliged to, for there will be no
let-up after the ball opens. I wish I could stay with you and help you
out. I have been on the watch, ever since it grew dark, to steal off
and make a run to the stockmen's camp, but I couldn't gain the first
chance."

"I am afraid it is too late, anyway," said the captain, "for they are
so far away that it will be over before they could arrive."

"Well, mother," said Fred, fearing that he was staying too long, "you
and Jennie are ready, so let's go. Confound it! we must have a light
for a few minutes; I know where there's a candle."

He ignited a match and quickly found a candle. This was lit and held
above his head, so that he could look into the faces around him.

"There is no danger of their taking advantage of this until I leave,"
he explained, "and you can blow it out before that. I see you are
there, mother; call Jennie down and let her join us."

"Jennie is not in the house!" was the reply, which fairly took away
the breath of all.



CHAPTER XXXI.

WHY IT WAS DONE.


The yellow reflection of the candle lit up a group of wondering faces
that were turned upon the mother, who stood in the middle of the room.
Her countenance was pale, for she had passed through a great deal
during the last half-hour, to say nothing of that which preceded it.

Before any one could frame the questions in his mind, she explains:

"I am not sure I have done right, but Jennie's departure was with
my consent. She and I talked it over and discussed it in all its
bearings, so far as we could see them, and she finally persuaded me
that it was the right thing for her to do."

She paused, as if expecting some comment, but even Fred was silent;
and still standing, with the candle held aloft, he kept his wondering
gaze upon his parent.

"In the first place, Jennie convinced me that Monteith would only go
to his own death by venturing out; at any rate, it would so result if
he did not receive the signal from Mr. Vesey."

As she paused the amazed Sterry asked:

"But why did she think I would venture unless I got the sign from
Vesey?"

"Because you told her so. You were so confident, when she expressed
her misgivings, that you said you would wait a few minutes after 10
o'clock and then try it, even if no signal appeared."

"You are correct; I _did_ tell her that."

"I consented to her plan on condition that if Mr. Vesey signalled you
should go and she should stay; if he did not do so, she was to venture
alone."

"Why didn't she consult with me?" asked Sterry; "I could have given
her some suggestions."

"Ah, what a question, Mont!" said Fred Whitney, with a smile, as he
comprehended the plan; "we know what suggestions you would have given
her."

"True enough; she never would have made the attempt," he responded.

"And," said Mrs. Whitney, "your friend has not called to you."

"Which reminds me," exclaimed Sterry, stepping to the rear window and
peering out. But everything in the direction of the stables was as
dark and silent as the tomb.

"So you see that if you had followed the directions of Mr. Vesey,"
continued Mrs. Whitney, "no messenger would have left this place for
the camp of the stockmen."

"I recall how closely she questioned me as to my idea of the course to
take to reach the spot. I wanted to gain her confidence and told
her everything, never suspecting that she entertained any such wild
scheme."

"For which you cannot be blamed," remarked her brother; "but I don't
understand how she expected to slip off unobserved."

"Nor do I," added Sterry, with a meaning glance at Capt. Asbury.

"I assure you I am innocent of complicity in the matter, for I would
have opposed as strongly as any of you."

"It was that single difficulty which puzzled her," said the mother,
"but Providence opened the way. While she stood trembling, with her
cloak wrapped about her, Capt. Asbury called Monteith. I whispered to
her 'Now!' and drew back the door. She stepped through, and was gone
before any one, excepting myself, suspected anything."

"But what reason can she have for believing Vesey will favour her
plan?" asked Sterry, feeling an admiration for the daring young woman.
"He will be as much amazed as any one."

"The rustlers have notified us to leave the building, but have not
said that they have a preference of one door over the other. If she
finds herself confronted by strangers, she can easily explain who
she is and say that her mother will soon join her. Can there be
any objection to such a course, or is she likely to suffer on that
account?"

Who could reply unfavourably to this question? The rustlers would
simply conduct her to a place of safety, there to await the coming of
her parent. Failure could bring no embarrassment to Jennie Whitney.

"The great difficulty, after all," remarked Capt. Asbury, "as it
occurs to me, is that if your estimable daughter presents herself
before Mr. Duke Vesey, he will refuse his help. What reason can she
give that will induce him to aid her to pass beyond the camp?"

"I can think of none, but Jennie is hopeful that if she can see him
alone he will permit her to do as she wishes."

"Does she contemplate walking the half-dozen miles or so to the camp
of the cattlemen?" asked Sterry, in dismay.

"O, no; she expects to ride Mr. Sterry's mare."

"But--but--" stammered Monteith.

"She thought of all that," smiled the mother; "she took her saddle
with her."

"Well, I'll be hanged if this isn't a little ahead of anything of
which I ever heard or read!" was the only comment Monteith Sterry
could make, as the full scheme unrolled before him.

"Jennie may fail," continued the proud parent, "but if she does, her
situation and that of all of us will be no worse than before. If she
fails, then you, too, Mr. Sterry, would have failed and lost your life
without helping us."

"I am not prepared to admit that, but my part in the business seems to
have passed beyond discussion."

Mrs. Whitney was about to continue her words when she ceased and
faintly asked for a glass of water. Fred set down the candle and
sprang to her help ahead of anyone, holding the glass, which was
instantly brought, to her lips.

The poor woman had undergone great trials, as will be admitted,
during the past few days. The excitement had sustained her until now
something in the nature of a reaction came. Helping her to a chair,
Fred affectionately fanned her, and did what he could to make her
rally.

He was thus engaged when a second knock startled all. Capt. Asbury
wheeled and demanded:

"Who's there?"

"Duke Vesey, under a flag of truce."

No name could have astonished the cattlemen more. This was the man
whom Sterry had expected to meet, and in whose care it was supposed
Jennie Whitney had placed herself.

Instead of that, he was asking admittance.

"Your flag will be respected," said Capt. Asbury, drawing back the
bolts of the door, which was next swung inward a few inches.

The rustler stepped within, saying:

"I have been sent by Capt. Inman to inquire the meaning of the absence
of Fred Whitney, who was sent here a considerable time ago."

"_That_ is the cause of the delay," replied the captain, pointing to
where the young rancher was doing his utmost to revive his mother.

The captain thought himself justified in turning the incident to
account.

"She may not live more than half an hour. I suppose, under the
circumstances, you folks won't vote to hang her son on his return,
though it would be in keeping with your style of business."

"No; we leave that work to such as shoot down men before their homes,
as was done last night. I didn't expect anything like this," he added
more gently; "I will go back and report. I was told to bring the
ladies, and as I can't take the elder just now, I suppose it's best to
leave both till I learn what Capt. Inman wishes."

Monteith Sterry caught a significant glance of Vesey, while speaking,
but was utterly unable to interpret it. He, however, removed to that
side of the room, so as to place himself near him. Still the rustler
made no other sign. Too many eyes were upon him.

One of Capt. Asbury's most noticeable points was his ability to "catch
on" to a situation like the present. He saw the look given by the
visitor, and translated it as meaning that he wished to make some
communication to the other.

"Sterry," said the captain in his most rasping manner, "this is
the fellow you were so tender on last night, and I suppose he will
reciprocate when he gets a chance to draw a bead on you. I will leave
to you the happiness of escorting him through the door, for the
pleasure would quite overwhelm me."

"I am willing to act the gentleman at any time," replied Sterry,
quickly seizing the opportunity of bringing himself near enough to
hear what Vesey said without any one else noting it. As he was passing
out the rustler remarked, in a quick undertone:

"I did my best, old fellow, but it won't work; they suspect something,
and wouldn't let me go near the stable after dark. Sorry, but it's no
use."

"But I thank you all the same," guardedly responded Sterry.



CHAPTER XXXII.

THE HOSTAGE.


Despite the alarm caused by the sudden illness of Mrs. Whitney, it was
quickly apparent that nothing serious was the matter with her.

She had succumbed temporarily to the intense strain to which she
had been subjected, and, under the considerate attention shown her,
speedily rallied, declaring herself, within five minutes after the
departure of Vesey, as well as ever.

"No one can rejoice more than I," observed Capt. Asbury; "and, since
it is so trifling, you will not misunderstand me when I say that your
illness seems to have been providential."

Fred and the rest looked inquiringly at the leader.

"The man who was here has gone back with the report of what he saw,
and I think my words will cause him to represent the case--well,"
added the captain, with a smile, "as it appeared at that moment. That
will secure further delay."

"But what can it all amount to?" asked Fred in turn; "they may give
you a half-hour or so, but that does not count."

"If your estimable mother could manage to--ah--look desperately ill
when the messenger returns, why, it might help matters."

But the good woman shook her head. Appreciating the gravity of the
situation, she could not be a party to such a deception, even though
beneficent results might follow.

"He saw me as I was, and thus he must see me when he comes again. My
conscience would not permit it otherwise."

"You are right, Mrs. Whitney, and I beg your pardon," replied the
captain.

Meanwhile, Monteith Sterry was thinking hard. Begging the indulgence
of the others, he drew Capt. Asbury aside.

"I have decided upon an attempt," said he abruptly, "which you must
not forbid, even though your judgment may condemn it."

"What is it?"

"I am going to try to get away."

"How?" was the surprised question; "what chance have you of
succeeding, when every side of the house is watched?"

"Vesey told me, just as he was leaving, that he was not allowed to
take his place as guard at the stables, which explains why he failed
to give me the signal."

"He is unaware of what Miss Whitney has done?"

"I do not know of a surety, for he made no reference to it, but you
heard his remark, which indicates that he is ignorant."

"Sterry," said the captain impressively, "the only friend you have
among the rustlers is that same Vesey, and I place less faith in
him than you do; yet you propose this wild scheme, without even the
doubtful help of that man, and still expect me to approve it."

"You put it truthfully; I will only say that in the darkness I hope to
be taken for one of them."

"And if you are?"

"I will work my way beyond the lines, and then make for the camp of
the stockmen."

"On foot or horseback?"

"I can hardly expect to obtain a horse, but let me once gain the
chance, and I will show some sprinting."

"You ignore the services of Miss Whitney?"

"It was a brave and characteristic deed, but a woman acts from
intuition rather than reason. There is not a shadow of hope that she
will accomplish anything."

"In my judgment, the prospect is as favourable for her as for you."

"Well," replied Sterry, "I rather expected you to talk that way, so
your condemnation is discounted. I intend to pass out of the rear door
within the next three minutes; I wish you to hold it, ready to open in
the event of my deciding on a hasty return. If such return does not
follow in the course of a quarter of an hour, you may conclude that I
won't be back."

"I have already concluded that," was the significant comment.

The candle diffused enough illumination to show the anxious faces
turned toward the couple as they walked back from the corner to which
they had withdrawn for their brief consultation.

In the fewest words possible the captain explained the decision of the
young man. He frankly stated that he did not believe there was any
hope of success, but Sterry was firm in his resolution, and he would
not interpose his authority. Fred Whitney was about to protest, but
the expression of his friend's face showed that it would be useless,
and he forebore.

Mont peered through the window, near the rear door, and, so far as he
could judge, everything was favourable. Then he faced about, smiled,
and without a word waved his friends good-by.

The door was drawn inward just enough to permit the passage of his
body, and the next instant he had vanished.

Capt. Asbury sprang to the window and looked after him, but quick
as he was, the time was sufficient for the youth to disappear as
completely as though he were a dozen miles distant.

"If I may be allowed," said the captain, in his most suave manner,
"I would suggest, Mr. Whitney, that you assist your mother to her
apartment up stairs. She is in need of rest, and can obtain it there
much better than here."

The good woman glanced suspiciously at the man, half doubting
the disinterestedness of his counsel, but he looked so grave and
solicitous that she was sure she did him injustice. While she was
hesitating, Fred added:

"It is good advice, mother; you can lie down, and when it is necessary
I will call you. Come, please."

She could not decline, and the stalwart son, who seemed to have
forgotten all about his wounded arm, almost carried her up the short
stairs and to her room. He was so familiar with the interior that he
needed no light, and deposited her as gently as an infant on the bed,
kissed her an affectionate good-night, and promised to listen and come
to her on hearing the slightest movement in her apartment.

"How does she seem to be?" asked Capt. Asbury, as Fred came down the
stairs.

"As well as ever; but the little rest will be grateful. She has had
enough to try the strongest person within the last few days."

"True indeed. I presume Vesey will soon be back with some ugly message
from Inman and Cadmus, but we have delayed matters so long that
I'm hopeful of keeping it up a while longer. Suppose, when this
enterprising rustler shows himself, you allow me to do the talking,
Fred. There is a good deal, you know, in the way you put things."

"I understand," replied the other, with a smile. "It will come,
perhaps, more appropriately from you than me."

It was apparent from the manner of the captain that he felt
considerable hope of success through the efforts of Miss Whitney or
Sterry, or both. Time was the great factor. It would seem that
three or four hours ought to bring the cattlemen, if either of the
messengers succeeded in getting through the lines. While there was
little doubt of the ability of the besieged being able to stand off
their assailants for a much longer time, yet there was every reason to
strain to the utmost the fortunate delay already secured.

A conflict was certain to result in a number of deaths to each
side. Not only that, but it would intensify the bitterness already
prevailing through many portions of Wyoming and Montana between the
cowmen and rustlers, and postpone and increase the difficulty of the
adjustment of the quarrel.

A full half-hour passed, during which the captain kept his place at
the rear door, ready to admit Sterry should he make a dash for it. He
did not appear, and when the fastenings of the structure were returned
to their place the leader's heart was more hopeful than ever. He had
just made a remark to that effect when a knocking was heard again on
the front door, accompanied by Duke Vesey's announcement that it was
himself who claimed admission.

The captain drew back the fastenings and the rustler stepped inside,
his face showing great agitation.

"This is a fine state of things," he said, addressing young Whitney,
Hawkridge and the captain.

"To what do you refer?" asked Whitney.

"You sent Mont Sterry out awhile ago, and the rustlers have caught
him; he's in their hands and will be shot at daybreak. Capt. Inman
sent me to you with that message, and to say that the fight will open
in a few minutes. You can't play your tricks any longer on us."

It was apparent that Duke Vesey was in a rage over the mishap that had
befallen his friend.

Capt. Asbury quietly placed himself between the fellow and the door by
which he had entered.

"What is the meaning of that?" demanded the rustler, turning his head;
"I'm here under a flag of truce."

"Where is it? You haven't shown any, and you can't. I shall hold you
as a hostage for the safety of Mont Sterry; whatever harm is visited
upon _him_ shall descend upon _your_ head!"



CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE PRISONER.


It may be said that Monteith Sterry's main hope for the success of his
perilous scheme lay in its boldness.

It was not to be supposed that the rustlers, surrounding the besieged
on every hand, would forget the probability of just such an attempt as
he made. The stockmen could not expect to slip away one by one, or in
a body; nor was there anything to tempt such an effort, even if it
offered a fair prospect of success; for, of necessity, they would have
to depart on foot, and with the coming of daylight their situation
would be worse than now, with a strong shelter above and around them.

But it was known among the defenders that two of their number were
doomed, if they fell into the hands of the rustlers. It was probable,
therefore, that one or both of these individuals would try to get
away.

Whether or not the leaders held any distrust of Vesey cannot be known;
but his little scheme for befriending Monteith Sterry was nipped in
the bud by his being retained at the front of the building, where, as
has been shown, he acted as the bearer of messages between Inman and
Capt. Asbury.

There were men closely watching the building from the moment darkness
closed over the scene. Had Sterry attempted to steal along the side of
the house and then dodge away, he would have been detected and halted
at once. On the contrary, he moved with his usual gait in a diagonal
direction toward the stables. His object was to learn the likeliest
method of leaving the place.

He had perhaps walked fifty feet, when some one advanced from the
gloom and called, in an undertone:

"Halloo, who is that?"

"It's I, Smith; who are you?"

The name, of course, was a venture, but it was not uncommon, as the
reader knows, and more likely to be right than any other. The best of
it was, it seemed to satisfy the other, who, without announcing his
own, asked:

"What are you doing?"

"I've been looking around to see what I could learn."

"Anything new?"

"No, not as far as I can discover; they seem to have a light burning
in there, but are waiting for us."

"I wonder they didn't give you a shot; Vesey says they are desperate,
and he brought back word that they would shoot the first of us seen
prowling about the place. I wonder you didn't catch it."

"I took good care. When do you suppose the fight will open?"

"Pretty soon; I s'pose you are as tired of this dallying as the rest
of us."

"Well, it strikes me as best to wait until sure everything is ready."

Sterry was anxious to end this pointless conversation, for the
stranger had approached quite near and peered into his face, as though
not free from suspicion. The darkness was deep, but on the other side
of the ridge a small fire was burning, from fragments brought from the
stables. Of this the adventurer meant to keep clear at all hazards.
More than one rustler knew him intimately, and it might be that he to
whom he was talking was an old acquaintance and enemy.

How Sterry longed for the presence of Vesey!

In a natural manner he sauntered up the ridge, as if his intention
was to return to the camp-fire, that being the course most likely to
dissipate any misgiving on the part of the other.

The latter made no response, and Sterry kept on, thinking:

"I'm rid of him, any way, and ought to have less trouble with others
that may wish to ask questions."

But, glancing over his shoulder, he was startled to observe that
the man, instead of moving off, as he had supposed, was standing
motionless in the gloom, as if studying him.

"By gracious!" concluded the youth, "he must have noticed my voice,
for, not knowing Smith, how could I imitate it?"

The situation would have made any one uneasy, but he did not hasten
nor retard his footsteps until he reached the top of the ridge, and
was able to observe the camp-fire clearly.

It was small, as has been said, but five or six figures were
lolling about it, smoking, talking, and passing the dismal hours as
inclination prompted. Other forms were moving hither and thither, some
of them quite close to where Sterry had halted, though none paid him
any attention.

The young man was looking for an opening by which he could make his
way beyond the lines without attracting attention. The best prospect
seemed to be the stretch of prairie extending from the front of the
house toward the Big Horn Mountains.

"No one appears to be on the lookout there--"

At that instant each arm was tightly gripped, and the man with whom he
had exchanged words but a few minutes before said:

"Mr. Smith, please go with us to the fire; my friend here is Smith,
and he is the only one in our party with that name; maybe you are his
double."

It was useless to resist, and Sterry replied:

"You know there are several Smiths in this country, and I ought to
have the privilege of wearing the name without objection."

"We'll soon see," replied the first captor.

Within the next minute Sterry was marched in front of the camp-fire,
where the full glare fell upon his countenance.

Then a howl of exultation went up, for more than half of the rustlers
in the group recognized him.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

OUT IN THE NIGHT.


Enough has been already told for the reader to understand the scheme
which Jennie Whitney, with the help of her mother, attempted to carry
out for the benefit of the besieged cattlemen.

With her cloak around her shoulders and her saddle supported on one
arm, she passed quickly from the rear of her home to the stables, only
a short distance away. She had been on the alert for the signal of
Duke Vesey, and, seeing it not, was prepared to encounter some one
else.

In this she was not disappointed, for at the moment of catching sight
of the dark mass where the horses were sheltered the figure of a man
loomed into view as though he had risen from the ground. She stopped
short, and observed, dimly, the forms of two others just behind him.

"Halloo!" exclaimed the nearest, "how is this?"

With peculiar emotions the young lady recognized the voice of Larch
Cadmus. She hoped this was a favourable omen, and was quick to turn it
to account.

"Larch, is that you?" she asked, peering forward as if uncertain of
his identity.

"I declare, it is Miss Jennie!" he exclaimed, coming forward; "how is
it you are alone?"

"Mother did not wish to come with me," replied the daughter, trying
to avoid the necessity of direct deceit. "She will probably leave the
house pretty soon."

The fellow was plainly embarrassed, despite the protecting gloom which
concealed his features. Jennie knew him to be one of her most ardent
admirers, though she had never liked him. Her hopes were now based
upon making use of his regard for her.

"You have come out, Jennie, I suppose," said he, offering his hand,
which she accepted, "so as not to be in the house when the--ah,
trouble begins."

"O, I know it will be dreadful; I want to go as far away as I can--do
you blame me, Larch?"

"Not at all--not at all; and I hope, Jennie, you don't blame me for
all that your folks have suffered."

"Why, Larch, why should I blame you?" asked the young lady, coming
fearfully near a fiction in making the query, for she knew many
good reasons for censuring him in her heart. "But how soon do you
intend--that is, how soon do the rest of your folks intend to attack
the cowmen?"

"We--that is, they--expected to do so long ago, but there have been
all sorts of delays; it will come pretty soon now."

"Where are you to place mother and me?"

"Over the ridge, yonder; you will be out of danger; you need fear
nothing; why should you, for your mother will be with you and your
brother will be with us, so that he can take no part in the fight."

He made no reference to Mont Sterry, and she was too wise to let fall
a hint of her anxiety concerning him.

"But, Larch, suppose, when you set fire to the house, as I heard your
folks intended, our people rush out and attack you?"

"Do they intend to do that?" he asked.

"I am sure I don't know; but you can see, if they do, the shooting
will be going on all around mother and me."

"You can pass farther out on the plain or take shelter in the stable,
among the horses."

"But that may be too late," interposed Jennie, in well-feigned alarm.

"You can take refuge here now."

"I can't bear to stay in the stable, for the horses will become
terrified when the shooting begins; they may break loose and prove
more dangerous than the flying bullets."

There was sense in this objection, and the rustler saw it. He was
anxious to propitiate the young woman, whom he admired so ardently.

"Well, my dear, what would you like to do?"

"Now, Larch, you won't laugh at me if I tell you," she replied, in her
most coquettish manner.

"Laugh at you!" he protested; "this is no time for laughing; it was a
shame that those people should turn your house into a fort, when it
could do them no good. Tell me what you want and it shall be done, if
it is in my power."

"Thanks! You are very kind, and I shall never forget this favour; I
want to mount one of the best horses in the stable and ride out so far
that I am sure to be beyond reach of danger."

The proposition staggered the rustler--so much so that it did not
occur to him, just then, that the daughter appeared a great deal more
anxious to look after her own safety than her mother's.

"You have a horse in the stable, haven't you?"

"Yes, Jack is there, and he is a splendid fellow; he is the one I
want."

"But the saddle?"

"I have it with me; here it is; you and I will adjust it together."

And the impulsive miss placed the saddle in his grasp before he knew
it. She certainly was rushing things. It must be admitted, too, that
she showed fine discretion. There was but one way of handling Mr.
Larch Cadmus, and she was using that way.

He turned about and walked to the door of the stable.

"Jack is in the second stall," she said, pausing at the entrance, "and
his bridle is on the hook near his head."

The gloom was impenetrable, but a couple of matches gave Cadmus all
the light needed, and a minute later he brought forth the fine animal,
who whinnied with pleasure at recognizing his mistress, despite the
gloom.

Jennie gave what help she could in saddling and bridling him, the
other two men standing a little way off in silence. She kept up an
incessant chatter, repeating her thanks to Cadmus for his kindness,
and binding him more completely captive every minute.

But the rustler was inclined to be thoughtful, for before the animal
was ready he began to feel misgivings as to the prudence of what he
was doing. There was something odd, too, about the young lady mounting
her pony, riding alone out on the plain, and leaving her mother
behind. Then, too, she had emerged from the rear instead of the front
of the house, as he judged from her line of approach.

Could there be any ulterior purpose in all this? If she would only
cease her chatting for a minute or two he might figure out the
problem, but the trouble was, nothing could stop her. In fact he
didn't wish her to stop, for that voice was the most musical one to
which he could listen, and he would have been glad had it sounded for
hours in his ears.

He managed to drift dangerously near the truth.

"Can it be that she intends to ride away for help?" he reflected. "It
has that look; but no, it is hardly that, for there isn't any help
within reach that I know of. She might find it in the course of a day
or two, but this affair will be over before daylight--I beg pardon,
what was it you said, Jennie?"

"Why, Larch, I'm tempted to pull your ears; you are a fine gallant;
here I have been standing full ten seconds, waiting for you to help me
on the horse, and you have paid me no attention."

"It _was_ rude, my dear; I hope you will pardon me," he replied,
stepping quickly forward, "but I am very absent-minded to-night."

"I will pardon you, of course, for you have been so good and nice that
it would be ungrateful for me to be impatient."

He took the Cinderella-like foot in his broad palm and cleverly
assisted her in the saddle. While he helped to adjust the reins, her
tongue rattled on harder than ever.

"How far, Larch, will it be necessary for me to ride so as to be
sure--mind you, sure--of being out of the way when this awful business
opens?"

"Well, I should say a hundred yards or so will be enough--"

"Mercy! do you think so? I ought to go two or three times as far as
that; you won't object, will you? and when the shooting _does_ begin,
I can hurry Jack farther off."

"Do as you think best; but it seems to me, Jennie, that you are
forgetting your mother--"

"O, no; when Fred brings her out--maybe he has done so now--tell her
the direction I have gone and she will understand. Which is the best
course for me to take? I guess it don't make any difference, so I will
go this way."

Through all this apparently aimless chatter, Miss Jennie Whitney was
using her wits. She knew a long ride was before her, and everything
would be ruined if she lost her way. There was no moon or stars to
give guidance, and she therefore carefully took her bearings while the
chance was hers.

"I suppose it's all the same which course you follow, but I fear I am
doing wrong in allowing you to ride off--"

"Now, don't spoil everything by regretting the handsome way in which
you have indulged my whim; I think I will ride over the ridge to the
left--"

"Hold on, Jennie, until I can speak to Inman; he may object--"

"You can speak to him after I am gone; good-night, Larch, and many
thanks again for your kindness."

She rode off with her intelligent Jack on a walk until she was clear
of the camp, when she touched him into an easy gallop.

Larch Cadmus stood looking into the gloom where she had vanished,
almost before he comprehended her intention.

"Well, she's a puzzle!" he exclaimed to his two companions, who came
forward; "I don't know what to make of her. What do you suppose she
meant by that, boys?"

"It's easy enough to see," replied one of them, with a laugh; "she's
gone off after help."

"Do you think so?" asked the startled Cadmus; "where can she get it?"

"She may bring back their hands."

"There are only two of them," said Larch, much relieved, "and they
won't amount to anything in the rumpus. You don't imagine that she
knows of any larger force anywhere in the neighbourhood?"

"She can't know of any, for there ain't any," was the clincher of the
rustler; "or, if there is, she can't get it here in time to do Asbury
and the rest any good."

Cadmus was relieved by the words of his friend. Enough misgivings,
however, remained to make him say:

"There are so many moving about that her departure don't seem to be
noticed; I'll take it as a favour if you don't mention it to any one,
for now that she is gone I am sure I never should have allowed it."

The couple gave the promise, though their belief was that nothing
serious would follow.

Leaving the two to keep watch at the stables, Cadmus sauntered to
where Inman was seated near the camp-fire, smoking a pipe. A little
inquiry disclosed that neither the leader nor any of his companions
had noticed the departure of the young lady.

It was some time after this that Duke Vesey brought the report of Mrs.
Whitney's illness as an explanation of her son's delay in returning to
the camp of the rustlers.

Exasperated, and suspecting a pretense, Inman consented to a brief
postponement of the attack.

The next startling occurrence was the capture of Monteith Sterry while
trying to steal through the lines. As we have shown, he was identified
the instant he was brought into the reflection of the firelight,
and such precautions were taken that escape by him was out of the
question.

When their impatience could stand it no longer, Vesey was sent to
Capt. Asbury with the message which he delivered. Instead of his
returning with a reply, Fred Whitney came back, bringing the
announcement that Vesey had entered the house without claiming the
protection of a truce, and after telling what he was directed to tell
about Monteith Sterry, Capt. Asbury had directed Whitney to notify
Capt. Inman that he would retain Vesey as a hostage, guaranteeing that
whatever harm was visited upon Sterry should descend upon the head of
Vesey.

This message, as may be supposed, caused consternation for some
minutes in the camp of the rustlers. The feeling was quickly succeeded
by exasperation. Had Inman and Cadmus been given the opportunity, no
doubt they could have made a good argument to prove that, inasmuch
as Vesey had passed back and forth several times after his first
announcement of a flag of truce, and its acceptance by the besieged
cowmen, it was not required by the law of nations that he should
proclaim the fact while continuing to act as messenger between the
hostiles.

On the other hand, the truth remained that he had entered the house
of the rancher with weapons in his hands and without any claim of
immunity from harm.

The question was such a nice one, capable of so many finely-drawn
theories, that it is useless to discuss it here. Whatever decision we
might reach, we could not feel assured we were right.

The hard fact confronted the rustlers that one of their principal
men was in the power of the cowmen and was held as a hostage for the
safety of the detested Monteith Sterry, who had been warned that he
would be shot on sight by any rustler who gained the chance.

The unexpected phase of the situation caused a long and angry
discussion between Capt. Ira Inman and his leaders, to which, as may
be supposed, Fred Whitney and Monteith Sterry paid close attention.



CHAPTER XXXV.

CONCLUSION.


"Now, Jack, do your best, for everything depends on you."

Jennie Whitney looked around in the darkness and saw the glimmer of
the rustlers' camp-fire, fully two hundred yards to the rear, with the
shadowy figures moving to and fro.

"They may change their minds," she added, recalling the words of Larch
Cadmus, "and decide to bring me back. Let them do it if they can!"

The intelligent pony acted as if he understood what was expected
of him. With a light whinny at the pleasure he felt because of the
opportunity of stretching out his beautiful limbs he broke into a
swift canter, heading straight for the point where his rider believed
the friendly camp was to be found.

She held the reins loose, knowing the danger of attempting to guide
him where it was impossible to keep the points of the compass in mind.
The way was smooth and even, although there is always danger in
going at such speed in the night. She deemed the stake warranted it,
however, and did not check the rapid pace.

Night on every hand and not a shining star overhead. If she could find
the party of stockmen in time, so as to bring them back to her home,
their strength would overawe the rustlers, and the whole difficulty
could be arranged without the conflict which she looked upon with
unspeakable dread.

"It will save him, too," she added, hesitating to pronounce the name
that was in her heart, which would have throbbed more painfully had
she known that in a brief while he would be helpless in the power of
the men eager for his life. "I am glad he did not venture out of the
house, when his friend could have done him no good. What will he think
of me on learning what I have done? He will say that I am rash and
foolish, and perhaps I am; will he suspect that it was to save him
that I undertook this errand, which, after all, is attended with no
risk to me worth mentioning?"

These were pleasant musings, but the task before her was too serious
and made too close demands on her mental and physical energies for her
to indulge in them. The delightful reverie could be deferred to a more
convenient season.

Jennie Whitney had lived long enough in the West to understand that in
times like the present it is safer to depend on the instinct of one's
heart than upon one's reason. It seemed now and then that Jack was
following the wrong direction, but she was wise in not interfering.

The gloom was so deep that she could see barely a few paces beyond the
pointed ears in front, but when the ground showed an abrupt rise she
recalled the location and knew he had followed the exact course she
desired.

She pulled slightly on the reins and he dropped to a walk. At the same
moment something dark moved aside, the pony diverting his own steps to
avoid it. She experienced a slight shock of fright, but recognized
the object as one of the cattle probably belonging to their own herd.
Others showed dimly here and there as the horse carefully picked his
way forward.

"Halloo, who's that?" called a gruff voice from the darkness, the hail
proving more startling than the first surprise.

"It is I, Jennie Whitney," replied the young lady, "and I am searching
for help."

"Well, I'll be hanged! What's up, Miss Jennie?"

It was Budd Hankinson who came forward on foot, his figure appearing
of gigantic proportions in the gloom. He was more alarmed than she, as
he had warrant for being, knowing, as he did, that some extraordinary
cause must have brought the girl to this place alone at that hour of
the night.

She quickly told her story, explaining that Fred was held a prisoner
by the rustlers, else he would have hastened back to secure the
assistance for which she was looking.

"You're a brave girl," said the honest fellow, as he laid his hand on
the reins of the pony; "there are mighty few that would have done what
you've done to-night."

"Never mind about that, Budd, but tell me what to do."

"Why, you mustn't do anything; I'll do the rest."

"No, you may help me, but what is it to be?"

"Luck's running your way, Jennie; the stockmen have moved their camp
since Fred left this morning."

"Mercy! I thought I had only two or three miles farther to go."

"Their camp isn't more'n half a mile off, right over the swell yonder;
we'll be there in a jiffy."

"And you will go with me?"

"Wal, I reckon; what sort of a chap do you take me for?"

"Where is Weber?"

"Three miles to the south, which is in t'other direction; we won't
have time to look him up, and it wouldn't do any good if we did. We
made a change of grazing grounds, as I s'pose Fred told you, but some
of the cattle strayed off here and I was looking 'em up when I heard
your pony."

"Where's your horse?"

"Not far; wait here and I'll be right back."

He was gone but a few minutes, when he returned in the saddle.

"It won't do to go too fast," he explained, moving forward with his
animal on a walk, "but we can keep beside each other."

Riding thus carefully, he questioned her about the stirring incidents
at the house, and she gave him the particulars. The sagacious fellow
had seen before this how matters stood between her and Monteith
Sterry, and he knew her anxiety, but his good taste prevented any
reference to it further than to say:

"I hope Mont will be too wise to try to slip out of the house, for if
he does he's sure to be grabbed up by them, and they won't give him a
chance for his life."

"Do you think he will make the attempt, Budd?"

"No, now that he knows you have started, for you've got a mighty sight
better chance to succeed than he could have. Of course he has too much
sense for anything of the kind."

It was well that neither of them suspected the truth.

"There they are!"

They had reached the top of the elevation, and saw before them
the twinkling lights of several camp-fires. The stockmen, fully
understanding the nature of the work they had undertaken, conducted
themselves like a force invading a hostile country. Regular sentinels
were stationed, to prevent the insidious approach of an enemy.

The couple rode down the hill, and, as they expected, were challenged
on the edge of the camp. Inasmuch as Budd had visited the men during
the day and formed numerous acquaintances, he had little difficulty in
making himself known. All, excepting the guards, had retired for the
night, but the visitor was conducted to the place where Maj. Sitgraves
was asleep, Jennie remaining on the outskirts with one of the
sentinels, who treated her with all courtesy.

Maj. Sitgraves was a brave man, who had only to hear the story brought
to him by the honest cowboy to understand the urgency of the case. It
was now near midnight, and the attack at the ranch was liable to be
made at any moment. The stockmen could not reach the scene of danger
too soon.

Almost instantly the camp was astir. It looked as if the men had
received orders to attack a force of Indians, whose location was just
made known to them, and, in point of fact, the situation was somewhat
similar, for a brisk fight appeared inevitable. Three rustlers whom
the major was particularly anxious to arrest were Ira Inman, Larch
Cadmus and Duke Vesey, and he especially wanted the first two. They
were with the party not far off, and, aside from the call for help of
the imperilled stockmen, the prospect of capturing those fellows was
sufficient warrant for a prompt movement.

Within half an hour after Jennie Whitney's meeting with Budd Hankinson
the party of half a hundred were galloping westward, she riding at
the head, with Maj. Sitgraves and Budd, who acted as guide to the
expedition.

Hope arose with every rod advanced, for if fighting had begun the
reports of the guns would be heard, but the listening ears failed to
catch the first hostile sound from the Whitney ranch. By and by a
point was reached which would have shown them the flash of the guns,
but the gloom remained impenetrable.

The twinkling camp-fire, at the base of the ridge, gave just the
guidance needed, and, with Budd Hankinson's intimate knowledge of the
country, enabled the force to tell exactly where they were.

Maj. Sitgraves decided to defer his attack until daylight, unless
the safety of the beleaguered cattlemen should force him to assault
sooner. In the darkness, with the open country around, and the
excellent animals at the command of the rustlers, most of them would
escape upon learning the strength of the assailants. At the earliest
dawn the stockmen could be so placed that, as the commander believed,
nearly if not quite all of the law-breakers would be corralled.

Accordingly, a halt was made while yet a considerable way off, and
Budd Hankinson went forward on foot to reconnoitre. Upon his report
must depend the action of the stockmen.

The fellow was gone more than three-quarters of an hour, and when he
came back he brought astounding news.

Not a solitary rustler was to be found anywhere near the ranch.

Hardly able to credit the fact, Budd picked his way to the building,
knocked, and was admitted. There the amazing truth was made known.
Capt. Ira Inman and all his men had been gone for an hour, and were
probably miles distant at that moment.

The detention of Duke Vesey as a hostage for the safety of Monteith
Sterry proved the key to the whole situation. When Inman learned how
he had been outwitted he was enraged to the point of ordering an
attack at once, with the resolve to give mercy to no one. He even
threatened to visit his fury upon Fred Whitney, who had shown such
punctilious regard for his parole, for it would seem that under the
circumstances he would have been warranted in staying behind with his
friends.

But before taking so rash a step, the cooler judgment of the leader
came to his rescue--He placed a high value on Duke Vesey, who had been
associated with him in several dangerous enterprises, and he knew that
any harm done to Sterry would recoil on him, just as the grim Capt.
Asbury had threatened.

After prolonged discussion with Cadmus and others, it was decided to
offer to exchange Sterry for Vesey. The proposition was accepted,
and the exchange faithfully made, though considerable more delay was
involved.

But while it was under way Inman learned of Jennie Whitney's flight
toward the Big Horn Mountains. Keener of wit than Larch Cadmus, he
suspected the truth at once, though he knew nothing of the proximity
of the stockmen.

Before making the attack and attempt to burn the building he sent
out two of his best mounted men in the direction taken by her, to
investigate. They did so with such skill that neither Budd Hankinson
nor any of the stockmen suspected them. They returned with news of the
approach of a body too powerful for them to think of combating. They
therefore fled in the darkness, the promptness of the leaders probably
hastened by the knowledge that they were the parties for whom the
stockmen were looking.

And so ended the campaign. The situation had been critical for a long
time, and there were moments, time and again, when the most trifling
incident intervened to avert a fearful conflict between men of the
same race and blood; but all had now passed, and it may be said that
not so much as a hostile shot had been exchanged.

The main events of the troubles in Wyoming between the cowmen and
rustlers are too well remembered to require recital at our hands. The
expedition referred to in another place left Cheyenne in April for
Nolan's Ranch, a hundred or more miles distant. Within the following
month, the Sixth U.S. Cavalry brought all of them back to Cheyenne as
prisoners of war, thus saving them from extermination at the hands of
the indignant rustlers, who had them hemmed in on all sides.

Fred Whitney sold out his ranch, near the headwaters of Powder River,
and moved eastward. He was not actuated by fear, for it will be
conceded that he proved his courage, but he desired to take his loved
mother and sister away from the sorrowful memories that must always
cling to the place.

It will not surprise the reader to learn, further, that Monteith
Sterry found it quite convenient to make his home in the same
neighborhood with the Whitneys, and it was but a short time after this
removal eastward that a most pleasing incident occurred in the lives
of the young man and Miss Whitney, of the nature of which we are sure
the reader does not need to be told.





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