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Title: George in Camp - or Life on the Plains
Author: Castlemon, Harry
Language: English
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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.

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[Illustration: SHOOTING THE CATTLE.]



                         _ROUGHING IT SERIES._



                            GEORGE IN CAMP:
                          LIFE ON THE PLAINS.


                          BY HARRY CASTLEMON,

  AUTHOR OF “THE GUNBOAT SERIES,” “THE FRANK NELSON SERIES,” “THE BOY
                          TRAPPER SERIES,” &C.

[Illustration]

                             PHILADELPHIA:

                            PORTER & COATES.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                        FAMOUS CASTLEMON BOOKS.


  =GUNBOAT SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 6 vols. 16mo.
    Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    FRANK THE YOUNG NATURALIST. FRANK ON A GUNBOAT. FRANK IN THE
    WOODS. FRANK BEFORE VICKSBURG. FRANK ON THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI.
    FRANK ON THE PRAIRIE.

  =ROCKY MOUNTAIN SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 3 vols.
    16mo. Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    FRANK AMONG THE RANCHEROS.
    FRANK AT DON CARLOS’ RANCHO.
    FRANK IN THE MOUNTAINS.

  =SPORTSMAN’S CLUB SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 3 vols.
    16mo. Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    THE SPORTSMAN’S CLUB IN THE SADDLE.
    THE SPORTSMAN’S CLUB AFLOAT.
    THE SPORTSMAN’S CLUB AMONG THE TRAPPERS.

  =GO-AHEAD SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 3 vols. 16mo.
    Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    TOM NEWCOMBE. GO-AHEAD. NO MOSS.

  =FRANK NELSON SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 3 vols.
    16mo. Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    SNOWED UP. FRANK IN THE FORECASTLE. BOY TRADERS.

  =BOY TRAPPER SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 3 vols. 16mo.
    Cloth, extra, black and gold.

    THE BURIED TREASURE; OR, OLD JORDAN’S HAUNT.
    THE BOY TRAPPER; OR, HOW DAVE FILLED THE ORDER.
    THE MAIL-CARRIER.

  =ROUGHING IT SERIES.= By HARRY CASTLEMON. Illustrated. 16mo. Cloth,
    extra, black and gold.

    GEORGE IN CAMP.

                    _Other Volumes in Preparation._



       Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1879, by

                            PORTER & COATES,

       In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                               CONTENTS.


                               CHAPTER I.

                   Among the Texans            Page 5

                              CHAPTER II.

                   A Neighborhood Row              19

                              CHAPTER III.

                   Ned’s Experience in Camp        30

                              CHAPTER IV.

                   A Discontented Boy              49

                               CHAPTER V.

                   The Clerk’s Ruse                70

                              CHAPTER VI.

                   A Frontier Hotel                87

                              CHAPTER VII.

                   Zeke’s Letter                  109

                             CHAPTER VIII.

                   Ned’s New Horse                128

                              CHAPTER IX.

                   A Visit from the Raiders       150

                               CHAPTER X.

                   The Two Friends                172

                              CHAPTER XI.

                   Gus Hears from Home            192

                              CHAPTER XII.

                   A Narrow Escape                215

                             CHAPTER XIII.

                   George has Company             236

                              CHAPTER XIV.

                   Good and Bad News              257

                              CHAPTER XV.

                   What Happened at the Rancho    282

                              CHAPTER XVI.

                   Caught at Last!                304

                             CHAPTER XVII.

                   Conclusion                     325



                            GEORGE IN CAMP;

                                  OR,

                          LIFE ON THE PLAINS.



                               CHAPTER I.
                           AMONG THE TEXANS.


“I don’t like the way things are going at all, and I just wish those two
people were back where they came from. They have turned the ranche
upside down since they have been here, and now I begin to feel as though
they were the masters, and that I have no more rights than a tramp who
had dropped in to beg a night’s lodging!”

The speaker, a sturdy, broad-shouldered youth, about fifteen years of
age, was sitting on the porch in front of the house in which he lived,
busily engaged in mending a broken bridle with an awl and a piece of
waxed-end. His name was George Ackerman, and he was one of the boys whom
we introduced to the notice of the reader in the concluding volume of
the “Boy Trapper Series,” and of whose adventures and exploits we
promised to say something more than we said then. We find him now at his
home in Texas, where he had been born, and where he had always lived,
with the exception of the two years he had passed in a distant city
attending school. He was dressed, as all the boys and men in that
country were dressed, for hard work; and he had done a good deal of it
during his comparatively short life—not because it was necessary, but
because he had been brought up to it. His father was very wealthy—no one
knew how many horses and cattle he owned—and he had left a property
worth between thirty and forty thousand dollars a year.

If money is what makes people happy, one would suppose that George
Ackerman ought to be one of the happiest boys in the world; and so he
was, up to the time his only parent died, which was about a year and a
half previous to the beginning of our story. He had everything a boy
could possibly wish for—good health, a kind and indulgent father, a
comfortable and happy home, and all the other aids to complete happiness
so dear to the heart of most boys, and for which Bob Owens and Dan Evans
so impatiently longed—such as horses, dogs, jointed fish-poles and
breech-loading guns. He had made a start in business for himself, and
was thought by the boys of his acquaintance to be pretty well off in the
world. He began when he was only nine years old, by herding cattle for
his father at forty dollars a month, taking his pay in young stock which
he selected himself. These increased in numbers and value during the two
years he was away at school, and now he was the owner of three hundred
head of cattle which he had paid for by his own labor, and which he
could have sold any day for twenty dollars apiece. He had a herdsman of
his own and colts enough to mount all the cronies he had left at school,
and who had faithfully promised to visit him at no distant day in his
far-away home. It was two years and more since he parted from those same
cronies, and not one of them had ever been to see him. He never heard
from them now. His correspondents had dropped off, one after the other,
until he had not a single one remaining. His father was gone, too, and
poor George felt much as he would have felt if he had been dropped
suddenly on Robinson Crusoe’s lonely island, without even a man Friday
to keep him company.

It is true, that there were plenty of people around him. His Uncle John
and Cousin Ned lived in the same house with him, and there were a score
or more of men, Americans and Mexicans, employed on the ranche as
house-servants and herdsmen. He had four playmates close at hand—that
is, two of them lived five miles east of him and the others eight miles
west—and they were jolly fellows and he liked to be in their company.
The time never hung heavily on his hands, for he was very industrious,
and could always find something useful to do; but still he was lonely
and homesick every hour in the day. The old house was not the same now
that it was during his father’s lifetime. Uncle John had built additions
to it, rearranged the inside of it to suit himself, and filled it with
the most expensive furniture, such as had never been seen in the wilds
of Texas before.

Uncle John and his son, who dressed as fashionably now as they did when
they came from the States, and who took as much pains with their toilet
as a couple of city dandies would have done, were very much pleased with
the new order of things. They seemed to have been made for no other
purpose than to idle away their time on the luxurious sofas and
easy-chairs with which the old rancho was now so plentifully supplied;
but George, with his heavy cowhide boots, coarse clothing and
sun-browned face and hands, was sadly out of place among them.

Uncle John Ackerman lived somewhere in the state of Ohio. He was a poor
man, and, up to the time of the death of his only brother, George’s
father, was obliged to work hard for his living. That sad event, which
brought so much sorrow and trouble to George, was the making of Uncle
John, for the time being. It took him and his scapegrace of a son from a
life of toil and placed them just where they had always wanted to be—in
a position to live without work. Uncle John was made his nephew’s
guardian and the executor of his brother’s will, and to him the property
was left in trust, to be cared for and managed for George until the
latter became of age, when it was to be turned over to him, less a
certain sum, which Uncle John was at liberty to keep in payment for his
services. If George died before reaching his majority, Ned Ackerman,
Uncle John’s son, was to be the heir.

As soon as the terms of the will were made known, Uncle John and Ned
hastened to Texas, and took up their abode at the rancho. At first,
everything passed off smoothly. George could see nothing to admire in
either one of his relatives, whom he had met but once before; but still
he did not absolutely dislike them, until Ned began to show, both by
words and actions, that he considered himself the lawful master of the
ranche and everything belonging to it, and that George had no rights
that he or his father were bound to respect. One change after another
was introduced, in spite of all the rightful owner could say or do to
prevent it, until at last the old house was so changed in appearance,
both inside and out, that George could hardly recognise it as his home.
Then he grew angry and almost made up his mind that he would strike out
for himself, and live on the prairie, with his cattle and his herdsman,
as a good many of the early settlers had done before him.

But the fact that his cousin Ned was gradually crowding him to the wall,
and usurping the place that George himself ought to have held in the
house, was not the only thing that troubled the young rancheman. That
was bad enough, but it was accompanied by something worse. If he was
snubbed and kept in the background by his relatives while at home, he
was treated but little, if any, better by the people, both young and
old, who lived in the settlement, and that was what hurt him. He was
acquainted with almost every farmer and rancheman in the county, and,
until lately, he had always been very popular among them; but when Uncle
John and his son arrived his troubles began. The neighbors would have
nothing whatever to do with the newcomers. They would not even notice
them when they met them on the highway, and it was not long before they
began to extend the same treatment to George himself.

The young cattle-herder could not imagine what it was that caused this
change, until one day, while he was riding to Palos, to purchase some
supplies for himself and his hired man, he met one of his young friends,
who, instead of stopping to talk with him, as he usually did, simply
bowed and put spurs to his horse, as if he were in a hurry to pass by
him; but George reined his own nag across the trail and stopped him.

“Now, Hank Short,” said he, “I want to know what you mean by such work
as this? What’s the reason that you and the other fellows never come to
see me any more, and that you take pains to pass me in this fashion? Do
you take me for a horse-thief?”

This, according to a Texas boy’s way of thinking, was the worst term of
reproach that could be applied to anybody. In Nantucket, if they want to
convey the impression that a man is utterly detestable, they say he is
mean enough to “mix oil.” In Massachusetts, he will “rob a hen-roost,”
and in Texas, he will “steal horses.”

“Everybody in the settlement seems to have gone back on me since my
father died,” said George, bitterly, “and I don’t know what to think of
it. Now, Hank, you can’t go by here until you tell me what I have done
to make all the folks angry at me. As soon as I know what it is, I will
try to make amends for it.”

“You haven’t done anything,” was Hank’s reply. “We don’t take _you_ for
a horse-thief!”

“Then why do you——Eh? You don’t take _me_ for a horse-thief! What do you
mean by that?”

“Well, I—you know——” faltered Hank, “those northern relations of yours
sling on a good many frills, and folks who wear store clothes and boiled
shirts are not wanted in this country. We’re afraid of them.”

“Whew!” whistled George.

He looked steadily at his friend for a moment, then down at the ground,
and finally he reined his horse out of Hank’s path and went slowly on
his way toward Palos. It was all plain enough to him now. Uncle John and
Ned wore store clothes and boiled shirts, and the settlers took them for
horse-thieves and treated them accordingly. That was the English of it,
and George wondered why he, knowing the customs of the country and the
habits and opinions of the people as well as he did, had not been smart
enough to see it without asking any questions. This was what he thought
at first, and then he suddenly grew so angry that he could scarcely
control himself. He drew up his horse with a jerk, faced about in his
saddle and called after his friend.

“Look here, Hank,” he shouted, shaking his fist in the air, “you may
tell those people who shun my relatives because they would rather wear
good clothes than shabby ones, and who go back on me because I live with
them—you can tell those people that we are just as good as they dare be
any day and just as honest!”

“All right,” was Hank’s response.

“And bear another thing in mind,” cried George, growing angrier every
minute, “and that is, I am boy enough to make you, or any fellow like
you, who says anything against them take back his words. I am going to
stand by them, no matter what happens.”

“I haven’t said anything against them,” answered Hank. “I think too much
of you to do that. I’ll talk to you the next time I see you. Perhaps you
will be better natured then.”

This reply completely disarmed George, who promptly turned about,
intending to ride up to his friend and take back every harsh word he had
uttered; but Hank touched his horse with his spurs as soon as he ceased
speaking, and was now almost out of earshot. So George was compelled to
face about again and go on his way toward Palos, without making things
straight with his friend.

“Hank is a good fellow, that’s a fact,” said he to himself, “and I might
have known that he wouldn’t say a word that he thought would offend me.
But here’s one thing I can’t understand,” continued George, growing
angry again. “If the settlers don’t want anything to do with Uncle John
and Ned, is that any reason why they should give me the cold shoulder?
If they don’t want to come to our rancho, they might at least treat me
civilly when they meet me away from home. This is the strangest world I
ever saw or heard of. If I should walk into Foxboro’, where Uncle John
came from, with these clothes on, folks would look at me suspiciously,
lock their back doors and keep an eye on their smoke-houses. He and Ned
came into the country, dressed as I suppose all city folks dress, and
every body is down on them, and ready to take them for anything in the
world but an honest man and boy.”

Yes, it is a fact that Uncle John and Ned had been received by the
settlers in about as cordial and friendly a manner as a couple of
ragged, ill-looking tramps would be received if they suddenly made their
appearance in the streets of some retired village in New England. It was
just the sort of reception that these rough frontiersmen always extend
to people of that stamp. This may seem like a strange statement, but it
is nevertheless true. If you want to be certain of it read the following
paragraphs, which have been condensed from a recently published book[1]
written by two men who have spent long years in the wilds of which we
write.

Footnote 1:

  Two Thousand Miles in Texas on Horseback; by McDanield and Taylor.

“The men who follow this business of stock raising are peculiar. They
are a stalwart, sinewy race, bronzed and bearded, and always go armed to
the teeth; but they wear their weapons just as other people wear coats
and vests, mainly because it is fashionable. A more peaceably-disposed
people I never saw; and they seem to vie with one another in hospitality
to the stranger. They are nearly all young or middle-aged men. To subdue
the wilderness and stand guard over the watch-towers of civilization, do
not belong to the old; and yet I see a few strong old men here whose
heads are as white as if a hundred winters had sprinkled their snows
upon them—old men youthful in everything except years. They are a sharp,
quick and intelligent people, and there are some who are evidently of
superior education. These are doubtless stray young gentlemen whom a
restless spirit of adventure decoyed from their homes in the old states,
finally stranding them on the shores of this far-away country. They are
appreciated here, for these rough frontiersmen dearly love to have
educated and sensible young men settle among them. But let no
pin-feather youth think that he can come here and be made a lion of at
once. A pretentious, foppish young fellow would be heavily discounted by
them, in spite of all his book learning and elegance of manner. He must
have a good store of common sense and understand how to adapt himself to
the situation. He must throw on no airs, for these frontiersmen are
nearly all men of as much sharpness of wit as boldness of heart. They
have seen a good deal of the world and quickly detect the spurious. The
newcomer must show a heart for honest, manly work, be companionable,
bear himself toward all respectfully and courteously, and he will soon
find that he has a noble army of friends around him who will always be
glad to advance him, and who will feel proud of him as one of
themselves.

“I have often thought of my first appearance among those frontier people
with considerable amusement. When a boy, almost beardless and just from
the schools, I came on horseback to San Saba, wearing a nice silk hat,
carrying a silver-headed cane, and dressed as young gentlemen generally
dress in the best communities of the older states. The old frontiersmen
looked upon me with almost intolerable scorn, and there was some serious
talk of hanging me as a suspected horse-thief, for no other reason in
the world than because I was well-dressed, well-educated and decidedly
well-behaved, though rather a reserved young fellow.

“One old chap, rough and bearded, and to my eye quite a monster in
appearance, actually talked of this within my hearing. The look of scorn
he cast upon me was sublime. I was quick to perceive the drift of
things; and as the Indians were then stealing and scalping at a great
rate, I threw aside my nice clothes, and silver-headed cane, put on a
rough suit and went Indian hunting with the frontiersmen, sleeping with
them in their houses, in the woods and on the prairie. They soon grew
fond of me, and I have never been in a country where I had so many warm
friends; but they never ceased to joke me about my three-story hat and
silver-headed cane. Had I not thrown aside these articles it is not at
all impossible that I might have been hanged.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

This was the kind of people among whom Uncle John and Ned lived now.



                              CHAPTER II.
                          A NEIGHBORHOOD ROW.


What was true of the people who lived in San Saba, during the days when
the incident we have just recorded happened, was equally true of the
people who lived in Palos and the surrounding country, at the time of
which we write. They were nearly all rich—there was hardly a man among
them who could tell how many horses and cattle bore his brand,—but every
man and boy of them kept busy at something, and strangers who came to
that country, and sported their fine clothes and did nothing, were
always objects of suspicion. All the settlers knew that Uncle John and
Ned were the brother and nephew of one of the most popular men who had
ever lived in the county, but that did not alter the facts of the case.
If the newcomers expected to be kindly received and hospitably treated,
they must come down from the high position they had assumed and act like
other folks.

George mourned in secret over this disagreeable state of affairs, but he
knew that it could not be remedied in any way, unless his relatives
could be prevailed upon to conform to the customs of the people among
whom they lived. When he returned from Palos, after his interview with
Hank Short, he waited and watched for an opportunity to give them a
little advice, and one morning, at the breakfast-table, the chance was
presented.

“I have always heard that Texans were a friendly and hospitable set of
people,” said Uncle John, as he pushed his chair away from the table;
“but I have learned that they are just the reverse. I have been among
them a good many months, and there hasn’t been a person here to see
me—not one.”

“They’re a set of boors,” observed Ned. “You and I want nothing to do
with them, father. We must live entirely within ourselves, while we stay
here, and we’re able to do it.”

“But they won’t let you,” said George.

“They! Who?” demanded Ned.

“The settlers about here.”

“How are they going to help themselves, I’d like to know? Isn’t this a
free country?”

“Yes, it’s a free country,” answered George, with a smile, “almost _too_
free, you would think, if you had seen what I have. If you are going to
live among these people, you must be one of them.”

Ned ran his eye over his cousin’s sturdy figure taking in at a glance
his copper-colored face, large, rough hands and coarse clothing, and
then he looked down at himself.

“How must I do it?” he asked.

“You must pull off that finery, the first thing you do,” was George’s
blunt reply. “Throw it away. It is of no use to you in this country.”

“I found that out long ago,” sneered Ned. “These people look upon a red
shirt as a badge of respectability.”

“And so it is, in one sense of the word,” returned George. “When you are
dressed for work, you are ready for it; and when people see you at work,
they know that you have an honest way of making a living. People who do
nothing are of no more use here in Texas, than they are in Ohio.”

“That’s just what I have been trying to drum into his head ever since we
have been here,” said Uncle John, who had not been known to do a stroke
of work of any kind during the long months he had lived in the rancho.
“Go on and tell him what to do, George.”

“It must be something that will bring me money,” chimed in Ned. “I
shan’t work for nothing.”

“There are plenty of things that will bring you money,” replied George.
“You can rent a piece of ground, fence it in and go to farming; or you
can be a cattle or pig-raiser.”

“Pig-raiser!” exclaimed Ned, in great disgust.

“There’s money in it, I tell you. These post-oak belts that run across
the state, afford the finest pasturage in the world—hundreds of bushels
of acorns to the acre,—and all you would have to do would be to build
you a little hut in some place that suited you, and call up your pigs
twice a day and feed them a little corn, to keep them from straying away
and going wild. If you want to make money without work,” added George,
who knew very well that that was just what his cousin _did_ want, “you
can’t select a better business.”

“I’m not going to live among pigs!” declared Ned, emphatically. “That’s
settled. If I had a herd of cattle like yours, I might take some
interest in it.”

“You can get it, if you are willing to work for it, as I did.”

“That would take too long. If I go into any business, it must be
something that will yield me immediate returns. I think the easiest
thing I could do would be to put in fifty or a hundred acres of wheat.
That is a crop that will require the least work.”

“Well, there is land enough at your disposal,” said George. “There are
ten thousand acres in this ranche. But where are you going to get the
money to fence your field?”

“I don’t see why I should fence it at all. Our own cattle (Ned and his
father always spoke of the ranche, and everything belonging to it, as
though it were their own property) will not trouble it, for I shall tell
the herders to keep them at a distance.”

“But they couldn’t always do it. Besides, suppose some of the neighbors’
cattle should stray away from the herdsmen and trespass on your field:
what would you do?”

“I should tell those neighbors, whoever they were, to keep their cattle
at home; and if they didn’t do it, I should watch my field and shoot the
first steer that came into it. That thing has been done in this
country.”

“Yes, it has,” returned George, “and what was the consequence?”

“O, it created a neighborhood row, I believe,” answered Ned,
indifferently.

“It certainly did; and you would never want to live through another if
you had lived through that one. You will need a fence around your field,
and it must be high and strong, too; and if anybody’s cattle break in,
as they will, most likely, no matter how good your fence may be, you
mustn’t take satisfaction by shooting them.”

“You’ll see whether I will or not. If I can raise a fuss as easily as
that, I’ll do it. The people here seem to think that I’m a nobody, but
they will find that they are very badly mistaken. I can draw a trigger
as well as the next man.”

“I hope you won’t draw it on anybody’s cattle,” said George, earnestly.
“If you do, you’ll set the whole settlement together by the ears. I’ve
seen one ‘neighborhood row,’ as you call it, and I never want to see
another. I can remember, for it was not so very long ago, when my father
did not dare go to the door after dark for fear that there might be
somebody lying in wait to shoot him. I can remember when I used to lie
awake night after night with my head under the bed clothes, starting at
every sound, and expecting every minute to hear the crackling of flames,
and to rush out to find the house surrounded by armed men, who would
shoot us down as fast as we came out. That very thing was threatened
more than once. You don’t know anything about it, for you were not here
at the time; but I do, and I—Whew!” exclaimed George, pushing his chair
away from the table and drawing his hand across his forehead, at the
same time shuddering all over as he recalled to mind some of the
thrilling scenes through which he had passed during those days and
nights of horror. “If you are going to bring those times back to us you
had better make arrangements to leave here at once, for the country will
be too hot to hold you.”

There had indeed been troublous days in Miller county a few months
previous to the beginning of our story. In the first place the county
was settled by men who devoted themselves exclusively to raising cattle
and horses for market. Some of them purchased land, but the majority did
not own an acre. They lived in the saddle, slept in the open air the
year round and subsisted principally upon the game that fell to their
rifles. They followed their herds wherever they went, and the raising of
them never cost their owners a dollar, for the prairie afforded abundant
pasturage and was free to any one who might choose to occupy it. In
process of time other settlers came in, some turning their attention to
stock raising, while the others purchased farms from the government,
surrounded them with fences to keep their neighbors’ cattle from
trespassing on them, and put in crops.

Unfortunately ill-feeling existed between these two classes of men, the
farmers and the ranchemen, almost from the very first. The latter did
not want the farmers there for the reason that every farm that was
fenced in took away just so many acres of their pasture; and the farmers
declared that the ranchemen were a nuisance and ought to be driven out
of the country, because their cattle broke through the fences and
destroyed the crops that had cost so much labor.

These feelings of hostility grew stronger as the farmers increased in
numbers, and the ranchemen saw their limits growing smaller every year,
and the rich pastures they had so long occupied being turned up by the
plough. The fences that were hastily erected by the farmers were not
strong enough to keep out the half-wild cattle which roamed the
unoccupied territory, and when one of these immense herds gained access
to a cultivated field they made sad work with it. Whenever this happened
the farmers sued the owners of the cattle in the courts for damages; and
as they were by this time largely in the majority and could control the
juries, they always gained their cause.

This made the stockmen very angry, and they had recourse to a law of
their own—that of force. They drove off cattle belonging to the farmers,
sold them and divided the proceeds among themselves. The farmers took
revenge by shooting the cattle that broke into their fields; the
ranchemen retaliated by shooting the farmers; and this led to a reign of
terror of which our readers may have some very faint conception if they
chanced to live in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo or Baltimore during the
riots that took place in July 1877.

Things very soon came to such a pass that no man went abroad, even in
the day time, unless he was loaded with weapons, and even then he
expected to be bushwhacked by some angry neighbor. Every house was
converted into a little fortress, and people were very careful how they
ventured out of doors after dark, or showed themselves in front of a
window opening into a lighted room.

This state of affairs might have continued until the present day, or
until the thinly-settled county was entirely depopulated, had it not
been for the interference of some lawless men who lived just over the
border. One dark night, a party of Mexicans, headed by renegade
Americans, made a raid across the Rio Grande and drove off a thousand
head of cattle and horses. The robbers were so delighted with their
success that they came again and again, and the settlers, being divided
against themselves, could do nothing to protect their property. This
brought them to their senses, as nothing else could have done. Advances
and concessions were made on both sides; old differences were forgotten;
the farmers repaired their dilapidated fences; the stock-raisers
employed extra herdsmen to keep their cattle within bounds; and a
company of Rangers was promptly organized, composed of the very men who
had been bushwhacking one another for months.

The Mexican raiders did not come again immediately, for their spies told
them of the preparations that had been made to receive them; and when at
last all fears of another visit from them had passed away, the company
which the settlers had called together for mutual protection ceased to
exist as an organization. But it had served more than one good purpose.
It had not only compelled the raiders to remain on their own side of the
river, but it had brought the stockmen and farmers into intimate
relations with one another, and led to the determination on the part of
all of them that the cause of their troubles should be carefully avoided
in the future.

Since that time Miller county had been one of the quietest and most
orderly portions of the state. Peace and plenty reigned, and the farmers
and stockmen were the firmest of friends. But now it appeared that a
vindictive boy, who was too lazy to win a name for himself in any
honorable way, was willing and even eager to put an end to this happy
state of affairs just because he wanted the settlers to notice him—to
see that he was not a nobody. The shooting of a single steer that had
broken into a farmer’s field would have been like throwing a blazing
fire-brand upon a dry prairie while the wind was blowing a gale. George
was frightened at the bare thought of such a thing.



                              CHAPTER III.
                       NED’S EXPERIENCE IN CAMP.


It was plain enough to George that Ned wanted to take satisfaction out
of the settlers for their refusal to notice him and make much of him, as
he seemed to think they ought to have done. He said all he could to
induce him to give up the idea, but Ned was stubborn, and George finally
abandoned the attempt in despair, hoping that when the trouble came, as
it certainly would come if Ned held to his resolution, he could in some
way protect him from the consequences of his folly.

“I can at least guide him out of the country, for it will not be safe
for him to stay here,” thought George. “Uncle John will go, too, if he
is wise; but I shall have to remain and shoulder the whole of it.”

The conversation recorded in the preceding chapter was but one of the
many Ned had with his father and cousin on the subject of farming, and
the result was that the following winter saw him the owner, for the time
being, of fifty acres of rich bottom land, which had been fenced and
planted to wheat. By the terms of the contract made with his father in
George’s hearing, Ned was to pay the same rent for the ground that he
would have had to pay had he leased it from an entire stranger. “You
know the ranche doesn’t belong to me,” said Uncle John. “I am managing
it for George’s benefit, and must make all the money I can for him. You
ought to clear a nice little sum by your venture, and can afford to pay
the usual rent.”

“O, I’ll pay it after my crop is sold; that is, if I feel like it,” said
Ned to himself. “George has money enough already. A boy who owns six
thousand dollars’ worth of stock ought to be willing to allow his only
cousin the free use of fifty acres of land. I shall have need of every
red cent I make.”

Ned, who was extravagantly fond of company and pleasure, could hardly
endure the lonely life he was compelled to lead. He hoped that as soon
as it became known throughout the settlement that he had made up his
mind to go to work, he would be in a fair way to gain the favor of the
people; and perhaps he would, if he had gone about it in the right way.
He laid aside the objectionable broadcloth suit and white shirt, it is
true, and put on what he called “working clothes;” but they were more
gorgeous than any that had ever been seen in that part of Texas before
outside of an illustrated story paper. His boots were expensive
Wellingtons, and were made of patent leather, too. He wore gray corduroy
trowsers, a fawnskin vest, a finely-dressed buckskin coat, with silver
buttons, and a Mexican sombrero ornamented with gold cord and tassels.
It was a “nobby” suit, to quote from its delighted owner, and must have
astonished the natives, if one might judge by the way they stared at him
when they met him on the trail; but it did not bring him any more
company than he had always had.

Ned led a lonely and discontented life all that winter. There were no
boys with whom he could associate except his cousin, and Ned had come to
the conclusion that he would much rather be alone than in George’s
company. The latter did not suit him at all. He was much too
industrious. He was in camp with his herdsman more than half the time,
and when he was at home he was always busy. Ned had expected to see
unbounded pleasure in living on the prairie and sleeping in the open
air, as his cousin did more than six months in the year, and once he had
spent two weeks with him in camp; but that was his first and last
experience in cattle-herding, and as it was not at all to his liking, we
must stop long enough to say something about it. This is a story of camp
life, you know.

Ned had not been away from the ranche more than three days before he
found, to his great surprise and disappointment, that life in the open
air was not what his lively imagination had pictured it. Many a boy has
been deceived on this point, just as others have been deceived in
looking upon the life of a sailor as one of ease and romance. Ned
thought that those who lived in camp had nothing to do but sit on the
grass, under the spreading branches of some friendly tree, and dream
away the days which would be all sunshine; and that when they grew
hungry, some fat black-tail or antelope would walk up within easy range
of their rifles just on purpose to be shot. The nights would be mild and
pleasant, the fire would somehow keep itself burning all the time,
whether the necessary fuel was supplied or not, and cook his meals for
him without any care or exertion on his part. But one short week’s
experience banished all these absurd ideas, and taught him what a
cattle-herder’s camp-life really was. It was one of almost constant
drudgery and toil. George had three hundred cattle to watch, and as he
had only one herdsman to assist him, he was kept busy from morning until
night. He and Zeke (that was the name of his herdsman, of whom we shall
have a good deal to say by and by), were up and doing long before the
sun arose, and while one cooked the breakfast and performed the
necessary camp-duties, the other drove the cattle out to pasture and
watched them to see that they didn’t stray away.

Ned, being inexperienced, and an invited guest beside, was not expected
to do anything except to eat his share of the rations, and enjoy himself
as well as he could. Sometimes he went out with the cattle-herder, and
then he stayed with the camp-keeper; but he soon grew tired of both of
them and of their way of life, too. George knew but little about the
city and cared less. He took no interest whatever in his cousin’s
glowing descriptions of the numerous “scrapes” he had been in, and
neither did Zeke, who bluntly told him that he might have been in better
business. Ned, on the other hand, cared nothing for the things in which
George and Zeke were interested, so there was little they could talk
about.

But there was plenty of hunting, and in this way Ned passed a portion of
each day. He had no luck, however, for he never saw anything in the
shape of game larger than Jack rabbits, and he never bagged one of them.
The only thing he brought back to camp with him from these hunting
excursions was a ravenous appetite, and he had to satisfy it with fried
bacon, hard corn-cakes and coffee without any milk. The juicy venison
steaks and other luxuries he had expected to fatten on were never served
up to him. It rained, too, sometimes, and Ned could find no shelter
under the dripping trees. There was no fun at all in going to bed in wet
clothes, and Ned always shuddered and wished himself safe at the rancho
when his cousin said to him, as he did almost every night—

“Don’t forget your lasso. The rattlers are tolerable plenty about here.”

Ned knew that, for he had seen two or three of them killed in the camp.
George had told him that the neighborhood of a fire was a bad place for
rattlesnakes, and Ned could hardly bring himself to believe that his
hair lasso, laid down in a coil about the place where he made his bed,
was a sure protection against these dangerous visitors.

A few days before he went home, Ned had an experience such as he had
never had before, and which he fervently hoped would never be repeated.
On this particular day he went out with George, whose turn it was to
watch the cattle. He soon grew tired of talking to him, so he mounted
his horse and set out in search of antelopes, which, so his cousin told
him, were often seen in that neighborhood. He rode slowly in a circle
around the place where the cattle were feeding, at distances varying
from a half to three-quarters of a mile from them (there was small
chance of finding an antelope so close to the herd, but Ned dared not go
any farther away for fear of the Apaches, concerning whom he had heard
some dreadful stories told by Zeke the night before), and he had been
gone about an hour when he was suddenly startled by hearing the faint
report of a rifle. Turning his eyes quickly in the direction from which
the report sounded, he saw his cousin sitting in his saddle, and waving
his hat frantically in the air. When he found that the sound of his
rifle had attracted Ned’s attention, he beckoned him to approach.

“What’s up, I wonder?” thought Ned, not a little alarmed. “George must
have shot at something, for I saw the smoke curling above his head. Are
the Mexicans or Apaches about to make a raid on us?”

Ned, who had drawn rein on the summit of a high swell, looked all around
but could see no signs of any horsemen. He did see something to increase
his alarm, however. He saw that the cattle, which were quietly grazing
the last time he looked toward them, were now all in motion, and that
they were hurrying toward the belt of post-oaks in which the camp was
located. That was enough for Ned. He put his horse into a gallop and
hastened to join his cousin, who now and then beckoned to him with both
hands as if urging him to ride faster.

“What’s the matter?” shouted Ned, as soon as he arrived within speaking
distance of George. “Raiders?”

“O no! We’re going to have a norther, and if there should happen to be
rain with it we don’t want it to catch us out here on the prairie.”

“Is that all?” exclaimed Ned, somewhat impatiently. “That’s a pretty
excuse for frightening a fellow half to death, isn’t it? I thought
something was going to happen.”

“Something is going to happen!” replied George.

“You seem to have grown very much afraid of the rain lately,” continued
Ned. “It was only a day or two ago that you stood out in a hard shower,
and never seemed to care for it.”

“Yes; but if we have rain now, it will be a different sort, as you will
find.”

“I don’t see any signs of it yet,” said Ned, looking up at the sky. “I
hope it will cool the air a little,” he added, a moment later, pulling
off his hat and drawing his handkerchief across his face, which was very
much flushed, “for I am almost roasted. I declare, I must have ridden
fast. Just see how my horse sweats!”

“Mine sweats just as badly,” replied George, “and he has been staked out
ever since you have been gone.”

Ned looked at his cousin’s horse, then glanced at his own, and was very
much surprised at what he saw. Both animals were wet with perspiration,
and stood with their heads down and their sides heaving, as if they had
been ridden long and rapidly. There was not a breath of air stirring, as
Ned found, when he came to look about him. The atmosphere was close and
oppressive, and filled with a thick haze, which seemed to magnify every
object within the range of his vision, and overhead, the sun rode in a
cloudless sky, sending down his beams with fearful intensity.

“Whew!” panted Ned. He dropped his reins, hung his rifle upon the horn
of his saddle, peeled off his coat, vest and neck-tie, and threw open
the collar of his shirt. “_Whew!_” he gasped. “We shall be overcome with
the heat before we can reach the timber. I had no idea it was so hot! I
don’t see how you can stand it, with those thick clothes on.”

“I am pretty warm now, that’s a fact; but I shall be cool enough by and
by, and so will you!”

While the boys were talking in this way, they were riding toward the
post-oaks, which were now about a mile and a half distant. The sun’s
rays seemed to grow hotter with every step of the way, and the
atmosphere to become more stifling, until at last Ned would gladly have
welcomed a hurricane or an earthquake, if it would have brought him any
relief from his sufferings. Finally, a small, dark-colored cloud
appeared in the horizon, rising into view with wonderful rapidity,
spreading itself over the sky and shooting out great, black arms before
it, until it looked like a gigantic spider. Then the first breath of the
on-coming norther began to ruffle the grass, whereupon George faced
about in his saddle, and began unfastening a bundle, in which he carried
his rubber poncho and heavy overcoat, while Ned pulled off his hat again
and turned his shirt-collar farther back.

“Aha!” exclaimed the latter, with a great sigh of relief. “Isn’t that a
delightful breeze? What are you going to do?”

“I am going to bundle up,” was George’s reply, “and if you will take my
advice, you will do the same. You see——”

“O, let it rain!” exclaimed Ned, without waiting to hear what else his
cousin had to say. “It will be most refreshing, after such a roasting as
we have had!”

George said no more, for he had been snubbed every time he tried to give
his city relative any advice, and he had long ago resolved that he would
not willingly give him a chance to snub him again. We ought also to say
that there was another reason why George kept silent. A Texan takes
unbounded delight in seeing a greenhorn caught out in a norther. It is
so very different from any storm he ever saw before, and his
astonishment is so overwhelming! George opened his bundle, put on his
overcoat, threw his poncho over that and drew on a pair of heavy gloves.
He looked as if he were preparing to face a snow-storm.

All this while the norther had been steadily, but almost imperceptibly,
increasing in force, and now, without any further warning, it burst
forth in all its fury, and the roar of the wind sounded like the rumble
of an approaching express train.

“Whew!” exclaimed Ned, suddenly; “how it blows and how fearfully cold it
is!”

As he said this he drew his collar together and hastily put on his vest
and coat; but when he tried to button the coat his fingers were so
benumbed that he was almost helpless.

“Why, I’m freezing,” gasped Ned, as his cousin rode up beside him and
offered his assistance.

“O, no!” answered George, cheerfully. “No one was ever known to freeze
to death or even to take cold from exposure to a norther. You’ll be all
right as soon as you get to a fire.”

“I never saw such a country,” said Ned, as plainly as his chattering
teeth would permit. “Summer and winter all in one day.”

“Yes, in less than a quarter of an hour,” said George, who was busy
untying the bundle Ned carried behind his saddle. “The thermometer has
been known to fall sixty degrees almost instantly.”

George took his cousin’s overcoat and gloves out of the bundle, but
after they were put on they did not seem to afford the wearer the least
protection from the bitter blast which came stronger and stronger every
moment, and chilled him to the very marrow. It could not have been
colder if it had come off the icebergs within the Arctic circle. It
seemed to blister the skin wherever it touched, and was so cutting and
keen that the boys could not keep their faces toward it. Even the horses
began to grow restive under it, and it was all their riders could do to
control them.

“O, I shall never see home again!” cried Ned, who was terribly alarmed.
“I shall freeze to death right here. I _can’t_ stand it!”

“You can and you must,” shouted George, as he seized his cousin’s horse
by the bridle. “Now, pull your hat down over your face, throw yourself
forward in the saddle, and hang on for life. I’ll take care of you.”

An instant afterward Ned was being carried over the prairie with all the
speed his horse could be induced to put forth. He did not know which way
he was going, for he dared not look up to see. He sat with his hat over
his face, his head bowed over to his horse’s neck, and his hands twisted
in the animal’s mane, while George sat up, braving it all and leading
him to a place of refuge.

It seemed to Ned that they were a very long time in reaching the timber,
and that he should certainly freeze to death before that mile and a half
of prairie could be crossed; but he didn’t, and neither did he afterward
feel any bad effects from what he suffered during his cold ride. He
found that Zeke, having been warned by signs he could easily read that
the norther was coming, had moved the camp to a more sheltered locality,
and that he had a roaring fire going and a pot of hot coffee on the
coals. Ned drank a good share of that hot coffee, and forgot to grumble
over it, as he usually did. George showed him the way home as soon as
the storm abated, and there Ned resolved to stay, having fully made up
his mind that there was no fun to be seen in camp-life.

Ned was more lonely and discontented than ever after that. It was harder
work to pass the days in doing nothing than it was to stand behind a
counter, selling dry-goods; and that was what he had done before he came
to Texas. There was literally no way in which he could enjoy himself.
Books, which were his cousin’s delight, Ned did not care for; there was
not game enough in the country to pay for the trouble of hunting for it;
the boys in the settlement were a lot of boors, who would not notice
him, because he was so far above them; and all Ned could do was to spend
the day in loitering about the house, with his hands in his pockets.

“If I only had some of the jolly fellows here that I used to run with in
Foxboro’!” said Ned to himself, one day, after he had spent an hour or
two in wandering from room to room, in the vain hope of finding
something to interest him. “Wouldn’t we turn this old house upside down!
They all promised to come and see me, but I know they won’t do it, for
they’ll never be able to save money enough to pay their fare. If I ever
see them, I shall have to send them the money to bring them here, and
I——Well, now, why couldn’t I do that? It’s a splendid idea!”

Ned, all life and animation now, hurried to his room to act upon his
splendid idea, while it was yet fresh in his mind. He wrote a long
letter to one of the cronies, Gus Robbins by name, whom he had left
behind in Foxboro’, giving a glowing description of his new home,
recounting, at great length, a thrilling hunting adventure he had heard
from the lips of George’s herdsman, and of which he made himself the
hero, instead of Zeke, and wound up by urging Gus and his brother to
come on and pay him a long visit.

“You must not refuse,” Ned wrote. “If money is what you need, let me
know, and I will send you enough to foot all your bills. I am rich now,
and can afford to do it. Your father ought to be willing to give you a
short vacation, after you have worked so hard in the store.”

The letter was mailed in due time, and Ned impatiently counted the days
that must elapse before an answer could arrive. It came at last, and Ned
almost danced with delight when he read it. We copy one paragraph in it,
just to show what kind of a boy he was whom Ned had invited to his
house. We shall meet him very shortly, and be in his company a good
deal, and one always likes to know something about a fellow before he is
introduced to him. The paragraph referred to ran as follows:—

                  *       *       *       *       *

“You must be having jolly times down there, and since I read your letter
I have been more than ever dissatisfied with the store. I should be only
too glad to visit you, and the want of money is the only thing that
stands in my way. It is all that has kept me in Foxboro’ so long. In
regard to the governor’s giving me a holiday—I shall not ask him for it,
for he would be sure to say ‘No;’ and neither can I write you anything
definite about my brother. He is getting to be a regular old
sober-sides, and if I am going down there, I would rather he would stay
at home.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

The rest of the letter was taken up by the writer in trying to make Ned
understand that Gus had fully resolved to visit Texas, and that he
should be very much disappointed, if anything happened to keep him at
home. He did not say this in so many words, but Ned was smart enough to
see that he meant it all the same.

“He shall come,” said Ned, as he folded up the letter and hurried off to
find his father. “And I hope he will come alone, for if his brother is
getting to be a milk-sop, we don’t want him down here. Now, the next
thing is to make father hand over the money.”

This was a task Ned had been dreading ever since he wrote the
invitation; but he went about it with an air which said plainly enough
that he knew he should succeed. Uncle John objected rather feebly, at
first, and said he wasn’t sure that he had any right to spend George’s
money in that way; but Ned had an answer to every objection, and stuck
to his point until he gained it.

“You mustn’t forget that I may own this property myself some day,” said
he. “If George does not live until he is of age, everything falls to me.
If that should ever happen, you would think me awful stingy if I should
refuse you a paltry hundred dollars.”

Ned certainly talked very glibly about spending his cousin’s money. He
had seen the time when, if he chanced to have a hundred cents in his
pocket, over and above what his debts amounted to, he considered himself
lucky. It was not a paltry sum in his eyes, by any means.

After a little more argument, Ned got a check for the money he wanted,
made payable to the order of Gus Robbins. After that he wrote a letter
to his friend urging him to come on immediately, put the check into it
and mailed it at the first opportunity. Then he was in a fever of
excitement and suspense, and wondered if it would be possible for him to
live until his friend arrived. He judged that Gus intended to leave home
without his father’s knowledge or consent, but Ned did not care for
that. Perhaps he would do the same thing himself under like
circumstances. True, he often asked himself how Gus could ever muster up
courage enough to go home again after doing a thing of that kind, but he
always let the question pass with the reflection that it was none of his
business. It was a matter that Gus must settle for himself. He waited
impatiently for his friend’s coming, little dreaming that his appearance
at the rancho would be the signal for the beginning of a series of
scrapes and adventures that would put the whole settlement into a
turmoil.



                              CHAPTER IV.
                          A DISCONTENTED BOY.


“I do think that if there is a mean business in the world, I am engaged
in it.”

Gus Robbins suspended for a moment the work of folding up the numerous
bolts of calico he had taken down from the shelves for the inspection of
a customer who had just departed without purchasing anything, and
leaning on the counter, gazed longingly through the glass door into the
street. It was a bright winter day. The sleighing was excellent, and the
principal thoroughfare of the thriving little city of Foxboro’ was
filled with sleighs which dashed by in both directions, carrying loads
of gay pleasure-seekers, all of whom, Gus noticed with no little
bitterness of heart, seemed to be enjoying themselves to the fullest
extent. It was just before the holidays, and everybody seemed to be
making unusual preparations for them. The store was filled with
customers almost all the time, and Gus had stood in his place behind the
counter, and taken down and put up bales of goods until he was almost
tired out, and completely disgusted with the store and everything
belonging to it. Just now there was a little lull in business, and Gus
had a few minutes to himself. He improved them, as he generally improved
his moments of leisure, by growling over his hard lot in life, and
drawing a contrast between his own situation and that of some of the
other boys of his acquaintance in the city.

“There are no such things as peace and pleasure for the unfortunate
fellow who makes his bread and butter by clerking in a dry-goods store,”
continued Gus, spitefully banging a bolt of calico down upon the
counter. “Everybody is happy except me. Other boys are out behind their
fast horses having a good time, and here I am shut up in this miserable
old store, and have been ever since seven o’clock this morning. This
thing is getting to be a little too monotonous, the first thing you
know, and I am not going to put up with it much longer. If I had money,
I wouldn’t stay in this city twenty-four hours longer. Great Cæsar!”

Gus brought his soliloquy to a sudden close, and the bolt of calico he
had picked up to place upon the shelf dropped from his hands. While he
was talking to himself he kept his gaze directed toward the street, and
saw a red-faced man pass one of the windows and turn toward the door. As
he laid his hand upon the knob, somebody in the street accosted him, and
the red-faced man turned about and entered into conversation with him.
Gus looked at him for a moment, and then ran his eyes hastily around the
store as if he were looking for some way of escape.

“He’ll be in here in a second more,” said he, to himself, “and how shall
I put him off? I’ve told him so many lies that I shall have to get a
fresh stock on hand before I can tell him any more.”

The expression that rested on the boy’s face during the next
half-minute, seemed to indicate that he was revolving a very perplexing
problem in his mind. Suddenly he brightened up and with another glance
at the door, passed rapidly around the counter, and crossed over to the
other side of the store, where another clerk was at work folding up some
goods.

“I say, Sam,” exclaimed Gus, in a hurried whisper; “will you add another
to the long list of favors you have done me?”

“Well, I don’t know,” replied Sam, hesitatingly. “Depends upon what it
is. If you want to borrow any more——”

“I don’t,” interrupted Gus. “But Meyers is coming after what I owe him,
and there he is now. Tell him that I have gone out and shan’t be back
for a week. If you will do that much for me I will repay you——”

Gus did not have time to say how or when he would repay Sam, for at this
moment the red-faced man turned half around and placed his hand on the
door-knob. Gus quickly ducked his head and stole along behind the
counter toward the back part of the store, until he came to a door
opening into the warehouse.

He straightened up when he reached this place of refuge, and just as he
did so the opening and closing of the front door told him that Mr.
Meyers, the Jew who kept the little cigar and tobacco stand around the
corner, had entered on one of his regular weekly dunning visits.

“Much good may it do him,” thought Gus, keeping the door open about half
an inch so that he could see all that passed in the store. “He is a
regular leech, and if I could only settle up with him I’d pay him for
his persistency by buying my cigars and fine cut somewhere else.”

The visitor held a long interview with Sam—so long that Gus began to be
very impatient, and at last to tremble for fear that his father, who was
busy with the books in the office, might come out and find him there.
Gus could not hear what they said, but he could see, by Mr. Meyers’s
emphatic gestures, that he was very much in earnest about something. As
soon as the man left the store, Gus drew a long breath of relief and
came out of his hiding-place. The smile on his face showed that he was
very much pleased with the success of his little stratagem.

“O, there’s nothing to grin over, old fellow,” said Sam. “If you know
when you are well off you will rake fifteen dollars together pretty
lively, I tell you.”

“Fifteen dollars!” replied Gus. “I don’t owe him any such sum as that.”

“He’s got a bill made out for it, anyhow.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I told him that you had gone out somewhere on business, and that you
would call and pay him to-morrow afternoon.”

“To-morrow afternoon!” echoed Gus. “Great Cæsar! How am I going to raise
fifteen dollars between this time and that?”

“I give it up,” replied Sam.

“To-morrow afternoon!” gasped Gus, as visions of a stormy interview with
the impatient and angry cigar vendor flitted through his mind.

“Yes; I tried to put him off, but he wouldn’t be put off, so I had to
tell him something definite.”

“You had no business to tell him that, at any rate,” snapped Gus. “You
know I couldn’t keep that promise.”

“Well, the next time you want any lies told you can just stay in the
store and tell them yourself,” retorted Sam. “I shall not do it any
more, and you needn’t waste your time and breath in asking me. I have
stood between you and your creditors just as long as I am going to; but
I’ll tell you one thing: You had better settle with that Jew, or he will
go to your father with his bill. Then won’t you be in a fix?”

“Whew!” exclaimed Gus, who was not a little alarmed.

“But remember that my claim is to be settled first,” continued Sam. “You
have owed me money longer than you have owed him, and I want you to
begin to pony up. I am tired of waiting.”

“You will have plenty of time to get rested again before you get the
money, and so will that Jew,” thought Gus, as he turned and walked back
to his own counter. “Is it any wonder that I want to get away from
here?”

No, it was no wonder that Gus was always in trouble, but he had no one
to thank for it but himself. He had a comfortable home, a kind father
and mother, and there was more than one boy in the city who would have
been glad to change places with him. The great trouble with Gus was,
that he would not work if he could help it, and he had no idea of the
value of money.

Mr. Robbins, who had once been a poor boy, and who had earned every
dollar he possessed by his own unaided efforts, thought that every youth
ought to learn how to take care of himself; so as soon as Gus and Bob
(that was the name of Gus’s younger brother) had completed the course at
the High School, they were placed in the store, given the free use of
the money they earned and assured that they would be promoted and their
wages increased as fast as their services would warrant. They each
received two hundred and fifty dollars a year, and that was fifty
dollars more than inexperienced clerks had ever before been paid in that
store; but Gus declared that it was but little better than nothing at
all. He had some very grand ideas, and was frequently heard to say that
he did not intend to be a dry goods’ clerk all his life.

“I don’t want you to be,” said his father, who one day happened to be
standing near when Gus made this declaration. “Clerks are necessary, but
if you have brains and energy enough to work your way up higher, I shall
be only be too glad to see you do it. I hope you will some day be a
prosperous merchant; but you never can be unless you know all about
business. In order to learn it you must begin at the beginning.”

“And work for two hundred and fifty dollars,” said Gus. “How is a fellow
to get rich on that, I’d like to know?”

“By saving; that is the only way.”

“But I have nothing to save. After I drew my wages last month I bought a
suit of clothes, and a dollar—just one little dollar—was all I had to
show for twenty-six days’ work.”

“And what did you do with that one little dollar?”

“I—I believe I spent it.”

“Of course you did. If you had saved it you would have been just a
dollar ahead.”

“And if I saved a dollar every month, I should have just twelve dollars
at the end of the year,” said Gus. “That’s a magnificent sum.”

“But you don’t need a suit of new clothes every thirty days, and most of
the time you could save more than a dollar a month. The amount of your
savings is not so important as it is that you should get in the way of
saving something—no matter how small the amount may be. If you begin by
saving four dollars every month, you will find it just as easy after a
while to save eight; for good habits, like bad ones, grow stronger every
day.”

“But I can’t be satisfied to plod along in that way,” said Gus, to
himself. “If I could have two or three hundred dollars all in a lump, so
that I could buy some things I need, pay all my debts and have a
good-sized nest-egg left, I might get up ambition enough to go to
saving; but this thing of laying by pennies—Pshaw!”

Mr. Robbins often talked to his boys in this way, and he had finally
succeeded in convincing Bob that it was not best to despise the day of
small things, and that the surest road to prosperity was the one his
father had pointed out. Like his brother, Bob had been in the habit of
spending every cent he made, and more, too, if he could get it; but of
late he had taken to saving, and now he had grown to be, to quote from
Gus, “the very quintessence of meanness.” But he had money in the bank,
and being safely out of debt, he was not continually harassed by duns as
his brother was. More than that, he got into the way of being very
attentive to his work (one good habit leads to another, you know), and
before he had been in the store a year he was given entire charge of one
branch of his father’s business, and his wages were increased.

This left Gus at the very lowest round of the ladder. He was obliged to
open the store in the morning, build the fires and sweep out, and he
looked upon this as very degrading work. He grew more negligent and
discontented every day, and always made it a point, after the store was
closed for the night, to make up for the tiresome hours he had spent
behind the counter. He often wished for Ned Ackerman. When the latter
was in his father’s employ he had a companion who was always ready to
join him in any thing; but Ned was in Texas, Bob had gone back on him,
and Gus was very lonely.

Our discontented dry-goods clerk received a very severe blow, and the
little ambition he had was all crushed out of him when his younger
brother was placed over him. It was a disgrace that he could not put up
with, and so he tried to run away from it. There was a news-depôt for
sale in the city, and Gus could have purchased it on very advantageous
terms, if he had only had the money; but he didn’t have it. Mr. Robbins,
who knew more about his son’s habits than Gus thought he did, would not
advance it, and so Gus was obliged to stay in the store. Everything
seemed to be working against him, and Gus grew desperate. He spent his
money as fast as it was paid to him, and when it gave out, he went as
deeply in debt as he could go. He had always been able to satisfy his
creditors by paying them a little every month; but now they were getting
impatient, and were all presenting their bills at once.

“Fifteen dollars!” repeated Gus, as he walked toward his own counter.
“To-morrow afternoon!” he murmured, as he chucked one of the bolts of
calico spitefully upon the shelf. “Moses! won’t there be a row, unless I
can think up some plausible story between this time and that! I must owe
at least fifty dollars—almost three months’ wages. I wish I could leave
here this very night, and never set eyes on this town again! But how can
I get away without money? That’s the question.”

Just then Gus heard something fall on the counter, and looked up to see
his brother Bob walking through the store, with a bundle of letters and
papers in his hand. He had just returned from the post-office, and had
thrown a letter for his brother on the counter, as he passed by.

“Just look at young Dignity!” said Gus, as his brother disappeared
through the door that led into the office. “One would think, by the airs
he throws on, that he owned the store! Who has been writing to me, I
wonder!”

Gus allowed the letter to lie where it had fallen, until he had cleared
the counter, folded all the goods and placed them on the shelves, where
they belonged. Then he picked it up and glanced at the envelope, fully
expecting to recognise the handwriting of some of his creditors, who not
unfrequently wrote notes to him, to remind him that there was a little
balance due them, which they would be happy to receive at the earliest
possible moment that he could make it convenient to hand it to them. But
this letter was not from a creditor. It was from Ned Ackerman, the very
boy who had been in his thoughts a score of times that day. Gus ran his
eyes hastily over the last few lines above the signature, and saw
something in them that excited and delighted him.

“Hurrah!” said he to himself. “Plague take it!”

These two exclamations, so different in meaning, were called forth by
very different emotions. He had read enough of the letter to learn that
his old friend Ned was having a fine time down there in Texas; that he
was lonely in spite of it, and wanted Gus and his brother to come on and
pay him a long visit; and that the want of money need not prevent them
from doing so, for Ned would send them enough to pay their fare and all
other expenses. But before Gus could read any farther, he was
interrupted by the entrance of two or three ladies, who came up to his
counter. They proved to be very exacting, too, and Gus handed down a
good many different kinds of cloth for their inspection. He fumed
inwardly and used some hard words to himself, while he was doing it, and
as soon as the ladies had departed, he caught up his letter and read it
through.

“Of course I’ll go,” said he, so delighted with the idea that he hardly
knew what he was about; “but Bob shan’t! We don’t want him, and so I’ll
say nothing to him about this letter. I shan’t say anything to father
either, for he would be sure to tell me to stay at home.”

Gus had found a way out of his troubles at last. He wrote a reply to
Ned’s letter that very night, and was as impatient to hear from him
again as Ned was to hear from Gus. He made no effort to raise money to
pay his debts, and indeed he did not intend to pay them at all. He went
to see all his creditors, as soon as he could find time, just to keep
them from calling upon him at the store, and by making them some very
fair promises, he succeeded in quieting them for a while. When that was
done, he breathed easier, and the only thing he had to worry over and
feel anxious about was the expected letter from Ned, which he hoped
would bring a check for the money he needed, and contain instructions as
to the route he was to travel, in order to reach Palos.

“And when I get there I’ll stay,” Gus often told himself. “I shall never
come back. I’ve had enough of this miserable life. What will I do and
where shall I go after I have finished my visit? I am sure I don’t know.
That is a matter I will decide when the time comes. I do hope Ned will
have no trouble in raising the money.”

Gus was not disappointed in his hopes. Ned was so anxious to have him
there that he did not delay writing, and in due time the looked-for
letter arrived. Gus could hardly control his exultation from those
around him. He wrote to his friend at once, saying that he would start
in a week, and that Ned must make his own calculations as to the time
his visitor would reach Palos, as he (Gus) had not she slightest idea
how long it would take him to make the journey, and Ned had forgotten to
enlighten him on this point.

Gus wanted to wait a week longer in order that he might draw the twenty
dollars and more that would then be due him from the store. It was the
longest week he had ever lived through, and the hardest too; but it came
to an end at last, and pay-day arrived. Gus drew his money when Bob did,
and as soon as he had put it into his pocket, he slipped out the back
door into an alley that ran behind the store, and started for home. He
made his way to the room in which he and Bob slept, opened his trunk
with a key he took from his pocket, deposited his money therein and took
out the check which he had kept locked up in the trunk ever since it
arrived.

“It is time to get this cashed now,” said he. “I put it off until the
last moment because I didn’t want to give anybody a chance to talk about
it. I don’t know what the cashier will think when I present it at the
bank, and I don’t care either, if he will only give me the money. I hope
Sam will have a good time getting what I owe him. He was waiting at the
office door to catch me when I came out, and that was the reason I
slipped into the alley.”

Gus locked his trunk, put the key and check carefully away in his pocket
and hurriedly left the house. Time was precious (he had less than half
an hour left in which to eat his dinner and return to the store) and he
made all the haste he could. He was particularly anxious to get through
with his business at the bank, for he had been dreading it all the week.
What would the folks in there think when he approached the cashier’s
desk and presented a check for a hundred dollars? He ran up the steps
while he was thinking about it, and almost into the arms of the very
person he most wished to avoid just then—the one who had waited to dun
him when he came out of his father’s office. Sam had drawn his month’s
wages and came to the bank to deposit them.

“Hallo!” exclaimed Sam. “Where did you go in such a hurry after you drew
your money? I didn’t see you come out of the office.”

“But I did come out, you see; for if I had stayed in, I couldn’t be
here, could I?”

“Hold on,” said Sam, as Gus tried to push him aside so that he could
enter the door. “This is a good time to settle up.”

“I will settle with you this afternoon, sure pop,” returned Gus.

“Why can’t you do it now? You have got your money, for I saw you draw
it.”

“I know it, but I haven’t got it now. I’ll be on hand this
evening—sure.”

“You said this afternoon,” answered Sam, looking suspiciously at Gus.

“Well, this afternoon, then.”

So saying, Gus crowded past Sam and went into the bank. To his great
relief there was no one in front of the cashier’s desk; no one present
to see him receive his hundred dollars. With a beating heart and
trembling hand he produced his check, and breathed a good deal easier
when he saw that the cashier did not exhibit any surprise at its
magnitude. He was in hopes that the man would be in a hurry about
cashing it, but instead of that he was very deliberate in his movements.
He looked at the check on all sides and then he looked at Gus.

“Who is this John Ackerman?” he asked.

“He used to be father’s book-keeper, you know,” said Gus.

“O, yes! Do you want us to collect this for you?”

“No, sir; I want the money on it now.”

“All right,” said the cashier, handing the check over the counter.
“Write your name across the back of it, and then take it home and let
your father sign it.”

“My father!” exclaimed Gus. “Not much. I mean—what do you want his
signature for?” he added hastily, and in great confusion, for the
cashier looked at him as if he were somewhat surprised at his
earnestness.

“To make ourselves secure,” said the cashier, by way of explanation.
“You see, Gus, this check is drawn by John Ackerman on the Planters’
Bank of Austin, Texas. He may have funds there, but he has none here,
and neither have you; and it is our rule in such cases to require an
endorsement other than that of the payee. You are the payee, you
know—the one to whom the check is made payable. Your father will sign
it.”

Gus felt like giving vent to his astonishment and rage in a series of
the wildest kind of yells, and it was all he could do to choke back his
tears. As soon as he had controlled himself so that he could speak, he
said:

“I don’t want to ask my father to endorse it. This is my own private
affair, and I don’t want you to say anything about it.”

“Of course not. We never talk about our business matters.”

“How long will it take to collect it?”

“Well, Austin is a long distance from here, and it will take two or
three weeks at least.”

“Great Cæsar!” was Gus’s mental exclamation. “Can I stand it to stay in
the store so much longer? Very well,” he said aloud, “I shall have to
ask you to collect it for me, if that is the best I can do.”

Gus turned about and walked out of the bank like one in a dream. He had
never in his life before been so badly disappointed. The reflection that
if he remained in the store a month longer, and could save all the money
he earned in that time, he would have twenty dollars more to be added to
the sum he already possessed, did not encourage him in the least. He
wanted his liberty more than he wanted a month’s wages, and besides he
was by no means sure that he would be able to save what he earned. If
his creditors became weary of having their debts paid by promises, and
presented their bills to his father, Gus knew that they would be
promptly settled, and that he could not draw a cent at the end of the
month. He turned these matters over in his mind while he was eating his
dinner, and the longer he pondered upon them the more he felt like
yelling. There were no customers in the store when he returned, but Sam
was leaning over the counter waiting for him.



                               CHAPTER V.
                           THE CLERK’S RUSE.


“I was in hopes we should be kept so busy this afternoon that Sam
wouldn’t have a chance to speak to me,” thought Gus, as he made his way
to the office and hung up his hat and overcoat, “but it is just my luck.
If I wanted a few minutes rest the store would be so full of customers
that you couldn’t crowd a ramrod in among them.”

“Well?” said Sam, when the boy came out of the office and took his place
behind the counter.

“Well,” answered Gus, “I can’t pay you this month. I have had so many
calls that my money is all used up. Twenty dollars don’t go far, you
know.”

Sam’s face grew black at once. “Didn’t I tell you that my claim was to
be settled first?” he demanded, angrily.

“Yes; but what am I to do when a man stops me in the street and tells me
that if I don’t pay up then and there, he will see my father about it
before I am an hour older?” asked Gus.

“Put him off with promises, as you do me. Who stopped you on the
street?”

“That Jew.”

“Did you pay him?”

“I did—_not_.” The last word Gus said to himself.

“Well, you still have five dollars left. Hand that over and I will give
you credit for it.”

“But I haven’t got it. I paid that out, too.”

Sam whistled softly to himself and drummed with his fingers on the
counter for a moment; then he drew a sheet of white wrapping-paper
toward him and pulled a pencil from his pocket. The pencil moved rapidly
over the paper for a few seconds, and after Sam had read what he had
written, he crossed over to Gus’s side of the store and laid before him
the following:—

                 “$12.00.      Foxboro’, Jan. 29th 18—
                 ROBBINS & CO.

    Please pay Samuel Holmes Twelve Dollars out of my next month’s
    wages, and charge the same to my account.”

“There, Gus,” said he, “sign that, and I shall begin to believe that I
stand a chance of getting the money I lent you to help you out of a
tight place.”

“Twelve dollars!” exclaimed Gus. “I borrowed only ten.”

“But I don’t lend money for nothing,” replied Sam, “and besides I must
have something to pay me for waiting so long, and for the trouble I have
had in collecting it.”

Gus took a minute to think about it, then seized the pencil and wrote
his name at the bottom of the order. Sam thrust it into his pocket and
putting on his hat left the store.

“I don’t run any risk by that,” said Gus to himself. “Sam will not
present the order before the 1st of March, and by that time, if things
work as I hope they will, I shall be a good many miles from here. What
miserable luck some fellows do have in this world, anyhow. I thought I
should have no trouble in getting the money on that check to-day. Where
has Sam gone, I wonder?”

As Gus asked himself this question an expression of alarm settled on his
face. He ran quickly to the door, and looking down the street saw that
Sam was just disappearing in the cigar store on the corner. The boy’s
heart began to beat a little faster, for he knew now, as well as he did
five minutes later, what it was that took Sam to Mr. Meyers’s place of
business. He stood in the door until Sam came out, and then he retreated
behind his counter and employed himself in straightening up the goods on
the shelves.

“Gus,” said Sam, when he had hung his hat in its accustomed place, “lie,
number one thousand and one, is nailed. Meyers says he hasn’t seen you
to-day.”

“Suppose he hasn’t!” snapped Gus, who had been caught in so many
falsehoods that he had become used to it.

“Why don’t you tell the truth once in a while?” continued Sam; “say once
a week, or even once a month, if you can’t stand it any oftener. You
will get so, pretty soon, that nobody will believe a word you say.”

“Why don’t you keep from sticking your nose into matters that don’t
concern you?” exclaimed Gus, angrily.

“This matter does concern me. Now, I want to know what has become of
that money you drew to-day.”

“It is none of your business. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, I understand it,” said Sam, so quietly that Gus looked at him in
surprise.

“Then you may as well understand another thing, while you are about it,”
continued the latter, “and that is, that from this time out you are to
attend to your own affairs and let me entirely alone. What I do with my
money is none of your business.”

“I generally do attend to my own affairs,” replied Sam, “and I shall
attend to yours in a way you don’t think of. You haven’t started for
Texas, yet!”

Gus jumped as if he had been shot. He could hardly bring himself to
believe that he had heard aright. He had guarded his secret as closely
as a boy could. Having no intimate friend to assist him in keeping it,
he had not lisped a word of it to anybody; but it had leaked out after
all, and Sam seemed to know all about it.

“Tex——” said Gus, drawing a long breath and leaning heavily on the
counter, “as!”

“Yes! You have laid your plans to skip out and leave us all in the
lurch, but you shan’t do it! I must have what you owe me first; and when
you get the money on that check, I will tell you how much I want of it
to pay me for the trouble of keeping your secret. I know you didn’t get
the money to-day.”

“How do you know that?” stammered Gus, growing more and more astonished
and bewildered.

“That’s my business!” was the satisfactory reply.

Just then a customer came in and moved up to Sam’s side of the store,
and this gave Gus an opportunity to collect his scattered wits, and
think over what Sam had just told him. How in the world had the latter
learned his secret? was a question that Gus asked himself over and over
again, but without finding any satisfactory answer. It was too deep a
mystery for him to solve just then, for he was so utterly confounded
that he could not think at all.

“You haven’t started for Texas yet,” and “when you get the money on that
check, I will tell you how much I want of it to pay me for the trouble
of keeping your secret,” were the words that were constantly passing
through the boy’s mind, and he could not drive them out long enough to
decide what he ought to do. If he had any means of finding out just how
much Sam knew, he might be able to make up his mind to something.

“But I don’t see how I am to find that out,” thought Gus, walking
nervously up and down the store, “for of course he won’t tell me, if I
ask him. The whole thing bangs me completely. I know I haven’t said a
word that would lead him or anybody else to suspect anything; but he has
got hold of it somehow, and wants a part of my hundred dollars to pay
him for keeping his mouth shut. He shan’t have it! No matter what
happens, he shan’t have it, for I don’t know how much I shall need to
pay my expenses.”

Both the clerks were kept busy that afternoon, Gus at his counter and
Sam in unpacking and arranging a new supply of goods that arrived about
one o’clock. Gus could not keep his mind on his work, for he was
continually thinking about this last piece of bad luck, and wondering
how he should go to work to “pump” Sam, in order to find out just how
much the latter knew about his contemplated movements. Once during the
afternoon, when the store was clear of customers, he had occasion to
pass through the warehouse, where Sam was at work, breaking open the
boxes in which the new goods were packed. The latter was at work in his
shirt-sleeves, and his coat lay wrong side out upon one of the boxes. As
Gus passed by it, something caught his eye. He noticed that there were
several letters sticking out of the inside pocket of the coat, and that
they were all enclosed in brown envelopes, except one. That envelope was
white, and there was something about it that looked familiar. Gus drew
nearer to it, and was astonished almost beyond measure to see that it
bore his own name in Ned Ackerman’s handwriting!

The whole mystery was made perfectly plain to Gus at once. The letter in
question was the last he had received from his friend in Texas—the one
in which the check was sent. On the day it arrived, Gus had kept it by
him all the afternoon, devoting every leisure moment to reading it, and,
instead of taking it home with him at night, as he meant to have done,
and as he thought he _had_ done, he left it on the long shelf behind his
counter, and Sam had found it there. He had been mean enough to read it,
too; and then, instead of putting it back where he found it, he kept it,
intending to use it to extort money from Gus.

And right here, we may add something that the reader ought to know, and
that Gus never found out. When Sam met Gus going into the bank, his
suspicions were aroused, and he stood in front of the window and watched
his movements. He thought that Gus was going to deposit the wages he had
just received, instead of paying up his debts, as he ought to have done;
but when he saw him present the check, mentioned in the letter he had
stolen, Sam knew that Gus was making arrangements to leave the city very
shortly. He saw that Gus did not receive the money, and that he did not
bring the check out with him; so it must have been left in the bank for
collection.

The rest of the boy’s plans Sam guessed at. He knew that Gus was very
discontented; that he thought he would rather follow any business in the
world than his own; that he imagined he would be happier anywhere on
earth than he was in Foxboro’; that Mr. Robbins would never permit his
son to go to Texas on a visit, especially to meet such a fellow as Ned
Ackerman, whose influence over his associates was always a bad one. Sam
knew all these things, and by putting them together, he arrived at a
conclusion which we know to be the correct one.

“That’s Sam’s game,” thought Gus, swelling with indignation. “He intends
to hold that letter over me as a sort of whip to make me do just as he
says; but it’ll not succeed. He knows everything, and I must mind what I
am about. The first thing I do will be to take what belongs to me.”

Gus came a step nearer to the box, intending to snatch the letter and
walk off with it, leaving Sam to help himself if he could; but after an
instant’s reflection he decided to adopt a different course. It would
not be wise, he thought, to bring on an open rupture with Sam, for the
latter might pay him back by telling his employer about his son’s Texas
scheme, and that was something that must be kept from his father’s ears
at all hazards.

“That would never do,” said Gus, as these thoughts passed through his
mind. “I must wait until he turns his back.”

This Sam was accommodating enough to do in a very few minutes. As soon
as he had taken an armful of bales out of the box he had just opened, he
picked them up, carried them into the store and laid them on the
counter. He was gone scarcely more than half a minute, but that was all
the time Gus needed to accomplish his object. He seized the letter,
thrust it into his own pocket and walked out into the store, feeling as
though a heavy load had been removed from his shoulders. He fully
expected that Sam would make trouble for him very shortly, and he
prepared himself for it; but Sam did nothing of the kind. When he
discovered his loss he probably thought that he had mislaid the letter
or that it had dropped out of his pocket. At any rate he said nothing to
Gus about it.

Gus wrote a long letter to Ned that night, telling him of all the bad
luck that had befallen him of late, and describing his plans for the
future, and then he settled back into his old monotonous life again. The
store had never looked so dreary and uninviting as it did now, and
neither had his work ever been so distasteful to him. Gus never could
have endured it, so he told himself more than once, if he had not been
sustained and encouraged by the belief that it would end in a very few
days, and that when once he was away from home and could do as he
pleased, he would have fun enough to make up for all the gloomy hours he
had spent behind the counter.

After the second week had passed Gus made it a point to call at the bank
every few days to see if his check had been heard from, and when he came
out he always found that Sam, who went to his meals at the same time Gus
did, was loitering on the sidewalk in front of the window.

“Let him watch,” thought Gus, who grew angry whenever he caught even the
smallest glimpse of Sam. “If I am not smart enough to outwit him I ought
to lose every cent of that money.”

“I wonder what’s the matter?” thought Sam, when he saw Gus go into the
bank and come out again with the very long face he always wore when he
was disappointed. “They ought certainly to have heard from that check by
this time. Well, there’s one thing about it: Gus can’t get the money
without my knowing it, because the only time he can get into the bank is
when he goes to his dinner, and I shall always be on hand to watch him.”

One day, after Gus had grown very impatient, and had begun to fear that
his check had been lost on the way, and that he would never hear from it
again, he happened to meet the cashier, who was also going home to his
dinner. “It is all right at last, Gus,” said the latter, cheerfully.

The boy’s gloomy expression of countenance, which he had worn for
several days past, vanished at once. “Has the money come?” he asked as
soon as he could speak.

“No; but we have heard from the check, and will cash it for you whenever
you please.”

“And you won’t want my father’s signature?”

“No. You fill out a draft—you’ll find blanks at the bank—making it
payable to ‘self’ and sign your name to it, and I’ll give you the money.
That’s all there is of it.”

The cashier went on his way, and Gus looked up and down the streets and
on all sides of him to make sure that Sam had not been a witness of the
interview. But the latter was nowhere in sight. He had followed Gus at a
distance, as he did every day, to satisfy himself that he did not go to
the bank and draw the money, and then he turned toward his own home. He
was fooled for once, and with this reflection to encourage him Gus
walked slowly toward his father’s house, and making his way to his own
room threw himself upon the bed. He did not answer the dinner-bell when
it rang, and presently his mother, who had heard him enter the house,
came up to see what was the matter.

“Why, Augustus, are you ill?” she asked, with some anxiety.

“No, ma’am; but I don’t want any dinner,” was the reply.

Moral philosophy teaches us that we can speak the truth and at the same
time tell a lie, and Gus certainly did on this occasion. He told nothing
but the truth when he said that he was not sick and didn’t want any
dinner; but the tone in which he said it, and his manner, made his
mother believe that he was not well, and that was just what he wanted
her to believe. He didn’t want any tea or toast either, he said. He only
asked to be let alone so that he could rest until it was time for him to
go down to the store again.

But Gus knew very well that he would not be expected to go down to the
store that afternoon, and he wasn’t. His father came up to see him, as
soon as he had eaten his dinner, and told him to stay at home until he
felt better, and Gus did stay until about half-past two o’clock. Then he
got up and went down to the bank. The draft he made out was promptly
cashed, and Gus, with the money in his pocket, crept slowly homeward and
went to bed again.

“There,” said he, as soon as he had settled his head on the pillow.
“Where are you now, Mr. Sam Holmes? I’ve got my money, and you are none
the wiser for it. I knew I could outwit you when the time came.”

While Gus was waiting to hear from his check he had ample leisure to
perfect all his plans, and now nothing remained to be done but to pack
his valise with the clothing he had already selected and laid by itself,
and go down to the depôt in time to catch the westward-bound train which
passed through Foxboro’ at half-past eight in the evening. He was
somewhat nervous, for he knew that at the very last moment a thousand
things might happen to interfere with his arrangements: but he did not
think of the step he was about to take with the least regret. He knew
when his father and brother came home at supper time, and heard them
when they went out to return to the store. After that his mother brought
him up some delicacies that sick people are supposed to relish; but Gus,
although he was by this time very hungry, said he didn’t care for
anything, and besides he showed so plainly that he didn’t want his
mother in his room, that she went down stairs and left him to himself
again.

There was no fear of interruption after that, and Gus set about
completing the preparations for his flight. He quickly packed his
valise, put his money carefully away in his pocket, stopped long enough
to eat all the supper his mother had brought up to him, then seized his
valise and crept down stairs and out of the house. He made his way
toward the depôt, avoiding the principal streets as much as he could,
and finally reached the railroad about a quarter of a mile above the
place where the trains stopped. There was a freight-house opposite the
depôt, and toward this Gus now directed his course, intending to wait
there in the dark until the train arrived. He could thus avoid the crowd
which always gathered about the platform at train time, and by boarding
the cars on the side opposite the depôt, he could escape observation.

“That’s what I want to do,” said the runaway to himself, as he took his
stand in a dark doorway and looked down the track to see if he could
discover any signs of the approaching train, “for of course I wouldn’t
be very smart if I were to let any of these loafers see me. They would
all want to know where I was going, and then when my folks began to make
inquiries about me, they would say they had seen me take the train for
Chicago. I wouldn’t like to have that known, for there are such things
as telegraphs and detectives in this country.”

If Gus had only known it, he was putting himself to a great deal of
unnecessary trouble. It might have astonished him to know that even if
his father had been thoroughly posted in all his plans, he would have
made no effort to prevent Gus from carrying them into execution. The boy
found this out in due time, and we shall tell about it in its proper
place.

A good many incidents that were really worthy of note happened during
Gus’s journey to Texas, but we have so many things to write about that
are more interesting that we must pass them by without further notice.
We have set out to tell what Gus did and how he enjoyed himself in
Texas; and it will be enough now to say that he made the journey in
safety; that Ned’s instructions were so plain and complete that he had
no difficulty in finding his way; and that in due time the mail-coach
deposited him on the verandah of the principal hotel in Palos.



                              CHAPTER VI.
                           A FRONTIER HOTEL.


By the time Gus reached Palos he had lost a good deal of the “style” for
which he had been noted in Foxboro’, and if some of the numerous
acquaintances he had left there could have seen him when he stepped out
of the stage and passed through the crowd of cattle-herders, ranchemen
and idlers who had gathered on the verandah of the hotel to see the
coach come in, they would hardly have taken him for Gus Robbins. If some
of the boys who think so much of themselves could get out among entire
strangers for a while they would very soon see how small is the space
they occupy in the world, and how comparatively useless they are. This
was just what Gus had been finding out. He had learned a good deal
during his travels, and he had already seen the time when he would have
been glad to face about and go back where he came from.

The people he met were different in every way from those with whom he
had been in the habit of associating. The majority of them were rough in
person, dress and manners; and although they treated him civilly, and
were always ready to answer his questions and give him all the
information they could concerning the journey before him, Gus was afraid
of them and felt like avoiding them as much as he could. The nearer he
approached to the frontier the rougher the men became. A good many of
them wore red shirts without any coats, high boots, carried revolvers in
their belts and looked more like brigands than peaceable, law-abiding
citizens. The crowd on the verandah were all armed; and although they
stepped politely out of his way, Gus could not help shuddering as he
passed through their ranks. The man who met him at the door and took his
valise out of his hand, and who proved to be the landlord, looked worse
than any of the rest. He wore no weapons, but the brace of navy
six-shooters that were hung up in the office toward which he conducted
his guest, showed that he was ready for any emergency. He looked equal
to any emergency, too. He was a giant in size, very muscular, and the
voice that came up from his broad chest was as loud as a steam-whistle.

[Illustration: THE ARRIVAL AT PALOS.]

“Can I obtain a night’s lodging here?” asked Gus.

“I reckon ye kin, stranger,” roared the host. “Yer a Yank!”

“O, no I am not,” replied the boy, who knew there had been a civil war
not so very many years ago, and that the Texans were mostly all rebels.
“I’m from Ohio.”

“Wal, what’s the odds?” demanded the host. “All Northern men are Yanks,
and they aint ashamed of it, nuther. I’m one myself. I’m from the Green
Mountains.”

“From Vermont?” cried Gus, who now began to feel more at his ease.

“That’s the very identical spot.”

“But you’re a Southerner now, I suppose?” said Gus, who thought that was
the politest way in which he could ask the man if he was a rebel.

“Do you mean that I’m a gray-back?” exclaimed the host. “Not much. All
the relations I ever had fit under the old flag, and I couldn’t be the
first of the family to go agin it. I’m powerful glad to see you,
stranger. Put it thar.”

The man held out an immense bony hand as he spoke, and Gus placed his
own within it. A moment later he was doubled up with pain. The Green
Mountain boy’s greeting was almost too cordial.

“Want lodgin’, do ye? An’ breakfast an’ supper, too, I reckon, don’t
ye?” said he. “Goin’ to stay here long?”

“No, sir. I want to find a way to reach Ackerman’s rancho,” replied the
boy, after he had pulled his fingers apart and straightened them out.

“O, goin’ there, be ye? All right. I kin help ye along. One of
Ackerman’s herdsmen is stopping with me now.”

“Is it far from here?” asked Gus.

“O, no; just a jump—a hundred and fifty miles mebbe. Ye’ll see lively
times thar, too, ‘kase the raiders come in thar thicker’n huckleberries
last full moon. Want lodgin’, do ye? Take the third bench to the left in
the bar-room. O, Mose!” shouted the landlord, so suddenly that Gus
started involuntarily.

In response to this call, which was uttered in a tone so loud that it
would have reached the ears of the person for whom it was intended, if
he had been a quarter of a mile away, a young man, roughly dressed and
armed like his companions, left the crowd on the verandah and came into
the office. The host glanced at the register, on which Gus had placed
his name, and introduced the newcomer to his guest.

“Mose,” said he, “this young feller is the chap yer lookin’ fur—Gus
Robbins. Look out ye don’t lose him, fur he’s so green the cattle’ll eat
him up when ye get him out thar to the ranche.”

Gus did not know who Mose was, but he shook hands with him, and was
surprised to hear him say, in as good English as he could have used
himself—

“We were all green when we first came out here. I have been looking for
you for three days,” he added, as he led Gus toward a bench on one side
of the room. “Ned told me he was expecting you, and described you so
accurately that I was certain I knew who you were the moment I set eyes
on you. I am one of Mr. Ackerman’s herdsmen, you know, and have just
driven down five hundred head of stock that he sold the other day.”

Gus had not talked with his new acquaintance more than five minutes
before he began to feel perfectly at home in his company. Mose was a
good deal like the young men he had known in the North. True, he was
bronzed and weather-beaten, and his clothing looked as though it had
seen the hardest of service; but the words he used showed him to be an
intelligent man, and he did not shout as though he thought his listener
was hard of hearing. When there was a little pause in the conversation,
Gus began to seek information on some points.

“What is the reason you men down here all go armed?” he asked.

“O, we don’t. The people who live here in town never think of such a
thing. The men out there on the porch don’t belong here. They live out
on the plains, two or three hundred miles away; and when you have been
out there, and have fallen in with a war-party of Apaches or a band of
Mexican raiders, you will know why it is that they go armed. When they
are at home, they wear their weapons all the time, day and night, for
they never know when they are going to be pounced upon, and their stock
driven off; and they get so in the habit of keeping themselves always in
readiness for a fight, that they do it even in the settlements.”

“What do you suppose the landlord meant by telling me that I would have
lively times out there on the ranche?”

“O, the Indians and Mexicans have begun their raids again. My employer
lost about five hundred head of cattle last full moon, and his herdsmen
were expecting another raid when I came away. The country for fifty
miles around Palos is crowded with men who have been obliged to leave
their ranches in the western part of the state, and come nearer to the
settlements for the protection of their families and property.”

“Gracious!” exclaimed Gus. “Am I so near to hostile Indians?”

“You are within a hundred miles of the place where they bushwhacked a
lot of herdsmen no longer ago than last week!”

Gus shuddered, and wondered how Mose could talk about it without showing
some signs of alarm.

“Do they ever come near Mr. Ackerman’s rancho?” he asked.

“O, yes; that is, the Mexicans do. There’s hardly a stone in the wall
that hasn’t been hit by bullets. They rode by there a few nights ago,
but they didn’t get the stock they expected to find there, for it was
all out of their reach. You see, they cross the river at some lonely
spot, late in the afternoon, and approach as near to the settlements as
they can without being discovered. Then, as soon as it grows dark, they
dash over the ranches, pick up all the stock they can find, shoot
anybody, man, woman or child, who happens to fall in their way, and
depart as quickly as they came. They lose no time in getting back into
their own country, for the herdsmen always start in pursuit as soon as
they can get together, and if they overtake the raiders, they are sure
to whip them and get the most of their cattle back. The Greasers are
better on the run than they are on the fight.”

Mose talked to Gus in this way for an hour or two, and during that time
the boy learned a good deal concerning the people, the country, the
raiders, both Indians and Mexicans, and the life he was likely to lead
as long as he remained at Mr. Ackerman’s rancho. He learned also, to his
great surprise, that his father’s old book-keeper and clerk were not
looked upon by the natives of the country with any degree of respect;
but this was a matter upon which Mose had very little to say, and Gus
did not find out why it was that Uncle John and his son were so
unpopular.

Before Gus had learned all he wanted to know, the landlord came up to
pilot him in to supper. The tables were loaded with frontier delicacies,
and although there were no table-cloths or napkins, and the guests sat
on long benches, instead of chairs, and used their fingers and
formidable-looking bowies, instead of the knives and forks that had been
provided for them, everything was as neat as it could be, and Gus made a
hearty meal. Soon after they arose from the table, Mose went out to
attend to some business for his employer, first telling Gus that he had
better go to bed at an early hour, for they would be miles on their way
toward the rancho by the time the sun arose the next morning. The boy
was only too glad to follow this advice, for he was almost tired out. He
made his way to the office and found the landlord there.

“Where did you say my room was?” he inquired.

“Room!” roared the landlord. “The bar-room. Best room in the house,
‘kase it’s the biggest. A good many folk sleep thar, though.”

“Couldn’t you give me a room to myself?” asked Gus. “I can pay for it.”

“Can’t possibly crowd ye into ary bed-room in this rancho to-night,” was
the reply. “They’re all full cl’ar up to the ceiling. Every square inch
of my tables is occupied, an’ some of the boarders are glad to hang up
on the hooks in the office. The bench is the best I kin do for ye, an’
ye’ll find a good bed thar. It’ll make ye that sleepy to look at it that
ye’ll want to tumble right into it. Come on an’ I’ll show it to ye!”

Gus followed his host into the bar-room, which was crowded with men and
filled so full of tobacco smoke that it was a wonder how the landlord
ever found his way through it. But he did. He had no trouble in finding
the bed Gus was to occupy that night, and when he showed it to him the
boy told himself that it was the worst he had ever seen. It was made of
a buffalo robe and two blankets. The robe was spread over the bench and
one of the blankets was rolled up into a bundle to serve as a pillow,
while the other lay on the foot of the bed and was to be used as a
covering. There were a score of beds in the room just like it, and some
of them were already occupied by weary frontiersmen, who were snoring
lustily in spite of the almost deafening racket made by the wakeful
guests who were gathered in front of the bar. Gus glanced about the
dingy apartment, thought of his cheerful little room at home and sighed
deeply.

“Father certainly knew what he was talking about when he said that if
boys would spend as much time in thinking about the comforts and
pleasures they have, as they do in worrying over those they _don’t_
have, they would be a great deal more contented than they generally
are,” thought Gus, as he placed his hat and boots on the bench, and lay
down without taking off any of his clothes. “If I had been asked to
sleep on a bed like this at home wouldn’t I have raised a row about it?
But now I’ve got to take it or go without; and if I should find any
fault with it, that big landlord would throw me out of doors neck and
heels. I wonder if Ned and his father live in this way? There are
hostile Indians and Mexican cattle-thieves where they are, too.”

Gus slept soundly that night in spite of his unpleasant surroundings,
but it seemed to him that he had scarcely closed his eyes when he was
awakened by a hand laid on his shoulder. He started up and saw Mose
standing over him with a lighted lantern in his hand and a heavy rifle
on his back. “Time to catch up now,” said the latter.

Gus slowly raised himself to a sitting posture, stretched his aching
legs and arms, and looked out at the windows. Not a ray of light came in
through them. It was as dark as pitch, and there were Indians and
Mexicans somewhere out doors, too. If he could have had his own way he
would have gone back to his hard bed rather than venture out of the
hotel with only a single companion to protect him.

“Come on,” said Mose. “Everything is ready. I have borrowed a horse for
you—a good one, too.”

Mose seemed to be in a hurry, and so the boy began to bestir himself.
When he had put on his hat and boots he followed the herdsman to the
office, where he settled his bill and received his valise, and thence to
the verandah, beside which stood two small, shaggy ponies, saddled and
bridled. Mose made the boy’s valise fast behind one of the saddles, and
after assisting him to mount, sprang into the saddle himself and led the
way toward the prairie.

The journey thus began occupied the best part of five days. Mose himself
could have accomplished it in half the time, but Gus had never been in
the saddle a half a dozen times before in his life, and the first day
used him up completely. If there was anything interesting to be seen
during the first part of the ride he never noticed it, and neither could
he recall a single one of the many stories of adventure with which the
obliging and kind-hearted Mose tried to beguile the long hours of their
journey.

On the third day the boy began to get “hardened to it” in some degree,
as Mose said, and about that time an incident happened that drove all
thoughts of fatigue out of his mind, and made him doubly anxious to
reach the shelter of Uncle John’s rancho at the earliest possible
moment. By this time our two travellers were fairly in the wilderness.
They had left all signs of civilization behind them, and had ridden far
without seeing a living thing; consequently the sight of a horseman who
came galloping toward them, and who, with a companion, was watching a
small herd of cattle that were feeding beside the trail, was a most
welcome one. The horseman came down to intercept them and learn the
news. Mose told him everything of interest he had heard during his stay
in Palos, and the man in return told him that the Apaches and Mexicans
were making things warm for settlers on the border. There had recently
been four raids through his county, he said, during which some of his
relatives had been killed and wounded, and he had lost more than half
his stock. In order to save the lives of the rest of his family, and
provide for the safety of his remaining cattle, he had tumbled a few
necessary things into a wagon, abandoned his comfortable home and was
striking for the settlements. The man talked about his misfortunes in
much the same way that he would have talked of a profitable bargain he
had just made, and Mose listened to the story without making any remark.
They were used to such things and took them as a matter of course; but
Gus was not used to them, and he was frightened indeed. His hair seemed
to rise up on end while he listened. He had never before talked face to
face with men who had witnessed such thrilling scenes and taken part in
them, and it was no wonder that he wanted to turn around and go back.

The man rode off after he had finished his story, and while Gus was
thinking about it he and Mose met the wagon of which their visitor had
spoken. It was drawn by a span of scraggy mules, and was loaded with
women, children, cooking utensils and bedding. The occupants were ragged
and dirty, and the driver carried his left arm in a sling and wore a
bandage about his head.

“It was a close call for me,” said he, in response to some question that
Mose addressed to him. “I got a bullet through my shoulder and a rap
over the head with a hatchet. You want to watch out, you two do. The
reds are most too thick about here to make travelling pleasant. We saw
the trail of a small party only yesterday morning.”

This information and warning took away every atom of the boy’s courage,
and when he and his companion had ridden beyond earshot of the people in
the wagon, he said suddenly: “Don’t let’s go any farther, Mose.”

The herdsman ceased the merry whistling which he kept up all the time
when he was not talking, and looked at Gus in great surprise.

“Let’s go back to Palos,” continued the latter. “We’ll be safe there,
and I am afraid to go any farther.”

Mose laughed long and heartily. “Why, I’d rather be out here among the
Indians than in the settlements,” said he. “I wouldn’t live in Palos for
anything. There isn’t elbow-room enough there for me. I want to be where
I can stretch my arms when I feel like it without hitting something. You
needn’t worry,” he added, glancing at the boy’s pale face. “You’ll be
just as safe in Mr. Ackerman’s rancho as you would be in Palos.”

“But perhaps the Indians will catch us before we get there.”

“No they won’t. We’ve just as much right to keep out of their way as
they have to hunt us up. But they never waste any time in hunting up
settlers. All they care for is the stock; and they gobble it up and get
out of the country with it as quickly as they can. Of course, if a
fellow gets in their way he stands a chance of being popped over.”

“Do you all go in the house when the raiders come?”

“Bless you, no. Some of us herdsmen are fifty or a hundred miles away,
and we couldn’t get back there if we tried. Besides, it would be poor
management to bring our different herds all together so that the raiders
could swoop down and stampede them. You see we know about what time to
expect these raids. They are generally made about the time of the full
moon, and if a herder is alert and watchful he will have his stock out
of the way.”

“What will he do with it?”

“He will drive it farther back in the country than the Greasers care to
come. Perhaps we had better turn off the trail a little way. It runs
through an open country here, and if there are any reds about, we want
to keep out of their sight.”

Again Gus wondered how in the world Mose could talk about these things
in this careless, indifferent way. He seemed to care no more for Indians
and Mexicans than his pony did for the grass he trampled under his feet.
While Gus was trembling all over with excitement and apprehension Mose
was as cool as a cucumber, and whistled and talked as cheerfully as he
had done ever since leaving Palos. He slept just as soundly at night,
too, relying on his pony, which was always picketed near the camp, to
give him notice of the approach of danger.

“You must know,” he said to Gus, one night, “that horses and dogs are a
good deal like the people among whom they live, and seem to share in
their likes and dislikes. An Indian’s dog or pony has no more affection
for a white man than his master has; while a white man’s dog or pony
will raise an awful row, if a redskin shows his ugly face over a hill,
anywhere within smelling or seeing distance of him.”

But Gus did not place so much confidence in the mustang as his owner
did, and he could not sleep. He lay awake almost every night, starting
at the least unusual sound, and was always greatly relieved when morning
came. It was so gloomy and lonely on the prairie after dark, and the
wolves howled so mournfully! Gus was growing heartily tired of this sort
of life, and although his companion assured him that they were making
good time now, and rapidly nearing their journey’s end, he was
continually urging him to go faster. How his heart bounded, when Mose
one day said, in reply to this request:

“There is no need of it. We are almost there. When we reach the top of
the next swell, you can see the rancho.”

Just then a horseman made his appearance on the summit of the swell of
which Mose had spoken, and after gazing steadily at them for a moment,
came forward at a rapid gallop. There was no need that Gus should ask
who he was, for he knew as soon as he saw him that it was Ned Ackerman.
He galloped on ahead to meet him, and if one might judge by the way the
two boys greeted each other, they were very glad to meet again. They had
a multitude of questions to ask and answer, and Mose, seeing that they
were too fully occupied with their own affairs to pay any attention to
him, rode on and left them alone.

“I declare, Ned, you’re a nobby-looking fellow!” exclaimed Gus, running
his eye over his friend’s neat suit of “working clothes,” and glancing
from the stylish, high-stepping horse he rode to his own shaggy,
ill-conditioned mustang, “and you ride as though you had lived in the
saddle all your life. I see you have a rifle, too! Is that the one you
killed the grizzly bears with? There goes Mose over the swell, out of
sight; hadn’t we better ride on? By the way, what has become of the
Indians? You must have had fearful times here since you wrote!”

“There are no Indians at all about here,” was Ned’s reassuring reply.
“They have bothered the settlers in the next county above a good deal,
but we have seen nothing of them. It’s the Mexicans who troubled us.”

“Did you have a fight with them?”

“I should say so!” exclaimed Ned. “I’ve got so now that I don’t care——”

Ned suddenly paused and looked at Gus. He had been on the point of
declaring that he did not care any more for a fight with raiders than he
did for a game of snow-ball; but after a little reflection he decided
that he wouldn’t say it. It would do very well to put into a letter, if
he were going to write to Gus, but since the latter was there on the
ground, and in a situation to learn all he wanted to know by making
inquiries of others, Ned thought he had better, for once in his life,
tell the truth.

“You have got so you don’t care for what?” asked Gus, when his friend
paused.

“I don’t care to see them any more,” replied Ned. “We had a fearful time
on the night they jumped down on us. They didn’t find any stock about
the rancho to drive off, and so they shot into the house and tried to
cut the doors down with axes.”

“Gracious!” exclaimed Gus. “Were you in the house at the time?”

“No, I wasn’t, and that’s just what frightened me. They treed me in a
shed, and I don’t know what they would have done to me, if they had
discovered me. But I’ll tell you about that by-and-by. It is my turn to
ask questions now. Did you let your father know that you were coming
down here?”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t _let_ anybody know it, but Sam Holmes found it
out, as I told you in my last letter, and would have made me a great
deal of trouble, if I hadn’t been too sharp for him. Where can I get a
rig like yours, Ned? Is it the fashion?”

“I bought it in Palos. It is _my_ fashion. I won’t dress as my cousin
and all the other fellows about here do. They are a lot of boors!”

“All except your cousin, of course.”

“No, I don’t except even him. He goes looking like a day-laborer, and
he’s rich, too. He has six thousand dollars that he made himself. More
than that, when he becomes of age, he will step into a property worth
forty thousand a year, and father and I will have to step out of it, and
I’ll have to go behind a counter again.”

“Who gets the property if anything happens to your cousin?”

“I do.”

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know, and neither does Zeke, his herdsman. He went away to his
camp a few hours before the Greasers came through here, and we begin to
fear that he was carried off by them, although we never heard of their
taking a prisoner.”

“Well, if I were in your boots I should hope that he would never come
back again.”

Ned looked down at the horn of his saddle, and made no reply in words;
but his manner seemed to say, at least Gus so interpreted it, that if
George had been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the
Mexicans, and they should decide to keep him a life-long prisoner, Ned
would waste no sorrow over it.



                              CHAPTER VII.
                             ZEKE’S LETTER.


All the incidents described in the preceding chapters happened before
the beginning of our story; but it was necessary that we should devote
some time to them in order that the reader might be able to follow us
understandingly. We have only one thing more to tell about, and then the
thread of our story will run smoothly. Let us go back to George
Ackerman, whom we left sitting on the porch in front of the rancho,
mending his bridle and talking earnestly to himself.

“Uncle John and Ned act as though they don’t want me here,” repeated
George, “and I have the best notion in the world to pack up my few
things and clear out. The house doesn’t seem like home to me now. I am a
great deal happier when I am in camp with Zeke than I am anywhere else.
I have put up with a good deal, but I shan’t surrender my herd of cattle
just to please that lazy Ned. If he wants to make a beginning in
stock-raising, let him go to work, as I did. I had nobody to smooth the
way for me.”

George was expecting a visit from his cousin, who had promised that he
would come to him on this particular morning for an answer to a
proposition he had made him a short time before. That proposition was,
that George should accept him as a full partner in his business.

During the winter that had just passed, Ned had learned, to his entire
satisfaction, that it is hard work to do nothing. He could not tell how
he had managed to live through the long, dreary weeks, and he had made
up his mind that he would never pass another winter in that way. He
considered himself a full-fledged farmer now, for he had fifty acres of
wheat planted; but wheat was a crop that required no care except for
sowing and harvesting, and all the rest of the year he had to himself to
spend as he pleased. After thinking the matter over he decided to go
into partnership with his cousin. That would be the easiest thing he
could do. As he knew nothing about taking care of cattle, of course
George would not expect him to act as herder. He could stay in camp,
when he felt like it, come home when he pleased, and George and Zeke
would do all the work, and Ned would share in the profits. It was a very
nice plan, no doubt, but George did not seem to be very enthusiastic
over it; so Ned did not press him for an answer when he made the
proposition, but informed him that he would ask for it before George
left for his camp on the plains. The latter was getting ready to start
now, and looking for Ned at the same time. He came just as George
finished his soliloquy.

“Well,” said he, “have you considered my proposition?”

“I have, and it can’t be done,” was George’s reply. “Two persons are all
that are needed to take care of so small a herd as mine.”

“Couldn’t you discharge Zeke and take me in his place?”

“And do all the work myself?” exclaimed George “No sir; I couldn’t.”

“You would rather keep him than please your cousin, I suppose,” snapped
Ned, who was always angry when he could not have his own way.

“I am willing to do anything reasonable,” replied George, “but I can’t
do two men’s work for the sake of pleasing you. Why don’t you make a
start for yourself, as I did?”

“It would take too long; and besides I don’t know anything about
cattle.”

“Yes, it will take years; but you will be learning the business all the
while, and by the time you have a herd of your own you will know how to
take care of it. I tell you there’s something back of this,” said
George, to himself, as Ned jumped up and walked into the house, shaking
his head and muttering to himself. “His offer to go into partnership
with me is only a blind. He has another object in view, and I wish I
knew what it is.”

“There’s only one thing about this business, and you can bet high on
that, my fine lad,” thought Ned, as he disappeared in the house. “You
shan’t treat me with contempt if everybody else does. I’ll show you who
is boss here.”

George was certain that he had not heard the last of the matter, and in
this he was not mistaken. When Ned had been gone about five minutes
Uncle John came out, and before he had said a dozen words George knew
just what he had to expect.

“I have concluded to reduce expenses about eighty dollars a month by
discharging two herdsmen,” said Uncle John.

“All right, sir,” replied George cheerfully, “eighty dollars are worth
saving; but do you think that those who are left will be able to do the
work?”

“O, yes. Of course I intend that the places of those I discharge shall
be supplied by others.”

“Then I don’t see how you are going to save anything. Besides, what’s
the use of sending away good men and hiring others whom you don’t know
anything about?”

“I don’t intend to hire any others. I want you and Zeke to take their
places.”

“Oh! I thought that was what you were trying to get at,” said George, to
himself. “Ned means to rule or ruin, but he shall do neither. Zeke and I
can’t take their places,” he said, aloud. “We have all we can do now.”

“I will tell you how I intend to arrange matters,” said Uncle John, and
George thought he looked and acted as though he did not much like the
business he had set out to perform. “I am going to bring your herd in
and distribute it among the others. You two can take care of more than
three hundred cattle.”

“But I don’t want my herd broken up. I earned it without help; it
belongs to me individually, and I am going to keep it. Zeke belongs to
me, too; and while he is in my employ he shan’t herd cattle for anybody
else.”

“Why, George!” exclaimed Uncle John, who seemed to be very much
astonished at the emphasis the boy threw into his words. “I never knew
you to be so disobedient before.”

“You will find me so every time you try to trample on me,” declared
George, boldly. “I don’t know why you should want to take my herd away
from me, but I do know there’s not a man on the place who would help you
do it. Ah! I forgot you,” thought George, as his eye fell upon the
Mexican cook, who just then crossed the yard, walking slowly and
carrying his head on one side as if he were trying to overhear what
passed between Uncle John and his nephew. “I believe that you are mean
enough to do anything, Master Philip!”

“I intend that you shall obey me,” replied Uncle John, “and if you will
not do it willingly, you must do it unwillingly. I shall discharge Zeke
at once.”

“I don’t see how you can do that,” thought George, as Uncle John turned
on his heel and walked into the house, “for you don’t pay him his wages.
I don’t see how you are going to take my cattle away from me either, for
the first thing will be to find them, and what would Zeke and I be doing
while you were trying to drive them away? I should call it robbery, and
I wouldn’t submit to it.”

The emphatic manner in which the boy nodded his head as he said this,
and the look of determination that settled on his face would have
surprised Uncle John if he could have seen them. The boy was resolved to
hold fast to his property and to stubbornly resist any attempt that
might be made to deprive him of it. It would be an act of gross
injustice to take his earnings away from him, and George found it hard
to believe that his uncle could think seriously of such a thing.

“If he tries it, it will only be in keeping with other mean things he
has done since he has been here,” said George. “He and Ned are coming
down on me harder and harder every month, and I should like to know what
they mean by it.”

George seemed to put a little more energy into his work as he turned
these matters over in his mind, and when at last the bridle was finished
he threw it upon the porch, put the awl and what was left of the
waxed-end ‘carefully away in a box that lay beside him on the ground,
and taking the box in his hand started toward a little shed which stood
a short distance in the rear of the house.

As he drew near to the shed, two animals he had left there a little
while before greeted him, each after his own fashion. One was Bonaparte
(called Bony, for short) George’s pack mule, and the other was Ranger,
his favorite riding nag. These animals, which were among the best of
their kind, had been the boy’s almost constant companions, ever since he
returned from school and settled down to the business of herding cattle.
Bony was small and clean-limbed, sleek as a mole and treacherous as
mules generally are. He took unbounded delight in knocking over
everything and everybody that came within reach of his hind feet, and
when he felt in the humor for doing it, he could kick himself out from
under the pack-saddle with the greatest ease. Ranger, on the other hand,
did not know how to kick or bite, but he understood the business of
cattle-herding, and would answer his master’s whistle as promptly as a
well-trained dog. Nothing which his strength or agility could overcome
would keep him from George’s side when he heard that whistle. He would
jump a fence or swim a river to obey it. When in camp George never
confined the animal with a lasso unless it was near the full of the moon
and raids were expected from the Mexicans or Indians, for Ranger never
thought of straying away. He was as black as midnight, very fleet and
enduring, and George had almost as much affection for him as he would
have had for a brother, for he was the last gift he had ever received
from his father. The animals seemed to be ready for a journey, for Bony
carried a loaded pack-saddle on his back, and Ranger was saddled but not
bridled.

Upon reaching the shed George whistled the mule and led him toward the
house, and Ranger, without waiting for the command, followed at his
heels. He stopped at the porch, and after fastening the mule’s halter to
the horn of the saddle that Ranger wore, he disappeared in the house.
When he came out again he carried in his hands a bundle, a rifle and a
small leather haversack. The bundle contained his overcoat, gloves,
rubber-poncho and blankets; and in the haversack he carried the
ammunition for his rifle—a new model Winchester, holding in its magazine
sixteen cartridges, all of which could be discharged in as many seconds.
He slung the rifle and haversack over his shoulders, tied the bundle
behind his saddle and was just slipping the mended bridle over his
horse’s head when Ned came out.

“Well, you are off for your last trip, are you?” he exclaimed.

“Yes, I am off for camp again, but not for the last time, I hope,”
returned George, although he felt like making a very different answer.
“One must do something to earn his bread and butter, you know, and life
in camp suits me better than staying in the house doing nothing.”

“What have you got in that pack-saddle?” asked Ned.

“Provisions.”

“You needn’t have troubled yourself to lay in such a supply, for you
won’t need them all.”

“Won’t I? Why not?”

Ned made no reply in words. He only smiled and shook his head as if he
meant to convey the impression that he could tell something wonderful if
he felt like it, and George, who was by this time in the saddle, touched
his horse with his spurs and galloped away. He did not say anything
more, for he was angry and afraid that he might utter some words that he
would be sorry for. He thought he knew what his cousin meant by his nods
and his smiles, and told himself that Ned was destined to be as badly
disappointed as Uncle John was if he imagined that he and Zeke would
surrender their herd of cattle to him any sooner than they would to a
band of raiding Mexicans. It made George almost beside himself to dwell
upon this subject, so he dismissed it altogether from his mind, and
tried to think about pleasanter things.

That day’s ride was a hard one, and George, who was accustomed to such
things, grew tired long before it was ended. The course he followed led
him through the wildest portion of the country where farms and ranches
were few and far between. Now and then he saw a horseman or two who
would gallop to meet him, as they met every trader, and ask for the
news; but George had little to tell that was of interest, and these
interviewers did not long delay him. He made a short halt for dinner and
in the afternoon travelled with increased speed, reaching the grove,
toward which he had all the day been directing his course, and where he
intended to spend the night, just as the sun was sinking out of sight
behind the distant swells.

It was in this grove that George had expected to find Zeke, who, when
his employer went after supplies, always brought his cattle as close to
the settlements as he could find pasture for them, and so save time.
George found the camp the herdsman had occupied while the cattle were
feeding in the vicinity, but it was deserted, and had been for three or
four days; consequently Zeke and his herd must be a long way from there,
and George had nothing to do but make himself comfortable for the night
and start in pursuit the next morning.

As soon as the boy had relieved Ranger of his saddle and Bony of the
heavy load he had so patiently carried all the day, he turned the
animals loose to graze, and started a fire in front of the dilapidated
brush shanty Zeke had recently occupied. Upon the fire were placed a
camp-kettle and frying-pan, one filled with water taken from the brook
that ran close by, and the other with slices of bacon. Supper was fairly
under way in a few minutes, and while he was waiting for the fire to
cook it, George busied himself in repairing the cabin.

It was while he was thus engaged that he accidentally discovered
something for which he had been looking ever since he reached the grove,
and that was a letter from Zeke. It was written on a piece of bark and
fastened to a tree in plain sight, but somehow George had managed to
overlook it. The letter was made up of rough characters which had been
rudely traced on the bark by the point of the herdsman’s hunting-knife.
The first was an Indian’s arrow—that was drawn so plainly that anybody
could have told what it was—and it pointed toward something that looked
like a whale with an unusually large head which was surmounted by a pair
of horns. It was certainly intended to represent a fish with horns and
the only one of the species in that country that George knew anything
about was a catfish.

The next two characters might have been taken for almost anything,
except the objects that George knew they were intended to represent,
namely, a couple of water-falls. The next looked like a front view of a
man’s face, but one side of it was flat, while the other was round. This
was meant for the moon in its first quarter. Under the moon were four
short, straight lines, headed by a cross like the sign of
multiplication; and these were intended to represent the days of the
week, the cross standing for Sunday.

Zeke, who had lived in the mountains and on the prairie all his life,
did not know one letter from another, but he had left behind him a
communication that George read as easily as you can read this printed
page. If he had given it a free translation, it would have read
something like this:

    “I have gone toward Catfish Falls. It is near the time of the full
    moon. I left camp on Thursday.”

After writing this much, Zeke did just as many a school-boy does—he
added a postscript, containing the only item of information that was
really worth knowing. It made George open his eyes, too. It consisted of
drawings of a pair of moccasins, a fire with a thick smoke arising from
it, and several horses’ feet. It meant that there were Indians in the
neighborhood; that they were hostile Apaches (George knew that by the
shape of the moccasins), and that Zeke had seen the smoke of their fires
and the tracks made by their horses.

George, who was accustomed to sudden surprises and always expecting
them, did not seem to be at all disturbed by this very unpleasant piece
of news. Although he had never had any experience with raiders, he was
brave and self-reliant, knew just what to do in any emergency that might
arise while he was on the plains, and felt abundantly able to take care
of himself. He ran his eye over the letter and postscript once more, to
make sure that he had read them aright, and then walked back to his fire
and sat down. He did not spend any more time in repairing the cabin, for
he knew now that he should not occupy it that night. When his supper was
cooked, he ate it with great deliberation; after which he put out his
fire and returned to the pack-saddle all the articles he had taken out
of it. There was a goodly supply of bacon and coffee left, and this
George intended should serve him for his next morning’s breakfast.

“I may be out of reach of wood and water by the time I grow hungry,”
thought he, as he buckled the pack-saddle and made it ready for Bony’s
back. “I can’t stop here to-night, for the timber is by no means a safe
place to camp when there are Indians about. I wish Zeke had told me
which way they were going when he saw them, for I don’t want to run
right in among them before I know it!”

As soon as Bony’s burden was adjusted and Ranger had been saddled and
bridled, George mounted and rode rapidly away from the grove, holding a
straight course for Catfish Falls, but making no effort to find Zeke’s
trail. In fact, he did not want to find it, and if he had stumbled upon
it accidentally, he would have ridden away from it with all haste. The
vicinity of that trail was as dangerous a place as the grove he had just
left. A band of raiders might strike it at any time, and follow it up
for the purpose of capturing the herd, and George, if he chanced to be
in the way, would run the risk of being captured, too.

The boy rode rapidly as long as he could distinguish objects about him,
and when the darkness had shut him out from the view of any skulking
Indian or Mexican, who might chance to be watching him from a distance,
he slackened his pace and turned off at right angles with the course he
had been pursuing. He rode about a mile in this direction, and then went
into camp, staking out his horse and mule, and lying down to sleep, with
his poncho for a bed, his saddle for a pillow and his hair lasso for a
protection from the visitors of which his cousin Ned stood so much in
fear, the rattlers. He slept soundly, too, relying upon Ranger and Bony
to arouse him, in case any one approached his camp, and awoke at the
first peep, of day, refreshed and invigorated. A couple of hard
biscuits, added to the coffee and bacon he had saved from his last
night’s supper, furnished him with as good a breakfast as he cared for,
and when it had been disposed of, George was ready to begin his day’s
journey.

The boy spent one more night alone on the prairie, and on the afternoon
of the second day found Zeke’s camp. As he emerged from a belt of
post-oaks, through which he had been riding for the last hour, he saw a
small herd of cattle feeding on the prairie, and was welcomed by a
shrill neigh, which came from the direction of a fire that was burning
in the edge of the timber a short distance away. Bony answered the
greeting with a long-drawn bray, and Ranger, breaking into a gallop,
carried his rider into the camp, where he was met by a tall,
broad-shouldered man, who arose from his blanket as he approached. This
was Zeke. What his other name was George did not know; in fact, he did
not believe that Zeke knew it himself.

If a stranger had judged Zeke by his appearance, he would have put him
down as anything but an agreeable or safe companion. He was rough and
uncouth in person and manners, and as bronzed and weather-beaten as any
old salt. His hair, which fell down upon his shoulders, and the
luxuriant whiskers and mustache that almost concealed his face, were as
white as snow, and bore evidence to the fact that he carried the weight
of many years on his shoulders; but his form was as erect as an
Indian’s, and his step as firm and quick as it had been in the days of
his youth. He looked like one possessed of immense physical power, as
indeed he was; and those who had seen him in moments of danger, knew
that he had the courage to back up his strength. He was as faithful as a
man could be, and ready to do and dare anything in defence of his young
employer. George had selected him from among the numerous herdsmen
employed on his father’s ranche, and they had been almost inseparable
companions ever since.

“I am glad to see you, Zeke,” said the boy, as he swung himself out of
the saddle, and placed his hand in the broad palm that was extended
toward him, “for, to tell the truth, I have felt afraid ever since I
found your letter down there in the grove. I can’t help believing that
something is going to happen. Have you seen anything more of the
Indians?”

“No,” replied Zeke. “They went t’wards the settlements.”

“That’s bad for the settlers, but good for us. We’re safe,” said George,
drawing a long breath.

“Not by no means, we hain’t safe. Them Apaches must come back, mustn’t
they?”

George hadn’t thought of that. Of course, the Indians must come back, if
they intended to return to their own country, and George did not like to
think of what would happen, if he and Zeke and their herd of cattle
should chance to cross their path. They _did_ cross the path of a band
of raiders—some who were looking for them and knew just where to find
them,—and before he was many days older, George was the hero of one or
two startling adventures, and also gained some items of information,
from various sources, that almost overwhelmed him with wonder and
amazement!



                             CHAPTER VIII.
                            NED’S NEW HORSE.


“Now, I’ll just tell you what’s a fact, father,” said Ned, who stood on
the porch with Uncle John, watching George as he galloped away, “if you
are going to do anything you must come out and make a square stand. You
don’t want George here any more than I do.”

“Be careful, Ned,” said Uncle John, in a suppressed whisper, looking
anxiously around. “Some one might hear you.”

“I don’t care who hears me. I don’t see any sense in being so sly.
George will hang about here just as long as he has that herd of cattle
to take care of. Take that away from him and perhaps he will clear out.”

“But I don’t know how to do it,” said Uncle John.

“Why, it is easy enough. Send some men out there with orders to drive
the herd in.”

“That would only bring on a fight; for George and Zeke would resist.
Besides, you must remember that all the herdsmen on the place are
friendly to George, and I don’t believe they would obey such an order.”

“Then discharge them and hire others who will do as they are told,”
exclaimed Ned, impatiently. “What’s the use of your trying to run the
ranche if you can’t do as you please?”

“But there’s one thing you don’t seem to understand. George has
rights——”

“Don’t he wish he may get them, though?” interrupted Ned, snapping his
fingers in the air.

“He can get them. If I go too far, he can appeal to the courts, and have
me put out and a new guardian of his own choosing appointed in my
place.”

“Whew!” exclaimed Ned, opening his eyes in great amazement. “Does George
know that?”

“I don’t know whether he does or not; but _I_ know it; and I know, too,
that there are plenty in the neighborhood who will tell him of it; so
you see I must be careful and not let him get a good hold on me. You
wouldn’t like to go back to Foxboro’ and work for your bread and
clothes, after living at your ease, as you have ever since you have been
here.”

“No, I wouldn’t; and what’s more, I never will do it,” replied Ned,
walking up and down the porch with his hands behind his back. “I’ll tell
you what to do,” he added, suddenly, while a smile of triumph lighted up
his face, “take his money away from him. He keeps a lot of it in a box
in his room. I saw it there.”

“What good will that do?”

“Why, how is he going to keep a herdsman unless he has money to pay
him?”

“O, that would never do. He’d raise an awful row about it, and then go
off and sell some of his cattle and get more money.”

“That’s so,” replied Ned, the triumphant smile disappearing as quickly
as it had come. “He’s got luck on his side, hasn’t he? I wish the
raiders would jump down on him and take the last steer he’s got. I’d be
glad to see some of them long enough to tell them where to find him. I’d
tell them to catch George too and hold fast to him,” added Ned, under
his breath, as his father turned and walked into the house. “I never can
carry out my scheme while he owns those cattle; I can see that very
plainly. If I could only make him lose them some way, I should have
things just as I want them. But how can I do it? I must keep my mind on
it until I hit upon something.”

This conversation and Ned’s soliloquy will serve to show that certain
plans calculated to work serious injury to the young herdsman had been
laid by the new occupants of the ranche, and that one of them, at least,
was ready to resort to desperate measures in order to carry those plans
into execution. Ned had set himself deliberately to work to drive his
cousin away from his home. One would suppose that if he had any
affection for him, or had possessed the least spark of honor, he would
have been above such a thing; but the truth was, Ned was not above doing
anything that he thought would advance his own interests. He never
forgot that clause in his uncle’s will, which provided that in a certain
contingency all the immense property, of which his father now had
control, was to fall to himself. It was the last thought he dwelt upon
at night when he went to bed and the first that passed through his mind
when he awoke in the morning. George was very much in the way there. Ned
thought so, and he knew that his father thought so, too. They could not
do as they pleased while he was about, for George knew everything that
was going on in the ranche. He knew just what the expenses amounted to
every month, could tell how many cattle had been sold, the price they
brought, and how much money his uncle ought to have put into the bank.

Uncle John did not like to be watched so closely, and Ned didn’t like it
either, for the reason that his father could not give him as much money
as he wanted. Ned would have cut a fine dash if he had possessed the
necessary funds, and Uncle John would have been only too glad to furnish
him with all the cash he demanded if he could have done so without
George’s knowledge. All Uncle John wanted was to fill his pockets and
Ned’s; and the latter, to assist him in accomplishing his object, set
himself to work to make the house so unpleasant for George that he would
not stay there. He had determined upon this before he had been two days
at the ranche, and he had succeeded beyond his expectations. George
seemed to think a great deal more of Zeke’s company than he did of Uncle
John’s and Ned’s, and often said that he preferred a blanket at night
and a life in the saddle to his room at home and the lonely existence he
led while he was there. He spent more than half his time in camp, but
came home whenever he wanted supplies for himself and herdsman, and
spent three or four days in riding about taking note of things. Ned
always dreaded these visits, and wished he could hit upon some plan to
put a stop to them.

“I thought I had hit upon something,” said Ned, to himself, as he jumped
down the steps and walked toward the corral, which was the name given to
the enclosure in which the riding-horses belonging to the ranche were
kept. “And I believe yet that if father would only take his herd away
from him he would be too discouraged to start another. He would have to
do something, of course—George isn’t the one to remain long idle—and as
there is no other business he can go into in this country, perhaps he
would go off somewhere to seek his fortune and leave us a clear field. I
wish Gus Robbins was here now. Two heads are better than one, and
perhaps he could suggest something.”

Ned was looking for his friend Gus every day, although how the latter
was going to find his way over the hundred and fifty miles of wilderness
that lay between Palos, which was the end of the stage route, and the
rancho, Ned didn’t know. If Gus could have told him when he expected to
reach Palos, the case would have been different. Ned could have sent one
of the herdsmen down there to meet him and show him the way home; but,
as it was, Gus would have to take his chances. He would have to wait at
Palos until he fell in with some of the neighbors who might happen to go
there on business, as some of them did nearly every month. But a month
was a long time to wait. He wished his friend was with him now, for he
was growing more lonely every day. He ought to be on the way by this
time, Ned often told himself, and of late he had fallen into the habit
of riding to the top of a high swell about five miles from the rancho,
and spending the most of the day there waiting for Gus. When he came he
would pass along the trail leading over the top of that swell, and Ned
could see him while he was yet a long distance away.

When Ned was mounted and fully equipped for a gallop, a stranger would
have taken him for a masquerader on his way to a ball. If he had sported
a big mustache and had a few more years on his shoulders, he might have
easily passed for the leader of a band of brigands. He always wore a
Mexican sombrero, buckskin coat, fawnskin vest, corduroy trowsers, and
high top-boots, the heels of which were armed with huge silver-plated
spurs. These was intended for ornament and not for use, for Ned could
not have been hired to touch his horse with them. He had tried it once.
The animal was as steady an old cob as Uncle John could find in the
settlement, but he did not like spurs, and on one occasion he had
convinced his rider of the fact by throwing him head over heels into a
ditch. That was when Ned first purchased him, and before he knew
anything about riding on horseback. He was growing somewhat accustomed
to the saddle now, and was beginning to look about him for a better
mount. There were plenty of horses on the ranche—fleet, hardy animals
they were, too—but Ned wanted a thorough-bred, such as some of the
settlers were purchasing in Kentucky.

Besides his spurs Ned carried three other ornaments—an ivory-handled
riding-whip, a breech-loading rifle and a silver-mounted hunting-knife.
He expected with that rifle to make sad havoc among the big game which
was so abundant in some parts of Texas, but thus far he had not shot a
single thing with it. He knew nothing about rifles, and besides the
weapon threw a bullet that was altogether too small to possess any
killing power. His cousin had told him that it might answer for shooting
hummingbirds and ground-squirrels, but that nothing larger need be
afraid of it. George had knocked over a jack-rabbit with it, and the
rabbit had jumped up and made off as though there was nothing the matter
with him, carrying the bullet somewhere in his body. The elegant
hunting-knife was intended for skinning the game that fell to his rifle,
but up to this time Ned had found no use for it.

Ned looked as formidable as usual when he mounted his horse that morning
and rode away to meet the first adventure that had befallen him in
Texas—the first one worthy of record of which he had ever been the hero.
He made his way directly to the top of the swell of which we have
spoken, and after staking out his horse threw himself on his blanket
under the shade of the solitary oak that grew beside the trail, and
comfortably settled himself to idle away the time and watch for his
long-expected friend.

“If he ever reaches Palos he will have no difficulty in coming the rest
of the way,” thought Ned. “The people from this part of the country
always put up at one hotel, and the landlord will know whether or not
there are any of our herdsmen or neighbors in the town. It is the fear
that Gus may not be able to leave Foxboro’ that troubles me just at
present. If anything should happen to keep him at home, wouldn’t we be a
couple of disappointed boys, though? I don’t believe I could stand it.
Hallo! What’s that?”

Just then a moving object in the horizon caught Ned’s eye. He
straightened up and looked at it, and presently made out that the moving
object was a horseman. He was coming along the trail toward the swell,
and coming rapidly, too. Ned looked at him for a few minutes and then
settled back on his elbow with an exclamation indicative of great
disappointment.

“It can’t be Gus,” said he to himself, “for Gus could never find his way
here from Palos alone. It is one of the settlers, probably. I hope he
has brought some mail for us.”

Ned placed his hands under his head and watched the horseman’s
movements, without feeling any particular interest in them, until he saw
him draw rein and come to a sudden stand-still. He had just caught sight
of Ned’s horse. He sat motionless in his saddle, gazing earnestly toward
the top of the swell and evidently undecided whether to advance or
retreat.

“I wonder if he takes me for an Indian or a Greaser!” thought Ned, and
to show the horseman that he was neither, he picked up his sombrero,
which lay beside him on his blanket, and waved it over his head. The
horseman saw the motion and must have taken it for a friendly one, for
he once more put his horse into a gallop and came toward the swell. He
rode up within a few feet of Ned before he stopped again, and the two
took a good look at each other before either of them spoke.

The newcomer was a stranger in that part of the country; Ned knew that
the instant he put his eyes on him. He was a gentleman, if clothes make
the gentleman, and was the first one Ned, had seen in long months. He
was dressed in broadcloth, wore fine boots on his feet, rings on his
fingers and a breastpin in his white shirt-front. He was a good-looking
man, too, and rode a horse that attracted Ned’s attention at once. He
was a perfect beauty—slender and clean-limbed, with a long, arching
neck, well-shaped head and flowing mane and tail, and although his sides
were heaving and his glossy breast was flecked with the foam that had
flown from his month during the long and rapid journey he had evidently
made, his eye was bright, and the tight rein his rider was obliged to
keep upon him showed that there was plenty of spirit left in him. The
saddle and bridle he wore were made after the Mexican pattern, and were
both gaudily ornamented.

“How do you do, sir?” said the stranger, after he had looked at Ned and
run his eye over the boy’s horse, which had advanced to meet him as far
as the length of his lariat would permit. “Can you tell me whereabouts
in the world I am—I mean how far from the Rio Grande?”

“Yes, sir; you will have to ride twenty-five miles in a straight line to
reach it,” replied Ned. “By the trail, which leads to the nearest ford,
and takes in all the ranches, it is more than twice as far.”

“Twenty-five miles!” repeated the stranger, turning about in his saddle
and looking back over the way he had come. “That’s a long pull for a
tired horse!”

“Hadn’t you better stop and take a rest?” asked Ned, who had learned how
to be hospitable since he came to Texas. “My father’s rancho is only
five miles from here, and every house is a hotel in this country.”

“I am obliged to you, but I can’t stop,” replied the stranger, quickly.
“I am in a great hurry. I must take the straightest course for the
river, and I don’t want to go by any ranchos. When night overtakes me I
can camp on the prairie. I am used to it. But I wish I had a fresh
horse: How will you trade?”

“Trade!” cried Ned, jumping to his feet, and looking first at the
stranger’s fine animal and then at his own homely beast. “I’ll trade;
but you’ll have to go home with me to get the boot you want.”

“I can’t stop for that, and besides, I may not ask any boot. All I want
is a fresh horse and a fast one.”

“O, mine is fast and as fresh as a daisy!” exclaimed Ned, highly elated
over the prospect of becoming the owner of the handsomest horse he had
ever seen. “And he can stand the pace, too. The man I bought him of says
there’s no tire out to him.”

[Illustration: THE UNLUCKY HORSE TRADE.]

“I know a good animal when I see him,” answered the man, with a smile.
“I’ll trade my horse, saddle and bridle, even for yours. What do you
say?”

“I say, I’ll do it!” said Ned, who was so delighted that he could
scarcely speak.

“All right!” said the man, as he dismounted. “Catch up!”

Ned lost no time in putting the saddle and bridle on his own nag, and
while he was doing it, the stranger stood, holding his horse by the
bridle and looking back over the way he had come. When Ned brought up
his horse, the man said:

“You’re sure this nag belongs to you, are you? I run no risk of being
stopped by anybody, who will lay claim to him, do I?”

“No, sir,” replied Ned, “he’s mine; and if you will go to our rancho
with me, I will show you a bill of sale of him.”

“I asked the question because there are such things in the world as
horse-thieves, you know!” said the stranger, as he placed his own bridle
in the boy’s hand and seized Ned’s horse by the bit.

“There are no such things in this country, I can tell you,” replied Ned,
with a knowing shake of his head. “The settlers would turn out to hunt
down a horse-thief as readily as they would to hunt down a grizzly bear.
It wouldn’t even be safe for a man to be found here with a stolen horse
in his possession, no matter whether he was the thief or not!”

Why was it that Ned did not ask the man the same question which the
latter had just propounded to him? Perhaps it was because he did not
wish to detain him. The stranger seemed very impatient to mount and
resume his journey, and Ned was impatient to have him do so, for when
the two horses were brought closer together, anybody could see that
there was a vast difference between them. No sane man would have
proposed such an exchange, and just then it occurred to the amateur
horse-trader that there might be something wrong with the animal.
Perhaps he wasn’t quite safe for so inexperienced a person as himself.

“Is he perfectly gentle?” asked Ned. “He won’t kick or bite or throw a
fellow off, will he?”

“O no! he’s as quiet as an old cow. A child can manage him.”

“What’s his name?”

“I call him Silk Stocking—sometimes Socks, for short.”

As the stranger said this, he sprang upon Ned’s horse, looked behind him
once more as if to make sure that there was no one following him, and
then waved his hand to the boy and galloped away. Ned stood looking
first at him and then at his new horse, fully expecting to see the man
turn about and come back to trade over again. But he did nothing of the
kind. He kept straight ahead (Ned had no idea that his old horse could
travel as fast as he did), turning in his saddle now and then to look
behind him, and at last he disappeared over a swell. Then Ned, with a
long breath of relief, turned to give his new horse another good looking
over.

The animal’s name—Silk Stocking—suited him exactly. His color was a very
dark chestnut; but his mane and tail were as white as snow, and so were
his feet and his legs, too, as high up as his knees, and he had a white
star in his forehead. The longer his delighted owner looked at him the
handsomer he seemed to grow.

“That man, whoever he may be, is a born dunce,” was Ned’s mental
comment. “He says he knows a good horse when he sees one, but I don’t
believe it. Why, I know more than he does. I’d never trade a horse like
this for an old crowbait like mine. I’d take a day longer for my
journey, no matter how great the hurry I might be in.”

Ned chuckling to himself over his good fortune, fastened his horse to a
swinging branch of the oak, and proceeded to bundle up his blanket and
poncho which he tied behind his saddle. While he was pulling up the
picket-pin and curling his lasso, a startling suspicion suddenly sprung
up in his mind. He stopped his work and looked at his horse and then at
the ridge over which he had seen the stranger disappear.

“I wonder why I didn’t think of that before!” said Ned, to himself. “He
was very careful to inquire if I owned the horse I traded to him, but it
never occurred to me to ask him how he came by this one. Well, I don’t
know that it makes so very much difference after all,” he added, after a
moment’s reflection. “If he stole the horse—and if he didn’t steal him
why was he so anxious to trade?—he could have told a lie about it very
easily, and no doubt he would.”

Ned was not at all pleased with the thought, which now kept forcing
itself upon him, that perhaps he had not made so fine a bargain after
all. If the horse was a stolen one, and the lawful owner should succeed
in tracing him, he could demand his property, and Ned would have to give
it up. This was something he did not want to do. He had already taken a
great liking to his new horse, and could not bear the thought of parting
with him.

“And I never will part with him either, if I can help it,” declared Ned,
after he had taken time to think over the situation. “I was going to
show him to father as soon as I got home, but now I’ll just keep still
about him. It isn’t likely that he was stolen anywhere in the county,
and perhaps the owner will never be able to get on the track of him.
I’ll hold fast to him as long as I can, at any rate, and keep his
existence a profound secret, and if his owner ever finds him I can
say——Well, what’s the use of thinking about that now? I can make up a
story on the spur of the moment that will get me out of the tightest
scrape a boy ever got into. At least I always have been able to do it!”

With this reflection to comfort and encourage him Ned hung his lasso
upon the horn of his saddle, mounted his new horse and set out for home.
The animal moved off at a free walk until Ned called on him to go
faster, and then he broke into a rapid gallop; but his motions were so
regular and easy that his rider was scarcely moved in the saddle. Ned
was a little afraid of him at first, for he carried his head high and
kept his ears thrown forward and his eyes roving about as if he were
trying to find something to get frightened at; but he could be very
easily controlled, and Ned could stop him while he was going at the top
of his speed by a single word. He seemed perfectly willing to travel at
his best speed all the time, but Ned, after enjoying the rapid motion
for a few minutes, gently checked him, and then the animal settled down
into an easy pace. He proved to be what the natives would have called a
gated horse; that is, he had been broken to amble, fox-trot, pace, run
or square trot, just as his rider desired. Ned knew that some of the
ranchemen in the neighborhood had paid two thousand dollars apiece for
just such horses.

“I declare it frightens me to think of it,” said Ned, and almost
involuntarily he faced about in his saddle and looked behind him, just
as the stranger had done, to see if there was any one following him.

“I wish he wasn’t worth so much money, for I shall live in constant fear
that his owner will be along here some day hunting him up. I know that
if he had been stolen from me I should never sleep soundly until I found
him.”

During the ride to the rancho, Ned often looked behind him, fully
expecting every time he did so to see a horseman or two galloping along
the trail in pursuit; but he was alone on the prairie, and to his great
relief there was no one about the house or yard to see him come home
with his prize or to ask him questions that he did not want to answer.
He hitched the horse under the shed and supplied him with a good feed of
corn, and no one was the wiser for it.

While the horse was eating Ned stood by with his hands in his pockets
admiring him, and it was with the greatest reluctance that he left him
long enough to go into the house to get his own supper. He said nothing
to his father regarding the events of the afternoon, for he had made up
his mind that, for the present at least, he had better keep his own
counsel.

It was customary for Ned and his father to start out every evening, as
soon as it began to grow dark, for a short walk up and down the trail in
front of the house, and on this particular evening they continued their
agreeable exercise until a later hour than usual. As they were about to
retrace their steps they heard the clatter of hoofs on the trail, and
presently two horsemen dashed up to them and came to a full stop. They
were rough-looking fellows and carried revolvers in their belts. Ned,
believing that they were raiders, could hardly refrain from screaming at
the sight of them, and even Uncle John acted as though he didn’t know
whether to stand still or run away. The latter’s fears, however, if he
had any, were speedily set at rest, while Ned’s were increased a
thousand fold.

“Good-evening, gentlemen,” exclaimed one of the horsemen. “Do you live
about here?”

“My rancho is about a quarter of a mile farther down the trail,”
answered Uncle John.

“Have you lived here long enough to know all the people in the
neighborhood?”

“I have lived here a little more than a year.”

“Have you seen a stranger pass through the settlement to-day, either of
you?”

“I have seen no one; have you, Ned?”

Ned, who was trembling in every limb, controlled himself as well as he
could and replied that he had not.

“There has been one along here,” continued the horseman, “for we have
traced him, and we know that we are not very far behind him. He is
making for the river. He is a stylish-looking fellow, well dressed,
wears a good deal of jewelry, and rides a chestnut-colored horse, with
white mane and tail, four white feet and a star in his forehead.”

“I haven’t seen any such man or horse,” said Uncle John.

“I haven’t either,” said Ned, faintly.

It was well for him that it was so dark.



                              CHAPTER IX.
                       A VISIT FROM THE RAIDERS.


“What has this man done?” continued Uncle John.

“O, he got into a little trouble down there in our settlement, and had
to dig out; so he stole the best horse in the state to help him along.
That will be the means of getting him into _big_ trouble, if we put our
eyes on him; but we don’t much expect to catch him, for the horse he
stole can travel for a week at his best pace, and our nags, which were
fresh this morning, are pretty nearly whipped.”

“I am sorry that I can give you no information concerning him,” said
Uncle John; “but I will tell you what I can do—I can give you some
supper, and you can take your pick out of twenty fresh horses in my
corral.”

Both the horsemen expressed hearty thanks for this kind offer of
assistance, and were prompt to accept it. They didn’t care much for
anything to eat, they said, for they were used to going hungry; but they
would take a hasty lunch, while Uncle John was getting their fresh
horses ready, and if he would put them on a straight course for the
nearest ford, they would be much obliged, and would take pleasure in
doing as much for him, if he ever came to their settlement.

Ned listened to all this in speechless amazement and alarm. The stolen
horse was hitched under the shed, in plain view of the porch, beside
which the strangers would dismount, and if it had been daylight, nothing
could have saved him from discovery. True, it was dark now—so dark that
the boy’s frightened face was effectually concealed,—but Ned knew that
the moon would rise in less than a quarter of an hour, and if anything
should happen to detain the visitors at the rancho, or if they should
take it into their heads to pry into things after they got there,
something disagreeable would be sure to happen. Ned did not like to
think about it. He accompanied the men to his home, where he made
himself very officious, taking charge of their horses, and showing so
much anxiety to have them go right into the house, that it is a wonder
their suspicions were not aroused. He could scarcely breathe until he
saw his father conduct them into the rancho, and close the door behind
them.

“What’s the trouble?” asked the herdsman who had been sent out to catch
and saddle the fresh horses. “Who are those men, and where are they
travelling to at this time of night?”

“I don’t know,” was Ned’s reply. “They want to reach the river as soon
as possible, and you had better hurry up and get the horses ready.”

“Humph!” exclaimed the herdsman, as he led the strangers’ nags toward
the corral. “Horsethieves, for a dollar!”

Ned did not care what opinions the man formed concerning the visitors,
so long as he did not hit upon the right one. It might be dangerous to
let any of the servants know that the men were in search of a chestnut
horse, with four white feet, and a star in his forehead; for it was very
probable that some of them had by this time found out that there was
such a horse hitched under the shed, and it would be just like them to
say something about it. There were a good many ways in which the
strangers might learn all they wanted to know, and Ned would have been
glad to hide himself somewhere, until they had taken their departure;
but he dared not go away, for fear that, during his absence, his secret
might leak out in some way. He hoped to prevent such a calamity by
staying there and hurrying the men off when they came out.

Ned walked up and down the porch, in a fever of excitement and suspense,
and at the end of a quarter of an hour was greatly relieved to see the
herdsman coming with the fresh horses.

“Give them to me,” said Ned, when they had been brought up to the porch.
“I’ll hold them until the men come out.”

“Well, you hold one and I’ll hold the other,” answered the herdsman,
putting one of the bridles in Ned’s hand. “I want to have a good look at
those fellows.”

Ned was almost ready to cry with rage and alarm. He could not send the
man away, if he was resolved to remain; and while he was wondering if he
had not better go himself and trust to luck, a door at the farther end
of the porch, which gave entrance into the kitchen, was opened, and the
Mexican cook came out.

This was the man whom George declared to be mean enough for anything.
The old cook, who had had charge of the culinary department of the
ranche during Mr. Ackerman’s lifetime had been discharged at the request
of Ned, who had some fault to find with the man, and this Mexican, who
came from, nobody seemed to know where, had been employed to take his
place. No one about the ranche liked him. He was an excellent cook, but
he was always slipping about the house on tip-toe, as if he were trying
to find out something, and seemed to have a way of getting at everything
he wanted to know. He walked up the porch in his stealthy, noiseless
way, looked all around, to make sure that he was not observed, then bent
his face close to Ned’s, and was about to whisper something to him, when
he discovered the herdsman, who was standing at the foot of the steps,
holding the other horse.

“Who’s that?” he demanded.

“Me!” answered the herdsman.

“O,” said the cook, recognising the voice. “Well, go in and get your
supper. It is all ready.”

“I’ll go as soon as I see these visitors off.”

“You’ll go now or you won’t get it at all,” exclaimed the cook. “I
shan’t keep it waiting for you. I want to get through in that kitchen
some time to-night.”

The herdsman muttered something under his breath, passed the bridle of
the horse he was holding up to Ned and went into the kitchen. The
Mexican watched him until he disappeared, and then, with another
suspicious glance around, came up to Ned.

“I know’ where that horse is,” said he, in a low tone.

“What horse?” Ned almost gasped.

“The one that was stolen.”

“I—I don’t know what you mean,” stammered Ned.

“O, I heard them talking about it in there while I was dishing up the
supper to them,” replied the cook, nodding his head as if to say that it
was of no use whatever for Ned to feign ignorance of the matter. “He’s a
chestnut-colored horse, with four white feet and a star in his forehead.
He’s out under that shed now, ‘cause I saw him there! Eh! He belongs to
the wife of one of those men inside, and she calls him Silk Stocking;
but all the men folks about the ranche poke fun at her and make her mad
by calling him Socks. Eh!”

The Mexican poked Ned in the ribs with his finger and straightened up
and looked at him. He laughed, too, and seemed to regard the whole
matter in the light of an excellent joke—but Ned didn’t.

“Powerful men, those in there,” continued the Mexican, jerking his thumb
over his shoulders toward the door. “They carry big revolvers in their
belts, and are dead shots; I know it by the looks of ‘em. They’re mad,
too—so mad that I wouldn’t give much for the man in whose hands they
find that horse.”

“Gracious!” ejaculated Ned, who trembled all over. He wished now from
the bottom of his heart that he had told everything at the start; and
while he was wondering if it were now too late to do so and escape any
very serious consequences, the door opened and the men came out. One
look at them was enough to drive all thoughts of confession out of the
boy’s mind. How tall and broad-shouldered they were, and how fierce they
looked when the light from the lamp in the hall fell full upon their
bearded faces. They stood upon the porch for a few seconds, talking with
Uncle John and listening to his instructions regarding the course they
ought to follow in order to reach the ford, and then they took the
bridles from Ned’s hand and were about to mount when a loud, shrill
neigh sounded from the direction of the shed.

Three of those who heard it were visibly affected by it. The visitors
looked at each other in surprise, while Ned leaned heavily upon the
railing of the porch for support. If there had been no railing there he
would have fallen to the ground, for there was no strength in him.

“That sounds wonderfully like Sock’s voice, doesn’t it?” exclaimed one
of the visitors.

The other replied that it certainly did.

“What horse is that out there under the shed,” asked Uncle John.

“It’s Ned’s old cob, sir,” said the cook, promptly; and Ned was glad
that the man answered for him, for he could not have uttered a word to
save his life. Frightened as he was he wandered at the cook’s reply. Why
did he not say that the stolen horse was there, and claim the liberal
reward that had probably been offered for his recovery?

“I never heard anything sound so much like Socks’s neigh in my life,”
declared one of the visitors, as he jumped into the saddle. “But of
course it can’t be, for the horse is a long way from here by this time.
Mr. Ackerman, we are indebted to you for your kindness and hospitality.”

“You are very welcome,” answered Uncle John. “I am only sorry that I
can’t do more for you.”

The visitors lifted their hats and rode away out of sight; Uncle John
turned about and went into the house; the cook returned to his quarters
in the kitchen, and Ned was left alone clinging to the railing of the
verandah. He could hardly believe that the trying scenes through which
he had just passed were realities. They seemed more like a troubled
dream.

“If anybody can come as near getting caught as I did and yet escape, I’d
like to see him do it,” thought Ned, when his mind became settled so
that he could think at all. “I never heard of a closer shave, and I
don’t believe there ever was one.”

Ned was not very highly elated over his escape, for he knew that he was
not yet wholly out of danger. On the contrary, he would never be out of
danger while that horse was in his possession. Those two men would come
back some day to return the horses they had borrowed of Uncle John and
reclaim their own, and they might come, too, when they were least
expected, and before Ned had opportunity to secrete the stolen horse. It
was too late now to avoid trouble by giving the animal up to his lawful
owner, for the latter would want to know why he had not given him up
before, and Ned did not know what answer he could make to so awkward a
question as that. Besides, there was Philip, the Mexican cook. Ned grew
angry and alarmed every time he thought of him. The man was up to
something beyond a doubt, for if he were not, what was the reason he did
not tell the strangers that the horse of which they were in search was
under the shed where Ned had left him?

The boy was in a very tight place, and he did not know which way to
turn. He was in a scrape at last that he could not lie out of. The
longer he dwelt upon it the plainer he saw the dangers of the situation
and the greater became his alarm. He walked slowly down the steps and
turned his face toward the shed in which the stolen horse was confined.
The animal welcomed him with a low whinny of recognition, and when Ned
patted his sleek neck he rubbed his head against his shoulders as if he
were glad to see him. Beyond a doubt he was somebody’s pet, and the boy
did not wonder that his owner was anxious to recover him.

Ned, whose nervousness and excitement seemed to increase all the while,
stayed there in the shed for two long hours, walking restlessly about
with his hands in his pockets, and asking himself over and over again
why he did not tell his father all about the new horse when he first
came home, and what he should do to bring himself out of the scrape he
had got into through his foolishness. When bed-time came the servants
began shutting up the rancho for the night. He heard them closing the
heavy shutters and locking and barring the doors, but he did not move.
He could not bear to go to bed just then, and he knew that when his
nervousness abated so that he could sleep he could gain admittance to
the house through the door that was always left unfastened to
accommodate any of the servants who might happen to be out later than
usual.

The rancho looked gloomy and dark enough after the shutters and doors
were closed. It stood out in bold relief against the sky, looking like
one of the haunted castles of which Ned had so often read. The bright
moonlight gave it an almost unearthly appearance, Ned thought; and when
at last all sounds of life about the building had died away, he began to
feel lonely and afraid—afraid to stay longer where he was and afraid to
pass across the lighted yard between the shed and the back porch of the
rancho.

“I really must go,” thought Ned, after he had started toward the house
two or three times, and as often drawn back again to wait until he could
gather a fresh supply of courage. “I have been frightened so many times
to-night that I imagine all sorts of things. Every tree and bush I look
at, turns into a horseman, and I am almost——”

Ned stopped suddenly, and stooping close to the ground, looked sharply
at some object in the distance. “Whew!” he exclaimed, drawing his hand
across his dripping forehead, “it did look like a long line of horsemen
and—so it is. Yes, sir, I can see them plainly enough. It’s all over
with Ned Ackerman now!”

The boy turned in the instant and placing his hands on the side of the
deep manger which ran the whole length of one end of the shed, vaulted
over it, and concealed himself. He lay for a moment trembling with
alarm, and then pulling off his hat, cautiously raised his head until he
could see over the top of the manger. The objects which had aroused his
fears were certainly mounted men. They were moving in single file by the
side of the trail, and as the long, thick grass deadened the sound of
their horses’ feet, their approach was almost noiseless.

“What are they?” thought Ned, ducking his head after he had taken one
short, quick glance at the men. “Are they raiders, or have those
strangers found out something and come back with reinforcements?”

Ned could not have told just then which he stood the more in fear of—the
angry owner of the horse at his side or lawless Mexicans. He knew that
it would be dangerous to fall into the hands of either of them. He could
not reach the shelter of the house—they could easily cut him off if he
attempted it—and his only chance to escape capture, or something worse,
was to remain quiet in his place of concealment, and trust to luck. It
was not at all likely that the horsemen, whoever they were, would think
of looking in the shed for him even if they wanted to find him.

Just then Ned’s new horse threw up his head, looked over his shoulder
and uttered a loud, shrill neigh. Ned tried hard to stop it, but without
success. The animal neighed not only once, but two or three times in
succession, in spite of the furious jerks the boy gave at his bridle.
Here was a new cause for alarm. The animal wanted company, and he would
keep up that neighing as long as there were any horses in sight. He
would be sure to attract attention by it too.

“You’ll keep me in trouble as long as you stay with me,” said Ned,
jumping to his feet to act upon an idea that just then came into his
mind, “and the sooner you and I part company the better it will be for
me. There you go,” he added, as he pulled the halter over the horse’s
head and saw him gallop out of the shed. “I hope I shall never see you
again. I wish I had never seen you in the first place.”

Ned felt a little more at his ease as he sank back into his place of
concealment. The danger of discovery was considerably lessened by this
piece of strategy, but still his situation was anything but an agreeable
one. There he was, cornered in a manger by a lot of men whose actions
indicated that they were there for no good purpose, who were approaching
the house in a stealthy manner, so as not to alarm the inmates, and who,
probably, would think no more of making an end of him, if they knew he
was there in plain sight of them, than they would of knocking over an
antelope for breakfast. The situation would have tried the courage of a
much braver boy than Ned Ackerman.

The horsemen stopped when they saw the chestnut galloping to meet them,
but moved forward again as soon as they saw that he was riderless. They
rode up to the fence which surrounded the corral, and hitched their
horses to it. The chestnut followed and mingled with their nags, but the
men paid no attention to him. They gathered in a little group in the
shade of one of the oaks that grew beside the corral, and held a
consultation. Ned watched their movements with a good deal of surprise.

“Why don’t those men catch that horse?” said he to himself. “If they are
raiders, they ought to steal him; and if the man who owns him is there,
he ought to catch him, to keep him from straying away. I don’t
understand it at all.”

While Ned was talking to himself in this way, he heard a latch softly
raised. He turned his eyes in the direction of the rancho, and saw that
one of the doors, opening on to the back porch, was ajar, and that
somebody was looking out of it. He stood for a moment, turning his head
first on one side and then on the other, as if he were listening for
something, and then came out into full view. It was the Mexican cook.
The moon’s rays fell full upon him, and the boy could see him plainly.

“Now is my chance!” thought Ned, getting upon his feet, but standing in
a crouching attitude, so that nothing but his head could be seen over
the top of the manger. “If I can run fast enough, I can put myself in a
place of safety and warn Philip at the same time.”

Ned jumped quickly out of the manger, as he said this; but his feet had
scarcely touched the ground before he turned like a flash and jumped
back again, crouching down in his hiding-place as low as he could, and
still see all that was going on outside the shed. The men were coming in
a body toward the house. There were fifteen or twenty of them in all,
and as soon as they had moved out of the shade of the trees, so that the
moon’s rays could fall plainly upon them, Ned saw that they were dressed
in Mexican costume—short jackets, wide trowsers and sombreros—and that
they were armed to the teeth. They were cattle-thieves, of course; but
what did they mean by approaching the rancho in that stealthy manner?
The boy, trembling in every limb, turned his eyes from the Mexicans to
the porch, where he had last seen the cook. He was there yet, and
standing out in plain view of the raiders, who must have seen him, for
he was not more than twenty feet away. Philip saw them, too, beyond a
doubt; but, instead of running into the house and arousing the inmates,
as Ned expected him to do, he walked up to the rail and rested his hands
upon it. One would have thought from his actions that he was expecting
the raiders. Ned thought so, and in an instant it flashed upon him that
there was some treachery intended.

“Father always said that Philip was a rascal!” soliloquized Ned, his
rage for the moment getting the better of his terror, “and now I know he
is one! He is a cattle-thief himself, and he and the rest are after the
money-box! But how could Philip have found out that we had a money-box?”
added Ned, as he recalled the fact that the cook belonged in the
kitchen, and had probably never seen the inside of his father’s office;
“and even if he had known all about the box, how could he have told his
friends of it? He hasn’t been away from the house an hour at a time
since he has been here.”

Ned might have kept on propounding to himself questions that he could
not answer, but his thoughts were carried into other channels by the
actions of the raiders, who walked straight up to the porch where Philip
was standing, and entered into a whispered conversation with him. Ned
could not overhear what was said, but he saw the cook turn toward the
house and extend his hands in different directions, as if he were trying
to give his friends (for such they undoubtedly were) some idea of its
internal arrangements. Probably he was telling them where to find the
office and the strong box. If such was the case, it took him but a
moment to do it; and when the raiders had learned all they wanted to
know, they stepped lightly upon the porch and followed Philip toward the
open door. When they reached it, Philip pushed it farther open, stood on
one side to allow them to pass, and the raiders filed in, one after the
other, on tip-toe! Half their number had disappeared in the house, when
all at once a deafening uproar arose. There was a fight going on in the
hall. First there was a loud yell, that was evidently given by one of
the servants to arouse his sleeping companions, and the yell was
accompanied rather than followed by a crash which made Ned believe that
the inside of the house was being torn in pieces. It was the report of a
revolver. Another and another followed, and an instant afterward, the
raiders, having failed in their efforts to surprise the inmates of the
rancho, appeared in great confusion, crowding through the door in a
body, and in their haste prostrating the cook, who was knocked off the
porch to the ground. He lay for a moment as if stunned by the fall, and
then sprang up and ran away with the rest.

The baffled raiders scattered in every direction, and taking refuge
behind the outbuildings and lumber piles opened a hot fire on the rancho
from their carbines. To Ned’s intense alarm two of them ran straight for
the shed. He saw them coming, and ducking his head crept swiftly into
the farthest end of the manger and crowded himself into the darkest
corner. One of the men dodged behind a wagon, but the other dashed into
the shed, jumped into the manger and taking up a position in the
opposite end, scarcely fifteen feet from the trembling boy, fired his
carbine at the door from which he and his companions had just been
driven. Ned was almost ready to scream with terror, but knowing that his
safety depended upon his preserving the strictest silence, he choked
back the cry while it was trembling on his lips, and covering his face
with his hands awaited the issue of events with all the fortitude he
could command.

Fortunately the Mexican in the other end of the manger was so busily
engaged in loading and firing that he could not take time to look about
him during the very few minutes that he remained in his hiding-place.
The inmates of the rancho defended themselves with spirit, and one of
their number, becoming aware that there was an enemy in the shed, fired
three shots from his revolver in that direction. Ned’s hair fairly stood
on end as he heard the bullets crashing through the planks which formed
the outside of the manger. The eccentric and hurried movements of the
Mexican proved that he was no less embarrassed by them, and when the
third bullet came in, striking closer to his head than the others, he
uttered an exclamation in Spanish, and jumping out of the manger ran off
to find a less exposed ambush. Ned was glad to see him go.

“I wonder what they mean by such work, any how?” thought Ned, who,
frightened as he was, could not resist the temptation to get upon his
knees and look over the top of the manger. “Haven’t they got sense
enough to see that our fellows have the advantage of them, and that
there is nothing to be gained by shooting at stone walls? There! I guess
they are going now!”

Just then one of the band uttered a shrill whistle, and the firing
ceased almost immediately. Ned looked to see them mount and ride away
without loss of time, but the sequel proved that they were not yet ready
to give up all hopes of handling the money in the strong box, if that
was what they were after. The whistle was given to call the band
together for consultation. They gathered behind the shed out of sight of
the house, and one of them leaned against the boards so close to Ned
that if the latter had pushed his finger through one of the cracks he
could have touched him. The boy could hear their slightest whisper, but
could not understand a word that was said, for they talked altogether in
Spanish. They quickly decided upon a new plan of operations, and
separated to carry it into execution. A portion of the band opened fire
on the rancho again, and the others, having secured an axe, crept around
to the opposite side and furiously attacked one of the doors; but the
tough oak planks of which it was made resisted the blows of the axe
until the herdsmen had time to run to the other side of the building and
drive them away by firing through the loopholes with their revolvers.
Then the attack was renewed on another door with the same result;
finally, the Mexicans, growing discouraged, hurled a volley of Spanish
oaths at the defenders of the rancho, which had about the same effect on
them that their bullets had on the walls, and ran toward their horses.

Ned kept his eye on the thieves while they were crossing the yard, and
was gratified to see that they had not come off unscathed. Three of
their number were limping along with the assistance of some of their
comrades, and a fourth was being carried in a blanket. Whether he was
killed or badly wounded Ned could not tell. He saw them mount and ride
away, and the last object that caught his eye as they passed out of
sight was the stolen horse, prancing and curveting behind them, his
white legs showing plainly in the moonlight.



                               CHAPTER X.
                            THE TWO FRIENDS.


The raiders were gone at last and so was the stolen horse. When the
animal passed out of sight in the darkness, and the sound of his hoofs
on the hard trail died away in the distance, Ned arose slowly to his
feet, but sat down again in much less time than he had consumed in
getting up. The intense excitement which had thus far kept up his
strength was over now, and he was too weak to stand. He had never passed
through such an ordeal before, and it was no wonder that he was terribly
frightened. He wondered how he had lived to see the end of it.

“But it is an awful mean wind that blows nobody good,” thought Ned,
making another effort to stand on his feet after he had rested awhile.
“This one has brought good to me in that it has taken off the stolen
horse. I thought I had got an elephant on my hands, and I am glad he is
gone. It takes me out of a scrape very nicely. The Mexicans are the only
ones who suffered by this raid. They didn’t get their hands on the safe,
and four of their number were shot, which served them just——”

“_Carrajo!_” exclaimed some one near him, in muffled tones.

Ned looked up and was almost ready to drop back into the manger again,
when he saw a Mexican standing in the open part of the shed; but a
second glance reassured him, for it was nobody but the cook. The man was
probably sneaking back to the house after seeing his friends off, and
had approached so noiselessly that Ned had not heard his footsteps. “I
have learned one thing to-night,” said the boy, following out the
thoughts that were in his mind, “and that is, that you are a rascal, Mr.
Philip.”

“What are you doing out here?” demanded the Mexican, who was so amazed
that he could not speak immediately.

“I was treed out here, and couldn’t get into the house,” replied Ned. “I
have been out here ever since those strangers went away, and I saw all
that passed between you and the raiders. I wouldn’t give much for you if
the settlers should find out what you have been about to-night.”

When Ned had said this much, he paused and looked at the man. He was
sorry he had spoken his mind so freely, for if he made Philip angry
there was no telling what might come of it.

“And I wouldn’t give much for you if the settlers should find out that
you stole that horse,” retorted Philip, after he had said something
angry in Spanish.

“I didn’t steal him. I traded my own horse for him.”

“Then why didn’t you give him up when the owner came for him?” asked the
Mexican.

“Well, he’s gone now,” said Ned, who did not know how to answer this
question, “and the owner is welcome to him if he can find him. I can
tell why you kept my secret: You knew the raiders were coming here
to-night, and you intended to tell them about the horse, so that they
could steal it. I didn’t know before that you were a thief, but I have
often told myself that you looked like one.”

The Mexican was on the point of replying, and had already prefaced the
remarks he intended to make, by a Spanish oath, when the rattling of a
chain and the sudden opening of a door in the rancho, put a stop to the
conversation. Ned at once jumped out of the manger and started toward
the house, and the Mexican, instead of hiding himself, as the boy
thought he would, followed close behind him.

“Who’s that?” demanded the herdsman, who had opened the door; and Ned
saw his revolver glisten in the moonlight, as the weapon was raised and
pointed straight at his head.

“Don’t shoot!” he cried, quickly.

“Wal, I’ll be dog-goned!” exclaimed the herdsman. “Where have you two
been? We have been looking all over the house for you, and we began to
believe that the raiders had carried you off with them!”

Ned said just enough in reply to excite the man’s astonishment, but not
enough to explain what had happened, and made his way toward his
father’s room, still followed by the cook. The latter seemed to say by
his actions, that he intended to hear all Ned had to tell his father,
and that if the boy knew when he was well off, he wouldn’t tell too
much. Ned perfectly understood this silent threat, and during the
interview with his father, whom he found in his office, almost
prostrated by excitement and fear, was careful to say nothing at which
Philip could take offence. He said that, being unable to sleep, he had
gone out into the shed and stayed there, with his horse for company;
that the raiders had appeared so suddenly that he could not reach the
house without running the risk of being captured or shot by them; that
his horse had called to them, and that he had been obliged to turn the
animal loose, for fear that he would lead the raiders to his place of
concealment; and that he had lain there in the manger, an unwilling
witness to the first (and he sincerely hoped it would be the last) fight
he had ever seen carried on with firearms.

“I can’t begin to tell you what a time I had out there!” said he, in
conclusion. “I never had bullets come so close to me before!”

“Probably not,” said his father. “Where were you all the while, Philip?”

“I was under the porch, sir,” was the answer; and Ned, who would have
been glad to expose the villain then and there, did not contradict the
statement. “I didn’t have time to get into the house, so I concealed
myself.”

“I could not imagine how that door came to be open,” said Uncle John,
with something like a sigh of relief, “for I took particular pains to
lock and bolt it myself. I was almost afraid that there was a traitor
among us, and some of the herdsmen thought so, too; but this explains
everything to my satisfaction. Philip went out after I locked the door,
and before he came back the raiders arrived, found the door open and
thought they would walk in and surprise us. But Jake surprised them, I
guess! He happened to be awake, and that was all that saved us.”

“Was there anybody hurt?” asked Ned.

“Not on our side, I am glad to say. We escaped without the least
damage.”

After the various exciting incidents connected with the events of the
night had been talked over, the herdsmen, who had followed the boy into
the office, to listen to his story, went out one by one, and finally Ned
and the Mexican followed. The hall through which they passed was still
filled with smoke; the walls and doors were dotted here and there with
bullet-marks, and the floor was littered with weapons, sombreros and
various other articles, which the raiders had left behind them in their
hurried flight. The sight of these things made Ned tremble again. The
Mexican accompanied him as far as the door of his own room, and when the
latter was about to slam the door in his face, the man gave him a look
and a nod that were full of meaning.

“That fellow means to make trouble for me, sooner or later,” said the
boy to himself, after he had lighted his lamp and securely fastened his
door. “I can see it in his eye. I wish I had asked father to discharge
him long ago, for I never did like him; but if I have him sent away now,
he will spread it among the men that I had that stolen horse in my
possession and wouldn’t give him up. If that story ever gets wind in the
settlement, I don’t know what will become of me.”

Ned threw himself upon a sofa—he was still so very nervous and
frightened that he dared not undress and go to bed—and thought over the
exciting adventures which had been crowded into the last few hours, and
racked his brain in the vain hope of finding some way out of the
difficulties he had got into. Two things were plain to him: Philip was
there in the rancho for no good purpose, and he did not intend to expose
Ned, unless the latter said something to direct suspicion toward
himself. It was humiliating, to say the least, to have a servant in the
house who could get him into serious trouble at any time he chose to
open his mouth; but Ned could think of no way to get rid of him, and
there was no one to whom he could go for advice. He must keep his own
counsel until Gus Robbins arrived. Ned knew that his friend had been in
many a scrape himself; that it was a very serious difficulty indeed out
of which he could not work his way, and perhaps Gus could help him. In
the meantime, he resolved he would have as little to do with the Mexican
as possible. He would not speak to him, or even look at him, if he could
help it, and at the same time he would show him by his actions that he
was not afraid of him.

Having made up his mind to this Ned rearranged his pillow and tried to
go to sleep; but his brain was too active and his senses too keenly
alive to every external impression. If he kept his eyes open he saw the
raiders as plainly as he could have seen them if they had been there in
his room; and if he closed his eyes to shut them out from view he
distinctly heard their yells, the reports of their revolvers and
carbines, and could feel the sofa vibrate under his hand just as the
planks which formed the manger had vibrated when the bullets passed
through them. Once or twice he started up in great alarm, believing that
he heard the porch creak just as it did when he saw the raiders step
upon it. At last the creaking sounded in the hall; and so positive was
Ned that the thieves had returned and the Mexican cook had let them into
the house again that he took his rifle out of the wardrobe which served
him for a closet, put a cartridge into it and sat down on the sofa,
holding the weapon in readiness to send a ball through the door the
instant a hand was laid upon the latch.

In this way Ned passed the night. It was a long and dreary one to him,
but morning came at last, and then Ned mustered up courage enough to
draw the curtains and throw open the shutters. He felt perfectly safe
now, and being overcome with weariness he sunk back upon the sofa and
fell into a sound sleep. He slept until almost dinner-time, and felt
weak and exhausted when he got up. To his great surprise no one, except
his father, had anything to say about the fight. The servants, who were
all old frontiersmen (there were no women about the house), had passed
through so many similar scenes that they had became accustomed to them,
and seemed to think that they were hardly worth talking about. He found
his father in the office, and his first words were:

“Well, Ned, the raiders did us some damage, after all. After we drove
them away from here they went out and caught Edwards napping, and we are
ten thousand dollars poorer than we were yesterday!”

Edwards was one of the herdsmen. His cattle, numbering over a thousand,
had been brought in a few days before for the inspection of a drover who
had purchased half the herd. These the drover had taken to Palos, and
Mose, another herdsman in Uncle John’s employ, had been sent along to
assist him. Edwards ought to have been well out of the way with the rest
of the herd by this time, but he had loitered on the road in order to
visit some of his friends, and the thieves had taken him off his guard.

“I found Edwards here when I awoke this morning,” added Uncle John.

“Where is he now?” asked Ned. “I should like to hear him tell his
story.”

“O, he had no story to tell. He went into camp a few miles from here,
and early this morning the raiders surrounded his stock and drove it
off. Edwards saved himself by jumping on a horse without saddle or
bridle, and came down to tell me about it. I have told him where our
other herds are, and sent him out to see if they are safe. Ten thousand
dollars is a large sum to lose in one night.”

Ned made no reply. Indeed, he did not seem to take the least interest in
the matter. The money was no loss to him, but it came out of the pockets
of one who could lose three times that amount every year and still have
enough left to support Uncle John and his graceless son in better style
than they had ever been able to support themselves.

While Ned was eating the breakfast that Philip had kept warm for him, he
talked with his father about the raiders and discussed Gus Robbins’s
chances for meeting Mose at Palos. Ned had given the herdsman a
description of his expected guest, and had also taken it upon himself to
order him to stay in Palos at least a week and wait for Gus. He hoped
that Gus would be on his way to the rancho in company with some of the
neighbors long before Mose reached Palos with his cattle, and it was
this hope that took him to the top of that swell every day. It did not
take him there on this particular morning, however, for he knew now by
experience that their troublesome neighbors had a way of appearing when
they were least expected; and, although he had never heard that a band
of raiders were ever seen in broad daylight, he thought it best to
remain within hailing distance of the rancho.

Ned’s first care, after he had eaten his breakfast, was to dispose of
the gold-mounted saddle and bridle which had come into his possession
the day before, and which were now hanging up in the shed ready at any
moment to bear testimony against him. Fortunately for him no one had had
occasion to go to the shed that morning, and consequently the only one
who knew they were there was the Mexican cook.

Ned walked out on the porch, and after making sure that there was no one
in sight to observe his movements, he darted into the shed and as
quickly darted out again with the saddle and bridle thrown over his
shoulders. He ran to the rear of the shed, and there found a pile of
lumber which had been there since he came to the ranche, and which he
had never known to be disturbed. He pulled the lumber all down and at
the end of a quarter of an hour had piled it up again over the saddle
and bridle, arranging the shorter boards on the ends of the pile so that
nothing could be seen.

“There!” said he, with a sigh of satisfaction. “I feel a great deal
better. Those things can stay there until I find time to put them in a
safer place. The next thing is to select a horse. Father told me that I
could take my pick of the lot.”

There were a score or more of horses in the corral that had been broken
to the saddle. They were all fine animals, too, and it was a matter of
some difficulty for Ned to make up his mind which one he wanted. He had
grown very particular during the last two days. Having enjoyed the
luxury of a ride on Silk Stocking’s back, he knew what a good saddle
horse was, and he was hard to suit. He wanted one that looked and
carried himself exactly like the stolen horse, and he finally decided
that a small sorrel nag with light mane and tail and one white foot
approached nearer to the mark than any other horse in the corral. Ned
rode him up and down the trail in front of the house for an hour or two,
and looked longingly toward the solitary oak on the summit of the swell,
under whose friendly branches he had dreamed away so many hours while
waiting for his friend, Gus Robbins. But the fear of the raiders kept
him at home, and a week passed away before he could gather courage
enough to venture out of sight of the house.

On the morning of the eighth day after the raid, one of the herdsmen
told Ned that the band of Hangers who had pursued the thieves in the
hope of overtaking them and recovering the stolen stock, had returned
unsuccessful, the Mexicans having made good their escape across the
river, taking the cattle with them. If that was the case, travelling was
safe, and Ned was only too glad to take his accustomed gallop again. Of
course breakfast was late that morning and everything bothered—it always
does when one is in a hurry; but the horse was brought to the porch at
last, and Ned hastened into the house after his rifle and silver-mounted
riding-whip. These ornaments having been secured, he went into the
kitchen after the lunch which he had ordered Philip to prepare for him,
and while he was putting it into his pocket, he heard the clatter of a
horse’s hoofs in the yard, and voices in conversation. He ran out on the
porch, and found his father talking earnestly to a roughly-dressed man,
who, upon closer examination proved to be Zeke, George’s herdsman. Uncle
John’s face wore an expression of interest, while Zeke’s was gloomy
enough. He looked and acted like a man who had met with some great
misfortune.

“I don’t know whar he is, more’n the man in the moon,” Zeke was saying
when Ned came out. “I ‘sposed, in course, that I should find him here.”

“Well, he isn’t here, and we haven’t seen him since the day he left with
the supplies,” said Uncle John. “Can’t you tell me just what has
happened? I may be able to do something.”

“Thar ain’t much of anything to tell, an’ ye can’t do nothing, either,”
replied Zeke. “He brung them supplies to my camp all right, an’ a few
nights arterwards the Greasers dropped down on us an’ run off the last
hoof we had to bless ourselves with, doggone ‘em!”

Ned caught his breath, and turned his head quickly away, for fear that
the herdsman, who just then happened to be looking his way, might see
the expression of delight and triumph that came upon it.

“That’s the best news I ever heard,” thought he. “The Greasers have
cleaned George out at last. Serves him right.”

“But we got ‘em all back again, me an’ the settlers did,” continued
Zeke.

The exultant smile faded from Ned’s face as quickly as it had appeared.
“That’s the worst news I ever heard,” said he to himself. “George often
declares that he is the luckiest boy in Texas, and I believe he is. I
know I am the unluckiest.”

“You got them all back!” exclaimed Uncle John. “I am very glad to hear
it.”

“Yes, we did. The Greasers didn’t get away with nary horn. But I hain’t
seed nor heared nothing of George since the night they jumped down on
us. I thought mebbe he’d got a trifle outer his reckonin’ an’ come hum
to take a fresh start; so I brung the critters nigher in to wait fur
him. But seein’ as how he ain’t here—good-by!”

As Zeke said this, he wheeled his horse and rode away at a full gallop,
paying no attention to the entreaties and commands to come back that
Uncle John shouted after him. He was out of hearing in a moment more,
and then the father and son turned and looked at each other.

“What is the meaning of all this, anyhow?” asked Ned, who had not been
able to gain a very clear idea of the state of affairs.

“You know as much about it as I do,” answered his father. “George hasn’t
been seen since the night his herd was stampeded. That’s all.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to send a man to make inquiries among the neighbors. That’s
all I can do; for I don’t know where to look for him. He may have been
killed or carried off by the raiders.”

Uncle John walked into the house with great deliberation, put down the
newspaper he had held in his hand during his conversation with Zeke, and
then came out and moved slowly toward the corral where one of the
herdsmen was at work.

After watching him for a few minutes Ned struck up a lively whistle,
mounted his horse and rode away. He did not act much like a boy who had
just heard that his cousin had been missing for days, and might be a
captive in the hands of the Mexicans. Suppose he was in George’s place!
Would his father be so very deliberate in his movements, and would he be
satisfied with sending jut a single man to make inquiries among the
neighbors?

Ned seemed to be in the best of spirits. He kept his horse in a full
gallop, until he reached the top of the swell, and there he reined him
in very suddenly, for he caught sight of two horsemen on the other side.
Shading his eyes with his hand, he gazed earnestly at them for a few
minutes, and then started down the swell to meet them. He recognised one
of them as the herdsman who had been sent to assist the drover in
driving down the cattle he had purchased of Uncle John, and something
told him that his companion could be none other than the long-expected
Gus Robbins. We know that it was Gus, and we have already described the
meeting that took place between the two boys. We know, too, that Mose
rode on to the rancho, to report his arrival to his employer, and that
the boys followed him leisurely, talking every step of the way.

“I say, Ned,” said Gus, suddenly, “you live in an awful lonesome place,
don’t you?”

“Yes,” replied Ned; “it is very lonely, and that is one reason why I
wanted you to come down here.”

“There is plenty of hunting, I suppose,” continued Gus; “but that is
something I don’t know much about. I can handle a yard-stick better than
I can handle a gun. Is there any fishing, or are there any good fellows
to run with?”

“I haven’t heard of anybody going fishing since I have been here; and as
for the fellows, I don’t know a boy in the neighborhood.”

“Why, what in the world do you do to pass the time away?”

“I don’t do anything. I just keep still and let it pass itself away.”

“That’s a jolly way to live!” said Gus. “It’s better than standing
behind a counter all day, handling over goods for people who don’t want
anything, and who, after they have tired you out, spend five cents for a
spool of thread, and think they have paid you for the trouble they have
caused you. But, Ned, we can’t get into any scrapes here, can we?”

“Can’t we, though!” exclaimed Ned. “I know a story worth two of that.
Why, boy, I am in a worse scrape to-day than you ever dreamed of, and I
got into it just as easy! It was no trouble at all.”

“You have been talking too much,” said Gus, who remembered that his
friend had more than once got himself into serious trouble by the too
free use of his tongue.

“No, I haven’t,” said Ned, quickly. “I have been talking too little;
that’s the trouble. But it is a long story, and I must take a spare half
hour in which to tell it to you; then I want you to give me your advice,
for I don’t know what to do.”

“I guess I can help you, if anybody can. I have helped you out of more
than one close corner, haven’t I? Do you remember how we used to go
about Foxboro’ of nights, changing gates and signs, and stretching ropes
across the walk to trip the people who passed by?”

“I haven’t forgotten. Are you up to such things now?”

“Yes, or anything else that has fun in it!”

“All right. Some day, when you are in just the right humor for it, I’ll
tell you how you can get yourself into as lively a mess as you ever
heard of—something that will set the whole settlement in a blaze.”

“I’m your man,” said Gus, readily. “If one is going to raise a row, let
him raise a big one, while he is about it. That’s what I say!”

The five miles that lay between the swell and the rancho had never
seemed so short to Ned as they did that day. He and Gus had so much to
talk about that they took no note of time, and their ride was ended
almost before they knew it. When they reached the rancho, they found
Uncle John standing on the porch, waiting for them.



                              CHAPTER XI.
                          GUS HEARS FROM HOME.


Gus spent the two days following his arrival at the rancho in resting;
and even at the end of that time he had not fully recovered from the
effects of his long, hard ride on horseback. He and Ned passed the time
in roaming about the house and grounds, and at every turn Gus found
something to interest him. The rancho and everything about it, Uncle
John’s manner of living, the appearance, customs and language of the men
he met every day—all these were new to Gus, who could have enjoyed
himself hugely now if it had not been for two disagreeable reflections
which constantly intruded upon him in spite of all he could do to keep
them out of his mind. There were cattle-thieves in that country who made
a practice of shooting everybody who came in their way, and they had
been in that very house not a great while ago. They might come again at
any moment, and there might be another fight—and Gus did not like to
think of that. He would have been safer in his father’s store than he
was in that country, but would he ever be permitted to return to that
store after what he had done? On the whole he was sorry that he had come
to Texas, and Ned was almost sorry that he had invited him, for Gus
didn’t act and talk like the boy he had known in Foxboro’. He was not so
jolly and full of life as he used to be.

Mr. Ackerman never asked the visitor if he had left home with his
father’s full and free consent. He, no doubt, took it for granted that
Gus had talked the matter over with Mr. Robbins, and so said nothing
about it. This relieved Ned of a burden of anxiety, and another thing
that pleased him was the fact that Gus never asked any questions
concerning the hunting adventure which Ned had so graphically described
in his first letter.

During these two days nothing was heard of the missing George. The
herdsman who had been sent out to make inquiries among the neighbors
brought back the information that he had not been able to find any
traces of him, and that seemed to settle the matter, so far as Uncle
John and Ned were concerned. The two boys seldom spoke of him. They had
more important matters to occupy their attention. They talked over old
times to their hearts’ content, and Ned told Gus everything of interest
that had happened to him since he came to Texas. The story of the stolen
horse and the description of Philip’s strange conduct on the night of
the fight were so incredible that Gus wouldn’t believe a word until he
had seen the bullet holes in the manger and the lumber pile behind the
shed had been torn down so that he could see the gold-mounted saddle and
bridle. Then he looked bewildered, and, contrary to Ned’s expectation,
could suggest nothing more than he had already thought of himself.

“You ought to have given the horse up when the owner came for him,” said
he. “You would have made something handsome by it probably.”

“I know that as well as you do,” replied Ned. “But seeing I didn’t do
it, how am I going to get myself out of the scrape?”

“I don’t see that you are in any scrape. How far does the man who owns
the horse live from here?”

“Fifty or sixty miles.”

“Did you ever see him before that night?”

“I never did.”

“Well, comfort yourself with the thought that you may never see him
again. There’s nothing to bring him back here.”

“O, yes there is. Didn’t I tell you that he and his companion rode off
two of father’s horses? Of course they must bring them back. It isn’t a
safe piece of business in this country, I tell you, for a man to keep a
horse that doesn’t belong to him. The people won’t allow it.”

“And you knew this all the while, and yet held fast to that stolen
horse!” said Gus.

“Now, look here,” exclaimed Ned, angrily, “I know that I was a
blockhead. I was bound to keep the horse, and didn’t stop to think of
the consequences. When I had a chance to give him up I did not dare do
it, for fear that the owner would do something to me before I could
explain matters to him.”

“Well, the horse is gone now, and you are all right. If you are afraid
to meet those men, keep your eyes open and dig out when they come back
with your father’s horses.”

“But suppose that while I am gone Philip should take it into his head to
tell them that I had the horse in my possession when they were here
before, and wouldn’t give him up?”

“If he does that, tell your father that he was the one who let the
raiders into the house.”

“Now, what earthly good would that do me? Would it get me out of the
scrape?”

“No; but you would have the satisfaction of knowing that you had repaid
Philip by getting him into just as much trouble as he got you into.”

“But that isn’t what I want. I want to clear myself, and I don’t know
how to do it.”

“I don’t know either. You’ll have to trust to luck.”

“I’d rather trust to anything else in the world. Luck never served me a
good turn yet.”

“You said your father discharged the old cook because you asked him,
didn’t you? Very well; ask him to discharge Philip. You had better get
him away from here as soon as you can. I judge from what you say, that
he had made up his mind to have that safe in your father’s office, and
the first thing you know he’ll bring men enough here to take it. He’s
not a safe person to have about.”

Ned was very well aware of that fact, but still he could see no way of
getting rid of him without rendering himself liable to exposure, and
neither could Gus. As often as they discussed the matter, they arrived
at this conclusion: that Philip was there in the rancho; that he meant
to stay there; and that Ned could not have him discharged without
getting himself into serious trouble. One would suppose, that while this
state of affairs continued, there would be no such thing as pleasure for
Ned. He never did see a moment’s peace while he was awake, but those
around him did not know it. He seemed to be enjoying himself to the
fullest extent.

On the third day, Gus began to feel a little more like himself, and when
Ned proposed a short gallop to get up an appetite for dinner, the
visitor did not object. The first thing was to select a gentle horse for
his use; for the one he had ridden from Palos was a borrowed animal, and
must be returned in good order, at the very first opportunity. Ned made
the selection for him, and then went with him into the store-room to
pick out a saddle and bridle. As they came out into the hall, a horseman
drew up beside the porch long enough to throw a letter at them, after
which he turned about and galloped back in the direction from which he
had come. This was the only way in which the neighboring ranchemen and
farmers would have anything to do with Uncle John. They inquired for his
mail when they went to Palos, and brought it to him, if there chanced to
be any, but they did it simply as an act of courtesy, just as they had
banded together and pursued the raiders in the hope of recovering the
stock they had stolen from him. They did not ask Uncle John to join them
in the pursuit, and when they brought him his mail they never visited
with him or stopped to hold conversation, as they did with their other
neighbors.

Gus picked up the letter and handed it to Ned, who, after glancing at
the name on the envelope passed it back to his companion. The letter was
addressed to him in care of Uncle John. The visitor’s face grew red and
pale by turns, as he looked at his father’s well-known writing.

“Sam Holmes has blowed the whole business!” he exclaimed, as soon as he
could speak.

“Well, you expected it, didn’t you?” returned Ned. “What do you care for
Sam Holmes now? You are out of his reach and your father’s too. Why
don’t you read the letter?”

Gus didn’t want to read it—that was the reason. It took him by surprise,
for it was something he did not expect to receive. In accordance with
Ned’s suggestion, however, he tore open the envelope, and ran his eye
hastily over the few lines the letter contained.

“Well, I call that pretty cool!” he exclaimed.

“Any objections to telling what they say?” asked Ned.

“None whatever. Read it for yourself, and read it aloud, so that I may
be sure I have made no mistake.”

Ned took the letter and read as follows:—

                  *       *       *       *       *

“MY DEAR BOY:—I learn that you have gone to Texas, to visit Ned
Ackerman. I am sorry you thought it best to leave us without saying
good-by, for if we had known that you were resolved to go, we should
have given you all the aid in our power. I am sorry, too, that you went
when you did, for we had anticipated much pleasure in your company
during our summer’s visit to the trout streams of the Adirondacks. If
you think you would like to come home when your visit is ended, I will
send you the necessary funds. I do not suppose Mr. Ackerman will care to
pay your expenses both ways. Your mother and I would be glad to hear
from you as often as you may feel in the humor to write. I have paid all
your debts.”

Ned was very much astonished, and went over the letter twice, to make
sure that he had read it aright.

“What do you think of it?” demanded Gus.

“It _is_ cool, that’s a fact,” answered Ned, who did not know what else
to say; “very cool!”

“It’s—it’s impudent!” exclaimed Gus, angrily; “downright insulting! Now,
isn’t he a pretty father for a fellow to have!” he added, snatching the
letter from Ned’s hand. “Just listen to this: ‘If we had known that you
were resolved to go, we should have given you all the aid in our power;’
and ‘_if_ you think you would like to come home when your visit is
ended!’ He might as well say that if I don’t want to return, I can stay
away and welcome!”

“It seems that the rest of them are going to the Adirondacks,” said Ned.
“You know you always wanted to go there.”

“That’s just what provokes me!” cried Gus, thrashing his boots angrily
with his riding-whip, as he walked up and down the porch. “Of course, I
always wanted to go there. I have tried more than once to induce father
to consent, but he wouldn’t do it. He treated me like a dog and drove me
away from home, and now he coolly informs me that he’s going
trout-fishing this summer! I hope he’ll catch a whale, and that the
whale will smash his old boat into kindling-wood, and tumble him out
into the water!”

This remark showed Gus to be possessed of so mean and paltry a spirit,
and the wish expressed in it was so perfectly ridiculous, that Ned burst
into a loud laugh. He could not help it. Gus looked sharply at him for a
moment, and continued his walk up and down the porch, whipping his boots
at every step. He was greatly amazed, as every young fellow is, when he
learns for the first time that he is not an absolute necessity, and that
the world will wag just as well without him as it will with him. Gus
thought, of course, that his parents were very much distressed over what
he had done, and that the letter was written to urge him to return at
once and relieve their suspense; but, instead of that, his father seemed
to take the matter very coolly, and did not even give up his
contemplated trip to the mountains, because Gus was not there to take
part in it.

“I’ll never go back!” declared the boy, flourishing his whip in the air.
“I’ll stay here until you get tired of keeping me, and then I’ll go to
work at something—I don’t care what it is—so long as I don’t have to
sell dry-goods!”

“I wish that letter had been lost on the way,” said Ned, “for it has
taken all the spirit out of you. You were bright and lively this
morning, and were beginning to act like the Gus Robbins I used to know
in Foxboro’.”

“I’m the same fellow now!” said Gus, tearing the letter into the
smallest possible fragments, and throwing them over the railing for the
wind to carry away. “Let’s go somewhere and do something!”

The boys mounted their horses, which were standing, saddled and bridled,
at the foot of the stairs, and rode away; but the gloom which had been
thrown over their spirits went with them, and the letter was the only
thing they could talk about. Gus could not forget that trouting
excursion to the Adirondacks. He had longed and hoped for that as he had
never longed and hoped for anything else, and it was very provoking to
know that it was to take place now, after he had put it out of his power
to enjoy it. He would have done a year’s hard work in the store and
given up his Texas scheme for it very gladly. He didn’t care for horses,
guns or dogs; but he was an enthusiastic fisherman, and nothing suited
him better than to get away by himself, and wander up and down the banks
of some retired stream, in which the pools were deep and the speckled
beauties abundant. But all his chances for such sport were gone
now—lost, too, by a deliberate act of his own—and Gus felt angry at
himself when he thought about it.

“Then don’t think about it at all,” said Ned, as Gus gave utterance to
the thoughts that were passing through his mind. “Think about something
more agreeable. Give up all idea of ever going back to Foxboro’!”

“O, I have given it up!” said Gus. “But it provokes me almost beyond
measure when I think——”

He finished the sentence by shaking his riding-whip in the air.

“That they can be happy and lay plans for their amusement when you are
not there; eh, Gus?” said Ned. “I know right where the shoe pinches.
Stay here, and we’ll make money by raising wheat. Do you see that field
over there? That’s mine!”

“I saw it some time ago,” answered Gus, “but I thought it was a pasture
that somebody had fenced in. I see some cattle in it.”

“In my wheat field!” cried Ned, with great indignation. “Where? So do
I!” he added, after he had run his eye along the fence.

Ned put his horse into a gallop and rode toward the field at the top of
his speed, his companion following closely behind. As they drew nearer
they saw that there was a wide gap in the fence, that the field looked
as though somebody’s cattle had used it regularly for a pasture, and
that some of the animals that had caused the mischief were in the
enclosure now. As they drew rein at the gap and looked over the
desolated field the cattle shook their heads as if they were indignant
at the interruption, and went off toward the opposite fence in a gallop.

“What wild-looking fellows!” exclaimed Gus. “I should think you would be
afraid to go near them.”

“They are wild, too,” replied Ned. “They’d just as soon go for us as not
if we were on foot, but they’ll not trouble us so long as we are in the
saddle. But just look at this wheat! It’s ruined, isn’t it?”

“I am no farmer,” returned his companion.

“It doesn’t need a farmer to tell whether or not there is any wheat
here, does it?” cried Ned angrily.

“Can’t you make the man who owns the cattle pay damages?”

“No; you can’t collect a cent. That thing has been tried.”

“Then shoot the cattle!”

“I’d do it in a minute if I wasn’t afraid. You remember the story of
that neighborhood row I told you last night, don’t you?”

“Yes; and if I were in your place I’d raise another. There’s nobody in
sight, and how is the owner of the cattle going to know who did the
shooting? Knock one of ‘em over! I dare you to do it!”

Ned hesitated. He had talked bravely enough, when in the presence of his
cousin, about doing this very thing, but since that time he had seen a
fight, had heard the reports of firearms and the yells of excited and
angry men, and thought he had some faint conception of the scenes that
had been enacted during that neighborhood row, and which would, no
doubt, be repeated if another should arise. But here was his fine field
of wheat so nearly destroyed that it would not pay for the harvesting;
within easy rifle shot of him were some of the cattle which had done the
mischief and which probably belonged to one of the neighbors who
wouldn’t visit with him or his father because they wore good clothes and
claimed to be gentlemen; and there was no one in sight.

“Knock one of them over,” repeated Gus, “and perhaps it will teach their
owner to keep his stock out of the way of your field, the next time you
plant wheat in it. Hand me your gun, and I’ll show you that I am Gus
Robbins yet, and not afraid to do anything.”

The boy leaned forward in his saddle as he said this, and taking the
rifle out of his friend’s grasp, rode toward the cattle (there were
probably a dozen of them in all) which were dashing along the fence and
trampling down the wheat that had escaped destruction during their
former raids. As Gus approached them, they charged in a body in the
direction of the gap; but instead of going through it they ran on by,
kicking up their heels and shaking their heads as if they enjoyed the
sport. While Ned galloped through the field to head them off, Gus
dismounted, and taking his stand near the gap, cocked the rifle in
readiness to shoot one of the herd the next time they went by.

Ned succeeded in turning the cattle after a short race, and, as before,
they took no notice of the gap, but dashed by it and started for another
gallop around the field. At that moment the rifle cracked, and one of
the finest steers in the herd threw his head and tail higher in the air,
galloped faster for a short distance, then sank to his knees and rolled
over on his side. By the merest chance, Gus had sent a bullet smaller
than a buckshot into some vital part, and there was one less steer in
somebody’s herd to break down fences and destroy wheat crops.

“What do you think of that?” cried Gus, in great glee.

“It was a splendid shot,” replied Ned, who just then rode up and
extended his hand for the rifle. “You did it, didn’t you? Since we have
begun the work, we’ll do it up in shape. If they won’t go out they can
stay in; but they’ll stay dead!”

The horse that Gus rode, having been broken to stand fire, was not at
all alarmed by the report of the rifle. He allowed the boy to catch and
mount him again, and by the time he was fairly in the saddle, Ned had
placed a fresh cartridge in his rifle. “You head them off and drive them
back,” said he, “and I’ll wait here at the gap to salute them as they go
by.”

In accordance with this request Gus rode off, and in a few minutes the
herd came dashing along the fence again. They must have been growing
tired of the sport by this time, for they headed straight for the gap,
and all got through; but one of them carried a bullet somewhere in his
body, the effects of which very soon became apparent. The rest of the
herd began to leave him behind, and when he followed them over a ridge,
which lay about a quarter of a mile from the field, he was staggering
about as if he could scarcely keep his feet.

While the work of driving the cattle out of the field was in progress, a
horseman appeared on the ridge of which we have spoken, riding slowly
along, with his eyes fastened on the ground, as if he were following a
trail. Just as he reached the top, he heard the report of a rifle, and
looked up to discover that the cattle of which he was in search, were
running about a wheat field, and that two persons were engaged in
shooting them down. One of the cattle fell just as he raised his eyes.
When he saw this, he placed his hand on one of the revolvers he carried
in his belt, and seemed on the point of dashing forward to take
satisfaction for the loss he had sustained; but he evidently thought
better of it a moment later, for he backed his horse down the swell
until nothing but his own head could be seen over it, and there he sat
and saw all that Ned and Gus did. When the wounded steer came over the
swell, staggering from the effects of the bullet Ned had shot into him,
the man shook his clenched hand in the direction of the wheat field,
muttered something to himself, and galloped off in pursuit of the
uninjured cattle, leaving the wounded one to take care of himself.

“There!” exclaimed Ned, when the laggard of the drove had disappeared
over the swell, “it’s done, and I am glad of it. If the owner of those
cattle finds out that we did it and has anything to say about it, I
shall tell him that this is my land—it may be mine some day, you know,
and before long, too—and that no cattle except my own have any right on
it.”

“I wish that steer had got over the fence before he died,” said Gus.

The boys seemed to be highly elated over what they had done. They had
performed the same feat which, not so very many months ago, had set the
whole settlement together by the ears, and no one was the wiser for it.
Of course some rancheman would some day find out that one of his fattest
steers had been killed and another badly wounded, but how was he going
to find out who did the shooting? Ned fully expected that there would be
trouble about it; that there would be threats and inquiries made, and
that he and Gus, being safe from discovery, would have many a hearty
laugh in secret over the storm they had raised.

“Remember one thing,” said he. “No matter what is said or done, we don’t
know anything about it. They can’t crowd us into a corner tight enough
to make us own up. That would only make matters worse.”

Gus readily agreed to this, and the boys shook hands on it. In order to
make assurance doubly sure they rode around the rancho and approached
it, just at dark, from a direction opposite to that they had taken when
they rode away from it in the morning. When the events of the afternoon
became known nobody could fasten the guilt upon them by saying that they
had been seen coming from the direction of the wheat field. They found
supper waiting for them, and when they had eaten it they went into the
office to spend the evening in reading and conversation.

While they were thus engaged inside the house, a proceeding which looks
strange at the first glance, but which will be plain enough when all the
circumstances connected with it are known, was going on outside of it. A
horseman, who was riding rapidly along the road toward the rancho,
turned off just before he reached it, and made his way to the corral
that was located a short distance to the right of the shed in which Ned
had taken refuge on the night of the fight. He stopped in front of the
gate and uttered an exclamation of disappointment when he found that it
was secured by a heavy padlock. After looking about him for a moment, as
if he were turning some problem over in his mind, he dismounted, pulled
the bridle over his horse’s head and hung it upon the horn of the
saddle; whereupon the animal turned and galloped toward a
watering-trough a short distance away, where he was joined by a small,
dark-colored mule which had followed the horseman down the trail. The
horseman himself moved toward the house, pausing every now and then to
listen and reconnoiter the ground before him, and presently reached the
steps leading to the porch. These he mounted with cautious tread, and
was about to place his hand upon the door when it was suddenly opened
from the inside, a flood of light streamed out into the darkness, and
the horseman was confronted by a stalwart herdsman who started back in
surprise at the sight of him.

Arresting by a hasty gesture the cry of amazement that arose to the
herdsman’s lips, the visitor stepped into the hall, and, closing the
door behind him, uttered a few short, quick sentences in a low tone of
voice which the other received with subdued ejaculations of wonder. When
he ceased speaking the herdsman hastened away, and the visitor, who
seemed to be perfectly familiar with the internal arrangements of the
house, moved quickly along the hall, turning several corners, and
finally opening a door which gave entrance into Mr. Ackerman’s office.

There was a happy party gathered in that office, if one might judge by
the ringing peal of laughter which echoed through the hall, when the
door was opened; but it was quickly checked at the sight of the boy who
entered as though he had a perfect right to be there, and whose
appearance was so sudden and unexpected that it brought two of the three
persons in the room to their feet in an instant.

“Why, George!” they both cried in a breath—and a quick ear would have
discovered that there was more surprise than cordiality in their
tones—“Is this you? Where in the world have you been so long? We have
been worried to death about you!”

“Yes it is I,” answered George Ackerman, for he it was. “I have come
back safe and sound, and that is all I can say to you now about myself.
I want to talk to you about yourselves, and especially to you Ned. By
the way, I suppose this is the friend from Foxboro’ whom you have so
long been expecting.”

Ned replied that it was, but he forgot to introduce the two boys to each
other, and so did Uncle John. There was something about George that made
them forget it. When they came to look at him they saw that he was very
much excited, and that his face wore an expression they had never seen
there before. They could not tell whether he was frightened or troubled.

“Why, George!” exclaimed Uncle John, in some alarm. “What is the matter?
Any bad news? Are the Indians or Mexicans——”

“Yes, I have bad news,” interrupted George, almost impatiently, “and but
little time to tell it in. Ned, you and your friend must pack up and
leave this rancho, and this county, too, without the loss of an hour’s
time. You are in danger, and I have placed myself in danger by coming
here to tell you of it!”

The boy’s words produced the utmost surprise and consternation among
those who listened to them.



                              CHAPTER XII.
                            A NARROW ESCAPE.


George found his herdsman eager for news from the settlement, as he
always was, but he had nothing to tell him that was very interesting. He
could have given him some information that would have made him open his
eyes and put him in fighting humor at once; but he thought it best to
avoid that subject altogether. If he told Zeke that Uncle John had
threatened to take his herd of cattle away from him, under the plea of
reducing expenses, but really as George believed, for the purpose of
turning it over to Ned, the old man would have been as angry as George
was when he first learned of the fact. But the boy didn’t want to let
Zeke know how mean his uncle was, and so he said nothing about his
plans. They never could be carried out while Zeke was there to protect
his stock, and George could afford to be magnanimous.

George and his herdsman made an early start on the following morning,
and the third night found them at Catfish Falls. They now felt perfectly
safe, for the raiders had never been known to penetrate so far into the
country. Their depredations were principally confined to the counties
bordering on the river, it being their object to stampede all the stock
they could find in one night’s raid, and drive it across the river into
Mexico, before the settlers could gather in sufficient numbers to pursue
them. They tried as hard to avoid a fight as the ranchemen did to
overtake them.

George made the camp and cooked the supper, and when they had satisfied
their appetites, the former laid down on his blanket in front of the
fire with his saddle for a pillow, and listened to Zeke, who talked and
smoked incessantly. Their work for the day was over now. The cattle were
always brought close in to camp at dark, the horses and mule were staked
out, and the campers went to bed at an early hour. If they awoke during
the night, they replenished the fire with some of the fuel that was
always kept close at hand, and walked around the herd to see if there
were any restless ones in it who felt inclined to stray away. George
performed this necessary duty twice on this particular night making the
first round about twelve o’clock. To his surprise, he found the most of
the cattle on their feet, and saw that some of them were exhibiting
unmistakable signs of uneasiness and alarm. They stood snuffing the air
eagerly, carrying their heads high and their ears thrown forward, and
now and then they would walk a few steps out of the herd, lower their
horns and paw the ground as if challenging the object that had excited
them, whatever it was, to come out and give them battle. The rest of the
cattle were lying down, chewing their cuds contentedly, and apparently
not at all disturbed by the antics of their nervous companions.

George threw himself flat upon the ground and swept his eyes around the
horizon. In this position, he could distinctly see any object that might
be approaching the camp (provided, of course, that it was taller than
the grass) for it would be clearly outlined against the sky. But he
could see nothing. He arose to his feet again and listened intently, but
could hear nothing calculated to excite his alarm. The wolves which
serenaded them every night were holding a concert a short distance away,
and that made George believe that if there was any danger approaching,
it was yet a long distance off; for he knew that the wolves would be the
first to discover it, and that they would then bring their concert to a
close and take to their heels.

“There’s something up,” thought George, once more turning his eyes
toward the cattle. Some of the uneasy ones, reassured by his presence,
were walking about among their companions, as if they were looking for a
good place to lie down, while the others remained in a defiant attitude
and snuffed the air as before. “There’s something up,” repeated George,
“and I have been expecting it. I have felt very nervous and timid for
two or three days, and I don’t know how to account for it. If there is
anybody within hearing or smelling distance who has no business here, I
can find it out.”

George walked back to the camp, picked up his rifle, and after
unfastening the lasso with which his horse was confined, he jumped on
the animal’s back without saddle or bridle and rode away in the
darkness, paying no heed to a bray of remonstrance from Bony who
followed as far as the length of his lariat would allow him to go. He
rode out on the prairie for a hundred yards or more, and then stopped
his horse and listened again. The animal stood perfectly quiet for a few
seconds, looking first one way and then another, and turning his ears
toward all points of the compass, and apparently satisfied with the
result of his reconnoissance, he put down his head and began cropping
the grass.

“Hold up, here!” exclaimed George, seizing the horse by the mane and
tapping him gently on the side of his head with the muzzle of his rifle
to make him turn around. “We have nothing to be frightened at yet—that’s
evident. Now, old fellow, I shall leave you loose. Keep your ears open
and wake us up if you hear anything!”

George rode back to camp and sought his blanket feeling a little more at
his ease. He had as much faith in his horse as he had in Zeke (the
latter used to say that he could smell an Indian or a Greaser at night
as far as he could see him in the daytime), and since the animal could
not discover anything suspicious, it was as good evidence as he wanted
that there was nothing to fear. No doubt some of the wild members of the
herd felt as nervous and uneasy as he did, and took their own way to
show it.

Although George brought back to his blanket a most refreshing feeling of
security, he did not sleep as soundly as he usually did. He went through
all sorts of terrible things in his dreams, and started every time the
fire snapped. He was wide awake again at one o’clock, and set out on his
second tour of inspection. The moon, now nearly half an hour high, had
brought up with it a cooling breeze which gently rustled the long grass
of the prairie, and sent the sparks from the camp-fire circling high in
the air. The wolves had closed their concert and gone off to find a more
appreciative audience, and there was an air of peaceful quiet brooding
over the scene. George forgot all his fears and continued his round with
a light heart. He found the cattle quiet, but some of them had begun
feeding and were straying away from the rest of the herd. While George
was engaged in driving them back, and forcing the remainder of the herd
into a more compact body, a yell, so sudden and startling that it made
the cold chills creep all over him, arose on the air, and out from a
little thicket of willows that grew a short distance from the belt in
which the camp was located, dashed a party of horsemen who charged
toward the herd at the top of their speed. They were Mexicans; George
could see that at a glance. They had doubtless been hovering about the
camp all night, and it was while they were working their way around to
the leeward of the herd that their presence had been detected by the
wakeful cattle.

George stood for an instant as if he were rooted to the ground; and then
with a wild cry of alarm he dashed forward, running diagonally across
the front of the herd, hoping almost against hope that he might succeed
in passing them, and thus avoiding the rush which he knew would come in
a moment more. It was the only way in which he could escape being
trampled to death. He ran as he had never run before, but he had made
scarcely half a dozen steps when a rumble like that of an avalanche
sounded close at his side, telling him that the cattle were coming. The
strongest fence that was ever built would not have stopped them now, and
George, had he attempted to drive them back or turn them aside, would
have been trampled under their feet like a blade of grass. He saw and
fully realized his danger, but could not escape it. Even Zeke, who was
as light of foot as an antelope, could not have saved himself by his
speed; and George, giving himself up for lost, fell flat upon the
ground, clasped his hands over his head and awaited his fate. By the
merest chance he threw himself into a little excavation in the prairie,
which, in the years gone by, had doubtless served as a wallow for some
old patriarch of a buffalo; but now it was covered with grass, and there
were two or three little willows growing out of the bottom of it.

This protection, slight as it was, saved the boy’s life. He had barely
time to crowd himself close against the frail stems of the willows
before the frantic cattle were upon him. The roar of their hoofs on the
hard ground was almost deafening. It was louder than the roar of all the
northers he had ever heard crowded into one; but even while he was
wondering why some of the cattle did not jump upon him the roar
subsided, and George, looking up through the willows which had been bent
over his head, saw the moon shining down upon him. Every steer had
jumped the wallow, and George had escaped with nothing more than a
terrible fright. While he was congratulating himself upon his good
fortune, a clatter of hoofs sounded near, and he ducked his head just as
two horsemen, riding side by side, dashed over the wallow in pursuit of
the flying herd.

The boy’s first thought, after he had satisfied himself that he had
escaped without injury, was of Zeke. What had become of him? There was
one thing certain—George knew it now as well as he did a few minutes
later—and that was that the herdsman had made a fight, and a good one,
too. Although the old fellow appeared to be a sound sleeper, he would
jump to his feet the instant he heard any unusual noise, and he was wide
awake the moment he opened his eyes. More than that, he kept his
Winchester close at hand, and could discharge it with a rapidity and
accuracy that George had tried in vain to imitate. Zeke was probably on
his feet before the yell that frightened the cattle was half uttered,
and as soon as he got there he was ready to begin shooting. Of course
George had not heard the report of his rifle, for the rumble of that
multitude of hoofs about his ears would have drowned the roar of a
cannon.

“But I know, all the same, that he _did_ shoot, and that some of those
raiders didn’t get away,” thought George, as he once more raised his
head and looked over the grass in the direction of the camp. “I think I
had better stay here. Zeke will know when the danger is over, and then
he will call to me. I wonder if he is there now? Somebody is punching up
the fire, sure!”

The old buffalo wallow into which George had thrown himself, was about a
hundred yards distant from the willows, and the grass was so high that
he could not see the camp; but he could see the smoke of the fire as it
arose through the tops of the trees that hung over it. Just now the fire
was blazing brightly, and the sparks were rising from it in volumes.
This was what led George to believe that there was somebody in the camp.
It couldn’t be one of the raiders, he told himself, for they never
stopped. They stampeded the cattle and dashed on after them to get out
of reach of the bullets in the herder’s rifles.

“Of course Zeke is there,” thought George as he arose from his place of
concealment; but he had scarcely placed himself fairly upon his feet
before he dropped back among the willows again. There were several
figures moving about the fire, and there were riderless horses and
mounted men near by. The men were all dressed in Mexican costume—the
wide brims of their sombreros were plainly visible in the moonlight—and
there were at least a dozen of them in sight. One of them seemed to be
poking up the fire for the purpose of making as bright a light as
possible, while the others were going into the willows with blazing
fire-brands in their hands. Some of their companions had already gone in
there armed in the same manner, for George could see the lights dancing
about among the trees.

The boy saw all this during the instant of time he was on his feet, and
when he dropped back into his concealment again, his fear had given
place to a feeling of exultation. The raiders were searching the woods
in the vicinity of the camp, and of course they could be looking for
nobody but Zeke. Probably the old fellow had given them a very warm
reception. No doubt he had tumbled three or four of them out of their
saddles, and the survivors were hunting him up with the intention of
taking vengeance on him if they caught him.

“But they’ll never catch him,” chuckled George, “because he’s too old a
‘coon. He has fought Indians too long to be beaten by a lot of lubberly
Greasers.”

George drew the tops of the willows closer together, confining them in
that position by twisting their branches, and having thus formed a
screen that was large enough to cover his head, he raised himself upon
his knees, so that he could look over the grass and watch the motions of
the raiders. They were certainly looking for somebody, and they seemed
resolved to find him, too, for they did not grow discouraged and go
away, as George hoped they would. Their failure only seemed to make them
the more determined. First one and then another seized fire-brands and
joined their companions in the woods, and finally those who were
mounted, swung themselves out of their saddles and went in too, leaving
the camp to take care of itself.

“I wonder what Zeke has done to make them so persistent!” said George to
himself. “Perhaps they’ve got an old grudge against him. They might as
well go away, for they’ll not find him. He’s safe long before this time,
and if I could only make my horse hear me, I’d soon be safe too.”

George could always find something to feel happy over, no matter how
unpleasant the situation in which he might be placed, and he found
something now. He had lost his fine herd of cattle, but Zeke was left to
him, and so were his horse and pack-mule. The former had been stampeded
with the cattle, but George knew he would not run far before he would
leave them and strike a straight course for home. The two Mexicans who
had followed the herd to head it off and turn it away from the
settlements toward the river, would not bother their heads about him,
for while they had three hundred fat cattle to look out for, they could
not afford to waste time in pursuing a single horse. Bony was still
staked out near the camp, and so was Zeke’s nag. They both made the most
desperate efforts to escape with the herd, but the lariats with which
they were confined were too strong to be broken, and the picket-pins
were driven so firmly into the ground that they could not be easily
pulled up. The Mexicans, when they were ready to leave the camp, would
probably turn these animals loose, expecting them to follow their own
horses, just as Silk Stocking had followed off the raiders who made the
attack on the rancho; but that was something Bony would not do. He was
very much afraid of strangers, and when left to himself he would make
the best of his way home.

The search for Zeke was continued? until broad daylight, and all this
while George lay in his concealment watching the motions of the raiders
and wondering what his herdsman had done to make the thieves so anxious
to find him. When day began to dawn he discovered something that seemed
to explain it all: there were five wounded men sitting and lying beside
the fire. George knew that they were wounded, for he could see that they
wore bandages, and that one who limped considerably and used a stick to
walk with, would now and then get up to bring a cup of water from the
bayou to two of his companions who kept their blankets. Probably one of
these men was the leader of the band, and that was the reason why the
others were so determined to find Zeke. But they had to give up the
search and go away without him, as George knew they would. Shortly after
daylight they began to come into camp by twos and threes, and when they
were all assembled George counted eighteen of them. They talked
earnestly together for a few minutes and then set about preparing a
hasty breakfast, helping themselves bountifully to the contents of the
pack-saddle, and using the cooking utensils which George had provided
for his own use and Zeke’s.

George waited with no little impatience to find out what they were going
to do when they made an end of the bacon and coffee, and was very glad
to see that they were preparing for an immediate departure. When all was
ready the wounded members of the band were assisted into their saddles,
Zeke’s horse and George’s pack-mule were set at liberty, and the raiders
moved slowly along the willows in the direction the cattle had taken
when they were stampeded. It was a wonder that their suspicions were not
aroused by the actions of the mule which, foolish as mules generally
are, ran at once to the buffalo wallow in which George was concealed,
and not content with shying at the sight of it and giving it a wide
berth, as Zeke’s horse did, Bony circled around it two or three times,
and finally stopping, thrust out his neck, threw his long ears forward
and looked suspiciously at the crouching form of his master.

George, who had been in a fever of suspense for long hours, and who
began to breathe more freely when he saw the raiders moving away, was
frightened again; but, as it happened, the thieves paid no attention to
the mule’s actions. Better than that, Zeke’s horse kept on his way
without stopping, and Bony, seeing that he was going to be left behind,
started in pursuit. The danger was over now, but George was much too
wary to run any risks. He saw the raiders disappear over the nearest
swell, but he allowed another hour to pass before he left his
hiding-place. Then he moved very cautiously, crawling along on his hands
and knees, stopping every few feet to look over the grass and listen,
and examining the ground about the camp very thoroughly before he
ventured into the woods.

He found the camp in the greatest confusion. His rifle and revolvers
were gone, so were his blankets and poncho, and also a good portion of
the contents of the pack-saddle; but there was still a little of the
bacon and hard-tack left, and the raiders had forgotten to take his
haversack and frying-pan. He replenished the fire at once, and while
waiting for it to get fairly started, employed himself in cutting up the
bacon with an old rusty hunting-knife which one of the thieves had
probably left in exchange for his own new one. While he was thus engaged
he did not neglect to keep an eye open for any straggling raiders who
might have fallen behind the main body; but there were none in sight. He
placed the bacon in the frying-pan, and when it was done to his
satisfaction he put it into his haversack, together with the small
supply of hard-tack that was left, extinguished the fire and set out for
home.

“I am glad the thieves left me provisions enough to last me until I can
get more,” said George, to himself. “If I have to travel all the way on
foot, it will take me four or five days to reach the nearest rancho, and
I have no fears of getting hungry during that time. What brought those
raiders so far from the river? That’s what I can’t understand.”

During the two days that followed, while the young cattle-herder was
trudging painfully over the lonely prairie, he had ample leisure to turn
this question over in his mind. He travelled early and late, but his
progress was necessarily slow, for one who spends the most of his time
in the saddle, finds it hard work to go on foot, and soon grows weary.
He kept a bright lookout for Zeke, and stopped on the top of every swell
to scan the prairie before and on both sides of him, in the hope of
discovering his horse or pack-mule; but Zeke was miles ahead of him,
hastening toward the settlement, intent on alarming the ranchemen in
time to cut the raiders off from the river, while Bony and Ranger were
making the best of their way toward home.

“They are all safe, I know, for they are able to take care of
themselves. So am I; but there’s no fun in looking forward to three days
more of such walking as I have had. I shouldn’t mind it so much if I
hadn’t lost my cattle,” said George, with a long-drawn sigh. “Those lazy
Greasers have robbed me of years of hard work, and now I must begin all
over again, or else go to herding cattle for Uncle John. Of course I
can’t loaf about the house all the time and do nothing, as Ned does.
Hallo!”

While George was talking to himself in this way he came to the top of a
ridge, and found before him a long line of willows which fringed the
banks of a water-course. A solitary horse was feeding near the willows,
and this it was that attracted the boy’s attention and called forth the
exclamation with which he finished his soliloquy. The sight of the
animal alarmed him, for it was not at all likely that a horse, wearing a
saddle and bridle, would be feeding contentedly in that wilderness, so
far from all signs of civilization, unless there was some one with him.
George dropped to the ground, and ran his eyes along the willows in
search of a camp. If there was one in the neighborhood he could not find
it. There was no smoke to be seen, nor were there any other indications
of the presence of human beings.

“But there’s somebody here all the same,” thought the boy, shifting his
position a little, so that he could obtain a better view of the willows,
“for that horse never came here without a rider. Somebody has stopped in
the willows to rest, and he’s a Mexican, too. I know it by the silver
ornaments on the saddle. I wish I could think up some way to capture
that horse. Shall I try it?”

Not knowing what else to do just then, George lay there in the grass and
considered the matter. Weary and footsore as he was, the thought of
finishing his journey on horseback was a most agreeable one. The animal
was loose—when he raised his head, George could see that he was not
confined by a lariat—but if he attempted to creep up to him the horse
would doubtless take fright and run off; and that would excite the
suspicions of his owner, who might be tempted to send a bullet from his
carbine in that direction. There was too much danger in it George found
when he came to think it over. He sighed regretfully, thought almost
with a shudder, of the long, weary miles that lay between him and the
nearest rancho, and was about to crawl back down the swell again, when
he was astonished almost beyond measure, to hear his own name pronounced
in a weak and trembling, but still distinct voice.

“George! George Ackerman!” came the hail from the willows.

George jumped to his feet, and looking in the direction from which the
voice sounded, saw a sombrero waved in the air, and could dimly discern
the figure of a man, dressed in Mexican costume, who was sitting on the
ground, with his back against one of the willows.

“George!” repeated the man.

“Hallo!” was the reply.

“Come here, will you? I am badly hurt and in need of help!”

George grew more and more astonished. The man was a Mexican beyond a
doubt, but the voice sounded strangely familiar.

“Don’t be afeared, George!” continued the man, in a pleading tone. “I
couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to! I’ve got something to tell you!”

“Who are you?” asked the boy.

“Why, don’t you know Springer, who used to herd cattle for your father?”

Yes, George knew him, and he didn’t know anything good of him either.

“If you are Springer,” he shouted “what are you doing there with those
clothes on?”

“Come here, an’ I’ll tell you all about it!” was the answer. “I’ll tell
you something else, too—something that’ll make you open your eyes. Do
come, George, and give me a drink of water! I’ve got a chunk of lead
through each leg!”

“Aha!” said George, who thought he understood the matter now. “You were
with the raiders, and Zeke got two pulls at you with his Winchester!”

As he said this he ran down the swell, and in a few minutes more was
standing beside the wounded man. It was Springer, sure enough, but he
was so much changed that George could scarcely recognise him. His face
was very pale and his strong frame was convulsed with agony. The sash he
usually wore around his waist had been cut in two, and the pieces were
bound tightly about his legs above the knee to stanch the flow of blood
from the wounds made by the herdsman’s rifle. He was a hard-looking
fellow, and any one would have taken him for just what George knew him
to be—a cattle-thief.

Without stopping to ask any more questions George seized the man’s hat,
and hastening to the bayou presently returned with the crown filled with
water. The wounded raider drank eagerly and sank back against his tree
with a sigh of great satisfaction.



                             CHAPTER XIII.
                          GEORGE HAS COMPANY.


George knew Springer well. The latter had once been in his father’s
employ; but being of no use as a herdsman or anything else, he had been
discharged, to make room for a more industrious and pains-taking man.
This enraged Springer, who threatened vengeance, and followed up his
threats by attempting to fire the rancho. He had been detected in the
act and almost captured; but he succeeded in making his escape, and
since then George had never met him until this particular day. He had
often heard of him, however, as a member of a band of cattle-thieves,
who now and then made a raid through the country farther down the river.
There were a good many others just like Springer, on the opposite side
of the Rio Grande—renegade Americans—who, having left their country for
their country’s good, had taken refuge among the Mexicans, and joined
with them in raiding upon the well-stocked farms and ranches of their
Texan neighbors.

[Illustration: GEORGE RETURNS GOOD FOR EVIL.]

“You needn’t be afeared, George,” repeated Springer, seeing that the boy
cast uneasy glances about him, as if half expecting to see the rest of
the band start up from some ambush among the willows. “Thar’s nobody
here but me.”

“Where are your friends?” asked George.

“They’ve gone on, an’ I s’pose they’re acrosst the river by this time.”

“Did they leave you here to take care of yourself?” inquired George, who
found it difficult to believe that men could be so heartless.

“What else could they do?” asked Springer, wincing a little, as he tried
to move one of his wounded legs into a more comfortable position. “A man
who is fool enough to get hurt, must take his chances. If he can keep up
with the rest, well an’ good; if he can’t, he must fall behind an’ look
out fur himself. I’m glad I ain’t in the settlement. I’d rather stay
here an’ starve, fur want of grub an’ water, than have the ranchemen
catch me. I ain’t had a bite to eat fur two days.”

“You haven’t!” exclaimed George. “I’ll divide with you.”

He opened his haversack, as he spoke, and producing from its capacious
depths a goodly supply of bacon and cracker, placed it in the hands of
the wounded man, whose eyes brightened as he received it. George stood
by and saw him eat it, and was glad to see that he enjoyed it, although
he knew that by thus diminishing his store he put himself in a fair way
to go hungry for many a weary mile of his journey. The man was a
scoundrel—no one except himself could tell what deeds of violence he had
been guilty of during his raids—but for all that George was glad that it
was in his power to relieve his distress.

“I am sorry to see you in this situation, Springer,” said he, when the
bacon and cracker had disappeared.

“Are you, though?” exclaimed the man, wiping his mouth with the back of
his hand, and looking up in surprise. “I didn’t s’pose you would be.”

“Well, I am; and I hope that when you get well, you will behave yourself
and live among white men.”

“That’s unpossible; ‘kase why, white men won’t have nothing to do with
me,” replied Springer, almost fiercely. “Would you hire me to herd
cattle fur you?”

“Yes, I would. I know you threatened that you would be revenged on my
father for discharging you, but I don’t see why you should follow me up.
I haven’t done anything to you. How did you get shot? And how came you
here?”

“Wal, you see, we made the dash on your camp, kalkerlatin’ to take you
by surprise; but Zeke, he allers sleeps with his rifle in his hand an’
one eye open, an’ I was the fust feller he got a crack at. He took two
pulls at me, an’ this yere is the consequence,” said Springer, pointing
with both forefingers toward his bandaged legs. “When we left your camp,
the fellers put me on my hoss, an’ I kept up with ‘em fur a few hours;
but the pace was too fast fur me—I couldn’t stand the joltin’; so I had
to pull up. When I reached this bayou, I thought I’d get a drink of
water; but when I got down I fell, lettin’ go my bridle, an’ my hoss
walked away. I was too weak an’ bad hurt to crawl to the water; I
couldn’t ketch my hoss, an’ I reckoned I’d got to stay right here. I
happened to see you when you come to the top of the ridge, an’ called to
you, thinkin’ mebbe you wouldn’t refuse to give me the drink I was
a’most ready to die fur. But you wouldn’t a done it, if you knowed as
much as I do!”

“Yes, I would. I don’t bear you any ill-will because you stole my
cattle.”

“But that aint all!” exclaimed Springer.

“I know it isn’t! You tried to burn my home over my head; but I don’t
bear you any ill-will for that, either; and I’ll prove it to you by
putting you on your horse and giving you a chance to save yourself!”

“But _that_ aint all!” said Springer. “How do you reckon we knowed whar
to look for you?”

“I’m sure I can’t tell! I never knew raiders to venture so far from the
river before!”

“An’ they never did, nuther! Whar was you when we was in your camp?”

“I was lying in a buffalo wallow about a hundred yards away!”

“Did you see the fellars while they was a pokin’ around in the willows
with their fire-brands? What do you reckon they was a lookin’ for?”

“I supposed they were looking for Zeke!”

“Wal, they wasn’t lookin’ for Zeke, nuther! They didn’t care nothing
about Zeke! You was the fellow they wanted to find!”

“I was!” exclaimed George. “What did they want of me?”

“They wanted you ‘kase there’s a thousand head of fat steers wrapped up
in you, ‘sides them three hundred we stole from you the other night!”

The boy was greatly astonished, and he was certain, too, that he knew
what Springer was trying to get at. He seated himself on the ground with
his back against a neighboring tree, and said as calmly as he could:

“You must speak plainer than that if you want me to know just what you
mean!”

“I mean jist this yere,” said Springer; “an I’ll tell you ‘cause you was
good enough to come here an’ give me the drink of water I was starvin’
fur, an’ feed me outen your grub when you haint got enough to eat
yourself. George, you are in danger every day you spend at your rancho!
Your uncle and cousin don’t want you there, an’ they aint goin’ to let
you stay nuther!”

George thought from what Springer said before that he had some such
revelation as this to make, but when it came it almost took his breath
away. He had long been of the opinion that his relatives didn’t want him
at the rancho, but how could this cattle-thief, who lived miles away on
the other side of the river, have found it out? The man talked in a
positive tone, as though he knew all about it, and this was what
surprised George. There was one thing certain, however: He was not going
to discuss family matters with any such fellow as Springer.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” said he, as he arose to his feet and slung
his haversack over his shoulders. “I’ll not stay here if you are going
to insult my uncle and cousin!”

“Say, George, whar you goin’?” demanded Springer.

“I am going to start on again. Shall I put you on your horse before I
go?”

“You needn’t go off mad,” said the man, earnestly, “‘cause every word
I’m tellin’ you is the gospel truth. We got it all through Philip!”

“Got all what through Philip?” asked George.

“I mean we done all our business through him; an’ if I was in your
place, I’d go home an’ bundle him outen the house, neck an’ heels. He’s
makin’ mischief thar, _I_ tell you. He told us we’d find you in that
grove on Brown’s Run; an’ when we didn’t find you thar, we follered your
trail to Catfish Falls.”

“But how did Philip know I was going to that grove?” demanded George,
growing more and more bewildered.

“What’s the use of me tellin’ you when you’ll get mad?” asked Springer
in reply. “The under-standin’ atween us, was, that arter we had drove
off your three hundred head of stock, we was to come over agin, in a
week or two, an’ we would find a thousand more head whar we could get
‘em easy.”

“Who was going to put them where you could get them easy?”

“If I tell you, you’ll get mad at me. But mind you, we wasn’t to get
them thousand head unless we gobbled you. The fellers done their level
best, but couldn’t find you!”

“What were you going to do with me if you found me?”

“That’s something I can’t tell. Nobody but Fletcher knows that.”

“Who’s Fletcher?”

“He’s the boss—the cap’n.”

“Who told you to gobble me?”

“What’s the use of me tellin’ you when you’ll be sartin to go off mad?
You see, we kalkerlated to make twenty-six thousand dollars clear by two
night’s work, but that didn’t satisfy us. Philip, he told us that thar
was a whole bit of gold and silver in your uncle’s office, an’ we wanted
that too; so we slipped down thar, an’ Philip, he opened the door an’
let us in.”

“Into our house!” cried George, who now learned for the first time of
the attack that had been made upon the rancho.

“Yes, into your house; but we didn’t get nothing but bullets an’ one
hoss fur our pains.”

“It served you just right,” said George, indignantly. “They are not all
traitors in that house, I tell you.”

“Not by no means they ain’t,” said Springer, with a knowing shake of the
head. “One of the herders, who was awake, aroused the others by firing
his revolver, an’ it’s the biggest wonder in the world that any of us
got out. We tried to cut down the doors, but they drove us off, and then
we made a strike fur Brown’s Run, whar we allowed to find you. On the
way we run into about five hundred head of stock, an’ thinkin’ that a
bird in the hand was worth a dozen in the woods, we drove ‘em off. We
got ‘em across the river all right, an’ dodgin’ the rangers who follered
us, we came back arter you. We found you too, an’ some of us got more’n
we wanted,” added Springer, looking down at his bandages and groaning
faintly.

George listened to all this in the greatest amazement. He remembered
now, that just before he left home with his supplies, his uncle had
questioned him closely about some things in which he had previously
shown no interest whatever, and that he seemed particularly anxious to
know where his nephew expected to find his herd, and which way Zeke
would probably drive it after George joined him. The boy never would
have thought of the circumstance again, if it had not been for this
interview with his father’s old herdsman; but now it was recalled very
vividly to his mind, and he was obliged to confess to himself that the
half-formed suspicions he had long entertained were not without
foundation. His Uncle John was at the bottom of all his troubles, and
Philip, the Mexican cook, was his confidential assistant. The boy’s
heart sank within him while he thought about it. He didn’t know what to
do, and there was only one man in the settlement to whom he could go for
advice.

“Well, Springer,” said George, suddenly, “we have wasted time enough. I
have a long journey to make, and so have you. I hope you will succeed in
getting safely over the river, and that the lesson you have received
will be the means of making you an honest man. I will put you on your
horse and divide my provisions with you, and that is all I can do for
you.”

“An’ it’s a heap more nor any body else would do for me,” said Springer,
gratefully. “You won’t tell none of the settlers that you seed me, will
you?”

“I’ll not put any of them on your trail,” replied the boy. “I may be
obliged to say something about you; but if you have good luck, you ought
to be safe across the river before I reach Mr. Gilbert’s house, and that
is where I am going.”

After bringing Springer another hatful of water from the bayou, and
dividing with him the small supply of bacon and crackers he had left,
George brought up his horse, and with infinite difficulty assisted the
man to mount. Springer groaned a little and swore a great deal during
the operation, and being a heavy man and almost unable to help himself,
it required the outlay of all George’s strength to put him into the
saddle. After thanking the boy over and over again for what he had done,
he rode slowly away, and George feeling as though there was nothing in
the world worth living for now, once more turned his face toward the
settlement. He looked back now and then to see how Springer was getting
on. The last time he saw the man he was standing on the top of a high
swell holding his hat in his hand. When he saw George looking at him he
waved it in the air and rode down the swell out of sight.

“If he can keep in his saddle for forty-eight hours—and he would have no
trouble at all in doing it if it were not for his wounds—and can dodge
the rangers who are probably out looking for the raiders, he will be all
right,” thought George; “but if he is compelled to dismount, I don’t
know what will become of him. He can’t possibly get on his horse again
without help. Now, what shall I do? I am going back to a home where I am
not wanted.”

This was the burden of the boy’s thoughts all the rest of the day. He
could not make up his mind to any course of action, for he was so
stunned and bewildered by what he had heard that he could not think
clearly. The only thing he determined upon was, that he would lay the
case before Mr. Gilbert, and be governed by his advice. Mr. Gilbert was
a wealthy cattle-raiser and a prominent man in the settlement, who had
gained his start in life through the assistance of George’s father. He
was a firm friend of the family, and the boy knew that he could trust
him. Toward his rancho he directed his course, making all the haste he
could. He would have been glad to travel all night, but his weary limbs
demanded rest, and when it grew dark George was obliged, much against
his will, to go into camp. He built a fire in the edge of a belt of
post-oaks that ran across his path, and after gathering fuel enough to
last all night, he ate a very light supper and sat down to think over
the situation. When eight o’clock came he scraped a few leaves together
for a bed, and was about to throw himself down upon it, when he was
brought to his feet by the clatter of hoofs, which sounded a short
distance away.

George seized his haversack and waited with a beating heart for the
horsemen, who he knew were approaching his camp, to come in sight. They
came a moment later, and to the boy’s intense relief the light from his
fire shone not upon silver buttons, gaudy sashes and wide trowsers, but
upon a couple of red shirts and slouch hats. With a long-drawn sigh,
indicative of the greatest satisfaction, George threw down his haversack
and stepped forward to greet the new comers.

“Good-evening, stranger,” said the foremost horseman. “Have you any
objections to good company to-night?”

“None whatever,” answered George, readily. “I shall be only too glad to
have it, for it is lonely work keeping house all by one’s self.”

“We saw the light of your fire,” said the other, “and as we have got a
little out of our reckoning, we made bold to come here, thinking that
perhaps you could set us right.”

“I am glad to see you,” answered George; “but I hope you have brought
your supper with you, for it is little I can offer you.”

“O, that’s nothing. It is no uncommon thing for ranchemen to go
supperless to bed, you know. Where did you stake out your horse, my
lad?”

“I haven’t any, sir. He was stampeded when the Greasers stole my cattle,
and I haven’t seen him since.”

“Ah! been cleaned out, have you? That’s provoking.”

The man said this in much the same tone of voice he would have used if
he had been speaking of an event that was of every-day occurrence. They
both listened while George, in accordance with their request, hurriedly
related the story of his loss, and then staked out their horses and came
back to the fire. George offered them what was left of his supply of
provisions, but the ranchemen declined it with thanks, and proceeded to
fill their pipes.

“We need an adventure now and then to give a little variety to our
life,” said one of the men, after he had taken a few pulls at his pipe,
to make sure that it was well lighted. “My friend and I have been on the
trail of a horse-thief.”

“Did you overtake him?” asked George.

“Yes; but we didn’t get the horse, and we wanted him more than we wanted
the thief. He had disposed of the animal, traded him off for a fresher
one, you know, and we offered him his liberty if he would tell us where
the horse was. He told us, and we started back with him to make sure
that he told us the truth, and he gave us the slip. But we think we know
where the horse is.”

“Is he anywhere about here?” inquired George.

“Is there anybody living about here who goes by the name of Ackerman?”
asked the rancheman.

“Yes, there is,” answered George, opening his eyes in great surprise.

“Well, my horse is at his rancho. We’re going there after him, and we’re
going to smash things when we get there, too.”

George was so utterly confounded that he could not say a word. He sat
looking from one to the other of the ranchemen, who fortunately did not
notice the expression of astonishment that settled on his face. One of
them sat on the opposite side of the fire, where he could not see the
boy, and the other was stretched out on his blanket, with his hands
clasped under his head, watching the clouds of smoke that arose from his
pipe.

“It’s a little the strangest piece of business I ever heard of,” said
the latter, “and it doesn’t seem to me that anybody of ordinary common
sense could do such a thing. The thief told us that he traded Silk
Stocking to a young fellow who looked as though he might be going to a
fancy-dress ball somewhere, for he sported a buckskin coat with silver
buttons, high patent-leather boots, and so on, and we saw just such a
fellow as that at Ackerman’s rancho. We stopped there and got fresh
horses—those nags out there belong to Ackerman—and took supper; and when
we came out on the porch Silk Stocking called to us. He was hitched
under an open shed a short distance from the house. I recognised the
call and so did Joe; but we never suspected anything, and so we didn’t
look into the matter as we ought to have done.”

George had never been more astonished in his life. He was greatly
alarmed too, for he knew that his cousin had got himself into serious
trouble. The man on the blanket, who told the story, looked like one who
could smash things if he once set about it, and the tone of his voice
and the decided manner in which he puffed at his pipe, indicated that he
had fully made up his mind to do it. He and his companion would
certainly make it warm for somebody when they reached the rancho. Was
there any way in which he could save Ned from the consequences of his
folly? George did not believe there was, for he knew too well the
estimation in which horse-thieves and everybody connected with them were
held in that country; but still he determined to make the attempt. Ned
was his cousin, the only one he had in the world, and it was plainly his
duty to stand by him. Controlling himself as well as he could, he said:

“You told me, I believe, that this boy, whoever he is, traded his horse
for yours: Perhaps he didn’t know it was stolen!”

“Probably he didn’t at the time he made the trade,” replied the man;
“but he knew it when Joe and I stopped at his father’s rancho, for he
heard us tell the story. Why did he not give him up?”

“No doubt he was so badly frightened that he dared not do it,” answered
George. “This boy, I believe, has not been long in Texas, and he don’t
know much about the customs of the country.”

“Now just see here, stranger!” said the rancheman, taking his pipe out
of his mouth and looking steadily at George. “If he knows anything he’d
ought to know that it is a dangerous piece of business for a man to have
stolen property in his possession, knowing it to be stolen, hadn’t he?”

George could only nod his head in reply. He had made the best excuse for
his cousin that he could think of on the spur of the moment, but it was
a very flimsy one, and he saw plainly that he could not make any more
without arousing suspicion against himself.

“It is my private opinion that there is a regular nest of thieves in
that house!” said the other rancheman.

“It’s mine, too!” said the man in the blanket.

“If that Ackerman is an honest fellow why does he go about wearing his
boiled shirt and broadcloth suit every day? The moment I got a fair look
at him I told myself that there was something wrong about him. If that
chap in the silver buttons was a man I’d fix him; but seeing that he’s
nothing but a boy, I’ll snatch him so bald-headed that his hair will
never grow again. I’ll teach him that one who receives and holds fast to
stolen property, knowing it to be stolen, is as bad as the man who
steals it, and that the law holds good here in Texas as well as it does
in Maine!”

The man did not bluster when he said this—those who mean just what they
say seldom do—and that was just what made George believe that his cousin
was in a fair way to be severely punished. What the man would do to him
when he found him, George of course did not know, and he dared not ask;
but he was satisfied that it would be something Ned would always
remember. The angry rancheman said several other things in a very
decided tone of voice, all going to show that no boy’s-play was
intended, and when he and his companion had finished their pipes they
arranged their blankets, bade George good-night, and lay down to sleep.
But there was no sleep for George. He was keenly alive to Ned’s danger,
and a thousand wild schemes for extricating him from his troubles
suggested themselves to George’s busy brain; but he could hit upon only
one thing just then. If that succeeded Ned’s peril might be averted
until he could have an interview with Mr. Gilbert. George was certain
that that gentleman could tell him just what ought to be done.

“I shall put myself in danger by doing it, but it can’t be helped,”
thought the boy. “My cousin must be saved at all hazards; and if these
men, or any of the settlers, want to take revenge on me for putting him
out of harm’s way, they are welcome to do it. How easy it is to get into
trouble and how hard it is to get out of it!”

With this reflection George scraped his bed of leaves a little closer
together, threw another stick of wood on the fire, and tried to follow
his two guests into the land of dreams; but the sleep he so much needed
to prepare him for the next day’s journey would not come at his bidding.
All the night long he tossed restlessly about on his hard couch, and
about half an hour before daylight sank into an uneasy slumber.



                              CHAPTER XIV.
                           GOOD AND BAD NEWS.


When George awoke it was just daylight. The ranchemen were already
stirring, and one was folding the blankets, while the other was punching
up the fire to obtain a light for his pipe.

“Good-morning, my lad,” said the latter, cheerfully. “We thought, seeing
we had no breakfast to eat, that we would solace ourselves with a smoke.
Now, if you will put us on our course, we shall be much obliged to you.”

“The rancho you want to reach lies directly east of here and is about
thirty-five miles distant,” answered George, after he had returned the
man’s greeting. “Hold a straight course for the sun, until you strike a
big trail running north and south. Turn south on that trail, and when
you have followed it about ten miles, you will strike Mr. Gilbert’s
rancho. He will direct you the rest of the way. I have thought a good
deal about what you told me last night, and I can’t understand why that
boy kept that horse.”

“Neither can I,” said the rancheman.

“As he is a boy, I hope you will be easy with him,” continued George.

“I will; but the next time he sees a stolen horse he will run from it, I
bet you!”

It was plain that the rancheman had not yet relented, and that he never
would relent; so George fell back on the plan he had determined upon the
night before.

“Yes, the boy needs a lesson,” said he; “but for his father’s sake, I
hope you will not be too severe. I have been acquainted with Mr.
Dickerman for a long time, and I know him to be an honest man. You
needn’t think he would——”

“Dickerman!” interrupted the man who had been called Joe. “Who said
anything about Dickerman? Ackerman is the fellow we are talking about.”

“O, _Ac_kerman!” repeated George, with a tone of voice and an expression
of countenance which led the man to believe that he had all the while
been mistaken as to the identity of the person they wanted to find.
“Well, you don’t want to travel east, then. Your course lays off here,”
he added, pointing almost due north. “If you ride in that direction, you
ought by dark to strike some of the ranches in the settlement in which
this man lives.”

“Then we were completely turned around, Joe. I thought we ought to
travel _that_ way,” said one of the men, pointing almost directly toward
the Ackerman rancho. “Well, my lad, good-by. Many thanks for your
information, and the best of luck to you!”

The men mounted their horses, which they had brought in and saddled
while this conversation was going on, and rode away, leaving George
standing beside his fire. As soon as they disappeared behind the nearest
ridge, he caught up his haversack, plunged into the woods and drew a
straight course for home. His face was whiter than it usually was, and
his heart beat audibly.

“I did it,” said he to himself, as he hurried along, “and whether or not
I have done any good by it, time will tell. If they don’t get off their
course, they’ll reach Dickerman’s to-night about dark, and then they’ll
find out that they have been put on a wrong scent, and gone forty miles
out of their way. Dickerman will set them right, and the question is:
Can I see Mr. Gilbert and reach home before they can get there? I never
needed a horse so badly before.”

Little did Ned Ackerman, who spent this particular day in company with
his friend Gus Robbins, shooting down the cattle that had broken into
his wheat-field, know of the race that was begun that morning—a race
between a pair of swift horses, which had between seventy and eighty
miles to travel, and a frightened, panting and footsore boy, who dragged
himself wearily over thirty-five miles of prairie, to save a scapegrace
relative, who would not have lifted a finger in behalf of that same
weary boy, had their situations been reversed. The odds were sadly
against George. He could have spent a week in the saddle with little or
no inconvenience, but three days on foot tested his endurance to the
utmost. Nothing but his will kept him up. He won the race, but, as we
shall see, with little time to spare.

As the day wore away, and George drew nearer to Mr. Gilbert’s rancho,
which was the first one he would reach on his way to the settlement, he
kept a good lookout for some of that gentleman’s herdsmen, hoping that
he could prevail upon them to lend him a horse; but as he did not see
any of them, he was compelled to make the entire journey on foot. He
reached his destination shortly after nightfall, and found Mr. Gilbert
sitting on the porch, enjoying his after-supper pipe. The gentleman
started up in surprise, when he saw George approaching, and hurried down
the steps to meet him. His greeting was as cordial and friendly as
usual, but there was something in his manner that the boy had never
noticed before. He could not have told what it was, but he could see it
plainly.

“Come right in, George,” said he, seizing the boy’s hand and shaking it
heartily. “You walk as though you were completely tired out; so I’ll not
trouble you with questions until you’ve had a supper and a good night’s
rest.”

“I would be thankful for some supper,” replied George, “but I can’t stay
all night. I am in an awful hurry.”

“And why should you be in such an awful hurry, I’d like to know?” said
Mr. Gilbert, as he assisted George up the steps and led him into the
house. “Here’s an easy-chair, and I know you will find——”

“Not in there, please,” said George, drawing back as Mr. Gilbert was
about to open the door leading into the cosy living-room, in which his
family was assembled. “Let’s go into the office. I have something
particular to say to you.”

Again George told himself that Mr. Gilbert did not act as he usually
did. He turned at once, and leading the way into the office, closed and
locked the door; after which he took the boy’s hat and haversack, and
having placed him on the lounge, drew a chair up in front of him and sat
down.

“Where did you hear of it, George?” said he. “But hold on a moment,” he
added, hastily. “Let’s talk about pleasant things first. Your horse and
mule are here in my corral.”

“Good!” exclaimed George. “I shall need Ranger at once. I would thank
you to lend me a saddle and bridle, and have him brought to the door
without loss of time.”

“If you must go on to-night, I’ll do it,” said Mr. Gilbert, rising to
his feet; “but you must have some supper first.”

He left the office as he ceased speaking, and George lay down on the
lounge to rest for a few minutes. He was used to hard work, but he had
never before been so nearly exhausted. It did not seem to him that he
could possibly spend the rest of the night in the saddle, and yet he
knew he must do it in order to save his cousin.

Mr. Gilbert was gone but a few minutes, and when he came back, he locked
the door behind him.

“Another piece of good news I have for you, George,” said he, as he
resumed his seat, “is that all your cattle have been recovered, and one
of my men is now pasturing them on my ranche, about three miles from
here.”

“Good again!” exclaimed George, brightening a little. “That is
encouraging news indeed.”

“That Zeke is worth two or three ordinary men,” continued Mr. Gilbert.
“Not being able to find any signs of you or your horse after the
Greasers jumped down on you, he struck out for the settlements on foot.
On the way he fell in with a party of rangers, and with their
assistance, he succeeded in cutting the thieves off from the river and
recapturing every hoof you had lost. He came down here with the cattle,
chuckling over his good luck, and was frightened almost out of his
senses when he found that your horse and mule had come here without you.
He begged me to take care of the herd while he went back to look for
you, and I have done so. Where were you all the while, George? You
haven’t walked all the way from Catfish Falls?”

“I was hidden in a buffalo wallow while the robbers were in our camp,
and I _have_ walked every step of the way from there. But I don’t mind
that. What troubles me is the bad news I heard on the way. I have come
here to talk to you about it, for you are the only friend I have in the
settlement.”

“O no, George; don’t say that,” exclaimed Mr. Gilbert, quickly. “If you
knew what a commotion your disappearance has created among the
neighbors, you wouldn’t talk so. Everybody likes you and everybody is a
friend to you.”

“I am very glad to hear it,” said George, drawing a long breath of
relief and looking a little more cheerful. “I want them to show their
friendship now, and not be too hard on Ned. You know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Gilbert, heaving a deep sigh and fastening his eyes on
the floor, “I know all about it. The settlers are going to meet at
Cook’s to-morrow and talk it over. They are very angry, and I don’t know
what they will make up their minds to do.”

“Are you going to be at Cook’s with them?”

“Of course. I am as much interested in the matter as anybody.”

“Well, you will do your best for Ned, won’t you? He is my cousin, you
know. You won’t let them hurt him, will you?”

“I’ll do the best I can, certainly; but you might as well try to stem
the Rio Grande with a straw, as to stand in the way of a whole
settlement, when every man in it has made up his mind to a particular
course of action. It was a most outrageous act, and Ned richly deserves
punishment.”

“I know it; but if the settlers are such friends to me they will let him
off this time, and I’ll promise that he will never do the like again.
Remember, Mr. Gilbert, that he is young and foolish, and that when the
horse came into his possession he didn’t know it was stolen.”

“Horse!” exclaimed Mr. Gilbert, opening his eyes. “Stolen! What are you
talking about, George!”

“What are _you_ talking about, Mr. Gilbert?” asked the boy, slowly
raising himself on his elbow, and gazing steadily into the face of his
friend.

“Why, I refer to something that happened this afternoon in Ned’s wheat
field, when Ned and that Yankee friend of his shot down Cook’s cattle,”
answered Mr. Gilbert.

“What!” exclaimed George, jumping to his feet in great excitement. “Do
you mean to tell me that Ned has been shooting stock?”

“That’s just what he has done, and that is what I was talking about.
Cook caught him in the very act.”

“Worse and worse!” said George, sinking back on the lounge again. “Tell
me all about it. I want to hear the whole story so that I may know just
how to act.”

“That is all there is to tell,” was Mr. Gilbert’s reply. “Ned and his
friend found Cook’s cattle in the wheat field, and shot two of them,
killing one and severely wounding the other.”

“He did it with his eyes open,” said George. “He has often threatened
it, and I told him just what would happen.”

“You said something about a horse,” remarked Mr. Gilbert, when the boy
paused.

“Yes. Ned met a stranger somewhere and traded horses with him; and when
the owner came to our rancho that night, Ned wouldn’t give the horse
up.”

“That is something I hadn’t heard of,” said Mr. Gilbert, while an
expression of surprise and anxiety settled on his face. “Now, tell me
your story from beginning to end. If you want my advice I must know
everything.”

George had a good deal to tell, but he did not consume much time with
his narrative, for every moment was precious. He knew that the two
ranchemen had by this time been made acquainted with the deception that
had been practised upon them, and no doubt they were at that very minute
on their way to Mr. Gilbert’s rancho. It was necessary that George
should be well on his way home before they arrived, both to escape the
vengeance they would doubtless visit upon him if they chanced to meet
him, and also to warn his cousin. He described the attack on the camp,
and told how he had concealed himself in the buffalo wallow and watched
the raiders while they were searching the woods. He told of his
accidental meeting with Springer, and repeated, as nearly as he could,
all the conversation he had had with him, so that Mr. Gilbert might be
enabled to judge whether or not his suspicions concerning Uncle John
were correct. He also repeated the conversation he had had with the
ranchemen who spent the night in his camp, and told what he had done to
put them on the wrong scent.

“I didn’t have more than half an hour’s sleep last night,” said George,
in conclusion. “I lay awake turning these matters over in my mind, and I
have thought about them all day. The decision at which I arrived was,
that Ned was not safe here in the settlement, and that I had better take
him out on the plains for a few weeks and let this affair of the stolen
horse blow over; but if he has been shooting cattle, I think I had
better show him the nearest way to the coast and let him go north, where
he came from.”

Mr. Gilbert heard him through without interruption, and when the boy
ceased speaking he leaned back in his chair, looked up at a picture
hanging on the wall over the lounge and rubbed his chin meditatively.
Then he arose and walked up and down the room with his hands behind his
back and his eyes fastened thoughtfully on the floor.

“I don’t think you could decide upon a better plan,” said he, at length.
“Take them both to the coast by the shortest route, put them aboard a
steamer and let them go north on a visit. Ned can come back after the
matter is forgotten, but when that Yankee friend of his gets home, he
had better stay there. We have no use for fellows of his stamp down
here. Your uncle can perhaps settle the matter by giving up the stolen
horse, paying his owner for the trouble he has had, and also paying Cook
for the cattle that were shot. And in regard to yourself, you had better
apply for a new guardian at once.”

“I should be only too glad to do so,” replied George, eagerly, “for home
isn’t home to me any longer. But there’s one question I want to ask you,
Mr. Gilbert: If I should apply for a new guardian, would any of these
things I have told you about Uncle John become known—I mean the plans he
has laid to get me out of the way, so that the property would fall to
Ned?”

“Probably they would. The thing would have to be done by process of law,
for it is your father’s will that gives him the property in trust and
makes him your guardian.”

“Then I’ll not have a new guardian!” said George.

Mr. Gilbert stopped and looked at the boy in great surprise.

“O, I mean it,” said George, decidedly. “I’ll not disgrace the only
brother my father ever had. He may do better after a while.”

“You are the most confiding boy I ever saw,” said Mr. Gilbert.

“You must remember that I have nothing but Springer’s word for all
this,” continued George, “and Springer is a rascal, who would just as
soon tell a lie as eat a good dinner. I shall satisfy myself of the
truth of his story before I make any move in the matter.”

“Well, keep your eyes open and look out for treachery while you are
doing it,” said Mr. Gilbert. “It is my opinion that you would be safer
anywhere in the world than you are here in Texas. If I were in your
place, and was determined to let Uncle John stay where he is, I would go
off somewhere and stay until I became of age. Listen! What’s that?”
exclaimed Mr. Gilbert, holding up his finger warningly.

The clatter of hoofs on the hard trail came faintly to their ears. It
grew louder every instant, and presently a couple of horsemen galloped
around the building at full speed and drew rein beside the porch in
front of the lighted windows of the office.

“Hallo, the house!” came the hail, in stentorian tones.

George sprang to his feet, and his face grew as pale as death.

“There they are!” he exclaimed, in an excited whisper.

“I was in hopes they would not come until you were well on your way
home,” said Mr. Gilbert, in the same low whisper. “It wouldn’t be safe
for you to fall into their hands.”

“I don’t care for myself,” replied George. “But, Mr. Gilbert, if you
don’t do something for Ned now——”

“Don’t get excited. Stay in here and trust to me. I have seen persons in
tight places before to-night, and I know just what you want me to do.”

George found a world of encouragement in these words. He sank back on
the lounge again, while Mr. Gilbert hurried out of the office, locking
the door behind him. George heard him pass along the hall and open the
door that led to the porch.

“Good-evening, stranger!” exclaimed a voice, which the boy knew belonged
to the owner of the stolen horse. “Is this Mr. Gilbert’s rancho?”

“Yes, sir,” was the reply. “Get down and walk in.”

“Thank you; we can’t stop. We would be obliged if you would put us on
the road to Ackerman’s.”

“I am afraid I can’t direct you so that you can find your way there in
the dark. There are a good many trails branching off the main road.
Better come in and wait until morning.”

“We can’t do it. We are in a great hurry.”

“Then wait until the moon rises, and I will send a man to show you the
way. Have you ridden far to-day?”

“We have just come from Dickerman’s.”

“Then you and your nags need food and rest. Here, Tom! take these
horses.”

George heard the men dismount on the porch, and presently heavy steps
sounded in the hall. He caught the words “Ackerman’s,” “regular nest of
horse-thieves,” “get my hands on that rascally boy who sent us so far
out of our course,” and then the closing of a door shut out the voices.
After a few minutes’ silence, during which George could plainly hear the
beating of his own heart, footsteps once more sounded in the hall, the
door was unlocked and Mr. Gilbert came in. He shook his finger warningly
at George, and, without saying a word, seized his haversack and hurried
out again. In about five minutes he came back, and George could see that
there was something in the haversack.

“You’ll have to eat your supper as you go along,” said Mr. Gilbert, in a
cautious whisper. “I have tried to reason with them but it is of no use.
Somebody has told them that Ned has been shooting cattle, and they
declare that they are going to make an example of him.”

“What do you suppose they will do?” asked George.

“Haven’t even the shadow of an idea. The least they can do with him is
to put him in jail as a receiver of stolen property; but they act as
though they were going to take the law into their own hands, and for
that reason I think you had better get Ned out of the way. As soon as
they have eaten supper I am going to send a man to guide them to your
house, so you’ll have to ride fast. I’ll delay them in every way I can,
but they are very impatient. Your horse is at the porch on the other
side of the rancho. Keep me posted as to your movements, and I’ll keep
you posted in all that goes on in the settlement. Good-by, and good luck
to you.”

George slung his haversack over his shoulder, shook Mr. Gilbert warmly
by the hand and hurriedly left the office. He found the horse at the end
of the porch, saddled and bridled, and Bony was cropping the grass a
little distance away. Both the animals recognised and welcomed him, one
uttering a low whinny and the other a suppressed bray, and the man who
was holding the horse nodded his head vigorously and patted George on
the back as if to say that he knew all about it.

“I am to show them the way,” whispered the herdsman. “Them trails twist
an’ turn about a good deal, an’ mebbe I’ll get lost: I’m a’most afeard I
will, ‘kase it’s so dark.”

“There’s one thing about it,” said George, to himself, as he mounted his
horse and rode slowly away from the rancho after taking a cordial leave
of the herdsman. “If I have no other friends in the settlement, I have
some here at Mr. Gilbert’s. They are all on my side. So Ned has been
shooting cattle! He always said he’d like to see a ‘neighborhood row,’
and now I’ll see whether or not he has the pluck to face the
consequences of his foolish act.”

George kept his horse by the side of the trail until he was out of sight
of the house, and then putting him into a gallop went ahead with all his
speed, Bony following close behind. Ranger knew the road and kept it
without any guidance from his master.

The ten miles that lay between Mr. Gilbert’s and his home were quickly
passed over, and as George drew near to the end of his ride he gradually
slackened his pace and became cautious in his movements. There was one
man about the house who seemed to have a way of finding out everything
that went on there, and who, George told himself, must know nothing
whatever of this night’s work. Philip might be his Uncle John’s
confidential assistant, as Springer had intimated, and then again he
might not; but even if he were, it was not at all likely that Uncle John
would care to have him know that Ned had got himself into such serious
trouble as this, and George’s object was to warn his cousin and his
guest, and get them out of the house and into the saddle before Philip
knew anything about it. He first made his way to the corral, intending
to put Bony in there; but the gate had already been locked for the
night. Then he turned his horse loose to drink and made his way
cautiously to the house, at the door of which he was met by one of the
herdsman, who started back in surprise at the sight of him. Every one
about the rancho had given him up for lost.

“Why, George,” exclaimed the man, springing forward as soon as he had
recovered himself, and extending both hands toward the boy, “you don’t
know how glad—Eh?”

“Not a loud word,” whispered George, raising his finger warningly.
“Jake, you are one of father’s old herdsmen, and I know I can trust you.
My cousin has got himself into a scrape, and it is necessary that he
should leave here at once. I want you to saddle a couple of horses, and
bring them to the door and assist me to get Ned and his friend out of
the house without Philip’s knowledge. That Philip is a born rascal,
Jake.”

“I was sartin of it,” whispered the herdsman. “Me an’ the rest have
always suspicioned that he let the Greasers in here that night, for we
know the door was locked. But what’s the matter with Ned?”

“I can’t stop to tell you now. It’s all over the settlement, and you
will know everything to-morrow. Now go into the kitchen and keep Philip
there until I can reach the office; then saddle up and keep a bright
lookout for a couple of horsemen. If you hear anybody coming down the
trail, let me know.”

The man hastened away to obey these orders, and as soon as George heard
the door of the kitchen close behind him, he ran on tip-toe toward the
office. The peals of laughter that fell upon his ear, told him that
there was a happy party in there, and George wondered how the members of
it would feel when they heard the news he had to tell. Excited and
anxious as he was when he opened the door, he could still take note of
the fact that his presence there was most unwelcome. He saw it plainly
enough. Uncle John and Ned were very much surprised by his abrupt
entrance, and there was not the least cordiality in their greeting.
George watched his uncle’s face and actions closely, and told himself
that Springer’s story was nothing but the truth.

“Why, George, what is the matter?” asked Uncle John, growing alarmed
when he saw how pale and nervous his nephew was. “Any bad news?”

“Yes, I have bad news. Ned, you and your friend must pack up and leave
this rancho and this county, too, without the loss of an hour’s time,”
was the astounding reply. “You are in danger, and I have put myself in
danger by coming here to tell you of it!”

“Why, George,” exclaimed Uncle John, sinking back in his chair, almost
overwhelmed with amazement and alarm, “explain yourself. I don’t
understand you at all. Why should Ned and Gus be in danger?”

“Because they have deliberately placed themselves there,” answered
George, locking the door to prevent interruption, and at the same time
lowering his voice, so that he could not be overheard by any
eavesdropper who might chance to pass through the hall. “Ned, the owner
of that stolen horse is between here and Mr. Gilbert’s. He’s looking for
you.”

Ned’s face grew as white as a sheet. He grasped the back of his chair
and leaned heavily on it for support, while Uncle John started up in his
seat and looked first at George and then at his son. The look of alarm
on his face had given away to an expression of intense astonishment.

“Stolen horse!” he exclaimed. “Looking for Ned! What do you mean?”

“You remember those two men who came here one night, searching for a
horse they called Silk Stocking, don’t you?” said George. “Well, the
horse was here in Ned’s possession all the while, and the owner has
found it out. He and his companion are on their way here now.”

“Ned,” said Uncle John, “you told me that you hadn’t seen that horse.”

“I know it,” whined the frightened boy. “I wanted to keep him.”

“But after you found out he was stolen, why didn’t you give him up?”
demanded his father.

“I was afraid the men would do something to me,” gasped Ned. “They
looked so awful mad!”

“You only made a bad matter worse!” said George. “They will do something
to you now, if they catch you, and they are bound to do it if they can!”

“Wh—what will they do?” stammered the culprit.

“They may put you in jail!”

“Gracious!” gasped Ned. He walked rapidly across the floor once or twice
and then came back and caught hold of his chair again. His strength was
all frightened out of him, and he could not long keep his feet without a
support of some kind.

“But Mr. Gilbert thinks they are going to take the law into their own
hands, as people very often do it in this country, and that is the
reason I am so anxious to get you away from here,” continued George.
“And that isn’t all. You and your friend have been shooting cattle this
afternoon!”

“It isn’t so! It isn’t so!” cried Ned, with so much earnestness that he
condemned himself on the spot. “Is it, Gus?”

“No!” replied Gus, in a feeble voice.

“I haven’t seen any cattle to-day!” declared Ned, gathering a little
courage as he proceeded. “I haven’t been near my wheat field for a week!
Somebody else did it; didn’t they, Gus?”

The latter made no reply. He did not even act as though he heard the
question, and probably he did not, for he was frightened almost out of
his wits.

“All I know is, that Mr. Cook lost two steers to-day, and that he saw
you shoot them,” said George. “He has been around to see all the
neighbors about it, and you will hear from them before this time
to-morrow if you are in this house!”

“Have you any idea what they will do?” asked Uncle John, who seemed to
be as badly frightened as Ned was.

“Not the slightest; but they will make it warm for Ned in some way, you
may depend upon it. He has raised a storm, and Mr. Gilbert’s advice to
him is to get out of reach of it. It is my advice, too.”

Just then somebody tapped lightly on the door. George turned the key,
the door opened a little way and Jake, the herdsman, thrust his head in.

“They’re comin’,” said he, in a thrilling whisper. “I can hear their
horses a-gallopin!”

This startling announcement seemed to take the courage out of everybody
except George. Uncle John and the two trembling culprits sank helplessly
into the nearest chairs, their faces betraying the utmost consternation.



                              CHAPTER XV.
                      WHAT HAPPENED AT THE RANCHO.


“How far away are they, Jake?” asked George, who seemed to be the only
one besides the herdsman who had any of his wits left about him.

“They’re so fur off that I couldn’t have heard ‘em at all if the wind
hadn’t brought the sound of their horses’ feet to me,” was the
herdsman’s answer. “But they’re comin’ fast, an’ they’ll be here in five
minutes. The horses are waitin’ at the door!”

“You have not an instant to lose,” said our hero, turning to the
frightened boys and speaking as rapidly as he could.

“Where are you going to take them, George?” asked Uncle John, as soon as
he had recovered the use of his tongue.

“I intend to show them the way to the coast—we shall probably bring up
at Brownsville—and send them up north. But you will have plenty of time
to communicate with us after we get out of harm’s way, and we can then
decide what ought to be done Mr. Gilbert thinks Ned can come back after
a while, but that Gus had better go home and stay there.”

“I think so, too,” cried Ned. “I wish I had never seen him. If he hadn’t
come here I’d never got into this miserable scrape!”

“But what am I to do?” asked Uncle John, who seemed to have no mind of
his own.

“You’ll have to stay here until you have settled this matter, and then
you had better follow us to the coast. Pay Mr. Cook for his cattle and
give up the stolen horse, making the best excuses for Ned that you can
think of.”

“Where is the horse now, Ned?” asked his father.

“I don’t know,” replied the boy. “He went off with the raiders. Hurry
up, George! Don’t stop to talk any more!”

“I am ready if you are. If the horse is gone you’ll have to pay for him,
Uncle John. Ned will need some money to bear his expenses. I’ll be back
in a minute.”

George left the office and hurried to his own room. He stayed there just
long enough to empty the contents of his money-box into his pocket, and
was back again by the time Ned had received the money his father counted
out to him. There was no leave-taking whatever; the boys were in too
great a hurry for that. They ran through the hall, and found Jake
standing on the porch holding three horses. Ned and Gus lost no time in
getting into the saddle, but George paused a moment to listen. He could
distinctly hear the sound of hoofs, but they did not seem to be coming
toward the rancho. They were moving off to the right, and when George
became satisfied of that fact, he told himself that Mr. Gilbert’s
herdsman had purposely lost his way and was leading the pursuers out of
their course.

“That’s all right,” said he. “Now put out every light about the house,
or close the shutters, to make them believe that you have gone to bed,
and be as long in answering their hail as you can. We shall stop in
Brownsville, Uncle John, and we shall expect you there in the course of
a few days. Good-by! Easy, boys! We’ll go fast enough after a while!”

Ned and Gus would have dashed off at the top of their speed and tired
their horses out before they had gone ten miles if George had not
checked them. The latter knew that they were comparatively safe now, and
he breathed a good deal easier than he did while he was in the rancho.
If the owner of the stolen horse had arrived while they were in the
office, something unpleasant might have happened; but now that he and
his companions were in the saddle there was little danger to be
apprehended. The ranchemen could not compete with them in a fair race,
for the horses they rode were weary with their day’s journey, while
those on which the boys were mounted were fresh and vigorous. George
explained this as they rode away from the house, adding:

“They can’t follow us in the dark, for they have no means of knowing
which trail we have taken. Their only chance is to wait until morning
and make inquiries among the settlers.”

“That is just what they will do,” said Ned, “and everybody will tell
them all about us. The neighbors are down on me because I am so far
above them.”

“But we must keep out of sight of the neighbors,” said George, who did
not think it best to notice his cousin’s last remark, “and then they
can’t tell anything about us. The people who live along the river trail
are strangers to us, so we’ll go that way. It is the safest.”

George kept his horse in a rapid walk until he was out of sight of the
rancho, and then he put him to the top of his speed. Although he had no
fear of being overtaken, he was very anxious to keep out of sight of the
ranchemen, for they carried revolvers and would not hesitate to use them
if they found that Ned could not be captured in any other way. George
was resolved to stand by his cousin, no matter how much risk he might
run by so doing; but perhaps he would not have been so determined on
this point if he had known what was transpiring at the rancho he had
just left.

In spite of the care he had taken to enter and leave the house without
Philip’s knowledge, that crafty individual knew all about it. As it
happened, he was standing on the porch when George first made his
appearance. He recognised the boy at once, and was not a little
surprised to see him. He knew, and so did Uncle John, that George had
succeeded in eluding the raiders when they made the descent upon his
camp, and that he was probably on his way home; but Philip did not
expect him to get there, for, as we shall presently see, arrangements
had been made to intercept him. When Philip saw him coming, he said
something angry in Spanish, and retreated into a dark doorway, so that
George could not see him.

“I never expected to put eyes on him again on this side of the river,”
said the Mexican, to himself; “but here he has gone and run the
blockade, and there is no telling when we can get another chance at him.
Where are those fellows who ought to have been watching the trail? I
wonder if he has heard any news! He acts as though he wanted to get into
the house without being seen.”

The man crouched down in his place of concealment and watched George’s
movements. He saw him when he mounted the steps and placed his hand on
the door leading into the hall. He heard almost every word of the
conversation between him and the herdsman who met him there, and the
ejaculations he uttered under his breath indicated that he was both
astonished and enraged by it. When the conversation ceased, and he heard
Jake moving along the hall, Philip softly opened the door near which he
was concealed, and slipped into the kitchen. When the herdsman entered,
he was filling his pipe, preparatory to indulging in a smoke. Knowing
that the herdsman had been sent in there to watch him, he remained in
the kitchen until Jake went out to catch and saddle the horses; then he
threw down his pipe, and running swiftly but noiselessly along the hall,
stopped in front of the office door. Placing his ear close to the
key-hole, he listened intently, hoping to overhear the conversation that
was carried on by those inside; but George, as we know, spoke in a low
tone of voice, and Philip had little more than his trouble for his
pains. When he heard Jake coming with the horses he ran back to the
kitchen, the door of which he left ajar. He saw the boys when they came
out, and heard George tell his uncle that they were going straight to
Brownsville, and should expect to see him there in a few days.

When George and his companions had ridden away out of sight, and Uncle
John and the herdsman had gone back into the hall, Philip softly opened
the kitchen door and stepped upon the porch. Almost at the same instant
the door which gave entrance into the hall, was cautiously opened and
Uncle John came in. He looked all around the room as if he was searching
for somebody, and went out upon the porch. He pronounced the Mexican’s
name two or three times, in a low tone of voice, and walked around the
building, looking everywhere for him; but he could neither hear nor see
anything of him, and finally he gave up the search, and went back to the
office again.

Philip, in the meantime, having caught up a saddle and bridle, belonging
to one of the herdsmen, ran to the corral, opened the gate with the key
which he had taken from its nail in the kitchen, and hurried in. When he
came out, he was leading a horse, which was soon saddled and bridled,
and carrying the Mexican at a full gallop away from the rancho. The
rider directed his course down the trail, and had gone about half a
mile, when he heard the sound of voices away off to his right. It was so
dark that he could not see anybody, but Philip, being confident that he
knew whom the voices belonged to, checked his horse and rode just fast
enough to intercept the horsemen, who were coming along one of the
side-trails. In a few minutes a hail came through the darkness, telling
him that he had been discovered.

“Hallo, there!” cried a voice.

“Hallo yourself!” replied Philip, stopping his horse and turning him
around, so that his head pointed toward the rancho, instead of away from
it.

“O, now you’re all right,” said another voice. “That’s one of Ackerman’s
men. He’ll show you the way, an’ I’ll go hum. I’m sorry I lost the
trail, an’ tuk you so fur outen your way—I am so; but it’s powerful
dark, an’ my eyes ain’t none of the best.”

“Well, I should think a ten-year-old boy ought to know the trails in his
own neighborhood,” growled the man who had shouted out the hail. “You
have delayed us more than half an hour.”

“And he did it on purpose, too,” thought Philip. “That’s Gilbert’s man,
and he knows the country like a book for two hundred miles around.”

“Hallo, there!” came the hail again.

“Hallo yourself!” was Philip’s answer.

“Can you show us the way to Ackerman’s?”

“I can. I am going right there.”

“Then you can go home,” said the horseman, addressing himself to the man
whom Mr. Gilbert had sent to act as guide. “We’ve seen enough of you.”

The herdsman, taking him at his word, rode off at once; and presently
the owner of the stolen horse and his companion galloped up to the place
where Philip was standing. The latter looked closely at them for a
moment, and exclaimed:

“O! I know who you are now. You’re the gentlemen who came to our rancho
the other night and borrowed two fresh horses. Did you catch him?”

“No,” growled one of the horsemen.

Philip waited for him to say something more, but the man did not seem to
be in the humor for talking just then. No doubt he was reserving all he
had to say for Uncle John’s private ear. After they had ridden a short
distance, Philip said:

“I’m sorry you didn’t catch him. Mr. Ackerman will be sure to ask
particularly about it, when he comes home.”

“When he comes home!”

“Yes; he isn’t here, you know.”

“Where is he?”

“He and his son started for Palos this morning.”

The horsemen looked at each other and uttered a volley of exclamations,
that seemed to astonish Philip greatly.

“Perhaps you wanted to see Mr. Ackerman?” said he.

“I should say we did!” replied the owner of the stolen horse.

“I am sorry. He’ll not be back for two or three weeks, for he took a
mule-wagon with him, and is going to bring back a heavy load.”

“You say his son went with him. Did he go in the wagon?”

“O, no; he rode on horseback.”

“What sort of a looking horse was it?”

“A dark chestnut, with white mane and tail and four white feet. It was a
new horse he traded for a few days ago. The house is open, just the same
as if Mr. Ackerman was there, and we shall be glad to give you——”

“We wouldn’t stay in his house to-night under any circumstances!” was
the angry reply. “Bring out our horses as quick as you can, and let us
get away; that’s all we ask of you!”

“I’ll do that. Any word to leave for Mr. Ackerman?”

“Not a word! We’ve got plenty to say to him and that boy of his, but
we’ll say it to their faces.”

“It is nothing bad, I hope!”

“It is no business of yours, whether it is or not!”

These words and the tone in which they were uttered, silenced the
Mexican most effectually. He knew some things that the owner of the
stolen horse did not know; but still he was obliged to exhibit some
curiosity, in order to avoid exciting the man’s suspicions. Not another
word was said during the ride.

The ranchemen went into the corral with Philip, turned their borrowed
horses loose and caught their own, and, having placed their saddles upon
them, they mounted and rode away. Philip watched them as long as they
were in sight, and when they had disappeared in the darkness, he closed
and locked the gate of the corral, sprang into his saddle and turned his
horse’s head away from the rancho.

“That was pretty well done if I did do it myself,” thought he. “They’ll
be back again to-morrow or next day, but if Ackerman is sharp they’ll
find him gone, sure enough. I’ll have to go, too, for I shouldn’t like
to have them see me after they learn how they have been tricked.”

While the Mexican was talking to himself in this way he had ridden
around the corral, and was now galloping at full speed toward a belt of
timber which lay about two miles from the rancho. All was dark before
him, but Philip seemed to know just where he was going. He brought his
horse to a walk when he reached the woods, and after riding through a
dense thicket of bushes he struck a bridle path, into which he turned.
He followed it for a short distance, ducking his head now and then to
avoid some overhanging branch, and finally dismounted at the door of a
dilapidated cabin that had once been the property of a pig-raiser, who
lived there and watched his droves while they fattened on the acorns
which so plentifully covered the ground at certain seasons of the year.
There was a window beside the door, and a bright light shone out of it.
The light came from the fire-place, which was heaped high with blazing
logs. In front of the fire were two men, dressed in Mexican costume, who
were reclining at their ease on their ponchos and smoking cigarettes.
But they were not Mexicans. They were renegade Americans, and members of
the band that made the attack upon George’s camp. When they heard the
strokes of the horse’s hoofs on the hard path, they started up and
turned toward the door which Philip pushed open without ceremony.

“You are a pretty pair, I must say!” exclaimed the newcomer, after he
had somewhat relieved his mind by uttering a volley of heavy Spanish
adjectives. “What were you put here for, anyhow—to waste your time in
smoking and loafing?”

“We have just this moment come in,” replied one of the men.

“Didn’t you see anybody while you were watching the trail?” inquired
Philip.

“Yes; there was somebody went by on horseback.”

“Was there a small, dark-colored mute following the horse? Then it was
the boy you were looking for, and you let him go by.”

“Of course. You told us to look out for a boy on foot!”

“So I did,” said Philip, after reflecting a moment. “I didn’t think, at
the time, that he would be likely to find his horse and mule, but it
seems he did. However, you’ve got a chance to try your hands again.
George has just started for Brownsville!”

Both the men uttered ejaculations when they heard this, and one of them
began to roll up his poncho.

“There are three of them together,” continued Philip, “but you will have
no trouble in recognising George when you find them. He’s the largest of
the lot, wears a red shirt and high boots, and rides a black horse. You
want to look out for that same black horse, for if you give him the
least show he’ll carry George so far out of your reach that you’ll never
see him again. He’s just lightning. Your best plan would be to wait
until the boys go into camp, and then jump down on them before they know
it. Hold fast to George when you get him, but don’t harm the other two.
Don’t waste your time, either, in following the big trail. Put for the
river as fast as you can, and there’s where you will find them.”

While Philip was giving these commands the men were busy rolling up
their blankets and ponchos and making their preparations for an
immediate departure. Their horses, which were staked out close by, were
quickly caught and saddled, and when all were mounted, Philip led the
way out of the timber. He paused when he reached the open ground long
enough to add a few words more to the instructions he had already given,
and then galloped off toward the rancho, while the Americans rode away
in pursuit of George.

When Philip reached home he put his horse into the corral and let
himself into the kitchen without being seen by anybody. After making
sure that the rest of the servants had retired for the night, he
hastened along the hall to the office, at the door of which he paused
for a moment to listen. He heard the sound of footsteps passing back and
forth at regular intervals, but there was no murmur of conversation, and
so Philip knew that the man he wanted to see was alone. He entered
without taking the trouble to knock, and having closed the door and
pushed the bolt into its socket, he hung his sombrero upon the knob to
cover the key-hole. Uncle John, who was walking restlessly about the
room, turned quickly and hastened forward to greet him.

“Philip, I am overjoyed to see you,” he exclaimed. “Where have you been?
I have hunted the house over to find you. Do you know what has happened
here to-night?”

“I know all about it,” replied Philip, taking possession of one of the
easy chairs, with the air of a man who felt perfectly at home. “I heard
everything that passed while George was here except the conversation he
had with you in this office. He talked so low that I couldn’t hear much
of that, but I know about what he said.”

“Then tell me what to do,” said Uncle John, who had not yet recovered
from his fright. “What shall I say to those men when they come here? I
don’t see what keeps them. I have been looking for them every minute
since the boys went away.”

“They have been here and are gone,” answered Philip. “They’ll not
trouble you to-night.”

Uncle John could not speak. He could only look the astonishment and
delight he felt.

“Yes,” continued Philip, “they have come and gone. I sent them away. I
met them on the road and told them you and Ned had gone to Palos, and
that you would not be back under two or three weeks. I told them, too,
that Ned had ridden away a new horse he traded for a few days ago. I
knew they wouldn’t stop here after hearing that. I helped them catch
their horses, and they left as soon as they could put the saddles on
them.”

Uncle John drew a long breath and sat down in the nearest chair. He was
greatly relieved to know that he would not be called upon to face the
owner of the stolen horse that night.

“They must have gone away with a very poor opinion of themselves,”
Philip went on. “They’ve been fooled at every turn. The horse they are
looking for was under the shed the night they came here; George sent
them more than thirty-five miles out of their way; Mr. Gilbert sent a
herdsman to guide them to the rancho and he lost them on purpose; and
now I have sent them off on a wild goose chase. It’s lucky for you I
did, for they were just boiling over.”

“But they’ll come back some day,” said Uncle John, growing frightened
again when he thought of it.

“Of course they will, but if they catch you here, it will be your own
fault. They’ll not find me, I tell you. You ought to be well on your way
toward Brownsville by this time to-morrow, and I don’t see why you
didn’t go with the boys. I would if I had been in your place.”

“Why, I thought I ought to stay here and settle the matter.”

“You can settle it easier through somebody else. You’ll have to pay full
value for that horse, for he went off with the raiders. I saw him go. If
I were in your place, I’d put money enough in Mr. Gilbert’s hands to
straighten up the whole business—he’ll do it if you ask him, just
because he knows it would please George—and then I’d dig out. I wouldn’t
come back either, until Mr. Gilbert thought it safe for me to do so. But
before you go, you might as well tell one of the men to bring in a
thousand head of cattle and pasture them between here and the river.”

“What do you mean by that?” exclaimed Uncle John, starting up in his
chair.

“I mean that you won’t find George in Brownsville when you get there.
You know those two fellows who were sent here to watch the rancho, don’t
you? Well, they let George go by them to-night.”

Uncle John was well aware of that fact. If they had not allowed him to
pass he could not have reached the house. That was what caused him to
exhibit so much astonishment when his nephew first entered the office.
He knew that the trail was watched, and he could not imagine how George
had escaped capture.

“George came on horseback, and they were looking for a boy on foot,”
said Philip. “He is safe now, however. I have put them on his trail, and
a few hours more will see him on the other side of the river.”

“But what will become of Ned and Gus?”

“I told the men not to trouble them.”

“But they can never find their way without a guide.”

“Haven’t they got a pair of tongues, and isn’t the trail as plain as
daylight?”

Uncle John settled back in his chair and fastened his eyes on the floor.
He was silent for a long time, but finally he said: “I wish you hadn’t
done it.”

“It is too late to talk that way,” answered Philip, drumming with his
fingers on the arms of his chair, and looking up at the ceiling. “You
told me what you wanted done, and what you were willing to give, if it
_was_ done, and I have tried my best to do it.”

“If I had waited until to-night, I never should have said a word to you
about it. Suppose it should become known among the neighbors!”

“Now, how are the neighbors going to find it out? Who is going to tell
them?”

While this conversation, and much more like it, was going on, George was
leading his companions rapidly across the plain, toward the trail which
ran along the bank of the river, in the direction of Brownsville. He had
brought upon himself the wrath of men who would have treated him
roughly, if they could have overtaken him; had run away from his home
like a thief in the night, and he had done it to save a boy whose father
was at that very moment hearing and consenting to plans, which were
intended to bring him into serious trouble. If George had known what we
have just recorded, his after life would not have been what it was, and
a good many thrilling scenes we have yet to describe, and of which he
was the hero, never would have happened. It all came out after a while,
and it came, too, in such shape that George was fully convinced that Mr.
Gilbert was wiser than himself, and he wondered why he had not seen it
before.

Philip spent more than an hour in conversation with his employer,
minutely describing all the events of the night, in which he had borne a
part, and at last he arose to go. As he was about to leave the room, a
most unexpected and alarming incident occurred. No sooner had he crossed
the threshold, than he received a blow full in the face that would have
felled an ox. It lifted him off his feet, sent him with crushing force
against the wall, and doubled him up on the floor, all in a heap.

“Set Greasers on the trail of a white boy, will ye?” exclaimed a voice.
“Take that thar fur yer imperdence! Evenin’, Mr. Ackerman!”

The voice, and the clenched hand that struck the blow, belonged to Jake,
the herdsman, who thrust his head in at the door and nodded to his
employer, as if to say:

“I know all about it!”



                              CHAPTER XVI
                            CAUGHT AT LAST!


“Let’s hold up a little, boys. We mustn’t tire our horses out at the
start, you know. We are safe now, for even if those ranchemen should
come in pursuit of us, they’d never think of looking for us here.”

The fugitives were five miles from the rancho, and they had not consumed
a great deal of time in accomplishing the distance, either. They had
scarcely exchanged a dozen words since they began their flight, for
George led the way at a pace so rapid that conversation was impossible.
Ned and Gus had never travelled so fast on horseback before, and the
former was obliged to confess to himself that he was by no means so fine
a rider as he thought he was. It was comparatively easy to keep a firm
and upright seat while his nag was ambling leisurely along a smooth
trail, but it was not so easy when the horse was running at the top of
his speed, over rough ground. His feet were out of the stirrups more
than half the time, while Gus was jolted up and down and from side to
side with such violence that it was a wonder he kept in his saddle at
all. Fortunately, Ned’s departure from home had been so hurried that he
had forgotten to take with him the ornaments he usually wore when he
went riding. If he had had his spurs on while his heels were digging
into his horse’s sides, he might not have kept his seat as well as he
did. Both he and Gus were glad when George checked his horse and allowed
him to settle down to a walk.

“Texas isn’t so dull a place to live in after all, is it?” said George,
who knew he must say something to keep up the spirits of his companions.
“One can get all the excitement he wants, without half trying, can’t
he?”

“I never would have been in this scrape if it hadn’t been for Gus,”
declared Ned, who, mean-spirited fellow that he was, always tried to
shift the responsibility for any wrongdoing upon the shoulders of
somebody else. “I wish I had never brought him here!”

“So do I,” replied Gus, who might, with just as much show of reason,
have accused Ned of being the author of all his misfortunes. If Ned had
not written him those letters and offered to pay his travelling
expenses, he never would have been in Texas. “I don’t see how you can
blame me for anything that has happened. Did I have a hand in stealing
that horse?”

“You had just as much to do with it as I did. What I mean is, that if
you had been at home, where I wish you were this very minute, those
cattle never would have been shot.”

“That’s a pretty way for you to talk!” exclaimed Gus, angrily. “I hadn’t
been in your house an hour before you told me that you intended to do
that very thing, just to get up a breeze and show the neighbors that you
had some pluck.”

“But I never would have done it if you hadn’t dared me. What are we
going to do when we reach Brownsville, George?”

“We’ll put up at a hotel and wait for Uncle John,” was George’s answer.
“When he comes we’ll talk the matter over and decide upon something. I
think we had all better go off somewhere. I am going, for I don’t want
to see anybody in our settlement until this trouble is forgotten.”

“You haven’t done anything to be ashamed of,” said Gus, who looked upon
George as a hero. He had been perfectly cool and collected while
everybody else was too badly frightened to talk plainly, and Gus greatly
admired his courage. He told himself, too, that he had formed a wrong
opinion of the boy from Ned’s description of him. He was not a boor by
any means. He was more of a gentleman in appearance, in spite of his
rough clothes, than his cousin was, and knew more in five minutes than
Ned could ever hope to know.

“No; I have done nothing to be ashamed of, but I am taking you out of
danger, and the people will think hard of me for it,” replied George.
“Besides, I deceived the owner of the stolen horse, and that will raise
a storm against me. The folks in these parts are down on anybody who
befriends a horse-thief.”

“I am not a horse-thief!” exclaimed Ned.

“Of course you are not. But you acknowledge that you kept Silk Stocking
in your possession after you knew he was stolen, and that’s a crime in
the eyes of our people!”

“Don’t you think I can ever come back?” asked Ned.

“O, yes! It will all blow over after a while, but you must be very
careful in future, for a second offence of this kind would be sure to
lead to something serious.”

Ned was overjoyed to hear this. Now that he had recovered from his
fright so that he could think clearly, he began to ask himself what the
future had in store for him. How could he live if he were obliged to
leave Texas? He knew that his father would be quite willing to support
him, no matter where he might choose to take up his abode, but he could
not do it without drawing heavily on the revenues of the estate, and it
was not at all likely that George would consent to that; consequently
Ned would be compelled to go to work and earn his own support. That was
something the boy did not want to do. He had lived so long in idleness
that the very thought of work was most distasteful to him. He told
himself that he would indeed be careful how he acted when he came back
to the ranche, and that nothing could ever again induce him to foolishly
jeopardise his chances of living a life of ease.

“Mr. Gilbert has often advised me to go away and see a little of the
world, especially of my own country, and I don’t know that I shall ever
have a better opportunity,” continued George. “I’d like first to go up
the Mississippi, clean up to its source, and come back in a canoe.
Canoeing is getting to be a favorite sport with some people.”

“That would be splendid,” exclaimed Ned, with great enthusiasm. “I’ll go
with you.”

George made no reply. He had not looked for so prompt an endorsement of
an idea that had but just suggested itself to him, and besides, his
cousin was the last boy in the world he would have chosen for a
companion during a journey of that kind. If he made it at all, he wanted
to make it a pleasure trip; and for that reason he wanted Ned to have
nothing to do with it.

“I have read about the cruise of the _Rob Roy_ on the Jordan,” continued
Ned, “and I’d like to make one just like it. I think a voyage down the
Mississippi would be the next best thing. We ought to take our guns and
some fishing tackle with us, and we shall need a tent and cooking
utensils. Won’t we have fun, though? Let’s go, George.”

“And while you are having so much fun what will I be doing?” asked Gus.

“You!” said Ned, as if he had forgotten that there was such a boy as Gus
Robbins in existence. “O, you had better go home.”

“Now, Ned, you know very well that I can’t do it,” said, Gus; and he
spoke so calmly that Ned looked at him in surprise.

“Yes, you can. Your father said so in his letter.”

“But I haven’t money enough to pay my way.”

“Well, I can’t help that. You can’t expect me to pay your bills all the
while.” Ned caught his breath when he said this, and looked toward his
cousin, wondering what the latter would think, if he knew that a hundred
dollars, which ought to have been placed in the bank for his future
benefit, had been spent to bring Gus Robbins to Texas. “Write to your
father,” added Ned.

“What shall I do while I am waiting for an answer?” asked Gus. “How
shall I live?”

“You’ll have to go to work at something. I don’t know of anything else
you can do.”

Gus did not continue the conversation any longer. He had learned all he
wanted to know. Drawing in his reins, he gradually slackened his pace,
and allowed George and his cousin, who rode side by side, to pass on in
advance of him. As soon as they had done so, Gus fell in behind them and
shook his fist angrily at Ned.

“He’s the meanest boy that was ever heard of,” said he, to himself. “I
knew it all the while, and the trouble I have got into is nothing more
than I deserve. I ought to have had nothing to do with him. He has got
himself and me into a scrape, and now he throws me overboard, and lets
me look out for myself, while he depends upon his cousin to see himself
safely through. He’s got a big pile of money he can draw on, and can go
off and enjoy himself, while I’ve got to stay here. For I shall not go
home,” added Gus, with a most emphatic shake of his head. “Everybody in
Foxboro’ knows by this time that I ran away, and I’ll not go back there
and face them. There’s plenty of work to be had in this country, and
right here I’ll stay until my father writes me a decent letter.”

Perhaps we shall see that Gus made a great mistake when he came to this
determination. If he had made up his mind to return to his home as soon
as he could get there, he would have saved himself a great deal of
trouble that afterward came to him. He decided that he would accompany
Ned as far as Brownsville, and that when he arrived there he would leave
him and strike out for himself. He would not stay with a boy who did not
want his company.

As the hours wore away, and the rancho was left farther and farther
behind, and all fears of pursuit died away, Ned’s spirits and courage
all came back to him, and he began to speak of the events of the night
and the incidents that led to them as a “lark” that was just a little
ahead of anything he had ever heard of. He seemed to forget all about
Gus, who took no part in the conversation. Now and then George turned
about in his saddle, and addressed some remark to him, but Gus replied
only in monosyllables, and George, finding that he did not feel in the
humor for talking, left him to the companionship of his own thoughts.

It was an hour after daylight when the boys came within sight of the
woods which lined the banks of the Rio Grande. By this time Ned and Gus
were completely tired out, and even George began to show signs of
weariness. They were all glad of a chance to rest, and believed they
would be the better for a few hours’ refreshing sleep. They staked out
their horses in the edge of the timber, spread their blankets and
ponchos on the ground, and throwing themselves down upon them, went to
sleep almost immediately.

There was no one in sight when they went into camp, for George took
particular pains to satisfy himself of this fact; but for all that there
were two persons near enough at hand to observe all their movements.
They had been on the trail of the fugitives for more than half an hour,
following behind them at a respectful distance, and making use of every
inequality in the ground to conceal them from the view of the boys,
should any of them chance to look behind. When the travellers staked out
their horses one of them was lying on the summit of the nearest ridge,
looking at them over the top of the grass. When he had seen all he cared
to see he returned to his companion, who sat on his horse at the foot of
the swell awaiting the result of his observations, and the two rode
along under cover of the ridge until they reached the woods, about half
a mile above the place where the boys had made their camp. Keeping their
horses in a rapid walk they moved along just outside the timber, and
were soon discovered by Ranger, who lifted his head and gave them a good
looking over. But he raised no alarm thinking, no doubt, if he were able
to think at all, that as it was daylight his master ought to be able to
take care of himself.

When they had approached a little nearer the two men put their horses
into a gallop, and dashed into camp. One of them threw his bridle to his
companion, and swinging himself out of his saddle hurried up to George
and placed his hand on his shoulder just as the boy, aroused out of a
sound sleep by the clatter of the horses’ hoofs, raised himself on his
elbow to see what was the matter. He saw a bearded face bending over
him, and felt a strong grasp on his collar. His two companions were
sitting up on their blankets looking on with mouths and eyes wide open.
Ned probably did not consider this incident a part of the “lark” he had
been talking about, for he was trembling like a leaf.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” demanded George, as soon as
he could speak.

“We’re somebody who won’t harm you so long as you do just as you’re
told!” replied the man. “We came after you—that’s what’s we are doin’
here!”

“Well, now that you have found me, what do you want with me?” asked
George.

“We want you to get on your hoss an’ take a ride with us. Thar’s
somebody over on the other side of the river who wants to see you
powerful bad!”

George arose slowly to his feet and looked first at the man who held him
by the collar, and then at the man who sat in his saddle. He knew who
they were before he asked them, and he knew, too, who it was on the
other side of the river who wanted to see him. He was caught at last,
and there was no chance for escape. There was but one course open to
him, and that was to submit and trust to luck.

“Answer another question while you are about it,” said George. “Are you
Fletcher’s men?”

“What do you know about Fletcher?” demanded the ruffian, in surprise.

“I know all about him, and I know what he wants of me, too.”

“Who told you?” asked his captor, still more astonished.

“That’s my business!” answered George, who knew better than to mention
Springer’s name.

“Now, what in the world does this mean?” whined Ned, who just then
recovered his power of speech. “Who are these men, George, and what are
they going to do with us?”

“We aint agoin’ to do nothing with you an’ the other feller thar,” said
the man, pointing at Gus, “so you don’t need to get so white an’ act so
powerful skeered. This yere is the chap we’ve been lookin’ fur. Now you
two can lay thar an’ sleep jest as long as you please, an’ then you can
strike out fur Brownsville, and nobody won’t say a word to you.”

“But what are you going to do with George? Are you going to take him
away and leave us alone?”

“That’s about the way it looks now.”

“How are we going to find our way without a guide? We don’t know the
road!”

“You don’t need to know it, ‘cause you can’t miss it. It’s as plain as
the nose on your face.”

Ned exhibited the greatest astonishment and terror, while Gus sat
staring blankly before him, as if he could hardly realize what was going
on. The former, George noticed, did not ask what the men intended to do
with him, after they had taken him across the river. All he wanted to
know, was how he and Gus were going to find their way to Brownsville
without a guide.

“O now, I don’t know what to do,” cried Ned, sinking back on his blanket
and covering his face with his hands.

“Be a man in the first place,” said George, who was surprised at his
cousin’s want of courage. “You have nothing to cry over. Your way is
perfectly plain, but if you miss it, can’t you stop at some of the
ranchos along the road and ask the people to set you right? But there’s
one thing I want to speak to you about. I say! You don’t care if I
change clothes with him, do you?” he added, addressing the man who held
him by the collar.

“What do you want to do it for?” asked that worthy.

“Because it may help him.”

“I don’t reckon it’ll do any harm, will it, Sam?” inquired the man,
appealing to his companion.

Sam looked down at the horn of his saddle, and after considering the
matter, said he didn’t think it would.

“All right. Let go my collar,” said George. “Why do you hang on to me in
that fashion?”

“I was told to look out for you,” answered the ruffian, “an’ I’m jest
goin’ to do it!”

He let go his prisoner’s collar, but he kept close beside him when the
latter walked over to the place where his cousin was lying on his
blanket. “You had better give me those silver buttons and all the rest
of your finery,” said George, “for they are much too conspicuous for you
to wear. Those ranchemen are not going to give up that horse, and they
may follow you clear to Brownsville. I believe I could take you through
all right; but as I can’t go with you, you will be left to depend upon
yourself, and you can’t take too many precautions.”

The hint that there was still a possibility of pursuit and capture by
the ranchemen, brought Ned to his feet in great haste. The thought that
perhaps his cousin might get himself into trouble by wearing those same
silver buttons never entered his head, nor would he have paid any
attention to it if it had. He cared for nobody but himself, and he was
quite willing to part with his nobby suit, and put on his cousin’s
coarse clothing, if by so doing, he could secure his own safety. The
exchange was soon effected, the cattle-thief standing so close to
George’s elbow all the while that flight would have been impossible,
even if the boy had thought of such a thing, and although Ned cut a
sorry figure in his new rig, his cousin’s appearance was vastly
improved. The nobby suit, which was rather large for Ned, fitted him as
though it had been made on purpose for him, and Gus, while he looked at
him, wondered why he had never before noticed that George was a very
handsome young fellow.

“Now, boys,” said the latter, as he placed the sombrero on his head, “as
soon as you have had rest enough, catch up and start again. Don’t waste
an hour, but be careful and not tire your horses out by reckless riding.
When you reach Brownsville, go to the best hotel, and wait for Uncle
John. Ned has all the money you need,” added George, who had taken pains
to see that there was an exchange of purses as well as an exchange of
clothing.

“But what is going to become of you?” asked Ned, as if the question had
just occurred to him.

“I am sure I don’t know,” replied George; and it was right on the end of
his tongue to add: “Probably your father will tell you if you will ask
him the next time you see him,” but he did not utter the words. It was
more than likely that Springer’s story was all false, and that Uncle
John knew nothing whatever about this matter. At any rate he would not
accuse him until he had received positive proof of his guilt.

“What makes you let them carry you off in this way, anyhow?” demanded
Ned.

“What else can I do? I can’t whip two grown men with my bare hands, can
I?”

“I always heard that the Ackermans was a plucky lot,” said the man who
was keeping guard over George, “but I didn’t allow to find a kid like
you so cool an’ careless-like. Have you done talkin’ enough now, do you
reckon?”

“Yes, I have given all the advice I can think of, and I will be ready to
go with you as soon as I can saddle my horse.”

“You needn’t mind takin’ that lasso off,” said the man, as George was
about to untie the lariat with which his horse was fastened to the
picket-pin. “‘Cause why, we’ll leave it jist as it is, you know, an’
I’ll hang on to this yere eend of it.”

The boy was surprised at the precautions his captor thought it necessary
to take in order to prevent any attempt at escape, and told himself that
the man was going to a good deal of trouble for nothing. If there had
been the least chance for flight or successful resistance George would
promptly have taken advantage of it, as he did a few days afterward, but
he was not foolhardy enough to run a race with a bullet from the
ruffian’s revolver. While he was putting the saddle and bridle on his
horse he repeated all the instructions he had given Ned, and when he
could no longer find an excuse for delaying his departure, he shook
hands with his companions, bade them good-by and rode away between the
two cattle-thieves, one of whom held fast to the lasso which was around
the neck of George’s horse. Ned and Gus stood in the edge of the timber
watching him as long as he remained in sight, and when he disappeared
behind the nearest swell, they sat down on their blankets and looked at
each other.

“O, Gus, I don’t know what I should do if you were not here with me!”
exclaimed Ned, who was the first to speak.

“Don’t you, indeed!” replied his companion. “Have you forgotten how
squarely you went back on me no longer ago than last night? You just as
good as told me that you had seen enough of me. You could get along
without me well enough while you had your cousin to lean on, but now
that he is gone, I am a bully boy again. No, sir; you can’t throw me
away and pick me up again when you please, now I tell you!”

“O, don’t talk that way!” whined Ned, who knew that he was powerless,
and that everything depended upon Gus. “I didn’t mean it. I was
frightened out of my senses, and didn’t know what I was saying.”

“No, you were not frightened. You had got all over it and were laughing
about the ‘lark’ you had had. You said it, whether you meant it or not,
and I shall take you at your word.”

“You are not going to leave me?” Ned almost gasped.

“Yes, I am. When we reach Brownsville, if we ever do, you will see the
last of me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind yet. I know what I am going to
do now: I am going to sleep.”

Ned could not understand how Gus could take the matter so coolly. He was
slumbering heavily in less than five minutes after he arranged his
blankets, while Ned, whose excitement would not permit him to sleep,
tossed uneasily about, thinking over the incidents of the last few
hours, and trembling when he looked forward to the long journey before
him and its possible ending.

“I am not out of danger yet,” he kept saying to himself, “for if I were,
George would not have traded clothes with me. He has been pretty good to
me, I must say. It isn’t every fellow who would stand by a cousin as he
has stood by me, and I almost wish I had treated him a little better.
Perhaps I shall never see him again. Well, if I don’t——”

Clasping his hands under his head Ned lay back on his blanket and
proceeded to follow out the train of thought that had so suddenly
suggested itself to him. The prospect of stepping into possession of a
property worth forty thousand dollars a year was a pleasing one; and
while he was wondering what he should do with so much money, and how he
could spend it to the best advantage, his weariness overcame him, and he
sank into a dreamless sleep. When he awoke the sun had climbed around to
the other side of the woods, and the shadows of the trees were thrown
far out on the plain, showing that the day was drawing to a close. Gus
was already stirring. He had rolled up his blankets, and was just
putting the saddle on his horse when Ned opened his eyes.

“Where are you going?” demanded the latter, in some alarm.

“I am going to start out and see if I can find a house,” replied Gus. “I
have a little money in my pocket, and while it lasts I am not going to
sleep out of doors or go hungry, either!”

“You needn’t spend a cent of it,” said Ned, hastily jumping to his feet
and folding his blankets. “I’ve got enough for both of us. You were not
going away without me, were you?”

Gus, who was whistling softly to himself, made no reply to this
question, although his companion was sure he had heard it. His silence
was enough to excite Ned’s suspicions, and to thoroughly frighten him,
also. Did Gus intend to desert him? If so, what would he (Ned) do when
he was left to himself?

“I’ve made him mad and I don’t know how to get him good-natured again,”
was Ned’s mental reflection. “If I can only keep him with me until
father comes to Brownsville, he can clear out and welcome. I must keep a
close watch over him or he’ll come up minus some fine morning.”

While these thoughts were passing through Ned’s mind, he caught up his
saddle and bridle and hurried out to put them on his horse.



                             CHAPTER XVII.
                              CONCLUSION.


It was a very unsociable pair who rode away from the woods that
afternoon. Ned, who knew that he could not take care of himself, tried
his best to heal the breach that had been caused between himself and his
companion, by the hasty and ungenerous words he had uttered the night
before, but Gus repelled all his advances. Knowing that his old friend
would drop him again as soon as he could find some one else to lean on,
Gus would have nothing to say to him; so Ned gave up in despair, and
rode along in silence. We may add that this was the way they travelled
every day, until they reached Brownsville. Gus stopped for the night
when and where he pleased, resumed his journey in the morning when he
got ready, and never consulted Ned, who was at liberty to follow or stay
behind, just as he chose.

The boys soon found the trail which they had no difficulty in following,
for it was as plain as a wagon road. Indeed, it was a wagon road, for it
was used by the settlers and army teamsters in hauling goods up and down
the river. Gus at once set off at a sharp gallop and Ned lumbered along
a few paces in his rear. They rode in this way until the sun sank out of
sight, and the shadows of twilight began to deepen into the gloom of
night, and Gus was telling himself that there was a fair prospect that
they would be obliged to go supperless to bed, when his eyes were
gladdened by the sight of a rancho a little distance away. Urging his
horse forward at a faster pace, he drew up in front of the building a
moment later, and was welcomed by a half a dozen ill-looking curs, which
ran out and barked at him vociferously.

“Hallo, in there!” shouted Gus, hardly believing that he could make
himself heard above the din raised by the angry pack which surrounded
him. “Anybody at home?”

“Get out, ye brutes!” roared a voice from the inside. “Alight an’ hitch,
strangers.”

The dogs retreated under the porch, where they remained growling
savagely, and now and then giving utterance to an impatient bark, and
presently the owner of the voice appeared in the open door. In dress and
appearance he was in perfect keeping with his surroundings, which, when
the boys c to look at them, they found to be of the most primitive
character. The house was a rambling old structure, built of logs and
rough, unpainted boards. There were wide gaps in the shingles on the
roof, and the rickety porch groaned and creaked as the man stepped upon
it. The few outbuildings that could be seen were in the same dilapidated
condition. The house was undoubtedly the home of a squatter, who made
his living by pasturing cattle on government land.

“Alight an’ hitch, strangers,” repeated the man. “You’re welcome to sich
as we’ve got, an’ that ain’t none of the best, I can tell you. You see
we went back into the country to git shet of the raiders an’ we’ve jest
come hum to-day.”

“Did you lose any of your cattle?” asked Gus, and after he had asked the
question, he was surprised at himself for doing it. Probably the man
owned two or three cows, which supplied his family with milk, and the
raiders would not go far out of their way to pick up such a herd as
that.

“Nary hoof,” replied the squatter, with a triumphant air. “I tuk my
three thousand head safe off an’ brung ‘em all back agin!”

Gus was astonished. The man was rich. He was worth at least sixty
thousand dollars (Gus had heard that beef cattle were worth twenty
dollars a piece) and yet he lived in a hovel at which a respectable dog
would turn up his nose. It looked so untidy and altogether forbidding
that Gus did not want to go into it; but knowing that he would find
plenty to eat in there, and believing that he could find a shelter
somewhere under the leaky roof, he dismounted, and the squatter came
down the steps and took charge of his horse.

“Go right in, strangers,” said he. “The ole woman’s in thar, an’ I
reckon supper’s ‘most ready.”

Gus went in, but Ned, who felt very lonely and down-hearted, seated
himself on the porch and brooded over his troubles. The former found
that the living-room, which was the one he entered, was as uninviting as
the outside of the house. The floor was littered with various odds and
ends, including saddles, bridles, horse-blankets and old boots, and the
holes in the walls were covered with hides which were hung up over them
to keep out the wind and rain. One side of the room was occupied by an
immense fire-place, in front of which stood the squatter’s wife, who was
busy with her preparations for supper. She looked up when the boy
entered, waved a case-knife toward an old chest which stood beside the
door, and requested him to sit down; and that was the only time Gus
heard her speak while he remained at the rancho.

The boys fared a great deal better than they expected. The supper was
abundant and well cooked, but the dishes on which it was served up might
have been a little cleaner. The squatter was very sociable in his way,
and after entertaining the young travellers with many stories of
exciting and amusing adventure drawn from his own experience, he asked
them where they came from and where they were going.

“I don’t know where I am going,” answered Gus, ignoring the first part
of the question, and speaking entirely for himself. “I am looking for a
chance to go into business of some kind, and if I could get stock enough
to begin on I might be tempted to try cattle-raising on the squatter
plan.”

This was enough to set their host to going again, and during the rest of
the evening he kept the boys interested. He told of his own trials and
failures, and gave Gus some advice which might have been valuable to him
had he thought seriously of going into the business of cattle-raising.
The squatter talked almost incessantly until ten o’clock, and then
seeing that Gus began to yawn he stopped abruptly and led the boys into
an adjoining room.

“I brung your saddles an’ things in yere,” said he. “You can spread your
blankets on the floor an’ sleep as comfor’ble as you please. Mebbe the
roof’ll leak a little if it rains, an’ if it does, you can come in an’
lay down in front of the fire. All night to you!”

So saying the squatter left the room, and the boys began groping about
in the dark in search of their saddles, to which their blankets and
ponchos were fastened. They found them at last, and after making their
beds they lay down on them without bidding each other good-night, and
prepared to go to sleep. It was very probable that the room would leak a
little in case of a sudden shower, Gus thought, as he looked up at the
roof. There were several holes in it, and some of them were so large
that he could have crept through them. He lay there for a long time
looking up at the stars, thinking of his home, and telling himself how
foolish he was to run away from it just in time to miss that excursion
to the trout streams of the Adirondacks, and when his eye-lids were
beginning to grow heavy and the holes in the roof to assume fantastic
shapes, Ned suddenly started up and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“What’s that?” said he, in a low whisper. “Don’t you hear something?”

Gus was wide awake in an instant. He held his breath and listened for a
moment, and then sank back in his blanket again.

“I don’t see any sense in frightening a fellow half to death for
nothing!” said he. “Let me alone, now. I want to go to sleep!”

“But I hear horses,” whispered Ned. “They’re coming fast, too.”

“So do I hear them; but what of it?” replied Gus.

He spoke as though he took no interest whatever in the matter, but if
Ned could have seen his face, he would have found that it was growing
whiter every moment. Gus heard the sound of the hoofs plainly enough,
but until Ned spoke it never occurred to him that the horses which made
the noise might be ridden by men who were in pursuit of himself and his
companion. A few seconds later the dogs were aroused and rushed out in a
body to salute the approaching horsemen. Ned hoped from the bottom of
his heart that they would pass on without stopping, but in this he was
disappointed. The horsemen came straight toward the house, the sound of
the hoofs ceased suddenly in front of the porch, and a voice that made
Ned tremble all over rang out on the air.

“Hallo, the house!” came the hail.

“Get out, ye brutes!” shouted the squatter; whereupon the dogs scattered
and took refuge under the porch. “Alight an’ hitch, strangers. I’ll be
thar in a minute!”

The boys heard their host moving about the living-room and mending the
fire to make it blaze. Then he opened the door and they listened with
all their ears to hear what passed between him and the new comers. As
there was but one thin board partition (and that was full of wide
cracks) between them and the door, they could catch every word that was
uttered.

“Alight an’ hitch, strangers,” said the squatter, repeating his
stereotyped invitation. “You’re welcome to sich as we’ve got, an’ that
ain’t none of the best, I can tell you.”

“Thank you,” replied the same voice that had hailed the house; and when
Ned heard it he trembled again. “If you will let us spread our blankets
on your porch, and will give us a bite to eat in the morning, we shall
be much obliged. We’ll not ask you to get supper for us. It is too
late.”

“No occasion, stranger; no occasion,” replied the hospitable squatter.
“Ole woman, here’s a couple of hungry gentle_men_ out here who want
something to eat. Travellin’ fur, strangers?”

“We’ve ridden about seventy-five miles. Have you seen a party of four
persons pass this way to-day, one of them a young fellow, riding a dark
chestnut horse with white mane and tail, and four white feet?”

“Gracious!” thought Ned.

“Aha!” said Gus, to himself, at the same time drawing a long breath of
relief. “He didn’t say a word about the cattle that were shot, so I have
nothing to fear. Ned can look out for number one; that’s what he was
going to make me do. But he asked after _four_ persons. Who is the
other, I wonder? There were but three of us before George was taken
away.”

“Ain’t seed no sich,” replied the squatter.

“That’s very strange,” said the voice. “They must have come this way,
for they are going to Brownsville. The fellow who rode this horse wore a
sombrero, high patent leather boots and a buckskin coat with silver
buttons. He carried an ivory-handled riding-whip, had silver-plated
spurs on his heels, and the horse wore a gold-mounted saddle and
bridle.”

“Ain’t seed no sich,” repeated the squatter, while Ned wondered where
the man had obtained so accurate a description of him.

“They couldn’t have gone by without attracting your attention, could
they?”

“Nary time. I see everybody who goes along this trail by daylight. Come
in, gentle_men_. The ole woman’ll cook you a bite of something an’ I’ll
look arter your critters.”

The listening boys knew when the unwelcome visitors dismounted and
entered the house, and Gus, who sat where he could look through one of
the widest cracks into the living-room, the interior of which was now
brightly lighted up by the fire on the hearth, noticed that the
squatter’s wife motioned to them with a case-knife, to sit down on the
chest by the side of the door. After Gus had taken a good look at them,
he did not wonder that their appearance frightened Ned so badly that he
dared not confess that the stolen horse was in his possession. Ned could
not see the men, but he knew they were in the next room, and not more
than twelve or fifteen feet from him. What would become of him when they
discovered that he was in the house? He would certainly meet them the
next morning at the breakfast table, and if they recognised him, it
would be all over with Ned Ackerman.

“I wonder why father didn’t settle the matter with them, as George told
him to do!” thought Ned, who always blamed somebody beside himself for
the trouble he got into. “He had the money, he ought to have done it,
and he has got me into a pretty mess by not doing it. If I ever see him
again, I’ll give him a piece of my mind, I bet you.”

Another thing that aroused the boy’s anger, was the manner in which Gus
conducted himself. While Ned was sitting upon his blanket, trembling in
every muscle and living in momentary expectation of discovery, Gus had
the impudence to lie down and roll over on his side with his hand under
his cheek, as if he were trying to go to sleep. Ned could see it all by
the aid of the light which streamed in through the cracks in the
partition.

“Say, Gus,” he whispered, shaking his companion as roughly as he dared,
“what am I to do? Get up and suggest something.”

“I don’t care what you do,” answered Gus, who thought this a good time
to pay Ned for what he had said the night before. “It is none of my
funeral. I didn’t steal the horse.”

“Neither did I,” said Ned, who was so angry that it was all he could do
to control himself. “Shall I creep out of the house, if I can get out,
or shall I stay here and take my chances?”

“Do just as you please. I am not interested in the matter at all.”

“Your critters is done took care on!” exclaimed the squatter, who came
in at that moment. “What’s this yere feller with the silver buttons an’
the hoss with the white stockins on been a doin’ of?”

“The boy is a receiver of stolen property,” came the reply, in a tone
which made Ned tremble more violently than ever. “Do you know anything
about the people who live in the Ackerman settlement?”

“Never heard tell of none of ‘em,” answered the squatter.

“It is my opinion that they are no better than they should be,”
continued the owner of the stolen horse. “Every man and boy we met
except one is a friend to this fellow who ran off with my property. That
one’s name was Cook. He has lost some cattle through this same Ned
Ackerman, and is very anxious he should be caught. I am going to have
that horse if he is in the state.”

“And we’re going to have the boy who ran away with him, too,” added the
other rancheman.

Slowly and cautiously Ned stretched himself upon his blanket, and
drawing his body into as small a compass as he could, as if he hoped in
this way to lessen the chances for discovery, he lay and listened to the
conversation that followed. The visitors talked principally about
cattle-raising, and there was little more said concerning the lost steed
and the boy who was supposed to have run away with him; but that little
served to convince Ned, if he needed any further proof, that the men
were determined they would not go home until they had captured him and
recovered the horse. As soon as they had eaten the supper that had been
prepared for them the squatter offered to show them where they could
spread their blankets; and Ned’s heart almost stopped beating when he
heard the three men enter the narrow hall leading to the room occupied
by himself and Gus. At the same time a faint light shone in upon him,
and Ned saw that the doorway was concealed by a tattered blanket. The
light shone through this blanket, which, while Ned looked at it, was
raised, admitting the squatter, who carried a blazing fire-brand in his
hand.

“Come right in here,” said he, as he held up the blanket; and Ned was
almost ready to faint when he saw the ranchemen enter, each carrying his
saddle in his hand. “These yere is two chaps who is out cattle-buyin’,”
continued the squatter, waving his fire-brand toward the boys. “An’
these yere is two fellers lookin’ for a hoss-thief. Know yourselves,
gentle_men_!”

Believing that by this introduction he had made the two parties
acquainted with each other, the squatter relapsed into silence and held
up his fire-brand so that the ranchemen could see to arrange their beds.
The latter nodded to the boys and wished a hearty good-evening to which
Gus alone responded. Ned could not have uttered a word to save his life.
Was it possible that he could stay in the same room with those men all
night? He thought they looked at him a little suspiciously, and to show
them that he was not the boy who wore the high patent-leather boots and
silver buttons, Ned threw off his blanket so that all his clothes could
be seen.

“Buying cattle, eh?” said the owner of the horse. “Going into the ranche
business?”

“I don’t know that I can do anything better,” replied Gus.

“You don’t want anything better if you manage rightly,” said the man. “I
have known young fellows like you and your partner to start out with a
few head of stock and make themselves rich before they were forty years
old. But of course they worked hard and attended strictly to business.
That’s the only way to get on in this world. Now, my friend, we shall
not need your light any longer.”

Ned was glad indeed when the squatter dropped the blanket to its place
and went out with his fire-brand. He was glad, too, that the ranchemen
were tired and sleepy, for he did not want to hear them talk. He was
afraid that they might address some of their remarks to him. They did
not know him in his cousin’s clothes, and they did not recognise his
face for the reason that they had not obtained a fair view of it on the
night they visited the rancho; but they had heard his voice, and they
might remember it if they heard it again. So Ned determined that he
would not speak. He pretended to fall asleep immediately, but the fact
was he did not sleep a wink that night. The mere presence of the men who
were hunting him so perseveringly was enough to keep him wide awake. The
long hours of night had never dragged so slowly away before, nor had Ned
ever longed so impatiently for the daylight. The first gray streaks of
dawn which came creeping in through the wide cracks in the walls around
the slumbering ranchemen who, after exchanging a few words in a low tone
of voice, arose and left the room, taking their blankets and saddles
with them. Ned heard them in conversation with the squatter, and wished
most heartily that the latter would not be so persistent in his efforts
to keep them until breakfast was over. He did not want the ranchemen to
see him by daylight, and he was overjoyed to hear them declare that all
they wanted was a cold bite, and if their host would provide them with
that they would be off. The cold bite was speedily forthcoming, and when
the ranchemen had done full justice to it, they mounted their horses and
rode away. Then Ned breathed easily for the first time in long hours.

This was the last adventure that befell our young travellers while they
were on their way to Brownsville. They never went a mile out of their
way; they fared well along the route, and their meals and lodging did
not cost them a cent. The door of any rancho or farm-house that happened
to be in sight when night came was open to them, the owner treated them
like honored guests, and always refused to accept any remuneration. They
rode into Brownsville one morning about ten o’clock. Having made
inquiries at their last night’s stopping-place they knew the name of the
best hotel and where to go to find it, and toward it they directed their
course. Giving their horses in charge of a man who came out to meet them
as they drew up in front of the door, they went in, and Ned, having
signed his name to the register, called for a room.

“Gus has treated me as though I wasn’t Ned Ackerman at all,” thought he,
as he followed the bell-boy up the stairs. “He has travelled on his own
hook, leaving me to take care of myself, and now I am going to pay him
back in his own coin. He ought to come and make things straight with me,
if he only knew it, for he can’t have the cheek to go home again after
what he has done.”

But Gus had not the slightest intention of making things straight. He
had had quite enough of his old friend, and he was just as independent
as Ned was. He did not register his name, but went into the wash-room,
and after removing all the travel-stains from his hands, face and
clothing, he came out, and left the hotel. It was a long time before Ned
heard where he went and what he did.

Meanwhile, Ned was working hard with a brush broom, a piece of soap and
a coarse towel, to make himself presentable; but when he got through and
took a look at himself in the mirror, he was anything but pleased with
the result. His hands and face were very brown, and his red shirt looked
as though it had been through two or three wars. “I can’t stand this. I
am ashamed of myself,” thought he. “I noticed as I came along, that
there were a good many stylish young fellows on the street, and I am not
going among them with such clothes as these on. Fortunately, I have
money enough to rig myself out equal to the best of them. If I only had
my nobby suit now, wouldn’t I make folks stare?”

Ned went down stairs and out of the hotel. When he returned, about half
an hour later, he carried a satchel in his hand and a bundle under his
arm. He made his way to his room, and when he came out again, no one who
had seen him when he rode into town would have taken him for the same
boy. Gus Robbins would have been obliged to look twice at him before he
could have recognised him. His cousin’s coarse clothing had been
exchanged for a broadcloth suit of the latest and most fashionable cut,
and the wearer looked like a dapper young clerk out for a holiday.

Being satisfied now that he could appear on the streets without
attracting any but admiring glances, Ned went down to the office. The
clerk was not there, and while the boy stood leaning against the
counter, waiting for him to come in so that he could give him his key,
he heard a voice behind him—a familiar voice, that made the cold chills
creep all over him. He knew who the owner of the voice was, but some
strange fascination compelled him to turn his head and look at him over
his shoulder. There were two men standing in front of the counter with
the register before them. One held a pen in his hand, and was on the
point of writing his name, when another name above the first vacant line
attracted his attention.

“Why, look here, Joe,” said he. “‘_Edward Ackerman._’ That’s our man. He
was coming to Brownsville, you know.”

“So he was,” said Joe.

Just then the clerk passed around behind the counter. He looked at Ned
as he went by, but did not act as though he had ever seen him before.

“Mr. Clerk,” said the owner of the stolen horse, for it was he, “who is
this Edward Ackerman?”

“Don’t know’ him,” answered the clerk. “He’s a stranger.”

“What sort of a looking fellow is he?”

“O, he’s roughly dressed, and looks as though he might be a cow-boy!”

“That doesn’t answer the description, but we might have a peep at him if
he is in his room. Show us up, will you?”

The clerk sounded his signal-bell, and when the boy came up in answer to
it, he was commanded to show the gentlemen up to number thirty-three.
Ned watched them as they followed the boy up the stairs, and then left
the counter and went out on the street. He would have been glad to give
up the key of his room and send for his valise, which contained the rest
of the clothing he had just purchased, but he could do neither without
exposing himself on the spot.

“Am I never going to see the last of those men?” thought Ned, as he
hurried along, turning every corner he came to, as if he hoped in that
way, to leave his pursuers behind for ever. “I can’t stay at that hotel
if they are going to stop there. I wish father would hurry up. I shall
be in danger as long as I am in this town.”

Ned found a second-rate hotel, after a few minutes’ walk, and concluded
to stop there. Profiting by his past experience, he signed a fictitious
name to the register, and then settled down to wait as patiently as he
could for his father’s arrival. He waited almost a week, and was
beginning to fear that he would never come, when one day, to his great
delight, he met him on the street. Ned’s first act was to relate the
particulars of his two adventures with the ranchemen, and to take his
father to task for not settling the matter with them. He never said a
word about his cousin’s capture or Gus Robbins’s sudden disappearance,
for those little incidents were of no consequence whatever.

“Those men are following me around under the impression that I still
have the horse in my possession,” said Ned, angrily. “Why didn’t you
tell them that he went off with the raiders?”

“Because I didn’t have the chance,” replied his father. “They never came
near my house that night. If they will go back to Mr. Gilbert’s they
will find money enough in his hands to pay for the horse and for their
trouble, too. By the way, where’s George?”

Ned looked up at his father in surprise. He had never before known him
to throw so much earnestness into a simple question, or seem so eager
for an answer to it.

“O, a couple of Greasers took him away from us!” said Ned,
indifferently. “I’ll tell you all about it by and by.”

“Come around to my hotel,” said Uncle John, hurriedly. “I want to know
all about it now. We have a good many other things to talk about also.”

Yes, they had many things to talk about, and it took them a long time to
explain matters so that each might know what had happened to the other
during their short separation. Ned told a truthful story, but he did not
learn so very much from his father in return. There were some things
that Uncle John thought it best to keep to himself.

And where were George and Gus all this while? The story of their
adventures is too long to be told in this book. We shall begin it
immediately in the second volume of this series, and as we go along we
shall take up the history of another runaway, Tony Richardson by name,
of whose short experience with the ways of the world we have already had
something to say. We shall also take our hero, George Ackerman, away
from his home, and tell of his experience and exploits in an occupation
he had never dreamed of following. The volume will be entitled, “GEORGE
AT THE WHEEL; OR, LIFE IN THE PILOT-HOUSE.”


                                THE END.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

[Illustration: Specimen Cover of the Gunboat Series.]



                                  THE

                                 FAMOUS

                               CASTLEMON

                                 BOOKS.

                                   BY

                                 HARRY

                               CASTLEMON.


    No author of the present day has become a greater favorite with
    boys than “Harry Castlemon;” every book by him is sure to meet
    with hearty reception by young readers generally. His naturalness
    and vivacity lead his readers from page to page with breathless
    interest, and when one volume is finished the fascinated reader,
    like Oliver Twist, asks “for more.”

    ⁂Any volume sold separately.


 =GUNBOAT SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 6 vols., 12mo. Fully        $7 50
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Frank, the Young Naturalist=                                      1 25

 =Frank in the Woods=                                               1 25

 =Frank on the Prairie=                                             1 25

 =Frank on a Gunboat=                                               1 25

 =Frank before Vicksburg=                                           1 25

 =Frank on the Lower Mississippi=                                   1 25


 =GO AHEAD SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo. Fully       $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Go Ahead=; or, The Fisher Boy’s Motto                             1 25

 =No Moss=; or, The Career of a Rolling Stone                       1 25

 =Tom Newcombe=; or, The Boy of Bad Habits                          1 25


 =ROCKY MOUNTAIN SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo. Fully $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Frank at Don Carlos’ Rancho=                                      1 25

 =Frank among the Rancheros=                                        1 25

 =Frank in the Mountains=                                           1 25


 =SPORTSMAN’S CLUB SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo.     $3 75
   Fully illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =The Sportsman’s Club in the Saddle=                               1 25

 =The Sportsman’s Club Afloat=                                      1 25

 =The Sportsman’s Club among the Trappers=                          1 25


 =FRANK NELSON SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols. 12mo. Fully    $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Snowed Up=; or, The Sportsman’s Club in the Mts.                  1 25

 =Frank Nelson in the Forecastle=; or, The Sportsman’s Club among   1 25
   the Whalers

 =The Boy Traders=; or, The Sportsman’s Club among the Boers        1 25


 =BOY TRAPPER SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo. Fully    $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =The Buried Treasure=; or, Old Jordan’s “Haunt”                    1 25

 =The Boy Trapper=; or, How Dave Filled the Order                   1 25

 =The Mail Carrier=                                                 1 25

 =ROUGHING IT SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo. Fully    $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =George in Camp=; or, Life on the Plains                           1 25

 =George at the Wheel=; or, Life in a Pilot House                   1 25

 =George at the Fort=; or, Life Among the Soldiers                  1 25


 =ROD AND GUN SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo. Fully    $3 75
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Don Gordon’s Shooting Box=                                        1 25

 =Rod and Gun=                                                      1 25

 =The Young Wild Fowlers=                                           1 25


 =FOREST AND STREAM SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 3 vols., 12mo.    $3 75
   Fully illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Joe Wayring at Home=; or, Story of a Fly Rod                      1 25

 =Snagged and Sunk=; or, The Adventures of a Canvas Canoe           1 25

 =Steel Horse=; or, The Rambles of a Bicycle                        1 25


 =WAR SERIES.= By Harry Castlemon. 4 vols., 12mo. Fully            $5 00
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =True to his Colors=                                               1 25

 =Rodney, the Partisan=                                             1 25

 =Marcy, the Blockade Runner=                                       1 25

 =Marcy, the Refugee=                                               1 25


 =OUR FELLOWS=; or, Skirmishes with the Swamp Dragoons. By Harry    1 25
   Castlemon. 16mo. Fully illustrated. Cloth, extra

[Illustration: Specimen Cover of the Ragged Dick Series.]



                                ALGER’S

                                RENOWNED

                                 BOOKS.

                                   BY

                                HORATIO

                               ALGER, JR.


    Horatio Alger, Jr., has attained distinction as one of the most
    popular writers of books for boys, and the following list
    comprises all of his best books.

    ⁂Any volume sold separately.


 =RAGGED DICK SERIES.= By Horatio Alger, Jr. 6 vols., 12mo. Fully  $7 50
   illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in colors. In box

 =Ragged Dick=; or, Street Life in New York                         1 25

 =Fame and Fortune=; or, The Progress of Richard Hunter             1 25

 =Mark, the Match Boy=; or, Richard Hunter’s Ward                   1 25

 =Rough and Ready=; or, Life among the New York Newsboys            1 25

 =Ben, the Luggage Boy=; or, Among the Wharves                      1 25

 =Rufus and Rose=; or, the Fortunes of Rough and Ready              1 25


 =TATTERED TOM SERIES.= (FIRST SERIES.) By Horatio Alger, Jr. 4     5 00
   vols., 12mo. Fully illustrated. Cloth, extra, printed in
   colors. In box

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                          TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES


 1. Both words ‘ranche’ and ‘rancho’ appear numerous times in the text.
      Did not change either.
 2. Added the word ‘less’ between the words ‘a’ and ‘exposed’ on p. 169.
 3. Changed ‘did’ to ‘died’ on p. 209.
 4. Changed ‘Probable’ to ‘Probably’ on p. 228.
 5. Changed ‘me’ to ‘himself’ on p. 311.
 6. Changed ‘recurred’ to ‘occurred’ on p. 331.
 7. Silently corrected typographical errors.
 8. Retained anachronistic and non-standard spellings as printed.
 9. Enclosed italics font in _underscores_.
10. Enclosed bold font in =equals=.





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