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Title: Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders at Circle O Ranch
Author: Chase, Josephine
Language: English
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GRACE HARLOWE’S OVERLAND RIDERS AT CIRCLE O RANCH


[Illustration: “It’s Pap!”]


GRACE HARLOWE’S OVERLAND RIDERS AT CIRCLE O RANCH

by

JESSIE GRAHAM FLOWER

Author of The High School Girls Series, The College Girls Series, The
  Grace Harlowe Overseas Series, Grace Harlowe’s Overland Riders
   on the Old Apache Trail, Grace Harlowe’s Overland Riders on
   the Great American Desert, Grace Harlowe’s Overland Riders
    Among the Kentucky Mountaineers, Grace Harlowe’s Overland
        Riders in the Great North Woods, Grace Harlowe’s
       Overland Riders in the High Sierras, Grace Harlowe’s
           Overland Riders in the Yellowstone National
           Park, Grace Harlowe’s Overland Riders in the
                      Black Hills, etc., etc.

Illustrated



Philadelphia
Henry Altemus Company

Copyrighted, 1923, by
Howard E. Altemus

Printed in the United States of America



                                CONTENTS

    Chapter I—Peace in the Coso Valley

        Stacy’s dream is interpreted. Jim-Sam proves to
        be a problem. A guide that could howl like a coyote.
        “Mules, like some fellers, is contrary critters.” Sam’s
        whiskers are expressive. A peace that was rudely
        broken.

    Chapter II—On the Road to Trouble

        The Overlanders prepare for defense. Stacy’s weapon
        a tent stake. Emma Dean in the toils. The shot
        that stopped the roper. “Let ’em have it!” yells the
        guide. All because of the fat boy’s dream. The
        alarm.

    Chapter III—An Invitation to Move

        “Sit tight!” orders Hippy. A caller who threatened
        trouble. Sam Conifer passes the lie. “I reckon I’d
        kill ye whar ye stand!” Hands flash to weapons.
        The stranger is ordered out of camp. When brains
        were mixed.

    Chapter IV—At the “Circle O” Ranch

        Camp made in the foothills of the Cosos. “The Old
        Man wants ter know what ye are doin’ heah!” The
        Overlanders are again ordered to get out. Emma
        explains the “imponderable something.” The dance
        in the bunk-house. A bullet parts Sam Conifer’s
        whiskers.

    Chapter V—Overlanders Suffer a Loss

        “Shoot, Sam! Shoot, I tell you!” A mysterious
        shot is fired. Jim finds a trail. A “lovely party”
        spoiled. The Overland Riders find their ponies missing.
        Distress at the Circle O. Jim-Sam blame each
        other.

    Chapter VI—Rustlers Are Hard Pressed

        A question of mules. Emma Dean looks for dreams.
        Sam exchanges shots with a prowler. Stacy Brown
        believes in safety first. Ranchers engage the rustlers
        in a lively battle. Lieutenant Wingate wages an
        unequal fight and loses.

    Chapter VII—A Fight to a Finish

        “Give ’em the rifles!” yells Two-gun Pete. The
        end of the battle. An Overlander is found seriously
        wounded. Tom bears bad news to his companions.
        Elfreda gives first aid. Cowpunchers look on in
        open-mouthed wonder.

    Chapter VIII—The “Dude” Makes Good

        Hippy is complimented by Two-gun Pete. “What’s
        a hoss when it comes to a scrap?” What Hippy
        Wingate dreamed. Grace Harlowe’s pony is recovered.
        Ranchers help the Overlanders to move.
        Judy Hornby makes an exciting entrance.

    Chapter IX—Judy Speaks Out

        The mountain girl wants to know what love is. Judy
        tries poulticing for a sick heart. “If I could talk
        like that I’d be a real lady.” Overland girls give helpful
        advice. A word that drove a mustang to desperation.

    Chapter X—The Round-up

        “Pap sure was a scream,” declares Judy. The Overland
        Riders witness a thrilling round-up. Stacy Brown
        gets into new difficulties. J. Elfreda is accused of
        frightening a wild steer to death. Bad news from
        up the valley.

    Chapter XI—Hippy Defends the Ranch

        Lieutenant Wingate’s suspicions aroused. Two
        ruffians are neatly trapped. The ranch-house under
        rifle fire. A ruse that succeeded. “I’ve got to take
        a chance.” Rifle bullets rip through the old house.
        Disaster again overtakes the Overland Rider.

    Chapter XII—At the Last Moment

        An alarm scatters the mountain ruffians. “Hit the
        trail! Hit it hard!” Cowpunchers find the ranch-house
        on fire. A dramatic scene in Joe Bindloss’s
        home. Captives give sullen replies. “The herd’s
        stampeded an’ Pop’s been shot!” cries Idaho Jones.

    Chapter XIII—An Overlander Is Missing

        Hippy at last regains consciousness. Lieutenant
        Wingate relates the story of the attack on the ranch-house.
        Cowboys howl when they hear the news. Stacy Brown mysteriously
        disappears. “The prisoners have got away!”

    Chapter XIV—The Lost Trail

        Malcolm Hornby refuses Joe Bindloss’s request.
        “Pap’s got an awful grouch today.” Jim fails to
        follow Chunky’s trail. The search is given up for
        the night. Judy acts strangely. “Something has
        happened to Jim!” Sam Conifer meets disaster.

    Chapter XV—Clews That Were Loaded

        The old guide finds the trail and a bullet finds him.
        Stacy and Jim are among the missing. Two-gun
        Pete makes a strange discovery. The mystery of
        the carrier pigeons. Birds for a pie. “Wal, I’ll be
        shot!” exclaims Joe Bindloss.

    Chapter XVI—The Carrier Pigeons’ Flight

        Chunky writes a letter for the Rustlers. “This
        suspense is killing me!” cries Emma. High ransom
        is demanded for the fat boy. How to follow the
        trail of a bird. The “dove of peace” is liberated.
        “I’ve got it!” shouts Sam Conifer.

    Chapter XVII—Stacy Decides to Leave

        How the Overland boy was captured. Mountain
        ruffians make desperate plans. Money that came
        down from the skies. “Put up yer hands, young
        feller!” The fat boy in the toils. Stacy Brown finds
        himself under arrest as a horse thief.

    Chapter XVIII—Trouble at Red Gulch

        Carrier pigeons point the way. The guide smells
        smoke. Sam Conifer stalks the rustlers to their
        lair. “Brown’ll be a dead dude by mornin’!” A
        thunderbolt is hurled at the mountain ruffians.
        Plotters get a rude surprise.

    Chapter XIX—A Duel in the Dark

        The magician’s wand. “Yer too yellow to draw!”
        Sam reveals his identity to Mexican Charley. Six to
        one. The outlaw takes a chance and loses. When the
        light was shot out. “That’s what I calls a low-down
        trick!”

    Chapter XX—Stacy Wields a Club

        The fat boy’s story is not believed. “All hoss thieves is
        liars!” A barn his prison cell. “Heah’s yer chuck.
        I hope it chokes ye!” Ordered to leave for prison.
        Chunky turns the tables on his jailer and compliments
        himself.

    Chapter XXI—Judy Brings Tidings

        A mysterious shot. Pete gets a bullet hole through
        his hat. No trace of the missing Jim. Judy takes
        her time in telling bad news. “Sam’s been killed
        and Tom and Hippy wounded!” announces the
        mountain girl.

    Chapter XXII— Riders of the Night

        Overland girls go in search of the missing ones.
        Judy Hornby leads the way. The mountain cabin
        found to be empty. Bindloss reads the trail. Startled
        by the sound of shots. The worst is feared. “Fire!
        They’ve set the grass on fire!”

    Chapter XXIII—Racing with Death

        Ponies become frantic with fear. Overland Riders feel
        the thrill of the moment. “Faster!” cries the mountain
        girl. Rifle shots sound nearer. A scene that
        startled the Riders. The duel. A bandit meets his
        reward.

    Chapter XXIV—Farewell to the Cosos

        Judy Hornby finds a new “Pap.” Stacy Brown
        still stalked by trouble. “This feller is a hoss thief!”
        When Judy’s dreams came true.



GRACE HARLOWE’S OVERLAND RIDERS AT CIRCLE O RANCH



CHAPTER I

PEACE IN THE COSO VALLEY


“Does anyone know where we are at?” wondered Stacy Brown, the last
person to leave his berth in the car that morning.

“We are in the Coso Valley,” replied Grace Harlowe Gray.

“I never heard of it,” returned Stacy. “We are still in Southern
California, I presume.”

“Of course. What a silly question!” interjected J. Elfreda Briggs
laughingly.

“Young man, we are nearing our destination. If you don’t make haste
you will be left,” reminded Grace’s husband, Tom Gray.

“Left! What a tragedy!” murmured Emma Dean. “By the way, Chunky, did
you dream last night?” she added, placing a hand on the fat boy’s
arm.

“Of course I did. What’s the fun in sleeping if you don’t dream? I
dreamed that I was the King of England, and you should have seen—”

“Stacy!” cried Emma in mock horror. “How unfortunate! To counteract
the effect of that unhappy dream, try tonight to dream that you are
a peasant. If you do not, some terrible misfortune is sure to
overtake you.”

“Piffle! Where do you get that stuff, Emma? All right, Thomas. I’ll
be ready by the time the train stops,” added Stacy, addressing Tom
Gray, and moving on to the wash room, where he remained until the
train began to slow down for Carrago, their destination. Carrago was
a sleepy little far-western town whose only excuse for existence was
that it was the only trading center for the ranchers within a radius
of many miles in the broad valley that lay between the Argus and
Coso ranges, a remote section of the country selected by Grace
Harlowe’s Overland Riders for their regular summer’s outing in the
saddle.

The scenery that morning had held the attention of the entire party
with the exception of Stacy, who had been too busy sleeping to give
heed to mere scenery, and the passengers were already detraining at
Carrago when he finally came rushing through the car.

“Shall I brush you off?” asked the porter, facing him, broom in
hand.

“Brush me off?” frowned Stacy, who thus far had avoided the porter.
“Well, no. I reckon that I’ll just get off in the ordinary way,” he
added, hurrying out to the vestibule of the Pullman and down to the
station platform.

“That was rude of you, Stacy,” rebuked Miss Briggs, who had heard
the boy’s retort.

“Rude? Huh! Do you think I want to be brushed off the train?”

“Oh, Stacy! You are as hopeless as ever, aren’t you?” laughed Grace.
“Oh, this wonderful air!” she cried enthusiastically, turning to her
companions. “Tom, aren’t you going to look for the guide who was to
meet us here?”

Tom Gray said that Hippy Wingate was attending to that, and just
then the Overlanders saw him halt before two bewhiskered natives
standing on the station platform side by side and assuming almost
identically the same pose. Both were old men. Their faces were
seamed and tanned, their shoulders stooped, and as they stood with
heads tilted back until their long beards protruded at almost the
same angle, they presented a picture that made the Overlanders
smile.

“I am looking for Jim-Sam, who is to guide us,” announced Hippy,
addressing the men.

“We’re Jim-Sam,” answered the men in chorus. “Be ye the dudes?”

“Well, not exactly,” interjected Stacy Brown.

“This is the party that engaged Jim-Sam,” repeated Hippy patiently.
“Which of you is Jim-Sam?”

“Both of us,” added the taller of the two men. “I’m Sam, an’ this
heah galoot standin’ side me is Jim, an’—”

“I’ll have ye understand that I ain’t no galoot,” objected Jim
heatedly, shaking a finger under Sam’s nose.

“Hold on, you two! Let me get this clear,” interposed Tom Gray,
stepping up to them. “Do you mean that we have engaged, not one
guide, but two?”

Sam explained that he and Jim were “pards,” and that they had always
worked together, and “fit an’ died together” these many years,
adding further, that Jim, being a spavined, ring-boned old cayuse
wasn’t much good to anyone, himself included, but that he could hold
the horses and howl like a coyote at the pack-horses to keep them
going.

“Haw, haw!” exploded Stacy.

“I don’t know about this,” muttered Hippy, removing his hat and
mopping his forehead.

“Are you two gentlemen heavy eaters?” questioned Emma. “The reason I
ask is, that we already have two powerful eaters in this outfit, and
I doubt if we could stand to feed more like them.”

“We kin rustle our own grub,” promised Jim.

“I suggest that we go into executive session and talk this over,”
urged Miss Briggs.

The suggestion was approved and the Overlanders withdrew for
discussion, Jim and Sam holding their positions, apparently the most
disinterested persons on the station platform. Inquiry developed
that the salary named in the letter of Jim-Sam covered the services
of both, so, after talking the matter over, the Overland Riders
decided to take on this strange pair to guide them. The fact that
the guides owned their own ponies and pack-mules was an added
inducement. Otherwise it would be necessary to hire or buy
pack-animals.

Hippy Wingate told the guides that they had been accepted, then he
introduced each member of the party to them. Nora Wingate laughingly
warned the pair that they were embarking on a perilous undertaking
when they set out with the Overland Riders, whereat Jim-Sam’s
whiskers stiffened, but the owners made no reply.

Emma Dean, speaking confidentially to Hippy, objected to guides
wearing such long whiskers, though she thought the men themselves
might do very well. Emma was of the opinion that such whiskers were
not sanitary, and averred that if San Antone, who had guided them
through the Black Hills, were present he would correct the fault by
shooting off the whiskers without making the slightest fuss about
it.

Tom interrupted Emma’s conversation by urging that the Overland
ponies be unloaded at once, the car containing them having, by this
time, been shunted to a switch.

“When do ye reckon on gittin’ out o’ heah?” asked Sam.

“We shall be ready by the time you get your mules and packs ready,”
answered Hippy. “This outfit moves without fuss, but it occasionally
makes quite a racket in doing so. Get busy, boys!”

Jim-Sam turned away, still side by side, each carrying himself with
a dignity that made the Overlanders laugh. While the provisions and
other equipment were being purchased by the women of the party, Tom
and Hippy unloaded the ponies, and Stacy, uttering many grunts and
groans, piled their equipment on the ground near the stock car. The
ponies were then secured to the tie-rail in front of the general
store, where they were looked over and felt of by every man in the
village, including several cowboys from neighboring ranches.

During the unloading, Hippy and Tom had noticed a cowboy sitting on
a mustang some little distance from them, observing the Overland
operations with keen interest.

“Who is that fellow?” asked Hippy of a bystander.

The native shook his head, and the horseman, seeing that he had
attracted attention to himself, jerked his pony about and trotted
away.

“I don’t like the looks of that chap,” declared Tom.

“I reckon he’s all right. Most cowpunchers look tougher than they
really are, though it is quite possible that we may meet up with
some real rough-necks. I have heard that they are not difficult to
find in the Coso range,” replied Hippy.

“Oh, there come our heavenly twins,” cried Emma, who had returned
from the store with an armful of packages.

Jim and Sam had just appeared dragging a pair of unwilling mules,
behind which, saddled and bridled, trailed two long-haired mustangs.
The two men were alternately arguing and berating each other and
threatening the mules.

“What kind of an outfit is this?” wondered Emma, her merry eyes
regarding the scene.

“You may search me,” was Hippy’s laughing reply. “Here come the
other girls. Good gracious! Where do they expect to stow all that
stuff? Jim-Sam, pull up here and sling your packs. Is that as fast
as those mules can travel? If so you had better leave them at home.”

The guides were too busy arguing to give heed to Hippy’s words, but
when they reached the station platform they took hold of the work
with surprising alacrity and began rolling packs with skillful
hands.

“What are they?” asked Emma, pointing to the lazy mules.

“Jest mules,” answered Jim without looking up, and Sam echoed his
statement. “Don’t have to have no names. When my long-haired cayuse
does somethin’ he oughtn’t, Sam gives him er kick, an’ when Sam’s
critter cuts up capers I give his’n the boot.”

“No names?” wondered Emma. “Yes, but what do you call them when you
want them to come to you?”

“Missie, what we calls ’em sometimes ain’t sootable fer a young
woman to hear,” grinned Jim.

“Then kindly see that you do not call them,” retorted Emma, turning
away.

The Overlanders observed that their guides now wore heavy revolvers
and that the saddle-boot of each held a rifle, which aroused
apprehension in the minds of at least two of the girls. Jim-Sam,
however, assured them that the Coso Valley and the mountain ranges
on either side of it were as peaceful as “Sunday meetin’,” and,
further, that “nothin’” ever happened there. Something did threaten
to happen, though, when it came to lashing the packs to the mules,
and Jim-Sam instantly became involved in a violent argument as to
how the packs should be “thrown,” the two men in their anger shaking
belligerent fists under each other’s nose until they nearly came to
blows.

“If I had a disposition like your’n I’d go shoot myself,” raged Jim.

“If I was a cantankerous cuss like you I’d go live with the coyotes
where I could snarl all day an’ bark all night. Git outer my way
afore I soak ye in the jaw!” threatened Sam.

“That’s right, Sam. Hit him!” urged Stacy Brown. “He isn’t any
good.”

“Yes, he is, too! Don’t ye say nothin’ agin my pardner. I ain’t
standin’ fer nothin’ like that.”

“Here, here!” interrupted Tom Gray. “Stacy, let these men alone and
pack your pony. Jim-Sam, you will stop your quarreling and do your
work or we may change our minds about taking you along.”

“You understand, we wish to head for the Bindloss ranch—the Circle
O Ranch, I believe they call it. We do not know Bindloss, but we
propose to get acquainted with him.” Hippy grinned as he said it.

“This really promises to be a peaceful journey,” observed Miss
Briggs solemnly, whereat the Overland girls gave way to the
merriment that for some moments they had been restraining, then
preparations for the start were resumed with renewed speed and
vigor.

Departure for the Circle O was made within an hour. The Circle O was
a ranch where a friend of Lieutenant Hippy Wingate had put up while
on a hunting trip in the mountains some time before, and it was
because of what his friend had told him of Old Joe Bindloss and his
ranch that Hippy decided to take in the Circle O on their summer’s
ride.

The start was accomplished to the accompaniment of shouts and yells
from Jim-Sam to get the mules started and headed in the right
direction as well as to keep them going. It was a task that proved
too much for the old guides, who, finally, after getting well out in
the valley, rode on ahead with the Overlanders. The pack-mules,
finding themselves being left behind, increased their pace and soon
caught up with the outfit.

“That’s the way with mules. Contrary critters jest like some fellers
I know of,” volunteered Jim, giving Sam a withering glance. “If ye
wants ’em to go back’ards jest try to drive ’em for’ards.”

“An’ then agin, some fellers is so gosh darn stubborn they won’t go
either way when ye tells ’em to go t’other,” retorted Sam. “Folks,
git yer appetites workin’ fer we’ll soon be eatin’.”

Luncheon that first day was taken sitting on the sand by a water
hole, and was a brief affair, for Jim-Sam had a camping place in
mind, to reach which meant a long, hard ride. It was some time after
nightfall when they arrived there, and still later when the lazy
mules dragged themselves in, uttering long-drawn brays of
satisfaction or dissatisfaction or whatever it might be. The animals
were quickly relieved of their packs and turned loose to roll and
feed on the desert sage through the night. All day long Jim-Sam had
argued and quarreled, and by the time they made camp they had
reached a point where they no longer spoke to each other.

“What are we going to do with them?” wondered Tom Gray frowningly.

“Keep them, of course,” answered Grace. “Tom, they are a real treat,
but if Stacy and Emma do not stop stirring them up we may have to
send for the sheriff of the county. Just look at them now,” she
added laughingly.

Jim and Sam were sitting back to back unrolling packs, each man
muttering to himself his opinion of the other. Later in the evening
the Overlanders got them talking and drew the guides out. It
developed that the pair had been prospectors nearly all their lives;
that they had loved and fought each other for so many years that
they had lost count of them, and when their halting story had
finally been finished, the Overland Riders looked upon Jim-Sam with
new appreciation. Emma Dean characterized them as a pair of “beloved
vagabonds.”

This having been their first day in the saddle since the previous
season, the Overlanders were saddle-weary, and some of them
were sore and lame. Miss Briggs hobbled about painfully and
complainingly, and Nora Wingate lay by the little campfire rolled in
her blanket, the picture of woe. Emma and Grace, however, appeared
not to be suffering the slightest degree of discomfort.

Jim cooked the supper, and it was a good one, for he made biscuits
and served them hot, soaked in bacon gravy, a luxury to which the
Riders had not been accustomed. They made the most of their
opportunity, and Stacy Brown’s appetite, as usual, was not fully
satisfied until some time after his companions had finished supper.
Then all hands gathered about the fire for a chat.

“Samuel, do you ever dream?” questioned Emma after thoughtfully
regarding the old guide for some moments.

“Sure I do, Missie. I dreamed last night that that critter—that
ornery mule o’ Jim’s—kicked the everlasting daylight out o’ me,”
growled Sam.

“Oh, you don’t mean it? That was fine,” glowed Emma.

“Eh?” Sam’s whiskers stood out belligerently. The old guide’s
whiskers could express varying shades of emotion.

“Your dream means that you are going to have good luck—the best
ever. Perhaps you are about to discover a gold mine or a hole in the
ground where one has been, or something like that,” bubbled Emma.

“Wrong up here again,” muttered Stacy Brown, significantly tapping
his head with a finger.

“I should say that Emma has read one of those five-cent dream
books,” suggested Miss Briggs.

“It is my opinion that she has been fitting herself for a lunatic
seminary—cemeter—sanitarium,” corrected Stacy.

“Tell us about it,” urged Grace, smiling over at Miss Dean.

“I will if you folks won’t laugh at me. I am a student of Professor
Freud’s new science of dreams,” announced Emma with dignity. “The
professor has demonstrated beyond question that there is an
imponderable quality within us—”

“You mean hot biscuit and gravy,” interjected Hippy Wingate. “Since
I overate this evening I surely have an imponderable quality in my
midst,” he added amid much laughter.

Emma elevated a disdainful chin.

“I see nothing funny in a scientific discussion,” she retorted. “As
I was about to say when so rudely interrupted, Professor Freud has
conclusively proved that every dream has its meaning—that the
imponderable quality in the subconscious mind never ceases to work;
that it even works when we sleep, and—”

“Old Subconscious ought to join a union,” suggested Stacy.

“And that, if we will but learn a few simple rules, we shall be able
to interpret those dreams and be better able to avoid many perils as
well as to take advantage of real opportunities. Always let the
imponderable quality have its way,” urged Emma.

Jim-Sam’s whiskers drooped, and the Overlanders repressed their
laughter.

“Perhaps you yourself might dream out the solution of a mystery for
us,” suggested Grace. “I mean as to the identity and purpose of the
horseman who has been riding a parallel course with us all day,
evidently keeping us under observation.”

The guides gave her a quick, keen look.

“Miss, I reckon as ye ain’t no tenderfoot,” observed Sam dryly.

“A man following us?” cried Nora. “It has come already! I knew it
would. I knew that trouble would follow this outfit, just as it has
done from the moment we set out over the Old Apache Trail right on
down until we ended our vacation in the Black Hills last summer.”

Others of the party had observed the solitary horseman, but had
attached no particular significance to his traveling in the same
direction that they were following.

“Watching us, do you think?” wondered Emma.

“What about him, Jim-Sam?” demanded Tom Gray.

“Wal, I reckons mebby he is the feller that was hangin’ ’round when
ye folks was unloadin’ at Carrago. He was a-snoopin’, an’ I don’t
reckon as he was doin’ it fer no good. I didn’t like the look of him
nohow,” growled Jim.

“Ye ain’t dreamed nothin’ ’bout that, has ye, Miss Dean?” asked Sam.

“No. Not yet. However, in case it means trouble for us either I or
one of the others will get a reaction in advance and—”

“Ha, ha!” laughed Hippy. “A reaction in advance! That surely is a
new one. Were Freud to hear that he himself surely would have a bad
attack of nightmare.”

“I mean that one of us will feel that imponderable quality stirring
within us,” explained Emma, her color rising. “We shall know. No
harm can come to us without our being warned in advance. I—”

A volley of revolver shots punctuated the silence of the desert
night—shots close at hand, accompanied by yells, hoots and howls,
and the thudding of many unshod hoofs.



CHAPTER II

ON THE ROAD TO TROUBLE


“Merciful heaven! What is that?” cried Nora Wingate, the color
rushing to her cheeks, then instantly receding, leaving them
blanched with fear.

The Overland Riders were, for the moment, too startled to move, and
it was Jim and Sam who first sprang to their feet.

“Look out! They aire comin’!” warned Sam.

The girls ran for the protection of their tents, with the exception
of Emma Dean, who appeared to be too frightened to stir. Tom and
Hippy were on their feet a second or so behind Jim-Sam, each with a
hand on his revolver holster, while Stacy had disappeared on the
dark side of his tent. Stacy Brown always believed in safety first,
and he seldom lost many seconds in applying that principle.

All this occurred within the space of a few seconds, during which
the shooting and the shouting had ceased, but the hoof-beats of
ponies sounded much nearer to the camp. Then the Overlanders saw
them. Wild riders they were, shadowy figures in the night, keeping
just beyond the flickering rays shed by the campfire, but circling
the camp, racing their mustangs. Once more their shrill penetrating
yells split the silence, followed by a rattling fire of revolver
shots.

“They’re shootin’ into the air. They don’t mean no harm. Keep
steady!” urged Jim.

“Shoo them off, Jim-Sam! Somebody will be shooting lower than that
if this keeps on for many minutes,” warned Hippy Wingate.

“Git out o’ this, ye galoots!” yelled Sam as one rider, bolder than
the others, drove his pony right through the camp. The animal
hurdled the campfire and ran between two of the Overland tents.
Yells from his companions greeted the achievement.

The night rider repeated the performance, but this time Jim-Sam
fired at the same instant, one bullet snipping off the rider’s hat,
the other fanning the hind hoofs of the pony.

“Now you’ve done it, you poor, crazy coyote!” roared Sam.

“I didn’t. You did it yourself. I fanned the critter’s feet,”
retorted Jim. “Look out, they’re comin’ fer keeps this time!”

They were.

The wild night riders had circled out on the desert until joined by
the man who had twice ridden through the Overland camp, then they
drove their ponies straight at the camp, uttering thrilling yells
and shooting into the air. They were upon the camp before the
Overland Riders fully realized what their attackers were doing. The
man in the lead rode down the little tent beside which Stacy Brown
was in hiding, and Stacy, who had armed himself with a tent stake,
hurled it at the fellow as he passed. The stake reached its
mark—the neck of the rider—and the man sagged in his saddle as the
pony rushed on into the darkness.

“I hit him!” yelled Stacy.

The rest of the riders went through with a rush.

“Do that agin’ an’ I’ll wing ye!” howled Sam.

The attackers did it again. The tents no longer being a safe refuge,
the girls ran out and stood by the campfire so that the night riders
might see and avoid them. Emma stood a few yards from them, where
she had been standing since the excitement began. This time the
riders rode down the rest of the tents, with weapons still shooting
into the air.

Sam had returned his revolver to its holster, but a nervous hand
trembled on the butt of the weapon—trembled not because of any fear
of its owner, but because all the nervous tension of a trained
gunman was centered in it. The riders were growing wilder with each
passing second, and Sam was growing proportionately calmer, with
shoulders slouched forward and whiskers standing out at a sharper
angle. It was plain that nothing short of shooting with intent to
wound or kill could stay the orgy of those wild night riders and
their mustangs whose flashing heels were a peril to every member of
the Overland party. Both Jim and Sam, knowing that aggressive action
on their part would bring down the wrath of the riders, hesitated.

There came a moment, however, when restraint was no longer possible.
The horsemen had cleared the camp and were turning for another sweep
over it when a rider on a dust-covered pony came galloping into the
light of the campfire.

“Whoo-pee!” he howled, his lariat in a great loop spinning over his
head.

“Look out!” roared Jim warningly, for he saw where the rope was
going to drop.

His warning failed of its purpose. The lariat came down in a flash,
and the great loop, holding its form in a perfect circle, dropped
neatly over the head of Emma Dean.

At first Emma did not realize what had happened, but as the coil
suddenly tightened about her waist she uttered a scream. Her feet
left their footing and Emma measured her length on the ground, the
coil gripping her tighter and tighter, though the roper had checked
the speed of his mustang and was letting the rope slip slowly
through his hands.

Sam’s hand was trembling on the butt of his revolver more agitated
than before. The trembling ceased suddenly, and there followed a
twitch of the wrist, a flash, and a sharp report. The roper uttered
a yell and let go of his lariat. Sam’s shot had shattered his wrist.

Hippy sprang to Emma and freed her of the lariat.

“Git down!” yelled Sam. “The varmits is goin’ to shoot!”

The “varmits” shot lower this time, but every member of the Overland
party had taken to the shadows and thrown themselves down, as the
rider who had roped Emma dashed out holding his wounded wrist,
yelling to his companions to take it out of the man who had shot
him.

By this time Tom and Hippy had gotten their rifles and were watching
and waiting, fully expecting further and more serious trouble. It
came in the shape of another charge of the night riders. This time
their yells were savage. The new note in them told the Overlanders
what was coming.

“Let ’em have it, fellers!” urged Jim.

“Girls, keep down!” called Grace Harlowe, as Emma Dean once more
stood up. “Isn’t once enough for you?”

Emma permitted herself to sink to the ground, just in time to avoid
a rattling fire of revolver shots from the raiders.

At this juncture, Jim and Sam let go with their heavy revolvers,
followed a few seconds later by the crash of the two Overland
rifles. That some of their bullets had taken effect the Overlanders
knew by the angry yells of their attackers. A rider’s pony went down
on its nose at the very edge of the camp and its rider plunged
forward to the ground, whereupon the pony staggered to its feet and
limped away, but the rider lay where he had fallen.

“Jim-Sam, don’t kill ’em!” begged Tom Gray. “Drive ’em off, that’s
all.”

The fellow’s companions, leaning from saddles, dragged the wounded
man away, whence he was flung on a mustang and carried off, but how
badly the fellow was hurt the Overlanders had no means of knowing.
They kept on shooting just the same, backed up now by the weapons of
Jim-Sam, and it took but a few shots from the heavy weapons to drive
the raiders away.

“Now, ye infernal idiot! Do ye reckon ye’ve done enough fer one
night?” demanded Jim sarcastically.

“I reckon I done too much when I saved yer miserable hide from them
raiders,” flung back Sam. “Anybody git hurt?”

“I believe that I am the only casualty, but it was only my feelings
that were hurt by the fall that my pride got,” replied Emma. “This
is indeed a peaceful valley, isn’t it, Sam? Nothing ever happens
here. Oh, no!”

Suppressed chuckles greeted Emma’s retort, but Jim and Sam had
already run out of camp to make certain that the raiders had really
gone away. The guides found that they had departed, but fearing that
the attackers might return, they decided to watch the camp for the
rest of the night.

The Overland Riders, acting upon the suggestion of Sam, were putting
out the fire and beginning to get the camp in condition for
sleeping, when Stacy Brown strolled into the scene. He had not been
seen since the attack began.

“My tent is all down and torn,” he complained.

“So are others,” reminded Nora. “What shall we do about it?”

“Nothing until daylight,” answered Tom briefly.

“I suppose I am responsible for driving those ruffians away,”
boasted the fat boy. “I hit that fellow an awful wallop with a tent
stake when he went past me, and that made the rest of the gang more
careful. Think of it! I didn’t have to fire a shot to do it,
either!”

“Yes. You did it all, little man. But if you love us, never again
dream that you are the King of England or the Emperor of the
Cannibal Islands. I read in that dream of yours that something
terrible was going to happen. Oh, Sam! That was a wonderful shot of
yours,” she complimented glowingly, turning to the guide as he
stalked in, combing his whiskers with his hand. “It was perfectly
adorable of you to shoot that fellow after he had roped me. And such
a shot! Did you mean to hit him in the wrist or did you shoot at the
pony’s feet?” questioned Emma innocently.

Sam’s whiskers bristled.

“I reckon I hit what I shot at,” he answered briefly.

“How wonderful! I wish I could shoot like that.” She tapped his
holster, and smiled up into the weatherbeaten face.

“You kin. I’ll larn ye, Missie. You’ve got the feel of a gun in yer
make-up. We’ll talk about it later on.”

“Yes,” agreed Tom Gray. “Other matters are of more importance at the
moment. What have you to say about the attack on us? What does it
mean?”

“I reckon they aire a lot of wild cowboys that wanted to have some
fun with us,” drawled Sam.

“No. I don’t agree with you,” spoke up Grace. “They were too savage
for men bent on having fun with a party of campers. I have been
wondering if the mysterious horseman, that kept abreast of us all
day, had anything to do with the raid?”

“Cowboys on a spree,” persisted Sam.

“Ain’t no such thing,” interjected Jim, coming in in time to hear
his partner’s assertion. “Any galoot with a spoonful o’ brains under
his hair would know better ’n that. Them’s wild horse hunters!”

“Huh! Know it all, don’t ye?” leered Sam.

“Have to, bein’ as I’m hitched up with you.”

The laughter of the Overlanders put an end to the argument of the
two guides, following which preparations for the night were resumed.
It was decided not to try to mend the tents until daylight, which
meant that some of the party must sleep on the ground in the open.
J. Elfreda Briggs objected loudly.

“There are rattlesnakes here! I saw one today. What if one should
crawl into my blanket in the night? I know I should die of fright.”

“Silly!” rebuked Emma. “If such a thing should occur, I’ll tell you
what to do. Don’t move a muscle nor make a sound, but call for Sam,
and he will shoot the head off the reptile without so much as
disturbing your rest.”

“Emma Dean, your logic is overwhelming. As a lawyer I fully
appreciate it, and I thank you for the suggestions. Without moving
and without speaking, I will yell for Sam and he will fan my cheek
with a bullet, and during it all I shall slumber on as peacefully as
a babe in its cradle. Lovely!”

“Never mind the snakes. Turn in!” ordered Hippy.

An hour later the camp was asleep and just outside of it prowled Jim
and Sam, halting to growl at each other when they met on their
rounds. Only once during the night was the quiet disturbed. About
two o’clock in the morning Jim-Sam heard a body of horsemen moving.
It was but a faint thudding that was borne to their ears, and after
listening for some time they heard the hoof-beats die away in the
distance.

“Glad we ain’t got to do no more shootin’,” observed Sam. “Might
wake up the gals and that shore would be too bad. Say, Jim, that
little Missie Dean, with the freckled face like a speckled trout,
shore’s got spunk.”

“A-huh! Mebby she’ll lend ye some of it,” retorted Jim.

“Shet up!” growled Sam, and strode away for another round of the
camp.

A pack of coyotes at this juncture barked in a yelping chorus, and
the Overlanders heard them but only faintly, for it was now a
familiar sound to them after their many nights in the wilder places
of their native land.

Morning dawned bright and beautiful. The day promised to be warm,
and, as Elfreda Briggs opened her eyes, her first thought was of
snakes; and her next, the sweet, pungent, penetrating fragrance of
sage which lay heavy on the morning air. A cautious investigation
showed that no serpent had taken refuge in her blanket, whereat
Elfreda Briggs heaved a deep sigh of relief.

Sam stood a short distance from her, whiskers standing out, shading
his eyes with a hand as he gazed over the surrounding country. He
stood straight like an Indian, and Elfreda found herself studying
this strange old man of the hills and the desert—studying him with
a new interest. He was rather above medium height with the small
hips of a rider. His eyes were faintly gray, and his was the lean,
strong face of the man of the open, a face that was lined with
wrinkles, and as he gazed there was a look of nobility about it that
held her fascinated.

The guide turned suddenly and saw her. He smiled and passed a hand
over his whiskers.

“What is it, Sam?” questioned Elfreda.

“Mornin’! Nothin’ but a little cloud o’ dust. Might have been made
by a hoss or a little wind pocket.”

The Overlanders now began to sit up and rub their eyes.

“Breakfast is nigh ready. That no ’count pard o’ mine is fryin’ the
bacon an’ I reckon he’s boiled the coffee till it ain’t fit to feed
to coyotes,” observed Sam.

“Do coyotes drink coffee?” questioned Emma, blinking in the strong
morning light.

“I reckon they takes somethin’ like that to keep ’em awake nights,”
answered Sam, whereat the Overlanders laughed and began throwing off
their blankets, all now fully awake.

The camp looked to be a wreck, but a hurried examination revealed
that it was not as bad as it looked. There were rents in the
flattened tents that would call for the work of the women to repair,
and some of the packs had been trampled on by the raiding ponies.

It was decided to put tents and equipment in condition before
starting out, and this took nearly half of the forenoon, so the
start was not made until after luncheon.

Not a human being had been seen all that morning, nothing of a
disturbing nature had occurred except the dust cloud that Sam had
discovered. A few hours after they set out, however, a horseman was
discovered in the far distance, sitting motionless in his saddle. He
did not move until the Overland party had proceeded some two miles,
whereupon he started along on a parallel course.

“It is our mysterious horseman, I am positive,” announced Grace,
after a long look through her binoculars.

At Hippy’s suggestion the party changed their course and headed
directly for the course that the stranger was following. Shortly
after that he too changed his course. Several similar experiments
were made by the Overlanders, and always with the same result. It
became plain to them that the mysterious horseman was keeping them
under observation, but for what reason not even Jim-Sam seemed to be
able to guess.

These deviations had carried the Overlanders some distance out of
their way, and to reach their proposed camping place for that night
would necessitate traveling after dark, so the guides decided to
camp at the nearest water hole, which proved to be located in the
foothills. There the foliage was greener and fresher, and bunches of
grass made fine grazing for the ponies.

Supper was an enjoyable affair that evening, especially so because
Jim and Sam enlivened the occasion by wrangling over the way that
Jim had cooked the beans for their mess. Jim, finally becoming too
enraged to eat, got up and stalked away, whereupon Sam gravely ate
his own portion, and then finished all that Jim had left.

The party had barely finished supper when the familiar hoof-beats of
a rapidly riding party of horsemen were heard. The Overlanders were
on their feet in an instant, each member of the party hurriedly
throwing on his holster, then looking to Jim-Sam for orders.

“I reckon nobody ain’t goin’ to do no shootin’ till I’ve had a first
crack at the cayuses,” ordered Sam.

The Overland Riders tensed their muscles and their nerves for what
they believed was to be a battle in earnest.



CHAPTER III

AN INVITATION TO MOVE


“They’ve stopped!” breathed Grace.

“One of ’em hain’t,” answered Jim. “He’s comin’ on.”

“Jim-Sam, you sit tight, both of you. I’ll talk with him,” said
Hippy, stepping forward a little to get the light of the campfire at
his back.

A man on a gray bronco rode out of the shadows at a slow trot, and
pulled up a few yards from the camp where he sat surveying the
outfit. No one spoke, but the Overlanders were ready for any hostile
move.

After a few seconds the horseman slipped from his saddle, tossed the
bridle-rein over the pommel, and clanked towards the Overlanders.
Hippy stepped forward to meet him. The newcomer was short and
swarthy. He wore a Mexican sombrero, fancifully decorated; a gun
swung at his hip and a row of brass-tipped cartridges showed in his
belt. Black, searching eyes swept from one to another of the
Overland Riders, finally returning to Hippy Wingate and resting on
him with a challenge in their depths.

“Well! Now that you have given us the once-over, what’s the big
idea?” demanded Hippy.

“Who be you?” snapped the horseman.

“I might ask the same question.”

“Don’t git funny. It ain’t healthy,” warned the fellow.

“We are here for reasons best known to ourselves, which can be of no
interest to you. Are you one of the party that attacked us last
night?”

“No, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that.”

“Then what do you want here?”

“To tell you to git out! You ain’t got no business here. Pack up an’
mush out o’ this, an’ if you don’t do it fast enough I’ve got boys
that’ll help you along.”

Jim-Sam were getting nervous, but they were obeying orders. Tom Gray
stepped forward and asked the reason for the stranger’s demand.

“These heah is grazin’ grounds fer stock, and the man that owns them
don’t ’low no others on his land. Yer stock is eatin’ up the grass
that belongs to his cattle, so you’ll have to hike out of this heah
valley, and do it quick.”

“Stranger! Who is this feller that owns this range?” drawled Sam.

“Hornby! Malcolm Hornby of the ‘Double Q’ ranch,” was the prompt
reply.

“Stranger, I ain’t particular ’bout stirrin’ up trouble, bein’ an
old man and a little rheumatic in the joints, an’ ’specially in the
trigger finger, but what would ye say if I said ye was a liar?”
asked Sam half humorously, though the expression in his eyes was not
in harmony with his tone.

“I reckon I’d kill ye whar ye stand!” shot back the fellow, flushing
hotly under his tan.

“So?” nodded the guide.

“Is what this man says the truth?” demanded Tom Gray, turning to
Sam.

“This heah land don’t b’long to Hornby. Mebby he grazes his stock
heah, but this grass don’t b’long to nobody. We got as much right to
graze our stock heah as he has, an’ that’s all that’s to say ’bout
it.”

“You have your answer, Mr. Man. I don’t know your game, but it is my
opinion that you are not only what this gentleman has called you,
but that you are bad medicine as well,” declared Tom Gray, looking
the caller squarely in the eyes.

“Meanin’ that I’m a liar?”

“I reckon that’s about the size of it.”

“Get out of here!” commanded Hippy sharply. “We can take care of
ourselves.”

The stranger’s hand flew to his holster, but there the hand paused.

“Easy thar! Don’t draw,” warned Sam whose own right hand hovered
near his weapon. “It ain’t safe. You might hurt somebody, or mebby I
might hurt you, an’ that wouldn’t do nohow before these young women
who don’t like to see a feller git hurt. But if you’ve got to draw,
pint your gun this way an’ mebby I ain’t too old or my rheumatiz
ain’t too crinkly so that I can’t dodge yer bullet.”

The stranger’s hand closed over the butt of his revolver and half
drew the weapon from its holster. It drew no further, for the fellow
suddenly found himself facing Sam’s weapon, which had been drawn
with a speed that must have been a revelation to him, because his
face reflected amazement, as well as rage.

“If ye must shoot that gun off, take my advice an’ come ’round in
the daytime when ye can see better, an’ we’ll fit it out man to man.
But git! This ain’t no company fer a feller like you who can’t talk
without a gun in his hand. Be ye goin’?”

“Yes, but I’ll come back and you’ll be the one to git,” the fellow
flung at him, turning abruptly on his heel.

“Hol’ on a minute thar!” commanded the guide. “Don’t try to start
nothin’ at all heah. These friends of mine an’ these fine young
women has seen yer kind before an’ they’d as lief shoot as not. Go
back to Hornby, if he sent ye, an’ tell him to come out hisself if
he is so tarnation ’fraid we’ll spile this grass. Jest a word more.
We’ll watch ye an’ if ye try any tricks we’ll shoot. That’s all I’ve
got to say to ye.”

“You’ll hear from me!” shouted the departing caller as he flung
himself into his saddle.

“I hear ye now, but yer voice sounds like as if ye was afraid of
somethin’,” drawled Sam.

The fellow rode away without another word.

“Follow him, Sam!” urged Grace. “We don’t know but they may rush us,
just as the raiders did last night,” warned Grace.

“Leave it to Jim. He’s out thar an’ Jim kin trail a canary bird
without the bird ever knowin’ it. Jim’ll give us the word if them
fellers try any of their fancy tricks.”

“Oh, Samuel, why didn’t you shoot while you had an excuse for doing
so?” begged Emma.

The Overlanders laughed. They knew Emma and they did not take her
suggestion seriously.

Half an hour later, during which time the Overland Riders had
remained quietly alert, Jim came stalking in, stroking his whiskers.

“Have they gone?” questioned the Overlanders in chorus.

“I reckon they knowed what was good for ’em, so they skedaddled,”
replied Jim.

“Which way an’ whar did they go?” demanded Sam.

“West! How do I know whar they went?”

“If you was half a man you would know. You ain’t no more ’count, an’
not half so much use, as that tarnation mule that carries yer pack.
But it ain’t your fault, an’ I reckon I oughter not set so much
store by you. A feller can’t be blamed much because he was borned
with half a teaspoonful of brains in his haid,” raged Sam.

“I s’pose ye think you an’ that mule of yourn has all the brains in
this heah outfit. Wal, I reckon you’re part right ’cause you an’ the
mule has got some brains, but when the Lord made ye he got you two
mixed. He thought you was the mule, so he give you the mule’s brains
an’ the mule got yourn. I reckon—”

“Oh, shet up, will ye?” snarled Sam savagely, tugging viciously at
his whiskers, while a gale of laughter swept over the Overland
Riders. Jim and Sam did not speak to each other again that night,
but glared as they met in their prowling about in ceaseless vigil of
the camp.

The next morning found the guides still deadly enemies, but after
breakfast Emma cleared the clouds away by making a disparaging
remark about Jim to Sam, whereupon Sam promptly came to the defense
of his partner, and Jim heard it.

A late start was made, the guides having informed their charges that
they were only a few hours’ ride from Old Joe Bindloss’s “Circle O”
ranch. An hour after the start they again discovered what they
believed to be their mysterious horseman, but he disappeared shortly
after luncheon and was seen no more, and the Overland Riders, making
a sharp turn to the right, now headed towards the purple haze behind
which lay the foothills and the mountains of the Coso range, where
adventure awaited them.



CHAPTER IV

AT THE “CIRCLE O” RANCH


Camp was pitched in the foothills about four o’clock that afternoon.
Grazing lands stretched away parallel with the mountain range as far
as the eye could see, and then were swallowed up in that everlasting
purple haze.

Farther along the valley in the opposite direction they could make
out the buildings of the Bindloss ranch, to which Sam said they
would ride in the morning, as Hippy Wingate wished to introduce
himself to the owner.

Cattle were grazing all along the foothills, hundreds of them, and
those close at hand were observed to have the brand of the “Circle
O” ranch. They were part of the great herd belonging to Old Joe
Bindloss, a rich rancher, a hard man, according to Sam, but
respected as a just one.

Cowboys riding in to the ranch-house for supper gazed curiously at
the outfit that was making camp, for it was seldom that anything of
the sort was seen in the Coso Valley. Arriving at their headquarters
the cowboys reported what they had seen. Shortly after supper the
Overland Riders were again disturbed, and half a dozen cowboys rode
up in a cloud of dust, sweeping off their hats as they pulled down
their mustangs at the very edge of the camp. Their attitude was
stern, but not unfriendly, and the Overlanders surmised that they
were from the “Circle O” ranch, which they soon learned was the
fact.

“The Old Man wants to know who you be and what you are doin’ heah,”
announced the spokesman. “He ’lows thet he don’t like no strangers
foolin’ ’round whar the stock is, and he says it’ll please him if
you move on.”

“Say! This is a hospitable country, isn’t it?” cried Stacy Brown.
“Since I have been here, about all I have heard is, ‘Get out or get
shot up!’ Funny thing about it, though, is that we haven’t ‘got’ and
we haven’t been ‘shot up.’”

“Be quiet, Stacy!” admonished Grace.

“Please go back and tell Mr. Bindloss that it is Lieutenant Hippy
Wingate, and his friends from the east. Lieutenant Wingate is a
friend of Captain Gordon who was out here some time ago on a hunting
trip. Say to Mr. Bindloss that if he objects to our camping here, we
will go on up into the range and make camp there,” answered Hippy.

“Wal, the Old Man reckoned thet if ye didn’t go we was to fetch ye
back whether ye wanted to come or not, but seein’ as thar’s ladies
heah mebby we won’t have to take only the men,” answered the
spokesman doubtfully.

“Listen, Buddy! You go back and tell the Old Man to come and fetch
us himself if he wants to see us. Tell him Lieutenant Wingate said
so,” directed Hippy laughingly.

The cowboys hesitated, surveyed the Overland outfit keenly, then,
whirling their ponies, dashed away towards the “Circle O” ranch.

“Another one invites us to get out,” murmured Emma. “How exciting!”

An hour later a bellowing “halloo” informed the Overland Riders that
they were about to receive another caller, and they surmised who it
was. The hail was answered in kind, then a horseman trotted in and
hopped off. He was a big, powerful-looking man, his face hard,
probably from exposure, but the cold gray eyes now held a sparkle
that was reassuring.

“I’m Joe Bindloss. Where’s the duffer who dared me to come after
him?”

“I’m the duffer,” answered Hippy, stepping forward.

“Shake!” rumbled Old Joe Bindloss. “Any friend of Cap’n Gordon is a
friend of mine. We’ve had to be kinder careful out here lately
because there’s been some rustling done and the word has been passed
that there’s a big gang—a regular gang of thieves, that’s working
this section under all sorts of disguises.”

“Meet _our_ gang, Mr. Bindloss; every one a rustler, but not the
kind you are looking for,” said Hippy laughingly. He then introduced
the rancher to the members of the Overland party, and lastly to the
guides. Bindloss peered at Sam.

“Wal, strike me dead if it ain’t Sam Conifer!” shouted the rancher,
extending a mighty paw to Sam and another to Jim. “Do you folks
savvy this feller you’ve got here? You better savvy him if you know
what’s good for you. Sam, if you want to do the ‘Circle O’ a great
big favor you just get wise to the feller that’s stealing stock, but
give him a chance to draw so you can plug him proper. Come on up to
the ranch-house.”

Hippy said they had intended to do so in the morning, and then asked
the rancher if he knew a man named Hornby. Bindloss’s face darkened
and a heavy scowl wrinkled his forehead.

“I reckon I do. He and I don’t hook up nohow, but he’s got a
daughter that I reckon I wish was mine. Judy is a peach and you
ought to know her. Why do you ask me about Mal Hornby?”

Tom Gray explained that they had been ordered to leave the grazing
grounds on the other side of the valley, and that the demand had
been made in Hornby’s name. He also told Bindloss about the raid of
the night before.

“A-huh! Hornby ain’t got no call to tell you to get out. A Mexican
feller, you say? Probably one of the half-breeds that you’ll find
all over the ranges, and a bad lot they are, too. I don’t reckon
Hornby had to do with that.”

“Who do you think the raiders were?” questioned Grace.

“How do I know? I reckon, though, that mebby they were sent after
you. Somebody don’t want you folks hangin’ ’round these diggin’s,
but I reckon that Sam Conifer can take care of them. Eh, Sam?”

“I reckon, but honest, Joe, my rheumatiz crinkles my fingers so that
I can’t throw a gun any more, let alone pulling the trigger,”
complained Sam.

Bindloss laughed uproariously.

“The feller who reckons on gettin’ you because of your rheumatiz is
a dead man before he leaves home that day. Say, folks, the boys are
having a little shindy in the ranch-house this evenin’, and they’d
be mighty pleased to have you all come over. The boys are a rough
gang, but they will treat you fine, you ladies.”

“What kind of a shindy?” asked Nora.

“A dance. They have a fiddle and a fellow who scrapes it, and they
may walk on your toes, but they’ll feel worse about it than you do.”

“Oh, goodie! A dance! Of course we will go. Come on, folks. Oh, Mr.
Bindloss, do you ever dream?” asked Emma soberly.

“Help!” murmured J. Elfreda.

“Why, yes. I reckon I do, like everybody else does when they get
outside of too much chuck,” laughed the rancher.

“Do you ever make a psychoanalysis of your dreams, Mr. Bindloss?”
questioned Emma, laying a hand on the rancher’s arm and gazing up
into his eyes.

“Eh? Eh? A what?” he stammered.

“You should learn to read your dreams. Freud says that all dreams
mean something—ungratified desires in life—imponderable somethings
that may mean great happiness, great sorrows, disaster—any number
of fine or frightful things. If you will tell me about your dreams I
will search out the imponderable quality in them and—”

“Ride out, Miss Dean! Quick! Use your spurs because—”

“Don’t be alarmed,” begged Elfreda. “She never gets violent. We are
in hopes that the mountain air may do her good.” The Overland Riders
burst out laughing, which, after a look at Emma, Old Joe Bindloss
joined in with a bellowing laugh.

“Try that on the boys. They’ll be plumb locoed,” rumbled Bindloss.
“Are you going with me?”

“Of course we are,” answered Emma. “Where’s my horse?”

“I have ridden every foot that I am going to ride today,” protested
Miss Briggs. “Let’s walk.”

The distance to the ranch being only about a mile the Overlanders
decided that they would walk, and the rancher, assuring them that
their stock and equipment would not be disturbed, Jim-Sam welcomed
the opportunity to accompany them. Bindloss led his mustang and
walked with them, and between Emma Dean’s quaint humor and Stacy
Brown’s broader fun-making, Bindloss was kept in a roar most of the
way home.

He explained that he had no family, and that he seldom saw people of
the outside world except when he went to town, which was only at
rare intervals. He said that his men were preparing for a round-up
and that within a few days a bunch of his cowboys would start with a
drove of cattle for the north. He led his new friends to the
dance-house, which was the cowboys’ bunk-house, and there he
introduced them to that rollicking crowd.

The fiddler stopped playing the moment the party appeared in the
bunk-house.

Sierra Joe, Squint Nevada, Sallie, and Two-gun Peters, were among
the names that rolled readily from the tongue of the rancher as he
introduced his men to the Overland Riders.

“And if they don’t talk you to death I reckon they’ll dance you to
death,” warned the rancher, grinning at his men. “Scrape, you lazy
lout!” he roared to the fiddler.

The cowboys were shy, and stood about awkwardly, avoiding the eyes
of the girls who were smiling invitingly.

“See here, boys, aren’t you going to ask us to dance?” cried Emma.
“No? Then I am going to ask you. Two-gun Peters, I like your name.
It is a perfectly adorable name, and I want to dance with you. If
you are half as handy with your feet as your name indicates that you
are with your revolver, we’ll have a heavenly dance. Shake your
feet, Peter!”

There was laughter from the Overlanders, a bellowing laugh from Joe
Bindloss and sheepish grins from Two-gun Peters and his fellows, as
Emma grabbed him and began waltzing about with him. Then the other
girls of the party selected their partners, and in a few moments the
cowboys were dancing, milling about as if they were herding cattle
at a round-up. Stamping feet, shrill cries from the fiddler and an
occasional howl from Stacy Brown, who was doing an Indian dance by
himself, made the old bunk-house ring, and raised the dust until the
room was bathed in a yellow haze.

Jim and Sam, grinning and pulling their whiskers, were watching the
fun and trying to talk to Bindloss, but the old rancher was having
altogether too good a time to say much to them.

“I wish Judy was over here. She’d see somethin’ worth while,” he
finally confided to Tom Gray.

“Two-gun, do you ever dream?” Emma was saying as she swept past them
with her partner.

“Why—I—I reckon I do,” admitted Two-gun. “Why?”

“Did you ever hear of a man named Freud, the world’s most scientific
interpreter of dreams?” questioned the little freckle-faced girl
gazing soulfully up into the eyes of the big cowboy.

“I shore did heah of a feller of thet name. He was a cattle rustler
an’ I reckon he’s havin’ a long dream, ’cause they caught him and
hanged him up on Rainy Mountain ’bout three year ago. He shore was
some rustler, an’ thar’s some others of the same kind that aire
goin’ the same way when we kotch up with ’em.”

“Oh, no! That isn’t the man I mean. The one I refer to is a great
scientist who has discovered that there is an imponderable quality
in each of us, and through his method of psychoanalysis he is able
to throw the spot-light on that imponderable quality and—”

“Bang! Bang!”

Two quick shots fired from somewhere beyond the open door of the
bunk-house startled every one in the room. One bullet passed through
Sam Conifer’s whiskers, and the other grazed the dress of Emma Dean
who was dancing past him at that instant.

Sam’s weapon was out of its holster with a movement so speedy that
no one saw him draw it. Two shots rang out from the guide’s weapon,
one shattering the hanging lamp, the other following close upon the
first, but fired through the open door. The room was plunged into
deep darkness, with the odor of burnt powder heavy on the air.



CHAPTER V

OVERLANDERS SUFFER A LOSS


“Shoot, Sam!  Shoot, I tell you!” It was Emma Dean’s voice that
broke the silence of the room. Sam’s answer was lost in the chorus
of yells uttered by the enraged cowboys, who made a rush for the
door, with Joe Bindloss charging after them and shouting orders.

“Get the critter! Drill him! Don’t let him get away,” yelled the
rancher. “You women stay here till we find out what’s doing. There
may be some shooting, and there surely will be if I ketch sight of
the coyote who did that.”

Jim-Sam had strolled out behind the others, the least excited of the
party. They reasoned that the person who fired the shot into the
room, evidently with the intention of hitting Sam Conifer, would not
be found outside waiting to be caught. It was a pot shot and it had
missed, but the shooter, by this time, no doubt was well on his way
to safety.

Jim began snooping about, but the night was too dark to enable him
to find what he was looking for, and the girls, not to be denied,
stepped out.

“Here! Take my pocket lamp,” said Grace, thrusting it into his hand.

“Thankee, Miss,” growled Jim, and began sweeping the rays from the
lamp over the ground in front of the bunk-house door. “Here’s whar
the critter stood when he let go,” announced Jim. “Anybody recognize
them boot-prints?”

No one did, and Jim went on nosing out the trail, which he followed
for several rods down the valley, though the footprints were mixed
with the tracks of cowpunchers and ponies. Jim continued his
tracking until he reached a point where the shooter had met and
mounted a pony, on which he dashed away straight for the hills.
Those hoof-prints were of keen interest to Jim-Sam. They were the
prints of unshod hoofs, and the two men looked at each other with a
meaning gaze.

“I reckon the feller was shootin’ with his left hand, an’ that’s why
he missed,” observed Sam.

“I reckon,” agreed Jim.

“What have you got, Conifer?” called Joe Bindloss, dashing up on his
pony.

The men explained what they had found, and the old rancher raged and
stormed, declaring that he would get the fellow, that he would set
his cowpunchers on the trail at once to follow it until they did get
the man.

“Ain’t no use,” objected Sam. “Can’t do nothin’ till daylight, an’
then it’ll be too late. I’ll know that hoof-print when I see it.”

“I reckon I know it now,” spoke up Jim.

“What’s that?” demanded Bindloss.

“You do?” wondered Sam.

“Shore, I do. It’s Mrs. Gray’s pony. He lost a shoe yesterday an’
the others was loose, an’ she was intendin’ to have him shod all
around, after I’d pulled off the rest of the shoes,” was the guide’s
startling announcement.

“Come back to the bunk-house. We’ve got to find out about this,”
growled Bindloss.

On their way back they met the Overlanders coming along. Unable to
restrain their curiosity, the Overlanders had followed their guides
down the valley.

“Mrs. Gray, would you know the hoof-prints of your pony if you were
to see them?” asked the rancher.

“I am quite certain that I would,” answered Grace.

“Come and have a look at what Jim’s found,” he said, wheeling his
pony and trotting back towards the place where the Overland animal
hoof-print had been found by Jim.

“Yes,” announced Grace after a careful examination of the tracks.
“Those are Ginger’s tracks, or else Ginger has a double; but what
was my pony doing here? What does it mean, Sam?”

“I reckon it means that the feller who shot at me had your hoss.
Hark!”

A scattering fire of revolver shots was heard from farther down the
valley, and now Joe Bindloss’s cowpunchers came riding from the
ranch-house, they too having heard the shots.

“It’s down by our camp!” cried Nora.

“Go to it, fellows!” shouted the rancher. “You folks go back to the
ranch-house, I’m going to follow the boys,” he announced, spurring
his horse into a run.

Instead of following his direction the Overland Riders started at a
brisk walk for their camp.

“Aren’t we going back to finish our dance?” wailed Emma.

“Not until we find out what is going on down yonder,” answered Tom
Gray with a wave of the hand towards their camp.

“Oh, what a shame to spoil a perfectly lovely party!” wailed Emma.
“Two-gun Pete surely could handle his feet even if they are big, and
I was having such a nice talk with him about Freud, too.”

“Emma Dean, if you keep on I shall be in favor of having your sanity
inquired into,” threatened J. Elfreda Briggs.

Stacy shook his head.

“You can’t inquire into what ain’t, can you?” he demanded.

“No, and that is the reason you have never been the subject of an
inquiry,” flung back Emma sharply.

At this juncture, Jim and Sam began to wrangle, each accusing the
other of being to blame for the mess their party had gotten into,
but the Overlanders were too much concerned with their own troubles
to laugh at the argument of the guides.

A few moments later the Overland party came within sight of their
camp. Someone, probably men of the “Circle O” ranch, had built up
the campfire and could be seen moving about there.

As a matter of prudence, before leaving camp that evening, the
Riders had hidden their rifles and ammunition, as they were in the
habit of doing. Their revolvers they wore, for experience had taught
them that it was the wise thing to do in a wild country, or in
sections where there were ruffians such as they had encountered in
the Coso Valley.

“Is everything all right?” called Hippy as they came up to the camp.

“No. Everything’s all wrong,” answered Bindloss savagely. “I’ll kill
somebody for this.”

“What happened?” begged Grace.

“My night rangers discovered some fellows fooling about your camp,
and knowin’ you was at the ranch-house, because one of ’em had
watched you to see what you were doing, he looked a little closer
and saw the prowlers nosing into your property. That was Idaho
Jones. Idaho fired three shots at the fellows, and that called our
other rangers nearby, who rode in hot-foot, but the prowlers skipped
before they got in, though not before Jones had taken a few pot
shots at them. The thieves got away, but one of the fellows says
Jones was certain that he hit one of them.”

“Yes. But what about our ponies?” cried Grace.

“Not a hide nor hair of ’em left,” answered Bindloss.  “The critters
took ’em all, and one had the nerve to ride yours, Mrs. Gray, almost
over to the ranch-house. You better look around and see if they got
anything else,” suggested Bindloss amid a tense silence. “Jones and
some of the others chased ’em into the hills and are after ’em now.”

“The ponies stolen!” howled Stacy Brown.

“It’s your fault, consarn ye!” raged Sam Conifer, addressing his
companion. “I told ye to stay here an’ watch things.”

“It ain’t! It’s your fault. If you’d had any brains in yer empty
head you’d stayed an’ watched this camp. You need somebody to watch
you, an’ that’s no lie!” yelled Jim at the top of his voice.

The Overlanders burst out laughing, some of them a little
hysterically.



CHAPTER VI

RUSTLERS ARE HARD PRESSED


“The mules is still heah,” cried Jim.

“Of course they aire, an’ I’ll bet my mule scared them fellers off.
Thar ain’t a man livin’ that can git away with that cayuse of mine,”
declared Sam.

“Leastwise when he has mine to frighten them off,” added Jim.

“I think you are right, James. Your mule would frighten the beasts
of the jungles,” said Emma.

“Missie, you’re wrong. Jim’s mule is the finest chunk o’ mule flesh
that you ever seen,” declared Sam.

“You said it, old Whiskers. That critter of yours can’t hold a
firebrand to him,” agreed Jim.

“He can’t, eh? Wal, I’ll show ye whether he can or not. Thar ain’t a
mule on four feet that can come up to mine,” averred Sam heatedly.

“Will you kindly stop your wrangling and do something?” begged Tom
Gray. “Hippy, are the rifles safe?”

“Yes. They didn’t find them, thank goodness.”

Grace and her companions, who had been making a hasty inventory of
their belongings, announced that not a thing was missing.

“I reckon that our boys got here too soon and chased the critters
away,” boomed the rancher. “What do you folks think you’re going to
do now?”

“That is the question before the house,” observed Stacy.

“Where would the horse thieves be likely to take the stock?” asked
Grace.

“No one knows where their hang-out is, but I’ve heard that it’s up
in the canyon country, where it is said there are acres of rich
grass and plenty of hiding places, but nobody ever succeeded in
tracking ’em very far. They are too smart. The boys won’t find ’em,
but we’ll wait till they get back.”

“Where is the canyon country to which you refer, Mr. Bindloss?”
asked Miss Briggs.

“On the other side of the valley in the mountains.”

“Then is it not reasonable to suppose that they will attempt to
cross the valley tonight so as to be in their lair by daylight?”
persisted Elfreda.

“Sure they will,” agreed Bindloss.

“Can you spare enough men to ride back and forth for a few miles on
this side? It is possible that they might intercept the thieves and
possibly recover at least one of our animals,” suggested Miss
Briggs.

“You’re right. Miss, you have a head on your shoulders. Pete, you
take all the boys that are left here and hit it along the valley,
stringing out ’bout half a mile apart and watch like all possessed,”
directed Bindloss.

“We want to be in on that, Mr. Bindloss. How about ponies for
Captain Gray and myself?” asked Hippy eagerly.

“You can have the one I’m riding, and Nevada will ride back to the
ranch and get one for Captain Gray. Hustle, Nevada! The rest of you
fellows go on, and don’t be afraid to string out. Sam, I reckon you
and Jim better stick around. No telling what might be pulled off by
that gang. I’ve been thinking that mebby this is a sort of come-back
for Sam’s shooting that fellow in the wrist the other night. I’ll
bet it’s the same gang, but there’s something more to it. I don’t
know what, but I reckon on you folks finding out one of these days.”

“You may be certain that we will,” spoke up Emma. “And please, Mr.
Bindloss, try to remember your dreams, for they may have a powerful
bearing on this affair. Each of you do the same and tell them to me
in the morning.”

“It ain’t dreams, it’s lead that’s goin’ to settle this heah
matter,” observed Sam.

Nevada soon returned with a mustang for Tom Gray. The animal was not
particularly good-natured, and gave Tom no little trouble at first,
but fortunately he was not unhorsed, and the party was soon
galloping away, each man carrying a rifle and fifty rounds of
ammunition.

A few miles down the valley they were halted by Pete and told to
spread out between him and the camp and keep a sharp lookout. Three
rifle shots were to be fired as a signal that the thieves had been
discovered. The men rode slowly back and forth, hailing as they met
at the end of their beats, and thus the night wore on with nothing
more disturbing than the howls of coyotes up in the mountains.

“Is it us that those fellows are howling at?” questioned Tom Gray as
he met Two-gun Pete.

“I don’t reckon so. The breeze ain’t blowin’ right fer them to scent
us.”

“Then it is probable that they are howling at someone up in the
hills, isn’t it?”

“Cap’n, I reckon as you aire right ’bout thet. Somethin’ aire
stirrin’. I feels it in my bones. Can you folks shoot?”

“Pretty well when we can see, but not in such darkness as this. Can
you?”

“Shore I kin shoot in the dark, but thet ain’t sayin’ I can hit what
I’m shootin at,” chuckled Pete.

While the Overland men and cowboys were watching the foothills for
the horse thieves, the girls of their party were busy making their
camp comfortable and chatting with Joe Bindloss, who found himself
much attracted to them. Then again, he felt it wise to remain with
them until the men returned.

Jim-Sam were striding back and forth with “ears pricked up, jest
huntin’ fer trouble,” as they listened to sounds of the night rather
than to what those about them were saying. Both men finally sat down
in the shadows on the mountain side of the camp, but not a word did
either man have to say.

“May I sit down with you boys?” asked Emma, skipping over to them.
“You are expecting something, I know, and I would just love to be in
on it.”

“Please, Missie, git back,” urged Sam. “Mebby nothin’ll happen. Most
likely nothin’ will, but we got to listen and watch, fer—Skip!” he
added in a whisper.

Jim felt his companion stiffen ever so little, and Emma, observing
the expression on his face, without another word, turned and ran
back to her companions. Sam had heard something, and Jim’s nod
indicated that he too heard it, but neither man moved from his
position, though Sam Conifer’s hand might have been seen caressing
the big revolver butt that protruded from his holster.

Over yonder by the campfire there were chatter and joking and
laughter, the old rancher being entertained as he had not been in
many years, in fact not since he was a youngster in Illinois where
he had been born and reared. Jim-Sam now heard nothing of the
merriment, every faculty being bent on the slight rustling that both
could hear in the bushes to the rear of them. It was not the breeze
that was stirring the foliage, for there was no breeze, and they
knew that it was either man or animal creeping up on them, though
neither man could be certain that their own presence, there in the
shadows, had been discovered.

Sam suddenly decided that the time for action was at hand. With one
of those marvellously flashing movements that seemed so little a
part of him, the old man jerked his weapon from its holster and
fired back over his shoulder into the bushes without even looking
around.

Nora uttered a scream, and the other girls sprang to their feet,
while Joe Bindloss, uttering a roar, charged towards the guides,
both of whom, now having risen, were shooting into the bushes.
Bindloss suddenly realized that the firing was not one-sided, for he
heard bullets zing past his ears. The Overland girls also at once
discovered that they were under fire—revolver fire—and springing
away from the campfire, they threw themselves prone on the ground.

The rancher at this juncture took a hand in the shooting. The
Overland girls, despite their fright, gazed at him in admiration.
Bindloss, standing in the light of the campfire, was working his
revolver, firing at the flashes he saw coming from the bushes. He
made a splendid mark, but nothing touched him, though twice Jim-Sam
heard grunts in the bushes, that told that someone there had been
hit.

“I can’t stand this!” cried Emma. “I’m going to get my rifle.”

“Lie still!” commanded Grace. “Let the men do the fighting. If they
need us we shall know it, and that will be time enough.”

Emma sank back, complaining to herself. Stacy was nowhere in sight,
but they knew that he was in hiding, for he had disappeared at the
first shot fired by Sam Conifer.

The firing from the bushes ceased suddenly, the defense of the camp
probably having grown too warm, as the Overlanders reasoned out the
situation. Now the three men fairly riddled the bushes with their
shooting, sweeping the entire spread of foliage for several yards to
the right and left of them.

A sharp cry from one of the girls drew the attention of Jim-Sam and
Joe Bindloss to them.

“Horses!” shouted Grace.

The three men instantly divined her meaning. The attackers had taken
to their mounts, and, with quick perception of what their defenders’
next action would be, the Overland girls snatched up rifles and
thrust them into the hands of the men as the latter ran for the
open.

The heavy report of a rifle before the three men were clear of the
camp, was the first intimation that Stacy Brown had come out of
hiding. He was shooting at the retreating horsemen, now that it was
reasonably safe for him to do so. A few seconds later Jim-Sam and
Joe Bindloss were firing at the sound of retreating hoof-beats, and
they kept on firing until the hoof-beats finally died away.

                *       *       *       *       *

“Hark!” exclaimed Tom Gray as the sound of rifle fire from the
Overland camp reached them.

“I heah it,” answered Two-gun Pete. “Rifles! They aire at it fer
keeps.”

“Then let’s go. Man, they need us!” urged Tom, his tone reflecting
his excitement.

“Wait! Hold yer hosses fer a bit.”

They heard the few answering scattering shots fired by the fleeing
attackers; then the firing died out. Pete, with head cocked to one
side, interpreted the sounds and the silence aright.

“Yer folks have got ’em on the run. Reckon we’ll be goin’. Jest jog
along so thet we don’t run into somethin’ headlong,” he advised.

Tom Gray, worried and full of eagerness to get into action, had to
put a firm check on himself to keep from racing on in the lead of
his companion. Ahead of them somewhere they knew that Hippy Wingate
was on the lookout for the horse thieves, and so long as nothing was
heard from him there appeared to be no need for haste, but while
Tom’s every faculty was centered on what lay ahead of them, Two-gun
Pete, like the mustang he was riding, gave as much attention to the
rear as he did to what was ahead.

A flash suddenly leaped up in the darkness ahead, followed by a
sharp report. Then guns banged with a speed that reminded Tom Gray
of nights on the firing line in France.

“He’s met ’em! Ride!” yelled Two-gun Pete, putting spurs to his
horse.

Tom needed no urging, nor did his pony. The little animal uttered a
whistling snort and plunged ahead, its nose at the flank of Pete’s
flying mustang.



[Illustration: “He’s Met ’Em! Ride!”]



“He’s turned ’em!” flung back Pete. “They aire headin’ ’cross the
valley. That feller shore has got nerve.”

No more was said, but both men swerved their mounts farther out into
the valley to head off the fleeing horsemen, and drew up on them
slowly. Pete saw that Hippy Wingate was fighting with all the odds
against him, but that he was holding his own. Had there been light,
the Overlander would have been in a much more serious situation.

As the two men neared the scene of the fighting, Tom Gray uttered a
long-drawn yell, which Hippy heard, recognized, and answered. The
attackers heard too, and put on a fresh burst of speed. Observing
this, Pete jerked his rifle from its holster and emptied his
magazine at them. Up to this time, however, Tom Gray had not fired.

“No use. We aire losin’ ground,” shouted Pete. “Ride till we git
close enough to use the barkers. I never was no good at long-range
shootin’.”

A few moments later the horses of the ruffians became faintly
discernible, and Pete rode straight at them. The ruffians were
shooting as they raced, and Lieutenant Hippy Wingate was banging
away at them and yelling like an Indian on the warpath. About this
time Tom and Pete opened up with their revolvers. A pony went down
and its rider was seen to plunge over its head. Pete jerked his
mustang aside just in time to avoid running into the fallen man and
horse. There were fully half a dozen of the supposed horse thieves,
some of whom were leading other animals behind them, and it was
these to whom Pete devoted his attention, believing that the led
horses were stolen animals.

The three pursuers were spread out in fan shape now, Hippy Wingate
on the extreme right, running in on the fleeing men head-on, then
ducking and swinging out, after emptying his weapon at them.

“Hit!” he muttered as a sudden burning sensation was felt in the
calf of his left leg. “Take that!” he yelled. Taking a desperate
chance he rode right in among the scattered horsemen, hoping to cut
them off and give his own companions an opportunity to do more
effective work.

Hippy emptied two revolvers at the raiders, then all at once
something suddenly seemed to snap in his head, and Hippy Wingate
reeled in his saddle. Sudden and deeper darkness enveloped him, and
Hippy fell forward on the neck of his mustang, both feet slipping
from the stirrups. For a moment he clung there. He did not hear the
scream of his pony as a bullet hit the plucky little animal, nor did
he feel the impact when both he and the pony went down in the dust
and lay motionless where they had fallen.



CHAPTER VII

A FIGHT TO A FINISH


“They are heading for the mountains!” shouted Tom as he and Two-gun
Pete drew together.

“Yes, but we’ll chase ’em into the foothills afore we quit,” raged
Pete. “Ain’t hit, be ye?”

“No.”

“Thet’s good.”

The two riders again settled down to their work, pushing their
ponies to utmost speed. Then they observed that the ruffians were
beginning to spread out, to scatter, a move that Two-gun Pete
understood perfectly. They were planning to take to the mountains as
individuals rather than as a body. This would make pursuit more
difficult, in fact, practically impossible.

Both Tom and Pete had had many close calls from bullets, but neither
gave much heed to them. They were too busy to consider something
that had passed, and again, they had advantage in that they were
pursuing while their adversaries were fleeing before them.

“Now give ’em the rifles!” yelled Pete as the pursued riders neared
the foothills. “Keep shootin’!”

The pair unlimbered their rifles, and soon afterwards other
cowpunchers who had joined them did the same. The heavy firing was
plainly audible to the girls of the Overland party, who, fearing for
their companions, were very nervous, and Joe Bindloss paced back and
forth at the camp listening, his face stern, both hands tightly
clenched.

“I hope they kill some of them devils! I hope they do!” he growled.

In the meantime Tom Gray and the cowpunchers were at it hammer and
tongs, nor did they cease firing until the last of the supposed
horse thieves were out of sight in the deep shadows in the
foothills.

“I reckon thet’s about all,” observed Two-gun Pete dryly. “What I
wants to know is whar thet fightin’ friend of yours is.”

“Can’t we give Lieutenant Wingate a gun signal to come in?” asked
Tom, a note of anxiety in his tone.

“No. Thet will be givin’ notice to them critters thet we’ve finished
this heah little game, an’ I don’t want them to have thet
satisfaction. We’ll mosey about a little an’ see if we kin find Mr.
Wingate.” Pete, followed by Tom, worked up and down the valley
parallel with the mountain ranges for some little time without
discovering Hippy; then all of a sudden, Pete uttered a
_whoo—pe-e-e!_ It was answered instantly, and two men rode
cautiously out of the darkness. They proved to be Sierra Joe and
Nevada, who said the others were somewhere to the north. A distant
hail told the men that the others also had heard Pete’s call and
were heading in his direction. Tom, worried as he was about Hippy,
could not but admire the efficient manner in which these men of the
open worked. It was a revelation to him. Shortly after that the rest
of the party rode in.

“Has any of you cayuses seen anythin’ of the Old Man’s friend?”
questioned Pete.

“Is he the feller that was workin’ to the south?” asked Nevada.

“Yes,” spoke up Tom.

“Wal, he quit firin’ some little piece back thar. I reckon mebby he
got winged,” announced Nevada.

“Line up, fellers! Take yer ranges by the hills on the other side of
the valley and look sharp. I reckon mebby thar’s some other things
to find in this heah valley,” added Pete significantly.

The search for Hippy began without a moment’s delay, fast and
efficient, but without a trace of excitement. The attitude of his
companions steadied Tom and assisted him to keep his head clear.

Two dead ponies were found first by Sierra, and near them lay two
men, both dead. Sierra hailed his companions and when they arrived
he struck a match to look at the victims.

“Chuck the light!” commanded Pete sternly.

The words were barely past his lips when a bullet _pinged_ through
the air over their heads.

“Ain’t you got no sense, Sierra?” demanded Pete disgustedly. “Don’t
ye do thet agin. Them fellers aire waitin’ fer us to give them a
show, an’ I reckon they’ll hang out in the foothills fer some time
yit. Anybody know these critters?”

Each cowboy took a look at the victims, but none recognized them.
The brand on the dead mustangs also was unknown to them.

“Can’t do nothin’ till daylight. Hit the trail agin,” ordered Pete,
whereupon the search for Hippy Wingate was resumed. It was Tom Gray
who found him, nearly a mile from their last stand.

“Help here!” shouted Tom.

Pete heard and understood. With the others, he spurred to the scene,
finding Tom Gray on the ground bending over the stretched-out form
of the fallen Overlander.

“Is he daid?” questioned Sierra anxiously.

“No. He is alive, but he must be badly hurt. He has been here for
some time and is still unconscious. That looks bad. Boys, we must
get him to camp as quickly as possible. How shall we do it?”

“I’ll take him on my ’tang,” answered Pete. “Wait till I git up;
then boost him up to me and I’ll do the rest. Nevada, you ride back
a piece to make sure thet we ain’t followed, an’ give us a good
start. You kin come on in then.”

Hippy’s limp form was lifted into Two-gun Pete’s arms, and giving
the pony the reins, Pete touched the animal with a light spur and
the journey back to camp was begun. It was not a gentle ride for the
wounded Overlander. In fact it was a killing ride, and when they
came in sight of the campfire, the pony was white with lather.

It was at this juncture that Hippy began to mutter and struggle.

“Thet’s all right, pard. Yer on yer way back to camp, and Pete’s the
boy thet’s takin’ ye; so jest rest easy-like. Cap, ride in an’ tell
’em we aire comin’.”

Tom spurred ahead, and by the time Pete and his burden rode in, the
Overlanders were ready to receive them. All were pale, though Nora,
who might have been expected to go to pieces, was calm, in fact
fully as much so as Elfreda and Grace who, as hospital workers in
the great war, were used to scenes of this sort.

Hippy’s face, as he was lifted from Two-gun Pete’s arms, was seen to
be covered with blood.

“Place him by the fire where we can see,” directed Grace. “Stacy,
fetch water, and be quick about it!”

“I’ll get my kit and be back in a moment,” announced Elfreda.

Blankets were spread out by the campfire, and on them the wounded
Hippy was laid, and by the time Elfreda returned, Grace had sponged
away the blood from his face and head.

“A bullet has laid his scalp open on the right side,” she announced.
“If there are no other wounds he will pull through all right. Do you
hear me, Hippy?”

“Ye—es.”

“Is this the only wound you have?”

“No. In leg,” answered the patient weakly.

Nora pulled up the trousers from both limbs and discovered that the
left one was bloody from half way below the knee down, and it was
Nora’s hands that washed the wound clean and prepared it for the
dressing.

Elfreda Briggs, by this time, had returned with her first-aid kit,
and was critically examining the scalp wound, Grace Harlowe standing
over her with face full of interest and sympathy.

“This must be sewed up as soon as we have treated it,” announced
Miss Briggs, nodding up at her companion. “Hippy, I shall have to
take several stitches in your scalp, and I am going to hurt you. You
won’t mind, will you, after all the fun you have been having
tonight?”

“Get it over with,” muttered Hippy.

“Grace, you might dress the leg while I am doing this embroidery
work for Hippy. Did the bullet go all the way through the leg?”

“Ye—es,” replied Nora. “I—I think so.”

“It did, through the fleshy part. It is not a bad wound,”
volunteered Grace.

Miss Briggs began her work at once, and performed it quickly and
skillfully. Hippy, despite himself, flinched under each needle
thrust. A group of wondering, open-mouthed cowpunchers watched the
Overland girl perform her operation, and by the time she had
finished stitching the scalp together, Grace had completed her task
on the leg wound.

“Oh! He’s dead!” cried Nora, after a quick look into Hippy’s now
ghastly pale face.

“Don’t get excited! He has fainted, that’s all,” comforted Miss
Briggs, who thereupon proceeded to revive her patient. The pain had
been a little more than Hippy, in his weakened condition, could
bear, and under it he had swooned.

Old Joe Bindloss clutched off his sombrero and mopped the
perspiration from his forehead.

“Wal! I’ve seen some things in my time, but I’ll be shot for a hoss
thief if I ever come up with the like of this,” rumbled the rancher.

Hippy opened his eyes and a faint grin appeared on his face,
whereat, the cowpunchers, as one man, heaved a deep breath of
relief. They stood about awkwardly, sombreros tucked under their
arms, not knowing what they ought to do, but quite positive to a man
that they wished there were more patients to be treated so that they
might stay where they were and watch these capable young women work
for the rest of the night.



CHAPTER VIII

THE “DUDE” MAKES GOOD


Two-Gun Pete sidled over to Hippy.

“Fer a dude, yer some scrapper. I’ll say so. Shake, Pard,” he said,
extending a ham-like paw.

“Yep! Reg’lar bear-cat,” agreed Sierra, and all the cowboys nodded
solemnly.

“Thanks! Did we get any of them?” questioned Hippy, not much above a
whisper, for every word sent shooting pains through his head.

“Two thet we knows of, and mebby some more. The Old Man’s hoss thet
you was ridin’ got his’n, too.”

“Oh, that is too bad. I’m sorry.”

“Thet ain’t nothin’,” interjected Idaho. “What’s a hoss when it
comes to a scrap with a bunch of rustlers? They’re mad now, and
we’ll mebby git another chance at ’em some day soon. Reckon you
won’t care ’bout mixin’ in agin?”

“I reckon you have another guess coming, Idaho,” answered Hippy,
grinning.

Bindloss here interrupted by declaring that the wounded Overlander
must be taken to the ranch-house and put to bed. He said he would
have a buckboard brought down and fetch him. Miss Briggs shook her
head.

“I do not think best to have him moved tonight. If he feels better
in the morning, you may do that,” she said.

“All right. You’re the doctor. I’ll have the boys fix you up
comfortable and stand guard for the rest of the night so you won’t
be bothered by those rustlers.”

“Bindloss, I am sorry about the pony that got shot under me. Of
course I shall pay you for him,” offered Hippy.

“Pay nothing!” roared the rancher. “I owe you money for the
walloping you folks give those coyotes. Here, you rough-necks! Fix
these folks up with whatever they want, then spread out and ride
’round for the rest of the night, and if they get into any more
trouble tonight, I’ll fire the bunch of you and get riders who can
see and shoot.”

“I reckon we kin take care of our folks and do whatever is
necessary,” interjected Sam.

Bindloss agreed, but said his men would be on guard just the same.
Shortly after that the cowboys mounted and rode out into the valley
for their night’s vigil.

A tent was erected over Hippy, and Nora insisted on sitting up to
look after him, but before turning in the Overlanders went into
Hippy’s tent with a cheerful word for their wounded companion.

“Hippy, tell me, did you dream anything when you were asleep out
there after being shot?” whispered Emma.

“Yes. I dreamed that an imponderable quantity appeared suddenly out
of the nowhere and gave me an awful wallop,” retorted Hippy.

“I think you are real mean,” pouted Emma. “Good-night! Don’t forget
to remember what you dream about tonight, for it may be of great
importance to us.”

“Huh!” muttered Hippy.

Soon after that the camp became quiet and every Overlander, except
Nora, was sound asleep. Jim-Sam, however, were just outside holding
a heated argument over the occurrences of the evening. Jim blamed
Sam for shooting into the bushes and thus starting the row that
ended in the wounding of one of their party.

“Why, you miserable galoot, you ain’t got the sense of a flea!”
retorted Sam. “If it hadn’t been fer me, you’d been quarrelin’ with
the angels right this minute. Some folks ain’t got brains enough to
know nothin’.”

“You said it,” agreed Jim. “I’ve knowed that ever since I’ve been
with ye.”

The argument was continued at intervals all the rest of the night,
and until at break of day they saw the cowpunchers ride off down the
valley at a brisk gallop. Jim then built up the fire and began
preparing for breakfast. The odors of the cooking soon awakened the
Overlanders, and one by one they turned out rubbing the sleep out of
their eyes.

Emma Dean’s face, however, was glowing and her eyes were full of
sparkle.

“Oh, girls,” she cried. “I had the most wonderful dream last night.
What do you think? It was a most adorable dream. I dreamed that I
was engaged to the nicest man and—”

“What! Again?” shouted the Overlanders.

“Yes. Why not? He was a cowboy, and I dreamed that he had just shot
a man who made eyes at me. Wasn’t that a perfectly adorable thing
for him to do?”

“Which man to do what?” questioned Stacy.

“For my fiancé to shoot the other fellow, of course. I just loved
him for that.”

“Emma, we will have you in a strait-jacket yet,” retorted Grace
laughingly. “How many does this one make?”

“Two real ones and a spiritual one. You know the one last night
wasn’t a real fiancé—”

“Just an imponderable quantity or quality,” suggested Stacy Brown,
which brought a laugh from the Overlanders, and made Hippy grin
despite the fact that it hurt him to twist his swollen face.

Hippy, while feeling much improved, was sore and weak, and when Joe
Bindloss rode up, as the Overlanders were eating breakfast, he said
he had arranged to have them move their camp up near the
ranch-house, as it would be some time before Lieutenant Wingate
would again be able to ride.

“He can stay at my house and I’ll take all the care of him that he
needs. You folks can make trips out and stay as long as you want to.
What about it?”

The Overlanders agreed, and the rancher said the buckboard would be
down later in the morning to fetch the wounded man. Bindloss sat
down and ate breakfast with his new friends, and they had just
finished the meal when Sam Conifer called to them that the cowboys
were coming back, one of them leading an extra mustang.

Glasses were soon leveled at the approaching dust cloud which Sam
had identified as belonging to the Circle O bunch. As the riders
rode out of the cloud Grace uttered a cry of delight.

“It is Ginger! They have found Ginger! Oh, I’m so glad.”

“Only Ginger! Fiddlesticks!” growled Stacy in disgust. “Somebody
will have to buy me a new pony. I’m not going to walk. You take my
word for that.”

“Ginger!” cried Grace as the punchers rode in, dust-covered,
smiling, happy in being able to do something for one of the Overland
girls.

The little pony trotted to her, showing every evidence of being glad
to be back with his mistress, and Grace petted and fed the
scrubby-looking mustang until Sam took the animal away and tethered
him.

“We found him grazin’ ’bout fifteen mile down the valley,” explained
Pete.

“What about the men who stole him?” demanded Bindloss.

“We didn’t find ’em,” said Pete. “Thar was three dead mustangs out
thar, though, but saddles and bridles had been taken off, leavin’
nothin’ to identify the outfit by.”

“See any blood?” questioned Sam Conifer.

“Wal, I reckon as thar was some,” answered Pete, with a grin. “This
is the bunch thet got yer mustangs, folks. No doubt ’bout thet.
Boss, what do ye reckon on our doin’ next?”

“Help these folks move up to the ranch-house.”

“Thank you, but we can attend to that. We have our mules and one
pony with which to operate,” spoke up Tom Gray. “If you will arrange
to get Lieutenant Wingate up, as you have suggested, we shall be all
set.”

Nevada was sent to the ranch to fetch the buckboard and returned
with it in about an hour. In the meantime the cowpunchers were
interested witnesses to the breaking of camp, in which all the
Overlanders except Hippy participated, and in a short time packs
were rolled and Jim-Sam were lashing them to the mules and to
Ginger.

“I reckon these heah folks ain’t no tenderfeet,” observed Sierra, as
the cowboys rode away.

“Have ye jest found thet out?” drawled Two-gun Pete. “If they kin
all fit like the Dude kin, the rustlers better hike fer the
mountains an’ stay thar.”

Nora, riding with Hippy, swung a hand to the men as the buckboard
passed them on the way to the Circle O ranch, and by the time the
rest of the party reached there Hippy was taking what ease he could
get on a cot on the front porch of the ranch-house.

The Overland Riders pitched their camp on a little rise of ground a
short distance to the rear of the ranch buildings, and the
cowpunchers observed this further operation with interest.

“Good job,” approved Idaho.

“Thank you,” smiled Grace. “We hope you boys will come around
whenever you can. You all have been mighty kind to us and we
appreciate it.”

“Where did you folks larn to do things like you do?” asked Nevada.

“Mostly from our western experiences. Of course we learned a few
things in the war.”

“The war? Was you thar?” laughed Sierra.

“Yes. I drove an ambulance. The other young women were in the
service as hospital workers, and the like. My husband, Tom Gray, was
a Captain of Engineers, and Lieutenant Wingate was a flier—a
fighting pilot,” Grace informed them.

“Gee whiz! Ain’t thet the limit?” wondered Idaho.

“The next question is, what are we going to do for horses? Do any of
you boys know where we can buy or rent some?”

“Mebby the Old Man might sell ye what ye need,” suggested Sallie,
who was in charge of the corral for Bindloss. “I’ll arsk him.”

Grace thanked him, but said Tom Gray would take the matter up with
the rancher. Later in the morning Tom informed her that he had
already done so, and that arrangements had been made to rent such
ponies as they needed. Bindloss, he said, did not want to take money
from them, but that the Overlander had insisted on his doing so. The
arrangement, Tom said, was that they were to pay a rental of two
dollars a week for each pony, and in the event of any of the animals
being lost or injured, the Overland Riders were to settle for the
ponies at the rate of twenty-five dollars a head.

This was satisfactory to all hands, and on the following day they
were to select their mounts.

That noon they took their luncheon with the rancher and his men in
the bunk-house, by special invitation. After dinner Nora sang a
song, Emma Dean recited a pathetic little selection to which she
gave the title of “The Cowboy’s Love,” but which, instead of being
about a cowboy, was the story of a child lost on the desert, and
adopted by a mother wolf that had lost its own offspring.

The Overlanders were of the opinion that Emma made up the story, but
at any rate it made a hit and moved some of the cowpunchers to
tears, for cowpunchers, like sailors, are sentimental under their
rough exteriors. Emma’s eyes were twinkling mischievously when she
finished and observed the effect of her story.

The cowmen wiped their eyes, then gave her a cowboy yell. Stacy
Brown rose and bowed low in acknowledgment, which brought a loud
guffaw. The dance that had been so rudely interrupted on a previous
occasion was then resumed, and thirty minutes later the gathering
broke up, every cowboy face wearing a broad grin. The Overlanders
surely had brought sunshine to the Circle O ranch.

As all hands strolled out into the open, Emma walking at the side of
Two-gun Pete, gazing up soulfully into his embarrassed face, Elfreda
Briggs pointed to a cloud of dust far down the valley, a cloud that
was rolling rapidly towards them.

“That looks like a young tornado,” observed Stacy.

“I reckon thet’s it, and on a hoss, too,” said Idaho.

“On a horse?” wondered Emma.

“Yes. You’ll see when it gits heah. Wait!” chuckled Idaho.

The Overland party now watched the cloud with new interest, and the
cowboys laughed as they observed the puzzled expression on the faces
of their guests.

“It is someone on a horse. You can’t fool me,” cried Emma.

“Yes, and it is a girl, too,” added Elfreda.

The rider came on like an incipient whirlwind, her mustang on a run.
She shot by the spectators and went on for some distance, then,
circling out into the valley, came dashing up to them and flung
herself from the saddle.

The newcomer gazed from one to another of the Overland Riders, while
the cowpunchers chuckled to themselves. They knew the girl and
looked for something interesting to follow. It did.

“I’m Judy! Who be you?” she demanded.

“We are the Overland Riders,” answered Stacy Brown pompously.

Judy eyed the fat boy frowningly, then once more ran her gaze over
the rest of the party.

“My gosh! You are a sweet bunch of dudes, ain’t you? Here you, Idaho
Jones, take my cayuse,” she demanded, tossing the bridle-rein to the
grinning cowboy.

Judy Hornby, in introducing herself to the newcomers in the Coso
Valley, had done so in characteristic fashion.



CHAPTER IX

JUDY SPEAKS OUT


“Hello, little gal!” cried Bindloss, coming forward with extended
hand and smiling face.

“Hello! Why don’t you introduce me to your friends?”

“Why, Judy, don’t you know them?”

“No, but I’m goin’ to in ’bout a minute,” answered Judy, who shook
hands and commented on each member of the Overland party as Joe
Bindloss introduced her. “Some knock-down, ain’t it?” grinned Judy
after the introductions had been finished. “My Pap says you folks
ain’t no great scratch an’ that you ain’t here for no good. Pap says
that Old Joe Bindloss better build a corral ’bout his cattle or
he’ll lose ’em with all these new folks roamin’ ’round in the hills.
Be you a fine lady, or ain’t you?” demanded the mountain girl,
fixing her eyes on Elfreda Briggs. J. Elfreda flushed under the
scrutiny.

“No. I am just a plain, ordinary woman, a bachelor girl and—”

“In other words, an old maid, Miss Hornby,” Emma Dean explained.

“Cut the ‘Miss.’ My name’s Judy. What’s your handle?”

“Emma.”

“All right, Emma. Now the rest of you give me your handles, then
we’ll be down to cases,” whereupon the Overlanders dutifully gave
her their given names. “My gosh! What a lot of highfalutin’ names. I
should think they would keep you folks awake nights.”

The Overlanders laughed heartily and Judy joined in the laugh,
though with little idea what she was laughing at. The mountain girl
had, in her lifetime, seen but few persons who did not belong to
desert or mountain, and these bright-eyed girls were a revelation to
her, because, as she expressed it, “most all that kind is stuck up.”

If Judy was interested in her new acquaintances, they surely were
even more attracted to her. She was a splendid type, her dark,
handsome face unspoiled by the strenuous outdoor life she led, and
her figure possessing lines that would have been the envy of any
woman. Judy was only nineteen, so she said, but she looked more.
That she could ride, the Overlanders had the evidence of their own
eyes, and that she could shoot, was to be inferred from the
business-like looking revolver that swung at her hip.

“Not all are ‘stuck up,’” differed Grace laughingly. “We are not. If
we were we probably should not be here, roughing it, when we might
be at home taking our ease and getting fat.”

“Judy, you mustn’t take too seriously what Grace says. Remember, she
and Nora are here with their husbands, both old married women, here
because their husbands want to live part of the year in the open.
That’s the way women do when they love their husbands,” volunteered
Elfreda.

“A-huh! What are you doin’ here, then?”

“Because I love the open and love my friends who also enjoy it.”

“What’s love?” flung back the mountain girl.

“Why—I—I—Perhaps you had better ask Emma. Old maids are not
supposed to be authorities on that subject,” answered Miss Briggs,
her color rising.

“Love? Why, Judy, love is the most wonderful thing in the world,”
cried Emma dramatically, as Judy turned to her inquiringly. Emma’s
eyes were rolling and she registered extreme emotion, greatly to the
amusement of her companions.

“My gosh! Ain’t goin’ to have a fit, be ye?” exclaimed Judy, whereat
the Overland Riders shouted.

“Have you ever been in love?” interjected Nora.

“I don’t know, Nora. Once I seen a fellow in a play in a tent over
at Carrago, and he was some man, believe me. I jest sat there and
looked at him and my heart got so wiggly that I couldn’t do nothin’
with it at all. But thet wan’t nothin’ to what happened later in the
day when I met him on the street. He seen me lookin’ at him an’
smiled an’ bobbed his hat to me. My gosh! I near fainted. I sure
thought I was goin’ to die right there. Never had no such feelin’ in
all my life.”

“Yes?” urged the girls, doing their best to keep from laughing.

“Did you get acquainted with him?” asked Grace.

“No. I didn’t dast. My Pap was with me, but I went home and cried.
Can you beat it?”

“Oh, my dear, you _were_ in love. You surely _were_,” cried Emma.

“Was I?” wondered the mountain girl. “Was you ever that way, Emma?”

“Ever? Oh, help!” murmured Miss Briggs. “Judy, she is even making
love to these fine cowboys. Doesn’t that make you jealous?”

“Jealous? Of them rough-necks? Wal, I reckon not. I don’t reckon on
that kind of critter. I want a real man, I want to fly, to see
what’s on t’other side of them mountain ranges. I want to be a real
lady an’ know ’bout things. My gosh, how I want to be like that!
It’s right in here!” cried Judy, clapping a hand over her heart. “I
want to so much that it aches, it hurts like as if a rattler had
given me a jab there. I tried poulticin’ but it wan’t no good. Pap
said it was what I needed, but it wan’t, and here I am. What do you
reckon I ought to do?” finished Judy, passing a quick hand over her
eyes.

The Overlanders did not laugh. There was a tragic note in the voice
of the mountain girl that stirred their sympathies and moved them.
Grace slipped an arm about her.

“Judy, I wish you might come with us while we are riding the ranges.
Perhaps we might teach you things that would make you more contented
with your life,” said Grace, her voice full of sympathy. “Would you
like to do that?”

“Like it? I’d be so dum tickled that I couldn’t hold myself.”

“Then why not come?” urged Nora.

“I don’t dast. Pap would take it out of me right smart.”

“You don’t mean he would punish you—that he would lay hands on
you?” begged Elfreda.

“Him wallop me? Wal, I reckon not! I ain’t packin’ no gun for
nothin’.”

“Judy!” cried Nora. “You mustn’t say such things. Why not let us ask
your father to let you go with us?”

“Ask _him_?” Judy shook her head with emphasis. “You folks keep away
from Pap if you know what’s good for you. Pap’s got a grouch on most
of the time, and he ain’t particular ’bout who knows it. You keep
away from Pap, ’cause he don’t set much store by this here outfit.
He reckons as you ain’t got no business here, an’ if you come
foolin’ round he’ll chase you out. Would you go?” she demanded
abruptly.

“It has been tried on us on other occasions, but up to the present
time we have never gone until we were quite ready to do so,”
answered Miss Briggs.

“I wondered what you’d do, when I dreamed somethin’ ’bout you last
night—”

“Dreamed? Do you dream, Judy?” cried Emma, her face full of sudden
interest.

“I reckon I do. I dreamed ’bout that actor feller for a month.”

“Oh, isn’t that adorable!” bubbled Emma. “The imponderable quality
is working in you. Listen, dear. When you have another dream, you
come straight to me and I’ll make a psychoanalysis of it and tell
you what it means.”

“My gosh! If I could talk like that I’d be a real lady, wouldn’t I?
Where you goin’ from here?”

“We don’t know. All depends upon how my husband gets along with his
wounds. He was shot in a fight with the men who, we believe, stole
our ponies, but we hope that he will be able to ride in a short
time,” answered Nora.

“Ain’t that too bad? Gosh! If a fellow hurt my man I reckon I’d do
some shootin’ for myself,” observed Judy. “Who do you think rustled
them ponies?”

Tom Gray said they did not know, but that they proposed to find out,
and asked her if she or her father had any suspicion as to who the
rustlers were. Judy shook her head.

“I don’t know nothin’. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.
Say, Emma, what’s that word you got off jest now?”

“Imponderable,” intoned Stacy gloomily.

“I didn’t ask you, Mr. Fatty. Write it down, Emma, and I’ll try it
on Pap. I’ll bet there’ll be some fun. Wal, I reckon I’ll be hittin’
the trail for home. So long, Tom. Hippy, I hopes your laig gets
better right smart,” she called to the Overlander on the porch.
“’Bye, girls.”

“Come again soon, and as often as you can,” urged Grace.

“Sure I will. Mebby I can’t get back today, but I’ll try. Say, Emma,
I’m goin’ to practice that word on Butte. That’s my mustang. If he
stands for it I reckon Pap can,” finished Judy, starting slowly
towards her pony, arms linked with Grace and Elfreda. “Butte’s got a
temper somethin’ like Pap’s. I reckon he got it from Pap, too. Let’s
see. What’s that word? Im—impond’ble. All right. Jest watch me.”

Judy swung lightly into her saddle.

“G’wan, you impond’ble, dad-busted cayuse,” she shouted, touching
the animal lightly with a spur.

Butte responded instantly. Uttering a grunt, both hind heels went
into the air before Judy had succeeded in getting her feet into the
stirrups.

The mountain girl made a quick reach for the swinging stirrups and
missed, whereupon the mustang leaped clear of the ground, coming
down stiffly on all four feet, head down with hind quarters shooting
into the air. Judy was catapulted over his head and landed on her
back with a whack that should have knocked all the breath out of
her.

Tom Gray made a quick spring for the pony’s head and grabbed the
bridle. The pony fought him, but a firm grip on the animal’s nose
shut off his breathing and subdued him in a moment.

The girls ran to Judy just as she sat up. Judy was a little dazed,
but she grinned.

“Oh, you poor girl! You’re hurt,” cried Nora.

“Mebby I be, but I reckon the ground is hurt worse. Anyhow what
happened to me an’ the ground ain’t a flea-bite to what’s goin’ to
happen to Butte afore we gets home. Say, Emma! I don’t reckon as
I’ll say that word to Pap all of a sudden. I’m too dad-busted sore
now to have another fight on my hands tonight, and I’ll be sorer by
the time I gets home. I’m goin’ to ride him this time.”

Judy again flung herself into the saddle, and this time both feet
caught the stirrups. The mustang instantly threw himself into
another buck. The spur dug into him harder and harder and Judy’s
whip came down on his flank again and again. A leap carried them
clear of the Overland party, and for the next few moments they were
treated to the most spirited exhibition of horsemanship that they
had ever seen. Old Bindloss was shaking with laughter, and the
cowpunchers were howling with delight and firing their six-shooters
into the air.

“She’s got him!” cried Emma. “Oh, I wish I could ride like that.
There she comes!”

Judy, who was by now a full quarter of a mile out in the valley, had
whirled and was driving straight at them. On she came, the pony’s
efforts to unseat its rider growing less and less, as its speed
increased.

“Whoo—pe-e-e-e!” yelled Judy in her shrill, high-pitched voice as
she reached the Overlanders, and turning, tore off down the valley
where she was soon lost to sight in a cloud of dust.



CHAPTER X

THE ROUND-UP


Judy Hornby did not return to the Circle O ranch that day nor the
next, and when she did she was not nearly so talkative as before.
The girl, however, listened eagerly to all that her new-found
friends had to say to her, and what they said was intended to be
helpful to this unusual young woman who had known little
companionship of her own sex.

After a time her tongue loosened a little and she told them that
“Pap” had forbidden her to visit them unless he told her to go. Judy
declared that she didn’t give a rap whether he liked it or not, and
that she was going to ride over to the Circle O ranch whenever she
felt like it.

“He don’t dast do nothing to me anyway. I reckon it’s because I
tried that ‘impond’able’ thing on him. When he asked me where I got
it an’ I told him over here, you ought to seen him git mad. Pap sure
was a scream. Lemme look at your hair,” she added abruptly,
addressing Miss Briggs, who nodded good-naturedly.

“Gosh! Ain’t that fine? But for the love of Mike, how do you do it?”

“I will do yours if you wish,” offered Elfreda.

“Would you?”

“Of course,” answered J. Elfreda. “Sit down and I will see what I
can do with it. You have beautiful hair, and I am not eager to see
you wear it any other way than you do now—down your back.”

Greatly to the amusement of her companions, Miss Briggs performed an
elaborate piece of hair-dressing, building up a wonderful tower of
shining brown on the mountain girl’s head. Then a mirror was brought
and Judy was permitted to look at the result, the Overlanders
awaiting the verdict in silent expectancy.

Judy gazed into the mirror for some moments before looking up.

“Gosh-a’mighty, I’m a lady now for sure, ain’t I?” she breathed,
heaving a deep sigh.

After a time the Overland girls sought to explain to her that it was
not the dress she wore nor the way she wore her hair, but her
breeding, that made the lady. Judy listened attentively to the brief
lecture read to her by Grace and Elfreda, then started for home,
this time at a slow jog. Judy was in a thoughtful mood.

For the next week she was a daily visitor at the Circle O ranch.
Hippy Wingate was again on his feet, but still wearing a bandage on
his head and walking with a cane. His companions were in no haste to
leave him; in fact they had been waiting for his recovery quite
willingly because they had been urged by Bindloss to stay for the
round-up that was now close at hand, when the cattle would be
rounded up into herds and the fat ones cut out, branded again and
driven to a shipping point for market. Bindloss promised his guests
a lively time. The cowpunchers, too, were looking forward to the
occasion with more than their ordinary interest, for in it they saw
an opportunity to show their horsemanship and skill to the Overland
girls.

Judy Hornby was invited to accompany the party to the round-up, but
for some reason she refused, and went away that day with her face
dark and resentful. The Overlanders were at a loss to account for
the sudden change in her.

The day of the big round-up arrived, and the ranch presented a scene
of activity long before daylight that morning. There was much
equipment to be shipped down the valley, for the first herd to be
rounded up were grazing more than twenty miles away, not very far
from Judy’s log-cabin home, where her father had quite a herd of
cattle of his own, though small compared with the Bindloss herds.
His brand was the “Double Q” while Bindloss’s was the “Circle O.”

Lieutenant Wingate, not feeling able to take the long ride, decided
to remain at the ranch-house until one of the herds near by was
rounded up. He could watch the round-up, then easily get back to the
ranch-house should he find it necessary to do so. There being no
reason for Jim-Sam’s remaining at the ranch, Bindloss accepted their
offer to assist in the round-up.

“I am going to help, too,” promised Emma, as they were eating
breakfast in camp next morning with Bindloss as their guest.

“No, you ain’t,” replied the rancher. “You keep out of it and stay
where you’re safe. There’s some wild ones in the bunch we are going
after today.”

Tom Gray was accepted as a novice, and a pony that knew the ropes
was assigned to him for the work. Bindloss told him that so long as
he gave the animal its head he would be reasonably safe.

The Overlanders got a later start than the others, but managed to
get away shortly after daybreak. It was a wonderful ride through the
fragrant morning air, one that every member of the party thoroughly
enjoyed. Hippy in the meantime was having a glorious morning,
too—snoring in the ranch-house, where he proposed to remain all day
and have “peace and quiet,” as he expressed it.

As they neared the scene of the round-up, near mid-forenoon, the
Overlanders rode up the first bluff of the foothills, as they had
been directed to do, and then followed along parallel with the
valley. As they drew near they suddenly found themselves gazing down
upon the scene that they had come so far to see—a western round-up.

A great herd—thousands of them, it seemed—were milling about on
the plain below them, making the dust fly in suffocating clouds,
while wilder ones of the herd were galloping for the foothills.
Calves were running about bawling for their mothers, and frantic
cows were splitting the herd in search of them. Above the din rose
shrill and clear the calls of the cowpunchers, calls that were
familiar, especially to the steers, who seemed to know the meaning
of them even if they did do exactly the opposite to what was
expected of them.

Up and down the rolling foothills raced the long-horns, with ponies
ridden by yelling, shouting, dare-devil riders, in pursuit. Here and
there a lasso wriggled through the air, spun by an irate cowboy, and
a big steer went down on his nose.

A bunch of wild steers raced past the Overlanders, and Stacy,
suddenly deciding that it was his duty to drive them back, galloped
after them.

The fat boy soon found himself in the midst of a charging, bellowing
mass of wild steers whose long horns and threatening jabs at his
mustang, made him wish that he had kept out of it. He was in a more
perilous position than he realized. The girls were shouting for him
to come back, but in the uproar Stacy did not hear them, nor could
he have obeyed had he heard.

Two-gun Pete was the first to discover the boy’s predicament. He
came flashing up the grade, past the girls, but without looking at
them, and rode on until he had reached the herd. There he began
uttering shrill yells that were heard above the uproar. Pete, at the
risk of his pony’s life, if not his own, dodged in and out until he
got to the side of the fat boy.

“Hot-foot it out of this, you tenderfoot!” he roared.

“All right. Show me the way, you cowpuncher!” flung back Stacy.

“Follow me, but not too close.” Pete, exerting mighty efforts, soon
split the herd apart, and into the opening thus made, Stacy rode
without further urging, and in a few moments he was clear of the
herd. “Now git back with ye and stay back!”

Now that he was up there, Pete decided to head off the wild bunch.
He rode his sweating mustang until it seemed as if he would ride the
little animal off its feet, and little by little he bunched the
unruly steers and started them towards the valley, when they
suddenly headed straight for the position occupied by the
Overlanders.

“They’ll run us down!” cried Nora.

“No! We can get away if they get too close. Ride for them and yell
like all possessed. Try to turn them to their left,” urged Grace.

The Overland girls, fired with the same spirit that was urging the
cowpunchers in their work, started forward at a gallop, waving their
sombreros and uttering such screeches as probably not only
astounded, but frightened the outlaw steers. The cattle, however,
held to their course just the same. Two-gun Pete saw and understood
what the girls were trying to do. He also understood full well the
risk they were taking. Pete pealed out a shrill, far-reaching
warning, but they did not hear.

“Yell, you Overlanders!” screamed Elfreda Briggs, and, taking her
own advice, she uttered yell after yell, that Two-gun Pete later
declared on his honor as a cowpuncher frightened one tough old
maverick to death. At least the animal was found dead at about that
point, later on in the day.

J. Elfreda evidently turned the tide, for a leader swerved, and the
herd followed him and went plunging down the slope.

“Hot stuff, but don’t ye do it again!” shouted the cowboy as he
followed the herd down the foothill and out into the valley, where
other cowpunchers came to his assistance and rounded it up.

The girls, now that the excitement was ended, suddenly felt weak in
the knees. They realized that they had taken a desperate chance, and
that they had not been unhorsed, and perhaps gored to death, was due
to great good luck, and to the far-reaching power of the dignified
Elfreda Briggs’ voice, rather than to any skill on their part.

“That was a fool thing to do,” observed Stacy, who now came trotting
up to them.

“Why, you unappreciative creature!” rebuked Emma. “Don’t you know
that we were trying to save your life?”

“Save nothing!” growled Stacy.

“Thank you,” bowed Emma. “I could not have said it better myself,”
whereupon the other girls laughed merrily, and Stacy drew off by
himself where he sat sullenly observing the work going on below him.

All day the milling about, the cutting-out, the yells and the
bellows, with here and there a sharp encounter between cowboy and an
ugly steer, continued without a let-up. No one thought of eating.
There was too much work to be done, and even the Overlanders forgot
their noon luncheon which they had brought with them.

At twilight the cowmen were still busy, but by this time they had
several hundred animals in the big corral, and in another a bunch of
stock for branding, while out on the range as many more animals were
stirring about restlessly. Campfires began to spring up here and
there, over which tired riders cooked their slender suppers and
rested before taking up the work of the night. This work included
branding and keeping rounded-up the stock left out on the range.
Bindloss joined the Overlanders at their coffee and bacon. He was
covered with dust and his voice was hoarse from yelling at cattle
and at his riders.

“How long is this thing going to continue?” questioned Stacy Brown.

“All night, young feller. Of course things will quiet down ’long
’bout midnight. We’ve got to get some rest, you know.”

Grace said she thought that they should be starting back towards
camp after supper, but Bindloss shook his head.

“Some of the men will be going in later in the evening. I’d rather
have you folks wait and ride in with them,” he said, but without
giving any reason for the request. “You can ride ’bout after supper,
but keep away from milling bunches, and see the sights. You’ll be
interested in the branding, if you’ve never seen it done.”

Soon after supper the girls of the party, accompanied by Stacy, rode
down the valley. There they scattered somewhat, Emma first having
discovered Two-gun Pete and stopping to talk with him. Stacy rode
on, saying that he wished to see the rest of the show.

Pete told Emma that he did not like the way the cattle had been
acting that day. He averred that something had been stirring them up
of late, but reckoned it must be a mountain lion that had been
trying to get the calves. Whether or not the beast had succeeded he
said he did not know, for no one knew how many calves there were in
any of the herds.

Two-gun Pete had work to do, so Emma rode on and joined her
companions whom she found chatting with the owner of the ranch, who
sat his pony surveying the activity that was everywhere. They
wondered how he could make anything out of all the confusion in the
darkness, which the many little fires merely accentuated. Joe
Bindloss, however, knew exactly what was going on at all points of
the round-up.

Idaho Jones interrupted the conversation when he came galloping up
to the party.

“Hey, Boss!” he called. “I been lookin’ all over fer ye.” The voice
of the cowpuncher held an urgent note that each member of the party
before him felt.

“Eh? What’s wrong?” demanded Bindloss sharply.

“Pop Skinner jest rode in, an’ he’s lookin’ fer ye hot-foot. He says
as he reckons thar’s trouble up in the valley.”

“What about?”

“He didn’t wait to tell me.”

“Find him—find him and fetch him here almighty quick! Hump
yourself!” commanded Bindloss.

“Co—o-o-o-o! Pop, heah,” yelled Idaho, his quick eye discovering
the man for whom he was looking, and out of the darkness shot a gray
mustang bearing down on them. “Thar he is now.”

“What’s wrong?” shouted Bindloss.

“I don’t reckon as I know, Boss, but as I was comin’ down to jine
the outfit heah, I runned across Sallie guardin’ the number six
herd. He said as he’d seen a bunch of riders come out of the
foothills, ’bout four mile above heah an’ head off in the direction
of the ranch an’ he thought ye better know ’bout it. As I was comin’
down anyway, I made a hustle. ’Bout half way down I heard rifle
shots up-valley. Thet’s all I knows ’bout it, but I reckoned you
ought to know.”

“Get Pete and all the other fellers you can skin in a hurry and
light out for the ranch. There’s trouble, and I’ve felt it somehow
all day!”

While Bindloss was giving his orders another cowpuncher rode in on a
pony that was dripping lather. He, too, was from somewhere up the
Coso Valley and he was excited.

“They’ve attacked the ranch, Boss!” he fairly flung at Bindloss.

“Who’s attacked it?” roared the rancher.

“Don’t know nothin’ ’bout thet, but I seen an’ heard the firin’ and
thar’s the old Harry to pay up thar.”

Idaho had already ridden away to gather a bunch of his fellows for
the ride back to the ranch, and while this was being done Bindloss
eagerly questioned the two men who had brought him evil tidings.
Perhaps Bindloss had an idea as to who the men from the mountain
were, but if so he did not inform the disturbed Overlanders. They
were thinking of Hippy up there alone in the ranch-house, himself
suffering from wounds and perhaps helpless in the hands of a band of
mountain ruffians.

“We must go!” cried Nora.

“Yes, we will go,” answered Grace. “I wish I could find Tom.”

“They’ll get him,” answered Bindloss. “You’ll have to ride some if
you keep up with the cowpunchers, and this ain’t no pleasure trip
neither. Here they come!”

Pete was leading the party of rough-riders that came racing towards
him, and with them was Tom Gray. His companions of the Overland
party hardly recognized him, for his clothes were covered with dust
and his face was streaked where the perspiration had trickled
through the grime.

“Orders, Boss?” called Pete.

“Ride! Ride the cayuses to death, but get there, that’s all. Go!”

The cowboys pulled their mustangs and fairly lifted them, rearing
and wheeling, and were off like projectiles, fierce fires burning in
every cowboy heart, and the lust for battle and revenge taking full
possession of them.

The Overland Riders were not many seconds behind them in starting,
nor did they have to urge their mustangs, who were as eager as they
to keep up with the reckless riders ahead, riders that were using
spur and voice in the wild night ride up the Coso Valley.



CHAPTER XI

HIPPY DEFENDS THE RANCH


Lieutenant Wingate after a refreshing afternoon’s sleep had remained
up long enough to brew tea and fry bacon and eggs for himself. It
was dusk when he finished his supper.

“I ought to wash the dishes, I suppose, but I think I’ll let the
girls do that. There is some satisfaction in being a convalescent,”
he decided, grinning at his own humor. “Queer thing about
convalescence—when you get through with your sleep you are ready
for another. Ho, hum!”

Hippy, with the aid of a cane, hobbled out to the porch that fronted
the valley and sat down on his cot, then lay back breathing in the
soft breezes from mountain and plain.

“This is the life,” he muttered, sinking into a half doze.

All at once the Overland Rider pulled himself into keen wakefulness.
He was positive that he heard horses approaching, but they seemed to
be a long way off. His first thought was that either the Overlanders
or some of the cowboys were on their way home, but with the caution
born of experience, he decided to lie quietly and wait.

The hoof-beats ceased, so far as he was able to hear, and silence
settled over the valley, broken now and then by the howl of a hungry
coyote. Somehow this sudden silence got on the nerves of Lieutenant
Hippy Wingate, and getting up he hobbled into the ranch-house and
strapped on his revolver holster. Bethinking himself of Bindloss’s
rifle he got that, examined the chambers and, as he expected, found
it fully loaded.

“Now we are all set,” he muttered. He had reached the ranch-house
door when he halted sharply and gazed into the night over which the
stars shed a faint light, making objects within the range of his
vision stand out in unreal and fantastic shapes. Hippy, however, did
see something moving, something that was quite real. This something
was a man, and as he gazed other figures were discovered.

“I wonder if that’s some of the boys?” he muttered. Upon second
thought he decided that the cowpunchers would not be moving about so
quietly. Three appeared to have come from the direction of the
Overland camp at the rear of the ranch-house, and Hippy then knew
that all was not well at the Circle O ranch. He stepped back, softly
closed and bolted the door, and took his place at a window that had
been pulled down from the top. From that vantage point he watched
with straining eyes.

The men appeared to be investigating, undoubtedly for the purpose of
learning whether or not there were anyone about the place. One
finally turned his attention to the ranch-house, first cautiously
trying the door, then peering in through the window. Hippy had
stepped aside as the man approached him, and a few seconds later he
saw a face pressed against the pane.

After a moment of peering, the fellow carefully raised both windows
from the bottom and thrust his head in.

Hippy pressed his body against the wall and grasped his revolver by
the barrel. The fellow’s shoulders were thrust in and the watcher
saw that he was about to climb in.

Lieutenant Hippy Wingate took instant advantage of the opportunity
and brought the butt of his revolver down with full force on the
intruder’s head. The whack was so loud that the Overlander thought
the others must hear, and, without an instant’s hesitation, he
grabbed and dragged the unconscious man into the room.

“I hope I haven’t killed the ruffian!” A hand placed over the man’s
heart told Hippy that he had not. Hippy, knowing that there was a
lasso hanging in Bindloss’s room, in fact that there were several
there, hobbled in, and fetching the rope, hog-tied the man, after
which he put a handkerchief gag in the fellow’s mouth.

“Good! This is like taking candy from babies,” he chuckled, going
over to the window and replacing it as it was before. This enabled
him to stand up and look out, and also gave him free range in case
he found it necessary to use his weapons. Bethinking himself of
other windows, Hippy made a circuit of the lower floor and closed
and locked them. For a man to get in now would necessitate breaking
a window, which he surely would hear.

The watcher had no more than returned to his open window than he
suddenly ducked to one side, for he discovered that a second man was
about to peer in. Unlike the first caller this man walked away and
went around to the rear of the house, but he was back in a few
moments, this time accompanied by a companion. They were whispering,
and at this instant the man on the floor gave a kick with his heel
that stopped the whispering instantly.

Lieutenant Wingate went over to the bound man.

“Do that again and I’ll settle you!” he hissed with all the
savageness that he could put into his tone. “I mean what I say!”

Returning to the window he stood to one side watching the two men
who were again holding a whispered conversation, pausing now and
then to listen attentively. After a few moments of this, one raised
the window an inch or so at a time and looked in. In the darkness
they saw nothing.

“I reckon it’s all right. I’ll go in an’ ye foller me,” said one in
a low, guarded tone of voice, whereupon he began crawling in. As he
landed on his hands on the floor, Lieutenant Wingate hit him a
terrific wallop on the head with the butt of his revolver, then made
a swift pass with it at the head of the other man whose head was
just inside the window.

It hit the fellow a glancing blow, and jerking his head from the
window he fell over backwards, then staggering to his feet he ran,
uttering a warning cry.

The time for secrecy, so far as Lieutenant Hippy Wingate was
concerned, had passed. He sent a bullet from his revolver after the
man and then discovering other prowlers trying to get into the
corral, he snatched up the rifle, and fired at the ground just
behind them.

The prowlers scattered in record time and a volley of shots pinged
into the ranch-house in reply.

The Overland Rider now hastily turned his attention to his second
victim, and in a few minutes he had the man bound and dragged to the
other side of the room at a distance from the first prisoner.

“Confound the ruffians! Why couldn’t they have come singly?” he
growled. “I could have caught the whole bunch. I reckon maybe there
will be something doing in a few moments.”

There was. A rifle crashed out, then another, and a snapping fire
was directed at the Circle O ranch-house, with Hippy lying flat on
the floor waiting for the shooting to stop. It soon did, whereupon
the Overlander crept to the window and peered out. Not a human being
was in sight, but the watcher was too old a hand at campaigning to
believe that the prowlers had gone away. He reasoned, too, that by
making no return of their fire, they might believe that they had hit
him. As he had surmised would be the case, a man appeared after a
time just beyond the corral. The fellow darted across and
disappeared behind the stable where saddles and other equipment were
stored.

The man’s next appearance was a few moments later when he walked to
the corral, looked in and strolled back to the protection of the
stable. Others then appeared, at first exercising the utmost
caution, but little by little showing that they believed danger to
them had passed.

Hippy Wingate chuckled. His ruse had succeeded, but he knew the end
was not yet. At the same time he was groping for the reason for the
presence of these prowlers. From their actions he believed that they
were trying to steal the ponies, and a moment later he saw them
again at work trying to break the locked gate of the corral. They
were battering away at it so boldly that he knew they now feared no
interruption.

“I’ve got to take a chance,” muttered the Overland Rider, “but I’ll
shoot low. Perhaps I won’t hit any of the stock.”

There was no time to lose, for in a few moments those sledge-hammer
blows, that were probably delivered with a maul or an axe, must
produce results.

Taking as careful aim as he could in the uncertain light, he pulled
the trigger and Old Joe Bindloss’s rifle roared.

A yell greeted the shot, by which sign Lieutenant Wingate knew that
the bullet had found a mark. He fired again, but this time there was
no answering yell. Two men grabbed up one of their number, the party
started on a run for the stable and Hippy deliberately fired right
into the group. One man staggered and fell. He was quickly dragged
away, but not before the Overland Rider had emptied his rifle at
them, though, so far as he was able to discover, without results.
Accurate shooting was impossible under the conditions.

The rancher’s rifle was now empty, nor did Lieutenant Wingate know
where to find more ammunition. He possessed his revolver and a belt
of cartridges which would keep him going for some time, provided he
were conservative in their use, so the rifle was laid aside and the
revolver took its place. A quick examination of the two captives
informed him that both were conscious.

“You fellows! Don’t you make a sound or I’ll use the business end of
my gun on you,” he warned.

Rifle bullets at this juncture again began ripping through the side
of the house, and while they were still crunching about the room
with a chilling sound the Overlander, who was on the floor, heard a
powerful blow delivered on the door. It was followed by other blows.
The ruffians were trying to beat the door down, and already a panel
had been shattered.

Hippy hopped to his feet and placed himself before the door, feeling
reasonably safe there so long as men were standing in front of it.

Thrusting the muzzle of his weapon close to the shattered panel he
pulled the trigger, and a howl of rage answered it. This shot had
not missed.

Before giving the attackers a chance to do further damage Hippy
fired the remaining chambers of his revolver through the door in
quick succession. He did not know whether or not he had made a hit,
but he knew that, for the moment, he had effectively checked
operations out there.

A few seconds were lost in reloading, during which not a sound
reached him from the outside. Stooping over, he peered through the
shattered panel. As he did so there came a sudden burst of rifle
fire and a dozen bullets ripped through the door.

Lieutenant Wingate straightened up, staggered, clapped a hand to his
head, half turned and crashed full length to the floor. As he lay
there, bullets continued to thud through the door and the siding of
the ranch-house, then ceased as suddenly as they had begun, but
Hippy, some moments since, had ceased to hear or know.



CHAPTER XII

AT THE LAST MOMENT


“Smoke him out!” came the sharp command after the firing had died
down. “That’ll fetch the critter. Then git him.”

Some dead grass, a handful of chips and a match did the work, and a
flickering blaze was soon started under one corner of the
ranch-house.

“Now the hosses!” commanded the same voice. “Two of ye git behind
the house to watch for him, the others go fer the mustangs in the
corral.”

The men ran to obey the orders of their leader, when a sudden shout
from one of them changed the plans of the attackers entirely. It was
a shout of warning. Following it the ruffians plainly heard the
sound of hoof-beats approaching—many of them. They were coming at
what the trained ears of the mountain ruffians told them was a
killing pace.

“Hit the trail!” yelled the leader. “Go south and scatter! Hit it
hard!” came the further orders.

The ruffians were in their saddles within a minute thereafter, some
of them carrying wounded companions who had got in the way of Hippy
Wingate’s bullets, and they were around the corner of the corral in
a twinkling. Once in the shadow of it they faded away into the
night, just as Two-gun Pete and his companions flashed in with guns
ready for instant use.

“Quick! Fire!” shouted Idaho.

“Git water!” yelled Two-gun Pete, leaping from his mustang.

Old Joe Bindloss came up as the cowpunchers were dashing water on
the flames that were now licking at the side of the building. He
instantly threw himself from his pony and grabbing a pail began
carrying water and giving orders at the same time. The blaze was
extinguished in a few minutes. The Overland Riders came up at this
juncture.

“Gosh a-mighty, what’s been going on here?” bellowed the rancher.
“Look at that door! Clean busted in.”

The boys quickly brought lanterns from the stable, and by their
light discovered the bullet holes in door and siding. Windows, too,
were shot out at the front of the house.

“Thar’s been a fight heah!” decided Pete.

“Hippy!” wailed Nora, almost collapsing as her pony stopped.

“We’ll find out about thet, Missie,” answered Pete. “Hey, Dude! Be
you thar?” he shouted.

There was no reply, and the Overlanders ran for the house, each one
fearing the worst.

“Back! I reckon I’ll go in first!” bellowed Bindloss. “It’s my
house, and I reckon it’s up to me to go in ahead. Boys, get behind
me with the lights so they don’t get in my eyes. You Overlanders
keep out of range in case there should be some scrapping. No telling
what we might meet in there.” Bindloss with drawn weapon, Two-gun
Pete at his side, strode up and kicked in the remnants of the front
door of his home. As the door went down both men leaped lightly to
one side, fearing an ambush.

A dead silence followed.

“Lights here!” commanded Bindloss, stepping in with revolver thrust
before him.

Nothing happening, cowpunchers and Overlanders crowded in. They
found the old rancher standing with a dazed expression on his face.

“Gosh a-mighty!” he muttered over and over. “What’s happened?”

It was then that the Overlanders discovered the two bound men, and
then Hippy at some little distance from them, stretched out on his
face, one hand still grasping his revolver.

“Hippy!” It was a wailing cry from Nora as she threw herself down
beside him. “He’s dead! He’s dead! They’ve killed him!” Nora threw
both arms about her husband and tried to turn him over, but he was a
dead weight and she failed.

Tom did it for her, the cowpunchers during all this time standing
with gaping mouths as dazed as was their employer.

Grace and Elfreda were at Hippy’s side in an instant, and it was
Elfreda who discovered that he was not dead.

“Light here, please,” requested Miss Briggs in a tone so calm that
it steadied the others of the party. “Look at this, will you?” she
added. “A bullet has ripped the bandage from his head, and torn open
the stitches that I put in Hippy’s scalp.”

“Wounded in exactly the same place!” murmured Grace. “How strange!”

“What ’bout these cayuses, Boss?” demanded Two-gun Pete, fixing a
malignant gaze on the two helpless ruffians who were looking from
one to the other of the party with anxiety in their eyes. “Shall I
make a good job of it an’ sarve ’em the same way somebody has sarved
the Dude?”

“Shut up! They’ll keep. This man gets first attention. Is he bad
off, Miss?” questioned Bindloss.

“I can’t say,” answered Elfreda. “If I knew how long he has been in
this condition I might make a better guess.”

Pete released the gun from Hippy’s hand, felt of the barrel, smelled
of the muzzle, then looked into the cylinder to see how many shots
had been fired from it.

“Ain’t been this way more’n ten or fifteen minutes, I reckon. Gun’s
warm yit.”

“Then it may be only concussion of the brain, but I shan’t be able
to tell definitely for some little time. Some one run to camp and
get bandages. Tom, will you please go? Fetch my case along.”

Elfreda called for water and by the time Tom returned had bathed the
wound, the same wound reopened, though the scalp on either side of
it was lacerated somewhat more than before. Restoratives were
administered by Grace, while Elfreda was dressing and re-sewing the
wound, she believing it best to do this before the patient recovered
consciousness. Grace was not so successful, and at Bindloss’s orders
the cowpunchers picked up the wounded Overlander and carried him to
his bed at the back of the house.

“Take the gags out of them fellers’ mouths. I reckon they’ll have
something to say,” drawled Bindloss in the cool tone that his men
knew from experience was a mask for a raging passion beneath it.

The gags were none too gently removed, the captives’ weapons were
jerked from their belts, smelled of and examined and found not to
have been fired that evening. This was evidenced by the fact that
the cylinders were fully loaded, that the barrels were cold, and
that there was no odor of burnt powder to be detected at the
muzzles.

“Stand ’em up against the wall and let’s have a look at ’em!”
commanded the rancher, and after this had been done, and one of the
cowboys had held a lantern up to their faces, Bindloss squinted at
them frowningly. “Any of you fellows know these critters?”

Each cowpuncher stepped up and took a long, stern look at the faces
and shook his head.

“I reckon you two bit off more’n you could chew, eh? Who are ye?”
demanded Bindloss.

The captives, now sullen-faced, made no reply.

“What happened that you two are hog-tied in my house?”

“Ain’t no use fer to ask questions ’cause you ain’t goin’ to git no
answers,” growled one.

“I’ll tell ye what happened,” spoke up the other captive. “We was
ridin’ by, an knowin’ thet you-all was down the range, seen
somethin’ was goin’ on in heah an’ we jest come up to look in, an’
got a crack on the haid. Thet’s all.”

“You’re a liar!” blazed Joe Bindloss, drawing back a clenched fist
as if to strike the man, but the fist slowly relaxed and his face
grew calm again. “You’ll talk before I git done with you, I promise
you that. When the man in there wakes up, if he ever does, I’ll hear
the truth. If he dies I’ll shoot every man in these ranges if I have
to do so to git the right ones, and I’ll begin with you, you
sneaking coyotes! Take ’em out and tie ’em in the barn. And, boys,
fix ’em so they can’t get away. If there’s any rough stuff to be
pulled off, I’ll do the pulling. Understand?”

The cowpunchers nodded and picked up the prisoners. When outside the
door the man at the head of each prisoner dropped his burden and the
cowboy at the foot dragged his captive by the feet all the way to
the stable. Sam Conifer followed and stood gazing at the prisoners
as the cowmen were re-tying them. He was positive that he had seen
one of the ruffians before, but could not place him.

While this was going on, Jim, who had procured a lantern and browsed
about the ranch, returned to the house. Bindloss was in the room
with Lieutenant Wingate at the moment, watching the Overland girls
work over him. Hearing Jim enter, he stepped out.

“Oh! It’s you, is it?”

“Yes. Boss, I been lookin’ ’round heah a little an’ I’ve diskivered
some things. Thar was seven men in that party. They went up to our
camp fust, but didn’t take nothin’. Then they come down heah an’
tried to git in the corral. Thar’s some bullet holes in the posts
thar, which I reckon was made by Lieutenant Wingate’s rifle. Thar’s
a rifle on the floor thar. Whose is that?”

“Mine,” exclaimed the rancher, picking up the weapon and examining
it. “The magazine is empty—fired off this evening.”

“Jest so. Some of them bullets is in the stable now, an’ some more
of ’em hit them rough-necks, mebby killed ’em, I can’t say.
Leastwise they left some blood where two of ’em lay until they was
carried away on hosses. Thar’s tracks, too, that lead right up to
that winder thar.”

“Good work,” complimented Bindloss. “What beats me, though, is how
two of them happened to be tied down in the house.”

“Three of ’em I trailed up to the winder. One of ’em went away in a
hurry, but t’other two didn’t. I reckon mebby they aire the two
fellers that ye found heah. The party went south after they heard ye
comin’. I reckon that’s what started ’em away. I reckon they was
tryin’ to steal yer mustangs when Lieutenant Wingate put er crimp in
their little picnic. Eh, Boss?”

“I reckon you’re right, Jim. He must have fought them single-handed
and when they were getting the worst of it they tried to set fire to
the ranch-house. I reckon we got here just in time.”

“Yep. Things do work out queer-like sometimes,” agreed the old
guide. “Somebody’s comin’! They’re in a hurry, too,” he warned.

A horse came to a sliding stop just outside of the ranch-house. A
rapid exchange of words followed between the rider and the cowboys,
then a dust-covered, breathless cowboy clanked in.

“Gosh a-mighty! What’s broke loose now?” demanded the rancher.
“Don’t tell me something else has happened. Speak up! Are you
tongue-tied?”

“The herd, Pop’s herd, has jest been stampeded an’ scattered into
the foothills, and Pop’s been shot. The fellers thet stampeded the
herd give him his’n. They aire bringin’ him in now,” answered the
rider excitedly.

Bindloss snatched up his rifle and bolted from the door. His
cowpunchers already were in their saddles.

“Grace, if I am not needed here, I’ll go, too,” urged Tom.

“Yes, do,” answered Grace Harlowe. “Tell Jim-Sam to stay. Be
careful, Tom.”

“Safety first,” called back the Overland Rider as he dashed out
after the rancher. “Jim-Sam, I hold you responsible for the safety
of this place while we are away.”

“Come on if you’re going with me,” shouted Bindloss.

“I’m with you,” answered Tom, and in an incredibly short time the
party was thundering down the valley.



CHAPTER XIII

AN OVERLANDER IS MISSING


The vigil of the Overland girls lasted through the night. Along
towards morning Lieutenant Wingate’s breathing became more natural
and his heart action better.

“I am inclined to think that he will regain consciousness soon,”
announced Miss Briggs. “If he does, it is not a fracture of the
skull. Have courage, Nora,” she added in answer to the appealing
look from Mrs. Wingate, who had sat holding the wounded man’s hand
all night long.

“I’ve been trying to bring him back, and I’ve thought so hard that I
just knew he would have to come back,” murmured Nora.

Grace kissed her and patted her cheek.

“The imponderable quality lies deep in us all,” observed Emma more
to herself than to her companions.

In the meantime Jim and Sam were prowling about, now and then
looking in to inquire how the patient was getting along, but
spending a good part of their time at the Overland camp which
commanded a fairly good view of the ranch buildings.

Shortly after daybreak, Hippy stirred and began to mutter. A few
moments later he opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and smiled up
into Nora’s face. The Overland girl burst into tears.

“If you don’t stop that at once out you go!” threatened Miss Briggs.
“Hippy must have absolute quiet. Which shall it be?”

“I’ll be quiet,” promised Nora, conquering the sobs that rose to her
lips.

There was instant silence in the room, and in a few moments Hippy
Wingate sank into a natural sleep, from which he did not awaken
until late in the morning. After some nourishment was given him, he
asked for explanations.

The girls told him how they had found him, and asked him what had
occurred before he was put out by a bullet. Hippy related all that
he could remember of the occurrences of the previous night. They
then insisted on his going to sleep again, which he was quite
willing and ready to do.

No one had been near the stable where the prisoners were held,
though Jim-Sam had made occasional tours of inspection about the
building throughout the night. The key to the stable was in the
pocket of Two-gun Pete, so, though the prisoners must be hungry, it
was plain that they would get nothing to eat until the return of the
rancher and his party.

Bindloss, and those that had gone out with him, returned shortly
before noon worn and angry. Emma met them in front of the
ranch-house waving her hat and smiling.

“It’s all right,” she cried in answer to a volley of questions about
Hippy. “He is sleeping now.”

“Whoo—pe-e-e!” howled the boys.

“Shut up! The man’s asleep!” rebuked Joe Bindloss, getting down from
his saddle and stamping about to get the kinks out of his legs, for
he had not been out of the saddle in many hours.

At this juncture Grace appeared at the door of the ranch-house and
waved a hand at them.

“The lieutenant is awake now and he would like to see you, Mr.
Bindloss,” she informed the rancher.

Bindloss limped in, and the cowboys, not to be denied what they were
certain would prove to be an interesting interview, flung themselves
from their ponies and trooped in. They were crowded about the door
of the injured man’s room by the time Joe Bindloss gripped the
Overland Rider’s hand.

Hippy sat propped up in bed, his head swathed in bandages, and he
grinned at the solemn faces of the cowpunchers.

“I got mine again, fellows. Regular tenderfoot, eh?”

The cowpunchers shook their heads.

“Wal, now, tell me ’bout it,” urged the rancher.

To save Hippy from another wearisome recital, Miss Briggs repeated
what he had already related of his experiences. The lines of the
cowboy countenances grew taut during the recital, but no word was
uttered. They were held by the words of Elfreda Briggs, spoken
without attempt at embellishment.

“An’ you got two of ’em. Well, I’ll be struck dead if that ain’t the
limit. Boys, what do you think ’bout this outfit being tenderfeet?”
he demanded, turning brusquely to his men.

The cowboys shifted uneasily and fumbled their hats.

“Boss, I reckon we got to git somebody fer thet. What ’bout Pop? Is
he daid?” demanded Idaho.

“No. He isn’t badly hurt. Shot through the shoulder, that’s all,”
smiled J. Elfreda. “He is in the bunk-house. Mrs. Gray fixed him up
and Sam has been looking after him. I shall go over again soon and
look him over. The lieutenant being the worse hurt demanded most of
our attention, though Pop has not been neglected,” Elfreda informed
them.

“I think the prisoners may need attention by this time,” suggested
Grace. “They must be hungry.”

Bindloss growled.

“All right. Pete, see that they get something to eat. Find out if
they are ready to talk and let me know.”

“Thank you,” said Grace smilingly.

“Hippy, you’ve done me a big service. I don’t know what to say,”
resumed the rancher.

“Don’t say anything. I had to fight to save my own skin,” answered
Hippy.

“A good many folks would have hid in the cellar,” chuckled Bindloss.
“Catching those two rough-necks was the cleverest thing that’s been
done in Coso Valley, and I reckon the record will stand for some
time. Feel all right?”

“Sore, but happy, Mr. Bindloss. Tell me what happened below. The
girls said there was trouble with the Number Six herd and that Pop
had been wounded.”

Bindloss’s face contracted.

“The miserable coyotes! I mean that mountain gang. Yes, they
stampeded the herd and run them into the foothills. They got some of
the stock, too, but I don’t know how many head. The whole bunch got
away before we got down there, though they left several snipers as a
sort of rear guard, and they took pot shots at us when the boys
tried to get on the trail of the stolen stock. We got the stock
rounded up, what was left of it, and drove it in with another herd.
The boys are finishing rounding up on that section today. I reckon
they can get along without me. Pete and the bunch are going back
later. We’ve got two of the thieves here, anyway, and they are going
to jail when we get ready to turn them over. I reckon they are going
to talk some first, though.”

“Can’t your men trail the rustlers?” asked Miss Briggs.

“Not far. You don’t know these mountains. They could hide up a bunch
of cattle for months and no one could find them unless he just
happened to stumble onto the hiding place. The best we can do is to
find out who the boss of that thieving outfit is and shoot him up. I
reckon that’s what’s going to be did, too. By the way, where’s your
fat friend, Stacy? It’s a wonder he isn’t around with some
suggestions to offer.”

The Overlanders looked at each other with growing concern in their
faces.

“St—acy!” exclaimed Nora.

“Mercy! With all the excitement we have forgotten all about that
young man,” spoke up Emma. “Why, he didn’t return with us last
night, did he?”

“He is all right. Don’t worry. You will find him with the punchers
rounding up steers and howling like an Indian,” soothed Lieutenant
Wingate.

Bindloss strode to the door and shouted “Pete!” Two-gun came
running.

“Whar’s Brown, Stacy Brown?”

“I—I thought he was heah. Ain’t he?”

“No. Was he with the men rounding up this morning?”

Pete shook his head and a troubled look crept into his face.

“When did you last see him?”

“Le’ me see. It was last night jest before we got er call to come up
heah. He was ridin’ up towards the foothills on the east side, I
reckon to see what the boys was doin’ up thet way. As I recommember
thar warn’t any of the boys on thet side jest then.”

“You are certain that he isn’t with the outfit?” urged Bindloss.

“Daid shore, Boss.”

“Then where is he?” demanded the rancher with a rising inflection in
his voice.

Two-gun Pete shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair.

“I reckon somethin’ has happened to thet feller,” he observed
solemnly.

Tom Gray ran to the door and shouted for Jim-Sam.

“We will start the guides out at once. Something has gone wrong with
Chunky, that’s certain, but if anyone can find him Jim-Sam can,” he
said.

“I’ll send Pete and a couple of the others with them,” announced the
rancher, who was more disturbed than he cared to have the Overland
Riders see. “Pete! You know what to do. Get the boy, that’s all.”

Jim-Sam were entering the ranch-house when Idaho burst in, thrusting
the guides aside at the door.

“Boss! They’ve gone!” yelled Idaho.

“Gone? Who’s gone?”

“The critters thet the Dude caught last night. They’ve got clean
away. Somebody sawed a hole in the back of the stable and got ’em
out!”

“Gosh a-mighty!” gasped Bindloss. “I ought to have done what I
wanted to do and shot ’em both. But I’ll do it yet! I’ll do it yet!”
he raged, stalking from the ranch-house on his way to the scene of
the escape.



CHAPTER XIV

THE LOST TRAIL


“I am going back to the round-up, then over to see Malcolm Hornby,”
announced Joe Bindloss after returning from the stable, where he had
gone to see for himself how the prisoners had escaped. “I hate the
critter, but if we stock owners don’t get together and organize to
wipe out these thieves we shan’t have any stock left by the end of
the season.”

“I’ll go with you,” offered Tom Gray.

“Sure, if you like. Pete, you and Idaho are to ride with us, leaving
the rest here to protect the ranch. We mustn’t leave the place alone
again, but there’s got to be some better protecting than there was
last night,” warned Bindloss. “I’ll bet every steer on my ranch that
if Lieutenant Wingate had been on his feet they wouldn’t have got
away—alive!”

“Tom, I am going, too,” announced Grace.

“Rough riding, girlie,” reminded Tom.

“Yes, I know. But I don’t mind. Elfreda will remain with Hippy who
will be all right if someone doesn’t fire more bullets into him. She
and Nora may be trusted to take good care of him. Perhaps Emma would
like to go, too, especially if that big cowboy Pete is to accompany
us,” added Grace laughingly.

“Come along. You won’t be satisfied unless you do,” agreed Tom. “I
will speak to Bindloss about it.”

Grace said that there was no need to do that, and suggested further
that she thought she might be of some assistance to the searchers,
but the Overland girl did not explain what she meant by her last
remark, nor did Tom think twice about it. His mind was troubled.

Emma answered the question of her joining the party before it was
asked by announcing that she was going to ride with Two-gun Pete and
Mr. Bindloss.

Arrangements were quickly made and after the situation had been
explained to Lieutenant Wingate, Nora and Emma, the rancher and
his party mounted their ponies, leaving Sierra in charge of the
ranch with another cowboy and Sam Conifer to assist him.

“Do as well as ye did last night when ye let them fellers git away
an’ ye prob’bly’ll git yer fool haid shot off,” warned Sam as Jim
swung into his saddle.

“That’s all right so long as we leave another wuss fool heah at the
ranch,” gave back Jim, and the party galloped away.

It was a hard ride, especially for Emma and Grace, but both girls
stood up under it remarkably well. Only one stop was made and that
was at a spring to water the ponies, after which the journey was
resumed. The rancher and his party reached their destination about
the middle of the afternoon, where the same scenes were being
enacted as on the previous day. Cattle were milling and bawling, and
above the roar came the calls of the cowpunchers, clear and
distinct.

The herd engaged in the milling was much smaller than before because
so many head had been cut out and sent to graze at another place,
there to be guarded by men who would see to it that they neither got
away nor were stolen, for these cattle soon were to be driven to
market.

At Bindloss’s direction, the men of the party separated and rode out
to question the cowmen about Stacy, and after every man there had
been interviewed, the searchers returned to the knoll where the
girls were awaiting them.

“He hasn’t been here since last night,” Tom informed them. “The last
seen of him was when he was riding up towards that knoll yonder
where you see the red bushes. Whether or not he came back, no one
seems to know.”

“Then he possibly rode into the mountains and got lost,” suggested
Emma. “That would be just like Stacy.”

“I wish I might believe that it was nothing worse,” answered Grace.
“What is your idea, Mr. Bindloss?”

“That’s a fair question, and I’ll give you a fair answer. It is my
hunch that the bunch that attacked the ranch is concerned in this
case too. I’m going over to see Hornby, and you folks can either
wait here for me or return to the ranch.”

Grace asked permission to accompany him, which was rather
begrudgingly granted, she thought. Emma elected to stay and watch
the herding, and more especially to watch Two-gun Pete’s antics with
his mustang and tell him he was the finest horseman in the world.
Emma had told that same thing to nearly every one of Old Joe
Bindloss’s punchers, and some day it was destined to result in a
lively man-to-man fight.

The ride to Hornby’s ranch occupied less than an hour, and Grace
observed that Bindloss hailed the log cabin where Hornby lived,
while still some little distance away. Judy answered the call and
looked her amazement when she saw who the callers were.

“Pap’s got an awful grouch on today. You’d better light out of here
hot-foot, Pap Bindloss.”

“Judy, I’m going to see your father. Where may I find him?”

“I reckon right heah! What do ye want?” The voice belonged to
Malcolm Hornby.

Grace observed the man with keen interest. Hornby was short and
wiry, his eyes keen, but revealing a vicious temper, while his face,
probably from exposure to the open, was like wrinkled parchment. Yet
he was not an old man, perhaps not more than fifty, with a quick,
nervous manner that made one feel he would be a dangerous opponent
in a fight.

“I want to talk with you, Hornby. Can we talk in private?” asked
Bindloss. “I want to talk with you about two things. The first is
about a young friend of mine named Stacy Brown who disappeared from
the round-up last night, pony and all. I want your judgment, too.
You know these hills better than I do.”

“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout it. Why do ye come heah? Ye don’t think
I stole him, do ye?” The question was put with savage emphasis.

“Don’t be foolish, Hornby. I need your advice, for I’m plumb locoed
on this business,” urged the rancher.

“Is that all ye got to say?”

“No. I have something else to say. Hornby, we’re neighbors, not very
good ones, but we’re neighbors just the same, and neighbors should
stand together. I suppose the rustlers have been at your herd as
well as mine.”

“I reckon if they keeps on I won’t have a steer on four feet left,”
growled Hornby.

“Then will you join in with me, turn your men over and make a big
drive with me to rid this part of the country of all those
critters?”

“I reckon you an’ me couldn’t hitch up fer anything. We’d be for
shootin’ each other up ’fore we’d got out of the valley. You’ve got
a rotten temper, an’ when I’m riled up I ain’t no good company
either. Who be these folks that ye say is yer friends?”

“They are my friends, and that’s all that need be said,” retorted
Bindloss with some heat, for he did not like the tone nor the
insinuation in Hornby’s reply.

While the men were talking, Grace had dismounted and she and Judy
had strolled away and engaged in earnest conversation, during which
Grace told her all that had happened at the Circle O ranch. What
Grace especially wanted to convey was that, knowing the mountains as
she did, Judy might be able to assist them in finding out what had
happened to Stacy. Judy shook her head saying that she couldn’t.
Grace closed the subject instantly and walked back to Bindloss.

“Man!” cried the owner of the Circle O. “The ruffians not only tried
to steal the ponies right out of my corral, but they shot my place
all up and hit my friend, Lieutenant Wingate. He caught two of them
and shot some others, I reckon, but the two got away later on with
the assistance of their friends. I’ve reached my limit, Hornby. The
next thing I know I’ll be killing somebody.”

“Providin’ they don’t git ye first,” leered Hornby. “I said ye had a
rotten temper, and ye’ve proved it. Nope, Joe, you an’ me can’t
hitch up nohow. I’ll run my own shebang and I reckon ye can do the
same with yours or quit. I don’t give a dad-blasted rap which ye do.
And as fer thet Lootenant friend of yours, tell him he’d better
watch out and not git too handy with thet gun o’ hissen, fer thar’s
some rough fellers in these mountains thet’d make hash of him
instanter if ever they sot eyes on him. This ain’t no place for
dudes, Joe Bindloss, an’ ye knows it as well as I do. Thet’s all I
got to say to ye.”

Malcolm Hornby turned on his heel and strode into the house,
ordering Judy to follow him. Judy, with lowered eyes, followed
obediently without another word to Grace.

“How strangely that girl acts today, Mr. Bindloss,” wondered Grace
as she mounted her mustang and trotted away with the rancher.

“Judy’s all right. The trouble is that old Hornby is wearing her
down with his ornery temper until she is ’bout ready to bust out. I
hope she doesn’t, because if she does it’ll be a bad day for Pap.”

“Has she no mother?”

“Mother died when she was a kid. That was ’bout the time I lost my
wife. But I don’t altogether understand what’s got into Judy. She’s
acting mighty queer.”

Grace nodded.

“There’s your man Jim up there,” said Bindloss, pointing to the
foothills where the Overland guide was seen working about. At
Grace’s suggestion they rode to him. “Find it?” called the rancher
as he and Grace approached.

“I thought as I had, but thar’s been so many cattle an’ so many
hosses that it’s a lost trail. The fellers say that Stacy war seen
here’bouts. If he’s smart he’s left some sort o’ trail, but I’ll be
shot if I kin find it.”

“He would not think of that,” answered Grace.

The pair rode on into the valley, both silent and thoughtful, and
for the rest of the afternoon watched the work of rounding up. Just
before dark Grace joined by Emma rode over to the foothills to see
what Jim was accomplishing. He was now nowhere to be seen. Though
Emma wanted to ride up farther into the hills, Grace decided that it
would not be prudent, for night was coming on.

They ate their supper with cowboys beside a little campfire, and
shortly after that started homeward, accompanied by Mr. Bindloss and
two of the men. Two-gun Pete was one of the party.

All were pleased to learn, on their arrival at the ranch, that Hippy
had been sitting up and was coming along. Pop Skinner too, Elfreda
said, was out of danger. Even the ranch-house had improved under the
repairs that had been made that day.

Sam Conifer they found pacing about restlessly. He was full of eager
questions about Jim, and seemed disturbed when they told him that
his partner probably had found a trail and was following it.

On the following morning, with no tidings of the old guide, Sam
asked permission to go in search of Jim. Permission was readily
granted, and Sam was soon galloping away.

Conifer did not return until the late afternoon of the next day. He
was riding hard when the Overlanders discovered him, and reeled in
his saddle as he rode up to the ranch-house.

“Somethin’s happened to Jim!” he cried. “I found whar it happened,
and then I lost the trail. They’ve got him! They’ve got him, folks!”

“Sam! Sam! You have been hurt!” cried Nora. There was blood on Sam
Conifer’s face, and the left arm hung limp at his side. Before they
could assist him, Sam essayed to dismount and pitched to the ground
in a dead faint.



CHAPTER XV

CLEWS THAT WERE LOADED


It was found that a bullet had hit the fleshy part of the old
guide’s left arm, and that there was considerable laceration. First
aid was administered and the patient restored to consciousness.

“Quite a hospital we have here, Mr. Bindloss,” observed J. Elfreda
after she had done all she could for Sam.

“A-huh! What made the old fellow faint like that? He must be getting
old.”

“Loss of blood made him faint. So it would you. He will shortly be
able to tell us how he got the wound.”

“I’ll talk now. I’m so full of it I’ve got to talk. I’m an old
idiot! No mistake ’bout that,” rumbled Sam. “I must talk, fer
somethin’ has got to be did. They’ve got Jim, an’ I reckons they’ve
got the fat boy, too.”

“Take it easy like,” urged the rancher. “No hurry at all. Does he
want something to eat?”

“We are preparing something. Pete has killed a chicken and Nora is
making broth for him,” replied Miss Briggs.

“Huh! Reckon you folks think you own this ranch, eh?” demanded the
owner, his eyes twinkling.

“We might were we to sue for the damage we have sustained here,”
retorted Emma snappily.

“Oh, ho! I reckon you’re right,” agreed Bindloss. “What’s on your
mind, Conifer?”

“I found the trail!”

“You did?” cried Tom Gray.

“Yes, but that ain’t all. It was a fixed trail to make the finder
reckon that Jim had made it hisself so we could foller him. I
swallered the bait an’ the hook an’ the line too. I fust found whar
thar’d been a scrimmage, an’ I found Jim’s heel marks right thar.
Then they disappeared jest as if he’d gone up into the air. He’d
been boosted to the back of a hoss. Ye never seen no hoss track so
a-mighty plain. Well, I follered right on. Jim wouldn’t have made
that mistake. He’d jest kinder sneaked. Then I got mine.”

“How far into the hills did you get?” interrupted the rancher.

“’bout half a mile. Wal, as I was sayin’, all of a sudden I heard
somethin’ like someone had stepped on a stick back of some juniper
bushes. I didn’t like thet sound; I knowed thar was a gun behind it,
so I jest naturally got ready for trouble, but trouble got me first.
The feller shot, an’ I shot. The only difference was thet he had a
plain mark to shoot at an’ I didn’t. He hit me in the arm, an’ then
I shot thet Juniper bush so full of holes that it won’t make no
shade till next summer.”

“Did—did you hit him?” questioned Emma eagerly.

“I hit somethin’ that grunted, but the grunter got away from me. I
stalked him fer two hour, but couldn’t even find his tracks, though
I did find some blood thar, an’ if he’d a looked he’d found a heap
sight more blood whar I was. If thet feller hit what he shot at
thar’s only one man in this heah neck of the world thet could do it,
an’ he’s the feller I’m lookin’ fer. When I find him, one or t’other
of us’ll go down an’ stay down. Thet’s shore,” threatened Sam
grimly.

“I don’t understand how Jim could have been caught in broad
daylight,” wondered Tom.

“Thar’s only one way, onless they shot him, which I don’t reckon
they did, jedging from the look of the trail. Folks, they roped him
jest like they’d rope an old maverick steer. I reckon mebby that’s
what happened to Stacy.”

“Yes. But why, why?”

“Ye kin search me. I’ll be all right after I gits a few hours’ sleep
an’ some chuck; then I’m goin’ to hit the trail agin, and I’ll bet
ye this trail won’t be loaded. Leastwise, I’ll dodge the loaded
places.”

“Samuel, you will not be hitting any trail just yet,” admonished
Miss Briggs. “I think you had better stop talking now. Your broth
will be ready in a few moments, after which you are going to sleep.”
Elfreda motioned to the others to leave, which they did, and half an
hour later Sam was sleeping soundly. Elfreda thereupon went out to
the front porch where Bindloss, Tom and the others of the Overland
party were awaiting her.

Bindloss said they had been discussing the situation, and that not
only for their sakes, but for the sake of his business in the Coso
Valley, something must be done to check the outlawry that had been
going on and that was getting worse.

“Have you appealed to the law?” asked Miss Briggs.

The rancher laughed, but without mirth.

“The sheriff has been after this gang for three months, but that’s
as far as the law has ever got. The law has never caught up with the
gang. There’s some fellow with a head bossing that gang, and they
ought to be getting rich judging from the stock they’ve stolen from
me.”

“If you wish to make a drive and try to clean them up perhaps we can
assist you,” offered Tom.

“I’ve been thinking of that,” replied Bindloss reflectively. “I
don’t reckon, though, that I want you folks to get mixed up in it,
for somebody is sure to get hurt,” he added.

“It occurs to me that someone already has,” observed Miss Briggs
wisely. “You must remember that, having lost one of our party and
one guide, we are not wholly disinterested spectators, and should
Stacy not get back, we probably shall organize a drive on our own
hook.”

“What are your plans, Bindloss? What have you in mind?” asked Tom
Gray.

“’Bout that matter? I can’t do anything till we get finished with
the round-up. When that’s done we’ll turn some of our cowpunchers
loose, letting Pete lead them, for Pete is a natural leader and can
shoot, and he knows the mountains better than any other fellow on
the range. In the meantime, if Sam gets fit, we will ask him to
scout and see if he can find the hang-out of the ruffians. It will
be a ticklish job, but I suppose it can be done. Miss Briggs, when
do you think the old man will be able to start?”

“He should lay up for a week, but I do not believe it will be
possible to hold him that long,” replied Elfreda.

“Leave Stacy all that time without doing anything to help him?”
wailed Nora.

Grace explained that all was being done that could be done, and that
a few days more or less probably would be none the worse for the
missing Overland boy. She said the delay would enable them to
perfect their plans for the proposed man-hunt, and that in the
meantime the ruffians might make a slip and place themselves in the
hands of the men of Circle O. Bindloss nodded his approval, and
there the matter was left.

Conifer improved much more rapidly than Elfreda had thought possible
and two days later Hippy, on his feet again, was walking about,
limping ever so little, his head swathed in bandages and his face
lined and pale.

“I’ve been down long enough,” he told Bindloss. “It is time that I
was out and looking for that nephew of mine, Chunky Brown. Conifer
declares that he is going out tomorrow and I’m going with him.”

“You are not,” replied the rancher. “Man, it’ll kill you! Conifer
wasn’t hit like you and he has his right hand as good as ever.
There’s lots of fight left in the old man yet, and if we don’t let
him go he will worry himself and the rest of us to death. No,
Lieutenant, you keep your hosses staked down and get lazy for a few
days more. I promise you there will be plenty of excitement and
activity for you and the rest of us when we start that man hunt.”

The Overlanders were as emphatic as Bindloss had been, and Hippy,
much against his will, submitted to their demand that he stay at the
ranch. Conifer, too, was ordered by Miss Briggs to defer his
departure, so that it was the latter part of that week before she
gave him permission to take the trail on the following day.

That night, however, something occurred to change the plans of
Bindloss and his guests. Two-gun Pete, who had come in late from the
range, had discovered a man prowling about the stable. Pete hailed
him and the man ran, whereupon the cowboy fired six shots at him,
but in the darkness all his bullets went wild.

The firing awakened the occupants of the ranch-house and the
Overland camp, and in a few minutes all hands were on the scene,
armed and ready for whatever might be required of them. Guards were
thrown out to protect the place from a surprise attack. The prowler
had disappeared, but he had left a plain trail to a point where his
mustang had been staked down. From there his tracks led into the
foothills, but the direction he took upon entering the hills was no
indication of his probable destination.

“I found something,” shouted Idaho who had just come around the
corner of the corral with his lantern and passed down at the rear of
the stable. The Overlanders and Bindloss found him carrying a large
basket at arm’s length. Idaho plainly was suspicious of that basket,
and he proposed to take no chances with it. For all he knew it might
be full of rattlers.

No one made a move to investigate the basket’s contents as Idaho put
it down on the ground and backed away.

“Perhaps the man went away in such haste he forgot his luncheon,”
suggested Emma whimsically, which caused a laugh and relieved the
tension somewhat.

“You are a lot of tenderfeet,” averred Hippy, limping over and
peering down at the basket. He gave it a gentle shake.

“Oh, Hippy darlin’! Be careful,” begged Nora.

“Be quiet! There is something alive in here,” warned Lieutenant
Wingate, giving the basket another shake, whereupon his companions
distinctly heard familiar sounds coming from it.

“Birds! Well, what do you folks know about that? Someone has made us
a present of a basket of birds, perhaps blackbirds with which to
make a pie,” chortled Hippy.

The basket cover was secured with a piece of wire, which the
Overlander unwound and cautiously peered within while Tom Gray held
a lantern to enable Hippy to see. He thrust a hand in and brought
out a bird, holding it up for the others to look at.

“Bindloss, what do you think of our present?” he cried jovially.

“Well, I’ll be shot!” exclaimed the rancher. “What fool is carrying
’round a basket of birds?” The rancher laughed uproariously.

Tom Gray took one look at the bird and uttered an exclamation under
his breath, then after cautiously peering into the basket, being
careful that none of the other birds there made its escape, he got
up and faced his companions with a puzzled expression in his eyes.

At this instant, Grace and Elfreda also discovered what both Tom and
Hippy already knew.

“A carrier pigeon!” exclaimed Miss Briggs wonderingly. “Are they all
carriers?”

“All carriers, and fully equipped for business,” Tom informed them.
“Are we back in France in the war?”

Hippy turned the basket about so that the light would shine on the
other side of it, and made a fresh discovery, more important, even,
than the discovery of the carrier pigeons. They heard him utter an
exclamation and saw him remove something that was hanging to the
handle and tied to it with a leather thong.



CHAPTER XVI

THE CARRIER PIGEONS’ FLIGHT


“A letter!” cried Emma. “Isn’t this perfectly romantic?”

“If it is a letter, it’s a crumby looking one,” observed Hippy.
“Tom, hold that lantern so I can see.”

The Overlanders crowded up closer, with Bindloss in the forefront,
the cowpunchers peering over their heads and shoulders, as Hippy
began to unfold a sheet that had once been wrapping paper. One keen
look at it and Lieutenant Wingate uttered a yell and began hopping
up and down with most of his weight on one foot.

“Chunky! It’s from Chunky,” he cried.

“Read it! This suspense is killing me,” wailed Emma.

“It is addressed to the Overlanders and to Joe Bindloss. He spells
it ‘Bindlass,’ and—”

“Never mind the spelling. Read it!” urged Miss Briggs.

“And it reads as follows,” continued Hippy.

“‘Dear Folks: You’ll be surprised to hear from me, and more
so to hear that I’m in Dutch. I’m in the hands of a gang of
ruffians—gentlemen—’ The word ruffians has been crossed out and
the word gentlemen added,” explained Hippy.

“You are the most aggravating person I ever knew. Will you please
read that letter or let me do it for you?” begged Miss Briggs.

“‘They caught me with a rope when I wasn’t looking, down by the
round-up, and I’ve stayed caught. They know that I’m valuable and
they want a price for me,’” continued Hippy, reading Stacy’s scrawl
with considerable difficulty. “‘If they don’t get it they propose to
throw me off the mountain into the red gulch just back of the cabin
that I’m in. They want five hundred dollars for me and you’re to
send it by the birds that they are going to send with this letter.
Put only one bill on each bird’s leg because they’re union birds and
won’t carry a man-sized load. I don’t know how or where they got the
birds, but they’ve got ’em. I know because I’ve seen ’em. When they
get the money they are going to take me to the foothills and kick me
out, but if they don’t get it I’m to go out the way I told you.
Please hurry. I haven’t had a square meal since I got tangled up
with that fellow’s rope, but the scenery certainly is fine up here.
Help! Help! Help!

                                      “(Signed) ‘Lovingly, Stacy.’”



[Illustration: “It’s from Chunky!”]



“‘P.S. If you try to find me they say they will throw me over
anyway. If you haven’t big enough bills, for the love of heaven keep
on sending small ones so long as the birds hold out, but send them!’

“‘P.P.S. The beans they are feeding me on up here are awful, but the
coffee is worse. S.B.’

“‘P.P.P.S. They say they are going to send this by rural free
delivery, but if it’s as slow as it is back home I won’t need any
help by the time it reaches you. For heaven sake, feed the birds and
give them plenty of pepper, so they’ll have pep and hustle—’”

The message broke off suddenly as if the writer had been
interrupted, at least that was the way the Overlanders construed it.

“Gosh a-mighty! If that ain’t the limit!” exclaimed Bindloss. “How
can those birds carry money or anything else, and how will they get
back where the robbers want them to go?”

Tom Gray explained that carrier pigeons carried messages in little
oiled paper tubes such as these birds had on their legs, and that
when released they got their direction quickly and flew straight
back to their cotes.

“I know! I know,” exclaimed Bindloss. “A fellow over at Carrago had
a flock of ’em, but the government took ’em over after the war
started. They paid him five dollars a head for the birds, then,
after the war, what was left of ’em he bought back from the
government at twenty-five cents a head.”

“There’s our clue,” interrupted Hippy. “Should we fail otherwise we
can find out who the pigeon man is. But I don’t reckon we shall need
to do that. Folks, what is your idea?”

“I shouldn’t be in favor of paying five hundred dollars for Stacy,”
objected Emma. “If they keep him long enough to get really
acquainted with him they will be glad to take a bargain-counter
price for him.”

Bindloss suggested that they go into the house, and Tom asked him to
invite Idaho and Pete to go in with them, which was done. Sam
Conifer met them on the porch, and his first question was whether or
not they had heard from Jim. The situation was quickly explained to
him. When informed that there was no news from the missing Jim, the
guide’s whiskers drooped.

“I reckon Jim’s thar, but they wouldn’t let the boy writ ’bout it,”
he exclaimed, his whiskers suddenly bristling as of old. “I’ll git
’em! They’ve played a card into my hands now!” he raged. “I’ll
follow ’em now.”

“Are you going to fly, Sam?” questioned Emma. “That is the only way
I know of to follow birds.”

It was a poser. Two-gun Pete asked if he might make a suggestion.
His suggestion was that they liberate a bird and watch its
direction, then follow out that direction until they finally found
the hiding place of the rustlers.

“Peter, you sure have brains,” complimented Hippy.

“I love a man with brains,” bubbled Emma, amid smiles and nods, all
of which embarrassed Two-gun very much.

“That’s the idea,” cried Tom. “Has anyone additional suggestions to
make?”

“I have,” answered Miss Briggs. “Peter has given us something to
work from, and all it needs is elaboration. See what you think of
this. Give a bird five dollars and liberate him just after daylight,
as they used to do in France. Watch the course he takes, then let
our men take up positions on that course as nearly in line with the
bird’s flight as possible, lining up about a mile apart. At a
certain hour we will free a second bird, also with a five-dollar
bill. One of our men on the lookout will surely see it. The ruffians
may be a long way from here, but so long as the bird’s course can be
kept in sight, its home roost can be found.”

“Good generalship,” agreed Tom, nodding.

“Right you are,” approved Bindloss. “But five dollars! I don’t like
to give them robbers even five cents.”

“Sam, do you feel equal to going with us?” asked Grace, turning to
the old guide.

“I’m goin’, an’ I ain’t comin’ back till I gits Jim,” he answered
grimly.

“Five dollars sent out with each bird won’t break us. That will make
sixty dollars if we send out the entire dozen, which is a pretty
high price to pay for Chunky,” declared Emma.

The Overlanders rebuked her, and after further discussion it was
decided to liberate the first bird at daybreak and a second bird at
noon. As soon as the first carrier gave them the direction, the men
were to proceed singly into the hills, going with as much secrecy
and caution as possible, take up positions and await the noon bird.

Miss Briggs suggested that the men arrange to get in touch with each
other at the end of the first hour following the passage of each
bird, and that the first to discover the hiding place of the
rustlers was to go back and wait for his companions so that they
might attack in force.

“Gosh a-mighty!” cried Joe Bindloss. “Is there anything that you
folks can’t do?”

“One bird every two hours after twelve and up to four, then send all
but two between that and six,” suggested Hippy. “Better keep two
over. Send a message with the last bird that the last two birds of
the lot will be liberated in the morning, as soon as the rest of the
money can be procured. Now who is going? I, for one, am going out.”

Every person present volunteered, but it was finally settled that
Sam, Pete, Idaho, Tom Gray and Hippy should go. Sam insisted on
taking the lead, and the position was assigned to him. Bindloss and
some of his men were to remain at the ranch-house to guard against a
possible raid.

The party soon thereafter turned in for what rest they could get,
but first the birds were put in a larger basket so that they might
be more comfortable and rest up for the journey ahead of them.

The ranch-house inhabitants were astir before daylight next morning.
Food was given to the birds as soon as day dawned, and a tube packed
with a five-dollar bill and a brief message that the money would be
sent along as rapidly as possible was attached to a pigeon’s leg.

The sun was rising when Tom Gray brought out the first pigeon that
was to make the flight.

“The dove of peace! What?” chuckled Tom, tossing the bird into the
air.

The carrier pigeon fluttered about with rapidly beating wings for a
few seconds, then began circling upwards, taking wider and wider
circles as it rose, every eye eagerly fixed on it. The Overlanders
had thought that its direction would be east, but suddenly the bird
straightened out, taking a course a little south of west, heading
for the Coso Mountains.

“Everyone watch him!” urged Tom.

Grace and Elfreda were following the flight with their glasses, but
the keen eyes of the ranchers needed no such aid, and readily
followed the flight until the bird had disappeared over a mountain.

“I got it!” shouted Sam.

“So hev I,” announced Pete. “Got the landmarks daid to rights. Be ye
ready, Sam?”

Sam was, and after an uneasy half hour’s wait he rode off to the
south, jogging along slowly. He was followed after an interval by
Lieutenant Wingate, and following him were Tom Gray, Two-gun Pete
and Idaho in the order named. Each man knew that he might expect to
be shot from ambush, but the opportunity to meet up with the
mountain ruffians outweighed all other considerations.

In a short time all were out of sight, and the party left at the
ranch settled down to wait for the hour when they were to liberate
another pigeon, and at the same time to listen with straining ears
for the sound of firing in the hills, which each one momentarily
expected to hear.



CHAPTER XVII

STACY DECIDES TO LEAVE


The night that Stacy Brown was roped from his mustang he was put to
sleep with a whack applied to his head from the butt of a revolver.
When he awakened he found himself lashed to the back of a pony,
traveling over a rough mountain trail. The pony was being led and
there were men ahead and men to the rear. The fat boy could hear
them speak at intervals.

It did not seem to be a long journey, and the party finally pulled
up before a cabin that Stacy observed was well hidden in a narrow
rocky pass that was approached on three sides by way of a steep
granite slope, while on the other side, as he later learned, a
precipitous gorge dropped away for hundreds of feet.

The Overland boy was removed from the horse and carried to a lean-to
against the rear of the cabin in which horse equipment and weapons
were stored. He was unceremoniously dumped into this place and left
to his own reflections. For some time he heard men talking in the
cabin, then silence settled over the place. It was near noon of the
following day before food was brought to him and his hands were
freed. After eating he was subjected to a grilling examination as to
who he was and what his party were doing in the Coso Valley, and
when he answered in his characteristic independent way one of the
ruffians struck him a blow in the face that once more put the
Overland boy to sleep.

At least twice each night thereafter he was asked the same
questions, and each time the interview ended in a blow or a violent
kick until Chunky was sore all over.

Occasionally he was permitted to sit or lie outdoors, and at such
times Stacy used his eyes and ears to the best advantage. However,
there was little for him to see except the scenery that he mentioned
in his letter.

His captors were away most of the time, though ordinarily there was
one man prowling about, principally engaged in surveying the
surrounding mountains from a vantage point on a rock. Then one
evening came the order to Stacy to write the letter to the Overland
party. He obeyed eagerly, for he was anxious to get away at any
price—so long as the price was paid by someone other than himself.
Stacy had slight hopes, though, that his companions would give so
great a ransom.

It was early in the evening of the following night when he heard
more than the usual number of voices in the cabin. Voices now and
then were pitched high, sometimes in anger. Stacy cautiously rolled
close to the door communicating with the cabin and lay listening.
His hopes rose high when he learned that some of the birds had
returned with money. Two of the ruffians had come in with tidings
that four birds were still missing, which revealed to Stacy the fact
that the pigeons were not kept at the cabin. The one, however, which
carried the answer to the demand of the rustlers, and that most
concerned the men, had just come in, and its message was a subject
of discussion. One ruffian was of the opinion that either Bindloss
or the Overlanders were trying to play a sharp trick on them and
search out their hiding place. He was laughed at.

“How kin anybody foller er bird flyin’ high?” demanded another,
whereat the ruffians laughed more uproariously than before. The feel
of the money that the pigeons had brought, outweighed their caution.
This was easy money, and there was more of it coming.

“We’ll git all we kin fer this feller, an’ then make a price on
t’other feller’s haid, an’ we’ll make er clean-up,” chuckled
another. “It ain’t the first time thet them birds has done us a good
turn, but never jest in this heah way.”

At the mention of another captive on whose head a price was to be
set, the fat boy pricked up his ears. He wondered whom else the
ruffians had captured, and where the other captive was being held.
This was interesting, but what followed was more so.

From the talk Stacy overheard he learned that, after the ruffians
had gotten all the money they could out of the Overlanders, the
prisoners were to be disposed of.

“They knows too much to let ’em git away, especially thet fat
feller. He’s too fresh anyway,” averred one.

“Best way is to take ’em out on a dark night, turn ’em ’round a few
times and head ’em fer the canyon, an’ tell ’em to git home
a-whooping. Ain’t no need fer us to do nothing more’n thet. They’ll
do the rest,” advised another.

“Thet’s the ticket, Charlie!” complimented another. “We’ll make ’em
walk the plank, an’ the buzzards’ll do the rest.” The ruffians
roared. It would be great sport and it would make disposal of their
captives a most simple matter.

Stacy Brown did not laugh. Instead, he swallowed hard, and a heavy
frown wrinkled his forehead.

“That’s what I call a low-down trick,” he muttered. “Going to get
all the money they can for me and the other fellow and then send us
out to walk on air. Wow! Stacy Brown, I reckon it’s time for you to
leave.” He gazed out through the open door of the lean-to and
contemplated the possibility of rolling out and trying to escape.
That did not seem to be feasible, so he pondered, strained
cautiously at the ropes with which he was tied, and decided that he
must think of something else.

“If I could get hold of a hunting knife I might manage it,” he
thought, but did not recall having seen any such thing among the
assortment of equipment in the lean-to. Then an idea occurred to
him.

“The axe!” exclaimed the fat boy, and instantly began rolling
towards the door, just outside of which he had seen an axe that very
day. He found the axe and after several failures Stacy succeeded in
getting it between his knees blade up, and began sawing at the rope
that bound his wrists. The rope soon fell apart. Stacy could
scarcely repress a howl of delight. It was now the work of only a
moment to free his legs, and the Overland boy, still clinging to the
axe as a weapon in case of discovery, began considering his next
move. He knew about where the ruffians’ ponies were tethered,
because he had heard them stamping many times.

“Now, if I had a gun I’d be—Sure I have!” He felt along the rear
wall of the lean-to, where among saddles and bridles hung holsters
with weapons in them, and ammunition belts, and rifles of quite
modern pattern hanging from nails in the wall.

The fat boy quickly helped himself to two revolvers and a rifle,
each of which he found loaded. That gave him fresh courage. He might
be surprised, but it was his idea that the other fellow might be
more so. Stacy, armed and eager, crept from the lean-to and picked
his way cautiously towards the spot at the base of the granite slope
where he hoped to find the rustlers’ horses tethered. They were not
there, but he found them about a hundred yards to the left, all
saddled and bridled, ready for instant use in case of need.

There appeared to be no one on guard, but, though he did not know
it, two men were stationed a short distance from the cabin on the
Coso Valley side of the mountain hiding place. Fortunately for him,
the fat boy was on the other side.

Stacy selected a mount, and, finding a rifle in the saddle boot, he
threw away the one he had taken from the lean-to.

“I wish I dared to shoot up that place,” he muttered, gazing off
towards the cabin which he could not now see. “I’ll come back and do
it.”

Stacy led the mustang along carefully for a while, taking what he
believed to be an easterly course, and getting his bearings from the
stars so that he might not travel in a circle and bring up at his
starting point.

There appearing to be no pursuit, the boy finally mounted and rode
away with increasing speed and rising spirits. He continued on until
towards daylight when he found himself descending into what he
believed to be foothills, but which proved to be grazing grounds in
the mountains. They were of vast extent, covering many acres, and
over this mesa Stacy wandered for hours trying to find a way out. He
was hungry, ravenously so now, and a search of the saddle-bags
revealed not even a biscuit.

Noon came and, well-nigh famished, he turned the mustang into the
chaparral determined to find a new trail. The boy had gone in but a
short distance when he began to sniff the air. Even the mustang
lifted its head and snorted.

“If that isn’t food smoke I never smelled any. Stacy Brown, follow
your nose, for your nose knows. Gid-ap, you lazy lout!” he cried.

Perhaps the pony really knew, for it pricked up its ears with new
interest and seemed eager to go on, and a few moments later Stacy
discovered a shack ahead. The smoke odor was by now quite strong.

The boy approached the shack with caution, and rode twice around it
before deciding to hail. When he finally did so there was no answer,
so he dismounted and entered.

What he had come upon was a chuck-house where mountain herders got
their meals.

That a meal had quite recently been eaten there was evidenced by the
soiled dishes still on the table, and the food that was simmering in
frying pans on the stove.

“Eats! I don’t know who it belongs to, but I know when I am hungry,”
cried Stacy, helping himself to several slices of bacon from a
frying pan and eating them out of his hand. There was bread, too,
and coffee in the pots. Stacy tasted the coffee and made a wry face.

“Worse than the rustlers made,” he complained.

Had the Overland Rider not been so fully occupied with satisfying
his hunger, he probably would have been more observant. As it was he
did not see a horseman ride up, dismount and peer into the shack.
Nor did he see the fellow’s expression when he looked over Stacy’s
mount. The newcomer rode away quietly to a distance and then put his
pony to a run.

Half an hour later while the boy was still eating, and just as he
was about to place a biscuit in his mouth, a voice out of the
silence arrested him.

“Put up yer hands, young feller! I’ve got ye covered,” warned the
voice.

The hand that held the biscuit was already raised to a level with
his mouth, and the other promptly went above his head.

“Turn around, an’ let’s git a look at ye!”

Stacy turned and found himself facing a weapon in the hands of a man
at the door. Just to the rear of the man with the gun were half a
dozen others.

“Tough-lookin’ critter, all right. Who be ye?” demanded the hold-up
man.

“Name’s Brown,” answered the fat boy, transferring the biscuit to
his mouth and beginning to chew on it.

“Whar’d ye git that cayuse?”

“Maybe I stole him,” answered Chunky thickly, for the biscuit was
large. “What difference does it make to you where I got him?”

“It may make a lot of difference to ye, young feller. I reckon mebby
ye knows thet thet critter belongs to the Diamond Bar ranch, an’
thet he was stole from thar three days ago. Turn round while I
relieve ye of some of thet hardware.”

Stacy ceased chewing and stood with arms uplifted while his weapons
and cartridge belt were being removed, following which he was
roughly yanked around facing his captors.

“You be careful, you rough-necks. You’ll find out that I’m a bad man
when I get riled,” warned Chunky boastfully.

“I reckon ye be all of thet. Jest now ye ain’t, an’ ’fore long mebby
ye won’t be nothin’ ’tall. Yer under arrest!” announced the
spokesman.

“Wha—at for?” gasped the Overland boy, his face losing some of its
color.

“Horse stealin’! Thet’s all!”

A strong hand was fastened on Stacy’s collar and he was roughly
jerked out of the cabin and thrown on the pony that he was accused
of having rustled. It began to dawn on Stacy Brown that he was in a
serious predicament.



CHAPTER XVIII

TROUBLE AT RED GULCH


The second bird was liberated at noon, and was quickly on its way,
observed eagerly by the girls of the Overland unit and their
companions of the Circle O ranch. The pigeon did not seem to deviate
a hair’s breadth from the line followed by the first bird.

“Isn’t it wonderful to be a bird and go where the wind listeth?”
murmured Emma Dean.

“It would be, but they don’t,” answered Miss Briggs laughingly.
“Wind is the pigeon’s enemy and unless it is with them they have to
fight it, and in doing so are frequently lost. I happen to know some
things about carrier pigeons, for I have seen them work and heard
much about them in France. Once a pigeon becomes lost and has to
come down, he loses his ambition, or his confidence, or
something—at least something seems to have gone out of him, and,
even if he returns at all, he seldom can be depended upon to make
another flight. I venture to say that not all the birds we are
sending out will reach their loft.”

“So long as the boys see the majority of them we do not care,” said
Nora. “Oh, I hope they do.”

The boys did—that is, Hippy, Sam and Pete saw the second bird going
over and watched it until it flew out of sight. Now they knew that
they were on the right trail. The five o’clock bird was the last one
seen by any of the men, and it was Lieutenant Wingate who discovered
it. The bird was flying so low that it seemed to be skimming the
tops of the slender mountain pines. Observing this Hippy hurried on
to join Sam Conifer, whom he found in about half an hour.

“Go easy from now on, Sam,” he cautioned.

“You know somethin’?” demanded the guide.

“The bird that just went over was flying very low. That indicates
that he has located his cote and is reaching for it. I do not
believe it can be more than a mile or two away from here. Shall I
take the lead now?”

“No! I’ll take it myself,” snapped the guide. Sam was irritable, but
Hippy laid it to the guide’s wound and his weakened condition. As a
matter of fact it was neither. Sam’s nerves were on edge and his
rheumatic fingers were “crinkling,” for he could almost feel the
feel of a gun in his right hand.

“Very well. I shall keep up close to you, just the same,” announced
Hippy. “If you come upon something you’ll need assistance. The men
at the rear are instructed not to shoot until they are positive
about what they are shooting at, so there is not much danger of
their firing at us.”

Sam answered with a grunt and started on. Half an hour later he
halted to wait for his companion to come up to him.

“What is it?” whispered Hippy.

“I got er whiff o’ smoke. Mebby it’s the makin’s o’ a forest fire,
an’ mebby ’tain’t. We’ll leave the ponies heah an’ go on afoot. Ye
better wait an’ tell ’em so they don’t blunder on an’ spoil the
game.”

The “game”! What a game it was, a game of life and death, thought
Lieutenant Hippy Wingate, as he tethered the mustangs at one side of
the trail and sat down to rest and wait.

It was about this time that Stacy Brown was taking his departure
from the cabin of the mountain ruffians, not dreaming that a friend
was so near at hand. In the meantime Sam had begun moving forward
slowly, making scarcely a sound, so light were his footsteps, the
right hand nervously twitching over the protruding butt of his
revolver.

The guide brought up sharply with his whiskers standing out at an
angle, and listened attentively. He had heard a human laugh, and Sam
knew quite well that it could not be behind him, for his companions
were not in a laughing mood that evening. He picked his way forward
a little farther and again halted and listened.

A shout startled him and his muscles tensed. It was a shout of
anger, at first sounding as though from a distance, then all at once
near at hand. Stacy Brown’s escape had been discovered, and the
mountain ruffians were running about in search of him, but by this
time the boy was some distance away. When it was discovered that one
of the ponies was missing the rage of the rustlers knew no
restraint, and each was seeking for an excuse to place the
responsibility on his companions.

“Somethin’ goin’ on over thar, but I’m dad-busted if I knows what
it’s all ’bout,” muttered Sam.

Two shots rang out almost as one, and the old gunman knew what that
meant. Two rustlers had fired, but one had been a fraction of a
second quicker than the other, and one probably was out of the
fight, for there were no more shots, and the voices of the rustlers
became more subdued.

Sam Conifer moved up a little closer. Lieutenant Wingate, too, had
heard the shots and was growing restless, but dared not leave his
position until Tom, Two-Gun and Idaho came up.

By this time Conifer had discovered the cabin. Fortunately for his
purposes, all the rustlers were now in the cabin excitedly
discussing the escape of their prisoner, and considering what they
had better do. It was the opinion of the wiser ones that Brown never
would be able to find the place again, which was probably true, and
that the other prisoner was still in their possession. It was
decided, therefore, to keep a sharp lookout and collect all the
money from the Overlanders that they possibly could, then dispose of
the man they still held. It would not do to let that man get away.

As it developed later the two rustlers who had shot at each other
had missed, whereupon their companions intervened and peace was
restored, as Sam Conifer learned a few moments later from such
snatches of conversation as he could catch.

The old guide crept up the granite slope a noiseless shadow, and as
he neared the open door of the cabin he crouched with every faculty
on the alert, his right hand twitching, eyes slowly searching the
faces of the men under the light of a lantern swinging from a beam
in the center of the room. Sam raised himself erect and glided
noiselessly to the door. There he stood for a full minute, his gaze
shifting from one to another of the men gathered there and finally
coming to rest on the dark, swarthy face of one who looked to be a
Mexican, and whose attitude and peremptory speech plainly showed
that he was the leader of the party.

“I’ve been thinkin’. The boy’ll be home prob’ly some time in the
morning, but he can’t be ’lowed to git thar. We’ve got to put a man
on his trail with a light, bad as it be to do thet, an’ run him down
afore he gits thar. Bad-Eye, it’s up to you to do the job, an’ if ye
do it right, the boy’ll be a dead dude by mornin’. If he ain’t I’ll
go git him myself, fer he ain’t no good.”

“I reckon ye lie!”

It was a thunderbolt, hurled at them by Sam Conifer from the
doorway, and half a dozen hands flew to as many revolver holsters.

“Put ’em back!”

The command was uttered with an incisiveness that cut like a
keen-edged blade, and the hands of the mountain ruffians sagged away
from their holsters ever so little.

“I’ve got somethin’ to say to ye cayuses fust. After I gits finished
ye kin shoot. Ye’r a fine bunch of mavericks, ain’t ye?” drawled
Sam.



CHAPTER XIX

A DUEL IN THE DARK


Ordinarily long before this every gun in the room would have been
trained on the intruder, but something restrained them. Perhaps it
was the easy, confident manner of the man in the doorway. Then
again, they well knew that a man who would voluntarily face that
assemblage, and expect to get away with it, must have supreme
confidence in himself. Whether or not that confidence was well
placed, they proposed to find out sooner or later.

“I been lookin’ fer ye fellers,” announced Sam. “Now that I’ve found
ye we’ll have a little confab, so don’t git smart an’ feel fer yer
guns, ’cause somethin’ might happen. This heah right hand o’ mine,
though it’s all crinkled up with the rheumatiz, now an’ ag’in gits
mighty nervous, an’ it might throw a gun afore I could stop it. Jest
like this”:

His heavy Colt revolver flicked into Sam Conifer’s hand as if by
magic, and lay trembling there in his palm. Then it slipped smoothly
towards his finger tips as if doing so of its own volition, spun and
slid without an apparent movement of the arm, always moving, now
like a flash of light, then with slow easy grace, but, as it was
observed by the keen eyes of the watchers, with the muzzle ever
pointed towards him of the swarthy face.

As the weapon slipped back into its holster, and the rheumatic hand
of the old guide lay trembling on its butt, a look of relief passed
over the face of the dark mountaineer.

The others in the cabin looked their amazement, for few there had
ever seen a gun handled as this old, stoop-shouldered intruder
handled his. It was a revelation, though not a pleasant one. It was
a warning as well, but they were watching him—watching and waiting
for that moment when the old man’s alert, shifting glances should
wander from some of them for a few golden seconds.

“Say, ye feller! Who be ye?” demanded the dark man. “What do ye mean
by holdin’ up a bunch o’ honest prospectors?”

Sam Conifer grinned sardonically.

“Honest, did ye say? You don’t know the meanin’ o’ that word. Them’s
queer words comin’ from the lips o’ Mexican Charlie.”

The dark man started, flushed and reached for his weapon, but
thinking better of it, permitted his hand to slip back to its former
position.

“I wants to know whar the boy is? Mex, I ask ye, whar is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ye lie, Mex! Yer too yellow to draw at thet word. Whar’s my pard,
Jim?”

“I tell you I don’t know nothin’ ’bout what yer talkin’,” flung back
Mexican Charlie.

“Ye lie twice, but yer too yellow to draw at thet word,” reiterated
Sam. “I knows thet the boy got away, but whar did he go?”

“Don’t know nothin’ ’bout it. Who be ye?”

“Leavin’ the lie fer the moment, ye ought to know me, Charlie. You
an’ me has met afore, but a long time ago an’ times has changed me,
but yer the same low-down houn’ thet ye always was. I’ve growed some
fresh whiskers since ye last seen me, an’ fer reasons. Look sharp,
Mex! Look under the whiskers and mebby ye’ll see a scar thar,” urged
the old guide, lifting his whiskers with the left hand. “Do ye see
it, Mex?”

The mountaineer nodded, but he was puzzled. That scar seemed to
bring back the past, but Mexican Charlie plainly could not fix the
thing in his mind.

“Mex! Ye put thet scar thar. It was up in the Klondike years ago,
and ye give it to me when I wasn’t lookin’. Ye got away then an’ ye
know why, cause my hand wasn’t all crinkled up with the rheumatiz
like it is now. But listen, Mex! I’ve been waitin’ fer ye, knowin’
thet some day you an’ me would meet up with each other an’ then we’d
talk it all over nice an’ friendly like. I didn’t recognize ye when
ye come to our camp t’other night an’ told us ye come from Malcolm
Hornby with orders fer us to git out ’cause we was on his property.
Ye lied then, too, jest as you’ve been doin’ tonight. Mex, I’m Sam
Conifer!”

The announcement was like a blow in the face to Mexican Charlie. Mex
knew his torturer now. To the others the announcement meant nothing
except as they saw how nervous it had made their leader.

“Do ye know what I’m goin’ to do now, Mex?” purred Sam.

“Yer goin’ to git out o’ here afore somebody shoots ye up!” shouted
the mountaineer.

“Shore I be, but not yit. Fust, I’m goin’ to give ye the same kind
o’ scar that ye give me up in the Klondike. Turn yer head round
sideways jest as I was doin’ when ye give it to me,” urged Sam
gently.

“Yer wrong, pard. I ain’t the man ye think I be. I never seen ye
before,” protested Charlie.

“I’m speakin’ to ye, Charlie! Be ye goin’ to turn yer head or must I
turn it fer ye after I’ve put ye in condition to turn?”

“I’ll kill ye fer this!” hissed the mountaineer. “Yer a coward, an’
ye wouldn’t dare talk to me like thet if things was equal.

“No, things ain’t equal, eh? Heah ye be, six of ye an’ I only one
man; each of ye armed an’ lookin’ fer a chance to kill me, but not
darin’ to try it, though I ain’t got a gun in my hand no more than
ye fellers has. No, things ain’t equal. Draw, ye sneakin’ coyote!
I’ll not touch my gun till your’n is out o’ the holster. Draw, you
coward!”

Enraged beyond further endurance, and taking advantage of the
visitor’s apparent relaxation, Mexican Charlie snatched at his gun,
fumbled it in his nervous excitement, then jerked it free.

Like a flash of light the nervous hand of Sam Conifer flicked his
own weapon out and two guns roared, one a fraction of a second ahead
of the other. Mexican Charlie clapped a hand to his neck, as his
weapon fell to the floor.

“Steady, fellers! We ain’t finished our little talk yit,” warned
Sam. “Mex’s got it right whar he give it to me an’ he don’t like it.
Neither did I. Tie yer handkerchief ’bout yer neck, Charlie, an’
we’ll finish what we got to say to each other, an’ this time ye’ll
talk right out in meetin’ cause thar’s some things I’ve got to know,
among them, who is bossin’ this heah gang o’ rustlers, an’ hoss
thieves, an’ fellers thet—”

Sam did not finish his sentence. A rifle somewhere outside of the
cabin roared, and the lantern swinging overhead crashed to the
floor, leaving the room in sudden darkness.

Revolvers began to bark, weapons aimed at the spot where Sam Conifer
had been standing. The firing was fast and furious for a moment,
then the voice of Mexican Charlie was heard above the uproar.

“Git out! On the jump!” he shouted.

The rustlers made haste to obey, some going out by way of the door,
others taking to the rear and out by the lean-to in which Stacy
Brown had been held a captive.

A moment later Sam Conifer rose from the floor where he had thrown
himself on the instant when the light went out, and stole out. Sam
did not go far, only to the base of the granite slope, at one side
of which he crouched down and waited. Sam could not understand that
shot. Why, if it were a friend of the rustlers, did the fellow not
shoot him instead of shooting out the light? After a time a light
began to dawn on the old guide. He uttered a low whistle signal that
had been agreed upon between himself and his companions.

The signal was properly answered.

“Come heah, but do it keerful like,” ordered Conifer.

After a few seconds a voice called out softly. It was the voice of
Two-gun Pete.

“Thet you, Sam?” asked Pete.

“Yes. Whar’s that bunch o’ ruffians?” demanded the guide.

“They’ve hit the trail on their ponies, an’ some of ’em had to be
helped into their saddles, I reckon. Our fellers aire back heah in
the bushes. They was waitin’ till I sized things up an’—”

“Look heah, Pete! Be you the critter thet shot out the light jest
when I was holdin’ a friendly conversation with thet bunch? Be you
him?”

Pete admitted that he was the man.

“Thar was a feller in thar thet had his gun out and was gittin’
ready to let you have it,” explained Pete. “I reckoned thet I didn’t
want to kill the critter. Somehow I don’t like to let go at a feller
when he ain’t lookin’. It ain’t good sport; so I jest shot out the
light, knowin’ thet you’d be out of range instanter if things went
off thar, which they did.”

“Thet’s what I calls a low-down trick, Pete. No gent would butt in
when another gent is holdin’ a private conversation, but I forgive
ye. Lead me to our bunch. Be they all heah?”

Pete said they were, and conducted Sam to them. Tom, Hippy and Idaho
eagerly plied the old guide with questions, all talking at the same
time. They conversed in low tones, for no one knew at what moment
they might be overheard by mountain prowlers, for none had great
faith in the flight of the men that Sam Conifer had held up. They
were expected to return seeking for revenge.

Sam was troubled, though the Overlanders were happy in the thought
that Stacy had escaped. They reasoned that by this time he must be
well on his way to the Circle O ranch. Sam, on the other hand, was
worried about Jim. He believed that Jim must be somewhere about,
and, after a few moments’ further conversation with his companions,
started for a prowl about. In the meantime Two-gun and Idaho kept
watch to guard against surprises.

The old guide’s search lasted for more than an hour. Upon his return
he announced that he couldn’t find the slightest trace of Jim, and
that he could do nothing more until daylight. The night passed
without the party being disturbed, and with daylight all hands were
out before breakfast continuing the search.

The cabin was the first object of their inquiry. After searching it
and finding nothing of interest, except the message that Hippy had
sent by one of the pigeons, they proceeded to the lean-to. The first
object to interest them there was Stacy Brown’s hat.

“I reckon the fat boy went away in a hurry,” suggested Pete.

“An’ somebody cut the ropes thet held him,” added Idaho.

“He cut ’em hisself with the axe,” averred Sam, whose eyes had taken
in every detail in one sweeping glance. “I knowed the kid would fool
’em if he got half a chance. But whar’s Jim? If they’ve done fer him
I’ll foller thet bunch till I gits every one of ’em, if it takes me
all the rest of my life. But Jim ain’t daid. I’ll tell ye, Cap’n
Gray, and all the rest of ye, I love thet pard o’ mine like I never
didn’t love no one else.”

“Then why do you fight each other all the time?” questioned Hippy
laughingly.

“Why, ain’t thet the way? What t’other way could a couple of fellers
show thet they love each other? Ye wouldn’t expect ’em to git mushy,
would ye? No. Ain’t no t’other way ’cept to arg’fy an’ fit it out.
Why, Jim an’ me have got so het up now an’ ag’in thet we drawed guns
on each other, an’ one time Jim shot at me, but thet critter never
could shoot. All he kin do is to foller a trail, but thar ain’t a
man lives thet kin beat him at thet. The time he shot at me, I was
so all-fired tickled to think I’d riled him till he drawed, thet I
jest chucked my gun an’ grabbed him an’ hugged him till we both got
to laughin’. Thet’s the only time we ever come nigh gittin’ mushy
like a couple o’ gals,” finished Conifer, who stroking his whiskers,
turned and strode out to the edge of the gulch that dropped away at
the rear of the lean-to.

Hippy looked at Tom and Tom looked at Hippy, then both burst into
laughter.

“Can you beat it?” chuckled Hippy.

Tom Gray agreed that he could not. Sam was out of range of both
their words or their laughter, absorbed in his study of the
surrounding mountains and gorges. His forehead wore a heavy frown,
and, as he looked he thought, with all the concentration that he
could summon, trying to evolve a theory to find a solution of the
mystery of his companion’s disappearance. No answer came to him.

Two-gun Pete, who was listening to the conversation of the two
Overland men, suddenly reared his head attentively.

“Did ye hear it?” he demanded.

The Overlanders nodded. The distant report of a rifle had been heard
by all, but as there was no repetition of it they again fell to
talking.

“Wha—at!” cried Lieutenant Wingate, springing to his feet when, a
moment later, Sam Conifer came staggering in. “In the name of Mike,
what’s happened?”

The old guide’s face was covered with blood from the forehead down,
which served to accentuate the pallor that showed in the narrow
strip above it.

“Sam! What is it?” begged Tom Gray.

“Nothin’ much ’cept—” The words ended in a moan, and old Sam
Conifer, staggering forward a pace, crumpled down to the floor and
lay still.



CHAPTER XX

STACY WIELDS A CLUB


Stacy Brown’s face wore a serious expression as his captors started
away with him. His pony was free, but there were men ahead of and
behind him, men whose faces were stern and threatening. The rifle
had been taken from the boot of his saddle and his revolvers were
gone. He was as helpless as a child, but the fat boy was watching
for an opportunity to escape.

“Where are you taking me?” he demanded after they had galloped on
for the better part of an hour.

“You’ll see when you git thar,” was the brief reply.

“You don’t say,” retorted Chunky, whereupon he was ordered to keep
silent.

Soon after that a collection of ranch buildings was seen nestling
below in the foothills, which were regarded with interest by the
Overland boy as his captors headed for them. As they neared the
ranch, a few men appeared and with shaded eyes watched the approach.
When the captors finally pulled up before the ranch, a thin, tall,
bronzed man came out and bent a keen gaze on Chunky.

“What have you got heah?” he demanded.

“Feller we caught with the mustang thet was stolen the other night,”
replied one of the captors.

“So? A hoss thief, eh?”

“I’m not!” objected the fat boy indignantly.

“So? Mebby he is your horse, eh?”

Stacy admitted that it was not his horse.

“Where did you get him?” snapped the rancher.

“I helped myself to him—took him because I wanted to get away from
a bunch of ruffians.”

“Where was that?”

Stacy said he didn’t know, but that it was in the mountains on the
edge of a red gulch, and further admitted that he didn’t know much
about the country there and would feel fully as well satisfied if he
didn’t know as much as he did.

“What’s your name?”

“Name’s Brown. What’s yours?”

“I am William Crawley, the owner of this ranch, and the pony you are
on is my property. I don’t suppose there is any use in questioning
you, for a fellow who will rustle horses will lie as well as steal.
I’ll hear what you have to say, however.”

“If you don’t mind, suppose you untie me and let me get down. I
don’t like to be hung up this way ’cause it gets tiresome.”

“I reckon you will have plenty of time to rest, young fellow,”
answered the rancher, grinning sardonically. “Let him down. Has he
guns on him?”

A member of the party said that they had taken his weapons from the
boy, and explained in detail how they happened to discover him
helping himself to food in the chuck-house up on the range, to all
of which Rancher Crawley listened attentively. He turned to Stacy
again.

“Tell me what you wish about yourself and I’ll listen,” he said.

“What’s the use? You won’t believe me,” protested Stacy.

“As you wish. It doesn’t make much difference what you say. You will
have to tell your story to the sheriff at Carrago, for we’re going
to send a man for him today.”

“I belong to the Overland Riders. We ride somewhere every summer,”
began Stacy hurriedly. “This summer we chose the Bad Lands in the
Cosos, but I reckon that, had we known how bad they are, we should
have stayed away. We have been hanging out with Joe Bindloss, and
the rest of my party is over there now. We have a camp pitched just
back of his house where the garden ought to be, but isn’t.”

“How about it, Skip?” interrupted the rancher, turning to one of his
men. “You was over there this morning.”

The man replied that there was no camp back of Bindloss’s house, and
that, further, no one was there when he dropped in.

Bill Crawley smiled sarcastically.

“You see! A hoss thief can’t tell the truth,” he reiterated.

“Neither can some other people,” flung back Chunky heatedly. “I’m
telling you the truth, and I don’t care whether you believe me or
not, but if you are half so smart as you think you are you will know
that I am telling no lies. I don’t have to be a horse thief. I’ve
got money, I’d have you know.”

“Most hoss thieves have,” agreed one of the cowpunchers. “What were
you doing in the mountains alone?”

Stacy, though weary and out of patience with all this, explained
that while out with Bindloss’s men on the round-up, he was roped and
carried into the mountains where he was held prisoner while a gang
of rustlers tried to get his companions to pay a ransom for him. He
told about the carrier pigeons, and the money that the ruffians had
collected by means of the birds. As he talked the grins on the faces
of the cowpunchers grew broader. They had never heard a fairy tale
quite so ingenious. Bill Crawley’s face wore an expression of
weariness.

“Young fellow, I’ve heard some liars in my time, but you win!” he
declared. “Take him over to the hay barn and lock him in. If he
tries to get out, shoot him!”

“If you were alone with me you wouldn’t dare say that, you bluffer!”
retorted Chunky, his cheeks flushing with anger.

“What’s that you say?” demanded the rancher, taking a step toward
the boy, his chin thrust out belligerently.

“Oh, nothing much,” muttered Stacy. “I reckon I was talking in my
sleep.”

“Lock him up. And, Skip! Get a bite to eat, then hit the trail for
Carrago. You ought to get back some time tomorrow forenoon, but
bring the sheriff with you. We’ve got one of the rustlers that have
been stealing stock from us this summer, and, young fellow, we’re
going to send you to jail. You’re lucky that you aren’t shot!” was
Crawley’s parting word.

Stacy was yanked nearly off his feet by a cowpuncher and hauled
protesting to the barn, a structure that was built with the idea of
keeping thieves from stealing from it. He was thrown violently to
the floor as his jailer hurled him into the place, and the door was
slammed behind him and locked.

There were tears of anger in the eyes of the fat boy as he sat up
and rubbed himself.

“I wish I had a gun! Oh, I wish I had a gun!” he raged.

After the peak of his rage had been passed, Stacy began to take
account of his surroundings. On either side of him were huge mows of
hay already laid up for the stock that would have to be wintered on
the ranch, but finally, weariness overcoming him, the Overland boy
stretched out on the barn floor and went to sleep. He did not awaken
until twilight when a boot, coming into violent contact with his
person, brought him up, once more in a belligerent mood.

“Heah’s yer chuck,” announced the cowpuncher. “I hope it chokes ye!”
added the man, backing out and locking the door.

The sight of food made Stacy forget his troubles for the time being,
and he helped himself freely of the liberal meal. Upon second
thought, the boy stowed part of the food in his pockets, thinking it
might be useful later on, for he had hopes of making his escape.

After finishing his meal he climbed the ladder to the top of the hay
loft and floundered about in the faint light for some time, hoping
to find a window. There was none. Getting down, he tried the mow on
the other side of the barn, but with no better results, whereupon
Chunky returned to the floor and sat down, head in hands.

“Tomorrow, if I am here, I’ll be on my way to jail,” he reflected.
“Of course it will all come out right. They won’t keep me there
long, but I don’t like the idea of going to jail when there is so
much going on over in the valley. Besides, a fellow doesn’t get very
good food in these western jails, so I’ve heard. I’ve got to get out
of here. That’s flat!”

The Overland boy got up and leaned against the hay wagon that stood
on the barn floor. One hand came in contact with one of the pins,
oak pins about a yard long, that keep the hay on the rack when
loading. He pulled the pin out and felt over its entire length. It
was smooth, worn so from long usage, and the feel of it was good to
Stacy Brown. It was something that might be used for a weapon as
well as a tool. With it he tried to pry open the barn door, but the
door would not budge. Once more the fat boy was at the end of his
resources, but as he stood leaning against the door, he heard some
one fussing with the lock.

Stacy was instantly on the alert as some one opened the door.

“Hey, ye hoss thief! Whar be ye? The boss reckons as I’d better
start for Carrago with ye now so as to git thar in the mornin’ an’
git back in good season.”

“All right,” replied the lad, yawning.

“What you doin’ heah by the door?” demanded the man.

“Maybe I was trying to get out. What?” laughed the fat boy.

“I don’t reckon as you’ll be gittin’ out till ye go with me, an’
don’t ye try any monkeyshines, ’cause I’ve got er gun in my hand an’
I’ll use it on ye, ye cheap rustler. Git ’round in front of me whar
I kin see ye!”

“I’ll bet you I get away,” answered Chunky, “and I’ll have the law
on this outfit for what it has done to me!”

Whack! He brought the oak stick down on the head of the cowpuncher.

The fellow went down in a heap, whereupon Stacy Brown stepped out,
closed and locked the door behind him and walked calmly away.

“When I get riled I’m a pretty bad man,” admitted the Overland boy,
chuckling to himself.



CHAPTER XXI

JUDY BRINGS TIDINGS


At first the two Overland Riders in the mountain cabin thought Sam
Conifer had been mortally wounded, but after they had pulled
themselves together, washed his face and examined his wound, they
decided that it might not be so serious after all. A bullet had laid
about four inches of the forehead open, but did not seem to have
done the skull injury.

Sam was placed on blankets in the cabin, and the two Overlanders
worked over him until he regained consciousness. While they were
doing this Two-gun Pete and Idaho, rifles in hands, skulked about
outside, trying to discover the man who had fired the shot that got
Sam. Not knowing what position the old guide was standing in when
hit, they were unable to determine the direction from which the
bullet had come, and were about to return to the cabin to see if Sam
had come to, when Pete uttered a yell.

“Git down!” he shouted.

At the same instant, Idaho heard the report of a rifle and threw
himself down. Pete was already on the ground, hat in hand, and
looking at it ruefully. He held it up for his companion to see.

“Put er hole plumb through it,” he growled. “Thet miserable cayuse!
I hope I git a squint at him over the sights of my rifle. But, man,
he shore kin shoot!”

“Whar do ye think it come from?” asked Idaho Jones.

“From t’other side of the gulch. Must be usin’ a telescope rifle,
for no man with open sights could make two shots like thet. He might
do it once, but not twice. I call thet some shootin’. No wonder he
got old Sam. Ye keep watch. I’m going in to tell the Dude an’ Cap’n
Gray ’bout this heah,” announced Pete, making a run for the
protection of the rocks about the cabin.

He found Sam awake. The Overlanders had heard the shot, and met Pete
with a quick inquiry about it. Two-gun Pete exhibited his hat as the
answer to their question.

“I come in to ask ’bout Sam. I reckoned as mebby you’d like to have
somebody go down to the valley an’ git help fer him.”

“Not unless you wish to get away from here, which I don’t believe
you do,” replied Tom Gray.

“I reckon I don’t—not onless it’s to save a pard’s life. Is he bad
off—goin’ to pass in?”

“No, I ain’t, you miserable galoot!” answered Sam Conifer heatedly.
“I’m goin’ out purty soon to hunt fer a man, an’ when I finds him—”

“Not today, Samuel,” differed Hippy.

“I be!” insisted the injured man.

“I reckon what the Boss says goes ’round heah,” reminded Two-gun
Pete. “I’ll git out an’ keep watch.”

Soon after that Conifer, his head bandaged up as best the two men
could do it, went to sleep, and the Overlanders fell to considering
what they ought to do. They decided, in the first place, that Idaho
and Pete should go out and make further search for Jim, following
the direction taken by the outlaws when they rode away in such
haste. Hippy thought that he and Tom could protect their camp and
care for Sam at the same time, and perhaps, by the following day,
there would be help from the Circle O ranch.

Tom reminded him, that, not knowing where they were, no assistance
could be looked for from that direction. This had not occurred to
Hippy.

Pete and Idaho did not return until just before dark. They had found
not the slightest trace of the other guide, but they were delighted
to see Sam sitting up. Nothing had been seen of the rustlers, but
Two-gun Pete advised that the party move out of the cabin and go
into camp farther up in the mountains, as otherwise they were more
than likely to be attacked before morning.

Hippy and Tom moved Sam with some misgivings, but the old guide
stood the ride without admitting the slightest suffering because of
it. That night they made camp without building a fire, and lay down
in the open, deciding that in the morning they would return to the
cabin and again make it their headquarters while continuing the
search for Jim.

                *       *       *       *       *

In the meantime the long absence of the party was beginning to cause
the Overland girls and Bindloss some worry, for not knowing where
their companions had gone, it was not possible to get into
communication with them.

By the following morning worry had grown into genuine alarm, and
ways and means for doing something were discussed by the rancher and
his guests. No conclusion was arrived at, but shortly after luncheon
their hopes were raised by a dust cloud down the valley. The cloud
soon grew into a horse and rider, and as it neared them the rider
was recognized as Judy. She was coming fast—her mustang running at
top speed.

“Judy’s excited about something,” said Bindloss, a frown wrinkling
his forehead.

The same thought was in the mind of each Overland Rider. Perhaps
Judy was bringing news from the party that went in search of Stacy
and Jim.

The mountain girl indulged in no fancy horsemanship that afternoon.
She rode straight up to the porch of the ranch-house and threw
herself from the saddle.

“Give me a drink of water. I’ve swallered a quart of dust,” was her
greeting.

“Is—is anything wrong?” begged Nora.

“Mebby everythin’ is. Hello, Pap Bindloss. Ain’t grown any better
lookin’ since I was here, be you?”

“What’s the matter, Judy?” he asked, ignoring her fling at him. “I
know something is wrong.”

She gave him a quick flashing look.

“You see too dad-gasted much for an old man. Ah-h-h-h! That water
tastes good. Where’s yer folks, Miss Gray?” she asked casually, and
emptied the glass of water.

“They went into the mountains to look for Stacy Brown and Jim. We
haven’t seen them since, and we are worried,” replied Grace.

“A-huh! How’d they know whar to go?”

No one answered, and Judy gave them a quick searching look.

“Tryin’ to hide up on me, eh? Wal, I don’t reckon as it’s any good
for you to do so, ’cause mebby I can tell ye some things that may be
good fer ye to know.”

“You know something about them, Judy?” demanded Miss Briggs.

“A-huh. Did they go up to Red Gulch?”

“Yes, yes!” cried the girls in chorus. “Judy, do you know where that
place is?” questioned Emma.

“Reckon I could find it if I tried, but I don’t reckon whether I
want to try or not. It’s a long, hard hike up thar, and thar won’t
be no picnic when you get thar. My Pap says it ain’t a fit place fer
folks to be, but Pap was mad with me afore he went away this mornin’
and threatened to give me a punch in the jaw, but he changed his
mind when I pulled my gun and told him to try it. Wal, Pap didn’t.
He went away madder’n a busting bronco. Said he wouldn’t be back fer
a few days. He said some things ’bout ye folks that I don’t ’low
nobody to say ’bout my friends, an’ I said so right out in meetin’,
and added a few other things, and that started the row. Say, I got
some news fer you folks.”

“Then for heaven’s sake tell it!” begged Emma. “You are killing us
with suspense.”

“I reckoned that way,” nodded the girl. “Wal, I heard it this
mornin’ fer the first time, ’bout your folks goin’ up in the
mountains, and why they went thar and all ’bout it. Funny, wasn’t
it, that I should hear it? I ain’t going to tell you whar I heard
it, but I did. You don’t reckon anythin’ happened to them, do you,
Pap Bindloss?”

“Judy, I think you can answer that question, and that you have come
here to help my friends,” replied the rancher.

“Fer why do ye think that?”

The rancher pointed to the rifle in Judy’s saddle boot.

“Are you going hunting, Judy?” he asked significantly.

Judy flushed and turned to the girls.

“I reckon I better tell ye now what I come heah to say—what I heard
this mornin’. Wal, it was this way: Your folks and some rustlers had
a fight in the mountains last night. It warn’t much of a fight, but
I heard that Sam Conifer had been killed and thet Miss Gray’s
husband and Hippy had been shot and that there was liable to be
trouble at Red Gulch, and I reckoned that I was your friend and that
you folks needed a friend right now, and that’s why Judy Hornby is
heah.”

Nora Wingate, uttering a moan, toppled over in a swoon, the other
Overland girls gazing at the mountain girl in a stunned sort of way,
while Judy fumbled awkwardly with her sombrero.



CHAPTER XXII

RIDERS OF THE NIGHT


No heed was given to Nora Wingate’s faint, and for several seconds
no one spoke.

“Gosh a-mighty!” exploded Joe Bindloss.

“Judy, are you positive that your information is correct?” asked
Grace in a voice well under control.

“Ain’t positive of nothin’. Be you?”

Grace shook her head and smiled faintly.

“Mr. Bindloss, of course we shall have to go. None of us can stay
back now. Judy, will you guide us to the Red Gulch section?”

“That’s what I’m heah for, Miss Gray. I reckoned as you’d be doin’
jest that. If I had a man I’ll bet I’d hit the trail fer him when I
heard he was in a mess. How did yours ever git up to Red Gulch?”

“He followed the pigeons,” answered Grace.

“A-huh!”

Joe Bindloss, at this juncture, announced his intention of
accompanying the Overlanders into the mountains. He did not know
where Red Gulch was, but if Judy said she knew, that settled it. The
girls brightened at his suggestion, and Nora sat up pale and
trembling, asking what had happened.

She was told that she had fainted. Grace turned to Judy and asked if
they were to start at once, but the mountain girl shook her head.

“We got to wait till night and make a night ride,” she said. “Pap
Bindloss knows why.”

“Oh, I can’t wait!” wailed Nora.

“Judy is right,” spoke up the ranchman. “Besides, we have some
things to do here. I can’t spare any men from the range, so we shall
have to do the work ourselves. We must break your camp and store
your equipment, for the rustlers will discover, after we leave here,
that the ranch is unguarded and come down on it. Understand?”

Grace nodded. Judy tethered her pony and announced that she would
assist them, and the work of striking the Overland camp began. The
equipment was packed for moving, but instead of being lashed to the
backs of mustangs, Joe Bindloss carted it to the ranch-house on his
buckboard. The work took a good part of the afternoon, following
which the rancher rode out to his nearest grazing grounds where he
acquainted one of his foremen with the situation.

Judy Hornby not only did her share of the work, but kept up the
spirits of her companions with quaint sayings and sharp-witted
replies to questions.

Food sufficient for their needs was packed, and by supper time all
was in readiness for the start. Before leaving, the mountain girl
and the rancher held a brief consultation, at which she told him of
her plan. Bindloss agreed to it. Up to this time Judy had given her
friends no further information as to the source of the news that had
come to her, though occasional attempts had been made by Grace and
Elfreda to draw it from her.

The start was made shortly after dark, the riders setting out in
pairs at some little distance apart. Judy kept to the base of the
foothills where the mountains cast a heavy shadow so that the
movements of the party could not be seen from the valley in the
light of the new moon. Instead of riding directly into the hills,
the mountain girl rode parallel with them for fully five miles.
Grace asked her why she did this instead of taking the direct line
that had been followed by the carrier pigeons.

“Mebby that trail is watched,” answered Judy. “We got to go ’round
and come up by a longer way. You folks leave that to me. I ain’t
sayin’ that we ain’t goin’ to be caught, but if we are we got rifles
and I knows how to use mine.”

“So do we,” returned Grace. “I hope it may not be necessary,
though.”

Finally a sharp turn into the mountains was made, and for a mile or
two Judy followed a gash in the hills.

“We got to climb now,” finally announced their guide, and it proved
to be a real climb. A brief halt was made to rest the animals, after
which the journey was resumed. The going from there on was over
rough ground, and it was a marvel to the Overland Riders how Judy
Hornby picked her way in the darkness and kept in the right
direction.

As a matter of fact Judy was using the stars for her guide, which
enabled her to follow the general direction in which she wanted to
go.

Another halt was made at midnight. The girls were shivering, and
Emma asked if they could not build a fire and warm up.

“No! You’ll git warmed up before you git through with this,”
answered Judy. “Might git warm most any time now.”

No halt was made from that time until just at break of day. Then
Judy left the party for half an hour to take an observation. She
returned briskly and announced that they could make a small fire and
have coffee, but she built the fire herself, being careful not to
make enough smoke to attract attention.

“Folks, we aire within a mile of the Red Gulch, and I reckon you
better keep your eyes open from now on. I’ll ride on ahead, so watch
me. Pap Bindloss, you watch the sides and the trail behind. Nobody
do any loud talkin’,” advised Judy, after they had warmed their
hands by the little cook-fire, and drunk their hot coffee. All
mounted and rode away much refreshed, and with a gentle glow now
suffusing their bodies.

The Overlanders now observed that Judy had unlimbered her rifle, so
they did the same, carrying their weapons resting across their
saddles, gun butts to the right. Judy wound in and out among the
rocks and trees, sometimes being out of sight for a moment or two,
then coming into view again, until finally she held up her hand and
sat listening. The others halted near where her pony stood nibbling
at the green leaves within its reach.

“You all stay right heah. I’m going on to scout ’round a little.
Pap, you stay with the girls.” Judy tossed her bridle-rein to him
and slid from her saddle, taking her rifle with her. She was out of
sight in a few moments, and the Overland Riders sat in uneasy
silence straining their ears for warning sounds.

When Judy returned her face wore a perplexed expression.

“Folks, they ain’t there.”

“Aren’t where?” asked Miss Briggs.

“Whar they was supposed to be. I got a good look at the cabin, but
couldn’t see nobody, an’ couldn’t find any ponies anywhar ’bout,
though I see whar they’d been tethered. Would you folks know the
tracks of yer horses?”

Grace said she did not think they would, not having had these
animals long enough to be familiar with them.

“I can pick ’em out,” volunteered Bindloss.

“Good! Come with me. You folks kin ride up so you kin see the place
whar the cabin is an’—”

“What cabin?” questioned Emma.

“One of the places whar the rustlers hang out, an’ whar I reckons
that battle was fought. But you got to keep quiet.”

Bindloss dismounted and followed the girl, leaving the Overlanders
alone and very much worried. The couple were gone for some time;
then the Riders saw them returning, the rancher striding rapidly
along, Judy following him thoughtfully.

“They’ve gone, folks!” he announced. “Neither hide nor hair of them
left. I got into the cabin, and there was bullet holes, fresh ones,
showing that there had been some shooting there. I reckon there was
blood on the floor. It looked like it.”

“Anything else?” asked Grace, regarding him keenly.

“Nothing like what you mean,” answered Bindloss understandingly. “I
found the tracks of my ponies, and we ain’t far from their trail
right this minute. It looks to me as if your party has headed for
home, and Judy agrees with me. There was five ponies in that bunch
and they was all mine. That looks mighty queer to me.”

“Is it not possible that it was not our friends who were riding the
animals?” asked Miss Briggs.

“I reckon so,” returned the rancher absently. “However, there’s only
one thing for us to do, and that is to follow the tracks and watch
out.”

While he was speaking, Judy had started off on foot. She was gone
for some time. Upon her return she announced that she had picked up
the trail, and mounting, she directed her companions to fall in
behind her. Bindloss rode a little to one side of the mountain girl,
and in a few minutes she pointed out the trail to him. He got down
to examine it, and said the faint hoof-prints were those of ponies
from his corral.

From that time on fairly rapid progress was made, until the trail
grew more difficult to follow. There were straggling cedars about
them and on beyond a forest of pines that formed a great green
canopy. The season had been dry and the long mountain grass under
the sun’s rays had burned to a dull brown, but the grass was tough
and traveling through it made it necessary for the ponies to lift
their feet high, giving a jolting effect to the riders that was
extremely trying.

Bindloss suddenly halted.

“I hear shooting!” he exclaimed.

“So do I,” agreed Grace.

The reports sounded far away, but Bindloss and Judy knew that the
firing was not so far away as the Overlanders believed.

“Do you know where you are—do you know the mountains here?” asked
the rancher.

Judy shook her head and said she had never been so far into the
mountain country before, but that she had a general idea of where
they were. Suddenly she wheeled her pony and started away towards
the scene of the firing, as well as she was able to locate it. The
others followed, each with straining ears and tingling nerves. They
were soon rewarded by the realization that they were rapidly
approaching the gunfire. Bindloss halted them with a gesture, and
sat listening. The party was only now at the edge of the pine forest
along which they had been skirting, but there were pines to the
right and left of them, beautiful, fragrant pines, nodding to the
stiff mountain breeze that was blowing. The wind died down, then
sprang up again from a different direction.

Judy’s mustang whirled, threw up its head and snorted, and the pony
ridden by the rancher began to buck under the restraining grip on
the bridle-rein and sundry jabs from the spur, while the mounts of
the Overlanders showed signs of panic.

A moment more and every mustang in the party was sniffing the air
and snorting. Bindloss, leaning forward in his saddle, gazing back
over the ground that they had covered, saw that a curtain of bluish
shade had been drawn over their late trail. The curtain was
quivering, punctuated here and there by faint spurts of red.

Judy Hornby’s mustang uttered a whistling blast of fear, and reared
on its hind legs.

“Fire!” cried the mountain girl. “They’ve set the grass on fire!”

“Ride!” yelled Joe Bindloss. “It’s coming fast!”



CHAPTER XXIII

RACING WITH DEATH


None knew better than the rancher and the mountain girl the peril
that lay behind that waving, quivering blue haze. The only avenue
open to them lay by way of the dark aisles between the pines, for
the blue haze, as they quickly discovered, had crept up on either
side as well as to the rear of them.

“Into the forest!” shouted Bindloss, giving his pony rein, while
Judy held in her bucking mount until her companions got under way.

The Overland girls were too frightened to start, but their mustangs,
taking matters into their own hands, lunged forward and were in
amongst the pines a few seconds later, dodging here and there to
avoid trees, until their riders were clinging with knees and hands
to keep from being unseated.

A thin streak of yellow smoke wriggled overhead, followed by a
crackling, hissing sound, and the wind whipping in the tree tops
carried the smoke on ahead. The fire had overtaken them, had run up
the trunks of the trees at the edge of the forest, and was leaping
from tree to tree over the heads of the Overland Riders, while here
and there to the rear great pines exploded with terrifying sounds.

The Overland Riders, despite their torturing fear, were thrilled.
The blood beat in their temples and their hearts were pounding. They
began to understand what this race meant—it was a race with death,
and its long arms were waving above them waiting to swoop down and
enfold its victims.

“Faster!” Judy’s shrill command was plainly heard above the roar.
She turned in her saddle and beckoned to her companions, not certain
that they had heard. It was then she saw that the haze was
enveloping them and that the outlines of horses and riders were
growing fainter. Judy reined in her mount and waited.

“Ride faster! Use the spur! Drive ’em! Drive ’em!” she yelled as the
girls swept past her, each one now urging on her mount with sharp
cries. The riders now plainly felt the heat, the breath of the fire
on their cheeks. So did the horses feel it, and they were frantic.

The tough little mustangs as they swept on needed no urging. They
were giving all that was in them to save their own lives, but it
seemed to be an unequal battle. The Overland Riders were not
panic-stricken, but a great fear was in their hearts, yet not one
gave way to her feelings. Perhaps it was because they had no time to
do so, for it required close attention to prevent being unhorsed as
their ponies made sudden swerves to avoid fallen trees or low
hanging branches. The Overland girls were thus kept fully occupied,
and it was plain to Judy Hornby that they were in no danger of
losing their heads.

Above the noise, she and Bindloss again heard the crack of rifles.
It was a scattering fire, but it was fast. Occasionally an interval
would occur, during which the firing seemed to cease, to be resumed
again a moment later.

“They are riding ahead of us. Look out!” shouted the rancher,
swerving close to the mountain girl.

Judy nodded, and spurred on until she was abreast of the racing pony
of Elfreda Briggs, who had lost her hat, and whose hair was whipping
in the air behind her.

“Something going on ahead! Watch out! Watch me fer orders. Tell the
others. I got to git ahead ag’in,” directed Judy.

Elfreda shouted the message to Grace, and Grace passed it to the
girl nearest to her, which proved to be Emma. Nora was too far to
one side to be reached, but her pony could be trusted to follow the
others if any radical change of direction were taken.



[Illustration: “Ride Faster! Drive ’Em!”]



Daylight suddenly showed faintly through the haze—the light of an
open space. Joe Bindloss uttered a yell, hoping that they might
there find rock footing and an end of the fire. Instead, his mustang
burst out into a vast brown field, a grazing ground many acres in
extent, from which rugged passes branched out in the distance.

As the riders emerged close on the heels of the rancher and Judy, a
scene met their gaze that thrilled them anew.

Two bodies of horsemen, like themselves, were fleeing from the fire,
which for some unknown reason had not yet leaped into the brown
grass of the grazing range, and as they rode, both bodies of men
were shooting.

It was a battle, a running battle with rifles.

Judy in one quick glance comprehended the situation and she saw more
than did any others of her party. She knew the men off there were
part of the band of rustlers who for so long had been a thorn in the
side of all honest ranchers in the two great grazing valleys of the
Cosos. She saw more than that—the verification of suspicions that
she had harbored for some time, but that had crystallized only
twenty-four hours before.

At about the same instant the Overlanders also made a discovery. The
party of horsemen directly in front of them were quickly identified.

“It’s the boys!” screamed Nora.

“Ain’t dead, neither,” cried Joe Bindloss.

The Overland Riders pulled down their ponies.

“Keep going!” roared Bindloss.

“If we do we shall be shot!” wailed Nora.

“If you don’t you’ll be roasted!” retorted the old ranchman.

It was a difficult choice. To go forward meant that the Overland
party would place themselves directly in the line of fire of the
mountain ruffians, but to hold back meant that the forest fire in a
few moments would be sweeping over the field. They decided to go
forward, and in a moment their ponies were racing towards Tom Gray
and his companions.

The fire was now roaring across the brown meadow. The Overland men
saw it and began drawing in on the rustlers, driving at them in an
oblique line, firing as they put their ponies at top speed. The
girls followed at one side of the line of fire, hoping thereby to
escape being hit.

A rustler toppled from his saddle. At the same instant Idaho Jones
swayed uncertainly in his, but quickly recovered and again began
working his rifle. Those who saw his hesitation knew that he had
been hit.

The rustlers were now in a thick haze, and were giving ground as the
ranchmen and Overland men bore down on them, pouring a heavy rifle
fire into the closely bunched outlaws. They saw the rustlers whirl
about facing their assailants to make a stand, but the firing was
too hot for them and they fled. A mighty yell rose from the rustlers
as all but two of them suddenly disappeared from sight as if the
earth had swallowed them. It was then that the pursuers discovered
that their adversaries had gained rocky ground. No forest fire could
reach them there.

The two men who were still in view pulled their ponies to their
haunches and swung about facing each other. The pursuers were amazed
to see both men draw their weapons and begin shooting at each other.

The Overland men and ranchmen instantly ceased firing, but continued
on at full speed, for the flames were rapidly sweeping down on them.
They had not yet discovered the presence of Judy and the Overland
girls, but Judy had discovered that safety from the fire lay at the
far side of the field, so waving a hand for her companions to follow
she headed towards the scene of the savage duel.

“Oh, it is awful!” cried Emma as her pony streaked past Miss Briggs
and Grace.

Judy was laying her crop over the flank of her mustang and uttering
shrill cries to urge him on, and the first intimation that the
ranchmen had of the presence of the Overland girls was when Judy
flashed by them towards the duelists.

“Kill ’im, Pap!” she yelled.

“It’s Mex!” shouted Sam Conifer.

At this juncture the Overland girls caught up with the pursuers and
dashed to safety on the rocky ground. As they reached it Miss
Briggs’ pony went down and Grace’s mustang leaped clear over her and
her mount before she could check him. Tom Gray hurried to the rescue
of Elfreda.

“You here?” he cried.

The roar of the fire, as it swept past over the brown meadow,
smothered the words.

One duelist, at this juncture, was seen to sway in his saddle, and
at the same instant the other plunged headlong to the ground. The
first man’s pony jumped and he too was unhorsed, then both duelists
laboriously raised themselves to their elbows, and the duel was
resumed. At the second exchange of shots, one sank back and lay
still.

Judy jumped her pony forward, and throwing herself from the saddle
ran to the living man and pillowed his head in her lap.

“Gosh a-mighty!” roared Bindloss.

The men of the ranch party were on the scene in a few seconds, but
still being ignorant of the cause of the sudden disappearance of the
body of rustlers kept their weapons at ready. Some of them now rode
cautiously forward to see what had become of the missing men.

“Stop!” shouted Two-gun Pete. “I know whar they’ve went to. The gang
forgot ’bout the gulch thar, if they knowed ’bout it at all.
Leastwise, they didn’t see it in the smoke till it war too late, an’
over they went. They won’t rustle no more steers, I reckons, bad
luck to ’em.”

The whole party was now gathered about the mountain girl. The dead
man, those who now knew him, was identified as Mexican Charlie.

“It’s Pap,” said Judy when they peered down into the face of the man
whose head lay in her lap. She gazed up at the Overland girls with a
pitiful look in her face.

Hornby opened his eyes, recognized her and began to speak.

“That’s all right, Pap. Don’t say it,” begged Judy.

“I got ter talk, Kid. I’m sorry I made ye mad yesterday. I told ye
thet them friends of yours war shot at Red Gulch ’cause I knew the
rest of their gang would be up heah, an’ we’d git ’em all. I wish we
had! I wish we had, but the boys got looney ’cause your friends
could shoot better’n they could, and ran over the edge.”

“Why did you an’ Mex fight, Pap?” asked Judy.

“’Cause he said I’d double-crossed him, an’ sent his gang to death
to git rid of ’em, too. Then we fit. He set the fire, but I told him
to.”

“Oh, Pap! How could you? These folks ain’t never meant you no harm.
They ain’t done nothin’ but fight when you made ’em,” protested the
mountain girl.

“Yes, they did! They come up heah lookin’ fer trouble. They wanted
to drive us out er business. I know ’cause I had it from a feller
who knowed. An’ ye helped ’em, Judy!” he exclaimed, blazing up into
her face with something of the old fire in his eyes.

“You bet I did, Pap. My friends is my friends, an’ I’d do it ag’in,”
she answered calmly.

“I don’t bear ye no grudge fer thet now, Kid, ’cause it’s too late.
I got mine this time, an’ I’m goin’ out the way I always reckoned I
would, with my boots on an’ facin’ the crack o’ the guns.”

As he talked, Hornby’s voice grew halting, and there were pauses of
a few seconds between words. It was plain to all that he was
weakening fast.

“May I try to do something for him, Judy?” begged Miss Briggs
gently, as she bent over the wounded rustler.

“_No!_” Hornby put all the strength that he could summon into that
one word. “Ye been lookin’ fer the man who war the leader of the
rustlers. Heah he is! I’m thet man, and as it’s my dyin’ words, I
beat ’em all at the game. Git ba—ack thar!” The rustler groped with
uncertain fingers for his weapon, whereupon Judy laid a firm hand on
his arm.

“No, Pap! You’ve done enough,” rebuked the girl. “You’ve said
enough, too, an’ Judy Hornby never again kin hold her head up nor
look honest folks in the face. They’ll say her Pap was a rustler
an’—an’—”

“Judy! Please don’t,” begged Grace. “He is dying!”

“I—I reckon you’re right.” Judy fell to stroking the outlaw’s hair.
“That’s all right, Pap. You’re my Pap. Miss Gray is right.”

“No! I got ter tell ye while I can. Judy, I ain’t yer Pap. Nor yer
mother warn’t yer mother. I stole ye when ye war a little thing
cause the man who was yer Pap had done me dirt. We raised ye, an’
Judy, we havin’ no children of our own, begun to like ye fer yerself
an’ we kept ye, though at first we didn’t reckon on doin’ jest that.
We reckoned on gettin rid—”

“No—ot my Pap?” stammered the girl. “Who, then—who is my Pap?”
cried Judy. “Tell me! Ye got ter tell me! Who is my Pap?” Her voice
rose threateningly, then sank almost to a whisper. “Pap, dear! Who
is my real Pap?”

“He—he—he war—”

The voice grew faint, and though the girl bent her ear close to the
lips of the dying man, she failed to catch the whispered words, and
the secret that Malcolm Hornby had kept for so many years died with
him there by the scorched meadows of the Cosos over which, like a
shroud, hung a suffocating pall of yellow smoke.

Old Joe Bindloss lifted the little mountain girl to her feet, and,
with hands on her shoulders, brought her face to face with him.

“I ain’t got no Pap now,” she murmured. “I ain’t got no friends, no
nothin’ that a girl wants so much.”

Grace Harlowe slipped an arm about her.

“Yes, you have, Judy. We are your friends, now and always,” said
Grace gently. “And I think you have a Pap that you haven’t reckoned
on,” she added, nodding towards Joe Bindloss.

For a moment the old rancher and the mountain girl stood gazing into
each other’s eyes, then he drew her, unresisting, to him and lightly
touched her forehead with his lips.

“Oh, Pap!” sobbed Judy, her arms slipping about the neck of Old Joe
Bindloss as she buried her head on his shoulder.



CHAPTER XXIV

FAREWELL TO THE COSOS


The Overland Riders and the men from the Circle O ranch walked to
the edge of the precipice and looked down. The girls shivered and
quickly turned, facing the other way, while the men gazed solemnly
into the abyss.

“How’dy, folks,” greeted Jim. “Ain’t seen ye fer a week o’ Sundays.
Ye see that no ’count pard o’ mine got his’n,” he chuckled, nodding
at Sam, whose head was still swathed in bandages.

“Yes, but what happened to you?” questioned Emma. “It would appear
that you too got something.”

Jim explained that he had been roped from his pony, carried into the
mountains and secreted in a cave where the pigeon cotes were
located. It was the wire-covered pigeon-yard just outside of the
cave, well masked with foliage, that the Overland men and the
ranchers, in their hunt for Jim, had stumbled upon, and that led to
finding the missing guide. That was where the outlaws caught them,
and, had not the men from the ranch been on the alert, would have
made a quick finish of them.

Tom told the Overlanders of Sam’s battle with the rustlers in the
mountain cabin, of the further search for Jim, and of the
culminating experience when a running battle with the rustlers was
engaged in.

“Stacy!” cried Nora in sudden recollection. In the excitement of
that memorable morning she had forgotten about the fat boy.

“He got away the night we come up heah,” Sam Conifer informed her.
“I reckons he’s got home afore this, an’ that he’ll stay thar. They
was goin’ to drop him into Red Gulch, an’ I reckon he thought it war
time to leave.”

At this juncture, Miss Briggs asked permission to look at the wounds
of the party. Sam’s wounds were doing well, but needed professional
care, which Elfreda gave to them on the spot. She next dressed Idaho
Jones’ arm, which was bleeding from a bullet wound. Barring a few
slight flesh wounds where bullets had narrowly missed doing serious
injury, the other fighters were unharmed.

“You now have the whole story,” announced Tom Gray, as she finished.
“The rustlers, thanks to their own carelessness, have taken a bad
job out of our hands.”

“What a terrible death!” breathed Grace. “What about these?” she
added, pointing to Mexican Charlie and Malcolm Hornby. “Shall I
consult Judy about—about her fa—about Hornby?”

Tom shook his head.

“You girls go on and take care of her. We will do all that is
necessary to be done,” he made reply.

The Overland girls returned to Bindloss and the mountain girl, who
was clinging to the hand of the old rancher, a deep pallor showing
under the tan on her face. Emma slipped a hand into hers, and Judy
turned a wan face to the little Overland girl, but the face wore a
faint smile.

“It’s all fixed, Emma,” she said, nodding. “I’m Judy Bindloss now.
Leastwise I’m goin’ to be as soon as my new Pap kin git the papers
made out. I don’t see no reason fer doin’ that, do you?”

Miss Briggs, as a lawyer, tried to explain to her why it was very
necessary, but the mountain girl shook her head.

“He’s my Pap. It seems like he always was and no papers can’t make
him more so. Pap, let’s go home.”

The ponies were led along for some distance, to give them rest while
the party were talking, and for the further purpose of giving the
men back there opportunity to do their work and join the Overland
Riders.

The party finally being complete, Pete led the way across the
blackened landscape to the old cabin. Reaching there, they laid up
for a rest, and after luncheon Judy told them the story of her
father, Malcolm Hornby, so far as she knew it.

Certain recent occurrences had made her suspect that Hornby was in
league with the rustlers, but the night before she brought warning
to the Overland girls that Tom and Hippy were wounded, she heard a
conversation between her father and Mexican Charlie in which her
suspicion became a certainty. From that conversation she learned
that much stock had been stolen from Bindloss, and that by making a
“Q” out of the Circle O ranch brand and adding another “Q,” the
marking conformed with Hornby’s brand, after which the stolen cattle
were added to his own herd. He had, with the assistance of the
mountain ruffians, carried on wholesale thievery in two great
valleys for several years and made money. His reward had been reaped
that day, and it had been coming for some time, because Mexican
Charlie and he were rapidly nearing the breaking point just before
the last attack on the Overland Riders, who were the indirect cause
of breaking up the gang of mountain ruffians.

That there were others of the gang still at large the ranchmen knew,
but Judy could give them no information on this point. It was
decided, therefore, to ask the aid of the sheriff and his deputies,
as well as that of other ranchers, to form a big party and comb the
mountains for the other ruffians, who, now that the backbone of the
band had been broken, could be driven more easily from that region,
and perhaps some of them captured.

In the early afternoon the journey home was begun. Judy did not
accompany them all the way, saying that she wished to stop at her
former home and get some personal belongings, she promising to ride
back to the Circle O ranch on the following morning. Judy wished to
be alone that night, and the Overland girls, at least, understood.

Circle O was reached before dark, and Stacy Brown, who had gained
entrance to the ranch-house, which he had reached only a few hours
before, met them at the door. The “fat boy” was thin, there were
hollows in his cheeks, and a livid mark on the left cheek where a
bullet had left its trail.

Stacy had been hunted all the way across the mountains, and shot at
on several occasions, but had always outwitted his pursuers until
finally they gave up the man-hunt and returned to the Diamond Bar
ranch. Hungry and worn out and after considerable suffering he
finally reached Circle O only to find it deserted and the Overland
camp broken up.

Now, however, that the opportunity was at hand to glorify his own
achievements, Stacy Brown made the most of it, and out in the yard
in front of the ranch-house, he declaimed loudly on his own prowess
in fooling his pursuers.

Stacy was still engaged in this before an interested audience when a
rider approached from the valley, but no one gave heed to him,
believing him to be one of Bindloss’s men. The rider dismounted at
the stable and walked towards the group, his eyes fixed on Chunky.
He halted just behind the boy and stood regarding him frowningly.

“Well, sir, what is it?” demanded Joe Bindloss sharply.

Stacy, in the midst of a loud boast, turned to look at the man
behind him. The words died on his lips as he came face to face with
the newcomer. It was Skip, the fellow on whose head Stacy had
brought down the wagon stake at the Diamond Bar ranch.

The Overland boy’s face grew a shade paler, and he made a move as if
to run, but the pressure of a revolver against his stomach sent the
shivers up and down his back and literally froze him.

“Here! Here!” roared Joe Bindloss. “What do ye mean?”

“This feller’s a hoss thief. We kotched him on a hoss that had been
rustled from the Diamond Bar ranch. He got away by cloutin’ me over
the haid. We follered, but he was too slippery fer us. I been
lookin’ fer him ever since, an’ now I’ve got him!”

“Put down thet gun, pard!” drawled Sam Conifer, and Skip found
himself gazing at the muzzle of the old guide’s weapon. “Put it
down, I says!”

The caller shoved his weapon into its holster, and Stacy Brown drew
a long breath of relief and then quickly stepped back a few paces.

“This man is no more a thief than you are!” exploded Bindloss. “He
is one of my friends, and that’s all there is to it.”

“I got to take him back,” persisted Skip stubbornly.

“Listen to me, young fellow!” commanded Bindloss, who thereupon
repeated the story that Chunky had told them, adding further
information of his own.

“Thet’s what the critter told us back at the ranch. We reckoned he
lied, an’ I reckon so too.”

“Drop thet talk!” warned Sam Conifer.

Joe Bindloss after some farther argument told the visitor that he
would write a letter to Bill Crawley, owner of the Diamond Bar
ranch, fully explaining the matter, but in no circumstances would
Skip be permitted to take Stacy with him.

“And that’s flat!” finished the rancher sternly.

“Thet’s all right, Boss, but what ’bout this?” he demanded,
exhibiting the lump that Stacy had left on the top of his head. “I
got ter have satersfaction fer thet, I reckon.”

“I’ll hit it again if you say so,” offered Stacy, but the boy met a
quick rebuke from his companions.

“Look here, my man! How much do you want for satisfaction?”
interjected Tom Gray.

“Wal, I reckon ’bout two bucks’ll satersfy me,” answered Skip,
tenderly caressing the lump.

“Stacy, shell out! Give the man two dollars,” ordered Lieutenant
Wingate. Stacy demurred, but there was no avoiding payment. He tried
to borrow the money, but not one of the Overlanders would give him a
cent, so Stacy Brown reluctantly parted with two silver dollars.

The letter was written by Grace at Bindloss’s dictation, and half an
hour later Skip headed back towards the Diamond Bar ranch, not only
with the letter and two silver dollars in his pocket, but with a
request from Bindloss that Bill Crawley and his men join with the
Circle O men in making a final drive on the rustlers.

It was early to bed that night at the Circle O, for all hands were
worn out. On the following morning the girls had a long talk with
Joe Bindloss. It was decided that the Overlanders should remain at
the ranch while the ranchers drove out the last of the rustlers.

Judy came in in time for luncheon that day. The girls saw that she
had been weeping, but made no comment. It was then that they
broached the subject that had been discussed with Judy’s new “Pap.”
Grace and Elfreda wished to take her back east with them and show
her some of the world that she had so often dreamed of seeing.

At first Judy was obdurate, but the thought grew and Bindloss urged,
so, before the departure of the Overlanders two weeks later, Judy
had said “yes.”

The drive of the ranchers proved successful in ridding the Cosos of
rustlers, though only one man was captured. The others had fled,
following the disaster to Hornby and his immediate gang, and the
drive of the ranchers.

The journey of the Overland party, following the recovery of Hippy
and Sam from their wounds, lasted until mid-September when the great
day in Judy’s life arrived. The Overland Riders had returned to the
ranch to pick her up, and to arrange for returning Joe Bindloss’s
ponies to him at the railroad station, and, after a day’s rest at
the ranch-house, they set out for the east—and home. Judy wavered
at the last moment, but finally rode away with her friends, waving
her sombrero to the rugged old rancher, and trying to laugh through
her tears. The world that Judy had so yearned for lay just before
her, and after a winter with the Overland girls she was destined to
return much benefited in every way, but with a fuller realization
that her duty to herself and to her new “Pap” lay in the beautiful
Valley of the Cosos.

There was still a large measure of adventure before Grace Harlowe
and her young friends, and to which every member of the party was
already looking forward for the coming season. The story of these
adventures will be related in a following volume entitled, “Grace
Harlowe’s Overland Riders Among the Border Guerrillas,” where, in
the Guadalupe Mountains, they encounter experiences that make the
story replete with interest that cannot fail to hold the undivided
attention of the reader.





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