BERT WILSON IN THE ROCKIES
BY J. W. DUFFIELD
Author of "Bert Wilson at the Wheel," "Wireless Operator," "Fadeaway Ball," "Marathon Winner," "At Panama."
NEW YORK GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1914, By SULLY AND KLEINTEICH
Published and Printed, 1924 by Western Printing & Lithographing Company Racine, Wisconsin Printed in U.S.A.
I. A Desperate Encounter
II. The Ranch in the Rockies
III. "Busting" a Broncho
IV. A Forest Terror
V. The Grizzly at Bay
VI. The "Ringer's" Downfall
VII. The Wolf Pack
VIII. With Teeth and Hoofs
IX. The Indian Outbreak
X. In Fearful Extremity
XI. Within an Ace
XII. Quick on the Draw
XIII. Trailing the Outlaws
XIV. The Race for Life
BERT WILSON IN THE ROCKIES
A Desperate Encounter
A shower of glass from the shattered windowpane fell over the floor and seats, and a bullet embedded itself in the woodwork of an upper berth. There was a shriek from the women passengers in the crowded Pullman, and the men looked at each other in consternation. From the platform came the sound of a scuffle, interspersed with oaths. Then, through the narrow corridor that bordered the smoking-room, hurried two men, pushing the terrified negro porter ahead of them. Each of the intruders wore a black cloth tied over the lower part of his face, and before the bewildered passengers knew what had happened they found themselves looking along the blue-black barrels of two ugly revolvers.
It was a startling break in an uneventful day. For several hours the Overland Limited had hummed along over the boundless prairies that stretched away on either side with scarcely a break to the horizon. They had time to make up, and on these open spaces the engineer had let it out to the limit. So swiftly and smoothly had it sped along that the "click, click" as it struck each separate rail had merged into one droning "song of the road."
There had been no rain for a week past, and the dust lay thick on the grass and cactus. The motion of the train drew it up in clouds that made it impossible to keep the windows raised, and the sun, beating down pitilessly from a brazen sky, added to the general discomfort. Cooling drinks were at a premium, and the porters were kept busy making trips to the buffet car, from which they returned with tinkling glasses and cooling ices. Collars wilted and conversation languished. Women glanced listlessly over the pages of the magazines. Men drew their traveling caps over their eyes and settled down for a doze. Here and there a commercial traveler jotted down some item or wondered how far he dared to "pad" his expense account so that it would "get by" the lynx-eyed head of the firm. In the smoking-room a languid game of cards was being played, in an effort to beguile the tedious monotony of the trip. Over all there brooded a spirit of somnolence and relaxation.
If there was life to be discerned anywhere, it was in a group of three young fellows seated near the middle of the car. They would have drawn more than a passing glance wherever seen. Tall, well set up, muscular, they served as splendid types of young American manhood. None of them were over twenty, and their lean, bronzed faces, as well as the lithe alertness of their movements, spoke of a life spent largely in the open. They were brimming with life and high spirits. Exuberant vitality shone through their eyes and betrayed itself in every gesture. That they were friends of long standing was evident from the utter absence of ceremony and the free and easy comradeship with which they chaffed each other.
From the beginning of the trip they had been full of fun and merriment. Their college year had just closed, and they were like frolicsome colts turned out to pasture. There was hardly an incident of the journey that did not furnish to their keen, unjaded senses something of interest and amusement. Their cup of life was full and they drained it in great draughts.
But just now even their effervescence was calmed somewhat by the heat and spirit of drowsiness that hovered over the car.
"Gee," yawned the youngest of the three, stretching out lazily. "Isn't it nearly twelve o'clock? I wonder when that dusky gentleman will come along with the call to dinner."
"Always hungry," laughed one of the others. "The rest of us eat to live, but Tom lives to eat."
"You've struck it there, Dick," assented the third. "You know they say that no one has ever been able to eat a quail a day for thirty days hand running, but I'd be willing to back Tom to do it."
"Well, I wouldn't quail at the prospect," began Tom complacently, and then ducked as Dick made a pass at him.
"Even at that, I haven't got anything on you fellows," he went on, in an aggrieved tone. "When you disciples of 'plain living and high thinking' get at the dinner table, I notice that it soon becomes a case of high living and plain thinking."
"Such low-brow insinuations deserve no answer," said Dick severely. "Anyway," consulting his watch, "it's only half-past eleven, so you'll have to curb the promptings of your grosser nature."
"No later than that?" groaned Tom. "I don't know when a morning has seemed so long in passing."
"It is a little slow. I suppose it's this blistering heat and the long distance between stations. It's about time something happened to break the monotony."
"Don't raise false hopes, Bert," said Tom, cynically. "Nothing ever happens nowadays."
"Oh, I don't know," laughed Bert. "How about the Mexican bandits and the Chinese pirates? Something certainly happened when we ran up against those rascals."
"They were lively scraps, all right," admitted Tom, "but we had to go out of the country to get them. In the little old United States, we've got too much civilization. Everything is cut and dried and pared and polished, until there are no rough edges left. Think of the fellows that made this trip across the continent sixty years ago in their prairie schooners, getting cross-eyed from looking for buffalo with one eye and Indians with the other, feeling their scalp every five minutes to make sure they still had it. That was life."
"Or death," put in Dick skeptically.
"Then look at us," went on Tom, not deigning to notice the interruption, "rolling along smoothly at fifty miles an hour in a car that's like a palace, with its cushioned seats and electric lights and library and bath and soft beds and rich food and servants to wait upon us. We're pampered children of luxury, all right, but I'm willing to bet that those 'horny-handed sons of toil' had it on us when it came to the real joy of living."
"Tom was born too late?" chaffed Bert. "He doesn't really belong in the twentieth century. He ought to have lived in the time of Ivanhoe, or Young Lochinvar, or the Three Musketeers, or Robin Hood. I can see him bending a bow in Nottingham Forest or breaking a lance in a tournament or storming a fortress by day, and at night twanging a guitar beneath a castle window or writing a sonnet to his lady's eyebrow."
"Well, anyhow," defended Tom, "those fellows of the olden time had good red blood in their veins."
"Yes," assented Dick drily, "but it didn't stay there long. There were too many sword points ready to let it out."
And yet, despite their good-natured "joshing" of Tom, they, quite as much as he, were eager for excitement and adventure. In the fullest sense they were "birds of a feather." In earlier and ruder days they would have been soldiers of fortune, cutting their ways through unknown forests, facing without flinching savage beasts and equally savage men, looking ever for new worlds to conquer. Even in these "piping days of peace" that they so much deplored, they had shown an almost uncanny ability to get into scrapes of various kinds, from which sometimes they had narrowly escaped with a whole skin. Again and again their courage had been severely tried, and had stood the test. At home and abroad, on land and sea, they had come face to face with danger and death. But the fortune that "favors the brave" had not deserted them, even in moments of deadliest peril. They were accustomed to refer to themselves laughingly as "lucky," but those who knew them best preferred to call them plucky. A stout heart and a quick wit had "many a time and oft" extricated them from positions where luck alone would have failed them.
And most of their adventures had been shared in company. The tie of friendship that bound them together as closely as brothers was of long standing. Beginning at a summer camp, five years earlier, where chance had thrown them together, it had grown increasingly stronger with every year that passed. A subtle free masonry had from the start made each recognize the others as kindred spirits. Since this first meeting their paths had seldom diverged. Together they had gone to college, where their athletic prowess had put them in the first rank in sports and made them popular among their comrades. On the baseball diamond they had played their positions in brilliant fashion, and on the football gridiron they had added to their laurels. When Bert had been chosen to go to the Olympic games abroad, his "pals" had gone with him and exulted in his glorious victory, when, in the Marathon race, he had beaten the crack runners of the world. Nor were they to be denied, when his duty as wireless operator had carried him over the Pacific to meet with thrilling experiences among the yellow men of Asia. In every time of storm and stress they had stood with him shoulder to shoulder, and faced life and death with eyes wide open and unafraid. They were worthy lieutenants of a brave and intrepid leader.
For, that he was their leader, they themselves would have been the first to admit, although he would have modestly disclaimed it. He never asserted leadership, but it sought him out of its own accord. He had the instinct, the initiative, the quick decision, the magnetic personality that marks the born captain. It was not merely that he was endowed with strength of muscle and fleetness of foot and power of endurance that placed him in a class by himself. He might have had all these, and still been only a superb specimen of the "human animal." But, above and controlling these qualities, was the indomitable will, the unflinching courage, the gallant audacity that made him the idol of his comrades.
The college year just ended had been a notable one, marked by victories on track and field. Together with the high rank he had reached and held in his studies, with which, unlike many athletes, he never allowed sport to interfere, it had taxed him heavily in mind and body. And it was with unfeigned delight that he now looked forward to a long season of recreation and adventure on the ranch in Montana, toward which he and his friends were speeding.
Mr. Melton, the owner of the ranch, was a Western cattleman of the old type, now rapidly disappearing. Bluff, rough and ready, generous and courageous, his sterling qualities had won the admiration and affection of the boys from the date of their first meeting the year before.
That meeting had taken place under extraordinary circumstances. The "Three Guardsmen"—so called in joke, because they were always together—journeying to the opening of the Panama Canal had found themselves on the same train with Melton, as it wound its way through Central Mexico. A broken trestle had made it necessary for the train to halt for an hour or two, and during this enforced stop Dick had carelessly wandered away on a stroll through the woods, tempted by the beauty of the day and the novelty of his surroundings. At a turn in the road he had suddenly found himself in the presence of twenty or more guerillas, headed by the notorious El Tigre, whose name was spoken with a shudder throughout Mexico. They had bound him and carried him off to their mountain retreat. Bert and Tom, an hour later, discovered the cause of his absence and immediately started in pursuit, determined to save their comrade or die with him. But first they had disclosed the situation to Melton, who had sworn in his rage to follow after them and aid them in the rescue. How faithfully he had kept his word, how skillfully and daringly he had led them on and rushed the camp just as Dick was steeling himself to undergo the rattlesnake torture that the bandit chief had planned for him, was engraven indelibly on the memories of the boys. Until the day of their death they could never forget how the old war horse, with everything to lose and nothing to gain, had come to their assistance simply because they were Americans and in dire need of help.
And on Melton's part the feeling was equally warm. He had taken an instantaneous liking to these young countrymen of his who had played their part so gallantly. They recalled to him the days of his own stormy youth, when he had ridden the range and when his life had depended on his iron nerve and his quickness with the trigger. Though older than they by forty years, they were all cut on the same pattern of sturdy, self-reliant American manhood, and it was with the utmost cordiality that he had crushed their hands in his strong grip and urged them to visit him at his ranch in the Rockies. Since then he had been East on a business trip and had been present on that memorable day when Bert, with the ball tucked under his arm, had torn down the field in the great race for the goal that won the game in the last minute of play. Then he had renewed the invitation with redoubled earnestness, and promised them the time of their lives. They needed no urging to do a thing that accorded so well with their own inclinations, and from that time on until the opening of the summer had shaped everything with that end in view. Now they were actually launched upon their journey. That it held for them a new and delightful experience they did not doubt. How much of danger and excitement and hairbreadth escape it also held, they did not even dream.
"Bully old boy, Melton," commented Tom, playing lazily with a heavy paperweight he had bought at a curio shop at their last stopping place.
"A diamond in the rough," assented Dick.
"All wool and a yard wide," declared Bert, emphatically. "I wonder if he——Great Scott, what's that?" as a bullet whizzed through the window of the Pullman.
The question was quickly answered when their eyes fell on the robbers, who, with leveled pistols, dominated the car. And the threat of the weapons themselves was not more sinister than the purpose that glinted in the ferocious eyes above the improvised masks. There was no mere bluff and bluster in that steady gaze. They were ready to shoot and shoot to kill. Their lives were already forfeit to the law, anyway, and in that rough country they would get "a short shrift and a long rope" if their plans went astray. They might as well be hung for murder as robbery, and, while they did not mean to kill unless driven to it, they were perfectly ready to do so at the first hint of resistance.
The paralyzing moment of surprise passed, there was a stir among the passengers. The first instinct was to hide their valuables or drop them on the floor. But this was checked instantly by the outlaws.
"Hands up," shouted one of them with an oath. "I'll kill the first man that makes a move."
His pistol ranged over the car, flickering like the tongue of a snake, seeming to cover every passenger at once. Beneath its deadly insistence, hands were upraised one after the other. Resistance at that moment meant instant death. The unwritten law of the West had to be obeyed. He "had the drop" on them.
The leader grinned malignantly and spoke to his companion, without for an instant turning his gaze.
"Now, Bill," he growled, "I've got these mavericks covered. Pass round the hat. These gents—and ladies," he leered—"will hand over their coin and jewelry, and God help the one who tries to renig. He won't never need money no more."
Taking his old sombrero from his head, the one addressed as Bill started in to collect from the front of the car.
"Only one hand down at a time to get your money," shouted his companion. "And mind," he added ominously, "I'm watchin' that hand."
Pocket books and rings and watches dropped into the hat. Women were sobbing hysterically and men were cursing under their breath.
"Stung," groaned Tom disgustedly.
"And our pistols in our bags," growled Dick.
Bert's mind had been working like lightning. He was always at his best when danger threatened. Now his body grew taut and his eyes gleamed.
"Be ready, you fellows," he said in low tones, scarcely moving his lips. "Dick, back me up when I make a move. Tom, got that paperweight handy?"
"Right alongside on the window ledge," muttered Tom.
Still keeping his eyes in an innocent stare on the outlaw captain, Bert murmured a few words. They caught his meaning on the instant and were ready.
The man with the hat was getting nearer. There had been no sign of resistance and the leader relaxed his caution ever so slightly. This was easier than they had dared to hope.
The sombrero was sagging now with the unwilling wealth poured into it, and the collector, relying on the vigilance of his companion, was compelled to use both hands to keep the contents from spilling on the floor.
He held it out in front of Bert and Dick.
"Your turn now," he snarled. "Fork over."
They lowered their hands as though to get out their money. Then something happened.
Like a flash, Dick grabbed the pistol hand of the collector, while Bert's fist shot up in a tremendous smashing uppercut. The man staggered back, and Bert and Dick were on him like a pair of wildcats.
At the same instant, with all the power of his trained baseball arm, Tom had hurled the heavy paperweight straight at the outlaw captain. It caught him full between the eyes. His pistol fell from his hand, going off as it did so, and he crumpled up and went down to the floor in a heap.
It was all over in a second. The whole thing had been so perfectly timed, brain and hand had worked in such absolute unison that disaster had come on the outlaws like a bolt from the blue. It was "team work" of the finest kind.
The first surprise over, the other men in the car came crowding to the assistance of the chief actors in the scrimmage. But the danger was past. The leader was unconscious, and the other, badly beaten and cursing horribly, was helpless in the grasp of the victors. Train men, rushing in, took charge of the prisoners and trussed them up securely.
A posse was hastily organized among the passengers and, heavily armed, swarmed from the train in quest of the two remaining members of the band, who had been left to guard the engineer and fireman. The miscreants saw them coming, however, and realized that the game was up. They emptied their pistols and then flung themselves upon their horses and galloped off, secure for the time from further pursuit.
The conductor, still pale and shaken from excitement, gave the signal. There was a scramble to get aboard, the whistle tooted and the train once more got under way.
In the Pullman there was a wild turmoil, as the relieved passengers crowded around the boys and wrung their hands in congratulation. They couldn't say enough in praise of the courage and presence of mind that had turned the tables so swiftly and gallantly. The spoils were retrieved and distributed among the rightful owners, and then, with a bow of mock politeness, the old sombrero, empty now, was clapped on the head of the baffled collector, who received it with a new string of blasphemies.
By this time the victim of Tom's unerring aim had gradually struggled back to consciousness. His arms and feet had been securely tied and his remaining revolver had been taken from his belt. Of a stronger mold than his accomplice, he disdained to vent his rage in useless imprecations and relapsed into silence as stoical as an Indian's. But, if looks could kill, the boys would have been blasted by the brooding hate that shot from under his jutting brows.
"I'm glad it didn't kill him, anyway," said Tom, as, after the tumult had somewhat subsided, they once more were seated and the train was flying along at full speed.
"It's a wonder it didn't," responded Dick. "It was a fearful crack."
"Tom hasn't forgotten the way he used to shoot them down from third base to first," laughed Bert. "That right wing of his is certainly a dandy."
"It's lucky it is," said the conductor, who had just returned from giving directions concerning the prisoners; "and talking about wings," he added, turning to Bert, "there's no discount on yours. That fist hit like a sledgehammer. The way you fellows piled into him was a crime. I never saw a prettier bit of rough house.
"But the beauty of it all," he went on, "was the way you worked together. If any one of you hadn't 'come through' at the same second, the jig would have been up. Who figured it out?"
"Here's the slow thinker that did it," said Dick, clapping Bert on the shoulder.
"That's the bonehead, sure enough," echoed Tom.
"Oh, come off," growled Bert, flushing a little and fidgeting uneasily in his seat. "There was a whole lot of luck about it, anyway. If we hadn't had the paperweight, all the thinking in the world wouldn't have done us a bit of good."
"If you hadn't had the thinking, all the paperweights in the world wouldn't have done us a bit of good," corrected Tom.
"Well, there's glory enough for all," smiled the conductor. "The main point is that you fellows have put me and the company under a load of gratitude and obligation that we can never repay. Call it quick thinking, quick acting, or both—you turned the trick."
"It had to be a case of 'the quick or the dead,'" grinned Tom.
"Sure thing," assented the conductor. "You were the quick and those two rascals are the dead. Or will be before long," he added grimly. "I'll turn them over to the sheriff at the next station. There's a hand bill in the baggage car describing a band of outlaws that the authorities of three States have been after for a long time for robbery and murder, and two of the descriptions fit these fellows to a dot. There's a price on their heads, dead or alive, and I guess they've reached the end of their rope in more senses than one."
He passed on and the boys relaxed in their seats. They were still under the nervous strain of the stirring scene in which they had been the chief actors. Tom's breath was coming fast and his eyes were shining.
Bert looked at him for a moment and then nudged Dick.
"Didn't I hear some one say a little while ago," he asked slyly, "that in this little old United States there was too much civilization?"
"Yes," replied Dick, still quoting, "nothing ever happens nowadays."
The Ranch in the Rockies
With a great roar and rattle and clangor of bells, the train drew up at the little station where the boys were to descend. Their long rail journey of nearly three thousand miles was over, but they still had a forty-mile drive before they would reach the ranch.
For a half hour previous they had been gathering their traps together and saying good-by to their friends on the train. These last included all of the travelers, who, since the capture of the robbers, had insisted on making heroes of the boys. In vain they had protested that the thanks were out of all proportion to the service rendered. The passengers themselves knew better. And it was amid a chorus of the friendliest farewells and good wishes that they had stepped to the rude platform of the station.
"Not much of a metropolis about this," said Tom as they looked around.
"Hardly," agreed Dick. "The principal thing here is space. You can cross the street without the help of a traffic cop."
"And only one street to cross, at that," added Bert.
It was the typical small town of the Western plains. The one crooked street parallel with the track stretched on either side of the station for perhaps half a mile, lined with houses at irregular intervals. There was no pretence of a sidewalk and even fences were conspicuous by their absence. The business part of the town consisted of a general store that served also as a post office, a blacksmith shop and three saloons, to one of which a dance hall was attached. Business seemed brisk in these, judging from the many mustangs that were tied to rails outside, patiently waiting for their masters who were "tanking up" within and accumulating their daily quota of "nose paint." A Mexican in a tattered serape was sitting on the steps of the store rolling a cigarette, while an Indian, huddled in a greasy blanket and evidently much the worse for fire water, sat crouched against the shack that served as baggage-room at the left end of the station.
Down the platform came hustling a big burly form that they recognized in an instant.
"Mr. Melton," they cried in chorus as they rushed with extended hands to meet him.
"Sure thing," he responded, his face beaming with delight at their hearty greeting. "Did you think I'd send one of my men to meet you? Not on your life. Nothing less than a broken leg would have kept me from coming to give you the first welcome to old Montana. Came down yesterday so that the horses could have a good rest before starting back again. Come right along now and tumble into the buckboard. One of my men will look after your duds and bring them along later."
All talking at once, they came to the farther end of the platform, where a big mountain wagon was waiting. It was drawn by a pair of wiry mustangs that champed impatiently at the bit.
"Not very pretty to look at," said Melton, "but they're holy terrors when it comes to traveling. Jump in."
They all piled in and Melton gathered up the reins. He chirped to the horses and they started off at a rate that justified all he had said as to their speed. But he held them in check and subdued them to a trot that, while moderate in appearance, ate up the miles amazingly.
"Pure grit and iron, those little sinners," he commented. "But they've got a long way to go, and we're sure even at this rate to get home in plenty of time for supper. Now, tell me all about yourselves."
Which they proceeded to do in detail, not neglecting the attempted hold-up on the train. He listened with the keenest interest.
"So you got the best of 'Red' Thompson and 'Shag' Leary," he exclaimed in astonishment. "The toughest nuts we've had to crack in this section for years. A good many people will breathe easier now that they're trapped. They're 'bad men' through and through, and if their pistol butts had a notch on them for every man they've killed, they'd look like saws. And with nothing but a paperweight and bare fists," he chuckled. "They sure must feel sore. What was done with them?"
"Oh, the conductor handed them over to the sheriff at one of the stations," answered Bert. "I suppose they'll be tried before long."
"Maybe," said Melton a little dubiously. "My own private hunch, though, is that Judge Lynch will invite them to a little necktie party. They've lived a heap sight too long already, and there won't be much formality wasted on them.
"You boys sure have the nerve," he went on. "You got away with it all right, but you took an awful chance."
"Yes," quoted Dick:
'An inch to the left or an inch to the right, And we wouldn't be maundering here to-night.'"
"Those born to be hung will never be shot," laughed Tom. "I guess that explains our escape so far."
"It beats the Dutch the faculty you fellows have of getting into scrapes and out again," commented Melton. "I believe you'd smell a scrap a mile away. You'd rather fight than eat."
"You won't think so when you see what we'll do to that supper of yours to-night," retorted Tom. "Gee, but this air does give you an appetite."
"The one thing above all others that Tom doesn't need," chaffed Dick. "But he's right, just the same. The way I feel I could make a wolf look like thirty cents."
"You can't scare me with that kind of talk," challenged Melton. "Let out your belts to the last notch and I'll guarantee they'll be tight when you get up from the table."
"That listens good," said Tom. "I'm perfectly willing you should call my bluff."
With jest and laughter the afternoon wore on and the shadows cast by the declining sun began to lengthen. After their long confinement on the train, the boys felt as though they had been released from prison. They had been so accustomed to a free, unfettered life that they had chafed at the three days' detention, where the only chance they had to stretch their limbs had been afforded by the few minutes wait at stations. Now they enjoyed to the full the sense of release that came to them in their new surroundings. The West, as seen from a car window, was a vastly different thing when viewed from the seat of a buckboard going at a spanking gait over the limitless plains.
For that they were limitless was the impression conveyed by the unbroken skyline that seemed to be a thousand miles away. Only in the northwest did mountains loom. They had never before had such an impression of the immensity of space. It seemed as though the whole expanse had been created for them, and them alone. For many miles they saw no human figure except that of a solitary cowboy, who passed them at a gallop on his way to the town. The country was slightly rolling and richly grassed, affording pasturage for thousands of cattle that roamed over it at will, almost as free as though in a wild state, except at the time of the round-up. They crossed numerous small rivers, none so deep that they could not be forded, although in one case the water flowed over the body of the wagon.
"That's the Little Big Horn River," said Melton as they drew out on the other side. "Perhaps you fellows remember something that happened here a good many years ago."
"What," cried Bert. "You don't mean the Custer Massacre?"
"That's what," returned Melton. "Right over there where the river bends was the place where Sitting Bull was encamped when Custer led the charge on that June morning. I've got to breathe the horses for twenty minutes or so, and, if you like, we'll look over the field."
If they would like! The boys thrilled at the thought. They had read again and again of that gallant and hopeless fight, where a thousand American cavalrymen led by Custer, the idol of the army, had attacked nine thousand Indians, and fighting against these fearful odds had been wiped out to the last man. In all the nation's history no one, except perhaps Phil Sheridan and Stonewall Jackson, had so appealed to the imagination of the country's youth as Custer, the reckless, yellow-haired leader in a hundred fights, the hero of Cedar Creek and Waynesboro and Five Forks, the Chevalier Bayard of modern times, "without fear and without reproach," who met his death at last as he would have wished to meet it, in that mad glorious dash that has made his name immortal, going down as he had lived with his face to the foe. To these ardent young patriots the place was holy ground, and their pulses leaped and their hearts swelled as Melton pointed out the features of the field and narrated some of the incidents of that awful, but magnificent, fight. It was with intense reluctance that, warned by the gathering shadows, they tore themselves away.
"Can't wait any longer now," said Melton as they retraced their steps to the place where the horses were browsing; "but some day soon we'll come down here early and spend the whole day. It won't be any too long to get a clear idea of the fight and all that led up to it."
The mustangs, refreshed by the rest, and feeling too that they were on the last stretch of their journey, needed no urging, and Melton gave them their head.
"Must be pretty near your place now, I suppose," said Tom.
"Well, yes," answered Melton, with a twinkle in his eyes; "been traveling on my lands for the last eight miles. House not more than five miles ahead."
The boys gasped. It was something new to them to hear one speak as carelessly of miles as a farmer back East would speak of acres. Now they were getting some idea of what was meant when one spoke of the "boundless West."
"Got to have room to stretch my arms without hitting anything," went on Melton. "Of course, I don't use much of it for farming. Just raise enough to take care of the table and the stock. But for grazing there ain't any better pasture for cattle in the whole State of Montana."
"Then all the cattle we've seen grazing by thousands for the last few miles belong to you?" asked Dick, as soon as he had recovered from his surprise.
"Sure thing," returned their host, "and they're only a few of them. It would take a cowboy the better part of a day to start at one end of the ranch and circle around it. And there's plenty of ranches in the State bigger than mine."
Now the going was steadily uphill and the horses subsided to a walk. They were in the foothills of the Rockies. In the gathering dusk they could see ahead of them the mighty peaks in the background rising to a height of many thousand feet. Higher and higher they went, until they were as much as six hundred feet above sea level. If they had had no other proof they would have found it in the increasing rarity of the air and the slightly greater difficulty in breathing.
"You'll soon get used to that," said Melton. "After a day or two you won't notice any difference. I could of course have built on a lower level, and in some ways that would have been an advantage. But when I settled here I made up my mind that I wanted air that was washed clean by the mountain breezes, and I planted my stakes according."
Soon they reached a broad, level plateau, and, a little way off, could see the lights coming from a low-lying group of buildings. Several dogs came rushing down with barks of welcome, and a couple of men lounging near one of the corrals removed the bars of a huge gate, from which the path led up to the largest of the buildings. It was a rambling structure only two stories in height, but covering a vast extent of ground and suggestive of homely comfort and hospitality. A broad veranda extended along three sides of the house, and in front a well-kept flower garden bordered the path that led to the door.
As they approached, heralded by the noisy greeting of the dogs, the door was thrown wide open and Mrs. Melton appeared in the flood of light that streamed from within.
She was a pleasant-faced, motherly-looking woman, and she welcomed the boys with open arms. There was no mistaking the warmth and sincerity of her greeting. They felt at home at once and in a few minutes were chatting and laughing as easily as though they had known her for years. Perhaps the memory of her own two boys, dead long since, but who would have been just about the age of the newcomers had they lived, added to the hearty cordiality with which she took them under her wing.
"We oughtn't to need any introduction at all," she beamed, "because Mr. Melton has done nothing but talk about you ever since he came back from that last trip to Mexico. I wouldn't dare to tell you all he said, for fear of making you conceited. I really think the last trip he made East was more to see you than anything else. He said he was going on business, but I have my own opinion about that."
"Well, if it hadn't been for him we wouldn't have been there to see," said Bert warmly. "The vultures would have had us long ago, if he hadn't risked his own life to help us out of trouble."
"Nothing at all, nothing at all," deprecated Melton. "You gave me a chance for a lovely scrap, just when I was beginning to wonder whether I'd forgotten how to fight. I've felt ten years younger ever since."
"You don't need to get any younger," retorted his wife in affectionate reproach. "You're just as much of a boy as you ever were. I declare," she laughed, turning to her guests; "I ought to call him Peter Pan. He'll never grow up."
"Well, he's a pretty husky youngster," grinned Tom, looking admiringly at his host's two hundred and forty pounds of bone and muscle.
But now Mrs. Melton's housewifely instincts asserted themselves, and she shooed the boys off to their rooms to rid themselves of the dust of the journey, while she bustled round to get supper on the table.
A few minutes later and they were gathered at supper in the brightly-lighted, well-furnished dining-room of the ranch. It was a jolly party, where every one radiated happiness and good nature. There was not a particle of stiffness or pretence in that wholesome environment. The delight of their hosts in having them there found an echo in the hearts of the boys, and they were soon on as genial and friendly a footing as though they had known them all their lives.
And that supper! To the hungry boys, with their naturally keen appetites still further sharpened by the long ride, it seemed a feast fit for the Gods. The table fairly groaned beneath the weight of good things placed upon it. Crisp trout freshly taken from the mountain brook, a delicious roast flanked by snowy mounds of potatoes and vegetables just plucked from the garden patch, luscious berries warm with the sun, deluged with rich cream, and pastries "such as mother used to make" offered a challenge to the boys that they gleefully accepted. They ate like famished wolves, while Mrs. Melton bridled with pride at the tribute paid to her cooking; and, when at last they had fairly cleared the board, they sat back with a sigh of content at duty well performed.
"How about those belts?" laughed Melton, as he lighted his pipe.
"Tight as a drum," Tom answered for all. "You called my bluff, all right."
"Sallie certainly knows how to cook," said Mr. Melton, patting his wife's hand.
"You mustn't give me all the credit," smiled Mrs. Melton, smoothing out her apron. "That Chinese cook you brought back with you the last time you went to Helena is certainly a treasure. I don't know how I'd get along now without him."
"That reminds me," said Melton, with a quick glance at his wife. "Just send him in here for a minute, will you?"
She went into the kitchen and a moment later returned, followed by a Chinaman, who shuffled along in his heelless slippers.
The boys glanced at him indifferently for a moment. Then a startled recognition leaped into their eyes.
"Wah Lee," they cried in chorus, jumping to their feet.
"That same old yellow sinner," confirmed Melton complacently.
The Chinaman himself was shocked for a moment out of his Oriental stolidity. A delighted smile spread over his face and he broke into an excited jargon of "pidgin English," of which the refrain was:
"Velly glad slee. Wah Lee velly glad slee."
Then in a burst of grateful memory he threw himself to the floor and tried to put their feet upon his head, as a token that he was their slave for life. But they jerked him upright in a torrent of eager questioning.
"You old rascal."
"How did you ever get here?"
"I thought you were back in China by this time."
But Wah Lee's smile was more expansive than his vocabulary was extensive.
"Him tell," he said, pointing to Mr. Melton.
"I thought it would be a surprise party," that worthy chuckled as he refilled his pipe. "So I didn't tell you anything about it nor did I tell the Chink that you were coming. It was a surprise, all right," and he chuckled again.
"It won't take very long to explain," he went on when his pipe was drawing well. "You remember that after you got back from your trip to the Canal you gave him money enough to go West and start a little laundry business wherever he might choose to settle down. It seems he drifted out to Helena, where there's quite a colony of Chinks, and started in to wash and iron. As nearly as I can understand his gibberish, he was doing pretty well, too, until he got mixed up in one of those secret society feuds that play hob among those fellows. It seems that he belonged to the On Leong clan and the Hip Son Tong got after him. They sent on to 'Frisco for some highbinders—those professional killers, you know—and Wah Lee got wind of the fact that he was one of the victims marked for slaughter. Naturally, he was in a fearful stew about it, and just when things were at their worst I happened to be in Helena on business and ran across him. Of course, I'd never have known him, for all Chinks look alike to me, but he recognized me in a minute and begged me by all his gods to help him out. He knew it wouldn't do any good to go from one city to another, because they'd get him sure, and his only chance was to be smuggled off into some country place where they might lose track of him. It seemed rather hard lines for the old fellow, and though I didn't care much to mix up in the rescue stunt, I didn't have the heart to turn him down. So he sold out his shop to one of his own society, and I brought him out at night. I didn't know just what I'd do with him, but it turns out that he is a dandy cook, and Mrs. Melton insists that my running across him was a rare streak of luck."
"It certainly was for him, anyway," said Bert. "I'd hate to have anything happen to the old boy. He had a pretty rough deal in Mexico."
"He did, for a fact," agreed Melton reminiscently, "and he hasn't gotten over it yet. A little while ago one of my men brought in a snake that he had killed on his way back from town. The boys were looking at it when the Chink happened to come along, and one of them, in a joke, threw it at him. You never saw a fellow so scared. I thought for a minute he was going to throw a fit."
"I don't wonder," said Dick soberly.
For he, as well as Wah Lee, would never look upon one of those hideous reptiles without a shudder. As clearly as though it were yesterday, he saw again that morning in the Mexican hills, when, tied to a tree, he had looked upon the monster rattlesnake that was to torture him, and prayed that he might have courage to die without disgracing his manhood. Wah Lee, his companion in captivity, had been brought out first, thrown flat on the ground and fastened securely to stakes. Just out of reach, a rattlesnake, with a buckskin thong passed through its tail, was tied to a stake. Tortured by rage and pain, the reptile struck at the Chinaman's face, but couldn't quite make the distance. Then water was poured on the thong and it began to stretch. With each spring the awful fangs came nearer, and it was only a question of minutes before they would be embedded in the victim's flesh. Then, from the woods, Melton's bowie knife had whizzed, slicing the snake's head from his body, and the next instant in a rain of bullets the rescuing party had burst into the clearing.
Later on, they had found Wah Lee on their hands, and at his earnest entreaties had taken him with them to Panama. There he had found employment in the house of a wealthy Japanese landholder, and by the merest chance had been able to convey to Bert a hint of the conspiracy to destroy the Canal. The plot had been frustrated by Bert's daring exploit, and on the return of the party to America Wah Lee had again accompanied them. When they had provided for him and sent him West they never thought that again their paths would cross. Yet here he was, as bland and smiling as ever, on this remote ranch in the Rocky Mountains. The world was only a small place, after all.
For a long time after he had trotted away again to his duties in the kitchen they sat discussing the exciting events that his reappearance had brought back to their minds. Then, at last, Melton arose and shook the ashes from his pipe.
"I reckon you youngsters are about ready to turn in," he said. "You've had a long ride and it's getting pretty late. We'll have plenty of time to chin before the summer's over. For I give you fair warning," he added with his genial smile, "I've got you roped now and I ain't going to let you go in a hurry."
He took them up to their rooms, cool, spacious and provided with every comfort. There with a cordial good-night he left them.
Their windows faced toward the north and commanded a magnificent view of the mountains. Tall, solemn, majestic, they towered upward in wild and rugged beauty. The moon had risen and the distant peaks were flooded with light. It was a scene to delight the soul of an artist and the boys lingered under the spell.
"Just such a night as when we crouched in the shadow of that big rock in the Mexican forest," murmured Bert. "Do you remember, Tom?"
"Yes," answered Tom; "but I don't think the moon will ever again see us in such a desperate fix as we were in that night."
Which showed that Tom had not the gift of prophecy.
"Busting" a Broncho
The boys slept that night the dreamless sleep of wholesome fatigue and perfect health, and awoke the next morning as fresh as daisies. Life is astir early on a ranch, and the day's work had fairly begun when they came down to breakfast. The smell of hot coffee and frying bacon had whetted their appetites, and they needed no urging from their hosts to do full justice to the ample meal that awaited them. Then they hurried outdoors to make acquaintance with this new life that they had looked forward to so impatiently.
It was a glorious morning. There was not a cloud in the sky and a light breeze tempered the heat of the sun. At that high level it was seldom sultry, and the contrast to the heat of the sun-baked plains below was refreshing. It amply justified, in the boys' opinion, Mr. Melton's wisdom in the choice of this airy plateau as a location for his home.
The mountains hemmed them in on the north, but on the west and east and south stretched grassy plains and rolling slopes as far as the eye could reach. Great herds of cattle dotted the expanse, and here and there could be seen a mounted cowboy, winding in and out among the stock. Dark lines at short intervals marked the course of artificial canals, that were fed by a series of pipes from brooks back in the mountains. There was an inexhaustible supply of sparkling water, and it was evident that the fortunate owner of this ranch was forever secure against drought—that scourge of the Western plains.
"It must have cost a mint of money to do all that piping and digging," suggested Bert as his eyes took in the vast extent of the operations.
"Yes, a good many thousands," assented his host, "but it pays to do things right. I've already got back a good many times over all that it cost. A single hot barren summer would destroy thousands of head of cattle, to say nothing of the suffering of the poor brutes. And those that didn't die would be so worn to skin and bone that they'd hardly pay the expense of shipping them to market. The only way to make money in ranching nowadays is to do things on a big scale and take advantage of all up-to-date ideas.
"A good many people," he went on, "have an idea that if a man has a good ranch and a few thousand head of stock he's found a short and easy way to riches. That doesn't follow at all. There are just as many chances, just as many ups and downs as in any other business. I know lots of men that once were prosperous ranchers who to-day are down and out, and that too through no fault of their own. Sometimes it's a disease that comes along and sweeps away half of your herd at a single stroke. The drought gets them in summer and a blizzard covers them up in winter. Then, too, there are the cattle rustlers that, in the course of a season, often get away with hundreds of them, change the brand and send them away to their confederates. Many of them are stung by rattlesnakes. The wolves, in a hard winter, pull down a lot of the cows, and sometimes, though not so often, the grizzlies get after them. Take all these things into account, figure up the payroll for the help, the freight charges on your shipments, and it's no wonder that many a man finds a balance on the wrong side of the ledger in lean seasons. No, it isn't all 'peaches and cream' in ranching."
"You spoke of grizzlies a minute ago," said Dick, whose sporting blood had tingled at mention of the name. "Are there many of those fellows around here?"
"Not so many as there used to be," replied Mr. Melton. "They're being pushed further and further north as the country gets more settled. Still there are enough around to make it advisable to keep your eye peeled for trouble whenever you get a little way further up in the mountains. Every once in a while we find the body of a steer partly eaten, and we can always tell when a grizzly has pulled it down."
"How's that?" asked Tom.
"By the way he covers it up," answered Melton. "He always heaps up a pile of brush or dried grass over the carcass. I reckon it's his sign manual to tell other animals who may be skulking around that it's his kill, and that there'll be trouble if any of them go monkeying around it. At any rate, they don't fool with it. They know he's king in these parts. Wherever the grizzly sits is the head of the table."
"Are they really as savage as they are cracked up to be?" asked Bert. "If so, it must be great sport hunting them."
"Are they savage?" echoed their host pityingly. "Say, son, there's nothing on four feet as full of hate and poison, unless perhaps a gorilla. And if it ever came to a tussle between them two, my money would go on the grizzly every time.
"As to it's being great sport hunting them, it's the grizzly that usually does the hunting. For myself, I haven't any ambition that way. I'm perfectly willing to give him his full half of the road whenever we meet. And we won't meet at all, if I see him first. I've had more than one tussle with an old silver-tip, and I've got a few hides up at the house to serve as reminders. But it's always been when it was more dangerous to run than it was to stay and fight it out. There ain't many things on four feet or two that I'd go far out of my way to keep from meeting, but when it comes to a grizzly I haven't any pride at all. There are less exciting forms of amusement. No, my boy, if you're thinking of tackling a grizzly, take a fool's advice and don't do it."
"But a bullet in the right place would stop them as surely as it would anything else, I should think," ventured Tom.
"That's just the point," said Melton. "It's mighty hard to put a bullet in the right place. If you're on horseback, your horse is so mortally scared at sight of the brute that he won't let you get a steady aim. There's nothing on earth that a mustang fears so much as a bear. And, if you're on foot, he moves so swiftly and dodges so cleverly, that it's hard to pick out the right spot to plunk him. And all the time, you know that, if you miss, it's probably all up with you. Even if you get him in the heart, his strength and vitality are such that he may get to you in time enough to take you along with him over the great divide. And it isn't a pleasant way of dying. He just hugs you up in those front paws of his, lifts up his hind paw with claws six inches long, and with one great sweep rips you to pieces. There's no need of a post-mortem to find out how a man has died when a grizzly has got through with him. I've come across such sights at times, and I didn't have any appetite for a day or two afterward.
"But there's no use warning you young rascals, I suppose," he grinned. "You're the kind that looks for trouble as naturally as a bee hunts for clover. I'll bet at this very minute you're honing to get after a silver-tip. Own up, now, ain't you?"
The boys laughed and flushed a little self-consciously.
"Hardly that, perhaps," answered Bert. "But if you should happen by any chance to come across one, I wouldn't mind being along."
"Righto," said Dick emphatically.
"Same here," echoed Tom.
"Hopeless cases," said Mr. Melton quizzically, shaking his head. "I suppose there's no use arguing with you. I was that way once myself, but I've learned now to keep out of trouble as much as I can."
"Just as you did down in Mexico," suggested Dick slyly.
The boys roared and Melton looked a little sheepish.
"You scored on me that time," he laughed. "But come along now down to the bunk house and meet some of the boys. A good many are away riding herd, but the foreman is here and two or three of the others, and a lot more will come in when it's time for grub."
"How many men do you need to run the ranch?" asked Dick.
"Oh, about twenty, more or less," answered Melton. "In the busiest season I usually take on a few more to help out, especially when I'm getting ready to ship the stock.
"Pretty good set of fellows I have now," he went on as he led the way toward the men's quarters. "Not a trouble maker in the bunch, except a half breed that I'm not particularly stuck on, and that I'm going to get rid of as soon as work gets slack. But take them all together I haven't got any kick coming.
"Of course," he qualified as he stopped to light his pipe, "they ain't what you could call angels, by a long shot. If any one's looking for anything like that, they won't find it on a ranch. Some pretty rough specimens drift out here from the East, who perhaps have had reasons for making a quick getaway. But as long as a man does his work and does it right, we don't ask any more about their past than they care to tell. It ain't etiquette out here to do that, and then too it sometimes leads to a man getting shot full of holes if he's too curious. Their language isn't apt to be any too refined and their table manners leave a lot to be desired. When pay day comes, most of their money goes to the saloons and dance halls in the towns. They're usually a pretty moody and useless bunch for a day or two after that. But in the main they're brave and square and friendly, and they sure do work hard for their forty-five a month and found. And if you get into a scrap they're a mighty handy lot of fellows to have at your back."
By this time they had reached the bunk house. As its name implied, it served as sleeping quarters for the men. It was a long one-story building covering a large area of ground. All one end of it was partitioned off into bunks to the number of thirty or more. The other half was used as a dining and living room. A long table, spread with oilcloth, extended down the center, with a row of chairs on either side. The walls were decorated with gaudy lithographs, circus posters and colored sheets taken from the Sunday papers that occasionally drifted out that way. On a side table were a number of well-thumbed magazines that Mrs. Melton had sent down for the men to read in their rare moments of leisure. Saddles and harness and lariats were hung on nails driven into the logs. Everything was rude and simple, but scrupulously clean. The floor had been recently swept and the oilcloth on the table was shining.
In a little extension at the southern end of the shack the cook was clearing away the dishes from breakfast and making ready for the noon-day meal. A couple of great dogs basked in the sunshine that streamed through the open door. They jumped to their feet as their owner approached and capered about him joyously in a manner that bespoke their attachment.
A lank, muscular man at this moment came around a corner of the house. His face was tanned to the color of mahogany and around his eyes were the tiny wrinkles that come to men accustomed to peer into the wide spaces. He had on a pair of sheepskin trousers with the fleece still adhering, and his long legs had the slight crook that spoke of a life spent almost entirely in the saddle. A buckskin shirt, a handkerchief knotted loosely around his neck and a broad slouch hat with a rattlesnake skin encircling it for a band completed his costume. There was about him the air of a man accustomed to be obeyed, and yet there was no swagger or truculence in his bearing. His glance was singularly fearless and direct, and the boys warmed to him at first sight.
"Just the man I wanted to see, Sandy," said his employer. "I want you to meet these three young friends of mine."
As their names were spoken the boys stepped forward and shook hands heartily.
"Mr. Clinch is one of the best foremen that ever rode the range or roped a steer," went on Melton, "and what he don't know about a ranch isn't worth knowing. I've got to go up to the house now to look over some accounts and I'm going to leave you in his care. You remember, Sandy, that little scrap in Mexico I told you about? Well, these are the boys that stood at my back. They've got a knack for getting into a shindy on the slightest provocation and I look to you to keep them out of trouble. I warn you though that it is a man's job."
"I guess I'm up to it, boss," grinned Sandy. "There ain't much chance for trouble round here, anyhow. There may be a look in if those ornery rustlers don't quit fooling with our cattle. But just at this minute things is plumb peaceful. I'm going up to the corral where the wranglers are breaking in some of the young horses, and perhaps these young fellers would like to come along."
Nothing possibly could suit them better, and while Mr. Melton retraced his steps to the house they followed the foreman to the corral.
There everything was animation and apparent confusion. The clatter of hoofs, the swish of lariats, the shouts of the "wranglers" as they sought to bring their wayward charges under control, while a matter of everyday routine to the cowboys themselves were entirely new to the boys, who leaned against the log fence and watched the proceedings with breathless interest.
There were two corrals of almost equal size, each covering several acres of ground, and a broad gate connected the two. In one of them were forty or more young horses who up to now had been running wild on the range. They had never known the touch of a whip or a spur, nor felt the weight of a rider. The nearest approach to constraint they had ever experienced was that furnished by the encircling fence of the corral into which they had been driven yesterday. That this was irksome and even terrifying was evident by their dilated nostrils, their wild expression, and the way they pawed at the bars and at times measured the height of the fence, as though contemplating a leap over it into the wide spaces beyond. But their instinct told them that they could not make it, and they ran around restlessly or pawed the ground uneasily, waiting their turn to be roped and broken.
When the boys reached the outer fence, one of them had just been caught by a whirling lariat and dragged, stubbornly protesting, into the adjoining corral. Once there he made a wild dash to escape and lashed out fiercely with his heels at the men who held him. But with a skill born of long experience they eluded him, and one of them, watching his chance, suddenly leaped on his back. The men, on either side, relinquished their hold, and retreated to a safe position on the fence.
Then commenced the most exciting struggle for mastery between brute and man that the boys had ever seen.
For a moment the broncho stood stock still, paralyzed with surprise and fright. Then he gave a mighty leap into the air in a vain endeavor to unseat the rider. This failing, he snapped viciously at the horseman's leg, which was instantly thrown up out of reach. Then the maddened brute rushed against the bars of the corral in an effort to crush the rider. But again the uplifted leg foiled the maneuver, and the severe scraping that the horse himself received took away from him all desire of repeating that particular trick.
All this time the cowboy showed the most extreme nonchalance. If anything, he seemed rather bored. And yet, despite his apparent stolidity, the boys noticed that he watched his mount like a hawk and always discounted each trick a second in advance. It was a fight between brute strength and human intelligence and the struggle was unequal. Barring accidents the latter was bound to win.
Like a flash the horse changed his tactics and went to the ground, intending to roll over and crush his rider. The movement was almost too quick to be followed by the eye. But the man was off at a bound and, when the astonished broncho struggled to his feet, his tormentor had again sprung on his back and was lashing him with the end of the rope that served as a halter.
Then the pony tried his last resource. Springing into the air he came down with all four feet held closely together. It would have jarred a novice out of his seat at once. But the superb horsemanship of the man on his back absorbed the shock with his tightly gripped legs as he descended, and he settled into his seat with the lightness of a feather.
For half an hour the battle was prolonged, and, to the breathlessly watching boys, it seemed that the daring rider escaped death a dozen times almost by a miracle. All that they had ever seen in Wild West shows seemed pale and weak by comparison with this fight out in the open, where nothing was prearranged and where both parties to the combat were in deadly earnest. It was life "in the raw" and it stirred them to the depths.
And now the horse was "all in." His flanks heaved with his tremendous exertions, and he was dripping with sweat and foam. He had made a gallant fight, but the odds were against him. His ears were no longer flattened viciously against his head, but drooped forward piteously, and into his eyes came the look that spelled surrender. He had learned the hard and pathetic lesson of the brute creation, that man was the master. This strange being, who so easily defied his strength and thwarted his cunning, was stronger than he, and at last he knew it.
The rider, now that he had won, could afford to be kind. He patted his mount's head and spoke to him soothingly. Then he drove him without demur a few times more about the corral and dismounted. A stable attendant led the conquered brute to a stall, and the victor, breathing a little hard, but bearing no other traces of the struggle, repaired to the fence, squatted on the top rail and lighted a cigarette.
"That was horsemanship, all right," breathed Tom in admiration.
"You bet it was," said Dick. "If I'd been insuring that fellow's life I'd have wanted a premium of ninety-nine per cent."
"He earns his money," remarked Bert. "A man hasn't any chance to 'soldier' on a job like that."
Another cowboy took the place of the first one, and the scene was repeated, in each case with variations that kept the interest of the boys at fever heat. The time slipped by so rapidly that they were genuinely astonished when the blowing of a horn announced that it was time for dinner.
Sandy approached them as they were turning away reluctantly.
"I'd shore like to have you young fellers take dinner with us at the bunkhouse, if you care to," he said. "I'd like to have the boys get acquainted with yer. Maybe we won't have all the trimmin's that you'd get at the boss's table, but I guess we can manage to fill yer up."
"That's a pretty big contract, Sandy," laughed Bert; "but we'll be only too glad to come. Just let me speak to Mrs. Melton, so that she won't wait for us and we'll be with you in a jiffy."
Mrs. Melton smilingly acquiesced, and Melton himself, who knew how much of the boys' enjoyment of their visit would depend upon friendly relations with the men about the ranch, gave his hearty approval.
A dozen or more of the cowboys were at the house when they arrived, all ravenous for "grub." Outside of the door was a broad bench on which was a basin, which the men in turn replenished from a hogshead standing near, and in which they plunged their hands and faces, emerging dripping to dry themselves on a roller towel behind the door. The boys did the same, and as they came in were introduced by Sandy to the rest of the men. There was a breezy absence of formality that was most refreshing after the more or less artificial life of the East, and the boys warmed at once toward these hardy specimens of manhood, who looked them straight in the eyes and crushed their hands in their hearty grip. This wild, free spirit of the plains was akin to their own, and although their mode of life had been so different, a subtle free masonry told them that in substance they were members of the same brotherhood.
The cowboys also were "sizing up" the newcomers. Physically they had no criticism to make. These stalwart, athletic young fellows were splendid specimens, who looked as though they were fully capable of giving a good account of themselves in a tussle. Most of them had heard in a more or less fragmentary way about the adventure in Mexico, and Melton's unstinted praise of them had gone a long way in their favor. Still, that had been a scrap with "greasers," and the contemptuous attitude that most of them held toward the men south of the Rio Grande, led them to attach less value to the exploit. Then, too, when all was said and done, these visitors were "tender-feet," and as such would bear watching. So that, while perfectly free and friendly and admitting that they were a "likely bunch," they were inclined to reserve judgment, and observe them further, before admitting them fully into their fraternity.
The meal proceeded amid a clatter of dishes and a buzz of conversation, abounding in rough jests and repartee. The boys took their part in frank, good fellowship and were hearty in their praises of the hard riding they had seen that morning. The ranchmen deprecated this as only "part of the day's work," but were pleased none the less at the sincere appreciation.
The meal, although, as Sandy had hinted, wanting in "frills," was well cooked and abundant, and the food disappeared before those healthy appetites in a way that would have struck terror to the heart of a boarding-house keeper. Before it was quite over, a belated cowboy galloped in from town. He dismounted, threw his saddlebags on the bench, and, after sousing his heated face in the friendly basin, sat down to the table and proceeded to make amends for lost time.
"Bring a paper with you, Pete?" asked one of his friends as he pushed back his chair and lighted his pipe.
"Yes," answered Pete between mouthfuls. "Got a copy of the Helena 'Record.' You'll find it in the saddlebag."
The first speaker rose leisurely, hunted up the newspaper and seated himself on the step of the bunkhouse. He looked over it carelessly for a moment and then a headline caught his attention. He read on for a few lines and then called to his mates.
"Look here, fellows," he exclaimed. "I see that they've jugged 'Red' Thompson and 'Shag' Leary. Caught them trying to hold up a train."
There was a stir at this and they crowded round the speaker.
"Tell us about it," they begged excitedly, for all of them knew of the evil fame and numerous exploits of these celebrated ruffians.
"I knew the sheriff would bag them fellers before long," said one.
"Sheriff nuthin," snorted Pete disgustedly. "Them guys ain't good fur nuthin but to wear tin stars and put up a bluff. It was a bunch of tender-feet that nabbed 'em."
"Have a heart," said "Buck" Evans incredulously. "Don't fill us up with anything like that."
"Them newspaper fellers is awful liars," sagely commented "Chip" Bennett.
"But it gives the names," persisted Pete. "They wouldn't go as far as that if it wasn't so. Let's see," he went on as his stubbed finger moved slowly over the lines. "Here they are—Wilson, Trent, Henderson—say," he exclaimed with a quick look at the boys, "ain't them the handles you fellers carries?"
All eyes were fixed in astonishment on the visitors, who blushed as though they had been detected in a fault. Their embarrassment carried conviction. The paper was thrown aside and the men gathered about them in a chorus of eager questionings. They made them tell in every detail the story of the fight, which the boys tried to minimize as much as possible.
"And yer never said a word about it," commented Pete when they had extracted the last scrap of information.
"Why should we?" retorted Dick. "As you said about the broncho busting, it was 'all in the day's work.'"
They tore themselves away at last, leaving the cowboys grouped about the door and looking after them with eyes from which the last vestige of distrust and reserve had vanished.
"Not a maverick in the bunch," commented Pete.
"Every one of them carries the man brand," added Chip.
"They shore can warm their beans at my fire," concluded Buck.
A Forest Terror
"A dandy day for fishing," remarked Bert as he was dressing a few mornings later.
"Just right for the speckled beauties to bite," acquiesced Dick as he looked out of the window and saw the clouds that obscured the sun.
"What do you say to trying it?" suggested Tom, who was an enthusiast on the subject. "I'd like nothing better than to whip some of these mountain streams for trout."
"Or troll for pickerel in the lake Mr. Melton was telling us about," amended Bert. "He says there are some whopping big fellows up there. We'll find plenty of bass, too, and they're fighters from way back."
At breakfast the matter was broached and met with the hearty approval of Mr. Melton.
"I don't think it will rain before night," he said, "and on a hazy day like this they'll keep you busy pulling them in. How about tackle? Did you bring any along?"
"Plenty," answered Bert. "Each of us has a rod and reel. The pike and pickerel will bite at the spoon, and we can get plenty of bait for the bass right out here in the garden. Let's hurry up, fellows, and get busy," he continued, pushing his chair away from the table. "Won't you go along, Mr. Melton."
"Like to," said their host. "Nothing would suit me better than to pull in some of the sockdolagers you'll find in that lake. But I've got a date with a horse dealer to-day, who's coming up to look at some of my bronchos, and I can't get off. Don't catch them all to-day," he laughed, "and some day soon I'll go with you. Of course, you'll take your guns along."
"Why, yes, if you think it necessary," replied Bert. "But we'll be pretty well loaded with tackle and fish if we have any luck."
"Never mind the load," he adjured emphatically. "Never go into the mountains without your gun. Of course, you may have no use for it. Chances are that you won't. But it's a mighty wise thing to have a good rifle along wherever you go in this country. And if you need it at all, you'll need it mighty bad and mighty quick."
So that when the boys left the house a half hour later, they took with them not only all that was necessary to lure the finny prey from their lurking places, but each as well carried on his shoulder a Winchester repeating rifle and around his waist a well-stored cartridge belt.
Mr. Melton gave them explicit directions as to the route they were to follow to find the lake, which lay in the hollow of a broad plateau about five miles back in the mountains.
"You'll find a canoe hidden in the bushes near a big clump of trees on the east shore," he said. "That is, if nobody has swiped it. But I covered it up pretty well the last time I was there, and I guess it's safe enough. If not, you'll have to take your chance in fishing from the shore. There's an island a little way out in the lake, and you'll find the pike thick around there if you can get out to it. And don't wait too long before starting for home. That mountain trail is hard enough to follow in the daytime, but you'd find your work cut out for you if you tried it in the dark."
They promised not to forget the time in their enthusiasm for the sport, and, stowing away in their basket the toothsome and abundant lunch put up by Mrs. Melton, they started off gaily on their trip.
For a little distance from the house the road was fairly level. Then it began to ascend and soon the trees that clothed the slopes shut them in, and they lost sight of the ranch and of everything that spoke of civilization.
"'This is the forest primeval,'" quoted Dick.
"'The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,'" added Tom.
"Primeval's the word," said Bert as he looked in awe at the giant trees, towering in some instances to a height of two hundred feet. "I suppose this looked just as it does now ten thousand years ago. The only thing that suggests man is this trail we're following, and that gets fainter and fainter as we keep climbing. This is sure enough 'God's out-of-doors.'"
The balsam of the pines was in their nostrils and the path was carpeted by the fragrant needles. Squirrels chattered in the trees and chipmunks slipped like shadows between the trunks. As they were passing a monster oak, Bert's observant eye noted something that brought him to a sudden halt.
"Look there, fellows," and he pointed to a place on the bark about fifteen feet from the ground.
"Well, what about it?" demanded Tom.
"Those scratches on the trunk," said Bert. "What made them?"
They looked more closely and saw two rows of scratches that had torn deeply into the bark. Each row consisted of five marks at an equal distance apart. It was as though two gigantic rakes had been drawn along the rough surface, each tooth of the rakes peeling off a long vertical strip.
The boys looked at each other in wonder. Then they peered into the surrounding woods a little uneasily.
"Some animal made those marks," said Bert at last. "And, what's more, there's only one animal that could have done it."
"And that's a grizzly bear," said Dick.
Again the boys looked at each other, and it almost seemed as though they could hear the beating of their hearts. Then Tom measured again with his eye the distance from the ground to where the scratches began.
"Sixteen feet if it's an inch," he decided. "Nonsense," he went on, with a tone of relief in his voice. "There's nothing that walks on four feet could do it. A horse even couldn't stand on his hind legs and strike with his fore hoofs the place where those scratches begin. Some of those pre-historic monsters, whose skeletons we see in the museums, might have done it, but nothing that walks the earth nowadays. You'll have to guess again, Bert."
"They might have been made by some animal in climbing," suggested Dick. "He might have slipped in coming down and torn off those strips in trying to hold on."
"But grizzlies don't climb," objected Bert.
"Who said it was a grizzly?" retorted Tom. "It might have been a black or brown bear. You've got grizzlies on the brain. The very biggest don't measure more than nine or ten feet from the nose to the root of the tail. Allowing a couple of feet more for his reach, and you have eleven or twelve altogether. How do you account for the other four or five? Unless," he went on with elaborate sarcasm, "you figure out that this pet of yours is about fourteen feet long."
The argument certainly seemed to be with Tom, but Bert, although he had no answer to it, still felt unconvinced.
"The scratches are too deep to have been made by any animal slipping," he persisted. "The beast, whatever it was, had a tremendous purchase to dig so deep. And he couldn't have got such a purchase except by standing on his hind legs."
"Marvelous," mocked Tom. "A regular Sherlock Holmes! Perhaps he stood on a ladder or a chair. I've heard that grizzlies carry such things about with them when strolling in the woods. Come along, old man," he bantered, "or these squirrels will think you're a nut and carry you off. There's nothing this side of a nightmare that'll fit your theory, and you'd better give it up and come along with us sensible people."
"But what did do it, then?" asked Bert obstinately.
"Search me," answered Tom flippantly. "I don't have to know. I'm not cursed with curiosity so much as some people I could mention. What I do know is that we're losing time and that I'm fairly aching to bait my hook and fling it into the water. We've promised Mrs. Melton a big mess of fish for supper, and we've got to get busy, or she'll think we're a lot of four-flushers."
They picked up their traps that they had laid aside while they were studying the bark. Tom and Dick kept up a steady fire of jokes, their spirits lightened by the evidence that the "ghost" of the grizzly had been "laid." But Bert answered only in monosyllables. He would have been as relieved as they had he been able to convince himself that he was wrong. He "hadn't lost any bear," and was not particularly anxious to "meet up" with one, especially a monster of the size indicated. Suddenly he dropped the basket.
"I've got it," he exclaimed eagerly.
"No, you haven't," contradicted Dick. "You've just dropped it."
"What have you got?" mocked Tom. "A fit?"
"The answer," said Bert.
"Prove it," challenged Dick.
"I'm from Missouri," said Tom skeptically.
"Why, it's this way," hurried on Bert, too engrossed in his solution to retort in kind. "Sandy was telling me a little while ago about the habits of grizzlies, and he mentioned especially the trick they have of standing on their hind legs and clawing at trees as high as they could reach. But I remember he said they did this only in the spring. They've just come out of winter quarters and they feel the need of stretching their muscles that have got cramped during their long sleep. In the spring, the early spring. Don't you see?"
"Not exactly," confessed Dick.
"No, Sherlock," murmured Tom, "I don't follow you."
"Why," said Bert impatiently, "don't you boobs realize that up in the mountains here the snow is often four or five feet deep in the early spring? How could the grizzly reach that high? Because he stood on a snowbank."
"By Jove," exclaimed Tom, all his self-assurance vanishing, "I believe you're right."
"You've hit the bull's-eye," cried Dick. "Bert, old man, you're a wonder."
"Of course," Bert went on, too generous to gloat over their discomfiture, "that only proves that he was here then. He may be a hundred miles off by this time. Still, it won't do a bit of harm to keep our eyes peeled and make sure that our guns are in good working order. He's probably got a perpetual grouch, and he might be peevish if he should turn up and find us poaching on his hunting grounds."
They moved along, a little more soberly now, and their eyes narrowly scanned the trees ahead as though at any moment through the forest aisles they might discover a giant form lumbering down upon them. They did not think it at all likely, as there had been no rumors for some time past of a grizzly having been seen in the locality, nor had the mutilated body of some luckless steer borne traces of his handiwork. Still it was "better to be safe than sorry," and their vigilance did not relax until they came out of the thicker forest onto a more scantily wooded plateau and saw before them the shining waters of the lake that marked the goal of their journey.
Under the cloudy sky the waters had the steel-gray luster of quicksilver. It seemed to be about three miles in length, although this they could not clearly determine, owing to a curve at the upper end, which concealed its limits in that direction. It was not more than three-quarters of a mile wide, and the expanse was broken by a small wooded island about half way across. Nothing living was in sight, except a huge fish hawk that waited expectantly on a dead branch overhanging the water. Even while they looked, it darted downward, cleaving the air and water like an arrow, and reappeared a moment later with a large fish struggling in its jaws. Resuming its seat upon the branch it tossed the fish in the air, caught it cleverly as it came down, and swallowed it at a gulp.
"Talk about juggling," laughed Tom. "That fellow would make a hit upon the vaudeville stage."
"I'd like first rate to have him at the end of a cord," said Dick.
"Like those natives we saw in China, eh?" suggested Bert. "Do you remember how they used to fasten a ring about the throat so that they couldn't swallow them? It always seemed to me a low-down game to make them fork over as soon as they caught the fish."
"Well, at any rate, that fellow has shown us that there are fish to be had for the taking," said Tom. "I'll hunt up that canoe while you get the rods and reels ready. What are you going to try for first, pickerel or bass?"
"Suppose we take a hack at both," suggested Dick. "I'll get out the spoon bait and try for pike and pickerel. You and Bert can use the live bait and see what luck you have with the bass."
A careful search revealed the canoe, so cunningly hidden by its owner under a heap of brush and sedge-grass, that only the explicit directions they had received enabled them to find it. It was in good condition, about eighteen feet in length and two paddles lay in the bottom. Tom got in, pushed off from the shore, and with deft strokes brought the slender craft down to where his friends were waiting.
Bert eyed the frail boat dubiously.
"A canoe is a dandy thing for cruising in, especially if you want to get somewhere in a hurry, but it was never meant for a fishing party," he commented. "We'd have to be so careful in moving about that we couldn't keep our mind on the sport. You couldn't play a bass from one without danger of upsetting. I tell you what we'd better do. Let one of us fish from the shore for bass, while the two others in the canoe troll for pickerel. Two lines can be put out over the stern and one can paddle gently while the other keeps a sharp eye on the lines. Between us all we ought to get a mess in less than no time. We'll toss up to see which shall do the lonesome act while the others use the canoe. At noontime we'll have a fish fry right here on the shore to help us out with the lunch. The one who catches the first fish gets out of doing any of the work. The one who gets the next will have to do the cooking and the one that trails in last will have to clean the fish. What do you say?"
There was no dissenting voice, and the spinning coin decreed that Tom and Dick should do the trolling, while Bert remained on shore and tried for bass.
With the polished spoons twinkling in the water behind, the canoe shot out to the center of the lake. Bert carefully baited his hook and cast it far out from shore. Then, with the happy optimism of the average fisherman, he settled back and waited for results.
Contrary to the usual experience, those results were not long in coming. Tom was the first to score. The spoon at the end of his line dipped violently, and, hauling it in rapidly, he yanked in a big pickerel. He did not dare to shout, for fear of scaring the wary denizens of the lake, but he held it up for Bert to see, and the latter responded with a wave of the hand in congratulation.
The next instant he had to grab his own rod with both hands, while the cord whistled out over the reel. He had made a "strike," and the frantic plunges at the other end of the line told that he had hooked a fighter. Back and forth he darted, until it seemed as though the slender rod would break under the strain. Bert's fighting blood responded to the challenge, and he played his opponent with all the skill and judgment in which he was a past master. It was fully ten minutes before, carefully shortening his line, he was able to land on the bank a magnificent striped bass.
From that time on, the sport was fast and furious. The lake was full of fish, and it had been visited so rarely that they had not learned the danger of the bait that trailed so temptingly before them. In half an hour they had caught more than they could eat and carry home, and Tom, whose appalling appetite was clamoring for satisfaction, suggested that they wind up and pull for shore. Dick was nothing loath, and the canoe, more heavily loaded than when they had started out, glided shoreward until its nose touched the bank where Bert was standing, surrounded by a host of finny beauties that bore witness to his skill.
They fastened the boat securely and spent a few minutes comparing their catches. Then they gathered a heap of dry brush and burned it until they had a glowing bed of embers. They had no frying pan, but Bert improvised an ingenious skillet of tough oaken twigs, that, held high enough above the fire, promised to broil the fish to a turn.
Tom, who, in accordance with the agreement, had nothing to do, stretched himself out luxuriously and "bossed the job."
"See that you don't burn the fish, my man," he said to Bert, affecting a languid drawl. "And you, my good fellow," he added, turning to Dick, "be sure and clean them thoroughly."
He dodged just in time to avoid a fish head that Dick threw at him. It whizzed by his ear, and his quick duck detracted somewhat from his dignity.
"The growing insolence of the lower classes," he muttered, regaining his equilibrium. "You're fired," he roared, glaring at Dick.
"All right," said Dick, throwing down his knife.
"No, no," corrected Tom hurriedly, "not till after dinner."
Before long the fish were sputtering merrily over the fire and the appetizing smell was full of promise. It even induced Tom to abandon his leisurely attitude and "rustle" the good things out of the basket. They made a royal meal and feasted so full and long that, when at last old Nature simply balked at more, they had no desire to do anything but lie back lazily and revel in the sheer delight of living.
"If I've an enemy on earth, I forgive him," sighed Dick blissfully.
"Old Walt Whitman's my favorite poet," said Tom. "Isn't he the fellow that tells you to 'loaf and invite your soul'?"
"Soul," grunted Bert disdainfully. "You haven't any soul. Just now you're all body."
"Always pickin' on me," groaned Tom resignedly.
In complete abandonment to their sense of well being they drew their hats over their eyes and stretched out under the shadow of the trees that came down almost to the water's edge. A brooding peace enveloped them, and the droning of insects and the faint lapping of the water on the shore lulled them into drowsiness. Insensibly they lapsed into slumber.
A half hour passed before Bert started up and rubbed his eyes. It took him a moment to realize where he was. His eyes fell on his sleeping companions, and he made a movement as though to awake them. Then he checked the impulse.
"What's the use?" he said to himself. "There's plenty of time before we need to start for home."
He yawned and lay back again. But now the desire for sleep had left him. After a moment he sat up again.
"I haven't tried the canoe yet," he thought. "I'll take a little spin across to the island. They'll be awake by the time I get back."
Noiselessly he walked down to the water's edge, unfastened the canoe and took up the paddle.
There was scarcely a ripple on the lake except that made by the sharp bow of the canoe. There was an exhilarating sense of flying as his light craft shot away from the shore. Almost before he knew it he had covered the distance and was drawing up the canoe on the sloping beach of the island.
It was larger than he had thought, at a distance, and toward the center was heavily wooded. There was a dense tangle of undergrowth, and in order to avoid this he skirted the shore, intending to make a complete circuit before returning to the canoe.
His surprise was great when on reaching the further side he found that it was not an island at all. A narrow strip of land connected it with the mainland beyond. It was not over a hundred feet in width, but he noticed that there was a very distinct path that had been beaten through the undergrowth. The discovery for a moment startled him. Then he realized that the woods were, of course, full of all sorts of harmless animals, who had to come down to the water to drink. This would explain the beaten path, and in some measure it reassured him.
Still his gait was quicker as he sped along, intent on regaining the canoe. It would have perhaps been just as well if he had put his rifle in when he started. He listened attentively now as he hurried on, but not a sound broke the stillness of the woods.
And now his pulses began to drum with that subtle sixth sense of his that warned of danger. Again and again in his adventurous career he had felt it, and it had never misled him. It was something like the second sight of the Highlander. His nature was so highly organized that like a sensitive camera it registered impressions that others overlooked. Now some "coming event" was casting "its shadow before," and the mysterious monitor warned him to be on his guard.
It was with a feeling of intense relief that he came again in sight of the canoe and saw that it was undisturbed. He looked across and saw his friends waving at him. He waved back and stooped to unfasten the canoe.
Then something that struck him as odd in their salutation caused him to look again. It was not simply a friendly greeting. There was terror, panic, wild anxiety. And now they were shouting and pointing to something behind him.
He turned like a flash. And what he saw made his heart almost leap from his body.
The Grizzly at Bay
Tearing down upon him in a rapid, lumbering gallop was a monstrous bear. It needed no second glance to tell that it was a grizzly. The little eyes incandescent with rage, the big hump just back of the ears, the enormous size and bulk could belong to none other than this dreaded king of the Rockies.
For an instant every drop of blood in Bert's body seemed to rush to his head. It suffused his eyes with a red film and sounded like thunder in his ears. Then the flood receded and left him cold as ice. He was himself again, cool, self-reliant, with his mental processes working like lightning.
He had no time to unfasten the canoe. Long before he could get in and push off, the bear would have been on top of him. The beast was not more than thirty feet away and two or three more lunges would bring him to the water's edge.
Bert's first impulse was to dive into the lake and seek to escape by swimming. But this he discarded at once. Fast as he was, he knew that the grizzly could outswim him.
With a quick turn to the left, he plunged into the woods, running like a deer. The bear lost a second or two in trying to check his momentum. Then he turned also and went crashing through the underbrush in pursuit.
Had the going been open Bert might have made good his escape. His legs and wind had once won him a Marathon from the fleetest flyers of the world. But here conditions were against him. Vines reached out to trip him. Impenetrable thickets turned him aside. He had to dodge and twist and squirm his way through the undergrowth.
But the bear had no such handicaps. His great body crashed straight through all obstacles. The fearful padding of those monstrous feet came nearer and nearer. Bert's legs worked like piston rods, but to no avail. The distance between them steadily decreased, and now he could hear the labored breathing of his enraged pursuer close on his heels. It was like a hideous nightmare, and gradually the conviction began to force itself upon him that he was running his last race. Once in the grip of that monster, nothing could save him from a frightful death.
But he would not give up. The old "never say die" spirit that had carried him through so many tight places still persisted. On, on, he ran, putting every ounce of speed and strength in one last spurt. He could feel the hot breath of the grizzly and the padding feet were terribly near. Then, just as the beast was ready to hurl its huge bulk against him, Bert swung on his heel like a pivot, doubled in his tracks and flashed back past his pursuer, just escaping a lunge from the outstretched paw. But that marvelous swaying motion of the hips that had eluded so many tacklers on the football field stood him in stead, and he just grazed the enormous claw that tried to stop him.
That strategy proved his salvation. The grizzly plunged along for many feet before he could turn, and in that instant's respite Bert saw his chance.
Right in front of him was a tall oak whose lowest branch was full twenty feet from the ground. Like a streak Bert reached it, whirled around to the farther side and swarmed up it like a monkey. He reached the fork and swung himself out on the branch with not a second to spare. The grizzly, frothing with rage and hate, had hurled himself against the tree and his up-reaching claw had torn the bark in a vain attempt to clutch the leg that he only missed by inches.
But he was balked. He could not climb, and the tree was too big for him to tear down, as he might have done had it been slenderer or younger. By the narrowest of margins he had failed to add one more victim to those who had already fallen before his ferocity.
Not that he had relinquished hope. He had lost in the open attack, but he still had the resource of a siege. Soon or late he was sure his victim would have to descend. His victory was only deferred. Back and forth and round and round the tree he paced, growling fiercely, at times rearing himself on his hind legs and tearing savagely at the trunk. His open jaws, slavering with foam and showing his great yellow fangs, were full of fearful menace, and his wicked eyes glowed like a furnace. His temper, evil at all times, had been rendered worse by the fury of the chase and disappointment at his failure. Baffled rage bristled in every hair of his shaggy hide. At that moment he would have charged a regiment.
Bert settled himself in the crotch of the tree and gazed at his thwarted enemy with a sensation of indescribable relief. He was drenched with sweat, his clothes were torn by that wild race through the brush, his breath came in gasps that were almost sobs, and his heart was beating like a triphammer. He had looked into the very eyes of death and almost by a miracle had escaped. For the present, at least, he was safe. His giant adversary could not reach him.
Had he been entirely alone in this wild section of the mountains, or had his whereabouts been unknown, his situation would have been hopeless. The bear might settle down to a siege of many days, and he had powerful allies in sleep and hunger. If wearied nature should assert her rights and Bert in a moment of drowsiness topple from his perch, or if, driven by starvation, he should make a last despairing effort to escape, the chances would be all against him. The instinct of the grizzly told him that, if not interfered with, time alone was all that was necessary to bring his foe within his grasp.
But there were Dick and Tom to be reckoned with, and beyond them was Melton, who would surely organize a party and come to his aid. He knew that his comrades would not leave him in the lurch and that they would risk their lives to save him from his perilous position. No doubt but at that moment they were working with might and main to devise some plan of rescue.
But what could they do? He had taken the canoe and they had no means of getting over to him. Had they known of the narrow peninsula on the farther side, they might have worked their way around the end of the lake. But they thought the place was an island, only to be reached by water. Both were strong swimmers and could easily win their way over. But they couldn't do that and keep their guns dry, and without weapons they could do nothing.
In the wild dash through the woods he had described almost a perfect circle, and the tree in which he was sheltered commanded a view of the canoe and the shimmering water beyond. It maddened him to see the boat rocking there idly, as useless to him at that moment as though it were a thousand miles away.
If he had only brought his rifle with him! How thoughtless of him to take such a chance! The words of Mr. Melton at the breakfast table recurred to him and he fairly writhed in an agony of self-reproach.
The grizzly had by this time realized that nothing could be done for the present but wait. He ceased his restless swaying to and fro and squatted down on his haunches, his murderous eyes never leaving Bert for an instant.
On the other side of the lake Dick and Tom were working with feverish energy, almost beside themselves with fear at their comrade's terrible plight.
They had awakened soon after Bert's departure, and had been startled for a moment at finding him gone. The absence of the canoe, however, followed by a glimpse of it on the shore across the water, had reassured them, and they had waited more or less patiently for his reappearance.
Suddenly Dick started to his feet.
"What's that?" he cried, pointing to the woods near the water's edge.
"Where?" exclaimed Tom, startled out of his usual calm by the evident alarm in Dick's voice.
"In that big clump of trees over to the right," was the answer, and then his voice rose to a shout: "Great Scott! It's a grizzly."
"And there comes Bert," yelled Tom. "Bert, Bert," they shouted wildly, rushing down to the shore and waving their hands frantically.
They had seen Bert dart off into the woods with the bear in hot pursuit, but the outcome of the chase had been hidden from their view. They did not dare to think of what might have happened, and they looked at each other in helpless anguish.
"Quick!" yelled Dick, wrenching himself loose from the paralysis that had seized him. "A raft. We've got to get over there with the guns. We've got a paddle left and we can push ourselves over. Oh, Bert, Bert!" he groaned.
But Tom intervened.
"No good," he said hurriedly. "It'll take too long to make it and we'd be too slow in getting across. The canoe's our only chance. You get the guns ready."
He kicked off his shoes, tore off his clothes, dived head foremost into the lake, and with long, powerful strokes headed for the farther shore.
He had an almost amphibious love for the water and the task he had set for himself was easy. But his fear for Bert and his impatience at the delay before he could help him made it seem to him as though he were going at a snail's pace, although in reality he was cleaving the water like a fish.
Bert, looking out from his perch in the tree, suddenly had his attention attracted by something on the smooth surface. He thought at first that it was a water fowl. Then he looked more closely, and his heart gave a great bound as he recognized that it was one of his comrades, although he could not tell which one at that distance. He saw that the swimmer was headed straight for the canoe, and he surmised the plan in an instant.
"Good old Dick and Tom," he exulted to himself. "They're two pals in a thousand. I knew they'd get me out of this or die in the trying."
But the bear, too, seemed to realize that something was happening. His scent was phenomenally keen, and the wind was blowing directly toward him from the lake. He sniffed the air for a moment and then, with a threatening growl, looked toward the water. Then he rose slowly and backed in that direction, still keeping an eye on Bert.