COWMEN AND RUSTLERS
A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges
EDWARD S. ELLIS
AUTHOR OF "LOG CABIN SERIES," "BOONE AND KENTON SERIES," ETC.
WITH FOUR FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS BY W.M. CARY
I. A MERRY GROUP
II. A WARNING FROM THE WOODS
III. THE FLIGHT OVER THE ICE
IV. THE REPORT OF GUNS
V. LOOKING SOUTHWARD
VI. COWMEN AND RUSTLERS
VII. THE WARNING
IX. A SUMMONS AND A REPLY
X. A HOT PURSUIT
XI. A STRANGE DIVERSION
XII. THE BACK TRAIL
XIII. A CONSULTATION
XIV. UNWELCOME CALLERS
XV. THE "DOG INDIANS"
XVI. AN UNPLEASANT VISIT
XVII. A DELICATE SITUATION
XVIII. A MISCALCULATION
XIX. THE BURNED RANCH
XX. THE TRUCE
XXI. A MESSENGER IN HASTE
XXII. IMPORTANT TIDINGS
XXIII. AT BAY
XXIV. THE PRIMITIVE FORT
XXV. THE FLAG or TRUCE
XXVI. THE UNDERGROUND MISSIVE
XXVII. ON PAROLE
XXVIII. THE FINAL SUMMONS
XXIX. A STRANGE OCCURRENCE
XXX. THE MISSING ONE
XXXI. WHY IT WAS DONE
XXXII. THE HOSTAGE
XXXIII. THE PRISONER
XXXIV. OUT IN THE NIGHT
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
"FIRED TWO MORE BARRELS"
"COMING STRAIGHT TOWARD HIM"
"A MASS OF BLAZING EMBERS"
"CHALLENGED ON THE EDGE OF THE CAMP"
A MERRY GROUP.
The Whitney household, in the western part of Maine, was filled with sunshine, merriment and delight, on a certain winter evening a few years ago.
There was the quiet, thoughtful mother, now past her prime, but with many traces of the beauty and refinement that made her the belle of the little country town until Hugh Whitney, the strong-bearded soldier, who had entered the war as private and emerged therefrom with several wounds and with the eagles of a colonel on his shoulder, carried her away from all admirers and made her his bride.
Hugh had been absent a couple of weeks in Montana and Wyoming, whither he was drawn by a yearning of many years' standing to engage in the cattle business. He had received some tuition as a cowboy on the Llano Estacada, and the taste there acquired of the free, wild life, supplemented, doubtless, by his experience during the war, was held in restraint for a time only by his marriage.
The absence of the father was the only element lacking to make the household one of the happiest in that section of Maine; but the letter just received from him was so cheerful and affectionate that it added to the enjoyment of the family.
The two principal factors in this jollity were the twins and only children, Fred and Jennie, seventeen on their last birthday, each the picture of health, bounding spirits, love and devotion to their parents and to one another. They had been the life of the sleighing-parties and social gatherings, where the beauty of the budding Jennie attracted as much admiration as did that of her mother a score of years before, but the girl was too young to care for any of the ardent swains who were ready to wrangle for the privilege of a smile or encouraging word. Like a good and true daughter she had no secrets from her mother, and when that excellent parent said, with a meaning smile, "Wait a few years, Jennie," the girl willingly promised to do as she wished in that as in every other respect.
Fred was home for the Christmas holidays, and brought with him Monteith Sterry, one year his senior. Sterry lived in Boston, where he and Fred Whitney were classmates and warm friends. Young Whitney had spent several Sundays with Sterry, and the latter finally accepted the invitation to visit him at his home down in Maine.
These two young men, materially aided by Jennie, speedily turned the house topsy-turvy. There was no resisting their overrunning spirits, though now and then the mother ventured on a mild protest, but the smile which always accompanied the gentle reproof betrayed the truth, that she was as happy as they in their merriment, with which she would not have interfered for the world.
That night the full, round moon shone from an unclouded sky, and the air was crisp and clear. There was not much snow on the ground, and the ice on the little river at the rear of the house was as smooth as a polished window-pane. For nearly two score miles this current, which eventually found its way into the Penobscot, wound through the leafless woods, past an occasional opening, where, perhaps, the humble cabin of some backwoodsman stood.
It was an ideal skating rink, and the particular overflow of spirits on that evening was due to the agreement that it was to be devoted to the exhilarating amusement.
"We will leave the house at 8 o'clock," said Fred at the supper table, "and skate to the mouth of Wild Man's Creek and back."
"How far is that?" inquired Monteith Sterry.
"About ten miles."
Pretty Jennie's face took on a contemptuous expression.
"Not a bit more; we shall be only fairly started when we must turn back."
"Well, where do you want to go, sister?"
"We shouldn't think of stopping until we reach Wolf Glen."
"And may I inquire the distance to that spot?" asked Sterry again.
"Barely five miles beyond Wild Man's Creek," said she.
Those were not the young men to take a "dare" from a girl like her. It will be admitted that thirty miles is a pretty good spurt for a skater, but the conditions could not have been more favourable.
"It's agreed, then," remarked Sterry, "that we will go to Wolf Glen, and then, and then—"
"And then what?" demanded Jennie, turning toward him.
"Why not keep on to Boston and call on my folks?"
"If you will furnish the ice we will do so."
"I couldn't guarantee ice all the way, but we can travel by other means between the points, using our skates as the chance offers."
"Or do as that explorer who is to set out in search of the north pole—have a combination skate and boat, so when fairly going we can keep straight on."
"I will consent to that arrangement on one condition," interposed the mother, so seriously that all eyes were turned wonderingly upon her.
"What is that?"
"That you return before the morrow."
The countenances became grave, and turning to Sterry, on her right, Jennie asked, in a low voice:
"Is it safe to promise that?"
"Hardly. Let us leave the scheme until we have time in which fully to consider it."
"You will start, as I understand, at eight," remarked the mother, speaking now in earnest. "You can readily reach Wolf Glen within a couple of hours. There you will rest a while and return as you choose. So I will expect you at midnight."
"Unless something happens to prevent."
The words of Monteith Sterry were uttered jestingly, but they caused a pang to the affectionate parent as she asked:
"What could happen, Monteith?"
Fred took it upon himself to reply promptly:
"Nothing at all."
"Is the ice firm and strong?"
"It will bear a locomotive; I never saw it finer; the winter has not been so severe as some we have known, but it has got there all the same; Maine can furnish the Union with all the ice she will want next summer."
"There may be air-holes."
"None that we cannot see; they are few and do not amount to anything."
Here Sterry spoke with mock gravity.
"The name, Wolf Glen, is ominous."
"We have wolves and bears and other big game in this part of the State, but not nearly as many as formerly. It hardly pays to hunt them."
"I hope we shall meet a few bears or wolves," said Jennie, with her light laugh.
"And why?" demanded the shocked mother.
"I would like a race with them; wouldn't it be fun!"
"Yes," replied Sterry, "provided we could outskate them."
"I never knew that wild animals skate."
"They can travel fast when they take it into their heads to turn hunter. I suppose many of the bears are hibernating, but the wolves—if there are any waiting for us—will be wide awake and may give us the roughest kind of sport."
Fred Whitney knew his mother better than did his friend and understood the expression on her face. So did Jennie, and the couple had such sport of their Boston visitor that the cloud quickly vanished and Monteith felt a trifle humiliated at his exhibition of what might be considered timidity. Nevertheless he quietly slipped his loaded revolver in the outer pocket of his heavy coat just before starting and when no one was watching him.
Precisely at eight o'clock the three friends, warmly and conveniently clad, with their keen-edged skates securely fastened, glided gracefully up-stream, the mother standing on the porch of her home and watching the figures as they vanished in the moonlight.
She was smiling, but in her heart was a misgiving such as she had not felt before, when her children were starting off for an evening's enjoyment. The minute they were beyond sight she sighed, and, turning about, resumed her seat by the table in the centre of the sitting-room, where, as the lamplight fell upon her pale face, she strove to drive away the disquieting thoughts that would not leave her.
It was a pleasing sight as the three young people, the picture of life, health and joyous spirits, side by side, laughing, jesting, and with never a thought of danger, moved out to the middle of the river and then sped toward its source, with the easy, beautiful movement which in the accomplished skater is the ideal of grace. The motion seemingly was attended with no effort, and could be maintained for hours with little fatigue.
The small river, to which allusion has been made, was one hundred yards in width at the point where they passed out upon its surface. This width naturally decreased as they ascended, but the decrease was so gradual that at Wolf Glen, fifteen miles away, the breadth was fully three-fourths of the width opposite the Whitney home. Occasionally, too, the channel widened to double or triple its usual extent, but those places were few in number, and did not continue long. They marked a shallowing of the current and suggested in appearance a lake.
There were other spots where this tributary itself received others. Sometimes the open space would show on the right, and further on another on the left indicated where a creek debouched into the stream, in its search for the ocean, the great depository of most of the rivers of the globe.
The trees, denuded of vegetation, projected their bare limbs into the crystalline air, and here and there, where they leaned over the banks, were thrown in relief against the moonlit sky beyond. The moon itself was nearly in the zenith, and the reflected gleam from the glassy surface made the light almost like that of day. Along the shore, however, the shadows were so gloomy and threatening that Monteith Sterry more than once gave a slight shudder and reached his mittened hand down to his side to make sure his weapon was in place.
The course was sinuous from the beginning, winding in and out so continuously that the length of the stream must have been double that of the straight line extending over the same course. Some of these turnings were abrupt, and there were long, sweeping curves with a view extending several hundred yards.
They were spinning around one of these, when Sterry uttered an exclamation:
"Why?" inquired Jennie, at his elbow.
"I had just wrought myself up to the fancy that we were pioneers, the first people of our race to enter this primeval wilderness, when lo!"
He extended his arm up-stream and to the right, where a star-like twinkle showed that a dwelling stood, or some parties had kindled a camp-fire.
"Quance, an old fisherman and hunter, lives, there," explained Fred, "as I believe he has done for fifty years."
"Would you like to make a call on him?" asked Jennie.
"I have no desire to do so; I enjoy this sport better than to sit by the fire and listen to the most entertaining hunter. Isn't that he?"
The cabin was several rods from the shore, the space in front being clear of trees and affording an unobstructed view of the little log structure, with its single door and window in front, and the stone chimney from which the smoke was ascending. Half-way between the cabin and the stream, and in the path connecting the two, stood a man with folded arms looking at them. He was so motionless that he suggested a stump, but the bright moonlight left no doubt of his identity.
"Holloa, Quance!" shouted Fred, slightly slackening his speed and curving in toward shore.
The old man made no reply. Then Jennie's musical voice rang out on the frosty air, but still the hunter gave no sign that he knew he had been addressed. He did not move an arm nor stir.
"I wonder whether he hasn't frozen stiff in that position," remarked Sterry. "He may have been caught in the first snap several weeks ago and has been acting ever since as his own monument."
At the moment of shooting out of sight around the curve the three glanced back. The old fellow was there, just as they saw him at first. They even fancied he had not so much as turned his head while they were passing, but was still gazing at the bank opposite him, or, what was more likely, peering sideways without shifting his head to any extent.
The occurrence, however, was too slight to cause a second thought.
They were now fairly under way, as may be said, being more than a mile from their starting-point. They were proceeding swiftly but easily, ready to decrease or increase their speed at a moment's notice. Sometimes they were nigh enough to touch each other's hands, and again they separated, one going far to the right, the other to the left, while the third kept near the middle of the stream. Then two would swerve toward shore, or perhaps it was all three, and again it was Jennie who kept the farthest from land, or perhaps a fancy led her to skim so close that some of the overhanging limbs brushed her face.
"Look out; there's an air-hole!" called the brother, at the moment the three reunited after one of these excursions.
"What of it!" was her demand, and instead of shooting to the right or left, she kept straight on toward the open space.
"Don't try to jump it!" cautioned Sterry, suspecting her purpose; "it's too wide."
"No doubt it is for you."
The daring words were on her lips, when she rose slightly in the air and skimmed as gracefully as a bird across the space of clear water. She came down seemingly without jar, with the bright blades of steel ringing over the crystal surface, and without having fallen a foot to the rear of her companions.
"That was foolish," said her brother, reprovingly; "suppose the ice had given away when you struck it again?"
"What's the use of supposing what could not take place?"
"The air-hole might have been wider than you suppose."
"How could that be when it was in plain sight? If it had been wider, why I would have jumped further, or turned aside like my two gallant escorts. Stick to me and I'll take care of you."
There was no dashing the spirits of the girl, and Sterry broke into laughter, wondering how it would be with her if actual danger did present itself.
Occasionally the happy ones indulged in snatches of song and fancy skating, gliding around each other in bewildering and graceful curves. The three were experts, as are nearly all people in that section of the Union. Any one watching their exhibitions of skill and knowing the anxiety of the mother at home would have wondered why she should feel any misgiving concerning them.
True, there were wild animals in the forests, and at this season of the year, when pressed by hunger, they would attack persons if opportunity presented; but could the fleetest outspeed any one of those three, if he or she chose to put forth the utmost strength and skill possessed?
It was Jennie who uttered the exclamation, and there was good cause for it. She was slightly in advance, and was rounding another of the turns of the stream, when she caught sight of a huge black bear, who, instead of staying in some hollow tree or cave, sucking his paw the winter through, was lumbering over the ice in the same direction with themselves.
He was near the middle of the frozen current, so that it was prudent for them to turn to the right or left, and was proceeding at an easy pace, as if he was out for a midnight stroll, while he thought over matters. Though one of the stupidest of animals, he was quick to hear the noise behind him and looked back to learn what it meant.
A WARNING FROM THE WOODS.
Monteith Sterry began drawing the mitten from his right hand with the intention of using his revolver on the bear, when he checked himself with the thought:
"Better to wait until I need it; the most of this excursion is still before us."
The lumbering brute came to a stop, with his huge head turned, and surveyed the approaching skaters. Had they attempted to flee, or had they come to a halt, probably he would have started after them. As it was he swung half-way round, so that his side was exposed. He offered a fine target for Sterry's weapon, but the young man still refrained from using it.
"It isn't well to go too near him," remarked Fred Whitney, seizing the arm of his sister and drawing her toward the shore on the left.
"I don't mean to," replied the bright-witted girl, "but if we turn away from him too soon he will be able to head us off; he mustn't suspect what we intend to do."
"There's sense in that," remarked Sterry, "but don't wait too long."
The three were skating close together, with their eyes on the big creature, who was watching them sharply.
"Now!" called Fred, in a low, quick voice.
He had not loosened his grip of his sister's arm, so that when he made the turn she was forced to follow him. The moment was well chosen, and the three swung to one side as if all were controlled by the single impulse.
Bruin must have been astonished; for, while waiting for his supper to drop into his arms, he saw it leaving him. With an angry growl he began moving toward the laughing party.
The tinge of anxiety which Fred Whitney felt lasted but a moment. He saw that they could skate faster than the bear could travel; and, had it been otherwise, no cause for fear would have existed, for, with the power to turn like a flash, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to elude the efforts of the animal to seize them.
They expected pursuit, and it looked for a minute as if they were not to be disappointed. The animal headed in their direction with no inconsiderable speed, but, with more intelligence than his kind generally display, he abruptly stopped, turned aside, and disappeared in the wood before it could be said the race had really begun.
Jennie was the most disappointed of the three, for she had counted upon an adventure worth the telling, and here it was nipped in the bud. She expressed her regret.
"There's no helping it," said Monteith, "for I can think of no inducement that will bring him back; but we have a good many miles before us, and it isn't likely that he's the only bear in this part of Maine."
"There's some consolation in that," she replied, leading the way back toward the middle of the course; "if we see another, don't be so abrupt with him."
The stream now broadened to nearly three times its ordinary extent, so that it looked as if they were gliding over the bosom of some lake lagoon instead of a small river. At the widest portion, and from the furthest point on the right, twinkled a second light, so far back among the trees that the structure from whence it came was out of sight. They gave it little attention and kept on.
Sterry took out his watch. The moonlight was so strong that he saw the figures plainly. It lacked a few minutes of nine.
"And yonder is the mouth of Wild Man's Creek," said Fred; "we have made pretty good speed."
"Nothing to boast of," replied Jennie; "if it were not for fear of distressing mother, I would insist that we go ten or fifteen miles further before turning back."
Since plenty of time was at command, they continued their easy pace, passing over several long and comparatively straight stretches of frozen water, around sharp bends, beyond another expansion of the stream, in front of a couple of natural openings, and finally, while it lacked considerable of ten o'clock, they rounded to in front of a mass of gray towering rocks on the right bank of the stream, and, skating close into shore, sat down on a bowlder which obtruded several feet above the ice.
They were at the extremity of their excursion. These collective rocks bore the name of Wolf Glen, the legend being that at some time in the past a horde of wolves made their headquarters there, and, when the winters were unusually severe, held the surrounding country in what might be called a reign of terror. They had not yet wholly disappeared, but little fear of them was felt.
The friends could not be called tired, though, after skating fifteen miles, the rest on the stone was grateful.
They sat for half an hour chatting, laughing, and as merry as when they started from home. The sky was still unclouded, but the moon had passed beyond the zenith. A wall of shadow was thrown out from one of the banks, except for occasional short distances, where the course of the stream was directly toward or from the orb.
When Sterry again glanced at his watch it was a few minutes past ten. They had rested longer than any one suspected.
"Mother won't look for us before midnight," remarked Fred, "and we can easily make it in that time."
"She was so anxious," said the sister, who, despite her light-heartedness, was more thoughtful than her brother, "that I would like to please her by getting back sooner than she expects."
"We have only to keep up this pace to do it," said Monteith, "for we have been resting fully a half hour—"
He paused abruptly. From some point in the wintry wilderness came a dismal, resounding wail, apparently a mile distant.
"What is that?" asked Monteith, less accustomed to the Maine woods than his companions.
"It is the cry of a wolf," replied Fred; "I have heard it many times when hunting alone or with father."
"It isn't the most cheerful voice of the night," commented the young Bostonian, who, as yet never dreamed of connecting it with any peril to themselves. And then he sang:
Yes, the war whoop of the Indian may produce a pleasant thrill When mellowed by the distance that one feels increasing still; And the shrilling of the whistle from the engine's brazen snout May have minor tones of music, though I never found it out.
The verse was hardly finished when the howl was repeated.
"It is hard to tell from what point it comes," observed Fred, "but I think it is on the right shore as we go back."
"Do you imagine it is far from the river?" inquired Monteith.
"I think not, but I may be mistaken."
"I am quite sure Fred is right," said his sister; "and, more than that, that particular wolf isn't a great way off. I wonder whether he has scented our trail?"
Before any comment could be made upon this remark, a second, third, fourth, and fully a half-dozen additional howls rang through the forest arches. They came from the left shore, and apparently were about as far off as the cry first heard.
"They are answers," said Fred, in a low voice, in which his companions detected a slight tremor.
It was at this moment that the first fear thrilled all three. The cries might mean nothing, but more likely they meant a good deal. The wolf is one of the fiercest of American wild animals when suffering from hunger, though a coward at other times, and a horde of them are capable of attacking the most formidable denizens of the woods.
The fact that they were between the skaters and home, and at no great distance from the course they must follow to reach there, was cause for fear. It was almost certain that in some way the keen-scented creatures had learned there was game afoot that night for them, and they were signalling to each other to gather for the feast.
Fred and Monteith were not specially frightened on their own account, for, if the worst should come, they could take to the trees and wait for help. They might make a sturdy fight, and perhaps, with anything like a show, could get away from them without taking to such a refuge.
But it was the presence of Jennie that caused the most misgiving. True, she was as swift and skilful a skater as either, but that of itself was not likely to save her.
But she was the coolest of all, now that the danger assumed a reality.
The lightness and gayety that had marked the three from the moment of leaving home had gone. They were thoughtful, the very opposite in their mood to that of a few minutes before.
"I wish I had brought my pistol," said Fred.
"I have mine," observed Monteith; "a good Smith & Wesson, and each of the five chambers is loaded."
"Thank fortune for that; have you any extra cartridges?"
"Your pistol may be the means of saving us."
"Why do you speak that way?" asked Jennie; "I never knew you were scared so easily."
"I am sorry you are with us, sister; my alarm is on your account."
"I do not see why I am not as safe as either of you; neither can skate faster than I."
"If we are to escape by that means, your chances are as good as ours; but those creatures have a fearful advantage over us, because we must run the gauntlet."
"We are not so certain of that; if we hasten, we may pass the danger-point before they discover us."
For the first time since leaving home the three did their best. Separated from each other by just enough space to give play to the limbs, they sped down the icy river with the fleetness of the hurricane, their movements almost the perfect counterpart of each other.
First on the right foot, they shot well toward the shore on that side, then bending gracefully to the left, the weight was thrown on that limb, the impetus being imparted to the body without any apparent effort, after the manner of a master of the skater's art. These, sweeping forward, were many rods in length, the polished steel frequently giving out a metallic ring as it struck the flinty ice. Now and then, too, a resounding creak sped past, and might have alarmed them had they not understood its nature. It indicated no weakness of the frozen surface, but was caused by the settling of the crystal floor as the water flowed beneath.
For a few minutes these were the only noises that broke the impressive stillness. The three had begun to hope that the ominous sounds would be heard no more, and that the wolves were too far from the river to discover them until beyond reach.
If they could once place themselves below the animals they need not fear, for they could readily distance them. Should the speed of the pursuers become dangerous, a sharp turn or change in the course would throw them off and give the fugitives an advantage that would last for a long time. But they dreaded the appearance of a whole pack of the brutes in front, thus shutting off their line of flight homeward. True, in that case they could turn about and flee up stream, but the risk of encountering others attracted by the cries would be great, and perhaps leave their only recourse to a flight into the woods.
The thoughts of each turned to the nearest hunter's cabin, although it was several miles distant, and probably beyond reach.
It was strange that, having emitted so many signals, the wolves should become suddenly quiescent.
No one spoke, but as they glided swiftly forward they peered along the gleaming surface in search of that which they dreaded to see.
They approached one of those long, sweeping bends to which allusion has been made. Jennie had already proven that neither of her companions could outspeed her. They were doing their utmost, but she easily held her own with less effort than they showed.
In truth, she was slightly in advance as they began following the curve of the river, her head, like each of the others, bent forward, to see whither they were going.
"They are there!"
It was she who uttered the exclamation which sent a thrill through both. They asked for no explanation, for none was needed, and an instant later they were at her side, she slightly slackening her pace.
The sight, while alarming, was not all that Fred and Monteith anticipated.
Three or four gaunt animals were trotting along the ice near the left shore, but no others were visible.
"Keep in the middle while I take a turn that way," said Monteith, sheering in the direction named.
Brother and sister did not read the meaning of this course, nor could they detect its wisdom. But they obeyed without question.
Young Sterry hoped by making what might look like an attack upon the famishing beasts to scare them off for a few minutes, during which the three, and especially Jennie, could reach a point below them. With the brutes thus thrown in the rear, it might be said the danger would be over.
Now, as every one knows, the wolf is a sneak, and generally will run from a child if it presents a bold front; but the animal becomes very dangerous when pressed by hunger.
Monteith Sterry's reception was altogether different from what he anticipated. When the half-dozen wolves saw him speeding toward them they stopped their trotting, and, like the bear, looked around, as not understanding what it meant.
"Confound them! Why don't they take to the woods?" he muttered. He had removed the mitten from his right hand, which grasped his revolver. "This isn't according to Hoyle."
He shied a little to the right, with a view of preventing a collision with the creatures, and the moment he was close enough, let fly with one chamber at the nearest.
Accidentally he nipped the wolf, which emitted a yelping bark, leaped several feet in the air, then limped into the woods, as he had learned enough of the interesting stranger.
That was just what the youth had hoped to do, and the success of his scheme would have been perfect had the others imitated their wounded companion, but they did not.
Without paying any attention to Sterry they broke into a gallop toward the middle of the river, their course such as to place them either in advance of Fred and Jennie Whitney or to bring all together.
Greatly alarmed for his friends, Monteith did an unnecessary thing by shouting (for the couple could not fail to see their danger), and fired two more barrels of his pistol. Neither shot took effect, nor did the wolves give them any heed, but they and the skaters converged with perilous swiftness.
Forgetful of his own danger, Monteith shouted again:
"Look out! Why don't you change your course?"
Neither replied, but it was absurd for the panic-stricken youth to suppose they did not understand the situation and were shaping their movements accordingly.
Having observed the wolves as soon as Sterry, they never lost sight of them for a second. Every action was watched, and the curious proceeding noted the instant made.
Fred and Jennie continued gliding straight forward, as if they saw them not, and a collision appeared inevitable. At the moment when Monteith's heart stood still, the couple turned almost at right angles to the left—that is, in exactly the opposite direction from the course of the wolves—and in a second they were fifty feet nearer that shore than the brutes. Then followed another quick turn, and they were gliding with arrowy speed straight down stream. They had simply passed around the animals, who, detecting the trick, made their limbs rigid and slid over the ice, with their claws scratching it, until able to check their speed to allow them to turn and resume the pursuit.
Sterry was on the point of uttering a shout of exultation and admiration at the clever manoeuvre, when Jennie cried out; and well might she do so, for fifty yards beyond, and directly in their path, the ice seemed suddenly to have become alive with the frightful creatures, who streamed from the woods on both sides, ravenous, fierce and unrestrainable in their eagerness to share in the expected feast.
THE FLIGHT OVER THE ICE.
The same minute that Monteith Sterry saw the new peril which threatened them all he darted out beside the brother and sister, who had slackened their pace at sight of the wolves in front.
"What shall we do?" asked Fred; "we cannot push on; let's go up stream."
"You cannot do that," replied Jennie, "for they are gathering behind us."
A glance in that direction showed that she spoke the truth. It looked as if a few minutes would bring as many there as in advance.
"We shall have to take to the woods," said Fred, "and there's little hope there."
"It won't do," added the sister, who seemed to be thinking faster than either of her companions. "The instant we start for the shore they will be at our heels. Make as if we were going to run in close to the right bank, so as to draw them after us; then turn and dash through them."
The manoeuvre was a repetition of the one she and her brother had executed a few minutes before, and was their only hope.
"I will take the lead with my pistol," said Monteith, "while you keep as close to me as you can."
Every second was beyond value. The wolves were not the creatures to remain idle while a conference was under way. At sight of the three figures near the middle of the course they rent the air with howls, and came trotting toward them with that light, springy movement shown by a gaunt hound, to whom the gait is as easy as a walk.
Monteith Sterry shot forward on his right foot, his revolver, with its two precious charges, tightly gripped in his naked hand.
This was to be called into play only in the last extremity. The killing of a couple of wolves from such a horde could produce no effect upon the rest, unless perhaps to furnish some of them a lunch, for one of the curious traits of the lupus species is that they are cannibals, so to speak.
His hope was that the flash and report of the weapon would frighten the animals into opening a path for a moment, through which the skaters could dart into the clear space below.
Having started, Monteith did not glance behind him. Fred and his sister must look out for themselves. He had his hands more than full.
With a swift, sweeping curve he shot toward the bank, the brutes immediately converging to head him off. The slight, familiar scraping on the ice told him that Fred and Jennie were at his heels. He kept on with slackening speed until close to the shore, and it would not do to go any further. An overhanging limb brushed his face.
But his eye was on the wolves further out in the stream. The place was one of the few ones where the course was such that no shadow was along either bank. The moment most of the creatures were drawn well over toward the right shore, Sterry did as his friends did awhile before, skimming abruptly to the left and almost back over his own trail, and then darting around the pack. The line was that of a semicircle, whose extreme rim on the left was several rods beyond the last of the wolves swarming to the right.
"Now!" called Sterry at the moment of turning with all the speed at his command.
Critical as was the moment, he flung one glance behind him. Fred and Jennie were almost nigh enough to touch him with outstretched hand. No need of shouting any commands to them, for they understood what he was doing, or rather trying to do.
Young Sterry, as I have said, had cleared the horde of wolves, making the turn so quickly that they slid a rod or more over the ice before able to check themselves and change their own course.
The stratagem seemed as successful as the other, but it was too soon to congratulate themselves. At the moment when everything promised well, the most enormous wolf he had ever seen bounded from under the trees on the left bank and galloped directly for him.
He was so far in advance that the only way of dodging him was by another sharp turn in his course. To do this, however, would bring him so near the other brutes that they were almost certain to leap upon every one of the party.
"Use your revolver!" called Fred from the rear.
Monteith had already decided that this was an exigency demanding one of the remaining charges, and he partly raised the weapon in front of him.
Meanwhile, the huge wolf had stopped on seeing that the procession was coming in a straight line for him. The youth moderated his speed still more, that he might perfect his aim.
He was in the act of levelling his pistol, when the animal advanced quickly a couple of steps and made a tremendous leap at his throat. The act was unexpected, but at the instant of his leaving the ice Monteith let fly with one chamber at him.
The success was better than he had a right to expect, for the leaden pellet bored its way through the skull of the wolf, who, with a rasping yelp, made a sidelong plunge, as if diving off a bank into the water, and, striking on the side of his head, rolled over on his back, with his legs vaguely kicking at the moon, and as powerless to do harm as a log of wood.
Brief as was the halt, it had given the leading brutes of the main body time to come up. They were fearfully near, when the scent of blood and the sight of their fallen comrade suggested to the foremost that a meal was at their disposal. They flew at the huge fellow and rended him to shreds and fragments in a twinkling.
The only way of escape was still in front, and, with the utmost energy, power, and skill at his command, Monteith Sterry darted ahead. His crouching body, the head well in advance, somewhat after the manner of a racing bicyclist on the home-stretch, his compressed lips, his flashing eyes, with every muscle tense, were proof that he knew it had now become a struggle of life and death.
If he allowed one of those wolves to approach nigh enough to leap upon him, he would be borne to the earth like a flash and share the fate of the victim of his pistol. They were near, for he could hear that multitudinous pattering on the ice, when the din of their cries permitted it, and they were running fast.
But, he reasoned, if they were so close to him they must be still closer to the brother and sister, whose peril, therefore, was correspondingly greater. He looked around. He was farther from the horde than he supposed, but Fred and Jennie were not directly behind him, as he had thought.
At the moment an awful thrill shot through him; he caught a glimpse of Fred close in shore and going like the wind. The couple were still preserved from the fangs of the wolves, but only heaven knew how long it would last.
A short distance ahead an opening showed where a creek put in from the woods and hills. Monteith gave it only a glance when he skimmed past at the same furious pace as before. It looked as if there was hope at last, for the brutes first seen were all at the rear. If new danger came, it would be from others that ran out on the ice in front.
"It seems to me that all the wolves in Maine are on this little river," was his thought, "but there may be a few left that will try to get into our path."
A wild cry came from his friends and he glanced toward them. Not only that, but believing his help was needed, he sheered over to them as quickly as he could.
The course of the river had changed, so that a ribbon of shadow extended along that bank, partially obscuring the form of Fred Whitney, who seemed to cling to it as if therein lay his safety.
The brutes were now so far to the rear that there was little to be feared from them, though they still kept up the pursuit, and while able to follow in a straight line were doing so with more speed than would be expected.
It struck Sterry that his friend was not skating with his utmost skill. He was alarmed.
"What's the matter, Fred?" he called, drawing quickly near him.
"O, Jennie! Jennie! What will become of her?"
Fred Whitney, it was now apparent, was alone.
Forgetful of the savage brutes, Monteith Sterry slackened his pace, and in a scared voice demanded:
"What has become of her? Where is she?"
"She darted into the mouth of that creek."
"Why didn't you follow?"
"I could not; it was done in a flash; she called to me to keep on and said something else which I could not catch."
"But," continued the wondering Monteith, "how could she do it when she was at your side?"
"She fell a little to the rear and made a lightning turn. I attempted to follow, but it seemed half the pack were in my path, and it was certain death. I was frantic for the moment, and even now do not understand what it all meant."
"What a woeful mistake!" wailed Monteith; "the chances are a thousand to one that she is lost."
"I think," said the brother, half beside himself, "that it may have been a good thing, but—"
A peculiar cry behind them caused Monteith to turn his head. The wolves had gained so fast during the last few minutes that one of them was in the act of springing on Fred Whitney.
"Stoop, quick!" shouted his companion.
Fred bent low in the nick of time, and the gaunt, lank body shot over his head, landing on the ice in front. Before he could gather himself a bullet from the revolver was driven into his vitals and he rolled over and over, snapping and yelping in his death-throes.
The skaters swerved aside enough to avoid him, and the next instant were skimming over the ice at their utmost speed.
It was not a moment too soon, for the halt was well-nigh fatal; but they could travel faster than the animals, and steadily drew away from them until, ere long, they were safe, so far as those creatures were concerned. They continued the pursuit, however, being a number of rods to the rear and in plain sight of the fugitives, who looked back, while speeding forward with undiminished swiftness.
But the couple could not continue their flight, knowing nothing of the missing one. The wolves were between them and her, and Monteith Sterry had fired the last shot in his revolver.
"How far back does that tributary reach?" he asked.
"I never learned, but probably a good way."
"Its breadth is not half of this."
"No; nothing like it."
"What has become of her?"
"Alas! alas! What shall I answer?"
"But, Fred, she is not without hope; she can skate faster than either of us, and I am sure none of them was in front of her on the creek or she would not have made the turn she did."
"If the creek extends for several miles, that is with enough width to give her room, she will outspeed them; but how is she to get back?"
"What need that she should? When they are thrown behind she can take off her skates and continue homeward through the woods, or she may find her way back to the river and rejoin us."
"God grant that you are right; but some of the wolves may appear in front of her, and then—"
"Don't speak of it! We would have heard their cries if any of them had overtaken her."
No situation could be more trying than that of the two youths, who felt that every rod toward home took them that distance farther from the beloved one whose fate was involved in awful uncertainty.
"This won't do," added Monteith, after they had skated some distance farther; "we are now so far from the animals that they cannot trouble us again; we are deserting her in the most cowardly manner."
"But what shall we do? What can we do?"
"You know something of this part of the country; let's take off our skates and cut across the creek; she may have taken refuge in the limb of a tree and is awaiting us."
"Isn't some one coming up stream?" asked Fred, peering forward, where the straight stretch was so extensive that the vision permitted them to see unusually far.
"It may be another wolf."
"No; it is a person. Perhaps Quance has been drawn from his home by the racket. He is a great hunter. I hope it is he, for he can give us help in hunting for Jennie—"
Monteith suddenly gripped the arm of his friend.
"It is not a man! It is a woman!"
"Who can it be? Not Jennie, surely—"
"Hurry along! You are no skaters at all!"
It was she! That was her voice, and it was her slight, girlish figure skimming like a swallow toward them.
Within the following minute Fred Whitney clasped his beloved sister in his arms, both shedding tears of joy and gratitude.
Jennie had had a marvellous experience, indeed. Controlled by an intuition or instinct which often surpasses reason, she was led to dart aside into the smaller stream at the critical moment when the fierce wolves were so near that escape seemed impossible. She had fallen slightly to the rear, and a single terrified glance showed her a beast in the act of leaping at her. Her dart to the left was only the effort to elude him for that instant, and she was not aware of the mouth of the creek until she had entered it. Then, seeing that it was altogether too late to rejoin her brother, she had no course left but to continue the flight which, until then, she had not intended.
The words which she called to Fred, that were not understood by him, were to the effect that she would try to rejoin him farther down the stream, with whose many turnings she was more familiar than he.
She ascended the tributary with all the wonderful skill at her command. Not only the brute that was on the point of leaping at her, but three others, turned as soon as they could poise themselves and went after her at their utmost bent.
But her change of direction was a most fortunate action. As in the case of the abrupt darting aside, when on the surface of the larger stream, it placed her considerably in advance of the nearest pursuers. Add to this her power of outspeeding them when the chance was equal, and it will be seen that her only danger was from the front.
The creek was so narrow that if any of the wolves appeared before her she would be lost, for there was not room to manoeuvre as on the larger stream.
But she met none. The first signals had drawn them to the river, and if there were any near, they and she were mutually unaware of it.
As her brother had said, she was more acquainted with this section than he. She knew at what points the river and its tributary curved so as to bring them near each other. Reaching that place, she buried the heels of her skate-runners in the ice, sending the particles about her in a misty shower, and quickly came to a halt. Then, standing motionless, she listened.
In the distance sounded the howling of the animals so repeatedly disappointed of their prey, but none was nigh enough to cause her misgiving.
"I hope no harm has come to Fred or Monteith," she murmured. "Both can skate fast enough to leave the wolves behind; they would have done so at once if they had not been bothered by having me with them. Now they ought to be able to take care of themselves."
She sat down on the bank and removed her skates. The slight layer of snow on the leaves caused no inconvenience, for she was well shod, and the walk was not far. Her fear was that some of the wolves might sneak up unseen. Often she stopped and listened, but when half the distance was passed, without any alarm from that source, she believed nothing was to be feared. A little farther and she reached the main stream, the distance passed being so much less than was necessary for her escorts that she knew that she was in advance of them, even if they had continued their flight without interruption.
Her club skates were securely refastened, and then she listened again.
The cries of the brutes were few and distant and could not cause alarm.
Hark! A familiar sound reached her. She recognized it as made by skates gliding over the ice. Rising to her feet, she remarked, with a smile:
"I think I will give them a surprise." And she did. The meeting was a happy one, and before the stroke of midnight all three were at home, where they found the mother anxiously awaiting their return and greatly relieved to learn that despite their stirring experience no harm had befallen any member of the little party.
THE REPORT OF GUNS.
And now comes a change of scene and incident.
Hugh Whitney returned to his Maine home a few weeks after the stirring adventures of his children and Monteith Sterry with the wolves. He was so pleased with the western country that he made his decision to remove thither. He met with no difficulty in selling at a fair price his little property in the Pine-Tree State, and with a portion of the proceeds he bought a ranch near the headwaters of Powder River, to which place he removed, with his family, in the spring of 1890, directly after the incidents related in the preceding chapters.
One of the pleasures of this radical change of residence and occupation was that it was pleasing to his son Fred and his twin sister Jennie, now about nineteen years of age.
Whether the wife shared in the desire to make her home in that new country, or whether she expressed the wish to do so because she saw it would gratify her husband, cannot be said with certainty. There was no doubt, however, about the eagerness with which the brother and sister took part in the removal.
Young, ardent, and of sturdy frame, with all the natural yearning of imaginative youth for adventure, the prospect was an inviting one to them. Their father's glowing accounts of the magnificent scenery, its vast resources and limitless possibilities, caused a yearning on their part probably deeper than his own.
It is rare that such expectations are fully realized in this life. It cannot be said that those of the brother and sister found more than a partial fulfilment, but, though the fateful day came when they regretted the change beyond the power of language to express, yet it was many months before it dawned upon them.
Hugh Whitney's herd of cattle numbered several thousand, and, on the day when we take up the eventful history of the family, they were grazing on the open ranges along the spurs of the Big Horn Mountains.
The two cowmen engaged by Whitney to assist him in the duty of looking after his property were Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber. They were veterans in the business, brave and true and tried. Under their tuition, and that of his father, Fred Whitney became a skilful horseman and rancher. He learned to lasso and bring down an obdurate steer, to give valuable help in the round-ups, to assist in branding the registered trademark of his father on the haunches of his animals.
This brand consisted of a cross, with two stars above, one below, the initial letter of his given name on the left, and that of his surname on the right. When this was burned into the flesh of the yearlings, it identified his property, no matter where wandering, and the honest rancher would no more disturb it than he would enter another's home and rob him of his clothing.
The first year was an enjoyable one to Jennie. Her father presented her with an excellent animal, of which she became very fond. A good horsewoman when in Maine, in Wyoming she acquired a skill which compelled the admiration of the cowmen themselves.
"She's struck her callin'," remarked Budd Hankinson one day, while watching her speeding like a courser across the open country.
"What is that?" asked the father, who was proud of his children, and especially of the pretty daughter.
"Why, riding hosses like a streak of lightnin'," was the somewhat indefinite response.
"What particular profession can she fill by dashing over the country in that style?" continued the parent with a smile.
"Why, showing other persons how it is done. I've no doubt, colonel, that she could make good wages in breaking broncos and teaching young women like her how to ride in the right style; I advise you to think about it."
"I will do so," replied the parent, with so much gravity that the cowman never suspected his sincerity, but felt the satisfaction of believing he had given his employer a valuable "pointer."
Another pleasure which followed the removal of the Whitneys to Wyoming was that their friend Monteith Sterry followed them within a few months. He had shown some signs of running down in health while attending the high school in Boston, despite the fact that he was one of the best athletes in the institution; but he readily persuaded his wealthy father that a few months' experience in the bracing northwest would do him more good than anything and everything else in the world.
That he might have some pretext other than the one which could not wholly deceive the Whitneys, he engaged to serve the Live Stock Association, which was beginning to have trouble with the rustlers. Matters were not only going wrong, but were rapidly getting worse in Wyoming, and they were glad to secure the services of such a daring and honest youth, who seemed rather to welcome the fact that he could perform his duties faithfully only at personal risk to himself.
It need not be explained how it came about that young Sterry found it necessary to give a great deal of his attention to that section of Wyoming in which the Whitneys lived. There appeared to be more need of it there than in any of the other neighborhoods where the outlook was really threatening.
The natural consequence was that he became a frequent visitor at the home of his former friend, though he found other acquaintances engaged in the cattle business who were glad to have him take shelter under their roofs. Sometimes he engaged in hunting with them, and several times Fred Whitney and Jennie joined him. There was a spice of peril in these excursions which rendered them fascinating to all three.
The particular day to which we refer was a mild afternoon in May, 1892. Jennie was helping her mother with her household duties in their home, where they had lived since coming from their native State. The building was one of the long, low wooden structures common in that section, to which the fashions of the older civilization have not yet penetrated. It possessed all the comforts they required, though it took some time for the brother and sister to accustom themselves to the odd style of architecture.
Jennie, as usual, was in high spirits. She had been out for a ride during the forenoon, and was now trying to make up for it by taking the burden of most of the work upon her comely shoulders.
In the middle of one of her snatches of song she abruptly paused with the question:
"Did you hear that, mother?"
"No; to what do you refer?"
"The sound of rifle-firing; something is wrong on the range."
The two paused and listened, looking in each other's pale countenances as they did so.
"It is rifle-firing!" said Mrs. Whitney in a scared voice; "what can it mean?"
"Trouble with the rustlers," replied Jennie, hurrying through the open door to the outside that she might hear the better. Her mother followed, and the two stood side by side, listening and peering across the wide stretch of undulating plain in the direction of the mountains, whose wooded crests were outlined against the clear spring sky.
There could be no mistaking the alarming sounds. They were made by rifles, fired sometimes in quick succession, often mingling with each other, and then showing comparatively long intervals between the discharges of the weapons.
"Father said the rustlers were becoming bolder," remarked Jennie, "and there was sure to be trouble with them before long."
"It has come," was the comment of the parent, "and who shall tell the result?"
"It cannot last long, mother."
"A few minutes is a good while at such a time. A score of shots have already been fired, and some of them must have done execution."
"Father, Fred and our two men are unerring shots."
"And so are they," responded the mother, referring to the rustlers, who have made so much trouble for the cattlemen of Wyoming.
Mrs. Whitney and her daughter Jennie stood at the door of their ranch listening, with rapidly beating hearts, to the sounds of rifle-firing from the direction of the cattle-range where the beloved husband and son were looking after their property.
Three shots came in quick succession; then, after the interval of a full minute, two more followed, and then all was still.
Mother and daughter maintained their listening attitude a while longer, but nothing more reached their ears.
"It is over," said the parent in an undertone.
Aye, the conflict was over. One party was beaten off, but which? And how many brave men, the finest horsemen and rifle-shots in the world, lay on the green sward, staring, with eyes that saw not, at the blue sky, or were being borne away by their comrades on the backs of their tough ponies?
A brief space and the story would be told.
Jennie Whitney shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed to the southward for the first sight of returning friends, whose coming could not be long delayed.
The mother was straining her vision in the same direction, watching for that which she longed and yet dreaded to see. But years had compelled her to use glasses, and her eyes were not the equal of those bright orbs of Jennie. She would be the first to detect the approaching horsemen.
A good field-glass was in the house, but neither thought of it; their attention was too deeply absorbed.
"It is time they appeared," remarked Mrs. Whitney, her heart sinking under the dreadful fear of the possible reason why they remained invisible.
Suppose there was none to appear!
But those keen eyes of the maiden have detected something, and she starts and peers more intently than before.
Far to the southward, in the direction of the mountain spurs, and on the very boundary of her vision, a black speck seems to be quivering and flickering, so indistinct, so impalpable, that none but the experienced eye can guess its nature.
But the eye which is studying it is an experienced one. Many a time it has gazed across the rolling prairie, and identified the loved father and brother before another could discover a person at all.
"Some one is coming," she says to her mother.
"Some one!" is the alarmed response; "are there no more?"
"There may be, but this one is in advance."
"But why should he be in advance of the rest?" is the query, born of the fear in the heart of the parent.
"It is not mine to answer for the present; he may be better mounted and is coming for—for—"
"Help! What help can we give them?"
"We have a gun in the house, and there is plenty of ammunition."
"That means they have suffered—have been defeated. Look closely, Jennie; do you see no others?"
She has been searching for them from the first. The approaching horseman is now fully defined against the dark-green of the mountains, and the country for half a mile is in clear view.
Over this broad expanse Jennie Whitney's eyes rove, and her heart seems to stand still as she answers:
"He is alone; I see no others."
"Then he brings evil tidings! Our people have been defeated; more than one has fallen."
The approaching horseman was riding furiously. His fleet animal was on a dead run, his neck outstretched, mane and tail streaming as he thundered through the hurricane created by his own tremendous speed.
The man who sat in the saddle was a perfect equestrian, as are all the cowmen and rustlers of the West. He leaned forward, as if he would help his horse to reach his goal at the earliest instant. His broad-brimmed hat fitted so well that it kept its place on his head without any fastening; but his own long, dark locks fluttered over his brawny shoulders, while the trusty Winchester was held in a firm grasp across the saddle in front, where it could be used on the second needed.
Jennie Whitney was studying him closely, for he must be father, brother, or one of the two hired men. She was praying that he was a relative, but it was not so.
The mother could now distinguish the horseman plainly, though not as much so as her daughter.
"I think it is father," she said, speaking her hope rather than her conviction.
"No; it is not he," replied the daughter.
"Then it is Fred."
"No; you are mistaken; it is Budd."
"Alas and alas! why should it be he, and neither my husband nor son?" wailed the parent.
Jennie was right. The man was the veteran cowboy, Budd Hankinson, who had whirled the lasso on the arid plains of Arizona, the Llano Estacado of Texas and among the mountain ranges of Montana; who had fought Apaches in the southwest, Comanches in the south and Sioux in the north, and had undergone hardships, sufferings, wounds and privations before which many a younger man than he had succumbed.
No more skilful and no braver ranchman lived.
Budd had a way of snatching off his hat and swinging it about his head at sight of the ladies. It was his jocular salutation to them, and meant that all was well.
But he did not do so now. He must have seen the anxious mother and daughter almost as soon as they discerned him. Jennie watched for the greeting which did not come.
"Something is amiss," was her conclusion.
The hoofs of the flying horse beat the hard ground with a regular rhythm, and he thundered forward like one who knew he was bringing decisive tidings which would make the hearts of the listeners stand still.
The black eyes of the cowman were seen gleaming under his hat-rim as he looked steadily at the couple, against whom his horse would dash himself the next minute, like a thunderbolt, unless checked.
No fear, however, of anything like that. He rounded to in front of the women, and halted with a suddenness that would have flung a less skilful rider over his head, but which hardly caused Budd Hankinson a jar.
He read the questioning eyes, and before the words could shape themselves on the pallid lips he called out:
"The mischief is to pay!"
"What is it, Budd?" asked Jennie, she and her mother stepping close to his box-stirrup.
"We have had a fight with the rustlers—one of the worst I ever seed—there was eight of 'em."
"Was anybody—hurt?" faltered the mother.
"Wal, I reckon; three of them rustlers won't rustle again very soon, onless that bus'ness is carried on below, where they've gone; two others have got holes through their bodies about the size of my hat."
"But—but were any of our people injured?" continued the parent, while Jennie tried to still the throbbing of her heart until the answer came.
"Wal, yes," replied Budd, removing his hat and passing his handkerchief across his forehead, as though the matter was of slight account; "I'm sorry to say some of us got it in the neck."
"Who—who—how was it? Don't trifle!"
"Wal, you see Zip Peters rode over from Capt. Whiting's to tell us about the rustlers, and he hadn't much more'n arriv, when along come the others behind him with one of our branded steers. I made them give him up, and then the fight was on. Zip got a piece of lead through the body and the arm, and went out of the saddle without time to say good-by. My hip was grazed twice, but it didn't amount to nothin'; I'm as good as ever. Grizzly lost a piece of his ear, but he bored the rustler through that done it, so that account was squared."
"Then father and Fred were not hurt?" gasped Jennie, clasping her hands and gazing inquiringly into the face of the messenger.
"Wal," he replied, with the same exasperating coolness he had shown after his first exclamation, "I wish I could say that, but it ain't quite so good."
"What—what of my husband?" demanded Mrs. Whitney, stepping so close that she laid her hand on the knee of the sturdy horseman; "tell me quick; and what of Fred, my son?"
"Fred fought like a house afire; he killed one of the rustlers, but his horse was shot and Fred got it through the arm, which ended his power to do much fighting, but he laid down behind his hoss and kept it up like the trump he is."
"Then he isn't badly injured?"
"Bless your heart! of course not; he will be all right in a few days; his arm wants a little nursing, that's all. In the midst of the rumpus who should ride up but Mont Sterry, as he had heard the firing, and the way he sailed in was beautiful to behold. It reminded me of the times down in Arizona when Geronimo made it so lively. He hadn't much chance to show what he could do, for the rustlers found they had bitten off more than they could chaw, and they skyugled after he had dropped one."
The wife and mother drew a sigh of relief, but the daughter was far from satisfied. A dreadful fear in her heart had not yet been quelled.
Her quick perceptions noticed that Budd had said nothing more about her father than to mention the fact that he had been wounded. The mother, in her distress and anxiety, caught at a hope as an assurance which the daughter could not feel.
At the same time Jennie saw that, despite the apparent nonchalance of the messenger and his assumed gayety, he was stirred by some deep emotion.
"He is keeping back something, because he fears to tell it," was her correct conclusion.
COWMEN AND RUSTLERS.
Jennie Whitney saw something else, which almost made her heart stop beating.
To the southward, whence Budd Hankinson had ridden, several horsemen were in sight, coming from the direction of the cattle-ranges. They were approaching at a walk, something they would not do unless serious cause existed.
The messenger had been sent ahead to break the news to the sad and anxious hearts.
"Budd," she said, "you have not told us about father."
"Why, yes, my dear," interposed her mother, as if to shut out all evil tidings; "nothing has happened to him."
"Wal, I'm sorry to say that he has been hurt worse than Fred," was the alarming response, accompanied by a deep sigh.
"How bad? How much worse? Tell us, tell us," insisted the wife.
"Thar's no use of denyin' that he got it bad; fact is he couldn't have been hit harder."
The distressed fellow was so worked up that he turned his head and looked over his shoulder, as if to avoid those yearning eyes fixed upon him. That aimless glance revealed the approaching horsemen and nerved him with new courage.
"Now, Mrs. Whitney and Jennie, you must be brave. Bear it as he would bear the news about you and Fred if he was—alive!"
A shriek accompanied the words of the cowman, and Jennie caught her mother in time to save her from falling. Her own heart was breaking, but she did her utmost, poor thing, to cheer the one to whom the sunlight of happiness could never come again.
"There, mother, try to bear it. We have Fred left to us, and I am with you. God will not desert us."
Hugh Whitney had never spoken after that first interchange of volleys with the rustlers. He died bravely at the post of duty and was tenderly borne homeward, where he was given a decent burial, his grave bedewed not only by the tears of the stricken widow and children, but by those of the stern, hardy cowmen to whom he had been an employer as kind and indulgent as he was brave.
A few paragraphs are necessary to explain the incidents that follow.
Wherever cattlemen have organized outfits and located ranches cattle-thieves have followed, and fierce fighting has resulted. These men are known as "rustlers." The late troubles caused cattle and horse-thieves to unite against the legitimate owners, and the name now includes both classes of evil-doers. The troubles in Wyoming were the results of the efforts of the Wyoming State Live Stock Association to put a check upon rustlers who are tempted to steal by the vast profits afforded.
At the time the Association was formed the rustlers were few in number, and confined their acts to branding the mavericks or unbranded yearlings with their own brands. They did not act in concert, and since the laws of the State require every brand to be registered, in order to establish ownership, the rustlers had as much right to their own brands as the legitimate cowmen. As long as the mavericks were not openly branded there was no means of stopping them.
It happens quite often that the round-up fails to gather in all the cattle. The mavericks are allowed to go to the outfit with whose cattle they have run, and that outfit puts its own brand on them.
The rustlers grew more daring as their numbers increased, and, instead of confining their operations to the mavericks, began altering brands. Not only that, but they were often bold enough to leave the old brand and burn a new one and forge a bill of sale.
The rustlers were generally the owners of small ranches, or cowboys who had a few head of cattle on the range or running with some rancher's stock. The Association made a rule that no cow outfit should employ a cowman that had been guilty of branding a maverick, or of helping the rustlers, or of working with or for them. A blacklist was kept of such cowmen, with the result that a good many were unable to get employment from the Association outfits and were compelled to become rustlers themselves.
The association of rustlers became desperate because of the serious check given them by the Live Stock Association, which placed its inspectors at all the cattle-markets, Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Paul. Every shipment of cattle was closely inspected, and if it came from a rustler he was obliged to prove his title to each steer, or they were confiscated and the proceeds sent to the owner of the brand. Sometimes a legal proof of ownership would not be accepted, for the owners were determined to stamp out the rustling business.
Deprived by this means of a market for their hoof cattle, the rustlers were compelled to butcher their cattle or drive to Montana. The latter recourse was not only difficult and dangerous, but there was no certainty of a market when accomplished, as the Live Stock Association kept a vigilant watch on all Wyoming cattle.
The other scheme was unsatisfactory, but it was all that was left to the rustlers. They employed a number of butchers at Buffalo to do their killing for them, but even then they were not sure of always getting their meat marketed.
In the summer of 1891 the rustlers ran waggons openly on all the three great round-ups, and worked the round-up just as if they were a regular Association outfit. They also gathered in all the mavericks, and no one dared interfere.
It should be added that no more dangerous set of men can be found anywhere than the Wyoming rustlers. No living being excels them in horsemanship. The bucking pony is as a child in their hands. There is not one among them who cannot rope, throw, tie and brand a steer single-handed. They include the best riders and the best shots in the cattle business. They do not know what fear is, and in the year named became strong enough to elect one of their own number sheriff.
The full moon was shining on the second night succeeding the conflict which Budd Hankinson described between the rustlers and the cowmen of Whitney's ranch. The man that had fallen was laid away in a grave back of the house, and mother, son and daughter mourned him with a sorrow that was soothed by the consciousness that he had been a good husband and father in every sense of the word.
On this night, before the hour was late, three persons were seated in the balmy air on the outside of the dwelling, talking together in low tones.
They were Fred Whitney, whose bandaged arm rested in a sling, Monteith Sterry, and Jennie Whitney. The memory of the recent affliction suffered in the death of the father naturally subdued the voices and tinged the words with a seriousness that would not have been felt at other times.
Young Sterry, as already stated, had accepted an engagement with the Live Stock Association, which required him to investigate the operations of the rustlers over a large portion of Wyoming and Montana, and to report at regular intervals to his superior officers.
This was perilous business, but Sterry set about the work with a vigour, directness and intelligence that were felt over an extent of territory numbering hundreds of square miles, and made him a marked man by the rustlers, who are always quick to identify their friends and enemies. It seemed to make little difference, however, to him, who loved the excitement. He was a capital pistol and rifle-shot, a fine horseman, and as devoid of fear as the men against whom he directed his movements.
Unconsciously Monteith Sterry brought a grievous peril upon his friends, who held him in so high regard. Hated intensely by the rustlers, they were not long in learning that he spent a great deal of his time at the Whitneys. They came to be regarded, therefore, as aiders and abettors of his. This enmity was emphasized by the attack of which an account has been given.
"I think, Fred," said his sister, oppressed by the shadow that had fallen across the threshold, "we ought to sell out and leave this country."
"Why?" he gently asked.
"Because not only of what happened yesterday, but of the certainty that such attacks will be repeated."
"What reason have you to fear their repetition?" asked Monteith.
"Matters are growing worse between the cowmen and the rustlers; I have heard our men talk, and you have said so yourself."
"I cannot deny it," replied their visitor, thoughtfully smoking his cigar. He would have been pleased had her brother, now the head of the little household, decided to make his home once more in the East, for then he would take up the study of his profession of law and be placed where he could often meet them.
"It would be cowardly to sell out and abandon the country through fear of those men," said the brother, to whom the proposition was not pleasant.
"But suppose you should be their next victim?" suggested Jennie, with a shudder.
"I don't think I shall be a victim," he quietly responded; "this wound won't bother me long, and with Budd and Grizzly to help, we can laugh at all the rustlers in the country."
"It is hardly a matter of courage," ventured Sterry, "for no one knowing you or your sister would question your bravery, but it is rather the peace of mind of your mother and her. It will be a long time, if ever, before your parent recovers from the shock of yesterday. No matter how confident and plucky you may be, Fred, you know it is no guarantee against a bullet from one of those scamps at five hundred or a thousand yards. I shudder to think of what might happen."
Fred turned and looked full in the handsome face of the fellow beside him.
"It strikes me that you are showing little faith in your own words. Why do you remain where you are a marked man when there is no need of it, and where your personal danger is certainly as great as mine?"
This argumentum ad hominem was so unexpected that Sterry was embarrassed for the moment, but found voice to reply:
"I have no mother and sister dependent on me, as you have."
"But you have brothers, sisters, father and mother, and therefore the more to mourn if you should fall. The fact is, Mont, I feel that it is a duty you owe to them to give up the dangerous calling you have adopted. You not only do not need it, but are squandering time that ought to be given to the study of your profession, and you have become so feared and hated by the rustlers that they will go to any length to 'remove' you."
"The more cause, therefore, why I should stay," responded the other.
"A poor argument—"
The discussion was interrupted by the sound of a horse's hoofs. Some one was riding toward them on a gallop, and speedily loomed to view in the bright moonlight. The three instinctively ceased speaking and gazed curiously at the horseman, who reined up in front of where they were sitting.
Hospitality is limitless in the West, and, before the stranger had halted, Fred Whitney rose from his chair and walked forward to welcome him.
The man was in the costume of a cowboy, with rifle, revolver and all the paraphernalia of the craft.
"Is your name Whitney?" asked the horseman, speaking first.
"It is; what can I do for you?"
"Do you know Mont Sterry?"
"He is a particular friend of mine," replied Whitney, refraining from adding that he was the young man sitting a few paces away with his sister and hearing every word said.
"Well, there's a letter for him; if I knew where to find him I would deliver it myself. Will you hand it to him the next time you meet him?"
As he spoke he leaned forward from his saddle and handed a sealed envelope to Fred Whitney, who remarked, as he accepted it:
"I will do as you wish; I expect to see him soon; won't you dismount and stay over night with us?"
"No; I have business elsewhere," was the curt answer, as the fellow wheeled and spurred off on a gallop.
Budd Hankinson and Grizzly Weber, the two hired men, were absent, looking after the cattle, for the rustler is a night hawk who often gets in the best part of his work between the set and rise of sun.
Mrs. Whitney was sitting in the gloom, alone in her sorrow. Jennie wished to stay with her, but the mother gently refused, saying she preferred to have none with her. No light was burning in the building, and that night the weather was unusually mild.
Mont Sterry accepted the paper from the hand of his friend and remarked, with a smile:
"I suspect what it is. When the rustlers don't like a man they have a frank way of telling him so, supplemented by a little good advice, I fancy I have been honoured in a similar way."
He deliberately tore open the envelope, while Jennie and her brother looked curiously at him. The moonlight, although strong, was not sufficiently so to show the words, which were written in lead-pencil. Fred Whitney, therefore, struck a match and held it in front of the paper, while the recipient read in a low voice, loud enough, however, to be heard in the impressive hush:
"MONT STERRY: If you stay in the Powder River country twenty-four hours longer you are a dead man. Over fifty of us rustlers have sworn to shoot you on sight, whether it is at Fort McKinley, Buffalo, or on the streets of Cheyenne. I have persuaded the majority to hold off for the time named, but not one of them will do so an hour longer, nor will I ask them to do so. We are bound to make an honest living, and it is weak for me to give you this warning, but I do it, repeating that if you are within reach twenty-four hours from the night on which this is handed to Whitney I will join them in hunting you down, wherever you may be.
Monteith Sterry read the "warning" through in a voice without the slightest tremor. Then he quietly smoked his cigar and looked off in the moonlight, as though thinking of something of a different nature.
It was natural that Jennie Whitney should be more impressed by the occurrence, with the memory of the recent tragedy crushing her to the earth. She exclaimed:
"Larch Cadmus! Why, Fred, he has visited our house several times; he was here last week."
"Yes," replied her brother; "he has often sat at our table; and, by the way, he is a great admirer of yours."
"Nonsense!" was the response; "why do you say that?"
"It may be nonsense, but it is true, nevertheless. Your mother noticed it; and, that there might be no mistake, Larch had the impudence to tell me so himself."
"I never liked him; he is a bad man," said Jennie, much to the relief of Sterry, who felt a little uncomfortable. "I did not know he belonged to the rustlers."
"He was a cowboy until last fall. He had a quarrel with Col. Ringgold and went off with the others, and has been on the blacklist ever since."
"Why didn't he bring the message himself," continued the sister, "instead of sending it?"
"He did," was the significant reply of the brother.
"What! That surely was not he?"
"It was. I knew his voice the moment he spoke; those whiskers were false; he didn't want to be recognized, and I thought it as well to humor his fancy, but I could not be mistaken."
"Now that I recall it, his voice did resemble Cadmus'," said the sister, more thoughtfully.
"Of course, and I can tell you something more; he was among the rustlers with whom we had the fight yesterday. He did his best to kill me, and came pretty near succeeding. It wasn't he, however, who put the bullet through my arm, for I dropped that fellow."
"You frighten me!" was all that Jennie Whitney could say.
Sterry still smoked in silence. He was thinking hard, but it was his turn to be startled by the next remark.
"Larch Cadmus hates you, Mont, not so much because you are the enemy of all rustlers, but more because he believes my sister holds you in higher esteem than she does him."
Sterry was clever enough to parry this compliment with considerable skill.
"For the same reason he is jealous of every gentleman whom Miss Whitney has ever met, for it would be a sorry tribute to any man's worth if he did not stand higher in her regard than Larch Cadmus."
"Well spoken!" said the young lady, relieved from what threatened to become an embarrassing situation for her.
Had her brother chosen he might have expressed what was in his mind, but he had the good taste to refrain. None knew better than he the deep, tender affection existing between his friend and his sister, though it had not yet reached the point of avowal and confession.
"Well, Mont, what are you going to do about it?" asked Whitney.
By way of reply, the latter twisted the "warning" into the form of a lamplighter. Then he applied a match to one corner, and held the paper until it had burned to the last fragment.
"That's my opinion of Mr. Larch Cadmus and his gang, and I shall pay the same attention to them."
"You are not wise," ventured Jennie, who, with the awful memory of the preceding day upon her, could not but shudder at the peril to her friend, who had never been quite so near to her as during the last few hours, when he showed so much tender sympathy for her and her mother and brother in the depth of their desolation and woe.
"I thank you," he said, with the same manly frankness he had always shown; "I have no desire to appear as a boaster or to make light of danger, but one of the truest adages is that it is not the barking dog that does the biting."
"Don't make the mistake of supposing it is not so in this case," said Whitney, "and none should know it better than you."
"I do not underestimate the courage of those fellows; they will shrink at nothing, but there is no more excuse for my running away upon receiving such a warning than there would be for all the inhabitants of Wyoming to leave the State at such a command."
"The case is not parallel," was the comment of Fred Whitney.
"Bear in mind that if I stay, as I intend to do, I do not mean to sit down and wait for those rustlers to pick me off. I count on having something to say and do in the matter; but, friends, I must bid you good-night."
"What do you mean?" asked the astonished Fred Whitney.
"I must leave," replied Sterry, rising to his feet; "I have already staid too long."
A SUMMONS AND A REPLY.
Brother and sister were astounded. The hour was late, and they had been urging their guest to remain several days with them. He had not consented, nor had he refused, from which they were confident he would stay.
And now he announced his intention of departing at once, riding out into the night—whither?
They protested, but he replied so earnestly that an urgent necessity existed that they refrained. He gave no hint of the reason for his strange action, and they could not ask it. His fleet mare, which had been allowed to graze on the succulent grass at the rear of the building with the other horses, was brought forward and saddled and bridled, and he quickly vaulted upon her back.
"Remember me to your mother; it is not worth while to disturb her; I hope soon to be with you again."
He leaned over and pressed the hand of Fred Whitney, and then, raising his hat with his left hand, extended the right to Jennie.
Fred made an excuse to move away a few paces, for he understood the situation.
"Good-by," Sterry said in a voice just low enough to reach the dear one, as he pressed the delicate hand which rested so trustingly in his own.
"Good-by," she answered. "I am sorry you are going."
"So am I, but it is better that I should leave. As I said, I trust soon to see you again. Do you know why I hope Fred will decide to return to the East with you and your mother?"
"I suppose because we shall all be safer there;" and then she added, forgetting her sorrow for the moment, "that is if we do not go skating to Wolf Glen."
"It is not necessary to remove as far as Maine, but father insists that I am wasting time here, when I ought to be home studying my profession."
"And he is right, Monteith."
"But," he replied in a low voice, "before I go back I want to make sure that you will do the same. There, good-by again."
He replaced his hat, wheeled and dashed across the prairie without another word.
Jennie stood gazing in the direction taken by him for some time after he had disappeared in the gloom of the night. Then she turned to speak to her brother, but he had passed within the house. She resumed her seat, knowing he would soon return.
Fifteen minutes and more went by and she was still alone.
Sh! Was she mistaken, or was that the faint sound of a horse's hoofs in the distance?
She turned her head and listened. The murmur of voices, as her brother and mother talked in low tones, did not disturb her, and the almost inaudible lowing of the cattle on the distant ranges was but a part of silence itself.
Hardly a breath of air was stirring, but all knew the eccentric way in which sound is sometimes carried by it. Suddenly the reports of rifle-firing were heard, faint but distinct, and lasting several minutes. Then other and different noises reached her, still faint but clear.
Her power of hearing, like her vision, was exceptionally strong. It was that which enabled her to tell that the last sounds were not made by a single animal, but by several going at a high rate of speed. These, with the reports of rifles, made her certain that the rustlers had attacked Sterry.
Meanwhile the young man found matters exceedingly lively.
The reception of the "warning" through the hands of Fred Whitney was proof that his enemies knew he was frequently at his house. Their messenger had gone thither to deliver it. Young Whitney had slain one of their number, and though the law-breakers themselves had suffered the most, they felt bitter resentment toward the family.
If Sterry remained with them they would have trouble. He was satisfied that Larch Cadmus recognized him, as he sat in front of the rancher's house, and would not forget to tell it to his comrades, who would speedily make the place a visit. He believed they were likely to do it before the rise of the morrow's sun.
If the Whitneys were attacked, his presence would add to the defensive strength, but such an attack would not be made if he was not there. Desperate and defiant as the rustlers had been, it would be an injustice to represent them as capable of such wantonness.
He felt, therefore, that it was his duty to leave the ranch without delay, thus removing an element of grave danger. It would have been hardly wise to make this explanation to them, though he believed Fred suspected it.
Turning his back, therefore, upon the dearest spot in all the West to him, he set his mare Queenie on an easy, swift gallop, heading southward toward the ranges where the cattle of the Whitneys were grazing.
Sterry, in one sense, was without a home as long as he remained in Wyoming or Montana, while in another sense he was the owner of numberless dwelling-places or "headquarters." He may be likened to a commercial traveller in a vast and sparsely-settled region, where he is well known and welcomed by the inhabitants.