TED STRONG IN MONTANA
With Lariat and Spur
EDWARD C. TAYLOR
Author of the Ted Strong Stories
CHAPTER I. THE BIG SNOW. CHAPTER II. THE LONG TOM RANCH. CHAPTER III. THE SIGN-CAMP GHOST. CHAPTER IV. THE BIG COON TREE. CHAPTER V. THE PHANTOM LINE RIDER. CHAPTER VI. CAUGHT IN THE ACT. CHAPTER VII. A NIGHT RAID. CHAPTER VIII. THE WAR PARTY. CHAPTER IX. A BATTLE OF QUIRTS. CHAPTER X. SILVER FACE. CHAPTER XI. LOST IN THE WILDERNESS. CHAPTER XII. WHO WHIPPLE WAS. CHAPTER XIII. AN UNEXPECTED GUEST. CHAPTER XIV. CHRISTMAS AT BUBBLY WELL. CHAPTER XV. THE THUGGEE CORD. CHAPTER XVI. A LETTER FROM THE DEAD. CHAPTER XVII. BESIEGED. CHAPTER XVIII. TED SAVES THE HOUSE. CHAPTER XIX. HELEN MOWBRAY'S WILL. CHAPTER XX. KNIFE AND FANG. CHAPTER XXI. 'WARE THE GRAY WOLVES. CHAPTER XXII. THE WOLFSKIN. CHAPTER XXIII. BAGGING THE GRAY WOLVES. CHAPTER XXIV. WHITE FANG LEADS HOME. CHAPTER XXV. TED'S INDEPENDENCE. CHAPTER XXVI. A COMPROMISE. CHAPTER XXVII. THE BEEF ISSUE. CHAPTER XXVIII. A SLAP ON THE FACE. CHAPTER XXIX. RUNNING BEAR'S SQUAW. CHAPTER XXX. "THE WOOFER" APPEARS. CHAPTER XXXI. SINGING BIRD'S SECRET. CHAPTER XXXII. A NIGHT CHASE. CHAPTER XXXIII. THE LOCOED STEER. CHAPTER XXXIV. THE BOBWHITE'S CALL. CHAPTER XXXV. A DUEL WITH LARIATS. CHAPTER XXXVI. THE MOTHER LODE.
THE BIG SNOW.
"We're going to have snow to-night!"
Ted Strong, leader of the broncho boys, was sitting on the back of Sultan, his noble little black stallion, on the ridge of a prairie swell, looking at a lowering sky.
Out of the northwest a chilling wind, damp and raw, was sweeping dull-gray clouds before it.
Ted had addressed his remark to Bud Morgan, his chum and able lieutenant, who threw a glance at the clouds and grunted.
"I reckon we be," he muttered, "an' I'm free ter say I'm dern sorry ter hear it."
"It's hard luck," resumed Ted. "If we had got away a week earlier, or hadn't been held up by the high water at Poplar Fork, we would have been at the ranch now, and settled for the winter."
"Thar's no telling whar an 'if' won't land yer sometimes. If we hadn't started we wouldn't hev been here at all. But here we aire, an' we'll hev ter git out o' it."
"Think we better push on, or make camp?" asked Ted.
"Got ter make camp fer ther night somewhere," answered Bud. "But I wisht ther storm hed held off till ter-morrer this time; we'd hev been within hootin' distance o' ther Long Tom Ranch."
"Suppose we push on a few hours more. We can camp down in the dark if we must. If the snow gets deep before ye reach the high ground you know what it means."
"I shore do. I wuz all through a big snow in this yere man's country a few years back, an' it wuz some fierce."
"All right. Ride back and drive them up. I'll point. We'll drive until it gets too dark. Tell the wagons to move up."
Bud wheeled his pony and dashed to the rear of the great herd of cattle that was coming on at a snail's pace.
The cattle were lowing uneasily. They knew even better than the men that a storm was coming, and they dreaded it.
This was the big Circle S herd which the broncho boys had bought in Texas in the spring of that year, and which they had herded and driven northward throughout the summer to winter on the Montana plateau, later to be driven to Moon Valley, and there put into condition for the market.
Various things had delayed the arrival of the herd on their winter grounds. A detention of several days at a time by flood, by a stampede, and by fights with rustlers, had brought the cattle several weeks late to their winter grounds.
Ted Strong had determined to try the experiment of wintering Southern cattle in the Montana country in order to harden them and improve the quality of the beef.
The broncho boys had a large order to fill for the government the following summer, and it was to accomplish their contract that they had bought the Texas cattle and driven them north to the Long Tom Ranch in northern Montana.
Now that they were within a few miles of it, and still on the low ground, it appeared that a big snow was inevitable, which might frustrate all their plans and cause them great loss.
But Ted Strong did not complain. It was a condition which he could not have foreseen, and, being close at hand, there was nothing for them to do but meet it with all the fortitude at their command.
Soon the herd began to move forward, being crowded by the broncho boys and the force of cow-punchers whom they had employed to assist them.
Stella Fosdick, who, with her aunt, Mrs. Walter Graham, had accompanied the boys on their drive, now came galloping up to Ted. She had been riding beside the carriage in which her aunt had been comfortably traveling.
"Going to keep on, Ted?" she asked.
"Yes. Got to do it. Those clouds are full of snow. If it catches us down here we're likely to be snowed in, and if we do it's all up with the Circle S," he replied.
"Oh, I guess we'll pull through all right, if we can keep the cows moving; but it is not going to be very comfortable for your aunt or you. We'll have to drive until the cattle refuse to move farther."
"I can stand it, and aunt will have to. She's getting a little anxious, though, and asked me to ride ahead to learn when we're going to stop. Poor auntie likes her comfort. I often wonder why she became the wife of a ranchman."
"Or why she consents to traipse all over the country with you," laughed Ted.
"Ted, she absolutely cannot refuse me a thing."
"So I see. You've got her hypnotized—as, indeed, you have all the rest of us. But ride back and cheer her up all you can. I told McCall, the cook, to make some good, strong coffee and to serve it to any of the boys who wanted it, as it will be some time before we can have supper. Have Mac take her a cup of good, strong coffee and something to eat. That may make her a little more cheerful."
"I'll do it. But don't you want some coffee, too?"
"Not for me. I've got something else to do right here. This is going to be a race between the herd and the snow clouds, and it means a whole lot to us."
"Afraid of being snowed in?"
"You bet. If this bunch of cattle gets snowed in I see our finish. We'll lose half of them before we get to the grass."
"I don't know a thing about the Northern range, and I can't see how you're going to bring that herd through to spring. It would take thousands of tons of hay, and I don't know how much corn to feed them."
"I see you don't know much about the North," he said. "But what should a girl brought up in Texas know of wintering cattle in the snow? You see, it's this way: Montana is the best winter cattle range in the United States.
"The winds from the mountains sweep the snow, which is dry and loose, from the high, level ground, exposing the grass which has been cured on the ground, and which makes the best kind of feed. Then there is plenty of water, and the deep coulees, with which the country is cut up, afford ample protection for the cattle during storms.
"Occasionally there comes warm winds from the northwest. These are called chinook winds, because they come from the direction of the country of the Chinook Indians. They are warm and balmy, and melt the snow as if by magic. Their warmth is caused by having come in contact with the Japanese stream, which crosses the Pacific Ocean, after being warmed in the sunny East, and which strikes the shores of North America along about south Alaska. This stream is called by the Japanese, Kuro Siwo. It is the equivalent of the Gulf Stream, which leaves the Gulf of Mexico to cross the Atlantic and warm the shores of Great Britain."
"Quite a lecture," said Stella, laughing.
"I didn't mean to lecture," replied Ted, laughing also, "but I wanted you to know why it is that it is a good thing to winter cattle in this north country. In the first place it puts strength and stamina into the cattle, and makes the beef better, and all the conditions of which I have spoken make it possible to keep cattle on the open range out here, where one would think they would perish of cold and starvation. But it is no picnic to run a winter range, as we will all learn before spring comes again."
"I understand now, and I'm sure I shall enjoy the experience. But I must go back to aunt and jolly her up, for she is easily discouraged, and she is no more used to rough winters than I."
"She'll be all right when we get to Long Tom, for there is a bully ranch house there, and she'll be as snug as a bug in a rug when we get settled."
The cattle were going forward over the gentle, rising ground, being pushed by the punchers in the rear and the fellows on the side lines, while Ted and Kit were pointing them in the direction of a tall butte, which they could see in the distance, rising needlelike and black against the gray sky.
This was Long Tom Butte, after which the ranch, which Ted had leased, had been named.
Suddenly, Ted felt something wet on his cheek, and looked up. A snowflake, big and floating lazily down, had struck him.
Others followed it, and soon there were myriads of big, wet snowflakes falling slowly through the air.
The cattle began to hurry, and were lowing in a distressing way. Their instinct told them to seek shelter, and they were telling their drovers as much in their own fashion.
For a half hour the snow continued to come down, wet and soft.
But suddenly the wind changed in temperature. Before it had been raw and damp. Now it became sharp and frosty.
The snow changed quickly from heavy, wet flakes, to small, dry, sharp particles, which, driven by a strong wind, which had veered around into the north, stung the faces of the boys like needles, and worried the cattle, which seemed to want to lag in their pace.
"Kit, go back and tell the boys to keep pushing harder. The cattle want to stop, and if they quit now it's all up. There's a blizzard coming. If we can keep them at it an hour longer, we will be in the lee of the buttes, and there's a deep coulee into which we can drive and hold them until morning."
At Ted's command Kit dashed toward the rear, and repeated the order, and the cow-punchers rode into the herd with shouts and with active lashing of their quirts, and the beasts picked up their pace again and hurried forward through the snow, which had begun to whiten the ground.
Kit returned to Ted's side.
"What do you think of it?" he asked.
"If we had an hour more of daylight, I think we could make it," said Ted.
"Any doubt of it?"
"Well, when it becomes dark we'll lose sight of Long Tom, and we're likely to drift, because, unless the cattle are driven into the storm, they'll turn tail to it and go the other way."
"I can't see Long Tom now."
"I can, although the snow almost blots it out. There it is right in the northwest. I can just make it out. The herd is drifting south of it now. Better get over on your point, and head them up this way a bit."
Soon the herd was driving forward in the right direction again.
But suddenly the darkness came down like of pall of black smoke, shutting out everything, and the wind increased in violence, rising with a howl and a shriek like some enormous and terrible animal in rage.
"It's all off," said Ted to himself, with a sigh.
The cattle came to a stop.
"Keep them going!" shouted Ted, riding back frantically along the line.
The cow-punchers dashed among the animals, shouting and beating them with their quirts, and managed to get them started again, but it was only for a short time, for again they stopped, bellowing, the leaders milling and throwing everything into confusion.
"That settles it," shouted Ted to Bud. "They're going to drift all night if we don't stop them."
"Dern ther luck, I says," growled Bud. "How fur aire we from ther ranch?"
"The worst of it is we're right on it. The ranch house isn't more than three miles from here, and if we could have got there we would have been all right. By morning we may be ten miles away, if we let the herd drift, and we'll have a dickens of a time getting the brutes back through the snow."
"What aire we goin' ter do with the wimminfolks?"
"I'm going to try to get them to the ranch house. You boys will have to make a snow camp, and hold the herd from drifting at all odds. Don't let them sneak on you. Keep pushing them from the south. You see, they're all turned that way now with their tails to the wind. As soon as they get cold they will begin to move. Don't let 'em do it."
"All right, Ted. We'll do the best we can. You take care o' ther wimminfolks. So long, an' good luck."
Ted rode back to where Mrs. Graham was shivering in the closed wagon the boys had provided for her, and Stella was sitting her pony by her side, trying to encourage her.
Carl Schwartz was the jehu of the outfit, and sat on the driver's seat, a fair imitation of a snow man.
"Carl, get a move on you. We're going to try to make the Long Tom ranch house," said Ted. "I'll lead, and you follow. If you lose sight of me, yell to me and I'll come back. I've got my pocket searchlight, and will send you back a flash now and then."
Carl was half frozen and would have been pleased to get down and walk the rest of the distance, but he knew the danger that surrounded them, and simply yelled back "Yah!" and gathered up the reins for a start.
"Come on, Stella," said Ted. "We're going to try to make the ranch house."
Without a word Stella followed him, and the little caravan struck into the teeth of the snow-laden wind, which was now blowing half a gale.
The wagon moved slowly through the snow, which was getting deeper every minute, and was like heavy sand.
Every few minutes Carl's voice could be heard, and Ted called back to him.
Ted was traveling entirely by instinct, for it was so dark that he could not see a foot in front of them.
So they struggled on for an hour, halting occasionally to give the horses a breathing spell, then drove obstinately forward again.
"We should have been at the ranch house long ago," shouted Ted at last, pulling in his panting horse.
"Then we're lost, I suppose," shouted Stella in return.
"Looks that way."
"What are you going to do?"
"Stop for the rest of the night."
"I wouldn't. Keep on until the horses won't go any farther."
"All right, if you think best."
On they went again for a half hour more, and Ted was beginning to believe it was folly to go any farther when his pony stumbled and almost fell.
In front of them loomed a darkness more intense than before.
Ted scrambled from the back of his pony and led it forward. The pony had stumbled over the horse block at the very door of the Long Tom ranch house.
THE LONG TOM RANCH.
Ted and Stella raised such a shout that Carl pulled his horses up just in time to keep them from trying to climb upon the veranda.
With the aid of his searchlight Ted had found the door and entered the house, followed by Stella.
In the big, front living room they found a lamp, which they lighted and looked around.
The house had been left ready for occupancy, and in the great, wide fireplace logs were piled high ready to be burned.
In a moment Ted had a fire leaping high up the chimney, then hastened out to the carriage.
Carl had scrambled down from the seat of the carriage, and was so cold and numb that he couldn't walk, while Mrs. Graham had to be carried into the house by Ted and placed before the fire to thaw out.
Soon the room was comfortable, and Ted, who had set out on a tour of inspection, found that the kitchen was well stored with food.
He started a fire, and soon had coffee and bacon cooking.
Outside the storm continued to rage through the night, but all within was tight and warm, and Stella and her aunt retired to their comfortable bedrooms. But Ted sat up through the night.
He had considered starting back through the storm to the herd, but thought better of it, for Bud was perfectly capable of doing all that could be done with the cattle until daylight came to their rescue.
While daylight was struggling up through the leaden eastern sky the wind died down as suddenly as it had risen, and the snow ceased falling.
Ted had fallen into a doze in a chair in front of the fire, but a stray sunbeam coming through a window fell upon his closed eyelids, and he awoke with a start. For a minute he could not think where he was. Then the cheery voice of Stella fell upon his ears. Somewhere in the distance she was singing, and he sprang to his feet and looked about him.
It came to him that he was at the Long Tom, and he remembered having left the Circle S herd out in the blizzard.
This stirred him to action, and he went back to the kitchen with the intention of lighting the fire and getting breakfast.
He stopped in the doorway in astonishment. Stella, with her sleeves rolled to the elbows, was busily engaged at the stove, singing as she worked.
"Good morning," said Ted. "You beat me to it. Why didn't you wake me up and put me to work?"
"Hello!" said Stella cheerily. "You looked so tired sitting in that chair that I thought I'd let you sleep. At any rate, cooking breakfast is no work for a boy in a house. Get ready. Breakfast will be on the table in a minute. What do you think I found in the shed behind the house? A mountain sheep already dressed, and hung up for us. The fellow who left this house for us certainly was a good one. He knew we'd come in hungry, and left everything ready for us."
"That was just like Fred Sturgis. He's one of the best fellows in the world. He's the owner of the ranch. Young New York fellow. Wanted to spend the winter in the East. That's how I was able to get the ranch. But I'll bet he'll be back here before the snow melts. You couldn't keep him off the range for any length of time."
"He certainly has good taste. The house is almost as nice as the Moon Valley house, but nothing is quite as nice as that."
Mrs. Graham and Carl were roused, and they were soon sitting down to chops from a mountain sheep and corn bread which Stella had made; and they all voted that winter life in Montana promised to be a very jolly thing.
When Ted went outdoors the whole world was simply a glittering waste where the sun shone on, and was reflected back from the vast field of snow.
Sultan was in the sheltered corral, and as Ted threw the saddle on his back he reared and jumped about like a playful kitten.
"Quit your cavorting about, you rascal," said Ted, as Sultan wheeled away from the saddle with a playful snort, at the same time reaching around and trying to nip Ted's shoulder with his teeth.
"My, but you're feeling gay this morning," said Ted. "Here, hold still, won't you? How do you suppose I'm ever going to get this saddle on you if you don't stand still?"
But the cold weather and the bright sunshine had filled Sultan with ginger, and he was as full of play as a small boy when he wakes up some early winter morning and sees the ground covered with the first snow, and remembers the sled that has lain in the woodshed all summer.
But at last the saddle was on, and then Ted had his hands full getting into it.
"Gee, but you're skittish this morning," said Ted, giving Sultan a vigorous slap on the haunch. "But just you wait a few minutes until I get on you. I'll take some of that out of you."
But when he tried to find the stirrup with his toe, Sultan wheeled away from him with a little kick that was as dainty as that of a professional dancer.
But at last Ted made a leap and landed safely upon Sultan's back, and gave him a slap with the loose end of his rein. The little horse gave a leap like a kangaroo, and dashed through the gateway of the corral and across the white prairie, running like a quarter horse.
The herd was nowhere in sight, but in the far distance Ted saw a thin blue stream of smoke rising in the still, frosty air.
He knew it to be the camp fire of McCall, and that breakfast was going forward at the cow camp in the snow.
Heading Sultan toward it, Ted rushed on through the stimulating air of a Northern winter, and soon came in sight of the chuck wagon, and several of the boys standing around a fire.
As he dashed forward he raised the long yell, which was gleefully answered, and soon he was at the camp.
This was where he and Stella had started from the night before.
Turning his eyes back in the direction he had come, Ted could see the smoke rising from the chimney of the ranch house, although the house itself was hidden behind a swell in the surface of the prairie.
Had he only known it, he might have driven the herd right up to the ranch house during the night. As it was, he saw now that he and Stella, with the carriage, had ridden for almost two hours in the night, traveling in a circle, and by the merest chance had stumbled upon the ranch house.
"Hello, fellows!" he shouted as he rode up. "Where are the dogies?"
"Oh, to blazes and gone!" exclaimed big Ben, who was trying to thaw out his boots at the fire.
"Where?" asked Ted anxiously.
"Away off yonder." Ben pointed disconsolately toward the south.
"Are they all right?"
"All right, nothing. They're up to their bellies in snow in a coulee, and won't stir. They're the sickest-looking lot of beef critters you ever saw. We've been working with them ever since daylight, then Bud sent us along to thaw out and get some chuck into us, and hurry back so that the other fellows could get limbered up some. Find the house?"
"Yes, accidentally stumbled on to it. Bully place, and the womenfolks are comfortably settled."
"Looks like it," grunted Ben, pointing to the north.
Ted looked in that direction and saw a spotted pony leaping toward them, and above it a dash of scarlet. It was Stella, riding like the wind on Magpie.
"Have any trouble with the critters in the night?" asked Ted.
"Did we? Well, I should howl. After you got under way they began to drift before the wind. We fought them all night, and if we'd let them go they'd been plumb into Colorado by this time. I don't want any more such nights in mine."
"That was only a starter, my friend. That was a picnic compared to what you may have to go up against before the daisies bloom again."
"Chuck!" yelled McCall, beating on the bottom of a griddle with a big iron spoon.
The fellows left the fire in a hurry and, squatting in the snow with a tin cup full of steaming coffee and a plate heaped with fried bacon and griddle cakes, were soon too busy to remember their weariness.
Stella had ridden up, her cheeks glowing, and her eyes sparkling with the frost and the exercise.
"Why didn't you wait for me?" she cried to Ted. "You're a mean thing. Thought you'd leave me behind, but here I am." She made a little face at Ted.
"I thought you'd rather stay indoors to-day on account of the cold," stammered Ted.
"Well, change your line of thought. There's going to be nothing to keep me indoors in this country, and don't you forget it. If I've got to stay indoors, I'll go South."
As soon as the boys had finished breakfast they were ready for another day's work.
"Come on, fellows," shouted Ted. "Let's hurry to where the critters are, and send the other boys back. Mac, cook up another breakfast for them."
They were in the saddle in a jiffy, and scurrying toward the south as fast as their ponies could carry them.
Ted found the herd bogged in a shallow coulee that was filled to the top with snow, in which they stood up to their bellies, lowing from fright, hunger, and thirst.
They were packed in a solid mass, and could not get out on the other side because the wall of the coulee was too steep for them to clamber up, as they might have done had it not been for the deep snow with which it was drifted full.
As a matter of fact, though, the coulee had saved the herd from drifting many miles in the night.
But how to get them out was the question that perplexed Bud, and with the arrival of Ted he thankfully turned the task over to him.
"Hike for the chuck wagon, boys," shouted Ted, as he came up.
"Well, I should smile to ejaculate," said Bud, "we're as hollow an' cold as a rifle bar'l. I'll turn this leetle summer matinee over ter you, my friend, not wishin' you any harm."
"Go ahead and enjoy yourselves," said Ted. "But as soon as you have filled up and warmed up come back. As soon as we get the bunch out of this hole it will be a snap to get them near the ranch house. If we'd only known it, we could have made it in half an hour more last night."
When Bud had ridden away Ted took stock of the situation, and found that he had a difficult problem to solve.
Under ordinary circumstances it would have been easy to snake the cattle out of the coulee by roping them around the horns and dragging them out with the ponies, but it was utterly impossible to do that with a couple of thousand of them.
While he was looking things over he became aware that Stella had ridden away. He looked anxiously after her, for he knew her propensity for getting into trouble when she rode alone. Soon she dropped out of sight behind a swell in the prairie with a flash in the sunlight of her scarlet jacket.
Ted was still studying the situation, riding up and down the edge of the coulee, trying to figure out some plan of rescue, and noting the cattle that were down, and which were rapidly being trampled to death by the other beasts, or being smothered by the snow.
The prospect was not a pleasing one to the young cow boss, for he saw the profits of the venture fading away hourly.
Suddenly a faint, shrill yell reached his ears, and he wheeled his pony in the direction from which it came.
Stella's scarlet jacket was coming toward him in a whirlwind of flying snow, and he rushed toward her.
What could have happened to her? He looked in vain for whatever was pursuing her, and saw that she was not being followed, but was swinging her arm above her head with a triumphant gesture.
He slowed his pony down, and soon she dashed to his side.
"You fellows are certainly a bright lot of cow-punchers," she exclaimed.
"What's the matter now?" asked Ted gloomily.
"Didn't any of you think of scouting down the coulee?"
"I confess I didn't."
"You ought to be laid off the job for a week."
"You can get those cattle out of that hole in an hour."
"We can! How do you know?"
"The coulee runs out about a mile to the west, and straight to the north, up a wide swale, lies the ranch house in full view."
"Stella, you're all right. But the cattle are bogged, and they can't move even down the coulee."
"I believe they can."
"When the other boys come back from breakfast all of you jump into the coulee and tramp the snow down as much as you can ahead of the leaders. Then start them up."
"Bully for you, Stella; you're a better cow-puncher than any of us."
"No, I'm not, but because I don't know as much about it I go at it in a woman's way, which is a roundabout way, and nearly always foolish to look at, but sometimes does the work."
This suggestion had the effect of taking a great load from Ted's shoulders, for if he did not succeed in getting the herd out before night they would freeze solid in their molds of snow, and then he would never get half of them out alive.
Presently Bud and the other boys came winging back from breakfast, and Ted told them of the plan for releasing the cattle, at the same time praising Stella and giving her all the credit for the idea.
"Peevish peppers, but I'm a tenderfoot," grunted Bud. "Why in Sam Hill didn't I think o' that myself? I reckon I'm gettin' too old fer ther cow business. I ought ter be milkin' cows at some dairy farm."
The boys followed Stella's suggestion, and, leaping into the coulee, wheeled their ponies about until they had a well-beaten road for several hundred feet toward the west.
Then, cutting out a bunch of about fifty steers, led by a wise old fellow, the herd leader, whom they called Baldy on account of the spot of white hair between his horns, drove them along the path. After getting the bunch going well, the boys drove them with yells and the lashing of quirts into the deep snow ahead, and would not let them stop.
Another bunch was driven up, and soon there was a smooth road along the bottom of the coulee to the open ground, over which the cattle passed to safety.
Stella's good common sense had saved the herd.
THE SIGN-CAMP GHOST.
As the last of the herd came out of the coulee to the open ground, a cheer went up for Stella, who blushed rosy-red, and told the boys to hush.
Then the drive to the big pasture began, word having been sent to McCall to follow with the chuck wagon.
The big pasture ran north from the home pasture, which was near the ranch house.
It comprised thousands of acres, and was so high that nearly always it was free of snow, which the strong winds coming down from the mountains swept as clear as if a gigantic broom had been used.
Back of the pasture lay a range of low mountains, the Sweet Grass they were called, in which several high buttes towered like sentinels.
The Sweet Grass Mountains had the reputation of harboring a great many "bad men," both whites and Indians, who had forsaken the Blackfeet Indian reservation to the west.
The mountain valleys afforded a splendid protection for the cattle, as did the numerous coulees with which the country was seamed.
The big pasture of the Long Tom was reputed to be the best winter feeding ground in Montana. The grass was high and nutritious, and there were plenty of water holes.
Once on the pasture the cattle scattered into smaller herds, each under the leadership of a bull, while the steers drifted off by themselves.
All that was necessary to care for the herd was to ride the lines of the pasture, and keep the cattle on their own feeding grounds, prevent them from straying, and hunt down the packs of wolves which preyed upon the weak cows and young cattle.
At stated intervals along the lines of the pasture were cabins, known as "sign camps," in which the line riders lived.
The first sign camp out of the home pasture was eight miles distant, and the next was under the lee of the mountains, on the west line.
As Ted directed the drive of the herd to the big pasture, on the south and west line of which the first sign camp was situated, he cut out part of the herd and held it back, while the remainder of the cattle went forward.
At the first sign camp Bud and Carl were dropped, for they were to ride the line to the north and east from that point.
Bud was glad to get some rest, and with a wave of the hand went on his way to the camp to await the arrival of Carl, who had ridden back to the ranch house for his blankets and other supplies.
During the day the chuck wagon, following the instructions of Ted, stopped at the sign camp, and left a supply of provisions and Bud's blankets.
Bud looked out the window of the cabin, and saw that the herd was grazing quietly, for the cattle were very hungry, and as they were safe for the time being, he rolled himself in his blankets and was soon sleeping soundly.
He awoke on hearing a fumbling at the door, and sat up.
It was pitch dark, and he had slept nearly all day.
Unlimbering his six-shooter, he called, "Who's thar?"
"Ach, Pud, it's me alretty," came the muffled reply.
"So it's you, Carl. Why don't you come in?"
"Der door open, Pud, please. I my arrums full mit dings have."
Bud sprang from his blankets and threw the door open, admitting a cold blast and a flurry of snow.
"Ugh!" he ejaculated, with a shudder. "Come in, yer fat wad o' Dutch. What yer waitin' fer?"
"Someding has my hat stolen off mit my head." Carl's voice expressed both perplexity and awe.
Evidently something unusual had happened, and Bud put on his hat and stepped outside.
He had no sooner passed through the doorway than his own hat was snatched from his head.
He drew his revolver, leaped into the open, and looked about him.
There was no one in sight except Carl, who was standing near him with his arms full of blankets and bundles.
Carl could not have played the trick on him, and there was not wind enough to have blown the hat away. Anyhow, it had been snatched from his head by a hand and not by the wind.
There was something uncanny about this.
It was still light enough to see out in the open, and the snow-covered ground reflected light enough to have discovered an intruder had one been there.
Bud ran around the house, but could find no person, and there were no tracks of a man's foot in the snow.
"Jumpin' sand hills, but that's queer," said Bud, coming back to where Carl was still standing in the snow before the door, staring about in a bewildered way. "Gosh ding yer, Carl, I believe yer swiped my hat, an' if yer don't give it up I'll plant my toe whar it'll be felt onpleasantly."
"Honest, Pud, I ain't your hat taking," said Carl distressfully. "Vhy, I my hat losing too, yet."
"That's so, an' yer loaded down with truck. Throw them things inter ther house an' help me hunt ther thief. Don' be standin' thar like a sausage."
"Don'd you calling me a sissage," said Carl wrathfully. "I ain't feeling mooch as having fun mit you now. I bring all dese dings mit der saddle on, und I lose two or three every dime der pony makes his jumpings, und get down kvick to pick dem up maype as fifty dimes."
"Oh, all right. Quit yer bellyachin', an' come an' help. We can't get along without hats. That's a cinch."
Carl retired into the house with his bundles.
"Wow! Stop it, cuss ye," yelled Bud, as Carl came out of the cabin.
"I ain't didding noding," said Carl, backing away as Bud rushed upon him.
"Yer did, yer fat galoot. Yer pulled my hair 'most out by ther roots."
"I ain't pulling no hairs," Carl persisted.
"Then who done it? Yer ther only person what I can see. It's a cinch some one pulled my hair."
"Let us camp outside."
"What, an' freeze ter death before mornin'? Nixy. Not fer me."
"Ain't you heard about der shack?"
"No, I ain't, an' I don't want ter. What I'm after now is ther galoot what got our hats an' pulled my hair."
"Ain't you heard about der ghost?"
Bud was staring at Carl with his jaw dropped.
"Yah. Dis is a ghost haus, filled mit ghostesses."
"Don't you go making any monkey talks at me. There ain't no sich things as ghosts. That'll do fer ter frighten kids with, but not fer me."
"Den who tooken our hats, und who your golden locks pulled?"
"That's so. Who took them? Tell me, who put all thet dope about this bein' a haunted house in ther shell what yer calls yer head?"
"Bill Simms, der cow-puncher vot we picked up on der drive, informationed me about it. He says a man was kilt in dis shack, und dot he valks aroundt mit it ven der night cooms."
"That Bill Simms is ther worst liar in forty States. He tried ter fill me with wild dreams about a feller what rides ther line on this yere ranch what can stand havin' ther contents o' a six-shooter pumped inter him, an' it don't feaze him none."
"Yah. Dot's der ghostes vot runs dis shack. I don'd vant ter stay here, Pud. Please let us camp out in der snow."
"Why, yer doodle, can't ther ghost come out yere jest ez easy ez he kin' go inter ther house—that is, if he's a sure-enough ghost?"
"Yah, I guess he can. Vat vill ve didding?"
"I don't care what you do, but I'm goin' inter ther shack ter start up ther fire an' get warm. I don't care what you do, but I'm 'most froze."
"Don't leaf me alone, dear Pud. Please, I imploring you."
"Come on, then."
Bud stepped inside, and, as he did so, he uttered an exclamation of surprise.
Both the purloined hats lay in the middle of the floor.
"There, didn't I told you?" exclaimed Carl, in an awed voice.
Bud simply stared at the hats.
"Nopody but a ghostes could haf did dat."
Bud looked around the room, and then up at the ceiling.
Then he burst into a roar of laughter.
"Thar's ther ghost," he shouted, grasping Carl by the arm and twisting him around so that he could see.
In the corner just below the ceiling were two sharp, green points of light that glowed in the faint radiance cast by the fire, which had sunk to embers.
"Ach, mutter, save your liddle Carl. It vor der ghostes."
"That ain't no ghost," said Bud scornfully. "Ain't you never hear tell how ghosts look? They're all white an' long an' skinny, an' when they walk they carry chains what clanks, an'——"
"Oh, Pud, stop. Don't say it some more. My plood vas chilling now so I ain't aple to svallow in my troat alretty. I vas so scared as nefer vas I."
"Yer a cheerful roommate, I must say. See, ther ghost is gone."
"I ain't nefer goin' ter be happy some more. I haf seen a ghost. I vill die, I am sure."
"Yer kin bet on that ez a shore thing, an' I reckon I will, too."
"Listen!" Carl grasped Bud by the arm with the clutch of despair.
There was a faint and stealthy noise on the roof.
Both stood for a few moments listening breathlessly.
Then they heard a faint, far-away wail, like that of a banshee.
Carl threw his arms around Bud in an agony of fear.
"Dere it iss. Ve are gone. All iss lost."
Again the gruesome wail came to them, this time louder and clearer, and in a moment or two a hand was at the door. The latch clicked softly, and the door swung slowly open.
THE BIG COON TREE.
"Hello, what's the matter with you fellows? Are you going to have a waltz, or is it going to be a two-step, or a catch-as-catch-can wrestling match? Perhaps you've suddenly grown very fond of one another."
It was Ted who spoke, standing in the doorway, laughing as if he would burst his buttons off, at the strange tableau in the middle of the floor, Carl clinging to Bud, who was trying to shake him off.
"Let loose o' me," shouted Bud. "Why, ther feller's plumb daffy on ghosts. He says as how this shack is haunted, an' he's plumb loco."
"Yah. Didn't we just hear der ghostes yell mit der outside?" said Carl, who had been thrust away from his clutch on Bud, and was standing in the middle of the floor, trembling like one with the ague.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Ted. "Ghost, eh? It was me calling to the cattle, and sending them back from the line."
"Yah, aber I seen mit mine own eyes der green ones oof der ghost up in dot corner, und heart him on der roof."
"Come outside, and I'll show you the footprints of the ghost," said Ted, leading the way.
Out in the snow by the side of the cabin Ted showed them several tracks, something like a small hand, which ended at the wall of the cabin.
"That's where the ghost went up," said Ted. "Let's climb the wall, and see what is on the roof."
It was easy climbing up the log wall, for there were plenty of footholds.
When they were high enough to look over the edge of the roof, Bud gave an exclamation of surprise, and then burst out laughing, in which Ted joined.
But Carl could not see the joke.
"It's a vild cat," he shouted, scrambling to the ground.
"It ain't, neither," asseverated Bud. "It's a bully little ole pet coon. That's what it is."
He held out his hand, and the coon, making a queer little chuckling noise, came slowly toward him as he held out his finger, which the sharp-eyed little beast clasped in its fingerlike paw and pulled.
Bud reached out, tucked it under his arm, and climbed down with it.
"This yere coon was a pet ter ther fellers what rid line yere before," said Bud, when they were in the cabin again. "He's been hangin' eround ever since, an' when he saw us he thought it wuz his ole pardners come back. He's been taught ter swipe hats an' drop 'em down inter ther house through ther chimbley hole. That accounts fer it, an' I reckon he's ther whole ghost."
"Yah, mebbe I dinks so," said Carl, who looked rather sheepish at his exhibition of fear.
"He's a smart little piece," said Ted. "By the way, Carl, get busy with the pots and pans. I'm going to stay to supper and sleep here to-night. I've got the cattle and the boys planted, and it is too far to go on to the ranch house to-night. Stella and Kit went back an hour ago."
Carl went to work to cook supper, while Bud played with the coon, which was as full of tricks as a monkey, and kept the boys laughing all the time.
"A coon is a mighty smart animile," said Bud as they sat down to supper.
"So I've heard," said Ted. "But I've never seen many of them."
"Dere is no such beast in Chermany," Carl put in proudly.
"That's so," said Bud. "Ameriky is the land o' ther free, an' ther home o' ther coon. Never went coon huntin', did yer, Ted?"
"I never did."
"Well, ye've missed some mighty good fun. Down in Missouri is whar ther coon grows wild an' independent, an' ther ain't one o' them what's come o' age what ain't as smart as ary congressman you ever see."
"I've heard something about coon hunting," said Ted.
"It's great down in Missouri. Thar's whar ther coon trees grow."
"Vat such foolishment for?" said Carl, with a sneer. "Coons don't grow mit trees on."
"Nobody said they could, but they live in trees, yer loony. A ole gum tree what's holler is ther home o' ther coon. Thar's whar ther best coon dogs come from, too. Ever hunt coons with a dog?" continued Bud.
"Never did," said Ted. "It seems too picayunish fer me. I like bigger game than that. Besides, I don't care much fer hunting in the nighttime."
"Do they hunt mit der coons in der nighttime?" asked Carl, who was beginning to be interested.
"Shore! That's ther time ter tree 'em. My Uncle Fletcher out in ole Missou, we ust ter call him ole Unc' Fletch, had four or five coon dogs that was ther cream o' the coon-huntin' canines in several counties, an' Unc' Fletch was out near every night chasin' coons."
"Many of them there?" asked Ted.
"Ther country was overrun with 'em. They ust ter eat all ther roastin' ears o' corn in ther bottom lands, an' git away with more chickens than ever those that raised 'em did, until it got so that ther farmers said they was only raisin' corn an' chickens ter keep ther coons fat."
"No money in that."
"Not much. But I wuz goin' ter tell yer what happened ter Unc' Fletch one night ter show how plenty coons wuz in his section.
"One night he starts out with his best coon dog, Ballyhoo, so called because he made sech a noise when he treed a coon.
"Bally runs acrost ther scent o' a coon an' takes after it. Unc' Fletch trails along, an' Ballyhoo stops at a big sycamore tree. But there don't seem ter be no hole, an' after unc' looks around, an' can't find nothin', he calls Ballyhoo off, an' they start through ther woods ag'in.
"Pretty soon Ballyhoo scents another coon, an', by jing, it leads them ter ther same sycamore. About twenty times that night they strikes ther scent, an' every time it stops at the same tree.
"Now, Unc' Fletch wuz some o' a woodman, an' he says it ain't nat'ral fer ther dog ter tree so many coons at ther same place, an' wonders if thar is somethin' wrong with ther dog, if he's gone daffy, er whether it's jest an onusual smart coon what has gone out jest ter have a joke by runnin' them ter ther same tree every time.
"While he is contemplatin' thus he is leanin' with his back ter ther tree. Pritty soon he thinks he'll go home, an' he starts away sorter disgustedlike with ther night's sport, an', by gee, he finds he's caught by ther tail o' his coat an' can't break loose.
"He tries ter get away, but he's shore fast. He reaches around, an' ther tree hez got hold o' him all right, an' bein' some superstitious, Unc' Fletch begins ter git some scared. Then he ricollects about hearin' the colored folks talk about the haunted coon tree."
"Coons is ghostes, not?" asked Carl.
"Wait an' you'll hear," continued Bud. "Long about this time, Ballyhoo begins ter howl in ther most sad an' lonesome way, an' that don't make Unc' Fletch feel any better. Jest as he's thinkin' about hollerin' fer help——"
"Why didn't he skin out of his coat, and leave it sticking to the tree?" asked Ted.
"I ast him ther same question, an' he says as how he was too plumb scared ter do sich a thing. But jest as he was goin' ter holler he finds that he's loose, an' all his spunk comes back again.
"Then he begun ter be curious ter find out what it was that held him fast. He lights a fire an' gets a torch ter examine ther tree, but can't find nothin' that would hev cotched him thataway.
"But as he's lookin' ther strangest thing happens. Ther tree opens a crack runnin' all ther way from ther roots up as far as Unc' Fletch kin see. Ther crack is big ernuff ter put yer finger in, but Unc' Fletch doesn't do no such fool trick ez that.
"In less than a minnit ther crack closes up ag'in, an' thar ain't no sign o' it. Now this is some puzzlin' ter Unc' Fletch, an' he hez some more o' them funny feelin's erbout ghosts, an' them things.
"While he's still watchin' ther tree, ther crack opens again, then closes an' opens an' closes, same as if it wuz breathin'. This makes Unc' Fletch some riled, fer he wa'n't never a feller what can stand bein' made a joke of, an' he thinks ther ghost in ther tree is havin' fun with him."
"What did he do?" asked Ted, when Bud stopped and looked reflectively into the fire.
"Well, he starts out ter make a fool out o' ther ghost, if it is a ghost, er outer ther tree, if it is jest a tree what is triflin' with him.
"He has his ax with him, fer every real coon hunter always carries an ax ter chop down ther tree when he finds a coon in it. But he wa'n't goin' ter chop down this tree none."
"What did he want with the ax, then?"
"I'll soon tell yer. First he chops down a small tree, an' he makes a wedge with an edge erbout ther size o' yer little finger, an' he waits until ther tree breathes ergin. Then he slips ther wedge in, an' hammers it home.
"'Ha, ha!' says he ter ther tree, 'ye'll make monkey-shines with me, holdin' me by ther coat tails, will yer?' An' all ther time he is choppin' out another wedge, bigger than ther first.
"As he keeps choppin' out, an' shovin' bigger an' bigger wedges inter ther crack, he hears noises comin' from ther tree like what he ain't never heard before. But ther tree is beginnin' ter give out crackin' noises, too, like as if it was splittin'.
"While this is goin' on Ballyhoo is makin' a terrible fuss, an' jest tryin' ter tear ther tree down with his claws. At last ther tree busts plumb open, an' what d'yer think Unc' Fletch sees?"
Neither Ted nor Carl replied. What the tree contained was a thing unguessable, but Carl's eyes were as big as saucers as he stared at Bud, awaiting the solution of the mystery.
"What did it contain?" asked Ted at last.
"It was plumb full o' coons," said Bud solemnly. "Thar must 'a' been two hundred coons in that tree. It was a regular coon hotel. They made it a sort o' winter colony. Every coon fer miles eround made it home."
"But that doesn't explain the crack in the tree and the strange way in which it opened and closed."
"That's easy now that yer knows that the tree was holler an' plumb full o' coons."
"I don't see it yet."
"Why, it wuz like this: Every time them coons drew a long breath it expanded ther tree so that it opened a crack, an' when their lungs filled the crack opened wide. Then, when they let out thar breath ag'in, ther crack closed tight ag'in. Unc' Fletch happened ter lean up ag'in ther tree jest ez ther crack closed, an' that's how his coat tails got caught."
"And what became of all those coons?" asked Ted.
"Yer see they got inter ther tree through a hole in ther top. Unc' Fletch didn't dare leave ther tree alone, so he tied a note ter Ballyhoo an' sent him back ter ther village fer a carpenter. When ther carpenter come they put a roof on ther tree an' made a door at ther bottom, an' let ther coons out one at a time. By this means they got every dodgasted coon in them woods, an' Unc' Fletch's bounties was enough ter enable him ter lift ther mortgage on ther farm."
"I guess that will do for to-night," said Ted, laughing. "I'm going to hit the blankets, for it's up at daylight for all of us. I only hope your pet coon does not attract so many others as to turn this sign camp into a coon hotel."
THE PHANTOM LINE RIDER.
For several days the weather remained fine, and the cattle were able to get accustomed to their new range and become hardened.
The boys at the sign camps took things easy. In each sign camp were two boys, one of whom rode days, and the other nights, when it was necessary in bad weather to hold the cattle from drifting.
In order to keep in touch with one another the riders started from their camps and met midway between, in order to exchange notes as to the condition of the cattle and other things necessary to the welfare of the whole herd.
There was another reason for this constant interchange of communication between the camps.
Ted had received a warning from the town of Bubbly Creek, a small cattle station, about twenty miles from the Long Tom Ranch, where there was a cattleman's hotel, a few saloons, and an outfitting store, to look out for the Whipple gang, which had its rendezvous in the Sweet Grass Mountains.
Fred Sturgis, in the last letter Ted had received from him, had also mentioned this gang of thieves and desperadoes, whose operations extended from Canada, into which they made extensive raids when the Canadian Mounted Police happened to be out of that part of the country, as far south as the central portion of Montana.
"I have had considerable trouble with the Whipple gang myself," Sturgis wrote, "but as yet I have never seen but one member of the gang to know it. I have had plenty of cattle stolen, and have always attributed the thefts to the Whipples. All I know about the gang is that it was founded by a fellow named Whipple, an outlaw on the scout, who attracted to himself a desperate gang of fugitives from justice who had taken refuge in the Sweet Grass Mountains.
"I have never seen Whipple himself, but from those who claim to know him he is described as an enormous man of prodigious strength, and a perfect brute, who has forced his men into absolute subjection by his acts of brutality toward them.
"With Whipple are a number of bad Indians, who have fled from the various reservations in Montana after having committed all sorts of crimes, from theft to murder. It is said that these are more to be feared than the white men, for they are terribly cruel, and when they get a victim he is tortured with all the horrible rites of the true savage. They know that the moment they are caught that is the end for them, so that they are reckless to the verge of insanity.
"I tell you these things, believing that you already know what ranching in northern Montana means, and with every confidence in Ted Strong's ability to take care of himself, and meet conditions when they appear. All I can say is, go after them if they molest you. I and my boys fought them so successfully that they gave us a wide berth toward the end. But when they learn that new hands have taken hold of the Long Tom they may think that they can start their funny business again.
"Knowing your reputation, and the ability you have shown in the past in wiping out, or at least breaking up and scattering, bands of bad men, I leave the Long Tom in your hands with the hope that when I take it over again in the spring there will be no more Whipple gang, and that the Sweet Grass Mountains will be as safe as one's own dooryard.
"A word in your ear about the Sweet Grass Mountains: It is known to a few men in Montana, and a few others in various parts of the country that somewhere in those mountains are rich mines of gold and copper, and at various times men have brought out beautiful and valuable specimens of sapphires and rubies in the rough, not knowing what they were, having picked them up solely because they were beautiful and unusual.
"If it were not for the Whipple gang the mountains would have been opened up to the prospectors long ago. Several prospectors, unheedful of the warnings, have gone in, but none have ever come out of the Sweet Grass Mountains.
"Whoever is at the head of the Whipple gang possesses more than the usual share of brains, courage, and luck. Keep your eye peeled, and good fortune to you."
This letter had been read to the boys one night in camp, and all were instructed to look out for strangers on the ranch and to inform themselves of the business of such.
One night Carl started from the sign camp to ride north to meet the rider from sign camp No. 2, which lay nearer the mountains.
The camp in which Bud and Carl were stationed was camp No. 1.
The distance between the camps was about six miles, so that each rider had to go about three miles to meet.
The night was clear and cold, and the air fairly sparkled with the frost in the brilliant white moonlight. It was a glorious night, and Carl, in a leather coat lined with fleece, and with a fur cap upon his head, and his feet in thick felts, started away from the camp on his ride.
There was no wind, but the temperature was very low.
To the north the Sweet Grass Mountains loomed, a black mass against the sky, while all about the world was carpeted with snow.
Carl had not progressed more than a mile from his camp when he saw a dark object against the snow some distance in front of him.
At first he thought it might be a bush or a rock, so still it was in the moonlight.
But he could not remember of ever having seen either a rock or a bush in that part of the range.
Then he wondered if he was late at the meeting place, and that the other line rider had got tired of waiting for him, and had ridden forward upon his line to meet him.
This stimulated him to greater speed, and he pricked up his pony.
But as he got nearer the black blot on the snow there seemed to be something unusual about it, and he unconsciously slowed his animal down to a walk.
At last he got within hailing distance, and saw that it was a man on horseback that he had been approaching.
The man on night duty at the second sign camp was a cow-puncher named Follansbee, a short, reckless, yet amiable fellow, whom Carl knew well.
The rider who was awaiting him was an unusually large man, and bestrode an enormous horse. The two were as if they had been carved from ebony, as they stood silent and absolutely still, outlined sharply against the dazzlingly white background.
Something inside of Carl began to sink as he went on, slower and slower, his hand gripping the reins tightly, and holding back on them.
"Vot it is?" he was saying over and over to himself. "Vot it is? Dot is not Billy Follansbee. Dot man vould make dree times of Follansbee, nit?"
Cold fear was slowly stealing over Carl, and he wanted in his heart to turn and ride the other way.
But something seemed to draw him forward, and, try as he would, he could not bring himself to turn back.
The man on the black horse could not be a member of the Long Tom force, for Carl knew every one of them well, as a fellow will who has camped with them for months on a cattle drive.
Now Carl was near enough to see the man's face, and he peered eagerly forward to get a glimpse of it.
Then his heart sank lower yet, for the man's face was as white as the snow beyond. There were no features; neither nose, nor mouth, nor eyebrows, only a pair of black eyes gleamed out of that dead-white face.
Carl clutched at the horn of his saddle to keep from falling, he was so frightened.
"Vot it is?" he kept repeating to himself.
His pony stopped of its own volition directly in front of this black apparition, and Carl swayed in his saddle and would have fallen out of it had he not clung to it with the unconscious strength of despair.
"Iss dot you, Follansbee?" asked Carl, in a weak, thin voice, well knowing that it was not his line partner, but trying to break the spell of fear that held him.
There was no reply, but the gleaming black eyes never left his own, nor did the figure on the horse move a hair's breadth.
"Vy don't you say someding?" said Carl, his voice sounding like the piping noise of the wind through a keyhole. "Speak someding."
Then it suddenly struck Carl that the man could not speak, because in that white, immovable face there was no mouth to speak with, only those black, blazing eyes.
"If you can't speak, make motionings," said Carl, in an imploring voice.
The sinister figure on the black horse slowly raised his arm, and motioned Carl toward him, at the same time swinging his black horse around and riding toward the mountains.
Chilled to the heart, Carl obeyed the signal, and sent his pony forward.
The man, apparition, demon, or whatever it was, sent his horse into a gallop, and Carl, with no volition on his own part, followed at the same speed.
But with the black and menacing eyes of the man with the dead face away from his own, some small part of courage oozed back into Carl again, and he remembered Ted's injunction to question every stranger met on the range, and if he did not give a satisfactory answer to drive him off.
But Carl had not got over the fright the sight of that face and eyes had thrown him into.
Suddenly his hand came into contact with the handle of his six-shooter, and a thrill of daring ran through him.
He looked ahead at the back of the man riding only a few feet in advance of him.
Should he take the chance? He knew that Ted or Bud or any of the boys would do so. Why not he?
If the man was only human a bullet would soon settle the matter. But if he should be a ghost or an emissary of the devil, as Carl strongly suspected, nothing like a ball from a forty-five would do him harm.
This had the effect of staying his hand, and the revolver stopped halfway out of its holster.
Then Carl thought of the boys, and what they would say if they knew that he had not nerve enough to pot the enemy when he met him.
Carl was not the bravest fellow in the world, and he was intensely superstitious.
Again the thoughts of the taunts of the other boys, should they ever know that he lacked the nerve to take advantage of the moment, came to him, and he gulped something hard that rose in his throat, and drew out his revolver.
At that moment the man in black turned and looked over his shoulder, his dead face gleaming white, out of which shone those terrible black eyes.
The revolver stopped suddenly in its upward course, and Carl's jaw dropped as he stared in abject fear at that white and expressionless face.
Then the man in black turned his horrible face once more to the fore, and rode on.
Something inside of Carl seemed to snap, and a great glow of courage swept over him. He fairly hated the sight of the grim rider in front of him, who was taking him he knew not where, and whom he yet dreaded with all his heart.
Up came the revolver again, and, almost before he realized what he was doing, Carl was firing, straight at the back in front of him.
The target could not be fairer, that black mark against the snow.
The first ball struck, for Carl heard the thud of it, as if it had struck and sunk into something soft.
The report of the weapon crashed through the still night, and was carried far on the frosty air, reverberating and echoing back from the distant mountains.
But the creature in whose body the ball had lodged did not seem to know it. The head was not turned, the body did not lurch or sway.
Carl, now blind to everything but the terror that had taken possession of him, fired again and again until every chamber in his revolver was empty, pausing after every shot to note the effect.
That every shot was fair he was sure, for he could hear the sound of the impact of the bullet.
The recipient of the bullets seemed not to know that they had been fired, for he did not hasten or retard the progress of the horse, nor did he take any personal notice that they gave him any discomfort.
But when Carl ceased firing he threw his head backward, looking over his shoulder again, and from that hideous face without nose or mouth came a gurgling noise that was like, and yet not like, laughter.
The laughter was worse on Carl's nerves than the silence, and he felt himself grow sick at heart.
How could he expect to fight or escape from a devil impervious to the balls from a Colt forty-five?
Then, to Carl's amazement and relief, the black horse sprang forward over the snow so swiftly that it seemed as if it was flying rather than running, but this probably was due to the uncertainty and the illusion of the moonlight, and vanished into thin air, leaving Carl staring open-mouthed.
It was several minutes before Carl regained his senses and knew that he was sitting with his revolver in his hand, staring into space and seeing nothing.
Then he rode slowly forward to the brink of a deep coulee.
Here was where he had last seen the phantom rider, for such Carl had at last come to regard him.
Looking to the bottom of the coulee, Carl saw nothing but snow, where he had expected to find a dead horse and rider.
"Ach, vot a country," he wailed. "Vy did I effer come to it? Mutter, I vish you vas here to hellup your Carlos."
Then he heard a groan close at hand and looked about, expecting to see the phantom rider by his side.
A short distance off lay a black splotch on the snow.
It resembled the prostrate form of a man. Had he, after all, killed his horrible enemy? Cautiously he rode toward it. It was a man, and not the phantom, and it looked very much like a cow-puncher, for it was clad in leather coat and chaps, and there was a belt filled with cartridges, and in the snow beside it lay a Colt forty-five.
This at least was human, and Carl climbed stiffly from his saddle and bent over it.
He started back with a cry of surprise.
The man in the snow was his line partner, Follansbee.
That he was not dead was evident, for he groaned occasionally.
It was up to Carl to get him to camp as soon as he could, and when he tried to raise the insensible form he was stopped by a gush of blood from a wound in the breast.
But he heard a shot in the distance, then another, and another.
The boys had heard his shots, and were riding toward him with all speed.
Presently he heard the long yell, and in a few minutes Bud Morgan came dashing toward him at top speed, and soon they were joined by Kit Summers from sign camp No. 2, and the horror of the night was over for Carl.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT.
Follansbee was carried to camp No. 2, where Bud, who was a pretty good cow-camp surgeon, examined his wound. A ball from an automatic revolver had struck him in the breast, but on account of the thickness of the clothing he wore, and the fact that he had on a heavy vest of caribou hide, in the pocket of which he carried a small memorandum book, the ball had penetrated only a short distance.
While he had lost a lot of blood, and the shock of the ball striking had caused him to lose consciousness, he was not seriously hurt.
It did not take Bud long to extract the bullet and stanch the flow of blood, and Follansbee opened his eyes and looked about wildly.
"Where is he?" he cried in terror.
"Whar's who?" asked Bud.
"The man what didn't have no face," cried the cow-puncher.
"Carl chased him avay alretty," said Carl, bending over his partner.
"All right, Carl. You saw him, too, did ye?"
"Sheur I sawed him, mit mine own eyes."
"Then it's all right," murmured Follansbee, sinking back on his bunk. "I wuz afeared the boys wouldn't believe me if I told them what I saw."
When Follansbee sank into a deep sleep, due to his weakness from loss of blood, the three boys sat before the fire while Carl told of his encounter with the faceless man, and of the six shots which he had fired at him and the ineffective bullets which had struck his body.
As the story was told a hush fell upon Bud and Kit. They were deeply affected by the fact that this unknown and terrible menace was upon the range which they were compelled to patrol, and which not even the balls from a heavy weapon could kill.
"I would hardly have believed it if both of you hadn't seen the creature," said Kit. "It sounds too much like a pipe dream."
It was morning before Bud and Carl left Kit's camp and rode to their own. Follansbee was apparently all right, and exhibited no symptoms of fever, for he had the iron constitution of a seasoned cow-puncher, who almost invariably recovers as if by magic from a gunshot wound if the missile does not penetrate a vital spot or splinter a bone.
Follansbee, when he awoke from his sleep, told Kit of his meeting with the "man without a face," as he called the man who had given him his wound.
"I wuz ridin' at a pretty good clip along the line to meet Carl," he began, "when I see a feller standin' waitin' for me by the deep coulee, about three miles south.
"At first I thought it wuz Carl, but soon I see that it wuz too big fer the Dutchman.
"I slowed down a bit, fer I saw it wasn't any o' our outfit. Ye see I had in mind what Ted said about that Sweet Grass Mountain gang, an' I wuz some skittish.
"As I rode along slowly the feller on the black hoss made a sign as if he wanted me to foller him. But I didn't like the stunt, so I stops still an' rubbers at him.
"Two or three times he makes his motions, an' I don't do nothin' but shake my head.
"Kit, that wasn't no human bein'. It wuz ther devil as sure as shootin'. I started to draw my gun, but shucks, I ain't got no chanct ter make a move before thar was a crash, an' a blaze o' flame come from his chest, right about the middle, an' I felt the ball strike me, I heard a queer sorter laugh, like a man bubblin' with his mouth in a basin o' water, an' then I went out, an' all I remember wuz fallin' out o' the saddle."
About noon of that day, Ted and Stella rode over from the ranch house on a tour of inspection, and stopped at Bud's camp, where they were told the story of Carl's strange encounter with the man without a face, to which he listened in troubled silence.
When Carl was through with his story, Ted looked for a long time into the fire without saying anything.
"Well, what do you think?" asked Stella, at last.
"I think it is the work of the Whipple gang," answered Ted.
"But why should they shoot Follansbee?"
"It is a piece of intimidation. Of course, they do not know us. Under ordinary circumstances an apparition like that, followed by the shooting of a man, would cause a panic among ignorant men on a ranch. It is a cinch that the Whipple gang has got it in for us, and this is just the beginning of it. You will soon see other evidences of their work."
"But why should they hev it in fer us?" asked Bud. "We ain't never done nothin' ter them."
"I don't know, but I have several ideas."
"What are they?"
"There are two or three things to be considered. In the first place they have it in for the ranch on general principles. You know Fred Sturgis said in his letter that he and his boys had driven the gang away from the ranch. That is reason number one. Then we are strangers in this part of the country, and they have seen us and have us sized up for a lot of boys, and, therefore, easy marks for them. Again, we have a big bunch of cattle, which Whipple and his bunch think we will not be able to protect against them.
"They may have learned that we are deputy United States marshals. That is enough to condemn us in their eyes. They are all old and fugitive criminals, and if we knew them I think that we would find that they are all wanted in one or more of the States and Territories, and that the aggregate amount of rewards which have been offered for them, dead or alive, would amount to a neat sum. They do not need marshals in this part of the country. There may be other reasons why they will make war on us, which we will learn later, but the ones I have mentioned are sufficient for them to make themselves very troublesome."
"So you think it is war, eh?" said Stella.
"I do, and I think that you will be a shining mark for them when they learn that you are here. For that reason I would warn you to be very careful where you go about the ranch, and especially ask you not to ride about alone, and to keep away from the mountains."
"Oh, dear, and just when I had planned to explore those mountains from one end to the other," said Stella, with a pout.
"Can't help it. You know what would happen if they should catch you and spirit you off as Shan Rhue did in the Wichita Mountains."
"Yes, I know, I'm a lot of trouble to you, Ted, but you know I don't mean to be."
"Of course I know it, but if you run into danger, and expose yourself to the attack of those who are avowedly our enemies, you run the chance of being caught, and then, of course, it is our duty to get you out of trouble."
"Well, I'll be good."
"The attempted killing of Follansbee was no accident," continued Ted. "It was the work of an exceedingly shrewd man, who knows the moral effect of his strange and mysterious appearance."
"Ain't it a ghost?" asked Carl, who had become all swelled up at the thought that he had made a ghost run away from him.
"I should say not."
"Den vy shouldn't mine bullets haf killed him?"
"I'm sure I don't know. That is why I say that he is a remarkably clever man, and it is probably the cause of the power he wields that he is able to do such things. It wouldn't surprise me any if some day we learned that your visitor was none other than the renowned Whipple himself."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Stella.
"What can we do? We wouldn't know a single member of the gang if we were to meet him. We don't know where they hang out, and if we did we know nothing about the Sweet Grass Mountains, and could not go to where they are. All we can do is to watch the ranch house and the cattle as a cat watches a mouse, and if anything more, such as the shooting of Follansbee, occurs, we will have to go on the warpath ourselves. But I don't want to do that. We are out here to winter feed our cattle, and not to fight."
"Shore enuff, but yer kin bet yer breeches I'm not goin' ter let no cave dweller or brush hider tromp onto my moccasins, an' turn ther other cheek ter be tromped on. Ther first feller o' that outfit I cotch sashay in' around me I'm goin' ter take a crack at him."
"Go as far as you like when it comes to an act of aggression on the part of one of them, but don't start anything, Bud, unless you can positively bring it to a successful end."
"I reckon I'm some of a fox myself. They ain't set no trap what I've put my paw inter yet."
Ted and Stella rode on to Kit's camp to see how Follansbee was getting on, and found him doing nicely, but Stella laughed at the bandages Bud had put on the wounded cow-puncher, and insisted on redressing the wound.
Stella was a master hand at bandaging, because she was deft of hand and was naturally sympathetic.
When she had finished with Follansbee, and had sewed his bandages so that he could not rub or drag them off, he said he felt a hundred per cent better already.
Then they proceeded toward the mountains, where the third camp, under the direction of Ben Tremont, was situated.
It was almost the dying of the day when they left Ben's camp. He had not heard of the attack on Follansbee, and Ted made it an occasion to warn Ben against the attacks of the Whipple gang, as he was in the most exposed place, being so near the mountains.
When they turned their ponies' noses toward the south again it was to ride through a part of the herd.
Ted noticed that the cattle were feeding well and that there was plenty of good, rich, well-cured grass, and that it was free of snow in big enough patches to give the cattle ample room to graze.
As they were riding along Stella drew rein.
"What's the matter with that steer over there, Ted?" she asked, pointing to a steer that was dragging one of its hind legs.
Ted looked at the steer in question, which was moving slowly forward.
"See, there's another," cried Stella. "Why, I can see a dozen of them all limping in the same manner."
"That's strange," said Ted. "I wouldn't think anything of it if only one steer had gone lame, but I can't understand a dozen."
They rode slowly toward the lame steers.
"Great guns," exclaimed Ted, bending low in his saddle to examine the steers closely.
"What is it?" asked Stella excitedly.
"This is terrible," said Ted. "If this keeps up we might as well shoot all the cattle and let them lie out here on the prairie the prey to the wolves. We will never get them back to Moon Valley."
Stella looked at him with an expression of consternation on her face.
"These cows and steers have been hamstrung," said Ted, with a tone of suppressed rage in his voice. "Any man who would do a trick like that ought to be shot down in his tracks like a mad dog."
"Hamstrung! I don't understand."
"Some inhuman brute has ridden up behind these crippled animals, and with a sharp knife has cut the tendons or leaders behind the hoofs, or, rather, in the ankles, laming them and preventing them from being able to follow a drive. Where would we be in the spring if any large portion of our beasts were so maimed?"
"What a brutal thing to do!" exclaimed Stella, in indignation.
"Hello, what's that?"
Ted rose in his stirrups, standing and shading his eyes with his hand against the glare of the setting sun on the snow. With the other hand he was pointing off toward the east, where the cattle were milling uneasily.
"Something wrong over there," said Stella.
They rode slowly in that direction to see what was disturbing the cattle.
As they went, Ted was looking for other hamstrung beasts.
"By Jove! this is getting worse and more of it," he exclaimed. "See there! That steer has had the tendons of his leg cut to-day. The wound is fresh. It has hardly stopped bleeding. I wonder——"
But before he had finished the sentence he applied the quirt to his pony and was dashing through the herd, with Stella close behind.
He had seen something strange and out of the way in the milling herd, and while he thought he knew what it was he could hardly believe that it could be true.
As he rode he drew his revolver, and broke it to see that its chambers were filled.
Ted's face was pale and stern, and Stella saw at a glance that he was terribly angry, and had the look in it that she had observed there several times when he had seen animals being used with cruelty.
As he dashed into the milling herd he gave a cry of rage.
At the same moment a man sprang to an upright position in the midst of the cattle, and gave a cry of surprise.
Over his shoulders hung the fresh hide of a cow, with the skin of the head and the horns protruding above his head.
He gave one swift glance at Ted, then threw the hide to the ground and set out at a run through the plunging beasts.
Ted was hampered by the cattle getting in his way, and was not making much progress, but he was beating the horned beasts aside with his quirt.
It was possible even yet that the man who was running from him would escape, and this was what Ted was trying with all his might to prevent.
Ted knew why the man was among the cattle protected from them by his disguise of the cow's hide.
He had been hamstringing them by the wholesale.
In one day the inhuman brute could destroy for range use a whole herd.
In the meantime, the cattle were growing wilder and wilder from the pain caused by the hamstringer's knife, the wild career of the unmounted man among them, and Ted and Stella pressing through them from the rear with shouts and cracking quirts.
"Great Scott! They'll get him!" shouted Ted, reining in his pony.
The furious steers had turned their attention to the man on foot, and were surging about him with angry bellowings, charging upon him, and crowding him.
He was in a very perilous position, and it was only that the cattle were herded so close together that he had not gone down sooner.
But once the cattle got him down he would be gored and trampled to death. Nothing could save him.
Ted and Stella were trying to force their way to his side, but were unable to do so.
Notwithstanding the fact the fellow had been caught in the act of mutilating his cattle, Ted could not see him die without trying to save him.
Now they heard a cry of fear, and saw the man throw his arms up in the air.
The cattle were surging about him with wild and angry bovine cries, and with a great tossing of horns, and leaps into the air.
There were muffled yells of agony from beneath the tossing mass of horns.
"They've got him," muttered Ted. "They are wreaking their own revenge."
"Are they killing him, Ted?" asked Stella.
"They have got him down. The fool he was to go among them on foot. He should have known better."
Ted made another effort to get through the cattle, and at last succeeded in making a lane for himself.
"Stella," he shouted over his shoulder, "you stay where you are! This is nothing for you to see. Better let me attend to this."
Stella was aware that Ted always knew what he was talking about when he warned her away from anything, and she made her way out of the herd.
When Ted got to the spot where he had last seen the man, the cattle were still milling, but were getting calmer, and had no hesitancy in scattering when he rode among them slashing right and left with his quirt and firing his revolver over their heads.
When he had cleared an open space he rode back into it, and instantly recoiled from the sight presented to him.
On the ground lay the hamstringer, a mass of bloody clothes in which were torn flesh and broken bones. He was quite dead, and had been not only gored but had been trampled hundreds of times.
The vengeance of the maimed animals was complete.
A NIGHT RAID.
Ted bent over the mangled body of the hamstringer and turned him over. Then he leaped back with an exclamation of horror.
He had recognized the miscreant.
It was Sol Flatbush, the traitorous cow-puncher, member of the gang of cattle rustlers and gamblers headed by Shan Rhue, who had run off about five hundred head of cattle of the Circle S brand into the Wichita Mountains in Indian Territory.
But how had Sol Flatbush got into this part of the country? And where was he stopping? It was evident that the cow-puncher and desperado had hamstrung the cattle out of revenge for having been discovered and driven out of the broncho boys' camp.
Now that he was dead, however, Ted lost all his resentment, and was genuinely sorry for the poor chap because of the horrible means of his death.
Ted hardly knew what to do with him. It were better if his friends could take charge of his body and bury it, but where were his friends?
Suddenly a thought occurred to Ted. Perhaps Sol Flatbush, following his instincts and habits, had come north after he and Shan Rhue had been outwitted by the boys at the Hole in the Wall in the Wichita Mountains, and allied himself with the Whipple gang in the Sweet Grass Mountains.
If this were true, the simplest thing to do was to send the body of Flatbush to the gang. It would serve, Ted hoped, as a terrible warning to the other members of the gang not to meddle with the affairs of the broncho boys.
Not far away Ted saw a pony, saddled and grazing quietly.
Mounting his pony, he rode up to it. Tied to the cantle of the saddle was a pair of blankets.
This was the very thing! Ted carried the blankets to where the body of Flatbush lay. Spreading them out, he rolled the remains of Flatbush into them, and bound them securely with a rope.
With some difficulty he lifted the bundle to the back of the outlaw's pony, and bound it securely with a lariat.
Then he tied the pony's reins to the horn of the saddle, gave the beast a slash with his quirt, and it started, snorting and jumping, toward the distant mountains.
Thus was the body of Sol Flatbush sent to his friends.
"What was it?" asked Stella, when Ted, having finished his gruesome task, returned to her side.
"The chap who was mutilating the cattle is dead," he replied. "The bulls turned upon him and gored and trampled him to death."
"Horrible! Do you know who he was?"
"Yes, I recognized him."
"Is that a fact! Who was he?"
"An old enemy of yours."
"An enemy of mine! I didn't know I had one."
"Not really of your own, for no one who knows you could feel any animosity toward you, Stella. But you have enemies through me. Those who would seek to hurt me do so by making trouble for you, knowing that they can hurt me worse by injuring you than they could by torturing me personally."
"That's why you have so often warned me to be careful where I go alone."
"That is why. It is not fair that you should be put to discomfort or in danger of death merely because I make enemies by trying to force men to obey the laws."
"I understand. But who was the man who was killed?"
"Sol Flatbush! How does it happen that he is in this country?"
"I'm sure I don't know, unless he and Shan Rhue, after escaping from the Wichita Mountains, came directly here, having previously been members of the notorious Whipple gang."
"Then I suppose we shall see Shan Rhue one of these days. Ted, I'm afraid of that fellow. When they had me in the Hole in the Wall I heard him make the most horrible threats against you."
"Threats don't hurt, Stella. The threatened man lives long. You know the old proverb: 'The man I most fear is he who says nothing, but smiles in your face while he is planning to stab you in the back.'"
They were turned toward the ranch house, and as darkness was falling swiftly, conversation was suspended as they put their ponies to their highest speed, galloping across the snow-covered range toward where they could see the lantern of the house shining like a beacon through the gloom.
For the safety of the boys and the cow-punchers traveling toward the ranch house in the dark, Ted had placed a large lantern on the top of the flagstaff which stood in the front yard, so that it could be seen for miles at night to guide wanderers.
This had been suggested by his experience the first night they had spent at the house.
Those of the boys who were not riding line were stopping at the house, and they were all in the big living room awaiting the coming of Ted and Stella.
When Stella was late in arriving at the house, Mrs. Graham began to grow anxious and worried, and this was communicated to the others.
But when they heard Ted's ringing yell outside, as he and Stella galloped up, there were shouts of gladness inside, and the big door was thrown open, allowing a broad path of light to fall across the prairie, as two cow-punchers came bounding down the steps to take the ponies to the corral.
After supper Ted told of the maiming of the cattle and the death of Sol Flatbush.
It was part of the life at the ranch that bad news of any sort was never told at the table during meals, and if any of the fellows had a grievance or was in trouble he tried to keep that fact out of his face and look as merry as he could while the others were eating. If he wanted to tell his troubles later, and any one was willing to listen, all right and good, but mealtime was glad time where the broncho boys and their friends sat down together.
While they were sitting before the great fireplace after supper, Clay Whipple was looking into the flames with a preoccupied air.
He had been silent all evening, an unusual thing for him, for usually he injected humorously dry comments into general conversations.
"What's the trouble, Clay?" asked Stella, who was always the first to notice when one of the boys was not his usual self.
"Oh, I don't know," said Clay uneasily.
"Reckon he's worryin' some on account o' this yere mountain bandit bein' ther same name as him," laughed a cow-puncher named "Pike" Bander.
"I reckon you're only joshin', Pike," said Clay quietly, but growing a shade paler.
"Why, shore, Clay. Yer didn't think I wuz in earnest?" Pike hastened to say.
Clay's Kentucky blood would not permit him to receive without resentment any reflections against the South or the people of his family, while he could stand any amount of personal joshing without growing in the least touchy or angry.
"Then what's the matter?" asked Ted, as Clay returned to his gloomy contemplation of the fire.
"I'm worried some, that's all," was the reply.
"Tell your troubles to the policeman, that's us."
"Well, I might as well out with it. Only I don't want to appear as if I was gettin' panicky over nothing."
"What is it, Clay? You are so provoking when I am just dying to hear about it," cried Stella with a laugh. "Out with it."
"Injuns!" said Clay explosively.
Every one around the fire sat up with a jump.
Clay nodded his head slowly without taking his eyes from the fire.
There was silence for a few minutes, for every one was turning this new menace over in their minds.
The danger from Indians in this far-away Northern country was very real. It was not that the Indians would make any open or daring attacks, but that they were lawless and fearless of the authority of the United States, and despised the "buffalo soldiers" at the near-by army posts.
"Buffalo soldiers" is a name of contempt given by the Indians to the negro troops who had been stationed near the Blackfeet and Crow Indian agencies, on account of their curly, woolly hair, which, in the fantastic minds of the Indians, resembled the short, curly hair on the shoulders of the buffalo.
The negro troops were too near their own color to demand much respect from the Indians.
But the danger did not come so much from the reservation Indians, as from the fugitive Indians who had left the reservations and had become outlaws, allying themselves with the white bandits in the mountains, and living by thievery from the ranchmen and sheep-herders.
Some of these Indians had rallied around Running Bear, a young Blackfeet, son of a chief, a graduate of the Indian School at Carlisle, in Pennsylvania.
Running Bear was a young fellow of magnificent physique, for he had been a member of the famous Indian football team of Carlisle that had a year or two previously cleared all white teams from the gridiron.
Running Bear was well educated also, and a man of fine address and manners, when he wished to be so. But he was unprincipled, and when he returned to the tribe lost no time in breaking all the laws imposed by the United States for the government and welfare of the Indians.
This brought him into conflict with the Indian agent, and certain penalties were imposed on him. This he would not stand, and soon persuaded other of the young men of the tribe to mutiny against the agent.
This led to further trouble, and after committing some unforgivable offense against the United States, Running Bear rallied his young men, and they fled the reservation and the ways and protection of the white men, and took to the mountains, where they lived by raiding the ranches in the neighborhood, and maintaining a sort of defensive partnership with Whipple's band of white outlaws.
After a silence, during which every one was turning these facts over in his mind, Ted turned to Clay, and said:
"What about the Indians, Clay?"
"I saw their tracks."
"In the coulee back of the house."
"Near the house!" exclaimed Ted. "That's getting pretty close to home. Did they see you?"
"I reckon they did. I took a shot at one of them, an' he left a red trail in the snow."
"That's bad, Clay. You shouldn't have shot at him."
"Shouldn't, eh? Well, you never saw a fellow from ole Kaintuck that would stand up an' let a man shoot at him without sending his compliments back—if he happened to be packin' his gun at the time."
"Did they shoot at you, then?"
"One of them did. It was like this: I was ridin' in from the west, where I had seen a small bunch of strays which I turned back to the main herd. As I was comin' up to the big coulee I saw something move against the snow. At first I thought it was a grouse, and was just going to take a shot at it when I looked again. Then, by jinks, I saw that it was the head of an Indian shoved up over the edge of the coulee.
"His back was turned to me, and he was watching the house. I pulled in my pony and kept my eye on him for several minutes.
"Then I saw Mrs. Graham come out of the house and stand for a moment on the back porch.
"The Indian rose up and brought a rifle to his shoulder. At that I let out a yell, and he turned to me like a flash, and pulled his trigger. But he was in too much of a hurry, an' the ball whistled over my head.
"I had my gun out, an' blazed away. The Indian yawped as if he had been hit, and disappeared. I got to the coulee as fast as I could, but he had disappeared."
"Was he the only one?" asked Ted.
"I reckon not, for there were any number of moccasin tracks in the coulee, and the footprints of white men or Indians who wore boots. There was a splotch of blood where the Indian had been, and a red trail leading to where there had been ponies. Then I came on to the house."
Ted was thinking deeply. At last he raised his head.
"This has been a day full of things that may mean a great deal to us," he said. "Follansbee has been shot by a member of the Whipple gang, Sol Flatbush was killed after mutilating our cattle, more Whipple gang; and an Indian prowler has been shot, some more of the Whipple gang. Boys, the war is on, and it depends on us whether it is going to last all winter and cause us to lose all our cattle, or whether we are going to be able to stamp it out right now. Which shall it be?"
"I reckon we'd better get busy. It'll be easier ter do the job now than fuss along with it all winter," said Pike Bander, who was an old Northern cow-puncher, and had had lots of experience with the Indians in Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming.
"I think you're right, Pike," said Ted. "And now off to bed with you. There'll be something doing to-morrow."
In half an hour the house was dark, and every one was asleep.
The moon which had been shining brightly during the early part of the night had become obscured by a heavy bank of snow clouds, which had been driven over the mountains by a north wind, and it had grown much darker outside.
In his sleep Ted seemed to hear the well-known voice of Sultan, whinnying shrilly. It was a dream, and Ted tossed uneasily. But again and again he heard Sultan's voice. It had a note of alarm in it, and Ted knew that Sultan seldom gave an alarm of this sort unless something serious was the matter. Ted's dream was of Indians, and the call of Sultan was very natural, for the little black stallion hated Indians, and whenever one came within smelling distance of him he grew uneasy and fretful, and always gave voice to his fear.
The dream had such a disquieting influence on Ted that it woke him, and he sat up in bed grinning to himself in the dark to find that, after all, it was only a dream, and that he was safe in bed.
But what was that?
He was awake now, and he distinctly heard Sultan. Then he had heard his pet give a warning, even in his dream.
Leaping from bed, Ted groped around the room, getting into his clothes, without lighting the lamp.
Grasping his rifle from the corner, and buckling on his belt and holster, he left the room.
As he passed Clay's room he entered and shook the sleeping Kentuckian, who was on the floor with a bound. Ted told him of the continued voicing of an alarm by Sultan, and Clay hurriedly dressed.
They passed into the living room, and Ted went to the windows on one side, while Clay went to the other side.
Hidden by the curtains, they stood looking out on the snow-covered plain.
"Hist!" It was Clay trying to attract Ted's attention.
Ted went swiftly to his side.
"What's that down by the corral?" whispered Clay.
Ted looked sharply.
"It's the Indians," said Ted. "They're trying to steal our horses. Sultan knows what he's about. Come on, we'll have to rush them."
Ted heard a rustling noise behind him and turned.
It was Stella, fully dressed, and with her rifle resting in the hollow of her arm.
"I heard Sultan, too," she said. "We'll have to hurry if we're going to save the horses."
"You go back to bed," said Ted. "Yi-yi-yipee!"
His voice rang out in the old Moon Valley yell.
It was like a fire bell to a fireman, and brought the boys out of their beds like a shot, and they scrambled into their clothes and were in the living room with their arms in a jiffy.
In the corral a great commotion was taking place, to judge from the noise that came to them.
At the word of command they rushed through the door, and raced for the corral, turning loose the long yell.
They heard guttural shouts in the distance, and a band of ponies came through the gateway of the corral, scattering over the prairie.
Behind them rushed a band of Indians, who, seeing that there was no further occasion for silence, gave forth whoops of defiance.
Then Ted saw Sultan gallop out, and on his back was an Indian.
This was more than Ted could stand, and his rifle flew to his shoulder. There was a flash and a crash, and the Indian fell to the ground, over which he writhed in agony.
Ted whistled, and Sultan trotted to his side.
The ponies had scattered, and the corral was empty.
THE WAR PARTY.
The Indians had fled in every direction.
They had been foiled in their purpose of running the ponies off in a band, as they had intended, by Ted's fortunate discovery of the raid.
How to gather the ponies together again was the question that puzzled Ted, for the broncho boys had no mounts with which to pursue the would-be thieves.
It was not long before the light appeared in the east, and by that time Ted had ridden to Bud's sign camp, and thence to camp No. 2, and had four more horsemen to assist him in the pony round-up.
These worked unceasingly, riding the snowy prairie, picking up the ponies which the Indians had not been able to round into a bunch to drive to their rendezvous in the mountains.