Boys of the Fort/8

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Boys of the Fort by Ralph Bonehill
Chapter VIII: The Stealing of the Horses

CHAPTER VIII.


THE STEALING OF THE HORSES.


"Go slow, men," came softly from Gilroy. "You know what kind of a man Leeson is."

"Reckon I do know," came in a growl from Fetter. "And I've got an account to settle with him, too."

"I'm pretty certain the boy is here," went on the leader. "But we must make sure if the others are here too, or if they have ridden off to the fort. If they have gone to the fort—"

"Hist!" came in warning from Potts. "You're talking too much. I've heard that this Leeson sleeps with his ears wide open."

"He does," grumbled Fetter; and then the three desperadoes relapsed into silence.

They were advancing upon the cabin from the rear, and each held a ready pistol in his hand, while his rifle was slung over his back. They had seen the boys and Benson head for the trapper's home while it was still light and they were on a high cliff; but darkness had closed in on the scene, and they had come up to the spot in ignorance of what had followed.

Tiptoeing their way they reached the lean-to where the horses had been stabled, and with caution Gilroy went inside. By feeling the animals he soon learned that three had been in use but a few hours before, while the fourth was cool and comfortable.

"Their horses are here," he announced. "And a fourth is here, too."

"That's Leeson's," answered Fetter. "But I thought he had two or three."

"Might as well take them while we have the chance," murmured Potts. "Four nags will bring some money over at Highwater. We can get Gingo to sell em."

"Let them out," answered Gilroy. "Without horses they'll have their hands full trying to follow us."

It was no easy task to untie the horses in a place that was pitch-dark, and it took some time to get even the horses belonging to our friends released.

As Fetter and Potts took the animals out, Gilroy worked to untie the sturdy mare belonging to Hank Leeson. This was a pet animal, and not used to strangers. As Gilroy caught hold of the halter she gave a neigh of suspicion.

"Hush!" murmured the desperado, and ran his hand down the mare s nose. But this made her skittish, and she stamped sharply half a dozen times.

"What's up thar?" came in Hank Leeson's voice, and the trapper was wide awake on the instant. "Whoa, Nancy, whoa!"

"Hang the luck!" muttered Gilroy, and ran outside after Fetter and Potts. "He must have been on the watch."

"We must get out!" responded Fetter. "He's a sure-shot, remember. Nothing but the darkness can save us."

"I'm going!" came from Potts, and he leaped on the back of one of the horses—that which Joe had been riding.

"I'm with you," said Fetter, and mounted old Benson s steed. "Come, Matt, and be quick about it."

By this time Hank Leeson was running around the corner of the cabin, gun in hand. His call had aroused Joe and Darry, and they were pulling on their clothing with all speed.

"Something is wrong!" exclaimed Joe.

"It must be those desperadoes," responded his cousin.

The boys were not yet dressed, when they heard a clatter of hoofs and a shot, followed by another. Then they came out, rifles in hand, to find Leeson reloading near the stable.

"Those desperadoes have been here!" exclaimed the old trapper. "They ran off with your hosses, consarn em!"

"Went off with the horses?" repeated Darry. "Did you shoot at them?"

"I did, but the light's against me, and I don't reckon as how I hit anything." Hank Leeson meditated for a moment. "I've half a mind ter do it—yes, I have!" he muttered.

"Do what?" asked Joe.

"Go after em on my mare. Would you be afraid to stay here alone if I went?"

"No; go ahead!" cried both boys.

"We'll keep watch while you are away," continued Joe.

"If you can get the horses back it will be a great favor," said Darry. "The three are worth over five hundred dollars."

Without further words, Hank Leeson dashed into the stable, untied his mare and mounted her. Rifle over shoulder and pistol in hand, he dashed away on the back trail, whence the desperadoes had disappeared. Soon he was swallowed up in the darkness, although they heard the hoofbeats of Nancy for several minutes after.

"This is the worst yet," was Joe's comment, when they were alone. "Those fellows are as daring as they are rascally. I never dreamed they would come up in that fashion. I wonder what they would have done if Leeson hadn't woke up?"

"Perhaps we would all have been murdered," answered his cousin with a shudder. "What shall we do, now we are dressed?"

"That depends upon how long Leeson remains away. I move we remain on guard—one at the front of the cabin and the other at the rear. If we keep our eyes peeled they can't come very close, even though it is dark."

"All right, Joe. Keep your rifle handy."

"Don't fear about that, Darry."

They were soon on guard, the one on the door step and the other near the lean-to, on a stump. Thus an hour dragged by. To both it was an unusually long while.

"I don't see a thing," said Darry, coming to where his cousin rested.

"Nor I, and I m getting sleepy. I hardly think Leeson will be back until morning.

"Just what I was thinking. Let us take turns at watching. The one on duty can walk around the cabin now and then, and that will give each of us some sleep."

This was agreed upon, and they tossed up, to see who should go on guard first. It fell to Darry's lot, and Joe, hardly able to keep his eyes open, quickly retired, without undressing.

Darry's vigil was certainly a lonely one, doubly so because it was new to him. As he tramped slowly around the cabin, he could not help but contrast this situation with the one he was used to at home.

"I don't know as I'd like to be a night policeman or a night-watchman," he reasoned. "They must be awfully tiresome jobs. And the city isn't near as lonely as this, either, even in the middle of the night." He drew a long breath and looked at his watch. "Gracious, only three-quarters of an hour gone, and I ve got an hour and a quarter still to serve! How awfully slow it is! If Leeson— What's that?"

He broke off short and came to a halt, with his rifle in his hands and his gaze fixed on some brush wood a hundred feet to the rear of the stable. He had seen some dark object moving, but whether it was man or beast he could not tell.

"It was something, I'm sure of that," he told himself, after the object had disappeared from view. "If it was a man he must have been crawling on hands and knees."

He wondered if he had better awaken Joe, but hesitated, knowing how sleepy his cousin was. Perhaps the object would go away—if it was a wild beast.

Keeping his eyes on the spot, Darry waited what seemed to him a long time, but which was really but a few minutes. Then slowly the bushes parted and the object came forth, with eyes that gleamed fitfully even in that darkness.

"A mountain wolf!" muttered the boy. "Well, I'm glad it isn't one of those desperadoes."

Taking up a stone he hurled it at the wolf, at the same time shouting to the beast to go away. At once the wolf turned tail and disappeared whence it had come.

"Did you call?" came sleepily from Joe.

"There's a wolf in the bushes back of the cabin,"returned Darry.

"Does he want to attack you?"

"I don't know. I just threw a stone at him, and he's slunk out of sight."

By this time Joe was also outside, and the two cousins waited for the reappearance of the wolf. But the animal was cowardly, and did not show himself again, and presently Joe returned to bed. The remainder of the night passed without any thing unusual happening.