Dave Porter at Star Ranch/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV


THE BEGINNING OF THE GRAND HUNT


Dave's announcement produced a little sensation, and for the moment his chums stared at him in astonishment.

"Come to think of it, that man does look like the little newsboy," said Roger, slowly. "Do you suppose they can be related?"

"I'd hate to think that Charley Gamp was related to such a fellow," said Phil. "Snogger isn't a nice sort to have anything to do with."

"Mr. Endicott said he didn't use to be so bad," answered Dave. "It is only lately—since he went to work for Mr. Merwell—that he has grown dissolute."

"Maybe he is sorry that he left the Endicott place," said the senator's son. "I'll wager he has no such nice times at the Triple X Ranch as he had at the Star."

"Not if all the cowboys are like those who came to our entertainment," said Phil. "But, Dave, if you think he's related to Charley Gamp, why not speak to him about it?"

"You may get into trouble if you do," interposed Roger, hastily. "Some of these Western characters don't like to have their past raked up."

"But Charley Gamp wants to find his relatives," went on the shipowner's son.

"I'll bring it around when I get the chance," said Dave. "But I can't do it now," he added. "He's gone." And Dave was right. Hank Snogger had leaped on his horse, and was off, on a trail that led up the river instead of across it.

"What are you boys confabbing about?" cried Belle, coming up, with a box of candy in her hand.

"We were just wondering where we'd get some candy," answered Dave, innocently. He did not think it wise to mention Snogger just then.

"Indeed! Well, I bought this from the candy man of the train. He is waiting for the down train."

"Where is he?" questioned Roger.

"Down the track—by the water tower."

"We'll raid him!" cried the senator's son, and then he and Dave and Phil set off on a footrace in the direction of the man who sold candy, cigars, and magazines. They found that he had a pretty fair stock of candy and magazines, and each boy purchased what he thought would suit the others and himself. In the fun and good spirits that followed Hank Snogger was, for the time being, forgotten.

Two days later there was a rounding-up of some of the cattle and the boys were allowed to participate. They went out with Sid Todd, who had charge of the round-up, and were in the saddle from early morning until late at night. The cattle were gathered in a valley up the river, sorted out from some belonging to Mr. Merwell and Mr. Hooper, and then driven off to a stockyard along the railroad line.

"Not so exciting as I thought it would be," said Dave, after the round-up was over.

"I've had all the riding I want for one day," answered the shipowner's son.

"That's right," grumbled Roger. They had had only a quarter of an hour's rest for lunch. "I reckon some of us will be stiff in the morning," and he was right, all felt somewhat sore.

The round-up had been a careful one, for Mr. Endicott had heard that Mr. Merwell was finding fault over the way some of his cattle were being chased by the cowboys. The following afternoon the Merwells—father and son—met Mr. Endicott as he and Belle were riding along the trail, talking over the family's plans for the coming winter.

"See here, I want to speak about my cattle," cried Mr. Merwell, wrathfully, as he drew rein.

"Some time when I am alone, Mr. Merwell," answered the railroad president. He quickly saw that his neighbor was "spoiling for a fight."

"Your men took three or four of my steers," went on Mr. Merwell. "I won't stand for it."

"That can't be so, Mr. Merwell. My man, Todd, is a careful rounder, and he told me he was sure of the brands."

"He ain't careful at all," broke in Link. "He drinks and he don't know what he is doing."

"This is an affair between your father and myself," said Mr. Endicott, stiffly. "You will kindly keep out of it."

"Huh! I guess I can have my say!" growled Link.

"I shall hold you responsible for every head of cattle of mine that is missing," continued Mr. Merwell, with a dark look.

"I am willing to pay for every head that Todd drove off that did not belong to us," answered Mr. Endicott. "But he assured me that he took only our own. I will look into the matter when I get back to the ranch." And, bowing stiffly, the railroad president rode on, with Belle beside him. As they passed, Link "made a face" at Belle, but the young lady refused to notice him.

As soon as he returned to the ranch, Mr. Endicott called up Sid Todd, and then some of the other cowboys, and questioned them closely about the cattle sent off. The head herder indignantly denied that he had included any outside cattle, and his story was corroborated by the others.

"I can leave it to Bill Parker, Mr. Hooper's man," said Todd. "He was there. If Merwell didn't want to take our word, why didn't he send a man down? We notified him that we was going to make a shipment."

"Have the steers been shipped yet?"

"No—not till to-morrow."

"Then ride down to the yard and have Harrison go over them and write out a declaration that they are all ours," added the ranch owner.

"It's a good deal of work," grumbled the cowboy.

"I know it, but I'll pay Harrison. With a declaration from Harrison, Mr. Merwell will have no claim."

The ranch owner's orders were carried out, and the next day a duplicate of the stockyard man's declaration,—that the cattle were all of the Star Ranch brand,—was delivered to Mr. Merwell.

"Huh! needn't tell me!" he sniffed, after reading the paper. "I guess Harrison is playing into Endicott's hands."

"You tell Harrison that—if you dare," answered the messenger, who had delivered the paper. Harrison was known to be a fair and square but high-tempered individual, and one who could shoot, and shoot straight.

"Oh, I—er—I didn't mean—er—anything against Harrison," answered Felix Merwell, hastily. "I think Endicott is deceiving him, that's all. But it is not his fault. I—er—suppose, though, I'll have to let the matter drop. Just the same, I think some of my cattle slipped into that drove." And there the matter rested. Mr. Merwell knew he was in the wrong, but he was too mean a man to acknowledge it. Truly, father and son were equally despicable.

"I wish he would sell out," said Belle, to the other girls. "But I am afraid he won't—he'll stay here just so he and Link can worry us."

"Maybe he wants you to sell out," said Jessie.

"Well, we'll not do it," answered Belle, with spirit.

On the following day the boys and girls went out on a picnic, taking a generous lunch with them. They persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Endicott to go along with them, and after they returned home the ranch owner and his wife said they felt ten years younger. They had joined in all the games played, helped to build a campfire and make coffee, and "cut up" just as if they were young themselves.

"Oh, if only papa and mamma were here!" sighed Jessie. "I must write them a long letter, telling them all about it!" And the letter was penned the next morning. On that day came a letter from Dunston Porter, stating he would stop at Star Ranch for them ten days from date.

"Only ten days more!" cried Dave. "My, how the time flies!"

There was also a letter from Nat Poole, in which Nat stated that he had been looking for the fellow who called himself Tom Shocker and had at last located the rascal in a town not far from Buffalo. He had accused the man of the robbery at the hotel, and caused the fellow to give up the stickpin and also a pawn-ticket for the watch. The timepiece had been recovered, and both articles were now at the Wadsworth home, waiting for Dave.

"Well, I am glad Nat got the things back," said Dave.

"Maybe that will be a lesson to him, not to trust strangers in the future," was Phil's comment. "But how about the money?"

"Nat says Shocker spent that."

"Then Nat will have to make it good," said Roger.

"Yes, he says he will," answered Dave.

"What about that grand hunt we were to have?" questioned Roger. "Only ten days more, remember."

"I'll see Todd about it at once," was Dave's answer.

The matter was talked over, not only with the cowboy, but with the others, and it was finally decided that the boys and Todd should leave the ranch home two days later, for a hunt that was to last three and possibly four days. They were to go on horseback, and carry with them a small tent and a fair supply of provisions, as well as two rifles and their shotguns, and the cowboy's pistol.

"We'll strike out straight for the mountains," said Todd. "To be sure, we may find some game in the hills close by, but in the mountains we'll be certain to run down something worth while."

"Well, you look out that something doesn't run you down—a bear, for instance," said Laura.

"Boys that can kill a bobcat can kill a bear, if they try," answered Sid Todd

The boys were in great delight, and spent every minute of their time in getting ready for the trip. Guns were cleaned and oiled, and they sorted and packed their ammunition with care. Mr. Endicott had a compact camping outfit, consisting of dishes and cooking utensils, and the little tent, and these were made into convenient packs for the horses, and the provisions were likewise strapped up properly. Todd aided in all, and the lads had to admire how deftly he put things together so that they might be carried with comparative ease.

"He has been there before, that is plain to see," said the senator's son.

"A fine man," declared Dave, heartily. "I shall feel perfectly safe with him along."

The girls were sorry to see the boys go, yet every one of them wished the lads the best of luck.

"Please don't run into any danger!" pleaded Jessie.

"Don't shoot at a bear unless you know you can get away from him if you miss him," cautioned Laura.

"And, above all, don't get lost in the mountains," was Belle's advice.

It had looked like rain the night before, and the boys were worried, not wishing to depart in the wet. But the sun came out full in the morning, and their spirits at once arose. Roger could not contain himself and whistled merrily, while Phil did a double shuffle while waiting for breakfast. Dave was also happy, although sorry that the girls, and especially Jessie, would not be along.

"All ready!" cried Todd, half an hour later, when the horses had been brought around to the piazza.

"I am!" cried Dave.

"So am I," came from Phil and Roger.

"Then good-by, everybody!" shouted the cowboy, swinging his sombrero, and off he galloped. The boys said farewell, the girls waved their handkerchiefs, one of the hands fired off his pistol, and away the lads went after Todd; and the grand hunt was begun.

It was still early and delightfully cool, with a faint breeze blowing from the distant mountains, for which they were headed. Todd had already told them that they were to keep on steadily until exactly noon, crossing the river, and following a brook that came from the upper hills.

"I know a fine spot to stop for dinner," he said. "And we can make it if you'll keep up with me." He always took his dinner at noon, having no use for "lunch" at any time.

On and on over the smooth plains the party galloped, and by the middle of the forenoon reached the river.

"No use in stopping for a mess of fish, I suppose," said the senator's son, wistfully.

"You can catch 'em up in the hills just as well," answered the cowboy. "Sweeter, too, maybe," he added. Many fishermen think that the higher up a stream you go for fish, the sweeter they are to the taste.

The cowboy had certainly set a smart pace, but none of the boys grumbled, for they were as anxious as he to reach the mountains and look for game.

"Of course you can keep your eyes open around here," he said, as they galloped along. "But you won't see much, I'm afraid."

"I see some grouse!" cried the shipowner's son, a few minutes later. "We might bring some of those down and cook them for supper. We won't want to wait to do it for dinner."

He pointed to some grouse far away, and all agreed that the fowls would make good eating. They rode behind some bushes, tied their horses, and went forward with caution. All fired together, and when the smoke cleared away they saw that four of the game had been laid low. The rest had flown away, and to follow them would have been useless.

"Well, four are all right!" cried Roger, and was about to rush forward to pick up the grouse when of a sudden Dave yelled to him to stop.

"What's the matter?" asked the senator's son.

"A snake!" screamed Phil. And as he spoke all in the party saw what Dave had first discovered. A rattlesnake had appeared from a hole in a tree, close to where the dead grouse lay!