For the Liberty of Texas/Chapter 3

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It must be confessed that Hank Stiger was badly frightened when Ralph confronted him with the loaded gun. He was naturally not an overly brave fellow, and while the boy before him was young, yet he realised that Ralph could shoot as well as many a man. Besides this, Dan was there, and he was also armed, and now had his finger on the trigger of the ancient cavalry musket.

"Don't shoot!" The words came from Dan. He could not help but admire his brother's pluck, yet he was sorry that the affair had taken such an acute turn. His caution was unnecessary, for Ralph had no intention of firing, excepting Stiger should attempt to rush by him or use the gun slung on his shoulder.

The mustang took several steps, and then the half-breed brought him to an abrupt halt. "You're carrying matters with a putty high hand, to my notion," he remarked, sarcastically.

An awkward pause followed, Ralph knowing not what to say, and glancing at Dan, half afraid that his brother would be tremendously angry with him over the hasty threat he had made. Yet he felt that he was in the right, and he kept his gunbarrel on a line with the half-breed's head.

"Stiger, you might as well give up the deer," said Dan, as quietly as he could. "It's Ralph's first big game, and of course he feels mighty proud of it. A good shot like you ought to be able to bring down lots of game of your own."

Dan imagined that this tempered speech and side praise would put the half-breed in good humour, but he was mistaken. Stiger glanced from one lad to the other, his face growing more sullen each instant.

"This deer is mine, and you can't force me to give it up," he muttered. "Put down that gun, or we'll have trouble."

"You put down the deer, first," said Ralph, sturdily.

"It's my deer, not yours, and I won't put it down. I'm not afraid of two youngsters like you."

Again Ralph's temper got the better of him. "You shall put it down, Hank Stiger. You are nothing but a horse-thief, and I—"

"Ha! call me a hoss-thief!" ejaculated the half-breed, in a rage. "I won't stand that, boy. You shall suffer for it."

"You are a horse-thief, and stole one of my father's animals last year. Now you want to steal my deer, but you shall not do it. Dan, he's got to give it up, hasn't he?"

"Yes, he has got to give it up," answered the older brother, seeing that matters had gone too far for either of them to back down. Dan was slow to make up his mind, but, once it was made up, he was uncompromising to the last degree.

"Supposing I refuse to give up the deer?" came from the half-breed. He spoke in a brusque manner, but there was a shade of anxiety in his tone.

"You had better not refuse."

"You wouldn't dare to shoot at me."

"Don't you be too sure of that," put in Ralph. "You must remember that father could have had you shot down for a horse-thief, had he wanted to do so. I don't want any trouble with you, but I am bound to have my game."

"All right, then, you keep the game!" ejaculated Hank Stiger, in deep rage, and, turning on his mustang, he picked up the deer and flung it to the earth. "But remember, I say I shot that deer and that he is mine. Some day you'll rue your work here, mark my words!" And with an angry shake of his dirty fist at them he kicked his mustang in the sides and was soon lost to view in the forest to the north of the creek.

The two boys watched him carefully, and they did not lower their guns until they were certain that he had gone too far to turn and fire at them. Then Ralph knelt over the deer and examined the torn open neck.

"There, I was sure of it!" he cried, triumphantly. "There is my bullet, and that's the only shot he received."

"Let me see." Dan took the bullet. "You are right, Ralph. But, even so, we have made an enemy of Stiger for life. He will never forgive you for calling him a horse-thief."

"I don't care,—I got the deer. Do you believe he'll come back to make more trouble?"

"There is no telling. I think we had better be getting back to the house,—father doesn't seem to be anywhere about. There is a tree branch. You can tie the game to that, and we can both pull it down the creek to the river and then over to the burn. It won't be worth while bringing a pony out to do it."

Both set to work, and in a few minutes the deer was fastened to the branch and slid into the creek. The bottom was sandy, and the water made the load slip along readily. The lads had just crossed the burn with their drag when a gunshot rang out, coming from the direction of the ranch home.

"Listen!" ejaculated Dan. "A shot from the house! What can that mean?"

He dropped his hold on the branch and leaped forward, unslinging the escopeta as he did so. For a moment Ralph hesitated, not wishing to leave his game again, but then, as his brother disappeared into the belt of timber hiding the cabin from their view, he also dropped his hold, feeling that, even though a boy, his presence might be needed elsewhere.

When Dan reached the clearing about the ranch home he found his father in the doorway, rifle in hand, gazing anxiously in one direction and another. Mr. Radbury was tall and thin, and constant exposure to the sun had browned him considerably. A glance sufficed to show what he really was, a Southern gentleman of the old school, despite the rough life he was at present leading.

"Dan!" cried the parent, gladly. "I am happy to see you are safe. Where is Ralph?"

"He is just behind me, father. But what's the trouble? Has anything happened here while we have been away?"

"I hardly think so, but the Indians are around,—I saw two of them directly across the river, and half a dozen at the big tree ford, all Comanches, and several of them in their war-paint. I was afraid you had had trouble with them."

"No, we've had trouble with somebody else," answered Dan, but before he could go any further Ralph appeared. The tale about the deer and Hank Stiger was soon told, Mr. Radbury listening with close attention.

"And do you think I did wrong, father?" questioned the youngest Radbury, as he concluded his narrative.

"No, I can't say that, Ralph," was the grave answer. "But I am afraid it will make us more trouble all around. Stiger and Bison Head are intimate friends, and if the Indians are going on the war-path again, the half-breed may direct an attack upon us. It was a great mistake to speak about that stolen horse. We can't prove that Stiger took it, although I am morally sure he was the guilty party."

After a short talk, it was decided that Mr. Radbury should go into the timber for the deer alone, leaving Ralph and Dan to watch around the cabin and the cattle shelter. At the shelter were several cows, used for milking, and a number of pigs. The other stock was off on the range between the ranch and Gonzales, grazing.

"I'd like to know if the cattle are safe," remarked Dan, after his father had left. "If those Indians should take it into their heads to round them up and drive them off it would be a big loss."

"Perhaps Hank Stiger will put them up to it," returned his brother. "I suppose he is mad enough to do most anything."

Leaving Ralph to see to the defences of the ranch home, Dan hurried down to the cattle shelter. This was in plain view of the cabin and could readily be covered from two firing-holes left in the shutter which covered one of the windows of the sleeping apartment.

Everything was as the youth had left it that morning, and there were no indications that any marauders had been around during the absence of Ralph and himself. The gate to the cattle enclosure was open, and some of the cows were outside. These he drove in and then barred up the gate.

Back of the cattle shed, at a distance of several hundred feet, was a slight hollow, where there was a pool of water surrounded by mesquite-trees and bushes. This pool could be seen only from the back of the shed, and as Dan walked in that direction, something caught his eye which instantly arrested his attention.

It was a plume of feathers waving above the bushes close to the pool. There was a similar plume a short distance away.

"Turkey feathers," he muttered to himself. "But there are no wild turkeys down there, and I know it. Father was right, the Comanches are watching our home and surrounding it."

As soon as he had made his discovery, Dan felt inclined to run back to the cabin with all speed. But this would let the Indians know that they were discovered and probably make them hasten their plans. So instead of running he took his time, walked completely around the shed, stopped to pat a favourite cow on the nose, and then sauntered slowly to the cabin.

Once inside, however, his manner changed. "Ralph, father was right, the Comanches are on the war-path!" he exclaimed. "Bar up the windows, and I'll look to it that every gun and pistol in the house is ready for use."

"Then you saw more of them?"

"Yes, two down by the hollow."

"Do they know that you saw them?"

"I hardly think so." Dan began to look over the stock of pistols, several in number, including a "hoss" nearly two feet long. "I wish father was back," he added, anxiously.

"Shall I fire a signal?"

"Not yet, for it may only make the Comanches hurry up. But you can watch for father from the doorway, and if you see him, beckon him to run for it," concluded the elder brother.