Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.


At Dottery's Ranch


"It's a shame, Paul!" ejaculated Chet, almost crying with rage. "We ought to have shot him where he stood."

"I suppose many a man would have done it," returned Paul, somewhat moodily. "But we must get him out."

"He won't go out without a fight."

"I think he will—when we get enough of a crowd against him. I more than half believe he is totally alone, although the furniture and other stuff look as if he had had somebody to help him."

"He's been hanging around watching his chance," went on Chet. "Who knows but what he has been spying on us ever since his last visit."

"Oh, I trust not, Chet!" Paul looked much disturbed. "He may have overheard some of our talk about Uncle Barnaby's mine, you know." "That's so! What if he did! He is rascal enough to try to locate it and set up a claim, eh?"

"Undoubtedly. Come on; the best we can do is to ride to Dottery's and try to obtain help. It's a long journey by night, but there's nothing else to do."

"I won't mind it—if only Dottery will turn in and help us. He ought to, but he always was a peculiar fellow. He may not want to make an enemy of Captain Grady, seeing as the ranches adjoin. But come on, while daylight lasts."

And off the two brothers struck, along the river trail, and then down the road Allen and Noel Urner had pursued on their way to the far-away railroad station. They realized that in another hour darkness would be upon them.

The boys knew the way well, having traveled it a dozen times in search of stray cattle. They rode on, side by side, urging on the tired horses and discussing the situation in all its various phases.

Slowly the sun faded from view behind the distant mountains, casting long shadows over the foothills and the level stretches beyond. The night birds sang their parting song, and then came the almost utter silence of the night.

"When do you suppose we'll reach Dottery's?" questioned Chet, after several miles had been covered.

"If all goes well, we'll get there by one or two o'clock," returned his brother. "You must remember we have Demon Hollow to cross, and that's no fool of a job in the dark."

"Especially if the Demon is abroad," laughed Chet. He was only joking, and did not believe in the old trappers stories about the ghost in hiding at the bottom of the rocky pass.

When darkness fell the hoofstrokes of the horses sounded out doubly loud on the semi-stony road. Yet, to the boys, even this was better than that intense stillness, which made one feel, as Chet expressed it, "a hundred miles from nowhere at all."

So tired were the horses that the boys had their hands full making them keep their gait. They would trot a few steps and then drop into a stolid walk.

"I don't blame them much," said Chet, sympathetically. "It's doing two days work in one. But never mind, they shall have a good rest when it's all over."

By ten o clock it was pitch dark. To be sure the stars were shining, but they gave forth but a feeble light. The boys had to hold their animals at a tight rein to keep them from stumbling into unexpected holes.

"It will be nearer three o'clock than two before we get there at this rate," grumbled Paul. "Just look ahead and see how dark and forbidding the Hollow looks."

"Not the most cheerful spot in the world truly," rejoined Chet, as he strained his eyes to pierce the heavy shadows. "Let us get past it as soon as we can."

"Afraid, Chet?"

"Oh, no, only I—I would rather be on the level trail beyond the pass."

Paul said no more, having no desire to hurt his younger brother's feelings. To tell the exact truth, he himself felt a bit "off." It was growing toward midnight.

Down and down led the road, between two rocky crags. Soon the last trace of light was left behind, and they had to let the horses pick their own way as best they might.

Suddenly Chet gave a start and a cry.

"O, Paul, what is that?"

"Where?"

"Over to the left."

Paul turned in his saddle. As he did so an object not over two feet in length and of a gray and white color, with some black, swept to one side of them.

"Can it be a pig?" gasped Chet.

"A pig? No, it's a badger, out on the forage. Don't you smell him?"

Chet recovered and unslung his gun. He tried to take aim in the gloom.

"Don't fire!" said Paul. "What is the use? It's only a waste of ammunition. The badger isn't hurting anything, and he's a good distance from the ranch. Let him go."

By the time Chet had listened to all this the badger had disappeared. The animal was not used to being aroused and was more frightened than any one.

They passed on. The very bottom of the Hollow was at hand. The horses proceeded slowly, realizing the peril of the place.

Once Rush went down into a hole nearly throwing Chet over his head. But the youth held on, and Rush arose all right, with nothing but a slight scrape on his left foreleg.

They peered with watchful eyes up and down the silent pass. Not a sign of any life was there. The water flowed on with a muffled murmur and the wind sighed through the deep opening, and that was all. In another five minutes the pass was left behind.

For some reason both boys drew a long breath of relief when the high ground beyond was reached. The strain was gone, and now, by contrast, the road looked as bright to them as if the sun was about to rise.

"Come to think of it, we may as well take it easy," remarked Paul. "It isn't likely that Dottery will care to make a move before daylight."

"Yes; but if we get there sooner, we'll have a chance to rest up a bit, and we need that, and so do the horses."

"I didn't think of that. Well, forward we go."

An hour passed and then another. Soon after Chet gave a joyous cry.

"There are Dottery's outbuildings! We'll soon be there now!"

"Right you are, Chet. I wonder——" Paul stopped short. "Oh, look over there!" he cried.

He pointed to a barn not a great distance back from the road.

The door of the structure was open and within flashed the light of a lantern.

"Dottery must be up, or else——" began Chet.

"Horse thieves!"

Both boys uttered the word simultaneously. Could it be possible that the thieves were raiding their nearest neighbor?

"Wait. Let us dismount and investigate," whispered Paul. "Don't do anything rash," this as Chet started to run toward the barn.

Thus cautioned, the younger boy paused. The horses were tied up behind some brush, and, guns in hand, the pair crept across the road and over a wire fence into the field.

Hardly had they advanced a dozen steps when three men came out of the barn, leading four horses. They made for an opening in the fence not a rod from where the boys flung themselves flat on the grass.

From the description they had received, the lads made up their minds that the men were Saul Mangle, Darry Nodley, and Jeff Jones.