Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI.


An Encounter in the Dark


Chet and Paul could hardly suppress their excitement as they saw the horse thieves move toward the opening in the fence. Chet drew up his gun and pointed it at the leader.

"Don't fire! Wait!" cautioned Paul. "There are three of them, remember."

"I wonder where Dottery is?" questioned the younger boy, with his hand still on the trigger.

"Asleep, most likely."

"We ought to arouse him. Run, Paul, while I keep watch."

"I will, but don't do anything rash during my absence," replied Paul Winthrop.

He sneaked along in the tall grass until the outbuildings were left a hundred feet and sped like a deer toward the ranch home, showing dimly in the grim shadows ahead.

Less than sixty seconds passed, and he was pounding vigorously on the front door of the heavy log building. Not content with using his fist he banged away with the toe of his cowhide boot.

"Who's thar?" came from within presently.

"Mr. Dottery!"

"That's me, stranger."

"Come out. It's Paul Winthrop. There are horse thieves at your barn."

"What!" roared Dottery. He was a heavy-built man, with a voice like a giant. "The same chaps ez robbed you?"

He unbarred the door and came out on a run, gun in hand and a long pistol in his belt. He was an old settler, and rarely took the trouble to undress when he went to rest for the night.

"Yes, the same, unless I am very much mistaken. My brother Chet is down there now on the watch."

"I'll fix 'em. Go back and call Jack, my man."

Paul hesitated and then did as directed. It took some time to arouse the cowboy, Jack Blowfen, but once aroused, the man quickly took in the situation, and arming himself, joined the boy in a rush after Dottery.

"The pesky rascals!" he muttered. "Yer brother told us about 'em when he stopped here on his way to the railroad station. It's a pity Ike Watson didn't plug every one of em when he had the chance. Next thing yer know they'll be runnin off with a bunch o' cattle."

"Be careful when you shoot; my brother Chet is there," continued Paul, not wishing Chet to be mistaken for a horse thief in the dark.

"I know the lad, and I also know this Saul Mangle and his crowd," returned Jack Blowfen. "I owe Mangle one for the way he treated me in Deadwood one day."

He ran so swiftly that Paul had hard work to keep up with him. Dottery had already disappeared in the darkness of the night.

Bang! Bang! The shots came from behind the barn, while Paul was some distance away. It was Dottery firing at the thieves. Jack Blowfen was chasing them down by the wire fence.

"Paul! Paul! Hold on!"

It was Chet's voice. As he cried out the lad arose from the grass and caught his brother by the sleeve. Paul had passed so close that he had almost trodden on Chet.

"Come on, Chet."

"I'm coming. But hadn't we better look to our horses?"

"In a minute. Let us find out what that firing means."

Paul led the way in the direction of the barn. There, in the gloom, they saw two men struggling violently. They were Dottery and the negro, Jeff Jones. The other horse thieves and Jack Blowfen were nowhere in sight.

Two horses were running about wildly, alarmed by the shots in the dark. Both were bridled but had no saddles.

"Catch the hosses!" yelled Dottery, as he made out the forms of the boys. "Don't let em get out of that break in the fence!"

"Have you that man?" cried Paul.

"I will have in a second."

The brothers ran for the animals as directed. It was no light work to secure them. When it was accomplished they ran the horses into the barn and closed the doors. As they came out panting from their exertions, they heard a gunshot from the brush on the opposite side of the road, and then the voice of Jack Blowfen calling out:

"Let them hosses go, you rascals! Take that, Saul Mangle, fer the trick yer played me in Deadwood!"

"Rush and Lilly!" gasped Chet. He said no more, but started in the direction of the encounter. He was determined his horse should not be taken again. Paul came on his heels. Both boys were now sufficiently aroused to fight even with their firearms. The wire fence was cleared at a single bound and into the brush they dove pellmell.

That Jack Blowfen was having a fierce hand-to-hand contest with his antagonist was plain. The boys could hear both men thrashing around at a lively rate.

"You've hit me in the leg, and I'll never forgive you for it!" they heard Saul Mangle exclaim. "How do you like that, you milk-and-water cow puncher?"

"I don't like it, and ain't going ter stand it, yer low down hoss thief and gambler," returned Jack Blowfen, and then came the fall of one body over another, just as Paul and Chet leaped into the little opening where the battle was taking place.

They saw Jack Blowfen on his back with Saul Mangle on top of him. The horse thief had the butt of a heavy pistol raised threateningly. He looked alarmed at the unexpected appearance of the boys.

"Let up there!" sang out Paul. "Let up at once!"

The cry and the glint of the boys weapons decided Mangle. With a low muttering he gave Jack Blowfen's body a kick and sprang for the bushes.

Chet and Paul went after him, leaving the cowboy to stagger to his feet and regain his pistols.

The boys followed Mangle not over a dozen feet. Then they came upon Darry Nodley, who had several horses in a bunch, among them Rush and Lilly. The man had been waiting for the leader of the gang to finish his row with Blowfen.

Saul Mangle was ahead of the two boys, but ere he could leap upon the back of the nearest animal Paul ran up to him and seized him by the arm.

"Stop!" he ordered. "You cannot take those horses. We will shoot you both if you attempt it!"

"The Winthrop youngsters," muttered Darry Nodley. "How did they find their way here?"

He attempted to move on, thinking Mangle would follow. But now Chet barred the way.

The ranch boy had his gun up to his shoulder and there was a determined look on his sunburnt face. He was fighting for Rush as much as for anything else.

"Get down!" was all he said, but the tone in which the words were uttered left no room for argument.

Darry Nodley hesitated and thought at first to feel for his own gun. But then he changed his mind. He saw that Chet was thoroughly aroused, and saw, too, that Jack Blowfen was coming up.

"We'll have to make tracks," he cried to Saul Mangle, and leaped to the ground, putting the horse between himself and Chet, and ran for the bushes.

In the meantime Paul and Saul Mangle were having a hand-to-hand fight. The boy fought well, and the wounded man had all he could do to defend himself. Finally he went limping after Nodley, but not before Paul had relieved him of his gun. The brave lad could have shot the thief with ease, but could not bring himself to take the risk of killing his antagonist.

"Where are they?" roared Jack Blowfen, coming up. "Which way did they go?"

Paul pointed in the direction. At once Blowfen ran off. In another second Chet and Paul were left alone with the horses. The sounds from the distance told them that Saul Mangle and Darry Nodley were doing their best to escape from the neighborhood.

"Our money!" cried Chet. "We ought to have made an effort to get that seven hundred dollars!"

"That's so—but it's too late now, unless we go after the pair on horseback."

"Let us return Dottery's horses to the barn first and see how he has made out with the negro."

They took the horses in charge and passed with them across the road and through the break in the wire fence. At the barn they found the ranch owner in the act of making Jeff Jones a close prisoner by tying his hands and legs with odd bits of harness straps.

"Got this one, anyway," growled Dottery. "Whar are the others?"

"Jack Blowfen has gone after them," replied Paul. "Here are your horses."

"Good enough. Say, will you watch this man if I follow Jack?" went on the ranch owner, anxiously.

"Of course," exclaimed Chet. "If you can capture Saul Mangle, do so. We believe he has seven hundred dollars belonging to us."

"So Allen told me."

The boys took charge of the negro, and mounting one of the horses Caleb Dottery rode out of the inclosure. He took the lantern with him, thus leaving those behind in darkness.

"Strike a light, Chet, and see if you can't find another lantern in the barn," said Paul. "I'll watch Jones so he don't get away."

"Dis am werry hard on a poah man," moaned the negro. He was fearfully frightened, for he knew full well how stern was the justice usually meted out to horse thieves in that section of the country.

"You ought to have thought of that before you started in this business," replied Paul.

"It was Mangle coaxed me into de work, sah. He said as how he had a right to de hosses."

"Indeed! I suppose he said he had a right to our horses, too," went on the youth, with a sarcasm that was entirely lost on the prisoner.

"Yes, sah."

"In that case you will have to suffer for your simpleness," was Paul's short response. He did not believe the colored man.

"No lantern in the barn, so far as I can see," called out Chet. Better march the fellow up to the house."

"He can't march with his legs tied."

"I reckon he can hobble a bit."

Jeff Jones was unwilling to move, thinking he had a better chance of escape while out in the open. But Chet and Paul each caught him by the arm, and groaning and trembling the colored man was forced to move slowly toward the ranch home.

Before moving to the house Chet had driven the horses into the barn and locked the door, so now the animals were safe, at least for the time being.

It was found that Jeff Jones had received an ugly wound in the shoulder. This Paul set to work to dress, taking good care, however, that the prisoner should be allowed no chance of escape.

"Wot is yo' gwine to do wid me?" asked Jeff Jones as the work progressed. "Ain't gwine ter tote me ter town, is yo'?"

"That depends upon what Mr. Dottery says," replied Chet. "He's the boss of this ranch."

"Better let me go," urged the colored man. "If yo don't dar will be big trouble ahead."

"Don't imagine we are to be scared so easily," returned Chet, smartly. "We have a bigger rascal to deal with even than you," he added.

"Yo' mean Saul Mangle?"

"No, I mean Captain Hank Grady," replied the boy, without stopping to think.

"Captain Hank Grady! Wot yo' know ob him?" ejaculated Jeff Jones. "Did yo' know about him and yo' Uncle Barnaby——" the colored man broke off short.

"My Uncle Barnaby!" exclaimed Chet. "What made you think of him in connection with Captain Grady?"

"Oh, I know a lot about him an' de captain." said Jeff Jones suggestively. "A heap dat maybe yo' boys would gib a lot ter know about."