Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.


A Dangerous Situation


It was not possible for Allen Winthrop to make any mistake regarding the animal the man on the mountain trail was riding. Too often had he ridden on Rush's back, and too well did he know the sturdy little horse's characteristics.

But the man was a stranger to the young ranchman, and he could not even remember having seen the rascal's face before.

"Stop!" called out Allen, as he struck Lilly to urge her on. "Stop! Do you hear me?"

The man caught the words and wheeled about quickly. He was evidently much disturbed by the encounter. He had been looking ahead, and had known nothing of Allen's approach.

"Stop, do you hear?" repeated Allen.

"Wot do yer want?" was the surly response, but the speaker did not draw rein in the least.

"I want you to stop!" exclaimed Allen, growing excited. "That horse belongs to my brother!"

"Reckon you air mistaken, stranger," was the cool reply. "This air hoss is mine."

This unexpected reply staggered Allen. He had expected the man to either show fight or take to his heels. It was plainly evident that the fellow intended, if possible, to bluff him off.

"Your horse? Not much! Whoa, Rush, old boy!"

Commanded by that familiar tongue, the horse came to a halt that was so sudden it nearly pitched the rider out of his saddle. He muttered something under his breath, straightened up and gave the reins a vicious yank that made Rush rear up in resentment.

"See here, youngster, keep your parley to yourself!" howled the man, scowling at Allen.

"I will—after you get down and turn that nag over to me," rejoined Allen, as coolly as he could, although he was in an exceedingly high state of suppressed excitement.

"And whyfore should I turn him over to you, seein' as how he belongs to me?" growled the man, as brazenly as he could.

"You stole that horse from our barn not four hours ago," retorted Allen. "I will waste no more words with you. Get down or take the consequences."

As he concluded the youth unslung his rifle in a suggestive manner. He had lived out in those wilds long enough to know that to trifle in such a case as this would be sheer foolishness.

"You're a hot-headed youngster, tew say the least," was the reply, and as he spoke the man scowled more viciously than ever. The sight of the ready rifle in Allen's hands was not at all to his liking. He made a movement toward his pistols, but a second glance at the youth made him change his mind.

"I said I would waste no more words with you," repeated Allen. "Get down!"

"But see here, youngster——"

"Get down!" And up came the rifle in a motion that caused the man to start back in terror.

"There must be a mistake somewhar," he said, slowly, as soon as he could recover. "My pard turned this critter over to me, and I reckoned it war all right."

"There is where you reckoned wrong. Are you going to get down now or not?"

"Supposin we talk it over with my pard first? Thar he is now."

The man pointed to the trail behind Allen. His manner was so natural that for the instant the young ranchman was deceived. He looked about.

With a dash and a clatter the horse thief urged Rush on, digging his spurs deep into the little horse s flesh. As he did so he dropped partly under the horse's neck, thus to shield himself from a chance shot, should it be taken.

But, although astonished and angered at being so easily duped, Allen did not fire. Rush was moving along over the rocks too rapidly for him to take the risk of killing his brother's favorite beast. Besides, only a small portion of the rider could be seen at one time.

"I'll follow him until I get a better chance, he thought, and he cried to Lilly to follow in pursuit.

Once again the gallant mare responded, although she was now thoroughly jaded. Up the rocks they went, and around numerous bends, the clatter ahead telling plainly that the race was about even for pursued and pursuer.

"I must be on my guard or that fellow may play me foul," thought Allen. "He looks like a most desperate character, and he knows well enough what capture by the law-abiding folks of this State means. They would lynch him in a minute."

Allen wondered what had become of the other thieves and the horse Jasper. Surely they could not be far away.

"Perhaps that fellow is trying to reach the others, who may have gone on ahead," he speculated mentally. "If he reaches them it will be so much the worse for me, for I can never fight two or more among these rocks and bushes. On Lilly. We must run him down at once!"

But the little mare could be urged no longer. She had reached her limit, and went forward with a doggedness that was pitiful to behold.

In five minutes Allen heard the clatter ahead drawing away from him. Soon it ceased entirely.

But he did not give up. It was not in his nature to surrender a cause so long as one spark of hope of success remained.

The mountain trail now led downward for a few hundred yards, and then wound through a rocky pass, dark and forbidding. Allen kept watch on either side for a possible ambush, but none presented itself.

"He has gone on, that is certain," he thought. "I rather guess he thinks to tire me out, knowing the condition my mare is in; but if he thinks that he is mistaken. I'll follow, if I have to do it on foot."

At last the trail left the rocky pass and came out upon some shelving rocks overlooking a deep canyon, at the bottom of which sparkled the swift-running stream. Here a rude bridge led to the other side, a bridge composed of slender trees and rough-hewn planks.

Without hesitation, Allen rode upon the bridge. As he did so a derisive laugh resounded from the other side of the canyon, and he saw the man he was after and two others ride into view.

Then, before he could turn back, Allen felt the bridge sagging beneath him. Suddenly it parted in the center, and horse and youth went plunging headlong toward the waters far beneath.