Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII.


Into a Snake's Nest


"All night underground!" murmured Allen to himself, as he surveyed the scene before him in intense surprise. "Heaven be thanked for my escape!"

His climb had so exhausted him that for a long while he sat on the ground, unable to move. He felt both cold and hungry, but paid no heed. It was blessing enough for the time being to be safe.

When he felt stronger, he began to speculate upon where he was and how far he would have to travel to reach the ranch. The face of the country looked new and strange to him.

"I must mark this spot, so I can find the mine again," he thought. "Uncle Barnaby may not know of this opening."

Close at hand was a tall tree, and upon this Allen cut his initials in large letters. Then he walked to all the trees in the vicinity and cut hands on them pointing to the first tree.

"Now, I reckon it's all right," he said to himself. "And the next best thing is to strike out for home."

Climbing the tree, Allen took his bearings as well as he was able, and then struck off as rapidly as his tired legs and sore feet would permit.

He had covered perhaps half a mile when he came to a steep decline. He tried to proceed down this with care, but slipped and rolled with a crash through the brush to the bottom.

It was a bad fall and hurt him not a little, but that was not the worst of it.

The passage through the brush aroused half a score of snakes, some small and others a yard and over in length, and now they came after him, hissing angrily and several preparing to dart at him.

It was small wonder that Allen gave a yell. He knew the reptiles were, many of them, poisonous, and he had not the first thing with which to defend himself. He leaped back to retreat, but only to find himself surrounded.

No one who has never been surrounded by snakes can realize the terrible feeling which awakens in one's breast at such an experience. It is a feeling that, once realized, is never forgotten. Allen said afterward he felt as if his hair had lifted from his head and his heart had had a bath in ice water.

"Great Scott!" were the words which escaped from his lips. "This is the worst yet!"

He had no time to say more, for at that moment one of the snakes leaped through the air directly for his hand. He threw his hand up, caught the reptile by the tail and flung it, hissing, among its fellows.

Then he essayed to leap over those in front of him. But before he could do so one wound itself around the instep of his boot. It was a poisonous snake. Allen saw that at a glance. He tried to kick it off, but missed it.

Then out darted the terrible fang and up came that ugly head, with diamond-like eyes, toward the young man's knee!

For one brief second Allen fancied his last hour on earth had come. A single bite from that snake and all would be over, for it would be all out of the question to get rid of the poison.

But with a strength and courage born of despair he bent down, and, reaching out, caught the reptile around the neck. The bright eyes almost paralyzed his nerve, and he was compelled to turn from them in order to accomplish his purpose.

Holding the snake with a grasp of iron, he leaped out of the circle of reptiles. Then he bent down and forcing the snake's head against a rock, ground it to pieces under his heel.

It was a highly dangerous bit of work, and when it was over the great beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. To him it was as if the last few seconds had been an age.

The other snakes had not followed him, but, nevertheless, he lost no time in leaving the spot on a run. Five minutes later he was nearly a quarter of a mile from the vicinity.

He had gone at right angles to the course he imagined would take him back to the ranch, and now he found he must make a detour around a hill covered with cactus and other prickly plants.

By this time Allen was thoroughly worn out and hungry to the last degree. Bitterly he regretted the loss of his favorite mare, Lilly.

"If I had her I imagine I could strike home inside of a couple of hours," he said to himself. "But on foot it will take me until noon or longer."

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HOLDING THE SNAKE HE LEAPED OUT OF THE CIRCLE OF REPTILES.

But there was no use to grumble, and after resting a spell the young man again started on his weary tramp through thicket and brush, over hills and through hollows. More than once he stumbled and fell, and it was all he could do at times to regain his feet.

"It's no fun to be afoot on the long range," he soliloquized. "A mile seems three times as long as when on horseback."

But there was no help for it; he must go on, and on he went, his feet now so sore in his wet boots that he could hardly take a regular step.

As he proceeded, he looked about for some thing to eat, but outside of a few half-green berries, found nothing. Birds were numerous, but without firearms they were out of his reach.

A less experienced person than Allen would have been much frightened by the solitude and loneliness. But the young ranchman was accustomed to being out alone for days at a time, and he did not mind it. He wished to get home more for bodily comforts than aught else.

At last, when Allen was beginning to con gratulate himself that the roughest portion of the journey would soon be over he came face to face with a most unexpected difficulty. Emerging from a thicket, he found himself at the very brink of a gully all of ten feet wide and of great depth.

"Humph!" he muttered, as he came to a halt. "I can't jump that. How am I to get over?"

This question was not easy to answer.

Looking up and down the opening, no bridge, either natural or artificial, was presented to view.

"I'll have to cut a pole and use that," he thought. "There is no use to tramp up and down looking for a spot to cross."

His pocketknife was still safe, and he drew it out and went to work with a will on a sapling growing some distance from the gully's edge.

The sapling had just been laid low and Allen was on the point of dragging it away when sounds broke upon his ear that filled him with surprise. He heard human voices, and one of them was that of a man he had encountered on the road, the fellow who had been riding Chet's horse!

"I reckon you have missed the road, Saul," said the man in a disgusted tone.

"No, I ain't missed nuthin'," was the reply. "So don't you go for to croak so much, Darry."

"Well, we don't appear to be makin much headway," growled the fellow addressed as Darry

"We'll come out all right, never fear. It's this yere blamed gully bothers me. We might git over afoot, but we can't cross it on the hosses."

Allen crouched back behind a bush, and a moment later the two men appeared in the opening near the gully. The fellow called Darry still rode Chet's horse, while he addressed as Saul was astride of Paul's animal. Behind the pair came a tall negro, riding a mustang and leading two others, little animals looking much the worse for constant and hard usage.

"Dis yere ditch doan seem ter git no narrower, nohow," said the colored man, with a good-natured grin. "I dun racken we might as well build a bridge an done with it."

"By the boots, but I reckon Jeff is about half right," cried Darry. "This split may last clear across the hill."

"It's not so easy to build a bridge," grumbled he called Saul, who appeared to be the leader of the trio. "We ain't got no axes."

"Well, I move we take a rest, anyway," said Darry. "I'm tired of riding a strange hoss over these yere hills."

"All right, we'll lay off and have a bite of the stuff in Jeff's haversack," replied the leader of the crowd

They dismounted not over two rods from where Allen lay hidden in the brush, hardly daring to breathe. Being unarmed and knowing the temper of the rascals only too well, the young man kept himself covered and made not the slightest sound.

The negro brought forth an old army haversack and from it produced some crackers, jerked meat, and several other articles. Soon the trio were eating voraciously.

The horses had been tied to several trees in the vicinity, and while the men were eating and talking in low tones, Allen conceived the idea of gaining possession of one of the animals and riding off with it. He knew it would do no good to confront the thieves unarmed.

"I'll get on Paul's horse," he thought, "and if I can, I'll take Chet's animal with me. Then I'll have their horses back, even if I won't have my own."

Watching for a chance, when the backs of the men were turned. Allen crept from his cover and wormed his way toward Paul's horse. His knife was in his hand, and noiselessly he cut the halter. Another cut and Chet's animal was also free.

The horses stamped as they recognized Allen, who always made pets of all in the stable. Then Jasper let out a loud neigh of welcome.

The sound reached the ears of the leader of the horse thieves. He sprang to his feet, and a second later, Allen was discovered!