Edward S. Ellis.

Cowmen and Rustlers A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges online

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"Anything new?"

"No, not as far as I can discover; they seem to have a light burning
in there, but are waiting for us."

"I wonder they didn't give you a shot; Vesey says they are desperate,
and he brought back word that they would shoot the first of us seen
prowling about the place. I wonder you didn't catch it."

"I took good care. When do you suppose the fight will open?"

"Pretty soon; I s'pose you are as tired of this dallying as the rest
of us."

"Well, it strikes me as best to wait until sure everything is ready."

Sterry was anxious to end this pointless conversation, for the
stranger had approached quite near and peered into his face, as though
not free from suspicion. The darkness was deep, but on the other side
of the ridge a small fire was burning, from fragments brought from the
stables. Of this the adventurer meant to keep clear at all hazards.
More than one rustler knew him intimately, and it might be that he to
whom he was talking was an old acquaintance and enemy.

How Sterry longed for the presence of Vesey!

In a natural manner he sauntered up the ridge, as if his intention
was to return to the camp-fire, that being the course most likely to
dissipate any misgiving on the part of the other.

The latter made no response, and Sterry kept on, thinking:

"I'm rid of him, any way, and ought to have less trouble with others
that may wish to ask questions."

But, glancing over his shoulder, he was startled to observe that
the man, instead of moving off, as he had supposed, was standing
motionless in the gloom, as if studying him.

"By gracious!" concluded the youth, "he must have noticed my voice,
for, not knowing Smith, how could I imitate it?"

The situation would have made any one uneasy, but he did not hasten
nor retard his footsteps until he reached the top of the ridge, and
was able to observe the camp-fire clearly.

It was small, as has been said, but five or six figures were
lolling about it, smoking, talking, and passing the dismal hours as
inclination prompted. Other forms were moving hither and thither, some
of them quite close to where Sterry had halted, though none paid him
any attention.

The young man was looking for an opening by which he could make his
way beyond the lines without attracting attention. The best prospect
seemed to be the stretch of prairie extending from the front of the
house toward the Big Horn Mountains.

"No one appears to be on the lookout there - "

At that instant each arm was tightly gripped, and the man with whom he
had exchanged words but a few minutes before said:

"Mr. Smith, please go with us to the fire; my friend here is Smith,
and he is the only one in our party with that name; maybe you are his
double."

It was useless to resist, and Sterry replied:

"You know there are several Smiths in this country, and I ought to
have the privilege of wearing the name without objection."

"We'll soon see," replied the first captor.

Within the next minute Sterry was marched in front of the camp-fire,
where the full glare fell upon his countenance.

Then a howl of exultation went up, for more than half of the rustlers
in the group recognized him.




CHAPTER XXXIV.

OUT IN THE NIGHT.


Enough has been already told for the reader to understand the scheme
which Jennie Whitney, with the help of her mother, attempted to carry
out for the benefit of the besieged cattlemen.

With her cloak around her shoulders and her saddle supported on one
arm, she passed quickly from the rear of her home to the stables, only
a short distance away. She had been on the alert for the signal of
Duke Vesey, and, seeing it not, was prepared to encounter some one
else.

In this she was not disappointed, for at the moment of catching sight
of the dark mass where the horses were sheltered the figure of a man
loomed into view as though he had risen from the ground. She stopped
short, and observed, dimly, the forms of two others just behind him.

"Halloo!" exclaimed the nearest, "how is this?"

With peculiar emotions the young lady recognized the voice of Larch
Cadmus. She hoped this was a favourable omen, and was quick to turn it
to account.

"Larch, is that you?" she asked, peering forward as if uncertain of
his identity.

"I declare, it is Miss Jennie!" he exclaimed, coming forward; "how is
it you are alone?"

"Mother did not wish to come with me," replied the daughter, trying
to avoid the necessity of direct deceit. "She will probably leave the
house pretty soon."

The fellow was plainly embarrassed, despite the protecting gloom which
concealed his features. Jennie knew him to be one of her most ardent
admirers, though she had never liked him. Her hopes were now based
upon making use of his regard for her.

"You have come out, Jennie, I suppose," said he, offering his hand,
which she accepted, "so as not to be in the house when the - ah,
trouble begins."

"O, I know it will be dreadful; I want to go as far away as I can - do
you blame me, Larch?"

"Not at all - not at all; and I hope, Jennie, you don't blame me for
all that your folks have suffered."

"Why, Larch, why should I blame you?" asked the young lady, coming
fearfully near a fiction in making the query, for she knew many
good reasons for censuring him in her heart. "But how soon do you
intend - that is, how soon do the rest of your folks intend to attack
the cowmen?"

"We - that is, they - expected to do so long ago, but there have been
all sorts of delays; it will come pretty soon now."

"Where are you to place mother and me?"

"Over the ridge, yonder; you will be out of danger; you need fear
nothing; why should you, for your mother will be with you and your
brother will be with us, so that he can take no part in the fight."

He made no reference to Mont Sterry, and she was too wise to let fall
a hint of her anxiety concerning him.

"But, Larch, suppose, when you set fire to the house, as I heard your
folks intended, our people rush out and attack you?"

"Do they intend to do that?" he asked.

"I am sure I don't know; but you can see, if they do, the shooting
will be going on all around mother and me."

"You can pass farther out on the plain or take shelter in the stable,
among the horses."

"But that may be too late," interposed Jennie, in well-feigned alarm.

"You can take refuge here now."

"I can't bear to stay in the stable, for the horses will become
terrified when the shooting begins; they may break loose and prove
more dangerous than the flying bullets."

There was sense in this objection, and the rustler saw it. He was
anxious to propitiate the young woman, whom he admired so ardently.

"Well, my dear, what would you like to do?"

"Now, Larch, you won't laugh at me if I tell you," she replied, in her
most coquettish manner.

"Laugh at you!" he protested; "this is no time for laughing; it was a
shame that those people should turn your house into a fort, when it
could do them no good. Tell me what you want and it shall be done, if
it is in my power."

"Thanks! You are very kind, and I shall never forget this favour; I
want to mount one of the best horses in the stable and ride out so far
that I am sure to be beyond reach of danger."

The proposition staggered the rustler - so much so that it did not
occur to him, just then, that the daughter appeared a great deal more
anxious to look after her own safety than her mother's.

"You have a horse in the stable, haven't you?"

"Yes, Jack is there, and he is a splendid fellow; he is the one I
want."

"But the saddle?"

"I have it with me; here it is; you and I will adjust it together."

And the impulsive miss placed the saddle in his grasp before he knew
it. She certainly was rushing things. It must be admitted, too, that
she showed fine discretion. There was but one way of handling Mr.
Larch Cadmus, and she was using that way.

He turned about and walked to the door of the stable.

"Jack is in the second stall," she said, pausing at the entrance, "and
his bridle is on the hook near his head."

The gloom was impenetrable, but a couple of matches gave Cadmus all
the light needed, and a minute later he brought forth the fine animal,
who whinnied with pleasure at recognizing his mistress, despite the
gloom.

Jennie gave what help she could in saddling and bridling him, the
other two men standing a little way off in silence. She kept up an
incessant chatter, repeating her thanks to Cadmus for his kindness,
and binding him more completely captive every minute.

But the rustler was inclined to be thoughtful, for before the animal
was ready he began to feel misgivings as to the prudence of what he
was doing. There was something odd, too, about the young lady mounting
her pony, riding alone out on the plain, and leaving her mother
behind. Then, too, she had emerged from the rear instead of the front
of the house, as he judged from her line of approach.

Could there be any ulterior purpose in all this? If she would only
cease her chatting for a minute or two he might figure out the
problem, but the trouble was, nothing could stop her. In fact he
didn't wish her to stop, for that voice was the most musical one to
which he could listen, and he would have been glad had it sounded for
hours in his ears.

He managed to drift dangerously near the truth.

"Can it be that she intends to ride away for help?" he reflected. "It
has that look; but no, it is hardly that, for there isn't any help
within reach that I know of. She might find it in the course of a day
or two, but this affair will be over before daylight - I beg pardon,
what was it you said, Jennie?"

"Why, Larch, I'm tempted to pull your ears; you are a fine gallant;
here I have been standing full ten seconds, waiting for you to help me
on the horse, and you have paid me no attention."

"It _was_ rude, my dear; I hope you will pardon me," he replied,
stepping quickly forward, "but I am very absent-minded to-night."

"I will pardon you, of course, for you have been so good and nice that
it would be ungrateful for me to be impatient."

He took the Cinderella-like foot in his broad palm and cleverly
assisted her in the saddle. While he helped to adjust the reins, her
tongue rattled on harder than ever.

"How far, Larch, will it be necessary for me to ride so as to be
sure - mind you, sure - of being out of the way when this awful business
opens?"

"Well, I should say a hundred yards or so will be enough - "

"Mercy! do you think so? I ought to go two or three times as far as
that; you won't object, will you? and when the shooting _does_ begin,
I can hurry Jack farther off."

"Do as you think best; but it seems to me, Jennie, that you are
forgetting your mother - "

"O, no; when Fred brings her out - maybe he has done so now - tell her
the direction I have gone and she will understand. Which is the best
course for me to take? I guess it don't make any difference, so I will
go this way."

Through all this apparently aimless chatter, Miss Jennie Whitney was
using her wits. She knew a long ride was before her, and everything
would be ruined if she lost her way. There was no moon or stars to
give guidance, and she therefore carefully took her bearings while the
chance was hers.

"I suppose it's all the same which course you follow, but I fear I am
doing wrong in allowing you to ride off - "

"Now, don't spoil everything by regretting the handsome way in which
you have indulged my whim; I think I will ride over the ridge to the
left - "

"Hold on, Jennie, until I can speak to Inman; he may object - "

"You can speak to him after I am gone; good-night, Larch, and many
thanks again for your kindness."

She rode off with her intelligent Jack on a walk until she was clear
of the camp, when she touched him into an easy gallop.

Larch Cadmus stood looking into the gloom where she had vanished,
almost before he comprehended her intention.

"Well, she's a puzzle!" he exclaimed to his two companions, who came
forward; "I don't know what to make of her. What do you suppose she
meant by that, boys?"

"It's easy enough to see," replied one of them, with a laugh; "she's
gone off after help."

"Do you think so?" asked the startled Cadmus; "where can she get it?"

"She may bring back their hands."

"There are only two of them," said Larch, much relieved, "and they
won't amount to anything in the rumpus. You don't imagine that she
knows of any larger force anywhere in the neighbourhood?"

"She can't know of any, for there ain't any," was the clincher of the
rustler; "or, if there is, she can't get it here in time to do Asbury
and the rest any good."

Cadmus was relieved by the words of his friend. Enough misgivings,
however, remained to make him say:

"There are so many moving about that her departure don't seem to be
noticed; I'll take it as a favour if you don't mention it to any one,
for now that she is gone I am sure I never should have allowed it."

The couple gave the promise, though their belief was that nothing
serious would follow.

Leaving the two to keep watch at the stables, Cadmus sauntered to
where Inman was seated near the camp-fire, smoking a pipe. A little
inquiry disclosed that neither the leader nor any of his companions
had noticed the departure of the young lady.

It was some time after this that Duke Vesey brought the report of Mrs.
Whitney's illness as an explanation of her son's delay in returning to
the camp of the rustlers.

Exasperated, and suspecting a pretense, Inman consented to a brief
postponement of the attack.

The next startling occurrence was the capture of Monteith Sterry while
trying to steal through the lines. As we have shown, he was identified
the instant he was brought into the reflection of the firelight,
and such precautions were taken that escape by him was out of the
question.

When their impatience could stand it no longer, Vesey was sent to
Capt. Asbury with the message which he delivered. Instead of his
returning with a reply, Fred Whitney came back, bringing the
announcement that Vesey had entered the house without claiming the
protection of a truce, and after telling what he was directed to tell
about Monteith Sterry, Capt. Asbury had directed Whitney to notify
Capt. Inman that he would retain Vesey as a hostage, guaranteeing that
whatever harm was visited upon Sterry should descend upon the head of
Vesey.

This message, as may be supposed, caused consternation for some
minutes in the camp of the rustlers. The feeling was quickly succeeded
by exasperation. Had Inman and Cadmus been given the opportunity, no
doubt they could have made a good argument to prove that, inasmuch
as Vesey had passed back and forth several times after his first
announcement of a flag of truce, and its acceptance by the besieged
cowmen, it was not required by the law of nations that he should
proclaim the fact while continuing to act as messenger between the
hostiles.

On the other hand, the truth remained that he had entered the house
of the rancher with weapons in his hands and without any claim of
immunity from harm.

The question was such a nice one, capable of so many finely-drawn
theories, that it is useless to discuss it here. Whatever decision we
might reach, we could not feel assured we were right.

The hard fact confronted the rustlers that one of their principal
men was in the power of the cowmen and was held as a hostage for the
safety of the detested Monteith Sterry, who had been warned that he
would be shot on sight by any rustler who gained the chance.

The unexpected phase of the situation caused a long and angry
discussion between Capt. Ira Inman and his leaders, to which, as may
be supposed, Fred Whitney and Monteith Sterry paid close attention.




CHAPTER XXXV.

CONCLUSION.


"Now, Jack, do your best, for everything depends on you."

Jennie Whitney looked around in the darkness and saw the glimmer of
the rustlers' camp-fire, fully two hundred yards to the rear, with the
shadowy figures moving to and fro.

"They may change their minds," she added, recalling the words of Larch
Cadmus, "and decide to bring me back. Let them do it if they can!"

The intelligent pony acted as if he understood what was expected
of him. With a light whinny at the pleasure he felt because of the
opportunity of stretching out his beautiful limbs he broke into a
swift canter, heading straight for the point where his rider believed
the friendly camp was to be found.

She held the reins loose, knowing the danger of attempting to guide
him where it was impossible to keep the points of the compass in mind.
The way was smooth and even, although there is always danger in
going at such speed in the night. She deemed the stake warranted it,
however, and did not check the rapid pace.

Night on every hand and not a shining star overhead. If she could find
the party of stockmen in time, so as to bring them back to her home,
their strength would overawe the rustlers, and the whole difficulty
could be arranged without the conflict which she looked upon with
unspeakable dread.

"It will save him, too," she added, hesitating to pronounce the name
that was in her heart, which would have throbbed more painfully had
she known that in a brief while he would be helpless in the power of
the men eager for his life. "I am glad he did not venture out of the
house, when his friend could have done him no good. What will he think
of me on learning what I have done? He will say that I am rash and
foolish, and perhaps I am; will he suspect that it was to save him
that I undertook this errand, which, after all, is attended with no
risk to me worth mentioning?"

These were pleasant musings, but the task before her was too serious
and made too close demands on her mental and physical energies for her
to indulge in them. The delightful reverie could be deferred to a more
convenient season.

Jennie Whitney had lived long enough in the West to understand that in
times like the present it is safer to depend on the instinct of one's
heart than upon one's reason. It seemed now and then that Jack was
following the wrong direction, but she was wise in not interfering.

The gloom was so deep that she could see barely a few paces beyond the
pointed ears in front, but when the ground showed an abrupt rise she
recalled the location and knew he had followed the exact course she
desired.

She pulled slightly on the reins and he dropped to a walk. At the same
moment something dark moved aside, the pony diverting his own steps to
avoid it. She experienced a slight shock of fright, but recognized
the object as one of the cattle probably belonging to their own herd.
Others showed dimly here and there as the horse carefully picked his
way forward.

"Halloo, who's that?" called a gruff voice from the darkness, the hail
proving more startling than the first surprise.

"It is I, Jennie Whitney," replied the young lady, "and I am searching
for help."

"Well, I'll be hanged! What's up, Miss Jennie?"

It was Budd Hankinson who came forward on foot, his figure appearing
of gigantic proportions in the gloom. He was more alarmed than she, as
he had warrant for being, knowing, as he did, that some extraordinary
cause must have brought the girl to this place alone at that hour of
the night.

She quickly told her story, explaining that Fred was held a prisoner
by the rustlers, else he would have hastened back to secure the
assistance for which she was looking.

"You're a brave girl," said the honest fellow, as he laid his hand on
the reins of the pony; "there are mighty few that would have done what
you've done to-night."

"Never mind about that, Budd, but tell me what to do."

"Why, you mustn't do anything; I'll do the rest."

"No, you may help me, but what is it to be?"

"Luck's running your way, Jennie; the stockmen have moved their camp
since Fred left this morning."

"Mercy! I thought I had only two or three miles farther to go."

"Their camp isn't more'n half a mile off, right over the swell yonder;
we'll be there in a jiffy."

"And you will go with me?"

"Wal, I reckon; what sort of a chap do you take me for?"

"Where is Weber?"

"Three miles to the south, which is in t'other direction; we won't
have time to look him up, and it wouldn't do any good if we did. We
made a change of grazing grounds, as I s'pose Fred told you, but some
of the cattle strayed off here and I was looking 'em up when I heard
your pony."

"Where's your horse?"

"Not far; wait here and I'll be right back."

He was gone but a few minutes, when he returned in the saddle.

"It won't do to go too fast," he explained, moving forward with his
animal on a walk, "but we can keep beside each other."

Riding thus carefully, he questioned her about the stirring incidents
at the house, and she gave him the particulars. The sagacious fellow
had seen before this how matters stood between her and Monteith
Sterry, and he knew her anxiety, but his good taste prevented any
reference to it further than to say:

"I hope Mont will be too wise to try to slip out of the house, for if
he does he's sure to be grabbed up by them, and they won't give him a
chance for his life."

"Do you think he will make the attempt, Budd?"

"No, now that he knows you have started, for you've got a mighty sight
better chance to succeed than he could have. Of course he has too much
sense for anything of the kind."

It was well that neither of them suspected the truth.

"There they are!"

They had reached the top of the elevation, and saw before them
the twinkling lights of several camp-fires. The stockmen, fully
understanding the nature of the work they had undertaken, conducted
themselves like a force invading a hostile country. Regular sentinels
were stationed, to prevent the insidious approach of an enemy.

The couple rode down the hill, and, as they expected, were challenged
on the edge of the camp. Inasmuch as Budd had visited the men during
the day and formed numerous acquaintances, he had little difficulty in
making himself known. All, excepting the guards, had retired for the
night, but the visitor was conducted to the place where Maj. Sitgraves
was asleep, Jennie remaining on the outskirts with one of the
sentinels, who treated her with all courtesy.

Maj. Sitgraves was a brave man, who had only to hear the story brought
to him by the honest cowboy to understand the urgency of the case. It
was now near midnight, and the attack at the ranch was liable to be
made at any moment. The stockmen could not reach the scene of danger
too soon.

Almost instantly the camp was astir. It looked as if the men had
received orders to attack a force of Indians, whose location was just
made known to them, and, in point of fact, the situation was somewhat
similar, for a brisk fight appeared inevitable. Three rustlers whom
the major was particularly anxious to arrest were Ira Inman, Larch
Cadmus and Duke Vesey, and he especially wanted the first two. They
were with the party not far off, and, aside from the call for help of
the imperilled stockmen, the prospect of capturing those fellows was
sufficient warrant for a prompt movement.

Within half an hour after Jennie Whitney's meeting with Budd Hankinson
the party of half a hundred were galloping westward, she riding at
the head, with Maj. Sitgraves and Budd, who acted as guide to the
expedition.

Hope arose with every rod advanced, for if fighting had begun the
reports of the guns would be heard, but the listening ears failed to
catch the first hostile sound from the Whitney ranch. By and by a
point was reached which would have shown them the flash of the guns,
but the gloom remained impenetrable.

The twinkling camp-fire, at the base of the ridge, gave just the
guidance needed, and, with Budd Hankinson's intimate knowledge of the
country, enabled the force to tell exactly where they were.

Maj. Sitgraves decided to defer his attack until daylight, unless
the safety of the beleaguered cattlemen should force him to assault
sooner. In the darkness, with the open country around, and the
excellent animals at the command of the rustlers, most of them would
escape upon learning the strength of the assailants. At the earliest
dawn the stockmen could be so placed that, as the commander believed,
nearly if not quite all of the law-breakers would be corralled.

Accordingly, a halt was made while yet a considerable way off, and
Budd Hankinson went forward on foot to reconnoitre. Upon his report
must depend the action of the stockmen.

The fellow was gone more than three-quarters of an hour, and when he


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Online LibraryEdward S. EllisCowmen and Rustlers A Story of the Wyoming Cattle Ranges → online text (page 12 of 13)