Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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In the meanwhile the crash of the rifle had had a curious effect on Frank. It was the first time that he had ever seen a shot fired in anger and he was sufficiently well acquainted with Mr. Oliver's character to feel certain that if the warning failed to prove efficacious the next bullet would not go wide. He felt his nerves tingle and caught his breath more quickly, for it seemed highly probable that he might be shortly called on to watch or, perhaps, take part in some horrible thing. He did not mean to shirk it, but at the same time he was conscious that he would have greatly preferred to be standing beside the schooner's wheel while she lurched over the big foaming seas.

The suspense became almost intolerable as he watched the fire, which presently sank until at last only a feeble, flickering blaze was left. Then a figure sprang out of the shadow and ran toward it carrying something in its arms. The next moment there was another crash in a different part of the clearing from where they had heard the first shot, and the figure, dropping its burden, vanished suddenly.

"That's Webster," said Harry dryly. "I'm not sure that he meant to miss."

In the meanwhile the savage barking of the dog, whom they had scarcely noticed during the last few moments, once more forced itself upon their attention.

"Why doesn't your father let the dog get after them?" Frank asked.

"I don't know," Harry answered. "It's possible he'd rather not have them routed out from among the trees. If it were only daylight we could stand them off! Have you your watch?"

Frank took it from his pocket and rubbed a sulphur match in nervous haste. It went out and he struck another with quivering fingers. A pale glow of light sprang up and he held the watch close against it.

"Only four o'clock!" he announced. "There'll be more than three hours' darkness yet."

Harry made no answer, and except for the barking of the dog there was silence for a minute or two. It was Frank at last who broke it.

"I can't stand any more of this," he said. "Let's go down."

His companion seemed to hesitate. "It's not nice, but I don't know what to do. Aunt's in the house, and though Jake's on the lookout somewhere I've a notion that dad would call us if he meant us to come." He broke off and added in a very suggestive tone, "I don't – want – to stay in."

"We could go as far as the door, anyway," Frank persisted.

They slipped out of the room and made for the kitchen very quietly, but Frank was a little astonished when they reached it, because though there was no lamp burning the front of the stove was open and the faint glow which shone out fell upon Miss Oliver who was sitting close by. A rifle lay upon the table at her side and Jake's shadowy figure showed up near the open window.

"Where are you going, Harry?" she asked.

Harry stopped and leaned upon the table. "Out into the clearing a little way. After that, I don't know.

I don't want to spoil dad's plans by butting in before it's necessary, but I wish he'd told us what to do. You won't mind if we go?"

"I've Jake – and this," Miss Oliver answered, quietly pointing to the rifle. "On the whole I think I'd just as soon you tried to find out what is going on, but keep out of sight while you're about it and be cautious."

They slipped out, and when they stopped at a short distance from the house Frank touched his companion.

"Can she shoot?" he asked.

"It's my opinion that she'd beat you at it every time," said Harry curtly.

He raised his hand as though to demand silence, and they both stood listening, but there was deep silence now, for the dog had ceased to bark. It was difficult to imagine that somewhere in the shadowy clearing there were a number of men watching with every sense alert.

"I think the first shot came from the other side of the fruit trees. We'll look in among them," said Harry.

Treading very softly, they made for the trees, which were young and had shed their leaves, but their trunks and branches, massed in long rows, offered concealment. They would not entirely cover up the figure of any one standing among them, but they would break its outline, which is almost as effective since, as Frank had already learned, it is singularly difficult to recognize an object when one can only see a part of it. Besides, the sky was overcast and there was no moon visible.

The boys walked a few steps and stopped again to consider. It was as still as ever, and there was nothing to guide them in deciding where Mr. Oliver or Mr. Webster might be, while they recognized that any noise they made would probably be followed by a rifle shot. The smugglers and ranchers would naturally be listening for the least sound that might betray each other's presence. The first incautious movement would therefore lay either party open to attack, and Frank could understand the smuggler's hesitation in making another attempt to burn the barn, since, apart from any noise they made, the figure of the man who started the fire would be forced up clearly by the light. Indeed, he fancied that so long as the two men kept still their opponents must do the same.

In the meanwhile he found it singularly difficult to crouch in the grass waiting and listening. It would have been much easier to move forward, even at the hazard of drawing the smuggler's fire upon himself, but as this was out of the question he restrained the desire to do so by an effort of his will. To hasten an attack would interfere with Mr. Oliver's plans, and there was no doubt that the odds against the rancher were already heavy. Frank, however, could not keep his heart from thumping painfully or his fingers from trembling upon the gun barrel. Never had time seemed to pass so slowly.

Several minutes dragged by and still no sound rose from the surrounding fruit trees or shadowy clearing. It almost seemed as if Mr. Oliver and his opponents meant to lie motionless until the morning, which Frank realized was a good deal more than he could force himself to do.

CHAPTER XXX
THE RELIEF OF THE RANCH

The silence was becoming unendurable when it was suddenly broken by two sharp, ringing crashes in quick succession. Though Frank was afterward ashamed of it, he fairly jumped and came very nearly dropping his gun. While he was struggling with an impulse to fire at random into the darkness there was an answering bang and he felt a tug at his elbow.

"I think it was Webster who fired first," said Harry in a low, tense voice. "If I'm wrong, it means that the dope men have got in between us and the house, but that isn't likely. Dad would have heard them and made a move if they'd tried it."

Frank said nothing, and when the echoes died away among the woods there was once more a nerve-trying silence, except for the savage barking of the dog. It lasted a few minutes, and then Harry spoke again:

"The shots will be quite enough to put dad on to those fellows' trail. I expect he's crawling in on them now."

The boy's whisper was hoarse with anxiety, but he made no attempt to move and Frank wondered at his self-command. Shortly afterward there was an unexpected change in the situation, for a faint flicker of light shot up again from where Frank supposed the barn to be. This was puzzling, because, while the light was rather high up and there seemed to be a brighter blaze beneath it, Frank could not see the fire. Then the explanation flashed upon him as the black shape of the building became dimly visible against the uncertain glow. The smugglers had lighted a second fire behind the barn, which now stood between them and Mr. Oliver. Frank gasped with dismay as he realized that it was a simple and effective trick. If the rancher moved forward hastily he must betray himself to his enemies by the noise he made, while if he proceeded slowly and cautiously the barn would probably take fire before he reached a spot from which he could drive back the men, who were no doubt piling up brushwood against the building.

"It looks as if they'd got us!" he whispered.

"No," said Harry sharply and aloud. "The thing didn't strike me, but dad's not to be caught like that. Now, as any row we make will draw them off him, we'll hurry up. Get up and run."

Frank did so, but although he had been longing to do something of the kind a few minutes earlier he found that he had no great liking for the part Harry expected him to play. It was decidedly unpleasant to feel that in all probability he was fixing upon himself the attention of several men who could shoot very well. He had gone only a few paces, however, when there was a shot from behind the barn and Harry laughed – a breathless laugh.

"That's dad. He's headed them off again!" he said.

Frank ran on, but thrilling as he was with excitement it occurred to him that this battle was a rather intricate one, in which he was right. These bushmen were accustomed to hunting and trailing, and did not rush at each other's throats, shouting and firing more or less at random. Instead, they seemed to be maneuvering for positions from which they could prevent their opponents from making another move. Nowadays, in any battle large or small, in which men are engaged who can handle the terrible modern rifle, the position is the one essential thing, since it is only the most desperate courage that can drive home an attack upon a well-covered firing line.

Soon after the boys had heard the shot a shadowy figure slipped out from among the fruit trees close in front of them and Frank called, "Webster!"

The man swung around, but instead of answering he sprang backward, and Frank realized that he had almost run into the arms of one of the smugglers. The boys did not see where he went, though he made some noise, and they afterward concluded that he had mistaken them for grown men. In the meanwhile they went on again more cautiously, until at length they were stopped by a low cry and Mr. Oliver rose from the grass a few feet away. They were on the other side of the barn now and could see that the fire had got hold of it. There was no doubt that some of the logs were burning and a pile of brushwood which had been laid against them was burning fiercely.

"It's spreading," said Harry. "Can't we put it out?"

"No," said his father with grim quietness. "It would take time and at least a dozen wet grain bags, while it wouldn't be safe for any one to approach the light."

There was something in his voice that startled Frank.

"You have hit one of them?" he asked.

"There's reason for believing it. Webster and I couldn't watch the four sides of the barn, and they chose the one that seemed the most unlikely. Still, as it happened, I got around quick enough."

"Then what are we to do now?" Harry inquired.

"Fall back on the house," replied Mr. Oliver. "I've sent Webster on, and it's no use waiting for another of them to come out into the light."

The boys turned back with him, moving quickly but making no more noise than they could help, and on reaching the dwelling they found Mr. Webster standing in the kitchen. The room was dark except for the faint glow which shone out from the front of the stove, and Miss Oliver was still sitting where the boys had last seen her, with an open box of cartridges at her feet. There was, however, light enough outside, for a red glare which grew steadily brighter streamed across the clearing.

"Where's the dog?" Harry asked.

"I don't know," said Mr. Webster. "I let him out before I came along. I expect you're going to hear him presently."

There was silence for the next six or seven minutes during which Frank heard the ticking of a clock and the crackle of knotty pinewood in the stove. He could see Mr. Oliver standing a little on one side of the open window, an indistinct figure with face and hands that showed dimly white. His pose indicated that he was holding a rifle level with his breast, and presently as the red glow behind the fruit trees grew higher and brighter the barrel twinkled in a ray of light. Then there was a furious barking and Jake laughed at the sound.

"Well," he said, "they don't mean to keep us waiting."

Mr. Oliver turned to the boys. "Keep clear of this window and watch the other one. You're not to fire a shot unless I tell you."

The barking of the dog grew louder and it was evident that the animal was following the smugglers toward the house, but Frank could see nobody for a while. Then he made out two or three moving shadows among the fruit trees, but they vanished again as the light sank, and he almost wished that they would spring out from cover and make a rush upon the building. He could imagine them creeping stealthily nearer and nearer, and the strain of the forced inaction became nearly unbearable. He learned that night that it is often a good deal easier to fight than to wait.

At last a harsh voice rose from the gloom.

"You'll have to get out, Oliver," it said. "Clear out in your sloop with the folks you have with you and we'll let you go. You're mighty lucky in getting the option."

"And what about the ranch?" Mr. Oliver asked.

"We'll tend to it," another man answered pointedly. "Pitch your guns through the window and come out right now!"

"You're wasting time," replied Mr. Oliver, "I'm going to stay."

"Then you'll certainly be sorry," some one else broke in. "We've had about enough trouble right along with you and we've come to hand in the bill. You headed us off a good trade, you brought the revenue folks in, and we mean to get even before we leave. Just now we'll be satisfied with your homestead, but that won't be enough after the next shot's fired."

It was a grim warning and what made it more impressive to Frank was the fact that he could not see the man who uttered it. So far, the smugglers had only revealed their presence by their voices. The next moment there was a cry of pain or alarm and a rifle flashed.

"Kill that blamed dog," somebody ordered with an oath.

Then Mr. Oliver called to Harry, who had gone to the window across the room.

"Can you see anybody on that side?" he asked.

"No," was the answer. "I think they're all in front."

Mr. Oliver turned to Jake. "Slip out through the back window with the boys and work around to the stumps. From there you'll have those fellows clear against the light. Wait until the shooting starts – and then do what you can."

"Sure!" was the short answer, and Jake crossed the room.

Harry had already dropped from the window, and Frank promptly followed him, feeling relieved now that he had something definite to do. Circling around through the fruit trees they reached the first row of stumps, one end of which ran up rather close to the house. As Frank crouched down among the roots of one he saw the smugglers. There were six or seven of them visible along the edge of the trees, though he fancied that there were more of them farther back in the shadows, which grew thinner and then more dense again as the light rose and fell. Still, before the men could reach the house they would have to cross a clear space where the glow was brighter, which they were evidently reluctant to do. Their hesitation was very natural, since they had discovered that their opponent was unusually quicksighted and handy with the rifle.

A few moments after the boys reached the stumps a great blaze shot up as part of the barn fell in, and Frank saw a man who seemed to be the leader of the gang run forward, heading toward the back of the house. As he did so Frank recognized him and Harry cried out softly, for one of the runner's shoulders was higher than the other and he had a rather curious gait. Then there was a shout from one of those behind.

"Plug the brute! Look out for the dog!"

A low and very swift shadow flashed across the open space behind the man. Harry laughed hoarsely as the man went down and rolled over with an indistinct object apparently on his back. He cried out, there was a confused shouting, and some of his companions came running toward him, showing black against the light. Frank held his breath as he watched. He expected to see two flashes from the window, since Mr. Webster and Mr. Oliver had now an easy mark, but they did not fire. The next moment he shrank in sudden horror, for the cries grew sharper and suggested pain and an extremity of fear. Then he felt that, regardless of the hazard, he could almost have cheered the smugglers on as they ran toward the prostrate man, who was struggling vainly with the furious dog. They surged about him in a confused group, and just then, to Frank's amazement, a pistol flashed among the firs on the edge of the bush. It was followed by a sudden clamor, whereupon the group broke up, and running men streamed out across the clearing. The smugglers vanished, and Harry sprang out from among the stumps shouting wildly.

"It's Barclay! He's brought a posse with him!" he cried. "Come on. We must choke off the dog."

When they reached the spot they tried with all their might to drag back the furious animal. The man, who had flung his arms about his throat and face, now lay still, with the big and powerful animal still tearing at him. It was not until Jake arrived and partly stunned it with his rifle butt that it let go, and then two or three breathless strangers came running up to them. They dragged the smuggler to his feet and Frank saw that his jacket was torn to pieces and that the back of his neck from which it fell away was red. He did not seem capable of speaking and he drew his breath in gasps, but the newcomers hustled him along between them toward the house.

"Stick to him," said Harry. "He's the boss of the gang."

They thrust the man into the kitchen, where he fell into a chair and, for the lamp was lighted now, gazed at Mr. Oliver stupidly.

"Well," he said, "I'm corralled – my gun's in the clearing." He raised his hand to his neck and brought it down smeared red before he added, "It's mighty lucky he didn't get hold in front."

Mr. Oliver, who made no answer, swung around and faced Mr. Barclay standing hot and breathless in the doorway smiling at them.

"It's fortunate I came along," he said, and striding forward glanced at the man in the chair. "We've got you at last."

"Sure!" admitted the other, still in a half-dazed manner. "I'll have to face it – only keep off that dog."

Mr. Barclay looked around at Mr. Oliver. "I expect the boys have also got most of his partners. Before we broke cover I sent a party to head them off."

Harry suddenly called to Frank, who sprang toward the door, but when they reached the bush they met the rest of the men coming back with several prisoners. They reported that two or three had escaped and they would have to wait for daylight before following their trail.

Half an hour later the boys sat down again in the kitchen where Mr. Oliver and Mr. Barclay, who had been out in the meanwhile, were talking by the stove.

"I'd an idea that these fellows might look you up, which was why I came along as fast as I could manage," Mr. Barclay was explaining. "I think I told you we got practically every man who was waiting for the schooner at the inlet, and the two or three who escaped to-night won't count. In the meanwhile I'd arranged at two or three different places to seize everybody we suspected of having a hand in the thing, and if the boys I left that work to have been as lucky as we are we can take it for granted that we have put an end to the gang. There's enough against the fellow the dog mauled to have him sent up for the rest of his life." He broke off and turned to the boys. "The schooner will be sold by auction, and if you are inclined to leave the matter in my hands you can give me a written claim for salvage services."

"How much should we put down?" Harry asked.

"I would suggest three thousand dollars," responded Mr. Barclay with twinkling eyes. "It doesn't follow that you'll be awarded the whole of it, but it's generally admitted that one shouldn't be too modest in sending in a claim. If you two become partners you could buy a ranch."

Harry turned with a smile to Frank. "Well," he said, "if you're willing, we might consider it in a year or two."

Then one of the men came in to report that the prisoners had been secured in the stable. Mr. Barclay soon dismissed him with a few brief instructions and sat down again, lighting a cigar.

"I don't know that there's much more to tell," he said. "When we were a mile or two off the cove we saw the blaze of your barn, and that gave us an idea of what was going on. We sent the steamer along as fast as she could travel, but I broke my posse up to surround the clearing as soon as we got ashore. Then we lay by and waited so as to get as many of the gang as possible. They were too busy watching you to notice any little noise the boys made, and on the whole I think we can be content with this night's work."

"Have you decided what led up to the shooting of that man in the schooner's cabin?" Harry asked.

"That," said Mr. Barclay, "is a matter for the criminal court, but I've made a few investigations, and my notion is that the fellows lost their nerve when it became evident that somebody had given them away. They suspected one another, and that led to trouble, while I've no doubt that the Chinaman held most of the secrets of the gang. He'd be a particular object of suspicion, but from what I can gather there was a general row during which she jibed and got ashore. There was, at least, one other man badly hurt, but they seem to have gone off in the same boat. The vessel probably struck on an outlying reef and came off almost immediately on the rising tide."



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