“What on earth can have happened to them?” asked Jack.
“You’ve got me,” confessed Walt. “I can’t imagine.”
“It’s certain that they were all right and lively a few minutes ago,” said Ralph.
“Not a doubt of it,” agreed Jack. “Well, then, it must be something that they’ve eaten right here.”
“Yes, but what?” objected Ralph Stetson. “There’s nothing here for them to eat but this grass.”
“Maybe it’s the grass, then. It is peculiar looking grass, now you come to look at it. Look at these funny tufts on it.”
“I guess you’re right, Walt,” agreed Jack, “but let’s try if we can’t get the ponies on their feet. Maybe it will work off.”
Not without a lot of exertion were the ponies induced to stand up, and then they appeared to be so sleepy that they could hardly keep their feet.
“Let’s mount them and ride them up and down,” said Jack; “that may help to work off whatever it is that ails them.”
The three lads mounted as Jack suggested and began riding their ponies vigorously up and down under the cottonwoods. After a short time the treatment did appear to be effective. The ponies’ eyes, which had been dull and lifeless, brightened up and they shook their heads and tossed their manes vigorously.
“Well, they seem to be all right again. I guess we’d better be pushing on,” said Jack.
“Hold on a minute. Let’s take some of that grass along,” suggested Walt. “Mr. Reeves may be able to tell us what it is.”
“That’s a good idea,” assented Jack.
Each of the boys picked a big bunch of the queer–looking grass and stuffed it in his pocket. Then they rode on once more, the ponies seeming to be as well as ever after their odd sleeping fit. It may be said here that Mr. Reeves told them later on that the grass the ponies had eaten was of a rare sort known as “lazy grass.” It grows in parts of the southwest and is readily recognizable by its peculiar tufts. It has the effect of a narcotic, and if taken in large quantities may prove fatal. But the ponies had only eaten enough to make them sleepy, fortunately for the boys.
Late that same afternoon the three boy travelers found themselves riding amidst a perfect forest of stiff–armed yucca plants. Here they came upon a small shack where lived a strange character of the Texan wilds. This old man was known to the cowboys and ranchers who passed that way as Mad Mat. He was supposed to have been driven to the solitudes of the yucca desert by some unfortunate love affair, but of this he never talked, and all concerning his former life was merely rumor.
Hot and dusty as the boys were, they decided that it would be pleasant to stop in at the shack and see if they could obtain some fresh water and a cooked meal, for, although they had plenty of cold grub, they had neglected to bring any cooking appliances. Jack knocked at the door of the dilapidated shack and the boys, who had not been prepared for the strange appearance of Mad Mat, almost shrank back as he appeared.
The old hermit was dressed in a collection of filthy rags, apparently secured from all sources, for no two pieces matched.
Mad Mat invited them cordially enough into his shack, and opened the door to them with as consequential a flourish of his hand as if this had been the dwelling place of an emperor. He lived, so he told them, by tending his little flock of sheep, most of which, so rumor in that part of the country had it, had been stolen from passing herds.
However that might be, Mad Mat was able to set forth some excellent mutton before his hungry guests, and, although the surroundings were not suited to the fastidious, the boys had roughed it too much in the southwest to be over–particular.
They found Mad Mat talkative on every subject but himself. In fact, when Ralph asked him where he came from the old man became quite angry and glared at them out of his beard like an “owl in an ivy bush,” as Ralph put it afterward.
Jack found an opportunity to draw Ralph aside and warned him that it was not good policy in that country to ask personal questions of strangers.
“Most of these odd characters of the plains have a reason for being out here which they don’t like to talk about,” he said.
By way of changing the subject, Walt turned to that safe topic, the weather.
“You evidently haven’t had much rain here lately?” he said.
“Nope,” rejoined Mad Mat in his odd, jerky way of talking; “no rain. No rain for a year.”
“No rain for a year!” echoed the boys.
“That’s right. Maybe a drop now and then, but not to amount to anything.”
“How do you get water then?” asked Ralph, for the ponies had been watered from a big tub filled from a wooden pipe.
“Pipe it from a dry spring.”
“That’s a funny sort of spring – a dry one,” exclaimed Walt.
“It’s so, just the same,” replied the hermit, rather angrily. “We call a dry spring one that you have to dig out, one that doesn’t come to the surface. We find ’em with divining rods.”
“Well, it looks to me as if you might get some rain to–night,” said Jack, who had risen and looked out of the door.
“I guess not,” said the hermit confidently. “The sheep ain’t baaing, and they mos’ gen’ally always do afore rain.”
“Well, there’s something coming up then, or I’m no judge of weather.”
At the same time a low, distant rumbling was heard.
“Thunder!” cried Walt, springing to his feet.
“That’s what,” agreed Ralph. “I guess we are in for a wetting.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the hermit, shrugging his thin shoulders.
He rose and accompanied by Walt and Ralph came to the door, where Jack was already standing.
“Goshen!” he exclaimed, “it is makin’ up its mind to suthin’, fer sure.”
Far off to the southwest lightning was ripping and tearing in livid streaks across the sky. It had grown almost as black as night, and there was a distinctly sulphurous smell in the air.
It was a magnificent sight as the storm swept down on them, although it was also awe–inspiring. The sky grew like a black curtain spread above the earth. Across it riven fragments of white cloud were driven, like flying steam. Through this sable canopy the lightning tore and crackled with vicious emphasis.
But, strangely enough, there was no rain. Instead, great clouds of dust heralded the coming of the storm. The air was stifling and heavy, too, like the breath from an open oven door.
“There ain’t much rain up yonder,” said the old hermit, his long white hair and beard blown about wildly by the wind.
“No rain?” questioned Jack. “What is there, then?”
“Lightning,” exclaimed the old man, his eyes glowing strangely as he spoke. It seemed that he rejoiced and triumphed in the advance of the storm. He held his arms extended to the heavens like a prophet of olden days.
Suddenly with an ear–splitting crash a bolt tore its way across the sky and fell with a sizzling crash almost in front of the shanty. It bored into the earth, throwing up a cloud of stones and dust on every side. So great was the force of the explosion when it struck that Jack was sent reeling back against the door post.
“No more of that for me,” said the boy. “I’m going inside.”
“A lot of good that will do you,” scoffed Walt Phelps. “It wouldn’t much surprise me if this house was hit next.”
Ralph’s face turned pale as he heard. In truth the constant display of heavenly artillery was discomposing. A green glare lit up the surroundings, the yuccas standing out blackly against the constant flashes.
The thunder, too, was terrific and incessant, shaking the earth as it reverberated. All at once came a crash that seemed as if it must have split the earth wide open. Balls of green and white fire spattered in every direction. The boys were hurled helter–skelter all over the hut. It was almost pitch dark, and they called to each other nervously. Not one knew but that the other might have been killed or seriously injured.
But although bruised and badly scared, they were all right, it was found. Yet as they scrambled to their feet the lightning outside showed them a still form lying across the door of the hut.
“It’s the hermit!” cried Jack.
“He’s dead!” shouted Ralph.
“Hold on a minute,” warned Jack.
He went outside and Walt helped him drag the old man into the hut. The lightning, by one of those freaks for which it is noted, had stripped his miserable collection of rags right off him and there did not appear to be much life in him.
The boys laid him on a table and then lighted a lantern, for it was too dark to see but by artificial light. All this time the storm raged and crashed alarmingly about them, but they were too intent on discovering a spark of life in the old hermit to pay any attention to it.
“Get some water, quick!” ordered Jack.
There was a tub in one corner of the hut and the boys dipped cloths into it, which Jack applied to the base of the old man’s skull. After a time, to Jack’s great delight, the old hermit began to give signs of recovery. He opened his queer, bloodshot eyes and looked up at the boys.
“How do you feel?” asked Jack.
“As if I’d bin kicked by a blamed mule,” answered Mad Mat.
The boys could not help laughing at his whimsical description of the effects of the lightning.
“It took all the – the – ” – Jack hesitated as to what to call the hermit’s rags – “the clothes off you.”
“Consarn it, so it did,” grunted the old man, sitting up. “The last time it hit me it did the same thing.”
“What! Have you been hit before?” demanded the boys in astonishment.
“Sure. This makes the third time, an’ I guess as I’ve got through this safely, I’m all right now.”
“Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” declared Walt with a grin, “but once would be quite enough for me.”
“Anyhow, it didn’t rain,” said the hermit triumphantly. “I told yer it wouldn’t.”
It was all the boys could do to keep from breaking out into hearty laughter at the strange old man who seemed to mind being hit by lightning no more than any ordinary occurrence.
“Waal, now I’ve got to stitch all them rags together agin,” he said presently in a complaining tone, regarding the scattered collection of stuff that had been torn off him by the lightning.
“Gracious! I should think you’d get a new outfit,” declared Jack.
The hermit glowered at him.
“Git a new outfit? What’d I git a new outfit fer? Ain’t them clothes as good as ever? All they want is stitching together agin and they’ll be as good as new.”
So saying, he went outside, for the storm had passed over by this time, and began gathering his scattered raiment.
“Hadn’t you better put on some clothes?” suggested Jack, trying to stifle his laughter.
“Oh, that’s right!” exclaimed the hermit, who had apparently quite forgotten that he was bereft of all garments. He returned to the shack, put on an old blanket, and with this wrapped about him he set about collecting his rags once more, grumbling to himself all the time.
“I s’pose that blame lightnin’ will hit one of my sheep next trip,” he grunted, as if the fact that he had been struck was nothing compared with the loss of one of his sheep.
“Speaking of sheep, we’d better go and see how the ponies are getting along,” said Jack presently.
They ran to the rough shed where the ponies had been tied. Two of them, they found, had been knocked down by a bolt, while the other was half wild from fright. The two that had been struck were just struggling to their feet.
The boys quieted their distressed animals and saddled them up ready to depart from the strange old hermit and his abode.
“You can’t blame the ponies for being scared,” declared Jack with a laugh; “being knocked out twice in one day is pretty tough.”
“Unless you’re a hermit,” laughed Walt, at which they all roared.
Jack handed the hermit some money to pay for their entertainment as they were leaving. The old man took it without a word, except to say that he would have to hurry and stitch a pocket on his rags so as to have some place to put it.
Then, without a word of farewell, he continued picking up his scattered raiment, and the last the boys saw of him he was still intent on his odd task.
Owing to the delay caused by the storm, it was late when they reached the Lagunitas Rancho. It was too dark for them to form any idea of the place, but Mr. Reeves, who greeted them warmly, ushered them into a long, low room hung with skins and trophies of the hunt, and ornamented at one end by a huge stone fireplace. The boys were surprised to find the ranch very comfortably furnished, almost luxurious, in fact. Every comfort of civilization was to be found there, even down to a grand piano and a phonograph. After a plentiful supper Mr. Reeves entertained the boys with selections on both of these instruments.
The rancher was married and had three children, but his family was at the time away on a visit to the East. Mr. Reeves said that while he was sorry that the boys had not had an opportunity to meet them, he was glad of their absence in another sense, for times were very troublous along the Border.
It was decided that the boys were not to go on duty that night, but would turn in early and spend the next day getting acquainted with the ranch so that they could ride over it “blindfold,” as Mr. Reeves put it. He informed them that he had six cowboys on duty, but that two of them were not very reliable and could not be depended upon in an emergency.
“I feel much easier in my mind now that I have three of the famous Texas Rangers to help me out,” he said with a kindly smile.
“I hope we shall be able to live up to what the name stands for,” said Jack gravely.
“Bravo, my lad; that’s the proper spirit,” declared the rancher warmly.
The boys slept that night in a comfortably furnished bedroom containing three cots. Before daybreak they were awake and discussing the coming day. Sunrise found them outside the ranch house, eagerly inspecting their new surroundings. But, early as they were, Mr. Reeves had been up before them and was ready to show them around.
“Now, you boys must each pick yourself out a pony,” he said, leading them toward a big corral in which several ponies were running loose.
“But we have our own,” objected Ralph, who knew what western bronchos are when they are first taken out of a corral.
“I know that,” responded Mr. Reeves, “but your ponies are pretty well tuckered out after all they went through yesterday. Fresh mounts will be very much better.”
“You have some fine ones here, too,” said Jack, who had been inspecting the twenty or more cayuses in the corral.
“Yes, Lagunitas is famous for its stock,” was the response. “Will you rope the ones you want for yourselves, or shall I tell a puncher to do it for you?”
“We’d be fine Rangers if we couldn’t rope our own ponies,” laughed Jack.
So saying, he selected a rope from several which were hanging on the corral posts. He tried it out and found it a good, pliant bit of rawhide. In the meantime Walt and Ralph had each taken another “riata” and were testing them.
So far as Ralph was concerned, his knowledge of lariat throwing was strictly limited. He had practiced a bit on the Merrill ranch, but he did not know much about the art – for an art it is to throw a rope with precision and accuracy.
By this time several of the cow–punchers attached to the ranch had assembled and watched the boys critically.
“Watch the Tenderfeet throw a rope, Bud,” said one of them, a short, freckle–faced fellow.
“Waal, I don’t know but that tall one knows how to handle a lariat,” rejoined Bud, fixing his eyes on Jack as he entered the corral with his rope trailing behind him, the loop ready for a swing. As soon as the boys were within the corral they started “milling” the ponies, as it is called, that is, causing them to run round and round in circles. In this work they were aided by the shrill whoops and yells of the cow–punchers, who perched on the fence like a row of buzzards.
A buckskin pony with a white face and pink–rimmed eyes caught Jack’s fancy, and in a jiffy his rope was swishing through the air. It fell neatly about the buckskin’s neck, and Jack quickly brought the little animal up with a round turn on the “snubbing post” in the center of the corral. Then came Walt’s turn and after some difficulty he succeeded in lassoing a small but wiry chestnut animal that looked capable of carrying his weight finely.
Last of all came Ralph. He set his lips firmly and made the best cast he knew how at a sorrel colt that was galloping past him. The cowboys set up a jeering yell as they saw the way he handled his rope, and Ralph flushed crimson with mortification. Again and again he cast his rope, each time failing to land his animal. At last Mr. Reeves ordered one of the punchers to catch the pony for him. Ralph, feeling much humiliated, saw the sorrel caught with neatness and despatch.
“Must have bin practicing ropin’ with yer maw’s clothes line,” grinned the cowboy who had effected the capture as he handed the pony over to Ralph.
While this was going on Jack had secured his heavy stock saddle and approached the buckskin to put it on its back. But the instant the little brute saw the saddle it began a series of wild buckings, lashing the air frantically with its hind feet.
“Now look out for fun!” yelled a cow–puncher.
“The kid’s got hold of old Dynamite,” laughed another.
Jack heard this last remark and realized from it that the pony he had selected was a “bad one.” But he determined to stick it out.
Mr. Reeves came over to his side.
“I wouldn’t try to ride Dynamite, my boy,” he said. “He’s the most unruly broncho on the ranch. Take a quieter one like your chums have.”
“I like this buckskin, sir, and, if you have no objection, I mean to ride him,” spoke Jack quietly.
Something in the boy’s eye and the determined set of his mouth and chin told the ranch owner that it would be useless to argue with Jack.
“At any rate, I’ll send Bud in to help you cinch up,” he volunteered.
“Thank you,” said Jack, keeping his eyes on the buckskin, which had his ears laid back, and was the very picture of defiance.
Bud, grinning all over, came into the corral swinging a rope. He skillfully caught the broncho’s legs and threw the refractory animal to the ground. The instant the pony was down Jack ran forward and put a blindfold over his eyes.
“Waal, I see you do know something,” admitted Bud grudgingly, “but you ain’t never goin’ ter ride Dynamite.”
“Cos there ain’t a puncher on this ranch kin tackle him and I ’low no bloomin’ Tenderfoot is going ter do what an old vaquero kain’t.”
“Well, we’ll see,” said Jack, with a quiet smile.
Having blindfolded the pony, a “hackamore” bridle was slipped over his head. To this Dynamite offered no resistance. The blindfold made him quiet and submissive for the time being. When the bridle was in place he was allowed to rise, and before the pony knew it, almost, Jack had the saddle on his back and “cinched” up tightly. This done, the boy threw off his hat, drew on a pair of gloves and adjusted his heavy plainsman’s spurs with their big, blunt rowels.
“All right?” grinned Bud.
“All right,” rejoined Jack in the same quiet tone he had used hitherto. To judge from outward appearances, he was as cool as ice; but inwardly the Border Boy knew that he was in for a big battle.
“Waal, good–bye, kid, we’ll hev yer remains shipped back home,” shouted a facetious puncher from the group perched on the fence.
“Dynamite ’ull send you so high you’ll get old coming down,” yelled another.
“Better let the job out, kid,” said Bud. “We don’t want to commit murder round here.”
“I guess I’m the best judge of that,” spoke Jack quickly. “Get ready to cut loose that rope when I give the word, and take the lasso off the snubbing post.”
This was quickly done and Dynamite stood free, but still blindfolded. Jack poised on his tip toes and gave a light run forward. His hands were seen to touch the saddle and the next instant he was in it. He leaned forward and lifted the blindfold.
For an instant Dynamite stood shivering, his ears laid back, his eyes rolling viciously. Then, before the broncho knew what had happened, Jack’s quirt came down on his flank heavily.
“Yip!” yelled the cow–punchers.
“Yip! Yip!” called Jack, and hardly had the words left his mouth before he was flying through the air over the pony’s head. Dynamite’s first buck had unseated him. Mr. Reeves ran forward anxiously as Jack plowed the ground. But his anxiety was needless. By the time he reached the boy’s side Jack was up again, brushing the dirt of the corral from his clothing. He was pale but determined.
“You see, I told you it was impossible,” said the ranch owner. “Give it up.”
“Give it up!” exclaimed Jack. “Why, I’ve only just begun.”
“The kid’s got grit,” exclaimed a cowboy who had heard this last.
“Yep, more grit than sense, I reckon,” chimed another.