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CHAPTER XV


AMONG THE COWBOYS


"Here she comes!"

It was an enthusiastic cowboy who uttered the words, and by way of emphasis he fired his revolver in the air, as he rode up beside the incoming train. It was the one moment of excitement at the station.

The cars came to a halt, and Sid Todd went forward to give his letters to the railway mail clerk. Dave watched the cars and saw two men and a boy alight. The boy was Link Merwell.

The former bully of Oak Hall looked haggard, as if his dissipation in Chicago and elsewhere had done him much harm. His eyes were heavy as he stood and stared about him. Hank Snogger had gone forward, to care for the mail from the Merwell ranch.

"Hello, you here!" cried Link, stepping forward and confronting Dave.

"I am," was the cool answer.

"Got here ahead of me, eh?"

"So it would seem."

"Going to make a spread out here, I suppose," went on Link, with a sneer. "Paint the plains red, and all that."

"I came for a good time, but I don't intend to paint anything red."

"Bah, I know you, Dave Porter! You want to crow over everybody, no matter where you go. But you'll find things are different out here from what they were at Oak Hall," added the bully, significantly. "You can't pull the wool over people's eyes here like you did there."

"I have no more intention of pulling wool than I have of painting anything red," answered Dave, as calmly as before. He could see that Link was in a bad humor and spoiling for a fight.

"I said I was going to get square with you, and I am," continued the bully, loudly.

"You keep your distance, Link Merwell," answered Dave, and now his tone was sharper. "Don't forget what I did at Oak Hall. If you want another thrashing like that I can give it to you."

"Get out! Don't you talk to me!" howled Link. "You attacked me when I was sick!" He spoke in a loud voice, for the benefit of the cowboys and others who were gathering around. The train had started away and was soon out of sight among the hills.

"You were as well as you ever were," answered Dave.

"What's the row, Link?" asked Hank Snogger, as he pushed his way to the front.

"Here's a fellow used to go to school with me. I've got it in for him, and I've a good mind to give him a thrashing."

"You put your hand on me, and you'll take the consequences," said Dave. "I didn't come here to fight, but I can defend myself."

"You don't want to fight, do you, Dave?" asked Sid Todd, in a low voice. To him it looked as if the Crumville lad might be no match for Merwell, who was larger and heavier.

"I am not afraid, Todd. I thrashed him once and I can do it again—if I have to."

"You licked him?"

"Yes."

"With your fists?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"At school. He played a dirty trick on me and some others, and I wouldn't stand for it."

"You shut your mouth!" roared Link Merwell, and without warning he rushed forward and struck Dave a blow in the chest that sent the Crumville youth staggering against Mr. Hooper.

"Wait! wait! This won't do!" said the ranchman.

"If you are going to fight, fight fair," put in Sid Todd.

"Now don't you butt in here, Sid!" growled Hank Snogger, with an ugly look at the other cowboy.

"I'll see fair play," answered Todd, sharply, and he elbowed his way between Snogger and Dave.

Having delivered his unexpected blow, Link Merwell sprang back and stood on the defensive. Dave was not wearing any coat or vest, and he merely threw his hat to his friend. Then, as quick as lightning, he sprang forward, knocked aside Merwell's guard, and planted a telling blow on the bully's left eye.

"As you are so anxious to fight, take that!" cried Dave, and before the other could recover he landed a second blow on Merwell's chin. This caused the bully to stagger against Hank Snogger, who kept him from falling completely.

"Well! well! well!" sang out one of the cowboys in the crowd. "Just look at that! Merwell, keep your eyes open, or you'll git knocked into a jelly!"

The former bully of Oak Hall was staggered, but only for a moment. Then, with a hoarse cry of rage, he leaped at Dave, and for fully a minute the blows came thick and fast from each side. Then the pair clinched, swung around and around, and finally went down, with Dave on top.

"Break away there!" sang out Hank Snogger, and caught Dave by the ear. "Git up off him!"

"Leave Porter alone!" yelled Sid Todd, and caught Snogger by the hair. "This is the boys' fight, 'tain't yours."

"That's right! That's right!" came from several. "Leave the kids alone."

"He ain't goin' to hit Link when he's down," growled Snogger.

"I don't intend to," answered Dave, and got up. He turned to Hank Snogger. "You keep your hands off of me," he added, sharply. "This is not your quarrel."

"Ah, don't talk to me," growled the cowboy.

"I will talk to you," went on Dave. "You keep out of this."

Dave stood back, while Link slowly arose to his feet. The bully was somewhat dazed. But there was still a good deal of fight left in him, and suddenly he charged on the Crumville lad, making a heavy swing for Dave's jaw. Dave ducked, and, as Merwell swung around, caught the bully in the right ear. Then he followed the blow by one on the neck and another directly in the mouth. The latter loosened two teeth and sent the bully into the arms of Hank Snogger.

"Well, have you had enough?" asked Dave. He was panting for breath, and his eyes were blazing with determination.

A look full of the bitterest kind of hatred filled the face of Link Merwell, but he was too staggered to attack Dave again. He leaned on Hank Snogger and then turned his face away.

"I say, have you had enough—or do you want another dose?" demanded Dave.

"I'll—fight this out some other time," answered Merwell, weakly. He realized that the eyes of the crowd were on him, and this made him furious. But he did not dare to risk another attack from the Crumville youth, fearing what fighters call "a knockout."

"Then you have had enough, eh?" went on Dave. "Very well. And now, Merwell, I advise you to keep your distance. If you don't—well, you'll catch it worse, that's all."

"Link is tired out from his long train ride," remarked Hank Snogger. "He ain't in no fit condition fer a scrap. Wait till he has rested up a week or two—then he'll show thet tenderfoot what's what." And with these words he led Link away to where a couple of horses were tied. He leaped on one and the bully leaped on the other, and in a moment more both were off for the Merwell ranch.

"Well, youngster, I reckon you can hold your own," remarked Mr. Hooper. He had led a rough-and-tumble life himself and did not look on a fight as a dreadful matter. "You had him going."

"So you did, Dave," added Sid Todd, while several other cowboys nodded in assent.

"He forced the fight," answered Dave. "I suppose he'll try it again some day."

"Merwell always was scrappy," said one of the cowboys.

"Takes after his dad," added another; and then there was a general laugh. Several came up to shake hands with Dave and congratulate him on the outcome of the little bout. Some of the cowboys were not very refined, and to them such a fist-fight seemed a great thing.

There were a number of letters for those at Star Ranch, including two for Dave,—from his father and from Ben Basswood. With the epistles in their pockets, Dave and Sid Todd started on the return to the Endicott place. They had to follow, for some distance, the trail taken by Link and Snogger, their road branching off after the bridge over the river was crossed.

Considerable time had been lost waiting for the train and because of the set-to with Merwell, and the sun was now going down over the mountains in the west, casting long shadows over the plains.

"You'll have a late supper to-night," said Todd, as they moved on at a brisk pace. "And I reckon you'll have an appetite for it. The way you polished off that cub was great!" And he shook his head enthusiastically.

"I wish you'd do me a favor, Todd," returned Dave.

"Sure thing, son. What do you want?"

"Please don't say too much at the ranch about the fight. I don't want to scare my sister and the other girls."

"Can't I tell the boys how you polished off young Merwell? Most of 'em will be glad to hear it."

"Well, don't say too much, that's all. If they learn that Link is on the watch to do harm, the girls will be almost too afraid to go out."

"Do you think that cub would be mean enough to harm the gals? "

"He'd be mean enough to scare them half to death."

"If he does that—well, I reckon I'll take a hand in lickin' him myself."

"We came out here to have a good time, and I want to forget Link Merwell, if possible. But I'll keep my eyes open for him—and I'll tell Phil and Roger to watch out, too," added Dave, soberly.

Sid Todd was anxious to know more of Link's doings at Oak Hall, and Dave told how Link had tried to get Gus Plum and himself into trouble. He did not mention the trouble Laura and Jessie had had, for he did not wish to drag the names of the girls into the affair.

"He sure is a bad egg," said the cowboy, at the end of the recital. "Keep an eye on him by all means."

By the time they reached the vicinity of the bridge it was quite dark. Remembering the bad condition of the structure spanning the stream, Sid Todd cautioned Dave to let his horse walk.

"Look!" cried the youth, a second later, and pointed around a rise of rocks to the bridge. He had seen two figures leaving the structure. They disappeared behind a high clump of brushwood.

"What did you see?" questioned Todd, who had been gazing off to one side of the trail.

"Two persons on the bridge. They just ran away into the bushes."

"On foot?"

"Yes."

"Humph! Didn't know anybody was out on foot around here," mused the cowboy. "Sure it wasn't a bear, or some other animal?" And he felt for his horse-pistol.

"No, they were men, or boys," answered Dave. "They ran off the bridge the minute we came in sight."

"Huh! I wonder if it's possible them hoss-thieves is around again."

"Have you horse-thieves in this territory?"

"We sure have. Lost two hosses last spring and two last summer. I'll have to tell the boss about seeing them fellows. But maybe—say, hold on, Dave."

"What now?"

"I may be mistaken, but—don't go on the bridge on hossback."

"Why not?"

"I'll tell you—after I've examined the bridge," answered Sid Todd, and in a manner that mystified Dave very much.