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CHAPTER XXIV


THE CATTLE STAMPEDE


Dave had often heard of cattle stampedes, and he knew how truly dangerous such a mad rush can become. Sometimes, from practically no cause whatever, a herd of cattle will start on a wild run, going they know not where, and carrying all down before them.

What had started the present stampede did not interest the youth, but he was interested in the question of how he might get out of the herd's way, so that he would not be run down and trodden to a jelly. To scare the leaders off might be easy, but would not those in the rear push on until he was simply overwhelmed?

"I've got to get away somehow!" he reasoned, and turned his pony at right angles to the approaching cattle. For the moment the bronco seemed too frightened to budge, but at a cry from Dave he leaped forward, and then went streaking across the prairies as if he knew his life and that of his rider depended on his speed.

It was now a race for life, for the cattle were still moving in something of a semicircle, and Dave did not know whether or not he would be able to clear the end of the line before it reached him. He called to the pony, but this was unnecessary, for the bronco evidently understood the peril fully as well as his rider.

Suddenly, when it looked as if pony and youth could not escape, Dave heard a whistle float across the prairie. Looking in the direction, he made out the form of Sid Todd, riding like the wind toward him. Behind him came Roger and Phil, but the two boys were soon stopped and told to go back.

"I'll head 'em off!" yelled Todd, coming closer. And waving his big sombrero in one hand he commenced to fire his pistol with the other. He shot rapidly, aiming for the ground and sending streaks of dust into the air. All the time he yelled at the top of his lungs, and, understanding the move, Dave yelled too, and swung one arm wildly.

Soon the leaders of the herd took notice and came to a sudden halt. The rest of the cattle shoved from behind, and then the leaders broke, some going to the right, and the others to the left.

"Look out, Roger! Phil! They are coming your way!" screamed Dave.

He was right, and for the minute it looked as if Dave had been saved at the expense of his chums. But only a few cattle were headed for the other boys, and as soon as Roger and Phil commenced to yell and wave their arms, these broke again, and thus the herd was completely scattered. They ran a short distance further, then halted, and a little later began to graze as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

"Are you all right, son?" asked Sid Todd, anxiously, as he ranged up beside Dave.

"Yes, but—I—I am a lit—tle wi—winded," answered Dave, when he could speak.

"Good enough! Then you mastered the bronco, eh? Didn't he throw you at all?"

"No."

"Didn't he roll?"

"Oh, yes, and I got off and on pretty quick, I can tell you."

"It's wonderful! I never would have thought it!" And Sid Todd's face showed his great admiration. "Why, don't you know that that is one of the wickedest ponies on this ranch? Yates and some of the others have tried to ride him more than once."

"And they couldn't do it?"

"Not much they couldn't! Why, that pony bit one of the men in the arm when he got too near!"

"He snapped at me once."

"Did, eh?"

"Yes, and I slapped his face."

"Well, that's the best way—show 'em you ain't afraid. But it's wonderful! When I see you on this pony I was sure you'd be killed, and I made up my mind to give Yates the wust lickin' he ever had."

"He's as mild as a lamb now," went on Dave, as he eyed the pony.

"Don't you go for to trustin' him too much, yet," were Sid Todd's words of warning, and Dave took them to heart, and it was well he did so, for while returning to the ranch, the bronco tried several tricks to get rid of his rider, but without success.

"I never thought you would do it," said Roger, earnestly. "Are you sure he is safe now?" he added, anxiously.

"I wouldn't try to ride that beast for a million dollars," was Phil's comment. "When he went off with you I thought you'd never get back to tell the story. Roger and I and Todd were so worried we rode after you just as fast as we could."

"I hope the girls don't hear of this," said Dave. "If they do, they'll worry themselves sick every time we go out."

"Oh, we've got to let folks know how you busted that bronco!" cried Sid Todd. "Why, son, you don't understand, but it's the finest bit o' bustin' ever done on this ranch!" he added, vehemently.

"Well, I am glad I won out, for one thing," answered Dave, dryly. "You won't have to give Yates that licking." And this remark made the cowboy laugh in spite of himself. Nevertheless, later on he gave Yates a lecture that the latter never forgot.

"The boy had one chanct in a hundred o' winning out," was what he said. "One chanct in a hundred, an' you knew it! If he had broken his neck I'd 'a' held you responsible, an' so would the boss."

"But he's a great rider," pleaded Yates.

"Sure he is, better nor you'll be if you live to be a hundred, Yates. But it was wrong to pile such a thing up his back,—an' don't you go for to do it again."

The news soon spread that Dave had "busted" the wild bronco, and this, coupled with the fact that he had aided in bringing down the bobcat, gave him an enviable reputation among the cowboys. But the girls were quite alarmed, Jessie and Laura especially.

"Oh, Dave, how could you!" cried Jessie, when they were alone.

"Well, Jessie, you wouldn't want me to appear like a coward, would you?" he asked.

"No, of course not, Dave! But—if you had been—killed!"

"I was watching out, I can tell you that," he answered, and then changed the subject, for he did not like to see the girl he admired so distressed.

After the excitement of the bronco riding, the boys were glad enough to take it easy for several days. Belle had a tennis court and a croquet ground, and they played each game for hours at a time. The girls were all good players and won the majority of the games.

"Tennis and croquet are all well enough when you have nice girls to play with," remarked Roger. "But otherwise I fancy I'd find them dead slow."

"He'd play twenty-four hours at a stretch with Laura," was Phil's comment.

"Not to mention how long you'd play with Belle," retorted the senator's son.

"Dave doesn't care to play at all when Jessie is around," went on Phil, slyly.

"Neither of 'em cares to play—if there's a hammock and a chair handy," added Roger.

"I noticed yesterday, when Jessie and I were playing tennis, you fellows were so busy talking to the girls you forgot all about your games," retorted Dave. "And one of you was spouting poetry, about 'eyes divine,' or something like that."

"Not me!" cried Roger.

"Then it must have been Phil!"

"No, it was Roger," protested the shipowner's son. "I saw him writing poetry when he should have been sending a letter home."

"You go on, you manufacturer of bombastic fairy tales!" cried the senator's son, and he commenced to chase Phil around the piazza. The other boy leaped the rail and Roger followed, and then both commenced to wrestle on the grass.

"Mercy me! What's going on?" cried Laura, coming from the sitting-room.

"Greatest exhibition on the globe!" called out Dave, in showman style. "The two marvelous lightweights of the United States, Master Hitem Morr and Lamem Lawrence. They will fight to a finish, without gloves, weather permitting. Walk up, tumble up, or crawl up! Admission ten cents, one dime; young ladies with grandfathers in arms, half-price!"

"Oh, Dave!" cried his sister, and burst out laughing. The noise brought Jessie and Belle to the scene, and seeing what was going on, all of the girls commenced to pelt the boys on the grass with tennis balls. The "attack" lasted for several minutes, and then the girls ran away, and the boys went after them, into the house and out again, and across the yard, and then through the kitchen, much to the astonishment of the Chinese cook. Here Phil scooped up a ladleful of soup.

"Halt, base enemy!" he cried, holding the soup aloft. "One step closer and thou shalt be——" And then he slipped and the soup slopped over his hand and his shoes. He ran for the yard again, dropped on a bench, in mock exhaustion; and there the others joined him; and the fun, for the time being, came to an end.

"We are going to the railroad station this afternoon with papa," said Belle. "Want to go along?"

"Will a duck drink ice-cream soda!" cried Roger. "Of course we will go along."

"Then you had better get ready now for we are to start directly after lunch."

"Anything special at the station?" questioned Dave.

"Papa is going to see a man about some horses. He wants to buy a few more good ones, if he can."

"It's a pity we can't find out what became of the others," went on Dave.

It took the girls some time to prepare for the journey to the railroad station, so the start from Star Ranch was not made until after two o'clock. Mr. Endicott rode in advance, and the young folks paired off in couples after him.

When they got to the bridge Dave was much surprised to see a couple of men at work repairing the structure. They were putting down some planking that was bound to last a long while.

"Mr. Merwell must have opened his heart at last," said Dave, to the railroad president.

"Not at all, Dave; I am having this work done," was Mr. Endicott's reply.

"But I thought you said it was up to Mr. Merwell to keep this bridge in repair."

"So it is, but as he won't do anything, rather than have a quarrel, I am repairing it myself."

"Do you think he wants to sell out? Maybe that is his reason for not spending money in repairs."

"He will sell out, but his price is very high—too high to suit the man who wants to buy."

Leaving the vicinity of the bridge, the party continued on the way to the railroad station. The train was not yet in, but it soon arrived and on it came the man Mr. Endicott wished to see. From the train also stepped Hank Snogger. The ranch hand had evidently been to a barber in the city, for he was shaven and his hair was closely trimmed.

"He looks like quite a different person," remarked Belle. "He always wore his hair long and straggly before."

"Yes, and he wasn't any too clean," answered Dave. "Now he is well washed and brushed."

Hank Snogger walked around the station on an errand, and then came up to where a horse was waiting for him. As he did this he passed quite close to the boys and girls and gave the former a cold stare.

"Do you know, I feel sure I have seen somebody that looks like him," said Dave in a whisper. "I said so before. But I can't place the man." "Yes, I've seen somebody that looked like him, too," added Roger. "It was while we were coming out here. Now let me think." And he rubbed his chin reflectively.

"Here's a letter about that boy we helped, Charley Gamp," said Phil, who had just received the mail.

"Charley Gamp!" cried Dave. "That's it—that's the same face! This Hank Snogger looks exactly like Charley Gamp!"