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CHAPTER XIII


JIM JONES, THE COWBOY


To some of the boys it looked as if Sam and his steed must surely be seriously injured, if not killed. The steer was large and powerful looking, and his horns were sharp enough to inflict serious damage.

"Back up, Sam!" screamed Tom.

Poor Sam could not back very well, and now his horse was thoroughly unmanageable. Closer came the steer, until his wicked looking horns were but a foot away.

At that critical moment a shot rang out, so close at hand that it made all of the boys jump. Realizing the dire peril, Dick had drawn the pistol he carried and fired at the steer. His aim was fair, and the beast was struck in the ribs.

"Good for you, Dick!" burst out poor Sam. "Give him another," he added, as he tried to quiet his horse and keep the steed from pitching him to the ground.

Dick was quite willing to take another shot, but to get into range was not so easy. Songbird's horse was between himself and the steer, and the latter was plunging around in a manner that was dangerous for the entire party.

But at last the eldest Rover saw his opportunity, and once more the pistol rang out on the summer air. The shot took the steer in the left ear and he gave a loud snort of pain and staggered as if about to fall.

"He is about done for!" cried Tom. "I am glad of it."

The steer continued to plunge around for fully two minutes and all took good care to keep out of his reach. Then he took a final plunge and fell over on his side, breathing heavily and rolling his eyes the while.

"I reckon I had better give him a final shot," was Dick's comment, and, dismounting, he came forward and fired directly into the beast's eye. It was a finishing move, and, with a convulsive shudder, the steer lay still, and the unexpected encounter came to an end.

"Well, I am glad that is over," said Sam as he wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead. "I thought he was going to horn me, sure!"

"He would have done so, had it not been for Dick," returned Tom.

"I know it. Dick, I shan't forget this."

"What's to be done about the steer?" asked Songbird. "It seems a pity to leave him here."

"Vot is der madder mit cutting him ub for meats?" put in Hans. "Ve can haf some nice steak ven ve go into camp next dime, hey?"

"That's a scheme," said Fred.

At that moment, Wags, who had kept in the background so long as the steer was raging around, set up a sharp barking.

"What's wrong now?" asked Tom, turning to the dog.

"Somebody may be coming," suggested Dick.

"I'll show you fellers wot's wrong!" cried a rough voice, and through the brushwood close by there crashed a broncho, on top of which rode a rough-looking cowboy, wearing a red shirt and a big slouch hat. "Who went and shot that steer?"

"I did," answered Dick. "Was he yours?"

"He was, and you had no right to touch him," growled the cowboy.

"Didn't I, though?" said Dick. "Are you aware that he came close to hurting us? He charged full tilt at my brother's horse."

"Stuff and fairy tales, boy. That steer was all right. He broke away from the drove, but he wouldn't hurt a flea."

"We know better," put in Tom.

"If my brother hadn't killed him, he would probably have killed my horse, and maybe me," added Sam.

"Somebody has got to pay for the damage done," growled the cowboy. "I am not going to stand for it, not me, so sure as my name is Jim Jones." And he shook his head determinedly.

"Well, Mr. Jones, I am sorry I had to kill your steer, but it had to be done, and that is all there is to it," said Dick calmly.

"That ain't payin' for the critter, is it?"

"No."

"An' do you reckon I'm goin' to let the boss take the price out o' my wages?" continued Jim Jones warmly.

"Isn't the steer worth something as meat?"

"Yes, but not near as much as he was wuth on the hoof."

"We might take up a collection for Mr. Jones, if he is a poor man," suggested Songbird, who did not want any trouble.

"But we haven't got to do it," broke in Tom. "It was his business not to let the steer run wild in the first place."

"So you're going to take a hand, eh?" stormed the cowboy; then, feeling he was in the minority, he went on more humbly: "Yes, I'm a poor man, and this may get me discharged."

"How much do you think we ought to pay?" asked Dick. "Name a reasonable price and I may settle, just to avoid trouble, and not because I think I ought to pay."

"How about fifty dollars?" asked the cowboy with a shrewd look in his fishy, blue eyes.

"Cut it in half, and I may meet you," came from Dick. "He was no blue-ribbon animal."

The cowboy tried to argue, but the Rovers and their chums would not listen, and in the end Jim Jones said he would accept twenty-five dollars and let it go at that. He said he would have the steer carted away before night.

"Where do you come from?" asked Dick after paying over the money.

"From the Cassibel ranch, sixty miles northwest from here. I and my pard were driving some cattle to town, when this steer got scared at a rattlesnake and broke away."

"I don't blame him," said Fred. "I'd get scared at a rattlesnake, myself."

"Do you know the way to Mr. Carson Denton's plantation?" went on Dick.

"Sure."

"This is not the right trail, is it?"

"Not by a long shot. The right trail is four miles from here."

"Will you direct us to the right road?" asked Dick.

"Sure thing," answered Jim Jones. He paused for a moment. "Want to get there the easiest way possible, I reckon?"

"Of course."

"Well, then, keep to this trail for half a mile further. Then, when you come to the blasted hemlock, take the trail to the left. That will take you through the upper end of the next town and right on to Denton's."

"Thanks," said Dick. "Is it a good road?"

"Fine, after the fust few miles are passed. There are a few bad spots at first, but you mustn't mind them."

"We shan't mind," came from Sam. "We have struck some bad spots already."

A few additional words passed, and then all of the boys rode along the trail as the cowboy had pointed out. Jim Jones, standing beside the dead steer, watched them out of sight and chuckled loudly to himself.

"Reckon I squared accounts with 'em," he muttered. "Got twenty-five dollars in cash and the animile, and if they foller thet trail as I told 'em—well, there ain't no tellin' where they'll fetch up. But it won't be Denton's ranch, not by a long shot!" and he laughed heartily to himself. All unconscious that they had been wrongly directed by Jim Jones, the Rover boys and their chums continued their journey. When they reached the hemlock that had been struck by lightning, they took to the other path as directed.

"I am sorry I didn't ask how far that town was," said Dick. "For all we know, we may be miles away from it."

"If it gets too late, we had better go into camp for the night," suggested Songbird, and so it was agreed.

The coming of night found them in something of a hollow between two ranges of hills. The trail was soft and spongy, and the horses frequently sank in over their hoofs.

"This is something I didn't bargain for," observed Songbird. "I trust we don't get stuck and have to go back."

"That cowboy said the trail would be poor for a while," came from Fred.

They continued to go forward, on the lookout for some suitable spot where they might camp for the night. The thought of reaching a town had faded away an hour before.

"Gosh! this is getting worse!" cried Tom. "Be careful, Hans!" he called to the German youth, who was ahead.

"Vot's dot?" sang out the other.

"I said, be careful. You don't want to sink through to China, do you?"

"Not much I ton't," was the answer. "Oh!"

Hans let out a loud cry of alarm, and with good reason. His horse had struck a sink-hole, as they are called on the plains, and gone down to his knees. He made such a plunge that poor Hans was thrown over his head, to land full length in an oozy, sticky bog.

"Stop!" cried Dick, as soon as he saw this accident. "Don't go any further, fellows, it's dangerous!"

"Hellup! safe me!" roared Hans, trying in vain to extricate himself from the oozy bog, while his horse did the same. "Hellup, oder I peen drowned in der mud alretty!"