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The Midnight Searching Party








From: Dorothy On A Ranch

The night was growing late and there were anxious hearts at
"Roderick's." The four-in-hand had arrived hours before, and Silent Pete
had also brought his party safely in--to the mutual relief of himself
and Miss Milliken, the latter really surprised to find she had arrived
sound in body and limb. She had promptly retired to the little chamber
assigned herself and Helena, only to reappear in fresh distress.

"My suit-case with my night-things! I can't find it anywhere. The one
they gave me has a lot of boys' things in it-all jumbled together. I'd
like my suit-case, please. I'm worn out with that awful ride and if I've
got to repeat it to-morrow, I must get to rest;" but as the buxom maid
to whom she appealed paid her scant attention, she turned to Helena with
her wail: "Oh, Miss Helena! Won't you make them give me the right
case?"

The emphasis put on the "won't" suggested a desperate need, but merely
annoyed her young mistress, who requested:

"Don't make a nuisance of yourself, Milly. The loss of a suit-case is
nothing compared to--Oh! if Dolly were only safely here!"

"She will be, of course. Haven't I, with my nerves, lived through that
ride? But, you don't understand, dear, I want my things. I can't wear
a boy's pajamas--all mussed up, at that. I want, I want to go to bed."

"Then, for goodness' sake--go!" cried Monty Stark, who had come up to
the pair. "That'll give us a rest, too."

"I shall have to sit up all night, then," still moaned the lady, "for
your case isn't to be found either, Miss Helena."

Then finding no greater sympathy from her mistress than from that saucy
boy, the governess betook herself out of the way. She was the only one
of the party which had so gaily left Denver that now cared for anything
except the appearance down the road of the missing buckboard.

Molly and Leslie, congenial spirits, had tried to laugh off their
anxiety and to convince the others that everything was "all right, of
course."

"Likely Dolly Doodles has discovered some new sort of flowers somewhere
and has wandered off to get them. She's always doing that kind of
thing," Molly assured her hostess, who had gently answered:

"We'll hope it's only that. But she'd scarcely look for wild flowers at
night, nor do anything to make us anxious by her delay. Our Dorothy is
a very considerate girl and I wish--they would come."

Linking her arm within Helena's, the lady set her steps to suit the
girl's and resumed the pacing up and down the long piazza. The house was
a one-storied building, stretching along the roadway to a size that was
unusual for such a locality. It had been added to at different periods,
as need arose; each addition being either a little lower or higher than
its neighbor, according to the cash in hand, but invariably with the
continuance of the comfortable piazza. This now afforded a long
promenade, and all the people gathered at the wayside inn that night,
were using it to walk off their impatience at the delay of "Tenderfoot
Sorrel" to bring in his team.

Supper had been put back till it was spoiled, and having been
telegraphed for beforehand, good Mrs. Roderick had wasted her best
efforts upon it. But, at last, seeing Monty and Molly peering through
the kitchen windows in a hungry sort of way, Mr. Ford ordered it served
and all repaired to the dining room, feeling that the meal would be a
farce, yet something with which to kill time.

However, the long ride in the keen air had given all a fine appetite and
despite the landlady's laments over the "dried-up stuff," the table was
nearly cleared of its food when they left it. Moreover, everyone felt
better and brighter for the refreshment and so hopeful now for the
speedy arrival of the laggards, that Mr. Ford suggested to the waitress:

"Just have a few things kept warm for the others. There'll be four of
them. If they aren't here within a half-hour, now, I'll go back in
search of them. Something may have happened to the wagon and they left
to come on a-foot."

"Dear, did you ask the man you call Silent Pete if he passed them
anywhere along the road?"

"Surely, I did that the first thing. He had neither passed nor seen
them, he said."

"Well, I'm going to interview him again. Come on, Miss Molly, to the
stable with me," cried Leslie.

"'Molly,' without the 'Miss,' please, and I'm ready enough! It seems as
if I must be doing something, for everybody is looking so worried," she
answered, catching his outstretched hand and racing with him down the
long porch and around to the stables in the rear.

Silent Pete had not gone to the loft where the workmen slept. He had
wrapped himself in a blanket and, with another for a pillow, had settled
himself in a corner of the loose box next the stalls where his team
stood. He was so devoted to them that he couldn't leave them alone in a
strange stable, though from the snores which already came from him he
didn't seem a great protection to anything.

But Silent Pete was wily. He had heard the voices of the pair without
the building, asking a groom to tell where Pete could be found, and had
resented being disturbed. He had done his day's work, he had no
intention of joining in any search that might be made for the
delinquents, and he promptly pretended slumber. But he hadn't reckoned
upon Leslie's persistence nor his own uneasy conscience.

"Wake up there, Peter, if that's your name! I'm your boss's son, and I
want a word with you. Wake up, man!"

The snores deepened. Rarely had the nose of mortal man emitted such
ear-splitting sounds as now issued from the nostrils of the ranchman, as
Leslie shoved aside the sliding door of the loose box and stepped
within.

"Here, Molly-without-the-Miss, take the lantern and hold it so I can
find the head inside that roll of blankets! Feet are big enough. Can't
miss them," said the lad, stumbling over the protruding boots of the
sleeper. "I'll take this pitchfork and prod him up a bit. Hello, Pete! I
say, Pete, you've earned your name one way--but you hardly deserve it
another. 'Silent!' You'll certainly keep the horses awake and--Wake up,
I say! You shall!"

Leslie thrust the pitchfork into the boards of the floor so
uncomfortably near that snoring nose that Pete hitched aside and so
admitted himself awake. Molly ran into the box and held the lantern low,
while the boy squatted at the teamster's head and thumped it soundly.
Both were giggling, which incensed their victim still further, and he
suddenly tossed off his blanket with such force that it hit Molly's face
and made her jump away, while Leslie ordered:

"Quit that! Don't you know how to treat a lady?"

There was no answer, save a frown directed toward the laughing girl, and
the lad demanded:

"You're to open your lips and tell us what you think has happened to
that tenderfoot driver and his team. Why doesn't he come in? They say
you're the oldest driver round, know the most about the roads, or
trails, and your opinion's wanted. Give it quick, because--Well,
there'll be some thing doin' if you do know anything and don't tell it.
I don't understand why I suspect you're hiding things but I do; unless
it's that grudge I heard some men say you had against the 'Sorrel'
fellow. Now, you talk. Where do you think that buckboard is?"

"Gone to smash."

Molly screamed at this cool answer, and Leslie threatened his pitchfork.
But it was neither of these things which moved Pete to tersely disclose
his private opinion:

"I know nothin'. I guess shortcut and destruction. Lem knows the trail.
T. Sorrel ain't wuth huntin', nor them boys. Little gal--might--Talk to
Lem. Clear out."

Having relieved his conscience of this much information the man buried
his face again in his blanket and resumed his interrupted repose. Leslie
wasted one moment of indignation upon him, as a heartless human being,
then hurried out of the place and to his father.

When consulted, Lem Hunt hesitated for an instant only, then advised:

"Best get right a-doin' things! No wagons, but fresh hosses and as many
of 'em as want to go. Jiminy cricket! If T. Sorrel branched off where
Pete thinks he did he's done for hisself an' all consarned. Let's be
steppin'!"

Fortunately, there were plenty of fresh horses at "Roderick's" that
night. A drove of them were corralled behind the inn, en route from a
distant ranch to Denver, and thence eastward to market. All of them were
well broken, to the saddle at least, and the best were promptly led out
for Mr. Ford's selection, leaving his own beasts to rest for the next
day's travel. Also, the drivers eagerly offered their own company,
mounting without their saddles, which they insisted upon lending to the
less experienced riders.

Excitement followed Lemuel's advice to "Be steppin'," and a very few
minutes' of bustling activity saw the cavalcade lined up before the inn
with him for leader. It numbered Mr. Ford, Herbert and Monty, of that
party; with Noll Roderick himself and three drovers. That Leslie had not
joined the riders was due to his mother's anxiety for his health, though
his father had rather favored his going. The lad had been indignant at
the "molly-coddling" and had hurt the tender heart of the Gray Lady by
some angry words. Then he had walked away to the extreme end of the long
piazza, whence he watched the disappearance of the rescuers down the
moonlight road. As the horses' footfalls died in the distance, his
grumblings were interrupted by a light touch on his arm.

"Come around this corner, boy! Hurry up!"

He turned to find Molly Breckenridge beside him, her finger on her lip,
and a wild light in her eyes. She was trembling with excitement and
could scarcely wait to whisper:

"I'm going, too!"

"Girl, how can you?"

"Horseback, course. Roderick's daughter's lending me her own pony.
Mattie, her name is, and she was all for going with the others but her
mother can't spare her. I told her I was just crazy, thinking of my
Dorothy; hurt maybe, lost anyway, and nobody but a lot of men to speak
to, even if they find her. Do you s'pose I'll desert her? That I love
best of all the world? I guess not. I'm a Breckenridge! Good-by!"

There was mischief in her eyes as she turned to leave him and Leslie
laughed:

"Course! You're thoroughbred--I saw that right away. And you're my
guest! Could I, as a gentleman, let you ride off alone on a lonely road
at night? Hurray! You're A 1! You're rippin'!"

Molly sped around the house. She wasn't familiar, as yet, with Leslie's
"rippin'" but she knew he'd approved of her wild prank and would join
her in it. She was a far better rider than he, for in her own southern
home she had been reared to the saddle and was never happier than when
she had a good horse at command. Mattie's pony was swift and easy, and
Molly sprang to its back with the feeling that now she was "really doing
something," and that very speedily she would have her arms about her
missing friend and all would be well. She had also begged Mattie to get
a mount for Leslie, forseeing that he would follow her--exactly as he
did. Another instant, and the pair were off along a little by-path,
toward the main road and the pursuit of the searching party. As they
struck into the smoother going Molly touched the calico pony with her
whip and called to Leslie:

"Come on! Hurry up! We'll have to ride like the wind to catch up with
the rest!"

"All right--I'll do my best but--but this--old nag--wait a little bit!"

Molly wheeled about and did so, but the delay made her extremely
impatient, and with some contempt she remarked, as the lad came
alongside:

"Why, I supposed you could ride! You looked like a boy who knew how!"

"So I do! But this thing I'm on--Call this a horse? I'd rather have a
mule! How dared they give me such a thing?"

In her hurry Molly had not observed the animal which had stood saddled
at the stable door, and that now seemed as ugly and tiresome a beast as
her own little pony was fine. Pity then banished vexation and she
exclaimed:

"You poor fellow! I don't believe Matty meant you to have that beast.
But, come on, anyway. Maybe he'll warm up after a bit, and I'll take
that back--that I said about your riding. I reckon you're all right.
Anybody must be who can stick on the rack-o'-bones you've got. Touch him
up a little--I'll set the pace."

Away she sped while the gaunt creature which Leslie bestrode planted his
forefeet firmly on the ground and refused to lift them thence. Molly was
fast passing around a curve in the road and would then be out of sight,
and Leslie's temper rose to its height. He forgot everything except his
own awkward position and the fact that his lively young guest could have
the laugh on him when that night's tale was told.

"Oh! you hateful beast! You won't go, eh? Well, go you shall! Hear me?
Take that--and that--and--THAT!"

Blows rained hard and fast, till the lash of the whip gave out, and the
butt took its place. Then, as if the astonished horse had just aroused
to the state of things, it bolted! and the way its old heels picked up
that road was the most amazing thing of all that evening's happenings.

Then, indeed, did Leslie prove himself a better horseman than he looked,
and, for all time to come, his full ability to "stick." Riding ahead at
a smart pace, but not her pony's best, Molly heard the footfalls behind
her and swerved out of the way--not a minute too soon! Evidently, the
maligned "rack-o'-bones" would otherwise have ridden her down. He passed
her like a whirlwind and then--she after him. Followed, a race to be
remembered! The big horse keeping the lead, the little "calico"
pit-pattering along behind in a hopeless effort to get even.

Thus for what seemed an endless time, the long dusty road was desolate
of any travellers except this pair of runaways. Sometimes a coyote
yelped in the distance; occasionally some creeping thing barred the
track before them; and a screech owl sent its blood-curdling cries into
their ears. Otherwise they were alone in the wilderness and the night,
and beyond speaking distance even of one another.

The effect was to set each culprit thinking. How wild a thing they had
done! How thoughtless, how selfish! What fresh anxiety they had added to
the troubled hearts back there at "Roderick's," as soon as their absence
was discovered! How flat their jolly adventure had fallen!

Molly had bound Mattie to secrecy, and there was that about the western
girl that convinced the other that the secret would be kept. If Mrs.
Roderick did guess what had become of them, and said so, it would be no
comfort to Lady Gray and Helena; and the longer Molly pondered the
matter, the more ashamed and terrified she felt. What would Aunt
Lucretia say? And what her father--could he see his madcap at that
moment?

In a bitter reaction of feeling the girl dropped her head upon the
pony's neck, though still mechanically urging the willing creature to
her utmost speed. Her thoughts were far away when, suddenly, she felt a
check upon the rein and lifted her startled face.

"Why, Leslie! You scared me!"

"Were you asleep?"

"No."

"What then? Your head was down. The 'calico' was taking her own way.
What's the matter?"

"It's none--I mean, if you must know, I was crying."

"Oh! horrors! Why?"

"Because I've done such a dreadful thing. It was wicked. I had no right
and--and--"

"Yes, I know. You were frightened. Well, I was, too."

Molly straightened her shoulders and pretended contempt, saying:

"I didn't know as gentlemen--'thoroughbreds,' you know--western
thoroughbreds ever were fr-fri-ghtened. What--was--that?"

A curious cry had reached them and Molly finished her speech in a
whisper. The horses, also, had heard it and had thrust back their ears
in fear.

Just there the road skirted the edge of a forest and the cry had come
from its depths. They peered into the shadows but could see nothing, and
edging the pony close to Beelzebub, as Leslie's mount was named, Molly
repeated her question.

"Likely a wild cat, puma, or wolf. I don't know," he answered.

"Have you heard it before? Was it that scared you?"

"No, I was afraid something would happen to you, left behind, alone. I
fancy we're in no danger that way--" pointing forestward. "But--"

"'But'--what? If you thought about me why didn't you come back to look
for me?"

"I couldn't. Once he got in motion this beast wouldn't stop till he--ran
down like a clock."

"Pooh! You should go to a riding school! Let's go on, now, or else back.
I can't stop here with lions and panthers yelling at us! I--I--Oh! do
come on! But keep tight hold of the pony's rein. Don't get away from me
again."

"I shan't. I can't."

"Oh! come!"

"I tell you I can't. We're planted."

Molly's lip quivered, but she restrained her tears and tremulously
entreated:

"Oh, Leslie, don't! I can't stand teasing now. This isn't funny--not a
bit. Shall we go back? Or try to overtake the others?"

"We can't do either one. I tell you we're simply stuck. Settled down and
gone to housekeeping. Beelzebub has finished. He won't take another
step. Fact. We've got to make the best of it. If that pony of yours was
as big as a decent calf we might ride double and leave this wretch to
starve and think it over at his leisure. I don't see why that girl gave
me such a creature. Let's get off and sit down on that rock and wait.
Something's bound to happen--sometime--if we live long enough. The
folks'll come back this same road, course."

He jumped to the ground and held out his hand to her but, for a moment,
she would not dismount; then as he coolly left her and walked to the
rock he had pointed out, she slipped from her saddle and followed him.
But she still held fast to her bridle rein and the pony offered no
resistance to the leading, though the big brute of the profane name
remained in the middle of the road, his forefeet pointed forward, his
hind ones backward, his whole attitude one of stubborn ugliness.

Leslie had reached a point where the ludicrous side of things appeared
and he remarked:

"Looks like the potato-horses I used to make when I was a kid, with
matches stuck in for legs. I wonder how long he'll stand there!"

Molly smiled faintly. At present there were no alarming sounds from the
forest and the boy's apparent indifference to their lonely situation
relieved her own fears.

"Well, it's an 'ill wind that blows nobody good,' you know. That Beelzy
thing is the toughest I ever rode. He's bumped me up and down till I
ache all over and this rock is actually soft in comparison. Here. I'll
put some of these big ferns for a cushion for you, and, after all, we'll
meet our folks just as soon by waiting as by going on. They must come
back, you know, sure as fate. This is the only road leads to
'Roderick's', I heard them say. Hello! Why--Beelzebub, good boy!"

A whim had seized the obstinate animal to approach his late rider and
fawn about his feet, nibbling the scant grass which grew there, as the
pony was already doing. In surprise at this change both Leslie and Molly
laughed and forgot, for the time, that they were in such a desolate
place at so late an hour.

The horse's action reminded Molly of an animal her father had once owned
and she began to tell stories about him; stories that the boy matched
with marvelous ones of his own. That some of these were fiction made no
difference. Molly disdained to believe them but they served to pass the
time as well as any better ones might have done. Indeed, fear had now
left them. The rest after their hard ride was pleasant and both felt
that they were simply waiting for their friends' return.

So they sat on, as composedly as if they were safe at home, till Molly's
eyes, fixed upon the distant road, suddenly grew startled again.

Leslie's latest yarn had been of an Indian outbreak, or uprising, of
recent date and in this neighborhood. He had heard it that evening from
the men at the inn and had not paused to consider how unlikely was such
an incident so near to the city of Denver. In truth, the "boys" had
invented the whole story, just for the sake of impressing the young
"tenderfeet"--Monty, Herbert and Leslie; and it had satisfied the
jokers that these youngsters "swallered it hull."

But Leslie had a gift for dramatic recital and listening to him the
affair seemed very real to the girl. The scene and the hour suggested a
possible repetition of the occurrence; and as there now came to her ears
the sound of distant hoofbeats on the road, and presently, to her eyes
the sight of a company of horsemen approaching, she gave one terrified
cry and darted into the forest behind her.

"The Indians! The--Indians! They'll kill us!"

Moved by his own eloquence and still believing the story he had been
told, the boy followed her flight. He did not even turn to look where
she had pointed but, with a headlong rush, dashed into the wood and into
a mass of briars which threw him face downward in their midst. Also, at
that same instant both the deserted horses set up a continued neighing,
which confirmed the fears of their riders who, both now prone upon the
ground, felt that their last hour had come.





Next: The Watchers At Roderick's

Previous: A Spill By The Way



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