The Battle At The Ranch





When Wade and Santry approached the big pine, the waiting men came out

from its shadow and rode forward, with the borrowed rifles across their

saddle horns.



"All right, boys?" the rancher asked, taking Trowbridge's new rifle, a

beautiful weapon, which Lawson handed to him.



"All right, sir," answered Tim Sullivan, adding the "sir" in extenuation

of his befuddled condition the night before, while each man gave Santry

a silent hand-shake to welcome him home.



Grimly, silently, then, save for the dashing of their horses' hoofs

against the loose stones, and an occasional muttered imprecation as a

rider lurched in his saddle, the seven men rode rapidly toward the

mountains. In numbers, their party was about evenly matched with the

enemy, and Wade meant that the advantage of surprise, if possible,

should rest with him in order to offset such advantage as Moran might

find in the shelter of the house. But, however that might be, each man

realized that the die had been cast and that the fight, once begun,

would go to a finish.



"I only hope," Santry remarked, as a steep grade forced them to lessen

their speed, "I can get my two hands on that cussed tin-horn, Moran.

Him and me has a misunderstandin' to settle, for sure."



"You leave him to me, Bill." Wade spoke vindictively. "He's my meat."



"Well, since you ask it, I'll try, boy. But there's goin' to be some

fightin' sure as taxes, and when I get to fightin', I'm liable to go

plumb, hog wild. Say, I hope you don't get into no trouble over this

here jail business o' mine. That 'ud make me feel bad, Gordon."



"We'll not worry about that now, Bill."



"That's right. Don't worry till you have to, and then shoot instead.

That's been my motto all my born days, and it ain't such durn bad

philosophy at that. I wonder"--the old man chuckled to himself--"I

wonder if the Sheruff et up most of that there gag before Bat let him

loose?"



Wade laughed out loud, and as though in response, an owl hooted

somewhere in the timber to their right.



"There's a durned old hoot owl," growled Santry. "I never like to hear

them things--they most always mean bad luck."



He rode to the head of the little column, and the rest of the way to the

ranch was passed in ominous silence. When they finally arrived at the

edge of the clearing and cautiously dismounted, everything seemed from

the exterior, at least, just as it should be. The night being far gone,

the lights were out, and there was no sign of life about the place. Wade

wondered if the posse had gone.



"There ain't no use in speculatin'," declared Santry. "They may be

asleep, and they may be layin' for us there in the dark. This will take

a rise out of 'em anyhow."



At sight of the old fellow, pistol in hand, Wade called to him to wait,

but as he spoke Santry fired two quick shots into the air.



There was an immediate commotion in the ranch house. A man inside was

heard to curse loudly, while another showed his face for an instant

where the moonlight fell across a window. He hastily ducked out of

sight, however, when a rifle bullet splintered the glass just above his

head. Presently a gun cracked inside the house and a splash on a rock

behind the attackers told them where the shot had struck.



"Whoop-e-e-e-e!" Santry yelled, discharging the four remaining shots in

his revolver at the window. "We've got 'em guessin'. They don't know how

many we are."



"They were probably asleep," said Wade a bit sharply. "We might have

sneaked in and captured the whole crowd without firing a shot. That's

what I meant to do before you cut loose."



Santry shook his grizzled head as he loaded his revolver.



"Well, now, that would have been just a mite risky, boy. The way things

stand we've still got the advantage, an'...." He broke off to take a

snapshot at a man who showed himself at the window for an instant in an

effort to get a glimpse of the attacking force. "One!" muttered the old

plainsman to himself.



By this time Wade had thrown himself down on his stomach behind a

bowlder to Santry's left and was shooting methodically at the door of

the house, directly in front of him. He knew that door. It was built of

inch lumber and was so located that a bullet, after passing through it,

would rake the interior of the cabin from end to end. The only way the

inmates could keep out of the line of his fire was by hugging the walls

on either side, where they would be partially exposed to the leaden hail

which Santry and the punchers were directing at the windows.



There was a grim, baleful look on the young man's usually pleasant face,

and his eyes held a pitiless gleam. He was shooting straight, shooting

to kill, and taking a fierce delight in the act. The blood lust was upon

him, that primal, instinctive desire for combat in a righteous cause

that lies hidden at the very bottom of every strong man's nature. And

there came to his mind no possible question of the righteous nature of

his cause. He was fighting to regain possession of his own home from the

marauders who had invaded it. His enemies had crowded him to the wall,

and now they were paying the penalty. Wade worked the lever of his

Winchester as though he had no other business in life. A streak of

yellow clay mingled with a bloody trickle from a bullet scratch on his

cheek gave his set features a fairly ferocious expression.



Santry, glancing toward him, chuckled again, but without mirth. "The

boy's woke up at last," he muttered to himself. "They've drove him to

it, durn 'em. I knew almighty well that this law an' order stunt

couldn't last forever. Wow!"



The latter exclamation was caused by a bullet which ricocheted from a

rock near his head, driving a quantity of fine particles into his face.



"Whoop-e-e-e-e!" he howled a moment later. "We got 'em goin'. It's a

cinch they can't stand this pace for more'n a week."



Indeed, it was a marvel that the defenders kept on fighting as long as

they did. Already the door, beneath Wade's machine-like shooting, had

been completely riddled; the windows were almost bare of glass; and

great splinters of wood had been torn from the log walls by the heavy

rifle bullets on their way through to the interior. Soon the door sagged

and crashed inward, and into the gaping hole thus made Wade continued to

empty his rifle.



At last, the fire of those within slackened and temporarily ceased. Did

this mean surrender? Wade asked himself and ordered his men to stop

shooting and await developments. For some moments all was still, and the

advisability of rushing the house was being discussed when all at once

the fire of the defenders began again. This time, however, there was

something very odd about it. There was a loud banging of exploding

cartridges, but only a few shots whistled around the heads of the

cattlemen. Nevertheless, Wade told his men to resume shooting, and once

more settled down to his own task.



"What'n hell they tryin' to do?" Santry demanded. "Sounds like a Fourth

o' July barbecue to me."



"I don't know," Wade answered, charging the magazine of his rifle, "but

whatever it is they'll have to stop mighty soon."



Then gradually, but none the less certainly, the fire from within

slackened until all was still. This seemed more like a visitation of

death, and again Wade ordered his men to stop shooting. They obeyed

orders and lay still, keenly watching the house.



"Do you surrender?" Wade shouted; but there was no reply.



Santry sprang to his feet.



"By the great horned toad!" he cried. "I'm a-goin' in there! Anybody

that wants to come along is welcome."



Not a man in the party would be dared in that way, so, taking advantage

of such cover as offered, they advanced upon the cabin, stealthily at

first and then more rapidly, as they met with no resistance--no sign

whatever of life. A final rush carried them through the doorway into the

house, where they expected to find a shambles.



Wade struck a light, and faced about with a start as a low groan came

from a corner of the back room. A man lay at full length on the floor,

tied hand and foot, and gagged. It was Ed Nelson, one of the Double

Arrow hands who had been surprised and captured by the posse, and a

little farther away in the shadow against the wall his two companions

lay in a like condition. With his knife Wade was cutting them loose,

and glancing about in a puzzled search for the wounded men he expected

to find in the house, when Santry shouted something from the kitchen.



"What is it, Bill?" the ranch owner demanded.



Santry tramped back into the room, laughing in a shamefaced sort of way.



"They done us, Gordon!" he burst out. "By the great horned toad, they

done us! They chucked a bunch of shells into the hot cook-stove, an'

sneaked out the side door while we was shootin' into the front room. By

cracky, that beats...."



"That's what they did," spoke up Nelson, as well as his cramped tongue

would permit, being now freed of the gag. "They gagged us first, so's we

couldn't sing out; then they filled up the stove an' beat it."



What had promised to be a tragedy had proved a fiasco, and Wade smiled a

little foolishly.



"The joke's on us, I guess, boys," he admitted. "But we've got the ranch

back, at any rate. How are you feeling, Ed, pretty stiff and sore?"



"My Gawd, yes--awful!"



"Me, too," declared Tom Parrish, the second of the victims; and the

third man swore roundly that he would not regain the full use of his

legs before Christmas.



"Well, you're lucky at that," was Santry's dry comment. "All that saved

you from gettin' shot up some in the fight was layin' low down in that

corner where you was." He let his eyes travel around the littered,

blood-spattered room. "From the looks o' this shebang we musta stung

some of 'em pretty deep; but nobody was killed, I reckon. I hope Moran

was the worst hurt, durn him!"



"He'll keep," Wade said grimly. "We've not done with him yet, Bill.

We've only just begun."





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