Chapter XXV. Dick Ranney's Scheme
 

Dick Ranney--for the first time we give the name of the highwayman-- had no intention of going away without his revolver. It had been his constant companion for years, and had served him well during his connection with the famous band of Jesse James. Now, his leader dead, he was preying upon the community on his own account. So daring and so full of resources was he that he had never been arrested but once, and then managed to escape from the cabin in which he was temporarily confined.

The weapon he was so anxious to recover had been given him by his old commander, and for this reason, and also because the revolver was a very handsome and valuable one, he was willing to expose himself to the risk of capture in order to recover it.

The opposition he met with from a "beardless boy"--as he styled Walter--irritated and surprised him. He was fifty pounds heavier than Walter, and he had expected that a mere boy would give in almost immediately. But he saw that he had misjudged the lad. He was little more than a boy in years and appearance, but he evidently had a man's courage and spirit. Ranney would have secured another revolver if he had not felt so certain of recovering his own. After his last failure he began to consider what course to adopt.

It was easy to find out the professor's route. He knew that he was to stay a night at Stilwell, and to Stilwell he went. He did not venture into the village until nightfall, and then, for reasons easy to divine, he abstained from visiting the hotel.

Looking about for a confederate, his attention was drawn to a boy of sixteen who was sawing wood in front of a humble cottage half a mile from the village.

"I see you know how to work," said Dick Ranney, affably, as he leaned carelessly against the fence.

"I know how, but I don't like it," answered the boy, pausing in his task.

"I don't blame you. I don't like that kind of work myself."

"I guess you don't have to do it now," answered the boy, glancing at the neat and expensive attire of his new acquaintance.

"Well, no; I can do better."

"Are you in business?"

"Yes," answered Ranney, vaguely. "I am traveling for a house in New York."

"I should like that."

"Give me your name. I may be able to give you a place some day."

"My name is Oren Trott."

Dick Ranney took out a note-book and put the name down, greatly to the boy's satisfaction.

"By the way," went on Ranney, "do you want to earn half a dollar?"

"Yes," answered Oren, with alacrity.

"Perhaps I can put you in the way of doing so. Do you know the hotel people?"

"Yes, sir. I worked there for a short time."

"All the better. Then you know about the house, the location of rooms, etc.?"

"Yes, sir."

"There are two parties staying there in whom I am interested. One is Professor Robinson."

"Yes, I know--the man that sells bottles of balm."

"The same."

"I saw him come into town with his wagon."

"Well, I want to find what room he will occupy to-night. The fact is," he continued, as he noted Oren's look of surprise, "the man owes me quite a sum of money and is trying to evade payment."

"He doesn't look like that kind of man," said Oren, thoughtfully.

"My boy, you are young and are hardly qualified to judge of a man by his appearance. The man looks honest, I admit, but he's slippery. And, by the way, did you notice a young fellow in the wagon with him?"

"Yes, sir; he isn't much larger than I am."

"Exactly so. Well, I want to find out what room he occupies, also."

"Yes, sir," answered Oren, looking a little surprised.

"You see," explained Dick Ranney, "I want to make the professor a call, and I can perhaps tell from the outside whether he is in or not. He will avoid meeting me if he can. Now, do you think you can find out for me what I require?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then go at once."

"Shall I find you here when I get back?" asked Oren, cautiously.

"Yes."

"I wouldn't like to take all that trouble for nothing."

"You won't. Here is a quarter in advance, and I will give you the fifty cents besides if you find out what I wish."

"Good for you! You're a gentleman!" said Oren, with an expression of satisfaction on his honest country face.

Two hours later Walter and the cattle dealer returned from a walk they had taken together. Walter found his new acquaintance, though not an educated man, an agreeable companion, and by no means deficient in shrewdness, though he had allowed himself to be robbed by Dick Ranney.

They went up to the desk for their keys.

"Will you two gentlemen do me a favor?" asked the clerk.

"What is it?" asked the cattle dealer.

"A gentleman and lady have just arrived and want to stay here to- night, but the number of our rooms is limited and we are full. Now, if you, sir, will go into Mr. Sherwood's room--there are two beds there-- we shall be able to give the party yours."

"I have no objection if he hasn't," said the cattle dealer.

"I have none whatever," said Walter, cheerfully.

"Then we can fix it. I am sure I am very much obliged to you both. By the way, Mr. Sherwood, there was a boy here a little while since who was anxious to find out what room you occupied, also what room was Professor Robinson's."

"A boy?" repeated Walter, puzzled.

"Yes, a village boy--Oren Trott."

"I don't know any such boy."

"He is a good, industrious lad."

"That may all be, but what does he want to know about my room for?"

"That's the question I put to him. I found him very close-mouthed at first, but finally he admitted that he was employed by some man--a stranger in the village--to find out."

Walter and the cattle dealer exchanged glances. The same thought had come to each.

"Did he describe the man?"

"No; it seems he did not take much notice of him."

"Was that all the boy wanted to know?"

"Yes."

"He didn't say what the man's object was in seeking this information?"

"No. Probably he didn't know."

Walter and his new friend, whom we will call Manning, went upstairs.

"What does it all mean, Mr. Manning?" asked Walter.

"It probably means that our old friend proposes to make a call upon you during the night."

"Do you really think so?" asked Walter, naturally startled at the suggestion.

"Yes. You still have his revolver, you know."

"I think he will find me ready for him," said Walter, resolutely.

"He will find us ready, you mean," corrected Manning. "You know I am going to be your roommate."

"I am glad of that, under the circumstances."

"So am I. I should like to recover the money the fellow robbed me of. I should like to know his name."

"I can tell you that. I was examining the revolver this afternoon, when I saw a name engraved upon it in very small letters."

"What name?"

"R. Ranney."

"Then," said Manning, in excitement, "he is the famous Dick Ranney, formerly with Jesse James."

"I never heard of him."

"He is well known in this Western country. Why, there is a reward of a thousand dollars offered for his apprehension."

"I should like to earn that money," said Walter.

"You shall; and this very night, if I can bring it about."

"Half of the reward should be yours."

"I am rich enough without It. As to the money the fellow robbed me of, I shall try to recover that, though the loss won't in the least embarrass me."

"How do you think Ranney will try to get into the room?"

"Through the window. The casements are loose, and nothing could be easier."

Walter went to the window and found that there was no way of fastening it.

"I think we could fasten it with a knife."

"I don't want it fastened," said Manning.

"Why not?"

"I want Mr. Ranney to get into the room. Once in, we must secure him. If we are smart, our enterprising visitor will find himself in a trap."