Chapter XXXIV. A Terrible Ordeal

At the summit of the hill Walter's captors came to a halt.

"Young man," said the leader sternly, "your hours are numbered. Have you anything to say?"

"I have a good deal to say," answered Walter, finding his voice and speaking indignantly. "Even if I were guilty, which I am not, you have no right to condemn me to death untried."

One of the masked men, who had hitherto stood in the background, came forward, and in clear, ringing accents spoke:

"The lad says right. He has not been proved guilty, and I for one believe him innocent."

"I thank God," said Walter, "that there is one among you whose heart is not wholly hardened. I stand here a boy--barely eighteen years old. Is there no one among you who has a son of my age?"

"The boy is right," said another in a deep voice. "Men, we are acting like cowards and brutes."

"So say I!" a third man broke in, and he ranged himself beside the other two.

"This is all folly!" exclaimed the leader angrily. "You men are milksops and chicken-hearted." Walter's face flamed.

"Will you allow this?" he exclaimed, as the leader seized him by the collar and drew him to a tree.

"I won't!" said the first man to pronounce in his favor. "Seth Pendleton, let go your hold!"

"Look out!" cried Pendleton fiercely, "or you may swing, too!"

"You hear what he says," said Walter's friend. "Why are you so hard on the boy?"

"Why am I so hard on horse thieves? I'll tell you. Ten years ago I had a horse that was as dear to me as a brother. One morning I found the stable door open and the horse gone. I followed him, but I never recovered him."

"Who stole him?"

"A man named Dick Ranney, who has since become a noted highwayman."

This was astonishing news to Walter.

"Do you know where Dick Ranney is now?" he asked.

"I heard that he had been captured."

"I am the one who captured him, and for this I received a reward of a thousand dollars!" answered Walter.