Part Four
Chapter III
 

One day, not over a week later, Bob working in the woods, noticed California John picking his way through the new slashing. This was a difficult matter, for the fresh-peeled logs and the debris of the tops afforded few openings for the passage of a horse. The old man made it, however, and finally emerged on solid ground, much in the fashion of one climbing a bank after an uncertain ford. He caught sight of Bob.

"You fellows can change the face of the country beyant all belief," announced the old man, pushing back his hat. "You're worse than snow that way. I ought to know this country pretty well, but when I get down into one of your pesky slashings, I'm lost for a way out!"

Bob laughed, and exchanged a few commonplace remarks.

"If you can get off, you better come over our way," said California John, as he gathered up his reins. "We're holding ranger examinations--something new. You got to tell what you know these days before you can work for Uncle Sam."

"What do you have to know?" asked Bob.

"Come over and find out."

Bob reflected.

"I believe I will," he decided. "There's nothing to keep me here."

Accordingly, early next morning he rode over to the Upper Camp. Outside, near the creek, he came upon the deserted evidences of a gathering of men. Bed rolls lay scattered under the trees, saddles had been thrown over fallen trunks, bags of provisions hung from saplings, cooking utensils flanked the smouldering remains of a fire which was, however, surrounded by a scraped circle of earth after the careful fashion of the mountains. Bob's eye, by now practised in the refinements of such matters, ran over the various accoutrements thus spread abroad. He estimated the number of their owners at about a score. The bedroll of the cowman, the "turkey" of the lumber jack, the quilts of the mountaineer, were all in evidence; as well as bedding plainly makeshift in character, belonging to those who must have come from a distance. A half-dozen horses dozed in an improvised fence-corner corral. As many more were tied to trees. Saddles, buckboards, two-wheeled carts, and even one top buggy represented the means of transportation.

Bob rode on through the gate to headquarters.. This he found deserted, except for Amy Thorne. She was engaged in wiping the breakfast dishes, and she excitedly waved a towel at the young man as he rode up.

"A godsend!" she cried. "I'm just dancing with impatience! They've been gone five minutes! Come help me finish!"

Bob fastened his horse, rolled back his sleeves, and took hold with a will.

"Where's your examining board, and your candidates?" he inquired. "I thought I was going to see an examination."

"Up the Meadow Trail," panted the girl. "Don't stop to talk. Hurry!"

They hurried, to such good purpose, that shortly they were clambering, rather breathless, up the steeps of the Meadow Trail. This led to a flat, upper shelf or bench in which, as the name implied, was situated a small meadow. At the upper end were grouped twenty-five men, closely gathered about some object.

Amy and Bob plunged into the dew-heavy grasses. The men proved to be watching Thorne, who was engaged in tacking a small target on the stub of a dead sugar pine. This accomplished, he led the way back some seventy-five or eighty paces.

"Three shots each," said he, consulting his note-book. "Off-hand. Hicks!"

The man so named stepped forward to the designated mark, sighted his piece carefully, and fired.

"Do I get each shot called?" he inquired; but Thorne shook his head.

"You ought to know where your guns shoot," said he.

After the third shot, the whole group went forward to examine the target. Thorne marked the results in his note-book, and called upon the next contestant.

While the shooting went on, Bob had leisure to examine the men. They numbered, as he had guessed, about twenty. Three were plainly from the towns, for they wore thin shoes, white shirts, and clothes of a sort ill adapted to out-of-door work in the mountains. Two others, while more appropriately dressed in khakis and high boots, were as evidently foreign to the hills. Bob guessed them recent college graduates, perhaps even of some one of the forestry schools. In this he was correct. The rest were professional out-of-door men. Bob recognized two of his own woods-crew--good men they were, too. He nodded to them. A half-dozen lithe, slender youths, handsome and browned, drew apart by themselves. He remembered having noticed one of them as a particularly daring rider after Pollock's cattle the fall before; and guessed his companions to be of the same breed. Among the remainder, two picturesque, lean, slow and quizzical prospectors attracted his particular attention.

Most of these men were well practised in the use of the rifle, but evidently not to exhibiting their skill in company. What seemed to Bob a rather exaggerated earnestness oppressed them. The shooting, with two exceptions, was not good. Several, whom Bob strongly suspected had many a time brought down their deer on the run, even missed the target entirely! It was to be remarked that each contestant, though he might turn red beneath his tan, took the announcement of the result in silence.

The two notable exceptions referred to were strangely contrasted. The elder was one of the prospectors. He was armed with an ancient 45-70 Winchester, worn smooth and shiny by long carrying in a saddle holster. This arm was fitted with buckhorn sights of the old mountain type. When it exploded, its black powder blew forth a stunning detonation and volume of smoke. Nevertheless, of the three bullets, two were within the tiny black Thorne had seen fit to mark as bullseye, and the other clipped close to its edge. A murmur of admiration went up from the bystanders. Even eliminating the unaccountable nervousness that had thrown so many shots wild, it seemed improbable that any of the other contestants felt themselves qualified to equal this score.

"Good shooting," whispered Bob to Amy. "I doubt if I could make out that bullseye through sights."

The other exception, whose turn came somewhat later, was one of the Easterners mentioned as a graduate of the forestry school. This young man, not over twenty-two years of age, was an attractive youngster, with refined features, and engaging dark-blue eyes. His arm was the then latest model, a 33-calibre high power, fitted with aperture sights. This he manipulated with great care, adjusting it again and again; and fired with such deliberation that some of the spectators moved impatiently. Nevertheless, the target, on examination, showed that he had duplicated the prospector's score. To be sure, the worst shot had not cut quite as close to the bull as had that of the older man, but on the other hand, those in the black were slightly nearer the centre. It was generally adjudged a good tie.

"Well, youngster!" cried the prospector, heartily, "we're the cocks of the walk! If you can handle the other weep'n as well, I'll give you my hand for a good shot."

The young man smiled shyly, but said nothing.

The distance was now shortened to something under twenty paces, and a new target substituted for the old. The black in this was fully six inches in diameter.

"Five shots with six-shooter," announced Thorne briefly.

"A man should hit a dollar twice in five at that distance," muttered the prospector. Thorne caught the remark.

"You hit that five out of five, and I'll forgive you," said he curtly. "Hicks, you begin."

The contest went forward with varying success. Not over half of the men were practised with the smaller arm. Some very wild work was done. On the other hand, eight or ten performed very creditably, placing their bullets in or near the black. Indeed, two succeeded in hitting the bullseye four times out of five. Every man took the utmost pains with every shot.

"Now, Ware," said Thorne, at last, "step up. You've got to make good that five out of five to win."

The prospector stood forward, at the same time producing from an open holster blackened by time one of the long-barrelled single-action Colt's 45's, so universally in use on the frontier. He glanced carelessly toward the mark, grinned back at the crowd, turned, and instantly began firing. He shot the five shots without appreciable sighting before each, as fast as his thumb could pull back the long-shanked hammer. The muzzle of the weapon rose and fell with a regularity positively mechanical, and the five shots had been delivered in half that number of seconds.

"There's your five," said he, carelessly dropping his gun back into its holster.

The five bullets were found to be scattered within the six-inch black.

The concourse withdrew to give space for the next contestant. Silence fell as the man was taking his aim. Amy touched Bob's arm. He looked down. Her eyes were shining, and her cheeks red with excitement.

"Doesn't it remind you of anything?" she whispered eagerly.

"What?" he asked, not guessing her meaning.

"This: all of it!" she waved her hand abroad at the fair oval meadow with its fringe of tall trees and the blue sky above it; at the close-gathered knot of spectators, and the single contestant advanced before them. He shook his head. "Wait," she breathed, laying her fingers across her lips.

The contest wore along until it again came the turn of the younger man. He stepped to the front, unbuckled a covered holster of the sort never carried in the West, and produced one of those beautifully balanced, beautifully finished revolvers known as the Officer's Model. Taking the firm yet easy position of the practised target shot, he sighted with great deliberation, firing only when he considered his aim assured. Indeed, once he lowered his weapon until a puff of wind had passed. The five shots were found to be not only within the black, but grouped inside a three-inch diameter.

"'A Hubert! A Hubert!'" breathed the girl in Bob's ear. "In the clout!"

"I thought his name was Elliott," said Bob. "Is it Hubert?"

The girl eyed him reproachfully, but said nothing.

"You're a good shot, youngster!" cried Ware, in the heartiest congratulation; "but if Mr. Thorne don't mind, I'd like to shoot off this tie. Down in our country we don't shoot quite that way, or at that kind of a mark. Will you take a try my way?"

Amy leaned again toward Bob, her face aflame.

"'And now,'" she shot at him, "'I will crave your Grace's permission to plant such a mark as is used in the north country; and welcome every brave yeoman who shall try a shot at it--'Don't dare tell me you don't remember!"

"'A man can but do his best,'" Bob took up the tale. "Of course, I remember; you're right."

"All right," Thorne was agreeing, "but make it short. We've got a lot to do."

Ware selected another target--one intended for the six-shooters--that had not been used. This he tacked up in place of the one already disfigured by many shots. Then he paced off twelve yards.

"That looks easier than the other," Thorne commented.

"Mebbe," agreed Ware, non-committally, "but you may change your mind. As for that sort of monkey-work," he indicated the discarded target, "down our way we'd as soon shoot at a barn."

The girl softly clapped her hands.

"'For his own part,'" she quoted in a breath, and so rapidly that the words fairly tumbled over one another, "'in the land where he was bred, men would as soon take for their mark King Arthur's round table, which held sixty knights around it. A child of seven might hit yonder target with a headless shaft.' Oh, this is perfect."

"Now," said Ware to young Elliott, "if you'll hit that mark in my fashion of shooting, you're all right."

Bob turned to the girl, his eyes dancing with delight.

"'--he that hits yon mark at I-forget-how-many yards,'" he declaimed, "'I will call him an archer fit to bear bow before a king'--or something to that effect; I'm afraid I'm not letter perfect."

He laughed amusedly, and the girl laughed with him. "Just the same, I'm glad you remember," she told him.

Ware had by now taken his place at the new mark he had established.

"Fifteen shots," he announced. At the word his hand dropped to the butt of his gun, his right shoulder hunched forward, and with one lightning smooth motion the weapon glided from the holster. Hardly had it left the leather when it was exploded. The hammer had been cocked during the upward flip of the muzzle. The first discharge was followed immediately by the five others in a succession so rapid that Bob believed the man had substituted a self-cocking arm until he caught the rapid play of the marksman's thumb. The weapon was at no time raised above the level of the man's waist.

"Hold on!" commanded Ware, as the bystanders started forward to examine the result of the shots. "Let's finish the string first."

He had been deliberately pushing out the exploded cartridges one by one. Now he as deliberately reloaded. Taking a position somewhat to the left of the target, he folded his arms so that the revolver lay across his breast with its muzzle resting over his left elbow. Then he strode rapidly but evenly across the face of the target, discharging the five bullets as he walked.

Again he reloaded. This time he stood with the revolver hanging in his right hand gazing intently for some moments at the target, measuring carefully with his eye its direction and height. He turned his back; and, flipping his gun over his left shoulder, fired without looking back.

"The first ten ought to be in the black," announced Ware, "The last five ought to be somewheres on the paper. A fellow can't expect more than to generally wing a man over his shoulder."

But on examination the black proved to hold but eight bullet holes. The other seven, however, all showed on the paper.

"Comes of not wiping out the dirt once in a while when you're shooting black powder," said Ware philosophically.

The crowd gazed upon him with admiration.

"That's a remarkable group of shots to be literally thrown out at that speed," muttered Thorne to Bob. "Why, you could cover them with your hat! Well, young man," he addressed Elliott, "step up!"

But Elliott shook his head.

"Couldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole," said he pleasantly. "Mr. Ware has given me a new idea of what can be done with a revolver. His work is especially good with that heavily charged arm. I wish he would give us a little exhibition of how close he can shoot with my gun. It's supposed to be a more accurate weapon."

"No, thank you," spoke up Ware. "I couldn't hit a flock of feather pillers with your gun. You see, I shoot by throw, and I'm used to the balance of my gun."

Thorne finished making some notes.

"All right, boys," he said, snapping shut his book. "We'll go down to headquarters next."