Chapter XVII. What Happened at the Ranch.
 

It was after midnight when Mr. Howitt was rudely awakened. The bright moon shining through the windows lit up the interior of the cabin and he easily recognized Young Matt standing by the bed, with Pete, who was sleeping at the ranch that night, near by.

"Why, Matt, what is the matter?" exclaimed the shepherd, sitting up. He could not see that the big fellow's clothing was torn, that his hat was gone, and that he was dripping with perspiration; but he could hear his labored breathing. Strong as he was, the young giant was nearly exhausted by the strain of his race over the mountains.

"Get up quick, Dad; I'll tell you while you're puttin' on your clothes," the woodsman answered; and while the shepherd dressed, he told him in a few words, finishing with, "Call Brave inside, and get your gun, with all the shells you can find. Don't show a light for a minute. They'll be here any time now, and it'll be a good bit yet before Sammy can get home." He began fastening the front door.

The peaceful minded scholar could not grasp the meaning of the message; it was to him an impossible thought; "You must be mistaken, Grant," he said. "Surely you are excited and unduly alarmed. Wash Gibbs has no reason to attack me."

Young Matt replied gruffly, "I ain't makin' no mistake in the woods, Dad. You ain't in the city now, and there ain't no one can hear you holler. Don't think I am scared neither, if that's what you mean. But there's ten of them in that bunch, and they're bad ones. You'd better call Brave, sir. He'll be some help when it comes to the rush."

But the other persisted, "You must be mistaken, lad. Why should any one wish to harm me? Those men are only out fox hunting, or something like that. If they should be coming here, it is all a mistake; I can easily explain."

"Explain, hell!" ejaculated the mountaineer. "I ask your pardon, Dad; but you don't know, not being raised in these woods like me. Old man Lewis hadn't done nothing neither, and he explained, too; only he never got through explainin'. They ain't got no reason. They're drunk. You've never seen Wash Gibbs drunk, and to-night he's got his whole gang with him. I don't know why he's comin' after you, but, from what you told me 'bout his stoppin' here that evenin', and what I've heard lately, I can guess. I know what he'll do when he gets here, if we don't stop him. It'll be all the same to you whether he's right or wrong."

Brave came trotting into the cabin through the rear door, and lay down in his corner by the fireplace. "That's mighty funny," said Young Matt. Then, as he glanced quickly around, "Where's Pete?"

The boy had slipped away while the two men were talking. Stepping outside they called several times; but, save the "Wh-w-h-o--w-h-o- o-o" of an owl in a big tree near the corral, there was no answer.

"The boy's alright, anyway," said the young man; "nothin' in the woods ever hurts Pete. He's safer there than he would be here, and I'm glad he's gone."

The shepherd did not reply. He seemed not to hear, but stood as though fascinated by the scene. He still could not grasp the truth of the situation, but the beauty of the hour moved him deeply. "What a marvelous, what a wonderful sight!" he said at last in a low tone. "I do not wonder the boy loves to roam the hills a night like this. Look, Grant! See how soft the moonlight falls on that patch of grass this side of the old tree yonder, and how black the shadow is under that bush, like the mouth of a cave, a witch's cave. I am sure there are ghosts and goblins in there, with fairies and gnomes, and perhaps a dragon or two. And see, lad, how the great hills rise into the sky. How grand, how beautiful the world is! It is good to live, Matt, though life be sometimes hard, still--still it is good to live."

At the old scholar's words and manner, the mountaineer, too, forgot for a moment the thing that had brought him there, and a look of awe and wonder came over his rugged features, as the shepherd, with his face turned upward and his deep voice full of emotion, repeated, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge."

The owl left his place in the old tree and flew across the moonlit clearing into the deeper gloom of the woods. Inside the cabin the dog barked, and through the still night, from down the valley, where the ranch trail crosses the creek, came the rattle of horses' feet on the rocky floor of the little stream, and the faint sound of voices. Young Matt started, and again the man of the wilderness was master of the situation. "They're comin', Dad. We ain't got no time to lose."

Re-entering the cabin, Mr. Howitt quieted the dog, while his companion fastened the rear door, and, in the silence, while they waited, a cricket under the corner of the house sang his plaintive song. The sound of voices grew louder as the horses drew nearer. Brave growled and would have barked again, but was quieted by the shepherd, who crouched at his side, with one hand on the dog's neck.

The older man smiled to himself. It all seemed to him so like a child's game. He had watched the mountaineer's preparation with amused interest, and had followed the young woodsman's directions, even to the loaded shotgun in his hand, as one would humor a boy in his play. The scholar's mind, trained to consider the problems of civilization, and to recognize the dangers of the city, refused to entertain seriously the thought that there, in the peaceful woods, in the dead of night, a company of ruffians was seeking to do him harm.

The voices had ceased, and the listeners heard only the sound of the horses' feet, as the party passed the ruined cabin under the bluff. A moment or two later the riders stopped in front of the ranch house. Brave growled again, but was silenced by the hand on his neck.

Young Matt was at the window. "I see them," he whispered. "They're gettin' off their horses, and tyin' them to the corral fence." The smile on the shepherd's face vanished, and he experienced a queer sensation; it was as though something gripped his heart.

The other continued his whispered report; "They're bunchin' up now under the old tree, talkin' things over. Don't know what to make of the dog not bein' around, I reckon. Now they're takin' a drink. It takes a lot of whiskey to help ten men jump onto one old man, and him a stranger in the Woods. Now Wash is sendin' two of them around to the back, so you can't slip out into the brush. Sh--h-- h, here comes a couple more to try the front door." He slipped quietly across the room to the shepherd's side. The visitors came softly up to the front door, and tried it gently. A moment later the rear door was tried in the same way.

"Let Brave speak to them," whispered Young Matt; and the dog, feeling the restraining hand removed, barked fiercely.

Mr. Howitt, following his companion's whispered instructions, spoke aloud, "What's the matter, Brave?"

A bold knock at the front door caused the dog to redouble his efforts, until his master commanded him to be still. "Who is there?" called the shepherd.

"Young Matt's took powerful bad," answered a voice; "an' they want you t' come up t' th' house, an' doctor him." A drunken laugh came from the old tree, followed by a smothered oath.

The giant at Mr. Howitt's side growled under his breath, "Oh, I'm sick, am I? There's them that'll be a heap sicker before mornin'. Keep on a talkin', Dad. We've got to make all the time we can, so's Jim can get here."

The shepherd called again, "I do not recognize your voice. You must tell me who you are."

Outside there was a short consultation, followed by a still louder knock; "Open up. Why don't you open up an' see who we are?" while from under the tree came a call, "Quit your foolin' an' bring him out o' there, you fellers." This command was followed by a still more vigorous hammering at the door, and the threats, "Open up ol' man. Open up, or we'll sure bust her in."

Mr. Howitt whispered to his companion, "Let me open the door and talk to them, Grant. Surely they will listen to reason."

But the woodsman returned, "Talk to a nest of rattlers! Jim Lane's the only man that can talk to them now. We've got to stand them off as long as we can." As he spoke he raised his revolver, and was about to fire a shot through the door, when a slight noise at one side of the room attracted his attention. He turned just in time to catch a glimpse of a face as it was withdrawn from one of the little windows. The noise at the door ceased suddenly, and they heard the two men running to join the group under the tree.

"They've found you ain't alone," whispered the big fellow, springing to the window again. And, as a wild drunken yell came from the visitors, he added, "Seems like they're some excited about it, too. They're holdin' a regular pow-wow. What do you reckon they're thinkin'? Hope they'll keep it up 'till Jim--Sh--h--h Here comes another. It's that ornery Jim Bowles from the mouth of Indian Creek."

The man approached the cabin, but stopped some distance away and called, "Hello, ol' man!"

"Well, what do you want?" answered Mr. Howitt.

"Who's that there feller you got with you?"

"A friend."

"Yes! We all 'lowed hit war a friend, an' we all want t' see him powerful bad. Can't he come out an' play with us, Mister?" Another laugh came from the group under the tree.

Young Matt whispered, "Keep him a talkin', Dad;" and Mr. Howitt called, "He doesn't feel like playing to-night. Come back to- morrow."

At this the spokesman dropped his bantering tone, "Look a here, ol' man. We'uns ain't got no time t' be a foolin' here. We know who that feller is, an' we're a goin' t' have him. He's been a sneakin' 'round this here neighborhood long enough. As fer you, Mister, we 'low your health'll be some better back where you come from; an' we aim t' hep you leave this neck o' th' woods right sudden. Open up, now, an' turn that there feller over t' us; an' we'll let you off easy like. If you don't, we'll bust in th' door, an' make you both dance t' th' same tune. There won't be ary thing under you t' dance on, nuther."

The old shepherd was replying kindly, when his speech was interrupted by a pistol shot, and a command from the leader, at which the entire gang charged toward the cabin, firing as they came, and making the little valley hideous with their drunken oaths and yells.

From his window, Young Matt coolly emptied his revolver, but even as the crowd faltered, there came from their leader another volley of oaths. "Go on, go on," yelled Wash. "Their guns are empty, now. Fetch 'em out 'fore they can load again." With an answering yell, the others responded. Carrying a small log they made for the cabin at full speed. One crashing blow--the door flew from its hinges, and the opening was filled with the drunken, sweating, swearing crew. The same instant, Young Matt dropped his useless revolver, and, springing forward, met them on the threshold. The old shepherd--who had not fired a shot--could scarcely believe his eyes, as he saw the giant catch the nearest man by the shoulder and waist, and, lifting him high above his head, fling him with terrific force full into the faces of his bewildered companions.

Those who were not knocked down by the strange weapon scattered in every direction, crouching low. For a moment the big fellow was master of the situation, and, standing alone in the doorway, in the full light of the moon, was easily recognized.

"Hell, boys! Hit's Young Matt hisself!" yelled the one who had raised a laugh, by saying that Young Matt was sick and the shepherd was wanted to doctor.

"Yes! It's me, Bill Simpson. I'm sure ailin' to-night. I need somebody to go for a doctor powerful bad," returned the young giant.

"We never knowed it war you," whined the other carefully lengthening the distance between the big man on the doorstep and himself.

"No, I reckon not. You all played to find an old man alone, and do for him like you've done for others. A fine lot you are, ten to one, and him not knowin' the woods."

While he was speaking, the men slowly retreated, to gather about their big leader under the tree, two of them being assisted by their companions, and one other limping painfully. Young Matt raised his voice, "I know you, Wash Gibbs, and I know this here is your dirty work. You've been a braggin' what you'd do when you met up with me. I'm here now. Why don't you come up like a man? Come out here into the light and let's you and me settle this thing right now. You all--" crack! A jet of flame leaped out of the shadow, and the speaker dropped like a log.

With a cry the shepherd ran to the side of his friend; but in a moment the crowd had again reached the cabin, and the old man was dragged from his fallen companion. With all his strength, Mr. Howitt struggled with his captors, begging them to let him go to the boy. But his hands were bound tightly behind his back, and when he still plead with those who held him, Wash Gibbs struck him full in the mouth, a blow that brought the blood.

They were leading the stunned and helpless old man away, when someone, who was bending over Young Matt, exclaimed, "You missed him, Wash! Jest raked him. He'll be up in a minute. An' hell 'll be to pay in th' wilderness if he ain't tied. Better fix him quick."

The big fellow already showed signs of returning consciousness, and, by the time they had tied his arms, he was able to struggle to his feet. For a moment he looked dizzily around, his eyes turning from one evil, triumphant face to another, until they rested upon the bleeding countenance of his old friend. The shepherd's eyes smiled back a message of cheer, and the kind old man tried to speak, when Wash Gibbs made another threatening motion, with his clenched fist.

At this, a cry like the roar of a mad bull came from the young giant. In his rage, he seemed suddenly endowed with almost superhuman strength. Before a man of the startled company could do more than gasp with astonishment, he had shaken himself free from those who held him, and, breaking the rope with which he was bound, as though it were twine, had leaped to the shepherd's side.

But it was useless. For a moment, no one moved. Then a crashing blow, from the butt of a rifle in the hands of a man in the rear of the two prisoners, sent Young Matt once more to the ground. When he again regained consciousness, he was so securely bound, that, even with his great strength, he was helpless.

Leading their captives to the old tree, the men withdrew for a short consultation, and to refresh themselves with another drink. When they had finished, Gibbs addressed the two friends; "We'uns didn't aim to hurt you, Young Matt, but seein' how you're so thick with this here feller, an' 'pear to know so much 'bout him, I reckon we can't hep ourselves nohow." He turned to the shepherd; "There's been too dad burned much funny work, at this ranch, since you come, Mister, an' we'uns 'low we'll just give warnin' that we don't want no more strangers snoopin' 'round this neighborhood, an' we don't aim t' have 'em neither. We'uns 'low we can take care o' ourselves, without ary hep from th' dad burned government."

The shepherd tried to speak, but Gibbs, with an oath, roared, "Shut up, I tell you. Shut up. I've been a watchin', an' I know what I know. Fix that there rope, boys, an we'll get through, an' mosey 'long out o' here. Ain't no use to palaver, nohow."

A rope was thrown over a limb above their heads, and a man approached the shepherd with the noose. Young Matt struggled desperately. With an evil grin, Gibbs said, "Don't you worry, sonny; you're a goin', too." And at his signal another rope was fixed, and the noose placed over the young man's head. The men took their places, awaiting the word from their leader.

The shepherd spoke softly to his companion, "Thank you, my boy." The giant began another desperate struggle.

Wash Gibbs, raising his hand, opened his lips to give the signal. But no word came. The brutal jaw dropped. The ruffian's eyes fairly started from his head, while the men who held the ropes, stood as if turned to stone, as a long wailing cry came from the dark shadows under the bluff. There was a moment of death-like silence. Then another awful, sobbing groan, rising into a blood curdling scream, came from down the road, and, from the direction of the ruined cabin, advanced a ghostly figure. Through the deep shadows and the misty light, it seemed to float toward them, moaning and sobbing as it came.

A shuddering gasp of horror burst from the frightened crew under the tree. Then, at a louder wail from the approaching apparition, they broke and ran. Like wild men they leaped for their horses, and, flinging themselves into their saddles, fled in every direction.

Young Matt and the shepherd sank upon the ground in helpless amazement.

As the outlaws fled, the spectre paused. Then it started onward toward the two men. Again it hesitated. For a moment it remained motionless, then turned and vanished, just as Jim Lane came flying out of the timber, into the bright light of the little clearing.