The trainmen began hoarsely shouting the curious-sounding name of the small frontier town near the Mexican border, in the southwest part of New Mexico. Slowly the long dust-covered Southern Pacific express rolled imposingly into "Mag-gay," very slowly, in fact, as if it did not wish to tarry in that desolate, sun-bitten portion of the continent.
As the brakes began to grind down, one of two boys of about seventeen, who had been lounging on the shady side of a forward sleeper, awoke from a semi-doze with a start.
"Hullo! somebody wants Maggie!" exclaimed Ralph Stetson, as he gazed out of the open window. He saw nothing more novel before his eyes, however, than the same monotonous stretch of yellow, sandy wastes, sprinkled with sage brush and dotted by a few wandering cattle, which the train had been traversing for hours.
"You'll have to get used to New Mexican pronunciation of Mexican names, Ralph," laughed his companion, as he also opened his eyes and began looking about him in the half-startled manner peculiar to those abruptly awakened from "forty winks." "'Maggie', as you call it, is our station."
"Station!" echoed the other. "Where is it?"
He stuck his head out of the window as the train gradually decreased speed, but his eyes encountered nothing more suggestive of a town than a stock car on a lonely side track, into which some cowboys, with wild yells and much spurring of their wiry little steeds, were herding a few beef cattle.
"That freight car must be in front of the town," muttered the boy, pulling in his head.
"Over this side, you tenderfoot!" laughed Jack Merrill, pointing out of the left-hand window. "Haven't you got used to Western towns yet?"
"One-sided towns, you mean, I guess," said Ralph, rising and looking out in the opposite direction. "Why in the name of the State of New Mexico do they build all the towns out here at one side of the tracks?"
"So that Easterners can have something to wonder about," laughed Jack Merrill, brushing off the accumulation of white desert dust from his dark suit with a big brown hand.
"Or so that they can at least get a few minutes of shade when a train pulls in," retorted Ralph, gazing at the sun-baked collection of wooden structures toward which the train was rolling. A yellow water tank, perched on a steel frame, towered above the town like a sunflower on a stalk. Apparently it took the place of trees, of which there was not a vestige, unless a few cactus plants be excepted.
"Better follow my example and brush some of the desert off," said Jack, still brushing vigorously.
"No, let the porter do it; here he is," said the Eastern Ralph. Sure enough, with his black face expanded in a grin expectant of tips, the presiding genius of the Pullman approached.
"Come on, cheer up, Ralph!" laughed Jack, glancing at his companion's dismal face, which was turned toward the window and its barren view. "Don't be downcast because my home town isn't surrounded by elms, and meadows, and fat Jersey cows, and all that. Haven't we lain awake many a night at Stonefell College, talking over the West, and here you are in the heart of it."
"Well, it's a good warm heart, anyway!" grumbled Ralph, mopping his steaming forehead.
The train came to a stop with an abrupt jerk, and followed by the porter, carrying two new and shiny suitcases, the boys hastened from the car, into the blinding sunlight which lay blisteringly on Maguez and its surroundings. Everything quivered in the heat. The boys were the only passengers to alight.
"Phew, it's like opening an oven door!" exclaimed Ralph, as the heated atmosphere fell full upon him. "We've come more than two thousand miles from an Eastern summer to roast out here."
"And look at the train, will you!" cried Jack. "It looks as if it had been through a snowstorm."
He pointed down the long line of coaches, each of which was powdered thickly with white dust.
The conductor's sonorous voice echoed down the train, and with a few mighty puffs from the laboring engine, the wheels once more began to revolve. The porter, clutching a tip in his fingers, leaped back on to his car. All the time they had been waiting in the station the locomotive had been impatiently blowing off steam, and emitting great clouds of black smoke, as though in a desperate hurry to get away from inhospitable-looking Maguez. It now lost no time in getting into motion. As the cars began to roll by, Jack gave a sudden shout.
"Ralph! The-the professor! We've forgotten him!"
"Good gracious, yes! What could we have been thinking of! We are getting as absentminded as he is. Here, stop the train! Hey, I say, we – "
But before the shouts had done resounding, a tall, spare man of middle age stepped out on the platform of one of the front coaches, and after gazing about him abstractedly for a few seconds, swung himself off, landing unsteadily on a pair of long, slender legs. So great was the shock of the professor's landing that his huge spectacles were jerked off his prominent nose, and he had all he could do to retain a hold on a large volume which he held tightly clasped under his left arm.
The boys hurried to pick up the professor's spectacles and hand them to him.
"We almost lost you, professor!" exclaimed Ralph.
"Ah, boys, I was immersed in the classics – 'The Defense of Socrates,' and – "
"Why, Professor Wintergreen, where is your suitcase?" exclaimed Jack suddenly. "See – the train is moving, and – "
"Shades of Grecian Plato!" shouted the professor, glancing about him wildly. "I've forgotten it! Stop! I must get it back! I – "
He made a sudden dash for the train, which was now moving so swiftly that it was manifestly impossible that he could board it in safety. The boys both pulled him back, despite his struggles.
Just then, the car which the boys had recently vacated began to glide by. A black face appeared at the window. It was the porter, and in his hand he held a large green suitcase. It was the same the professor had left behind him when he vacated the car in which they had traveled from the East, and went forward into the smoking car with his book.
"Look out!" yelled the porter, as he threw the piece of baggage out of the window. It hurtled forth with a vehemence indeed that threatened to take off the scientist's head, which it narrowly missed.
"Fo' de Lawd!" the porter shouted back, as the train gathered way. "Wha' yo all got in dat valise – bricks?"
"No, indeed, sir," retorted the professor seriously, as his suitcase went bounding over the platform, which was formed of sun-baked earth. "I have books. The idea of such a question. Why should I want to carry bricks about with me, although the ancient Egyptians – "
By this time the porter was far out of hearing, and the last car of the train had whizzed by. Before the professor could conclude his speech, the suitcase – as if to prove his contention as to its contents by actual proof – burst open, and out rolled several massive volumes. The few loungers, who had gathered to watch the train come in, set up a roar of laughter as the professor – his coat flaps flying out behind him like the tail of some strange bird – darted after his beloved volumes.
"That's what you might call a circulating library!" grinned Jack, as the books bounded about with the impetus of their fall.
"I thought it was a Carnegie Car, you see – " began Ralph, when a sudden shout checked him. He glanced up in the direction from which it had come. A dust-covered buckboard, in which sat a tall, bronzed man in plainsman's clothes, was dashing toward them. The two buckskin ponies which drew it were being urged to their utmost speed by the driver, to whom Jack Merrill was already waving his hand and shouting:
In the meantime the professor was groping about on the platform, picking up his scattered treasures, and all the time commenting loudly to himself on his misfortune.
"Dear, dear!" he exclaimed, picking up one bulky volume and examining it with solicitude. "Here's a corner broken off Professor Willikin Williboice's 'The Desert Dwellers of New Mexico, With Some Account of the Horn Toad Eaters of the Region.' And what have we here? Eheu! the monumental work of Professor Simeon Sandburr, on the 'Fur-Bearing Pollywog of the South Polar Regions,' is – "
"Slightly damaged about the back!" broke in a hearty voice behind him. "But never mind, professor; the pollywogs will grow up into frogs yet, never fear. We'll soon have those volumes mended; and now let me introduce myself, as my son Jack seems unable to do so. My name is Jefferson Merrill, the owner of Agua Caliente Ranch."
"Delighted to meet you, sir," said the professor. "Proud to encounter a man whose name is not unknown to science in connection with his efforts to uncover something of the history of the mesa dwellers of this part of the world."
"Whose relics, if my son informed me rightly in his letters from school in the East, you have come to study, professor."
"Yes, sir; thanks to your hospitality," rejoined the professor, imprisoning his recovered volumes with a click of his suitcase clasps; "it was extremely handsome of you to invite me, and – "
"Not at all, my dear sir, not at all," expostulated the rancher, a kindly smile spreading on his bronzed features. "Besides," he continued in his breezy manner, "as Latin professor at Stonefell College you will no doubt be able to give an eye to your two pupils, and keep them out of mischief better than I could." Here the professor looked doubtful. "You see, we're pretty busy now, what with cattle rustlers and – "
"Cattle rustlers, dad!" exclaimed Jack. "Hooray!"
"It's nothing to be enthusiastic over, my boy. Several of the border ranchers have suffered severely recently from their depredations."
"Have you lost any stock, dad?"
"No; so far, I have luckily escaped. But the rascals may come at any time, and it keeps me on the lookout. They are well organized, I believe, and have a stronghold somewhere back across the border. So you boys will have to depend on your own devices for amusement. But now come, don't let's stand baking here any longer. There's a long drive before us, and we had better be getting on."
"But, dad, look at all our baggage!" cried Jack, pointing to the heap of trunks the baggage car had dropped. "There'll never be room for all of us in that buckboard."
"So I guessed," smiled his father. "So I had Bud Wilson bring in two ponies for you boys to ride out on. You told me, I think, that your friend Ralph, here, could ride."
"Good for you, dad!" exclaimed Jack impulsively; "it'll be fine to get in the saddle again – and to see old Bud, too," he added.
"Who is Bud?" asked Ralph.
"You'll soon get to know him yourself," laughed Mr. Merrill. "But you boys go and get your horses. While you are gone the professor and I will try to get some of these independent gentlemen standing about to give us a hand to load the trunks on. Then we'll drive on to the ranch. You can overtake us. Eh, Professor Summerblue?"
"Wintergreen, sir," rejoined the professor in a dignified way.
"Eh – oh, I beg your pardon. I knew it was something to do with the seasons. I hope you will pardon me, Professor Spring – No, I mean Wintergreen."
"Just like dad, he never can remember a name," laughed Jack, as the two boys hastened off to find the ponies and Bud.
"Maybe he is worried about these cattle bustlers – "
"Rustlers, you tenderfoot – you are as bad as dad."
"Well, rustlers, then. They must be desperate characters."
"A lot of sneaking greasers usually. They hustle the cattle or horses off over the border, but occasionally one of them gets caught and strung up, and that's the end of it."
"Then there are no border wars any more, or Indians, or – "
"Adventures left in the West," Jack finished for him, laughing at the other's disappointed tone. Then, more seriously: "Well, Ralph, the West isn't what it's pictured to be in Wild West shows; but we've plenty of excitement here once in a while, and before you go back East, with those lungs of yours in A-one shape, you may experience some of it."
"I hope so," said Ralph, looking up the long dusty street with its sun-blistered board shacks on either side, with a few disconsolate ponies tied in front. The yellow water tower topped above it all like some sort of a misshapen palm tree or sunflower on steel legs. In fact, a more typical border town than Maguez at noon on a June day could not be imagined. Except for the buzzing of flies, and the occasional clatter of a horse's hoofs as some one rode or drove up to the general store – which, together with a blacksmith shop, a disconsolate-looking hotel, and a few miscellaneous buildings made up the town – there was not a sound to disturb the deep, brooding silence of the desert at noonday. Far on the horizon, like great blue clouds, lay the Sierre de la Hacheta, in the foothills of which lay Agua Caliente Ranch.
"So this is the desert?" went on Ralph, as they made their way up the rough wooden sidewalk toward the stable where they expected to find Bud Wilson and the horses.
"This is it," echoed Jack Merrill, "and the longer you know it the better you like it."
"It's peaceful as a graveyard, anyhow," commented Ralph. "Doesn't anything ever happen? I wonder if – "
He broke off suddenly as a startling interruption occurred.
The quiet of Maguez had been rudely shattered by a sudden sound.
From a small building to their right, on which was painted in scrawly red letters the words, "Riztorant. Meelz At Awl Howrz," there had come the sharp crack of a pistol shot.
Before its echoes had died away, several doors opened along the street, and a motley crowd of cowboys, Mexicans and blanketed Indians poured out to ascertain the cause of the excitement.
They had not long to wait. From the door of the restaurant a pig-tailed Mongolian suddenly shot with the speed of a flying jackrabbit. The Chinaman cleared the hitching rail in front of the place at one bound, his progress being hastened from behind by a perfect avalanche of cups and other dishes.
A second shot came, as the Oriental sprinted up the street. All at once he stopped dead in his tracks as the bullet sang by his ear.
"Well, Ralph, I guess something's happened, after all!" remarked Jack Merrill, as the crowd began to thicken and the restaurant door once more opened. This time a strange figure, to Ralph's Eastern eyes, emerged from the portal. A sinister suggestion was lent to the newcomer's appearance by the fact that in his right hand there glistened an exceedingly business-like looking revolver.
"No shootee! No shootee!"
The blue-overalled Chinaman plumped down on his knees in the thick dust, with his hands clasped in entreaty. Above him, threatening the cowering wretch with his pistol, stood the figure of the man who had emerged so suddenly from the restaurant door. The crowd doing nothing stood stoically looking on.
The tormentor of the Mongolian was a tall, swarthy figure of a man, crowned with a high-peaked, silver-braided sombrero, the huge brim of which almost obscured the repulsive details of his swarthy face. The remainder of his garb was a short jacket, beneath which a broad red sash upheld the most peculiar nether garments Ralph had ever seen. They were tight about their wearer's thin legs as far as the knees, when the black velvet of which they were made suddenly became as full and baggy as the trousers of a sailor. High-heeled boots and a pair of jingling silver spurs completed his fantastic costume – the typical holiday garb of a Mexican, including the revolver.
"By Sam Hooker, I know that chink!" cried Jack, as the boys ran up and joined the crowd. "It's Hop Lee. He used to cook on my father's ranch. I remember hearing now that he had started some kind of a restaurant in town. Here, Hop Lee, what's the matter?"
"Oh, Misser Mellill, you helpee me! No let Misser De Ballios shootee me! I do no halm. Me catch um – "
"What are you boys interfering here for?" demanded the Mexican suddenly, wheeling angrily. He spoke in good English, but with a trace of accent. Jack, despite his brown face and the keen, resourceful look which comes from a plainsman's life, wore Eastern-cut clothes. The Mexican had promptly sized him up for a tenderfoot. "You just run along, or you'll get hurt," he continued menacingly.
He leveled his gun, and brusquely ordered the Chinaman, who had by this time arisen, to kneel once more in the dust.
"Don't do it, Hop Lee. Get back to your cook stove," cried Jack.
"He will kneel!" declared the Mexican, facing about, "or – "
"Well, or what?" demanded Jack, looking the silver-braided bravado straight in the eyes.
"Or you will!"
Question and answer came sharp as pistol shots.
The Mexican raised his pistol menacingly. But at the same instant a foot suddenly projected between the Spanish-American's slender legs and twisted about one limb. The next instant the gaudily garbed bully lay prostrate in the dust, the pungent stuff filling his eyes, mouth and nose.
It was Ralph Stetson's foot which had tripped the man. The boy had acted in a sudden excess of fear that the Mexican was about to shoot his chum. As a matter of fact, the fellow had had no such intention. But now he had shared the fate of many another man who has made a bluff, only to have it promptly taken at its full value.
A sort of murmur of alarm went through the crowd as the Mexican measured his length in the dust.
"Say, pard," said a short, chunky little cowboy behind Ralph, "you've done it now; that's Black Ramon De Barrios."
"Well, he's white now!" laughed the boy, as the Mexican rose to his feet with his features smothered with white dust.
"Looks as if he'd been taking a dive in the flour barrel!" laughed Jack. He turned to Ralph with a quick, "Thanks, old fellow. I see that you're as much on the job here as on the football field. But I don't think he meant to shoot – "
"No, he did not, but he does now!"
De Barrios approached the boys, his pistol leveled and his black, serpent-like eyes glinting wickedly. "I'll show you what Black Ramon can do! He never forgets an insult nor forgives an injury!"
Aghast at the threatened tragedy, the crowd did nothing, and the boys stood rooted to one spot. Closer and closer, like a snake, the Mexican crept, determined, it seemed, to get the full measure of anticipation out of his revenge for his tumble. Jack never flinched, but his heart beat unpleasantly fast.
The Mexican's brown, cigarette-stained forefinger trembled on the trigger. He was quite close now.
The fat little cowboy gave a yell of alarm, and sprang suddenly forward.
"Look out! The varmint's going to shoot!"
But at the same instant a strange thing happened A snaky loop whizzed through the air and settled about the bully's neck. The vengeful Mexican was suddenly jerked off his feet as it tightened, his long legs threshing the air like those of a swimming frog.
"Roped, by ginger!" yelled some one in the crowd, as De Barrios, at the end of a lariat, went ploughing through the dust on his face for the second time.
And roped, Ramon De Barrios was. So absorbed had the crowd been in watching the tense scene before them that few of them had noticed a cowboy mounted on a small calico pony who had ridden slowly up from a point behind the boys. This cow-puncher, a long-legged, rangy, sun-burned fellow, in typical stockman's garb, had watched everything attentively till the critical moment. Then, with a quick twist, he had roped the Mexican as neatly as he would have tied a calf on branding day.
"Well done, and thank you, Bud!" shouted Jack, running up and shaking the cowboy's hand.
The latter had halted his pony a short distance from them. But the distance had been quite far enough for De Barrios, whose method of traveling had been far from comfortable.
"Where did you spring from, old fellow?" Jack went on.
"From the corral up the street," said Bud, displaying no more emotion than if he and the boys had had an appointment to meet at that spot under quite ordinary circumstances. "Just wait till I get this here sidewinder of a greaser cut loose, and I'll talk to you."
All this time De Barrios had lain prone in the dust, with the rope stretched tight, just as the trained cow pony had kept it. Bud now cast loose the end which he had wound about his saddle horn, and the Mexican, with a sulky look, rose to his feet and threw off the rawhide loop.
"Here's your gun," said Bud Wilson, leaning from his saddle and picking up the fallen weapon from the dust.
"Hold on, though," he said suddenly. Breaking the weapon open, he "sprung" the shells out of it. This done, he handed it to the Mexican, who took it with a sinister look.
"To our next meeting!" he grated, as he turned away.
"Well, stay on your feet next time!" rejoined Bud composedly, amid a roar from the crowd.
"Now, Hop Lee," demanded Jack Merrill of the Chinaman, as De Barrios strode off without a word, but with a black look on his swarthy face, "what was the trouble in there?"
"Why, the Chink spilled a spot of grease on the brim of the Mexican's sombrero," volunteered somebody, "and when he wouldn't wipe it off again, De Barrios got mad."
"Well, I don't know as I blame the greaser so very much, those being the circumstances," remarked Bud dryly. "These Chinks has got to be kep' in order some way. Now get back to your chuck wagon, Hop, and don't give no more dissatisfaction to your customers."
Ralph now learned who Bud Wilson was – a cow-puncher who had worked for Jack's father for many years, and had practically brought Jack up on the range. Bud had two strong dislikes, Mexicans and Apaches, and his services against the latter had given him his nickname of Apache Bud. For tenderfeet, Bud had merely pity.
"Poor critters," he would say, when at his ease in the bunkhouse, or when sweeping across the range on his favorite calico pony, "I s'pose it ain't their fault – being raised unnatural – but the most of 'em is dumb as a locoed coyote."
"What ponies have you brought for us, Bud?" asked Jack, as, with the two boys walking beside him, the cowboy rode slowly back to the stable, from the door of which he had first espied their difficulty.
"Waal, I brought Firewater fer you," said Bud, "and Petticoats, the buckskin, for your tenderfoot friend here."
"Petticoats!" said Jack in a tone of vexation. "Why, Petticoats is the tamest old plug on the ranch."
"That's all right, Jack," said Ralph, bravely choking back a feeling of mortification. "I guess, when I've shown I can ride, I'll get a chance at a better animal."
Bud Wilson gazed at him with a kindlier expression than he had yet bestowed on the rather pale-faced young Easterner. Although an athlete and a boxer, Ralph had had some slight bronchial trouble of late, and had been recommended to spend his vacation in New Mexico as a means of effecting a complete cure.
"So you kin ride?" Bud asked.
"A little," said Ralph modestly.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Stetson, the railroad magnate, owned several good horses, and had always encouraged his son Ralph in using them. In this way Ralph had had plenty of experience with one or two of the Eastern "drag hunts," and had played polo a little. Jack Merrill knew this. It mortified him, therefore, to think that old Petticoats had been brought for his guest.
"I tell you, Ralph," he said generously, "you take Firewater and see how you like him."
"Not much, Jack," exclaimed Ralph. "He's your own pet particular pony. I've often heard you speak of him. No; I'll take old Petticoats. I guess we'll get on all right together."
Both ponies were saddled and ready for them when the party reached the stable. De Barrios, who had had his heavy black horse in the corral, was riding out as they came up. The Mexican gave them a black look, to which they paid no attention. The Mexican, whatever he may have looked like on foot, presented an impressive sight on his black horse – a superb, long-tailed animal with a glossy coat and great, restless eyes. De Barrios's saddle and bridle and martingale were covered with silver, and both horse and rider were typical productions of the border.
"Even you will admit that that's a good horse," said Jack to Bud, as the Mexican loped off at an easy, swinging gait, and the boys started into the barn.
"Oh, yes. He's all right; but give me my calico here for a traveler," said Bud, patting the neck of his beloved Chappo.
Poor Petticoats was certainly not an imposing-looking pony. She was a small buckskin, and appeared to be a good enough traveler; but she had an ewe neck, and a straggly tail, and a lack-lustre eye, very unlike Jack's glossy-coated, bright bay pony.
"I thought you said she was a quiet old plug," said Ralph, as his eyes fell on the mare for the first time.
"So she is, why?" asked Jack, who had been too busy tightening Firewater's cinch to notice the really remarkable antics of Petticoat.
"Well, look at that!" exclaimed Ralph, as Petticoats lashed out at him.
For a quiet steed, Petticoats certainly was jumping about a good deal. There was a restless look in her eyes. She rolled them back till only the white showed. Her ears were pressed wickedly close to the side of her not very shapely head.
"Say, she's acting queerly, for fact," said Jack. "Maybe she's been eating loco weed. Shall I ask Bud to look her over before you mount?"
"No, don't. He'd only josh me about her. I guess she's only restless. Just come off pasture, maybe."
So without a word to Bud, who had remained outside the barn while the boys were getting their ponies, Ralph swung himself easily into the saddle.
His body had hardly touched the leather before the placid – or, rather, supposedly placid – Petticoats leaped into the air with a spring which would have unseated a less-experienced rider, and then came down with all four feet stiffly braced together in a wicked buck.
If Ralph had been a less plucky rider, he would have been unseated, and almost to a certainty seriously hurt. As it was, however, he stuck to the saddle.
"Whoa, Petticoats, whoa!" shouted Jack, steadying his own pony, which was getting excited and prancing about as it saw the other's antics.
"W-w-w-what's the m-m-matter with her?"
The words were jerked out of Ralph's mouth, as Petticoats plunged and reared and gave a succession of stiff-legged bucks.
Jack had no time to reply before the buckskin, with a squeal and a series of running leaps, was out of the stable door.
"What in the name of the great horn spoon!" yelled the startled Bud, as a buff-colored streak flashed past him. The next instant, with a rattle of hoofs and an alarming crackling and flapping of saddle leathers, the little pony was off in a cloud of dust, headed for the desert.
"Locoed?" shouted Jack, as he and Bud Wilson dug their big, blunt-rowelled spurs into their mounts and started in pursuit.
"I dunno," muttered Bud, shaking a big loop out of his "rope," as they tore along at break-neck speed, "but we've got to catch him."
"Why? If he doesn't fall off he'll be all right. She'll soon run herself out."
"No, she won't, either. Since you've been East they've put through a big irrigation canal out yonder. That cayuse is headed right for it, and if the kid can't stop her, they'll go sky-whooping over the edge."
"Wow! We've got to get him."
"That's what. Spur up now, and get your rope ready. Now's your chance to show me you haven't forgot all I ever taught you about roping."
Jack unslung the thirty feet of plaited rawhide from the right hand of his saddle horn, and shook out a similar loop to Bud's. Both ponies were now going at the limit of their speed, and the distance between them and the runaway seemed to be diminishing.
"Will we get him in time?" gasped Jack.
"Dunno. There's the canal yonder. It's a twenty-foot drop."
The cowboy pointed dead ahead to where a dark, purplish streak cut across the dun expanse of desert.
"We've got to beat him to it!" said Jack, gritting his teeth.
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