BUTTS’ none too lovely disposition had been badly strained by his enforced wait for the delayed train. There were urgent reasons why he should have been back at the ranch early; and now as he wrestled with two trunks and three suit cases in an endeavor to strap them all securely to the back of the buckboard, he inwardly cursed everything and everybody that came out of the East, and especially the supercilious young woman who spoke to him in the same tone of voice as she had addressed the colored porter as she tipped him at the Pullman steps. But at last he had everything tied on securely; and then he turned to the girl, “Get in, Miss,” he said brusquely; and when she had seated herself beside him “You better hang on tight. We’re goin’ to travel.”
Once across the railroad tracks he gave the bronchos a cut with the whip; and as they bounded forward, Olga Gunderstrom’s head snapped back.
“Mercy!” she exclaimed. “Please be more careful, my man.”
Butts gritted his teeth and struck the horses again.
“I shall report you for this,” snapped the young lady.
“Report and be blowed,” snapped Butts. “I’m sick of this job anyway. I’m fed upon dudes and dudesses.”
A short distance out of town they passed a lone horseman who spurred his horse to one side of the road as they dashed past. Out of the corner of his eye Butts saw the rider; but so quickly did he pass that he recognized nothing familiar in the figure, which is not surprising, though had he been able to note the horse more closely he would doubtless have found much that was familiar about him.
It was a dusty and angry young woman who alighted from the buckboard at the foot of the TF Ranch house steps. Dora Crowell recognized her immediately and ran down to greet her.
“Why, Olga Gunderstrom!” she cried. “Cory Blaine never told me you were coming today.”
“Well, here I am,” snapped Olga; “and it’s no fault of this man here that I am here alive. I never saw such a surly, impudent person in my life. Where is Mr. Blaine? He ought to discharge him at once.”
“Mr. Blaine is missing,” said Dora. “We are afraid that something has happened to him and Miss White in the hills. Did you hear what I said, Butts?”
“Yes, I heard you, Miss,” replied the man, who received the news without any show of excitement.
“Bud and the other two boys have gone out to search for them,” continued Dora. “Don’t you think you better go too, Butts?”
“That’s what I’m aimin’ on doin’,” replied the man, “If there was anything here but dudes I could get started right away, but I’ve got to unload all this junk and then put the team away.”
“We’ll attend to that,” said John White. “I’ll certainly be glad to have another man who knows the hills out looking for them.”
As he came down the steps toward the buckboard, Benson Talbot arose. “I’ll help you, Mr. White,” he said.
“I’d like to,” murmured Bert Adams weakly, “but I don’t think I can get up.”
“We can manage it all right, I guess,” said White.
“Thanks!” mumbled Butts ungraciously, as he started for the corral.
The only horses up were the sorrel colt and the old horse that was used to drive in the saddle horses; and Butts, being for some reason, in a great hurry, saddled the former. He rode straight toward the west, crossed two ridges and dropped down into a dry wash.
After he reached the bottom of the wash, he commenced to whistle occasionally, a few bars from an old time air that had once been popular.
Presently, from the distance, it came down to him again like an echo. He urged the sorrel into a faster walk, and a few minutes later a voice hailed him.
“Hey, you!” it called. “I’m up here on the bank.”
Butts found the trail that led up from the bottom of the wash, and a moment later he dismounted beside Cory Blaine.
“You long eared idiot!” exclaimed Blaine. “Did you figure I expected to be left here all the rest of my life? The next time I pick a man for a job like this, it won’t be you.”
“I couldn’t help it,” said Butts. “The train was late, held up by a wreck. I run the broncs all the way from the railroad and then started right out after you. I aint had nuthin’ to eat, either.”
“That’s too bad about you,” grumbled Blaine, as Butts fumbled with the knot of the rope that secured his ankles and wrists. “I’ve been lying here all day with nothing to eat and nothing to drink.”
“What happened to your horse? They say he came in just before dark?”
“The damn fool got frightened at somethin’ and pulled back ’till he busted the brush he was tied to; then he beat it.”
“Everything work all right?” asked Butts.
“Sure, all except this. I sure didn’t aim on lyin’ here all day and half the night.”
“You should have brung a bed,” said Butts.
“Do you think that sorrel will carry double?” asked Blaine.
“I reckon he’s gonna have to,” said Butts, “for I sure aint goin’ to walk.”
“Maybe we’ll both have to walk,” said Blaine.
“We’ll try it down in the bottom of the wash,” said Butts. “If he started pitchin’ up on the bank here he’d be sure to fallin.”
“Let me have him,” said Blaine. “You can ride behind.”
“I always get the worst of it,” said the other.
Cory mounted and rode down into the wash, reining the sorrel close to a low spot along the bank, from which Butts lowered himself gingerly onto the animal’s rump.
“I guess he aint goin’ to do nuthin’,” said Blaine.
“I hope not,” said Butts.
“I suppose there is a lot of excitement at the ranch,” said Blaine, as the sorrel walked off like an old family horse.
“I guess they is,” said Butts. “I wasn’t there long. Her father came today.”
Blaine whistled. “Has he offered a reward?” he asked.
“He’ll give a reward all right, but he didn’t say how much.”
“Well, it’s goin’ to be plenty,” said Blaine, “unless—”
“Unless what?” asked Butts.
“When I pull this rescue stunt from Kelly’s ranch, I won’t want no reward or ransom money nor nuthin’, if she’ll marry me; for if I’m ever John White’s son-in-law, I’ll be sittin’ pretty for the rest of my life.”
“But how about the rest of us?” asked Butts. “Where do we come in? We aint goin’ to be no son-in-laws, and we want our cut of the ransom.”
“That’s so,” said Blaine, scratching his head. “Well, I reckon he’ll have to pay the ransom; but he won’t have to pay no reward.”
“You be a regular hero and refuse to take it,” said Butts. “That’ll make a hit with him.”
“But I still get my cut of the ransom,” Blaine reminded him.
“I don’t care what you get as long as I get mine,” and then they rode on in silence for some time.
“I’d hate to trust my girl to that bunch,” said Butts, “especially Hi Bryam.”
“They know I’d kill ’em,” said Blaine.
“Well, she’s your girl,” said Butts; “but I wouldn’t trust Bryam, at least not way down in Mexico where he could make his getaway.”
“I aint worryin’ none,” said Blaine, and then as though the subject bored him, “Did that Marvel fellow get away today?” he asked.
“Say, don’t mention that son-of-a-gun’s name to me. Every time I think of him I could chaw the head off a rattlesnake.”
“There was somethin’ fishy about him,” said Blaine. “He sure had me worried. Did I ever tell you how he rid this colt?”
“I knew he took him when he went to look for them fool horse’s teeth,” said Butts.
“I was watchin’ him when he rid away, and I seen this little son-of-a-gun start to pitch down there just before the road makes the big bend around the hill. He sure gave that dude the works, but it never seemed to faze him; and when he come in that night, sayin’ he’s been lost, he swore the colt never did a thing and was gentle as a kitten.”
“I can’t figure it out,” said Butts. “Maybe it was just an accident, and then again maybe he kin ride, but he sure can’t shoot; and he aint got real good sense, either—huntin’ for horse’s teeth.”
“Did he ever find a tooth?” asked Blaine.
“He found a whole mouth full of ’em in that pinto o’ yourn; but it stunk so that Bud said he lost interest, real sudden like, and wouldn’t even look for no more.”
“He sure was a damn fool,” said Blaine, “throwin’ my boot away. I think he done it apurpose.”
“And shootin’ a hole in his bedroll,” scoffed Butts. “That dude sure was loco.”
“I wish I was sure he was a dude,” said Blaine.
“What do you think he was?” demanded Butts.
“I dunno,” said Blaine; “but he sure was the funniest dude I ever seen, if he was a dude.”
“Well, he’s gone now. You won’t never see him again.”
“I hope not.”
When Blaine and Butts rode into the yard at the home ranch they found a depressed and worried company gathered on the veranda of the big house.
Dora Crowell was the first to recognize him as the two rode up. “There’s Cory now!” she exclaimed, and immediately the entire party came down the steps and surrounded him as he and Butts dismounted from the sorrel colt.
“What happened?” demanded John White. “Where is my daughter?”
“You are Mr. White?” asked Blaine; and without waiting for a reply, “Something terrible has happened, Mr. White,” he said. “Two fellows stuck us up this morning. I was unarmed, and we didn’t have a chance. I thought they just wanted money; so I didn’t even try to make a fight, though it wouldn’t have done no good if I had and maybe your daughter would have been shot during the rumpus. They bound and gagged me and then rode off with her. During the day I managed to work the gag out of my mouth, but I couldn’t get my hands and feet loose.”
“I found him tied up like a sack of barley over in Dry Spring Gulch,” said Butts. “If he hadn’t of got that gag out, I’d of rid right by him in the dark.”
“Which way did they take her?” asked White.
“They went west over the ridge,” said Blaine.
“I wish we had known that sooner,” said White, “the sheriff was just here with a posse; and it might have helped him to know which way they went.”
“Which way was he aimin’ to look?” asked Blaine.
“He wouldn’t tell me,” said White. “He just said that he had a tip. They only stopped here long enough to see if we’d heard anything, and then they rode on.”
“How did the sheriff hear of it?” asked Blaine.
“I telephoned to town just as soon as it was obvious that something must have happened to you and Kay,” explained White.
Cory seemed thoughtful. “I wonder where he got his tip and what it is?”
Butts had departed, taking the sorrel colt to the stable. “Ask one of the boys to get Blue up for me, Butts,” Blaine called after him.
“None of the boys are here,” said Dora.
“They are all out looking for you and Kay.”
“I’ll get him up,” said Butts.
“What are you going to do?” asked White.
“I’m goin’ out to look for your daughter, Mr. White,” replied Cory, “and I’ll never come back until I find her.”
“It will mean ten thousand dollars, Mr. Blaine, to you or any other man that brings her back alive,” said White.
“I don’t want no money, sir,” Blaine assured him. “It means more to me than all the money in the world to get her back to you safe and sound. I feel like it was all my fault that this happened.”
“Don’t take it too hard, Blaine,” said White generously. “I don’t see what you could have done to prevent it.”
“I’m all broke up over it,” said Blaine, “but by God, sir, I’ll get her back; and if anything’s happened to her, somebody’s goin’ to get kilt.”
“Whoever they are,” said White, “you may rest assured that they shall be brought to justice. I have already telegraphed to business associates in Mexico and to the sheriffs of adjoining counties to be on the lookout. If they get away, it will be a miracle.”
For a moment Cory Blaine stood in thoughtful meditation.
“Perhaps that wasn’t the right thing to do, Mr. White,” he suggested. “Them sort of fellers is desperate. If they’re surrounded they might make away with her in some lonely spot and bury her where she wouldn’t never be found in a hundred years; then they could scatter, and even if some of ’em was caught, it would be hard to prove anything on ’em; for they was masked and I couldn’t never identify ’em. If I was you I would telegraph all them people to lay off for awhile ’till I see what I can do. I know this country better than anyone, and if I can’t find her nobody can.”
“I’ll think over what you have said,” replied White noncommittally.
“I reckon I’ll go and get me something to eat,” said Cory. “I aint eat since breakfast, and I may not get a chance to eat again for some time.”
As he ran up the steps and entered the house, some of the party returned to the veranda; but John White detained Dora Crowell. “Don’t you think now that you were mistaken about Blaine?” he asked. “He certainly had no part in the abduction, and it is evident that he is terribly cut up about it.”
“Nevertheless, Mr. White, if I were you, I wouldn’t call off those telegrams,” said Dora. “If those men are so desperate, they are not going to let Cory Blaine take Kay away from them single-handed.”
“I guess you are right at that,” said White, “and it won’t hurt to give him all the help that we can get for him, but still I can’t help having confidence in him.”
“I wish I could,” said Dora.
Butts had gotten the horses up, and after considerable difficulty he managed to get ropes on two of them. These he had saddled and tied to the corral posts, and then he had gone to the bunk house.
Rummaging in the duffle bag that was tucked beneath his cot, he finally extracted a piece of note paper. The bunkhouse was dark, and no one had seen him enter it from the veranda of the ranch house; nor did they see him emerge, but presently they saw him hurrying excitedly toward them.
“Look here,” he cried as he reached the foot of the steps. “Here’s a note from the kidnapers. It was stuck to the side of the bunkhouse door.”
White took the slip of paper from him eagerly and, followed by the others, went into the ranch house where, by the light of the kerosene lamp, he deciphered the crude scrawl.
“Tell Mr. White,” it read, “that if he wants to see his daughter alive again to have one hundred thousand dollars in twenty dollar bills ready one week from today at TF Ranch. He will get further instructions then how to deliver the money and get his girl. No funny business or we’ll slit her throat.”
There was no signature, and the characters were printed in an obvious effort to disguise the hand.
Cory Blaine had eaten, and as he joined them White handed him the note. “What do you think of it?” asked White, after Blaine had read it.
“Where did it come from?” demanded Blaine.
“I found it stickin’ on the side of the bunk house beside the door,” said Butts. “It sure gave me a shock when I read it.”
“How could you read it?” asked Dora Crowell. “There is no light at the bunkhouse.”
Just for an instant Butts’ jaw dropped. Perhaps no one noticed it, for he caught himself so quickly. “I seen the paper and I struck a match,” he said.
“Oh!” was Dora’s only comment.
“What would you advise, Blaine?” asked White.
“I might fail, Mr. White,” replied Cory; “and after all the first thing we care about is getting Kay back, so maybe you better get the money in case I do fail.”
“If you get in touch with them, Blaine, you may offer them the reward in my name,” said White. “It is a great deal of money; but I think that I can raise it; and, of course, it is needless to say that I would make any sacrifice to get Kay back alive and well.”
“I’ll sure do all I can, Mr. White,” said Cory. “You may absolutely depend on me.”
“I got two horses up, Cory,” said Butts. “I’m goin’ with you.”
“You stay here,” said Blaine. “I don’t need no help, and if any other clew should turn up while I’m gone there ought to be someone here who knows the country and who can ride hard.”
Butts said nothing, but he accompanied Blaine as he walked down to the stable for his horse. “One of us has got to be here,” said Cory. “If anything goes wrong and it aint safe for me to return, light a fire on the hill. I’ll make a signal on Horsecamp Butte on my way back. You keep your eye peeled for it, and if I don’t get no signal from you that night I’ll know that everything is jake and I’ll come on in.”
“All right,” said Butts, “but I hate to have to hang around here. I feel sort of nervous.”
“That Crowell girl. She came near getting me. I sure do hate all them damn dudes.”
“Keep your mouth shut, and you won’t get in trouble,” advised Blaine.
A minute later he had mounted and ridden off into the night.