Before he could answer

One day, on stopping at a store to buy some feed, just before reaching
the crossing of a timbered creek, we noticed two saddled horses
hitched to the fence and on entering the store found two well-armed,
rough-looking fellows lounging about, one of whom seemed to be half
tipsy. The store was also a post-office and presided over by a very old
man.

While Tom and the storekeeper retired to a back room to measure out
some grain, the two ruffians began to manifest considerable interest
in our affairs, asking many questions, to all of which Jack and I, who
had left the team standing in the road and walked up to the store, gave
rather curt answers.

Apparently not satisfied with our replies, the drunken fellow staggered
out toward our team, remarking to his more sober companion:

“Joe, let’s take a look at their outfit.”

We paid little apparent attention to them but quietly watched every
movement they made, for we began to suspect that these were some of the
robbers we had heard of.

Each of the men carried a pair of revolvers hung to his belt. The most
drunken one was a large, swearing, swaggering ruffian who was addressed
by the other as “Cap.” The one named “Joe” was smaller and apparently
more sober and wore an old cavalry jacket.

As they walked around the team we heard an ominous growl from our dog,
Found. The big fellow stepped back and laid a hand on the butt of one
of his pistols, and Jack quickly grasped the handle of his own weapon
and took a step or two in the direction of the drunken ruffian, keeping
his eyes on the fellow’s pistol hand. “Cap” saw the movement and turned
toward Jack, still with his hand on his pistol, and remarked with an
oath:

“Mister, ef that dog tries to bite me he dies.”

“Then there’ll be two dogs die,” returned Jack quietly, looking the
fellow in the eye.

I kept a close watch of the motions of Joe, but he made no threatening
gestures and seemed waiting to see what his leader would do.

“What do you mean, sir?” demanded the drunken blusterer of Jack.

“I mean,” replied the Irishman quietly, “that if you keep away from
that team and attend to your own business the dog’ll not hurt you; but
you draw a gun to shoot him, an’–well, you heard my remark.”

Instead of resenting Jack’s ultimatum, the big fellow turned to his
henchman and said:

“Joe, these men don’t appear to have heard of me. Tell ’em who I am,”
and then disappeared into the store.

Joe stepped up to Jack and said in a confidential way:

“Pardner, you’ve made a big mistake to talk so insulting to that man,
an’ I’m afraid you’ll have trouble about it. That’s Captain Tucker, one
o’ the worst men in Kansas. I reckon he’s killed more men than I’ve got
fingers an’ toes. Best thing you can do now, is to foller him into the
store an’ call for the drinks, apologize, like a man, an’ make it all
up with him, fur he’s turrible when he’s riled, specially when he’s
drinkin’.”

“Is that so?” exclaimed Jack. “Why, he’s a bad one, ain’t he? I’m right
glad to know him.”

“More’n that,” added Joe, “he’s captain of our company, an’ we’re the
toughest lot that ever struck this country.”

“Where’s your company, and how many of you is they?” asked Jack.

“Oh, they’s a whole lot of us, an’ we’re camped down on the crick a
couple o’ miles from here,” was Joe’s evasive reply.

I began to get uneasy. What if Jack’s rashness should bring this gang
of desperadoes down on us? Jack was game and would not back down from
the stand he had taken. I knew that Tom–who was still in the store
getting his sack of grain and knew nothing of the trouble we were about
to get into–was game, too, and would stand by the Irish-man; and if
it came to a fight I could at least handle cartridges for them. But
what could three of us do against a gang of unknown numbers of these
lawless men?

“Jack, haven’t you been a little too brash? You may get us into a
scrape if he brings up his men.”

“Ef there’s none of ’em more dangerous than their captain there’s
nothin’ to fear. I’ve studied such fellows all my life, an’ I never
made a mistake in one of his sort. He’s just such another blowhard as
that ‘bad man from Texas’ that I swatted in Leavenworth. An’ on the
principle of ‘like master, like man,’ you’ll be apt to find that this
big company of desperadoes, if we ever meet ’em, will dwindle down to
six or eight windy ruffians like their captain. I believe the three of
us could whip twenty of ’em. Such fellers don’t fight unless they can
get the drop, an’ we’ll see that they don’t do that.”

Just as we reached the store door I turned to see what had become of
Joe, and noticed him still standing where we had left him–as near
the mules as Found would let him come–intently engaged in writing or
drawing something with a pencil on a piece of paper. The paper he held
in his hand looked like a yellow envelope, and, nudging Jack, I pointed
to him.

Joe seemed to be deeply interested in his work, looking first at the
mules and then at his yellow envelope as he marked on it, and did
not notice us. I was still wondering what he could be doing when the
Irishman’s quick wit comprehended the situation, and he whispered:

“He’s copyin’ the brands on our mules. We’ll hear more of this by an’
by.”

“How?” I asked.

“He’ll send somebody to claim ’em, on a lost-strayed-or-stolen plea,
an’ the claimer will prove ownership by showing the exact brands marked
on paper before he has been near the mules. I’ve known that trick
played before.”

As we entered the store the old storekeeper and Tom came out of the
grain room–Tom with a sack of corn on his shoulder, making mysterious
winks at us as he moved toward the door, indicating that he desired us
to go back to the wagon.

The store man cast an inquiring glance at the decanter and then at
Captain Tucker. The latter nodded his head and said:

“Chalk it down.”

On the way to the wagon we met Joe, who had probably completed
draughting our mules’ brands to his satisfaction.

We told Tom of all that had occurred, and I rather expected that he
would reprimand Jack for acting so rashly, but to my surprise he
approved of the Irishman’s doings.

“Perfectly right, perfectly right,” said Tom. “It won’t do to give back
to such fellows a particle. If we’ve got to have a brush with them,
right now an’ here’s as good a time an’ place as any. We must bluff ’em
off right at the start or fight. But we mus’n’t forget the old sayin’,
‘Never despise your enemy’; he may turn out a better fighter than you
give him credit for bein’. We must watch every move they make an’ be
prepared to bluff ’em off at every trick they try. Jack was right in
suspecting that that fellow with the cavalry jacket was copying the
brands on our mules. They’ll be after trying to prove ’em away from us,
ef they can’t bluff us.”

“Did you find out anything about them from the storekeeper?” I asked
anxiously. “You were in that back room so long I thought you must be
pumping him.”

“Yes, I wasn’t idle,” replied Tom, “an’ I found out a whole lot. At
first the old man was afraid to talk, for he’s scared of these fellers,
but when I promised him that we would not get him into trouble he let
out an’ told me all he knows about ’em.

“This is the gang we heard about at Burlingame and again at
A-Hundred-an’-Ten-Mile Creek,” continued Tom. “They came to this
neighborhood about a week ago an’ have been robbin’ and plunderin’,
an’ everybody’s afraid of ’em. The old storekeeper says that there
are so few able-bodied men left here–most all of ’em having gone off
to the war–that the few citizens left can’t well make any organized
opposition to ’em. This lot is an offshoot from Cleveland’s gang of
jayhawkers that we heard about at Leavenworth. It seems, the old fellow
says, that this Captain Tucker was a lieutenant under Cleveland, an’
they couldn’t agree–each one wanted to be boss–so Tucker with a few
followers split off from Cleveland an’ started a gang of his own.”

“Well, but did you find out how many there are in this gang?” I asked.

“Yes. The old man says that they try to make people believe that there
is a big company, but from the best information he can get there are
only seven or eight.”

“What did I tell you?” said Jack contemptuously. “Ef they’re no better
than these two we’re good for that many, easy.”

“Yes,” said Tom, “ef we don’t let ’em get the drop on us I think we
can stand ’em off; but we may find ’em a tougher lot than we take
’em for–ef they tackle us for a fight we’ve just got to clean ’em
out, it’s a ground-hog case. An’ as to killin’ ’em, I’d have no more
hesitation about it than I would to kill a hostile Injun. Ef we have
to open fire on ’em I want you men to shoot to kill, an’ I’ll do the
same. These jayhawkers have been declared outlaws by orders from the
commander of the department, an’ the troops are turned loose to hunt
’em down, kill ’em, or break up the gangs wherever they can be found.

“The old storekeeper says they’ve just taken possession of his store,”
he continued, “helpin’ themselves to his liquor or anything else they
want, tellin’ him to ‘chalk it down’ an’ by an’ by they’ll settle with
him.

“A boy from the neighborhood who had been down to their camp to sell
’em some butter told the old man that there was only seven men of ’em
an’ they had a tent an’ a two-horse wagon. The boy said they had lots
of good horses, an’ the old man thinks they gather in all the good
horses an’ mules they can find in the country an’ now an’ then send a
lot of ’em in to Leavenworth an’ sell ’em to the contractors there who
are buyin’ up horses an’ mules for the government.

“Whatever happens,” continued Tom, “we must be careful not to
compromise this old storekeeper an’ his family, for he’s very much
afraid of these jayhawkers an’ cautioned me several times not to let
them get a suspicion that he had told us anything about them.

“I put an idea in his head, though, which may be the means of ridding
this neighborhood of these rascals. I told him to write a letter to
General Hunter, in command of the department at Fort Leavenworth,
tellin’ him the situation out here, an’ to request the general to send
out a company of cavalry to clean out this gang an’ give protection to
the farmers an’ people travelling the road.

“He jumped at the idea an’ said he would write the letter right away
an’ send it in by the mail which will go past this afternoon. I think
the general will send the troops immediately, for he is makin’ war
on these bushwhackers wherever he can hear of them. If the scheme is
carried out right the soldiers will be apt to kill or capture this
whole gang. I’d like to stay an’ help ’em at it, but it will take four
or five days, at least, before the soldiers can get here. Ef this gang
undertakes to make war on us we may have to teach ’em a lesson on our
own hook.”

“Well, Tom,” I asked, “what are your plans for meeting this emergency
if you think these fellows are going to give us trouble?”

Before he could answer me the two jayhawkers came out of the store
and, without making any hostile demonstrations, went to their horses,
mounted, and rode a little way back down the road we had come, and
then, turning across the prairie struck for the timber farther down
the creek. They eyed us in passing but said not a word. As they rode
past us we noticed that both were mounted on good-looking animals,
especially Tucker, whose mount was a splendid, large black horse of
fine proportions and good movement.

While Jack and I stowed away the sack of corn and waited for Tom’s
reply to my question, he stood watching the disappearing riders till an
intervening rise of ground hid them and then began to unfold his plans.

“It’s earlier in the day than we generally camp,” said Tom
thoughtfully, “but under the circumstances we must select a camp not
far from here an’ hang up till we see what they’re going to do. Ef we
try to go on farther they’ll think we’re running from ’em. We must camp
in open ground where they can’t get in shooting distance of us without
showing themselves in open prairie.

“I asked the storekeeper about the lay of the land on the other side
of the creek, an’ he told me of a good place to camp about a half mile
beyond the ford, where there’s an abandoned house out in the prairie
an’ a good well. The family who owned the place got scared out and
moved into Topeka to stay till times get better. There’s where we’ll
camp; so let’s get there an’ get prepared for action in case this
outfit gives us a call. They won’t let us go by without trying some
bluff game on us an’ maybe a fight.

“I don’t think there’s any need of it here,” added Tom as he looked
toward the timber at the crossing of the creek ahead of us, “but, to be
on the safe side, while I drive the team, Jack, you an’ Peck may take
your guns and form a skirmish line ahead of me as we go through the
timber.”

We did so, but, finding no sign of an enemy, as we again came out on
the prairie we joined the wagon and rode up to the abandoned house and
camped in a good, defensible position. There was no grass close to the
house whereon to picket our team, but some hay that had been left in
the barn made a good substitute.

Finding the inside of the house littered with waste and rubbish left
by the recent occupants, we pitched our tent near the wagon, as usual,
camping by the house merely to secure a defensible location in open
ground with wood and water convenient.

We were confident that we would receive a call from the jayhawkers and
hurried our dinner, keeping an anxious lookout back along the road
toward the store, which was now hidden from us by the timber.

After we had cleared away the dishes Tom ordered:

“Now, men, see that everything is prepared for action. See that all
arms are in good working order, an’ have a good supply of ca’tridges
handy.”

Such orders were hardly necessary, for we made it a rule at all times
to keep our arms in good shape and cartridges convenient.

“Here they come!” exclaimed Jack in great glee, and, looking toward
the store, we could see a party of mounted men just coming out of the
timber at the creek crossing. As soon as the announcement was made Tom
brought the field-glass to bear on them and began counting:

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven–all told.” Then he added:
“They would likely leave only one man back to take care of camp; so
eight is about the full strength of the gang, just as we heard.”

Passing the glass to me, he added:

“As soon as they get in hailing distance I’ll halt ’em, an’ you men
will be ready to enforce my commands. Ef they don’t halt at the first
command I’ll halt ’em again, an’ maybe the third time, but not more.
An’ when I give the command, ‘Fire!’ remember your old training–aim
about the saddles an’ let em’ have it, an’ don’t waste your ca’tridges.
Let each one of us try to see how many saddles he can empty.”

To me this sounded serious, but the veteran was as cool about it as
if giving instructions to a squad of soldiers on skirmish drill. Jack
always seemed happy when there was a good prospect of a fight before
him. I must admit that I began to feel a little squeamish as the
jayhawkers drew near us, but I was somewhat reassured by the firm and
fearless demeanor of my comrades.

As the jayhawkers approached it was seen that all except the leader,
“Cap” Tucker, carried rifles, carbines, or shotguns in addition
to their pistols. All seemed to be well mounted, but Tucker was
particularly conspicuous by his fine black horse. They followed the
main road till opposite the house where we were and then turned and
rode toward us at a walk.

As soon as they had approached within easy hail Tom took a few steps
toward them and, bringing his Sharp’s rifle to a ready, sung out:

“_Halt!_”

Jack and I moved up in his rear and came to the same position.

The jayhawkers did not seem to be expecting such a manoeuvre on our
part and did not promptly obey Tom’s first command; but by the time he
had repeated “_Halt!_” in a louder tone they took the hint, and Tucker
quickly ordered his men to stop. Turning to us, he called out in a tone
of indignant surprise:

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I say,” replied Tom. “Ef you men have any business with us,
one of you–and only one–can advance an’ make it known. The rest’ll
stand where they are.”

Turning and speaking a few words to his men, Tucker then rode up to us.

As the big captain halted a few feet from us he demanded angrily:

“What do you men mean by drawing your guns on us an’ halting us this
way?”

“In these doubtful times,” replied Tom, “we don’t propose to allow a
party of armed men to enter our camp without first finding out who they
are an’ what’s their business with us. Will you please tell us what
yours is?”

“Why, certainly,” returned the big ruffian. “We are free rangers
looking up stray an’ stolen stock an’ also gathering in good hosses an’
mules fer the government. Have you any objections to that?”

“Not in the least,” said Tom, “but we have no stray or stolen stock an’
no horses or mules for sale, an’ I don’t see as you have any further
business with this outfit.”

“The reason why we’ve made this call on you is this,” answered Tucker.
“A short time ago one of my men had a fine pair of mules stole from him
an’ trailed ’em down nigh to Leavenworth where he lost track of ’em.
I learned from the old storekeeper over the crick yonder that you men
had lately bought your mules in Leavenworth, an’ when I went back to
camp an’ mentioned this matter to Bill Sawyer he got to thinkin’ about
it, an’ he thought that possibly you might of bought his mules without
knowin’ they was stole; an’ so I jes’ brung him an’ a few more of the
boys over to look at your mules.”

While the captain was making his little speech Jack gave me an
occasional wink, which seemed to say: “Listen to what’s comin’.”

“Now, pardner,” continued the jayhawker, “we ain’t in the habit of
spending much time arguing about a matter of this kind, an’, as I tol’
you before, we’re a-gatherin’ up mules an’ hosses fer the government,
an’ whenever we find any that suits we just take ’em, givin’ an order
on Uncle Sam, an’ he foots the bill. But to show you that we’re dealing
on the square with you men about these mules, ef they ain’t ours we
don’t want ’em. Now, I’ll make you a fair proposition. The man that
lost the mules I’m talking about is out yonder, an’ he’s never seen
your mules yet. He’s got the brands marked down on a piece of paper.
Now, ef you’re honorable men an’ willing to do what’s right I don’t see
how you can help accepting my proposition, which is this: I’ll call
Bill Sawyer up here an’ let him show his brands as they’re marked down
on that paper afore he’s ever had a chance to see the brands on your
mules, an’ ef the brands he’s got marked down is the same as what’s on
them mules, why, it’s a plain case that they must be his mules. Now,
what do you say to that?”

Tom gave no sign that he was “onto their game,” but merely said:

“Call your man up, but only him–no more.”

Tucker rode out a few steps toward his gang and called:

“Bill Sawyer, come here!” and then returned to us, while William
Sawyer, who seemed to have been rehearsed in his part, came trotting
up with alacrity, feeling in his inside pocket for the paper that he
seemed to know–although he had been out of hearing distance of us–was
to be called for at this stage of the game. As Sawyer left his chums
they all gathered about Joe–he of the old cavalry jacket–and seemed
to be holding an earnest consultation.

As Sawyer reached us I had time to notice that he wore a green patch
over his left eye–or the place where the eye had been; a villainous
grin added devilishness to his sinister countenance. In his hand he
held the same old yellow envelope that Jack and I had seen Joe using to
copy the mules’ brands on.

Taking the old envelope triumphantly from his man, Tucker passed it to
Tom with a confident air as he demanded.

“Now, let’s compare the brands marked on that paper with the brands on
them mules.” And he turned his horse as if to ride around on the other
side of our wagon, where the mules were tied.

“‘Twon’t be necessary–wait a minute,” returned Tom as he passed the
old envelope to Jack and me with the query: “Do you men recognize that
paper?”

“Yes, we’ve seen it before,” we both answered.

“What do you mean?” demanded Tucker in assumed astonishment.

“Just this,” replied Tom, looking sternly at the jayhawkers’ captain.
“This little joke of your’n has gone about far enough. These two
men,” pointing to Jack and me, “stood an’ watched that feller you
call Joe–that sneaking coyote out yonder who wears the old cavalry
jacket–take this ol’ yellow envelope out of his pocket an’ copy on it
the brands of our mules while the team was standin’ in front of the
store, when Joe had no idea he was bein’ watched. Now, I don’t want to
hear any more of this foolishness. Mr. Jayhawker, ef you’ve any other
business with us please state it. Ef not this meeting stands adjourned.”

Seeing that his deception was detected and that the scheme failed,
Tucker apparently concluded to try a bluff on us.

“If you won’t listen to reason,” said he, “we’ll show you what we can
do in another line. I’m satisfied that them’s Sawyer’s mules an’ we’re
going to have ’em. It’ll leave you fellows in a bad fix to break up
your team by taking the mules, but I’m willin’ to do what’s right. You
give the mules up peaceably and I’ve got a pair of good, old chunky
ponies down to camp that I’ll sell you cheap. You may have ’em fer a
hundred dollars. I’ll just call the boys up an’ we’ll take the mules
along with us now, an’—-”

“Oh, no you won’t,” interrupted Tom in a quiet but firm tone as he
began fingering the lock of his rifle.

“Why, pardner,” exclaimed Tucker in apparent astonishment, “you don’t
mean to say you’d be so foolish as to compel us to use force? I’ve
got some forty odd men over to camp. Ef you don’t give up them mules
peaceably I’ll go an’ bring the whole company, an’ then–well, you’ll
have to pay fer the trouble you’ve put us to, in course.”

A smile of contempt spread over Tom’s visage as he replied:

“Trot out your company an’ try to take them mules an’ we’ll show you
what we’ll do for you.”

Jack and I were keenly alive to all that was going on and, while
watching the five ruffians out on the prairie, were prepared to meet
any threatening move any of them might make.

Being out of hearing of the argument, the squad on the prairie seemed
to be growing restless. One of them called out to Tucker as though
soliciting an order to charge on us:

“_Cap, don’t you want us up there to settle that matter? Ef you do,
jes’ say the word!_”

Tucker hesitated before answering and looked about our camp as though
calculating the chances. The notion–if he entertained it–was quickly
dispelled by Tom, who growled out:

“You give ’em the order to advance an’ it’ll be the last one you’ll
ever give. We’ve got the deadwood on you two fellers an’ we’ll give a
good account of them others, too, ef they attempt to come on.”

Tucker acknowledged the situation by shouting to his men in the offing:

“_No! No! Stay where you are!_” Then, turning to Tom, he continued:
“Now, pardner, I’ve got one more last proposition to make you, to save
you trouble, an’ that is this: We’ll take them mules over to our camp
an’—-”

“That’ll do,” interrupted Tom. “I’ve heard enough of that. You’ll never
take them mules to your camp, or anywhere else, while I’m alive. You
know that neither you nor this other feller has any more right to them
mules than I have to the horses you’re ridin’. I don’t want to hear any
more of your nonsense. The best thing you two can do is to git away
from here. If I see one of you in range of our rifles again he’s liable
to git a hole in his hide. Five minutes to get out of range! Now, git!”

Tucker turned his horse and, calling, “Come on, Bill,” they started
to join their waiting comrades. After a few steps the captain turned
in his saddle and, with a threatening nod to Tom, said: “I’ll see you
later.”

“Ef you do it won’t be good for you,” retorted Tom.

Tucker and Sawyer joined the others, and without further
demonstration they moved off sullenly back along the road toward the
store and soon disappeared in the timber.

[Illustration: “Five minutes to get out of range! Now, git!”]

“They ain’t done with us yet,” said Tom musingly. “‘Tain’t likely that
they’ll make an open attack on us while we’re in this camp because they
can’t well get the drop on us here. The most natural thing would be fer
’em to slip past us to-night, or go ’round an’ get ahead of us, an’ lay
for us in the timber at the crossing of some creek on the road ahead.
I think that one of you men might as well slip over into the timber
yonder, near the store, an’ by keeping out of sight an’ watchin’ them
you may be able to guess what they’re going to do. They’ll be certain
to stop awhile at the store an’ fire up on the ol’ man’s whiskey, an’
then’s the time they’ll be apt to be careless about talking their plans
over, an’ after they’ve settled on what they intend to do they’ll go on
to camp to get their suppers. After they go on to camp, ef you’d slip
into the store an’ have a talk with the old man maybe he could tell you
what they’re up to.”

“That’s just to my notion, Tom,” said Jack. “I was just a-thinkin’ of
goin’ on a little spying expedition after them fellers. I think I can
find out what their game is, an’ by all that’s good an’ bad, I’ll not
come back till I do.”

So saying, taking his revolvers and shotgun, Jack struck out down a
ravine that led to the creek and was soon out of sight, while Tom and
I busied ourselves attending to the stock and other camp duties.

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