THE FIGHT ON THE TRAIL

The road to Orella was in the opposite direction to that taken by Dave
and Roger on the day they had encountered the heavy storm. As Mr. Obray
had said, the trail was well marked, so that the young civil engineer
had little trouble in following it.

“But you are going to have some rough riding, Dave,” remarked Roger,
when he came forward to see his chum depart. “They tell me there is one
spot on the trail where riding is as dangerous as it is on any trail in
Montana.”

“Well, Sport is a good horse, and I intend to be careful,” answered our
hero; and then, with a wave of his hand, he galloped away and was soon
out of sight of the construction camp.

Our hero felt in the best of humor, for the day promised to be a fine
one and a ride on horseback through the mountains was just to his
liking. He could not help but whistle gayly to himself as he sped
forward; and thus the first three miles of his journey were covered in a
comparatively short space of time.

Beyond these three miles the trail roughened for another mile or two,
and here the young civil engineer had to pick his way among the rocks
and loose stones with care. In some places where the trail was of dirt,
the brushwood grew thickly, so that it often brushed his legs and the
sides of his steed as they passed. This, of course, was merely the foot
trail to Orella, a sort of short cut. The main trail for teams wound
along farther down in the valley and was fully fifteen miles longer.

As Dave pursued his journey, many thoughts came to his mind, both about
his work and concerning those left at home in Crumville. The beautiful
face of Jessie, with her bewitching eyes, was continually before him;
and once or twice he took from his pocket the last letter he had
received from her, to read over some of the lines she had penned.

“She wants me to make good as a civil engineer, and I’m going to do it,”
he murmured to himself.

Shortly after leaving the construction camp he had passed several miners
who were prospecting in that vicinity, but now he seemed to be alone on
the trail, and the only sound that broke the stillness was the
occasional cry of a wild bird and the hoofbeats of his horse as the
sturdy animal moved ahead.

Having mounted to the top of an unusually hard rise, Dave brought Sport
to a halt to rest, and also to take a look at his surroundings. On one
side of him were the jagged rocks leading still further upward, while on
the other was the broad valley, clothed in green and with a shimmering
river flowing through its center. Far away he could see some animals
grazing, and took them to be mountain goats, although at such a distance
it was hard to make sure.

“A fellow certainly could have some great times out here hunting in the
proper season,” he told himself. “I’d like to go out myself for a few
days, especially if I could get some old hunter for a guide.”

Having rested for about five minutes, Dave moved forward again, and soon
found himself on the dangerous part of the trail mentioned by Roger. The
youth had heard this spoken of before, and he reined in his steed and
moved forward with caution.

“You be careful, old boy,” he said, patting his horse on the neck.
“Neither of us wants to take a tumble down yonder rocks. If we did, it
might be good-bye to both of us.”

Evidently Sport understood the situation quite as well as did the young
civil engineer, for he kept as close to the inner side of the path as
possible, and picked every step carefully, and thus they moved onward
until the very worst of the trail had been left behind. There was,
however, still some bad places, the trail widening out in some spots
only to narrow worse than ever in others.

“Hi there! Don’t you ride me down!” cried an unexpected voice, as Dave
came around one of the narrow bends of the trail. And the next instant
the youth found himself face to face with Nick Jasniff.

The fellow who had been in prison was on foot, and carried a bundle
strapped over one shoulder. He was so close that he had to leap to one
side for fear of being trampled under foot, and this filled him with
anger even before he recognized who was on horseback.

“Nick Jasniff!” exclaimed Dave, and for the instant knew not what more
to say.

“So it’s you, Porter, is it?” snarled the former bully of Oak Hall.
“What are you doing on this trail?”

“That is none of your business, Jasniff,” answered Dave coldly.

“See here! You needn’t put on any lordly airs with me!” growled the
fellow who in the past had caused our hero so much trouble. “Thought you
were playing a fine game on me, didn’t you—having that construction camp
manager make a fool of me?” And now Jasniff came closer and caught
Dave’s horse by the bridle.

“You keep your hands off my horse, Jasniff,” ordered Dave. “You let go
of him this instant!”

“I’ll let go when I please.”

“No, you won’t! You’ll let go now!” And so speaking, Dave leaned over in
the saddle to push the fellow away.

It was not a very wise thing to do, and Dave should have known better.
The instant he made the movement, Jasniff, who was tall and powerful,
caught him by the arm, and the next instant had hauled him from the
saddle. The scuffle which resulted from this alarmed the horse, and the
steed trotted away some distance up the trail.

“I guess I’ve got you now where I want you, Porter!” cried Jasniff, the
squinting eye squinting worse than ever as he scowled at our hero. “I’ve
got a big account to settle with you.”

Dave realized that he was in for it and that Nick Jasniff would hesitate
at nothing to accomplish his purpose. Our hero remembered well the
dastardly attack made on him by the rascal at the Oak Hall gymnasium
with an Indian club.

Jasniff struck out with his left fist, and at the same time put his
right hand back as if to draw some weapon. Dave dodged the blow intended
for his face, and then struck out swiftly, hitting Jasniff in the cheek.
Then several blows were exchanged in quick succession, Dave being hit in
the chest and shoulder and Jasniff receiving several in the chest and
one on the nose which sent him staggering several feet. Then the bully
rushed forward and clinched, and both circled around and around on the
narrow trail, each trying to get the advantage of the other.

“I’ll fix you! Just wait and see!” panted Jasniff, as he did his best to
get a strangle hold on our hero.

Dave did not answer, for he realized that in an encounter with such a
tall and powerful fellow as Jasniff he must make the best use of his
breath as well as his muscles.

He slipped from the clutch Jasniff was trying to get on him, and caught
the fellow by the waist. Then Jasniff went down with Dave on top of him,
and both rolled over and over among the rocks and into some bushes which
chanced to have sprung up in that vicinity.

“You le—le—let up!” gasped Jasniff presently, when he found Dave had him
by the throat.

“I’ll let up when I’m through with you—not before,” answered Dave
pantingly.

The struggle continued, and Jasniff arose partly to a sitting position
only to have his head banged backward on the rocks. Then, however, he
managed to get one leg doubled up and he sent his foot into Dave’s
stomach in such a way that our hero was for the moment deprived of his
breath. Both clinched again and rolled over until they were close to the
edge of the rocks.

“Now I’ve got you!” cried the bully; and just as Dave managed to hit him
another blow in the nose, one which made the blood spurt, Jasniff tore
himself free and an instant later pushed Dave down over the rocks.

Even then our hero might have saved himself, as he had his left foot
planted in what he thought a safe place, and he might have caught
Jasniff by the leg. But the foot gave way most unexpectedly, and in a
trice Dave found himself rolling over and over down a rocky slope. He
clutched out wildly, and managed to catch hold of several bushes. But
these came out by the roots, and then he slid downward once more, at
last reaching a little cliff over which he plunged sideways, to land
with a crash in some bushes and stunted trees some distance below.

The rolling and the drop over the cliff had all but stunned the young
civil engineer, and for fully five minutes he lay among the bushes
hardly realizing where he was or what had happened. Then, when he
finally arose to his feet, he found that his left shoulder hurt him not
a little, and that his left ankle felt equally painful and was quite
lame.

“That certainly was some tumble,” he groaned to himself. “I suppose I
can be thankful I wasn’t killed.”

[Illustration: DAVE FOUND HIMSELF ROLLING OVER AND OVER DOWN A ROCKY
SLOPE.—_Page 74._]

He had rolled a distance of fifty yards, and the top of the little cliff
was six or eight feet above his head. From where he stood he could not
see that portion of the trail where the encounter had occurred, and
consequently he knew not what had become of Nick Jasniff.

“I hope he rolled down, too,” murmured Dave to himself. But after he had
taken a good look around he concluded that Jasniff had remained up on
the trail.

The only thing to do was to climb up to the trail and try to find out
what had become of Jasniff and the horse.

“It would be just like Jasniff to take Sport and ride off with him,”
thought Dave dismally. “What a fool I was not to give him a knock-out
blow when I had him down on the rocks! If I had given him that I could
have made him a prisoner before he had a chance to regain his senses.
Now he’s got the best of it, and there is no telling what he’s up to.”

More anxious to know what had become of his horse than over Jasniff’s
welfare, Dave moved around to one end of the cliff and then began to
scramble up the rocks. This was by no means easy, and more than once he
had to stop to catch his breath and nurse his hurt shoulder and his lame
ankle. Up above him he could now see the trail, but neither Jasniff nor
the horse was in sight.

At last Dave had the satisfaction of drawing himself up over the rocks
bordering the edge of the trail, and here, feeling rather weak, he sat
down to regain his strength. He listened intently, but scarcely a sound
broke the silence of the mountains. Evidently Nick Jasniff had taken
time by the forelock and made good his departure.

“If he took that horse, what am I to do?” mused Dave bitterly. “To foot
it all the way to Orella, and especially with this lame ankle, is almost
out of the question.”

Thinking of Orella put Dave in mind of his mission, and he quickly
thrust his hand into his pocket to see if the envelope Mr. Obray had
given him to deliver was safe.

The next instant his heart almost stopped beating. The envelope was
gone!

Frantically he searched one pocket after another; and then he made
another discovery equally dismaying. Not only was the envelope the
construction camp manager had given him missing, but likewise the
letters he had received from Jessie and his Uncle Dunston, and also his
pocketbook which had contained upward of forty dollars.

“Gone!”

This was the one word which burst from Dave’s lips as he searched one
pocket after another in rapid succession. Then he arose to his feet, to
hurry up and down the trail in the vicinity where the encounter with
Jasniff had occurred. But though he looked everywhere, not a trace of
the documents, the letters, or his pocketbook could be found.

An examination showed that his coat was torn in several places and that
the side of one of the pockets had likewise been rent. But whether this
damage had been caused by the fight or when he had rolled down over the
rocks, he could not determine.

“I guess I got pretty well mussed up in the fight, and the fall down the
rocks finished the job,” he muttered to himself.

He was much disheartened, and felt bitter against Nick Jasniff. Whether
the rascal had picked up the articles lost and made off with them was,
however, a question.

“If I lost them up here on the trail he probably took them,” Dave
reasoned. “But if they fell out of my pockets when I rolled down the
rocks and over the cliff, they must be scattered somewhere between here
and the place where I landed in the bushes.”

Dave felt much perplexed, not knowing whether it would be better to try
to find Jasniff or to make a search in the vicinity where he had had the
fall.

“I suppose it would be sheer nonsense to try to follow Jasniff on foot
if he went off on my horse,” the young civil engineer reasoned. “I might
as well take a look down below and make sure that I didn’t drop those
things when I fell.”

With his hurt shoulder and lame ankle, it was almost as much of a task
to get down the rocks as it had been to climb up. As well as he was
able, he took the same course he had followed in the fall, and he kept
his eyes wide open for the things he had lost. But five minutes of
slipping and sliding brought him to the top of the little cliff without
seeing anything but dirt, rocks, and bushes. Then he had to make a wide
detour to get to the bottom of the cliff.

“I suppose it’s a wild-goose chase, and I’ll have my work for my pains,”
he grumbled. “Oh, rats! Why did I have to fall in with Jasniff on this
trip? I wish that fellow was at the North Pole or down among the
Hottentots, or somewhere where he couldn’t bother me!”

Dave began to search around in the vicinity of the spot where he had
fallen. He was almost ready to give up in despair when his eye caught
sight of a white-looking object some distance below. Eagerly he climbed
down to the place where the object lay, and the next moment set up a cry
of joy.

“Hurrah! Here are Mr. Obray’s documents!” he exclaimed. “I hope they are
all right.”

A hasty inspection convinced him that the legal-looking envelope and its
contents were intact. Having inspected them carefully, he placed the
packet inside of his shirt.

“I won’t take any more chances with it,” he told himself. “Somebody will
have to rip my clothing off to get that envelope away.”

With the envelope safe in his possession once more, Dave felt
exceedingly light-hearted. But the letter from Jessie, as well as the
communication from Uncle Dunston, and the pocketbook with the forty odd
dollars in it, were still missing, and he spent some time looking for
those things.

“It doesn’t matter so much about the letters, even though I hate to part
with the one from Jessie,” he reasoned. “But I’d like to set my eyes on
that pocketbook with the forty-two or forty-three dollars it held.”

But our hero’s success had come to an end with the finding of the
envelope to be delivered at Orella; and although he searched around for
a quarter of an hour longer, nothing of any value came to sight. Then,
with a deep sigh, he pulled himself up once more to the trail, and set
off on a hunt for his horse.

“Jasniff was headed in the opposite direction, and maybe he didn’t go
after Sport,” Dave argued to himself. “Anyhow, I’ve got to go that way,
even if I have to journey on foot.”

Painfully our hero limped along, for the climbing up and down on the
rocks had done the lame ankle no good. He had had to loosen his shoe,
for the ankle had swollen not a little.

“If I could only bathe it it wouldn’t be so bad,” he thought.

But there was no water at hand, and the small quantity he carried in a
flask for drinking purposes was too precious to be used on the injured
limb.

He had covered several yards when his lame ankle gave him such a twinge
that he had to sit down to give it a rest.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t find that horse,” he
thought bitterly.

He was sitting and nursing the hurt ankle and looking over the landscape
in the valley below him, when something on one of the bushes less than
fifty feet away caught his eye.

“I wonder what that can be,” he mused. “It doesn’t look like a bird’s
nest. It looks more like an old shoe. I wonder——Can it be my
pocketbook?”

The last thought was so electrifying that Dave leaped to his feet, and,
regardless of the painful ankle, walked over to the edge of the trail.
Here he could see the object quite plainly, and he lost no time in
crawling down to the bushes and obtaining it.

It was indeed his pocketbook, but wide open and empty. Even the few
cards and slips of paper it had contained were missing.

“This proves one thing,” he reasoned bitterly. “Jasniff picked that
pocketbook up where we had the fight, and he came this way while he was
emptying it, then he threw it away.”

Dave was also sure of another thing. The pocketbook and the two letters
had been in the same pocket, and he felt certain that Nick Jasniff had
also confiscated the two communications.

“Now the question is, if he came this way, did he get Sport?” Dave
mused. “If he did, then it’s good-bye to the letters, the money and the
horse.”

Placing the empty wallet in his pocket, Dave sat down and rested his
lame ankle. He counted the loose change in his trousers’ pocket and
found he had eighty-five cents. Then he limped on once more around
another bend in the trail.

Here a sight filled him with satisfaction. At this point the rocks came
to an end and there was a fairly good bit of pasture-land, and here
stood Sport, feeding away as if nothing out of the ordinary had
happened.

“Good old Sport!” cried Dave, going up to the animal and patting him
affectionately. “I’m mighty glad you didn’t run any farther, and doubly
glad Nick Jasniff didn’t get you. Now, old boy, we’ll be on our way and
try to make up for lost time;” and in a moment more our hero was in the
saddle and galloping off in the direction of Orella.

Dave surmised that Nick Jasniff had come in that direction looking for
the horse, but without finding Sport. At the same time, the rascal had
rifled the pocketbook and then thrown it in the bushes. Then, thinking
the horse had gone a much greater distance, Jasniff had retraced his
steps and continued on his way in the direction of the construction
camp.

“But he can’t be bound for the camp, for Mr. Obray warned him to keep
away,” thought our hero. “It must be that he is headed either for some
of the mining camps or ranches, or the railroad station.”

Our hero felt that it would be next to useless for him to go to the
Double Eight Ranch, where Nick Jasniff was employed, and accuse him of
the theft. The fellow would probably deny everything—even the meeting on
the road. And as there had been no witnesses to the transaction, there
the case would have to rest.

“Just the same, when I get the chance, I’ll let the manager of the
Double Eight Ranch know what sort of fellow Jasniff is,” Dave said to
himself. “Maybe that crowd over there won’t want a prison bird around
any more than we wanted him at the construction camp.”

Our hero had been right in regard to finding the pocketbook and letters.
After Dave had disappeared over the edge of the cliff below the trail,
Nick Jasniff had looked around to find his hat, which had fallen off in
the struggle. As he picked this up he had noticed the pocketbook and the
two letters.

“Maybe there’s something in that pocketbook worth keeping,” he had
muttered to himself, as he tried to stop the flow of blood from his
bruised nose. “And I guess I’m entitled to anything I can get from Dave
Porter. I hope he broke every bone in his body by that fall.”

He waited for a minute to see if Dave would reappear, and then hurried
along the trail, thinking he could find and mount our hero’s horse. He
quickly transferred the forty-three dollars he found in the wallet to
his own pocket, and then threw the pocketbook away in the spot where
Dave picked it up.

“I guess it’s no use to look any farther,” Jasniff had muttered to
himself on failing to locate the horse. “Gee! I’m glad I struck this
forty-three dollars! That amount with the thirty I had before will see
me a long distance on my way.”

And thereupon he had hurried back past the spot where the encounter had
taken place, and then along the trail to where there was a fork—one
branch leading down to the construction camp, and the other off in the
direction of some mines and the nearest railroad station.

Although our hero did not know it, Jasniff had had another quarrel
earlier in the day. A miner operating near the Double Eight Ranch had
the night before fallen in with several of the men employed by the
Mentor Construction Company, and from them had learned the particulars
concerning the fellow who had gotten out of prison.

This news had been carried to James Dackley, the manager of the Double
Eight, and Dackley, who was naturally a hot-headed man, had become
furious over the thought of being so deceived by Jasniff.

“I only took him on because I thought he was a tenderfoot and was hard
up for a job,” Dackley had growled. “He told such a straight story that
I swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker. I don’t want such a fellow
around here any more than they want him over to the railroad camp. Just
have Nolan send him to me, and I’ll soon send him about his business.”

Thereupon Nick Jasniff had been summoned from the bunk-house to the main
building on the Double Eight Ranch and been closely questioned by James
Dackley. He had denied everything, but the ranch manager had refused
almost to listen to him.

“I’m going to investigate this,” said Dackley, “and if the story is
true, the sooner you get out the better I’ll be pleased.”

Nick Jasniff had well understood that the truth would come out in the
near future; and knowing how passionate James Dackley could become on
occasion, he had lost no time in packing his few belongings and asking
for his pay. This had been given to him, and he had thereupon set out on
his journey toward the railroad station on foot—Dackley refusing to give
him the loan of a horse.

Nick Jasniff had come to the conclusion that it would be best for him to
quit the neighborhood. He had thirty dollars in his pocket, and this
added to the forty-three taken from Dave’s pocketbook made quite a sum.

“There’s no use of my staying here in the West,” he reasoned. “There are
far more chances in the East for a fellow like me. Maybe I’ll find some
of the fellows I used to know out there, and we can pull off some stunts
worth while.”

With several miles placed between him and the place where he had had the
encounter with Dave, Nick Jasniff sat down to rest and at the same time
look over the letters he had picked up. There was a cynical sneer on his
face as he read the communication from Jessie to Dave.

“It’s enough to make a fellow sick to think such a rich girl as that
should take to a fellow like Dave Porter,” he murmured to himself.
“Wouldn’t I like to put a spoke in that fellow’s wheel! I wonder if I
couldn’t do something to come between Porter and the Wadsworths? I owe
old man Wadsworth something for sending me to prison.”

Then Nick Jasniff turned to the letter written by Dunston Porter. The
beginning of this did not interest him greatly, but he read with
interest what Dave’s uncle had written concerning the gypsies who had
camped out on the outskirts of Crumville.

“Got into a row with a couple of gypsies, eh?” he mused. “I reckon
that’s something worth remembering. Maybe those fellows wouldn’t mind
joining me in some kind of a game against the Wadsworths. Maybe we could
put one over and make a lot of money out of it. Anyway, it’s something
worth thinking about;” and thereupon Nick Jasniff grew very thoughtful
as he proceeded on his way to the railroad station.