“I’m glad to hear you say that, Reade,” nodded Mr. Thurston approvingly. “Two of my staff carry pistols, but they do so under my orders. In the first place they’re grown men, not boys. In the second place, they’re working over a stretch of ground where rattlesnakes are thick. Your coolness today served you better than a pistol would have done. If you had had a revolver, and had drawn it, Pete would have drilled you through the head.”
“Drilled me through the head—–with what?” asked Tom, smiling.
“With a bullet, of course, young man,” retorted Mr. Thurston.
“I don’t believe he would have gone as far as that,” laughed Tom. “You see, sir, it was like this: When I found Harry so set on carrying a pistol, I went down deep in my own pocket and bought two boxes of blank cartridges to fit the forty-fives. I thought if Harry were going to do some shooting, it would be the part of friendship to fix him so that he could do it in safety to himself and others.”
Harry’s face turned decidedly red. He was beginning to feel foolish.
“Now, this morning,” Tom continued, “when I got the khaki out of my dunnage, I ran across the blanks. I don’t know what made me do it, but I dropped the box of blanks into one of my pockets. This noon, when I went off to find a stream where I could wash up, I almost stepped on our friend Peter, asleep under a bush. For greater comfort he had taken off his belt and holster. Somehow, I didn’t like the idea of his being there. As softly as I could I crept close. I emptied his revolver and fitted in blanks from my own box. Then I took about twenty cartridges out of Peter’s belt and replaced them with blanks.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” broke in Rutter, “that Bad Pete, when he turned his revolver loose on you, was shooting nothing but blanks?”
“That was all he had to shoot,” Tom returned coolly. “And blanks were all he had in his belt to reload with. Don’t you remember when we heard him making a noise up the hillside, and talking in dots and dashes!”
“I do,” nodded Rutter, looking half dazed.
“That,” grinned Reade, “was when he started in to reload? and discovered that he had nothing on hand but temperance cartridges. Here-----” Tom began to unload one of his pockets upon the wooden table before the astonished eyes of the others. There was a mixture of his own blank cartridges with the real ammunition that he had stealthily abstracted from Bad Pete’s revolver and belt.
Such a whoop of glee ascended that the head chainman came running from the other nearby mess tent to see what was up.
“Just a little joke among our youngsters, my man,” explained Mr. Thurston. “The young gentlemen are going to keep the joke to themselves for the present, though.”
So the mystified and disappointed chainman returned to his own crowd.
“Let me see, Reade,” continued Mr. Thurston, turning once more to Tom, “what is your salary?”