“How do you know?”
“I heard him rattle!”
Leon, too, had heard the sound, and would have started after a poker, intent on killing the reptile, had he not seen Tom shake his head, a twinkle in his eye.
“There are no rattlesnakes about in the dead of winter on this Range,” Tom declared positively.
“That one has been keeping hisself warm in the bottom of the wood-box,” insisted Alf.
“There, didn’t you hear it?” quivered the cigarette fiend.
“I heard no rattler,” declared Tom, innocently. “Did you, Leon?”
The cook thought, to be sure that he had heard one, but he caught the cue from Reade and answered in the negative.
“Go and turn the wood-box out, Leon, to show the young man that there’s no snake there,” Tom requested.
Just then that task was hardly welcome to the cook, but he was a man of nerve, and, in addition, he reasoned that Reade must know what he was talking about. So Leon crossed the room with an air of unconcern.
“Here’s your rattlesnake, I reckon,” growled the cook, picking up Alf’s dropped cigarette and tossing it toward the boy.
“That’s the only rattlesnake on the Range,” Tom pursued. “I’ve been trying to tell Alf that cigarettes are undermining his nerves and making him hear and see things.”
Leon unconcernedly overturned the wood-box. Alf, with a yell, ran and jumped upon a stool, standing there, his eyes threatening to pop out from sheer terror.
Leon began to stir the firewood about with his foot.
Alf howled with terror, and seemed in danger of falling from the stool.
“You’ll keep on hearing rattlers, I expect,” grunted Reade, “when all the time it’s nothing but the snapping of your nerves from smoking cigarettes. The next thing you know your brain will snap utterly.”
Click-ick-ick! On his stool Alf danced a mild war-dance from sheer nervousness.
“Come, be like a man, and give up the pests,” advised Tom.
“I—–I—–be-believe I will,” half agreed the lad.
“Didn’t you hear that?” quavered the youngster.
“I hear your voice, but no rattlers,” Reade went on. “Are you still hearing the snakes? Be a man, Alf! Come, empty your pockets of cigarettes and throw them in the fire.”
Like one in a dream Alf Drew obeyed. Then he sat down, and presently he began to recover from the worst of his fright.
When his hour was up, Tom Reade went back to the other shack. Harry was awake, and feeling rather comfortable under big Walsh’s ministrations.
Soon after nine that night, the camp lay wrapped in slumber, save in the partner’s shack, where the shaded light burned. Tim Walsh was still on duty, while Tom sat half dozing in a chair.
For the first time in days the young chief engineer was fairly contented in mind. He now believed that his chum would surely recover.