The foremost of the steers came within a few feet of the rattlers. Then something seemed to stiffen the cattle. They tried to stop short, but the press of the beasts behind them would not permit of this. For a few seconds it looked as if the impetus of the cattle in the rear would shove the others on, in spite of their desire to stop.
But now more of the foremost steers became aware of the den of snakes. Their instinct, their sense of smell, and, above all, hearing the rattling, told them the terrible danger that was in their path. More of the animals braced their forelegs to bring themselves to a stop, and all bellowed in terror. Then, almost as though an order had been given by some one in command, the ranks of steers parted, right at the point where the snakes were reared ready to strike.
To right and left the cattle passed, increasing their speed as they became aware of the danger they were escaping. The boys and the professor stood on the little eminence of land, as if they were on an island in a sea of cattle. The angry snakes hissed and rattled, but did not glide away, or what had proved a source of safety for the travelers, might have been instrumental in their death.
Right past them rushed the cattle, raising a dust that was choking. The four were enveloped in a yellow haze, as they stood huddled together. Then, the last of the steers galloped past, with a band of excited cowboys in the rear, vainly endeavoring to understand the cause of the stampede, and halt it. As they rode on like the wind, they waved their hands to the boys and Mr. Snodgrass.
“Well, I guess we can move on now,” said Jerry, as the last of the steers and cowboys was lost in a cloud of dust that accompanied them. “I’ve seen all the beef I want to for a long time.”
“That’s the first time I ever knew rattlesnakes were good for anything,” remarked Ned, as he backed away, with his eyes on the den of reptiles, as if afraid they would spring at him.
“They are more feared by animals than any other snake in this country, I believe,” said the professor. “Luck was certainly with us to-day.”
The professor successfully resisted a desire to capture some of the snakes for specimens, and soon, with the three boys, he was on his way back to the stalled train, though he did not make very fast progress for he was continually stopping to gather in some strange insect.
It was long past dinner-time when the travelers got back, but they found they were not the only ones in this predicament, for a number of the passengers had beguiled the tediousness of the wait by going off across the prairie.
“Let’s get the porter to get us some sandwiches, and then we’ll watch ’em get the train back on the track,” suggested Jerry.
At the Seaburys’
The wrecking crew had arrived shortly before the boys and the professor got back, and there was a big crowd of passengers and train men around the laborers.