“Senor,” he protested, “I know something about these men, and they will not wait to learn that you are an officer. Perhaps I had better ride with you.”
But Law declined the well-meant offer, and with a dubious shake of the head Ricardo rode away, while Dave guided Bessie Belle into the grove.
The mare seemed to know that something unusual was afoot. Perhaps some nervous tensity of her rider made itself felt, perhaps with equine sagacity she had understood from the first the nature of this scouting expedition. Dave was inclined to believe the latter--he had often averred that Bessie Belle knew quite as much as or more than he. At any rate she picked her way with admirable care, her hoofs made almost no sound upon the wet soil; only the complaint of the saddle leathers or the swish of a wet branch rose above the steady patter of the raindrops. It was not necessary to guide her; she selected the openings of her own free will, her small, sharp ears were alert, and her eyes searched the glades intently.
Dave smiled at this excess of caution and stroked Bessie Belle’s wet neck encouragingly, whereupon she turned her head and it seemed to the rider that she nodded her complete understanding. Law could have kissed her.
A RANGER’S HORSE
Onward through the dense foliage the two friends wound. Now and then they stopped to listen, but the rain was heavy enough to drown all other noises. Encountering fresh tracks finally, Dave leaned from his saddle and studied them. What he saw caused him to push forward with no diminution of stealth.
He had gone perhaps half a mile when Bessie Belle raised her head, and he noted that her nostrils were working sensitively. A few yards farther on Law fancied that he could detect the smell of a wood fire. Almost without a signal from him the mare halted in her tracks until he had satisfied himself. Still farther along they came to a place where the brush was low, and there, rising through the tree-tops beyond, they saw a wavering plume of blue smoke.
The Ranger rode into sight of the branding-fire with his Winchester across his saddle-horn and his thumb upon the hammer; what followed came with almost the blinding suddenness of a lightning crash, though afterward the events of that crowded moment lingered as a clear-cut memory. First there was the picture of a sandy glade in the center of which burned a fire with branding-irons in it, and a spotted calf tied to a tree, but otherwise no sign of life. Then, without warning, Bessie Belle threw up her head in that characteristic trick of hers, and simultaneously Dave saw a figure rise out of the grass at his left with rifle leveled. The Ranger remembered afterward the odd foreshortening of the weapon and the crooked twist of the face behind it. With the first jerk of his horse’s head his own gun had leaped to his shoulder—he