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Frank Merriwell, Junior, at the Bar Z Ranch; Or, The Cowboy Athletes.
By Burt L. Standish

CHAPTER I.
A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE.

Young Merriwell and Clancy were alone in the office of the Ophir House. Merry had just written, sealed, and addressed a very important letter to his father at Bloomfield, and had pushed back from the writing table for a few words with his red-headed chum. In the midst of their talk they turned and saw Billy Ballard. He was stealing through the outside door on his tiptoes, a wildly ominous look on his face and a finger at his lips. In turning, Merry and Clancy had rattled their chairs and scuffled their feet.
“Hus-s-h! Be quiet,” warned Ballard. “You’re making more noise than a boiler factory.”

“What’s biting you, Pink?” asked Clancy.

“I wouldst a tale unfold,” said Ballard dramatically.

“For the love of Mike,” urged Merry, “unfold it. Somebody trying to set the hotel on fire?”

“Worse than that,” answered Ballard huskily.

“Well, get it off your chest—don’t be so fussy. You seem to think that winning a relay Marathon hasn’t furnished us enough excitement for one day, and that you’ve got to pile on the agony just as we’re about ready for bed. I’ve done a sprint of eight miles, and Chip’s done ten, and—”

'He heard a noise, Chip,' said Clancy, his voice thrilling with horror. 'Heavens! What if it was Proprietor Pophagan snoring across the hall?'

“I did seven myself,” cut in Ballard reprovingly, “but I’m not so worn out that I can’t investigate when danger threatens. Listen,” and he put on a few more mock heroics, “I was up in my room when I heard a noise!”

“He heard a noise, Chip,” said Clancy, his voice thrilling with horror. “Heavens! What if it was Proprietor Pophagan snoring across the hall?”

“Come again,” said Ballard. “You haven’t guessed it.”

“We’re not going to do any more guessing,” returned Clancy. “Tell us what’s happened, you crazy chump, or you’ll wish you had.”

“Oh, well, if you’re going to get mad about it, Red, I’ll hand it right over. I heard a noise just under my window, and looked out. The light from the office fell through that window there”—Ballard pointed to a window close to the table where Merry had been writing—”and there was a fellow standing outside and looking in. He was dressed like a cowboy.”

“Is there any law against cowboys looking into hotel windows, Pink?” inquired Merry?

“Wait a minute,” said Ballard. “This particular cowpuncher moved around as though he was up to something unlawful. He sneaked up and down the side of the hotel and finally came back to the window. I came down the back stairs and around the other side of the building to the office. When I came in his face was at the glass; but you chumps made so much noise he ducked away.”

“Go back to bed, Pink,” suggested Clancy. “You’ve had a bad dream.”

“No dream about it,” growled Ballard, “for I’m telling you just what I saw. Maybe it amounts to something and maybe not. I give it to you for what it’s worth.”

“It wasn’t worth your bother, old champ,” said Merry.

“That relay race we had with Barzy Blunt and his cowboy athletes must have got on your nerves. Suppose we all go up to bed? I’ll confess that I’m more than ready to hit the blankets.”

Frank picked up his letter, took it over to the office counter, and dropped it through a slot. From the box below Woo Sing, the Chinese roustabout, removed the outgoing mail regularly every morning and carried it to the post office. As Frank turned away from the counter, two young fellows came breezing in through the front door. They were Spink and Handy, of the Ophir Athletic Dub.

The newcomers made a rush across the room and grabbed Frank enthusiastically by the hands.

“Good old Merry!” cried Spink. “Say, Brad has been telling us about that relay marathon you won against Barzy Blunt and his cow punchers. It must have been great! Give us the details, will you?”

“Ballard and Clancy had as much to do with it as I had,” protested Merriwell. “What’s more, fellows,” he added, “there wasn’t anything so very ‘great’ about it, after all.”

“But you found an old professor in Happenchance, the deserted mining town, didn’t you?” demanded Handy. And he’d found a gold mine, and Blunt and three of his cowboy pals stuck up a location notice of their own beside the professor’s, and then tried to beat you into town with another notice for filing at Gold Hill. Wasn’t that the way of it?’

“Something like that,” laughed Merry.

“And you and Blunt,” Spink struck in, “ran the last lap ten miles between Pete Loco’s ranch and Gold Hill; and where the trail crosses the canon Blunt showed a yellow streak by rolling a stone down on you and nearly doing you up. Is that right, too?”

“No,” said’ Merry, “that’s not right, Spink.”

“Oh, piffle!” put in Clancy. “There’s a lump on the back of his head as big as my fist. He dodged the stone, but he had to fall flat to do it. And that’s where the lump came from.”

“It’s a fact,” went on young Merriwell, “that I’ve got a sore head, and that I got it just ask Clancy says. But the rock fell by accident-and Barzy Blunt didn’t show any ‘yellow streak.’ Don’t lay that up against Barzy Blunt, fellows,” he added earnestly.
“It’s mighty fine of you, Merriwell,” said Spink, “to try to give the thing that sort of a twist. Personally, though, I wouldn’t put it past Blunt any to do a dirty trick of that sort.”

“You’re wrong,” declared Merriwell. “As a personal favor to me, fellows. I want you to consider that falling bowlder as an accident. Don’t talk about it to any one else as anything but an accident, pure and simple – for that’s exactly what it was. Blunt’s a pretty good sort, at heart, but he was raised among that Bar Z crowd. You know what that means.”

'Practice game!" grunted Clancy. "Call it a roughhouse, Handy.'

 

“All right, Chip,” proceeded Handy, “we’ll take your word for it so far as Blunt is concerned.” And now we’ll wipe out the Cowboy Wonder, as he calls himself, and take up another subject. You know the Ophir Athletic Dub is going to have a tilt with Gold Hill on the grid next Thanksgiving Day. It’s our annual custom. Mr. Bradlaugh, president of the O. A. C. asked
you to do something to get our eleven clicked into shape, and pulled off a practice game for you day before yesterday, so—”

“Practice game!” grunted Clancy. “Call it a roughhouse, Handy.”

“All right,” agreed Handy, “call it that. I’ll admit that both the regular team and the scrubs indulged in a little too much horseplay, and that Chip got disgusted. But Spink and I are sent here as a committee to ask you to give us another trial. How about to-morrow afternoon?”

“I don’t object to fun now and then,’’ said Merry; “in fact, I usually make a grab for my own share, and not much of it gets past me. If you’re going after Gold Hill in dead earnest, though, you’ve got to cut out the capers.”

“Try us again,’’ pleaded Spink. “We need a coach, Chip, and you measure up to just about what a coach ought to be. Are you with us tomorrow afternoon?”

“Why, sure, I’ll do what I can for you, but I’m in Arizona on business; and if football interferes with business, why, the football work will have to go. I’ve just written a letter home tonight, and it will probably be six days before I get an answer. That answer will tell me what I’m to do. If my instructions leave me no time for anything but business then everything else will have to go. With that understanding, Spink, you fellows can put up another practice game and I’ll come and look on. Then we’ll see what we can do to try and round up a winning team.”

“Bully!” jubilated Handy. “I suppose you fellows are tired and want to hit the feathers. We’ll be going now, and leave you to your peaceful slumbers. So long.”

The O. A.C. fellows, in a very agreeable frame of mind, locked arms and left the office. Frank and his chums went upstairs without any further delay.

Merry and Clancy had a big room with two beds in it, while Ballard had a room next to theirs. Before turning in, Merry bathed the back of his head with cold water and rubbed on a little arnica. The folded handkerchief which he bound over the bruise caused him to wince as he drew up the two ends in a snug knot.

Merry, tired out with a strenuous and an eventful day, was not long in falling asleep. Clancy, from his side of the room, was already in slumberland. Along about six-thirty in the morning Clancy opened his eyes drowsily. For a moment he stared at the open window near the head of his bed and saw a beam of sun struggling into the room. The next moment he was up with a whoop.

There was always a keen rivalry between Merry and Clancy to see which should be the first up and into a tub of cold water made ready Woo Sing the evening previous. The early bird got the water, and the next one had to slip into his trousers and tote up his own.

The whoop faded suddenly from Clancy's lips. The water was there, and the rough towels, just as the China-man had left them; but Merry wasn't in the room.

The whoop faded suddenly from Clancy’s lips. The water was there, and the rough towels, just as the China-man had left them; but Merry wasn’t in the room.

“He wouldn’t go out without his morning plunge muttered Clancy. “It was his business to empty the tub and—- Say, I wonder if he filled it for me?”

This wasn’t probable. Having the tub ready was a sort of reward of merit for getting up first. It wouldn’t have been any reward at all if the early riser had turned around and filled the tub for the next man. Both Merry and Clancy had very carefully drawn the line at doing anything of that kind.

Besides, if Merry had strained a point and filled the tub for his chum, the latter would surely have heard him clattering around with the water pails. No, Merry had reneged on the plunge that morning, and he was downstairs a full half hour before the breakfast gong.

Clancy started for the tub, then changed his mind and laid a hand on the knob of the hall door. He had it in mind to look out into the corridor and see if his chum had gone to Ballard’s room for something or other.

Then he made an astonishing discovery. The door was locked, and the key was on the inside of the lock!

It would have been physically impossible for Merriwell to leave the room by the door and then lock the door on the inside. The fact remained, however, that Merry was not in the room.

“Huh!” grunted Clancy. “Is this a joke, or what?”

If Merry hadn’t gone out by the door, then he must have left by the window. Both windows were wide open, and Clancy stepped to one and looked down. To hang by the sill and drop would not have caused much of a jolt. Yet why on earth should Merriwell want to leave the room in that fashion?

Clancy was vastly puzzled. He puckered up his brows and drummed his forehead with his knuckles.

“By Jupiter,” he exclaimed, at last, “it gets me!”

Turning the key, he let himself out and hurried to Ballard’s door.

“I say, Pink!” he called, pounding with his fist.

“What’s up?” asked Ballard, from the other side of the door.

“Seen anything of Merriwell? I woke up a minute ago and found him gone and the door locked. What the deuce do you suppose is going on?”

'There’s a black business afoot, I’ll take my oath!' declared Ballard. 'There’s something serious back of this, Clan!'

Ballard’s door was unlocked and jerked open, and Ballard’s startled eyes were peering into Clancy’s.

“There’s a black business afoot, I’ll take my oath!” declared Ballard. “There’s something serious back of this, Clan!”

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