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CHAPTER IV.
IN THE HANDS OF THE BAR Z MEN.

“Lloyd!” exclaimed Frank, suddenly recognizing the man who had laid hold of his bridle. “Is that you, Aaron Lloyd?”

“Surest thing you know,” chuckled Lloyd. “Right next to me, here, is Ben Jordan. Back of Ben is Bandy Harrison. Didn’t reckon you were going to meet us again so soon, eh? It’s just a little surprise party, that’s all.”

“You’re an obligin’ cuss, Merriwell,” remarked Jordan. “No relay race about this, eh? I’m thunderin’ glad you came with Andy.”

“We’re going to make your stay at the Bar Z a heap pleasant,” went on Lloyd.

“Goin’ to show you the homemade athletes right on their own stamping ground,” said Jordan. “Don’t put up a holler, Merriwell. You didn’t catch us sobbing when we lost out on that gold mine, did you? Face the music, old sport.”

“Is that Barzy Blunt over there?” Frank inquired, making a gesture in the direction of the fourth rider that had joined him and Andy in the bottom of the cañon.

“Not a whole lot, son,” came from the individual in question. “Blunt’s to home, waitin’ fer you to come. Oh, he’ll be tickled!”

“Just a minute,” said Frank, “before we proceed further with this business. From the way some of you talk, you’re evidently expecting I’m to make something of a stay at the Bar Z Ranch. That’s where you’ve got another guess coming. I’ve got to be back at the Ophir House by five in the morning.”

“Not by five,” demurred Lloyd, “oh, no, not by five!”

“Maybe by five in the evenin’,” said Jordan.

“The game won’t be over sos’t he can make it by then,” protested Bandy Harrison.

“What game?” asked Merry, pricking up his hears.

“Never you mind,” said Aaron Lloyd. “You’ll know what game quick enough.”

“Able,” said Frank, a sudden cold fury rising in him, “you’re a hound. I was fool to trust you and leave the hotel.”

“I said,” returned Andy with a chuckle, “that I could git ye back to the hotel by five in the mornin’, but I disremember sayin’ I would.”

“You lied to me,” went on Frank, his voice like cold steel, “and it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether you did it directly or indirectly. I was sorry for Blunt and wanted to do something for him, and you played up that part of it merely to get me out of town. Talk about being square! Why, Able, I don’t believe there’s a square man among the lot of you.”

“Now, you look a’ here, oncet!” blustered Andy. “We ain’t intendin’ you no harm, or—”

Right at that moment, Frank executed a sudden and unexpected move. His horse was still in the grip of Aaron Lloyd’s strong hand, and even if the animal could have broken away, Frank would have had to pass Jordan and the fourth member of the party of horsemen who had appeared so suddenly in the cañon, Merry was not going to submit tamely to the Bar Z men, and he had made up his mind to get away from them on foot even if he could not escape on the horse. Quick as a flash, and while Able was speaking, he flung himself out of the saddle and made a dash for the black depths of the chaparral at the trailside.

Quick as a flash, and while Able was speaking, he flung himself out of the saddle and made a dash for the black depths of the chaparral at the trailside.

“Stop him!” roared Lloyd.

“He’s quicker ‘n a streak o’ greased lightnin’,” whooped Able.

Frank believed that if he could one reach the friendly screen of the bushes, he would be able to evade the Bar Z men in the dark. But he was not destined to reach the chaparral. He felt something drop on his shoulder, and fall with a rustling thump to the ground.

“A lariat!” was his quick thought.

In order to avoid another noose which the cowboys might throw, he ducked his head forward. He succeeded in keeping his head out of a snare by this process, by his flying feet did not fare so well.

Yet, be that as it may, a wide circle of hemp slipped around one of Frank's feet, contracted swiftly, and in another moment he was tripped and thrown flat.

Chance, rather than design, must have aided one of the rope throwers, otherwise the cast could not have been so well made in the gloom. Yet, be that as it may, a wide circle of hemp slipped around one of Frank’s feet, contracted swiftly, and in another moment he was tripped and thrown flat. His head, already recovering from the fall in the cañon on the occasion of the relay race, was jarred dizzily. Stunned for a moment, he finally sat up, to find Aaron Lloyd and Andy Able on their feet beside him.

“Blazes!” exclaimed Andy, in great regret. “I didn’t want to be rough with ye, son, honest! But I ain’t got ye this far jest to let ye gi’ me the slip. Ye’re goin’ to the Bar Z, and no two ways about it.”

“Take it easy, Merriwell,” urged Lloyd. “We’re not so low down as to run you off and try to do you up. We’re a bunch of square sports, and this game is on the level.”

“This looks like it,” said Merry sarcastically. “I didn’t tell a soul anything about where I was going, because I was led to believe that I’d be taken back to the hotel before morning. Now you’re evidently planning to keep me at the ranch for some time. What will my friends think, when they fail to find me?”

“Bother what they think!” answered Lloyd. “We want you a heap worse than they do for a while.”

“What do you want me for?”

“You’ll find that out when you get to the Bar Z.”

Merry saw that he was in for it. There were five husky cowboys against him, and resistance was worse than useless. He felt as though he ought to return at once to Ophir; and yet, for all that, he had a weird curiosity to find out why the cowboys were so anxious to get him to the ranch.

“I give you my word that I’ll ride with you to the Bar Z ranch,” said Chip. “After I get there, though, I’ll not be bound by any promises. I don’t like this work of yours a little bit.’’

“Take off the rope, Andy,” said Lloyd.

Andy removed the rope and coiled it. Frank got up slowly and moved toward his horse, which Bandy Harrison was holding.

A few minutes later, the whole party was riding up the canyon. They rode two and two in the dim trail. Able and the cowboy, whose name Frank had not learned, rode in front. Back of them came Frank. With Aaron Lloyd at his side, Harrison and Jordan brought up the rear.

Lloyd and Jordan had taken part in the relay race for the mining claim. The fact that they were with the party rather made it look as though the loss of the claim was playing a part in the night’s scheming against Merriwell. All the men talked fair enough, however, yet Able had talked in the same way and with the deliberate intent to deceive.

Frank had been foolish in leaving the hotel as he had done. He realized that now. There was a guiding motive back of that night’s business quite apart from any conversation Merry might have with Barzy Blunt. What was it? Merry’s curiosity stepped in. just here, and he was conscious of a desire to see the adventure through. Could he have escaped and regained the hotel, however, his curiosity would not have stood in his way for a minute. En route to the ranch he had given his promise, and was on parole; but after they reached the ranch he would be governed by circumstances alone.

That Barzy Blunt was concerned in the plot was a foregone conclusion to Merriwell. More than likely Blunt was the ringleader, and had put the whole scheme in motion. It was certainly just such a crazy scheme as the Cowboy Wonder might be expected to develop and engineer to a conclusion.

The conception of the Bar Z athletes of what was “square” in athletics was founded on their ideas of what they considered fair play in the rough life of the ranch. An explosion of animal spirits, resulting in a little lawlessness was fair enough on the range, and ought to be fair enough in sports of the field or track.

Lloyd, doing a second lap of the relay race with Clancy as a contestant, thought there was nothing wrong in kicking a stone in front of the red-headed runner and laming him so that he was delayed five minutes in a stretch of eight miles.

This move of the Bar Z men, in luring Merry away from the hotel was quite in line with their notions of square dealing. They probably meant well enough, but, like many other men, had a poor way of showing it.

The course to the ranch led up the canyon for a mile and a half, then for several miles through a gulch that formed a branch of the larger defile. At the end of the gulch, the trail crawled over the bank to level ground, and for several more miles followed a dusty desert. At its farther side, the desert ran into a chain of hills where nature had placed a never-failing spring whose copious waters supplied the Bar Z cattle.

The ranch buildings lay in a sun-scorched valley, wide and shallow. There was the usual bunk house and chuck shanty and corral—the latter made of okatea stakes braided together with wire. From a rise of ground overlooking the valley, Merriwell beheld the clutter of low buildings sprawled shadowily below.

'There’s our hangout, Merriwell,' announced Lloyd, pointing. 'I see it,' Frank answered.

“There’s our hangout, Merriwell,” announced Lloyd, pointing.

“I see it,” Frank answered.

“We’re a hospitable outfit, and you’ll get all the chuck you want to eat and a good place to bunk. It’s too dark to see our athletic field, but to-morrow we’ll shoo the cattle off it and give you a chance to look it over. We’ve got a corking diamond. Say, you ought to see that diamond! Barzy laid it out, and we’ve got real bags for bases, by jinks! Real bags, stuffed with sand. Oh, you’ll be tickled to death when you see that baseball lay-out.”

“Is that all you brought me out here for,” asked Merry, amused in spite of himself, “just to see your athletic field?”

“More’n that, Merriwell, more’n that. Just wait, old buck. About to-morrow we’ll have you going.”

“I’m liable to get going before to-morrow if you don’t keep an eye on me.”

“That’s you! I’m not forgetting that your promise only lasts as far as the ranch. But we’re going to hang onto you, fast enough.”

The riders galloped down into the valley and toward the shadowy buildings. They passed one or two structures and finally halted in front of a square, windowless adobe.

“Once,” explained Lloyd. “the’ used to be a quartz mine in those hills, but it was ‘pockety,’ like a good many other Arizona mines, and soon petered out. This ‘dobe, here, used to be the powder house, but we use it for storage. It’s not so uninviting as it looks, Merriwell. There are no windows, but holes have been punched for ventilation. Get down and walk in.”

Andy Able had unlocked a heavy plank door, and was holding it open.

‘‘I guess I won’t go in,” said Frank.

“Now, don’t be ‘fussy, Merriwell,” pleaded Lloyd. “We’re tryin’ to treat you white, see? If you’ll promise not to run away, you can go with the rest of us to the bunk house; but if you won’t promise, you’ll have to camp out in this ‘dobe.”

“I’ll agree not to run away until after breakfast,” said Frank, “if you’ll let me put up in the bunk house till then. After breakfast, Lloyd, I’ll see how I feel about this business, and then you can do whatever you think best.”

“It’s a go!’’ said Lloyd. “Close the shack, Andy. Merriwell’s going to the bunk house for a while.”

“Wait a minute,” called a voice.

A form came around the end of the adobe and stopped in front of Merriwell. It was Barzy Blunt.

'I want to talk with you, Merriwell,' said Blunt, 'We might as well do the talking here, I reckon, and now's as good a time as any.'

“I want to talk with you, Merriwell,” said Blunt, “We might as well do the talking here, I reckon, and now’s as good a time as any. He’ll be along to the bunk house later, Lloyd,” he added.

“Correct, Barzy,” Lloyd answered.

Merry dismounted, and the rest rode off to the corral, leading his horse. He turned to face the Cowboy Wonder, hardly knowing whether he ought to punch his head or to meet him with a handshake and a smile.

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