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CHAPTER VI.
A VAULT FOR L I F E.

There were about a dozen men at breakfast in the chuck shanty, and there were vacant places where about a dozen more had left their empty dishes. The Bar Z was a big ranch, Just now cattle were being collected at various points to send down to the alfalfa meadows. This necessitated rather more shifting about than usual on the part of the Bar Z men.

Merry noticed, however, that there was an air about headquarters as though the beef cut had halted temporarily and matters had settled down for the day. Groups of loungers were taking their ease and smoking or gossiping. And over everything there hung an atmosphere of subdued excitement and eager anticipation.

Aaron Lloyd, Ben Jordan, and Bandy Harrison were not in the chuck shanty. Barzy Blunt was there, and Andy, after piloting Merriwell into the room and giving him a seat, walked away and dropped down at the table beside Blunt. The two conversed in low voices, and Merry felt pretty sure that he was the subject of their discussion.

The serving was attended to by a couple of Japanese boys. While it was going on, the cook, a coal-black negro in a grimy white cap and apron, stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen and watched proceedings.

Frank finished his breakfast quickly, and, without much noise, left the table and made for the door. If he had thought to escape observation, he was disappointed. Lloyd, Jordan, and Harrison were on the porch waiting for him.

“Powder house for a while,” queried Lloyd, “or are you goin’ to give another promise not to try for a getaway before noon?”

“I’m done with promises, Lloyd,” answered Frank. “You’d better lock me up from now on.”

“Sorry a heap, Merriwell. I reckoned we could be plumb pleasant and sociable for the rest of the day. But the powder house ain’t so bad. Come on, pard.”

'You’re playing it low down on him! They want him in Ophir! Let him go, let him go!'

Frank was to be personally conducted to the adobe by Blunt’s three aides. As they started to leave the porch, a shrill voice screeched, “You’re playing it low down on him! They want him in Ophir! Let him go, let him go!”

All three of the cowboys whirled around. “Who said that?” demanded Lloyd.

Jordan and Harrison laughed delightedly.

“It was Hungry Joe, up there,” said Jordan, indicating the parrot. “Blamed if he ain’t picked up somethin’ new!”

Hungry Joe was sliding up and down his perch with his head cocked knowingly on one side.

“You’re a bunch of crooks!” he screeched. “Leave Merriwell alone! Let him go, let him go!”

By that time the parrot’s supposed talk had secured the attention of everybody within hearing distance. Cowboys began flocking toward the porch from every direction, and Rufus Jackson was not slow in presenting himself from the depths of the dining room.

“Fo’ de lan’ sakes!” he gasped. “Who-all’s been learnin’ dat ‘ar bird sich talk? Ain’t dat scan’lus?”

Frank’s wonderful powers of imitation were being brought into play, and he was throwing his voice into the cage from the edge of the crowd.

Of course, it wasn’t really Hungry Joe that did the talking. The parrot hung so high that those in the immediate vicinity could see only the bottom of the cage, while those who were far enough away to look into the cage couldn’t tell whether Joe’s beak was going through the necessary motions or not. Frank’s wonderful powers of imitation were being brought into play, and he was throwing his voice into the cage from the edge of the crowd.
What Frank wanted was to make Hungry Joe the center of attraction, so that he could find an opportunity to slip away unseen.

“Look a’ here, Joe,” cried the mirthful Andy, “don’t ye go slanderin’ the Bar Z boys thataway.”

“You’re a pie face,” declared Joe, craning over and apparently looking down at Andy; “you worked a bunko game! Don’t you feel meachin’? Let him go!”

A roar of laughter went up at this sally.

“Har, har, har!” laughed Rufus Jackson, doubling up. “Ain’t dat relicudous? Hungry Joe he done hits de nail right on de head ever’ time. Oh, mah goodness!”

The cook slowly straightened himself, and knuckled the tears from his eyes.

“Har, har, har!” Hungry Joe mimicked. “Who wants a moke for thirty cents? Thirty, gi’me the five! Thirty, gi’me the five! Going, going. gone!”

It was all right for the parrot to poke fun at somebody else, but Rufus Jackson drew the line at having it poked at himself. The laughter went out of him in a flash, and in the face of the roar of merriment that went up at his expense, he scowled and rolled up the whites of his eyes.

“Let me at dat ‘ar bird!” shouted Rufus. “I’d massacree him fo’ two cents.”

“Give him a nickel!” screeched Hungry Joe. “Let him massacree me, and keep the change.”

Merriwell gave these words to the parrot from a considerable distance. He had found his opportunity, and was edging away in the direction of the Bar Z athletic field. Everybody in sight was clustered about the porch, and no one was paying attention to Merry.

The parrot’s “talk” was ended for the time. Urging, nagging, and coaxing, all proved fruitless. Then it was that Lloyd, Andy, and a few more took thought of Merriwell.

“Great guns!” cried Lloyd. “What’s become of Merriwell?”

Everybody whirled round, at that.

'There he goes!' whooped a voice. 'He’s makin’ a getaway! Gee, look at him sprint!'

“There he goes!” whooped a voice. “He’s makin’ a getaway! Gee, look at him sprint!”

“Chase him!” shouted Barzy Blunt angrily.

Instantly there was a rush in the direction of the athletic field. Merriwell was heading for the small passage through the hills and going like a streak.

At that moment, attracted no doubt by the yells and commotion in the vicinity of the chuck shanty, a horseman topped the low, steep hill that edged one side of the gap. Lloyd, suddenly slackening pace, made a trumpet of his hands.

“Newt.” he yelled to the man on the hill, “fill up the pass with some o’ the steers! Stampede ‘em through!”

As it chanced—most unluckily for young Merriwell—a little herd of cattle had been rounded up in a sort of natural corral at the farther side of the passage. For the rider on the hillcrest to get down and intercept Merriwell was an impossibility, owing to the sheer wall the hill presented on the side facing the ranch buildings. But Lloyd’s suggestion, if quickly carried out, would close Frank’s only avenue of escape.

The athletic field was V-shaped, the point running back into the hills. Perhaps it could best be likened to a funnel, with the narrow gap forming the outlet. Merriwell was running into the point of the funnel, and there was no way out except through the funnel itself. Naturally the cowboys realized the true aspect of affairs, and they began spreading out, in order to cover the open end of the “V” as they advanced.

Newt quickly comprehended what was expected of him, and turned his horse and dropped from sight on the farther side of the hill. Merriwell, busy with work that lay immediately in front of him, had not heard Lloyd’s shouted instructions to Newt.

Merry, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder, took note of the crowd of pursuers, spreading out and racing after him at top speed. A vaulting pole lay across two of the hurdles. He picked it up as he ran, intending to use it as a weapon in case any of the pursuers came too close to him.

What he had had in mind, when first starting his race from the chuck shanty, was picking up one of the hobbled horses on the baseball field. These horses, he had observed, had rope halters. He could have cast the hobbles from one of the animals, twisted a rope into a hack-amore, mounted, and ridden away. But fate had stepped in, during the time he was at breakfast, and removed that promising factor in his plans. The horses had been taken away.

Merriwell was at the mouth of the narrow gap when, to his dismay, he saw a couple of steers plunging toward him from the farther end of the passage. The lean brown animals were covered with dust, their heads were down, and they were charging like a pair of locomotives. They came on side by side, crowded together by the narrowness of the pass.

The steep walls of the gap gave Merry no chance for getting out of the way of the maddened animals. His only hope for avoiding them was to turn back into the waiting hands of the Bar Z men.

An idea flashed through his mind, as daring as it was unique. Instead of turning back, he ran on into the gap, apparently flirting with death which was rushing at him headlong.

An idea flashed through his mind, as daring as it was unique. Instead of turning back, he ran on into the gap, apparently flirting with death which was rushing at him headlong. His dark eyes, however, were snapping with determination, and he was calmly confident that the move he had in mind would meet with success. Steady nerves and swift action at the right moment would turn the trick.

“Jumpin’ side winders!” shouted Andy Able, in a spasm of fear. “Say, he’s runnin’ right into them stampeded steers!”

Barzy Blunt, well in the van of the pursuers, stood as though rooted to the ground. The white ran through the tan of his face.

Silence fell like a pall over the crowd of pursuers. Owing to the nature o f the ground, the whole tragic scene was spread out like a picture before the men. They stood breathless, and their eyes wide with consternation and fear.

Merriwell and the rushing longhorns were dashing toward each other. ‘Then, as they cowboys looked, they saw Merriwell give a leap forward, set the vaulting pole, and rise on it with the easy grace of a trained athlete.

It seemed, to the breathless watchers, as though the lad was hardly in the air before one of the steers struck the pole with its horns and flung it a dozen feet. But Merriwell had already released the pole. For an instant he was doubled up in the air over the backs of the plunging animals; then the steers raced on, and Merriwell dropped out of sight beyond them.

“Well.” gulped Andy Able, “thunder, and all sashay! Darned if he didn’t pole vault over the critters!”

Involuntarily a cheer went up, for the cowboy code recognizes bravery and prowess wherever found. Blunt alone withheld applause. His face darkened, but his ugly mood was not observed by his friends. There was a general scamper, on the part of the cowboys to get away from the stampeding animals.

Frank, meanwhile, was hustling safely on through the gap. He had conquered the dangers that had beset him, and was hoping for the best. His hopes were dashed, however, for at the farther end of the pass he found the mounted cowboy, Newt, drawn up with his horse crosswise of the gap, blocking further progress.

“I feel like a coyote, son,” said he “a-stoppin’ of you after that hair-raisin’ pufformance. But it’s got to be done. Take it easy, and I’ll be obliged. Ye see, I don’t want no vi’lence. Layin’ hands on ye is the last thing I want to think about.”

Merriwell could see, at half a glance, that he was at the end of his rope. Even if he succeeded in evading Newt, the latter could gallop after him and use his reata.

“It was pretty rough,” Merry remarked, “turning those steers loose at me.”

“It sure was,” agreed Newt; “but we all allowed that ye’d see ‘em, and turn back. Didn’t have a notion ye’d try to jump ‘em with that pole. Gee, Mariar, but that was a jump!”

Terribly disappointed, Frank faced the other way and walked slowly back through the gap toward the athletic field.

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