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CHAPTER VII.
IN THE OLD POWDER HOUSE.

Merriwell was pummelled, and prodded, and slapped on the shoulder, and shaken by the hand by nearly all the Bar Z men. They were delighted because of the remark able performance he had staged for their benefit, and they were relieved, as well, because the attempted escape had not resulted in a serious accident.

“Nice way you’ve got of treating guests at this ranch, Lloyd,” remarked Merry. “It was a real clever stunt, having those steers rushed at me.”

“He’ll be killed!” gasped Lloyd. “Hasn’t he sense enough to see it? Does he think he can head off a couple of cyclones like those plunging critters?”

“Didn’t mean you any harm, Merriwell,” returned Lloyd earnestly. “I reckoned that you’d have sense enough, when you saw the steers comin’, to turn back.”

“Goin’ to promise you won’t try it again?” asked Lloyd anxiously.

“I won’t make any more promises,” Merry answered. “It’s no more than right, though, that you should send a man to Ophir with a note from me. My friends will be worrying, and I want to let them know where I am.”

“Which we don’t want them to know,” said Harrison. “Ye see, Merriwell, we’ve got our plans and if your pards knew where you were they might interfere.”

“What are the plans?”

‘‘I reckon they’ll be batted up to you this afternoon.”

“No promise to hang around here and be good, Merriwell?” asked Lloyd.

“No,” Frank answered.

“Then kindly step over to the powder house. We’ve made it comfortable, and I reckon you won’t be very bad off while you’re there.”

With a cowboy on each side of him and one behind, Frank started for the place where he was to be put for safe-keeping. He was tempted to break away from his guards and make another try for his freedom; and then, upon reflecting that mounted men would certainly follow him, he decided that another attempt would be useless.

With a cowboy on each side of him and one behind, Frank started for the place where he was to be put for safe-keeping. He was tempted to break away from his guards and make another try for his freedom; and then, upon reflecting that mounted men would certainly follow him, he decided that another attempt would be useless.

Lloyd had the key to the plank door, and he unlocked it and swung it open. In contrast with the bright sunshine outside, the interior of the old adobe seemed particularly gloomy. Frank, with a final look around him, stepped through the doorway. The plank framework was slammed behind him, and he could hear Lloyd’s key rattling in the padlock.

“Make yourself to home, Merriwell,” called Bandy Harrison’s voice from outside. “If there’s anything you want and haven’t got, yell. We’re leavin’ a man on sentry-go all the time. So long.”

Retreating footsteps ground in the gravel, and Merriwell turned to make a survey of his surroundings. The single room comprising the interior of the powder house was about ten feet square. Holes had been punched through the adobe some six feet from the floor, and through them played small shafts of daylight. The ventilation was sufficient, and the light served for purposes of observation. The roof, which lay flat on the tops of the walls, was of corrugated iron covered with earth. Frank judged that it was about eight feet from the floor to the iron sheeting.

There was a table, a rocking-chair, and a cot in the room. In one corner hung an olla, or water jar. A tin cup and a lamp stood on the table, and a newspaper a week old had been carefully folded and laid beside the lamp.

“All the comforts of home,” Frank smilingly. “Evidently this place was fixed up for my especial benefit. Cot, eh?” He frowned. “That looks as though they intended for me to spend a few nights here. But I guess not. A few hours of this will do. If they try to keep me longer than that I’ll dig out and get away somehow!’

Throwing aside his hat and coat, he seated himself in the rocking-chair.

“Wonder what Clancy and Ballard are making of my mysterious disappearance?” ran his thoughts. “I was so deuced sly in getting away that I’ve made a whale of a mystery out of the affair.”

Right there Merry’s flow of speculations was cut in upon by the remembrance of Ballard’s discovery of the skulking cowboy, the evening before. Would Ballard connect that cowboy with Merriwell’s strange absence from the hotel? Merry didn’t see how Ballard could help it. That being the case, the forces back of Merry’s disappearance could be traced indirectly to some cattle ranch. Clancy and Ballard, if they used their wits, would surely work around to the Bar Z Ranch as the most likely place to reward a search.

“By Jove!” muttered Merriwell, “It’s pretty nearly a cinch that Clancy and Ballard, in the course of a few +hours, will show up here looking for me. In spite of the care with which Blunt engineered his plot, there are about nine chances in ten that the cat’s out of the bag. Why, any minute, now, the fellows may come sailing in here and—”

At that very moment he heard a patter of hoofs and a grind of wheels. A wild hope struck him that the newcomers might be his chums. Hastily climbing up on the chair, he peered through ventilation holes in the wall that faced the trail.

What he saw was a backboard with three seats, drawn by a team of bronchos. There were three men on each seat, rough-and-ready fellows every one of them. Some were beardless and under twenty; others were older by a few years, but all had well-knit bodies, and looked to be husky and agile. Sombreros, flannel shirts, corduroy trousers, and high-heeled boots comprised the wearing apparel, proving that the buckboard was loaded with cowboys.

Suddenly the newcomers let out a chorus of wild yells. The yells were answered by the Bar Z men. As the buckboard rolled out of Frank’s range of vision, the Bar Z punchers were surrounding it, whooping joyously.

Suddenly the newcomers let out a chorus of wild yells. The yells were answered by the Bar Z men. As the buckboard rolled out of Frank’s range of vision, the Bar Z punchers were surrounding it, whooping joyously.

More hoofs clattered along the trail. These were galloping hoofs, however, and suggested men on horseback. Presently the riders passed the front of the powder house, not by ones and twos, but literally by dozens. They also were greeted with wild cheering by the Bar Z cowboys.

When the last rider had flickered past, Merriwell judged that at least fifty newcomers were in the camp. Who were they, he asked himself as he got down from the chair, and why had they come?

It was certain that some sort of a jollification was on the program. Frank remembered the holidaylike atmosphere which he had noticed about the ranch while on his way to the chuck shanty for breakfast.

An hour or two later, the door of the powder house was unlocked, and Lloyd and a strange cowboy whom Frank had not seen before stepped into the room. Lloyd brought a basket of steaming food, which he placed carefully on the table.

“There’s your dinner, Merriwell,” said he. “Amos,” he went on, “shake hands with Frank Merriwell, junior. Amos Bixler, Merriwell. He belongs with the Tin Cup crowd, that blew in here a spell ago.”

“Glad as blazes!” said Amos Bixler, shaking Merry by the hand and nearly pulling his arm off.

“Bixler,” Lloyd went on, “is captain of the Tin Cup Mavericks.”

“Who are they?” inquired Merry.

“Sho!” cried Bixler, in a startled way. “Don’t mean to say you never heard of the Mavericks?”

“Not till just this minute.’’

“Why, we’re the champeen baseball nine in these parts, by jerry! We—”

“Always excepting the Bar Z Rustlers,” cut in Lloyd, respectfully but firmly.

“Not excepting nobody!” insisted Amos Bixler.

“You’ve got to except the Rustlers. We’re a notch better than the Mavericks, so, you can’t be the champions.”

“We’ll see this afternoon, by jerry,” came grimly from the captain of the Mavericks, “which takes the back seat.”

“Bet your spurs, we’ll see!” declared Lloyd, with confidence. “We’re a game apiece, and the one this afternoon will decide which team is the champion ranch nine. Don’t go to floppin’ your wings and crowin’, Amis till you got the right.”

“Of course,” grumbled Amos Bixler, “I don’t know how we’re going to stack up without our reg’lar pitcher.”

“You see, Merriwell,” Lloyd explained, “the Mavericks’ regular pitcher has got lost in the shuffle somewhere. He didn’t come in the buckboard, but started by himself, intending to drop in at Ophir on the way. Probably the delights of Ophir have put him down and out. He wasn’t much of a pitcher, anyway.”

“He’s a better pitcher’n what Barzy Blunt is,” asserted Amos Bixler. “Jim Snow has got more drops, inshoots, curves, and speed balls up his sleeve than Blunt ever dreamed of.”

“Trouble is,” and Lloyd winked at Merry, “Snow always keeps ‘em up his sleeve. He never lets ‘em do things with the ball if he can help it. And pretty generally he helps it.”

“Oh, hush!” snorted Amos Bixler, his partisan feelings all harrowed up.

“Amos trooped along with me, Merriwell, to see if he could get you to take Snow’s place in case he doesn’t show up in time for the game.”

'What d'you say, Merriwell?' Bixler asked, his eyes traveling over Merry, up and down. 'Can you pitch any?'

“What d’you say, Merriwell?” Bixler asked, his eyes traveling over Merry, up and down. “Can you pitch any?”

“Oh, a little,” Merriwell answered diffidently.

“I might try you out,” said he, “in case Jim Snow don’t show up.”

“Is this ball game for money?” asked Frank.

“Nary. It’s for glory. The Tin Cup outfit is after the ranch championship, and here in the Bar Z camp is where we nail it.”

“Providin’,” qualified Lloyd.

‘‘I don’t mind pitching.” said Frank, “just for the fun of the thing, you understand, and on one condition.”

“What’s the condition?”

“Why, that immediately after the game I’m to be given a horse and allowed to return to Ophir. What about it, Lloyd?”

“It’s a bargain, Merriwell,” answered Lloyd readily.

“Suppose Snow gets here?”

“He won’t; but, if he does and you don’t play, you can clear out after the game, anyhow. Will you promise to stick around until after the game’s over?”

“Yes.”

“Then mow away that chuck, and I’ll leave the door open for you. Come on, Amos.”

At last he understood the situation. Barzy Blunt wanted to pitch against him! He had exercised his ingenuity with that one aim in view. Probably he had paid Snow something to keep away from the Bar Z Ranch so he--Frank--could take his place.

Sitting in the rocking-chair, Frank had a quiet laugh all to himself. At last he understood the situation. Barzy Blunt wanted to pitch against him! He had exercised his ingenuity with that one aim in view. Probably he had paid Snow something to keep away from the Bar Z Ranch so he—Frank—could take his place.

“This is funner than a box of monkeys,” muttered Merriwell, as he began dipping into the basket. “As a schemer, Barzy Blunt takes the bun.”

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