THE CATTLE BUYER

Dejectedly, and fearing the worst, the boys piled out of the automobile into the pelting rain. They did not stop to put on their slickers, so eager were they to see the extent of the damage. It was bad enough, for the wheel was smashed and the end of the axle bent.
“That means a lay-up,” said Jerry. “We’ve got a spare wheel, but we can’t get it on the axle until it’s straightened. Bur-r-r-r! This is some rain!”
“Guess this is up to me, fellows,” gloomily remarked Ned. “I should have put on the chains at the start.”
“Oh, well, it couldn’t be helped,” said Jerry.
“It was the fault of that fellow who told us to take this road,” Bob said. “If we’d taken the other we’d be going yet.”
“Oh, you can’t tell by that,” came from Jerry. “The other road might be worse in this storm. Let’s get inside out of the wet and talk it over. We’ve got to do something.”
[73]
“Better jack up the car to take the strain off the other end of the axle,” suggested Bob.
As they crawled back into the car again Professor Snodgrass, who was snugly ensconced in the rear, reading a book by the light of the electric lamp, looked over the tops of his spectacles and absent-mindedly asked:
“Have we stopped?”
“Didn’t you feel it?” asked Jerry in some surprise.
“Why, I felt a jar, a while ago, but I paid no attention to it. I forgot it immediately. You see, I was so engrossed in this book on frogs’ legs that——”
“Does it tell new ways to cook ’em?” asked Bob, eagerly.
“Cook what?” the professor questioned.
“Frogs’ legs,” went on Bob. “They’re great fried in butter, but if there’s another way——”
“This is a book about the actions of frogs’ legs under the impulses of an electrical current,” replied the professor rebukingly. “I never eat such things.”
Leaving the professor to continue his reading, only half aware of what had happened, the boys set about making the best of a bad situation.
Attired in garments that defied the rain, which was coming down hard, they jacked up the fallen end of the car and removed the broken wheel.[74] It had been badly smashed by the impact against the tree, but as they had a spare one this feature was not the worst. The axle was bent, and until it was either straightened or a new half inserted, they could not run. The rear axles of automobiles are in two parts, the differentials joining them, so to speak, for as each rear wheel must run independent of the other, to allow for different speeds when rounding corners, so the axles go at different rates.
“This is a job for a garage, if we can find one,” observed Jerry, as he contemplated the bent axle. “We’ll have to stay here all night, I reckon, and somebody will have to go on a scouting expedition.”
“I’ll go!” quickly volunteered Ned. “It’s up to me, anyhow.”
“I’ll go along,” said Bob. “I want the exercise.”
“To get up an appetite,” suggested Jerry with a laugh. “Well, go on, and I’ll get the place in shape for a night’s sleep. Tell the garage man what the trouble is, Ned, and maybe he can bring out a spare axle in the morning and fix us up.”
“I’ll try,” promised Ned; and he and Bob soon splashed off through the rain down the muddy road.
Jerry busied himself with arranging the curtains and getting the cots in position for a night’s[75] stay in the open. The location of the car was not the most favorable or comfortable, for it was to one side of the road, tilted at an angle and jammed against a big oak tree. However, the last fact was rather an advantage, since the dense foliage furnished some shelter from the rain.
The ground was water-soaked though, and Jerry was contemplating this when he saw coming along the road a big auto-truck.
The machine stopped when opposite the stalled automobile, and the driver, leaning out from under his canopy, enquired kindly:
“Can I give you a tow?”
“Thanks, I’m afraid not,” answered Jerry. “One axle is bent, and we’ll have to tie up here. If you had a board floor for our auxiliary tent I’d buy that of you.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t got such a thing on board,” was the laughing answer. “But how would a bale of hay do? I’ll sell you one if you like, and you can scatter that on the damp ground the way they do straw at a circus when it rains.”
“Fine!” cried Jerry. “What is your craft, anyhow, a traveling farm?”
“No, but I happen to have a load of feed and grain on, and there is an extra bale of hay. I’ll tumble it off for you.”
He did so after naming the price, and when the wires had been cut Jerry, with the professor’s[76] help, spread out on the damp ground several layers of the dry hay. It was almost as good as a board floor.
“That’s great!” Jerry said as he paid the man. “If you happen to see two fellows splashing along through the mud, looking for a garage,” he added, describing Ned and Bob, “you might give them a lift.”
“I will,” agreed the driver. “I’ll take them to the nearest repair shop, too.”
He was as good as his word, and about an hour later Jerry heard the chugging of an automobile. In it, returning with the garage men, were the two scouts who told of having been picked up on the road and taken into town.
“I thought I’d take a run out to see what the damage looked like before I started on the repairs in the morning,” said the garage man who had brought Ned and Bob back with him. “Yes, I guess I can fix you up all right,” he said as he finished his inspection. “I’ll have you under way again by ten o’clock.”
This was good news, and the boys, when the portable stove was going and they were gathered about it eating supper, felt their spirits raised several degrees. True, they did not relish the delay, but they would not lose many hours, and they did not intend to do much night driving anyhow.
The weather cleared with the rising sun and[77] with it came the repair gang who did good work in putting in the new axle. Then, having wired for another spare wheel to be awaiting them on their arrival in the next large city, the travelers were once more on their way. But as the clay road was in bad shape, they went back to the dividing fork and took the longer route, which they found safer.
This accident seemed to be the end of the boys’ bad luck, at least for a time. For from then on they struck good roads and the weather was all that could be desired. They even made three night drives with a full moon to show them a safe way, and so they were a little ahead of their schedule when they reached Des Moines.
There they found awaiting them letters from home, since they had arranged to get them at this stopping place in Iowa. They planned to stay here one day to enable their automobile to be gone over thoroughly by a garage man. They also needed to get some supplies.
“Well, so far so good,” remarked Jerry, when they had left their car to be inspected and were on their way to the hotel.
“Yes, we’re over half there,” commented Ned, “and only one accident worth mentioning.”
“Knock wood,” advised Bob. “We’ve got a long way to go yet.”
The boys had been in Des Moines before, but[78] it was a new place for Professor Snodgrass. He rather bewailed the fact that such bugs and insects as he caught glimpses of were so common that they were not worth collecting. But when, after registering at the hotel with the boys he saw on the book the name of a fellow scientist he was happy.
“I shall not lack for occupation now,” he said beamingly. “I want to have a talk with Professor Bowden, a long talk. He has written the only authoritative book in existence on the markings of horned toads and it will be a great pleasure for me to compare notes with him, for I have made some observations of those creatures myself.”
This was true enough, for the professor on his trip to Mexico had had excellent chances to note the habits of these curious reptiles, which look much fiercer and more dangerous than they really are, for in spite of their horny spines they may be picked up and handled without danger. Though called “toads,” they are really a form of lizard.
“Well, that disposes of the professor,” observed Jerry. “Only we mustn’t forget him when we start off again. He’s likely to stay up all night talking bugology. And now for a little recreation. Let’s go to the movies.”
They passed an enjoyable afternoon, and were sitting in the hotel lobby, waiting for the supper[79] hour, when a flashily-attired man, with a big diamond in his scarf and another on his left hand, dropped into a chair beside Jerry and remarked:
“Strangers in town?”
“Well, not exactly,” was the answer, Jerry not altogether relishing the appearance of the man. “We’ve been here once or twice before.”
“That’s what I thought. You didn’t look like greenies. I’m not altogether a stranger here though I don’t know many folks. Cattle buying is my business. I’m on my way farther west. Just stopped off here to do a little business. Like to have a game of cards?”
“We don’t play,” and Jerry’s suspicions began to rise.
“Oh, well, no offense. Lots of good people play and lots of good ones don’t. How about billiards?”
“Not now, thank you,” was the answer. “I guess it’s about time to eat, anyhow.”
“Well, see you after supper,” said the bediamonded man, not a bit abashed by his cool reception. “No use being lonesome,” and he strolled over to the cigar counter as the boys got up.
“Who is he?” asked Bob.
“You know as well as I do,” was Jerry’s answer. “He said he was a cattle buyer.”
Jerry said this as he was passing the hotel clerk’s desk. The man made a motion as though[80] he wanted to speak to Jerry, and when the latter leaned forward the clerk said:
“Don’t get into any games with that man. I don’t know him, though I’ve seen him around here the last few days. I think he’s a professional sport and gambler.”
“He’s dressed the part,” answered Jerry. “Thanks for the tip. We’ll steer clear of him.”
As Jerry and his chums turned to go into the dining-room they heard the man who had tried to scrape an acquaintance with them talking in loud tones to someone near the cigar counter.
“Yes, cattle buying is my business,” he was saying, “though I have a couple of side lines. I’m on my way now to a place in Wyoming where I expect to do a good trade.”
“Wyoming!” was the reply of the other. “I’m from there. What ranch did you say yours was?”
“I didn’t say, but I expect to buy some cattle from the Square Z outfit.”
Jerry, Ned and Bob stood still in surprise.