TWO INVALIDS

Gimp pulled up his horse sharply and looked narrowly at the Parson.
“Where was the raid this time?” he asked.
“From the Bear Swamp range,” and he named a part of the Square Z ranch that lay to the southeast, a low tract that was wet part of the year.
“Bear Swamp, eh?” mused Gimp. “That’s where some of the good stock was, too.”
“Yes, the old man had a nice bunch fattening there for a special order. He’s ravin’ now.”
For the moment Bob and Ned were more interested in how Munson had been shot than in the news of the cattle being driven off. The same thought was in both their minds. Was the cattle buyer shot while protecting the Square Z herd, or while participating in the theft? This last fitted in with the suspicions in the minds of the two boys. They wanted to ask a question but did not know just how, when Gimp saved them the trouble.
“Where was Munson hit?” he asked. “In the back?” he added as a significant after query.
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The Parson laughed.
“It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had been on the run away from the enemy when he got nipped,” he said, “but I’ll have to be just and say it was in the leg, and head on at that.”
“What was he doing?” Gimp next demanded.
“He tried to plug some of the rustlers but they got him first, it seems,” answered the Parson.
“Huh! It seems?” inquired Gimp. “Doesn’t anybody know?”
“Nobody was there but Munson, and we had to take his version of it,” went on the narrator. “At least nobody but Munson came back to Square Z after the fracas. The others rode away with the cattle.”
“Oh, then he was the only one who saw ’em. Which way did they go?” asked Gimp, eagerly.
“Over there—same way as the others,” and the Parson pointed toward the rocky defile near which all traces of the former bunch of stolen cattle had been lost.
“Same gang then, I take it,” said Gimp, presently. “Go on. Spin the yarn as we go along. We’ve got a sick boy here and the sooner the doctor sees him the better.”
Gimp told the Parson, briefly, how Jerry had been hurt, and added something about Hinkee Dee which Ned and Bob could not quite catch. Then, in his turn, the Parson told of the raid.
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Munson, it appeared, had ridden off, as he often did, to look at a bunch of steers or to inspect some part of the ranch. He had come back, riding a winded horse and with his right leg tied in bloody bandages. His story was to the effect that as he approached a small herd of cattle that were temporarily without cowboy watchers from Square Z, he had seen the steers being rounded up by half a dozen men, who started to drive them away.
“Munson said he knowed they wasn’t our men,” said the Parson, “so he hailed ’em. They fired at him quick as a flash, and then he said he was sure they were the rustlers. He shot back and thinks he hit one, but they got him in the leg. He knows a little about medicine it seems, so he tore up his shirt, bandaged the wound and rode home. I guess most of us would have done the same.”
“Then he saw the rustlers?” asked Gimp, eagerly.
“Sure,” assented the Parson.
“Can’t he give a description so we can find ’em?”
“Well, he didn’t get near enough to see ’em clearly, he says. And you know one cowboy on a horse looks pretty much like another,” replied the Parson. “I guess Munson’s description won’t be much help. But we’re going to get right on their trail, and maybe we’ll be able to land ’em.[145] They haven’t got such a start as before.”
Poor Jerry was beginning to recover consciousness when they carried him into the ranch house. He opened his eyes.
“Are you badly hurt, old scout?” asked Bob, anxiously.
“Well,” was the slow and low-voiced answer, “I have felt better,” and there was a faint smile which showed Jerry’s grit.
There were some modern conveniences at Square Z, a telephone being one of them, and a message was sent to town for a physician, who, fortunately, was in his office. He promised to come at once in his automobile, and was at Square Z in a comparatively short time.
“You’ve got two invalids to look after, Doc,” remarked the foreman, who had remained behind with the boys when Gimp and the Parson had ridden off after the other cowboys who had already started the chase.
“Two? I thought there was only one.”
“Visitor stayin’ here got himself shot-up,” and Mr. Watson briefly described Munson’s hurt.
As Jerry seemed to be the worse injured, the doctor attended him first, and after a searching examination announced, to the relief of Bob and Ned, that their chum was not in a serious condition.
“He’s had a bad shaking up, and he’s as sore[146] as a boil and will be for some days,” declared the physician. “But nothing is broken, and I think there will prove to be no internal injuries. He’s badly bruised and he’ll have to stay in bed for three or four days. Now where’s the other chap?”
But that was a question that could not be answered; at least off-hand. For when they went to Munson’s room, whither he had limped on his arrival at the ranch with the startling news, he was gone. Some bloody bandages on a chair seemed to indicate that he had dressed his wound again and gone. But where?
The cook solved the mystery by reporting that, just before the arrival of the doctor, Munson had been seen riding away in the direction taken by the pursuing cowboys.
“Well, he’s got grit, that’s what I say!” exclaimed the foreman.
Jerry was made as comfortable as possible, and then they could only await the return of the cowboys from the chase to see how Munson fared. And when he came riding in with the others, showing little traces on his face of any pain or suffering, and heard the edict that the doctor was to come to him, or he to go to the doctor, he exclaimed:
“Not much! It isn’t the first time I’ve been shot, and it may not be the last. I know how to[147] doctor myself and I’m all right. I’ll be a little lame and stiff for a while and I’ll have to lie around the bunk, but that’ll be about all. No doctor for me!” and they could not persuade him otherwise.
Then the talk turned to the results of the pursuit.
“They got clean away!” declared Gimp, in disappointed tones. “Couldn’t find hide nor hair of ’em.”
“Where was the last trace?” asked the foreman.
“Same place as the others, near Horse Tail Gulch.” This, it appeared, was the name of the ravine near which the boys had made some observations. “We traced ’em to there,” explained the Parson, “and that was all we could do.”
“Well, this sure is queer!” exclaimed Mr. Watson, banging his fist down on the table. “I never knew cattle raids to be carried on like this. They must give the beasts wings after they start to drive ’em away.”
“It does seem so,” agreed Gimp. “What they do with ’em is a mystery to me.”
“Could they mingle your cattle in with others from another ranch, so you wouldn’t notice them?” asked Ned.
“Well, Son, they could do that if there was other herds with a different brand than ours near[148] here,” admitted the foreman. “But there isn’t. I see your drift. You mean they’ll round up some of your dad’s steers and when they get to where some other rancher has his herds they’ll bunch ’em; is that it?”
“Yes,” nodded Ned.
“Well, I don’t hardly believe they’d do that. It would be too hard work to cut out our cattle, and besides, as soon as the rancher saw a new brand in with his beef he’d send word here. Our brand is registered all over.
“Besides,” went on the foreman, “the thieves wouldn’t just cut out our cattle and drive them on, after they’d let ’em mingle; they’d take some of the other man’s, too. And we haven’t heard of any other ranch being robbed the way Square Z has—at least, I haven’t,” he concluded, looking at the cowboys.
“No, they seem to be picking on just us,” said the Parson.
“I guess my theory isn’t of much account,” admitted Ned. Then, as the two boys left the group of ranchers, going off by themselves, he added: “But we’ve got to do something—we’ve got to make good.”
“That’s right!” declared Bob. “We got the folks to consent to let us try our hand at this rather than hire detectives, and they may call us off if we don’t show results.”
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The doctor came the next day and announced that Jerry was doing finely, saying he could be up and around in another day. Munson stuck to his decision not to have the physician look at the wounded leg, and to this the medical man, with a shrug of his shoulders, had to agree.
“It’s healing fine,” the cattle buyer said.
Jerry was able to be up the next day, and it was considered that the two “invalids” were doing well. Ned and Bob wanted to stay around the ranch to keep Jerry company, but he insisted that they do what they could to get some clue to the mystery. So they rode off each morning toward the gulch, but they were not successful in uncovering anything. Nor were the cowboys, though they could not devote much time to searching, since there was much work to be done about the ranch.
Jerry had been questioned as to why he took Go Some in mistake for his own horse.
“Why, I thought it was my own pony, that’s all,” he said. “The wild one was tethered where I’d left mine, and I’m not sharp enough about horses to tell one from another at a glance when they are as much alike as those two.”
“Well, they are a bit alike,” admitted the foreman. “But someone changed the places of the ponies, and I’d like to know who did it.”
The puzzle remained unsolved, however—at least for some time.
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“Well, I guess I’ll be able to go about enough to-morrow to start with Bob and Ned on a thorough search,” said Jerry to himself, about a week after his accident, while he was moving about the house to get the stiffness out of his muscles. “I’m feeling all right again.”
Munson had not been active, either, his leg developing a stiffness that kept him to his room. He had been given an apartment to himself instead of bunking in with the cowboys. Ned, Bob and Jerry, too, as guests, had rooms to themselves in the same building.
As Jerry, walking in the Indian moccasins which he wore while in the house, passed Munson’s room he was minded to go in and have a talk with him. But as he noiselessly approached, something he saw through the partially opened door caused him to pause.
The cattle buyer was changing his clothes. Jerry had a glimpse of both his bare legs and on neither one was a trace of a bullet wound!