"So you were the one who got him, eh?" asked Bill. "He must have been asleep. You can't hit a deer, and yet you got a mountain lion, which is smaller."
"He wasn't asleep, and I made a dandy long shot. Tom said so," declared his brother hotly.
"You certainly did well, son," interposed his father.
"Then we've all bagged something, if you can call my getting the deer Bill wounded a hit," said Larry. "This is sure Jim dandy hunting. Back home you can tramp all day without even seeing a woodchuck."
Heartily the others laughed at this statement of the difference in hunting grounds, and for an hour or so they talked and joked.
"Are we going to camp here for the night?" inquired Horace at last of his father.
"No. I reckon we'll go farther into the mountains. We'll have a better chance for bear there. This is a little too near the plains."
Well rested, the boys were eager to be on the move and gladly they made ready to advance.
In and out among the hills the trail wound, and sundown found them entering a basin similar to that where they had captured their deer. On two sides walls of rocks towered and dense forests formed the others.
Lonesome, indeed, was the spot, and this effect was heightened by the rapidly descending darkness.
"Commander, I think we'll hobble the horses right here," said Mr. Wilder, dismounting in the center of the vale. "It would also be a good idea to have our camp fire close beside them. Then, if any prowler smells the deer meat or the horses, it can't reach either without our knowing it. And, because we must keep a fire all night, we shall need a lot of wood."
Recalled to the fact that he was in charge of the camp, Tom said:
"You fellows come with me and get the wood. I guess Mr. Wilder will attend to the horses, and we four can gather enough before it gets real dark."
Quickly the boys dismounted and ran to get dry limbs and branches, making a monster pile.
"I reckon that's enough, commander," said the ranchman at last, "and, besides, supper is ready or will be when the coffee is poured."
"Coffee! Where did you get the water to boil it?" queried Larry.
"From the canteens. I filled them this morning."
"And here I've been wondering where we could look for water. I was surprised you didn't tell Tom to send some of us."
Being less tired than the night before, the boys sat round the camp fire after supper, talking and listening to the stories the ranchman told about his life as a soldier.
When at length they were ready to turn in, they rolled themselves up in their blankets and formed a circle about the fire.
Without adventure they passed the night, sleeping till long after sunrise, there being no occasion for getting an early start.
Indeed as they ate breakfast they were debating whether to push on or stay where they were and set a bear trap when they were surprised to hear Mr. Wilder's name called.
Shouting in return, they jumped to their feet, trying to see who had hailed them.
"It's some one on horseback. I can hear the click of horseshoes on the stones," declared Larry.
"Some one from the ranch probably," asserted Mr. Wilder, and the next moment his opinion was confirmed by Horace, who had run to the trail and was returning, yelling:
"It's Nails! It's Nails!"
"He's one of our boys," explained Bill to the chums. "What do you suppose he can want, father?"
"Wait till he tells us. There are so many possibilities, it's no use trying to guess."
Their suspense was short-lived, for in a few moments the cowboy called Nails dashed into the basin, his pony in a lather.
Realizing from this condition of his mount that something serious was amiss, Mr. Wilder asked:
"What's wrong, Nails?"
"Cattle thieves!" gasped the cowboy. "Cross-eyed Pete said to get everybody you could and meet him at the Witches' Pool to-morrow morning. He's driving up the herds from the Long Creek bottoms."
THE RETURN TO THE RANCH
The knowledge that his herds had again been raided by cattle thieves made Mr. Wilder very angry.
"This makes the third time some of my cattle have been stolen. The thieves will find it is three times and out. I'll take their trail this time and stick to it till I round them all up."
Never had Bill and Horace seen their father so wrought up, and they wisely held their peace while the cowboy who had brought the news of the raid busied himself removing the saddle and bridle and wiping the lather from his pony.
Before Nails had finished the task, however, the ranchman had regained control of himself.
"I am glad Pete is driving the cattle home," he said quietly. "They will graze about the Witches' Pool without watching, so I can take all the boys with me, and the more there are of us the less trouble we will have. Sit down and eat breakfast, Nails, and then tell me about the raid."
No urging did the cowboy need, for he had not tasted a mouthful since he had left the herd, twenty-four hours before. He had expected to find the ranchman at his home, and when he learned Mr. Wilder had gone on a hunting trip he only stopped long enough to change ponies and then started again to find him.
Attentively the boys waited on him, impatient to hear his story.
"It was night before last it happened," said Nails, after having eaten more than it seemed possible for one man. "All during the day the cattle had been restless and we boys were kept on the jump holding 'em together. But with the darkness they quieted down and we all turned in.
"When morning came, nary a steer was in sight. It didn't take us long to get after 'em, and in about an hour we found them. But the short-horned Durhams were missing."
"The best cattle in the herd," interrupted Mr. Wilder.
"Just what Pete said, but not in the same words," grinned Nails.
"But how do you know they were stolen?" asked Bill. "Perhaps they only wandered off. You said the herd had been restless."
"A hundred head don't all go together," replied the cowboy. "Besides, after looking around, we found the hoofprints of seven ponies."
"Which way did they drive?" demanded the ranchman.
"Toward old Mex. But I reckon that's only a bluff. It's my idea the headquarters of this gang are right in these mountains, somewhere. Pete thinks so, too. That's why he set the pool as the meeting place. There's an old trail he knows and he wants to strike it, you agreeing of course," he added, looking toward the ranchman.
"We'll decide about that later. But if Pete suggested it, he has some good reason. Still, I can't see the necessity of getting any of the neighbors. It will only take time, and we can save twenty-four hours by riding straight to the pool from here."
"The reason for getting others is because the Half-Moon isn't the only herd that's been raided."
At this statement the Wilders were amazed.
"By the tracks from the direction of the Three Stars there must have been two hundred, at least, lifted from them."
"Then Jim Snider and his outfit are on the trail by this time," declared the ranchman.
"No, they aren't. I saw Sandy the other day, and he said they were all going up to Tolopah to bring down a herd Snider brought from Montana, It's my idea the thieves knew this and planned a wholesale raid."
"H—m. That sounds likely," commented Mr. Wilder. "Who do you think is at the head of it, Nails?"
"Gus Megget. He's the only one with the nerve to pull it off."
At the mention of the ruffian cow-puncher the boys looked at one another and then at their father, who said:
"That can't be, Nails. Megget tried some of his funny business with these two boys, Larry and Tom Alden, up in Oklahoma the other day."
"And they made a monkey of him," interposed Horace gleefully.
"What, them two?" returned the cowboy, looking at the brothers with keen interest.
"They certainly did," smiled the ranchman. "So I reckon we can't blame Megget for this raid."
"But he could have come by train, the short line, you know."
"We'll find out in time. There's no use arguing, Nails," said the ranchman. "Bill, bring up Buster and Blackhawk. Tom, you will have to take Nails' pony. We must get back to the ranch as soon as possible and that other horse is too played out.
"You boys can pack up and follow as fast as you can. Be at the house by the middle of the afternoon, at the latest. Mind now, I have enough to think of without worrying about you."
Nails was helping Bill with the ponies, and almost as soon as Mr. Wilder had finished his instructions the animals were ready.
Vaulting into the saddle, the ranchman again cautioned the boys to be careful, shook out his reins and rode from the basin at a gallop, the cowboy close behind.
With a will the four comrades went to work packing the saddle bags, and less than an hour after the others had left were following them.
The raid, the pursuit, wonder if they would be allowed to go on the man-hunt and speculation as to whether the thieves would be captured formed topics for endless conversation as they rode.
"Do you suppose those men I saw on the cliff are part of the gang?" hazarded Tom.
"They may be. I never thought of them," declared Bill. "I must remember to speak about them to father. Still, I hardly think they could have had a hand in it. It is all of thirty miles from where we saw them to the Long Creek bottoms, and no sizeable herd of cattle could be driven through the hills that far in a day. Twenty miles on the prairies is a stiff hike and half that far would be a good drive in the mountains."
When they were obliged to ride Indian file over the trail much talking was not attempted, and each boy busied himself with his own thoughts.
Because of his knowledge of the route, Bill led and Larry brought up the rear. Their advance was slow, however, as they wished to give the pony Tom rode as much chance to rest as possible before they reached the plains.
With eyes and ears alert, they proceeded, and without mishap finally rode out onto the prairie.
"Let's eat now," suggested Horace. "That will give Whitefoot more rest, and by the time we have finished he'll be as good as new. He's a tough one and can stand sixty miles, day in and day out."
"Which is about half as much as he'll get this time," added Bill. "Still I think Whitefoot's good for it, especially as he hadn't been ridden for a week till Nails took him last night."
The halt was made and the boys ate as heartily as though they had not breakfasted only three hours before.
When they were ready to start again Larry said:
"So long as Whitefoot is tired and Horace is the lightest, don't you think he'd better ride him instead of Tom?"
"Good idea," acquiesced Bill, and the shift in mounts was made, after which the boys headed for the ranch house.
As they were starting on the long forty-mile ride, Mr. Wilder and Nails were ending it. Though forced to ride carefully so long as they were on the mountain trail, when the latter reached the plains they had "cut loose." Both were expert horsemen and the ponies under them were mettlesome. Indeed, Blackhawk had not entirely recovered his temper since his roping and it was he that set the pace. Yet the riders did not allow the ponies to run themselves out in the first few miles, holding them down to a long, steady lope that covered the ground rapidly.
"Where do you suppose we are the most likely to strike the outfit from the Three Stars, at home or in Tolopah?" asked Mr. Wilder after a time.
"At home. They were to get the cattle day before yesterday, and Sandy told me they planned to stay at the ranch to-day to pack grub so as to save a trip of the wagon."
"Then we ought to find the whole crew at home."
"That's just what Pete and I were banking on," returned Nails.
This point settled, the ranchman refused further conversation, to the disappointment of his companion, occupying himself with mapping out his campaign.
After a time the ponies began to slacken their stride, but the vigorous rowelling they received from the spurs of the men on their backs told them they were bound on pressing business, and they responded gamely.
"I hope Ned is at home," Mr. Wilder exclaimed suddenly. "If he isn't, there won't be any but slow ponies in the corral. And that means it will take me the whole afternoon to get to the Three Stars."
"No, it don't," asserted Nails. "I kinder thought you might be off somewhere, so I cut out three ponies from the bunch and brought them up with me. When they told me you were hunting with the kids, I naturally knew you wouldn't go far into the mountains, so I left the best ones at the Half-Moon."
This foresight of his cowboy pleased the ranchman, and he commended him heartily.
"You seem to have a pretty level head, Nails. What do you make of these raids on my herd? This makes the third. It rather seems to me as though the thieves had marked me for their particular victim."
"That's my idea exactly," declared the cowboy. "And that's what makes me so sure Gus Megget had a hand in the raid."
"But what grudge has Megget against me?" asked Mr. Wilder in surprise.
"You are the one who leased the Long Creek bottoms, aren't you?" returned Nails, answering the question, Yankee fashion, by another.
"To be sure. But what has that to do with it?"
"Everything. Megget's been rustling cattle for years, and the Long Creek bottoms were where he used to drive the cattle he'd lifted. If any one jumped him, he could either cross the line into old Mex or strike out for the mountains. Maybe you don't know it, but there's a greaser just across the line—they call him Don Vasquez—who makes a fat living buying stolen cattle. He's got some old Indian remedy for making hair grow, and he cuts out the old brands, makes hair grow out and then burns in his three crosses."
"And so my leasing the bottoms has spoiled this criminal dealing?"
"That's what. I heard a greaser down in El Paso last winter boasting you'd sell your ranch inside of two years."
"Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Mr. Wilder severely.
"Didn't think it was necessary. Fatty and I fixed him so he wouldn't brag any more."
Deeming it unwise to inquire Into the means taken for silencing the Mexican, the ranchman lapsed into silence for a few minutes and then declared:
"No cattle thieves can drive me out of business, Nails. I have the right on my side, and right always triumphs."
"We boys are with you, Mr. Wilder. You've always played more than fair with us, which is more than we can say of some folks, and we appreciate it. Cowboys have feelings same as other people, though there seem to be a lot of folks who don't think so. And I'm speaking for the other boys of the Half-Moon as well as myself. We talked it all over before Pete sent me to the ranch. But when you join 'em at the pool, don't say anything about what I've told you. Sentiment and hunting cattle thieves don't mix."
This expression of the esteem in which his men held him, crude though it was, moved Mr. Wilder deeply, and reaching over, he seized the cowboy's hand and shook it warmly, an action that delighted Nails greatly.
The statement about Megget gave the ranchman a new train of thought. He realized for the first time that he was engaged in a cattle war which would only end with his ruin or the capture of the entire band of thieves. And being a man who could not be frightened, the owner of the Half-Moon Ranch vowed to accomplish the latter alternative.
The hard ride was tiring the ponies, wiry though they were, and the men on their backs were obliged to resort to almost continual use of their spurs. But at last the buildings of the ranch home came into view, and soon Mr. Wilder and Nails were at the corral.
"Saddle the best of the bunch for me," ordered the ranchman as he dismounted. "I'll go to the house for a bite and then start for the Three Stars."
"What about me?" inquired the cowboy, disappointment in his voice at the thought of being left behind.
"I want you to ride into Tolopah. Don't say anything about the raid. Just listen round and see if you can learn anything." And turning on his heel, Mr. Wilder started for the house.
"Where are the boys? You didn't let them stay to hunt, did you?" inquired his wife anxiously as he sat down at the table and ordered Hop Joy to bring him something to eat.
"No. They'll be here during the afternoon. I'm going to get Jim Snider and his outfit. Nails says they are at home." And briefly he told her of the information he had received from his cowboy.
No longer than necessary did the ranchman linger at the table, and when he had finished a hasty meal went out, mounted the pony Nails held waiting and galloped away in the direction of the Three Stars Ranch, which lay to the east.
Having far less to go, the cowboy ate leisurely and then rode toward Tolopah.
In the meantime the four boys were making the best time they could, but before they had covered half the distance Whitefoot gave out completely.
For a time they proceeded, with Horace riding now with one boy and now with another. But it was slow work, and at last Bill suggested that he ride on ahead, get fresh horses and return. After some argument, this plan was agreed upon.
As she saw her elder son ride up alone, Mrs. Wilder was greatly alarmed, but he quickly reassured her, and with Ned's help caught two ponies, saddled them and went back to meet the others, all reaching the house a little later.
PREPARATIONS FOR PURSUIT
"Oh, dear! Father and Nails have gone!" exclaimed Horace as he counted the ponies in the corral while the others were unsaddling. "Now we can't go with them. I was afraid that was what father intended when he didn't wait for us."
"But Buster and Blackhawk are here, and there is one more pony than before," returned Larry.
"That doesn't prove anything. Ned told me Nails brought in three extra ponies with him," said Bill.
"Then you have known all the time that father and Nails were gone and never told us?" demanded Horace.
"It was because I didn't know for certain where they had gone that I said nothing," replied his brother. "Ned was away when they arrived and departed. Here comes mother; you can find out from her."
After returning Mrs. Wilder's greetings and giving her a brief account of the trip, Horace asked:
"How long have father and Nails been gone? I think it was mean of them to give us the slip like that."
"But they haven't gone to the hills yet," returned his mother. "Your father has ridden over to the Three Stars and Nails has gone to Tolopah."
"Oh, goody!" exclaimed Horace. "We may be able to go, after all. Momsy, won't you try to make father take us?"
It was only with this last question that Mrs. Wilder understood the purpose of her son's eager inquiries, and the disclosure did not tend to quiet the anxiety she felt over the outcome of the pursuit. Yet she only said:
"That is a question for your father to decide. I think, though, that you would want to stay here and protect me."
"But you are in no danger, Momsy. Besides, Ned and Hop Joy are here."
The thought of the Chinaman as a protector made the other boys laugh, and realizing that they could not count on her espousal of their cause, they went off to the wagon sheds to devise a plan to win permission from the ranchman.
As the owner of the Half-Moon galloped up to the ranch house of the Three Stars his horse literally dripping water, Jim Snider and his cowboys ran up from all directions to learn the cause of such evident hard riding.
To the accompaniment of various exclamations of anger and surprise Mr. Wilder hurriedly told his neighbors of the raid.
"That's Megget's work!" ejaculated Snider as the story was completed. "He's the only one cute enough and with nerve enough to do it. I didn't suppose any one knew my herd was unwatched, yet the minute my boys ride in the gang raids it. Wilder, if you and I are to stay on our ranches, we must round up these cattle thieves."
"That's my idea exactly," declared the owner of the Half-Moon. "That's why I rode over. My boys and I start to-morrow morning, and I want to know how many from the Three Stars will go with me."
"Every man jack of us, save the cook and grub man," replied Snider. "That makes nine."
"Good! We'll ride back to the Half-Moon for supper and then go to the pool. The sooner we start the better. If you'll lend me a fresh pony, I can travel faster."
Without waiting for orders from their master, the boys of the Three Stars ran to the corral, all agog with the excitement at the unexpected turn of affairs.
When the two ranch owners were alone Mr. Wilder imparted his information about Megget's enmity and the Mexican, Don Vasquez.
The facts amazed the proprietor of the Three Stars and the two men were discussing the evident declaration of a cattle war, especially against the Half-Moon, when the cowboys trotted up with the ponies.
Deeming the information too important for general discussion with the men, the ranch owners swung into their saddles, changing their topic of conversation to the trails that would be the most likely to be taken by the raiders.
Never sparing their mounts, they reached the Half-Moon just at dusk and their arrival threw the boys into great excitement.
"Has Nails returned?" asked Mr. Wilder of Ned.
"Send him to me when he comes. Make the boys from the Three Stars at home in the bunkhouse and tell Hop Joy to give us supper as soon as he can. Also have him pack some bacon, sugar, coffee, crackers and doughnuts, enough to last the Half-Moon outfit a week. When it's ready, hitch up and carry it to Pete at the Witches' Pool.
"Hello! Glad you lads arrived all right," he added as he caught sight of the boys. "Any trouble?"
"Nothing, only Whitefoot gave out. I had to come on and get another pony," replied Bill.
"Good! Snider, I want you to know Larry and Tom Alden," continued Mr. Wilder, introducing the boys, adding in a low voice: "They are the lads about whom I told you."
"I'm sure glad to meet you," declared the owner of the Three Stars, giving each of the lads a grip that made their hands ache.
Upon arrival he had exchanged greetings with Bill and Horace, and altogether they trooped onto the veranda, whence they were summoned to supper before the lads had the opportunity to ask Mr. Wilder whether they could accompany him or not.
Evincing a lively Interest in the two Eastern boys, the Three Stars' owner plied them with questions about Ohio and was so impressed with their answers that he extended a cordial invitation to them and the Wilder boys to pay him a visit at his ranch, promising to have his men give an exhibition of "broncho busting" for their special benefit, an invitation which all four eagerly accepted.
Just as they were ready to rise from the table Hop Joy glided in.
"Nail, he backee," he announced. "Say he got heap talkee."
"Tell him to come round to the veranda," ordered Mr. Wilder. "By the way, how are you coming along with the cooking, Hop Joy?"
"Allee lightee. Bymeby, two hours maybe."
"Well, don't be any longer. The sooner Ned can start, the sooner he'll reach the Pool."
In answer the celestial bowed low, then turned and left the room.
WHAT NAILS LEARNED
While the ranchmen and Mrs. Wilder made themselves comfortable in chairs, the boys squatted or stretched out on the piazza, their restlessness proclaiming the expectancy with which they awaited the "heap talkee" Nails desired to impart.
The cowboy soon appeared, and, after seating himself at Mr. Wilder's bidding, launched into an account of what he had learned in Tolopah.
"There are twenty of them in the gang," he said, "and Megget has joined them by this time, though he wasn't with them when they made the raids. As near as I could make out, their headquarters are in the Lost Lode Mine. There are three trails to it, one leading in somewhere near the trail you all took on your hunting trip and the others to the south, along which they drive the cattle they steal. I——"
"Mr. Wilder, you don't suppose that could be the trail where I saw those men crossing the face of the cliff, do you?" interrupted Tom.
"I shouldn't doubt it a bit. I'd forgotten about them entirely." And he briefly told Snider of the figures they all had seen, adding: "Much obliged for reminding me, Tom. That may have been Megget and the fellows you met with him. Go on, Nails; anything more?"
"Nothing but that it's my opinion they have a spy in Tolopah who keeps 'em mighty well informed on the happenings at the Half-Moon and Three Stars ranches."
At the words Mr. Wilder and his neighbor exchanged significant glances.
"What makes you think so?" the latter asked. "Where did you learn all this, anyhow?"
"Oh, just nosing round," drawled Nails, but his tone suggested that he was sure of his information and at the same time unwilling to disclose its source.
"You certainly did well, Nails," complimented his master. "Knowing how many there are in the gang will enable us to lay definite plans for action. Now go and get your supper. I suppose you have seen the boys from the Three Stars in the bunkhouse?"
"I could hear 'em half way to Tolopah." "Then tell them we'll start. At what time do you think Pete will reach the pool?"
"Good. Be ready to move by ten o'clock."
"And tell my outfit to make less noise," added Mr. Snider.
Until they could hear the other cowboys greeting Nails the two men were silent, and then Mr. Wilder declared:
"I had no idea Megget had twenty men with him. It's a good thing we found out.
"Let's see, there are nine of you from the Three Stars; nine of my boys and myself. That makes nineteen."
"And the four of us, that makes twenty-three," added Horace, deeming the moment auspicious for settling the question that was uppermost in the minds of all the lads.
"Your arithmetic is better than your facts," laughed his father.
"Oh, can't we go, please? If Megget should see Larry and Tom, he might run and——"
"On the contrary, I'm afraid he might try to wipe out the disgrace they put upon him. No, my son, it's going to be a hard trip. If you were along I should be worrying about you all the time. Besides," he added, noting the keen disappointment his refusal brought, "I shall need you here so you can ride down to the pool every day and see that the cattle and horses are all right."
"That's well enough for the others. They would be in the way, but I wouldn't," protested Bill. "I'm old enough and strong enough to go, and the experience would do me good. If you take it, it will make just twenty on both sides."
"What do you think, Jim, shall we take Bill or not?"
As the boys awaited the answer of their friend, it was so still the fall of a pin could have been heard.
But their suspense did not last long.
With a drawl that was tantalizingly deliberate the owner of the Three Stars Ranch replied:
"I reckon we might as well. Bill's got a level head on his shoulders, and some day he'll be boss of the Half-Moon. If anything like this happens then he'll know how to act. Yes, I think we'd better take him."
Aware that it would be useless to try to persuade Mr. Wilder to change his mind in respect to taking them, Tom, Larry and Horace made the most of the fact that they were to inspect the herd daily. But it was poor recompense, and in a few minutes they went on to see how near Ned was ready to start, stopping to sample Hop Joy's cooking on the way.
"You goee?" asked the Chinaman as the trio entered his kitchen.
"Going to eat," grinned Horace, helping himself to a doughnut and just managing to dodge a potato that Hop Joy tossed at him.
"Shoo! shoo! Lun out! Me bigee hully. No plague! no plague!"
"Poor fellow! It must be some job to get enough food ready for twelve men. Come on, let's leave him alone," said Larry. "I'd like to go down to the bunk-house."
"That's so. Maybe Sandy or some of his boys know the trail to the Lost Lode," agreed Horace. And to the Chinaman's surprise they left him in peace.
The men from the Three Stars were lying in the bunks and sprawling on the benches, getting what rest they could in anticipation of many long hours in the saddle, laughing and talking the while.
At the entrance of the trio the chatter ceased and the cowboys stared at the two Eastern boys with undisguised interest.
"Boys, these are the famous cowboy tamers, Larry and Tom Alden," said Horace, bowing in feigned deference and indicating his friends with a wave of his hand.
"Don't be afraid, though. We won't try our hands on you unless you get gay with us," declared Larry seriously.
"Thankee, thankee kindly, on behalf of me and my men," bowed Sandy gravely, and then they all burst into a roar of laughter.
Cowboys love a joke, and the words and manner of the brothers, together with their clean-cut faces and manly bearing, appealed to them, winning the way to their good graces as nothing else could.
All reserve thus broken, the men bade the lads sit down.
"I s'pose you'll be going with us?" hazarded Sandy.
"No, father won't let us. He thinks we're only babies. Says he's afraid we'll be in the way. So we've got to stay home and watch the herd at the Witches' Pool."
"You may have your hands full at that," declared one of the cowboys.
"Keep quiet," growled Sandy, frowning at the speaker.
But the remark had suggested all sorts of possibilities to the lads, and, glancing at Tom and Larry, Horace asked:
"What makes you think so?"
Again Sandy cast a look full of meaning at his fellow and the cowboy answered:
"Oh, nothing in particular. I was just talking."
The boys had noted Sandy's glances, however, and the reply only whetted their curiosity.
Drawing himself to his full height and striving to be as severe as possible, Horace said:
"If any of you men know of any trouble that may come to the Half-Moon herd, it is your duty to tell my father before he goes away."
The words and the seriousness of the boy standing before them sent the men into another roar of laughter.
But Sandy hastened to say:
"There's nothing we know, kid. Skinny was only joking."
Horace was about to reply when Hop Joy poked his head through the door, saying:
"Glub all leady, Ned."
"All right, Hop." And springing from his bunk, Ned went out to harness his horses, accompanied by several of the cowboys.
For an hour or so the chums stayed in the bunkhouse, listening to stories of marvelous feats of broncho-busting and whatever else the men pleased to tell them, only leaving when Nails announced it was time to go to the corral and saddle up.
"Aren't you going with them?" asked Tom.
"No," returned Horace. "We are liable to get hurt, it's so dark. We couldn't see anything if we did go. Besides, father may have some orders to give us."
The only instructions Mr. Wilder had to give, however, were to be careful not to do anything that would cause his wife to worry about them.
"Suppose the herd gets in trouble, what shall we do?" persisted Horace, on whose excited mind the words of the Three Stars' cowboy had made a lasting impression.
"Use your own judgment. But don't let your imagination play tricks on you. The cattle will be all right—unless you get them restless."
"Oh, we won't do that," quickly declared Larry. "We'll take such good care of them, you will want to hire us as cowboys when you get back."
The shouts from the corral told the ranchmen that the time for the start had arrived, and quickly they made themselves ready, while Hop Joy appeared to say he had sent saddle bags with food for Mr. Wilder and Bill by Ned.
With a great clatter of hoofs, the cowboys rode up. The Wilders and Mr. Snider bade a hurried good-by, mounted and galloped away into the darkness of the night, with the wishes of Mrs. Wilder and the boys for success and a speedy return ringing in their ears.
OUT ON THE PLAINS
Unlike the night when the hunting party had ridden over the plains, black clouds covered the sky, making the darkness so intense that the riders could not see fifty feet ahead of them. But Mr. Wilder and Nails knew the route well, so that the absence of the moon made no great difference.
That they need not tire their mounts by hard riding, Mr. Wilder had purposely set the start early and, with Snider on one side and Bill on the other, he led the cavalcade, setting the pace at a slow lope.
Now and then the cowboys talked or laughed, but for the most part they were silent, the creak of the saddle leathers and the swish of the horses' legs as they brushed through the grass being the only sounds to tell that a body of men were riding through the darkness.
So lonesome was the ranch house after the departure of the party that, though they made several attempts to talk, Horace and the two Eastern lads finally decided to go to bed, to the evident relief of Mrs. Wilder.
But sleep did not come to Larry and Tom, and as they lay tossing and turning, the former asked:
"Do you think that fellow they call Skinny really meant there was any danger threatening the herd at the Witches' Pool?"
"I don't believe so," replied Tom. "I suppose there is always the chance that a lot of things may happen to a big herd like that. Some of them might try to wander away or they might get frightened and stampede. I read about a stampede once where the cattle ran right over the edge of a cliff."
"Well, they couldn't do that at the pool, because there aren't any cliffs near there," replied Tom.
Larry was not satisfied, however, and said:
"I wonder what cowboys do to stop a stampede? I wish we'd thought to ask Mr. Wilder."
"Don't always be looking for trouble, Larry," protested his brother.
"Still, we ought to know. He said he'd hold us responsible for the cattle."
"We can ask Ned when he gets back, if you really want to know. But don't, for goodness sake let Horace hear you. His imagination is so lively that he would think it was a stampede every time the cattle moved. I think it was because Horace is so excitable that Mr. Wilder had us stay home. He probably thought we were older and could steady him down. Now don't try to think up any more things that might happen. I'm tired and want to go to sleep." And turning his back to his brother, Tom refused to talk any more.
Out on the prairie the body of horsemen were riding silently and steadily.
"I hope we shall not be obliged to wait long for Pete," said Bill, giving voice to his thoughts.
"He'll be on hand, barring accidents," returned his father.
This confidence of the owner of the Half-Moon in his foreman was justified, when, at the end of another hour, the men caught the flare of a camp fire in the direction of the pool.
"Must have hurried some," asserted Snider.
But this comment elicited no other response than a quickening of the pace.
When they were within a mile of the fire Mr. Wilder drew rein.
"You boys wait here," he commanded. "I haven't any doubt but that it's Pete's fire. Still, it won't pay to take any chances. Snider and I will ride ahead to reconnoiter. If we are not back within half an hour, you'll know it's all right and can follow."
Little relishing the enforced halt, the cowboys, however, obeyed, some of them dismounting and stretching out in the grass.
Riding a rod or so from the others, Bill, Nails and Sandy eagerly peered through the darkness, listening intently for any sound that should indicate danger.
The two ranch owners, being experienced in the art of scouting, rode to the left into a roll of the plains, one crest of which shut them off from the light. For they were aware that should they ride in its glare they would be seen by whoever was about the fire, and they wished to make sure it was Pete and his men at the pool before disclosing themselves.
But their caution was unnecessary. When they had covered only a little more than half the distance the lowing of cattle broke on their ears.
"That's the Half-Moon outfit, sure enough," declared Snider. And putting spurs to their ponies, the ranch owners galloped straight for the fire.
"Queer we can't see any of the boys," muttered Mr. Wilder in a low voice. "I know they are tired. But, all things considered, one of them at least ought to be on watch if for nothing else than to keep the cattle from breaking away. That they are restless, you can tell from their lowing.
"It's no wonder the raiders were able to cut out my short-horned Durhams if the boys didn't keep better watch."
His tone showed deep annoyance, and he was on the point of speaking again when a sharp challenge rang out from their left:
"Who goes there?"
Instantly Mr. Wilder's anger vanished as he recognized the voice of his foreman and replied:
"Don't get excited, Pete. It's only Jim Snider and me."
In response to his master's greeting the cowboy sprang to his feet and a movement of his hand toward his belt showed both ranchmen that he had been prepared to dispute their advance should they have proven foes instead of friends.
"Where are the others? You two didn't come alone, did you? I told Nails to have you get as many as you could," said the foreman.
"We left them back yonder," returned the owner of the Half-Moon. "Nails said we were to meet you in the morning, and when we saw the fire Jim and I thought we'd make sure it was you."
"Well, I'm glad you've come," responded Pete. "Now we can get on the trail so much the sooner. How many did you bring?"
"Nine from the Three Stars, including Jim, Bill, Nails and myself. With your boys that will make twenty, just the number of the raiders."
As he uttered the last words Mr. Wilder expected his foreman to evince surprise, but instead he and Snider were the ones to be taken aback as Pete remarked:
"So Nails found out, did he? What else did he? What else did he learn?"
Briefly the owner of the Half-Moon reported the information Nails had gleaned at Tolopah and then told him of the opinions he and the proprietor of the Three Stars had formed.
"You got the lay of the land down to the last sage brush," declared the foreman. "But we will put a crimp in Megget's plans that he will not forget. My men are asleep by the fire, so there is no use waking them till we've decided what to do."
"Then we must get down to business," returned his master. "I told the boys to ride up unless we returned in half an hour."
A moment there was silence, as though each were waiting for the other to make some suggestion as to the best course to pursue, and then Mr. Wilder said:
"So long as we know the headquarters are in the Lost Lode Mine, it seems to me we had better strike for it direct. Nails told me you knew some trail." And he looked at Pete.
"I know trails enough, but which is the one that leads to the Lost Lode, I can't say. That's just the trouble. It would take a month of Sundays to ride them all down. While we were driving the cattle up here, I was trying to figure out which trail to take in case Nails found the mine was the place."
"You have tried some of the trails, haven't you, Pete?" inquired the owner of the Three Stars.
"Sure. There are six I know that don't lead to the mine. That leaves three between the pool and the Long Creek bottoms, and it may be any one of them."
"Why do you think so?" asked his master.
"Because I know the right trail is between the pool and the bottoms."
Again the men lapsed into silence, which Mr. Snider broke by inquiring:
"What was it that young Alden mentioned about men crossing the dirt?"
"That's so. I'd forgotten it again," and quickly Mr. Wilder narrated the incident to his foreman.
"Probably that was Megget," asserted Pete. "But that doesn't help us much. We don't know where that trail breaks on the plains. Besides, while we practically know the headquarters are near the old mine, we don't know they are driving the cattle there. They may be heading straight for Don Vasquez's ranch.
"The plan that I kind of made up was to follow the trail from the bottoms till we were sure which way the raiders were headed. If it's for the mine, we can ride back along the plains and try out my three trails."
"But why not follow the cattle?" interrupted Mr. Wilder.
"Because I'd rather head them off than creep up on them. The raiders will be expecting us from behind. By riding on the prairie we can cover ten miles to their one, which will give us time to try out the three trails, and, when we find the right one, we can get in ahead and block the trail."
For several minutes the ranch owners discussed the suggestion and finally decided to act on it unless circumstances should make a change advisable.
Having settled the matter, they rode to the fire and aroused the sleeping cowboys, being joined a few minutes later by Bill, Sandy and the others. Soon the men of the Half-Moon were saddling their ponies.
"Queer we don't meet Ned anywhere," Bill exclaimed. "I see from the bags he's been here, Pete."
"He got here all right, but he didn't like to go back very well. Had a bad case of nerves, so he took down the white awning."
"It's just as well," returned Mr. Wilder. Then, finding that the men were impatient to be on the move, he gave the command to start and they rode toward the Long Creek bottoms.
When Tom and Larry awoke it was bright daylight.
"Why it's nine o'clock," exclaimed Larry in amazement as he looked at his watch.
Hastily the brothers dressed and then went to see if Horace was in his room or had played some joke on them in letting them sleep. To their relief, they found him in bed.
"Hey, you, get up!" cried Tom. "You're a fine one to be in charge of the Half-Moon Ranch. If you stay in bed much longer, it will be dark."
Deeply chagrined to think he had overslept, Horace leaped to the floor, and soon the three boys were ready for breakfast.
At the sound of their voices Mrs. Wilder had ordered Hop Joy to bring in their food, and as the lads entered the dining-room she was awaiting them.
"Why didn't you call us?" protested Horace.
"Because I thought you were all tired and that sleep would do you good."
"And I suppose if Larry or Tom hadn't happened to wake up, you would have let us sleep all day?"
"I suppose I should," said his mother, smiling. "When you are in bed I know that you are safe."
"You must not worry about us, Mrs. Wilder," interposed Larry. "I always tell mother that we are old enough to take care of ourselves. So I wish you would feel the same. I think it would save you no end of anxiety."
"Undoubtedly. But I never can think of my Horace except as my baby."
"Huh! I'm a pretty husky baby," grunted the boy. "See here, mother, I'm fifteen now, so I wish you'd stop calling me your baby. When a fellow has been put in charge of the Half-Moon herd he doesn't like to be called a baby."
"I'll try to remember," returned Mrs. Wilder gently. Yet there was a wistfulness in her voice that caused Horace to look up, and, at the sight of her face, he left his chair, ran and put his arm around her neck, exclaiming:
"If you want to call me baby, you can, Momsy! I don't care. Tom and Larry are the right stuff and they won't laugh."
Ere either of the brothers could reply Hop Joy appeared.
"Ned he goee pool," he announced. "Say if you boys wantee go, you hully."
"Tell him to bring up Blackhawk, Lightning and Lady Belle. Then put up some food for us, Hop Joy. Plenty of it, mind."
As the Chinaman glided from the room Mrs. Wilder asked:
"Why do you take anything except for lunch, son?"
"Because I think we will spend the night at the pool. Larry and Tom want to see the will-o'-the-wisps, and we maybe able to catch some fish early to-morrow morning. You know father always says early morning is the only time to fish in the pool."
"Well, I don't suppose it will do any harm for you to be gone over night. Only be careful. I shall worry if you are not back before dusk tomorrow night."
Permission to pass the night obtained, the comrades quickly collected their rifles and some fishing tackle, mounted the ponies Ned had brought up and rode away.
After learning from their companion that he had found Pete and the herd at the pool when he arrived, the lads indulged in speculation as to when and where the pursuers would come across the raiders and the chances of recovering the cattle.
Of a sudden, remembering his discussion, with his brother the night before, Larry asked:
"How do you stop a stampede, Ned?"
"You generally don't," replied the man with a grin.
"But you try, don't you? I'm sure I've read of cowboys stopping stampedes."
"I guess they do it easier in story books then than on the plains. The best way to stop a stampede is not to let it start. Still, if there's enough boys on hand, I suppose it could be done. The only way, though, would be to ride down the leaders and turn them round.
"As I said, if there are enough boys on hand when the trouble breaks, they can get them to milling, which is going round and round in a circle until the cattle get tired out. But it takes a mighty lively bunch of cow-punchers to do it."
After riding for two hours they came in sight of the cattle, and the two brothers quickened their pace, eager to see them at close range.
"Steady now. Don't go riding at them like a pack of Indians or you will have all the stampede you want to see," exclaimed Ned. "My, but they surely are restless!"
This last remark was caused by some of the steers which raised their heads at the approach of the riders, then turned and dashed back to the body of the herd.
"Oh, dear! I'm afraid we've started them," said Horace.
"Pull in your horses!" commanded Ned. "The main bunch is all right. If we come up to them slow, there won't be any trouble."
Obeying instantly, the boys reined their horses to a walk and reached the pool without causing further alarm among the cattle.
"So this is where the ghosts live, is it?" asked Tom, gazing from a little knoll at a placid body of water about one hundred feet long by twice as many wide, surrounded by reeds.
"Maybe you won't laugh so much to-night," declared their friend and then, because he did not like to be joked about his belief that the place was haunted, he added: "Come on, let's see if we can find which direction father and the boys took."
The chance to try if they could track any one on the prairie appealed to the others, and they started to ride around the pool.
"I can see where they had a camp fire!" cried Tom, pointing toward a pile of white ashes.
"Here's where the grass is all tramped down. Look, there's a regular path right for the mountains."
"No, this is the way they went, to the south, here," returned Larry.
Each boy was firm in his declaration that he had found the trail and to prove it they dismounted and began to examine the ground.
"I'm right. I can see horse tracks!" cried Larry. "This is the way they took, isn't it, Ned?" Thus appealed to, both Horace and the man rode up.
"Larry's right," announced Ned, after a few moments observation,
"Then what caused my tracks?" demanded Tom. "Here are horse tracks, too, only most of the hoofprints are made by cattle."
"Oh, you can't tell a cow from a pony print," taunted Horace.
"Come over and see for yourself," retorted Tom.
Examination proving that he was right, his friend exclaimed:
"That was made by the boys coming up."
"But the tracks are all going toward the mountains. They certainly wouldn't drive any cattle away with them. You don't—you don't suppose it's another raid, do you?" and Tom glanced at Ned.
THE CONTESTED TRAIL
The thought that the cattle thieves should have dared to make still another raid on the very night when the outfits of the Half-Moon and Three Stars ranches had set out to run them to cover was so startling that for several minutes after Tom had suggested it no one spoke.
Larry was the first one to recover from the shock of surprise.
"There's no use in trying to guess," he declared. "We must find out. The only way to do that, so far as I can see, is to follow the trail and discover where it leads."
This proposition received the excited endorsement of the other two boys, and Horace added:
"Wouldn't it be dandy if we could round up Megget and his men before father and the others? Come on!"
"Don't be in too much of a hurry," urged Tom.
"Oh, if you are afraid to go, you needn't. I'll go alone," sneered Horace.
Flushing at the taunt of cowardice, Tom bit his lips that he might not say anything he should regret.
"You ought to know, Horace, that neither Larry nor I are afraid," he responded. "I was only thinking about your mother. We promised her we would be back by to-morrow night. The idea of our going in pursuit of Megget by ourselves is foolish. The thing to do is to make sure this trail leads into the mountains and then go and try to find your father and his men."
"Now you're talking sense," interrupted Ned.
"To find them will certainly take us longer than until to-morrow night. In order that Mrs. Wilder need not worry, we must let her know of the change in our plans."
"That's so," agreed Larry. "Still there is no reason for our all going back; one is enough. Let's draw lots to see who it shall be."
"Not much," returned Horace. "So long as father and Bill are away, I am in charge of the Half-Moon. The rest of you must do as I say. Ned is the one to go back!"
"But you boys don't know anything about the trails," protested the man. "You will get lost."
"We certainly can follow this one," retorted Horace hotly. "And we can always find our way back. Just tell mother we shall join father."
In vain the driver of the grub wagon endeavored to dissuade the lads, but the thought of taking part in the pursuit of the raiders, after all, made them deaf to all his arguments, and at last Horace exclaimed impatiently:
"You are only delaying us, Ned. I say you are to return to the ranch. That settles it. Larry and Tom and I are going to take the trail." And, without further ado, he shook out his pony and headed for the mountains, the two brothers at his side.
The pace at which Horace rode was terrific, and because of the hot sun, the horses were soon covered with lather.
"Look here, we've got to go at a slower gait," announced Larry. "If we keep up this clip, our ponies will give out. They can't stand it and the heat, too. And if they do give out, it will be sure to be just at the very time we need them most."
"But we'll soon be in the mountains, and then it will be cooler," asserted Horace. "I want to overhaul the raiders before night. Won't father and the others feel small when they learn that we three, whom they left behind because we were too young, have rounded up Megget?"
"You don't mean to say that you intend for us three to tackle the raiders alone?" exclaimed Tom.
"Because we wouldn't stand one chance in a thousand—no, nor in ten thousand—of being able to capture them. We don't know the trail at all, and they probably are familiar with every rock and turn in it. If they should discover that we were pursuing them, all they would need do would be to lie in wait for us and capture us when we came along."
The truth of what the younger of the chums said was so evident that even the impetuous Horace was forced to admit it.
"Then what shall we do?" he asked. "If you have any better plan to suggest, out with it."
Tom, however, could think of nothing feasible and was silent.
The boys had pulled their ponies down to a walk and for several minutes none of them spoke.
Of a sudden Blackhawk raised his head, sniffed the air and then uttered a low whinny.
The sound, coming so unexpectedly, scared the lads, and they looked at one another in alarm.
"He smells something," exclaimed Horace in a whisper, as though fearing to speak out loud.
The boys were in the lowland between two crests of the rolling plains.
"Perhaps it's the cattle. They may be on the other side of that rise in the plains," returned Larry.
Anxiously the three boys gazed toward the crest. The thought that they might be close upon the very men they were chasing startled them, and they were at a loss as to the best thing to do.
"If it is the raiders and the cattle Blackhawk scented, then they'll be on the lookout for us," murmured Tom. "They could hear that whinny for——"
"By jove! it is they," cried Larry excitedly. "See those horses' ears bobbing?" And he pointed to the south.
Following his finger, his companions beheld two sharp points steadily advancing from the farther side of the crest.
"Be ready to give it to 'em," breathed Horace, at the same time unslinging his rifle.
But before he could get it to his shoulder the head of the horse came into view and the next instant the head and shoulders of a man.
In a flash the chums seized their rifles.
The horseman was only about one hundred yards away, and as he caught sight of the rifles pointed toward him he pulled his pony to its haunches.
"Throw up your hands!" yelled Horace. "If you make a move, we'll drop you. You are a prisoner of the Half-Moon Ranch!"
As the horseman heard the name he shouted:
"Steady, there! I'm Jim Jeffreys. What are you up to, anyhow?"
"Who's Jim Jeffreys?" demanded Larry of Horace.
"He's one of our neighbors, if it's him."
"Well, don't you know? Can't you recognize him?"
Having recovered from his fright, the boy stared at the man who had caused it and then announced:
"Yes, it is Jim."
"It's a pity you couldn't have recognized him before!" snapped Tom as he and his brother lowered their rifles.
WHAT JEFFREYS KNEW
Jeffreys, as soon as he understood his identity had been established, leaped his pony toward the boys and was soon beside them.
"You are a fine lot to be packing rifles!" he snorted, his anger rising as the danger passed. "You may think it's a good joke to cover anybody you meet on the plains, but some one may turn the joke on you by firing before you get your aim. You aren't what you call 'quick on the trigger.'"
"Which is fortunate for you—in this case," declared Larry, resenting the manner and tone of the stranger.
The sight of the two serious-faced boys, whose eyes showed them to be keen and alert, brought Jeffreys to his senses.
"I reckon you're right," he exclaimed. "But what's up, Horace? If you and your friends are out for a little excitement, just take my tip and turn your attention to jumping a coyote or you may——"
"We are not after excitement," retorted the boy from the Half-Moon Ranch. "We don't have to go looking for it. We've got all we want. Some of Megget's gang have raided our herd."
"No? It must have been them I saw over near the hills early this morning."
"Where were they?" "Which way were they going?" "How many were there of them?" demanded the lads, each one asking a question.
"It was just after sun-up. I was too far away to recognize the cattle, but I counted four men. As they only had about fifty head with 'em, I sort of suspected something was wrong, so I got out of sight before they could see me. Leastways, if they did, they didn't make any move to get me."
"Where have you been?"
"I've been up in the hills for a few days prospecting."
"Did you find the mine?" inquired Tom, forgetting the raid and pursuit in his eagerness to learn about the Lost Lode.
"No, I didn't. I just learned another trail, which isn't the right one."
Larry, however, was more interested in the cattle thieves and brought the conversation back to them.
"Were the men near the hills when you saw them?" he asked.
"About a quarter of a mile away."
"Then come on. We must get to the hills so we can find their trail," declared Horace.
"You kids sure ain't going after 'em alone?" exclaimed Jeffreys incredulously.
"But if there are only four of them?"
"To you three, and they are men, don't forget that."
"But you'll make four," suggested Tom.
"Providing I was going with you, which I ain't, I'd like to, but I reckon I'd better ride back to my own ranch and see they haven't lifted any of my cattle. If they have, I'll get my boys and take up the trail."
Realizing from the expressions on their faces that the lads were surprised as well as disappointed at his refusal to accompany them, the horseman said:
"You all just take my advice and don't try to follow those raiders into the mountains. What you want to do is to find Wilder and Snider as quick as you can, providing you won't go back to your ranch, where you ought to be."
"Which you can bet your whole outfit we won't!" snapped Horace. "We started on this chase and we're going to stay on it."
Jeffreys smiled at the determined manner of the young rancher,
"Then join your father as soon as you can. Don't try any fool stunt like going into the mountains. Remember, when you are on the prairie you can sec on all sides of you."
"Except when you're behind a crest," chuckled Tom.
At this reference to the recent contretemps Jeffreys frowned, started to say something and instead dug his spurs into his pony, galloping away without even so much as looking back.
"He's a fine neighbor—not," declared Larry as the trio resumed their way. "I should have thought he would be only too glad to help your father and Mr. Snider get back their cattle."
"He isn't very keen for the Half-Moon," rejoined Horace. "Father beat him in a law case over a boundary line once and he's never forgotten it."
"And I reckon he won't forget his meeting with us to-day," said Tom, grinning.
At the memory of the reception they had given, Jeffreys the comrades had a hearty laugh.
"Still, he gave us some good advice," asserted Larry. "I agree with him that the thing for us is to find the Half-Moon and Three Stars crowd as soon as we can."
"Which seems to be a pretty big order in itself," mused Tom. "I say we go and see where they drove the cattle into the hills and then decide."
This suggestion met with no opposition, and as the boys rode toward the mountains, the wooded sides of which looked inviting because of the relief they promised from the torrid heat of the plains, they discussed various plans, only to discard them.
At last they reached the hills. Dismounting, they hobbled their ponies, removed the saddles and bridles sticky with lather, and then broke out some lunch which they ate ravenously, despite the fact that their mouths were almost parched.
Greatly refreshed by the food, the boys decided to follow the trail of the cattle till they could get some idea of its direction.
"Let's go on foot," suggested Tom. "The ponies will be all right, the rest will do them good, and we can get through the brush and over the rocks with less noise."
Readily his companions agreed, and picking up their rifles, they quickly found the tracks made by the cattle.
For some distance the trail seemed more like an abandoned wood road than anything else. But gradually it began to grow narrower and at last became no more than a path winding in and out among the rocks.
Several times some sound caused the boys to raise their guns to their shoulders and peer about in all directions, but nothing could they see save the trees and rocks, and they ascribed the noises to some denizen of the forest roaming about.
Of a sudden Tom, who was in the lead, stopped.
"I smell something awful queer," he whispered.
The trail wound along the edge of a sharp descent and just ahead was an abrupt turn.
Ere either Larry or Horace could reply to their companion's announcement all three were dumb-founded to see a big, shaggy brown head appear round the turn in the trail.
"It's a bear!" gasped Horace.
At the sight of the three boys the big head had paused in surprise. Then its lips began to curl, disclosing a wicked looking set of teeth, and finally it broke into a savage snarl, at the same time rising in the air.
"He's getting to his hind legs. That means fight!" breathed Horace. "Come on, let's run!"
"But he'd overtake us and beat us down with his paws," returned Larry. "We've got to kill him."
Less time did the action consume than is required to describe it, and the boys were standing terror stricken when the bear charged upon them, making vicious lunges at them with his huge paws.
Roused from his fright by the imminence of his peril, Tom raised his rifle, only to have it knocked from his hands by a swing of one of the bear's paws.
"Drop down! drop down so I can shoot!" yelled Larry as he saw the desperate situation in which his brother was placed.
Instantly Tom obeyed, throwing himself to one side as he fell.
But as the younger of the brothers dropped the bear, as though singling him out for his particular antagonist, also dropped to all fours, and Larry's shot went over him.
Horace, however, shot lower, and a terrible roar told them that the bullet had struck home.
In the fury of his pain the bear seemed to think that the boy lying flat on the rocks was the cause of his suffering, and, with mouth distended, charged upon him.
In a frenzy lest they might not be able to save Tom, Larry and Horace both fired.
At the impact of the bullets the bear rose on his hind legs, swung wildly with his paws at the steel barrels that were pouring the terribly painful things into him and fell prone, the huge carcass missing Tom by less than a foot.
From the moment when his brother had cried to him to drop, Tom had kept his eyes on the bear, and when he saw the beast plunge forward and realized that it was dead, he leaped to his feet, his pale face telling of the awful strain under which he had been.
The reaction from their excitement made Larry and Horace tremble and, for the time, they could only look from their companion to the carcass of the bear, too unnerved to speak.
Tom was the first to recover from the fright, and he thanked the others for what they had done.
"Let's not talk about it," interposed Larry. "The thing for us to do is to get out of here lively. The reverberations from those shots are echoing yet. The raiders must have heard them, and they'll know some one is on their trail, so they will either come back to sec who it is or else hide to waylay us."
Tom and Horace were perfectly willing to give up following the trail farther, and all three were retracing their steps when the elder of the chums cried:
"The rifle! Tom, you forgot to pick up your rifle."
"Which shows I was some scared," and he smiled apologetically.
"But it's a worse one on Larry and me," protested Horace. "There's some excuse for you. But the bear wasn't charging us."
"Oh, well there's no harm done," returned Larry, pleased at the spirit Horace's words showed. "We can go back and get it. It's a mighty good thing, though, that we thought of It before we reached the ponies. From the looks of the sky and the shadows it won't be long before dusk, and Mr. Wilder told us night comes quickly in the mountains."
Ere Larry had finished speaking they had started back to the scene of their encounter.
Yet when they reached the spot Tom's rifle was nowhere to be seen.
In dismay the boys looked at one another. Already the mountains were turning purple-black in the twilight, the shadows transforming the trees and rocks into weird figures.
"Perhaps it's under the bear," hazarded Horace, his low voice evidencing the awe which the silence and the surroundings inspired in him.
"Then give a hand while we move him," commanded Larry. "It won't do to stay here long or we may lose our way as well as the rifle."
Little relishing the thought of wandering through the woods in the dark, the boys seized one of the paws and pulled with all their might.
But, to their surprise, they could move the carcass scarcely at all.
"My, but he's a monster!" gasped Larry. "It's only a waste of valuable time to try to lift him or even move him. The only thing we can do is to try to feel under him with our hands."
Dropping to their knees, the lads thrust their arms under the shaggy fur, being able to reach far; enough to make sure that the much-wanted rifle was not beneath the body of the bear.
"Bet he knocked it over the cliff," declared Horace. "From which side did he strike it, Tom?"
"More than I know. All I could see was paws. The air was full of them and they seemed to come from all directions at once."
This explanation brought laughter to Larry and Horace, which ceased abruptly, however, as from somewhere on the mountains there suddenly rang out a low wail, more like the howl of a coyote than anything else, yet with a certain difference that even the chums were able to distinguish.
"Whatever that is, I don't care to meet it," exclaimed Horace. "Let's go back. We've still got two rifles. If we stick to the plains till we join father we can get along all right."
"Suppose we don't meet your father, what then?" returned Larry.
"Always looking for more trouble, as if we didn't have enough already," chided Tom. "Of course we'll meet him. Anyhow, this is no place to argue about it. If you and Horace can't protect me, I'll take both your rifles and watch over the two of you."
There was a suggestion of mockery in Tom's voice, but taking it good naturedly, Larry replied:
"Oh, no you won't. You can't throw your gun away every time you get scared and then take ours from us. You just get in between Horace and me. Horace, you lead because you know how to follow a trail better, and I'll keep off the bears and raiders," he added with a smile.
The movements of the boys, however, were more rapid than their words, and they were traveling the trail once more ere Larry's joking allusion to the loss of the rifle and the protection he would afford.
So long as their way lay among the rocks they followed the trail with little difficulty, but when they entered the woods their troubles began in earnest.
None too self-possessed in the dark, even when going about the ranch, when he entered the inky darkness caused by the maze of boughs and foliage, Horace lost his head completely, and it did not take the comrades long to realize they had wandered from the trail.
"Better let me take the lead, Horace; I'm taller," said Larry, at the same time giving his brother a poke In the ribs as a warning not to object.
"Well, you'll have to be a giraffe to see your way over the tops of these trees," chuckled Tom.
Their plight was too serious to admit of jest, however, and after wandering for half an hour, stumbling over dead limbs and running into trees and branches, they halted in despair.
"I remember Si told us back home that when a man's lost he generally travels in a circle," said Tom.
"So he did, and he said It was usually to the left, because a man takes a longer step with his right foot," added Larry.
"That may help when you know which is the right and which is the left of the way you have been going, but here we've turned round to talk, so we don't even know that much," interposed Horace.
"That's a fact," admitted the elder of the chums reluctantly as he realized that by facing one another they had lost all sense of direction. "It's a good thing you thought of it, Horace, or we might have got ourselves into a worse mess than we're in now,"
"If it weren't for all that good food cooked by Hop Joy back with the horses and the fact that I'm hungry, I'd be in favor of staying right where we are till morning," announced Tom.
"I reckon that is the best thing we can do, anyhow," declared his brother.
"Not with my appetite," retorted Tom.
"This is no time to be funny," reprimanded Larry. "If we keep on moving, we may never get out, while if we stay here we can climb into one of these trees and be safe till daylight shows us——"
"By jove! That's the very thing!" exclaimed the younger of the chums, and there was such a tone of genuine enthusiasm in his voice that the others asked excitedly:
"Why, the trees. We won't need to sleep in them. By climbing a tall one, we can get the lay of the land as soon as moonlight comes, which will show us at least how to get out onto the plains again."
"Hooray!" cried Larry and Horace together.
Each realized the plan was feasible, provided the night was not cloudy, and once on the prairie it would not be difficult for the young rancher to lead the way to the horses. And, although they knew that the moon would not rise for two hours at least, they were so eager to try the plan that they began to discuss who should be the one to do the climbing.
The two brothers claimed preference because they were both stronger and taller than their companion, but Horace silenced them by declaring that not only could he go higher because he was lighter, but that he would be able to recognize their whereabouts from his knowledge of the mountains.
Restraining their impatience as best they could, the boys sat down.
"When we do get out, which way shall we go to join Mr. Wilder and the others?" asked Larry.
This question started further discussion. One suggestion after another was made only to be rejected because of some obstacle, and finally they decided the safest thing to do would be to ride till they found the trail over which the cattle had been driven from the bottoms and follow that.
Soon Horace climbed a convenient tree.
"We sure are dubs!" he cried.
"Why? Is the moon up?" asked the two chums eagerly..
"No, the moon isn't up. I don't need it. The stars are bright enough. We've been sitting here fretting all this while within a hundred yards of the prairie!"
A MYSTERIOUS CALL
Horace and Larry having picked up their rifles, the three boys resumed their way, Larry leading slowly, taking care to make his steps of as nearly equal length as possible, and in due time they came onto the prairie.
"My, but this stretch of level does look good," declared Tom, and his companions expressed their hearty agreement as they hastened toward the spot where they left their ponies.
Finding them without difficulty, the lads broke out the food and ate ravenously,
"Hey, go easy on the grub," cautioned Larry as he noted the amount his companions were eating. "This is all we have to last us until we meet the others—or get back to the ranch," he added as the thought recurred to him that luck would play a large part in the success of their search for the pursuing party.
"You can go easy if you like. So long as there's anything to eat, I am going to eat," returned his brother. "Don't worry. We won't starve. If worse comes to worse, I can get you some deer meat, provided you'll lend me your rifle."
"Or I can get you some mountain lion meat," added Horace.
"I notice neither of you mention bear meat," chuckled the elder of the chums.
"Because it doesn't agree with us," returned Tom, and at this allusion to their recent adventure they all laughed merrily.
In delight at the extrication from their dilemma the boys chatted and joked as they repacked the saddle bags, unhobbled their ponies and prepared to resume riding.
"There's only one thing that could, add to my happiness," remarked Larry as he swung onto Lightning's back.
"What's that?" Inquired his companions.
"About a gallon of drinking water."
"I'm some thirsty, too," said Horace, "but I don't know of a place where there is any water."
"Then we'll leave it to the horses," asserted Tom. "Mr. Wilder told me they would always locate water if there was any about. From the way Blackhawk acts, I think he scents some."
"Scents water!" sneered Horace.
"Just you wait and see," retorted the younger of the comrades, and giving free rein to his pony, he let him nose along through the grass for some distance when the animal turned abruptly and entered the woods, stopping beside a brook.
"You'd better appoint me guide and captain of this company," smiled the boy as they dismounted and drank greedily of the cool water.
"You'd be a fine captain without a gun," retorted Larry, and in high spirits they remounted.
For a time the boys had the moon for company, but toward, midnight clouds gathered in the sky and a chilly wind began to blow.
"How about pitching camp pretty soon?" suggested Larry.
"Wait till we get to Elkhorn River," answered Horace".
"How far is that? I didn't suppose there was such a thing in these plains."
"Oh, I should say it was fifteen miles from here," returned the young rancher. "It isn't much of a river, but it's better than none."
"Wouldn't ride fifteen—Hello! What's that glow in the sky right next the mountains?" exclaimed Tom, pointing to where a faint glare was visible against the dark background of trees.
"It's a fire," asserted Horace, "a camp fire. You can tell by the steadiness of the light."
Excitedly they speculated as to whose it could be.
"If it's raiders, we want to know it. Perhaps we can round up some of them," declared Horace.
And urging their ponies into a gallop, the boys rode forward.
When they were near enough to distinguish the flames they dismounted, hobbled their horses in the underbrush and approached on foot.
No sign of man or beast could they see, and their curiosity was further aroused.
"Stoop down so your heads are In the grass," admonished Horace. "It may be they have seen us and are hiding among the trees. Don't make any noise and stick close together."
Crouching low, the trio advanced stealthily. Nearer and nearer they drew, yet no sound could they hear. Consumed with curiosity, Horace suddenly stood up, determined to learn if any one were sleeping beside the fire.
Yet no sooner had he risen than a command rang out:
"Throw up your hands!"
The two brothers, ignorant of their companion's action, gasped at the words. But Horace let out a whoop of joy.
"Hooray! It's father and the boys," he cried so loud that instantly a dozen figures bounded from about the fire.
"Well, if it ain't them kids!" ejaculated Pete, who had been on guard. "It's lucky you recognized my voice, Horace."
By this time Tom and Larry had straightened up and all three were hastening toward the camp fire, thinking only of their good fortune in finding their friends.
"Horace, what does this mean?" demanded his father sternly. "I told you to stay at home, and yet we haven't been gone but twenty-four hours and you come tagging along."
But the severity of his father did not dismay the young rancher. Looking straight at him, the boy hastily told of the ride to the pool and the discovery that more cattle had been driven away.
The information excited the cowboys greatly, and emphatic were their opinions of the daring of the thieves in making another raid and within a few hours after the men pursuing them had set out.
"They probably were watching us all the time," asserted the owner of the Three Stars.
"Probably," agreed Mr. Wilder. "But what have you boys been doing since you learned of the raid? You could almost walk your ponies from the pool to here in all this time."
Before any of them could reply, however, a long, low wail rang out. Surprised, the men glanced at one another,
"That sounds like a coyote, but it ain't," asserted Pete.
Again the cry broke on the air and was repeated twice.
"Why, it's the very same sound we heard in the mountains!" exclaimed Larry. And his companions confirmed him.
"The same cry you heard in the mountains?" repeated Mr. Wilder.
"Yes, sir," and in a few words the elder of the brothers related their adventures.
"Then it's a signal," declared Pete. "You boys have been followed. It's a mighty good thing we were camping here."
"Those cries came from the plains. Mebbe it's the thieves going for more cattle," declared Sandy.
"We'll find out what it is. Everybody to horse!" commanded Mr. Wilder. "Pete, three or four of you go with Horace and the Aldens to get their ponies. We'll ride up and join you."
A TERRIBLE PLOT
Quickly the men ran to the woods where they had concealed their ponies, unhobbled, saddled and mounted them, riding along till they came to where Pete and the boys were.
"Which way shall we go?" inquired Sandy when all were In their saddles. "That cry came from straight ahead of us on the plains, according to my judgment."
Pete and the other cowboys agreed with him, and, trusting to their sense of direction, the owner of the Half-Moon said:
"Then we'll ride due east. Spread out abreast. The more ground we can cover the better."
"But don't get too far apart," interposed the rancher from the Three Stars. "Keep close enough together so you can see the man on your right."
Rapidly were these commands given, and within fifteen minutes after the mysterious calls had startled them the twenty-three horsemen were advancing over the prairie, eyes and ears alert for sound or sight of the men who had uttered the signals, the two Eastern boys and Horace riding between Mr. Wilder and Pete at the southern end of the line.
But for once Sandy's ears had played him false. Ignorant of the psychological fact that only when a man's head is turned can he correctly judge the direction of sound, it being impossible to distinguish between a sound coming from directly in front or behind, the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch had been deceived because he had been looking straight ahead out into the prairie. And instead of riding toward the men who had roused them by their cries, each bound of the horses was carrying them farther away.
When Larry and his companions had met the bear, the four raiders with the cattle Jeffreys had seen were only about two miles in advance of them. As the boys had thought, the reverberations of the shots had reached the ears of the men at the rear of the cattle and they had uttered the wail as a signal to those ahead, jumping to the conclusion that they were being followed.
Making use of their knowledge of the mountains, the raiders had hurriedly driven the cattle into the forest, where they would be out of sight and so could not give warning of the whereabouts of the thieves, and had then hidden themselves behind some rocks along the trail. From their ambuscade they would be able to shoot down their pursuers or capture them as they felt inclined.
But as the reader knows, the boys doubled on their trail and so divided the trap.
After waiting till dark without any sign of pursuers, the raiders grew fearsome.
"We've got to find out for sure whether it's somebody on our trail or just some one that is hunting," declared one of them, who, if the two brothers could have seen him, they would have recognized as Gus Megget.
"Considering we've waited more than two hours and no one has showed up, I say we ought to push onto the Lode, Gus," asserted another.
"How can we drive cattle over this trail in the dark?" growled the chief of the raiders. "You ought to have more sense, seeing the trouble we've had to get them as far as this in the daylight."
"So long as we can't drive, we might just as well go back and find out who's been shooting."
Realizing that it was futile to urge their leader to change his mind, the other raiders sullenly acquiesced, and, emerging from their places of concealment, went into the woods to get their horses and were soon riding stealthily back over the trail.
Though they dared not refuse to go, the men, however, were not backward in expressing their disapproval of the move, declaring that they were tempting disaster by returning when they had made so successful a start.
But Megget paid no attention to their grumblings and soon his companions lapsed into silence.
Fate, however, which had saved the two brothers and the young rancher from stumbling into the ambush, was still favoring them.
For when the raiders reached the edge of the prairie Megget ordered a halt that they might eat, and when again they resumed their ride the boys were far on their way toward the spot where they met their friends.
Not long did it take their pursuers to discover the place where the three had eaten and then to find the direction in which they had departed.
"What's the use of following any farther, Gus?" demanded one of them. "So long as they have ridden to the south, and there are only three of them, anyhow, we are in no danger."
But with a blind obstinacy the leader of the cattle thieves persisted in continuing the pursuit, and set the pace at a fast gallop.
In due course of time, as the boys before them, they discovered the glare from the camp fire.
"We'll ride into the mountains, dismount and then find out who it is that has the fire," declared Megget.
"You're playing with trouble, Gus," protested his companions. "From what I know of Wilder, he won't let a bunch of his cattle be lifted without doing something. That may be his fire."
"All the more reason why we should go to it—to make sure," snapped the leader of the raiders. "Wilder is a fool or he wouldn't leave his herd unguarded at the Witches' Pool."
"You'll find he's smarter than you think. I'll bet all my share of these raids will come to that the only reason the herd was alone was because his whole outfit is on the trail from the bottoms," asserted another.
"Well, the boys can take care of 'em if they are. I said I was going to find out who built that fire, and I'm going to." And without more ado, the leader of the raiders dashed into the woods.
Riding cautiously among the trees until he thought he was about back of the fire Megget gave the word to dismount.
A short distance to the south and above them was a ledge from which they would be able to command a view of the camp fire, and rapidly the raiders made their way to It.
What they saw when they reached the top and gazed down caused them to exclaim in amazement.
The cowboys were saddling their ponies, and instead of the three men they had expected to discover, Megget and his companions saw a dozen.
"That's the Half-Moon bunch!" declared one of them.
"There are too many of them," asserted another. "We're in a pretty mess now. Those three men we followed have evidently informed them of finding our trail and they are starting to pick it up."
"Don't you worry about that," growled Megget. And before his companions were aware what he intended to do, he uttered the calls that caused the ranch owners and cowboys to start out into the prairie.
Eagerly the raiders watched them disappear and Megget chuckled:
"I thought I could fool 'em. It's easy when you are above any one." And then he added: "You'll wish you had never started after me, Wilder!"
Wondering at their leader's meaning, his fellows had no chance to ask, however, for even as he spoke Megget was descending from the ledge.
Arriving at the camp fire, he glanced about for a few moments, then sent his men for the horses.
As soon as he was sure he was alone, the leader of the raiders walked out on the plains, paused, wet his finger in his mouth, then raised his hand above his head.
"Great! I'm sure playing in luck," he muttered to himself. "The wind is blowing from the west—straight out across the plains." And chuckling grimly, the cattle thief returned to the fire to await the horses.
Mounting quickly when they arrived, Megget gave a curt order for his own men to follow and galloped in the same direction the ranch owners and cowboys had taken.
At the end of a quarter of a mile he drew rein and again went through the performance of wetting his finger and raising it above his head, murmuring more to himself than his pals:
"I didn't know but that the hills might have changed the direction of the wind.
"Here, you," he added, turning to his men, "two of you ride a mile up and Squinty and I'll ride south. When I give the call, fire the grass and then ride for the trail and drive the cattle to the mine. I'll cut across and warn Vasquez and the others."
THE PRAIRIE FIRE
As his men heard the words and realized their significance, they glanced at their leader and then at one another.
Yet none of them moved.
"Are you deaf?" roared Megget. "Do as I say—and lively. Squinty, come with me." And clapping spurs to his pony, he dashed southward.
Fearing to disobey, the two raiders delegated to ride to the north started. But as soon as they were out of earshot one of them said:
"Megget can fire the prairie if he wants to, I won't. I'm none too stuck on cattle raiding, anyhow, but when it comes to starting a fire that will probably wipe out the Half-Moon outfit and perhaps even the herd, Bobby Lawrence balks!"
"Showing the white feather, eh?" snarled his companion. "I warned Gus you wasn't any good, but he wouldn't believe me. You'll do what he says, though, as long as you're with Red Ike!"
Red Ike was a giant in strength, the bully of the gang, and Lawrence had seen too much of him to care to risk an encounter with him, so with a growl he said:
"All right. Lead the way."
"Not much. I'll ride beside you, so you won't come any tricks."
But though Lawrence had appeared to yield, it was only as a matter of policy, and his determination not to fire the prairie was as firm as before. Yet how he could prevent it, he was at a loss to determine until suddenly he remembered that Red Ike had asked him for a match that afternoon.
As the thought flashed through his mind that his companion had no means for carrying out Megget's instructions Lawrence put his hand to his belt, where he carried his tobacco outfit, and quickly unloosening it, let it fall into the grass.
None too soon was his action, for even as he opened his hand to let go of the pouch that held his pipe, tobacco and cigarette papers Red Ike snapped:
"I reckon we've gone a mile." And as he turned to look back the signal sounded, and in a trice he saw the flames, set by his leader, leap in the air.
"Quick, Gus has touched off!" he cried, then added as he felt in vain for any matches, "Gimme some of your fire-sticks, mine are all gone."
Suppressing the smile that came to his face at the words, for Lawrence bad feared his companion might have obtained a supply from one of the others, he replied:
"Can't. I haven't any."
"What?" roared Red Ike. "You can't come any such game on me. You had plenty this afternoon. Hand 'em over—and be lively!"
As he spoke the bully edged his pony closer to the other.
Lawrence, however, only repeated his statement calmly.
"You won't gimme them, eh? Then I'll take 'em myself." And like a flash his powerful fist shot out, striking his companion under the right side of his jaw with such terrific force that it lifted him from the saddle.
Springing to the ground, Red Ike roughly searched the motionless body, and when he found that the tobacco pouch was indeed gone he realized the trick that Lawrence had played.
For a moment the baffled raider glowered upon the man who had outwitted him. Then his attention was distracted by the sound of hoof beats and, turning, he beheld the two horses racing toward the hills, having taken fright at the flames leaping over the plains. And never thinking of the man he had unhorsed, Red Ike dashed after them.
Advancing cautiously, the ranch owners and their men were beginning to wonder if they could have mistaken the direction of the signals when they heard the call again.
"That's back of us," declared Pete.
Instantly the others turned in their saddles, and as they did so the flames bounded into the air.
"They fooled us good and plenty!" growled Nails, while all the boys glared at the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch.
"They did," asserted Mr. Wilder grimly, "but it's no use talking about it now. We've got all we can do to get away from the fire."
In terror the boy chums watched the flames spread as if by magic till in a few minutes a towering wall of fire was racing toward them.
"Shall we start a back fire?" asked Bill.
"No use," returned several of the cowboys, "the wind's in the wrong direction."
"Then we've got to ride for it," asserted Snider.
Well did the cowboys realize the danger, and with might and main they urged their ponies, each one bent only on saving himself.
For a time the two brothers and Horace kept pace with them, but they were not skilled in the fine art of getting the most out of their ponies when the animals began to tire, and it was not long before they found themselves dropping behind.
"Wait for us!" shouted Horace as he noticed the distance that separated them constantly increasing.
For a moment it seemed to the terrified lads that their cry had not been heard, yet just when they began to despair three horses dropped behind, and as the boys came up with them they recognized the two ranch owners and Pete.
"Take Horace, Pete; Snider, Tom; I'll take Larry," commanded Mr. Wilder, and each of the men leaped their horses to seize the bridle of the boy indicated.
Not more than two miles behind them was the terrible wall of fire. In front of it coyotes and all other animals of the plains were In full flight, their cries of fear or pain as they fell victims to the all-devouring flames now and then rising above the sullen roar.
"Oh, it's gaining! it's gaining!" wailed Horace.
"Don't look behind. Keep your eyes in front and ride!" commanded his father.
Sparks borne by the wind began to fall all about, now and then starting blazes which the cowboys put out by beating with their blankets where they could, yet none checked his speed. To the hot air was added smoke, and men and horses were breathing with difficulty, gasping and coughing.
"If you've got handkerchiefs, jam them in your mouths!" cried Snider.
Nearer, ever nearer drew the wall of flame. It seemed to the chums that they must be breathing fire, so did the air burn their mouths.
Time and again they swayed in their saddles and would have fallen had it not been for the men beside them, who had let go the bridles to steady the boys, at the same time rowelling their own mounts.
Just when it seemed to the boys that the shirts on their backs would burst into flames a shout went up from in front:
"The river! The river!"
"One more spurt, everybody!"
Gamely men, boys and horses responded.
"Right over the bank! Don't stop!" bellowed Pete.
Ignorant of the height, caring little, eager only to gain the water, the boys felt their horses leap through the air and the next minute were sputtering and gasping as they sank below the surface of the river.
A RIDE FOR LIFE
Quickly the horses swam for the shore, and as the Elkhorn was only deep for a few rods, it was not many minutes before the cowboys were shaking and removing their wet garments. But the boys were oblivious of their condition.
In open-mouthed wonder they stared at the spectacle presented by the flames from whose devouring fury they had so narrowly escaped.
The wall of fire had in reality been farther away than it had seemed. For several minutes it advanced, the tongues of flames towering in the air. A moment the livid wall paused as it reached the brink of the river, while jets of fire reached out as though striving to clutch the men who had escaped. Then seemingly bent on overtaking them, the flames leaped over the edge, devouring the brush and grass to the water's edge, where, loath to admit defeat, the flames flickered uncertainly and then died away, leaving nothing but a pall of smoke to mark their course of destruction.
"They came mighty near getting us that time," exclaimed Pete, looking back over the still glowing plains.
"Too near," assented Mr. Wilder. "But Megget's men will suffer for this trick, never fear."
"They'll sure be surprised when they see us," chimed in the owner of the Three Stars.
"That's just it," returned Mr. Wilder. "Of course, they think we have perished in the flames, and when they see us riding in on them they will be so scared it will take all the fight out of them."
None the worse for their experience, the cowboys were eager to be under way again that they might exact satisfaction upon the raiders for their unwilling flight. But Mr. Wilder curbed their impatience by saying:
"It's all right to want to get on the trail again, but if we should start now, while the plains are still hot, we run the risk of crippling some of our ponies. We'll eat breakfast here and then in an hour I guess we can start. What do you think, Jim?"
"It will be all right to take grub and we can tell about the ground when we've eaten."
Fate, however, was still on the side of the ranchers, for while they were at their meal it began to rain.
With a shout the cowboys greeted the first drops, but their masters grew serious.
"This rain will make it mighty hard to pick up the trail," observed the owner of the Three Stars.
"But we won't need to search for it," interposed Tom.
At his words all eyes were turned upon him, and Mr. Wilder voiced their sentiments by asking:
"Because I know the very place where Horace and Larry and I rode into the mountains. I thought I might want to remember it, so I broke off some branches and cut a half moon in one of the trees with my jackknife."
"That's all right, but why should we follow that trail?" demanded Bill. "The men who set the fire were all of—how far, Horace, from Tom's trail?" and he looked at his brother.
"A good twenty miles."
"Why should we ride twenty miles when we can start right in at the hills back where the fire started?" continued Bill.
Some of the cowboys laughed at this seeming evidence of Tom's lack of understanding of the situation, but the younger of the chums had his good reasons, as he quickly proved by replying:
"Because that is where they drove fifty cattle in. Mr. Jeffreys said it was a short cut. Besides, it stands to reason the men wouldn't have gone that way unless the trail led to the mine where they could join the rest of the gang. I may be from the East," and he glanced at the boys who had laughed at him, "but I'm not so much of a tenderfoot as not to know four men aren't going on a pleasure trip with a herd of fifty steers."
"I reckon the kid is right," said the owner of the Half-Moon after the merriment this jibe evoked had subsided. "Even if the 'rustlers' didn't know we had started when they lifted the cattle from the pool, they'd know something was up when all the boys were away and that we could follow the trail to the mountains. Consequently, they being only four, would take the shortest route to join the main body."
"That argument would have been all right before the fire, Jim, but things are different now," rejoined Bill.
"Certain. But the difference is the raiders will take more time in driving the cattle in the thought that there's no one to pursue 'em till the fact of the prairie fire reaches Tolopah."
"And then that bow-legged sheriff will set out," grunted Skinny. "He couldn't catch a prairie dog. There's only one man I'd like to see on the job besides the bunch we've got here."
"Name him," cried several of the cowboys.
"Why, that's our friend!" exclaimed Tom and Larry.
"I don't know about his being a friend of yours, but there's nothing on two or four legs he's afraid of. And he's great on tricks. He'd think up a scheme in no time to land Megget."
"I think Tom's idea is the right one," said Mr. Wilder. "By riding that trail we can reach the Lost Lode probably in a few hours, while it might take days to find where the gang that set fire rode into the hills. This rain has cooled off the ground, so we can start right away."
No direct command to pack the food and saddle up did the cowboys need and as day dawned they again entered the Elkhorn River.
Tom had been provided with an extra rifle Mr. Wilder had been carrying and great care did he and the other lads take to keep their arms and ammunition from getting wet a second time.
Arrived at the top of the bank from which they had leaped to safety, the party beheld a long stretch of blackened ground. As far as they could see, it stretched away to the north and in width it was about four miles.
"Why didn't it burn everything, instead of cutting a sort of path?" asked Larry after a survey of the scene.
"That's one of the things you can't explain," replied the owner of the Three Stars. "It just don't, that's all. Of course, the wind has to be right—that is, stay in the same direction as when the fire was started. And when it does you can count on the fire's following pretty close to its lines. You see this one was set in a sort of semi-circle, with the ends burning toward one another. If you want a fire to spread, start it fan-shaped."
"There's one way the fire helped us," said Horace. "We can travel faster than we could through the grass, and it doesn't tire the horses so."
"Just another proof it's an ill wind that doesn't do somebody good," quoted Mr. Wilder, smiling.
"Maybe, but I'd rather go without the wind than have another experience like last night's," returned the owner of the Three Stars.