Realizing that they would be able to advance but slowly along the trail, giving their ponies a chance to rest, the men were riding a stiff lope.
At first Mr. Wilder had insisted that the three youngest boys return to the ranch as soon as Tom had showed them the trail, but they had pleaded so hard, asserting they were entitled to accompany the pursuers because of their discovery of the trail, that he had finally consented, making the condition, however, that when they entered the hills the boys must ride next the rear, where in case of attack, they would not be in the brunt of it.
Larry was following the edge of grass as they drew near the place where the fire had been started. As his eyes roved over the billowy plains, they suddenly were attracted by a peculiar furrow that seemed to run through the grass like a channel.
For the moment he was tempted to call the attention of the others to it, and then, fearing their ridicule, decided to find out what it was first.
Accordingly he reined his pony to one side and was approaching the furrow when he was startled to hear a cry of delight:
"I've got it! I've got it!"
Hastily unslinging his rifle, the elder of the chums pointed it in the direction whence the unexpected voice had come and shouted:
"You there, in the grass! Stand up before I count five or I'll——"
But Larry had no occasion to complete his command.
Unconscious that there was another soul within miles of him, the person addressed raised his head cautiously to see who had accosted him.
"Stand up straight, I said!" ordered the boy.
As the fellow obeyed, Mr. Wilder, Pete and the others, who had been almost as surprised at hearing Larry's words as the prisoner himself, dashed up, quickly followed by the cowboys.
Intuitively each man felt they had captured one of the raiders, and without waiting for instructions, closed in on him in a circle, completely cutting off any chance for escape.
"Who are you and what are you doing, sneaking along in the grass ?" demanded Mr. Wilder sternly.
"I'm Bobby Lawrence, and I was hunting for my tobacco pouch," returned the fellow, undaunted by the angry faces gazing at him.
"That's the name of one of Megget's right-hand men," declared Nails. "I found that out at Tolopah."
With no gentle hands half a dozen of the cowboys searched Lawrence, taking from him his pistols and a long knife.
When their prisoner was harmless Mr. Wilder resumed his questions.
"Who set the fire last night?"
"If I play fair with you, will you treat me square?" demanded Lawrence.
"That depends," temporized the ranch owner. "You belong to the gang that has been raiding my herds and last night tried to destroy us by fire. You can't expect much leniency from us under the circumstances. Still, if you give us any assistance in founding up Megget, we'll not forget it."
"Well, I'll do all I can, honest I will, Mr. Wilder."
"Don't trust him, Wilder," interposed the owner of the Three Stars, "When a man is so willing to turn on his pals, there's something wrong."
"See here, Jim Snider, you keep out of this. I'm talking to Mr. Wilder, not to you. He's square. If it was only you, all your ponies couldn't drag a word out of me!" snapped Lawrence.
This retort angered the owner of the Three Stars, but before he could say anything the proprietor of the Half-Moon exclaimed:
"If you can give me any reason why I should believe you, Lawrence, do so."
"That's easy," returned the captive, and without wasting words, he related the incidents of the pursuit of the three boys, Megget's signals, the order to set the fire and his own action that alone had saved the herd at the pool from destruction.
In silence, now looking at one another in amazement and then at the speaker, the cowboys listened.
"That's a likely story, throwing your tobacco away," sneered Snider.
"I believe it," announced Larry calmly. "The only way I knew it was a man I'd discovered was because I heard him say twice I've found it.'"
This confirmation of his words from the very one who had captured him gave Lawrence heart, and quick to see the advantage it gave him, he pressed it, saying:
"There, you see, I'm telling you straight. And everything else I've said is just as true."
"Why didn't you strike for the hills when you recovered your senses?" asked Mr. Wilder. "You would have been safe there, both from Megget and from us."
"Because I wanted my tobacco."
Whatever doubt was in the mind of the Half-Moon owner as to whether or not Lawrence had been telling the truth was dispelled by this answer.
Indeed even the owner of the Three Stars was convinced by the answer, and after a whispered consultation with Mr. Wilder, the latter announced:
"I have this proposition to make you, Lawrence. Your act in refusing to obey Megget, which beyond doubt has saved my cattle at the pool, shows you are not thoroughly bad. Therefore, if you will lead us by the shortest trail to the headquarters at the Lost Lode and help us round up Megget and his gang, I will give you a job on my ranch."
For a moment Lawrence gazed at the ranchman as though unable to believe his ears, but the kindly light in Mr. Wilder's eyes reassured him and he replied:
"Will I? Say, Bobby Lawrence knows a white man when he meets one. Give me a horse and I'll have you at the Lost Lode before dark to-night!"
IN THE MOUNTAINS
Openly the owner of the Three Stars objected to the proposition of providing the erstwhile raider with a pony.
"If we're going to trust Lawrence to lead us to the mine, we can certainly trust him with a horse," declared Mr. Wilder. "Horace, climb up behind Tom and let Lawrence have your mount."
Quickly the change was made, and again the party advanced.
"To think we were within two miles of meeting Megget again," exclaimed Tom as they rode along. "I'm afraid we would not have got away from him so well this time."
As he heard the remark, Lawrence turned and looked the boy over from head to foot, finally saying with a smile:
"So you are the lad Gus ran foul of up in Oklahoma?"
"Yes, but my brother was with me."
"Which is he?"
"The one who found you."
At this information Lawrence threw back his head and laughed heartily. "My, but that is a good one," he ejaculated when he had recovered from his merriment. "You tenderfeet make a monkey of Gus and then capture one of his men. I'll let Gus know it was you who found me, if I never speak again. It will make him more angry than anything else could."
To their surprise, the ranchers learned that the Lost Lode was only about five miles from the plains and that it was at the foot of one of the mountains, instead of high up in them, with a splendid valley where the cattle could graze close beside it.
"Why, I've ridden through that place at least twice," asserted Pete as he recognized Lawrence's description of the spot, "but never a sign of cattle or mine have I seen."
"You noticed there was heavy woods on both sides, didn't you?" returned the former raider, smiling.
"Well, that explains why you didn't learn anything, though of course it might be that no cattle were in the valley when you struck it."
This explanation only served to arouse the curiosity of the hearers the more.
"The woods are the thing," he continued. "Every time any one comes along, we drive the cattle into them and no one would think to look for the entrance to a mine among the trees."
"But how does it happen you have never been taken by surprise?" queried Mr. Wilder.
"Because when we had steers in the valley we always kept a lookout. There's a cliff just above the mine from which a man can see the trail for at least two miles."
"Then won't some one discover us?" asked Bill.
"Not if we hurry. Every man jack of Megget's gang is out on this raid. All we need to do is to get there first."
"How about that fellow who was with you?" Bill inquired. "Won't he be on the lookout?"
"Who, Red Ike? Not much. He'll be too anxious to tell Gus about me. He knows his chief was going to cut across to join Vasquez and the others, and he'll follow. They'll be so tickled at the thought you all were lost in the fire they won't hurry much. Still, if we're going to round them up, we must get there before dark to-night. There's a spot just before you enter the valley where we can lie in wait and get them all."
"No, that won't do," declared Mr. Wilder. "I want to capture them without resorting to firearms, if possible. While, of course, if it should be necessary, I would sanction shooting, I much prefer to take the men prisoners and turn them over to the sheriff and the law."
At first Lawrence could scarcely believe his ears. His creed had been force, supported by quick use of weapons, not law, and it seemed incredible to him that a man who had suffered from the raids of the cattle thieves should not take justice in his own hands when opportunity presented. But he suddenly realized that he was dealing with a new kind of man that he had never been brought in contact with, an honorable man, and his admiration for the owner of the Half-Moon increased a hundredfold.
Some time, however, was required to reconcile himself to his new scheme of life, but of a sudden he burst into a roar of merriment.
"We'll do it, and without a shot. Say, Mr. Wilder, it will break Gus' heart to think he was caught without any gun play."
"That's just it. Most of the power men like Megget have is because of the fear the very mention of their names inspires.
"But I don't mean to preach a sermon. What I want to know is, How do you propose to capture Megget without trouble?"
"Wait till they are asleep. They'll have a celebration when they reach the mine and afterward we can hog-tie them and they will never know it."
Without vouchsafing any comment, the owner of the Half-Moon reined away from the strange guide, and, as Snider joined him, discussed the situation thoroughly.
The questioning of Lawrence, however, did not cease when the ranchmen left him. The four boys had listened eagerly, and when the opportunity presented deluged him with inquiries.
"Are there really ghosts in the Lost Lode?" queried Horace.
"None but very live ones," grinned the former raider. "Vasquez started that story to keep people from coming into the valley. Many a time we've chased men in the night when they came near."
The chums, however were more interested in learning whether or not there was rich ore in the mine.
"Probably there is," explained Lawrence, "but it would require a lot of drilling and sinking of shafts. What silver could be got out, Vasquez has taken. He was planning to use the money from the cattle captured in the raid to buy machinery and begin work."
Disappointed to think they would not be able to pick up chunks of the ore, the comrades lapsed into silence till Tom suddenly bethought him of the men he had seen crossing the cliff on the night of their hunting trip, and he lost no time in asking if they were some of Megget's gang.
"Must have been Gus and the boys who were with him up in Oklahoma," declared the guide. "There's a trail from that direction to the mine. Now you mention it, I remember he spoke of having seen a party of horsemen. It's a good thing for you he didn't know who it was. If he had, he was so angry at your outwitting him that he would surely have made trouble."
Further questioning, however, was prevented by the arrival of the troop at the trail.
"There are my marks," exclaimed the younger of the chums, pointing to the branches he had broken. But no one paid him heed, for with the arrival at the hills the serious work began and the ranchmen were busy issuing instructions.
CAPTURING THE CATTLE THIEVES
As they wound in and out among the hills and rocks, now ascending, now going down steep pitches, the silence of their surroundings and the realization that they were bent on a dangerous mission sobered the boys and few words did they speak.
Once or twice the line halted as the leaders heard some sound that roused their suspicions, and several times Sandy and Nails dropped back. But nothing untoward occurred, and late in the afternoon they descended into the valley that was the headquarters of the raiders.
"We're in time; there's no one here," announced Lawrence after an examination of the ground for fresh horse or cattle tracks.
Remembering their guide's statement about the cliff on which the lookout was posted when the raiders were at the mine, die boys sought it with their eyes. But though they scanned both sides of the mountains, all they could see was trees.
Horace was on the point of mentioning the fact when the word was passed back to dismount, and, leading their horses, they were soon within the protection of the woods.
"Any of the ponies likely to whinny?" asked Lawrence as they halted in a glen.
"Yes, Blackhawk," answered Horace. "It was he that gave warning of Jeffreys' approach."
"Then we'll take them all pretty well up into the woods. He won't be able to scent when he's above where Megget and the others will enter the valley."
"Which way will they come?" asked Mr. Wilder.
"The opposite end from the way we did," responded the former raider. "That's why I'm taking our ponies to a place on this side."
"Seems to me we're leaving too much to this fellow who's gone back on his former pals," whispered the owner of the Three Stars to Mr. Wilder. "It's all right if he plays fair, but if he doesn't we'll be in a pretty mess."
"I believe he is acting square with us. Still it won't do to take chances," returned the other ranchman, and calling to Lawrence, he asked where the mine was.
"It's about two hundred yards to the right, Mr. Wilder. I'll show you when we get up on top of the cliff. There's a big dead tree in front of it, so you can't miss it, even in the night, for the bark has been peeled off it by lightning and the wind, so that it stands out like a white specter in the darkness."
Deeming it inadvisable to unsaddle the horses, in case they should need them suddenly, the cowboys close-hobbled them on a plateau to which Lawrence guided them and then followed him to the ledge.
No need was there for the tree that marked the mine to be pointed out to them, for as the men looked down each one saw it.
To the east and to the west the ledge commanded a view of the trails, and as they gazed along them, the owner of the Half-Moon exclaimed:
"I don't wonder no one can surprise Megget with such a lookout. Why, it's practically impossible to approach without being seen by a man on guard."
"The only time is at night," returned Lawrence. "And, thanks to the loneliness of the place and the stories of ghosts, no one has ever tried to pass through or even come in at night while I've been with the gang."
"Don't start talking about ghosts or you'll get us all nervous," said Mr. Wilder, fearing the effect on his men. "Now that we've seen where the mine is, suppose you take us where you think we had better wait till we make the round-up."
"That's right here," rejoined Lawrence. "We can see Megget and the others when they arrive by being here."
"True enough, but how about the guard they send up?"
"There won't be any to-night, don't worry about that. They'll be too busy celebrating your supposed loss in the fire last night."
This grim reminder of their escape caused all of the ranchers to smile, and without further objection the men made themselves comfortable while they waited the arrival of the raiders.
Huddled together, the boys sat where they could watch the trail.
Of a sudden Tom grabbed his brother by the arm and pointed to where several specks were moving.
In silence they watched as more and more came into view, and then Larry cried out:
"Here they come!"
Eager with excitement, the others crowded forward to catch a glimpse of the men who had caused them so much trouble.
"Keep down!" snapped Lawrence. "Vasquez has an eye like a hawk."
No second warning did the cowboys need, and dropping flat on their stomachs, they watched the raiders draw nearer and nearer.
Because of the cattle, their approach was slow, and it was fully an hour after the chums had sighted them before they reached the valley.
"That's Vasquez and Gus in the lead," announced the man who had forsaken his life of wrong-doing. And as the other raiders rode into sheltered grazing ground he mentioned them by name.
"There are only nineteen of them. I thought Nails said there were twenty," exclaimed Bill.
"So there were till Lawrence joined us," rejoined his father. "Thank goodness, my short-horn Durhams are all right. Now be quiet. It would be too bad to spoil everything when things are going so well for us."
Instantly the men obeyed, sitting with eyes and ears alert for any sight or sound that should proclaim the approach of a guard.
But twilight fell and none came, as Lawrence had predicted.
Sounds of revelry, broken now and then by the lowing of the cattle, were constant. In due time the moon rose and with its coming the cowboys grew impatient.
The ranchmen, however, refused to move till no sound from the raiders could be heard.
"It's midnight," announced Mr. Wilder, looking at his watch. "They must be asleep, by this time. We'll chance it, anyhow. Careful, every one. Come, Lawrence."
Overjoyed that the time for action had arrived, the boys followed their guide, halting at the edge of the valley.
Ordering the others to wait, the owner of the Half-Moon and the former raider glided noiselessly toward the mine.
All about were signs of the celebration in which the thieves had indulged, and their loud snores told how sound asleep they were.
Confident the time was ripe for action, the two scouts returned to their impatient fellows.
"Pete, Sandy, Nails, Skinny, Lawrence, you take the ropes and do the hog-tying. The rest of you have your rifles ready for use. But don't shoot till I give the word," commanded Mr. Wilder. Opening the ropes so they could use them rapidly, the men selected for the binding of the raiders moved forward, closely followed by the others, guns ready for action.
Signing to Sandy and Skinny to tie the men lying outside, Lawrence led the others into the mine.
More like a cavern did it seem to them than anything else as they cast a hurried glance about the rock-walled room which two flickering torches lighted.
Sprawled upon the floor lay the raiders, and to them Pete and Nails turned their attention, while Lawrence glided among them, peering into their faces.
Watching for the slightest move, stood a dozen of the cowboys, with Mr. Wilder and the four lads.
Of a sudden Lawrence stooped down, worked his hand rapidly, then rose, a smile on his face, and continued his search till he found another form, when he repeated the operation.
Gliding to the owner of the Half-Moon, he whispered:
"I've bound Megget and Vasquez. If they wake up now it doesn't matter."
Having made fast the leaders, for he knew that with them rendered powerless no effective opposition would be made by the others should they be aroused, Lawrence returned to the task of "hog-tying," and in a few minutes every cattle thief in the cave had been securely bound.
"Well, it has been easier to round up Megget and his gang than I ever imagined it could be, thanks to you, Lawrence," exclaimed Mr. Wilder as they left the mine to join the others.
"It was no fun at all," protested Horace, and his opinion voiced the sentiments of the cowboys. "Can't we wake them up or do something to let them know they've been captured?"
"You'd have some trouble in rousing them, son," replied his father. "They've been drinking too heavily."
"That's what," agreed the former raider. "You could ride over them and they would not budge."
"It's the only time I ever knew the drinking of too much liquor to do good," chuckled Mr. Wilder. "That is, good to us. I don't suppose our prisoners will share our opinion, though, when they awake."
When the raiders had been bound the owner of the Three Stars had sent his men to bring down all the ponies, that the animals might be relieved of their saddles and enjoy the tender grass in the valley. And no sooner had Blackhawk reached the open than he gave an ear-splitting whinny which was answered by several of the raiders' horses.
At the racket two or three of the thieves awoke and tried to get up.
For a moment the men blinked at the sight of the cowboys. Then, their senses returning, they discovered they were tied hand and foot, and in a trice they were yelling like a band of Indians.
"Go it! Go it!" howled the cowboys.
The shouts roused the prisoners in the cave, and their yells of rage added to the pandemonium.
"Come on in to see Megget," exclaimed Lawrence. "I say, Mr. Wilder, can't Larry and Tom go in first alone? You promised, you know."
Willing that his men should have their fun, the owner of the Half-Moon laughingly consented.
And with the others following close, the brothers went into the cave.
Entering thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion, Larry approached the struggling chief.
"Why, how do you do again, Mr. Megget?" he exclaimed, bowing in mock deference. "What's the trouble? You seem to be down and out. Quite a difference from when you were teasing me at that station in Oklahoma, eh?"
As Megget recognized the brothers his face grew terrible to see, and, summoning all his strength, he leaped to his feet.
But Lawrence had tied his ankles so tight he could not keep his balance, and the raider pitched forward while Mr. Wilder and the others rushed in to make sure he did not harm the boys.
At the sight of the men he thought burned, the leader of the raiders lay trembling like a leaf.
"You see you can't raid the Half-Moon herd with impunity," exclaimed Mr. Wilder sternly. "Come on, boys, let's go outside. These men are not pleasant companions." And turning on his heel, he led the way from the mine.
Appointing Pete, Sandy and two others to stand guard to make sure none of the prisoners broke their bonds, Mr. Wilder ordered the others to turn in.
Some time it took them to get to sleep, but when they did they slept soundly, and it was broad daylight when they awoke.
After a hearty breakfast, they were discussing the best way to get their prisoners to Tolopah when a body of horsemen galloped into the valley.
For the moment the ranchmen and cowboys thought they were partners of the raiders and quickly they sprang for their guns. But the next minute their alarm vanished.
"It's Shorty Jenks and the sheriff of Tolopah!" yelled Skinny. And such, indeed, it proved to be, together with a score of deputies.
Hearty were the greetings exchanged by the sheriffs and the ranch owners, and the former were elated when they learned of the successful round-up of the cattle thieves.
Deeming it unwise to start to drive out the cattle so late In the day, they whiled away the time exploring the mine, where, to the delight of the boys, they were able to dig out several small pieces of almost pure silver ore.
Without adventure the day passed and at dawn the next morning the start was made.
The prisoners, their legs tied together under their ponies and guarded by the deputies, led the procession, followed by the sheriffs, the ranch owners and the lads. Behind them the cowboys drove the cattle.
Able to travel faster than the steers, Mr. Wilder ordered his men to drive to the pool, picking up the fifty head on the way, after which he told them to come to the ranch for a jollification in honor of the capture.
Reaching the plains In good season, the ranchmen and the boys separated from the sheriffs and, urging their ponies, arrived at the home in time for dinner.
As they rode into the yard Mrs. Wilder greeted all joyfully. After the flush of delight at their safe return she asked about the raiders, clapping her hands at the information they had all been captured and were on their way to Tolopah.
"And now for some fun," said Bill the next day.
With riding, hunting and fishing the chums passed many happy days. At the trial of Megget and his pals in Tolopah Tom and Larry attracted even more attention than the raiders, but they bore it like sensible boys, making light of their experience at the crossing and never referring to it when they could avoid so doing.
Upon the completion of the trial, with long sentences for the cattle thieves, from which fate Mr. Wilder's influence saved Lawrence, the brothers returned to the ranch.
Great favorites with all the cowboys, they learned many a trick of roping steers and riding, and they were never so happy as when, together with Bill and Horace, they were allowed to pass a few days herding.
Upon the return from one of these trips Mr. Wilder handed Larry a telegram. Opening it, he read:
"We arrived in New York this morning. Received fifty thousand dollars from Uncle Darwent. We shall expect to meet you at the Hotel Boswell in Pittsburg Saturday. Love. FATHER."
"It's a good thing we came back to the ranch today," exclaimed Horace. "To-morrow is Thursday, and you'll be obliged to start then to reach Pittsburg on Saturday."
"Yes, I suppose it is," assented Larry. "Still we've had such a good time we hate to go home."
"And leave the life in the saddle for life in Ohio," added Tom.