"Your dad hasn't heard anything about his stolen papers, has he?" inquired Billee.
"Nary a thing," answered Bud in the vernacular of the west, "and he's beginning to wonder if anything is going to happen down here."
Almost as Bud spoke there came a hail from one of the cowboys who was on the watch, and his cry was instantly taken up with the shout:
At once there was an exodus, and as our heroes and their cowboy friends lined up in front of the shack, they saw, coming toward them on the opposite side of Spur Creek, several horsemen, and at the sight of one rider Bud cried:
"It's Professor Wright!"
A CALL FOR HELP
This announcement, calling attention to the approach of the scientist, rather overshadowed other matters for a moment. But the interest was made more intense when the identity of the men accompanying the professor was made known.
"He's in with a bunch of Greasers!" cried Snake Purdee.
"And look who one of 'em is!" added Nort. "It's the spy!"
Without doubt one of the approaching party was the same Mexican who had so airily bidden our friends "adios," on the occasion of his first visit.
"Well, what do you know about that!" exclaimed Bud.
"What do you reckon the professor is doing, or was doing, over there?" asked Nort.
No one answered him, but Bud turned toward Old Billee.
The veteran cow puncher had spoken of "suspicions." Bud wondered if they were along a line that might connect with the professor. But if Old Billee had anything to say he was keeping it to himself. Though there was a quizzical look on his face as he observed the approaching horseman, of whom Professor Wright appeared to form the nucleus.
"If those fellows think they can cover up their game by getting one of our friends to accompany them, they've got another guess coming," said Bud grimly.
"That's right—don't let 'em cross!" cried Dick.
But the "spy," as he was called for want of a better name, and his Mexican companions, seemed to have no intentions of fording Spur Creek which, though rather wide, was not very deep in some places. Reining in their horses when yet several hundred feet from the southern bank of the stream, the Mexicans halted, and the one who had ridden up alone several days before, waved his hand toward the waiting cowboys, and then motioned to the professor as if saying:
"There are your friends."
As a matter of fact that is what he did say, for Professor Wright said so when, a little later, he had urged his horse across the creek, and had joined the boy ranchers and their friends.
Watching the scientist cross the stream, the Mexicans stood for a moment, rather picturesque figures on the southern bank and then, when the "spy" had again lighted a cigaret, and waved his hand as if in mocking farewell, the band rode off.
It was a very silent contingent from Diamond X that watched the lone approach of Professor Wright. The scientist seemed worn to weariness, and looked worried as he smiled at his acquaintances and said:
"Well, here I am."
"So we see," observed Billee Dobb, dryly, not to say sarcastically.
"Where have you been?" asked Bud.
"Did they capture you and hold you for ransom?" Nort wanted to know.
"What happened?" asked Dick.
"With my usual stupidity I became lost again," explained Professor Wright. "I have been out looking around, 'prospecting,' I believe it is called, seeking a new deposit of fossil bones. I wandered farther than I intended, and got across the creek. I found I was on the wrong trail, and that there was nothing much of interest there, so I turned to come back. But I must have turned the wrong way, and have gone south instead of north, for I began to note signs that I was approaching the Mexican border.
"I started back then, when these gentlemen overtook me. They were very kind and when I told them where I wanted to go they agreed to accompany me."
"Passing over for the time being the use of the word 'gentlemen,' and realizing that you probably don't know them as well as we do, I'd like to ask if they said why they were coming this way?" asked Billee.
"No, they didn't, and I didn't ask them," replied the professor. "They just seemed to be riding for pleasure."
"Pleasure of their own kind," chuckled Snake.
"Did you see anything of sheep in your wanderings?" asked Yellin' Kid.
The professor thought for a moment before replying. He was always careful to give a correct and exact answer to a question.
"I saw no sheep," he declared.
"That's queer," murmured Billee. "From what news we have it's practically certain they're going to try to rush sheep in here soon, and yet they aren't in sight."
Then Bud bethought himself of something.
"Did you smell any sheep, Professor?" the boy asked.
Again the scientist thought before answering.
"Yes, I smelled sheep very strongly, though I saw none," he said. "I distinctly remember the smell of sheep, for it brought back to my mind my youthful days when I used to go to the county fair. I smelled sheep all right."
"That's more like it!" cried Yellin' Kid.
"Where were they?" asked Billee eagerly.
"That is more than I can say," answered the professor. "We were in a hilly section, when those gentlemen overtook me and kindly offered to escort me here, and it was when the wind blew that I smelled sheep most strongly."
"In what direction was the wind?" asked Nort, for he thought he might get a clue in this way, as he realized the scientist was likely to have noticed natural effects like wind or rain.
"The wind—ah, yes—the wind was blowing from the south," said Professor Wright, after thinking it over for a moment.
"Well, that's where I'd expect 'em to be," declared Old Billee. "They're probably working their way up slowly. Did you see anything else suspicious, Professor—or smell anything?"
"Suspicious!" exclaimed the college man. "What do you mean? Is there anything suspicious in the smell of sheep—or the sight of them, for that matter?"
"I guess you don't understand," spoke Bud. "You have probably been so busy with your research work that you haven't had a chance to hear the news about the opening of the new range land, and the danger of sheep coming in."
"I heard something of this—and the theft of your father's papers—the night I arrived, and caused you so much trouble," the professor admitted. "But, truth to tell, it slipped my mind, and I gave no further thought to it. So you fear the advent of sheep; do you? Are they likely to spread some disease among your cattle?"
"Disease? They'll drive the cattle away!" cried Old Billee, and then it was briefly explained to the professor what a menace the sheep were, though very necessary in their own station of life.
"I'm sorry I didn't observe more closely," said Professor Wright. "As I told you, my mind was filled with thoughts of new fossil deposits I might discover, and I wandered too far. Then these gentlemen found me and showed me the way back."
"They were glad enough of the excuse," murmured Nort.
"Excuse for what?" the scientist wanted to know.
"Excuse for getting back here to have a peep at us," answered Bud. "They wanted to see if we were still on guard," and he explained about the "fort."
"Well, they found us here and waiting," commented Dick grimly.
Professor Wright consented to stay for lunch at the outpost of Diamond X, but declined an invitation to remain over night, saying he must get back to his colleagues who would be wondering over his long absence.
"Are you sure you can find your way back to your camp?" asked Bud, for the scientists were established not far from Mr. Merkel's ranch houses.
"Oh, yes, I can make it all right," was the reply. "Thank you."
And when he was gone, many curious glances followed him. He was always a matter of curiosity to the cowboys for they could not understand his deep interest in digging up the bones of monster animals that had walked the earth millions of years ago. However, Bud and his cousins could appreciate this scientific interest, knowing what it added to the sum of human knowledge.
But now there was a new source of curiosity regarding the professor, and I am frank to say there was no little suspicion. In spite of the fact that (as I have told you in the first book of this series), the professor was cleared of certain suspicions there still remained, in the mind of some persons, suspicions and lurking thoughts.
Why had the scientist returned to Diamond X at the very time when the government opened the land to claimants? Why had he led astray the pursuit of those who fired the shots that night? And now was his explanation of how he happened to be in company with those believed to be sheep herders a good explanation?
These were questions that needed answering, though it may be said that the older cowboys were more concerned about them than were the boy ranchers. They were young enough to be naturally unsuspicious of their scientific friend.
"But I wish I knew what he really crossed the creek for," said Billee.
"Then you don't believe his story?" asked Snake Purdee.
"Not by a long shot!" exclaimed Billee. "Do you?"
"'Twas kinder fishy," admitted the other. "But what would his object be, and what was his game?"
Billee had no chance to answer, for just then the telephone bell jingled, and the veteran cow puncher answered it. He had no sooner given the customary "hello," than the expression on his face changed and he cried:
"You don't say so! That's too bad! All right, some of us will be right over."
"What's the matter?" asked Bud anxiously, coming up just in time to hear Billee's remark.
"There's trouble back at the ranch," was the grim answer. "They have just called for help!"
"Trouble! What sort?"
"Oh, nobody's hurt, as far as that goes," Billee hastened to assure the boy. "But there's been a raid on your cattle. Rustlers up to their old tricks, I reckon. It's a call for help from Diamond X!"
DEL PINZO'S HAND
Instantly all were astir in the shack that had been erected as a fort on the bank of Spur Creek, and a rush was made for saddles and the usual trappings of a cowboy. Nor were guns forgotten, for if these would not be needed in fighting off the rustlers, they would be of service in driving back a herd of frightened animals determined to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the source of their alarm.
Billee was overwhelmed with questions.
"Who were they?"
"What did they do?"
"Who was on the wire?"
To all of these the veteran raised a hand for silence.
"I'll tell you all I know," he said.
"Maybe you'd better tell us on the run," suggested Yellin' Kid. "If we're goin' t' help we'd better be moseying along, and pronto at that."
"Good idea," chuckled Old Billee. "Well," he resumed as they hurried toward the corral where their horses were kept, "it was the boss himself speaking on the wire. He didn't say much except to let it out that we'd better get back as soon as we could. He didn't say who it was that caused the ruction, so you know about as much of it as I do. Then he hung up. But I could hear there was some excitement in your place, lads," he went on to the boy ranchers, "for I could hear some of the boys standing around your dad murmurin' an' talkin', an' I heard somebody ask if they got th' bullet out yet."
"Then there must have been shooting!" cried Dick.
"I reckon!" assented Old Billee.
"Cracky!" cried Nort. "This is like old times!"
"You said it!" voiced Bud.
They were all in the saddles now, pulling their ponies sharply around to head for the trail that led back to Diamond X. Then Old Billee bethought him of something.
"I say!" he sung out. "This won't do!"
"What won't?" asked Nort.
"All of us going off this way. We've got to leave some one here to hold the fort, boys. Them onery sheep herders may steal in on us while we're away, and take possession. An' you know," went on Billee with a momentous shake of his head, "possession is nine points of th' law. Somebody's got t' stay here," he decided. "You two fellers'd better do it," and he pointed to two cowboys who had recently come from Diamond X to augment the guard at Spur Creek.
"Aw, Billee!" objected one. "We don't want t' stay here!"
"Have a heart, old man, an' let us come with you!" pleaded the other. "They won't be nothin' doin' here! Them sheep herders have just seen that we're on guard an' they've gone back home t' report. They won't arrive an' be able t' git any sheep here 'fore we can mosey back if we have to."
"That's right!" joined in the first newcomer who had spoken. "Take us along, Billee!"
"Wa'al," said Billee slowly, as if in doubt, "I don't know how much help they'll need back at Diamond X——"
"Better not take any chances," said Snake Purdee.
"I don't believe the sheep men will come back here again very soon," was Yellin' Kid's usual loud-voiced opinion.
"All right—come along then," conceded Billee, and the two cowboys who were on the verge of being left behind rode with the others. It was fast riding, too, for when word comes in that cattle stealers are in the neighborhood of any ranch, it behooves those charged with the safety of men and animals to be on the "jump." There is always more or less theft going on among the western cattle ranches but most of it is on such a small scale that drastic action is not often taken. No ranchman missed an occasional animal, which may be "lifted" because of dire hunger, perhaps, on the part of some needy person.
But when a "bunch" of valuable steers is driven off and when there are indications that an organized attempt is being made to steal more, this shows the presence of cattle rustlers, and concerted action must be taken against them.
It was this thought that was in the minds of all who thus rode "sweatin' leather" from Spur Creek toward Diamond X ranch, and from the glances that each member of the party cast, now and then, at the weapons swinging at their sides in the big holsters, it was evident that if shooting was to be a part of the game, they would be ready for it.
"Things are livening up a bit, aren't they?" remarked Nort to Bud as the boys rode side by side.
"That's the way they ought to be," declared Dick. "I hate sitting around and waiting for something to happen."
"We didn't have to wait very long," chuckled Bud.
"That's right," agreed Nort. "Wonder who it is that's been after your dad's cattle now?" he ventured.
"Maybe some of the old gang—maybe a new one," replied Bud. "You never can tell."
"You mean Del Pinzo's old gang?" asked Dick.
"He's the worst of the lot—always was and always will be," declared Bud.
"But how does he keep out of jail?" Nort wanted to know.
"That's one of the mysteries of it," went on Bud. "We've had him sent up more than once, but he gets out again by some sort of lawyer's trick. Either that or he breaks jail. The jails around here aren't anything to boast of," he said with a laugh. "They're more a joke than anything else."
"Do you reckon Del Pinzo is out now?" asked Nort.
"Shouldn't wonder a bit," Bud assented. "We can tell whether he had a hand in this or not as soon as we hear dad tell what happened."
Musing on the wily, mean and desperate tricks of this renegade Mexican half-breed, if such was his nationality, the Boy Ranchers and their friends galloped along over the trail to Diamond X. On the way they looked for signs of any cattle raids, but saw none. And these signs are very plain when they do occur.
Generally they were in the shape of the half-eaten carcass of some steer, for the raiders were generally desperate and hungry men, and before driving off a bunch of cattle they would kill one and cut off enough to roast over a hastily built fire.
But there were no indications of that now, and, in fact, there were none of Mr. Merkel's cattle pastured in the section our friends rode over to get to the ranch headquarters.
"Most of the herds are farther north," explained Billee, "an' I reckon that's where th' rustlin' took place."
This proved to be the case when they arrived at Diamond X and had a chance to get some information. Mr. Merkel was out at one of the corrals, talking to some of his men, when his son and nephews rode up with the cowboys from Spur Creek.
"What's the good word, Dad?" greeted Bud.
"Sorry there isn't any good word—it's mostly bad," was the reply. "I didn't like to pull you off from down there," he went on, "but as you didn't seem to be very busy, and as we needed you up here, there didn't seem to be anything else to do."
"Oh, we were glad to come!" Nort hastened to say.
"What's doin'?" asked Billee.
"They're after us again—the rustlers," announced Mr. Merkel.
"Same old gang?" asked Bud.
"I reckon so," his father answered. "It looks like the hand of Del Pinzo. You have to give that rascal credit for knowing just how and when to strike."
"Then he's out of jail again?" asked Yellin' Kid.
"That's what some of the boys seem to think," replied Mr. Merkel. "Here's what happened."
Briefly he told how during a time when many of his men were driving to the nearest railroad station a bunch of choice steers for shipment to Kansas City, a raid was made on an outlying herd that was being fattened in a sheltered valley for future shipment. Not only were a hundred or more steers driven off, but one cowboy of Diamond X was killed and another wounded.
"And didn't our boys shoot back?" demanded Bud indignantly.
"Oh, yes, they gave a good account of themselves," his father replied. "They got three of the Greasers. That's how we made pretty sure it was Del Pinzo again. They were just his type of rascals.
"And so, because I didn't have men enough here to take after the crowd and get my cattle back, and, at the same time, run things on the ranch, I had to send for you. We'll have to let Spur Creek look after itself for a while."
"I reckon it can, Dad," said Bud. "The sheep herders won't come up for a few days yet, I guess," and he told of the latest development in which Professor Wright was concerned.
"Hum! So he was lost again, was he!" mused Mr. Merkel. "Seems to me he's getting into a regular habit that way."
"Does look so," chuckled Nort. "He's all right in his own way——"
"But he doesn't weigh much!" laughed Bud, perpetrating an old joke at the expense of the professor's thin frame, for he did not have much flesh on his bones. More than one cowboy privately recommended to Bud that his father "pasture" the professor out on some good grass for a season.
"Well, now you know as much as I do," went on Mr. Merkel. "Our cattle have been stolen, and the gang—Del Pinzo's, I'm pretty certain—is driving them south. It's up to us to get after them."
"And we will!" cried Bud. "As soon as we have a bite to eat and can pack up some grub——"
He paused, for the telephone began ringing violently.
Bud, being the nearest to the instrument which was sending out its call from a small shed near the corral—an extension line having been established there—Bud sprang to answer it.
"Hello! Hello!" he called, in his excitement his voice resembling that of Yellin' Kid. "This is Diamond X," Bud went on. "What's the trouble?"
He listened for a moment and then called:
"We'll be right over!"
Hanging up the receiver with a bang on the hook, Bud hurried out of the shed and cried:
"They're at it again! Rustlers just cut out a bunch at North Station and they're hazing 'em off!"
"Whew!" whistled Mr. Merkel. "This is getting serious!"
Little time was lost. Instead of stopping for a "bite," the boy ranchers and their companions hastily swallowed some coffee that "Ma" Merkel and Nell made ready for them. Some "grub" was hastily packed, for the expedition might be out all night—very likely would—and then, saddles, girths and guns having been hastily inspected, the cowboys set forth.
To the bunch that had been on guard at Spur Creek was added some other punchers from Diamond X—as many as could be spared. This was not a large number, for, as Mr. Merkel had said, he had sent some of his men to drive his shipment of steers to the railroad.
This latest raid, word of which had been telephoned in from a distant place by a cowboy who had witnessed it, had taken place at what was called "North Station." This was a sort of auxiliary ranch Mr. Merkel had started when he secured more range land in the spring. By pasturing some cattle around there, several miles were saved in shipping his steers after fattening them up. And, as I have told you, nothing so soon takes valuable fat off cattle as driving them long distances to feed, to water or to a shipping point.
The boy ranchers knew little of North Station, having been there but once, though the trail to it was plain. And as they rode they talked of what might have taken place there.
"Guess whoever was in charge wasn't keepin' a very good lookout, or he'd have stopped the rustlers," observed Snake Purdee.
"Oh, you can't tell," said Billee Dobb. "Accidents will happen, and Del Pinzo is as slick as they come."
They all knew this to be true.
"Well, there's one thing in our favor," remarked Bud, as he urged his horse up between the steeds of Nort and Dick.
"What's that?" asked the latter.
"We're after the rustlers right quick," went on Bud. "Red Dugan, who telephoned in, said the gang driving off our cattle was still in sight as he was talking. So we ought to overtake them by dark."
"Not much fun fighting after dark," observed Dick dubiously.
"That's right," agreed his brother. "You can't tell who you're shooting at or who's shooting at you. How did Red come to be on the job so quickly?" he inquired of Bud.
"Well, you know dad has a lot of telephones set up at different places over his range," the owner's son explained. "He says it doesn't cost much to string a line of his own, and it's mighty handy when you want to send word back to headquarters. It proved so in this case. For Red was out on a distant part of the range, where there happened to be a branch telephone in a box on a pole, and he shot in word of the raid."
"Mighty lucky he did," observed Nort.
"Yes, for we're on the trail almost as soon as the rustlers took it," said Bud.
And indeed the boy ranchers were on the trail, riding hard; for they were some miles from where the raid had taken place, and they knew the rustlers would not spare the cattle they were driving away. For the thieves cared little about running fat off the stock they had "lifted." All they desired was to get what animals they could, to be sold to some other unscrupulous band, or used for food. Little consideration would be given to the steers.
After keeping to the main trail for some distance, the pursuers struck off to the right, heading more to the south, for it was in this direction they might expect to overtake the rustlers.
Old Billee, who was riding ahead with Yellin' Kid, keeping an anxious lookout for any signs of the rustlers, suddenly raised his hand as a signal to stop. Those following him, including the boy ranchers, pulled in their steeds.
"What's the matter?" called Bud. "See something?"
"No, but I feel something," was the somewhat strange answer.
"What do you mean?" asked Yellin' Kid.
"I mean I'm hungry!" and Old Billee chuckled. "If, as they say, an army fights on its stomach, the same is true about a cowboy. If we're goin' to do any fightin'—an' I reckon we are—then I got to eat!"
"I'm right glad to hear you disperse them there sentiments!" chuckled Snake Purdee. "I was goin' t' tighten up my belt another hole or two, to make my stomach take up less room, but if you're goin' t' eat——"
"Might as well, an' rest the hosses a bit," said Billee. "We'll do all the better afterward."
Accordingly they halted, the horses were turned out to graze, and a fire was built over which bacon could be sizzled and coffee made. These two staples formed the basis of most meals when the cowboys were on the trail, as they were now.
No time was wasted, but Billee knew how to handle his men, and he did not insist on an immediate start after the meal. He knew the value of a little rest after food had been taken. The horses, too, would be fresher for a wait.
But while the afternoon was still young they were on their way again, and before dark they had reached the headquarters of North Station, an auxiliary to Diamond X ranch.
"You fellows got here pretty quick," observed Sam Tod, the foreman at North Station.
"Well, we didn't stop to play mumble-th'-peg along th' way," chuckled Billee. "Now let's hear the yarn straight."
It was hastily told, bearing out what had already been learned of it over the telephone.
"Pack us up a little more grub and we'll keep on," said Billee Dobb to Sam, when the narration was ended.
"You'd better call it a day and stay here for the night," counseled Sam.
"Nothin' doin'!" declared Billee earnestly. "We're goin' t' hit th' trail hard!"
"Now listen a moment," begged Sam. "I know this part of the country better 'n what you do, Billee, though I give in to you on lots of points. This section is pretty rough, an' them rustlers won't be able to make any kind of speed with th' cattle. You can catch up t' 'em better if you make an early mornin' start than if you keep on now."
"You think so?" asked Billee, who was not "sot in his ways," as he often said.
"I'm sure of it," declared Sam.
"Wa'al, mebby you're right," conceded the veteran cowboy. "What say, fellows?" and he appealed to Bud and the others.
"I say let's stay here for th' night," decided Yellin' Kid. "As Sam says, we can make better time in th' mornin'. Th' rustlers can't drive cattle only so fast, anyhow."
"Unless they stampede 'em," put in Bud.
"That's what they did t' get away from where we had 'em pastured," declared Sam. "But if they get 'em that wild now the animals is likely t' break away, an' that isn't what this bunch of Greasers is countin' on."
"I guess you're right," admitted Bud. "It's about a fifty-fifty proposition, and we'd better wait here over night."
This decided, little time was lost in taking saddles from the horses and turning them into the corral, while their riders made ready to wash up, prepare for the evening meal and rest.
As Snake Purdee turned his pony in and hung the saddle over the fence he noticed a small enclosure in one corner of the corral, in which were two rather sorry-looking specimens of horseflesh.
"What you got there, Sam?" he asked, nodding toward the two sequestered steeds.
"Oh, couple a' outlaws," was the answer.
Snake's eyes seemed to sparkle with new light.
"Reg'lar man-killers?" he asked eagerly.
"Might call 'em that," assented Sam with a smile.
"Can't nobody ride em?" went on Snake.
"Th' last man what did has a broken leg on one side, an' a lot of skin chawed off on th' other," answered the foreman grimly.
"Whoopee!" yelled Snake, "I'll ride 'em! I'll fan 'em! Wow! Now for some fun!"
"Fun!" exclaimed Dick, who knew what was in prospect. "Oh, boy!" he added to his brother, "now for some rough riding!"
AFTER THE RUSTLERS
"Rough riding," as it is called, made up more than half the fun the cowboys indulged in among themselves. There has, of late years, been so much of this done in public, in traveling "wild west" shows, and in exhibitions of some features of the rodeo in New York and other large cities, that I believe most of you are familiar with the feats of cowboys on these trained and untrained "broncks," or outlaw horses—"mankillers" some of them are dubbed.
I might say that there are two classes of this rough riding. One is the real thing, on horses or cow ponies that are naturally bad, and never can be broken or trained to behave. The other is on what might be called "professional buckers." That is, horses which have trained to try and unseat their riders as long as they are expected to do this.
I venture to say most of you have seen exhibitions of rough riding in a wild west, traveling show, or in some rodeo, as an imitation round-up is called after its Spanish title. And most of you, I believe, have been impressed with the fact that as soon as the man got off the back of the bucking steed the said steed became as gentle as a lamb. This is what those that are trained to it do purposely, but it is not what a real dyed-in-the-wool outlaw does. For he does not let up in his attack on the man even after the latter is out of the saddle.
Perhaps some of you, at a rodeo, have seen a rider come bursting out of the pen on the back of a rearing, bucking, leaping steed. After the first burst two cowboys would ride up, one on either side of the bucker, and take off, on their own stirrups or saddle the fearless rider. And then the so-called "outlaw" would let himself be led meekly back into the pen to be ready for the next performance, when it would all be gone through with again.
But occasionally you may have seen one of these horses lash out viciously with his heels, in an endeavor to kick anyone he could reach, not even excluding his fellow steeds. This is a specimen of a real outlaw, who never lets up in his fight against man. But few of these horses are taken about in a traveling show. They are too dangerous.
However, the two that were fenced off in the corral at North Station were of the real "bad" variety. They had been partly tamed, but their tempers had been spoiled and they were really dangerous to approach. Hence they were confined in a small space, and not allowed out.
However, cowboys are by nature reckless, and to them bucking horses are but a source of amusement and rivalry. Each cowboy thinks he can ride some steed no one else can mount. And for the purpose of contests or exhibitions, to relieve the monotony of "riding range," there are facilities for saddling and bridling these horses without danger to those doing it.
This method consists of putting the horse in a long narrow place like a stall in a stable, through the bars of which the boys can reach in, throw on the saddle and tighten it. Then a rider can climb into the saddle over the top rail of the fence and at a signal a gate can be opened, allowing the maddened steed to rush out.
Then the fun begins.
"I'm goin' t' ride!" yelled Snake.
"Take th' big one then," advised Sam. "He ain't quite so bad as th' other."
"I want th' meanest one!" insisted Snake, "an' if it's th' smallest I'll ride him!"
"Better not!" advised the foreman, but Snake was not to be persuaded against it. And the other cowboys, scenting fun, were not very anxious to have Snake change his mind.
Accordingly some of the men who had handled Red Pepper before—Red Pepper being the name of the horse—arranged to get a saddle on him, and to slip a sort of bridle over his head. But he had no bit, for it was as much as a man's hands were worth to try and force the bar of steel between the teeth of this outlaw.
"Now you watch me!" cried Snake when, after hard work, the saddle had been strapped on and pulled tight. "I'm goin' t' fan him."
I might explain that it is considered cowboy ethics to ride with only one hand on the reins, whether a bit is used or not, and in the other hand, usually the left, the cowboy carries his hat with which he hits the steed on either side of the neck, "fanning him," it is called. And no rough rider would ever think of sitting on the worst bucker in the world without thus riding with one hand and "fanning" with the other. Meanwhile, of course, he keeps up a wild whooping sound, just to show his spirits.
The feeling of a man on his back—a feeling he hates, the wild whooping, the jab of the spurs and the flapping hat around his head serves further to madden the bucker and it is a wonder any human being can stay on his back a second. Yet cowboys do, and ride until they are tired of the sport.
"Are you ready?" called the cowboys who had saddled the "mankiller," as Sam dubbed the small horse.
"Let him out!" yelled Snake.
The fastenings of the gate were loosed and out rushed the animal with the cowboy bobbing about on his back. Red Pepper seemed a whirlwind of fury. He rushed forward, his nose almost touching the ground, and then he began to go up in the air. Up he would leap, coming down with all four legs held stiff and his back arched, to shake, if it were possible, Snake from the saddle. The cowboy rose in his stirrups to take the shock as much as possible from his frame, and with a yell, began "fanning" Red Pepper.
This added to the fury of the beast, and it fairly screamed in rage and, reaching back, tried to bite Snake's legs. But they were protected by heavy leather "chaps," and the animal soon realized this.
He now began leaping sideways, a form of bucking that often unseats a rider, but Snake was proof against this. And all the while the animal was dashing around the larger corral, on the fence of which sat the boy ranchers and their friends, watching this cowboy fun. As they watched they laughed and called such remarks as:
"Fan him, Snake! Fan him!"
"Whoopee! That's stickin' to him!"
"Tickle him in the ear, Snake!"
"Want any court plaster t' hold you down?"
Snake paid little attention to this "advice" of his friends. In fact he had little time, for he discovered that his "work was all cut out for him," before he had been many seconds on the back of Red Pepper. The steed in very truth was an outlaw of the worst type.
Finding that the methods usually successful—those of bucking and kicking out with his hind feet—were of no avail, the animal adopted new tactics. He reared high in the air, with a scream of rage—reared so high that there was a gasp of dismay from the spectators. For surely it seemed that the horse would topple over backward and, falling on Snake, would crush and kill him.
But the cowboy had ridden horses like this before, and with a smart blow between the animal's ears Snake gave notice that it would be considered more polite if his steed would keep on all four feet.
Down came Red Pepper with a jar that shook every bone in Snake's body, but he remained in the saddle, and with more wild yells brought his broad-brimmed hat down again and again on the animal's neck.
Again Red Pepper dashed forward, bucked again, worse than before and still finding the hated rider on his back began to play one of his most desperate tricks.
This consisted of lying down and trying to roll over his rider. If successful, it would crush the rider almost as badly as if he had been toppled on from a backward fall.
"Look out, Snake! He's going to roll!" warned Sam.
But Snake was ready.
Suddenly Red Pepper stopped bucking. But before Snake could catch his labored breath the horse knelt down and started to roll over, at the same time opening his mouth to bite whatever portion of Snake first came within reach.
Snake, however, had been through an experience like this before. In an instant he had leaped from the saddle and was out of danger. That is, out of danger in a way. But he and the others realized that as soon as he could Red Pepper would get to his feet again and run after the cowboy. It was that which made this particular animal so dangerous. He never gave up fighting his rider, even when the latter was unseated; and he had killed two men.
"Watch yourself!" cried Sam.
But Snake was ready, and so were some of the other cowboys, for they had feared just this ending of the attempt to ride Red Pepper. No sooner was Snake out of the saddle than two of his friends dashed toward him, picking him up between them so that he rode with a foot on either of their inner stirrups.
Meanwhile some other cowboys rode up to get the outlaw back into the corral. This was no easy work, but they had given him little chance, and with two lariats about his neck, so that he could be held from either side, he was, after some time, gotten back in his pen.
"Well, I rode him," chuckled Snake, when it was all over.
"And you came out of it luckier than lots of 'em," added the foreman. "Red Pepper sure is a bad one!"
"Oh, shucks!" laughed Snake. "That jest gave me an appetite."
And, really, it seemed to. But perhaps Snake was hungry, anyhow.
After the meal there was a general talk about the raid of the rustlers. And then as the cowboys sat about in the evening they indulged in various forms of sport and fun, in which the boy ranchers joined.
Bright and early those who were to take the trail after the cattle thieves were on their way, taking with them enough food to last for several days. They were now better prepared than when they had first started out from Diamond X.
It was comparatively easy to pick up the trail left by the rustlers and soon our friends were riding after them, though of course several hours behind them. But as had been said, the ground was of a nature that did not lend itself well to haste, and if the thieves stampeded their animals they would, very likely, lose them. They could only go so fast and Billee and his cowboys hoped soon to come up to the raiders.
It was nearly noon when one of the cowboys who was riding on ahead, came to a stop on a little rise of land and, shading his eyes from the sun, looked long and earnestly off to his left.
"See anything?" asked Bud, who with his cousins rode up.
"I think so, but I'm not sure," was the reply. "But doesn't it look like a bunch of cattle there?" and he pointed.
The boy ranchers gazed earnestly.
"It sure does look like 'em to me!" declared Nort.
"Could it be one of our regular herds?" Dick asked.
"None of our cattle are down that way," the cowboy said.
"Then they're rustlers!" cried Bud. "After 'em, boys!"
A CLOUD OF DUST
Flappings of heels to the flanks of horses, the tightening of reins, firmer seats in the saddles and glances at the heavy revolvers swinging in their holsters at the sides of the riders came as a prelude to the burst of speed which immediately followed the sight of the distant herd of cattle being hazed across the prairie.
"Whoop-ee!" cried Yellin' Kid. "We'll show 'em what's what! Whoop-ee!"
"Reckon you can stand a fight?" asked Nort, looking at the leg of the cowboy, which had been severely injured.
"Shucks, yes! I'm all right now! I'd a leetle mite ruther lick a bunch of sheep herders than jest plain onery cattle rustlers," went on Yellin' Kid, "but anythin' for a fight!"
"You said it!" chimed in some of the other rough but ready and earnest punchers.
"I s'pose there will be a fight," mused Dick.
"Unless they quit and run," said Bud. "You don't mind a little thing like a fight, do you?" he asked his cousin. "Of course not! I was only joking!" he quickly added as he saw a look on Dick's face.
"It won't be the first time we've had a scrap," remarked Nort.
All this while they were riding hard toward the distant group which, at first had been but a cloud of dust, but which now resolved itself into forms of horsemen and cattle.
And as the outfit from Diamond X approached nearer, it could be seen that the drivers of the cattle were not regulation cowboys from any ranch north of the Rio Grande. There was an air and manner about the horsemen urging on the weary cattle which betokened them as irregulars—rustlers, in other words.
The advantage—such as it was—appeared to be with the boy ranchers and their friends, for they were on fresh horses, and could ride hither and yon without having to drive before them, and keep from stampeding, a bunch of cattle. As for the rustlers the success of their raid depended on keeping the cattle they had stolen. Once the small herd got beyond their control, they might as well cut and run for it, since it would be a case of everyone save himself, and every man for himself.
"Some of you cut out the cattle, boys," advised Old Billee, as he spurred along with the youngest rider. For though this veteran more than doubled the years of the boy ranchers, he was almost as "spry" as any of them. "Cut out the cattle, and we'll look after these rustlers."
There were members enough in the outfit from Diamond X to provide for a division of forces—enabling them to execute a flank movement, as it were, though this does not exactly describe it.
"What's the best thing to do?" asked Bud, willing to take advice from his father's able helper. Bud was willing to learn, a most commendable spirit in a youth.
"Wa'al, this would be about as good a plan as any," remarked Old Billee, as he still continued to ride on, but at the same time he was, with his keen eyes, looking over the lay of the land. "Bud, you and your cousins ride off to the left, with Hank and Sam, and see if you can cut out the steers. If you can circle 'em around and bring 'em up behind where we are now—or as near as you can. I'll take the rest of the boys and see if we can't speed up and close with the rustlers."
Bud at once saw that this was giving him and his boy chums, as well as Sam and Hank, the other two cowboys, quite the safest end of the battle. The cattle could be cut out without coming into very close contact with the desperate rustlers. The fight with them would be taken care of by the more experienced Billee and his men.
Bud thought it over for a moment. He was not afraid of danger, but he was not foolhardy, and he knew the veteran had been in many more engagements like this than had Bud himself. Also Bud was too good a soldier to object to taking orders.
"All right," he finally said. "Suits me, Billee. How about you fellows?" he asked Nort and Dick.
With short nods they agreed to Billee's plan, and a few minutes later it was put into execution. The outfit from Diamond X separated, and while Bud and his party spurred ahead to cut out the cattle, the others circled around to make a "flank" attack, as it might be called.
"Here we go!" cried Bud who, naturally, was the leader of the "cutting out" sally.
On rushed the horses, the boys clapping heels to them and "fanning" them with their hats to urge them to greater speed. They were quite close, now, to the band of cattle being hazed away, and on some of the lagging steers could be made out the branding marks of the Diamond X ranch.
"Those are ours all right!" cried Bud to his cousins.
"And we'll have 'em back soon," added Dick.
"We'd better begin shooting," called out Hank, one of the two cowboys who had been assigned to duty with Bud.
This was not as serious as it sounds, for the shots were not to be directed at the rustlers but fired in the air to startle the cattle. In cutting out, or, rather, in separating from those who had stolen them the steers from Diamond X, it was necessary to get the animals on the run. They could then more easily be driven where they were wanted.
By this time, of course, the rustlers knew they were in danger not only of losing their ill-gotten cattle, but of losing their own freedom and perhaps their lives. They could be arrested and sent to jail for theft if they were caught.
For a few minutes after the pursuit became close, the rustlers made an attempt to get the cattle into one of the many small valleys with which the country around there abounded. But they soon saw that it was a losing fight. The animals were too wearied to be driven at much speed.
Then some order seemed to have been given by the leader of the rustlers, for the nondescript bunch of cattle thieves swung off, and practically abandoned their four-footed charges.
This made it easier for the boy ranchers, though the task of urging the cattle away from the line they were traveling was hard enough at best.
"Come on!" yelled Bud, when he saw what was happening. "We've got 'em going!"
This was true, as regarded the rustlers. They were about to save themselves if they could.
With drawn guns, firing rapidly and yelling as loudly as they could, the boy ranchers rode in among the frightened steers, endeavoring to turn them off to the right. For a moment it seemed as if they were not going to do this, but eventually their tactics succeeded, and the leaders of the herd swung off. Then the others followed and it was now a comparatively easy matter to drive them along where it was desired they should go.
"Poor things!" murmured Dick sympathetically, as he saw the weary cattle. "We'll have to let 'em rest, Bud."
"Guess you're right," agreed the son of the Diamond X owner. "They won't be much good for shipping to market until they get some fat back on their bones." Many of the cattle were in woeful shape, and all suffered from lack of water, since the rustlers had driven them so hard, endeavoring to get far away with them as soon as possible that they had not stopped to water them.
"There's a little stream over there," announced Sam, one of the cowboys who knew this part of the country well. "We can haze 'em over there and keep 'em for a while."
This was considered the best thing to do, and soon the weary cattle were drinking their first water in many hours. Afterward they all lay down to rest, not even eating until some of the weariness had passed.
Meanwhile the cowboys under Old Billee had come to close quarters with the rustlers and the fight started immediately. There was nothing unusual about it, the rustlers merely desiring to get away and the outfit from Diamond X wishing to capture them to make them pay for their lawlessness.
One rustler was captured, for he was so wounded that he fell from his horse. The others got away, one badly hurt, it seemed, for he had to be taken in charge by one of his companions who lifted him to his own saddle.
As for Billee and his forces, they suffered somewhat, two of the cowboys being painfully wounded by bullets. But, on the whole, the affair ended much better than might have been expected. The stolen cattle had been recovered, in as good condition as could be hoped for, and the rustlers had been driven off, with the exception of the wounded one.
It was planned to take him to the nearest jail, but this trouble was obviated for the man died in the night.
Riding back after having driven off the rustlers, Billee and his men found the cattle quietly resting, while Bud and his friends were doing likewise, as they had ridden hard.
"We'll camp here for the night," decided Billee. "Too bad there isn't a telephone here that we could use to send word back to your dad, Bud. But we can't have everything."
"No," agreed Yellin' Kid with a chuckle. "I'd like a room an' a bath with plenty of hot water, but I don't see any growin' on no trees around here!"
However, the cowboys were used to this sort of life and they counted it no unusual hardship. A fire was made, those who had been scarred by bullets were looked after and then the ever-welcome "grub" was served.
The next day, after the hasty burial of the dead rustler, on whom little sympathy was wasted, and concerning whose identity no one cared much, the march back to Diamond X was begun, the cattle being slowly driven toward their former pasture. As not all the cowboys were needed for this, a sufficient number were told off by Billee, and the remainder, including the boy ranchers, made better speed back to headquarters.
There the news of the successful chase after the rustlers was received with satisfaction, and Mr. Merkel said he hoped it would be a lesson to other thieves.
"I wish we could give the same sort of lesson to any sheep herders that might be around here," remarked Bud.
"That's so," said his father. "And perhaps you'd better be getting back to Spur Creek. No telling what might have happened while you've been away. We didn't leave anyone on guard."
"I don't know as it was necessary," said Bud. "But, all the same, we'd better get back."
They made the start early the next morning—the boy ranchers, with Yellin' Kid and Snake, and there was the promise of more cowboys to help them hold the "fort" should it be considered necessary.
"Well, everything seems to be all right," remarked Bud as he and his party rode up to the shack on the edge of the stream. "No signs of the sheep yet."
"And no smell, either," chuckled Yellin' Kid, as he sniffed the air.
"It takes the perfesser for that!" said Snake with a laugh.
"I wonder what Professor Wright is doing?" said Nort.
"Oh, digging up a lot of old bones, I reckon," Bud answered. "But let's get grub and rest. I'm tired."
The events of the past few days had been strenuous enough to make them all welcome a period of rest. And they had it, for a few hours. And then something occurred to start a series of happenings that lasted and created excitement for some time.
It was toward the middle of the afternoon when Nort, who had gone down the stream a little way, looked across Spur Creek and saw hanging in the hazy air a cloud of dust.
"Wonder if that's a wind storm," he mused. But as there was not a sign of vapor in the clear blue sky he gave up that theory. "Guess I'd better let 'em know," he thought, turning back toward the fort.
And when the others came out to look at the cloud of dust, on the Mexican side of the river—a cloud which had grown larger—Bud exclaimed:
"Sheep, I'll bet a hat!"
THE SHEEP ARRIVE
Among the saddles, horse-gear, weapons, grub and other equipment that had been put in the fort at Spur Creek was a telescope. Remembering this, Bud rushed in to get it, while his companions stood in front of the place, gazing across the stream at the ever-increasing cloud of dust.
"Something's comin' on, anyhow," observed Yellin' Kid.
"Can't be cattle," remarked Snake Purdee. "They ain't spread out enough for cattle."
This was one way of telling, for, as the cowboy said, cattle, meaning by that steers or a herd of grazing horses, separate much more than do sheep, which stick in a bunch as they feed. Still there was no being certain of it until Bud should take an observation through the glass.
"Might be another bunch of Greasers—or rustlers," said Snake, musingly.
"There's plenty of both kinds down there," agreed Nort, with a wave of his hand in the general direction of Mexico, the border of which misruled, unhappy and greatly-misunderstood country was not far away.
Bud came running out with the telescope, pulling shiny brass lengths to their limit before focusing it.
"We'll soon tell now," he said, as he raised the objective glass and pointed it at the cloud of dust, while he squinted through the eye-piece. A moment later, after he had made a better adjustment of the focus, he cried: "It's sheep all right! A big bunch of 'em!"
"Any men with 'em? No, I shouldn't call 'em men," hastily corrected Dick. "No decent man would raise sheep."
In this, of course, he was wrong. Sheep are needful and many a rancher is making a fortune out of them, but at this time, and in this part of the west, a sheep herder was despised and hated by his fellows.
"Yes, there's a bunch of Greasers or some one hazin' 'em on," reported Bud. "Here, Kid, take a look," and he passed the glass to the older cowboy.
The latter could but confirm what Bud had seen and then, in turn, the other three had a look through the telescope, which brought the details of the oncoming herd of "woollies" startlingly near.
"Well, what we goin' to do about it?" asked Yellin' Kid, after they had made sure the sheep were headed toward the east bank of Spur Creek.
"We're going to stop 'em from coming over here," declared Bud determinedly.
"Maybe they don't intend to come," suggested Nort.
"What are they heading this way for, then?" demanded his cousin.
"To get better pasture."
"Well, what pasture there is on that side of Spur Creek won't last the sheep very long!" exclaimed Snake Purdee. "They'll be over here in a couple of days at the most. Reckon they think they have a right to this range."
"Which they haven't," said Bud, "though how dad is going to prove his claim, with the papers gone, I don't see."
"We'll prove it with force—that's what we'll do!" shouted Yellin' Kid. "That's what we're here for. That's what we got our guns for!" and significantly he tapped the one on his hip.
"Yes, I reckon we'll have to fight," conceded Bud with a half sigh. He was not afraid, but he knew in a fight some would be hurt and perhaps more than one killed. And this was not as it ought to be. Still with each side standing on what it considered its rights, what else could be expected?
"How many Greasers they got?" asked Yellin' Kid, after a pause, during which Bud took another observation through the glass.
The boy rancher looked, seemed to be counting and then, as he lowered the glass from his eye, he answered:
"There's a dozen of 'em!"
Significantly Nort silently, but obviously, counted those of his own party. There were but five, for some of the cowboys had been left at Diamond X after the defeat of the rustlers.
"We'd better let your dad know—what say?" asked Kid of Bud.
"I think so—yes. And he'd better send out a few more men. We don't want to take any chances."
This was considered a wise move. But before going in to telephone to his father—for that was the most rapid method of letting him know the situation so he could send help—before going to the instrument Bud asked:
"Say, I'm wondering how, if those fellows intend to take this open range pasture—how are they going to get their sheep over?"
"You mean over the river?" asked Nort.
"Yes. How they going to get the animals across so they can feed on this side?"
For a moment no one answered, then Yellin' Kid replied:
"Why, they'll just naturally haze 'em over; that's all."
"You mean drive 'em through the creek?" asked Bud.
"The water's too deep."
"Maybe there's a ford," suggested Kid.
Bud shook his head.
"I tried to find one for my horse the other day," he said. "I thought I had but it was a quicksand and I was glad enough to get out without being stuck. There's no ford now for miles up and down the Creek from here—that is, none that I know of, especially not since high water."
For the level of Spur Creek had risen in the last few days, since the professor crossed, caused, it was learned later, by the diversion into the creek of a larger stream by some irrigation plan company further north.
"Well, if they can't make the sheep wade over they can swim 'em, can't they?" asked Dick.
"'Tisn't so easy to make sheep swim," declared Yellin' Kid with a shake of his head. "Sheep are scary critters at best. You might get them in the water if you had a good leader, but if I was a sheep man—which I never hope to be—I'd think twice 'fore I'd float 'em across a stream, 'specially if it had quicksands in."
"Well, this has," affirmed Bud. "They come and go, the quicksands. They weren't here the other day but they're here now."
"Maybe they're going to ferry 'em across," suggested Nort.
"Where they going to get boats?" asked Snake, and that seemed to dispose of this question.
"Though maybe they carry collapsible craft," suggested Dick, but this, of course, was not reasonable or practical.
"No," said Bud, "they either know some way of getting the sheep over here, or else they aren't going to cross."
"They'll cross all right," asserted Snake. "Better let your father know how matters are," he suggested.
Bud went in to ring the home ranch up on the telephone, but he had no sooner given a few turns to the crank—for this was the old-style instrument—than he called out:
"Telephone wire is cut!"
A BATTLE OF WITS
This news came as a distinct shock not only to Bud, who discovered it, but to the others of his party.
"Are you sure it's cut?" asked Nort, hurrying into the shack after his cousin, who had come to the door to make the announcement.
"Well, it's dead, anyhow," Bud answered. "I can't raise Diamond X. And it sounds as if it were cut. Or, rather, it doesn't sound at all. It's just dead."
"Maybe the battery's given out, or there's a loose connection somewhere," suggested Dick. "Let's take a look. I know a little about telephones."
They tested the battery, to find that it was sufficiently strong to have transmitted signals provided everything else was in working order.
But this remained to be seen. However, as the boys made test after test, in their limited way, they came ever nearer to the conclusion that the wire was, indeed, cut. For no answer came to the repeated turnings of the crank, though Bud did succeed in making his own bell ring. The reason for his first failure had been a loose wire connection, which Dick remedied.
But, even after this, no answer came to the repeated turnings of the crank.
"Well, we've got to find the break and mend it!" declared Bud, following several unsuccessful trials to get into communication with the home ranch.
"'Tisn't cut right around here," said Nort, who went out to take a look at the thin length of wire, strung on makeshift poles, that formed a connecting link between the fort at Spur Creek and the homo ranch of Diamond X. "I can trace the wire as far as I can see it."
"No, 'tisn't likely they'd cut it so near the shack, for we'd spot that first thing," said Bud. "We'll have to trace it, that's all. I'll get my horse."
"Are we all going?" Yellin' Kid wanted to know. "What about the sheep?" and he waved his hand toward the ever-nearing cloud of dust which floated over the backs of thousands of sharp-hoofed animals.
"Oh, that's so!" exclaimed Bud. "Somebody's got to stay here."
"Reckon Snake and I can handle whatever comes up here," said Yellin' Kid grimly, as he tapped his gun. "They won't get here for half a day, anyhow, and by then it'll be night. They can't do anything after dark, and two men will be plenty here."
This seemed reasonable enough, and after talking over plans this one was decided on.
Bud and Dick, the latter knowing most about telephones, would ride along looking for the break, and would try to mend it. Meanwhile Nort would ride on to Diamond X ranch, since it was important to let Mr. Merkel know what was about to happen—that the dreaded sheep had come and might soon overrun the open range he claimed as his own property. Also help was needed—more cowboys to hold the fort—and it was risky to depend on the broken telephone for summoning them.
So Nort was intrusted with the work of carrying the unwelcome news and of bringing up reinforcements.
Meanwhile Bud and Dick would do their best to find and repair the break, and Snake and Yellin' Kid would be on guard at Spur Creek. As Kid had said, there was little danger of the sheep men bringing up their woolly charges before dark, and after that not much could be done in the way of crossing the river, if, as Bud had said, there was no ford at this place, and the danger of quicksands further to keep unwelcome visitors on the Mexican side of the stream.
"Well, I'll see you when I get back," remarked Nort as he rode off with a wave of his hand to his brother cousin and the two remaining cowboys.
"Think you'll make it to-night?" asked Dick.
"I don't see why I can't," was the answer. "If there's going to be a fight in the morning you'll want help here. And if the other boys ride back from Diamond X I'll be with 'em."
"Oh, the boys will be ridin' back all right, as soon as they hear there's a prospect of a fight!" chuckled Kid.
"You said it!" added Snake.
Pausing to watch Nort ride off on his mission of carrying news and summoning help, and taking another look at the still approaching cloud of dust that betokened the flock of sheep, Bud and Dick rode along the back trail, following the telephone line.
As has been said, the wire was not cut near the cabin. It could be seen, a tiny line against the clear, blue sky, stretching its slender length on top of the poles.
"They were too cute to cut it near the shack. They figured we wouldn't notice it for a long time, maybe, and they'd have a chance to get up closer," said Dick.
"You mean the sheep herders?" asked Bud.
"Sure! Who else?" asked his cousin. "You reckon it was them that cut the wire, don't you?"
"Don't know's I thought much about it, but, now that I have, why, of course, they did it," Bud agreed. "Unless it was the cattle rustlers," he added.
"You mean the ones we just had a fight with?"
"No, I don't reckon they did," Dick remarked. "In the first place we licked 'em pretty badly. They scattered, I'm sure, and they didn't head in this direction. And what good would it do 'em just to cut a wire after we'd gotten the cattle away from 'em?"
"Oh, general meanness, that's all," answered Bud.
"They wouldn't do that out of spite and run the risk of being caught—not after what happened to 'em," declared Dick, and Bud answered:
"Well, maybe you're right."
Then they rode along in silence for a while, making sure, as they progressed, that they did not pass a break in the telephone line. The thin copper conductor was intact as they could see.
"They must have gone about half way back—between the creek and our ranch, and snipped the wire there," said Bud, after a period of silence.
"I reckon so," agreed Dick. "That would be what we'd do if we had it to do; wouldn't we?"
"Because we'd want the break to come as far away as possible from either end, to make it take longer to find and mend it."
"That's right, Dick. I never thought of that. Then there isn't really much use looking along here. We might as well ride fast to a point about half way. We'll find the break there."
"No, we don't want to do that, Bud. We'll just ride along as we have been going, and we'll look at every foot of wire."
"But I thought you said——"
"I said if we had to cut an enemy's telephone line, we'd probably do it about half way between the two main points. But we can't take any chances. These fellows may have reasoned that we'd think they cut it half way, and, just to fool us, they may have gone only a quarter way."
"Oh, shucks! If you think onery sheep herders have brains to do any of that sort of reasoning, you're 'way off, Dick!"
"Well, maybe I am, but we won't take any chances. We'll inspect every foot until we come to the break."
And this plan was followed.
It was not until after they had ridden several miles that they saw, dangling between two poles, the severed ends of the wire.
"There it is!" cried Dick.
"Good! I mean I'm glad we've found it!" voiced Bud. "It may be all sorts of bad luck that it's cut. For they may have figured that we'd divide forces to mend the break, and they may take this chance to rush Kid and Snake and get possession of the land."
"I don't think so," remarked Dick as he dismounted to approach the pole and look at the severed wire. "Those sheep can't travel as fast as that, and we'll have reinforcements at the fort when they try to cross Spur Creek."
"But they may send a bunch of Greasers on ahead of the woollies," objected Bud.
To this Dick did not answer. He was busy looking at the end of the dangling wire.
"Is it cut or broken?" asked Bud, for there was the possibility of an accident having happened.
"Cut," was the answer.
"What you going to do?"
"Splice it," was the answer. "That's all I can do now. I brought some extra wire along."
Not pausing to climb the pole and re-string the cut wire, which plainly showed marks of cutting pliers, Dick simply connected one severed end with the other, using a piece of copper he had brought from the shack for this purpose.
"Too bad we haven't one of those portable sets so we could cut in and see if everything was working," observed Bud, when the break was mended.
"Yes," agreed Dick. "We'll have to wait until we get back to the fort to make a test and see if we can talk."
"It's nearer to go on to our ranch," said Bud. For the break in the wire had been discovered more than half way to Diamond X.
"Yes, it's nearer, but we can't take any chances," objected Dick. "We may be needed to help Snake and Kid."
"That's so," agreed Bud. "I forgot about that. We'll go back to the fort and see if we can call up the ranch."
They made better time on the return trip, for they did not have to ride slowly along looking for a break in the wire. On the way they speculated as to what might have happened during their absence in chasing the cattle rustlers.
"All we're sure of is that they cut the telephone wire," said Bud.
"But there's no telling what they may have laid plans for," added Dick. "I guess those sheep men are smarter than we gave them credit for."
"It does seem so," admitted Bud. "We'll have to match our wits against theirs when it comes to a show-down—seeing who's going to keep this rich grazing land."
"One thing in our favor is that we're in possession," said Dick, as he patted his pony's neck.
"But one thing against us—or against dad, which is the same thing," said Bud, "is that his papers proving possession are stolen. And these sheep men seem to know that."
"Yes," agreed Dick, "they seem to know it all right."
They returned to the fort on the bank of Spur Creek just before dark, and, to their delight, found the telephone in working order. For the ranch had called the cabin, Mr. Merkel wanting to know how matters were at Spur Creek.
He complained of having tried several times to get into communication with the fort, and he had guessed there was a broken wire but he had not suspected it was cut. Then, when he tried again, he found communication restored. This, of course, was after Dick and Bud had found and mended the break.
Nort had not yet reached the ranch at the time his father finally found the telephone working. But the need of help was told of over the restored wire, and several cowboys were at once dispatched, not waiting for the arrival of Nort.
"I'll send Nort back to you as soon as he gets here," promised Mr. Merkel.
These matters having been disposed of, Bud and Dick had a chance to ask what had transpired at the fort since they left.
"Jest nothin'—that's all," answered Snake.
"But I think there's goin' t' be somethin' doin' right shortly," observed Yellin' Kid.
"What makes you think so?" asked Bud.
In answer the cowboy pointed across the river. The cloud of dust had settled, revealing more plainly now thousands of sheep. And as the defenders of the fort watched they saw, separating from the sheep, a number of men who approached the Mexican bank of the stream.
What were they going to do?
Until there was what in law is termed an "overt act," the boy ranchers and their friends could do nothing against the sheep herders who were there in plain sight, with their woolly charges on the far side of Spur Creek. "Overt act" is a law term, and practically means an open act as distinguished from one that is done in secret and under cover.
Thus if the sheep herders should openly attempt to cross the creek, and drive their animals up on Mr. Merkel's land—or land which he claimed—then Bud and his associates could proceed against them, driving them off—"repelling boarders," as Dick expressed it, having in mind some of his favorite pirate tales.
But until the sheep men had done something—had committed an overt act—they could not be molested as long as they remained where they were.
"It's like this," explained Bud, for his father had made matters plain to him over the mended telephone line. "We got to wait until they set foot on our land—or until some of their onery sheep begin to nibble—and then we can start something."
"What, for instance?" asked Dick.
"Well, we can order 'em off—that is, order the Greasers off," replied Bud. "Not much use talking to sheep, I reckon."
"Nor to a Greaser, either," murmured Snake. "One is about as bright and smart as the other."
"Anyhow," resumed Bud, "we can't do anything until they start something."
"Not even if we know they're going to do it?" asked another of the cowboys who, meanwhile, had arrived from Diamond X ready for a fight.
"Not even then," answered Bud. "But once they cross the creek and land here, then we'll begin," and he looked to his gun.
"What'll we do with the sheep?" asked the cowboy. There seemed to be no doubt in the minds of the men as to what they would do with the Greasers.
"We'll have to dispose of 'em," said Bud regretfully. "It seems a pity, too, for the poor things haven't done any harm. But it's either their lives or those of our cattle. The two can't live on the same range, and the sheep have no right here."
"Shoot 'em and drive 'em back into the water if they try to swim across—is that it?" asked Dick.
"Yes, but hang it all!" cried Bud, "I hope that doesn't happen. I sure hate to do it!"
And to give them credit, the others felt the same way about it.
Meanwhile the sheep having settled down to a quiet but fast feeding—which is their characteristic—the actions of the band of Greaser and Mexican herders who had them in charge was eagerly watched by the boy ranchers and their friends.
They saw two horsemen ride down to the bank of the creek at one spot and urge their steeds in. For a time all seemed to go well, but suddenly, when a few yards out in the stream one of the Mexicans frantically called to his companion, who shouted an inquiry as to what was wrong.
Something very dangerously wrong seemed to be the trouble, for the first Mexican was now frantically appealing for help, and a moment later his companion sent his lariat hissing through the air, the coils settling around the frightened man who grasped the rope and leaped into the creek.
But the horse remained in the water, though the animal was wildly struggling to turn and go back to the southern shore, along which the sheep were feeding, some of them slaking their thirst in Spur Creek.
Pulling his companion along by the lariat, the still mounted Mexican made for the shore he had so recently quitted, leaving the lone horse to struggle by itself.
"What does that mean?" cried Dick.
"Quicksands—just what I told you about," answered Bud. "There are a lot of places where the bed of the creek is pitted with quick sands, and this Greaser struck one."
"One did and the other didn't," observed Snake, for it was evident that the rider who had used his lariat had found firm footing for his steed.
"That's it," Bud explained. "You can't tell where the sands are and where they aren't. I happen to know some places that are free," he went on, "but, even there the water is too deep for the sheep to get across, on account of the current."
The two Mexicans, one on his horse and the other swimming at the end of the lariat, had reached the shore they so recently quitted, on what object could only be guessed. Then there was very evidently a conference among the sheep herders during which the excited men who had taken part in the adventure pointed to the spot where the horse was struggling.
"I hope they aren't going to leave that poor brute to suffer," murmured Yellin' Kid, his voice low for one of the few times in his career.
But it was evident that whatever were the faults of the sheep herders they did not number among them too much cruelty to a horse. For when it was evident that the animal could not free himself, a number of the Greasers rode as close as was safe, and tossed their lariats about the animal's neck. Then they began pulling.
But the quicksands had too firm a grip on the animal's legs. He had sunk lower in the stream, and his struggles were less, simply because he was now so nearly engulfed in the powerful suction of the water-soaked and ever-shifting sands.
"They'll never get him out,' said Dick.
"Have to pull his poor head off if they do," agreed Bud.
And this was so evident that the Mexican sheep herders soon gave up the attempt. They dared not even go close enough to the horse to release their ropes, but, casting them off from their saddle horns, had to see them sink down in the quicksands with the poor beast.
For this is what happened. The unfortunate animal, unable to extricate himself from the terrible grip of the sands, being too firmly held to permit of being dragged out, sank lower and lower. The water came half way up his sides. It closed over his back, but still his head was free.
With all his power the brute struggled, but with four legs gripped he could do little more than shudder convulsively. Then as the waters came closer and closer to his head, caused by the fact that the horse was sinking lower and lower in the soft sand, the beast gave a terrible cry—terrible in its agony.
A moment later it was gone from sight forever.
A hush fell upon the assemblage of cowboys in front of the Spur Creek fort of Diamond X ranch. And a hush, no less, came over the bunch of Mexican sheep herders on the far side of the stream. But that the man could leap off and swim to shore, aided by his companion's lariat, the fate of the horse in the quicksands might have been his fate.
"What's going on?" asked a voice behind Bud and Dick.
They turned quickly to behold Nort, who had ridden back from the ranch headquarters.
"What you all looking at?" he asked, for the cowboys were gazing silently at the spot in the stream where the tragedy had just taken place.
They informed Nort in a few words.
"Well," he remarked, "that's the best protection we could have against the sheep coming over—quicksands in the creek."
"The only trouble is," said Dick slowly, "that the quicksands are only in certain places. They can cross safely elsewhere."
"The point is, though," observed Bud, "that they can only guess at those places. And, not knowing where they are, may make them stay away altogether."
"I hope so, but I don't believe it," remarked Snake. "You'll see they won't give up so easily."
Nor did the sheep herders thus forego an attempt to graze their flocks on the rich pasture claimed by Mr. Merkel. It was too late that day to attempt anything more. Night settled down, but with an augmented force of cowboys at the fort the boy ranchers were not apprehensive.
Tours of duty were arranged, so that two or more cowboys would be on guard all night. However, the hours of darkness passed with no further activity on the part of the Mexicans.
In the morning, however, the forces from Diamond X ranch observed strange actions on the part of their enemies.
"What in the world are they up to?" asked Nort, as he and his brother and cousin looked across the river.
Well might he ask that.
"WE CROWED TOO SOON!"
Not only the boy ranchers, but their more experienced cowboy companions were puzzled by the actions of the sheep herders. It was the period after the morning meal, the smoke of which fires was still rising toward the sky. The sheep men appeared to have slept in the open, with nothing more than their blankets for a bed and their saddles for pillows. But they were accustomed to this, and so were our friends, though they were glad of the fairly comfortable bunk house, or "fort," as they dubbed it.
But all interest was centered in what the Greasers were doing. Some of them separated themselves from the sheep, which really did not require much more attention than that given them by some intelligent dogs, and a bunch of the hated and despised men were approaching the river, carrying long poles.
"What do you reckon they're going to do?" asked Dick.
"Make a raft, maybe," answered Nort. "Though how they can float a lot of sheep over on a raft made of a few bean poles is more than I can understand."
"It would take them a month or more to float the sheep over, one at a time, on a bunch of poles," objected Bud.
"That isn't what they're going to do," declared Dick, after closely watching the actions of the Mexicans. "They're going to leave, that's what they're planning."
"Leave? What do you mean; go away?" asked his brother.
"That's it—yes. They're going to make those dinguses the Indians use trailing after their horses—a pole fastened to either side of the animal, and the ends dragging on the ground. Between the poles they carry their duffle."
"Nonsense!" laughed Bud. "In the first place these aren't Indians, though they're as bad, I reckon. But they didn't come with those pole trailers; so why would they make 'em to go away with? All they own they can pack in their hats."
"I guess you're right," admitted Dick, after thinking it over. "But they're going to do something."
They were all watching the Mexicans now. The men with long poles—which they must have brought with them as none grew in the vicinity—now closely approached the edge of the creek. They could not be going to make a raft—the nature of the poles precluded that.
Then, as one after another of the sheep herders thrust the end of his pole into the water, wading out a short distance to do this, Bud uttered an exclamation.
"I have it!" the lad cried.
"You mean you're on to the game?" asked Dick.
"What is it?" cried the two brothers.
"They're feeling around to find the places where the quicksands are," announced Bud.
"You mean so they can jump in and get rid of themselves?" grimly asked Snake Purdee.
"I mean so they can tell where not to cross," said Bud, though this was unnecessary, since they all grasped his meaning when he spoke of the quicksands.
"I guess you're right, son," observed Old Billee, who had come back to the fort with the return of the cowboys. "They're looking for safe fords and I shouldn't wonder but what they'd find 'em."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," said a tall lank cowboy.
"What do you mean?" Billee wanted to know.
"Wa'al, they may find the places where it's safe to cross—I ain't sayin' but what they is sich places," went on "Lanky," as he was called, "I know this creek putty well, an' I've crossed it more'n once, swimmin' a hoss over an' sometimes drivin' cattle. But th' trouble is sometimes when you find a safe place it doesn't stay safe very long."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Bud, who thought it his duty to learn all he could about matters connected with his father's ranch.
"I reckon he means the quicksands shift—is that it, Lanky?" asked Billee Dobb.
"That's it—yep! A place that may be safe to cross to-night may be the most dangerous in the mornin', or even in less time."
"Oh, so the creek is going to favor us after all!" exclaimed Bud. "If it's as treacherous as that it will keep those Greasers on the far side."
"Not altogether," said Billee. "They may have just enough fool luck to strike a safe place and get over here."
"Well, if they come we'll be ready for 'em!" grimly said Nort, and the others nodded in accord with this sentiment.
Then, as there was nothing else to do for the present, they watched the actions of the Mexicans—actions that were not so strange and mysterious as they had been before Bud hit upon the right solution.
And that it was a correct guess no one could doubt who watched the sheep herders. With their long, thin poles they went up and down the bank of the stream, thrusting the ends into the mud, or whatever formed the bottom of Spur Creek. At times, as I have said, the Mexicans would wade out, perhaps until the water came as high as their middle, in order to thrust their poles farther out into the stream. But when a man thus waded another stood near with ready lariat.
"They're taking no chances on being caught as the horse was," said Nort.
"Right-o!" exclaimed his brother.
The sheep men, however, seemed to find so many places where there were quicksands—or indications of them—in the vicinity of the place just across from the fort—that they soon moved more than a mile down stream. That is, some of them did. Others moved up, the party separating and leaving a few men guarding the sheep.
"As if we'd cross and try to catch any of the woollies!" laughed Bud, motioning to those on guard.
It was late in the afternoon when the survey or test of the creek seemed to be completed. The two parties with their poles came back to what might be called the "camp," and a consultation seemed to be taking place.
In the still, quiet atmosphere the excited voices carried across the creek, though what was said could not be made out.
"They seem to be having a dispute," observed Nort.
And this was evident. One bunch of the Greasers evidently held to one opinion, and a minority disagreed. However, in the end the majority ruled and then, to the surprise of our friends, the Greasers broke camp, leaped to their saddles, and started driving their flocks back toward the south, whence they had come.
For a few moments our friends, watching this move, did not know how to interpret it. But as it dawned on them that the sheep men were "pulling up stakes," and departing, Billee cried:
"We've got the best of 'em, boys! Or, rather, the quicksands worked for us. They've gone back where they came from."
"And I hope they stay," sang out Yellin' Kid.
This was the hope of all, and it seemed likely to be carried out. As night settled down, the mass of sheep and their herders grew more and more indistinct as greater distance was put between them and those holding the fort.
"Well, we'll wait a day or so to see if they don't come back," said Billee, "and then we'll mosey to Diamond X. There's a pile of work waitin' for us there."
"And we'd like to get back to Happy Valley," observed Bud.
"That's right," agreed Nort and Dick.
For the first time since the alarm about the sheep men rest was easier in the fort that night. The danger appeared to be disappearing. The treacherous nature of Spur Creek, with its shifting bottom of quicksands—that might be here one day and a mile farther off the next—had served our friends a good turn.
At least it seemed so, until the next morning. Then, as Billee Dobb arose early and, as was his custom, went out for a before-breakfast survey, he uttered a cry.
"What's the matter?" asked Bud, coming to the door of the fort.
"We crowed too soon, that's what's the matter," answered Billee. "We crowed too soon!"
Bud did not need an interpreter to understand what the old cow puncher meant. If he had been at all doubtful, a glance toward where Billee pointed would have solved the mystery.
For, some miles down the creek was a cloud of dust, and, not only a cloud of dust, but that which caused the haze—the sheep and their herders.
"They've come back!" cried Bud. "And just where we didn't expect 'em."
"'Twould have been mighty poor policy on their part to come back where we did expect 'em," dryly observed Billee. "It was their game to fool us, and they did it."
"Then it was all a trick!" cried Bud.
"Reckon it was," agreed Billee with a grin, as Nort, Dick and the others strolled out in readiness for breakfast.
"That poling of the river was all a bluff," said Nort.
"Oh, not exactly," declared Billee. "They used the poles to try to find a place free from quicksands. Not findin' it opposite our fort, they decided to try farther down. Then some smart Aleck among 'em—an' we got to give 'em credit for it—thought of makin' it look as though they were givin' up—retreatin', so to speak.
"That's the way it looked to us, and we crowed too soon, jest as I said a minute ago. They kept on goin', circled around an' now there they are, ready to cross Spur Creek farther away."
"But we can stop 'em there, same as we could here," said Dick.
"Yes, but we got to move our base of supplies an' that takes time," said Billee. "An' while we're doin' that they may make a crossin'—that is, if they can avoid the quicksands. They may even find a ford down there, so the sheep can walk over without havin' to swim." In his excitement Billee dropped most of his final g's, and clipped his other words.
"There is a ford there," declared Lanky, the tall, thin cowboy.
"Any quicksands?" Nort wanted to know.
"That I can't say. The sands shift so you can't tell where they are."
"Well, there's only one thing to do," declared Bud. "Some of us have got to go down there and stop 'em from crossing. This is the first skirmish of the fight."
"We'll come with you," offered Nort and Dick.
"Hold on a minute—don't be rash," counseled Old Billee. "It'll take more'n you three lads to stop them Greasers and the sheep."
"Well, we're under your orders," Bud admitted, saluting the veteran.
"Well then, you three go," advised Billee, "and Snake and Kid will go with you. We'll bring some grub down to you."
For it might be too late to wait until after breakfast, simple as that meal was, and as quickly served as it could be. There was no time to be lost. Bud and his boy-rancher cousins realized this.
Soon they were in their saddles, riding down the creek toward where the sheep had been herded together on the southern side of the stream. There were the same bunch of Greasers—the boys easily picked out and recognized certain characters, even across the creek, which was wider here and more shallow.
If Bud and the others expected to engage in a sharp fight as soon as they reached the scene, they were disappointed. True, the sheep herders became aware of their arrival, and there was some talk, and not a little excitement, among the Greasers. But there were no hostile acts, and no attempt was made to drive over any sheep.
"I wonder if there is a ford here?" said Yellin' Kid.
"I reckon there is," said Snake Purdee. "You can see where it has been used," and he pointed to marks on their bank of the stream.
"They either know about this place, or they've made some tests and are satisfied that it's safe," declared Bud.
"But if what Lanky says is true, though it may have been safe early this morning, it might not be safe now," said Dick.
"That's true, but I think they'll take a chance," Bud declared. "There isn't fodder enough on that side to last the sheep very long."
This was perfectly true, and it was evident that the herders would endeavor to get their woolly charges on the other side of the stream as soon as possible, to take advantage of the rich grazing on the open range, newly made available to all comers.
"But I thought when the government opened new land it could only be taken by citizens, or those about to become citizens," questioned Dick, when, as they watched the sheep herders, they talked over the situation.
"That is the law," said Bud. "But down here you'll find the law doesn't amount to much when a man wants a thing. He generally goes and gets it, and thinks about the law afterward. That's why Dad has to do what he is doing. If the law was as tight here as it is in the east, he could get out an injunction, or something, against these herders, and stand them off until he could find his papers proving his claim."
"Think he'll ever find 'em?" asked Nort.
Bud shook his head.
"It's hard telling," he answered.
Meanwhile there appeared to be "nothing doing" among the sheep herders. They had gathered their flocks together and were making a rough camp, as if they intended to stay for some time.
Then, about an hour later, Billee arrived with a couple of his cowboys, bringing food for Bud and his comrades—food that was greatly appreciated, for it was a long time since supper the night before.
The boy ranchers ate and waited. Still there was no action on the part of the Greasers. They appeared content to wait for something to "turn up," as Mr. Micawber would say.
"What are we going to do when they start to cross?" asked Nort.
"That's so—we'd better make a plan," added Dick.
"Shall we fire at the men, their horses or the sheep?" Bud wanted to know.
"Fire at everything and everybody!" decided Snake vindictively. "We've got to break up the first rush."
"And yet it seems too bad to kill innocent animals," went on Bud. "Do you know, I have an idea!" he cried.
"No? Really?" asked Dick with a playful attempt at sarcasm.
"Sure I have," Bud went on. "What we want to do is to drive them back, isn't if?"
"That's it," said Billee. "We not only want to drive 'em back, but we want to discourage 'em from coming over again."
"Then I think I know what will do the trick!" went on Bud. "It won't be powder and bullets, either," he added. "We won't have to kill anything or anybody."
"How you going to do it?" asked Snake, a bit skeptical.
"I'll show you," said Bud. "Wait until I make one."
His companions wondered what his scheme might be. The older cowboys were great believers in the efficacy of the .45, and they had their guns ready.
But Bud busied himself with some things he took from a bundle he carried on his saddle. Dick and Nort saw their cousin had some strong rubber bands, bits of cord, squares of leather and a Y-shaped branch he cut from a cottonwood tree.
"Say, are you making a sling shot?" asked Dick.
"That's just what I'm making," answered Bud. "If we each have a slingshot, and a supply of stones, I think we can turn the Greasers and their horses, as well as the sheep back without killing any of 'em!"
For a moment they regarded Bud in silence. Then Nort cried:
"I believe it'll work!"
And as Bud finished his sling shot and sent a stone zipping into the creek with a vicious "ping!" Billee cried:
"That's the best trick yet. I think it'll work! I hated to shoot to kill, but I didn't see any way out of it. Now we can sting 'em enough with stones to turn 'em, especially as they'll be in the water. Bud, I think it'll work."
"I don't want to throw a monkey wrench in the gears," said Snake softly, "but it 'pears to me that while we're shootin' harmless stones they'll be firin' real bullets. An' where will we be then?"
"We don't run any more risks than if we were firing bullets, too," said Bud. "And I think with them having to guide their horses in the water, look out for quicksands and drive the frightened sheep over, we can demoralize 'em with these slingshots."
"Sure you can!" cried Billee Dobb. "Come on," he ordered. "Every man make a slinger. It's like the old Bible story of David and Goliath. But how'd you happen to have those rubber bands, Bud?"
"Oh, I got 'em to make a model airship," the boy confessed, "but I didn't find time. I've been lugging 'em around this last week. Now they'll come in handy."
In a short time each cowboy had made himself a slingshot, of the style you boys have, doubtless, often constructed. With strong rubber bands they send a stone with great force.
The slingshots were no sooner made, and a supply of ammunition secured from the edge of the creek, than an unusual movement was observed among the sheep herders. Some of them separated from the main body, and began driving a flock of the lambs, rams and ewes toward the creek.
"Ready for the first skirmish!" cried Old Billee.
"Let her come!" sang out Yellin' Kid.
Nearer to the edge of Spur Creek approached the sheep herders. The animals bleated and tried to turn back, but the dogs barked at them and snapping whips whirled viciously over their backs. Then, too, they were urged on with horses at their heels.
"They're coming right over," said Dick to his brother and cousin, the three boy ranchers being close together.
"And not one of 'em has a gun out," added Bud. "I reckon they are making this a sort of test so they can claim we fired on 'em first if it comes up in a law court. Well, we aren't exactly firing at 'em," he chuckled. "We're just stoning 'em."
"And we'd better begin to stone!" cried Nort.
He drew back the strong rubber bands of his sling. In the leather piece was a round pebble. Nort took aim at one of the approaching Mexicans.
The skirmishing was about to begin.
"Zip!" a stone from Nort's sling cut the air with a vicious ping, and not only that, but it caught one of the Greasers on the side of his head. He uttered a cry, dropped his reins and clapped a hand to the smarting place.
Another instant and he had lost control of his horse, which first swam down stream and then turned to go back to the shore he had left. One reason for this was that Nort had let fly a stone that took the horse on the flank. And Nort was careful not to shoot as hard at the horse as he had at the rider. In fact the horse was not hurt at all—merely frightened, for the stone was like a fly-bite.
But it was enough.
Meanwhile the other defenders of Spur Creek had been using their slings to advantage, first stinging the Greaser riders with vicious stones and then, more lightly, tapping the horses to demoralize them rather than to hurt them.
This sort of warfare proved most effective, for by turning the horses and sending them back, in spite of all the efforts of their riders, the forces of the sheep herders were thrown into confusion.
And this, really, was the object of Bud and his companions. They did not want to kill so much as a single sheep. All they desired was to keep inviolate the land rightfully owned by Mr. Merkel. And he felt that he still owned it, in spite of the action of the United States Congress, and even though his papers had been stolen.
In this initial skirmish, which soon developed into a fight, the advantage, at first, was all on the side of the Diamond X force as the Greasers did not fight back. Some of them carried guns, but did not draw them.
It might be reasoned that they wanted to go into court with "clean hands," as the legal term is. That is, they could claim they were fired upon when attempting to make a peaceable crossing of the creek in order to pasture their sheep on the new government open range land. One part of their contention might be true, but the one implying that Mr. Merkel's land could be taken by any chance comer, was not true.
At any rate, first along, the Mexicans did not fire back. Meanwhile Bud and his comrades were fairly peppering the Greasers with stones from the rubber slings. No one was badly hurt—indeed, bruised faces and hands were about the only injuries, but if you have ever faced a fusilade from a battery of putty blowers or bean shooters you know how disconcerting it is.
Then, too, the horses proved allies of our friends. For the light "peppering" the animals received from the slings made the animals nervous and disinclined to face the shower of stones.
Some few sheep were driven into the stream, and it was evident that, for the present at least, this was a good crossing—shallow enough and with no quicksands. But once the sheep began to hear and see the stones "zipping" in the water around them, some of the woollies feeling the pebbles—though only slightly—a new problem was presented to the Mexicans. Their sheep, like the horses, turned about and made for the southern shore.
So that, in less than five minutes after the attempt to make the crossing was started, it had failed, and the hostile forces withdrew.
"Guess we made it too hot for them," chuckled Bud.
"For a while, yes," agreed Nort. "But it isn't over yet."
"No," added his brother. "If they give up now I miss my guess. They'll try again."
And so the Greasers did.
Withdrawing to a safe distance from the slings—which could only just about carry across Spur Creek, a conference was held among the sheep herders. Then they came on again, trying in the same place.
But Bud and his friends were ready, with an unlimited supply of ammunition. Stones were plentiful along the creek, and each cowboy had his pockets full.
One advantage of the sling shots was that they could be "loaded and fired" much more rapidly than the guns—by which I mean the .45 revolvers. And of course on humanitarian grounds there was no comparison—no one was killed or even severely wounded by the stones. They were only painfully hurt.
But this was part of the game. It was open warfare and had to be endured. Besides, from the standpoint of Bud and his comrades, they were in the right and the sheep herders were in the wrong.
I have no doubt but that the herders of the sheep reasoned just the other way—holding that they had a right to cross the creek and pasture their charges on the rich grass beyond, and arguing that the Diamond X outfit was in the wrong.