"It's enough to worry anyone," Dick agreed. "Maybe the water will come back, Bud."
"I hope it does," added Nort.
"We'll take a stroll through that tunnel—it's the only way to find out what's wrong," decided Bud. "Talk about black rabbits! I begin to think Old Billee was more right than wrong!"
"But your bad luck, so far, isn't as bad as your father's in losing cattle from disease," remarked Nort.
"No, and I hope that the epidemic doesn't break out here at Diamond X Second," went on Bud. "If it starts, and we don't get the water back, we may as well give up!"
He was plainly discouraged, and no wonder. He was young, and it was his first experience as a rancher "on his own." Nort and Dick, too, were a little down-hearted.
"But maybe things will look better to-morrow," suggested Nort, as they turned in for the night, having discovered nothing alarming in the direction where Pocut Pete had shot.
"Maybe," half-heartedly assented Bud.
But there was no water coming through the reservoir end of the tunnel pipe when the sun shone again, and, after breakfast, the boy ranchers prepared to explore the dark cave-like opening which extended under the mountain.
"I hope we can turn it on," said Bud, and he looked at the concrete basin of water, trying to calculate how much longer it would last if the supply were not replenished. Already it was lower than it had been the night before, for the cattle had drunk freely during the darkness.
Lanterns were gotten ready, a supply of grub packed, weapons were looked to (for who knew what beast might not lurk in the tunnel?) and at last the boy ranchers were ready to start.
"Good luck!" wished Yellin' Kid as the little party started for the mouth of the tunnel.
"Thanks," chorused Nort, Dick and Bud.
Then they entered the black opening.
If you will imagine a hillside, with a hole, or tunnel, about ten feet high and as broad, but of irregular shape, opening into it, and on the bottom, or floor, a two-foot iron pipe out of which, at normal times, ran a stream of water, you will have a good idea of the place into which our young heroes were to enter.
The tunnel extended all the way through Snake Mountain, curving this way and that, as a brook curves its way through a meadow. In fact the tunnel had been made, centuries ago, by a stream forcing its way through the soft parts of the mountain, and it was this old, hidden, underground stream-way of which Mr. Merkel had taken advantage to bring water to Flume Valley.
The stream flowed along the bottom of the tunnel course, leaving room on either side for persons to walk, as they might walk along the banks of a stream in the open. The underground river was not more than four feet wide, and about the same in average depth, but in places it flowed with a very powerful current.
"Whew! It's black as tar here!" exclaimed Dick, as they walked in past the pipe, and found themselves in the tunnel proper.
"As bad as the Hole of Calcutta," added Nort, who had read that grim story of the Sepoy rebellion in India.
"Do you want to back out?" asked Bud, swinging his lantern so that it cast flickering shadows on the place where water had flowed, but where there was none now.
"Back out!" cried Nort. "I should say not! Lead on, Macduff!"
And they started off in the blackness of the tunnel, with only the faint gleams of the lanterns to illuminate their way. What would they find?
THE RUSH OF WATERS
Echoes of the footsteps of the boy ranchers sounded and resounded as they tramped along the now dry water-course of what had, only a day before, been a life-giving stream of water. The rocky and roughly-vaulted roof overhead gave back the noises like the soundbox of a phonograph, and the lads had to speak loudly, in places, to make their voices carry above the echoes. These places were spots where the vaulted roof of the tunnel was higher than usual.
They had walked on, the semi-circular spot of light at the entrance near the black pipe growing more and more faint, until it was not at all visible.
"There she goes!" exclaimed Dick, looking back.
"What?" asked his brother.
"The last gleam of daylight," was the answer. "If anything happens to our lanterns, so that they go out, and we get mixed up in some branch passages—good night! That's all I have to say!" and Dick was very emphatic in this.
"By Zip Foster!" exclaimed Bud, using that expression for the first time in several days. "You're a cheerful chap to have along on a picnic like this, Dick! Not!"
"Well, might as well prepare for the worst and hope for the best," laughed Dick, while Nort inquired:
"Why don't you tell us more about Zip Foster?"
"Oh—you—say, did you hear anything then?" asked Bud, and his voice had in it such a note of anxiety that his companions did not, at the time, imagine he might have been putting them off from a much-wanted and often-delayed explanation of this mysterious Zip Foster personage.
"Hear what!" asked Dick.
"Something like water running," replied Bud. "I have a notion that our stream—I call it ours for it doesn't seem to belong to anyone else—our stream may just trickle off, now and then, into some other underground course."
"Maybe it does," agreed Dick. "But I don't hear any water running."
"Nor I," added his brother.
"Maybe I was mistaken," Bud admitted. "But I sure would like to come across that missing water of mine!"
He little realized, nor did the others, what fruit his wish was to bear, and that very shortly.
"I guess what you heard was the echoes," spoke Dick. "I never heard so many queer noises."
"It's like the cave of the winds," murmured Nort. "But it's a great adventure all the same, Bud! I mean it would be great if we didn't have to worry about the water not coming back," he made haste to add, for he realized what it would mean to their new ranch in Flume Valley if no drink could be had for the cattle.
"It beats the finding of the Triceratops all to slathers!" exclaimed Dick, "and that was no slouch of a happening, either."
"Yes, no telling what's ahead of us," spoke Bud, as he walked along, unsteadily enough for the way was rough and filled with stones. And, as the boys tramped along in the tunnel, part of the time in the very bed of the stream that had gone dry, their lanterns cast fantastic shadows on the rocky walls. I have said that the stream was dry, but this was not strictly true, for in places, where the uneven bed formed depressions, there were pools of water. And, in some places, there were even little rills trickling along. But they never would reach the iron pipe that discharged into the reservoir.
On and on tramped the boys, pausing, now and then, to hold up their lanterns and inspect the rocky walls of the underground tunnel which echoed so strangely to their footsteps, and through which swept strange, cold and clammy winds.
"Well, I reckon we'll have to go all the way to the end before we discover anything, if we do find it," said Bud, when they had walked on for over an hour. Their pace was slow because of the uneven footing.
"And when we get to the other end and find the water running into the pipe at the dam in Pocut River, what then?" asked Nort.
"We'll hardly find that, I think," said Bud. "Or, I mean, we won't have to go all the way to the other end if the water is found running there."
"Why not?" asked Dick.
"Because, if the water's running in from the dam end of the pipe, we'll meet the stream before we get all the way through the tunnel," Bud explained. "I meant to call up on the telephone and find out if everything was all right at the river end before we started out, but I forgot. My theory is that the stream gets into this tunnel from the river all right, but is shunted off before it reaches us," he added.
"How shunted?" Dick wanted to know.
"That's what I can't tell," spoke Bud. "But why try to puzzle this out until we get something better to work on? I'm hungry! What do you say that we eat?"
"Suits me," agreed Nort.
"I'm not going to vote in the negative," asserted Dick.
They judged that they were about a quarter way through the mysterious tunnel now, and, setting down the lanterns on the rocky floor, the boy ranchers took out the food they had brought with them. It would be risky to kindle a fire in that enclosed place, Bud decided, as the smoke might choke them, though so far they had found an abundance of fresh air, a current blowing part of the time in their faces, and part of the time in the opposite direction. This proved that there was a good draft in the elongated cave, but it was voted best not to take any chances, though there was plenty of dried driftwood on the tunnel floor, and this could have been used for a blaze.
But the boys sat about in the gleam of their lanterns, and, while they ate the sandwiches they had brought, they talked of the strange happenings that had led up to this venture in which they were now joined.
Suddenly Bud, who had just taken up a piece of fruit cake, part of a chunk that his pretty sister Nell had sent over from the main ranch house a day or so before, stopped chewing in order to listen better; for, as you doubtless know, the action of the jaws precludes keen attention to outside sounds.
"What's the matter?" asked Dick, noting his cousin's act.
"I heard something," Bud answered.
"I'm hearing things all the while!" declared Dick. "This is the most weird place for mysterious noises I ever struck!"
"But this is different," insisted Bud. "Listen!"
Nort and Dick stopped chewing and strained their ears to catch the sound that had attracted Bud's attention. A strange, rushing, whispering echo seemed to fill the tunnel.
"Doesn't that sound like rushing water?" asked Bud.
"Yes," agreed Dick, after a moment of intentness; "it does."
"Look out!" quickly yelled Nort. "It is water, and on the rush, too! Jump for your lives! It's a flood!" and making a grab for one of the lanterns, that they might not be left in total blackness, he sprang toward the rocky side of the tunnel, an example followed by his companions.
And the rush of waters filled the underground cave with a mighty, roaring sound.
THE RISING FLOOD
Stumbling, slipping, sliding, half-falling, bruising themselves on the sharp rocks, but ever leaping forward toward the sides of the tunnel, and away from the depressed centre down which they could see the rush of waters coming, the boy ranchers at last managed to reach the granite wall. Nort had succeeded in grabbing up one of the lanterns, but there was no time for Dick or Bud to take one, and the food had to be abandoned.
"Climb up! Climb up, if there's a ledge!" shouted Bud. "We'll be drowned if we can't get above the water!"
He had, somehow or other, brought up in the rear. Though he did not admit it, this was because he had shoved his cousins ahead of him, hoping thus to enable them to gain a safe place.
And as Nort and Dick glanced back they saw, in the gleam of the one lantern left alight, a white mass of water bearing down on them, and, seemingly, filling the tunnel from wall to wall, as it rushed foaming and murmuring onward.
It was as though a dam had suddenly burst, or some obstruction had been removed, allowing the pent-up waters to rush along the accustomed channel. And if you have ever noticed a dammed-up stream, say in some gutter, thus quickly released, you can imagine what happened on a larger scale in the tunnel where the boys were.
The water, normally, flowed only in the four-foot channel. But now it spread out on either side, and, of course, was much deeper in the centre. But as the tunnel sloped from either wall, in a sort of V shape to the centre channel, naturally the parts nearest the side walls were less covered by water than the others.
It was because of this that Bud, Nort and Dick were enabled to maintain a footing, though they were knee-deep in water in an instant, and the one remaining lantern had to be held up to prevent it from being engulfed and extinguished in the sudden flood.
"Climb up! Climb up!" shouted Bud. "Isn't there some place—some rocky ledge—where you can find a footing? The water's getting deeper!"
And this was true. Either the flood was growing at its source (a place as yet unknown to the boys) or it was running too rapidly, and in too great a volume, to accommodate itself to the tunnel channel, and was thus piling up in the vicinity of the boys.
"What happened? What caused it?" cried Nort.
"Never mind that—now!" shouted Bud. "Find the highest place you can, and stick!"
"Suppose the whole tunnel fills?" asked Dick, trying to pierce the semi-gloom, and look for a refuge on the rocky wall.
"If it does we'll have to swim for it," grimly said Bud. "But isn't there some place where you can climb up?"
"This looks like a ledge," Dick answered, as he caught sight of a darker shadow on the rocky wall of the tunnel, above his head, when his brother swung the lantern.
"Just what we need!" exclaimed Bud, as he waded through the ever-deepening water to the side of his cousins. "Up with you! Here, Nort, I'll hold the lantern until you make it!"
Thus, again, Bud was seeing that his cousins reached a place of comparative safety before he looked to himself. For they found the ledge, once they had scrambled up to it, well above the water, and wide enough to give shelter and a safe perch for all three.
"Whew! That was touch and go!" murmured Bud, as he leaned back, half exhausted, against the rocky wall at the rear of the ledge.
"I should say so!" gasped Dick. "It all happened so suddenly that I don't know yet what it was all about."
"The stream suddenly started flowing again," spoke Bud. "That's all there was to it. Must have been dammed up some place, and suddenly released. It's still rising, too," he added, as he leaned forward and held the lantern down over the ledge where he and his cousins had taken refuge.
"Rising?" sharply inquired Nort, and there was a tone of anxiety in his voice.
"Yes," remarked Bud, as he swung the lantern to and fro. "We didn't get up here any too soon, fellows! Look, the water would be up to our waists down there now, in the most shallow place, and it's got speed like one of Christy Mathewson's curves!"
His cousins could see that he had not exaggerated the matter. The waters were rising. Inch by inch, and foot by foot, the flood was approaching the crest. Where the boy ranchers had sat in the almost dry bed of the stream, to eat their lunch, there was now a mad race of swirling waters. Where they had stood, before climbing up to the ledge of safety, there was now three feet depth of water. And, as Bud had said, it was flowing along so swiftly, like the stream which turns a mill-wheel, that the boys could hardly have been able to keep their feet had they been down in the current, or even on the weakest edge of it.
But, as they were, they were safe for the time being. How long that would be the case none could tell. They could see, in the gleam of the one lantern saved in the mad rush, that the stream was coursing along as it had never coursed before.
"There must be a powerful lot of water coming out of the reservoir pipe," Nort remarked.
"Biggest ever, with all this water behind forcing it out," agreed Bud. "I hope the pipe holds."
"It isn't as if the pipe were the only outlet," said Dick. "You know the water can flow out of the tunnel above, and on either side of the conduit."
"Yes," agreed Bud, "and dad had it put in that way on purpose, so if ever a big flood did come, the tunnel could relieve itself without ripping away the pipe and reservoir. There's a sort of spillway at one side of the reservoir, you know."
The boys from the east had noticed this. Up to now no water had run off through this auxiliary channel, but it was there for emergencies such as now had occurred. And the water could find a vent and outlet down the middle of Flume Valley, as, indeed, the surplus from the reservoir itself did, when there was any.
"Well, it sure is queer, and we had a mighty narrow escape," remarked Nort, as Bud leaned back again with the lantern. "But the fellows back at the camp will be scared."
"I reckon they will," admitted Bud. "They'll see the water spouting out, in a greater volume than ever before, and they'll imagine all sorts of things have happened to us."
"Well, nothing has happened yet—except we've lost two perfectly good lanterns, and what grub we didn't eat," asserted Nort.
"But something else may happen," said Bud in a low voice, as, once more, he leaned forward, and again held the lantern over the edge of the rocky ledge.
"What?" Dick wanted to know.
"Look," was what Bud replied. And his cousins, glancing down, saw that the waters were rising, rising, rising!
When would they stop?
WHERE DID IT GO?
Pressing back toward the rocky ledge, against which they leaned, gazing with fearsome eyes at the rising waters, on which the lantern-light shone fitfully, and almost holding their breaths at times, so great was the strain, the boy ranchers waited—for what they scarcely knew. And yet they did, in a measure.
For they waited to see if the waters would stop rising, a happening, as they well knew, which, alone, could save their lives.
As one of them had remarked, they might have to swim for it. But, looking at the foaming current, dashing along over jagged rocks on which the boys had more than once stumbled, they knew what a risk that effort to escape would bring.
And should the water fill the whole tunnel they would have no earthly chance!
For only a fish can exist in a hose or pipe completely filled with water, and that is what the tunnel would become if the water rose to the roof—merely a great, underground rocky pipe for the conveying of the liquid from Pocut River.
So you can easily imagine with what anxiety Bud, Nort and Dick watched the rising water. Every now and again one of them would lean over the ledge, swinging the lantern to and fro, so its gleams would be reflected in the hurrying, foaming stream, and indicate how fast it was rising.
At first the rate of rise had been rapid. But as the boys, again and again, made observations in the semi-gloom Bud, at length, uttered a joyful cry.
"Look!" he shouted, pointing with trembling finger at the foamy flood close, now, to the top of the ledge. "Look!"
"What—a big fish?" asked Dick.
"Fish nothing!" retorted his cousin. "But the water is going down! Look, it isn't as high as it was. I can see a wet mark where it came up to, and it's two inches below that now! The flood is going down!"
"Are you sure?" asked Nort, eagerly.
"Look for yourselves!" invited Bud, handing over the lantern.
Nort's observation was confirmatory of his cousin's.
"She is going down!" remarked Nort. "And just in time, too!"
How truly he spoke was evidenced by that fact that another inch of rise would have sent the flood over the ledge on which the boys rested!
So narrow had been their escape!
"If she only doesn't begin to rise again, after she starts going down—as you say she is—we'll be all right," said Dick. "But if she comes up——"
He did not finish what he started to say, but his companions knew what he meant, and they looked each other in the face with grave apprehensions.
"The question is now," went on Bud, as he again took an observation and noted that the flood was still on the descent, "how long we shall have to stay here."
"If it's too long we'll be wanting some of that grub which was washed away," asserted Diet. "In fact I dropped a sandwich half eaten."
"Same here," remarked his brother. "But let's hope that it will go down as suddenly as it came up."
That was all they could do—hope; but it bore fruits, for in about an hour, as they ascertained by glances at their watches, the flood was almost down to the normal channel of the underground stream.
"And if it will only stay there we can venture to keep on to the other end of the tunnel," spoke Bud.
"Will you do that?" Dick wanted to know.
"Why not?" asked Bud. "We want to see what happened, and where this water goes to when it disappears so suddenly; don't we?"
"Yes," agreed Dick. "But I thought, after our escape, that we had better head back for camp."
"It's about six of one and half a dozen of the other," asserted Bud. "We're almost half way through the tunnel, now, and we might as well keep on. I'd like to solve this mystery, and we can't if we call it off now."
"That's right," assented Nort. "We don't run any more danger going on to the river end of the tunnel than we would in going back to the camp end. That is unless we discover a big cavern, or hole through to China, in the other end of the tunnel. Even then we might be able to skirt around it."
"Let's go on!" suggested Bud, as he prepared to climb down off the ledge. "This thing has my goat!"
"Speaking of goats is most appropriate on a cattle ranch," laughed Nort, and the spirits of all the lads were lighter now. "But let's keep on to the end for which we started!"
This was agreed to and, after waiting a little while to make sure that the waters were not again going to rise, away started the boy ranchers. They were traveling lighter now, for they only had one lantern, and no food to carry.
The remainder of the tunnel was as the first part had been—a great, uneven tube through the mountain, twisting and turning here and there, sometimes the roof being so high that it did not show in the swinging lantern-light, and again being low enough, almost, for the boys to touch.
On all sides was evidence that the flood had been here, as it had been at the place where the boys took refuge. Now and then they came to deep pools, which they had to skirt, and, in one case, leap over.
Suddenly, as they were walking along, the lantern which Bud was carrying went out, leaving them in pitch blackness!
"Hello! What's the idea?" asked Nort.
"Did you do it on purpose?" asked Dick.
"Why, no, of course not!" asserted Bud. "The oil must be gone, though I filled it before we started, and it ought to have burned longer than this."
"Whew! This is tough!" bemoaned Nort. "Left in the dark!"
"Not altogether!" exclaimed Bud. "I brought some candles!"
"Great!" voiced Nort. "Light up!"
Which Bud did, placing a short length of candle inside the lantern, by fastening it, with some grease that hardened, on top of the oil reservoir of the wick.
"But I can't understand what happened to the lantern," went on Bud, making an examination by means of a second candle, from the store he had, luckily, placed in his pocket. "Oh, yes, I can!" he went on.
"What?" asked Dick.
"One of the soldered seams of the lantern oil tank started, and the oil has leaked out. Guess one of us must have banged it against a stone when we made the rush. But we'll be all right. A candle in the lantern is nearly as good as the regular wick."
It was not quite so good, but the boys made the best of it as they tramped on through the tunnel, hoping to reach the river end without another flood, or any mishap.
"The water seems to be behaving very nicely," observed Nort, as they all saw that the stream was well within its rocky channel.
"But what gets me," said Bud, "is where it goes to—when it goes. I mean where does it disappear to? We haven't come to a single branch tunnel, or any other passage that could drain off the river water."
"That's right," agreed his cousins.
"But maybe we'll find it further on," suggested Nort.
"We'll soon know, for we must be close to the other end now," observed Bud. "Our candles are holding out well."
They had come several miles, as they knew by the time consumed. The way through the tunnel had been uphill all the way, as it must needs be to allow the water to run down to the reservoir in Flume Valley. But, so far, they had seen nothing to indicate any side channel for the stream—any place that might drain off the water, and return it in such a sudden volume as to cause a flood.
"I can't understand it," Bud remarked as he swung the lantern to and fro. "It sure is a puzzle. Where does the water disappear?"
His cousins could offer no solution. All the way along they had carefully scanned the underground stream, but there appeared no break in its uneven, rocky bank in the middle of the tunnel.
"Well, let's keep on," suggested Nort. "We aren't at the end yet, and it may be close to the intake—I mean the mysterious influence—that shuts off our water supply and turns it on again, may be there. Forward, march!" he cried gaily.
Together they started off, having come to a momentary halt to inspect a place wider and deeper than usual, when Bud suddenly came to a stop and exclaimed:
"Some one is coming!"
A NIGHT ATTACK
Instantly the boy ranchers came to a halt, standing there in the tunnel, beside the running water. They had nearly reached the other end of the flume, and could dimly see, ahead of them, a faint glow, which told of daylight to come. Bud, who was carrying the lantern, made shift to hide it behind the bodies of himself and his cousins, so that the unknown, approaching, might not have them at a disadvantage, he being in the dark.
"Who you reckon it is?" asked Nort. He and his brother were rapidly falling into the custom of using the picturesque if not always elegant talk of the west. Nort spoke in a whisper, and Bud answered in the same tone.
"Can't imagine who it may be," spoke the western lad, "but if it's Hank, Del Pinzo, or any of their gang——"
He did not finish, but a slight movement told that he was freeing his .45 in its holster, an example quickly followed by Nort and Dick.
Meanwhile the steps continued to approach, echoing loudly in the vaulted tunnel, as if the maker of them had no design to conceal his movements. In another few seconds the boys saw, looming in front of them, as displayed by the gleam of their half-hidden lantern, a bulky figure. At the same moment the figure seemed to become aware of the presence in the tunnel of others besides himself.
"Who's there?" came in sharp challenge.
And what a relief it was to the boy ranchers when they heard that voice.
"Slim!" cried Bud. "Slim Degnan!"
"That you, Bud?" called the foreman of Diamond X ranch, as he recognized the voice of his employer's son, while Bud, in turn, sensed whom the looming figure was.
"Sure!" Bud joyously answered. "And Nort and Dick are here! Say, what's the matter with our water? Is there a stoppage at the dam?"
"Nary a stop, but your dad got a telephone from your side-partners at the valley camp, saying you'd started through the tunnel to see what caused the shut-off. I happened to be over near Square M, seeing if I could get on the track of that cattle epidemic, and they relayed your dad's message on to me. So I hit the trail for here."
"What was dad's message?" Bud wanted to know.
"Why, he said you, and them tenderfeet—— No, I'll take that back!" Slim hastened to say as he recalled all that Nort and Dick had done. "Anyhow, he said they shouldn't have allowed you to come in the tunnel alone, and he asked some of the men, from this end, to go in and see if they could locate you."
"You found us," said Bud.
"Well," resumed Slim, "I just got here, heard the news and I started in. Some of the others are coming, but I guess we don't need to make any search. You're here!"
"And more by good luck than good management," asserted Dick.
"How's that?" asked Slim, as they all started for the opening at the river end of the tunnel, where daylight dimly showed.
"Why, when we started in at the other side the stream was dry," explained Bud. "There wasn't a drop coming through the pipe into the reservoir, and we left, early this morning, to see what the trouble was. When we got half way through the stream suddenly began flowing, and there was a regular flood. Only that we found a ledge to climb up on, we'd been drowned!"
"As bad as that!" gasped Slim.
"Every bit!" Dick asserted.
"But tell me," went on Bud, "did the water stop at the river end, Slim? Was there any stoppage at the dam or pipe?"
"Nary a stop, Bud," Slim answered. "They told me, when I started in, that the water had been flowing all night, as usual, and they didn't see why you claimed there was none at your end."
"By Zip Foster! But there's something mighty strange here!" cried the boy rancher.
"You intimated good and plenty that time!" declared Slim as he and the boys reached the river end of the tunnel, where the intake pipe took the water from the Pocut stream, delivering it to the tunnel.
"But here's a queer part of it," went on Dick, as they joined the other cowboys who were preparing to follow Slim in, and search for the Diamond X lads. "No such body of water, as so nearly overwhelmed us, ever came through this pipe," and he pointed to the one that tapped the dammed-up water of the river.
"That's right!" agreed Bud. "This thing gets worse and worse! We'll never get to the bottom of this mystery!"
"You're right!" declared one of the cowboys. "When you're dealing with them underground water-courses you never know what you're up against. The old Indians and Spaniards who lived here hundreds of years ago had their own troubles, and maybe they wished them same troubles on to you."
"What you mean?" asked Slim. "That's all bosh!"
"Bosh nothin'!" declared another. "You read history an' you'll get lots of cases where streams showed up, and then vanished under mountains, more than once."
"A heap sight you know about hist'ry!" laughed Slim in good-natured raillery.
"Well, this is sure queer, anyhow!" declared Bud. "Is there any history of the stream that waters our valley?" he asked the cowboy who had made the assertion.
"Not your particular one," was the answer, "but there's lots of just such cases mentioned—hidden water-courses and all that."
"Well, there's something wrong," agreed Bud, "and I believe there must be some place along the tunnel where our water shunts itself off at times, and turns itself on again. We were looking for just such a place."
"And you didn't find it?" asked Slim.
"Nary a find!" asserted Bud.
"But we aren't going to give up, just on that account!" said Nort.
"Bet you not!" added his brother. "We'll try it again, and take a canoe with us, so if the dry water-course suddenly turns wet, we can paddle along it."
"Well, it seems to be all right now," spoke Slim. "And you'd better 'phone your father that you're all right, Bud. He'll be anxious to hear."
And after Mr. Merkel had been assured, over the wire, of the safe transit of his son and nephews through the tunnel, the boys' camp was called up, to let Old Billee and the others know that no accident had happened.
"Gosh! I'm glad to hear that!" said the veteran cowboy over the wire. "When we see that there water come gushin' out, we thought sure you was goners, Bud!"
"Then the water is running again?" Bud asked.
"Absolutely!" declared Billee. "You comin' back here?"
"Sure! But over the mountain—not under it."
Bud and his boy rancher chums remained that night at the store settlement near the dam, getting beds in what passed for a hotel. It was too late to secure horses and ride over Snake Mountain trail back to Flume Valley.
While thus having a night of leisure, and seeing such sights as were to be viewed in the little town, Bud and his chums discussed the queer situation of the mysteriously disappearing and reappearing water. But, talk as they did, and venture opinions as they and their cowboy friends did, no one could hit on a solution.
"We'll just have to make another and more careful inspection," declared Nort.
"That's what!" agreed Bud.
They learned from Slim that the situation regarding the cattle epidemic at Square M ranch was not much better. All stock which had not been exposed to the infection had been removed, either to Diamond X, Triangle B or Flume Valley, and the infected steers remaining there were being treated by a veterinarian whom Mr. Merkel had engaged.
"But they're slowly dying off," Slim reported. "And I don't believe Square M ranch will ever be safe to use again."
"Why not?" asked Bud.
"Because there must be some infection in the grass there to have made so many of the cattle sicken and die."
"Maybe it was something else," suggested Nort.
"Well, maybe," assented the foreman. "It's about as mysterious as that underground river of yours. Had any more warnings, Bud?"
"No, I guess they're done with. And I believe it's a natural cause, and not due to any work of enemies, that accounts for the queer way our flume acts."
"Um!" spoke Slim musingly, and that was all he would say.
Borrowing horses from their friends, the boy ranchers next day made the trip over Snake Mountain and returned to camp, finding matters there in good shape. There was an abundance of water in the reservoir, and the pipe was flowing freely.
For more than a week nothing happened. The cattle at Flume Valley, including those of the boy ranchers, and the herd transferred from Square M to save it from the epidemic, were doing well, abundant grass and water being their portions.
There was no lack of hard work for the boys and their cowboy assistants, for it was not all easy sailing. Occasionally bunches of steers would stray, and have to be driven back by hard riding. There were night watches to be carried on, and another bunch of cattle was shipped away.
Bud, Dick and Nort hazed them over to the railroad, and on the trip a small-sized stampede gave them all they wanted to handle. But they were true sons of the west, and did not complain.
"Whew! That was hot, while it lasted!" exclaimed Bud, as he and cousins managed to get the stampeding animals quieted, after they had tried so hard to run off by themselves, in varying directions.
"Yes, a thing like that gives you an appetite," remarked Dick.
"As if you ever needed any stimulant!" laughed Nort. "I never saw the time yet when you had to be offered an inducement to sit up to grub!"
"You either!" retorted the stout lad. "But, speaking of grub, when do we eat, Bud?"
"Might as well make it right soon," was the answer. "Now that we have the steers quieted they'll be glad enough to take it easy. I planned to water 'em at the next stopping place, and that will give us a chance to see what Buck Tooth put up for us."
"Stay there all night; will we?" asked Nort.
"Might as well," assented his cousin. "No use running all the fat off our stock. We want 'em to weigh as heavy as possible."
This was good business tact on the part of the boy ranchers. For cattle are generally sold by weight, either "on the hoof," which means alive and as they stand in the stock yards, or by weight after being slaughtered. In the case of ranchers "on the hoof" is generally understood.
And driving a bunch of steers at too great a speed from the ranch to the railroad would make them thin, "running off their fat," so to speak, thus losing all the advantages of the rich fodder to which they had had access. And when it is considered that it is not at all difficult to cause a steer to lose from ten to fifteen pounds by means of poor driving, and when to this statement is added the fact that this loss is multiplied in hundreds of steers, Bud's state of mind can easily be imagined.
"Yes, we'll get 'em quieted down, and take it easy ourselves," suggested the Western lad. And, a little later when some of the steers broke into a run, Nort exclaimed:
"Are they stampeding again?"
"No. I reckon they just smell water," Bud answered.
This proved to be true, and this contagion spread all through the herd, though with no ill effects, for the water hole was not far off and, reaching it, the animals stopped to drink.
There was some confusion and excitement because so many thirsty cattle all wanted to drink at once, but it did not last long, and Bud, Nort and Dick were glad when they could slip from their saddles, tossing the reins over their ponies' heads as an intimation to the animals not to stray.
"Oh boy! But I'm tired!" exclaimed Nort, sighing.
"Add hungry to that and I'm with you," said his brother. For there had been days of long and difficult work in preparing this bunch of cattle for shipment.
"Getting tired of the game?" asked Bud, as he rustled up some sticks of greasewood to make a fire over which they might boil coffee and fry bacon.
"Not on your life!" laughed Nort. "We're in the game to stick!"
"Sure thing!" asserted Dick.
They made a simple but ample meal over the camp fire and then, as evening settled down over the vast prairies, and quiet enfolded them like some soft mantle, they lay on their blankets and gazed at the feeding cattle.
The steers were very quiet now, evidently feeling quite satisfied with the manner in which they had been treated, and having, of course, no intimation of the fate in store for them. They had food and water and that is all they required. Overhead was the cloudless sky, in which sparkling stars were beginning to stud themselves.
"I hope the market is well up in price when we get to the yards," observed Bud, idly chewing on a spear of grass.
"Yes, it would be dandy to get a big price for this stock," agreed Nort.
The boy ranchers were rapidly becoming interested in the business end of their venture, as they had been, for some time, in the more picturesque side. The difference of a fraction of a cent in the price of cattle on the hoof meant the difference of several hundred of dollars where there were many tons of meat to be considered.
"Well, we'd better ride herd a little while, to make sure they get bedded down quietly," suggested Bud, as it began to get darker. "Then we'll roll up and snooze ourselves."
This "bedding down" of the cattle, meaning thereby inducing them to get quiet enough so they would lie down contentedly chewing their cuds, was part of the routine of a cowboy's life.
"Some of 'em have already started in," observed Nort, as he went up to his pony, which, with the other two animals, had been contentedly grazing. "Looks like they'd lived here all their lives."
He indicated a score or more of the steer's that were stretched out on the rich grass which at once formed their food and their bed.
"Yes, I reckon we'll have a quiet night," observed Bud.
The three chums slowly rode around the bunch of cattle, the lads occasionally breaking into the chorus of some song.
The cattle seemed to like this singing—not that this is to be considered a compliment to the voices of Nort, Dick and Bud, though their tones were far from unmusical. But the fact is that animals of most sorts are fond of music in any form, and nothing so seems to soothe and quiet a bunch of cattle, especially at night, as the singing of the herders.
Perhaps it is due to this fact that we have so many cowboy songs with an interminable number of verses, in which there is little sense or sequence—a mere jumble of words, often repeated. The cattle seem to care more for the tune than for the sentiment.
At any rate the bunch from Flume Valley grew more quiet as the night became darker, and when the remains of their camp fire gleamed dully in the blackness, as they made their way back to it, Bud and his cousins considered their work done for the day.
"We won't stand any regular watch," Bud said. "I think they'll be all right. But if we should hear a disturbance—I mean any one of us—he can awaken the others, and we'll do whatever we have to."
"And if we have any luck we won't have to roll out," observed Nort, as he spread out his blankets and tarpaulin, which last was to keep the dampness of the ground away.
"Then I'm going to cross my fingers for luck," observed Dick.
Save for the occasional distant howl of a coyote, or the uneasy movement of an occasional steer, with, now and then, the clashing of the horns of some of the beasts, there was silence in the camp. Bud was the first to fall asleep, because he was more accustomed to this sort of life than were his cousins. But they were rapidly falling in with the ways of the west, which teaches a wayfarer to consider home wherever he hangs up his hat, and his bed any place he can throw his blanket and saddle.
But finally Nort and Dick dropped off into slumber, which became sounder as the hours of night passed. All three of the boy ranchers were tired and they were in the most healthful state imaginable, brought about by their life in the open.
"What hour it was Dick had no idea, but he was suddenly awakened by sensing some movement near him—too near for comfort considering his exposed sleeping position. For he felt something cold and clammy at the back of his neck, as though a chunk of ice, or a hand dipped in cold water, had touched him.
"Hi! Who's doing that?" yelled Dick, for he had a sudden dream that he was back at school, and some one was playing a trick on him. "Cut it out!"
No sooner had he spoken than he realized that he had awakened Nort and Bud, for by the flickering light of the embers of the fire he could see them sitting up and staring over at him.
"What's the matter?" demanded Bud.
"Something tickled the back of my neck," declared Dick. "I guess a coyote must have been picking up scraps of food, and smelled of me. Hope he didn't take me for a dead one!"
"Coyote!" exclaimed Bud. "I don't believe you could get one to come near you, not as long as you breathed. It must have been a——"
"Snake!" broke in Nort, without thinking of what the word might mean.
"Wow! Don't say that!" cried Dick, and he leaped up, scattering his blanket and tarpaulin each in a different direction.
"Shut up!" commanded Bud, laughing. "Do you want to start the cattle off again? If it was a snake it won't hurt you, and it was probably more scared than you, Dick."
"Yes—maybe!" said the other. He lighted a stick of greasewood at the fire, and looked about his part of the sleeping ground. But he found nothing in the animal line.
"Guess you dreamed it!" said Nort.
"I certainly did not!" emphatically declared his brother.
"Well, go to sleep again," advised Bud. "If you feel it a second time call me!"
"Huh! I'll do that all right!" declared Dick. He carefully shifted his sleeping place, making a searching examination of the ground before spreading out his tarpaulin. And he was some little time in dropping off to slumber again.
But there was no further disturbance in the night, and in the morning Bud looked for marks on the ground, declaring the visitor had been a prairie dog, which Dick declared his unbelief in, sticking to the snake theory as being more sensational.
After breakfast they started to drive the cattle again, reaching the railroad yards and successfully transacting the business of selling their stock.
It was the night that Bud and his cousins returned from having driven the steers to the railroad yard that something happened which again brought to the front all their worries and anxieties.
They were all seated about the camp fire, and Pocut Pete had just arisen, remarking that he would get ready for his turn at night-riding, when there was a sort of hissing in the air over the heads of those gathered about the blaze, and something hit the ground in the midst of the circle.
"What's that?" exclaimed Nort
"An arrow!" answered Bud, and so it proved. An Indian arrow—of the sort used by the Redmen years ago, and hard to pick up now, even as relics—quivered in the ground near the blaze. And by the flickering flames it was seen that a paper was rolled about it.
In an instant Bud had leaped to his feet, plucked the arrow from the ground, and torn off the paper. By the light of the fire he read it.
"Another warning!" cried Bud.
"What does it say?" demanded Dick.
"Two wasn't enough. This is the third and last! Leave Flume Valley!"
There was silence for a moment, and then Bud, crushing the scrawled warning in his hand, cried:
"I'd like to see 'em drive me out!"
"That's th' way to talk!" shouted Yellin' Kid. "We'll stick!"
They gathered about, discussing the sinister warning that had been sent to them in such a sensational manner. There was no clue to tell where it had come from, for no one had noticed the direction whence the arrow had been shot. The message itself was written, or, rather, printed on a piece torn from a paper bag, and the writing was in pencil. The paper was common enough in those parts, and the use of printing, in place of handwriting, would, it seemed, preclude any tracing.
"We'd better keep a double watch to-night," suggested Bud, when a hasty inspection in the vicinity of the camp had revealed no one.
"We shore will!" asserted Old Billee.
The night hours passed, a double guard watching with keen eyes for any sign of strangers approaching the reservoir or the cattle. But, in spite of all precautions, the half-expected happened.
It was toward morning, when Nort and Dick had turned out of warm beds to relieve Pocut Pete and Snake Purdee that a confused noise at the extreme end of the valley gave notice that something was wrong.
"What's that?" asked Bud, who had ridden into camp at the conclusion of his tour of duty.
As if in answer came distant shots, the howls of coyotes and the snorting of cattle, mingled with a rush which told its own story.
"Stampede!" yelled Bud. "They're trying to stampede our herd and drive 'em off! Come on, fellows!"
And all within the sound of his voice rallied to repel the night attack, for such it proved to be.
Leaping into their saddles, Nort and Dick followed Bud toward the scene of the disturbance. They saw the cattle running to and fro, and in the slivers of light that leaped from the muzzles of guns which were shot off at intervals, they descried figures swiftly riding backward and forward, evidently trying to cut out bunches of cattle.
Action had followed rapidly on the heels of the sinister arrow warning.
THE BRANDING IRON
"Come on, boys! Come on!" shouted Bud, as he spurred off in the darkness, followed by Nort and Dick. "They're trying to drive 'em off through the lower end of the valley! We've got to stop 'em!"
"You said it!" shouted Dick.
"Who are they?" yelled Nort
Bud had no time to answer. What was needed, then, was quick action to prevent his own and his cousins', as well as his father's stock from the Square M ranch, being driven off by unscrupulous rustlers.
For that this night attack was made by these marauders of the plains was not to be doubted.
"Ride hard, boys! Ride hard!" shouted Old Billee as he galloped up beside the boy ranchers.
And they were riding hard—all of them, including the cow punchers who had come in from their night's duties, expecting to be relieved. It was at this favorable—for them—moment that the rascals had made their attack.
It was so dark that only, indistinctly, could the forms of raiders be made out. But there were several of them, leaning low over the necks of their galloping steeds, and endeavoring to create a panic among the cattle so that a stampede would result. Once this started it would be a comparatively easy matter for them to "cut out" as many choice specimens as possible, driving them to some secret place. There the brands could be "blurred," or changed, and Diamond X Second would be out several thousands of dollars.
"There they are!" yelled Bud, as, riding between Nort and Dick, he saw a group of men swinging their big hats and heard them shouting to frighten the already thoroughly roused cattle.
But though Bud thus indicated the presence of the rustlers it was not a very clear sight of them that he or his companions had. Only for the fact that those of Flume Valley rode together, and saw the indistinct forms ahead of them, could it be made certain that the unknown ones were the enemy.
Bud's gun shot out a menacing warning, for he had fired high in the air, above the heads of the rustlers. He had borne in mind his father's injunction never to shoot at a human being unless vital necessity required it.
"And I'd rather lose all my cattle than kill anyone," Bud said afterward. "Unless I had to do it to save my life."
It was for this reason that he had fired high, and his example was followed by his cousins.
But that this consideration on the part of our friends was not appreciated, was made plain, a moment later, when Old Billee exclaimed:
"That was a close one!"
His words followed the whining song of a bullet as it zipped through the air, too close to the heads of himself and the boy ranchers to be comfortable.
"I'm goin' t' give 'em some of th' same medicine!" shouted Yellin' Kid, and his gun spat fire, but straight out, and not at a high angle.
Following it, almost instantly, was a yell of pain from one of the rustlers—which one could not be told because of the mix-up and the darkness, but it was a yell nevertheless.
"You winged one!" cried Snake Purdee.
"I meant to!" was the Kid's grim answer.
"Fire high, boys!" cried Bud. "If we can scare 'em off, so much the better!"
"Don't reckon they're th' kind that scares easy," objected Old Billee. "But we've got 'em on the run!" he exclaimed, a moment or two later, when Bud and his party had ridden around some intervening bunches of cattle, and were headed straight for the night attackers.
This seemed to describe the situation. So promptly had the boys of Flume Valley ridden out to repell the raid that the rustlers had no time to stampede the cattle, and cut out some to drive away. Now it seemed there must be a clash—a coming together of the two forces.
But the rustlers, unscrupulous as they were, evidently knew when discretion was the better part of valor. They fired several more shots, one of which scratched Old Billee while another gave an ugly wound to Snake Purdee.
Then, with yells of defiance, and before our boys could come close enough to recognize any of the raiders, the rustlers galloped off, not having succeeded in driving away any cattle.
But their attack had not been without damage to Flume Valley stock. For two valuable steers had been shot, and so wounded that they had to be killed, while several calves were trampled on and crushed into shapeless masses.
This, together with two wounded men, Old Billee and Snake, made up the sum total of the casualties on the part of the Diamond X Second outfit.
"But they're marked!" shouted Yellin' Kid as he and the others rode back to camp. "I got one, I'm sure!"
"I fired low, after I saw they were doing the same, and I saw one nearly slump out of his saddle," declared old Billee.
"I'd like to know if they were any of the Hank Fisher or Del Pinzo gang," said Bud.
"I wouldn't put it past them," asserted Snake. "We'll ride over t' Hank's place, casual like, t'-day, an' see if any of his men are hurt."
Snake spoke rightly of "to-day," for it was getting sunrise-light when the battle was over, and the party returned to the tents near the flume reservoir.
The night of excitement, following the mysterious warning sent by the Indian arrow, had ended, and everyone welcomed the hot, fragrant coffee made by Buck Tooth.
When Snake's wound and Billee's scratch had been bandaged, the dead calves buried and the best part of the killed steers cut off for fresh beef, Bud and his friends took what might be termed an accounting.
The boy ranchers, with Old Billee, rode back over the ground covered in the attack of the night. The veteran cow puncher pointed out where the rustlers had ridden into the valley, over a pass that crossed a low mountain range, which connected, in a fashion, Buffalo Ridge and Snake Mountain. This ridge formed the lower boundary of Bud's range, and once the cattle had been driven over this they could easily have been hazed to Hank Fisher's Double Z ranch.
"Well, there's nothing to make sure it was any of Del Pinzo's gang, except general suspicion," remarked Bud, as they were about to ride back to camp. "What's the matter?" he asked, for, with an exclamation, Nort had leaped from his saddle. The eastern lad was picking up something from the ground that had been so lately trampled by steers and horses.
"Look!" exclaimed Nort, and he held up a branding iron.
"One of ours?" asked Bud, in rather a commonplace voice.
"Not exactly," Nort answered. "It's marked with a double Z!"
What effect this announcement had on Dick and Bud can easily be imagined. Both leaped from their saddles, as Nort had done, and gathered close to him as he held the branding iron in his hand.
It was of the usual type, an iron plate, which had been cast in a mould, so that the device—two Z letters—formed a depression in the smooth surface of the iron plate. On the outer edge was a circle, so that when the brand was heated, and pressed on the hide of a steer, calf or maverick it would burn the impression of a double Z inside a ring—the mark of Hank Fisher's cattle.
"Whew!" exclaimed Dick. "This makes it look bad for them, Bud!"
"Oh, not necessarily, though I'm glad we found it," spoke the western lad.
"Why isn't it suspicious?" asked Nort, whose high hopes had been rather dashed by Bud's somewhat cool reception of Dick's statement.
"Oh, it's suspicious all right!" Bud hastened to say, "and don't imagine I'm making light of you finding this, Nort! I'm mighty glad you did! Only we can't make it look bad for Hank Fisher, or the Double Z crowd unless we can fasten this on them."
"You mean we can't prove they dropped it here during the raid last night?" asked Nort, as he vaulted into the saddle.
"That's it," spoke Bud. "It does look suspicious, I'll admit. But you see while this is our range, we couldn't make a fuss just because some cowboy from Double Z rode over it. That wouldn't be right. And what's to hinder this having been dropped by some cowboy who was merely riding over our range?"
"That's possible," admitted Dick.
"But I don't believe it," asserted Nort.
"Nor I," chimed in Bud. "But you got to go slow in making accusations out west, unless you're ready to back your opinion up with a gun; and we don't want to do that."
"No," Nort admitted. "But Old Billee and Snake said they were going to ride over to Double Z to-day, to sort of size up the situation. So what's to prevent 'em taking this branding iron along and asking, casual like, if they don't want it back?"
"Nothing to stop that," said Bud with a grin. "In fact that's just what we'll do. Come on, we'll hit the trail for the camp and make a sort of raid on Double Z—only we'll make it to-morrow instead of to-day, as it's too late for a long ride."
There were murmurs of surprise and excitement at the camp, when the boys rode in with the Double Z branding iron that Nort had picked up at the scene of the raid.
"They dropped that last night, sure as horned toads!" cried Snake Purdee, whose wound was excuse enough for not being out on duty.
"I reckon," agreed Pocut Pete, who likewise was off duty. "Let's see that," and he reached for the iron which had a wooden handle to enable a cowboy to manipulate the marker when the branding end was hot.
Bud, so Nort and Dick thought, looked rather curiously at Pocut Pete while the latter was examining the iron. And when the strange cowboy—strange in the sense that he had not been long in Mr. Merkel's service—took out his knife and began whittling away at the wooden handle, Bud uttered a sharp cry of:
"What's the matter?" asked Pocut Pete, with an assumption of innocence, which was so plainly an assumption that Nort and Dick exchanged rapid glances.
"Don't cut off those initials!" went on Bud. "Maybe by them we can tell who owns the iron."
"Initials!" exclaimed Pocut Pete. "I don't see any initials!"
"There they are," and Bud pointed to some, rather faintly cut, on a flat place in the handle. "E. C. are the letters, though I don't know anybody with them at Double Z."
"I don't, either," said Pocut Pete. "In fact, I didn't see them letters, Bud. I was just whittling the handle to see what kind of wood it was. Thought maybe I could tell by that."
"All right," spoke Bud, as he again assumed charge of the branding iron. And Pocut Pete, with a sharp look at the young rancher, went out to the corral where the spare ponies were kept.
"Was he really trying to cut out those initials?" asked Nort, as the three boy ranchers passed on to the grub tent, for it was the joyful time to eat—one of the three joyful times that came each day.
"I wouldn't say he was doing it deliberately," spoke Bud, "but he certainly was whittling near those letters. And if he had cut them off the owner of the branding iron could easily claim it wasn't his."
"That was queer," declared Dick.
"Very," assented Bud. "In fact Pocut Pete has acted queer ever since he's been here. I don't like him, and as soon as dad has another puncher to spare I'm going to ask for a change."
The remainder of that day and the night passed quietly. There was no other alarm, and riding herd was an easy task. Nor was there any stoppage of the water, which ran freely out through the pipe from the underground tunnel as though there had never been any interruption of its very necessary service.
"Well, let's go!" exclaimed Bud next day, as he and his cousins saddled their ponies, and Old Billee called for Yellin' Kid to help catch a rather frisky pinto that the old cowboy was going to ride.
"Over to Double Z?" asked Nort.
"Yes, we'll take a sort of a look around their place, and hand back this iron," went on Bud, as he slung the implement to his saddle by a loop of his lariat.
The ride to Double Z was pleasant enough, for soon the boys and Old Billee struck the hill trail, where it was cooler than down in the valley.
But if they hoped to discover any incriminating evidence at Hank Fisher's place they were disappointed.
There was no sign of Del Pinzo—in fact that wily Mexican half-breed was seldom at the ranch proper. Nor was Hank at home. But his foreman met the boys and Old Billee.
"Hear about the racket over at our place?" asked Bud, easily enough, but with a beating heart. He and his cousins looked around for any signs of wounded men, but saw none.
"What racket?" asked Ike Johnson, the foreman.
"Rustlers," put in Old Billee. "They scratched me, shot up Snake Purdee and dropped this—or at least we found this after the mix-up when we'd druv 'em off!" and he took the branding iron from Bud's saddle loop.
"You don't mean to say——" began Ike, with an ugly tone to his voice.
"Don't mean t' say nawthin'!" drawled Old Billee. "That's one of your irons, I take it."
"Yes, it is," growled the foreman slowly. "But that don't mean——"
"Course it don't!" pleasantly interrupted the old cowboy, giving the young ranchers a slight signal to let him do the talking. "One of your boys dropped it, likely, ridin' short-cut across our place, Ike."
"Yes, I remember now, Ed Carr said he lost his. This is it," and the foreman of Double Z pointed to the initials.
"Well, tell Ed—is he here now?" asked Billee, interrupting himself.
For an instant—and for an instant only—Ike Johnson hesitated. Then he answered:
"No, Ed's ridin' line. I'll give him this when he comes in."
"All right," spoke Billee, with a smile. "We was just passin' and stopped with it. How's things, Ike?" he asked with an effort to be friendly.
"Oh, so-so! Might be wuss, an' might be a hull lot better."
"I reckon it's that way all over," Billee made answer. "Well, boys," he resumed, "might as well ride back. You gittin' all the water you can use from Pocut River, ain't you, Ike?" he asked, turning in his saddle.
"Better ask th' boss about that," was the sullen retort. "I reckon he'll have suthin' t' say, soon, that you Diamond X folks won't like!"
"Is that a threat?" asked Bud quickly.
"Easy, son, easy!" cautioned Old Billee.
"You can make anythin' yo' like of it!" sneered the Double Z foreman.
And then the boy ranchers and Old Billee rode off.
"Well, we didn't find out much," said Nort, when they were on the homeward trail.
"No, but we let 'em know we found that branding iron, and that we knew where it belonged," spoke Bud. "That's something!"
They were rather late getting back to camp, for Dick's pony went lame, and the others accommodated their pace to his. It was dusk when the little party hit the borders of Diamond X Second, and saw the grazing cattle.
Bud saw something else, for as he rode ahead he called:
"What's he doing?"
"Who?" asked Nort.
"Pocut Pete," replied Bud. "Looks like he was trying to brand one of our cattle with his knife! Look! That's mighty queer!"
Pocut Pete did not become aware of the approach of the boy ranchers and Old Billee until they were almost upon him. He was either so intent on what he was doing, or else the fact that the ponies were on a grassy footing made their advance practically noiseless, that, seemingly, he heard nothing.
However it was, the cowboy, about whom Bud entertained suspicious, kept on with what he was doing—something strange to one of the milder-tempered steers. Something "mighty queer," as Bud had said in a whisper to his chums. Which whisper accounted for the fact that Pocut Pete had not heard the voice.
So it was not until their shadows, mingling with those of the descending night, fell athwart him that the cowboy looked up with a start.
"Oh!" exclaimed Pocut Pete, and then Bud and the others saw that he had a knife in his hand, and something else. Something that glistened when Old Billee struck a match to light his pipe. For the old cowboy had, long ago, passed up the inevitable paper cigaret, and used the more sedate form of the weed.
"What's the idea?" asked Bud, and his question seemed to give Pocut Pete a chance to pull himself together, to answer with more coolness than he had exhibited by his first exclamation.
"This steer had some sort of a growth on his shoulder—like a wart," explained the cowboy. "I was just seeing if I could cut it off."
"You'd better be careful!" warned Old Billee.
"Why?" asked Pocut Pete so quickly that the other's remark might have well carried a threat, which, in the tone Billee used it, did not.
"You may get horned," went on the veteran cow puncher. For many of the cattle on the range of Bud and his cousins "wore their horns long," so to speak. Gradually the dehorning system was spreading through the west, but such an innovation, found to be most practical from all standpoints, took time to grow.
"Oh, this chap isn't dangerous," went on Pocut Pete with a laugh, closing his rather large pocket knife with a snap. "All the same, if you don't want me to snip off that wart I won't."
"I wouldn't," said Bud. "Not but what I'm glad to have you take an interest in the cattle," he went on, "but cutting one with a knife might bring on blood poisoning."
"Yes, an' jabbin' a knife into one might set it wild, an' it would rush off an' start a stampede," said Billee.
"I realized that," admitted Pocut Pete, "so that's why I didn't do it until I got this steer off by himself."
He spoke this truly enough, for the lone animal he had been "operating" on was some distance from the main herd.
"I never saw a wart on a steer," spoke Bud, as he urged his pony nearer to where the strange cowboy stood on the ground close to the beef animal. "It's queer——"
There was a sudden movement. Pocut Pete leaped back and the steer, as though taking fright at Bud's advance, lowered its head, and, with a loud bellow, sprang away.
"I told you so!" called out Old Billee. "You might 'a' got horned, Pete!"
"Oh, I was watching," came the answer. "Yes, warts do, sometimes, come on cattle," he went on. "I've cut off lots of 'em. Some beef men won't pass 'em if they have any. I thought I was doing you a favor." He spoke in an injured tone of voice.
"Well, maybe you were," admitted Bud. "First I thought you were someone else."
"One of the Double Z bunch?" asked Pocut Pete with a laugh. "Did you find out anything over there?" he inquired as he caught his pony, which had been standing near-by, and leaped into the saddle.
"Nary a thing," voiced Old Billee.
And then, as the group, Pocut Pete included, headed back for camp, the old cowboy broke into song, roaring out:
"Send me a letter, kid, Write it yo'self! Put in some news of th' city. For it's lonesome out here, 'Neath th' blue, starry sky, An' cowboys don't get any pity!"
"What's struck you?" laughed Bud.
"Oh, I feel sorter so-so," affirmed Old Billee. "We're in for a storm, I reckon."
"And that's your weather indication!" chuckled Nort.
"Yeppy," agreed the veteran, and he broke into another verse of the interminable song—one of the series that cowboys love to warble.
"What do you think of Pocut Pete?" asked Dick of Bud in the seclusion of their own tent that night.
"Oh, I don't know what to think," was the answer. "I did have him down for a drinker, or a doper, but he doesn't seem to be either, and he does his work well. Only I don't know what to make of his actions to-night. Warts! On a steer! That sounded fishy to me!"
"Same here!" agreed Dick.
But as several days passed, and nothing more suspicious occurred, the action of Pocut Pete was rather forgotten. Nor was there any further trouble with the rustlers, or the lack of water. In spite of the warnings and veiled threats that had been received, the black pipe still spouted into the reservoir.
And then, like lightning out of a clear sky, came a bolt that gave the boy ranchers a shock.
Old Billee riding in from off the distant range one day, called to Bud who was opening some of the reservoir gates to let water run to a distant trough for the cattle.
"Bad business, Bud!" exclaimed the veteran.
"What's that?" asked the lad, with an instinctive glance at the black pipe, whence the water spouted. His first thought was of that.
"There's five of your steers dead, over near the last water trough!" was the answer.
"Steers dead!" gasped Bud. "Rustlers?" he asked, quickly.
"Don't 'pear to be," Billee answered. "There isn't a mark on 'em. Maybe it's glanders. Better get Doc. Tunison right over."
Which Bud did, by telephone.
The veterinarian, who looked after the health of cattle in that vicinity, appeared in due season. Bud, with his cousins and Old Billee went out to where the dead cattle lay, now stiff and stark. Some buzzards flopped heavily off as the party approached.
"Hum!" mused Dr. Tunison as he began his examination. It did not take him long to complete it. "I thought so," he remarked, as he looked at Bud.
"What is it?"
"Germs!" was the answer. "The epidemic's struck you, Bud!"
Like a blow struck came that announcement to Bud Merkel. And to his chums and partners in their first small venture as boy ranchers on their own responsibility, the announcement of the veterinarian was staggering.
"Germs!" exclaimed Nort.
"Epidemic!" voiced Dick.
"Has it really struck here—the same disease that was among dad's cattle?" asked Bud, as though hoping there might be some mistake.
"It's here all right," went on Dr. Tunison, rising from his stooping position beside a dead steer. He looked about for a puddle of water in which to wash his hands, and, having completed the operation, using a disinfectant from a bottle he produced, he added: "Better fence off this puddle, Bud. If any of your other cattle happen to drink here they'll get the disease, too, and bump off."
That was his way of saying that the steers would die.
"I'll do that!" declared Bud. "We can cut the water off from this part of the range. But what causes the epidemic, Doc? Dad was careful not to send me any of his infected cattle from Square M, and he said you'd examined all that came, and they didn't have any of the trouble."
"They didn't," declared the veterinarian. "I examined them all, and nothing was wrong with them. But this epidemic is a germ disease, Bud, and we don't exactly know how the germs are carried. It may be something the cattle eat; the bunch grass or other fodder, in the water; or it may come out of the air. All we know is that certain germs, in some, as yet unknown, way, enter into the system of the steer. They get into the blood through the mouth or nostril, or perhaps from a scratch or cut. And once the germs are there, so rapid is the action that the animals die over night—as yours have done, and as your father's did."
"Has dad lost any more?" asked Bud.
"Not that I've heard of. In fact I thought by his action, in sending the healthy animals of his Square M herd here, and to his other ranches, that he'd gotten the best of it. But now the epidemic breaks out here. I can't understand it!"
The veterinarian stood looking down at the dead animal, while the buzzards patiently waited nearby for the feast they knew belonged to them. Evidently they were not fearful of germs.
"What's that funny smell?" suddenly asked Nort.
"That? Oh, it's the smell characteristic of the disease," replied Dr. Tunison. "Not very pleasant. I got some of the pus on my hands—that's why I washed and disinfected them. Well, Bud, I'm afraid you're in for it!"
"You mean the epidemic may run through all my stock?" asked the boy rancher, anxiously.
"It may, and that's the reason I'm putting you on your guard. But let's hope for the best. We'll act promptly. Fence this place off, or don't let any more water here, where other cattle can drink from the pool, that must, of necessity, be contaminated, now that I washed my hands in it, if for no other reason. Also separate the other cattle into as many herds as you can handle. In this way, if the epidemic gets among one bunch, you don't stand to lose so many. This is about all you can do."
"No preventative measures?" asked Bud.
"No. If the cattle remain healthy they may resist the germs. Nature sometimes provides her own remedies. She'll have to, in a case like this, where so little is known about this malady that no cure is yet available to science."
"That sure is a funny smell—I don't like it!" said Nort again.
"No, it isn't very pleasant," agreed the veterinarian.
And then Bud, who had been in a serious, brown study seemed, for the first time, to become aware of the evil odor.
"That smell! That smell!" he cried. "I've smelled it before!"
"Not unless you came in contact with the germs," spoke Dr. Tunison. "Where did you smell it, Bud?"
But, as suddenly as he had spoken, Bud Merkel became silent. He seemed to be thinking deeply, and as he turned aside he said:
"Oh, maybe it was when Old Billee rode in to tell me he had seen these dead steers."
"Possibly," admitted the veterinarian. "The smell is very characteristic, as I said. But you'd better arrange to bury these animals, Bud."
"There isn't any danger—I mean to humans; is there?" Bud asked. "If there is we'll let 'em stay here. The buzzards will make short work of 'em."
"No, there's no danger to man, even in directly handling the germs. That has been proved," said Dr. Tunison. "But if you let the cattle lie here, and the buzzards eat 'em, in some manner the disease may be carried to your other cattle. Best bury 'em, and fence off this water-hole."
Which was done. So the evil-looking buzzards were deprived of a feast, and flapped mournfully away.
There were anxious days that followed the appearance of the epidemic among the cattle of the boy ranchers. I speak of the cattle as their own, and they were, in a sense. For though, of course, Mr. Merkel really owned Flume Valley, and put up the cash to start the boys in business, he had determined that they should run the place as though it was their own. They must stand or fall by what happened. It was the only real way to start them in the way of becoming cattlemen, he decided.
So, though the boys were young, possibly the youngest ranchers in that part of the west, they were in earnest and accepted all the responsibilities that went with the venture.
Bud was very thoughtful those anxious days. There was hard work for all, since dividing the doubled herds into small units meant that each cowboy, including Bud, Nort and Dick, had to look after a certain number day and night. But no one shirked, even Buck Tooth working unusually hard in addition to doing the cooking. Though Indian braves are constitutionally opposed to labor, Buck Tooth made an ideal herdsman.
Not as much time was spent in camp as had formerly been the case, as the boy ranchers and their older helpers were more often out riding herd. But occasionally many of them gathered at the tents to compare notes and "feed up," as Snake put it. His wound, received in the fight with the rustlers, had healed.
"Some day we'll have regular ranch houses here instead of just a camp," Bud said, as he was riding back one day to look after the herd he had assigned to himself.
"Oh, this isn't so bad," spoke Nort.
"Real jolly, I call it!" added Dick.
"If only the water supply keeps up, and no more epidemic comes, we'll be all right," Bud announced. "At the same time I can't be sure of either."
This was true. Though the water flowed merrily on since the time the lads had penetrated the length of the tunnel, there was always an uneasy feeling, on the part of the boy ranchers and their friends, that it might stop at any time.
"And when it dries up again," Bud declared, "I'm not going to be satisfied until I find out what makes it quit flowing!"
"That's the idea!" added Nort. "We'll solve the mystery!"
As the days passed, and no more cattle were found ill or dead from the epidemic, the hopes of the boy ranchers began to rise. Had they caught the malady in time? Could it be stamped out by the burial of the five steers? Time alone—and a longer time than had so far elapsed—could tell.
Bud, Nort and Dick each had charge of a herd, the three bunches of cattle being pastured on adjoining areas of rich grass.
But the distances separating them were not so great but that Bud and his cousins could exchange visits. And it was on one of these occasions that there occurred something which cleared up, in part at least, the mystery hanging over Flume Valley.
The boy ranchers were about to part for the evening, having spent the afternoon together over "grub," cooking at an open fire; and Nort and Dick were preparing to ride back to their herds, Bud being on the ground, so to speak, where he would "bunk" for the night.
As they rode down into a little swale amid the gathering shadows of the night, a bunch of cattle moved uneasily along ahead of them, and as the steers parted there was disclosed in their midst the forms of a man and a horse.
"Who's that?" suddenly asked Dick.
"It isn't one of our boys," declared Nort.
Bud suddenly sat upright in his saddle. He breathed deeply, and then quickly spurred forward. His cousins saw him swinging his lariat around his head.
In an instant it went swishing through the air, and, a moment later, as the coils settled about the figure of a man who started to leap for his pony, Bud let out a yell, shouting:
"Roped! Roped, by Zip Foster!"
AN EXPEDITION IN THE DARK.
There was a confusion of rope and man. Sock, Bud's pony, braced his feet, including the white one that gave him his name, and the lariat tightened. There was a scurrying among the cattle, and the lone pony, without a rider, galloped off.
Nort and Dick, taken by surprise, had reined their steeds to a stop when they saw Bud lassoing the unknown man, but now they spurred up to their cousin.
"What is it?" demanded Nort.
"Who is he?" Dick wanted to know.
At that instant a shot cracked, and the fast-gathering darkness was cut by a sliver of flame.
"Trying that, are you!" angrily shouted Bud, and he backed his pony quickly, pulling the roped man along the ground, until the prostrate figure let out a yell.
"My hands are up!" came desperately out of the darkness.
"They'd better be!" retorted Bud. "Can you get off and tie him, Nort?" the boy rancher called to his cousin. "Get out your gun, Dick, and cover him! He's going to be a bad actor, I'm saying!"
"I'm through!" came the sullen response from the man on the ground. "My gun went off by accident."
"Such accidents aren't healthy around here," grimly spoke Bud. "Get at him, fellows!"
"Who is he?" asked Nort, as he slipped from his pony, throwing the reins forward and on the ground as notice that the animal was to stand.
"And what's that funny smell?" asked Dick. "It's like—like the time we found the five dead steers!"
"Yes, and there'll be more dead steers as the result of this!" said Bud, and there was a choking in his voice.
A moment later Dick and Nort were standing over the prostrate figure of Pocut Pete. His arms were bound firmly to his sides by the tight coil of the lariat, held taut by Bud, and the other boys could see that the cowboy's gun had slipped from its holster and lay some distance away from him. Nort picked up the gun, and then, with quick motions, he and Dick bound some coils of Bud's rope around the rascal's feet.
All the fight seemed taken out of him. Without his gun, down on the ground and his pony out of reach—he lacked all the prime requisites of a cowboy. There was no escape, covered as he was by Bud, who had drawn his own .45, and Pocut Pete "jest natcherly caved in," as Old Billee described it later.
"Caught you at it, just as I thought I would!" said Bud, when Pete was bound and hoisted up on his horse by the boys.
"Go on! Get it over with," was the grim answer. "I know when the game is played out, and it was a dirty game from the start. I'd never have opened it only I was desperate for money, and he offered me a lot."
"I know who you mean," said Bud. "It sure was a dirty game; and the worst of it is that it isn't over yet. That epidemic may spread all through our stock!"
Pocut Pete returned no answer as the boys started with him in the direction of the camp.
"What was he doing—trying to cut more warts off your cattle?" asked Dick.
"Warts!" cried Bud indignantly. "He was infecting them with the germs of that disease! Don't you smell the rotten stuff?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Nort. "So that's the game?"
"Yes," spoke Bud bitterly. "I wish I'd acted sooner, when I began to suspect him! But I didn't think any one would play a trick like this—especially on some one who never had harmed him."
"Has he been infecting your cattle?" asked Nort.
"Sure!" answered Bud. "I've got the goods on him! He had some thin glass bottles, with some sort of germ-dope in them. He cut, or scratched, the cattle and poured this stuff in the sore. That's how my steers got it, and not from being infected by those dad sent over. Oh, it sure is a rotten game, just when we were starting, too!"
"He ought to be shot!" indignantly voiced Nort.
"Or strung up!" added Dick.
"I don't care what they do to him!" said Bud. "I'm going to turn him over to Old Billee and the boys!"
"Don't do that!" begged the bound figure of Pocut Pete. "They—they may lynch me. Take me right to the sheriff!"
"Too far," said Bud shortly. "I don't care what the boys do to you! I'm through!"
The prisoner vainly struggled with his bonds, but they held firm.
It need not be written that there was a surprised bunch of cow punchers who gathered in the camp of the boy ranchers a little later, when Pocut Pete was delivered to them. Indignant voices and looks were noted on all sides as his crime was recounted by Bud.
In brief it was this:
From the time of Pocut Pete's arrival Bud had taken a dislike to him, and had suspected him, wrongly it appeared now, of being an addict to some form of drug, slangily termed "dope." For he had found fragments of thin-glass bottles, and had discovered in part of a broken phial, the same evil-smelling mixture that, later, was associated with the diseased cattle.
Then Bud did not know enough of the danger to act promptly, and even when Pocut Pete was discovered, "cutting a wart off a steer," as he falsely said, Bud did not know what to make of that. An older person might have been suspicious enough to have acted with more promptness, but Bud, naturally, had lots to learn.
However, as appeared later, Pocut Pete had secured from some of the disease-killed cattle some pus, filled with millions of germs. This unpleasant mixture he kept in tiny phials.
How he learned that to inject some of this pus under the hide of a steer would infect the animal, not only causing it to die of the disease, but to transmit it to others, is not vital to the story. Sufficient that Pocut Pete did know this.
And he put his evil knowledge to evil use. He was caught by Bud, Nort and Dick in the very act of infecting some of Bud's steers. For when search was made in the morning, at the scene of the capture, broken bits of phials were discovered, some with that vile, yellow substance on them. And an inspection of the cattle showed several with cuts on their flanks, into which cuts, it was assumed, the germs had been injected, or rubbed.
These animals were at once isolated, to determine what would happen to them. The ground near where Pocut Pete had carried on his nefarious operations was sprayed with disinfectants, and the cattle that had been with those he inoculated were also herded by themselves.
These were all the precautions that could be taken, and then Pocut Pete was hurried off to the nearest jail, there to await trial.
"But what set him up to such vile work?" asked Nort, when the prisoner had been taken from camp.
"What else but the desire of Hank Fisher to see our stock-raising experiment fail?" countered Bud. "This is the doing of those scoundrels at Double Z. I only wonder that Del Pinzo wasn't in on the game."
"He may be yet," said Dick.
"Well, we'll be on the watch from now on—doubly on the watch," asserted Bud. "They won't put anything like this over on us again!"
"Not if we know it!" joined in his cousins.
It could not be determined, for several days, what the turn would be in the case of the cattle into which Pocut Pete had injected germs of the disease. Dr. Tunison was sent for, but said he could do nothing more than had been done.
"You'll just have to wait and see how many will die," he told Bud. "You've done all you could by isolation. And there's one thing in your favor. No more of your cattle have been infected by those five that first died. We caught that outbreak in time. And if it proves that Pocut Pete is the sole source of infection on your ranch, it means that only those he managed to cut in his last operation will die."
But it took time to determine this, and while waiting for the outcome something else happened which, though it seemed to involve tragedy at the time, really resulted in clearing up the mystery and ending the water fight at Diamond X.
One morning, about a week after the roping of Pocut Pete, when the boy ranchers and their friends were assembled in camp, preparatory to starting out on their rounds of riding herd, Buck Tooth, who had gone to the reservoir to fish, came running down to the tents much excited.
"He must have caught a big one!" commented Old Billee.
But it was not fish that had aroused the old Indian.
"Water stop! Water him stop all time!" he yelled.
"What's that?" shouted Bud. "Isn't the pipe running?"
"No run!" answered Buck Tooth briefly. "All gone!"
"More trouble!" commented Bud. And then, with a grim tightening of his lips, he added: "This time we'll get to the bottom of the mystery!"
There was no doubt about the fact that the water had stopped running. As they all raced up the sloping side of the reservoir they saw only a few drops trickling from the pipe.
"The third time—I'm going to make it the last if it's possible," declared Bud.
"What yo' aimin' t' do?" asked Old Billee.
"Go through the tunnel from end to end, and both sides, and see where the water vanished to," was the answer. "We'll get up a regular expedition this time, and maybe take a boat. We'll find out what it all means."
"I believe you're right," asserted Snake Purdee. "There's no use trying to work Flume Valley if the water supply is goin' to be cut off without notice. I'm with you, Bud!"
"So 'm I!" shouted Yellin' Kid. "Whoop-ee! I'm a lone wolf an' this is my turn for makin' a noise! Whoopee!"
"Let's find out, first, if the water is coming into the pipe from the river," suggested Nort.
"You call up," begged Bud. "I'm going to get ready for this expedition. We'll have to start in the dark," he went on, referring to the black tunnel that stretched under Snake Mountain. "But we may come out into the light. Anyhow, we're going in!"
INTO THE DEPTHS
Preparations for exploring the mysterious tunnel on this occasion were much more complete and elaborate than when Bud, Dick and Nort walked through it before. And they did not rush off in haste, the moment it was discovered that the water no longer came through the reservoir end of the pipe line that formed the beginning and end of the old underground stream course.
"There's water enough for nearly a week, anyhow," said Bud, in discussing their plans. "And if we can't discover the cause of the stoppage inside of that time, and get it turned on again, we may as well know that and give up Flume Valley as a bad job."
"That's right," chimed in Nort.
"The stoppage is inside the tunnel, that's sure," voiced Dick.
"Yes," answered his cousin. "The water is running in all right from the river."
This fact had been ascertained by telephone. The water was running freely from Pocut River above the dam, and into the pipe that entered the side of the mountain.
Bud's father had been told of the situation, which followed so closely on the heels of the discovery of the evil acts of Pocut Pete.
"Doesn't this sort of set you fellows back so you want to give up ranching?" Mr. Merkel asked his son and nephews.