"Must have the whole place full of food by this time," Bud commented. "Think I'll take another look around, Kid. Billee, you want to come along? I just want to make sure we haven't missed anything."
The two set off on a tour of inspection. It was growing dark now, and it would soon be too late to repair that night anything that was damaged.
"Guess we haven't lost much," Bud said to the veteran rancher. "We're pretty lucky, eh, Billee?"
"Sure are! We'll just look around the corner of this building, however, and then go back. I'm sort of hungry myself."
"Me too. Hope that Mex has—" Bud broke off suddenly. He peered hard at the earth in the shadow of the shack. Then he walked swiftly over.
On the ground lay the body of a man, face down. Bud grasped him gently by the arm and turned him over. On his forehead was a long cut, from which blood was flowing. Bud looked sharply at his face, then started back in surprise.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" he said slowly. "It's Delton!"
BUD FINDS A NOTE
Billee Dobb approached deliberately and gazed long and earnestly into the face of the recumbent man.
"So that's Delton, is it?" he said. "He sure took a funny way to come back. Wonder if he's—" the rancher stooped swiftly and laid his hand on the breast of the man. "Nope! Still living. We'd better get him to the house soon as possible. Grab hold there, Bud."
Lifting him as gently as they could, so they might not cause the blood to flow more strongly, they carried the injured man toward the ranch house. They laid him on the couch in the living-room, which was known as the "parlor," and generally reserved for funerals.
"I'll get some water and bandages—if I can find any," said Bud when he had disposed of his burden.
"That white shirt of the Kid's will do," Billee suggested as Bud made for the door. "He's got it rolled up in his saddle pack."
The man on the couch seemed to be breathing more strongly now. The blood from the cut had partly clotted, and the flow was greatly diminished. But a glance at his face showed that he was in a very weak condition.
"Must have been lyin' out there quite a spell," Billee commented, as Bud returned with the shirt and a basin of water. The news of the unconscious visitor had traveled fast, for Dick, Nort and the Kid followed Bud into the room.
"Who is he?" asked the Kid as he bent over. "Little feller, ain't he?"
"Recognize him, Dick?" Bud said, kneeling down by the man's side and dipping one end of the shirt in his basin.
"No, can't say that I—yes I do, too! It's the fellow that was here when we came—the one who offered us the thousand! It's 'J. D.'!"
"Right. We found him lying over by a shack, dead to the world. Billee and I carried him in here. Seems to have a nasty cut, but I don't believe it's dangerous. Way he talked to me here awhile ago, he's too ornery to die."
"Must have been caught in the big wind," Nort said. "Hit by a board, probably."
"So that's Delton, hey?" Yellin' Kid drawled. "Well, mister, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. You don't look pertikerly dangerous to me. But you can't tell about these quiet ones. Liable to fly up any minute. Don't wash that blood off, Bud! Leave it lay. Have him bleedin' again if you don't watch out. Nort, mosey out an' see if that dumb Mex has got the coffee ready. Bring in some, will you? Leave the 'Canned cow' out of it. When this boy wakes up he wants something strong."
The man's eyes opened for a minute, then closed again. The dusk outside was settling rapidly now, and the room was growing darker. Dick ran to the kitchen and returned with a lighted candle, which he held close to the head of the recumbent figure. By this time their visitor had regained consciousness, and was staring wide-eyed at the group surrounding the couch—three men leaning expectantly over his body, while a fourth held a lighted candle aloft like a weird statue. Little wonder that a man awaking to such surroundings would be somewhat bewildered.
"How do you feel, mister?" Yellin' Kid asked solicitously when he saw that Delton was conscious.
"Not so—good," was the jerky answer. "Stomach—sick—head feels—"
"Swally this," urged Billee holding to his lips the steaming coffee Nort had brought from the kitchen. "Sure it's hot! Don't want cold sody, do ya? 'At's-a-boy—drink 'er down! Better now?"
"Yea," the man answered in a weak voice. "What happened? Woolworth tower fall on me? Wow! What a head! Seems to me I remember takin' a subway train at Times Square—or was that last year? Can't just think straight now——"
"New York," whispered Bud to Dick. "Thought he didn't look like a westerner!"
"Just you lay quiet," advised Yellin' Kid. "Won't do you a bit of good to talk now. Got lots of time to do that. You stay here to-night, an'——"
"I remember now! That storm! I was riding over toward the Shootin' Star ranch, when the sky got black, and that dumb-bell horse of mine started to act up. The next minute I got hit by a ton of bricks."
He was silent a moment, thinking.
"Say—" he suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and glanced around. "I know where I am! Yes. And I know you—and you!" pointing at Bud and Dick. "You're the two galoots that—oh!" he finished weakly, and sank back. He closed his eyes again. It was not evident to the watchers whether he had really fainted, or whether he realized he was talking too much.
At all events it was useless to expect him to say more. At Bud's suggestion he was carried upstairs, and after his heavier clothing had been removed he was laid in one of the beds. He seemed to be resting easily, and if his sleepy attitude was simulated at first, it certainly was not now, as his regular breathing and relaxed condition indicated.
"Better let him sleep," Dick said in a low voice. "He'll be all right when he wakes up. The bleeding from his head has stopped, and if he had anything else the matter he would have told us. I think we'd all better eat. Let's get out of here, anyway—we'll disturb him if we talk much."
"Eat!" exclaimed the Kid when they had all left the room wherein Delton lay. "Let's see now—have I heard that word before, or did I dream it? Believe me, when I sit down to this chow nothin' is goin' to drag me away—fire, wind or flood! Seems like that Mex cook of ours is a hoodoo. Every time we start to eat something happens."
"Guess we'll go through with it all right this time," Dick remarked with a laugh. "Here we are, boys. Set! And go to it! Enough bacon here for an army. Kid, go easy on that bread! You want to choke?"
The five were seated around a table in the rear of the house. In the middle of the table was a huge plate of bacon, and next to this was a mess of beans, steaming hot. Bread, butter, coffee and condensed milk or "Canned cow" completed the repast.
"Wonder where the Mex got all this food?" Nort asked as he reached for the bread. "Real good, anyhow. Guess we'd better keep the Greaser, if he'll stay."
"Keep him 'til we get settled," added Dick. "I don't exactly like his looks. He's too much like the Mex that Joe Hawkins pointed out—the one he said to watch out for—remember?—to suit me."
"Don't be tryin' to find trouble, Dick," advised Bud. "That Mex is just as good as the next one. But it is funny why he should be lingering around here when all the rest lit out. And to have this food all ready for us. Well——"
"Got a few suspicions up your own sleeve, eh?" laughed Dick.
"Boys," Billee said slowly, "I want to tell you something. You remember what your Dad said about smugglin', Bud?"
At the word the men at the table gave a slight start.
"Yes, smugglin'. You'd forgot all about it, hadn't ye? Well, I ain't. While we were in Hawkins's office I noticed a bill-head on his desk. I took it. Here it is."
He passed over the paper to the Kid. The others got up and leaned over the Kid's shoulder, reading it.
"Two thousand dollars' reward," said the Kid haltingly, "for the a-rest and con-viction of—the person whose picture is below, and who is known in New York as Dapper Dan Craven. He is wanted for smuggling Chinese. Escaped custody at——"
He stopped. His eyes sought the picture.
"By the ghost of my aunt Lizzy's cat!" he exclaimed. "If it ain't our friend Delton!"
Bud reached over and slowly took the paper from the Kid's nerveless hand.
"Delton!" he cried, as he saw the picture. "Just as sure as I'm living, that's who it is!"
"But why didn't Hawkins arrest him, then?" Nort asked in a puzzled tone of voice. "He knew where he was. He could have come out any time and put the bracelets on him and he'd have his man."
"Now, boys, if you'll give me a little time, I'll—" started Billee Dobb in a calm voice.
"Well, in the first place, I don't think Joe Hawkins ever saw this Delton. You know what a hard job we had gettin' to the ranch—I bet if we had had Hawkins with us we would have had to fight our way in. That's what that guard was out for—the one that tried to stop us. He knew we weren't deputies, so he let us go through.
"Also, that bill was just printed and sent to Hawkins. Perhaps he didn't have time to look at it. And say—that accounts for Delton's quick get-away, too. One of his men rode in an' told him that there was a price on him, and he got, fast. He must have made this ranch his headquarters. No wonder he didn't have no sheep around! Boys, we can expect some right excitin' things to happen, in the next few weeks!"
Silence followed Billee's long speech. The veteran rancher had thrown a veritable bombshell into camp. Delton—the man lying asleep upstairs—the head of the smugglers! Two thousand dollars' reward! Why, all they had to do was to tie him up and carry him to town—over to the deputy's house. Capturing the smuggling king the first night at the Shooting Star! It seemed too good to be true.
"There's a catch in it somewhere," commented Dick. "No man with a reward like that on his head is going to dump himself into our hands."
"Why not? It wasn't his fault. He came sneakin' around the place to spy on us and got caught by the cyclone. Then a board or something hit him on the head and he fell where we found him. Nothing strange about that! We got him and got him good! Wow, what can't we do with two thousand dollars!"
"There's one thing we forgot, boys," the Kid broke in.
"And what's that?"
"We're downstairs, an' Delton is upstairs."
"That's soon fixed!" Bud cried, as he sprang for the steps. "Let's go, boys!"
"Take it easy!" cautioned the Kid quickly. "What's the use of scarin' him? We'll just go up there and truss him up while he's asleep. Won't hurt him. That cut on the head was all that ailed him. Now, take your time!"
The ranchers moved quietly toward the room in which they had left Delton. As he reached the door, Bud opened it slowly and peered in. Not a sound. Then he stuck his head in a bit further. Still no action. In the darkness he could see the outline of the bed but faintly.
Softly he turned the covers down. Farther—farther! Then he let out a yell.
"Hey, come here! Quick!"
"What's the trouble?" The Kid called as he entered the room.
"He's gone! He beat it! Look!"
In the bed, molded into the shape of a man, were two pillows. Delton had escaped, leaving the pillows in such a way as to make it appear that he was still in the bed.
"Here's a note!" Bud cried. "He left it on one of the pillows. Let's have that candle, Dick."
By the flickering spluttering light of the candle Bud read aloud:
"Sorry I got to go so sudden, but this bed is too hard. I wouldn't sleep well. If you guys want a little advice, you'll move along out of this section. It ain't healthy. A word to the wise. J. D."
JOE HAWKINS'S VISIT
"Can you beat that!" Nort ejaculated when Bud finished reading. "Nerve—that Delton certainly has his share of it!"
The feeling which the note aroused was not just one of disappointment. The Kid seemed highly amused at the turn events had taken. Billee Dobb assumed an "I-told-you-so" expression which sat comically on his grizzled features. The rest looked slightly bewildered.
"Got away, didn't he?" Dick asked in a flat tone of voice. "Through the window, I guess. Yep. Slid down the rain water leader. Well——"
"An' he took with him your wireless and your new bunch of cattle," the Kid remarked sardonically. "Never count the chickens before they scratch. Mr. Delton is a slicker article than we figgered on."
"Let's see the note a minute, Bud," Nort said. "Huh—'bed too hard—couldn't sleep!' Wise sort of a bird; isn't he? Say, he must have written this as soon as we left the room."
"Because if he waited too long he couldn't have seen to write—too dark. That means he's far away by this time. He probably——"
"The horses! Ten to one he grabbed one of them an' beat it!" Yellin' Kid cried.
Without further parley the boys and men filed from the room and made for the corral. The horses had been tied to a pole nearest the house, and they were not long in reaching them. They could be easily seen in the moonlight which now flooded the prairie.
"Mine's there!" Bud yelled as he came within view of the animals. "Guess you're wrong, Kid. Seems like there's—no there isn't, either! Only four! Whose mount is missing?"
"You might know it," the Kid said disgustedly. "The coot took mine—out of all that bunch to pick from, he had to rustle my new bronc! By golly, if ever I set eyes on you again, you old——"
"Take it easy!" laughed Bud. "Could be a lot worse. He might have turned the rest of 'em loose, too."
"No use beefin' about it," said Billee Dobb. "All over now. He's gone—an' so's the Kid's bronc. Talk about it in the morning. Me, I'm tired!"
The night passed uneventfully. At sun-up the Kid appeared at the door of Bud's room and grinned in at him.
"Ready for work?" he cried.
"You mean trailin' your horse, Kid?" Bud asked mischievously.
The grin left Yellin' Kid's face and his eyes flashed.
"No," he said shortly. "I'll leave that for later. When I got some time on my hands that I want to use up in enjoyment. Then I'll go after your friend Delton."
"He's no friend of mine," retorted Bud. "But let's not chop about it until after breakfast, anyway. Think that Mexican cook is on the job?"
"Heard him movin' around a while ago, Bud. Let's go down an' see. Billee is downstairs, and I guess Nort an' Dick are too."
When they reached the dining room they found the others waiting for them.
"Sleep good, boys?" Dick asked.
"Sure did. Felt like I'd never wake up. Say, steak this morning!" Nort cried as he saw the table loaded with food. "We got some cook here!"
"Don't it strike you all kind 'a funny that the Mex has got so much stuff on hand?" Billee Dobb wanted to know. "Course it might be that this Delton feller had just stocked up before we came. Hey, Mex!" he yelled into the kitchen. "Aqui! Pronto!"
The Mexican strolled calmly to where the five sat waiting.
"Where you get all this?" Billee pointed to the plates of meat.
The Mexican shrugged his shoulders and motioned toward the kitchen.
"Boss leave it here?"
"Now listen, Mex. You know what I mean. You nod or shake your head when I ask you questions." Yellin' Kid walked over and stood before the Mexican.
"First, did you work for this guy Delton?"
"Then when he beat it, you stayed here, hey?"
"He can't answer that with his head, Kid," Nort broke in.
"I know it, but maybe he can tell us by motions. Hey? Why you no go with Delton?"
The Mexican pointed toward himself, then to the kitchen. His hands simulated the job of peeling potatoes. Then he flung both arms wide, and moved his head in a semi-circle, eyes opened as though he were looking for something.
"So he went when you were in the kitchen, hey, an' didn't say nothin' about it. Well, that sounds logical."
"Kid, for Pete's sake, let's eat!" Bud interrupted. "You did fine—give you a badge as a special detective. All right, Mex, outside. Gee, you certainly are curious, Kid!"
"I just want to know a few things, that's all," Yellin' Kid protested. "I don't want to get poisoned. Can't tell who that Mex is—for all we know he may be one of Delton's men left here to watch us."
"Say, I was thinking the same thing," Dick put in. "But his graphic explanation as to why he's here seems to be at least plausible. If, as Billee suggested, Delton cut out when he found there was a price on his head it doesn't seem reasonable that he'd bother taking the cook along. How about it, Billee?"
"Ain't makin' no statements," the veteran rancher replied slowly. "Want to think things out a few minutes first."
"Billee's going to solve the great mystery for us!" Nort laughed. "Never you mind, ole horse, you knew your stuff when you grabbed that bill-head from Hawkins's office. The trouble with us was, we were too slow."
The conversation hit on the topics of the night before as the ranchers made a healthy breakfast. When they had satisfied their hunger Bud leaned back in his chair and said:
"Well, what's on the program this morning, Kid? Beckon you better take charge for a while. Then Dick can be head boss, and so on—'til we get the sheep in. O. K.?"
"All right with me, Bud," the Kid agreed. "One of us wants to take a ride into town and see about gettin' hold of a sheep-man. I got to get me a pony, too."
"I'll go," offered Nort. "Think I'll look up Hawkins. He might like to know what happened."
The five walked slowly into the yard. The meal seemed to change their ideas, and set them quietly to thinking. Bud was leaning against the side of the ranch house. The Kid strolled over to the corral and looked longingly at the four horses tethered there. Billee Dobb was seated on the steps smoking his pipe, when he noticed a cloud of dust in the distance.
"Rider," he said, more to himself than to the others. "Got a hunch who it is."
The dust cloud grew quickly nearer, and from it emerged the figure of a man on horseback.
"Someone coming," Dick called.
"Who is it?" Bud asked. From where he stood he was unable to see.
"Don't know yet. Looks familiar, though. Here he comes."
"It's Joe Hawkins!" exclaimed Bud, as the horseman rode into view. "Hi, Joe—Mr. Hawkins, I mean."
"Joe'll do, son," the deputy said with a smile as he dismounted. "Looks like you was havin' a convention here."
"Just thinking things over," the Kid, who had walked up, explained. "Glad you came, Mr. Hawkins."
"Thought that was you," Billee Dobb said, rising to his feet and removing the pipe from his mouth. "Seen you way off, and says to myself, bet that's Joe Hawkins."
"You got good eyes," laughed the deputy.
"Oh, it wasn't exactly my eyes. I had a hunch."
"Billee Dobb is our official detective," Bud said with a grin. "Tell him about the hand-bill you copped, Billee."
Explanations were in order, and with continuous interruptions the deputy finally heard the story of the cyclone and what followed. He questioned the boys as to the appearance and talk of Delton, and at last confessed that he must be the man wanted.
"Though I didn't think they knew just who he was," Hawkins added. "All I knew was that the reward of two thousand was for the head of the smuggling system. So they got him spotted, have they? That means we won't have to work in the dark. It's a wonder the central office wouldn't give a man the whole story when they're about it, instead of lettin' it trickle through. Well, boys, it's time you knew what this smuggling is all about, hey?"
THE STORY OF SMUGGLING
"Between this country and Mexico," began the deputy, "there's a strip of land called the border—on one side U. S., and on the other Greaser-land. You know all about that. Across this border run several roads—passages into and from Mexico. And each of these roads is patroled by United States officers.
"These men are placed there for a purpose, and one purpose among others is to prevent the illegal sending into the States of Chinamen. You see only so many foreigners from each nation are allowed to settle in the United States each year, and once that quota is reached, no more will be admitted. Naturally there are always men who want to come to the "Land of Plenty" and make their fortunes, but unless these men are within the quota for that year, they are forbidden to enter. All Chinese are forbidden entry and have been for several years.
"But there are ways and means of getting around that situation. Suppose a Chinaman wants to become rich. The first thing he thinks about is America. All he has to do in America, he thinks, is to bend over and pick up the gold pieces that are lying in heaps all over the streets.
"So the Chinaman makes up his mind to come to America. He goes to Foy Lee, a slick friend of his, to find out about it. Foy Lee says 'Good thing you see me. Sure. I fix you up. Easy. You want go America? All light. Can do. You got fifteen hundred dollah?' Now where would a poor Chink get fifteen hundred dollars? He tells Foy Lee there ain't that much money in the world. So Foy Lee starts thinkin'. He rubs the top of his head, blinks his eyes, and grunts twice. Then he says, 'you still want go America?' 'Sure!' our Chink answers. 'All light,' says Foy Lee. 'You come with me.' The rascal knows all the time what to do, only he wants to make it seem hard, so he can get his little rake off.
"Foy Lee takes his friend to an office over on a side street in some Chinese city. There he meets a man who guarantees him passage to U. S. if the Chink will just sign the paper. That's all—no money nor nuthin'—only sign the paper an' he gets to America. What is the paper? Oh, just a promise that the Chink will pay the company that's sending him all his future wages—less enough for food—until fifteen hundred dollars have been paid. Just a mere matter of slavery, that's what it amounts to.
"But the Chink signs. What's fifteen hundred in the land of 'plenty dollah?' Now our Chink is put on a vessel bound for Mexico. There he is met by an agent of the same company that put him on board in China.
"This agent takes him to a town, near the border—say Presidio, or some such place. Then the real fun begins. The company notifies their man at headquarters that the Chink has arrived and is ready to be shipped across the border. Headquarters looks up the Chink's bond that he signed in China, and which has been received through the mail, and sends back word that everything is O. K., that the Chink, with several others, is to be handed to a smuggler at a certain spot, to be smuggled over the border. And when the Chink is so delivered the company's part ends.
"After this the Chink's fate is in the hands of the smugglers, and if they get caught, and the poor coot is sent back to China again by the emigration authorities, he's still got to pay that fifteen hundred, although all he got for his money was a long ride and hard treatment.
"The border runners take their consignment of Chinese and either pack them in the back of an auto or wagon, or arrange to smuggle them across some other way. If they're lucky, they get through. If not they get hauled up by the border officers, and the runners get jail and the Chinks are sent back to their native land. And even if they do get through the lines the Chinks' troubles aren't over, for at any time they're liable to be pulled in for not having what they call a 'chock gee,' which is a government paper signifying they are here lawfully and not by smuggling. I told you about that before.
"And that's how the game works. These smugglers get hold of a ranch near the border so they can hide their Chinks when they get them across, until the time is set to turn them loose. 'Course I can't say that's what this place has been used for. But it would be great for it."
The narrator paused and the Boy Ranchers drew long breaths of excitement.
"Well, boys, what do you think about it?"
The tall deputy looked from one to the other. He was prepared for a deluge of questions, and they came.
"Can't the Chinese counterfeit this 'chock gee'?"
"Who gets the fifteen hundred dollars?"
"Has that smuggling been going on here—near the Shooting Star?"
"Cease firing!" the deputy laughed. "I'll answer Bud's question first. Yes, it has been going on here—right past Roaring River. That's how our marshal got shot up—tryin' to stop a load of Chinks from gettin' through.
"That fifteen hundred, Dick, is divided between the men who actually do the running, and the company that ships the Chinks to Mexico. The smugglers get about five hundred a head for every man they get in. The 'chock gee' is often counterfeited, but not very successfully. It's printed like a government bank bill, and is just as hard to fake."
For some time the discussion about smuggling went on. The deputy told of the different tricks resorted to by the border runners in getting their human cargo safely into the United States, and to what lengths they will go to prevent capture. Boats are also used to transport the Chinese to the American seacoast, Hawkins said, and if, by chance, the runners were caught with a load of prospective undesirable Americans they got out of the difficulty by the simple expedient of dumping the Chinese into the sea.
Another method of transportation was for the smugglers to put off in a small craft from a Mexican port, with a cargo of barrels and Chinese. When the boat neared the United States coast the Chinese would be nailed in the barrels and thrown overboard, to trust to the mercies of Fate to bring them ashore. Often the wind blows in an offshore direction, which spells death to the floating Chinese; weeks later they are found dead, when the barrels pile up on some distant coast.
This system of sneaking Chinese into this country was well established, said Hawkins, and the smugglers make use of scouts in small cars before they attempt to bring a load of Chinese across the line. These scouts ride swiftly along the route of the proposed entry, and locate, definitely, the position of each border patrol, so that when the run is actually made the driver of the car filled with Chinese knows the spots to avoid.
Of course the Boy Ranchers were chiefly interested in the part their new Shooting Star property might have played in this game of smuggling.
"And the fellow that lived here is the local head of that system!" Bud exclaimed. "Say, we let a rare bird go when he escaped."
"We've still got a chance to get him," Dick declared. "He must be around somewhere. That note—you saw the note we found, didn't you, Mr. Hawkins?—well, that indicated we might look for another visit from the coot. The Kid will be glad to see him, eh, Kid?"
"An' I don't mean maybe!" Yellin' Kid exploded. "Stealin' the best bronc I ever had—just when I was gettin' him broken in proper—an' me away out here in the wilderness with nothin' to ride——"
"I'll get you a pony," the deputy offered. "There's one I know of that's a beaut—fast and strong. Friend of mine wants to sell her."
"I'd be sure grateful if you'd do that, mister. It sort of hits me hard, losin' a good bronc like that."
"It wasn't your fault, Kid," Bud hastened to say. "And Dad will insist on buying you another. So if Mr. Hawkins knows of one that will suit you, take it. You'll fix him up with a horse then, Mr. Hawkins?"
"Depend on it," the tall deputy declared. "Now to business. I've told you boys all I knew about the way smuggling is being done around here, but I didn't do it just to be interestin'. I want you-all to help me."
"That's what we're here for!"
"No, we're not, Kid," Bud corrected. "We're here to herd sheep. But we'll certainly help Mr. Hawkins all we can."
"Here's the dope, boys," and the deputy leaned closer. "This Delton may or may not have been doin' business here at the ranch. If he has been, an' I'm goin' to figger that way, his friends still expect him to be here. He left in too much of a hurry to send out word. An' here's where you-all come in.
"I want you to pretend the ranch hasn't changed hands. Just lay low for a while, not travelin' 'round much, an' we'll see what happens. I don't mind tellin' you we got another tip, that some Chinks were goin' to be rushed across within the next few days. Can't say just when, but soon now. It's a big load this time, an' if things work the way I think they will, they'll try to land them at this ranch."
"You mean they'll think Delton is still here?" Nort inquired excitedly.
"Yes. Of course I may be wrong—that may not be the plans at all. But I've got pretty good reasons for thinkin' I'm right. We sort of suspected that the Shootin' Star was bein' used for illegal purposes, but we never had a chance to prove it. The place was too well guarded, and without a warrant you can't go on another's property. I knew we'd not find anything if we did search the place, for the Chinks are only landed at night, and shipped away the next morning; scattered all over the country. They all look so much alike it's hard to tell 'em apart."
"So you never really saw Delton?" asked Nort.
"Nope—never have. He never came to town—whatever stuff he wanted he sent his men in for."
"Told you!" Billee Dobb cried. "I knew he never saw the geezer! Just like I said—nobody was allowed in here with a badge on."
"Right again," the Kid said with a grin. "Billee's the only one of this gang that seems to know his stuff."
"Well, that's the plan, boys," stated Mr. Hawkins. "Are you with me?"
"Bring on the smugglers!"
"Kid, here's your chance to find out what became of your shirt!"
"Wait!" the deputy held up his hand. "We can't go into this thing like that, boys! It's too dangerous. Enough men have been killed now by the smugglers, and I don't want to add to the list. I thought a long time before I came over this morning, and I finally decided I'd take a chance on you. When I met you first I knew you were dependable men. Remember—this is no joke! We've got to be ready to take what comes!"
The faces of the boys sobered in an instant.
"I guess you'll find you weren't far wrong," Bud said quietly. "We've been in a few tight squeezes before—I suppose you heard of Del Pinzo?"
"Certainly. He was captured and jailed a while ago. Don't know whether he got out since or not."
"Well, we are the ones who put him there," Bud went on in a quiet tone.
"No! Why say,—I remember you now! I saw you bring him in! Well, well! So that's the way of things! Boys, I'm sure glad I met you! Between us we ought to make a go of this. So you captured Del Pinzo! Now here's another job for you. What do you think of this idea?"
The boys leaned close as they prepared to hear the deputy's plan.
For some minutes the boys listened to the details of the deputy's scheme. It involved danger, there was no doubt of that, but it also gave a chance for success. If luck held in their favor—and Kid said after the run of misfortune they had met with it was time for a change of weather—they might hope for a rich prize—possibly Delton himself—though this last did not seem likely. The whole success of the plan depended on fooling the smugglers into thinking the ranch was still held by Delton.
"And there we are," finished Hawkins. "Any questions, boys? You-all know what to do?"
"All set!" Yellin' Kid answered. "Now that's over with, guess I'll mosey down to town."
"Rather you stayed around, Kid, if you don't mind," said the deputy. "Anything particular you wanted?"
"Well, just to see about that bronc you mentioned. And we got to get hold of a sheepman soon."
"I'll fix that up for you," Hawkins offered. "Dick, how about you riding back with me?"
"Glad to, Mr. Hawkins. Anybody want anything?"
"Better find out about food," suggested Nort. "And we could all stand a clean shirt or two. Before you go, Dick, we all better take inventory. Didn't bring much, you know. What do you say, boys? Speak up, and Dick can collect your stuff while he's in town."
"Where's that Mex?" the Kid asked. "Wait a minute while I head for the kitchen."
He bounded up the steps and flung open the door. To his surprise a figure stumbled away and ran back. But Yellin' Kid was faster, and in a moment he had collared the man. It was the Mexican cook.
"Hey, what the mischief you doin' here? Huh? Listening weren't you?"
The Mexican shook his head.
"What, then? If you weren't listenin' what were you doin'?"
The cook pointed toward the kitchen and then to his mouth. He spread both hands, palms upward.
"No more grub? Oh, I see. An' you was comin' to tell us?"
"What's the matter, Kid?" the deputy called. "Who you talking to?"
The Kid dragged the Mexican out into the yard.
"This bird," he said. "Cook. The one we found here. He was hidin' behind the door—wants me to believe he came out to tell us there was no more eats. Why you run, hey? What's the idea of that?" He tightened his grip on the Mexican's collar.
"Oh, let the poor Greaser alone, Kid," Bud objected. "He's all right. Just scared, that's all. The way you jerked open the door was enough to scare anyone."
"Yea? Maybe. Anyway, I don't like this coot's looks. Back you go, Mex. Next time don't be snoopin' around like that. We'll get your stuff for you." He released his grasp, and the Mexican slunk back into the house.
"Funny gink," commented Billee Dobb in a drawling tone of voice, as he stared at the door through which the cook had disappeared. "Queerest Mex I ever saw."
"The old detective still on the job," the Kid laughed and grinned. "Well, Mr. Hawkins wants to get started. Guess you can order a whole stock of food, Dick. The store got a buckboard, deputy?"
"Believe it has."
"Then you can tell 'em what you want and they'll cart it over. Flour, bacon, bakin' powder, canned tomatoes, some yellow clings—don't forget them, Dick—and whatever else you can think of. Shirts can wait. All right, boys. Stay here, Dick, I'll bring your bronc."
"The Kid wants to handle a pony again," Nort said, when the Kid had left. "He hated to lose that one of his."
"Mighty fond of it," declared Bud. "While you're gone, Dick, I think I'll take a look around and see what I can find."
"Wouldn't go too far," Hawkins cautioned. "Here's your bronc, Dick. Let's be on our way. See you fellers later. So long."
The two—Dick and the deputy—rode toward the town. Billee Dobb resumed the smoking of his pipe. The effect of the exciting plan they had just heard seemed to have departed with the deputy, for the minds of those at the ranch turned again to the business of sheep farming. Billee spoke of "washes," and "dips," and of buying a few "hurdles." These terms were Greek to the boys, being experienced as they were only in cattle and not sheep raising, but Billee explained to them some of the peculiarities of the "woolies." He in a varied career had seen most of the life of the range, and it was no surprise to the boys to find he had once herded sheep.
As the morning wore on, the ranchers busied themselves in the doing of many tasks about the place. The Kid made a thorough inspection of the roofs and sides of the several shacks, to check up on the repairing needed. Nort investigated the state of their living quarters—the bunk and cook house. Bud decided to ride a bit through the surrounding country, to observe the extent of their range, and to see to the fences.
Bud was not exactly "fence riding." This means following the fence until a break is seen, repairing it, and going on to the next break. It is difficult and tiresome work, no task to occupy an idle morning with. As Bud rode along, his mind was busy with the thoughts of all that had happened in the short time the boys had been on the Shooting Star. The plan that the deputy had outlined for the capture of the smugglers called for work, and it had only a fair chance of success. Nevertheless there seemed no other way to achieve results, and the advantages of the control of the Shooting Star had to be realized early in the game.
"I'd like to run across Delton," thought Bud, feeling unconsciously for his gun. His hand encountered no holster, and he suddenly realized that he had not bothered to arm himself before starting out.
"Just as well that I don't see Delton," he said to himself a trifle ruefully. "Wouldn't do me a lot of good to meet him when I haven't a ghost of a show of bringing him in. Yet I might take a chance on him if I saw him first." The pony he was riding stepped carefully so as to avoid prairie dog holes, which would throw him and his rider if he stepped in one suddenly.
"Might be a good idea to turn around," thought Bud aloud. "Don't want to leave the work of the ranch to Nort and the Kid and Billee, though there isn't an awful lot to do yet. When those sheep come in we'll have our hands full. Oh, well, guess I'll ride a bit farther. See how much more work this fence needs."
He was riding slowly now, looking carefully about him. The country appeared vaguely familiar. Certain bushes looked as though he had seen them before—there was a small tree that he had certainly passed some time before. The cowboy's sight is so trained by years on the prairie that even the shape of a bush will be remembered subconsciously. There is so much land in the west that it is necessary to have some means to guide oneself about, else a rider could very easily get lost along a trail that should be familiar.
"Seems to me I've been here before," Bud said. "Let's see now—that bush. Know I saw that sometime. That little hill there—why—I'll bet that is—" he spurred his mount to a faster gait and made for a small knoll that rose in front of him. As he reached it he gave a yell.
"I know now! This is where we got in that fight with the hidden gunman! And over there ought to be—sure enough! The water hole! I didn't think we were so near it. I must have come further than I thought. Well—might as well take a look around. Right here is where the bird that did all the shooting must have lain. Come here, bronc!"
The boy dismounted and slipped his horse's bridle rein on his wrist. Then he threw himself down on the sand in the position their antagonist might have taken when he fired at them.
"Here I am with a view of the water hole, and in a good place to shoot from without being shot. Now I want to get away quick. What do I do? If I roll to the left, I expose myself to fire. If I roll to the right, I—" there was a little clump of mesquite by his right elbow. Bud pulled himself toward this. "That would afford protection, but once I get in here how can I get out? Now—" The boy was rolling to the center.
With a "Hold it, bronc!" he released the reins and his hand slid off the clump. Suddenly a queer thing happened. Bud felt the ground below him give way, and the next moment he found himself in a hole just large enough to admit his body, and about four feet deep. Above him the bushes had closed again, effectively screening him from the view of anyone above ground. He had accidentally solved the mystery of the gunman's strange disappearance.
For a few seconds Bud lay still, so sudden was the shock of the fall. He was not really stunned, however, and as soon as he recovered from his surprise he struggled to his feet and parted the brush above him. His horse was near by, moving slowly and cropping grass.
Then he saw how easily it would be to escape observation by falling into the small pit. The bush was certainly not large enough to conceal a man, and for this reason no one would imagine it could serve to screen a hole. It afforded a perfect hiding place. On either side was flat prairie, and no one would suspect the presence of a hidden person in that country.
"So that's how it all happened!" Bud gave a low whistle. "No wonder we missed the fellow. Say, this is one bird of a hiding place! All a man has to do is to roll in it, like I did. Anyone who can tell this hole is here without being in it is a better detective than I am.
"But what a crazy spot for a hiding place! Surely whoever dug it didn't know he'd use it to fire on us and then escape. Must have been some other reason for making it, and then it came in handy when whoever shot at us wanted to get away. He must have just lain quiet while we looked around, then, when we left, he just came out and walked away. Clever, all right. Now who'd think of a stunt like that?"
He looked more closely at the hole. It was well walled up, and had evidently been dug some time ago. By parting the bushes and kneeling on a mound of earth at the bottom, a perfect sight of the surrounding territory could be obtained. A gun could be poked through the bush and all the ground, except a very small part directly in front of the hill, would be covered. The person who dug it evidently had in mind the advantages of firing from a hidden spot.
"Well, no use in staying in here any longer. Hope that fool bronc of mine is still there. Don't want to lose her like the Kid did his. Won't the rest be surprised when I tell them about this! The Kid will want to come right out and see it, and try it out. And Billee Dobb will say 'I thought there was sumpin' like this!' Gosh, this thing is pretty deep." Bud put both hands on the sides and pulled himself toward the top.
He threw one leg over the edge and was just about to spring out when that unconscious something which often warns us of the presence of another caused him to look up. What he saw almost caused him to fall back into the pit again.
Looking down at him was a man. In his hand he held a gun, the muzzle pointed at Bud's head. And as the boy saw the man's face he uttered a cry.
"The same! I see you decided to visit us. Well, buddy, you're in for a good long visit!" Delton's lips curled in a sardonic smile.
Back of Delton Bud saw another man—and after a moment he recognized him as the cowboy with the saw-off shot-gun who had warned them away from the Shooting Star.
"Up out of that!" Delton commanded. "Keep your hands high. Don't try no funny work or you'll be eatin' breakfast with St. Peter."
Discretion was easily the better part of valor, and, realizing this, Bud made no hostile motion. He climbed meekly out of the pit.
"What do you think of our little hide-an'-seek hole, Merkel? Or perhaps you had some experience with it before. Hey?"
"So you're the one who shot at us!" Bud cried hotly. "Well, let me tell you that it was a coward's trick. If you——"
"Say, buddy, I want to tell you something. The less you talk the better it will be for you." Delton's eyes held a dangerous glint. "I don't know what you're talking about. No—never mind! Don't answer me. Sam—" this to the puncher who stood behind Delton—"if this bird says another word shut him up—quick!" Sam nodded and stepped a little forward.
"Turn around," Delton ordered shortly. As Bud turned he felt his arms grabbed and forced back until his wrists were held firmly together. A neckerchief was wound around his wrists and tied tightly. Then Delton "frisked" him, or searched him, for weapons. Finding none he forced Bud at the point of his gun to walk ahead some fifteen yards, where the ponies stood—Bud's and the two others.
"Upstairs, Merkel." Delton motioned toward Bud's pony. "You're goin' for a little ride with us. Step on it, now."
With some difficulty Bud succeeded in mounting his bronco. The little pony was trembling, as though it realized something of what was going on.
"Well, sonny, how does it feel to be talked to and not be able to talk back? Something like that Mexican cook of yours, hey?"
"The Mexican cook!" Bud turned swiftly in his saddle.
"So he's one of your men too! I thought—" he began hotly.
"You thought nothin'!" the one called Sam interrupted in a rough voice. "You heard what the boss said. If you want to enjoy good health a while longer, keep your mouth shut!"
There was nothing for it but to obey. It would do no good to persist in questioning his captors, and not only would he learn nothing, but the questions would only serve to antagonize them more.
The three rode along silently. Now and then Bud would shift in the saddle, for it is no easy thing to ride a long ways on a nervous pony with one's hands tied behind. Finally they seemed to reach their destination—the house Bud had seen in the distance. It was a ramshackle affair, with the roof partly torn away and no vestige of paint. Evidently it had once been used for a farm house, for about it were several other shacks, probably to store grain in.
Delton dismounted and held the bridle of Bud's pony.
"Your new home," he said, with a grin. "Come right in. Sorry we can't fix you up better, but you see all the servants are away."
The lad hesitated a moment.
"Off you come!" Delton seized Bud by the belt and pulled. The boy tumbled off his pony and hit the ground.
"That wasn't—necessary!" the boy panted, as he lay there with most of the breath knocked out of him. Luckily he had fallen on his side, and not on his face, which would have meant a real injury, his hands tied as they were.
"Maybe not, but I figger it'll do you good. Give you an appetite for dinner," and Delton laughed harshly. "Where I come from we treat 'em worse than that."
"Aw, let him alone," Sam growled. "No use hurtin' the kid! That won't help us any. If we get caught it won't be so good havin' a lot of enemies."
"Who said we were goin' to get caught?" Delton walked over to where Sam sat on his pony. "Sam, I haven't liked your actions lately. Now you yell about getting caught. You know what happened to that last bird who arranged for me to meet up with the cops?"
"Yea, I know." Sam moved uneasily in his saddle. He did not meet Delton's eyes. "You don't think I'd tell on you, do ya—an' get twenty years myself? Ain't likely. Anyway——"
"All right! Pipe down. Get this kid inside. I want to see if Slim got back yet."
"Come on, kid. Here, I'll help you up. Hurt yourself?" Sam had dismounted and assisted Bud to his feet.
"No, I didn't. Thanks. What was his idea in pulling me off like that? If ever I get him I'll remember it."
"Oh, he always pulls stunts like that. Wants everybody to know he's a hard guy. Comes from New York, and thinks he can put it all over the West. One thing I will say for him, he sure can shoot. That's enough, now."
Sam's tone changed, and a warning light came into his eyes.
"I ain't paid to talk to you. Let's go," he growled.
He led Bud up the steps and into the house. The shades were pulled down tight, and the gloom made it very difficult for Bud to see much. He noticed some sort of a hat-tree in the hall, and as they walked toward the back he saw the doors of several rooms which opened off the lower hall. Into one of these Sam led his captive.
"Here's where you stay," he said. "No use tryin' to get out, for the windows are barred. And that door is oak. Here—" and Sam struggled with the knot which bound Bud's wrists behind his back. "Make you feel a little comfortable, anyhow. You can't do much without a gun. There's water in that pitcher. I'll try to sneak you in some bread about noon."
Without another word Sam stepped out of the room and closed the door. Bud heard a key grate in the lock, and then a bolt shot home.
"Taking no chances," he thought. "My, it feels good to get my arms free!" He stretched lustily. "Wonder where on earth I am? Let's take a look at those windows. Bars, hey?" He pulled the shade aside. Surely enough on the outside were several iron bars, making the room a veritable jail. "They sure got me penned up here proper! Now why did they go to all this trouble? Just because I found that pit by the water hole?
"That doesn't seem reasonable. Must want me for something besides that. Guess I'll know soon enough. In the meantime I'll take a look around. Water! That's right—I am thirsty. Funny how you forget that when you're excited." Bud was talking to himself now. There are people who seem to be able to puzzle things out better if the problem is put into words than if they just revolve it over in their minds. Bud was one of these, and as he investigated his prison he kept talking in a low tone to himself.
With the shades up he was able to get a better view of the room. It was small, and had only that one window in it. The furniture consisted of a chair and a table. The floor was bare. The walls were painted a dull gray. Bud pushed experimentally against one of the sides, but to no purpose. It was as solid as iron.
There was one more thing to be tried, that was the door. Bud was reconciled to spending at least the morning within the room, and it made very little difference to him whether the door was of oak, as "Sam" had said, or some softer wood. However, he thought, he might as well take a crack at it. Try anything once, he reasoned.
He walked over and turned the knob softly. It refused to budge an inch. Then Bud applied more pressure. This time it turned slowly. Hope rang in Bud's heart as he felt the latch click back, then as he remembered hearing the door bolted his heart sank again. Still he turned the knob as far as it would go, and pushed. The door opened about half an inch.
Then it stuck. Bud's hand dropped from the knob, and he ran his fingers along the crack. Half way up they encountered cold metal—a chain which allowed the door to open only a little, then held. Bud seemed as securely fastened as though he had been unable to budge the door at all. Then he thought it was possible the bolt worked on a slide, and if he could reach through the crack and ease it out of the slide, he would be free.
"A knife would do the trick," he thought. "Nothing like that around here. I wonder if my belt buckle would do?" He tried forcing it through the crack. "Nope. Not long enough. Isn't there something about the room I could use? Chair—that's no good. Neither is the table. Water pitcher—can't see what good that is. Porcelain, I guess." He ran his hand over the pitcher.
"Yep. Well, that doesn't seem to help. Unless—" he hesitated. A thought struck him. "If I could break it and use a piece of it like a knife I'll bet I could scrape that bolt over! But how can I break it without making a racket and bringing Delton and his gang rushing in?" Bud thought a moment. Then he snapped his fingers softly, and his eyes lit up. "I've got it!" he whispered.
Taking off his vest and shirt he wrapped the pitcher well in them, after pouring out the water. Then he tapped it gently against the window-sill. It made almost no noise, so he hit it harder. After a few tries he felt it break. As he unwrapped his bundle of shattered porcelain he saw he had, luckily, broken a piece just the size he wanted. He replaced his shirt and vest and with the piece of pitcher in his hand he made once more for the door, this time with a real hope of escaping.
"Just the right length!" Bud exalted as he slid the narrow knife-like porcelain through the crack in the door and against the bolt. Then he started to coax the bolt from its slide. Softly, softly he scraped against the iron, and to his delight felt it move ever so little. He could not open the door to its full extent in his endeavor to slip the bolt, for this would tighten the chain and hold the metal piece more firmly in its slide. He had to work with his left hand holding the door at the proper angle and his right hand using the piece of the water pitcher.
It was tiresome work. Several times Bud halted as he heard footsteps in the hall outside, but they went on their way without stopping. The porcelain was rapidly wearing down. Its edge had already become dulled, and no longer offered the purchase on the iron that it did at first. But finally Bud succeeded—the bolt slid back.
Cautiously he tried the door. It opened! In obedience to Bud's push, the door swung wide. For a moment the lad stood still, listening intently. The low murmur of voices came to his ears.
"Down the hall," he thought. "Must be in that large room I passed coming in."
He stepped gently forward. A board creaked under his foot, and froze him into instant stillness. The murmur of voices droned on, and once more Bud moved forward. Down the hall he tip-toed. Nearer and nearer to the room wherein the men were talking he came. Now he was directly opposite. The door was tightly closed, but he could make out the conversation distinctly.
"A cinch!" he heard someone say. "There's nothing to it! Even if Jake doesn't know about the Shooting Star, he can run the bunch through all right. And the sooner the better."
"You know when the run is planned for?" someone asked.
"Sure! And I think we'll be lucky on the weather. Looks like rain to me."
"Well, I hope so. It's all set for to-morrow night, then?"
"Check! All set. To-morrow night it is."
Outside Bud was listening intently, his heart thumping in his breast.
BILLEE DOBB'S STORY
Back at the Shooting Star ranch the three others, Nort, Billee Dobb and Yellin' Kid, were occupying themselves with the business of the day. The Kid having reported on the condition of the "shacks," Nort decided that a new bunk house would be necessary before the shearing season to accommodate the extra men. He and Yellin' Kid, together with Billee Dobb, then lazed about the place, awaiting the return of Dick and Bud. It was eleven o'clock before Dick came riding into the yard.
"Bring any grub back with you?"
"No. The store said the buckboard would be right over, almost as soon as I got here. Is the kitchen all cleaned out?"
"Pretty near, I guess. That's what the Mex meant when I caught him at the door. Gee, I wish——"
He was interrupted by a rattling and creaking, and the sound of horses beating a fast tattoo on the hard earth. Above this bedlam arose the sound of a voice in loud and vigorous denunciation.
"Here she comes!" Nort cried. "The food! Say, that team must have been stepping right along. Got here almost as soon as you did, Dick."
With a final roar and crash of wooden timbers, and a last invocation to: "Hold up there, you two wildcats, or I'll bust you wide open," the cart drew up to the ranch house door.
From its swaying side the driver, a grinning youth in a blue shirt and red bandanna 'kerchief about his neck, climbed down.
"Get here in time?" he called. "Sure had these here babies rollin' right along." Then without even a halt for breath he went on: "What do you think of this here team? Best pair of ponies in the state! Lean down, baby, 'til I smooth those ears of yours. Down, I say! Why, you spavin-boned piece of horse meat! Come down here or I'll chew you up! Throw your head back at me, will you? Of all the knock-kneed, wall-eyed chunks of locoed craziness, you're the worst. Pete, you pink-headed, glandered cayuse, drop that neck or I'll skin you alive. That's the stuff! Best little pair of broncoes in the state, boys!"
"You sure got some vocabulary!" laughed Dick. "Think a lot of your team, don't you—sometimes! Yes, you got here in plenty of time."
"Bring them yellow clings?" the Kid asked, anxiously.
"Yep! Two dozen cans of the best yellow cling peaches. An' flour, bacon, an' all the rest. Help me unload, boys."
With five pairs of willing hands on the job, the wagon was quickly relieved of its load. The food was carried into the kitchen, and left there for the cook with an admonition to: "Get busy, Mex. We're starved!"
"Thanks for bringing the stuff over so promptly," Dick said to the youthful driver. "You must have hit only the high spots to get here so quick."
"Should say I did! One time we left the ground and stayed up while a coyote ran under the whole length of the wagon. Can't beat this here team of mine for speed. Well, guess I'll be gettin' back. All set, ponies? Don't strain yourselves, now. Got plenty of time. Just go along nice an' easy. Yes, sir, boys, I love these animals like brothers!
"Get along there, Pete. Get along, I say. Pete, you lop-eared wangdoddle! Quit draggin' that other bronc around! Hear me? Dodgast your hide, I'll blow your fool head right off your worthless carcass if you don't quit that. You will, will you? How do you like the feel of that? Now we're off! At-a-baby, get goin'! So long, boys! You, Pete! Gosh darn your senseless hide, I'll—" the rest was lost.
"He loves 'em like brothers!" shouted the Kid, holding his sides with laughter. "Oh, boy! 'Take your time, ponies!' Sure, they'll take their time! Bet he's half way to Roarin' River by now. Wow, what a driver! Ho-ho—I haven't had a laugh like this in years! 'Don't strain yourselves!' Oh, baby!"
A cloud of dust marked the disappearance of the grinning youth with the "best pair of ponies in the state." He left behind him an appreciative audience.
"Hope that Mex gets a wiggle on," Nort said when the laughter had quieted down. "He ought to be able to rustle a pretty fair meal with all that junk."
"And in the meantime we might as well sit," Yellin' Kid suggested. "Look over the landscape."
The punchers made their way to the corral. Without explaining, each knew the Kid's suggestion to "sit an' look over the landscape" meant a view from the top rail of the corral, which was several feet high. This is the cowboy's favorite resting place while waiting for "chuck." They will sit there and survey a perfectly familiar scene until called off by the cook's horn or the cry to "come an' git it."
"Bud ought to be back for grub," said Dick as he swung his leg over the top rail.
"Ought to," Nort agreed. "Said he wasn't going far."
"That might mean anything out here," Billee Dobb broke in, "from a two-mile jaunt to a ride of twenty mile or more. Bud's O. K. though. If he don't show up fer his meals he's got a good reason."
"You're probably right," Dick said, "but with all this trouble around here I don't like to see anyone stay away too long. If he doesn't come in before afternoon we'll have to take a ride around and see if we can't spot him."
"No use crossing bridges before we come to them," Nort declared. "After all this talk Bud will probably come riding in with a bear cub he chased. Bud's funny that way. Anything that's a bit out of the ordinary, and Bud will go miles out of his way to see it. Remember how he stared at that cyclone coming until he forgot where he was?"
"I don't think he's so funny," the Kid declared in a thoughtful tone. "Just doesn't like to miss any of the show, that's all. Me, I'm like that sometimes. A pretty sunset gets me here somehow," and the Kid placed his hand on his stomach in a general way.
"Have you tried eating raw onions?" Nort asked in a solicitous voice. "They say they're awful good."
"Aw, you guys make me sick," said Yellin' Kid disgustedly. "Just as soon as a feller gets—well—poetical like—you hop all over him."
"Ex-cuse me, Kid! I didn't know you were getting poetical. Why, if I had known that I wouldn't have said a word. I thought you were telling us about your indigestion."
"Go ahead—go ahead! I'll get you sometime, Nort. Billee, do you think it's nice to run me around like that?"
"Do you good," Billee said with a grin. "When I was young an' worked out with a bunch from Two-bar Cross—the roughest outfit you'd ever laid eyes on—I wasn't let to open my mouth without someone hoppin' down my throat. That was a gang, let me tell you!"
"They were the old-fashioned punchers, weren't they?" Dick asked, winking at the Kid. "The kind that used a buck-strap and ate his coffee out of a frying-pan."
"Buck-strap! Buck—say, boy, if any man on that there Two-bar Cross outfit ever heard you speak of a buck-strap they wouldn't know what you was talkin' about. No, sir! Those boys were rough customers."
A buck-strap is a leather thong fastened to the saddle in such a way that if the pony suddenly bucks, its rider can hold himself on by inserting his hand within this thong and pulling hard. The user of one of these contraptions is never proud of it, needless to say.
"You used to work a lot in the summer, didn't you, Billee?" the Kid asked with a concealed grin.
"Yes, and in the winter, too. Mostly in the winter. I remember one time——"
"Now he's off," the Kid whispered in an aside to Dick. "This'll be good."
"I remember once when I was ridin' for the Two-bar Cross bunch an' we had four thousand head of cattle on the range. 'Long about December, when the first snow starts, me an' Joe Heldig was sent out to see how the bunch was makin' out, and if they needed anything, one of us was to ride back an' tell the rest while the other watched. Well, we set out about seven o'clock one morning to see if we could spot the herd.
"It was clear an' cold when we started. Not a cloud in the sky. Thinks I, we're pretty lucky, havin' such fine weather; that late in the season, too. Joe Heldig, he don't say nothin'. We took with us our blankets, some sour-dough, coffee an' bacon, an' that fryin'-pan you was talking about, Dick. We rode along easy like, not worryin' nor nothin', an' talkin' about the best way to skin a steer, an' whether it's best to split two pair on the draw to try for a flush. That used to be a trick of Joe's.
"Around about noon it started to get warmer, an' off in the east a few white clouds showed up. Me, I don't worry none, but I see Joe lookin' kind of anxious now an' then.
"We found the bunch at three o'clock, not as far out as we figgered they'd be. Seemed pretty contented an' easy. Had a good grazin' spot, too. An' just as we was about to call it a day I felt something wet drop on my nose. Then another. Joe looked at me an' I looked at him. Snow! Know what that means on the range?
"Well, there was nothin' for it but to stick around an' see how bad it was goin' to be. By five o'clock we knew. The flakes was comin' down so thick you couldn't see, and a wind had sprung up. An' Joe an' me had a bunch of cattle on our hands. I told Joe one of us better try to make the ranch and bring back enough men to get the cattle to a sheltered spot, so they wouldn't die. I knew we couldn't move them alone, and where they were grazin' it was all open. So Joe started. He knew the general direction, an' what would be sure suicide for anyone else was just a chance for Joe, havin' lived for twenty years right in that section.
"I could easy keep track of the cows by their moanin'. It was real cold now, an' the poor bunch of beeves stood in the snow with their heads held low, with icicles hanging from their eyes, groanin' something pitiful. They never moved. Just stood there while the snow drifted up around their haunches. What I was afraid of was a drift. Not a drift of snow, but a drift of cattle.
"I knew those steers would only stay still a certain length of time, then one of them would start movin' leaward, with the whole bunch followin'. And they'd march that way into the snow, until every blessed one of them dropped, and died where it fell. First the little calves. Then the mothers, who'd stick by their babies until they died, too. Then the cows of the herd who weren't so strong. An' last, some big, proud long-horn would drop in his tracks an' die. An' there wouldn't be nothin' left of the herd except dots in the snow along the path. That's what we call a drift.
"I knew if they ever started driftin' I couldn't save them. I could try to turn them by rushin' my bronc into them, but it wouldn't do no good. It needs at least six men to do that job. An' even then, if they once get well started, I don't think they'd turn aside fer nothin'. So I just sat on my pony an' waited. The snow kept gettin' higher, and the wind colder an' colder. The cows were moanin' heavy now. I saw 'em shift once or twice, an' my heart went in my throat, but they settled down once more to just breathin' hard. How I did hope that Joe made the ranch. I sort of felt that if help didn't come soon the drift would start. It takes so long for a cow to get the idea she wants to move, and when she gets the notion into her head, her legs start goin' themselves, an' keep goin' until something bigger and stronger than she is stops her. I knew that the only thing would stop this bunch, once they started, would be death.
"All of a sudden the moanin' of the cattle grew louder. I rode up close to them an' saw what the reason was, and it made me catch my breath. A big cow was steppin' slowly out, head low, right into the gale. The drift had started.
"I rode hard at the brute that was leadin'. She never paid no attention to me whatever. Then I drew my gun and shot her, but the cow behind kept right on goin'. An' back of her the rest started movin'. Unless something happened quick the show was over.
"Then I heard what I'd been hopin' an' prayin' for—a yell! Through the screamin' of the wind I could hear Joe's voice whoopin' it up, an' believe me, it was the most welcome sound I'd ever heard. The next minute the whole gang from the ranch, in a flyin' wedge, rode right into that bunch of long-horns, and split them wide open!
"That saved them. They was scared out of the drift, an' we soon drove them down behind a hill, where the wind wouldn't get at them, and they could reach the grass through the snow. Joe had made it just in time, though how he found the ranch in that storm is still a mystery, even to him."
The boys on the rail sat silent for a moment. Then out from the kitchen of the ranch house there came the blast of a horn.
"Grub!" Yellin' Kid shouted. "Let's eat, boys!"
Bud stood listening, with bated breath, to the conversation on the other side of the closed door. He heard the words "to-morrow night" and "all set" repeated several times. With his ears strained he leaned forward until his shoulder was almost touching the door. If they would only talk just a little bit louder——
Suddenly Bud lost his balance. He had been so tense that he had not realized how precarious his position was, the smallest noise being sure to alarm the occupants of the room. Now his foot slipped, and, with a crash, he went headlong against the door!
There was a quick scraping of chairs within, and voices raised in excited outcry. Bud recoiled from the fall as fast as he might, and, springing down the hall, he made for the front door. By this time the plotters had emerged from the room and had seen Bud in his wild sprint for safety.
"Grab him!" someone shouted. "Get him, Jack! He's been listening! Jump on his neck!"
"Jump on him yourself! What's the matter, are you tied to the floor?"
"Never mind those wise-cracks!" came Delton's voice. "Out that door quick, and nab him!"
Bud had reached the porch, and looked desperately about him. Where were the horses? A sudden neigh answered his thought, and he dashed around to the side of the house. The ponies were tethered to a rail not one hundred yards away. Luckily Bud's horse was among them.
"All you've got, bronc! We're holding our own, anyway. Gee!" A report sounded behind him and he heard the whine of a bullet. "They mean business, all right! On your way, pony!"
The feet of his mount scarcely seemed to touch the ground, so fast did he travel. On and on they flew, keeping their distance and even gaining.
"Stick to it, old boy!" Bud exhorted his bronco. "We're as good as they are, any day! Can't last forever! Wow!" Another bullet sang through the air. "That was a close one. If I had a gun you wouldn't be so free with your lead. All I've got to depend on is what's under me. But you'll do, old boy, you'll do! Step on it!"
Across the open prairie flew the chase, Bud in the lead about five hundred yards. His pony was tiring now, the breath was coming in short gasps. Bud consoled himself with the thought that his followers' mounts were probably in worse case.
"Just a little more, bronc!" he coaxed. "Soon be home! At-a-baby—yo-yo-yo!" He kept in cadence with his pony's gallop, and it seemed to him that she responded with a further burst of speed. He looked back again. Certainly he was increasing the distance between himself and his pursuers! They appeared a greater distance from him than when they had started. Now the country they were passing through assumed a familiar aspect, but Bud was too excited to notice it until he reached the water hole.
"Luck!" he exulted. "I headed in the right direction. Don't think I'll be followed much beyond this. Let's see—" He turned in his saddle. To his surprise there was no one in sight.
"Made it! Bronc, old boy, I offer you my sincere thanks! No, don't slow down just yet. A little more—" He kept up his fast pace until he was well beyond the water hole, then, with a final look behind him, he pulled down to a walk.
"Guess we're O.K. now. What a chase! Say, bronc, it's too bad we didn't have a movie camera somewhere around. Hero being chased by the villains. Bang—bang—another Indian bit the dust! Anyway, I'm glad we're out of that mess. What was the idea of the whole thing, anyhow?
"Don't see what they wanted with me. And 'to-morrow night'! Evidently they figure on some sort of dirty work. Now that they know I've heard part of their plans they may not pull anything."
Off in the distance Bud could now see the buildings of Shooting Star. As he rode up, the Kid was nailing a board to the lower part of the ranch house, and had his back to Bud. He turned swiftly as he heard the hoof-beats of Bud's horse.
"Come in—come in!" he called. "Have a good trip? How are all the babies—and Aunt Sarah? You must be plumb worn out, ridin' all the way from Arken-saw on a hot day like this."
"Quit your kidding," Bud answered with a smile. "When I tell you what did happen you'll think I have a good right to be worn out. First, though, is there any chuck left?"
"What—they didn't even feed you? Well now, I thought you'd had a chicken dinner. Sure, Bud, come on in, an' we'll get Mex on the job."
The best they could do in the culinary line on short notice was beans, but Bud filled up mightily on them. When the edge had been taken off his hunger he asked the Kid:
"Where's the rest of the bunch?"
"Town, most of 'em. Billee Dobb is at the back fixin' his saddle. Nort and Dick went on into town again after a load of grub came, to see if they could pick up that sheep-man Hawkins told us about, and to grab me off a pony. Where were you, Bud?"
"Therein lies a tale," answered Bud, "and I don't mean maybe. Listen, Kid, and try to control your well-known faculties for humor 'til I get this off my chest."
In as few sentences as possible, Bud related to Yellin' Kid the events of the morning. Contrary to his expectations, his story was taken as it was told, seriously.
"Delton, hey? Didn't see my missin' bronc around, I suppose?"
"No, I didn't, Kid. Saw enough besides that. Well, what's the dope? What do you think about it all?"
"I think you were pretty lucky, for one thing," declared the Kid. "Another thing I think is that the plan they set for to-morrow night—whatever it is, will be carried out."
"What makes you think that?"
"Didn't you say you heard someone talk about 'even if Jake doesn't know about the Shooting Star'?"
"Yes—I did hear that."
"Well, that means they're going to take a chance on going through with their plan, because they can't get word to the other side that this place has changed hands. An' they won't stop because they caught you listenin'."
"Say, you might be right at that, Kid. That's going some, though, to push things like that, when they know their plan has been overheard. Of course I didn't actually hear it all, but I heard enough to know it has something to do with this ranch. And the time is to-morrow night."
"That will hurry up the deputy's idea, won't it? If things break right, we might have a chance to collect that reward."
"Let's not think about that now. What we have to do is to get hold of the rest and tell them what happened, and ask Mr. Hawkins if this will change his plan. He's in town, isn't he?"
"Should be. Dick'll know—he rode in with him."
"Say, Kid, before I forget it—I heard something that didn't sound so good about that Mexican cook of ours. Delton let slip the hint that he was one of his men—didn't exactly say that, but he led me to believe he was."
"Did, hey? Well, I've been kind of suspicious of that Greaser ever since we found him here alone, when the rest had beat it. Don't seem reasonable that one man would stay at a ranch that has been cleaned out, unless he had some business there. Delton's idea may have been to let him stay and spy on us. Think we ought to kick him out?"
"That means we've got to find another cook. No, I think it will be all right to let him stay if we watch him carefully. He sure is one peach of a cook—I'll say that for him—and I don't think he'd deliberately try to poison us."
"Oh, I'm not afraid of that. Of course we could make him taste each dish he cooks for us, like they do in stories, but he'd sure suspect something then. I believe in keeping a secret to yourself."
"You mean not letting him know we suspect him?"
"Yep! That's it. We can watch him if he doesn't know he's bein' watched, but as soon as he knows we got something on him, we're through."
"You're right about that, Kid. Say, where did you say the others were?"
"In town. Ought to be back soon, though. Billee Dobb is around some place in back. Want to see him?"
"No, I'll wait till Nort and Dick get here and spill it all at once. Let's go out."
The two arose and walked toward the yard. As they passed through the door the Kid looked sharply about him, but the Mexican cook was nowhere in sight. His lesson had been learned when the Kid had caught him listening before.
They hadn't long to wait before they heard the approach of two riders. Dick and Nort had returned.
"Something happened," Nort exclaimed after he had dismounted.
"How do you know?" Bud asked with wide-open eyes.
"I mean to us. Why, did something happen to you, too?"
"I'll tell you about it in a minute. Let's hear your story first."
"Not much of a story," Dick said. "We saw Delton."
"You did! Where?"
"You remember that water hole the Kid found the Chinaman at?"
"Well, Nort and I decided to take another look at it on our second trip back from town, so we rode over. It isn't so far from here. And as we reached it—only about an hour ago—we saw a group of men talking. We rode up easy, but they heard us and beat it. We saw one of them, though. It was Delton."
"And do you know what he was doing there?" Bud asked with a quizzical smile.
"Chasing me! I found the water hole, too, and something else and this Delton dragged me for miles and locked me in a room. Then I got out and his gang followed me to the water hole, where I lost them."
"Hey, take it easy! Start from the beginning. Let's hear it, Bud."
Nort and Dick listened eagerly as Bud once again told the tale of his capture.
A NIGHT OF WAITING
"The old rascal!" Nort exclaimed after Bud had finished. "So that's what they were doing at the water hole? If we had known that we would have taken a chance and rushed them."
"Just as well you didn't," Bud declared. "Wouldn't have gained anything by it. And anyway, we don't want to upset their plans for to-morrow night. The Kid, here, thinks they'll go through with the idea."
"Don't be too sure," warned Dick. "It may never come off, since they know Bud overheard them planning."
"Yes, but don't you see they can't get word to the others in time?" the Kid insisted. "They can't call it off. The other end of the smuggling line has already made plans that they can't break, so this end has to go through with their scheme. At least that's the way I look at it."
"Seems reasonable," Dick agreed. "But just the same I think it's better to be prepared."
"Naturally. What did you find out about the sheep-man, Dick?"
The latter spoke of one tentatively engaged and told the Kid his new horse would be sent over in a day or so.
The remainder of the day went quickly. When evening came the boys were excitedly making plans for the following night. After "chuck" they gathered around the table in the sitting room and discussed ways and means. The Kid was in favor of drastic action.
"No, we've got to go slowly," Dick cautioned. "This isn't strictly our affair, you know. The government is interested in it. And it's anything but a joking matter. The other adventures we had—at Spur Creek and in the desert—were our own concern entirely. This is different. Hawkins hasn't said so, but I think it means a lot to him if we aid in capturing the smugglers."
"Thought you were out here to herd sheep?" Billee Dobb put in.
"We were—at first. But there's no use trying to dodge the issue—from now on until this business is finished, we have one job on hand—to help stop Chink smuggling. The sheep can wait."
"That's the stuff!" Yellin' Kid burst out. "I was waitin' to hear you say that, Dick. Might as well look things in the face! We've gotten too deep into this to drag freight now!"
"You're right, Kid," approved Bud. "And truth to tell, I'm not a bit sorry. I don't care for Delton a-tall. We'll go through with this, and finish it up right."
"And get my ole bronc back," the Kid said loudly.
"We might do that, too," Dick laughed. "Well, let's hit the hay. Plenty to do to-morrow."
The night passed quietly. The punchers were up with the sun, all eager for the task on hand. Directly breakfast was over, Dick and Bud rode to town in order to see Hawkins. All thought it best that the deputy should learn, as soon as possible, of the new development, for he might want to change his plans in accordance. The boys found him in his office.
"Come in, boys!" he invited when Dick and Bud stood in the doorway. "How's everything? Any more cyclones?"
"Not yet," answered Bud with a laugh. "The weather is quiet, but that's the only thing that is."
"What do you mean?" the deputy asked quickly.
Without any preliminaries Bud told the story of his capture and escape. The deputy listened carefully, now and then asking a question. When Bud had finished he sat silent for a moment, drumming his desk with his fingers. Suddenly he brought his fist down with a bang and looked up.
"That settles it!" he cried in a decided tone of voice. "Delton is finished! From now on we go after him tooth and nail! And I want you boys to know something. I can rely on you, of course, to keep it a secret." Strangely the deputy's western accent seemed to leave him, and he assumed a more cultured tone of voice. He held a shiny piece of metal out toward Bud. "I'm from Washington—Secret Service—here's my badge."
Bud took it silently. It was, indeed, the badge of a federal official.
"I took this job as an ordinary deputy to disarm suspicion," Hawkins went on. "I knew if I came to Roaring River as a stranger I'd be investigated, and perhaps have to give myself away. So I just got myself appointed a deputy, and then I could work openly. No one would suspect a western deputy of being a federal man—there's too many of them. Now you know why I'm so interested in this smuggling. We've simply got to stop it—somehow! Even the Chinese who are in this country legitimately don't like to see their countrymen come in by the back door. And what good are immigration laws if we can't enforce them? I'm just telling you this to impress upon you the seriousness of the project."
"It is certainly no joking matter," Bud agreed, handing back the badge. "So you're a federal man! I should think if you wanted to trace the smugglers secretly you'd take another position than deputy."
"You'll see how it will work out," Hawkins said. "It's sometimes best to seem almost what you are, to avoid seeming what you really are. Figure that one out. What I mean is, if I openly assume the aspect of a man of the law, no one will look further than that. Understand?"
"I do," responded Dick. "And now let's decide on our plan of action. Do you think what happened to Bud will change any of the details, Mr. Hawkins?"
"Don't see why it should. In fact I think it makes our scheme all the more advisable. Personally, I believe the run will go through to-night. There's no doubt but that's what you heard referred to, Bud, for I had a tip concerning the same thing. They will depend on the element of surprise and the superiority in number to succeed. We'll have our hands full, at any rate."
"Somehow this doesn't seem real," mused Bud. "Here we are planning to capture a gang of smugglers who know we're after them, yet they go right ahead and play into our hands."
"My dear boy," said Hawkins grimly, "you don't quite understand. Delton is far from playing into our hands. In fact, if truth be told, our chances are rather slim that we'll ever see Delton. He's no baby. But I think we've got him beaten in one way—the gang across the border doesn't know what we know. Now here's the situation." Dick and Bud came closer. "A shipload of Chinks have just landed in Mexico. Never mind how I know, but I do. These Chinese have got to be smuggled over the border within three days, to make room for another bunch. All right. This gang in Mexico corresponded with Delton last week, telling him that he was to receive the Chinks on a certain night.
"There's one thing we want to make sure of—and that is to avoid frightening them off. Has there been much action around your ranch?"
"None at all. We've kept things pretty quiet."
"That's good. Tell you—I think it would be best if you fellows would stay as close to the ranch house as possible, until this thing is over. You see the smugglers might send out a one man auto patrol, some time to-day or this evening, to look over the lay of the land, and if he sees anything suspicious the chances are that he'll choose another route to ship the Chinks over the border by. But I don't think they'll go far from Roaring River. They got away with it so easy last time, that they'll probably try it again. Well—" Hawkins tightened his lips grimly—"they won't work it twice."
"Any more instructions?" Dick asked.
"No—I'll be over to the Shooting Star sometime this afternoon. May bring a friend with me—Larry O'Connor—one sweet shot with a revolver. That is if I think we need him."
"Well, we've got five men all told," Dick declared. "And all of us are fairly used to handling guns. Target practice at tin cans keeps your eye in, and we do lots of that."
"Good idea, if you can afford the money for ammunition. Never know when you'll need to rely on a well-placed shot."
"Are you just going to ride over to the ranch openly?" Bud asked. "Won't someone see you?"
"Even if they do, they won't suspect anything. But to make sure I'll wait until after dark. Guess that would be best. No attempt will be made until well on into the night, and we'll have plenty of time to get set for them."
"Then we'll see you to-night?" inquired Dick as he arose.
"Sure thing! Oh, by the way—keep an eye on that Mex cook of yours, will you? I want him where I can grab him quick if I need him."
"We will. Good-bye until to-night, Mr. Hawkins."
Bud and Dick rode back to the Shooting Star. As soon as possible they told the others of their talk with Hawkins, and of his being a secret service official. Billee Dobb said he "opined as much long ago."
The day dragged on. The boys were all slightly nervous, though they wouldn't admit it. Several times one would catch the other fingering his gun unconsciously. But evening finally came, and while they were eating supper Joe Hawkins arrived. He was alone.
"Thought you were going to bring someone with you?" Bud said when the greetings were over.
"Decided it wasn't necessary. We've got plenty here. Now, boys, are you all set?"
"All set!" the Kid said loudly. "Bring 'em on!"
"They'll come without us bringing them," Hawkins declared a trifle grimly. "Turn that lamp low, Dick, and let's get out of here."
"What about the Mex?" inquired the Kid.
"Bring him along," the agent declared. "Want him where I can keep an eye on him."
In spite of his wordless protests, the cook was dragged out of the kitchen and made to accompany the punchers to a place near the side of the house. And there the six men watched, each with his hand on his gun and with ears strained for the sound of a car. There was a road which ran past the ranch and into the town. It was over this road that the watching men expected the smugglers to come.
And now all settled down to a night of waiting.
Hardly a breath of wind stirred. The sky had become partly clouded, blotting out the moon. Now and then a horse whinnied, softly, as though frightened. The waiting men moved about uneasily, talking in whispers. Nine o'clock passed. Then ten came. The air grew chill and damp, and the clouds overhead gathered more thickly.
"Gonna rain," said the Kid in a low voice. "We sure are favorites with the weather man."
"May hold off," Bud observed softly. He moved over to where Hawkins was standing, eyes peering down the road. "What do you think of it?" he asked the agent.
"Not much," was the quiet answer. "Looks like rain. That means we'll have a hard job to see them when they do come."
"Hey, the Mex wants to go back," the Kid said, lowering his voice. "He's cold, I guess."
"You tell him to stay where he is, or he'll be colder yet," Hawkins said in a grim voice. "We can't afford to take any chances now. Bring that Mex over here. I want to talk to him."
"What's that?" Dick suddenly asked.
They all listened tensely. In the distance they could hear a low rumble.
"Thunder," Nort said. "First night storm we've had in a long while."
"Where's that Mexican?" inquired Hawkins again. "Bring him here, Kid."
Yellin' Kid led the cook to where Hawkins was intently watching the road. The agent turned to the Mexican and stared hard at him.
"You know Jose Salvo?" he asked suddenly.
The Mexican nodded vigorously. Then he pointed to himself and held up two fingers.
"His brother? Well, what do you know about that!" plainly the secret service agent was surprised. "No wonder you look like him! Bud, you remember that Mexican we saw in the restaurant the first day you hit town? The one I told you to watch out for? Well, this bird is his brother!"
"I thought it was the same one, when we first saw him! His brother, eh? And what's he doin' at this ranch?"
The Mexican apparently heard the question, and endeavored to answer it. In the gloom they could see his arms and hands motioning forcibly, but none of them were able to understand the message.
"Better wait," suggested Billee Dobb. "The poor critter is almost scared out of his wits. He may have a bad brother, but I think he's O. K. himself. I'll watch him for you. Over here, Mex!" he ordered sharply.
The cook walked slowly over to Billee, and squatted down beside him. He looked up at the old rancher as a calf might look for protection to a cow.
"I'll depend on you to see that he doesn't pull any funny work," Hawkins said to Billee. "When the show starts we'll have our hands full, and we don't want any slip-ups."