Bud slowly shook his head.
"Why not?" asked Nort, seeing his cousin's denial of the theory that fitted in so well with his own ideas.
"Well, they don't mine this way—that is, I've never seen any done in this fashion, and I've been in several mining localities," spoke Bud. "This looks more like they'd been prospecting for water, digging here, there and everywhere. But there wasn't any need of that, for here's a good spring of water, and the river isn't so far away. This is a good watered country, and that's what makes it so valuable for cattle—you've got to have grass and water and we've got that on Diamond X."
"But what do you s'pose this all means?" asked Nort again, as he slipped from his saddle, and, by pulling the reins forward, over his pony's head, thus gave that animal the universal sign of the plains that it was not to wander.
"I don't know," Bud was frank to say, as he shook his head. "They sure have been tearing up the ground," he added, as he noticed on the side hill, where there was an outcropping of red sandstone, that many excavations had been made.
"If it isn't gold maybe it's silver," suggested Dick, willing to accept a theory of less valuable metal. "Or diamonds!" and his eyes gleamed as he overmatched his brother's guess.
"Nothing doin!" laughed Bud. "Of course there are silver mines not far from here, down Mexico way, and diamonds have been found in the United States, but not around this locality."
"Well, what's your theory?" asked Nort of the more experienced boy rancher. "Here we've been gassing along, saying what we thought, and we don't know any of the ins and outs of the matter. You're right on the ground, and you've lived here all your life, so you ought to have some idea of what it all means."
"But I don't!" exclaimed Bud. "Wish I did," he added, as he joined his cousins on foot, walking about the debris of the camp, while the ponies sniffed, here and there, sometimes finding a choice morsel which they daintily lipped before eating.
"You'd say they were hunting for something, wouldn't you?" asked Nort.
"Yes, I'd go that far," admitted Bud.
"And they didn't find it," put in Dick.
"What makes you think so?" asked the young rancher quickly.
"Well, there isn't any hole, or any excavation, where they could have taken out a treasure chest, or bags of hidden gold; not to say mined gold," went on Dick. "In all the stories of recovered treasure I ever read, they always left a hole where they took out the stuff. There isn't any hole like that here, though there's enough to show that plenty of digging went on."
"I don't believe they've been after any gold, or anything like that," declared Bud. "That professor man said so, but——"
"But was he telling the truth?" asked Nort. "That's what we got to figure on."
"I s'pose," agreed Bud. "And from what I know of the country and sizing up this outfit, I'd say he was—they aren't after gold."
"What then?" asked Dick. "A man—two men like Professor Blair and Professor Wright don't hire an outfit such as they had, and prospect for nothing!"
"You are right," quietly agreed Bud. "They're after something, but I reckon it's something we don't know anything about."
"Maybe they were trying to run off some of your cattle, or some steers from the Circle T," suggested Nort. "Cattle rustlers; eh, Bud?"
"If they're cattle rustlers they're a new kind," said the ranch boy. "But of course it's possible. It may be they've gone into cattle rustling on a new scale, to throw everybody off the track, and finding out we were on to their curves, or maybe on account of having a fight among themselves, they couldn't turn the trick."
"That's right!" exclaimed Nort, in his impulsive way. "Maybe instead of being attacked by Greasers and Indians, who thought they could get some gold, the professor's bunch had a fight among themselves, and that's how those two men got hurt."
"It's possible," admitted Bud. "But, as Zip Foster would say, I don't believe that's the right of it either."
"Would Zip Foster know what all this meant?" asked Dick, waving his hand toward the deserted camp.
"Maybe," murmured Bud, turning quickly aside. "But there's no use staying here any longer. We can't learn anything here. Might as well get back to the ranch. If you fellows are ever going to learn to throw a rope, you've got to do some practicing."
"What's the matter with doing it here?" asked Dick. "We've got ropes with us."
To each saddle was looped the cowboy's most dependable friend aside from his horse and his gun—the ever-present lariat. Bud was an accomplished swinger of the rope, and Dick and Nort had been practicing hard since coming to Diamond X.
"Yes, we can try a few throws here," said Bud, as he walked toward his horse. "I'll sit up here and watch you two," he went on, as he leaped to his saddle, and pulled up his pony which had, as was usual, started off the moment he felt a weight on his back. "I can see you better up here," Bud went on. "Try it standing first. Tackle some of those stumps, and for cat's sake remember to keep your palms up when you shoot the rope out. You'll never be accurate until you do."
The brothers tried, one after the other, and Bud encouraged them by saying that they were improving.
"Now you show us," begged Nort, when his arm began to ache, for throwing a long coiled rope is no easy task.
"All right," agreed Bud. "But I'll try it from the saddle. It comes more natural to me that way, and nine times out of ten you do all your roping from the saddle. Of course this isn't regular, for you don't generally rope standing objects," he went on. "Sock isn't used to that, and he expects a pull on the rope after I fling it. But I'll try for that stump you fellows have been mistreating," and Bud laughed.
He rode Sock, his pinto pony, off a little way, coiling his rope in readiness as he did so. Then, wheeling quickly, and with a wild, inspiring "Yip-yippi!" the young rancher came riding fast toward a low, broad stump the two other lads had, more or less successfully, been trying to rope.
His right hand shot out, palm up, his cousins noticed, and the rope went twisting and turning through the air, lengthening out like a long, thin snake, and almost hissing like one. Instinctively, as though roping a steer, Bud prepared himself for the pull that always followed.
Sock, the intelligent pony, braced his feet to hold back as soon as he sensed that Bud had thrown the rope. For Sock had been taught that he must always do this when a steer was being roped, and though he could distinguish between a stump and an animal, Bud's action seemed to call for co-operation on Sock's part.
The coils of the lariat whirled through the air, and, just as they were about to settle over the stump, there was a sudden movement in a leaf-filled hole beside the remains of what had once been a big tree.
Up out of this burrow, or hole, where he had been lying asleep among dried leaves and grass that concealed him from the boys, rose a human figure. He was so close to the stump and he rose up in such a manner leaning slightly over, as if dazed from too sudden awakening from a sound slumber, that he received the noose of Bud's rope fairly about his shoulders!
So suddenly did the man appear, popping out of the hole beside the stump like a Jack in the Box, that Sock was startled, and pranced back, exactly as he would have done in order to drag a refractory steer off its feet. And this was just what took place with the man.
The noose tightened about his middle and he was dragged over the flat top of the stump, yelling and shouting in protest.
Nort and Dick did not know what to think—whether it was an accident, or a bit of play arranged for their benefit by their cousin. But a look at Bud's face was enough to convince them that he was as much surprised as were they.
There was a series of shrill yells of protest from the roped man—shrill language which Nort and Dick recognized as Mexican-Spanish, and then, as Bud stopped his pony, and the rope loosened, the man stood up. He scowled at the boys—a menacing figure of a Greaser, dirty and unkempt.
"Del Pinzo!" gasped Bud, as he recognized the fellow. "Del Pinzo! I didn't know you were near that stump!"
The man's answer was a deeper scowl, and his hand went toward the holster at his hip—a holster that Nort and Dick noted with relief was empty. For Del Pinzo's gun had fallen out as he was dragged by Bud's lasso from the hole beside the stump where he had been hiding.
"My mistake, Del Pinzo! My mistake!" exclaimed Bud, smiling as good-naturedly as possible under the circumstances. The young rancher leaped from Sock (so called because he had one white foot that looked exactly as if he had on a sock) and approached the Mexican, who had begun to loosen the lariat from around his body.
"I sure didn't know you were there, Del Pinzo," went on Bud, soothingly. "I was just showing these tenderfeet how to throw a rope, pronto,—when up you sprout, and get the benefit of it. Hope I didn't ruffle you any?" asked Bud.
"Hum! Too much pronto!" muttered the man, but his face lost some of its scowl as he realized it had been an accident.
"What's pronto?" whispered Dick to Nort, noting that his brother had half drawn his gun, though there was no need of this action.
"Means quick," translated Bud, who overheard the question. "I was a little too quick with my rope. But I didn't know anybody was behind that stump."
"Nor I," said Dick, while Bud began gathering in the length of his lariat.
"I—sleep!" said the Mexican; with some of the gutturalness of the Indian. "No got a right to sleep?" he asked, half sarcastically, as he recovered his gun from where it had slipped from its holster.
"Sure you got a right to sleep," admitted Bud cheerfully. "This isn't Diamond X land, nor yet Double Z," he added, with a quick glance around. "Not that you wouldn't have a right to take a snooze if it was Diamond X," Bud went on. "Well, I reckon we'll mosey along," he said slowly, making a sign to Dick and Nort to mount their ponies. "Got to get back to the ranch."
"Um!" was all the remark Del Pinzo made as he brushed himself off. Bather a useless proceeding it would appear, for he was always dirty and unkempt to the last degree.
"Who is he?" asked Dick of Bud as the three boy ranchers rode along the homeward trail, now out of earshot of the man Bud had so unceremoniously roped.
"Oh, he's a sort of Mexican half breed," was the answer. "Not very safe to have on the range during round-up."
"Why not?" asked Nort, as he turned to catch a last glimpse of the Mexican slinking off amid the foothills.
"Well, he and his kind don't stop to look at the brand on a steer if they happen to feel hungry," explained Bud. "They'll cut one out of the herd, or appropriate a maverick, or an unbranded calf, and feast up on it. They'll skin it, salt down the hide after they blur the brand, and get away with it."
"What's blurring a brand?" asked Dick.
"Putting a hot iron on it over the brand that's already there," explained Bud. "Some brands can be changed from one to another without much trouble, but when this can't be done a cattle thief will simply make a botch of the brand, and it's a pretty slick ranchman who will swear, out of hundreds of steers and calves, that any particular one is his, if he can't make out the brand or earmarks clearly."
"Earmarks?" questioned Nort.
"Sometimes we clip a piece out of a calf's ear," explained Bud, "as well as branding 'em. Each ranchman has his own particular earmark for his cattle. But either may be botched or blurred by a thief if he's cute enough."
"And does this Del Pinzo do that?" asked Nort, a little thrilled at having been in such close association with a cattle thief.
"I wouldn't put it past him, and the gang he hangs out with," Bud answered. "Maybe that's what he was up to when I roped him."
"Where does he hang out?" asked Dick.
"He's supposed to work on the Double Z ranch—Hank Fisher's place," was the reply. "And Hank doesn't bear any too good a reputation around here."
"Maybe he was one of the men the professors hired, and who afterward turned against them," suggested Dick.
"Maybe," assented Bud. "I'd like to know what that camp meant," he murmured as he rode on with his cousins.
"If they aren't after gold, they're after something, and they're making a secret of it," declared Nort. "And meeting Professor Wright the night an attempt was made to steal some of your cattle, Bud, makes it look as if the whole outfit might be trying to rustle off stock."
"Yes, it might, and again it might not," said the western lad. "I'd hate to think two decent-looking men, like Professor Blair and Professor Wright, would be cattle thieves. But you never can tell. Their learned appearance may be all bluff. I'd sooner think it was Del Pinzo and his gang. But he may be working with the professors. Anyhow, they haven't got away with anything yet, and they won't if dad's boys keep their eyes open. Only I would like to solve the mystery of that camp," and he looked back toward the deserted one, where some strange excavations had been made.
"Maybe we can trail 'em and find where they've gone," suggested Dick.
"Oh, we could find 'em if we wanted to," said Bud. "An outfit like that can't travel along in a ranch country and not leave a trail like an old buffalo wallow. But will it be worth while—that's the question? We'll soon be busy with the round-up at Diamond X, and no time for trailing mysteries."
"Well, the round-up won't last forever," said Nort, "and when it's over we can see what all this means. It'll be a pack of fun!"
"It sure will!" agreed his brother, "and we can stay here till snow flies."
"And then you'll want to hit the trail for home," laughed Bud. "Though we don't get as severe storms as they do farther north, nor do they come so early. But it's bad enough, sometimes."
"What's that?" suddenly asked Dick, rising in his stirrups and pointing to two or three figures of horsemen, down in a little swale, or valley. They were evidently engaged in some lively occupation, for they were riding rapidly to and fro, and from a fire, about which knelt three figures, a curl of smoke arose.
"They're stealing some of your cattle now!" cried Nort. "Come on! We'll capture 'em!"
He spurred his horse forward, an act instinctively followed by his brother. Bud, too, rode after them at a fast pace, but there was a smile on his countenance.
"Keep your shirts on, fellows!" he advised. "That's only some of the Diamond X outfit branding stray calves they come across. But it'll give you a chance to see how it's done."
Riding rapidly across the open plains, where, here and there as they topped little hills the boys could see cattle grazing, the boy ranchers approached the group in the swale. After a quick inspection of the oncomers, the cowboys about the fire went on with what they were doing.
Two of them held down on the ground a struggling calf, while the cow-mother of the little beast, lowing and shaking her head, endeavored to break past two other cowboys who were heading her away from the scene of the branding operations.
For that is what was going on. Some of the Diamond X cowboys had come upon an unbranded calf with its mother as they rode across the prairies. As they were on their employer's land they knew the unmarked animal must belong to him, and it ought to be at once permanently identified as Mr. Merkel's property.
It was the work of but a moment for one of the cowboys to lasso the little bawling creature, and drag it to where he wanted it.
While some of the cowboys held the calf, not taking the time to "hog tie" the creature, others headed off the frantic cow-mother. Then a fire was made of greasewood twigs, and the branding iron, which one of the cowboys carried at his saddle, was put in the flames to heat. When hot enough it was pressed on the flank of the calf, burning into the hair and slightly into the hide, the diamond with the X in the centre—the mark of Bud's father's cattle.
As the men released the calf, it staggered to its feet, uttered a feeble bawl or two, and ran to its mother, who at once began to lick with her tongue the branded place.
"Where you headin', Bud?" asked Yellin' Kid Watson, one of the cowboys who had been engaged in the impromptu branding operations.
"Headin' home," answered the rancher's son.
"Then you haven't heard the news?" asked Snake Purdee.
"What news?" asked Bud, while Nort and Dick listened eagerly.
"Bad business," went on Yellin' Kid. "A lot of your dad's choice stock was run off from the far range a while ago. Tar Blake just rode in and give notice. Bad business!"
"I should say so!" agreed Bud. "Who did it; Greasers or some of that outfit?" and he motioned back to the camp he and his cousins had just left.
Yellin' Kid, Snake and the other cowboys stamped out the brands of the grease-wood fire, coiled their lariats and mounted their ponies before anyone answered Bud's question. He did not repeat it, knowing the character of the men to whom he was speaking. Then, as Old Billie Dobb, who might have been a foreman a dozen times over if he had only proved more reliable, spoke up and said:
"We don't know who did it, Bud; an' your paw don't neither! Tar just rid in with th' news, as we rid out to do some fence mendin'. We wanted to stop an' hear th' particulars, but your paw said for us to mosey over this way, an' we done so. He said if we seen you boys to send you home."
"We're heading that way," Bud answered. "We were just over to the camp where they had trouble the other night, but they've vamoosed."
"Can't see what they ever come here for," spoke Yellin' Kid. "An' it wouldn't s'prise me a bit if them fellers proved to be the cattle rustlers."
"Nor me," declared Nort, impulsively, thus drawing attention to himself.
"Well, you know all we do, Bud," spoke Billie Dobb. "Maybe your paw'll have more news by th' time you get there. Tell him you met us an' that we'll be back as soon as we find th' break an' fix it. It's a big bust, the report has it, an' he don't want th' cattle to stampede out."
"All right, we're going," declared Bud. "Come on, fellows," he called to his cousins, and they galloped away toward the ranch headquarters, while the cowboys rode on their way, Yellin' Kid singing at the top of his voice. The boy ranchers passed the newly branded calf, its mother still licking the burned place, but the little creature did not seem much to mind what had happened, for it was eating grass.
"Who broke the fence?" asked Nort, as he and Dick rode along on either side of Bud, whose horsemanship they were trying to imitate.
"Hard to say," was the answer. "Sometimes it's Greasers, and again Indians, who hope to get a few cattle in the confusion if a herd gets out. Then again something may have frightened the cattle themselves, and in a rush they may have broken through. Generally it's the cattle themselves, and then we have to rush a bunch of cowboys to mend the break, some of 'em stringing new wire while others keep the steers, cows and calves from coming out on the open range."
"Say, there's been a lot of excitement since we came here!" declared Nort, his eyes shining in delight at the prospect of more.
"Oh, there's always more or less going on like this," said Bud. "If it isn't one thing it's another, though I must say we haven't had anything like those queer professors in some time."
"I'd like to know what their game really is," remarked Dick.
"So would I!" exclaimed his more impulsive brother. "And I'd like to catch 'em at it when I had my gun loaded," and he tapped significantly the .45 on his hip.
"Don't be too fast with gun play," advised Bud calmly. "You'll find, if you ever become a rancher, that you'll use more powder on coyotes, rattlers and in driving cattle the way you want 'em to go, than you will on humans. There isn't so much shooting out here as the writers of some books would make out."
"Well, if there's only a little, I'll be satisfied," said Nort.
They reached the headquarters of Diamond X ranch without mishap, save that Dick's pony stepped into a prairie dog's hole, and threw his rider over his head. But Dick was rather stout, and cushioned with flesh as he was, a severe shaking-up was all the harm he suffered.
"They're nasty things at night—prairie dogs' burrows," said Bud. "But mostly a pony can see 'em in time to side-step. Yours just didn't—that's all."
"Yes, he—didn't!" laughed Dick, as he climbed back into the saddle.
There was enough excitement at Diamond X ranch to please even excitable Nort. As the other cowboys had said, one of Mr. Merkel's men from a distant ranch—Square M, to be exact—had ridden in to report that during the early morning hours several head of choice steers, that were being gotten ready for a rising market, had been driven off by rustlers. Leaving his companions in charge of the remaining cattle, Tar Blake—who got his name from his very black whiskers—had ridden to headquarters to give the alarm.
"Well, we'll see if we can trail these scoundrels!" declared Mr. Merkel, as Bud and his cousins rode up.
"Can't we go, dad?" asked Bud, as eagerly as Nort would have spoken. "Maybe it's the bunch from the queer professors' camp. Let us trail along!"
"Nope!" was the short answer from Mr. Merkel. "I've got other plans for you," he added quickly, and in a tone that took the sting out of his refusal. "You'll have plenty of excitement," he went on, "so don't look so down in the mouth, son. Get something to eat, and then pack your outfit for a few days. You've got to ride herd, while I pull in as many men as I can spare to trail these rustlers."
"What herd, dad?" asked Bud. "Over by Square M?" and he named the ranch where the thieving had taken place that morning.
"No, I want you to help haze that bunch from Triangle B over to the railroad yard. They've been showing signs of uneasiness, and I don't want 'em to bolt when they're on the last stretch. You'll find 'em over by the bend. Ride there, and tell Charlie Smith and Hen Wagner to come in. You'll relieve them. Dirk Blanchard will be with you, and so will Chot Ramsey, and you three ought to be able to bed 'em down to-night. Drive 'em along easy. Dirk knows how to do it, and there's plenty of water along the way. Don't hurry 'em; if you do they'll work off all their fat, and beef is too high now to waste it by running it off the hoof. Mosey along now!" and the ranchman turned from Bud to give other orders.
Nort and Dick, with one accord, started forward, but their cousin anticipated their appeal.
"Can't Nort and Dick come with me, dad?" asked Bud.
"Sure thing—if they want to," answered Mr. Merkel.
"As if we wouldn't want to!" murmured Nort. "Oh, boy!"
"Say! It'll be great—riding herd!" exclaimed Dick.
Several hours later found the boy ranchers within sight of the four hundred or more steers and cows they were to guard, and gradually head over to the railroad stock yards, whence they would be shipped to a distant city, there to be sold to the profit of Mr. Merkel.
"Whoop-ee!" came a distant hail from one of the cowboys left to guard the Triangle B cattle.
"Zip-sippy!" yelled Bud in answer, and a little later he was introducing his cousins to the cowboys.
"Oh, boy! Rustlers!" cried Charlie Smith, when informed that he and Hen Wagner were to form part of the pursuing posse.
"Just my rotten luck, I have to stay here!" complained Dirk, while Chot, to voice his disapproval of having to remain behind, slapped his pony with his hat and rode off over the prairie, only to return as fast as he went. It was his way of letting off steam.
The two cowboys, who were to join the bunch from Diamond X ranch, departed in haste, and then Bud and his cousins made preparations for spending several nights and days in the open, riding herd and hazing the cattle to their destination.
It was the season of warm nights, as well as days, though there was a certain coolness after dark. No tents were set up. Each man, or boy, was provided with a canvas tarpaulin, which was all the protection needed. The prairie itself would be their beds, their saddles their pillows and the grass a combination mattress and spring. They had packed enough food with them, and, if needed, a calf could be killed and eaten. There were water holes in plenty—in fact, they could live off the land.
Over a fire of greasewood, while the hobbled ponies rolled on the ground, the bacon was soon sizzling and the coffee brewing.
"Gosh, but I'm hungry!" cried Nort.
"You said something!" declared his brother, while Bud and the others smiled at the fresh enthusiasm of the easterners.
There was really not much to do after darkness had settled down, for the cattle were comparatively quiet, and after a full day of eating the sweet grass, having drunk their fill of water, they were content to lie under the silent stars.
But in order that none of the steers might start to stray away, and start a stampede, also in order that no thieves might sneak up in the darkness and "cut out" choice cattle, by this very operation also starting a panic, it was necessary to "ride herd."
That is, the cowboys, of whom Nort and Dick now counted themselves two, took turns in slowly riding around the bunched cattle during the night hours. As the early hours were always the ones when it was most likely trouble would happen, the two veteran cowboys volunteered for this service, leaving Bud and his cousins to make their beds, such as they were, near the little fire. The boy ranchers would relieve the others after midnight.
So, wrapped in their tarpaulins, their heads resting on their saddles, and their feet to the fire, the three boys looked up at the silent stars. They talked in low voices at first, for the voice of man is soothing to cattle. Now and then some cow lowed, or a steer snorted or bellowed. But, in the main, the animals were silent. And to this state Bud and his cousins soon came, for they were tired with their rather long ride late that afternoon.
"I wonder if any rustlers will come here?" spoke Dick to his brother, when Bud's regular breathing told that he had fallen asleep.
"Don't know—wish they would," Nort answered, half drowsily.
"Well, I'm ready for 'em," murmured Dick, as he felt of his gun where it lay in its holster at his side, though he had loosened his belt to lie down.
The night became more silent and colder. The two other cowboys were on the far side of the herd now, working around in opposite circles, meeting and passing one another. It would soon be time for them to turn in, and Bud and his cousins to turn out.
Nort was turning over to get into a more comfortable position, when he heard something hiss through the air with a swishing sound. For an instant he thought of rattlesnakes, but almost at once it was borne to his mind that he had heard this sound before—the swish of a lariat through the air.
He sat up quickly, straining his eyes in the direction of the sound. Just then a piece of the greasewood burned up brightly, and revealed to Nort this sight.
From somewhere in the darkness, beyond the circle of light, a lariat had coiled in among the lads. And as Nort looked, the coils settled over the head of his brother Dick. Before Nort could cry a warning, or scramble from under his tarpaulin, the rope tightened and Dick was pulled from his resting place near the fire out into the darkness, his frightened yells awakening the echoes, and startling the cattle into uneasy action.
THE ATTEMPT FOILED
It was only a moment that surprise held Nort motionless, sitting up there by the small fire of greasewood twigs, with the bunch of cattle moving uneasily in the darkness. Then, with a yell that had in it both warning and encouragement, Nort scrambled to his feet and made a grab for Dick, who was being dragged off in the loop of a lariat, the other end being manipulated by some one unseen.
"Hold it, Dick! Hold it!" cried Nort, as, many a time he had thus shouted encouragement to his brother on the football field. "Hold it!"
But Dick was unable to do this. Taken at a disadvantage, awakened from a half-sleep as he was, and dragged from a fairly comfortable bed, he was puzzled and confused, not to say frightened.
But he was capable of yelling, and this he did to the best of his ability.
"Here! Quit that! Let up! What you doing?" shouted Dick, for, as he said afterward, he thought it was one of the cowboys playing a trick on him, hazing a tenderfoot, perhaps, though Dick proudly imagined that he was fast graduating from that class.
The yells of the two brothers naturally awakened Bud who, being more used to sleeping in the open than were his cousins, had almost at once gone soundly to sleep. But it did not take the young rancher long to rouse himself.
"What's the matter? What's going on?" shouted Bud, and Nort had a glimpse of his cousin with his gun in his hand. This reminded Nort that he had left his weapon under his tarpaulin, and he made a dash to get it, mentally blaming himself for not proving more true to his idea of the traditions of the West, and having his revolver always with him.
With a quick motion of his foot, Bud shoved some unburned sticks of greasewood into the blaze. They flared up, and the young ranchman wheeled quickly, and tried to pierce the gloom into which Dick had been dragged.
But that lad had not been idle during this strenuous time. He had felt the lariat tightening about the upper part of his body, and he had let out a frightened yell. But he had done more than yell. He had grasped the rope with both hands, in a quick, upward motion, and had succeeded in slipping it off, over his head, a task he would have been unable to perform had his enemy had daylight in his favor. But, as it was, Dick succeeded in escaping the noose.
"Who is it? Who did that?" yelled Dick, as he managed to get to his feet, and staggered back toward his tarpaulin, evidently with the intention of seeking his gun.
But there came no answer out of the gloom.
Bud and Nort hurried over to Dick, who was rather dazed and ruffled up from the experience he had undergone.
"Hurt?" asked Nort, quickly.
"Not to speak of," answered Dick. "Was that one of the boys?" he asked, turning to Bud.
"One of our cowboys? No, they don't do such things," was the answer. "It must have been——"
He was interrupted by the rapid thuds of hoofs and, an instant later, there dashed into the circle of light Dirk and Chot, two of the men who had been left when the others rode away to get on the trail of the rustlers.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed Dirk, reining in his pony so suddenly that the animal slid with his forefeet almost in the embers of the fire.
"Somebody tried to rope Dick," answered Bud. "I didn't see it, but I had a glimpse of him being dragged off on the end of a lariat."
"I saw it come shooting in from out there," and Nort waved his hand toward the darkness.
"I felt it!" grimly declared Dick. "I just managed to slip it off in time."
"You were lucky," commented Chot. "Let's see who it was," he added. "Couldn't have been any of our lads," he said in a low voice. "I've known 'em to do such tricks, but not at a time like this. Might have been some fresh puncher from Double Z, but if it was——"
"Come on!" interrupted Dirk, satisfied from a glance that no harm had befallen Dick. Dirk wheeled his horse and rode off into the darkness, in the direction where the end of the lariat had disappeared, when the unseen thrower had pulled it to him after Dick's escape.
The two cowboys, who had been on the far side of the herd, had ridden hurriedly in on hearing the cries of the startled boys. And now they rushed off in the darkness, trying to find out who it was that had displayed such evil intentions.
For it was a desperate thing to do. A little higher up and the rope would have encircled Dick's neck, and it would have taken only a short time of pulling him across the ground to have choked him. He, himself, did not realize his danger until later.
For a few moments, after the arrival of Dirk and Chot from the far side of the resting herd, and their subsequent dash off into the darkness, Bud, Nort and Dick did nothing. They stood there around the greasewood fire, trying to understand clearly what had happened.
Then, from the herd of cattle came unmistakable signs of some disturbance. There were snorts and bellows, the mooing of cows and the stamping of hoofs. At the same time, from the far side, whence Dirk and Chot had ridden in, there came the murmur of voices.
"Rustlers!" cried Bud, understanding at once what it all meant now. "Dirk! Chot! Come on back! The rustlers are here! It's a trick! Come on back!"
"Rustlers!" exclaimed Nort.
"Yes!" shouted Bud. "That's their game! They tried to scare us so they could work in from the other side, and run off a bunch of steers. Dirk! Chot!" he cried again, making a megaphone of his hands, and sending his cry out into the night.
"Whoo-oop!" came faintly back to the boys, and then the thud of rapidly moving hoofs mingled with the movement of the cattle. For the steers and cows that were being hazed to the railroad yard were now in motion.
"Put some more wood on!" cried Bud. "If they stampede this way it may hold 'em back!"
"Will they stampede?" asked Dick.
"No telling. Somebody's in among 'em, over on that side, trying to cut out a bunch. We've got to held 'em in if we can! Get on your ponies!"
It was the work of but a few seconds to do this. The ponies had been staked out not far from the fire, which was now burning brightly from the amount of greasewood piled on it. Bud was first in the saddle, but his cousins were not far behind him.
And, as they mounted, and started to ride around the herd, to hold the now frightened and uneasy animals in check, Dirk and Chot galloped in out of the distant darkness.
"What's the matter?" shouted Dirk.
"Rustlers!" yelled Bud. "They tried that lasso stunt to draw you in from the far side, and now they're over there trying to cut out some steers."
"Well, I guess we'll have something to say about that!" grimly observed Chot. "Come on!"
Clapping spurs to his pony, he and Dirk began the work of milling the cattle—that is, getting them to move around in a circle rather than dash off in a straight line stampede. This turning of the herd, into a circular instead of a straight movement, is the only way to save the lives of the animals, or prevent them from being driven off by thieves.
Dick and Nort had been on Diamond X ranch long enough to understand what was being attempted, and they joined with Bud in the work. As Chot and Dirk rode back to take the stations they had left, firing their guns and shouting to turn the leaders, Bud and his cousins did the same in their locality.
As yet they had caught no sight of the rustlers, but it was very evident that these unscrupulous men were at work, trying to drive off some of the valuable animals, all fattened and ready for market. Confused shouts came from the direction where Chot and Dirk had ridden.
"Lively, boys! Lively!" cried Bud to the two easterners, and he fired his gun in the air as he rode toward the cattle that seemed inclined to dash past the circle of firelight.
Following their cousin, Dick and Nort dashed in, also firing, and the five cowboys—for Dick and Nort were now entitled to be called that—finally succeeded in milling the cattle, and preventing the stampede.
But it was hard work and it was nearly morning before the steers were quieted down after the excitement. The attempt of the rustlers had been foiled, for that time at least.
"Well, what do you make of it?" asked Bud of Dirk and Chot, when all five had the first moment of respite from the strenuous work of quieting the excited cattle. They had met near the fire, which was only glowing dully, now that its flame was not needed to head off the steers.
"Don't just know what to say," answered the older cowboy. "It all came so sudden."
"There must be two bands of rustlers around here," observed Chot. "That is, unless those your dad is after, Bud, gave him the slip and tried to operate here."
"Maybe there's only one gang, divided up for the night," suggested Nort.
"Well, of course it's only guesswork," stated Bud, "but I think this was an altogether different gang trying to put one over on us. And another thing—it was a Greaser who roped Dick."
"A Greaser!" cried Chot. "What makes you think so?"
"I had a glimpse of the noose," said Bud. "It wasn't tied the way any cow puncher ties his. It was a Greaser or I'll never speak to Zip Foster again!"
"Oh, you and your Zip Foster!" scoffed Chot. "But it may be that it was a sneakin' Mex trying his hand with the rope. You didn't see him, did you?" and he turned to Dick.
"No. The first I knew I was being snaked off, and I was mighty scared."
"Naturally," said Dirk dryly. He wanted to let the tenderfoot know that it was not considered unmanly to show signs of fear under the circumstances.
"Did you get a look at 'em, Chot?" asked Bud, turning to the cowboys. "I mean when you rode out there just before they tried to stampede us."
"Didn't see hide nor hair of 'em," was the answer.
"Well, they didn't get away with what they started after," declared Dirk. "And now, since it's so near morning, there isn't much use turning in until we have something to eat."
"I'll make coffee and sizzle some bacon," offered Bud, for he realized that he and his cousins had had some rest during the fore part of the night, while the cowboys were riding herd before the disturbance happened.
"And can't we circle around the cattle?" asked Nort.
"We could keep 'em quiet while you ate," suggested Dick.
"They seem to be fairly quiet now," remarked Dirk, "but it wouldn't do any harm to circle around 'em. If you have trouble, though," he added quickly, "fire your guns."
"We will!" exclaimed Nort, as he and Dick sprang for their horses. The boy ranchers were eager thus to take their first tour of duty alone, and they were much disappointed when nothing happened. The steers were quiet, after their tiresome racing around in a circle. But that was better than having them stampede, with the possible killing of many.
Slowly the light grew in the east, turning from pale gray to rose tints, and then the sun came up, making the dew-laden grass sparkle brightly. The cattle, many of which had been lying down, got up, rear ends first, which is what always distinguishes the manner of a "cow critter" arising from that of a horse.
Across the range blew wisps of smoke from the greasewood camp fire, and then came the smell of bacon and coffee, than which there is no aroma more to be desired in the world.
"Um!" murmured Nort, sniffing the air.
"Isn't that great?" cried his brother.
"It will be, if we can get some," said Nort, chuckling.
But he need not have worried, for, a few minutes later, there floated to the ears of the boy ranchers the call of Bud:
"Come an' get it!"
The cattle, around which they had been slowly riding, needed no attention now, and in a short time the five cowboys—for Nort and Dick could truly be called by this name now—were eating an early breakfast.
"One good thing came out of this fracas, anyhow," observed Chot, as he passed his plate for more flapjacks and bacon, and replenished his tin cup with coffee.
"What's that?" asked Dick, feeling his neck where the rough rope had broken the skin slightly.
"Well, we'll get an early start," answered the cowboy, "and that's a lot when you're hazing steers to the railroad. Every pound counts for the boss, and you can easily run off a thousand dollars by driving 'em along during the heat of the day. We can let 'em rest at noon if we start now."
"That's the idea," said Bud.
A little later, the remains of the camp fire having been carefully stamped out, to prevent dry grass from catching, packs were slung up behind the saddles—said packs consisting of sleeping canvas, a few utensils and grub—and the start was made.
The cattle were gradually headed in the direction it was desired that they should take—the shortest route to the railroad. Nort rode up ahead with Chot, while Dick, Bud and Dirk kept to the rear to haze along the stragglers.
There was not much trouble. The cattle had been watered and fed, and were in prime condition. At noon a halt was made to save the animals during the excessive heat, but toward evening they started off once more, and traveled until darkness fell. Camp was made again out in the open.
During the day no signs were seen of any rustlers, or other suspicious characters, and at night the young ranchers and the older cowboys took turns riding herd and standing guard.
But nothing of moment occurred, the only sounds, aside from those made by the cattle themselves, being the unearthly yells and howls of the coyotes.
In less than three days the bunch of cattle was safely delivered at the yards, where the responsibility of Bud and his companions ended, the buyer taking charge of them for shipment.
"Did you get the rustlers, Dad?" asked Bud as he and his cousins, with Dirk and Chot, rode up to the ranch buildings after their successful trip.
"No," answered Mr. Merkel, who was out waiting for his son and the others. "They got clean away."
"Did you see who they were?" asked Dirk.
"Well, I have my suspicions," answered the ranchman. "And I'm not through yet. How'd you make out, boys?"
They told him of the night scare and Dick's narrow escape, and the eyes of Bud's father glinted in anger.
"Up to tricks like that, are they?" he exclaimed. "Well, I'd like to catch 'em at it!"
"Do you know what I think?" exclaimed Bud with energy.
"Well, son, I can't say I do," spoke his father. "You generally skip around so like a Jack rabbit, it's hard telling where you are. But shoot! What's your trouble?"
"My trouble is," said Bud slowly, "that I don't know enough about those professors and their gang!"
"The professors!" exclaimed Nort and Dick.
"That's what I said," went on Bud. "I think their pretended search for something is only a bluff. They're high-grade cattle rustlers, that's what I think!"
No one said anything for a few moments, and then Mr. Merkel remarked:
"Well, maybe you're right, Bud. Stranger things have happened. It might pay us to trail these fellows. Certainly there was something queer about them."
"Mighty queer," agreed Bud. "I began to suspect them after they tried to lasso Dick."
"Do you think one of those men—Professor Wright or Professor Blair—tried to snake me off?" asked Dick.
"Well, no, not one of them, personally," admitted Bud. "They couldn't throw a rope over a molasses barrel. But they set some one up to it, I'll say!"
"Maybe," spoke Mr. Merkel musingly. "We'll have a look at their trail, if we can pick it up. But we've got a lot else to do first."
Indeed Diamond X ranch was a busy place in those days. Dick and Nort could not have come at a better time, and they were such apt pupils that they soon acquired many of the ways of the cowboys, who were willing and anxious to teach them. In a comparatively short time the two "tenderfeet" were no longer called that. They could shoot fairly well, though they were not "quick on the draw," and they were becoming more and more expert with the rope every day.
It was about two weeks after their experience with the unknown user of the lariat that Bud and his cousins were sent to ride herd at the Square M ranch, which was one of Mr. Merkel's holdings. He was planning to get a bunch of steers there ready for shipment, and a buyer was to come and look them over when they had been headed in from the open range to a large corral. Bud and his cousins were to help drive the animals in.
Square M ranch, so called because the brand was the letter M in a square, was a good two days' ride from Diamond X. But the boys had a fine time going, and found plenty to do when they arrived. Gradually the cattle were gathered up, and worked toward the corral.
They were within a day's ride of this haven, when, one afternoon, as Bud, Dick and Nort were moving on ahead of the bunch, which was driven by several cowboys, Bud looked back and let out a yell.
"What's the matter?" cried Nort.
"Stampede!" was the answer, "Oh, boy! Now look out for trouble!"
Nort and Dick had heard and read so much about a cattle stampede, and heard such a calamity discussed at the ranch house so often, that they rather welcomed, than otherwise, the announcement that one was being staged near them. This was before they realized the full import of it, and saw the danger.
It was like a prairie fire—they had not realized it could be so terrible and menacing until they actually saw it. And see it they did.
There was needed but a quick backward glance to show that a great fear, or rage, which is almost the same, had entered into the three hundred steers (more or less) that were being driven onward.
At one moment the cattle had been progressing in what might be termed orderly fashion. Now and then a steer would try to break out of the line of march, only to be quickly hazed in again by one of the cowboys, or one of the trio of boy ranchers. But now the whole herd had suddenly been galvanized into action, and that action took the form of running forward at top speed.
It would not have been so bad, perhaps, if the stampede had started from in front. If the forward ranks of cattle had begun to race onward, those behind would simply have followed, and there would gradually have been a slackening up. Of course then there would have been some danger, for the front steers might have slowed down first, while those at the rear still came on, trampling under their sharp hoofs those who were unlucky enough to fall.
But, as it happened, the fright had first seized on the rear bunches of cattle and these had started to run, charging in upon those in front of them, who, in turn, were hurled forward until now, a few seconds after Bud had shouted the alarm, the whole herd was in wild motion.
"Come on!" yelled Bud. "Ride for it! Oh, zowie, boy! Ride for it! Ride like Zip Foster would!" and with voice, reins and spurs he urged his pony forward.
"What do you aim to do?" shouted Dick in his cousin's ear as the two thudded along side by side.
"We've got to get far enough ahead so we can try to turn 'em!" yelled Bud. "It's our only chance. Ride straight ahead!"
Nort spurred up alongside of his cousin and brother, and, as he did so he yelled:
"What you s'pose started 'em off, Bud?"
"Haven't any time to do any s'posin' now!" was the grim answer. "Ride on and say your prayers that your pony doesn't step in a prairie dog's hole. If he does—and you fall—good night!"
The recent tenderfeet knew, without being told, what was meant. To go down before a herd of wild cattle, infuriated because they were frightened, would mean sure death and in horrible form.
As Nort looked back, to see what distance lay between himself and comrades, and the foremost of the herd, he saw several figures on horseback at one side of the running animals. At first he imagined these were Diamond X cowboys who had been in the rear of the steers, and he thought they had ridden up to help the boy ranchers turn the stampeded animals. But another look showed him the men who had been in the rear still in those positions, though they were spurring forward at top speed.
"Look, Bud!" cried Nort. He pointed to the four figures—there were no more than that—at the left of the galloping herd.
"Rustlers—Greasers!" shouted Bud. "They started this stampede!"
"What for?" Dick wanted to know. "They can't hope to run off any under our eyes, can they?"
"They're doing it to get fresh meat!" declared Bud, who never ceased, all this while, to urge his pony forward, an example followed by his cousins with their horses. "They think some steer, or maybe half a dozen, will fall and be trampled to death. Then they'll have all the beef they can eat—for nothing. They started this stampede, or I'll never speak to Zip Foster again."
By this time, knowing Bud as they did, Nort and Dick had ceased to ask about the mysterious Zip Foster. But Nort could not forego the question:
"How'd they do it?"
"Do what?" grunted Bud, as he skillfully turned his pony away from a prairie dog's hole.
"Start this stampede."
"Hanged if I know. They might have been lying in wait for us to come along—hidden out on the range, and they may have all jumped up with whoops, waving their hats, and setting the steers off that way, when we didn't happen to be looking. But that's where the disturbance came from all right!"
With snorts, bellows and heavy breathing the steers came on. Some were old Texas longhorns, but many of the cattle on the Diamond X ranch, and the adjacent possessions of Mr. Merkel, had been dehorned. It was found that more animals could be packed in a car when they had no interfering horns, and the practice is becoming general of taking the horns off western stock.
But even though some were without horns, this herd was sufficiently dangerous. The first thought of Bud and his cousins was to put all the distance possible between them and the foremost of the steers. This they had now done. And it was becoming evident that unless some of the leaders tripped and went down, there was to be no disastrous piling up of animals one on the other. The leaders ran well, and the others followed.
The rustlers, if such they were, seemed to realize that their desperate plan had failed, for, so far, not a beef had fallen. And the Greasers, off to one side, dared not try to cut out, and run off, any animals. To have ventured into the midst of that charging herd would have been madness.
"Come on! Let's see if we can turn 'em!" urged Bud, drawing his gun, an example followed by Nort and Dick. Led by the son of the owner of Diamond X, the boy ranchers charged down on the oncoming herd, from which they had just ridden away. But now they had the advantage. They stood a better chance. If they could turn the leaders, sending them in a circle, the other animals would follow, and soon the whole bunch would be "milling," which is the most desired way to stop a stampede.
"Come on! Come a ridin'! Whoop-ee!" shrilly cried Bud, yelling, waving his hat in one hand and firing in the air with his gun. Nort and Dick did likewise. Straight at the cattle they rode.
It was a desperate chance, but one that had to be taken. Bud knew, if the others did not, that about a mile beyond lay a gully, led up to by a cliff, and if the steers and cows reached this, the leaders unable to stop, while the rear ranks pushed on, there would be a mass of piled-up, dead cattle to tell the story.
"We've got to stop 'em!" shouted Bud.
And stop them, or, rather, turn them, the boy ranchers did. Just when it seemed that the wild animals would rush over, and trample down the three lads, the foremost of the steers turned at a sharp angle, their hoofs skidding in the soil, and swung around.
"Now we've got 'em!" cried Bud. "Make 'em mill! Make 'em mill!"
And this is what the cattle did. Around and around they ran, in a big, dusty circle, while the other Diamond X cowboys rode up.
"That was touch and go," said one of the older riders, when the herd was comparatively quiet. "What started 'em off, Bud?"
"Didn't you see that bunch of Greasers?" asked the rancher's son.
The cowboys had not, it developed, and now, when the three boys tried to point out the rascals the quartette was not in sight. However, something else took the attention of Bud and the older cowboys. This something was a small bunch of steers, galloping off by themselves, but not being hazed by any riders.
"We can't lose them!" shouted Bud. "They belong to dad! Got to get 'em back!"
"We'll go after 'em," offered Nort and Dick. "We can bring 'em back."
"Yes, I reckon you can, while we ride herd on these," said Bud. "I don't want to take any more chances with 'em. Haze the outlaws back this way, fellows!"
Eager to have this responsibility, and to do something "on their own," Dick and his brother spurred away. And before they realized it, Nort and Dick found themselves down in a depression, whence they could catch sight neither of the small knot of cattle they had started out to haze back, nor the main herd.
"Say, where are we?" asked Dick, slowing up his pony, and looking about him. He and Nort were down in a green valley, with hills all around, but no sign of life—animal or human. "Where are we?"
Nort paused a moment before replying. Then, as he drew rein and listened, he said:
"Lost, I reckon!"
Though Nort spoke with an appearance of calmness, there was something in his voice that made Dick catch his breath. It was not that the younger lad was exactly afraid, but he was on the verge of becoming so.
"Lost, eh?" repeated Dick. Then, as he saw a half smile on Nort's face, and looked about on what was really a beautiful scene, his little worry seemed to vanish as mists roll away in the sun. "Well, if we're lost it isn't such a bad place to be in, and I reckon we can easily find our way back. 'Tisn't like being lost in the woods, as we once were."
"No," agreed Nort, "it isn't." They had gone camping once, with their father, and had wandered off in a forest, being "lost" all night, though, as it developed later, not far from their own folks.
"And I don't see why we can't easily ride back the way we came," went on Dick.
"We can, if we find the way," agreed Nort. "But I seem all turned around. And I don't like to go back without those cattle. We offered to ride off after 'em and bring 'em back, and we ought to do it."
"But where are they?" asked Dick, "and where's the main herd? That isn't so small that you could hide it in one of these valleys!"
They were, as I have said, in the midst of a rolling country, where swales or valleys were interspersed with hills. One moment they had held in view the small bunch of steers that had wandered away from the main herd, but, in another instant, there was no sign of them.
"Listen, and see if you can hear anything," suggested Nort.
Quietly the boy ranchers sat on their horses; the only sounds being the creaking of the damp saddle and stirrup leathers as the animals moved slightly. But there was no sound of lowing cows or snorting steers, and there came to the ears of Nort and Dick no distant shouts of Bud and the cowboys, though the main herd, with the men in charge, could not have been more than two miles away. But, for all that, our heroes were as completely isolated as though a hundred miles distant from civilization.
"I can't understand it!" murmured Dick.
"Nor I," said Nort, "It's just as if those cattle had dropped out of sight in a hole in the ground. Maybe they did, Dick."
"What do you mean?" asked his brother.
"I mean maybe those mysterious professors have been digging big mining holes around here, and that bunch of steers we were chasing just naturally slipped into one. We'd better look out, or we'll drop out of sight ourselves!"
Though he spoke half jokingly, there was some seriousness in Nort's voice, and Dick realized it.
"Those professors sure are queer, with their digging operations," Dick agreed. "I'd like to know what they are after, and why they're hanging around Diamond X."
"Well, I'd like to know that, too," said Nort, "but first of all I'd like to know our way out of this place. There must be some way out, as we didn't have any trouble finding a way in."
"Of course we can get out," Dick answered. "There aren't any trees to amount to anything, and we aren't fenced in. We can ride in any direction we like, and I say let's ride somewhere."
"I'm with you," spoke his brother. "But the only trouble is we might be riding farther and farther away from Bud and the rest of the fellows. Why not try to locate that bunch of cattle we're after? They'll be heading directly away from the main herd, I take it, and if we locate them all we'll have to do will be to drive them right about face, and we'll get back where we belong."
"All right, let's find the steers," assented Dick.
They started their ponies, which, doubtless, had been glad of the little breathing spell. But it was one thing to say find the missing steers, and another to do it. One swale seemed to so melt in with an adjoining one, and one hill to merge with its mate, that they all looked alike to the boys, who, as it developed afterward, kept working their way farther and farther off from their friends.
"Hang those steers! Where are they, anyhow?" exclaimed Nort after half an hour of search, during which no signs had been seen.
"Let's try over this way," suggested Dick, turning to the left.
Though it might seem that in a fairly open country, composed of hills and vales, it would be hard to hide a bunch of cattle, still Nort and Dick, to their chagrin, did not find it difficult. They were completely baffled, and the longer they searched the more puzzled they were.
"Well, there's one thing about it," remarked Dick, when they drew rein, "we shan't starve right away, and if we have to stay out all night we have the same accommodations we have had before," and he tapped the tarpaulin which formed part of his saddle pack.
"Oh, yes, we can camp out if we have to," agreed Nort, "and I shan't mind that. But it's our failure to do the first job we tackled 'on our own' that gets my goat. Bud will sure think we're tenderfeet for fair!"
"Yes, that is bad," agreed Dick. "But it can't be helped. I never did see anything like the sudden way those cattle disappeared, and how we got lost."
For that they were now completely lost, amid the low hills, was an accepted fact to the boys. They had ridden here and there, until, in mercy to their ponies, they pulled reins. Yet they had gotten no farther on their way, nor had they seen sign of the cattle. It was growing late, too, and they realized that soon they must find a camping place for the night, unless they located the homeward trail.
Of course to Bud, or any of the older cowboys of Diamond X ranch, the problem that puzzled Nort and Dick would have been easy to solve. Knowing the country as they did, the cowboys could easily have sensed which way to ride, even though the bunch of cattle might have eluded them.
But the two easterners did not even know which way to head to get back to their friends. They were completely lost and turned about, and their situation was growing more desperate.
I say "desperate," yet that word is used only in a comparative sense. They were in no immediate danger, for they were in the clean, open country, and not in a tangled forest or jungle. There were no wild beasts near, only peaceful cows and steers. They had coverings for the night, and greasewood shrubs, as well as a tree here and there amid the foothills, offered fuel for a fire. They had a small amount of "grub" with them, and they had passed several springs of water, so they would not thirst, and they had the means of making coffee, though no milk was at hand. So, all in all, their situation was not at all "desperate," though it was perhaps annoying.
"Let's fire our guns!" exclaimed Nort suddenly. "We forgot all about them. Bud told us they were mainly used for signaling out here, and we might let him and the rest know where we are by firing a few shots."
"Sure! Go to it!" agreed Dick. "But don't fire too many cartridges," he added.
"Well, there's no telling when we may want the shells, and we haven't any too many."
"That's so," agreed Nort. "Well, we'll each fire two, at intervals."
This they did, but such echoes were aroused amid the hills by the reverberations of the reports that the lads doubted whether Bud and the other cowboys could accurately determine whence the sound of the firing came.
"We've done our best," said Nort, after the fourth shot had gone echoing among the hills. "Now let's ride on a little, and if we don't get out, or find those cattle, we'll pick a good place to camp for the night."
This struck Dick as being the best thing to do and they urged their tired ponies forward. Dick was casting his looks about, seeking for a suitable place to make the night camp, when he was attracted by a shout from Nort, who was off to one side.
"Did you find 'em?" cried Dick, eagerly. "The cattle or our cowboys?"
"No, but look!" yelled Nort. "We're coming to a city!"
He pointed toward the east and there, on the far side of a green valley, amid green hills, was the vision of a small city, on the banks of a good-sized river. As the boys watched they saw a steamer come up to a dock and stop, though the scene was too far away to give them more details.
"Now we're all right!" yelled Dick.
But, even as he spoke the vision faded from the eyes of the startled boys. It melted from sight as do some moving pictures, when the "fade out" is used. It was as though a veil of mist came between the vision and the boys, or as if some giant hand had wiped it from a great slate with a damp sponge.
THE NIGHT CAMP
"Well, what do you know about that?" exclaimed Nort, as he turned to look at his brother, when the vision of the city on the river bank had disappeared.
"Were we dreaming, or did we really see something?" asked Dick, passing his hand over his eyes in dazed fashion.
"We saw something all right," asserted Nort, "and I'm wondering if I saw the same thing you did—a city—the steamer and——"
"I saw it, too," declared Dick, interrupting his brother's recital. "But where did it go? A fog must have rolled up between us and it. But now we know which way to ride. I don't know what town that was, but they can tell us how to get back to Diamond X ranch."
"It's queer," murmured Nort, as Dick urged his horse in the direction of the vision they had just beheld.
"What's queer?" asked Dick.
"Seeing that town," his brother went on. "Bud never said anything about the ranch being so near a place where they had a river steamer. There isn't a boat of that size on the river around here."
"No," assented Dick. "This must be farther down. Anyhow, let's hit the trail for there. We aren't lost any more, I reckon."
"Doesn't seem," murmured Nort. But, even as the two brothers urged their tired, broncos forward, another strange thing happened. In the very same place where they had seen the vision of the town and the steamer, only to witness it vanish, there appeared in sharp detail a large ranch, with its corrals, its bunk house and main buildings.
"There! Look!" cried Dick. "There's Diamond X!"
Nort shaded his eyes with his hands, and peered long and earnestly.
"Diamond X!" he murmured. "That isn't our ranch! Our bunk house isn't so near the corral, and, besides——"
Then, even as he spoke, this vision vanished as had the other, being wiped out of sight; fading slowly as if some unseen operator in a movie booth had cut off his light.
The brothers turned and stared at one another. Suddenly the truth dawned upon them.
"A mirage!" exclaimed Nort.
"That's what!" assented Dick. "Two mirages! We saw one after the other, a city and a ranch in the same place!"
And that is what the visions had been—mirages, those strange phenomena of the west—of desert places—natural occurrences in localities where the air is abnormally clear, and where conditions combine to transpose distant scenes.
Of course the explanation is simple enough. Of the mirage the dictionary says it is "an optical illusion arising from an unequal refraction in the lower strata of the atmosphere, causing images of remote objects to be seen double, distorted or inverted as if reflected in a mirror, or to appear as if suspended in the air."
The word comes from a Latin one, meaning "to look at," and that is about all you can do to a mirage—look at it. It is as unsubstantial as the air in which it is formed.
There are many varieties of mirages seen in the West, and if the boys had seen a double one, or had the vision of the city and ranch been inverted, they might have sooner guessed the secret of it. But the particular mirages they had viewed had, through some trick of air refraction, been imposed on their eyesight rightside up, and wonderfully clear.
I do not suppose all the stories that have been written of mirages are true, but it is certain that many strange tricks have been played on the eyesight of observers by these phenomena, and more than one luckless prospector, or cattleman, has followed these visions, only to be tantalized in the end by finding, just as Nort and Dick did, that they merely vanished, dissolving into nothing.
Telling of their experiences afterward, Nort and Dick declared that when they had visualized the steamer moving up to her dock, they had actually seen figures disembarking.
"That couldn't be!" declared Bud. "Your eyes must have been blinking and you thought you saw figures. I've been fooled by mirages myself, but though you might make out something as large as a steamer moving, I never yet saw one of these visions clear enough so that you could make out people moving about. You can see a town, or a ranch, sometimes right side up, and sometimes upside down, but you can't make out people. I won't say that it is impossible, but I've never seen it, nor heard of anyone who has," the boy rancher concluded.
"Well, it was wonderful enough as it was," declared Nort, and even those who have seen many mirages will agree with this, I think.
"Well, that sure was queer!" exclaimed Nort, rubbing his eyes again. "And to think we might have ridden off, and tried to get to that ranch, or city."
"I thought sure it was Diamond X," declared Dick.
"Well, I knew it wasn't, as soon as I saw how the buildings were located. But I thought it was some ranch. Bud told me about these mirages, though I never thought they were as plain as that."
"They sure do fool you!" laughed Dick. "And now, before we get led astray by any more, let's get settled for the night. It looks as if we'd have to stay here."
"Yes, it does," agreed Nort. He looked in the direction where the strange images had appeared in the air, seemingly suspended between the heaven and the earth. There were no more of the visions, the declining sun doubtless being in such a position as no longer to produce the necessary refraction, or bending of the light rays.
"Here's water," spoke Nort, pointing to a spring bubbling out of the side of the hill. "We'll make a fire, and cook what we have."
"But not all of it," stipulated Dick. "We've got to save some for to-morrow. No telling how long we may be out on our own."
"That's right," agreed Nort. "Though when our bacon and flour give out we can get one of those fellows—maybe," and he pointed to a big jack rabbit, almost as large as a dog, loping away.
"Yes, Bud says they're good eating," assented Dick. "The only thing is, can we knock one over with our guns?"
"I'm not much of a shot, yet, but then a fellow ought to hit one of those jacks—when he isn't running," qualified Nort, for the speed of these rabbits of the plains is almost beyond belief. Indeed they put the speediest horse on his mettle, and a greyhound, or a similar breed of dog, is the only canine that can compete with them.
"Yes, no use shooting when they start racing," agreed Dick.
The lads slipped from their ponies, taking off the saddles which, later, they would use as pillows. And immediately the cow horses were relieved of their back burdens, they started to roll. This is the ideal recreation for the steeds of ranch or plain, for they get little of the rubbing down or care bestowed on other horses. Their daily roll in the grass and dust keeps their coat in good condition.
The ponies were pegged out by means of the lariats, which allowed them to graze or roll as they pleased. They were tied near a water hole, formed below the spring, so the animals had the three most desirable requisites—food, water and a place to disport themselves.
Nort and Dick proceeded to make their camp. It was a simple operation. All they had to do was to gather some greasewood for the fire, and start to cook. Later they would roll in their tarpaulins, with their heads on the saddles, and get what rest they could.
Fortunately the two boys had with them some cooking utensils, and also some bacon and flour with a supply of coffee. The flour was of the "prepared" variety. Mixing it with water gave them batter for flapjacks, which were baked in the same skillet in which the bacon had first been fried. Water for the coffee was at hand, and they had sugar for that beverage, though no milk, which might seem strange so near a ranch on which were many cattle. But ranches are for the raising of beef, and are not dairies, so milkless coffee was no hardship to the boys, though at Diamond X milk was plentiful enough.
The smell of the burning greasewood, the aroma of the bacon and coffee, not to mention that of the flapjacks, added zest to the appetites of the boys, if zest were needed, and soon they were eagerly eating.
Then, as night settled down they gathered a quantity of wood for the fire, looked to the fastenings of their ponies and stretched out under the light of the bright stars. They were—except for their ponies—alone amid the foothills, how far from Diamond X ranch they could only guess.
"Feel sleepy?" asked Nort of Dick when they had stretched out under their canvas blankets, which might keep off the dew, but which were not very comfortable.
"Not specially," answered Dick. "I'm thinking too much of all that's happened lately."
"So 'm I. But I'm not worried because we're here; are you?"
"Not a bit of it! This is only fun! We wanted to see real western life and we're seeing it," Dick went on. "This is what we came out here for. It isn't like anything else we ever did, and it only makes me all the more want to be a rancher."
"You said it. Only there are one or two things I'd like to know more about."
"Such as what, for instance?" asked the younger lad.
"Well, I'd like to know who it was that tried to snake you away with a lasso. I'd like to do the same to him. And I'd like to know more about those two strange professors, and what they're after."
"I'm with you there," spoke Dick, as he raised on one elbow to look toward where he had tethered his horse, the animal seeming to be suddenly excited about something.
"Only a coyote," remarked Nort, as he caught sight of a slinking figure under the light of the stars. The boys had become used to these creatures which acted as scavengers of the plains.
"I wonder if, after all, those professors can be hunting gold?" mused Dick, when his horse had quieted down and resumed grazing.
"According to what Bud says there isn't any gold here and never has been," declared Nort. "But there is a mystery about them and I'd give a lot to solve it. You see we tenderfeet don't count for much out on a ranch—that is, yet. We don't know much about roping or shooting or riding herd. Of course we're learning, and Bud and the others are as nice about it as they can be, but I can see they don't think overly much about our abilities; and I don't blame them.
"But if we could solve this mystery about those professors, and maybe connect 'em up with some of the cattle rustling, why it would show Bud we easterners amounted to something after all. I sure would like to get on the track of this mystery!"
The time was to come, and soon, when Nort and Dick vividly recalled these words.
"Well, we're here—not that we know where it is—but we're here, and not in such bad shape," spoke Dick. "We're lost, but I reckon Bud will find us in the morning, or we'll come across the cattle we're looking for, or else Diamond X ranch.
"I hope so," mused Nort. "I'd like to show these cowboys that we can pull off a trick or two ourselves."
"Well, I'm with you," and Dick's voice took on a drowsy note. In spite of the fact that he had said he was thinking of many things, the riding of the day soon began to tell on both lads.
"What's that?" suddenly called Dick to Nort, when they had, perhaps, been sleeping two or three hours. A wild, weird cry had echoed out in the silent night.
"Coyote," was the answer, sleepily given.
"Howlin' in a new way," murmured Dick.
Indeed, accustomed as the boys were becoming to the voices of these animals, part fox, part dog and part wolf, there were always new elements seeming to enter into their cries.
Again the strange call was repeated, to be answered by the mate of the coyote farther off, and then came a perfect chorus of wild yells. The horses snorted, as if in contempt and the boys covered themselves with their tarpaulins and tried to slumber. But it was some little time before the echoes died away and quiet reigned.
Nort and Dick did not awaken again that night, but their eyes opened when the sun shone on them, and, rather lame and stiff, they arose to get a frugal breakfast.
Their first look was to their horses, for to be without a mount in the vast distances of the West is almost a tragedy. But Blaze and Blackie, the two favorite steeds of Nort and Dick, were safely tethered.
Cowboys, on range or ranch, usually have a "string" of ponies, or broncos. This is needful, as there is such hard riding necessary at times (particularly at the round-up) that one horse could not stand the pace. So at the beginning of work several horses are assigned to each cow-puncher. Of course he may own a horse of his own, and usually does, in fact, and this horse is his favorite. But he has several others to pick from.
When Nort and Dick declared that they were going to be regular ranchers, or cowboys as a start, they were given a string of horses to pick from. But of these Blaze, so called from a white streak down his head, was the favorite of Nort. Blackie was Dick's choice, and the selection of the name was due to the color of the horse, it being almost perfect black.
Blaze and Blackie were safe at the ends of their tether ropes—the lariats the boys carried coiled on their saddle horns during the day.
Breakfast over—and it was not a very substantial meal—the boys saddled their steeds and then looked at one another.
"What are we going to do?" asked Dick.
"Hit the trail—for somewhere," answered Nort.
"The trouble is there doesn't seem to be any trail to hit," spoke Dick, rather grimly. "It would be easy, if there was only a cow path, to ride along it until we came to some place. But here, as soon as we ride out of one swale we're in another, and we don't get a sight of Bud or the cattle we set out to haze back."
"I wonder what he thinks of us?" mused Nort.
"Oh, he must have sized up the situation, and so knows what has happened to us," declared Dick. "He's probably out now, with some of the cowboys, looking for us."
"I hope they bring something to eat," spoke Nort. "We'll be on mighty short rations at noon, unless we can eat grass, the way the ponies do."
"Or knock over a jack," added Dick. "They seem to be plentiful."
As he spoke, one of the long-legged and longer-eared rabbits shot past, having paused to look at the strangers, who, doubtless in his mind, were usurping his land.
"Tell you what we ought to do," suggested Nort as they mounted, having made fast their packs and trampled out the fire.
"What?" asked Dick.
"We ought to ride to the top of the highest hill, and take a look. That ought to show something besides a mirage. I s'pose, if we had our wits about us, we'd know whether we ought to ride north, south, east or west," Nort went on. "But, as it is, I don't know which way Diamond X lies."
They urged Blaze and Blackie up the slope of what they judged to be the highest hill in their vicinity. And as they gained the summit, and looked down into a valley on the other side, they saw something that caused them to both exclaim in surprise.
"Look!" cried Nort. "There's some of our bunch!" He pointed to men and horses in a camp, of which white tents formed a part.
"That isn't our crowd!" exclaimed Dick. "That's the outfit of the two professors, and they're up to some mighty queer doings!"
"Digging for gold!" declared Nort.
But, as he spoke, there was a loud report down near the valley camp. Men were seen running, as if from danger, and as the boys looked they saw a cloud of smoke roll up, and part of a side hill slide down.
"Would you look at that!" shouted Nort, pointing down into the valley. "They must be under bombardment! It's a battle, Dick!"
"Nonsense!" cried the younger lad, not as impulsive as his brother. "They're blasting; that's what they're doing! Trying to locate a pocket of gold, I reckon. But now we're all right, Nort. They'll tell us how to get back to Diamond X, even if they can't put us on the trail of the cattle we so stupidly missed."
"Well, maybe they can, and then again, maybe they can't," said Nort slowly.
"What do you mean?" asked Dick.
"Well, they may be able to tell us the way to Diamond X, but maybe they won't want to tell us where the missing cattle are."
"You mean they may have taken 'em themselves?" asked Dick, and there was surprise in his voice.
"It's possible," declared Nort. "But we can't find out much by staying up here. Let's ride down and see what's going on. I reckon it's as you say—they have been blasting."
At first no one paid any attention to the approach of Dick and Nort. The men who had run away as the blast let loose, now hurried back to peer into the excavation made by the explosion. And among those who thus eagerly sought to see the inner secrets of the earth, our heroes recognized Professors Blair and Wright. These two scientists were foremost among the men standing on the edge of the hole that had been torn in the earth.
"No success!" Dick and Nort heard Professor Wright say as he turned aside from the hole. "We must try lower down."
"Higher up, I should say," spoke Professor Blair.
"Oh, no. You must remember that the deposits are weighty, and would be brought lower and lower each year by gravity, as well as by the sliding action of the hill under the influence of erosion."
"Yes, you are correct, Professor," admitted Mr. Blair, and then the two turned and beheld Dick and Nort at hand.
Surprise, and no very pleased surprise at that, was manifest on the faces of the two scientists as they viewed the boys. Grouped around the professors were several Mexicans, or Greasers, a Chinese, evidently the cook of the "outfit," and a number of workmen, unmistakably American. These last looked at the boys with scowling faces, though the two professors tried to force smiles to their lips.
"Oh, you are from Circle T ranch, are you not?" asked Professor Blair of Dick and Nort. "You are the boys who were so kind as to bring the antiseptics for the wounded men, who, thanks to that treatment, are now doing well."
"Glad to hear it," said Nort. "Only we're not from Circle T. We hail from Diamond X."
"Strange names," murmured Professor Wright. "I don't see how you remember them, though I do recall, now, that Diamond X is the proper term. We—er—I hardly expected to see you again," he said, haltingly.
"Nor we you," spoke Nort, who seemed to be doing the talking for his brother and himself. "We started after some cattle, but they got away from us and we lost ourselves. You haven't seen them; have you? A bunch of steers with the Square M brand on."
"And if you've seen anything of Diamond X ranch itself, up among these hills, I wish you'd tell us how to get to it," added Dick, with a whimsical smile.
"Cattle! Of why should we know of your cattle!" exclaimed a harsh voice behind the boys, and Dick and Nort, turning in their saddles, saw fairly glaring at them Del Pinzo, the unprepossessing Mexican half breed.
"Do you think we have your steers—that we are rustlers?" demanded Del Pinzo fiercely.
"No," said Nort, seeing into what error he might be drawn. "I was only asking."
"Well, we haven't seen any of your cattle!" declared the Mexican, or half breed, to give his correct title. "And we don't want you around here when we're——"
"Just a moment, Del Pinzo," interposed Professor Wright, and Dick noticed a peculiar look pass between the two scientists. "You must excuse the zeal of one of our helpers," went on Mr. Wright. "He is doubtless afraid that you might get hurt in a blast."
"Yes! Yes! Blasts are dangerous!" said the half breed quickly, and it seemed as if he spoke in answer to a signal given by one of the scientists. "We are going to set off another."
"It is just some research work we are undertaking," said Professor Blair, as he saw Nort and Dick looking around. "We have absented ourselves from our college to do some investigating, and it is necessary to blast, in some cases, to get at the lower deposits."
Both Dick and Nort said to each other, afterwards, that they did not believe these statements.
"Perhaps you boys had better come down to the tents," suggested Professor Wright. "As Del Pinzo says, blasts are dangerous, and the men are going to set off another. Come to the tents," and with a wave of his hand he indicated the camp site, a level place amid the little and big hills all about.
"Thanks," murmured Nort. "But are you going to be able to direct us how to find Diamond X ranch?"
"Doubtless some of our men can tell you," said Mr. Wright. "Have you eaten?" he asked.
"We had a little," Dick replied. "But——"
"You can eat more, I have no doubt!" laughed Professor Blair, but his merriment seemed to be forced. "Well, fortunately our larder is well stocked. Come down and have something. How are all your friends?"
"Well, as far as we know, not having seen them since yesterday," answered Dick. "You see we're not regular ranchers or cowboys yet, we're just learning."
"One need not be told that!" sneered Del Pinzo, who had followed our heroes and the two professors down the slope.
Professor Blair turned and looked sharply at the half breed. Then the scientist, speaking, said:
"Del Pinzo, perhaps you had better return and watch that the next blast harms no one. We would not want an accident."
The half breed hesitated for a moment, and then murmured:
"Si, senor!" ("Yes, sir!")
He turned back up the hill, Dick and Nort continued down it toward the tents.
"Picket your horses and come in," invited Professor Wright, as he held open the flap of what was, evidently, the private dining tent of himself and his college companion. "I'll have Sing Wah fix you up a little feed."
"This is mighty kind of you," murmured Dick, as he and his brother sat at the folding camp table and ate hungrily.
"And now all we want is to be put on the trail to Diamond X," said Nort, as they finished. "We'll let the cattle go, for the time being."
He rose to leave the tent, followed by his brother, but, as the boys neared the flap a man, who, they remembered, had been called Silas Thorp, interposed his ugly bulk in front of them.
"Don't be in a hurry to leave, boys," he sneered.
"Why not?" hotly demanded Nort.
"Because we'd like to keep you here a while," Thorp went on. "I guess the professors would like to have you accept their hospitality a little longer."
"Is this true?" cried Nort. "Are we prisoners?"
"Well, that is rather a harsh word to use," said Professor Wright. "But we feel we must detain you—at least for a while!"
THE DIAMOND X BRAND
Nort and Dick admitted to one another, afterward, that at first they believed the two professors to be joking. They imagined that the cultured scientists were merely indulging in a bit of fun, from much of which they were necessarily barred while in the class room. But a sharp look at the faces of the men who were at the head of an expedition, conducting a mysterious search, showed the boys that earnestness was the keynote.
"You—you're going to keep us here?" questioned Dick.
"For a while, yes," said Professor Wright, and there was more snap and decision in his voice than before.
"It is much your own fault," added Professor Blair.
"Our fault!" spluttered Nort, his temper rapidly rising. "Why, what have we done except to help you when you needed it? And now all we ask is that you put us in the way of getting back to Diamond X."
"That is just it," said Professor Wright. "We don't want you to go back to Diamond X at once."
"Why not?" hotly demanded Nort. "What right have you got to hold us here? You can't! We'll get away in spite of you!" and his hand, half unconsciously, perhaps, moved toward his holster. But he was surprised to find his wrist seized in a firm grip, while he was violently swung around, his weapon being removed by some one who had come silently up behind him. And this some one was Del Pinzo, into whose sneering, crafty, swarthy face Nort angrily gazed.
Before he could say anything, Nort saw Silas Thorp slip up to Dick, and take that lad's weapon out of the holster. Dick had no time to draw it, even if such had been his intention, which, the lad said later, it was not.
"What do you mean? What's this game anyhow? What right have you to keep us prisoners here and take our guns?" shouted Nort. He took a step toward Del Pinzo, but there was something so sinister in the attitude of the half breed, albeit he did not menace the boy with the weapon, that Nort shrank back.