"I think you had better submit quietly," said Professor Blair. "We intend absolutely no violence, or ill-treatment of you, unless you make that necessary. We admit that perhaps we are acting illegally, and in an unusual manner, but, in a way, you brought this on yourselves, boys. You will not be detained long. In fact, if our plans work out right, you may depart for your ranch this evening."
"Acting illegally!" spluttered Nort. "I should say you were! We'll have you arrested for this, you—you—big——"
Then Nort stopped, for he realized that, though he might apply some well-deserved slang names to the two professors, neither of them was "big." They were small men—at least in stature.
"But you haven't any right to hold us here prisoners!" declared Dick, feeling that he must back up his brother in a firm protest. "We haven't done anything to you."
"Except to turn up where you aren't wanted!" broke in Silas Thorp. "If you'd minded your own business, and stayed away—let us alone—we wouldn't have to do this!"
In surprise at such a statement, Nort and Dick looked at the two professors.
Mr. Wright, with a wave of his hand toward his helper, to enjoin silence, made this statement:
"Mr. Thorp has put the matter rather crudely, perhaps, but that is the state of the case. Without going into details, boys, we are in this part of the country on a secret mission. We have almost accomplished what we are after, and, on the verge of the discovery, we do not wish to be balked. You happen to have stumbled upon us just when we are about to complete a wearisome search, which at least promises to be successful.
"We have enemies who would be glad to frustrate our schemes, and it is to prevent these enemies from obtaining knowledge of our movements, of our location, and the location of that which we are seeking, that we are forced to detain you. We hope soon to end our mission, and, once we have gained possession of what we are after, we shall be most happy to restore you to liberty."
He took breath after this somewhat lengthy address, and Nort and Dick looked at one another, more puzzled than before. What did it all mean? What was the queer secret of the professors, a secret that, somehow, seemed to involve Diamond X?
"Do you mean that you're keeping us here because you're afraid we'll tell something about you?" burst out Nort.
"Yes," answered Professor Blair. "We simply must keep our secret safe, now that we are on the verge of discovery."
"But we wouldn't tell!" declared Nort. "In fact we don't know anything about you—except that we've seen you once or twice. We don't know what your secret is—that is, we can only guess at it."
"That's just it!" interrupted Professor Wright. "You are the sort of lads who would make a correct guess, and then, when word of it got out, we would lose the fruits of many weary years of research."
"But we wouldn't tell anyone!" promised Dick. "All we know about it is that you're supposed to be prospecting for gold. There isn't any great crime, or secret, in that, unless you're trying to get gold off land that doesn't belong to you."
"No, it isn't gold, nor anything like gold," spoke Professor Wright, in rather dreamy tones. "It is much more valuable than gold. I never would have endured the hardships I have for mere gold."
"Nor I," said his partner, and then, for the first time the same thought came to Nort and Dick—that these men might be lunatics, obsessed with a strange idea, and that they were searching for something that might be likened to a fading mirage.
The boy ranchers looked at one another. If this was the explanation their position might be more dangerous than appeared. To be held captives by men who were mentally irresponsible, aided by an unscrupulous gang, of which Del Pinzo was a fair specimen, was not at all a reassuring thought. But Nort and Dick were not the ones to give up easily.
"Just what are you going to do?" asked Nort, when it was evident that, unarmed as they were, resistance was out of the question for the time being.
"Simply hold you here for a few days—not more than a week at most," answered Professor Blair.
"Suppose we don't stay?" asked Nort, sharply.
"Well, if you refuse to promise not to try to escape, we shall be forced to detain you as best we can," was the calm reply. "But we have no wish to use violence, and I think you will agree to submit quietly. Be our guests, so to speak."
"What if our friends come to rescue us?" asked Dick.
"Well, we have thought of that," spoke Professor Wright. "If they come we shall have to do our best to—er—persuade them to go away again—that is unless we can bring our task to an end sooner than we expect, and that is possible. If we can bring that about—make the discovery we hope for—you will be at liberty to depart at that moment. Otherwise you must stay here!"
"Well, we won't promise not to try to escape," declared Nort, hotly. "We'll do our best, not only to get away, but to bring the police down on you, or bring whatever authority they have out here. If you're going to act this way we'll be justified in doing our worst!"
"Naturally," agreed Professor Wright, smoothly. "Now that we have been made aware of your intentions we shall act accordingly. We shall be obliged to keep you under guard, but I assure you that if you do not act roughly neither will our guards. I am sorry you would not agree to our plan, and see matters in our light. It would have been so much more comfortable. And when we have explained, as we hope to do soon, you would appreciate our attitude."
"Well, all I can say now is that we don't appreciate it!" snapped Nort, "and we'll leave at the first opportunity!"
"Then we'll see that you get no opportunities!" sneered Silas. "Let's take 'em out, Del!"
As it was evident that the two professors meant what they said, and that the boys would be roughly handled if they did not submit quietly, they followed their captors out of the dining tent, in answer to signals from Silas and the half breed that this was what was wanted.
"Here's going to be your stopping place," said Silas, with another sneer, as he stopped in front of a small tent. "And let me tell you it will be best for you to take it easy. You may get into trouble if you try to leave!"
To this Nort and Dick answered nothing. They were too angry to know what to say, but that they intended to submit quietly to this indignity was not in their natures. They cast quick glances about the camp before entering the tent, the flap of which Del Pinzo pulled back. The tent contained two cots and some small packing boxes for tables and chairs.
"All right!" said Nort, as he sized up the situation, and glanced back at the men who were his own and his brother's guards for the time being. "You can do your best to keep us here, and we'll do our best to get away. It'll be a fifty-fifty proposition!"
Nort was startled by an exclamation from Dick. The latter was gazing at some commotion on the far side of the camp. Looking out from the opened tent Nort saw being driven, along the bank of a small brook that ran through the swale, several big steers. They were being hazed along by Greasers on horses, and as the cattle splashed into the water, stopping to drink thirstily, the boy ranchers caught sight of the brands on their flanks.
It was the mark of the Diamond X ranch!
"Get inside, you fellows, now!" roughly commanded Silas Thorp. "If you're going to act nasty we can do the same. You can make it easy or hard for yourselves, just as you choose."
"We'll make it hard for you, before we finish!" threatened Nort.
At the sight of the steers bearing the Diamond X brand, Del Pinzo had stepped out of the tent, but his place as guard, if such he might be called, was taken by another Greaser, even less prepossessing in appearance, and apparently of less intelligence, but with as evil intentions. He scowled at the boys, and squatted down at the entrance to the canvas shelter.
"Here's where you're going to stay, though you can have the freedom of the camp if you promise not to try to leave," said Silas.
"We won't promise!" declared Nort.
"Not on your life!" added Dick, warmly.
"Then stay here, and there'll be trouble if you try to leave," threatened the man, who seemed to be a dried-up specimen of a museum attendant, which character, so Nort said afterward, he forcibly called to mind.
He spoke something, evidently in Spanish, or the Mexican variety of that language, to the fellow who had replaced Del Pinzo, and the man, who was making himself comfortable at the entrance of the tent, murmured:
"Which means he'll do as he was told," spoke Nort to Dick in a low voice as Silas passed out. "Stick us with his knife or jab the business end of his gun in the small of our backs."
"We mustn't give him the chance," spoke Dick.
"I should say not! We'll get away before he knows it."
The brothers spoke together in low tones, but loudly enough for the guard to hear. However he showed no interest in what they said, from which they concluded he either understood no English, or pretended not to.
"But we won't take a chance," decided Nort. "We won't discuss anything we don't want him to overhear. It's likely they thought they could fool us by putting in a man we would evidently think couldn't understand our talk."
"I get you," said Dick, briefly. "But what do you think of those cattle?" and he nodded toward where could be heard the noise made by camp attendants driving the Diamond X steers whither they were wanted to go.
"Just what I've been thinking all along," declared Nort. "This outfit is a bunch of high-class cattle thieves!"
He shot the words out forcibly, and looked keenly at the Greaser guard to see if they made any impression on him. However, the Mexican was either a perfect actor, or he did not understand what was said, for he gave no sign, and appeared to be in a brown study as he sat hunched up on the ground at the flap of the tent.
"Wonder what's going on?" mused Dick, as the noise increased, the shouts of men mingling with the snorting and bellowing of cattle. "I'm going to take a look."
He stepped forward to part the flaps of the tent, they having fallen together, but as he did so the Greaser ripped out something fiercely in his own tongue, and his hand went toward a sheathed knife at his belt.
"Oh, keep your shirt on!" burst out Dick. "I'm not going to run away—not just now," he added as a qualifying phrase.
Whether the man understood the words, or guessed that Dick had no intention of escaping, was not made clear, but he offered no further objection to the act of the boys in pulling aside the flaps of the tent and looking out.
They saw that the cattle which had been taken from the Diamond X ranch—stolen as Dick and Nort believed—were being driven into a small, and evidently hastily-constructed corral, where they could get to the stream to drink.
"They've got a regular system," remarked Nort, as he saw the cattle being quieted down, once they were inside the improvised pen.
"Making a business of it," agreed Dick. "But you wouldn't think such men as these two professors would frame it up to be cattle rustlers; would you?"
"That isn't all they are," said Nort. "That digging and blasting means something!"
He pointed to where, on the side hill at the scene of the first explosion, the two scientists were evidently directing operations looking to another blast. Professor Wright and his aide seemed to pay no attention to the cattle that had been brought in.
"This is a queer sort of game," said Dick to his brother, as they went back in the tent and sat down on boxes at the heads of their cots. "I can't see to the bottom of it."
"Nor I, except that these fellows are doing something they don't want known. Rustling cattle isn't all of it, by any means, but if the other isn't digging for gold, or something valuable, I give up."
"But if they were after gold, why would they deny it?" asked Dick.
"You've got me!" admitted Nort. "It sure is queer. But I wonder if they're going to starve us; and what's become of our ponies?"
The last question was answered first, for Dick pointed to where, off to one side, Blaze and Blackie were contentedly grazing, being pegged out, as were a number of other horses.
And, an hour or so later, came the answer to the other question, for a man, who evidently acted as camp cook, came to the tent with a pot of coffee, some tin cups, and the head of a barrel used as a tray, on which was piled some food.
Had the viands been most uninviting, Dick and Nort would have eagerly welcomed them, for the boys were hungry. But, as a matter of fact, the food was clean, and well cooked. The two professors, whatever might be their game, evidently insisted on adequate culinary operations.
"Sail in!" exclaimed Nort, as he smelled the appetizing odor of the hot coffee, and what appeared to be some Mexican dish, cooked with plenty of beans, and more red peppers than the boys cared for.
But, as I have said, they were hungry, and this is the best sauce in the world. None of the condiments so freely used by the Mexicans was needed, and soon there was silence in the prisoners' tent, broken only by the clatter of knives and forks on the tin camp dishes.
Once or twice the Greaser guard looked at the boys in what Dick and Nort both agreed, later, was a hungry style. The pot of coffee was much more than the boys needed, though they ate up all the food. And it was while feeling in his pockets for a toothpick that Nort's fingers touched something which played a very prominent part in subsequent events.
Slowly Nort drew forth a small bottle, and held it up so Dick could see it, but so that it was concealed from the Greaser at the tent entrance. And then Dick noted that Nort held up a four ounce flask of paregoric. Nort had been suffering from toothache the past few days, though for some reason it had not bothered him since he and Dick had become "lost." Perhaps the excitement following that incident quieted the nerves. At any rate Nort carried the bottle of paregoric with him, for one of the cowboys had recommended that this household mixture of opium, rubbed on the gums, would give relief.
Nort found that it did, and since then he had carried the bottle with him, pending the time he expected to visit a dentist. He now held this phial of paregoric up so Dick could see, at the same time pointing first to the Greaser and then to the coffee pot.
"Now?" asked Dick, in reply to Nort's obvious statement that he intended to administer some of the soporific to their guard.
"To-night," was Nort's answer, and then he put the bottle back in his pocket.
Dick's eyes lighted up. He knew the effect of a large dose of paregoric, comparatively harmless as it is in small quantities, or as Nort used it.
Now a way seemed opened for the boys. If only they could command the other elements necessary for success.
Nort made sure of one, by pouring out a cup of coffee, liberally sweetening it with sugar from the barrel head tray, and setting the beverage to one side on the ground under his cot.
The camp cook came to carry away what the boys had left—which was not much—and if he missed one cup he said nothing about it. Perhaps this was because, just then, some of the cattle tried to break out of the corral, and there was a shout raised for help—to which the cook responded. But the Greaser guard did not leave his place. Evidently his orders were imperative.
"When are you going to try it?" whispered Dick to Nort, as the shadows began to lengthen, and night settled down on the camp.
"Not until after dark—say about ten," replied Nort in a low voice. "It will take about two hours for him to fall asleep, and then we can get out, get aboard our ponies and trust to luck."
"If he only goes to sleep," sighed Dick.
"I'll give half the bottle full," whispered Nort.
The Greaser paid no attention to their talk, but sat immobile at the tent flaps. During the time the boys had been held prisoners no one had come to their canvas shelter save the cook, who brought them a plentiful supper, and also another barrel-head tray for the guard. The day had passed with several blasts having been set off, though the effect of them, and the object, was concealed from the boy ranchers.
In accordance with their plan, Nort and Dick dawdled over their night meal, having consumed only part of it when the cook, at about eight o'clock, came to remove the dishes.
"Git 'em mornin'," he said, as he turned to go out, evidently meaning that he was going to turn in, and the boys could keep what they had until the next day. This exactly suited them, and just before they were ready to lie down, pretending to be sleepy, Nort produced the cup of coffee he had saved out. Quickly he emptied into it half of the bottle of paregoric, and, stirring it to mix the opium concoction well with the beverage, offered it to the Greaser.
If the latter had suspicions he made no show of them, but, with a grunt accepted the unexpected refreshment, and drained the coffee at one tilt of his head. Then he passed the empty cup back to Nort, and proceeded to smoke another cigarette, an occupation that had been pretty much his whole task that day.
"Well, I'm going to turn in," said Nort in a loud voice, pretending to yawn.
"Same here," remarked Dick. Without undressing, they stretched out on the cots, not being afraid of soiling white sheets with their big boots, for there were no sheets to soil. Blankets alone formed the coverings, and these the boys drew over them.
There was no lantern in the tent, but the moon sent a stream of light in a little later, and by its gleam, in less than an hour after the dose had been administered, Nort and Dick saw the Greaser's head bent forward, while he had slumped down in a heap at the foot of the front tent pole.
Nort coughed loudly, two or three times, but the guard did not stir.
"Dead to the world!" whispered Dick gleefully. "We could walk all over him." He arose from the cot slowly, to silence as much as possible the rattle and squeak, and started for the front of the tent.
"The back way!" whispered Nort. "We'll cut the canvas! If we go out in front some one may see us. The back way!"
Dick comprehended, and turned around, picking up his range hat, an example followed by Nort. The latter had opened his pocket knife, which contained a large, keen blade, and, a moment later, a right-angled cut was made in the back wall of the canvas house.
Before emerging, Nort looked carefully through the opening he had made. The moon gave good light, but, fortunately, the tent was in the shadow of some trees and the way of escape seemed clear.
"Come on!" whispered Nort to his brother. They paused a moment, listening to the heavy breathing of the opium-stupefied Greaser and then stepped out of the opening.
An instant later they stood beneath the starry canopy of the sky, having accomplished the first part of their escape from the camp of mystery.
BACK TO THE RANCH
Perhaps, after all, it was due to the peculiar natures of the two professors that Nort and Dick were enabled to make their escape as easily as the lads did. Primarily Professor Wright and Professor Blair were scientists, whatever else our heroes accused them of in their own minds. And though the men surrounding the mysterious prospectors might be scoundrels, in a sense, they did not have orders to be extra vigilant after Dick and Nort had been placed in the tent; so no general guard was kept over the camp.
Thus it was, that as soon as the lads stepped out of the cut tent, they found no one to oppose their progress. Too much dependence had been placed on the Greaser guard. Who would have supposed that Nort carried a bottle of paregoric?
Or, granting that it was known he had it, would you have imagined that he would use it as he did? The whole affair was so ridiculously simple that perhaps this offered a reason for its success.
For it did succeed.
Stepping softly over the rough ground back of the tent, the boys made their way some little distance from it before they hardly dared breathe freely. Then as they were aware of the silence of the night, wrapping everything in its somber robe, slashed here and there with insertions of gleaming moonbeams, their hearts beat higher with hope.
They looked toward the other tents where, doubtless, the professors and their helpers were sleeping. Then Nort and Dick caught the snorting of the cattle in the improvised corral—Diamond X cattle unlawfully taken.
"Wish we could let 'em out—stampede 'em," whispered Nort.
"Don't think of it!" cautioned Dick to his more impulsive brother. "If we can get our horses away without raising a racket we'll be mighty lucky."
The boys had, earlier in the evening, noted where Blaze and Blackie were tethered, and now they paused long enough to get their bearings, and then made off in the direction of their ponies. They dared not stop to look for their saddles or bridles. If they got away at all they must ride bareback, and with only the loop of a lariat around the necks of their steeds.
Fortunately Blackie and Blaze were gentle ponies—not too gentle—but, in comparison with a bucking bronco, they were as carriage horses to a racer. The boys knew they could manage their mounts once they were on their backs.
Step by step, moving cautiously, hardly daring to breathe, Dick and Nort made their way to the ponies.
"Take it easy at first," cautioned Nort to Dick, as he slid his hand along the lariat, intending to follow it up until he reached the peg, which he could pull out.
"Which way you going to ride?" asked Dick.
"North," was the answer, for Nort had sensed that point of the compass. "After we get some distance away we can figure out which trail we ought to take."
"Anything to get away," murmured Dick.
Working quickly and silently, the boy ranchers soon released their ponies from the tethering ropes and managed to mount them, though it was not easy, owing to the lack of stirrups. But eventually they were on the backs of their mounts, and, looping a bight of the rope around the heads of Blaze and Blackie, made a sort of bridle.
Luckily the animals were not hard to guide, and a little later Dick and Nort were urging them along on the grass-covered ground, which provided so soft a cushion for their feet that scarcely a sound resulted.
"I think we're going to make it!" whispered Dick to Nort as they moved along, the horses climbing up out of the swale in which the mysterious camp was located. The moonlight gleamed down on the white tents, including the one from which the boys had cut their way.
"Don't be too sure—don't crow—we're not out on the open range yet," cautioned Nort, this time less inclined to haste than was Dick.
But their departure did not seem to be noticed. Any noise the horses made must have been covered by the lowing, snorting and occasional bellowing of the cattle in the corral.
And so it came about that Dick and Nort, by the exercise of their wits, with which our American youth are so richly endowed, had outwitted their enemies. Though why they should have been detained as prisoners they could not fathom.
"Guess we can take it a little faster now, can't we?" asked Dick, as they came to a fairly level, open place. The mysterious camp was now out of sight, though not out of mind.
"Yes, we can chance it, though without a saddle and bridle we are taking a chance."
The boys were never so glad as now that they knew fairly well how to ride, and that their steeds were not like many of the wilder western horses. Blaze and Blackie seemed to know that their young masters were at a disadvantage, and they trotted along as though under full guidance.
"I wonder what it all means—back there?" voiced Dick, as he rode along beside his brother. Nort did not have to ask what Dick referred to—it was the mystery camp.
"I don't know," Nort answered. "But I'm sure of one thing. As soon as we can get back to Diamond X we'll organize a raid on that outfit. It's the headquarters of the rustlers—or one gang of 'em—I'm positive."
"Looks so," agreed Dick.
They rode on at good speed now, though they were totally at a loss to know whether or not they were proceeding in the right direction to bring them to Diamond X ranch. Nort found himself regretting the capture of his gun, when Dick, who was a little ahead, suddenly pulled up his horse, as best he could with the improvised reins, and called:
Nort stopped and listened. To the ears of the boy ranchers was borne the unmistakable sound of galloping horses.
"If they're coming after us!" said Dick sharply, "I'm going to——"
"It can't be that bunch," interrupted Nort, evidently referring to the professor's camp. "They're behind us. This sound comes from in front."
"Maybe it's Bud looking for us!" exclaimed Dick, and before his brother could comment, they both saw riding toward them in the moonlight, up from a little valley, several cowboys. The form of more than one was familiar to Dick and Nort, but as they saw their cousin in the front rank they cried out:
"There they are!" yelled Bud in answer, and a moment later our heroes were among their friends.
"Where have you been? What happened? Are you hurt?"
These were only a few questions fired at the escaped prisoners, and as they managed to tell their story there were ominous growls and comments from the cowboys with Bud.
"The scoundrels! Rustling our cattle!" cried Bud. "We'll fix 'em!"
"They're doing something else besides rustling your cattle," declared Nort. "Let's go back to Diamond X and organize a crowd to raid this camp! We haven't enough men here, and Dick and I haven't any guns," he added.
"All right," assented Bud, after a moment's thought. "We can do better in daylight, anyhow. Back to the ranch it is!"
And as the rescue squad turned to go back Nort and Dick rode with them, their thoughts busy with many topics.
"Now let's have the whole yarn," urged Bud Merkel.
The rescue party of cowboys had returned to Diamond X ranch, after meeting Nort and Dick who were riding their saddleless horses on their way of escape from the mysterious camp.
Thereupon the two brothers told everything that had happened since they rode off together two days before, to haze back the bunch of wild steers.
"Hum! That's quite a yarn," commented Bud's father who, with Slim Degnan, Babe Milton and several of the cowboys, had listened to the lads' story.
"Did they harm you at all?" asked motherly Mrs. Merkel.
"No, they were very polite about it," answered Nort. "But of course we weren't going to stay with them on that account."
"I should say not!" chuckled Bud. "So you put paregoric in the Greaser's coffee! That was rich! Even Zip Poster couldn't have done better!"
"Oh, Zip! He'd 'a' drugged the whole camp, and brought 'em away one at a time on his shoulder," said Slim, with a wink at the others.
"Hum! You know a lot—don't you?" murmured Bud, but it was easy to see he did not like any fun poked at Zip Foster, a very mysterious personage, it appeared.
"How'd you come to find us?" asked Nort, when his own tale, and that of his brother, had been sufficiently told.
"Well, it was mainly luck, in a way," Bud answered. "After you two rode off that time, we didn't pay much attention to you for a while, as we had our hands full with the cattle. Then we didn't worry, even when it began to get dark, for we figured that the steers had given you more of a run than usual. We didn't worry, for I told dad that you were getting to be real ranchers."
Nort and Dick smiled proudly at this tribute.
"But," resumed Bud, "when you fellows didn't come back in the early hours of the morning, we did begin to get a little leery. And then we started off to look for you as soon as it was light. We needn't say we didn't find you. But we kept on hunting, and we were just about to give up again, and ride off in another direction, when we saw you heading for us."
"That camp of the professors' is pretty well hidden," spoke Nort. "I wonder if we can find it again?"
"Bet your boots!" cried Bud. "I could find it in the dark, but we won't wait until then to close in on the rustlers!"
"That's what they are!" cried Nort "They're cattle rustlers, and something else! Why, they had the nerve to drive some of our Diamond X branded cattle right in under our noses, and they never even apologized!"
"Such fellows don't generally beg your pardon," commented Mr. Merkel, dryly. "But have you any idea what their game is, boys?" he asked the two brothers.
"They're digging, blasting and excavating for something that's hidden in the ground," answered Nort. "Whether it's gold or diamonds I don't know."
"I don't see how it can be either," said Bud, with a shake of his head. "Nothing like that has ever been found around here."
"There's always a first time," said Mrs. Merkel, with a smile. "And wouldn't it be wonderful if there should be a diamond mine on our ranch? I'd rather it would be diamonds than gold," she went on, "as it doesn't take so many diamonds to amount to a fortune."
"Well, all I've got to say is that if those rascals rustle off enough of my steers they'll be making a fortune that I ought to have," commented the head of Diamond X ranch. "I think it's time we closed in on 'em, boys!" he added sharply. "Up to now we didn't have any direct evidence. But if Nort and Dick saw some of our cattle driven into their camp, and held there, that's proof enough of what they are."
"That's what I say!" cried Bud. "Let's get after the rustlers, Del Pinzo and the rest! I always did suspect that slick Greaser, and now we've got the goods on him. Shouldn't wonder but what that Double Z outfit was mixed up in this, too."
"Don't go jumping too fast," counseled his father. "Zip Foster wouldn't like it!"
"Oh—er—well, you'll see if I'm not right!" said Bud, somewhat confused.
It was planned, in the light of what Nort and Bud had seen and heard, to close in and raid the mysterious camp of the professors' the next day. This talk had taken place during the night and early morning hours, following the meeting of the refugees with the rescue party.
"Maybe we ought to close in on 'em this morning," suggested Bud, as the conference broke up, when the first streaks of dawn were coming in the ranch house windows.
"No," decided his father. "Nort and Dick want to get a little sleep, and we want them with us when we close in. Then, too, I want to circulate the word around a bit, and have some deputies from the sheriff's office on hand to see that everything is done regular. Of course I'd have a right to go in there, right off the reel, and take my cattle. But I'd rather do it regular."
So it was planned. Nort and Dick, indeed, were glad to get some sleep and rest, for they had had a hard time during the last two days. But they were hardy, healthy lads, and their life almost continually in the open since coming to Diamond X ranch had made them able to endure hardships they could not, otherwise, have stood. So, after a short rest and sleep, they were as eager as Bud and the cowboys to start on a raid.
Meanwhile Mr. Merkel had not been idle. He had sent word of what had happened to several adjoining ranches, being careful, however, not to let news of what was afoot trickle through to Hank Fisher, owner of the Double Z. As a matter of fact, while there was no evidence to directly connect Hank with the mysterious operations at the professors' camp, this man was believed to have been involved in more than one cattle rustling operation.
It was hinted that he branded more mavericks than were rightfully his, and on several occasions cattle with "blurred brands" had been found on his ranch. But he always managed to explain matters, though his association with Del Pinzo, who gave it out that he was officially attached to Double Z, did not raise the value of Hank Fisher's reputation. So it was thought best not to include him or his cowboys in the raid.
But others from adjoining' ranches assembled at Diamond X on the morning selected for the start, and by this time saddles and bridles had been provided for Blaze and Blackie, and Nort and Dick sported new guns in their holsters.
"Now do be careful, won't you?" pleaded Mrs. Merkel, as the cavalcade started off, with none of the usual whooping and yelling that marked many cowboy affairs. This was thought too serious to be decorated with horse play.
"We'll be careful," promised her husband. "But I don't imagine there'll be any serious trouble. We'll surround the place and if those fellows have any sense they'll give up and take what's coming to them."
"Look out for the boys!" she said in a lower voice, nodding toward her own son, and Nort and Dick.
"I will," promised Mr. Merkel. "But from what I've seen," he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, "they're middlin' well able to look after themselves. Paregoric for that Greaser! That's pretty good!" and he chuckled as he rode off with the others.
The plans had been carefully made and each cowboy knew what he was to do. The idea was to surround the camp, if possible without arousing the suspicions of the inmates, and then make a sudden rush on it from all sides. This would be comparatively easy to do, since the camp was in the valley, with hills all around it. It was simple enough to follow the trail to the point where Nort and Dick had been met with as they were escaping. And when this point was reached, it was left to the two young ranchers themselves to say which way to go, since the camp was not in sight, nor were there any known trails leading to it.
"Well, as near as I can tell this is the way we came," said Nort, after studying over the matter a bit, and consulting with Dick.
"All right," decided Mr. Merkel. "You lead a party that way, and I'll take Dick, and bear off more to the south. It may be you haven't just hit it, and this will give us two shots at it. We'll keep within sight of one another as long as we can, and the first one who sights the right trail, leading in, will build a fire and send up smoke puffs."
This much settled, two parties rode off, Nort leading one and Dick the other.
They were closing in on the mysterious camp.
The boy ranchers, meaning this time Nort and Dick, as distinguished from Bud, felt that they were on their mettle—that they were being put to a severe test. They had ridden out from the mysterious camp of the professors, and now they were to ride back to it, leading the raiding party. True, they had come out at night, and under the stress of excitement, so that it was not easy to determine the trail back.
But as the boys rode alone, each at the head of a cavalcade that was beginning to diverge, they felt the full measure of responsibility. One of them must make good—must pick up the obscure trail leading to the rendezvous of the cattle rustlers.
It was Dick who proved the lucky one this time. The party led by Nort was out of sight among the many hills and swales, when Dick, riding past a water hole, stopped suddenly.
"The trail goes in that way," he said. "I'm sure of it. Blackie stopped here when we were riding out, to get a drink."
"Are you sure he stopped here?" asked Babe, who was with Dick's party.
"Positive! He stopped in such a hurry that I slid off and fell, and this excited him so I had quite a job holding him."
In an instant one of the cowboys was out of his saddle and looking carefully at the ground.
"The kid's right!" he exclaimed. "There's been some sort of a fracas here."
In that country, where rains were infrequent, and travel light, marks remained for a long time on the dry ground.
"I'm sure it was here," declared Dick, "and we came out that way." He pointed toward some distant hills.
"Well, we'll take a chance on it," said Babe. "Light a fire, fellows."
In a few minutes a column of smoke was ascending, and two of the cowboys, holding a blanket over it, moved the cloth to one side at intervals, so that puffs of the dark vapor arose and floated upward.
"That'll call 'em," observed Babe, who sat on his horse directing operations, at the same time scanning the horizon for answering signals from Nort's party.
"Won't the rustlers see these and skip out?" asked Dick, as the smoke puffs went up thick and fast.
"Don't believe so," spoke Babe. "If they do see 'em they'll only think they're camp fires, or round-up blazes."
"We'll do the rounding-up," grimly commented Snake Purdee. "But of course these fellows may be on the lookout. Can't hardly expect much else after they come to know that their prisoners have skipped, and the Greaser has gone back to his baby days, eating paregoric! Oh, my spurs! That was slick!"
"There they are!" suddenly cried Dick, as he descried other smoke signals going up, about three miles away. And in a short time there rode up to the waiting ones the members of the other party.
"Dick says this is the trail in," remarked Babe, detailing our hero's reasons for his statement.
"Yes, he's right," assented Nort. "We did come this way."
"All right then! Go to it, boys!" commanded Mr. Merkel, and the party rode off.
As they advanced, the configuration of the ground became more and more familiar to the two boys. They passed places which they had ridden over in approaching the half-hidden valley, before they fairly stumbled on it and were captured.
"I reckon we're getting warm," decided Mr. Merkel, after several hours of cautious riding. "Some of you fellows better take it on foot for half a mile or so, and see what you can locate. We'll wait for you here."
Two cowboys, leaving their horses rather reluctantly, formed an advance scouting party, and the others waited down in a little swale. In less than half an hour the two scouts had returned, and their manner showed suppressed excitement.
"We located 'em," said one. "They're in the next valley.'
"What are they doing?" asked Bud.
"We didn't stop to see that," was the answer. "As soon as we saw the white tents we came back."
"All right," said Mr. Merkel grimly, "now we've got 'em! Spread out, boys, and don't do any shooting unless it's absolutely necessary. We just want to capture the rascals. But be sure your guns are in working order."
Most of the cowboys knew this without looking, but Bud, Nort and Dick made a careful inspection of their weapons.
Proceeding cautiously, the cavalcade approached. Some had been sent on in advance, to circle about and approach the valley from the far side, thus enabling it to be surrounded.
Two shots, fired at a brief interval, was to be a signal from the advance party, led by Slim, that they were in place, and ready to attack.
"There! One shot!" suddenly cried Bud, as a sharp report cut the air.
It was followed, almost immediately, by another.
"Come on, boys!" cried Mr. Merkel, and there was a general leaping to saddles. Bud and his cousins were not a bit behind the cowboys and a little later, amid shouts, the two parties rode at a fast clip down the slopes toward the mysterious camp.
"Look! There are your cattle!" cried Nort to Mr. Merkel, as several steers were seen, standing in a bunch near some queer piece of apparatus that looked like a derrick.
"That's right!" shouted the cattleman, for he had caught sight of the animals bearing the Diamond X brand. "But what in the name of sour dough biscuits are they doing?" he asked. "If these are rustlers they're the queerest ones I ever saw!"
"Well, they're rustlers all right!" yelled several of the cowboys. "Come on, fellows! Let's get at 'em!"
"Right you are, Buddy!" rang out savage, exultant yells on all sides. The cowboys wished for nothing better than to come to hand grips with lawless men who stole the fruit of others' labor. "Treat 'em rough!"
"Sit tight and ride hard!" called Bud to Nort and Dick. "There's going to be some hot work!" and he spoke to his pony, which leaped forward as if he, too, wanted to get into the fight.
"Will we need our guns?" asked Dick.
"Better have 'em handy!" advised Nort, as his hand went to the leather holster at his hip.
"Look at 'em!" shouted Bud. "They're going to fight us all right!"
Indeed, it did appear that the party in the camp established by the professors, taken by surprise as they were, meant to resist to the utmost. Men could be seen running back to the tents, whence some reappeared with guns or big .45s. Others, including the two professors themselves, remained at the scene where some of the Diamond X cattle were attached by ropes to the apparatus that looked like the derrick.
"Are they trying to brand your cattle over again, Bud?" asked Dick as he and his cousin rode alongside of the young rancher.
"I don't know," was the answer. "If they are, they're going about it in a new way. I wonder what they are up to, anyhow?"
Well might he ask that, for as the raiding party made its rush into the valley several men near the professors, were urging forward the steers that were harnessed, or yoked together in some manner, to cause them to act as a lifting force. By means of ropes rigged over the derrick-like structure, something heavy was being hoisted from a great hole in the ground.
The steers, unused to this work, for which gentle oxen might have been admirably fitted, were acting wildly, and the Greasers, and other campers, were having their hands full. This with the shouts of the attacking party, the thud of the feet of many galloping horses and the firing of shots into the air by the wildly enthusiastic cowboys from Diamond X, made the place one of great confusion.
"Rout 'em out, boys!"
"Haze 'em into the brook!"
"Cut out our cattle!"
"Rope 'em an' hog-tie 'em!"
These were only a few of the many directions that were yelled at the tops of voices as the boy ranchers and their friends swept onward down the valley, converging on the band of men they believed to be cattle rustlers, if not something worse.
"Hands up, there!"
"Drop those guns!"
These commands came sternly from Mr. Merkel, Babe and Slim, while Dick and Nort, riding beside Bud, felt a wild thrill as they realized that they were to have a part in this strenuous fight. To possible danger they gave not a thought.
But if the attacking party thought everything was to be easy, it was not long before this idea vanished. After the first surprise, the Greasers, and other rough characters in the camp of the professors, regained their nerve, and prepared to fight. There were shouts in hissing Spanish, and Del Pinzo was observed to be rallying his followers.
Bud and his cousins had a glimpse of this wily Mexican leaping on his horse, and, surrounded by a number of evil-looking men, riding straight for the invaders.
"They're coming!" cried Nort.
"I see 'em!" muttered Dick.
"Keep together!" advised Bud in a wild cry. "Stay with me, and we'll ride right through 'em!"
Several weapons popped, and two or three saddles were emptied, one on the side of the Diamond X forces. Nort and Dick heard bullets whistling in the air over their heads, and though they may have ducked, instinctively, they did not after the first two or three of these nerve-racking experiences.
"Come on! Come on!" yelled Bud to his cousins, as they saw Del Pinzo and his gang of Greasers spurring toward them.
Nort and Dick touched their horses lightly, and the spirited ponies sprang forward. Dick had a glimpse of the two professors, and one or two other men, standing by the derrick structure as though dazed at the sudden turn in affairs. Some of the helpers were endeavoring to quiet the harnessed cattle.
"Ride 'em down, boys! Ride 'em down!" yelled Mr. Merkel.
"You said it!" shouted Slim Degnan, and Babe added his voice to the din, the while starting one of the verses of his cowboys' song.
That was a gun going off close to the ear of Dick. He leaned over slightly in his saddle, fearing he had been hit. But in another instant he realized that Bud had fired, with a pistol held so close to the eastern lad's ear as nearly to deafen him.
"Well, I got him, anyhow!" yelled Bud, and Dick saw a man who had been riding at Del Pinzo's side drop his gun and clasp his right hand in his left. "That's what I wanted to do—disarm him. No need to shoot to kill!" Bud went on.
Dick saw a Mexican riding straight at him, and the boy endeavored to bring his weapon to bear as Bud had done. But just as the boy rancher was going to pull the trigger something else happened. He felt himself flying over the head of his pony, and the next moment came heavily to the ground, while blackness closed his eyes. Dick was out of the fight.
The battle between the cowboys and the Greasers now waged hotly. Guns cracked on both sides and more than one saddle was emptied. This before the two forces actually came together. And come together they did, with the thud of horses and men meeting, as when two rival football elevens clash on the gridiron. Only this was more desperate.
Nort had a glimpse of Dick being unhorsed and left behind in a silent, huddled heap on the ground. A wave of sorrow, and then a wild feeling of revenge, swept through Nort's heart. He sent his pony ahead with a rush, endeavoring to wheel him to attack the man at whom Dick had been riding when unseated.
"Look out!" Bud yelled.
Nort turned in time to see Del Pinzo himself bearing down on him astride of a powerful black horse. The Greaser was yelling and waving his gun, from the muzzle of which smoke floated.
"I'll get him!" yelled Nort, savagely. He swerved his own weapon, bringing it to bear on the evilly smiling Mexican, and Nort's own face lit up in a grim smile, for he thought to revenge Dick.
But the next instant he felt a burning, stinging pain across his forehead and a second later his eyes saw nothing, while he was conscious that they were filled with blood that streamed from his wound.
"I'm shot!" was the thought that flashed through Nort's mind.
He endeavored to pull up his pony, conscious that he was losing control over the animal. He wanted his eyes to see where he was heading.
By a great effort of will Nort caught up his gun in his bridle hand, and with his right wiped away as much of the blood as he could from his eyes. A great emotion of thankfulness passed over him as he found that he could still see, though dimly.
He caught sight of Del Pinzo still spurring toward him, but the next moment a curious change took place.
"Let me have him!" Nort heard Bud yell, seemingly from a great distance, though, in reality from a position directly behind him. Then as his vision dimmed again, Nort caught a fleeting sight of a lasso whirling and writhing through the air toward the Greaser.
Del Pinzo tried in vain to dodge it, but his horse was traveling too fast. Then, as darkness again closed down on poor Nort he had a vision of the Greaser, covered with blood, shouting and wildly jerking his arms and legs, being pulled from the saddle to the ground, his gun going off harmlessly as he was yanked along.
"Bud got him!" was the thought that flashed through Nort's mind, and then all became black, and he felt some one helping him down out of his saddle.
"Where's Dick? I'm not much hurt!" Nort heard himself murmuring, though, to tell the truth, he did not know for certain whether he was mortally wounded or not. "Look after Dick! Are they beating us?" he asked, though he could not see to whom he was talking.
"Dick's all right," answered a voice that Nort recognized as that of Babe. "It's you we're worried about."
"Nothing much the matter with me," spoke Nort, as his hand again went to his head. Then he found that a bullet had creased its way across his forehead, cutting a long gash, but making a wound that was only superficial, though it bled profusely.
"Are we getting licked?" demanded Nort anxiously, as more shots resounded in the valley, and he could hear the yells of cowboys, the clashing of bodies one against the other and the lowing of the cattle.
"No, we've got 'em on the run!" exulted Babe. "Come on, till I lead you to water, and you can wash off that blood. You look bad that way, even if you aren't hurt much!"
"Are you sure Dick's all right?" Nort asked.
"Sure! His horse stumbled and threw him. He's limping over this way now."
"Good!" murmured Nort, and his heart felt better.
But the fighting was not over yet. Driven partly from the valley at the first rush of the boy ranchers and their friends from Diamond X, the Greasers and Mexican cowboys returned with a rush. This took place when Nort was trying to rid himself of some of the blood that had flowed freely from the gash on his head.
"There goes Yellin' Kid!" cried Babe, as he darted away from Nort's side.
"Killed?" asked the boy, who could not see just then, as some water got in his eyes.
"Killed? Shucks, no!" yelled Babe exultantly. "He rode into one Greaser and knocked him seven ways from Sunday, and roped another, yankin' him out of the saddle! Oh, boy!" and with a yell Babe ran to join in the fray.
Nort cleared his face of blood and water long enough to see Snake Purdee keel over out of his saddle as a bullet struck him, though it afterward developed that the cowboy was not badly hurt.
Slim was slightly wounded, and Mr. Merkel had a narrow escape. But though the Diamond X bunch took hard knocks they gave harder ones. Nor did the professors escape scathless, for Mr. Wright was grazed by a spent bullet, and his helper was horned by one of the wild steers.
"There they go! We've made 'em run for cover!" shrilly cried Yellin' Kid as he spurred after the last of the lawless men. "Yip! Yippy! There they go!"
And go the rascals did—that is, those who were not wounded or captured.
Diamond X cowboys were in complete possession of the mysterious camp of the two professors. The fight had been won by the Merkel forces, and at no very great sacrifices on their part. One or two of the cowboys had been wounded, but not seriously, though two horses had been killed, and also one steer. On the other hand, the enemy, as represented by the Greasers and some cowboys who were in the pay of the two professors, were in need of hospital treatment in several cases; one serious. But they had brought the trouble on themselves by their lawless acts.
Babe helped Nort tie a bandage around the bullet-cut on his forehead, and then, with his eyes cleared of the blood, Nort was able to see that victory had come to Diamond X.
Bud's quick act, in lassoing Del Pinzo, just as the latter was about to ride down Nort, had been one of the turning points in the fight. When the Greasers saw their leader pulled from his saddle they turned and would have fled, but for the cowboys who surrounded them, compelling them to surrender with the grim words:
Nort saw Del Pinzo, and several of the others, being roped and tied on ponies, and then his attention was attracted to Dick, who came limping up with a rueful face.
"Hurt?" asked Nort of his brother.
"No, but wasn't it rotten that my horse had to stumble just as I was going to pot one of 'em?"
"Yes, but you might have been potted instead! We're well out of it, I think."
"They got you, though!" said Dick, a bit anxiously.
"Only a scratch," Nort answered, though his whole face was beginning to feel stiff from the effects of the bullet wound.
"Well, we seem to have made a clean sweep," remarked Mr. Merkel as he rode up, with Bud and some of the cowboys, to where Nort and Dick stood. "You boys all right?" he asked quickly.
"Sure!" exclaimed Nort. "But have you found out what it's all about?"
"We're going to," said Bud's father, grimly. "The two professors, as they call themselves, didn't take any part in the fight. They're over near that hole in the ground, with some of my steers yoked up to that derrick. I'm going to find out what it means. Keep those fellows well tied, boys!" he commanded his cowboys who had charge of Del Pinzo and his followers.
"Don't worry," drawled Babe, as he rolled a cigarette. "We've hog-tied 'em!"
Indeed, it did seem impossible for Del Pinzo or any of the Greasers to get loose, but their bonds were looked to again, while some of the cowboys busied themselves with the wounded. Then Mr. Merkel, followed by his foreman and the boy ranchers, approached the little knoll on which stood the two professors and the uneasy cattle. The animals had been prevented from stampeding during the fight because of the ropes that bound them to the derrick.
Riding up to the scientists, who seemed dazed by what had taken place, Mr. Merkel sternly demanded:
"What does this mean?"
He pointed to the harnessed cattle—his own Diamond X steers, which were now more quiet.
"I might ask you the same," retorted Professor Wright, and there was considerable excitement in his voice and manner. "By what authority do you ride into our camp, attacking our men, and interfering with our work which we have permission from the United States government to carry out?"
"I don't know anything about that," said Mr. Merkel, "but I do know that you have some of my cattle, and even the permission of the government doesn't cover the rustling of animals from the Diamond X ranch."
"Cattle rustling?" murmured Professor Blair.
"Your cattle?" added Professor Wright, falteringly.
"Yes!" was the snapped-out answer. "Those are my steers you have hitched to that derrick.
"Oh—those!" exclaimed Professor Blair, with an air of relief. "We merely borrowed them. They will be returned to you soon."
"But what are you after, anyhow?" burst out Bud, unable longer to restrain his curiosity. "What are you pulling out of that hole?"
The two professors turned toward it as the boy rancher pointed, and Nort and Dick, forgetting the pain of their wounds and bruises, followed their gaze to the excavation.
"We are pulling out ten million years," answered Professor Wright, slowly, in rather solemn tones. "Ten million years! We are pulling out a creature that walked the earth ten million years ago!"
There was a gasp from the listening cowboys, and Babe murmured:
"His brain sure is cracked!"
"Ten million years!" murmured Mr. Merkel. "But what has that to do with rustling Diamond X cattle?"
Before anyone could answer, there was some movement at the far end of the valley camp, and into it came rushing several more steers bearing the Merkel brand. They were being driven by several Mexican Greasers, who seemed very much surprised at the scene that met their gaze. In vain did Del Pinzo attempt to signal them to retreat.
It was too late. On they came, and with yells the Diamond X cowboys rushed for these latest arrivals.
"More rustling!" cried Bud. "We've caught 'em right at their game!"
"Go get 'em, boys!" commanded his father.
And in a few minutes, after the exchange of a few shots, the other Mexicans were captured, with the exception of one or two at the rear of the bunch of steers. They managed to ride off in the confusion.
"Oh, boy!" murmured Bud, as he threw his hat up in the air. "This is great! Even Zip Foster couldn't beat this!"
"He'll not get the chance, I guess!" murmured Nort, laughing.
"Looks like we'd corraled the whole bunch," said Slim. "Now let's take a look at this ten million year old creature the professors seem to have bagged."
The prisoners were now secured and the boy ranchers, with Bud's father and his cowboys, drew near the great hole in the ground—the hole over which leaned an improvised derrick. From this derrick ran a long rope, rigged over pulleys, and it was to the pulling end of this cable that the Diamond X steers were hitched. The lifting end of the rope extended down into the excavation.
"Just what sort of game is going on here?" demanded Mr. Merkel, and But knew when his father spoke in this tone that there was likely to be trouble for some one. "What does it all mean?"
"The explanation is a long one," began Professor Wright, "but——"
"It doesn't take very long to size up that you've been rustling our cattle!" said Slim, sharply.
"Rustling!" murmured the professor. "Rustling? Oh, I see, a western term for borrowing."
"Borrowing! Oh, Zip Foster!" murmured Bud, but his father motioned for him to remain quiet.
But Professor Wright had caught Bud's remark, and it seemed to give a new light to the scientist. He stepped forward, having seen to it that the rope, by which something, "ten million years old," was being hoisted from the earth, was made fast. The steers, which had been straining to lift the weight, were now comparatively quiet, and the second bunch, driven in by Del Pinzo's men, were cropping grass near the stream.
"There seems to have been some mistake," said Professor Wright. "We intended to pay you for the use of your cattle, Mr. Merkel, as I understand your name to be. And, now that we have almost accomplished our search, we shall have no further need of your beasts. I don't know why my helper sent after more, for those we have are amply able to lift out the fossils. We shall be through with your animals in a few hours, and will then pay anything in reason for their borrowed use."
A light seemed also to break over Bud's father, and the boy ranchers looked at one another with a new understanding.
"Do you mean to say," began the owner of the Diamond X ranch, "that you only wanted to use my cattle as you might use oxen—as draft animals?"
"Of course," said Professor Blair. "That is all we wanted them for. Did you think we intended to keep them?"
"Well—er—you'll excuse me saying so, but we certainly did!" declared Bud's father. "Rustling, we call it here, and it means driving off another man's branded stock. It isn't all clear to me yet. What are you after, anyhow? What's down in that hole, and what is it that is ten million years old?"
"A Triceratops," answered Professor Wright. "We have been on the track of one for a long time, and now we have found it. Almost the only complete remains of the most perfect Triceratops it has ever been the fortune of anyone to discover! If you will only have a little patience, and grant us the use of your steers a short time longer, until we hoist from its ancient bed the remains, you may soon look upon one of nature's wonders—a Triceratops!"
"Triceratops!" murmured Babe Milton. "Is that one of them slidin' horns you blow your lungs out on?"
"You're thinkin' of a trombone," said Snake Purdee, laughing.
"Or a saxophone," said Bud.
"No," said Dick, "I remember now. A Triceratops is one of the ancient Dinosaurs, or lizard animals, that roamed the earth millions of years ago. We studied a little about them in the Academy."
"You are right, young man, a Triceratops is one of the most wonderful of Dinosaurs," said Professor Wright. "For many years I have been seeking a perfect specimen, and now I have found it. In a little while you may gaze upon its skeleton remains, or at least most of them. Have I your permission to continue the use of your cattle as a hoisting medium?" he asked Mr. Merkel.
"Shucks! Yes!" exclaimed the ranchman. "I don't know what you're driving at, except that it's something scientific, but you're more than welcome, and I'm sorry there was all this fuss over it. If we had only known what you were after we could have helped."
"I did not dare let the object of my expedition become known, until I was sure of success," said Professor Wright. "A rival college has sent some of its scientists into this same field, and only by strategy have we been able to elude them and reach our wonderful success."
"Oh, so that's what all the secret was about!" exclaimed the ranchman. "Well, was he in the secret, too?" he asked, pointing to the bound and scowling Del Pinzo.
"He knew we were after something of this sort; yes," answered the scientist, "but he has no comprehension, of course, of what a Triceratops is. I believe he told his Mexican and Indian helpers, who assisted us from time to time, that we were after gold."
"Oh, so that's how that rumor got abroad," murmured Mr. Merkel.
"Did you send Del Pinzo's men off to get more of our cattle just now?" asked Slim, pointing to the second batch of Diamond X steers.
"No, and we never sent him, or them, to any special place to get animals to use on our pulley ropes," said Professor Wright. "We left that to him, merely stipulating that he was to hire animals, and we would pay for their use."
"Then I see his game!" cried the foreman of the ranch. "He took this chance to rustle some cattle on his own account, thinking you wouldn't know the difference, and that you'd be blamed for it. You slick Greaser!" he cried, shaking his fist at Del Pinzo. "This makes it all clear, now!"
"We certainly never intended to do more than hire a few of your powerful steers, to use as oxen," said Professor Wright. "But I can see, now, that we should have made this clear from the first, and not have left it to one who, evidently, does not bear a good reputation with you."
"You got off an earfull that time," commented Babe Milton, dryly.
"But why were my two nephews held as prisoners in your camp?" asked Mr. Merkel. "There doesn't seem to have been any excuse for that."
"Only our zeal to avoid discovery, and to keep our plans secret from a rival college expedition," said Professor Wright. "For this I must apologize to the boys. They stumbled in on our camp just when we had located the bones of the Triceratops, and we feared they had come from our rivals. I offered them all the freedom possible, if they would give me their parole, but they saw fit not to, and I thought the end justified the means.
"I see, now, that I made a mistake in trying to keep the boys prisoners, though it would have been only for a short time. But they got away."
"They sure did—with paregoric!" chuckled Bud.
"Well, no great harm was done," said Professor Wright. "And now that explanations have been made, and the guilty caught," and he looked at Del Pinzo, "we will proceed to lift out the Triceratops."
"Ten million years old!" murmured Slim. "Whew!"
"And perhaps older," said Professor Blair.
"Get ready, men!" he called to those in charge of the harnessed steers.
Then began a strange scene. The powerful animals from Diamond X ranch, acting for the time being as beasts of burden, leaned forward in the improvised yokes. There was the creaking of pulleys, the straining of ropes and the squeak of wood under pressure.
Then from the great hole that had been dug, and blasted, in the earth, there arose a mass of bones, imbedded in rock—part of the skeleton of an ancient and prehistoric Triceratops.
This fragment of an animal—one of the Dinosaurs that roamed the western part of America from ten to twenty-five million years ago—before the Rocky Mountains were even formed—this fragment gave little idea of the weird beast itself.
I have not time, or space, to tell you more about it than can be sketched in a few words. But those of you who have seen the restoration of these monsters, in museums, will bear me out when I say that they must have been among the wonders of the ancient world.
The Triceratops resembled a rhinoceros as much as anything else, but was much larger. He had comparatively short legs, a short heavy tail and, doubtless, a very thick skin.
His skull was his most remarkable feature. On top were three horns, the one directly over the end of his snout being short, the middle one long and the rear slightly shorter. Back of the last horn extended a huge, bony plate, not unlike the back shield on the helmet of a fireman, and over each eye was another protective plate of bone, doubtless intended, as was the rear one, to guard vital organs.
The Triceratops was the largest animal of his kind, more than twenty-five feet long, and while he may not have matched the Brontosaurus, or Thunder Lizard, which was from forty to sixty feet long, from ten to fourteen feet high, with thigh bones measuring six feet in length (the largest single bones known to science)—while, I say, the Triceratops may not have been a match for the Thunder Lizard, he was a Dinosaur to be reckoned with.
And as the remains of this prehistoric monster, that had lived, walked, eaten and fought on earth from ten to twenty-five million years ago, rose out of the pit, even the workaday cowboys could not repress a cheer.
"That's the idea, boys!" cried Professor Wright, who was quite a different person, now that his work was crowned with success. "I feel like cheering also! This is the culmination of my life's ambition, and that of my helper, Professor Blair!"
When the wounded had been cared for and the prisoners had been sent to the nearest jail, the remains of the skeleton of the Triceratops, part of the bones imbedded in rock, were carefully hoisted out and laid to one side. When I tell you that the skull, alone, of one of these monsters, imbedded in rock, weighed, when boxed for shipment to a museum, over three tons, you may form some idea of the magnitude of this sort of relic collecting, and understand why many powerful steers were needed, with tackle, to raise specimens out of a deep pit.
That the boy ranchers were intensely interested in the remaining work of restoring to science the lost Triceratops, goes without saying. When it was made plain that the two professors and their men were not cattle rustlers, Mr. Merkel gave them every assistance in his power, assigning some of his cowboys to help with the labor of excavating the remaining bones, not all of which could be found.
For it is rare that a complete skeleton of these monster Dinosaurs is recovered. While our western states, in certain places, are rich in fossil remains, there is very seldom a complete skeleton unearthed. At best there are but a few bones, or the impressions of bones, in the sandstone rocks or shale. But from these bones, from the impressions of those that have been eaten by time, and by their knowledge of what sort of anatomy was needed to keep these wonderful creatures on earth, it is possible for scientists to almost completely and perfectly restore them, in some medium like papier-mache.
"We shall be the envy of all our colleagues!" declared Professor Wright, as the work progressed from day to day, the boy ranchers becoming eager helpers. Professor Wright and Professor Blair labored with their men, and as hard.
There was one exception to this—Silas Thorp. He of the sour face and hangdog manner, it was discovered, had acted with Del Pinzo in stealing cattle, intending to sell them for their own profit, after they had "borrowed" the animals from Diamond X ranch, letting the two professors think the steers had legitimately been "hired."
Silas made his escape during the fight, but Del Pinzo and most of his men were captured. Not all of the professors' employees were confederates of the Greasers, Del Pinzo and Silas Thorp. Some were as ignorant as the scientists themselves that anything wrong was going on. These men were soon freed, and helped in the work of excavating the Triceratops.
There really were some cattle rustlers engaged in operations around Diamond Z ranch when Nort and Dick happened to come on their visit. This fact was discovered later when some of the cattlemen organized a posse, and after a fight, in which several on both sides were slain, arrested a notorious gang.
It was Del Pinzo who had tried to rope Dick that night, hoping, it was surmised, that in the confusion, he might be able to steal some steers.
But the mission of the professor, that same night, was perfectly legitimate. He had heard that some rival scientists were "on his trail," and he rode off alone to see if this might be true. He found nothing, however, but his suspicions were ever on the alert. As a matter of fact he learned, later, that his rivals had never been near him. But he took all precautions, some needless, as it afterward developed.
That some of the Double Z outfit, and perhaps even the owner of that ranch, Hank Fisher himself, were involved in cattle rustling, was suspected, but not proved—at least for some time.
With the discovery that the professors were really scientists, and not cattle rustlers, all suspicion of them vanished. They had come west to hunt for the fossil relics and bones of the Triceratops. The reason they headed for Diamond X ranch was because, some time previous, another scientist, connected with the same college to which Professor Wright and Professor Blair were attached, had been given, by a Mexican guide, a bone from that strange monster—the Triceratops.
By dint of much questioning this professor learned that the bone had been found on land near Diamond X ranch. Professors Blair and Wright secured government permission to prospect on unclaimed land, and thus began a search for the complete skeleton, a search that ended so dramatically.
The two professors had hired an outfit, and planned to spend the entire summer looking for the remains of the prehistoric monster Dinosaur. Their actions were misunderstood by some of the Mexicans and Indians they hired, these ignorant men thinking gold was the object of the search. Hence the attack on the camp at the time Bud and his friends warded it off.
On the occasion when Ridin' Kid rode his horse against the tent, which seemed to conceal something valuable, there was, inside the canvas shelter, some bones that, later, proved to be part of the very skeleton which Bud, Nort and Dick helped to raise from its ten-million-year-old bed. The professors were afraid there would be a premature discovery of what, to them, were valuable relics, so guarded the tent jealously.
But eventually the bones and fossils were hoisted out of the hole, which had to be blasted larger to enable this work to go on, and the scientists departed for the East and their colleges, parting on the best of terms with the Diamond X outfit.
"Saddle up, boys!" called Mr. Merkel to Bud, Nort and Dick one day, about a month after the fight in the valley camp.
"What for—have we got to quiet a stampede?" asked Dick, who had recovered from his injuries, as had Nort.
"No, we've got to ride in to town, to give evidence against Del Pinzo and his gang," answered Bud's father. "Their trial comes off to-day. They've been in jail ever since we roped 'em!"
"More excitement!" yelled Bud as he raced for the corral to saddle his pony, an example followed by Nort and Dick.
The boy ranchers, with some of the older men, rode off over the prairies to the distant seat of the local government, where the trial of the cattle rustlers was to be held.
And, as they rode into the small town, a typical western ranch settlement, they became aware of something exciting that was going on.
Through the main street rode a number of cowboys, with drawn guns in their hands. Several of these horsemen knew the Diamond X outfit, and when one man clattered past on his horse Mr. Merkel cried:
"Jail delivery!" was the answer. "Those cattle rustlers broke out just now! We're after 'em! Come on!"
"Not Del Pinzo and his gang!" cried Bud.
"You said it!" shouted the man—a deputy sheriff. "A lot of Greasers rode in just now, started shootin' up promiscus like, and in the excitement Del Pinzo and his crowd managed to get out of the calaboose! We got to get a new one, I reckon! But come on! We may land 'em yet!"
"Oh, Zip Foster!" yelled Bud, as he urged his horse forward.
"More exciting fun!" commented Nort. "Got your gun, Dick?"
"Sure!" was the answer.
Through the main street of the town rode the boy ranchers, following the trail of the posse of officers and men who were trailing the escaped prisoners.
As they turned into a cross thoroughfare the sound of rapid firing came to the ears of Bud and his cousins.
"Watch your step!" counseled Mr. Merkel. "Wait a minute!"
But the boys did not wait. On they rushed, only to come into action at the tail end of the fight. Some cowboys and members of the sheriff's hastily organized posse were shooting at some Greasers who had turned to make a stand. But the Mexicans saw that they were outnumbered, and fled off in disorder, firing and being fired at.
However, there were no casualties, and when one of the deputies explained that this "bunch" was not Del Pinzo and the escaping men, but some others, Bud and his friends rode back.
"They tried to draw us off the trail of that slick Greaser," explained one of the deputies.
"Can't we join the posse?" asked Nort of Mr. Merkel.
The ranchman shook his head.
"There's enough after 'em without you," he said. "And as long as Del Pinzo has taken matters into his own hands, and succeeded in postponing his trial, we might as well get back to Diamond X."
Bud, Nort and Dick rather regretted this, but when they learned, later, that the sheriff and his men rode hard all night after the prisoners, only to lose them among the hills near the Mexican border, our heroes decided it was just as well they had not gone.
"So Del Pinzo got away after all, did he?" asked Babe, when the boy ranchers rode back to put their ponies in the corral. "That Greaser sure is a bad one! He'll make trouble yet!"
And Del Pinzo did. He was of a vindictive nature, and he associated much of his trouble with Diamond X ranch. So, naturally, he watched his chance to be revenged on those connected with it, including Nort and Dick.
But for the details of this I must refer you to the succeeding volume of this series.
"Well, fellows, are you satisfied with what you saw and what you did, for a start?" asked Bud of his cousins, two or three days after the escape of Del Pinzo.
"We sure have had some summer!" exclaimed Nort.
"Never one like it!" agreed Dick. "It's a shame to have to go back to school!"
"Well, you wouldn't like it out here in winter as much as you have this summer," spoke Bud. "It's pretty fierce, sometimes. But can't you come out next year?"
"You said it!" cried Nort. "From now on we're going to be ranchers in the summer, and students in the winter. And the summer can't come any too soon for me!"
"Well, just at present, grub can't come any too soon for me!" laughed Bud, as he urged his pony onward. The boys had been out on a last ride, mending a broken fence. For, by this time, Nort and Bud were almost as expert cowboys as was their western cousin.
"I made a pie for you!" called Nell, Bud's pretty sister, as they rode up to the corral, and turned their horses in. "I hope you'll like it!"
"Couldn't help it!" said Nort, gallantly. "Pie! Yum! Yum! Where have I heard that word before?"
"It does seem to savor of happy days," remarked Dick.
"Oh, cut out the poetry!" advised Bud with a laugh. "Let's figure how long it will be before you can come back."
For Nort and Dick did come back to Diamond X ranch. Their further doings will be told of in the next volume of this series to be called "Boy Ranchers in Camp, or the Diamond X Fight for Water." In that you may learn what Bud, Dick and Nort did, and more about mysterious Zip Foster and the wily Del Pinzo.
As Bud, Nort and Dick entered the house, escorted by the smiling Nell, who was well pleased at the tribute to her pie-making, there was a rattle of hoofs, and a bunch of the cowboys clattered in, having been out riding herd.
"Grub ready?" cried Babe, as he slumped off his weary pony—Babe was heavy enough to make almost any pony weary.
"Come on!" cried Mother Merkel.
"Don't tell them about the pie!" whispered Nort to Nell.
"Oh, there's enough for all of them—mother and the women baked a lot, but I made one specially for you boys," Nell answered.
And what the boy ranchers said I leave you to guess.
Up the lane leading from the corral to the house came the hungry cow punchers, to wash the dust and grime from hands and faces, and then to eat with appetites that even a Triceratops might envy. And as they splashed at the washing bench, Slim raised his voice in what, doubtless, he intended for song and warbled:
"Leave me alone with a rope an' tobaccy, Then let the rattlers sting! Give me a sweet, juicy apple to chaw on, Then when I'm sad I will sing."
There was a rattle of tin wash-basins, the swish of water as it was heaved at the singer, and then a howl of dismay from Slim.
"Take that soap out o' my mouth!" he bawled, and amid a chorus of laughter he ran around the corner of the porch, to escape the attentions of his jolly friends.
"Come on to grub!" sang out Bud, and no second invitation was needed. And while the boy ranchers are thus insured of at least temporary happiness, we will say, with the Spaniards:
THE BOYS OUTING LIBRARY
THE SADDLE BOYS SERIES
By Capt. James Carson
The Saddle Boys of the Rockies The Saddle Boys in the Grand Canyon The Saddle Boys on the Plains The Saddle Boys at Circle Ranch The Saddle Boys on Mexican Trails
THE DAVE DASHAWAY SERIES
by Roy Rockwood
Dave Dashaway the Young Aviator Dave Dashaway and His Hydroplane Dave Dashaway and His Giant Airship Dave Dashaway Around the World Dave Dashaway: Air Champion
THE SPEEDWELL BOYS SERIES
by Roy Rockwood
The Speedwell Boys on Motorcycles The Speedwell Boys and Their Racing Auto The Speedwell Boys and Their Power Launch The Speedwell Boys in a Submarine The Speedwell Boys and Their Ice Racer
THE TOM FAIRFIELD SERIES
by Allen Chapman
Tom Fairfield's School Days Tom Fairfield at Sea Tom Fairfield in Camp Tom Fairfield's Pluck and Luck Tom Fairfield's Hunting Trip
THE FRED FENTON ATHLETIC SERIES
by Allen Chapman
Fred Fenton the Pitcher Fred Fenton in the Line Fred Fenton on the Crew Fred Fenton on the Track Fred Fenton: Marathon Runner
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY, Publishers, New York