"Gee, don't mention school at a time like this!" burst out Andy. "I want to forget all about studying until it's absolutely necessary to go back to it. And don't forget it's high time to eat," he added.
They moved along slowly and presently selected a spot for their temporary camp. This was a short distance from the trail they had been following. It was at the edge of a patch of timber where they were sheltered from the rays of the sun which were now quite warm.
"We'll be in the shade here, and yet just see the view we'll have," cried Gif.
"Suits me," announced Spouter promptly; and the others agreed that the spot was a first-rate location.
It did not take the six chums long to give the horses their feed and then to empty the saddlebags and prepare their mid-day meal. They had brought along chicken as well as roast-beef sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, pickles, and a large cake, and also a bag of doughnuts which Hop Lung had learned to make from Mrs. Powell and of which the Celestial was justly proud. They also had with them a thermos bottle of hot cocoa and another of coffee, all fixed ready to drink.
"Well, Hop Lung certainly spread himself for us," said Jack, as he took up one of the fat chicken sandwiches and surveyed it with satisfaction. Then he turned to the twins. "What are you grinning about?" he questioned quickly.
"Oh, I was only thinking about the trick we played on the Chink," chuckled Andy.
"And I was thinking of the same thing," put in his twin.
"It's a wonder he didn't try to get square with us for that," came from Fred. "An American would be sure to try it."
The long ride in the open air had made all of the boys hungry, and it was not long before they had disposed of a large part of the sandwiches, pickles and eggs, washing the meal down with cocoa and coffee and also with water from a regular water bottle Spouter carried.
"Now I guess it's about time we passed around some of the cake," remarked Jack, presently.
"I think I'll start on a doughnut," answered Gif.
The cake was in a square tin and had been cut ready for use. In a few seconds all of the boys were munching away lustily.
And then something happened! It was Fred who was the first to notice that the piece of cake he was devouring had a peculiar puckery taste. He rolled some of the cake around in his mouth, and then suddenly ejected it, and just as he did this Andy dropped the doughnut he was devouring.
"Oh my! What's the matter with that cake?"
"Say, this doughnut tastes like fire!"
"Gee, my mouth is burning up!"
"Give me some of that water, quick! My tongue is getting blistered!"
"What do you suppose is in this cake, anyhow, and in the doughnuts?" demanded Jack, as he, too, made a wry face and stopped eating.
"Gracious me! do you suppose Hop Lung put the wrong stuff in the cake and in the doughnuts?" demanded Spouter anxiously.
"Oh, this is awful!" groaned Gif. "I'm burning up inside!" And he put both hands on his stomach.
"Maybe we're poisoned!" suggested Randy. He made a wild dive for the water bottle, and this was passed around from hand to hand, each lad drinking eagerly in an endeavor to wash the burning taste from his mouth and throat.
"I know what's the matter," said Jack, after the most of the excitement was over. "Hop Lung doctored the cake and the doughnuts to get square with us for the trick we played on him."
"I wonder if that's so?" questioned Andy soberly.
"Sure, it's so!" broke in Gif. "That Chink wasn't as slow as you thought, Andy."
"Gosh, my mouth burns yet!" grumbled Randy, taking a drink of cocoa. "That's the worst dose I ever chewed. What do you suppose he put in the cake?"
"Tasted to me like a combination of cayenne pepper, mustard, and a few things like that," answered Jack.
"Then the whole cake and all the doughnuts must be no good."
"That's too bad! And I had my heart set on a nice doughnut," answered Spouter. "Just the same, I can't blame Hop Lung."
"Well, anyway, let's be thankful the sandwiches are all right and so are the eggs," remarked Fred.
"Maybe some of the sandwiches that are left are doctored," put in Andy suspiciously.
"No, they look all right," announced Gif, after an inspection. "And he couldn't do much with the eggs while they were in their shells," he added.
While he was speaking, and while some of the boys were still taking drinks of various kinds to clear their mouths and throats of that awful burning taste, Spouter made an inspection of the paper bag containing the doughnuts.
"Hello! here's another little bag at the bottom of the big one," he cried. "Let's see what it contains."
He dumped out the doughnuts and drew forth the smaller bag. Opening this, the lads found it contained six pieces of golden yellow pound cake, neatly wrapped in tissue paper.
"Gee! is that more of the doctored stuff?" questioned Fred.
"Maybe. But I don't think so," answered Spouter. "I think Hop Lung put this in for a peace offering, to be found after we had chewed on that other stuff."
And in that surmise Spouter proved correct. The pound cake was delicious, and, having sampled it with caution to find that it was all right, the boys ate it to the last crumb with great satisfaction.
"We'd better dump all that other stuff away," said Fred. "No use of carrying it if it isn't fit to eat."
"Maybe some of it is good," returned Andy.
"Do you want to sample it and make sure?" questioned Jack, with a grin.
"Not on your life! I wouldn't want that burning taste in my mouth again for a hundred dollars."
The boys threw the highly-seasoned cake and the doughnuts away, repacked what was left of the other food, and then continued on their ride. The trail led through the patch of timber and then over some rather rough rocks and through some brushwood. Among the rocks they found a spring where the water was clear and cold, and here they had a most refreshing drink and watered their horses.
"It's queer this spring is away up here on the top of the hill," remarked Spouter. "That water must flow underground from the mountains yonder."
"What a lot of underground streams there must be!" returned Fred.
While moving along those in the lead had kept their eyes open for more snakes. But no reptiles appeared, for which they were thankful.
"But I'm sorry we didn't see some sort of wild animals," said Randy, in speaking of this. "I thought sure we'd see a bear or a deer or something like that."
Even birds seemed to be scarce in that vicinity, and the only sound that broke the stillness as they advanced was their own voices and the clatter of the horses' hoofs on the rocks.
The trail was a well-defined one, and they could see that it had been used only a short while before.
"Half a dozen horsemen have been this way within the last few hours," declared Gif. "Most likely they were on their way to Bimbel's ranch."
"I wonder if that man Haddon has gotten here yet," said Jack.
"More than likely," answered Fred. "If you'll remember, those men didn't expect to stay in Arrow Junction very long."
"I'd like to know more about that chap, and know exactly how he's mixed up with Brassy Bangs," went on the oldest of the Rover boys.
"I guess we'd all like to know that," put in Randy.
Presently they came to a turn of the trail. Here they could see across a wide stretch of prairie to where there was a collection of low buildings, seven or eight in number. To the rear of the buildings was a corral for horses.
"It doesn't look much different from lots of other ranches," said Fred.
"Do you want to go any closer to it?" questioned Gif.
The boys talked the matter over, and while Andy and Randy were rather curious to get a more intimate view of the place, the others decided that they would not ride any closer on this trip.
"It's now nearly two o'clock," said Spouter. "And if we want to go any distance up the river it will take us until sundown to get back home."
They turned back, and an hour or so later reached the point where they had parted from Jarley Bangs. Then they took a trail up the river and followed this until the sun, sinking over the western mountains, warned them that it was time for them to head for home.
"Say, I've got an idea," announced Andy, when they came in sight of the ranch house. "Don't let on to anybody about that doctored cake. If Hop Lung or anybody else mentions it, just act as if nothing unusual had happened. Say the lunch was as good as any we ever had."
"That's the idea!" returned his twin. "We'll keep that Chink guessing." And it may be added here that the boys kept their word, and Hop Lung never knew how his little joke had terminated, although he felt sure in his own mind that they had received the full benefit of the trick he had played.
The six boys were still some distance from the house when they saw a man come out on the veranda and wave his hand to them. At first they thought it might be Sam Rover. But then, of a sudden, Jack let out a yell.
"Boys, what do you know about this! Do you recognize that man?"
"It's Hans Mueller!" ejaculated Fred.
"Who would have thought he was coming to the ranch?"
"Hans Mueller!" murmured Andy. "I'll be glad to see him. He's as full of fun as a stray dog is of fleas!"
Hans Mueller was a man who in his boyhood days had been a boon companion of the Rover boys' fathers. When he had gone to Putnam Hall with the Rovers he had spoken very broken English, and his improvement in speech had been slow and painful. But Hans had prospered in a business way, and was now the sole proprietor of a chain of delicatessen stores in Chicago. He was unmarried, and, having no family of his own, had insisted upon it that all of his young friends call him "uncle."
"Hello der, eferypody!" called out Hans Mueller cordially, as he came down from the veranda to greet them, his fat face beaming genially.
"How are you, Uncle Hans?" cried Jack, leaping to the ground and shaking hands. "This is certainly a surprise."
"Yes, Songpird tol' me you wouldn't know I vas coming," was the answer. "How you been alreatty?"
"Fine as silk," answered Andy gayly. And now all the boys clustered around to shake hands.
"You're just the man we want here to help us enjoy our vacation," put in Fred.
"Dot's nice, Fred. I tink I vas going to haf a fine time alreatty. And I need him," went on Hans Mueller. "Since I come from de war back from Europe, where I fights for Uncle Sam, I work like a steam horse in mine delicatessen stores. But so soon like Songpird says come out here and meet dem Rovers and you udder friends, I say to my clerks, 'you got to run dem stores by yourselfes alreatty yet awhile. I go oud to Pig Horn Ranch and git some fresh air mine lungs in.'"
"You'll get the fresh air all right enough," announced Spouter. "And we're mighty glad you're here," he added, and then led the way into the house.
PROFESSOR DUKE'S SECRET
The girls had already returned from the woods and met Uncle Hans, as they called him.
"I got somet'ing by mine trunk in for you young ladies," said Hans Mueller, with a broad smile. And later on when his trunk arrived he presented each of them with a bottle of the highest grade of olives. He also had some olives for Mrs. Powell, for use on the table.
"I import dem olives myself alreatty yet," he vouchsafed. "Nopody by Chicago has olives half so goot."
"I knew you'd be surprised to see Uncle Hans here," declared Songbird Powell. "And I knew an outing on the ranch would do him a world of good. He has been confining himself too closely to business since he got back from the war."
"It was grand of you, Uncle Hans, to fight for Uncle Sam," declared Martha.
"And vhy, I like to know?" demanded Hans Mueller. "Since I come by der United States over I been just such a goot American like anypody."
"That's the way to talk, Uncle Hans!" cried Jack, and slapped him on the shoulder.
The next day the young folks took great pleasure in showing Hans Mueller around the place.
"He vas chust like a farm, only different," remarked the delicatessen man. "Dot iss a nice lot of cows you got, Songpird. I dink dos cows vould make apout a million pounds of frankfurters, not?" and at this remark there was a general laugh.
A few days later Jack noticed that Songbird Powell seemed to be worried over something. The owner of Big Horn Ranch held an earnest consultation with Joe Jackson, and then the foreman of the ranch rode off in hot haste, accompanied by two of his cowboys.
"What's the matter—is something wrong?" questioned Jack of Spouter.
"Four of our best horses are missing," answered Spouter. "The men are not sure whether they strayed away or have been stolen. Jackson and the fellows with him are going to ride along the river and see if they can find out."
"Didn't you say something about other horses being stolen before we got here?"
"Yes. But they didn't belong to my father. They belonged to the men who formerly owned this ranch. They left them here, but at their own risk."
"Were the animals now missing the horses we rode?" questioned Fred.
"No. They were the mounts used by Jackson and his men. That is, three of the horses were. The other was that beautiful black my father occasionally rode."
"You mean Blackbird?" exclaimed Randy.
"Why, I think Blackbird is the finest horse on the ranch," declared Gif.
"He certainly is a splendid nag," answered Spouter. "And my dad thinks a great deal of him."
The horse in question was a three-year-old, shining black in color, with a peculiar diamond-shaped spot of white on his forehead and a similar spot on his chest. Because of these spots some of the cowboys often referred to him as Two-spot.
"I suppose those horses are worth some money," remarked Fred.
"Indeed they are!" declared Spouter. "I heard my father say he wouldn't take four hundred dollars for Blackbird. And the other animals must be worth at least a hundred and fifty dollars apiece. You know they always had pretty good horses on this ranch."
"I certainly hope they get some trace of the horses," said Jack.
But this hope was not fulfilled. Jackson and those with him came back disappointed, saying that they had found no trace of the animals.
About a week later came another surprise. The young folks, including the girls, had gone off to the woods for the best part of the day, and when they returned, much to their astonishment, they saw seated in rocking chairs on the veranda Ruth and May.
"My goodness!" screamed Mary. "Ruth and May! Glory hallelujah! How in the world did you get here?"
"And you never let us know!" wailed Martha, as she bounced up the steps to embrace her school chums.
"We got started sooner than we expected," answered May.
"Did you come alone?" questioned Jack, as he, too, came forward, his pleasure showing on his face.
"No, we didn't come alone," answered Ruth. "We came with Mr. and Mrs. Rover. They are inside with the others."
"My mother and dad!" burst out Andy. "Where are they?" And he raced into the house, followed by his twin.
There followed a joyous reunion all around. Everybody was happy to see everybody else, and for a while it seemed as if all were trying to talk at once.
"We had a splendid trip over," declared Mrs. Nellie Rover. "Not a single hitch all along the way. Tom had everything mapped out to the last detail." And she gave her husband an affectionate glance.
"That's what army discipline did for me," answered Tom Rover. "I didn't used to be so particular. But now I've got in the habit of walking a regular chalk mark."
"Yes, I've walked me a chalk mark, too," put in Hans Mueller. "I run mine delicatessen stores chust like they vas by army regulations alreatty. And it pays, belief me!"
"It's a regular touch of old times to see you around, Hans," said Tom, grabbing his former school chum by both arms. "How is that new pickling machine getting along?"
"Vot pickling machine you mean, Tom?" questioned Hans, looking at him blankly.
"Why, that machine you're going to invent whereby you can grind up old oilcloth and automobile tires and make dill pickles of them."
"I don't vas got no machine like dot, Tom," answered the delicatessen man in bewilderment. "I buy mine dill pickles by der barrel. Dem dill pickles grows, you can't make 'em by no machine."
"Oh! Then maybe it was a new sourkraut stamper," went on Tom innocently.
"Oh, Tom, you vas joking chust like you alvays vas!" exclaimed Hans, a light breaking in on him. "Vell, I don't care. You vas a pretty goot fellow anyhow," and Hans smiled as broadly as ever.
"It sure is a touch of old times," declared Songbird Powell. And then, unable to restrain himself, he burst out:
"From among the mountain tops Where the brooklet flows, There I love to linger long—"
"Counting up my toes,"
broke in Tom, with a twinkle in his merry eyes.
"Counting up my toes!" snorted Songbird. "Nothing of the kind! You always did knock my poetry endways, Tom. That last line was to read like this:
"Where the sunset glows."
The young folks had a grand time that evening singing and dancing, and did not retire until the older heads had hinted several times that they had better do so.
"Oh, Jack, it's a splendid place to come to!" said Ruth, when she was on the point of retiring. "I know I'm going to have the best times ever."
"And to think my Uncle John owns the place!" put in May. "Isn't it simply glorious?"
After that the days seemed to speed along swiftly. The boys and girls made up various parties up and down the river, and on the hills and in the woods. Once they got up a grand family picnic, and everybody attended.
During those days the boys often wondered whether Brassy Bangs would show himself. But Brassy kept out of sight, and for the time being they heard nothing further concerning him. But they did hear through Joe Jackson of Bud Haddon. That man had been met on the trail to Bimbel's ranch in company with several other persons.
"They were a bum-looking bunch," declared Jackson. "I wouldn't give one of 'em house room on this ranch."
"Haddon certainly didn't make a very good impression on me," declared Jack. "I'm frank to admit I think he's a thoroughly bad egg."
From time to time the boys had been sending letters to some of their other school chums, and a number of letters had come in return. One day Gif received a long communication from Fatty Hendry which he read in wonder.
"Here's something that will interest all of you," he declared, after he had finished. "I guess it clears up the mystery surrounding Professor Duke."
"What is it?" questioned Fred eagerly.
"It's a letter from Fatty Hendry. He's been staying at a place named Ellenvale, which, as you know, is about thirty miles north of Haven Point. He says that Snopper Duke came from that place, and has an aged father living there."
"Has Duke been taking care of his father?" questioned Jack.
"Yes. And his father has been very sick and has had to have several operations. It seems the operations cost a lot of money, and Duke wanted two of his younger brothers to help pay for them. But they wouldn't contribute a cent."
"Gee, that was certainly rough!" declared Randy. "No wonder the professor was grouchy at times."
"That isn't all of it," went on Gif. "Fatty got interested and made a little investigation, and he found out that there was another brother, a little older than the professor, who had gotten into difficulties with the firm he was working for. That firm was on the point of having him arrested, so Fatty heard, but at the last minute Professor Duke came forward and settled up for him, so he wasn't prosecuted.
"But Fatty adds in his letter that he heard this not only took every cent the professor had, but it also placed him in debt to Colonel Colby and some of his friends."
"Well, that's what I call hard lines!" declared Jack emphatically. "The poor professor must have been worried half to death."
"Does Fatty say anything further about Duke's father?"
"Yes. Since the last operation the old gentleman is feeling quite like himself again."
"And what became of the brother who got into trouble?" asked Spouter.
"He disappeared, and Fatty says there is a report that he went to England, where the family originally came from. I suppose Professor Duke was glad to have him go."
After this Gif handed around the letter so that all might read it. After its perusal Andy was the first to speak.
"It's too bad," he said, with a deep sigh. "I'm mighty sorry now that I didn't treat the professor with more consideration. That poor man certainly had as much of a load as anybody to carry."
"We'll have to make it up to him when we get back to Colby Hall," declared Randy. "I'm going to show him just what I think of him," he went on. "He certainly was a fine fellow to help his old father and to get his brother out of that hole."
The boys were still discussing this matter when they suddenly saw Joe Jackson dash up to the ranch house on his horse and dismount in great haste.
"Hello, something is wrong!" declared Jack.
Songbird Powell and Tom and Sam Rover had seen the approach of the foreman, and men and boys ran out to listen to what he might have to say.
"Four more horses are gone!" declared Joe Jackson. "The best horses on the ranch! And, boss, I'm certain this time that they didn't stray away. They were stolen!"
THE CATTLE STAMPEDE
"Four more horses gone!" cried Songbird Powell in consternation. "When did this happen, Jackson?"
"Less than half an hour ago, over on the three-tree range," returned the foreman.
"And what makes you certain that they were stolen this time?"
"Because the horses had been left all properly tethered. Billy Brown and his crowd had 'em, and I know Billy is a very careful man. He's positive they couldn't have broken away."
"This is certainly getting to be a serious matter," declared Sam Rover. "Songbird, if these last four horses were stolen, it's more than probable that the first four went the same way."
"Any clue to the thief or thieves?" asked Tom Rover.
"The boys looked around and picked up a quirt that they say don't belong to our outfit. But it's a very ordinary quirt and might belong to almost anybody. Of course, they found a good many hoof marks, but they were so mixed up with the marks from the other horses they couldn't tell one from the other."
"I'll ride over to the place with you and investigate," returned Songbird Powell after a moment's thought. "Perhaps we can get on the trail of the thieves."
"Can we go along?" questioned Spouter quickly.
"No, Son. We want to use the horses. And, anyway, I think it would be better for you lads to remain behind."
Songbird and the foreman hurried down to the horse corral accompanied by Tom and Sam. And thus the boys and girls, as well as the ladies of the household, were left by themselves.
"Gee! I'd like to go on a chase after those horse thieves," burst out Andy.
"You might get a pretty warm reception if you did that," remarked Fred. "Horse thieves and cattle rustlers are usually a bad bunch."
"It isn't likely they'll get on the trail of the horses very quickly," put in Jack. "Those fellows have too much of a start. The most they can do is to advertise the loss as widely as possible and trust to it that some one will recognize the horses, especially Blackbird."
The boys had spoken about going fishing, and Ruth and May had asked if they could go along. As a consequence the young folks spent the remainder of the afternoon along the river. They managed to catch a good mess of fish, of which they were justly proud.
"And just to think! I caught two of the fish myself!" exclaimed Ruth. "I never knew I was going to be a fisherman."
"You mustn't say 'fisherman;' you must say fisherlady," put in Andy mischievously.
The men did not return until ten o'clock that night. All were tired and hungry and glad to sit down to the meal which Mrs. Powell and the cook provided.
"It was a wild-goose chase," answered Tom Rover in reply to a question from Andy. "We followed half a dozen clues, but they didn't get us anywhere."
"What are you going to do next, Dad?" questioned Spouter.
"We sent word to Arrow Junction and several other places, and they'll post notices giving a description of the stolen animals," answered Songbird. "And I've offered a hundred dollars reward for any information leading to the recovery of the horses."
The next day one of the cowboys came in with more information. This was to the effect that a ranch in that neighborhood, owned by a man named Cheltham, had suffered the loss of three horses, one a mare of considerable value.
"Say, this certainly is getting interesting," said Jack, when the lads heard the older heads talking it over. "First thing we know, all the horses on the place will be gone."
"Years ago they used to suffer from the cattle rustlers in this neighborhood," said Spouter. "But horse stealing is something new."
"I wonder if that fellow Bud Haddon had anything to do with it?" questioned Fred.
"I was thinking of that," broke in Randy. "I think they ought to make an investigation."
The boys spoke to the men about this, and there was a long discussion which ended when Songbird said he would ride over to the Bimbel ranch with his foreman and interview the men.
The visit to the Bimbel ranch occurred the next day, and the boys waited impatiently for the return of the two men to learn what Bimbel and Bud Haddon might have to say.
"Another wild-goose chase," announced Songbird Powell, on the return that evening. "We saw Bimbel, and he seemed as much surprised as anybody to learn of the horses being taken."
"And what about Bud Haddon?" asked Jack.
"We didn't see Haddon. But Bimbel said he had been at the ranch house early in the morning and he was certain Haddon knew nothing about the loss. He said Haddon and the other men were out on a range to the westward, looking after the cattle. Of course, if Haddon was away out there he couldn't have been here taking our horses."
"And you didn't see any trace of the animals?" asked Spouter.
"Nothing at all. They said they hadn't heard of the theft nor of the loss of the horses over at Cheltham's ranch."
After that a week passed swiftly, during which time the young folks enjoyed themselves thoroughly, not only in tramping and riding around and in fishing, but also in other sports around the ranch home. With so much level ground available, a tennis court had been laid out, and also a croquet ground, and the boys and girls enjoyed these games immensely. The lads also pitched quoits, a sport which at times had been popular at Colby Hall.
One day the boys accompanied Joe Jackson on a round-up of some cattle far down the river. This was a day full of excitement, for some of the cattle broke away and Andy and Fred happened to be separated from the rest of the crowd and got directly in line with the runaway steers.
"Hi there! Hi there! Ride out of the way!" yelled Joe Jackson at the top of his lungs.
Andy and Fred were looking in the opposite direction and did not notice the cattle until the beasts were within a hundred yards of them. Then they heard the foreman's cry and also the beating of the hoofs on the prairie.
"My gracious!" gasped Fred. "Look what's coming!"
"We've got to get out of the way and be quick about it," returned Andy, and struck his horse on the flank.
The steeds the boys were riding needed no urging, for the sudden rush of the cattle filled them with alarm. Away they bounded across the grassy plain with the maddened cattle thundering after them.
"Let's ride to one side and let 'em pass!" gasped Fred, who was badly shaken by this sudden turn of affairs. He had not dreamed that the herd of cattle would head for them in this fashion.
But to get out of the way was not easy. To one side of the plains was a series of rough rocks, while to the other side there was a brook flowing into the river, and here the ground was soft and treacherous.
"Don't go that way!" cried Andy, as he saw his cousin heading toward the brook. "You'll get stuck and you'll never get out."
"I'd rather get stuck than be trampled under foot by those beasts," panted Fred.
"No, no, Fred! Turn this way! I'm sure we can get up on the rocks somehow!" declared Andy.
The boys continued to advance with the thoroughly frightened cattle not far behind them. While being rounded up both cattle and cowboys had come upon a nest of small rattlesnakes. These had, of course, frightened the beasts, and they were still more frightened when the cowboys had begun to shoot at the reptiles. Then a few of the cattle had started the stampede, and the rest, terrorized by the pistol shots, had followed.
As the two lads galloped on, they looked anxiously to the side where the rocks were located. Most of the places they passed were too steep to ascend. But presently Andy caught sight of a point where there was something of a trail leading upward.
"Come on this way!" he yelled to his cousin. "I think we can get up on the rocks here!"
In the meanwhile Joe Jackson and his men, followed by Jack and the others, were doing their best to get the cattle to turn back to the point from which they had started. The best herd riders were circling the edge of the rushing animals, shouting at the top of their lungs and firing their pistols. But so far this demonstration had had little effect.
"Oh, Jack! do you think they'll be run down?" gasped Randy.
"I hope not."
"They're on a pair of good horses; they ought to be able to outrun the cattle," came from Gif.
"Don't be so sure of that," cried Spouter. "A mad steer can go some, believe me."
"Who ever thought they would start off like that?" went on Randy.
"It was firing at those rattlesnakes did it," declared Jack. "Of course, I can't blame the cowboys for doing that."
Andy and Fred found the rocks anything but easy to ascend. They went up a few feet, and then the horses began to slip and were in danger of rolling over, carrying their young riders with them.
"Look out!" screamed Fred. He had to catch his horse around the neck to keep from being flung headlong.
But the horses were as anxious to escape the maddened cattle as were the lads, and the steeds continued to scramble upward until they reached a ledge of rock where the footing was comparatively level.
"Do you think we'll be all right here?" panted Fred, when he could catch his breath sufficiently to speak.
"We shall be unless some of those steers take it into their heads to climb the rocks the same way we did," answered Andy. He was suffering from a slight bruise on his left leg where he had brushed some of the roughest of the rocks.
The horses were still alarmed, and continued to snort and stamp their feet, and the two lads for a few seconds had their hands full quieting the animals. They looked below them and saw the cattle coming on in a great mass. Some had already passed, but others were huddled close to the rocks as if on the point of making an ascent.
"I really think they'll try to come up," said Fred.
"Come ahead! We'll see if we can't get a little higher up," answered Andy. "I don't think the steers will follow us very far, even if they do come. We can shoot at them if we have to," he added, for each of them carried a pistol.
Beyond the ledge were more rough rocks, and here the two lads had to proceed with caution for fear one of their horses might slip and perhaps break a leg. As they advanced they looked back and saw that the cowboys were coming closer and were beginning to drive a part of the cattle to the rear.
"Oh, if only they can drive them back!" sighed Fred. "Just look at 'em, Andy! There must be a hundred of the steers directly below us! And see how angry that big black fellow looks! He acts just as if he'd like to come up here and gore us!"
"Listen!" ejaculated Andy, pulling back on the rein. "What's that funny noise?"
Both listened, and, mingled with the murmurs of the cattle at the foot of the rocks, came to their ears a peculiar whine or growl that was entirely new to the lads.
"It's a wild animal of some kind!" cried Fred, as the growl was repeated.
"Where did it come from?"
"I don't know. But it was close at hand."
Thoroughly scared, both boys looked on all sides. Then, of a sudden, Fred let out another exclamation.
"There it is! Right on the shelf of rocks yonder! Oh, Andy, it's a mountain lion!"
THE MOUNTAIN LION
It was a time of extreme peril, and both of the Rover boys realized it. The shelf of rock was not over twenty feet ahead of them, and on this rested the mountain lion, crouched as if for a spring.
Fred had scarcely spoken when both horses began to snort and stamp their feet as if wanting to turn and run away.
"Look out!" screamed Andy, "or the horses will take us right back among those mad cattle."
With the discovery of the mountain lion, that lay close to the rocky shelf with glaring eyes and tail that swept nervously from side to side, the boys had noted that the animal was as much penned in as they were themselves. Beyond the shelf was an overhanging cliff, so that further progress in that direction was cut off completely. Had this not been so, it is more than likely that the mountain lion would have turned and slunk away, for like all wild beasts they do not fight unless they think it is necessary to do so.
"Come on—give him a shot!" exclaimed Fred, as soon as he could recover from his astonishment.
His weapon was handy, and in a moment the pistol rang out sharply, and this shot was followed by one from his cousin.
Had the two boys been on the ground their shots might have been more effective. But it was another task to aim from the back of a restive horse that was threatening every instant to bolt, and so both bullets merely grazed the mountain lion's side.
But these shots, mingled with those coming from the plain below, had one good effect. The cattle had been stopped in their mad flight and now they turned back in the direction in which the cowboys wanted them to go.
As the pistols rang out the mountain lion gave a scream of commingled pain and rage. Then it crept forward several feet and made a movement as if on the point of leaping for Fred and his steed.
"Back up! Back up, Fred!" yelled Andy, and fired a second time, and his cousin did likewise.
This time the aim of the boys was better, and the mountain lion was hit in one of the forelegs and in the flank. It made a sudden leap, but the wound in the leg made it fall short, and it fell down between the rocks directly in front of where Fred's horse was standing.
As the mountain lion went down in the hollow the horse uttered another wild snort and an instant later leaped directly over the wild beast, coming down at the foot of the rocky ledge beyond. The steed Andy rode backed violently until some other rocks stopped its retreat.
"Hi there! What are you shooting at?" came a cry from below, and the two boys recognized the voice of Joe Jackson.
"It's a lion!" called back Andy.
"Then plug him! Plug him quick!" yelled Jackson. "Plug him before he gets a chance to get at you!"
There was no need for this advice, for Andy was already taking aim. This time the bullet passed through the body of the lion and the beast leaped up, turning over and over convulsively. Then Fred managed to steady his mount for a moment, and he, too, fired, this time catching the mountain lion in the ear. Then the beast gave a final leap and tumbled down the rocks almost at the feet of the astonished ranch foreman.
"Are you hurt?" demanded Jackson anxiously, as he gave a glance at the lion to make certain that it was breathing its last.
"No," came from both of the boys. But it must be confessed that their voices were trembling. They had all they could do to quiet their horses, the steeds showing a great inclination to leap over the rough rocks and run away.
By the time that Fred and Andy managed to descend to the plain below them the stampede of the cattle, which had been only momentary, was coming to an end, only two steers having run away for parts unknown.
"But they'll come back, Boss," said one of the cowboys to Jackson. "They always do. You can't hire 'em to herd by themselves. They'll sure be back."
"A mountain lion! What do you know about that!" exclaimed Jack, as he came riding up, followed by the other boys.
"Did he hurt you at all?" questioned Spouter quickly.
"He didn't get a chance," answered Fred, just a bit proudly. "Andy and I let drive at him almost as soon as we saw him."
"A pretty powerful beast, I'll say," remarked Gif, as he made an examination of the lion that was now dead. "I don't think I'd like to face such a creature."
"We had to fight him," declared Andy. "He was right up on that rocky shelf yonder, and he couldn't back out. If he had had the chance he'd have leaped right on us."
"Well, you're the prize hunters of this crowd," declared Randy.
"You can't put that down to hunting," answered his twin promptly. "That was simply a case of necessity."
"Anyway, you've got the lion, and that skin will make some rug," declared Spouter.
"I wonder if there are any other mountain lions around?" remarked Gif. "I'd like to get a shot at one of them myself."
"They often travel in pairs," answered Joe Jackson. "But if you're going after lions you had better arm yourselves with rifles. It was only good luck that brought this beast down with pistol bullets."
"The pistols were good enough at close quarters," answered Andy. "Just the same, I'd rather shoot the next mountain lion from a distance," he added dryly.
Of course, when the boys rode up to the ranch home with the carcass of the dead lion there was a good deal of excitement among the older folks and the girls, and Fred and Andy had to tell their story in detail.
"You really must be more careful in the future, boys," declared Mrs. Sam Rover. "Why, you might have been trampled under foot by the cattle, as well as chewed up by this mountain lion!"
"I didn't know there was any danger of the cattle stampeding," put in Mrs. Tom Rover.
"Oh, Jackson assures me that the stampede wasn't of much consequence," remarked Songbird Powell. "But, of course, the boys shouldn't have gotten in front of the animals. But this question of facing a mountain lion is another story."
"Py chimminy! you don't vas cotch me facin' no mountain lions," declared Hans Mueller emphatically. "I did me dot years ago, ven I go oud mit your faders. But I ton't do him no more alreatty."
"Oh, Fred, you must be more careful!" protested May to the youngest Rover, when she got the chance. "Suppose that lion had jumped right on top of you?"
"Believe me, May, I didn't want to get so close," he answered. "When we discovered the beast he wasn't over twenty feet away."
"And they told us there weren't very many wild beasts around here!" came from Martha. "After this I guess we had better be careful how we roam through the woods and along the river."
"Oh, they're not likely to harm you unless you corner them," said Songbird Powell. "They'll sneak away from you if you give them half a chance. It's only when they're cornered or when they're needing food that they are really combative."
The mountain lion was skinned and the pelt taken away by the ranch foreman to be cured, and then Fred and Andy took it easy for the rest of the day.
"Isn't it queer that Brassy Bangs has never showed himself around this place?" remarked Spouter that evening. "Wouldn't you think he'd at least ride over to see what sort of an outfit we had here?"
"More than likely he's afraid of his welcome," said Jack. "He knows that none of us care for him."
"I'd like to know if he really started that auto," put in Fred.
"Gosh, what a sour fellow that Jarley Bangs was!" exclaimed Andy.
There had been an indication of a storm, but this had passed away, and one day found the Rover boys and their chums off on a trip along a trail which led across the river and to the mountains westward, a trail which they were informed by Jackson led between the ranches owned by Jarley Bangs and Bimbel.
"I'd like to get a better view of Bimbel's ranch and also of Bangs' place," declared Jack. "And maybe we'll see something of Bud Haddon and his crowd."
All of the boys were now on good terms with Hop Lung, and he had prepared for them a substantial lunch and also something extra in case they should remain out after the supper hour.
"Now you lads take good care of yourselves," admonished Tom Rover, when they were ready to depart on their day's outing. "No more rattlesnakes or mountain lions!"
"Or mix-ups with runaway cattle," put in Sam Rover.
Spouter and Jack carried small rifles, and the others were armed with pistols. They, however, were not going out to hunt, but thought best to provide themselves with the firearms in case any game presented itself.
It did not take the boys long to cross the river, and then they followed a trail which led up a long hill and through a somewhat dense forest.
They had journeyed along the best part of two hours when they noticed the sun going under a cloud. This caused the trail under the trees to become dark.
"Gee! I wonder if we're going to have a storm?" remarked Randy.
"Oh, maybe it's nothing but a wind cloud," answered Spouter.
They continued to move along the trail, and presently reached a small opening where there was a spring.
"Halt!" called out Jack, who was riding ahead with Spouter.
"What's the matter?" questioned Gif quickly.
"Look there! Isn't that a wolf?" asked Jack. He pointed with his rifle, which he had already unslung, and all the boys looked in the direction pointed out.
"Maybe it's a dog," put in Fred quickly.
"You don't want to shoot somebody's pet," admonished Gif.
The animal had slunk away behind some brushwood, and now they saw it trying to retreat, pulling something through the dead leaves as it did so.
"It's a wolf! I'm sure of it!" declared Jack, and, raising his rifle, he took quick aim and fired.
As the echo of the firearm died away the lads heard a snarl and a yelp, and an instant later a gaunt wolf showed himself, his fangs gleaming dangerously as he came closer.
Several shots rang out, for all of the boys had their weapons ready. The wolf was hit in three places, and gave a single leap into the air and then dropped lifeless.
"Hurrah! We've got him!" yelled Randy, with satisfaction.
"Be careful! Don't go too close before we're sure," warned Jack. "Better reload first."
But the wolf was past doing further harm, and having assured themselves of this the boys looked at what he had been carrying away.
"It's the side of a calf!" exclaimed Spouter. "Isn't this the limit? I'm glad we brought him down!"
"He must have been raiding some cow yard," said Jack.
"No ranch cow yard," said Gif. "This half of a calf was skinned by some person. I'll bet he stole it out of some ranch larder." And later on it was learned that the calf meat had been stolen from Jarley Bangs' place the night before.
The boys had become so interested in bringing down the wolf that they had paid no attention to what was taking place overhead. But now they noticed that the sky was more overcast than ever. The wind began to blow through the woods, and of a sudden there came a downpour as surprising as it was dismaying.
IN THE CAVE
"We're in for it now!" cried Jack, as he looked up at the sky and at the trees beginning to bend in the wind.
"And it's going to be some storm, or I miss my guess," added Gif.
"I wonder if we can find any shelter around here?" put in Randy. "If we can't we'll be soaked to the skin in no time."
"Jackson was telling me of a couple of caves toward the end of these woods," said Spouter quickly. "I wonder if we could reach the nearest of them? It might help us to get out of the rain."
"Come on—let's try it!" put in Fred eagerly.
Leaving the dead wolf where it had fallen, the boys pushed forward on the trail, which now led downward on the other side of the hill. Here they noticed the going was getting rougher, and presently they found themselves entering a defile among the rocks. Here the trees were more scattering and consequently they were exposed to the full fury of the elements. Ever and anon a flash of lightning would illumine the sky, followed by the crack and rumble of thunder.
"Say, maybe we had better stay under the trees," suggested Andy.
"Suppose the trees should be struck by lightning?" questioned Jack. "I think we had better go on, especially if we're anywhere near those caves Jackson mentioned."
A turn in the defile brought them to something of an open place. Here on one side the rocks towered fully fifty feet above their heads and at one point there was an opening perhaps fifteen feet square and leading into the side of the hill.
"This must be the first of the caves!" cried Spouter. "Come on in!" And without ceremony he led the way, and the others followed, glad to get out of the storm.
They found the cave an irregular one, running in somewhat of a semicircle and with a flooring that was comparatively level. It was dry and fairly comfortable, and once beyond the fury of the storm the lads dismounted and proceeded to make themselves at home.
The rain continued to come down and, with nothing better to do, the boys proceeded to make themselves as comfortable as possible. Near the entrance to the cave they found some leaves and dead tree branches which were still dry, and these they dragged inside and then made themselves a campfire.
"I reckon we'll have to cut out going any further," announced Spouter. "Even if the storm clears away, the trail will be very wet and slippery."
It still lacked an hour to noon, and with nothing else to do the boys tethered their horses and then proceeded to investigate their surroundings. From the campfire they obtained several torches, and with these in hand they moved along slowly around the bend of the cave and over a series of rocks which led upward.
"It certainly is a larger cave than I supposed," said Jack, as he and Gif led the way, with the others close behind.
"I think I see a light ahead, Jack," was Gif's remark. "That must be another opening to the cave."
"Maybe the two caves that Jackson mentioned are really one, and this passageway connects them."
"We'll soon find out."
By this time all but one of the torches had burnt themselves out. But this the lads did not mind, for the light ahead was steadily increasing, showing that they could not be far from another opening.
"Look!" called Jack suddenly. And then he added: "Keep quiet, all of you!"
He pointed ahead and there, around a bend of the rocks, all saw two figures moving around on horseback. One was the figure of a tall man, and the other that of a well-grown youth.
"Why, that's Brassy Bangs!" whispered Fred excitedly.
"Yes. And the man is Bud Haddon," returned Andy.
"What do you bet Haddon isn't after Brassy for more money?" put in Fred excitedly.
While the youngest Rover was speaking, he and the others saw that the two figures on horseback had disappeared behind a mass of rocks.
"I'm going ahead and find out about this," declared Jack. "Come on! So far as we can see there are only two of them, so the six of us have nothing to fear."
"Especially as we're armed," added Fred, who carried his pistol with him.
Throwing down the last of their torches, the six boys advanced with caution. They heard the horses beyond the rocks occasionally stamping a hoof and caught a faint murmur of voices. Then, led by Jack, they mounted the rocks noiselessly, presently gaining a point where they could look directly down upon Brassy Bangs and his companion.
"It's all wrong, Bud Haddon, and you know it!" they heard Brassy declare. "And sooner or later the authorities will get after you for this."
"See here, Lester Bangs, you don't have to preach to me!" growled Bud Haddon. "You're just as deep in some things as I am in others."
"It isn't true, and you know it!" whined Brassy. And now the lads who were listening could see that their fellow-cadet was very much upset. "I'm not guilty, and I never have been guilty of any wrongdoing!"
"You tell that to the police and see what they have to say about it," sneered Haddon, "You know well enough that you set fire to John Calder's barn and burnt up horses that was worth thousands of dollars."
"And I always said it was some cowboys or tramps that did it!" stormed Brassy.
"Not much! You did it! I know it, and so do Jillson and Dusenbury! We've got the goods on you."
"What were Jillson and Dusenbury and you doing around the place?" questioned Brassy suddenly.
"Never mind what we were doing around there. We know you set the barn on fire. Didn't you have a quarrel with old Calder?"
"Yes, I did. But I didn't make any fire. Maybe you had a quarrel with him yourself."
"Hold on there, Bangs! None of that!" cried Bud Haddon sternly.
"Well, you wouldn't be too good to set the fire," added Brassy, with sudden recklessness. "Not after the way you are acting out here, running away with those horses, and after the way you acted at Colby Hall, trying to rob every room in the place!"
"Wait a minute now! Wait a minute!" returned the man sarcastically. "Who was it lent me his uniform and who was it that told me just what rooms to go into? Answer me those questions, will you?"
"You wouldn't have gotten hold of the uniform and you wouldn't have gotten any information if you hadn't threatened me in all sorts of ways," answered Brassy, somewhat lamely. "I wish now that I'd never had anything to do with you!"
"Well, you keep your tongue between your teeth, or else you'll get yourself in the hottest kind of water!" burst out Bud Haddon. "Don't you know that they can send you to prison for ten years for what you did?"
"I haven't said anything to anybody as yet," answered Brassy hastily.
"Well, you see that you don't!"
"But I didn't set Calder's barn on fire—really I didn't!" pleaded the boy. "I don't see why you won't believe me."
"I'm willing to let that matter drop if only you'll keep a civil tongue in your head and mind what you're doing," returned Bud Haddon. "And don't forget—I want at least a hundred dollars more just as soon as you can lay your hands on it."
"I don't see how I'm going to get it. I'm expecting some money from my uncle. But that has got to pay for my tuition at Colby Hall this fall."
"Well, you let the school wait for its money and you turn it over to me. They won't want you there anyhow if they should find out what sort of a fellow you are," went on Bud Haddon coarsely. "Now I've got to be getting back to Bimbel's, rain or no rain," he continued. "Just remember, you've got to fork over a hundred in cold cash before you start East again. If you don't—well, look out, that's all!" And with this threat the tall man rode out of the cave.
The Rovers and their chums had listened to every word that had been spoken. They were both mystified and amazed by what had been said.
"That fellow Haddon is surely a first-class rascal," whispered Spouter to Jack.
"Do you know what I think we had better do?" returned the young major. "Let's stop Brassy and have a straight talk with him. I don't think he's quite as bad as we thought he might be."
"Yes, let us stop Brassy by all means," came in a low tone from Fred.
Brassy Bangs had ridden to the mouth of the cave and there sat astride of his horse, watching Bud Haddon as he galloped away though the rain. Then he turned back in anything but a cheerful humor. The other boys saw him dismount and sink down on a rock, covering his face with his hands.
"Come on," said Jack, and without more ado he scrambled down from the rocks and came around to where Brassy was sitting, and the others did the same.
Brassy's misery was so great that for several seconds he did not notice their approach. Then, he looked up startled and leaped to his feet.
"Where did you come from?" he demanded, as soon as he could speak.
"We came from the other end of the cave, Brassy," answered Jack.
"How long have you been here?"
"We've been here long enough to hear the talk you had with that fellow named Haddon," answered Fred.
"You did!" Brassy turned pale. "It wasn't very nice to listen when you had no business to!"
"Never mind about that now, Brassy. What we want to know is, did you or that fellow rob Colby Hall?"
"He did it! I didn't have a thing to do with it—at least, willingly!" cried Brassy Bangs. "He forced me to do everything I did. He threatened me in all sorts of ways—said he would put me in prison and all that if I didn't help him. Oh, he's the worst man there ever was!" groaned the overwrought boy. And now the others could see that he was on the verge of collapse.
"See here, Brassy, why don't you tell us the whole story?" put in Gif kindly.
"Why should I tell my story to you? All you fellows are against me—you always were!"
"We're not against you, Brassy," answered Jack. "If you can prove to us that you're really being hounded by that man, we'll do what we can to help you. Isn't that so, fellows?" And at this question the others nodded.
"Hounded is right! He's done nothing but hound me ever since he knew me," whined the accused one.
"You tell me one thing!" demanded Spouter, striding up and catching Brassy by the shoulder. "Did that rascal steal the horses from our ranch?"
"I think he did—in fact, I'm about certain he did. That is, either he or the fellows he's in league with."
"Who are those other fellows?"
"Two fellows who just came out here from Chicago named Jillson and Dusenbury and two others from Bimbel's ranch named Noxley and Jenks. The whole bunch were mixed up with Bimbel some years ago in a shady transaction, and they lit out for quite a while. But now they're back again."
"I don't see why you want to get mixed up with a crowd like that," was Andy's comment.
"I didn't want to get mixed up with 'em," declared Brassy. "I haven't had a thing to do with any of 'em except Bud Haddon. Oh, I wish I'd never met that man!" And now Brassy seemed almost on the verge of tears.
After that it was an easy matter for the other boys to get Brassy to make a complete confession.
"My first trouble came when I got a job with John Calder who has a farm on the outskirts of Omaha," said Brassy. "I had had a quarrel at home, and also a quarrel with my uncle here, and had made up my mind to get a place and support myself. But I couldn't get along with Calder, who was a very strict man, and one afternoon we had a lively quarrel, and I told him I'd leave, and I did so and went to Omaha. About a week after that Calder's barn burned down and a number of horses were caught in the fire. That was just after I had fallen in with Bud Haddon and his two chums, Jillson and Dusenbury. Haddon pretended to be quite friendly. But all at once he accused me of setting the fire and said that Jillson and Dusenbury, who had left the day before, could prove it. I protested my innocence, but he insisted I was guilty and worked me up to such an extent that I gave him almost every dollar I had in my pocket to keep him quiet."
"And you say positively that you had nothing to do with the fire?" questioned Fred.
"Not a thing!"
"Couldn't you prove that you weren't there when the fire took place?" asked Andy.
"No, I couldn't, because I went to a vaudeville show that evening, and I was among strangers, so that I couldn't account for my time."
"Did Haddon hound you when you came to Colby Hall?" questioned Gif.
"He certainly did—not once, but half a dozen times. And I gave him all the money I could scrape up. In fact, I even borrowed some money from Halliday and a couple of the other fellows."
"But what about the robbery at the Hall?'" questioned Fred.
"Several times Haddon came to me and spoke in a mysterious manner about its being an easy matter to make a big haul. Then he hinted about the robbery; but I would have nothing to do with it. On the afternoon when we were getting ready to celebrate that night, he sent word that he wanted to see me at a certain barn not far from the school. When I got there he demanded that I help him go through the bedrooms while the fellows were having a good time on the campus and down by the river. I said I wouldn't do it, and then all of a sudden he hit me on the head and knocked me down. Then he stripped me of my trousers and jacket and tied me fast in one of the disused horse stalls."
"And you mean to say he used your uniform in stealing into the school?" asked Spouter.
"That's it. I didn't know it at the time, because he went to another part of the barn where I couldn't see him. But later on, when he brought the uniform back, he told me all about it. He thought he had been wonderfully slick."
"Why didn't you expose him at once?" demanded Jack.
"He told me that if I exposed him he would tell the authorities that I had planned the whole scheme and that I had done most of the work myself. He said some one had seen him in the uniform scooting from one room to another, so that the report would circulate that some cadet was guilty. He got me so worked up that at last I promised to keep quiet."
"And had he really robbed your room, too?" demanded Fred.
"Yes. I lost my stuff just as I reported. Oh, you can't imagine how I felt!" went on Brassy Bangs in a hopeless tone of voice. "Many a time I thought I'd go to Colonel Colby and confess everything. But then I thought they would bring that old charge of barn-burning up against me, as well as the charge of helping in the robbery, and I didn't have nerve enough to say a word. Oh, I know I was a big fool! I should have faced it out!"
"Wait a minute!" put in Jack suddenly. "Are you pretty sure Haddon, as well as Dusenbury and Jillson, are guilty of making off with the horses that are missing?"
"Well, then, isn't it possible that those three went to this John Calder's barn and stole some of the horses and then set fire to the place to cover the theft?"
"By golly, I'll bet that's just what they did!" burst out Brassy Bangs. "I remember now that the reports in the newspapers said the fire had been so fierce that the carcasses of the horses had been burnt up completely. They only found some of the bones in the ruins. Oh, if they really did do that!"
"Did Calder have any particularly good horses?"
"Yes, he had a splendid team of matched grays that were worth considerable money. He thought more of the grays than he did of all his other horses put together."
"I'll wager a toothpick against a lemon that gang stole the grays before the fire," declared Andy emphatically.
"The police ought to arrest those three men and put 'em through what they call the third degree," remarked Gif.
"I'd like to know one other thing," went on Andy, and now his face showed a slight grin. "What do you know about your Uncle Jarley's auto running away by itself?"
"Oh, please don't mention that tin junk wagon!" pleaded Brassy. "I started it, and the blamed thing ran over me, and I was lame for a week."
"Does your uncle know anything about what Haddon and his crowd are up to?" questioned Jack.
"Not exactly. Although he's becoming suspicious of the whole gang around the Bimbel place. You know he's never trusted Bimbel since the man got into difficulty with the authorities several years ago."
After that the seven boys talked the matter over for half an hour longer. And then the others insisted upon it that Brassy accompany them to the other entrance to the cave, and there all sat down to partake of the lunch brought from Big Horn Ranch.
Brassy appeared much relieved by the confession he had made, and readily answered all the questions put to him. His assertive manner had left him entirely, and he appeared quite humble.
"If he ever gets out of this I'll bet he'll be a different fellow," whispered Randy to Fred.
"I think so myself," was the reply. "But how he is going to square himself with Colonel Colby remains to be seen. It was a serious piece of business to let Haddon steal all those things from the school and say nothing about it."
While the boys were eating the storm stopped, and less than an hour later the sun was shining as before.
"I think we might as well be on our way back to the ranch," remarked Spouter. "The sooner we get there and let our fathers know how matters stand, the better."
"Don't you want to go with us, Brassy?" asked Jack.
"If I did that I couldn't get back to my uncle's place to-night, and then he'd worry about me. Otherwise I would just as lief go to your place as not. Now that I've told you everything I'd like to see the whole matter cleaned up, and quick too."
"How far is it to your uncle's ranch?" asked Fred.
"Not over a mile and a half."
"Then suppose we go there first, and then all of us can strike out for Big Horn Ranch. Maybe your uncle will want to take part in what is going on," said Jack.
"I wish you would go with me!" cried Brassy eagerly. "I'm afraid my uncle will raise Cain when I tell him the truth."
"He won't dare do much when we're around," answered Gif. "If he gets too ugly you can clear out and meet us on the way to our place."
"That's the talk," said Randy.
Again there was a discussion, but in the end it was decided that the whole party should lose no time in getting to Jarley Bangs' ranch. They would explain matters to Brassy's uncle, and then set out for Songbird Powell's place.
The campfire was speedily stamped out, and leaping into the saddle, the seven boys set out for the Bangs' place, Brassy leading the way, with Spouter beside him. It was a wet and dismal ride through the woods, and it is safe to say that Brassy felt every bit as dismal as his surroundings.
"Gee, but I certainly am sorry for him!" whispered Andy to his twin. "He isn't a fellow that I would cotton to, but he certainly has got himself into a pickle."
Presently the woods were left behind and they came out on the open prairie. Here the sun shone brightly, and the trail was drying rapidly. They urged their steeds into a gallop, and in a short while came in sight of the Jarley Bangs' outfit.
As they rode up they saw Jarley Bangs come from the ranch house and move swiftly toward one of the stables where the horses were kept. He was evidently in a hurry and much excited.
"Hello! where have you been?" he demanded of his nephew. "Where did you pick up these chaps?"
"I met 'em during the storm over at Twin Caves," answered Brassy.
"It's a wonder you wouldn't stay around the house once in a while," grumbled Jarley Bangs. "If you would, maybe I wouldn't be losing things."
"Losing things! What do you mean, Uncle Jarley?" questioned the nephew quickly.
"What do I mean?" stormed the ranch owner. "Do you know what has happened since you went away?"
"Well, then, I'll tell you! Two of our best horses have been stolen! Right out of the stable, too!" exclaimed Jarley Bangs wrathfully. "Duster and old Whitehead!"
"Stolen!" came from all of the boys simultaneously.
"Yes, stolen! Nobody saw 'em taken, but they're gone, and not a man on the ranch was near 'em!"
"I'll wager that's more of Bud Haddon's work," declared Jack quickly.
"But he wasn't here—he was over at the caves," returned Fred.
"Well, if he didn't do it, then some members of his gang did," put in Randy.
"I'm going to have the law on somebody for this!" stormed Jarley Bangs. "Too many horses in this neighborhood have been stolen. I'm going to visit some of the other ranchmen and notify the sheriff, and see if we can't raise a posse to run down the rascals."
"That's the way to talk, Mr. Bangs!" cried Spouter. "And we know just what gang to go after."
Less than an hour later found the whole party, including Jarley Bangs, on the way to Big Horn Ranch.
Brassy's uncle had listened with keen interest to the story his nephew and the other lads had to relate. He had interrupted a number of times to ask questions, and at the finish of the recital had held up both hands in disgust.
"You're a bigger fool than I ever thought you were, Lester," he had told his nephew. "Why in thunder didn't you tell your folks and me all about this just as soon as it happened? We could have set a trap for those rascals and caught 'em easy."
"But, Uncle Jarley, remember how I was tied up in that Colby Hall affair!" Brassy had pleaded.
"I don't believe Colonel Colby would hold you responsible for that—not after he'd made a thorough investigation. But that ain't here nor there. What we want to do now is to grab those fellows before they've a chance to make a get-away. I'd just like to ketch 'em with Duster and Whitehead in their possession! I think I could find enough old-timers around here to hand all of 'em a rope," and Jarley Bangs' eyes had flashed with a fire that was anything but agreeable.
The Rover boys and their chums had thought to take the regular trail leading back to Big Horn Ranch, but Jarley Bangs told them he knew of a shorter way.
"We can cut off over a mile," said he. "And I reckon the quicker we get a posse out the better."
"Don't you suppose we can round them up around Bimbel's ranch almost any time?" queried Spouter.
"Maybe, and maybe not. We'd probably be able to get the others, but Haddon, Dusenbury and Jillson come and go. Sometimes they're here, and sometimes in Omaha and Chicago."
"Perhaps that's where they disposed of their stolen horses," suggested Jack.
Jarley Bangs had armed himself with a double-barreled shotgun, and he rode in advance with Spouter at his side and the others close behind.
The way lay across a stretch of prairie and then into the edge of the woods bordering the river. The party had just gained the water's edge and were looking for a good fording place when Brassy suddenly uttered an exclamation.
"Look up the river, will you? There are those men now! And see! they are leading a couple of horses!"
"Get back out of sight, quick!" ordered Jarley Bangs. And in a few seconds all were behind the bushes which at that point lined the river.
"Why, they're heading almost straight for Big Horn Ranch!" exclaimed Spouter excitedly.
"They're going to follow the old river trail," announced Jarley Bangs. "More'n likely they'll take to the lower trail when they reach the forks."
"Can't we head 'em off and capture 'em?" questioned Fred.
"I think we can. Anyhow, we can try," was Jarley Bangs' answer.
The old ranchman made a swift mental calculation and then directed the boys to follow him to a fording place a little further down the river. Once on the other side of the watercourse, he urged his steed forward at topmost speed in the direction of another patch of timber further southward.
"They wouldn't dare take the upper trail," he told the lads. "For that would take 'em too close to Big Horn. They'll come this way, I'm almost certain."
It was not easy riding on a trail which was used but seldom. Nevertheless, the lads hurried after the old ranchman as well as they could. They wound in and out over some rough rocks and up a small hill, and presently emerged upon a much better trail.
"Here is where they ought to pass," announced Jarley Bangs. "Now then, we'll put our horses in the thicket and then see what we can do toward pocketing 'em when they come."
The old ranchman had seen strenuous times in his younger days, and he seemed to know exactly what to do. He divided the boys into two groups, placing them on either side of the winding and rocky road.
"Now if you have to shoot, shoot high so as not to hit anybody on the other side," was his warning. "But maybe we can get 'em without firing a shot," he went on.
Brassy was armed with a small rifle, and he insisted upon remaining in the roadway with his uncle. The other lads with their pistols and guns were placed in advantageous positions behind nearby rocks and trees.
The arrangement was scarcely completed when they heard the tramp of horses' hoofs over the somewhat rocky trail, and in a minute more Bud Haddon came into view, followed by Jillson and Dusenbury, all on horseback and each of the latter leading an extra steed.
"Throw up your hands!" shouted Jarley Bangs, as the horsemen came closer, and he leveled his shotgun full at Haddon's head, while Brassy covered Dusenbury with his rifle. The boys behind the rocks and trees covered all three men as well as they were able.
The three rascals had not anticipated such a meeting, and, seeing the guns leveled at them, not only from the front but also from the sides, three pairs of hands went up almost as one.
"It's Bangs!" murmured the man named Dusenbury. "I reckon the jig is up."
"Don't dare to budge or I'll blow somebody's head off!" roared Jarley Bangs. And he looked as if he meant what he said.
"You've got the drop on me, and I ain't moving," answered Bud Haddon surlily.
"Hi, Powell! Come out here, will you?" went on Brassy Bangs' uncle. And then, as Spouter came from the bushes with rifle in hand, he continued. "Go up there and take every one of their guns away from 'em."
As soon as they had been disarmed the three rascals were told to dismount and stand in a line along the side of the road. Then, as the boys confronted them, Jarley Bangs went through their pockets once more to make sure that no weapon had been overlooked.
"Fine piece of business, to run away with my horses!" exclaimed the old ranch owner, and he jerked his head in the direction of the two animals the men had been leading.
With their hands tied in front of them, the men were made to remount, and then the entire party lost no time in heading for Big Horn Ranch.
"I'll fix you for this!" hissed Haddon at Brassy when he got the chance.
"You do your worst!" retorted the boy. "I'm not afraid of you any more."
Of course, there was great excitement at the ranch when the crowd came in with the three prisoners. The story of what had happened was quickly circulated, and Joe Jackson and a number of the cowboys were called in from the ranges. One of the cowboys was sent off to notify a deputy sheriff of what had occurred and of what the ranch owners expected to do, and two other cowboys were started off to notify the owners of other ranches in that vicinity.
As a consequence early the next morning a posse consisting of twelve men headed for Bimbel's ranch. Of course, the boys wanted to go along, but they were forced to remain behind, much to their chagrin.
"You might get shot," said Songbird Powell. "And, besides that, you have had glory enough, helping to catch these three rascals," and he smiled faintly.
The affair at Bimbel's was rather a strenuous one. Jenks and Noxley, as well as Bimbel, tried to escape, and Noxley was shot in the leg. The fellow thought he was going to die, and while waiting for the doctor to come and attend him he made a full confession concerning the stealing of many of the horses in that neighborhood. He said that Bud Haddon was at the head of the gang and that Haddon, with Jillson and Dusenbury, were in the habit of disposing of the animals either at Omaha or Chicago, although one or two steeds, including one belonging to the former owners of Big Horn Ranch had been sent further east.
"I guess it was one of the early thefts that took Haddon to Haven Point," declared Jack, and in that surmise he was correct.
With this evidence against them, Haddon, Jillson and Dusenbury were submitted to a severe gruelling, each being examined separately. Finally Dusenbury broke down completely and admitted that he and the other two had fired John Calder's barn after stealing his noted pair of gray horses. The horses had been shipped out of town, and were later on recovered, as were also Mr. Powell's Blackbird and several other of the animals.
When Bud Haddon's effects were examined many pawn tickets were discovered, and following up the clues thus afforded Colonel Colby managed to get back many of the articles stolen from the school. These included Professor Duke's heirloom watch and a number of the things lost by our friends.
At first it was thought that Brassy might be prosecuted, but when Bud Haddon was brought to trial for the thefts the State used the youth as a witness against the fellow, and consequently Brassy was allowed to go free. He, however, received a stern lecture from Colonel Colby and was then told that he had better not return to the Hall.
"I don't think I want to come back," said Brassy. "A whole lot of the fellows would never forgive me for what I did." And in this surmise he was probably correct. Brassy returned to his uncle's ranch, and that was the last heard of him for a long time.
With the mystery of the robbery at Colby Hall and of the missing horses cleared up, the Rover boys and all the other young folks at Big Horn Ranch turned their attention once more to having a good time. Sam Rover went back to New York to take charge of the offices in Wall Street, and that gave Dick Rover and his wife a chance to come out and pay the ranch a visit.
"We've certainly had some strenuous times here," remarked Jack one day.
And he was right. But other strenuous times were still in store for the lads, and what some of these were will be related in the next volume, to be entitled, "The Rover Boys at Big Bear Lake; or, The Camps of the Rival Cadets."
"Big Horn Ranch is a delightful place," said Ruth. "I never thought a spot where they raised cattle could be so interesting."
"Is your father going to stay out here and become a regular ranchman, Spouter?" questioned Fred.
"I don't know about that," answered the ranch owner's son. "He'll stay here for a while, anyway. He likes it better and better every day."
"I dink some day I got me a ranch mineself alreatty," remarked Hans Mueller. "Den I could raise all mine own meats for mine delicatessen stores, not so?" and he smiled complacently.
"Come on, boys, let's get on horseback and have a race!" cried Andy, as he came up from finishing a game of lawn tennis with Mary.
"I'm with you," answered Fred, who had been playing a game of croquet with May and some of the others.
"All right! A horseback race it is!" cried Jack.
"An extra piece of cake to the boy who wins!" shouted his sister Martha after him.
"Hurrah! Me for that piece of cake!" came from every one of the boys assembled.
And here, while they are running down to the corral pell-mell to get on their horses for a gallop across the prairie, we will leave them and say good-bye.
* * * * *
THE FAMOUS ROVER BOYS SERIES BY ARTHUR M. WINFIELD (Edward Stratemeyer)
OVER THREE MILLION COPIES SOLD OF THIS SERIES
Uniform Style of Binding. Colored Wrappers. Every Volume Complete in Itself.
THE ROVER BOYS AT SCHOOL THE ROVER BOYS ON THE OCEAN THE ROVER BOYS IN THE JUNGLE THE ROVER BOYS OUT WEST THE ROVER BOYS ON THE GREAT LAKES THE ROVER BOYS IN THE MOUNTAINS THE ROVER BOYS ON LAND AND SEA THE ROVER BOYS IN CAMP THE ROVER BOYS ON THE RIVER THE ROVER BOYS ON THE PLAINS THE ROVER BOYS IN SOUTHERN WATERS THE ROVER BOYS ON THE FARM THE ROVER BOYS ON TREASURE ISLE THE ROVER BOYS AT COLLEGE THE ROVER BOYS DOWN EAST THE ROVER BOYS IN THE AIR THE ROVER BOYS IN NEW YORK THE ROVER BOYS IN ALASKA THE ROVER BOYS IN BUSINESS THE ROVER BOYS ON A TOUR THE ROVER BOYS AT COLBY HALL THE ROVER BOYS ON SNOWSHOE ISLAND THE ROVER BOYS UNDER CANVAS THE ROVER BOYS ON A HUNT THE ROVER BOYS IN THE LAND OF LUCK THE ROVER BOYS AT BIG HORN RANCH THE ROVER BOYS AT BIG BEAR LAKE THE ROVER BOYS SHIPWRECKED
Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York
* * * * *
THE TOM SWIFT SERIES By VICTOR APPLETON
Uniform Style of Binding. Individual Colored Wrappers. Every Volume Complete in Itself.
Every boy possesses some form of inventive genius. Tom Swift is a bright, ingenious boy and his inventions and adventures make the most interesting kind of reading.
TOM SWIFT AND HIS MOTOR CYCLE TOM SWIFT AND HIS MOTOR BOAT TOM SWIFT AND HIS AIRSHIP TOM SWIFT AND HIS SUBMARINE BOAT TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRIC RUNABOUT TOM SWIFT AND HIS WIRELESS MESSAGE TOM SWIFT AMONG THE DIAMOND MAKERS TOM SWIFT IN THE CAVES OF ICE TOM SWIFT AND HIS SKY RACER TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRIC RIFLE TOM SWIFT IN THE CITY OF GOLD TOM SWIFT AND HIS AIR GLIDER TOM SWIFT IN CAPTIVITY TOM SWIFT AND HIS WIZARD CAMERA TOM SWIFT AND HIS GREAT SEARCHLIGHT TOM SWIFT AND HIS GIANT CANNON TOM SWIFT AND HIS PHOTO TELEPHONE TOM SWIFT AND HIS AERIAL WARSHIP TOM SWIFT AND HIS BIG TUNNEL TOM SWIFT IN THE LAND OF WONDERS TOM SWIFT AND HIS WAR TANK TOM SWIFT AND HIS AIR SCOUT TOM SWIFT AND HIS UNDERSEA SEARCH TOM SWIFT AND AMONG THE FIRE FIGHTERS TOM SWIFT AND HIS ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE TOM SWIFT AND HIS FLYING BOAT TOM SWIFT AND HIS GREAT OIL GUSHER
Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York