"Well, I've got to have something pretty quick. I am next to dead-broke."
"Perhaps I can help you out a bit."
"I wish you would."
"Here is twenty dollars. I reckon that will prove that I am taking an interest in you." And the bright, crisp bill was handed over.
"Money talks!" cried Dan Baxter. He gazed at the bank note in genuine pleasure. "I am much obliged."
"Here is where I must leave you," went on Sack Todd as they reached a crossing in the trails. "Keep right on, and you'll soon come in sight of Cottonton. Meet me there to-night at the Planters' Rest."
"You had better keep out of sight—if those Rovers are on your trail."
"Trust me to lay low," said Baxter with a short laugh.
In another moment the former bully of Putnam Hall found himself alone. Sack Todd had galloped off at a high rate of speed.
"He is certainly an odd sort," mused Baxter. "But I guess he means to do right by me, or he wouldn't lend me a twenty so readily. He must be used to handling big money, by the roll of bills he carried. I wish I possessed such a roll. There must have been several hundred dollars in it, at least."
He felt to make sure that the bill was safe in his pocket, and then continued on his journey. Several times he looked back, but he could see nothing of the Rover boys or their friends.
Dan Baxter felt particularly downcast and desperate. Since the capture of Lew Flapp, he had been without a companion in whom to confide, and the peculiar loneliness among utter strangers was beginning to tell on him. This was one reason why he had told Sack Todd so much of his story.
Coming to the end of the timber and brush-wood, he saw, lying before him in something of a valley, the town of Cottonton, consisting of several well laid out streets and an outlying district of pretty homes. At a distance was the regular road, but so far his enemies were not in sight.
The ride had made Baxter hungry and, reaching the town, he lost no time in hunting up a modest restaurant on a side street, where, he hoped, the Rovers would not find him.
"What can you give me for dinner?" he asked. "I want something good."
A number of dishes were named over, and he selected roast beef, potatoes, beans, coffee and pie. He was quickly served, and pitched in with a will.
"Riding makes a fellow feel hungry," he explained to the proprietor of the eating house, who hovered near.
"Yes, sah, so it does. Going to stay in town, sah?"
"I don't know yet. I'm just looking around."
"Yes, sah, certainly. If you stay, I'll be pleased to furnish meals regularly, sah."
"I'll remember that."
Having disposed of the meal and also an extra cup of coffee, Dan Baxter called for a cigar and lit it. Then he hauled out the twenty-dollar bill. As he did so, he gave a slight start. He had handled a good deal of money in his time, and the bank bill looked just a bit peculiar to him.
"What if it isn't good?" he asked himself.
"Forty-five cents, please," said the restaurant keeper. His usual price for such a meal was thirty cents, but he thought Baxter could stand the raise.
"Sorry I haven't a smaller bill," answered the bully coolly. "I ought to have asked the bank cashier to give me smaller bills."
"I reckon I can change it, sah," said the restaurant man, thinking only of the extra fifteen cents he was to receive.
"Take out half a dollar and have a cigar on me," continued Baxter magnanimously.
"Yes, sah; thank you, sah!" said the man.
He fumbled around, and in a minute counted out nineteen dollars and a half in change. Pocketing the amount, the bully walked out, mounted his horse once more and rode away.
"Nice chap, to pay forty-five cents and then treat me to a cigar," thought the restaurant keeper. "Wish I had that sort coming in every day."
He lit the cigar and smoked it with a relish, particularly so as it had not cost him anything. He put the twenty-dollar bill away, to use when he should go to a neighboring city to buy some household goods, two days later.
When he went to buy his things, they came to twenty-six dollars, and he passed over the new twenty-dollar bill, and also an old one received some weeks before.
"I'll have to get change at the bank," said the store keeper, and left his place to do so. In a few minutes he came back in a hurry.
"See here," he cried. "They tell me one of these bills is a counterfeit."
"A counterfeit!" gasped the restaurant man.
"So the bank cashier says."
"The new one."
"You don't mean it! Why, I took that bill in only a couple of days ago."
"Then you got stuck, Mr. Golden."
"Is he sure it's a counterfeit?"
"Dead certain of it. He says it's rather a clever imitation, and that a number of them are afloat around these parts. Where did you get it?"
"A stranger gave it to me," groaned the restaurant keeper. "I thought he was mighty smooth. He treated me to a cigar! I wish I had him here!"
"You had better watch out for him."
"Sure I will. But I suppose he'll know enough to keep out of my way," added the man who had been victimized.
A MIDNIGHT SCARE
The Rovers reached Cottonton without catching sight of Dan Baxter again, nor did they locate him while stopping at the town.
"He knows enough to keep out of our way," remarked Dick. "Even now he may be watching every move we make."
They did not remain in Cottonton long, and that night found them once more on a trail leading to another patch of timber. All were in excellent spirits, and Hans enlivened the time by singing a song in his broken English in a manner which convulsed them all.
"Hans would make his fortune on the variety stage," remarked Fred. "His manner is too funny for anything."
"Vot you said apout a stage?" demanded the German youth. "I ton't vos ride on no stage ven I got a goot horse alretty."
"Fred wants you to go on the stage," said Sam,
"He thinks you might play Shakespeare," said Tom.
"Vot kind of a play is dot Shakespeares?"
"It's a farce in 'steen acts and twice as many scenes," said Dick. "You might play the double-tongued mute."
"I like not such a blay. I like dot blay vere da vos all killed off kvick."
"Good gracious! Hans wants to go in for tragedy!" ejaculated Tom. "Who would think he was so bloodthirsty. If you keep on like that, Hansy, dear, I'll be afraid you'll murder us in our sleep."
"I like dem murders. Da vos alvays make dem goose skins mine back town."
At this there was a general roar.
"'Goose skins' is good," came from Fred.
"Vot you laffin' at, hey?" demanded Hans.
"Dere don't been noddings to laugh at by a murder, not so?"
"That's true, Hansy," said Sam.
"Maybe of you vos killed, you vould sit ub and laugh at him, hey?"
"I shouldn't laugh," said Tom. "I'd keep quiet about it."
"Yah, I know you, Tom Rofer. I bet you sixteen cents I vos a better actor mans as you been," continued Hans, warming up.
"I don't doubt it, Hansy. Some day we'll put you on the stage."
"Of I got on der stage, I make me a hundred dollars a veek, I pet you my head!"
"Maybe you'd make two hundred, Hans," suggested Songbird.
"You all peen jealous of vot I can do. But some day I vos show you, you see!" cried the German youth, and rode on ahead, somewhat out of sorts.
They had resolved to camp out that night in true hunter fashion, and approaching a spot that looked inviting, they came to a halt. The place was some distance from the road and ideal in many respects, being on high ground and with a spring of pure water flowing into a tiny brook but fifty feet away.
As they had no tent, they proceeded to make a shelter of boughs, and covered the flooring with the same material. In the meantime, a campfire was lit, and two of the number set about preparing the supper which had been brought along.
"This is all very well, when one has his stuff with him," observed Fred. "But if we had to go out and shoot game or catch fish, it would be a different story."
"Pooh, as if we haven't done that!" cried Tom. "I shouldn't like anything better than to go out into the woods for a month."
By the time the shelter was in readiness for the night, the supper was cooked, and all sat around the campfire to partake of the meal. A certain part of it had been slightly burnt, but to this nobody paid attention, although it would have been noticed if this had occurred at home or at a hotel. But camping out makes such a difference, doesn't it, boys?
"Supposing some wild animals came along to eat us up?" said Sam when they were finishing their meal.
"Are there any wild animals around here?" questioned Songbird.
"I am sure I don't know. There may be bobcats in the timber."
"Vot is a popcat?" asked Hans.
"It's a kind of a wildcat—very strong and very fierce."
"Of dot peen der case, I ton't vonts to meet Mr. Popcat."
"I don't think any of us want to meet such a beast," said Tom. "Is anybody to stay on guard to-night?"
"Don't ask me—I'm too dead tired," said Dick promptly.
"Nor me!" came from the others.
"Let us go to sleep and venture it," said Sam. "I don't think a thing will come near us."
So it was decided, and as soon as the campfire began to die down, one after another of the boys retired. Songbird was the last to lie down, and soon he was slumbering as peacefully as the rest.
Sam had been sleeping perhaps three hours, when he woke up with a slight start. He sat up and tried to pierce the darkness around him.
"Did anybody call?" he questioned after a pause.
Nobody answered, and he listened attentively. The horses had been tethered in the bushes close to the shelter, and now he heard several of the animals move around uneasily.
"Something must be disturbing them," he told himself. "I'll have to get up and see what it is."
At first, he thought he would arouse some of the others, but all appeared to be sleeping so soundly he hated to do so.
"They won't thank me for waking them up, unless it is worth while," was what he told himself.
He arose and felt his way over the others who lay between himself and the opening of the shelter. Outside, there was no moon, but the stars were shining brightly, and he could make out objects that were not too far off.
As he moved toward the horses, he heard a rustling in the bushes. He strained his eyes and made out a dark form stealing along close to the ground.
"A wild beast!" he muttered. "I wish I had a gun."
He turned back to the shelter and aroused Dick, and then Tom. This awoke all of the others.
"What's the matter?" questioned Dick, as he got out a pistol.
"Some sort of a wild animal is prowling around this place."
"Py chiminy! Vos it von of dem catpobs?" ejaculated Hans, turning pale.
"I don't know what it is."
"Where is it now?" came from Fred.
"I don't know that, either. It was slinking around yonder bushes a minute ago."
"Let us stir up the fire," put in Songbird. "All wild animals hate a big blaze." And he set the example, and Hans helped to heap up the brushwood.
"I ton't vont to become acquainted mit dem catpobs nohow," said the German youth. "He can go avay so kvick like he come."
After the fire was brightened, there came a painful pause. Each boy was on his guard, with eyes straining from their sockets.
"I see something!" cried Fred suddenly.
"Where?" asked the others in a breath.
"There—but it's gone now."
Again they waited, and soon came a rustling on the other side of the camp, followed by the cracking of a bone which had been thrown away during the evening repast.
"There he is!"
"No, don't shoot!" burst out Tom. "I know what it is."
"Nothing but a dog."
"I say it is." Tom began to whistle. "Come here, old boy," he went on. "Good dog, come here."
At this, the animal stopped crunching the bone and came forward slowly and suspiciously. It was indeed a large, black dog, with curly hair and lean sides.
"Hullo!" cried Sam. "Come here, that's a good dog. Say, fellows, he looks half starved."
"Are you sure it ain't no catpob?" queried Hans anxiously.
"Yes, Hans," answered Songbird. "He is nothing but a dog, and rather friendly at that."
The dog came closer, wagging his tail slowly and suspiciously. Dick put out his hand and patted him, and then he waved his tail in a vigorous fashion.
"He is willing enough to be friends," said the eldest Rover. "I shouldn't be surprised if he is homeless."
"In that case, we might adopt him," said Tom, who loved a nice dog.
"Let us try him on something to eat," put in Songbird. "There is no meat left on that bone."
Some things had been saved for breakfast, and a portion was set before the newcomer. He devoured it greedily and wagged his tail furiously.
"He feels at home now," said Dick, and he was right. The dog leaped up, first on one and then another, and licked their hands.
"What's your name?" asked Tom, and the dog wagged his tail and gave a low, joyful bark.
"Better call him Wags," suggested Sam. "He seems to be death on keeping that tail going."
"Wags it is," announced Tom. "How do you like it, Wags, old boy?" And the dog barked again and leaped up and down several times in joy.
"Vell, he vos goot enough," was Hans' comment. "Bud I ton't see vy he couldn't introduce himselluf by der daydime alretty. I vos going to ped again," and he rubbed his eyes sleepily.
"So am I going to bed," said Fred. "Tom, are you going to stay awake to watch the dog?"
"No, he is going to sleep with me," answered the fun-loving youth. "Come on, Wags, get your nightcap and come to bed."
He made a certain move of his hand and the canine suddenly sat upon his haunches and cocked his head to one side.
"Hullo, he's a trick dog!" exclaimed Dick. "Shake hands," and the dog did so. Then, as Sam snapped his fingers, the animal began to walk around the camp on his hind legs.
"I'll wager he knows a lot of tricks," said Tom. "And, if so, he must be valuable."
"Then whoever owns him will want him back," was Songbird's comment.
"Well, I guess he can travel with us until somebody claims him," said Tom; and so it was decided.
THE RUNAWAY STEER
On the following morning there was the promise of a storm in the air, and the boys felt a bit blue over the prospects. But, by nine o'clock, the sun came out as brightly as ever and they were correspondingly elated.
"I don't care to do any camping out in wet weather," said Fred. "I got enough of that at the Hall."
"Well, when you camp out, you must take what comes, as the shark said when he swallowed a naval officer and found a sword sticking in his throat," answered Tom. "We can't have the weather built to order for anybody."
Wags was up and moving around, with his tail wagging as furiously as ever. He seemed to feel perfectly at home.
"Acts as if he had known us all our lives," said Dick. "He is certainly a fine creature, or he will be after he is fed up a bit."
"If he belongs around here, I don't see how he should be starved," said Sam.
"Well, you must remember, there are some pretty poor folks living in these parts, Sam. The colored folks are passionately fond of dogs, and very often they don't have enough to support themselves."
"I am going to claim Wags as my own until his rightful owner comes along," announced Tom. "Maybe I'll even take him home with me. Our old dog is dead."
This was final, and nobody saw fit to dispute the decision. So Wags was given his breakfast, after which the party struck camp, and the journey for the Denton plantation was continued.
The timber passed, they came out on a long stretch of prairie land leading to the high hills beyond.
"Here we are on the plains!" cried Sam. "Who wants to race?" And off he rode at top speed, with some of the others following. Even Wags seemed to enjoy the brush, and barked continually as he ran ahead and leaped up before one horse and then another.
Sam's wild ride on the plains lasted rather longer than the others had anticipated, and when it came to an end, all found themselves away from the beaten trail which they had been pursuing. They came to a sudden stop and gazed around in perplexity.
"Here's a mess," said Dick.
"Where's the trail?"
"That is what I want to know."
"I think it is over yonder."
"I think it is in the opposite direction."
All of the boys began to talk at once, and then followed a dead silence for several seconds.
"One thing is certain—the trail can't be in two directions," said Tom.
"He can pe if he vos krooked," said Hans wisely.
"It was a fairly straight trail," observed Fred. "I can't see how we happened to leave it."
"I was following Sam," said Songbird. "You can't blame me."
"So was I following Sam," added several of the others.
"And I was having a good time on the horse," said the youngest Rover. "I thought in the bunch there would be at least one who would look after the trail."
"So it is really nobody's fault," said Dick quickly, to avoid a possible quarrel. "The question is: how are we going to find the trail again?"
"I know how," put in Hans calmly.
"Look for him."
"Thanks, awfully," said Tom. "That is a bright as a burnt-out match."
"Just the same, that is what we will have to do, Tom," said Dick. "Let us divide up, and some go to the right and some to the left."
This was considered a good plan and was carried out without delay. Ten minutes later, Songbird set up a shout:
"Upon this ground, The trail is found. All come right here And see it clear."
"Good for Songbird!" cried Tom. "He gets a last year's tomato as a reward. Songbird, will you have it in tissue paper or a trunk?"
"Well, the trail is plain enough," was Dick's comment, as he came riding up. "I can't see how we missed such a well-defined path."
The run had tired their horses somewhat, and all were willing to proceed further on a walk. They were coming to a fringe of bushes on the plain, and here found a stream of water.
"Not a ranch or a plantation of any kind in sight," announced Fred as he gazed around while some of the steeds obtained a drink. "What a wilderness certain portions of our country are!"
"Plenty of chances for emigrants," returned Songbird. "We are a long way from being filled up."
"The trouble is, so I have heard father say, so many of the emigrants stay in the big cities, rather than come out to the country," put in Sam.
Having rested for a spell at the brook, they proceeded on their way once more. The air was growing warmer and, as the sun mounted higher in the sky, they wished they were in the shadow of a forest once more.
"What a journey it must be to cover some of the immense Western plains on horseback," remarked Songbird. "To ride for miles and miles—maybe all day—without seeing a cabin or a human being."
"We know something of that," answered Dick. "We liked our trip out West, though," he added.
Toward the middle of the afternoon they reached the first stunted growth of timber growing at the base of the hills toward which they had been journeying. At noon, as it was so hot, they had not stopped for lunch, and now they proceeded to make themselves comfortable on a patch of thick grass. Even Wags was willing to lie down and stretch out. The dog acted as if he had been a member of the party since starting from home.
"Are you going to blame me for going wrong?" demanded the poetic youth.
"I wonder if he would be any good after game?" said Sam as he looked at Wags.
"I doubt it," said Tom. "An educated dog—that is, a trick dog—rarely knows anything else. But, nevertheless, I think Wags remarkably bright."
It was not until four o'clock that they went on once more. According to what they had been told, they ought now to be coming in sight of a cattle ranch kept by some old cattle men, but nothing like a ranch appeared.
"This is queer, to say the least," remarked Tom as they came to a halt in a small clearing. "What do you make of it, Dick?"
"I shouldn't like to say, just yet."
"Do you think we are on the wrong trail?" queried Fred quickly.
"We may be."
"Of dot is so, den, py Jiminatics, ve vos lost!" ejaculated Hans. "Now, vosn't dot lofly alretty?"
"Lost?" cried Fred.
"That's the size of it," cried Songbird. "We must have taken to the wrong trail after our little race."
"You found the trail for us," remarked Tom dryly.
"Not a bit of it," said Dick. "All of us were to blame, for we all thought it was the right trail. The one question is: where are we, and where is the right trail?"
"And a big question to answer, Dick," came from Sam. "For all we know, we may be miles and miles off the road."
"No use of crying over spilt oil, as the lamp said to the wick," sang out Tom. "I move we go on until we strike a ranch, or plantation, or something."
"That is what we'll have to do, unless we want to go back."
"No going back in this!" shouted several, and then they moved forward as before, but at a slower rate of speed.
It was truly warm work, and it must be confessed that all were more or less worried. In the last town at which they had stopped, they had met a number of undesirable characters, and one man had told Dick that not a few outlaws were roaming around, ready to pick up stray horses, or money, or whatever they could get their hands upon.
They were passing through a bit of sparse timber, when they heard a strange tramping at a distance.
"What do you think that can be?" questioned Fred, coming to a halt, followed by the others.
"Horses," suggested Hans.
"Sounds to me like cattle," said Dick. "But I don't see so much as a cow, do you?"
"Nothing whatever in sight," said Tom.
As the noise continued, Sam's horse began to grow skittish and showed some inclination to bolt.
"Steady, there!" sang out the youngest Rover. "None of that, now!" and he did his best to hold the steed in check.
"Something is coming!" cried Tom a few seconds later. "Something running pretty well, too!"
By instinct, all turned to the side of the trail, Sam taking a position between a clump of trees and a big rock. Swiftly the sound came closer, and then of a sudden a big and wild-looking steer broke into view, lumbering along the trail at his best speed.
"Look out, fellows, he is wild and ugly!"
"He looks as if he meant to horn somebody!"
So the cries rang out, and all of the boys drew further to the side of the trail. As the steer came up, he paused and gazed at them in commingled wonder and anger.
"He is going to charge—" began Tom, when, with a fierce snort, the steer wheeled to one side and charged upon Sam and his horse at full speed!
JIM JONES, THE COWBOY
To some of the boys it looked as if Sam and his steed must surely be seriously injured, if not killed. The steer was large and powerful looking, and his horns were sharp enough to inflict serious damage.
"Back up, Sam!" screamed Tom.
Poor Sam could not back very well, and now his horse was thoroughly unmanageable. Closer came the steer, until his wicked looking horns were but a foot away.
At that critical moment a shot rang out, so close at hand that it made all of the boys jump. Realizing the dire peril, Dick had drawn the pistol he carried and fired at the steer. His aim was fair, and the beast was struck in the ribs.
"Good for you, Dick!" burst out poor Sam. "Give him another," he added, as he tried to quiet his horse and keep the steed from pitching him to the ground.
Dick was quite willing to take another shot, but to get into range was not so easy. Songbird's horse was between himself and the steer, and the latter was plunging around in a manner that was dangerous for the entire party.
But at last the eldest Rover saw his opportunity, and once more the pistol rang out on the summer air. The shot took the steer in the left ear and he gave a loud snort of pain and staggered as if about to fall.
"He is about done for!" cried Tom. "I am glad of it."
The steer continued to plunge around for fully two minutes and all took good care to keep out of his reach. Then he took a final plunge and fell over on his side, breathing heavily and rolling his eyes the while.
"I reckon I had better give him a final shot," was Dick's comment, and, dismounting, he came forward and fired directly into the beast's eye. It was a finishing move, and, with a convulsive shudder, the steer lay still, and the unexpected encounter came to an end.
"Well, I am glad that is over," said Sam as he wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead. "I thought he was going to horn me, sure!"
"He would have done so, had it not been for Dick," returned Tom.
"I know it. Dick, I shan't forget this."
"What's to be done about the steer?" asked Songbird. "It seems a pity to leave him here."
"Vot is der madder mit cutting him ub for meats?" put in Hans. "Ve can haf some nice steak ven ve go into camp next dime, hey?"
"That's a scheme," said Fred.
At that moment, Wags, who had kept in the background so long as the steer was raging around, set up a sharp barking.
"What's wrong now?" asked Tom, turning to the dog.
"Somebody may be coming," suggested Dick.
"I'll show you fellers wot's wrong!" cried a rough voice, and through the brushwood close by there crashed a broncho, on top of which rode a rough-looking cowboy, wearing a red shirt and a big slouch hat. "Who went and shot that steer?"
"I did," answered Dick. "Was he yours?"
"He was, and you had no right to touch him," growled the cowboy.
"Didn't I, though?" said Dick. "Are you aware that he came close to hurting us? He charged full tilt at my brother's horse."
"Stuff and fairy tales, boy. That steer was all right. He broke away from the drove, but he wouldn't hurt a flea."
"We know better," put in Tom.
"If my brother hadn't killed him, he would probably have killed my horse, and maybe me," added Sam.
"Somebody has got to pay for the damage done," growled the cowboy. "I am not going to stand for it, not me, so sure as my name is Jim Jones." And he shook his head determinedly.
"Well, Mr. Jones, I am sorry I had to kill your steer, but it had to be done, and that is all there is to it," said Dick calmly.
"That ain't payin' for the critter, is it?"
"An' do you reckon I'm goin' to let the boss take the price out o' my wages?" continued Jim Jones warmly.
"Isn't the steer worth something as meat?"
"Yes, but not near as much as he was wuth on the hoof."
"We might take up a collection for Mr. Jones, if he is a poor man," suggested Songbird, who did not want any trouble.
"But we haven't got to do it," broke in Tom. "It was his business not to let the steer run wild in the first place."
"So you're going to take a hand, eh?" stormed the cowboy; then, feeling he was in the minority, he went on more humbly: "Yes, I'm a poor man, and this may get me discharged."
"How much do you think we ought to pay?" asked Dick. "Name a reasonable price and I may settle, just to avoid trouble, and not because I think I ought to pay."
"How about fifty dollars?" asked the cowboy with a shrewd look in his fishy, blue eyes.
"Cut it in half, and I may meet you," came from Dick. "He was no blue-ribbon animal."
The cowboy tried to argue, but the Rovers and their chums would not listen, and in the end Jim Jones said he would accept twenty-five dollars and let it go at that. He said he would have the steer carted away before night.
"Where do you come from?" asked Dick after paying over the money.
"From the Cassibel ranch, sixty miles north-west from here. I and my pard were driving some cattle to town, when this steer got scared at a rattlesnake and broke away."
"I don't blame him," said Fred. "I'd get scared at a rattlesnake, myself."
"Do you know the way to Mr. Carson Denton's plantation?" went on Dick.
"This is not the right trail, is it?"
"Not by a long shot. The right trail is four miles from here."
"Will you direct us to the right road?" asked Dick.
"Sure thing," answered Jim Jones. He paused for a moment. "Want to get there the easiest way possible, I reckon?"
"Well, then, keep to this trail for half a mile further. Then, when you come to the blasted hemlock, take the trail to the left. That will take you through the upper end of the next town and right on to Denton's."
"Thanks," said Dick. "Is it a good road?"
"Fine, after the fust few miles are passed. There are a few bad spots at first, but you mustn't mind them."
"We shan't mind," came from Sam. "We have struck some bad spots already."
A few additional words passed, and then all of the boys rode along the trail as the cowboy had pointed out. Jim Jones, standing beside the dead steer, watched them out of sight and chuckled loudly to himself.
"Reckon I squared accounts with 'em," he muttered. "Got twenty-five dollars in cash and the animile, and if they foller thet trail as I told 'em—well, there ain't no tellin' where they'll fotch up. But it won't be Denton's ranch, not by a long shot!" and he laughed heartily to himself.
All unconscious that they had been wrongly directed by Jim Jones, the Rover boys and their chums continued their journey. When they reached the hemlock that had been struck by lightning, they took to the other path as directed.
"I am sorry I didn't ask how far that town was," said Dick. "For all we know, we may be miles away from it."
"If it gets too late, we had better go into camp for the night," suggested Songbird, and so it was agreed.
The coming of night found them in something of a hollow between two ranges of hills. The trail was soft and spongy, and the horses frequently sank in over their hoofs.
"This is something I didn't bargain for," observed Songbird. "I trust we don't get stuck and have to go back."
"That cowboy said the trail would be poor for a while," came from Fred.
They continued to go forward, on the lookout for some suitable spot where they might camp for the night. The thought of reaching a town had faded away an hour before.
"Gosh! this is getting worse!" cried Tom. "Be careful, Hans!" he called to the German youth, who was ahead.
"Vot's dot?" sang out the other.
"I said, be careful. You don't want to sink through to China, do you?"
"Not much I ton't," was the answer. "Oh!"
Hans let out a loud cry of alarm, and with good reason. His horse had struck a sink-hole, as they are called on the plains, and gone down to his knees. He made such a plunge that poor Hans was thrown over his head, to land full length in an oozy, sticky bog.
"Stop!" cried Dick, as soon as he saw this accident. "Don't go any further, fellows, it's dangerous!"
"Hellup! safe me!" roared Hans, trying in vain to extricate himself from the oozy bog, while his horse did the same. "Hellup, oder I peen drowned in der mud alretty!"
OUT OF AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION
Not one of the party was just then in a position to give poor Hans any assistance. All were stuck in the ooze, and one horse after another was slowly but surely sinking.
"We must turn back," cried Songbird, "and do it in a hurry, too."
"Easier said than done," grunted Fred. "My, this is worse than glue!"
"I think the ground on our left is a bit firmer than here," said Sam. "I am going to try it, anyway."
Not without considerable difficulty, he turned his steed, and after a struggle the spot he had indicated was gained. Dick followed, and so did Tom.
The Rovers were safe, but not so their chums. Hans was the worst off, but Fred and Songbird were likewise in positions of serious peril. Wags was flying around, barking dismally, as though he understood that all was not right.
"Turn this way!" called out Sam. "It's your one hope!"
"Let me have that rope you are carrying, Tom," said Dick, and having received the article, he threw one end to Hans, who was still floundering around. "Catch hold, Hans, and I'll haul you over!"
As the rope fell across the German youth's body, he caught it tightly in both hands, and, as Dick, Tom and Sam pulled with might and main, he fairly slid on his breast to where they were standing.
"Mine gracious, dot vos somedings awful!" he exclaimed. "It vos so sticky like molasses alretty!"
"Now, we must help the others," said Dick.
"Songbird is out," exclaimed Sam.
The rope was thrown to Fred, and with a great tug he was finally brought out of the ooze.
"Nearly took my hand off," he declared. "But I don't care—anything is better than to be stuck in such a spot as that."
The horses were still floundering desperately, and it was little that they could do for the beasts. One went in one direction and the others in another, but at last all appeared to be safe, although covered with the sticky mud and slime.
"That's an adventure I didn't bargain for," was Tom's comment. "Do you know what I think? I think that cowboy sent us into this on purpose."
"Maybe he did," came from Dick. "Did it, I suppose, to get square because we didn't pay him all he thought the steer was worth."
To round up the horses was no easy task, and by the time this was accomplished it was long past dark. They searched around for a suitable spot and then went into camp.
"This trip is lasting longer than I expected," remarked Dick when they were around the camp-fire preparing an evening meal. "I trust the others don't get worried about us."
"Oh, I guess they know that we can take care of ourselves," answered Tom.
"I wish I had that cowboy here," muttered Sam. "I'd give him a piece of my mind."
"I think we'd all do that," added Fred.
"I vos gif him a biece of mine mind from der end of mine fist," said Hans, and this made them all laugh.
The camping spot was not a particularly good one, yet all slept soundly. They left Wags on guard, but nothing came to disturb them.
It was misty in the morning and so raw that they shivered as they prepared to start off. How to proceed was a question, and it took them a good quarter of an hour to decide it.
"It would be folly to go deeper into this bog, or swamp," said Dick. "I vote we keep to the high ground."
"That's the talk," said Sam. "Maybe, when we get up far enough, we will have a chance to look around us."
As well as they were able, they had cleaned off the horses and themselves, and now they took good care to keep from all ground that looked in the least bit treacherous.
"Here is a new trail," cried Tom after about two miles had been covered. "And it seems to lead up a hill, too."
"Then that is the trail for us," put in Songbird, and they took to the new trail without further words.
"Songbird, I don't hear any poetry," observed Dick as they rode along. "What's the matter?"
"Can't make up poetry in such a dismal place as this," was the answer in a disgusted voice. "I wish we were out of this woods, and out of the mist, too. I declare, it's enough to give a fellow malaria."
The sun was trying to break through the mist, which was an encouraging sign. Here and there a bird set up a piping note, but otherwise all was as quiet as a tomb.
"I see something of a clearing ahead," announced Sam presently.
"And a trail!" cried Fred. "Thank fortune for that!"
The clearing reached, they found a well-defined trail running to the southwestward.
"That must run to Caville," announced Dick. "See, there is a regular wagon track."
"I hope it is the right road," returned Fred.
They were soon out on the plains again, and then into another patch of timber. They had to ford a small stream, and on the other side came to a fork in the trail.
"Which way now?" questioned Sam, as all came to a halt in perplexity.
"This seems to be the main road, although it is hard to tell one from the other," said Dick after an examination.
The others agreed with the eldest Rover, and once more they went forward. But, in less than a mile, they saw that the road was not in as good a condition as that left behind.
"This looks as if we had made a mistake," observed Fred. "Oh, what luck we are having!"
"I'd like to know—" began Tom, when he stopped abruptly, for out of the brushwood an old man had stepped, gun in hand.
"You-uns, hold on!" cried the old man.
"Hullo, what do you want?" asked Dick.
"I want for you-uns to turn around an' go tudder way."
"Isn't this the trail to Caville?"
"No, it ain't, an' you-uns can't come this way, nohow."
"Is it a private road?"
"Where does it lead to?"
"That ain't none o' you-uns' business," said the old man curtly. "You-uns is on the wrong road, an' have got to turn back."
"Supposing we don't turn back?" questioned Tom, who did not fancy the style in which they were being addressed.
At this, the old man tapped his gun.
"Orders is to turn 'em back, or shoot," he answered simply. "This are a private road. Don't ye see the wire fence?"
They looked into the brushwood and saw a single strand of wire stretched from tree to tree on each side of the trail.
"Not much of a fence," was Songbird's comment.
"It's enough, an' you-uns can't come no further."
"Maybe you live beyond," said Sam curiously.
"Maybe I do, an' maybe I don't. It ain't none of you-uns' business."
"You are very civil, I must say."
"Don't you git fly, boy, or this ole gun o' mine might go off. This ain't no trail fer you-uns, an' you-uns have got to turn back."
"Will you tell us if that other trail runs to Caville?" asked Dick.
"It don't run nowheres." The old man grinned for a moment. "It stays where it are. But if you-uns travel along it for about five miles, ye'll reach the town."
"And you won't tell us whose road this is?" came from Tom.
"It ain't none of you-uns' business, thet ain't. Better turn back an' have done with it."
The old man showed plainly that he did not wish to converse further. He stood in the center of the trail, with his gun ready for instant use.
"We made a mistake before and got into a sink-hole," said Dick. "We don't want to make another mistake."
"Take tudder trail an' you-uns will be all right," answered the old man, and thereupon they turned around and rode off.
"What a crusty old fellow!" said Sam.
"Yes, but he meant business," came from Fred. "He would have shot at us sure, had we insisted upon moving forward."
"There is some mystery about this," said Dick.
"Perhaps he lives a hermit life down that trail," suggested Songbird.
"It looked more to me as if he was on guard," put in Sam. "He certainly meant business."
"If we had time, I'd sneak around to one side and see what was beyond."
"Yes, and get shot," said Fred. "We had better take his advice and go on to Caville."
It did not take them long to reach the fork in the road, and here they turned into the other trail. They had proceeded less than fifty yards, when Dick put up his hand.
"Somebody is coming behind us," he announced.
They halted at a turn in the road and looked back. Two persons soon appeared, both on horse-back. They were riding at a good gait and turned into the trail which was guarded by the old man.
"Well, I never!" cried Tom in amazement.
"I recognized the first man," said Sam. "It was that bushy-haired fellow. I think somebody said his name was Sack Todd."
"That's the chap," replied Dick. "But didn't you recognize the other?"
"It was Dan Baxter."
SOMETHING OF A MYSTERY
The cry came simultaneously from several of the crowd.
"I think Dick is right," said Songbird. "I thought it must be Dan, but I wasn't sure, for I didn't expect to see him here."
"He and that Sack Todd must have become friends," put in Tom. "I would like to know what Dan is doing out here."
"He is certainly up to no good," answered Dick. "I must say this adds to the mystery, doesn't it, boys?"
"That's what it does," chimed in Sam. "I wish we could catch Baxter and bring him to justice."
"Or reform him," came from Dick.
"Reform him, Dick!" cried Tom. "That would be mighty uphill work."
"It isn't in him," added Fred. "He is tee-totally bad."
"I used to think that of Dan's father, but Arnold Baxter has reformed—and he wants his son to do likewise."
"Well, that isn't here or there," said Tom after a pause. "What are we to do just now?"
"Let us push on to town first," answered Songbird. "After that, we can rearrange our plans if we wish."
This was considered good advice, and once again they urged their steeds along. Coming to a high point in the trail, they made out Caville a mile distant, and rode into the town about noon.
It was not much of a place, and the single hotel afforded only the slimmest of accommodations. But they had to be satisfied, and so made the best of it.
The meal over, Dick strolled into the office of the tavern, where he found the proprietor sitting in a big wooden chair leaning against the counter.
"Quite a town," began the eldest Rover cheerfully.
"Wall, it ain't so bad but what it might be wuss, stranger. Did the grub suit ye?"
"Glad to hear it, stranger. Sometimes the folks from the big cities find fault. Expect me to run a reg'lar Aster-Delmonicum, or sumthin' like that."
"It is very hard to suit everybody," said Dick. "By the way," he went on, "do you know a man around these parts named Sack Todd?"
"Do I know him? To be sure I do, stranger. Friend o' yourn?"
"Not exactly, but I have met him a few times. Where does he live?"
"Lives over to Red Rock ranch, quite a few miles from here."
"Not exactly. He has a cousin there, I believe, and some others. But I wouldn't advise you to go over to the ranch, nohow."
"Sack Todd don't take to visitors. The story goes that a visitor once stopped there an' shot his wife and robbed her, an' since that time he ain't had no use fer anybody, only them as he knows very well."
"Does he run the ranch for a living?"
"Don't know but what he does, but he don't work very hard a-doin' it."
"Is there an old man working for him—a fellow with thin shoulders and reddish hair?"
"Yes; an' he's a sour pill, too."
"He must be an odd stick, to keep himself so close."
"Yes; but Sack's a good spender, when he's in the humor of it. Sometimes he comes to town with a wad o' money an' treats everybody right an' left. Then ag'in he comes in an' won't notice nobody."
Here the talk came to an end, for the hotel man had to attend to some new arrivals. Dick joined the others and all took a walk, so that their conversation might not be overheard.
"This only adds to the mystery," said Tom after Dick had repeated what the tavern keeper had said. "I am more anxious now than ever to visit Red Rock ranch, as they call it."
"So am I," added Sam. "And remember, we want to catch Dan Baxter if we can."
"Well, we can't go ahead and back too, boys," came from Dick. "If we really mean to investigate, we ought to send Mr. Denton and the ladies and the girls word. If we don't, and we are delayed any great length of time, they will be sure to worry about us."
"Maybe we can telephone," suggested Songbird. "Don't you see the wires? Some of the plantations must have the service."
"That's the talk!" cried Fred. "Let us try it, anyway."
They walked to the nearest station and looked over the book. But the Denton plantation was not mentioned.
"We can send a letter," said Dick. "That will get there before they have a chance to worry."
They returned to the tavern, and there the communication was written, and later on dropped in the post-office. Then they held another consultation.
"Those fellows around that ranch are all armed beyond a doubt," said Tom. "I think we ought to get something in the shape of firearms."
"We've got a gun and a pistol now," answered Dick.
"Say, I ton't vos go pack of der been schootin' goin' on!" cried Hans. "I tole you dot Sack Todd been a pad man."
"You can remain behind, Hans," returned Sam.
"He can go on to Mr. Denton's," said Songbird.
"Not much—I stick py der crowd," said the German youth. He thought it worse to leave them than to confront any possible perils.
Their horses had been fed and cared for, and by the middle of the afternoon each was provided with a pistol, the extra weapons being secured at the local hardware establishment.
"Afraid of outlaws?" questioned the man who sold the pistols.
"There is nothing like being armed," answered Dick. "On some of these trails, there is no telling what sort of persons you will meet."
"I've got an idea," said Tom when they were on the street again. "Why not take our time and move on Red Rock ranch after dark?"
"And lose our way," came from Sam.
"Well, we can't use that trail in the daylight. That old man will be sure to halt us."
"We can get around the old man somehow," said Songbird. "As soon as we spot him, we can make a detour."
By four o'clock, they were on the way. Not to excite suspicions on the part of any of Sack Todd's friends who might happen to be around, they left Caville by a side trail and then took to the back road after the last of the houses of the town had been passed.
"I'd just like a long ride over the prairie," cried Sam. "I know I'd enjoy every minute of it."
They had proceeded less than a mile when Hans went to the front.
"I dink dis horse vants to let himself out a leetle," said he.
"I'll race you," said Sam, and away they started at a breakneck speed.
"Hold on!" cried Dick. "Don't tire yourselves out in that fashion. We've got a good many miles to go yet."
But neither of the racers paid any attention, and soon they were a good distance to the front. Hans was doing his best to keep ahead of the youngest Rover, and, as his steed was a little the better of the two, he had small difficulty in accomplishing his object.
But, alas, for the poor German boy! The race made him careless of where he was going, and soon he found himself on the very edge of a swamp, similar to that encountered before.
"Whoa!" he yelled to his horse. "Whoa!" And then he added: "Sam, go pack kvick!"
"What's wrong, Hans?"
"It ist all vet aroundt here, und I—Du meine Zeit!"
As the German youth finished, his horse stepped into a fair-sized hole on the edge of the swamp. On the instant, a cloud arose from the hole.
"Hornets!" screamed Sam, and backed away with all speed.
"Hellup! hellup!" yelled Hans. "Ouch! Oh, my!" And then he tried to back away. But the hornets were angry at being disturbed in their nest and went at him and his horse with vigor.
"Something is wrong with Hans," observed Dick, looking ahead. "See, his nag is dancing around as if it was crazy."
"Oh, me; oh, my!" roared Hans, slapping to the right and to the left. "I vos stung in more as a hundred blaces. Hellup me, somepotty! Dis vos der vorse yet alretty! Git avay, you hornets! I gif you fife dollars to git avay!"
"Ride off, Hans," called out Fred. "Don't stay near the hornets' nest. It will only make it so much the worse for you."
Thus advised, Hans backed and started off. But, instead of going off by himself, he rode directly into the crowd.
"Hi, you, keep away!" sang out Tom, and then, as a hornet alighted on his nose, he went on: "Whow! Haven't you any sense?"
"Anypotty vot vonts dem hornets can haf dem, free of charge, mit drading stamps drown in," answered Hans. "Git avay!" and he rode on.
"The cheek of him!" put in Fred, who was also bitten. "We ought to drive him back into the hole."
"Not on mine life!" said Hans. "I vos so stung now I can't see mine eyes out of, ain't it!"
All lost no time in getting away from the vicinity of the hornets' nest, and presently the pests left them and went back to the hole, to see what damage had been done.
"This is an experience I didn't bargain for," said Songbird, who had been stung in the cheek.
"Maybe you'd like to make up some poetry about it," grumbled Tom. "Oh, how my chin hurts!"
"And my ear!"
"And my nose!"
"Humph! Look at my eye!"
So the talk ran on, and the crowd looked at each other in their misery. But the sights were too comical and, despite the pain, each had to laugh at the others.
"Didn't know you had so much cheek, Songbird."
"My, what an awful smeller Fred's got!"
"Dick's left hand is a regular boxing glove."
"I'm going to put some soft mud on the hand," returned Dick. "There is nothing better to draw out the pain of a hornet's sting."
"Den gif me some of dot mut, too," said Hans. "I ton't vos care how he looks, so long as it makes me feel easier."
Mud was easy to procure, and all used it liberally, and before long the pain and swelling began to go down. But their sufferings did not cease entirely until many hours afterwards, while poor Hans could not use one eye for two days.
"After this, we had better keep our eyes open for hornets' nests," observed Dick.
"I certainly don't want to be stung again," said Sam.
"I believe a fellow could be stung to death by such pests," ventured Fred.
"Yes, and a horrible death it would be," answered Dick.
The encounter with the hornets had delayed them greatly, and it was getting toward nightfall before they went on their way again.
"We may as well take our time," said Tom. "We can't reach Red Rock ranch until to-morrow."
After crossing a level stretch of prairie, they came to the edge of a woods. Not far off was a shack similar to those to be seen all over this section of our country.
"Hullo, here is a house," cried Dick. "I wonder if anybody lives here?"
He dismounted and, walking forward, looked into the shack. On a bed of boughs a heavy-set man was sleeping.
"Hullo, there!" called out the eldest of the Rovers.
The man sat up in alarm and made a movement as if to draw a pistol.
"What do you want of me?" he asked roughly.
A SCENE FROM A TREETOP
"I don't know as we want anything of you," said Dick. "We chanced to be riding by, that is all."
"Oh!" The man looked relieved and let his hand drop from his pistol pocket. "Are you alone?"
"No, there is quite a crowd of us."
At this, the man leaped up and looked out of the open doorway of the shack. His face fell again when he saw so many, and all well mounted.
"May I ask what you are doing here?" he questioned, turning his sharp eyes on Dick once more.
"We are doing a bit of traveling overland. We were on a houseboat, but we got tired of riding on the Mississippi."
"I see. One of them 'personally conducted tours' a feller reads about in them magazines, eh?"
"That is pretty close to it," and Dick smiled, more to throw the man off his guard than any-thing else. He did not like the looks of the stranger in the least.
"Don't go an' git lost, young man. Have ye a guide?"
"No, but I don't think we are going to get lost. What place do you call this?" the eldest Rover continued, thinking to ask some questions himself, and thus keep the fellow from becoming too inquisitive.
"This is Pluggins' Palace;" the man gave a short laugh. "Did ye ever hear of Pluggins?"
"Pluggins was a pretty fair sort, but had a habit of stickin' his nose into other folks' business. One day, so the story goes, he went too far, and nobody has seen him since."
"Was he killed?"
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't ask me, stranger. He disappeared, and that was the end of him. He used to live here, and the boys writ that motto to his memory." And the man pointed to a wall, upon which hung a board, on which had been painted the following:
ThiS iS iN MEMorY Of SiLAs plUGGinS he waS A GooD MaN bUT hE coULD NOT kEEp HiS NOsE FRoM oTHeRS bISSnESS. tAkE wARNiNG.!
Dick read the lines with deep interest, and so did all of the others.
"They didn't know much about sign painting, but they evidently knew what they wanted to say," remarked Tom. "Do you live here now?" he added, to the strange man.
"No; I was only taking a nap, that's all."
"Are you on foot?" asked Fred.
"No, my hoss is close by." The man gave a loud whistle, and soon a slick-looking mare came into view from behind the shack. "Reckon I must be goin'." He pointed to the board on the wall. "Kind of a sign to set a feller to thinkin', eh?"
"Just a bit," returned Dick dryly.
"It don't do to stick your nose into what don't concern you. Good-by."
The man left the shack, leaped into the saddle on the mare, spoke to the steed and, in a second, was off like the wind around a turn in the woods.
"Gracious, but he can ride!" was Tom's comment. "That mare is a peach!"
"Another mystery," came from Dick. He gazed at the board on the wall. "Do you know what I think?"
"What?" asked Songbird.
"That is an out-and-out warning—"
"A warning meant for just such persons as ourselves."
"You mean it is a warning to keep away from Red Rock ranch?" asked Sam.
"I do. And I think that fellow was on guard, just as the old man was on that other road."
"If he was, why didn't he stop us, then?"
"Because we took him unawares, and because he saw that we were too many for him."
"By Jinks, Dick, I think you are right!" cried Tom. "And, if you are, it is more than likely that he has gone to the ranch to warn Sack Todd."
"Exactly, and that means warning Dan Baxter, too. I tell you, boys, there is something behind all this, and I, for one, am in favor of doing our best to solve the mystery."
"I am with you."
"So am I."
"And I, Dick! You can count on me!"
"Vell, ton't I vos here, too?" came from Hans.
"But we must go slow," said Tom. "It would be nonsense to rush forward. We'd be certain to walk into some trap."
The matter was talked over, and it was decided to leave the vicinity of the shack before making an extended halt. They did not know but what the strange man would come back accompanied by Sack Todd, Dan Baxtex and others equally willing to do them harm.
They plunged into the woods in the direction the man had taken, but, coming to a brook, rode their steeds down the watercourse for half a mile, thus completely destroying their trail. Then they came out and urged their now tired horses up a small hill, from which to get some idea of their surroundings.
"It's too dark to see a thing," announced Tom, after he and Sam had mounted to the top of a tall tree. "But I think we could get a fine view from here in the daytime."
Again they held a discussion, and it was decided to go into camp where they were. They had brought some cooked food with them, so did not have to start a fire, and, being tired, all fell asleep in short order, leaving Wags on guard, as they had done before.
When they awoke, the sun was shining brightly. Wags was missing, having gone to hunt up something to eat in the brush. All swallowed a hasty repast, washing it down with a drink from the brook. Then Tom climbed the tree again, followed this time by his big brother.
"I see a ranch—out that way!" cried the fun-loving Rover after a look around. "Dick, can't you see it?"
"Yes, Tom, and it must be the one we are seeking, for, see, there is a series of rocks behind it, and they are red."
Dick was right—the rocks were certainly there, and there could not be the slightest doubt regarding their color.
The ranch was a long, low-lying place and so far off they could see it but imperfectly.
"We may as well draw closer," said Dick, and began to climb to the ground, followed by his brother.
There was no path through the woods, and the tree branches were so low-hanging that they were willing enough to walk their horses. Soon the tangle grew so thick they were forced to dismount and proceed on foot.
"I trust we don't get into a pocket," said Sam. "It would be a job to get back the way we came."
"I see a clearing ahead," announced Songbird a little later, and presently they reached an opening, in the midst of which grew a tall pine tree.
"I'm going to shin that tree," announced Sam, and went up, and so did all of the others, reaching the topmost branches only after a difficult climb lasting ten minutes.
They were well rewarded for their efforts, for from the top of the tree they could see a long distance in all directions. But they had eyes only for the ranch, which now stood out strongly in the bright sunlight.
"I see two men walking about the place," said Sam. "But I can't make out their faces."
"There is a big wagon approaching from a road yonder," announced Dick. "It seems to be filled with hay."
They watched the approach of the wagon, which lumbered along slowly, although drawn by a pair of powerful looking horses. At last, the wagon reached a side entrance to the ranch and came to a halt, and the driver dismounted.
Five minutes passed, and then four or five men came up to the wagon. The hay, which was on top, was cast aside, revealing some machinery resting on the bottom of the wagon.
"Some farming machinery," said Fred. "But why did they have it covered with hay?"
The men tugged at one of the pieces of machinery and at last lifted it from the wagon. But, instead of setting it on the ground, they disappeared with it into the ranch.
"Hullo!" ejaculated Dick. "If that is farming machinery, why are they taking it into the house?"
"Maybe it's a heating apparatus," suggested Sam.
"Yes, they need it in this weather," said Tom sarcastically.
"Well, what is it, then?"
"That remains to be found out," said Dick. "This certainly is a place of mystery," he added. "It is assuredly no ordinary ranch."
One piece of machinery after another was carried into the ranch, until the wagon was empty. Then the turnout was taken into a big barn at the back of the ranch.
"That show is over," said Songbird. "I won-der what the next act in this drama will be?"
They remained at the top of the tree for an hour or more. During that time, they saw several men moving around the ranch and some thick smoke coming from a broad chimney, but that was all.
"How much longer are you going to stay here?" asked Sam presently.
"No longer," answered the eldest brother, starting to descend. "I am going to investigate this whole thing and find out just what it means!"
THE BANK BILLS ON THE TABLE
"Dick, this is a dangerous piece of business," said Fred, after the entire party was again on the ground.
"That's right," broke in Songbird. "Don't forget the warning on the wall of the shack."
"I am not afraid," answered the eldest Rover. "There is some great mystery here, and I feel it ought to be investigated. Why, those men may be bandits, or something like that, for all we know."
"They are certainly not on the level, or they wouldn't put up with a fellow like Dan Baxter," came from Sam.
"Dot ist so," said Hans. "At der same dime, ve ton't vont to put our mouths into der lion's head alretty!"
"I've got a plan," said Dick after a pause. "I do not think it a wise move for all of us to go forward at once. I think two will be enough. The others can stay here and await developments."
"Then you have got to take me with you," said Sam promptly.
"Sam, you had better let me go with Dick," put in Tom.
"No, I want to go," insisted the youngest Rover, and so it was at last decided.
"I don't see how you are going to approach that ranch in broad daylight," said Fred. "As they have guards on the road, it is more than likely they have guards around the ranch also."
"I think I'll wait until night, Fred—or at least until it is dark."
After that the boys spent the time in exploring the woods and looking over the plains beyond. They saw several wagon tracks, apparently leading to nowhere in particular, and they also found something of a cave, covered with logs and heaped-up brushwood.
"Something more to investigate," said Tom, and began to pull the brushwood away, followed by his companions. The logs followed, and there was revealed to them an opening at least twenty feet square by half that in height.
"What do you call this?" questioned Tom, as he kicked something of metal lying under a pile of dead leaves.
"It's a roller of some sort," answered Songbird. "And see, here are some cog-wheels and a lot of old shafting."
"Machinery, and quite some of it, too," murmured Dick. "They must run a regular factory of some sort here."
"I think I have solved the problem!" cried Fred. "I've read of this a number of times. This Sack Todd has a secret process of manufacturing some article and he doesn't want anybody to learn what the process is. So he has established himself here and sworn all his workmen to secrecy."
"I've heard of that myself," said Tom. "A man had a certain process of tanning leather. He kept his secret for years, until a workman got mad at him and gave the thing away."
Dick was inspecting the machinery with care. It was worn out and rusted, and hard to make out just what it was.
"Unless I am mistaken, these are parts of a printing press," said the eldest Rover.
"A printing press?" cried several of the others.
"Yes. But that doesn't solve the mystery of what the press was used for."
It was damp and unwholesome in the cave, and they were glad enough to leave it and come out into the sunlight once more. They walked back to where they had left their horses, and here procured lunch, and fed all of the animals, including Wags.
Slowly the afternoon wore away. It began to grow cloudy, and so became dark at an early hour.
"We may as well start," said Dick at last. "We can go to the edge of the woods, anyway."
"I suppose you don't know when you will be back," said Tom.
"No, but probably in three or four hours."
"Take good care of yourselves."
"We'll try to do that," put in Sam.
"If I were you, I'd not expose myself," was Fred's advice. "Those chaps are rough customers, and there is no telling what they would do if they caught you spying on them."
"That is true."
A few words more followed, and then Dick and Sam set off on their tour of inspection. Each carried a pistol, and each felt that he could take care of himself. But neither dreamed of the dire peril which he was confronting.
They had left their horses behind, and now found advancing on foot no easy task. In spots, the undergrowth was so dense they had to literally force their way through, and they also had to make two long detours to escape swamps and treacherous bog-holes. The mosquitoes and gnats were also bad and bothered them not a little.
"I guess we are earning all we are getting out of this," grumbled Sam as he came to a halt after pulling himself through a tangle of bushes and vines. "Unless we take care, we'll have our jackets ripped off our backs."
"Do you want to turn back, Sam?"
"No, but I guess we had better go a little slower."
Dick was willing, and, as a consequence, by the time the edge of the timber was reached, the sun was sinking over the hills in the West, and it was growing dark.
Red Rock ranch was now in plain view, not over two hundred yards distant. In front and to one side was a level stretch. The reddish rocks were behind, leading to a small hill. There were numerous outbuildings, and a heavy barbed fence surrounded the whole, excepting at one point, where there was a wide-swinging gate of wire and boards.
"I think the best thing we can do is to work our way around to the rocks," said Dick after studying the situation. "We can work up from the rocks to the outbuildings, and so on to the ranch itself—if we get the chance."
With caution, they skirted the woods and inside of quarter of an hour reached the first of the series of rocks. As they crouched behind these, Dick caught his brother by the arm.
"Keep quiet," he whispered. "I saw a man coming from the barn."
After that, they remained motionless for ten minutes. At a distance, they saw two men coming and going from one building to another. They were evidently caring for the horses, cattle and poultry for the night.
"They are gone," said Sam presently, as he saw the men walk toward the ranch house and disappear.
"Wait—they may come out again."
They waited, but the men did not reappear, and now it was growing darker rapidly. Look as hard as they might in all directions, they could not see a single human being.
"The coast seems to be clear now, Sam."
"Yes, but it won't hurt to wait a few minutes longer," was the answer.
As it grew darker, they saw several lights lit in the ranch. One was in the kitchen, one in what looked to be a bedroom and another in a small room in the main part of the building. The curtain over the window of the last-named room was up, and they could see the lamp quite plainly, resting on a table.
"Let us crawl up and take a look into the windows," whispered Dick. "It seems to be safe enough now. If we hear anybody coming, we can lay down in the grass or behind a bush."
Hardly daring to breathe, they crawled from the shelter of the rocks to the nearest outbuildings, one given over to some chickens. From there, they advanced to a cow shed and then to one of the big barns.
"I can see into the kitchen from here," whispered Sam. "Look!"
They looked, and by the light of a big bracket lamp, made out two men and a boy moving about the kitchen, evidently preparing the evening meal. The door to the next room was open, and they caught a glimpse of several men at a table eating, or waiting to be served.
"I'd like to know if Dan Baxter is in that crowd," said Dick.
They watched the scene for several minutes, but if the former bully of Putnam Hall was present he did not show himself. Then a curtain was drawn down, shutting off their view.
They next moved to the bedroom window, and there beheld a man lying on a couch, smoking a pipe. He seemed to be a refined individual, with a clean-shaven face and curly black hair.
"He doesn't look as if he belonged to this crowd," was Dick's comment. "He looks as if he might be a thorough gentleman."
"He certainly looks like a city man," answered Sam. "Perhaps he has come to see this Sack Todd on business."
They watched the man for several minutes and saw him get a letter from his pocket and read it attentively. Then he closed his eyes as if to take a nap, throwing his pipe on a chair.
"Whoever he is, he is making himself at home," observed the youngest Rover.
"Let us move on to the next window," said his brother. "Now is our best chance to size up the place—while most of the crowd are getting their supper."
As silently as before, they moved along in the darkness to where the light was streaming from the third window, not far from a corner of the ranch. Then each of the boys raised himself up with the slowness of an Indian on a trail.
Nobody seemed to be in the room, and, growing bolder, they drew nearer, until they could get a good view of the interior. They saw a table and several chairs, and also a desk and a safe. On the table was the lamp, and beside this, several piles of new, crisp bank bills.
"My gracious! Look at the money!" gasped Sam. "Why, there must be thousands and thousands of dollars there, Dick!"
"You are right."
"Sack Todd must be very wealthy."
"Unless—" and the eldest Rover paused.
"Unless those bank bills are counterfeit."
DICK AND SAM BECOME PRISONERS
"Do you really think those are counterfeit, Dick?" gasped Sam.
"More than likely. Don't you remember the machinery? That printing press—"
"Yes, yes! It's as clear as day. This must be a regular den, and Sack Todd—"
Sam got no further, for, at that moment, he felt himself seized from behind. A pair of strong arms were thrown around him, so that he could scarcely budge.
Dick was attacked in a similar fashion, and, though both of the Rovers struggled desperately, they found that their assailants had the advantage.
"Caught you good and proper, didn't we?" came in the voice of Sack Todd.
"Let me go!" cried Dick.
"Not much, young man. Have you got the other one, Jimson?"
"I have," answered the second man, a fellow with a long nose. "And he won't get away in a hurry. I'm thinking."
"We had better take 'em inside," went on Sack Todd.
"Just as you say," answered Andy Jimson. "I reckon you boys remember me," he went on with a grin.
"You are the man who was on that lumber raft that came near running down our houseboat," said Dick.
"Struck it, fust clip. Didn't expect to meet me ag'in, did ye?"
"I did not."
"Wanted to shoot me, didn't ye?"
"Didn't you deserve it?" asked Sam boldly. "You came mighty close to sinking us."
"Oh, that was only a bit of fun on the part o' the feller who owned the raft. He knew what he was doin'. But I reckon you didn't know what you were doin' when you spied on Sack and his outfit," continued the long-nosed man sarcastically.
"They'll know what they were doing before I am through with 'em," said the owner of Red Rock ranch.
"What are you going to do with us?" demanded Dick.
"That remains to be seen."
"You had better let us go."
At this, Sack Todd set up a laugh of derision.
"You'll not leave here yet awhile, young man I heard what you and your friend said just before we closed in on you. Do you suppose I am going to let you get out and blab about what you have discovered?"
His harsh tone made both Dick and Sam shiver. They felt that they were dealing with a hardened criminal and, most likely, one who would stop at nothing in order to attain his object.
"I must say it was a fool move to let that money lay around loose," was Andy Jimson's comment, and he nodded toward the piles of bank bills.
"One of the men just brought them up, and I hadn't time to put them away," explained the owner of the ranch. "Besides, I didn't think there were spies around."
"Maybe there are more of them, Sack."
"That's so!" ejaculated Sack Todd. He turned to the boys: "Have you any friends near?"
"That is for you to find out," answered Dick. "You can be sure of one thing, though," he added. "If you don't let us go, you will get into serious trouble."
"There was a big crowd of 'em on that houseboat," put in Jimson.
"I know there was a crowd—I met 'em some days ago. We'll march these off and then look around and see if there are others," continued the owner of Red Rock ranch.
As it would have been useless to struggle, the boys did not attempt to get away. Both Sack Todd and Jimson were heavily armed, and Dick and Sam felt that they would shoot upon the slightest provocation.
The owner of the ranch uttered a shrill whistle, and in a moment two men came running out of the dining-room of the ranch. Each carried a gun.
"What's wanted, boss?" they asked.
"We have captured two spies," answered Sack Todd.
"Yes. We want you to place them down below and then come and follow us. We are going to see if there are any more of them around."
The two men placed their guns over their backs and took hold of Sam and Dick.
"Don't let them slip you," added the owner of the ranch. "I reckon they're a pretty slick pair."
"They shan't slip us; eh, Spud?"
"Nary a slip, Scutty," returned the second new-comer.
"Then you don't intend to let us go?" asked Dick.
"This is a high-handed proceeding."
"Is it? Well, down here, we sometimes take the law into our own hands," chuckled the owner of Red Rock ranch.
"Then, if the law ever gets hold of you, it will go so much harder with you," said Sam.
"Bah! Do you suppose I am going to argue with a kid like you?" growled Sack Todd. "Take 'em below," he said, turning to his men.
There was no help for it, as others were coming to the scene. As the boys marched into the ranch, they came face to face with Dan Baxter.
"Dick Rover!" gasped the bully. "And Sam! What does this mean?"
"So you know these fellows?" said one of the men.
"Of course I do. I was telling Sack Todd about them. I used to go to school with them. What are they doing here?"
"The boss and Jimson found them spying around the place."
"Oh, I see." Dan Baxter grinned. "So you've got yourselves in a nice pickle, eh?"
"Baxter, have you joined this crowd?" asked Dick.
The bully started.
"Why—that's my business," he stammered.
"Perhaps it is, but you might be in something better," put in Sam.
"Oh, you needn't preach to me!"
"Don't you know that these men are counterfeiters?" added Dick.
"You had better shut up, kid," put in one of the men. "You are in our power, and the less you say, the better off you'll be, see?"
"I have spoken nothing but the truth."
"That may be so, too; but folks don't always like to hear the truth."
"What are you going to do with them?" questioned Dan Baxter curiously.
"Put them in a place we have ready for just such skunks."
Dan Baxter grinned to himself, and then leered at Sam and Dick.
"You won't like that. It's pretty musty under-ground, and wet, too."
"I'd rather go there than do what you have done, Baxter," answered Dick.
"What have I done?"
"You have joined these law-breakers; you need not deny it."
"You may think it smart, but some day you'll rue it."
"I don't think so. As it is, the law and I are not very good friends," and Dan Baxter laughed harshly.
"I can't listen to your talk all night," put in one of the men. "March!" the latter word to the prisoners.
They had been disarmed, so there was no help for it, and they walked through the ranch to where there was a big trap-door in the floor. This was raised up, disclosing a flight of wooden steps.
"Down you go!" was the next order.
They went down, side by side, to find themselves in a narrow cellar. At a distance, they made out a light, coming from the crack of a door. A lantern was lit, and they were ordered to a passageway at the end of the cellar. Beyond was something of a cell, built of stone and heavy timbers, with a thick door that was bolted and locked.
"In you go," said one of the men, shoving Dick forward.
"Is this where you intend to keep us?"
"For how long?"
"That is for the boss to decide."
"It's a wretched place," said Sam, looking around. "It isn't fit for a dog to stay in."
"That's not my fault. You brought this on yourself," said the man.
"When a kid takes it on himself to play the spy, he must take what comes," said the other man as he shoved Sam in behind his brother.
The cell was foul-smelling and damp, and both of the boys shivered as they looked around them.
"Will you leave us a light?" asked the youngest Rover.
"We'll leave you nothing," said one of the men as he bolted and locked the heavy door. "Come on, now," he added to his companion. "The boss will be wondering what is keeping us so long."
A moment later the two men walked off, leaving poor Sam and Dick prisoners in the dark, underground cell.
PETER POLL, THE DOLT
After Sam and Dick had departed, the camp in the woods seemed unusually lonesome to those left behind.
"I wish I had gone along," said Tom, not once, but several times.
"Of da only come pack in safdy," was Hans' comment.
To pass the time, Songbird tried to make up some poetry, but nobody cared to listen to him, and he soon subsided. The death-like quiet felt to them as if it was the hour before the storm.
"Are you fellows going to sleep?" asked Fred as it began to grow late.
"You can go, Fred," said Tom. "I'm going to stay awake until Sam and Dick get back."
"Then I'll stay awake, too."
To tell the truth, nobody felt like sleeping, and all huddled together in a hollow, close to where the horses had been tethered. Wags came and rested his head in Tom's hand.
"Old boy, you know we are worried, don't you?" said Tom, and the dog looked up as if he understood.
It was a long time before their watches pointed to midnight. Then Songbird stretched himself.
"I am so sleepy I can scarcely keep my eyes open," he said with a yawn.
"Then go to sleep," said Tom.
"I take a leetle nap, too," said Hans, and soon both were slumbering, leaving Tom and Fred on guard. They wished they had a fire—it would make things more cheerful—but they did not dare to indulge themselves, for fear their enemies might see the light.
By the time it was three in the morning, even Fred could hold out no longer. He dropped off, leaving Tom to keep the vigil by himself. But soon Songbird started up.
"Have they come back, Tom?" he asked.
"They must be making some wonderful discoveries. Hullo! so the others went to sleep, too? Don't you want a nap?"
"Well, I'll take forty winks, if you'll promise to keep a good lookout."
"I'll do that. I'm as fresh as a daisy now."
Tom leaned back against a tree, and in a minute more was in slumber-land. When the others awoke, they did not disturb him, consequently it was some time after sunrise when he opened his eyes.
"I declare! I've had a regular sleep!" he cried. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"We didn't think it necessary," said Fred.
"Have they got back?"
At this, Tom's face grew serious.
"That's strange, and I must say I don't like it."
"Oh, I guess they'll show up before a great while," answered Fred. "They couldn't travel very well in the dark. If they tried it, they'd be sure to get lost."
Once more, they unpacked the provisions they had brought along and made a leisurely break-fast. Then they packed their things again and waited.
"I am going up to the top of a tree and take another look around," announced Tom about ten o'clock. He could scarcely stand the suspense.
"I'll do the same," said Songbird, and soon they were in the top of a tall tree and gazing axiously in the direction of Red Rock ranch.
The place looked to be deserted.
"Not a sign of Dick and Sam anywhere," said the fun-loving Rover.
For reply, Songbird hummed softly to himself:
"The woods and plains are everywhere, But for those things we do not care. In every nook and every place We look for a familiar face. What has become of those we cherish? Are they alive, or did they perish?"
"Don't go on that way, Songbird, you give a fellow the blues," cried Tom. "If I thought Dick and Sam had perished—"
"Merely a figure of speech, Tom. I had to find a word to rhyme with cherish, that's all."
"And such a word is rarish, I suppose," murmured Tom. "Honest, this is no joking matter," he continued soberly.
"I know it, and I wish Sam and Dick were back."
They continued to watch the ranch and presently saw a boy come out with a bundle under his arm and a fishing pole over his shoulder.
"There's a boy, and he is coming this way!" cried the poetic youth.
They watched the boy as long as they could and saw him turn to the northward and take to a trail running close to a fair-sized stream.
"I think he is going fishing," said Tom. "I'd like to run across him and question him."
They watched the boy as long as they could, and then climbed down the tree and told the others of what they had seen.
"I am going after him," said Tom. "You stay here until I get back."
"I am going along," said Songbird, and so it was arranged.
A few minutes of walking brought them to the stream of water, and they walked along the bank of this a distance of quarter of a mile, when Tom called a halt.
"There is the boy now—sitting on a rock, fishing," he whispered. "Don't scare him off."
They crept into the shelter of the trees and came out again directly behind the boy, who had just landed a good-sized fish and was baiting up again. He was a small boy, with an old-looking face covered with a fuzz of reddish hair. He had yellowish eyes that had a vacant stare in them.
"Hullo!" cried Tom.
The boy jumped as if a bomb had gone off close to his ear. His fishing pole dropped into the stream and floated off.
"Out for a day's sport?" asked Tom pleasantly.
The boy stared at him and muttered something neither Tom nor Songbird could understand.
"What did you say?" asked the fun-loving Rover.
"Poor fishing pole!" murmured the boy. "Now Peter can't fish any more!"
"Is that your name—Peter?" asked Tom. He saw that the boy was not just right in his mind.
"No, no! Peter Poll—pretty Peter Poll, who will be rich some day—if he does not tell all he knows," said the boy, repeating the words in parrot-like fashion.
"Do you live at Red Rock ranch?" asked Songbird.
The boy bobbed his head up and down vigorously.
"With Mr. Sack Todd?"
Again the boy nodded.
"What do you do there?"
"Wash dishes and cook. But Peter will be rich some day—if he doesn't tell all he knows," went on the boy. Then, of a sudden, he flapped his two arms and crowed like a rooster.
"He is a dolt!" whispered Songbird to Tom, and the latter nodded.
"The poor fishing pole—it will be drowned," went on the dolt.
"Never mind, I'll pay you for it, Peter," said Tom, and drew a silver coin from his pocket. "So you live with Mr. Todd. How do you like it?"
"Peter must not tell all he knows."
"Does he treat you kindly?"
"Peter gets sugar sometimes—and he is to have a pipe and tobacco soon."
"Did you see anything of two strangers last night?" continued Tom in a sterner tone. "Two boys about my own age?"
"Peter must not tell—"
"You answer me, or it will be the worse for you!" and now Tom caught the simple-minded youth by the collar. He did not intend to harm the lad, but he wanted to make him speak.
"Oh, oh! let me go!" screamed the dolt. "Let me go for a hundred-dollar bill! A brand new one!"
"A what?" asked Songbird curiously.
"Peter must not tell all—"
"You answer my question," broke in Tom, facing the boy and searching his eyes. "Did you see those two boys last night or not?"
"Peter must not—"
"Answer!" and now Tom had the lad by the ear.
"Yes—yes—I saw them."
"Did anybody else see them?"
"Peter must not—"
"Peter, do you want to be drowned in the river?"
"Then tell me all you know about the boys."
"Sack Todd will kill me! Peter must not tell—"
"Did Sack Todd see the boys?"
"Yes; he caught them—he and Andy Jimson—at the window! Peter must not tell—"
"Caught!" gasped Tom. "Were they made prisoners?"
The boy nodded, and then crowed like a rooster once more.
"Where were the prisoners put?"
"Down, down, down—in the deep hole where the water flows—down where they want to put Peter if he tells all he knows. But I shan't tell anything—not a thing!" and his eyes blazed fiercely. "Not a thing!"
"Poor Dick and Sam have been captured and are prisoners in some vile place," groaned Tom. "What will become of them?"
AN OFFER FROM THE ENEMY
"This is a cheerful outlook, I must say. I wonder how long it is going to last?"
The question came from Sam, after an hour had been spent in the damp and lonely cell under Red Rock ranch.
"That is a riddle to me, Sam," answered Dick. "I don't think they will let us go in a hurry. We have learned too much."
"Do you imagine they will find Tom and the others?"
"I hope not. If they do, we'll be in a pickle, for I guess it will be Tom and the others who will have to get us out of this hole."
"I wish we had a light."
"I am afraid it would do us small good. This seems to have been built for a regular prison, and I suppose the only way out is through the door, and that is securely fastened."
The two Rovers were in no cheerful frame of mind. They realized that Sack Todd was much exercised over the fact that they had discovered the secret of the ranch, and what he would do to them in consequence there was no telling.
"Perhaps we'll never get away from here alive!" cried Sam after another talk.
"Oh, I don't think he'll dare to go as far as that, Sam. He knows we have friends and that they will do all in their power to rescue us or find out what has become of us."
Another hour went by, so slowly that it seemed three. Then, of a sudden, Dick uttered an exclamation.
"I've struck a prize, Sam!"
"What is it?"
"A bit of candle."
"Humph! What good will that do, if you haven't any match?"
"But I have several matches," answered the eldest Rover, and a second later came a faint scratch, and then the bit of candle, dirty and mouse-gnawed, was lit.
It was not much of a light, but it was far better than nothing, and both boys felt light-hearted when they could see each other once more.
"Let us make another examination of the hole," suggested Dick. "Something may have slipped us before."
They went over each part of the walls with great care. On one side, a portion of the stones was set in squarely.
"This looks as if they had at one time closed some sort of a passageway here," remarked Dick. "I should like to know what is beyond."
"Can't we pick out one or two stones?"
"We can try."
The candle was set down on the stone flooring, close to the wall, and the two lads started to work without delay. In a corner of his jacket, Dick found an old jack-knife that had not been taken away from him, and this he used on the mortar. Sam had nothing but a long, rusty iron nail, so their progress was necessarily slow.
"Don't seem to be making much headway," observed Sam, after pegging away for a while. "Wish we had a hammer and a cold chisel."
"If we used a hammer they could hear us, Sam."
At last they had one stone loose and pulled it out of the wall. Holding up the light, they saw that there was a wall of plain dirt behind it.
"Beaten!" muttered the youngest Rover, and a disappointed look came over his face. "Dick, we have had our labor for our pains."
"I am not so sure of that, Sam."
"Why not, I'd like to know? That doesn't look much like a passageway."
"That is true, but we may be able to dig through the dirt without great trouble, and if this spot is close to the outer wall of the building—"
"Oh, I see," and Sam's face took on a more hopeful look. "But it might take a long time, anyway," and his face fell once more.
They had just started to loosen a second stone, when the candle began to splutter. They saved it as much as they could, but in five minutes it flickered for the last time and went out, leaving them in a darkness that seemed more intense than ever.
"We might as well continue to work," said Dick as bravely as he could. "There is nothing else to do."
But, at the end of an hour, they had to give up the task. All of the stones around the hole they had made refused to budge, and, as the opening was not over eight inches in diameter, it availed them nothing.
"It is no use, Sam," said Dick finally. "We are simply wearing ourselves out for nothing. Give it up."
Both boys were exhausted, but were too much disturbed to take a good sleep. Yet, as they sat on a bench, the eyes of each closed, and he took a series of naps, arousing at every unusual sound that penetrated to the underground cell.
Overhead, everything had become unusually quiet, but toward morning came heavy footsteps, and they heard the opening and closing of an outer door.
"Somebody has come in," said Sam. "I wonder if it is the party that went to look for Tom and the others?"
"More than likely. I wish I knew if they discovered anything, or if Tom managed to keep out of sight."
Again there was silence, and once more the boys dozed off, not to rouse up until there came the unlocking of the cell door. Sack Todd stood there, lantern in hand, and beside him Andy Jimson.
"Hope you had a good night's sleep," said the owner of Red Rock ranch.
"Fine," answered Dick sarcastically. "Your feather beds can't be beat."
"And the quilts were extra warm," put in Sam, catching his cue from his brother.
"Humph! Your night here doesn't seem to have tamed you down much," growled Sack Todd.
"I said they were gamy youngsters," came from the long-nosed man. "They showed that when they were on the houseboat."
"I want to question you," said Sack Todd, setting down his lantern. "How many were there in your party?"
"How many did you catch?" questioned Dick, at the same time pinching his brother's arm to make Sam keep quiet.
"You answer my question, boy!" growled the owner of the ranch.
"Why don't you answer mine?"
"I am not here to answer questions."
"Who said I was, then?"
"You are a prisoner."
"You had better answer up, if you know what's good fern you," broke in Andy Jimson. "Sack doesn't stand for any nonsense."
"Tell me, how many were in your party?" repeated the owner of the ranch.
"Something less than half a hundred."
"What!" The owner of Red Rock ranch leaped to his feet, and then sat down again on a bench opposite the two Rovers. "You are fooling."
"All right; then don't question me."
"They must have organized a regular searching party," burst out the long-nosed man. "If they did, Sack, we are in for it."
"It's all talk, Andy. They couldn't get up such a party around here. Folks know better than to bother me. Besides, they know I am a good spender, and they like to help, not hinder, me," and the ranch owner winked.
"Are you boys going to tell me the plain truth, or not?" demanded Sack Todd after a pause.
"What I want to know is: what do you intend to do with us?" returned Dick.
"That will depend on yourselves, young man."
"Will you explain?" asked Sam.
"You came here entirely uninvited—you have got to take the consequences."
"That doesn't explain anything," put in Dick.
"You have learned a very important secret. If that secret was given to the world at large, it would spell ruin for me and all of my associates," went on Sack Todd.
"That is your fault, not ours."
"Bah! Don't talk like a child, Rover. Do you think I'll allow a couple of boys to ruin me? Not much!"
"Well, what do you intend to do keep us prisoners?"
"I must see about the others first. After that, I'll make you an offer."
"What sort of an offer?" broke in Sam.
"You'll either have to join us, or take the consequences."
"Join you!" gasped Sam and Dick in a breath.
"That is what I said."
"I'll never do it!" came quickly from Dick.
"It's foolish to think of it," added Sam. "We are not criminals."
"You had better give the matter careful consideration. If you won't join us—" The ranch owner paused.
"What?" asked both boys.
"I shouldn't like to say. One thing is certain, though: you shall never leave Red Rock ranch to expose us."
"That's the talk!" put in Andy Jimson. "You had better make up your mind to join us, just as that other young fellow did."
"You mean Dan Baxter?"
"Has he really joined?" questioned Dick with interest.
"To be sure he has, and he'll make a good thing out of it, too."
"In what way?"
"In what way? Can't he have all the spending money he wants? What more does a fellow need?"
"Counterfeit money, you mean?"
"What's the difference, so long as it passes?"
"Maybe you'll get caught passing it some day," said Sam.
"It is not likely. We are careful, and the money made here is very close to the real thing."
"Don't tell the kids everything," broke in Sack Todd.
At that moment there came a shrill whistle from the top of the stairs leading to the cell.
"Hullo! I'm wanted!" cried the owner of Red Rock ranch. "Come on, Andy, we'll finish this talk some other time." And he stepped to the doorway. Both were soon outside, the door was fastened as before, and off the men hurried, leaving Sam and Dick in anything but a comfortable frame of mind.
THROUGH THE FOREST
The knowledge that Sam and Dick had been made prisoners by those at Red Rock ranch was most discouraging to Tom and Songbird.
"They are in a hole in the ground," said the fun-loving Rover. "That must mean that they are in some sort of dungeon."
"More than likely they have a place for prisoners at the ranch," returned Songbird. "The question is, now that we have learned so much: what's to do about it?"
"We must rescue Sam and Dick."
"That may be easier said than done, Tom. My idea is, the fellows at the ranch are desperate characters—horse thieves, or worse."
"No horse thieves there!" burst out Peter Poll, who had listened to the talk in wonder. "Sack Todd is rich—piles of money, piles. But Peter must not tell all he knows!" he added with a whine.
"So Sack Todd is rich?" questioned Tom.
"Piles of money—fine bank bills, I can tell you! Some day Peter will be a millionaire! But Peter must not tell—"
"Say, perhaps this dolt isn't telling the truth," cried Songbird. "He seems to be more than a button short."
"Button, button, who's got the button!" sang out the foolish boy. "Played that once—lots of fun. Let us play now." And he started to pull a button from his jacket.
"Come with us, Peter," said Tom. "Come, we won't hurt you."
"Where do you want Peter to go?"
"Not very far away. Come, we will give you something nice to eat."
Now, as it happened, eating was one of the dolt's weak points, and he readily consented to accompany them. Without loss of time, they made their way back to where Fred and Hans had been left.
"Hullo! who vos dot?" ejaculated the German youth as they hove in sight.
"This is a boy we picked up along the stream," answered Tom, and then drew the others aside and told his story.
"What are you going to do next?" questioned Fred seriously. "It is certainly too bad Sam and Dick are prisoners. We must take care that we are not captured."
"The mystery of the ranch grows deeper," said Songbird. "I rather wish we had some officers of the law to consult. We could then ride right up to the ranch and make our demands."
"It may come to that before we get through," answered Tom.
"That dolt may not be telling the truth, Tom."
"Well, he has told some truth anyway, for if Sam and Dick are free, why don't they show up here?"
They did their best to make Peter Poll tell them more concerning himself and those at the ranch. But the foolish boy was growing more and more suspicious, and would scarcely answer a question.
"Peter wants the fine eating you promised him," said he, but when they spread before him the best the camp afforded, he broke into a wild laugh of derision.
"Call that good!" he shrieked. "That is nothing! You ought to see one of the spreads at the ranch—especially when the men from Washing-ton and Chicago come down. Everything of the best to eat and to drink! This is plain cowboy food. Peter wants something better—roast lamb, peas and pie!"
"This is the best we have, Peter," said Tom. "I am sorry you do not care for it. So they have feasts at the ranch, eh?"
"Peter must not tell all he knows." The foolish boy started up. "Peter is going."
"Don't go yet!" cried Tom.
"Peter must go to the other ranch—boss told him so—after he got through fishing. Going now." And, with a sudden jerk, he tore himself loose and was off like the wind among the trees.
"Hi!" cried Songbird. "Hadn't we better stop him?"
Tom was already after the dolt. But the foolish boy seemed to have legs like those of a deer for swiftness, and before they realized it he was out of sight. He knew how to run with but little noise, so it became almost impossible to follow him.
"Will he go back to the ranch, do you think?" asked Fred after the momentary excitement was over.
"He said something about going to the other ranch," returned Tom. "What he meant by it, I don't know."
"Well, he is gone, so we shall have to make the best of it," went on Fred. "I trust, though, that he doesn't get us into trouble."
The boys sat down in the temporary camp, and there Tom and Songbird gave all the details of how they had fallen in with Peter Poll.
"I suppose those rough characters make him do all sorts of dirty work," said Fred. "The boy isn't really responsible."
After a long consultation, it was decided to leave the neighborhood and move to the other side of Red Rock ranch. This would tend to throw the enemy off the trail, if the dolt should go back and relate what had occurred.