"Dis vos gitting so interesting like a story book," was Hans' comment. "I only vish I could see der last page alretty!"
"We all wish that," laughed Tom. "Then we'd know if the villain dies and the girl marries the millionaire," and this sally brought forth a short laugh.
The things were packed rapidly, and soon they were on horseback and leading the steeds Sam and Dick had ridden. They had to ford the stream where the dolt had been captured, and here the horses obtained a refreshing drink.
"Some day I suppose this whole forest will fall before the woodman's ax," remarked Songbird. "Too bad!" and then he murmured to himself:
"The sturdy woodman with his ax Will strike full many a blow, And as the chips go flying fast He'll lay these giants low, Until the ground is bare and void Of all this grateful shade—"
"And then the planter beans can plant With plow, and hoe, and spade," finished Tom. "Beans would pay better than trees any day."
"Beans!" snorted Songbird in disgust. "What have beans to do with poetry?" and he walked ahead so that he might make up his verses without further interruption.
They soon found the ground getting very rough, and the tangle through which Sam and Dick had passed made them do not a little complaining.
"Mine cracious! How long vos dis to last, hey?" cried poor Hans as he found himself in a tangle from which he could not escape. "Hellup, somepody, oder I ton't vos git out of dis annyhow!"
"Hans is stuck on this brushwood," sang out Fred. "He loves it so he can't bear to leave it."
"This way, Hansy, my boy," came from Tom. "Now then, a long pull, a strong pull and a pull altogether!"
With might and main he hauled on the German boy's arm, and with a tearing sound Hans came loose and almost pitched forward on his face.
"Hi! hi! let go alretty kvick!" he bawled. "Mine clothes vos most tore off of me." He felt of his trousers and the back of his jacket. "Too pad! Da vos full of vinders now!"
"Never mind, Hansy, you need the openings for ventilation," returned Tom smoothly.
"Vendilations, hey? Vot you know about him, hey? I vos look like a ragpickers alretty!" And he surveyed the damaged suit dubiously.
"Now is the time to have your picture taken," suggested Fred. "You can send it to your best girl, Hans."
"I ton't vos got no girls."
"Then send it to your grandma," suggested Tom blandly. "Maybe she'll take pity on you and send you a new suit. That would suit, wouldn't it?"
"I ton't vos do noddings, but ven ve go to camp again, I make you all sit town und blay tailors," answered the German boy; and then the whole crowd pushed forward as before.
They had to cross a tiny brook, and then began to scramble over some rather rough rocks. This was hard work for the horses, and a consultation was held regarding the advisability of leaving them behind.
"I would do it in a minute," said Tom. "But it may not suit us to come back this way."
"Yes, and we may need the horses to ride away on," put in Fred. "Supposing those men on the ranch come after us? We can't get away very well on foot, and, if we could, we wouldn't want to leave the horses behind." And so it was decided to go slowly and take the steeds along.
It was growing dark, and they were afraid they were in for another storm. So far, there had been no breeze, but now the wind began to rush through the trees with a mournful sound.
"If it does come, it will surely be a soaker," announced Tom when he got to an opening where he could survey the sky. "Perhaps it will pay us to stay in the shelter of the forest."
"Yes, and have the lightning bring a tree down on us," added Fred. "None of that for me."
They were still among the rocks when it began to rain. At first, the drops did not reach them, but, as the storm increased, the water began to fall in all directions from the branches.
"We must find some shelter, unless we want to be soaked," said Fred. "Hullo, just the thing! Couldn't be any better if we had it made to order."
He pointed to a spot where the rocks arose to a height of twenty or more feet. Low down was an opening leading to a hollow that was very like a cave.
"That will do first-rate," returned Tom. "It is large enough for the whole crowd."
"Too bad the horses can't get in, too," said Fred. "But maybe a wetting won't hurt them in this warm weather."
The steeds were tied close by, and then the boys ran for the shelter under the rocks, followed by Wags. They had just reached it when the storm broke in all its violence, and the rain came down in torrents.
IN A SNAKES' DEN
"Just in time, and no mistake," remarked Songbird as he surveyed the scene outside. "No use of talking, when it rains down here, it rains!"
"Well, a rainstorm isn't a picnic party," returned Tom. "I wouldn't care so much if I wasn't so anxious to hear from Sam and Dick."
"Dot is vot ve all vonts," broke in Hans.
They crouched in the back of the shelter, so that the rain might not drive down upon them. It was a steady downpour for half an hour, when it began to slacken up, and the sun looked as if it might break through the clouds once more.
"We won't be detained so long, after all!" cried Fred.
"I am just as well satisfied," began Tom, and then gave a jump. "Boys, look there! Did you ever see anything like it?"
They looked in the direction pointed out, and each one sprang up as if he had received an electric shock, while Wags began to bark furiously. And small wonder, for directly in front of the shelter was a collection of snakes numbering at least thirty or forty. They were black, brown and green in color and from two to four feet in length. Some were lying flat, while others were curled up in various attitudes.
"Snakes!" faltered Fred. "And what a lot of them!"
"Dere ain't no choke apout dis!" gasped Hans, his eyes almost as big as saucers. "Vot shall ve do?"
"Get your pistols, boys!" came from Songbird, and he drew his weapon.
"Don't shoot!" and Tom caught the other by the arm. "If you kill one snake, the others will go for us sure. What an awful lot of them! This locality must be a regular snakes' den."
"If they come in here, we'll all be bitten, and if they are poisonous—" Fred tried to go on, but could not.
"There is no telling if they are poisonous or not," returned Tom. "One thing is sure, I don't want them to sample me," and the others said about the same.
What to do was at first a question. The snakes lay about ten feet from the front of the shelter and in a semicircle, so that the boys could not get out, excepting by stepping on the reptiles or leaping over them.
"They are coming closer!" exclaimed Fred a moment later. "It looks as if they were going to tackle us, sure!"
"I have a plan," cried Tom. "Come here, Hans, and let me boost you up."
The others understood, and while the fun-loving Rover gave the German boy a boost, Songbird did the same for Fred.
The edge of the cliff of rocks was rough, and, when hoisted up, Hans and Fred were enabled to grasp at several cracks and projections. They laid hold vigorously and soon pulled themselves out of harm's way.
By this time, the snakes had wiggled several feet closer to the shelter. Evidently, it was their den and, while they wished to get in, they did not know exactly what to do about the intruders.
"Can you get a hold?" questioned Songbird as he stood on a flat rock and raised himself into the air a distance of two feet.
Tom was already trying to do so, and soon he was crawling up the edge of the cliff. As the rocks were slippery from the rain, it was by no means an easy or sure task. But he advanced with care, and soon joined Fred and Hans at the top.
"I am glad we are out of that!" exclaimed Fred. "Ugh! how I do hate snakes!"
"I think everybody does," returned Tom. "Hi, Songbird!" he called out. "Coming?"
"I—I guess I am stuck!" was the gasped-out answer. "The rocks are too slippery for me."
"We'll give you a hand up," sang out the fun-loving Rover, and got down at the edge of the rocks.
"Look out that you don't slip over," came in a warning from Fred.
"Of you go ofer, you land dem snakes your head on," put in Hans.
The words had scarcely been uttered, when there came a wild shriek from Songbird. The poetic youth had lost his hold and slipped to the ground below. He came down directly on top of three of the snakes, and with an angry hissing they whipped around him.
"Songbird has fallen on the snakes!"
"Run for your life!" sang out Tom. "There goes Wags!"
And Songbird did run the moment he could regain his feet. One snake got tangled up in the boy's legs and was carried along, whipping one way and another. But it soon lost its hold and then wiggled through the grass to rejoin its fellows. In the meantime, the dog had disappeared.
"Are you safe?" called out those at the top of the cliff.
"I—I—guess so," came in a panting answer. "But two of them did—did their be-best to bite me!"
"Bring the horses around while you are about it," said Tom, and then the three on the cliff walked around to rejoin Songbird. When they reached him, they found the poetic youth trembling from head to foot.
"Never had such an experience in all my life," said he. "Why, I came down almost headfirst on those snakes! I never want such a thing to, happen again."
"I've got no use for snakes," said Tom. "I don't know what they are good for, excepting to scare folks."
"I believe they rid the land of many insects."
"Say, Songbird, I tole you vot," put in Hans, with a twinkle in his eye now that the danger was past. "You vos make a nice poem up apout dem snakes, hey?"
"A poem on snakes?" shivered Songbird. "Ugh! the idea is enough to give one the creeps!"
The rain had now ceased completely, and soon they were leading their horses forward as before. It was very wet in the brushwood and, as far as possible, they kept to the open spaces. The outlook was certainly a dismal one, and the boys felt in anything but a good humor.
"Our little trip to Mr. Denton's ranch isn't panning out so beautifully, after all," remarked Fred. "I thought we were going to have the nicest kind of an outing. All told, I rather think I would prefer to be back on the houseboat."
Presently they came' out on a road in the rear of Red Rock ranch. There was a ditch to cross, and then a line of thorns, which gave all more than one scratch.
Suddenly they were startled by a shot, fired at a distance. Another shot soon followed.
"What does that mean?" cried Fred. "Where's the dog?"
"Perhaps Sam and Dick are trying to escape," returned Songbird.
"I hope nobody is shooting them," put in Tom. "I must say," he added, "I don't like this at all. The dog is gone."
"Hadn't we better place the horses in the woods and investigate?"
"No, we'll take the horses along, and if there is trouble, we'll use our pistols," answered Tom firmly.
They advanced with caution, and soon came to where the road made a turn westward. Tom uttered an exclamation of surprise, and not without good reason.
"Man—on the road—flat on his face!"
"Is he a spy?"
"Is he dead?"
"I don't know," answered Tom. "Go slow—we may be running into a trap."
They advanced with caution. Not another soul seemed to be in sight, and presently they stood over the man. He was breathing heavily.
"Looks like a planter," observed Fred, noticing the apparel the stranger wore. "What's the matter with him?"
"Perhaps he was shot. Let us turn him over."
This they proceeded to do, and then, without warning, the man sat up and rubbed his eyes. His wig and beard fell off, and to Tom's astonishment there was revealed James Monday, the government detective.
"Mr. Monday!" cried the boy. "How in the world did you get here?"
"Wha—who are you?" stammered the man. "Wha—what hit me?"
"I don't know what hit you. I am Tom Rover. Don't you remember me?"
The government official looked perplexed for a moment, and then his face brightened.
"To be sure I remember you, Rover," he stammered. "But I am all in a twist." He brushed his hand over his face. "I thought I was down and out, as the saying goes."
"Did you fire those shots?"
"I fired one shot. The other was fired by a man who ran away. I believe the villain wanted to take my life. The bullet struck a rock and then struck and stunned me, and I keeled over."
"And the man ran away?"
"I suppose so. You didn't see him, did you?"
"Where are you bound?" went on the government official curiously.
"We are looking for my two brothers, Sam and Dick. They went over to the ranch yonder, and we have heard that they are being held prisoners."
JAMES MONDAY TAKES A HAND
After that, there was nothing to do but to tell their story in detail, to which the government official listened with close attention. Then he asked them many questions.
"You are certainly in hard luck," said he when they had finished. "Beyond the slightest doubt, those men at the ranch are desperate characters, and I don't know but what I ought to summon help and arrest them on the spot."
"Den vy not do dot?" asked Hans. "Ve vill hellup, too."
"If those men are what I take them to be, I want to catch them red-handed,'' responded James Monday.
"What do you take them to be?" asked Tom.
"Can I trust you boys to keep a secret?"
"Yes," came from each of the crowd.
"Then I'll tell you. Unless I am very much mistaken, the men at Red Rock ranch are counterfeiters."
"Counterfeiters!" came in a chorus.
"So I believe. I may be mistaken, but all the evidence I have points in that direction. I have been following this trail from Philadelphia, where I caught a fellow passing bad twenty-dollar bills. He confessed that he got the bills from a fellow in Washington who claimed to be printing them from some old government plates. That story was, of course, nonsense, since no government plates of such a bill are missing. I followed the trail to Washington, and there met a crook named Sacord. He, so I discovered, got his money from two men, one the owner of this ranch. Where the bad bills were manufactured was a mystery, but, by nosing around, I soon learned that the owner of the ranch never allowed strangers near his place, and that he sometimes had strange pieces of machinery shipped there. Then I put two and two together and came to the conclusion that the bad bills were printed here. Now, I want to prove it, and not only round up the gang, but also get possession of the bogus printing plates. If the government don't get the plates, somebody may keep on manufacturing the bad bills."
"In that case, it is just as important to get the plates as the criminals," put in Songbird.
"Well, this stumps me," declared Tom. "No wonder they kept chasing us off."
"And no wonder Sam and Dick were made prisoners," added Fred.
"I hope the rascals don't do them harm," said Tom. "If I thought that, I'd be for moving on the ranch without delay."
"I think your brothers will be safe enough for the time being," came from James Monday. "I am sorry that you let that dolt get away from you."
"If we had thought it of such importance, we should certainly have kept him a prisoner," replied Songbird.
"I was watching my chance to get into the ranch house unobserved," continued the government official. "That shot rather floored me. But I am going to get in, some way," he added with determination.
"Listen, I think I hear somebody coming!" cried Songbird.
"Let us get to the side of the road," said James Monday.
They did as advised, the boys mounting their horses and the government official donning his wig and false beard and taking Sam's steed. Soon they were stationed behind a pile of rocks.
"It's a wagon that is coming!" said Tom a minute later. "I can hear the wheels scraping on the rocks."
"I think I'll investigate on foot," said James Monday, and slipped to the ground once more. Soon the wagon came in sight. It was pulled by a team of strong looking horses and was piled high with boxes. On the seat sat an old man.
"Hullo, there!" called out the government official, stepping along the trail in the direction of the turnout.
The old man was evidently startled, and he pulled up with a jerk. As he did so, the boys rode a little closer.
"Hullo, stranger! What do you want?"
"I want to talk to you," responded James Monday.
"What about?" and the old man began to grow uncomfortable.
"Where are you bound?"
"What do ye want to know fer?"
"I am curious, that's all, friend. Are you afraid to answer me?"
"No, I ain't. I'm bound fer Red Rock ranch."
"What have you on the wagon?"
"All sorts o' supplies that came in on the railroad."
"What's your name?"
"Bill Cashaw. It seems to me you're a curious one, you are."
"Do you belong in town, or out here?"
"In town, o'course. Hain't I lived there nigh sixty-four years?"
"Do you work steadily for Sack Todd?"
"No. I do a leetle drivin' now an' then, that's all. But, see here—"
"Do you know all the others at the ranch?"
"Most on 'em. I don't know the new fellers much."
"Did you intend to stay at the ranch?"
"You mean to-night?"
"Not unless Sack asked me to stay. He's queer about that, you know." The old man glanced at the boys. "Quite a party o' ye, hain't there?"
"You state positively that you do not belong to the crowd at the ranch?" resumed the government official.
"I said so. But, see here, stranger—"
"Please get down off that wagon," went on James Monday quietly.
"I said get down off that wagon."
"Because I want you to."
"Say, are this a hold-up?" cried the old man in renewed alarm. "If it are, I hain't a-goin' to stand fer it, an' let me say that Sack Todd will be after you-uns bald-headed fer it!"
"This is not exactly a hold-up," said the detective with a faint smile. "Get down and I will explain. If you try to resist, you'll only get into trouble."
"Suppose I'll have to obey," groaned the old man as he climbed down from the seat. "You-uns are five to one on this. I'm like the coon an' Davy Crockett—I know when ter come down out o' the tree. But I don't understand your game, stranger."
"As I said before, I don't intend to hurt you, Mr. Cashaw. But I am after certain information, and I rather think you can aid me in getting it."
"What you want to know?"
"In the first place, I want you to tell me all you know about Sack Todd. What does he do at his ranch?"
"Humph! Don't ask me, fer I don't know. An' if I did—"
"And if you did—"
"Sack's been a putty good friend ter me, stranger. Lent me a hundred dollars onct, when a fire had cleaned me out. A feller don't feel much about hurtin' his friend."
"That is so, too. Then you really don't know what is going on at the ranch? Come now, speak the truth," and James Monday's voice grew stern.
"Well, it's some sort o' patent, I guess. Sack don't want folks to git onto it. Reckon it's a new-fangled printing press—one to run by electristity—or sumthin' like that."
"He told you that, did he?"
"Yes. But I hain't goin' to answer no more questions," went on the old man, and started to mount the wagon seat again.
"Wait," said James Monday. "I am sorry, but you'll have to stay here for the present, Mr. Cashaw."
"You mean you are goin' to make me stay here?"
"For a while, yes."
"With the wagon?"
"No, I'll drive your wagon to the ranch."
"I ain't askin' you to do the job."
"I'll do it for nothing," answered the government official with a quiet smile.
"See here, I don't understand this, at all," cried Bill Cashaw. "What is yer game, anyhow?"
"If you want me to be plain, I'll tell you. I suspect the men at the ranch of a serious crime. For all I know, you are one of the gang and as bad as the rest. If so, you're face to face with a long term in prison."
"Crime? Prison? I ain't done a thing!"
"If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear, and you will do what you can to aid me in running down the guilty parties."
At this, the face of the old man became a study. He started to talk, stammered and became silent.
"Tell me!" he burst out suddenly. "Are you an officer?"
"I am—working under the United States Government."
"Oh!" The old man turned pale. "Then let me say, as I said afore, I ain't done nuthin' wrong, an' I don't want to go to prison. If them fellers at the ranch are criminals, I don't want ter work fer 'em no more, an' I'll help you to bring 'em to justice."
TOM CARRIES A LETTER
After that it was a comparatively easy matter to get the old man to talk, and he told James Monday and the boys practically all he knew about Sack Todd and his followers.
He said it was commonly supposed that Sack Todd had some invention that he was jealously guarding. Some folks thought the man was a bit crazy on the subject of his discoveries, and so did not question him much concerning them. The machinery and other material which arrived from time to time were all supposed to be parts of the wonderful machine Sack Todd was having made at various places.
While he was talking, the old man looked at Tom many times in curiosity.
"Might I ask your name?" he said at length.
"What do you want 'to know that for?" returned Tom.
"Because you look so wonderfully like my son Bud—an' you talk like him, too. But Bud's skin is a bit darker nor yours."
"My name is Tom Rover."
"Talking about looking alike," broke in Fred. "There's a strong resemblance," and he pointed to the detective and the old man. "Of course, you don't look quite so old," he added to James Monday.
"I am glad that you think we look alike," smiled back the government official. "I was banking on that."
"What do you mean?" came from Songbird.
"I will show you in a minute. Mr. Cashaw, I'll trouble you to exchange hats, coats and collars with me," the detective continued, turning to the old man.
The latter did not understand, but gave up his wearing apparel a moment later, and soon James Monday was wearing them. Then the detective rubbed a little dirt on his hands and face and, with a black pencil he carried, gave himself a few marks around the mouth and eyes.
"How do you do, boys?" he called out, in exact imitation of Bill Cashaw.
"Wonderful!" ejaculated Tom. "That will do splendidly.
"Mine cracious! I ton't vos know vich been you an' vich been der old man!" burst out Hans. "You vos like two pretzels alretty!"
"That's a fine comparison," laughed Fred, and all had to smile over the German youth's words.
"I reckon I know what you intend to do," said Tom to the government official. "You want to take the old man's job away from him."
"Yes—for the time being. But I don't expect to get paid for it." James Monday turned to Cashaw. "Will you stay with the boys until I return?"
"I want you to stay."
"That means as how I'm to stay whether I want to or not, eh?"
"You can put it that way if you wish. I want to make no trouble for you."
"Sack Todd will make trouble if he hears of this," returned the old man dubiously.
"Then you had better keep out of sight."
"Will you return my horses and wagon?"
"Either that, or pay for the turnout."
"Then maybe I'd better go to town. I can say I stopped off at a tavern an' sumbuddy drove off with my rig."
"Very well," returned the detective. "But, mind you, if you dare to play me foul—"
"I won't! I won't!"
"Then you can go. But wait. Boys, let him stay here an hour. Then he can go."
So it was arranged, and a few minutes later James Monday was on the seat of the wagon and driving off in the style of the old man.
"He is certainly a good actor," murmured Tom, gazing after the government official. "I declare, the two look like two peas!"
"That's a mighty risky thing to do," observed Songbird. "If Sack Todd and his cronies discover the trick they'll stop at nothing to get square."
"Trust Mr. Monday to take care of himself," responded Tom. "I am only hoping he will be able to aid Sam and Dick."
"Oh, we all hope that, Tom."
The boys sat down on some partly dried rocks and began to ask the old man about himself. But Bill Cashaw was too much disturbed mentally to give them much satisfaction.
"Well, by hemlock!" he burst out presently.
"What's up now?" queried Tom, and all of the others looked equally interested.
"If I didn't go an' forgit all about it."
"This letter I had fer Sack. An' that was o' prime importance, too, so the trainman said."
As the old man spoke, he brought forth a letter which he had had stowed away in a pocket of his shirt.
"What's in the letter?" asked Fred.
"I don't know. It's sealed up."
"I think we'd be justified in breaking it open," put in Songbird. "Those rascals are outlaws!"
"No! no! don't break it open!" burst out Tom, and snatched the communication from the old man's hand. "I've got a better plan."
"What plan?" came from his friends.
"Didn't you say that I looked like your son Bud?" asked Tom of Bill Cashaw.
"Has Bud ever been to Red Rock ranch?"
"Three or four times, but not lately."
"Does Sack Todd know him?"
"Yes, but not very well."
"Then that settles it," announced the fun-loving Rover. "I, as Bud Cashaw, am going to deliver the letter at the ranch."
"Tom, that's too risky!" cried Fred.
"I don't think so. I can tell them that the letter was left for father"—pointing to Bill Cashaw—"after he started for the ranch. I don't see how they can help but swallow the story."
"Yes, but see here—" interrupted the old man. "This ain't fair. I want you to understand—"
"I know what I am doing, Mr. Cashaw, and you had better keep quiet. Watch him, fellows."
Without loss of time, Tom made his preparations for visiting the mysterious ranch. He rubbed some dirt on his face and hands, disheveled his hair and turned up one leg of his trousers. Then he borrowed the rather large headgear that Hans wore and pulled it far down over his head.
"How will that do?" he drawled. "Say, is my pap anywhere around this yere ranch?"
"Mine cracious! of dot ton't beat der Irish!" gasped Hans. "Tom, you vos make a first-class detector alretty!"
"He certainly looks like an Alabama country boy," was Fred's comment.
A few touches more to his disguise and Tom was ready to depart for the ranch. He called Songbird aside.
"Watch that old man," he whispered. "He may not be as innocent as he looks. Don't let him get to the ranch. If he does, our cake will be dough."
"Of course you don't expect to catch up to the wagon," said Songbird.
"No, but if I do, I'll go ahead anyway—if Mr. Monday will let me."
It was not long after this that Tom left the others. He struck out boldly along the poorly defined wagon trail, which led over some rough rocks and down into hollows now filled with water. The marks of the wagon ahead were plainly to be seen, but, though the youth walked fast, he did not catch sight of the turnout.
It was dark by the time he came to the fence that surrounded the ranch buildings. He saw Bill Cashaw's wagon standing under a shed. Two men were unloading the contents. They were both strangers to Tom.
It must be admitted that Tom's heart beat rapidly as he stepped into view and slouched toward the wagon shed. The men started in surprise when they beheld him.
"Say, whar's my pap?" he called out. "Didn't he come in on the wagon?"
"It's Bud Cashaw," murmured one of the men. He raised his voice. "Your old man is in the house with Sack Todd."
Tom turned toward the ranch proper and was close to a door when it opened and Sack Todd came out and faced him. At a distance behind the man was James Monday.
"Hullo, pap!" sang out Tom. "You forgot that letter from that train hand—or maybe you didn't see him."
The government official stared at Tom, wondering who he could be.
"What letter?" demanded the ranch owner quickly.
"Here it is," answered Tom, and brought it forth. Sack Todd ripped it open quickly and scanned its contents. It was short and to the point:
"Look out for government detectives. They are on your track. One is named James Monday. There is also a fellow named Rover—beware of him.—NUMBER 9."
Utterly unconscious of what he was doing, Tom had played directly into the hands of Sack Todd and his evil associates.
IN WHICH TOM IS EXPOSED
"Boy, who gave you this letter?" demanded the owner of Red Rock ranch, after he had read the communication through twice.
His look was a stern one, and his gaze seemed to bore Tom through and through. Yet the lad did not flinch. He felt that he must play his part to the end.
"Feller give it at the house fer pap," he drawled. "Pap, he fergot to bring it. So I hustled off to do it."
"Humph! A nice way to treat a letter of importance," muttered Sack Todd. He gave Tom another close look. "Who told you your dad was coming here?"
"Oh, I guessed that," drawled Tom.
"Come in the house. I must question your father about this."
"I didn't mean no harm, Mr. Todd!" cried the youth in pretended alarm. "Ain't it all' right?"
"Yes. Come in."
Sack Todd pushed Tom toward the doorway of the ranch, and the youth went inside. He looked around for the government official, but that individual was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is Bill Cashaw?" asked the ranch owner of two men who were present.
"I don't know—getting something to drink, I reckon," answered one of the men. "He was standing around a minute ago."
"Sit down here," said Sack Todd, turning to Tom and at the same time motioning to a chair. "I'll be back in a minute."
He disappeared through a doorway and the fun-loving Rover sat down. He was in no easy frame of mind, for he could plainly see that the letter had disturbed the ranch owner greatly and that the man was suspicious.
"I hope I haven't made a mess of it," he reasoned. "I wonder where Sam and Dick are?"
Had he had an opportunity, he would have left the room and taken a look around the place, but the strange men were there, and they evidently had their eyes on him.
Tom had been sitting quietly for five minutes, thinking matters over, when a side door opened and a young man smoking a cigarette came in. On seeing Tom, he stared in wonder and allowed his cigarette to drop to the floor.
"Tom Rover! How did you get here?"
It was Dan Baxter, as impudent and hard-faced as ever. He came a step closer and fairly glared at Tom.
For one brief instant, Tom's self-possession deserted him. Then he recovered and stared boldly at Baxter.
"Say, what you a-talkin' about?" he drawled.
"What you a-talkin' about? I don't know you—never see you before."
"Well, if that ain't the limit!" burst out the bully. "You don't know me!"
"An' my name ain't Tim Drover," went on Tom, purposely mispronouncing the name.
"Go to grass, Tom Rover! You can't play any game on me. I know you too well, even in that outfit."
At that moment Sack Todd returned. He was surprised to find Dan Baxter talking to Tom.
"Do you know Bud Cashaw?" he questioned.
"Bud Cashaw? Who is he?"
"This is Bud."
"Not much! Do you know who this is? Tom Rover, the brother I was telling you about."
"Tom Rover!" almost shouted the owner of Red Rock ranch. "Are you certain of this?"
"Yes. Didn't I go to school with him? I know him as well as I know my own father."
Sack Todd glared at Tom and gave him a close inspection. Then he shook the youth fiercely.
"So this is your style, eh?" he snarled. "First your brothers come to spy on us, and now you! If I had my way—" he stopped short. "Where did you get that letter, answer me!"
"Wasn't it all right?" drawled Tom. He scarcely knew how to act.
"Answer me, Rover. I want no more beating about the bush."
"It belongs to Bill Cashaw. Isn't he here?"
"Ha!" Sack Todd looked around. "Come here," he cried to his men. "Watch this boy and don't let him get away under any circumstances. I must find Bill Cashaw! Perhaps it isn't Bill, after all!"
One of the men came forward and caught hold of Tom, while Dan Baxter also ranged by the prisoner's side. To attempt to break away would have been useless, and Tom did not try it.
"You'll catch it now," said the bully maliciously.
"Where are Sam and Dick?"
"That remains for you to find out."
"They seem to carry things with a high hand here."
"It's Sack Todd's ranch, and he has a right to do as he pleases. He didn't invite you or the others to come," returned Dan Baxter with a scowl.
In the meantime, the owner of Red Rock ranch was hurrying around in search of the supposed Bill Cashaw. He visited the kitchen and the other rooms, and then ran to the barn and other outbuildings. But it was all useless; the driver of the wagon could not be found.
"I want all of you to hunt for the wagon driver," stormed the ranch owner. "He must be found!"
"What's wrong now?" asked Andy Jimson.
"Everything. I've just got a warning. Read it."
The long-nosed man did so, and drew down the corners of his mouth.
"This looks bad," he said. "Well, you've got the three Rovers right enough. You think—"
"That wagon driver may not be Bill Cashaw at all."
"Worse and worse, Sack. We must find him, by all means."
The search was taken up with renewed care, and four men kept at it for over an hour. Then the crowd assembled in the main room of the ranch.
"He has run away and left the horses and wagon behind," said Sack Todd.
"I thought he acted rather queer," put in one of the men. "I asked him about Cal Jessup, and he didn't seem to want to answer."
"He was a spy—there is not the least doubt of it," came from Andy Jimson. "More than likely, he was a government detective."
While the men were talking the matter over, there was the sound of hoof strokes on the road leading to the ranch door, and a horseman came up, nearly out of breath from hard riding.
"What's the news, Phil?" shouted Sack Todd. "Nothing wrong, I hope."
"Snapper has been arrested and a detective is on your trail," shouted back the horseman. "I was afraid I'd be too late. You want to get ready to vamoose."
The men of the ranch crowded around the new-comer and plied him with questions. Tom tried to catch all that was said, but was unable to do so.
"We'll have to make short work of this, I am afraid," he heard Sack Todd say, a little later.
"What about the boy?" questioned the long-nosed man.
"He ought to be shot!" was the cold-blooded reply, which made Tom shiver.
"Shall we put him with the rest?"
Without ceremony, poor Tom was marched away to the trap-door, a man on each side of him. Dan Baxter came behind.
"You don't like it, do you?" sneered the bully. "You'll like it still less when you get below. It's beautifully damp and musty."
"You're a cheerful brute, Dan," answered Tom.
"Hi! don't you call me a brute!" stormed Baxter.
"Oh, excuse me, I didn't mean to insult the dumb creation," responded Tom. "Baxter, you are the limit. I suppose you have joined this gang."
"What if I have?"
"I am sorry for you, that's all."
"Oh, don't preach!"
"I am not going to, for it would be a waste of breath."
"You'll sing pretty small by the time we are through with you," growled the bully; and then Tom was led below and placed in the cell with the others.
TOGETHER ONCE MORE
"Dick and Sam!"
"How in the world did you get here?"
"Where are the others?"
These and a dozen other questions were asked and answered as the three Rover boys shook hands over and over again. Even though prisoners, they were delighted to be together once more, and doubly delighted to know that each was well.
"Oh, these chaps are first-class rascals," said Dick after they had settled down a bit. "They have treated us most shamefully. At first, they gave us pretty good eating, but now they are starving us."
"Starving you?" cried Tom.
"Yes—they want us to tell all we know," put in Sam. "They are very suspicious."
"Didn't you try to get away?"
"No use of trying. The walls are too solid and so is the door," said Dick. He caught Tom by the arm and added in a faint whisper in his brother's ear: "They are listening. We have a hole."
"Then we'll have to stay here," said Tom loudly, catching his cue instantly.
"Yes, and it's a shame," added Sam in an equally loud voice. "I suppose the others have gone on?"
"Certainly," said Tom calmly. "I was a chump to remain behind—only I wanted to find you. I got hold of a letter by accident."
A moment later, they heard the guards walk away, and then Tom told the truth about the letter, and Sam and Dick led him to the hole in the wall.
"It is not quite big enough to use, yet," whispered the eldest Rover. "But we hope to have it big enough by to-morrow. It's slow work, when you have got to be on your guard all the while."
"I'd like to know what became of the detective," returned Tom.
"He must have run away as soon as he saw how affairs were shaping," put in Dick. "I hope he rounds up the whole gang."
"So do I, and Dan Baxter with them," answered Tom.
Overhead, they could hear a constant tramping of feet and murmur of voices. They tried to make out what was being said, but could not.
Left to themselves, the three Rovers turned to the opening that had been made in the wall. A match was lit for a moment, so that Tom could see just what had been done, and then all three set to work to continue the task. It was certainly hard work, and their progress was exasperatingly slow.
"If we only had a pick or a crowbar we could get these stones out in no time," grunted Tom, as he pulled away with all his strength.
The noise overhead continued, and a little later they heard some men come down in another portion of the cellar.
"We must save the plates, at all events," they heard Sack Todd say. "We can't duplicate them, now old Messmer is dead."
"Yes, save the plates, by all means," put in Andy Jimson.
"Do you think the ranch is surrounded?" asked another of the crowd.
"It may be."
"Then the sooner we get out, the better," growled another.
The men passed on, so that the Rover boys could not hear more of the talk.
"I believe they are going to leave the place," whispered Sam excitedly.
"If they go, what will they do with us?" put in Tom.
"Perhaps they will force us to go with them," answered Dick.
There was now more bustle and confusion about the ranch, and they heard a wagon drive up to a door, load up and drive away again. Then some horses were brought up from the stable.
"Something is doing, that is certain," murmured Dick.
He had scarcely spoken when there was a movement at the door of the cell and, by the light of a lantern, the boys found themselves confronted by Sack Todd, Andy Jimson and Dan Baxter.
"So you think the youngest is the best to take along," said Sack Todd to Baxter.
"Yes; the family think more of him than of any one," answered the bully.
"All right. Sam Rover, come out of that!"
"What do you want me for?" asked the youngest Rover.
"I want to talk to you."
Sam walked from the cell, and the door was at once fastened as before. Then Sack Todd caught the youth by the arm.
"Now, march upstairs, and be lively about it. We have no time to waste."
"No 'buts' now, Rover. We'll talk later on," growled the ranch owner savagely. "Just now I've got my mind full of other things."
Sam was led to the main floor of the ranch, and then without ado his hands were fastened behind him. Then he was told to march outside. Here two light wagons were in waiting, and he was bundled into one, along with Jimson and another man, and Dan Baxter. The other wagon was loaded with boxes and driven by two men. Several horses stood by, saddled for use.
"Where are we going?" asked the youngest Rover.
"To the North Pole," chuckled Dan Baxter. "Don't you wish you knew!"
"Are all the men going to leave?"
"That's their business, not yours."
"You are very kind, Baxter. I guess you don't know yourself."
"Don't I, though? Why, I'm right hand-and-hand with this crowd," added the bully boastfully.
"Maybe you only think you are."
"Huh! I know what I am doing."
"You've said that before—and got tripped up, just the same."
"There won't be any trip-up about this."
"Don't be too sure."
"See here," spoke up Andy Jimson. "When we get on the road, all of you have got to keep quiet."
"All right, mum's the world, old man," answered Dan Baxter cheerfully.
"Did you hear?" demanded the long-nosed man, looking at Sam.
"Are you going to mind?"
"I am not your slave."
"Humph! Do you know what Todd said to me? He said: 'If the kid won't keep quiet when you tell him, shoot him.' How do you like that?"
"I don't like it."
"I am going to run no chances with you," continued Andy Jimson. "You have got to keep very quiet. Don't you open your mouth once after we get started. I've got a pistol handy, and I know how to use it."
In the meantime, several from the ranch were walking around, talking in low, excited tones. Then, from a distance, came a shot, followed by two more in rapid succession.
"The signal!" cried Sack Todd. "Boys, something is doing now, sure. We must get away, and at once. Are you all ready?"
There was a chorus of assents.
"I think we had better divide. The wagons can go by the honey-tree route, and those on horseback by the swamp road. We can meet at the Four Rocks tomorrow, if all goes well."
So it was agreed, and soon some of the horsemen were off, each carrying a load of some kind. Then the wagons began to move, that with the load of boxes going first. The turnouts plunged at once into the woods, where the darkness was intense. They made scarcely any noise, for the wagons were rubber-tired and the horses wore rubber guards on their shoes.
It would be hard to analyze Sam's feelings as he realized that he was being taken away from the ranch, he knew not to where. To escape in the darkness was out of the question, for the man who sat beside him had his arm linked into his own. More than this, he felt sure that Andy Jimson would shoot him at the first sign of trouble.
The wagon road wound around in the forest, and was in anything but good repair, so that poor Sam was jounced about until he felt sore all over. He did not dare to speak, and, truth to tell, he did not know what to say. He realized that if he asked what was to become of his brothers, nobody would tell him.
Presently the wagon began to climb a slight hill. The horses tugged away manfully, but were exhausted when the top of the rise was gained, and had to rest.
"Hullo, what's that?" exclaimed Dan Baxter as he gazed back in the direction of the ranch.
"Shut up," answered the long-nosed man warningly.
Sam could not help but look back. The top of the rise was almost bare of trees, so his view was a perfect one. The sight that met his gaze caused his heart to sink with a sickening dread.
Red Rock ranch was in flames!
"Tom and Dick!" he murmured to himself. "If they are still prisoners, what will become of them?"
THE BURNING OF THE RANCH
Left to themselves, Tom and Dick scarcely knew what to do for the time being. What was to become of Sam they did not know, but they felt that the outlook was darker than ever.
"Dick, we must get out!" cried Tom at length. "I can't stand this sort of thing."
"I can't stand it myself. But how are we going to get out? That door is like the wall, for strength."
There was more noise overhead, but presently this ceased, and all became as quiet as a tomb.
"What do you make of it, now?" came from the fun-loving Rover.
"I think they have left the ranch, Tom."
"Perhaps. They know that James Monday will make it warm for them. That letter put them on their guard."
"What a fool I was to deliver it, Dick! I ought to be kicked for doing it. If we had only opened it and read it!"
"The others must still be on the watch."
"Yes, unless they, too, have been captured."
The boys returned to the hole in the wall and, to occupy themselves, dug away at it harder than ever. Another stone was loosened and pulled into the cell.
"We're making a little progress, anyway," sighed Tom.
"Hark! I hear something," said Dick a little later. "Listen!"
They stopped their work and both strained their ears. A curious roaring and crackling came from overhead.
"That's odd," mused Tom. "What do you make of it?"
"I am almost afraid to say, Tom."
"Yes. If it is what I think, we may be doomed," went on the eldest Rover seriously.
"Dick! What do you think it is?"
"The crackling of flames. They have set the ranch on fire."
"Would they do that—and leave us here? It is—is inhuman."
"Those men are desperate characters, Tom, and they'd stop at nothing."
They continued to listen, and soon the roaring and crackling grew plainer. Then came a dull thud as some timbers fell, and a current of air carried some smoke into the cell.
"We must get out—somehow, some way!" cried Dick. "If we don't, we'll be caught like beasts in a cage." A sudden thought struck him. "Tom, take up one of the stones."
Dick lit what was left of the candle-wick as he spoke and placed it on the bench. Then he took up the other stone.
"Now, aim for the lock of the door," he went on, "and both throw together. Ready?"
"One, two, three!"
Crash! Both large stones hit the door with tremendous force. The barrier was split from end to end, but still held firm.
"Again!" cried Dick, and once more the stones were hurled in mad desperation. There was an-other crash, and the door tottered and came away from the lock. Then Tom threw his weight against it and it burst open fully.
A rush of hot air and smoke greeted them as they leaped into the passageway. Looking up, they saw that the flooring above was already burning.
"We can't go up through the trap-door," said Dick. "We have got to find some other way out."
"Is there another way?"
"I don't know. Come."
The passageway ran in both directions. They felt their way along for ten feet, to find themselves against another wall.
"The other way!" sang out Tom. "Phew! it's getting pretty warm down here, isn't it?"
"And smoky," answered his brother, beginning to cough.
They passed the cell again and started down the passageway in the opposite direction. Twenty feet further on they reached a wooden door, bolted on the other side.
"Stumped again," muttered Tom. "Dick, what shall we do now?"
"Try to break it down. Now, then, with all your might, Tom!"
It was their only hope, and with increased energy they hurled themselves at the door, which bent and creaked. Then, at the fourth onslaught, the door flew open and they went sprawling into the underground chamber beyond.
Here the light from the blazing building could be plainly seen, and by this they made out that they were in a regular printing office. Three foot-power presses were there, also a quantity of variously colored inks and packages of odd-colored paper.
But they could waste no time in investigating. The burning brands were dropping around them, and they leaped across the printing room to where they saw another passageway. This had a door, but the barrier stood wide open.
"In you go!" sang out Dick. "It must lead somewhere—and, anyway, we can't stay here."
They rushed into the passageway, not an instant too soon, for a second later there came another crash and the printing room was filled with sparks and bits of burning timber. Then a cloud of smoke all but choked them.
Half-blinded, and scarcely knowing what they were doing, the two Rover boys ran on and on, down the passageway. It had several crooks and turns, and more than once they brought up against some stones and dirt in anything but an agreeable fashion. But they felt that they were getting away from the fire and smoke, and that just then meant everything to them.
At last, the danger from the conflagration seemed to be passed, and they slackened their pace, and finally came to a halt. Both were out of breath.
"Whe—where does this lead to?" gasped Tom.
"That's a riddle, Tom. But I know it has taken us away from the fire, which is a blessing."
"Dick, we have had a narrow escape."
"Right you are."
"Those rascals meant to burn us up!"
"They were afraid we knew too much about their affairs."
"They ought to go to jail for this, and Dan Baxter with them."
"I wish we were out of this passageway and could find the rest of our crowd."
"We must find a way out."
This was easier said than done. They went on once more, and soon, without warning, stepped into water up to their knees.
"Back!" cried Dick, who was in advance. "We don't want to get drowned. That would be as bad as being burnt up."
"We can swim," answered Tom as he scrambled back.
"True, but I want to know where I am swimming to, don't you?"
Tom got out his waterproof match safe and found that it contained just one match. This was lit, and then he set fire to some leaves from a notebook in his pocket. By this light, they saw another turn of the passageway, leading upward.
"That must be a way out," exclaimed Tom, and started in the direction, followed by his brother.
"Now, go slow," warned Dick when they were once more in darkness, the paper having burnt itself out. "We don't want to run into any more danger, if we can avoid it."
"I am on my guard," answered Tom.
They soon found that the side passage narrowed greatly, so that they had to proceed in single file and with heads bent. They moved with their hands in front of their heads, so as to avoid a possible collision with the rocks along the way.
Presently Dick's hand came in contact with something long and straggling. He drew back, thinking he had touched a snake. But then he grew bolder and found it to be a tree root.
"That shows we are close to the surface of the ground," said he. "If the worst comes to the worst, I fancy we can dig our way upward with our hands."
"Maybe, but we don't want this roof to cave in on us, Dick. Come on."
They continued to go forward, but now the passageway was so small that they had to crawl on their hands and knees.
"This looks as if we were going to be blocked, after all," said Tom.
"Something is ahead," whispered Dick. "Be quiet!"
"What do you see?"
"There is an opening, and I can see a little light, and, what is more, I hear the sounds of voices. Maybe we have run into our enemies again!"
FROM ONE SURPRISE TO ANOTHER
Left to themselves in the woods, Fred, Songbird and Hans scarcely knew what to do to fill in their time.
"I must say, I don't like this dividing up at all," remarked Fred, after a half-hour had passed. "First it was Sam and Dick, and now it is Tom. After a while none of us will know where any of the others are. Even the dog has left us." It may be added here that they never saw Wags again.
"Vell, you can't vos plame Tom for drying to find his brudders," came from Hans. "I vos do dot mineselluf, of I peen him."
"I hope Tom steers clear of trouble," said Songbird. "You know how he is—the greatest hand for getting into mischief."
The time dragged heavily on their hands, and when it grew dark not one of them felt like retiring. Songbird tried to put on a cheerful front, but it was a dismal failure, and nobody listened to the rhymes he made half under his breath. 230
At last came a whistle, repeated several times in rapid succession. Then a form emerged out of the darkness.
"Who goes there?" shouted Fred.
"Hullo, boys!" was the answering cry, and James Monday came into the little clearing. "I was afraid I had lost my way."
"Didn't you see Tom?" they asked.
"Yes, I saw him—up to the ranch. He came with a letter, and that spoilt about everything, for it was a warning. They found out who he was through that Baxter and made him a prisoner. Then I had to sneak away, for I knew they were after me, too."
"Found out you wasn't me, eh?" put in Bill Cashaw. "Thought they might. That crowd is a clever one. Where's my wagon and horses?"
"I had to leave them behind. Here are your hat and coat. I'll thank you to give me my own," went on the government official, and the exchange was quickly made.
The boys asked James Monday many questions, which he answered as best he could. But he was in a hurry, and told them so.
"I want to watch that ranch," he said. "But I'd like one of you to ride to town as hard as you can and take a message for me."
"I'll take the message, if there is anything in it," came quickly from Bill Cashaw.
"No, I want one of the boys to take it. You can go along, if you wish," went on James Monday. He was not quite willing to trust the old man.
The matter was discussed hurriedly, and it was decided that Fred should carry the message, and it was written on a slip of paper which the boy tucked away in an inside pocket. Then off he and the old man started for town, both on horseback.
"The gang at the ranch is a desperate one," said the government official when the pair were gone. "The most I can hope to do is to watch them until help arrives."
"Then you sent for help?" asked Songbird.
"Yes, and if the message is properly delivered, the help will not be long in arriving."
The detective wanted to move closer to the ranch, and Hans and Songbird did as requested, taking the horses with them. They were as anxious to make a move as was the detective, but just then there seemed nothing to do but to wait.
Suddenly Songbird uttered a cry.
"I smell smoke! Can the forest be on fire?"
"Of it vos, ve had besser git owit kvick!" ejaculated Hans. "I ton't vont to burn up, nohow!"
"I see a light," returned James Monday. He ran to where there was a cleared space. "I believe the ranch is on fire!" he gasped.
"It is so!" exclaimed Songbird. "I can see the flames plainly. Now, how did that happen?"
"I don't know. Let us draw closer. I want to see what Sack Todd and his crowd will do."
The government official hurried forward and the two boys followed him, bringing along the horses as before. Soon they were at a spot where they could see the conflagration plainly. To their astonishment, not a soul appeared around the ranch or the outbuildings.
"What does this mean?" asked Songbird. "That gang certainly can't be in the burning building.
"I know what it means!" cried the detective, and there was something like anguish in his voice. "They have abandoned the ranch and set fire to it!"
"Abandoned the ranch?" repeated Songbird.
"Den vot of der Rofer poys?" asked the German youth.
"Don't ask me," said the detective. "They may have escaped, or else—" He did not finish.
"Do you mean those rascals might leave them in the ranch, prisoners?" asked Songbird.
"It's a hard thing to say, but you know as mush as I do. This knocks my last plan endways. I must see if I can't get on the trail of the gang that has run away," James Monday added. "Will you let me have one of the horses?"
"Unless I act quickly, those men may get miles and miles away, and then it will be next to impossible to round them up," continued the government official. "I must go after Fred Garrison and hurry along that extra help."
"Where shall we meet you?"
"I can't tell, exactly. We might—Hullo, what's that?"
A peculiar sound close at hand caused the detective to pause. They heard a flat rock fall down, and then, to their amazement, saw two dirty and begrimed persons emerge from a hole in the ground.
"Who vos dot?" gasped Hans, ready to retreat in fright.
"Hullo, Hans!" cried Tom Rover. "Don't you know Dick and me? We just arrived by the new subway."
"Tom and Dick!" ejaculated Songbird. "Truly, I must be dreaming!"
"But you are not," came from Dick as he stepped closer. "Oh, but I'm glad to get out of that hole!" he added. "And glad to fall among friends once more."
"Hullo, Mr. Monday," said Tom. "So you escaped, after all? That's good. Have any of you seen anything of Sam?"
"Sam?" asked Songbird. "Wasn't he with you?"
"He was, but the counterfeiters carried him off with them when they left the ranch."
"Then he must still be a prisoner."
"When we first heard your voices, we thought we had run into some of our enemies," said Dick. "We were mighty glad to learn otherwise. Now, if Sam was only here—"
"We must find him!" broke in Tom. "And the sooner we get on the trail, the better."
"I was just going away to hurry along some help," came from James Monday. "Maybe all of you had better remain in the forest on guard until I get back. If you spread out, you may learn something."
A little later, the government official hurried off on one of the horses, leaving the boys to themselves. Tom and Dick brushed off their clothing and washed up in a nearby pool of water.
"I think the best thing we can do is to move over to one of the wagon roads," said Dick. "We'll never discover anything in a spot like this."
They moved along, taking turns at riding on the horses left to them. They were still a short distance from one of the trails, when they caught sight of a lantern's gleam, and soon after they heard the low murmur of voices.
"Somebody is over there, that is certain," whispered Dick. "Don't make any noise, fellows!"
Almost holding their breath, they crawled forward through the undergrowth and between the rocks, and presently gained a point where they could see the outline of a wagon. The vehicle had lost one wheel, and they could see three persons moving around it, inspecting the damage done.
"This is the worst luck yet," they heard a man exclaim.
"Well, why didn't you look out for ruts?" said another.
"Look out? How could I look out in such a pitchy darkness?"
"What's to be done?" asked a third voice.
"I don't know, unless we unhook the team and take turns at riding horseback," was the reply.
At this juncture, Dick clutched Tom by the arm.
"Two of those fellows are that Jimson and Dan Baxter!" he whispered. "And do you know who is in the wagon, on the rear seat?"
ON THE TRAIL ONCE MORE
Dick and Tom were delighted to think that they had gotten on the trail of their brother thus readily, and they and their friends withdrew for a short distance, that they might hold a consultation without being overheard by their enemies.
"You are sure it's Sam?" questioned Songbird. "I must say it was so dark I couldn't see him."
"I saw him plainly, just as the lantern was flashed his way," answered Dick. "He had his hands behind him. More than likely they are tied fast, or handcuffed."
"Well, what do you propose?" came from Tom. "I move we go in and attack our enemies rough-shod. It is what they deserve."
"I second the motion," put in Songbird.
"Dot is vell enough to dalk apout," put in Hans. "Put blease ton't forgot dat da pistols haf got, und da can shoot, hey?"
"You've got a pistol, too, Hans."
"Dot is so."
"And I've got one," went on Songbird.
"Dick and I can get rocks and sticks," said Tom. "We'll make it warm for them."
A few words more, and Dick and Tom man-aged to find some sticks and stones which suited their purpose. Then they moved forward once again.
At that moment came a cry from a distance, followed by a pistol shot. The men around the broken-down wagon were instantly on their guard, with pistols and a shotgun.
"Shoot the first man who tries to corner us!" shouted Andy Jimson. "Don't take any chances."
"Wait!" cried Dick to Tom, who was on the point of exposing himself. "Don't show yourself now. Help may be at hand. Besides, those men will shoot as soon as they see us, now."
"What did that shot mean?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was a signal."
"If we could only let Sam know that we are at hand."
Further words were cut short by another shot, and a moment later four men came riding up at top speed along the wagon trail.
"Hullo, what's up here?" came in the voice of Sack Todd.
"Had a break-down," growled Andy Jimson. "What are you shooting for?"
"Just got word that somebody has gone to town for assistance to round us up. We must change our plans. You'll have to let the wagon stay where it is and take to the horses. Luckily, we have some extra ones along. Be quick."
"What of the prisoner?"
"We'd better let him go."
"Don't you do it!" cried Dan Baxter. "I tell you, you can make money by holding him."
"I'd like to wring Baxter's neck for that!" muttered Tom.
"All right, then, take him along—at least, for the present," said Sack Todd. "But don't waste time. Here are the horses."
The transfer from the wagon to the horses was quickly accomplished. Sam was made to mount a steed, and Andy Jimson rode on one side of him and Dan Baxter on the other. The rest of the men rode in front and in the rear, and soon the spot where the break-down had occurred was left behind.
"Now, what's to do?" asked Tom ruefully. He realized, as well as the others, that it would have been useless to have attacked such a large crowd.
"There is but one thing to do, Tom: follow them. As soon as they locate, we can go back for help. They can't travel more than twenty-four hours without stopping, and I believe they'll go into hiding as soon as it is daylight."
With care, they advanced on the trail of those ahead. This was a rather difficult task, for the lantern had been put out, and it was pitch-dark tinder the trees. More than once their steeds went into a hollow with a jounce that threatened to throw one or another to the ground.
"If only James Monday would appear with about ten men," sighed Tom. "Couldn't we make it warm for those chaps!"
"He won't be coming back for a long time," said Songbird. "He is no wizard, even if he is a detective. It is only in the sensational, five-cent libraries that the noble detective turns up every time he is needed."
"Yes, and kills about ten men hand-running," added Tom with a laugh.
At the end of an hour's ride through the forest, all of the boys were so fagged out they could scarcely keep on horseback. It must be remembered that they had to take turns at riding, there not being enough steeds to go around.
"I wish they'd come to a stop," muttered Songbird. "I declare, if I ever get the chance, I'm going to rest for a week!"
"Ton't say a vord," groaned Hans. "I vos so lame I can't most sit up alretty!"
"Let us be thankful if they don't discover that we are following them," said Dick. "If they did find it out, they would certainly make it warm for us."
A little while later the forest was left behind, and the party ahead and that in the rear came out on the broad and rolling prairies. It was growing cloudy, so that the boys kept their enemies in sight with difficulty, not daring to draw too close.
Far away, they could see the lights of a town gleaming, but these were soon lost to view around a bit of rising ground. Then they forded a small stream and began to climb the slope of a small hill, at the top of which were a series of rocks. Here they fancied the counterfeiters might halt, but they were disappointed. The crowd ahead toiled over the hill and then struck off across an-other section of the rolling plains.
"I can't ride much further," said Tom at last. "I am so tired I am ready to drop."
"Ditto here," came from Songbird.
Nevertheless, they kept on, and thus was the shadowing continued until four o'clock in the morning, when the party ahead came to a patch of timber on the side of a steep hill. Here, among the trees and rocks, they went into a temporary camp.
The boys had come as close as they dared, and reaching a convenient hillock with a clump of bushes, dismounted and threw themselves on the ground.
"They are going into camp, sure enough," announced Dick after a careful inspection. "Now, the question arises: what is best to do next?"
"I know what ought to be done," answered his brother, "but I am too tired to do it."
"Go for help?" asked Songbird.
"Exactly. But I could no more ride back to town than I could fly."
"Dot is vot's der madder mit me," put in Hans. "I could schleep standing ub, ain't it!"
"Well, I'll go for help, then," said Dick. "But I must have one of the horses."
"Take the best of them, Dick."
The eldest Rover inspected the animals, and finally chose one that looked fairly fresh.
"Now, mind, don't get into more trouble while I am gone," he said. "If they move on, simply keep them in sight."
A few minutes later, Dick took his departure, moving straight for the town they had seen earlier in the night. He knew nothing of the trails, but trusted to luck not to go astray.
"I've got to make that town," he told himself. "And do it without wasting time, too."
Soon he found himself utterly alone on the plains, and, urging his horse forward at the steed's best rate of speed—a gallop that was anything but easy to the worn-out youth. But Dick was not thinking of himself. His mind was on Sam, and how his youngest brother might be rescued.
The command was a most unexpected one, coming from out of the darkness, and at the word Dick's horse came to a standstill. For the instant the youth could see nobody, but then two horsemen hove into sight, each heavily armed.
At first, Dick could not make out who they were, but as they drew nearer his heart sank within him. One of the newcomers was a man he had seen working around Red Rock ranch and the other was the negro called Watermelon Pete, the fellow who had given the Rovers trouble while on the houseboat.
The man from Red Rock ranch was very much startled to see Dick, and stared at the youth for several seconds without speaking.
The eldest Rover thought for an instant of putting his horse to flight, but then realized with a pang that the animal would not be equal to the task.
"Where under the sun did you come from?" growled the man at last.
"It's dat same fellah!" cried Watermelon Pete. "I dun see him on de ribber an' at de ranch, too!"
"Yes, the fellow who was left in a cell at Red Rock," returned the white man. "How did you escape?" he went on, to Dick.
"Smashed the door and came out in a hurry," answered Dick. He saw no harm in telling the truth.
"Where is your brother?"
"What business is that of yours?"
"Don't get funny with me," growled the man.
"Are you alone?" he continued, peering around in the darkness.
"You had better find out."
"Why don't you finish him off, Puller?" came from the negro. "Ain't nobody else around."
"You're a fine rascal!" burst out Dick. "If you touch me, there is going to be trouble."
"I reckon you'll come with me," said the white man harshly. "We ain't goin' to run no risks, understand? If you put anybody on our trail—" He did not finish. "Face around there!" he ordered.
"See here, do you think you are treating me fairly?" asked Dick. He wished to gain time, so that he could think matters over and decide what was best to do.
"I won't parley the question," growled the man. "Face around and do it quick, if you want to save your hide."
There was no help for it, and Dick faced around. As he did so, he caught the sounds of hoof strokes at a distance. Puller and Water-melon Pete did not appear to notice them.
"Wait a minute, I dropped something," said the eldest Rover, and slid to the ground. He pre-tended to search around. "Got a light?"
"What did you drop?"
"Something valuable," said Dick, but did not add that it was only a harness buckle. He was straining his ears and heard the hoof strokes coming closer.
"Well, hurry up and find it. We are not going to stay here until the sun comes up," growled Puller.
A moment later, the sounds of horses approaching could be heard plainly. Dick began to cough loudly, but the ears of the negro could not be deceived.
"Listen!" he said warningly. "Hosses comin', suah as yo' is boahn!"
"Horses?" cried the white man. "Then we had better make tracks."
"Who is there?" cried Dick at the top of his voice. If they were enemies, he knew he could be no worse off.
"Shut your mouth!" howled the white man.
"Hullo!" was the answering call, and in a moment several men dashed up, all heavily armed, and accompanied by James Monday and Fred Garrison.
"Help!" called out Dick. "Don't let them get away!"
"They are not going to catch me!" growled Puller, and struck his horse in the side. The animal bounded forward and was followed by that on which the negro was riding. Scarcely had this been done when a shot rang out and the negro fell from his saddle to the ground.
"Halt, in the name of the law!" cried James Monday to Puller, but the man paid no attention. Several shots were fired at him, but soon the gloom of early morning hid him from view.
"I'm more than glad that you have come," cried Dick to the government official and Fred. "How did you get here so quickly?"
"It was mostly luck," answered the detective. "Garrison delivered the message to just the right party and I ran into the crowd just coming away from the town. We have got nine men here, and all willing to do their utmost to round up that Red Rock ranch gang."
It was soon learned that Watermelon Pete had been hit in the thigh. The wound was not a fatal one, but it was destined to put the rascal in the hospital for some time to come.
"You must follow that fellow who got away, and at once," said Dick to James Monday, and then he told of what had happened during the night and of where Sack Todd and his confederates were located.
Leaving his tired horse behind him, the eldest Rover mounted the animal Watermelon Pete had been riding, and the whole party, minus the negro, who was left to take care of himself for the time being, started for the rendezvous of the counterfeiters.
"If you do any shooting, be careful and don't hit my brother Sam," said Dick.
"I'll warn the men," answered James Monday, and did so.
Dick was so tired he could scarcely sit up in the saddle. But he longed to see Sam rescued, and so rode along as best he could.
As they neared the spot where Tom and his friends were in waiting, they heard a faint shout and soon the fun-loving Rover appeared. He had heard the distant firing when Watermelon Pete was hit and was afraid Dick had been wounded.
"Good! good!" he shouted when he recognized Dick and the government official and Fred. "This is the best yet. Now, I hope we can round up that whole crowd."
They continued to advance, and as they did so they heard a firing at a distance, in the direction of the counterfeiters' rendezvous.
"Something has gone wrong there," cried Dick.
Something had gone wrong, and to the advantage of the Rovers, as Dick and Tom afterwards learned. Sam had been left to take care of himself for a few minutes, and by a dexterous twist of his wrists had managed to rid himself of the rope which bound him.
Watching a favorable moment, the youngest Rover slid behind a rock and then began to run at his best rate of speed for another shelter some distance away.
As soon as his flight was discovered some men went in pursuit, and two shots were fired at the boy, one grazing his left shoulder, but leaving only a scratch.
The counterfeiters would have continued to pursue the fleeing one, but now a new alarm sounded out and a guard rushed up.
"A posse is after us!" called the guard. "We have got to fight, or ride for it."
"Let us fight!" exclaimed Sack Todd, but this proposition was voted down, as it was not known how many were after the evildoers.
Sack Todd was the last man to leap into the saddle. As he did so, he gritted his teeth hard.
"They shan't capture me!" he muttered. "I am not to be taken alive!"
Away went the crowd at a breakneck speed, Dan Baxter in their midst. But at the first opportunity the bully turned to the southward and he disappeared when a patch of timber was gained.
"This is too hot for me," he muttered. "I guess the best thing I can do is to get out of this neighborhood and skip for parts unknown for a while." And then he urged his horse still further to the southward, until the mists in a swamp in the midst of the timber hid him completely from view.
Having escaped from his captors, Sam hardly knew what to do, but, as he heard a number of shots fired, he made up his mind that help must be at hand, and so he hurried back on the trail, and presently came in sight of the other boys. Then he set up a mad shout of joy, which they quickly echoed.
"Are you perfectly safe, Sam?" asked Dick, riding up.
"Yes, although I had a narrow escape," and the youngest Rover pointed to where the bullet had grazed his shoulder. "What of the others?"
"All safe and sound," sang out Tom, coming up. "And James Monday and a big posse are after Sack Todd and his crowd hot-footed."
"Shall we join in?" asked Songbird.
"I can't go another step," answered Dick. "I am more than tired," and he sank in a heap on the saddle.
"You boys stay here, and we'll fix those rascals," cried a man of the posse. "You have done enough."
"I guess we have," said Tom. "We are safe and sound, and that is the main thing, so far as we are concerned."
Here let me add a few words more and then bring to a close this tale of "The Rover Boys on the Plains."
Utterly worn out, the boys remained where they were until noon of the day which was now dawning. At a great distance, they heard pistol and gun shots, and they knew that some sort of a fight must be going on.
They were just preparing to move for town, when they saw two of the posse returning with three prisoners, each disarmed and with his hands bound behind him. One of the prisoners was Puller and another Andy Jimson.
"We are going to get most of them," said one of the posse to the boys. "But they are a pretty desperate lot."
The prisoners were placed in charge of the Rovers and their friends, and the whole party moved for town without delay, while the men of the posse went back to continue the hunt for the counterfeiters. In the end, every man but Sack Todd was captured. Dan Baxter was tracked to the edge of the swamp, and there his horse was found, stuck in the ooze, Nearby lay the hat of the bully.
"My opinion is that Baxter lost his life trying to get through the swamp," said James Monday after the hunt had come to a finish.
"What a horrible end," said Sam, and shivered.
"Perhaps he did lose his life," was Dick's comment. "But I shan't believe it until I have the direct evidence. I guess, though, I've seen the last of my watch," he added.
A search was kept up for several days for Baxter, but it brought no further traces of the misguided youth.
"He is gone, that's sure," said Tom. "I must say, I never thought he'd have such an ending as this!"
James Monday was much chagrined to think that Sack Todd had slipped him, but he was much elated when one of the posse found several pack-ages among the rocks. These packages contained all of the printing plates used in the manufacturing of the counterfeit bank notes.
"The plates are what the government wants, most of all," he told the boys. "They were made by an old engraver who was once in the employ of the government. The man is too old and shaky to make other plates, and as Sack Todd isn't an engraver himself, it's not likely he will attempt to go into the business again."
As soon as all the criminals were properly jailed and the boys had given their testimony, they obtained a good night's rest and then set off for Carson Denton's plantation. The remainder of the trip proved uneventful, and when they reached their destination they felt in the best of spirits once more. The news of what had occurred had preceded them, and they were looked upon as heroes by the girls and Mrs. Laning and Mrs. Stanhope.
"But you mustn't get into any such trouble again," said Dora to Dick.
"Think, if you had been burnt up at that fire!" cried Nellie.
"Or if those bad men had shot you," added Grace.
"Well, we came out of it with a whole skin," said Tom, "so we need not complain."
"And I guess, with Baxter gone, our troubles are about over," said Sam. But he was mistaken in his surmise, as we shall learn in the next volume of this series, entitled "The Rover Boys in Southern Waters; or, The Deserted Steam Yacht." In this volume we shall meet all of our young friends again and learn the particulars of a most peculiar happening.
When the proper time came, the rascals who had been captured were tried and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. All that remained of Red Rock ranch was confiscated by the government, and the paper and printing machinery were destroyed.
While at the plantation, the boys had much sport hunting and fishing and riding. The girls often went along; and all too soon it was announced that the houseboat was once more ready for use, and the brief outing ashore must come to an end.
"Well, take it all in all, we have had a good time," said Dick
"Yes," answered Sam, "although we had a little more excitement than we bargained for."
"Excitement!" came from Tom. "Pooh! Life wouldn't be worth living without some excitement."
And then he set up a merry whistle; and with that whistle let us bring this story to a close.