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The Pony Rider Boys in Texas - Or, The Veiled Riddle of the Plains
by Frank Gee Patchin
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The lad was pale and shivering. They laid him down on the bank. But Tad quickly pulled himself to his feet.

"I must look after Pong," he said.

"You let the heathen alone," growled Big-foot Sanders. "Us tenderfeet'll look after him. That's what we are, a bunch of rank tenderfeet. You're the only seasoned, all around, dyed-in-the-wool, genuwine cowpuncher in the whole outfit. That's the truth."

Tad smiled as he hurried to where the foreman was working over the unconscious cook.

"Is he dead?" asked the lad, apprehensively.

"Dead? Huh!" grunted Curley Adams. "Heathen Chinese don't die as easy as that."

After a few minutes the cook went off into a paroxysm of choking and coughing. Then he opened his eyes.

Chunky Brown was standing near, blinking down wisely into the yellow face of Pong.

"You fell in, didn't you?" he asked solemnly.

"Allee samee," grinned the yellow man, weakly.



CHAPTER XVII

MAKING NEW FRIENDS

Professor Zepplin, fully as wet as the others, met the returning outfit. Everybody was wet. It seemed to have become their normal condition.

"Did you get the wagon over?" asked Tad.

"You bet," replied the foreman. "As soon as we get all the water shook out of that heathen we'll set him to making coffee for the outfit. It's too near dark now to do any more work; and, besides, I guess the cattle are bedded down for the night. I think they're ready for a night's rest along with ourselves. What happened to that pony?"

"I'm sure I don't know," answered Tad. "That was too bad, wasn't it?"

"Cramps I guess," suggested Big-foot. "They have been known to have 'em in the water. That water must have had an iceberg in it somewhere up the state. Never saw such all-fired cold water in my life. Whew!"

"That's one pony more we've got to buy, that's all. But I don't care. I'd rather lose the whole bunch of them than have anything happen to the Pinto," announced the foreman.

"Or the cook," added Tad, with a smile.

"Yes; it's a very serious matter for an outfit of this kind to lose its cook. We could get along without a foreman very well, but not without a cook."

"Especially when you have a bunch of hungry boys with you. What about the new ponies?"

"I'll ride over to Colonel McClure's ranch in the morning and see what we can do. You may go with me if you wish."

"I should like to very much. Is that where you expect to get the other herd of cattle as well?"

"Yes. Better take an earlier trick on guard to-night, for we shall start right after breakfast in the morning."

"Very well," replied Tad. "Guess I'll get my coffee now."

Big-foot Sanders was already helping himself to the steaming beverage, when Tad reached the chuck wagon.

"Well, kid, what about it?" greeted the big cowman.

"What about what?"

"Trouble."

Tad smiled broadly.

"There does seem to be plenty of it."

"And plenty more coming. You'll see more fun before we are clear of this part of the country."

"I don't very well see how we can have much more of it. I should imagine we have had our share."

"Wait. We'll be here three or four days yet and mebby more," warned the cowboy.

Tad went out with the second guard that night. Contrary to the expectations of Big-foot Sanders and some others, the night passed without incident, the next morning dawning bright and beautiful.

For some reason the foreman decided, at the last moment, that he would not go to the Ox Bow ranch. Instead, he instructed Big-foot Sanders to take three of the men with him and pick out what ponies they needed from Colonel McClure's stock. They were to bring the animals out to camp where the boys would break them in.

Tad set out with them, after a hurried breakfast, leaving his young companions to amuse themselves as best they could.

"How far do we have to ride, Big-foot?" asked the lad after they were in their saddles.

"Mile or two, I guess. It's been a long time since I was through these parts. There's that church I've been telling you about."

"Where?"

"There, near the bedding-down ground. Seems as though the boss might have put the cows further away from the place."

Tad surveyed the structure with keen interest. The white walls of the old adobe church reflected back the morning light in a whitish glare. About the place he observed a rank growth of weeds and evil cacti, the only touch of life to be seen being the birds that were perched on its crumbling ridges, gayly piping their morning songs.

"It looks deserted."

"I reckon it is," answered Big-foot. "Anyway, it ought to be. Ain't fit for human beings to roost in."

"Humph! I don't believe there is anything spooky about that building. I'm going to investigate, the first time I get the chance. Have we time to stop this morning?"

"No; we'll have to be getting along. The ponies we are after will have to be hobbled and got back to camp somehow. I expect we'll have a merry circus with them. If we get back in time for supper we'll be lucky."

"That will be fun," exulted Tad. "Mr. Stallings promised me I might break one of them. My pony having been drowned, I should like to break a fresh one for myself."

"And break your neck at the same time. I know you've got the sand, but you let that job out, kid. You don't know them bronchos."

"I thought you said I was no longer a tenderfoot," laughed Tad.

"Sure thing, but this is different."

"I'll chance it. You show me the pony I cannot ride, and I will confess that I am a tenderfoot."

Their arrival at the Ox Bow ranch was the signal for all the dogs on the place to try out their lungs, whereat a dozen cowboys appeared to learn the cause of the uproar. The McClure house stood a little back, nestling under a bluff covered with scant verdure, but well screened from the biting northers of the Texas winter. Further to the south were the ranch buildings, corrals, the cook house and a log cabin, outside of which hung any number of bridles and saddles, some of which the ranchers were mending and polishing when Stalling's men arrived on the scene.

Big-foot introduced himself and was received with many a shout and handshake. Bill Blake, the foreman of the ranch after greeting the new arrival, turned inquiringly to Tad Butler, who had dismounted.

"I didn't know you used kids in your business, Big-foot," he grinned.

Big-foot flushed under the imputation.

"Mebby you call him a kid, but if you'd see the lad work you'd change your mind mighty quick," answered the big cowman, with a trace of irritation in his voice. He explained to Blake what the boy was doing with the outfit, at the same time relating some of the things that the slender, freckle-faced boy from the East had accomplished.

"Shake, Pinto," exclaimed Bill Blake cordially. "I reckon Mr. McClure would like to talk with you. Big-foot and I have got some business over in the ranch house, you see," smiled the foreman.

"I see," replied Tad, though not wholly sure whether he did or not.

"He's over there talking with his boss wrangler now. Come along and I'll give you a first-class knock-down to him."

Tad found the ranch owner to be a man of refinement and kindly nature, yet whose keen, quizzical eyes seemed to take the lad in from head to foot in one comprehensive glance.

"So you are learning the business, eh? That's right, my lad. That's the way to go about it, and there's no place like a drive to learn it, for that's where a man meets about every experience that comes in the life of a cowman."

Tad explained about the Pony Riders, and that their trip was in the nature of a pleasure jaunt, they being accompanied by Walter Perkins's instructor and that they were with the outfit for a brief trip only.

Mr. McClure became interested at once.

"I should like to hear more about your experiences," he said. "Won't you come up to the house with me, while your man talks horse with my foreman?"

Tad flushed slightly as he glanced down over his own rough, dust-covered clothes.

"I—I am afraid I am not fit, sir."

"Tut, tut. We ranchers learn to take a man for what he is worth, not for what he has on. You have been riding. Naturally you would not be expected to appear in broadcloth. No more do we expect you to. Had I a son, I should feel far better satisfied to see him as you stand before me now, than in the finest of clothes. Come, I want you to meet my family."

Tad, somewhat reluctantly, followed the rancher to his house. Much to the lad's discomfiture, he was ushered into the drawing-room of the first southern home he had ever entered.

"Be seated, sir. I will call my daughters. We have so few guests here that the girls seldom see anyone during the time they are home from school."

Mr. McClure left the room, and Tad, after choosing a chair that he considered least liable to be soiled by his dusty clothes, sat down, gazing about him curiously. He found himself in a room that was by far the handsomest he had ever seen, while from the walls a long line of family ancestors looked down at him from their gilt frames.

Tad had found time for only a brief glance about him, when the sound of voices attracted his attention. At first he was unable to decide whence the voices came. They seemed to be in the room with him, yet there was no one there save himself.

Turning about he discovered that a curtained doorway led directly into another room, and that it was from the adjoining room that the sound had come.

"You say Ruth is bad again to-day, Margaret?"

"No, mother, I would not say that exactly. Yet she does not seem to be quite herself, and I thought it best to tell you. I feared that perhaps she was going to have one of her old attacks."

"Say nothing to her of your suspicions. The last one passed over, I think largely because we appeared to treat her mood lightly. Poor child, she has never ceased to grieve for the man whom her parents refused to permit her to marry. I think your Aunt Jane made a grievous mistake. I told her so plainly when she brought Ruth here to us, hoping she might forget her youthful love affair."

Tad Butler's cheeks burned.

That he had unwittingly played eavesdropper troubled him not a little. The boy rose and walking to a window on the further side of the room, stood with hat crumpled in both hands behind him, gazing out.

The voices ceased. Yet a moment later Tad started and turned sharply.

"Well, young man, what are you doing here?"

Before him he saw a woman just short of middle age. He inferred at once that she was the elder of the two women whom he had heard speaking behind the curtain.

"I am waiting for Mr. McClure," answered Tad, bowing politely, his face flushing under its tan.

"Does he know that you are here?" she asked in a milder tone.

"Oh, yes. He asked me to wait here until he returned."

"Pardon me, I——"

"Ah, here you are, my dear. I have been looking for you. I wish you to meet Master Thaddeus Butler, who, with three companions and a tutor, is crossing the state with the Miller herd. It is the most unique vacation in these days. Master Butler, this is Mrs. McClure. My daughters will join us in a moment."

Mrs. McClure shook hands cordially with their young guest.

"Welcome to Ox Bow," she smiled. "At first, as your back was turned to me, I took you for one of the men. Instantly you faced me I saw the mistake I had made. Won't you be seated?"

Under her cordial manner Tad Butler was soon at his ease. Almost before he was aware of the fact Mrs. McClure had drawn from him the main facts relating to the journeyings of the Pony Riders.

Mrs. McClure's two daughters, Sadie and Margaret, entered the room soon afterwards, Tad being presented to them. Margaret, the elder of the two, was a fair-haired girl of perhaps nineteen years, while her sister Sadie, who was darker, Tad judged to be about his own age.

Both girls shook hands smilingly with their guest.

"I hope you will pardon me for appearing in such a disreputable condition," begged the lad. "I really am not fit to be seen."

His quaint way of putting it brought forth a general laugh.

"You need make no apology. We are all ranchers here. Even my daughters and my niece ride, and sometimes accompany the foreman on drives from one part of the ranch to another. As for my niece, though brought up in the East, she is a born cattle woman. There is hardly a cowman on the place who can ride better than she."

"Your man tells us that you are the best horseman in your outfit," said Mr. McClure.

"I don't think I quite deserve that compliment, sir," answered Tad. "But I am very fond of horses. I find, by kind treatment, one can do almost anything with them."

"My idea exactly," nodded Mr. McClure approvingly. "The cowpuncher doesn't look at it that way, however. He wouldn't feel at home on a horse that didn't break the monotony by bucking now and then. Did you ever ride a bucker?"

"Once. I expect to break one of the animals I understand we are to get from you."

His host whistled softly.

"You have a large contract on hand, young man. The ponies I am turning off are the worst specimens we ever had on the ranch. Some of them never had a bridle on, for the very good reason that no one ever has been able to get close enough to them to put bridles on. I hope you will not be foolish enough to try to break any of that stock."

"Oh, we'll rope them and get a headstall on, anyway. The rest will come along all right, I think," smiled Tad.

"Ah, my niece, Miss Brayton!" exclaimed the rancher, introducing a young woman who had just entered the room.

"With the Miller outfit?" she asked.

"Yes," answered Tad.

"Who is your foreman?"

"Stallings—Bob Stallings."

Tad thought Miss Brayton one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Yet there was something about her that affected him strangely. Perhaps it was her abrupt manner of speaking. At any rate the lad experienced a sense of uneasiness the moment she entered the room. He did not stop to ask himself why. Tad merely knew that this was true. Miss Brayton had little to say, but her quietness was more than atoned for by the vivacity of Sadie and Margaret.

As Tad was taking his leave the entire family accompanied him out into the yard.

"If your duties will permit we should like to have you and your companions dine with us to-morrow evening," said Colonel McClure.

"Yes; by all means," added Mrs. McClure.

"Yes, Mr. Butler, we should love to have you," added Sadie.

"Besides, we want to meet your friends," said Margaret.

"And I am sure we should enjoy coming. It seems almost an imposition for four of us boys to camp out in your dining room at the same time," laughed Tad.

"I assure you it will be doing us a favor," protested the rancher. "You will bring your Professor, also. We'll have a real family party."

Tad somewhat reluctantly agreed to bring his companions, though he disliked the idea of going to so fine a place for dinner in their rough, weather-beaten clothing.

The boy bade them all good-bye and strode off toward the corral, where the ponies were being roped preparatory to being taken over to the Miller herd.

"Oh, Mr. Butler!"

Tad wheeled sharply. Ruth Brayton was hurrying toward him.

The lad lifted his hat courteously and awaited the young woman's approach.

"Yes, Miss Brayton."

"Tell me again who your foreman is."

"Bob Stallings."

"Stallings—Stallings. Where have I heard that name before?" mused the girl, staring at Tad with vacant eyes.

"Are you sure it isn't Hamilton—Robert Hamilton?"

"Quite sure," smiled the lad.

"Do you know a cowboy or foreman by that name?"

"No, I never heard the name before."

Miss Brayton turned abruptly and hurried away. Tad heard her repeating the name of his foreman as she walked swiftly toward the ranch house.



CHAPTER XVIII

BREAKING IN THE BRONCHOS

"My, but that was a job," laughed Tad, after they had reached camp again, with three wild bronchos in tow. They had staked the new ponies down on the plain to think matters over while the cowboys sat down to their noon meal.

"They sure are a bad lot," agreed Big-foot Sanders. "Never seen worse ones. See that fellow, over there, don't even mind the pinch of that hackmore bridle. He's the ugliest brute in the bunch."

"That's the one I'm going to break," decided Tad Butler, his eyes glowing as he observed the wild pitching and snorting of the staked animal.

The pony was running the length of his rope at full speed, coming to a sudden halt when he reached its end, with heels high in the air and head doubled up under him on the ground.

It seemed to the lad like unnecessarily harsh treatment, yet he knew full well the quality of the temper of these animals of the plains.

"I'm afraid he'll break his neck," objected Tad.

"Let him," snapped the foreman. "There's more where he came from."

"By the way," said Tad, speaking to the Pony Riders. "I have an invitation for you fellows. I had forgotten it in the excitement of getting the new ponies to camp."

"Where to!" asked Ned Rector indifferently.

"To take dinner at the home of Colonel McClure."

"That will be fine," glowed Walter.

"But the question is, what are we going to wear?" laughed Tad. "We don't look very beautiful for a drawing room."

"Drawing room?" inquired Ned Rector, with interest. "Did I hear you say drawing room?"

"Yes."

"Huh! There isn't one within a thousand miles of us."

"You will think differently when you see the one at the ranch house."

"Did—did the colonel say what we were going to have to eat?" asked Stacy Brown, in all seriousness.

His question provoked a loud laugh from cowboys and Pony Riders.

"No. Naturally, I didn't ask him. There are some very nice girls at the ranch, too."

"You don't say!" exclaimed Ned. "Will wonders never cease? I'll believe I am not dreaming when I see all this with my own two eyes."

"Yes, Colonel McClure has two daughters, and besides these, there is a niece from the East visiting them. She is considerably older than the daughters, but a very beautiful woman." Tad paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Professor, I presume you will have no objection to our accepting Colonel McClure's invitation? You are invited to join us."

"Not at all, young gentlemen. But perhaps I had better not intrude——"

"Please go," urged Tad.

"Sure. He'll go. You will, won't you, Professor?" demanded Ned.

"Of course, if you really wish me to——" smiled Professor Zepplin good-naturedly.

"Of course we do," chorused the boys.

"Very well, I will think it over. I'm afraid, however, that I do not look altogether presentable."

"No more do we," answered Walter Perkins. "Tad probably told them we did not."

Tad nodded.

"They refused to accept that excuse. So I told them we would come."

The boys were full of anticipation for this promised break in the monotony of their living; and, besides, they looked forward keenly to meeting the young women about whom their companion had told them.

After the meal had been finished Tad asked when they were to begin breaking the new stock.

Stallings looked over the ponies critically.

"I guess we'll let them stay where they are, for an hour or so yet. It will help to break their spirit. Still think you can break one of them in?"

"I am sure of it," answered Tad Butler confidently.

"You shall have the chance. However, I shall not permit you to saddle him. Some of the cowpunchers, who are used to that, had better do it for you the first time. Unless one knows these little brutes he is liable to be kicked to death."

"I am not afraid."

"No, that is the danger of it. Neither is the pony afraid—that is, not until he is blindfolded."

About the middle of the afternoon the foreman announced that they would begin the breaking. The cowmen uttered a shout, for the process promised them much boisterous fun.

"Is the gopher going to break one of the bronchos?" asked Lumpy Bates.

"No, but the Pinto is," replied Curley Adams.

"He'll want to go home right away if he tries it, I reckon," jeered Lumpy.

"Don't you be too sure about that," retorted Curley. "That kid's got the stuff in him. I've been watching him right along. None of them lads is tenderfeet, unless it's the gopher, and he isn't half as bad as he looks."

By this time the foreman had taken hold of the rope that held the most violent of the ponies, and was slowly shortening upon it. As he neared the pony's head a cowboy began whipping a blanket over its back.

While the animal was plunging and kicking, Stallings gripped him by the bridle, after which there was a lively struggle, and in a moment more a broad handkerchief had been tied over the pony's eyes.

"What's that for! Is he going to play blind man's buff?" demanded Chunky.

"Huh! Get out!" growled Big-foot.

"If he does, you'll be it," jeered Ned Rector.

At last the animal crouched down trembling. He had never passed through an experience like that before and could not understand it.

Tad Butler standing near, was observing the operation with keenly inquiring eyes.

All at once the little animal leaped clear of the foreman's grip, its blinder came off and it launched into a series of wild bucks and grunts. The air seemed full of flying hoofs, and for the moment there was a lively scattering of cowpunchers and Pony Riders.

Once more, and with great patience, the foreman went all over the proceeding again. This time the foreman got one hand on the animal's nose and the other in his mane.

All at once something happened. A forty-pound saddle was thrown, not dropped, on the back of the unsuspecting pony.

The broncho's back arched like a bow, and the saddle went skyward. Stacy Brown happened to be in the way of it as it descended, so that boy and saddle went down together in a yelling heap.

The cowpunchers howled with delight as Chunky, covered with dust, wiping the sand from his eyes, staggered angrily to his feet.

"Did he kick me?" he demanded.

"With his back, yes," chuckled Shorty Savage.

Again and again the saddle was shot into the air the instant it touched the pony's back. It was back in place in no time, however. After a time the broncho paused, as if to devise some new method of getting rid of the hated thing.

As he did so, Big-foot Sanders cautiously poked a stick under the animal, pulling the girth toward him. A moment more and he had slipped it through a large buckle, and, with a jerk, made the girth fast.

Again the bucking began, but more violently than before.

The saddle held, though it slipped to one side a little.

"I've got him now," cried Stallings. "The instant he lets up, catch that flank girth and make fast."

"Right," answered Big-foot.

It was accomplished almost before the boys realized it.

Walter and his companions set up a shout.

The pony stood panting, head down, legs braced apart. The blinder had been torn from his eyes. He was waiting for the next move.

"Are you ready for me now?" asked Tad Butler quietly.

The foreman turned his head, glancing at Tad questioningly.

"Think you can stand it?"

"I can't any more than fall off."

Stallings nodded.

Tad slipped to the pony's side. Cautiously placing his left foot in the stirrups, he suddenly flung himself into the saddle.

The next instant Tad Butler was flying through the air over the pony's head.



CHAPTER XIX

GRIT WINS THE BATTLE

The lad appeared to strike the ground head-on. Fortunately, the spot where he landed was covered with soft sand.

"Are you hurt?" asked Big-foot, running to the boy and reaching out to assist him.

"I guess not," answered Tad, rubbing the sand from his eyes and blinking vigorously.

The skin had been scraped from his face in spots where the coarse sand had ground its way through. His hair was filled with the dirt of the plain, and his clothes were torn.

But Tad Butler, nothing daunted, smiled as he pulled himself to his feet.

"You better let that job out. You can't ride that critter!"

"I'll ride him—if he kills me!" answered the boy, his jaws setting stubbornly.

Tad hitched his belt tighter before making any move to approach the pony, which Stallings was now holding by main force. While doing so, the lad watched the animal's buckings observantly.

"What—what happened?" demanded Stallings.

"Foot slipped out of the stirrup."

"Think you can make it?"

"I'll try it, if you have the time to spare."

"It takes time to break a bronch. Don't you worry about that. I don't want you to be breaking your neck, however."

"My advice is that you keep off that animal," declared Professor Zepplin. "You cannot manage him; that is plain."

"Please do not say that, Professor. I must ride him now. You wouldn't have me be a coward, would you?"

Stallings, realizing the boy's position, nodded slightly to the Professor.

"Very well, if Mr. Stallings thinks it is safe," agreed Professor Zepplin reluctantly.

Tad's face lighted up with a satisfied smile.

"Whoa, boy," he soothed, patting the animal gently on the neck.

The pony's back arched and its heels shot up into the air again. Once more Tad petted him.

"No use," said the foreman. "The iron hand is the only thing that will break this cayuse. Don't know enough to know when he's well off. Got your spurs on?"

"Yes."

"Then drive them in when you get well seated."

Tad shook his head.

"I do not think that will be necessary. Guess he'll go fast enough without urging him with the rowels," answered the boy, backing away to wait until the pony had bounced itself into a position where another effort to mount him would be possible.

"Will you please coil up the stake rope and fasten it to the horn, Mr. Stallings?" asked Tad. "I don't want to get tangled up with that thing."

"Yes, if you are sure you can stick on him."

"Leave that to me. I know his tricks now."

Cautiously the rope was coiled and made fast to the saddle horn.

"I'm coming," said Tad in a quiet, tense voice.

"Ready," answered the foreman, with equal quietness.

The lad darted forward, running on his toes, his eyes fixed on the saddle.

Tad gave no heed to the pony. It was that heavy bobbing saddle that he must safely make before the pony itself would enter into his considerations.

Lightly touching the saddle, he bounded into it, at the same time shoving both feet forward. Fortunately his shoes slipped into the big, boxed stirrups, and the rein which lay over the pommel ready for him was quickly gathered up.

Stallings leaped from the animal's head and the cowpunchers made a quick sprint to remove themselves from the danger zone.

They were none too soon.

The broncho at last realized that his head was free. His sides, however, were being gripped by a muscular pair of legs, and his head was suddenly jerked up by a sharp tug at the rein.

"Y-e-e-e-o-w!" greeted the cowboys in their long-drawn, piercing cry.

"Yip!" answered Tad, though more to the pony than in answer to them.

Down went the pony's head between his forward legs, his hind hoofs beating a tattoo in the air.

The feet came down as suddenly as they had gone up. Instantly the little animal began a series of stiff-legged leaps into the air, his curving back making it a very uncomfortable place to sit on.

Tad's head was jerked back and forth until it seemed as though his neck would be broken.

"Look out for the side jump!" warned the foreman.

It came almost instantly, and with a quickness that nearly unhorsed the plucky lad.

As it was, the swift leap to the right threw Tad half way over on the beast's left side. Fortunately, the lad gripped the pommel with his right hand as he felt himself going, and little by little he pulled himself once more to an upright posture.

All at once the animal took a leap into the air, coming down headed in the opposite direction.

Tad's head swam. He no longer heard the shouts of encouragement from the cowpunchers. He was clinging desperately to his insecure seat, with legs pressed tightly against the pony's sides. As yet he had not seen fit to use the rowels.

There came a pause which was almost as disconcerting as had been the previous rapid movements.

"He's going to throw himself! Don't get caught under him!" bellowed Big-foot.

Tad was thankful for the suggestion, for he was not looking for that move at the moment.

The pony struck the ground on its left side with a bump that made the animal grunt. Tad, however, forewarned, had freed his left foot from the stirrup and was standing easily over his fallen mount, eyes fixed on the beast's ears, ready to resume his position at the first sign of a quiver of those ears.

Like a flash the animal was on its feet again, but with Tad riding in the saddle, a satisfied smile on his face. Once more the awful, nerve-racking bucking began. It did not seem as if a human being could survive that series of violent antics, and least of all a mere boy.

All at once the animal came up on its hind legs.

Tad knew instinctively what it meant. He did not need the warning cry of the cowpunchers to tell him what the pony was about to do. Over went the broncho on its back, rolling to its side quickly.

Tad was on the ground beside it, standing in a half-crouching position, with one foot on the saddle horn.

He had jerked the broncho's head clear of the ground with a strong tug on the reins, making the animal helpless to rise until the lad was ready for him to do so.

The cowboys uttered a yell of triumph.

"Great! Great!" approved Bob Stallings.

"Tenderfoot, eh?" jeered Big-foot Sanders. "Hooray for the Pinto!"

Tad's companions gave a shrill cheer.

"Wait. He ain't out of the woods yet," growled Lumpy Bates.

"Think you could do it better, hey?" snapped Curley Adams. "Why, that cayuse would shake the blooming neck off you if you were in that saddle. I never did see such a whirlwind."

"Got springs in his feet, I reckon," grinned Big-foot.

"Don't let his head down till you're ready for the get-away," cautioned the foreman.

Tad suddenly allowed the head to touch the ground, after the pony had lain pinned at his feet, breathing hard for a full minute.

Boy and mount were in the air in a twinkling. As they went up, Ted brought down his quirt with all his strength. It was time the ugly animal was taught that its enemy could strike a blow for himself.

With a quick pause, as if in surprise, the beast shot its head back to fasten its teeth in the leg of the rider. Tad had jerked his leg away as he saw the movement, with the result that only part of his leggin came away between the teeth of the savage animal.

Crack!

Down came the quirt again.

The broncho's head straightened out before him with amazing quickness. He was beginning to fear as well as hate the human being who so persistently sat his back and tortured him.

The pony sprang into the air.

"They're off!" shouted the cowboys.

With amazing quickness the animal lunged ahead, paused suddenly, then shot across the plain in a series of leaps and twists.

Tad shook out the rein, at the same time giving a gentle pressure to the rowels of his spurs.

Maddened almost beyond endurance, the pony started at a furious pace, not pausing until more than a mile had been covered. When he did bring up it was with disconcerting suddenness.

"Whoa, boy!" soothed Tad, patting the little animal on the neck. Again the wide-open mouth reached for the lad's left leg. But this time Tad pressed in the spurs on the right side. The pony tried to bite that way, whereat its rider spurred it on the left side.

This was continued until, at least, in sheer desperation, the animal started again to run. He found that he was not interfered with in this effort. However, when he sought to unseat his rider by brushing against the trunk of a large tree, he again felt the sting of the quirt on his flank.

Gradually Tad now began to work the animal around. After a time he succeeded in doing this, and was soon headed for camp. They bore down, at great speed, to where the cowboys were swinging their hats and setting up a shout that carried far over the plain.

Tad's face was flushed with pride. Yet he did not allow himself for an instant to forget his work. The lad's whole attention was centered on the pony under him. He was determined to make a grand finish that, while exhibiting his horsemanship, would at the same time give the pony a lesson not soon to be forgotten.

"You've got him!" cried Ned Rector as Tad approached, now at a gallop, the animal's ears lying back angrily.

"Don't be too sure," answered Big-foot. "See them ears? That means more trouble."

It came almost before the words were out of the cowpuncher's mouth.

The broncho stiffened, its hoofs ploughing little trails in the soft dirt of the plain as it skidded to a stop. The jolt might have unhorsed Tad Butler had he not been expecting it from some indications that he read in the animal's actions.

Suddenly settling back on its haunches, the broncho rolled over on its side. Tad, with a grin, stepped off a few paces, taking with him, however, the coil of rope, one end of which was still fastened around the beast's neck.

With a snort and a bound, realizing that it was free at last, the little animal leaped to its feet and darted away.

Tad moved swiftly to the right, so as not to get a tug on the rope over the back of the pony.

The coil was running out over his hands like a thing of life. Grasping the end firmly, the lad shook out the rest of the rope, leaning back until it was almost taut.

By this time the animal was running almost at right angles to him.

Tad gave the rope a quick rolling motion just as it was being drawn taut. The result was as surprising as it was sudden. The animal's four feet were snipped from under it neatly, sending the broncho to earth with a disheartening bump.



Without giving it a chance to rise, Tad sprang upon it, and, when the pony rose, Tad Butler was sitting proudly in the saddle.

The little beast's head went down. Its proud spirit had been broken by a boy who knew the ways of the stubborn animal.

A great shout of approval went up from cowpunchers and Pony Riders. They had never seen a breaking done more skillfully.

Tad's gloved hand patted the neck of the subdued animal affectionately.

"I'm sorry I had to be rough with you, old boy, but you shall have a lump of sugar. We're going to be great friends, now, I know."



CHAPTER XX

DINNER AT THE OX BOW

"Welcome to the Ox Bow, young gentlemen," greeted Colonel McClure.

The rancher and his wife were waiting at the lower end of the lawn as the Pony Rider Boys, accompanied by Professor Zepplin, rode up on the following afternoon.

The lads wore their regulation plainsman's clothes, but for this occasion coats had been put on and hair combed, each desiring to look his best, as they were to meet the young ladies of the ranch.

"We owe you an apology, sir, for appearing in this condition," announced the Professor.

"Master Butler and myself have already settled that question," answered the rancher. "As Henry Ward Beecher once said, 'Clothes don't make the man, but when he is made he looks very well dressed up.' I must say, however, that these young men are about as likely a lot of lads as I have ever seen."

Clear-eyed, their faces tanned almost to a copper color, figures erect and shoulders well back, the Pony Rider Boys were indeed wholesome to look upon. Perhaps Sadie and Margaret McClure were not blind to this, for they blushed very prettily, the boys thought, upon being presented to their guests. Ruth Brayton was in a sunny mood, laughing gayly as she chatted with the boys.

Tad glanced at her inquiringly. She was not the same girl that he had met the day before. There was a difference in the eyes, too. Tad could not understand the change. It perplexed him.

Colonel McClure took the Professor off to his study, the boys being left with Mrs. McClure and the young ladies to wander through the grounds and chat. Each of the young women was an accomplished horsewoman, and therefore evinced a keen interest in the experiences of the boys since they had been in saddle.

"I had so often wanted to take a trip through the Rockies on horseback," announced Miss Margaret.

"I am afraid you would find it rather rough going," said Ned Rector.

"No worse than the plains," replied Walter. "We have had more hardships in Texas during the short time we have been here than we ever experienced in the mountains."

"Yes; but you were driving cattle," objected Mrs. McClure. "There probably is no harder work in the world. We, down here, know something about that."

"I—I killed a bobcat up in the mountains," Stacy Brown informed them, with enthusiasm.

"Indeed," smiled Mrs. McClure indulgently.

"He did. And I fell off a mountain," laughed Walter Perkins. "You see we have had quite a series of experiences."

"Indeed you have. How long do you expect to remain with the herd? Are you going through with them?"

"I believe not," answered Tad Butler. "I think we shall be leaving very soon now. We have a lot of traveling to do yet, as it has been planned that we shall see a good deal of the country before it is time to return to school this fall."

"And you are to remain out in the open—in the saddle all summer?" asked Miss Brayton, her eyes sparkling almost enviously.

"Yes; I believe so."

"I should love it."

"We are getting to love it ourselves. It will be hard to have to sleep indoors again."

Shortly afterwards all were summoned in to supper. Stacy Brown's eyes sparkled with anticipation as he surveyed the table resplendent with silver and cut glass—loaded, too, with good things to eat.

Ned Rector observed the look in his companion's eyes.

"Now, don't forget that we are not eating off the tail board of the chuck wagon, Chunky," he whispered in passing. "Be as near human as you can and satisfy your appetite."

Chunky's face flushed.

"Take your advice to yourself," he muttered.

Colonel McClure proved an entertaining host, and the boys were led on to talk about themselves during most of the meal. Especially were their hosts interested in the story of the discovery of the Lost Claim, which the boys had found on their trip in the Rockies.

"I have wanted to ask you about the old church between here and camp, Mr. McClure," said Tad at the first opportunity.

"Very interesting old ruin, sir," answered the host. "Built by the Mexicans more than a hundred years ago."

"Yes, so I understand."

"Is it true that there's spooks in that place?" interrupted Stacy.

Everybody laughed. Tad glanced sharply at Ruth Brayton. He noticed a curious flush on her face, and the strained look that he had observed in her eyes on the previous day was again there. Almost the instant he caught it it was gone.

"I'm afraid you have been misinformed, Master Stacy," answered Colonel McClure.

"How about the trouble that the cattle men experience when near the place?" spoke up Ned Rector. "The cowmen are sure there is something in the story."

"Nothing at all—nothing at all. Just a mere coincidence. We live here and we have no more than the usual run of ill luck with our stock."

"Stampedes?" asked Tad.

"Seldom anything of that sort. You see our stock is held by wire fences. If they want to stampede we let them—let them run until they are tired of it."

"I should like to explore the old church," said Tad, again referring to the subject uppermost in his mind.

"Nothing to hinder. Ruth, why can't you and the girls take the young men over there to-morrow if the day is fine? You know the place and its history. I am sure they would enjoy having you do so."

"We should be delighted," answered Ned Rector promptly.

"We might make it a picnic," suggested Margaret McClure.

"And have things to eat?" asked Stacy, evincing a keen interest in the proposal.

"Of course," smiled Mrs. McClure. "A picnic would not be a picnic without a spread on the ground. I will send some of the servants over to serve the picnic lunch."

"Thank you," smiled Tad gratefully. "It will be a happy afternoon for all of us if Miss Brayton can find the time to take us."

"Of course Ruth will go," nodded Mrs. McClure.

"Yes," answered the young woman. "What time shall we arrange to start, auntie?"

"Say eleven o'clock, if that will suit the young men."

"Perfectly," answered Tad.

"You might first take a gallop to the Springs. That will give you all an appetite."

"Where are the Springs?" asked Ned.

"About seven miles to the eastward of the ranch. A most picturesque place," answered Colonel McClure. "Professor, while the young people are enjoying themselves, suppose you ride over here and spend the afternoon with me? We can ride about the ranch if it would please you."

"I should be delighted."

"I was going to suggest, too, that it might be a pleasant relief for all of you to accept the hospitality of the Ox Bow ranch and remain here while you are in the vicinity. We have room to spare and would be glad to have you."

"I am afraid the young men would prefer to remain in camp, thank you. They will get enough of sleeping in beds upon their return home, discourteous as the statement may seem," answered Professor Zepplin.

"Not at all—not at all. I understand you perfectly. I shall not press the point. But spend all the time you can with us. The place is yours. Make yourselves at home."

"No; Mr. Stallings would not like it if we were to remain away over night. You see, he expects us to do our share of night guard duty," explained Tad. "We are earning our keep as it were."

The boys laughed.

"That is, some of us are," corrected Ned, with a sly glance at Stacy, who was eating industriously. "Others are eating for their keep."

The Pony Rider Boys caught the hidden meaning in his words, but they tried not to let their hosts observe that it was a joke at the expense of one of them.

"Stallings," murmured Miss Brayton, her eyes staring vacantly at Tad Butler.

Tad flushed at the memory of what he had heard on his first visit to the ranch.

Miss Brayton excused herself rather abruptly and left the room. They did not see her again that evening.

"My niece has been ailing of late," explained Mrs. McClure.

"Perhaps she had better not try to accompany us to-morrow, then," suggested Tad.

"Oh, yes, I wish her to. It will do her good—it will take her mind from herself."

Tad Butler noted the last half of the sentence particularly. For him it held a deeper meaning than it did for his companions.

"I wonder if she knows Mr. Stallings," mused Tad. "I'm going to find out. No, I won't. It's none of my business. Still, it will do no harm to ask him, or to mention the name to him. That surely would not be wrong."

Under the charm of the evening his mind soon drifted into other channels. After supper games were brought out and a happy evening followed.

Ten o'clock came, and Professor Zepplin, glancing at his watch, was about to propose a return to camp, when one of Colonel McClure's cowboys appeared in the doorway, hat in hand.

"Beg pardon; may I speak with you a moment?" asked the man.

"Certainly," replied the colonel, with the same gracious manner, Tad observed, that he used toward his guests. "Excuse me a moment."

After a little their host returned, but rather hurriedly, it seemed, and Tad's keen eyes noticed that he seemed disturbed.

Mr. McClure caught the lad's inquiring gaze fixed upon him. He nodded.

"Is anything wrong?" asked the rancher's wife.

"Yes; I am afraid there is," he answered quietly.

"What is it?"

"I am not sure. Perhaps I should not alarm you young gentlemen, but I think you should know."

"At the camp, you mean?" asked Tad.

"Yes."

"What's that?" demanded Professor Zepplin sharply. "Something wrong at the camp?"

"My men think so. They say they hear shooting off in that direction, and want to know if they shall ride out."

"You think it is a—a——" began Tad.

"A stampede? Yes; I should not be surprised."

"We must go," announced the lad, rising promptly.

"Why go?" asked Margaret.

"We may be needed."

"But my men have started already," replied the rancher. "They surely will be help enough."

"Mr. Stallings will expect us. We may be able to be of some assistance."

"Well, if you must. Yes; you are right. Business is business, even when one is out on a pleasure trip. It's a good sign in a young man. Tell your foreman that he may call upon us to any extent."

"Thank you, I will," replied Tad.

Bidding their hosts a hasty good night, and promising to be on hand at the appointed hour on the following day if the condition of the herd permitted, the Pony Rider Boys ran for their ponies. In a few moments they were racing toward camp. They, too, were now able to hear the short, spiteful bark of the six-shooters.

It was a significant sound. They had heard it too many times before not to understand it. In their minds they could see the hardy cowboys riding in front of the unreasoning animals, shooting into the ground in front of them, seeking to check the rush.

"What do you think about this business?" asked Tad Butler, drawing up beside Ned Rector.

"I think there is more in this spook story than Colonel McClure knows of, or, at least, will admit."

"So do I," answered Tad.

"We'll know when we hear how it happened."

Tad remembered, at that moment, the hasty departure of Ruth Brayton.

"I wonder—I wonder," muttered the boy to himself.



CHAPTER XXI

A CALL FOR HELP

"I told you so."

"You have told me so many things, Big-foot, that I can't remember them all," laughed Tad. "What is it this time?"

"Trouble."

"Oh, you mean the stampede last night?"

"Yes."

"Tell me about it. You know I was not here when it started."

After a hard night's work, in which the Pony Rider Boys had toiled heroically, the cattle once more had been rounded up and Big-foot and Tad Butler were riding into camp for breakfast. It was the first opportunity they had found to talk over the incident.

"Not much to tell. It happened so quick——"

"What time?" interrupted Tad.

"'Bout half-past nine, I reckon."

"Half-past nine," muttered the lad thoughtfully. "Yes; go on."

"We were sitting by the camp fire, and Curley Adams was telling about the time he was mixed up with the rustlers on the Colorado."

"Yes."

"Well, them ponies came down on us a-whooping."

"The ponies? Did they get away, too?" asked the lad in surprise.

"Did they? You ought to have seen the varmints. Nearly run over us when they smashed through the camp. One jumped clean over the fire."

"Yes, I understand; but did you have any idea why the cattle stampeded?"

"Sure. The ponies put them on the run."

"The ponies started it?"

"Yes. No telling how it happened. The cows come a-running after the ponies had broke through them, and the whole outfit piled over the camp."

"Do any damage?"

"I reckon. Knocked over the chuck wagon, and near killed the heathen Chinee. The men on guard roped the runaway ponies, and, by the time you got on the job, we had just about got straightened around ready to go after the cows."

"I suppose you lay it to——"

"Adobe church," answered the cowman conclusively.

"I am going over there to-day, Big-foot. I am going to try to find out if there is anything in all this. Candidly, I don't believe it. Even Colonel McClure says it's all foolishness. That is, I do not believe it is anything that cannot be explained."

The foreman was looking worried that morning. It had been a succession of disasters ever since they had neared the locality. This time it had been the ponies which were hobbled some little distance from the herd, but which had become so frightened at what they saw that they bolted, hobbles and all.

"I want those cows from the McClure ranch brought over to-day," Stallings directed. "At least, bring over half of them. Get them over right after breakfast. If we are going to have any more disturbances let's try to have them in the daytime."

"Do you need us?" asked Tad.

"No. Go on and enjoy yourselves. You all have earned a holiday."

The lads were in their saddles early. Professor Zepplin went with them, intending to spend the day at the ranch as arranged on the previous evening.

The young ladies of the household were waiting, dressed in short skirts and wearing broad-brimmed straw hats. To the boys they were most attractive. Their fresh young faces lighted with anticipation of the day's pleasure as, assisted by the Pony Riders, they swung into their saddles. It fell to Tad Butler to ride beside Miss Brayton.

"We had a stampede at the camp last night," he told her after they had headed off to the east for the Springs, which was to be their first objective point.

"Yes; so uncle told me. I'm sorry. Did you lose any stock?"

"I believe not, unless it was some of the new ponies. I did not think to ask."

"At what time did the trouble occur?" she asked absently.

"I think it was shortly after you left us at dinner, last night," answered Tad, in a matter-of-fact tone. "It was, perhaps, half an hour after that when your uncle told us."

Miss Brayton flushed painfully, and quickly changed the subject. Tad noticed her confusion and marveled at it.

Arriving at the Springs, which proved to be a group of rocks rising out of the plain, and from which several springs of pure sparkling water bubbled, all dismounted and drank of the refreshing fluid. After a few moments spent in chatting, they remounted their ponies and set off for the adobe church, the real object of the day's journey.

Reaching the historic place, they tethered their ponies among the mesquite bushes in the rear of it, after which all entered through a crumbling doorway. The interior, they found, was in an excellent state of preservation.

Many surprising little alcoves and odd, cell-like rooms were distributed all through the church. It was dark and cool in there. Chunky shivered, and said he didn't wonder people said there were spooks there.

"Is there any cellar beneath the church?" asked Tad.

"It has been said that there were once underground passages," answered Miss Brayton. "No one in our time has ever discovered them."

"That sounds interesting. I think I should like to find the way into them."

"So should I," added Stacy Brown.

"Look out that you don't fall in," cautioned Ned. "Remember that's your failing."

"Not much chance of that," laughed Margaret. "These stone floors are too thick for anyone to fall through."

"Does anyone ever come here?" asked Tad.

"Not that I know of," answered Miss Brayton.

"But I saw a path when I came in. Somebody has been hitching a pony out there in the bushes, too," said the boy.

"Perhaps some of the cowmen may come in here out of the heat, now and then," replied the young woman carelessly.

"Why Ruth, you could not induce one of papa's men to enter the door of the old place. You know they are half scared to death of it," said Margaret.

Chunky's eyes were growing large.

"Wow!" he said. "Let's go out doors and eat."

"The lunch has not yet arrived. It will be here soon," Miss Brayton informed him. "We will spread it in the main room here, if you have no objections. It will be cool and pleasant; and, besides, there are no flies in here."

"For goodness' sake, forget your appetite," growled Ned in Stacy's ear.

"Can't a fellow talk about his appetite without being found fault with?" Chunky sulkily retorted.

"Not the kind of an appetite you have. It's a positive disgrace to the outfit."

"Huh!" grunted Chunky, walking away.

The lad wandered off by himself, and the rest forgot all about him in their investigation of the old church. Miss Brayton told them as much of its history as she knew.

"Some of the former priests are said to have been buried somewhere in the edifice," she said.

"I don't see any signs of it," said Tad.

"No. No one ever has in our time. And it has even been hinted that treasure has been buried here, too, or secreted in some of the mysterious recesses of the church."

"Where are they" asked Walter. "I am beginning to get curious."

"I am sure I do not know," laughed the young woman. "There is a sort of garret, if you can get to it, above the gallery there. Maybe you might find something there. I have an idea that it is inhabited by bats."

"I guess we will leave them undisturbed," decided Tad. "I don't like bats."

"There come the servants," announced Miss Brayton. "Now your friend will be able to satisfy his appetite."

At her direction the servants brought in the baskets of food. A cloth was spread over a stone table that they found at the far end of the church in the balcony. What its use had been, in those other days, they did not know, but it served their purpose very well now.

"I am afraid we shall have to eat standing," said Miss Sadie. "We have no chairs."

"That will suit Chunky," replied Ned Rector. "He always likes to eat standing."

"Why?" asked Margaret, glancing up at him inquiringly.

"For some reasons of his own," answered Ned mischievously.

As the good things were spread before them the eyes of the lads lighted appreciatively, and all helped themselves gratefully.

It was a jolly party, untouched by the air of mystery that was supposed to surround the place.

"Why, where is Master Stacy?" asked Ruth Brayton in surprise, after they had been eating a few moments.

"Chunky? That's so, where is he?" demanded Walter, glancing over the railing into the auditorium below.

No one seemed to know.

"He's prowling around the place somewhere," said Ned. "But what surprises me is that he doesn't scent the food and come running. It's not like him to hang back when there is anything good to eat."

"Call him," suggested Margaret.

"I will. O-h-h Chunky!"

There was no reply.

"I will go after him," said Walter, running lightly to the other end of the balcony and down the stone steps.

The lad returned in a few moments, a perplexed frown on his face.

"Find him?" asked Ned.

"No."

"Maybe he's gone back to camp. He's a queer chap."

"I think not. I saw his pony there with the others."

"Oh, well, never mind. He'll get so hungry that he will have to come out, wherever he is," decided Tad. "I imagine he is hiding somewhere to make us think he has gone away. Hark! What was that?"

A far away call for help echoed faintly through the church.

They looked at each other with growing uneasiness on their faces.

"It's Chunky," breathed Walter.

"Wh—where is he?" stammered Margaret.

"I don't know. Excuse me; I must go," exclaimed Tad. "The boy is in trouble again. I knew it—I knew he couldn't keep out of it," he added, hurrying away from them.

Ned sprang down the steps after Tad and together they disappeared through a rear door in the auditorium.



CHAPTER XXII

LOST IN THE ADOBE CHURCH

Those up in the gallery could hear the two boys calling to their companion. There was no answer to their hails, and one by one the little party left the gallery.

"I tell you he is playing tricks on us," said Ned, after they had searched all over the place without finding any trace of Stacy.

"No; I don't agree with you," answered Tad. "Something has happened to him."

"What shall we do?" asked Walter.

"Keep on looking. That is all we can do just now."

Once more they began their search, but with no better results than before.

"Have you looked outside?" asked Miss Brayton.

"Yes; we looked out. No use in hunting there, for we can see all around the place from the side door here," answered Tad. "He has gotten into some place that we know nothing about. We've got to find it, that's all."

"I would suggest that one of us ride to camp and get some of the men to come out and help us," advised Walter.

"I'll ride home, and have father send some of his own men," suggested Margaret.

"Yes; that would be best," agreed Miss Brayton.

"I wish you wouldn't," replied Tad. "It would alarm them, and Professor Zepplin would be frightened. Ned, suppose you hustle for camp and tell Mr. Stallings the fix we are in. We shall need some help, that's sure."

"All right. I'm off."

Big-foot Sanders and Curley Adams responded to the call on the run, the foreman being out with the herd at the time.

"I knew it," was Big-foot's first words as he rode up and threw himself from his pony where Tad was standing. "Now tell me all about it."

Tad did so, the cowman nodding his head vigorously as Tad told him all he knew about Chunky's mysterious disappearance.

"Which way did he go?" asked Curley.

"That we do not know," answered Miss Brayton.

"His cry seemed to come from the back of the church somewhere," spoke up Ned.

"We'll go in and look around, then," decided Big-foot, striding into the church. "Whew! smells pretty musty in here. What's that up there?"

"That's where we were eating our lunch when we heard Chunky call," Walter informed him.

"How long since you had seen him—was he up there with you?"

"No; he had left us twenty minutes before we began eating lunch," answered Ned.

"Humph!" grunted the cowman, gazing about him in perplexity. "Sure it isn't a trick?"

Tad shook his head.

"No. He was in trouble. I knew that from his tone."

"Then he must have fallen in some place," announced Big-foot. "He couldn't fall up, so there's no use looking anywhere but on the ground floor here," he decided, wisely. "Anybody know of any holes that he might drop into?"

"Not that I have seen," answered Ned. "The floor is as solid as stone."

"Well, that beats all. You boys scout around outside, while Curley and I are looking things over in here. Besides, I want to be alone and think this thing over."

"What do you make of it, Big-foot?" asked Curley Adams, after the others had gone outside.

"I ain't making. When it comes to putting my wits against a spook place, I'm beyond roping distance. We'll look into these holes in the wall around here, first," he said, referring to the niches and cell-like rooms that they saw leading off from the auditorium. "You make it your business to sound the floor. We may find some kind of trap door."

Curley went about bringing down the heels of his heavy boots on the hard floor, but it all sounded solid enough. There was no belief in the mind of either that the lad could have disappeared in any of the places they had examined—that is, that he could have done so through any ordinary accident.

Like most cowboys, both Curley and Big-foot possessed a strong vein of superstition in their natures. To them there was something uncanny in Stacy Brown's mysterious and sudden disappearance.

"Here's a door, but it's closed," called Curley.

"That's so," agreed Big-foot, hurrying over to him. "The thing is sealed up with mortar. Hasn't been used in fifty cats' lives. Wonder what's behind it."

"Not the boy; that's certain."

"Nope. He didn't fall through there."

"Find any other doors open or closed?"

"Nary a one."

"Well, that seems to settle this part of the ranch; we've got to look somewhere else. What bothers me is that we don't hear him call. If he was anywhere near, and had his voice, he'd be yelling for help," decided the big cowboy.

"Don't think he's dead, do you?"

"I don't think at all. I don't know," answered Big-foot.

"It's my idea that the gopher isn't in here at all," announced Curley, with emphasis.

His companion eyed him thoughtfully.

"You're almost human at times, Curley. I reckon you've said the only true words that's been spoke by us this afternoon. We look for the gopher and don't find him. You say he ain't here, and he isn't. Great head! But that don't find him. The question is, where is he?"

"We'll have to look outside," answered Curley.

"Right you are. Come on."

But their search outside was as fruitless as had been their quest within the old adobe church. Not a trace of Stacy Brown did they find.

"Ned, I think you had better take the young ladies home," said Tad finally.

"Want me to tell Professor Zepplin?"

"Not right away. You can tell him on the way out here. He will not have quite so long to worry, but I think he should know about it. The matter is serious. Where did you say Mr. Stallings was, Big-foot?"

"Out with the new herd. The cattle are pretty restless."

"Walt, you go in and tell the foreman the difficulty we are in. I'll wait here and go on with the search. If he can get away I wish he would come."

"I'll tell him," answered Walter, hurrying away.

"I am sorry we have spoiled your afternoon, Miss Brayton," said Tad. "It's too bad. But I'm afraid something serious has happened to our friend."

"Shall we see you again, Mr. Butler?"

"Of course. I don't know when the herd will start on. We certainly shall not do so until we have found Stacy. Anyway, we will ride over some time to-morrow and bid you all good-bye."

Assisting the young women into their saddles, Tad bade their friends good afternoon and turned sadly back to the church, while Ned Rector rode back to the Ox Bow ranch with the young women.

"Well, what do you think?" demanded the lad, as he faced the big cowboy.

"I don't think. My thinker's all twisted out of shape," answered Big-foot. "I can't tell you what to do. Wait till the boss gets here."

"I guess that will be best," replied Tad. "We have done all we know how to do."

The two men and the boy wandered about the church aimlessly, saying little, but thinking a great deal, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Bob Stallings, to whom they now looked to show them the way out of their difficulty.

The foreman arrived, in the course of half an hour, with his pony on a sharp run. They had heard him approach, and were outside waiting for him.

"Well, this is a nice kettle of fish!" exclaimed Stallings, leaping to the ground, tossing his reins to Curley Adams. "Tell me about it."

Once more Tad Butler related all the facts in his possession regarding Stacy Brown's mysterious disappearance.

"Big-foot thinks it's spooks," added Tad.

"That's all bosh," exploded the foreman. "It's getting late in the afternoon, and I've no time to waste. I'll find him for you. What ails you, Big-foot? Getting weak in the knees?"

"Not as I knows of. This funny business is kinder getting on my nerves, though."

"Humph!" grunted the foreman, starting for the church in long strides. "Nerves in a cowboy! Humph!"

They watched the tall figure of Stallings charging through the adobe house, peering here and there, asking questions in short, snappy sentences, going down on his knees in search of footprints. Finally he rose from his task with a puzzled look in his eyes.

"Tell me that story again," he demanded.

Tad did so.

The foreman went outside and surveyed the building from all sides.

"There's some secret room or passage in there somewhere. The gopher has stumbled into it. We are going to discover the mystery of the church of San Miguel before we have done here—that is, we are if we're lucky," he added.

Bob Stallings' words were prophetic, though he did not know it. The discovery was to be one that would give the big foreman the surprise of his life, and that would affect all his after life as well.



CHAPTER XXIII

SOLVING THE MYSTERY

"We can't do much of anything more until daylight," announced the foreman finally. "You see, it's getting dark now."

"You—you are going to leave him here?" asked Tad hesitatingly.

"That's all we can do, so far as I see. But we'll put one of the men on guard to watch the place. To-morrow morning we'll take it upon ourselves to tear down that door that's sealed up. It may lead into the place where the boy fell in. Yes; we'll bring down the whole miserable shack if necessary."

"You—you think he is here, then?"

"Of course. Where else could he be? He walked away and disappeared right before your eyes. He could not get away if he had gone outside. So where is he? In the church, of course."

"Then I will remain here and watch the place," decided Tad firmly.

Stallings glanced at him hesitatingly.

"All right. I guess you have got the nerve to do it. I can't say as much for the rest of the bunch. You come along with me, now, and get your supper. After that you may return if you want to. Big-foot, you and Curley stay here until the Pinto gets back. Better keep busy. You may stumble upon something before you know it."

The two cowboys did not appear to be any too well pleased with the task assigned to them, but they obeyed orders without protest.

The evening had grown quite dark by the time the cowmen had finished their supper. All had been discussing the strange disappearance of Stacy Brown. It did not seem to surprise them. They had expected trouble when they reached the vicinity of the adobe church. They had had little else during the time they had been in the camp.

"Send Curley and Big-foot in," directed the foreman after Tad had announced his readiness to return to the church.

"We'll all go," spoke up Ned Rector.

"It's not at all necessary," answered Tad.

"No; I have decided to let Big-foot go back after he has eaten. He can remain with you until ten-thirty, when he takes his trick on guard. Then the rest of you may go out if you wish. It isn't fair to leave the Pinto there alone all night. If I change my plans I'll send out Master Ned or Walter. Run along now, Tad."

The lad mounted his pony and galloped slowly out for his long vigil. He was greatly disturbed over the loss of Chunky. Yet he could not bring himself to believe that great harm had come to the boy.

"Anything new?" he called as he rode up.

"Nary a thing. Plenty of funny noises inside the shack. Kinder gives a fellow the creeps; that's all."

"You are to come back and remain with me until your watch, I believe, Big-foot."

"Nice job you've cut out for me," answered the cowman.

"I had nothing to do with it. It's the foreman's order," answered Tad.

"Better bring a lantern with you. We may need it before the night is over."

"All right," answered Big-foot, swinging into his saddle. After the cowmen had left, Tad walked out a little way from the church and sat down in the sand. He was within easy hearing of the place in case anyone should call out.

It was a lonely spot. Tad had not sat there long before the noises that the cowmen had spoken of began again.

The lad listened intently for a moment.

"Bats," he said. "I can hear them flying about me. I hope none of them hit me in the face. I've heard they do that sometimes."

The pony, which had been staked down well out on the plain, was now moving about restlessly.

"I wonder if the noises are getting on the broncho's nerves, too? There's nothing here to be afraid of. I'm not afraid," declared Tad firmly, rising and pacing back and forth.

He was relieved, just the same, when the big cowman rode back, an hour later, and took up the vigil with him. The two talked in subdued tones as they walked back and forth, the lad expressing the opinion that they would find Stacy unharmed when they once discovered the mysterious place into which he had unwittingly stumbled.

"You see, those walls are so thick that we couldn't hear him even if he did call out. He may even have gotten in where they buried those monks we've heard about. I hope not, though."

"He wouldn't know it," said Big-foot.

"No, probably not in the darkness. Did you bring that lantern?"

"Pshaw! I forgot it. Mebby I'd better go back and get it."

"No; never mind, Big-foot. The moon will be up after a time. Then we shall not need it. You are going in for the ten-thirty trick, are you not?"

"That's what the boss said," replied Big-foot.

The right section of the herd was now bedded within a short distance of the church. They could hear the singing of the cowboys as they circled slowly around the sleeping cattle.

"Guess we are not going to have any more trouble with them," said Tad, nodding toward the herd.

"Don't be too sure. I feel it coming. I have a feeling that trouble ain't more'n a million miles away at this very minute."

"I wish you wouldn't talk that way. You'll get me feeling creepy, first thing you know. I've got to stay here all night," said Tad.

Big-foot laughed. They passed the time as best they could until the hour for the departure of the cowboy arrived. Then Tad was left alone once more. He circled about the church, listening. Once he thought he heard the hoof-beats of a pony. But the sound died away instantly, and he believed he must have been wrong.

After half an hour Big-foot returned. The foreman had decided, so long as the cattle were quiet, to have him remain with Tad. If the cowboy should be needed in a hurry the foreman was to fire a shot in the air as a signal.

Tad was intensely pleased at this arrangement. After chatting a while they lay down on the ground, speaking only occasionally, and then in low tones. The mystery of the night seemed to have awed them into silent thought. They had lain there for some time, when Tad suddenly rose on one elbow.

"Did you hear that?" he whispered.

"Yes," breathed the cowman.

"What—what do you think it was?"

"Sounded as if some one had jumped to the ground. We'd better crawl up there. It was by the church. I told you it was coming."

"Do you suppose it was Chunky?"

"No. He'd be afraid of the dark. You'd hear him yelling for help."

Tad had his doubts of that; but, just the same, he, too, felt that the noise they had heard had not been made by Stacy Brown. A silence of several minutes followed. The two had crawled only a few feet toward the church, when, with one common impulse, they flattened themselves on the ground and listened.

Now they could distinctly hear some one cautiously moving about in front of the church. It seemed to Tad as if the mysterious intruder were standing on the broad stone flagging at the top of the steps leading into the adobe church.

Tad slowly rose to his feet.

"Who's there?" he cried in a voice that trembled a little.

A sudden commotion followed the question, and the listeners distinctly caught the sound of footsteps on the flagging.

A flash lighted the scene momentarily.

Big-foot had fired a shot toward the church. A slight scream followed almost instantly.

"I winged it!" shouted the cowman, lifting his weapon for another shot.

Tad struck the gun up. The lad was excited now.

"Stop!" he commanded. "Don't do that again. Do you want to kill somebody?"

With that Tad ran, his feet fairly flying over the ground, in the direction of the church steps. In the flash of the gun he had caught a glimpse of a figure standing there. The sight thrilled him through and through.

As the plucky lad reached the steps some one started to run down them. Tripping, the unknown plunged headlong to the ground.

The boy was beside the figure in an instant.

"Big-foot!" he shouted.

The cowman came tearing up to him.

"What is it?" he bellowed in his excitement.

"It's a woman, Big-foot! It's a woman! Oh, I hope you did not hit her!"

"It's no woman; it's a spook. I know it's a spook!" fairly shouted the cowboy.

"I tell you it's a woman!" cried Tad.

He was down on his knees by her side now, raising her head.

"Get help—quick!"

Sanders took the shortest way of doing this. He, too, was alarmed now. Raising his gun above his head, he pulled the trigger three times in quick succession. As many sharp flashes leaped into the air, and as many quick reports followed.

"Sure she ain't a spirit?" demanded the cowman, peering down suspiciously, fearfully. He could make out the form on the ground but dimly.

"Don't be foolish. Run out there and meet them. I hear the ponies coming. Don't let any of them use their guns, in the excitement, or some one may get hurt," warned Tad Butler, with rare judgment.

Big-foot hurried out into the open. In the meantime Tad stroked the face and head of the woman. She was unconscious, but her flesh seemed warm to his touch.

"I wonder what it means," the perplexed boy asked himself. Tad could feel his own pulses beating against his temples. It seemed to him as if all the blood in his body were hurling itself against them.

Cowboys on their ponies came thundering up from different directions. In the lead was Bob Stallings, the foreman of the outfit.

"You idiots!" he shouted. "Do you want to stampede the herd again? What do you mean?"

"I've winged a spook!" yelled Big-foot Sanders. "She's over there by the steps now. The kid's got her."

"Spook—nonsense!" snapped the foreman, leaping from his pony and rushing to the spot indicated by Big-foot.

"What——" chorused the cowboys.

"Is it the boy—have they found him?"

"If you all don't insist on talking at once, mebby we can find out what the row's about," snarled Curley Adams.

The foreman stopped suddenly as he observed Tad sitting at the foot of the church steps. He saw, too, another form there, but it was so dimly outlined in the deep shadows that he was unable to make it out.

"What does this mean?" he demanded sternly.

"I don't know. It's a woman. I'm afraid Big-foot's bullet hit her. We must have a light."

"Bring matches!" roared the foreman.

No one had any.

"Rustle for the camp, and fetch a lantern—and be quick about it! I've had enough of this fooling. What was she doing—how did it happen?"

Tad explained as clearly as he could how they had been disturbed by the strange noises, resulting finally in a shot from Big-foot's gun.

"The idiot! It'll be a sorry day for him if he's done any damage," growled the foreman. He stooped over and ran his hand over the unconscious woman's face. Then he applied his ear to the region of the heart.

"Huh!" he snapped, rising.

"Find anything!" asked Tad in a half whisper.

"She's alive. Heart weak, but I don't think she's seriously hurt. I don't understand it at all."

"No more do I. I'm getting dizzy over all this rapid-fire business," added the lad. "There they come with a light."

Stallings strode to the cowman who had brought the lantern. Jerking it from the man's hand the foreman ran back.

"We'll straighten her up against the steps, and try to find out how badly she is hurt," he said, placing the lantern on the ground.

Tad had partially raised her, when he let the girl drop with a sudden, startled exclamation.

"What is it?" demanded Stallings incisively.

"It's Miss Ruth!"

"Who?"

"Miss Ruth——"

By the dim lantern light the foreman saw her face outlined against the dark background of green. His eyes were fixed upon her, and Bob Stallings seemed scarcely to breathe.

"Ruth Brayton!" he gasped.

"Yes," answered Tad in a low voice, not fully comprehending the meaning of the scene that was being enacted before him.

"Ruth Brayton," repeated Stallings, slowly passing a hand across his forehead. "Ruth!" he cried, throwing himself to his knees beside her.

"I tell ye I winged a spook," insisted Big-foot Sanders to a companion as they came up.

Tad raised a warning hand for silence.



CHAPTER XXIV

CONCLUSION

"Get back to that herd!" commanded the foreman sharply. "All of you! Tad, you stay with me. The girl has fallen and struck her head on the flagging. I don't think she is seriously hurt."

Not understanding the meaning of it all, the cowmen drew back and slouched to their ponies. Most of them were off duty at the time, so they took their way back to camp to be ready for whatever emergency might arise.

Not a man of them spoke until they had staked their ponies and seated themselves around the camp-fire. Such a silence was unusual among the cowboys. Ned and Walter, who had followed them in, were standing aside, equally silent and thoughtful.

Shorty Savage was the first to speak.

"What's it all about? That's what I'd like to know," he asked.

"You won't find out from me," answered Curley.

"Big-foot thinks he winged a spook," said a voice.

"Allee samee," chuckled Pong, who had been taking in the scene with mouth and eyes agape.

Big-foot fixed him with a baneful eye.

"I said I'd forget you were the cook some day," said he. "I'm forgetting it, now, faster'n a broncho can run!"

Pong's pigtail bobbed up and down like the streaming neckkerchief of a cowboy in saddle as he dived for the protection of the trail wagon.

"I reckon he can understand king's English when he wants to," laughed Shorty. "Now how about that spook, Big-foot?"

Sanders stood up, hitched his trousers and tightened his belt a notch.

"Reckon we've all gone plumb daffy, fellows. I'm the champeen dummy of the bunch."

The cowpunchers laughed heartily.

"But was she a spook?" persisted Shorty.

"She were not. She were a woman—a friend of the boss."

Shorty whistled.

"Lucky for me I missed her. I was rattled, or I'd never taken that shot."

"Who is she?" asked Curley.

"One of the young women from the Ox Bow. It gets me what she was doing in that spook place alone at night. I——"

"W-o-w!"

The exclamation was uttered by a familiar voice, at the sound of which the cowmen sprang to their feet.

"It's the gopher!" they cried.

"Chunky!" shouted Ned and Walter, running forward with a yell.

"I fell in," wailed the fat boy.

At sight of him the cowboys yelled with merriment. Chunky's clothes were torn. He was covered with dirt from head to foot, and his face was so grimy as to be scarcely recognizable.

Big-foot was staring at him in amazement. Striding forward, he grasped the lad roughly by the shoulder, jerking him into the full light of the camp-fire.

"Where you been, gopher?" he demanded sternly.

"I fell in," stammered the boy.

"Where?"

"Some kind of a well. It was in the bushes just outside the back door. I went there to hide. I fell down to the bottom and went to sleep."

"Just like him. Have anything to eat down there?" jeered Ned Rector.

"When I woke up it was dark. Then I found another hole—a passage. It went both ways. Guess one end went under the church. I followed it the other way, and came out near where the steers are bedded down."

"Hold on a minute. Let's get this straight," interrupted Curley. "You mean you found an underground passage at the bottom of the old well? Is that it?"

Chunky nodded.

"And the opening was near the spring at the point of rocks just above the herd?"

"Yes. But I had to dig out through a brush heap."

"Huh! Not such a terrible mystery, after all," sniffed Curley contemptuously.

"How came that underground passage there? What's it for?" asked Big-foot.

"Probably dug out in Indian times. I'll bet it has saved the scalp of more than one old fellow. There's an opening into it from the church somewhere, you can depend upon that. I'm thinking, too, that the well was a bluff—that it wasn't intended for water at all. We'll smash the mystery of the adobe church before we pull out of here to-morrow, see if we don't."

"I come mighty near doing for one of them," added Big-foot Sanders ruefully.

"Got anything to eat?" interrupted Stacy Brown.

"For goodness' sake, boys, take your fat friend over to the chuck wagon and fill him up. He's like a Mexican steer—he'll bed down safer when he's full of supper."

* * * * *

In the meantime, another scene was being enacted off at the Ox Bow ranch—a scene that was to add still another chapter to the romance of the trail.

Tad Butler was sitting alone in the darkness on the steps of the McClure mansion. The boy, chin in hands, was lost in thought. Stallings had carried Ruth Brayton in his arms all the way to the ranch where she had soon revived.

After leaving her, the foreman and Colonel McClure had locked themselves in the library, where they remained in consultation for more than an hour.

"How is Miss Ruth?" asked the boy eagerly, when Stallings finally came out.

"Better than in many months," answered the foreman. There was a new note in his voice.

"I'm so glad," breathed Tad.

"Old man," began Stallings, slapping Tad on the shoulder, "come along with me. We'll lead our ponies back to camp and talk. I presume you are aching to know what all this mystery means?" laughed the foreman.

"Naturally, I am a bit curious," admitted Tad.

"It means, Pinto, that not only have you rendered a great service to Mr. Miller and his herd, but you have done other things as well."

"I've mixed things up pretty well, I guess."

"No. You have solved a riddle, and made me the happiest man in the Lone Star State. Miss Brayton and I have known each other almost since childhood. When I was in Yale——"

"You a college man!" exclaimed Tad in surprise.

"Yes. We were engaged. My people were quite wealthy; but, in a panic, some years ago, father lost everything, dying soon after. Miss Brayton's family then refused their consent to our marriage. I determined to seek my fortune in the growing West. My full name is Robert Stallings Hamilton, though I never had used the middle name until I adopted it when I became a cowboy. But to return to Miss Brayton. Ruth was taken to Europe, and then sent to her uncle here. Her trouble preyed on her mind to such an extent that she grew 'queer.' She had heard that I was a cattle man, somewhere in the West. Strangely enough, when in her moods, she developed a strong antipathy to herds of cattle. Whenever a herd was near, Ruth would slip from the house and steal away to them in the night, A stampede usually followed. It's a wonder she wasn't shot. Whether or not she caused these intentionally, Ruth does not know——"

"And that is the mystery?" asked Tad.

"Yes."

"It is the strangest story I ever heard," said the boy quietly.

"What I was about to say, is that the herd will go on without me. Colonel McClure is sending his own foreman through with it instead. Ruth and I are to be married at once, and we shall go to my little ranch in Montana."

In view of the fact that Stallings was severing his connection with the herd, Professor Zepplin decided to do likewise.

Next morning, at sunrise, Bob Stallings, with Miss Ruth, by his side, both radiantly happy, rode out to the camp. The Pony Rider Boys had packed their kits and loaded their belongings on their ponies. Regretfully they bade good-bye to the cowmen.

Tad's parting with Big-foot was most trying. In the short time they had been together, a strong affection had grown up between the two. The plainsman had been quick to perceive Tad's manly qualities, and the boy, in his turn, had been won by the big, generous nature of the man. They parted, each vowing that they must see each other again.

As the great herd moved slowly northward, three cheers were proposed for Bob Stallings and Miss Brayton. This the cowboys gave with a will, adding a tiger for the Pony Rider Boys.

The trail wagon, pulling out at the same time, held a grinning Chinaman, huddled in the rear.

"Good-bye, Pong!" shouted the lads.

"Allee samee," chuckled the cook, shaking hands with himself enthusiastically.

And here for a time we will take leave of the Pony Rider Boys, whose further exciting experiences will be chronicled in the next volume, entitled: "The Pony Rider Boys in Montana; Or, the Mystery of the Old Custer Trail." This will be a story of adventure, full of absorbing interest and thrilling incidents. The reader will then go over the same trails that General Custer rode in the wilder days.

The End.



* * * * *



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