COMRADES OF THE SADDLE
The Young Rough Riders of the Plains
FRANK V. WEBSTER
AUTHOR OF "ONLY A FARM BOY," "THE YOUNG TREASURE HUNTER," "THE BOYS OF BELLWOOD SCHOOL," "TOM THE TELEPHONE BOY," ETC.
NEW YORK CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
BOOKS FOR BOYS
By FRANK V. WEBSTER
ONLY A FARM BOY Or Dan Hardy's Rise in Life
TOM THE TELEPHONE BOY Or The Mystery of a Message
THE BOY FROM THE RANCH Or Roy Bradner's City Experiences
THE YOUNG TREASURE HUNTER Or Fred Stanley's Trip to Alaska
BOB THE CASTAWAY Or The Wreck of the Eagle
THE YOUNG FIREMEN OF LAKEVILLE Or Herbert Dare's Pluck
THE NEWSBOY PARTNERS Or Who Was Dick Box?
THE BOY PILOT OF THE LAKES Or Nat Morton's Perils
TWO BOY GOLD MINERS Or Lost in the Mountains
JACK THE RUNAWAY Or On the Road with a Circus
THE BOYS OP BELLWOOD SCHOOL Or Frank Jordan's Triumph
COMRADES OF THE SADDLE Or The Young Rough Riders of the Plains
Copyright, 1910, by CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
COMRADES OF THE SADDLE
Printed in U. S. A
I AN EXCITING ESCAPE II MR. ALDEN BRINGS NEWS III WORD FROM THE WEST IV GUS MEGGET V THE HALF-MOON RANCH VI IN THE SADDLE VII A RACE IN THE MOONLIGHT VIII HORACE IN DANGER IX THE MESSAGE FROM CROSS-EYED PETE X THE RETURN TO THE RANCH XI PREPARATIONS FOB PURSUIT XII WHAT NAILS LEARNED XIII OUT ON THE PLAINS XIV ANOTHER DISCOVERY XV THE CONTESTED TRAIL XVI WHAT JEFFREYS KNEW XVII LOST! XVIII A MYSTERIOUS CALL XIX A TERRIBLE PLOT XX THE PRAIRIE FIRE XXI A RIDE FOR LIFE XXII LAWRENCE'S PLAN XXIII IN THE MOUNTAINS XXIV CAPTURING THE CATTLE THIEVES XXV HOMEWARD
COMRADES OF THE SADDLE
AN EXCITING ESCAPE
Twilight was settling on the land. The forms of trees and houses loomed big and black, their sharp outlines suggesting fanciful forms to the minds of two boys hurrying along the road which like a ribbon wound In and out among the low hills surrounding the town of Bramley, in south-western Ohio.
As the darkness increased lights began to twinkle from the windows of the distant farmhouses.
"We're later than usual, Tom," said the larger of the two boys. "I hope we'll get home before father does."
"Then let's hurry. The last time we kept supper waiting he said we'd have to give up playing ball after school if we couldn't get home before meal time."
"And that means that we won't make the team and will only get a chance to substitute," returned the first speaker.
As though such a misfortune were too great to be borne, the two young ball players broke into a dog trot.
The boys were brothers, Tom and Larry Alden. Larry, the larger, was sixteen and Tom was a year younger. Both were healthy and strong and would have been thought older, so large were they.
The only children of Theodore Alden, a wealthy farmer who lived about three miles from Bramley, unlike many brothers, they were chums. They were prime favorites, and their popularity, together with their natural ability and cool-headedness at critical moments, made them leaders in all sports.
As it grew darker and darker, the brothers quickened their pace. Talking was out of the question, so fast were they going. But as they rounded a turn in the road, which enabled them to see the lights in their home, a quarter of a mile away, Larry gasped:
"There's no light in the dining-room yet. Father hasn't gotten home!"
"Come on then for a final spurt," returned Tom.
Willingly Larry responded, and the boys dashed forward as though they were just starting out instead of ending a two-mile run.
On the right-hand side of the road a fringe of bushes hedged a swamp.
The patter of the boys' feet on the hard clay road was the only sound that broke the stillness.
Their goal, with the bright lights shining from the windows, was only about three hundred yards away when suddenly from the direction of the swamp sounded a sullen snarl.
"Did you hear anything?" asked Larry.
"I thought so."
As though to settle all doubt, the growl rang out again. This time it was nearer and sounded more ominous.
For a moment the boys looked at each other, then, as with one accord, turned their heads and looked in the direction whence the startling noise had come.
Just as they did so there came another howl, and an instant later a big black form, for all the world like a large dog, leaped from the bushes into the road.
"Quick, quick!" cried Larry, seizing his brother's arm and pulling him along, for Tom had slackened his speed, as though fascinated by the sight of the strange animal. "It must be that wolf father read about, the one that got away when the circus train was passing through Husted."
And, Larry was right. The animal was indeed a wolf that had escaped from its cage through the door, the fastener on which had been jarred out of place by the motion of the train, and had leaped to liberty.
The circus people had reported the loss as soon as it had been discovered and it had been duly announced in the papers.
Mr. Alden had read about it, but all had laughed at the thought of a wolf in placid Ohio and dismissed the story as a circus man's joke.
Rejoicing in its freedom, the beast had wandered about till it struck the swamp and now the air brought to its keen nose the scent of the boys passing. Ravenously hungry, the wolf hastened toward the lads.
As it bounded into the road the glare from the lights of the farmhouse momentarily blinded it and it stood blinking.
But only for an instant. Instinctively realizing that it must catch them before they reached the lights, the wolf uttered a savage snarl and bounded forward.
Larry's words to his brother had roused the boy, and together they were racing toward the welcome lights of their home.
But the wolf with its leaps covered three yards to their one, and as the older of the boys looked over his shoulder he saw that the beast was gaining on them.
Fifty yards ahead was the house and thirty yards behind them was the wolf.
Well did the boys know they could not win the race. But they did not lose their heads.
"Father! Harry!" yelled Larry. "Joe! The wolf! the wolf! Get the rifle!"
"The wolf! the wolf!" added Tom. "Shoot the wolf!"
The yells, breaking the stillness of the night, startled Mrs. Alden and the hired men, who were awaiting the coming of Mr. Alden and the boys.
Unable to distinguish the words, the hired men rushed to the door and threw it open. Peering along the path of the light, they saw the forms of the boys.
"Quick! The rifle! The wolf's after us!" shouted Tom.
Fortunately Mr. Alden always kept a loaded rifle on a rack on the kitchen wall with which to shoot foxes that attempted to raid his hen-roost.
Hastily the hired man named Joe sprang for the weapon, seized it and dashed from the door, shouting:
"Where is it? Where is it?"
Before the boys could answer, however, his keen eyes espied the black form.
Joe had often amused himself shooting at a target with Larry and Tom and was able to make four bull's-eyes out of five, but never before had the opportunity to aim at a live mark come to him, and as he raised the rifle his hands trembled.
"Shoot! shoot!" yelled Larry. "No matter if you don't hit it, shoot!"
Bang! went the gun, and as the report of the firearm died away the wolf was seen to stagger and fall. Soon the beast arose again, but by that time the hired man was ready for another shot. This finished the beast, and with a yelp it rolled over and breathed its last.
MR. ALDEN BRINGS NEWS
Exhausted by their run and the excitement of their escape, Larry and Tom staggered into the house and dropped into chairs, their mother and the hired men pressing about and plying them with questions. But it was several minutes before the boys recovered their breath sufficiently to speak.
Tom was the first to get over his fright, and, as soon as he could control his voice, gave a vivid account of their attempt to reach home before their father, their hearing the uncanny sound from the swamp, the sudden appearance of the wolf behind them and their desperate race to get to the house before the beast should overtake them.
"It's a good thing I practiced shooting last winter," exclaimed Joe as the story ended. He was proud of what he had accomplished.
"There's father," declared Mrs. Alden as a "whoa!" sounded from the yard.
Quickly Larry picked up a lantern, and, followed by all but his mother, went out to help unhitch the horses and take them into the barn.
"What's been going on?" demanded the farmer as the others joined him. "I heard the rifle shot."
Eagerly they all started to tell.
"Don't all speak at once," interposed Mr. Alden. "You're talking so loud and so fast I can't understand a word. Tom, suppose you explain?"
Excitedly the youngest of the brothers poured forth the tale.
"A wolf in Bramley, eh? Well, well! It's a good thing you boys were so near home. This is sure a great day for happenings. My sons get chased into their own dooryard and I——"
But as though to arouse their curiosity, the farmer did not finish his sentence.
"You what?" asked Larry.
"Never mind now. Put the horses up. You won't have to feed them; they're too hot. Give them a little hay and then come in to supper."
Knowing it was useless to try to get their father to satisfy their curiosity, for Mr. Alden, though a kindly man, was what his neighbors called "set in his ways," Tom and Larry ran to the barn to open the door, while the hired men followed with the horses.
After rubbing the animals down and giving them some hay, the four returned to the house.
But not until the supper was finished did the farmer deign to impart his news. Then, tilting back in his chair, he looked at his wife and asked:
"How would you like to take the boys to Scotland for the summer, ma?"
"To Scotland?" repeated Mrs. Alden, as though scarcely believing her ears. "Theodore Alden, are you going crazy? What are you talking about?"
"About going to Scotland," answered the farmer, grinning. "And I'm not crazy."
At the mention of the trip, Larry and Tom looked at their parent and then at each other in dismay, for they had planned a different sort of way for spending the summer. But their attention was quickly drawn to their father again.
"I've got to go to Scotland and we might as well all go," he was saying. "The hired men can run the farm for the summer."
Lapsing into silence as he watched the effect of his words, Mr. Alden enjoyed the looks of surprise and curiosity, then continued:
"When I got to Bramley this morning I found a letter from a man named Henry Sargent, a Glasgow lawyer. He said my uncle, Thomas Darwent, had died, leaving me the only heir to his estates. Just how much money this means I don't know. He said it might be ten thousand pounds."
"Phew! that's fifty thousand dollars," interposed Larry, excitedly.
"Just so," returned his father. "It may be more. I can't make out whether that's the amount of cash or if that's what it will come to when the land and houses are sold."
"You can write and find out," suggested Mrs. Alden.
"I can write, but I doubt if I can find out," chuckled the farmer. "Those lawyer chaps use such high-sounding words, you can't tell what they mean. If Uncle Darwent made me his heir, I'm going to see I get all there Is to get. No Scotchman is going to cheat Theodore Alden out of what's his. Soon's I'd made up my mind to that, I drove over to Olmsted and made arrangements to sail from New York on Saturday."
"Saturday? Why that's only three days off!" protested Mrs. Alden.
"Well, it'll only take a night and part of a day to get to New York. That'll give you a day and a half to get ready, ma."
The thought of a trip to Scotland delighted Mrs. Alden, and she immediately began to plan how she could get the boys, her husband and herself ready in such a short space of time.
But Larry and Tom showed no signs of enthusiasm.
Noticing their silence, their father exclaimed:
"Don't you boys want to go? I never knew you so quiet before when a trip was mentioned."
"But the ball game with Husted is on Saturday," said Larry, giving voice to the thought uppermost in his mind. Then, as though he realized that it was foolish to compare a trip to Scotland with a game of baseball, he added: "Besides, Tom and I were planning—that is, we were going to ask you if we couldn't go out to Tolopah and spend the summer with Horace and Bill Wilder on their ranch."
With this announcement of a plan which the brothers had discussed over and over, wondering how they could bring it about, the boys anxiously watched their father's face.
"So that's how the wind blows, eh?" he commented. "Well, ma, what do you say? Shall we take the boys with us or let them go to the ranch?"
With her quiet mother's eye Mrs. Alden caught the appeal on her sons' faces and after a short deliberation replied:
"I think they'd be better off with the Wilders—that is, if they'd like to have the boys visit them."
"Hooray! hooray!" cried the boys together.
"We can telegraph and ask Mr. Wilder tonight," said Larry. "Can we go to Bramley and send the message, father?"
"You can telephone the message to the station and the operator will send it."
And while the boys puzzled over the wording of the telegram, their father re-read his letter from Scotland.
"I've got the telegram ready," Tom exclaimed presently. "Listen." And picking up the piece of paper on which he had been scribbling he read:
"BILL AND HORACE WILDER, "Tolopah, New Mexico: "We can leave Saturday to visit you. Do you want us? Answer quick. Father and mother leave Friday for Scotland. We'll have to go, if you don't want us. "LARRY AND TOM ALDEN."
"You might make it shorter," chuckled the farmer.
"And muddle it all up so they wouldn't understand it any better than you do your lawyer's letter," returned Larry.
"That's a bull's-eye," grinned Joe, whose mind was running to shooting terms.
And as neither their father nor mother interposed any objections, the boys telephoned the message to the operator at Bramley, who promised to send it at once.
WORD FROM THE WEST
Anxiously the two brothers waited for some news from the West and in the meantime got ready for the trip to Scotland.
"Oh, I don't want to go to Scotland!" sighed Tom. "I want to go to the ranch."
"Well, we've got to take what comes," answered his brother.
The boys went down to town and said good-by to their school chums. All were sorry they were going away and said they would be missed from the baseball team.
Returning to the farm, their mother met them with a peculiar smile on her face.
"Any news?" they asked eagerly.
"Yes, word came over the telephone a while ago."
"And what Is it, ma?"
"The Wilders say to come and——"
"And not to bring a trunk," finished the mother. "The idea of two boys going away all summer without a trunk!"
"Of course we won't need a trunk!" declared Tom. "From the time we reach the ranch till we start for home I don't intend to wear a white shirt or collar."
"When we get out there we can buy some cowboy outfits," said Larry. "Hooray for Tolopah!"
The receipt of the message, which had been telephoned by the agent at Bramley while the boys were on their way back from the town, was more of a relief than either Larry or Tom was willing to acknowledge. And they ate their food with greater relish in the certainty that their dream of going to live on a ranch was to come true.
Each was absorbed in his own thoughts when the voice of their father roused them.
"Now that it's decided you are going West," he was saying, "I reckon I'll go over to Olmsted and make sure about our steamer tickets. We won't have any too much time in New York. You boys can go with me if you like."
Glad of the opportunity, the boys finished their dinner quickly and were soon whirling over the hard clay road behind their father's span of spirited horses.
"I've decided to give each of you two hundred and fifty dollars," said Mr. Alden, as though expressing his thoughts out loud.
"Phew! Two hundred and fifty dollars! That's more money than I ever had all at once," exclaimed Tom in delight. "Think of having all that to spend, Larry."
"But you mustn't spend it all," warned their father. "I was going to say when you interrupted, Tom, that out of this money you must pay your railroad tickets, for your berths to sleep in, and for your meals. These things will amount to about seventy-five dollars, I should think."
"But that will still leave us one hundred and seventy-five dollars," declared Tom.
"True enough, but don't forget it will cost seventy-five dollars to get back. If I were you, when you get to the ranch, I would give the money for your return tickets to Mr. Wilder. He'll keep it for you, so you'll be sure not to spend it.
"It's a thing you ought always to remember when you take a trip of any distance—always save enough out of your money to carry you back home"
The boys promised to do as their father suggested, and the farmer continued:
"This will be your first experience with the world, and I don't want you to forget the things your mother and I have taught you.
"It takes bad men as well as good to make up life, and somehow it seems as though the bad men had the easiest time of it. You'll find gamblers and others who live by their wits in Tolopah. They'll try to be pleasant to you because you are young, and when they learn you are from the East they will try to get your money away from you.
"You must also be careful to whom you speak on the train. Under no conditions mention anything about the money you have with you. A lot of people, when they have any substantial sum, either like to show it In some way or to talk about it, and then, if they happen to be robbed of it, they wonder. Remember you can't recognize a thief by his clothes, and lots of the slickest of them travel about the country."
With this and other advice Mr. Alden counseled his sons, and so interested did they become in what he told them about the country of which they were soon to have their first glimpse that they were in Olmsted almost before they knew it.
Going first to the bank, Mr. Alden drew out the money for his sons, obtained a letter of credit for himself and then arranged to purchase his steamship tickets in Pittsburg, whither all four travelers were going together.
When they reached home Mrs. Alden had finished her packing and all was practically ready for the start on the morrow.
After supper the farmer and his wife drove to Bramley to say good-by to their friends, but the two chums decided to stay at home.
Eager to be on their way, it seemed to Larry and Tom that the hours never passed so slowly. They tried to read, but in place of the print on the pages pictures of cowboys and bucking bronchos danced before their eyes, and they soon shut their books.
"Wish we'd gone with father and mother," exclaimed Tom. "It's more stupid here than saying good-by."
But scarcely were the words out of his mouth when the door opened and in came an old friend named Silas Haskins, a former gold miner.
"I got to go to Husted to-morrow, so I came over to-night to say 'so long,'" he said in explanation of his call.
Cordially the boys made him welcome, and the time passed quickly when they had led Silas round to talking about his adventures in the far West.
When at last the gold miner rose to go he said:
"I brung some presents for you. They'll be useful in the West."
And from his pockets Silas drew forth two fine big jackknives and two long pieces of thong.
"They're both the same, so you won't need to quarrel about 'em," he smiled as he handed their presents to each.
The boys were deeply touched by such evidence of friendship from their aged friend and were profuse in their thanks when he again put his hands in his pockets and produced two little bags made of buckskin and attached to a stout strip of the same strong material.
"I don't know how you're intending to carry your money," he began, "but——"
"Why in our pockets," interrupted Larry.
"That's just what I supposed," grunted the old gold miner. "Now I want you to put it in these two bags and hang 'em round your necks. There can't no one get to 'em without waking you up nor take 'em without giving you a chance to fight."
Readily the boys promised to wear the money bags, and with a hearty handshake with each their aged friend went home.
The night passed quickly and the morning was busily spent in getting the luggage to the station.
As the family waited for the train the dingy little station was alive with people who had come to wish the Aldens pleasant journeys. And as the train left the Bramley depot the members of the ball team gave three rousing cheers for Larry and Tom.
The parting with their parents at Pittsburg was hard for the boys, but fortunately for them their train left first, and soon they were engrossed in watching their fellow passengers.
These consisted of a German boy, who seemed about their own age; two elderly gentlewomen, and two big men, who would have seemed well dressed had they not worn so much jewelry.
With interest the two chums watched the German youth and several times when they had turned to look at him they had found him gazing at them.
It was only the memory of their father's advice to be careful as to whom they spoke to on the train that prevented them from striking up an acquaintance. But when they found themselves at dinner seated at the same table with the foreigner they broke their reserve and told him their names.
In return the German said he was Hans Ober.
A speaking acquaintance thus established, Hans lost no time in asking questions about the United States and particularly the West, to which Larry and Tom replied as well as they were able.
Evidently glad of their company, the German sat with them after the boys returned to their car from dinner.
Once or twice Hans had tried to learn where the chums were going without asking directly, but they had given evasive answers, and at last, as though believing confidence would beget confidence, he announced that he was going to join his brother Chris, who had a store in Tolopah.
As they heard their destination mentioned, Larry and Tom exchanged surprised glances, which did not need their words to let Hans know they were all three bound for the same place.
This coincidence removed whatever of reserve was left and the three boys talked freely.
Hans said he had come from Berlin and that his father had given him money to buy a share in his brother's business and told them of how his fears that he might lose the money had made him sit up the first two nights he was on the steamer.
The boys were at breakfast the next morning when Hans, happening to look out the window, caught sight of the mighty river that almost divides the United States in half.
"My eye! but that's a big river," he exclaimed. "What do you call it?"
"The Mississippi," returned the brothers. They were too engrossed by their first glimpse of the "Father of Waters" to correct the German as he struggled to pronounce the name.
"Oh, look at the funny boats!" exclaimed Tom, pointing to the long line of river steamers that were tied up at the levee. "What are those things on the back end?"
"They are the paddle wheels. I know, because I've looked at pictures like them in my geography," replied Larry. "They have the paddle wheels on the end because the water is so shallow in places."
It was Just after noon that the two chums and Hans were vouchsafed a glimpse of real "dyed-in-the-wool" cowboys.
The train had stopped at a crossing, as stations are known in Oklahoma, because of a hot-box on one of the wheels.
Learning that it would be all of a quarter of an hour before the trouble could be repaired, the boys had left their car and were filling their lungs with the bracing air.
It chanced that a gang of cowboys had ridden Into the town for a celebration and, as it was unusual for a train to stop for any length of time at the crossing, they rode up to find out the reason.
For a few minutes they contented themselves with putting their ponies through all sorts of "stunts" to the great delight of the people on the train.
At the sight of them, Larry, Tom and Hans walked toward the cowboys and stared at them in wonder and admiration.
The cowboys had noticed the three lads, and, because they had been drinking bad "fire-water," suddenly decided to amuse themselves with them.
"Whatcher lookin' at?" roared one of the cow-punchers, a big fellow with close-set eyes and a heavy jaw.
The boys made no response.
"Can't cher speak? I'll teach you some manners then!" he bellowed.
In a thrice he whirled his pony and rode for the boys at full speed.
Ignorant of the roughness of cowboy fun, the three lads stood their ground, never thinking the fellow would hurt them.
The cowboy was riding straight at Hans. When the pony was within two leaps of the German, boy Larry cried to him to jump to one side.
But Hans was too terrified to move, and the pony was almost upon him. In another moment he would be run down.
From the train rose shouts of warning and anger, changing in the next moment to cheers.
Realizing that the German boy could not save himself, Larry threw up his hands right in the face of the pony, causing the animal to rear so suddenly that only its rider's expert horsemanship saved him from being unseated.
At the same time Tom seized Hans and jerked him to one side just before the broncho's forelegs struck the ground again, almost on the very spot where the German boy had been standing.
Furious at the interference with his so-called fun, the cowboy roared at Larry:
"I'll teach you to scare Gus Megget's pony, you calf tenderfoot!"
Black, indeed, did it look for the three lads. The companions of the bullying cowboy who had announced himself as Gus Megget were riding up, yelling to him to make the "tenderfoot dance."
His race very white, but every line of his body breathing defiance, Larry faced his tormentor.
With a calmness that fairly took the breath away from the bully the elder of the brothers exclaimed in a voice loud enough to be heard by the other cowboys and the men about the train:
"I didn't pick this quarrel with you, but if you will get off your horse so that you have no advantage over me; I'll give you all the fight you want!"
An instant Megget glowered with rage at the mere stripling of a boy who had announced his willingness to fight him, then with a savage growl started to swing from his saddle.
"I'll fix you, you whelp!" he roared.
He aimed a savage blow at Larry, who ducked.
"Hi! leave my brother alone!" cried Tom, coming to the spot.
As Tom spoke Larry stooped and picked up a handful of dust. This he hurled straight into the cowboy's face.
"Good!" shouted Tom and did likewise.
The dust caused the cowboy to sneeze, and some bystanders commenced to laugh.
"He's got the best of you, Megget," observed another cowboy.
"I'll eat him!" yelled Megget and rushed at Larry with blood in his eyes.
But before he reached the boy a voice rang out:
"Keep on your horse, Gus Megget!"
Though Larry did not dare take his eyes from the bully, Tom and the cowboys looked to see who was taking a hand in the affair. They beheld a quiet-looking little man pointing a finger at the leader of the ruffians.
"I can't arrest you for driving off Jim Larson's cattle because we're in Oklahoma," continued the determined stranger. "But if I ever get my hand on you in Texas it'll go hard with you! Now vamoose before you try my patience too far! Come on back, boys. Gus Megget won't bother you any more."
"Prickly cactus! but it's 'Shorty,' the sheriff from Pawnee County!" gasped one of the band or cow-punchers. "Come on, Gus; we must dig out of here! Shorty may pass the word he's seen us."
Fear of the law caused the bully and his companions to wheel their ponies.
At this move the three boys turned and ran back toward the train, while the excited passengers hooted and yelled at the discomfited cowboys.
The shouts of derision were more than Megget could stand. He shook his fist at the crowd in general and then at Tom and Larry in particular, Then he whirled around and disappeared from view in a cloud of dust.
Quickly the passengers all trooped to the cars and five minutes later the train was again in motion.
All the passengers wanted to shake hands with Tom and Larry, and for several minutes the boys were at the mercy of their well-meaning admirers. Again the sheriff came to their rescue.
"Go back to your own cars," he commanded. "The boys want to be left alone."
But the people gave no sign of heeding his words.
"Well, if you won't go at the asking, I'll make you go," he continued, and seizing the person nearest him, the sheriff turned him round and gave him a shove along the aisle of the car.
After three or four of the passengers had been pushed none too gently away, the others began to leave of their own accord, and the two brothers were able to make their escape.
"If it keeps on the way it has started, we're likely to have a lively summer," remarked Larry when he was again back in his seat.
"I hope they don't come so quick for me," exclaimed Hans. And his tone was so plaintive that the others could not help but laugh.
"You'll either have to get some nerve or else stick mighty close to your friends here," declared the sheriff, who had remained to talk with the boys who had shown such pluck.
"Maybe I'll go back to Germany," sighed Hans.
"Oh, you'll get used to this part of the world after a while. Where are you going?"
"Well, that ain't the most refined place in the world," chuckled the man of the law, "but I don't believe you'll get as bad as what you got."
Pondering over this none too reassuring remark, Hans lapsed into silence, while Tom and Larry plied the sheriff with questions about life on the ranches and the antics of the cowboys.
As evening came on the boys grew restive. Their train was due at Tolopah at nine the next morning, and despite the fact that it was rushing along at the rate of forty miles an hour, it seemed to them to be scarcely moving. They had already passed two nights and two days on the train and the thought of putting another night in the berth, especially as it was very hot, seemed impossible, making them fretful and cross.
"Who is he?" asked Larry of the conductor, after the sheriff had left the train.
"What, you never heard of Sam Jenks, sheriff of Pawnee County?"
"We come from Ohio," said Tom, as though apologizing for their ignorance.
"That accounts for it. If you lived between the Mississippi and El Paso you wouldn't ask such a question.
"Sam Jenks, known to every cowboy as 'Shorty,' is the nerviest man I know. There isn't a cattle thief or a bad man in this part of the country that won't run when he sees him—if he has the chance.
"You saw how Gus Megget and his gang got scared. It was just the sight of Shorty that scared him. He's got a record of sending more cattle thieves and crooked gamblers to jail than any three other sheriffs in the country. There never was anything he's afraid of, and he's just as tender-hearted as a kitten. Why, I know one time, after he'd sent a train robber to prison, he took the money out of his own pocket to support the rascal's wife and baby till he could get her folks to take her home. You sure made a friend that's worth having."
On Hans' account, Larry and Tom kept up a lively chatter during the evening, and it was not until the brothers were in their berths that they broached the subject of what to do should the sheriff's suspicions prove true.
Hans' unfitness for holding his own among the rough men of the plains made them sorry for him, and they discussed various plans, without arriving at any conclusion, till well into the night.
"What's the use of worrying?" said Tom finally. "Chris will probably show up all right. Let's wait and see." And with this understanding the boys dropped the matter.
Despite the fact that the day was to see the end of their journey, the boys slept late.
"You ge'mmen better hurry if you all wants yo' breakfas' befoh yo' gits to Tolopah," interrupted the porter. "We'll be thar in half an hour."
It was not a hearty meal the brothers and Hans ate, and soon they were back in their seats, looking to see that they had forgotten nothing before they closed their suit-cases.
Bringing two big valises of the extending kind the German sat with Larry and Tom. But their high spirits found no response in him, and as they neared their destination he could with difficulty keep back the tears, so worried was he.
"Here we are!" exclaimed Larry as he caught sight of some houses and barns.
And his words were verified by the porter, who came through the car calling:
"All out for Tolopah!"
Picking up their luggage, the boys hastened to the car steps.
"Hello, Bill! Hello, Horace!" cried the brothers eagerly as they caught sight of their friends on the station platform.
At the greetings the Wilder boys hurried toward the car.
In the pleasure of the meeting Tom and Larry forgot Hans.
"Come on," commanded Horace, seizing Tom's suit-case. "We won't dally here in Tolopah. We must get to the ranch before it gets too hot." And he led the way to where four bronchos stood tied to a railing.
Quickly the Wilders made fast the suit-cases to their saddles and untied the ponies.
"This is Blackhawk, Tom, and this is Lightning, Larry," said Horace as he handed the reins to the two boys. "They're a couple of the best ponies in New Mexico, and while you're here they'll be yours. You can get acquainted with them on the ride to the ranch."
Both animals were splendid creatures, well built and powerful. Blackhawk, as the name suggests, was jet black, his coat glistening in the sun, and Lightning was a roan.
Already Bill and Horace were on their ponies, and the two brothers were just swinging into their saddles when a voice cried:
Turning their heads, the boys beheld Hans, the tears streaming down his cheeks, rushing toward them as fast as his valises would let him.
No need was there to ask if he had found a trace of his brother. The tears told all too plainly that he had not.
"Who in the world is that?" asked Horace in astonishment.
"A German boy who traveled with us," explained Tom. "Do you know any one in Tolopah by the name of Chris Ober?"
"Struck out for old Mexico, prospecting for gold, three months ago," replied Bill. "Why?"
"That's his brother Hans, who has come from Berlin to visit him," returned Tom. And hurriedly he gave an outline of the German lad's story.
"Phew! Chicken-hearted, is he?" commented Horace. "It won't do to leave him in Tolopah. Luckily one of our men is in town with our grub wagon. He can ride out to the ranch with him."
When Tom imparted this information to Hans, the poor fellow was delighted and asked where he could find the outfit.
"I'll show him. You all ride on," said Horace. But the others refused, declaring they would all go together.
As the cavalcade started with Hans and his valises trying to keep up with them, many were the jests and laughs cast after them.
But the boys paid them no heed, and in a few minutes the German youth was safe in the provision wagon.
Putting their horses into a brisk canter, the four lads set out for the ranch.
Many were the questions the Wilders asked about their friends back in Ohio, and so busy were Tom and Larry in answering, and in relating all the events of consequence that had transpired since the family had left Bramley two years before, that the twenty miles which lay between Tolopah and the ranch seemed scarcely one.
THE HALF-MOON RANCH
As the boys drew rein in front of the broad, vine-covered piazza of the ranch house they were greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Wilder,
"Well, it does seem good to see some one from home," exclaimed the latter as she shook the hands of Tom and Larry.
"It sure does," asserted her husband. "Wish you'd brought your father and mother with you. What in the world started them off to Scotland?"
Quickly the brothers explained.
"Well, well! So Uncle Darwent really had some money," commented Mrs. Wilder. "I'm real glad, though of course it isn't as though your father needed any more. I should have thought you boys would have wanted to go with them."
"Not when we could spend the summer on your ranch," returned Larry. "But we began to be afraid we would be obliged to go, and we should have if the telegram had been any later. No time ever seemed so long as when we were waiting for your answer."
"It was just luck we got your message," declared Horace. "Sometimes we don't go to town for a week. But something seemed to urge me to ride in the other morning, and when I arrived Con Brown hollered to me he had a telegram. When I read it, I didn't lose any time answering, and I made Con promise to rush it."
"Con's our telegraph operator," explained Bill. "Come on in and change your duds and then we'll look the ranch over."
Nothing loath to remove their clothes, which still smelled of engine smoke, despite their ride over the plains, as the brothers seized their suitcases and followed their young hosts, Larry exclaimed laughingly:
"You see we took your advice not to bring a trunk."
"Glad of it," asserted Horace joyously. "There's no need to dress out here. It's just great! You don't have to put on a collar from one week's end to another. But if you had brought a lot of clothes, mother would have made us dress too. That's why I mentioned the matter in my telegram."
This explanation was given in a low tone that Mrs. Wilder might not know her son had taken such effective measures to prevent his being obliged to "dress up," and the boys laughed heartily at the harmless joke.
The home of the Wilders was only one story high, but the rooms were big and comfortable. Around three sides ran the piazza, from which French windows, extending from the floor to the ceiling, opened, admitting any breeze that might be stirring.
The room assigned to the boys was on the west side of the house, and through the vines they could look across the plains to some mountains that towered in the distance.
"Our room is the next one to yours," said Bill. "We'll wait there till you are dressed. If you want anything, sing out."
Hastily Tom and Larry took off the clothes in which they had traveled, and bathed, glad of the opportunity to remove the cinders which had caused them no little discomfort.
"Bill and Horace seem just the same as when they lived in Bramley," observed Tom when they were alone. "Horace hasn't grown a bit."
"They are tanned up till they look like Indians, that's the only change I can see," returned his brother. "Horace always will be short, but Bill's tall enough for two."
"You can't wear those caps," declared Bill as Tom and Larry appeared with the light baseball caps they had brought with them.
"But that's all we have," protested Larry, "except, of course, our straw hats. You don't expect us to knock round in those, do you?"
"Sure not. But if you wore those caps you'd get sunstruck out on the plains. We've got some sombreros you can take."
As the boys trooped out onto the piazza Tom espied a five-bar fence about a hundred yards from the house.
"That's the horse corral," explained Horace, noting the direction of his friend's gaze. "We don't keep our ponies in barns out here. The horses are all out on the range now, except eight we keep at home for ourselves."
Passing from the cool veranda, the boys walked toward a long building some thirty yards away.
"This is the bunk-house, where the cowboys stay when they're home," announced Bill. "There are ten of them, the best boys in this part of the country, but they are a lively lot. It's a good thing they are with the cattle. You'll have a chance to get used to ranching before they come in or they might amuse themselves at your expense. Politeness isn't a cowboy's long suit."
"So I gathered," said Larry as he thought of his experience at the crossing in Oklahoma. But his mind was quickly diverted by his brother.
"What's that half-moon over the door mean?" asked the younger of the Alden boys as he caught sight of a gilded crescent that sparkled in the sunlight.
"Oh, tenderfoot! oh, tenderfoot! It is indeed fortunate the boys are away," exclaimed Bill in mock solemnity.
"That is the brand of this ranch. Every horse, every steer, cow and calf we own bears a half-moon because this is the Half-Moon Ranch. When any of our ponies or cattle go astray or mix with others, the only way we can tell which belong to us is by the brand."
"How do you put it on?" asked Tom.
"Burn it into the flesh with hot irons. If you can stay till fall, when we have a round-up, you can see how it's done," said Horace.
Feeling that they were indeed ignorant of ranch life, the two brothers decided to use their eyes and ask no more questions than were necessary.
Entering the bunk-house, they saw a long table covered with white oilcloth and a line of bunks built in two tiers against the wall opposite the door. A big stove stood at one end, and there were pegs for saddles, bridles and lassoes all about.
From the bunk-house the boys went to the wagon sheds, which contained three or four farm wagons and also a buckboard.
"That's for mother," explained Bill. "She doesn't like to ride, but she can though if it's necessary.
"Here's where your saddles are," he continued, pointing to a beam into which pegs had been driven. "You want to remember them, especially when the boys are home. They don't like to have any one else take their saddles."
"We'll remember," declared Tom and Larry meaningly.
"I suppose we'll find our ponies in the corral?" hazarded Tom.
"Sure thing. And here's something else to keep in mind. Father always insists that each man put his pony in the corral himself. Of course this morning he did it for us, but he won't again."
"How do you get the horses when you want them? Call 'em?" asked Tom.
"Sometimes that will work—after a pony has come to know its master—but the quickest way is to take some oats in a pan," declared Horace. "We keep the oats here," and he opened a bin at one side of the wagon shed.
"You can use oats on Blackhawk and Lightning and our own ponies, but when we want a strange horse we rope him. That makes me think, I've saved a couple of dandy lariats for you. Cross-eyed Pete, one of our boys, made them for me out of rawhide. They are in my room. Come on, we'll get them and then show you how to use them."
"Is it hard to learn?" inquired Larry.
"Yes, to throw one every time," replied Bill. "Horace and I have been practicing ever since we came out. We can do pretty well. But you ought to see Cross-eyed Pete! He's the best of all the boys. He's so good, he can drop a noose over a rattlesnake, and that's going some."
Before the lads could get the lassoes, however, Mrs. Wilder called them to get ready for dinner.
As the two visitors took their seats at the table a Chinaman, clad in white, glided noiselessly into the room and took his place behind Mr. Wilder's chair, ready to serve.
"Hop Joy, this is Mr. Larry and this is Mr. Tom," said Mrs. Wilder. "Whatever they ask you to do, you must do it."
The celestial, who was cook, washman and general factotum on the Half-Moon Ranch, bowed gravely to each of the boys.
"That sounds very fine," laughed Mr. Wilder, "but you must be careful what you ask Hop Joy to do. If you disturb him when he's cooking he's apt to throw a pail of water at you."
"Hop's all right, father," declared Horace loyally. "He only throws water when the boys try to steal his doughnuts. Um—m, but Hop can make doughnuts! You two just wait till you're riding all day and then see if they don't taste good."
"So that explains the reason you keep on the right side of Hop Joy, eh?" answered Mr. Wilder, smiling. "I've often wondered why you were so willing to help him when the boys are home."
After the laughter this sally evoked had subsided Mrs. Wilder asked the boys about their journey.
In amazement the Wilders listened as the experiences were related, and when Larry finished the account of his mix-up with the cow-punchers Bill exclaimed:
"And here Horace and I have been making fun of you for tenderfeet. The joke seems to be on us."
"That's what it is," asserted their father. "There are not many men, let alone lads, who can say they have faced Gus Megget and got the best of him."
It was the chums' turn to be surprised as they heard this statement.
"Then you know him?" queried Tom.
"I know of him," corrected the ranchman, and the boys noted that the kindly expression of his face disappeared as he spoke. "Gus Megget is a very bad man. He hasn't done an honest day's work for five years. People say he is a train robber, and I've always believed he was a cattle thief, too. From what you tell me, that's Shorty Jenks' opinion. If the truth were known, I think Megget would prove to be the head of a gang of cattle thieves."
And how true were Mr. Wilder's suspicions, they were all destined to learn.
The recital of their adventuresome journey recalled to the boys that they had entirely forgotten to tell about Hans' coming.
Each of the four apparently thought of the timid German boy at the same time and looked at one another uneasily.
And their anxiety was not lessened when Mrs. Wilder asked:
"What became of Hans? Did you call him? Did his brother meet him?"
"No, he didn't," said Larry. Then, determined to get the matter settled at once, he continued: "Mr. Wilder, I'm afraid I have imposed on your kindness, but I asked Bill and Horace to let the German boy come to your ranch until we could decide what he should do. He's so—so scared, I did not like to leave him alone in Tolopah."
"I asked to have him come, too," declared Tom, as though unwilling his brother should bear all the blame, if blame there was to be.
"That was right, quite right," said Mr. Wilder, after a quick glance at his wife. "Tolopah wouldn't agree with him very well. We've plenty of room and perhaps he will get over his fear. I can use another hand very well, if he wants work."
It was a great relief to all the boys to have the matter settled so pleasantly, and they resumed their laughter and chatter.
When dinner was finished they all went out onto the piazza, where Tom and Larry were initiated into the mysteries of throwing a lasso. Then the visitors were taken around and shown many sights new to them.
IN THE SADDLE
"How far away are those mountains?" asked Tom, gazing in their direction as they walked to the corral the next day.
"About forty miles," replied Bill. "They are called the 'Lost Lode' hills, because there is said to be a rich silver mine in them somewhere that the Spaniards worked hundreds of years ago. Just where it is, though, no one has ever been able to discover."
"Wouldn't it be great if we could find it?" exclaimed Larry eagerly. "Do you suppose your father would let us go and try? Have you ever been over to the hills?"
"Lots of times on hunting trips. But we never explored them very much. The trouble is no one knows whether the mine is on this side or the other."
"But haven't they searched for it?" queried Tom, to whose mind a silver mine suggested unlimited wealth.
"Lots of men have tried, but no one who has gone to find it has ever been seen again," returned Bill. "They say the mine is haunted by the ghosts of the old Spaniards who discovered it and that they kill any one who goes near it."
At the suggestion of phantom Spaniards guarding the mine and despatching those who found it the brothers laughed.
"You surely don't believe in ghosts?" inquired Tom, a tone of scorn in his voice. "Who started the story about the ghosts, anyhow?"
"I don't know," responded the elder of the Wilder boys, rather disappointed that the legend did not make more of an impression on his friends. "We heard it when we came here. The cowboys all believe it, and nothing would make them pass a night in those hills if they could help it."
But ghosts were something in which the two brothers had been taught not to believe, and Tom exclaimed:
"Huh! I'll bet some one has found the mine and started these stories to keep other people from going there. Maybe there are three or four mines," he added as his lively imagination began to work.
"It's all right for you to laugh; you haven't been in the hills," snapped Horace. "If you'd heard Cross-eyed Pete tell about the night he was camping there and was scared away by hearing men shooting you might think differently."
"Just the same, I'd be willing to go and hunt for it," persisted Tom.
"And so would I," chimed in his brother. "I say," he continued, "why can't we go on a hunting trip? We needn't say anything about trying to find the mine. Then, if we didn't, no one could laugh at us and say we got scared."
The refusal of the boys from Ohio to believe in the haunted mine had at first nettled Bill and Horace, but they had always been keen to hear or see phantoms, and at Larry's proposal of the hunting trip they became enthusiastic.
"It will be great sport, if father will let us," assented Horace. "Come on, we'll ask him."
And abandoning their intention of roping ponies, they turned back to the house in search of Mr. Wilder.
Finding him on the piazza, they lost no time in laying their plan for a hunting trip before him.
As he beheld the eager faces and noted the lithe, supple bodies of the boys, in whose eyes shone the light of fearlessness, the ranchman replied:
"I have no objection, if you don't go beyond the foothills. Bill, you remember the trails I showed you last spring, don't you?"
"All right, keep to them. You boys certainly ought to be able to take care of yourselves. Go and tell Hop Joy to put up some grub for you. You had better camp on the plains to-night, so you won't be able to shoot your food."
Delighted at the thought of going on a hunting trip, the boys hurried away to the Chinaman.
"Golly! You boyee go shootee?" exclaimed the celestial when he had received the orders to pack their food. "No flaid ghostee?"
"Of course not," replied Horace. "There's no such thing as ghosts, Hop Joy."
"Mebbe so, mebbe not; no be too sure," grunted the Chinaman. "Plete, him say they be."
But the boys did not linger to argue the matter, and only waiting to see that Hop Joy put in a quantity of doughnuts, went to get their rifles and shells ready.
To their surprise, when they returned to the piazza, they found the ranchman busily overhauling his guns.
"I reckon I'll go with you," he explained. "I haven't been hunting for some time, and as everything is quiet I can get away for three or four days as well as not."
"Oh, good! Hooray!" exclaimed the boys.
And Horace added: "Now we won't have to worry about getting lost."
Not long did it take the lads to clean their rifles and fill their cartridge belt with shells.
"Have you two got any knives?" inquired Mr. Wilder, looking at Tom and Larry.
"Sure," replied Larry, and he told of the old gold miner's presents and his advice about always carrying the pieces of thong with them.
"Silas is no fool," smiled the ranchman. "If you remember all he told you, you won't get into trouble. Still, I think it would be just as well for you to let me put your money in my safe. Then you surely can't lose it."
"That's what father told us to do," said Larry as he and Tom removed their buckskin money bags and gave them to the ranchman. "We forgot it, though."
"Speaking about forgetting, what about the German boy?" asked Mrs. Wilder, who had come to learn the cause of the preparations.
At the mention of Hans the four lads looked at one another in dismay. But the ranchman came to the rescue, saying:
"From all Larry and Tom say, I don't reckon he'll be keen on hunting. You can let him help Ned."
"Ned's our handy man," explained Horace in a whisper. "He drives the grub wagon to Tolopah, and to the boys in their camps."
"Well, here comes the wagon now," observed Mrs. Wilder as she caught sight of the big white-covered wagon, called a prairie schooner in the old days, bobbing over the plains about a mile away.
"Oh, don't let's wait," protested Horace. "We can saddle up and go and meet them. I'll make my pony dance and perhaps that will scare Hans so he won't care to go."
"All right," laughed Mr. Wilder. "Bring up the ponies. Get Buster for me."
Running to the wagon shed, the boys gathered the saddles, bridles, some oats and pans and started for the corral.
Opening the big gate, they entered, closed it and then threw their saddles on the ground.
"Always close the gate before you start to get your ponies," instructed Bill. "Sometimes they cut up, and if they get out onto the prairie it's the old Harry of a job to catch them again.
"Now put your oats in your pans. Watch Horace and me and you'll see what to do."
When they had prepared the oat bait, the two Wilder boys began to beat on the pans, calling Buster and the other ponies by name.
The animals, which were at the farther end of the corral browsing, lifted their heads and then came trotting toward them, halting about ten feet away.
"Swish your pans so they can hear the oats," whispered Bill.
Slowly the ponies approached, as though deciding whether they preferred their oats or their liberty.
"Come, Blackhawk! Come, Buster!" called Horace.
The boys set the pans on the ground. For a moment the ponies eyed them and then trotted up, the eight crowding one another to get at the four measures.
"Now's the time," breathed Bill.
In a trice the bits were thrust into the ponies' mouths and the leather over their ears.
Lightning plunged back, but Larry grabbed the reins just in time and held him.
"Push the pan to him," directed Horace, and, as he smelled the oats, the pony grew still and was soon munching contentedly.
After catching his own mount, Bill had bridled Buster, and as soon as the oats were devoured, all five were saddled with little trouble and the boys were quickly on the backs of four of them, Bill leading the pony for his father.
It required but a few minutes to make fast the saddle bags Hop Joy had filled with food, tin plates, cups, knives and forks, coffee pot, sugar and coffee and to tie on their sleeping blankets.
Then they buckled on their cartridge belts, slung their rifles across their shoulders and again mounted.
By the time they were ready, however, the grub wagon was coming into the yard.
"Where's Hans?" gasped Larry, the first one to discover that there was only one occupant.
With a broad grin suffusing his face, the driver cried:
As the horses stopped Mr. Wilder, fearing that the boy had been made the butt of some mad prank, said severely:
"If anything happened to that lad, I shall hold you responsible, Ned. Where is he?"
"Gone with his brother Chris."
"His brother!" cried Tom. "Did his brother come back?"
"He did—yesterday. Hans found him, and such a meeting nobody ever see before. The brother is going to another town and Hans with him. They started to-day."
The knowledge that Hans had found his brother was a great relief to Tom and Larry, and they lost no time in saying so.
"If you feel that way, then it surely is all right," declared the ranchman. "We're going into the hills for a few days hunting, Ned. If you need me, you'll find me somewhere on the 'Lost Lode' trail."
"With them tenderfeet?" inquired the handy man, eyeing Tom and Larry doubtfully.
"Don't take them for easy, Ned. They put the laugh on Gus Megget, so I reckon they can take care of themselves in the hills and on the Half-Moon, too," he added with an emphasis which was to act as a warning to be passed along to the cowboys.
"So it's them two I heard 'em talkin' about in Tolopah? Howdy, gents! I sure takes off my bonnet to you," and Ned swept his sombrero good naturedly from his head. "Say, you two are the only topic of conversation in Tolopah about now. Couple of passengers told what you all done, and now everybody's telling everybody else. So it was you kids put the kibosh on Gus Megget. Phew! I hope I don't get you riled up." And clucking to his horses, Ned drove on to the wagon shed.
"When you go into Tolopah, you'll own the town," smiled Mr. Wilder, looking at the brothers. "You see, you are famous already."
But Larry and Tom only laughed, while the latter exclaimed:
"I'd rather find the Lost Lode than fight Megget."
"So my boys have told you about the mine and the ghosts, eh?" And shaking his bridle, the ranchman waved good-by to his wife and cantered away, followed by the others.
For a few minutes they rode without talking, the Wilder boys a trifle envious of the reputation their friends had achieved and the chums trying to get accustomed to riding with a rifle bumping their backs.
They soon got the swing of it, however, and, as the ponies settled into an easy, steady lope, Tom exclaimed:
"Larry, we're in the saddle and on the plains at last."
"Like it, what?" queried Horace.
"It's what we've been dreaming of for months," declared Larry. "Only, I say, Mr. Wilder, let's drop Megget. All we did was to get away from him."
"As you like," smiled the ranchman, "but that's something."
A RACE IN THE MOONLIGHT
Now through waving grass up to their knees, now through stretches of sage brush the hunters rode. Three or four times they caught sight of cattle in the distance, which Horace eagerly declared belonged to the Half-Moon, explaining that the biggest herds were in Long Creek bottoms, about fifty miles southwest, where the cattle could find water as well as good grazing ground.
"Fifty miles, gracious! Do you own so much land?" asked Larry of Mr. Wilder.
"No. We have a thousand acres, more or less. But my neighbors and I have leased the rights to graze in Lone Creek."
"Neighbors?" repeated the elder of the brothers in surprise. "Why I can't see any house but yours. In fact, I haven't seen any since we left Tolopah."
"And there isn't any within thirty miles. There are two on the south and more north, even farther away. But we call them neighbors just the same. Anybody within a day's ride is a neighbor," explained the ranchman. And as he noted the look of amusement that appeared on the faces of the brothers, he added: "You won't think so much of distances after you've been out here a while."
At the end of two hours, as they mounted the crest of a great roll in the prairies, the dried-up course of a stream was disclosed.
"If you follow that, it will lead you to Lone Creek," explained Horace. "Down about ten miles there's a place called the Witches' Pool, where we go fishing. It's so deep it never dries. We'll go there some day."
"More ghosts?" inquired Larry as he repeated the name of the pool.
"No, no ghosts," laughed Mr. Wilder, "just the ignis fatuus, or will-o'-the-wisps. All cowboys are very superstitious, you must remember. The land round the pool is swampy and at night you can sometimes see the lights dancing about. I suppose some one saw them, and, finding no person there, immediately decided the pool was a gathering place for witches."
"Pete says it's the bodies of the men who have died of thirst on the plains searching for water," declared Horace in an awed tone.
"That's an ingenious explanation, but it is not the truth, my boy. The lights are caused by certain gases that come from the marshy ground and glow when the atmosphere is in a certain condition. Over in Scotland, on the peat bogs, they call them 'friars' lanterns.'"
"My, but I'd like to see one," sighed Tom.
"Then I'm afraid you'll be obliged to camp by the pool. You might go there a hundred nights and never see a sign of one," returned the ranchman. And then, as the shadows cast by the mountains were reaching farther and farther out onto the prairie, he thought it best to turn the minds of the boys into other channels.
"Shall we camp in the open or would you rather push on to the foothills?" he asked. "It'll be dark by the time we get there."
"I vote to keep going," answered Larry.
"How far is it?" inquired Tom, who was beginning to feel the effects of the many miles in the saddle.
"About fifteen, which means two hours at least, because the darker it gets the slower we'll be obliged to go till you two get more used to riding the plains," responded Bill.
"If we keep on, and I feel stiff in the morning, we'll be there and I shall not be compelled to cover the fifteen miles," mused the younger of the brothers as much to himself as to the others. "I'm for pushing on, too."
Laughing at their guest's discomfort, the others readily acquiesced, and they crossed the stream bottom.
Save the noise made by themselves, the twitter of birds, and the occasional cry of some prairie dog routed out by their approach, the silence of the plains was intense. At first Tom and Larry did not notice it, but as they rode mile after mile they began to feel its depression.
"It often drives men crazy," asserted the ranchman when Larry mentioned his feeling. "That's why we never send a man out alone to herd. Having some one to talk to it a big relief, I can tell you, after you've been a week or so on the prairies with nothing but a bunch of stolid cattle. The very monotony of their grazing and chewing their cuds gets on your nerves."
As darkness came on, however, the awful silence was broken. From all sides came the barking of coyotes, as though they were signaling one another their whereabouts.
"That howling would scare me a great deal quicker than any ghosts or witches," observed Tom. "My, but it's mournful! Do they keep that up all night?"
"Indeed they do," replied Horace, delighted to think one thing had been discovered which the two visitors feared, "only it gets worse the darker it grows. Besides, when they are hungry, they'll follow you and attack you."
"That wouldn't be so bad so long as you had a gun with you," interposed Larry. "I'd like to get a shot at one."
"Then there's your chance, over on the left," exclaimed Mr. Wilder.
Unslinging his rifle, the elder of the Alden boys looked eagerly in the direction indicated. But it was so dark he could see nothing and he said so.
"Can't you see those two little balls of fire right opposite you? If you can't, say so. I'll stop him myself," returned the ranchman.
Yet even as he spoke the coyote turned and fled.
"It's just as well," added Mr. Wilder after he had announced the fact. "You'll have a chance to shoot at something better than a measely prairie wolf to-morrow, I hope."
"Or perhaps to-night," chimed in Horace. "Maybe a ghost'll attack our camp."
"That will do, youngster. If you talk any more about ghosts, I'll make you ride back to the ranch in the dark. If you keep on, you'll work yourself up so you'll think every sound you hear is a Spaniard from the mine, and there will be no sleep for any of us."
This command had the desired effect, and Horace gave up the attempt of trying to frighten his friends.
For a time the darkness grew more and more intense till it was all the riders could do to make out the forms of one another. But at last the clouds passed over, revealing the stars, and soon the moon rose, full and brilliant, changing the swaying grass into a seeming sea of silver with its light.
In wonder the brothers gazed at the transformation and Larry said:
"I wish the plains could be like this always. They don't seem half so terrible."
But the boys soon had other things to think about. They were so close to the mountains that they could see the great cliffs glistening in the moonlight above the trees from which they rose, sheer.
"I don't wonder they say these mountains are haunted," exclaimed Tom. "I can almost believe I see men moving along the top of that middle cliff."
"Better curb your imagination then," chided Mr. Wilder. "It's a good thing we've got to pitch camp pretty soon or you'd all get the nerves."
At Tom's words the other boys had sought the middle cliff with their eyes and suddenly Bill exclaimed:
"Tom's right, father! There are men moving along the top of the precipice!"
Mr. Wilder had been intent on searching the base of the mountains for a place to camp for the night. But at his elder son's statement he looked up quickly, drawing rein that he might be sure the motion of his horse played no trick on his eyes.
Breathlessly the others waited his decision.
The cliff at which they all were staring so intently was about half way up the mountain and above it rose another wall of rock. And it was against the base of this latter that the objects which attracted Tom's attention were silhouetted.
"By jove! They are men," exclaimed Mr. Wilder excitedly. "I never knew there was a trail along the base of that cliff before."
The boys were tremendously stirred up as they heard this confirmation.
"Perhaps they are the men going to guard the Lost Lode for the night," Horace whispered. "They wouldn't need a trail to walk on, father."
"Steady, boy, steady," returned the ranchman. "Those men are flesh and blood, don't worry about that. Who they are I don't know. Probably some hunters like ourselves."
"That couldn't be the way to the mine, could it?" hazarded Larry, whose eagerness to discover a silver mine had received new impetus. "Can't we go there to-morrow and find out?"
"We'll see when to-morrow comes," declared Mr. Wilder. "But there's no occasion to get excited. The mountains are full of men hunting and prospecting all the time. Come on, we'll camp under that big tree up there to the right. Whoever gets there first will be boss of the camp."
The challenge for a race, with the honor of being in command of the hunt as the prize, served to take the boys' thoughts from the mysterious men on the trail as nothing else could, and quickly they leaped their ponies forward.
The spot selected by the ranchman for their night's bivouac was about a quarter of a mile away and in the opposite direction from the cliffs.
Yelling like young Indians, the boys urged their jaded ponies to greater efforts.
Tom and Horace, being lighter than the others, had not tried their mounts so much, and rapidly they drew ahead.
"We simply must beat them," called Bill to Larry. "If they get in first, they'll make us haul all the water and wash dishes—at least Horace will, if he wins."
Leaning over their ponies' necks and rising in the saddles to lighten their weight as much as possible, the two elder boys set out to overtake their brothers.
With spur and lariat end they belabored their mounts and gamely the horses responded.
Leap by leap they cut down the lead, were soon abreast of the others and then forged ahead, shouting in triumph as they opened clear ground between them.
Only about a hundred yards were the leaders from the tree.
Feeling his pony tiring under him, despite his urging, Horace gasped at Tom:
"Hit Blackhawk with the end of your lasso and then hang on for dear life!"
Instantly Tom obeyed.
As the big black felt the blow he uttered a snort of rage, jerked forward his head and seemed to fly over the ground.
Like a flash he caught Bill and Larry. Frantically they strove to keep up with him, but in a few bounds he had passed them.
"Tom wins!" yelled Horace with glee.
But his delight at the success of his ruse was shortlived.
Blackhawk was not accustomed to being beaten and, though ordinarily he had a good temper, when he was angry he could be very mean. Accordingly, as though reasoning to himself that he had done his share in carrying his rider so many miles, when he felt the sharp cut of the lariat he resented it. And his resentment took the form of a vicious lunge forward of his head, which enabled him to get the bits in his teeth, with which advantage no one could control him.
Despite his greater weight, the ranchman had been close up with the boys and had noted Blackhawk's action.
Realizing that it would be hopeless to try to overtake the runaway, and fearing that some injury might befall Tom, Mr. Wilder shouted:
"Rope the black, Bill! He's got the bit!"
Loosening his lariat as quickly as possible, the elder of the Wilder boys began to whirl it round his head.
"Throw it! throw it!" roared the ranchman, "Can't you see you're losing ground every second?"
Never before had Bill been called on for so important a cast of his lasso, and for a moment his hand trembled.
"Steady! Let her go now!" counseled his father.
At the word Bill put forth all his strength and the rope shot from his hand, the noose opening perfectly as it sped through the air.
Fascinated, the others watched as it hung a moment in the air and dropped directly over Blackhawk's head.
"Pretty cast!" praised the ranchman. "Now ride along. Don't pull up too soon."
But his words were too late.
The pony which his elder son rode was perfectly trained to rope steers. As it caught the sharp hiss of the lariat the animal had slackened its stride, and the instant it felt the rope tighten had stiffened its legs and braced, almost squatting back on its haunches.
And the next moment Blackhawk was jerked from his feet, measuring his length on the ground, while Tom went sailing through the air, alighting about twenty feet away.
"Hold as you are!" ordered Mr. Wilder of Bill and then dashed for the kicking black, with Larry and Horace at his heels.
"Tom! Tom! are you hurt?" called his brother.
For a second there was no reply, and then their anxiety was relieved by seeing Tom stand up.
"Any bones broken?" asked Mr. Wilder, who had reached the black and was dismounting.
"No. I'm all right, thanks to the prairie grass," replied the younger of the brothers. "Is Blackhawk hurt?"
"I don't think so. Ease up, Bill. I've got him by the bridle."
Quickly the elder of the Wilder boys rode forward, and as the prostrate pony felt the rope loosen he bounded to his feet.
With skilled eye the ranchman looked him over and there was a world of relief in his voice as he said:
"We got out of that scrape mighty luckily. There isn't a scratch on Blackhawk, and if Tom's——"
"There's no scratch on me either," returned the boy. "But what about the race, do I win or not?"
"Considering you flew from Blackhawk's back almost to the tree, I reckon you do," declared Mr. Wilder.
And looking up, Tom noticed that he was, indeed, standing under the branches of the tree that marked the goal.
HORACE IN DANGER
As the others reached the tree they dismounted, unbuckled the saddle bags and removed the saddles.
"Well, commander, do you wish me to select a place to hobble the ponies?" asked Mr. Wilder, addressing Tom.
"Yes, sir. I never was in charge of a camp before, so you must tell me what to do."
"Oh, make me your lieutenant and I'll tell you," pleaded Horace. "I know all about it."
"You can give orders all right," grunted Bill, "there's no doubt about that. I see myself lugging wood."
All laughed heartily at this reference to Horace's fondness for commanding, and the younger of the comrades replied;
"All right, Horace, you may be my lieutenant. Only you must tell me what there is to be done, and I will give the orders."
Although by this arrangement the youngest of the party would be deprived of most of his powers, he readily agreed, saying:
"Wood must be collected for the fire, the food and dishes must be unpacked, supper cooked and water located."
"Better put me on the job of getting water, because I shall picket the horses where they can get a drink," declared the ranchman.
"Then, Larry, you and Bill build the fire and get supper ready. Horace, I'll put you in charge and you must arrange the place for us to sleep. I can see some pine trees yonder. Break off some limbs and spread them on the ground. Then put the blankets over them. I'm going with Mr. Wilder to bring the water and to learn how to hobble the horses."
"You're a fine commander to be lieutenant for—not," declared Horace. "Gave me the meanest job of all." Yet he lost no time in obeying.
Quickly each one set about the work assigned to him, for the sight of the doughnuts and other good things to eat, after their long ride, made them hungry.
"Get the coffee pot and then sling the reins of Lightning and Buster on your arm and come with me, Tom," said Mr. Wilder. "I'll take Blackhawk, because he's still cranky, and the other two."
The ranchman, however, let the ponies lead him more than he led them, for he knew their instinct would take them to the nearest water.
Yet there was no need of their guidance, for in a few minutes the ears of the hunters caught the sound of running water.
"That's a brook," declared Mr. Wilder, and quickly he led the way to a spot where they found a fair-sized pool formed by a stream coming from the hills.
The coffee pot was a monster, holding all of two gallons, and this the ranchman directed Tom to fill before allowing the ponies to satisfy their thirst.
As the animals were drinking Mr. Wilder took the lariats he had brought and tied an end around the left ankle of each pony, making another noose round the hind ankle on the same side at such a distance that there was about three feet of the rope between the hoofs.
"Such a short line makes it impossible for them to run or even walk very well," he explained, "so they will just stay here and browse,
"Now we'll remove the bridles. Always remember to hobble your pony before unbridling."
"But the rope ends?" asked Tom.
"In a place like this, where there are no rocks between which they can get bound, you can let them drag. When it is rocky, you can wind the rope loosely round their necks."
Before the task was finished they heard Horace calling.
"Hey, you! Hurry with that coffee pot!" he shouted. "We want to start it boiling."
"Then come and get it," replied his father.
But Tom had already picked it up and was carrying it toward the camp fire, which was blazing cheerily beneath the big tree. Taking the bridles, Mr. Wilder soon followed.
Larry had spread a blanket on the ground for a tablecloth and arranged the plates, knives and forks. In the middle he had made a pile of doughnuts and around them set three pies.
To Bill had fallen the task of cooking, and he was busy frying eggs and bacon in a long-handled pan, which he rested on a bed of coals.
At the sight of Tom and the coffee pot, he called:
"Tell Horace to pour some water into the drinking cups, put the coffee in the pot and set it in the fire. Supper'll be ready before the coffee unless you hurry."
But Tom was not a boy to shirk work, and directing his brother to bring the cups, he sent his aide for the coffee while he prepared a good hot bed of coals.
The odor from the sputtering bacon whetted their appetites, and all but Bill devoted their energies to hurrying the coffee and to such good purpose that they disproved the old saying, "A watched pot never boils."
At last all was ready, and the hunters squatted tailor fashion on the ground, each before his plate of eggs and bacon and a steaming cup of coffee.
"My, but this tastes better than anything I ever ate before," declared Larry.
"Because the ride has given you a keen appetite," said the ranchman with a smile.
The others were too busy eating to offer any comment, and the meal progressed in silence till almost the last bit of food had disappeared.
"Hop Joy certainly can cook," complimented Tom as he reached for another doughnut from the fast vanishing pile.
"That's what I told you," returned Horace. "From the way they are going, it's a good thing I went back and put in an extra supply when Hop wasn't looking."
"He'll fix you when we get back!" cried Bill. "Tom, who does the dishes? For your benefit and before my young brother gets a chance to speak, I'll tell you that the cook never washes the dishes."
"Oh, what a whopper!" cried Horace. "Tom, the cook always washes them. That's all he does, wash dishes and cook."
"Well, we'll all help," declared the youthful commander of the camp.
This arrangement met with laughing approval, and because of the many hands, the task was soon finished.
"And now, as we must be up with the dawn if we are going to get a shot at any deer, I suggest that we turn in," remarked Mr. Wilder.
"Where did you put the pine boughs, Horace? I don't see them."
"I left them over by the tree," replied the lieutenant, grinning. "I didn't know how many each of you would want, so I thought the best way was to let you pick out all you pleased."
"Lazy bones! Lazy bones!" shouted the other boys, and Tom cried:
"That trick won't work this time. Now, hurry and tote the boughs over."
Making a face at his superior, Horace Jumped tip and soon came back, dragging a monster pile of fragrant pine branches, which he quickly separated into five heaps.
"Does the honored general wish me to wrap and tuck each one in his bed or will they do that themselves?" he asked, bowing in mock deference.
"The honored general sentences you to do the dishes in the morning for that," returned Tom with assumed dignity, and in rare good humor they quickly placed their saddles as pillows and unrolled their blankets.
Fixing the fire so that it could not spread and cause any harm, Mr. Wilder bade the boys turn in, and soon they were sound asleep.
Exhausted from the excitement of their arrival and the long ride, Tom and Larry were so deep in slumber that though Mr. Wilder called them when he himself got up, they did not wake.
His own sons, however, heard his call and quickly crawled from their blankets.
"Come on, we'll get breakfast. Let Tom and Larry sleep," exclaimed their father. "Remember, they are not so accustomed to riding as you two are."
This caution was uttered just in time, for Horace was in the very act of yanking the youthful commander by the foot when his father spoke.
Not long did it take to prepare the food, and Bill was just pouring the coffee when Mr. Wilder aroused his guests.
"Wh—what is it?" gasped Larry, sitting up and staring about him dazedly.
"It's breakfast, that's all," said Horace. "Hey, Mr. Commander, you'll be court-martialed if you miss grub." And he proceeded to drag Tom from his bed of boughs by the heels.
Chagrined to think they had not helped with the meal, Tom and Larry quickly arose and ran to the brook to wash.
As they stood at the pool they forgot their ablutions in the beauty of the scene before them.
The grass of the prairie was heavy with dew and in the rose glow of the sky the particles of moisture sparkled and glistened like countless crystals.
"Seems like fairyland," whispered Tom, as though afraid if he spoke out loud the scene would vanish.
A call from Horace, however, roused them to action, and in a few minutes they were, eating heartily.
"What sort of a brook is that?" asked Larry. "I didn't see any outlet, yet water keeps running into the pool all the time."
"There must be some underground stream into which it empties," replied the ranchman. "There are two such subterranean rivers in these hills, and, I suppose this pool connects with one of them."
Discussion of such phenomena was prevented by his continuing:
"Hurry now and pack up. I'll bring up the ponies while you are getting ready."
Eager to begin the ascent of the hills, the boys worked rapidly, and by the time Mr. Wilder appeared with the horses everything was in the saddle bags, though Horace had dispensed with the formality of wiping the dishes.
It was the task of but a few minutes to make fast the saddle bags and blankets, and just as the sun flooded the plains with its golden light the hunters swung into their saddles.
Riding southward, Mr. Wilder followed the base of the hills for a good mile till he came to a well-worn trail.
"We'll follow this run for a while," said he. "Bill, you and Larry can ride at the rear. I'll keep Horace and Tom with me, so they won't be tempted to spoil our sport by shooting at the first deer they see, no matter how far out of range it is. For the benefit of you two," he added, addressing the brothers, "I will say that when you are riding a trail, and especially a mountain trail, always let your pony have plenty of rein. It's easier for him. He won't be so likely to stumble and fall, and a pony can generally keep a trail better than a man."
These instructions delivered, Mr. Wilder turned his pony into the run and the others followed in Indian file, the two elder boys bringing up the procession.
For an hour they rode, now with their ponies scrambling over rocks, now up such steep ascents that the comrades feared the animals would fall over onto them.
But by leaning far forward at such times, they had no mishaps and at last rode out onto a plateau from which they looked down into a vale some two hundred yards below.
A mist hovered over the basin, rendering it impossible for them to see the bottom.
The boys were disappointed and said so.
"On the contrary, it is lucky," declared Mr. Wilder. "There is a brook down there and it is a favorite drinking ground for deer. Under the cover of the mist we shall be able to go down, and it will act as a blanket to keep our scent from the sensitive-nosed beauties."
"Going to ride down?" queried Tom, looking about for some trail.
"No, we'll leave the ponies here. Lively now and hobble them and don't talk."
The plateau was some hundred yards long by half as many wide, and quickly the hunters rode their horses to where the mountain again rose, turning the horses loose in some delicious grass.
"Be very careful, very careful in descending," cautioned the ranchman. "The ground is wet and the rocks are slippery, and if you once start to fall, there's no knowing where you will land."
All the boys had hunted enough to know that the safest way to carry a loaded gun is with the muzzle pointed to the ground, the butt resting against the back of the right shoulder, with the arm akimbo, thus forming a rest for the barrel.
And in this fashion they set out.
After a few minutes' search Mr. Wilder exclaimed:
"Here's the run the deer use. Steady now. Mind your feet. Don't make a sound."
With almost no noise, the party descended. Now and then one of the lads slipped, but there was always a rock or a sapling at hand which they could grasp to steady themselves and no one fell.
As he reached the edge of the mist, Mr. Wilder held up his hand as a signal to halt.
Turning his head, he listened intently for some sound that might give him an inkling as to the whereabouts of the deer.
In his eagerness to locate them, Horace moved away from the trail to the left and then stopped.
Barely had he halted when a loud sneeze rang out from directly in front of him.
So sudden and so near was it that Horace cried out in fright.
At the same moment the antlers of a big buck appeared from the mist and then vanished as quickly, only to reappear a moment later, followed by its head and shoulders.
Whether the buck or the hunters were more surprised it would be hard to say. For several seconds they stared at one another.
Larry, Tom and Horace were trembling like leaves, victims of "buck fever," a species of stage fright which makes it impossible for any one to hold a gun steady, and Bill was in such a position behind the others that he could not aim his rifle unless he put it between the heads of the others.
The ranchman alone was where he could bring down the buck, and he hesitated, unwilling to risk a chance to get several other deer by dropping the one in front of him.
It was the buck himself that put an end to the remarkable situation. Of a sudden, with a snort of rage, he lowered his sharp pronged antlers and charged at Horace.
With a yell of terror the boy turned to flee and stumbled.
In an instant the scene had changed from one of comedy to one of possible tragedy should the infuriated beast reach his victim.
But Mr. Wilder was equal to the occasion. Throwing his rifle to his shoulder, he fired.
True was his aim and the buck threw up his head, staggered and then toppled over.
The sound of the shot had galvanized Tom and Larry into action, and with a lightning movement they both stooped, seized their friend and pulled him to them just as the body of the buck struck the ground.
So unnerved were they all by the narrowness of the escape that for several moments no one spoke.
Then Mr. Wilder rallied them by exclaiming:
"See! see! The mist has lifted. There go three more deer up the valley. Come on! Let's see who can bring one down."
The chance for a shot brought even Horace out of his fright, and in a thrice the boys had sighted their rifles and fired. But no deer dropped.
"I hit one, I know I did!" declared Bill. "Let's follow."
"No, shoot again," returned his father. "We have the advantage here from being above."
Again the rifles cracked, and this time one of the deer gave a bound in the air and dropped flat.
"Hooray! We've got another!" cried the lads,
"Don't fire any more. The others are out of range," declared the ranchman.
"Please, just one more," begged Horace.
But his father refused, telling him that a good hunter never shot when there was no hope of bringing down his game.
"Never mind, we've got two," said Larry. "I call that pretty good luck."
And speculating as to whom the credit of hitting the second belonged, they all hastened to where it lay.
THE MESSAGE FROM CROSS-EYED PETE
The shells shot by the rifles belonging to the two chums were .44-.50, while those of the Wilder boys were .30, so that it would only be possible to tell whether the boys from Ohio had proved better marksmen than the Westerners. Yet the boys were eager to settle the question.
Chaffing each other good naturedly, they tramped along, and when they saw the size of the antlers and body of the second buck they forgot all rivalry.
"He's a beauty!" cried Horace. "I'm glad it wasn't he that made a jump for me. His prongs stick out a yard."
Though this was an exaggeration, the branches of the antlers were, indeed, surprisingly long.
"And there are fourteen of the prongs," ejaculated Tom, who had been counting the sharp points.
"Which makes him fifteen years old," asserted Bill. "Just look at their spread; they must be all of four feet."
"Easily," said his father. "He's the biggest buck I ever saw. Ah, here's the bullet-hole, right back of the shoulder. It certainly was a splendid shot." And as he bent closer to examine it, the others awaited his decision as to which party the trophy belonged.
"Ohio wins!" he declared at last.
"Then Tom probably got him. He's a better marksman that I am," asserted Larry.
Though the Wilder boys were naturally disappointed, they made the best of it, and Bill exclaimed:
"Come on, Larry. Let's go into the woods and search. I'm positive I hit a deer the first time I fired. Can we go, father?"
"Surely, only don't get lost. It will take me some time to dress the two bucks. If you are not back by the time I am finished, come to the plateau. We'll wait for you there."
Promising not to wander far, the elder boys entered the woods while the others assisted in dressing the monster buck.
After skinning the animal, the ranchman cut out the most savory parts and placed them in the pelt.
"Shall we take the antlers?" asked Horace.
"They'd be fine to have mounted, but they'll be awfully in the way while we're hunting. What do you think, Mr. Wilder?" And Tom appealed to him as to their proper disposal.
"They will be awkward to carry, that's a fact," assented the ranchman. "If you want them very much, though, we can leave them here and then stop on our way home. They'll be safe enough till we get back."
Readily Tom agreed, and he and Horace were just stooping to pick up one end of the hide, containing the deer meat, when Horace let out a cry.
"Oh, what's that thing up by my buck?"
"It looks like a tiger," exclaimed Tom, and then added: "But you don't have tigers out here, do you?"
"No. That's a mountain lion, which is almost the same thing, though," answered Mr. Wilder. "Now's your chance to show your marksmanship, Horace. Take a good aim and see if you can't knock him over."
No urging did his son need. Raising his rifle to position, the lad squinted along the barrel carefully and then fired.
Above the report of the shot rang out an ear-splitting howl, and the mountain Hon turned to face the direction of the sound.
"Give him another, son. You hit him, but not in a vital spot," said his father.
Again Horace aimed and fired, this time with better success, for the lion dropped in its tracks.
"Good work," praised Tom heartily. "That was a mighty long shot to make. Now if Bill and Larry only get something, we'll have bagged a trophy."
Elated at his success, Horace was starting toward his prize when his father called him back to help carry the pelt.
"My, but he's a beauty!" declared the younger of the chums when they reached the carcass. "I should hate to come across one suddenly."
"They are not pleasant customers to meet," smiled Mr. Wilder. "I'm glad this fellow didn't visit us last night. Though why he passed the horses by I don't know. Mountain lions are great ones for horse or cattle flesh. While I am dressing the buck you boys had better climb up to the plateau and see that our ponies are all right. Take some of the meat with you and then we won't be obliged to make so many trips."
With a piece of meat in one hand and a rifle in the other, the lads started up the trail and, though they went bravely enough, each in his heart was a bit frightened.
"Pete says mountain lions usually travel in pairs, so keep your eyes peeled," advised Horace.
But though they imagined several times they heard the purr of one of the prowlers, they reached the plateau without adventure.
The ponies were huddled together, tails to the rocks, and were sniffing the air in obvious uneasiness.
"Steady, boys, steady," called Horace soothingly. And setting down his meat, he patted each reassuringly.
The presence of the boys was an evident relief to the ponies, and after a few minutes they began to champ grass again.
"That lion must have come quite near, to scare 'em so," asserted the young rancher. "Pete says ponies are almost as good as dogs for watching, and I believe him. They can smell things, oh, way off." And sitting down, Horace entertained his companion with stories of the keen scent of horses, which lost none of their color because of his lively imagination. Indeed, he succeeded in getting them both so worked up that when Mr. Wilder's hat appeared above the edge of the plateau each boy seized his rifle and aimed at it.
"What are you going to do, hold me up?" laughed the ranchman as he saw the barrels leveled at him, and then, as he noted the alarm on their faces, he added: "Steady! Put your guns down carefully."
Laughing nervously, the boys obeyed.
"You are a fine lot, you are," he chided, "to leave me to bring up all the meat alone. Why didn't you come back?"
In explanation Horace told how they had found the ponies and said they had stayed to quiet them.
"And I'll wager you've been relating some wonderful yarns for Tom's benefit, judging from the way you received me. Now, boys," he continued seriously, "when you are in the mountains you must never talk about things that will excite you. There are so many things that can happen. A man always needs to be cool and collected, so that if emergency does arise he can think quickly and well."
This bit of advice made a deep impression on the lads and they promised to remember it.
The sun was high in the heavens and its heat was becoming terrific.
"Fetch the horses and come into the woods," commanded Mr. Wilder. "We'll get dinner ready and wait for Bill and Larry where it's cool."
"Why it's a quarter of twelve," said Tom, looking at his watch. "I had no idea it was so late."
"Time flies when you are hunting," returned the ranchman, "a fact that you should remember, and with it that darkness falls quickly in the mountains."
The ponies were nothing loath to move from the broiling plateau to the cooler woods and stood contentedly, now and then nibbling the leaves and tender twigs from the trees near them.
Lighting a fire, Mr. Wilder soon had a choice slice of venison broiling In the saucepan, and the aroma was so good that the boys could hardly wait to taste the meat.
At last it was ready, and they ate it ravenously. "How much better it tastes when you've shot it yourself," declared Tom. "I've had venison before, but it wasn't nearly so good as this."
"A keen appetite and the mountain air certainly do give a zest to your food," smiled the ranchman.
"I reckon I'll put another slice on the fire so it will be ready for the boys when they come."
But it was fully an hour later before they heard the others hail.
"Up here in the woods," called back Tom and Horace, running to the edge of the forest to guide them to the camp.
It was several minutes before Larry and Bill came in sight, and before they did the others had learned that they had found the deer Bill thought he had hit.
"I ran across it," explained Larry. "It's hind leg was broken and it was lying down when I came upon it. The poor thing tried to jump up, but it couldn't very well."
"But I didn't hear any shot," interrupted Tom. "I've been listening, too."
"Good reason why, because it was way over in another basin," answered his brother. "It must have been all of three miles from here, don't you think so, Bill?"
"Then how did you follow it?" demanded Horace.
"By its blood and where its leg dragged."
"Well, I'm glad you found the poor creature and put it out of misery," declared his father. "That's the only objection I have to deer hunting—the animals have such wonderful vitality that they travel miles and miles after being crippled and then drop from exhaustion, like this one. As a usual thing, I don't allow any one to fire at a deer unless at short range. I made an exception this morning, but I never will again."
"We didn't bring much of the meat back, it was too long a haul," said Bill after he had partially satisfied his hunger.
"We have plenty," returned his father. "In fact, we have so much that we won't fire at any more deer."
"Then what can we hunt?" protested Horace.
"Bear," returned his father.
"Oh, goody! and mountain lions! Say, you deer slayers, you may have knocked over some bucks, but it took me to stop a mountain lion."