THE BOY RANCHERS ON THE TRAIL
The Diamond X After Cattle Rustlers
By WILLARD F. BAKER
I THE ROUND-UP
II A CURIOUS INSTRUMENT
III STARTLING NEWS
IV THE SCRATCHED SAFE
V THE BROKEN BOTTLE
VI MISSING STEERS
VII FOUR EYES
VIII THROWING THE ROPE
IX THE FIRE
X SERIOUS QUESTIONS
XI THE WATCH TOWER
XII IN SPITE OF ALL
XIII THE SIGNAL
XIV FOUR EYES-NO EYES
XV A BIG RAID
XVI ON THE TRAIL
XVII WILD COUNTRY
XVIII THE BOILING SPRING
XIX IN A MAZE
XX A SURPRISE
XXI IN PURSUIT
XXII BUD'S DISCOVERY
XXIII THE FIGHT
XXIV A DESPERATE CHANCE
XXV LIEUTENANT WAYNE
THE BOY RANCHERS ON THE TRAIL
"Come on, Nort! It's your turn to cut out the next one!"
"S'pose I make a mux of it, Bud!"
"Shucks! You won't do that! You've roped a calf before!"
"Yes, but not at a big round-up like this. If I make a fizzle the fellows will give me the laugh!"
"What if they do? Everybody knows you haven't been at it long, and you've got to make a start. Besides, anybody's likely to make a mistake. That's why they put rubbers on the ends of pencils. Ride in now and snake out the next one, Nort!"
"All right, Bud! Here goes!"
Blaze, the pony Nort Shannon was riding toward the bunch of cattle gathered at Diamond X ranch for the big, spring round-up, leaped forward at the sound of his master's voice, and in response to the little jerk of the reins and the clap of heels against his sides. Into the herd of milling, turning and twisting cattle the intelligent animal made his way, needing hardly any guidance from Nort. The lad, by a mere touch, corrected the course of Blaze slightly, and in a moment he was heading for a calf which bawled loudly.
"Get him, Nort!" cried a voice from among the cowboys looking on.
"Don't get me fussed, Dick!" Nort shouted back to his brother, who sat astride his pony near Bud Merkle. "It'll be your turn next!"
Into the herd he wormed his way on Blaze, dodging here and there, but with his eyes ever on the calf he hoped to cut out so it could be branded. Nort leaned forward in his saddle, and then his cousin and brother, eagerly watching from outside the herd, saw the boy rancher's hand shoot up.
Through the air the rope went, turning, twisting, writhing and uncoiling like a snake. In an instant it had flipped around the hind legs of a calf.
"Good!" yelled Dick.
"Even Babe couldn't 'a' done better!" complimented Bud, enthusiastically.
"'Tisn't over yet!" gasped Nort, for he had hard work ahead of him, and the dust raised by thousands of hoofs was choking. "Wait 'till I get it to the branding corral!"
He leaned over in his other stirrup, causing the lariat to pull taut and, the next instant the calf flopped on its side.
"Snake him out, Blaze!" cried Nort to his pony, and the animal turned and dragged the prostrate calf along over the ground, an operation not as cruel as it sounds as the surface was inches thick in soft dust, like flour.
"That's the boy, Nort!" called his cousin Bud. "I knew you could do it! Now then, Dick! Let's see how you'll make out!"
"I can't throw a rope as good as Nort," answered the stouter lad, as he urged his pony, Blackie, into the herd. "But here goes!"
Meanwhile Nort had dragged the calf he had cut out to the corral where the branding was going on. Two cowboys, stationed there for the purpose, leaped forward and threw the calf over on its side, for it had managed to struggle to its feet when Nort ceased dragging it. One man twisted a front leg of the struggling creature back in a hammerlock and knelt on its neck. The other took hold of the upper hind leg, and with this hold prevented the calf from sprawling along on the ground.
"Sit on him!" called Mr. Merkel, owner of Diamond X and other ranches. He was superintending the round-up of his herds and those entrusted to Bud, Nort and Dick in the first business venture of the boy ranchers. "Sit on him!" yelled Bud's father.
Accordingly the men sat on the calf, thus, with the holds they had secured, keeping it under restraint with the least possible pain to the small creature.
"Branding iron!" sang out Slim Degnan, foreman of the ranch.
A little blaze was flickering on the ground, not far from where the calf Nort had cut out was thrown and held. In a moment the fire-tender had seized the branding iron, and, a second or two later, it was being pressed on the calf's flank.
The creature bawled loudly, and kicked out, thereby nearly throwing off the men who were sitting on it. But the branding was all over in a moment, and the men leaped up, releasing the animal.
The calf stood, dazed for the time being, after it had scrambled to its feet, and then trotted out of the corral, lashing its side with its little tail. Plainly branded on it now, never to be completely effaced, was the mark of the ownership of Mr. Merkel— an X inside a diamond.
"Next!" called the branders:
"Here comes Dick!" shouted Bud, as Nort rode up beside him. "And he got his calf!" "Good!" exclaimed the brother. "I guess we're learning the business!"
"Surest thing you know!" asserted the son of the owner of Diamond X. "I told you it wasn't so hard, and you've done the same thing before."
"But not at such a big round-up," remarked Nort, as he prepared to ride in again and cut out another calf.
"Yes, it is big," admitted Bud, as he made ready for his share in the affair—his task being the same as that of his cousins—to cut out the calves for branding purposes. "It sure is a big round-up."
It had been in progress for days. Twice a year on the big, western ranches, the cattle are driven in from the outlying ranges, to be tallied, inspected, marked and shipped away. The spring and fall round-ups are always busy seasons at any ranch.
During the times between round-ups the new calves attained their growth, but they needed to have branded into their hides the marks of their owners. Then, too, some yearlings escaped branding at times, either by remaining out of sight at the round-up, or in the attending confusion.
Unbranded calves who had partly attained their growth, were termed "mavericks," and when the herds of different owners mingled, there was, usually, a division of the mavericks, since it could not be accurately told who owned them.
The title maverick was derived from a stock man of that name, whose practice was to claim all unbranded calves in a herd. His cowboys would ride about, cutting out the unmarked animals, with the cool statement:
"That's a maverick," meaning that it belonged to their "boss."
And so the name has commonly become associated with any half- grown, unbranded calf.
Mr. Merkel was the owner of several ranches, Square M, Triangle B and Diamond X, not to mention Diamond X Second, or Flume Valley, of which his son Bud, and the latter's cousins, Norton and Richard Shannon, were the nominal proprietors.
The cattle from Flume Valley, or "Happy Valley" as Bud called it after the mystery of the underground water was solved, were in the round-up with the others from his father's ranches.
For days preceding the lively doings I have just described, the cowboys, called in from distant ranges, had driven the cattle toward the central assembling point—the corrals at Diamond X.
Slowly the longhorns, the shorthorns and cattle with no horns at all, had been "hazed" in from their feeding grounds toward Diamond X. The cow punchers had galloped hard all day, and they had ridden herd at night, to keep the animals from straying. At night this was not so hard, for the animals were glad to rest during the darkness.
But during the day there was always some steer—often more than one—that wanted to run away from the herd. As this might start a stampede it was necessary to drive the "striker" back, and this was, often enough, a difficult task.
Bud, Nort and Dick had borne their share of this difficult round- up task, and now, when the thousand or more of steers, calves and mavericks had been gathered at Diamond X, the work of tallying them, branding those that were without marks and shipping away the best was well under way.
In and out of the herd rode the boy ranchers, doing their best alongside of more seasoned "punchers." Calves were cut out, thrown and branded, to be quickly released and again mingle with the herd.
"Oh, I'm Captain Jinks, Of the Horse Marines!"
One of the cowboys, wiping the dust and sweat from his face, with his big, red silk handkerchief, or, rather, neckerchief, started this song. It was taken up by half a score of loud voices.
"Yi-yippy!" came in stentorian tones from Yellin' Kid. "This is the life!"
But as, just then, his pony slipped and he missed the throw he made for a calf, it is doubtful if Yellin' Kid felt as gay as he sounded.
"Hot work; eh, boys?" asked Mr. Merkel, when Dick, Nort and Bud rode past to get drinks of water.
"But it's great, all the same!" answered Dick, with shining eyes—eyes that gleamed amid a face dark with the tan of the western sun and grimy with the dust of the western plains.
"Glad you like it!" commented the proprietor of Diamond X as he kept on with his tallying. "How they coming, Slim?" he asked his foreman.
"Couldn't be better! Old Buck Tooth is doing a heap sight more than I ever dreamed a Zuni could."
"Bud said that his old Indian helper was up to snuff!" commented Mr. Merkel. "I'm glad to know it. Heard anything from Double Z?" he asked, and there was an anxious note in his voice.
"No, Hank and his gang seem to have quieted down after what I told 'em!"
"Well, I hope he doesn't make trouble for Bud and the boys. They're going back to Happy Valley to-night." "So I understand. Oh, shucks! Don't worry about Hank! He's all talk—he and that blustery foreman of his, Ike Johnson!"
There had been a dispute between the cowboys of Diamond X and those of Double Z, a ranch owned by the notorious Hank Fisher, a few days before the round-up, the subject of dispute being the ownership of certain mavericks. It had ended with the triumph of Slim Degnan, foreman of Mr. Merkel's holdings.
And so the round-up went on, the heat, the dust, the noise and confusion increasing as calf after calf, maverick after maverick, was branded, and the steers to be shipped were cut out, to be hazed over to the railroad stock yards.
And yet, with all the seeming confusion, there was order and system in the work.
"Well, I guess this is the last," remarked Mr. Merkel to his son, as Bud, with his cousins, rode slowly up to the ranch house, when the final calf had been cut out and the tally made. "You boys going back after grub?"
"Yep," answered Bud, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice. He, like his cousins, was too tired. For the day had been a grueling one, with the heat and hard work.
"You sure did make out a whole lot better than I ever thought you would," said Mr. Merkel, as he rode along with his son and nephew's. "Putting water into that valley made a big difference."
"I should say so!" exclaimed Bud. "Our stock will lay over anything you will ship from any of your three ranches, Dad!"
"I wouldn't wonder but what you are right, Bud! Well, let's wash up and eat."
One by one the cowboys drifted in, some singing ranch songs in spite of their weariness. Bud and his cousins were through with their meal first, and, having persuaded his sister, Nell, to pack a basket of doughnuts, pie and cheese for him, Bud signalled to his cousins to join him out at the pony corral.
"Let's get an early start back to Happy Valley," he urged. "It's a long enough ride, anyhow."
"You said it!" commented Nort.
"Well, there's one thing we don't have to worry about, and that is not finding any water running into the reservoir," added Dick, as he slipped in through the gate and caught one of his ponies— not Blackie, who was tired out from the round-up. Each cow puncher, including the boy ranchers, had several animals in his "string."
"No, I guess, since we solved the mystery of the water supply, we'll have no more trouble," agreed Bud.
The boy ranchers rode over the trail to their own camp—it was actually a camp, for permanent ranch buildings had not yet been erected in Happy Valley, though some were projected. Tents formed the abiding place of our heroes, and as they were only there during the summer months the canvas shelters served very well, indeed.
The moon rose, shining down from a starlit sky, as the rough but faithful and sturdy cow ponies ambled along. Now the boy ranchers would be down in some swale, or valley, and again topping one of the foothills which led to Buffalo Ridge or Snake Mountain, between which elevations lay Happy Valley, where the cattle of Diamond X Second were quartered.
"There she is—the old camp," murmured Dick, as they started down the slope which led to the collection of tents erected against the earthen and stone bank of the reservoir.
"And maybe I won't hit the hay!" exclaimed Bud, with a yawn. "We don't have to get up to-morrow until we're ready."
"Oh, boy!" cried Nort in delight.
They rode forward, and were almost at their camp when Bud, who had trotted ahead, pulled his pony to a sudden stop and cried out:
"Hold on there! Who are you and where are you going?"
At the same moment his cousins saw the moon gleaming on the .45 gun which Bud drew from his holster.
A CURIOUS INSTRUMENT
"What's the matter, Bud?" asked Dick, as he urged his animal forward in a jump, until he was beside his cousin,
"Some one's up there around the tunnel entrance," responded Bud Merkel. "I saw 'em dodge back out of the light." Then, raising his voice, he cried: "Come on, now! None of your tricks! I've got you covered!"
"I don't see any one," spoke Nort.
"They're there, all right," asserted Bud. "Come on, fellows," he exclaimed, "we'll have to look into this. There was trouble enough with getting water to stay in Happy Valley, without letting some Greaser in to queer the works again! Come on!"
He and his cousins rode their horses up the rather steep and winding trail that led from the bottom of the reservoir to the top, where a big iron pipe, sticking out under the mountain like the head of some great serpent, brought from the distant Pocut River a stream, without which it would have been impossible to raise cattle in the valley the boy ranchers claimed as particularly their own.
"Who you reckon it is?" asked Nort, as his pony scrambled up between the animals of Dick and Bud.
"Oh, some prowler that may have been rustling our grub while we were over at the round-up," was the answer.
"They couldn't get any cattle, for there aren't any to get," observed Dick. This was true, as all the animals had been driven from Happy Valley over to Diamond X. Later such as were not shipped away, and many of the calves and mavericks would be returned to fatten up and grow in readiness for the spring tallying.
"I don't just like this!" murmured Bud, as he again urged his pony forward. "Have your guns ready, fellows!"
And while they are thus riding toward the place where a strange tunnel pierced Snake Mountain, I shall take this opportunity to present, more formally than I have yet had a chance to do, my new readers to the boy ranchers. For that is what Bud Merkel, and Nort and Dick Shannon called themselves, being that, in fact.
Bud was a western lad, the son of Henry Merkel, who had been a ranchman all his mature years. He lived at Diamond X ranch, with his wife and daughter Nell. Some time before this present story opens Bud's cousins from the east had come to spend the summer with him, while their father and his wife made a trip to South America.
Nort and Dick, though "tenderfeet" at the beginning, had quickly fallen into the ways of the west, and in the first volume of this series, "The Boy Ranchers," I was privileged to tell you how they helped solve a mystery that revolved around Diamond X.
This mystery had to do with two college professors, and a strange, ancient animal. But it would not be fair to my new readers to disclose, here, all the secrets of that book.
So successful was the first summer which Nort and Dick spent at their uncle's ranch, that they were allowed to repeat it the following season. But this time there was a change. As related in the second volume, "The Boy Ranchers in Camp," Mr. Merkel had, by utilizing an ancient underground water-course beneath Snake Mountain, and by making a dam in Pocut River, brought water to a distant valley he owned.
This valley was originally called Buffalo Wallow, the source of the name being obvious. But once water was brought through the underground course, and piped to a reservoir, whence it could be distributed to drinking troughs for the cattle, and also used to irrigate the land, it enabled a fine crop of fodder to be grown. With the bringing of the water to Buffalo Wallow, or Flume Valley, as Bud called the place, it was possible to do what had never been done before—raise cattle there. Bud's father let him take this valley ranch as his own, and Nort and Dick were boy partners associated with their western cousin, Mr. Shannon putting up part of the needed capital to make the start for his sons.
All would have gone well except for the mysterious stoppage of the flow of water, which stoppage, if continued, would mean disaster.
How the water fight at Diamond X Second (as the valley ranch was sometimes called) ended, and how the strange mystery was solved, is the story in the second volume, and I absolutely refuse to go into more details about it here. It would not be playing the game square.
At any rate the water was finally turned back into the underground tunnel, and then, in order to better guard this vital necessity, Mr. Merkel had the entrance to the tunnel boarded up— egress being possible only when heavy doors, at either end, were unlocked.
I might say that while the tunnel was the old water-course of a vanished river, the shaft under the mountain appeared, in. ancient times, to have been used by the Aztecs, or some Mexican tribes, for hiding their store of gold away from the Spaniards. There were secret passages and rooms in the tunnel, to say nothing of hidden water gates.
Who had constructed these, and what actual use had been made of them was, of course, lost in the dim and ancient past. But that it was the Aztecs, or some allied race, was the statement of learned men who examined the tunnel.
After the water fight at Diamond X Second had terminated in favor of the boy ranchers, and great copper levers that operated the hidden water gates had been removed, the tunnel was boarded up, and was now seldom entered.
But now, as Bud and his cousins rode back from the big round-up, and the western lad had, as he thought, seen some one sneaking about the forbidden gate, there was a feeling of apprehension in the hearts of himself and cousins.
They had now reached the top level of the reservoir which held a storage supply of water. The reservoir was a great semi-circular bank of earth and atones, wide enough on top for two to ride abreast.
"I don't see any one," remarked Nort, straining his eyes to pierce the gloom and shadows into which the face of the tunnel and the locked gate were thrown by the moonlight and clouds.
"Nor I," added Dick.
"Well, I saw some one!" insisted Bud. "It was a man, as sure as snakes, and he seemed to be trying to open the big gate."
This gate was made of heavy bolted planks and was set on hinges in a jamb of other planks and boards that closed the reservoir end of the tunnel water-course. A similar barrier and big door was at the Pocut River end.
"Well, if he was here, he seems to be gone," observed Nort "Maybe it was a sheep herder, Bud."
"Well, if any of that gentry think they can drive their flock over here, and water their woolies at my expense, they're mistaken," declared Bud with emphasis. "Sheep men have to be, I reckon, but they're out of place in a cow country. Hello, there!" he called, loudly. "Come on out and show yourself!"
But there was no answer, and the only sound, aside from the creaking of the damp saddle leathers, was the splashing of water as it flowed from the big pipe and into the reservoir.
"Guess he lit out," observed Bud, thrusting his gun back into the holster.
"Or else you didn't see him," chuckled Nort. "Maybe your eyes are full of dust, same as mine are, from that round-up."
"Oh, I saw somebody all right!" declared Bud. "Might 'a' been one of Buck Tooth's Indian friends making a call, but—"
He suddenly ceased speaking and leaned over in his saddle to gaze earnestly at something on the ground. It was something that glittered and shone in the mystic moonlight as Nort and Dick could see. "What's that?" inquired the latter.
In answer Bud slipped from his saddle and picked up the object which the moonlight had revealed.
"What in the world is this?" asked the boy rancher, as he held up a curious instrument. "Is this the start of another mystery!"
Leaping from their saddles, Nort and Dick hurried to the side of their cousin, chum and partner in the ranch venture. Eagerly they looked over his shoulder while he examined the strange object he had picked up, almost at the very door leading into the mysterious tunnel.
The instrument—for such it seemed to be—consisted of a shiny, nickeled part, which was what had reflected the moonlight, thus attracting Bud's attention to it. In addition there were two flexible tubes, of soft rubber, joining into one where they met the shiny metal.
The two tubes each terminated in hard rubber ends, pierced with a tiny hole, and on the end of the single tube was a bright metal disk. The whole formed a strange object, picked up as it was from the ground, and especially when the boy ranchers feared they had some cause for alarm.
"What in the world is it?" asked Bud, as he dangled it in front of his cousins. "I never saw anything like it before. Wait! I have it! Yellin' Kid said he was going to send to Kansas City for a flute he could play on. This must be part of it! He dropped it here; though that couldn't 'a' been him sneaking around the tunnel. But this is Yellin' Kid's musical instrument all right! Oh, won't I rag him, though! I wonder which end you blow in?"
"That isn't a musical instrument!" declared Nort, taking it from Bud's hand.
"Not What is it then?" asked the western ranch lad.
"It's a stethoscope," declared Nort.
"Whew! x I didn't know Yellin' Kid could play one of them!" exclaimed Bud. "He must be more musical than any of us thought!"
"'Tisn't musical, I tell you!" cried Nort, half laughing. "This is a stethoscope—it's what a doctor listens to your lungs or heart with when you're sick."
"He never listened to mine!" boasted Bud, "at least not since I can remember, for I've never been sick."
"Well, I have," admitted Nort, "and so has Dick. You remember Dr. Thompson using one of these, don't you?" he asked his stout brother.
"Sure I do! And there's some other name for it besides plain stethoscope," declared Dick. "It's a long word—bi—di—"
"Binaural stethoscope! That's it!" broke in Nort. "I remember, now. I thought I'd never be able to say those words, but they come back to me now. Binaural stethoscope."
"'Tisn't good to eat, or shoot with, is it!" asked Bud, as he again took the instrument and turned it over and over in his hands.
"Eat! Shoot!" laughed Nort. "No, I tell you it's to listen to your heart beats, or lungs. Binaural means, simply, that it's fixed so you can listen with both ears at the same time. And stethoscope comes from two Greek words, stethos, the breast, and skopen, to view. It means, literally, to view inside the chest, but of course the doctors who use the stethoscope don't really do that. They only listen through the ear pieces—these," and he held up the two rubber tubes ending in hard nipples, pierced with small holes.
"What's the other end for!" asked Bud, indicating the shiny disk of metal that dangled from the single tube.
"That's the part the doctor holds on your chest or over your heart," Dick answered. "Sometimes the doctor puts it to your back to listen to your breathing from that side."
"Well, who in the world would have a—a binaural stethoscope out here!" asked Bud. "Yon reckon Doc. Tunison dropped it!" he went on, referring to the local veterinarian. "Shucks no! Cow doctors don't use 'em, not that I ever heard of," declared Nort. "Though Doc. Tunison is up to date."
"He sure was in discovering that it was germs which caused the epidemic outbreak in our stock last year," remarked Bud.
"Yes, we got out of that mighty lucky," chimed in Dick. "What's become of Pocut Pete?" he asked, referring to a scoundrel of a cowboy.
"Oh, Del Pinzo and Hank Fisher had pull enough to get him out of jail, after he'd served only part of his term for infecting our stock," said Bud. He had reference to something which is explained in the volume immediately preceding this. Del Pinzo was a notorious Mexican half-breed who, more than once, had made trouble for the boy ranchers. Hank Fisher was the owner of Double Z ranch, adjoining that of Square M, one of Mr. Merkel's, and also adjoining Happy Valley. Pocut Pete was believed to be a tool of these two unscrupulous men, and Del Pinzo had at his command Several Greasers who slipped back and forth over the Mexican border, not far from which were located the holdings of Mr. Merkel and the boy ranchers.
"Well, this is a stethoscope all right," went on Nort, as Bud turned toward his pony, with the evident intention of mounting.
"And I'd give a lot to know what it's doing here, and who dropped it," spoke Bud. "Let's look around a little more. I'm not at all satisfied with this. I sure saw, some one here, and this proves it," and he stuffed the doctor's instrument into his pocket.
"It doesn't prove that the man you saw—or thought you just saw— sneaking around here dropped it," spoke Nort. "We've been away for a week, and it may have been dropped any day within that time."
"Yes," agreed Bud. "But who was monkeying around here as we rode back to camp? That's what I want to know!"
However, search as the boy ranchers did, they found no midnight visitor. All was quiet at their camp, save for the distant howl of a coyote, and the splash of the water into the reservoir. All the stock had been driven away from Happy Valley to the big round-up at Diamond X, but soon the fertile glade would again be dotted with hungry cattle.
"Well, I reckon we'll have to give up," said Bud, when a thorough search had been made, and no one discovered.
"The tunnel door doesn't show any signs of an attempt having been made to bust it; does it?" asked Dick.
"Not as far as I can see, in this light," Bud replied. "We'll take a stroll up here in the morning," he went on as he thrust the stethoscope into his pocket. "Now for a little grub, and then to hit the hay. Oh, boy! But I to tired!"
So were the others, and after rummaging among their camp stores, and eating some crackers and canned peaches, the boys, having picketed their horses, turned in, rolled up in their blankets, and were asleep almost as soon as their heads were on the pillows, which were, as a matter of fact, stuffed with hay.
An examination, next morning, disclosed nothing more in the neighborhood of the tunnel entrance than their own and, their ponies' feet marks, until Bud, with an exclamation, pointed to several cigarette stubs on the ground, and a number of half- burned matches.
"Some one was here last night—or yesterday!" he declared. "And they stood in this one spot for some time—either resting or spying."
"What would they be spying on!" asked Dick.
"Search me!" frankly admitted Bud. "But since we had that water fight I'm suspicious of everything. Those cigarette stubs are fresh, and were dropped last night, or yesterday. None of us use 'em, and though some of our cow punchers do they haven't been here lately enough to have left this fresh evidence. The stubs are new ones."
"Well, maybe there was some one here last night," said Dick.
"I'm positive of it!" declared Bud. "Let's take another look at the big door lock."
Even a close inspection, however, failed to disclose any signs of the great portal, or its heavy padlock having been tampered with. Nor were there any marks tending to show where an effort had been made to force boards off the frame in which the door was set.
"Well, we'll just have to wait," said Bud, as he turned to go back down to the tents. "Hello," he suddenly added, as he gazed off up the valley. "Here comes somebody, riding like all possessed, too!"
The boy ranchers watched the approach of the solitary horseman, and, as he drew nearer Bud exclaimed:
"It's Buck Tooth!"
It was, in fact, that same Zuni Indian, who had been engaged as a sort of camp cook and ranch hand by Bud's father, later being transferred to Bud's service. Buck Tooth was devoted to the boy ranchers.
"What's matter, Buck! What for you ride so pronto fashion!" asked Bud as the Indian, a superb horseman, drew rein close to the boy ranchers. "You race, maybe, Buck Tooth!"
"Yep—race tell you bad news!" half—grunted the Zuni.
"Bad news!" faltered Bud. "Is it my mother—dad—-"
"Them all well," said Buck Tooth. "But got bad news all same. You see anybody out here?" and he slipped from his saddle to rest his almost winded steed.
THE SCRATCHED SAFE
Eagerly the boy ranchers gathered about Buck Tooth. The Indian, as if rather ashamed of the hurry and emotion that had possessed him, grew quieter as he threw the reins down over his pony's head, as an intimation to the animal not to stray. Then the Zuni turned toward Bud and his cousins.
"This is the second time you gave me bad news, Buck," remarked the western lad. "Remember?"
"How?" asked the Indian sharply.
"I say this is the second time you've brought news of something bad. You were the first to tell me about the water stopping in the reservoir. And from then on we had some rousing times; didn't we, fellows?" asked Bud, turning to his chums.
"That's right!" assented Nort.
"But what's going on now?" Dick wanted to know.
"You said it!" exclaimed Bud. "I should let Buck Tooth tell it, instead of keeping him gassing away about the past. What's the row, Buck?"
"Robbers!" was the Indian's answer.
"Robbers? At Diamond X?" cried Bud.
"Did they get anything?" Dick wanted to know.
"Anybody hurt?" asked Nort.
"Get some money—nobody hurt only Babe—him get broken leg," half-grunted the Indian.
"Babe has a broken leg in a fight with robbers?" gasped Bud. "Shoot it along a little faster, Buck! I'm sorry I didn't let you ride harder at first. How much did they get? Was it rustlers, and I'll bet a cookie with a raisin in that Del Pinzo and his gang had a hand in the fracas! Did Babe shoot any of 'em?"
"Babe him try—but too fat," said the Indian, with as near to a chuckle as ever he achieved, "Fall down—bust leg. Your padre no can tell how much money gone, but big iron box not opened."
"Oh, they didn't get to the safe, then!" exclaimed Bud with relief in his voice. For he knew, at this season of the spring round-up, that many thousands of dollars, from the sale of cattle, were often kept in his father's safe. "But go ahead, Buck! Tell us more about it. Step on her! Give her the gas! Open the throttle!"
"Hu?" grunted the Zuni, questioningly. "I step on somet'ing?" "You're only mixing him up!" declared Nort "Let him take his own time, Bud."
"If I do he'll be until noon giving us the facts. And if the robbers looted dad's office, even if they didn't get the safe open, they may have lit out with a tidy sum, and we ought to take the trail after 'em. That's what Buck came here for, likely! To get us on the chase from this end. Go ahead! Shoot!" he requested, meaning a verbal fire, not actual.
Whether Buck Tooth would have succeeded, under these confusing directions, in making a quick, dear statement of the matter is a question that was not settled. For, just as the Indian was about to resume, Dick looked off toward the distant hills, which lined the trail between Diamond X proper, and Happy Valley, and the lad exclaimed:
"Here comes one of the robbers now, riding like Sam Hill!"
Bud and Nort leaped to the side of their partner, their hands on their weapons, but, after a glimpse of the approaching horseman, having shaded his eyes with his hands, Bud cried:
"That isn't a robber! It's Yellin' Kid. I know his riding. I reckon he's come to give us the straight of it!"
Which proved to be the case.
"Buck outrode me," admitted Yellin' Kid as he drew rein, and his voice was not as loud as usual. "We started at th' same time, shortly after midnight when th' break was made, but that Indian's cayuse shore can step some! An' Buck can ride—let me tell you!"
"You shot a ringer that time!" asserted Bud. "But what happened! And is Babe badly hurt!"
"No! He just twisted his ankle gettin' out of his bunk in a hurry t' take a pot shot at th' bunch that tried to hold us up. Doc. Tunison says he'll be all right in a week."
"But Tunison is a horse doctor!" objected Bud, for Babe, the fat assistant foreman of Diamond X, was a prime favorite with him and his cousins.
"Yes, shore he is! Why not? A horse doctor for a cow puncher!" chuckled Yellin' Kid. "But here's the yarn."
Thereupon, having turned his pony out to graze with the Indian's, Yellin' Kid told the boys what had happened.
"We started some of the cattle from th' round-up brandin' over to th' railroad," the cowboy stated, "an' followin' th' usual preliminaries we all settled down for th' night, after you fellows rode off. An' let me tell you I was glad t' hit my bunk!
"Well, some time near midnight we, out in th' bunkhouse, was roused up by shootin' from your father's bungalow, Bud. Course that couldn't mean but one thing, an' we all got our guns an' rushed out, natcherally. But all we saw was a bunch ridin' off in th' darkness, your father firin' at 'em, Bud.
"Come t' find out, your mother had been woke up by a noise in th' office where th' safe was. She called your father an' he took a look, with his gun, of course. He saw a man in a mask tryin' t' open th' strong box, and your dad gave th' usual countersign.
"But th' burglar wheeled, an' popped one at your dad, not hittin' him I'm glad t' say, an' out th' winder he jumped, th' burglar, I mean. Then the rest of th' gang, which was waitin', rode off, shootin' some, as your dad was doin'.
"Come t' find out, they'd got a few hundred dollars from the desk where your dad left th' cash, Bud, but th' main part was in th' safe, an' that they couldn't get open. Course soon as we knowed what was up we organized a posse, an' started off—all but Babe. He fell—or rolled—out of his bunk an' twisted his leg, somehow.
"Anyhow, Buck an' I was told off t' ride this way, partly t' let you fellers know what had happened, an' partly t' see if there was any trace of th' skunks what robbed your dad down here in Happy Valley. How about it? Seen anybody?"
"Well, yes, we did see some one sneaking around here when we arrived last evening," Bud answered. "But that was long before the robbery."
"And tell him what we found!" urged Dick
"Oh, yes, a stethoscope," went on Bud. "But that has nothing to do with the matter. Maybe some doctor, or medical student, is out here for his health, and dropped it as he rode over our place."
"What's a slitherscope!" asked Yellin' Kid. "Anything like a Triceratops?"
"No!" laughed Nort. "We'll show you. But say, what can we do toward getting these robbers?"
"We've got t' trail 'em," spoke the older cowboy, as he turned to go to the tents with the boy ranchers, Buck Tooth following with the two half-winded ponies. "Soon as I get my breath——"
"That's right!" interrupted Bud. "Come on up and sit down. I'll make you some coffee. I forgot you'd ridden all night."
"Half of it, anyhow," asserted Yellin' Kid. "An' I rode hard! But so did Buck Tooth, only you'd hardly know it. He sure can make his cayuse cover th' ground!"
Indeed the Indian showed little signs of the hard riding he had accomplished between midnight and dawn. And when he and Yellin' Kid were having a belated morning cup of coffee further details of the story were told.
Who the robbers were, and how many there were in the gang that attempted to force the safe at Diamond X, were matters left to further enlightenment. Mr. Merkel had only seen one in his office, bending over the safe, and this one had fled at the command of "hands up!" Then the others had raced away, amid a fusillade of shots which they returned.
It was so dark—the moon of the early night having been clouded over—that the direction taken by the robbers had not been ascertained.
"They probably scattered," declared Yellin' Kid. "It would be th' safest way—for them! But there's a chance some might 'a' come this way, so your dad wanted you t' be on the watch."
"We will!" declared Bud. "And when some of the boys come back on the job here, and we get our allotment of cattle so things settle down to normal, I'm going back to the ranch and have a talk with dad."
"'Twouldn't be a bad idea," agreed Yellin' Kid. "But where's that mouth organ you said you found?"
"A stethoscope," laughed Bud. "Here it is," and he exhibited the medical instrument.
"Hum!" mused the cowboy. "It might be a burglar tool for all I'd know the difference. But now, if it's agreeable t' you fellers, let's have a look around. Maybe some of them burglars got a chunk of lead in him and he's hidin' out around here."
However, a search in the vicinity of Happy Valley camp disclosed nothing, and then Bud and his cousins set about getting back into the routine that had been interrupted by the round-up.
"The first thing we've got to do," Bud declared, "is to mend that break in the telephone line. If that had been working last night you could have called us up, Kid, instead of you and Buck having to ride out here."
"Yes, we wished th' line was working" admitted the cowboy. "But it wouldn't have been of much use, it seems. Them burglars didn't come out this way. However, it's just as well t' have it fixed."
There was a system of telephones connecting Bud's camp with his father's main ranch and also the two branch ones, and the system was likewise hooked-up with the long distance. But a recent wind, just before the round-up, had blown down some poles in Happy Valley, putting Bud's line out of commission. This was why he and his chums could not be reached by wire from Diamond X.
The poles were set up in the next few days, when some cowboys arrived to again take up their duties with Bud, Nort and Dick; for the cattle not sold were again sent back to the valley range to fatten for the fall, and they needed to be looked after.
Meanwhile, a search of the surrounding country had failed to disclose any trace of the robbers, and their identity remained hidden. They had gotten away with about $500, missing a much larger sum in the safe. The authorities were notified, and a posse scoured the region, but fruitlessly.
"Let's have a look at the safe they tried to open, Dad," begged Bud, when he and his cousins had ridden over to pay a week-end visit to the home ranch. "Did they try to drill it for an explosive?"
"I don't believe so, son. In fact, I haven't looked at the safe very closely, except to notice that it was all right. And I took the money out of it over to the bank next day."
Bud and his cousins looked at the strong box in which Mr. Merkel kept his money and valuable papers. It was a large, old-fashioned safe, proof from any fire that might visit the ranch, and beyond the ability of ordinary burglars to open, without the use of explosives or special tools.
And as Bud leaned over to look at the heavy door he saw something that caused him to ask:
"Were these here before the attempted robbery, Dad?"
"What there, Bud?"
"These scratches on the front of the door. It does look as if they tried to drill the safe!"
Bud pointed to several parallel marks on the steel door. The scratches were deep in the paint, and seemed to radiate toward the shiny nickel dial of the combination. "Scratches!" repeated Mr. Merkel, coming over to look. "No, I never noticed them before. Why, she is clawed up some," he admitted. "But I can't say that they haven't been there since I got the safe, which was just before the round-up. Yes, she sure is clawed up some," and he spoke as if some mountain lion had done the damage to his strong box.
But here Bud's sister, Nell, took a hand in the proceedings.
"Those scratches are new ones—they were made by the burglar," declared the girl, whom Nort and Dick thought the prettiest they had ever seen. "I know, for I dusted your office, Dad, the day the round-up ended, and the door was as shiny then as a new penny."
"Then the burglar did it," decided Bud. "And it shows we have to deal with a regular gang of safe robbers, instead of just ordinary cattle rustlers!"
THE BROKEN BOTTLE
Bud's opinion, expressed with such conviction, coupled with the fact that Nell, his sister, was sure the safe had not been scratched the day before the robbery, made it look as though men practiced in the evil art of burglary had been at work.
"When I saw the fellow, bending over my safe," said Mr. Merkel, "it appeared to me he was only trying to work the combination. I have a hard job, myself, remembering how to do it, account of the safe being a new one. And I was so surprised, at first, that I just stood there, like a locoed steer, watching him. Then I let out a yell, told him to throw his hands up, and things began to happen."
"But, instead of just trying to open your safe, by working the combination, same as I've heard of burglars doing by filing down their fingers with sandpaper to make 'em sensitive, he was getting ready to blow it open," declared Bud.
"Does look so. She sure is clawed!" commented Mr. Merkel again.
"Mercy! It's a wonder we weren't all blown up in our sleep!" exclaimed Bud's mother. "You boys'll stay to dinner," she added, as if glad to change the subject.
"We aimed to," said Bud with a grin at his cousins. "We manage pretty well most times, with what we cook, and what Buck Tooth hands out in the grub line. But we sure do like a home-feed once in a while."
"Or twice!" added Nort, while Dick nodded his agreement.
But though it was evident that some professional burglar had endeavored to open the Merkel safe, that was all the conclusion which could be arrived at. No additional clues were found and, for a time, matters settled down into the ordinary run at Diamond X.
Summer was coming, with its heat, and Bud was glad there would be no interruption in the water supply that flowed into Happy Valley from the Pocut River, coming through the ancient underground passage.
"For we'll need plenty of water in hot weather," he told Jus cousins.
At Diamond X Second, as the outfit of the boy ranchers was often called, was now a goodly herd of animals eating the rich, Johnson grass and other fodder, getting fattened in readiness for sale in the fall, when there would be another round-up.
Besides Bud, Nort and Dick, there was now, at the camp in the valley, Buck Tooth the Zuni Indian, Yellin' Kid and Snake Purdee, two efficient and veteran cow punchers who had been transferred from Diamond X First, meaning by that the main ranch.
While Bud was a true son of the west, and while Nort and Dick had, some time ago, passed out of the tenderfoot class, still Mr. Merkel felt that his son and his nephews needed the aid and guidance of cattlemen older than themselves. So the "outfit," as the aggregation at a ranch is called, was quite a happy family.
"If we could only catch those burglars, and get back your dad's money, I'd feel better, though," declared Snake Purdee, as he rode in from the Diamond X ranch one day, to announce, among other news items, that Babe, the fat assistant foreman, was able to be about again.
"Yes," agreed Bud. "It isn't so much the money loss, as it is the knowledge that such a bunch of men is loose in a neighborhood. Del Pinzo and that Hank Fisher bunch are bad enough, but I don't believe they had a hand in this."
"I wouldn't put it past them!" stated Yellin' Kid in his usual, loud tones. "Th' skunks!"
"But dad said he didn't recognize the fellow he surprised at his safe," spoke Bud. "Of course he didn't have much chance. But if it had been Del Pinzo—"
"Don't worry!" broke in Snake Purdee. "That Greaser wouldn't do a job like that himself; or Hank Fisher, either. They'd get some one else to take the risk. However, what's th' use gassin' about it? I guess the money's gone for good. But I'm glad they didn't get th' safe open!"
"So'm I," chimed in Bud. "Some of our cash would have vanished then." For he and his cousins had a share in the money received from the sale of steers at round-up time.
So, following the robbery at Diamond X, matters quieted down. Bud still kept the stethoscope, and word of the finding of the strange instrument traveled to other ranches. It was called by such a variety of names (the cowboys having twisted the original and proper one) until the boy ranchers had difficulty, at times, in understanding the reference when they were asked about it.
But no one claimed it, and no trace was found of the person who, it was presumed, had dropped it the night our heroes saw some one disappear near the boarded-up entrance to the ancient tunnel.
"Come on, let's try a bit of shooting!" proposed Nort one evening, when grub had been served at the camp, and he and his brother were left with Buck Tooth. Snake and Yellin' Kid had ridden off on an all-night tour of duty, to a, distant part of the ranch. A choice bunch of steers had started to wander farther off than Bud thought it was wise to let them. They were, evidently, in search of another variety of fodder, but that could not save them from some passing band of Greasers, or other cattle thieves.
"Haze 'em back this way," Bud had requested his two cowboys. "They'll be safer over here."
So Yellin' Kid and Snake had ridden away as the early evening shadows were falling and, to pass the time until the hour for seeking their bunks, the boy ranchers sought some amusement. Shooting at a mark was one form, and Nort and Dick were endeavoring to become as expert as their western cousin in the use of the .45.
"Shooting suits me," agreed Bud. "I'll soon have to cut down my handicap if you fellows keep on the way you're going," for in the tests of skill Bud had always discounted his own ability in order to be fair.
"Well, don't scale it down too much," begged Dick. "Nort hasn't got me skinned, but I'm not up to you."
"Well, let's see how you'll do," suggested Bud.
As a mark a bottle was stuck on a stick which was thrust into the ground at the foot of the sloping bank which enclosed the reservoir. Shooting against this earthen bank insured that no wild bullets would injure any one.
"You go first, Bud," suggested Dick. "We want to get a line on you."
Accordingly Bud walked to the marked-off place, drew his heavy revolver, raised it and brought it down on the mark—the bottle on the stick. There was a sharp crack, followed instantly by the tinkle of glass, and that bottle was no more.
"Busted it clean!" cried Nort. "I wish I could do that!"
Another flask was provided, and Nort shot at this. His aim was fairly good, but he was allowed to go five feet nearer than Bud had stood, that distance being the western lad's handicap. But Nort only chipped away part of the bottom of the bottle with his first shot, and it took three to shatter it completely,
"Watch me do better than that!" cried Dick, as he took his place where his brother had stood, and raised his gun. "I'll crack it first shot!"
His weapon was still in the air, and he had not brought it to a level with the bottle when there sounded, from somewhere out in the valley back of where the boy ranchers stood, the sound of a shot.
The bullet zipped viciously over their heads, and, as they instinctively ducked, they heard the crash of the broken bottle.
Like a flash Bud, who had been standing beside Nort, to watch the effect of Dick's try, turned and faced outward to view the darkening valley, whence had come the sound of that shot. Nort turned also, but Dick seemed to think one of his companions had played a trick on him.
"That isn't fair!" cried the stout lad. "What'd you want to go and bust that bottle for, Nort?"
"I didn't do it!" asserted his brother.
"Nor I," added Bud in a low voice. "The shot came from out there," and he indicated the long and fertile valley, over which the purple evening shadows were falling. "Duck, fellows!" he suddenly cried, and he pulled Nort beside him in the grass.
Dick, who caught the words of warning, and saw what his cousin had done, also dropped down, so that, a second or two after the firing of the strange shot that had shattered the bottle, only the heads of the boy ranchers showed above the grass, and then only slightly. "What's the idea?" asked Dick, as silence followed the measure of safety.
"Whoever it was that fired might shoot again," replied End.
"Who was it?" asked Nort.
"That's what we've got to find out," answered Bud in a low voice.
"Could it have been either Snake or Yellin' Kid, riding back and breaking that bottle over our heads, to show what good shots they were?" asked Dick.
"No, I hardly think so," replied his cousin. "They're both good shots, all right, and they could have broken that flask from the distance it was broken. But they wouldn't throw a scare into us this way. Besides, they haven't any time to fool around. They have an all-night ride ahead of them."
"What makes you think the bottle was busted from some distance, Bud!" Dick wanted to know.
"The way the bullet sounded," was the answer. "It was almost spent when it got here, but it had force enough to break the glass, and would have damaged us if it hit us. I thought whoever played that fool trick might try another shot, so I yanked you down, Nort."
"Glad you did! I might not have thought of it. But whoever it was doesn't seem to be going to shoot again."
"No," agreed Bud, after a little period of silence, during which no other menacing crack of a weapon was heard. "But we'll wait a little longer."
Through the fast-gathering darkness the boys looked out from their semi-hiding places across the valley. No wisp of smoke, and no movement of horse or rider was to be observed. And silence once more settled down on Happy Valley—not quite so happy as it had been. For, following the clearing-up of the mystery of the water supply, new and sinister events seemed pending for the boy ranchers.
But, as yet, there were only straws, showing which way the evil wind was blowing.
"Could it have been a chance shot?" asked Dick, raising himself a little to get a better look.
"That bullet was aimed straight for the bottle, over our heads," declared Bud. "It was no chance shot."
"One of ours couldn't have glanced, could it?" Dick wanted to know.
"Surely not!" affirmed Bud. "Why, no one had shot for some time. I'd just put the new bottle on the stick for you."
"Yes, and I was just going to shoot, when somebody took the bullet out of my gun, so to speak," went on Dick, grimly jesting.
"Do you think they were shooting at—us?" asked Nort, hesitatingly.
Bud did not answer for the moment, and when he did it was to say, as he suddenly arose:
"If they did I'm going to give 'em another chance. And I'm going to do some shooting on my own account!" He had his gun in his hand, for he had so held it since he had shattered the first bottle, and now it was grasped in readiness for instant action.
"We're with you!" cried Nort and Dick, as they emerged from their recumbent positions in the grass, and hastened to the side of their cousin.
But though they looked across the valley, now half shrouded in gloom, and up and down, as far as they could see, no one was in sight. Here and there were small herds of their cattle. Back at the camp tents Buck Tooth was performing his evening duties, or "chores," as Bud called them. The Indian paid no attention to the shooting, for he knew the boys had gone to practice, and he could not be expected to realize that one of the shots was, possibly, a hostile one.
I use the word "possibly" with reason, for, as yet, there was nothing to show that it was not either an accident, or had not been fired by some passing cowboy who, from a distance, seeing the bottle on a stick, could not resist a chance to "take a crack" at it. And yet this last theory would seem to be a poor one. For if the shot had been a joke the one who had fired it would, in all reason, it appeared, have shown himself soon after.
"No one seems to show up," remarked Nort at length, in a low voice.
"Then we'd better look for 'em before it gets too dark," declared Bud. "Come on! Let's get our horses."
"Isn't it taking a chance, riding out to look for some one who may have fired at us purposely?" asked Dick.
"Yes," agreed Bud, after a moment's thought, "but life out west is all more or less of a chance and risk. You take a risk, every time you ride at more than a foot-pace, of your pony stepping into some prairie dog's hole and not only laming himself, but killing you. But you don't stop riding on that account."
"No," agreed Nort.
"And we take a chance every time we ride herd," went on Bud. "The steers may stampede, and before we can get 'em to milling, they may rush over us. But I notice neither of you ever back out of that job; do you?"
"No," agreed Nort, adding: "Well, then, I reckon going after this unknown shooter isn't taking such a long chance."
"I'm with you!" exclaimed Dick.
Briefly telling Buck Tooth what had happened, the boy ranchers rode off at a fast pace, to take advantage of what little light of day remained. They headed, as nearly as they could ascertain it, in the direction whence the single shot had come. But it is hardly needless to say they found no one, and no sign that could be construed into a tangible clue.
"We'll tell Snake and Yellin' Kid about it when they come back," decided Bud, as he and his cousins returned to camp when darkness had completely fallen. For it was useless, after that, to search for the perpetrator of the joke.
Or was it a joke?
That is what the boy ranchers asked themselves more than once.
Contrary to their half-formed expectations, the night passed quietly. There was no disturbance among the cattle, and no midnight visitors invaded the camp. But, for all this, the slumbers of our heroes were not easy. Perhaps they had premonitions of coming disaster.
For disaster came, with the return, early on the morning of the next day, of Snake and Yellin' Kid.
"They're after you, Bud!" shouted the cowboy with the loud voice. "They're after you!"
"Who?" asked Bud, as he and his cousins came out to meet the cowboys.
"Rustlers!" was the grim answer. "There's a lot of your steers missin' from that far herd! Rustlers, Bud! Rustlers!"
For a moment Bud Merkel seemed unable to comprehend the bad news thus brought to him by his cowboy helpers and friends. Nort and Dick, also, were shocked by the intelligence. But Bud quickly recovered. Perhaps it was because of his heritage of the west— the ability to face danger and disaster with grim courage, part of his father's stock in trade.
"Rustlers, eh?" repeated Bud, and his voice was steadier than Yellin' Kid or Snake Purdee expected to find it. "Did they get many?"
"Quite a bunch," answered Yellin' Bad. "We rounded up as many as we could, and—"
"You mean you rounded up the rustlers?" asked Nort, eagerly.
"No, what was left of the steers," answered Snake. "Guess we wouldn't be back here alone—that is, just us two, if we'd had a run-in with the rascals. We didn't see 'em, but we did find traces of 'em. What are you going to do, Bud? Get on their trail?"
"Let's talk it over, first," suggested the boy rancher, and he looked at Nort and Dick, for they were partners with him on this venture of trying to raise cattle in Happy Valley—which would have been almost a desert save for the water that came through the strange mountain tunnel.
"Tell us about it," urged Dick.
"Well, there isn't so much to tell," replied Yellin' Kid, his voice a bit lower, now that there was serious business afoot. "Snake an' I started there, to haze back th' steers as you; told us, Bud. But when we'd rounded up th' herd, drivin' 'em in from where a lot of 'em had strayed, we saw, right away, that th' count was short. First we thought a bunch was hidin' out on us, but we made a pretty good search an' then we got th' evidence."
"The evidence?" exclaimed Nort.
"Yes, we saw where the rustlers had been at work. They must 'a' been there a day before we arrived. They probably cut out a good bunch of cattle an' drove 'em off. But they didn't drive 'em all."
"What makes you think so?" asked Bud. "Do you mean that we have a few left?" and he laughed uneasily.
"Oh, there's more'n a few," said Snake. "But by evidence Kid means we saw where they'd been blurrin' the brand—the Diamond X brand!"
"Oh, they're doing that; are they?" asked Bud, sharply.
"Yes, we found th' ashes of two or three brandin' fires," went on Yellin' Kid, "an' we picked up th' broken handle of a brandin' iron. No marks on it, like there was on the other," he said, referring to the time one of the irons from Double Z had been found on the range of the boy ranchers. "But we brought it along, anyhow," and he exhibited a broken and charred piece of wood.
"But we found more than that," he continued. "We found one steer they'd killed, for beef likely, after they'd blurred th' brand. There wasn't much left. What th' rustlers didn't take th' buzzards did. But there was enough of th' hide left to show what work they were up to—blurring th' brand."
This, as you have learned from the previous books of this series, consists in burning some other mark over the legitimate brand on cattle, so that the original one can not be made out. Then the animal may be claimed by whoever has it. Blurring a brand, that is, making it illegible, or changing one brand into another, are two of the methods used by unscrupulous men to steal cattle.
The boy ranchers well understood what was meant by the news brought them by the two cowboys. The next thing to decide on was what course to pursue. "Did they leave any trail?" asked Bud.
"Well, we didn't stop t' hunt for it, as long as it wasn't a plain one," Snake answered. "Likely we could 'a' picked it up. But as long as there had been a raid we decided th' best thing t' do was t' save th' rest of th' cattle, an' then come an' tell you, Bud."
"How many cattle do you think they took?" asked Nort.
"Oh, I should say fifty," answered Yellin Kid, "includin' th' one they killed for beef. Probably they blurred th' brands on th' others an' drove 'em off—an' I shouldn't be a bit s'prised," he went on, "but what we'd find most of your cattle, Bud, walkin' around on Double Z."
"Hank Fisher; eh?" exclaimed Dick.
"Yes, an' that slick Mexican half-breed of his, Del Pinzo!" declared Snake. "Anyhow, they got away with a bunch of your steers, Bud, an' now what are we goin' t' do? Are we goin' t' sit back an' let 'em laugh at us?"
"Not much!" declared the boy rancher. "But let's get this straight. I wonder why they didn't drive off the whole herd while they were at it?"
"Probably it was too big a contract for 'em," remarked Yellin' Kid. "An' then, too, they might not 'a' had men enough, or th' cattle may 'a' stampeded."
"An' maybe they was scared off," added Snake.
"Yes," agreed his partner on the ride from which they had just returned, "that may have been so. Somethin' may have scared th' rustlers. But if I get a chance at 'em, I'll throw a bigger scare int' 'em!" and he significantly tapped the grim .45 at his hip.
"Any trace of which way they went?" asked Bud.
"There is—up to a certain point," admitted Snake.
"What do you mean?" the boy rancher asked.
"Well, I mean we could trace the cattle down the valley up to that low place between the hills-a sort of pass. And then all trace of 'em was lost."
"Lost!" repeated Nort.
"Yes, sir, lost!" declared Snake. "You couldn't see any more signs of 'em than if they'd been lifted up in one of them flying machines and histed up over the mountain! That's th' funny part of this raid."
"There have been some other queer things around here," said Dick. "There was that bottle last night."
"What was that?" asked Snake, quickly.
"There was some promiscuous shooting around here last night," said Bud. "I'll tell you about it as soon as we get the straight of this rustler business. Maybe there's some connection. But I wonder——"
He was interrupted by a voice singing, and the song was one of the usual cowboy refrains, though the voice was rather better than usual.
At first the boy ranchers thought it might be Old Billee Dobb who, with Buck Tooth, had been out to a distant part of the valley to see if he could get on the track of a mountain lion which had been killing cattle. But a glance showed the approaching singer, who was also a rider, to be a stranger. He sat astride a big, black horse, much larger than the ordinary cow pony, and as he approached the camp the sun glinted in curious fashion on his face.
"Four eyes!" exclaimed Snake, meaning, thereby, that the stranger wore glasses. The rising sun had reflected on their lens. On came "Four Eyes," singing as he advanced, until, when he came within hailing distance, he drew rein, saluted the assembled company with a half-military gesture and called out:
"Any chance of a job here?"
THROWING THE ROPE
Silence followed this greeting and question, and then the two boy ranchers, and their cowboy friends, waited for Bud to speak, he being, in a sense, the head of the new organization. Though Dick and Nort held equal shares, purchased for them by their father, the two lads who had lived so long in the east deferred to the boy of the west in this matter, thinking, naturally, that he would better be able to handle it.
"Looking for a place?" asked Bud, genially enough, as he surveyed the newcomer, from the top of his broad-brimmed range hat to the pawing hoofs of his black steed, for the horse was impatiently digging in the dirt.
"Yep!" was the answer. "I'm looking for a place." The voice was pleasant, and there was none of that clipping off of the final "g" in his words, so common a practice among most of the cowboys. Perhaps they didn't have time to use the proper endings. "I'm dead anxious to ride for some outfit," went on "Four Eyes," as he had been dubbed and as he came to be called, as long as he remained with Diamond X Second. "Your father sent me over here," he added.
"My father!" exclaimed Bud. "Do you know him? I don't know you!" he added quickly, for he sensed that the stranger, in some manner, had managed to pick him from all the others as the son of the proprietor of Diamond X.
"I don't claim to know your father, only having met him once, when I rode up, yesterday, to ask for a job," went on Four Eyes. "I slept out last night—back there," he added with a wave of 'is quirt in the direction of Diamond X. "Had supper with the boys at your father's ranch, and he told me you might be needing some one. If you don't——" He paused suggestively, evidently ready to ride on and try his luck elsewhere if there was no chance in the valley.
"I may need some one," Bud said. In fact, he was in need of an additional hand, and since this latest action on the part of rustlers he wanted help more than ever, for he was about to put into execution a plan for getting on the trail of these marauders. "But how'd you know who I was?" he asked, anxious to ascertain how the stranger had picked him out, as distinguished from Nort or Dick.
"Oh, your father looks like you," was the easy answer, given with a laugh, in which Snake, Yellin' Kid and the boy ranchers joined. "When he said he didn't need any riders, adding that perhaps you might, I decided to take a chance."
"All right. I can use another hand—or, rather, we can," and Bud waved his hand toward his cousins. "You can turn your pony into the corral," he added, "and we'll give you something to eat—unless you've had breakfast?" he questioned.
"Not so much but what I can eat more. Thanks! My name's Henry Mellon. I've ridden some for Curly Q and Long L if you want any references."
"I reckon my dad sized you up all right," spoke Bud.
"I reckon he did!" laughed Henry Mellon, or Four Eyes, as I shall call him, following the custom of the others on the ranch. "I wouldn't want to try to put anything over on him."
"It isn't exactly healthy," agreed Bud, for his father bore an enviable reputation for finding out the truth about matters in that "cow country."
"Ever ride for Double Z?" asked Yellin' Kid, and the loud tone's of his voice appeared to startle the newcomer.
"Why, no," was the answer. "I can't say that I have. One of Mr. Merkel's ranches?" he asked.
"No. It's Hank Fisher's place," spoke Snake. "Glad to meet up with you," he added, riding forward and extending his hand. "That's quite a hoss you got there. Beckon he can go some!"
"Well, he doesn't take dust from many," was the cautious admission, as the new cowboy shook hands all around. "He'll be glad of a rest, though, for I've ridden hard lately. I suppose I can use another?" he asked Bud.
"Sure," was the answer. "Snake here, or Yellin' Kid, will show you which ones you can add to your string. See you later, fellows," Bud called to his cowboy helpers, as he motioned to Nort and Dick to follow him to their own private tent.
"What do you think of it, Bud?" asked Nort, when they were alone, and the new cowboy was being made to feel at home by Snake, Yellin' Kid, and Old Billee, who had by this time ridden in. The smell of cooking arose from the tent that Buck Tooth had turned into a kitchen.
"You mean him?" and Bud nodded toward where the cowboys were congregated in friendly talk.
"No, I mean about the rustlers."
"Oh, they're bad! No question about it—they're bad!" declared Bud. "As soon as we get a chance we'll ride over and take a look at the place. It doesn't seem reasonable that they can drive a bunch of cattle off down the valley, and then have all traces of 'em disappear as if they'd gone up in an airship."
"That's right!" chimed in Dick. "Do you s'pose this Four Eyes saw the rustlers?"
"He didn't come from that direction," declared the western lad.
"He says he didn't," spoke Nort. And when Nort accented that one word Bud looked at his cousin quickly.
"Don't you believe what he says?" Bud asked.
"All the same I'd call up your father," went on Nort.
Bud hesitated a moment and then said:
"I will! No use taking chances. He may be all right, but it won't do any harm to know it. I like his looks, though we don't often get a cowboy with glasses. I'll call dad!"
Which he did, on the telephone, learning from his father that Mr. Merkel knew nothing about the stranger, though he "sized him up," as being all right.
But Mr. Merkel had done more than this. He had called, on the telephone, or had been in communication, otherwise, with the late employers of Henry Mellon, and the cowboy was well spoken of. He was a reliable hand, it was said.
"So we don't have to worry about him," Bud told his cousins. "But we do have to take some action about these rustlers! Hang 'em! I wish they were all bottled up in the tunnel!"
"That's right!" chimed in Dick.
"Are we going on their trail?" asked Nort.
"If we can pick it up," agreed Bud. "Anyhow, we'll take a ride over that way. What with cattle missing, and queer shots being fired behind your back, we're likely to be in for as lively a time as when we had the water fight!"
"Or locating a Triceratops!" added Nort with a laugh.
After breakfast, and the finishing of the usual "chores" about camp, the boy ranchers prepared to ride over and look at the place where the raid had been made. "What cattle had not been taken—and it was only a small part of the herd that had been driven off—were now nearer the camp headquarters, having been hazed over by Snake and Yellin' Kid. Mr. Merkel had been told of the theft, and had advised prompt action on the part of his son and nephews.
"Four Eyes seems to be making himself right at home," remarked Dick, as the three boys started toward the corral, intending to saddle their ponies and ride over to the scene of the cattle- rustling operations.
"Yes," agreed Bud.
Henry Mellon was in the midst of Old Billee, Buck Tooth, Snake and Yellin' Kid, and, as the boy ranchers watched, they saw N Four Eyes twirling his lariat above his head.
"What's he doing?" asked Dick.
"Oh, just showing 'em some fancy roping," Bud answered.
"Let's go over," suggested Nort. "I'd like to get on to a few tricks, myself."
They found Four Eyes attempting some of the more difficult feats of rope throwing. After twirling his lasso about his head, the rope forming a perfect circle, he changed the direction from horizontal to perpendicular, and nimbly leaped backward and forward through the swiftly circling lariat.
Snake tried this, but his spurs caught and there was a queer mix- up of man and rope. Snake could equal the newcomer's feat in twirling the rope around his head horizontally, but failed, as did Yellin' Kid, in the other trick.
"It's just a knack," said Four Eyes, modestly enough. "I had a lot of spare time, and I practiced some of these fancy twists. I can rope four horses at once."
"Yes you can—not!" challenged Snake.
"I'll prove it—of course they have to be going in the same direction," stipulated the new cowboy.
"Even with that I doubt it," went on Snake. "I've heard of that, but I never saw it done."
"If you fellows will ride past me I'll rope you all," and Four Eyes indicated Snake, Yellin' Kid, Old Billee and Buck Tooth. They mounted horses, and as Bud, Nort and Dick watched, the newcomer prepared for the test.
"Sat when!" called Snake to the spectacle-wearing cowboy, as the reptile-fearing cow puncher and his companions prepared to let themselves be roped by the new arrival—providing he could do it.
"I'll be ready in a moment," remarked Henry Mellon, and Bud and his cousins could not but note how differently he spoke from the average run of ranch hands.
"More like one of those college professors who were after the ten-million-year-old Triceratops," remarked Nort, commenting on the talk.
"Yes, he is a bit cultured in his speech," assented Bud. "Guess he hasn't been out west long."
"Then how can he be such a wonderful roper?" Dick wanted to know, for there was no doubt about the ability of Four Eyes, even if he had not yet made good oh his boast of putting his lariat around four galloping horses at once.
"Oh, well, it comes natural to some people," said Bud, "and then, too, he may have been in Mexico. Some of the Greasers are pretty slick with the horsehair. But let's watch."
By this time the four cow punchers, counting Buck Tooth as one, for the Indian was a good herdsman, had lined themselves up about a hundred feet from where Four Eyes sat on his horse—not the same black one he had ridden in, but another, of Bud's stock, that had been assigned him.
"Ready?" asked Yellin' Kid.
"All ready! Come a running!" shouted Four Eyes, and even here he did not drop a "g."
In an instant the four horses were in motion, coming together, in line, down the stretch which the newcomer faced. In another moment Four Eyes had ridden across the path of the oncoming steeds, and on the ground he spread out his lasso in a great loop, leaning over in his saddle to do this. He retained hold of the rope end that was fastened to his saddle, and then, having spread the net, as it were, he pulled up on the opposite side of the course down which the four were now thundering in a cloud of dust.
"Can he do it?" asked Nort.
"He can that way—yes," Bud said. "It's a trick! I thought he was going to make a throw."
"It's a good trick, though, if he does it," declared Dick.
In another instant all four horses ridden by the cowboys and the Indian were within the spread-out loop of Four Eyes as it lay on the ground. And then something happened.
With a mere twist of his wrist, as it seemed, Henry Mellon snapped the outspread rope upward and, reining back his horse, he suddenly pulled the lasso taut.
It was completely around the sixteen legs of the four horses, holding them together, the rope itself being half way down from the shoulder of each animal.
"He did it! By the great rattler and all the little rattlers, he did it!" shouted Yellin' Kid, as he pulled his horse to a stop, an example followed by the others. For though they might all (save one, perhaps) have pulled out of the encircling rope, there possibly would have been an accident. One, or more, of the horses would have stumbled, or been pulled to the ground. And there was no need of that in what was only a friendly contest.
"You did it!" declared Yellin' Kid, as Four Eyes loosed his rope and it fell to the ground, the riders guiding their horses out of the loop. "You shore did it!"
"But it was a trick!" declared Old Billee. "'Tw'an't straight ropin'!"
"Yes, it's a trick, but not every one can do it," said the new cowboy.
"Betcher I can!" declared Snake.
He tried—more than once, but failed. It was not as easy as it looked, in spite of the fact that it was a trick.
"No one can throw, with any accuracy, a loop big enough to take in four horses on the run," declared Four Eyes when it had been demonstrated that he alone, of all the "bunch" at the Happy Valley ranch, could do what he had done. "At least if they can, I've never seen it. Two, maybe, or three, but not four. Putting your rope on the ground, and snapping it up as the horses get in it, is the only way I know."
"I wish you'd show me," spoke Nort.
"I will," promised Four Eyes. "You don't often have need for a trick like it, but it may come in useful some day."
Then he showed the boys the knack of it, though it was evident they were not going to master the "how" in a hurry.
Other feats in roping were indulged in by the cowboys, but none was as expert as Four Eyes. He seemed to possess uncanny skill with the lariat, though some of his tricks could be duplicated by Snake, Yellin' Kid and even by the boy ranchers.
But life on a western ranch is not all fun and jollity, though as much of this as possible is indulged in to make up for the strenuous times that are ever present. So, after the roping exhibition was over, and the newcomer had been assigned certain duties, Bud, Nort and Dick rode down the valley, intending to look over the place where the steers had been stolen, and the carcass of one left as a grim reminder of the raid.
Otherwise all in Happy Valley was peaceful. The water was running into the reservoir, through the pipes that connected with the mysterious underground course, once utilized, it was thought, by the ancient Aztecs.
Here and there, feeding on the rich bunch and Johnson grass, were the cattle in which the boy ranchers were so vitally interested. The most distant herd had been driven in by Snake and Yellin' Kid—the herd on which the raid had been made. Like black specks on the green floor of the valley were the cattle, dotted here and there.
"If we have luck this season we ought to round up a good bunch this fall," observed Bud, as he rode with his cousins.
"Yes," agreed Nort. "The water can't be shut off now, and we have nothing to worry about."
"Except rustlers," put in Dick.
"And the fellow who broke the bottle for us," added Bud. "I'd like to know who he was."
"It was a bit queer," Nort admitted. "But I believe it was some passing cow puncher playing a joke on us. This cattle stealing is no joke, though, and it's got to stop!"
"You let loose an earful that time," spoke Bud, in picturesque, western slang. "We'll have to let the bottle-breaker wait for a spell, until we size up this rustler question. We may have to get up a sheriff's posse and clean out the rascals."
"If we can find 'em," grimly added Dick.
It was some distance to the place where Yellin' Kid and Snake Purdee had seen evidences of the raid, and it was long past noon when the boys reached it. They had stopped for "grub" on the way, having carried with them some food. Water they could get from one of the several concrete troughs that had been installed, the fluid coming through pipes from the reservoir.
"Here's where they killed the steer, or yearling," Bud said, pointing to a heap of bones.
It was all that remained from the feast of the buzzards.
"And here's where they started to drive off the cattle, evidently," added Nort, pointing to where a plain trail, made by the feet of many animals, led away from the ground that was more generally trampled by a large herd.
"Let's follow it," urged Dick. "We want to see when it gets to the disappearing point"
"That's right!" chimed in Bud.
They urged their ponies slowly along the trail left by the rustlers. It seemed to go down the valley to the place where the hills lowered on either side to form a sort of pass. It was in this pass that the two cowboys said the trail was lost.
"We've got some distance to go, yet," observed Bud, as they paused to look and make sure they had not lost the trail.
"And, after all, maybe we'll only find the same thing Snake and Kid did—nothing!" said Nort.
"Well," began Bud, "we've got to get to the bottom of this, and if we don't in one way we will——"
He was interrupted by a shout from Dick.
"Look!" cried the stout lad. "There's a fire! The grass is on fire, Bud!"
The western lad gave a quick look in the direction Dick indicated. It was off to the right from the trail they had been following.
"It is a fire—regular prairie fire," Bud murmured.
"Could any of the reservation Indians be on the rampage and have set it?" asked Nort.
"I don't know! We've got to find out about it!" shouted Bud. "Come on, fellows!" And, wheeling his horse, he abandoned the trail of the rustlers, and galloped toward the fire, followed by Nort and Dick.
Some time before the boy ranchers reached the scene of the grass fire toward which they were riding, they caught the smell of the burning fodder. That it was only grass which was aflame they had known before this, for that was all there was to ignite in that section of the valley. There were no buildings as yet, tents taking their place. Though Bud and his father planned to erect substantial structures if this year was successful.
"A lot of good fodder going up in smoke, Bud!" yelled Nort, as he rode beside his cousin.
"If it isn't any worse than that we're lucky," was the answer.
"How do you mean?" asked Dick.
"I mean if we don't lose any cattle. The grass isn't any good after it dries up on the ground, the way this has. But if the fire starts a stampede of cattle—that will mean a loss."
"Do you think that's what the game is?" asked Nort, encouraging his pony, Blaze, by patting the animal's neck.
"I can't see what else it is, unless the fire started when some one threw down a burning match or cigarette, and most cow punchers aren't that careless. Our fellows wouldn't do it, and I don't believe any other ranchers around here would, except on purpose."
"You mean the Double Z bunch?" asked Dick.
"Sort of heading that way," replied Bud, significantly.
Together the boy ranchers rode on toward the fire, silently for a time, the only sounds being the thud of their ponies' feet and the creak of saddle leathers and stirrups. The smell of the burning grass was more pronounced now, and the pall of black smoke was rolling upward in a larger cloud.
"It's a big fire!" exclaimed Nort. "How can we stop it, Bud?"
"It will soon burn out," the western lad replied. "I happen to know where this grass is. It's a place where we couldn't very well bring water to, and if it doesn't rain much, as it hasn't lately, the fodder gets as dry as tinder. There's a sort of swale, or valley, filled with this dry grass and it's just naturally burning itself off."
"Then no very great harm will be done; will there?" asked Dick.
"Not much, unless the cattle get frightened and start to stampede. That's what I'm afraid of, and why I'm riding over there. We can't hope to put out the fire." Owing to the fact that the grass was so dry that no cattle would feed on it, there were no steers in the immediate vicinity of the blaze Had the fodder been cut it would have made excellent hay, but it would need to be cut green to bring this about. As it was, the tall grass had just naturally dried up as it attained its growth.
"It doesn't take even as much as a blaze like this to start a stampede," said Bud, as he and his cousins rode nearer to the burning grass, They could feel the heat of it, now. "It's queer how frightened animals are of fire," went on the rancher's son. "There must have been some wonderful sights out here, years ago, when there were millions of buffalo, and when there were prairie fires, miles in width, driving them before it."
"I should say so!" chimed in Nort. "I've read some of those stories in Cooper's books. He's great; isn't he!"
"You delivered the goods that time!" remarked Bud.
"I wish the west was like that now," voiced Dick. "With Indians and buffalo all over."
"There are a few Indians left yet," said Bud. "They're mostly on reservations, except when they make a break, ride off and act up bad. I guess we stock raisers are better off without the wild Indians.
"As for the buffalo, they were mighty valuable, and if we could raise them as well as cattle, we'd make a lot of money. The government is trying to get several herds started, but it's no easy task. Why, there are almost as many buffalo in New York city as there is out west now."
"Where!" asked Nort, not thinking for the moment.
"In Bronx Park," answered Bud. "I haven't seen 'em but I've read about 'em."
"Oh, yes. So have I," agreed Nort. "I forgot about them. Whew! It's getting hot," he added, as a shift in the wind brought into their faces a wave of heated and smoke-filled air.
"We'd better not keep on any nearer," decided Bud. "Let's ride around to the other side, and see what we can see."
Accordingly they turned to the right, as the fire seemed less fierce on that quarter, and continued on. They had been riding over a stretch of the valley carpeted with rich, dark green and fairly damp grass. Bud and his cousins knew that when the fire reached this stretch it would die out for lack of fuel.
In fact the blaze, as they could see, was confined to an area about a mile square, but of irregular shape. So far none of the cattle in sight had shown more than momentary fear of the blaze. They had run some distance from it and then stopped, sometimes going on with their eating, and again pausing to look with fear- widened eyes at the sight of the leaping tongues of fire.
"But we can't tell what's going on behind that smoke screen," declared Bud. "Some rustlers may have started it to hide their work."
"Any of your men over in that direction?" asked Dick.
"They aren't supposed to be," Bud replied. "Of course some of 'em may have ridden over when they saw the smoke, same as we did. But I don't see how any of 'em could have reached here as soon as we did."
Together they rode on, circling to the right to get around the edge of the fire.
"She's dying out," observed Dick.
"Yes, it can't burn much longer," admitted Bud. "And no great damage done, either, unless we find something we haven't yet seen."
But when they had completed the circuit around the edge of the blazing grass, and could ride across the fire-blackened area, and behind what was still a thick screen of smoke, they saw something which caused them great surprise.
This was not the sight of a bunch of stampeding cattle, though it was what Bud and his cousins folly; expected to encounter. There were some cattle on this side of the fire, but they had run far enough away to be out of danger, and beyond where they could be frightened into a frenzied rush.
"Look!" exclaimed Nort, pointing.
"Four Eyes!" exclaimed Dick.
"By the great horned toad and Zip Foster—yes!" agreed Bud, and his cousins knew he must be stirred to unusual depths of feeling to use this name. Zip Foster had not been mentioned in several weeks. The mysterious personage, on whom Bud called in times of great excitement, was almost a stranger, of late, in Happy Valley. In fact Dick and Nort never could get Bud to talk about Zip. But that is a story which will be told in its proper place, and due season.
"It is Four Eyes!" went on Bud, as he and his cousins recognized in the form of a distant rider that of Henry Mellon, the new cowboy. "And what he's doing here is more than I can imagine. I'm going to find out, though!"
The spectacled cow puncher was riding swiftly along, on a course that ran parallel to the direction of the fire. He was on the edge of the burned area, and galloping-away from the boys. But he was not beyond seeing or hailing distance.
"Hello there!" shouted Bud, dropping his reins and making a megaphone of his hands.
Four Eyes heard the call—there was no doubt of that, for he turned in his saddle and looked back. Then he must have seen the boys, for he waved his hat at them. Next he pointed ahead, as if to indicate that he was in pursuit of some one, and kept on, never slacking his pace.
"Come on!" shouted the impulsive Nort. "Let's catch up to him!"
He was about to spur his pony forward, but Bud caught the bridle.
"No use," said the western lad. "He's too far ahead, and our horses are too played out If he comes back well hear about it. If he doesn't—"
"Why, don't you think he'll come back!" interrupted Pick.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't," Bud answered. "There are some queer things going on around here, and he may be one of 'em. Though I haven't any reason to suspect him—yet!" he quickly added.
"What are we going to do!" asked Dick, as he saw his cousin slacking his pony's pace. "Shall we go on to the end of the rustler's trail, or follow Four Eyes."
"Neither one," answered Bud. "At least not just yet," he added, as he saw Nort and Dick look at him curiously. "Let Four Eyes go, for the time being. He may have seen some cowboys he'd like to interview about this fire, and be after them. Or he may not. As for getting on the trail of the rustlers, we'd have to ride back quite a distance to do that, and it would be dark when we picked it up again. Too late to do anything."
"Are we going back to camp?" asked Dick.
"No, let's stay right here. We've got grub, and water isn't so far off. We'll just camp out for the night."
"Suits me," assented Dick.
"Same here," agreed Nort.
It was something the boys had often done. They carried blankets and tarpaulins on their saddles, ready for this emergency, and they "packed" sufficient rations for several substantial, if not elaborate, meals. They had a coffee pot, a frying pan, bacon and prepared flour, and flapjacks were within their range of abilities as cooks.
Pausing to note that the fire was rapidly dying out, that there was no cattle stampede in their vicinity, and noting that Four Eyes was now almost out of sight, the boy ranchers rode on to the nearest water-hole, and there prepared to spend the night, though it was still several hours until darkness should fall. But the horses were tired, for they had been run hard after the fire, and the boys decided to rest them. The lads, themselves, were fresh enough to have kept on, had there been occasion for it.
"Well, I'm glad this was no worse," observed Bud, as they sat down, having picketed their steeds, and looked at the receding pall of smoke. "I only hope the fellows at camp won't be worried."
"I guess they know we can take care of ourselves—at least we have so far," spoke Nort.
"Yes," agreed Bud. "You fellows have done pretty well since you came out here—you aren't tenderfeet any longer, not by all the shots that ever broke bottles."
"Say, what do you think of that, anyhow?" asked Dick, as he chewed reflectively on a bit of grass.
"I don't know what to think," asserted Bud. "There are a lot of serious questions we have to settle if we're going to keep on with this ranch."
"Why, we are going to keep on, aren't we?" asked Nort.
"I should say so!" cried Bud. "We're going to stick here, rustlers or not! And those are the only fellows I'm worrying about," and he tossed a lump of dirt in the fire which Dick was starting.
"Are there always rustlers to worry about on a ranch?" asked Nort.
"More or less," answered his cousin. "Especially when you have a place so near Double Z. I don't accuse Hank Fisher of being a rustler, exactly," he went on, "though I think Del Pinzo is. That's been proved, but it didn't do much good, for he broke jail and they can't seem to land him."
"What makes Hank Fisher and that Double Z bunch so sore at you?" asked Dick.
"I guess it's because we're beating them at the cattle game," answered Bud. "And because dad dammed the Pocut River and took some water for this valley. As if that hurt Hank!" he added. "But he makes that an excuse. However, I'll fight him to the finish!"
"And we're with you!" added Dick and Nort.
After supper they sat around the fire, talking of various matters. But ever and again the question troubled them of whether or not they could get on the trail of the rustlers. And, too, they wondered what could be the object of Four Eyes.
Night settled down, quiet save for the occasional snorting of the ponies. The boys wrapped themselves in their blankets and crawled between their tarpaulins with their feet to the smouldering fire. They talked until drowsiness stole over them and then, having decided to maintain no watch, they all three slumbered.
What time it was that Bud awakened he did not know. But awaken he did, and suddenly.
And the cause of his awakening was the sound of a horse rapidly ridden, and, evidently, approaching the place where he and his cousins had camped for the night.
"Who's there?" cried Bud suddenly, and without preface. Under the blanket his hand sought his weapon.
THE WATCH TOWER
Quickly the galloping hoofbeats came to a pause. With a motion of his foot, as he sat up amid his blanket and tarpaulin, Bud kicked into the fire a stick of greasewood which flared up, revealing a rider on a panting horse standing over the boy ranchers, all three of whom were now awake.
"Four Eyes!" cried Bud, for the flaring fire had revealed that cowboy. He had accepted his nickname in perfect grace.
"That's who," was the good-natured answer. "I saw the fire as I was riding back, and I thought you'd be here."
"Where were you riding to?" asked Bud, pointedly, his fingers releasing their grip on the .45 under the blanket. "I thought you were with Old Billee."
"I was supposed to be," answered Four Eyes, "until my horse got out of the corral and Billee said I could trail him. That's what I was doing when I saw you behind the fire. I knew it was almost burned out, so I didn't stop, or come back to explain."
"Yes, the fire didn't amount to much, though how it was started is another question," said Bud. "You say your black horse got out?"
"Yes, jumped the corral fence. He's a bad one at that."
"You didn't get him back," observed Nort, for he and Dick, as well as Bud, had noticed that the new cow puncher bestrode one of the extra ponies kept at the camp corral for use in relieving the regular animals.
"No, he got clean away," and Henry Mellon did not seem to worry much about it. "All I have to say," he went on, "is that some one will get a mighty good mount, outside of his habit of jumping out of corrals."
"You may get him back—if whoever picks him up knows where he belongs," said Bud. For in that cow country it was still regarded as a great crime to steal a horse, or keep one known to belong to some one else.
"Oh, I'll prospect a bit farther for him tomorrow, maybe," said Four Eyes. "I didn't want to ride too far this evening, so I turned back. Did you get on any trail of the rustlers?" he asked, for he had been aware of the object of the boys' ride.
"We switched off to come over to the fire," said Bud. "Did you notice anything about it?"
"It was burning pretty good when I struck here, from over at your camp," was the answer. "I saw that it wasn't likely to do much damage, so I didn't ride back to tell Billee and the others."
"Did you see any one suspicious?" Bud went on, getting up and putting more wood on the fire.
"No, I didn't," answered Four Eyes, quietly. "Of course anyone would have had time to start the fire, and get well away before I arrived on the scene—judging by the way it was burning," he said. "Though I can't see what object anyone could have, and I'm inclined to think a passing cow puncher—not one of your crowd but some one else—may have flipped a cigarette butt into the grass where it smouldered for some time."
"That may have happened," Bud admitted. "As for an object, if the fire had stampeded the cattle it would have given some bunch of Greasers or rustlers a chance to get away with a few steers."
"Oh, yes, of course," agreed Four Eyes. "Well, I didn't see anybody. Guess I may as well turn in here. No use riding back to the camp to-night. It'll soon be morning."
"That's right, turn in," invited Bud. His suspicions had vanished.
"There's some cold coffee if you want it," added Nort.
"Guess I'll put it on to heat," said Henry Mellon. "It's a bit chilly."
"What time is it?" asked Dick, as the cowboy stirred up the embers and set the blackened coffee pot on over some stones that had been made into a rude fireplace.
"Two o'clock," announced Four Eyes, with a glance at his watch.
The boy ranchers watched him idly as he made and drank the coffee, munching some hard crackers he carried in one of his pockets. Then, rolling up in their blankets, the quartette went to sleep.
Morning came, in due course, without any untoward incidents having occurred. The boys looked across the fire-swept area to where, beyond it, many cattle could be observed grazing. There was no further vestige of fire. The heavy dew had extinguished the last, smouldering spark.
"Well, I'm going back to the camp," announced Four Byes, as they got the simple breakfast. And how appetizing was that aroma of sizzling bacon and strong coffee! "Want me to tell 'em anything for you!" he asked Bud.
"Tell 'em about the fire," was the request. "And say we're going on the trail of the rustlers. We'll be back to-day, though, around night, for we haven't grub enough to carry us farther."
"What you going to do about your horse?" asked Dick.
"What can I do?" asked Henry Mellon, in turn. "I can't spend all my time hunting him, when I've got to ride herd."
"We'll be on the lookout," Nort said.
"Hope you have luck," commented the strange cowboy, as he took off his glasses and wiped them on his silk neckerchief. "I'm lost without Cinder, though this pony isn't so bad," and he patted the neck of the animal he was riding.
A little later the boy ranchers were taking a short cut across the fire-blackened strip, to get on the trail of the men who had driven off their cattle, while Four Eyes turned the head of his pony toward camp.
"Well, it looks as if this was where the trail ended," announced Bud, several hours later.
"Mighty funny, to come to an end so suddenly," commented Dick.
The three boys had reached one end of the many small valleys into which the larger vale was divided. They had been following the trail of the cattle that had been driven off—it was plain enough until they reached a rocky and shale-covered defile between two small hills. Then, for some reason or other, all "sign" came to an abrupt end. There were no further marks of hoofs in the earth, and none of the ordinary marks to indicate that cattle and horses had been beyond a certain point.
"It's just as Snake said," observed Dick. "They must have driven the animals here and then lifted them over the hill in an aeroplane."
"They couldn't!" declared Nort.
"I know they couldn't. But how else do you account for it?" asked his brother.
"They may have driven 'em through the pass, and then scattered dirt and stones over the trail to hide it," suggested Bud.
"Let's look a little farther then," remarked Dick.
They did, but without discovering any clues. It was as though the rustlers had driven the cattle to the bottom of a rocky and bush- covered slope, and then as if the side of the hill had suddenly opened, providing a way through.
"Like some old fairy yarn!" declared Bud. "This gets me!"
"If we could only have gotten on the trail of the rascals sooner, Bud, we might have learned the secret," spoke Nort. "We ought to keep better watch!"
"How could we?" asked Bud. "We shoot off on the trail, now, as soon as we hear of anything."
"Yes, but we ought to get on the jump quicker," insisted his cousin. "If we had an airship, for instance!" and he laughed at the impracticability of his remark.