The Saddle Boys of the Rockies
Lost on Thunder Mountain
CAPTAIN JAMES CARSON
"THE SADDLE BOYS IN THE GRAND CANYON," "THE SADDLE BOYS ON THE PLAINS," "THE SADDLE BOYS AT CIRCLE RANCH," ETC.
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
Copyrighted 1913, by
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
THE SADDLE BOYS OF THE ROCKIES
I. ACCEPTING A CHALLENGE II. THE STRANGE ACTIONS OF DOMINO III. OLD HANK COOMBS BEARS A MESSAGE IV. A NOTE OF WARNING AT THE SPRING HOLE V. THE VOICE OF THE MOUNTAIN VI. A SECOND ALARM VII. THE "RUSTLERS" VIII. A STARTLING DISCOVERY IX. WHAT HAPPENED TO PEG X. THREATS OF TROUBLE XI. THE BLACK NIGHT XII. LOSING THEIR BEARINGS XIII. THE SMOKE TRAIL XIV. A CALL FOR HELP XV. SPANISH JOE DROPS A HINT XVI. THE VENT HOLE IN THE WALL XVII. FRANK HOLDS THE HOT STICK XVIII. A GUESS THAT HITS THE BULLSEYE XIX. THE WORKING OF THE GOLD LODE XX. TRAPPED IN THE CANYON XXI. A CLOSE CALL XXII. ONCE MORE AT CIRCLE RANCH—CONCLUSION
THE SADDLE BOYS OF THE ROCKIES
ACCEPTING A CHALLENGE
"Hello! what brought you here, Frank Haywood, I'd like to know?"
"Well, I reckon my horse, Buckskin, did, Peg."
"And who's this with you—your new chum; the boy from Kentucky?"
"That's who it is, Peg—Bob Archer; and he's come out West to see how life on the plains suits him."
"Oh! a greenhorn, eh?"
"Perhaps some people might call him that, though he knows a heap about horses. But seems to me, Peg, 'twasn't so very long ago that you yourself dropped in on us here. Since when did you climb up out of the tenderfoot class, tell me?"
The boy who answered to the name of Frank Haywood was a rather chunky, well set-up lad of about sixteen. He had blue eyes, that were usually sparkling with mirth; and a mop of yellow hair; while his skin was darkened by long exposure to sun and wind.
Frank was the son of a rancher, who not only owned a large tract of land with many herds, but had interests in paying mines located among the mountains of the Southwest. Of course he knew more or less concerning such things as cowboys practice; though never a day passed on which Frank could not pick up new ideas connected with life in the open.
His companion, Bob Archer, was considerably taller than Frank, straight as an Indian, though rather inclined to be slender; but with a suppleness that indicated such strength and agility as the panther displays.
Coming from Kentucky, Bob could at least boast of long familiarity with horses; and his cleverness in this line promised to make him a crack horseman when he had picked up a few more of the tricks known to range riders.
Both of the boys were especially fond of roaming the country, mounted on their favorite steeds; and indeed, they were becoming known far and near as the "Saddle Boys" because of their being seen so frequently, dashing over the prairies at top-notch speed.
Peg was the nick-name which had followed Percy Egbert Grant all the way from the Chicago suburb, where, for some years, he had played the part of both dude and bully. His father was very wealthy, and Peg always had more money than was good for him.
When he came to the great X-bar-X ranch, not so very far distant from the Haywood home place, Peg had adopted the same tactics that had carried the day for him in the past. The cowboys belonging to his father's estate seemed to knuckle under to him from the first. However much they might ridicule Peg behind his back, they cringed when he gave orders; because he was a liberal paymaster, and no one wished to incur his enmity.
So it came to pass that Peg actually began to believe himself of great importance in the community. He assumed airs that ill became one who was really ignorant of many things connected with ranch life.
He and Frank had never become friends. There was something about the fellow that the saddle boy could not tolerate. More than once they had almost come to blows; and, only for the peace-loving nature of Frank, this must have occurred long ago.
The two chums had taken the long gallop to the town on the railroad on this particular day to do a little important business for Mr. Haywood, who was associated with Bob's uncle in certain large mining enterprises. And it was while entering the town that they met Peg, who, with his customary assurance, had halted them with the question that begins this chapter.
When Frank give him this little cut, the face of Peg Grant showed signs of anger. He knew very well that he was making wretched progress along the line of becoming an accomplished rider and cowboy. And the easy manner in which the other boys sat their saddles irritated him greatly.
"What does it matter to you, Frank Haywood, when I left the greenhorn class and moved up a pace? All the boys of the X-bar-X outfit say I'm full-fledged now, and able to hold my own with nearly any fellow. It'll be some time, I reckon, before your new friend can say the same. But I will own that he's got a horse that takes my eye, for a fact."
"That's where you show good judgment, Peg," said Frank, laughing. "He brought that black horse with him from Kentucky. And he can ride some, you'd better believe me. When he gets on to the ways we have out here, Bob will hold his own against heaps of boys that were born and brought up on the plains."
"Say, I don't suppose, now, you'd care to sell that animal, Archer?" asked Peg, as he eyed the handsome mount of the Kentucky boy enviously. "Because I fancy I'd like to own him more than I ever did that frisky buckskin Frank rides. If you'd put a fairly decent price on him now—"
"I raised Domino from a colt, I broke him to the saddle, and we have been together five years now. Money couldn't buy him from me," replied the tall boy, curtly.
It was not Bob Archer's habit to speak in this strain to anyone; but there seemed to be a something connected with Peg Grant that irritated him. The manner of the other was so overbearing as to appear almost rude. He had had his own way a long time now; and thus far no one connected with the big ranch owned by his father had arisen to take him down.
"Oh! well, there are plenty of horses just as good, I guess," Peg went on; "and some people don't appreciate the value of money, anyway. But see here, Frank, you let your eyebrows travel up when I mentioned the fact that I'd graduated from the tenderfoot class. I could see that you doubted my words. Now, I'm going to tell you something that will surprise you a heap. Are you ready for a shock?"
"Oh; I can brace myself for nearly anything, Peg," replied Frank, easily; "so suppose you tell us your great news. Have you entered for the endurance race at the annual cowboy meet next month; or do you expect to take the medal for riding bucking broncos?"
"Any ordinary range rider might do that, even if he lost out," Peg went on; "but my game is along different lines; see? I'm on my way right now to run down the mystery of Thunder Mountain! I understand that for years it's puzzled the whole country to know what makes that roaring sound every now and then. Many cowboys couldn't be hired to spend a single night on that mountain. As for the Indians, they claim it is the voice of Great Manitou; and steer clear of Thunder Mountain, every time. Get that, Frank?"
"Well, Peg, you have given me a jolt, for a fact," answered the saddle boy, as his face expressed his surprise. "I allow that you show a lot of nerve in laying out such a big plan; and if you only find out what makes that trembling, roaring sound, you'll get the blessing of many a range rider who believes all the stories told about Thunder Mountain."
Peg stiffened up in his saddle, as though he realized that he was engineering a tremendously important thing; and had a right to be looked up to as a hero, even before the accomplishment of the deed.
"Well, that's always the way with you fellows out here, I find," he remarked, loftily; "you leave all the big things to be done by fellows with real backbone. But then, I don't mind; in fact I'm obliged to you for neglecting your opportunities so long. Just you wait, and you'll hear something drop. Couldn't I induce you to name a price on that black beauty, Archer?"
"Domino is not for sale at any price," replied the other, quietly.
"Oh! all right then. So long, Frank. Go back home, and wait till I send you word about what I've found out!" and with a careless wave of his arm Peg whirled his horse around, and galloped off.
"Now, I wonder did he mean that; or was he just bluffing?" said Frank, as he turned to his chum.
"He looked as if he might be in dead earnest," replied Bob; "but you know him better than I do, and ought to be able to say whether he'd have the sand to take up such a job as that."
"Oh! nobody doubts his grit, when it comes to that," Frank went on, as though trying to figure the matter out. "And he seems to want to do something everybody else lets alone. You know what I told you about Thunder Mountain, Bob; and how it has been a mystery ever since the country hereabout was settled by people from the East?"
"Yes," the Kentucky boy replied, "and somehow, what you told me seemed to shake me up as I don't ever remember being stirred before. It was like a direct challenge—just like somebody had dared me to look into this queer old mountain, and find out what it all meant."
"That's just it," said Frank, watching the face of his chum with a show of eagerness. "It struck me the same way long ago, and I can remember often thinking what a great time a few of the right kind of fellows might have if they took a notion to go nosing around that old pile of rock, to see what does make all that row every little while."
"And you tell me nobody knows what it is?" demanded Bob.
"Why, don't you understand, the cowboys all keep away from Thunder Mountain as much as they can. They're worse than the Injuns about it, because while the reds say that is the voice of Manitou talking, these fellows just up and declare the mountain is haunted. Lots of 'em couldn't be hired to spend a night on the side of that big uplift."
"But Frank, we don't believe in any such thing, do we?" pursued Bob, as if he had begun to suspect what all this talk was leading up to, and wished to draw his chum on.
"We sure don't, and that's a fact," declared Frank. "Twice, now, one of our boys has made out that he saw a ghost, but both times I managed to turn the laugh on him. All the same, if you offered a lump sum for any fellow to go and camp out half-way up the side of Thunder Mountain for a week, I don't believe he could be found, not at Circle Ranch, anyhow."
"I've seen the same kind of men myself; and the coons around our old Kentucky home always carried a foot of a graveyard rabbit, shot in the full of the moon, as a sure talisman against ghosts. I've seen many a rabbit's foot. No use talking to any of them; it's in the blood and can't be cured. But about that offering a sum for any fellow to go and camp on the side of that old fraud of a haunted mountain, if you happen to hear about such a snap you might just think of me, Frank."
The other saddle boy smiled broadly. He believed he knew Bob pretty well by this time, and could no longer doubt what the Kentucky lad was hinting at.
"Say, look here, would you take me up if I proposed something right now?" asked Frank, his face filled with sudden animation.
"If you mean that we try and beat Peg Grant at his own game, and learn what the secret of Thunder Mountain is, I say yes!" answered Bob, steadily.
"Shake on that!" he exclaimed. "I'm just primed for something that's out of the common run; and what could be finer than such a game? I saw Billy Dixon in town; and we can send back word to father that we've gone off for a big gallop; so he won't worry if we don't turn up for a few days. Is it a go, Bob?"
"Count on me," replied the other. "I don't know how it is, Frank; but it strikes me that I'd like to cut in on that boaster in this thing. If we managed to find out what makes that fearful booming in the mountain, and told about it before he got a chance to blow his horn, he'd feel cheap, wouldn't he?"
"He sure would, now," Frank said. "And when you look at it, he just the same as gave us the challenge direct, because he hinted that we didn't have the nerve to attempt such a big thing as this. Bob, we'll call it a go! Wonder what Peg will say when he runs across us out there in that lonely place? Wow! I reckon he'll be some mad."
"Let him," remarked Bob, carelessly. "He has no claim on Thunder Mountain; has he? And we want to call his bluff, if it was one. So just make up your mind we're in for a new experience. It may pan out a heap of fun for us. And it will be worth while if we can settle the question that has been giving these superstitious cowmen the creeps all these years."
"Then let's get through with our business, send word by Billy, though not telling what we've got in the wind, and then pick up a few things we might need on a trip like this. After that we can drop out of town, and take our time heading for the mountain; because I think I'd like Peg to get there first, so that he couldn't say we'd stolen his thunder."
Half an hour later the saddle boys, having finished their business, and sent the Circle ranch cowboy galloping homeward bearing the message to Mr. Haywood, were moving slowly through the main street of the town, heading toward a store where they could pick up a couple of blankets, a simple cooking outfit, and some of the substantials in the way of bacon, coffee and the like, when they came upon a scene that instantly attracted their attention.
It was a terrified cry that reached their ears at first, and caused both boys to pull in their horses. Glancing in the direction whence the sound of distress seemed to spring, they saw a small Mexican girl struggling with an over-grown fellow, garbed in the customary range habit, even to the "chaps" of leather covering his trousers.
Both Frank and Bob jumped from their saddles, for the little affair was taking place in the courtyard of an inn that fronted on the street. Whether the brute was simply playing the bully, and trying to kiss the girl; or meant to strike her for getting in his way, Bob Archer did not stop to inquire.
His warm Kentucky blood on fire, he made a swoop for the fellow, and managed to give him a tremendous blow that toppled him over in a heap.
"Lie there, you coward!" he exclaimed.
And then, as the fellow whom he had knocked down struggled to his knees, to stare up at him, Bob discovered, not a little to his surprise, and satisfaction as well, that he was looking into a familiar face.
It was Peg Grant!
THE STRANGE ACTIONS OF DOMINO
"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Frank; which remark showed how much surprised he was to recognize the youth whom his chum had sent to the ground.
"What do you mean by hitting me like that?" snarled the rich man's son, as he managed to scramble to his feet again, though he seemed a bit "groggy," and one of his eyes was already turning dark, as if it had come in violent contact with a stone when he struck the ground.
"What do you mean, hurting that poor little Mexican girl?" demanded Bob, who stood on his guard, as though he might not be averse to trying conclusions with the bully, if so be the other felt like seeking satisfaction for his upset.
"She sassed me when I ordered her to get out of my way, that's what she did;" declared Peg, wrathfully, "and I'd look nice now, wouldn't I, letting a little greaser kid talk back to me? So I was just giving her a good shaking when you broke in. Guess you didn't know who you were hitting when you did that, Bob Archer!"
"Perhaps I didn't," replied the Kentucky lad, calmly; "though that wouldn't have made any particular difference. Any cur who would lay his hands on a child like that ought to get knocked down every time. I'd do it again if you gave me the chance!"
Peg stared at him. Perhaps he had never been treated in this manner before. All his life his acquaintances had truckled to him on account of the great wealth of his father, and the liberal way he himself, as a boy, rewarded those who were allowed the privilege of being his cronies or mates.
"You—would, eh?" he gasped, as if hardly daring to believe his ears. "Even if you knew it was Peg Grant you'd treat me that way; would you? I'll remember that! I'm not the one to forget in a hurry. Some day, perhaps, you'll wish you'd never tried to play the hero part, and hit me when my back was turned. I've got a good notion to teach you a lesson right now; that's what!"
"All right," remarked Bob, coolly. "Suppose you begin. I was never in a better humor for trouble. Somehow I seemed to just know we'd hit it up sooner or later if our trails crossed. I give you my word, my friend here won't put a finger on you, if so be you get the better of the row; will you Frank?"
"I should say not," declared the lad, instantly, adding: "and unless I miss my guess there won't be any need of it, either."
"Are you coming on, Peg?" asked the Kentucky lad, temptingly.
From under his drooping eyebrows Peg observed how easily the other had assumed a position of self-defense. Somehow Peg did not fancy the athletic build of his antagonist; for, while Bob was rather slender, he had the marks of one accustomed to exercise; possessing at least ordinary ability to take care of himself.
"It'll keep, and be all the better for the delay," Peg grumbled, as he clenched one fist furiously, and used the other hand to feel of his injured optic. "Besides, I don't feel fit to fight right now, with this bunged-up eye. But just wait till the right time comes, and see what you get then for doing this."
"Oh! well, suit yourself," returned Bob, with a laugh. "If the little brown-faced girl hadn't vamoosed I declare if I wouldn't feel like making you get down on your knees, and asking her to excuse you. Bah! you're not worth bothering about, Peg. Get out!"
The other moved away. He did not like the manner in which Bob said this; and he seemed to be afraid that perhaps the other might yet decide to press some further indignity on him.
When, however, he had reached the door of the inn, so that he could have a way of escape open to him in case of need, he stopped and shook his fist threateningly toward the saddle boys.
"You're both going to pay dear for this little fun, hear that?" he called, his voice trembling with passion. "I'll find a way to get even, see if I don't! And when Peg Grant says that he means it, too! Just you wait till I——"
And then, as Bob started to advance toward the hostelery Peg retreated in a panic, slamming the door after him.
"Well, what d'ye think of that?" asked Frank, who had been an amused observer of this curious scene.
"He's turned out just what I thought he would," remarked Bob, as he once more gained the side of his comrade, a grim smile on his face. "Whenever you run across a fellow who likes to boast of the way he does things, make up your mind he's a rank coward, every time. No matter what he claims he will do, there's a yellow streak in him somewhere, and sooner or later it's bound to show."
"I believe you're just about right, Bob," said Frank; "and it agrees with my own opinion exactly. Still, that fellow can be dangerous if he wants."
"So can a rattlesnake; but at any rate the reptile is honest, for he gives plenty of warning before he tries to strike; and that's more'n Peg would do, if I read him straight."
"You must keep an eye out for him after this, Bob. He'll never forgive you that crack. My! but didn't it drop him, though! Just like a steer would go down when the loop of a lariat closes on his foreleg. That fellow will lie awake nights trying to get even with you."
"Let him," remarked Bob, carelessly; "next time perhaps I'll put a little more steam back of my fist, if he pushes me too hard. That's the way they treat cowards back where I was brought up; and they call anybody by that name who will put his hand in anger on girl or woman. But see here, Frank, is this little affair going to force us to change our plans?"
"Whew! I forgot all about that," said the other, with a whistle, and an uplifting of his eyebrows. "If we go poking around Thunder Mountain, and Peg is there, with a couple of the tough cowboys he has trailing after him most of the time, Spanish Joe and Nick Jennings, perhaps we'll run up against a peck of trouble."
"Well, how about it?" asked Bob, with a shade of annoyance on his face.
"What do you say?" asked Frank, in turn.
"Go, by all means," came the quick response. "You don't think so mean of me as to believe I'd be frightened off by the bare chance of running across that fellow's trail out there; do you, Frank?"
"All right, call it a bargain, then. I'm with you through thick and thin, Bob. Let Peg have a care how he meddles with us. We're going to pay attention to our own business, and he'd better do the same. But what became of the little Mex? I thought I'd seen her face before, somewhere, but she skipped out before I could take a second look. Some cowboy, or cattle rustler's child from beyond the Rio Grande, I reckon. Well, come along, let's get in the saddle again, and finish our shopping. Then we'll go out to the country along the river, and put in a day waiting for Peg to have his chance at finding out what makes Thunder Mountain groan and shake just so often, and scare the Injuns out of their seven senses."
As the two chums swung themselves into their saddles, and cantered away, a head was thrust cautiously out from behind a pile of boxes near by; and then, finding the coast clear, the small girl who had been the cause of all the trouble darted across the courtyard, vanishing beyond the gate.
Frank and Bob went about making their purchases, first fastening their horses to a rail in front of the general store, where everything they needed could be bought.
More than one cattleman in passing would cast an envious eye toward those two splendid mounts, for they could not fail to catch the attention of anyone accustomed to judging horseflesh, as these Western men were. Still, it would be a bold man indeed, white or Indian, who would dare attempt to steal a horse in broad daylight, in a country where such a thief was treated to a rope when caught.
Frank had had considerable experience in roughing it, while his comrade was, in a measure, new to such a life. Consequently it was Frank whose judgment was called into play when making a selection of the things that would be essential to their comfort when on this new campaign.
Many articles they could do without; but a blanket apiece was absolutely necessary, as was a frying pan and coffee pot, two cups, as many platters, as well as common knives, forks and spoons such as prospectors and cattlemen use.
For food they took some bacon, coffee, dried meat, hard-tack in place of bread, a can of condensed milk, and several other things which would carry well.
"We must make them up in two packs," Frank went on; "so that each of us can fasten one to his horse, back of the saddle. And, as I'm an old hand at this business, just watch me get a hustle on. Next time you'll know how to go about it for yourself, Bob."
The Kentucky boy always studied everything his comrade showed him, for it was his ambition to excel in the many little tricks connected with the free life of the plains. Things were done so differently here from what he had been accustomed to in his old Kentucky home, before his father died, that they often puzzled him; but Bob was a persistent boy, and would never rest content until Frank could teach him no more.
Neither of them suspected what was going on outside, while they busied themselves in purchasing the supplies needed for the little campaign in the neighborhood of the mysterious mountain. And yet all was not as quiet as it might be.
The saddle boys had hardly been inside the general store ten minutes before a slinking figure might have been observed drawing nearer and nearer to the horses ranged along the bar. There were several besides the animals of our two young friends; but, somehow, the handsome black seemed to attract the entire attention of this shadowy form.
Twice he stopped, and assumed an attitude that would indicate his utter indifference to such commonplace things as horses. Then, finding that it must have been a false alarm, he would edge closer.
Finally he was beside the black horse, uttering low words such as cowboys make use of to soothe a restive steed when they mean to throw a saddle across his back, and cinch the girth.
Two men came out from the store, and drew near. The slim figure, finding it out of the question to flit hurriedly away, without attracting attention, which was just the thing he wished to avoid, commenced stroking the sleek side of the big black Kentucky thoroughbred, as though he might be a cowboy connected with the far famed Circle ranch of Frank's father.
Casting just one casual glance toward him, the men threw themselves into their saddles with the rapidity and grace of true plainsmen, and went galloping off.
Two minutes later the shadowy figure of the man flitted away from the line of horses that remained. If his purpose had been to steal the black he must have changed his mind, for there was no break in the chain of horses that stood there, impatiently scraping the ground with their forefeet.
A little later out came Frank and Bob, each bearing a compact bundle which they quickly fastened back of their saddles.
Bob was the first to mount, and this action was hurried because he hardly knew what to make of the restless actions of Domino. The animal seemed to be dancing up and down as though he had stirred up a hornet's nest, and the little insects were charging his exposed legs.
No sooner was Bob in the saddle than the horse gave a shrill neigh, and dashed off like a crazy creature. Indeed, a less experienced rider than Bob would have been instantly thrown by the sudden and unexpected move, something that Domino had never been known to attempt before.
Frank looked up in astonishment. His practiced eye told him in an instant that the sudden violent dash had not been engineered in the least by his chum; but was altogether the result of fright on the part of Domino. Why, the big and powerful black acted as though he had gone wild, jumping madly about, now fairly flying off to one side, only to whirl and dance and leap high in the air, until every one within seeing distance was staring at the strange spectacle. And this, too, in a town where bucking broncos were a common sight.
Frank had gained his saddle, and was chasing after his friend, but just then the black had taken a notion to run, and apparently nothing in that country could overtake him while his present savage mood held out.
"What ails the beast?" Frank asked himself, as he drew rein and watched the other passing beyond range of his vision among the stunted mesquites outside of the edge of the town. "He acts like a locoed horse; but there isn't a bit of the poison weed growing within twenty miles of here. And why was Peg Grant standing on the stoop of the tavern grinning as I rode past? Can he have had a hand in this sudden crazy spell of the black? Spanish Joe knows all the tricks of putting a thorn under a saddle, that will stab the horse when the rider mounts. Is that the trouble now? If it is then it's lucky my chum knows as much as he does about managing a horse, or he would never come back alive from that mad ride. And all I can do is to sit here, wait for his return, and watch Peg Grant and his cronies!"
OLD HANK COOMBS BEARS A MESSAGE
If there was one thing Bob could do well, it was to ride. Born in Kentucky, where horses take a leading part in the education of most boys, Bob had always spent a good part of his time in the saddle.
Hence, when he came out here to the plains, the cowboys of the ranch found that, in his own way, he was well versed in managing the fine black horse he brought along with him.
Of course there were dozens of tricks which these daring riders of the plains could show the tenderfoot from the South; but when it came down to hard riding Bob was able to hold his own.
When his powerful horse bolted in such a strange fashion Bob simply kept his seat, and tried to soothe Domino by soft words. For once the remedy failed to produce any immediate effect. The animal seemed fairly wild, and tore along over the open country like mad.
"He never acted like this before in all his life," thought Bob, as he found considerable difficulty in keeping his saddle, such were the sudden whirls the black made in his erratic course.
But although he had by no means learned all the things known to old cowmen, Bob had picked up quite a few points since arriving at the ranch. He had even heard of a mean trick practiced by revengeful Mexicans, and others, when they wished to place a rival's life in danger.
"Something has happened to him since we went into that store," Bob said again and again, as he puzzled his wits to hit upon an explanation for the animal's remarkable antics. "Now, what could it have been? Would any fellow be so mean as to fasten some of those prickly sand burrs under his tail? Or perhaps it's a poison thorn under the saddle!"
This last idea seemed to strike him as pretty near the truth. He began to investigate as well as he was able during the rushing of the runaway horse. When, in pursuing his investigations, he ran his hand under the flap of the saddle, he could feel the horse start afresh, and his queer actions seemed worse than ever.
"That's just what it is, as sure as anything!" Bob declared, his whole frame quivering with indignation at the thought of anyone being so cruel and treacherous; "but how in the wide world am I going to get at the thing?"
His first impulse was to ease the strain all he could by removing his weight from the point where he believed the thorn to have been hidden. This he did by leaning forward after the manner of a clever jockey in a race, throwing pretty much all his body upon the shoulders and neck of the horse.
Then he again began to speak soothingly in the ear of Domino. By degrees the horse seemed to slacken his wild pace.
Encouraged by this fact, Bob continued the treatment. It appeared as though the intelligent animal must comprehend what was wanted, for, although evidently still in more or less pain, he gradually ceased his runaway gait, until, finally, at the command of "whoa!" Domino came to a complete stop.
Bob was on the ground immediately. His horse was trembling with excitement and other causes. Bob continued to pat him gently, and speak soothing words. All the time he was working toward the buckle of the band by means of which the saddle was held firmly on the beast's back.
Once he had a grip on this he made a sudden pull. Domino squirmed, and for the moment Bob feared the animal would break away.
"Easy now, old fellow; take it quiet! I'll have that saddle off in a jiffy; and see what is wrong. Softly, Domino! Good old Domino!"
While he was talking in this manner Bob was releasing the band; and, with a sudden jerk, he threw the saddle to the ground.
His quick eye detected signs of blood on the glossy back of the Kentucky horse.
"That's what it was!" he exclaimed, angrily. "A thorn of some kind, put there so that when I jumped into my seat my weight would drive it in. And I reckon, too, it would be just like the cowardly sneak to pick out one that had a poison tip! Oh! what a skunk! and how I'd like to see some of the boys at the ranch round him up! But I wonder, now could I find it? I'd like to get Frank's opinion on it."
The horse had by now ceased his mad prancing. This proved that the cause for his strange actions had been removed when Bob cast the saddle off. And it did not require a hunt of more than two minutes to discover some little object clinging to the cloth under the saddle. It was, just as Bob had suspected, a thorn with several points that were as sharp as needles, and very tough.
Bob put it away in one of his pockets. Then he once more replaced the saddle, carefully adjusting the girth so as to avoid any more pressure on the painful back of Domino than was absolutely necessary.
The horse seemed to understand his master's actions, and, although still restive, allowed Bob to mount.
Cantering along over the back trail, in half an hour Bob came in sight of his chum heading toward him.
"Well," said Frank, as they finally met, "I was beginning to get worried about you, even though I knew you could manage a horse all right. It was a lively run, I should say," as he glanced at the foam-streaked flanks of the gloss black.
"As fierce a dash as I ever want to take," answered Bob, patting his horse gently.
"Did you find out what ailed him?" asked the other.
"After I'd spent some time trying to keep from being thrown, I did."
As he said this Bob drew the thorn from his pocket, and held it before Frank, who took the vicious little thing in his hand.
"I thought so," he muttered. "That's Peg's idea of getting even with us; the coward!"
"But you don't mean to say Peg did that?" exclaimed Bob, astonished.
"Well, not with his own hand. He wouldn't know how, you see; but he had a Mexican cowboy along with him who is up to all these tricks—Spanish Joe. When we were busy in that store, he crept up and fixed this thorn under your saddle. Of course, as soon as you sprang into your seat, your weight just drove one of these tough little points in deeper. And, as the horse jumped, every movement was so much more torture. Get onto it, Bob?"
"Sure I do; and I guessed all that while riding back. But tell me, why did he pick out my horse, instead of your Buckskin?" asked the Kentucky boy.
"Look back a little. Who was it gave Peg his little tumble when he was striking that child? Why, of course it was nobody but Bob Archer. I saw Peg standing on the porch of the tavern as I galloped after you; and give you my word, Bob, he had a grin on his face that looked as if it would never come off. Peg was happy—why? Because he had just seen you being carried like the wind out of town on a bolting nag. And I guess he wouldn't care very much if you got thrown, with some of your ribs broken in the bargain."
Bob proceeded to tell how he had figured on what caused the queer antics of his horse, and then what his method for relieving the pressure had been.
"Just what you should have done!" exclaimed Frank, enthusiastically. "Say, you're getting on to all the little wrinkles pretty fast. And it worked too, did it?"
"Thanks to the smartness of Domino, it did," replied Bob, proudly. "Some other horses might have broken away as soon as their rider dismounted; but he's mighty near human, Frank, I tell you. He just stood there, quivering with excitement, and pain, till I got the thing off. But do you know what kind of thorn this is?"
"I know it as well as you would a persimmon growing on a tree in Old Kentucky; or a pawpaw in the thicket. It's rank poison, too, and will breed trouble if the wound isn't taken care of in time.
"That's bad news, old fellow. I'd sure hate to lose my horse," remarked Bob, dejectedly, as he threw an arm lovingly over the neck of the black.
"Oh! I don't think it'll be as bad as that; especially since I happen to have along with me in my pack some ointment old Hank Coombs gave me at a time I fell down on one of the same kind of stickers, and got it in my arm," and Frank opened the smaller of the two packs he had fastened behind his saddle.
When the ointment was being thoroughly rubbed into the spot where the barb of the thorn had pierced the flesh of the animal, Domino seemed to understand what their object was. He gave several little whinnies, even as he moved uneasily when his master's hand touched the painful spot.
"Now what's the programme?" asked Bob, after he had replaced the saddle.
"Just what we decided on before," replied his chum; "a little rest before we make a start. Twenty-four hours will do Domino considerable good, too. How did you come out about the duffle you were carrying; any of it get lost?"
"None that I've noticed. I'll make a round-up and see, before we go any further," Bob remarked, examining the packages secured behind his saddle.
"How?" queried Frank, in the terse, Indian style, as he saw that the other had gone carefully over the entire outfit.
"Everything here, right side up with care. And now I'll have to mount again, a thing that may not appeal very much to Domino. But it's lucky I long ago learned the jockey way of riding, with most of the weight upon the withers of the horse. In that manner you see, Frank, I can relieve the poor beast more than a little."
Together they rode off slowly. Really, for one day it seemed that the big black must have had all the running his fancy could wish. Besides, neither of the boys knew of any reason for haste. As Frank had suggested, it would perhaps be just as well to allow a certain amount of time to elapse, before pushing their intended investigation of the mysteries supposed to hover around Thunder Mountain.
The afternoon had almost half passed when Frank's sharp eyes discovered a single horseman riding on a course that would likely bring him across their trail soon.
"Seems to me there's something familiar about that fellow's way of sitting in the saddle," he observed; and then, reaching for the field glasses which he carried swung in a case over his shoulder, he quickly adjusted them to his eyes. "Thought so," he muttered, and Bob could see him smile as he said it.
"Recognize the rider, then? Don't tell me now that it's Peg, or one of those slippery cowboy friends he has trailing after him," remarked Bob.
"Here, take the glasses, and see what you think," replied the other, laughingly.
No sooner had the Kentucky lad taken a single good look than he called out:
"Who but old Hank Coombs, the veteran cow puncher of the Southwest! I suppose your father has sent him on an errand, Frank."
"Just as likely as not, because he trusts old Hank more than any man on the entire ranch. You can see he's headed in a line that will fetch up at the Circle Ranch by midnight, if he keeps galloping on. Look there, he sees us, and is waving his arm. Yes, he's changed his course so as to meet us, Bob."
"But if we needed the glass to find out who he was, how does it come that an old man like Hank could tell that we were friends, at such a distance?" asked the young tenderfoot, always eager to learn.
"Because his eyes are as good as ever they were. Some of these fellows who have lived in the open all their lives have eyes like an eagle's, and can tell objects that would look like moving dots to you. Let's swing around a bit, so as to keep old Hank from doing all the going."
As he spoke Frank veered more to the left, and in this fashion they speedily drew near the advancing horseman. He proved to be a cowman in greasy chaps, and with many wrinkles on his weather-beaten face. But Hank Coombs was as spry as most men of half his age. He could still hold his place in a round-up; swing the rope in a dexterous manner; bring down his steer as cleverly as the next man; ride the most dangerous of bucking broncos; and fulfill his duties with exactness. Few men grow old on the plains. Most of them die in the harness; and a cowboy who has outlived his usefulness is difficult to find.
The veteran eyed the additional packs back of the saddles of the two boys with suspicion in his eyes. He knew the venturesome nature of his employer's son; and doubtless immediately suspected that Frank might have some new, daring scheme in view, looking to showing his friend from the East the wonders of this grand country, where the distances were so great, the deserts so furiously hot, the mountains so lofty, and the prairies so picturesque.
"Ain't headin' toward home, are ye, Frank?" was the first question Hank asked, as they all merged together, and rode slowly onward in company.
"Oh! not thinking of such a thing, Hank," replied the boy. "Why, we only left the ranch yesterday, you know, and meant to be away several days, perhaps a week. But I'm glad we ran across your trail right now, Hank, because you can take a message to dad for me."
"Glad to do that same, Frank," the veteran cowman replied, and then added: "but jest why are ye headin' this way, might I ask? It's a wild kentry ahead of ye, and thar be some people as don't think it's jest the safest place goin', what with the pesky cattle-rustler crowd as comes up over the Mexican border to give the ranchers trouble; and sometimes the Injuns off their reservation, with the young bucks primed for a scrap."
"Is that all, Hank?" asked Frank, turning a smiling face upon the old rider. Hank moved uneasily, seeming to squirm in his saddle.
"No, it ain't," he finally admitted, with a half grin; "that's Thunder Mounting about twenty mile ahead o' ye. None o' us fellers keers a heap 'bout headin' that-a-way. Twice I've been 'bliged to explore the canyons thar, arter lost cattle; but I never did hanker 'bout the job. It's a good place to keep away from, Frank."
"You don't say, Hank!" chuckled the boy. "Too bad; but you see that's just the very place we expect to head for to-morrow—Thunder Mountain!"
The old man looked closely at him, and shook his head.
"I don't like to hear ye say that, Frank," he muttered, uneasily; "an' I kinder reckons as how yer father'll feel oneasy when I tell him what yer up to. 'Cause, I opine, ye wants me to carry thet same news back home; don't ye?"
"Sure," answered the other, laughing. "That's what I meant when I said I was glad we'd met up with you, Hank."
"But ye didn't expect to take a turn thar when ye left home, did ye?" the veteran cowman went on.
"Never entered my head, Hank. Fact is, we weren't thinking of Thunder Mountain up to an hour or two ago, when we ran across Peg Grant, who was in town with his two followers, Spanish Joe and Nick Jennings."
"The wust as ever throwed a leg over leather," muttered Hank, between his teeth. "We been talkin' it over, some o' us boys, an' 'bout kim to the conclusion as how them fellers must be in touch with the Mendoza crowd o' rustlers as draps over the Rio Grande every leetle while, to grab a bunch o' long horns."
"My opinion exactly, Hank," went on Frank. "But listen till I tell you what they are thinking of doing about finding out the secret of Thunder Mountain."
Quickly he related the incident of their meeting Peg, and of his boast.
"They'll never do it, mark me," declared Hank, after he had been put in possession of the main facts. "Thet noise ain't human! I been a-hearin' it for the last forty years, an' I give ye my word it's gittin' wuss right along. The reds believe as how it's the voice of the Great Spirit talkin' to 'em. An' honest now, Frank, thems my sentiments to a dot."
"In other words, Hank, you believe the mountain is haunted, and that anyone bold enough to wander into the unknown country that lies back there is going to get into a peck of trouble?" Frank asked, seriously.
"Reckon as how that kivers the ground purty well," replied the cowman, grimly.
"Well," Frank went on, "we happen to believe something different, and we mean to look into the thing a bit. It wouldn't surprise me to find that some sharp crowd has been taking advantage of the bad name Thunder Mountain has always had, to hide among those canyons. And, Hank, I'm going to look for the trail of some cattle while I'm there!"
"Which I take it to mean," Hank continued thoughtfully, "that you kinder think them rustlers might be usin' the ha'nted mounting for a hiding place to keep the cows which they run away with? Um! wa'al now, I never thort o' that afore. But stands to reason no Mexicans'd ever have the nerve to go whar white cowmen kept away from."
"Not unless they had solved the strange mystery of the mountain, and no longer saw any reason to be afraid of the thunder. But listen while I tell you something else that happened to my friend here."
Frank then described the sudden bolt of Domino. At his first words the experienced western man looked wise. He had immediately guessed what caused the unexpected action of the usually tractable black horse.
"As low down a trick as was ever carried out," he remarked, finally, as he looked at the thorn. "And jest sech as thet sneakin' coyote, Spanish Joe, would be guilty of tryin'. I've seen it done more'n a few times; and twict the critter was rounded up, and treated like he'd been a hoss thief; 'case ye see, in each case 'twar a woman as rid the animile as got the thorn. But ye must let me rub somethin' on thet wound right away, Bob."
"Don't bother," sang out Frank, cheerfully; "because we happened to have with us that ointment you gave me, and I used it a while ago. I'll put on more to-night when we get the saddles off, and once again in the morning."
"Then ye mean to go into camp soon?" inquired Hank.
"See that timber over yonder, where a stream runs? We'll settle down for the night there. Better hold over with us, Hank, unless you're in a terrible hurry to get back home," Frank observed.
"I'd like to fust rate, Frank; and p'raps thar aint no sech great need o' gittin' back to the ranch to-night. Yes, I'll hang over. P'raps I kin coax ye to give up that crazy ijee 'bout Thunder Mounting."
And when they had settled down under the trees, with the westering sun sinking toward the horizon where, in the far distance, Frank pointed out to his chum the towering peak toward which they were bound, old Hank did try to influence his employer's son into giving up his intended trip.
It was useless, however. Frank had made up his mind, and obstacles only served to cause him to shut his teeth more firmly together and stick to his resolution. And so they spent the night very comfortably, under the twinkling stars.
"Tell dad not to worry about us at all, Hank," Frank said to the veteran, on the following morning, as they were bidding him good-bye. "We'll turn up all right in the course of a few days. And perhaps, who knows, we might be able to tell you all about the queer noise that shakes the earth every little while around the big uplift. So-long, Hank!"
The old cowman sat in his saddle, and looked after the two boys as their horses went prancing away, each of the riders turning once or twice to wave a jolly farewell, with uplifted hats.
"As fine a pair o' happy-go-lucky boys as ever drawed breath," Hank muttered, as his eyes followed their vanishing forms beyond the mesquite thicket. "But I sure feel bad 'bout them goin' into that 'ere Thunder Mounting territory. I hopes Mr. Haywood'll start out with a bunch o' cowmen to round 'em up. But he thinks that Frank kin hold his own, no matter what comes along. If he don't show signs o' bein' worried, I'm goin' to see if the overseer, Bart Heminway, won't take the chances of sendin' several of us out to hunt for strays; an' it'll be funny now, how them mavericks all run toward Thunder Mounting."
Chuckling, as if the new idea that had appealed to him gave him considerable satisfaction, the old cow-puncher stirred his little bronco into action, and was soon galloping away. But, more than a few times, he might have been observed to turn in his saddle and cast a look of curiosity, bordering on apprehension, toward the dimly-seen mountain that arose far away on the Southwestern horizon.
For to Hank Coombs that peak stood for everything in the line of mystery and unexplained doings.
A NOTE OF WARNING AT THE SPRING HOLE
"Pull up, Bob; I sure glimpsed something moving, out there in the sage brush!"
Both horses came to an immediate stop as the bridles were drawn taut.
"Which way, Frank?" asked the Kentucky lad, eagerly, as he threw back his shock of black hair, and waited to see where the finger of his companion would point.
"Whatever it was disappeared behind that spur of the low foot hills yonder. I just caught a peep of the last of it. Here, Bob, take the glasses, and wait to see if it shows up again on the other side of the rise," and Frank thrust the binoculars into the hand of his chum.
"Think it could have been a prowling coyote; or perhaps a bunch of antelope feeding on the sweet grass around some spring hole, as you were telling me they do?" asked Bob, holding himself in readiness.
"Well," returned Frank, quickly, "the sun was in my eyes some, you see, and so I wouldn't like to be too sure; but somehow, Bob, I just have a notion that it was a horse."
"With a rider on it, of course!" exclaimed the other lad, as he raised the glasses to his eyes, training them on the further end of the squat elevation that stood up in the midst of the sage level like a great hump on a camel.
"There, looks like I was right, Bob!" ejaculated Frank, a minute or so later, as something came out from behind the low hill, moving steadily onward.
"Indians! as sure as anything!" fell from the lips of the one who held the field glasses to his eyes.
"One—two—three—a heap of the reds in that bunch, I reckon," muttered Frank, watching with his naked eye; although the distance, separating them from the spot where the figures were passing steadily into view, was considerable.
"Say, these glasses are jim-dandy ones, all right!" remarked Bob, presently, as he turned to offer them to his chum, who immediately clapped them to his own eyes.
"Huh!" grunted Frank a moment later, "squaws along; each cayuse dragging poles on which they heap their lodges, blankets and such; reckon there's no war party about that, Bob."
"I should think not, if what you've told me about the Indians is a fact, Frank. But look here, what d'ye suppose they're doing so far away from their reservation?" and Bob gripped his quirt, which hung, as usual, from his wrist, in cowboy fashion; and with a nervous slash cut off the tops of the rattlesnake weed within reach.
"That's where you've got me, Bob," replied the one who had been brought up on a ranch, and who was supposed to know considerable about the life of the plains; "unless they've just got desperate for a good old hunt, and broke loose. Pretty soon the pony soldiers will come galloping along, round 'em up, and chase the lot back to their quarters. Uncle Sam is kind, and winks at a heap; but he won't stand for the Injuns skipping out just when the notion takes 'em."
They sat there in their saddles a while longer, watching the long procession pass out beyond the low hill, and track along the plain through the scented purple sage.
"Navajos, ain't they?" asked Bob, who, of course, depended on his comrade for all such information, since one Indian was as much like another as two peas to him.
"Sure thing," replied the other, carelessly. "Tell 'em as far as I can glimpse the beggars. And I just reckon now that's old Wolf Killer himself, ridin' at the head of the line, with his gay blanket wrapped around him. Wonder what he'd say if he knew Frank Haywood was here, so far away from the home ranch?" and Frank chuckled as though amused.
"Do you know the old chief, then?" asked Bob.
"Say, do I?" replied Frank, with a laugh. "Remember me telling you how the boys on our place caught a Navajo trying to run away with one of our saddle herds about three years ago, when I was hardly more'n a kid? Well, I chased him with the rest of the outfit, and saw old Hank throw his rope over his shoulders. He snaked the fellow over the ground and through the short buffalo grass like a coyote, 'till he was punished enough; and then my dad made 'em let him go. But you just ought to have seen the way he folded his arms, stared at each of us, and, never saying a single word, walked away. I've often wondered if he didn't mean to come back some day, and try to get his revenge."
"And that was the chief himself?" asked Bob.
"Just who it was," Frank went on. "He'd left the reservation, and got too much fire-water aboard, they said; so he thought the good old days had come back, when a Navajo always tried to get away with any horses he ran across. They say Wolf Killer used to rustle cattle long ago, till Uncle Sam put his hand down heavy on his tribe, and shut the lot up."
"Then, if he has reason to remember everybody connected with Circle Ranch in that way, I reckon it's just as well we don't try to let him know we're here," remarked Bob, uneasily. "We didn't come out on this little picnic for trouble with the reds. There they go, pushing through the sage brush, Frank. So-long, Navajo, and good luck to you on your hunt," waving a hand after the departing string of distant figures.
"Our way lies yonder, along the foot of the mountains," said Frank, as he turned his head to look toward the grim range that stood out boldly against the skyline.
"Yes," observed his companion, as he allowed his black horse his head, once more advancing in a Southerly direction, "and, unless all signs fail, that's Thunder Mountain towering above the rest of the peaks."
"You're right, Bob, that's what it is; and we're going to camp at its foot unless something goes wrong," and as he spoke Frank urged Buckskin on again.
The yellow bronco was a true range pony. He had been taught many of the clever tricks for which his kind are noted. A stranger would have had a hard time keeping his seat on the back of the animal, such was his dislike for unknown parties. He could dance almost as well as a circus horse; and when Frank had tended the saddle herd at night, as horse-wrangler, he was accustomed to depend on Buckskin to give ample warning of trouble, whether in the shape of a storm, a threatened stampede, or the presence of cattle-rustlers.
Both boys were, of course, dressed pretty much as cowboys are when on the ranch; leather "chaps" covering their corduroy trousers; with boots that mounted spurs; flannel shirts; red handkerchiefs knotted around their necks; and with their heads topped by felt hats, such as the men of the range delight in.
Slung to their saddles were a couple of up-to-date guns of the repeating type, which both lads knew how to use at least fairly well. Of course both carried lariats slung from the pommels of their high Mexican saddles. Frank was accustomed to throwing a rope; while Bob, naturally, had much to learn in this particular.
"Say," remarked the latter, who had fallen a trifle behind his comrade, "to see the way we're just loaded down with stuff makes me think of moving day in the old Kentucky mountains. But no use talking, if a fellow wants to be half way comfortable, he's just got to lug all sorts of traps along."
"That's right, Bob," assented the other, laughing. "And that applies in an extra way when he means to be out in the Rockies for perhaps a week."
"No telling what he may run up against there, eh?" queried Bob.
"Well, if it isn't a grizzly, it may be an avalanche, or a cloud-burst," remarked the boy who had spent his whole life in the open.
"Not to speak of Indians, or Mexican rustlers looking for a chance to drop down on some peaceful ranch, and carry off a bunch of long horns; eh, Frank?"
"Sure; and a lot more besides, Bob," was the reply. "But the sun's getting kind of low, you notice."
"In other words, we'd better be looking around for a place to camp, Frank?"
"You've hit the nail on the head," the other replied. "Suppose we hold up here for a bit, and let me take another squint up yonder through the glass."
"Meaning at old Thunder Mountain?" observed Bob, as his eye traveled upward toward the bare crown of the great uplift, that had so long remained a source of mystery to the entire community.
"Yes. Just look at the pinons growing up the sides like tufts, along with the funny looking clumps of stunted cedars. Then you can see the aspens and silver spruce next. And over the whole outfit is a silence that beats the desert itself. Whew! the closer you examine the place the more it impresses you."
Bob accepted the glasses after Frank had used them and focussed them on the slope.
"So that's old Thunder Mountain, is it?" he remarked. "Well, I must say it shows up right well. I've tried to picture the place from all we've heard."
"But you don't feel disappointed, do you?" asked Frank.
"Not a bit, Frank," his companion continued. "I've seen some mountains, even before I came out here to your Rockies; but there's something about this thing that just staggers a fellow. Wow! but we'll sure have our troubles climbing that wild slope."
"Never could make it if it wasn't for the canyons," Frank added. "They all tell me that. Here, let me put the field-glasses away. Half an hour's gallop, and we'll jump off. That ought to bring us to the foot of the slope. Here you go, Buckskin; show us you're not tired after your day's run. Whoop-la!"
Frank brought his hat down on the flank of the horse, accompanying the action with a real cowboy yell. Instantly the spirited steed bounded off, with Bob's Domino close behind, snorting, and giving signs of astonishing animation.
So they sped along, with clanking sounds from the various packages fastened behind the saddles; but after a few minutes both boys gradually drew upon the lines, knowing full well that their mounts had done a fair day's work already; and, besides, there was no possible need of haste.
"How's this for a camping place?" asked Frank, as he suddenly brought Buckskin upon his haunches in a quick stop.
"Suits me first rate," replied his chum, after giving a glance around. "Let's see if I remember all you told me about what a fellow has to look for when he expects to go into camp. Water handy, grass for the horses, wood for a fire, and shelter from a hidden mountain storm. What better could we ask, I'd like to know? Is it a go, Frank?"
For answer the shorter lad jumped from his seat. His first act was to remove the saddle, and then, with a handful of dead grass, rub the sweaty back of the mettlesome animal, as every true son of the plains always does before he thinks of his own comfort.
Next he hobbled the animal, and drove the stake pin, to which the lariat was attached, deeply into the ground. After that the bridle came off; and Buckskin's first natural act was to drop to the ground, and roll over several times.
Bob was following this procedure with Domino. The intelligent animals seemed to understand just what the programme was to be; for after rolling, they walked down to the little watercourse to slake their thirst; and then set about eagerly nibbling the sweet grass that grew all around.
The two chums went about preparing to spend a night under the bright stars, with a readiness that told of long practice. Bob, of course, knew less than his companion about such things, but Frank had often accompanied the cowboys on his father's ranch on their expeditions, and had even spent nights in the company of old Hank, when off on a hunt for fresh meat; so that he knew pretty well what ought to be done to add to their comfort.
It pleased him to show Bob some of the things he had learned. There might be no real reason why he should start a cooking fire in a hole he dug, rather than make a roaring blaze that could be seen a mile away; but Bob was tremendously interested, and would never forget all that he learned.
"Besides," Frank explained, after he had the small fire started, "it is easier for cooking, once you get a bed of red ashes; because in this warm country a fellow doesn't much like to get all heated up, standing over a big blaze."
Bob had, meanwhile, opened some of the bundles. One of these contained a small coffee pot, as well as the frying pan without which camping would be a failure in the minds of most Western boys.
"Look out for rattlers," advised Frank, as his chum went to the spring hole to fill the coffee pot. "They often come to such places in dry season We haven't had rain for so long now, that, when it does come, I expect a regular cloud-burst. That's often the way in this queer country, along the foothills of the Rockies."
Hardly had he spoken than there sounded a sudden and angry whirr, similar to the noise made by a locust, and which Frank knew only too well meant a rattlesnake!
THE VOICE OF THE MOUNTAIN
"Hey! take care there, Bob!" shouted Frank, starting up from beside his little cooking fire in something of a panic; for that alarm signal is apt to send the blood bounding through the veins like mad, whenever heard.
"Don't bother!" came the reassuring reply of the unseen Bob, from a point near by; "I think I've got the beggar located, all right. Say, don't he sing though, to beat all creation? He's mad clean through, all right. I'm looking for a stick, so as to knock him on the head."
"Go slow, and keep your eye out for a second one," advised Frank, uneasily; "because they generally hunt in couples. That isn't a measly little prairie rattler either; but a fellow that's come down from Thunder Mountain."
"Nice warm reception for visitors, I should remark," laughed Bob, immediately adding: "there, I've found just the stick I want. Now, old chap, look out for yourself! I'm going to have that rattle of yours to take home, unless you give me the slip."
"No danger of that," remarked Frank; "because a rattler seldom runs away, once he shakes his old box, and gives warning. Hit him just back of the head, and let it be a good smart blow too, so that you break his neck."
Then came a swishing sound, twice repeated. The thrilling rattle immediately subsided.
"Get him?" demanded Frank, ready to take up his task once more, upon receiving a favorable reply from his friend.
"He's squirming some, but helpless," returned Bob, composedly. "I'll cut his head off, so that he can't turn around and jab me while I'm getting that rattle box of his."
Two minutes later he came back into camp, carrying the coffee pot, which he proceeded to place upon the fire Frank had started. The latter noticed that his chum was trembling a little, and could give a shrewd guess that Bob had been more startled than he had thus far admitted.
"Perhaps I'll get used to it in time," Bob remarked, presently; "but it sure does give a fellow a nasty shock to hear that sound burst out close by your feet, knowing as you do what a bite from those fangs means."
"Then it was a narrow squeak, was it?" asked Frank.
"I guess I never want to be closer to a diamond-back than that," Bob admitted, with a shake of his head.
Soon a delightful aroma began to steal through the air in the immediate vicinity of the little camp near the foot of the towering, mysterious mountain; as some bacon sizzled in the pan, and the crushed berry from Java boiled and bubbled most cheerily.
Besides, upon some splinters of wood Frank had thrust small pieces of venison, the last fresh meat they had brought from the ranch. As the heat from the red coals began to turn these to a crisp brown, Bob sniffed the added fragrance in the air after the manner of a hungry range-rider, or a boy with a healthy appetite.
"Seems to be plenty of game around here," he remarked. "I jumped two rabbits near the spring, and they went up the rise, as usual."
"Yes," remarked the cook, "the place looks good for game, and you'd wonder why those Injuns passed it by, only I happen to know. Ten to one there's a deer in that thicket of wild plum over there. And you can just believe an old grizzly wouldn't want a better hang-out than up yonder among the cliffs and crags of the mountain side."
"But to return to our mutton, which after all is antelope meat, when do we start operations? I'm nearly wild, with all these smells, and never a bite. The water just drips from my tongue, I give you my word, Frank."
For answer the other picked up the coffee pot, and set it aside for a minute, to let the contents settle.
"Grub's ready, Bob," he said, laughingly; "and I reckon we'll not bother banging on the frying pan with a big spoon to-night, range fashion. Sit down, and get your pannikin ready for some of this bacon and meat. How does that coffee look?"
"Say, it's got the color, all right, and if it only tastes half as fine as it looks you'll hear no kick coming from me," replied Bob, as he poured his tin cup full of the liquid.
As the boys ate they chatted on various topics, most of which talk had of course some connection with the big cattle ranch they had so recently left.
"I'd give a heap to know if Peg Grant meant business when he said we were riding to a fall if we thought we were the only pebbles on the beach," Bob remarked.
"Oh!" replied Frank, "I reckon he's going to make a try to solve that Thunder Mountain puzzle. But just think of a tenderfoot like Peg let loose on that fierce slope up yonder; will you?"
"Perhaps he's here already," suggested Bob.
"Wouldn't be one bit surprised," Frank continued, readily enough, as though he considered that a foregone conclusion anyway. "He and his cronies had time enough, unless Peg changed his mind. He might be wondering what happened to you, and thinking how the X-bar-X ranch would be safer, in case some of our boys chased after him to give him the tar and feathers he deserves for playing such a mean trick."
"But supposing they did come," said Bob; "Peg and Spanish Joe, and that other treacherous cowboy you told me about; we're pretty apt to meet up with them if we go prowling around here for the next few days."
"Just so, and we'll try to mind our business all the time," remarked Frank; and then his eyes flashed a little as he continued: "but if they try any of their ugly little tricks on us, Bob, they're likely to get hurt."
"I'm with you there, Frank," the other added, shutting his teeth in a determined way. "I can stand a certain amount of fun, and, I hope, take it the right way. Your cow punchers said that when they hazed me, you know. But I certainly do object to any such rough-house business as fastening a poisoned thorn under a fellow's saddle."
"That game has cost more than a few people their lives," Frank declared vehemently. "Cowmen draw the line at it. You noticed how angry old Hank became when he heard about that same thing. But your horse seems to be getting on all right, Bob."
"Sure he does. That ointment made by old Hank's like magic. Domino won't suffer much from that jab. But that was a bully good supper all right, and I don't care how soon we repeat it," he concluded with a laugh.
Finally both lads lay down to secure such rest as they needed after a long and tiresome day.
The drowsy chirp of crickets, and shrill voices of katydids in the lush grass near by, told of the summer night. Many times had Frank listened to this same chorus as he lay in his blanket on the open prairie, playing the part of night-wrangler to the herd of saddle horses belonging to the round-up party of cow-punchers.
He could hear some lurking rabbit slinking through the hazel bushes over at one side. Somewhere off on the level, where the sage grew so heavily, there must have been a prairie dog village; for the sound of the peculiar barking of these queer little animals frequently floated to his ears as the breeze changed.
The two horses were still feeding at the time Frank dropped off into a sound and refreshing sleep, but doubtless they would soon lie down. Bob was already breathing heavily, which would indicate that he had passed beyond the open door to slumber-land.
The minutes passed, and several hours must have gone.
Frank was dreaming of the excitement attending some of the many dashing gallops he had lately enjoyed in company with his chum, looking up stray cattle, helping to brand mavericks, watching the cowmen mill stampeding herds, or chasing fleet-footed antelopes just to give the horses a run.
He was suddenly aroused by a strange sound that seemed to cause the very earth under him to tremble. The trample of a thousand hoofs would make such a noise; if one of those old-time mighty herds of bison could have come back to earth again; or a stampede of an immense herd of long-horns might cause a similar vibration.
But Frank Haywood knew that neither of these explanations could be the true one, even as he thus sat upright on his blanket to listen. The ominous, growling, grumbling noise was more in the nature of approaching thunder, just as though one of those furious summer storms, tropical in their nature, and often encountered in this country where plains and mountains sharply meet, had crept upon them as they calmly slept.
And yet, strange to say, neither of the two boys jumped quickly to their feet in wild dismay, seeking to prepare for the rain that might soon burst upon them. On the contrary they continued to sit there, straining their ears to catch the rumbling reverberations that kept coming, with little respites between.
"Say, now, what d'ye think of that, Bob?" asked Frank, when silence again held sway for a brief period. "Nary a cloud as big as your hand in the sky; and yet all that grumbling oozing out of old Thunder Mountain! Looks like we might have the biggest job of our lives finding out the secret of that pile of rocks. There she starts in again, harder than ever. Listen, Bob, for all you're worth!"
A SECOND ALARM
"It's stopped again!" remarked Bob, after possibly five minutes had passed, during which time the ominous rumbling, accompanied by earth tremors, had kept up, now rising to a furious stage, and then almost dying away.
Frank gave a big sigh.
"It sure has," he admitted; "and I don't wonder now, after I've heard the racket with my own ears, that the reds for a hundred years back have always declared the Great Manitou lived in Thunder Mountain, and every little while let them hear his awful voice."
"Then this thing has been going on forever, has it?" asked Bob.
"The Navajos say so; though even they admit that, of late, it's got a brand new kink to the growl," Frank answered. "They believe it's sure unlucky for any brave to be caught near the mountain after dark, and especially when Manitou scolds. You see, that accounts for the hurry of that hunting party to climb out before sunset."
"Yes," Bob went on. "And now I understand what you said about the Indians never hunting near Thunder Mountain. Perhaps they believe all the game that hides along the slopes, and in the deep gullies, belongs to the Great Spirit, and that he'll punish any warrior bold enough to try and get a line on it. But see here, Frank, do white men—cowboys, prospectors, and the like—believe this mountain is haunted?"
"Heaps of 'em do, and that's a fact," replied the other, chuckling. "I've heard some of our cowpunchers talking about it more'n a few times; and you remember how old Hank took it when we told him what we had in mind?"
"They're a superstitious lot, as a whole, I take it," Bob ventured. "Now, as for me, I never could believe in ghosts and all that sort of thing. If there ever came a time when something faced me that I couldn't understand, I just set my teeth together and vowed I'd never rest easy till I had found out what it meant."
"Same here, Bob; and that's why I just jumped at the chance to beat Peg out in his game. The funny part about it is why I never thought of this racket before. But perhaps that was because I didn't have a chum to stand back of me."
"None of the boys on the ranch would go with you, then?" asked Bob.
"I should say not! Even old Hank would balk at that, and he's never been afraid of thing that flies, runs or crawls. It was old Hank who taught me all I know about range life. He showed me how to shoot, throw a rope, and do heaps of other things a prairie boy ought to know. Hank thinks lots of me, and honest now, Bob, that gruff old fellow would willingly lay down his life for me."
"I reckon he would," assented the other, readily enough.
"But Hank's a rank believer In the Injun story of the mountain, and would never come here of his own accord; but to keep an eye on me, and, stand between me and danger, he'd just crawl down the crater of a live volcano."
"Seems like the show might be over for tonight," Bob suggested.
"The row has stopped, sure enough," Frank remarked, looking up at the dimly-seen outlines of the far-away crest of the rocky elevation, where it stood out against the starry heavens.
"You don't believe, then, that there could have been some kind of storm up there; do you?" questioned Bob.
"Well, it's sure a great puzzle," replied his chum, with a long breath. "My eyes are reckoned prime, but I can't glimpse any sign of a cloud that would bring out all that noise. A mystery it's been these many years; and if so be we can learn the cause for all that queer roaring that shakes the earth, we'll be doing more'n anyone else has ever done in the past."
"That's what we're here for, if Peg gives us half a chance," remarked Bob, with the healthy assurance of youth. "And as neither of us takes any stock in the fairy story about the Manitou's anger, we ought to stand some chance of locating the thing; or 'bust the b'iler trying' as old Hank would say."
Frank had crawled out of his blanket, and stood erect.
"What's on?" asked his camp-mate, presently, noticing that he was holding up his hand, after wetting his finger, a method much in vogue when one wished to learn the direction of the passing air currents.
"Southeast; and blowing strong a bit ago up there on the mountain, I reckon," Frank remarked. "You notice we happen to be sheltered more or less down here, when she comes out of that same quarter?"
"Meaning the wind," Bob remarked. "Yes, you're right, Frank. But what has that got to do with the measly old grumble of the mountain, tell me?"
"Huh! I don't know that it's going to have anything to do with it," came the answer; "but we want to know every little point as we go on. And Bob, just remember that the wind was coming out of the Southeast; and a clear sky overhead!"
"But look here, Frank, you've heard your dad talk about this Thunder Mountain business, I take it?"
"Well, now, I reckon I have, heaps of times; but then you know, he isn't much on bothering about things that don't concern him. Thinks he's got his hands full, looking after the stock, keeping tabs on the doings of those rascally Mexican rustlers, that have been running off batches of cattle every little while; and fighting that big syndicate of Eastern capitalists, headed by the millionaire, Mr. Grant, Peg's father, that wants to throw all the Southwestern ranches into a close trust."
"But what I wanted to remark is this: you must have heard him give an opinion about this thunder sound?" Bob persisted in saying.
"Oh! he thinks the same as several gentlemen did who came out here a few years ago on some business. They declared that once, hundreds of years ago, perhaps, old Thunder Mountain must have been a volcano; and that it still grumbles now and then, as the fires away down in the earth begin to kick up some of their old monkeyshines."
"Yes, I heard one man say that," laughed Bob. "He declared that there's going to be the biggest rumpus some fine day, when the fires inside get to going out of bounds. Then the whole cap of the mountain will go flying into a million pieces; and good-bye to any unlucky cow-puncher caught napping near this place."
"Well," remarked Frank, as he prepared to settle down again into his snug blanket, "I reckon we're not going to be scared away by a little thing like that growl. Unless we hit a snag, or Peg Grant and his guides break up our game, a few days ought to see us heading back to Circle Ranch with a story calculated to make the boys sit up and take notice; or else——"
"Just pull up right there, Frank," interrupted his chum, with a laugh. "There's nothing going to happen to knock us out. If that same Peg comes around, making a nuisance of himself, why, he's due for a nice little surprise, mark me. Besides that; what could there be to make trouble?"
"Oh, I'm not bothering my head over it, Bob," declared the other, as he dropped into the nest he had made in his blanket. "But say, did you take notice of the way our horses acted while that thing was going on?"
"Just what I did," the other replied. "They must have been trembling all over. I could hear your Buckskin snorting to beat the band, and pawing just like he does when he's worried. Reckon they didn't know what to make of it, either, seeing that there's nary a sign of a storm cloud around. But both horses have quieted down again. They think all danger of a howler has passed away."
Frank made no reply. He was already getting ready to resume his interrupted nap; and Bob lost no time in following his example, both confident that in the alert Buckskin they had a sentry capable of giving ample warning should peril threaten.
Once more Frank composed himself for sleep. The many noises of the night, which had seemed to cease while that mysterious rumbling was going on in the heart of the lofty mountain, had again resumed sway. The hum of insects; the melancholy hooting of the lonely owl, in some willow or cottonwood tree near the base of the mountain; the far-off howl of the prairie wolf; or the more discordant voice of the skulking coyote—all these things were as familiar music in the ears of the boy whose cradle had been the rich black earth of the grazing country ever since he was old enough to remember anything.
They all did their share in lulling him to sleep. And, no doubt in dreams, he was once more galloping across the wide prairie on the back of his mount, his nostrils filled with the life-giving Sir of the sage-covered level.
Frank slept, he never knew just how long.
This time it was not the rumbling sound and the fearful vibration of the ground that aroused the two saddle boys; but a far different cause.
When Bob sat up he found his comrade already erect, and apparently listening as though keenly alive to some approaching peril.
"Buckskin's uneasy, you see," remarked Frank in a whisper; "he's pawing the ground and snorting as he always does when he scents danger."
As he said this, Frank dropped back again, and seemed to place his ear to the ground, a trick known and practiced among the Indians from the days of the early pioneers along the Ohio down to the present time; since sound travels much better along the earth than through the air—at least, in so far as the human ear, unaided by wireless telegraph apparatus, is concerned.
"A bunch of horses coming out of the Northwest!" announced the prairie boy, almost immediately; "and we can't get our nags muzzled any too soon, Bob."
Apparently the other lad had been coached as to what this meant. He sprang to his feet, snatching up his blanket as he did so. Together they were off on the jump toward the spot where their animals had been staked out at the end of the lariats.
Arriving at the pins which had been driven into the ground each boy sought to clutch the rope that held his restlessly moving horse; and hand over hand, they moved up on the animals, the blankets thrown over their shoulders meanwhile.
A few low-spoken words served to partly soothe Buckskin and his black mate; then the blankets were arranged about their heads, and secured in such fashion that no unlucky snort or whinny might betray their presence to those who passed by.
At a word from his master the well trained Buckskin doubled up, and lay down on the ground. Most cowboy ponies are taught to do this trick by their masters, and it is in common use; so that the punchers believe it is a poor animal that has not learned to roll over and play dead on occasion.
Bob, too, managed to induce his mount to do the same thing; but to make it absolutely certain that no unwise flounder on the part of Domino might betray them, he sat upon the horse's head, soothing him by little pats on his glossy hide.
"I hear 'em coming," announced Frank, presently.
The sounds reached him against the wind, so that it was quite natural to believe the approaching horses must by now be very close. There was a confused pounding that could only spring from a large body of animals. The trained ear of Frank caught a significance in the clash of hoofs that told him much more than Bob was able to make out.
"All horses, Bob," he whispered across the little gap that separated him from his chum; "and two thirds of 'em running free, without saddles or riders. Lie low, now, and see if you can glimpse 'em as they go past."
"Won't they be apt to run over us?" asked Bob, a bit nervously.
"Nixy. I looked out to pick a place they'd be apt to avoid. They'll brush past a little further to the south," and Frank ended his words with a hiss of warning.
The pounding of many hoofs continued. Frank, straining his eyes, believed he was now able to make out a confused moving mass at some little distance away, heading directly toward the foot of Thunder Mountain.
As the starlight was so vague he could not make out more than that here and there a figure was mounted on a galloping horse, with several unridden animals trailing along behind, as though led by ropes.
The little caravan passed quickly. Already they were vanishing in the deeper shadows lying closer to the base of the mountain that towered aloft several thousand feet.
Still the two boys continued to sit there, guarding their horses; although all danger of discovery seemed absolutely past.
"Whew!" exclaimed Bob, presently, as the sound of retreating hoofs began to die away; "what d'ye think of that, eh, Frank?"
"Indians?" queried the Kentucky boy, eagerly.
"Well," replied his chum, "not so's you could notice. Say, now, you didn't see any feathers on their heads, did you? And I sure heard the fellow nearest us say something that only a white man would remark, when his horse stepped into a hole, and almost threw him over its head."
"Cow punchers; or perhaps rustlers?" continued Bob, anxious to know.
"What would cowmen be doing away off here, tell me that, Bob? And lugging along a bunch of extra mounts, too, in the bargain? No, I rather think, Bob, that those fellows must have some of Mendoza's cattle rustlers. And they've been making a dandy raid on some ranch's saddle herd; or I miss my guess."
"Perhaps the Circle outfit had gotten careless," suggested Bob.
"I sure hope not, for the boys have had plenty of warning; and I reckon Bart Heminway is some too good an overseer to permit such a raid. I'd rather believe it was the X-bar-X outfit that has gone and got nipped this time. But stop and think Bob; what d'ye expect takes these cattle-rustlers over this way right now, headed straight for the canyons of Thunder Mountain?"
"Oh, I see what you mean!" exclaimed the taller lad, immediately. "Perhaps the secret hiding place of Mendoza and his crowd of cattle thieves may be somewhere around this same old rock pile. It'd be just like the tricky rustler to have a hide-out where nobody else ever came!"
"Now, why didn't somebody ever think of that before?" ejaculated Frank, in a tone of mingled surprise and disgust.